SWJ: Why Bringing Back the Draft Makes No Sense

I have an essay on the Small Wars Journal blog about why I think bringing back the draft makes no sense – for the reasons that most people want to bring it back, anyway.

I’ll concede that if people want to bring it back for the symbolic notion of reaping what you sow – a lá ‘The Chocolate War’, or ‘The Hunger Games,’ then fine. Even though the actual chances for that person to be drafted is infinitesimally small.

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Young LTs: Too cool to take drill and ceremony seriously

One of the things I’ve noticed about the young LTs I’ve been around at IBOLC is how lax their attitudes are towards “garrison” army stuff, like drill and ceremony. Like most leadership schools, IBOLC relies on a student chain of command to do most things, to include morning PT. Some young lieutenant will be charged with taking the formation and walking them through PRT. While this isn’t the case for everybody, most LTs get up there and act like it’s a rote chore. “Go ahead and stretch out on your own” is probably the most frequent command given behind “en route fall out” which isn’t a real command at all.

It strikes me as strange that so many young LTs already have a jaded attitude towards proper drill and ceremony. There is little enthusiasm for it and a rabid desire to get to “route step, march!” as quickly as possible. I posit two theories: 1) this is normal LT fare and has been since the beginning of time, or 2) it is a reflection of the training they received at their commissioning source from a cadre who has largely dismissed “garrison-esque” stuff in favor of more pertinent combat-oriented material.

“Arms downward, move!”

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“If the shit gets too thick I’ll go to the rifle.”

Time Magazine’s Battleland blog ran a photo gallery yesterday titled “I Shot 29 Bullets and 212 Images.” I imagine this is a quote from the combat photographer who took the pictures. The title immediately reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Full Metal Jacket. It’s the scene where the marines had just taken Hue city and were giving interviews to the media. Most of the marines appear jaded, uncomfortable, sarcastic, or aggressive in front of the camera.

But not the “combat correspondent” who stands squarely in front of the camera, weapon held in the crook of his elbow so that he appears in complete control of it, camera hanging around his neck. He boasts:

“Well it depends on the situation, I mean, I’m here to take combat photos, but if the shit gets too thick, I mean, I’ll go to the rifle.”

Every other marine giving interviews was being honest. It is only the combat correspondent who said the words he thought he was supposed to say. Polished, with just enough aggressiveness to warrant praise but not so much to invite scorn. Whenever I hear someone boast about how brave or hard they are (or will be), I like to quote the combat correspondent.

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Life Lesson – Don’t disappoint the stork

I get pretty sentimental at movies, and occasionally, while watching commercials. I found this one at wimp.com last year in London. It’s an advertisement for monster.com in which a stork goes through great trouble to deliver a baby to a family, only to visit him again years later to find him bored at a crappy job.

It’s a reminder that in this overly cynical world, it is a small miracle that any of us are here, and we should put our time to good use.

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Learning from failure – a 2LT lost in the woods

You can’t spell lost without LT.

I’ve done the Red Diamond Land Navigation course at Fort Benning almost a dozen times since arriving here last October. I consider myself pretty good at land nav, I know the course pretty well, and I’ve scored 8/8 every single time I’ve done the course.

Except this past week.

I was not able to attend the last Ranger School class because I needed a waiver, so I had to complete (again) IBOLC’s “mini-RAP week,” which is a series of training events like the ones Ranger students will face during Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) week in Ranger School. The major events are the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT), land navigation, and a 12 mile foot march. The RPFT and the 12 mile foot march are mostly physical events. If a person is in good shape, he (or she) will usually pass.

Normally, I go all out when I’m doing land navigation. I don’t try to make it easier by shuffling through the score sheets as they’re being passed around, looking for a lane with easy points. I take a sheet and pass the pile along. When the course begins, I plot my points and take off. I run the course. And when I get all of my points, I run back to the start, regardless of how much time is remaining.

This time, however, I wanted to try things a little differently.

Around 80˚, humidity somewhere near 100%. Half moon in the sky.

0400.

I received my score sheet and looked down quickly scanning the eight digit grids. My points were spread out over a large swath of land about four kilometers west of the start point. Normally you receive a clipboard with the map laminated to it for the land navigation course, but this time we received a map printed on a sheet of paper. I folded up the map so that only the land navigation portion was visible. I quickly plotted my points while resting the map on my knee, and confident in my map reading skills and my ability to ace this course. I plotted once.

