John T. Reed’s review of The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney
Posted by John Reed on
Copyright by John T. Reed
Craig Mullaney graduated from West Point in 2000 and did a tour in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. He was an infantry platoon leader for most of it and an adjutant (think human resources) at battalion headquarters for the rest of it.
I heard him speak to a group of about 20 members of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco on May 5, 2009. (Veterans of all U.S. services can be members of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. I initially joined because my wife wanted to hold her retirement party there, but we have since enjoyed the various lectures and rooftop restaurant many times. Also, although my wife and I are Harvard graduates, our ability to stay at the Harvard Club of Boston for our two respective 30th reunions stemmed from the reciprocal relationship the Marines Club has with the Harvard Club, not from our being Harvard alumni. When we went to Europe in 2008, my youngest son and I stayed in a British officers hotel in London and a French one in Paris, also reciprocal with the Marine club.)
I bought Mullaney’s book and while he autographed it, I spoke to him briefly.
I do not think he knew anything about me. Before he signed the book I told him the usual West Pointer-to-West Pointer basics: that I was class of 1968 and a Vietnam vet. His autograph says,
For Jack Reed—
Thank you for leading the way for your men & for our generation.
I appreciate the thought, but “my men” would probably find it overly melodramatic. I went to Vietnam and did my various jobs such as they were. “Leading” my men probably overdramatizes it. In Vietnam, each of us arrived all alone. We left the same way. Every day somebody arrived and somebody left. Vietnam units generally do not have reunions the way units in other wars did because the composition of the unit changed daily. On average, half of “my men” were there before I arrived and the other half arrived after I did and stayed after I left. Some of them only knew me for two days, others for months. So they weren’t really my men. They were somebody else’s men before I arrived and another guy’s men after I left. Because I changed jobs and units several times in Vietnam, I was never with any one group for more than maybe four months.
Mullaney, in contrast, trained with his platoon in the U.S. and was deployed with them to Afghanistan and was with them the entire time he was a platoon leader. They already reunited once for the funeral of another member of the platoon who was killed subsequently in Iraq.
Other than this Web site, which is all but unique among West Pointers, I am not aware of having led the way for Mullaney’s generation in any way.
But now that I have read Mullaney’s whole book, my reaction to his autograph is, “That’s Craig. He’s very introspective and sees life, or tries to, as some sort of grand heroic poem.”
Mullaney’s claim to fame on his book jacket, the blurb announcing his talk at the Marines Club and in two chapters of The Unforgiving Minute is that he was also a Rhodes Scholar. However, after reading the book I must report that is essentially irrelevant. About all it seems to mean is he was very smart about taking tests in the hard subjects like math and science and that he was also very good at the political game of discerning what soft subject teachers, like English and social studies, wanted to hear and regurgitating it back to them.
He is also good at making a good impression on committees in job/scholarship type interviews. I have not known any Rhodes scholars, but I now conclude they are just top students and interviewees who get to schlep around Oxford and the Continent and environs for two years having intellectual discussions. Being a Rhodes scholar apparently does not mean anything else like that you are a good checkers player or sought after by the ladies or that you dance well.
‘A soldier’s education’
The subtitle of the book is “A soldier’s education.” There he goes again with that heroic poem stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I like the guy. He’s very earnest and seems like a good guy. But I have a reputation to uphold, too. I am a no-bullshit guy. There is some bullshit in his book, and I will point it out as I go. “A soldier’s education” is the first example. I don’t think Craig is a bullshit artist. But he is young and has a rather distinct prism through which he views life. He needs to discard that young man’s prism and substitute a more mature one. It’s a bullshit prism.
The actual title of the book should have been What I did last summer, and the summer before that, and the summer before that, and what I did in the fall, winter, and springs of those years, too. There is no unifying theme to the book other than Craig Mullaney describing his life this far. I have heard it described as a leadership book or a book about being a soldier. Nah. It’s about Craig’s brief, unique, eclectic academic and military adventures and his American born but extremely ethnic Bend it like Beckham Indian bride and her family. It should be very popular with members of the National Association of West Point Rhodes scholars Who Were Platoon Leaders In Afghanistan Before Afghanistan Was Cool and Who Married Into Hindi-American Families. Otherwise, I’m not sure who the market for it is.
Is Craig Mullaney a “soldier?” Not really. He went to West Point. That makes you a cadet. Then he went to Oxford. That makes you a scholar. Along the way, he was also a student at ranger school, jump school, and a couple of infantry officer courses. That makes you a student in entry-level Army officer schools. He was a garrison soldier for most of the rest of his career. Garrison is the sort of day-to-day activity depicted in Hollywood productions like The Phil Silvers Show (A.K.A. You’ll Never Get Rich, Sergeant Bilko), No Time For Sergeants, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Garrison duty is peaceful service on an Army base in the U.S., Germany, or Korea. While it may be technically accurate to describe such an officer as a soldier, it is overly melodramatic. Olive drab bureaucrat is more accurate.
Was Mullaney ever a real “soldier?” Yes, when he was a platoon leader in Afghanistan for eleven months. I was a platoon leader for a shorter period in Vietnam so I have a general idea of what holding that job in a combat zone means. If I had lived his life and written this book, my subtitle would have been more along the lines of “4 years at West Point; 2 at Oxford; 11 months in Afghanistan.” Indeed, the table of contents is divided into three parts titled: “Student, Soldier, Veteran.”
Mullaney is now about 31 years old. He was in the military for about seven years after West Point—about 22% of his life. But he was only a combat platoon leader for 11 months or 3% of his life. “Education of a good student” is a more accurate description of his life and book. His combat platoon leader tour comes across more like an odd course he took than a description of his life. Or maybe “Education of a Husband,” if, as I suspect, his Army career was ended by is wife’s dislike of it.
Mullaney got out of the Army as fast as he could. Unsoldierlike behavior, don’t you think?
Normally, the fastest you can get out of the Army after West Point is five years. He was in seven because he accepted the Rhodes scholarship which apparently delayed the start of his completing his five-year obligation for two years. The five years is to pay for the “free” West Point education. Normally, you also owe two years for every year you spend in graduate school, but since he was on scholarship, I guess he incurred no additional obligation for Oxford.
The first six chapters were about going to West Point. They bored me to death. When I first entered West Point, I was eager to tell friends and relatives about this strange place. I surmise my classmates were generally the same. We quickly learned it was less interesting to others. It is even less interesting still to a graduate like me. There were some changes between when I entered West Point in 1964 and when Craig entered in 1996, but darned few. No West Pointer would be surprised at that. The old line was that West Point was “200 years of tradition unmarked by progress.”
I disagreed with Craig on one description of plebe year. He said that the ratio of plebes to upperclassmen is 6 to 1 during Beast Barracks (your first July and August) but that that ratio is reversed in September and for the next eight months. True. But then he says,
Our new tormentors wanted nothing more than the satisfaction of watching Plebes stammer, stumble, and sweat for the next nine months.
That is simply not true. In July and August, there are relatively few upperclassmen at West Point working with the new plebes. But come September, all four classes are focused on academics, intramural and intercollegiate sports, parades. In the summer, the fewer upperclassmen have only one focus: whipping the new cadets into shape. During the academic year, the plebes are an annoyance to the upperclassmen. They have a number of more important focuses. From the plebes’ standpoint, the academic year is much easier with regard to the stuff that is unique to being a plebe.
He also misstates the origin of the word “cow” a West Point. That is the nickname for a junior. Why? Because a century or so ago, cadets only went home on leave to where they came from once. When? During the summer before their junior year. There is a phrase in American English “until the cows come home.” Calling juniors at West Point cows comes from that phrase and that fact that many years ago, cows were the only cadets who went home. Craig says it’s because they return to West Point from summer training. No. All four classes do that. This is sloppy fact-checking. When you write a book, you check such statements.
There is apparently now a tradition of streaking wearing nothing but a jock strap across the quad. He also mentioned, but did not describe, a tradition of naked co-ed basketball on some courts in the barracks area. Ooookay. No such thing when I was there. I think they would have thrown you out if you did it. It would have been considered something dumb civilian college kids might do, but beneath the dignity of a cadet, and you’d be expelled. The idea of women at West Point, let alone naked ones, was beyond our comprehension in the late sixties.
He also says that we got a new seating chart in each class every time we had a test. No. It was about once every month or so. He also said that ended at the same time as mandatory equestrian drills. Not quite. Those drills ended decades before I arrived at West Point in July, 1964. Indeed, our classroom building—Thayer Hall—was the previous indoor equestrian riding hall.
Craig joined the cadet sky diving team. I do not know about that team when Craig was there in the late 90s. I made two jumps with the 82nd Airborne Sky Diving Club. My observation in each case was I thought the people who were attracted to sky diving clubs were social misfits. There was only one guy on the West Point sky Diving team I thought was normal; none on the 82nd Sky Diving team. They seemed to NEED jumping out of planes to prove their worth to themselves and others. I promptly quit the 82nd Club because I was creeped out by the other people plus jumping out of airplanes struck me as Groundhog day—same thing over and over. It was too time-consuming. The other guys there were nerdy. It cost money, although it was subsidized. See ya.
West Point deliberately trained my body and mind. Skydiving educated my soul.
I can accept the first sentence although you could say the same about any public elementary, middle, or high school. The “soul” line is bullshit designed to impress those who have never jumped from a plane. It’s no big deal. It is not transformative. See my Airborne article.
If you are considering going to West Point, read those six chapters. Otherwise, they are probably TMI.
Craig had an odd reaction to bayonet training at West Point. He called it a “vestige of the old Army…designed for the sole purpose of instilling an aggressive warrior spirit.” On page 30, Craig starts three pages about how bayonet training made him consider quitting West Point because stabbing another person seemed to violate what the Catholic Church taught him. He actually had to meet the Catholic chaplain and get talked out of quitting over it.
Jesus H. Christ, Rhodes scholar! It’s the United States Military Academy, a subsidiary and feeder program to the U.S. Army. What the hell did you think they taught there? Military philosophy? Besides, I went to Catholic School, too. The Catholic Church has no history of avoiding brutally killing people. Ever heard of the Crusades? The Inquisition? Bayonet-type weapons were about the only ones they had back then.
Uh, no. The purpose of bayonet training is to make you proficient in the use of the bayonet, which is a stout knife attached to the front end of the barrel of your rifle. It is used to kill people who are within reach when your weapon is out of ammunition or jammed. While bayonets may have played a more prominent role is past wars, soldiers still run out of ammo or suffer jammed weapons combined within finding themselves within reach of enemy fighters. Bayonet training is really bayonet-and-rifle-as-a-club training. It includes teaching you how to not only stab and slash the enemy, but also to beat the crap out of him and block his blows against you with the rifle itself. It included a lot of growling and yelling but that’s pretty standard in football. It was only a one- or two-hour course as I recall.
My second detail platoon leader in August of 1964 when I was in beast barracks as a plebe was Jerry Merges (Class of 1965). I recall him saying bayonet training was the most miserable part of Beast Barracks for him when he was plebe. (I only mention his name after checking the Internet to see if he is a public person. He is. He was, and I presume, still is, a good guy.)
I never understood that. I thought bayonet training was fun and exactly the sort of thing I would be taught in the Army. I doubt I would have enjoyed employing it successfully in Vietnam, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.
The most miserable part of Beast was shower formations. What are they? I long ago stopped answering that question because I got tired of non-West Pointers calling me a liar. If you want to know, find a West Point grad from about 1969 or 1970 or earlier and ask him. They outlawed them around the summer of 1965 or 1966. When I was a Beast platoon sergeant (senior) in 1967, there were no more shower formations. Corps has. Why guys like Merges and Mullaney reacted the way they did to bayonet training mystifies me.
On the other hand, Craig was exhilarated by the pugil stick training, which is bayonet training with a big Q-tip instead of a rifle. I wrote in the margin, “I guess he never played football,” because the adrenaline from hitting another person as hard as you can seemed novel to him. My technique in pugil stick training at West Point was to simply let my opponent take some big round house swing at me with his stick, let it go past, then stab him in the chest or throat with the end of mine. I kept winning round after round until an opponent who had been watching my approach managed to poke me before I poked him. We were told that the Q-tip was a rifle with a bayonet on one end of it. My opponents apparently forgot that and saw it only as a big bat.
The squeamishness among recent West Pointers about bayonet training and, I guess, use in combat, strikes me as especially odd considering their recent extreme fondness for calling themselves “warriors.” Craig does that again and again in his book. When you have to devote three pages of your written-at-age-30 autobiography to your anguish over bayonet training, I think you are more “reluctant warrior” than “beat your chest warrior.” All warriors ought to be reluctant because of the fundamental nature of war. See my article on why we need a draft. But the only times Craig is reluctant in his book are right after cadet bayonet training and after one of his men got killed in Afghanistan. So what was all that gung-ho infantry stuff in between? Temporary insanity? Why did he even choose the infantry branch?
Prove your toughness
Craig seemed to have a powerful need to prove himself as a physically tough guy. I would not claim to have been devoid of that as a teenager and early twenties guy. I think all young men have to go through such rites of passage to manhood. But I and my fellow cadets seemed far less in need of of having to prove it over and over than Craig.
If someone asked me if I had proven sufficiently that I was a “real man” back in my early twenties, I would have cited playing football, all the mandatory contact sports at West Point, the physically arduous marches and runs at West Point, the mentally stressful Beast Barracks, etc., etc., Ranger School, paratrooper School volunteering for Vietnam, etc. If they said, “Yes, but you chose Signal Corps,” I would have said something to the effect that I had long since proven my manhood to my own satisfaction and did not feel the need to prove it again and again by things like branch choice.
‘Hey, lieutenant. Do you wanna box?’
Craig chose infantry which he described as “where they make warriors.” They also make warriors at West Point in bayonet and lots of other training. At his line unit, the 10th Mountain Division, the troops challenged him to box. When he agreed, he found himself facing the Division boxing champ, a much larger, more experienced sergeant and quickly got knocked out of the fight.
He later agreed to accept another such challenge [slow learner] to box against a superior officer in front of the whole battalion in Afghanistan. I never received or saw any such challenges in the 82nd Airborne Division or my other units. I thought that nonsense went out of style in the 1940s.
If I had been so challenged, I would have said, “No, thanks. Did that in college. Didn’t care for it. Plus you guys are not using helmets and mouth guards [in Craig’s units]. You’re taking stupid risks not wearing that safety gear. Even with it, the American Medical Association said boxing should be banned because it is too likely to cause serious injury or death.” If someone said I was “chicken,” I’d suggest we start a full-fledged football program. At my last Army base, Fort Monmouth, NJ, we had a tackle football league. I was a starting defensive end and place kicker. We won the 1971 post Super Bowl. I was the second highest scorer on the team. It was the second-most fun I ever had as an adult. When I got out of the Army, I commented that the only thing I would miss were the regular paychecks and playing tackle football.
Craig talks a lot about his father in the book. He is what women would call “vulnerable” which I guess is one of his charms. It just struck me as a bit off like it would do him good to spend some time with a psychiatrist talking about it. I have never done that but based one things you pick up from the media about it, Craig seems to have some issues. For one thing, he seemed abnormally eager to make his father proud and used that phrase on page 17.
I had a troubled relationship with my father. I talked about it in my book Succeeding. That book is not an autobiography. Indeed, I think Mullaney writing his autobiography at age 30 is a bit narcissistic, reminiscent of Hitler and Obama, who both wrote autobiographies at a similar age with about as much encouragement as Mullaney got. If you did not win a SuperBowl or some such, you’re too young at 30 to tell your life story. My Succeeding book tells readers how to succeed in life—mainly choosing the right career and spouse. Craig ought to read it. My book draws a lot from my life. But it is mainly a how-to book with examples drawn from wherever I came across them including my life.
My father was a mean drunk. Initially when I was a kid in the 1950s, he was the bread winner 5&10¢ store manager. But he got fired twice and thereafter could only get nothing jobs like commissioned salesman and stock boy. Generally, he was unemployed. But he never left. He hung around for the free room, board, cigarettes, clothes, car, and booze. My mom finally moved and did not invite him to accompany us in the spring of my junior year in high school. By the time I graduated from West Point, he had moved into my mom’s house and was unimproved. The main thing I got from him was I vowed never to take a drink of alcohol and I have kept that vow. Easy, actually. I wanted to be vaccinated against becoming him.
Did I want to make my parents proud? Sure. But it was not the focus it seems to be to Craig. It comes up again and again in his book. I got over it around graduation. His father cheated on his mom and divorced her. He never forgave him or saw him again, but constantly wondered if his father was following his career or concerned about his safety. His mom said no.
I, of course, know nothing about Mullaney’s parents other than what I read in the book. However, I suggest the following possibility to Craig. It may be that his father’s decision to divorce his mother was fundamentally moral and warranted. Craig appears not even to consider the possibility. Marriages are defined by intimate details that even children in the same house are insufficiently informed about to make such certain judgments. Furthermore, you would not only have to be present for every moment of the interaction between the husband and wife, you would have to BE the husband, who is a unique individual even compared to his own son, to make a judgment as to whether getting divorced was the right thing.
Craig ordered his father to A. explain and apologize for the divorce or B. never have contact with Craig again. His father chose B. My late mother got mad at my girl friend (now my wife) when we announced we were going to live together. Mom withdrew the invitation she had extended to us to have Thanksgiving dinner at her house. We shrugged and went to the home of the parents of Marty’s best friend instead.
My mom later backtracked but ended up not speaking to my wife during her last years. Craig and my mom each have one life to live. Using the fact that a family member loves you as leverage to force them to do your bidding is out of line. I said above that his father’s reasons may stem from intimate facts that Craig does not know about, or from a unique difference between Craig and his father. What’s right for Craig is not necessarily right for his father. Similarly, his father may have decided not to explain those facts to Craig because of noble concerns like Craig’s relationship with his mother and the couple’s spousal privacy privilege. Craig is entitled to be curious about why his father divorced his mother, but he is not entitled to order his father to reveal the reasons for the dissolution of such an intimate relationship. Nor is he in a position to draw conclusions about the wisdom or morality of the divorce decision in the absence of all the pertinent facts and for the perspective of a different person of a different age from a different generation living in a different era.
I was actually was the last family member to see my father before he died. I was going past the nursing home where he was in NJ, which was 3,000 miles from my CA home, and stopped in for an unannounced visit out of a sense of son’s obligation. He died within a year with no more visits from my brothers. He had no friends at all. Like I said. A few sessions with a shrink seem in order for Craig.
Religion is a somewhat big deal to Craig. He said he went to West Point because it “offered an almost religious quest for perfection.” I surmise he was educated by Jesuit priests, big scholars and philosophers they. My cousin was one.
Craig makes reference to some of the cult-like aspects of West Point and he seems to have bought into all that. I would point to that as counter evidence to those who think Rhodes scholars are brilliant in some comprehensive, perfect way. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. He did a lot of dumb stuff. Craig’s buying into the notion that everything that happened to you at West Point was part of a genius plan to make you a perfect leader is a bit of dumbness I got over during plebe year. As far as I can tell, he has not yet figured it out at age 31.
For one thing he spouts various Army cliches—like “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”—without recognizing they are overly simplistic platitudes. I am especially surprised that he never acknowledges their trite nature even though his own experience as reported in the book refutes them. “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war” applies only to extremely realistic training that matches exactly the combat conditions you end up in and it does not apply to the fortunes of war like accidental friendly fire or being hit by a mortar or crashing in an aircraft for mechanical reasons or being shot while doing an activity for which there is no training preventive, like Mullaney’s only KIA, a guy who was shot dead in the opening shots of an ambush of Mullaney’s walking patrol. About 95% of the sweating you do in peaceful training conditions is irrelevant to whether you bleed in war. Mullaney said that in other words near the end of his book.
He makes much of the need for perfection as a cadet preparing you for combat where, “One mistake could really kill your platoon.” First off, I would like to get a citation of a platoon that was entirely wiped out by its platoon leader making one mistake. I doubt it has happened more than a few times in the entire history of U.S. wars. Plus, while Craig may have believed that when he was cadet, his own description of combat refutes it repeatedly. Everyone makes mistakes, especially 25-year-old platoon leaders in combat. Hell, most of them in our history were 90-day wonders, not West Point airborne rangers. People die in combat because of mistakes all the time. And the platoon leader is not the only one whose mistakes cause those deaths. Everyone in the platoon needs to minimize mistakes. And they are not likely to be successful given the largely unrealistic training, low caliber of the personnel, and chaotic nature of combat.
‘Killed his platoon’
On page 67, Craig criticizes Vietnam vet and West Point Graduate James McDonough who wrote the book Platoon Leader. McDonough was in the class behind me. I love that book and highly recommend it and the movie of it by the same name. Here is what Craig says,
Reading a West Pointer’s account of combat also raised the question of whether West Point had prepared him (and by extension, us) for war. Was he ready? His answer, that he was better trained than most but still not ready, was unsatisfying. I couldn’t accept his assertion that the line between skill and chance in combat was ill-defined. If he had killed his platoon, would he have considered it failure or bad luck?
Craig is full of shit. I said the same thing McDonough did about neither West Point nor the Army preparing us adequately for combat and about the extreme importance of the fortunes of war in determining who lives and dies. I had forgotten that McDonough said that, too. And this premise “if he had killed his platoon” is childlike and unrealistic. Please name a U.S. Army platoon leader in the entire history of the country who ever “killed his platoon.” How would one accomplish that? Poison them? The enemy and the mistakes by other American personnel in the vicinity are blameless? What about the extreme noise, smoke, and dust? What brilliant order do you give when you can barely see your hand in front of your face? Who can hear it above the roar of gunfire and explosions? Platoon leaders are among those most often killed in combat. A platoon leader is more likely to be killed by his platoon, accidentally or on purpose, than to “kill his platoon.”
I actually asked Craig during the question period at the Marines Club if West Point and the Army could have done more in the five years they trained him for combat. He cited the Marines practice of having future combat platoon leaders work in an emergency room at a hospital to get them used to the blood and the screams of the injured. He also said they even accompany the doctors to tell family members that the individual in question did not make it. I agree with Craig that such training would help, but there is a lot more that could be done and should be done.
I have great respect for McDonough’s tour in Vietnam as described in his book. Grading McDonough and Mullaney on their performance as described in their respective books I would give McDonough an A and Mullaney a B or a C. Read both books yourself and decide for yourself.
I think West Point has gone a little nutty over the goal of “bringing your men home in one piece.” It’s not up to you entirely. Furthermore, you’re a rookie kid in your early twenties. Your training was horseshit incomplete by the standards we football coaches apply to preparing for an opponent. You’re going to screw up. Are some of your men going to be injured or killed by that? It‘s quite possible. So what are you going to do, demand perfection of your 24-year-old, rookie self? That sort of stupidity is likely to get even more of your men killed. I was fortunate, not perfect, in Vietnam. None of my men were injured. I take virtually no credit for it.
On page 178, Craig goes into this again,
…I live in two worlds: Oxford’s circuit of costume balls and drunken revelry and the Army’s implied pressure to prepare for war. My men wouldn’t give a damn whether I was a Rhodes scholar. All that mattered was whether they could trust me not to get them killed.
Read my lips. Craig’s job in combat is to accomplish his mission. That is also the job of his men. Both Craig and his men an imperfect and poorly prepared for the reality of combat. People are going to get hurt. You do the best you can to accomplish your mission with minimum casualties, but you must not forget the priority is accomplishing the mission. Making force protection, as it is called, top priority, is one of the most serious mistakes a military can make. It may even lead to increased casualties in the short run. In the long run, accomplishing the mission is the top priority, not keeping men alive, because the arithmetic of war is we have armies who are willing to die now so that our civilians are not slaughtered later because they were unprotected.
