GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

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.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

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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Reflecting on reflecting

I’ve been thinking of the below exchange between retired General Votel and Joe Byerly from the FtGN podcast over the past couple of days (emphasis mine):

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

From the Green Notebook Podcast, Season 2/Episode 1

We’re so busy these days, and it certainly feels like we need to build in time for reflection.

Reflection, as an activity, is left undefined. I always thought of it as a kind of mindfulness activity. If I was to set aside some time to reflect (which I don’t), I’d imagine myself sitting at my desk, alone, hands folded neatly in my lap as I think about whatever it is that I need “reflect” on.

I don’t think anyone actually does that.

Conversely, I know my mind is at its best when I’m busy and engaged in a stimulating activity – ofen unrelated to the problem. Exercise – especially running – has my mind churning with ideas. Free-wheeling conversation on a focused topic often generates thoughts I didn’t know I had. Even reading a book, I can become lost in a parallel narrative in my mind while reading the words on the page (this, of course, is disrtaction – but sometimes it too generates ideas).

It does then, make sense to build in time for these types of activities and count them as reflection.

In a military context, scheduling time to discuss a problem or issue “without the burden of making a decision” seems like a good technique to foster reflection – as a group. Important here, is that everyone who is participating understands that. It’s no good to have a discussion on an issue to foster thought and reflection only to have it turn into another “information brief” to please the boss.

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Reflection, the “basics,” and role modeling as mentorship: General Votel on FtGN podcast

My podcast diet is out of control. There’s so much good content and I add new podcasts to my “up next” list daily and mostly never get to them.

I have not listened to From the Green Notebook’s podcast until this morning. I’m a fan of General (Ret.) Votel, though, and when I saw that he was the interviewee for episode 1/season 2 of their podcast, I decided to give it a shot.

Great podcast with lots of insight! I like the duo approach to the interview and especially appreciated Joe’s questions – most of which bypassed thoughts on grand strategy or comments on current operations, but instead focused on “how” a leader like General Votel manages himself.

Those types of questions are often avoided when senior military leaders are interviewed.

I’ve captured some of the excerpts that resonated with me below.

On the importance of setting aside time for reflection:

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

They go on to talk about the importance of conversation and deep-dives as reflection.

This struck me, because I think when people hear the term “reflection” or building time to reflect – especially in a senior leader context, they envision the leader sitting along in his or her office, staring out the window and pondering the great questions of life.

I don’t know anyone who does that. Hearing General Votel couch reflection as a process of conversation, however, resonated with me. I know that I do my best reflection when I’m engaged in some other activity – exercise, free-wheeling conversation, or just watching a movie or playing a video game. Thoughts come to me and being away from the problem – whatever it is – provides the space for that reflection.

Discussing the similarities and differences of serving as the Commander of JSOC/SOCOM/CENTCOM:

“When it comes to leadership, the basics matter.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

This is so true.

Earlier in my career, a General officer I worked for was adamant that everything you need to know about serving in the Army you learn in your first three years – from there it’s just refinement. I believe that. Yes, there are skills that you pick up along the way that take time – but the things that matter – those basics – you learn them early. If you can learn them, reinforce them, and grow, that’s how you get really good.

Another great question from Joe:

“Sir, you mentioned when you were talking about your emotions, you talked about shock…. and as leaders, we don’t always get the news that we thought we were going to get, and we still have to lead through that. Thinking back on those days in December [Syria withdrawal decision], was there anything that you did inparticular, like go in an office and shut the door, or sit down and write something down in your notebook to collect your thoughts? You had to quickly get over that shock to lead throught it.”

Joe Byerly (emphasis mine)

I love that question. “What did you actually do?” Not in terms of the decision you made or grand plan that unfurled, but as a human, what did you do in response to that? We’re all human after all – even combatant commanders.

On role modeling (and observation) as mentorship:

“I have a tendency to think about mentorship not so much as just ‘mentorship,’ but I have a tendency to think of it as role modeling – ‘role modeling-ship’ for example. To me, that has been the most influential thing in my military career – is watching how other people have handled things and internalizing that.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

General Votel goes on to discuss how observing can teach you what to do and what not to do. True.

Towards the end (about 34:00 minute mark), Joe raises a great question about books or “scenes” that stick with you as a way to think about the military profession – especially as it relates to going to war. He goes on to talk about a scene from the book Gates of Fire that symbolizes leaving the family man behind as you go off to war and only bringing the military man – the one who can “kill another human being.”

It’s a great frame for a question, and it reminded me of these old CTG posts (going to the “dark place” and “why we fight.”)

And now I’m a subscriber!

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe there as well.

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