“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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The counter influence operations safety brief

I was listening to a recent podcast of The Cognitive Crucible featuring Dr. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute where they were discussing the challenge of foreign influence operations in the smartphone era. Specifically, they were discussing the fact that our service members are active target audiences of foreign adversaries, and this manifests mostly online.

To date, there have not been a lot of great suggestions on how to combat this. The most common recommendation is some version of digital literacy traning with modules that would discuss things like foreign influence operations, source checking, and bias. This sounds good – and honestly, it might be one of the only things we can do – but if the only thing we do is add another annual yearly training, my gut tells me this will fail.

Off the cuff, one of the participants in the podcast brought up the standard formation speech, and how odd it must be for a commander to have to address his or her formation and warn about foreign influence operations that are targeting them through their smartphones. Put that way, it sounds kind of conspiratorial, but we know it’s real.

Which got me wondering: are commanders out there discussing this with their formations?

Certaintly these things are known and discussed in the special operations community, but what about the rest of the military?

I’ve never been a big fan of the weekend safety brief – as both the guy in the back standing ‘at ease’ and the guy up front doing the best he can. They can sometimes seem disingenuous, often just a list of the things that need to be discussed to ensure everyone was warned.

On the other hand, the formation speech is a powerful platform for a commander to make a claim and empahsize what is important. If done well, this can have a tremendous impact. I can think back on formation speeches from twenty years ago that have stuck with me. One of my Battalion Commander’s ended every speech with “Take care of your three feet of space,” a maxim that kind of wraps up everything in eight words. Frequency, by the way, is an important tool in getting your point across. Say it, say it again, and keep saying it – the more mediums, the better.

Discussing a list of all the ways a soldier can hurt themselves or get in trouble will likely be ignored.

But what if instead of that list, a commander just spoke about foreign influence operations for a few minutes? Would that have an effect?

I don’t think it would change much, but I’ve also been repeatedly surprised by the things that I assume everyone in a formation knows, only to later learn they only just learned it after myself or someone else informed them in some innocuous way.

And at the very least, it would be informative. The military faces a litany of challenges every day, both internal and external. Foreign influence operations are one of them. We don’t have all of the solutions (and likely won’t ever have all the solutions), but just like everything in the militay, commanders play a key role. The way that a commander communicates about this specific challenge could have an impact.

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…and PSYOP in one more place

Before I pressed “publish” on yesterday’s roundup of PSYOP across recent podcasts, I paused, thinking I had heard PSYOP discussed on at least one more podcast, but I couldn’t remember.

Then, today, I remembered it was this one – straight from the Mother Ship. Really great episode that discusses narrative.

I had even made a note to write about that one. There’s a discussion on the type of skills needed to conduct influence operations (cultural competence, language proficiency, media fluency, etc.).

With slight tweaks, it’s the same argument that flag officers and senior defense civilians pounded their fists about in the mid-2000’s when we were fighting COIN.

“We need people who speak the language, soldier-scholars, a modern day Lawrence of Arabia..”.

I forget who said it (Andrew Exum?) but there is a quote somewhere out there about how if we need PhDs to fight our wars we have already lost. Maybe.

Anyway, during the discussion, there’s a question as to whether we have those folks or could get them, train them.

The reality is, building those skill sets takes a long time. Years. And specialized study. These are skills that cannot be fully trained during a standard military course.

However, they can be achieved over time. Those people exist. There are lots of folks who have put in the work. Part of the problem is by the time these skill sets are actualized, the folks who can use them are usually billeted in positions where they are no longer that useful.

Still, I think there is a way for individuals to “worm” their way to the job where they might be most effective, but it really should be the other way around. Identify talent, and put that person where he or she is needed and where their talents can be fully exploited.

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Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Originally published in 2015.

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

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Army Myths: Unhook your chest strap and you get 10% more inflation

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Before a jump, paratroopers spend a lot of time waiting around. The airborne timeline is notorious for having you show up at 0300 for a 2359 time on target, and most of the time inbetween is spent talking with the guys next to you.

