A Failure of Leadership

Ladies and gentlemen, I have come to a sad conclusion: as an Army, we have lost the art of leadership.

It’s something that has been boiling in the back of my head for a long time now, but I feel that it’s finally time for me to give up hope. You see, I heard something a few days ago that really struck me. I was in a meeting – one of the ones we like to hold in the Army to talk about all the administrative things we should be doing, but aren’t, like Soldier awards and evaluations and whatnot – and the Sergeant Major said something to the group of commanders and staff that made my ears perk up.

“How do you expect to lead these Soldiers if you’re not doing things like getting your hair cut or going to PT?”

The unit Command Sergeant Major, a man charged with taking care of hundreds of Soldiers, just reduced the entire concept of leadership to a haircut and a PT score. I mean, that’s certainly part of it. You can’t ask Soldiers to do things you’re not willing to do. But it’s only a part.

Of course, I readily dismissed his diatribe, because it’s something I hear all the time. It always irks me, but it’s an attitude I’ve come to expect, especially from senior leaders. And then, today, I realized that the biggest part of the problem was not that the CSM’s definition of leadership was derivative and lacking. It’s that we as Army leaders have grown to accept it.

You see, the “haircut” definition of leadership, the one harped on by nearly every CSM I’ve ever known, is leader-centric. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a problem. Leadership shouldn’t focus on what I can do about me. It should be focused on how well I take care of my Soldiers. I can shave my head bald and score a 400 out of 300 on my PT test, but that doesn’t mean I can lead Soldiers. If I can’t help them take care of their problems, if I can’t get them to believe in the mission, if I can’t get them to come together as a group to accomplish a task, then does it really matter how quickly I can run two miles? Or how short my hair is?

In my opinion: no.

We as leaders have come to believe that leadership is all about us, but it’s not. Leadership is about being a servant to those you lead. If a commander can run 5 miles in 30 minutes, but has to kick 15 Soldiers out of the Army because they failed their APFT, he or she has failed as a leader. You need to understand that the world doesn’t begin and end at your own personnel file. If you think a Soldier is more likely to follow you because you have a high-and-tight haircut, rather than because you show that you’re willing and able to take care of those under my charge, you have lost your way.

At that very same meeting, the commanders reviewed the PT failures and overweight Soldiers in their company. And when they announced the number of Soldiers they were going to kick out because of these failings, several had a noticeable undertone of pride in their voices, as if they were happy to be doing what needed to be done to cleanse the Army of the ne’er-do-wells in their formations. Not a single one seemed ashamed that they were in the position of having to chapter out these young American men and women who had signed a contract to serve their country with the explicit understanding that those above them might ask them to lay down their lives in defense of their nation. If you’re a commander, and ten different Soldiers in your formation have failed their PT tests or become overweight, you need to understand that there is a good chance that the single common denominator in that equation is your command team.

A brief aside:

I once knew an analyst who likely could have qualified for a Mensa membership. The guy could rattle off not only facts, but solid strategic-level analysis (you know, that thing we paid him for) about any country in Central Asia and put it in a white paper with a pretty ribbon on top that you could submit to any number of journals. The kid’s problem was that he was coming up a little short on his PT tests. He was an E-4 that the Army had spent probably millions of dollars to train, equip, feed, deploy, and pay for his four-year-long stint. And during his sole deployment, when his NCOIC wasn’t hobbled by a command team more concerned about haircuts than real leadership, he passed his PT test with room to spare. But once he got home, and had to attend regular unit PT, he soon began to fail again. He was placed in a “remedial PT program,” which included all those Soldiers who were physically broken in some way (and thus unable to actually train), told he wasn’t allowed to PT outside of remedial PT, and then swiftly booted from the service after he failed a second PT test.

This kid, who was amazing at his job, was given no leadership whatsoever. He was failed by the Army. And the Army failed itself. How many of our budget woes could we cure if we would just apply some real goddamned leadership to problems instead of taking the easy way out and kicking out Soldiers whom we have already spent so much money on, just to turn around and spend more money on replacing them? I would pose this question to all potential commanders: if you bought a house, remodeled it, invested in it, and started shaping it into what you wanted it to be, would you turn around and sell it the first time the heater went out?

