Company grade work versus field grade work

I’m really enjoying this series on broadening over at FTGN.

I had a friend who was just promoted to LTC say: “I just pinned two weeks ago….when I turned in work as a major, people said “This is incredible,” but now they look at the same quality of work and say ‘Seriously?’”

The Responsibility of Preparedness: Choosing Broadening Assignments That Will Make You a Better Officer – From the Green Notebook

I’m becoming more interested in understanding the traits that distinguish good company grade officers (Lieutenants and Captains) from field grade officers (Majors and Lieutenant Colonels). I’ve heard it said that if you do the things that made you successful as a Captain when you’re a Major, you’ll distinguish yourself as the best Captain in your unit.

Yikes.

The linked post discusses how choosing a good broadening assignement can help build out some of those skills to better prepare you for the next job.

Consistent through the post was the important role of mentors in this regard. Mentors (to include those in your chain of command) will likely have a better idea of what you need to work on than you will.

It’s rare (in my experience) to see officers who want to take that OC/T assignment at Fort Irwin or Fort Polk – but that really might be the absolute best thing based on their current skill set and development needs. When choosing assigments, we all tend to focus on what we want versus what we need. Mentors can help cut through that.

Looking forward to the rest of the posts. Check it out.

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WAR ROOM: Words must align with actions

Yes to this.

…the most important thing that the United States does in terms of its foreign policy is what it does in the world. You can’t just talk about it in nice ways if it’s inconsistent with what your actions are.

THE INTERIM NSS: A TOUCHSTONE – War Room – U.S. Army War College

This episode of WAR ROOM is about the interim National Security Strategy, but the above quote from Dr. Jacqueline Whitt struck me because it resonates so true to something a little smaller in scale – information operations. Good IO is not something you “do” after the fact or something you “sprinkle” onto a well-baked plan. It’s not something you crowbar in, either.

We all know the saying “actions speak louder than words,” and it’s true in this regard too. If our words are inconsistent with our actions, well then it just looks like classic propaganda.

I’m a new listener of the US Army War College’s podcast but – like so many other recent additions to the podcast world – is quickly becoming a must listen.

I know everyone thinks they should have a podcast (they shouldn’t) but there are so many insitutions where it absolutely makes sense.

This is one of them.

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The Shadow Commander

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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VR gaming to combat suicide

I love this.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “ Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.

The Air Force is using virtual reality to try to stop its suicide epidemic

This, in my opinion, is way better than simply being on the receiving end of another suicide awareness brief. Gaming has a role in training.

This generation is a generation of gamers. We have the tools and the technology to be more interactive. This is a step in the right direction.

Reps, reps, and more reps.

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The thrill of the infil

A love-letter to the magic of the helicopter infiltration.

The infil, though, was something different. To me, this was a sacred time. I was 100% invested and prepared, leaving the confines of mission planning for the unknowns of the combat experience shared by warriors of all breeds for millennia. Infil was a critical transition point between two-dimensional PowerPoint concepts and visceral lethality. Once we touched down, it’s back to work again.

Army Special Forces officer talks about helicopter infiltration

An NCO once grinned from ear-to-ear talking about the magic and power he felt when riding in a Blackhawk en route to a landing zone, and looking out the open door, wind blowing, to see a half dozen other Blackhawks, all carrying members of your unit.

“Shit’s about to go down,” he said.

I always loved riding in a UH-60 late at night during training, flying low over Fort Bragg and looking out at the houses out in the distance and seeing the soft glow of amber lights, warm and comfy inside.

And I felt a similar feeling when looking out the rear of a C-17 as the heavy drop deployed, sucked out, and seeing the other C-17s in the trail as the sun dips below the horizon. Hundreds of paratroopers about to land at the same place.

It’s unique, and addicting.

Credit: Twitter

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“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it”

Another great episode from the Irregular Warfare podcast on SOF and civilian oversight. A wonky topic, for sure, but incredibly important.

In this episode, our guests argue that SOF is uniquely suited to address irregular warfare challenges in the era of great power competition. However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve. According to our guests, civilian leadership and oversight can help overcome these challenges.

The View from Washington: Sen. Joni Ernst and Former Asst. Sec. of Defense Owen West on Civilian Oversight of SOF – Modern War Institute

There’s lots of great stuff in this one, but I especially appreciated the short conversation on information warfare and the role of Army psychological operations. It starts around the 22 minute mark. Some choice excerpts below.

