Archive for the 'Marine Corps' Category
Relinquishing command is always bitter sweet because of the people and the experiences you have to leave behind and because there always seem to be so many things that you still want to get accomplished.
As I pen this post, a reflection piece, I am in the final moments of command as Commander, Amphibious Force 7th Fleet – 7th Fleet’s amphibious arm that also includes a mine countermeasures force and a helicopter sea combat squadron. By the time many of you read this, I will have turned over the reins to my long-time friend Rear Admiral Marc Dalton.
I met the expeditionary strike group—emphasis on strike group versus amphibious ready group—about this time last year on their way back from a very successful summer patrol, capped by completion of Exercise Talisman Saber.
Our forces are the best of the best in amphibious warfare in the world and have been for years. But, I challenged my staff and the leaders on the deckplate to go higher, to recognize that getting our Marines to the beach is just one component of maritime superiority, a superiority that we should be postured to achieve as an integrated naval force with Marine Corps partners anywhere in the world.
We have applied the Composite Warfare Command (CWC) construct to the operations of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) with great work by Amphibious Squadron 11, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Destroyer Squadron 7, USS Shiloh (CG-67), USS Preble (DDG-88) amongst others to robustly bolster our ability to defend the amphibious task force. This work will carry forward as we continue to integrate CruDes capabilities into the ESG.
We are operationalizing the concept of an “up-gunned” ESG, a concept now being promoted by Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander, 7th Fleet, in anticipation of USS Wasp (LHD-1) with the F-35B joining the 7th Fleet amphibious force in the near term.
The beautiful thing about our trajectory as a naval expeditionary force in this regard is that our Marine Corps brethren have been equally engaged in trying to be more robust in their expeditionary capabilities. The Marine Corps is already scalable with its MEU-MEB-MEF design, but we’ve done some important work, as a Blue-Green team, to look at ways to bring Naval-Marine integration beyond the MEU level. It could mean augmenting the MEU with increased capabilities or using MEU assets from a sea-base to augment MEB assets ashore.
But that’s the big picture stuff, the stuff that many think-tankers can pontificate on for hours – and so could I, but I won’t here. What I’m most proud of is the bonds we have been able to form with our allies in the region, bonds that have true meaning.
It has been said before that while you can surge forces, you cannot surge trust, and trust is what these partnerships have forged.
We truly see the power of these partnerships during times of crisis, like the recent earthquakes near Kumamoto, where U.S. and Japanese forces worked hand-in-hand, using the 31st MEU’s MV-22 Ospreys ashore and at sea on board JS Hyuga, to deliver critical supplies to those in need. Well before formal messages were sent, critical actions were taken to get the ball rolling, based on our partnerships and trust, at every level.
This is but one example of the many accomplishments made possible through hard work on the deck plates, by Sailors and Marines who have a dedication to duty and a high standard for mission accomplishment day in and day out and second to none.
And so, as I prepare to say those heart-breaking words “I will now read my orders,” I know I leave behind a force that is ever-so capable of standing the watch. I was fortunate to have relieved Rear Admiral Denny Wetherald who took the ESG back to sea as a deploying strike group staff, and I now turn over to an old shipmate in Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, who will now set the bar even higher.
I’m so proud to have been part of this amazing Blue-Green team, and I look forward to watching from afar as the Navy’s forward-deployed expeditionary force does incredible things.
Writing professional articles has a long history in all the U.S. military services. American naval publications date as far back as the 1830s. While military personnel are commonly lauded for their willingness to take physical risks in defense of the nation, sometimes we are less open to taking the intellectual risks involved in the betterment of our profession. In #RTSW 2 we discussed the fear some writers have that they might embarrass themselves through a small mistake or problem in a professional article. Taking an intellectual or academic risk is far different than strapping into an aircraft, rigging to dive the boat, or free-falling out of a perfectly good airplane.
The reality is there are a number of things military authors do which are sort of embarrassing from an editor’s perspective. Military personnel hold themselves up as professionals, but occasionally behave like inexperienced freshman undergraduates when it comes time to submit an article for publication. Most of the issues can be addressed by acting like the professional we all claim to be. These are not actually hard things to do, but generally fall into the GI Joe category of knowledge.
Follow the contributors guidelines. Seriously. If the journal or publication says they take feature articles with a maximum word count of 3000 words, do not send them 4500 words. Some will give you some latitude, maybe 10% overage, but not always. It is not the editor’s job to turn your over-length piece into something appropriate. You are telling them either you could not be bothered to check the guidelines, you have never read their publication, you just don’t care, or you think you are so brilliant the rules don’t apply to your ideas. None of these interpretations will help you impress anyone.
From my experience as an editor this is an across the board issue. Frankly, most junior personnel tend to follow the rules, but sometimes they don’t understand the difference between “departments” at some journals. Some mid-grade officers, senior officers, and Flags, however, have issues understanding the rules apply to them. One would hope the professors from our PME institutions who encourage officers to use their school papers for articles would help them understand how it works. Yet, I have also seen PME professors who submit articles which are thousands of words over maximum, so sometimes they are part of the problem.
Papers and assignments written in the professional military education system, or from academic work, are a great source of material for articles. I have used the work I wrote for class in a number of articles I have published. But, a school paper and an article are not the same thing. We’ve already covered the length issue, but this is a common problem with academic papers. There are also differences in style and tone, occasionally in formatting, and in the types of arguments that will fit at certain publications. Do not simply send your PME paper to an editor. Always rewrite and reformat the paper to ensure it fits the publication you are sending it to. The editors will still help you make it better, but it is on the author to make the first effort of getting it right for the publication in question. It should not require mentioning, but the editor is also not interested with the grade you got on the paper. No need to share, the work should stand on its own.
Ensure you are sending the right submission to the right publication. If a certain publication has a name for a “department,” or type of article, don’t use that same name at a different publication. For example, Proceedings has opinion pieces called “Nobody Asked Me But…” An author who sends a commentary submission to War on the Rocks or The Bridge “for your Nobody Asked Me But section” is immediately off on the wrong foot.
Simple freelance manuscript format is the best way to approach an editor. Do not try and impress with multiple fonts, complicated formatting, etc. Depending on what software they are working with, your fancy format may get thrown off anyway. You aren’t applying for a job in desktop publishing, the words in the article are what matter and speak for themselves. Name, contact info, word count, title, one font, double spaced, simple paragraph format. Use bold, underline, or italics to set things off, but only sparingly. It is designed for fiction authors, but William Shunn’s website gives a good image of how to set things up. Avoid pdf’s to the best of your ability, because the editor will probably want to digitally mark up the piece.
The concept of authorship is directly tied to the question of personal integrity in the academic world. Almost every university or institution of higher learning has an authorship policy statement (read Yale’s here). Fundamentally “authorship” is the question: who belongs on the byline of an article? Who should get credit? This is a question every senior officer looking to publish an article must ask themselves when they think about the staff process which might have helped them produce the article. Senior officers and civilian leaders sometimes have speechwriters who help them. At what point, and in what venues, should they get mentioned for written work? Is a shared byline proper? Or is a mention in the author bio at the end of the article the right place? “LCDR Jones contributed to the writing of this article.” Perhaps a junior officer on the staff amassed the research and wrote the first draft of sections of the piece. Do they deserve some credit? These questions don’t always apply, but in colleges and universities this is a key ethical question. If we are going to pursue professional integrity in the military services, and consider it intellectually, it makes sense for us to examine authorship as well.
