One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about military history came from Victor Davis Hanson who taught me that war is like water: its chemical properties have remained unchanged throughout the ages. Dr. Hanson taught us about the Roman notion of mutatis mutandis; the idea that, taking account for time and space, things remain the same. The emotions a young Athenian felt griping his shield before clashing with the Persians on the plains of Marathon are no different than what a young Marine feels on a combat patrol just before contact with the Taliban in the valleys of Marjah. Fear, the desire to prove one’s mettle before the enemy, and will to not let down the man by your side has always dominated the moral element of war’s design.
What has changed with both war and water is the speed of its distribution. Death in the Marne, for example, came faster (and in enormously greater numbers) than death in Plataea. And Dr. Hanson’s truth remains, war is war. And though the delta of war’s bleak calculus has been the speed with which death is produced, the constant has always been that the ultimate reality of war – that it is sanctioned murder, delicately and inelegantly tied to the dark human condition – has not. So long as men are men, so long as politics and diplomacy fail, so long as greed and evil and opposite and opposing value systems exist there will be as much a need in the post-modern age to field rifle platoons as there was in the pre-Modern age to field Hellenic war parties or Roman legions. Water is water. War is war.
Piracy is an ancient extension of this essential historical principle. It will continue to be so long as there is disparity in wealth among men in this world, criminals with nothing to lose, littoral regions with little or no rule of law, and so on. Though we have a tendency to glorify it in our Western literature, film, and lore, piracy is what it has always been: a criminal act of violence, theft, terror, murder, intimidation, and terror on the seas. That it occurs today daily in the waters of the Arabian and North Arabian Gulfs, the Somali Basin, the Indian Ocean and the China Sea (and centuries ago off the Barbary coast, in the Caribbean and off what is now our own country’s shores) is no surprise. The fact that it happens almost anywhere in the world that there is the prospect for someone to make gain from a weak target is a natural extension of this simple truth: war is like water. And Hobbes was right.
There is a way to end piracy in Somalia but it has little to do with counter-piracy operations at sea. It requires a political appetite we just don’t have. And so we must continue to deter piracy from the sea. This is an approach we cannot sustain in the longest term, but it is an approach that we must continue to advance in the near and long terms. In the near term, the word must get out that pirates will be aggressively hunted, then killed or captured and prosecuted, if nothing else to make them think twice. And while such deterrence poses significant challenges, we must continue to drive on with gusto.
- How do we define piracy? -
The Department of Defense defines piracy as an “illegal act of violence, depredation, or detention in or over international waters committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft against another ship or aircraft or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft.”
There’s a fundamental criminal element to piracy that daily disrupts and threatens our nation’s financial and diplomatic interests abroad. And there’s a much more frightening characteristic that could very well develop that would extend piracy’s scope from the criminal world into the realm of terrorism. Such a reality means our national security would be at stake here is well.
- Why’d it all start? -
The current piracy epidemic stems from Somalia’s socio-economic combustion that began with the fall of the Barre Regime in 1991 and the departure of the United Nations’ patrols from its coastal waters in 1995. International fishing vessels took advantage of the power vacuum created when what little regulation and enforcement vanished. They moved in and dominated the vast fishing grounds off Somalia’s coast. Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean and other international super-harvesters shamelessly exploited Somalia’s waters, destroying local fishermen’s nets and boats – their very livelihood.
With no government, and no legal recourse, the fishermen formed militias and sailed out to meet the vessels with force. It was the classical sort of mess: post-modern industry with no regulation practices bad business among a hungry pre-modern people with no government. Disaster.
By decade’s end, these fishermen-militias organized and began calling themselves “coast guards.” They started collecting fees as retribution for the intruders’ spoils and made them purchase “fishing licenses.” Their efforts influenced areas in-sight of the coast and their targets were dhows and other coastal traffic of opportunity. Profits at sea rose in concert with the increased lawlessness across the country. When the Ethiopians withdrew from the south, warlords established dominance at once in southern Somalia and the central Mudug region. They immediately recognized the potential for profit from their fishermen’s revolution and moved to exploit them. Now the displaced fishermen’s raison d’être was replaced by a mob-style culture of crime, centered on the desire to extort quick wealth by means of brute force, intimidation and murder. Contemporary Somalian piracy was born.
- Who are these pirates, where are they from and what’s the impact? -
There are 8 million people in Somalia. Nearly 95% of them belong to just 6 clans, and ¾ of them belong to either the Darood, Hawiye, Dir and Issak clans. All clans and sub-clans maintain their own armies and shadow administrations. There are no long-standing alliances among these clans, but loose coalitions are established and maintained when it suits them and are structured along the lines of the dark human devotions: tribal history, vengeance, greed and demand for scarce resources. This is the foundation of the Somalian pirate identity.
The U.S. and coalition navies swarm that great expanse of ocean surrounding Africa’s northeastern Horn where two Somali clans – the Darood and the Hawiye – dominate and operate with relative impunity in Puntland and the ungoverned areas north of Mogadishu. All along Somalia’s coast they, and sub-clans like them, have established a thriving underworld of pirate camps brimming with experienced seaborne criminals.
In a place where the average Somalian makes about $2 USD a day and one in every two receives food aid, the appeal of piracy – the most lucrative business in Somalia – is immense. In these pirate enclaves it’s beginning to look like what would happen if Capone’s Chicago circa 1925 met Escobar’s Medellin circa 1985, without the Feds or DEA to stand in the way of thugs making fortunes. By all accounts piracy is not only acceptable by local Somali standards, it’s fashionable. Pirates cruise the streets in luxury cars to a bizarre sort of hero worship by the masses; they hold court alongside the masterminds and gangsters of other crime syndicates and host decadent parties with exotic drugs and top-shelf alcohol in waterfront palaces. They even start legitimate businesses of their own. They are celebrities.
The first organized piracy ring in Somalia was started in Harradera. In 2004 the Harradera cartel expended their hunt for ransoms beyond the near-coastal waters and into an over-the-horizon effort targeting larger ships, with bigger payoffs. In 2005 they determined they could extract immense payoffs from commercial merchant ships and by 2006 began capturing larger “motherships” to give them the legs they needed to capture the big prizes – merchant cargo vessels with no security and large insurance umbrellas. Motherships became platforms to launch small skiffs and extended their attack range hundreds of miles off the coast. They also formalized their tactics, rehearsed their attacks and executed relatively complex take downs. In some cases the target ship was identified by scouts before the ship even left its home port. Between 2005 – 2007 there were 60 total attacks, including 24 hijackings and a total ransom of $7 million USD. In 2008 there was a 113% increase in attacks and a 614% increase in ransom collected to $50 million USD. In 2009 there was a total of 198 attacks and each single ransom averaged $2 million USD. Business has been good.
-What are the challenges?-
Countering pirates at sea is a lot like fighting drugs on the highways. While it does have a deterrent effect in the near term, (and even positive effects in the long term) it does little to stop the problem in the longest term. As coalition efforts continue, attacks shift from this basin to that sea in counter-balance with patrolling efforts. If a pirate is caught, he’s typically set free. And if he is captured, most countries (like Kenya) have been unwilling to accept the burden of prosecuting them.
The international community has formed impressive coalitions like JTF 151, the European Union’s CTF 465, and NATO’s TF 508. It’s a robust patrol effort, but the extent to which these individual patrols are effective depend largely on the freedom of maneuver that ship is allowed by its own higher authority. The Dutch warship TROMP, for example, conducted more than 80 opposed boardings in 60 days, with impressive results. But they were also actively patrolling known pirate lanes and given tremendous freedom of movement and orders that expressly authorized their hunts. Such conditions are rare among the counter-piracy task forces.
Even if patrols increase both in duration and number, and hunting conditions are optimized, our own Admiralty warns that, with Somalia’s 1500 nautical mile coastline and an objective area that extends from Oman and east from Kenya covering more than 1,000,510 square nautical miles, we cannot sustain such a Herculean endeavor against the pirates over time.
And while patrols and engagements with the pirates continue, a unique and complicated nexus is forming among our Fleets, the Departments of Justice, State, Commerce and our intelligence activities. The recent cases of pirate attacks against the MV Maersk, USS Nicholas, USS Ashland and the related pirates now in our custody who face prosecution by the US Attorney’s Office in New York City and Norfolk, for example, highlight the legal challenges of counter-piracy work. And across the spectrum of warfighting – from intelligence gathering to execution – the challenges are many.
At the tactical level the principle issue is that the target vessel almost immediately becomes a crime scene and the operators must transition from assaulters to evidence collectors. At the operational level friction arises around command and control, transfers of authority, turn-over of suspects, management of property and related though largely unfamiliar domestic evidentiary procedures; to say nothing of the complications that arise when dealing with a largely messy coalition of scores of foreign navies each operating with its own agenda, tactics and marching orders.
At the strategic level, the problem is the most difficult: how to police the open sea, respond to crimes already committed, deter crimes not yet but soon to be committed, and address the fact that piracy is a natural next step for Al Qaedists, regional terrorist networks like Al Shabaab, and other terrorist organizations world-wide as a means to profit and move illicit goods and materials with relative impunity all to facilitate future acts of terrorism. All this while accounting for political matters I hear about and understand intellectually but can’t seem to explain.
- The way forward -
Overcoming these challenges, at least at the tactical and operational level, are genuinely possible; if given the opportunity units like the PELARG 15th MEU, who are uniquely trained and capable to conduct counter-piracy operations, will drastically influence the battlespace.
At the national-level there are three dimensions to our success in counter-piracy – success in the near term, success in the long term and success in the longest term. Success in the near term requires the US and coalition Navies continue aggressive counter-piracy patrols despite the challenges. Quality warships like the USS Dubuque, reinforced by the USS Pelilu, and the USS Pearl Harbor, are manned by the most capable seamen and surface warfare officers in the world. They take station highly trained, armed with helicopters, fast small watercraft and an assault element capable of taking down any size ship in short order. They must be given the freedom of movement to actively locate and destroy the pirates, and their motherships while simultaneously being prepared to recapture a seized vessel. This MEU maintains a unique and incredible offensive skill set capable of turning a corner in what should escalate to an all out war on pirates on the high seas. If nothing else, the pirates must be aggressively hunted, and killed or captured.
Success in the long term requires a union of increased signint and humint collections effort, commercial best industry practices, continued joint maritime dominance and increased regional security initiatives. Private industry has been aggressively involved in the piracy debate and rightly and predictably interested in protecting their ships, cargo and crew. Discussions among the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and maritime insurance and shipping companies have made significant progress in identifying innovative methods to combat piracy. One such example has been the use of private contractors (Embedded Security Teams) who provide physical security while underway. ESTs are gaining popularity despite initial resistance and have validated their capabilities in numerous real world scenarios. Regional security initiatives are increasing and should continue to increase, to include multi-national training, the continued employment of joint task forces but with more aggressive and unified taskings, and a means to share, real time, any ship in the coalition’s piracy after-actions, lessons learned and intelligence. Success across these spectrums will produce long term results.
Success in the longest term is thorny. Success here depends on the active advancement of progress made in the long term while addressing the reality of things: piracy is never defeated at sea. We’d also have to address the reality that the calculus drastically changes if terrorist organizations infiltrate and co-opt the Somalian piracy trade just as regional warlords did from their own fishermen. We’d not only have to ensure maritime dominance, increase joint intelligence efforts (while fighting two other land wars requiring the same resources), improve best industry practices and regional security initiatives but also have to launch an aggressive and systematic campaign to destroy known terrorist camps all along the coast and be prepared to continue to strike ground targets as they reappear.
