Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Originally published in 2015.

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

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An unrelenting desire to accomplish the mission

Isaac appears at the 1:30 mark.

I recently finished The Last of Us Part 2. It took me a half a year due to time constraints (moving, new job/routine). I probably would have written more about it as I did with part 1, but I didn’t relaunch CTG until October and wasn’t in the writing groove yet.

Anyway, while playing the game, I grew fascinated with the character “Isaac.” He is the commander of the “Washington Liberation Front” and a former Marine. I’m not going to get into the story, but you can watch the video above. He only appears in two cutscenes, although he is discussed at length in dialogue throughout the game. The scene above is the first of the two scenes, and the inspiration for this post.

What interests me about Isaac is his seeming resignation to his fate and the impossibility of his situation. It’s hard to tell, but he seems reluctant about everything he is doing. He is in command, but nothing he is doing is working. Truces, assaults, – they all fail. Yet he persists.

You initially find him seemingly torturing a captive for information. But Isaac himself seems tired of it.

“Don’t let him fall asleep.”

In the conversation with Abby, Isaac speaks with exhaustion, shoulders slouched. He has a plan and a way forward – he sees a path to victory – but he needs everyone on board. And everyone (Abby included) has their own personal issues that they need to take care of. Isaac knows his soldiers and knows he needs Abby to accomplish his mission. This is when he shows a little empathy to her and also appeals to her sense of duty to the team. 

“We need you.”

Just enough to get what he needs and keep the machine running.

That exhaustion and resignation coupled with an unrelenting dedication to accomplishing the mission strikes me because it’s something I’ve seen before. Commanders, good men and women, placed in impossible positions of leadership, trying to move heaven and earth to meet an objective. It’s a position that grinds you down and can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – because of the mission.

I can’t tell, but the vibe I got from experiencing the game the first time was that Isaac was probably a good person. Before the outbreak, I imagine he was a good man. But this situation tore him down.

No grand discoveries here. Just an observation.

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“We don’t need any more lines and arrows”

I’m thoroughly enjoying the 1st Special Forces Command new podcast – The Indigenous Approach. They recently wrapped up a 3 episode series on the Special Forces “identity crisis” which is fantastic.

There’s some great quotes throughout the series, but I’m going to pin this one from Special Forces SGM Dave Friedberg who jumps out first to answer the question “how are we going to address the SF identity crisis?”

We take the missions that our units are assigned, we come up with the training guidance, and then we train our units to accomplish our assigned missions. Period, end of story.

SGM Dave Friedberg, Alpha company 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces group sergeant major

I love that. It cuts through all the nonsense and gets right to what is important – training for the assigned mission. If we’re doing that, the rest falls into place.

And then to add the flair you would expect from a senior non-commissioned officer, he closes with this.

I don’t think we need any more lines and arrows, I don’t think we need any more references to the NDS. I think everyone understands what the new threat is, and we just power it down to the companies and let the senior NCOs and Team Sergeants take charge of the training.

Perfect.

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“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare”

Damn. I had not heard it put that way before.

“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

COL (R) David Maxwell (Irregular Warfare Podcast, around the 10:15 mark)

Another great deep-dive from the Irregular Warfare podcast.

I have a growing interest in political warfare – it’s a dense topic and I’ve found there are only a handful of experts on it – especially when it comes to the role of the military. COL (R) David Maxwell is one of those experts, and then Matt Armstrong more generally.

If you know of any others I should be following/reading – please send it my way.

If irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare, the next hard thing to do is figure out what your subset of the military is supposed to do in irregular warfare (not very easy). Keep drilling down until you get to to “you” and start pulling levers and pressing buttons.

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Army Myths: Unhook your chest strap and you get 10% more inflation

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Before a jump, paratroopers spend a lot of time waiting around. The airborne timeline is notorious for having you show up at 0300 for a 2359 time on target, and most of the time inbetween is spent talking with the guys next to you.

Invariably, talk will turn to how much jumping sucks, and how to make it suck less.

A myth that I heard over and over from “senior” E4s and junior NCOs was that if you unhooked the chest buckle of the T-10D parachute during your descent, your canopy would get a little extra inflation. On more than one occasion I heard that it would give you 10% “more lift.”

I remember being skeptical upon hearing this at first. I understood the theory, that by unhooking the chest buckle it would theoretically allow the risers to expand out more, thus allowing the canopy to also expand, letting in more air and slowing the descent.

I dismissed their claims, and they dismissed my dismissals as naive.

The only way I’d know for sure, they said, was to try it out myself.

New paratroopers are unlikely to risk touching any of their equipment during descent out of fear – better to just ride it all in than to touch something you shouldn’t touch and risk a gory way to die.

After making a certain number of jumps and feeling confident that I kind of knew what I was doing, I decided to finally test the claim for myself. During a “hollywood” (no equipment, day time) jump on a pleasant day, I unhooked my chest strap during my descent to see if it would do anything.

It didn’t.

I fell to Earth, at more or less the same speed as I was before I unhooked the buckle.

Airborne.

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The Minutemen (of the veteran community)

Minutemen

Last week I made a reference to the Minutemen of the veteran community. What I was talking about is that cadre of veterans who have a megaphone or a soapbox out there that can quickly rally whenever some event happens – usually when veterans get slandered as a whole or misrepresented in the media.