Professional articles on military subjects are not the place for personal attacks or for antagonism. Even if the spark which got you writing was disagreement with someone else’s idea, take a step back and make sure you are writing about ideas and content and you are not being antagonistic. Sometimes this is unintentional, and requires you to look at your own work closely. Also, some publications do not publish this kind of tit-for-tat writing, so expect rejections if you are writing something focused on being critical. You should be focused on new ideas and solutions. It is ok to be constructively critical of another writer, thinker, or publication, but avoid personal or professional antagonism: try and follow Dennett’s rules. Aim at the ideas, not the people, and give credit where credit is due.
Cite Your Work
Footnotes, endnotes, hyperlinks…they matter. They help prove you have done the research and reading discussed earlier in this series. More importantly, perhaps, they acknowledge the hard work of others who have tackled the same or similar subjects and on whose shoulders your work stands. They offer the editor and the reader a chance to check up on you. None of us form our ideas or opinions in a vacuum. Even senior officers haven’t come to all their knowledge through experience or epiphany. We should acknowledge that through good use of notes and links. This does not mean every article must be peppered with quotes from Clausewitz or Mahan. You do not have to tackle the great masters. Sometimes it makes you look silly. I know from experience.
Say something in your article. Identifying a problem is certainly a contribution, but often times it is not enough. It only becomes a good article when you also suggest a solution or a path to a solution. You have to argue for something, not just report on a situation. In the first post in this series we talked about John Adams’ call to “dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Professional articles are at their best when they remember that first word. Writers must dare.
Take It or Leave It
This series of three posts has tried to offer a starting point for military professionals and members of the national security community who want to take up the call to contribute to our profession, all call which was recently echoed by the CNO and Lt O’Keefe. The observations offered are intended as a little bit of what naval folks call gouge to get started. Like all gouge, the advice offered is worth exactly what you have paid to read it. These are simple observations from my past several years both writing and editing on military and naval subjects. Individual experience will vary. As we say in the navy, if you live by the gouge you’ll likely die by the gouge. But it least it gives us somewhere to start.
This post is the third in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
Chief of Naval Operations Richardson has put out a call for more naval professionals to contribute to their profession through writing. Other Flag Officers have followed his lead and there is a rising movement across the joint force. The first post in this series examined how someone can develop an idea into a professional article. The next two posts will look to offer a clearer picture of what a writer should expect once their article is written: from submission to when it is out in print or online.
The advice in this series is based on professional writing for a print or online magazine/journal. People interested in blogging can certainly also learn from these ideas. But blogging has a slightly different place in our digital society, and frequently has different (sometimes looser) standards. As seen from the fact this series is published on a pair of blogs (USNI and the Military Writer’s Guild), I see a lot of value in both approaches.
One of the most intimidating things about publishing a professional contribution is fear the author will get something wrong, or embarrass themselves through small mistakes. The reality is a typo, an improperly used italics formatting, or a misspelled name is not something most editors care about. If the problems are repeated and glaring, that is different, but a couple of small mistakes are not very important.
Personally, this is why I like working with journals and magazines more than unedited blogs, or blogs run from personal websites. My work always benefits from the critical eye of a dedicated editor, whether a paid employee of a publication or sometimes a volunteer. That kind of sanity check has kept me from embarrassing myself when the editor asks “hey, are you sure that is right?” or “what is your citation or link for this fact?” From fixing typos, to helping improve the writing in terms of style or house format, and challenging flawed logic or argument, editors have always made my work better. Once the article or essay has made it through them, or their editorial board, there’s a much smaller chance I am embarrassing myself.
Finding a Publication
With a completed draft on the computer screen, it is time to decide where to submit the article. There are many, many options. For naval writers there are the big time naval professional journals like Proceedings and Naval War College Review, to the magazines published by community organizations like Tailhook and the Naval Helicopter Association. The other services have similar venues like Military Review, The Gazette, or branch publications like Armor. There are also the online publications about defense and national security issues. Authors must realize each and every publication has its own niche and its own style. Your manuscript should aim to fit their unique niche and style.
There are two good rules of thumb for selecting where to send the article. First, make sure you’ve read articles from the publication you want to target and ensure your article is the kind of thing they publish. Second, find the publication’s “contributor guidelines.” They all have them, and the editors actually put hard work into getting them just right. Here is the link to Proceedings, and here is War on the Rocks, to give you an idea of what they include. Frequently, these pages are also a wealth of advice on good writing. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. (Yes, I just stomped my foot and yelled at you.) Do not let the word “guidelines” fool you, these are the rules for the publication. The quickest way to get rejected by an editor is to send them something clearly violating the rules they have put out in the open. And don’t blast the article out to multiple publications at the same time. Pick one, submit, and be patient. Give the editors a couple days to acknowledge your submission, and even more time before you demand an answer. Some have review processes which take months. Even if the article is rejected, you frequently will get constructive feedback that will help you make it better before sending it to the next publication.
You may decide you are interested in a less formal arrangement, and go with a blog such as USNI Blog or work with junior folks like at CIMSEC. But deciding where to send your article should be a conscious choice based on knowledge of what they publish and how you fit into their corner of national security or professional discussion. You do not need a personal introduction to an editor. Find the email address for submissions, write a brief introductory email (include who you are, title of the article, length, and where you see it fitting into the publication), attach the article (or just make a pitch if that is what the guidelines say), and hit send.
Working with Editors
Editors are here to make our work better. Sometimes, we don’t like to hear their criticism, but it is really crucial we listen and consider it. You can push back against an editor’s changes or suggestions, but you should be able to explain why. Also, you can ask an editor to explain the reasons they have made or suggested a certain change. The writer-editor relationship should have plenty of back and forth, with give and take from both sides.
A professional editor will also never talk about the details of the work they do with you. For example, the Editorial Board at the Naval Institute has very strict privilege rules covering what is discussed in the boardroom. Some new writers fear editors will bad mouth them to other publications or with other writers, but that has never been my experience. In fact, I’ve had many editors try and help me by suggesting other publications which might be a “better fit” if they have rejected my work. Editors have also offered to make introductions to other publications for me. While talking with an editor isn’t quite like talking with a Chaplain, respected outlets are run by respectable people. Publishers always want you to come back with good material, because it is how they keep their journal up and running.
The vast majority of material published today ends up online. Even print journals like Proceedings place their articles on their website. Along with this comes the dreaded “comments section.” Realize there is no obligation for you to read the comments section. Frankly, most of the time I try and ignore it. For each ego stroking reassurance you have offered a brilliant analysis, there’s a troll looking for a fight or a pedantic fact checker ignoring the actual point. Sometimes, a genuine expert in your subject might respond with good insight. When I am tempted to look, and I discover someone like that, I have been known to contact them directly to learn more, but not engage in the furball of likes and unlikes and replies. Most publications want their authors to engage, on more than one occasion staff at USNI have suggested I dive in. However, the key for any author is to realize engaging with commenters is entirely a personal choice. There is no requirement to do it, and there is no requirement you ignore it.