Invariably, talk will turn to how much jumping sucks, and how to make it suck less.

A myth that I heard over and over from “senior” E4s and junior NCOs was that if you unhooked the chest buckle of the T-10D parachute during your descent, your canopy would get a little extra inflation. On more than one occasion I heard that it would give you 10% “more lift.”

I remember being skeptical upon hearing this at first. I understood the theory, that by unhooking the chest buckle it would theoretically allow the risers to expand out more, thus allowing the canopy to also expand, letting in more air and slowing the descent.

I dismissed their claims, and they dismissed my dismissals as naive.

The only way I’d know for sure, they said, was to try it out myself.

New paratroopers are unlikely to risk touching any of their equipment during descent out of fear – better to just ride it all in than to touch something you shouldn’t touch and risk a gory way to die.

After making a certain number of jumps and feeling confident that I kind of knew what I was doing, I decided to finally test the claim for myself. During a “hollywood” (no equipment, day time) jump on a pleasant day, I unhooked my chest strap during my descent to see if it would do anything.

It didn’t.

I fell to Earth, at more or less the same speed as I was before I unhooked the buckle.

Airborne.

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Army Myths: Don’t Lock Your Knees

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Army has experienced the mind-numbing, painfully long formation where you are forced to stand at the position of parade rest (or attention) for long periods of time, often under the hot sun. Before the event, the phrase “don’t lock your knees” will be uttered over and over again by NCOs and the E4-Mafia like a meditative mantra. In these long formations, someone will invariably pass out, spilling over onto the floor in dramatic fashion. Then a soldier or two will drag the victim to the back of the formation where he can’t be seen and left to recover, while the rest of the formation snickers at his misfortune with whispers of “shouldn’t have locked his knees.”

As a young soldier, I had no reason to disobey the orders of my more experienced NCOs, so whenever I stood in a formation, I made a conscious effort not to lock my knees. “Locking my knees”, as I understood it, was standing in a manner in which my legs were completely straight, the knee joint “locking” back so the bones of my lower and upper legs support one another, requiring no “work” from the muscles of my body to maintain balance and position. Locking the knees somehow disturbs the blood flow process, resulting in the fainting solider phenomenon.

It turns out the medical science behind “don’t lock your knees” doesn’t exactly hold up. While the advice to avoid locking knees is widespread – even outside of military communities – the actual cause of fainting is usually loss of blood flow to the brain which can be brought on by any number of things, but the act of locking ones knees has nothing to do with passing out. While the act of locking one’s knees and maintaining a rigid, completely unmoving position for a long period of time may interrupt proper blood flow, the act of locking the knees alone does not by itself cause fainting spells.

As this very scientific YouTube video demonstrates, locking your knees can interfere with proper blood flow from the legs, which in turn might result in less blood flow to the brain and ipso facto a soldier passes out.

I can remember foolishly standing in formation, trying my best to maintain a “knees slightly bent” position (as the position of attention calls for, after all) and feeling my knees “hover” inside of my pants as I awkwardly tried to maintain a good-enough but not-quite straight position. For sure, it kept me occupied, and maybe that mental occupation is what prevents fainting spells. I remember another occasion though, while deployed to Iraq, where I was standing in a change of command ceremony and started to feel nauseous and dizzy. I started having a cold sweat and I felt like I was going to pass out. I knew not to lock my knees and wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. Thankfully, the formation ended before I took an embarrassing spill, but thinking back on it, the likely cause was dehydration, as just about everyone had dysentery at the time.

Like most Army myths, this one will continue to spread – and I have a feeling that some will aggressively defend it as fact, despite the lack of hard scientific evidence. While locking your knees might affect the flow of blood, there is no evidence that says that it actually does.

Thankfully, I’ve spoken with a few NCOs who have privately confessed that they’ve been locking their knees in formation for years – because it’s easier – and they’ve yet to pass out.

