Eleven Years of Carrying the Gun

young psycho mantis metal gear solid

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Carrying the Gun.

Top Posts:
1. Army Myths: Don’t Lock Your Knees
2. The Secret Brilliance of “You go to war with the Army you have…”
3. Ranger Hall of Fame: SGT Martin Watson, Abraham Lincoln & Tom Hanks

Wow! Eleven years, huh.

Interesting that the back catalog is starting to get more traffic than the newer stuff. That wasn’t the case last year. That’s just the magic of the Google algorithm at work.

I’ve definitely settled into a better writing groove. The pieces are shorter, and the content is more focused and moving in the direction I originally intended when I relaunched. And that’s good.

Although, it seems I’ve certainly strayed from the original spirit of not blogging “about other blogs.”

If you counted the posts and categorized them, most are reactions to podcasts, which are basically audio blogs.

But that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with a little evolution.

The longer, more editorial stuff that I originally aspired to is still around. Most of it is found in external pieces. The rest can be found monthly at the top of the newsletter. Have you subscribed?

What did the past year look like?

Well, first of all, no one will ever challenge you if you write that we need to “do better” at anything. It’s also an easy way to garner attention. It’s much more difficult to find where we’re doing well.

As such, there was a string of posts late last summer as the Afghanistan withdrawal was underway tussling with “all the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare” and some others pushing back against the common charge that “we’re getting our asses kicked in the information environment.” Also, the fact that things hit different when you can watch it in real-time. All emotion and absence of mind.

Everyone had an Afghanistan withdrawal think-piece, and I didn’t have much to add, but I fired one tiny dart into the ether trying to reconcile the 9/11 anniversary with the withdrawal. Did it matter?

Lots of milestones, reactions, and reflections. The GWOT was marked by a lot of things, one of those things was repeat deployments and credit card debt.

I marked the passing of Colin Powell, who I had the fortune of meeting on a number of occasions. His 13 rules sit on my desk. I’m especially fond of #1, #4, and #13.

I recalled a time over twenty years ago when I picked up brass with a Green Beret at a MOUT site at Fort Bragg.

I’ve basically given up on the new Star Wars universe (and the Marvel Universe for that matter). But one of my favorite scenes from the series was when Darth Vader finally flipped at the last moment? There’s always a choice.

Some of the best advice you’ll ever get – don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. It’s advice I try to live by, but don’t always succeed.

And as such, not everything was positive. As much as I try to resist, I sometimes get cynical too. Do you find yourself skeptical when someone says they are “getting after it?” It’s similar to how I feel about “threads.” It’s mostly a performance and it’s for them, not for you.

And what happens when everyone tells you to “start with why” and read Marcus Aurelius? Is that really unique knowledge or are we simply fostering groupthink?

A perennial interest of mine, there were a few posts on productivity – which was also featured prominently in a number of newsletters. In getting things done, especially when it comes to dealing with other people, you start with in-person, on the phone, and then via emailin that order. And related, there are very few things I have strong opinions on. One of those things is that “doing” email is the illusion of work. Sure, responding to email is part of a job, but with few exceptions, “doing” email is simply shuffling papers around. Have no doubt; nothing was accomplished.

We like to discuss “future war” these days. It’s fascinating that when we use the term “future war,” we kind of mean war that might happen now. I made an argument that to be effective in future war, we need to go back to what we were doing in the past – extended field training. What about leadership? What attributes do future leaders need? Are they different? Yes, a little bit I think. And we’re sure asking a lot.

Did you ever ready General DePuy’s 11 Men One Mind? It’s an infantry classic, and as relevant today as it has ever been.

Finally, future war sure seems like old war.

A friend of the blog once pontificated on Twitter: “What is something that seems like unconventional warfare but isn’t?” There is a litany of terms that are used in places where we think they make sense, but it turns out they aren’t even “real” terms or they are just being misused. It is helpful from time to time to go back to the books to see if what you think you know is what you actually know. Irregular Warfare? Real term. Hybrid Warfare? Nope. Expect to see more of this in the future.

