The Professional Soldier

female soldier wearing a pilot's helmet army recruiting ad

A long-standing interest of mine is the concept of the “warrior” and the way it started to permeate military culture at the beginning of the GWOT. Recently, there was a small kerfuffle over the rebranding of some Army dining facilities as “warrior cafes.”

The “warriorization” of the Army is a subject with deep roots. We can trace it back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and specifically, the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah and the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch.

Part of the problem, as the popular thinking went, was that soldiers outside of combat jobs (like infantry) didn’t see themselves as potential combatants. The Army was a job and each soldier had their role – but theirs wasn’t to fight. The early realization that the Iraq war was not going to end quickly and that the “front line was everywhere” led to a re-thinking of the culture that preceded the ambush.

As a result, we became warriors. 

We learned the warrior ethos. Modern Army Combatives, which, until then, was more of a niche hobby inside elite Army units, became ubiquitous with the publication of the Modern Army Combatives Field Manual and later TC 3-25.150. Commanders spoke to their “warriors” at formations and spoke of their “warriors” in official communications. 

It stuck. Until it didn’t.

It’s difficult to put hard dates on it, but this seemed to last from 2003 to about the early 2010s. The warrior craze seemed to just fade away as a priority. It’s still out there, but it’s not getting the attention that it once did.

That’s part of what was strange about the emergence of ‘warrior cafes.’ It seems like a throwback to those COIN years where we were just trying anything. Remember the Defense of Jisr al-Dorrea (better known as ‘those weird COIN dreams’)?

Personally, I never liked the warrior moniker and the campaign around it. It seems disingenuous. If we just call ourselves warriors, the thinking goes, maybe we would foster a more aggressive mindset.  

I always thought ‘soldier’ was a term that captured everything that was needed. And if anything, I’d say professional soldier, to distinguish it from conscription. 

I’m not alone in this thinking. Military ethicists have dug deep on this issue and can better explain why calling ourselves warriors is a bad idea. 

I’ll add something though. I think there is a connection between the warrior campaign of the early 2000s and the growth of “warrior” brands and the “warrior” aesthetic both inside and outside of the military. All of this self-reinforcing narrative has become such a strange identity marker. 

Remember those discussions, articles, and hot-takes on the “warrior-caste?” This is the idea that the US has this cadre of warriors who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to our military activity. It is true that only a tiny percentage of the population serves and this community grows increasingly insular over time. 

But most of the articles I remember reading about the “warrior-caste” were written in a barely-veiled self-congratulatory style, by reluctant warriors.

As a counter, I really liked the “profession of arms” campaign that we saw under General Dempsey. That too seems to be dying from lack of attention.

Warriors, soldiers, conscripts, victims. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with simply being all that you can be.

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What to read at ILE?

Nier Replicant shadow lord fight book

A nice, short article over at SWJ that discusses the importance of self-development – specifically for SOF planners – as they move up the ranks.

Given the nature of the rapidly expanding challenges in the current near-term security environment, planners at all levels are challenged having timely access to traditional educational opportunities such as Command and General Staff College (CGSC) for individual or other collective joint training events. This requires a greater degree of continual individual initiated professional development. 

Greg E. Metzgar, PLANNING TO READ—READING TO PLAN: A PRIMER FOR SOF JOINT PLANNING DEVELOPMENT

From what I understand, there is some free time when one attends ILE. And I’ve heard lots of different pieces of advice.

I’ve heard that it’s important to ensure that you brush up on the basics of your branch. You’re expected to be a “master” at it when you return. And these might be skills that you haven’t touched for years.

I’ve also heard that it’s important to jump into big Army doctrine, and as the SWJ article says, joint doctrine.

I’ve also heard – depending on where you go – it’s an opportunity to explore something completely different.

You can’t do it all.

So what’s the right approach?

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GWOT War Stories

night vision afghan commando raid with special forces

This is an addendum to this morning’s post.

Sometimes it is easy to get excited about some new term or piece of information. I had never heard the term “grammando” before but it instantly clicked.

That’s how you get a new post.

But the rest of that episode is terrific. It’s a long war story.

The GWOT is over, right?

Maybe.

I’m continuously struck by the numbers of folks who are still around with incredible stories of heroism, triumph, and tragedy.

We are fortunate to have such people.

Click through and listen to this setup:

“We got into a big firefight, our dog handler got shot in the head, he lived, some of our commandos got killed, our Echo (Communications Sergeant) took a machine gun round to the chest plate and it exploded his magazines, destroyed his M4, so he took an AK from a guy he shot earlier that day and used it for the rest of the mission, and at one point… their snipers were shooting at those explosives…”

Brackforce #1, ~18:50

We are very fortunate indeed.

Image Source: New York Times

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Optimal Ignorance: Information You Don’t Need

war room from wargames lots of screens

One of the best articles I’ve seen on FTGN for awhile.

