Antenna Discipline

RTO Antenna

If you’ve ever been an RTO and whipped around, smacking the face of your PSG or PL with the antenna of your radio, you’re likely familiar with term “antenna discipline.” It’s not a doctrinal term, but it’s one that I’ve heard used so often that it ought to be.

Antenna discipline is being aware that you have 3-foot long floppy stick poking out of your backpack, and that when you move around, it moves too. An RTO with good antenna discipline is generally aware of where his antenna is at all times. It’s like another appendage; his tail. He moves slowly and cautiously, and he’s aware of the people around him. When he moves, he moves in such a way that his antenna glides through the air. When it droops, he adjusts it as needed.

An RTO with poor antenna discipline moves wildly, his antenna flailing around with him, smacking everyone in the face.

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Do we really need airborne forces?

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When I was still in high school an Army recruiter visited and gave a short presentation to a bunch of disinterested, super-cynical New York Public School students. The recruiter, in his sharply pressed BDUs and shiny black boots paced back and forth in front of us. He spoke about the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to travel abroad. When those carrots didn’t pique anyone’s interest, he spoke about the opportunity to jump out of airplanes for a living. I shot my hand up and reminded him that this was 1999, and asked him if the concept of airborne forces weren’t outdated, because, you know, missiles. Like a true professional, he fielded my question and spoke at length of the esprit de corps of the airborne community and he explained the importance of maintaining the airborne “forced entry” capability. I felt smug, having bested the poor recruiter.

A couple of years later I would be jumping out of airplanes.

When Failure Thrives, which explores the concept of airborne forces in the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US, is the inaugural publication of The Army Press, which just recently popped up. As their mission states:

The Army Press is a single organization that serves as the Army’s focal point for identifying, encouraging, and coaching prospective authors to publish original contributions on history, policy, doctrine, training, organization, leader development, and the Army Profession. The Press’ programs and products enable scholarship, facilitate professional dialogue, and promote a fuller understanding of the Profession of Arms for uniformed and civilian members of the DoD and JIIM communities.

It’s a fascinating examination, and it captures a lot of the barracks banter that will be familiar to anyone who served in the airborne, only, it’s backed up with facts. In the case of the American airborne community, its ability to exist is in large part due to the initial investment of talent and resources during World War II, the ongoing redefining of the airborne’s mission (The Pentomic Division, lol), and the strong patronage of current and former paratroopers.

What I found really interesting is just how unsuccessful airborne forces have been over the past century (more failures than successes) and even when measured by historians aiming to gauge combat efficiency, airborne forces don’t perform any better than their conventional counterparts. For all the shit-talking that goes on, there just really isn’t a lot of data to back it up.

And as a friend and mentor once said to me, the hurdle to get into your traditional airborne units isn’t very high – it’s 3-weeks of airborne school and you’re in.

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The Dichotomy of Black Humor and Memorialization

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Likely, you’ve heard about how important black humor is for soldiers. The ability to make dark fun of whatever situation you may find youself in is super important for soldiers leaning off of the edge of the world. Cadences that ask to “bury me in the lean and rest” (the push-up position) or Blood Upon the Risers highlight the theme of black humor in the Army.

And then, Animal Mother’s famous quip “Better you than me” when looking down at two dead Marines in Vietnam put the nail in the coffin.

Troopers use black humor as a way to desensitize themselves to terirble situations. What’s interesting to me, is the way that the black humor transitions to the way troops are memorialized. Military funerals are often very, very sad affairs. Whenever I find myself running in formation and a cadence comes around screaming “bury me in the lean and rest” I can’t help but think if anyone has ever actually requested that as part of their funeral. Blood Upon the Risers tells the story of a paratrooper who jumps to his death, his parachute never opening, and it’s sung in an upbeat, ‘hey-it-happens’ manner. I’ve always been struck by the strange dichotomy of the black humor of the military and the hardcore memorializing that happens when someone dies.

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The Chattanooga Shootings and the Era of Persistent Conflict

Forever War

Forgetting we are at war has become very easy. Although we still have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it feels as though those two conflicts have been tucked in, put to sleep, and we’re tip-toeing out the door, trying not to wake them up.

For those who have served, last week’s shooting in Chattanooga did not come as a major surprise. While the media quickly shifted to searching for the “why,” looking for rock-solid connections between this or that terrorist group and the shooter, many veterans instinctively knew it was tragically just another SIGACT in the Global War on Terrorism, to resurrect that dying phrase.

In 2008, when I was in New York City attending college, a bomb was thrown at the Times Square Recruiting office. Just another SIGACT.

I remember waking up early one morning when I was attending school in Egypt and reading the news about the Fort Hood massacre, where MAJ Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at an SRP site at Fort Hood, Texas. In the same year, there was an attack on a recruiting station in Arkansas that saw one soldier killed and another wounded.

