I’ve got your back, Gwyneth Paltrow

When it comes to celebrities and comments on war, I’ve said everything I have to say on the topic when I wrote in defense of Tom Cruise last year.

Bottom line: no one has a monopoly on war. It is a human experience that anyone can talk about. The thing that exacerbates the civil-military divide more than anything is not celebrities comparing things to war, but veteran self-righteousness.

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Army Myths: Road guards are the second person(s) in the far left and right rank

Ask anyone who the default road guard is during a movement formation where no road guards have been designated and they are likely to say that it is the second guy in the far left and right rank.

I’ve seen it at every unit I’ve been in. We’re marching somewhere, the cadence caller shouts “Road Guards, Post!” and there is a short delay until some salty Team Leader yells at the soldiers in that second spot, telling them that they are the default road guards. Then those two soldiers will run to the intersection, getting there moments before the main body gets there and while nearly getting themselves killed in the process.

Well, this isn’t doctrine.

It’s not a regulation. It’s just a standard operation procedure that appears to have been pretty much adopted Army-wide.

Reference to the practice cannot be found in TC 3-21.5 (Drill and Ceremony) or FM 7-22 (Army Physical Readiness Training). The best I’ve been able to find are some Air Force ROTC videos that reference the practice of assigning dedicated road guard prior to the movement (you know, the ones that get to wear the reflective vest or carry the flashlight).

True, this really isn’t a myth, but I’ve watched NCOs lose their minds when that second person didn’t react instantly to the command of execution of “POST!”

Best practice would be to assign road guard prior to any movement than relying on a shaky Army-wide standard operating procedure.

Also, related.

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Command Performance

There is a strange phenomenon you’ll notice when junior soldiers are around their leaders, especially in the first days and weeks that the leader shows up. It happens mostly when soldiers are in groups, lounging around, bullshitting. One of the junior soldiers might casually drop in a borderline inappropriate comment, or say something insubordinate. Usually tame at first, but often in increasing intensity. The whole purpose is to test out the new leader, to see how he or she is going to respond. The entire group is likely aware of the mild transgression – every one knows the rules and regulations.

This isn’t to say that this is a phenomenon that occurs at strictly the junior level. It happens at all levels. Junior soldiers (whether this be Privates to Sergeants or Captains to Lieutenant Colonels) test the limits of what their superiors will deal with by dropping lines and waiting for a reaction. I know I’ve been guilty of this with my bosses, both when I was enlisted and now. A firm statement to stop would be incredibly awkward and might make the superior appear “lame.” Ignoring the transgression, though, might breed a toxic culture.

Stranger, is I don’t think this “command performance” is done consciously. I don’t think someone says “Okay, now I’m going to go test the new guy, see where his left and right limits are.” I think it just happens spontaneously. Part of it is probably just trying to get noticed by your boss, and the quickest way to do that is to be outrageous or offensive.

As I’ve gotten older, I notice the ‘command performances’ that happen around me a lot more keenly. There is a purpose to it. A statement said in your presence that isn’t directly challenged might be construed as tacit permission.

For example, a soldier that casually says “I really don’t like these side plates, I’ll probably just take them out” in the presence of a leader and it goes unchallenged might say later when he is scolded for not wearing his side plates that he had said he was going to do it in front of this or that leader and nothing was said then.

The ‘command performance’ is something to look out for. While it could be nothing, it could also be the very first sign in a long process that leads to a catastrophe. Once you recognize it exists, it’s a lot easier to spot. I don’t think the answer is to angrily reject any wild thing that is said as part of it, as that’s the fast track to isolation as a leader, but to tactfully steer the conversation back on track and demonstrate where you stand on the issue – clearly – without being a dick.

*Command Performance was a radio program that ran during World War II for deployed troops. Here’s a link to Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on one of the shows.

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The Rains of Castamere

"When I go home people'll ask me, 'Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?' You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is." -- Black Hawk Down (2001)
“When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” — Black Hawk Down (2001)

Doctrine Man posted the above photo and quote from Black Hawk Down yesterday as part of this weekend’s steady stream of Memorial Day related posts to counteract a supposed disinterested public while also helping us lose ourselves in a “twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.”

The quote is a variation of the answer to “why we fight” that usually boils down to doing it “for your battle buddies on your left and right.” That is, today, the reason we go to war is simply to protect the ones with whom we’ve gone to war. Put simply, we’re there and doing it because we’re there and doing it.

Force protection.