When I said accomplishing the mission takes precedence over the welfare of the men to a Professional Military Ethic class of West Point seniors in September, 2008, one stayed after to ask how he could possibly tell his men that. My initial reaction was to look at the full colonel standing next to us with a “What in the heck are you teaching these guys?” look. Then I explained what I thought was obvious. Soldiers accomplish the mission, including suicide missions, to save the nation and to save their fellow soldiers. The goal is to win the war, not avoid casualties. Making avoiding casualties your TOP priority is the road to defeat.
Why does anyone need me to explain this? Why are Rhodes scholars needing someone to explain this to them?
On page 29, he says he chose infantry because it, “was where warriors were made.” I roll my eyes. To prospective cadets who are attracted to being a “warrior” I say, take a few years to grow up, then revisit the matter. Also, read my article on the military’s recent self-image as “selfless servant warriors”
See my article Should you go to, or stay at, West Point? for more details on the strengths and weaknesses of the Academy.
The toughness, smarts, and courage of Lieutenant Colonel Guy LoFaro
Craig says that Ltc. LoFaro was one of the smartest history professors and West Point and one of the toughest. He also says LoFaro “knew a thing or two about courage.”
What did LoFaro do? In the late eighties, a soldier at Fort Bragg went nuts and started firing an M-16 at LoFaro and some other unarmed Special Forces guys. The unarmed guys charged at the gunmen. LoFaro was hit in the stomach by a tracer bullet. Craig says, “After five major surgeries and a forty-five day coma, LoFaro survived and was awarded the military’s highest peacetime medal for valor.”
Uh, excuse me. Unarmed men charging at a guy shooting an M-16 at them is stupid and unnecessary. At Fort Bragg, they should have run the other way and called the MPs. This is actually the second time I heard this story. The first time I was told it was Petraeus who did it. Petraeus was not there. Petraeus got shot by an M-16 in the states when he was standing in a dangerous place watching a live-fire exercise. Also stupid, although nowhere near as stupid as charging at a guy firing an M-16 at you when you can retreat. Some admirer of LoFaro is going to write and tell me I’m not fit to carry LoFaro’s shoes.
Maybe, but charging at a guy shooting an M-16 at you when you are unarmed and can retreat to safety and call police is just flat out unequivocally and inarguably stupid. LoFaro was not the only one who did it. If he was in charge of the others who wrestled the guy to the ground, he was also irresponsible to risk their lives that way. LoFaro may be smart, but what he did that day at Fort Bragg would not be evidence to support that. Whether he is tough is also not supported by any evidence in this incident. He got shot and damned near died. May we see the peer-reviewed medical data that says less “tough” men would have died or been in a longer coma?
I think it’s an interesting psychology case study that LoFaro has mesmerized and impressed Craig and others with his “toughness, smarts, and courage,” but you should sure as hell not emulate what he did in that incident. Arguably, the Army should not have given him the medal. Like naming a high school building after a kid who committed suicide, the award encourages future stupid behavior. I have previously complained strenuously about automatic awards of the medal of honor to those who throw themselves on grenades, which is another stupid stunt. See my article on military medals.
And “the military’s highest peacetime medal for valor” is also its lowest peacetime medal for valor: the Soldier’s medal which is for heroism not involving conflict with the enemy and is normally given for saving a guy from drowning or some such. There is no other peacetime heroism medal. President John F. Kennedy got this medal during World War II after stupidly allowing an enemy destroyer to deliberately ram his PT boat cutting it in two and killing some of his men, Kennedy saved another by swimming to shore pulling the injured guy’s life jacket strap by his teeth.
Mullaney’s writing style
For all his education and superlative grades, Mullaney needs to take a writing class from a real writer. Or write a book for a publisher which has real editors. Probably the most common mistake rookie writers make is assuming that good writing is using a lot of fancy adjectives to produce flowery, clever descriptions. Here is a sample of one of Craig’s less egregious detours down that road from the page 10 discussion of the bayonet-chaplain meeting—with my [comments] interspersed.
After knocking on the door, I entered. [If you met with the chaplain in his office, we would assume you must have knocked and entered. Good writing does not tell us what we already know.] Slashes of light from the window blinds cut across his desk and striped the dark wood paneling around me. An Army bible in camouflage was open on the desk. [Why are you telling us these things? To show off your propensity to observe details? If it does not advance the point of the story, leave it out.] A silver-haired priest looked up at my uniform and spotted my name tag.
“Mullaney. Good Irish name.”[Ditto]
I am a self-taught writer—did a lot of reading on the subject—but I have sold millions of dollars worth of my books (over 30 titles and counting) and articles (5,000 and counting). So trust me, adjectives and unnecessary descriptions are not good writing. My book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book, which was “highly recommended” by the West Point alumni association magazine Assembly, has a chapter on how to write. Here are the first and last paragraphs on pages 66 and 67 under the subhead, “Avoid adjectives and adverbs.”
There’s another example of this description-gone-wild stuff on page 181.
I would add one of my rules which is do not use adjectives or adverbs unless you are forced to. Voltaire said that the adjective was the enemy of the noun. Mark Twain said, “If you see an adjective, kill it.” Graham green said, “The adverb insults the noun…it is a parasite; it weakens it.”
Newspaperman William Hale once wrote a critique of President Woodrow Wilson’s writing style. He said that Wilson’s adjectives outnumbered his verbs, which is bad. He contrasted that with the great writers like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. They averaged 13 strong verbs and 4.5 adjectives per 100 words.
I am a lifelong teetotaler, that is, I have never touched alcohol. The reason is my dad as a mean drunk alcoholic. I did not want to risk becoming one of those so I decided never to drink. It worked. I am not any kind of alcoholic or problem drinker. My wife has wine or a beer and sometimes hard liquor. I have water or a Coke.
Craig, I’m worried about. Alcohol appears in the book an alarming number of times. He seem to think all the drinking is cool. Rhodes Scholars are capable of such immature stupidity!? He acknowledges it becoming a problem somewhat after he returned from Afghanistan. That is typical alcoholic behavior. They are experts at finding excuses for getting drunk. One of Craig’s men was shot dead by the enemy in Afghanistan. He says it bothered him greatly. The incident as he described it sounded like the fortunes of war to me. Maybe there were other pertinent facts that he did not mention, but based on what he did mention, his reaction should have been C’est la guerre. He never got to know the guy who got killed. He was a recently-arrived replacement. He also seems to claim a general malaise as a result of returning from Afghanistan.
My tour in Vietnam was less combatish than Craig’s tour in Afghanistan, but I have plenty of classmates who were involved in more fire fights there. As far as I know, none of my classmates had any psychological problems from service in Vietnam. I have not done a comprehensive survey. Such people generally do not advertise their problems like Craig. But still, it has been 44 years since I got back from Vietnam. I would have heard something by now if there was much to say.
Craig’s first mention of alcohol is on page 52 and says,
Apart from the rare, illicit champagne soiree [Craig spells that with an accent mark over the first e; that spelling is permissible but abnormal—Rhodes scholar affectation?] at our professor’s home, I didn’t have any distractions from the monastic life of a cadet.
I noticed when I visited West Point for my 40th reunion in September, 2008 that the professors were doing a lot of buddy-buddy stuff with the cadets including calling them by their first names. All but unheard of when I was a cadet. My Russian class went to our professor’s home for supper once. He was a civilian who defected from the Soviet Union. But he never called us by our first names nor did he ever serve us alcohol. Back then, I never heard of a cadet setting foot in the home of any West Point officer other than the Supe, Com, or Dean for an occasional party.
I am not complaining about the new buddy-buddy approach, but I don’t know what to make of it. It sure is different.
My position on alcohol, which is the subject of a brief chapter in my Succeeding book, is,
If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, quit.
Hundreds of millions of people who did not follow that advice regret it or were killed by it before they had a chance to regret it. As far as I know, no one who followed that advice has ever regretted it in the history of the human race.
To those who say I don’t know what I’m missing—like the party-girl wife of my senior year Naval Academy tactical officer—oh, yeah I do. I’m missing getting fired for being an alcoholic. I’m missing my kids calling the cops because I’m hitting my wife. I’m missing hitting another car coming back from taking my three sons to a neighboring state that allows drinking on Sunday. I could go on but that should give you the idea. But if you’re smarter than I about drinking alcohol because of your superior experience, put the lampshade back on your head and continue what you were doing. Avoid hurting another person if it’s not too much trouble.
Since I got into the business of pointing out how West Point falls short of its claims and reputation and needs to improve, it has become crystal clear the main error West Point boosters make in thinking about the issue is they attribute to West Point and the Army characteristics which they depict as unique to West Point but which are not unique. Indeed, the list of West Point’s unique characteristics is startlingly short:
• geographic location—although there are plenty of other colleges on the Hudson River
• reputation—there are no other West Points per se but there are a number of imitation West Points in the U.S., a “West Point of American Business,” and equivalent military academies in many, if not most, countries around the world—not to mention the fact that West Point’s reputation is mixed
• uniforms—unique but closely copied by a number of imitation West Point high schools and colleges
• West Point cadet lifestyle—ditto—and also a mixed blessing to be kind
• five-year active-duty obligation after graduation (shared with Air Force and Navy)
What about honor training? It exists in lots of variations at other colleges and in professional graduate schools and the clergy. Arguably, the other schools’ graduates adhere more admirably to their codes of ethics than do West Point graduate military officers. I was more impressed with the ethics of some lawyers and doctors in the military than with any line officers. See my article Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?
What about summer training? A variation on standard ROTC training. And you could get a better version of much West Point summer training, other than with heavy weapons, at various civilian schools in subjects like mountaineering, white-water rafting, marksmanship, Outward Bound, and so on.
What about academics? Ha! Go to the Ivy League, Stanford, Cal Tech or MIT, not to mention the Little Ivies, Public Ivies, or another dozen colleges, all of which have students with higher SAT scores and smarter, more academically accomplished professors than West Point.
Almost everything about West Pointers that its cadets and grads think is unique there is available in higher quality, but not mandatory, at most other colleges. For example, my oldest son was in far better shape physically in college than the majority of West Point cadets. That’s because he was a tailback on the college football team all four years.
On page 58, describing an incident during pre-sophomore year summer camp, Craig said,
In the military, I learned, details matter.
Guess what, Craig. Details matter everywhere. Read a biography of one of the top football coaches, or of Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs. In one of my books on football coaching, I said that calling a competent football coach “detail-oriented” is redundant.
Indeed, the military is a joke when it comes managerial competence because, unlike private business or competitive athletics, the military almost never loses in a way that gets them fired. The military is “civil” service. They hang around for 20 years and collect their very generous retirement benefits. They fancy themselves great managers, but that’s because they have been inside that bureaucracy since they were teenagers. Its all they know and they only compare themselves to each other. I salivate at the idea of some rigorous comparison being made of the managerial competence of military brass versus civilian entrepreneurs.
Leaving at the half-way point
You can quit West Point before the half-way point and you owe them nothing. On page 60, Craig says that,
…ensur[es] that West Point graduated only those who really wanted to be in the Army.
Like me!? I stayed after the mid-point. I also decided two months before that point that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with a career in the Army. So why did I stay? Because it was during the Vietnam war and there was a draft. If I left, I would have become an enlisted man in the Army. Not much of an improvement. And because I wanted to be a West Point graduate, but not a career officer. I figured I’ll do the five years to pay the American people back for my “free” education then get the hell out not one nanosecond after I’m allowed to.
Some may think, “but you’re unique.” Aren’t we all? On the other hand, most of my West Point classmates got out as soon as they could, too. The military was a disaster then with race problems and drug problems and as a group, my class was spit at, spit on, cursed at, and denounced by our draft-dodger peers. Not what we signed up for when we came to West Point or when we crossed the two-year point.
To say that the two-year quit or stay point “ensured that West Point graduated only those who really wanted to be in the Army” is about as far from the truth as you could get. For one thing, West Point cadets who were not in the Army before coming to West Point do not have a clue about what the Army is really like—even after two years at West Point. On a scale of 1 to 10, where West Point is a 10 in terms of being like the Army is supposed to be, the non-West Point Army is about a 0.2.
Waxing rhapsodic about being a troop leader
On page 60, Craig gets rhapsodic about wanting to be a platoon leader because he said being a squad leader at West Point’s Camp Buckner (in the back woods west of West Point’s college campus) was more satisfying than any individual achievement he had, e.g., he was valedictorian of his high school class.
He was subsequently a platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York and in Afghanistan. Technically, he was also some sort of leader in the Old Guard but that is strictly a Washington, DC ceremonial unit so I doubt it counts as the sort of leadership one could get rhapsodic about.
I was a communications platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne in the U.S., an assistant HF radio platoon leader and artillery battalion communications platoon leader in Vietnam, and a 400-man training company XO and CO in the U.S. I also had the sort of cadet training Craig had. I was not much impressed with any of it other than company commander. That, even I might get rhapsodic about. That was really fun.
But I have also done a lot of civilian equivalents of being a troop leader. I was training director of a real estate company. I was a landlord with tenants and employees for 23 years. I was a property manager with employees and hundreds of tenants. I wrote a book called How to Manage Residential Property For Maximum Cash flow and Resale Value about managing my own and others apartment buildings.
Then I coached 35 athletic teams from tee ball to high school to semi pro. I got so rhapsodic about that experience that I wrote 17 books about it. Memo to Craig and all prospective and current West Pointers: If you want to use your West Point leadership training and experience, become a coach. Unlike military officers, coaches have actual authority. Military officers have astonishingly little discretion and opportunities to make decisions. The decisions are almost all made by politicians and military bureaucrats in DC. Military officers have not to reason why, or even decide how. Theirs is but to do and die and if they survive, to write letters to the families of their subordinates who died.
As a coach, you scout the opponent, draw up a game plan, implement your plan during practice, then execute it on game day or game night. Then you study the film to see what went right and what went wrong. You correct the problems and do it again. You get actual results called scores and wins and losses. Unlike military officers, who have all sorts of theories that never get tested, coaches’ dumb ideas never last longer than one week. That’s because they get beat. You can’t just talk a good game in coaching the way you can in the military. Looking the part doesn’t get you much in coaching. It gets you a lot in the military. In coaching, we have a scoreboard. In military “leadership,” you just have a bunch of pompous-ass, olive-drab, office politicians talking a good game.
It matters not whether your players are little kids, teenagers, or full-grown adults. Coaching is the situation you were trained for at West Point. Being a platoon leader and company commander in a war, paradoxical though it may sound, is not. Authority must be commensurate with responsibility. In coaching, it is. In the military, it’s not—not even close. You want to lead? Get out of the military and become a coach.
I hasten to add that although West Point gave you the basic idea, you have a lot to learn about the details of how to coach, which is a specific type of leadership. And you have a lot to learn about the best practices of the sport in question. That’s what my books are about. They cover football and baseball only.
There is also a considerable necessity for motivation in sports coaching. Not just rah rah but finding what makes each player tick and what motivates him to do what he ought to do. You also need to develop leaders among your players.
Enough said. Volunteer for a local amateur coaching position at the youth or high school level. It’s not for everyone. But if you think you love leading young men and women, coaching is where that goes on. The military is a bureaucracy. Their purported “leaders” are, in fact, bureaucrats.
Ltc. Paul Yingling
On pages 74-5, Craig writes approvingly of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling to whom he was introduced by West Point Rhodes scholar John Nagl. I’m a Yingling fan, albeit not 100%. I have long had an article about him at my Web site. I also reviewed Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. A lot of Yingling’s criticism of the military is very similar to mine.
Craig’s Chapter 7 is about Ranger School. On page 89, he says, “By one student’s count, we would march as many miles as the distance between Boston and Philadelphia.”
The distance between Boston and Philadelphia is 309 miles. Ranger school is about two months long—call it 60 days. 309÷60 = 5 miles per day. But we generally did not march long distances every day—only during patrols. How many days were we on patrol? I’m guessing 36. I recall that we hiked about 10,000 meters per day each day of those patrols. We were read new orders daily and I believe the distance was mentioned in those briefings and that it was always about 10,000 meters. That’s 10 kilometers. 10 kilometers is 6.21 miles x 36 days = 223 miles.
When I was in high school and after West Point I ran five miles every day—either ten times around the block where my mom’s house was at 227 Penn Avenue Westmont, NY—or around the Cooper River Lake (Route 130 to Cuthbert Blvd) once. At that time, the Cooper River Lake was just a local park. Now it’s an internationally famous rowing competition venue. So I was doing the Boston to Philadelphia distance every two months just to be reasonably fit. Rangers do more like 2/3 of that, albeit on mountainous, non-level terrain during the middle, mountain, several-week phase and Ranger students carry a heavy ruck sack and weapon which I did not. Unsuccessful high school cross country runners would not be impressed with cumulative Ranger School pedometer readings.
I mainly note this to express my surprise that a guy with Craig’s extraordinary academic training, plus the editors at Penguin Press, would not make the minimal effort required to check such facts. I frequently get interviewed by the national news media. The top media outlets have a fact checker contact me after the interview to make sure of all the facts in the interview. No competent non-fiction author or editor would fail to stop at that Boston-to-Philadelphia statement and do a quick check of the distance and ranger curriculum.
I am a big critic of Ranger School and usage of Rangers in military operations. Craig and the guy he’s quoting are bragging about how tough Ranger School is, thereby elevating themselves. One of my criticisms is that there is too much tormenting the students physically and not enough imparting of information. I would cite both the 223 miles and 309 miles as evidence in support of my criticism. Ranger School and the Army and many of its graduates would have you believe that Ranger School produces supermen. I would note that whether we are walking 223 miles or 309 miles there, the damned place is apparently a hiking school, not a military tactics school. “Pride through masochism” is what I call it. It’s stupid. They need to knock off so much inflicting of physical misery and spend more time teaching a more densely packed curriculum of infantry best practices.
Grotesquely exaggerated importance of Ranger School
If you graduate from Army School, you are awarded the Ranger tab, a scroll-like patch that is worn on the top outside of the left shoulder. I graduated and was, to my surprise, recommended to be brought back as an instructor. When I went, in the summer and fall of 1968, the Ranger tab was nice to have, but a bit odd. A common complaint was to have a superior officer to call it a “snake-eating class” and to dismiss it as a waste of time.
Craig’s book is the latest to tell me that the Ranger tab is now a sine qua non for a successful career in the combat arms. Furthermore, Ranger School, which I thought arbitrarily flunked some students just to brag about how few pass, now apparently does much more of that.
This leads to many young men going to West Point, busting their asses there for four years to be combat arms officers, then they go to Ranger School, and get arbitrarily chosen to flunk out so the school can brag about how small a percentage of graduate. Thus, a gung ho, highly and expensively trained and motivated Army lieutenant is essentially told, “Nice try sucker. Now do the rest of your five years and get out.” Craig tells of commanding officers throwing newly arrived lieutenants who did not get the Ranger tab out of their units. This is absurd. The people who need to be shown the door are the officers who allowed this situation to develop and who continue to tolerate it.
Death and injury in Ranger School
A scandalous number of Ranger students have died during training. I am increasingly convinced that the people who run Ranger School want those dead ranger students so they can further brag about how tough the school is.
One contributing factor is you can flunk out for physical injury. Even when I went in 1968, my Ranger buddy had extremely severe blisters that filled his socks with blood every day. But he would not reveal the problem to the cadre for fear they would flunk him out. He persevered and got the tab and also a recommendation to be brought back as an instructor. Another of our West Point and Ranger School classmates was attacked for racial reasons (he was white) in a bad neighborhood in Columbus, GA during a brief break between Ranger School phases. The assailant severely bit his thumb. He did not seek medical attention because he knew they would flunk him out. As a result, his thumb got infected and was not treated in a way to enable it to recover optimally. He probably needed intravenous antibiotics and surgery. To this day, he has a severely mangled thumb—a manifestation more of fear of Ranger School than of the assault itself.
The extreme pressure to graduate from Ranger School is markedly encouraging injured or ill students from seeking proper medical attention. This is an insane, irresponsible way to operate a training school that is inherently physically dangerous. If a civilian school did anything remotely resembling this, they would long ago have been sued out of existence.
When he was in Ranger School, Craig was about 21 or 22. As I go through the book, I am continually surprised at how much he buys into the nutty, immature military party line of toughness and the grand heroic nature of all sorts of dopey activities like spending two months walking from Boston to Philadelphia when you are supposed to be learning how to win our wars.
This is especially surprising to me in light of his evidently extreme high IQ. It makes me think the ideas that there are IQ, EQ, Q score and numerous other Qs are quite correct. It is similar to my criticism of military training. If you spend three weeks learning how to, say, jump out of airplanes, that turns you into a person who has three weeks worth of knowledge about how to jump out of airplanes and nothing more. You have not been transformed into a superman of astonishing courage and machismo. Similarly, getting almost all A+ grades and winning the application-filling out/interview competition to get a Rhodes scholarship means you are good at formal academic test taking and making a good impression on instructors and interviewers. We draw broader conclusions about people with such test scores, school graduations, etc. at our peril.
I was a member of Mensa briefly—two monthly meetings. I was the featured speaker (on real estate finance) at the second one. My wife was the one who got me into Mensa. I assumed I was not qualified (top 2% of population with regard to IQ). She contacted Mensa and found my ATGSB, LSAT, and GRE scores were high enough. That same wife soon complained that the other Mensa members were extreme social misfit geeks who had body odor. I quit after that second meeting.
We related that to a friend once and she said the Harvard Club of San Francisco once did a joint museum briefing and visit with the local Mensa club (same one I guess) and they had the exact same impression from those few hours in an auditorium. The lesson was that the ability to score high on IQ test alone is a very narrow skill. Rhodes scholars are more broadly-skilled than those Mensa members, but their ability to gather and correctly analyze facts and draw appropriate conclusions is apparently much more narrow than I would have expected.
Who needs ambushes?
Craig said he figured when he was doing ambushes in Ranger School that he would never see any such thing during his Army service. He and his platoon were repeatedly ambushed in Afghanistan. Indeed, little else happened to him as a platoon leader there.
Craig started chewing tobacco in Ranger School!!!! He said nicotine was the only thing that could keep you awake after two or three days without sleep. I do not recall entire days without sleep unless you were on the small, daily resupply patrol. But we only got several hours a night if you were not on that patrol—the duration of the patrol.
No one who was in my Ranger School class ever gave the slightest thought to using tobacco when we were on patrol. We ate C-rations on patrol. Each contained a small pack of cigarettes. We who did not smoke tried to trade them with the smokers for non-dairy creamer packets (because we only got one C-Ration a day and were starving). The same was true of the C-Ration packet of coffee which absolutely has caffeine, a definite keep-awake chemical. Never would any smoker or coffee drinker trade away even his single packet of non-dairy creamer for coffee or cigarettes. According to Craig, use of smokeless tobacco was near universal in Ranger School!!!!
Is smokeless tobacco really a stimulant that helps keep you awake? Here is an excerpt from the http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-130231515.html Web site:
Use of smokeless tobacco raises short-term adrenaline levels in the bloodstream by more than 50 percent and also causes the heart rate and blood pressure to surge, according to findings of a Mayo Clinic study published this week in Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The results suggest that snuff tobacco has a powerful stimulant effect but that it also dampens the body's normal protective responses to blood pressure elevation.
Another Web site (http://www.acde.org/common/Tobacco.htm) says,
Despite the fact that tobacco is a stimulant, addicted smokers usually feel that smoking relaxes them.
So in other words, tobacco both keeps you awake and puts you to sleep. Setting the actual chemistry of nicotine and sleep aside, using smokeless tobacco is a habit so profoundly dangerous it rivals even Ltc. LoFaro’s unarmed charge at the M-16 shooter on the idiocy scale.