Then, as now, I didn’t wonder about the motive.

The term “era of persistent conflict” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, and honestly, I’ve mostly ignored it as another buzz-phrase that’s shuffled out to further obscure whatever it is we’re actually talking about. A throw-away line in a speech that keeps the timer ticking down to zero. That, and I wasn’t sure that we really were facing an era of persistent conflict.

It sounds, dreary.

Then, the other day, I read this piece by David Kilcullen. As a refresher, Kilcullen is the former Australian Army Officer who wrote “The Accidental Guerrilla.” He advised General Petraeus in Iraq and is one of the important figures in devising the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He’s not infallible, and he has his detractors, but it is hard to argue he’s not an important voice on violence in the 21st century (Given their penchat for preaching that the world is getting safer, I’d be curious to think about what the folks at On Violence are going to think of this post).

We’re living in an era of persistent conflict. This isn’t my insight – you can read it in the latest concept documents of half a dozen western militaries. But it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policymakers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/ 11 “normal,” is a fantasy. This – this instability, this regional conflict surrounded by networked global violence, this convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, this rise of a new aggressive totalitarian state from the rubble of the last war – is the new normal, and it’s not going to change for a very, very long time. There are no quick solutions: we need to settle in for the long haul.

For some reason, this opening paragraph resonated with me. I think it’s the idea of returning to “some pre-9/11  normal” that got me. I can’t even imagine what that would be like anymore. It does sound like fantasy. So maybe, it’s just time to accept that we’re really in it for the long haul.

But the truth is, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable.

As Kilcullen says, there is a convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, and that is the new normal. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the shooter in Chattanooga felt like he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, and by attacking members of the military – who are symbols of the state – felt like he contributed to something global, something cosmic.

It happened, and is happening, and if we’re to belive Kilcullen, will continue to happen. The policymakers, in their talk about “persistent conflict,” are aware of it. On an anecdotal level, despite the slowing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the operational tempo remains high. Train, Fight, Reset. Over and over again. Even in 2015.

Generally speaking, I think what’s important is that there has to be some expectation that these things are going to happen. Not every event can be predicted or prevented. The critical element is how we react. Do we over-correct and batten down the hatches? Or do we mourn and resolve ourselves to presevere our way of life in the face of unknown threats?

I know that for a military that is struggling to find the next mission, understanding that nothing is over, and that we are indeed in an era of persistent conflict, provides a training focus going forward. In the face of budget cuts and a shrinking force, it’s sometimes hard to see what the purpose is.

But if you’re looking through the wide lens, you can see it.

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Weaving the Crusader Quilt

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Through the magic of hyperlinks I found myself on the personal blog of David Perry. I read what I came to read, and then just before I clicked away I saw a “Crusaders in Iraq” link floating off to the right. While I’ve focused my efforts on continuosly exploring and unpacking the self-identifying ‘infidel’ movement in the military, there is another corollary which revolves around “crusader” imagery.

I clicked the link.

It’s interesting to see other folks who have also caught glimpse of this trend and find themselves troubled by it.

Like I’ve written before, the strangest part of it is the legacy it’s leaving behind. As we extract ourselves from Iraq(?) and Afghanistan, there is still a large swath of both the military and civilian population that self-identifies as infidels and crusaders through imagery, social media, or by brandishing knives forged in pigs blood. Of course, there is a growing number of businesses that have stepped up to fill the space and provide an ever growing supply of infidel and crusader inspired gear for a demanding public.

While free speech is protected, military members who fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice come dangerously close to falling into the “extremist organization” orbit when they brandish these things.

I continue to think that the esoteric nature of understanding the crusades and the Arabic required to really know what the hell you’re talking about when it comes to defining what an ‘infidel’ is and how that may or may not be a helpful term, is the reason there isn’t a more hard line on managing the phenomenon within the military.

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The Faces on the Wall

I love Army breakfasts. During my enlistment, just about every battalion had its own Dining Facility (DFAC). Generally speaking, I ate most of my meals at our battalion’s DFAC, which was conveniently located in the same building as my barracks.

After awhile, it became a fun treat to explore other DFACs across the Brigade, Division, and post – to see how the other side lives. If we were feeling especially adventorous, we might even drive all the way across post to the Air Force side to eat in their DFAC. After finishing a wonderful lunch, I remember standing up with my tray to bring it to the turn-in when my much wiser comrade gently placed his hand on my tray, pressing it back down to the table. “The Air Force waiters come for it. There is no work for you here, brother.”

Maybe it’s cheap nostalgia, but I feel like our DFACs today just aren’t like they used to be. More likely, I’ve become more picky as I’ve gotten older.