A number of professional naval journals have had a history of allowing the use of pen names. Many excellent digital commentators, like our friend Cdr Salamander, use them with skill and for excellent reasons. The first thing to realize is most publications have a specific policy on the use of pseudonyms. They probably are not going to break their own rules for you, and you better know what they are before you try and submit as “W.T. Door” or “Sailor Timmy.” Many blogs also have a policy on it as well. If you decide you need to use a pen name to protect yourself, you may be limiting how seriously your work will be taken and limiting the kinds of publications you can approach.
Personally, I have also found my writing is far better when I do it under my own name. There is less of a temptation to resort to snark and sarcasm and greater incentive to make sure the research is fully and rigorously sourced. Since we have been talking about writing for professional journals and magazines, it is uncommon for them to resort to pen names. If you are publishing in a respected journal or online publication the odds are you want some credit for your ideas, and for having the guts to get them out there, anyway.
This post is the second in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
The June issue of Proceedings offered a call from CNO Admiral Richardson, and his speechwriter Lt. Ashley O’Keefe, encouraging naval professionals to engage with their service through the act of professional writing. The CNO has not discovered a new idea, but instead lends his voice to something a number of recent senior officers have called for, from Stavridis to Winnefeld. Even some “not so senior” officers have suggested the same. Others have written indications and warnings about the risks the voyage entails.
There have been a long list of professionals throughout our history who have participated in the development of naval affairs in this way, from Maury to Mahan, Nimitz to Zumwalt. And while the spark for this post came from the CNO and the Navy, the other services have a history here too: from soldiers in the 19th century to leaders like Patton in the 20th century. However, the repeated calls to arms over time, or perhaps calls to pens, have missed something. How do you do it?
Our Navy is a technically oriented service. This is also generally true of the other services to greater or lesser degrees. Our educational policies focus on engineering and technical study, and rarely encourage us to learn how to communicate in writing beyond a bare minimum. In our staff positions we use briefing slides and other communication methods which inspire partial thoughts, quick hits, and incomplete sentences and no concept of paragraph structure or style. For cultures raised on procedural compliance and powerpoint, what is the procedure for writing a professional article? Some simple steps inspired by the words in the Naval Institute’s mission can help set our course.
The mission of USNI is to:
Provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security. [emphasis added]
The bold words are borrowed from President John Adams. In his 1765 pamphlet “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Adams examined monarchy and feudalism and compared them to the growing movement for freedom and liberty in the American colonies. The future president called for Americans who valued liberty to develop their knowledge, and their argument, by daring to read, think, speak, and write on the subject. It was a clarion call, but it also hinted at a certain amount of process. Adams was a careful writer and it is quite possible he put these words in a very specific order. Following his counsel can help professionals chart their process for developing an article which contributes to understanding of our profession.
In order to make a contribution to the field of military, naval, or national security knowledge, you have to know the state of the field. The way to do this is by reading. If you have come up with an interesting analogy for a current debate the only way to know if someone has made the argument before is by reading the field. If you wonder what counter-arguments may be against your position, that also comes with reading the field. Articles in journals like Proceedings, Military Review, or Naval War College Review, online publications like War on the Rocks and The Bridge, blogs like Next War, all contribute to the state of the field. Not only will reading them give you new information, and new ideas, but they also tell you what others have said before. It can save you from the embarrassing retort: “yeah, Lieutenant Commander Jones said it six months ago and had a better argument.” (Not that you have to be entirely original, but knowing the field helps you understand where you fit.)
It is not just articles and online posts we should be reading. Books have long given us the deep knowledge needed to understand where the profession has been and where it may head in the future. There is a common refrain in the modern world that we simply do not have time for books. The watch schedule keeps us too busy. Digital media has affected our attention span. Military service is demanding, and we need time with our families. Yet we find time for physical exercise, while we discount intellectual exercise. According to some studies the average college graduate reads around 300 words a minute. If we read 15 minutes each evening, it totals up to 18-20 books a year. The excuse there is “no time” would never be accepted when we failed the PFT. Accept the challenge to read more widely. Maybe this sounds “high brow” or too “egg headed” but as President Truman, a WWI Army veteran, said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
Once a servicemember or natsec professional has an idea of the subject they want to write about, has done some research and reading about it, and has come up with the initial kernel of an argument, they must spend some time thinking about it. This advice probably goes against the grain of what digital media incentivises, or what social media seems to encourage. However, the point of this effort is to make a contribution to the field of military and naval affairs or national security, not to rush into being a “thought leader” in the crashing tide of the blogosphere. Thinking hard about the subject you intend to tackle includes attempting to employ the skills of critical thinking.
Critical thinking gets a lot of attention these days and there are numerous competing definitions of what it means. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think “critical thinking” means “thinking about important or critical things.” That’s not the case. Instead we need level criticism at ourselves and our ideas. We need to examine our ideas with depth, and rigor, in order to get to the heart of whatever issue we want to write about. This includes becoming a critic of yourself and your own ideas, as well as the ideas of others. As you develop the concept for your article, be exacting and penetrating with the evidence you have amassed either through research or your own experience.
Having researched, considered experience, and critically examined the subject in your own mind, it is important to get a sanity check from someone else. In the academic world, this is part of the reason there is peer review before journal articles are published. In the professional and popular press, editors and editorial boards will judge your work with a dispassionate eye. The best way to ensure your argument makes sense, and you have developed a sound approach before contacting an editor, is to talk about it with other people.
Speaking about your idea can take a number of forms. It can happen with a pint in your hand at a pub with a mentor or group of respected friends. In the lost days of our Officer Clubs this was actually a common way of helping people develop professional ideas. It could also involve a cup of coffee. Seek out a mentor who you trust, whether a senior officer or a former professor or co-worker, and see what sticks in your conversation with them. Speaking also does not have to be taken literally, even if some of us work better in the give and take of live conversation. It can take the form of an email or social media exchange. The goal is to introduce new criticisms the writer has not considered, or clarifying the way to express the ideas.
Sit down and write the article. Just do it. Don’t allow the blank page on the computer screen to intimidate. One of the benefits of having thought through the idea systematically, and then spoken about it with a trusted friend or mentor, is you have already started to develop the words to express the idea. As many successful authors have told us, from Stephen King and Anne Lamott to Ernest Hemingway: the first draft is going to be bad. It does not matter. Sit at the keyboard and bang away until you have said everything you want to say.
Once the words are on the page, raw and terrible as they might be, the writer has crossed a major hurdle. After that, it is a matter of editing, organizing, and rewriting, which should be easier than putting the idea down the first time. The editing does not need to be rushed, and the mentor or friend you spoke with probably will be excited to take a look at the article and help make suggestions to improve it. You have already made them feel like a part of the process. When the draft is something which reads well, and you’re happy with it, then it is time to start looking for a place to publish it. Good editors, strong editorial boards, and the review process they use will help strengthen the piece even more. Be ready to make more adjustments to help clarify any issues they discover.
