On the “unpopularity” of Serial Season 2 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I just finished listening to the final episode of DUSTWUN, Season 2 of the Serial podcast that covers the Bowe Bergdahl saga. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. I would especially recommend it to anyone who already holds strong feelings on the subject. Listening to it with a critical ear might not change your mind, but provide some nuance you may not have been aware of.

I’ve also been listening to Task & Purpose’s podcast that has followed each episode. It’s their first foray into podcasting and Lauren Katzenberg does a very good job of keeping things moving along. In their final episode, they talked about the relative unpopularity of this season of Serial, as opposed to the more popular Season 1. After hearing that, I started searching around to see if there was any data to support the idea that this season has been less popular. I was only able to come up with this post that says it did fine, in terms of popularity (measured by podcast downloads).

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year — what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

The vibe I got over the course of the season is a general sense of dissatisfaction from the audience, evidenced through discussions in social media. I’d blame this partly on the fact that the Berghdahl saga is unsettled, and partly because of the built-in bias of most listeners.

I couldn’t help but think that the supposed unpopularity might have been due to the ongoing disinterest in anything Iraq or Afghanistan unless it involves some form of military fetishization, evidenced most recently in the disappointing box office numbers of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

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“It’s hard when you have your homogenous club…”

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ interview with writer and former San Francisco firefighter Caroline Paul. Late in the podcast (1:22:00) she talks about developing a thick skin, and what it was like being one of only a handful of women in the fire department. The quote below struck me as particularly relevant to the current – and ongoing – saga of female integration into combat arms.

“I mean, it’s hard when you have your homogenous club, like we all do, if you look at your friends they all look like you, and then suddenly it’s forcibly opened, and it’s just difficult. It’s right. You shouldn’t have your club necessarily, you don’t have a right to it, but, still, it’s going to be hard, and I really did empathize with that.”

It’s very rare to hear empathy for the loss of “the homogenous club.” It takes a lot of maturity to be a trailblazer in this regard yet still understand what the other might be feeling and have empathy – especially when you think that feeling is wrong.

I’ve written previously about the infantry being the last “all-boys club” and that a lot of the defense of maintaining an all-male infantry might be couched in protecting that status.

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Military Review: Ethical Fading

First Lieutenant Robert Callahan wrote a short piece in the March-April Military Review titled I’m FadedIt is a reaction and example to last year’s Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, which as the title implies, tackles dishonesty in the Army profession. 

In his article, Callahan recounts how he omitted things from his record of medical history over time after learning from other officers how they filled out the forms. As Callahan learned, other officers often did not include every detail about themselves because they believed some of those details were irrelevant or might preclude them from some required training. Even though Callahan had at one time been thorough and honest on the forms, he felt compelled to do what everyone else was doing.

Callahan calls his action a result of “ethical fading.” While at his commissioning source or in his first couple of years in the Army, there was no question as to how he should complete the forms. It was only after he learned what others were doing – and getting away with – that he considered doing the same. Once he understood how the system worked, he worked chiefly towards “meeting the appropriate deadline and continuing with my day.”

In his story, instead of being reprimanded, the officials managing the paperwork simply let him know that his new and old paperwork did not match, and they allowed him the opportunity to make the correction. He writes:

I believe this nudge represented an effective and reasonable first step for implementing the recommendations of Wong and Gerras (Lying to Ourselves). Calling out obvious dishonesty and then correcting it shows that integrity always matters. Acknowledging that a systemic integrity problem can be fixed by focusing on the truth instead of staging a witch hunt to push dishonesty reflects that all Army officers are responsible for this problem, reaffirms each officer’s commitment to the Army Values, and regenerates the military profession one officer at a time.

This was a good, honest piece that put a story to a real problem. While in the scheme of things this was a small transgression, the pressure on officers to be dishonest can be immense – often because of anxiety over the subsequent “witch hunt” of which Callahan refers.

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

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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.

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“Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

I finally began listening to DUSTWUN on season 2 of Serial. I didn’t know about Serial until a couple of weeks ago when everyone in my social media started talking about it and acting very surprised that it was going to cover the Bowe Bergdahl saga – a topic I’ve purposely avoided writing about here.

