Saturday, April 18, 2009


22 hours ago I got three hours sleep. My fault.  Things broke just right so the only time I could sleep I didn't want to, so I decided to tough it out.  Seven more hours to go, about.  Then I will either sleep or go for a walk or give Ush a call.

So, here I sit, drinking coffee in Turkey, waiting for a plane.  Trying to tell the difference by sound between Arabic, Kurdish, Hebrew and Turkic.  I think I have heard all of them today.  As well as English, German, Russian and I think Korean.  The lines have been long, long enough that over ten planes are delayed waiting for passengers who are waiting for passes.

A long talk with a tour guide from Manchester who brings pilgrims on the Hadj. It's not the right season for the Hadj, but there is the "Little Hadj" which can be done any time.   It doesn't fulfill the requirement of the Pillars, but it is far less crowded, easier, less frantic.

Another tour group returning from Nigeria. A young man going home to Houston after working on oil rigs in Iraq.  An Omani family talking to their little girl- about three years old, in English.  Either a new fashion or something that has meaning- several young men in sandals and black hooded dishdashes that seem to be made out of parachute nylon.  Very odd.  An awesome world in ways that I too often take for granted.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Making Sensei Happy

I touched on this in the book.  What we are teaching is rarely what we think we are teaching, and that is largely because of our ego. We assume we are teaching something right and true, so do the students for that matter, and so they give us what we tell them to give us.  Like trainers in any field, our students don't necessarily give the best answer, they give back the answers we have given them.

In the end, when you come at your student with an attack, he will defend the way he has been trained.  He won't run, even if that is clearly a better option. He won't pull a handgun he has hidden under his gi, even if it would be prudent and justified. 

There are levels to this. Who decides what is right, what should be recognized as competence and rewarded?

In a self-defense class, the 'end user' is the student.  The students are the ones who will or will not be kidnapped, raped or murdered as a consequence of what they learned.  The people who decide what is 'right' and what should be rewarded (with rank or trophies or...) are the senior members of a system or the tournament judges- people well removed from the delicate place where rubber meets road.

It goes beyond martial arts, though and into every aspect of our society.  In much of our lives doing a good job is not rewarded as well as giving the impression of a good job.  I'm coming to understand (I'm a little slow, this may not be new to anyone else) that big bureaucracies and government run on paper, not on results.  A spectacular success does not have as much impact as a spectacular report about nothing at all.  Good organizers are not promoted as readily as poor organizers who document great organized systems. No one looks at the systems, they look at the documentation.  In some areas (a job I held once comes to mind) even the audit system designed to check this has become a friendly game of "I'll show you my cherry-picked examples and you show me yours and we'll award each other certification."

The 'good' students are the ones who make sensei happy.  The 'good employees' (and future upper-level management) are the ones who make the present upper-level management happy.  It has taken me a long time (and it is quite disturbing to my INTJ nature) that dedication, insight, hard work and even brilliant success aren't the keys to being in a position to change things. Success is not what the people who make those decisions, the ones many steps removed from the line, value.

At street level it is important- dedication, insight, hard work, compassion- all lead to the occasional brilliant success of a life saved or turned around, bad stuff prevented, good people safe to walk the streets.  But do it for yourself. Do it because it is the right thing to do.  Do it for the people who live with you at that street level.

Just be aware that the smiling face of someone freed; the person who you got to in time and has a chance to live are all messy and meaningless to the people who decide what is right and wrong; what will be rewarded and punished. The clean sheet of paper (with no typos or misspellings) is more real to them than reality.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

After Action

This is a skill and a tool, something I really want to teach a class on.  Learned correctly and utilized consistently it can lead to steady improvement anywhere. It was especially designed for emergency services and big operations, but I started using it on Uses of Force with my team in booking and in a few months we were preventing more incidents than ever, and those few we didn't prevent went smoother.  It was one of the tools that allowed the Tactical Team to make such huge strides in such a short time.

The After Action Debriefing is simple, but it is also very easy to do half-assed or to misunderstand the intent. Then it is pretty much useless.

---Get all the involved people together.  They are officially called 'stakeholders'.  It has to be the people involved directly in the situation, as many of them as possible.  If there are too many, each group does a mini AA and a representative brings the results to the big AA. Here's one of the things that makes me want to teach a class- I recently heard about a very highly placed, skilled and experienced administrator who wanted to get the AA done in a timely manner and held it with the next shift. Not the shift that dealt with the problem, but the shift that was present when the administrator arrived. At best, this will produce armchair quarterbacking on incomplete or inaccurate information. It could potentially change policy based on such bad information, which is worse.