Lots of psychology and information warfare. It all starts with the fact that “psychological” isn’t a dirty word – or at least it shouldn’t be. The primacy of video (aka ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). Smear war. When briefing, should you read off of the slide or have your audience read it themselves? I know you have a strong opinion. But there’s an actual psychological answer. Why is a lie so hard to debunk? Oh yeah, whatever you do, don’t click this link. Propaganda has no effect on you, only those other guys get duped. You’ve heard of deep fakes, but what are “shallow fakes?” They’re kind of like low-effort memes.

And I know it seems counter-intuitive, but it is behaviors that shape attitudes, and not the other way around.

Oh yeah. Lots and lots and lots of social sciences as sorcery.

And as has become the theme of this site – podcasts. There are way too many to mention, but here are the ones that got a lot of attention:

  1. What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?
  2. “It’s psychological warfare, just done with modern tools”
  3. Solid Snake Oil

Lastly, I got brave and wrote a few articles outside of CTG. This, the first, at MWI with a partner on how there is value in supporting cooperation between service-specific IO fields. The second, part two of a journey to figure out how to become a paladin. Here, an observation on observation. There are a few others out there too. And there are more on the way.

The post that I wanted to do better than it did: It has to be Social Sciences as Sorcery (and all the related posts). People don’t want to hear it, because it makes us rethink everything we’re doing. A little humility will go a long way. We don’t know it all, and thinking that if we can just get the dials right does us more harm than good.

A long time ago I learned that the future is video. And more and more, it seems to be the only thing that matters. I’m finally planning on jumping in.

Thanks for being here!

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Future Warfare Attributes

mass effect female warrior

I love this slide.

These are the types of attributes we want in our leaders to be effective in future war.

I don’t think anyone would argue against them. Would love to know the story about how these were decided on.

But boy! What an ask!

Is our system designed to select for these types of attributes? Or to train them?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is a resounding no.

How do we fix that? Is it even fixable? Are we asking too much?

Worth thinking about.

  • Nonlinear thinking – Understanding, working with, and making predictions using complex, asynchronous ideas and patterns over time and space.
  • Strategic patience/inaction – Willingness and ability to inhibit action and tolerate ambiguity in order to be able to act decisively at the right moment in order to increase the effectiveness of action.
  • Fast cognitive fusion – Analyzing, synthesizing, and making decisions based on high volume, high velocity, multisource information in order to monitor, understand, and direct multiple, interdependent, semi-autonomous units and systems.
  • Inductive/abductive reasoned action – Ability to observe, analyze, and willingness to act on partial information in the environmnet, drawing inferences about generalized rules and patterns (inductive) or likeliest cause-effect relationships (abducitve) given data observed.
  • Technological fluency – Ability to comprehend and control multiple, integrated semi-autonmous technological systems and evaluate and integrate multiple information streams from battlefield sensors, cyber, etc. to effectively operate these systems.
  • Psychophysiological durability – Physical, psychological, and cognitive robustness, endurance, self-awareness, and self-management in the face of the prolonged stresses of extended, autonomous operatoins and exteme stresses of extended high-intensity combat.
  • Teamwork development and synchronicity – Ability and willingness to rapidly develop and sustain strong teamwork onds and working relationships to be effective in dynamic, extended combat operations.
  • Complex spatial awareness and visualization – Developing and sustaining awareness and visualization of spatial relationships and movements in complex three dimensional, subterranean, and urban environments.
  • Predictive social reasoning – The ability to understand and predict the perspective and likely perception of actions/activities by other groups and individuals in order to enhance the effectiveness of combined/synchronized cross-domain actions.

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A return to extended field training

I have to preface this post with a few warnings.

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.

Source: Twitter

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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“Taking Care of Your Three Feet of Space”

soldier in afghanistan pulling security

I’m getting ready to move to a new duty station, which has me making the rounds to different areas of post collecting stamps from various offices to outprocess; finance, medical, transportation, etc. As is the case, I’ve been crossing paths with lots of soldiers with whom I’m unfamiliar and exchanging salutes. Back in my unit, most soldiers are familiar enough with each other to spot one another from far away and can ready themselves to exchange salutes before they get within a few paces. Out in the wild, you often can’t tell what the other’s rank is until you’re just about right on top of them.

