In Exile

[This is a chapter from my unfinished memoirs. Enjoy.]

Growing up is such an odd sensation. As a kid, I remember thinking that the day I’d be an adult was so far off – incomprehensibly in the future. And I remember thinking that I would just magically be different – all of the sudden I was to become infinitely wise, strong, perceptive. The transformation from child to adult, boy to man – as if I were to go to bed one night and wake up the next morning forever and irrevocably different, improved.

Those of us who have grown up know that this is so very much not the case. It feels like I haven’t even grown up at all; merely gotten older. And yet, looking back, one can see the ways in which they have grown and changed. The arrogance of adolescence, the desire to rebel and all the angst and self-righteousness. Oh yes, how I’ve changed.

I remember thinking how oppressed I was in my youth. Not literally oppressed, but more…suffocated by my mother and her presence. She seemed to loom over me, choking out and stifling my ability to be motivated about anything. Any time I would start writing something new, any time I met a new friend, any time I met a girl I’d fancied, it seemed like I would have some particularly nasty fight with my mother, and like that I was sapped of all energy and willpower. I remember wanting to get out of her house as quickly as possible.

And at the age of seventeen, after several failed attempts and foiled plans, I finally did. It was around the time that I confirmed my departure that I began compiling this tome, and over the past three and a half years I have added to it periodically. In its inception, I viewed myself as moving away to Utah and living some great and fabulously successful life. I was to meet women, perhaps date them and settle down with one of them. I was to complete my long unfinished novel. I was to write about my terrible childhood and my wonderful adventures in Utah. It was to be unique – perhaps one of the first accounts of someone who grew up so intimately on and with the internet, so engrossed in professional video games, so nerdy.

Things, it would happen, did not pan out that way.

Upon arriving in Utah, I started volunteering at Nathan and Paul’s gaming center in downtown Salt Lake City. I wanted to find a job and a place of my own to live at as soon as possible – I was then staying with Nathan at his parent’s house as he too looked for a place to move his family – but Nathan insisted I be patient. He was in the midst of preparing for his magnum opus to the Unreal Torunament 2004 community, UTLAN, which would commence in August and was to be hosted at his gaming center. It was to attract some of the best players in the community from all over the country.

Initially, I was excited to be in Utah. I would often walk around the large and (relatively, in comparison to Bellingham’s downtown area) clean downtown area. I delighted in finding the local sights and attractions, getting to know the transit system, finding good restaurants to eat at. The managers at local restaurants came to know me by name and would give me discounts or free food. It was a good feeling to be known. I tried applying at a few places to work in the downtown area but never got a call back.

UTLAN 2006 came and went. Overall it was an extremely fun event, though stressful to prepare for. I met a lot some disparate and interesting people – the coolest of whom was probably a William Moyer, who has since become involved in politics. He was very intelligent and animated, and though a bit sarcastic, he was pretty friendly. All 40 or so people who showed up had a very good time, and online disputes were put aside as we all shared in having a good time. We went out to eat as a group and everyone seemed to bond. Of course, the old rivalries flared back up over the internet once everyone went home, but people were looking forward to UTLAN 2007.

It was about this time that Nathan’s parents popped some unexpected news on me – I was to leave their house within a week. Apparently, they had told Nathan I was to only stay for two weeks, while he gave me the impression that I was going to be able to stay for a month. Thankfully, Nathan’s brother Paul and his wife Melanie hosted my unemployed waif of a self while I looked for employment and an apartment, preventing me from a very unwanted return to Bellingham and high school.

Employment came quickly and in the beginning of August I started working part time at the mall, selling and repairing watches and clocks. I still volunteered at the gaming center, but would quickly stop as the brothers closed it down. I saved up enough money to get an apartment, and scored a centrally located one.

Salt Lake City is basically a giant grid (including its suburbs) and extends all the way down south into the suburb of Sandy. Road names generally follow a numbering scheme and are centered on the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake. The first road west of the Temple is West Temple, and the next one is 100 West, then 200 West and so on. It is like this in all directions. I believe it is State Street that runs straight into the Temple, with Main Street next to it. State Street is a north-south avenue that extends all the way down into Sandy. Sandy starts at about 9000 South, and the suburb I lived in, Murray, started at about 4000 South. My apartment was at about 4700 South and State Street – centrally located. I was about a ten minute walk from the train station and a three minute walk from the nearest bus stop.

I lived above a playhouse that featured a cabaret theater and a dinner theater, specializing mostly in musical comedies that were written and produced in house. It was an island of liberal thinking in a sea of conservative thinking and Mormonism, and was a pretty cool place aside. The apartments were owned by the same gentleman that owned the theater, and he quickly took a liking to me and offered me a secondary job working in the box office at the theater. I took it, less for the pay and more for the ability to see free shows and get a discount on the food (which was quite good). I quickly repaid Paul and Melanie a sum of money, something like $300 to $500 in thanks of their housing me. They were surprised, expecting nothing – but I couldn’t let their kindness go unpaid, especially on such short notice.

Another perk (and unseen curse) was the staff there. The cabaret side of the operation employed attractive young girls, ages generally from 16 to 19 (though some older college girls also worked part time, as they had been working there since they were in high school also) and provided me ample opportunity to flirt. My advances were unsuccessful, much to my frustration and confusion. Hindsight has elucidated my failures to me (I didn’t care about my appearance, I was intentionally awkward, I relied too much on humor and intellect and not enough on being personable) and I’ve discussed the particulars of my romantic foibles in detail elsewhere here.

When I first started working at my job at the mall, I looked like a mess. I wore the same shirt most days, didn’t know how to properly tie a tie, had a scruffy and unkempt haircut. My boss quickly took me under his wing, gave me some fashion sense and even took me shopping for some good dress clothes once. He was about ten years my senior, and we hit it off as friends. He was also recently relocated from out of state – having managed a kiosk in Boise for five years with oustanding results, the company felt he was just the man to run its number one store after the former manager there was promoted to a higher position.

The both of us weren’t exactly quick to warm up to the local populace – too conservative and Mormon for our Godless, liberal upbringings. As time worn on, we spent more time hanging out after work – I’d go to his apartment and we’d watch movies or recordings of concerts together. We’d go out to eat or go out to the movies. He started getting into the guitar (an old hobby of his) and began to play his favorite metal songs – a technically enviable feat. He even showed me how to play a bit, but I never really took it up. He even took me to my first concert – an all day metal festival.

And so it was like this I wasted away days, weeks, and months. Working 40 to 80 hours a week, getting better at hawking my wares and repairing timepieces new and old, buying things I didn’t need to fill voids I couldn’t heal. My life was going nowhere, fast. I had intended on going to college sometime in the future.

But that future never came, as I didn’t want to go into debt and did not have the time to really seek it out anyway. Transportation was an issue, as I never had a car and had to rely on public transit. I met women, it is true, but none of them seemed to fancy me, and I found that I couldn’t work up the courage to ask them on a date anyway. Where was I to take them? What was I to do with them? I wasted just a few days over a year mulling around in Utah until I woke up one day – shortly after having been promoted to assistant manager at my retail job – with an epiphany: I was going to wind up exactly like my dad.

There had been talk in the company of my abilities and my rather rapid rise to the assistant manager position – at the number one grossing location – and I was slated for the next promotion to manager in the area. At first, I was rather smug with this news, being the renegade and idealistic high-school drop out that I was. But when I realized that my father, in his youth, had foregone higher education in order to manage another retail operation…and when I recalled his life successes (or lack thereof) I immediately became discouraged.

What was I doing? Where was I going? I had wasted an entire year in an unfamiliar state. I had made few friends. All I had to show for my time was an increasingly large collection of media – books, music, video games, and a faster computer. My life felt very hollow. Where was the magnificent change that was supposed to occur? I was away from my mother, after all. Wasn’t that the source of all my weakness? Wasn’t that the reason why I hadn’t finished my novel, why I couldn’t get the money to go to St. John’s?

Apparently not.

The company I worked for continued to rot. The upper echelons of management continued to make rather unpopular decisions, blaming lower-than-expected profit margins and sales figures on its stores and the employees working in them. (This was ironic, as the Wall Street journal was running articles about how retail sales were at an all time low as the economy recessed.) Many, including myself and my manager, became fed up with the way we were treated. I couldn’t imagine trying to forge a career for myself with this company. College was out of the question. It seemed like the military was my only option.

My grandfather had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps had always had a mythical presence in my childhood – any time the Discovery channel ran a program on them, I watched it in awe. The world’s finest fighting force, they seemed to routinely undergo the most intense training imaginable. They were heroes to me. The way kids dream about being President or an astronaut or a rock star – that was the way I felt about the Marine Corps. It was a flight of fancy, something I thought I would never be able to accomplish. I even remember confiding in Sara that it was something I envied, though never seriously considered doing.