If we looked around the armed forces, [it’s] the Army’s psychological warfare wing, which really is the repository of our original talent and experience in information operations. And yet, when I visited a couple of times, it was apparent that structurally, this had not received the money, or let’s just call it prestige that others had…

Owen West

Very true. The talent and ambition is there, but the branch is so small and the issues incredibly wonky. Part of the conversation here is about the struggle to adequately explain to a non-IW/PSYOP person what the heck it is that you’re trying to do – as they mention in the podcast “in two senteces.”

And the explosion of information warfare challenges has lead to a “catching up” phase where structures and authorities are being rewritten to match the times. This is a slow process.

To put things in perspective, PSYOP didn’t become an official branch of the Army until October 2006. Special Forces, on the other hand, became a branch in April 1987. A colleague of mine once reminded me that PSYOP is today where SF was in the late 1990s / early 2000s. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there is something there.

In regards to prestige, there’s no surprise there. Over the past twenty years, SOF – jointly – was very much focused on direct action. There is a shift occuring now, and there’s no question that the weather is changing on the current fight (influence, GPC, etc.). It’s not going to be easy to point to the hard wins in IW when we’re really just moving the dial or changing the temperature of the water.

Also, it’s hard to make a Call of Duty video game or 12 Strong movie for information warfare.

And part of the problem, of course, is RULES:

But I don’t know that your audience knows the limitations on them [PSYOP] were pretty astonishing… I felt pretty much like the opponent was playing by different rules.

Owen West

Yup. Part of living a free country.

Moving way from PSYOP. On the comparitive advantage of the US military due to the NCO corps:

…what people haven’t pointed to is the comparitive advantage, if we level-set armies around the world and their special operations forces, and that is our NCO corps, and our senior NCO corps. No one can match the NCO corps of the United States.

Owen West

This is so true, and it is something that we don’t highlight enough. Our SOF NCOs are really that good.

I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek quip on what civilan shops at the highest levels in DoD should not be doing:

“Part of my shop was too operational… really this was about policy making, and not helicopter bump plans.”

Owen West

Defense folks love being ‘operational’ and focusing on the tactical elements of things. There are some jobs, however, where this is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, this is a system which lauds tactical expertise and it is often those small skills that makes for a successful career.

And a quote to kind of wrap up the whole point, stated perfectly:

“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it.”

Senator Joni Ernst

And since we’re talking about irregular warfare, a quick remeinder: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

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NCOs still give the best, no-frills advice

Good piece on the important role of soon-to-be senior enlsited advisors over at FTGN by Mike Burke.

As a SGM/CSM, you have the freedom to move throughout the formation and interact with all its members. Through discussion, you will be presented with innovative ideas, policy suggestions, and command culture insights. Through reflection, you will be better equipped to identify issues and envision how to implement changes.

The First Sergeant Blues – From the Green Notebook

Despite a deeply instilled fear of interacting with senior enlisted from my days as a junior enlisted soldier, I always make it a point to seek them out in my organization to get feedback before making a decision – especially, but not exclusively – when it comes to personnel. The advice is almost always spot-on, and usually leads to taking a course of action different from what I had originally intended.

My office floor is littered with good ideas rightfully shot to shreds by much wiser NCOs.

In the few instances where I’ve been witness to an officer choosing not to heed the advice of a senior enlisted advisor (at any echelon), it always went badly. That experience, earned over time (and often from seeing the same thing over and over) is invaluable.

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Nothing frightens me more than crossing Range Operations

Soldiers pick up brass 7.62 mm shell casings after a qualification range event on Camp Atterbury, Ind., Nov. 6, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret (link)

You’re a company commander. You spent the entire year training your company on their mission essential tasks. You developed, wrote, and published a solid unit training plan that methodically trained the inidividual and collective tasks of everyone in the unit.

You’re nearing the end of your command and it’s time for the big event – the culminating exercise that you’ve been working towards. The one you’ve been telling everyone about. The one who naysayers laughed off as too complex. You have enablers and units participating from outside of your organization. You invited your leadership (and their leadership) to observe and provide guidance.

It’s all perfect.

You get out there, you’re on the ground, and things seem to be happening. You occupy the land, tents and antenna are going up, soldiers are laughing and working – spirits are up and everything is coming together.

You suddenly get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Did we tell range control about this? Did we reserve this land?

