Sniper-baiting: “The oldest trick in the book”

MGS1-Snake-Sin

This is essentially one of the nightmare scenarios that opponents of women in the infantry use to deflate the argument. In a mixed infantry, the argument goes, (some) men will be unable to control themselves when their female comrades are in harm’s way. Their masculine protective instincts will kick into gear, and they’ll be unable to perform their soldierly duties properly.

Somehow, Solid Snake manages.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Army Myths: The way you’re supposed to wear the blue cord (infantry)

Pay day activities, uniform inspection, whatever the event, when infantrymen start putting on their dress uniform, there will always be “that guy” who insists there is a certain way that the blue cord is supposed to be worn. I’ve seen senior NCOs pinch both sides of the cord with their thumb and index finger to test for “thickness,” insisting that the “fat” side goes to the rear (or to the front, who knows). I’ve also heard others say that the loop that grasps the button is supposed to be facing a certain direction as it comes off of the cord.

This is another myth. DA 670-1 indicates how the blue cord is worn, and it’s pretty simple:

DA 670-1

It’s worn on the shoulder, attached to the button. No thickness, no directions. Pretty simple.

Related: turning the buttons of the Class A’s/ASUs a certain way so that the eagles on them face this or that direction in times of war. More nonsense that gets passed around from generation to generation.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers

A little over a year ago I developed a little obsession with the ballet. I had just seen Black Swan, and left the theater in downtown London wanting to know more about the ballet and the lives of the dancers. I understood that the film was a work of fiction and overly dramatized, but I was drawn to the psychological drama, the monastic dedication to the craft, and the apparent isolation felt by the dancers. I was excited to learn more about the ballet, but couldn’t help but think that Black Swan might be to (some) dancers as The Hurt Locker was to (some) soldiers. That is, an overly dramatic account of a poorly understood segment of the population.

I started to look up reviews of Black Swan, particularly from dancers. Almost universally, dancers disliked the film for similar reasons some soldiers disliked The Hurt Locker: emphasizing popular stereotypes (aggressive, reckless soldier / psychologically distraught, anorexic dancer), errors in the details (wrong uniforms, unlikely TTPs / poor dancing, “ballerina-as-victim” motif). Both movies were critically acclaimed, and the attention that they received because of the Academy Awards raised the conversation concerning each of the films (The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009 and Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010). Soldiers and veterans interviewed for whatever reason were often asked their opinion of The Hurt Locker. And some prominent veterans strongly raised their voice in opposition to the film. Dancers interviewed in newspapers and on morning television shows were often ambushed with the question of how they found Black Swan. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a dancer meeting someone at a party. “What did you think of Black Swan” probably is to dancers as “Did you kill anyone” is to veterans – the follow up question to learning ones’ unique profession.

Interested, I began to dig deeper. I saw the parallels of ballerinas and soldiers – especially infantrymen. A lot of my tougher friends who would be turned off by the ballet by default might not understand the athleticism required to dance. I was certainly oblivious to it. There was a scene in Black Swan, thought, that clicked for me. It was a montage scene where Nina (Portman) was preparing for her role, dancing, and at one point laying on an examination table being assisted by a doctor. Then, there was a scene of her taking a break, sipping water at a fountain and refilling her water bottle. It was at that point that ballet stopped being this airy, flirty thing to me and became a tough discipline that requires hard work and constant attention. It reminded me of so many sessions at the gym, early morning runs, or finishing a foot march and going straight to my canteen, trying to replenish myself before stepping off again.

Since I was in London, I signed up for the Royal Ballet’s ‘student standby’ program for students, which provides discount ballet tickets for students. I went to the ballet as often as I could, and began reading about it in newspapers and blogs. I looked for memoirs by dancers, finding Winter Season by Toni Bentley. Reading it, I made notes on the parallels:

“During the performance, things are cancelled, added or rearranged, according to the casualty level of the performance. If a dancer is injured, the ballet must be re-rehearsed for the understudy…” p. 32 (The mission must be accomplished, succession of command – PL, PSG, WSL, etc.)

“I saw Raging Bull yesterday and of course thought of the tragic sadness and frailty of those whose life is based on they physical – fighters and dancers.” p. 49

“But too often, meeting an ‘outside’ person involves the usual cross-examination: Where are you from? How long have you been dancing? What’s it like working with Balanchine? What did you dance tonight? We have a lot of jokes about pre-recording our answers. Of course people are curious (they’d better be!). We are unique, yet on a human-to-human level, this is very dull and finite in possibility. p. 55 (“What it like over there? Do you have to go back? No? Thank god. Did you ever kill anyone?)

