The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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“Just In Time” Information Management

Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.

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Generous with their information

I recently heard a radio host talking about how he likes watching influencers on Instagram doing some of the basic things influencers do – talk about their day, open packages, discuss things they like. Simple, everyday things.

These are often the things that give influencers a bad rap.

They’re oversharing!

It’s trite!

Who cares!?

The reality is, we’re fortunate that there are so many people out there who are willing to give us a peek behind the curtain. Our lives (especially our digital lives) are shrouded in secrecy.

What do you keep in your folders?

How messy is your desktop?

How many unread emails do you have?

John has always been very generous with his information, recently sharing the below:

Avatars Over the Years I’m taking time to clean out my digital folders this weekend and one folder that I’ve had for over 10+ years is this one:

Avatars Over the Years | john saddington

That’s a lot to put out there -but isn’t it interesting?

Many of us spend time following people online because we find them fascinating. The more personal, the more interesting.

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Starting social media over feels like New Game+ mode

Had this thought the other day as I continue to slog through rebuilding. When I pulled the plug in 2016, I was in a pretty good place. My Twitter/Facebook accounts had thousands of followers and just about every blog post got attention. Daily traffic to CTG was high. It was something I had built over five years.

And then zap – it’s all gone.

Well the blog is still here and has plenty of followers. And each day I am moving forward towards a goal of rebuilding.

The whole thing feels very similar to what happens when you beat a video game, and then are offered the opportunity to replay the game in “New Game+” mode. New Game+ is where you get to play the whole thing over from the beginnning, but you retain whatever skills, equipement, and experience you earned in the first playthrough. The experience is also easier because you know the rules of the game and have gotten pretty good. I know how to write, I know the world map, and I know which oracles to visit. It’s definitely starting over with an advantage. The goal of New Game+ mode is to explore the things you missed while getting another opportunity to enjoy the game.

But boy, it’s still a slog.

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Reflecting on reflecting

I’ve been thinking of the below exchange between retired General Votel and Joe Byerly from the FtGN podcast over the past couple of days (emphasis mine):

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.”

From the Green Notebook Podcast, Season 2/Episode 1

We’re so busy these days, and it certainly feels like we need to build in time for reflection.

Reflection, as an activity, is left undefined. I always thought of it as a kind of mindfulness activity. If I was to set aside some time to reflect (which I don’t), I’d imagine myself sitting at my desk, alone, hands folded neatly in my lap as I think about whatever it is that I need “reflect” on.

I don’t think anyone actually does that.

Conversely, I know my mind is at its best when I’m busy and engaged in a stimulating activity – ofen unrelated to the problem. Exercise – especially running – has my mind churning with ideas. Free-wheeling conversation on a focused topic often generates thoughts I didn’t know I had. Even reading a book, I can become lost in a parallel narrative in my mind while reading the words on the page (this, of course, is disrtaction – but sometimes it too generates ideas).

It does then, make sense to build in time for these types of activities and count them as reflection.

In a military context, scheduling time to discuss a problem or issue “without the burden of making a decision” seems like a good technique to foster reflection – as a group. Important here, is that everyone who is participating understands that. It’s no good to have a discussion on an issue to foster thought and reflection only to have it turn into another “information brief” to please the boss.

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Conquering as Virtue

Originally posted in 2013.

Recently, I sat talking with another officer about what a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 might look like, especially in its historical context with the writing on the wall making it close to the end of the war, if not the end. What, I thought, is the driving force of a young soldier going to Afghanistan in 2014?

In 2001, it was revenge. In Iraq, 2003, it was pre-emptive defense (or so they said). In the years leading up to today, it was some form of chasing down the last remnants, battling out the long slog, “surging,” mopping up, “setting conditions” or some other conglomeration of words that hinted at elusive victory.

A deployment in 2014 will likely look very different than other deployments. The 2d Cavalry Regiment is currently rolling through a sleepy deployment where the most exciting thing in months can be *almost* getting to fire an illumination round. The – workout twice a day and evenings at Green Beans coffee – kind of deployment.

OBL is dead and whether we stay in Afghanistan past 2014 is up in the air.

What then, motivates a soldier to fight?

I started thinking that maybe it is the mechanical aspect of war, the fight itself. There is certainly a pull to it, especially for young men (and women) who want to prove themselves in battle. But sitting there in that conversation, mind buzzing with caffeine, I thought back to my own experience. Getting shot at was not fun – at all. I felt exposed and on the brink of destruction.

But afterwards! Afterwards was amazing. The feeling of escaping death. Looking it in the face and winning. Not wanting to do it again because it felt so close, but wondering if I could.

Back in my office, I said, “No, it’s not the mechanical fight, running a battle drill – and surviving – that provides the pull.”

We discussed what it must have been like for soldiers in ancient times, wielding sword and shield, fighting face to face. Slashing and hacking.

No, while romantic in hind sight, having an extremely short life expectancy couldn’t have been very “fun.” While there were certainly some who relished the actual fighting (as there are now), we agreed that most ancient soldiers probably loathed it and feared it.

