Navy SEAL Larry B. and Telling the Truth in the Gym

Intro

Larry B. is one of the finest NCOs I have ever known. Besides being an awesome SEAL Operator he is a good man and a great friend. Let me tell you about him.

I did several tours in Afghanistan as both a contractor and solider. For the most part I kept the insurgency in Afghanistan at bay with demonstrations of my Staff skills.

Not unlike a Jedi wielding his Lightsaber in defiance of the evil of the “Dark Side” of the Force.

I used my expertise of different Office Suites such as PowerPoint, Word and Excel hoping my tireless efforts would have a significant and direct impact on the insurgency, bringing it closer to its final defeat.

I was a Staff Officer extraordinaire! As in most of my army career, I was a paper pushing, coffee drinking office guy.

Hoping against all hope my actions had contributed in some small way to the future of Afghanistan and my own country.  Every morning I would ask my commander a single question which helped to bring the war in perspective for all the hardened Special Operations Warriors I worked with.

After handing him his cup of coffee I asked him, “Sugar or cream, sir?”

The command I belonged was called the “Special Operations Advisory Group” and we were charged with the training of the Afghan Commandos and Afghan National Army (ANA) and Special Forces (SF).

It seemed more like the movie “Office Space” with uniforms than the “Green Berets: with John Wayne. The work we did there was important. Lots of time was spent arguing what Theme Fonts to use in PowerPoint and the endless and never ending typing of awards, memorandums and arguing who failed to make coffee in the morning.

It was an environment that would be immediately recognizable to any fan of Dilbert or a scarred veteran of working in a sea of cubicles.

The only difference is the reason so many men of America’s Premier Fighting Units were gathered in one place is to help the ANA establish the first Special Operations Headquarters; it was a calling we all take very seriously. It was a mission I was glad to apply my Black Belts in Excel and PowerPoint to.

Larry B.

The core leader of the Staff Section I worked in was Larry B. He was a 23 year veteran of the Navy SEALs.

Larry was the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commander. He always reminded me of Viggio Mortenson, who played Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings.” Intense, lean and direct you always knew what he was thinking.

Part of Larry’s duty as the “Senior Chief” was his voluntary continuation of a formerly mandatory program of “killer PT” every morning, six days a week.

Pushing 45 is looked at least ten years younger and was fighting it every inch of the way. Part of his program was running (his favorite pastime), part of it was weightlifting and Crossfit- an intense program designed around circuits using a variety of exercises like pull-ups, dips, ab routines. My name for them was “torture sessions.”

A lot of people might look at him as some kind of aging, frustrated jock, always exercising to relive a past best forgotten but it was much more than that.

Standing a wiry 5’10 and bald as a bowling ball, he exuded confidence and authority. His main passion in life besides his family was training perspective frogmen to survive in combat.

As Larry says, “The only factor you can control on a mission is how well-prepared you are when the sh*t hits the fan.”

The Mantra of Larry

When working out with Larry, he always had a mantra, “Fitness can be the difference life and death. You never want to come up short in a gunfight due to a lack of conditioning.”

His basis was when you talk about training one of the most important aspects of training should be functional training. Training that is transferable directly to the actual task.

If I go forward and pull a buddy to safety has nothing to do with sitting in a seat doing quad extensions.

The mind is primary. One of the outcomes of training the mind is the development of values. Values that apply to your everyday life.

You show up every single day, you do what you said you would do. What practice on a daily basis becomes a habit. If your habit is to do less than that is what you will do in the field when things get tough.

The best habit is to do more than you say you will do. Under-promise and over-deliver becomes your mantra. You begin to respect yourself. You prove to others you are worthy of their respect.

Larry’s favorite workout was something he called “Tag Team.” He would devise a task while the other teammate did a punishing exercise routine. Something like thrusting a heavy weight overhead over and over while the first guy ran a lap around a track.

The faster, the other teammate did the task the less the other guy suffered.

He knew you will always work harder in the service of someone else. It causes the runner to dig deeper and to run faster for his buddy.

Larry’s gospel was to, “.. Always tell the truth in the gym.” If you say you are eating right the results are noticeable. If you say you are training hard the results are obvious.

