May 22, 2014
Reading is Fundamental

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Reading is Fundamental

I learned at a young age that reading was important. From Green Eggs and Ham and Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos to Tarzan of the Apes and the Foundation trilogy, I read as much as I could as often as I could. Along the way, I also learned that all that reading made me a better writer, a deeper thinker, and a more polished speaker. All good by-products of a lifelong passion for reading.

I like to consider myself an avid professional reader, and surround myself with a wide variety of books. It’s impossible to step into my office and not notice the books, which I freely share with others. The inevitable question? “What do you recommend?” That list could be long, but it’s not. In fact, it’s surprisingly short. Ten books. Ten books that will spark curiosity. Ten books that will capture your attention. Ten books.

The first book on my list was also the first book I read in the School of Advanced Military Studies: Norman MacLean’s Young Men and Fire. Most of us remember MacLean for “A River Runs through It”, not for the story he spent 40 years of his life putting together. “Young Men and Fire” is a cautionary tale of planning for success against a dangerously agile enemy, of the strength of experience and intuition, of learning and adapting. In other words, the kind of book that touches on the very issues we are struggling with today.

Next on the hit parade is Stephen Covey’s The Speed of Trust, a book recommended to me by one of my mentors, Lt. Gen. Bob Caslen, the Superintendent of West Point. Why trust? Trust is the bedrock of our profession, it is the basis for mission command, and it underpins the success of any organization. To build trust, to engender trust, you have to first understand trust. This book will get you started.

How we think and communicate is at the heart of Iconoclast, by Gregory Berns. The book is an exploration of iconoclastic leadership that proves equally revealing in our own military culture. He describes the three qualities that define an iconoclast: the ability to perceive the world differently than others; the strength to overcome the inherent fear of failure or rejection; and unrivaled social intelligence. Why is this important to us? Because “Iconoclast” teaches us how to build consensus and support for our ideas, and how to put them into action. Kind of important these days.

For most of us, we’ll toil away our careers in cubicle farms on a staff somewhere. For that reason alone, Influence without Authority by Allan Cohen and David Bradford joins the “must read” list. There are three key takeaways with “Influence without Authority” that are essential to success in a military bureaucracy: one, leading people who don’t work for you; two, building networks that support your efforts; and three, influencing decision-makers to act on your behalf. Like “Iconoclast”, this book drives home the point that social intelligence is the key. If you don’t have it, your great ideas will die with you.

In that same vein is Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick.” What makes your idea better than the next guy’s? Why do some new programs “stick” while others don’t? The Heaths are digital-age thinkers who have thrived in an environment where good ideas are generated as fast as someone can draft a White House #hashtag, and “Made to Stick” is a how-to guide to crafting ideas that are made to stick from the outset. Again, a very important concept to grasp in a highly-competitive workplace where fresh, new ideas are rare. Yours has to make a difference.

Two books from Malcolm Gladwell make the short list: Tipping Point and Blink. “Tipping Point” is a veritable primer for understanding the operational environment; “Blink” explains how we hinge off that understanding to make sound decisions “in the blink of an eye.” This is the essence of coup d’oeil, the instinctive ability to make decisions “at a glance” that has long been attributed to Napoleon’s successes (as opposed to his failures). As military leaders, our ability to make decisions is fundamental to our profession, and Gladwell’s writing gets to the heart of the understand-visualize-describe-direct construct at the core of mission command.

Dietrich Dörner’s The Logic of Failure is another indispensable volume in my library. Understanding decision-making only gets you so far; you also have to know why we make mistakes, and learn to recognize the tendencies and thought patterns that inevitably lead to failure. In an increasingly complex world, the difference between success and failure can come down to one seemingly minor decision that cascades into a sequence of disastrous consequences. In everyday military parlance, “The Logic of Failure” is a necessary first step in avoiding Murphy’s Law.