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Army Myths: There is no “right” way to lace your boots

One of the first things I learned as a new soldier was how to lace my boots. I remember sitting there with a boot tucked between my legs and holding the ends of a long black boot lace in each hand and asking the guy next to me if there was a “right” way to lace my boots.

“Yeah, left over right, the whole way up.”

Left over right, the whole way up.

Why?

Because “we always start with our left” or something like that.

For over a decade I have always laced my boots this way, left over right until complete. When I ask others what the “right” way to lace my boots is, they confirm that it is left over right.

It turns out this is another myth. DA PAM 670-1 says nothing about how the laces are to be crossed, only that:

According to the regulation, there is nothing wrong with going right over left, or going back and forth between the two, or – unfathomable – some kind of random design.

All this said, I’ve always done it left over right and I like the way it looks.

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“Tell them I held the line…”

Originally published in 2012.

Tell them I held the line…

I just finished Mass Effect 2, having rolled into it right after playing Mass Effect. 

I know I could have looked online to see how to make it through the last mission with everyone, but I enjoy playing the game blind – it’s more realistic that way.

Everything was going well on the Collector Base, and when I had to choose a leader for the diversion team, I thought Mordin would be a good choice given his background with the Salarian Special Tasks Group.

Well, that didn’t work out, and Mordin didn’t make it.

The rest of the squad made it, but only Dr. Chakwas from the Normandy.

I’m looking forward to finishing the fight, sometime before Christmas.

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Mental health and suicide in the Army – A lesson from Mass Effect

Kelly Chambers. BA, Psychology.

Originally published in 2012.

This past week has seen a couple of sobering reports released by the Pentagon concerning suicide in the military. The first confirmed that in the first 155 days of 2012 there have been 154 confirmed suicides by active duty servicemembers across the force. 136 servicemembers were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

On Wednesday, suicide was named as the second highest cause of death for servicemembers (after combat), outpacing car accidents, cancer, and other causes of death.

Suicide has been a growing problem for the Army over the past ten years. Understandably, people often point to the pace of deployment and the over-stretching of the all-volunteer force as the likely antagonizer. It makes sense to assume that deploying the same people over and over again might result in an increase in mental health issues (which it might). But in the Army’s 2009 study on suicide, 79% of soldiers who committed suicide had one or no deployments. So while the pace of deployments might have an effect on overall mental health, it does not correlate with the increase in suicides.

What this means is that we still do not know why this is happening.

For its part, the Army has worked hard to try to combat suicide. Even before I got out of the Army in 2006, suicide was already a topic that was treated seriously by commanders. If someone threatened to kill himself – even in jest – it was a threat that needed to be taken seriously.

I’ve been back in the Army for under a year, but I have already seen the introduction of some great programs that are intended to get ahead of mental health problems and ultimately suicide. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a program designed to build “resilience” in soldiers (and family members) to prepare them for the rigors of not only combat and military service, but life in general.

I have not taken the Master Resilience Trainer Course (yet) but I have taken some of the individual modules while at IBOLC. Without question, the program requires a “buy in” from the participant. Essentially, the person engaging in CSF needs to “want” to get better or become more resilient. In a military where a mental health stigma still exists, getting that “buy in” is the hard part. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take the course before leaving Fort Benning. I’ve already bought in.

Anyway, like the title of this post hints, I’m going to talk about Mass Effect. Readers of this blog know that I take inspiration from fantasy – be it art, music, or video games. I’ve been playing the series for the past couple of months and recently began playing Mass Effect II. One of the things that stuck me was the presence of Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy. Kelly serves as Commander Shephard’s Executive Assistant, but she also serves as the chief mental health officer. Her job is to monitor the mental health of the entire crew to ensure that any problems can be addressed before they come to fruition. It struck me as the kind of thing that would be helpful at the platoon, company, or battalion level.

Given the nation and the Army’s shortage of mental health professionals, it would be aspirational at best to try to implement something like that across the force.