What’s more, and here’s the hard part, if we want the Somali piracy problem to disappear for good in the longest term, we’d then need to invest in Somalian infrastructure, security, in their government and economy. We would have to eliminate not only the reasons why fishermen turned to piracy in the first place, but also treat it then as an additional front in our war on terrorism and attempt to stabilize the region for good. And given our current two-front war, past experiences on the ground in Somalia, the state of our own economy, and hundreds of other really good reasons, that option is not at all appetizing, politically or otherwise, for anyone really. Not today. And so it seems we must focus on success in the near and long terms, which means we must embrace the first reality that Somalian pirates will continue to plunder and second that we must sail out to meet them and fight back. And perhaps even engage them at their camps ashore. If we don’t, this piracy reality will continue. Because piracy is like water. Mutatis mutandis.
When a fellow Marine aviator asked Capt Dan “Trigger” Brown if he had a workout regime he could use while his squadron was deployed in Afghanistan, he delivered much more. He sent forward a Letter of Instruction on how to be beautiful that he and his old squadron-mates created a few years ago in Iraq. This LOI articulates a complete ethos. He calls it “The Beautiful Man Project” and it’s a solid-gold approach to a Marine’s TOTAL fitness of the mind, body and soul. But mostly it’s an ode to being beautiful. To any of you Marines and Sailors currently deployed overseas in defense of our great Nation, here’s a fitness program you need to embrace.
From: Captain U. B. Beautiful 000 00 0367 /7565 USMC
To: Men of Beautiful Potential
Subj: BEAUTIFUL MAN PROJECT LETTER OF INSTRUCTION
(a) MCO 1775.R
(b) Miscellaneous Health and Fitness Magazines
ORIENTATION: The BEAUTIFUL MAN PROJECT is no mere project. It is, in essence, a journey. This journey is one where men with sufficient willpower, devotion, and courage intend to better themselves both inside and out. “Beauty” in this case should not be construed as that which is typically associated with the feminine. To the contrary, this is indeed an exercise in masculinity. Nor is this form of beauty to be construed as superficial vanity. This project is not solely intended to be a reconstruction of the narcissistic exterior and posterior, but the interior as well. The founders of the BEAUTIFUL MAN PROJECT highly encourage reading, writing, enlightening conversation, tactical shrewdness, witty banter, professional development, picking up hobbies such as jazz flute, trident throwing, and memorizing the boards in HALO 3, all in addition to the obvious pillars of working out and a healthy diet.
SITUATION: You are presently located in a cold, desolate, and unrefined region of the world which has forever teetered on the brink of chaos. Ironically, said region developed into a thriving civilization millennia before your beloved country existed and flourished with the riches of a bountiful landscape into one of the first agricultural societies in the world. Therefore, it is particularly appropriate that you should seize this opportunity to flourish using your bountiful energies without the normal diversions of paradise cities and hot girls in love. The sobering reality is that you have nothing better to do than to employ the philosophies and program required to become a Beautiful Man.
MISSION: During your time trapped among the rigid Hesco Barriers and flexible, yet sharp concertina wire, you too are to become rigid in muscular tone and develop a sharp, yet flexible mind in order to transform the literal and the figurative you into something better for the benefit of your health, society, and the chicks you find next to you on mornings after successful evenings on the town. A “suck less every day” philosophy provides a basic ethos. What can you do to improve physically, mentally, socially, artistically? How can you navigate the river into your own, personal heart of darkness and emerge a better man? What can you do to make your brother better? Within the confines of our close circle “I am my brother’s keeper” is a staple. When one falters, the others pick him up. When the collective begins to languish in mediocrity, the individual invigorates the group with novel concepts for self improvement.
EXECUTION: The BEAUTIFUL MAN PROJECT consists of 3 distinct phases. For doctrinal purposes, only those phases which directly impact the physical will be delineated with parameters. The mental ramifications and possibilities of the program are far too complex and extensive to be covered in this forum. A simple guideline following the phase breakdown in this document will serve to scratch the surface of developments in habit and character. Phases for the physical maturation are below; hard dates are subject to flexibility based upon individual circumstance.
PHASE 1: BULKING.
The Bulking Phase consists of regular workout routines, using heavy weights and low numbers of reps. You may supplement as you like, in accordance with MCO 1775.R, in order to achieve maximum gains. In the Bulking Phase, you may eat whatever you want. Historical analysis reveals, however, this may not be the most prudent course of action. Careful consideration of one’s individual metabolism, self discipline, and reaction to extreme diet changes may warrant an “easing” into Phase 2 or a less extreme interpretation of the Bulking Phase. For an insightful perspective on the actions required to properly recover from an orthodox interpretation of the tenets of this phase, a personal counseling with Eric “Meat” Mitchell regarding his experience in 2007 is highly recommended. The preponderance of experiences has shown, however, that some potentially beautiful men have failed to attain their goals because they indulged heavily during bulking and the next phase was too much to bear mentally and physically.
PHASE 2: RIPPING/FOOD FASCISM.
This phase consists of regular workout routines using light weights, high reps and loads of cardio such as long slow runs (LSRs), elliptical, rowing machines, etc. The ripping period is also concurrent with the commencement of Food Fascism. You had your fun eating whatever you wanted, so tell Mom to knock it off with the brownie care packages. The Keebler elves will not mistake your mustache for their tree, with all the cookie remnants and whatnot. A dramatic reduction in calories, especially those from simple carbohydrates, is paramount to meeting these goals.
As Beautiful Men unite, we will not allow weakness to pervade our circle or shame our pious efforts. Be wary, that when the time comes, Food Fascism shall be strictly enforced. This phase distinguishes the true believers from the posers and will require strong action from the team. Actions such as slapping unacceptable chow from a brother’s hand, to beat downs, to awakening a fellow follower for a morning run are not only acceptable, but required. Those that are unwilling to accept the tenets of this phase are also unwilling to accept the entire Beautiful Man Concept and, just as chaff, will be separated from the “wheat” of believers.
PHASE 3: POLISHING. (First Step Outside of Afghanistan)
This is the time to finalize your masterpiece. This phase consists of a continuation of Phase 2, with the addition of tanning, flexing for added tone, bodily hair grooming and growing hair on your head back to something respectable looking, or shaving it entirely if your head is nicely shaped and not blinding. This phase should include increased use of dermatological, hair care, and dental products. In short order, you will post before your significant others, families and friends. They are well aware of your ability to be “All Jarred Out,” now is the time to display your range of abilities; to prove your beauty. When you do, they will behold what you have become and they will cheer. But they will only cheer if you have polished. Otherwise they will see you for what you really are, broke on life currency.
Phase 3 must also consist of mental preparation for your return. Those sharing in the difficult times of Food Fascism should now share their sense of style and ritually study the newest trends in music, clothing, and attitude. Communications of such topics with trusted sources at home should be shared with all Beautiful Men. Gentlemen of refinement should consider putting aside funds for at least one new suit from a reputable source and a substantial sum- on the order of hundreds of dollars- for new shirts, trousers, and shoes. One must also remember that shortly after the end of Phase 3, there is a good chance someone will see you completely naked. What you will unveil is up to you. It is not coincidence that the polishing phase is coincident with the manufacturer’s recommended Whitestrip cycle, so plan accordingly and supervise your brother.
You now are not only a combat hardened warrior, but a shining example of mind, body, and spirit. In general, the rallying cry for Phase 3 should be “Return with Style.” Do so, and you may truly consider yourself a Beautiful Man.
Coordinating Instructions: Hardening yourself physically may be the most simple of endeavors tasked to a Beautiful Man. As mentioned before, the “Character Renaissance” necessary to bettering yourself, your squadron, and, in a macro sense, society as a whole, is not definable by phase. Physical headway is measurable as progression is readily evident. Those aspects of character are not quantifiable but are just as apparent. Since there are no phases associated with the intangible nature of progression of mind and spirit a simple guideline of the most basic of goals will suffice as a starting point, much like the poem “If”, by Rudyard Kipling. While these bullet points may seem pedestrian and trite, think of them as cobblestones on the path you must travel.
1. Your mission will always come first. Improving yourself will aid the mission.
2. There is no room for vanity or ego. Individual progression will improve the whole.
3. Do not accept or become comfortable with professional mediocrity. Hone your warfighting skills at every opportunity.
4. Take a casual disinterest in your own well-being but never that of your compatriots.
5. Limit your complaints. Refurbish those grievances into something constructive.
6. Learn something new every day.
7. Establish your personal standards. Hold others to do the same.
8. When others slip, be the rock that provides safe haven from the current. They will do the same in time.
9. Respect the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Bring substance to the warrior-class elite.
10. Your background and circumstances may have determined who you are. You are responsible for who you become.
ADMIN AND LOGISTICS:
Admin: You may document your progress as you see fit. Within the project there are three quantifiable measures of progress: 1. The scale, 2. The mirror, 3. The measuring tape. You may have personal goals of your own, such as slimming so that you can see your own feet or other appendages.
Logistics: Maintain a Beautiful Man Project (BMP) Read Board in the HMLA chow hut with the Beautiful Man of the Week (BMW) changed every Saturday for motivation and communications posted as required. Feat of Strength of the Week (FSW) is also encouraged. Supplements are the responsibility of the individual.
COMMAND AND SIGNAL: You are in command of your own destiny. Communications regarding upcoming phase changes, motivation, and general entertainment will be passed via NIPR electronic mail and posted on the BMP Read Board in the HMLA chow hut.
IN CLOSING: The great American poet, Robert Frost, famously spoke of a road “less traveled.” We invite you to cast aside your shell of mediocrity, to stop being a no load and become something different and better than you were. The diverging paths of your current journey are before you. BECOME A BEAUTIFUL MAN. It will make all the difference.
U. B. BEAUTIFUL
Captain Daniel “Trigger” Brown is a Cobra pilot by trade and currently serving as the 15th MEU’s Assistant Air Officer and the Force Recon platoon’s Forward Air Controller (FAC). Trigger is from Santa Barbara, CA and a Dartmouth grad. His biggest accomplishment to date (in my humble but mostly-always-accurate opinion) is landing a girlfriend so far out of his league he can’t see her with a telescope. Dan’s very-special-lady-friend, if you’re reading this, there’s still time…
“Green-Yellow-Red” is among the many idiot-resistant conventions in the Marine Corps. It’s used all the time (tactically and otherwise) as a quick barometer: “yes, maybe, no way-Jose”. After an infantry squad culminates on an objective, a rifleman who’s out of ammo would be “red.” In AIRBORNE operations, a jumper will be “green” before exit. In flight operations, if air is “yellow” it might be a lower visibility day (if air is “red” it might be a golf day). In the Base Combat Group’s admin office, an inappropriate pass by a male Corporal to a female Corporal, would be “red.” A dude-to-dude “good game” pat on the butt after a long ops-intel brief would be green (a squeeze, or cupped hand on the cheek, red); close talkers, always yellow.
Keep your eye on the close talkers…
I like this system in the Marine Corps. Everyone has a pretty good feel for it, I think. Lets everyone know where you stand. We’re either jumping out of the airplane, or we’re not, or maybe we will or maybe we won’t. Who knows? Who cares? The colors do the thinking for me. I’m just going to stand here…
The idea of using the ‘green-yellow-red’ metric outside of the Marine Corps and as an instrument of social science is not my own (most good ideas aren’t); the credit belongs to a legendary intelligence officer (anonymously cited here as he is a man of great influence, respect and class and my contribution to this column is one of little of all those things) who brought up a series of topics over a series of meals and cigars and marathon debates across a series of seas and oceans and deserts with a central question: can you or can’t you?
What started as coffee time banter evolved into great speech-making. Alliances were formed quickly in ante-bellum fashion along the most interesting, revealing and divisive man-question of them all: Who would you rather be – Indiana Jones, or James Bond? Lines were drawn, promises made, and friendships won and lost over matters as important as: Can a grown man eat an ice cream cone? (No.) What is the maximum age a man can no longer wear a professional sports jersey in public? (16.) What is the maximum age a guy can have a roommate? (30.) Bond is cooler than Jones, Pitt hotter than Cruise, Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr. uglier than them all, et al.