When I voiced concern about the way this Soldier’s case was handled, I was told, “PT is an individual responsibility.” It was not the first time I have heard that, nor would it be the last. But it doesn’t matter how many times it’s said, it’s still bullshit. If PT were an individual responsibility, we wouldn’t form up at 0625 every morning and do it together. And if you try to sell unit PT as a way to “build unit cohesion and esprit de corps,” I will call bullshit again and challenge you to take a poll of how many Soldiers actually enjoy standing in the freezing cold to go run in formation while they call the same old tired cadences they’ve been singing since basic training. Being in PT formation doesn’t make you happy, and it doesn’t make you a strong team. Being a strong team is what makes you happy to be in PT formation.

And if I accept the reasoning that PT is an individual responsibility for a 19-year-old Private First Class, then I will immediately demand that you stop inspecting his barracks room. Stop inspecting his vehicle before he goes on leave. Stop giving him safety briefings every Friday. Though I love Soldiers, I will be the first to concede that you will not like the results of that particular experiment.

Stop enforcing a double standard. Either your Soldiers are responsible adults able to care for themselves on an individual level, or they’re not. Don’t tell me he should be able to set up his own diet and exercise plan, but has to be checked to make sure he cleaned his room. You don’t get to be a leader only when it’s convenient, damn it.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand completely that there are Soldiers who give up, who are beyond reaching. There’s no doubt that they exist, and sometimes we have to cut them rather than take precious resources away from those in our formations who want to succeed. But we as Army “leaders” have grown too comfortable choosing the easy wrong over the hard right, and blanket all those who present a challenge to us as examples of the former rather than entertain even the slightest possibility that they are the latter.

I don’t know why I seem to feel differently about this than so many of those around me. Maybe I’ve just lost all my blind hooah, but I have a hard time writing the words “Army leaders” without some kind of parenthetical disclaimer. I don’t know how we lost our way. The concepts of leadership that I learned in ROTC haven’t changed. You take care of your Soldiers; you serve them. It’s pretty simple, but I feel like it’s beyond our grasp. And I don’t have an answer on how to get it back, to make the azimuth correction we so desperately need. All I know is that it breaks my heart every damn day.


As always, I welcome comments, debate, questions, and discussion here or on Twitter.

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail Against the Islamic State

NOTE: Today’s post was graciously submitted by Sooner Grunt (aka @soonergrunt on Twitter), a retired Army and Army National Guard Infantry NCO with two tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.  He may one day go back to college to finish his degree in Political Science, but says he’ll probably just play computer games and make stuff in his shop because it’s more rewarding. Either way, he has a wealth of real-world experience, and I’m certainly happy to have him contribute! Enjoy!

When I was a Private in Infantry OSUT back in the dark ages of 1988, my Drill Sergeants had these pithy sayings that they would sling around, usually while smoking some troop, usually me, for some infraction or mistake. “Don’t assume, son. It makes an ass out of u and me!”

The two that really stuck with me, and have actual application in the career of the Infantryman are “Piss poor prior planning prevents proper performance,” and “Failing to plan is planning to fail!” These two maxims are pretty useful in many situations, both in and out of the service, but in the military, the mistakes of failure to plan or to plan properly before a mission are almost always a prime ingredient in mission failure, with all that entails. The most glaringly obvious example of this was the preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The entry into Iraq, routes through the country, the isolation and destruction in detail of Saddam Hussein’s military, and the logistical support necessary to accomplish this goal were planned in detail, down to the minute that individual units were to cross the Line of Departure. But there was no planning for the aftermath. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously banned Pentagon and CENTCOM planners from planning for the days and weeks after the invasion, or even asking questions about it, under the threat of relief. His idea, if one can call it that, was that the whole thing would be over in a few months with a pre-fabricated pro-western government installed in Baghdad and the troops home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. We ended up fighting multiple factions over more than a decade and losing almost 4,500 KIA and over 32,000 WIA, with Iraqi casualties estimated around 100K to 300K killed.

