Thursday, July 30, 2009


You can get as mythical as you want, or as mundane- Hero's Journey or simply off to college.  You go somewhere, you do some stuff and then, ideally, you go home.

Do you go home to the same home?  Yes and no.  Things will have changed.  People will have grown, learned, become.  Declined or improved.  Many of the challenges they were facing will have evaporated. New challenges arisen.  

Same for you (for me, of course, since as our anonymous friend will point out this is all about me).  You don't feel different, the you at the center of your universe is still you.  But you have learned a lot.  Some deep stuff. A few core beliefs have shifted.  Parts of the world you were naively certain of are no longer as absolute.

The dynamic I see, and used to feel a lot, is that the traveler goes home expecting things to be more the same than they will be. Those who stayed at home expect the traveler more changed than he is.  Either way, and this is another thing you get used to, it can be fun to explore the changes. The people you were closed to when you left? You were close to them for pretty good reasons.  It will be fun to rediscover them.

Admin note:
The RSS feed for Wim's blog died for some mysterious reason.  I tried to switch it to his facebook feed and got an error message, so I temporarily moved it down to the 'links' list.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Just some basics, things that came up today.  You can look at them at a lot of different levels of magnification, take the principles and play with them.

Move, shoot and communicate.  I was taught this trio as the very essence of small unit tactics.  If you can't move, you can't get to the right place at the right time.  This magnifies from individual combat (Steve Perry very much likes to describe his art as 'positional' and that is one of the keys to making anything work) to logistics.  You need to be able to move as individuals, move your people, and move your gear and supplies.
'Shoot' might be a little narrow, but I learned it in the context of applying force to people who would far rather be applying force to me.  Playing with the principle, this becomes the basic skills to do the job.  A tow truck will take care of the transportation problem, but you still need a mechanic.  Again, this magnifies- from HtH skills up to nukes; and sideways from communication to customer service.  If you can't do the basic job, it very rarely works just to be there.
And communicate.  Teams work.  Most of the time. A team of dedicated professionals devoted to the job who train together and communicate well can accomplish things far beyond what the individuals could do by themselves.  Sometimes you run across a team where one or two members are carrying the rest-- there are bad teams. But a good team is amazing.  A good team composed of good people can do miracles and make it look easy.  That all takes communication.  Sometimes communication = 'shoot' in the sense that for CNT (or other salesmen), communication is the skill that they need to do the job in the first place.  But it is separate from the commo that they need with the rest of the team.  Commo is how people get to the right place at the right time.  It is a primary source of intel, also. Without communication skill, you will never know where and when the right place and time are.
Again, at magnification, it ranges from knowing yourself, being honest with yourself, dealing with your own emotions and limitations; through basic active listening; reading people; communication equipment and all the way up to advertising (and other forms of propaganda.) Move, shoot and communicate.  The three essentials.

Another tripod- people, equipment and intelligence.  The status of these three things define what you can successfully do.  

Select (and work to be) the best people you can find.  Train them as well as you can.  Challenge them and test them and let them know when you are proud.
Then give them what they need.  Not necessarily the cool, gee-whiz stuff (I personally am leery of anything that my life might depend on that relies on batteries, but that's a personal quirk).  But reliable, effective stuff.   Ideally, the team should have easy access to what they might need and what is available can limit the mission.  Cave rescue and dive rescue and fire rescue have different equipment.  In a lot of ways I think equipment is the least important of the three aspects because really good people will find a way.  There is an old saying, "All you need to be a cowboy is guts and a horse. If you have the guts you can steal the horse."  Every high-end team I know has a scrounger or two. 

And intelligence.  You need to know as much as you can about what is really going on.  Why you are needed, what you are expected to accomplish, what you are going up against, what little things like temperature or terrain might be stacked against you.  Whether reading an individual to evaluate a potential threat or responding to a major situation in the next district there is a skill to getting data, to knowing where to get it from, how to prioritize it.  I didn't realize until recently how common it was to wait for pre-packaged (and often out-dated or compromised) intel from above or to decide to figure it out when you arrived.  The transport time that we had always used to establish commo with someone who had eyes on and put together and refine a hasty plan isn't always used that way.  A puzzle.

