The Coward

otacon metal gear solid scared coward

A long time ago, I made a note to write something about the below concept.

But, I don’t need to. It’s already happening.


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“We can’t kill our way out of this”

mr. sulu with kobayashi maru screen in the background

Just finished the latest Cognitive Crucible episode with Ori Brafman (The Starfish and the Spider).

Whether you’ve read the book or not, if you have been in or around military circles for the past twenty years you’ve likely heard the thesis regarding human networks.

Towards the end of the episode, during a discussion about how the military has or has not changed, Ori, quoting military leaders he interacts with, says something which I’ve heard over and over again – also for the past twenty years:

We’re not going to be able to kill our way out of this battle. Lethality is no longer the way we’re going to be able to fix this.

~33:30 mark

He then goes on to talk about whether this might mean we need to do more/better IO, cyber, etc.

We’ve heard this line “we’re not going be able to kill our way out of this” or “kill our way to victory” a lot. And it’s usually a line that is lauded because it seems to indicate the person speaking it understands that the conflict is rife with human dynamics that need to be addressed.

And if we can pull the right levers and adjust the dials just right we can turn this thing around.

I have another take; if the problem we’re facing isn’t one that can be solved with a military solution then perhaps we shouldn’t be using the military to solve it in the first place.

When you mix flawed strategy with gung-ho leaders you get the GWOT effect.

Those leaders – who are intelligent, patriotic, and care about victory – will tear down the world looking for a way to win.

But it’s often a case of the Kobayashi Maru. These are no-win scenarios. It’s like showing up to a baseball game with a basketball team. Sure, you can retool and retrain and take all of the baseball lessons you can – maybe even hire some baseball consultants – but you’re still going to be a basketball team playing baseball.

The best you might be able to do with all of that hokum is keep things going for a while.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….”

Don’t be fooled – the proximate thing keeping things together in these situations is most often the presence of traditional military capabilities.

And what happens to all of that when those traditional military capabilities are suddenly removed?

In fairness, our system is such that when called upon to execute a mission as part of a greater strategy, you do it. And you do your best to make it work and get results.

But I don’t think we should conflate recognizing the lack of military solutions to a problem with some sort of epiphany that might lead to victory.


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What uncomfortable reality?

a soldier with his field tent

I’m a week late to this article over at War on the Rocks – The Uncomfortable Reality of the U.S. Army’s Role in a War Over Taiwan.

It’s timely given the recent rhetoric. The article discusses the fact that we don’t like talking about the reality of what a war over Taiwan would look like.

I agree with that.

It’s a good article that lays out many of the grim realities, without acknowledging the potential – and likey costlier – mission creep, however.

There are a couple of assumptions in the piece that deserve a closer look.

First, that “a majority of the American public supports defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion.” The cited poll suggests that 52% of Americans would support the use of US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Wars are often popular before they start.

And in this case, when asked if the US should commit troops to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese “attack” or “invasion” (both words were used), 52% responded favorably.

Interestingly, a smaller number (46%) support committing to defending Taiwan before the fact. The polling suggests less an interest in Taiwan and more of an interest in China.

And that resonates – I don’t think most Americans spend much time thinking about Taiwan in the same way they didn’t spend much time thinking about Afghanistan.

Until we were there of course. And even then…

Still, the author is right to raise a flag here. If we are going to commit US troops somewhere we ought to know the costs. And the costs would likely be significant in terms of both American lives and expenditure.

How popular would it be then? And does that matter?

Second, the author writes that the Army is in the midst of an “identity crisis.”

“After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and facing a U.S.-Chinese competition that seems to play out on anything but land, the Army is struggling with an identity crisis perhaps as dramatic as its reinvention after the Vietnam War.”

Two things here: that the Army is facing an “identity crisis” and the US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

The first (identity crisis) is a major claim. I’m not refuting it, but I’m also not seeing it either.

Is the Army really in the midst of an identity crisis?

Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Certainly we’re all coming around to recognize a new reality. GWOT is over (right?) and we’re waking up after a twenty-year adventure trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

But it doesn’t feel like a crisis. It feels more like going back to work. It feels like doing what we’ve always done.

To quote a senior special operations NCO on what we should be doing:

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.

That is what the Army is supposed to do.

Units have missions. Units train against those missions. And if called, units execute those missions.