This brings me to our current situation in the Middle East. With Syria engaged in a multi-way civil war, and Dictator Bashar Al Assad engaged against “moderate” Sunnis and an organization variously called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or simply, Islamic State (IS.) We want to see Assad go away, but his strongest adversary is IS. The “moderates” are the weakest and least organized of these factions. They are fighting Assad’s government and IS, who is fighting them and Assad, who is fighting pretty much everybody who isn’t a member of Assad’s Alawhite sect. IS is every bit as brutal and heinous as Assad if not more so, and they aren’t our friends either.

IS, having brutally murdered two American Journalists and posting the graphic imagery of these beheadings on social media, seems to be itching for a fight with the West, and the US in particular. Recently, media pundits and politicians have been clamoring for the US to take a more active role in attacking IS, and demanding that the President do something. The question I’d like to see the television pundits and politicians ask, and they never ask, by the way is this: “There are any number of things we CAN do, but is this something we OUGHT TO do?” The answer just might be “no.”

What bothers the shit out of me, as a former Infantry NCO who’s lead squads and platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent a couple of sentences in Battalion and Brigade S-3 (Plans, Operations, and Training, for those who don’t know) shops, is this demand to do something, as if our simply dropping bombs will suddenly make things better. The people who clamor most loudly for this are, in many cases the same people who led cheers from the sidelines for the aforementioned Iraq disaster. These are frequently people who have little to no experience planning or leading combat operations of any sort and very few of whom had any skin in the game then and don’t have any now.

Successful armies plan the things they do, whether it’s conducting squad PT or invading a sovereign nation. Very successful armies constantly update those plans whenever the relevant factors change. I don’t know what, if anything, the Pentagon is planning for IS. I know that they’re planning something. The President may not have any specific intent at this time, but the J-3’s primary mission is to provide him with options should he choose to do something.

One of the biggest problems dealing with the Syrian situation is this: if we do something that hurts IS, that thing will most likely accrue positive benefits to Assad, and vice-versa. This is one case where the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. If we choose to elevate the “moderates” in the Syrian resistance (assuming that such people actually exist,) that will make things better for Assad or IS, depending on whichever of them is positioned to take advantage of the fact, at least for a short period, because they’re all fighting each other.

One of the most important questions to ask when planning an operation is “what happens next?” We can make some assumptions about what the enemy or the local population will do, based on historical precedent, but that is of relatively limited usefulness. We have to begin with the end-state in mind. What do we want the situation to look like when the last US troop is back safely at home drinking beer and playing with the kids? That’s the Strategic level of planning, and it’s damned hard to do. The enemy has a way of doing what he wants to achieve his goals regardless of what you want him to do. At the Operational level, the planning is generally aimed at creating the environment for the Strategic plans to come to fruition. It’s a smaller scale, generally with a shorter timeframe, with multiple contingency plans based on the enemy’s most likely course of action and the enemy’s most dangerous course of action. This is the domain of Theater headquarters, Corps, Divisions, and to some extent, Brigade-level mission planning. From Brigade level and below, the planning is at the Tactical level, down through Battalions and Squadrons to Companies, Troops, and Batteries, to the Platoon and finally to the Squad and Section. This is where the rubber meets the road.

At every level, planning begins with the Commander’s Intent—what does the higher Commander’s Desired End-State look like? We use the acronym MET-TC to determine what we are going to try to do and how we are going to try to do it. Mission, Enemy, Terrain and weather, Troops and support available, Time available, Civil considerations describe generally the planning considerations to take into account before the first Soldier hits the Line of Departure. And this planning has to take place at every level from the Pentagon J-3 working from the President’s intent down to the Infantry Platoon and Squads out in the middle of bad-guy country. At each level, the timeframe, area of operations, and scope of action are shrunk down to levels that are theoretically achievable by the unit responsible.

While plans at the Strategic and Operational level are frequently thought up and drafted by people with advanced degrees and decades of experience, with access to all sorts of high-tech information systems and the latest intelligence in air-conditioned facilities with nice amenities, the guys and gals who attempt to make those plans a reality are usually High School graduates and recent College graduates, in many cases doing this for the first time in the real world, and they’re running on bad food, little sleep, too much caffeine and adrenaline, using equipment that’s often unsuitable and in varying states of disrepair, and possessing very little knowledge of the outside world and their part in it. Things can go sideways very quickly at the tactical level with repercussions all the way up to the White House. All of the previous paragraphs should have led you to the realization that this shit is hard to do.