At Fort Hood, I’ve searched for a long time to find a great DFAC. While I haven’t tried them all, the one I prefer the most is the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Memorial Dining Facility. It’s over on the 1st Cavalry Division side of post, and as the name implies, it is in honor of 1st Cavalry Divison soldiers who died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Inside the main cafeteria, the walls are lined with photos of the fallen. The pictures are mixed; some are official Army photographs displaying stoic faces, others are candid shots from deployment, the soldier usually smiling widely, the picture slightly pixellated.

They completely surround the room, hundreds of them.

Soldiers go on enjoying their breakfast.

Eating there a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit struck by how far we’ve come from the heyday of that war. The deaths, deployments, and knocks at the door.

It all kind of just slipped away. And the Army goes marching along.

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The Military Meme Machine

When the whole Brian Williams thing went down, I wanted to chime in because my read of the situation was that the story he was telling slowly morphed over time, the way all war stories tend to do. Honesty is obviously a chief value in a journalist, and to betray that is wrong. But I didn’t think that Brian Williams deserved the hate being thrown his way, if for nothing else, because he has been a friend to the veteran community.

I chose not to comment though (much), because the horse, as it were, had already left the stable. The veteran community had already decided that Brian Williams was an exaggerator and a liar of the worst kind. Ranger Up, a kind of barometer for the vibes running through the veteran community labeled him the “Douche of the Week.”

Every comment thread on military-themed pages filled with Brian Williams memes.

It was already over, and the outrage machine had done its job. To try to get in front of that would have been futile, and suicide by meme.

In private conversations with many other veterans, a similar sentiment was shared, that he was wrong, but the pitchfork and flame treatment was largely overdone.

Related, I recently read something about Seth MacFarlane, who was being criticized for jokes about Caitlyn Jenner. He captured the idea I’m trying to get at as “the outrage industry,” which I think is accurate.

When asked how the jokes came about during a recent “Ted 2” conference call, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane told The Huffington Post he’s “too savvy to comment on the issue to the media.” He explained, “Once the outrage industry shuts down, I will be happy to have an adult conversation about all of this stuff anytime anyone wants, but, even though I’m on the side of support, I just don’t think there’s any way to … you just got to play it safe because the climate is just too charged. Anything I say can and will be used against me.”

On top of this is last weekend’s Star-Bellied Sneetches back and forth on who is the bigger asshole, combat veterans who put signs in their yards asking for respect when it comes to fireworks, or combat veterans who get annoyed with those combat veterans, or combat veterans who call out those combat veterans (and on and on…).

It’s all kind of sad, because I think a lot of reasonable voices avoid getting involved in many different conversations (especially online) out of fear of being dredged through the digital mud.

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The beloved captain and the infallible leader

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One of the benefits of having a CTLT cadet attached to your hip for a few weeks is you get invited to a bunch of events that lowly lieutenants would never get invited to. As the saying goes, the biggest demotion you get in the Army is when you graduate from West Point and pin on Second Lieutenant. Or so I hear.

During one of the half-dozen mandatory briefs/discussions, the III Corps Commander was talking about officership and mentioned, half-dissmingly, A Message to Garcia (which I’ve only recently even learned of myself). Where that tome is supposed to imbibe the young officer with the propensity to find his own way in things, the general recommended another book that he thought would be worth reading called The beloved captain. He spoke about it for a moment as I made a note to check it out later.

Weeks later, after the CTLT experience had ended, I googled it and ordered a copy. It’s not really a book, it’s more of an essay. Actually, three short essays written by Donald Hankey who served and was killed in World War I.

I finished them all yesterday. The story is told from the perspective a junior recruit, and begins with initial training and ends in the war. The recruit is writing about his “beloved captain” who was just a junior platoon leader when he first arrived, learning how to soldier just as the rest of them were.

Then he started to drill the platoon, with the sergeant standing by to point out his mistakes. Of course he made mistakes, and when that happened he never minded admitting it. He would explain what mistakes he had made, and try again.

The idea of the leader admitting his mistakes is one that I know a lot of junior leaders shy away from, instead going for “the infallible leader.” I’ve received much unsolicited advice to always be the hardest one, always have the right answer, never mess up in front of the men, never let them see you sweat, and on and on. The advice comes from the right place, to ensure that you are capable of doing the things you ask of your subordinates, but it also seems a bit inhuman and realistically unachievable. Like most “advice for platoon leaders” it boils down to be great at everything at all times and you’ll be good to go.

Instead, as the recruit notes here, a leader who admits shortcomings and actively works towards getting better gains the respect of his subordinates.

The recruit also writes about the importance of physical presence:

No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to.

Being phsyically present at the shittiest detail or most uncomfortable activity is probably the best piece of advice I received from a senior officer. It’s not always possible, but being present has an effect on a number of things; discipline and morale being the chief two. It also sends the message that whatever it is you’re doing is important.

The beloved captain is a super-short read, and worthwhile because the advice seems counter to what is popularly understood as good company grade leadership, i.e.; the infallible leader. You can read it for free, here.

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