Just some ideas. Play with them if you want.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Messaged for a while with one of my colleagues from the old agency.  Things are not better there, worse, if anything.  He said I was missed, just for the common sense I used to bring to the situation.  I felt a stab of guilt.  Would things be better if I had stayed?  Maybe.

There were good friends there. We have shared a lot over the years.  Blood sweat and tears? Yeah.  As much as we protected each other's safety we also, when we could, kept each other sane.  It's easy to spend so much time with killers and hustlers that you start to confuse that place with the world.  Seeing good, honorable, men and women every day gave us all permission to be better than the dark.  When something, either a particular event or just the mass of stuff, got to you there was always someone to talk to.

Some people did get damaged. They were usually the ones who didn't talk.

Keeping them safe and keeping them sane was the job.  Everything, every last thing, centered around that.  Even taking care of the prisoners, dealing respectfully and humanly (you can be humane without being human, being human is both). That is what sergeants were for.  Directives would come down, some of them breath-takingly out of touch with reality... and it was the job of the sergeants to find some way to make it work.  Safely.

The number of truly bad decisions, and their impact, had been steadily increasing.  Some of them would have made satirist Jonathan Swift proud:  "We are NOT lowering standards, sergeant. We are simply changing the standards so that more people pass."

There was more.  I was burning out and wanted more challenge, but like most people, that alone wouldn't have been enough to make me leave a job I loved.  It took more.  When the last line was crossed...

But I had to leave people behind. People I still care about.  People who have to deal with stuff with a little less support.  They'll be fine. I know that. One person left (more, now- some fine officers have left as well) but there are still many, many good people there. And they will take care of each other.

But every so often I still feel guilty.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Middle Ground

I read something recently, a short essay. It was very sincere and it was well-reasoned and it touched a lot of people.  About how violence was toxic, how dark things not addressed would boil out, how people with that darkness in them who toyed at things like martial arts would eventually become something dark.  How no one who deals with that can remain untouched and how violence can never solve anything, only creating needs for more violence in the long run...

It struck me very much as a reaction not to violence- there was nothing in the essay to indicate that the author had ever had any direct contact with what I would consider violence or evil- but as a reaction to the concept of violence.  A reaction to thoughts about violence.  A logical response to quiet the fears through insight. Another reaction to fear as opposed to danger.

The other side of the argument- the violence groupies and virtual tough guys and 'ultimate deadly street fighting systems'- are just as toxic, just as based on imagination.

For both sides it is about fear and control- if you fear violence, you can try to convince everyone it is a Bad Idea(tm) and they will all move to the light and you will be safe... or you can decide to become, or imagine yourself to be, a master of violence yourself.  Then you control the thing you are afraid of.

It doesn't work like that.  Violence between humans exists because it works.  It has been reliably used to get money for drugs for generations. Ending slavery (relatively, the institution still exists) was a bloody business.  When someone is breaking into your house with intent to rape and kill and you have retreated to the last room in the basement, violence (countervailing force, to be PC) is the only thing that will solve that problem.

Violence works.  The rarer it is in a society, the more powerful it becomes because fewer people are prepared to do what it takes to prevent it.  Bullies get the reward of control.  Protests, even when called 'peace protests' are intimidation, and look at that one carefully.  Little weasels wrecking a downtown area have not swayed a single person to their point of view so the reward comes from elsewhere and that reward is likely the satisfaction of scaring other people, feeling powerful.

Once a human gets used to using violence as a tool, once they learn how easy and safe it can be* the only thing that will stop them are fear or force. Physically stopping them (force) or the clear ability to stop them (fear).

Back to these two points of view- the violence groupies and the dark-side pacifists.  You don't see a lot of either of these points of view in professionals.** They rarely say "Violence never solved anything" because most have clearly, personally, solved stuff with violence.  Sometimes the problem solved was their own survival, which is kind of hard to devalue.  They do (often) wonder if the problems they are solving will stay solved; if the plans were really thought out; or if the perceived problem was worth the real cost.  
The trope that 'you will turn evil if you are exposed to enough violence' doesn't play very well.  I have heard it from a few professionals- mostly from people who felt themselves drifting that way and recovered- but I don't actually see a lot of it.  Most of the people who got in trouble over their uses of force were asses long before they ever put on a badge.  There's also a common comparator here that doesn't work very well.  You can't use cops and soldiers interchangeably on this one.  Soldiers use force on other soldiers- possibly an eighteen-year-old kid who doesn't want to be there and doesn't even understand the issues that led to war.  Soldiers wind up killing people very much like themselves and most recognize that.  That's hard, and I suspect far more likely to damage the psyche than an officer using force on someone who has already done an act that clearly separates the threat from the rest of society.