Serial, for the uninitiated, is a series that premiered last year that tells a non-fiction story over a number of weeks, diving in deep for detail and drawing back wide for perspective. I only recently learned about it, but many of my friends seem obsessed with it in the way that some people grew obsessed with This American Life.

The cursory impression that I got is that the fact that Serial was going to cover this was weird because this is a military thing and that was outside of the supposed purview of Serial. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s just the vibe I was picking up from reading all of the posts.

Part of the reason I’ve purposely avoided writing about Bowe Bergdahl is because 1) he’s still in the Army, and 2) the arena is loud an venomous. Havok Journal recently ran a short piece that summed it up pretty nicely.

But with the excitement surrounding the new season of Serial, I decided to give it a try and I listened to the first episode.

The crux of episode 1 revolves around a series of interviews conducted by Mark Boal. Mark Boal is the journalist/screenwriter wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. He also wrote the expose about the Afghanistan “kill team” for Rolling Stone. I’ve always been a little put off by his style because, as I wrote a few years ago:

“Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposĂ© â€“ and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.”

The host of Serial, Sarah Koenig, addresses the non-chalance of Boal’s interview style, and it does make sense, as the interviews were conducted at length, over the phone, over multiple days. The interviews were not intended to be used in a radio program, but instead were to serve as source material for a film Boal is writing on the subject.

There comes a point in one of the interviews where Bergdahl is trying to explain his rationale for walking away from his post, essentially to cause a stir due to his absence in order to get an audience with a General so that he could explain in person how bad his unit’s command was. Before he begins, he needs to make sure Boal understands the context and terminology. The back and forth between them stops and Bergdahl asks “Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

There is a short silence. I can almost hear Boal stopping, suddenly more interested in what Bergdahl is about to say.

Again, from a couple of years ago.

“But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.”

I’ve since listened to episode 2, and the series is well-produced and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about what happened without the noise of the internet.

Also, Task & Purpose is covering the series in their own podcast. It features Lauren Katzenberg of T&P, James Weirick, a former USMC JAG, and Nate Bethea, a former Army infantry officer whose writing (and thinking) I admire. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think it might be an interesting thing to put on after an episode.

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A different take on that “Millennials and War” poll

Millennial Soldier

You likely already saw the poll released last week from the Harvard Institute of Politics regarding millennials and their thoughts on ISIS and military service. To summarize, 60% of young Americans (18-29) now support sending US troops to combat ISIS on the ground, and just about the same percentage (62%) says that they would be unlikely to serve in the event the US needed more troops for that fight.

It sparked a debate online in the military sphere and much of that debate manifested itself with military folk displaying indignation that a bunch of hipsters (that’s how I read millennial) want the military to go fight ISIS, but aren’t willing to go do it themselves.

This idea gets veterans worked up because it fits neatly into the continuing trope that there exists this “warrior class” made up of the “less than 1%” that does the nation’s dirty work while the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd critiques them from the sidelines.

The difference here is that for the first time (as far as I know) the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd actually supports direct ground combat against someone.

At the heart of the discontent is the fact that a generation of Americans could be willing to send American troops to war but not willing to serve themselves in that same war – a concept that feels foreign to American values.

What has been lost in the debate is the fact that this poll, in a strange way, validates the all-volunteer force as a concept. This is the first generation of Americans that grew up outside of the shadow of Vietnam, and instead under the warm blanket of “shock and awe,” Call of Duty, and Zero Dark Thirty. All of the conflicts this generation has seen came completely through electronic screens,  fought by an all-volunteer military with very little asked of them. They’ve seen the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Years upon years of war, fought by someone else.

This is a generation that not only feels comfortable sending the military to fight wars they are not personally interested in fighting, it is the only thing they know – it is the norm.

We have created exactly what we sought to create – a specialized, professional military filled with volunteers who want to serve, and a populace that feels comfortable using it.

Instead of getting upset about it – because really, there’s nothing you can do – shouldn’t we be celebrating it?

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The unexpected benefit of last week’s historic Ranger graduation

Shaye Haver, Kristen Griest

Only a tiny fraction of soldiers in the Army will ever attend Ranger School. Infantry officers and members of the 75th Ranger Regiment will most likely get a shot (or multiple) at going to the school. For the rest of the Army, depending on where and when you are, it can be challenging to get the opportunity to go.

