John being a WWII and Cold War fanboy with obsolete knowledge (BW205)

John usually only understands fanboy culture as an observer, but on his USO tour to Africa in January of 2015 he had to reflect on the fact that he was a Cold War fanboy. When he was a child throughout the 1970s, all his peers were collecting Batman comics and were trying to understand what Silver Surfer was. There was Star Wars, baseball cards, people talking about Steve Largent and football statistics, but John didn’t participate in any of that. Instead he could tell you every airplane in the sky, every kind of military base around the world, every troop movement, and all the geopolitics and history of World War II and the Cold War. His relationship to that stuff was the exact same as other kids had to comic books and sports. John knew everything and had this exhaustive, completist sense of the world order.

John's problem was that he didn’t have any friends who shared his excitement and talking about the capabilities of the MiG-25 Foxbat did not make him popular in High School. He learned to put it away in his secret place along with his knowledge about the State Department. John could tell you every single person in the Reagan administration down to the Deputy Under Secretary of State. He knew the whole order of it and he knew what all the people did. Somewhere in his early adulthood John stopped adding new information to this catalog. A lot of the other kids who were into sports continued to be into sports as an adult, because they had a bunch of friends to talk about sports statistics. Patton Oswalt went to the movie theater in 1992, watching 7 movies in a row and he continues his childhood obsession of popular culture and is adding new material to it all the time. Now he is a 48-year old guy who can tell you the Second Assistant Camera person on Look Who's Talking Too and we celebrate him for his exhaustive knowledge. When John was 22, he was living in Grunge Rock Seattle town and there was no place to talk about Caspar Weinberger with anybody. Nobody cared! Not even eye-rolling, but dead-eyed shark face, which led John to stop exhaustively adding new material.

As John was staying at those bases in Africa, he was out with Lieutenant Colonels every night. One time at the chief’s mess they were talking to the Navy Master Chief and it was revealed that John had a tremendous knowledge of the US military and its equipment, theories and strategy, except his knowledge had become obsolete circa 1993. John had thought that the military was a bastion of tradition that doesn’t ever change and it should have stayed essentially the same. He asked some guys if this was the M60, but the 19 year old kids who had graduated from High School in 2013 looked up at him like he was saying nonsense words. Then the 38 years old Master Sergeant was leaning over to tell him that the M60 was phased out in 1993 and what John was pointing at was the M42, the replacement of the M60 (the M60 is still in service and there is no M42). They walked down the flight line and John found it to be an interesting use of the A10 platform, but they told him that they are trying to phase out the A10. Every step of the way, some Chief Master Sergeant was patiently explaining to John that the stuff he was confidently espousing was 20-25 years in their past.

John had been somewhat conscious but also somewhat unconscious of aging at the same time and he was not aware that he had effectively aged out of being able to join the military. Instead he was quickly approaching the age where he would be forcibly retired from the military. The only people who got his military jokes and who were steeped in his knowledge were Lieutenant Colonels or higher or Master Sergeants or higher, guys in their 40s who had already reached 20 years in the service and who had started shopping for a ranch somewhere because their date of retirement was eminent. John still sees himself as a man down on the ground and as one of the troops. For the first time in his adult life, John was completely immersed in military culture and he was astonished how it dispelled some long-held beliefs and how it gave him a new picture of how the military actually operates. It has changed a lot since the 1990s. John had friends in High School who later joined the military and who are now at the close of their long careers, being replaced by a touchy-feelier mentality.

When John entered High School he was at the dawn of his budding political consciousness, which was on a separate track from his Strategic Air Command. He used to make lists in notebooks of all the Distant Early Warning radar sites. He had books and books and books! When a plane would fly by as a tiny dot in the sky, John would know from its silhouette exactly what kind of plane it was. He also used to read Jane’s Military Hardware Guides. Somewhere in the middle of High School he started to become a leftist radical and he recognized that there was an incongruity between being a radical and being a military fetishist. Thinking he could be a revolutionary was idiotic, because there was no place for a revolutionary in American political life. John does not believe that the tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots, but he believes it is watered by democratic voting. When he was at military age he did not join the forces. It would have instilled a kind of character in him that he still feels is lacking. Instead he decided that he was going to go the other way, grow his hair out, smoke pot, drive around the country and be a Hippie moocher pain in the ass.