The RTSW Loop
The steps of RTSW might be seen as a sort of OODA loop for professional writing. In some ways it is similar to Boyd’s strato-tactical ideal. For example, each element can send you back to a previous spot. Speaking with a mentor may send you to a book or article you had not heard of before which you need to read, or the process of writing may cause you to return to your thinking and reorganize your approach. But there are also differences with Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act sequence, most notably speed. Speed can be your enemy when writing a good professional article. There is no hurry. Please do not try to beat the rush of modern media, this can lead to shallow writing, weak argument, and poorly sourced facts. Doing it right may take time, and multiple rounds of the “RTSW loop,” but that only makes the article stronger and a better contribution.
Writing for publication can be a rewarding challenge. It is also something a legion of Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and security professionals have done throughout history. Many discover the process of writing clarifies their thinking. It also develops our communication skills, our critical faculties through practice, and our leadership ability. All of these make us better military professionals. Writing for publication is not something we should do because we need another FITREP or evaluation bullet, or because we think we can impress our boss. We don’t do it simply because the CNO says so. It is something we do in order to move our profession forward and to improve our service or our nation’s security. So, it is time to dare. Dare to read, think, speak, and write.
The author would like to thank Cdr Mike Flynn and his Naval Academy summer school class on “Professional Writing” for their invitation to join them for a day of class, where the author had a chance to speak about and refine some of these ideas.
This post is the first in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
General Robert Neller has always been regarded as a tough, no-nonsense Marine, and as Commandant of the Marine Corps he has also emerged as a genuine visionary. He deeply understands the future military environment and how his service must prepare for it. At the 2016 U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA West Conference, the general provided critical insight into his vision, which closely aligns with that of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson, on the direction of leadership development the Naval Services should take.
According to the 37th Commandant:
I think the training systems we have as far as simulators and simulation are pretty good for individual task/condition/standard, for air crew, for drivers, for even firing individual weapons, gunnery, things like that, I think the thing that we’re looking for is, where’s the equivalent of our Holodeck, where a fleet commander or division commander or air wing commander can go in and get a rep. Right now that almost requires an actual provision of the real stuff, which is really expensive . . . . Where’s our Enders Game battle lab kind of thing where we can not just give our leadership reps, but we can actually find out who the really good leaders are.
General Neller’s comments compel us to further analysis. He invokes aspects of popular science fiction to paint a picture for how leaders will be trained, evaluated, and readied for operational challenges in the not-so-distant future. He identifies critical gaps in today’s approach to leadership development, where mid- and senior-grade officers have few opportunities to experiment with novel operational concepts, using multiple units, in a risk tolerant environment. He also places cognitive development, or military decision-making, on par with the physical fitness which has long been a hallmark of Marine Corps officers. Finally, Neller highlights the problem of assessing the true quality of leadership in today’s ranks, where a significant portion of an officer’s career is in non-operational assignments.
One Army study of the novel Ender’s Game describes the “battle lab” (or school) in this way:
Using virtual training environments, the children go head-to-head on an individual level against computers that simulate Formic battle tactics to gain the knowledge and abilities required to defeat the enemy. The children can then compete against one another in the virtual environments to further develop their strategies. The next phase involves live collective training. Divided into armies, the soldiers must learn to function as a single unit to accomplish a mission objective in the battleroom. With enough skill, soldiers can become commanders of their armies and must learn to lead them effectively. By merging these individual and collective training components, the soldiers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities can translate into operational readiness.
While the concept of an Ender’s Game battle lab may seem like pure fantasy to some, the technology to build it may be right around the corner. In order to turn Neller’s vision into reality, several organizational changes must occur.
Harnessing advances in several emergent fields is critical for creating a naval battle lab, but we must exercise prudence in our approach. We must take full advantage of better private sector platforms and systems, and make using them our first choice, rather than taking the more expensive approach of designing our own systems. Reinventing the wheel, and the resulting exorbitant costs, will be the death knell of a naval battle lab long before the project would get underway in earnest.
As the current Pokémon Go craze clearly demonstrates, working augmented reality is now widely available to the public at virtually no cost. If built from scratch using the defense acquisition process, its cost surely would render such a system unaffordable. In fiscally constrained times, the DON must adopt new business practices and modernize outdated IT policies to capitalize on these types of commercial initiatives. Senior leaders and acquisition professionals need to consider open source software (OSS) services, such as GitHub, as the new norm for software procurement. OSS services allow users to take available code and modify it for a specific use at potentially a much lower cost than developing their own version from scratch or purchasing a commercial software license.
Another form of technological advancement needing consideration is the rise of machine learning and “bot” technology. Sophisticated software algorithms show great utility in modern computer networks, with their ability to monitor computer systems, offer data access, and to check network activity, while adapting themselves to varying conditions without human direction. This capability is being commercially used to improve customer service and to monitor network activity, among other private sector functions. Such advanced machine learning tools will be critical for creating virtual exercise controllers or simulated adversaries, using their adaptable artificial intelligence to challenge military tacticians based on their level of expertise.
Mobility will be an important enabler for leadership development in the future. It is difficult to find a naval officer today who does not own a smart phone. We must take advantage of these powerful tools by providing our people with appropriate network access and software to enable them to participate in scalable leadership exercises alone or as members of a networked team. Such access will allow them to develop professionally wherever they are. In short, we must make cognitive development as accessible as doing a set of push-ups. Leveraging commercial technology, however, is only one part of the changes required to implement General Neller’s vision.
The naval services have led at wargaming for decades. Over the past few years, improvements to analytical methods have resulted in game outcomes informing organizational decision-making processes. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that wargaming, and gameplay in general, serves as an excellent leadership development tool. In essence, traditional wargaming is a competition among participants based on a scenario that is conducted in a turn-based manner. They make people think and solve problems. This same process is easily replicated, repeated and expanded by using a virtual environment.
Virtual wargaming offers many advantages over traditional simulations. Consider popular online games such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. These games are played by millions of networked participants around the world every day. Fundamentally, they are designed to pose tactical problems to players who have a set of options from which to select. This interaction presents an incredible opportunity both to learn and collect useful data on military decision making.
In the future, for example, tactical problem X could be posed to a large and diverse group of naval officers in a virtual game format. From their answers, it would be possible to determine that a certain percentage would chose option Y, while others would chose option Z. This data could then influence policy changes or improve training and education programs, using any observed shortfalls. Further, if this virtual environment is shared with other services and coalition partners, it will be possible to determine the effect service and national culture has on tactical decision making.
Another advantage of virtual gaming is its ability to draw upon the expertise of the crowd to solve challenging problems. This is contrary to the norm of giving only a few elite players the opportunity to participate in large-scale events. Virtual environments are also more accommodating to various personality types and better for overcoming the power dynamics and hierarchies associated with the traditional approach to military wargaming.
