08 January 2010

See You at the Movies

Callsign Archer and I like to talk. In addition to the usual military history tomes and science-fiction paperbacks, Archer has shelves full of dead-tree books on emerging technology trends and business management concepts. While he can get pretty Gee Whiz, however, Archer also enjoys putting theory into practice.

In a conversation with Archer earlier this week, we got into an impromptu brainstorming topic of "how to lead our fellow troops to the waters of cultural and political awareness and make them drink." In other words: How can you train soldiers on the terrain--the people they're going to be working with, the places they're going to be working in, the challenges they're going to face--in a way that doesn't seem like it's just one more pencil-whipping exercise in pre-deployment futility, or that you're somehow assigning them homework for their off-duty hours?

Complicating the problem even further: Not everyone learns the same way. I remember back in Army radio school, when Uncle Sam gave us all this crazy Myers-Briggs test to identify what kind of personalities we were. Were we extroverts or introverts? (Here's a tip: The Army doesn't attract a lot of introverts, even in the technical branches.) Did we base our decisions in logic or emotion? And, most applicable to the subject of this post: Did we learn best by hands-on fiddling around, or by sitting back and watching and reading and listening?

The test ended up explaining for us why half the class was having the Best Time Ever, drinking coffee and watching PowerPoint slides and taking written tests, while the other half was About to Explode Out of Their Tiny Little Skulls because they hadn't turned Knob One on a radio during the weeks of initial electrical theory classes. In Myers-Briggs terms, the first half of the herd were "intuitive" learners, the second half were "sequential." There were a lot of Electrical Engineering types in the first half, by the way, and there were a lot of Physical Education types in the second.

I'm not judging here. I'm just saying.

Sherpa is an intuitive type of guy, just for the record.

So back to my conversation with Archer: He reads books. I read books. We cannot, however, assume that Joe Snuffy likes to read books. We can probably give Snuffy a magazine-article-length reading, or maybe digest some concepts down into a few PowerPoint slides, but that might not do the trick. Call it homework, or classwork, it all seems like work. And Snuffy has enough "work" to do, keeping up with all his (or her) other training requirements.

So, how can we reach out and teach the soldiers who don't like to read, or the ones who will go to sleep during briefings?

One idea suddenly roared at us like the MGM lion himself: Let's put on a show!

Soldiers love movies. And, strangely, soldiers--both deploying and deployed--love war movies. I think that Anthony Swofford (of Jarhead fame) even went as far as to call war movies "military porn."

Joe Snuffy isn't going to learn anything useful from Rambo 6, but might there be some other films of more potential training value?

Since late December, Tom Ricks has been searching out a Top Ten list of Terrorism movies. He even calls his project a "Terrorism Film Festival." Similarly, Archer and I wonder if there's a possible list of TV shows and movies, both non-fiction and fiction, that might help Snuffy understand what we're all up against. It doesn't have to explicitly depict Afghanistan or surrounding countries, although that would be helpful. (Metaphorically speaking, asking a soldier to internalize an allegorical narrative is like ... but, wait, I digress.)

So, call the proposal "Operation Edutainment." Or the "The Red Bull Film Festival." Pizza is cheap, popcorn is cheap, and we, to paraphrase the words of Bill Cosby, "if we're not careful, might learn something."

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