“You’re not going to feel great.”

I’m really enjoying the Irregular Warfare podcast.

Their latest episode on Security Force Assistance was really good. And if you’re someone who has been on that kind of mission, there are a lot of one-liners that you will identify with.

The episode featured Dr. Mara Karlin (Director, Strategic Studies Program and John Hopkins) who recently wrote a book on security force assistance in fragile states, and Brigader General Scott Jackson (Commanding General, Security Force Assistance Command).

On what some of Dr. Karlin’s specific findings were in her research on security force assistance and when the US had done a good job at it:

“State building endeavours are political exercises. There is often this idea that we should be distanced from political dynamics in working with partner militaries. And effectively, I found that that’s just a waste of time and effort and resources. In fact it’s fundamentally flawed. When we were really able to transform militaries in fragile states it was because we were getting involved in all sorts of sensitive issues, like ‘what’s the military’s mission, what’s it’s organizational structure, who are it’s key leaders.'”

Dr. Mara Karlin, Director, Strategic Studies Program at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (~24:00)

This is what drives commanders nuts when it comes to security force assistance. Emphasis mine:

Very rarely is it a third party or a proxy military force pushing back, although that does happen in certain areas, but where we’re really seeing the push back is where big third party nation states are starting to twist the screws on the economic side of the house or the informational side of the house or proxy IO efforts, information warfare efforts against our security force assistance efforts that are inherently good, right, and it’s all positive, right, and then through third party information operations you turn it into a negative, leveraging host nation sensitivities or long-standing ethnic faults. So it’s definitely gotten more complicated and the third party is I think… is one of the biggest problems we need to worry about.

Brigadier General Scott Jackson, Commanding General, Security Force Assistance Command (~27:00)

Yup.

Finally, here is the line that led me to writing about this today because it resonated deeply and it is rare that I’ve heard it spoken. On key implications for enacting good security force assistance:

“Just accepting that you are going to need to get involved in things you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Dr. Mara Karlin, Director, Strategic Studies Program at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (~48:10)

I would add that this applies at both a personal level (operating outside of your normal expertise or areas that feel icky) as well as the organizational level (“hey sir, we aren’t trained/designed/equipped for this”).

Fantastic episode and worth the time.

The Practice and Politics of Security Force Assistance

Unit Training Management: A primer for Company Leaders

I wrote this with my old First Sergeant over the past year. If you want to train your Company to standard this might be a good place to start.

A step-by-step guide to develop a Unit Training Plan for a Company based on Army doctrine.

From the intro:

Last year, we served as a Company Command team of a Psychological Operations Headquarters and Support Company in a “Regional” Psychological Operations Battalion aligned to the Central Command area of responsibility – an extremely niche unit. As a new Company Commander with a background mostly in infantry units and a First Sergeant with similar experiences, we faced a steep learning curve in understanding what UTM is, why it matters, and how to implement it. Together, we educated ourselves on the program, attended training when possible, met with subject matter experts at TRADOC to build understanding, and engaged in self-development by devouring all that we could on the subject. As a result, we developed a Unit Training Plan (UTP) that included valuable input from junior and senior leaders within the Company, trained against our METs, and were objectively assessed in accordance with the current training and evaluation outlines (TE&O). 

Unit Training Management – A Primer for Company Leaders – Center for Junior Officers

Leadership through Group Text

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

One of the first things I noticed upon re-joining the Army a few years ago, besides the proliferation of hand sanitizer, was how widespread smartphone use had become. For good or for ill, they are here. The ire of Commanders and NCOs everywhere is soldiers sitting around the company area, drumming away on their smartphones.

And like other industries, the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone means that there is an expectation that you can be contacted at just about any time. Add to this the fact that in the Army “you’re a soldier 24 hours a day,” and there is now a built in expectation to be completely reachable through the marriage of duty and technology.

There is so much that can be written about smartphones, connectivity, and the expectations therein as they relate to the military, but I wanted to address the prevalence of the group text message as a means of putting out information.

In the pre-smartphone era, vital information would either be put out in a meeting and subsequently disseminated or there would be a final formation that would set the conditions for the next day. If a leader wanted to make changes to the plan after that time, it would have to be done through a phone chain, which was tedious and painful. Therefore, leaders were generally less likely to change things on the fly because of a late night good idea.

Today, you can check your weather app, see it’s going to be colder than you thought tomorrow and just send a group text out at 2045 and expect everyone to be wearing full winter PTs the next morning.

“I didn’t get the text.”

Leaders used to be extra sure everyone understood the expectations for the next day, which forced a deliberate thought process that allowed for contingencies. Now, the fact that we have the ability to instantaneously broadcast orders and intent allows us more flexibility – which is a good thing, kind of. We don’t have to go through that deliberate thought process – which frees us up to do other things, whatever those things may be.

The power to send group texts makes the rapid dissemination of information possible, where a face-to-face meeting was once required.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Didn’t you get my text?”

Simply sending a group text message, though, does not guarentee the message was received. We’re still figuring it out, and etiquette and norms have yet to be developed. To me, it seems a good general rule to send an acknowledgement that you have read, digested, and will comply with a message, whether it comes over the radio, email, or group text.