The DON is at the forefront of crowdsourcing in the Department of Defense through its use of online platforms such as MMOWGLI, The Hatch, and the Marine Corps Innovation Challenge. Each of these forums provides Sailors, Marines, and DON civilians the opportunity to participate in virtual problem solving challenges. The lessons from these nascent systems could influence operational planning in the future, as the multitude of options available to our adversaries could be given to a network of operational planners, rather than myopically focusing on one or two likely courses of action. History has shown the current approach to planning often results in failure to anticipate our adversaries’ actions, an inflexibility we must remedy.
Virtual games are only as good as the environment in which they are conducted. Commercial gaming technology, geographic information systems, intelligence collection sensors, and repositories of global societal data are constantly improving. Much work remains to integrate these various sources of data in order to develop virtual environments of sufficient quality to enable realistic decision-making exercises. Excessive emphasis on environmental fidelity can often become an expensive distraction, however.
Virtual environments may be used to represent complex, networked, “wicked problems” better, as well as demonstrating the impact of our actions within, for example, complex civilian population centers. In short, virtual environments can present a different set of decision making problems and feedback mechanisms not available in live training exercises or traditional war games. This is yet another advantage offered by new forms of simulation.
The term “game” often connotes a recreational activity. If gameplay in the battle lab of the future is to become an effective tool for assessing the tactical decision making of naval leaders, proper incentives must be put in place so these exercises are taken as seriously as time on the rifle range. The emerging concept of gamification rests upon rewards or meaningful status upgrades to reinforce positive behavior, while penalizing negative behavior. Performance in the naval battle lab consequently must be incorporated into annual performance assessments and ultimately influence career decisions.
In an examination of military innovation, Dima Adamsky notes a significant difference between the US and Soviet militaries during the Cold War in their approaches to technological adaptation. The Soviets would develop concepts and strategy for use ahead of delivering a technology, whereas the US military usually had the technology and then often took a decade to figure out how to turn it into an operational advantage. To prevent this problem in the future, DARPA and ONR could insert the latest weapons technology into the battle lab years ahead of its actual fielding. This would give future naval leaders the opportunity to experiment with weapons of the future, then speedily integrate them into their decision making cycle as soon the new systems arrive in the operating forces.
The DON’s Task Force Innovation was comprised of over 150 naval innovators from across the operating forces. Improving wargaming and expanding virtual environments were identified as important tools to promote innovative thinking. As a result, Secretary Mabus directed two policy memos to emphasize these two issues and take an integrated naval approach, when possible. While great progress is being made as a result of these directives, these two areas will ultimately form the foundation for a naval battle lab and must proceed in parallel and complement one another.
To operationalize this concept, the numerous stakeholders from across the naval enterprise must work towards a common vision. Developing the functional system as described here will require strong leadership and collaboration across numerous DON organizations. As we have seen, this topic is of great interest to the SECNAV, CNO and CMC. Therefore the current bureaucratic environment may be optimal to make meaningful progress.
There are many technical, fiscal, and organizational barriers which must be overcome to fully operationalize the naval battle lab concept. The most significant obstacle, however, will be cultural. Ultimately our leaders must see the lessons learned from traditional leadership tasks and day-to-day decision-making in an operational environment are invaluable and cannot be supplanted. As cognitive decision-making emerges as a critical capability on the battlefield of the future, we must leverage every opportunity to build the most tactically and operationally proficient naval officers possible. As we see in every aspect of society, technology will play a vital role. If a battle-hardened, infantry Marine like General Neller, who entered military service long before personal computing became part of our daily lives, recognizes the potential of a naval battle lab for building and testing naval leaders, others must take notice too.
The House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act sponsored by Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) that would “prohibit funds to implement Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 4715.21 on Climate Change Adaption and Resilience.” It is a short-sighted and ill-conceived action that will jeopardize U.S. military effectiveness.
Successful, prudent planning requires considering all pertinent variables. For that reason, DoD needs the ability to factor climate change as a variable at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. If Congress wishes to limit the scope or cost of a specific program it should do so, but it must not limit the ability of the military to plan.
Having served as the senior environmental executive for the United States Air Force in the George W. Bush Administration, I would like to address this, both as someone who had the responsibility to plan for and respond to environmental contingencies, and as a Republican needing to work with a Democrat Congress to effectively govern.
The fact that the climate changes is not a political issue, it is reality. It has been changing for millennia. While the cause may be debated by some, the reality is that climates evolve and such developments have a major impact on security interests. You don’t have to believe that the cause is man-made. You can believe it is part of an ongoing cycle and point to whatever study you want to back up your point of view.
Irrespective of the cause, the climate changes and those changes affect the weather, sea level, crop production and migration patterns. Rising sea levels have displaced populations, land failing to produce crops due to drought has exacerbated already complex Syrian issues, and ocean temperature killing coral is moving fishing grounds further into the South China Sea; all of these can lead to conflict and must be prepared for. These are key variables that are affected by climate change and impact everything from broad strategy to discrete tactics.
In a statement, Representative Buck said, “The military, the intelligence community [and] the domestic national security agencies should be focused on ISIS and not on climate change.”
To understand the importance of climate and weather in very concrete terms, one only needs to look back at the critical value of a weather forecast for the D-Day landings. To bring off the invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower needed a full moon, a low tide, little cloud cover, light winds and low seas. (The low tide was necessary to allow soldiers to see, avoid, and disarm the mined obstacles that the Germans had placed in the surf.) He could have had the full moon and low tide on June 5, 6, or 7. He could have had the low tide without the full moon on June 19 or 20. But what about the weather?
The landing was originally scheduled for June 5, but was moved to June 6 based upon a weather forecast and succeeded not because of the brilliant work of any solitary forecaster, but because a group of forecasters imitated the weather. They jostled, yelled, scribbled, and cast malevolent looks at one another. They fought it out and voted. And in the end, they were just right enough.
Imagine, if Congress, in 1944, had said that the military and the allied forces should be focused on the Germans and not on the weather, then passed an amendment that prohibited identifying and assessing the effects of the weather. Well, that is pretty much what Representative Buck’s amendment does in a 21st-century context.
The fact that the climate changes is a significant variable that needs to be considered by our military planners. Given the sophistication of modeling and analytic capability available to our military, being able to understand and predict broad patterns in the climate cannot be underestimated. It is a strategic advantage that will play out in tactics against the range of current and potential adversaries.
If you actually read Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 4715.2 [.pdf], you will find that it is not about pushing a “radical green agenda” as Representative Buck asserts. DoD Directives flow from policy and assign responsibilities for carrying out that policy. In this case, the DoD policy is to ensure that the DoD is able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military.
Nowhere in the Directive is there language that speaks to the cause or reason for the climate changing. It is focused solely on identification and assessment of the effects of climate change on the DoD mission; taking those effects into consideration when developing plans and implementing procedures; and anticipating and managing any risks that develop as a result of climate change to build resilience.