That honor and honesty in the gym become part of your daily life and automatic when the time comes to help others. Larry would assign us homework outside of the gym.

He wanted to see if we had the integrity and character to do what we promise we would do. There was a larger intent.

Larry had a belief due to his SEAL Training. If you confronted your doubts in the gym and overcame your fears you would respond in an automatic way when confronted with a challenge in the real world.

Larry at Work

Watching a video Larry had on his team doing training is like watching an Award Winning Painter work on a masterpiece.

The video starts with Larry and his Team of SEALs being lashed by icy winds in the back of a plane, they are getting ready to do a water insertion at 13,000 feet.

All the men in the video are hazed in a red light like at a traffic stop to conserve their night vision. As the cameras pass their faces, they all mug it up for the camera, smiling and giving thumbs up.

All you hear is the wind as the rear descends to allow the men to jump. As the red light turns green to indicate a “Go Status” one by one the men step out of the aircraft.

You see them try to properly align themselves as they disappear from the camera’s view. It is called “free fall” but is more like sky diving for the military.

The team surrenders itself to gravity and tries to remain perfectly still in the face of powerful, loudly whistling winds. As they leave, you see huge packs attached between their legs and flippers on their feet.

The packs are all they carry into combat loaded with various death dealing devices; additional ammo, mines, other weapons and food. The flippers are for the water that is four miles below them as they fall and eventually land into a cold, heaving ocean.

If the next two minutes do not go as planned the mission could be over before it has begun. The camera picture fades to black.

In the next shot we see the team swimming. The image is bathed in an eerie green haze as seen through a Night Optic Device.

Using an odd breaststroke called a “SEAL combat stroke”. Swimming in a modified formation with each man directly behind the other one the camera focuses in on Larry.

He narrates for his audience as we watch the video, “… this part was on the same mission. We spliced the two movies together.”

You can see the muscles in Larry’s back ripple like a wave from the base of his neck and shoulders, dragging his legs behind him and kicking with every third stroke of his left hand.

His body is in a skintight black wet suit designed to keep him warm despite the cold water. Larry says, “It briefs well, but that water is as cold as an overworked freezer.”

It seems his long, loose muscles of his arms and legs move in what seems in effortless rhythm, that propel him at speed through the water.

Larry is the lead in the formation and is setting the pace the rest of the men will follow. Watching him swim for several minutes it seems he ripples through the water like a dolphin.

His breathing is steady and he approaches the shore, he changes his stroke to freestyle, swimming powerfully to land. As soon as his feet touch the bottom we see him transition to a weapon at his side.

His head begins to scan back and forth looking for possible targets or signs that the clandestine insertion of the Team has been detected. Like a group of actors knowing their parts in a play each man on the team does the same thing.

Immediately the Team is in a combat formation and moves out. We watch the video fade out. Larry smiles and looks at all of us and says, “Pretty cool, huh?” It was very cool indeed.

Lessons Learned from a Fat, Staff Guy

In some ways many people forgot that the demonstration of the high degree of physical fitness required in the world of the soldiering. It is even more so in the competitive world of Special Operations.

The way a Master Carpenter or a renowned Surgeon studies and practices their profession the men who are in the Special Forces of America’s military are professionals of the highest caliber.

Many spend years learning and honing their craft. The recipe for most Special Operations Warriors is high.  You started with an already spectacular soldier who has a proven service record of several years in a good unit.

They go through a grueling selection process that is every bit as physical as it is psychological.  Once the candidate is “selected” they usually spend a year learning the “deadly arts” of shooting, first-aid, driving, and other skills in a training program that is designed for masochists.

At the end of you have a Barrel-Chested Freedom Fighter who is assigned to a team. Here he will continually be mentored and held to a higher standard than the regular military.

Any violation of these standards and the individual is excused from the organization.  This is the group of men I am served with in Afghanistan in 2010 to 2012.

All of them were proven combat veterans with multiple, violent tours.  As they called me “sir” and look at me for leadership, I was humbled in their presence.

