Reflection, the “basics,” and role modeling as mentorship: General Votel on FtGN podcast

My podcast diet is out of control. There’s so much good content and I add new podcasts to my “up next” list daily and mostly never get to them.

I have not listened to From the Green Notebook’s podcast until this morning. I’m a fan of General (Ret.) Votel, though, and when I saw that he was the interviewee for episode 1/season 2 of their podcast, I decided to give it a shot.

Great podcast with lots of insight! I like the duo approach to the interview and especially appreciated Joe’s questions – most of which bypassed thoughts on grand strategy or comments on current operations, but instead focused on “how” a leader like General Votel manages himself.

Those types of questions are often avoided when senior military leaders are interviewed.

I’ve captured some of the excerpts that resonated with me below.

On the importance of setting aside time for reflection:

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

They go on to talk about the importance of conversation and deep-dives as reflection.

This struck me, because I think when people hear the term “reflection” or building time to reflect – especially in a senior leader context, they envision the leader sitting along in his or her office, staring out the window and pondering the great questions of life.

I don’t know anyone who does that. Hearing General Votel couch reflection as a process of conversation, however, resonated with me. I know that I do my best reflection when I’m engaged in some other activity – exercise, free-wheeling conversation, or just watching a movie or playing a video game. Thoughts come to me and being away from the problem – whatever it is – provides the space for that reflection.

Discussing the similarities and differences of serving as the Commander of JSOC/SOCOM/CENTCOM:

“When it comes to leadership, the basics matter.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

This is so true.

Earlier in my career, a General officer I worked for was adamant that everything you need to know about serving in the Army you learn in your first three years – from there it’s just refinement. I believe that. Yes, there are skills that you pick up along the way that take time – but the things that matter – those basics – you learn them early. If you can learn them, reinforce them, and grow, that’s how you get really good.

Another great question from Joe:

“Sir, you mentioned when you were talking about your emotions, you talked about shock…. and as leaders, we don’t always get the news that we thought we were going to get, and we still have to lead through that. Thinking back on those days in December [Syria withdrawal decision], was there anything that you did inparticular, like go in an office and shut the door, or sit down and write something down in your notebook to collect your thoughts? You had to quickly get over that shock to lead throught it.”

Joe Byerly (emphasis mine)

I love that question. “What did you actually do?” Not in terms of the decision you made or grand plan that unfurled, but as a human, what did you do in response to that? We’re all human after all – even combatant commanders.

On role modeling (and observation) as mentorship:

“I have a tendency to think about mentorship not so much as just ‘mentorship,’ but I have a tendency to think of it as role modeling – ‘role modeling-ship’ for example. To me, that has been the most influential thing in my military career – is watching how other people have handled things and internalizing that.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

General Votel goes on to discuss how observing can teach you what to do and what not to do. True.

Towards the end (about 34:00 minute mark), Joe raises a great question about books or “scenes” that stick with you as a way to think about the military profession – especially as it relates to going to war. He goes on to talk about a scene from the book Gates of Fire that symbolizes leaving the family man behind as you go off to war and only bringing the military man – the one who can “kill another human being.”

It’s a great frame for a question, and it reminded me of these old CTG posts (going to the “dark place” and “why we fight.”)

And now I’m a subscriber!

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe there as well.

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.

Are our officers “Centurions?” Tactically proficient but strategically inept?

Roman Pic 14

Over the holiday break, I read two articles anchored to the Roman era to explain current issues with the modern military.

At Small Wars Journal, John Bolton writes in the Price of Professionalism that our All-Volunteer Force dangers the American republic through separating the soldier and the citizen.

Bolton writes:

“The AVF, by disconnecting the military from society, enabled a generation of American militarism, highlighted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since the AVF, American foreign policy has become overly militarized and simultaneously devoid of public consideration. These two factors are cancerous to the functioning of the American Republic. The AVF created a military unimaginable by the Founders and unfamiliar to its people.”

In the Autumn 2015 issue of Parameters, Jason Warren compares the (successful) modern Army officer to the Roman Centurion – a tactically proficient leader of a roughly company-sized group of soldiers. That is, our officer career path selects and promotes those officers who demonstrate tactical proficiency at the company level, without ever really developing or selecting those who show promise for strategic thinking.

The “centurion” model is one that is very easy to see inside of a Brigade-sized element, but once outside of the Brigade, it is precisely those officers who performed well at the tactical level who move on to strategic positions, often without the advanced education one would expect would be necessary to perform in those roles.

Warren writes:

Army promotion soon became linked to the command of standing units, the vast majority of which operated below the strategic level. This linkage contributes to the development of an astrategic officer corps, in which some officers may disbelieve military leaders have a role in formulating military strategy. 