No reading list would be complete without the military theorist’s magnum opus, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. As most of us already know, Clausewitz is one of the least read, most quoted works in our professional body of knowledge. “On War” is not exactly an easy read, but it’s essential to gaining an understanding of the role of complexity in the conduct of warfare. If Dörner gives you an appreciation of how the little things matter, Clausewitz slams the point home: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” For the uninitiated, reading Clausewitz is not unlike reading the Old Testament. It’s all about the metaphors. In other words, expand your thinking or it will be a very long read.

Finally, we come to the last book on our list: Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose. First and foremost, Ambrose was a storyteller. He could weave a compelling narrative like few other writers, drawing readers into a sort of “fireside chat” that brought his subjects to life. I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to Ambrose, but “Band of Brothers” represents what I consider his best story. Skip the HBO miniseries (as good as it is) and sit down over a glass of scotch and bury yourself in this masterpiece.

Ten books. That’s it.

April 6, 2012
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

Give me your thinkers.

What Emma Lazarus did with her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” we desperately need to do with our thinkers. Extend an open hand and welcome them into the fold. Give them refuge from the storm.

You see, we’re at a familiar crossroads. Not yet in crisis, but close. Some would call it a Tipping Point, while others might note that it is simply a turning point where our decisions take on historical significance. We’ve been here before, but institutional memory typically fails us in these times.

The last time we stood at this intersection, the dust and oil fires of Operation DESERT STORM were fading. We were at the dawn of a new age, looking to reap the benefits of a “peace dividend” as the colossus that was the Soviet Union crumbled around us. Then, the Pentagon slashed deep into the military ranks to reshape the force for the certainty that a new world order offered.

We thought then that we were the New Colossus. Some would say we weathered the storm of our shortsightedness quite well. But too many today cite an America in decline to ignore the fact that when we needed our deepest thinkers the most, we left many of them to survive the storm on their own. They were different. Not like the rest of us. They made us uncomfortable. We left many of them out in the cold. That was then, this is now.

Yesterday, two things happened to remind me of how much we have yet to learn. First, Peter Munson posted a touchstone blog on Small Wars Journal entitled “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” by Ben Kohlmann. That single blog entry was a call to action, to put it mildly. At a time when we should be leveraging our deep thinkers, we are on the verge of pushing them into the corner when we need them most. Those thinkers are more important to our future now than ever. Second, I engaged in a dialog with a group of my peers who were more concerned with preserving the status quo than opening their minds to a much-needed dose of “disruptive thought.” As a strategist – where high-order critical thought is a valued commodity – I was as disappointed as I was disturbed. Are we so afraid of change that we reject any ideas not our own? Are we that wedded to the status quo? Why are we so willing to stifle fresh ideas and alternative perspectives?

So, as we approach this crossroads, this historical inflection point, we have two choices: one, embrace the disruptive thinkers; or two, push them aside and weather the storm with the “yes men” who seem so content to genuflect at the altar of the status quo. You see, real change is top-driven, but fueled from below. Separating those two layers is a filter that, more often than not, ultimately shapes the course and speed of change. That filtering layer – where you will generally find seasoned O-5s and O-6s – is where ideas either flourish, or are lured into a cul-de-sac and slowly strangled to death. It really is that simple.

Choose your filter, but choose wisely. Who we surround ourselves with during this time is at least as important as who we choose to exclude. If we are to achieve the type of institutional change necessary to transform for the future, we must embrace the disruptive thinkers. We must open our minds to them and allow them to breathe free. This isn’t heresy, it is an absolutism. Or twenty years from now, people who look a lot like us will glance around and utter those fateful words: “I never saw that coming.”

Give me your thinkers. The New Colossus awaits.

April 2, 2012
Tightening up the Shot Group

Lately, we’ve seen a lot from the Sergeant Major of the Army in the news. Whether in the hallowed halls of the Army Times or from the dark chambers of Line of Departure, the theme is the same: we need to get serious about standards and discipline within the ranks.