I’ve always had a hard time swallowing this. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to be a lowest common denominator rationale – there’s no good reason we’re doing this (conquering, for example), so the best we can come up with is this pseudo-spiritual link between the men and women in a given unit. The concept is popular among troops and when uttered, is usually met with nods of gritty determination from exhausted soldiers grasping for a reason to strap on heavy body armor, pick up their rifles, and step out on another ghost patrol.

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?”
-As quoted in Stars and Stripes (November, 2013)

Earlier today, I read about Mad Jack” Churchill, a British officer who was known to go into battle with a longbow and sword. It’s an incredible Jack_Churchill_leading_training_charge_with_sword.jpg (1003×643)story and the picture is otherworldly. It was this macabre quote of Churchill’s though, that captured my attention: “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years.”

This is reminiscent of LTC Kilgore’s famous quip of “Someday this war’s gonna end...“, spoken with the sick sadness of a man lost in war, warning his troops to soak up as much of the grim death before it’s all over.

While Kilgore is fictional, Churchill is not, and there seems to be a “type” that indeed is a ‘war-junkie.’ I’m not sure it’s necessarily for the mechanical aspects of war – the shooting, the bleeding, the death. Rather, it’s the whole experience of the campaign. It’s the sights, sounds, and feelings swirling around for years. It’s life in the emerald city. It’s an endless summer where the only victory is survival.

“The dead only know one thing; it is better to be alive.”
-Joker, Full Metal Jacket

In generations passed, strict dedication to duty might have been enough to sustain the fighting heart. Or perhaps, simply, the casus belli was better, or at least understood. Certainly in a firefight, the only thing that matters are those on your left and right, for they will bring you home (the “warrior,” mind you, is dead). As soon as the first bullet is fired, the world washes away and all are instantly swept to a dark arena where humanity disappears and natural instinct takes over.

My point though, is that in order to get to that arena – that point in time where the only thing that matters are those on the left and right – required a series of decisions made by men and women on and far from the battlefield. It is in those decisions where we should find the answer to “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man?”

Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Sacrificed all
Dared all-and died

I’ve heard it said that this generation, more than others, needs to know the “why” more than those of previous generations. I’d say that’s fair and true. “We’re going on this mission because I told you so” might get them out of the wire, but it is unlikely to tame (or unleash) the “beast in the heart of every fighting man.”

And it will certainly leave them thinking about what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

Something to think about.

This, incidentally is the 500th post on Carrying the Gun.

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Army Myths: The way you’re supposed to wear the blue cord (infantry)

Pay day activities, uniform inspection, whatever the event, when infantrymen start putting on their dress uniform, there will always be “that guy” who insists there is a certain way that the blue cord is supposed to be worn. I’ve seen senior NCOs pinch both sides of the cord with their thumb and index finger to test for “thickness,” insisting that the “fat” side goes to the rear (or to the front, who knows). I’ve also heard others say that the loop that grasps the button is supposed to be facing a certain direction as it comes off of the cord.

This is another myth. DA 670-1 indicates how the blue cord is worn, and it’s pretty simple:

DA 670-1

It’s worn on the shoulder, attached to the button. No thickness, no directions. Pretty simple.

Related: turning the buttons of the Class A’s/ASUs a certain way so that the eagles on them face this or that direction in times of war. More nonsense that gets passed around from generation to generation.

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Babies, guns, and infidels

Over on ‘hawgblawg‘ Ted Swedenburg posted the below picture that was sent to him by a friend:

huh

Ted is an anthropologist and author of the book “Memories of Revolt: The 1936-39 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past.” One of the themes of his blog is to point out places where the kufiya – the scarf synonymous with Palestinian resistance – is being used for some other purpose, usually fashion.

On this particular picture, Ted writes:

The baseball cap says ‘kafir’ in Arabic, which is correctly translated as infidel. A synonym is unbeliever. I believe that Islamist insurgents in Iraq fighting against the US occupation would have used this term fairly routinely to describe the US military forces. I did not know that (some) US troops had embraced the term.

Readers of this blog know all too well how the term infidel gets slung around in military circles. It’s interesting to see an anthropology professor who focuses on the Middle East catch wind of it in this way, years after it became “a thing.”

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“Inside kids” are the new “outside kids” – video games and war

I wrote a short piece on the new Task & Purpose blog about the military and gaming. The force behind the blog is Hirepurpose, a company “committed to addressing some of the incredible gaps that exist in the transition from military service to civilian career success.” The blog is new, but has promise.

Check it out.

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War, as told through Final Fantasy Battles

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I don’t remember how this thought entered my brain. I think it was around the time I was doing this tongue-in-cheek post on “how to win the war in Afghanistan,” which, by the way, I still think is true, if you pay close attention.

