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.
“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…”
Another episode from the Pineland Underground. This one discusses Robin Sage, the boss level of the Special Forces Qualification Course.
On today’s episode we are joined with the SWCS Chief of Staff COL Stu Farris, and MSG (Ret) Chris Rogers. We discuss unconventional warfare and how it applies to the Special Forces culminating exercise known as Robin Sage. We address some common misconceptions that typically are associated with military exercises that occur within the local population to help inform and educate the public.
Robin Sage and Unconventional Warfare | The real story of the Special Forces culmination exercise (YouTube / Apple Podcasts)
If you’re curious about what this thing is and why it is so important (or why it seems to always surprise the media), the episode is worth listening to.
Did you ever wonder where the name Robin Sage came from? It’s in the episode.
Robin Sage, derives its name from the town of Robbins, N.C., a central area of operations for the exercise, and former Army Colonel Jerry Sage, a World War II veteran and an Office of Strategic Services, (OSS) officer who taught unconventional-warfare tactics. Steve McQueen’s character Hilts in the film “The Great Escape” was based on Sage. Sage was an OSS operative, the forerunner of today’s Green Berets and CIA.
There’s a great vignette deep in the episode (~40:00 mark) that highlights how the ethical dilemmas leaders face in training can emerge years later in very similar ways during actual operations. This one features an NCO spending a little too much time with one of the indigenous partners and finding himself at the center of an ethical dillema that includes a potential forced marriage.
A little later, they discuss the ways that war gets “harder” after the bureaucracy sets. It’s an interesting conversation, and one that I’m accustomed to hearing, but don’t necessarily agree with. The reason we get “worse” at doing things isn’t always because of additional bueracracy or pedantic military systems. It’s often (and mostly) the fact that the strategy is flawed. The whole thing is an exercise in futility. There’s only so much you can do with what you have.
If only they loosened restrictions. If only they let us do our job.
“Well if they sent us some more guys and bombed the hell out of the north, they might, uh, they might give up.”
But that will never stop leaders who are committed to winning from trying to find ways to win. It’s a Kobayashi Maru and it’s how you get the GWOT effect.
Two closing thoughts: there is a quick mention of Yuri Bezmenov, the former KGB defector who many people will know from his interview where he discusses Soviet ideological subversion efforts. Interestingly, portions of that video found its place in the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War trailer a couple of years ago which spurred some informative articles exploring that video in a wider context.
And finally, I appreciated the recognition that one of the most terrifying things in the world is walking face-first into a banana spider while doing land navigation in the woods at night.
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A couple of things struck me in the episode. The first is the role of offensive cyber operations (OCO) at the tactical level. There was a good back and forth on where that capability ought to be. And if you’ve listened to Andy Milburn on other podcasts (which you should), you know that this is one of his chief interests.
Is OCO something that needs to get “pushed down” to the Brigade or below level?
Should platoon’s have a designated “hacker” assigned?
The second thing that struck me was the way that Christian closed out the episode. Really, everything from ~47:00 on is great but I want to focus on the below, where he is honing our attention on what actually matters if we want to be successful.
What are the things that we actually want our military to do? What are the things we’re prepared to fight for? What are the actual ends of strategy? What are we trying to accomplish?
Competition is interesting, but it’s not an end in itself.
This is exactly right.
One of the toughest things for military leaders to grapple with is the fact that if the ends are not clearly defined by the most senior leaders (military and civilian) then all of the thrashing done at echelons below add up to nothing.
Matt Armstrong argues the same when it comes to “information warfare” (a term he wouldn’t use). It’s not about the tactics or getting the right words and images together. All that is about as interesting as deciding to flank left or right.
No – instead, it is about having a clear vision, a direction we are headed, or a commander’s intent. Then, eveyrone below can march in step.
And what we’re talking about is political warfare.
It all starts to fit together if you can take a breath for a moment and let it sink in.
Lastly, this piece by Colonel Steven Heffington takes the strategy argument even further. He argues that what is needed is a “theory of success.”
…a theory of success, when clear, explicit, and well considered, is the strategic version of commander’s intent. It provides subordinate or lateral actors and institutions a strategy heuristic, allowing them to make decisions about the development of their own innovative, timely, and tailored responses to the evolving context. Simultaneously, a theory of success helps limit the play of operational and strategic creativity to the logic path set forth in the founding strategy, which facilitates rapid, tailored responses and iterative evolution of strategy while reducing the likelihood of line-of-effort or iteration fratricide.