Like I said above about Rhodes scholars, their reputed intelligence is apparently of a surprisingly narrow variety.
Four chapters, no Ranger Buddy
After I finished Unforgiving Minute, I realized that although his book has four chapters about Ranger School, Craig never once mentioned the salient thing about the School: your Ranger Buddy.
The school makes a big deal out ranger buddies. You take care of each other every minute. The guys who went through the school in winter laugh about snuggling up together while sleeping for warmth. I went through the school in August and September—no snuggling. The school is very dangerous so your Ranger Buddy can literally be crucial to staying alive.
My Ranger Buddy was my roommate during First Beast in July, 1967 when we were in charge of a platoon of brand New Cadets. We double dated as cadets. We rented a house trailer together during signal officers Basic at Fort Gordon and an apartment during various specialty courses at Fort Monmouth. We jointly invented what we called The System—a way of overcoming the difficulties of meeting quality women while at West Point and in the Army. The longest chapter in my book Succeeding is about the System, which is how I met my wife.
On my way to Vietnam, I spent several days visiting him a Fort Carson, CO. We set up an illicit way of talking to each other by ham radio when we were in Vietnam. We went on leave to Hong Kong together from Vietnam. We again rented an apartment together on our second tour at Fort Monmouth. He was best man at my wedding. We still talk almost weekly after first meeting in sister squads in Beast Barracks as plebes in July, 1964. We spent a lot of time together before, after, and at our 40th reunion in September, 2008. During Ranger School, we composed two songs about the place which you can see at www.johntreed.com/lyrics.html. The cadre got wind of the songs and made us perform them for the class and cadre during the mountain phase.
Indeed, he and I got along so well together that the Ranger cadre commented on it repeatedly and finally decided we were having too easy a time of it in Ranger School because of our extraordinary Ranger Buddyship so they forced us to have new Ranger Buddies for the last part of the mountain phase and the Florida swamp final phase. I also spent some time with that second Ranger Buddy at the 40th reunion. The practical effect of them forcing us to get new Ranger Buddies was that my new one and my old one and I became a trio for the mountain and swamp phase.
Once, in a mountain ambush of a truck convoy, I went along the trucks at the end and asked the “dead aggressors” in each truck if they had any food. I brought money to buy it. I bought a can of Franco American spaghetti with six meatballs from an “aggressor.” My two Ranger Buddies and I each ate two of the meatballs. I don’t like meatballs, actually, but we were starving.
Another West Point Rhodes scholar before Craig went to Ranger School and died of heat stroke. He never made it to Oxford. My first reaction was, “Where was his Ranger Buddy?”
I have the same reaction about Craig’s talking about Ranger School for four chapters and never once mentioning his Buddy. I cannot imagine they eliminated the Buddy requirement. Your buddy is crucial to getting you through the damned school. Yet Craig makes zero mention of him. Very odd. Like a famous trapeze artist talking at length about his career and not mentioning the guy who catches him.
Craig severely injured his shoulder at West Point. So much so that it sounds to me like he should have been discharged as no longer physically fit for military service. His shoulder subsequently became dislocated again and again at West Point and in Ranger School and in his military unit. He talks about a platoon leader making a mistake that “killed his platoon.”
How about the intentional mistake of concealing an unserviceable shoulder joint, including when sent to the 10th Mountain Division and to an extremely mountainous war zone like Afghanistan? Craig says his shoulder dislocated when he was halfway up an 80-foot cliff during the mountain phase of Ranger School. As always with Ranger School injuries and throughout Craig’s West Point and Army officer careers, he concealed the problem from his superiors. Suppose it dislocated when he was in Afghanistan? Some of his men might have died as a result of that additional unnecessary weak sister handicap in combat, or even with no enemy action. Afghanistan’s mountains are treacherous without enemy fire. At the very least, he had a moral obligation to disclose the problem to his superiors and colleagues throughout his time at West Point and in the Army.
Cadets and officers have no right to subject anyone to the additional risk that their shoulder might go out at a dangerous time. West Point graduate Buzz Aldrin concealed his alcoholism from NASA and his colleagues and thereby succeeded in being the second man on the moon. It was wrong of him to do that. A bum shoulder is a greater danger to a 10th Mountain Division unit in Afghanistan than alcoholism is to an lunar landing. There are no liquor stores on the moon. There are mountains in Afghanistan.
Craig repeatedly speaks of the responsibility for the safety of his men. He does not speak of it much, to my bewilderment, but he also has a bigger responsibility than the safety of his men: defense of the nation, which breaks down to accomplishing the mission at hand from his platoon’s perspective. Actions speak louder than words. His much professed concern for achieving perfection with regard to being an officer is utterly contradicted by his actions of concealing his shoulder problem from everyone including those who might have been killed by it. Toughness is a value. So are responsibility and ambition. Character is revealed when we have to resolve conflicts between values. Craig decided his ambition and toughness trumped his responsibility to reveal his shoulder problem.
In spite of the great quantity of introspection and interest in philosophical and moral questions in his book, Craig never even mentions the moral question of concealing the shoulder problem. It jumped out at me. Indeed, he seemed to talk about it repeatedly to prove his extreme toughness to the reader. He is lucky he did not have a guy like me as his company commander. If I caught a platoon leader concealing a problem like that in a mountain division in a mountainous region war zone I would have raised holy hell and instantly shipped his ass to Walter Reed for an evaluation of his combat fitness. I would expect they would profile him so he was a desk jockey thereafter or even discharge him as disabled.
Another interesting psychological study would be how the extremely confident and forceful spouting of military clichés impresses otherwise intelligent people.
When we were sophomores at West Point, my roommate Dan Kaufman and I ate supper one night at our normal mess hall table, only Chargin’ Charlie Beckwith was there as a guest eating at our table for some reason. Read the Wikipedia write-up on him. I would describe him as a caricature of a Gung Ho Army officer. He was the founder of Delta Forces. He is best known for the so screwed up and ill-conceived it was almost funny Operation Eagle Claw—the disastrous attempt to rescue the Iran American hostages during the Clinton Administration. Eight of the Americans involved were killed by their fellow Americans and the rescuers did not get anywhere even close to the hostages. His career should have ended then if not sooner, but his larger-than-life personality apparently buffaloed his superiors into letting him hang around a while longer.
All through the meal he was saying stuff like “Ya gotta move, shoot, and communicate!” and “Drive on!” and “All the way!” Every word was spoken as if he just got it from God on Mount Sinai. You’ve seen variations of this act on TV and in movies by R. Lee Ermey and Robert Blake, and softer-spoken versions like Jack Webb and Barack Obama. Super emphatic. Doesn’t have an indoor voice. More sure about everything that anyone on earth has a right to be about anything. The current world champ of exuding an impossible degree of certainty and confidence is a purported mid-East military expert talking head named Andrew Exum. Read Exum’s Wikipedia entry and see if you can figure out why he’s so thrilled with himself and so sure of his opinions on faraway places where he only visited for relatively brief periods.
When we got back to our room, Dan said Beckwith was extremely impressive. I responded, “I would have been more impressed if every single word out of his mouth had not been military clichés.” Dan was taken aback by that and I could see his brain replaying Beckwith’s statements during the meal. “You know, you’re right. I can’t remember him saying anything original or thoughtful.” Was Dan smart? Smarter than I. He was a star man (top 5%). I was not. He was later Dean of the Academic Board at West Point. He was head of the West Point Social Studies Department when Craig was a cadet. But he required a “Thanks, I needed that” figurative slap across the face to wake up and see Beckwith for what he was.
Craig Mullaney needs the same slap. Throughout his book, he recites, seemingly in awe and reverence, the various military clichés he heard. For example, on page 107, this gem from a 10th Mountain Division sergeant,
Use the mountains or they will use you.
Is mountaineering difficult and an area where skill and great care are crucial? Yep. Is “use the mountain” a useful thought for acquiring such skill and habits? Nope. It’s a meaningless sentence that is catchy because of its cadence and rhythm, period. I could give you a zillion examples from Craig’s book like that. He and others impressed by such Mount Sinai pronouncements uttered by members of the military need to separate the theatrical performance from the underlying message. When they do, they recognize it’s total bullshit.
I see on TV they have lots of new military clichés like “Huah!” and “It’s all good” and “Good to go.”
All bullshit, but always stated with impressive emphatic-ness and other only-in-Hollywood certainty.
Sing it and pound it
The persuasive power of the military’s encyclopedic collection of meaningless clichés is not surprising when you consider that two professions focused on persuading people to believe things that are not true have sayings that also describe the military use of clichés.
Madison Avenue is the iconic location of the advertising industry. One of the standard pieces of advice to advertisement creators there is,
If you have something to say, say it. If you have nothing to say, sing it.
In other words, when there is no substance behind your attempt to persuade, use a jingle, e.g., Coke’s “It’s the real thing.” Does the military have jingles? They got a million of them, like, “I wanna live a life of danger, I wanna be an airborne ranger.”
Trial lawyers have this saying,
If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts.
If the law is on your side, pound on the law.
If neither is on your side, pound on the table.
There is no bigger bunch of table pounders than military NCOs and the many officers who try to emulate them. Craig is a smart guy in many ways but throughout his book he reveals that he fell hook, line, and sinker for these cheap tricks of persuasion in the Army.
Like football practice
The guy who told Craig to “Use the mountain or it will use you,” Sergeant Oakes, actually had better ideas on training than I ever saw in the Army. He was more realistic adding in casualties, blindfolds to reflect the smoke, dust, and darkness of combat. Oakes had a football practice approach. I think that’s correct. I have an article called “A football coach analyzes U.S. military tactics and strategy” at this Web site. But I must add that I am skeptical that a Marine Sergeant knows how to run a football team. So when was Oakes a competent football coach? My guess is his knowledge of how to coach a football team stems from faded memories of being a high school football player and media accounts of how football practices work.
I have coached 15 football teams and written eight books about how to do it. Basically, the Army needs film of past battles or fire fights and scout film of their upcoming opponent. Get both from Predator drones these days. Then they need to recreate actual battles based on those films and interviews with the participants. Somewhere in America there are probably mountains very much like those in Afghanistan. The 10th Mountain Division and the Ranger School Mountain phase (here’s a video of it) need to go there to train, not in Washington Irving country in upstate New York or in Dahlonega, GA. Upstate NY is where you go to rehearse reenacting the Battle of the Bulge. Dahlonega, GA is where you go to rehearse reenacting the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Even with Oakes’ attempts at realism, Craig said they still fell short leaving out, for example, the slipperiness of the stretchers when they are covered with blood. In football, I brought buckets of water to practice some days to make the balls wet especially for long snapper practice. We practiced kicking field goals and PATs from soaking wet muddy ground. One lesson we learned was to not put the ball in the center for PATs. The little known rule is you can put the ball anywhere between the hashes for PAT plays. We moved it to a dry spot for PATs even though it was off center.
West Point became accredited for the purpose of making its student eligible to win Rhodes scholarships. It was unaccredited until 1925. Given its mission of training career Army officers, I wonder if accreditation is appropriate. I and my friends and relatives were surprised at how civilian college it was with regard to the subjects we studied. We only had two military courses, ordnance engineering and history of the military art, in four years. I suspect the accrediting authorities forced them to teach almost all civilian-type courses. To justify its existence, they probably ought to abandon the accreditation and teach more military stuff.
I’m not sure about that, but I am sure about this. There is not a snowball’s chance in La Jolla that what West Point graduates experience at Oxford is a cost effective use of their time for the purposes of national defense. Army officers are not elbow-patch intellectuals. If I understand correctly, Rhodes scholars have no classes or tests. They are simply assigned an adviser with whom they meet occasionally. The rest of the time is spent researching and hanging around with other Oxford students. Drinking in pubs during intellectual bull sessions seems to be the main activity. Wandering around the town of Oxford, England, and Europe and the Middle East and Africa seemed to be the secondary activities.
Nice work if you can get it, but it sure as hell is not advancing the cause of U.S. national defense. Rhodes pays the room, board, and tuition, but West Point Rhodes Scholars are active duty U.S. Army officers getting paid their normal salaries while they are there, and doing absolutely nothing to earn those salaries.
So what’s really going on here? West Point is accredited so cadets can win Rhodes scholarships. West Point ranks fourth in Rhodes scholarships won with 85. Having so many was part of why Forbes magazine ranked West Point the best college in America. The 82 Rhodes scholarships tail seems to be wagging the 60,000 Military Academy graduates dog. It switched from a military to a civilian curriculum so cadets could be Rhodes scholars. And it has let 85 graduates spend two years on full military pay and benefits lollygagging around Oxford and Europe shooting the intellectual shit with primarily anti-war civilians. Have the Rhodes scholars turned out to be great generals?
Craig Mullaney got out of the Army ASAP. I am not aware of any great West Point generals who were Rhodes scholars. There have been some prominent ones like Wes Clark and Pete Dawkins (who also won the Heisman Trophy), but I cannot think of any great generals who were Rhodes scholars. Indeed, I can’t think of many non-Rhodes scholar great generals who are alive. Clearly, letting West Point graduates spend two years at Oxford produces no direct benefits and may be detrimental in that such a resume entry creates more opportunities for the graduates in question outside the military than in it.
It appears that West Point’s and the Army’s participation in the Rhodes scholarship program has no purpose other than allowing those two institutions to claim, “See, we’re smart, too, just like you civilian colleges!” Such therapy for the military’s well-earned and well-deserved intellectual inferiority complex is not an appropriate use of defense resources. The Army does not need Rhodes scholars to defend the country, only to defend the college’s intellectual bona fides. What the military does is mainly a blue-collar activity akin to demolition contracting. Does a respected construction company like, say, Bechtel Corporation, seek Rhodes Scholars or send junior executives to loaf around a university campus somewhere for two years? I doubt it. Why would West Point do that but not Bechtel? Because West Point has a huge intellectual inferiority complex and Bechtel does not.
The last sentence of Craig’s first chapter about Oxford says,
In any case, I would agree with the author Graham Greene by the end of two years, “Oxford at least taught me to drink pint by pint with any man.”
On page 136, Craig says
[Oxford] students seemed to divide their time between sports, travel, and pub. Studying was distant fourth priority.
On page 161,
…Oxford breaks up a year-long vacation with just three eight-week terms. By my calculation, I had roughly forty week of available time to hop around the globe before my return to the Army.
Your tax dollars at work.
To avoid being accused of taking out of context, on the next sentence on page 136, he says those,
…within a year of their final exam practically lived in the library.
In the margin at the end of the first chapter on Oxford, I wrote,
This book is a travelogue.
Now that I’ve read the whole book, I think Craig’s best suited to be a travel writer.
On page 161, Craig says,
Southeast Asia introduced me to chaos.
Me, too, in 1969. I know how tough finding a decent hotel can be in that region.
Craig said he derived comfort from ambiguity which turned out to be “…essential in leading in combat…” So change the curriculum of West Point to match that of Oxford. Have the cadets wander the earth for two years on their own because being a tourist in Bangkok and Istanbul is equivalent to the military training at West Point. Page 168—really.
At Oxford, tobacco-chewing Craig Mullaney also worked on his alcohol-drinking skills. He seems to talk about it more than most with identical drinking habits would have done, as if he sees it as a virtue to be bragged about. As the son of an alcoholic, I see the eagerness to mention alcohol as danger signs.
What to ask
On page 136, he has an interesting observation.
Where the military academy had taught me how to answer questions, Oxford taught me what to ask.
I think the first half of that sentence is off. The more accurate version would be,
Where the military academy had taught me how to find the answers to mechanical questions,…
By mechanical questions I mean,
How many lights are in Cullum Hall?
What do you get when you cross a hippopotamus with a rhinoceros? (Hippopotamus rhinoceros sin θ)
What is the boiling point of water at an altitude of 16,000 feet?
I made a similar observation when I attended a day of classes at the Wharton MBA program with a West Point classmate who was in that program.
At Wharton, they teach how to count. At Harvard Business School, they teach what counts.
Is learning what to ask a productive step in one’s development? Yes, unless you are going to be a career Army officer, in which case I suspect it will get you into trouble, not advance your career. As Tennyson said of the role of military officers:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Surprisingly, Craig said they learned it was a bad idea to reveal to non-Americans at Oxford that you were a Rhodes scholar. A number of them had made bad impressions in various ways in the past. Then he adds,
As at West Point, perception and reality were two different things.
Well, that begs a huge,
Hold it. What did you mean by that?
But Craig says no more about what he means. See my article Should you to go, or stay at, West Point? for what is probably of lot of what he means.
Hee are several interesting sentences from page 141,
As a second-year cadet at Camp Buckner, I had my copy of 1984 confiscated. Now I had a chance to finish where I left off. Reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had me convinced for a period of weeks that West Point had much in common with an insane asylum. Oxford, in general, made me much more skeptical of authority.
I never heard of a book like 1984 being confiscated. Playboy magazine, yes. But I don’t doubt it. The Army is a Kafkaesque nightmare and West Point is part of the Army. West Point is not an asylum. It is a medium-security prison.
With regard to skepticism toward authority, he said his West Point and Rhodes scholar classmate Liz Young said
…we had volunteered for the Army. She also reminded me that we would soon be the authority.
The volunteering is irrelevant because they were teenagers when they volunteered. They knew neither themselves nor the Army.
The notion that they would soon BE the authority is simply dead wrong. No one outside the Pentagon or the White House or Congress has any authority in the U.S. military. You only get to make little decisions like Article 15 punishments or when to take a beak on a long hike. All other decisions are made by much higher ups. The owner of a hole-in-the-wall Main Street candy store has more authority than any three-star general in the Army. I am not exaggerating. For example, the candy store owner can decide whom to hire, fire, and promote. Three-star generals cannot do any of those things.
‘Great future behind him’
On page 187, Craig says,
Two years in England had made me soft. When we took the first PT test…I flopped. I hoped I wasn’t going to prove the old joke that a Rhodes scholar was someone with a great future behind him.
I thought he spent part of the two years in England worrying about not letting his men down. I would expect a young West Point officer anywhere to stay in shape, especially at Oxford where he seemed not to have much else to do. When I was at Harvard, three years after I got out of the Army, I was jogging around the Charles River and playing squash and intramural sports. I barely knew any West Pointers who were not doing similar things in my first ten years or so out of West Point.
The only PT test I ever flunked was an obstacle course at West Point when I had the flu but did not know it until the test. A doctor wrote me a note. I took it again a couple of weeks later without doing anything to prepare for it and passed it just fine. None of my friends at West Point ever flunked a PT test there or in the Army. And I was no Stanley-McChrystal-no-body-fat PT nut.
Here’s Craig Mullaney anguishing repeatedly during West Point, Ranger School, and Oxford about not letting his men down in combat and he could not be bothered to stay in enough shape to pass a PT test. I thought Army PT tests were a joke. At West Point, we had to run a mile in six minutes to keep our privileges. Some guys could not, but marathon runners do not even take six minutes to run a mile when they run 23 of them at one time. High school cross country and track runners who finish last do not take that long. At West Point and in ranger school, I put tick marks on my watch to tell me how much to slow down so I would finish in about 5:50. No need to bust my ass. There were no bonus points for finishing in 5:30 or whatever.
The “great future behind him” line is interesting. Based on my unresearched impressions, I suspect that every West Point Rhodes scholar has been a disappointment. That’s not to say they did less well in life than I did, or that they are homeless. Rather I am saying a Rhodes scholarship is a hard act to follow. 32 were awarded in the U.S. in 2009. How does one remain in the top 32 people in their birth year peer group for the rest of their life? Has any Rhodes scholar other than Bill Clinton done so? Maybe George Stephanopolous.
The biggest West Point Rhodes scholar disappointment was probably Pete Dawkins. He also won the Heisman Trophy and was First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. So what has he done since? Made brigadier general rather early then got out of the Army. Ran unsuccessfully for NJ senator. Works on Wall Street.
I suspect topping the Rhodes scholarship is extremely rare among those who get it. Having a “great future behind them” is probably the rule. Indeed, I suspect it is a handicap in the sense that it causes jealousy and sort of promises more than you could possibly deliver everywhere you go in life. There is only one way to disappoint people when doing a good job: promise more than you deliver. A Rhodes scholar starting a new job says implicitly, “I was one of the top 32 people my age in the whole country when I graduated from college.” Yet there is little chance the Rhodes scholar will be even in the top two or three at the new job, at least initially. The fact that you impressed college teachers seven years go does not mean you are a great maker or seller of widgets now. How would you like that millstone around your neck for your whole life after grad school?
There’s an old rhetorical question:
If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?
I suspect Rhodes scholars trigger that thought—with various words substituted for “rich”—about 20 times a day in the people they meet.
If you’re so smart, why ain’t you the boss?
If you’re so smart, why ain’t you president?
If you’re so smart, why ain’t you tenured?
If you’re so smart, why’d you spill your coffee?
If you’re so smart, why didn’t you know an ineligible lineman can receive a backward pass?
I suspect all West Point Rhodes scholars think they’re destined to become president. Wes Clark ran in 2004 but failed. Dawkins was probably running for senate as a stepping stone to the White House. The back flap on Craig’s book says,
Craig M. Mullaney is currently a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Project.
Et tu, Craig?
Early success or failure
One of the principles of my Succeeding book pertains to Rhodes scholars. It’s chapter 9 “Find your medium.” Its point is that we make our living by relating to other humans in one way or another. Finding the medium through which you do that best is crucial. Few people have ever given even the slightest thought to this important concept.
The longest chapter of that book is called “Spouse Choice’ and is about the most important decision you ever make. In that chapter, I talk about The System—a method a West Point roommate and I developed for meeting women. More about that later. Here, I will just talk about medium. My roommate and I decided the medium in which the two of us did best at relating to women was a well-lit, quiet, sit-down, restaurant with wait staff. That had the right duration, ambience, mood, etc. to let us show ourselves at our best. The more salient 20-something meeting medium was a dark, loud, smoke-filled, broken-glass-covered-floor singles bar. (I was a bar tender in one at the Jersey Shore during my two months graduation leave in the summer of 1968.) So we structured our System to begin with a lunch first meeting at the restaurant of the woman’s choice. A matchmaking organization called “It’s Just Lunch” came into being a decade or more later.
Craig’s medium: school
One medium where Craig does well is formal educational institutions like high school and college. The evidence? His Rhodes scholarship. He was also valedictorian of his high school class and salutatorian of his West Point class.
The point of my book chapter is that we are thrust into media—namely, youth and scholastic sports, youth activities, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college—without any attempt to ascertain whether those media suit us. Then, we tend to draw strong conclusions from how well we do in those media.
Inevitably, a few do quite well. They are “big fish in small childhood ponds” or media. Most do not. The great tragedy, that adversely affects most lives, is drawing overly firm, overly broad conclusions from those early experiences.
Overly firm, overly broad conclusions
The chapter ends with this principle in bold face type:
Do not draw overly firm conclusions from your early successes or failures.
As an Army officer, young civilian, coach of over 900 athletes, and how-to writer to hundreds of thousands of people, I have seen people violate this principle a zillion times, and achieve less than they were capable of again and again as a result.
One example is the boy with a good birthday, that is, one that makes him one of the very oldest boys in Little League or some other you sport. The oldest kids do best in youth sports. See an extensive discussion of that in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The youngest, generally do the worst. I have coached them and watched them as they grew older. The ones with the oldest “league ages” swagger around too cool for school. Like chickens in the barn yard, the others accept that “pecking order” and walk around with their heads down.