And…

The tactical dominion eventually became king of the realm for post-Korean War promotion, which the training revolution elevated to the throne. Summer 2004 in Iraq found Casey upon a tide of sinking strategy and he believed the war was lost before Petraeus temporarily righted the ship. Petraeus’ surge of forces was but a current of success upon an ocean of failure. Petraeus’ preference for well-educated subordinates and officer broadening soon receded with his departure to the CIA, in an Army culture hostile to non-tactical endeavors.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety. Bolton’s article tackles a much larger issue and weaves around, while Warren’s article is much more focused on the promotion of “centurion”-like Army officers.

As an aside, I still find it odd and a little off-putting that we still lionize all things antiquity. Given our unhealthy obsession with Spartans which I think is now giving way to the Vikings, I would bet many officers nod approvingly at being associated with centurions, even though the purpose of the article was to point out how ultimately limiting that is.

Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies

269233_10100281334884626_713066802_n

I’ve been thinking about how to accurately communicate this for awhile now, and the best I can come up with is to be blunt:

The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

I’m not talking about the sometimes antagonistic ramblings of conservative or liberal veterans. I’m talking about the ones who go off the deep end, who jump over the White House fence to warn the President about the “atmosphere collapsing.” I’m talking about Navy veteran Chris Dorner and his wild manifesto. I’m talking about your war-buddies who casually call for the internment or genocide of all Muslims on social media. The ones who lash out at you or call you naive if you disagree with them that 9/11 was an inside job.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of my buddies – intelligent, good people – start drifting towards the dark edge of the internet. At first, this manifested itself innocently enough – angry rants about the civilian-military divide or the cheapening of modern culture and the indifference of the media towards things that matter. Over time, that morphed into links to “false flag” operations and whispered hints and giddiness at prepping for a coming inevitable revolution.

At first, I ignored it mostly, understanding that some people tend to gravitate towards conspiracy almost like a hobby. Growing up, it is fun to explore conspiracies like aliens at Roswell or the search for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

It hit home for me when a personal friend and combat veteran started drifting down that path. I spent years sporadically trying to convince him that he was not the “chosen one” to warn people of a coming apocalypse.

When I spoke with someone about my friend, they said what I was describing sounded a lot like the plot of the 2006 film BugWhen I finally got around to watching it, it felt like some of the dialogue was lifted right out of the mouths and Facebook postings of veteran friends. I wish the exchange below was available online, because it is delivered brilliantly in a manic, quickly strung together manner. In the scene, Peter, a war veteran who believes he is being tracked by the government, is explaining to Agnes what he believes is going on – this is his world:

Peter Evans: Listen! Listen! If you want to know what is going on, you have to listen to me! You have to! Because you don’t know the fucking ENORMITY of what we’re dealing with! Listen: May 29th, 1954, the consortium of bankers, industrialists, corporate CEO’s and politicians held a series of meetings over three days at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland… they drew up a plan for maintaining the “status quo.”

Agnes White: What’s that?

Peter Evans: It’s “the way things are” – it’s “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” They devised a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are. And they have continued to meet once a year, every year, since the original meeting. Look it up! Under their orders, the CIA had smuggled Nazi scientists into the States to work with the American military and Calspan, developing an inter-epidermal tracking microchip.

Agnes White: A what?

Peter Evans: It’s a surveillance tool. It’s a microchip that’s been implanted in the skin of every human being born on the planet since 1982. The test group for the prototype was the People’s Temple! And when the Reverend Jim Jones threatened to expose them, he and every member of his church were assassinated!

After it was revealed that the White House fence jumper was an Iraq War veteran and may be suffering from PTSD, the Minutemen quickly assembled and began to fire warnings off about linking PTSD to violence – in this case, jumping over the White House fence being considered a violent act. When it was revealed that Mr. Gonzalez was trying to warn the President about the “failing atmosphere” so he could “get the word out” my mind instantly raced back to friends I see posting links to off-the-wall blogs with 5,000 word diatribes about this or that conspiracy.

Last year, I posted about the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In that film, a group of Vietnam veterans believe they are being chased by demons. They become paranoid and only find solace in one another because together they are able to confirm the existence of the demons. While that film isn’t about conspiracy or even veterans per se (it’s a psychological horror) it captures some of the zeitgeist of what I think is going on in a small segment of the veteran community.

The stuff folks find online and take to believing becomes real when other veterans egg them on and agree (and click ‘like’) – a special few who “get it” while the rest of us remain brainwashed.

What really bothers me about this phenomenon is that it seems uncrackable. Anytime I’ve tried to intervene or explain I’ve been either lashed out at or dismissed as naive. I think there is an easy reaction to explain it all away as a function of mental illness, and while that may be the case for some, I’m not convinced that drifting towards conspiracy means someone is mentally ill. I’ve seen too many well-adjusted, successfully transitioning veterans slide in that direction.