There is a cost to using force and professionals realize that- you can't do it much without facing your own mortality (do you drink that hard truth away?)  You learn that luck can screw up your best tactics (do you go the lop route and just always try to be a little slow to respond?) You will almost certainly find that the more comfortable you are with violence the less other people treat you like a person (do you go hermit, or just hang with others who 'get it?')

Those three things are powerful in another way, too. Understanding mortality is enlightenment, if you can handle it.  The ability to risk your life in full awareness of the power of luck is a greater faith than any religion can simulate.  And feeling isolated is exactly the same thing as feeling special...and any of these can be deep and liberating or just egotism.

Same from the other side, the violence groupies, what Jim Raistrick calls the 'warries'.  They want control and domination and freedom from fear.  Artificial or vicarious, it doesn't matter.  They love the feeling of victory, the accolades, the glory and dream of saving the willing maiden.

Just like the other side, there are similar things with pros, but not these things and not to this extent.  Victory is cool primarily because losing sucks, even if you live.  Winning and losing both hurt.  Accolades?  You might get some from your coworkers.  Your supervisors will just want reports and might even give dire warnings.  Medals go to the people who get stuff written about them.  And willing maiden?  More likely a toothless, smelly, meth addict.

But there is stuff here that the pros get. Not dying is a big payoff.  The respect of your peers is harder to earn and worth more than a medal from a bureaucrat. And the glory.  It's not glorious.  But sometimes on that very edge for a few seconds everything is real and you are exactly what you are and everything, mind, body and spirit come together in a perfect thinking animal.  There is no feeling like it.

It can be addicting.  It can put your trained values ("Violence is the last result of the ignorant.") in conflict with what you experience (Shooting at a distance is the only way to stop a vest bomber).  It can purify your values, and that can enrich your life while simultaneously severing your connections with others.  And you might or might not care.

Both of the points of view, the toxic pacifist and the warries, are slightly twisted, but they've touched on some old truths.  Just misunderstood them.  In the end, the extremes come together in a sort of shared fantasy, a skewed view of the issue that they fear, like the things a child imagines in the dark.

*A former bad guy who read an early version of "Meditations on Violence" said that I gave too much hope- he boasted that no one had ever gotten out of one of his predatory assaults.
** Maybe we should talk about professionals some day, because there are many different kinds and levels.  A Vietnam draftee with intense experience is clearly a professional, but is very different than a voluntary enlistee who re-ups through multiple combat tours.  Cops are different than soldiers, COs different than road officers, lops and posers very different from meat-eaters.  They all process similar experience differently.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wife and Gun Club

This is probably going to be my weird thought for the week.
Long guns aside, I was raised on wheel guns and Colt semis.  I learned handgun on a Smith and Wesson K22, moving up to a Colt Police Positive.  Then the .45 Mark IV series 70.  They pretty much defined what a handgun should be to me- solid, reliable, very fast from holster to hand and (with the exception of the K22, which was a kid's gun) they made big holes.

Over the years I played with other guns.  I loved the sleek Browning Hi-Power.  Giggled at the deadly accuracy of the Ruger Mark II.  Had a passionate crush on the Sig Sauer, but she was out of my league, far more gun than I could afford as a starving student.  During these swinging years of my life I often found myself falling back on revolvers, like a Smith 686 or Ruger GP100.  Reliable, accurate, and they felt like a gun should feel.

Then the Glock.  It was an arranged marriage.  The team was going lethal. The Captain (was he still a lieutenant back then?) wanted everyone to have ammo and magazine compatibility.  He wanted reliable and, with his bureaucrat hat on, he wanted cheap.  We went with the Glock 23 in .40 caliber.  
I hated it.  It felt like a toy, too light to be a real gun.  The grip was too big for my hand.. but it was a done deal.  The way it was.  And it was one of the things that I might never need, but if I ever did it would be the most important thing in my life.  I didn't like it, but we were stuck with each other.  So I practiced and came to learn that it was reliable.  No matter how hard I shot or how much dirt I dragged it through, as long as my form was good, the Glock would fire every time.  And she was accurate.  If both bullets didn't go through the two inch square, it was me.  As long as I did my job, she would do hers.  It was never really love, but after a few years we got along very, very well.

