What is the incentive to write in the military?

Originally published in 2016.

I’m working on a longer piece about the important role veterans have in getting their voice out there in the age of social media, and this thought popped into my mind this morning on the way to work: what is the incentive to write in the military?

I’ve never been actively prodded to write inside of the military. There aren’t any obvious professional incentives – no awards or bonuses, it doesn’t go on your ERB/ORB. In fact, there seems to be greater professional risk in writing for an external audience than there is reward.

I know why I write. It’s how I get ideas out. I also enjoy communicating to a larger audience outside of my bubble.

When I came back in the Army in 2011, I was a little concerned about whether I would have to stop writing or severely curtail it. I reached out to some military writers, and one (very accomplished officer) offered this warning:

Even so, today’s Army does not value intellectually rigorous scholarship from serving officers. General Petraeus succeeded despite, rather than because of, his intellectual credentials; note how few officers are following his path to flag rank. Advancement to that level relies on patronage relationships within one or more of the Army’s “communities” – airborne, armored cav, SOF, etc. There is no patron and no community for intellectual rigorous soldier-scholars, and few of them make it past LTC or COL.

It was a fair – and spooky – warning. I do think things like the Military Writers Guild might be changing this dynamic, but only time will tell.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: Use your Battalion Command Team

Leader Talking to Soldiers

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

A hard thing for young leaders to grasp is that their subordinates don’t really want to hear them talk that much. As inspired as we think our thoughts and ideas are, there is a layer of scar tissue that builds up between people over time as a result of familiarity. For a platoon leader, getting your message across on day one is a lot easier than on day one hundred, before the platoon has learned your norms and idiosyncrasies – what you say you care about and what you actually care about.

One of the ways I found to break through the scar tissue is to use the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major – the Battalion Command Team – to deliver the message. If you’re doing it right, your message should be nested with theirs, so it shouldn’t be a hard sell. I viewed every planned or surprise Battalion Command Team visit as an opportunity to deliver an important message to the platoon straight from the top.

Regardless of what the Battalion Command Team is visiting for, they’re normally going to want to address the platoon. In the moments before this, I tried to speak with the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major (with my Platoon Sergeant, of course), and tell them what our issues were and what message we thought would be helpful to hear.

For this to be effective, you have to be comfortable telling your boss what problems exist, instead of briefing that everything is fine.

When I first started doing this, it felt a little uncomfortable. I felt like I may have been leaning in a bit too far with my Battalion Commander by laying out issues and recommending messages. Over time, I found that the honesty was appreciated. The Battalion Command Team seemed relieved to be asked to inject themselves in a way that might be directly helpful at the platoon level.

There’s a great feeling to be standing behind a platoon, listening to the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major hammer home an important issue that has struggled to sink in. It’s one thing if the Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, or Platoon Leader says it. It hits home completely different when it comes from the mouth of the Commander Sergeant Major.

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Military Review: Ethical Fading

First Lieutenant Robert Callahan wrote a short piece in the March-April Military Review titled I’m FadedIt is a reaction and example to last year’s Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, which as the title implies, tackles dishonesty in the Army profession. 

In his article, Callahan recounts how he omitted things from his record of medical history over time after learning from other officers how they filled out the forms. As Callahan learned, other officers often did not include every detail about themselves because they believed some of those details were irrelevant or might preclude them from some required training. Even though Callahan had at one time been thorough and honest on the forms, he felt compelled to do what everyone else was doing.

Callahan calls his action a result of “ethical fading.” While at his commissioning source or in his first couple of years in the Army, there was no question as to how he should complete the forms. It was only after he learned what others were doing – and getting away with – that he considered doing the same. Once he understood how the system worked, he worked chiefly towards “meeting the appropriate deadline and continuing with my day.”