In these past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting annoyed at missed salutes. Not annoyed because I wasn’t being saluted – the salute is a formal exchange of respect between soldiers, not to one. Rather, I viewed the missed salutes as a lack of situational awareness at best or poor discipline at worst.

Each time it happened, I could have stopped the soldier from where he or she was going and made the correction. It’s a hard correction to make, by the way, because – like writing this post – it can so easily come off as pompous.

Hey, why didn’t you salute me?” 

Of course, the spot correction can be better handled by using the “exchange of salutes” technique, which I learned when I was a non-commissioned officer. If I were walking with my platoon leader or company commander and we passed a soldier who did not initiate a salute, I would correct the soldier, saying something like “It’s an exchange of salutes between the two of you, and as the junior soldier you are supposed to initiate it.”

As I collected more stamps across post, saluting became a mild obsession. Not only was I now hyper-aware of crossing other soldiers and the exchange of salutes, I also began honing in on the manner of the salute. Was it sharp or sloppy? Did they wait for me to return the salute before dropping theirs? I recognized that this obsession was getting a little weird, but I couldn’t help it.

As I approached another building for another stamp, I saw two soldiers approaching me at a distance. The one on the further left seemed a little older, and the one nearer, on the right, was younger. As they got closer, I was able to make out the rank of the younger one – First Lieutenant. We approached one another and I keyed in on him, ready to return his salute. He looked back at me and directly into my eyes. He didn’t salute.

I was angry for only a millisecond when I realized I knew the Lieutenant and we were actually friends. He smiled and greeted me, and I instinctively threw my hand up in a salute because I was already primed. We exchanged hurried words in passing, “Hey man, what are you up to? Oh, you know, staying busy.” 

As we continued moving past one another, in the few seconds this lasted, I remembered that my friend was the Aide-de-Camp for a General Officer. My eyes moved from him to the back of the patrol cap of the “older” soldier who had passed me a moment earlier.

I suddenly realized that I had passed a General and had not saluted him, because I was hyper-focused on seeing if the First Lieutenant was going to salute me.

My friend, the Aide-de-Camp, quickly shook my hand and then dutifully followed his boss to a waiting vehicle where I imagined the General shared words about the lack of discipline and situational awareness in this generation of junior officers, as demonstrated by my failure to salute.

My focus on others’ behavior resulted in my failing in the exact behavior I was looking out for.

As embarrassed as I was, the episode served as a good learning point. When I was enlisted, I had a Battalion Commander who ended every speech by imploring us to “take care of our three feet of space.” He said that if we took care of ourselves and the things within three feet of us, we would all be exceptional soldiers. It’s a simple concept, and had I taken care of my three feet of space in this scenario, I would have recognized the General and rendered a proper salute. Instead, because I was so focused on the potential misbehavior of others, I failed to do the right thing myself.

Since this episode, I’ve been less concerned with what others are doing and more concerned with what I am doing. I’ve been taking care of my “three feet of space.” It’s a much more reasonable way to get through a day.

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Tactical Patience: Let the battle develop

call of duty firefight
The Thick of It

About 2/3 through my first deployment to Iraq, my unit went to the middle of the desert somewhere outside of Baghdad to train. It seemed really stupid at the time. We were literally deployed to a war, and to most of the junior soldiers (myself included) the fact that we had been a part of the initial invasion validated us as permanently trained. Training while at war just didn’t seem to make much sense.

As a junior NCO, I thought I knew everything there was to know about being a good tactical leader.

Looking back at it now, I realize just how much I didn’t know. And training while at war  is much more understandable.

As part of the training, we did a live fire training exercise that consisted of a squad attack on a bunker. Our weapons squad was attached, so they’d be using their machine guns to help. At the time, I didn’t really understand how my fire team fit into the bigger picture. I thought that if I could shoot, and my guys could shoot, and we could perform our tasks violently and aggressively, we’d be successful and win.

During the attack, the weapons squad opened up fire on the bunker and my squad leader released me to flank to one of the sides with my team. I’d call the shift fire and lift fire, and then we’d assault the bunker.