A tale of two tailbacks
Both groups are hurt by this. The “stars” figure they will always be stars no matter the size of the “pond.” Almost inevitably, they are shocked to learn about such things as late growth spurts, failing to hustle, and their relative talent in bigger “ponds.” The biggest swelled head among my oldest son’s teammates was born August 6th, five days from the ideal Little League and youth football birthday of August 1st. Also, his father was offensive coordinator almost every year of his youth career. He got the tailback job. My son Dan was put at fullback. By high school, the lucky birthday boy thought he was God’s gift.
Dan had a lousy birth date for Little League and youth football: 6/26. Fortunately, to a large extent because I was his father, my son did not draw an overly firm conclusion from his early relative lack of athletic success. Dan ended up getting recruited to Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale, as well as many Division III high-academic colleges for football. He was a tailback for four years in the Ivy League at Columbia.
What happened to the swelled head boy? He failed to keep up with his peers size wise and flunked off his freshman team. I never heard that he ever played again. I do not know what happened to him.
But most of the kids with lousy birthdays faired poorly, too. They did not do well in sports or school social life or grades and concluded their life destiny was mediocrity. In the vast majority of cases, that is probably a self-fulfilling prophesy.
There are youtubes of me making a speech where I discuss avoiding “little old meism” and avoiding what I calling “being a weed.” Both relate to the medium-overly-firm conclusions message of my Succeeding book. You can see them at www.johntreed.com/succeeding.html.
Rhodes scholars need an adult encore
The lesson for Rhodes scholars is, “OK, you were a hot stuff student in a succession of ‘ponds’ including the entire-nation-size pond.” Way to go! I’m impressed. However, student in a formal diploma- or degree-awarding educational institution is only one medium. Furthermore, it is a childhood-early-twenties-only medium. What’re you going to do for your adult encore?
I suspect many, maybe most, Rhodes scholars have trouble not drawing an overly firm, overly broad conclusion from their early success winning the Rhodes scholarship. Ditto the challenge of recognizing that they only succeeded in one narrow medium—a medium that is only for the very young. After Oxford, they need to start all over from scratch figuring out what adult medium is the best for them. Then they need to learn how to succeed in that medium. Reliance on impressing people with the Rhodes scholarship in adulthood is probably a huge mistake.
I also talk about that in Succeeding. See my discussion of mystique that begins on page 30 of Succeeding. I have no Rhodes scholarship, but I have experienced the mystique of being a Harvard MBA, West Point graduate, ranger, paratrooper, nationally-known author, combat vet. One short item: When Craig arrives at a new job or other activity, he will be the Rhodes scholar, West Point, Afghan vet guy. After he’s there a week or so, he’ll be Craig.
Backbone of the Army
We were told at West Point and in the Army that the NCOs are the backbone of the Army. It’s a lie. One motive for telling the lie is they are in a position to be the backbone of the Army. And you ain’t getting any sergeants but the ones you have so you’d better build them up. Another motive for telling the lie is that the sergeants can torpedo your career if you do not stay on their good side. In many cases, staying on their good side means overlooking corruption, laziness, incompetence, and so on.
On page 192, Craig says,
Platoon sergeants run the Army.
I don’t think he meant to lie. He’s young and naive. He’s just repeating what he was told and wants to believe.
The truth is the quality of personnel in the Army at all ranks is an extremely mixed bag and generally several notches lower than in private business in the civilian world. I had sergeants who should have been court martialed. (I tried but was not allowed.) When I was in the Army, they invented the new position of Command Sergeant Major of the Army. That is, the top NCO in the whole Army. His office was near that of the Chief of Staff in the Pentagon. The very first one was court martialed and sent to prison for some sort of corruption.
Like I said.
I saw some good sergeants, but they were the exception. Most were mediocre or lousy. Same with the officers and lower enlisted men. About the only group I saw that was consistent on quality now that I think about it was warrant officers. And the public and even the Army barely knows they exist. The doctors and dentists were also good.
Who really runs the Army? No one. What do you think acronyms like SNAFU and FUBAR are about?
Kafka and platoon sergeants
One of the things Craig says his platoon sergeant taught him was how to navigate the Kafkaesque Army bureaucracy to get things done. He actually used the word “Kafka” on page 193. I have often described the military as Kafkaesque. I am glad to now have Rhodes scholar seconding of the description.
But I must note that these two guys—Craig and his platoon sergeant—who up til then had spent their entire adult lives inside the belly of the Kafkaesque beast, thought this skill was admirable. The larger issue is that Kafkaesque organizations should be wiped off the face of the earth. Barring that, they must be avoided. The big picture correct response to discovery of the sergeant’s bureaucracy skills and the crucial need for them should have been for Craig to put a note in his personal data assistant for 2007; “Get out of Army.” He did get out of the Army that year. Whether it was pursuant to a 2002 “to do” list note, I do not know.
Craig’s platoon sergeant was good at overcoming that which should not need to be overcome: bureaucratic sloth and ineptitude. That it does need to be overcome within the government is a testament to the profound incompetence, immorality, and poor design of bureaucracy. Outside of the government, and outside of non-government bureaucracies, in the entrepreneurial private business world, the Kafkaesque nightmare is all but non-existent. I sure as hell do not have it in my one-man, home-office-based business. You only get one life. Live it away from Kafka.
If you are a West Point cadet now, quit, lest you end up inside the belly of the Kafkaesque beast. If you are not in the military but are considering it, don’t.
On page 196, Craig approvingly quotes the Infantry Field Manual saying:
1. In combat, infantrymen who are moving are attacking.
2. Infantrymen who are not attacking are preparing to attack.
What kind of bullshit is this? In combat, you survey the situation continuously and take appropriate action. Custer should not have been attacking at Little Big Horn. He should have been hauling his dumb ass out of there—at least to more defensible ground. Ditto the guys in the Alamo when Santa Ana was approaching.
This infantry manual quote makes no mention of the situation, terrain, positions of the opposing forces, firepower of each side, mission, how much ammunition you have left, number of troops on each side, etc. You cannot make decisions about things like attacking without that information. In many cases, you need to go on defense or retreat. In the disastrous for the Confederacy Battle of Gettysburg, it was said that Robert E. Lee was seized with a mindless aggressiveness. The Union did not attack. They made sure they got the best ground then defended it against Lee’s attacks. Lee lost the battle and the war, not for lack of attacking, but because of too much attacking.
As a veteran and as a football coach, I well understand the bias in favor of taking the initiative, however, my undergraduate and graduate school alma maters didn’t graduate no fool. When we faced a three touchdown favorite in the final game of 2004, I used a whole-game slowdown—the opposite of attacking—to hold down the overall scoring. We won the game.
The Infantry Manual sounds like it was written by some adolescent, jingle-singing, table-pounding, ain’t-got-no-edjumacation NCO—or spoken verbally by an illiterate Muslim jihadist. Is the Craig who approves this attack, attack nonsense the same guy who is trying to avoid “killing his platoon?”
‘The great privilege of command’
At his San Francisco speech and in his book, he talked about the “privilege” of commanding American soldiers in combat. Had I been his company commander in Afghanistan and he said that to me in private before his first patrol I would have given him a look that said, “This ain’t Founders Day, Craig.” I might have said something like, “You need to focus on the task at hand here and now. You can wax poetic about it later, if you survive it. Be careful, understand?”
Founders Day is an annual dinner of West Point graduates at locations all around the world to celebrate the founding the U.S. Military Academy. There are typically three speeches.
And pork rinds?
Craig apparently tried to convince his platoon that he was one of them, i.e., that he liked stock car races, country music, and unions.
Sounds like a scene in an episode of All in the Family where Meathead tried to convince a couple of black home invasion robbers that everything was OK because he was a liberal. Or like 1980 presidential candidate George H.W. Bush (The First) telling people he liked pork rinds to try to compensate for his preppy, Yale upbringing.
Memo to Craig and other rookie platoon leaders: Be yourself.
His platoon, like mine back in 1969, was a mess: non-payment of debts, AWOL, divorces, delinquent child support. As I have said in my impolitic manner time and again, the personnel in the U.S. military are often astonishingly poor quality. I grew up lower middle class, but when I arrived in the non-West Point Army, I commented to my mom and other relatives that I had not known people so stupid and screwed up existed. One of my college grad cousins was in the reserves and had to spend several months on active duty going through Basic and AIT. He told me of his own similar astonishment and evidentiary anecdotes. When I exchanged notes with my Ranger Buddy who was at Fort Carson when I was at the 82nd, it appeared his straight-leg (non-airborne) troops were far more mature and intelligent than my paratroopers. Craig’s 10th Mountain Division sounds more like my paratroopers than Fort Carson’s legs.
The pro forma party line is always that they’re the “damned finest most outstanding soldiers in the world” and all that. American soldiers do “saddle up” and march toward the sound of the guns. I’ll give them that. When you think about it, darned few countries actually have soldiers who will do that. But I think Rudyard Kipling captured the multiple facets of the real world soldier far better than Craig with his poem Tommy (British slang for soldier; ditto “red coats”):
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o'beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's ``Thank you, Mister Atkins,'' when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's ``Thank you, Mr. Atkins,'' when the band begins to play.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy how's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints:
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind,"
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!
The difference between Kipling’s truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, about real soldiers, and Craig’s emphasis on politic lavish praise for “privilege” of leading the troops seems to be, as “Tommy Atkins” might put it,
that Kipling ain’t runnin’ fer nuttin’
‘Fall in love’
Craig had a “to do” list when he want to Oxford. One item on it was inspired by older West Point Rhodes scholar John Nagl telling him, “Oxford is a target-rich environment” with regard to the opposite sex. Craig then wrote “Fall in love” on his Oxford bucket list.
To make the long story in the book short, at Oxford Craig met a fellow American student whose parents were South Indian. He had to ask her for a date many times before she sort of accepted without realizing it was a date. Same thing with regard to her accepting his marriage proposals. She resisted. He persisted. Persistence won. All I know is what’s in the book and they are now living happily ever after.
However, I spent a lot of time and thought on pursuing the opposite sex because of the extreme difficulty in that realm imposed by West Point’s isolated location and rules and the more isolated places where they sent lieutenants, e.g., Ranger School; Fayetteville, NC; and Vietnam. His apparent “all’s well that ends well” results notwithstanding, several aspects of Craig’s approach trigger my “Don’t try this at home” protective impulse towards my readers.
1. You don’t date someone whom you will encounter repeatedly after you ask her for the first date. That is, fellow students in the same school, co-workers, the loan officer at your bank, etc. Why, especially when most people do exactly that? Listen up Rhodes scholars in “target-rich environments.” The reason is because you break up with all but one woman. Breaking up is bad enough. Why compound it by also screwing up your time at your school or work or at your regular bank in the bargain? Craig was frequently with a group of American students at Oxford. His now wife, who was on a less famous scholarship, was in the group.
You don’t date from that “target-rich” group. You date other students at the school whom you do not have to see regularly. There are plenty of fish in the sea as your mom told you. She did not tell you how to meet them, but my Ranger Buddy and I figured that out big time with our aforementioned System. See my Succeeding book for details. So not dating people you see regularly may be easy for us to say because we met more women than we could fit into our social schedule with The System, but it’s still the right policy. If you have fallen in love with a regular acquaintance, to quote Craig’s list, you quit the job, change banks, or start hanging around with a different group of students, then ask the woman in question for the date.
2. “Fall in love” is not the proper “to do” list item. It reminds me of the cadets who signed up for a wedding slot at the cadet chapel right after graduation and wrote “to be announced later” in the bride space on the lottery entry. My “to do” list entry was more correct. It said “Meet for lunch each week one attractive college grad woman who is my age or up to three years younger and who lives within 60 minutes drive of my house.” Falling in love is a by-product of getting to know dozens of qualified women. With The System, we did exactly that for years. My attractive, three-years younger, college grad wife, Marty, was my Thanksgiving weekend Sunday, 1972 woman of the week for the meeting meal. We fell in love and have been together since then.
3. You ask a woman for a date once. If she says, “no,” move on. Whether you should ask her to marry you more than once lends itself less to a flat yes or no answer. It depends on the details of the relationship.
Six months after we met, I asked Marty to become exclusive (go steady, stop dating others). She said no and laughed nervously. The next morning after we had breakfast, I asked her for directions to a nearby town. She knew without my saying so that the reason was I was meeting my new woman of the week there. And by then she also know me well enough to know that she would never see me again.
I stopped calling her and instantly filled all my weekend nights with other women whom I was trying to fit in. My Ranger Buddy and I called it “signaling to the bull pen” which we accompanied by holding up either our right or left forearm and pointing to it with the other hand like a pro baseball manager saying, “Send me the right hander.”
Marty had opened a new slot by turning me down and being taken out of my “rotation.” I also kept meeting the new women every week throughout the time Marty and I were non-exclusively dating. That was one of the rules my Ranger Buddy and I were very disciplined about. We found other men tended to become one-woman men too quickly in relationships and thereby lost bargaining power and perspective on their relationships because the alternative to the woman they were dating was sitting home alone on Friday and Saturday nights—and, God forbid, New Year’s Eve.
When you date as many women as we did, you get a lot of practice at everything romantic including getting over relationships that ended. The trick is to put the woman out of your mind and focus on other women and other things. That’s what I did regarding Marty. My old relationship is dead. Long live my new relationship.
That would have been the end of Marty and me except that one day four or five weeks later, I arrived at the real estate company where I worked and found her sitting at the side chair at my desk. I gave her a “So what’re you doing here?” look. She explained she had gotten a doggie bone for my mom’s dog at a meal the night before. I gave her another look that meant, “And what’s the real reason?” She had changed her mind about going steady. Two years later, we got married and lived happily ever after except during our relatively frequent arguments.
My wife is extremely feisty. So am I. So are each of our three sons. We are five different varieties of feisty, but all equally feisty. Marty’s mom once said to me after observing her and me interacting over a long period, “You’re good for Marty. She had an Army enlisted man boyfriend in high school in Ethiopia and he was always ‘yes dear this’ and ‘yes dear that.’ She would have eaten him alive. You stand up to her. She needs that.”
I would add that Marty pretty much had decided never to marry before she met me because other men would not stand up to her and they were always trying to bullshit her. As my readers know, being a no-bullshit guy is my middle name. On our first date, she showed me her Mark Spitz in a Speedo with his 7 gold medals poster on the wall of her apartment and asked me what I thought of it.
“Good-looking guy,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what a lousy personality you heard he has?”
“You didn’t put that poster up because of his personality.”
The main point here is bargaining power. Because of the System, we had huge bargaining power. Indeed, there was a bit of a problem because we had so many women in the “bullpen‚ who were either due for a second, third, fourth, or fifth date or for being dropped, that we dropped to many of them for little reason. With some, we heard through the grapevine that they were astonished and angry that after several dates that seemed to go so well, they never heard from us again. The reason was they got edged out by the tiniest things because of the arithmetic of meeting a woman a week combined with there only being two prime date nights per weekend.
If I had it to do over, I would meet one woman every other week after the first couple of months in a new area. That way I could get to know them better before I felt pressured to drop them to make room for a second- or third-date woman who was still on her best behavior with me while Ms. Fourth Date was starting to take me for granted—a behavior pattern that is not a problem when you are dating a man who does not have a bullpen, i.e., every man she ever dated before me. (We learned early on not to talk about The System with the women we met, even though they would always ask. If you answered those questions, you would later hear through the grapevine that you made her “feel like a number.” Women! However, one unfortunate side effect of treating them like they were the only woman in the world was that they erroneously figured they were the only woman in our world and started taking us for granted as they had done with all the other guys they had known. Just as you don’t insult a man who buys ink by the barrel, you don’t play hard to get with, or take for granted, a guy who has been meeting a new, attractive, college graduate, yadda yadda every weekend for the last several years.)
The bargaining power we got from The System meant:
• We do not ask you for a date twice
• We do not ask you to go steady twice
• We do not bullshit you—If you don’t like the unvarnished me the way I am, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
• We do not ask you to marry twice
I think if you have to beg a woman to date you and/or have to beg her to marry you, it will have adverse ramifications every day of your relationship. In angry arguments, it may be thrown in your face. I’m not saying that’s true in Craig’s marriage. I have no idea. But there is logic and experience behind my advice. I even read some scientific support for it in The Logic of Life by Tim Harford. My wife and I had to change hotel rooms once because the married couple in the next room were yelling at each other. We could hear every word including about which had begged the other to date and marry, and how the husband had cheated, yadda yadda.
Neither the man nor the woman in a romantic relationship should be begging the other for anything—ever. It has to be that way from Day One because it’s probably not possible to change that aspect of the relationship. I’m not saying the man has to be the boss or any of that. Just that the two people have be equal in the relationship. Neither is doing the other a favor to be there.
I know others who did like Craig and have had long marriages. I have also read about men, some of them famous, who persistently pursued a woman and it worked out OK. But don’t try this at home. It’s not necessary and probably not advisable as a general rule. A marriage counselor would have more data on the subject than I if you question what I am saying.
It’s probably just my personal taste, but I doubt I would ever had gotten serious with a woman as ethnic as Craig’s wife. I surmise she is a natural-born American, but very into the Indian stuff. He tells of studying Indian culture, the Hindi language, Indian cooking, wearing Indian clothes, etc. I’m a melting pot kind of American. I don’t care where you ancestors came from, but neither am I going to impersonate them or ask you to impersonate mine. At our wedding, my relatives asked the band to play some Irish music. Yeah, fine. But never in our relationship have either I or my wife had any substantial discussion about our ancestry. (Her family is super preppy, welcomed the Mayflower to America, signed the Declaration of Independence, yadda yadda. Mine, on my mother’s side came over from the old country in steerage, Ellis Island, grandfather born in Budapest; father’s side Scots-Irish who don’t remember how or when they got to the U.S., one great grandmother who was Cherokee Indian—mildly interesting ancient history that my wife and I pay never paid any attention to.)
In light of our System indicating we were looking harder than anyone they had ever met, women often asked me, “So what exactly are you looking for in a woman?”
I always had an instant, confident answer.
I doubt I could have sufficient rapport with someone to whom where their ancestors came from was a big deal to them. I broke up with one Jewish-American woman and one Armenian-Amercian women over that stuff. I had no qualms about them being Jewish or Armenian, but they had qualms about my not being Jewish or Armenian. My pretending interest in any of that was not an option.
In other articles about the military at this web site, I reported a tendency on the part of U.S. military brass to see all Middle Easterners as Arabs. One West Point graduate who contacted me said he thought it would be good for his career to learn Arabic. He was the top student of that language at West Point. When he got to his unit, he learned they were going to Afghanistan. He protested that he could not use his Arabic language skills there. His commander said, “They all speak that shit over there.” He requested a transfer to a unit going to Iraq, where they actually speak Arabic in most of the country. Denied.
In fact, Arab land ends more or less at the Iran Iraq border. Iranians are Persian, not Arab. They speak Farsi, not arabic. Afghans speak a number of dialects mainly pashto.
Craig’s version of this continuing buffoonery: When his unit was shipping out to Afghanistan, they were issued arabic phrase books. Can you see why I roll my eyes at Hollywood depictions of the U.S. military as highly trained, hyper competent supermen? A real John Rambo would be issued the wrong ammunition for his weapon and snow shoes for his deployment to the desert. The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a more accurate Hollywood version of the military than Rambo.
On page 224, Craig says,
Our second mission was to show presence in the city of Gardez. This mean patrolling the city a few times a day to intimidate the “bad guys.”
Please think about that phrase “show presence.” These are supposedly highly trained U.S. 10 Mountain Division troops—led by a West Point airborne ranger Rhodes scholar. And their job is to “show presence?”
I can’t help but think that “show presence” has also been the goal of some of West Point’s recent football teams, especially in 2003 when Army set an NCAA record by going 0-13.
On Brave Old Army Team
On to the presence showing
Parade onto enemy territory
For that’s the mindless Army way
You know what “show presence” means in plain English? No one in the chain of command from the Commander in Chief (president of the U.S.) on down has any idea how to win the war. You’re supposed to give the troops a mission and an objective. Then they attack to seize or destroy the objective.
The U.S. government has a vague caveman like notion:
Head caveman: Ugh. Some people in Afghanistan bad.
Highly trained platoon leader: So what do you want us to do?
Head caveman: Mmm. Me not know. Maybe walk around and if they see you they get scared.
Highly trained platoon leader: Are you aware the enemy has guns, mines, and RPGs and want to kill us? If we just walk around we’ll be sitting ducks. They can kill us from hiding without our ever knowing who they were or where they were.
Head caveman: Shrugs.
One of Craig’s men was shot dead by the enemy while Craig’s platoon was “showing presence.” Will that phrase “showing presence” be on the kid’s tombstone? In the letter to is parents? Will they be changing the Infantry Manual thus?
1. In combat, infantrymen who are moving are showing presence.
2. Infantrymen who are not showing presence are preparing to show presence.
Will West Point ever graduate anyone who has the balls to look at missions like “showing presence” and saying to their superiors,
Sir, This is bullshit. We’ll just be moving ducks in a shooting gallery if we show presence. My men will die or get wounded doing this—for nothing. How’s about you just assign me an Area of Operations and let me figure out how to accomplish the mission the president says in his speeches: to wage war on terror.
Colonel: Just do the mission: Show presence.
Platoon leader: I can’t do that sir. It’s stupid. We’re going to get men killed or wounded for nothing wandering around aimlessly. It’s immoral.
Colonel: Would you rather be court martialed?
Platoon leader: Actually, sir. I would rather wage war on terror in sensible ways that are likely to produce net benefits to America. But if the choice is between “show presence” and court martial, I am obligated by duty, honor, and country to choose court martial.
Craig showed presence.
Craig and his men were spread too thin. One U.S. soldier for every 3,000 Afghans in his area. See my article on our being spread too thin in Afghanistan.
They were given some broken down, unarmored humvees and heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. They have never trained with any of those before going to Afghanistan. The 10th Mountain Division, like the airborne, is supposedly a lightly armed and equipped unit that walks to work and carries everything on their backs. That is the way they were trained and equipped. Then, in Afghanistan, they are required to turn themselves into a mechanized infantry heavy weapons platoon from scratch on the job while under enemy fire. By lucky accident, they had a former Marine with some experience with the .50 cal machine guns and grenade launchers.
You don’t have to be stupid to be Army brass. It just seems that way.
‘Movement to contact’
Craig’s chapter 22 is titled “Movement to Contact.” He starts that chapter with a quote from the aforementioned Army Field Manual.
A movement to contact is an offensive action that seeks to gain or regain contact with the enemy. Usually, a unit moving to contact lacks detailed information about the enemy. Upon making contact, a unit identifies enemy strengths and weaknesses as it developers the situation.
I wrote an article titled, “Is there really any such thing as military expertise?” This field manual appears to be further evidence there is not.
I have written 30-some how-to books and over 5,000 how-to articles. Expertise and how to impart it is what I do for a living. Expertise consists of best practices that have been found to succeed an adequate percentage of the time. Expertise also consists of knowing what you don’t know. All fields have holes caused by lack of knowledge. In those holes, you have to substitute risk management for best practices. In the military, exigent circumstances sometimes trump normal civilian risk-management principles, for example, civilians never put on suicide missions. The military sometimes does and those mission are sometimes the best practice.
To me, “movement to contact” seems like a reconnaissance patrol run conducted by a bull-in-a-china-shop platoon leader or a mindlessly aggressive out-to-prove-his-manhood platoon leader.
Figuring out where the enemy is is a best practice. Doing that by walking or driving toward the enemy until they shoot at you strikes me as stupid per se. It’s liable to get someone, or everyone, killed. George Armstrong Custer, West Point Class of 1861, was “moving to contact” when he got himself and all his men slaughtered at the Little Big Horn. Custer “killed his regiment” to use Craig’s phraseology. On his second patrol in Afghanistan, Craig’s platoon was “moving to contact.” The abstract word “contact” took the concrete form of the Taliban putting three, fatal AK-47 bullets into the torso of one of Craig’s men just under the bottom edge of that soldier’s bulletproof vest. If “contact” was the mission, mission accomplished.