At first glance, some of what he’s saying seems to be a bit “over the top.” Adding a 12-mile road march and 4-mile run to the APFT? As much fun as I had in my decade in XVIII Airborne Corps, those probably aren’t the best events for force as a whole. Establishing standards for civilian dress? Good luck with that. Making violations of AR 670-1 punitive? Well, in the right hands, regulatory violations always had the potential to be punitive. Nothing new there.

But is he crazy, or crazy like a fox? Initially, I thought he was off his rocker, but a familiar voice of reason echoed in my head. Yep, that one (my own). Some people drink to quiet that voice, but I tend to listen. And what did it say? “Look around you. Some of this makes sense.”

The colonel on the cell phone who turns his back to you so he won’t have to acknowledge your salute? The major with the Bluetooth device who is so engrossed in her conversation that she walks by without saluting? The MP in his patrol car driving and talking on the phone at the same time. Yeah, we need to tighten up that shot group.

The finance clerk with the 3-inch, fire-engine red fingernails and neck tattoos? The captain who wears his ACU pants unbloused? The lieutenant who wears his patrol cap like a little league pitcher? The major with the “emo-boy” haircut?  Yeah, we need to tighten up that shot group, too.

The guy who looks like he’s hiding an angry midget underneath his ACU jacket? The sergeant who flicked a lit cigarette on my car the other day? The major who doesn’t seem to remember how to say “sir” or offer a polite greeting when a senior officer approaches? The captain who violently polices reflective belt wear in the gym, but doesn’t use a seat belt when he drives? Oh, yeah, we need to tighten up that shot group, too.

These are issues of standards and discipline, but even more so they are leadership issues. A Soldier will emulate the behavior of the leaders in their environment. Maybe, just maybe, we need to see ourselves in the same light as our Soldiers see us, and take some definitive corrective action. Stop looking the other way. Don’t allow a uniform violation to go uncorrected.

See a problem? Tie a knot in that ass. Don’t ignore Joe Shit the Ragman when he walks into a room. Set the example, and make an example of those who don’t, can’t, or won’t. Tighten up the shot group.

Part of what makes us a professional army is how we look, act, and carry ourselves. What the Sergeant Major of the Army might be saying is that it’s time to go old school, time to get back to basics, time to tighten up our shot group. We owe ourselves that much.

March 19, 2012
I Don’t Like Mondays

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We know his name: SSG Robert Bales. We know he is an Army-trained sniper. We know he served three combat tours in Iraq, and was deployed in December to Afghanistan for a fourth tour. We know he has a wife and two young children. We know he is assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, what the media has dubbed “the most troubled base in the Army.”

We know he is accused of what is arguably the most heinous war crime committed by American forces since the My Lai massacre. More shocking than the Haditha massacre, more brutal than the “Kill Team” murders, more violent even than the “Blackhearts” killings in the Triangle of Death.

But we don’t know why. And we probably never will.

Some are quick to characterize Bales as a troubled man with a disturbing past. Others rush to suggest family problems at home. Others still want to portray him as a man on the brink. Nevertheless, his friends and his own family describe him as a dedicated professional, a good father and husband, and a fine Soldier. Something changed in the early morning hours on March 11.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

Bales spent most of the past ten years assigned to Fort Lewis. While deployed to Iraq, he lost part of one foot and suffered a “mild” traumatic brain injury. Prior to his deployment to Afghanistan, that head injury was evaluated by the staff at Madigan Army Medical Center. And that is where this story begins to unravel.

