The Culture Episode

A screengrab from one of the military’s many cultural training programs.

“I’m so sick of this squishy culture shit.”

From MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: REBUILDING CULTURAL CAPABILITIES ‚Äď AGAIN

I enjoyed this episode from the War Room podcast on the rise and decline (and rise and decline) of military cultural education programs.

The guests discuss their book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20 (available as a free PDF download) from Marine Corps University Press.

The importance of culture ebbs and flows in the US military, right alongside our foreign military operations, not surprisingly. We go into a place, we lack a nuanced understanding of it, and senior military leaders bang their fists on the table demanding we produce a cadre of our own “Lawrences of Arabia.”

From there, the services begin finding ways to train the force on culture – a squishy topic, to be sure.

I can’t lie – my own academic interests were spurred by my personal inability to communicate or fully understand the people and culture of Iraq.

“If only I could communicate,” I thought…

The authors make a distinction between language training and culture. Language training has been a part of military training (for specific jobs) for decades. But it is more of a technical skill than a holistic something else that cultural training is or should be,

And that is where much of the struggle with cultural training comes into play. How do we measure or assess the effectiveness of such programs?

“That kind of a financial investment [assessment on par with language training] has never been made in cultural skills, of even a fraction of the investment has never been made in cultural skills. So, we still don’t have really good, validated tools to assess the cultural skills of military personnel, even after the number of years of these cultural training programs, assessing the learning outcomes, was never really received the kind of investment that it needed to be able to demonstrate those quantitative outcomes to the same degree that you have with language.”

Allison Abbe

Measuring this stuff is hard, and even if done to some degree, is going to be imprecise.

Many military leaders have an almost monastic devotion to “measures of effectiveness” – perhaps a result of decades of being told to read business books for good ideas on fighting wars.

Followers of the blog will know that I have an against the grain take on measures of effectiveness – especially if you read the last newsletter. Often, they get in the way of achieving actual results in lieu of just doing something we can measure.

My take – good cultural training will result in taking fewer “L’s” on the battlefield and avoiding silly own-goals. But we are highly unlikely to see a “big win” as a result of cultural training. The best you can hope for – I think – is praise from partners or enhanced relations over time. Not very exciting, really.

But preventing those losses can actually lead to victory.

This has to do with the “strategic corporal.” As a senior leader lamented to me back in 2011 – “The problem with the strategic corporal is that it doesn’t work in the positive, it only works in the negative.” What he meant, was that the strategic corporal is usually only strategic when he or she makes a mistake. And this is almost always tied to a cultural faux-pas.

And yes, it can also be a strategic lieutenant, captain, command sergeant major, or general.

As someone who is deeply invested in language learning and culture – I honestly do think this is important. We should spend time and energy understanding one another. Especially if we’re showing up with guns.

However, I think that the most important cross-cultural skill is simple respect. It translates everywhere and is tried and true. It’s easily understood and we can practice it daily.

Lastly, this episode focuses mostly on “big picture” cultural programs designed to train conventional forces. The special operations community has maintained (and continues to grow) its language and cultural programs, although focused on a much smaller population.

The authors’ key takeaway is that when we inevitably return to re-establishing cultural education programs, we ought to take a hard look at our recent (and not so recent) past before we start building the CONOP.

One-hundred percent agree.

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That E-5 Work Ethic

As the saying goes, the rifle team leader is the hardest working person in the Army.

It’s a nod to the fact that the rifle team leader is always moving, never satisfied.

The rifle team leader is a fighting leader.

The rifle team leader does.

This isn’t to take away from other levels of leadership, it’s just a fact.

It is where the rubber meets the road.

There is something to be said for the E-5 work ethic. It’s powerful. And it’s not something that should be discarded when you make rank and move into managing personnel or teams.

Don’t get lazy.

Even if you were never enlisted, it is something to aspire to.

Get up and move. Fight your war.

Put in the work.

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A return to extended field training

I have to preface this post with a few warnings.

First, I know there are some units and job specialties that never got away from extended field training. There are also some training events, tank gunnery, for example, which almost always serve as a form of extended field training.

Second, I don’t actually “love” being out in the field – as others might claim they do. I enjoy training, and I view being out in the field as a necessary part of being in the profession – this is how we train. That doesn’t mean I enjoy being bitten by strange insects, being overly cold or hot, sleep-deprived, and away from friends and family. “The field” is where we train – so it must be endured.

Third, this is an Army-centric observation. But I’d be curious to know how extended training exercises have (or have not) changed in the other services since the beginning of the GWOT.

Finally – I love my smartphone and bring it with me to the field (when appropriate/allowed).