“Moving to contact” is contrary to the overall mission I keep hearing recent West Point graduates articulate of “bringing all my men home.”
The way to locate the enemy in Afghanistan is to get the local populace to tell you who they are and where they are. What is the “best practice” for accomplishing that? I don’t know. My impression is neither does the U.S. Army or the Marine Corps. There may be a lieutenant or captain here and there who have made some progress in that approach. If so, they need to be interviewed and their lessons learned disseminated to the rest of the ground forces in Afghanistan. Is that happening? Not much according to the speeches by returning veterans and journalists I have heard in person or on TV or the documentaries from Afghanistan I have seen or the books about the War In Afghanistan I have read.
‘Lacks detailed information about the enemy’
In one of my other areas of expertise—football coaching—lacking detailed information is coaching malpractice. I wrote an article titled “A football coach analyzes U.S. military tactics and strategy.” Among other things, it complains about lack of advance scouting by the military and lack of “filming” of their fire fights. Craig’s platoon should have drones conducting surveillance of their area of operations night and day. When they go out on patrol to attack, not “make contact” with the enemy, they should also have drones above watching for the enemy and “filming” the battle so they can study it and improve their performance.
A “unit moving to contact” ought to do a hell of a lot better job of gathering detailed information about the enemy than the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, you may say, gathering information about the enemy is the purpose of “moving to contact.” Roger that, but I refer you to my comment above. As far as gathering information about the enemy is concerned, moving to contact is a lousy way to do it. What information was gathered about the enemy from the contact that resulted in one of Craig’s men dying? Something like this.
At 1400 on X/X/04, at coordinates XXX/XXX, an unknown number of unknown enemy with unknown motivation and unknown affiliation fired at our patrol with one or more AK-47s (identified by sound) The precise location of the enemy is unknown, but they seemed to be in the general vicinity of half way up the east side of hill XXX. We returned fire but the enemy apparently melted away. We found no trace of them.
A U.S. soldier died for that?! Obviously, to me, we need a far better way to gain information about the enemy than that. Indeed, no information was gained at all other than they are still there. Did we have any reason to expect otherwise? If not, what was the point of getting that soldier killed?
Reconnaissance by fire
There was such a thing as reconnaissance by fire in Vietnam. I do not know if they still do it. You suspect enemy in, say, a tree line. You could send someone over there to see if the enemy is there, but that’s a good way to get killed. Instead, you direct your men to open fire on the tree line. Generally, that will cause the enemy to figure you know they are there and they will return fire, albeit it from a relatively ineffective range (200 to 300 yards). Then, in Vietnam, you would call in artillery or armed aircraft and blow the shit out of the tree line.
This may be a best practice when you are not trying to conceal your presence, figure you have more firepower than the enemy or can get it quickly, and figure you have an unlimited supply of ammunition—which was generally the case in Vietnam but apparently not in Afghanistan where our troops are spread very thin and can only be resupplied by helicopters. Reconning by fire in Afghanistan appears to be relatively ineffective and violates General McChrystal’s Mr. Nice Guy rules about avoiding civilian casualties. Indeed, McChrystal told his men to use “movement away from contact” when they encounter enemy accompanied by civilians or in the home of a civilian. Since everyone in Afghanistan is or claims to be a civilian, McChrystal’s policy all but prohibits U.S. military action.
McChrystal’s own Afghanistan Infantry Field Manual must say,
1. In combat, infantrymen who are moving are retreating away from civilians or their homes.
2. Infantrymen who are not retreating are preparing to retreat.
You might want to hold off contacting caterers for the victory party with rules like that.
The final Field Manual sentence here is that the “…unit identifies the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses as it develops the situation.”
Identifies their strengths and weaknesses? I listed what information they “developed” above. Craig’s unit did not know anything about the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses after that contact except that there was at least one of them and that he had an AK. What are they supposed to do, interview the enemy? Have them fill out a form that lists their strengths and weaknesses? Do I detect an assumption here that the enemy will reveal each and every one of their strengths and weaknesses the moment you bait them to shoot at you? Seems to me that the enemy was merely “showing presence” to Craig and they need not reveal all their strengths and weaknesses to do that—or any of them.
In fact what you do when you make contact with the enemy in Afghanistan is call for a Medevac helicopter to remove your dead and wounded. That is complex, dangerous and often results in the loss of additional men and the helicopter. Contact with Americans gives the Taliban all sorts of information about the strengths and weaknesses of the Americans, but almost nothing about the Taliban. Plus a golden opportunity to ambush the rescuers.
Enough. “Moving to contact” is a mindless “Charge of the Light Platoon into the Valley of Death” in Afghanistan. Let the idiot brass who dreamed up that successor to “Search and Destroy” lead the goddamned patrol that is “moving to contact.” “Search and destroy” was the failed Vietnam U.S. strategy that was 99% search and 1% destroy. Indeed, the enemy killed or wounded tons of our guys each morning with booby traps planted around our camps for the night. They also sometimes mortared our camps at night while we were trying to sleep. This was all “contact” with the enemy, but we rarely saw them and gathered no information about them other than counting the number of bullets, RPGs, and mortar rounds they delivered on us.
On page 216, Craig says,
Military officers plan for the worst and hope for the best. Stay alert and stay alive.
That’s very glib and has a rhetorical cadence. It also has a superficial patina of logic.
Craig needs to shake off his propensity to be taken in by slogans and make use of his ample brain to analyze statements like this objectively and without preconceived notions like “Military slogans spoken with great confidence are all presumed to be true.”
First, you cannot generalize about military officers other than to attribute bureaucratic tendencies. I never saw an officer plan for the worst other than me. When other officers had a chance to do that, they typically chose minimum effort as their guide. In one unit I was in during Vietnam, a different lieutenant had to take out a patrol every week. I was the only one who took many steps to prevent heat stroke, did a commo check, arranged preplanned artillery concentrations, and so on. I also went to great lengths to shake a radio teletype to simulate it being delivered to a remote camp by C-130 aircraft. I deserve no medal for what I did. I thought it was standard stuff. But I never saw any of the other officers do such things. I will note that I believe Craig did such things. And I did them. Partly because I learned them at Ranger School, but as much because they were just common sense. Military officers who did not go to Ranger School had not been trained to prepare for the worst to my knowledge. I recall no such training even at West Point. But we both got out of the Army as fast as we could. The guys who remained more fit the phrase “military officers” than Craig and I but in my experience and observation, they were not accurately depicted by the plan for the worst phrase. In their dreams, military officers do stuff like that.
“Hope for the best” is a meaningless statement.
Stay alert is a good idea. It can increase your chances of survival against certain risks, but it does not eliminate those risks as the slogan implies. And staying alert is irrelevant to many of the killers on the battlefield like incoming mortar rounds, friendly fire, well-hidden contact or command-detonated mines.
In the final paragraph on page 216, Craig expresses the conflicting and not really military demands of trying to simultaneously make friends with Afghans while being ready to kill them in an instant because they may be intractable enemies.
My problem is he never seems to draw the obvious big-picture conclusion: There is little or no military mission in Afghanistan. It is a dysfunctional, violent country where citizens kill Americans for a multitude of reasons, many non-military, and have a multitude of affiliations or no affiliation. Craig witnesses and reports but he does not conclude or share his conclusions in a book that generally wears his heart and all other thoughts on his sleeve. He did leave the Army ASAP, which is an actions-speak-louder-than-words big-picture conclusion, but he never explains how or why Mr. Super Gung Ho “soldier,” the hook of his book’s cover and subtitle, metamorphosed into a civilian at the earliest opportunity.
Craig’s chapter 23 discusses his first fire fight and feelings about it. He was torn between the need to fire quickly and the fear that he may have fired too quickly, might have killed friendlies because of firing too quick. He also worried about enjoying killing the enemy.
I can’t relate to that. I never had occasion to fire my weapon in Vietnam. I recommend the chapter for people who think they know what exchanging fire with the enemy is like, or want to know.
He also tells of his platoon sergeant refusing to wash his clothes or body in spite of Craig repeatedly ordering him to do so. He says another sergeant, who like his platoon sergeant, had also previously been in the Marines got him to wash both. To the extent that this book has been touted as a leadership book, this incident just provides evidence that Craig was, in part, an inept rookie at his first combat zone assignment. That is probably par for the course, speeches made to West Point cadets that they are “ready” notwithstanding. He should not have tolerated the failure to wash. He failed to take adequate action and probably failed to exhibit the command presence that would have dissuaded the sergeant from even considering such behavior. That was non-leadership, not leadership.
One of the things that inhibited Craig was that his platoon sergeant’s 15 years of experience “…included combat with the Marines in Kuwait during Desert Storm.”
Perhaps I will never get through to people on this, although I have written numerous articles trying. Here goes again.
What specifically did he do in what combat?
No one should assume that “experienced” military personnel have meaningful combat experience without specifically considering the specifics of the time period in question.
His platoon sergeant was a Marine for something like 12 years. Now he’s in the Army. Why? That is a suspicious, unusual career path. I have learned in life to always ask why about unusual, suspicious things and insist on an answer or disconnect with the person or situation in question if I do not get a satisfactory answer.
He had combat experience in Desert Storm. That “war” lasted 100 hours, literally. In addition, the role of the Marines initially was to pretend to be preparing for an amphibious landing into Kuwait to hold Iraqi reserves there. In other words, they were decoys. If I understand correctly, some Marines also came under some artillery fire during the 100 hours. In general, the Iraqis the Marines would be fighting—southeast corner of Kuwait—hauled ass out of there and were mainly engaged with the coalition forces on the Highway of Death where they were mowed down by armed allied aircraft. What his platoon sergeant did himself specifically, I would not know. But the fact is hardly anyone did anything in that war because it was so short and the enemy spent most of it waving white flags. The U.S. military killed more coalition forces in that “war” by accident than the Iraqis did on purpose.
Furthermore, his platoon sergeant is a sergeant now, but he was almost certainly a private or corporal way back in Desert Storm (1991).
In other words, before you genuflect to the combat expertise of a military guy with many years of experience or participation in Desert Storm, you need to ask specifically what combat he was in where and when and for how long and what exactly his role was. His platoon sergeant could have been a helicopter mechanic or some such in Desert Storm—far from the enemy—and a garrison Marine in non-war zones for all or the rest of his service.
I must add that nowadays, although less so when Craig was in Afghanistan in 2003, lots of American career military have been to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. When Craig was in Afghanistan, it was generally a first combat tour for all the Americans there.
‘Continue challenging [your] mind’
While he was in Afghanistan, Craig’s fiancee sent him books inscribed with admonitions to keep challenging his mind while he was there.
Interestingly telling. Like when he was at West Point and Oxford, his mind was being challenged. But now, as an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan that he had nothing to do but prevent the enemy who outnumbered him from killing him and/or his men, his brain would atrophy and he would turn into a cretin if he did not spend large amounts of time reading Oxford-type books. I think Craig needed to provide his fiancee with a more detailed description of the mental challenges of combat including the extreme danger of a mind not focused totally on the here and now.
My advice to officers in that situation: study intelligence reports and the movements and signs of the enemy around you. Study-after action reports and lessons learned. Clean your weapons. Strengthen your defenses. Clear brush and rocks out of the area around your base. so there are fewer places to hide. Read books occasionally to escape mentally or to prepare for civilian life.
Mental job one in combat is to use your mind to hang onto life, not preparing to debate the meaning of life at the university pub a year hence.
On page 247, Craig says,
We never ate better than when politicians visited.
Sounds logical. I never saw a politician or any other VIP in Vietnam. We apparently ate better there than they do in Afghanistan because of larger numbers of troops per base. Actually, even the 12-man green beret A-Team I met at Bunard seemed to eat better and have everything better than the Afghanistan U.S. vets I have heard, read about, or seen on TV. In the middle of nowhere, with both the temperature and humidity seemingly in the 90s, while I was directing the placement of our radioteletype container by fork lift, a green beret asked me if I wanted a Coke. I said “Sure,” not really believing such was possible. He handed me a totally ice-cold can of Coke, opened it with the old-style triangular-shaped punch opener, and went on his merry way. Best Coke I ever had. I have a photo of that moment somewhere in my house. The U.S. troops in Afghanistan seemed not to have refrigeration or ice in most forward locations. That’s 40 years of military progress for you. Actually, it is a function of too few U.S. military personnel in the country. I believe even our infantry moving through the jungle had daily cold drinks and hot meals—often steaks—delivered by helicopters. I’m not kidding.
Craig said he verbally quizzed his sergeants over and over on how to react to ambush. Speaking as a veteran football coach rather than infantry officer, I would say that’s too much talk and not enough action. Do walk-throughs and full-dress, full-speed rehearsals. In football games and combat, when your circuits get overloaded by a snap of the ball or an ambush, you tend to revert to your habits and training. That’s physical-movement habits, not verbal-discussion habits. Verbal is not worthless. I used to walk around the locker room with flash cards showing opponent formations and asking my defense “What do they run out of this?” But that was because you cannot do walk-throughs or run-throughs in a locker room. We darned well did the walk-throughs and run-throughs in practice.
I was an elementary school kid in the 1950s, the era of cowboy movies and cowboy TV shows. Like all kids of that era, there are old snapshots of me wearing cowboy clothes and a pair of six-shooters in holsters. We loved Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger (I saw him and his horse Silver in person at the state fair), Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and a bunch of others.
Any kid from that era knows you must stay out of box (dead end) canyons or narrow rocky canyons when you are moving around in enemy territory. Time and again in cowboy and cavalry movies, the good guys would come upon such a terrain feature. The smart good guys would stop and find a way around it. Only the dumb settlers or immigrants would go into those canyons. Bad guys and Indians would ambush people in those places. Afghans have been ambushing people like the British and Soviets in such canyons for centuries.
What is correct military doctrine for passage through narrow canyons? Based on the Hollywood cowboys, just say no.
I must admit I was in some hairy situations in Vietnam namely Bunard and a stretch of elephant grass along Route 13 near the Parrots Beak area of Cambodia. I drove through a North Vietnamese ambush in the elephant grass area. They apparently decided not to waste the ambush on a lone jeep with a 1st lt. and an SFC and ambushed the convoy out of our sight and knowledge behind us instead. At Bunard, the enemy was there. Guys in our camp saw them and had deadly fire fights with them. We were very vulnerable at the bottom of a bowl of jungle-covered mountains. My men and I survived that simply because the enemy chose not to attack there. No other reason. Similar to what happened to Craig. But I never went into such a situation where there was an alternative.
The only time I balked in Vietnam was when I was told to drive from Long Binh to Phu Loi as dusk was approaching. I decided we would not make it before dark and there was a standing order throughout Vietnam that American and Allied forces did not move on the roads at night. We found a place to sleep for the night and left first thing in the morning. I never got any crap about it that I know of. I think the boss simply decided, “Yeah, that’s right. it was too late to start.” The problem is there are too many junior officers who would have said an order is an order. Craig may be one of them. I was not there so I cannot draw the conclusion. But the point still needs to be made for readers who may find themselves in those situations in the future.
Apparently, the modern U.S. military does not have that knowledge. In the Pat Tillman friendly fire death, his unit was moving through a rock walled canyon so narrow that their humvee scraped against both sides of the canyon at times. A soldier who normally would have his head on a swivel scanning for enemy instead laid on his back on the humvee roof looking straight up the rock cliff walls because that was the only place an attack could come from. Of course, that begs the question of exactly what was he planning to do if such an attack came vertically down on them.
Fish in a barrel
On page 258, Craig says,
Along one stretch we snaked downhill on forty-foot switchbacks with steep cliffs on either side leaning over us. If ambushed, we would have had zero mobility. Killing us would have been as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
I am not sure what the right way to handle that was. One general rule is you spread out in more open area but close enough so you can always see your adjacent friendlies. That reduces the number of your guys in the killing zone of an ambush. Maybe you get aircraft accompaniment. I have heard the Afghans wisely back off when they see U.S. aircraft overhead. Maybe you clear the road first with a foot patrol that is part on the road, part up the hill above the road, and part down the hill below the road, although the enemy in combat rarely attacks from the low ground.
I can’t be conclusive. But a platoon leader who does not want to “kill his platoon” needs to stay the hell out of fish-in-a-barrel situations. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of how-to-respond-to-ambushes drills.
Craig did act smart, ultimately, in another situation on page 260. His men wanted to go shopping in a small village in Afghanistan. Craig thought it was a bad idea. I agree, but I must admit we did the same thing in a convoy headed by a captain (I was a 1t lt.) in An Loc when I was in Vietnam. We were both saved by the enemy being surprised and unable to set up an attack fast enough. In Craig’s case, a sixth sense and observing people around him convinced him that his initial agreement to the shopping trip, which he correctly thought was a dumb idea, needed to be rescinded. He figured the enemy was getting ready to attack and I suspect he was right. They got out quickly and there was no attack that day.
‘The privilege of leadership’
As you may have surmised, I am bullshit averse. I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, but like most former military when they are in private, I react strongly to words like “hero” and any sort of glorifying of the military. The last paragraph of Craig’s chapter 27 pegged my meter.
My part of the contract, the responsibility that came with the privilege of leadership, was never to spend their lives cheaply. I carried the weight of that responsibility on ever patrol, yet unlike a rucksack or a Kevlar helmet, I could never slip it off when we came back inside the wire. It was there when I woke up at midnight to check how they were faring in their lonely guard towers. It was there when I walked through their tent that night and when I returned to my cot for a night of restless sleep, turning every hour on a narrow cot. This was the price of a salute.
I find it hard to believe Craig would ever say such a thing to his fellow officers while he was in Afghanistan. I expect if he did, the response would have been something like,
You rehearsing a speech to the Altoona, Pennsylvania Rotary or something? Screenplay about what a big hero you were in the war?
Here is my non-bullshit version of a similar experience. A squad of my platoon’s guys were sent to Bunard to provide radio teletype commo to a special forces operation of mainly ARVN rangers. There came a day when we had to pull them out. I was sent there to oversee that. Bunard was a dirt airstrip at the bottom of a bowl of jungle-covered mountains.
We leave tomorrow
There was a Special Forces A team in its heavily fortified but tiny triangular shaped post. Adjacent to them were the indigenous tribe military unit (Montagnards or some such), with wives and children, they trained and supervised. Down the hill from those two groups, was an ARVN ranger tent camp right on the apron of the airstrip. We had one tent and our AN/GRC-26D radio teletype box. I arrived the day before we were to load the box and squad on a C-130 to go back to Plantation Post near Long Binh, our battalion headquarters.
Although the A-team and indigenous troops were protected by fortifications, I do not believe we even had a berm—just coils of concertina barbed wire around our tent camp. Our operation was temporary. Not only were my squad and I leaving, the ARVN rangers were too. To my astonishment and horror, I found that the ARVNs already left before I arrived. As far as I could tell, we were the only occupied tent in the camp of about 50 tents. It was getting dark.
“Shit!” I thought. “We are about as exposed as can be and we know the enemy is up there watching everything that has happened. They know our tent is all alone down here as the only occupied one.” I told the squad that we would stand guard in two hour shifts starting at dusk. I would take the next to last shift to make sure they did not blow off their shifts. They complained loudly. They figured we should all just sleep because there was little we could do in the event of an attack and they had never been attacked there and all that. Mindful of the U.S. forces who had their throats slit while they slept when the Chinese entered the Korean War and crept into the American front line units on the first night they attacked, I said. “No fucking way! One of us will be awake and on guard at all times, including me. We have no cover. No radio. Hardly any ammunition. If we get attacked, we need as much advance warning of it as we can get.”
A stroll in the dark
My plan was we would sleep in full uniform with boots with our rifles and web gear (the belt and shoulder harness with your canteen, first aid pack, and ammo pouches) right next to our folding cots. We were all in one 8-man tent. I assumed each guy would just stand his watch in the doorway of the tent. I said if the enemy appeared, we would sneak together into the nearest edge of the jungle—holding each other’s web gear to stay together if there was no moon when we had to move. When I was awakened from a deep sleep by the guy standing the shift before me, he told me he had gone for a stroll.
Are you nuts!? In the middle of Indian Country in Vietnam at night!?
He was almost killed and the shots to kill him might have resulted in all of us getting killed. Not only did no one tell us the ARVNs were leaving that day, no one told us they left behind their own little contingent of one squad. The ARVN rangers sized the situation up the same as I did and there were doing one-man guard shifts. When their guard saw my guard strolling around in the dark, with an assault rifle, he initially thought he was enemy and almost shot him.
They had no idea we were there and we had no idea they were there. I would have coordinated with them if I had. Because they were rangers, they were not so fast on the trigger as less trained troops. Thank God! Had they fired first and asked questions later, they probably would have seen us skittering into the jungle and assumed we were also enemy and fired on us. They would not have followed us into the jungle in the dark, but they probably would have killed or wounded some of us before we got there. Fortunately, our guard was not exhibiting NVA body language so the ARVN ranger figured out he was a left-over American and communicated to him to prevent any accidental firing at each other the rest of the night.
My shift was uneventful. When I woke the final guy, I told him about the ARVN squad that was still there and directed him not to leave the tent entrance. I went back to sleep. At daybreak, we ate breakfast C-rations, the C-130 arrived, loaded our box and us, and we left without further excitement.
Craig said the privilege of leadership meant to never spend their lives cheaply. My perspective on my final night in Bunard was that I was the only West Point ranger in the group. I was highly trained. My men were essentially suburban American high school kids who had been through basic training and radio teletype school and who simply did not comprehend our situation at all in spite of where we were and their having been there for months. It is said that God protects little children and drunks. That night, I assumed I had to keep these adolescents from getting themselves and me killed. I wasn’t going to rely on God. I felt no privilege that night, only the usual frustration with the SNAFU, FUBAR U.S. military.
I did not carry a weight of responsibility that I could not slip off like a rucksack. I had learned at West Point that every minute of sleep was a minute away from West Point. Ditto being asleep that night in Bunard. To the extent that anything hit the fan that night, I needed to be well-rested. We all did. I did not wake up to check on them other than to take my shift although, as I said, I deliberately chose the next to last shift to maximize the chances no one would dare sleep during their shift.
I did a tour on guard duty. Craig had “people” to do that. I am not complaining about that. Since we had so few, it seemed like the thing to do to me. He should had done some tours on guard himself to see what it was like, how the men were carrying out the duty, ways to improve it. Maybe he did.
No poetry, just intense alertness
The last damned thing I was thinking about that night was all this poetic shit about the “privilege of leadership” and “responsibility” or “lonely guard towers.” We were not ghosts floating above this dramatic scene merely witnessing it. We were unexpectedly in a very vulnerable, exposed, ridiculous situation. All our consciousness had to be focused on intense watching the jungle and listening for sounds of an enemy.
I did have a couple of philosophical thoughts that night during my shift. They were along the lines of, “Well, Toto, we’re a long fucking way from a full-dress parade on the Plain at West Point, but this is part and parcel of that package. I don’t recall reading in the recruiting brochures about the possibility of being in charge of four enlisted men in a suddenly, unexpectedly, deserted tent camp in the middle of enemy territory in a jungle war.”
Nor do I recall any training at West Point or Ranger School on how to handle that situation. If I had it to do over, I probably would have wandered around making contact with the A-Team guys and checking to see if all the tents were as deserted as I originally assumed. I probably should have asked the A-Team guys if we could bunk with them for one night.
I did not feel a responsibility when I “walked through their tent.” It was my tent, too. When there’s only four or five of you in a situation like that, you do not spend the night in the officers’ tent.
