Colin Powell

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

Most people know Colin Powell as one of the TV generals during the Persian Gulf War. Or an ever-present military official in the highest circles of power. Or the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who gave a speech at the United Nations that would bookend his legacy.

I knew that guy too. A soldier who loved the operational Army but kept finding himself back in the White House. Duty called, and he was good at it.

But what many people don’t know is how dedicated Colin Powell was to his alma mater, the City College of New York (CCNY) – the “Harvard on the Hudson.”

One of the main reasons I chose to go to City College was Colin Powell. He helped establish a new center there that fostered leadership training and provided scholarships for students. I was fresh out of the Army and wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I met General Powell was at an event at CCNY. He was on campus to announce a donation to the college that would pay for the ‘unmet needs’ of student veterans. It was also an opportunity for Powell to get in the media and discuss his thoughts on the burgeoning “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There was a debate in Washington at the time over how a new GI Bill might affect retention. My role was to give a short speech on ‘what it’s like’ being a student veteran. Colin Powell would introduce me.

Before the event, a quick meeting was arranged between the speakers in a backroom. As I walked in, I saw General Powell, reading over news articles online discussing the debate. He was on. He was working. Somebody mentioned the retention issue. Powell dismissed it, loudly, as nonsense.

He knew he had an important role to play. He understood that he had the power to move the debate, to move the dial. Well placed words and we’re that much closer.

He greeted me by speaking my name loudly like we had known each other forever. This is the first time we met. He seemed to know me. We talked about the Army. We talked about the 82nd Airborne Division. We talked about Iraq.

Minutes later, we were in the hall giving speeches.

He talked about City College. He talked about education. He thanked the donor.

And then he made a sharp statement about the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing crazy, just expressing how he believed the retention issue would not be an issue at all.

Camera flashes and scribbled notes in pads.

Those words became the headlines the next day. He moved the dial.

Then I got up to give my short speech.

The thing I remember most about that speech is how General Powell watched. He was interested in what I had to say. And when I made a dry joke about not being able to put words together with more than two syllables (due to being an infantryman), he laughed loudly.

He was still a soldier.

But what I saw in action was something akin to magic. An innate sense of the local, the foreign, and the temperature in Washington – all at once. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. This was an ability that came through hard work and experience. From City College to the Army to Vietnam to Washington.

A temperance forged over time.

I saw it again, years later, at the ceremony that welcomed ROTC back to City College after being booted from campus over forty years prior.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.”

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

But he wasn’t done. Had he just delivered the line he needed, the one that puts everyone at ease, he would have done his duty.

He went on:

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it.

It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

He could “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

And he had an incredible ability to boil down a thing to its most basic and recognizable concept – one that appealed to everyone. And then deliver a sentence or a line or an idea that makes headlines the next day.

It’s an incredible ability and one that could easily be taken advantage of.

It’s nearly impossible to make it through a career as storied as Powell’s and come out unscarred.

He almost did it.

And unlike so many these days, he wasn’t “unapologetic” about it in some odd pantomime of toughness. He took actions, he reflected and thought critically about them, and when convinced, changed his mind.

He was constantly growing. He was willing to grow.

His death is a true loss. But his life and example is one that will inspire men and women inside and out of the military for generations.

“It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

General Colin Powell

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Read dot Army

I love RSS feeds. I was an early adopter of Google Reader (RIP). RSS feeds makes it easy to collect the websites you love and see new articles without having to “go” to each website to check.

When Google Reader died, I move and settled on feedly – which I still use today. It’s a great platform!

I can’t be certain, but I’m willing to bet folks who still use RSS readers are in a minority.

It’s for that reason I was pleased to see read.army emerge (curated by a friend of CTG).

It’s basically a very simple aggregation site that pulls in the sources that most of us read anyway.

A good tab to keep open in your browser.

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The Culture Episode

A screengrab from one of the military’s many cultural training programs.

“I’m so sick of this squishy culture shit.”

From MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: REBUILDING CULTURAL CAPABILITIES – AGAIN

I enjoyed this episode from the War Room podcast on the rise and decline (and rise and decline) of military cultural education programs.

The guests discuss their book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20 (available as a free PDF download) from Marine Corps University Press.

The importance of culture ebbs and flows in the US military, right alongside our foreign military operations, not surprisingly. We go into a place, we lack a nuanced understanding of it, and senior military leaders bang their fists on the table demanding we produce a cadre of our own “Lawrences of Arabia.”