My second arranged marriage was with the Beretta 92 (M9).  The Beretta had a bad reputation around the barracks- unreliable and puny.  Failed consistently to do her duty.  Fit my hand better than the Glock, though, and that was something.  On the range, she lived down to her reputation- it was mostly bad magazines and I had to ruthlessly cut those out when found.  She was picky and didn't care much for getting dirty and this can be a dirty place.  Accurate, though.  Moreso even than the Glock.  The rangemaster kept my qualification target around for months to scare the locals.
Picky and unreliable, but accurate and fit my hand.  That was enough to work with, since we were stuck together anyway.  I would just have to supply whatever she couldn't in the relationship.

Most people have comfort foods.  I probably have comfort weapons.  Blades aside, the revolvers are probably closest.  Comfort isn't enough, though. You and your weapon are a pair.  Without your weapon, you are unarmed and can only do what meat can do. Without you, your weapon is an inert lump of metal.  Together is all that counts.  Comfort isn't enough for that. It takes work and practice to make that pairing effective. Even more work to be phenomenal. 

There are certainly passions as well.  I love the way the Browning Hi-Power feels, the way it comes up on line effortlessly.  But it still takes work to be good and no weapon is so thrilling or so reliable that you can ignore basic maintenance forever.

And there is commitment: "This is my rifle, there are many like it but this one is mine..."

I was a little heavy handed above, but I noticed today that some people act towards the weapons that their lives depend on and the mates (that sometimes their soul depends on) in very similar ways.  

Some won't commit until they find the one that is 'just right'.  Some collect as many as they can but never really work on any one.  Some get stuck with one they aren't interested in and instead of getting to know each other, leave it rusting in the holster until they retire.  And some, whether it was a love match or an arranged marriage practice, work hard and never neglect maintenance.

I don't know if there is a correlation, if the officers with serial divorces are the same ones that go from weapon to weapon.  If the same guys who notch bedposts are the ones with a room full of guns that they have almost never fired.  If strong, stable marriages are the same households where the guns are quick and steady from long practice.

But it is an interesting thought for the day, and I never would have thunk it without an exposure to the local custom of arranged marriages.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

You Get Used To It

The drink is rotten milk (technically sour yoghurt, but that doesn't seem like a very strong distinction to me) with water, heavily salted and blocks of ice.  It is drunk with a communal ladle.  It is the traditional hot weather drink here, like iced tea in some places or gin&tonic in others.  It is also used to make restless children go to sleep and it seems to work for that.  I got very, very drowsy shortly after my first experience.

Which makes me wonder about fermented milk. I have read of fermented mare's milk in Mongolia and Yak milk in Tibet... does lactose ferment to alcohol?  What form of alcohol?  Surely not ethanol.  Is there a sharia decision on fermented milk?

It tasted awful, the first time.  Evidently, most Americans don't take to it and drinking a whole bowl was worth a lot of cultural points.

I'm starting to like it.  What originally tasted like salty rotten milk has come to taste more like liquid sourdough.  And this all reminds me of the aguardiente/chichu stories from Ecuador... another time, maybe.

One note- Al Siebert in "The Survivor Personality" wrote that the single strongest correlation in survivors, the one that almost all had in common (disaster survivors, death camp and POW survivors, violence survivors) is that they would eat anything, try any food- not just in survival situations.  Even as kids they weren't afraid to try new foods.  Picky eaters are doomed.  Good to know.

Just rambling- I'm a little written out (finished the first draft of Citizen's Guide a few days ago) and most of the things that really intrigue me right now must be held under the Cone of Silence(tm). 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Information Management

Good people get the job done.  Even if they are out of the loop.  Even if they are "not important enough" to have access to critical information.  I'm having that 'someday' feeling- someday I want to teach a class on information flow.  There are some things that are so obvious, and yet every day I see them being violated.