But as my situation worsened, as my life wasted away in a maelstrom of apathy and discontent, I began to consider it. The Marine Corps. Me? On a whim on one of my off days, I caught the train down to Sandy, Utah and looked around for the recruiting office I heard was nearby. I had already done some research and read some books – it seemed like everyone who enlisted in the Marine Corps found it to be one of the best decisions of their life. All of the complaints about the military – getting screwed over by recruiters, the government not meeting its end of the bargain, getting screwed out of your job, getting your contract jerked around and on and on – seemed not to mention the Marines, but instead dealt with (chiefly) the Army (and following that, the Air Force and Navy). Perhaps it had something to do with the relative size of the forces – with the Marine Corps being a mere tenth the size of the Army, it was probably easier to manage incoming recruits and take care of its Marines.

The mall the recruiting office was attached to was under remodeling at the time, and I had a hard time finding the entrance to the office. I must have looked like a rather poor recruit – tall, lanky, I weighed maybe 160 pounds at the height of 6’5. The staff noncommissioned officer in charge (SNCOIC), a gunnery sergeant of eight years (a rather meteoric rise to that rank – on average, it takes a Marine some twelve years to become a gunnery sergeant, and often longer than that) looked every bit a Marine to me. The first thing he said to me that day (aside from asking me my name, or perhaps he overheard it as I talked to another sergeant) was “Well, Donner, if you join, you’ll never have to pay for sex again!” Ah, the Marines. So crass. Just what I was looking for, being so tired and fed up with political correctness and neonazi feminism.

The sergeant that I spent most of my time with, Sergeant Baker, had me pick four name-tag sized tabs from a group of tabs – reasons why I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I picked college, challenge, financial stability, and physical fitness. There were no tabs for “overcoming a debilitating amount of depression,” “rehabilitation from a year of customer service,” “an anger at mankind one wants to express with a rifle,” and so on. Upon seeing my tabs, Sergeant Baker said “College and money, huh? If those are your chief reasons, you’re probably better off serving in the Air Force.” And he spun his chair around, as if to say I should leave.

Marine recruiters are good at what they do. It is their job to find the best young men for the Corps, and despite popular opinion, the application process is rather stringent. Even for enlisted Marines, there are strict requirements, and while I was in the process of enlisting, I saw several potential recruits weeded out or turned away by the Marines working in the office. Even in a time of war, Marine recruiters have a keen sense of duty and want to make sure that they are sending only the best candidates into their beloved Corps. One way that they do this is by making sure a potential recruit truly understands and appreciates what he is doing.

Lots of people turn to the military for the benefits and the benefits alone, and the Marines are acutely aware of this. Of the service branches, the Marine Corps offers the fewest benefits to its recruits (saving them instead for those looking to re-enlist, and even then the other branches often offer better bonuses and incentives). The Marine Corps prefers its Marines enlist and reenlist based on a willingness to serve, on a willingness to be the best of the best, based on the intangible benefits of pride and confidence that being a Marine offers you.

It wasn’t just college that I was looking for. I wasn’t just looking for financial stability. I still remembered the fanciful dreams of my youth – the mystique and myth of the Corps, that group of superheroes. I told Sergeant Baker that if I was going to join the military, the Corps was the only branch for me. Hearing that, he turned around and we got down to business.

By the time I left that office several hours later, we had an appointment set for me to undergo my enlistment, undertaking all the necessary physical and academic exams. Sergeant Baker enrolled me in a local adult education school so that I could finish up my last year of high school and get the degree that was necessary for enlistment. I felt like a different person. I was anxious and scared at the same time. Within the week, I would be signing a contract stating that I was going to enlist as a Private in the United States Marine Corps.

Nobody I knew (and still talked to) could believe it. My manager in particular said I would never make it – he later apologized, explaining that he was just stressed out and worried about what my departure from the store would mean for him. We were pretty good friends outside of work, and he, like me, did not have many people he spent time with in Utah. He quit shortly after I went to boot camp.

Sergeant Baker helped me get in shape for boot camp. When I enlisted in August 2007, I was what was referred to as a “triple threat,” I could not meet any of the three requirements of the Marine Corps’ Initial Strength Test (the necessary requirements for a recruit to pass in order to proceed with training in boot camp). They require a recruit to perform two dead hang pull ups, perform forty-four crunches in two minutes, and to run one and a half miles in thirteen minutes and thirty seconds. The run and the crunches came quickly for me, as I was not particularly out of shape – I did a lot of walking and have never been very fat. My biggest problem was that since my freshman year of high school, I had not done anything particularly active with my life (like a sport or active hobby).

Even though I was not physically in the best shape, the Marines at the recruiting office were behind me every step of the way. Sergeant Baker took me to the gym whenever he could and helped get me on a training regiment. The gunnery sergeant in charge of the office expressed his confidence in me, and reminded me that nobody cares more about one’s career than oneself. “Even if you aren’t in the best of shape for boot camp, don’t let that get you down, Donner. Just work at it as hard as you can. One day you’ll get there. That’s what’s important. Four years from now, when you’re re-enlisting and looking at picking up Corporal or Sergeant or, hell, who knows, maybe Staff Sergeant, nobody will be asking what your PFT (physical fitness test) score at boot camp was.” (The Physical Fitness Test is the test Marines run semi-annually to assess fitness. It is used for promotions. A minimum of three dead-hang pull-ups, 55 crunches in two minutes, and three miles ran in 28 minutes is required to pass. For a maximum score, a Marine must perform 20 dead hang pull-ups, 100 crunches in two minutes, and clock in their three mile run at 18 minutes or below.)

The encouragement and support I received from the Marines and fellow poolees (those of us who enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program, and were going to boot camp within a year) was remarkable and refreshing. Never before had I felt like I had had so much support. And the things that I felt I was accomplishing at the time were remarkable also. I had never felt like I was achieving so many things so quickly. Within two months, I went from failing all three events of the IST and being a high school drop out to having my diploma and being above average in two of three events. The other event, pull-ups, would prove to be the bane of my existence for some time to come yet.

But Sergeant Baker wouldn’t see me discouraged. “Even if you can’t get your pull-ups before you go to boot camp, they’ll usually let you continue on in training anyway. Then you’ll have three months to get your three pull-ups down so you can graduate. The worst that can happen is you’ll get dropped back in training to the Physical Conditioning Platoon, where you’ll stay until you can meet the requirements.” This didn’t seem all that bad.

I’ll pause here in the narrative for a moment. I’ve always wanted this work to be a selfless examination of myself and my past, as my memory is extremely spotty and I want something to refer back to later. I tend to bottle up emotions and feelings and forget about them. Then I wonder about the decisions I’ve made, and have no emotional context to understand them in. It can be a difficult process recreating my life, sifting through all of the cracks and crevices I’ve hidden myself in. Because of this, I want to discuss a less flattering part of my enlistment process.

The entire time I was in Utah I was (as should be evidenced elsewhere in this work) extremely depressed. Depression is something I am and have been very familiar with. I have grown accustomed to it and do very well hiding it. It surprised me, sometimes, the depth of it. A random event or memory could trigger a huge emotional response in me. In Utah, I remember sifting through some old journals or maybe my yearbooks, and suddenly something clicked. I was rendered immobile for the rest of my weekend off from work – I didn’t leave my apartment, I slept 14 or 15 hours each day. It was somewhat frightening. I began to shy away from self-examination, self-reflection, or brooding of any sort, as it made it rather difficult to live life.

Another time, I was browsing Barnes and Noble, looking for something interesting to read (as I had taken to reading as a way to pass the time to and from work) and stumbled across the book “I Don’t Want To Talk About It – The Secret History of Male Depression” by Terrence Real. I spent one tearful evening reading the entire volume and was again rendered immobile by my emotional response. I wanted desperately to talk to someone about my response to the book, but no one returned my calls or seemed interested. I didn’t want to talk to a psychologist, as talking to someone who is paid to be your friend and make you feel better seems a rather silly thing to do. So my emotional response to that tome was another thing forgotten to the sands of time.

But I still remember my morbidity during the time I was enlisting. For a long time, I had come to some conclusions about my own death. It was probably seventh grade when I’d decided that I would never kill myself – suicide was quitting, I’d reasoned, and I wasn’t going to quit. It was some time later that I justified my lack of healthy living on the notion that, while I wasn’t going to quit life, I wasn’t going to exactly do my best to prevent my own death, either. I became fixated on a sort of passive suicide, a sort of killing myself through unwise living – the apex of which was to be my enlistment in the Marine Corps. What better way to die without killing myself, than putting myself directly in harm’s way in a war zone? Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

I have been a believer in the notion that there is beauty in everything, even death. There is a tragic beauty in the oblivion my brother drank himself into – a beauty he and I both understand. I understand his attraction to it; when I was conducting an “interview” with him for a school project in high school, I became alarmed when he stated that he was drawn in to drinking by his fascination with the beauty of oblivion. I had, at the time, been considering taking up the bottle myself – I was about the same age he had been when he had taken his first drink – and this deterred me. I had always assumed that my brother’s alcoholism had been a direct response to my mother’s emotional abuse, but to hear my brother tell it scared me.

There is beauty in everything, even death. I wanted a beautiful death. This life I was living was so completely unsatisfying. American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

There seemed to be a purpose that resonated with me and aligned with my tastes, then, in military service. And the morbid side of myself was placated – what better death could I have, than one in which I died serving my country and fighting hand in hand with my brothers-in-arms? There is beauty in all things, even death.