Whether you’ve read the book or not, if you have been in or around military circles for the past twenty years you’ve likely heard the thesis regarding human networks.
Towards the end of the episode, during a discussion about how the military has or has not changed, Ori, quoting military leaders he interacts with, says something which I’ve heard over and over again – also for the past twenty years:
We’re not going to be able to kill our way out of this battle. Lethality is no longer the way we’re going to be able to fix this.
He then goes on to talk about whether this might mean we need to do more/better IO, cyber, etc.
We’ve heard this line “we’re not going be able to kill our way out of this” or “kill our way to victory” a lot. And it’s usually a line that is lauded because it seems to indicate the person speaking it understands that the conflict is rife with human dynamics that need to be addressed.
And if we can pull the right levers and adjust the dials just right we can turn this thing around.
I have another take; if the problem we’re facing isn’t one that can be solved with a military solution then perhaps we shouldn’t be using the military to solve it in the first place.
When you mix flawed strategy with gung-ho leaders you get the GWOT effect.
Those leaders – who are intelligent, patriotic, and care about victory – will tear down the world looking for a way to win.
But it’s often a case of the Kobayashi Maru. These are no-win scenarios. It’s like showing up to a baseball game with a basketball team. Sure, you can retool and retrain and take all of the baseball lessons you can – maybe even hire some baseball consultants – but you’re still going to be a basketball team playing baseball.
The best you might be able to do with all of that hokum is keep things going for a while.
It’s timely given the recent rhetoric. The article discusses the fact that we don’t like talking about the reality of what a war over Taiwan would look like.
I agree with that.
It’s a good article that lays out many of the grim realities, without acknowledging the potential – and likey costlier – mission creep, however.
There are a couple of assumptions in the piece that deserve a closer look.
First, that “a majority of the American public supports defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion.” The cited poll suggests that 52% of Americans would support the use of US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Wars are often popular before they start.
And in this case, when asked if the US should commit troops to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese “attack” or “invasion” (both words were used), 52% responded favorably.
Interestingly, a smaller number (46%) support committing to defending Taiwan before the fact. The polling suggests less an interest in Taiwan and more of an interest in China.
And that resonates – I don’t think most Americans spend much time thinking about Taiwan in the same way they didn’t spend much time thinking about Afghanistan.
Until we were there of course. And even then…
Still, the author is right to raise a flag here. If we are going to commit US troops somewhere we ought to know the costs. And the costs would likely be significant in terms of both American lives and expenditure.
How popular would it be then? And does that matter?
Second, the author writes that the Army is in the midst of an “identity crisis.”
“After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and facing a U.S.-Chinese competition that seems to play out on anything but land, the Army is struggling with an identity crisis perhaps as dramatic as its reinvention after the Vietnam War.”
Two things here: that the Army is facing an “identity crisis” and the US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”
The first (identity crisis) is a major claim. I’m not refuting it, but I’m also not seeing it either.
Is the Army really in the midst of an identity crisis?
Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Certainly we’re all coming around to recognize a new reality. GWOT is over (right?) and we’re waking up after a twenty-year adventure trying to figure out what the next big thing is.
But it doesn’t feel like a crisis. It feels more like going back to work. It feels like doing what we’ve always done.
“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.“
That is what the Army is supposed to do.
Units have missions. Units train against those missions. And if called, units execute those missions.
That’s all there is.
Everything else is noise.
Second, the idea that US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”
Competition and conflict are often thought of and used interchangeably. Many make the assumption that because China is “over there” and we’re “over here” this is mostly a Navy/Air Force thing.
The reality is that competition is everywhere. Everywhere includes land. It also includes the digital world. And I don’t think the Army is spending much time navel-gazing wondering what its role is.
It’s too busy dealing with the reality of competition all over the world.
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Great interview over at From the Green Notebook with COL Everett Spain on his research and paper concerning the “Battalion Commander Effect.”
Recently, U.S. Army Colonel Everett Spain coauthored an article in Parameters titled, The Battalion Commander Effect. Spain and his coauthors found that evidence suggests Army battalion commanders are a major factor in whether or not high-potential lieutenants stay in the Army. In this episode, Joe and Everett discuss the research and dive into why self-awareness and humility are important traits for military leaders.