Military planning is an art that requires an in-depth understanding of numerous critical elements or factors that may impact on the mission — both positively and negatively — and an assessment/analysis of how those elements or factors can be either negated, overcome or exploited to give the Commander the advantage required in the execution of the mission. The inability to take into account the changing climate would be catastrophic limitation. This limitation would be compounded by the fact that most of our efforts, against ISIS and other potential adversaries are carried out though multinational coalitions. U.S. joint strategic plans and contingency plans prepared in support of multinational efforts are developed, reviewed, and approved exclusively within U.S. operational channels. Currently, Combatant Commands are integrating climate-related impacts into their planning cycles to reduce the national security implications associated with climate change. This includes monitoring, analysis, and integration of climate related risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command. The Buck Amendment would tie the hands of not only our Combatant Commanders and military planners, but render the United States ineffective in joint planning and operations.
If the purpose of the amendment is to limit spending on overly expensive showcase projects like the Navy’s Great Green Fleet, there are better ways to do that than prohibiting the assessment and analysis of a key long-term variable in our nation’s ability to fight and win.
For example, in 2007 and 2008 when the nation was facing oil prices of $140 per barrel, the Air Force undertook an effort to use domestically produced synthetic fuel in our aircraft to reduce the need for foreign oil. We made a conscious policy decision that the program would be market-based and that the Air Force would do only those things in our control that would create the conditions for success, but not to subsidize uneconomic alternatives.
The Air Force successfully certified every aircraft and associated system to be able to fly on a 50/50 blend of synthetic fuel, and we made a commitment to buy half of our domestic fuel requirement as a synfuel blend as long as the price of the synthetic fuel was competitive with conventional fuel.
At the same time, there were those in Congress who were concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of synthetic fuels from coal, but rather than completely stop the program, they passed Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which restricts the federal government’s procurement of alternative fuels that exceed the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional petroleum based fuels. While not ideal from the Air Force perspective, it was a proper and constructive use of Congressional prerogatives; it was congruent with the Air Force commitment to be good stewards of the environment, and simultaneously allowed the Air Force to move forward with our testing and certification.
Rather than Representative Buck’s draconian approach to prohibit funds to implement Department of Defense Directive 4715.21 and not allow planners to identify and assess the effects of climate change on the DoD mission, it is wholly appropriate for Congress to require that all efforts with regard to climate change be market-based and that the prices paid for biofuels and other alternative energy sources be competitive with the least cost alternative.
DoD’s ability to successfully counter terrorism, defeat a near-peer adversary, or respond to a natural disaster depends on its ability to collect, analyze and assess data regarding all contingencies, including changes in the climate. To limit that ability puts the lives or our sons and daughters who wear the cloth of our nation at risk.
Per last month’s post on the USNI Blog, the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, challenged veterans to “stay connected with those they served with” as an answer to help stop “young Marines from killing themselves.”
Strengthening personal moral bonds between veterans is part of the answer. So is strengthening moral bonds between U.S. Presidents, members of Congress and those they order to war. From 1798 to 2016, Congress made 11 declarations of war and 11 statutory authorizations for the use of military force. Congress did not authorize the Korean War. President Truman committed American troops to war in Korea citing U.N. authorizations and resolutions.
National moral bonds in the U.S. were strongest during World War II. The president requested and the Congress declared war against Japan and Germany. Three of President Franklin Roosevelt’s sons served with distinction in combat during World War II. James Roosevelt earned a Silver Star and promotion to brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps. Elliot Roosevelt enlisted in the Army Air Corps, flying 300 aerial combat missions as a pilot and commander and retiring as a brigadier general. John Roosevelt earned a Bronze Star as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. Americans committed themselves to the personal and national sacrifices necessary for unconditional military victories over Japan and Germany. Their sacrifices included a draft, rationing, and military industrialization instead of commercial industrialization. From 1941 to 1945 more than 16 million Americans, about 12% of the U.S. population, served in the military and over 405,000 military members were killed.
From 1950 to 2016, the moral bonds between Presidents, members of Congress, most Americans and those ordered to fight their wars have become increasingly tenuous and sporadic. Presidential and Congressional strategies to avoid domestic political risks by incrementally side-stepping their constitutional duties repeatedly failed to produce military victories. Neither have they increased national security nor global security.
The most recent statutory authorizations in 2001 and 2002 started two ill defined and open-ended wars lasting more than three times as long as the declared wars with Japan and Germany.
Instead of spreading the cause of democracy these wars are destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa while forcing Europe to absorb tens of thousands of refugees. The sons and daughters of Presidents at war no longer wear the cloth of the nation and lead their fellow Americans to victory in combat against the nation’s declared enemies. The percentage of veterans in Congress continues to decline:
- 18.7% in the 114th Congress (2015-2016)
- 64% in the 97th Congress (1981-1982)
- 73% in the 92nd Congress (1971-1972)
Presently, less than 1% of the U.S. population serve in the military. Most Americans connect with their military with a “thank you for your service” and heart-felt applause for military members and patriotic ceremonies at major sporting events.
The political and media attention presently given to our wounded and post war veterans is necessary but not sufficient. Strong and enduring national moral bonds are created and sustained before, during and after our wars. They require Presidents and members of Congress to lead a majority of Americans in fulfilling the moral obligations necessary to win wars. The difficulties in fulfilling these obligations necessarily constrain wars. They require that all Americans return to sharing wartime risks and sacrifices, not just the 1% in uniform.
Next — Changing the Veteran Narrative: Moral Injury
Surveying the rugged coast of Finland, rocky beaches guarded by an army of small islands and towns once scarred by wars, I am reminded of the resilience and tenacity of the people who call this place home. These attributes were on dramatic display on the shores of Hanko, Finland today as Marines from five nations conducted their first of three amphibious landings. NATO’s inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the BALTOPS 2016 exercise as “Partnership for Peace” nations underscores the fact that their regional security interests in the Baltic are in sync with the 28 members of the Alliance.
Just two days ago on 4 June the exercise participants assembled as an entire group for the first time in Tallinn, Estonia, for the Pre-Sail Conference. On 5 June we set sail from Estonia. On 6 June we hit the beach running. . . Literally! The rapid assembly and deployment of forces in the first few days of BALTOPS 2016 is a powerful testament to the strength and agility of the Alliance. Even more striking is the longevity of the exercise. BALTOPS began in the 1970s as a U.S. exercise with U.S. assets affirming the right to sail in international waters. In the mid-1990s the focus shifted toward building trust with Partnership for Peace nations with the understanding that working together to enhance regional security is beneficial for every nation with interests in the Baltic Sea. In 2015 the exercise took an important step when, for the first time, it was planned and executed by a NATO headquarters and commanded by a NATO commander.
BALTOPS 2016 continues this trajectory today, emphasizing cooperation with full-Alliance members and aspiring partners. Of the nearly 550 marines landed on the Hanko beaches today, more than half were Finns and Swedes. And let me tell you, from their fierce looks I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of them.