In his story, instead of being reprimanded, the officials managing the paperwork simply let him know that his new and old paperwork did not match, and they allowed him the opportunity to make the correction. He writes:

I believe this nudge represented an effective and reasonable first step for implementing the recommendations of Wong and Gerras (Lying to Ourselves). Calling out obvious dishonesty and then correcting it shows that integrity always matters. Acknowledging that a systemic integrity problem can be fixed by focusing on the truth instead of staging a witch hunt to push dishonesty reflects that all Army officers are responsible for this problem, reaffirms each officer’s commitment to the Army Values, and regenerates the military profession one officer at a time.

This was a good, honest piece that put a story to a real problem. While in the scheme of things this was a small transgression, the pressure on officers to be dishonest can be immense – often because of anxiety over the subsequent “witch hunt” of which Callahan refers.

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The Special Role of Veterans in the Social Media Era

Early one morning in the heady days of post-deployment reintegration, just as I was dropping off my gym bag in the platoon office, a soldier approached and asked if I had read a recent article that was going around about how the Army had lost the art of leadership. I knew the article he was talking about.

“Yeah, I read it. What did you think?” I asked.

“I think he has a lot of good points.”

I didn’t necessarily agree with the article, and I didn’t want to argue about it with a junior soldier just before PT. “Yeah, it’s an interesting article,” I replied.

I stood in the rear, waiting to salute the morning flag as the platoon chattered in front of me, eager for the coming weekend. Thinking about that interaction a few moments earlier, what struck me most was the way someone else’s ideas had injected themselves into the actual day of an infantry rifle platoon.

Reveille sounded, we saluted, and then we did PT.

A half a year later, during an aggressive training cycle in preparation for an upcoming deployment, the unit I was in became the target of a barrage of jokes on a popular Army social media site. Between conducting live-fire training exercises and pre-deployment training, soldiers talked about the latest memes targeting their unit, and discussed rumors that they didn’t hear from other soldiers, but saw posted anonymously online.

The confluence of military-centric social media sites, a vibrant community that identifies as military and veteran, and the growth of writers and writing outlets that focus on the military and veteran communities are having a real influence on the day-to-day operations of the actual military. Due to the restrictions on freedom of expression, political neutrality, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the things that active duty service members can do and say online is rightly curtailed. For that reason, military veterans hold a special position in society, being able to represent themselves as arbiters of the military to a wider public – if they so choose.

This is a weird new space that did not exist before the age of social media. While veterans of previous generations also came home and wrote, there were no social media sites or blogs. Veterans certainly wrote, but it came in the form of books and newspaper articles, which weren’t as widely available.

Back during my first enlistment, the online military community was relegated to basic internet forums and a couple of emerging blogs, like Blackfive.

Today they are all over the place, and growing. There are military blogs that lean left or right politically, others that focus on leadership, others still on military policy and life. Conglomerate sites like Task & Purpose give voice to a range of opinions and ideas that can be rapidly spread to a wide and growing audience of both service members, veterans, and civilians.

Not only have the outlets spread, but the barrier for entry has been lowered to be nearly nonexistent. Anyone can start a blog or post a meme (this blog not excluded). In the aggregate, these are good – and unavoidable – things.

Here are the two pitfalls of this new world as they relate to the military:

  • There are actual effects in the day-to-day operations of the military
  • Many civilians do not make the distinction between active-duty and veteran, especially online

The race for clicks and views has us publishing without ever really thinking through what the effects might be. When I was out of the Army and writing, I never really thought about what effect an article might have on the active-duty Army. What I did recognize, though, is that many civilians lump veterans and active-duty into one large box – the military. As a veteran, my voice was given authority on all things military simply for having served. In that position, I served as an arbiter between what I understood as two different worlds – military and civilian.

Serving as that arbiter can be a huge responsibility. Active-duty service members do not have the same ability to say what they think or feel on certain policies or political matters. Veterans do. Many veterans in the community have taken on this responsibility to great effect, writing and speaking to a broader audience with an aim at demystifying what the military is and closing the civilian-military divide.