From there, the services begin finding ways to train the force on culture – a squishy topic, to be sure.

I can’t lie – my own academic interests were spurred by my personal inability to communicate or fully understand the people and culture of Iraq.

“If only I could communicate,” I thought…

The authors make a distinction between language training and culture. Language training has been a part of military training (for specific jobs) for decades. But it is more of a technical skill than a holistic something else that cultural training is or should be,

And that is where much of the struggle with cultural training comes into play. How do we measure or assess the effectiveness of such programs?

“That kind of a financial investment [assessment on par with language training] has never been made in cultural skills, of even a fraction of the investment has never been made in cultural skills. So, we still don’t have really good, validated tools to assess the cultural skills of military personnel, even after the number of years of these cultural training programs, assessing the learning outcomes, was never really received the kind of investment that it needed to be able to demonstrate those quantitative outcomes to the same degree that you have with language.”

Allison Abbe

Measuring this stuff is hard, and even if done to some degree, is going to be imprecise.

Many military leaders have an almost monastic devotion to “measures of effectiveness” – perhaps a result of decades of being told to read business books for good ideas on fighting wars.

Followers of the blog will know that I have an against the grain take on measures of effectiveness – especially if you read the last newsletter. Often, they get in the way of achieving actual results in lieu of just doing something we can measure.

My take – good cultural training will result in taking fewer “L’s” on the battlefield and avoiding silly own-goals. But we are highly unlikely to see a “big win” as a result of cultural training. The best you can hope for – I think – is praise from partners or enhanced relations over time. Not very exciting, really.

But preventing those losses can actually lead to victory.

This has to do with the “strategic corporal.” As a senior leader lamented to me back in 2011 – “The problem with the strategic corporal is that it doesn’t work in the positive, it only works in the negative.” What he meant, was that the strategic corporal is usually only strategic when he or she makes a mistake. And this is almost always tied to a cultural faux-pas.

And yes, it can also be a strategic lieutenant, captain, command sergeant major, or general.

As someone who is deeply invested in language learning and culture – I honestly do think this is important. We should spend time and energy understanding one another. Especially if we’re showing up with guns.

However, I think that the most important cross-cultural skill is simple respect. It translates everywhere and is tried and true. It’s easily understood and we can practice it daily.

Lastly, this episode focuses mostly on “big picture” cultural programs designed to train conventional forces. The special operations community has maintained (and continues to grow) its language and cultural programs, although focused on a much smaller population.

The authors’ key takeaway is that when we inevitably return to re-establishing cultural education programs, we ought to take a hard look at our recent (and not so recent) past before we start building the CONOP.

One-hundred percent agree.

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Lumpers and Splitters

Good episode from the Cognitive Crucible featuring Mike Vickers.

During this episode, the Honorable Dr. Mike Vickers provides his thoughts on a wide range of strategic issues–all of which have connections with the information environment. Mike makes the case that America is like the cyclops in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Like the cyclops, the United States is being blinded and deceived by clever adversaries. Mike also discusses China, India, Estonian technology implementation, the authoritarian-democracy trade off, and international relations theory. He also gives a nuanced examination regarding “whole-of-nation” sloganeering. On one hand, Mike discourages simple phrases that might promote inadequate solutions; on the other, he does agree that we are at a point where we need to cohere around a national strategy and direct our instruments of power productively–including our citizenry.

#63 VICKERS ON IO AND THE CYCLOPS

As I wrote about in my most recent newsletter, there are a lot of hucksters out there when it comes to the information space. Just because you use the internet (too) doesn’t mean you understand how all of this stuff works. It’s great to hear an episode (like this one) where it is clear the guest completely gets it.

I especially enjoyed Mr. Vickers punctuating the fact that there is a difference between “cyber” and “information operations.” He correctly points out that many people – commanders especially (my thoughts, not his) – tend to lump these two things together.

And they are not the same.

Cyber is more tech-based.

Information operations are more people-based.

Sometimes it is good to “lump” things together, as we seem to be doing right now with the whole “information advantage” concept.

Sometimes it is better to “split” things apart.

On this topic (cyber/IO), we should be splitting, because the expertise required to do either is vastly different.

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That E-5 Work Ethic

As the saying goes, the rifle team leader is the hardest working person in the Army.