I moved quickly and made the calls. The firing stopped, my team rushed the bunker and we knocked out the bunker.

Within a few moments, ENDEX was called. I was pleased with how aggressively and violently we’d moved. We took the bunker quickly and it felt like a success.

In the AAR, the main topic of discussion was why we didn’t let the weapons squad fire up the bunker more.

“Who called the shift and lift fire?”

“I did,” I responded, confidently.

“Why didn’t you let the weapons squad fire more?”

“Uh, I figured it was better to knock out the bunker faster. Shock value, before the enemy knew what was going on.”

“Ok. Good initiative, but bad judgement. You have to have tactical patience. Let the weapons squad prep the objective a little bit beforehand. Don’t just rush the bunker. Let the battle develop.”

That was the first time I had heard the phrase “tactical patience” or “let the battle develop.” During a firefight, there is a tendency to want to move quickly and get things done in a hurry. The chaos, noise, and energy elevates your heart rate, and the fear and physical exertion pushes the action. For leaders who have to make important life and death decisions under these conditions, exercising “tactical patience” can mean the difference between life and death, success or failure.

Tactical patience is simply taking a moment before making an important decision to confirm that it actually is what you want to do. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do in practice.

In the example above, I would have exercised tactical patience if I understood how effective the weapons squad could be in degrading the bunker and felt more comfortable sitting there, waiting, while the bullets flew and noise filled my ears. In those moments, seconds feel like minutes. For the calm observer behind us, watching, he sees a much different picture. Because he isn’t “in” the fight, he’s able to assess from a removed position. A good leader is able to exercise that level of detachment while being in the fight himself – something that comes from a high level of self-awareness and experience.

While tactical patience obviously has great applicability in the military, I’ve found it useful in a number of situations outside its original intended scope. I try to exercise tactical patience before making a major purchase, for example. Something that I’m just about certain I want to buy one moment becomes suddenly less desirable if I’m able to resist the urge for just a day or two. When it comes to writing, I’m often tempted to “just post it” when I get done with the first draft. It seems good enough, after all. When I’m able to resist that urge and show some tactical patience, I find that upon second look I’ll often make some significant edits before publishing.

In college, I had a professor who was a former foreign service officer. He spoke about the constant writing he did as part of his routine duties. For most of his peers, their first draft was their final draft. He strongly encouraged us to start writing early – just get something down – and slowly polish it and grind it out as time goes on. Resist the urge, he pushed, to give a great first effort and submit. Rather, get it down, save it as a draft, and come back to it later. In time, ideas and input that may have not been evident initially might present themselves. Let the battle develop.

Conversely, if tactical patience is misapplied, you might find yourself in a position where you didn’t move quickly enough, or you may appear to be dithering. The same goes with “letting the battle develop.”

Exercising tactical patience and letting the battle develop are two little Army-isms that have helped me get along, both in the military and out of it. With practice, experience, and confidence, they can be used to great effect in regular life.

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Sunshine and Battle Flags

Golden sky and sun behind a tree

A couple of weeks ago my unit did a battalion competition out on the PT field. Each company put together an eight man team and we raced each other through an obstacle course, carrying weapons and litters stacked with filled ammo cans and five gallon water jugs. The S6 had giant speakers blaring music as the teams made their way around. No one really wanted to do it – it was Friday and everyone just wanted to go home for the weekend – but once the event started the competitive fire took over.

I just finished with my team and stopped at the end, huffing for air. Looking back, the sun was just coming up over post, casting the field in a warm morning glow. As the eight man teams moved through the obstacles, their company guidons moved with them, bouncing along above a mass of soldiers cheering them on. Dust swirled around magnifying the sunlight. A cover of War Pigs blared out of the speakers.

It was a weird moment. It felt like the beginning of a war movie with a very dark ending.

