I often remind people that everything I needed to know in life, I learned in war. War is an incredible learning crucible. The stakes tend to be high, so there’s nowhere near as much room for error. As a result, I could often be found quietly observing my surroundings. People often mistook my silence for something other than what it was – looking, listening, and learning. Situational awareness is a good thing. Situational understanding is even better.
Those lessons of war have endured. They may not be true “fundamentals,” but they have stood the test of time: multiple deployments into vastly different areas under a wide array of conditions with a diverse set of organizations. Each of them represents a bit of scar tissue – not always my own, but the kind of lessons that leave a mark on someone. In their own way, they’re battle scars.
“Simplicity is a principle of war for a reason.” Whether you cite the “KISS” principle, Occam’s razor, or just basic common sense, simplicity has a beauty all its own. The more complicated you make something, the less flexibility you have and the more likely you are to experience catastrophic failure. Keep things simple and you’ll find that things tend to work out.
Not everyone likes to hear it, but “it is what it is.” Some people believe wholeheartedly in the serenity prayer. This is my version. It has fewer words and it’s easier to remember. It also conveys the same basic idea. If you don’t have control over whatever situation you find yourself in, there isn’t much reason to waste time worrying about it. Let it go. Better to use that time to figure out what’s next and do something about that.
No matter what else you do, “always plan for failure.” Helmuth von Moltke once wisely wrote that “No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.” Some people might call this a defeatist attitude, but it’s not. If you assume that whatever genius plan you’re executing will fail at some point, it forces you to consider alternatives, build in flexibility, and explore ways to mitigate risk. That kind of thinking breeds success.
No matter what you think, “the details will get you every time.” Early on during the planning for the second invasion of Iraq, a planner from the U.S. Army’s V Corps shared his “plan” for building combat power in theater – “We’re going to put five divisions through Kuwait in 30 days.” Seems simple enough, right? I replied that, with just one air and one sea “port of debarkation,” it was mathematically impossible to do so, especially since we were also competing with civilian and commercial traffic. The math didn’t work; there just wasn’t enough throughput. “That’s no problem, we’ll just occupy them. Or we’ll move a division through Turkey.” And we all know how that worked out. Details, people. Details.
As a lieutenant preparing for my first deployment, I couldn’t shake the idea that my packing list was too short. In the back of my mind, a voice kept saying, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” The next day, I called in a favor with a friend who ran the Central Issue Facility and traded my medium rucksack for a large one and picked up a couple of extra duffel bags. Then I went back to the packing list and added anything that I thought I might need if I was stuck somewhere for two weeks without a chance to resupply. Which, as part of the advance party for my battalion, was exactly what happened. I’ve sworn by that same mantra ever since, whether deploying or making a permanent change of station move. It never fails you.
“Embrace the suck.” After months of MREs during the march to Baghdad in 2003, my battalion was finally able to eat warm food in the form of T-rations. The problem was, every tray pack was chili mac. That might be a problem for some people, but I looked at the bright side. It was hot food, and I’d rather eat hot food than MREs any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Those little things in life matter, like catching the Wolf Burger van when it first opens or being able to Skype home on your kid’s birthday. You have to savor those moments, because they won’t always be there. War sucks; learn to appreciate the little things.
My favorite go-to movie quote of all time is also my personal leadership philosophy: “Lighten up, Francis.” It’s also one of the first things I learned during my Gulf War deployment. Lead with humility and never take yourself too seriously. If you’ve ever had to pluck your pistol out of a barrel of human waste or had a seagull crap in your face on your way to an embassy meeting, you’ll know what I mean. Stuff happens. Laugh at yourself. Take life as it comes and enjoy it while you can.
Simply put, “family matters.” Early on in my career, I was focused on two things: the Army and completing my graduate degree. When I wasn’t working, in the field, or at the Joint Readiness Training Center, I was busy with night courses. The whole time, I promised my spouse that when I graduated at the end of summer in 1990, we would spend more time together as a family. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and I found myself on the first thing smoking out of Fort Campbell, KY. One morning, while enjoying a piece of shelf-stable bread and MRE peanut butter, I discovered that my 2-year-old son had found my miniature tape recorder and recorded a story he made up about a rabbit. For the next eight months, I would find quiet moments to listen to his voice. In a time before the internet, when you’d wait in line for hours for a chance to phone home, that tape recorder was my link to home. Family matters. Never take them for granted.
I can think of quite a few more, and I’m sure that you can, too. You don’t pack your ruck and go to war without bringing home some hard-earned lessons. There’s an old military saying that “experience is something you don’t get until after you need it.” At the end of the line, we all have battle scars, some more than others. Our scars might be different, but not so different that we can’t relate to one another. That scar tissue is a valuable tool for sharing the wisdom of experience, helping others to learn before experience catches up with them. Put those battle scars to good use.