  • Information not shared is worthless.  In every organization, people hide and horde information.  Operational Security demands that some data have a limited dispersal, granted.  But you are gathering the information for someone to use.  It needs to get to that person.  It needs to get to all the people who need to know.
Corollary to this: you need to know who is actually doing the job.  The boots on the ground are doing the job.  Cops, soldiers, factory workers or primary health care providers are the ones doing the job.  Nine times out of ten, they are the ones who need the information.  After all, the information is all about doing the job better and safer.  If your subordinates are the ones doing the job, they don't work for you. You work for them. You can direct, guide, supervise manage or even (gasp) lead but it is not their primary purpose to make your life easier. It is your job to make their job easier.
  • Know your sources and know your sources' motivations.  The big boss will eventually hear what he or she rewards.  There are a hundred different ways to discourage information you don't like, even if it is the truth.  Strive never to discourage honesty. People that come to you with information are doing so for their benefit, not necessarily your benefit or the organization's.  Always ask 'why'.  This will eventually tie back to the intro and the last point- one of the most critical pieces of information you can have is to identify your good people.  Not your politicians or your suck-ups or your resume padders.  Look for the boots on the ground that the other boots turn to when they have problems.  The men and women in charge of the quiet areas that you never hear about because they are running smoothly.  That's maybe another corollary- people being productive often make less 'noise' than people having problems or people trying to inflate their numbers.
  • Information management can get complicated in the middle stages.  Things can affect multiple databases.  You need a good gatekeeper or information triage person or system to make sure that the data goes to all the people that might need it.  At the most basic, you arrest a guy for possession and reports need to go to the courts, the jail and the precinct.  They need that stuff.  But it's possible the gang task force might want to know about someone wearing those colors in that area.  Narcotics might be very interested in a new dealer in the area. Maybe local businesses need to know if a new shop has opened...  If none of these databases are shared, and even if they are, it is very possible for important data to only go some of the places it is needed.
  • So, learn thoroughly where the gathered data is needed.
Aside-  I'm not talking specifically about intelligence here in the military sense.  With enough technology gathering data is easy.  Interpreting and prioritizing is not.
  • Format the information for the end user.  Too many people gather, store and disseminate data so that it is easy to gather, store and disseminate.  Not bad things, but not the same as easy to use.  The end user is who and what the information is for.  "Dangerous, likely to be armed" needs to be verbal because you don't want your troop taking his eyes off a dangerous armed guy to read the warning.  It is easier to put data in order, say: name, identifier, second identifier, comments.  If the comments are the really critical information it has to be easy to see- especially if the other stuff are things the officer already knows because he had to enter them to get to the comments.  It takes a little more time for the information gathering and storing team, but it saves time for the boots on the ground and that is the entire purpose.  You can't lose sight of that.
  • Like in most tasks, it's usually easier to plan from goals backwards, if you are lucky enough to be able to design a system from scratch: Who needs the information? What do they need and in what format?  That drives how it will be disseminated and that in turn drives how it will be stored and correlated and analyzed.  That need drives how it will be gathered and what the sources need to be.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Damage changes almost everything.  Not just the fact that when things start (at least, if you're the good guy) you might well be injured before you are fully aware it's  jumped off.  There's a lot of denial, but that's actually pretty obvious if you think about it.  And it's not just that too many people can't seem to differentiate between pain and damage in their minds and think that both are equally likely to stop a bad guy or equally are reasons to stop or quit.

It's far more than that.  You have to get close to reliably injure people.  Sure, sometimes you can flick the eyes or break the little bones in the back of the hand at a relatively safe distance but to reliably damage someone so badly that you can safely escape is close-in work.  There is a pretty specific zone where your strikes have maximum power, and inside that zone there is a sweet spot where everything works better.  And it's close, baby.  Unless you are behind that guy, there's no safe way to be in that range.  If you can finish him, he can finish you.  That takes a different mindset than playing a game of speed tag.  In most sparring, the biggest fear is looking silly.  Being so outclassed or doing something so stupid that your fellow students start laughing.  Damage is different.  That is a fear of being crippled, a fear of blinding and memory loss.  Possibly, you will face the deeper fear of where your line is: how much damage you will take before you beg for it to stop.  Most men would have a very hard time living with the memory of begging.