And if that chance appears, it is even more challenging to get soldiers to volunteer.

Even in the infantry, where you might expect to find more eagerness, finding volunteers is not easy. The question “Who wants to go to Ranger School?” is often met with blank stares and laughs.

Everyone knows the school is challenging and “sucks,” and the idea of voluntarily thrusting yourself into that can seem anywhere from unappealing to masochistic to the soldier who already spends a lot of time away from home, deployed, training, or in various states of misery. At 30th AG at Fort Benning, where all infantrymen begin, just about everyone is committed to being an Airborne Ranger and being all they can be. Somewhere between laying on a cot at 30th AG, dreaming of what could be, and mile 23 of a loaded foot march under the hot Georgia sun, that eagerness fades away. The reality of what it means to “suck” seeps into the soldier, and the idea of what might transpire at Ranger School becomes understood.

The school carries its own mystique. In the book Black Hearts, author Jim Frederick accurately describes the deference afforded to the Ranger tab and the cult that surrounds it as “shamanistic.”

On top of that, Ranger School has always been a bit of a mystery. It’s all tales of privation, darkness, and pain. It’s about small camps in the middle of nowhere, cutoff from civilization. The high attrition rate frightens soldiers away before they ever even think about putting a packet together.

It’s certainly too early to tell for sure, but I think last week’s historic graduation might not just have an effect on whether the course ultimately opens up to women (and it’s hard to imagine how it won’t at this point), but I think there are likely a lot more men who are suddenly rethinking whether they might consider going to the school themselves.

Put simply, those who may have been frightened by the mystery or questioned their own ability are looking at Captains Griest and Hayer and thinking “Well shit, if they can do it, maybe I can do it too.”

While the past few months have been particularly embarressing in military social media in regards to the crazy, conspiratorial posts about the school, the one guy heard from another guy about lower standards posts, last week’s very transparant lead up to the graduation ceremony saw a significant change in what was being shared and discussed online. As more information emerged on what actually happened in the woods, mountains, and swamps over the past six months, the “haters” kind of faded into the background.

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There was a popular image that was floating around once it was announced the two female Ranger students had passed. It essentially says that Ranger School is now a different institution. The implication was that the only way they could have possibly passed was because the standards had been lowered.

As stupid as that image was, it was actually right in one regard. Ranger School will be different. More men will now be willing to raise their hand and volunteer for the school, simply because they’ve seen that a woman can do it. It’s not misogny that’s will drive them, but the fact that female Ranger students have so much more to overcome in order to pass the course, and despite their shortcomings, two were able to do it.

The Army wants more Rangers. The school wants to graduate as many Rangers as they can. It’s good for the Army. But Ranger School will not, rightfully, lower standards to do it. The best way to effect the net number of Ranger graduates is sending more, better prepared students.

Most men self-select themselves out by never volunteering in the first place. The fact that two women have made it through removes some of the self-doubt that prevents a majority of soldiers – both combat arms and support – from ever considering volunteering.

In conversations among infantrymen, I already hear men talking about Ranger School a little differently now.

“It’s pretty motivating that they made it through. Hmm…”

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Student Veterans

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There’s been a lot of slinging going on about trigger warnings and microaggressions lately. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of “spoiler alert” for those who might be affected by being exposed to something traumatic. For instance, this article on Life Is Strange makes the argument that the game might have done a better service to its players if it gave them a trigger warning because of the traumatic nature of the content. Others argue that by doing that, it robs the game of some of the suspense and surprise.

Microaggression is a term that I’m not sure really has a rock solid definition yet, but is pretty much a form of discrimination or passive aggressive hate.

“Oh you were in the military, huh? You weren’t able to get into college?”

There’s this back and forth going on about these things, with some people arguing that we need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s potential feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. Marching towards a better world is a good thing, in my view.

But a lot of these conversations are very focused on students and especially students who may have faced some kind of hardship in the past. PTSD comes up a lot, and so naturally, it gets me thinking about student veterans.

