Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ralph, did you call me a whining coward?

Looks like Ralph Peters is going to be a regular contributor to Navy Times, and probably the other service times as well.

His opening salvo seemed to be a clarion call for active duty officers to come out and write. He expresses a feeling of frustration I once discussed with the old editor of Proceedings, Fred Rainbow. A lot of folks do not want to put their names to their opinions or put their name to something they really don’t believe. They fear retribution or voluntary surrender of their good name. Well, that is my “fear,” a fear based on personal experience, but we will talk about that in a bit.

Let’s parse the work. No Fisking. Just parsing.
Military officers must write about warfare and their profession. If they don’t, others will. This is one of the most straightforward choices officers will ever face: Either write about war’s complexity from experience, or let amateurs shape our military’s future in ignorance.
Can’t argue with that. Many are trying, a lot are being shutdown in the process.
The most pernicious myth about publishing articles or books as a serving officer is that it will ruin your career. That’s utter nonsense. While any officer may come up against a jumpy commander, the truth is that our military is not only remarkably tolerant but broadly supportive of officers publishing.
That is true, if you play by the rules. Maybe the Army is different, but the message in my corner of the Navy is clear; if you are of a certain position – do not write anything that is not in synch with your Commodore/Admiral. Do not write anything that may call into question racialist policies. Do not write anything that discusses issues, (not roadblocks or misogynistic rants), but issues (like C-2 stork flights in deployment to take pregnant sailors off. Prostitution rings on CVN and large shore dets) that involve challenges in sex/gender integration. Do not put your community on report. If you do, only do so when you decide that you do not want the #1 ticket, Command - Operational or otherwise, or Major Command to be competitive for Flag. I have seen the retribution with my own eyes. I have received the figurative memo.
The only institutional expectations are that the writer maintains a professional tone, knows what he is talking about and sticks to military subjects. A serving officer may constructively criticize how we organize, equip, train and fight, but must refrain from political commentary.
That is true, within limits. Talk to LT Stone who challenged CNAF earlier this year in Proceedings.
Time and again, I’ve found our best leaders frustrated by their subordinates’ unfounded conviction that an officer who wants to get promoted keeps his pen in his pocket (or his fingers off his keyboard).
Well, the good leaders need to talk to the bad leaders. You know who they are.
I began publishing bluntly combative articles as a first lieutenant in an infantry battalion. Sure enough, my fellow company-grade officers warned me not to do it. But from my battalion commander on up, everyone was supportive.
My experience was just the opposite. The CDR and below (none of who were published now that I think about it) bosses didn’t really care. Few of them even read Proceedings or other professional publications. Working at the Commodore and Flag Staff level though, you didn’t even think of putting your name to anything without the boss seeing it. That is self limiting. The concept that you would publish something that would be counter to the Admiral’s “Top 5” would result in a closed door discussion. That happens to 1 LT whose orders change, and then a Dept. Head has his FITREP changed on direction of the Commodore (bad Skipper there); that does it for a geographical generation of officers.
But even if publishing professional articles did carry some risk, for an officer to refuse to share his knowledge or ideas out of fear would be cowardice.
Ahhh, there is the kicker. Coward is a strong word, but one he is free to use. It would be interesting what he thinks of someone who will not put their name to their work. Would he call the author(s) of The Federalist Papers a coward? Humbert Humbert a coward? I wouldn’t call someone who won’t publish out of fear of retribution a coward though, most just don’t think it is worth it. Having watched a young LCDR send back an article for Flag Review about 6 times over a 12 month period only to have the core argument, what was left of it, become OBE – I can see the point of going the fast, cheap, and ugly route.

Oh, but here is the fun part.
Our recent wars have seen the rise of a marvelous phenomenon, the military blog. Some blogs are no more than whiners’ clubs, but many make a real contribution to sharing information between troops and informing the folks back home. The best blogs offer a taste of the reality of Iraq or Afghanistan that the news media rarely capture. And they’re often a grand, irreverent hoot.
Hey! Free therapy is better; but “whiners’ clubs” if you like. Just for that, you don’t get to know the secret handshake!
We now have the most experienced military in the world. But that experience is perishable if it is not preserved on paper in a forum where the right people will see it. If those engaged in our wars today would write as well as they fight, we could go forward with a wealth of practical knowledge and innovative ideas that would stand us in good stead for years to come.
Ralph is exactly right on target. Where and when you can publish on dead-tree under your own name, do it. When you don’t have the attention span or desire to dedicate a well edited work on dead-tree, blog. If you don’t want to blog, comment on other’s blogs. Some of the best stuff here is from the regular commenters, bloggers and otherwise.

Though he obviously reads blogs, I don’t think Ralph understands the diversity of form and function out there. He doesn’t address anonoblogs, but I get the impression that he wouldn’t think too kindly of them. Hopefully he understands they offer something that we do not have in traditional forms of dead-tree publication – a forum to be blunt, direct, and blatantly honest. What do anonobloggers have to gain? Who will we please? No one. No one knows who we are. Many don’t care. You can’t get away with OPSEC violations even if you wanted to. Any N6 shop can find you with freeware, and then you are done legally and professionally. You can’t get away with putting out bad gouge, fellow MilBloggers, anon and out of the closet, will come down on you like a ton of bricks - with not quarter given.

What I see MilBlogs as are the conversations one used to have at the O Club when folks used to go. Midwatch conversations between two LTJGs, big cigar smoking sponson talks with CAG and DCAG, or a 0200 blather-fest in a bar in Souda Bay. Examples abound. The dead-tree military writing, which unquestionably does the heavy lifting and has the intellectual rigor, cannot offer the give and take between myself, Chap, and Skippy – for a cheap example. Anyway, most of us lack the talent for real writing. I am sure that Ralph would agree with that.
UPDATE: Still don't think blogging under your real name is a dangerous game? Totally outside the military (Civilian Best Practices there, natch) - read the blood train here, here, and here. Dan Drezner's story hurts the worst. He hoped against hope this wouldn't kill him. Perhaps it didn't, but reading between the lines, I think he wished he didn't use his real name.

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