After reversing the PTSD diagnoses of at least 285 veterans the commander of Madigan was relieved by Army officials, and the Secretary of Defense ordered a full review of the case. The Army, meanwhile, is busy reinstating many of the original diagnoses.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We tend to learn valuable lessons in the aftermath of these tragedies. They don’t excuse the crimes committed, but often reveal telling circumstances that establish the conditions that allow for the commission of those crimes. In the case of SSG Robert Bales, did the medical system provide him with the treatment and care he needed? That is a valid question in the wake of the Madigan fiasco. We should hope against all hope that Bales is not among those PTSD cases. If he is, then there are others who should answer for his alleged crimes. A leader also has a certain responsibility for the well-being of subordinates. Were his leaders actively involved in his medical case? Were they fulfilling their obligation to ensure he was truly fit for duty? A Staff Sergeant has at least eight direct leaders in his Brigade chain of command. Where were they? What were they doing for him? If he was truly “on the brink” of breakdown, why wasn’t his leadership there for him?

Some will read this and immediately assume this is about “cutting some slack” for Bales. It’s not. Tonight, we need to think about three things: responsibility, accountability, and culpability. A court martial proceeding will determine innocence or guilt in the killings. While that process ensues, we should concern ourselves with the system and the culture that put the Bales in a position where the crimes were committed for which he is accused.

There may be other veterans – men and women just like Robert Bales – out there tonight. Are we doing everything we can to care for them, to ensure their well-being, to protect them? If the answer to any of those questions isn’t an emphatic “yes” then we have work to do. Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines deserve our best, and we owe that to them.

February 20, 2012
Are You My Mentor?

Mentoring is a topic that receives a lot of attention in the military. Younger leaders can often be heard speaking out on the lack of quality mentorship within the ranks, while more seasoned leaders tend to find the time commitment involved burdensome. It occurs, but at nowhere near the frequency desired. Is there an easy answer? Probably not. But maybe we’re not asking the right question.

By definition, mentoring involves a very close, personal relationship between senior and subordinate. Even a quick glance into Army Regulation 600-100 reveals the closeness necessary: “the voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.” Even the Army’s Leadership manual emphasizes the relationship factor. This is not a passing acquaintance, but an enduring relationship. Something that transcends rank and position. Something that defies form and function. Something special.

As such, attempts to establish formal mentoring programs tend to devolve into checklists and brochures that do little to answer the fundamental question. Try as we might, there’s a little more to mentoring than signing up for an online program. Our hearts are in the right place, but we need a dose of reality:

  • Fact No. 1: Mentoring relationships take time to develop.
  • Fact No. 2: Not everyone is suited to be a mentor.
  • Fact No. 3: Not everyone is a good candidate for mentoring.
  • Fact No. 4: Mentoring defies checklists, charts, and formulas.
  • Fact No. 5: Mentoring can’t be forced.

Try that last fact on for size twice. Mentoring can’t be forced. It’s a very natural process that evolves from a relationship based on trust and respect. Mutual trust and respect. So, that lieutenant who brought a stripper to the Dining Out? Yeah, he probably won’t find a lot of mentors in life. The guy who called me on the day of his promotion to colonel and asked if I needed a mentor? We were peers yesterday, for God’s sake. Selection for command or promotion doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a mentor.

Facts No. 2 and 3 are also significant. What makes for a good mentor? A good ear. Patience. Compassion. Experience. An ability to communicate rationally.  What makes for a good mentoring candidate? Potential. Initiative. Performance. Humility. A willingness to learn and grow. When you begin to cull the herd, the available pool of mentors and candidates is, well … smaller. Much smaller.

That’s the tyranny of math, and the reality of mentoring.

So, if you find yourself forever in search of that elusive mentor, maybe you should be content with a little coaching. Conversely, if you’re wondering why so few people seek out your wise counsel, maybe you should take a hint. Let’s face it: as much as we might want it to be, mentoring isn’t for everyone.

January 22, 2012
For Love of the Game

This week marks the release of Paula Broadwell’s long-awaited biography of our generation’s most recognizable military leader: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Since Linda Robinson first teased us with Tell Me How This Ends in 2008, we’ve waited for the Paul Harvey on The Professor of War. She took us through The Surge, and now Paula delivers The Rest of the Story. 