As far as the “price of a salute,” I was not thinking about salutes in Bunard. You don’t do that shit at a forward location. No one ever saluted me at Bunard. We were like air force officers and enlisted men on the same aircraft crew. Everyone knew I was the boss. No further ceremony was needed.
The actual minimum price of a salute in the Army is graduating from OCS. Maybe it ought to have a higher price, but the fact is, it does not.
That’s my non-Rotary speech, suitable-for-a-private-bull-session-with-fellow-officers version of what Craig was describing with all his essay-question rhetoric.
I recommend Craig’s chapters about being a platoon leader in Afghanistan. They give real-world details including some of the frustrations rarely shown in Hollywood depictions of combat. He also describes his feelings without the after-dinner speech bullshit.
Chapter 29 is the one where he tells of the patrol where one of his men was fatally shot at Losano Ridge by the Taliban. It’s good, but I did not buy the last four sentences of the chapter:
I lost a soldier today. I barely knew him, but I was responsible for him. His parents had entrusted me with his life, and I failed.
No excuse, sir.
Who was really at fault?
He is taking too much personal responsibility for the death. If you apply rigorous logic to the event, the culpability for the death falls on:
• the dead soldier who was a member of an all-volunteer Army and in the infantry to boot (generally, you can negotiate when you enlist to get less dangerous assignments)
• anyone who encouraged the dead soldier to do what I just described
• the commander in chief who made the decisions to send U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the numbers and with the equipment and missions that led to this death—remember this was in 2003 when Afghanistan was a back-of-the-newspaper sideshow to the invasion of Iraq
• the chain of command between Craig and the president who made the decisions to send this platoon to Losano Ridge in the numbers and with the equipment and missions that led to this death
There may have been some culpability on the part of those physically present when the man got killed, including the deceased himself (was he attentive and focused enough?), the other troops in the patrol (were they doing exactly what they were supposed to?), and Craig.
Compare to football coaching
I coached 15 football seasons and wrote eight books on football coaching. I know EXTREMELY well how to assign responsibility for a failure or a success. We coaches watch the video of a play over and over—typically about 15 times—literally. Why? Because we need to see exactly what each of the 11 players did or failed to do on the play. We have to watch the interior linemen more than once because they are in a crowd and it’s hard to pick out the details with just one run-through.
If I had video of this ambush of Craig’s patrol, I would watch what each and every member did during the time leading up to and during and after the ambush began. I would also study the video for signs of the enemy and what they were doing. I expect by football standards, which are infinitely higher than Army/Marine standards, almost the whole patrol did a lousy job. Sergeant Grenz was apparently extremely alert and focused on exactly where he should have been focused and he killed a Taliban who was in the process of detonating an IED against the patrol. He got the guy before he blew up the patrol. Excellent job. Give him a decal for his helmet.
Where your eyes are is important in both combat and football. I have chewed my players out for not looking in the direction of a jab step intended to misdirect the defense. I have chewed my players out for not focusing their eyes on their assigned offensive player when the offense was in its huddle between plays (There are many tipoffs if you look and know what to look for. My players were trained to spot about three dozen different tipoffs like the white knuckles made famous in the movie Invincible which came out after I taught my players that. For more details, see Chapter 20 of my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football.) I have chewed out cornerbacks who were in man pass coverage for peeking at the quarterback after the snap. In a patrol through enemy territory, each member must be assigned a portion of the perimeter to focus his eyes on. He must know exactly what he’s looking for. He must have rehearsed exactly what to do if he sees anything. My football players did know exactly what they were looking for and exactly how to react when they see it.
What Vince Lombardi said to John Madden
I think the key element is what Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi once said to Hall of Fame coach John Madden. Madden was a young coach who asked Lombardi what the difference was between a good coach and a lousy one. Lombardi said,
Knowing what the end result looks like. The best coaches know what the end result looks like, whether it’s an offensive play, a defensive coverage, or just some area of the organization…the bad coaches don’t know what the hell they want. The good coaches do.
The fundamental reason for the bad result in the Losano Ridge patrol is either Craig did “not know what the hell he wanted” or he did not have enough authority to do what he wanted. Probably more of the former than the latter.
Good football coaches chew out their players for stepping at a 45-degree angle when they were supposed to step at a 30-degree angle. I read no such thing or comparable military thing in Craig’s depiction of the way he trained or controlled his men. I rarely saw the military pay attention to such details (some examples of when they did, rapelling ropes, chin straps before a parachute jump). In football coaching, it is the norm rather than the exception. In the military, such attention to real details that truly matter in combat—as opposed to show-off stuff like spit-shining shoes—is the exception.
Why did he not know?
Why did he not know what the hell he wanted?
• West Point did not prepare him adequately for this moment
• Ranger School did not prepare him adequately for this moment
• The 10th Mountain Division did not prepare him adequately for this moment
• Combat ain’t football with its tight rules and a flat, well marked standard playing field, although this patrol seems rather straight forward
I have an article at this Web site titled, “Is there really any such thing as military expertise?” My answer was generally no. The leaders who are supposed to show the way to lieutenants like Craig don’t know the way themselves. The U.S. Army has never figured out how to fight what British General Rupert Smith calls “wars amongst the people.” I’d like to know what the hell they’re waiting for. How many guys have to die, how many wars do we have to lose, before they decide knowing how to fight World War II in Europe is not good enough?
Basic format of the patrol flawed
If I were plunked down in the Losano Ridge area now and assigned to figure out the best practices for patrols like Craig led, I would examine the mission and terrain and enemy with a microscope, as I have video of opposing football teams. Probably, the basic format of the patrol caused the death.
The troops were apparently walking in the open. What the hell do you expect? To avoid being shot, you need to be behind cover—or moving so fast it’s hard for the enemy to hit you when they shoot. To move, you dart from rock or tree to a depression or another rock.
Scout dog and trails
Craig should have had a scout dog and handler. The guard dog probably would have alerted when it heard or smelled or saw the Taliban giving enough warning to prevent the death. I do not know if they were walking on a trail, but the fact that IEDs had been planted to kill them suggests that they were. What the hell is that bullshit? I know damned well they taught Craig in Ranger School to stay off trails and roads.
Nowadays, they should use tiny model airplane-type drones to scout the area around them outside the range of the scout dog’s senses.
Vary your ‘play-calling’
Like a football coach calling offensive plays or defenses, the patrol leader should try to be as unpredictable as possible. Vary time of day, duration of patrol, the formation the patrol uses to move, the patrol’s equipment. I might do one patrol at dawn in shorts and sneakers and the next at sunset with night vision. Move in fire-team fashion with one team watching and covering while the other darts to a more forward cover spot. I wasn’t there and do not know the terrain and situation and enemy and mission well enough to be definitive. But these are the sorts of things that come to mind from my military training, Vietnam experience, and, even more, from my football-coaching experience.
His superiors failed him and the nation
Could Craig have done better? Probably. Did I do better when I was a patrol leader in Vietnam? No. I did about what he did. The situation was less dangerous and no enemy attacked. But I would do much better now either as a patrol leader or as Craig’s superior officer. The fault is with Craig’s superiors who should have learned during their careers what I learned in my football coaching career and taught it to Craig. They did not bother because, in spite of their vehement protests to the contrary, they lack the expertise they claim and the motivation to acquire it.
More interesting in winning freshman football games than winning wars
In football, we had a game every week and we were driven by our innate pride and competitiveness to bust our asses figuring out how to win. The U.S. Army is not so motivated, even though they are doing life and death national defense and my fellow coaches and I were just doing youth or high school football. It’s an outrage! U.S. Army officers do not work as hard to win their wars as youth and high school football coaches work to win their games. That’s a fact—an inconvenient truth. Any journalist who doubts it should embed with a well-coached football team (most youth and high school teams are not well coached) for a season, then embed with West Point cadets or Ranger class or 10th Mountain Division.
No honest journalist would say anything other than, “Reed’s right. Football coaches are orders of magnitude more diligent about mastering the tiniest edges that might help them win on game day. Army officers behave like civil service future pensioners for the most part. When they work hard, their training or war zone approach is traditional and ritualistic rather than tailored to the exact situation they are in. Football coaches go to enormous lengths to have their scout team replicate as exactly as possible the behavior of the enemy.”
Aftermath of losing a man
Chapter 30 titled “Taps” is interesting. It’s about the attitude adjustment and other feelings that arose out of the death of one of their platoon members.
For one thing, Craig says the whole platoon totally lost their cockiness and bravado. I don’t know why they had any such at the outset, although I am not surprised. Young soldiers who have not yet been in combat have long been big on swagger and cockiness. One of my favorite war movies is Platoon Leader, the true story of a West Point lieutenant in Vietnam.
In one scene, the grizzled veteran platoon sergeant makes a cocky rookie help him defuse a land mine. The sergeant makes the rookie put his finger on the spring-loaded trigger of the mine admonishing him to not let it move upward until he gets back from taking a piss. If he does not hold it all the way down, the mine will explode instantly.
By the time the sergeant returns, all the cockiness has been purged from the rookie who is soaked with terror sweat and shaking.
A couple of Army psychiatrists arrived to help Craig’s platoon deal with the death. Craig as skeptical. So am I. But both were themselves combat vets. It sounds like they were competent and their visit, useful.
Part of the exercise was for everyone to say what happened from their perspective. Talk about the fog of war! Craig says each person seemed to have a different recollection in terms of sequence, distances, durations, and so on.
We football coaches learned all about that long ago. You often see a head coach get asked about something that happened in a game during the post-game press conference. Often, if not usually, the coach will say he has to “see the film” to know the answer to that question. It’s not a dodge. He knows from years of experience that you really do not know what happened out there until you study the video. My oldest son and I coached together for years. We are experts and see far more than laymen during a game. At a packed college or high school stadium, he and I talk quietly about the game, but strangers seated right next to us can hear and often turn to comment, “How did you see all that? ” But even experienced coaches still have to see the film to know all of what happened. Even experts miss about 85% of it while standing on the sideline intently watching.
It is now standard practice on aircraft carriers to film all take offs and landings. It has long been standard practice for fighter planes to have gun cameras that start filming when the pilot fires his weapons. Reconnaissance planes and satellites take still and motion pictures from above. If the U.S. military is serious about doing better, they need aerial photography of their patrols and convoys so they can get a better idea of what really happened in ambushes and fire fights.
Anyone who is trying to improve must learn from their successes and failures. If the fog of war dominates both the battle and the post-battle analysis, there will be little or no improvement in results including casualties.
No more appetite for battle
Craig said he and his men totally lost their desire for either hunting the enemy or being hunted by them. They wanted to go home. Survival was more important than accomplishing the mission, whatever it was. We felt the same in Vietnam probably for the same reason: the American people did not support the war and there was no hope of or plan for victory. We were just there for some sort of political posturing purposes.
The found the Taliban they had killed the day before during the ambush where they lost a man. There was a Snapple bottle on the ground where Sergeant Grenz had killed detonator boy. The only possible source was Craig’s forward operating base. Apparently one of the local civilian workers who had done work at the base stole it there and either was the detonator or knew him. Same deal in Vietnam. We had Vietnamese civilians working in our bases daily. We knew some were spies, but we did not know which ones. The enemy used to shoot rockets at us a 6AM on pay day (first of the month). Why? Their spies told them that at that time and date, there were large numbers of our enlisted men standing in lines outdoors waiting to get paid. That increased the chances that the relatively inaccurate 9K132 "Grad-P” 122mm rockets might hurt someone. They never did during the attacks on the bases where I was stationed.
No need to say be alert
All the discussion above about soldiers and football players needing to focus their eyes and attention became superfluous in Craig’s platoon. The death of one of their guys in the ambush got the point across 100%.
Gratuitous put downs
Craig said his superiors and peers often gratuitously mocked his Rhodes Scholar status. One superior, not mentioning the Rhodes, put Craig down in front of his men. None of my military superiors ever did that. I would have told them it was a bullshit stunt if they had. One coach I worked under made that mistake and I chewed him out next time we were in private later that day. He said his rank of athletic director meant he could do that. I told him President of the United States was not high enough rank to allow a manager to put down a subordinate manager in front of the lower-ranking man’s subordinates.
One of my Vietnam company commanders woke my night-shift guys up during the day to put on a phony class for a visiting brass hat. The brass hat had ordered the course be taught. He was ignored. Then he suddenly arrived to observe the class, which was put on only for as long as the brass hat was there. It was a total fraud. My men were used like extras in a movie shoot.
I told the CO if he ever did it again I would climb the chain of command all the way to the President, Congress, and press, if necessary until I found someone who agreed with me that his ass needed to be chewed. He did not do it again, but he gave me a 40 on my efficiency report (below 97 was the end of your career) and he testified against me at the hearing about my leaving the Army 11 months early—to his regret. My JAG lawyer and the general in charge of the board chewed him up on the witness stand. The captain whined that he felt like he was the “defendant.” (Technically, I was the “respondent,” not defendant. The hearing was administrative not criminal.)
Judged on your performance
On page 304, Craig says,
I wanted to be judged on my performance as a leader, not on the weight I could bench-press.
Yeah, me too, although it was ass kissing, not bench pressing, when I was in. Now it’s both. The way to get judged on your performance is to become self-employed. There are few jobs anywhere, and certainly not in the military, where you truly get judged on your performance. See my Succeeding book for details on that. See my Web article “The military is overemphasizing physical fitness at the expense of more important use of the time” for more on the military’s recent preoccupation with bench presses and the like.
Craig later got the opportunity to box against the superior who put him down in front of his men and gave him shit about the Rhodes. Craig says he won the fight. The superior was a non-West Pointer who knew nothing about how to box. We had a mandatory boxing course, including mandatory boxing competitions, at West Point. Boxing the boss in front of your men in a combat zone sounds like some Hollywood story like the many World War II movies where real men “settled” disputes, mainly personality conflicts, with fist fights. It was also a scene in the peacetime military movie An Officer and A Gentleman.
Boxing for that purpose is stupid. My way of handling the matter—chewing the boss’s ass out ferociously in private—is the correct approach. It means you’re done as far as working for that boss is concerned. But that’s as it should be. 98% of all bosses want obsequious people working for them. I do not offer that service. Nor do I permit bosses taking chunks out of my self-esteem by putting up with bullying or improper demands or put downs.
I no longer work for that varsity coach/athletic director because the only way to do so would be to give up self-respect. The vast majority of people are confronted with that same situation and make the decision the other way. They put up with it. Life is too short. I always said I would rather sell apples on a street corner than suck up to jerk bosses. So far, it has not come to that. Indeed, I generally drive nicer cars and live in a more expensive houses than my bosses who mistreated me and my peers who got the same treatment but put up with it because they felt they had no choice. It’s called being judged, and paid, by your performance.
Another fire fight
Craig’s Chapter 33 is about another fire fight. Sounds like he gave a good account of himself in the action. I disagree, however, with his analysis of why.
On page 320, he says,
My actions were instinctual, intuitive. Hours of training were instantly validated. The harassing recitations of Plebe knowledge. The high-speed free-fall sky dives. The night patrols at Ranger School. It was like switching to autopilot.
I’m OK with the first and last sentences. I do not doubt his actions were instinctive, but I expect because of his having been in Afghanistan for many months, not pre-Afghanistan training.
My training did NOT prepare me
My training did not much prepare me for his fire fights in Afghanistan, again, by the standards of a football coach. Of course, Craig may have had different training than I did, but nothing he said when describing his training indicated that. And I have received many comments from recent grads of West Point who expressed amazement at how similar my experience 45 years ago was to their West Point and Army experience. So until I get detailed evidence to the contrary, I’m saying he was essentially unprepared for Afghanistan patrols when he arrived in that country but well prepared by experience there over many months before the Chapter 33 fire fight.
He specifically gives having to memorize West Point trivia as a freshman there credit for helping him perform in the fire fight. That’s a stretch. I agree that during plebe year at West Point, one learns to function mentally while under great stress and fear. Typical example: you are asked to recite “The Days,” a long list of numbers of days until various big events like the Army-Navy Game and graduation, as well as movies playing in the West Point theater that week. While you are doing it, you are often getting yelled out. And God help you if you make a mistake. They yell more and make you start over. Typically, this is at a meal where you cannot eat while you are reciting. And we were always hungry during Beast Barracks—sometimes during the academic year.
Indirect teaching is a waste of precious time
However, having said that, I must add what I say in general about this sort of “instruction.” Neither I nor any other football coach I know uses recitation of trivia while being yelled at as practice for playing football games. Football games have comparable noise, albeit from whistles and crowds, not bullets and mortar rounds. But on the other hand, the enemy in combat is usually 200 to 300 yards away. In football, they are about 18 inches away before the snap and slamming into you after it. So while the injuries are less serious in football, all hell does break loose when the ball is snapped. And players 18 or younger need to be trained or they will curl up into the fetal position. We train them with the most exact replica of the game conditions as we can create, namely practice games and drills which are microcosms of the game.
Preparing for combat by memorizing and reciting long-strings of trivia at a college where upperclassmen are yelling at you is a very poor substitute for training by, say, having to call air support or medevacs with bullets, explosions, men yelling in pain or instructions and questions, dust thrown up by explosions, smoke from guns and explosions, wounded and dead all around you. If recitations of Plebe knowledge were as effective as Craig says, one would hear reports of West Point grads saying, “Sir, there are 27 days until Army beats the hell out of Navy,…” in combat. I have heard no such reports, although I would not be totally surprised if I did.
Generally, direct training is infinitely superior to indirect. You train men for football by playing football under game conditions. You train men for combat the same way. Training men for either by way of some exercise that bears distant, but arguably logical, relation to football or combat is 98% a waste of time. The New England Patriots do not prepare to play the Colts by memorizing and reciting the number of seats in Gillette Stadium. U.S. Army platoon leaders should not be preparing to fight the Taliban in Helmand Province by memorizing the number of gallons of water in Lusk Reservoir.
I do not get the skydiving connection. I did a little of that—always on static line but two jumps were in skydiving body position out of a piper cub so it took forever for the chute to open—maybe six seconds. I saw no benefit from it. You need to not be bothered or distracted by the fact that you are falling through the air but I was surprised at how easy that was. I thought maybe I or another jumper with me would freak out over the falling from a plane fact. I did not and neither did any of the hundreds jumping with me.
Re: night patrols at Ranger School: are there any other kind? When you are supposedly behind enemy lines, wandering around in the day time is suicidal. I would agree that Ranger patrols are instructive and helpful prep for real combat, but I do not know how similar they are to daylight fire fights in the barren rocks of Afghanistan.
Revert to training
Both combat veterans and football players report that they revert to, or fall back on, their training when they are overwhelmed by the chaos and fear that accompanies that which they train for. Craig calls it autopilot. I would just call it momentary habit. Again, you want to give people as much of this kind of training as possible. I needs to be realistic, practice the correct response, and cover as large a number of situations as possible.
For example, in football, we practice the QB eating the ball (when no one is open and we want the clock to keep running), throwing it out of bounds (when no one is open and we want to stop the clock), how everyone should react to a bad long snap, and so on. Then, when the bad long snap happens in a game, the backs and coaches scream “Fire! Fire!”—the same word used to train this in practice—and the players instantly react on instinct like Pavlov’s dogs. That is good training for football players or soldiers. In baseball, I did a muff-and-get-one drill in pregame where the infielder would deliberately muff a grounder, then pick it up and throw to first to teach him not to panic when a muff happened in a game.
We did this by the hour is football every day. I almost never did it during four years of West Point including summer field training. Ranger school was a little more similar to football in its realisticness. West Point and other training before I went to Vietnam was ritualistic, choreographed, scripted rather than reacting to events, traditional, academic, essentially limited to the roles of privates and specialists with an occasional assignment to the role of squad leader or patrol leader. Platoon leaders, on the other hand, control multiple squads and relate continuously to the company commander and fire and medical support over the radio during combat.
Ranger School was closer to the West Point version than the football version. I have gotten the impression that Ranger School has since added some situations like use of air support, wounded men, and so on. They did not when I went through it.
Scripted West Point field exercises
At West Point, the typical field exercise was leading, or being a grunt in, a squad attacking a machine gun nest or hill top occupied by a half dozen or a dozen enemy. The enemy would always run away as scripted. and they would always counterattack as scripted. That’s good as far as it goes, but real combat in Vietnam and Afghanistan means leading four squads, not one. You have to constantly figure out and refigure out where the enemy is and where all your guys are. Once the action begins, in the U.S. Army, you typically immediately call for artillery and/or air support (aircraft that can shoot at or bomb the ground). If you have casualties, which is typical, you need to get them medical attention from your own medics and you typically have to call for medevac chopper to remove them from the battle. Depending on the terrain and enemy fire, that can be complicated.
Did we rehearse that at West Point or Ranger School? Never. We always operated totally independent of any higher headquarters giving orders or asking for sit reps or support artillery or aircraft and we never had wounded or KIA. In the real world of combat, you have all that shit going on simultaneously. I wish I had such training. I wish Craig and all the other future platoon leaders did. Contrary to what he says on page 320, I do not believe any of us had adequate or appropriate practice at what platoon leaders really do in combat. Maybe he got some of it at infantry officers basic or specialty training, but he does not mention such training.
Craig loses another man in the Chapter 33 fire fight. This time, he spares us and himself the philosophical stuff about it. A friend got killed. It sucks. War sucks. There are no words to change that or to explain it any better than the bare facts: the guy drowned in his own blood.
On page 324, writing about his final days in combat in Afghanistan, Craig says explaining the main dangers he and his men faced,
Our routes [on our patrols] were predictable.
I do not understand why. He does not explain it. If there is a good reason, for such an egregious violation of infantry best practices, Craig should have explained it. (Later, on page 332, he says that humvees were forced onto the roads often by terrain that was simply too difficult for the humvees to go off road. One of his squad leaders lost a leg to an IED in such a situation while Craig was a human resources staff officer. That squad leader was sitting in the sea Craig usually sat in on that same road when he had been platoon leader) Seems to me that there must have been a way to correct that. Perhaps they should have moved their base more often so that they would have new starting points for their patrols. The fact is, we were told in no uncertain terms stay off the trails and roads. Never go the same way twice. Indeed, U.S. Army rangers are taught the rules of Rogers Rangers, an American army unit (under colonial British control before our revolution in 1776) that operated during the French and Indian War. Rogers wrote his rules in 1757. Here is the pertinent one
5. … in your return take a different route from that in which you went out, ….
It’s also common sense. The enemy can only ambush Americans who take predictable routes. Ambush is almost the only method by which the enemy attacks our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. If ambush is their only successful tactic, and ambush requires predictable routes, why are we ever taking predictable routes?
During the Vietnam war, Americans in general killed about ten times an many enemy as Americans who died. U.S. Army rangers killed about 50 times as many enemy as they lost of their own men. How so? The enemy could not ambush or booby trap the U.S. rangers because they never knew there they would be in advance. The Rangers, indeed, killed the enemy in 50-to-1 numbers mainly by ambushing enemy columns of replacements and cargo bearers who were—you guessed it—violating the rule against using trails or roads. Ranger patrols, typically of six men, were inserted into the jungle by helicopters that would land multiple times. The rangers would get off at one of the landings. The other stops were decoys. The rangers would move to the ambush site by one route, then depart after the ambush on another route to be picked up at a different LZ from where they got off. (U.S. Army rangers in Vietnam)
For the record, I disagree with the generally unspoken implication that Army rangers are supermen. Craig and I both graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School. The Rangers were more successful in Vietnam because they used better tactics than the regular U.S. Army and because they were somewhat better trained and motivated. But they were not supermen. Non-supermen rangers killed their own man, Pat Tillman, by friendly fire. I wrote about ranger school at www.johntreed.com/ranger.html.