Once I finished plotting, I looked over the map to plan my route. Behind accurate plotting, this is perhaps the most important task during the preparation portion of land navigation because it sets the pace for the entire lane. Since this is a night-into-day land navigation course, I would normally use the hours of darkness to run to my furthest point. The idea being, night land navigation is hard, so it’s better to use that time to erase the distance between the start point and the furthest point. Then, begin careful navigation in the darkness, collecting as many points as possible without making any mistakes. Once the sun comes up, I can pick up the pace and finish the rest of the points easily.

Instead of “going with what I know” by running to my furthest point, I decided that I would follow a counter-clockwise route and pick up the points along the way, darting into the woods to collect the point, and then skirting the roads along a circular pattern until I’ve collected them all and return to the start point.

Not a terrible plan, so long as it is executed well.

I folded up my map and scoresheet and tucked them into my zip-lock bag and headed out. I walked briskly to my first “attack point,” the intersection of a railroad track and a dirt road. My first point was about 800 meters from there and this intersection was the closest attack point I could find. The plan was to move to the attack point, shoot an azimuth to the first point, and then walk nice and easy to the point.

I reached the attack point within 30 minutes and shot my first azimuth. “Here we go, I thought to myself,” and boldly stepped into the dark woods.

I missed my first step and tumbled forward, catching myself with a quick-reacting trail foot. My face and hands caught a fistful of spider-web and I reacted as all warriors do, by freaking the hell out and karate chopping invisible tarantulas.

I regained my composure and re-shot my azimuth and took another couple of steps into the dark. A thin branch of thorns slid across my face and I stumbled again over loose earth.

Angrily, I gritted my teeth and took another step forward, rolling onto a weak ankle.

This wasn’t going to work. I took a knee and examined the map again.

Okay, I could follow the railroad track another 500 meters, and then shoot an azimuth into the woods, hit a trail, and then shoot another azimuth to the point. That would be an attack point just 300 meters from the point – perfect.

Now, for some background on land navigation, walking pace along a road or tracks and then jutting into the woods is never a good idea. There are too many variables that could go wrong. I am counting on my 100 meter pace count being completely accurate (which it’s not), and the map to 100% accurately reflect the terrain (which it does not). Then, I am counting on hitting a trail, which is difficult to identify at night, and then shooting another azimuth the point from there, and walk 300 meters to hit it. An attack point of 300 meters at night is do-able. But the other things – pacing a road/track and shooting in from there – is never a good idea. Sometimes this works. Especially during the daytime. But it’s not good technique.

Confident in my ability to find the point based on a history of always finding the point, I give it a try.

I pace 500 meters, shoot into the woods, and find the trail. Looking good. I shoot my azimuth to my point, and then walk 300 meters into some thick stuff.

No point.

Eh, just walk another 50-75 meters. You usually find it then.

Still no point.

Okay, start boxing out. Small circles.

Nothing.

I spend about 25 minutes looking for the point, but come up empty. I take a deep breath. No big deal. It’s dark, I took a risk trying to find this point and came up short. I’ll get it on the way back.

I take a look at my map and my next point. This one should be easy. It is about 100 meters off of the railroad tracks and right on the west side of a north/south road. Too easy.

I skirt the railroad tracks until I come to the road. At this point, the sun is just under the horizon and the air is a gray/blue color. Mist obscures my vision.

“Okay, here I am. Railroad track. North/south running road. The point should be 100 meters north and just west of the road.”

Nothing.

Box out, semi-circles. Still nothing.

I spend about 45 minutes looking for this point because it is so clearly marked on the map. To miss it would be a crime. (It turns out the graders said this particular point has a bad plot – it is actually on the east of the road.)

At this point, I’ve killed two hours. I have three to go. I have collected zero points. I haven’t been running the course, so these early mistakes cost me more time than they normally would have.

Still, I don’t panic. I’ve got three hours to go. The sun is coming up. I’ll get the next point and then run the rest. I’ll grab 6/8 without a problem and escape with my dignity.

I’m heading to my third point, which is the point furthest from the start point. On the way there, I come across a known point. I plot my position and record my azimuth to the next point. 350 meters at 313˚. Nice and easy.

I take off at a jog, eager to make up time now. On the map I have the point plotted in some low ground between two spurs. I hit 350 meters and I’m dead between two spurs. The sun is out and I can see clearly.

No point around me.

“WTF!?”