Ed: Overall, a fantastic take on why we shouldn’t rush to failure in the Middle East! If you have comments or want to continue the discussion, feel free to get at us on Twitter (@CombatCavScout & @SoonerGrunt) or leave a comment below!

Your Brain, a Process Called Homeostasis, and Post-Traumatic Stress: A Conversation Starter

(NOTE: This is the first in a hopefully never-ending stream of guest posts from friends of mine. This one is by Science Firebird, who is a research science officer. She did a PhD while her friends did overseas tours, and that stuck with her. Now she does research in recovery from deployment-related health conditions. She’s incredibly smart, and you can follow her on Twitter, @SciFirebird.)

You’ve had it all your life. Everywhere you goes, it goes. It shapes you and you shape it. You go to war, it goes to war. Your combat helmet helps, but it doesn’t protect against everything. You come back… commence the game of push and shove in your head.

The brain is an astounding organ. Sometimes you may disagree with the things yours does (and don’t we all), but if you’re alive today, it’s in large part because of the way your brain has adapted to the environments you’ve passed through on your journey through life. It’s shaped for response, adaptation, and survival. It primes your behaviors for the same.

The thing is, it’s also complex and multi-factored and operates in ways that are to some extent dependent upon your cumulative individual experience- and to make things that much more confounding, it turns out that initiating a survival response is a little more straightforward than reversing that response. You’re alive, mission accomplished, what pressure is there for your brain to return to its pre-deployment state? You’re primed for life or death already.

Despite the talk of complexity and general holy-shit aura surrounding the topic of brain research, we do have a pretty solid basis of knowledge to work from over here. It’s not magic, after all, it’s physiology. We know the brain works in a predictable fashion. We know what drives motor activity, what drives higher cognition, what regulates body temperature, where we process threat stimuli and how we form memories, as examples. These things are the same for us all and
across species. These brain regions work together to produce a given output: say, threat response can shape memory (and in absolute terms, that could go anywhere from a more robust memory to having little memory of the actual event). These things are becoming well understood enough in the research lab that the end result is a slew of tiresome, poorly written science news headlines proclaiming “[Insert Thing Here] Rewires The Brain!”– yeah, well, simultaneously not at all and also no shit. Because the brain may maintain the same wiring diagram pattern, but it is continuously updating the strength of those connections between regions in terms of how relevant they are. This process of response and adaptation to external pressures from the neuronal network level all the way down to the cellular component level is called homeostasis, and without it we would not exist as a species.

Think of a road map. If you’ve got a mass of people commuting from the suburbs to the city, eventually they’re gonna widen the main highway to respond to demand. It’s a little bit like that. (Unless you live in the DC metro area, in which case all these dimwits do is add toll lanes.)

So here’s the bottom line. If you spend a year in an environment where people want to harm you, then you’re going to adapt to become hypervigilant to any sign of danger in your surroundings, for instance. This is a pretty expected kind of response- it’s your brain keeping you as alert as possible to threats and therefore helping you stay alive. I’d wonder a bit about anyone who didn’t respond that way. The key issue, however, is this: once you leave that place and no longer need that hypervigilance, if your brain doesn’t get the “simmer down now” signal and do so on its own via homeostasis, how do we facilitate ramping that vigilance back down to where it used to be?

That’s where the researchers have a lot of work left to do, and the clinicians are struggling for a stopgap tool in the meantime. I wish I had a well-placed bit of snark that would make this fact suck less than it does. Nothing can mitigate the huge sigh of “fuuuuck” that wells up in my mind when I look up for a moment from my daily grind and look at the bigger picture.

But about that bigger picture.