Anyway, it occurred to me that you could kind of compare war to different Final Fantasy battles.

For example.

Conventional war looks something like this:

That is to say, it’s a lot of grinding. Attack. Defend. Counter-attack. Push forward. Over and over again.

Special purpose missions, like the raid that nabbed Osama bin Laden are like this:

Lots of special equipment checks immediately before sending your best guys in to do the final deed.

Counter-insurgency? Without a doubt, that’s a dungeon crawl:

Please ignore the un-ignorable commentary. But COIN is essentially a long slog. Bring lots of equipment that you’ll use occasionally. Get sniped and harassed by pretty easy enemies who wear you down over and over again. It sucks. You just want to get to the end, but it takes forever.

And there are shuras, where everything you say has significant consequences:

COP DEFENSE!

Ethical dilemmas:

War crimes:

I know there are more. There are plenty. But I’m going to stop it right there. If you have a good addition, drop it in the comments and I’ll add it.

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Women in the Infantry: A Reflection on The Experiences of Allied Nations

Karina

On Facebook, I noticed a couple of my friends attended an event where female infantrywomen from allied nations were talking about their experiences. Outside of Facebook, I saw nothing on it. I asked Jason Lemieux, a friend whose work and writing I admire if he would be interested in writing a guest post on the event for Carrying the Gun, to which he agreed.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that CrossFit proper has not replaced running in the Canadian Army. 

CAF’s Director of Force Health Protection has issued a Public Health Advisory against the unmodified use of CrossFit and other “Extreme Conditioning Programs” (ECPs). ECPs have been traced to several hospitalizations of CAF personnel in recent years. One case reportedly required dialysis to treat acute renal failure. 

The Directorate of Fitness, Personnel Support Programs has created a fitness program that borrows the most useful aspects of ECPs but it does not endorse CrossFit proper. From the Advisory:

ECPs, such as CrossFitÂŽ, P90xÂŽ, and InsanityÂŽ, have increased in popularity over the past few years. These programs are characterized by frequent, repetitious, high intensity exercises with very short rest periods between sets/cycles and little recovery time between workouts. Some ECPs do not encourage participants to progressively increase their workloads in an effort to allow for training adaption. CF personnel who participate may not have the requisite knowledge to properly set the required work to rest ratios to offset injury or illnesses possibly associated with ECPs. A disproportionate number of injuries such as muscle strains, sprains, stress fractures and rhabdomyolysis associated with ECPs have been cited in anecdotal reports and case studies, however, few studies have looked at the relationship between ECPs and injuries to date. (reference B)

ECPs are not endorsed by Personnel Support Programs (PSP), Directorate of Fitness (DFIT) or D FHP for reasons noted in para 4. DFIT has reviewed ECPs and has incorporated some of the recognized benefits into their physical fitness programs. To reduce the risk of injuries, DFIT has also developed a Tactical Athlete User Clinic, which educates and trains CF personnel on how to safely perform complex weight lifting techniques commonly found in ECPs (e.g., clean and squat). In addition, two courses (the Basic Fitness Training Assistant (BFTA) and the Advanced Fitness Training Assistant (AFTA)) are offered to CF personnel who are interested in leading safe and effective unit physical training.

Of course, whether the more reckless aspects of CrossFit have caused injuries among CAF personnel needs to be analyzed separately from whether excessive distance running has also caused injuries. 

*B. Bergeron MP, Bradley CN, Deuster PA, Baumgartner N, Kane SF, Kraemer WJ et al. Consortium for health and military performance and American College of Sports Medicine consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2011. 10:383-89.

Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a symposium on the experiences of allied nations with integration of women into combat arms units. The symposium was hosted by the Combat Integration Initiative, a joint effort of Women in International Security and SIPRI North America. Service-members of both genders from the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden participated. In my limited allied experience, it was a good personnel practice-sharing exercise between military allies. A few participants noted that they left the symposium with a better perspective on their own service.

For me, the symposium was as novel as it was enlightening. Even as an integration advocate, it was surreal to find myself making small talk with infantrywomen and even women infantry commanders. Much of what was expressed confirmed my pre-existing beliefs, so it’s fair to take my remarks with a grain of salt.

I’ve split this post into two sections. The first section is a far-from-comprehensive reflection on the symposium. The second section is a more detailed look at physical occupational standards, especially those of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Physical occupational standards are the latest source of contention as the US military branches prepare to implement the 24 January 2013 DoD integration policy (PDF).

Debates that are already over: Can women succeed in the combat arms?