It’s a nod to the fact that the rifle team leader is always moving, never satisfied.

The rifle team leader is a fighting leader.

The rifle team leader does.

This isn’t to take away from other levels of leadership, it’s just a fact.

It is where the rubber meets the road.

There is something to be said for the E-5 work ethic. It’s powerful. And it’s not something that should be discarded when you make rank and move into managing personnel or teams.

Don’t get lazy.

Even if you were never enlisted, it is something to aspire to.

Get up and move. Fight your war.

Put in the work.

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Subversive Chants

I love this recent episode of the Bulaq podcast which discusses the politics of Arab football chants.

Football and Arabic literature haven’t always had an easy relationship. Football has inspired famous authors like Mahmoud Darwish, and anonymous fans who have composed powerful stadium chants. But the sport is sometimes looked down on by writers. We celebrate the sport and its chroniclers, featured in the FOOTBALL-themed fall 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

Football Writing: The Passion and the Provocation

This episode is a companion to the Fall 2021 issue of Arab-Lit Quarterly, which is on football writing in the Arab world.

There’s something that happens when you get thousands of people together united behind a common cause.

There’s a reason regimes everywhere are terrified of crowds. Add to that the passion of a chant and things can quickly get out of hand.

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“Doing” email is the illusion of work

This post isn’t actually about email. It’s about learning.

But one of the things I learned a long time ago is that email isn’t work.

It’s the illusion of work.

You read email. You sort email. You delete email. You write email. You send email.

It feels like work. But it’s actually close to the equivalent of shuffling papers around on a desk. It’s moving information.

It feels good to clear out the inbox. It is relatively easy and it is something we can see.

But it is rarely someone’s job to manage an inbox. More likely than not, your job has nothing to do with email. Yet it is where we spend a whole lot of time, convincing ourselves this is what it is all about.

I’ve been feeling this way lately when it comes to learning. As life gets busier, it is easy to just keep tweaking productivity systems to expand your personal bandwidth and squeeze out just a tiny bit more productivity.

Task lists, calendars, timers. It’s all good. It helps.

But, there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much attention. Where is the learning coming from? Are we still learning?

This reflection comes partly from listening to a recent podcast where the guest spoke about the need to further retool his schedule to ensure there is built-in time for learning.

And by learning, I don’t mean reading and sharing articles or listening to podcasts.

I’m talking about dedicated study. Intense reading. Practicing skills. The things that you cannot do in “moments in-between.”

If you read this morning’s newsletter, you know this is on my mind. I haven’t figured it out yet. My hunch is that if we think just because we’re doing okay and can continue to grind that this means we are still growing, we’re wrong.

In the same way that losing weight and keeping weight off becomes more challenging as we age, I think there is a related challenge when it comes to learning and growth.

If we really want to learn and grow, we have to challenge our own assumptions about what is still important. What can we move to open up a dedicated hour a day to just reading? Or language study? Or coding? Or an instrument?

Reading and listening to “stuff” – even good stuff – is the illusion of learning. It’s good, but it is no replacement for the deep work required to actually improve.

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

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The Information Operations Episode

I’ll be honest.

I didn’t want to like this episode. I was hoping there would be something in there that just turned me off completely or gave me an opportunity to stand on my soapbox and rant.

When information can travel globally at the tap of a finger, irregular warfare professionals must contend with an ever-changing environment. How does strategic messaging tie into operations on the battlefield? How can we build a more information-savvy force? And how can information act as both weapon and warfighting space?

INFORMATION OPERATIONS FOR THE INFORMATION AGE: IO IN IRREGULAR WARFARE, Irregular Warfare Podcast

Too bad.

It was a great episode and it’s clear the guests Dr. Rafi Cohen and Brent Colburn know what they’re talking about.

They didn’t sing the praises of information warfare as a panacea to all of our problems.

Nor did they cast it aside as a silly distraction.

If you’re interested in information warfare, where it’s currently at, and where it might be going, this episode is worth the listen.

You might also want to consider signing up for the CTG newsletter. The next one goes out tomorrow and it is on this very topic.

There were so many great discussion points in this episode, but the below are the ones that stood out to me.