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The Spectre of Military Suicide: For Whom The Bell Tolls

soldiers silhouetted in vietnam
Forever War

The first contact I had with suicide in the military was when I was still a Private. I remember being called down to an unscheduled formation in the courtyard along with everyone else in the company. Looking across the yard, I saw MPs walking into Alpha Company – a sister unit. The mood was quiet and somber. I asked a buddy what happened and he told me someone in Alpha Company killed himself. I nodded and remember thinking that killing yourself in the military seemed pretty strange. This was 2001 and shortly after September 11 – suicide as a military problem was not considered a “thing” at the time.

Since then, military suicide has weaved in and out of my life as I transitioned out of the Army and into the civilian world, and then back into the Army. I’ve had veteran friends who killed themselves during their struggle to make the transition to civilian life. When I see a Facebook post about a veteran friend who suddenly passes, it only takes a few hours before I start getting messages from other friends confirming that it was suicide. I’ve watched as the problem has grown larger both inside and outside of the military. Since rejoining the Army, I’ve seen it up close. I have also witnessed the shift in the way the military addresses suicide – a far cry from where we were in 2001 when it was viewed as more of a random act that couldn’t be helped.

On the morning of 2012’s mandatory “suicide standown,” I found myself waiting in line for breakfast at a DFAC at Fort Benning. Standing there, a newly-minted Second Lieutenant, I overheard two senior NCOs in front of me talking about suicide and the “bullshit” classes they would be forced to endure for the day. One of them was aggressively making his case, loudly, that he had no respect for anyone who kills themselves and that committing suicide is an act of weakness that ultimately makes the Army stronger because it gets rid of the mentally weak. This NCO claimed that he would never kill himself and had been through some tough times, thus, no one else has an excuse. The other NCO challenged him, arguing that you can’t say that you would never commit suicide because you simply don’t know the circumstances that might lead to it. This was dismissed, again, as a function of mental weakness. This NCO was sure that committing suicide was something he would never do, and since he would never do it, it’s not a real problem that the military needs to address.

Later that day I attended my own unit’s suicide standown training. The jokes leading up to the mandatory training among peers were of the “this suicide training is making me want to kill myself” variety. As depressing and lame as those jokes were, the day was not a total loss. I found myself impressed with my commander’s presentation on suicide. He internalized the problem and addressed it in a way that emphasized the seriousness of suicide without getting overly dramatic or with any of the all too common winks and nods, notions that “I’m only doing this because I have to do this.” The commander’s “buy-in” of the issue translated in the way it was received by everyone in the room – you could see it on their faces. For that moment, they were listening. The key lesson that I learned that day, as a young and impressionable junior officer, is that when you address your subordinates, they’ll take it seriously if you take it seriously.

Without question, the military has gotten better in the way it addresses suicide. The old running line, that suicide is not a “real” problem in the military because the rate is lower than comparable age groups in the civilian world, or those who commit suicide are selfish or weak, is fading. There are still holdouts, like the NCO in the DFAC line at Fort Benning, but I think as more and more of our buddies kill themselves – buddies who were the badasses, the seemingly mentally strong, good soldiers – those holdouts are starting to come around. It is hard to find anyone who has been in or around the military for a few years whom suicide hasn’t touched.

What I’ve come to realize is that as a community, whether we like it or not, we are simply vulnerable to suicide right now. The Reaper is out there – a looming spectre – and he’s just looking for the right opportunity to swoop in. Every suicide should be a reminder of that – a reminder that given the right set of circumstances, the hardest men and women can be brought down from the inside out.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

It is for that reason that we should continue to talk about it and bring it up, speaking about it with conviction and “buy-in” like my commander did. We shouldn’t be looking to “connect the dots” after the fact, or ramp up suicide awareness training when someone kills themselves in another unit. Just as important, is that we don’t treat the topic with so much seriousness that it becomes one that we feel uncomfortable talking about at all – which manifests itself with aggressively jumping down a soldier’s throat if they make a suicide joke or bringing the mood of a room down with an awkward transition of “And now I want to talk about something serious for a  moment.” Addressing military suicide should be routine, spoken about as casually and frequently as combating DUIs. Talking about it should be a normal part of soldiering, because right now, it is.