We passionately made our cases and did not advance to another topic until the majority decided: “you can” or “you can’t.” We fought like zealous members of Congress arguing over Health Care, only less paid and more sober.
Many of these deliberations ended concretely. Others, we found, required a conditional solution: If you are taking your son to a baseball game, then you can wear the jersey of another grown man. If you are older than 30 but living in a really expensive place in say Manhattan, San Francisco, London, or Tokyo, then you can have a roommate…It’s never ok to eat ice cream on a cone.
A man’s decision making is guided by these two questions: 1. Will doing this make me look a girl? and 2. Will doing this make me look like a jerk?
The desired end-state with both is the same:
To behave like the man your father raised you to be without acting like the man you’re mother married and sometimes couldn’t stand.
And so tonight while on ship in the Wardroom (and by the coffee maker, and on the smoking deck and in the gym) I revisited these sort of questions with my fellow Officers and Staff NCO’s (we’re a pretty good sample of “the American male”) and arrived at some conclusions. Some green. Some red. Others conditionally, yellow…
NOTE: If you are now or have ever been a member of the military, or have ever played competitive sports, you get a pass on something that would otherwise be red; you get an “extra life.” If you are the author of this article and get to make up the rules as you go along, you get two extra lives…or three or four.
The design of tonight’s great debate was in the conventional “case-judgment-explanation” format. And the discussion went something like this…
- Driving a Miata, a Beetle or a SmartCar. RED. The Beetle has a flower holder. The Miata was described in a 1993 Car & Driver as being “the most adorable sports car on the road.” The SmartCar, seriously? Can you even fit in that thing?
- Waxing your back. GREEN. Got some hair on your chest, she’ll call you a man. Got a lot of hair on your back, she’ll call you grandpa.
- Waxing your chest. RED. ***Extra Life*** (1stsgt). If you’re an athlete and it makes sense, good to go. Here I’d add – if not, trimming’s good, but as a general rule of thumb: a man should let a woman be the soft, pretty one in the relationship.
- Eating an ice cream cone. RED. I almost used one of my extra lives here, though most men agree: We can’t take you seriously while you’re smiling (everyone does when they eat ice cream), licking frozen cream from a cone of candied waffle. This is ridiculous. (And also, delicious.) Think of some of the more rugged men in contemporary American culture. Take, Clint Eastwood. Now put a big smile on his face, an ice cream cone in his hand, maybe he’s licking that little bit that just dripped on his thumb. See what I mean? Ever seen a head of state eat an ice cream cone? How about a General or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Or a police officer or a fire fighter? Kinda takes away the mystique.
- Romantic comedies. RED. ***Extra Life*** (the author) There have been worse guilty pleasures admitted to…
- 80s love ballads. YELLOW. The Richard Marx Camp, RED. BUT, if you’re a hard core 80s rock and roll band, bring on the love ballad interlude.
- American Idol. RED. ***Extra Life*** (anonymous officer) And after spending the last five years in Iraq, you can love American Idol too…
- The popped collar. RED. Unless you’re sailing and it’s keeping the sun off your neck, put your collar down brother.
- The names “Elvio”, “Edrie” or “Ponce”. RED. Most states allow one legal name change, get one.
- Hacky Sack. RED. One of those rare times when you look like a girl and a jerk. I don’t care how much fun it is, grab a Frisbee, or a baseball glove, or a football. A bunch of guys standing around kicking a Hacky Sack…I can’t deal…
- Cosmos. RED. It’s pink. You’re a man. Drink whiskey.
- Knowing anything about Hollywood gossip you didn’t hear from your wife, girlfriend or your mother. RED. It is okay that we like to know what’s going on, just better we hear it from them.
- Untucked shiny dress shirts. RED. The untucked shirt in a casual setting, fine. Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones himself) reminds us this much is true. But the wear of the shiny, appallingly patterned, untucked dress shirt has got to stop. What’ll be man’s next fashion misstep? Leaving our flies down? Maybe socks, no shoes? Hey buddy, you look like a goofball. You’re drinking a twenty dollar martini, your beautiful date’s wearing an $800 Dona Karan dress, tuck in your shirt.
- Using the elliptical machine. YELLOW. Admittedly you don’t feel very masculine using it, but when your knees are broke down from the previous day’s workout, it’s a great low-impact option. Just don’t make it an everyday event.
- Wine tasting. GREEN. Here’s a chance to get outside your comfort zone, drink at a more adult pace, and learn something. We’re all very impressed you can tell me what’s in your Coors Light, or how a Guinness is made – but there’s nothing better than matching a great wine with a great meal – or better yet, a great memory.
- Cuddling. GREEN. Everyone agreed, you have to do it. It’s one of those intimacy things that women need, and men should provide. Though be warned, cuddling is like Iraq. No exit strategy and you’re stuck in bed when you don’t want to be anymore. Your foot starts falling asleep, your mind wanders, and then you get in trouble for not paying attention.
- Small dogs. RED. ***Extra Life*** (the author) Everyone was against the small dog. I seem to be the only guy that thinks having a chill, fat, black pug named Little Buddha as my drinking buddy would be awesome.
- Writing XOXO or LOL in an email. RED. Leave the cute shorthand for her. I’ve written them before, we all have, and I’m not sure if X or O is hug or kiss, but I do remember what my lawyer told me a few years ago: don’t say or write anything you wouldn’t want to read credited to you on the front page of the New York Times. XOXO or LOL, (and actually probably some of the content of this article) no, I just could not handle that.
- Rollerblading. RED. ***Extra Life*** (another nameless O) “I know what you’re thinking, but rollerblading is actually a really, really good cardio workout. It’s a great way to get outdoors and get your heart-rate up. Just make sure to wear all of the appropriate protective equipment: knee and elbow pads, helmet, eye protection, I even wear wrist guards, just in case. I’ve actually joined an under-40 men’s rollerblading club. It’s pretty sweet.”
- Ordering a latte. YELLOW. My last unit’s Judge found ordering a latte RED. “Just say it out loud the next time you’re in a long line at a coffee shop between two gorgeous women and tell me you don’t feel just a little awkward.” Our Air O’s response was right on the mark: “No way man, there’s no way it’s red. The only thing better than a good latte is a perfect cappuccino, and do you know how hard those things are to find? The latte is GREEN.”
- Choreographed dances. RED. I once saw a group of guys at Texas A&M do a rehearsed line dance. They were authentic cowboys, drank Shiner Bock beer, and tipped there hat when they introduced themselves to a girl. All very cool for a kid from southern California. But rehearsing moves to Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”, let’s use the rehearsal time to work on our manners fellas.
- Leather man-sandals with the back. RED. You’re not in the Roman Legion. If you want backs on your leather sandals, get a pair of shoes.
- Jean shorts. RED. I liked Charles in Charge, Magnum P.I., MacGyver and Married with Children as much as the next guy. But those shows are dead now. And so are the jean shorts we used to watch them in.
- Jager shots past 25. RED. It’s not that shooting Jager makes you act like a jerk (it does), it just that ordering them (and going through the whole look around-make everyone else take them with you) makes you look like a jerk. You’re a grown man now. If you want to get hammered drunk, take your time, do it deliberately, and without all the noise.
- Wearing a scarf. RED. ***(Extra Life)*** (Capt Meno) “Some guys use scarves to stay warm – that’s cool and all – I like my scarves to express who I am, on the inside. I use them to spice up an outfit. It just gives me that extra “pow”, chicks dig it, and sometimes when we’re dancing they hold one side in each hand as I run my hands through their hair like in some really cool 80s movie.”
- Gamers. RED. ***(Extra Life)*** (MSgt Pine) “Depends on the game…”
- Sudoku. GREEN. If you ever been stuck in Kuwait or any airport anywhere…
- Ordering ridiculous shots like an “Orgasm”, “Sex on the Beach” or anything else you wouldn’t order in front of your father or any other man with a straight face. RED. You want a shot? Be a man. Go tequila. Go Jack Daniels. Leave the Buttery Nipples for the bachelorette party.
- Male cheerleaders. YELLOW. They seem to be a really important part of the whole thing there, but this is a close one. Is it me, or would this just a hard thing to tell your son?
- Tofu. RED. Only if it’s by accident, or you didn’t know it was tofu when you ate it.
- Duvet Covers. YELLOW. We weren’t sure what this was, and we probably all have them, but it just sounded ridiculous and we all laughed when it was said.
- Being a vegan. RED. Though Benjamin Zephaniah’s latest collection of 22 poems dedicated to “the caring, dedicated vegans who will not stand for any exploitation whatever the species” was heart-warming, I’m just not ready to come over.
And more RED. Maroon 5. Telling a fraternity story at a dinner party. Talking with your mouth full. Not observing the one-urinal away rule. Mouth breathing. Talking on your cell phone while in a bathroom stall taking a #2 or at a grocery store check-out counter or pretty much anywhere I can hear everything you’re saying and had a reasonable expectation of not having to; texting while in the middle of a conversation; vanity plates; watches that are too small; musicals; working out with a mouth piece; watches that are too big; ice skating (unless you’re bad and trying to get a girl, or good and used to play hockey); using the flight attendant call button; capri pants; tongue rings; tapered jeans; painted nails; rings on your thumbs; spandex; colored contacts; Rep Jane Harmon on “how to win in Afghanistan”. And knowing all the words to Grease. RED. RED. FIRE ENGINE, RED!
And there’s more – more green, more red, always more yellow – but that’s for you to decide. Me, I’m happy chilling with Little Buddha, half-drunk on good wine, licking ice cream off my hand, watching Love Actually.
I guess every man has his extra lives for the same reason: to let him enjoy a guilty smile while Mr. Tough-guy gets a breather. Just don’t rest too long, the dude in the shiny shirt is always on offense.
When I’m about to exit an aircraft on a night jump I always experience a certain degree of fear. When I feel the apprehension come on (it always does) I have a mental immediate action drill I execute. First I wish I wasn’t there. This doesn’t help. Next I wonder what I’m doing sitting next to all these guys that actually enjoy this stuff. This also doesn’t help. Then I get scared. And, while maintaining a straight face, I let the fear saturate me. (What if my parachute doesn’t open? What if? What if? What if?) I take it all in, look to the guy next to me and smile. “Hey, yea, awesome! Can’t wait…” Next, I take a deep breath and picture a smoking hot girl standing on the edge of the ramp with the Jump Master…waiting for me to go. Then, all at once, (and only because I know she’s watching) fear becomes adrenalin (and testosterone and other manly chemicals not approved by the FDA), and the adrenalin becomes motion and motion becomes…the quiet of the night. And then there’s the thought of the beautiful hammer back in the bird, missing me, wishing she had passed me her phone number before I jumped out…
When faced with fear it’s important to lie to yourself.
When I’m getting physically “conditioned” by the likes of a Gunny Cederholm or Gunny Leandro I get tired fast and want nothing more than to stop. With guys like this, failure is not an option, so I developed another mental game to deal with exhaustion. I picture myself in a Nike commercial. I see myself running effortlessly and my sweat becomes the different colors of Gatorade and my boots get lighter and motivating music plays in my head…and, well, who wouldn’t want to look good in a Nike commercial?
When faced with fatigue it’s important to appeal to your vanity.
When you find yourself in a situation that is both scary and tiring, it’s best to picture yourself in a Nike commercial surrounded by a bunch of gorgeous girls. Success here depends on your ability to be both vain and lie to yourself.