Even without considering the experience of US servicemembers, including FET members who participated in ground combat, it is obvious that women can succeed in the combat arms. The Nordic infantry commanders seemed puzzled and maybe even a little bored with the question. “Here I am, a woman who led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. There’s two days of this?”

I took from the symposium that the hallmarks of successful integration are maturity at all levels of the institution and a commitment to view and lead servicemembers as military professionals without consideration of gender.

A few observations in support of maturity:

  • At the individual level, the panelists used a typical military no-nonsense communication style to convey egalitarianism rather than self-importance, reason rather than bravado. They were over themselves.
  • The Swedish Marine Corps, which seems to have gone the furthest of the participating allies in creating a gender-blind force, does not distinguish between men and women in berthing assignment. Bathrooms, bedrooms, and showers are shared. People deal with it. This strikes me as the logical endpoint of integrating an expeditionary force.
  • The allied representatives had the eminently realistic view that sexual activity is both inevitable and manageable: Develop a set of ground rules and get over it.

That said, the Nordic personnel cautioned the American attendees not to overlook the cultural differences in the societies from which their militaries originated. Even with highly egalitarian values, the Nordic countries only integrated their combat arms in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. The US’ relatively elitist culture makes it all the more imperative that senior leadership accept integration as the new normal and impress upon subordinate commands that the time has come to integrate for the benefit of the military and of the country.

For the participating allies, successful integration required maturity not just at the individual or unit level but at the institutional level as well. When the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) allowed policy to follow the conclusions of valid scientific research in 1991, its physical occupational standards were overhauled. This change was presumably not without its associated cost and discomfort. In 2013, they changed the standards again, both to reflect lessons learned from Afghanistan and to incorporate new equations that reliably predicted occupational competence without respect to gender. The successful integration of women was the immediate-term goal. However, in the big picture, integration served as the impetus to create a test that truly measures occupational competence when lives are on the line. Will the US military branches follow this example?

Throughout the symposium, the duty of military professionals to evaluate fellow servicemembers solely on the basis of their occupational competence was reiterated over and over. Major John Steemann Adamsen, former infantry commander in the Danish Army, put it best: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, I never ‘led women.’ I commanded soldiers.” Women are valuable members of the combat arms team not because they bring special competencies or assets to population-centric missions (which vary by cultural context anyway) but because they perform to the same occupational standards as everyone else.

The US military personnel who spoke on the panels reported that where women were given the opportunity to perform to standard in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were treated as valuable members of the team. Bryan Coughlin, a US Marine Corps infantry captain, realized that his poor experience with Female Engagement Teams (FETs) on his first deployment needed to be understood in context: he wasn’t really sure how to lead them, nor did he have the opportunity to properly employ them. On his second deployment, he was attached two FET personnel who became integral components of his infantry platoon. Yes, they went on every patrol in full gear and yes, they returned fire in contact. He is converted.

The connection between physical fitness tests and occupational standards

The relationship between physical fitness tests (PFTs) and occupational standards is especially relevant now because the US military branches are in the process of validating their occupational standards as gender-neutral to comply with DOD policy.

The acme of occupational relevance is to test personnel in the precise movements most often used in the course of their duties. Unfortunately, this becomes a logistical impossibility when applied to the many occupational components of a modern military organization. Instead, the participating allies have developed proxy tests that reliably approximate competence in one’s occupational tasks. I have decided to elaborate on the CAF’s occupational fitness test because it strikes me as an ideal legal and scientific model (and because I was not able to attend panels on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, and culture; or recruitment and retention).

It took an act of human rights law to ensure equal opportunity in the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the CAF to open all positions to women and to ensure that any physical standard is based on a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR). As such, the CAF PFT minimum standards are scientifically correlated to the essential tasks most likely to be performed in combat. The definitions of “essential” and “most likely” are key to understanding what makes an occupational requirement “bona fide” under human rights law:

Tasks are deemed “essential” according to the consequences that follow from failure to complete them. Essential tasks are those whose failure would result in at least one of the following:

  • Injury or death to the Canadian Armed Forces or to the general public
  • Compromise the outcome of a mission or operation
  • Cause significant damage to Crown (i.e., government) property

Unless the CAF can show that one of these three consequences is reasonably likely to occur as a result of failure to perform a task, then they cannot enforce the task as an occupational standard.

The six â€œmost likely” occupational tasks that inform the current CAF PFT were identified from a thorough review of physically demanding tasks that CAF personnel have been historically required to perform in combat. For instance, after reviewing after action reports from Afghanistan and training exercises, Canada found that using the fireman carry to extract a wounded comrade is a nice fantasy but dragging is overwhelmingly more common (PDF).