The fact that the smartphone occupies the same space that look at memes and play games as well as put out “mission-type orders” makes the medium feel not as serious. This is why you might get a message like “where r u” from an NCO at a random time, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Smartphones aren’t going away, so it’s a matter of finding ways to better use them in a way that makes sense. But if you’ve ever had to suffer through an Army group text argument, usually late at night, on a weekend, likely fueled by alcohol, then you will question whether they are truly worth it.

CTG Link Drop 11/13/20

Is Iraq’s Military Good Enough for US Troops to Leave?:

Of course, no one wants to give a definitive answer on this.

The Iraqis have also done a better job integrating their conventional ground units with their special operations forces, officials said. Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, or CTS, forces were long seen as more professional and capable than their regular military. Officials have differing explanations as to why, but one is that the special operations forces were able to maintain a training relationship with the U.S. embassy even in the years when the U.S. military had pulled out of Iraq. In recent months, the defense official said, the Iraqi military has been able to use counterterrorism forces to keep pressure on a terror network while the Army is maneuvering elsewhere.

Defense One

Be a Schedule Builder, Not a To-Do List Maker

TL;DR: To-do lists are fine, as long as you actually schedule when you’re going to accompish those tasks.

Faced with the constant dissonance between what we’ve promised to do and what we actually accomplish, we begin to see ourselves as the problem. We stop asking whether our time management system is no good and start to believe, “Maybe I am no good.”

Nir and Far

The Ghost of Iraq

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

Leadership: Be Ready on Day One

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

One of the hardest parts about assuming a leadership position in the military is realizing that no one is waiting for you, and really, no one cares. To you, it feels like things have been building towards that moment, and really, they have.

For you.

Training, self-development, “rowing,”: finally getting to step in front of soldiers is the end of a long process of getting there.

For you.

For them, things have been going for a long time. They’re really not that interested in how big a deal this is for you, other than wondering whether things will get better (if they’re bad) or if things will get worse (if they’re good).

On top of that, it’s likely that you, as the smart new leader, already have a plan for how you’re going to lead. Maybe the plan is to show up and assert dominance through a gut-checking speed run. Or maybe you plan on staying silent and in the background, quietly observing how things run before making any significant changes.

Likely, no matter the plan, there’s this feeling that this is the beginning, a fresh start.

For you.

For them, it’s just another day. They might be worn out, just coming off of a deployment or an NTC rotation. They might have been sucking on red cycle, doing laborious details for months. Or they might be relatively fresh, having just come off of leave.

Either way, it’s not a brand new start. There’s a vibe that courses through the unit that is informed by the recent and not-so-recent past, significant events, personalities, ass-chewings, and loads of other inputs that you are likely completely unaware of.

Even knowing that, which you do because you’re a smart new leader, it will still feel like the beginning. You’ll get there and begin executing your plan.

In the combat arms, this would ideally look like a settling in period where you gauge the unit and get to know people, followed by a train up period where you slowly get them where you want them to be, and then the unit “peaks” just at the same time as you get on the plane for a combat deployment. You go on the deployment, win the war, and then come back home, go on leave, and transition out. Very neat, very perfect.

As it happens, the universe is conspiring against you, and something will invariably get in the way of the grand plan. It could be your commander, a subordinate, a family member, a death, a suicide, infidelity, a no-notice deployment – the lists goes on.

The point is, you have to be ready to be the man on day one. The hardest decision you make during your time as leader might be in the first month, or week, or day. It can be terribly infuriating to have something interfere with the plan – YOUR plan.

But without question, something will absolutely get in the way of the things you want to do and accomplish. It’s just a matter of when. And like I said, there is a pulse that runs through the unit that has been there long before you and it continues to beat, even as you sit in the commander’s chair plotting the grand scheme. The only variable is when the big event will happen. Will the decisive point be right where you want it, when your feet are firmly planted and you fully understand what you’re dealing with. Or will it be when you first arrive and have no idea what the hell is going on, knocking you off of your feet?

You don’t really get much of a say. But you have a responsibility to be ready and own it, whatever it is and whenever it may come.

What is it like to quit social media?

I completely dropped social media four years ago. Deleted Facebook. Deleted Twitter. Shut down the blog.

I was a power user. I cultivated an online presence. (It felt like) people wanted to hear what I had to say.

And then I decided to pull the plug. 100%, full stop.

I was ready for the fallout. I was ready for the text messages and phone calls. “What happened?” “Are you ok?”

Instead, what I got was silence.

It kind of reminded me of the scene in Bettlejuice, after the Maitlands try to frighten the Deetzes at the dinner party by having them sing and dance to “The Banana Boat Song.” Afterwards, they’re just looking out the window, waiting for the Deetzes to come rushing out.

“Any second now.”

With the exception of a handful of emails over the course of the first year, most folks didn’t seem to notice.

For the most part, pulling the plug meant more time, less distraction, and less frustration. Sure, there were opportunities I may have missed, people I failed to meet, and certainly interesting things I didn’t read as a result. But honestly, I enjoyed the break. Most people will admit that they feel locked into it at this point and they can’t escape.

Pulling the plug and taking some time allows us to reset the relationship.

The truth is, when it comes to social media and whether you’re on it or not, nobody really cares. The thing people notice most about social media is their own presence in it – not the lack of someone else’s.

It’s not going away, but you can choose how you participate.

By the way, if you’re curious about why I pulled the plug in the first place, sign up for my newsletter. I lay it out.