Among the features of our daily routine, there was a series of daily athletic contests.  Even on the days when I don’t want to go I do my best.

No worthwhile operator was going to follow a leader who doesn’t demonstrate, or at least try to, the tremendous physical and psychological prowess, they live up to each day.

I always remember a saying from Alcoholics’ Anonymous, “You fake it to make it.”  I was a mere mortal but these guys are animals. In the end, I stayed for two years because besides believing in the war I was thankful on to serve alongside the rough men that made up the SOAG.

 

 

Book Review: “On War” by Carl von Clausewitz

Intro

As we begin to discuss history and the operational art of war we need to examine Clausewitz.

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general with more than 25 years of experience when he started writing “On War.” He was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), a series of wars that was sparked by the French Revolution of 1789.

Clausewitz
General Carl von Clausewitz

These wars revolutionized European armies. Over the 12 years new and complex ideas played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly owing to the application of modern mass conscription.

Napoleon was responsible for much of this innovation. He created a highly mobile army. He outfitted a well-armed artillery force. He gave artillery increased tactical importance.

Rather than relying on infantry to wear away the enemy’s defenses with men dying in linear columns, he massed his artillery as a spearhead to pound a break in the enemy’s line. Once that was achieved, he sent in infantry and cavalry to kill the survivors.

These tactics forever changed the way of war. Historians argue over Napoleon’s influence, but in more than 60 battles, he only lost seven, mostly at the end of his career. His enemies adopted his tactics. One of these was Clausewitz.

Influence

Clausewitz, was captured by the French at a young age. As an officer, he was given the opportunity to tour France. He was intrigued by the manner in which the leaders of the French Revolution, especially Napoleon, had changed the conduct of war.

Their ability to motivate the populace and to gain access to the full resources of the state. He realized this was unleashing war on a greater scale than had previously been seen in Europe.

His insights he gained from his political and military experiences. He was a professional soldier who spent a considerable part of his life fighting against Napoleon. All this combined with a solid grasp of European history, provided the basis for his book.

The Book

The book contains a wealth of historical examples used to illustrate its various concepts based directly on the man who had become a soldier at 12, and his baptism of fire at 13.

Israeli military historian Azar Gat writes, “the ‘general message’ of the book was that “the conduct of war could not be reduced to universal principles.”

Among many strands of thought, three stand out as essential to Clausewitz’s concept:

  • War must never be seen as having any purpose in itself, but should be seen as an instrument of “Politik” – a German word that conflates the meanings of the English words policy and politics: “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

 

  • The military objectives in war that support one’s political objectives fall into two broad types: “war to achieve limited aims” and war to “disarm” the enemy: “to render [him] politically helpless or militarily impotent.”

 

  • All else being equal, the course of war, will tend to favor the party with the stronger emotional and political motivations, but especially the defender (contrary to the common prejudice that soldiers generally endorse aggressive warfare).

on-war-carl-von-clausewitz-audio-cover-art

Role of Theory

Clausewitz thought of war as a complex phenomenon. The one thing theory does is to allow you to peel those concepts apart. He wrote, “Clarify concepts and idea that have become, as it were, confused and entangled.”

Clausewitz saw his book as a critical exercise about all aspects of war. His writing was a way for him to organize his thoughts on the wonder of how wars were fought and why. He wrote, “…illuminate all phases of war in a through critical inquiry.”

He wanted his book to be a tool to educate the mind of a future military commander. He knew that you didn’t want to enter into a war and to be starting with everything from the beginning to be new.

He wanted his book to be used a checklist to have everything lined up to understand the concept and nature of war before you embark on a campaign. His ideas were meant to be used as part of the education in the development of the mind of the commander.

He cautioned, “… theory is not something you take the battlefield.” He uses an analogy of taking your teacher with you once you leave the classroom. He says you don’t take theory with you once you are on the battlefield.

He lets his readers know that education of war is to prepare leaders and commanders for by studying the theory of war.

Key Ideas

Woven throughout his work he states is that war is an instrument of policy. In short, wars are fought for political ends.

He writes, “… war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” He saw war as an active force. He saw the use of military force to compel your adversary to do what you want him to do.