I didn’t tell my mother I was enlisting until it start to come down to the wire. I needed a copy of my birth certificate, and she was the only one who had access to get me one. I didn’t even call her to tell her. I emailed her, stating rather curtly “Hey mom, I’m enlisting in the Marine Corps so I need a copy of my birth certificate. Please send to this address, thanks, John.” I did not reply when she required further inquiry; she stated she was sending it and that’s all I needed.

Initially, I was slated to fly to boot camp sometime in the middle of September, shortly after my 19th birthday, but I didn’t feel ready enough as the date drew near. I had procrastinated on my high school diploma (I didn’t end up getting it until two days before I flew out of Utah for California!) and I didn’t feel like I was in shape physically (still unable to perform even a single pull-up, a source of constant frustration and shame). Therefore, the intelligence job I had selected became unavailable, as I was going to be enlisting in a new fiscal year (as fiscal years apparently began in October); I temporarily selected a “Data Network Specialist” MOS and that was that.

I put in a lot of notice to my job – perhaps a month or more – as even though I was growing to dislike the decisions higher management was making, I felt like I owed the company quite a bit. They had taken me in without a high school diploma and when I was still 17, and had been quick to promote me and place me in a position of authority and responsibility. I started making eight dollars an hour, flat, and left making about $15 an hour (often more than that, thanks to overtime they let me have) after commission factored in. I helped a new manager get the store ready for his reign, as my manager went to a slower mall. I quit at the end of September and prepared to fly down on October 21st.

My last free month spent as a civilian was a strange time for me. I had absolutely no time – twenty days or so to enjoy my freedom – and all the time in the world, because I didn’t have to go to work. I worked on preparing myself physically and mentally for boot camp. I read as much as I could about what to expect – getting several books about the military and Marine Corps boot camp. In particular I read “The Few and the Proud,” a series of interviews with current and former Drill Instructors, and I read the (then) new Counterinsurgency Field-Manual. And I debated my choice of Military Occupational Specialty in the Corps. Data Network Specialist was something familiar and safe – dealing with computers. There was a future after my service in that. But it was boring and I didn’t want to be stuck doing something boring for four years.

I seriously considered going in to the infantry. I viewed it as a decision I would always regret and wonder about if I didn’t pick it. I didn’t want to always wonder “what might have been,” if I didn’t pick infantry. But I also worried about the toll it would take on my body, and I worried about not being in shape for it. Ultimately my recruiters talked me out of it, telling me that I would be doing myself, the Corps, and my nation a disservice by picking infantry. They get very few recruits with my intellectual capacity to fill the highly technical jobs in the Corps, as most academically inclined recruits either go to other services (Navy and Air Force mostly) or become officers.

It was in this way that I chose an option entitled “Ground Electronics Maintenance.” I thought I would be doing field repairs in combat on various electronic gear – which my recruiters said may be a possibility. It was a rather large option in which you could wind up in one of several different MOS fields. My specific MOS wouldn’t be chosen for me until just before completion of boot camp. I didn’t pick this field until a few days before I was slated to go, and it wasn’t until the day before I was due to have my final night in Utah in a hotel the military was paying for that my recruiter called to tell me he got me the job – and a $15000 bonus, with it. This was unexpected and good news. The bonus was due to the high academic requirements to qualify for the option – you had to have some pretty good scores on the Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery.

My brother and I had a rather nasty fight a week or two before I was going to leave. I don’t remember much of the particulars anymore, but I do remember that he compared me and my conduct to my mother. Which was absolutely unfucking acceptable to me. I was the only person that believed in him in my family, stuck through the hard times with him, regularly called to see how he was doing. I felt like, at the time, he had burned the bridge. But our relationship was such that this fight didn’t really amount to much and we’d get back in touch while I was in boot camp.

On my final weekend in Utah, some buddies from Bellingham flew down so that we could participate in one last gaming tournament before I departed. Originally, they were going to play with Nathan or his brother Paul, but both bailed towards the last minute because of familial obligations. It worked out that I could have one last night of good times, and so I did. We each won $500, as we had by far the most experience at the game (being a part of the competitive community, we knew nobody of note was going to be at this tournament). I gave my money to Nathan, being as I wouldn’t need it at boot camp.

I remember my last night as a civilian somewhat vividly. I was stationed at the Ramada in downtown Salt Lake City, an area I was pretty familiar with, as I made frequent visits to the outdoor mall for its restaurants. (In particular, I was a recurring customer of the California Pizza Kitchen here, becoming quite familiar with two of its full-service bar waitresses and two of its managers. I often got free meals.) I was nervous and scared and restless. I tried calling people who were important to me at the time, to get some last minute soul searching done. Nobody answered.

I strolled along downtown SLC. We had been briefed that there was a curfew but my recruiter told me it didn’t matter as long as I was back at the hotel in time to leave in the morning. I went to the California Pizza Kitchen a final time, talking to either Kristy or Suzanna. I bought a book on taoism I intended to read during boot camp. And I waited. My boss and I were to see one last movie together before I was going to leave.

The movie was 30 Days of Night, or something like that. A horror movie about a group of vampires that attack some small town in Alaska as they go through their yearly phase without sun because of whatever planetary phenomenon affects that region of the world. It was a decent film but I was preoccupied – my boss hadn’t been there and I felt betrayed. Why was I so unimportant to people, that they jerked me around like that? Why couldn’t I build a lasting connection with anyone?

Much like when I left Bellingham, I was looking to others to make the decision to enlist for me. If anybody expressed doubt or regret at my permanent departure from their life, I wouldn’t have enlisted. I wasn’t really making my own decisions in life, I was letting other people’s actions and reactions determine my fate. And because no one cared about me, I signed on the dotted line. I rationalized the decision to myself in terms of service to my country, defending freedom and liberty, getting into better shape, achieving something – but at the time, the primary motivation was the lack of a reason to not go.

Maybe boot camp would change me. Could it change me? I hoped to keep in touch with several people who expressed interest to do so as I left – keeping a list of addresses in my wallet. Sara was on the list. I fought myself day in and day out over her – part of me wanting to get over her, part of me drawing on her for warmth and support. Even though she wasn’t an active part of my life, I would find my thoughts resting with my memories of her and the support she offered me in my time of need.

And so it was with these disjointed hopes and dreams and feelings and confusion that I found myself a recruit on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego from 22 October 2007 to 01 February 2008.

Applying ToT to the USMC

EDIT: I only discovered this after writing the article:

I mentioned that the Theory of Three allows for infinite progression and infinite regression, and I mean to demonstrate that with this post. We’ll take the Marine Corps as our example. First, let’s take a look at the Marine Corps using the chain of command:Now, I didn’t break apart every single command. First, I broke apart the golden ones, until we get to the interesting part of the operating forces – the Marine Expeditionary Forces (or MEFs). These represent the bulk of the Marine Corps. Each MEF consists of an infantry Division (DIV), a Marine Air Wing (MAW), and a Marine Logistics Group (MLG). Each Division is comprised of three infantry regiments, which in turn are comprised of three infantry battalions, which in turn are comprised of three infantry companies. That’s 27 infantry companies per division, if you’re keeping track. Each MAW consists of three Air Groups, which are composed of three or more Squadrons, which are further broken down into Sections. Each MLG consists of three Combat Logistics Regiments, which in turn consist of three or more battalions, which then consist of three or more companies.

Whew. There’s lots of threes at work here, if you didn’t notice. Let’s see what happens when we apply ToT at the Unified Combat Command level:

The Unified Combat Command is the center triangle, and the most important. To simplify things, we’ve skipped “Marine Forces Command” and “Marine Forces Pacific” and got to the meat and potatoes – the MEFs. Here, the Unified Combat Command is an idea which is basically defined by the three different MEFs; were I to draw UCC as a single triangle, each side would be a MEF. Similarly, each MEF is defined by a DIV, MAW, and MLG. Each of those are in turn defined by the red triangles that surround them; however, there wasn’t enough resolution to continue drawing distinctions.

Rather than draw out a diagram of every DIV, MAW, and MLG, we will simply be zooming in on one DIV. (The concept applies to all three, anyway, and there isn’t much structural difference between DIVs, MAWs, and MLGs.) Here’s the diagram:

Here, the triangle for the I DIV takes center stage, and is defined by three regiments. The regiments in turn are defined by three battalions. The thing we want to remember here is that we could draw any of these elements as a single triangle; when I draw a “regiment,” each side of the triangle represents a battalion. When I draw a division, each side of the triangle represents a regiment. These diagrams demonstrate how ToT can scale infinitely.