What has been less explored is what the effect of that same writing and speaking has on the day-to-day operations of the military. It’s not a matter of negligence, this is a new phenomenon and not one most veterans had to contend with when they served.

There is no going back from this era. It is hard to imagine the role of social media receding in the coming years. For good or for ill, this is the new landscape that exists. Veterans, for their part, have a special role that they will play, whether they like it or not. If they have a presence in the public domain, their voice will be amplified above others in regards to military affairs. What they say will have effects not only on how the civilian public views veterans or the military, but on the actual affairs of those currently serving.

The driving force behind some of the more disruptive articles and memes is the contest for clicks. I’m reminded of a line from the Infantryman’s Creed: In the race for victory, I am swift, determined, and courageous, armed with a fierce will to win. Victory, in this context, is going viral. Before publishing, instead of being swift, determined, and courageous, armed with a fierce will to win, better is to be thorough, thoughtful, and critical.

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Post-Platoon Leader Series: Take pictures, share them

WHOMP

Ok, so I actually haven’t been a platoon leader for about six months now. I’m in transition mode, and I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience and evaluate what was useful and what was not.

I have never been a fan of the never-ending articles on “how to be a good platoon leader” chiefly because they usually boil down to “all you have to do is be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine.” The other thing is just about every former platoon leader thinks they were really, really good.

However, if you are a new or soon to be new platoon leader and are actually looking for that kind of advice, the best place to start is the Center for Junior Officers.

So instead of adding to the list of 69 things, I’m going to try to share some of the more obscure things that I found useful during my time.

As has been pointed out before, being a platoon leader is often less about fire and maneuver and more about managing people in the day-to-day minutiae of Army life. As the platoon leader, you are often the one who will create the storyboard that goes up to your Commander. I’ve written before about the importance of the smartphone – and by extension, the camera – to the modern day platoon leader. Taking and sharing pictures punctuates the great things your soldiers are doing, and over time they will pile up and you’ll have collected dozens, if not hundreds, of photos of your soldiers.

Your soldiers want those photos.

It takes time and effort, but it is worth setting up a means to get those photos to them. I setup a group Flickr account for the platoon and sent them invites. Every Sunday morning, while at home and deployed, I would upload the week’s photos to the site after scrubbing them for any security or suitability concerns.

While it seemed like a small thing at the time, and I often wondered if anyone even cared, I learned that if I skipped a Sunday soldiers would approach me asking about it. It became a rhythm event that they looked forward to so they could download and share their pictures with friends and family.

Lastly, more than anyone else in the platoon, the platoon leader has the latitude to stop what he or she is doing to snap pictures – at least during training events. Soldiers are often too busy doing their job to pause for a picture, but for the modern platoon leader, capturing the moment is part of the job. Not sharing those photos is a wasted opportunity to build morale through a zero-cost, easy to manage and sustain event.

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Carrying the Gun Update: Police Call

policecall-1200x520.jpg

You may have noticed I changed the look and feel of the blog recently. I’ve been meaning to do it for sometime, as the old theme was starting to get clunky and I wanted to simplify things to focus on the content. Some old posts might come up looking odd or have errors in them. If you see anything glaring, please let me know in the comments. I’ll be going through the blog fixing things up over time.

Thanks!

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APFT Scores: Shame and Pride

APFT

My first squad leader was a fan of using shame and pride as a means to motivate soldiers, especially when it came to physical fitness. He built a wooden board and painted it black and yellow and hung it up in the platoon hallway. Along the top of the board were score ranges: 200 and below, 201-230, 231-270, 271-299, 300+. Under the score ranges were labels. The only two I remember were “Stud” and “Dud,” labels for the 300+ and below 200 scores, respectively. Under the scores were little nails. On laminated strips of paper, the platoon’s soldiers’ names were printed and your name would hang underneath whatever score you ranked. Over time, you might move up or down the board depending on your score.