A vexing part of being on the research end here is that the basis for a PTSD diagnosis is grossly suboptimal for research. Our docs are diagnosing based on exposure to a traumatic event- this happens to lots of people in all sorts of places and situations, and not everyone who is exposed ends up with lasting effects. But beyond the basis as exposure to a traumatic event, there is the wide and varied types of responses that are included. It’s my opinion that the definition of PTSD is very wide and needs to be subcategorized, at the least. I think we are looking at a spectrum of diagnoses here, and they are currently running under one definition. It’s very hard to replicate any human condition in a preclinical model in the first place-(and in case this isn’t clear why one would do this, it’s because we can do the best mucking around in brains preclinically)- but when you set very wide goalposts and handwave away accuracy, you essentially are dismissing precision. Without precision, in my world, you’ve got nothing but a mess of data that becomes increasingly hard to assemble into a single coherent direction to drive forward. Without preclinical work, you don’t have clinical studies, and you struggle to assemble something that will help people out down the road.

So what am I trying to tell you here? Lots of things. What’s my hope for the future? I’m working on that.

But I can tell you this much. There’s not going to be a “take this pill every morning and your life will return to the way it was” problem solving approach here. I do think there will be a “take this pill before you go to your therapy session” or “take this pill after you successfully negotiate a difficult situation in the clinic or on your own” approach coming down the line. Because what causes this is an experience-dependent process, I think that so will be the path toward resolution.

After all, you go to war with the brain you have.

Ed: An interesting and thoughtful take on PTSD from an Army scientist is a pretty effin’ cool thing to have. It feels as if she could be talking to or about me here, and I know plenty of vets who feel the same. I especially appreciate the use of layman’s terms and analogies, because I’m not the smartest grunt in the world, by far. What did you guys think? Feel free to comment!

Taking Nude Selfies in an Imperfect World

This is my opinion on the leaked nude pictures of a large group of female celebrities. It’s kind of disjointed and rambling, and many people probably won’t like it. Just do me a favor and read the whole thing before you judge it.

First things first: the guy who stole and published intimate photos of those women should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and I personally hope he spends a significant portion of the remainder of his life sharing a small, uncomfortable cell with a large, terrible roommate. It is no secret that what he did was immoral and illegal, and – having done it of his own free will – the full responsibility of his actions is rightfully laid at his feet. It’s been truthfully said over and over again that just because she was drunk, just because she was wearing a short skirt, just because she was flirting with you, that doesn’t give you the right to have sex with her without first obtaining her consent. Just because they stored their nude pictures on a cloud server with inadequate security doesn’t make it okay for some douchebag to steal said pictures. It’s still wrong, and the only person responsible for the crime is the person who perpetrated it.

I just want people to understand that the world isn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. I want people to stop pretending it’s bad and wrong to take steps against those who would victimize you, simply because they shouldn’t victimize you. Is it wrong for people to break the law and violate others? Yes, it is. Should people eschew immoral and illegal behaviors on the basis that they are immoral and illegal? Yes, they should. Should we do our best to prevent these crimes from occurring, anyway? Yes, absolutely. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, folks. Laws against hijacking planes can and should coexist right alongside airport metal detectors and bulletproof cockpit doors.

I often like to explain things with analogies, so here’s one from my own personal experience. US forces set up bases of operations in Afghanistan, just like we have in most other major conflicts. And any combat leader worth his or her salt knows that the first thing you establish when settling into your new base is your security. You fill and position sandbags and berms and concrete barriers. You put out concertina wire and Claymores. You make sure your machine gunners have good fields of fire. You establish targets for your mortars and artillery. Only after you’re completely secure do you even think about building the chow hall. Because there’s bad guys out there in the hills, just waiting for an opportunity to send you home in a box. Now, at the end of the day, it is that enemy fighter’s decision to squeeze that trigger. He is responsible for what happens after that rocket leaves its tube or the bullet leaves the barrel. But just because the destruction is on him doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to prevent it. I’ve still filled plenty of sandbags, cleaned plenty of weapons, registered plenty of targets. Because the one thing we could always count on the bad guys to do was be bad guys.