Finland and Sweden are already closely integrated within the Swedish-Finish Naval Task Group (SFNTG); however, they do not have large amphibious assault ships. NATO provided the amphibious ship capability with USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) and HNLMS Johan de Witt; Finland and Sweden provided over 300 Marines. For this day of BALTOPS 2016 (a day which happens to be Sweden’s National Day), it was as if NATO was participating in a Swedish-Finnish joint exercises rather than the other way around. To enhance the quality of training there was a great deal of cross-decking. When one Lance Corporal from Wyoming was asked what he thought of the Finnish assault craft that took his Band of Brothers to the beach, he answered, “Awesome,” and continued to describe the assault craft as “the fastest boat I’ve ever been on.” Others—Germans, Italians, Swedes, and Finns echoed this review of the opportunity to train together. On a personal level that’s what it’s all about—learning from one another and building lasting relationships.
Talking to the international contingent of young Marines after they charged ashore reminded me of photos of another amphibious assault seventy-two years ago on June 6, 1944, during Operation Overlord (D-Day). Today, our exercise was conducted in peacetime. The participants are well-trained. Many are veterans of BALTOPS 2015. In 1944, the Normandy landing was the beginning of the end of the last great powers war. Many of the soldiers storming Omaha, Juno, and Sword Beaches had never seen combat. Thousands died on both sides. We are training today so that scenes like those on the Normandy beachhead will never be repeated.
There is talk in the news about heightened tension between the West and Russia. I have written about it myself. Russian media has claimed that NATO’s posture is provocative, although we are a defensive alliance, and BALTOPS represents a series of naval maneuvers designed to hone the skills of the allies and partners to deter (or to prevent war). It is important to remember that Russian and Western interests are not mutually exclusive. We are both fighting terrorism in the Middle East. We have worked and trained together in the past and that sort of cooperation is possible in the future, but Russia is not participating in BALTOPS this year. Security, economic prosperity, and freedom of navigation in the Baltic are in the interest of all nations whose commercial ships plow these waters. That’s why NATO is here . . .
The ongoing discussion of the meaning of “distributed Lethality” and methods of achieving it at sea is a welcome return to a more forward leaning posture. By its nature, it assumes a more aggressive navy – as all successful navies have been. There is another side to this posture, something that is always there but becomes more apparent with a stronger light thrown on the subject. As the cliche goes, the enemy gets a vote. The enemy gets to shoot back.
There are certain timeless fundamentals of the naval service that historically applied to the US Navy in its operations; offensive punch, forward through the fight, and an acceptance that we will lose ships and Sailors, yet complete our mission in spite of it.
Besides the small isolated incident or skirmish, the realities of war at sea have not been known in the present generations’ living memory – only on the edge of rapidly evaporating national memory is it there. As such, do we really have an understanding of what it means to put your ships, your capital ships, in harm’s way? That is what “forward deployed” means. That is what “From the Sea” implies. That is what “presence” requires. Have we become too comfortable, complacent, and entitled in our maritime dominance to think that Neptune’s Copybook Headings no longer apply?
In all the wargames we go through, in our discussions about the next conflict at sea with a peer or near-peer challenger – have we fully hoisted onboard what this means?
What does it mean to lose a capital ship? First, we must define a capital ship. In WWII, the capital ship was the battleship and the large-deck aircraft carrier. The German battleship BISMARCK, the British battlecruiser HMS HOOD, the American heavy cruiser USS HOUSTON (CA 30), and the aircraft carrier USS FRANKLIN (CV 13) all met that war’s rough definition of a capital ship. Three of the above were lost in combat, and the 4th, the FRANKLIN, just survived sinking from same.
War at sea is brutal, often fast, and the destruction of men and material shockingly extensive. It does not matter if it was 31 BC, 1942 AD or 2020 AD, this will be the same. As it was, as it is, as it will be.
What is a capital ship today? For the sake of argument, let me pick two that most of you would agree is if not a capital ship, then at least a High Value Unit. First, the USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76) and the USS BATAAN (LHD 5). For planning purposes, let’s assume that the REAGAN’s ship company and attached airwing composes 5,680 souls. The BATAAN, fully loaded with Marines, 3,002.
Let’s look at the average loss rates from our selection of WWII capital ships. Not the worst, just the average. What would that mean today? What loss of life in one day? A loss that cannot stop operations or shock anyone – indeed must be planned for as we know it will happen at one point?
Well, here is the graph that tells the butcher’s bill.
One could argue that the most difficult part of the loss of a CVN or LHD with a full wartime complement on par with other capital ships lost at sea would not be the operational or tactical implications, but the political implications. Do we have the PAO, INFO OPS, and even PSYOPS pre-planned responses well rehearsed and, yes, focus grouped to deal with such an immediate loss? If not, we are at national strategic risk poking our nose anywhere.
Look at the LHD numbers; 2,183 dead in one day. That is just a little more than all the losses of the USA and UK in Iraq during the three years bounded by 2006, 2007, & 2008 – combined.
The loss of a carrier? That would be roughly the same as all the USA and UK losses in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, & 2009 – combined.
In almost any scenario such a loss would take place, there would be no time to pause, consider, or debate. You have to fight on – indeed, you need to assume such losses and plan around it.
Are we prepared for this as a Navy? Has the Navy properly prepared our political bosses? Are they prepared to respond to the citizens’ reaction?
We should all hope so, as history tells us that is not a matter of if, but when.
“The Battle of Anzio shows both the agony of command decisions and the heroism of men who carry them out.”
—Gen. William H. Simpson (U.S. Army, Ret.)
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. These words, spoken by the philosopher George Santayana, have enduring truth. Though daily operations claim much attention in a dynamic Europe-Africa theater, it is important to revisit the battles of the past, to contemplate the critical decisions made by military commanders, and reflect on the will of those who fought these battles. With Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2016, the premier Baltic maritime exercise that will feature amphibious landings in Finland, Sweden, and Poland, just around the corner, the staff ride was especially fitting as we applied the lessons learned from Anzio to our final exercise PLANORD.
There is no substitute for walking the beachhead like those who came before us. More than 50 members of my U.S. 6th Fleet staff and I conducted a Staff Ride in early May of Anzio and the battle fought there during World War II, code-named Operation Shingle. We visited X-ray beach and the Sicily-Rome Cemetery, incorporating stories of bravery along the way.
Anzio native Alfredo Rinaldi is a living history of the standoff at the beachhead in Anzio and was the cornerstone of this staff ride. The only way to understand these battles is to step in the shoes of those that have gone before—and hear directly about what they experienced. And Alfredo gave us that essence in a truly touching way.
In 1944, Alfredo was an adventurous soul, a 16-year-old with an insatiable desire to live all that life had to offer. To him, in the thralls of a German occupation, war was a playground, an open door for new experiences. Alfredo Rinaldi and the many residents of the Italian seaside town of Anzio were relocated to Rome when it became obvious that the shorelines were going to become battlegrounds. Alfredo became sort of a transient in Rome, a teenage wanderlust hoping to see action and aimlessly roaming the cobbled streets of Rome in search of it. He was lucky to avoid the ranks of the German Army, apparently because he was young and scrawny; his brother had been drafted into the Wehrmacht, but he deserted and was hiding somewhere in Italy. And then the news came in that the Americans [and British too] had landed at Anzio.