Ok, warnings complete.

The below is a trend that I have observed over the past twenty years and something that I’ve been thinking about recently, as the profession turns towards thinking about how to train and prepare for future conflicts.

When I first joined the Army, just before the start of the GWOT, it was not uncommon to conduct extended field training at home station. These were not field exercises tied to an upcoming CTC rotation or pre-mission training for a pending deployment. These were just training exercises that we did regularly. Ten-day field problems, in fact, seemed to be the gold standard. Deploy to the field on a Monday or Tuesday, and come back the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week.

Of course, this meant that you would be training over a weekend.

These were painful training exercises where days dragged on and bled into one another. We lost track of time and what day it was. And it wasn’t fun to be out in the field for that long away from family, friends, and civilization.

Ten days is a long time, and it is almost certain to rain.

But I’d be lying if I said these weren’t some of the best training experiences I’ve ever had. You just can’t replicate the training value of extended field operations. You can’t replicate it with classes, VR simulations, hip-pocket training, or out-and-back field problems where you don’t actually live, eat, work, and sleep in the field.

Being out there over time has its own value. You learn things about yourself. You learn how to adjust your kit. You learn fieldcraft from your peers. You learn how to operate as a small team, out there. You learn the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your teammates.

These extended field exercises are where units get good.

For me, these early training exercises occurred at a time before the smartphone.

When we went to the field, we were really cut off from the rest of the world. We could completely focus on training – there was literally nothing else to do.

Then the wars started.

And to quote an unknown French general: “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Lots of things changed during the first couple of years of the GWOT. One of those things was a reluctance to conduct extended field training.

I remember coming home from my first deployment and learning that conducting any type of training over a weekend would require the Division Commander’s approval. That essentially put an end to extended field training at home station. The unspoken subtext here was “you better have a damn good reason for wanting to train over a weekend.”

This was well-received by nearly everyone. We were all veterans now and had experienced real combat. Why would we need to be out in the field for over a week anymore?

This mandate – which I understand became widespread at the time – had pure intentions. It was meant to preserve family time at home at a time when we knew we would face repeat deployments. It was a good thing.

As a result, field problems at home station became increasingly short.

Smart leaders know it’s not a good idea to deploy to the field on a Monday or return on a Friday.

We started seeing a lot of two or three day field exercises.

Any training is good training, but squeezing in an FTX between Monday and Friday is not the same as being out there for five, seven or ten days on end.

This is not to say extended field training didn’t happen. It did. CTC rotations necessitate longer times in the field. And units routinely engaged in progressive train-ups (squad level STX/live-fires –> platoon level STX/live-fires –> company level STX/live-fires, etc.). Many of these train-ups occurred over longer periods of time – a week or more.

But the trend, so it appears, is that these types of extended field exercises are occurring less frequently.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the changes we implemented during the GWOT (with good intentions) are ingrained and hard to budge from. Asking a formation to stay out in the field for longer periods of time – over weekends – is tough. You are asking them to miss family events, social functions, and hobbies.

On top of this – and this one hurts – we really need to improve our electromagnetic signatures – not just with our military equipment but with our personal devices. Not only do our smartphones and watches emit signals which put us at risk of detection, but being connected (during combat) opens us up to an entire world of threats.

Source: Twitter

When cellphones – and then smartphones – emerged and became ubiquitious over a decade ago, commanders at all levels had to wrestle with their permissibility in the field. It was not uncommon early on for commanders to outright ban bringing phones to the field.

That seems to have changed as well. Banning phones seems heavy-handed and overly harsh.

We have become so accustomed to constant contact that the idea of leaving the smartphone at home teeters on unreasonable.

What if there is an emergency? What if I’m expecting an important call from someone?

It’s all very strange, because times have changed. And that expectation of constant contact is real. The world we live in today is not the world we lived in during the 1990s or early 2000s.

But the threats that we are likely to face in a future conflict have changed as well, and they are very real.

And they carry serious consequences.

These changes create additional challenges for commanders to contend with. None of them are easy.

Much of the discussion surrounding future conflicts revolve around improvements in technology and leveraging that tech on the battlefield. Getting the best tech and employing it tactically is important.

But as our own wargames (and FICINT scenarios) demonstrate, the opening shots of a conflict between great powers will likely ‘cancel out’ many of the tech advantages of each actor. With that, the side that is able to operate in a tech ‘blackout’ – while leveraging that same tech when available – will likely have the advantage.

This means a return to extended field training to develop the analog skills required when all that tech goes down. This means training in “tech blackout” conditions. This means using communications windows (to include use of personal devices) to replicate what we may face on the battlefield.