He believed that the whole purpose was about fighting. You train, arm and equip soldiers to put him in the right place and right place on the battlefield- he wrote this was the only reason that a standing army exists.

Battle is the decisive means in war. In eighteenth century warfare was a lot about maneuver. You move your army to a point of strategic advantage (the high ground).

You don’t maneuver for the sake of maneuver. You maneuver to get to a strategic position of advantage so you can defeat the enemy in battle.

He introduced the ideas of friction and fog in war, together bring both chance and uncertainty into play. You can’t account for friction. It just occurs. It’s everything from a fuel tank that leaks to weather conditions. All these have an interplay that causes the friction that leads to uncertainty, both good and bad.

Clausewitz points out that the good commander understands that and accounts for it. By lubricating friction by being flexible and resilient in the face of friction has the will to see through the fog of war to grab the dim in pursuit are the commanders that will win.

He points out the dominance of “psychological forces and effects.” War is not simply about lines on a map or large block charts. There is “a continuous interaction of opposites.” Your adversary is a living, thinking being just like you are. In short, the enemy always has a vote.

War as a Paradoxical Trinity

Some historians think that Clausewitz was writing about three factors that contribute to war: the people, the government and the army. He wrote about connections between the three. He wrote about, “primordial violence, hatred and enmity.” If left unchecked, will take you to absolute, senseless war.

He says war is connected to policy and reason. War is subordinate to policy. You have a triangle of reason, violence all carried out in a backdrop that is characterized by fog and friction. All three have to be kept in balance and in a subordinate relationship.

He wrote, “Our task, therefore, is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.”

Final Thoughts

Clausewitz writes to ask us a question, “How much is the military profession a thinking profession?” Clausewitz goal throughout his work is to get the military professional to think before they act.

He wants the reader to think about the phenomenon of war, to weave and think throughout before, during and after. His goal is to have the military professional reach a form of enlightenment as they go along. His book is his attempt to professionalize the profession of arms. It is a classic.

Clausewitz Theory of War

 

 

 

Book Review: “Why We Lost” by Daniel Bolger

Book Review

I just finished reading General Daniel Bolger’s book, “Why We Lost.” Bolger, a three star retired army general, who was a commander in Iraq and Afghanistan spends 500 plus pages trying to explain his view of the wars, he believes, America lost.

Daniel Bolger

Bolger was commissioned from the Citadel in 1978 as an Infantry Officer. He has held leadership positions in mechanized and air assault units in the US, Korea and Iraq. His background includes battalion command in the 101st Airborne Division, brigade command in the 2nd Infantry Division.

General Bolger
General Daniel Bolger

Bolger is a smart guy. He has a Master’s Degree and PhD in History from the University of Chicago. He was an Assistant Professor of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He is an author of seven books, mostly about the Army.

The territory of the history of wars and its effects on the army and national policy are nothing new for him. Where he really has the authority to speak about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been his service as a general.

From February 2005 to May 2005 he the deputy commander of Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, Multinational Security Transition Command- Iraq. From June 2005 to June 2006 he served as the commanding general. In English, he was responsible for training all the Iraqi Security Forces for the American exit out Iraq.

Bolger commanded the 1st Cavalry Division from 2008 to 2010 in both Fort Hood, TX and Iraq. In this role he was the commanding general of Multinational Division Baghdad.

From 2011 to 2013 he served as the commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan and Commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.

He was never the overall commander in either Afghanistan or Iraq. He was further down the food chain. He was in the room when key decisions were made, delayed, or avoided. He was a decision maker himself. He has both the experience and knowledge to write about these wars.

‘Dragons at War’

In1986, Bolger was a young company commander in the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Stewart. He wrote a landmark book called ‘Dragons at War.’

He gives an uncompromising and severe assessment of his time at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, CA. He gives a great example what it means to be a “professional soldier” in the post-Vietnam army. He took flak for his honesty.

The military mind is mistrustful of civilians, and hates ambiguity.

This book is no different.

‘Why We Lost’

Bolger starts the book with, “I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” He sees the loss of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq as failed exercise in leadership and responsibility. His judgment of what qualifies as lost- loss defined as failing to achieve stated objectives.