You shake it off. The enthusiasm of the soldiers is evident. They’re excited for the training. Some of the external enablers start showing up and shake your hand with a big grin, excited to be part of this training.

You check the map. Are we even in a training area?

Is this… a golf course?

You realize that none of this has been done the right way. Somehow, you forgot to reserve the training area (typically done at least three months out) or coordinate with range operations to occupy and conduct training.

You wonder, should I tell anyone? The soldiers look so enthusiastic. How embarressing would it be to tell everyone that you messed up and we have to pack it up and go home. Should you even call range control? You’re supposed to be out here for a week.

Maybe no one will notice?

This isn’t real. This was a stupid nightmare I had the other night. 

Training anywhere is mired in administrative minutiae – mostly for good reason – safety and scheduling. It is very easy to miss a key requirement which could tank a training plan.

There’s something about being exposed to administrative heat and light over time that can make you intrinsically fearful of that wrath. More so than anything “real.”

Advice I’ve always lived by is “the fastest way through a dense bureaucracy is directly through it.” That is, don’t try to find the short cut or go around it. Just do the work right and do it early. It’s (usually) faster.

The stress of administrative mistakes is a real thing. Maybe it’s related to high allostatic load.

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The Military and Conspiracy Theories

Good write up on the military and conspiracy thinking at War on the Rocks.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is appealing to some servicemembers because its powerful narrative appeals to the same moral foundations which draw them to military service: care for others; sanctity of ideals; respect for authority; and the primacy of fairness, liberty, and loyalty.

Conspiracy Stand Down: How Extremist Theories Like QAnon Threaten the Military and What to Do About It – War on the Rocks

This is something I’ve written about before. The same base material that works to compel someone to join the military can be stirred towards conspiracy thinking – especially if one starts to become cynical.

The author points to another WOTR piece that calls for more mandatory training to “inoculate” the troops. While more mandatory training doesn’t ever seem like a good answer, this is probably going to need to happen. As ineffective and grating as annual training can be, the stuff does seem to stick over time. Most folks I know have gotten pretty good at rattling off the indicators of an insider threat.

Better, I thought, was the author’s call for more civic education. This problem is way beyond the scope of the military.

Maybe this isn’t the best example, but if we can ask school children to hide under their desks at the threat of nuclear war or rehearse school shooting scenarios, some modicum of media literacy training should be doable.

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A few thoughts on cynicism

I recently lamented on not having read the piece on SOF cynicism sooner.

From Small Wars Journal:

After 20 years of teaching SOF O3s and O4s at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), what struck me hardest was that students weren’t just willing to openly acknowledge that they were cynical, but their cynicism didn’t seem to faze them.  Instead, they were quite accepting of it. 

CYNICISM: A brief look at a troubling topic | Small Wars Journal

There are articles that show up in Small Wars Journal from time to time that strike a chord. They’re a slow burn, seeping through the force. This happened much more frequently a decade ago when we were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intelligent and dedicated men and women were looking for a way – any way – to win.

There’s so much more content out there these days – great articles can easily be over-looked or lost.

The SOF cynicsm article was posted in the middle of February, and as readers of my newsletter will know, I was otherwise occupied, so I initially missed this.

I finally read it over the weekend and was thoroughly pleased. It captures, I think, a real trend – a growing cynicism, especially among SOF officers making the move into the field grade ranks.

It is something I’ve noticed, and tried my best not to fall victim to. Until I read the article, I chalked up most of the cynicism to generational differences. And I still think that may be the case, but not so much due to just age – but to military experiences.

The thing that strikes me, though, is that the author shows a lot of data for even more senior officers (O5 and above) demonstrating a similar cynicism.

I don’t have too much to add to the piece – the author does a good job weaving experience and data together and laying it out in a compelling way.

However, I was struck by the cross-over between cynicism and toxic mentorship.

What is stoking this cynicism?

If, meanwhile, you were to ask defense intellectuals and others familiar with the military for their take on what has stoked cynicism recently, most would likely cite: the ‘forever’ nature of today’s wars; the lack of consistent policy; the lack of an overall strategy; the ground hog day nature of deployments; and/or time away from family.  I do not want to minimize any of these, since they have been among officers’ concerns, too, but I would now say that what overarches everything else is loss of faith in senior leaders.  Senior leaders’ inability to change – or to seem to want to change – how (and for whom) systems internal to the military work is corrosively demoralizing.