The battalion takes center stage here, and is defined by three separate companies. The companies, in turn, are defined by three platoons. I think you can see where this is going, but I want to drive the concept all the way to the individual Marine.Battalions have three companies of three platoons. Drillin’ on down:Here we see our form – every gold triangle in this picture represents an individual Marine. One thing I’ve been tossing around in my head is that the downward facing triangles we’ve been examining (the labeled ones) represent an additional element in their groups. For example, a Fire Team is made up of three individual Marines, PLUS the Fire Team Leader. This would be in keeping with how the Marine Corps is currently organized – fire teams have four Marines. The added element at the Squad level would be a Squad Leader; a Platoon Commander (1st or 2nd Lieutenant) at the Platoon level, and so on. Anyway, I wanted to drill down further:Here we see that we can drill down to the essence of a Marine – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – and even beyond that, and begin talking about what makes HCC.

I don’t have the time currently to discuss any more particulars about this, so I’ll just leave it at that for now and return to these ideas another day.

Origins of the Theory of Three

A few months ago, I tried to solve a problem which was beyond the scope of my capabilities. That problem was the chain of command. Here is a crude rendering of the chain of command:

The red rectangle at the top represents the highest element, with red arrows representing commands issued from that element. Green elements are subordinate to red but issue their own commands to the blue elements, which then pile on to the lowest level workers/soldiers/Marines. Even though it is convenient to think that the buck stops somewhere (i.e., LtCol Soandso is the commanding officer of 3rd Thinking Battalion), in reality, everybody in the military has a boss to report to. If you follow the chain all the way up you could argue it stops with the President, but he is (in theory) answerable to the people. In any event, when you’re a low rank (let’s say E3 or Lance Corporals and below – I use USMC jargon), like our lowly triangle, you pretty much get shat on all the time. There are very few (if any) effective ways to communicate grievances upward. At times, it may even be difficult to communicate mission-oriented information upward.

Most Lance Corporals and below live in relative fear of their Corporals and Sergeants and have little to no face time with anybody more senior than that. There are very few channels to properly approach a more senior person, and even though many will offer an “open door policy,” such a policy is tongue-in-cheek because they also advise that one “use the chain of command first,” which means going to those very same Corporals and Sergeants that might be causing the problems. So, what do you do?

Well, as I suggested here, you could alter the chain of command a bit by creating a billet that deals specifically with communicating the needs/grievances/etc of the Lance Corporals and below up the chain of command. I’ll borrow the graphic from that post so you can see what such a chain would look like:

This idea didn’t fly. I was told to think of a less “revolutionary” idea and a more “evolutionary” idea. And that’s just what I did. I examined the individual Marine – what were the essential ingredients that made a Marine? Well, this is an easy question for a Marine – we’d go straight to our Core Values. Marines have Honor, Courage, and Commitment. In a sudden burst of insight, I realized that’s all a Marine would ever need (given a little reconceptualizing). How is this? The Marine Corps could instill the Core Values in boot camp, but then have follow on training tie in with these values. So rather than worry about “job proficiencies,” you learn about what Honor, Courage and Commitment mean to an infantryman, what they mean to an air-winger, and what they mean to a maintainer. Thus were the beginnings of the theory of three:

The circles represent contexts that a Marine could exist in – such as infantry, air wing, and maintenance – and the picture demonstrates that, at least theoretically, there should exist values for A, B, and C that satisfy any context. So, how would one best group together Marines? Well, for one, I realized the chain of command already pretty much looked like a giant triangle.

As you can see from my crude paint edit, the triangular form was there, lurking. Which is good news; we want members of an organization to identify with that organization, so if we model individuals as triangles and the group ends up being a super triangle, then that’s fantastic. Let’s take a look at what 3 Marines look like in a grouping:

I figured that grouping the individuals into a shape they already represented made the most sense. To elaborate, our “Marines” here are already triangles, and identify themselves as such. Therefore, it would be easier for them to identify with a “triangular” group. This grouping also models synergism, demonstrating that it is highly effective – 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. (Somewhere around here I discovered some other things and went a little bit off the deep end.) Here’s where things get a little wonky.

This grouping effect can repeat infinitely. So far, each line has represented Honor, Courage, or Commitment when it comes to our triangles. But once you’ve “mastered” the concept of a Marine and a Marine grouping, you can represent an ideal Marine with just one line. Therefore, each triangle you draw becomes a group, and you throw three triangles together to create a larger group (such as a squad, on to a platoon, to a company, to a battalion, and so on). Really, though, throwing three triangles together may be an unnecessary step (but it helps one conceptually):

Here we see the same idea represented two ways – one with the “Tri-Force” approach, and one with the dotted lines. The dotted lines don’t -need- to be there; this is the same group/idea of a group being modeled. Those lines demonstrate the exploded value of each of the lines of the triangle. They signify “hey, this is a loaded concept! If you do not understand this group, let me explode it out for you.” Below is a picture that also represents the infinitely repeating nature of this concept:

The thing that gave me pause for consideration about this idea – and something I may expound upon later – is that a lot of concepts come at us in threes. Honor/Courage/Commitment was already there for me to take, but here are some other ones off the top of my head: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; father, mother, child (family); the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot of logic working behind the scenes with this idea (namely, syllogisms) which makes me wonder if perhaps this is the eternal form – being that any idea/argument can be postulated and drawn as a single line, or one of the sides of this triangle. Remember that argument forms may be valid even if their contents are false. Another interesting observation was that the “TriForce” grouping has twelve lines – lots of symbolism there.

The Theory of Three, as I call it, could be used to model some powerful stuff – like belief. But it seems to be lacking in a practical application, because groups do not yet organize themselves this way.

Military Communication: Problems, Precedents and Solutions

A. Background Premises

1. While the Marine Corps is a unique war-fighting organization with a unique mission and capability, it is important to remember that it is still ultimately an organization. As such, it is susceptible to the same structural problems that any other organization is susceptible to, especially when it comes to organizational communication. Because the Marine Corps is a unique organization, it has unique communication needs.

2. America, and indeed the world, is entering a new era of rapid communications technologies that change the way we live, work, play, and fight wars. Per reference (1), “Most of us seek a firm direction that is outmoded. We need new thinking, new criticisms, new knowledge, new approaches, and new understandings. Creativity is more important than ever.” We have become an information society, which is “an environment in which more jobs create, process, or distribute information than directly produce goods,” and this change has impacted the military as well.

3. Reliable, timely and accurate communication is the key to organizational excellence and should therefore be a top priority for the Marine Corps. Per reference (1), “Numerous scholars have gone as far as to suggest that organizations are essentially complex communication processes that create and change events…Put simply, organizations of today and tomorrow need competent communicators at all organizational levels.”

4. Difficult problems sometimes require unconventional thinking. Daniel Pink, bestselling author and conceptual thinker, writes “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.” Modern technologies have overloaded organizations with too much information; many require people with a different tool set to make sense of all this information.

5. Specifically, problems related to communication have been effecting not only Electronics Maintenance Company, but potentially 3d Maintenance Battalion as well. It is not unreasonable to assume that communication problems may be effecting other units within the Marine Corps as well.

B. Organizational Communication

1. Per reference (1), “Organizing is an attempt to bring order out of chaos or establish organizations, entities in which purposeful and ordered activity takes place…the process we call organizing is accomplished through human communication as individuals seek to bring order out of chaos and establish entities for purposeful activities.” Communication is central to organizing.

2. Aside from individual communication competencies, which have their own unique challenges and solutions, organizational communication presents yet more unique difficulties. Organizational communication, per reference (1), is the “process through which organizations are created and in turn create and shape events. The process can be understood as a combination of process, people, messages, meaning, and purpose.” The Marine Corps is an organization devoted to the art of warfare; we are an organization which seeks to impose order on a naturally chaotic state (war) – as such, efficient and effective organizational communication is paramount to success.

3. Per reference (1), organizational communication as a process involves “creating and transmitting organizational messages [which] reflect the shared realities resulting from previous message exchanges,” a process which “evolves to generate new realities that create and shape events.” In other words, organizational communication strives to create common meanings and purposes – the Marine Corps already has established guidelines in this regard (initial training, the Core Values, ethical guidelines) but beyond initial training the degree to which they are maintained is variable.

4. Per reference (1), organizational communication involves individuals: “Individuals bring to organizations sets of characteristics that influence how information is processed…it is fair to say that organizational communication occurs across networks of people who seek to obtain a variety of objectives requiring communication interactions.” Per reference (2), “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and a weak communicator contributes to weakened communications up and down the chain of command.

5. Per reference (1), organizational communication depends upon “the movement or transmission of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and the sharing of information throughout the organization….Concern is expressed for message fidelity, or the extent to which messages are similar or accurate at all links through the channels.” This concept is not foreign to the Marine Corps; ethical guidelines (especially the second reference) mention the importance of such fidelity.

6. Per reference (1), organizational communication requires meaning: “Organizational communication is the symbolic behavior of individuals and organizations that, when interpreted, affects all organizational activities.” Furthermore, organizational communication has a unique purpose: “[it] seeks to reduce environmental uncertainty. It is people, messages, and meanings. It is intentional and unintentional messages explaining the workings of the organization. It is the process through which individuals attempt goal-oriented behavior in dealing with their environments.”

C. Functional Problems & Org. Communication

1. All organizations face similar problems with organizational communication, so before analyzing the Marine Corps (or any specific sub-organizations, such as 3D Maintenance Battalion, within the Marine Corps) it is instructive to analyze organizational communication problems in general. Such problems may be similar in character if not exactly in detail.

