Breaking in Combat

John Spencer is having a moment.

I’ve always enjoyed his takes, mostly because the senior NCO always shines through. It’s a rare thing these days and I appreciate it.

He was recently on Mike Burke’s Always in Pursuit where they discusses John’s book, his experiences in combat, and Ukraine.

One thing that struck me was an extended discussion on the concept of “breaking” in combat. John recounts an episode in his experience where a senior NCO in his unit basically checks out. Still deployed, but didn’t do much.

Many of us who have served saw this, or a version of this.

We talk a lot about mental health now, and trying to get people the help that they need when they come home (or even when deployed). But we don’t really discuss the psychological aspects of combat and what happens to soldiers when they are overcome by fear – which is something you would expect to happen on the battlefield. It’s combat, after all.

There are still lots of folks in our ranks who have experienced combat and have seen this in action. But those ranks are thinning every day.

Something to think about.


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“I still feel strange being called a writer”

When Colin Powell passed, one of the things I wondered about was where all of his writings might be.

He’s written books – memoir. But I’ve not seen a single article written by him during his time in the Army.

You would think that there would be something out there – some article in a military journal – but so far I’ve turned up nothing.

Not everyone in the military writes, after all. In fact, it is the exception to write, not the rule.

After all, what’s the incentive?

Certainly you’ve heard of the “Powell Doctrine” and the “Pottery Barn Rule?” Well those are not things that he wrote, or even something he necessarily put forth. These were ideas ascribed to him, and in fairness, they do come from him.

Colin Powell did have a talent for boiling big ideas down into things that are actually understandable.

When Army ROTC returned to New York City, he faced down critics with a simple phrase: “Military service is honorable.

Interestingly, I came across this interview where he says the following:

I still feel strange being called a writer. I’m mostly a speaker.

What an insightful notion. Too often we think that to be a thought leader in some field you have to write. And that can certainly be true.

But crafting speeches – even if someone is crafting them for your, and then you edit – that is a form of writing. More importantly, it’s a form of creating.

I would love to see the collected speeches of Colin Powell. There are ideas in there that we don’t see, because there isn’t an article trail. Speeches – even when recorded – can be ephemeral.

It makes me think – will future leaders, even military leaders – have alternative intellectual legacy trails? Blog posts? Tweets? YouTube videos?

Probably.

For Colin Powell, why write when he could speak?

For today’s leaders, where is the most relevant place to make an impact? Is it in a military journal that is rarely read? Or is it somewhere else?


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On that day…

As usual, not much to add.

But I do have this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stuff that attracts you. The stuff that gets you in the door.

All that stuff is real. It’s there. You have to work for it, but it’s there.

It’s why you showed up in the first place.

But then there’s this other thing. It’s not written anywhere, it’s just something that you have to discover. And not everyone does.

And it turns out, that’s the real thing.

But, you only discover it in flashes, slowly.

A quizzical moment on the tarmac before an invasion.

A midnight exfil from the outskirts of a town in southern Iraq.

On the top bunk, staring at the ceiling, for the second time, wondering.

In front of a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, writing it out on a whiteborad, with blank expressions coming back at you.

In a classroom in front of future officers, hanging on your every word, without it registering.

In a tired seminar with peers, yawning.

In a video game.

In a book.

It comes slowly over time.

And then you have it.

And once it’s known, it can’t be un-known.

What do you do with that knoweldge?

I think the answer to that question says more about the person than the truth.


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The Revolution Will Be Televised

Short article with the Irregular Warfare Initiative on the primacy of information in future (now) war.

Of all the lessons of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, one stands out: the importance of achieving dominance in the information domain. From the first days of the war, Ukraine has used information to shape the course of the conflict to its advantage. But American policymakers should not be too quick to mock Russia’s failures in the information environment: the US military itself is underprepared for war in the information age, where the actions of military units and individual soldiers may go viral in an instant. As the US Army continues to reconceptualize the role of information as both a weapon and a battlespace, it should learn some lessons from Ukraine’s success.

GOING VIRAL: PREPARING GROUND FORCES FOR COMBAT IN THE INFORMATION AGE

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You are your culminating exercise

That was a comment made during a recent Pineland Underground episode.

And it strikes me as true.

When a military school is good, the culminating exercise brings it all together.

If it falls short, it might be worth relooking.


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Hyper Active Chaos

joe haldeman the forever war cover

I don’t have much to say here, other than this is a term I’m starting to see slowly seep into discussions, usually relating to large-scale combat operations (LSCO).

Maybe it will show up in doctrine at some point.

The only place I’ve found it in the wild is here (page 27).

I’m still not sure what hyper-active chaos is, though.