Over the course of three years, Paula Broadwell translated unparalleled access and exhaustive interviews into 352 pages of “moments in time.” The end result is a very good read that conveys a sense of magic usually found only in old baseball films. In this case, Petraeus is Kevin Costner’s “Billy Chapel” walking to the mound in the ninth inning of the Afghan War. You can almost hear Vin Scully in the play-by-play booth:

“He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”

Just like that baseball classic, Paula Broadwell weaves the story of Petraeus’ final inning on the mound into a captivating tale of an oftentimes extraordinary life. It’s the bottom of the ninth, time is working against him, and he’s asked to find three more outs in an arm that’s given that and more for years.  Petraeus’ year on the mound is intertwined with a series of flashbacks that follow the general from boyhood through his selection to face down the Taliban with the game on the line.

All In is more than a biography. It is a study in mentorship. It is a life journey cast against the backdrop of intense competition. It is the saga of a field leader in the twilight of a distinguished career. It’s “For Love of the Game” with a twist of camouflage.

When the book hits shelves on Tuesday, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.  Then go home, make a cup of coffee, plug in your old DVD of “For Love of the Game” and enjoy a good read. It’s a lot more fun with Vin Scully calling the game in the background.  

January 5, 2012
The Moops

I do my best thinking during reruns of Seinfeld.  I’m into the double-digit viewings on many episodes, so last night’s airing of “The Bubble Boy” gave me ample opportunity to finish the last pages of Michael Hastings’ new book, “The Operators.”  As I set the book aside, George Castanza was in the midst of a game of Trivial Pursuit with the strange rubber arm of the Bubble Boy:

George:  “All right Bubble Boy. Let’s just play…Who invaded Spain in the 8th century?”

Bubble Boy:  “That’s a joke.  The Moors.”

George:  “Oh, noooo, I’m so sorry.  It’s the Moops.  The correct answer is, the Moops.”

Bubble Boy:  “MOOPS?  Let me see that.  That’s not Moops, you jerk, it’s Moors.  It’s a misprint.”

Any number of readers will pick up “The Operators” expecting to find the Moors, but instead they’ll encounter the Moops.  It’s that odd, dissatisfying feeling you get when your expectations meet a brick wall we like to call “reality.”  To be fair, the subject matter isn’t new.  We’ve all read “The Runaway General” and its lesser-known cousins, “King David’s War” and “Another Runaway General.”  But for the low, low price of $27.95 (discounted to $14.40 on Amazon.com), Hastings will name names, add a little salt to old wounds, and repackage that old wine in new skins.  New skins, surprisingly enough, bearing a remarkable resemblance to two equally remarkable retired general officers in less than complimentary poses.  But I digress. 

The Moors are a mixture of titillating exposé and cautionary tale, the story of a veteran military leader on the edge and the reluctant president compelled to fire one of his most trusted wartime commanders.  The Moops are a toxic cocktail of thinly-veiled yellow journalism and rabid anti-war sentiment, a dubiously-sourced manuscript published under the guise of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Afghan War.”  What readers will discover in the pages of “The Operators” is a cautionary tale of the military and the media, and how events can spin horribly out of control when individual agenda trumps the privilege of access.  It’s a crossroads in time, where “know thy enemy” meets “understand your embed.”

On the surface, “The Operators” seems to journey into the mists of the Moors.  Hastings takes readers deeper into his time with General Stanley McChrystal’s inner circle, this time revealing the faces behind those infamous comments.  He pushes deeper into the actions of Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, whose alleged “PSYOPS” campaign against Members of Congress caused a national uproar.  And he confesses that it was never his intent to bring down a popular wartime commander.

Beneath the surface, “The Operators” stumbles into the Moops.  The first image to greet readers is “the drunk general” on the front cover, a graphic that bears an uncanny resemblance to General David Petraeus’ USCENTCOM command photo.  With tie askew, whiskey on the rocks in hand, and a 9mm Berretta at the ready, it proves difficult to miss the simple fact that every detail of the uniform matches that of the retired Army general.  The back cover is no better, depicting McChrystal with beer in hand and armed with a combat knife.  In less genteel areas, we call that character assassination.