  • We blame DoD for being poor at responding when this is often way outside of their lane. I’ve seen this over and over again. Some adversarial spokesperson says something that gets picked up and amplified. The response (in DoD circles) is often “how are we countering this?” Well, the answer might have to be – “we’re not.” It may be something way outside the lane of DoD. I’ve been in situations where the person asking me this question is the actual person who has the power and authority to “do” the countering – they often don’t realize it.
  • No one (that we care about) is reading that press release or article in the New York Times. Just because it’s hot in the United States does not mean it’s hot somewhere overseas. In fact, it’s probably a non-story.
  • DoD information warfare is inherently tactical. Before anything else, these efforts should be focused on achieving battlefield effects. How many enemy soldiers surrendered? How many civilians moved to safety? There is a role at the operational strategic level, sure. But that is the realm of political warfare. 
  • Reinforcing beliefs is easier than changing them. It’s really not even worth the effort.
  • Firehose of falsehoods. I never heard this term before. But it refers to just spouting lies all over the place. This is something that our adversaries do. It’s a tactic, sure. But as the guests say, it ultimately fails. It’s flashy. It’s messy. But it’s not what we do. Truth is our best tactic. (Update: here is a link to a RAND paper on the “Firehose of Falsehoods” Russian propaganda model)
  • Mission Command. Yes! They discussed that our biggest problem is we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish. Readers of this blog will know that this is Matt Armstrong’s thesis.
  • We need to further professionalize. Yes, agree. Beyond PSYOP. When commanders look at the IW professional in the room, there is an expectation of expertise. This comes in many domains. We need to keep professionalizing. This is a bigger topic, but this professional really needs to be a lot of things. Language. Culture. Media. Psychology. Political-acumen. It’s that important.
  • The importance of language and culture. “We need to be able to do all of this simultaneously in multiple different languages.” Yes, agreed. You know who does that really well?
  • The age of secrecy is over. I’m so glad that they made this a point. Whatever it is we’re up to is going to become public knoweldge. There is no way we’re going to keep everything a secret. It’s going to become public. Recognize it, plan for it, and move on.
  • “Black hole” words. We’re full of them. Buzzy words that are devoid of meaning – “strategic communications.”
  • It’s not about the tweets. It’s not about the platform.  
    “The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer-oriented.”
  • Authorities need a revamp. The space moves fast. Push the approval authority down lower. How low? Well, how low can you go?

They ended the episode with this warning: “Don’t trust anyone who says they have this space figured out.

This reminds me of something I once heard about advanced education.

“What did you learn in graduate school?”

I learned how much I don’t know.”

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How low can you go?

I was pleased to see this short article on the need to empower “low-level commanders” to counter information operations.

It leads off which that oft-repeated mantra “we’re getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

“I think we’re getting, and I’m on the record, I think we’re getting our rear end handed to us in the information space because we’re so risk-averse in the environment that we operate in today,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck said yesterday, during a presentation with the Air Force Association.

I actually don’t think that is true (that we’re getting our asses kicked). I think it’s much more complicated than that. Which information environment? Billboards in X Middle Eastern country? Facebook in India? The nightly news in the US? The front page of the New York Times?

When you are the United States, there is going to be bad press. That can make it “feel” like we’re losing.

But when you look at things from the other perspective, we’re actually a behemoth.

Beyond that, the article discusses the need to push the authority to “do things” in the information environment lower.

“I think we need to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “I think, right now, we should change the paradigm [for] the way we do information operations.”

100% agree. Push it down lower. Give left and right limits. Accept risk

“That is a very slow process, and in the environment we’re operating in right now … in about 12 hours to 24 hours in the information space, you’re irrelevant. It has moved on,” he said. “I believe we need to flip that paradigm and push down, use mission command — the lanes in the road, the rules of the road — and allow commanders of the lower level to be able to execute within the mission environment that we’re operating in to be more effective in real time.”

Yes. I really do think that senior leaders get it. They know that things need to change.

How low should we go?

I think we should go pretty darn low.

Validate teams who are trained and educated, give them left and right limits, and let them go.

When they mess up, back them up.

Until we start embracing failure in the IE (instead of waiting for the perfect alignment of words and images), we will continue to “feel” like we are getting our asses kicked.

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Cecil became a Paladin!

I like to think that making the switch from company-grade officer to field-grade officer is like when Cecil went from Dark Knight to Paladin.

You gained lots of experience as a Dark Knight and you actually became pretty good.

It was comfortable.

But in order to really matter, you have to reset the stats and start from Level 1.

There are new skills to learn. What you did before can inform your growth, but it’s a new journey.

Better start grinding.

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