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Be Advised

July 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

You don’t hear much old-school military radio traffic anymore. Except for a few front-line radio nets, most radio chatter has been replaced by the endless, silent interplay of text messages, emails and Web postings. With that shift, we have lost an entire dialect of martial radio-speak.

Beware the Bear

June 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

Seventy years ago, Gen. Patton learned the hard way what we are relearning today. Don't forget about the Russians. The bear is still out there. And he's hungry.

Having the Guts to Say No

May 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

As a group, generals tend to be relentlessly positive. The pre-eminent U.S. soldier of recent years, Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), likes to remind us that, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” War and military operations are hard enough, but gloom and defeatism only make things harder. In combat, a morale edge sure helps. It is not by accident that Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy’s outfit, the U.S. Army’s famous 15th Infantry Regiment, has as its motto, “Can Do.”

As the more skeptical Mr. Murphy (he of the law, not Audie) reminds us, a great deal can and will go wrong in all human endeavors, especially war. But dwelling too much on potential problems surely will paralyze a military leader. Such hesitation spreads like a choking miasma. It stymies subordinate commanders and confuses the rank and file. Half-hearted attacks fail. In contrast, the side that knows its business and hangs in there for one more hard push often carries the day. That last winning surge can come from the will of a general who seizes an opportunity by seeing even a cracked, dirty glass as half-full. Winning in battle is all about positive action.

Sometimes senior commanders must size up the situation in minutes and pull the trigger. Under those conditions, seeing a chance and taking it may work just fine. At other junctures, particularly at the strategic level, there is time to consider conditions more fully. When regarding any strategic glass du jour, it is wise to recognize the real water level and not kid yourself, your peers or your bosses if it is lacking. An optimistic outlook helps a person find opportunities, but sometimes those opportunities just are not there, no matter how much anyone hopes for them. There is a responsibility for even the most positive people in uniform to tell superiors, military and civilian, the limits of “can do.”

Paging Dr. Strangelove

April 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

Nuclear weapons are back in the news. Those concerned about the Middle East watched warily as the United States and others labored to rein in Iran’s budding nuclear ambitions. Interested citizens heard of low morale and troubling disciplinary issues afflicting our nuclear missile launch teams. On a somewhat lighter note, film fans marked 50 years since the premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s satiric gem, Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. We sure do not love the bomb—we never did, really—but we also do not worry much about it these days. Perhaps we should.

What’s In a Name? Quite a Bit.

March 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

In the second act of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, musing aloud, the heroine speaks that justly famous line: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough—but The Tragedy of Fred and Juliet lacks a certain zing. Juliet’s lament aside, Shakespeare knew reality. We best remember those items rightly named.

That is as true in the military as any other line of work. And, it has more relevance today in an information age in which credibility often is suspect.

The proper term in Shakespeare’s day did not include operational code names. When the English marched to battle in France, it was known as the Agincourt expedition, or the advance of King Henry V, or the campaign of 1415, or what we did last summer. Of course, Henry’s command and control system consisted of an occasional meeting with a few dukes and a mantra of, “Do as I do.” When Henry moved, the English followed. When he stopped and held ground, his knights and archers did likewise.

But as militaries grew in size and scope—invigorated by messages first horse-borne, then telegraphed, then radioed and now tweeted—any old name for an operation would not do. With apologies to Shakespeare, by the time of the Great War of 1914-18, military plans gained code names—shorthand titles rapidly transmitted, quickly received, immediately understood by those who needed to know and at least potentially confusing to curious enemy listeners. Had it stayed there, all would have been fine.

Modern warfare, however, is not a sport of kings. Waging war today, especially for modern militaries such as the United States’, requires popular support and public funding. As Shakespeare knew well, to keep the audience interested names must do more than identify. You go with Hamlet, Lear and Romeo, not Bill, Joe and Fred. Names must resonate. They need to sell. They have to look good on T-shirts and websites.

Time for the Military to Take a Long, Hard Look

February 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.)

Military people like to look at themselves, and it has nothing to do with vanity. Rather, it is about improving, but the attention is not always welcome at the business end. Senior personnel offer the usual advice: Cooperate and learn. Do not be defensive. Looking at ourselves can only make us better, so we go along with it. And often—not always, but enough to matter—we find out important facts we did not know.

Social Media Could Jeopardize Military Operations, Careers

December 13, 2013
By Jim Sweeney

Every year SIGNAL Magazine introduces a new columnist in the January issue for its Incoming opinion column. Next year’s columnist, Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), picked a timely topic for his first column. He worries that with social media posts, warfighters and civilian military employees “merrily are doing the work of a million foreign spies.” Gen. Bolger warns of a broad trend toward posting too much information in social media.

Embrace Uncertainty, Win the Future

December 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Two pictures have taken up residence in my mind over the past few weeks. They highlight the growing disconnect between the U.S. Defense Department and the broader strategic environment—not just in terms of geopolitics but also in the way the rest of the world lives, works and interacts.

The first image captures how the Defense Department views the world. It is a simple map with neat lines delineating the different joint combatant commands. While the boundaries make sense in a conventional way, they are drawn merely for geographic convenience. Implicitly, those lines preclude interaction between constituent elements.

The second image is elegant, beautiful and haunting in its complexity. It is an image of the world as it actually is—interconnected, unbounded by geography, spanning the globe with dynamic diversity. This image was the project of Paul Butler, a Facebook intern whose curiosity led him to an interesting project: visualize the relationships for 10 million of the 250 million users on Facebook in 2009. He plotted not only the location of the Facebook user but also more critically the location of each of their friends. This second image is the result.

Each “line” represents the flow of goods, information, ideas and relationships, unbounded by traditional geography. Consider too, the many geopolitical implications inset in the image. For instance, China lacks much “light.” As China is the most populated country in the world, one would expect a beautiful montage of light and lines. Instead, China’s strict Internet controls leave it relatively dark and disconnected.

Building Highly Functional Teams Requires Empowerment and Trust

November 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Over the past year, I’ve had the honor of forming, organizing and implementing two teams of emerging military leaders. Both have provided valuable insights, mostly through learning from doing and adapting after failure. The adage “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” runs deep throughout both, and individual members are given high degrees of autonomy. Working with these two groups, I have learned several lessons along the way, and I hope to carry them forward into the critical second year.

Getting From “We Should” to “I Will”

October 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Listen to many senior leaders in both the civilian and military sectors today, and it becomes apparent that there is no shortage of good ideas. Indeed, with austerity and sequestration the new reality, the lack of funds requires creativity. However, far too many fail to take personal responsibility by citing a vague “we should” mantra instead of the more powerful—and personally accountable—“I will.”

I recently had the chance to visit with a woman who attended the International 11.5 Davos Conference. At this gathering of the world’s luminaries, she somehow had made her way into the front row of the proceedings, from where she watched high-ranking government officials from around the world wax eloquent about solving global problems: “We should fix poverty by doing… ,” and so forth. Fed up with the use of this term, she got hold of a microphone during the question-and-answer session and simply said, “I’d really like to see the conversation move from one of ‘we should’ to one of ‘I will’ if you are truly serious about this.”

The crowd was stunned, and silence met her observation from the dais. This, however, was short-lived. The speakers recognized the importance of her words, and the conference took on a new tone following her request.

On a much smaller scale, this mantra has infused many of my peers in the junior ranks. They hear senior leaders asking for solutions, and they take it upon themselves to execute real change. A close friend of mine once said, “Execution is the new innovation,” and I believe this is a profound statement. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but what sets the doers apart from dreamers are those who actually are able to push an idea through to reality despite the obstacles.

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