The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.

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Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

This episode is for the SOF nerds who understand the importance of foreign language capability in special operations.

It is also for those who want to know a little more about the language and culture programs that make, train, and sustain Army SOF.

Language, regional expertise, and cross-cultural competency (LREC) don’t get the same attention as sniper teams in ghillie suits or a bunch of operators touching down on the roof of a house off of a little bird.

But have no doubt, as Special Forces officer Tim Ball says in the episode, it is language ability (and the cultural-competency that comes with it) that sets Army special operations forces (ARSOF) apart from its peers in the other services (Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders, etc).

The episode is a deep-dive on ARSOF language training, to include:

  • Language standards have increased over time (From 0+ -to 1+ on the Oral Proficiency Interview as a graduation requirement)
  • The numerous language programs inside of SOF beyond initial acquisition, including advanced unit training, foreign immersion, operational unit exchanges, and on-demand computer-based online training (with live instructors)
  • The use of virtual reality to enhance language ability and cross-cultural competency

I really appreciated some of the comments that Tim made. He highlights the fact that ARSOF traditionally works with a partner force, and that parternship inherently involves lots of face-to-face communication.

The ultimate aim of language training is to prepare the SOF soldier to instruct and communicate in the target language – to stand up in front of a tough, dedicated fighting force, and communicate to them what it is they need to do.

Tim admits this is hard – not everyone achieves that level of language fluency.

But some do. And in just about every SOF unit, there is “that one” who really gets the language and becomes the de facto communicator on the team.

At the very least, the fact that every SF/CA/PO soldier goes through significant language training provides them with the tools they need to exchange basic expressions and pleasantries. Like it or not, there is an “ugly American” stereotype that precedes us everywhere we go. If you can blast through that by demonstrating basic understanding of the language, it goes a long way.

Related, Tim also wrote a great article on War on the Rocks discussing the role of language in special operations – and the fact that we’ve gotten better.

If you’re not already a subscriber of the Indigenous Approach, you should be. It’s a must-listen for me and bumps my queue every single time.

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Army and Air Force, working together (in information warfare)

New article up at MWI on the importance of bringing service-specific IO folks together in training and operations.

There are so many reasons to bring together the different IO stakeholders across the services. And while the below is the last reason, I actually think it might deserve top-billing.

If nothing else, even just the unique qualities everyone brings to the fight based on their respective service’s culture enables joint access to potential capabilities and personnel that might otherwise be missed or overlooked.

Breaking Out of Our Silos, Modern War Institute

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Taking care of our own

I said everything I need to say about this in the below tweet.

In this episode, COL Eric Kreitz, the 1st SFC(A) Director of Information Warfare sits down with the 1st SFC Chaplain COL Chris Dickey. They discuss COL Kreitz’s very personal story – one of fear, addiction, and hitting rock bottom…but also one of resilience, support, and overcoming adversity. 

The Indigenous Approach – Caring for Our Most Important Resource

The audio is a little off, but it’s worth it.

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“We don’t need any more lines and arrows”

I’m thoroughly enjoying the 1st Special Forces Command new podcast – The Indigenous Approach. They recently wrapped up a 3 episode series on the Special Forces “identity crisis” which is fantastic.

There’s some great quotes throughout the series, but I’m going to pin this one from Special Forces SGM Dave Friedberg who jumps out first to answer the question “how are we going to address the SF identity crisis?”

We take the missions that our units are assigned, we come up with the training guidance, and then we train our units to accomplish our assigned missions. Period, end of story.

SGM Dave Friedberg, Alpha company 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces group sergeant major

I love that. It cuts through all the nonsense and gets right to what is important – training for the assigned mission. If we’re doing that, the rest falls into place.

And then to add the flair you would expect from a senior non-commissioned officer, he closes with this.

I don’t think we need any more lines and arrows, I don’t think we need any more references to the NDS. I think everyone understands what the new threat is, and we just power it down to the companies and let the senior NCOs and Team Sergeants take charge of the training.

Perfect.

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The Ghost of Iraq

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

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On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one‚Äôs family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

‚ÄúISIL capitalized on soldiers‚Äô fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military‚Äôs ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration ‚Ķ reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.‚ÄĚ”

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside¬†in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

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Army Culture: The M9 as Vanity Weapon

Military Generals Talking

One of the enduring legends of the 82nd Airborne Division concerns Generals Ridgway and Gavin. Both were highly regarded, and one of the stories that continues to circulate about them is how they both insisted on carrying soldier’s weapons in combat. General Ridgway was always seen with hand grenades clipped to his gear (see left), while General Gavin carried a rifle instead of the more convenient Colt M1911.

The weapons that they carried have become a part of their legacy.

Today, the M9 Beretta has replaced the M1911 Colt as the Army’s service pistol.¬†I am not the first to describe the M9 as a vanity weapon, one that denotes status more than anything else. Commanders, staff officers, and anyone wily enough to finagle one from the Arms Room can be seen on this or that FOB with an M9, which mind you, is much easier to lug around a sprawling base than a rifle or machine gun.