Military staff deployment and being independent of individuals (BW205)

When being in the military you have your home base, which can be Camp Pendleton in California or it can be Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Sometimes your home base is an overseas posting like in Okinawa, which is pretty fun for people. Your home base is where you live and where your family can come live with you. A deployment is when you leave your home base and spend 6 months at some outpost. You don’t get to chose when the Air Force or the Navy decides that they need somebody someplace. The military does not value specific talents, specific memories or specific experiences of any one person very much. After somebody went to a military base for 6 months, they have met all the tribal leaders, they learned the names of everybody at the embassy and they figured out how to keep oil and gas flowing to their tanks. They will have built a tremendously valuable knowledge, but the military actively works against that mentality.

Every person of a certain rank and with a certain specialty in the Armed Forces is equally capable of doing that job. When that person’s 6 month deployment is up, they have 2 days to explain everything they know to their replacement and then it is that person’s job to pick up from there and to commence doing that job uninterrupted. It is one thing learning to make a pot of corn, but it is another thing interacting with locals and developing a strategic concept of what you are doing and why you are there. Amazingly, rotation is preeminent and each job can be filled by the next candidate. This keeps anybody from being Colonel Kurtz who amasses so much power that they are indispensable. What is important is the Army or the Air Foce, not Colonel So-and-so from the Air Force. It is the institution that is predominant! There is also the underlying notion that all of these people are relatively dispensable because they could die out there. Big companies are kind of like that, too: When you get your first job at a company you get the feeling that they are not going to replace you, but when something happens or you tell them you will quit if you don’t get a raise, they will tell you to quit and you realize that the company will function fine without you.

It is hard to tell how the local people in the town or village feel if the person they have been building this relationship with gives a two weeks notice and introduces a new guy every 6 months. This replaceable assembly line mentality in the military and in the corporate world is just one possible way of doing business. We have determined it to be the efficient way or the most mechanical idea of what individual humans have to offer. Individuality has been ground out of the Armed Forces for a variety of reasons, but it is not as clear why corporations are emulating that. People are not interchangeable and people who have amazing skills or even different skills aren’t just like ”Oh, sorry!" *klick* We keep people in the mindset that they are replaceable all the way up the chain and people who are successful at navigating that culture keep getting promoted. We keep instilling the idea in people that although they have developed some skills, we are now putting them in another thing where their skills only tangentially apply. You are going to do this new job and when you are done with that, we are going to put you over here and we make no effort to conceptually connect any of those people, jobs or sites.

Military leadership and civil oversight (BW205)

As soon as a person in the military reaches the level of Colonel or a person in a corporate scenario reaches the level of manager, we expect them all of a sudden to be strategic thinkers. From the time they joined the workforce we have told them over and over that they don’t need to know the big plan, we have erased the knowledge they had acquired over and over, and we told them that they will succeed in this business by keeping their eyes on what is in front of them. The only people we promote to the high ranks are the people who have demonstrated that they can do just that. Then we turn to them, asking: "We have invaded Iraq, now how do we build a coalition with five different factions that traditionally hated each other and how do we pacify this nation and build a democratic state?" and the General replies: "Well, I think the first thing we should do is machine-gun a bunch of people" The military is tremendously good at implementing action strategies, but when people make it through to management positions, we mistakenly accrue wisdom to them that they don’t have. That realization was a real eye-opener for John.