Now I’m just angry. My course is imploding. No worries though, just go with what you know.

Box out, semi-circles. Running around the woods looking for the point to jump out at me. Take a knee and conduct SLLS, hoping there’s someone else out there approaching a point.

Nothing.

I take a deep breath and take a knee, pulling out my map. I recheck the original plot.

Crap. I misplotted. The point is about 100 meters to the east of where I plotted it. I recalculated my azimuth from the known point, and instead of 313˚, it is more like 335˚.

I run back to that point and reshoot the azimuth at 335˚. I run the azimuth at 350 meters.

No point.

I take another deep breath and figure this is it. It’s just not my day. I walk another 50 meters, just in case, and there it is, just a few feet buried in the woods. I walk up to the point, confirm with the scribble on the point that this is it, and record the number on my scoresheet.

I’m almost three hours into the course and I’ve just recorded my first point. At this point, I’m back on track and manage to scoop up two more points within the next hour. After those two points, I head back to the start point and with great embarrassment, turn in my meager scoresheet.

I spent a good portion of the rest of the day brooding over this failure. Having killed the course every other time I was on it, it stung more than it should have.

As painful as it was, I think doing so poorly was a good thing. Here’s why:

Had I done like I normally do and scored 8/8, I would have increased my confidence in land navigation (a dangerous thing for a lieutenant, no doubt), but I would not have learned anything. Failing, as it were, provided me with a number of lessons. Lessons I had already learned, but can now be reinforced.

Some of these lessons may only apply to land navigation, but I think they can be used more broadly.

Lesson 1: “Go with what you know.”

I normally run land navigation courses. It saves time. Even if it means spending more energy, it is always worth it to run the course and buy that extra time in the event a mistake is made. I know this, but failed to do it this week, and paid for it.

I also know that it is not smart to dead reckon for more than 300 meters at night. The chances of drifting are too high. I chose to dead reckon 800 meters at night, and then, seeing as that wouldn’t work, tried to dead reckon from a not-so-certain attack point.

If I did what I normally do, I would have chosen a route which would have taken me ultimately to the furthest point on the course, and snatched up points with certain attack points (< 300 meters). This would maximize my night land navigation time and provide confidence by getting a couple of points early in the course.

If you do something that works, keep doing it until it doesn’t work.

Lesson 2: Plot, check, re-check

I plotted my points while leaning a flimsy piece of paper across my not-so-flat knee. And I didn’t check. As a result, one of my points was misplotted by about 100 meters, which resulted in me wasting lots of time on the course.

I should have used a flat surface, carefully plotted, and checked my work to confirm I had the correct points.

Lesson 3: Sometimes the map is wrong

I wasted almost an hour trying to find my second point. I was so confident in my plotting (I plotted it correctly) and it should have been easy to find because it was right at the intersection of three major features. But I couldn’t find it, and it turned out that the grid for the point inaccurately places the point on the west side of a road when it is actually on the east side.

I should have realized that there was something wrong after walking in circles for about 20 minutes and moved on, chalking the point up as a loss. Desperate for a point, I wasted too much time looking for something that didn’t exist where I thought it did.

Mistakes snowball. My first mistake of not running resulted in me having less time to navigate the course. My second mistake of not following my own plan and trying to find a point based on a weak attack point resulted in me missing that point altogether. My third mistake of wasting too much time looking for a point that wasn’t located where it was supposed to be wasted more time. And my fourth mistake of misplotting the furthest point sealed the deal.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a land navigation course perfectly. Somewhere along the way, I’ll make a small mistake and have to correct for it.

This time, however, I made a number of small mistakes which altogether made my day very painful.

But the net result of the training is positive. Because I learned something, which, is what training is for after all.

The moral of the story here is failing can be a good thing. We learn through failure. If I did well on the land navigation course, I wouldn’t be thinking about land navigation at all. Doing poorly forced me to examine my course of action, what went wrong, and how I could have done better. And writing about that experience here reinforces the reflection.

Nobody wants to fail. But failing is an active ingredient in success, so long as you learn from it. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I’ll take the lessons and internalize them, and try my best to not make the same mistakes in the future.

PS. Incidentally, I read this article about fitness goals and failure (Figuring Out Your Life and Fitness Goals), and it comes to many of the same conclusions. Check it out.

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None of you are real fans of Back to the Future

I love Back to the Future. Which is why it uncharacteristically annoys me when I keep seeing people sharing an image of the time circuits with a photoshopped date. Most of them are marginally better than this one.