Still, it made sense to me that there should be someone – a human being – monitoring the mental health of the fighting force over a period of time. Questionnaires and tests are okay, but they lack the understanding that a person who has been around for months or years would have. I think if CSF is implemented effectively across the Army, the platoon MRT might serve this role. While not a true mental health specialist, this would be preferred to the little that is in place right now.

Be it mental health specialists at the platoon/company/battalion level, effective use of the CSF program, or something we haven’t though of yet, it is clear that something more needs to be done to address suicide in the force. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but when I see something that I think might be helpful, I’ll bring it up. Thus, the vignette from Mass Effect.

Here is a great resource from the Army G1 on Suicide Prevention.

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Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

This event, entirely fictional, is inspired by chapter 33 of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, Lawrence lays out his vision for how the Arab Revolt  might defeat the Turks in Arabia. In this, I lay out the counter-insurgent’s dream, a fantastical imagination of the introduction of the Reaper, a la Mass Effect fame, as the ultimate weapon in counter insurgency.

About four weeks I spent lounging in that stuffy barracks, eating – no, gorging – on what they allowed, my body soaking up the calories, exhausted from weeks of neglect. As usual, in such circumstances, my mind began to spin and process, finally turning towards that perpetual thing, war, but more accurately, insurgency. Till now, our moves and methods were built upon our mistakes and their remedies, solidified in doctrine and then presented as the final antidote, tried and deemed successful, though it was not. So, in this forced mental solitude, I began to look towards those things I knew of the subject from study and experience, as well as my many digital travels. In this caffeine-free environment, my brain shrunk and made the world around me a haze, in which I pondered the subject at hand.

I am as well read as any on the subject. I have read Petraeus, McChrystal, Kilcullen and Nagl. I follow @abumuqawama and the War Kids. I’ve read the ideas and actually did them, seeing their effects, better now with the luxury of time, distance, and results, or lack thereof.  All this has resulted in me and my peers an almost unquestioning acceptance of the way – drink tea, be nice, be patient.

To win, it is argued, the key lay in the population. Win them, their hearts and minds, and you shall know victory. It had become an obsession of ours. Learn the language, study the culture, be persistent and kind and absorb casualties if needed but by all costs, win the population. Then, and only then could one expect to find victory. Now that l was in this broken, recovering state, it became unclear to me if this goal was worthy and just. What again, did we want this for and why were we doing so much to achieve it?

The barracks ebbed and flowed with the chow hours. Breakfast followed by post-breakfast naps, then lunch and then more napping. Only come dinner did the camp come alive. Debate mixed with the agonizing stories of recent failure. While they gossiped, I lay in my bed, lower back aching from too much rest – the king’s ailment – and thought more of our aim in this war. Win the population. Only we showed no prospect of winning anybody’s population.

I flopped over on my bunk, relieving the pain in my lower back temporarily and closed my ears to the nonsense around me. What if winning the population was not the key? Maybe the goal was in fact, the destruction, or at least the permanent defeat of the enemy, that vapour, blowing where it listed. Population be damned.

A trio of soldiers laughed and debated the merits of wholesale annihilation vice the softer approach. I listened in as one made his point, struggling to convince the others of the foolishness of such a barbaric tactic. They would come to no conclusion.

This unending insurgency, this vapour, how to defeat it? The tools provided, we knew not, with any certainty, if they worked. A confluence of events in that vilified theater led to a sort of victory, while those same events attempted to be replicated in the virtuous theater, are at this time indecisive. Perhaps to win the long war, winning the people is the essence and necessity. But what might be done in the interim? Better, a cheaper, yet permanent solution that does not annihilate the insurgents but threatens as much?

They wanted after all, the removal of us from their lands – an understandable goal if ever there was one. To do so they harassed and sniped and bombed and generally caused havoc, not just for us but for the people of whom we have made it our goal to win. As much as we killed them, which wasn’t much enough to secure victory, we could not do so to that end. They fought for their own freedom, or notion of it, and we ours. Killing to killings end would not accomplish these war aims.