The purpose of writing this is a hope that by acknowledging that “something is going on,” something can be done. I really don’t know what it is, but my hunch through experience is there is a link between military service and drifting towards conspiracy. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes military service so special – and what makes the transition to civilian so difficult – is the feeling of being important and the center of attention when you’re in the service. Once you get out, you really don’t matter much anymore (in a grand, geo-political way) and conspiracy is a way to keep you “in the game.”

From here, it’s left to the experts to figure out what is actually happening.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Damn it feels good to be a veteran

Forever War

Do you want to know why it feels so good to be a veteran, and why “it” is so addictive?

It’s because often times, you feel like you are at the center of the world. That feeling of being the “decisive operation” goes into overdrive while deployed, but even when you are just sitting at home, watching the news, it’s easy to get lost in yourself because you are a small part of this much bigger thing that gets a whole lot of attention.

Look at this past week’s big news stories. All of them are in the military sphere. Front page news:

On Tuesday, President Obama announced the troop numbers for Afghanistan post-2014, ending speculation over what would happen when this year came to a close.

On Wednesday, the President laid out his foreign policy agenda at West Point, which has serious implications for the men and women who serve to execute it.

On Thursday, the military portion of the internet exploded in response to comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow in which she compared receiving nasty internet comments to war (my response here).

On Friday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General (R) Eric Shinseki resigned after mounting criticism concerning recent VA scandals.

Then yesterday, it was announced that SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the only remaining prisoner of war from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was released in exchange for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.

All of these stories generated lots of hot air and conversation. Fodder for the media and blogging-heads (myself included). Sitting on the couch and tuning to the evening news, story after story is related to MY WORLD.

How can that not be addictive? All of these stories ruled the day, and in each of them, only a tiny number of Americans can actually say they are somehow involved or can relate to them.

It’s exciting. And I think that “center of attention” feeling is what makes getting out and transitioning to being “normal” so damn hard.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Some thoughts on Major Gant…

I’ve read a lot of good articles on MAJ Gant over the past couple of weeks, timed of course with the release of ‘American Spartan,’ a very indulgent title choice, I think.

Joseph Collins wrote a great, succinct review over at War On The Rocks. His last paragraph is the critical one. In it, I think he captures the story hidden behind the hyper-masculine Spartan shield that the book tries to portray (as I can only imagine – I haven’t read it yet).

When we ask ourselves why Major Gant fell from grace, we also have to look in the mirror.  The all-volunteer Armed Forces — active and reserve components — are not made for a decade of large-scale, protracted warfare.  That fact, however, did not and will not stop us from engaging in protracted warfare.  The U.S. Government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace.  On the jacket of Tyson’s book, Gunner Sepp, himself a former special operator, writes: “There are many stories here.  One of the most troubling is about what happens to elite troops after their country has kept them in combat for more than a decade.”  Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders.  It will also be a blockbuster movie that probably will not be as good as the book.

What happens when we ask young, patriotic, hard-charging Americans to go overseas to fight a war “predicated on being implemented by geniuses?” In MAJ Gant’s case, he goes and tries his best to win.

What comes back?

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

On bringing your girlfriend to war

Mary Anne Bell

I’ve been catching up the goings-on since I’ve been gone, and I came across a couple of stories on MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time’ (who I mentioned in Monday’s post). At the Huffington Post, an article by David Wood that chronicles the rise and fall of MAJ Gant. And over at War is Boring, David Axe hones in on the fact that MAJ Gant “brought his girlfriend to war.”

It’s one of those wacky stories that you can’t possibly believe is true, yet somehow, is.

It reminds me of the story of Mary Anne Bell, the peppy girlfriend who visits her boyfriend in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. Once there, she gets swept up with a team of Green Berets (hmm) who are co-located on the same camp. She starts going out on missions with the team and quickly becomes enamored with the war. Over time, she completely disappears.

For anyone who has served in a war zone, the idea of having a loved one come to visit is absurd. Yet, it’s only a plane ticket away.

Is bringing your girlfriend to war that strange, after all?

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Preparing for the ‘End of War’ in an era of uncertainty

2014 is a very strange year for the military. We’re still in Afghanistan, but whether we’ll be there past December is uncertain. Units are training and deploying, trying not to be distracted by the strategic level decision-making that actually has a direct impact on their and their families’ lives.

The recently proposed Defense budget will likely shrink the size of the military and could potentially reduce benefits of service, including cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing and Commissary subsidies. The upcoming ‘Officer Separation Board‘ will likely result in some 2,000 Captains and Majors – most combat veterans – being kicked out. Some of them will get the word while deployed.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria are blurring into a single conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s all very discombobulating and is creating an odd climate of uncertainty.

Writing for the New York Times ‘At War’ blog, Air Force Major Brandon Lingle captures this in his piece titled Watching Football, Waiting for War:

In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.

After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”

These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.

And then there is this, a quote from a young First Lieutenant in Stars and Stripes, finishing up a sleepy deployment in Afghanistan:

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”

2014 is a shaping up to be a very strange year.