Army Buzzwords: “Setting Conditions”

I’m not sure the genesis of the phrase, but for the last few years I’ve been hearing the term “setting conditions” used often and in many different contexts. At the small unit, tactical level, I’ve heard it a lot in the context of fire and maneuver.

“You have to ensure that you set the conditions with your support by fire to allow the maneuver element to move.”

I’ve also heard it used in preparation for meetings and briefings.

“Delete that slide. We want to make sure we’re setting the conditions for this course of action.”

I’ve also heard it – ad nauseum – at the operational and strategic level.

“Right now, we’re setting the conditions for the Afghans/Iraqis to take charge of their own security.”

A cursory search for the term in Army doctrine picked up a couple of paragraphs in reference to Airborne and Air Assault operations in Appendix C of the old FM 3-90 (Tactics). Other than that, nothing (doctrine nerds, please let me know if it exists elsewhere, other than speeches and Army social media).

It’s often said in that buzz-wordy way that implies that by simply uttering, the meaning is revealed. That is, it’s said a little more slowly than other words in the sentence, and usually strongly and clearly enunciated for emphasis.

It’s not necessarily a bad phrase, and in the three contexts cited, the phrase works and makes sense, although the speaker doesn’t really elaborate on what the conditions are and how exactly they are going to be set.

And that’s the problem with jargon; they often only imply what needs to be done without stating so directly.

In the first context, setting conditions likely means effectively suppressing the enemy so that the maneuver element can move without being fired upon. While that is implied by saying “set the conditions,” it is only understood if the implication has already been ingrained. I remember being a young, aggressive fire team leader during a Platoon Live Fire exercise. I was part of the Squad that would “knock out the bunker” and throw the grenade. I was also charged with calling for the shift fire and lift fires signals. I was of the mind that we should attempt to “shock” the enemy bunker by rapidly maneuvering on it, so I called for shift and lift very quickly – the Weapons Squad hardly got in a burst.

At the AAR, I was told that I needed to exercise some “tactical patience” and “let the battle develop” (more Army buzz terms, by the way). Today, I would probably have been told that I needed to properly “set the conditions” for the bunker squad to move.

In the second context – and as an officer, I think I hear “setting conditions” in this regard more frequently – setting conditions is a means of gentle manipulation. A particular outcome is desired, and through some basic social psychology (in this case, deleting a slide from a PowerPoint presentation), the conditions are being set to effect the end result. There is nothing particularly ominous about this – subordinate leaders have always conspired among themselves to present data and ideas in a certain style of get the outcome they want (although Army officers, it has been revealed, are pathological liars).

What is interesting, is the way one might say we have to “set the conditions” in the same way one might say to a subordinate that he needs “acquire” a piece of lost gear before close of business, or face a statement of charges. The phrase is a wink and a nod towards deviousness and trickery.

In the third context, setting conditions is a kind of catch-all phrase that encompasses the entirety of things that need to happen to get to the next step. If the goal is winning a war or getting everyone home, then the way to do so is simply to “set the conditions.”

Everyone in the room nods, approvingly.

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The Magic of the Power Coming Back On

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There is a really fantastic article in The American Interest about life in Mosul under ISIS. It is long but well worth the read. There are number of things that jumped out at me, but one of them was on the status of power and utilities in the city:

Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week.

During my first deployment to Iraq in 2003, whenever we would ask our platoon sergeant when we’d be going home, he would point to the Al Dora power plant in the distance, with its four smoke stacks poking the sky like needles, and say “When all four smoke stacks are pumping smoke, we’ll go home.”

Since the war in Iraq began utilities have been intermittent at best – even in Baghdad. It’s easy to sweep that aside as insignificant whining, like the ISIS soldier does in the article, but unless you have experienced the Iraqi heat in the summer, it’s hard to overstate the importance of having reliable electricity and running water.