Days went by and my gorging increased before slowing to something recognizable. Vigor returned in small doses and I milled about, chatting lightly and raising spirits with riddles and games. My chief concern, as fantasist, lay still with the house of war, it’s tactics, strategy, and psychology, for my personal duty was service, and my service was to all.

The first confusion lay with the idea that this enemy could not be destroyed, or again, defeated. Their base was their idea, and how does one really kill an idea? This, given the proper gathering of intelligence, technology, and imagination might be overcome.

To hold this territory of square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps two hundred thousand square miles, we would need troops there, on the ground. Impossible! Yes, but perhaps, the counterinsurgent would argue, we could partner with the locals, our host nation brothers and sisters who would exponentially increase our numbers. True, I say, but would it yet be enough? And to be there and to win the population? And even then, we know they will not come to fight us with an army of banners, lest it be online, in the info-space. No, they do indeed come as an army, in small numbers, happy to exploit our size and vulnerability, knowing fully we must be careful in our application of violence to win the population. Armies, it was argued, are like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. They, the enemy, they are the vapour. Their kingdom lay in the mind. A regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only where he sat and subjugating only what he could poke his rifle at.

Yes, all this being true, to do the deed as we know it, we would need hundreds of thousands of light infantrymen, with support, to garrison the land. An expensive and altogether unlikely scenario.

Now then, we get to the rub of his whole thing. Let us take the assumption that what we need to win is an immovable Army large enough to poke his rifle at whatever it is he seeks to subjugate. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Instead of drafting the rank and file for the colourless duty on the imperial frontier, why not leverage the incredible advantage in technology that we solely possess and develop and deploy a new concept of counter-insurgent?

Imagine a gigantic spider of steel and electrons, nuclear powered and nearly invulnerable to small arms and explosives. Tall and wide, imposing and always there. Part of its weaponry is its size, imposing, a mobile skyscraper. Rooted into the ground, an immovable army – only it moves! Rapidly it does, descending from the air or creeping along the land, watching all around, threatening to strike. It is ever present and sinister. That is the nature of it, to strike fear into the hearts of men who wish to oppose it. It cannot be defeated, only avoided. And even then, assisted by its junior siblings, the drones, and their network of spies, it captures the vital element of the modern battlefield – information – and quickly processes that into a strike from it’s all seeing eye.

Yes, this might be the irrational tenth, the kingfisher of the pond, the test of generals, for there lay in this no real predecessor except in the minds of children and mad men.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain over all. To engage in ground combat with the insurgent is madness. It provides the enemy with that chance to fight and win against an icon of his hatred. To send the Reaper, is to show that there is no hope. It cannot be defeated. It can be there forever or be there not at all, only to return in an instant.

Some, understandably, might object to the black nature of such a weapon. Is this not more humane than the alternative? Flooding a land with hundreds of thousands of individuals all guided by their own hearts, attempting to stroke a hostile population to neutrality, instead of deploying a dozen Reapers to act as statues of justice?

Battles in Arabia or its cousins were a mistake, since we profited in them not at all. But if we must, honesty may do more for the case of victory than ill-conceived notions of pure intent. Our power is not in patience or numbers, but technology and imagination. Our developments have been lateral, not horizontal. We saddled our trucks and troops with armor and a brief class on “culture” and called them counterinsurgents. Our power is our strength, and a failure of imagination stunted its development and deployment.

Time passed, and my weight restored, somehow more natural than even before. These thoughts solidified and were packaged and stored away.

It seemed to me that our forces are strong but not prepared for the enemy they face. Our enemy is sophisticated only in that it faces us as we are and not as we should be. Our own population is supportive so long as we remain safe, and so enamored by technology are they that the introduction of the Reaper would be the crown achievement and marvel of our time. On its first landing, the absolute folly of opposing it would become apparent, and in that the war would be won.

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