“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” —Dwight D. Eisenhower

My first day as a planner was memorable. Just weeks after graduating from the Army’s vaunted School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), I found myself deep in the bowels of T-95, the ramshackle old G-2 building at Fort Campbell, with a group of my peers. We settled into our seats in the cavernous sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, for an introductory “pep talk” from the division chief of staff. He surveyed the group intently, looking at each one of us through squinted eyes, and said simply, “Who are my new SAMS guys?” A couple of us looked at one another, waiting to see who would be the first to speak.

I raised my hand and replied, “Right here, sir.” Famous last words.

Without missing a beat, his eyes lasered in on me and he delivered a verbal throat punch that I would feel for months to come: “Look here, Clausewitz, I don’t want to hear about any of that shit you learned last year. You don’t need to convince them how smart you are, you don’t need to convince me, and you sure as hell don’t need to convince the boss. If you just shut up and do your job, we’ll all get along fine.”

Alrighty then. This was going to be an interesting year.

Planning: More than Trust and a Dark Sense of Humor

As I soon learned, I was following in the footsteps of the quintessential Blue Falcon. My predecessor was well known for “spotlighting” during briefings with the commanding general, purposely “tanking” planning sessions at the eleventh hour, and generally creating a lot of extra work for an already overworked plans staff. He was so disliked that he was volunteered for a six-month deployment to the Balkans, but the scar tissue from his brief presence remained. There are unwritten rules that guide the actions of the planners. He broke all of them.

Over the course of the next twelve months, I would come to learn each of those rules, appreciating how important they were to the synergy and camaraderie needed among a very small group of equally high-performing individuals. When you tend to spend your days (and nights) in dimly-lit rooms that reek of stale fast food, burned coffee, and body odor, you need more than trust and a dark sense of humor. You need inviolable rules. And like the tablets Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments of the Plans Staff are sacrosanct.

There are processes that drive planningprinciples that govern how we fight, and commandments that dictate how we plan. They represent fundamental truths that have stood the test of time. They might not be chiseled into stone tablets or hidden away with the Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse in Area 51, but they are our Ten Commandments.

The 10 Commandments of the Plans Staff

  1. Thou shalt not quote Clausewitz, Jomini, Sun Tzu, or that dude who sat next to you in SAMS. Nothing kills planning momentum quite like a quote from a dead Prussian. You might think it makes you look more intelligent, insightful, or even well-read than your counterparts. It doesn’t. It makes you annoying. It makes others want to knife hand you. Save the brilliant quotes for your Twitter feed.
  2. Thou shalt not describe a course of action as a “throwaway” in the presence of the commanding general. Creating “throwaway” courses of action is a monumental waste of time. Briefing one to the commanding general tells them that you don’t value their time, either. Save yourself an uncomfortable and potentially catastrophic career moment and abstain from associating yourself or anyone else with a throwaway course of action.
  3. Thou shalt not deliberately skip steps in the Military Decision Making Process (unless no one is paying attention). Unless you’re a Jedi Knight, try to avoid skipping steps during any planning process. Processes exist for a reason, and no matter how painful they might be, it’s always a good idea to follow them through to their logical conclusion. There’s nothing worse than realizing at the eleventh hour that you really did need to wargame those courses of action before you briefed them to the commanding general.
  4. Thou shalt not describe the battle staff as “intellectually challenged”. I get it, the battle staff can test your patience. They don’t function at the same level as the core plans team and some of them are just plain slow. But here’s the rub: you need them. They do a lot of work for you that you really don’t want to do yourself. If you think life sucks now, find out what it’s like if it’s just you and a couple of slide monkeys.
  5. Thou shalt not refer to Air Defense Artillery as “recreational bug zappers”. Never mind, you can do this all you want. Nobody really cares, least of all the Air Defenders.
  6. Thou shalt not consume Cheetos while building briefing slides in PowerPoint. Nothing gums up a keyboard faster than coffee, tobacco, and crumbs. I know, it’s past midnight and you’re in the midst of the battle staff version of the Mogadishu Mile. But you’re tired, you’re not firing on all cylinders. All it takes is a bag of crusty, stale Cheetos and you’re going to be using flashcards to brief the commanding general. Remember, the sign in the SCIF says “No Food or Drink Allowed” for a reason.
  7. Thou shalt not Blue Falcon the other planners by disappearing in the first thirty minutes of wargaming. Don’t even think about it. That stunt will follow you for years to come. I have friends who still talk about the Blue Falcons who disappeared during planning, leaving others to do the heavy mental lifting. And you know that the day will come when the Blue Falcons come crashing to ground in a pile of bloody feathers. You don’t want to be one of them.
  8. Thou shalt not name objectives after sports teams, John Hughes movies, or characters from “Stripes”. A little insidious creativity goes long way during planning. And you can always sneak in a few fun details where only a select few are “in the know.” Always remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Your brilliant plan with all its clever Easter eggs could put you in a world of hurt if not everyone shares your unique sense of humor.
  9. Thou shalt not compose the concept of the operation as a limerick. This is harder than you think, and a lot more fun than most people realize. No one will ever notice, but it takes a lot of time, and some jackass will inevitably want to edit your English. So, save that time to expend coming up with names for objectives, routes, and other features of interest.
  10. Thou shalt refer to rehearsals as “teaching ferrets to yodel.” When the smoke clears, the pizza boxes are cleared away, and the Cheetos crumbs dumped from the keyboards, all that’s left is the rehearsal. There is no better way to describe the rehearsal process than “teaching ferrets to yodel.” Let’s just leave it at that.

I survived that year, and the experience is still inked into my psyche like a bad prison tattoo. Like those stone tablets of old, our ten commandments proved as essential to our continued existence as any other truisms passed down through the ages. Through it all, “We survived,” as they say in the movies, “to fight another day.”

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.