And so it goes, that across the broad array of human emotion, fear and fatigue interest me most. These I find the most atomic of man’s passions, the most enduring and complex. Sure, love is famously confusing, desperately sought and certainly the most celebrated. Sadness is an indispensable part of our own life’s film. And happiness, as Frost reminds us (O Stormy, stormy world…), makes up in height what it lacks in length. But whether we’re feeling love, sadness, or joy (or anything else) no emotion persists (or directly influences our ethics, heart, soul, body and mind at once) like fear and fatigue. These two things – more so than any of the great passions – deliver man to his brink and force his hand. Will I or won’t I? Should I? Could I? I will. I won’t. I can’t. I must…
This great life is our story. Our story is given a voice by our character. Our character is built (and revealed) by the decisions we make. And our decisions are (without exception) acted upon by fear and fatigue – life’s mystic, unforgiving and prevailing emotional gravity. Whether or not a great life becomes our great story is entirely up to us. All this hinges on our ability to recognize, understand, cope with, and ultimately overcome (which in some cases might mean to submit to) fear and fatigue.
The problem is not that this gravity exists; the problem is to what extent we allow this gravity to affect our decisions – our life’s story.
I celebrate these things that give such spectacular color to life’s brinksmanship. This gravity comes in all forms – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial and moral fears and fatigues – and we feel them each day as they directly shape our decisions for better and worse and lead us only to our next challenge (and to drink) and moves us forward, or not at all and with desperate and absolute regret. It’s all quite dramatic.
But no good story is without good drama…or a hero. If a man doesn’t possess the desire to be the hero of his own life’s story (and if the definition of a hero is someone of strong character who serves others first and does well by his fellow man and who acts remarkably, or at least tries his best to), then who would want to be?
I was thinking today about this sort of thing. About some men of my generation (in particular) who I know would feel uncomfortable using words like “remarkable” when describing their own life’s story. And then I thought about a man’s character and the things we do (and those we don’t do) because of fear; and the things we can do (and those we cannot do) because of fatigue. I was thinking about fear (or worry, apprehension, concern, fright, trepidation, anxiety, alarm or horror) and fatigue (or weariness, exhaustion, or plain tiredness). And I thought about how toughness matters. I thought about how important it is to recognize your fears, address your fatigue and carry on…or, as a close friend pointed out over lunch some time ago, how sometimes there is great virtue (and toughness) in recognizing the fear and fatigue that faces you as insurmountable, and deciding to pack it up and head home…and then I wondered if toughness mattered at all to the bulk of men in today’s extra-soft, extra-sensitive, extra-safe culture of cuddle cures all?
I’m not so sure.
And then there’s the decisions we make. The part that comes after we recognize that gravity of fear and fatigue pervades and that all decisions we make (the ones that matter anyway) are influenced by anxiety and exhaustion, fear and fatigue.
I read somewhere (or maybe someone told me) that a commander’s success on the battlefield depends more on his ability to know when to give an order and that truly there are only three orders to give: “Yes.” “No.” Or “not yet.” “Not yet” being the most difficult of them all. Timing matters in battle. (As does good judgment, wisdom, sobriety, excellence, courage, and blind luck.) Timing also matters in other things like dating but good judgment, wisdom, and sobriety matter much less. Blind luck always counts and as demonstrated by the girl a guy like my buddy A-Beautiful-Joe somehow managed to land, “a good man” is quite relative and in the eyes of the beholder. Sorry ABJ, but she could have done a lot better…
But in all this we find life’s great challenge: move to the edge, face your fear or fatigue (or both) and make a choice (whether in war, with women, or on Wall Street, there are only three)…Yes. No. Not yet.
And it is really that simple if life is as I think it is – a confusing, beautiful, messy, remarkable, sad, inspired and chaotic series of experiences and memories shaped by the decisions we make (or by those we don’t make). It really is as simple as “yes”, “no”, or “not yet” so long as we have the courage to be our own life’s hero…so long as we strive to serve and be remarkable and remind ourselves that our life is our story and our story is about our character and our character is about our decisions…and decisions are about our recognition of and our response to life’s mystic-gravity…fear and fatigue.
And while how a man deals with such things vary (some have God, others Glenlivet) I’ve found it best walk to the edge, remember you are your own life’s hero, think of a beautiful girl, and jump.
On this Thanksgiving I’m thinking of my brother Jack a world away in Afghanistan. And with any luck, some time between coming in from one patrol and preparing for the next, he’ll be thinking of us.
Today my family will join thousands of families across the country as we raise our glasses to toast our loved one’s sense of duty. The tradition is one that extends not praise for a job well done (the war is far from over), nor sympathy for a job not worth doing (we chose the path we chose) but respect and love. Respect for the courage to fight when asked to fight and love for the spirit we see grow within them.
In a life too often filled with living we forget it’s the small, simple things that make us most happy. We forget how important things like a cold beer, laughter, bad sweaters, a football game, warm food, and old stories are. But not Jack. Right now whether he’s cleaning the bolt of his rifle sharing a coffee and a laugh with his fellow men or on patrol scanning a valley through his optics, life is at its most simple and complete. He has the love of his family, the admiration of his country, the respect of his fellow infantrymen and a great adventure he will never for the rest of his years on earth forget. Today he remembered those bad sweaters, bad stories, bad football games, and bad hangovers and he smiled because they weren’t bad things at all. They were simple things. And perfect.
Good question posed last week in Jeff Withington’s “Counterinsurgency Leadership.” He writes, “is a good counterinsurgency leader automatically a good conventional war leader?”
My answer (“no, sometimes”) reflects my belief that, on the one hand, a leader should “never say never, never say always”, but is firmly rooted, on the other hand, in the great credence that leadership (from the board room to the war room) is leadership.
Certain leaders are best suited for certain tasks. Take Captain John Collins, a fellow platoon commander at Force. Collins embodies the fighter-leader. He’s smart, strong, and aggressive (and ugly). I love ‘Good-times-Johnny’ to death; I just don’t think he’d be as successful on the bridges of submarines as he was on the bridges of the Euphrates. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a professional, but I don’t think ramming your boat into an enemy sub at 20 knots is a preferred tactic. The hope would be he’d have an XO who would compliment him (and help him with his calculus homework) and maybe things wouldn’t be that bad.
But they would be that bad. Really, really bad. Collins was built to lead Marines, not mathletes. Johnny Collins on a dude tube? Submarines are expensive. (Collins breaks stuff.) Submarines have tiny spaces? (Collins barely fits in his office.) Math? (He writes his op-orders in the dirt with sticks.) A crew of super smart people? (Marine Corps “smart” is way different than Navy Nuclear Officer and Enlisted “smart”.) Patience? (I once saw him eat a Second Lieutenant who delayed one of his raids.) No, Collins wouldn’t do well on a submarine… not at all.
Let me re-attack.
In a conventional war key terrain must be seized and held and lines of battle advanced. In a counterinsurgency the people are the key terrain, security matters, not siege. Lines of battle must become transparent to a population that needs to get back to work. Both prove challenging environments for combat leaders in their own right. Both require men with the constitution for leading professional warriors. Sherman (a conventionally brilliant leader) wouldn’t have the patience for the task at hand in Afghanistan’s RC South. And I’m not sure Petraeus would have had the stomach to burn Atlanta. But this isn’t to say that a Sherman wouldn’t be an asset in the Panjshir valley, or Petraeus at Chancellorsville. Leadership is, after all, leadership…
No matter the case, things are very rarely “automatically so”…think about it using the most mysterious and dangerous practice of all time, dating women.
- If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll automatically look good with mascara stained cheeks, poufy hair, and her contacts stuck to her eyes, tomorrow.
- If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you’re automatically out of the doghouse.
- If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you’re automatically Don Juan.
The answer to each of these makes more sense if you delete the word “automatically” and start using words like “sometimes”, “might be”, or “may” and end it with a statement of probability – like “probably so” or “probably not.”
- If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll sometimes look good tomorrow. (Probably so.)
- If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you might be out of the doghouse. (Probably not.)
- If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you may be Don Juan. (Probably you’re on drugs.)
Love, like leadership, works best when you’re the right man for the job. It can work just fine if you’re not, but it works best if you are. When you fall in love (when love is just right) it doesn’t matter what she looks like in the morning (she’ll be her most beautiful), it’s ok to be in the doghouse (you’ll apologize endlessly and not know what you’re apologizing for…and not care), and when she tells you you’re the best she’s ever had, you’ll actually believe her (because you’ll be in love and it’ll be true). And all this brings up a greater lesson on leadership…
Leadership is about listening. I learned that racing sail boats as a Midshipman. Sailing puts you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to make decisions under pressure, and act quickly and decisively. Sailing requires intellect and teamwork and heart. There is no greater leadership class at Annapolis than a day at sailing practice – and the Chesapeake is a rugged coliseum. Those daily practices and weekly regattas prepared our crews for races to Hamilton Bermuda, Marion Massachusetts, Portland Maine, and Portsmouth England. We trained hard, made mistakes, came to respect the sea with a religious reverence, and sailed fast. We endured hardship and carried on. Sailing fosters a matchless spirit of adventure and excitement that can only be replicated by the experiences we would later have in the cockpits of aircraft, in the engine rooms of ships of war, or on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan.
During a race the skipper is like the platoon commander, section leader, or flight lead. His job is to win. He must also care for his crew and make tough decisions. Ultimately, the sailboat’s skipper (like the platoon commander) is responsible for everything the crew does or fails to do. It’s a heavy burden, but if you’ve ever met the crew we sail with, you know how worth it this is…
In my time as a sailor, I’ve noticed two methods of calling tactics. Some skippers observe all that goes on around him – the shifting winds, the opposition, his own crew – and makes a call: tack, jibe, come into the wind, fall off…
Other skippers observe these same conditions, and ask… “Portside, how’s the trim?” “Mastman, how’s the tension?” “Helmsman, what do you see?” He gets input for what each professional at that position is feeling – and demands this participation from each level – and then calls his tactics based on his determinations and the observations of his crew.
I prefer to lead a platoon by the second method. Each of my team leaders are highly trained professional operators bred to observe a situation and act; and each does so uniquely based on their personality, style and tactical approach. Each shooter has a distinct understanding of the battlespace he is operating in; I want to know what my boys are thinking, feeling, believing – so I call tactics as I used to do during a regatta: “Team 1, how’s my flank?” “Team 2, what are you seeing – any movement?” “Team 3, are you comfortable pushing forward 50 meters?” “All Teams, stand by…3—2—1—Execute. Execute. Execute.” And the sniper fires his shot and the breacher blows his breach, and the rifles move forward as they do so well and the house is taken down and the mission is accomplished. And all I had to do was let these professionals do their job. Leadership is easy when the crew knows how to sail fast…
But there’s always the question of those things outside of your control…like the wind and the weather and the storms and the sea…
To this end, the skipper has many competing responsibilities. The most important among them is fostering a culture of excellence. (You must control what you can control.) The bedrock of excellence at the small unit level depends upon (1) flexibility, (2) creativity, (3) commander’s intent, (4) enthusiasm, and (5) “combat velocity.” This foundation provides the mechanism to succeed (and survive) and allows your crew the ability to do their job – no matter the weather.
There’s more to excellence of course – love for the men you serve, the pride you and your team take in your profession, the collective desire to compete (and win), passion, integrity, and a good sense of humor, to name a few – but those things are less the mechanism for excellence, more the architecture. At war’s dangerous fault line – that dodgy place where strategy and tactics (and politics and human emotion and culture and God and everything else) collide – leadership’s “mechanism” matters most. A mechanism accomplishes the mission and keeps brave men alive. The architecture gets you back outside the wire tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day after that…
So let me start here, that leadership, excellent leadership, has two dimensions: near sightedness and far sightedness. Without each the crew’s vision blurs. Truly excellent leadership requires a commander surrender his ego and call tactics not “for his crew” but rather “with his crew.” This 20/20 approach is perhaps best understood as the trigger pullers’ ability to execute their mission (near sightedness), and the commander’s ability to communicate his desired priorities and capitalize on the momentum created by his operators or adjacent units and articulate the changing mission from higher (far sightedness).
