10 November 2010

Staff Meeting of the Living Dead

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 25. It is the first day of a 14-day operation. The regular crowd shuffles in. It is the first brigade staff meeting in The Box, and soldiers are already talking in monotone--deliberate and slow. One word ... in front ... of the other.

The "embedded historian" concept, along with my repeated now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearances, has gotten me a figurative seat at the Red Bull table. Actual seats and tables, however, are at a premium. Competing rumors have it that either the unit forgot to request office furniture, or that the contract fell through. Regardless, for the first couple of days, it pays to B.Y.O.C.--"Bring Your Own Chair."

Someone notes that the Combat-Trainers (C.T.), the referees who administer the war games at NTC, seem to travel with their own folding stools. They've obviously seen this kind of thing before.

The mood in the room is a mix of the tiredly upbeat and the beat-down. The executive officer (X.O.) looks around the room, and fails to get a lot of eye contact. "I can see that the commander's guidance about working in a nap cycle is going to be key today," he says.

The staff is struggling for balance and rhythm. The National Training Center (N.T.C.), after all, is designed to distill the experience of deploying into a combat zone into two weeks. Since June or July, the brigade staff has been running at full tilt. You want to get punched in the arm? Quote that old war-chestnut about how "deployment is a marathon, not a sprint."

Compounding the stress, there have been precious few days off to fall back, regroup, and rethink the fundamentals.

The calendar for the next two weeks has filled up fast. First, there's a complicated 3-day cycle involving multiple committees and subcommittees, through which the sausage of Counterinsurgency (COIN) is made: "We should work with this guy, not this guy. We should help build a water treatment plant here, to win hearts and minds." That sort of thing.

There are sure to be plenty of pop-up targets, too: Meets-and-greets with local leaders, interviews with roleplaying press, the more-than-occasional simulated mortar attack.

Sleep management is a constant leadership problem. Everyone wants to be important, and to be there when things go down. A couple of die-hards, however, are already working way beyond their 8- or 12-hour shifts. It's a macho thing, good enough for two weeks of Annual Training, but not good for the long haul. In few days, in the middle of few garbled sentences, a couple of near-incoherent briefers will be told to leave and get some sleep. Fuzzy thinking in the TOC will get the wrong people killed.

The group-think this morning, however, is good-naturedly disjointed. In the absence of deliberate enemy actions this early in the "war," the exchange of information devolves into a series of pre-game platitudes. It's the Army equivalent of a football team reminding itself to "move the ball down the field", and "don't let the other guys get any points." Still, it's good to hear--gets the juices flowing. "Let's win this one."

Says the operations officer: "We've got to focus on our battle rhythm and our process."

Says the XO: "We need to make sure that everybody on staff, down to the lowest level, knows what's going on."

Says the communications officer, who has just noted the upcoming real-world visit of a real-world general officer: "Remember when they said that everything was right in front of you? How many times has the actual FORSCOM commander visited a rotation in The Box? I bet that's the day we get the personnel recovery mission!"

Everybody stops. The communications officer has just floated a particularly paranoid theory, that the three-star general in charge the U.S. Army's Forces Command would somehow be kidnapped as part of this field problem. People are tired enough that the wild idea starts to make sense. It's just crazy enough ... to be ... true?

The deputy brigade commander--a full-bird colonel--ducks his head in the door. The XO asks what he needs.

"Nothing," comes the reply. "I was wondering how long this meeting goes. Wrap it up."


  1. I think I've seen this process before ... from "paranoid" to "wrap it up" in (relatively) 2 seconds flat. Is that uniquely Army? Or just normal military? :-)

  2. You know, I'm not sure it's uniquely Army, but I don't think I've seen a meeting turned-around so abruptly in the civilian-world. Without hurting anyone's feelings, I mean.

    What I will miss about the Army is that, in any given meeting, everyone is usually focused on the same things. It guess that's an example of "professionalism over politics."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.