The excerpt from the Mosul article about the power coming on at seemingly random times reminds me of so many moments at different places in Baghdad, where we would lounge in our own sweat, trying our best not to move to minimize our discomfort. If we were lucky, the power might come on at a random time which would be met with cheers and instant movement, bringing everyone back to life as the air conditioning kicked in. It’s a kind of happiness that you really don’t want to experience, because it’s only good because things were normally so bad.

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PlatoonLeader.net: The Junior Officer’s Best Kept Secret

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I remember stumbling upon the now re-appropriated companycommand.com many years ago when I was still enlisted. I must have been searching for something Army related, and found myself on the site. I remember quickly closing the window in the same way you would if you accidentally clicked a “link too far” and found yourself on a website you really ought not to be looking. The gleaming silver bars on the page spooked me, reminding me of the seemingly omnipotent officers I knew in the 82nd Airborne Division. The thought of chatting with one or being in any way associated with a bunch of Captains – COMMANDERS – was terrifying to my younger, non-commissioned officer self.

I knew that the site existed though, as a resource for officers, at a time when social media was just budding and internet forums were intimidating and reigned supreme.

Fast forward to today, and the site still exists (although now in a more official capacity). But there’s also Company Command’s younger brother, Platoon Leader, which exists both in an official capacity (CAC required) and an easier to access, unofficial capacity.

The sites are great resources for junior leaders managed by a dedicated team of Army officers who aim to create a space to share ideas. It’s the same team behind the Company Commander and Platoon Leader blog on Medium which kindly published my article on the problems Lieutenants face when they write (as an aside, you should seriously consider writing for them as well).

Unfortunately, the sites are severely under-utilized.

Part of this is due to the difficulty it is in getting to the “full” site which requires a CAC login, milSuite registration, and then a submission to join the forum. There’s been few times that I can remember having the time at work to browse through the CAC site uninterrupted – there’s always something going on. For most junior officers, that means their prime time to explore the site will be when they’re at home and off work, which makes the likelihood of making a successful “hook up” low, especially, if like me, you have a Mac.

However, the seemingly unscalable technological wall is actually quite scalable. It usually just takes an hour or two of dedicated, uninterrupted time and a large cup of coffee. Once done, you’re in.

Thankfully, there’s a non-CAC version of the forums that simply requires a username and password to join. Whatever the question is, there’s an answer out there. There are few new problems facing junior leaders today, and even the news ones are being faced by more than one of us. The forums provide a space for junior leaders to have those conversations outside of regular social media, where the replies are more likely to be snarky than helpful.

BLAB (Bottom Line at Bottom): Basically, if you’re a junior officer, you should sign up.

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The Platoon Leader’s Most Powerful (and annoying) Weapon

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The entrance of the modern TOC.

Traditionally, it’s the radio.

But today, in an era where the PL spends much more time managing personalities and painting a picture for higher than analyzing terrain or calling for fire, it’s hard to argue that there is any tool more useful than the smartphone. Instant communication, regulations at your fingertips, emergency GPS, calendar and task management – all combined to provide a powerful tool for the modern platoon leader.

It’s the camera, though, that makes the smartphone invaluable today.

When I first joined the Army in 2001, NCOs and officers bemoaned the recent intrusion of email in their daily lives and longed for days when they had regularly scheduled meetings and if they needed something, they just sent runners. When I got out in 2006, I was just beginning to see some of the more senior officers carrying around BlackBerry’s, furiously tapping out emails between events.

The iPhone wouldn’t be released for another year.

Without question, the most striking thing about the way the military has changed since I got out (2006) and when I rejoined (2011) is the prevalence of the smartphone. Just about everyone has one. And the scourge of NCOs everywhere are soldiers sitting around on their phones, tapping away at games, text messages, or social media.

In the good old days, soldiers just sat around.

As an aside, a significant decision that leaders have to make today is whether or not they will allow soldiers to bring their phones with them to the field during training. I’ve seen some leaders allow them and others outright ban them, going as far as conducting inspections and recommending Article 15s for soldiers caught in the field with them. Some might scoff at the notion of being allowed to bring smartphones to the field at all, arguing they have no place in training. Others might think banning them is overbearing and not taking into consideration changes in society. Interestingly, on the modern battlefield, many leaders and soldiers have cell phones with local voice and data plans.