That’s all there is.

Everything else is noise.

Second, the idea that US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

Competition and conflict are often thought of and used interchangeably. Many make the assumption that because China is “over there” and we’re “over here” this is mostly a Navy/Air Force thing.

The reality is that competition is everywhere. Everywhere includes land. It also includes the digital world. And I don’t think the Army is spending much time navel-gazing wondering what its role is.

It’s too busy dealing with the reality of competition all over the world.


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Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

a crowded market in the middle east

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.


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Against ‘threads’

colored threads

I don’t like threads on Twitter.

Even the good ones.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re often entertaining, interesting, and educational.

And I do enjoy them.

But I don’t like them because they’re so ephemeral.

A lot of works goes into them, they’re fun to poke through, but then they’re gone. And there’s not really a good way to save them.

You can bookmark them, but then you’re stuck with a list of bookmarks. I tend to use bookmarks for things to check out later, and then I clear them out.

There is definitely a place for them, and I get their utility. And I understand how they are engaging.

But some of them are so engaging I want them to live somewhere that I can easily return to for reference.

You know, like a blog.

A few weeks ago I started building a thread on what ‘winning’ looks like in Great Power Competition. I had a good vision for it and I know it would be engaging. It was full of video clips, gifs, pictures, and smart copy.

I stopped building it because I knew that it would be a great thread that would quickly be pushed aside and forgotten.

Instead, I’ll turn it into an article where it can survive.


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Ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and command performance

the anabase by xenophon
Illustration of the Anabase by Xenophon

I became a fan of the FTGN podcast last year when they launched season 2. I like it because the questions that Joe asks are usually questions I really want the answers to.

I don’t want to know about General Votel’s career highlights – I want to know how he finds time to reflect.

I don’t want to know about General McChrystal’s running routine – I want to know how he dealt with the fallout of the Rolling Stone article.

And I don’t want to know what it felt like for Diamond Dallas Page to lead a successful wrestling career – I want to know how he dealt with his life crumbling around him.

Season 3 of the podcast recently launched. I’m already a couple of episodes behind, but I just finished episode 1 with author Kim Scott.

Kim Scott is the author of Just Work: Get Sh*t Done Fast and Fair and Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. Kim managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley. (Bio courtesy of Kim’s Website)

S3, E1: Kim Scott, From The Green Notebook Podcast

I have not read the books yet, but like my ever-expanding podcast queue, they’re on my book list.

It’s a fascinating episode to lead off with. I love Joe’s podcasts with military personnel, but I prefer his episodes with folks from outside of the profession. This one was no different.

Things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Ruinous empathy and Maniplative Insincerity. These are concepts from Scott’s book Radical Candor. And they’re the type of frames that instantly ascribe an idea you may have been thinking about but have a hard time putting a name to. We’ve hammered the importance of empathy to death in military circles over the past few years – and for good reason. It’s a skill that was missing for a long time among many military leaders. But it comes with two edges to the blade. There is such a thing as being too empathetic where it gets in the way of giving the advice or feedback that is necessary to make a person better or accomplish a given mission. Manipulative insincerity is related, but different. It’s when we heap praise on someone or something without actually caring – we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do. Everyone – especially soldiers – sniff this out pretty quickly and it doesn’t actually contribute to positive outcomes.
  • Xenophon. Joe made reference to Xenophon, the ancient Greek scholar/military leader. This is only interesting to me because over the past year I’ve done some deep-dive research on Xenophon in relation to a much bigger research project I’m working on. A year ago I didn’t know who he is – now I know way too much. Once you start digging, you realize that his profiles of the “two Cyruses” is the inspiration to a wide range of thought leaders, from Machiavelli to Thomas Jefferson. The genesis of my interest in Xenophon comes from an exploration of T. E. Lawrence’s Greek education and his reference to Xenophon in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

There remained the psychological element to build up into an apt shape. I went to Xenophon and stole, to name it, his word diathetics, which had been the art of Cyrus before he struck.