Whether fighting a platoon of Marines, or leading a section of Sailors, “20/20 leadership” is a critical paradigm that respects command and control, the chain of command and the other intangibles men face in war (and in the sail boat), while affording our remarkable Sailors and Marines the latitude they require to perform excellently.
Flexibility is a two way street. The small unit commander must be given a certain degree of flexibility by his commander; the degree to which he achieves flexibility depends on the personality of that commander, the confidence that senior commander has with him (and his level of sobriety at the time in question), and the overall command climate.
Flexibility cannot be forced – it must be demonstrated. It is, above all, an ethos – an understanding that no plan will survive first contact, no order perfect, and no situation above Murphy’s unrelenting law: whatever can go wrong in bad times, will. Flexibility is not a personality type, it can be taught and rehearsed – and should be! Flexibility is the ability to rapidly observe, orient, decide, and act on the enemy (or against the problem at hand) as factors beyond your control change. Flexibility requires a union of what is at times a mutually exclusive near sighted and far sighted reality: that to seize this initiative we often have to release most control to our subordinates. When, where and why this happens is the great unknown; that is all a matter of risk, uncertainty and luck – all of these a hard and fast certainty for the junior commander.
Creativity is fostered, not taught. In the complex fight we are in today, faced (at times and as an example) with an enemy with a death wish, the small unit commander’s best resource are his junior Marines and Sailors. Let’s take as an example, an event that unfolds into kinetic warfare. A classical sort of contact in a less than classical sort of environment. Our advantage is that our men have street sense and toughness – an inherent understanding for what’s going on around them, a natural feel for the street and an internal barometer for the precipitation of violence and unrest that might soon unfold. Creativity hinges on the ability of these young men to “turn the chess board around” and think like their enemy. Giving our Marines a voice in our mission planning increases awareness and gives a plan rugged depth – they’ll fight like they know how: brutally and without impunity, like our enemy. The creativity these young men bring to the planning cycle has decisive effects that tend to cripple the enemy’s command and control – at least in the short term. Creativity is a vital tool of combat leadership for the small unit commander – bringing the trigger pullers in on the planning and war-gaming will add surprise to the offense and offer the command inventive ways of waging war and bringing violence to bear on a wicked enemy.
Commander’s intent is critical in small unit leadership because it expresses what you must accomplish, but does not dictate how it must be accomplished. An important distinction I think. The 20/20 leadership model emphasizes “C/I” as absolutely critical. The small unit commander must deliver a crystal clear task, purpose and end-state with all orders he gives. “Here’s what you are to do, here’s why I need you to do it, and here’s what I need it all to look like when you’re finished.” Notice the small unit commander must avoid dictating HOW the mission is to be accomplished; he must leave that aspect, as much as his senior commander and the situation permit, to his subordinate leaders. A coherent commander’s intent will assist execution acceleration and will allow for added creativity and flexibility to guarantee mission accomplishment.
Enthusiasm is a choice made daily and the small unit leader’s force multiplier. All else being equal, enthusiasm enhances training, personal and professional expectations and above all, when considering other factors (serious things such as duty), enthusiasm, in the every day execution of routine tasks, becomes a moral imperative. It is absolutely necessary to constantly echo to your marines and sailors: enthusiasm is a choice. For officers, enthusiasm is an obligation. Above all, create an environment that allows the marines and sailors you lead to be excited about what they do and for the big picture, remind yourself of the awesome responsibility you have to be a leader these men deserve.
Combat velocity is more than speed. Velocity is speed with direction. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of the small unit commander’s decision making cycle, or the speed of his maneuver, with a clear direction. Combat velocity recognizes that in the counter-insurgency fight speed is no longer enough. The small unit commander can and must affect the situation by bringing a degree of order to chaos in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction. Similarly, his subordinate leaders must give direction and foster the speed of the decision making cycles of his own subordinates. Tempo (speed over time) and velocity (speed and direction) must be combined in a near and far sighted sense, as a weapon in themselves.
In the end, 20/20 focus is a leadership model – a tool – that a small unit leader can explain to the men he leads (but must more importantly demonstrate). It is more than a compromise; it’s a strategy for teamwork, excellence, mission accomplishment and success. It reflects the reality that small unit leadership is all about having a clear vision for what’s in front of you, near and far. And respects the independence of nature and the wind and the weather, but celebrates the excellence of one’s own crew. If 20/20 vision is a standard that is daily trained to (flexibility, creativity, commander’s intent, enthusiasm, and velocity), initiative will be gained swiftly, battles will be fought with maximum violence and maximum control, races will be won from Newport to Bermuda and lives will be saved at that dangerous fault line where strategy and tactics collide and all that is left is for young leaders to decide: How should I call my own tactics?
Or better yet, how do I create a culture of excellence?
The answer to what brings men success in leadership with a wonderful platoon, I find, goes back to what brings men success in love with a wonderful woman…
Listen up…hope for the best, and remember things are rarely ever automatically so.
I prefer to take the Pacific Coast Highway home from work. There’s something about this iconic stretch of southbound ocean highway. The summer-time commute comes at a perfect hour to reflect and be alone and witness the most dramatic part of a Southern California day…the time when the sun is low and the sky is the color of tangerines and plums and the sea is dotted with surfers you watch paddle past a white break into a natural lineup and perform their elegant ballet on top of prevailing swells. Beautiful girls also run along the beach and are as much apart of this inspiring seaside landscape as the sun itself.
The I-5 is faster than the Pacific Coast Highway, but I avoid the 5 and take the PCH home on particularly stressful or particularly beautiful days. This day was both stressful and beautiful. And now I was alone with my thoughts. These turned out to be bad thoughts of putting a stapler to my hand after a day spent behind a desk. Self-stapling thoughts are best for the I-5. You gotta have an edge when navigating the 5. The PCH requires a degree of ‘tranquillo’. It requires the windows be rolled down and a soundtrack carefully selected along the lines of a Joe Purdy ballad, a Bob Marley jam, or anything by Timmy Curran or the John Butler Trio. And all played at a tremendous volume.
I ignore my cell phone on these PCH drives, by exception. I’ll answer if it’s 1.) The person most important to my world (my mom), 2.) The person most important to my work (my platoon sergeant) or 3.) Anyone who might make me laugh or smile (in this case, I answered a call from the Naval Institute’s Mary Ripley).
I was somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas on a drive like this back in July when Mary called me about Wes Gray’s new book. “Alex, what’s going on?” she said, continuing with excitement and without waiting for my response, “listen do you know Wes Gray?” It was a Wednesday. My mind works slower (than usual) on Wednesdays. “Ehmm,” (Thinking hard, but slowly.) “Yes! Of course I know Wes. It’s been awhile. We went to TBS and IOC together. Terrific guy! What’s up?” “Excellent, here’s the deal, he just wrote a book about Marines and the Iraqi Army that the Naval Institute has published, it’s already getting great press, would you be willing to do an interview with him for the Blog?” (Shocked) “Mary, are you kidding me! That’s awesome, and of course I’d like to interview him!” “Great, I’ll send you the book out, give it a read, here’s his number (she reads his number), give him a call when you can, and then call me when you’ve got something good. Ok, gotta run, have a great day Alex.” (Dial tone) “Mary…Mary…hello?” (End call.)
I stared at the road ahead of me with my hands at 10 and 2. Wes Gray had written a book, “Embedded”, on his time in the Haditha Triad as an Advisor to the Iraqi Army. I had done my first tour in Hit and Haditha and explored that Central Euphrates River Valley in the year before Wes had gotten there for his. “Wes,” (I said to myself, but out-loud as I often do) “where the hell are you going with this one?” Neither the setting the sun over the sea to my right, nor the long legged brunette walking her dog to my left could snap me out of this thought. What did Wes have to say about Haditha? This was going to be interesting…
Getting a call that one of my old Marine buddies had just written a book (a relevant book) when I can barely put together a coherent (and hardly relevant) 1,000 words for this column a couple times a month is like watching your childhood friend open that one fantastic Christmas present you wanted, but didn’t get. Wes Gray had just poured his heart into 240 pages of lessons learned from a tour with the Iraqi Army and I had just spent the day at work typing a command investigation for a broken television set. Wes had the Red Rider BB Gun. I had socks.
I called Wes later that night. We talked for a while (in guy time, anything longer than 10 minutes is a “long call”) and exchanged those sort of (simple) questions men ask each other after years apart. Wes hadn’t changed. He was still optimistic, funny, smart as hell, humble and witty. I was proud of him and excited to get my hands on his book. I told him we’d meet sometime soon for the interview, he agreed and we wished each other well.
After our meeting (which I’ll describe later) I realized I didn’t want to write a review of “Embedded.” There are already some great book reviews out there – one (an excellent piece) by another Marine Officer, Gabriel Ledeen. His review is published on National Review Online. You can also visit Wes Gray’s blog (below) for a host of other reviews or use the “Google machine” for further research. (http://embeddedmarine.blogspot.com/)
It’s not that I don’t know how to write a proper book review (I don’t), it’s just I feel like the readers here would get more out of sitting in on a discussion between old friends talking about war and women and a book written about a place far away known to few but known well to us and see how we started this journey together and are now in two very distinct parts of our adult life. But really I just want the reader to hear about the author Wes Gray as an introduction to the book itself.
And so Wes and I had our meeting and, as I said, we talked about the things that matter most in this world – things like family, this America and Marines.
It’s good we met at a bar. Coffee shops are boring and no place to discuss war and women and the way of things. Old friends should not meet for a strong coffee when they are still able to meet for a stiff cocktail. A bar was the perfect meeting place for us after all these years. I picked a dark and wooded and isolated sort of place – a place we could talk for hours over Jameson (for me) and cold beer (for Wes) and never be bothered.
I started by asking Wes how the hell he has been. Wes said he was doing well in school, excited about a life in academics and most importantly that he had a new daughter and a beautiful wife and then asked how I was.
I told him I’ve stayed in the fleet all this time and am tired but excited about my work. I told him that I was balding now (but he could see that for himself). I told him I couldn’t keep a girlfriend and had love, but lost it, and that I owed $25,000 to a Lebanese bookie with a pencil thin mustache who kept an apartment in Reno but lived in Sacramento. Wes laughed deeply at this (and me, I think) and so I didn’t tell him that this was a joke because it made the story more theatrical and who was I to mess with good theatre anyhow?
I waved to the bartender and motioned for another round and one old friend asked another old friend how what happened, happened…
ASM: You’re married now since we talked last years ago?
WG: Yes, a husband and a father now!
ASM: How’s that going?
WG: Amazing man.
ASM: No seriously, you can be honest. This part will be off the record. How’s the married life?
WG: It’s great – seriously.
ASM: I don’t believe you.
WG: (Quiet, but smiling.)
ASM: (Now also smiling.) And you have a new daughter?
WG: Yes! Alice Mae Gray – she’s gorgeous!
ASM: That’s amazing. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Wonder Years.
WG: (Laughing.) Dude, you need to get a family – it’s like nothing else.
ASM: I’ll get there one day. Absolutely. So I read your book, Wes. (I like using people’s first name in a conversation like that with a straight face, it’s ironic and funny I think.)
WG: Yeah, what did you think?
ASM: It was a piece.
WG: Ohh, c’mon! (Yelling, his hands now in the air.)
ASM: No, I’m kidding. (Pause) But seriously. It was a disaster.
ASM: (Breaking into laughter.)
WG: (Now also laughing.)
ASM: No, Wes, great read. Congratulations!
WG: (Blushing like a little girl.)
ASM: This is going to feel like you’re on Larry King, but I’ve got some questions. Wes, (again with the first name lead-in) let’s start with the basics man – what is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?