Furthermore, in Afghanistan, vehicle extraction was required in 45% of CAF casualty evacuations. Since it is impractical to use vehicles in routine physical fitness tests, Canadian researchers developed a composite test that combined a casualty drag, grip test, and static squat test to strongly predict the ability to extract a casualty through a vehicle hatch. By limiting occupational requirements to essential and most likely tasks, the CAF kept those requirements grounded in the realm of the reasonable and empirical as matters of life and death should be.

The CAF occupational standards are also informed by the legal Duty to Accommodate, which states that Canadian employers must provide employees the leeway to complete occupational tasks with work methods to which they are individually suited. In other words, for the purpose of placing a heavy box on a high shelf, it is not the business of the CAF to dictate that a soldier favors the use of his/her arms or hips or legs. Their only business is whether the box makes it atop the shelf. (There’s a lesson here for the US Army, who recently found that despite a relative lack of upper body strength, women were able to load heavy objects by emphasizing their hips and core in the lifting movement.)

Initial research found that for some occupational tasks, the average servicewoman did not need to be able to complete as many pushups or situps as the average serviceman to complete the task. This is probably a cultural artifact: men enter the military with more experience in pushups and situps but these exercises are not especially relevant to combat. From 1991 to 2013, the CAF PFT reflected this finding, leading to perceptions of gender bias when the test was actually gender-neutral in terms of occupational outcome.

After another round of research in 2013, CAF instituted the FORCE program, which uses four exercises that simulate real-world combat movements closely enough to reliably predict performance in the six most likely occupational tasks without respect to the cultural artifacts of gender. Of the four exercises—sandbag lift, intermittent loaded shuttles, 20-meter rushes, and sandbag drag—women tend to have the most trouble with 20-meter rushes and the drag but over 90% of women are passing these events as of April 16, 2014.*

There are some interesting differences in the Nordic physical fitness standards (PDF which may be outdated in places). The Danish and Swedish PFTs are gender-blind, though perhaps not as predictive of occupational performance as CAF’s FORCE program. Both countries’ minimum PFT standards vary by occupational specialty, which in my opinion is their primary advantage over the FORCE program. According to Captain Nina Sofie Berg, a Norwegian infantry commander, Norway is looking into a similar system. Norway has separate PFT standards for men and women but its combat training standards are gender-blind. Also, in Denmark, platoons pass or fail the PFT as a unit. The intended lesson is that leadership and teamwork are necessary for success.

(More foreign nation military gender research can be found here.)

It was refreshing to see such transparent empiricism. It remains to be seen if the US military branches’ integration efforts will compare favorably. The US Marine Corps plan seems to be to correlate performance in occupational tasks to its existing physical fitness test—pullups, crunches, and a three mile run—and combat fitness test, which includes the historically irrelevant fireman carry, by Fall 2013 to “develop a physical screening test for MOS classification.” It is not clear whether the Marine Corps examined the value of these exercises as strong gender-neutral predictors of occupational performance but so far there is no indication that the Corps plans to modify or replace any of them.

On a related note, the US military community’s concern for women’s pullup strength seems out of proportion to the unique demands of combat. In the participating allied countries, upper body strength is measured with a more diverse set of exercises and in a smaller proportion to the rest of the PFT. Corporal Malin Tilfors, a female Combat Craft Driver in the Swedish Marine Corps, noted that the ability to stay awake without eating for days at a time has played a much larger role than upper body strength in her combat training. Either way, she meets the standard.

In closing, whatever was believed about women’s deficiencies in centuries past, it is now known that they can thrive as members of combat arms and infantry units. We should not be swayed by unfalsifiable assertions to the contrary. In particular, we should unequivocally reject attempts to turn this discussion of civil rights and military professionalism into an amateuristic contest of status that substitutes combat arms experience for scientific and historical literacy.

As a public institution, the US military has an obligation to honor the values of US society. We can do better than discriminating in employment opportunity on the mere basis of the circumstances of one’s birth. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s historic decision to overturn the 1994 combat exclusion policy was the right call, and the military branches should implement this policy intelligently and in good faith.

*Even before the FORCE program, the Canadian army PFT dispensed with irrelevant distance running in favor of a forced march. According to Colonel Jennie Carignan, stress injuries became less common and performance increased when some of the running in army physical training was replaced with CrossFit.

Jason Lemieux served five years in the US Marine Corps infantry and three tours in Iraq. He is currently a Policy Fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. The views expressed here are his own.

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