Once the stakeholders are gathered, there are three simple steps:

1) Describe what happened.  I usually start with a white board.  Each person, one at a time, describes what they saw.  From that, a time line goes up on the board. Very rarely will anyone remember things exactly the same. That's good. No one person's view will be complete. That's good too. There will even be contradictions. Don't worry about it. Once everyone's description is down* you will have a pretty good three-dimensional idea of what you are actually talking about.

2) What did we do right?  This is important.  Partially to keep it from turning into a bitching or blaming session, but also to validate your people.  Generally, most things turn out far better than they could have. Everyone at the AA is breathing, for one thing.  If you or the facilitator can't come up with anything good, the problem is in you and you need to remove yourself or the facilitator not only from the process but from the organization to avoid poisoning it. 

3) What can we do better next time?  Notice this is not, 'what did we do wrong?'  This is for solutions and improvements, not for blaming or wallowing. No bedwetters allowed.

It is hard, but it is okay to say, "That went about as well as it could have."  You need a strong moderator, because humans like to monkey with stuff and if you put them in a room and say, "Make it better" they will come up with something, and that something might be as stupid as installing a radio in an ice cube. The moderator also has to watch for 'unknowns'.  Whatever decisions made were made with the information at hand.  "If we had only known..." would have led to a better solution, but you can no more wish for information you don't have than for equipment you don't have. If someone can brainstorm a way to get that information under those circumstances, great. That becomes something you can do better- intelligence gathering.

The thing with the AA is that you get better every time. Most often it's just a small increase in skill or knowledge for a single team or individual- "Right, with that much OC the handcuffs were the only thing that weren't slippery. Good idea."  Or a reminder on the super-basics, like communication.  For some reason people forget to talk when they're amped.

Sometimes it's bigger and you find a hole in your training, something you have been told is true that might be true only sometimes or not at all.  Sometimes you find a policy or practice that can be improved for safety and efficiency (but be careful with that one, because sometimes policies written to prevent danger can increase the risk from another direction or stifle creativity).

But sometimes I think the biggest value is the way that people who do this a lot come to see the world and think.  It becomes a natural part of life to break it down: What am I really seeing? What's good about it? How can I make it better?

Not a bad way to live.

*You can debrief solo. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009


A warrior is someone who makes war for a living. Period.  It's not some autonomous, independent, noble killing machine, some reborn knight or paragon.  It is someone who is paid money to make big problems go away, often in a messy fashion.

Never been in a war? Not a warrior. Get over it.

I know that there is a myth and an industry building up around the 'warrior identity' but there are parts of it that I really don't get.  "Warriors" I am told, follow their own hearts.  Whatever. Real warriors follow orders. Know what you call a bunch of individuals on a battlefield? Meat.  They have the humility and the basic intelligence to know that other people have more information and trust the people with that information to make those decisions.

Can the decisions be wrong? Absolutely. And the people in the field, if they know it, will respond. That's not a warrior doing what a soldier wouldn't, it's just what any animal would do.  Same with disobeying an unlawful order. That's what any decent person would do.  Will do and have done.  

There are top operators, mercenaries and kids who signed up to get money for college.  Other kids from (specific country redacted) who will make enough money in two years to be set for life back home.  Men who have been fighting for their homeland their entire life.  Some are funny and some are clueless and some are wise.  Some can't even fight and some are cold hell fury.  Some read almost as much as me (and might well argue with me later) and some can't wait to get back to base and get their playstation or DVDs going.  They're just people who have chosen a job that people who have never been exposed to feel a need to romanticize.  Ignorantly, for the most part.

Have you ever read the Hagakure?  Parts are pretty powerful. You can almost forget that it was written by a bureaucrat who had never been in a fight in his life trying to inspire his lazy son.

Warriors, I hear, deliberate carefully over each decision.  Really? The top tier rely on their training to circumvent the thinking process in some situations. Deliberating is generally too slow to get your ass out of an ambush.  Not just the top tier, either.  An E3 gets something like $1650 a month (base pay, more for combat but not a lot more).  What was the real decision behind taking the job?  $1650 a month doesn't seem enough to kill or risk dying over.