Captains can’t be platoon leaders
Craig was promoted to captain. That meant he could no longer be platoon leader. He was very unhappy about that.
Welcome to the U.S. Army. Why can’t a captain be a platoon leader? Beats the hell out of me. The U.S. military has a zillion such idiotic policies.
There are only two troop command positions in the Army: platoon leader and company commander. I held both of those jobs. I was not that impressed with platoon leader, although my platoons were essentially garrison almost office-type work, not combat infantrymen like Craig’s platoon. I was surprised at how rewarding it was to be a company commander—even though mine was in a school brigade and was essentially like managing a hotel with a restaurant. I had far more men—400 versus 125—than a normal company commander which I liked. And the hotel/restaurant was challenging enough in spite of it’s not sounding like a John Wayne combat assignment.
The problem is after those two jobs, your troop leading days are probably over as a West Point grad. A select (based on ass-kissing ability) few get to command battalions, brigades, and divisions and the few bigger units, but I believe a majority of West Point grads never get to command a battalion. It might even be true that a majority of West Pointers never command a company. I do not know where to find the answer to that question. The image of West Point cadets and grads is they are combat troop leaders. In fact, even in a 25-year career, you would probably only have about 24 months of platoon and company command. If West Point graduates want to lead men, they need to get out of the Army and become sports coaches or small company owners or salaried managers. The notion that the U.S. military is a place to go to command men is mostly a cruel joke. The number of troop commanders the U.S. military needs is tiny compared to the number of officers on the payroll. That was even true in war-time in my experience and that of Craig Mullaney—as well as in other books I read about West Point graduates like In a Time of War.
On page 326, Craig says,
Four years at West Point and a year of training had all been focused on being a platoon leader. It was all for this: the ten months with Spearhead Platoon….
Actually, that is the way it ended up, but the training he got at West Point and afterwards was not focused on being a platoon leader. It was not focused on anything other than the vague, general idea of making a career of the Army.
As I said above, Craig spent the remainder of his tour in Afghanistan as a military human resources paper pusher at a rear area base—your West Point, Oxford, Ranger School, Infantry School tax dollars at work—Craig’s sweat, blood, pain, lifelong maimed shoulder, hard studying, etc. at work.
When I was at that point back in 1971—realizing my troop-leading days were over—I thought of Peggy’s Lee’s song: Is that all there is? “I went through all that for nothing but this? Is this some sort of colossal joke?”
West Point grad career officers are lifelong bureaucrats who get a little tease of troop command in their early twenties. If they ever command again, they will be lucky if it lasts a year.
Twisted mutation of the ‘Peter Principle’
The U.S. military practices a sort of twisted version of the already perverse Peter Principle: As soon as you start to get good at your job, you are removed from it and replaced by a rookie who is lousy at it. Actually, the Peter Principle would be an improvement in the U.S. military. At present, military officers not only get promoted to their level of incompetence, but beyond it as well. Every career officer who started in his early twenties is going to make lieutenant colonel no matter his or her level of competence.
And when you have commanded both platoons and companies and you are getting a general hang of command, they promote you to major and forbid you from commanding anything. You have to be a staff officer. Captains also get that job when there are not enough majors—a problem in today’s Army which sucks so much that too many captains get out.
Thus did Craig become his battalion’s human resources guy. He bitches and moans about that in chapter 35.
At his battalion, being a staff officer meant having the time and opportunity to engage in serious body building. His Rhodes Scholar class would be so proud. Apparently, in Afghanistan, one of the ways you can tell the RAMF (Rear Area Mother Fuckers) from the front line guys is muscles. The RAMFs are the ones with the muscles. And the U.S. military is the organization saying or implying that they have muscles are to make them better in combat. The truth is combat soldiers have no time for that shit.
On page 330, Craig says,
Misery, even as a staff officer, was an infantryman’s job description.
I have commented on this phenomenon I saw in the Army in various articles including my review of the book I Love A Man In Uniform. The U.S. military sucks. Craig says the infantry. That’s because he only was in the infantry. How do human beings cope with a 20-year career that sucks? They turn suffering into a virtue, a source of pride. Think of it as Jewish mothers with medals.
On page 347, Craig tells of visiting his younger brother Gary who was a West Point cadet. It was one of the first things Craig did when he returned from Afghanistan.
I was ambivalent about his choice [to go to West Point]. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to move from the parade field to the battlefield. I didn’t want to lose him as I had lost Evan [member of his platoon who was killed in Afghanistan].
Ambivalent?! Hell, I don’t even know Gary, but I’m not ambivalent!
Memo to Gary: Run for your life. Run for your life in that if you stay at West Point you will be put in mortal danger in Iraq and/or Afghanistan—for no good reason that I can discern. Run for your life in that staying at West Point will, at best, force you to spend five of the most important years of your life in a Kafkaesque nightmare of an organization that will teach you little in the way of useful skills and good habits and which will teach you many wrong things and give you many bad habits. Run for your life in that spouse choice is the most important decision you will ever make and West Point and its parent organization the Army makes it much harder for you to do a good job on making that crucial choice.
In that same chapter, Craig complains bitterly of the lack of interest among the American people in the war that Craig and his men had fought in. Welcome to the fucking club, buddy. Been there, done that in Vietnam. Since the second half of the Korean War, the American government has sent U.S. military personnel to fight and die in wars that the American people do not care about. It’s an outrage and it ought to stop.
On page 349, Craig is angry at a civilian who says he would serve but only “if he were guaranteed a challenging assignment.”
First, I am amused at the naiveté of this clown about how the Army works and what assignments it has to offer. I am also amused at the notion that ducking bullets and RPGs while trying to avoid an IED kill zone is not enough of a challenge. Craig angrily explained,
At West Point we’d learned that responsibility preceded privilege.
We were not taught that when I was there. I don’t even understand what it means. Privilege is relative in the Army. When most are up to their necks in chicken shit, those who are only up to their arm pits feel privileged. Get out of the Army and you will find a whole new definition of privilege.
The only line we heard about privilege when I was in was,
Rank has its privileges, and its responsibilities.
In other words, the two arrive simultaneously. Responsibility does not precede privilege. More basically, the people in the military are almost always in a civil-service, sinecure mode waiting for the next promotion or their retirement benefits. Craig’s depiction is party line, not reality. But his getting out of the Army ASAP was not party line. Had he stayed, he would have had a lot more Kafkaesque privileges (getting saluted by ever more subordinates) but little if any additional responsibility (troop command).
Then Craig started to drink, apparently too much. If you’ve read this review from the start, you’re not surprised.
He seems to blame it on the war. No excuse, mister. You’re not the only war veteran in the history of the universe. We did not all become alcoholics. I do not even know any who did other than my father and I think the Army drove him to drink through social peer pressure on weekend pass, not combat. He was a company clerk (Radar O’Reilly’s job).
More Back-from-Afghanistan Craig:
In the middle of the night I woke up in a cold sweat and stared into the black. I didn’t know what was wrong. I wasn’t the me I was before.
Probably too much caffeine before bed—or maybe that copy of How to Become a Drama Queen for Dummies you’ve been reading. My oldest (28) son is not the him he was a year ago. No combat. He went through other life experiences like getting married, buying his first home, trying to establish a career in a tough economy. It’s called growing up. Craig Mullaney is not the only one who has experienced that either.
Jumped at cannon fire
Craig said during his ceremonial duties at the Old Guard—his next assignment after Afghanistan—he often appeared at funerals or ceremonies for visiting dignitaries. He said he always jumped when the cannons fired in tribute to the visiting dignitaries because they reminded him of incoming rockets.
Excuse me. Cannons go boom. Incoming rocket explosions make a crack and giant ripping, crunching sound (rending the ground asunder) that bears no resemblance to outgoing cannon fire (explosion inside a brass shell at the closed bottom of a thick steel tube with the noise muffled by the outgoing shell and directed upward toward the departed warhead.
He said all the Iraq/Afghanistan vets he was with were like that. I never heard of any such thing among my fellow Vietnam vet friends. Always seemed like Hollywood bullshit to me. I figure the guys who react that way to loud noises are faking combat instincts to impress civilians with how changed they were by their profound combat experience. The ones who hit the dirt the hardest were probably humvee mechanics in Kuwait during the Iraq war. I would like to hear what other combat vets say about it.
One of my West Point classmates and fellow Vietnam vets and I went to the Cal-Arizona football game on 11/14/09. (My youngest son is a manager on the Arizona team.) As we gave our tickets, rockets fired as Cal ran onto the field suddenly exploded above us. Neither of us reacted at all in spite of the lack of warning. We were still outside the stadium. I commented, and he agreed, that the notion that we combat vets dive for cover when a car backfires did not seem to be supported by our nonreaction to those Cal football explosions.
I think we military vets are actually more like the old cavalry horses who did not react to battlefield noises because we were deliberately trained to regard them as normal—even as early as West Point where instructors threw bomb noisemakers into little holes around us as we went through the woods at West Point. In Vietnam, I spent a number of nights sleeping on a cot in the middle of a mixed-heavy artillery battery (self-propelled 8-inch and 175 mm guns at Fire base Wade in Loc Ninh) that fired outgoing all night it seemed. The explosions were so huge that I was lifted off the cot, or it was driven down beneath me as I stayed in mid air. I slept through them, amazingly to me—not unlike falling asleep standing up in Ranger School.
Chapter 38 is about Craig’s two weddings: one South Indian and one Catholic.
39 is about teaching naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, the arch rival of West Point. What did Craig know about Naval History? Damned if I know.
‘Getting it right’
On page 362, he gets philosophical about Annapolis students (called midshipmen) believing they could eliminate all risk and manipulate all combat situations so that they would emerge victorious by “getting it right.” Craig sort of says you have to believe that as an officer.
No. It’s wrong. My readers on the subject of real estate investment make that same mistake. I actually talk about it in some YouTubes you can see at the Best Practices page of my Web site.
The way it really works is there is skill, good luck, and bad luck. In real estate investment, you acquire skill that matches the particular strategy you adopt and put yourself in a position to make money from that skill. But not every variable is susceptible to skill. There are many things you can neither forecast nor control. Those, you must risk manage. When Craig lost his first man in Afghanistan, he was walking across an open area if I understand correctly. There is no skill regarding how to do that. You cannot forecast or control whether the enemy opens accurate fire when you are in the open. So you have to risk manage it. Don’t walk across the open. Take another route. Run across it from cover to cover in unpredictable spurts. There are a number of things you can do. But it all comes down to acquiring and using the skills you can acquire, but also recognizing those things you can neither forecast nor control and using risk-management techniques on those instead—like avoidance, mitigation, hedging (no military analog). (See my book Best Practices for the Intelligent Real Estate Investor for a several-chapter-length explanation of this extremely important career life lesson.)
Both West Point and Annapolis do their students a profound disservice by not teaching the military version of what I just said.
A midshipman asked Craig,
Were you ready?
I was as ready as I could be.
Bullshit! As I explained above, the football coach approach I described above was what he needed. That is, extremely realistic rehearsals of leading a platoon in Afghan-like terrain complete with all the various situations that are likely to arise like calling for artillery, air support, medevac, moving using various formations and techniques, dust, smoke, noise, etc. He did not get anywhere near enough of that. He spent far too much time doing military garrison bullshit like saluting and polishing brass.
Craig ends that chapter with yet another homily that he speaks with great precision and confidence, only like so many of the others in the book, it’s dead wrong.
I hoped I taught them to be better thinkers. I hoped I taught them enough intellectual humility to question their own answers. [direct contradiction to the prior page’s always having to believe you are right about what to do] I hoped I taught them resolve and courage and even a little bit of compassion. But I also share the curse of every teacher: I will never know whether I succeeded.
Bullshit! Become a coach. You find out whether you succeeded at least once a week on game day. If you teach in a classroom, you find out on test day or classroom recitation day and graduation day and homecoming. If you coach long enough or teach long enough, you run into your former players and students and they often tell you how what they learned from you made their lives better. If you teach through books as I usually do, you get emails and phone calls almost every day telling you about successes and failures they have had trying to follow your advice. In my case, they also tell you of how they used what they learned from you to teach even younger men and women how to succeed in sports and life.
Stretching for a dramatic way to end Chapter 39, Craig reaches too far and ends up totally misrepresenting the rewards of teaching, a subject of which he is almost totally ignorant because he did it for such a short period of time, then moved away from the place where he taught.
Graves and funerals
In Chapter 40, Craig visits the grave of the first guy killed in his unit.xHe decides there was nothing any of them could have done to save him. I wasn’t there but there certainly were ways to prevent it, like the kid not joining the Army. Craig may have had some discretion about how he conducted the patrol that would have reduced the chances. The main thing is no amount of feeling bad about it is going to bring the kid back. Craig, and the Army need to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. My impression is that Craig probably did, but he got out of the Army. I strongly suspect there’s another Craig, who is not trying hard enough to prevent another such incident, and that another similar kid will die in a similar way and that will happen thousands more times before someone wises up and gets out of there or gives these guys more effective training.
In his usual find-the-drama-and-appropriate-Army-homily fashion, Craig ends the grave visit description with the words—got your chisel ready?—
Evan spent his death well. He died a warrior.
I suspect Evan would prefer what one guy said when he was asked how it felt to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.
If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d rather walk.
The rest of the chapter is about the funeral of another of his men who survived Afghanistan only to be killed on his next deployment in Iraq.
Are you wondering why they did not send him back to Afghanistan—where he had some expertise? Yeah, me too except I am so well aware that the U.S. military is SNAFU and FUBAR that their 24/7 idiocy no longer surprises me.
To the Army Craig, Evan, Sergeant White, and Craig’s younger brother West Point Cadet Gary are nothing but serial-numbered warm bodies that the Army ships off to where warm bodies have been requested—until they become cold bodies, at which time they are returned to sender with a receipt to be signed by the next of kin that warns that the entire body is not in the shrink wrap because the missing parts could not be found, along with a strong admonition not to have an open-casket funeral. That receipt is not called SNAFU or FUBAR. It’s called CYA and it is typical that the next to last act of the Army you trusted him to is covering its ass about what a mess they turned him into.
Their final act is to hand the next of kin a free American flag folded neatly into a triangle. Transaction complete. You gave us a son or husband. We have to return him dead or alive, and if dead, you get a flag.
Advice for Gary—finally
In the final chapter, Craig decides his embarrassment over his losing men in Afghanistan is trumped by his concern that he must give Gary as much advice as possible to increase Gary’s chances of coming back and bringing all his men with him. Jesus H. Christ! I hope after the delay (that I do not understand) there was still enough time to get all the necessary advice into the conversation.
Here are some words from his next to last paragraph of the book.
Finally, I wanted to tell him that doing everything right might still entail heart-wrenching consequences. Gary would have his own unforgiving minutes, I feared, but what mattered was that he fill those minutes with “sixty seconds worth of distance run.” And just as important were all the hours of demanding preparation before the unforgiving minute:…
The dog that did not bark
The main thing about Craig’s book is what’s NOT in it. And the main thing that’s not in it is honor.
If you ask 100 West Point cadets or graduates about what they got out of the place, 99 will immediately tell you about the Cadet Honor Code, the honor training, the West Point motto of Duty, Honor, Country. That motto is engraved on the rings graduates wear. It’s engraved on the walls and monuments at West Point. It’s all over the West Point Web site. It’s in the Cadet Prayer and the Alma Mater. Those two works are also engraved all over the place at West Point and on the West Point Web site.
But none of it is in Craig’s book about West Point and being in the Army after West Point.
What’s up with that?
It’s like his writing four chapters about Ranger School and never mentioning his ranger buddy or even that he had a ranger buddy.
I suspect most West Point graduates would be sympathetic to Craig and opposed to my criticism of his book, but even those would probably raise an eyebrow upon realizing that Craig never mentions honor in a book about West Point and being an Army officer, a book that emphasizes after-dinner-speech values
In a way that only a fellow West Pointer would understand, I find the omission odd and slightly disturbing.
He also either mentions no classmates who died in battle or only one. Again, with no index, I have to go on memory. That is also odd behavior for a West Point graduate and at odds with other similar books like In a Time of War. I worked on my class’s 40th reunion book. They put the names of our 20 classmates who died in Vietnam on the front cover. I thought they should have been on the back cover. The 20 dead classmates were also prominent in the weekend’s activities.
The most famous movie about West Point—the Long Gray Line—has many poignant scenes about recently-graduated cadets being killed in World War II. Hollywood hypes everything, but those scenes are real. I remember being at West Point as a cadet during the Vietnam war and our feelings as the casualty reports came back and the wall with the names of Vietnam war dead grew near South Auditorium in Thayer Hall.
My theory as to why our dead were so meaningful to us is that we were young and the young are not supposed to die. So I find it strange that Craig mentions none of his class’s Iraq/Afghanistan dead. Craig has not yet reached his 10th reunion. We had not stopped being preoccupied with our war dead even at our 40th reunion.
Devoid of mention of integrity
I just did a search within my Internet domain (www.johntreed.com) for the phrase “Cadet Honor Code.” It selected 30 of my Web pages. I can’t check the index of Craig’s book for the same or similar phrases because he went with a schlock publisher who cut that corner. His book has no index. But going on recent memory of reading it, I do not recall his ever mentioning the honor training at West Point nor any discussion of integrity of any kind at West Point or in the Army.
This in spite of his going out of his way to tell us what a spiritual, moral guy he is. Remember this is the guy who had to be talked out of quitting West Point after he went through bayonet training. This is the guy who incessantly agonized about bringing back all of his men safe, who repeatedly worried about earning the right to be saluted. Every chapter in Craig’s book begins with some literary quote, often about spiritual values.
I have not written an autobiography and have no plans to do so. My book Succeeding is somewhat autobiographical. You can see the index and table of contents at my Web site. The index has three entries for Cadet Honor Code, one for Honor Code, and a dozen or more on various words like integrity and honesty. The table of contents includes chapters titled:
Self-Employment (almost the only way to make an honest living)
Working for Other People (mainly an issue of integrity)
Making an Honest Living
Conflict and Conflict Avoidance (often over integrity issues)
Gotta walk the walk
Does merely writing about honesty prove you’re honest? No. You have to walk the walk. But does not writing about honesty in in a book that self-consciously puts your spirituality and values on display mean you’re not honest? Not necessarily, but it certainly suggests that honesty is not very high on your values hierarchy.
Craig talks incessantly about “leadership.” The book was recommended to me as the best leadership book ever. But page 88 of the Bugle Notes book my class was issued when we entered West Point on 1/1/64 says
From the earliest days of recorded history it has been recognized that unquestioned integrity is an essential trait of the military leader.
Somehow, it not only was not essential to Craig’s book. He does not even mention it at all in 386 pages.
Salient aspect of my time in the Army
Integrity was the salient feature of my eight years at West Point and in the Army. That is largely my personal taste and value system, not the norm for West Point graduates, but honor would still be the first thing virtually all West Point cadets or graduates would say about West Point in a book about West Point that emphasized spiritual values as much as Unforgiving Minute does.
On almost a daily basis, I observed or encountered dishonesty that outraged me then and still do 41 years later. I wrote a Web article about it titled “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” My answer to that question was yes. It has a number of actual, detailed case histories that I experienced illustrating the military’s habit of routinely lying.
Yet Craig saw no evil and heard no evil with regard to integrity during 12 years in the Army—or if he did, he did not find it noteworthy or he did not have the moral courage to discuss it.
Is the Army more honest now?
Is it possible that the Army has changed since I got out in 1972 and that it is now an honest organization?
Nope. To cite one example, consider the Pat Tillman cover-up. He was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire in 2004, the year after Craig left that country. See my articles “Lessons Learned from Pat Tillman’s Death” and “The Army tries to get away with yet another whitewash of Pat Tillman’s death” and “The general who lied about Pat Tillman gets promoted to military’s highest rank and made head of Afghanistan.” And the Tillman cover-up was not just Army officers lying instinctively out of habit, they were almost all West Point graduates:
Four-star General Stanley McChrystal Class of 1976
Three-star General Philip Kensinger Class of 1970 (censured by the Army, when subpoenaed by the Congress, he successfully hid from the U.S. Marshal who tried to serve the subpoena)
Four-star General John Abizaid Class of 1973
Tillman’s platoon leader when he got killed was a former West Point First Captain (top cadet). I am not aware that he did anything wrong, but neither did I read that he spoke out against the cover-up.
General David Petraeus Class of 1974) and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates (not West Point graduate) had nothing to do with the Tillman cover-up, but they were both involved with the promotion of McChrystal to four stars and making him head of Afghanistan. Honest men do not promote liars to high office or rank in their organization.
Is this just me accusing these guys of lying? Nope. An Army investigation said officially that McChrystal lied and should be disciplined.
Craig is still in the belly of the beast
To make the long Tillman cover-up story short, not a single West Pointer or Secretary of Defense (Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense when Tillman was killed and for the first part of the cover up; Gates was there for the end of the cover-up and promotion of McChrystal) did the right thing—other than Wallace. The U.S. Army officer corps is a thoroughly corrupt organization. As far as I know, so are the other services and, to a slightly lesser extent, the federal government.
Note, according to Wikipedia, Craig is currently a Department of Defense civilian employee. That may explain why there is no mention of officers lying or telling Craig to lie when he was an officer. Or maybe it somehow just did not happen to him. I think that’s extremely unlikely other than when he was away from the Army at Oxford.
On page 379 after the end of the book, Craig has an “Author’s note.” It begins with a T.S. Eliot quote that ends,
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
I surmise that’s a bureaucrat’s “it’s not my job” evasion of responsibility for results. See my article “Process orientation versus results orientation.” I also wrote another article that the military were like liberals in that they believe good intentions are a 100% satisfactory substitute for successful results. No, they’re not. Social programs that do not work, or more common, make things worse, need to be ended. But they never are. Same applies to armies that haven’t won a war since 1945.
Trying is a kindergarten standard. E for effort. But in national defense, there is no E for effort; only R for results. As Craig’s book shows, the American soldiers in Afghanistan do deserve an E for effort. But if effort is all they can produce, they should come home. War is not kindergarten.
If the lack of success is someone else’s fault, they should come home—until “someone else” cleans up their act.
Craig says he wrote this book in part because it might “inspire some to serve.” The guy’s a slow learner. After “serving” for 12 years on active duty in the U.S. Army he’s still going to reduce it down to a one-word abstraction. The more accurate phraseology would be that he went to college and grad school, schlepped around some U.S. Army bases in schools or garrison duty, was a college instructor, and wandered around in Afghanistan “showing presence” to no discernible purpose for ten months. Three of those who “served” with him died doing so.
Was he “serving” when he perused his Arab language language materials given to him by the Army for use in Afghanistan, a country that does not speak Arabic? Was he “serving” when he experienced that which inspired him to use the word Kafka to describe the U.S. Army.
Joining the military is not an abstraction. Doing a tour in a combat zone is not an abstraction. Dying because of enemy or friendly fire is not an abstraction. It seemed to me that the purpose of his book was to replace the abstractions with gritty details. But then, on page 380, he gets back “on message” spouting politician-like, abstract, talking points.