I’ve been having this conversation with other veterans for the past few weeks. It’s been interesting to watch how mature the veteran community has come in terms of responding to nonsense out there. Milblogs have been around for awhile and have always been a fertile dumping ground for angry veterans to rant about this or that. What’s changed now is how connected and polished some veterans have become over the past ten years.

Go to war, come home, go to school, get educated, learn to write, meet the right people, get connected, and now you can rapidly put pen to paper and get a piece published somewhere prominent to respond as an “authentic” voice. The explosion of social media helps this, for sure.

It’s hard for me to know, but I can’t imagine that Vietnam veterans had the same potential outlets as this generation does. Or at least, the barrier for entry was much higher.

Also interesting is how the Minutemen are pretty much leaderless. It’s like a headless insurgency. There is a pulse out there of what’s going on, informed by Twitter feeds and what’s trending on The Duffle Blog. The Minutemen don’t need to be told what to write or who to attack or what to defend. It’s just known and happens usually about the time it needs to happen.

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Army Myths: Don’t Lock Your Knees

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Army has experienced the mind-numbing, painfully long formation where you are forced to stand at the position of parade rest (or attention) for long periods of time, often under the hot sun. Before the event, the phrase “don’t lock your knees” will be uttered over and over again by NCOs and the E4-Mafia like a meditative mantra. In these long formations, someone will invariably pass out, spilling over onto the floor in dramatic fashion. Then a soldier or two will drag the victim to the back of the formation where he can’t be seen and left to recover, while the rest of the formation snickers at his misfortune with whispers of “shouldn’t have locked his knees.”

As a young soldier, I had no reason to disobey the orders of my more experienced NCOs, so whenever I stood in a formation, I made a conscious effort not to lock my knees. “Locking my knees”, as I understood it, was standing in a manner in which my legs were completely straight, the knee joint “locking” back so the bones of my lower and upper legs support one another, requiring no “work” from the muscles of my body to maintain balance and position. Locking the knees somehow disturbs the blood flow process, resulting in the fainting solider phenomenon.

It turns out the medical science behind “don’t lock your knees” doesn’t exactly hold up. While the advice to avoid locking knees is widespread – even outside of military communities – the actual cause of fainting is usually loss of blood flow to the brain which can be brought on by any number of things, but the act of locking ones knees has nothing to do with passing out. While the act of locking one’s knees and maintaining a rigid, completely unmoving position for a long period of time may interrupt proper blood flow, the act of locking the knees alone does not by itself cause fainting spells.

As this very scientific YouTube video demonstrates, locking your knees can interfere with proper blood flow from the legs, which in turn might result in less blood flow to the brain and ipso facto a soldier passes out.

I can remember foolishly standing in formation, trying my best to maintain a “knees slightly bent” position (as the position of attention calls for, after all) and feeling my knees “hover” inside of my pants as I awkwardly tried to maintain a good-enough but not-quite straight position. For sure, it kept me occupied, and maybe that mental occupation is what prevents fainting spells. I remember another occasion though, while deployed to Iraq, where I was standing in a change of command ceremony and started to feel nauseous and dizzy. I started having a cold sweat and I felt like I was going to pass out. I knew not to lock my knees and wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. Thankfully, the formation ended before I took an embarrassing spill, but thinking back on it, the likely cause was dehydration, as just about everyone had dysentery at the time.

Like most Army myths, this one will continue to spread – and I have a feeling that some will aggressively defend it as fact, despite the lack of hard scientific evidence. While locking your knees might affect the flow of blood, there is no evidence that says that it actually does.

Thankfully, I’ve spoken with a few NCOs who have privately confessed that they’ve been locking their knees in formation for years – because it’s easier – and they’ve yet to pass out.

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Army Myths: There is no “right” way to lace your boots

One of the first things I learned as a new soldier was how to lace my boots. I remember sitting there with a boot tucked between my legs and holding the ends of a long black boot lace in each hand and asking the guy next to me if there was a “right” way to lace my boots.

“Yeah, left over right, the whole way up.”

Left over right, the whole way up.

Why?

Because “we always start with our left” or something like that.

For over a decade I have always laced my boots this way, left over right until complete. When I ask others what the “right” way to lace my boots is, they confirm that it is left over right.

It turns out this is another myth. DA PAM 670-1 says nothing about how the laces are to be crossed, only that:

According to the regulation, there is nothing wrong with going right over left, or going back and forth between the two, or – unfathomable – some kind of random design.

All this said, I’ve always done it left over right and I like the way it looks.

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“Tell them I held the line…”

Originally published in 2012.

Tell them I held the line…

I just finished Mass Effect 2, having rolled into it right after playing Mass Effect. 

I know I could have looked online to see how to make it through the last mission with everyone, but I enjoy playing the game blind – it’s more realistic that way.

Everything was going well on the Collector Base, and when I had to choose a leader for the diversion team, I thought Mordin would be a good choice given his background with the Salarian Special Tasks Group.

Well, that didn’t work out, and Mordin didn’t make it.

The rest of the squad made it, but only Dr. Chakwas from the Normandy.

I’m looking forward to finishing the fight, sometime before Christmas.

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