02 January 2015

Goodbye Blogger

See how the blog that shattered readship records began. When you are done reading about JoNova and want to know how this blog began, check out my very first post.

For 2015, My Public Affairs has moved to the Medium platform. Same great content. Slick new interface. Always free. 

It's the best value on the web, and I look forward to your patronage in the years to come!

27 December 2014

Are Americans Seduced by War?

Andrew Bacevich seems to think so. Or he seems to think that what he thinks in the heat of a unique political moment defines the whole of human experience.

He wrote a book ten years ago called The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. (Oxford, 2005).

As OEF concludes this week, it is instructive to look back on critics of U.S. war policy during our longest war. Bacevich is foremost among them. Clearly, the Iraq War left scars on the body politic that will take a long time to heal. Maybe generations. And while My Public Affairs isn't a political blog, the military often bleeds into politics, and one's take on a military issue exposes one's political biases.

Bacevich's biases come blazing through in The New American Militarism. One thought that just recently occurred to me is that, as a Veteran of the Vietnam Era, perhaps he harbors a tinge of envy of the Soldiers who serve today amid overwhelming public plaudits.

In short, his thesis is that Americans have fallen in love with warfare, soldiers, and the military-industrial complex that feeds it all. He adds Hollywood into the mix of evil causes, and submits that whole arrangement is bad for the Republic.

There is, of course, a lot to substantiate his indictment. But in his zeal, he overreaches clumsily. One of his favorite targets is the All-Volunteer Force. Those like him who spoke and wrote so disparagingly about the AVF a decade ago should be mightily embarrassed now. Not because they were wrong, but because they were so self-assured in their error.

It was no monument to courage to speak ill of the AVF during the nadir of the Iraq War. In The New American Militarism Bacevich wrote:
Four years after 9/11, the reserves are close to breaking-- both recruiting and reenlistment are in free-fall. Active duty forces are finding it increasingly difficult to replenish their ranks. Last year the U.S. Army experienced its worst recruiting year in a quarter-century.
Well what a shock that in the middle of two wars it became slightly harder to recruit! At around the same time California (and probably the rest of the country) was in a teacher recruiting crisis. I don't recall anyone advocating a nationwide conscription of engineering students to begin mandatory teacher credential education.

But that's exactly what Bacevich prescribed to man the Armed Forces. He relied on pure hyperbole too, describing a cyclical shortage as a "free-fall." In 2005, the worst year for Army recruiting, around 73,000 young men and women enlisted, leaving the largest branch of the military about 7,000 short of it's goal. Recruiting rebounded the next year.

Today the military is shedding Soldiers. Where is the outrage?

Maybe Bacevich reserved it for the reserves. One of his prescriptions for reversing the dangerous militarization of American culture and politics is to "revive the moribund concept of the citizen-soldier." His penchant for lambasting and ridiculing reservists betrays his wilful ignorance of the fact that Guard and Reserve Soldiers are just that.

But he can't admit that the reserves are up to the task. He shamefully blames the Abu Ghraib scandal on the ill-preparation of reservists. Bacevich slandered the nearly one million Guard and Reserve Soldiers and Airmen who have served overseas since 9/11.

Scandals like Abu Ghraib are inexcusable. To excuse them because the perpetrators had civilian jobs in the communities they lived in before deploying is a bigger scandal. How a conscript Army would perform better is left unexplained.

Bacevich has no need for a reserve force to fight overseas.  What he wants is a World War II-style mobilization of "citizens" conscripted into the Army. Does anyone who believes that a total war model is the right one for today's small wars really think that the country would get behind a mass mobilization, or that any credible politician would propose it?

While The New American Militarism is thoughtful and sometimes circumspect, its author made the mistake so common among anti-Iraq War commentators a decade ago of projecting his attitude toward that particular war at that particular time to a sweeping denunciation of the military for all time.

At the close of OEF, we can see what a mistake it was, and we know that Americans certainly are not "seduced by war."

(Photo by SPC Nevada Jack Smith)

16 December 2014

Running at Fort Dix

Having arrived in New Jersey from the Arabia Time Zone, I find myself awake at 3:00 am the first few mornings, though the time doesn't correspond with anything that suggests I should be waking up at that time eight hours ahead. But I take advantage by running.

It's colder here than in Kuwait.

It had been snowing lightly a couple of hours before. A film of snow dust glimmers on the cinder track. Ice on the roads makes a lonely morning run dangerous.

A bitter cold in my face, Dennis Lehane still in my ears. I log three miles.

Two nights later I run less precariously, and pay more attention to the place. My memories of Fort Dix are limited, but clear. We were here for six weeks in the spring, and my fetish for Army Basic Training left me with an unfulfilled craving for some Fort Dix history.

So I run to explore. Past the old basic training barracks that shelter us now. Past the famous water tower on 16th Street. Past a minimum security federal prison that occupies buildings and yards where trainees undoubtedly slept and trained a generation ago.

I run away from main roads to avoid being seen. I am a grown man, trying to get a work out, but I am irrationally fearful of someone who outranks me calling me out for wearing headphones. They are unauthorized, you know.