If you’ve got an inkling of where this comes from, please let me know.

It sounds nauseating.


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The Command Post is Dead

soldiers in a tank from the animatrix

Great podcast episode (and article full of references) over at Mad Scientist Laboratory. This one on the command post of the future.

Today’s centralized command posts are incredibly vulnerable to enemy fire, while “Command Posts-in-Sanctuary” — those out of reach of adversary strikes — are limited by communications capabilities. To find an appropriate middle ground, we should adopt decentralized, mobile command posts that can support command and control and mask their locations and communications.

410. Sooner Than We Think: Command Post Survivability and Future Threats

Tell me – why do we need to have a command post these days?

I’m not sure that we do. We need to get much more comfortable operating decentralized. Leaders (commanders) need to give clear guidance and intent. They also need to be out there, on the ground.

They don’t need a big screen to look at.

But if they do want to look at the big screen, it will be in augmented reality, via headset, while on the move in their vehicle.

And these skills need to be trained. By going to the field. For more than three days at a time.


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A Blue-Collar Approach to Assessments

green goo dripping

If you’ve been here a while, you know how I feel about assessments and measurements. If you haven’t, you can go through the social sciences as sorcery posts.

But, simply stated, I think that our hyper-focus on assessments and our obsession with metrics hinders us.

Early this summer, I wrote about the ‘dysfunctional consequences’ of measurements (originally in the newsletter), and a friend of the blog recommended this article – A Blue-Collar Approach to Operational Analysis: A Special Operations Case Study (NDU Press).

The article discusses how the authors ditched traditional assessment methods in favor of a different approach.

That, by itself, is brave.

We say we want to be innovative, but we often roll our eyes or dismiss new ideas. Especially when it comes to assessments and measurements.

The article is worth reading in its entirety by anyone interested in the topic, but I’ve excerpted some particularly interesting points below.

On how they did it before – no surprise here, always with math.

We compounded these mistakes by quantifying and aggregating everything through a complicated system of questionable mathematical models.

The new method – ditch the MOPs and MOEs and go for RoI (Return on Investment).

In late 2015, we scrapped our existing methods and charted a new path. We stopped adhering to common practices, including the strict mechanical process rooted in MOEs and MOPs. Instead, we developed what we view as a “blue-collar business case” analysis focused on measuring and articulating SOCCENT return on investment (RoI) to resources in areas of operation (AOR).

When there isn’t a clear requirement (ie: sell more widgets), measuring returns is difficult. So how do you do it? Well, this does require a little sorcery, unfortunately.

In the financial world, the requirement is clear: apply human and physical capital to generate a profit, and measuring returns is a simple accounting drill. In organizations not driven by profit, such as the military or other public-sector entities, measuring and articulating RoI is more challenging. For example, no commonly agreed-upon method exists for measuring and comparing investments and returns between training a partner SOF unit, conducting a key leader engagement with partner special force commander, or exploiting the information environment to degrade support for violent extremist organizations.

I liked their deliverables: desired returns and actual returns.

  • Desired returns: Objectives in regional plans, or the state of the operational environment that SOCCENT expected to materialize by applying SOF resources to them.
  • Actual returns: The observable impact SOF resources—through the execution of operations, actions, and activities (OAAs)—had on objectives

On the importance of going to the source to collect data, as opposed to relying on passive collection streams. Related here, is the concept of doing things in person, as opposed to via email or over the phone.

To overcome this plight, we physically went to the source of the data. 

On resisting the urge to turn everything into data. This is important. Saying things with stories and pictures is way more effective than bludgeoning with data.

After we collected, validated, and adjudicated the data, we did not aggregate the results. We kept our sleeves rolled up and wrote nuanced, qualitative descriptions of progress and gaps at the effect and IMO levels.

And finally:

Instead of stating we were yellow on a scale of red to green, we found that a narrative focused on successes and gaps in the context of each objective was the most effective form of articulating RoI. 

A good paper. And while this is geared towards operational assessment, it has application in other domains.

But, there is still work to do.


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Army Myths: You get kicked out if you win the lotto

I’ve heard variations of this one forever. Another myth that people believe and defend with aggression and violence, despite not being able to point to a regulation, source, or even a single incident where it happened.

The myth goes, if a soldier comes into a windfall of money – lottery winnings are usually the culprit here – they will be separated from service.

Why?

The reason usually provided is “because they have so much money they won’t respect rank or authority anymore.”

I’ve also heard people refer to “change of lifestyle” separation.

As usual, there is nothing to back this up.

It is true that a person can request a voluntary discharge, but there is no mandatory separation requirement or “rule” that says a request for discharge must be approved.


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