Put more simply, is there a lock on the door to your home? Do you lock it at night or when you leave for work? Do you protect the PIN to your debit card from the general public? Would you turn down a ride from a stranger in a panel van with the words “FREE CANDY” spray painted on the side? For most of  you, the answer to these questions is likely a resounding “YES!” But why? Burglary is wrong. Stealing money from someone’s bank account is wrong. Abducting someone in your shaggin’ wagon is wrong. But the fact that those actions are wrong and illegal doesn’t stop some people from doing them, so you take measures to protect yourself. If someone picked up your phone, would they have to ask you for a password to use it? Why? They shouldn’t be looking through all the shit on your phone anyway, right? But you still password protect it. This has come up recently in another discussion, one about nail polish that detects date rape drugs. I see people actively bashing the nail polish, seemingly on the basis that it shouldn’t be necessary. Well, of course it shouldn’t be necessary! But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea in a society that just isn’t where we want it to be yet.

In a perfect world, people don’t commit crimes or act on immoral impulses. But the real world is far from perfect. We all take measures every day to protect ourselves, as is prudent. You don’t set your wallet down on the seat of a crowded subway and turn your back on it just because it would be wrong for someone to take it. If your apartment gets robbed because you didn’t lock your door, no amount of screaming about how illegal burglary is will get your flat screen back.

People in civilized societies have a responsibility to act in accordance with the law and a generally agreed-upon set of morals. But people should also take steps to protect themselves from the transgressions of those who violate the social contract. If I had chosen to stand in the open in an Afghan valley, alone, wearing no body armor and carrying no weapon, and some Taliban scumbag had shot and killed me, my blood would be on HIS hands. None of my actions would have resulted in my death until HE pulled the trigger. But that doesn’t mean that it would have been a good idea to stand there like that.

Now an important thing to remember here, lest you think I’m advocating some shit that I’m not: I am NOT saying it’s okay to blame or shame the victim of a crime, even if they did absolutely nothing to protect themselves against it. It is the perpetrator’s fault, plain and simple. I don’t blame the victims for their photos being published by some fuckstain who absolutely knew better. Anyone who says they shouldn’t have to worry about protecting that stuff is 100% correct. I agree wholeheartedly, and I wish that’s how the world really was. Unfortunately, it’s not.

You’re not going to be able to secure everything from everyone all the time. For the majority of their existence, NSA has been synonymous with security (it’s right in their name!), and even they are now dealing with a massive breach. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can to prevent our victimization. And like most other things in life, security exists on a spectrum. Being on the extreme end of either side of that spectrum is probably not the best course of action. There is certainly such a thing as too much security, just as there’s too little. Again, this is the real world. I don’t expect everything on your smartphone to have a unique, 30-character password with at least four uppercase letters, four lowercase letters, four numbers, and four special characters. That shit’s impractical. It nullifies the convenience that is the very point of the smartphone. I don’t expect your apartment door to be rigged with a trip-wire shotgun. Some people will never, ever take a nude picture of themselves, simply because they wouldn’t want it to be made public. That’s okay, but you have to understand that that doesn’t cut it for everyone. Because there’s nothing illegal or inherently wrong about sending a naked picture of yourself to someone who consents to receiving it. I can not recall ever having sent any racy pictures of myself to my wife, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that I wouldn’t if she asked me to. You have to think of what’s reasonable. And when I say that I think it’s probably a bad idea to store nude pictures of yourself on a cloud server, that’s just my idea of what’s reasonable. Your mileage may vary. Maybe you’re a “never take naked pictures of yourself” person; maybe you’re a “make the person you send them to promise, like, really hard not to show them to anyone” person. Either one is perfectly okay, but realize that one option is much less likely to result in your old high school principal seeing pictures of your junk on the internet.

I guess there are three points I want people to take away from my thoughts here, none of which are mutually exclusive:

1. I think that, no matter what, the person responsible for a crime is the person who commits that crime. Nobody else.

2. I think people should be realistic and understand that the less you secure yourself, the more likely you are to be violated.

3. I think it’s really stupid to imply that nobody should take steps to secure themselves in the real world just because they shouldn’t have to in an ideal world.

4. I think that, no matter what, the person responsible for a crime is the person who commits that crime. Nobody else. (It bears repeating.)

I guess that about wraps it up. This is my first post on this WordPress thingamajig, so I’m not sure if you can comment on it. If you can, great! I welcome thoughtful discussion. Just keep in mind that you’re probably wrong.

Have a great night.