Anyway, the fact that everyone has a smartphone and the effect this has had on work, relationships, and the like, and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing has been written about elsewhere. Here, I want to highlight its effect at the small unit level, in this case, the platoon leader.

Just as conducting classroom training and briefing has shifted to using PowerPoint as a default, the rapid proliferation of digital cameras – and especially smartphones – has resulted in documenting events with images as a near-requirement.

Stated another way, if training occurs, but no pictures were taken, did training really happen?

The “pics or it didn’t happen” adage has been unofficially adopted by Army leaders everywhere. In a media saturated environment (and the military is just as media-saturated as anywhere else), pictures are the best way to rapidly highlight what’s going on to a higher headquarters. Leaders respond to subordinate leaders’ elaborate training plans with “Sounds great, make sure you get some pictures.”

In the past, if a leader wanted to capture images of an event, he or she would have to get a camera, usually through PAO, combat camera, embedded journalists, or some other coordination. If they were lucky, they might have a guy in the platoon with a camera and willing to expend some film. There was rarely a requirement to capture training events on camera because it just wasn’t practical.

The fact that just about everyone has a smartphone today significantly lowers the bar, and capturing images is now generally expected. Not only is capturing the event in a picture important, but capturing it and quickly getting that image to higher has become paramount.

You’re only as good as your last storyboard.

With this, there are all sorts of pitfalls, operational security (OPSEC) being one of the chief concerns. It is easy to carelessly snap a picture that might contain something considered secret or confidential, which can rapidly become a significant emotional event for all parties involved, especially if the image is transferred to other devices or posted online.

There’s also the great annoyance of sending up pictures only to have them torn apart by an eagle-eyed NCO looking for uniform deficiencies or other violations.

You can send up a photo of a soldier standing over the still warm body of Osama bin Laden, but let that soldier’s eye-protection be sitting on his forehead and watch as the wrath of Hades comes flying your way in the form of a nasty-gram.

And of course, the dumb things that soldiers do are now routinely captured in pictures or video and shared with the world.

While these developments may seem strange to some and terrible for the force in the same way people curse PowerPoint, these changes are not necessarily bad – just different. The landscape is changing, and the way wars are fought is changing. Just look at all of the wild pictures in the ISOF Gold series I’ve been running. While some of those photos are goofy, there is an effect that they have on the populace – by sharing candid photos of Iraq’s elite forces at work, a message is being sent that their security forces are out there. And when they conduct an operation, they make sure to take out the camera phones and start snapping pictures.

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Why We Need West Point: Painfully written by an OCS guy

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Recently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.

While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.

Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commisssionning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.

The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in-tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burn out” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.

The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.

The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audbile “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.

Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.

In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existance West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.

The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.

Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.

If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.

It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.

I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.

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The Universal Truths of Relief in Place

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Relief in place, commonly referred to as “RIP,” is that process of one unit changing out with another. I first heard about it shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Our initial mission set was to jump into Baghdad Airport after the Rangers had jumped in and relieve them (aka, the greatest mission that never happened). My platoon sergeant described it as a process of literally finding your counterpart on the battlefield and relieving him of his position, so he could go on and do something else.

Today, the RIP process is less literal. The incoming unit comes in and is shown the ropes by the outgoing unit, usually involving a lot of conversation and questions and some version of the “left-seat, right-seat” ride. That is, the outgoing unit will “do it” (whatever “it” is, a patrol or manning towers, for example) with the incoming unit observing, and then at some point they’ll switch and the RIP will be complete.

I don’t really have much to say about the RIP process, other than there are three universal truths that I’ve discovered over time:

  1. The unit you’re relieving sucks.
  2. The unit reliving you is totally not prepared for this.
  3. Both units want the other to hurry up.

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