Once the reading begins, it seems that few, if any, of those infamous caustic comments can actually be attributed to McChrystal.  Many appear to be the result of “Jedi mind tricks” where editorial license places a respected name in the close vicinity of an acerbic quote.  Others still are credited to a young trip planner.  Hastings continues to stand by his earlier claims, but even the least discerning readers will find themselves questioning his sincerity, if not his facts, outright.  When Hastings finally admits that he had no idea his story would create such a stir, all credibility is long since gone.  His hatred of the war has been revealed, his dislike of military leaders exposed, and his agenda laid bare before his audience. 

Let there be no doubt.  From the pages of Rolling Stone to the tight binding of “The Operators”, the purpose behind “The Runaway General” is crystal clear: take down a senior military commander.  That same singular purpose drove Hastings’ subsequent pieces, as well.  When “King David’s War” failed to gain traction, Hastings broke bread with a disgruntled and humiliated officer in hopes of ending the career of yet another general. 

Ultimately, the chapter titled “An Army of None” confirms that loose facts, innuendo, and supposition are, in fact, the Moops that George Castanza found on the Trivial Pursuit board.  This is where we find a raging and desperate Hastings resorting to whatever means necessary to demean the last man standing in uniform.  Some people never quit.

No, it’s not a misprint.  It’s the Moops.

January 1, 2012
What Would (Dead) Carl Do?

After 20 years, I have finally reached that point in my career where I am resigned to a future of staff work. No longer can I take pride in the accomplishments of my Soldiers. My days of leading patrols are a long-distant memory. I may not work in a cubicle, but they are close enough to remind me what awaits upon retirement.

I make a mean pot of coffee. I get excited when my Jedi-like PowerPoint abilities produce briefing slides that are the awe of lesser staff officers. I stand proud when I can edit an information paper down to a single page. My staff knife-fight skills are honed to precision, and I can defend my position like a cornered honey badger.

If Clausewitz had lived just a bit longer, I’m certain he would have dedicated a thirteenth chapter of On War to the staff. Jomini was a narcissist, devoid of any appreciation for the poor staff monkeys who toiled away their existences in support of the commander. But Clausewitz? Dead Carl was one of us. He knew we mattered. He really did.

So, as I look ahead to another year on staff, I wonder aloud, “What would (Dead) Carl do?” What are the enduring tenets of life on the staff? Well, if it were up to me, these are the pearls of wisdom I’d add to my own thirteenth chapter of On War.

Never assign me a task before noon. I work best under pressure, so always wait until after 1700 and then email me on your way out the door. That way, even if I want to talk to you, I can forget about it.

I am a staff ninja.  If you have any guidance or special instructions for a task, by no means should you share those with me. Instead, wait until the task is almost complete to have your “A-ha!” moment. I prefer not to be confused with useful information.

I do my best work in the dark.  Always set my suspense early in the day.  Make sure I know you need an answer “in the morning.” Nothing makes my wife happier than staring at the back of my laptop all night. I don’t have a life, anyway.

Everything is a priority.  If you assign more than one task to me, don’t prioritize them. I am a psychic.

I need a lot of supervision.  If something is really important, call or email me every ten minutes to ask for a status update. This helps me to focus. Or, better yet, hover over me while I work and provide in-progress editorial support. My speed and efficiency will increase exponentially.

Coaching and mentoring are overrated. Don’t bother counseling me or giving me advice. Instead, wait until my evaluation is due and then explain your expectations. Go ahead and give me a mediocre report. I’m in this for the money, anyway.

I am Oprah in Camouflage.  Tell me your problems. I don’t have anything else to do, so feel free to spend an hour or more in my office complaining about your job. I’m sorry you were tasked to write that white paper. No, I won’t write it for you.