“Optimal ignorance,” a deliberately contrarian term, “refers to the importance of knowing what it is not worth knowing. It requires great courage to implement. It is far, far easier to demand more and more information than it is to abstain from demanding it.”  In other words, seeking optimal ignorance requires deliberately going about not wasting energy or time on information that distracts from the primary inquiry. 

Optimal Ignorance: A Filter for Intent-Based Leadership Above the Tactical Level – From the Green Notebook

We have been trained to pay attention to detail and ‘check small things.’ And these days, we have the technology and the means to keep constant tabs on everything and everyone.

The information is all there and available.

To be truly effective, though, we don’t need all of that information. In fact, too much information becomes paralyzing.

It takes maturity and confidence to realize you don’t need to know. You don’t have to have input or an opinion, either.

This is especially true for senior leaders. Every time a senior leader speaks, there’s a good chance those words are going to get scribbled down into a book and transformed into an order, tasking, or inquiry.

Even a simple request for clarification can turn into a multi-day goose chase for obscure information.

Of course, buying into optimal ignorance requires a great deal of trust within an organization. One of those things that briefs well, but might be hard to implement.

Related to this is the concept of “just-in-time” information. To squeeze the most out of a day, your system needs to be optimized to not saddle you down with information you don’t need right now. It should arrive precisely when you need it.

I, for one, choose to be just in time and optimally ignorant.

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How important is culture training, anyway?

afghanistan shura meeting culture

I was excited for this episode on the importance (or un-importance) of cultural training / cultural awareness in military operations.

Just like the information operations episode – which I wanted to dislike – this one nailed it.

It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumption—is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simple—but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.

COIN AND CULTURE: HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN COUNTERINSURGENCY? Irregular Warfare Podcast

Cultural training has become an obsessive topic for me over the past few years. I have conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, it seems like cultural training – and especially language training – should play an important role in military operations. Knowing your adversary and the environment in which you might be operating is a no-brainer. The ability to understand what is being said and the writing on the wall will also help.

On the other hand, does that knowledge actually lead to any tangible wins? To develop the linguistic and cultural understanding we’re talking about – beyond the Wikipedia level knowledge – takes years and years of work. Is that juice worth the squeeze?

That’s what this episodes explores.

On the way military leaders treat cultural training as a “secret sauce” to achieving success:

[according to military leaders]…cultural intelligence was key to the success of counterinsurgency, or any intervention when you’re fighting wars amongst the people, and it’s held almost to be like some secret sauce – you get this understanding of the environment, you understand the people, and then you can exert influence and achieve your objective.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~7:00

Few people will push back against a senior leader saying “we need to understand the language and we need to understand the culture.” Yes, of course, that sounds good.

But why? Does it actually work? Can we demonstrate where this understanding meant something?

On politics as culture:

…politics – which is hugely important – and is the war-winning aspect of the whole shebang… Military actors become political actors and they are thrown into a deeply complex political environment and they are asked to become part of that environment…

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~11:30

We tend to think about culture as the squishy things – the little rituals and norms of a society. Placing your hand over your heart after greeting, understanding differences in spatial boundaries, etc. But politics is a huge element of culture and one we tend to place in a different bucket altogether.

Think of the United States – our politics is part of the culture. How do you even begin to explain the way politics work in the US without roping in all of the cultural influences we see at play? They are deepy interconnected.

“We’re trying to be culturally aware, but we don’t like your culture!”

Sir Simon Mayall, ~15:30

This was a great portion of the episode which gets into how we “mess up” culture all the time. Sir Mayall uses an anecdote that demonstrates how we can get culture wrong at the organizational level by doing things which may make us feel good and demonstrate our cultural leanings but has harmful effects on the operational environment.

And of course, we see this all the time at the individual level. The GWOT is rife with examples. There’s a good anecdote from the end of the foreign fighters episode which illustrates this, as well.

On the military-centrism of applied counter-insurgency:

Western military professionals respond to counter-insurgency in very particular ways. They interpret it initially as a small version of “big war,” so they devote a primarily military response to addressing that… when they realize that only gets them as far as a stalemate because military primacy only matters to a certain degree in COIN, they incorporate some other methods, some population-centric methods, they engage with the locals, build some schools, build some hospitals, but they never divert far from their preferred mode of operation which is essentially the application of the compellence of force.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~19:30

It’s not going to matter – even if you’re Lawrence of Arabia:

Even if we had units who were fully culturally aware – they spent years immersing in this… it’s just too complex with local politics, for even the best-intentioned, best-informed external actor to ever fully-understand what they’re getting enmeshed in…

Kyle Atwell, ~20:00

This is the push back we don’t see very often, and it’s accurate. There is value in cultural knowledge, but it is not going to win the war. It might make things run a little more smoothly, and it might reduce the risk of a strategic faux pas, but that’s pretty much it.

