Veterans Day

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”
-T.E. Lawrence

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T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

t.e. lawrence cinematic gif

Originally published in 2013.

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fiancé said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world. It’s too much.

As Lawrence hints: is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset

I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

T. E. Lawrence

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“There is a beast in every fighting man…” Ethics and the ‘Right Way’

air force general smoking cigar

Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”
George C. Marshall

That was a gem of a quote towards the end of ‘Finding “The Right Way”: Toward an Army Institutional Ethic” by LTC Clark Barrett. It is a product of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) which is a part of the US Army War College. If you are interested in the ethics and morality of soldiering, and especially how one might institutionalize those values in a fighting force, I recommend you make time to read the paper. It’s long (75 pages, although 35 pages are covers, contents, and footnotes) but not dry.

The author uses the events of Abu Ghraib, Mahmudiyah, and the “kill team” as a backdrop into his investigation of the history and current state of the US Army “ethic.” He looks at ethics programs used by some of our allies (including Great Britain, Canada, and Israel) and makes recommendations on how the Army might move forward.

LTC Barrett does not argue that a more robust ethics program will eliminate war crimes or unethical behavior like the ones mentioned above. He points out that in many of the cases involving war crimes there is often a “charismatic leader” who is himself unethical and guides others to unethical behavior. With proper training, though, these charismatic leaders might be stunted by others long before they get to the point of making the wrong decision.

There are a number of interesting things that the author recommends – including the development of a kind of “ethics check” through the use of a mnemonic. In the old days at West Point, cadets used to ask other cadets “All right?” as a way of reminding them that they adhered to the honor code. A cadet who understood that he/she was bound by the honor code and was in compliance would then respond with “All right.”

LTC Barrett writes:

Envision a circumstance in which Soldiers, angered by death and destruction on the battlefield and tempted towards immoral conduct, check themselves when one wise Soldier asks the timely question, “All Right?” It may appear Pollyannaish, but this method worked for many decades at USMA. As long as the use of “All Right” is not abused, it could provide the outward daily symbol to remind Soldiers of their code and honor, and provide some small check on improper behavior (33).

He also discusses the idea of adopting a “military covenant” in the same way that the British have done (this is something I have written about before). The idea is that in exchange for military service, the “people” or the “government” (it’s not really clear) are indebted to those who serve(d) and that they “should always expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.”

I’m glad that these types of products are being produced at the US Army War College and I hope that this particular thesis is widely read (so pass it around) and that its recommendations are taken seriously – even if only by those individuals who care so much to read it.

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Training and the spartan/sybarite dichotomy

“Part of me wants to be hard as nails, the other part of me wants to chiiiiiiiillllllllllllll.”

In the days and weeks leading up to my now delayed Ranger School class, every moment, meal, and quiet nothing took on monumental significance. Driving somewhere on post with a couple of buddies, we discussed the two axes of thought regarding any impending military event, in this case, Ranger School. The spartan in us wanted to do nothing but read the Ranger Handbook, drink water, and train. The sybarite in us wanted to do nothing but go out, party, and soak up every vice allowed in the final moments before disappearing into the woods/mountains/swamps. These two opposing thought patterns exist simultaneously.

The thing that drew many of us to the military in the first place and the infantry specifically was the shot at adventure and the opportunity to be hard. In that hardening process, a deeper appreciation is gained for the simple things in life. An old Army buddy once marveled at the civilian’s freedom to sit down wherever and whenever he pleases, for example.

Imbibing and gorging before a sleep-away camp like Ranger School satisfies the craving to enjoy life now while it is still under control, but sabotages training for the same. Any time some great luxury sits in front of me, it’s hard to resist knowing that when I’m taking a knee on a mountaintop with a shrunken stomach in the near future, I’ll want to slip back in time and dropkick my old self for not eating the freaking pizza. But any thoughts in that food/sleep deprived state aren’t entirely rational and cannot be taken as absolute truth.

What are we training for? This is the question that anyone who trains has to ask. There is a tendency out there (myself included) to think that by virtue of tough training, we’ve bought our permission to enjoy the things that set us back (name your vice). In fairness, I know some people who seem to be able to train hard and party hard all the time. I don’t know how they do it, but I know that I can’t. If I want to achieve something difficult, I have to commit to be all in.

And that’s hard.

 “I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.”
-Bill, to the Bride (Kill Bill)

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Life Lesson – Fear Inertia

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” or so the saying goes. I’ve always found that when I’m working and get into a “flow,” I accomplish a lot. As soon as I stop to sit down or take a break, getting started again takes a massive effort, and I usually fail. I can accomplish most of what I need to get done in a short period of time if I simply DON’T STOP MOVING.

Thus, one of my life lesson’s is to “fear inertia.”

in•er•tia. noun.
1. a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged: the bureaucratic inertia of government.
2. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

When I start getting tired and gravitate towards the couch, I try to remind myself of how much extra effort it is going to take to get going again. Sometimes this works and I’m able to keep going. Other times I give in and plop down, ending the work.

Developing a healthy fear of inertia can help to overcome the tendency to stop, and result in a more productive person.

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Life Lesson – Positive Mental Attitude

gomez addams smoking cigar smirking

This is the first in a series of articles about the life lessons I’ve learned over the years. Some of these I’ve learned on my own, others I’ve been taught. These are things that work for me. Maybe they’ll work for you.

More PMA than he knows what do with.

Shortly before I got out of the Army, I started to collect a couple of tenets that seemed to make my days go better. Short sentences or phrases that when repeated, would remind me of some truth that can get me past a bad day or tough obstacle. These tenets needed to meet certain criteria. First, they needed to work. Second, they needed to be easy to understand. Third, they needed to be easy to apply. If they met this criteria, I would write them down somewhere. The idea is that these things are so good, they are worth living by. Over the years, I’ve collected 27 of them.

The first one I learned from a colleague in the Army. Positive Mental Attitude – PMA. It’s the best life lesson I have in my arsenal. When applied, I can’t go wrong. The idea is simple, be cheerful and positive as often as possible. Little is gained from being negative. As individuals, we are ultimately responsible for our actions and reactions. The only person I control is myself, and I can choose how I react to anything that happens, ultimately creating my own reality. That sounds airy, I know, but it works. If you try to be positive, over time it happens naturally. There will be days where it’s near impossible to look on the bright side. But trust me, it can always be worse.

There’s a quote that encapsulates this idea better than I can put it down on this blog. It is popularly attributed to the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. And at the risk of landing on On Violence’s “quotes behaving badly” series, I’ll admit that I don’t know who really said this, as this page says that the quote is misattributed to Goethe. Whatever. It’s a good quote:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make a life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture, or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de–escalated, and a person humanized or dehumanized.”

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