2. Open communication systems thrive in comparison to closed communication systems. Per reference (1), open systems are “organizations that continually take in new information, transform that information, and give information back…” while closed systems are “organizations that lack input communication, making it difficult to make good decisions and stay current with the needs of the environment.” Furthermore, “without appropriate change, organizational systems stagnate and die.”

3. Communication channels, per reference (1), are “the means for the transmission of messages. Common means are face-to-face interaction, group meetings, memos, letters, computer-mediated exchanges, web sites, presentations, and teleconferencing.” Proper selection and utilization of various channels – as well as the creation of new channels which “speed information transfer and shorten decision-making response time,” are organizational priorities.

4. Messages in an organization can move in one of three directions – upward, downward, or horizontally. It should be noted, per reference (1), that “information flow cannot always be described in terms of specific direction,” because “informal network flow such as the grapevine…may move both vertically and horizontally, all within the transmission of one message.” In strict hierarchical structures like the military, a systemic bias for downward communication is present, while upward communication is notoriously difficult and unreliable. This is discussed in more detail below.

5. Communication load is an important consideration. Communication load, per reference (1), is “the volume, rate, and complexity of messages processed by an individual or the organization as a whole.” Furthermore, there can be three load conditions: specifically, optimal load, underload (wherein individuals are relegated to performing mundane tasks due to lack of new information input) and overload (where the load has exceeded system or individual capacity). One danger of ever expanding communications technologies is that we, as a society, may be fast approaching a situation of “permanent overload in many jobs, a situation that actually impairs rather than strengthens the decision making process.”

6. A final important general consideration is that of message distortion. Distortion is, per reference (1), “anything that contributes to alterations in meanings as messages move through the organization.” Distortions can occur for a variety of reasons, due to “load, message direction, channel usage, and the very composition of the [communication] networks themselves.” Furthermore, “organizational communication is characterized by the serial transmission of messages,” whereby a message is created from a source of authority and passes to a subordinate, who then undergoes a role transition and acts an authority to pass the message on to yet another subordinate, and so on down the chain of command. “Research consistently finds that original messages change or are distorted in the serial transmission process.” Language is a contributing factor to distortion, as “definitions of terms and concepts vary throughout the organization.” It is no exaggeration to say that distortion is inevitable and unavoidable.

7. Other functional problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other functional problems. For example, message function and structure; the role of organizing, relationship and change functions for messages; and the movement of messages through formal and informal networks are some of the topics that could be considered.

D. Meaning-Centered Problems & Org. Communication

1. A meaning-centered approach to communication, in contrast with a functional approach, per reference (1) “describes organizational communication as the process for generated shared realities that become organizing, decision making, sense-making, influence, and culture.” These concepts tie directly into Marine Corps priorities of developing a warrior ethos and abiding by the core values, per references (2) and (3). As such, these concepts warrant consideration.

2. Per reference (1), key assumptions of a meaning-centered approach to understanding organizational communication include the following premises: “Organizational cultures and subcultures reflect the shared realities in the organization and how these realities create and shape organizational events,” and “Communication climate is the subjective, evaluative reaction of organization members to the organization’s communication events, their reaction to organizational culture.” In other words, Marine Corps culture (“esprit de corps”) reflects the shared realities of the Marines in the Corps, and these realities create and shape events (be it by successfully maintaining gear, or winning wars). Furthermore, communication climate (or “command climate”) is the sum reaction of many Marines’ subjective response to command communications, which has an impact on Marine Corps culture (or “esprit de corps”).

3. Organizing can be understood as an attempt at reducing ambiguity by promoting reliable meanings. Per reference (1), “organizational members use rules and communication cycles to continually process…equivocal messages or messages susceptible to varying interpretations…. The main goal of the process of organizing is an attempt to reduce equivocality – ambiguity – in order to predict future responses to organizational behaviors.” Examples of this in the Marine Corps range from desktops and turnovers in the maintenance community to aid in job training and performance to rules regarding proper posture when speaking with seniors (parade rest and the position of attention). Furthermore, performance evaluations (such as proficiency and conduct ratings) can be understood as attempts to reduce ambiguity about job performance, per reference (1): “Supervisors reduce equivocality for their employees by the organizing of work assignments and the communication of task requirements… The supervisor understands what the employee believed the assignment to be by evaluating what was accomplished. The feedback to the employee (often in the form of rewards or punishment) reduces uncertainty about the adequacy of performance.”

4. Influence (as defined in reference (1): “organizational and individual attempts to persuade; frequently seen in organizational identification, socialization, communication rules, and power”) is a powerful tool to achieve organizational goals. Per reference (1), “who and what are viewed as influential, the way people seek to influence others, and how people respond to influence all contribute to organizing and decision making.” People “are more likely to be receptive to influence attempts in organizations with which [they] identify or have a sense of “we” or belonging.” In other words, Marines are more likely to respond to influence by the Marine Corps if the Marines identify more solidly with the Marine Corps. Identification is defined in reference (1) as the “dynamic social process by which identities are constructed; indicates perceptions of a sense of belonging. Usually associated with the belief that individual and organizational goals are compatible.”

5. Organizations tend to encourage identification through socialization; per reference (1), there are three major stages of socialization: anticipatory socialization, encounter socialization, and metamorphosis socialization. These will be analyzed in turn.

6. Anticipatory socialization, per reference (1), “begins before individuals enter organizations and results from past work experiences and interactions with family, friends, and institutions such as schools, churches, or social organizations.” Indeed, as reference (3) acknowledges, all Marines come from humble origins: “Our ethos has been shaped by ordinary men and women — heroes who showed extraordinary leadership and courage, both physical and moral, as they shaped the special character that is the essence of our Corps. They are heroes and leaders who are remembered not by their names, or rank, or because they received a decoration for valor. They are remembered because they were Marines.” Becoming a Marine begins before entering the Marine Corps, when the would-be Marine begins to consider the idea, talks with recruiters, and reads or otherwise thinks about being a Marine; this is anticipatory socialization.

7. Encounter socialization, per reference (1), “involves new employee training, supervisor coaching, peer groups, and formal organizational documents.” In other words, this is the training stage of a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps has an excellent training program, as per reference (3): “Marines undergo a personal transformation at recruit training. There, they receive more than just superb training; they are ingrained with a sense of service, honor, and discipline. It is there, as a former recruit depot Commanding General said, that Marines develop a sense of brotherhood, interdependence, and determination to triumph.”

8. Metamorphosis socialization, per reference (1), “occurs when the newcomer begins to master basic organizational requirements and adjust to the organization.” Personal speculation as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that metamorphosis socialization may be a problem in the Marine Corps; [The CO of ELMACO] has mused, for instance, why it seems to be that Marines lose their motivation between initial training and their first duty station.

9. Other meaning-centered problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, power, communication as culture, and further analysis of communication climate are some of the topics that could be considered.

E. Supervisor/Subordinate Relations, Peers, & Motivation

1. Per reference (1), “an individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor is one of the most important of the primary communication experiences in organizational life. It is so important, in fact, that the quality of this relationship usually determines how the individual identifies with the organization as well as the individual’s job and organizational satisfaction. Communication experiences with supervisors and peers are so influential that they contribute to the quality and quantity of an individual’s work.” In other words, an individual Marine’s ability to identify with the Marine Corps and live the core values is directly impacted by their relationship with their superiors; additionally, the quality of that Marine’s work is also impacted.

2. Per reference (1), “individuals who are satisfied with organizational communication experiences are more likely to be effective performers and to be satisfied with their jobs than those who have less positive communication relationships.” Reference (3) has another way of stating the same phenomenon: “…leaders must have the respect of their followers. If followers do not believe their leader is operating from a foundation of values, then words become hollow and lack credibility and the leader will be ineffective.”

3. Motivating subordinates (or, Marines) is a notoriously complex subject, but it generally falls to the supervisor to motivate the subordinate in any organization. One theory of motivation worth mentioning is the rewards theory, first professed by B.F. Skinner. Per reference (1), rewards are defined as “positive feedback or tangible reinforcements for organizational behaviors,” or more simply, rewarding Marines for being good Marines. It is worth mentioning that Frederick Herzberg proposes that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not polar opposites; per reference (1), “what produces dissatisfaction in the work environment, if corrected, will not necessarily produce satisfaction or motivation.”

4. Gerald Salanick and Jeffrey Pfeffer have a theory of motivation that, per reference (1), “suggest[s] three basic determinates of attitudes or needs: (1) the individual’s perception of the job or task characteristics, (2) information the social environment provides to the individual about what attitudes are appropriate…and (3) the individual’s perception of the reasons for his or her past behaviors.” Moreover, “Salanick and Pfeffer identify four ways in which social information influences attitudes: (1) overt, evaluative statements of coworkers directly shape individual worker attitudes; (2) frequent talk among coworkers about certain dimensions of the job and work environment focus attention on what is considered to be important or salient in the work setting; (3) information from coworkers, or social information, helps an individual worker interpret and assign meaning to environmental cues and events in the work setting; and finally, (4) social information influences the way an individual interprets his or her own needs. Thus…job attitudes are a result of social information in the work setting coupled with the consequences of past individual choices.” In other words, the way Marines treat one another and talk to one another may have untold impacts on how that Marine perceives either his or herself, his or her unit and his or her Corps.

