The Culture Episode

A screengrab from one of the military’s many cultural training programs.

“I’m so sick of this squishy culture shit.”

From MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: REBUILDING CULTURAL CAPABILITIES – AGAIN

I enjoyed this episode from the War Room podcast on the rise and decline (and rise and decline) of military cultural education programs.

The guests discuss their book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20 (available as a free PDF download) from Marine Corps University Press.

The importance of culture ebbs and flows in the US military, right alongside our foreign military operations, not surprisingly. We go into a place, we lack a nuanced understanding of it, and senior military leaders bang their fists on the table demanding we produce a cadre of our own “Lawrences of Arabia.”

From there, the services begin finding ways to train the force on culture – a squishy topic, to be sure.

I can’t lie – my own academic interests were spurred by my personal inability to communicate or fully understand the people and culture of Iraq.

“If only I could communicate,” I thought…

The authors make a distinction between language training and culture. Language training has been a part of military training (for specific jobs) for decades. But it is more of a technical skill than a holistic something else that cultural training is or should be,

And that is where much of the struggle with cultural training comes into play. How do we measure or assess the effectiveness of such programs?

“That kind of a financial investment [assessment on par with language training] has never been made in cultural skills, of even a fraction of the investment has never been made in cultural skills. So, we still don’t have really good, validated tools to assess the cultural skills of military personnel, even after the number of years of these cultural training programs, assessing the learning outcomes, was never really received the kind of investment that it needed to be able to demonstrate those quantitative outcomes to the same degree that you have with language.”

Allison Abbe

Measuring this stuff is hard, and even if done to some degree, is going to be imprecise.

Many military leaders have an almost monastic devotion to “measures of effectiveness” – perhaps a result of decades of being told to read business books for good ideas on fighting wars.

Followers of the blog will know that I have an against the grain take on measures of effectiveness – especially if you read the last newsletter. Often, they get in the way of achieving actual results in lieu of just doing something we can measure.

My take – good cultural training will result in taking fewer “L’s” on the battlefield and avoiding silly own-goals. But we are highly unlikely to see a “big win” as a result of cultural training. The best you can hope for – I think – is praise from partners or enhanced relations over time. Not very exciting, really.

But preventing those losses can actually lead to victory.

This has to do with the “strategic corporal.” As a senior leader lamented to me back in 2011 – “The problem with the strategic corporal is that it doesn’t work in the positive, it only works in the negative.” What he meant, was that the strategic corporal is usually only strategic when he or she makes a mistake. And this is almost always tied to a cultural faux-pas.

And yes, it can also be a strategic lieutenant, captain, command sergeant major, or general.

As someone who is deeply invested in language learning and culture – I honestly do think this is important. We should spend time and energy understanding one another. Especially if we’re showing up with guns.

However, I think that the most important cross-cultural skill is simple respect. It translates everywhere and is tried and true. It’s easily understood and we can practice it daily.

Lastly, this episode focuses mostly on “big picture” cultural programs designed to train conventional forces. The special operations community has maintained (and continues to grow) its language and cultural programs, although focused on a much smaller population.

The authors’ key takeaway is that when we inevitably return to re-establishing cultural education programs, we ought to take a hard look at our recent (and not so recent) past before we start building the CONOP.

One-hundred percent agree.

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

Smear War

It’s coming.

Faster and faster.

When you combine our open society, the deluge of information that exists about us and that is already out there – whether we like it or not – and good old-fashioned hacking, we have to get ready for smear war.

Add the weaponization of benign activity/information, a little AI and micro-targeting, and we’ve reached nightmare territory.

Our administrative systems and standard operating procedures are not suited for it. We will be paralyzed.

It’s not new. It’s been done before.

In the next “hot war,” it won’t be loudspeaker operations claiming the “statue of liberty is kaput.” It will be messages directly to your phone about your “sick” dog back home. Along with an AI-generated picture.

There is a way to defend against it. And it’s not hard to do, but it’s easy to mess up.

Patience and trust.

Patience. What looks like an emergency right now will likely dissipate with a little time. Don’t take rash action.

As Colin Powell famously said, “It ain’t as bad as you think. It’ll look better in the morning.”

Trust. We know this is coming, so we have to be ready. When it happens inside of your organization, you have to extend trust. It has to flow up and down.

This takes courage. Courage to push back against the aggressive calls to “do something.”

Be patient. Trust your team.

Don’t scratch the itch.

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

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.

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

It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.

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

If you control the countryside, you control the towns

We got it wrong. We always get it wrong.
Image source: The Times

Good episode from Angry Planet on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Conquerors and nations have been trying to rebuild Afghanistan in their own image for thousands of years. The U.S. is just the latest to fail. The Soviet Union also failed, with a little push from the United States. But they learned their lesson in only 10 years, from 1979-1989.

Angry Planet – When the Soviets Fled Afghanistan

I loved the quote that titles this post from Mark Galeotti:

“If you control the countryside, you will control the towns.”

Basically, we did things backwards. Control the towns, control the provincial capital, and then the province turns blue, right?

Wrong. The province is red with a blue dot where the city limits end. We got that wrong. We always get this wrong.

There really needs to be a post-mortem on this whole endeavour. There was a way to do it better.

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

Repeat deployments and credit card debt

Source: NRMgamingHD

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 were 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.

Someday this war’s going to end.

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

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.

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

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Soldiers escorting trucks carrying concrete “T-Walls” (Source)

Gertude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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