WG: The Intelligent Investor, Lord of the Rings Series, and a Long Island Ice Tea (great bang for the buck).
ASM: Wes, “Lord of the Rings” do you seriously want me to write that down?
ASM: Nothing…wow, that’s incredibly dorky Wes.
WG: I know (his head bowed) – but it really is a great series.
ASM: Riight. So what’s your story before entering the Corps?
WG: I was a PhD student in finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. At the 2 year mark in the program (after passing all our tests and research requirements) there is a natural break in the program and a transition from “school-focused” to “research-focused.” I saw this natural break as an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do–serve in the Marine Corps.
ASM: When did you get the idea for “Embedded?”
WG: While I was out there I kept a very detailed journal of day to day operations. Upon return, I put the journal in a more readable format so my wife and family could read through it. Eventually, they suggested I turn the journal into a book.
ASM: What are 5 things every U.S. service person should know when working with Iraqi army?
1. Iraqis are survivors and will beg, steal, and cheat if their future depends on it.
2. Iraqis are very judgmental–they assume Americans are selfish, Christian, and believe Muslims are second-class citizens.
3. Iraqis will die for you–IF you become part of their family
4. Patience is mandatory–everything takes 2-3x as long, so factor that into your planning cycle.
5. The Iraqi soldiers will never be US Marines–they don’t have the money, training, and cultural infrastructure to be a 21st fighting force…but all they need to be is better than the insurgents.
ASM: Explain man love Thursdays.
WG: Iraqi men are very touchy-feely. The soldiers will hold your hand, rub your belly, caress your shoulders, and make you feel very uncomfortable at times. The vast majority of these actions are not homosexual in nature; however, Iraqi soldiers do engage in homosexual activity and frequently joke about the practice.
ASM: Yes, I remember this (now taking a long drink). In the book, you have some stories about a wise interpreter you had, Moody. What was Moody’s view on power and democracy?
WG: Moody’s view (and most of the Iraqis I spoke to) is that democracy is a great idea in theory, but is unrealistic in Iraq at the current time. One of the beauties of democracy is that the majority rules and the minority follows. In Western societies, the minority accepts their position and peacefully tries to gain power via established political venues. However, in Iraq, the minority fights back with AK-47s and RPGs in their attempt to regain power. This is just how politics are done–via violence and domination. Unfortunately, democracy is dysfunctional when the minority is always shooting the majority in their attempts to get power.
ASM: What’s the difference between a young jundi (soldier) and a young Marine?
WG: Lot’s of similarities: love chow, love food, love complaining, brave, etc.
A few differences:
-The “young” jundi is typically 25-30yrs+ whereas the young Marine is usually 18-20
-more family pressure–jundi are usually the breadwinners for their entire family
ASM: What’s the biggest cultural difference between the U.S. and Iraq?
WG: The biggest difference that affects mission success is a fate-based viewpoint on life. Iraqis tend to have a belief–reinforced via Islam–that their path in the world is set and how things play out in their lives will not change based on how hard they work or the actions they take. This viewpoint makes it very difficult to motivate Iraqis–anything from convincing them to wear their protective gear to planning for a convoy mission.
ASM: What’s the most important lesson you learned in Iraq?
WG: My biggest takeaway is that cultural differences create huge frictions and costs that go largely unnoticed by strategic planners. I think it is easy for planners to quantify the costs and benefits of 50 tanks and 100 Special Forces soldiers, but it’s difficult to quantify costs/benefits of culture so this gets pushed under the rug. In the end, planners will systematically compare the benefits of a particular mission against a cost estimate that is underestimated because the cultural costs are not properly accounted for. My guess is that if strategic planners redid the cost/benefit analysis of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan AFTER proper accounting for the costs of dealing with culture, we would have chosen to not engage in these conflicts.
ASM: One last question buddy, and then I’ll let you get back to your family…do you miss the Marine Corps?
WG: I miss it all the time, but I also enjoy seeing my family everyday and thinking about non-military issues.
ASM: What’s next for you?
WG: I thought you said that was the last question?
ASM: I lied – just like I lied about the Lebanese bookie.
WG: Haha! Got it, ok…
ASM: What’s next for you?
WG: I have my three F’s: Family, fun, and finance. I hope to spend as much time as possible with my family. With respect to fun I hope to play as much golf as possible. And finally, for finance I hope to go on the academic job market this year–hopefully, I’ll be a finance professor at a top business school next year…Insh’allah.
ASM: Thanks Wes.
WG: Thank you Alex.
And then we stood in unison like it was the end of a great meeting of the Sheiks back in Haditha after hours of chai and circuitous banter. And then we gave each other that hand-shake that becomes the half hug that men like to do when they feel that something greater than a handshake is necessary – which after Haditha and a new daughter and running from Lebanese bookies, certainly was.
And the next day, on the way home from work, somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas, I called Mary Ripley…
“Mary, I talked to Wes Gray. I’ve got something good for you…”
Most military investigations I’ve read reveal that the mistakes we officers and staff NCO’s make can be traced to ignoring the fundamentals. Commander Scott Waddle, the skipper of the USS Greenville, as an example, ignored the fundamentals of boat-handling back in February 2001 when he conducted an emergency ascent demonstration without coming to periscope depth and clearing his surface waters. Those on the fishing vessel Ehime Maru paid dearly for this commander’s carelessness to the tune of 9 civilians killed.
Six months later the Greenville ran aground entering Saipan, and five months after that to the day, and less than a year after the Ehime Maru, the Greenville collided with the Ogden. I’m not sure of the details, but if I was a betting man (and I am, when the situation requires), I’d say each incident could be linked back to missing the fundamentals.
Some mistakes we make are deadly, others embarrassing, but most all mistakes can be altogether avoided by remembering the fundamentals we were taught day 1 in the forests of Quantico, on the bridge of our first ship, in the classrooms of Charleston, the beaches of Coronado, or the air-space of Pensacola. Why does something as easy as this slip our minds so frequently? Ego, complacency, insecurity, over-confidence, and negligence play a part. But ignoring the fundamentals is always at the heart of it all.
A story I was told recently about the fisherman’s $10 hook reminded me not to over think things and that everything in life – from fighting for a piece of some enemy’s terrain or a piece of some girl’s heart – comes down to the fundamentals. And this wasn’t my wisdom (it never is); this was the wisdom of Mason Phelps.
This story is not about our great fleet, our Marine Force, or logistics or terrorism or anything that specific or topical. This is a story about how I came to be reminded about the fundamentals at a very important time in my own career, at that dangerous time when we think we have our job figured out. This story reminded me how we must stay humble and hungry and eager to learn more and more and remain on-edge and that we must never fail the troops or sailors we work for in any instance that could otherwise be avoided. This is that special trust and confidence part. This story is also a reminder to our Navy’s leaders the importance of finding your own mentor or life coach. I’ve found this matters a great deal.
Ironically, (and in classical naval fashion) this story starts with a cold bottle of booze and laughter among friends. For these reasons, especially the part about never failing our Sailors or Marines, I wanted to share this story here; a brief account of Mason Phelps, the fundamentals and the $10 hook…
On Saturdays I drink an ice cold bottle of Sancerre at noon and eat fresh shrimp roasted in garlic and salt and a mahi steak served on a toasted bialy loaf with shredded lettuce and a sweet Cajun sauce. I order a bottle of Pellegrino, but usually only drink half. This restaurant is first a fish shop, but it feels like a provincial seaside café. It’s a small market, a perfect sort-of small and inside are black-and-white pictures of La Jolla’s fishermen legends and sailors and there are menus written in colorful chalk and also sturdy wooden chairs and tables that customers share when they sit down to eat, even if they don’t know each other. The employees here are the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered – all local surfers or divers, and all ocean enthusiasts. Joe makes beautiful pottery he sells far too inexpensively. There are a few more artists that work here too, I think. There are also some students.
I usually eat Saturday lunch in this place with my friends Andreas and Sid. We ridicule each other and talk about girls and the night before and plan for the night to come and drink icy-dry white wine and laugh and silently feel very happy we have each other as best friends to spend Saturdays with but never mention it because that would be far too sensitive a thing for young men to say. And so we ridicule each other and laugh and talk more about girls and the good lives we lead and how lucky we all are.
Light lunches go best with light conversation.
By one o’clock the icy-dry Sancerre has quenched my thirst and slowed my heart rate and for the first time that week I relax. By this time the sun is always over-head and bright and has burned away the last bit of morning layer fog which is this sea town’s natural blanket that visitors complain about, but that I love. Sid goes to swim or to box and Andreas to accomplish tasks he hasn’t the time for during a busy week or to Bikrams Yoga, and I go to Mason’s house to learn. Saturdays are best spent with close friends and icy-dry white wine and even better if you can learn a thing or two.
Mason Phelps is my life coach. He has also become one of my very best friends. His house is high on Mount Soledad, which is an impressive place in the world, in a wooded draw not far from mine, but on a much more inspiring street lined with enormous trees (I’m not sure which kind) and wildflowers and villas. I always use the side entrance, which I think over the years has become the front entrance, as is often the case when kind, easy-going, down-to-earth people find themselves in beautiful homes with many ways inside. I don’t have to ring the doorbell anymore, but I always call before I visit.
Mason greets me in the hallway. He extends his strong, tattooed arm for a handshake. I grab his hand and pull him to me for a bear hug. This feels more like two wrestlers clashing on the mat than a comforting exchange between friends, but it’s nice, nevertheless. Our hug is followed by some expletive (or series of expletives). I remind him he is a dirty-scum-bag-enlisted-Marine and he reminds me that I am a weak and feeble and worthless-aristocrat-Marine officer. We laugh, curse each other’s mother, and I follow him to his patio. That sort of banter is Marine-speak for “I love you.”
His patio is my classroom for the afternoon, though on other afternoons my classroom has been his office, or his garden, in his art galleries, or on his favorite tailor’s shop floor; of course there is the bar at the La Valencia Hotel, and the red leather booths of the Manhattan Room. These have all been my classrooms. And there is always wine or scotch to be had during class. But as is the case in any school, the classroom isn’t as important as the teacher. On this particular day my classroom was his patio and he poured me a rich, dark red wine and he knew that what he was going to teach me this day was going to change my life, but I didn’t know that yet. What I did know was how much I loved Saturdays. And that my teacher was a force of nature.
Mason Phelps is in his early 80s and built like a bare-knuckle Irish prize fighter. He has strong, broad shoulders, a square jaw, considerable hands with rugged knuckles and lean legs. His skin is a firm, tan leather and his eyes are crystal blue and sea grey and wise and set deep into his head. He walks with a natural toughness and confidence that reminds me of Churchill’s gait. He speaks in gruff cadence and with such unique inflection I find him captivating and stage-worthy. He is quick with a big smile, a big story and a perfectly placed (big) curse word.
He is not like most of us who are (not sadly or apologetically, but truly) nothing very special. Mason Phelps is a character you would expect from the pages of the Great Gatsby, or better yet from the Green Hills of Africa or The Sun Also Rises; but Mason is much better than any character in those works because they are characters of fiction and Mason is a real character and the truest spirit I know or could ever hope to know in a man that is real and not my own father or the creation of Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, or Ernest Hemmingway himself.
Beneath the scars that 80 years of hunting, football, the Marine Corps, war with the Japanese, bar-fighting, factory work, mountaineering, business, adventure skiing, world travel, deep sea fishing, and living life hard and fast and with deep passion and meaning, (as man was intended to live), beneath the buckskin tattooed arms, and the strong back and barrel chest…beneath it all, is the most perceptive, kind, buoyant, magnificent and complete heart in all the world. And certainly the finest on all of Mount Soledad.
Life’s education always starts beneath our scars.