I attended college between 2006-2011. The Iraq War was at its height both in terms of unpopularity and casualties. I was taking a lot of courses on the Middle East and international relations, and the Iraq War came up a lot. Professors spoke about the war as a self-evident failure. It was a joke and an embarrassment. Students nodded along and scribbled notes.

Not once did any of my professors ever ask “are there any veterans in the class?” It wasn’t even considered a possibility. Those who served were someone else, somewhere else.

For anyone that served overseas, especially in Iraq, it is likely that the experience was formative. It was for me. I was young and the work was extreme. My entire being is tied up with the name and the place, for good or for ill. And to have it spoken about so casually by college professors and students as a failure or a joke was painful as a new student, trying to make my way on campus, unsure of how I was supposed to behave.

Early in my college career, I’d challenge. I’d raise my hand and offer my perspective. I’d counter a student who stated categorically that American soldiers habitually raped Iraqi women. I’d correct misconceptions about the nature of military service and the rules of engagement. My jaw dropped when one student answered “about thirty or something” when asked how many soldiers had died in the Iraq War (the answer, at the time was more than 4,000). I felt like as one of the few student veterans on campus, I had a duty and responsibility to say something.

But it was exhausting.

I learned quickly that once you “out” yourself as a student veteran, that’s it. When people see you, you’re now the “Army guy.” It doesn’t go away, and whenever a topic that has anything to do with “the war” or the military comes up in class, all eyes fall on you.

Later, when I went to graduate school, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other students or my professors. I didn’t want them to see me as a military man. I wanted them to judge me fairly. When students or professors said off the wall shit, I kept my thoughts inside.

In fairness, it is an odd world where a war happens, soldiers fight it, and then come home and go to college while the same war rages on.

And in super-fairness, I went to the City College of New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – neither of them exactly right wing war bastions of death.

But, if we’re going to move towards a world that is more considerate of peoples’ past experiences, then that should include student veterans. Whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, if they fought overseas – or even if they didn’t – their minds and emotions are likely intertwined with that discussion. Veterans certainly don’t need a trigger warning – the idea of being warned before they’re offended is comical. But what they do deserve is a fair chance at being heard.

And an understanding that they exist.

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Do we really need airborne forces?

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When I was still in high school an Army recruiter visited and gave a short presentation to a bunch of disinterested, super-cynical New York Public School students. The recruiter, in his sharply pressed BDUs and shiny black boots paced back and forth in front of us. He spoke about the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to travel abroad. When those carrots didn’t pique anyone’s interest, he spoke about the opportunity to jump out of airplanes for a living. I shot my hand up and reminded him that this was 1999, and asked him if the concept of airborne forces weren’t outdated, because, you know, missiles. Like a true professional, he fielded my question and spoke at length of the esprit de corps of the airborne community and he explained the importance of maintaining the airborne “forced entry” capability. I felt smug, having bested the poor recruiter.

A couple of years later I would be jumping out of airplanes.

When Failure Thrives, which explores the concept of airborne forces in the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US, is the inaugural publication of The Army Press, which just recently popped up. As their mission states:

The Army Press is a single organization that serves as the Army’s focal point for identifying, encouraging, and coaching prospective authors to publish original contributions on history, policy, doctrine, training, organization, leader development, and the Army Profession. The Press’ programs and products enable scholarship, facilitate professional dialogue, and promote a fuller understanding of the Profession of Arms for uniformed and civilian members of the DoD and JIIM communities.

It’s a fascinating examination, and it captures a lot of the barracks banter that will be familiar to anyone who served in the airborne, only, it’s backed up with facts. In the case of the American airborne community, its ability to exist is in large part due to the initial investment of talent and resources during World War II, the ongoing redefining of the airborne’s mission (The Pentomic Division, lol), and the strong patronage of current and former paratroopers.

What I found really interesting is just how unsuccessful airborne forces have been over the past century (more failures than successes) and even when measured by historians aiming to gauge combat efficiency, airborne forces don’t perform any better than their conventional counterparts. For all the shit-talking that goes on, there just really isn’t a lot of data to back it up.

And as a friend and mentor once said to me, the hurdle to get into your traditional airborne units isn’t very high – it’s 3-weeks of airborne school and you’re in.

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