"Know yourself and know your enemy and you will not be defeated in a hundred battles."  This warrior-myth is also supposed to be omniscient or at least to strive for it.  To work to always make the right decision, to be just and wise... when it gets bad enough that the dogs of war are let loose the right decision, even justice, is something that may take decades to sort out.  What the people in the field see and hear is, I guarantee you, not what the people sitting at home watching the news will see and hear.  What the actual warriors learn has very little to do with what the philosophers of the warrior myth teach.

I'm not a warrior. Technically, I'm in a war zone right now and I have the equipments, skills and will to fight if it comes up- but it's not what I'm being paid for. I'm being paid to teach. I'm not a warrior. I'll try to get over it.

But I have used force professionally.  A lot, actually. And it's not some big, mystical, cosmic thing. Eight time out of ten I wasn't using 'warrior skills' to defend myself or family or even people I liked- I was keeping one bad guy from hurting another guy who was just as bad.  There was no deep meditation on dangers of force and what was worth risking life for. I was paid to make bad things stop, so I did. Then I wrote the damn reports and had some coffee.

Why the need for the label, especially one that ties not just to conflict but specifically to war? Why isn't it enough to be a "good person" or 'Someone it would be good to have on your six'?  What need is this myth industry fulfilling?

Sometimes I don't understand the human monkey at all.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Just Sayin' "Hey"

Not writing much. Finally have time to take a breath, actual days off (two of them!!) and need to fulfill some obligations- reading manuscripts from friends for critiques and possible endorsements (four of those, three done at this point).

One of them is making me think about 'higher ideals'.  Sometimes people present things as struggles, especially internal things, that are just natural. There should be no struggle in them.  Doing the right thing, keeping faith, being true to yourself... none of these are hard.  If they are hard, especially being true to yourself,  you are probably confusing who you are with who you think you are. Everything you do is true to yourself, it can't be otherwise. If your own actions bother you, you have to change who you are, which probably means you have chosen not to see it.

It seems to me to take more work to be out of touch with your nature than in touch.  Same with, "Doing the right thing is seldom easy."  It's just as easy as doing the wrong thing. It's just doing stuff.  It's the weight of the imaginary consequences that make an action not yet taken seem hard.  Everything has consequences.  You can't imagine all the ripples in the pond, good or bad, from your actions. Your brain isn't that big.  Why do only some freeze you into inactions and not others? Why is it fear of action as opposed to fear of inaction? Rhetorical question, of course- social repercussions are harder to pin on inaction than on action, good or bad.  Monkeys like to be invisible when they are unsure.

And keeping faith- I won't lie to my friends, why would I lie to my best friend?  I work hard not to hurt violent criminals. How, out of pure selfishness could I hurt the best person in the world?  I truly don't understand why this is hard.  Is it really hard, or is that just a story people tell themselves to give themselves permission to fail when they feel like it?

Sorry for the ramble.  There is one thing that I am desperate to write about, an encounter the other day, but I can't.  It was a very good thing, but it would shake foundations that some people believe in and I am afraid it would draw attention.  I may never be able to write about this one but I may be talking about it until I am old and gray.  Someday ask me, "Rory, did you ever feel like a rock star in Iraq?"

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Big Karma

It sucks writing around stuff instead of writing about stuff.
Today I earned partial credit for the karma of eight lives.  Nothing spectacular or heroic. Sometimes persistent paper-pushing can save as many lives as as boots and bullets. And sometimes saving a life means 'keeping breathing' and sometimes it means something else.  A lot of people have worked on this for a long time.  It was an honor to be there when the hammer fell and the chains broke.

If there is one thing I love about this country more than the people, the landscape, the history, the expanse, it is this- doing things  at a time in history that are truly pivotal.  I don't know and will never know how much of a player I was versus a spectator.  Like the fall of the Berlin Wall,  an honor to be there even if you had nothing to do with it.

For the record, I'll be in Ireland in two weeks, free and in Dublin on the night of the 19th and the day of the 20th, if anyone wants to say 'hi'.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Long Way Home

Spectacular, on so many levels. A fort made of mud dominates the river.  It was close, teasing close, but I couldn't get to it to explore, to hear the winds and listen for the past.  We drive on. On the right side of the road are sheer cliffs.  One is creased with cracks and chimneys. It looks like a good climb. Hard to judge distance and height in air this clear but it looks like at least a three-pitch climb. In the middle of it is an oval patch, maybe a hundred meters high and fifty wide that looks as smooth as a linen sheet. Has it ever been climbed? There are certainly no white marks from climbing chalk marring the surface.