There is an unused road just west of the prison, near a water retention basin and a wooded area. It has been chewed up and spit out by the elements, and weeds find their way through infinite cracks. It curves around as if it once smiled on idyllic officer quarters, but no buildings remain. I can only guess what might have once stood there.

Another night I run by the old Walson Army Medical Center, which is supposed to be haunted. It's darker over here, which is convenient for the souls who do the haunting. When I nearly trip over a branch I am convinced it is a ghoul grabbing at my feet.

All this running makes me wonder what Fort Dix was like in its heyday. There is a museum here, which also may be haunted, because no one is there when I visit. Eventually I meet Mindy, the very friendly curator. She sent me the photos.

As is the case with KAF, BAF, and Arifjan, I am unlikely to run here again. If I do, you'll get the report.

13 December 2014

Eight Simple Tips for Better Army Presentations

Why is it so funny to watch people fall asleep when they are trying to stay awake? I have a video of my then-two-year-old sitting upright and falling asleep. His head bobs down, wakes him up, and his eyelids smoothly lower again. Hilarious!

Adults are even funnier, though the motions are the same. It happened yesterday during what the Army calls "briefings." To form, the presenter wasn't particularly skilled at gaining attention, keeping it, or getting us "gazers" involved in learning.

Now I'll admit, having congressionally mandated classes with attendance enforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice isn't a recipe for classroom innovation. But for those of you who want to be effective at dispensing knowledge that your students will actually take away from a class they might appreciate and remember in a good way, here are eight super easy tips to incorporate into your military presentations. If you're Army, you might even say they're "too easy."

1. Don't Apologize
I hear this all the time-- instructors say they're sorry the students have to sit through this. They wish they didn't have to, but those darn bureaucrats have insisted this class be given, and that it last six hours. They are admitting defeat up front, and if the presenter doesn't believe in the material, then students probably won't either. If you apologize for the course material or for having to teach it, you've lost an opportunity to make an impact. Sell your material!

2. Move Around
"The sage on the stage," is how we refer to it in the civilian world, and derisively so. No human wants to watch you talk in front of them for hours on end. Most people can barely handle a concert for more than two hours, and Taylor Swift puts on a quite a show, I'm told. What's her secret? She moves! So should you, it makes a big difference. Try pacing up and down the aisles. You can talk just as easily from the back of the room as from the front, so mix it up.

3. Follow the 20-minute Rule
Also mix it up by shutting up. Just as we don't want to see you in the same spot the entire class time, we don't want to listen to you the whole time, either. Don't do the same thing for more than 20 minutes. There are various rules of thumb for how long different age groups can pay attention, but 20 minutes has been a good limit in my experience teaching. It's not that you aren't a subject matter expert, it's just that you don't need to prove it. Remember, your objective is for your students to learn something. After 20 minutes, most people are just going to stop listening. Unless you're Taylor Swift.

4. Track your Teacher-Student Talk Ratio
But if other people are talking, your clock resets, so get others involved. If a student can say the same thing you would have said, let her. And other people can read, so let them. And there are quite a few experts among these classes. You're not teaching calculus, so get over yourself and let others do some of the teaching. I like to keep the student participation level at about half the time, and I can tell if I'm hogging it because attention starts to wane. So track and adjust.

5. Ask Questions
One way to get students involved is to ask questions. It sounds simple, because it is! But I'm always amazed at how seldom presenters do it. One teaching model demands that teachers ask questions about five times a minute! That's hard, and it might be excessive. But generally more is better. And your questions can be leading, so make them part of your teaching, as in, "What are some things you can do to improve communication with your kids?" I'll bet that all the answers in the textbook will be identified by the audience.

6. Trigger Various Learning Styles
The reason people fall asleep in these classes is because they are just sitting there! It's harder to fall asleep if they are doing something. And, crazy thing, doing is a better way to learn. Just ask Taylor Swift. (Okay, going a little long on the TS references.) Learning styles are probably arbitrary constructs, but they help good teachers vary their instruction. Have students talk to one another. Have them write. Have them read. Have them watch. Have them move. You'll activate various strengths with each activity, and your students won't have the opportunity to fall asleep.

7. Use Examples
Knowledge has to be generalized. I get it. But people don't think in generalities. They think in terms of specific, unique circumstances. Use those examples to make your point. Most people do this, but some instructors need a reminder. So here's an example: the guy giving a financial management class today talked about "when a company was overvalued, the stock did such and such..." Which company? How about telling us what happened to the value of Apple stock in 1997? Or, since you're taking my suggesting to heart (#6) ask a participant to share his example of a particular stock purchase and describe what it meant. Taylor Swift would approve (alright, that's enough!)

8. Give an Assessment
Instruction is one of those things that should be measured. Administer a quiz or survey, or some other tool that will help students evaluate whether they got something value from it.

Most people will have to present at some point. Please, for the sake of our vets who have served, let's get these post-deployment presentations on track. Something about Taylor Swift should emphasize my point.