A lot of people on the US military bases in Africa told John that they did not know what they were doing there. Not just soldiers, but also officers were saying ”Our mission here is to do this thing” and when John asked how this fits into the regional picture, they say that they collect information and send it up the chain. They don’t interpret the information they collect and they don’t really know what they are doing, which is important, because that is how the military works. The people interpreting that information might be based in Brussels. The guys at the base are a piece of the puzzle and looking at the whole thing as a puzzle makes it more understandable. They are running the bulldozers and they are the only people who really know how the air smells like in a place and who meet and see the locals. They are doing a lot of other work that we are not accounting for, like PR work and police work. They are building the water purifier for the people in the village and they are doing all this soft science, but we are not factoring that into how we train them. We are denying that they do all this extra work by telling them that it is not part of the mission, and by not asking them what they think of the local culture. People at a big wooden table in Brussels are telling them what to do and that is the extend of their usefulness.

How do you develop a nuanced strategy and what is our civilian responsibility versus the military? Leftists are often just contemptuous of the military. The civilians are the ones who need to have the ideas because military culture is fundamentally against coming up with any new ideas. The idea that the civilians don’t have anything to tell the military is absolutely backwards! The civilians have to be the brains of the military, but many of us abdicate that responsibility, John himself included. The guy with his 4 stars has to know more about Afghanistan than I do, doesn't he? The fact is that the guy with 4 stars has only been in Afghanistan for a week and a half and he doesn’t know anything about it except the military perspective, which is: "Let’s dig some holes and shoot some guns!"

The military is ultimately an engineering firm and everything they do has some component of mechanical engineering. There is no comparative literature department in the military. People succeed in the same way as they would in an engineering firm: "Can you get the job done?" - "Yes!" The client of an engineering firm is typically an architect or somebody who wants something built. They want it to be beautiful, the engineers gives them 5 reasons why it can’t be beautiful, and they hammer out a way to build a bridge that is beautiful and can stand up in a windstorm. The military are the engineers in that story and the people who come in with the idea are the State Department, the media, the civilian population as a whole, the president and all the people who come from the other side. We all understand that those guys want to send out nightly patrols to kick down doors and round up every military age person, because they feel like that is the way to secure a town, but we have written a lot of books during the last 400 years that came to the conclusion that this mode of operation makes people mad and makes people not like you.

We can’t defer to you, Army, because obviously that is what you want to do. It is not an indictment of you, because we have asked you to learn how to do that. Instead we need to recognize the role of the Army in a civil society: The Army needs to be the implementer of one side of the project. Unfortunately we are not thinking seriously enough about the other side: The world of discussion. We are trying to undo the damage of 150 years of colonialism in a lot of those places but we are not thinking enough about it. It seems impossible, but it always does! When we look back later, it will all seem inevitable. The colonial borders in Africa and the Middle East were idiotic, but at the time they seemed like they were solving some real problems. Now we are suffering the fallout from these ludicrous empire-building projects: Iraq was drawn up by a British guy 100 years ago who drew some of these borders just because he had a ruler. It created an unstable and untenable situation the day that map came out and here we are, still trying to prop up those borders that make no sense. Why? Who is doing the deep thinking on that? It shouldn’t be the Generals, for the love of God! It barely should be people in the State Department. Honestly, it should be the bloggers!

Random notes on war

At one point in the past John was discovering that it is possible to buy into original watercolor paintings by Adolf Hitler that were available at a reasonable price. Although they would have been a conversation piece, the whole thing quickly went weird as soon as he was thinking more about the practical aspects, like hanging them in his house. There needs to be some other weird collection in order for such a painting to work. (RL???)

In RW62 there was a short discussion about the difference in recent wars. Dan said he does not want to watch war movies, because they are too emotionally investing, especially those about WWII. The reason there are not many WWI movies is because it was more or less a draw. The only thing interesting were the treaties signed afterwards, but that is only interesting to a small group of people. (RW62)

In Vietnam-movies there are a lot of cliches and you don't get to know the Vietnamese people on a personal level. In a WWII movie, it was the last time where the US fielded an army that was a cross-section of the country. It feels that it was happening to your neighbors. It was a segregated army, the conflicts inside the army were not racial, other than in the Vietnam war. (RW62)

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License