The headquarters is my prison.  Do your best to keep me in the office long after everyone else leaves. This place is my personal Guantanamo Bay. Waterboard me while you’re at it. Apparently, you think I have no life beyond the walls of my office.

If you like my work, tell no one.  Keep it a secret. Lock it away in the vault. It’s not like I have any career aspirations.

If you don’t like my work, tell everyone.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than being the subject of conversation. Beat me, whip me, make me look stupid in public. I was born to be ridiculed.

Okay, I may not be as wise or as insightful as Dead Carl, but I do have an inherent appreciation for the challenges of life on staff.  And when I start to think that life might get a little better, I need only recall the planning guidance I received prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: “The facts aren’t important. Just make sure the graphics look right.”

December 31, 2011
Ten Things We Learned in 2011

If reading is fundamental, then learning is elementary.

Before looking ahead to the year to come, I try to look back on the year that was. What did we learn? What lessons did we take away from the past twelve months? This year, there were plenty. So many, in fact, that I had to cull the list down so it wouldn’t be confused for a Line of Departure blog post.

So, what did we learn in 2011?

You can run, but you can’t hide.  It was the top news story of the year, but Public Enemy No. 1 found out in relatively short order one night in May that when SEAL Team Six decides the game is up, not even the ISI can keep you hidden.  Even more impressive than the wealth of intelligence gathered on scene? The shocking revelation that an old guy on death’s doorstep still managed to maintain an impressive box o’ porn. Enzyte Bob would be jealous.

Skeletons don’t always stay in the closet.  Here’s a tip: if you plan to run for national office, put a double padlock on that closet door. Herman Cain was a good candidate. Sure, he had some trouble with Libya , but he also had charisma and a bigger-than-life personality. Then he found out the hard way what happens when you don’t double-lock the closet. The skeletons get loose, and once one gets loose it’s always amazing how many more are in there, too. Then all you can do is try to clean up the bones.

Beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive.  Okay, maybe that’s nothing new, but following Morgan Fairchild (@MorgFair) on Twitter has revealed that your favorite teenage crush is an intellectual tour de force.  Now to find those old episodes of Falcon Crest on Antenna TV. Be still, thy beating heart.

We can learn a lot from the Zombie Apocalypse.  What began as a guilty pleasure has evolved into a remarkable examination of the ethics of humanity.  The second season of the AMC series, “The Walking Dead”, has continued to impress while becoming a favorite Monday morning topic of discussion. Even The Atlantic got into the game, hosting a weekly blog from writer Scott Meslow. Somewhere along the way, the Zombie Apocalypse became the backdrop to a remarkable examination of mankind. Brilliant.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Kim Jong-il’s death cleared the path for the Supreme Leader, 27-year old Kim Jong-un, to assume power in North Korea. Now, instead of “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things” and “I’m so Ronery” we have a fat kid with nukes.  No matter what happens now, we’ll always have the funeral march.

Never underestimate the defense industry.  In the face of a world-wide recession and the steepest force cuts since the end of World War II, the defense industry still managed to roll out some price tags that would make T. Boone Pickens choke on a chicken wing. The F-22, yet to fly a single combat mission, costs taxpayers between $137 million and $678 million, “depending on when and where you count.” Meanwhile, the per-unit cost of an F-35 has increased from the initial bid of $69 million to over $138 million. The new Ford-class aircraft carrier, ten of which are slated to be in service by 2040, is running a cool $9 billion per hull, less R&D costs. I can’t even think in those terms.

No one in NATO reads T.R. Fehrenbach.  First NATO refuses to get involved. Then, after 227 days of bombing runs across Libya, Kadhafi was dead, NATO declared victory, and a nascent government in Tripoli assumed power.  The thing is, nothing ever works out quite the way you (don’t) plan it. Libya needs help, and a lot of it. They have a nice new flag, they’re working on a constitution, and they have at least a baker’s dozen of armed militia groups with a lot of time (and ammunition) on their hands. There’s a lot to be said for putting boots on the ground.