How soldiers performed on the APFT was not a private matter – it was platoon business. And in the eyes of that Squad Leader, the shame of doing poorly and the pride in doing well were prime motivators.

It worked for me. I’m not sure which was more powerful – the fear of doing poorly or the ambition to do well. Like most things, it was probably a combination of both. Shame and pride.

Since then, I have always believed in publicly posting APFT scores so that everyone knows where everyone else stands. It seems there is only a small percentage of soldiers who are motivated by this to the extent that it actually has an effect on their physical performance. While most soldiers will go and check the scores, I don’t see them doing it with the same rabid curiosity I had.

Maybe times have changed, I don’t know.

Shame and pride can be motivators, but they’re double-edged swords. While leaders should never fail the APFT, it happens. Having that information displayed publicly can undermine the authority of a leader rapidly in an organization that places such a premium on physical fitness. Of course, it is the leader’s responsibility to maintain physical fitness, and it is easy to brush this off as a complete non-issue. “He failed himself, he has to deal with the consequences!” But the reality is there are often many more things you need that leader to do than just pass the APFT. Undermined authority in one area bleeds into all areas.

There’s no question that physical fitness is a personal responsibility, especially among leaders. Failing an APFT is unacceptable, but I’m also aware of the realities that leaders face across the force. For many leaders – like Stanley McChrystal recently wrote about – physical fitness happens to be their chief hobby. When the thing you love to do the most is working out, it isn’t difficult to stay in great shape. Conversely, there are plenty of leaders who hate working out, and in an environment that demands more and more of their time, maintaining physical fitness might fall off the calendar in lieu of something they actually enjoy.

What’s really challenging is finding the right mix of shame and pride and everything in between to properly maintain the physical fitness their jobs require. The fear of being labeled a “dud” and the pride of achieving a top score worked (and still works) to motivate me. Of course, there’s the intrinsic motivation of being healthy and physically fit. That mix works for me, but not others. The best leaders will figure out how to get the tough ones going.

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“If you think snot rockets are gross…”

Fort Drum Snow Run

This is a guest post from Andrew Steadman who writes at The Military Leader.

If you think snot rockets are gross…

I had a lesson hit me the other day on a run. It was a damp, chilly morning, the kind that leaves you raspy and congested during a workout. And as I ran past the four mile mark, I decided to blow a snot rocket to free a little sinus space.

As I let it fly, I noticed a pedestrian strolling on the sidewalk to my left. He was wearing a tie and blue blazer on his walk to work. And he had an unmistakable expression of dissatisfaction, maybe even disgust, at the nostril-clearing activity I had engaged in. He thought my snot rocket was gross.

Now, he was at least 15 feet away and not in my blast area, so I know I didn’t hit him with it. Clearly, though, he did not approve of what he saw and I can only conclude it’s because he had forgotten, or has never known, what snot rockets are for.

Which brings me to my point…

If you think snot rockets are gross, you’re probably not testing yourself. If you’re in a combat arms job and can’t remember the last time you got dirty or low-crawled, you’re not being honest about the demands that combat will place on you. If you can’t remember the last time you put yourself into a risky situation or a scenario that demanded prowess and stamina, you might be living in your comfort zone. If that’s the case, you’re not growing. And more importantly, if you’re not growing, your followers aren’t growing.

If that’s you, change it now. Get out the door and do something that forces you to blow a snot rocket. Push yourself in a new way. Submit yourself to someone else’s training regimen. Whether it’s setting up a radio or conducting mission planning, perform your skill as fast as you can, then do it in the worst possible weather conditions. Then do it at night. Then do it when you’re exhausted and scared for your life.

Why? Because that very battlefield awaits. And you will step onto it…prepared or not.

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Andrew Steadman is a US Army Infantry Officer and creator of The Military Leader, a website devoted to helping leaders of all professions grow themselves and their teams. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.

On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one’s family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

“ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration … reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.””

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

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