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Chow, Mail, and Wi-Fi: Pillars of Modern Soldier Morale

army cooks creed
Field Chow

The other day I was having a conversation with another soldier about morale, as soldiers tend to do halfway through a deployment. We were having a back-and-forth on the pros and cons of adopting different policies “for the sake of morale.” At some point, I brought up the ancient “three pillars of soldier morale”: chow, mail, and free time.

Now, I’ve actually heard “chow, mail, and pay” as the three before, and that might be true, too. But rules of three are important, and pay is not something junior level leadership can really influence (unless it’s taking it away), so I like to think of the big three as chow, mail, and free time.

I don’t know where these “pillars” originated, although I remember reading about them in reference to the Korean War. General Ridgway was a big proponent of the big three. He was keen on ensuring his soldiers got hot chow at least twice a day while fighting the war – and to this day there is no question that hot chow is a morale booster – whether the soldier is in the field or at war. MREs are modern miracles, but there is nothing better than a “fresh” meal served hot in an austere environment.

Mail has always been a morale booster – especially care packages. For most of our history, “mail” meant physical mail; letters and notes, sealed in envelopes and traveling across the world, from the kitchen table in Indiana to a fighting position in Da Nang, Verdun, or Helmand province. For today’s modern soldiers, the physical letter has been aggressively outmatched by email, and to a greater extent, Facebook. I haven’t written a single hard-copy letter since arriving in July – I wrote a half-dozen a day in Iraq in 2003. Take away my ability to get online though, and I would revert back to writing letters, without a doubt.

Free time, or rather, unstructured time, is time for soldiers to do whatever it is that pleases them – movies, video games, reading, staring at the wall for hours – whatever. The point is, if a soldier’s time is micro-managed from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, he will slowly become bitter. For leaders, striking a balance between structured and unstructured time is important, and more of an art than a science. There is no perfect formula. It’s all based on understanding the context, which changes daily. A leader has to sniff out the rhythms and know when to give it some gas and when to let up (and when to shift to neutral!).

Going back to the conversation, when I brought up the classic three pillars, this soldier retorted that “this isn’t World War II or Vietnam,” meaning this model of morale is outdated for the modern soldier. While I certainly agree that this generation of soldiers (like every generation of soldiers) is different from those of the past, I always considered the morale model to be solid and enduring. Is hot chow, reliable mail, and a degree of free time not enough anymore? Do we need to ensure high-speed internet is available at the front lines? Should leaders cave at the requests to relax uniform standards for the sake of “morale?”

My immediate reaction to the idea that today’s soldiers require a different morale model was incredulity – not possible. My thought process has always been that if the big three are being satisfied – chow, mail, free time – then a soldier has no reason to have low morale, personal issues notwithstanding.

I let the thought stew for a moment and then, with a flash of humanity, thought that maybe – just maybe – it is possible that for today’s soldier, a different model is required. Context is important here, and while every deployment experience is different (none of my three have been similar), it can generally be said that unless you are on a forward COP or invading a country, counterinsurgency or stability operations lend themselves to a higher living standard. Amenities are plenty. Hot showers and hot chow are the norm, not the exception. Mail arrives regularly. War is famously boring, and soldiers usually have ample free time. Those three pillars being met, is it possible for a soldier to then have low morale because he wants more, or that he has grown accustomed to those good things? Like an addict, do we need to inject a stronger medicine to get our fix?

Again, context matters. All of this can be wiped away in an instant with a more austere environment. But I do wonder about the ramifications of a generation of soldiers who are accustomed to bringing their smartphones with them to the field and being at all times, a click away from home. Maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever.

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Why Deployment Experience Really Matters

soldiers silhouetted on a hill
End of War

It’s been interesting reading the reactions to the blog post by soon-to-be-forced-out Major Slider on The Best Defense. Major Slider is one of the hundreds of Majors who was selected to be cut from the Army as a result of the recent Officer Separation Board (OSB). The OSB saga and some of the defense of Major Slider, much of which revolved around valorous combat experience – coupled with the fact that I’m currently deployed – started me thinking about the actual value of combat experience.