But, what they had that we don’t was the Virtue of the Conqueror.

That is, winning the battle and winning the war was virtuous in its own right. It was generally understood. Conquering was a virtue. Invading, advancing, reaping reward for your people – that was valued in and of itself.

For the modern American soldier, conquering is not a virtue. Outside of military bases, there are no banners hailing the conquering hero, or even welcoming them home. War, now, is an afterthought. Something “over there” that really needs to end soon so we can get this country back on track, or so they say.

Without the Virtue of the Conqueror, the whole notion of “why we fight” is so much trickier today. If this were ancient times and we served in an army of conquerors, it is doubtful that Vietnam vet turned Hollywood screenwriter William Broyles would have felt the need to pen “Why Men Love War” or British Iraq vet turned journalist would write “Iraq is always with you.” It was much easier to explain the whole thing when everyone just understood that you went to war to win and bring victory. That’s it.

So, as always, I offer nothing that brings us closer to understanding why, but I do posit that without the Virtue of the Conqueror, it is easier to understand why we have such a hard time reconciling it now. I like the thought of two ancient grizzled veterans getting drunk in a dank tavern, discussing the meta-physical elements of war, wondering “what it all means.” But I’m not sure they had to do that because they were too busy celebrating victory, or dead.

Incidentally, Jill Sargent Russell posted ‘The Art of Victory‘ on Kings of War yesterday. It’s a good post that I think is talking about the same thing I am, but in a more academic way.

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The Special Responsibility of Veterans in the Social Media Era

Soldiers-and-smartphones.jpg

Over the past year or so, I’ve had lots of conversations with others about how strange it is to be in the military these days. Social media didn’t exist a decade ago in the way it does now, and we’re still seeing new effects.

I’ve been neglecting a post for months about this topic, and especially about the role that veterans play in it all. It’s an idea similar to this one, about student-veterans serving as de facto ambassadors to the civilian population.

What’s different with this, though, is the whole thing is a closed loop. What military/veteran community put out there gets digested internally. The exhaust gets fed back into the combustion chamber, and the results are often nasty.

I’ve got an essay on this, but it needs work. For now, the thesis will have to do:

There are the two pitfalls of this new world (social media) as they relate to the military:
•There are actual effects on the day-to-day operations of the military
•Many civilians do not make the distinction between active-duty and veteran, especially online

Maybe this is obvious to most. As someone who was in the Army before the social media era, got out, and then came back in to a changed landscape, it seems new and important.

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What is the incentive to write in the military?

Originally published in 2016.

I’m working on a longer piece about the important role veterans have in getting their voice out there in the age of social media, and this thought popped into my mind this morning on the way to work: what is the incentive to write in the military?

I’ve never been actively prodded to write inside of the military. There aren’t any obvious professional incentives – no awards or bonuses, it doesn’t go on your ERB/ORB. In fact, there seems to be greater professional risk in writing for an external audience than there is reward.

I know why I write. It’s how I get ideas out. I also enjoy communicating to a larger audience outside of my bubble.

When I came back in the Army in 2011, I was a little concerned about whether I would have to stop writing or severely curtail it. I reached out to some military writers, and one (very accomplished officer) offered this warning:

Even so, today’s Army does not value intellectually rigorous scholarship from serving officers. General Petraeus succeeded despite, rather than because of, his intellectual credentials; note how few officers are following his path to flag rank. Advancement to that level relies on patronage relationships within one or more of the Army’s “communities” – airborne, armored cav, SOF, etc. There is no patron and no community for intellectual rigorous soldier-scholars, and few of them make it past LTC or COL.

It was a fair – and spooky – warning. I do think things like the Military Writers Guild might be changing this dynamic, but only time will tell.

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Sunshine and Battle Flags

IMG_4247

A couple of weeks ago my unit did a battalion competition out on the PT field. Each company put together an eight man team and we raced each other through an obstacle course, carrying weapons and litters stacked with filled ammo cans and five gallon water jugs. The S6 had giant speakers blaring music as the teams made their way around. No one really wanted to do it – it was Friday and everyone just wanted to go home for the weekend – but once the event started the competitive fire took over.

I just finished with my team and stopped at the end, huffing for air. Looking back, the sun was just coming up over post, casting the field in a warm morning glow. As the eight man teams moved through the obstacles, their company guidons moved with them, bouncing along above a mass of soldiers cheering them on. Dust swirled around magnifying the sunlight. A cover of War Pigs blared out of the speakers.

It was a weird moment. It felt like the beginning of a war movie with a very dark ending.

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Some random thoughts on suicide

I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.

Kate Marsh Roof Journal

In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh –  kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.

One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.

Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.

When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.

My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.

A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.

It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.

For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.

All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanicIt was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”

More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.

For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die everyday by suicide.

Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.

Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.

It started with a front page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.

Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.

Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24 year old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.

There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.

Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.

The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.

Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s.  Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.

Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.

While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is major youth problem.

Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.

If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.

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