Stephen King is still our favorite storyteller.  This was the year that the guy who brought you “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile”, and “The Shining” delivered an entertaining twist on the Kennedy assassination. “11/22/63” was everything you look for in brain candy: a mix of time-travel, historical paradoxes, murder, mayhem, and madness. It’s a rare day when I recommend a work of fiction, but it’s an ever rarer day when I read one this good.

Congress has an image problem.  In 2011, it went from bad to worse. Congress has never enjoyed much respect in the eyes of the citizens they represent, but approval ratings dipped to historic lows this year. The fall has been the most precipitous for Democrats, who fell from 63% in mid-2009 to 14% at the end of this year. To many, Congress’ inability to accomplish much of substance is at issue. For others, it’s the widening gulf between the members and their constituents. Clean out the dead wood and hire an image consultant. You owe it to your country.  

China is the Bogeyman.  Not really, but judging from the general mood of any number of people, you’d sure think so. Okay, China buying up a lot of our national debt might be unsettling, but to them it’s a good investment. China launching a repainted rustbucket of an aircraft carrier they bought at a surplus auction? Fuggetaboudit. You can’t be a player in the global economy without some vestige of a blue-water fleet. Face it. China doesn’t want to fight us, they want to be us.

What’s up for 2012? Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a hell of a ride. It’s the Year of the Dragon in China.

December 11, 2011
A Jedi Mind Trick

These are not the drones you’re looking for.

This is either an intelligence bonanza for Iran and our purported enemies, a potential CIA Trojan horse with far-reaching implications, or just another case of Iranian exaggeration. 

Just a week ago, Iran claimed to have shot down an unmanned spy plane that violated its eastern airspace.  "An advanced RQ170 unmanned American spy plane was shot down by Iran’s armed forces. It suffered minor damage and is now in possession of Iran’s armed forces," the official Irna news agency reported.  True to form, U.S. officials initially denied the report of a shoot down, instead acknowledging the loss of a reconnaissance drone, claiming operators has lost control of the aircraft over western Afghanistan.  And so it begins.

You see, this isn’t the first time in recent memory Iran has made a similar claim. In January, Iran announced that it downed two unmanned aircraft over the Arabian Gulf. In July, they claimed the shoot down of another over its Fordu nuclear site.  So a fair amount of skepticism is warranted in this case as well.  This time, however, Iran revealed the intact drone to the public in a series of videos. Or did they?

This is where things get interesting.  First, it was a shoot down.  Then it was a “navigation system failure.”  Now, UN ambassador John Bolton is suggesting that Russia may have aided Iran in bringing down the drone using electronic jamming.  If that doesn’t get your attention, this will: it might not even be real.

If it is real, there are some unanswered questions.  For instance, why would you pay $6 million for a drone that could land on its own, but without a self-destruct or homing system?  Both of those seem pretty basic to an aircraft that would spend most of its lifespan collecting intelligence over unfriendly skies.  Self-destruct mechanisms are pretty standard fare, and we all know how easy it can be to push the button.  But if it is real, the craftsmanship that $6 million buys today leaves a lot to be desired.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to find a prop like this in a “Team America” sequel, with a team of puppet marauders hiding inside.

But if it isn’t real, what is it?  The odds favor more Iranian nonsense.  After claims of four shoot downs in a year, they probably need to unveil something or risk losing even more credibility. But, seriously, folks, can you at least come up with something that doesn’t look like it earned Honorable Mention at a local science fair?  The other side of this coin is a possible Trojan horse, purposely flown into Iranian hands.  That could prove to be the most interesting scenario, but to what end?  

For now, the only answers seem to be coming from the disembodied voice of the RQ-170, entertaining a small group of followers on Twitter: “It’s a battle of wills between me and my interrogators. Except they have a blow torch.”

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