“If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” p. 60 (Train as you fight)

I exchanged emails with the author about these strange parallels. She, of course, demurred to the idea. Anytime someone on the “outside” compares their profession to that of soldiers or their arena as a battlefield or war zone, they attract the ire of veterans groups and political commentators (see Antre Rolle of the New York Giants, for example). As an “insider,” though, it is more appropriate, or at least more socially acceptable for me to make these kinds of connections.

On a physical level, I’m struck at importance of feet in both crafts. Dancers and soldiers alike spend a great deal of time finding the perfect shoe/boot and perform superstitious rituals to make their footwear fit as perfectly as possible. Dancers rough up the bottoms of their dance shoes, soldiers soak boots in water to break them in. Underneath, feet are rubbed, blistered, callused, and torn apart.

I’m not the only one who has made these connections. A new friend, Roman Baca, served as a Marine in Fallujah and is the founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. He’s a fellow with The Mission Continues and recently went back to Iraq to convene a dance workshop.

What this all tells me is that there is something here. There are these two communities out there, dancers and soldiers, who represent a tiny portion of the overall population, hold a unique and grossly misunderstood profession that is wildly stereotyped and exploited in the media, and who often struggle in transitioning from a profession that is largely based on physical prowess to something more sustainable afterwards. Nothing, though, ever compares to the thrill of of doing that job, be it dancing or fighting.

Where this goes, I’m not sure. But it’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year and getting it out there might inspire more thought.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

“Someday this war’s going to end…”

“Someday this war’s going to end…”

The majority of my peers at IBOLC are younger than me, hovering around the age of 23. Many of them were just finishing elementary school on 9/11. They grew up with The War as a constant, something that began when they were barely cognizant of what was happening outside of their neighborhood. We fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and there was little reason to think that it would ever stop. At some point, they decided that the military was right for them. They waited patiently until they were old enough to enlist, and then chose to delay a few more years in order to go to school and join as an officer.

Before even arriving at IBOLC, they signed on for additional years of service or swapped assignments at great units or duty stations in order to get to a unit that is deploying shortly.

Iraq is over (for us) and Afghanistan seems to be not too far behind. It was only a few years ago that joining the Army meant a guaranteed deployment. It was not a matter of if but when. Training was tailored to the operating environment. COIN was the name of the game.

Although a deployment to Afghanistan is still possible for many of us, if things fall the way they are planned, this might be the first crop of new infantry lieutenants who miss the show. This has sparked an anxiety among many of my peers that they are going to lack combat experience and that void might stunt them, professionally or personally.

As someone who has already deployed, I don’t feel that same urge to chase deployments. I’ve got my stuff, and make no mistake, getting the stuff is one of the incentives of going. I’d be happy to deploy and would do so with enthusiasm. But clawing my way to the tip of the spear just to see it one, more, time, before it packs up and leaves for who knows how long seems foolish. Go where the Army tells you and do the best job that you can, whether it is forward or in the rear. To me, that seems like the best course of action.

In Nate Fick’s book, One Bullet Away, he talks about the difference between “golden memories and ghosts.” Serve in the military and do good things, and you’ll be rewarded with golden memories. Chase that deployment, and you’ll be cursed with the ghosts. I thought that was a pretty apt description.

I also remember reading a quote somewhere by a French military officer (I think) that went something like “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Yet, I completely understand why a brand new lieutenant would do whatever it takes to get to a deploying unit right now. The window feels like it is closing fast. There’s a fear of being that guy who just missed it, and who has to walk around with a bare right shoulder until he gets another opportunity, which may be never.

What advice can I give to someone who wants to deploy? Once you’ve been there, you know it’s not worth chasing – even though there is that urge to go back and try to experience it again. Time and distance atrophies all of the bad memories and raises the good ones to the top. But if I sit and think for a minute I can clearly remember how much a deployment can suck. I’m sure it doesn’t help when everyone who has deployed sit around and swap stories with one another, like pirates at the pub after a round of plundering.

The advice I want to give is “Don’t chase it. If it happens, great. Go fight.” But the infantryman wants to be near the gunfire, and I understand that. I understand where they are coming from. I know how I grinned from ear to ear when my Company Commander told our company of paratroopers that we were deploying. I remember the mix of fear and excitement and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Usually, I just nod in agreement when someone expresses their desire to deploy, fully knowing that they’ll never really leave once they’ve been there.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.