There is a way to bring back this type of training without being overly harsh about it or creating unsafe conditions. It takes deliberate planning, unit buy-in, creativity, and empathy. But it can be done.

And if we are serious about the profession, and winning the next conflict, it is necessary.

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Kicking in the cold

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Joe talks with Lawrence Tynes, former kicker for the New York Giants.

“We never know when it’s going to be our time… you just have to do it when your time comes.”

Joe Byerly, S2, E17: Lawrence Tynes- Performing Under Pressure – From the Green Notebook

I’m a lifelong Giants fan, so I really enjoyed this one. The 2007 Giants season was magical. I don’t think there will ever be a season with more intrigue. From the goal line stand in game three against Washington (which Lawrence references), to the end of the season game against the Patriots (where the Giants played their starters out of pride), the frozen game in Green Bay where Lawrence seals the victory with a 47 yarder in OT, to the incredible throw and catch in the last moments of the SuperBowl to defeat the undefeated Patriots.

After that season, I never felt like I needed to watch another football game again.

Lots of good stuff in this episode. I especially like the discussions about “being ready” as referenced in the quote above. I’ve written about this before – you don’t always get to decide when your time will come – but if you are a leader, you have to be ready. Place kickers feel that same pressure.

I am also intrigued by the leadership of Tom Coughlin – who I have a deep admiration for. When he came to New York initially, he took a lot of flak in the media because of his strict rules. His first few seasons weren’t great, and people questioned his approach. Some players bucked against his tough, old-fashioned style.

Slowly, though, the team turned.

I loved Lawrence talking about that game in Green Bay. He missed two earlier field goals – which he admits he should have made. As a fan, I remember thinking “don’t go for the field goal” when they hit that spot in overtime. Lawrence seemed to be “off.” And have no doubt, if he would have missed that field goal, every pundit would be questioning why Tom Coughlin let that happen when it was “clear” that Lawrence wasn’t feeling it that day.

But, despite the two earlier misses, Tom trusted Lawrence. And we all know the result.

Leaders find themselves in this position all the time – going to bat for someone who others may have written off. It takes real guts to do that.

What a great story.

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A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers’ Wings

That’s the title of an editor’s note from a February 1968 issue of Life Magazine. I heard about it on a recent episode of On The Media (link below).

Before the Vietnam War there was a law that banned women from reporting on the frontlines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. This week, Brooke spoke about this time to reporter Elizabeth Becker, formerly a Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, NPR’s foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times. Becker is the author of a new book: You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.

“You Don’t Belong Here” | On the Media | WNYC Studios

While the profiles of all three women were impressive and fascinating, I was struck by the story of Catherine Leroy. The lines that grabbed my attention are below:

Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.

Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she’s got three cameras around her neck and you’d think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.

There’s also this retrospective from the New York Times: The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.

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Man and Machine

This sequence terrifies me (bottom).

A hunk of metal, high above the ground, completely out of control.

The pilot’s dead and you know you’re going down.

You have to try to do something but at this point there’s really nothing to be done.

The way the world swirls through the windshield – spinning and spinning – is sickening.

The alert sounds. You don’t know what it means, but you know it isn’t good.

Pulling on the stick, trying to make it do something.

Rapidly changing gravity makes every movement a challenge.


When I first joined the Army, there was an older guy in my basic training course. He was 29 and I was 19. We got along well enough and he said he thought I should try to become a helicopter pilot. I don’t know why, but that stuck with me.

I’ve always been fascinated with helicopters. As a kid, I used to play ‘HIND‘ on an old Mac and loved trying to pilot the hulking mass low to the ground to a landing zone to drop off Soviet Spetznaz under fire.

I never seriously considered trying to fly.

Being in an aircraft as a military person is a special experience.

There is the thrill of the infil.

But there’s also the terror of the portal. Looking out the door of a Blackhawk into the night, down the ramp of a CASA at the hazy ground as it passes by slowly, or through the round porthole of a C-130 as it corkscrews for a landing under threat of attack, the world spinning and spinning.

It is a reminder of how out of control you are. You’re a passenger. You are completely at the mercy of the pilot, the crew, and the machine.

At least the pilot and the crew have something to do.

Rewatching the above clip reminded me of this horror story, about a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2005. The helicopter was carrying Blackwater contractors who all died after the helicopter was struck with a missile. Miraculously, the pilot somehow survived both the missile strike, the fall to Earth, and the subsequent crash.

The insurgents who shot down the helicopter found the pilot near the wreckage and shot him. The whole thing was captured on video and released.

It’s easy to forget that these kinds of things were happening on a regular basis in those days.