5. Other supervisor/subordinate and motivation related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, the pervasive nature of supervisor/subordinate relationships, the amount of time spent communicating between supervisors and subordinates, and gaps in the expectations between supervisors and subordinates are some of the topics that could be considered.

F. Communication Apprehension and Upward Distortion

1. The Marine Corps recognizes the importance of upward organizational communication, as per reference (3): “Subordinates should use the chain of command, but ideas must rise to the top.” Moreover, “leaders should make it their duty to bring subordinates’ ideas and criticisms to the surface where all may analyze and evaluate them.” Yet problems with reliable, timely, and accurate upward communication exist in all organizations. Generally, these problems may have their root in the phenomenon known as communication apprehension.

2. Per reference (1), communication apprehension (or CA) is defined as “the predisposition for behavior described as an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with others.” Moreover, “CA has been found to be meaningfully associated with such important organizational outcomes as occupation choice, perception of competence, job satisfaction, advancement, and job retention.” As such, CA merits further consideration.

3. Per reference (1), “Marilyn Hunt (1992) found that individuals reporting high-quality relationships with their supervisors were more likely to…conform to formal and informal requests, to attempt to clarify expectations, and to accept criticism from supervisors than were individuals reporting lower-quality relationships.” In other words, positive working relationships reduce CA and, furthermore, positively benefit Marines and the Marine Corps.

4. In contrast to paragraph 3, and per reference (1), negative working relationships have negative impacts: “…perceptions [of supervisors] influenced how much employees reported sharing information, ideas, and resources with work group peers. In other words, the less favorable the relationship with the supervisor, the more likely individuals were to withhold information even from peers.” CA can distort not only upward communication, but also horizontal communication, with important implications for mission accomplishment. If, for example, a Marine discovers a superior method for getting the job done, but due to communication apprehension resulting from negative working relationships refuses to share it with fellow Marines, the Marine Corps fails to benefit from this innovation and initiative.

5. Per reference (1), “Paul Krivonos (1982) summarized many of the findings about upward communication in the following four categories: (1) subordinates tend to distort upward information, saying what they think will please their supervisors; (2) subordinates tend to filter information and tell their supervisors what they, the subordinates, want them to know; (3) subordinates often tell supervisors what they think the supervisors want to hear; and (4) subordinates tend to pass personally favorable information to supervisors while not transmitting information that reflects negatively on themselves.” Moreover, “Janet Fulk and Sirish Mani (1986) suggested that the perception of supervisors’ downward communication, or the extent to which supervisors are perceived as actively withholding information, influences the accuracy of upward messages. The more the supervisor withholds, the more employees withhold and distort.” In a chain as lengthy and complex as the Marine Corps’ chain of command, nearly infinite opportunities for distortion and withholding exist.

6. Per reference (1), “when a positivity bias distorts upward communication, supervisors may not receive timely information about problems. Thus, needed information about innovation and change may be slow in coming, particularly if the supervisor is perceived as resistant to new ideas.” In other words, ineffective upward communication limits the effectiveness of higher-level decision making.

7. Biased upward communication may lead to abuses of power. Per reference (1), “the supervisor has the formal authority of the chain of command. The supervisor controls information flow and performance evaluation. Employees control technical performance and have vital firsthand information about the progress of work. Both are dependent on each other; the supervisor directs, but without compliance and performance, no work is accomplished. If the supervisor becomes abusive in directing the work, an employee group may seek alternatives by withdrawing from interaction with the supervisor or withholding information the supervisor needs to make good decisions. At an extreme the employee group may complain to others in management, transfer to other departments, or leave the organization.” In an organization like the Marine Corps, where the option to easily transfer to “other departments” or leave the organization do not feasibly exist, abuse of power may contribute to rising suicide rates as Marines feel suicide is their “only way out.”

8. Other communication apprehension and upward distortion related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other CA and distortion problems. For example, the biasing effect of peer groups, romantic relationships and interpersonal relationships within an organization are some of the topics that could be considered.

G. Immediate Solution; Benefits and Risks

1. Given the problems discussed above and the background premises introduced, innovation is required. As such, it is my recommendation that ELMACO immediately create a “Communications NCO” billet; a dedicated “communications expert” to mitigate identified problems.

2. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of how the ELMACO Communications NCO would “fit-in” with the current chain of command. In a sense, it can be said the chain of command is completed by the addition of this billet. Whereas the chain of command has always provided relatively effective downward communication, as established elsewhere in this paper, it has had difficulty establishing equally effective upward communication. By providing a means for reliable upward communication, the Communications NCO billet “completes” the chain of command. Furthermore, the billet may help bolster downward communication by providing another effective channel for commanders to utilize.

3. The Communications NCO would be focused upon neutral, unbiased reporting of command-identified valuable information in a timely, reliable manner. As such, the Communications NCO would not be held accountable for positive or negative reports, but rather, the emphasis would be placed upon accurate reports. The Communication NCO would be held accountable for failure to maintain integrity in reporting the facts and for knowingly biasing communications.

4. The new billet provides several potential benefits, which will be named in this paragraph and discussed more in-depth in following paragraphs. In no particular order, the billet would provide a means to frequently and accurate gauge command climate; to reinforce Core Values, ethics, reliable communications, and training efforts towards these ends; to provide information to higher commands in a rapid manner; and to prove proof of concept for future development of Marine Corps communication structures.

5. The Communications NCO billet could establish a variety of procedures and methods for assessing command climate in a frequent and reliable manner, for example, through anonymous surveys. Because the Communications NCO would be evaluated for reporting accurate information as opposed to positive or negative information, communication apprehension when reporting information up the chain would be significantly reduced. Such a billet could potentially provide commanders with an immediate, reliable pulse on morale and welfare, with benefits for decision making impacting all levels. Moreover, the Communications NCO would be able to assist in increasing motivation while simultaneously providing commanders an increased ability to recognize and reward outstanding achievement.

6. The Communications NCO billet could assist in buffeting efforts to maintain high standards of ethical conduct and training. Additionally, such a billet stands to mitigate problems with metamorphosis socialization as described in section D paragraphs 5 & 8 by assisting the command in creating messages aimed at increasing identification with the Marine Corps and the unit as discussed in section D paragraph 4.

7. Per reference (1), “the greater the degree of socialization, the more likely individuals will respond favorably to organizational persuasion. In fact, little doubt remains that socialization relates to organizational commitment, decision making, perceptions of communications climate, and overall job satisfaction.” A commitment to improve metamorphosis socialization (in other words, emphasis on ethics and core values training) beyond initial training in a Marine’s career may yield positive benefits in the form of retention increases, better leaders, more productive command climates, and a more motivated cadre of Marines.

8. The Communications NCO billet could furthermore foster increased awareness of the importance of communication competency in daily tasks, and, moreover, provide relevant training aids to the command in order to raise aforementioned competencies. It may be unrealistic to expect all Marines to be communications expert, yet the benefits of having dedicated communication experts (such as the Communications NCO) are potentially incalculable through a variety of metrics, including money, time, and lives.

9. While the Communications NCO would more or less report directly to his or her respective Commanding Officer, he or she would still be available to higher commanders as the situation necessitated. If, for whatever reason, the Battalion Commander required immediate information about the welfare of a particular company, the Battalion Commander could leverage the assets of the local company’s Communications NCO rather than wait for the information to sift up the chain through other means. This model makes the Communications NCO the “eyes and ears” for higher commands, and the “mouth” for lower commands, in a manner of speaking. Such a model is likely to reduce surprises to commanders of all levels, in addition to helping ensure unity of Commander’s Intent at all times.

10. Specifically, the ELMACO Communications NCO billet, if successful, could provide proof of concept for the theoretical model outlined in this paper. If effective, Communications NCOs could be trained at other companies in the Battalion, and a Battalion Communications NCO could be created (see figure 2). Extremely long-range implications include exporting the model further and potentially creating a new MOS dedicated to ensuring effective communications at any command.

11. The Communications NCO has the potential to benefit in other regards as well. In short, the billet has the potential to positively impact the command, the mission, morale, retention, and is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ expeditionary model by fostering more rapid communications at all levels of command.

12. The immediate risk for employing such a billet is minimal. Initially, it would require reassigning only one qualified Marine to get the program up and running. I nominate myself for this duty. I believe I have demonstrated sufficient integrity, motivation, Honor, Courage and Commitment to tackle this task. I can’t guarantee perfection but I have every reason to be confident I will deliver results. Per reference (3), “Leaders must allow subordinates the opportunity to show initiative…. Because innovation is imprecise and because subordinates, especially junior ones, will make mistakes, protect them. “Zero defects” are not a standard of measurement. They do not encourage initiative; they stifle it.”

