A note on recent posts

Somewhere, I saw a recommendation for a book called Never Eat Alone. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps this is unfair, but I felt like I got the gist of it from the title. The book is about relationships, and I think I take the point that it is best to take advantage of opportunities to build and foster human relationships. Meal time is one of those opportunities.

I’m sure it’s a good book. It’s doing well on Amazon.

I just don’t think I needed to read it. Just hearing the title and the book’s purpose imparted the advice. Reading the book and dedicating the time to that endeavor might solidify that advice, but I just wasn’t that interested.

I’ve been taking that approach to some of the posts on this blog. I’ve had things I’ve wanted to write about for years that have been sitting on a list. These ideas sit there until I’m able to will myself to do the work and bang out a 1,000 word missive on it that makes sense.

Instead of having these ideas waste away on a  list, I’ve decided to get them out there as ideas, half-baked and raw. Often that’s all there is to it, anyway. It’s a technique I’ve seen done well at The Best Defense by Tom Ricks.

It’s a departure from what I normally do, so I thought it would be helpful for those who come here expecting longer pieces all the time. I’ll still write longer pieces, but only ones that I really want to.

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What is the incentive to write in the military?

Originally published in 2016.

I’m working on a longer piece about the important role veterans have in getting their voice out there in the age of social media, and this thought popped into my mind this morning on the way to work: what is the incentive to write in the military?

I’ve never been actively prodded to write inside of the military. There aren’t any obvious professional incentives – no awards or bonuses, it doesn’t go on your ERB/ORB. In fact, there seems to be greater professional risk in writing for an external audience than there is reward.

I know why I write. It’s how I get ideas out. I also enjoy communicating to a larger audience outside of my bubble.

When I came back in the Army in 2011, I was a little concerned about whether I would have to stop writing or severely curtail it. I reached out to some military writers, and one (very accomplished officer) offered this warning:

Even so, today’s Army does not value intellectually rigorous scholarship from serving officers. General Petraeus succeeded despite, rather than because of, his intellectual credentials; note how few officers are following his path to flag rank. Advancement to that level relies on patronage relationships within one or more of the Army’s “communities” – airborne, armored cav, SOF, etc. There is no patron and no community for intellectual rigorous soldier-scholars, and few of them make it past LTC or COL.

It was a fair – and spooky – warning. I do think things like the Military Writers Guild might be changing this dynamic, but only time will tell.

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Death Prose

I look at him. He looks at the grease gun. He calls out: “I NEVER LIKED YOU JOKER. I NEVER THOUGHT YOU WERE FUNNY–“

Bang. I sight down the short metal tube and I watch my bullet enter Cowboy’s left eye. My bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through fluid-filled sinus cavities, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through the tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens.

My bullet exits through the occipital bone, knocks out hairy, brain-wet clods of jagged meat, then buries itself in the roots of a tree.

Gustav Hasford, The Short Timers

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One year of Carrying the Gun

Today is the one year anniversary of the blog. A year ago today, in a stuffy central London dorm room I started this blog with the intent of using it as a clearing house for stuff that I found interesting, but had no place in my graduate thesis.

It didn’t take long for me to gravitate towards military topics, especially when I learned I would be heading back to the Army via OCS.

Writing here has been a good experience for me, and is serving as a kind of methadone for the more intense writing I was doing in graduate school and on veterans issues. Once I started OCS, I didn’t really have the opportunity to write much. I managed to pick up my writing during IBOLC, which allows weekends and nights off (when not in the field). I expect the next year will be exciting, because I’ll soon be out of TRADOC and back in the force. I’ve made a pledge with myself that I’ll mostly sit and observe while in TRADOC. I’ve been out of the Army for five years so lots of things have changed. But once I’m out of here, I’ll push a little harder in my writing – both here and in other places.

I’ve run into some of the people who follow this blog – many who are young infantry lieutenants as well. And I know that some of the things I’ve written have sparked tough discussions on important topics, which is a good thing.

According to the site stats function that WordPress.com provides, my three most popular posts are: The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk, Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop, and Life in the Army – the ‘I Love Me’ book.

Most popular search terms that bring readers to the site: “i love me,” “fall of saigon,” and “shock and awe.”

The post that I wanted to be more popular than it was: “Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers.”

With nothing to compare this year to, I declare the first year a brilliant success!

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The last letter war

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered by suspicion.

Quiet blankets the platoon area as everyone rips open their letters, reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading. Silence is interrupted only by someone exclaiming some piece of exciting news that no one cares about. “Ha! My wife won $5,000 in the lottery.” “Oh, that’s cool” someone responds without paying attention, turning back to his own letters.

Those who got nothing congregated like laughing hyenas. Not receiving mail somehow made them harder than the others.

Waking up to packages organized by platoon. Like Christmas morning in Habbinyah.

Better than letters (but not always) were packages. Fat boxes of happiness. Candy, cookies, dried meats, protein, baby wipes, games, magazines (the best!), DVDs, newspapers. A friend sent me a long combat knife. My parents loved sending care packages. Once they mastered the basics (the essentials listed above), they moved onto the exotic. One hot summer day, I received two large brown packages from my dad. The bottoms were slimy. I opened up the packages to find rotting pineapples. My dad thought pineapples might be refreshing. And they would have been if they survived the five week trip from New York to Baghdad in temperatures that reached 130˚ F.

A little more than halfway into the deployment, we got access to an internet tent at our battalion headquarters. I used to take small teams there in the early morning, waking up before anyone else and making the short walk from our compound to the nearby battalion compound. There, we’d write emails and talk on AOL Instant Messenger with anyone online. Soon, the company got access to a cell phone that could be used to call home. Time was rationed out to about 20 minutes per soldier. The phone was used nearly non-stop, only resting to recharge.

The arrival of email and phones replaced written letters. As food and supply got better and the mail became more reliable, even care packages became less important. Soldiers ordered online what they wanted.

It’s with foolish nostalgia that I fear we’ve seen the last letter war. There is something heroically romantic about soldiers’ letters. Yet, we all ditched letter writing when email came along. Some of us, myself included, tried to keep writing. The emotional attachment was there, but was quickly broken by the promise of now.

I don’t think I wrote a single letter during my second deployment.

I have not deployed in the Facebook era, but I can only imagine that with it, letter writing in war is that much closer to dead.

It’s possible that future wars may come accompanied with a short period of time that makes letter writing necessary because of limited supply, speed of movement, and a degraded communication grid. But technology has improved dramatically since 2003, and it’s hard to imagine the internet being far from anywhere. For troops tucked away in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, letter writing might still exist, like an endangered species kept alive artificially by a dedicated bunch of conservationists.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about letter writing. So much of our romantic literature revolves around letters and letter writing. And we tend to think that some of our heroes from “the old days” would scoff at email, Twitter and the rest. I often have to remind myself that more likely, they would scoff at us for waxing nostalgic for an ancient system that moves glacially, and sometimes not at all. Letters never received. Letters that sink to the bottom of the ocean on freighters. Letters that burn in uncontrollable fires. Letters that are stolen. Letters that arrive in bunches in tightly packed wrapping, years after being sent.

No, I’m fairly certain most would agree it is better to have certain and quick communication.

But still.

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