Now, there is an argument to be made for integrating cultural understanding in the strategy that informs campaigns and operations. In many ways, that’s a more difficult proposition.

But in terms of the way we typically discuss it – training individuals and units on culture – all of this seems pretty dismal, no?

So at the end of the day, should we even being doing this culture stuff?

The simple answer is yes.

Sir Simon Mayall, ~40:00

Yes, it’s worthwhile. There’s a role for it. And it’s acutally important.

But the complicated answer is yes, we should train this stuff, but don’t expect it to win you any wars.

That’s just sorcery.

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On Quiet Professionals

red lens lamp land navigation map reading

Another piece of evidence proving some of the best contemprary military writing originates from a gym in Wyoming.

Years of organizational observation, and several months of work with MTI’s Quiet Professional Discussion Groups, have reinforced for me that most Quiet Professionals are so in spite of their unit or company culture, not because of it. 

This is disappointing but understandable. Self-promotion and individual advancement dominate the cultures of most tactical units, private companies, and government organizations. The up-and-out promotional pressure of the military, and financial compensation for advancement and increased responsibility at private companies, by their nature, don’t readily reward “quiet” team members who consistently put mission ahead of self, i.e. Quiet Professionals. 

THOUGHTS ON ORGANIZATIONAL ETHOS, INCENTIVES AND STRUCTURE REQUIRED TO PROMOTE QUIET PROFESSIONALISM, Mountain Tactical Institute

If you do the work, and no one knows you did it, is it still valuable?

“Quiet does not equal silent. You’re expected to confidently and candidly speak up to improve quality and/or put the mission first.”

A mentor recently shared with me that in most units, there’s about 10% of folks who do the heavy lifting. The rest are there and doing the work, but they’re not invested in the same way.

Anecdotal, sure, but it resonates.

Maturity comes in when you recognize that this is okay. This is the way it is and you work with what you have got.

You don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.

You do the work.

That’s being a quiet professional.

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SOF Superpowers

Another episode of the Pineland Underground. This one was focused on the academic program at the Naval Postgraduate School and what that program could do for the force.

Here’s the line that grabbed my attention and inspired the headline:

“Special operations students have a superpower here – it’s not that these guys are going to split the atom or invent the longer lasting light bulb, but through their capability of navigating different cultures, navigating different groups of people, and [it’s] bringing them together around a common problem.”

Applied Design for Innovation | Graduate Program for Warfighters and Innovation Brokers, Pineland Underground

I’d argue that the superpower extends well beyond graduate school.

That’s really it, isn’t it?

“Can you get the State Department person on board? Can you get the tech startup founder on board? Can you get the neuroscientist from Stanford on board?”

Go on.

“Can you navigate all of these personalities, all these cultures, all these people, and mobilize them, understand their incentives, understand their identity, can you mobilize them around an innovation challenge?”

That’s the superpower right there. It’s less about having the power yourself, and more about unlocking it around you.

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Achievement Unlocked

hands holding the maze relic westworld

I’ve been thinking lately about what actually makes someone useful to an organization.

What are those things that really matter?

You can make an endless list, but it seems to come down to two things:

  1. Solve the organization’s problems.
  2. Unlock the organization’s resources.

On solving problems:

Your boss has a vision. Your boss has a goal. There are obstacles in the way. There are problems to be solved.

Good leaders find ways to solve those problems and to arrive at the boss’ goal – not their personal goal.

On unlocking resources:

This is the one I’ve been thinking about a lot more. Organizations – and especially large bureaucracies – are marked by red tape. There’s an obstacle everywhere that impedes progress.

Ineffective leaders gripe, complain and become cynical.

“The system is stupid,” they say, as they look for ways around it.

Effective leaders recognize the red tape and work their way through it to unlock the resources.

“The system is stupid, but…” they say, as they work their way through it.

The bureaucracy is a behemoth – and when wielded can do incredible things.

But you have to do the work.

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Colin Powell’s 13 Rules

colin powell rotc cadet

I have a framed copy that sits on my desk. There is something here for everyone. #1 is my favorite and my go-to. I use it all the time.

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think! It will look better in the morning. 
  2. Get mad then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it. 
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. 
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. 
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding. 
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

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Coloring outside the lines

coloring outside of the lines red green blue yellow

I recently heard this phrase used by another leader in reference to finding innovative ways to solve a problem.

“Color outside the lines.”

Of course, I’ve heard this phrase before, but never in the same context as “think outside the box.”

This struck me as a better phrase precisely because I can picture it.

I don’t really know what you want me to do when you ask me to think outside of the box. What box? Why do I need to think outside of it?

But coloring outside of the lines – yup, I got it. We’re supposed to color inside the lines, or so we are led to believe.

When things are going well, sure, we can color inside the lines and make a beautiful picture.

But sometimes we need to move fast and we might need to get a little messy.

We color outside the lines and finish the picture. It ain’t great, but it’s done.

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