Back on my first deployment, those who had the M9 kept it in a drop leg holster during the war, and then everyone seemed to acquire very slick-looking leather shoulder holsters once things settled down and we moved to larger bases. The higher the rank, the nicer the holster.

What weapon a soldier carries becomes a source of gossip for other soldiers, especially if it seems incongruent with that soldier’s duties. I’ve been in some units where the Commander and First Sergeant are the only soldiers to carry a specialized optic that would probably be more useful to someone near the gunfire. A soldier that carried an M9 around would often get quizzed by more grizzled NCOs on whether or not they had actually qualified on the M9. Those who didn’t have an assigned M9 generally derided those who did – unless of course, they suddenly had the opportunity to sign for one themselves.

At the end of the day, going to the chow hall with an M9 is so much easier than with an M4.

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Army Culture: The stupid hierarchy of Army uniforms

I was in Walmart yesterday getting a key copied on my way home from work when I was approached by the store manager, an older, polite man. He smiled as he quickly glanced over my Multicam uniform and said “You going over or just coming back? You look like you just got back.”

“No, I’m heading over,” I responded.

The kind smile washed away from his face and he seemed suddenly sad. He patted my back lightly, “Ah, well good luck,” he said in a low tone and walked away.

Walking around post or around town in Multicam, people know you are either “going over” or coming back.

One of the first things I noticed when I joined the Army in 2001 was the stupid hierarchy of Army uniforms. Stepping off the bus in civilian clothes, you are the lowest of the low. There is no question to anyone around you that you are brand new and you don’t know shit. On day one you get issued the physical fitness uniform – black shorts and gray t-shirt. New soldiers who arrived a few days earlier are already wearing the Battle Dress Uniform (now the ACU) complete with real Army boots. Those soldiers look down on the ones who only have PTs, who in turn look down on those wearing civilians.

And on and on it goes for your whole military career.

Multicams though, are unique in that they are only worn when a soldier is about to deploy, signaling to other soldiers that he or she is on his way out. There was a period of time where we were deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan in ACUs and soldiers didn’t get to enjoy the jealous looks from soldiers who haven’t deployed yet and the sad misunderstandings from well-meaning civilians.

The uniform, more than any other thing, is the defining element of military service. It is probably one of the first things that pop into someone’s mind when they think of the military. For a soldier, it becomes a part of you. Over time, the standards regarding the wear and appearance of the uniform become something you¬†feel.¬†When soldiers interact with each other – especially if they’ve never met before – there is a barely conscious examination of the other’s uniform, and a whole lot of judging that takes place.

For those wearing Multicam in the days before a deployment, they tend to stand a little taller and puff their chests out a little further, knowing that they are about to actually go and do the job they’ve trained for and they’re wearing the uniform to prove it.

The way they wear it in the days and weeks after “coming back,” however, tells a much different story.

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Command Performance

There is a strange phenomenon you’ll notice when junior soldiers are around their leaders, especially in the first days and weeks that the leader shows up. It happens mostly when soldiers are in groups, lounging around, bullshitting. One of the junior soldiers might casually drop in a borderline inappropriate comment, or say something insubordinate. Usually tame at first, but often in increasing intensity. The whole purpose is to test out the new leader, to see how he or she is going to respond. The entire group is likely aware of the mild transgression – every one knows the rules and regulations.

This isn’t to say that this is a phenomenon that occurs at strictly the junior level. It happens at all levels. Junior soldiers (whether this be Privates to Sergeants or Captains to Lieutenant Colonels) test the limits of what their superiors will deal with by dropping lines and waiting for a reaction. I know I’ve been guilty of this with my bosses, both when I was enlisted and now. A firm statement to stop would be incredibly awkward and might make the superior appear “lame.” Ignoring the transgression, though, might breed a toxic culture.

Stranger, is I don’t think this “command performance” is done consciously. I don’t think someone says “Okay, now I’m going to go test the new guy, see where his left and right limits are.” I think it just happens spontaneously. Part of it is probably just trying to get noticed by your boss, and the quickest way to do that is to be outrageous or offensive.

As I’ve gotten older, I notice the ‘command performances’ that happen around me a lot more keenly. There is a purpose to it. A statement said in your presence that isn’t directly challenged might be construed as tacit permission.

For example,¬†a soldier that casually says “I really don’t like these side plates, I’ll probably just take them out” in the presence of a leader and it goes¬†unchallenged might say later when he is scolded for not wearing his side plates that he had said he was going to do it in front of this or that leader and¬†nothing was said then.

The ‘command performance’ is something to look out for. While it could be nothing, it could also be the very first sign in a long process that leads to a catastrophe. Once you recognize it exists, it’s a lot easier to spot. I don’t think the answer is to angrily reject any wild thing that is said as part of it, as that’s the fast track to isolation as a leader, but to tactfully steer the conversation back on track and demonstrate where you stand on the issue – clearly – without being a dick.

*Command Performance was a radio program that ran during World War II for deployed troops. Here’s a link to Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on one of the shows.

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