Bolger says there are several reasons that America has lost both wars. The post-Vietnam army was built, deliberately, for short, conventional, decisive conflicts against a uniformed enemy like in Operation Desert Storm.

The post 9/11 military embraced a doctrine of fighting insurgents and terrorists who knew the terrain, the people and culture better than the US ever would. The enemy was never clearly defined and given vague names like “terrorists, cowards, savages, and extremists.” The difficulty of identifying the enemy is a looming specter of Vietnam.

The real enemy, says Bolger, was anti-Western Islamists and the ramshackle, quasi-fascist Middle East states that enabled them. Sometimes we would partner with these same states (Pakistan) to further our objectives only to have to blow up in our faces.

This is a lesson that we would repeat again and again. This policy meets Einstein’s definition of Insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Bolger states that our opponents had no illusions who their targets were. The war sputtered on with no real defined objective. Each time he served in Iraq or Afghanistan the strategy of the war had changed.

In the years between 2002 and 2009, there was no centralized national military strategy for Afghanistan as America focused on Iraq. In Iraq the strategy shifted as the enemy action escalated.

Defining Military Strategy

 

A military strategy is defined as a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. An overarching strategy for any conflict unifies and directs all of its elements to work towards the execution of that strategy. All of these elements (national security goals, units and allies) work toward the accomplishment of the intended goal.

An example of this would be the Allied Forces working towards an unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany during World War II. Bolger states that year-to-year in Iraq and Afghanistan the strategy changed confusing both the American Forces and coalition countries.

Without a unifying strategy, military organizations, especially ones comprised of multinational forces like in Afghanistan and Iraq, operate in an unsynchronized fashion. The result is a whole lot of movement and action without accomplishing or achieving any of the intended goals.

Both wars had ever-changing directives from commanders that were based on professional and personal leadership styles. Bolger talks about the wars lacking a cohesive, nested strategy that forced everyone in the same battle space toward accomplishing the same set of goals.

Assessment of Strategy

Bolger writes where the strategy fell apart is when the US did not pull out of Afghanistan after the defeat of Al Qaeda in late 2001 and Iraq after ousting Saddam in April 2003. With the decision to stay locked policymakers and military leaders into a pattern of mission creep.

The American Army is at its absolute best in maneuver warfare. You see this in Desert Storm and the opening weeks of the Iraq War with the rapid capture of Baghdad.

You go into a theater of operation in an overwhelming manner and do a rapid decisive operation. This is what we did in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. Instead, we stayed around instead of handing it over to the locals.

As the years passed persistence substituted for mission success. Bolger writes that in the second and third world countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, the American model of Jeffersonian democracy does not work.

Solution

Bolger uses historical context for his argument. He suggests leaving behind a small presence of advisors with enough security for protection and do what we can to help. He states that this is a winning formula.

This worked for the US in Korea. We never dictated to the government of South Korea what they should do or be. We guaranteed support over the years. This worked for the British in Malaysia in the 1950’s.

The “advise and assist” role with airpower is what the US is doing today in Iraq and Syria. In the end the countries have to sort out their own governments.

Malaki in Iraq and Karzai in Afghanistan both lost their elections. Malaki lost his 2010 election in Iraq and maneuvered his way back to power with US assistance and Karzai stuffed the ballot box in 2009.

Both leaders were corrupt. It was like electing Tony Soprano to be the President of a country while he lines his pockets. The US failed to allow the democratic process to work in either country.

Assessment

As the US military reconfigures itself for future wars this book is a great basis for how America should fight future wars. Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were a bitter experience for the American military.

Bolger says we should have gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Once we started down the road to nation-building and counterinsurgency the military lost its momentum.

To take a large military that is designed for rapid, conventional wars of the Desert Storm and Panama variety and try to transition to unlimited, long irregular conflicts was a bridge too far. He states that on smaller scales we failed to do this in what he calls America’s “savage, small wars” of Somalia, Haiti in 1994 and Bosnia.