Throughout his 80 some years Mason has balanced his rugged and aggressive and restless leanings with a natural kindness, a powerful intellect, an enthusiastic disposition and other soft traits that are necessary for great men to possess, but not appropriate to write about or discuss unless in the company of only close friends and family, or with the permission of the man himself; permission which will never be granted so long as that man is a Marine and has tattoos and buckskin and a barrel chest.
But it is true that Mason did change throughout the course of his life, as some of us do; while some of this change was his own doing, most of this change was the result of the love of an even more powerful and impressive woman, his wife Elizabeth. And though the story of how a petite and beautiful and amazing Greek American women from Pittsburg and her equally wonderful and beautiful daughters helped to calm and captivate this restive man’s heart is one of my favorites, the story of what happens after I drink icy-dry white wine and the fog burns away and I climb Mount Soledad to his home on a particular Saturday afternoon to learn about the fundamentals is the story I set out to tell.
To tell this story completely I have to go back to my first deployment to Iraq where I first saw a battle-hardened battalion march through the dust on the edge of our empire. Returning from this place, a place then lost to time and Western ethics and virtues, was a life-altering experience. I did not return cynical or defeated. I did not return angry or resentful. I returned older and with stories of adventures of what was not everyone’s experience in that war, but what were certainly mine. There was sadness too, but a man’s life is nothing without some kind of great sadness. And this is how my heart felt when I met Mason for the first time…older, and just a little sad.
Meeting a life coach at a time when your heart turns older and becomes just a little sad is necessary, though I didn’t know this at the time. And what I felt on that Saturday when I first met Mason Phelps is the same thing that I have felt every Saturday since, and luckily (but by choice and perhaps by no luck at all) my heart has become less and less sad.
Mason does not teach me how to be a father or a husband or even a man. He is not instructive or didactic with his life lessons. That has been my own father’s job, and he has been a masterful mentor to his two sons and is my hero for it. Mason teaches me in the Socratic manner and all about life’s other things. The answers are always mine to discover, though he knows the outcome and never tells.
In this way, Mason has taught me about art and literature and politics and history and friendship. In his garden we discuss government and culture. In his kitchen (and with Liz in the other room) we rant about the Marine Corps and beautiful girls. In his office we discuss history and religion and the American West. On his patio we discuss love and life and all things pertaining to the exploits of deep-sea fishing, hard-nose business, Mark Twain and a man’s strength of character. No matter the subject, and no matter the place the subject is discussed, the moral of the lesson Mason wishes to teach me remains the same: it’s all about the fundamentals.
So you’ll remember on this particular Saturday that I entered through the side of the house (as I always do), and that I had met Mason with expletives and a wrestler’s hug and more expletives which meant “I love you.” And that today I followed him to our classroom which was his patio and that there he poured me rich, red wine which always tastes good in the later part of any afternoon. And you’ll remember that my heart was older now, and still sad, though not nearly as sad as it was before I had met Mason Phelps. This is the way that Saturday was – the day his lesson was the most uncompromising and honest and simple and important of them all.
Mason started by telling me about shapes and forms and proceeded to discuss all quantity and space and structure and change. He told me that these things are best understood by mathematics. He told me that mathematics was the mechanism by which the complexity of nature became plain. He said the fundamentals began here, at that unique point in the universe where the confusing could be reduced to the unconfusing, to integers and symbols, and 0s and 1s; except he said all of this differently and in his unique way which I cannot recreate in prose because I am not that good of a writer. He told me that this understanding of things only began here, because life was never as easy as integers and equations, even though I told him I thought it ought to be.
He agreed, and we laughed, though I was quite serious, but didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my place to say anything during this lesson. I had too much to learn.
Mason looked into the afternoon sky and he told me that everything that matters in life – from the men I now lead, to the love I will one day love; from economics, religion, politics, family, philosophy and culture, to war, literature, health, friendship, art, and science – must be approached from the most fundamental angle, and understood by the most fundamental method…
And then he looked me into my eyes and asked me if I understood and I said that I did.
To illustrate his point further, he told me a wonderful story. (No one tells good stories anymore, except for Andreas’ older brother Niko, who is one of the best story tellers I know.)
“A guy starts tuna fishing off San Diego,” he said as he sank back in his chair.
I poured myself more wine and listened closely.
“And he spends half a dozen years and tens of thousands of dollars learning how to catch these tuna so that one day he can hunt big marlin. Soon enough he is ready for big marlin and for Mexico and all that went with such an adventure. This guy spends thousands of dollars on first class plane tickets, and even more on new reels and rods and even more still on the finest boat and crew and a captain who knows exactly where the marlin swim. And he goes to sea and spends days on the boat, and finally the marlin come, and he catches one, and wrestles it for hours…until his hook snaps, and the marlin swims away, along with all of the other marlin. And as the boat turns about and they make their way back to the harbor, the ship’s captain tells him what he already knows to be true, ‘so many thousands of dollars spent, so much time and money wasted, when all that really failed was a simple $10 hook…a fisherman must never forget the fundamentals: the quality of his hook.’ And the fisherman said: ‘Yes, yes, I remembered so much, but I forgot to check the hook.’ ‘And that’s the thing about life,’ he continued to say, but this time to himself, ‘so much time and money spent on so many things – I too often forget to check the hook.’”
Mason looked at me, and I told him I understood the story of the hook and the importance of checking the foundation and of the fundamentals. And he told me that was good, though his eyes told me that he knew I was still going to screw up later in my life something that had to do with the fundamentals, but that this was ok, because making honest mistakes was how I was going to grow.
Later that month, and on a different sort-of Saturday in a different sort-of place, I told the fine men in my platoon Mason’s story about the hook after returning from a 30 mile hike into the Sierra Nevada Mountains in which a few forgot to bring their ponchos and it hailed and rained and they were without the most simple piece of equipment despite their two hundred dollar boots and millions of dollars of training and weeks of preparation…the poncho was this mission’s “hook” – and it was all about the fundamentals.
We agreed, as a family during our mission debrief, that we couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes when it came to checking our hooks or with the fundamentals.
I think the boys liked Mason’s story which has become the foundation of my life and most importantly the foundation of this Force Reconnaissance Platoon. And I think this should be the foundation of every section, squad, division or platoon in the Navy and Marine Corps.
I haven’t told Mason this part of the story yet, but I think when he hears it he will laugh and not be surprised at all; I think he’ll call me names with curse words and try to put me in a head lock for not telling the guys the story of the hook before the long mountain patrol. (This will be another way for him to say “I love you.”) But really I think he’ll be happy that I have listened to his wisdom, even though he would never call it that.
I’m not sure what there is to learn this Saturday (there’s always something), but nothing could ever be as important as the fundamentals and hearing the simple story of the hook after icy-dry Sancerre and laughing with my friends.
Tonight I listened to a presentation on the universe and the way of things by Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s own legendary space exploration project manager, Tony Spear. He discussed the Mars Pathfinder Mission. Einstein. Darwin. Newton. Curiosity. Gravity. Human consciousness. Systems engineering and String Theory. Literally the “ups and downs” of things. We listened, awe struck, to explanations of those far away cosmic lights we so often gaze, half drunk, half amazed. It was a magical evening – the rare sort where different people gathered from different backgrounds to meet a differential calculus that left us agreeing: oh my, how small we are. And how much the very same.
As a final question, one astute listener asked of the electrical engineer: Why does the science of man evolve so wonderfully, and the morality of man so malevolently? The audience paused. And listened. Tony reminded us we are humans, mere mortals, composed of DNA and matter and particles tied to a universe and a universe beyond our own universe and that perhaps our violent nature, though chemical and natural, could be overcome by altruism, education, and science. And, as a group I think, we breathed that wonderful sort of exhale we remembered breathing as young students some time ago who sat before the rare professor that affected us so deeply. And we paused, reflected, learned, and walked off, better.
After the talk, I had the chance to speak with Tony Spear. We discussed important things like robotics, good family, the future of warfighting, fine scotch and curvy women. His mind worked much faster than mine, so I emphasized the fine scotch, and poured him another. In between his captivating thoughts on mathematics and the cosmos, we discussed the human element of combat, the nature of man, and moral philosophy. A two-piece band spun Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” from the outside patio. And the universe around us chaotically expanded and violently contracted while we drank, and laughed and learned. And my mind went to where it always goes when Jameson grabs a hold of my heart…the Marine Corps.
As the band played, and the cocktails flowed, I related to Tony what I felt where the limitations of technology on the modern day battlefield. A complex computer system can hover at 15,000 feet and capture images of men and donkeys crossing the Syrian border into Iraq near the Sinjar Mountains…but only a trained sergeant behind a long scope in an uncomfortable hide site can observe those same men and report the human element. That they have sweat coming from their brow, not a physical sweat, but a nervous sweat. That their movements are erratic, unnatural, and anxious. The computer in the rover at 15,000 feet has told the commander that two men are crossing the border at 2 in the morning. The sergeant in the hide site has told that same commander that two men have crossed the border, and are “suspicious”…they’re marked…15 minutes later a CAAT team intercepts those men 4 miles outside of Sinjar City. They’re carrying weapons, maps, and Al Qaeda propaganda. The limits of science, for now anyway, are apparent: it takes a human process to identify a human process.
And so I think this much is true: one day we might just have an algorithm that will train a computer system to think like a fighter pilot, or a ship’s navigator…but until that day comes, we need the well-trained human fighter pilot in the dog fight, the human ship’s navigator in the sea’s violent storm…because combat, on land and sea, is a complex sequence of human emotions and human processes, the likes of which no super-computer can negotiate. And this is a part of the complex physics of warfare.
Second Lieutenants are taught these physics – the science, art and dynamic of war – deep in the hills of Quantico, Virginia: how to accomplish my mission, and survive. The Greeks called the method to accomplishing a goal techne, literally craftsmanship. The Marines call it knowing your stuff. Whatever you call it, this is how they distinguish themselves from the Army’s infantry schools: adherence to a flexible doctrine of speed and violence centered on Maneuver, not attrition.
The Infantry Officer Course is the world’s foremost graduate school of this form of combat: Maneuver Warfare. Headquartered in an unornamented brick building, discretely located beyond the larger halls of the Basic Officer Course, most basic students pass by the hall with a quiet reverence for the training that takes place here. The walls are made of concrete blocks, painted hospital white and filled with pictures of past graduates, heroes, reminding students of those who came before them. Quite literally the God’s and Generals of the infantry. Leave your Oprah culture sensitivities, self-help literature and coffee cups whose lids warn its contents are “hot” at the door – this is the church of violence.
Before students enter the hall for their indoctrination brief they pass a very appropriate adage written in ominous black script: Those are best who survive the severest of schools. In that hall, and in the forests beyond, the handpicked warrior cadre bring a human dimension to Thucydides’ meditation, and dedicate more than three months to imbue them with three simple tenets and instill in them an overarching warrior ethos: Shoot. Move. Communicate. All the rest is taking care of your Marines.
All the rest, students learn, is a matter of internalizing a violently seductive and explicitly necessary warrior ethos, an Elegant violence, while maintaining a moral commitment to mutually competing events, and emotions.
The Marine Corps infantry is tribal. It has to be. Tempering the violence, while maintaining aggressiveness means the junior commander must be grounded by an unteachable moral commitment that is exhausting, unrelenting, and absolutely imperative to his tribe. This is elegant violence. Between firing machine guns, guiding fire from close air support and hiking miles with a hundred pounds of gear in exhausting terrain, conversations among students turn to just this, the conversations of “all the rest.” All these things, and a million things in between, are what students learn at the graduate school of combat leadership. Nothing you’d ever see on Oprah, but that you always wish you would…here students become their own self-help mechanism. And there is something very pure about all this, conversations held behind camouflaged faces stuffed with Copenhagen in dirty utilities, starving, half way through the most tiring event of their life. This is the sort of informal curriculum offered by the graduate school of combat leadership.