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Company-Grade to Field-Grade: Introducing ‚ÄúMaking the Switch‚ÄĚ

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jordan, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment

Tell me this isn’t true.

‚ÄúI‚Äôve heard it said that if you do the things that made you successful as a Captain when you‚Äôre a Major, you‚Äôll distinguish yourself as the best Captain in your unit.‚ÄĚ

Company-Grade to Field-Grade: Introducing ‚ÄúMaking the Switch‚ÄĚ | by CoCMD & PLT LDR | Leadership Counts! | Apr, 2021 | Medium

What are the things that junior officers should be doing as they get ready to make the switch to field grade officer?

I’m looking for answers to the following questions.

For current (or retired) field grade officers:

  1. What do you wish you knew before becoming a field-grade officer?
  2. What skills do you wish you developed before becoming a field-grade-officer?

For current junior officers:

  1. What do you want to know about becoming a field-grade officer?
  2. What perplexes you about making the switch?
  3. What rumors do you want confirmed/squashed?

For NCOs:

  1. What do you expect from field-grade officers that is different from company-grade officers?

I love this topic and I think there is a lot we can learn here. I’m looking for help. Please contact me if you have insight or would like to contribute.

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Nimitz wouldn’t make it today

Zero-defect culture.

…Chester Nimitz, before he became the famous Admiral in the Second World War, early in his career he actually ran his ship aground when he was commanding a smaller vessel… He said that… Chester Nimitz would never have made it past the next promotion board if he did that today.

THE GRIT AND GROWTH MINDSET – War Room – U.S. Army War College

I have to imagine running a ship aground is one of the cardinal sins for a Navy commander.

We’re spending a lot of time lately talking about underwriting mistakes as a way to spur innovation.

Are we doing it?

I recently reflected on the fact that I don’t actually see many people destroyed for small mistakes.

Despite that, this sense that one small error can completely derail a career is pervasive. What’s going on here?

Related – this short thread where a couple of us joke about tough obstacles. How many people out there lost their shot at some special unit or career field because they failed a single obstacle on an obstacle course?

What if that was the obstacle that double no-go’d you and sent you home?

I’m sure it’s happened before. How odd.

It’s a weird thing to think about.

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Market intelligence and trends in the “Future 100”

Another gem from The Cognitive Crucible on market intelligence.

Emma spearheaded the launch of the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence ‚ÄúFuture 100‚ÄĚ Report, which helps people prepare for emerging consumer behavior with 100 original trend predictions from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #34 Chiu on Market Intelligence and the Competition for Attention

The report is worth downloading and looking through. While each of the individual trends are interesting (some more than others), reading this in the aggregate gives you a good sense of our overall trend, the sweeping narrative, or the general direction that we’re heading in.

The concept of the “Ethical scorecard” is one that I think resonates with most organizations these days. It’s not enough to just do the work, but customers (and employees) want to know where the organization stands on all sorts of issues.

This may be a second/third-order effect of organizations ‘becoming’ people.

Some of the trends that I found most interesting below.

Mobilizing fandom.

Around the world, social media has connected the fans of hit TV series, movies, books and musicians to the objects of their adoration, and crucially, to each other. In the United States, Taylor Switf has her Swifties, Beyonce has the Beyhive and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. With a single social media post, these fans can rise as a group to boost music sales, defend their heroes against detractors, and increasingly, throw their weight behind social and political causes.

This is related to what happened earlier this year with GameStop. While not necessarily connected to an an individual key influencer, the collective culture around a specific community mobilized around a single cause, which resulted in rapid real-time effects.

This reminds me of a good NYT piece on “stan” culture. Worth the read.

Upending deepfakes.

Whether they‚Äôre disseminated by pranksters and trolls or political operatives and propagandists, deepfakes can be confusing to the public and corrosive to the social fabric. These tools of disinformation are a downside of today‚Äôs highly sophisticated applications of artificial intelligence (AI), but AI itself is the main weapon being used to disable them.

Deepfakes are important, and the technology exists now. There is a cognitive bias towards elevating what we see as truth. In the race for attention, video wins.

Still, I’m not sure yet whether the deepfake threat is hype or not. Are there any instances where this has been employed successfully with a desired result? Either way, having means to determine whether videos are real or not is going to be important.

Flexperiences.

Innovative companies are finding new ways to repurpose empty venues and assets, creating hybrid and adaptable experiences.

Empty lots become drive-in movie theaters, dine-in restaurants become drive-through take-out, a parking space becomes a micro-garden.

Most of these trends are just that – trends. Trends are flashy. Trends are fun. And they can get you a lot of attention quickly. But at the end of the day, we’re all still human, and the best stuff comes from deep work over time.

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