The research and interview is focused on the effect battalion commanders have on junior officers specifically when it comes to retention. The research shows – not surprisingly, I think – that battalion commanders have a tremendous effect on junior officer retention, for a variety of reasons.
It was only recently that I actually began to fully understand how important the battalion commander is in an organization.
Yes, of course I know their role is important – but I didn’t quite realize how critical it is. I used to think that if the subordinate leaders (company commanders, first sergeants, and beyond) were good, a battalion could make up for the shortcomings of a weak BC.
Kind of, but not really.
That battalion commander represents the battalion – inside and outside the organization. It’s hard to get past that.
It wasn’t until I’ve had both good and bad battalion commanders and numerous different positions within different battalions over the course of many years to see just how critical the battalion commander is. It affects professionalism. It affects morale. It affects retention.
Have you ever been in an organization where people like to ask “Where’s the BC?”
The chief thing that I’ve learned, and what is discussed in the interview, is that thebattalion commander set the culture.
There really is something special about that role – battalion commander – that I don’t think many people truly appreciate. The expectations are so high. We want that person to be the epitome of professionalism.
To inspire us and lead by example.
To put in the work but also go home at a reasonable hour.
To be an expert in their field – technically and tactically proficient.
To be in just as good shape as the much younger leaders.
To be firm and fair but also display empathy.
All that, at a time when the said leader is often in a mature family with older children.
I think about the leaders taking command now who grew up in the GWOT.
It’s a huge responsibility. I’m glad that the Army is doing more to find the right people for this position with the introduction of the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP).
One of the things that stood out to me in this episode was a short conversation on giving feedback – something Joe has discussed in the past as something he is working on (me too!). It’s hard to tell someone they are failing in an area or they are not hitting the mark in a certain domain. How can we do it more effectively?
COL Spain recommends leading off with a statement like “I care deeply about you, so I want to tell you…”
I like that. I think that works. For whatever reason, whenever I am ready to give a critique, I feel my body tense up and steel itself for a rebuttal – I get pre-defensive.
This other way – leading with care – disarms that.
There was a short aside towards the end discussing what the equivalent might be for the enlisted side – which leader in an organization has a significant effect on junior soldier retention?
I love that they hypothesize that it is the Sergeant First Class.
If we’re talking about retention – especially for first-term soldiers – it is that Sergeant First Class who will shape the impression of a junior soldier. I was fortunate to have a cadre of amazing platoon sergeants when I first joined the Army. Professional, firm, but with the right amount of empathy.
In Kuwait, just before the invasion of Iraq, my platoon sergeant scooped me up one afternoon to bring me to a tent that had a television because he knew that I was a news junkie. He knew who I was and he had an interest.
We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.
And it should be.
I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.
I’m not sure that I do.
I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.
That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.
Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.
It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.
Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?
“We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”
Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.
But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.
Then twenty years goes by.
When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.
What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.
“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”
I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.
What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.
So here we are.
Twenty years is a long time.
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“We’re making bank because we’re at war now. This war ends and you’re not going to be able to sustain your lifestyle.“
“Relax, man. This war ain’t ending any time soon.“
The above video is from the amazing mid-GWOT game ‘Army of Two.’
It was released in 2008 at the height of the war on terror, and the title is a play on the much-maligned ‘Army of One‘ recruiting slogan which emerged just before the 9/11 attacks.
The game is meant to be played with two players cooperatively. Salem and Rio, the two characters, are private military contractors (mercenaries) who go to war for money. The entire game is a caricature of where we were at the time.
And it was just fun to play.
I remember getting to this part of the game and nodding in agreement, because it’s a sentiment I saw over and over again. Once the GWOT started, we got into a rhythm of repeat deployments. Many soldiers came home after a year deployed with tens of thousands of dollars in their bank accounts – mainly from not spending anything over the course of the deployment. It was more money than most will ever see on their ATM receipt again.
Flush with cash, spending got a little outrageous. If you were around any military post in the early days of the GWOT, it was ridiculous how many giant HUMMERs you would see on the road.
With the deployments constantly coming, many got into a binge/purge cycle. Spend a lot of money, max out some credit cards, pay it off through the deployment.
And when contracts came up, many soldiers compared their lives (and their salaries) in the Army with what they could be making if they just got out and took a job as a private military contractor.
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.
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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