But “all of rest” is only able to take place because of the school’s foundation of formal instruction. It is their common language, such a thing is a requirement for all professionals. The students at IOC quickly realize that every religion has a church, every church a tribe, every tribe a holy book – the religion was America, no one doubted that, but the church was violence, the tribe, the infantry, the scripture, maneuver, and their sacred trust was to the men whom they would soon serve. In an age when one so easily suffocates among the inane, the hyper-sensitive, the pessimistic, the cynical-self-loathing and weak-spirited critics, worshiping such things breathes life and adventure into their restless hearts.
This holy book, the professional literature behind the infantry skills and warrior tribalism taught at IOC, is Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting. It teaches Maneuver, the lifeblood of the naval infantry: How friction, uncertainty, danger, fatigue, fear, complexity, disorder and violence can be overcome by fluidity, boldness, communication, initiative, responsiveness, creativity, and strong will. The application of our strength, it reads, against a selected enemy’s weakness in order to maximize advantage – this is the aim. To this end the maneuverist requires both speed and surprise.
MCDP-1 is very clear about this. The only problem is that in today’s counter-insurgency fight we require more than a science – more than even an art and a dynamic. We require more than “speed” in operation and more than “surprise” in the attack. The junior commander on today’s battlefield requires an understanding of physics. Fusion of art, science and dynamic is just this sort of physics and this is what is required – a complete incorporation of the principles of high energy physics: a theory of everything.
OIF I was a fantastic example of the art, science and dynamic of war unfolding to completion – and victoriously. Even OIF II, highlighted by sustained kinetic fights on the streets of Fallujah and the cemeteries of Najaf, carries a more conventional legacy. Counter-insurgency however, which has defined OIF III, and OIF IV, is less about killing the enemy, and more about, as historian Max Boot has said, identifying the enemy. The tactical complexities that the Marines of the Anbar daily find themselves in is one that transforms from ‘potential energy’ to fully kinetic to potential and back again within seconds. This situation requires more than artful leadership, scientific execution and dynamic planning by platoon commanders. This counter insurgency fight requires combat physicists who maintain the legacy of the artists and scientists of wars past who taught, rightfully so, that the 2-dimensional battlefield was now a 3-dimensional battlespace but who also implement and improve on tactics that reflect an appreciation for the contemporary counter insurgency paradigm, one that requires a 4-dimensional approach. Simply put, high energy physics is the new techne.
The “high energy physics” approach to battle would amend MCDP-1 to reflect such changes…because it not only applies to the counter-insurgency fight, but also to more conventional situations. The amendments, best highlighted in terms of the Six Warfighting Functions (Maneuver, Intelligence, Logistics, Command and Control, Fires, and Force Protection), would include the use of some real world physics: the theory of time/space, the use of mathematical models to reconstruct and predict the enemy’s planning cycle, and the application of velocity in combat, to name a few.
Take maneuver. As taught we fight in a left/right, up/down, front/back battlespace. Three dimensions. The reality is that we fight in a 4D battlespace. This is the understanding that the 3-D world unfolds within the framework of TIME. It is not enough to think about the enemy in a 3-D context, as we do, we have to arrive at our assumptions of his movement and his will in terms of the expiration of current time and the value he assigns to soon-to-come time. The counter-insurgency fight is a struggle against this time…the enemy’s time must become your time. Now you have the initiative. Each patrol, each checkpoint, each raid is more so a factor of the enemy’s own planning cycle, his own appreciation and measure of time. The science of war as applied from MCDP-1 teaches us a 3-D approach to warfare, the physics of warfare teaches a 4-D approach that is vital to success of small unit operations in theatre.
And intelligence? Intel literally drives the small unit leader’s operations in the world of counter-insurgency. MCDP-1 does not disagree, but teaches the value of intelligence is in our planning, incorporated to build OUR greater tactical and operational picture. A “high energy physics” approach favors intelligence that takes real form, as a scientific model or a tactical barometer or a re-usable equation – a mechanism used to predict the not-so unpredictable decision making cycles and planning processes of the enemy, thereby building THEIR greater tactical and operational picture for us by reconstructing the enemy’s intent allowing us to construct our plan accordingly. A “high energy physics” approach then, favors the design of an algorithm which puts us at the center of their planning meetings, not our own, which are usually really long and kind of boring anyway.
As for ‘command and control’, MCDP-1 preaches the importance of speed. Speed is certainly an essential element of warfighting and in a more kinetic, conventional fight, perhaps speed is decisive. But in a counter-insurgency fight speed can be dangerous. Speed here requires direction. Speed with direction is velocity. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of your decision making cycle, or the speed of your maneuver, or the speed of an infinitesimal amount of factors unfolding at an unprocessable rate layered by the direction of your order, or the direction of your squad’s position, or the direction you give the uncontrollable factor of time that is threatening to consume your initiative, and your 3-dimensional posture in an intolerant 4-dimensional moment in TIME. Combat velocity recognizes that counter-insurgency fast becomes the ‘combat infinity’ and can only be leveraged to a position of advantage if the speed of the environment and the speed of your decision making cycle is given an appropriate direction. Speed is no longer enough. Despite the chaos of the combat infinity, the small unit commander can affect any situation by bringing a degree of order in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction.
And of course there are “fires” – which are now kinetic (indirect or air support) and non-kinetic (psychological operations, media, etc) but all still a matter a physics: force (or desired effects) still equals mass X acceleration. Think about it. In a kinetic and non-kinetic world, “high energy physics” is changing how we should be interpreting the teachings of our holy book. Even the “logistics” warfighting function requires a look from a physics perspective…if you’ve ever tried to get a supply clerk to move quickly or watched a request chit meander up and around the chain of command, you’re familiar with a very Newtonian reality: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force, usually this looks a lot like the boot of a motivated staff non-commissioned officer on the behind of a not-so-motivated lance corporal.
A “high energy physics” approach to Maneuver Warfare is, ultimately, a fusion of the art, science, and dynamic of maneuver warfare beyond the kinetic and conventional world of small unit operation taught in MCDP-1. Since the Marine Corps is fundamentally an organization of mutually supporting small units with a rich history in unconventional small wars, it is time to amend our holy book – if such a thing can be done – to reflect what physics has always been telling us all along…that time is everything, that speed is nothing without direction, and that while we will never be able to define ‘infinity’ we can approach an understanding of it…oh yeah, and that the answers to all of these questions will never be found on Oprah, in a self-help book, or in an aimless and drunk harangue from a grumpy and cynical undergraduate, but rather in those conversations of “all the rest” in the infantry officer’s Church of Violence and soon empirically, in those faraway and unforgiving streets where the only peace was yesterday.
And I think men of science like Tony Spear would relate well to this view of things…that the world we know is ever-changing, and dynamic, and violent and requires men who stand before such change and demand missions to mars and close air support. Because at the end of the day such things as Einstein, Darwin, Nimitz, Halsey, Newton, Curiosity, Gravity, Courage, Human consciousness, Systems engineering, a fine Fleet, String Theory and Maneuver Warfare share one thing in common to both physicist and warrior…they are quite literally the “ups and downs” of things, and deserve a moment’s thought and well-deserved exhale. And while even Tony Spear could not answer why we evolve so wonderfully in our science and so slowly in our morality, he certainly affirmed the importance of the education of both scientist and warrior. And the physics we share.
Last night I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy. It was a good film screened with an unexpected personal consequence: softness. I can’t explain it exactly. I just started acting all emotional and sensitive. I was feeling all touchy and weird and squishy – like I needed to drive to the nearest grocery store and put all of the shopping carts back, kiss a kitten, or start recycling. I’m a Marine, and feelings like this just aren’t good for business.
I needed something that would shake this new-found compassion out of me. I headed for my scotch cabinet, had a liberal pouring to match my liberal pourings and picked up a book on global espionage and retired CIA agent Bob Baer’s expedition throughout Southwest Asia in the mid-1990s. Something like this usually does the trick, lots of girls, lots of guns. Lots of other things. But somewhere between tales of isolated Russian outposts and rouge Taliban fighters, Baer revealed a unique place far and away in the world – the Soghdiana. It was an unpredictably beautiful tale (damn). And I was stuck. And I did what comes natural…nothing. And kept on reading. And kept on drinking. And kept on reading. And drinking…
Baer’s story describes the inhabiting tribe, the Yaghnobi, as unique in that they are predominantly Muslim but instead of praying toward Mecca they pray facing the highest peak, which they consider the jumping off point to heaven. Cradled by some of the most remarkable mountains in the world, theirs must seem a true kingdom of heaven.
The Yaghnobi believe that they’ve been sheltered from three millennia of strife, famine, war and disease by the glaciers and mountains that surround them. And so far their tribe’s traditions have survived despite global revolutions of industry, technology and information and even the implacable tides of war.
By Western standards, the Yaghnobi are primitive. They have no monuments commemorating the discovery of new worlds, no memorials to those who have inspired change through art or music, no shrines to generals or deities. The Yaghnobi don’t even have running water or electricity – to say nothing of education or modern medicine. This strikes me as tragic.
After some thought, and some time (at this moment) spent away from the din of hands-free cell phones, octuplets, and apart from the new world reality of Al Sadr’s militias and Zimbabwe’s 2,000 percent inflation rate, I admit with a healthy respect – it must be nice to have such a pleasingly simple world view.
In the West we celebrate an individual’s pluck and a society’s evolution: exploration, social and economic progress, personal liberties, collective freedoms, creative genius, risk taking, courage and creativity of all kinds.
In the West we look at the Yaghnobis’ mountain peak and wonder “what lies beyond?” That’s always been our perspective—to look beyond. This must be the perspective of a people constantly on guard, constantly at war. In the complexity of our “mountain” we have forged a distinct national character.
The Yaghnobi see the very same mountain peak and ask what lies within. Theirs is the perspective of a people removed from history’s revolutions and war’s tides. In the simplicity of their mountain-perspective they’ve forged a remarkable cultural oasis.
I celebrate the varied cultural threads of our national fabric, which is, by the Framers’ design, complex. This complexity—this elegant untidiness—is what Whitman so aptly referred to as America’s “athletic democracy.” Our society has been deeply enriched by many diverse cultures, but remains, at its core, Western.
Ours is a unique Republic firmly rooted in the rule of law, individual liberties, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature, secularism, the free market and also (let’s be honest), Reality TV, Monday Night Football and a good cup of Starbucks coffee. As such, I think there’s an important lesson to be learned from the Yaghnobi.
Every day we all struggle to climb our own personal mountain. We struggle with what best course to take in life — things like how best to support our children and ageing parents, pay off our credit cards, keep our marriages or relationships intact and our jobs in place…and other things like how to be decent people and happy.
As Marines, it’s not only combat itself we struggle with, but also the choices we’re forced to make in life’s battle. This Fight (capital F) binds. These are our mountains. We’ve been bred as warriors to relish that life is a struggle and that mountains were not made to be prayed to or sat before – but that mountains were made to be climbed.
The Yaghnobis’ world suggests different; that we may be able to succeed without so much struggle — or that we might at least benefit by taking the occasional pause. Of course this requires that we redefine what we mean by “succeed.” We’ll never get very far when their “pause” means our “regret” and their “exhale” means our “weakness.”
No matter the definition, I think that what we are to learn from the Yaghnobi relates to our identity and how we lead our lives. We are to learn that adding some “pause” to our diet will boost the individual and collective “hunger” we so celebrate, not curb it. We are to learn that if, from time to time, we take a break between mountains to ask questions of each other and ourselves, we might just discover an even greater strength that lies within…something I think the politicians on both aisles-sides are sorting out as we speak…that no matter if ours is a mountain of hope or a mountain of bullshit, or, quite frankly, a mountain of both – that the mountain is ours for the climbing. And a great mountain is best climbed after a greater pause.
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