To the destination, a picnic by a river.  The women are dressed in traditional costumes, brilliant as parrots, glittering like gold in the sun.  The men are more sober, but it is a formal
 affair- baggy pants and sashes and suit jackets.  Good food and talk. I spend most of the time playing with children. They have never seen a frisbee and it is fun and fascinating for the children and some of the adults.  Desert kids, they have never skipped rocks and the slow, shallow river is great for that. It is like magic that you can throw a rock that doesn't sink.

Musicians wander by and everyone dances. Almost everyone. I'm the first American to get pulled in.  The steps are simple and I don't mess up the line. A few others from the team get pulled in and I sneak out and continue taking pictures.

Music, good food- lamb skewers and kebabs- ( which are not the same things here). Fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. A bottle of Johnny Walker Blue.

We take the long way home. The long way here means skirting the North face of the range of mountains that we normally see from the south.  The big reservoir looks perfect for sailing with a few islands under desert hills. In the distance a cliff/bluff serves as background to a private home that could only be described as a palace. The sunlight is too bright, and the pictures don't do justice to the almost LOTR majesty of the sight.  I think I need a better camera.  From the lake, we head around the mountains. Vineyards.  A mudbrick village with
 goats among the houses and caves in the courtyards.

Looking at the hills, feeling the winds, this would be a perfect day and perfect place to unfold a wing and paraglide for hours over the nearly-empty valleys.

Steep cliffs, canyons. Green valleys. Storage huts made of woven reeds.  Small cattle clog the steep, winding road.  There are valleys, locally famous, where the peshmerga hid from and organized against Saddam's armies.  More caves. Waterfalls.

A land that has been inhabited since before recorded history, before modern humans for that matter and it still feels wild, untouched.  Beautiful.

The last day of March, I hit the 100,000 visitor mark on the blog.  Thanks.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Call of the Wild

The thing about atavistic power is that it works.  The people who say "violence never solved anything" haven't paid much attention to history.  They are probably carefully blind to how many of their own life decisions are based on a fear of some level of violence (or disapproval, which is on the same continuum). The people who speak that way have 'solved' themselves to a great extent, their own philosophy making them very little problem for the people who use violence.

Atavistic power is Desmond Morris' phrase for one of the three types of human power.  Social power determines who is 'cool'.  Who you can and can't listen to, the opinions that you can or can't express in certain company.  It's not really backed up by anything but social approval or disapproval- but people have died for that.  Then there is the power to get things done: money and influence and contacts.  Lastly is atavistic power, the power of violence.

Morris asserts that these powers are always separate.  The people who get things done never get to decide who is cool. Bill Gates will never be a trendsetter. President Obama will be crucified for using a joke that Leno would get laughs from.  The actors who try to get into politics either become jokes or, if they are successful, lose their pull at influencing public opinion through personality alone.  It's a weird dynamic and I can come up with some counter-examples, but very few and mostly weak.

And atavistic power.  Thugs don't get elected. Politicos use thugs, they rarely are thugs. (Saddam is the only one I can think of who occasionally enjoyed doing the killing himself.)  Same with social power- a star resorting to violence quickly loses his status.

(Strangely, less so in professional sports and only in rap music do I see a set of people trying for all three types of power, with some success.  More Hmmm.)

Anyway, there is something very important that I may have to let go.  I've exhausted all of the resources I have.  Without direct access to XXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXX or XXXXXXX XX XXX XXXXX, one of which ain't gonna happen and the other is against the rules... there's nothing more I can do here.

But there is and I know it. Atavistic power is usually negative (that doesn't mean bad) it doesn't accomplish something, it just prevents others from accomplishing things.  When atavistic power -force- is used to stop (negative) a murder, that's good.  There is one instance I can think of where atavistic power can be positive (which, again, doesn't mean good, it just means making something happen, creating).

There are a handful of people who know what to do, who can do it and even agree that it should be done.  But no one wants the responsibility. Out of fear of an imaginary downside, they let the issue languish, and it has a real human cost.

So there is one more thing I could do- go to these places and see these people and exert my atavistic power until they were far more afraid of me than of doing the right thing.  That's the one place it can be positive (not the same as good): using fear or pain to force action when the hesitation is based on a lesser fear.

That's the dark side calling, by the way. They have cookies.