First, it is always easy to blame the “forever wars” on whatever administrative “garrison” problem we face. This same thing happened in the late 2000s as the Army was studying what was causing the rise in military suicides. The common line and working hypothesis was that it must be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all of the trauma and separation that comes with repeat deployments. The studies, however, showed a different picture. The majority of suicides (that were included in the study) were from soldiers who had never deployed or had a single deployment. Despite the data, this myth persists. And in fairness, one of the findings was that “perhaps it’s not being deployed so much as being in a war during a high-stress period.” That is, being in the military during the “forever wars” might be the grinder – not so much the deployments.

I commend the author for not falling for that old myth and going deeper. The crux of her article is precisely that – it may be the unique and ever-present demands on SOF that drives some of this cynicism.

“Isn’t cynicism being a realist?”

A response from an interviewed officer

No. Perhaps the most grating thing about modern cynicism is couching it as some kind of elevated expertise.

“There is no measure of accuracy for what is reported.” To which someone added, “maybe that’s why it is called a storyboard.”

A short back and forth on “metrics”

I loved the portion of the essay that featured snippets from interviews. I feel like I’m in that room, where one officer is lamenting at the seeming absurdity and inaccuracy of the modern storyboard, a snapshot of an event or mission that is often used to inform higher headquarters of what is going on. The other officer snaps back with a snarky – but true – reply. It’s easy to grow cynical about storyboards – and any military reporting, really. There’s a purpose for most of the things that are done, and part of the problem is a growing belief – as inidicated through the article – that those that are closer to the fight always know better than higher headquarters. See below.

In fact, as one widely revered (now retired) O6 and former CJSOTF commander put it: “As COs we’re allowed to push just beyond the bounds, but we’re not given the trust to push those bounds and reconfigure the strategy on the ground.”  Yet, he wondered, who was better positioned to understand what was required on the ground than someone who was on his fifth or sixth deployment, someone who has been interacting with the same local, regional, and now national leaders for years?

We’ve fallen for that folly before. Experience is important, but it is often mistaken for expertise. And in a culture that lionizes experience – especially combat experience – that can be dangerous.

I love this section below on what the author calls “happy warriors.”

‘Happy Warriors’ is my term for those who loyally help keep the system functioning.  Happy Warriors are individuals who may be cynical, but don’t feel disaffected enough to exit.  They include many O6s who are genuinely grateful to have made it as high as O6.  Maybe getting to be a company or battalion commander sufficed; maybe something happened along the way to make rising above O6 impossible; alternatively, other priorities (e.g. family) might have surfaced midway through someone’s career.  Regardless, all Happy Warriors (as I am using the term) remain dedicated patriots.  They are smart, highly capable problem-solvers, and while they haven’t lost their competitive edge, they just aren’t as driven to have to (still) be #1 as others are.  Two other features that distinguish Happy Warriors are that few seem to fall into the trap of regarding themselves as strategic thinkers or visionaries when they are not, and most prize loyalty.  Sometimes they are overly loyal to their bosses; more often their allegiance is to the enterprise.

If I had to, I’d count myself among these “happy warriors.” Without question, serving in the military over these past two decades prompts a lot of reflection. The advice I give to others (and myself), is you have to enjoy the life and the lifestyle, otherwise, you may find yourself growing very, very cynical. See the numerous references to “luck and timing” as well as this choice quote: “the system doesn’t care; it’ll keep using you until you’re all used up.”

As for solutions, there isn’t much offered other than better leadership. Talent management is mentioned, and I do think this will help move the dial. There is a role here also for self-awareness. My take is that a lof of the folks who were attracted to SOF in the first place want to believe that their personal contribution is or can be special/unique – and it can. But, it’s still the Army. And every individual is part of something bigger. That gets forgotten or lost somewhere, and contributes to this cynicism.

I’ve skipped a whole section on careerism and the drive to “make it.” That part makes up the crux of the author’s argument, and a lot of it isn’t wrong. It’s not very different though from what you would see in other parts of the Army or just standard careerism.

These are strange times, and cynicism is a simple defense mechanism folks can employ to get themselves through the day. While it can be discouraging to be around (it is), I’m not convinced that it means too much more than that. That is, I’m not sure most cynical officers would allow that cynicism to bleed over into anything of consequence (like carrying out orders). I could be wrong, but this may just be a passing trend.

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