When I was coming through OCS and IBOLC, I remember having lots of conversations with young Second Lieutenants who were wary about potentially missing their opportunity to deploy, since it was clear we were teetering on the tail end of the long war. Much of that angst – I think – stemmed from wanting “the stuff” that comes from a combat deployment; the combat patch, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the bucket of end-of-tour awards. For good or for ill, the Army fosters a culture of “badge envy” and the immediate value of a soldier, especially in combat arms, is first assessed by the things sewn, pinned, and velcro’d on the uniform.

Back then, in my infinite mustang wisdom, I tried my best to explain that it isn’t really going to matter if you deploy or not, that the Army moves on and will value and appreciate skill and leadership above whether or not you deployed – more a function of chance and when you were born than any actionable trait. More bluntly, having not deployed would not be held against you in an Army transitioning out of war. I believed that then, and I still do now.

What has changed – and this is partly a function of being currently deployed – is that I think I may have undervalued wartime service. While it’s true that every deployment is different, what remains unchanged is that whatever your job is – infantry, admin, medical, etc. – when you are deployed, you are doing that job more frequently and more real than when you were back home. Weekends don’t exist the same way they do while deployed than when you are home. You are accountable for your equipment twenty-four hours a day, not just until you turn it back into the arms room or the supply cage. There is a constant rotation of duties that is usually measured in hours between the next guard shift, not days – or weeks – between your next staff duty.

Combat operations occur at a frequency greater than the intensity of field training. You may run multiple missions a day, or operations that take place over twenty-four hours at a time, requiring planning and preparation days before the event starts. Each mission is analyzed and assessed through an after-action review process, which if done well, fine-tunes the unit’s techniques, tactics, and procedures, making the unit more efficient and effective.

In all this, you are working in close proximity with the same people for hours a day and days that bleed into weeks and months. Conflicts arise and good leaders find ways to stay effective. Personnel management and more importantly – personality and ego management – becomes key to getting anything done. Knowing who to grease and who to avoid becomes critical to the deployed soldier navigating an unrivaled bureaucracy that involves multiple military services, countries, and languages.

All this is done in an adverse environment where someone is actively trying to kill you. At the end, the soldier that emerges is one that has done his or her job in a focused way for a prolonged period of time. Skills are learned and experience gets buried deep into the reservoir of the soldier, ready to be brought out in the future if called upon.

Put simply, the deployed soldier has done his job harder, faster, and longer than his counterpart who hasn’t deployed. That experience is valuable.

All that said, deployment experience does not necessarily create experts in anything other than that experience. One cannot simply say “I’ve been deployed” and hand wave necessary training or assume that anything done once is done forever. Rather, deployment experience is simply an indicator that a soldier has done his or her job in a focused way for a sustained amount of time – which is more valuable than I once gave credit.

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Why I whole-heartedly welcome a return to “garrison life”

military bronies
General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.
General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.

So this week it was revealed that the Army is going to be tightening up its regulations concerning tattoos.

Well, it wasn’t really revealed. You see, these changes were announced over a year ago.

That didn’t stop reactionary bloggers and talking heads from quickly ripping that juicy headline and repackaging it to fit a popular narrative of a military that is slipping into “garrison life.”

I’ve talked about this before here on this blog. It was actually one of my first posts. It’s a subject I find interesting because I am of the wild belief that the foundation of an effective military is discipline. Discipline is enforced through standards.

As James Joyner points out in his lamentation over the Army’s “misguided crackdown on tattoos,” the Army relaxed its standards to allow more recruits into the Army who may have at one point been turned away because of their tattoos. That’s fair. We needed more soldiers and we relaxed our standards to get them. Now, we’re no longer in that position and we can afford to tighten up. Dr. Joyner also writes about an upcoming prohibition from “eating, drinking, smoking, or talking on cellphones while walking; presumably this is to ensure they’re not distracted from or incapacitated to salute senior officers.” Dr. Joyner’s presumption that this is to ensure they’re not distracted from saluting senior officers seems like a nasty jab at the officer corps, who according to this are very concerned with getting saluted. I would argue that more likely it simply helps to ensure that soldiers present a military appearance. Slamming a Monster and chatting on an iPhone while walking across the street does not present a military appearance.