With the Allied Italy campaign at a standstill, Allied Forces struggling to gain ground up the Boot, an amphibious operation—Operation Shingle—was hatched to land behind enemy lines. On Jan. 22, 1944, at an H-hour of 0200, a combination of U.S. Army, British Army, and British Special Forces came across a 15-mile stretch of beach between Anzio and Nettuno.
As the reports flooded the hopeful Roman populace, vibrant with excitement that liberation was at their doorstep, Alfredo chose to start marching toward Anzio, a 20-kilometer journey roiled with barbed wire, snipers and German booby traps. He left in the early morning and arrived late that night, somehow steering clear of German munition dropped from above and well-laid land mines. Alfredo’s first contact with Allied Forces was with an African American U.S. army soldier who said, “What in the world are you doing here kid?,” and ultimately gave Alfredo a ride to Anzio in his jeep. Alfredo told us that until this point in his life, he did not realize that America included “people of color” and that this man had changed his life forever . . . Along the way, Alfredo saw his family’s abandoned house, unscathed despite the wreckage from the German air bombing campaign, elevating his mystical belief in America and its forces even more.
Alfredo ended up introducing himself to a group of soldiers, an infantry company, and instantly befriended them. Without any formal paperwork or agreement, he was essentially enlisted. The soldiers told him it was unsafe to for him to go back to Rome, and he preferred to stay anyway. And so he became their translator and their ‘mascot,’ a cheerful soul in a grim and beaten war.
Alfredo retells his story of those days on the beach in great detail. He remembers crouching in what where manmade fox holes as shells from “Anzio Annie,” the German 218-ton railway gun, pounded the beach. He describes hearing the whistling sound of the big rounds as they screeched by his makeshift bunker.
Alfredo was most likely the only Italian patriot embedded in an American unit, but he was not the only one from a fractured Europe to join the ranks for the Allies. Gunnar Erik Mettala was a Finnish-born U.S. Army combat engineer with the 345th Engineer General Service Regiment and the grandfather of my Deputy N6 Cmdr. Erik Pittman. Gunnar left Finland for the United States just before Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded Finland in what was then known as the Winter War in 1939. He would join the U.S. army shortly after immigrating, enlisting in 1941, around the age of 23.
Gunnar landed on Anzio the second day of Operation Shingle landing with the 36th Combat Engineers and alongside the 45th Infantry Division. From the landing until the German counter attack on Feb.11, Gunnar’s Treadway Company was engaged in repairs near the port. He would later pass on to his son, who passed on to Erik: “Every day the German Luftwaffe would strafe and bomb the port; every day we’d rebuild and resurface the docks and the roads leading to the docks. Such was the tit-for-tat, hold-your-ground fighting that was the essence of a long period of entrenchment at Anzio.”
Gunnar was wounded after taking machine gun fire to his thighs, as he and others of his company were pushed to the front lines to defend the Allies extended perimeter from German counter attack. He recovered and would serve out the rest of the war in Allied Forces Headquarters in Naples as a staff judge advocate—ironically in the same place his grandson would serve 70 years later…
Despite the attrition faced by Treadway Company and a handful of other companies on the front lines during the initial German counter attack, four months passed with neither side giving or getting an inch. An Allied breakthrough occurred on May 23, 1944, in an operation known as Operation Diadem. While a combination of forces from Britain, Canada, Poland, and the U.S. broke through the Gustav Line, the United States’ VI Corps, controlled by 5th Army, took advantage of a reeling German force to race somewhat unfettered to Rome.
Meanwhile, our man Alfredo traveled with his unit, returning to his exiled home of Rome to raucous cheers from fellow Italians. Alfredo lived a storybook life from there, transitioning from military service to become a driver/caretaker at the American cemetery in Nettuno, constructed to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Italian campaign. From there, he drove buses for ten years, then opened up a photography business with his son, and ended up returning to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery as an official photographer, where he met then President George H.W. Bush during the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day commemoration.
Alfredo, now 88 and retired, continues to come every Memorial Day to the commemoration at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno. And this is where I first met him and became enchanted with his story, just as those Army men were enchanted with him in 1944. Alfredo still has that spark in his eye and spring in his step.
Walking through the cemetery—either on Memorial Day or just a beautiful spring day in southern Italy as was the case for our staff ride—one is reminded of the sacrifices made on behalf of freedom. The cemetery sits in the zone of advance of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Shingle. The perfectly cut lawn now dotted with headstones sits beneath a mountaintop – the same perched position that allowed the Germans to hold so tightly to position with their counter attacks.
There are nearly 7,861 Americans memorialized in the Nettuno cemetery, a majority from the landings on Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio.
During our time at the cemetery, my deputy Executive Assistant, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Tony Bates had the privilege of reading the citation of Sgt. Sylvester Antolak, who heroically stormed a German machine gun nest on day two of the Anzio invasion, racing into enemy fire despite warning from his own troops. His heroics allowed the Allies to secure a perimeter and save countless others.
Tony is sixty years removed from these men but is a living hero in his own right. He was an advisor team leader for the Afghan National Army serving in Sangin district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011 working to equip Afghan forces to defend their homeland from the Taliban. Much of the work was patrolling and clearing neighborhoods of the Taliban, while working to build trust from communal leaders. From their Forward Operating Base in Sangin, they would often experience Taliban machine gun fire but withstood multiple ambushes through determination and combat skill. Improvised explosive devices were a common tactic used by the Taliban in this time as Marines and Afghan troops would set off IEDs while conducting routine patrols or even in the vicinity of where kids were playing, as it was common for children to lay parts and pieces of the IEDs. Tony’s unit discovered the maker of these IEDs in a remote village in Sangin and sought to apprehend him. During that mission, Tony stepped on an IED, which resulted in serious injury and his left leg being amputated below the knee. Tony was awarded the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor device for combat action and Purple Heart for his resolve in leading those Afghan forces, and he continues to serve with the utmost pride and honor.
We started the staff ride at X-ray beach and finished at with lunch at a restaurant that sits beside the beach, a picturesque spot where the waves ever-so-calmly splash over the rocks and sand. Standing there, looking out on the beach of Anzio with Alfredo brings so many thoughts to mind. You imagine each Soldier coming across the beach, uncertain if they’d immediately take enemy fire or if death lay over the horizon.
For my friend Alfredo, he considers himself—and rightly so—a U.S. Army World War II veteran. His patriotism is remarkable for someone that doesn’t claim any official nationality to America. As we part ways, he extends a sentimental, “God bless America.” We in America have come to make this saying cliché but I can tell that Alfredo truly means it, a reflection of the appreciation that he and thousands of other Italians expressed as they were liberated from Fascist and Nazi hands.
The courage of those that took up the call for freedom on the beach of Anzio, and so many other beaches across Europe and the Pacific, should never be forgotten. So many, like Sgt. Antolak paid the ultimate sacrifice, and for this, we must continue to pay homage to their legacy of heroism. As we always do, this Memorial Day, we remember . . .