H. Conclusions

1. This document was intended to be comprehensive yet brief. Much of what has been written here could be expanded upon. In any event, organizational communication represents a challenge not just for the Marine Corps, but for any modern organization.

2. Unusual problems often require unusual solutions. With low risk and high potential reward, such a plan seems to promise great benefits for little investment.

3. I can provide further documentation, analysis, and correspondence as required.

I. References

(1) Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela S. Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, Seventh Edition. 2009, Pearson Education, Inc.

(2) MCRP 6-11B W/CH 11 Marine Corps Values: A User’s Guide for Discussion Leaders

(3) MCWP 6-11 Leading Marines

[“J. Durden”]

These words make it all worth it.

From someone to me, regarding recent events:

Thank you. The courage you have shown in this endeavor is remarkable. Instead of randomly throwing a pebble in the water, you unleashed a precision guided boulder to which I will enjoy witnessing any resulting tsunamis. No matter what outcomes occur, your intentions were honorable and unselfish and as with all of the other adjectives floating in my head, are demonstrating what everyone strives to be, a leader.

Words fail me.

Inspiring Men: My Grandfather

(Below is a mostly unedited letter I sent to someone a few months ago. The only changes I have made were grammatical and removing my grandfather’s name for operational security purposes. Even though, at time of writing, I hadn’t had some of the epiphanies I have had recently, I still think my story may be of some use to some of the readers of the Spearhead.)

Nothing – absolutely nothing – in life is permanent. If you spend your entire life dreading the loss of something, you might not ever get to fully enjoy that thing. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I think it might help you to hear a story from me, maybe so you can learn the same lesson I did.

Part of the reason I enlisted in the Marine Corps was because my grandfather retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Marines. Growing up, he had always been something of a hero to me – even if I didn’t really understand much about the Marine Corps, or felt like I knew him much. In fact, he once made it very clear to me that I was the son of the black sheep of his family – he still loved me, I felt, but my exposure to him was limited. I take my middle name after him.

After I enlisted – and saw what the Marine Corps was really like – my love and admiration for him sky rocketed. It’s something people could never understand unless they go through it. I can’t even try to put words to it, I know it’s futile – others have tried and failed. I heard that my graduation photos from boot camp had circulated back to him, and that for the first time in a long time, his family saw him cry, he was so proud.

Training in the Marine Corps is lengthy and intense. I wanted very much to, when I was first able, take leave and meet with him, to talk about the Marine Corps and give him a chance to talk to someone who could understand. As I continued to work on my own memoirs, I realized that my grandfather had stories – amazing stories – that he had probably never told anyone. He had fought – and survived – on Iwo Jima! He never talked about it much with anyone, and after being in the Marine Corps, I can understand why… people on the outside just don’t get it.

As my training was nearing completion, I received bad news. My grandfather was coming down with Alzheimer’s. By the time I graduated, members of my extended family, who were with him, made it clear that his memory was pretty much gone – he couldn’t remember his own children anymore. I had missed my chance – forever – to really talk to him and understand his life.

I grieved, candidly, in my own fashion. I grieve now, as I recall. Grieving is natural. You just can’t get stuck on it. What I realized, as I became stuck on it, was that I couldn’t control the situation – I had no ability to influence his disease or his memory. Furthermore, I was sure that I would do his spirit no honor by remaining paralyzed in grief. Instead of grieving, I took the time to drudge up a deep introspective dialogue – sifting through my own memories for my memories of my grandfather.

And as I did this tough work, rather than remember with grief and regret and longing, I focused instead on cherishing each memory, remembering it to the fullest and enjoying it as though I were there again. Some memories I enjoyed for the “first” time, having, as a child, not enjoyed that particular experience, but as a man with new understanding, cherishing it in a new way.

Part of my healing process involved investigating my family history. I tried to learn as much about him as I could – being that I hadn’t known him very well, and what I did know came from youth. He was a beautiful man. (I’m crying a bit right now, but it’s not painful. I am proud to be his grandson.) The trials and tribulations he went through – being one of MANY children from a very poor family, suffering through abuse, disowning his own family much like I have had to do, paying his own way through college, entering the Marine Corps as an officer in lieu of what he could have done with his education, and serving in World War 2 and the Korean War (he proposed to his wife and got married shortly before reporting in for The Basic School, right after receiving his commission – he would not see his wife again for two years…they stayed married until she died of old age), retiring in order to become a public servant in another way – by being a teacher and then principal at his local high school.

Did he do everything right? No, perhaps not. My father claims the way he was raised by my grandfather was not fair or healthy – but my grandfather’s other children seemed to have turned out better than my father, so who is to say who is right? But the struggles he went through, the pain and adversity he must have felt, resonated with my own life, and I felt very close to him. There was nothing that I could do for him in his final days, but that was okay, because I could live the rest of my life in his honor. I used to want to change my name in order to disown my family, which I had come to hate. But learning about my grandfather this way, after he was already effectively taken from me, restored my faith and pride in my family name.

Now, when times are dark and when I wish I wasn’t in the Marine Corps or doing other things, I turn my thoughts back towards Bill, and it gives me strength and resolve.

This turned out longer than I intended. A lot of my coping with Bill’s situation was done on a more subconscious, nonverbal level, also. This is the first time I’ve told ANYONE – even my few close friends – about this. The lesson I learned was to not be consumed by grief over loss; to instead channel that grief into something more positive. Everything must eventually come to an end, so it does not make sense to dread that time and to waste your energy being full of regret and sadness. Let the passing of something you’ve cherished be a cause for remembrance and cherishing. Let it be a new beginning – something to live the rest of your life for, rather than spend the rest of your life mourning.

These philosophies dovetail also with the revelation of thought I had while in the more intense training phases of my Marine Corps career, where I literally trained for every waking moment to kill and be killed. Life is so fragile and transient. We are all so very fragile and vulnerable. It makes no sense, none whatsoever, to dedicate your life to seeking achievement or seeking material gain over emotional depth and well-being. There will always be more work to be done tomorrow, and there will always be another achievement to seek or another record to break. Eventually, we will all pass our peak, and in all likelihood, have things left we still want to achieve or accomplish that we cannot. However, we may not always have a second chance to tell someone that we care about that we love them, or another chance to get to know that someone interesting just a bit better. Take risks in the name of enriching your relational life – strip everything else away and the measure of your life, I think, is the impact you had on other people and on the bonds you forged with them – on the families and communities you forged or were a part of.

It’s all fun and games, until you break your nose

Yesterday, my nose was broken for the first time. Here’s how it happened.