Paul Szoldra who writes at Business Insider characterizes this return to garrison life as a way to annoy junior enlisted troops to the extent that they wouldn’t consider re-enlisting.

Paul writes:

Single sergeants and corporals, who previously were able to get out of the barracks and be paid a housing allowance, will once again be forced back into the barracks. A place where, the general writes, officers and other leaders are to “regularly conduct visits in the Barracks between the hours of 2000-0400.”

It gets worse. From the email:

4. There will be two NCO’s on every deck in a Barracks and there will be a Firewatch posted on every deck.

5. There will be no TV’s or video games allowed in the Watch standers place of duty.

6. Units will establish an Interior Guard with a SNCO in charge of the Interior Guards training.

“It gets worse?” I never considered active leadership a bad thing. When I was a young soldier living in the barracks, I was always impressed when my squad leader paid me a visit on a Saturday to see if I was doing okay. It showed me that he cared. He’d stay and talk for a minute, ask me what my plans were for the weekend, and then reminded me that I could call him if I ran into trouble.

That experience paid off when I became a sergeant myself. After coming back from Iraq, I walked through the barracks on the weekends even when I lived off post to check on soldiers, who were often getting into trouble. Checking in on your soldiers isn’t “annoying,” it’s  a basic leadership skill.

But things have changed. When I pulled CQ (charge of quarters) duty many years ago, there were no smartphones and the only thing I was allowed to read were military publications. Today, the duty NCO and his soldiers are usually hypnotized by their glowing screens, oblivious to what’s going on right around them. I’ve also seen how it is now common to have giant high-definition televisions and Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty running at the CQ desk in the evening after everyone has gone home. One soldier actually didn’t even look at me until I politely asked him to pause the game when I was making my rounds one night.

Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man, but I think there is value in displaying military professionalism.

Or to put it another way; crazy shit goes down in the barracks. Active leadership and control measures deter that. That, is not a bad thing. That is not “worse.”

When I wrote my post about garrison soldiers versus field soldiers, I had been out of the Army for over five years. Yet I still clung to the notion that standards and discipline are inherently good things that makes the fighting force better. As I read more and more articles of soldiers bummed out about the flaming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a part of me that wanted to give those guys the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I had just been out of the game too long.

When I rejoined the Army later I was able to confirm my original notion. Pervasive in the junior force is this idea that rote standards and discipline for its own sake is bad and a distraction from the core mission – winning wars. Ten years of espousing the “warrior” as opposed to the “soldier” hasn’t helped, either.

Everyone wants to play what the Army calls “big boy rules.” An example, we’re not going to hold accountability formation fifteen minutes prior to the formation time because I am going to trust that you can all make it there on time. And then, of course, someone doesn’t make it on time. So you institute a means to ensure that you can accomplish the mission – show up fifteen minutes prior.

Or, I’m not going to physically inspect your foot march packing list because “we’re all grown men and can do it ourselves.” And then, of course, a member of the team leaves out a key piece of equipment, putting the mission at risk.

Or, we’re not going to conduct consolidated physical training because maintaining physical fitness is an individual responsibility. And then, of course, a member of the team who slacked off during PT is now holding back the platoon on a long field movement.

The other day, I was speaking with a young soldier who has been in the Army for about two years. He told me that he is pretty sure that he will get out of the Army when his contract is up. When I asked why, he said it was because he feels like he is in a “garrison Army” and that he feels like he comes to work and is at a “twenty-four-hour daycare.” Meanwhile, this is a relatively new soldier that has never deployed and has had discipline problems in the past. Maybe Paul is right. Maybe he is being “annoyed” out of the Army.

I can understand a seasoned combat veteran getting bummed out about a return to “garrison life,” but most of the seasoned combat veterans I talk with fully embrace and understand the need for it right now. They want it. They see firsthand the effects of years of “bro’ing out” and want their Army back.

This whole project of getting back to the basics is not a function of a downsizing military or a way to annoy people so much that they get out. It is a recognition that a decade of war has eroded the basic soldiering skills that are required of a professional force. To argue otherwise is just complaining.

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