I see Bolger’s point, but the thing he misses the fact he was a commander in both wars and saw firsthand that most soldiers and Marines treated Iraqis and Afghans with dignity and fairness. He spends a lot of time bashing former Generals Petraeus, who he clearly loathes, and McChrystal.

He says the surge in Iraq was a “quick fix.” He uses the analogy of a patient with a fever and the surge was like aspirin- it brings the temperature down and gives temporary relief. It treats a symptom, but not the illness.

This is an oversimplification of a detailed problem.

In the end I applaud his honesty and his attempt to start a difficult conversation. But as a former general and a man of great intellect, his book falls short. I expected more out of him, especially after reading his earlier books.

Book Cover

Writing and Imitation

The Secret to Great Writing

Now that I have Hemingway out of my system and I have provided a foundation for us to start, let’s get into the real first lesson of great writing. The first real lesson in great writing is learning to imitate the “Great Masters of Writing.”

So many people bang their heads against their keyboards wondering, “Why can’t I write like the greats?” Well, the truth is you can. One of the great neglected lessons of the last 100 years that was used for 3,000 years before to train great writers with spectacular results.

No great athlete is born amazing. You can’t show up to a dance and expect to be Fred Astaire without hard work and dedication. To become a terrific writer takes something pre-existing, some structural savvy, and foundation in technique. All of this comes from learning from the greats.

Winston Churchill

One of my heroes we will talk about later is Winston Churchill. Born with a stutter, he worked tirelessly to overcome his disability. One of the things he learned to defeat the dragon of his stutter was rhetoric.

Rhetoric was used as a way to become good with words. By learning to speak properly, he learned to master the style. His speeches are known for being clear, artful and entertaining. Churchill would go on to become one of the great statesmen of the 20th Century.

He was a prolific author. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his numerous published works, especially his six-volume history of World War II.

What Rhetoric will teach us?

Using rhetoric can add vim and vigor to your writing style. More importantly, it teaches us that imitation can be used as a method of instruction. A method of writing instruction that has fallen off the map.

We need to start by reading the classics. Why? By reading the literary heavy weights we begin our classical training. I started out with Hemingway (he is my favorite for a number of reasons) to get a baseline but there are many others.

By reading contemporary literature such as Dostoevsky, Virginia Wolfe, and Fitzgerald we can still learn so much more. They have already walked the road we are trying to write, lol.

Too simple to be true

Think of all the great bands. The Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Nirvana all learned their trade by doing covers of other artist’s songs. This is how every great artist begins. Studying those that came before you lays a foundation for you to learn your chops as a writer.

Like a painter learning the elements of style necessary for composition, tint and tone with us studying past great Masters of Writing we learn the fundamentals of our craft. By mastering the essentials of prose rhythm, character portrayal and story development, we will write an amazing book about our time in Afghanistan.

Using this rhetorical device we will turn ourselves from prodders of plodding prose (this is a writing technique of repeating sounds to catch the reader’s eye) into Salingers, Hemingways and others. This same rhetorical device was used to produce Milton, Melville. Flaubert, Faulkner, Dickens and Shakespeare.

This technique will always us to learn and come to our full potential as a writer. My goal is not to turn all of us into English Professors. By using this ancient secret of examining the work of other writers we will be able to express ourselves with confidence, style and our own unique “voice.”

My hope is you will enjoy the journey with me. It has certainly been my pleasure to bring these emails to you.

War Story:

American writer Clancy Sigal in his book, “Hemingway Lives!” talks about typing and retyping Hemingway stories to get the flow and spirit of Papa. Does typing and retyping his stories help writers get into the flow of his style? Just ask Joan Didion, Salinger, Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Garcia Marquez, Ann Beatty, Charles Johnson, Terry Tempest Williams, Gordimer, Mailer, Elmore Leonard, Proulx, Russell Banks, Walter Mosley and I’m sure we could find more.

Sigal says in each of his books, stories and essays we can find a person to emulate, to abhor, to immortalize. And, in true contradictory fashion, I’m just sad that his fourth wife loved him so much that she allowed him to have and be himself to his own peril.

This is the power of imitating a master. Be well and Happy Saturday wherever you are.