Cpl Whiskey was scheduled to run a martial arts course with the intention of training Marines who currently hold a Grey Belt in MCMAP up to Green Belt proficiency. At the end of this course, we were to test out with an actual Martial Arts Instructor to be awarded our new belts. I was part of this course along with about a dozen other Marines. Yesterday was the first day of training.
Cpl Whiskey had duty in the barracks, meaning he could not be there when we commenced at 0630. That being the case, Sgt Bravo was there instead. We started the day off with calisthenics – albeit in our camouflage uniform with boots and “flak” vests on (so not ideal running gear). After warming up with a half-mile jog, we did a circuit course of Sgt Bravo’s design. We had cones set up to designate certain “stations,” if you will. The cones were set up in a rectangular fashion, and I’d say the short sides were about 20 yards apart and the long sides about 40 yards apart. We started by sprinting the 40 yard length, then doing twenty push ups. We sprinted diagonally (so, slightly more than 40 yards) to another cone where we did 20 “4-count mountain climbers.” (Mountain climbers are an exercise where you get into push up position, and alternate bringing your knees up to your elbows. Starting with your left leg, when your left knee comes up near your left elbow, that is 1 count. On the next count, you kick your left leg straight and cock your right leg up, so the right knee is near your right elbow. That’s the 2nd count. On the third count, you kick your right leg and cock your left leg. On the fourth count, you kick your left leg and cock your right leg – that is one “4-count” mountain climber.) After the mountain climbers, we sprinted the 40 yards and did twenty more push ups, then sprinted the other diagonal and did another set of 20 4-count mountain climbers to complete the circuit.
We ran 4 circuits in total before getting a five minute break to catch our breath and get some water. (Note: Sgt Bravo did the circuits with us, in case anyone was wondering.) During this time, Sgt Bravo rearranged the cones into a tighter circular pattern (and added a few more cones). He explained the stations each cone represented and how we would move from station to station. We would move from the first station by low crawling (“belly on the deck” at all times), from the second station by high crawling (hands and knees), and the third station by bear crawling (hands and feet); then the cycle would repeat. Our first station exercise was 15 8-count body builders (1st count is to go from standing to crouching with your palms on the deck, 2nd count is to kick your legs behind you and be in push up position, 3rd count is to kick your legs out and have them spread wide, 4th count is to kick them back in to push up position, 5th count is to go down as when you are doing a push up, 6th count is to push back up, 7th count is to kick your legs back up so you’re nearly in the crouching position from the 1st count, and the 8th count is to stand up). The second station was to do 15 4-count dying cockroaches (sit on the ground with your legs off the deck and your knees bent in to your chest. 1st count is to shoot your legs out, 2nd count is to bring them back to a bend, 3rd is to shoot them out, and 4th is to bring them back in). The third station was 15 “Marine Corps” push ups (Marine Corps push ups are simply push ups done on a 4 count, so 15 Marine Corps push ups is pretty much just 30 push ups). The fourth station was 15 air squats. The fifth station was 15 diamond push ups. The sixth station was 15 “scissor jacks” (an exercise where you perform a lunge, but instead of stepping each time, you jump into position each time). The seventh station was 15 “dive-bomber” push ups (a sort of push up that involves a snaking motion – hard to explain). The eigth station was 15 sit ups. Then we went back to the starting station and finished off with 15 more 8-count body builders.
After we completed this (all told we spent about an hour to do everything I wrote up) we went over to the gym. From here we reviewed martial arts techniques from the lowest level of proficiency – the Tan Belt. Things like stances, angles of movement, upper and lower body strikes, chokes, throws and takedowns. We did this for about two hours until Cpl Whiskey showed up. Once he showed up we reviewed a few more techniques until we put on boxing gloves and face protection and did some light sparring (body shots only). Each Marine sparred for 4 minutes (broken up into 2 minute rounds), and for those of you who’ve never been in a fight or anything like it, 2 minutes can feel like an awful long time. I took a couple of shots to the bladder I would describe as “less than fun” to receive. After the sparring we went back to reviewing more techniques and learned two maneuvers from the Green Belt syllabus (I’d already seen these moves before from another Green Belt course I’d been on – perhaps a story for another time).
How It Happened
After learning the new techniques and taking a break, Sgt Bravo informed us we were to do some ground sparring (sometimes called “grappling”). As always, proper safety protocols were in place – Marines would stay on their knees at all times, tap-out procedures applied, strikes were prohibited, no eye gouges or small joint manipulations (IE, don’t grab another Marine’s finger and try to tweak it to get them to submit). The format was to be “bull in the ring,” meaning each Marine would take turns being in the middle of a circle and would have to face up to three opponents in 1-minute rounds apiece (so 3 minutes total of grappling). If the “bull” caused an opponent to submit, that opponent would become the new bull. If the opponent caused the bull to submit, time was paused while the fighters reset and then the match continued. I volunteered to go first.
I was outmatched in by my first two opponents – both being stronger and having better technique than me. Between the two of them I think I submitted three times. (Hey, it happens.) I had a few close calls where I nearly caused them to submit, but I wasn’t able to sink the chokes in fully and they were able to muscle their way out of them. My third opponent was outmatched by me – had I taken him on “fresh” it would have been an easy fight. As it was, I was fairly tired from the previous two bouts and had reduced capacity to muscle him around.
At one point he had me in his “guard.” What this means is, his back was on the ground and his legs were wrapped around my waist. Doing this allows you to control your opponent, since you can use your legs to bring him in close and you can also push him away if you want. There are techniques available from the guard that end in armbars or chokes as well. There are techniques to escape the guard, too. I used one such technique, which ends with me tossing my opponent using his leg so that he had his stomach on the ground and back exposed to me – a very “dangerous” situation for him. I was going to “move in for the kill” when, in a panic, my opponent twisted his body very quickly and accidentally struck me square in the nose with his elbow. Such a rapid twist of the body generates a lot of power and my nose was instantly shattered.
At the moment of impact, however, I just thought I’d taken “a good one.” I was about to resume fighting when I noticed everything had stopped – my opponent wasn’t struggling against me, there wasn’t any conversation going on from the spectators. I touched my hand to my nose and looked at my hand, which was covered in blood. “Oh,” I thought. “That explains it.” I didn’t really feel any pain but I excused myself to go to the restroom to take care of my nose and stop the bleeding. Cpl Whiskey was right behind me and asked me if I thought my nose was broken. “No,” I replied. I’d never had a broken nose before but I’d imagined breaking it would be a lot more painful than what was going on right then.
I was losing a lot of blood. That, combined with the physical exertion of the day (4 hours, all said and done) and zero food intake for the day was quickly sapping me of energy. Cpl Whiskey told me to look in the mirror, as my nose was “definitely” broken (I didn’t believe him). When I checked, my nose was like a diagonal line across my face instead of a vertical one. “Oh,” I said. “I guess you’re right.” He asked if I had ever had a broken nose or popped one back into place before. “No,” I replied. And then I took my hand and tried to pop it back into place. At the time, I noticed that my nose felt like it was in pieces, but the import of this observation escaped me until much later, when I thought back over the whole incident. I was more focused on trying to stop the bleeding.
After the bleeding calmed down (but did not stop completely), Cpl Whiskey took me to the medical clinic where eventually a commissioned officer saw me. He explained that my options were to try to reset the nose myself, have him attempt to, or go up to the hospital and have them see what they could do. I was more interested in immediate aid, since the longer it took to have the nose worked on, the more “set” it would be and likely the more painful it would be to try to reset it (or so I figured). So, the doctor stood behind me while I sat in a chair, and put my nose in a sort of vise grip between his palms. There was a lot of cracking and popping and squeemish grunts from the onlookers (Cpl Whiskey couldn’t watch). We stood up to go inspect the results in a mirror, as he told me it wasn’t quite straight. I investigated and agreed – it was now in a sort of “>” shape, almost like a lightning bolt. As he spoke to me, I began to white out – too much blood loss, not enough replenishment. I told him I needed to sit down.
He had me take a break for a few minutes and then he came in again and told me he could try again if I’d like. He said he hadn’t gone full force, so I told him to do so. This time the adjustment was painful, and my nose began bleeding profusely like when it was first injured. I inspect in the mirror again and it’s slightly better but still crooked. Satisfied that we had done all we could, I figured that was the end of my visit to the clinic and the best I could hope for regarding my nose. I mentally adapted to having the extra “character” in my face.
The doc ordered me up some opiate-derivative painkillers and also had my vitals taken and ordered x-rays to be done. He mandated I take 14 days of light duty – no more physical training for two weeks, basically – and also scheduled me for an appointment at the Naval Hospital north of my Camp on Wednesday (tomorrow). He explained that either they would drug me out of my mind, rebreak my nose and try to reset it again, or look into surgery.
Seems like an awful waste of taxpayer dollars for what basically amounts to cosmetic surgery, but oh well. Perhaps they’re worried that leaving my nose as is will lead to long term breathing or sinus complications. I hope so. I’d hate to be receiving cosmetic surgery.
For those wondering, I did not get the rest of the day “off” from work. Not that I was able to accomplish much, drained of energy and drugged up on near-opiates as I was. I didn’t even get to rest when I got home – we had “field day” which amounts to “clean your room to white-glove inspection standard” so I didn’t get to go to sleep until about 10 PM (my adventurous day began around 6 AM). Today, I decided to forego the pain killers and deal with the headache and sensitivity so I could actually accomplish things at work.
Anecdotally, the MCMAP course was cancelled. This was less due to the fact that I was injured and more due to the fact that Cpl Whiskey and Sgt Bravo had never received approval to run such a course, as neither were Martial Arts Instructor (MAIs). MAIs are required for any sort of “combat simulation” activity, such as boxing, ground fighting, pugil stick bouts and so on. Non-MAIs with advanced belt levels (brown and beyond, like Cpl Whiskey and Sgt Bravo) can and are encouraged to lead “sustainment” training, which is basically review of the various techniques in MCMAP.
Furthermore, I was tickled during an e-mail conversation when someone tried to excuse possible slip-ups due to having too much coffee. I tried to excuse excessive abrasiveness due to receiving a gale-force elbow that shattered my nose and required three resets that still couldn’t straighten it out. Sometimes I enjoy being contrary and rude.

Communication Loss – Loose Lips Sink Ships

There’s an old saying in the military that “loose lips sink ships.” This is a reference to operational security, in that gossiping to people carelessly about the location of your unit or your deployment plans could start a chain of gossip that eventually falls into enemy hands and compromises missions.

I think loose language can “sink ships” too, by which I mean to say that careless language can have catastrophic consequence. The catalyst for writing this post was the musings of one blogger who likened Plato and Socrates unto poets (actually, in her words, “Plato and Socrates WERE poets”), despite admitting to having never read either of them.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively minor misuse of language with little consequence. Sometimes it is fun to make metaphors and explore them, though the responsible thing to do would be to assert your metaphors as such, rather than as facts. (It is one thing to say that Plato and Socrates were poets, metaphorically speaking, and quite another to say that they were poets and leave it at that.) However, I believe this is representative of a modern tendency to expand the meanings of words with vagaries that bog everyone down with needless communication loss. Nuance and ambiguity have their applications and value in certain arenas (literature, poems, “art”) but the increasing intrusions of such sensibilities into everyday language and more mundane pursuits (such as science, debate, and politics) is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst.
I’ll give an example to illustrate my point.
Imagine, if you will, a good natured, attractive and popular girl in high school who is genuinely kind to everyone. (Yes, this is a hypothetical situation.) She often tosses around the phrase “I love you” or any variation thereof (“love ya,” “lots of love,” so on and so forth). