22 April 2014

Is the Army a Socialist Paradise?

Naturally, when a major news site poses the above question, I get intrigued. 

Now, as a Soldier on active duty, I can assure you that it most definitely not a paradise. Either that or the word coupled with the modifier "socialist" takes on a completely different meaning.  

But my hat is off to Siegel for writing about it. In fact, he probably got the idea from me:
The Paradox of Military Ideology
Siegel's piece is of a different flavor from mine, though. Whereas I was being sarcastic and a bit satirical, Siegel seems dead serious. His argument, if it can be called that, is that modern leftism is almost completely fulfilled, surprisingly, in the US military: single payer health care, government housing and food, and a rigid hierarchy that is task-focused and community-centered. 

At least he knows of what he writes. Siegel, whose bio in the Daily Beasts notes that he is an Iraq and Afghanistan War Vet, decries so-called experts comment on military life without a proper frame of reference.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of contrarianism, I must raise some objections. 

First, Siegel asserts that every liberal program has been instituted successfully in the military. Well, not quite. Unionism, for example, is anathema to the military way. The military also maintains strict gatekeeping, famously relaxed during the height of the Iraq war, which is now getting much stricter. Drugs, sexual assault, mental illness, physical shortcomings-- all will keep you out or get you kicked out. 

There are parallels between military standards and socialist states eliminating reprobates, gays, free thinkers, the sterile, capitalists, and other various "enemies of the party," but even the most hardcore liberal wouldn't dream of categorizing those phenomena as indicators of paradise.

The piece also called the military "one of the country’s last engines of social mobility." Siegel claims that "A young enlistee from a poor background with no higher education can rise through the ranks," which is true to a point. Even for NCOs, though, it is getting tougher to advance in rank without college. So though it may sound like a quibble, it raises the larger issue that the military is not as insulated from the larger population and culture as some think or would hope.

That last bit raises a larger misrepresentation. Siegel implies that the strengths of military communalism come from its members' shared ethos and sheer bureaucratic efficiency. While I certainly agree that an organizational ethos is important, it misses the fact that the military is competing with other employers in a vast labor market. 

Many men and women join for the material benefits, not because of some allegiance to a cause. The military understands this well and continually adjusts its compensation packages to meet the demands of the marketplace.

In all, Siegel's piece is provocative and insightful. But maybe he should have just read "My Public Affairs" and let well enough alone. 

18 April 2014

A Highly-Resilient Army?

Karl Weick is a brilliant scholar and researcher of organization. His latest work, co-authored by Kathleen Sutcliffe, is about highly-resilient organizations (HROs), among which he includes the sailors on an aircraft carrier. HROs display characteristics that distinguish them from typical organizations-- things like a willingness to track small failures, a resistance to oversimplification, and a sensitivity to operations.

A carrier crew might be the prototypical HRO, but Army units offer a more practical case study, at least for yours truly. I'll be in such a unit in Afghanistan within a fortnight.

The goal of any organization, resilient or not, is high performance. Effective organizations are organized so as to negotiate changing environments. Certainly the military has a need to be so organized. Uncertainty has a way of auditing these organizations. In a market, the organization that fails the audit goes bankrupt. In war, it suffers defeat.

According to Weick and Sutcliffe, they have identified a particular class of organizations that reduce "the brutality of audits and speeds up the process of recovery."

News from Afghanistan suggests a relatively stable operating environment for the Army. Compared to the deadliest years of 2009 - 2011, over 60 percent of all OEF casualties occurred, 2014 is shaping up to be the year of Afghanistan security. That means dramatically different missions for US troops. Whether the Army can shift from an offensive combat posture to stability operations will be a real test of its organizational resilience.

Weick and Sutcliffe offer some advice to those organizations looking to stay resilient and adaptive to a changing environment: defer to expertise. Not all commanders, and certainly not all Soldiers, are experts at the type of operations coming down the pike. If the powers that be can identify who the real experts are, then the Army should be able to manage the coming changes.

16 April 2014

Insecurity Is an Army Value

Posted by Lyndsey Prax

If you've ever spoken to anyone in the U.S. Military then there’s no doubt you know why their service is better than the others.

The Air Force for example has better everything: better food, lodging, equipment, facilities. Marines, as they tell it, are tougher and more willing to fight (in bars and on beach heads). Sailors apparently get to travel the world in boats.

So what is so special about the Army you ask? This blog has addressed that question before. Twice, actually. But the real strength of the U.S. Army comes from its multitudinous experts. Seventy-three per cent of Soldiers experts, and that number rises to 94 per cent for E5 and above! Experts at what? Yes.

Soldiers are experts at pointing out others mistakes and even better at making excuses for their own.

Let’s use today as an example. Today I cleared my weapon three times inside of two minutes. Clearly I am an expert at clearing my weapon. However, the last time I cleared the weapon I failed to switch my selector switch from “semi” to “safe”. Thank God my expert NCOIC discovered my mistake and punished me by demanding I perform 25 push-ups.

And wouldn’t you know it-- every other Soldier in my unit was an expert in diagnosing my push up deficiencies. One expert dropped to the floor and started showing me how to perform a correct push-up, but apparently she was not performing them correctly either! Good thing there were other experts on hand. They proceeded in turn, each performing their best push-up while the others from the side performed their duty of criticizing.

Of course no one’s was perfect. The real point of the exercise was for each to defend his or her own expertise. We have to prove, after all, why we are better than those Marines (in the bar or on the beach head).

Although I am nearly perfect in every way, I am happy I chose the service that has individuals with the courage and integrity to point out all of my flaws and mistakes; the service that affords me the opportunity to turn my defensiveness and insecurity into a virtue by encouraging me to point out, er, correct, others' weaknesses.

I can’t think of any better way to spend my time.

13 April 2014

Here I Go Again

Post number three of deployment number two.

I am heading with my unit to a little place called Afghanistan. We're looking good, if I do say so myself. New uniforms in hand, equipment ready, and nearly trained up. Fort Dix-- ahem... Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst-- isn't a bad place. The chow hall seems to be getting worse, but we're near enough to other options to make that tolerable.

Many of you have asked what our mission over there will be. Can't say, exactly. Public Affairs generally does reporting on what American forces are doing. We're hearing that a high priority for us will be to produce propaganda news packages about the cooperation between the US/NATO and Afghan forces.

But that's boring. What you all care about is the dessert options in the dining facilities, right? Well, there's more to this deployment than goodies. So here are a few things faithful readers of this blog, Loyal Cynics, as they have been called in the past, should know:

One: My Public Affairs has a new author. Lyndsey Prax is a decorated Staff Sergeant in the United States Army. She usually decorates herself with.charm bracelets and war paint. But I'll let her introduce herself in a couple of days. Next post is hers, and so readers will get a different, and perhaps even a funny, perspective on things Army.

Two: I'll be adding a new feature: satire. If you need convincing that not everything else in this blog is satirical, then you should read more official Army propaganda public affairs material. The line is very thin sometimes.

Three: We're adding a new "Physical Fitness" label to include a hopefully sizable number of posts on our unit's fitness plan. Basically, our eight-soldier detachment is going to rock the Army Physical Fitness Test. By the end of our deployment, we'll have a documentary ready to go about how this little public affairs unit embarrassed a bunch of high speed soldiers with amazing fitness scores.

In a nutshell, this is the relaunch of a blog that will change your life. If you doubt me, take my little test. Read weekly and comment regularly. The change will be even more pronounced if you share all of our content with your friends.

If at the end of our deployment "not to exceed 400 days," you are not satisfied, I'll probably just stop writing.

(Photo by Lt. Col. Hank McIntire)