What he owes the Army
Craig makes the usual mistake of those who have been in the Army since teenagehood when he thanks the Army for the following things, most of which are not even close to unique to the Army:
|Craig said||my comment|
teaching me and training me at West Point
He would have been taught at any of America’s 3,000 colleges—and better in a number of ways at 50 to 100 of them. If he joined ROTC, he would have been trained, if not in as detailed a manner with regard to garrison Army duty.
|for the opportunity to study and travel abroad||Almost all U.S. colleges now offer a semester or year studying abroad. Tuition and fees are the same. You have to pay your own airfare to get over there. There are also many Americans who live and work abroad as expatriates. My father-in-law did that his whole career. The vast majority of U.S. citizens traveling abroad are not now and never were in the U.S. military. How intelligent people can lose the ability to comprehend that when they go into the Army is beyond me. You do not have to join the Army to study, work, or travel abroad. Indeed, civilians get to do infinitely more of that and their travels take them to more interesting, more pleasant, more safe places than Al Podunki, Afghanistan.|
|for the chance to lead and learn from incredible soldiers and officers||like the officer who chewed him out in front of his men and the sergeant who refused to wash his clothes or take a bath? If it was so wonderful, why did he stop? He should call the Pentagon. I’m sure they would love to have him and his Rhodes Scholar resume back. Go lead and learn some more. Get away from those non-incredible civilians.|
|for the privilege of teaching||It’s a common job held by millions of people and reasonably well compensated including when he did it. He should have no trouble doing it for the rest of his life if he wants. Indeed, he could even return to teach at Annapolis probably. They have civilian instructors. If it was so wonderful, why did he stop?|
|for making me a better man and husband||I expect he would be as good a man and husband, probably better, if he had gone to Stanford and had no involvement with the Army. He would have come out of Stanford more mature than coming from the isolated, weird, “grindstone cloister” (Petraeus phrase) of West Point. He would now have seven years experience in his civilian career and have skills, habits, and connections that would facilitate the rest of his career. Because of the Army, he is an entry-level 30-year old, a rare and somewhat pathetic-sounding situation. He sure as hell would have spent infinitely more time with his girlfriend/fiancee/wife and not worried her with his combat tour had he avoided being in the Army. And he would not be having combat-related episodes of depression, binge drinking, nightmares, and regret. If the Army made him a better man and husband, his departing the Army says he no longer wants to improve as a man or husband. I think what it really means is this is some bullshit after-dinner speech that is the opposite of what he really believes. Actions speak louder than words. And when they do not match, the speaker is a hypocrite. One of the things West Point did to make Craig a “better man” was make him memorize the Cadet Prayer which says in part, “Suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence [sic] ever to diminish.” Apparently, Craig has consciously decided he did not want to be that good of a man.|
|I hope this book settles some of that debt, but I know my duty will never be complete.||Again, actions speak louder than words. Re-up or shut up.|
|Ultimately, I wasn’t strong enough to continue serving in uniform and to meet the duties I had to my family.||
Sounds like his wife told him “The Army or me” and he preferred her. At West Point, many who quit do so because they were not “strong enough.” But in the Army officer corps? Ha!
The guys who stay in the Army are about 95% there because they fear they would not do as well “on the outside.” They lack self-confidence and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, they have much to lack self-confidence about. The other 5% think, erroneously in most cases, that they are going to become multi-star generals—and equally erroneously, that being a multi-star general for a few years is worth 35 years of chicken shit, long separations from family, making spouse and children live at isolated Army posts and move to another continent an average of once a year, and occasional exposure to extreme danger..
These “owes the Army” comments are not logical, not believable, and apparently designed to impress some polite audience of people who were never in the military. They are in marked contrast to the usually real-world, genuine tone of the book. My guess is that he got out of the Army and joined the Obama organization to avoid divorce and to add more Rhodes Scholar level accomplishments to his resume en route to announcing his own candidacy for President. As far as I can tell, this book is to Craig what Dreams from My Father was to his new boss Barack Obama—a future campaign brochure.
Epilogue to my review of Unforgiving Minute
The phrase “Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run” comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”
When I was an upperclassman at West Point, I had two things facing me for inspiration on my desk in my cadet room: one was a newspaper photo of president Kennedy pointing at a reporter at a news conference. But I saw it as him pointing at me. He was assassinated on a Friday as I was going to our weekly high school pep rally. I was a senior football player that day. During his presidency, he always attended the Army-Navy Game, which was the biggest football game in the country then. There was no Super Bowl and no BCS. He was assassinated eight days before the 1963 Army-Navy Game, which was postponed as a result.
There is a photo of me sitting at that desk on the first page of my Web Article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” The photo and quote card are just out of the photo to the right.
The other inspiring thing I chose to constantly face me on my desk was part of my Type A Behavior of never wasting time. It was a card with a line from a poem I had come across in the Cadet Library:
Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.
Final memo to Gary: Before you ship out read my Web article “The morality of obeying stupid orders.” And be careful out there.
General comments on the book
If you have something to say, say it. If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
That’s advice from my book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book, which was “highly recommended” by the West Point alumni magazine.
Did Craig have something to say? Not book length. He should have written an article on being a Rhodes Scholar (more drinking and bumming around than studying) and another on being a platoon leader in Afghanistan.
What about West Point, Ranger School, the 10th Mountain Division in the U.S., teaching at Annapolis, the Old Guard, getting married? Nah. Already been done as well or better or the subject is not interesting enough. It is the sort of material most people put in their Christmas newsletter to their friends and relatives. The book is essentially just an edited digest of Craig’s journal or diary. It has no coherent theme other than Craig himself, but that’s the definition of a journal or diary, not a book. Indeed, I have often complained that an Army officer’s career is an incoherent, disjointed, manic, nomadic, intercontinental temp deal. So, predictably, is Craig’s book about being an Army officer.
‘Written in anger’
Will he ever be able to write a good book? Probably. But he needs a book-length subject that is both interesting and extremely exciting to him. In my book on writing books, I say that all good non-fiction books are written in anger. I got that from someone else—another West Point graduate I believe. When I first read that, I thought, “That’s not true.” Then I thought about it as the author of 30 some books. And I realized it was right. My first book, Aggressive Tax Avoidance for Real Estate Investors was about my anger at all the tax breaks investors and their accountants were overlooking. That book is now in its 19th edition. My most recent football coaching book is The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense which is my anger about coaches all doing more or less the same thing when being different gives them numerous obvious advantages.
Another way I put it is that you do not write a book unless existing books on the subject are incomplete or incorrect. Simon & Schuster asked me to write a book like my Aggressive Tax Avoidance for Real Estate Investors, but for everyone. I considered it, looked at the existing books on that subject and said no because there were fewer tax breaks available to everyone and they were well known and well-covered in the existing books. I see no indication of either completing the literature or correcting existing beliefs in Craig’s book, which means he should not have written it. Don’t kill trees just so you can say you’re an author or just to show off your accomplishments.
Writing a full-length book is an intellectual marathon. For all his Rhodes Scholarship and such, Craig has not yet completed an intellectual marathon. His Unforgiving Minute is a compilation of essentially unrelated articles, or a cleaned-up journal, not a true book.
To get all the way through 300 pages of anger, you have to be really pissed off and the subject itself must be book length. Counting editions, I have now written 88 books. All this is second nature to me now. Craig doesn’t know the first thing about writing a book, literally.
You would think his editors at Penguin Press—they are listed on page 382—would know the first thing about writing a book, but they don’t. For reasons unknown to me, editors at periodicals are typically senior, experienced reporters, but editors at book publishers are often recent college grads who are less knowledgeable about book writing and publishing than the authors they “edit.” When high school graduate, housewife, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy needed a job, Harper Collins made her a book editor. Craig praises his editors to high heaven on page 382. Either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (probable) or he’s just spouting pro forma extreme praise because he thinks that the etiquette of the situation requires it (even more probable). He probably also figures no reviewer would ever review his praise of his editors. Wrong.
Raised more questions than it answered
The main thing that pissed me off about Craig’s book is its unfilled promise of broad, profound insights into war and life. Instead, we get strained melodrama, recitation of empty Army slogans, and occasional brief flashes of anger that burn out like shooting stars. The followed questions seemed to be on the schedule but were never answered.
• Why did he get out of the Army as soon as he could after all this talk about “a soldier’s education?”
• Did his men’s deaths in combat matter or did they die for nothing but upholding some “tough on terror” political posture of the moment by Draft Dodger in Chief George W. Bush?
• Did their service and the service of the men in the platoon who survived accomplish anything worthwhile for the U.S. and its people?
• Did West Point make Craig a better man after all? Or is he incapable of asking that question with an open mind because he so fervently wants to believe it did?
• Was his post-West Point Army career what he thought it would be when he entered West Point and when he graduated?
• What happened to his father and mother?
• Is he still married? His wife is a big part of the book in the Rhodes Scholar and wedding chapters, but barely mentioned in the rest of it.
• Did he recognize that any of the stuff that impressed him so much when he was a cadet and in his post-West Point training was actually pretty lame, sloganistic, and ritualistic and not the sort of detailed rehearsals or rigorous thinking he should have been involved in?
• What’s happened with his dangerous fondness for alcohol?
• What next for him? (Wikipedia says he is a Department of Defense civilian involved with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Sounds kind of anticlimactic and a position with limited upside—another government paper pusher who is a parasite on the private-enterprise, producing people whose profits provide 100.00% of his income and benefits.)
• Has he figured out who he is and where he should be in life? That’s what my Succeeding book is about. He made less progress learning the answers to those two paramount questions to my eyes than he probably would have had he gone to Harvard instead. He needs to try different things to see what he’s good at. Instead, he seems to be finished with that and become a civilian Department of Defense desk jockey mainly because it’s in the area where his wife who is a DC-area doctor works.
• Does he still chew tobacco? If so, what does his now medical doctor wife think about that?
• Who was his ranger buddy? Why does he never mention him?
• What does Craig think about current U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan?
• How should West Point and the Army be reformed? He wrote a bunch of complaints—but no suggestions about how to make it better.
• How does he feel about being a Rhodes Scholar now?
• Does he really want to be judged by his performance or, is he, as I suspect, going to spend the rest of his life sucking up to superiors and going hat in hand to committees of them asking to be anointed once again, as in his Rhodes Scholar applicant days, to this or that impressive-sounding appointive bureaucrat position? How about starting a business? Coaching a team? Writing a book that actually makes a profit? Going to law school and winning cases in court. Earning a commission? The absence of any of that in his past or plans says his claim that he wants to be judged by his performance is just bullshit.
• Given that he wears a ring that has the word “honor” on it, how does he square that with going into politics (working for DOD is politics)?
• Would he be so kind as to tell me his sincere opinion of Barack Obama, or has his Rhodes Scholar-learn-to-question mind been replaced by the Obama Administration talking points of the day?
Those are the questions he raised in his book. What’s up with raising them, then not answering them? I fear he did not answer them because he believes it would not be politic to do so. If so, I erect a figurative head stone for his promising mind.
It died to avoid jeopardizing his career in government.
West Point graduate 5-star general Douglas MacArthur famously said,
Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.
I would add,
Old West Point Rhodes Scholars never die. They just occasionally appear on C-SPAN weekend panels falsely purporting to know more about what U.S. policy should be in Afghanistan than the average 12-year old Afghan child.
Email from an Australian reader:
Dear Mr Reed,
I’ve corresponded very briefly with you in the past, but I just wanted to offer a couple of trivial points you might find interesting out of your (excellent!) review of The Unforgiving Minute:
(1) Under the “And pork rinds?” heading: In case you were wondering why Kipling chose the surname “Atkins” for the protagonist of his poem, the surname, too, is also part of the slang for a British soldier. “Atkins” in Welsh means “little son of red earth”, so British troopers were first referred to in slang as “Tommy Atkins” -- it’s referring to a British soldier in his red coat. “Tommy Atkins” was the common slang name for a British soldier, and later was shortened to “Tommy”.
(2) Under the “Sing it and pound it” heading: amongst lawyers (of which I am one in Australia) there’s a few versions of the old “Facts/law/other” saying. Lawyers’ stories and their sayings do tend to get around, albeit they usually get altered a bit from place to place. Anyway, the one we hear most commonly out here is: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, denigrate your opponent.” Looking at your “headline news” articles, it looks like there’s a lot of that going on in political circles in America at the moment.
Lastly, and more as an anecdote than anything else: add me to one of those people who committed the error of letting their early successes or failures lead them into overly firm conclusions. I was pretty good in Years 1 – 10 of my school (I think the equivalent would be Year 1 through to middle elementary in the US system?) but got very bad results in my first Year 11 examinations because the material changed markedly with me still thinking I could coast through without studying a lot (I’d done it up to that point.) Luckily a set of crappy midyear results in Year 11 told me the truth about that, and I knuckled down to graduate top of my class in Years 11 and 12 (the final school year). That was in my mid-teens.
I then got a reversal of the principle in university studying law (in my early twenties). I wasn’t an “A” student -- largely because I had no real concept of what law was when I started and having a sheltered background I couldn’t apply the studies to the real world, so I didn’t have the enthusiasm for it – I had no framework to put the studies against. (I also think it’s because unlike many law students who were the sons and daughters of lawyers and therefore had a wellspring of advice to draw on, I was muddling through on my own.) I still passed, but didn’t get a fantastic job right out of university. I had to deal with how that made me feel: a strong achiever in high school, knocked down to average-to-just-passing in university, and it troubled me for some years. But I got over it: I got a pretty good at trial work over the next 8 years (criminal defence) mainly because I lucked into working for an employer who was also a good teacher in that regard, and I was in courts arguing cases on my feet every day; I calculated there were about eight days in eight years when I didn’t have a court appearance. I also found a good formula for addresses to juries which got results, so I simply did more of that. Looking back even if it’s only in my mid-thirties, I would never have thought I’d be capable of doing what I did in my trial work at the time I was first studying law; I equated academic competence with competence in legal practice, and they’re obviously not the same thing.
In other words, your principle applies, certainly to my life and (I think) to lawyers’ lives generally. Good academic results in law don’t necessarily translate to good skills in practice.
Again, excellent review. It was thorough, and chock-full of other insights which I found fascinating. Keep up the good work.
Email from an Amazon reviewer
On Jan 24, 2011, at 9:01 AM, Wayne wrote:
Thanks for your review of Unforgiving Minute from the inside. Here's my review from Amazon.com
War or Warrior:
War or Peace is not so much about the Unforgiving Minute, but about the Forgiving Self. If we look at Craig Mulvaney's [sic] purpose in writing this book, I think we find that it is ultimately more about the war within himself than the war in Afghanistan. The book, "Good Soldiers" by the embedded journalist Finkle, contrasts well with this book to reveal that Finkle's book is much more about the Iraqi war than the warrior (journalist) Finkle. Throughout the autobiography, Craig continuously struggles with guilt, acceptance by others and authorities--especially by his father, by a need to keep his brother from his own fate, and to write this book to exculpate his demons. His guilt drenches his story, continuously expressing his responsibility for his men's lives that he leads into battle--only two were killed. He is relentless in holding himself excessively guilty for their deaths up to the last Unforgiving Minute. Until a Warrior fights his own internal demons of unquenched need for father approval, etc., he is in no position to fight the external demons of War, as this autobiography demonstrates. He gets demoted from the front lines to Adjutant and is reduced to teaching the history of War in the Naval Academy, still trying to quell his guilt demons with ineffectual theories. Minutes are not Unforgiving, but we may be Unforgiving of ourselves. Responsibility for others in war does not include some fantasy that you have the ability to keep them from dying. Craig still lives Unforgiving Minutes so we hear more about him than the War.
I don’t know that the change from platoon leader to S-1 was a demotion. In Vietnam that rotation was routine. Also, Mullaney was promoted to captain. They do not let captains command platoons. Teaching at Annapolis is probably an indication that he was in favor at the Pentagon.
I agree that he spends too much time contemplating his navel for a guy who needs to be right in the here and now in combat, but I think his guilt is universal for combat leaders who lose men.
War is chaos. You would think after five years of training, a guy smart enough to be a Rhodes Scholar would have figured that out. He seems quite surprised by that and the ineffectiveness of all his preparation for dealing with the reality of war in general and Afghanistan in particular.
Ultimately, I think he revealed himself to be the book worm he said could not go to West Point. He takes pains to prove his toughness with the wrestling stories, but his current job pushing paper in the bowels of the Pentagon inspires me to think this one-time soldier is now in a better place—for him. Everybody’s good at something. His “Education of a soldier” story might have been better subtitled, “How I went to war and discovered it was not my thing and perhaps too chaotic to be anybody’s thing because competence at chaos is so elusive.”
Here is an email I received from what I presume is an Indian employee of the British government from his email address:
Subject: Mullaney Review
Date: March 23, 2011 1:51:20 AM PDT
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I am amazed at your bluster!You spend less time in the Army than Mullaney ,less combat time than him and still you profess virtues which you don't have.I respect you for your age but nothing beyond that.You are nothing than a hot air ballon and a racsit at that.
You will be nasty and angry after you read this, but do take it the way you give!
My response to Rajiv was:
What sentence(s) in my review are evidence that I am racist?
John T. Reed
I never heard from him again. I have not re-read the review, but I do not recall saying anything racist. Furthermore, I am not aware of racism in the U.S. directed toward the Irish (Mullaney’s ancestors, and mine) or Indians (Mullaney’s wife). True, the owner of the Kwick-E-Mart in the Simpsons is Apu, an Indian immigrant, and the vice president of the U.S. made a joke about all the 7-11s being owned by Indians, but it always struck me as a neutral depiction based on accent, not any unflattering stereotype. I think I have only known two Indians: both section mates at Harvard Business School. My wife and I have gotten together with one when we were in each other’s neighborhood. The other is an acquaintance not a friend. The guy we have seen several times since graduation had the thickest, hardest-to-understand accent in our 85-person section—which had about a dozen foreign students. The other was born in India but seemed like just another American to me.
I think Rajiv is exhibiting racism here. Apparently, he is accusing me of racism because I wrote a critical review of a guy who wrote a book where the book talks much about his courtship of an Indian woman (who was apparently born and raised in the U.S.). I surmise he wen off because there was both criticism and meniton of an Indian ancestry woman in the review, albeit the ciriticsm did not relate to the woman. Ultra sensitivity at best. Perhaps there is racism against Inidans in the U.K. I would not know. But the fact that they have it there does not mean we have it here.
With regard to his factual statments: Mullaney was in the military for something like six years. I forget the details. Two of those years swere spent wearing civilian clothes hanging around drinking at Oxford. He also spent time in the Old Guard, a purely ceremonial unit akin used entirely for parades and funerals. And he was a college professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. I spent four years as an officer, but it was all military training, Vietnam, and serving in companies, battalions and brigades—regular Army units not colleges or ceremonial units.
But who cares anyway? Mullaney both spent enough time in the military, especially when you consider the four years we both spent at West Point.
He also says Mullaney spent more time in combat than I did. That may be correct. But in a larger sense, Mullaney and I both did one combat tour, he in Afghanistan before that was the hot war. Iraq was the big one ten. I spent a tour in Vietnam in 1969-70, the time when we invaded Cambodia and when Vietnamization began. We both spent time out in the bush near the bad guys and we both spent time back at battalion or higher headquarters. He was an infantry platoon leader. I was a communications platoon leader in an artillery battalion.
I would not bother to parse whose combat resume was bigger. I wonder what Rajiv’s qualifications are to do that. He mentions no military experience and I see no indication of association with the military in his email address. If anyone knows this abiter of racis, I would like to hear about his military expertise, if any.
The rest of Rajiv’s email is, well, mere bluster, nastiness, and anger.
Here is another email I got about this review, tis one from a West Point class of ’94 member:
--- On Mon, 9/26/11, John Reed <email@example.com> wrote:
From: John Reed <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: "Unforgiving Minute"
To: "Jeff Owen"
Date: Monday, September 26, 2011, 10:56 PM
On Sep 22, 2011, at 12:38 PM, Jeff Owen wrote:
Me again! I picked up Mullaney's book the other day and made it through about 20 pages before I began to retch and had to put it down.
I figured you might have reviewed his "novel" and whilst I did not make it past the aforementioned 20 random pages, I have to say your article is "spot-on."
I fully agree with you--this young man has a significant penchant for drama. I wonder how much of it is real and how much is an act. If he is 100% bona-fide, then I think he needs to take your advice and see a shrink--he is WAY outside the bounds of reality.
LTC Guy LoFaro: was Captain, and then Major LoFaro, and my History of the Military Art II Professor in 1994. Decent guy--yes. Super-impressive--no. The be-all, end-all that Mullaney describes--not in the slightest. I had no idea about his taking slugs in the gut until much later when some speech he made at USMA found its way across the internet. To assign him "Jesus-like" status based upon what was described--can't go along with that.
CPT Ryan Worthan: Mullaney's Company Commander during the famed "all-day fire-fight episode" or whatever it was called. The winner of the Sandy Ninninger '41 award for "feats of arms" and the actual person I would say was the one who kept everyone together and did what needed to be done to get them home. Also was "Smackhead Worthan" in my Cadet Company when I was a Firstie. Great guy, and whatever fame/fortune/etc. that is deserved for any/all combat described by Mullaney needs to go directly to Ryan.
I found Mullaney's overall tone to be smug, smarmy, preachy, and rife with the aforementioned drama. Even more interesting is what you can find out about him AFTER he left the Army. Worked for some sort of think-tank re: the debacle/fiasco that is still going on over there, and then served as a Department of Defense "chief of staff" for the transitions pursuant to the 2008 elections. Supposedly considered an "expert" (at 32 years old) in many, many areas and is "highly respected" with his opinions being "sought out." All this because of, as you say, 11 months in-country and a few firefights?
I was never in combat, but I have/have had numerous relatives and close family friends who have had to face that insanity. Examples include: 5-Jump Bastard who included in his repertoire Normandy, Holland, Phillipines, Inchon, and the other jump made in Korea. Another at Iwo Jima (where they lost 4,000 Marines in the first 6 hours), one who fought all the way across North Africa, through Sicily, then France, Belgium, and finally Berlin. Then another who spent 1950-52 in Korea, including a "jaunt" at the Chosin Reservior where he and 100 other guys were the only ones in his brigade who escaped alive. And a gent who in 1967 was one of 6 survivors from an entire Marine rifle company that was wiped out in one of the first large-scale USMC operations in Vietnam.
None of these individuals ever talked about their experiences. None of them possessed Mullaney's cool, smug, dramatics. None of them went on to be revered as "experts." All of them would have laughed at his recounting of his "combat experience" in which his unit, it appears, whilst bringing to bear the full might of a US Infantry Unit (and air power/mortars/artillery/etc.) sustained extremely few casualties fighting against an ill-equipped, lightly-numbered foe for the greater part of a day.
Expert--no. Sage--not even close. Worthy of awe due to his significant "combat experiences?" In comparison with the gents described above, I can't really qualify them as significant (hard to compare against Iwo or Chosin). Operating outside the realm of reality--it appears so.
Not going to ding a guy for writing a book to make money--but I can't say that this "novel" proves this youth to be a hero, wise man, expert, or worthy of anyone's reverence or pity based upon what he describes or the methodology he uses to tell his tale.
Have a good one!
Jeff Owen, USMA '94
I think Mullaney is one of many who figured at age 23 that the combination of West Point and Rhodes Scholar put him on a greased rail to the White House. He can now go to the non-Rushmore where Pete Dawkins, Wes Clark, and the rest of them are ensconced.
A lady recently denounced me as the world's worst person for bad-mouting that nice boy Mullaney. He basically wore his heart on his sleeve and many people give you lots of points for that. To me, it's just a cheap Oprah trick, like wrapping yourself in the flag. I got a similar response for my review of the book Season of Life.
May I quote you?
Yes, please quote me. All I ask is that you do not include my email address. Thanks!
World's worst person. Hmmm. Meaning that you rank below Hugo Chavez and Pol Pot? What an ignorant comment.
For what it's worth, I think you are right on with everything you have written on your website. It is very gratifying for me, after so many years of ignorant people classifying me as the "oddball" (to the extent that I started to believe it), to read the words of someone who tells the truth and confirms that I wasn't that off-base all along.
Thanks for continuing to tell it like it is. Take care, and have a good one!
John T. Reed