Image

The actual date that Marty McFly travelled to the year 2015 is October 21.

Image

And oh, by the way, Biff’s 1985 is far superior to any other 1985.

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One year of Carrying the Gun

Today is the one year anniversary of the blog. A year ago today, in a stuffy central London dorm room I started this blog with the intent of using it as a clearing house for stuff that I found interesting, but had no place in my graduate thesis.

It didn’t take long for me to gravitate towards military topics, especially when I learned I would be heading back to the Army via OCS.

Writing here has been a good experience for me, and is serving as a kind of methadone for the more intense writing I was doing in graduate school and on veterans issues. Once I started OCS, I didn’t really have the opportunity to write much. I managed to pick up my writing during IBOLC, which allows weekends and nights off (when not in the field). I expect the next year will be exciting, because I’ll soon be out of TRADOC and back in the force. I’ve made a pledge with myself that I’ll mostly sit and observe while in TRADOC. I’ve been out of the Army for five years so lots of things have changed. But once I’m out of here, I’ll push a little harder in my writing – both here and in other places.

I’ve run into some of the people who follow this blog – many who are young infantry lieutenants as well. And I know that some of the things I’ve written have sparked tough discussions on important topics, which is a good thing.

According to the site stats function that WordPress.com provides, my three most popular posts are: The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk, Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop, and Life in the Army – the ‘I Love Me’ book.

Most popular search terms that bring readers to the site: “i love me,” “fall of saigon,” and “shock and awe.”

The post that I wanted to be more popular than it was: “Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers.”

With nothing to compare this year to, I declare the first year a brilliant success!

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The Hunger Games of the Dead

Moving quickly across the field I spot a house about a hundred meters ahead. In a full sprint I aim for the door. Just steps from the door I pick up a flash of movement to my right. I stop, turn, take a knee, and let a wooden arrow fly. It smacks him right in the chest and he’s out.

I enter the house, quickly taking in the scenery and decor. It’s nice, but furnished to be displayed, not lived in. In this first room, which I suppose would be the living room is another tribute. He’s an archer like me, and he turns to face me in a panic. My toy bow is already drawn, his is on the floor. He must have felt safe in here.

“Alliance” I say wasting no time and with a foolish confidence gained from actually taking one of them out moments before.
“Yes” he replies, as if he really had a choice.

He is tall and lean, and looks remarkably similar to a college professor I once had. He’s probably in his early forties. I get the impression that he is a better archer than I, but there is no way for me to know this.

We start preparing our defense, barricading doors and windows with whatever furniture we can move. Out there, roaming around, are the others. I know instinctively that some have formed groups, and we will be relatively safe in this house for awhile. Maybe even a few days.

After what must have been hours, but what felt like moments, our preparations were complete. Now we could relax, maybe talk a little.

But that wasn’t going to happen. Outside, in the near distance came a swarm of brightly clothed – tributes? No. These were just people, but something was different.

In this state of innate intelligence, it clicked.

“That tricky bastard. He’s using zombies.”

One of the other tributes figured out a way to marshal these people against us as zombies. They crashed into our young home in a weak wave, tearing at the doors and windows. My partner and I – what is his name? – prepared ourselves near what would be the first breach point. As they began to slip through, we both let the arrows fly in what became a montage of death. In the aftermath, the things were repelled, we were exhausted, and our defenses were destroyed. I felt exhilarated with victory, and knew we had to begin rebuilding our defenses immediately if we wanted to survive. I reached down to pick up some arrows and caught another wave of them in the distance heading this way. My heart sank at the thought of having to do it again, exhausted and with nothing between us and them. My partner readied himself like a champion, but I couldn’t.

“I can’t” I said weakly.

He was on a knee inside the house, facing the coming horde through a gaping hole, his head turned towards me and a face that communicated his horror in my betrayal.

I took off out of the house and started running as fast I could, but slowly because of fatigue. The things were already around me. They looked like children. About ten of them were swarming me. I weaved in and out of them, desperately delaying the inevitable. I had already given up.

“Please, you don’t have to do this” I pleaded. They looked at me quizzically, knowing there is nothing they can do to stop themselves, and nothing I can say to make them stop. The thought of their tiny mouths chomping terrified me. And for what? What is this anyway?

They looked at each other, confirming one last time that this is what needed to happen, and then they devoured me.

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Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.

Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.” 

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who are largely unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

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