T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
  • The importance of handwritten notes. Joe and Kim have a short discussion on the power of handwritten notes. It feels good to be told you’re doing well, it feels great to get an email that you’re doing well (with your chain of command cc’d), and it is something special to get a handwritten note out of the blue. Remember, everything old is new again. Dale Carnegie famously writes in How to Win Friends… “Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise.”
  • Sitting in awkward silence. When asking for feedback, state your request, and then shut your mouth. Count to six. It’s not easy. But if you can just keep quiet for a second longer, you can often compel the other to fill the silence. In our hyper-distracted world, this is a tough challenge. Try it. And practice it over time.
  • The assumption of the 20 year career. Too often when we counsel others in the military, if we are career-minded ourselves, we tend to assume the other has similar aspirations. The “20 year career” seems like the gold standard. With the termination of the 20 year retirement, this will likely change over time. The point is, aspirations of military service are not uniform. Most service-members will not stay in until retirement. It is a calling, a service, and a duty. There is more to get out of life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with meeting people where they are and helping them achieve their goals – not yours.
  • Command Performance. There’s a short discussion towards the end about the things peers and subordinates (and sometimes superiors) may do or say in front of others, and the importance of responding. This often takes the form of either controversial, subversive, or “envelope-pushing” speech/behavior. It’s often done subconciusly, I think, as a way to see how people will respond. I’ve written about this before and labeled it “command performance.” How is the PL going to react when I say or do this thing that goes against the grain? If she does nothing, then isn’t that tacit approval of the behavior/speech?

A good conversation with lots to think about.

Glad to have the podcast refreshing again in my queue and I look forward to the rest of the season!


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Watching it happen

chinook in kabul

I’ve written about this before.

And it’s happening again.

We’re living in a very strange time, where events are beamed to our televisions, computers, and phones as they happen.

Real people are out there – in the arena – doing incredible things and experiencing real trauma.

And we watch – in real-time – and critique, scowl, and gossip.

The flash-to-bang is getting shorter and shorter. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were the opening acts.

January 6th and the fall of Kabul are the most recent manifestations of this phenomenon.

Things used to happen and then you’d read about it, dispassionately, in a newspaper the morning after. If you were lucky, there was a picture that accompanied the article.

Today it’s all reaction and little reflection.

Emotion and absence of mind.


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Everyday resistance

It doesn’t have to be protests, armed conflict, or war. It can be the little things. And often, it is.

When Jim Scott mentions ‘resistance,’ this recovering political scientist isn’t usually talking about grand symbolic statements or large-scale synchronized actions by thousands or more battling an oppressive state. He’s often referring to daily actions by average people, often not acting in concert and perhaps not even seeing themselves as ‘resisting’ at all.

Jim Scott on Resistance – Social Science Space

Related: 198 methods on nonviolent action.


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Institutionalizing Irregular Warfare: Introducing IWI

Intro screenshot from metal gear nes airborne insertion

Very excited to see this initiative.

To help bridge this gap, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point are proud to announce the launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). IWI is designed to support the community of irregular warfare professionals, to include military and interagency practitioners, scholarly researchers, and policymakers, by providing a space for accessible, practically grounded discussions of irregular warfare policy and strategy.

Introducing the Irregular Warfare Initiative – Modern War Institute

The Irregular Warfare Podcast has quickly become one of my favorite. Like many of you, my podcast queue is infinite. I never get to anything, but their podcast aligns perfectly with with my interests – and it is actually good. It bumps everything out of the way and becomes a “listen to now” podcast.

Looking forward to seeing how this shapes up over the next year.


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This is going to end my career

I’m a new subscriber to the Jumo Brief. In the most recent newsletter, Brennan recounts a time he left his flight jacket in his office and thought it would end his career.

Of course, it didn’t end my career. It didn’t even matter a week later. I was just a dumb lieutenant doing dumb lieutenant things. But it didn’t feel like it at the time.

Jumo Brief

This is such a common thought in the Army. Some miniscule mistake is going to be the thing that ends it all.

I’ve thought that before, and I know most others have.

When I actually think back on it, I can’t really think of any specific instances where this was true. In fact, the opposite is mostly true. I see plenty of leaders making small mistakes and things working out okay.

A mistake is made, there may be some consequence (or not), and learning occurs (hopefully).

Of course, there is a difference between small mistakes (forgetting a flight jacket) and catastrophic mistakes – the types of things that gets people hurt or killed, due to negligence.

A lot of mental energy is wasted in the Army worrying about small mistakes and their potential to be the thing that derails a career. The more I reflect on it though, the more I realize I haven’t actually seen it much.


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