The close range changes some things, but even systems that spar at close range sometimes don't produce students who understand damage at close range.  Infighting I can tag you, steal your balance, let you know in many little ways how good I am or am not.  And I can do all that sloppy.  To damage takes a more precise, more coordinated body mechanics.  You can practice to show that you are good, practice to be good, and never master the differences of body mechanics you need to break bones.

When Mac set up the boxing sessions for enforcement he tasked me as one of the sparring partner/instructors.  I am not a boxer.  Still, boxing with J, a former college football player, who outweighed me by at least forty pounds, was wearing body armor and both of us wearing 16 oz. gloves, I broke two of his ribs with a short right hook.  Yeah, bragging again.  Maybe. But that's not the point.  Boxers do this all the time, most are stronger, more fit and spend far more time practicing strikes than I do- their injury rate should be astronomical.  But it isn't.  I finally had the opportunity to ask one why.  He said, quite reasonably, "There wouldn't be any boxers if we always hit like that."  Yeah, if I was boxing every day there would definitely be an unspoken agreement not to take each other's heads off.  It wouldn't take long for that agreement to seem like going 'all-out'.

There's also an element in sport that both is and isn't present in other venues.  'Not losing' in many ways, drives more strategy than a desire to win does.  Boxers and MMA fighters and anyone who plays with contact has to protect themselves.  The clinch can be a big part of strategy and there are lots of things you can do with it, but it exists as a 'not losing' strategy. The goal is to prevent him from harming you.

People are free to disagree with me on this, but when damage is the point, the offensive becomes the defensive.  When someone is trying to injure you the most efficient way not to get injured is to shut him down.  This is more obvious with weapons.  Unless you are very lucky (and having a stupid, clumsy attacker is the ultimate in luck) if you try to stay on the defensive against a knife, you will be cut to ribbons and then finished off.  Unless you are in a hardened site, hunkering down or trying to dodge when people start shooting at you only works until you get picked off.  To stop someone from shooting you (if they are coming at you for damage- see, not pray and spray to keep you head down or blazing away as they run away, this whole post is about damage, both from you and to you) you pretty much need to shoot him. Blowing up works too.

Because people can take more unarmed damage than armed; because many can't distinguish between pain and damage and; most importantly, because most have never really been in a situation that was about damage, they can choose to believe that defense and offense are both 50% of the equation.  And they can be, if both are playing that game.  If both are trying not to lose.

It feels, it looks, it is very different when one of the parties is there to do damage.  Range, body mechanics, mindset.  All different.

Friday, July 03, 2009

One Year

A year ago tomorrow, give or take a few hours, I was at the airport waiting to fly out of Fort Benning.  Dead tired, a little bored with waiting, not really sure what I was getting into.  It was a long wait.  It was the fourth of July and as part of the tradition, the company chaplain read some of the stories of the battle streamers on the guidon.  He said something that I confess I have never checked- "Only one-half of one percent of the citizens of the United States have ever served in her military."  I find that chilling and disturbing, if true.  Not 'serving now'- have ever served.

When the plane rolled out, it was a hot, humid brutal Georgia day... and the entire company was out on the runway, saluting as we flew off.  We were flying high over Boston in the dark and far below we could see the little pops of the Independence Day fireworks. Little pops at 30,000 feet but a beautiful sight from the parks and the harbor.

It's been a big year.  I can now claim stumbling incompetence in even more languages.  Found out things about myself, and things about the world. Rocked some of my "must be trues" and "obviouslies".  Have an entirely new set of things where the educated point of view about what a people believes doesn't match what happens on the ground.  More, too.  Stories that I can't tell.  Things that, I think, would make many of you very proud but silence is one of the rules of this game.  Someday, perhaps.

Not just here.  My lovely wife and remarkable children (really a young man and woman now) have also had a big year half a world away.  Full of challenges and things that might have been disasters.  Watching and listening from a distance I've been awed by their strength and adaptability. They don't need me, which makes the love that we share more true.  I admire them, so that even if there were no ties of blood, no years of shared time, I would still want to know these people and would feel honored to spend time with them.

Yet every time I see her picture, K takes my breath away. Still. After nearly twenty-three years together.  That's not bad.  Friendship and trust and admiration are nice. Passion doesn't hurt, either.

You, too, reading this. You've been a part of this year for me as well. Thank you.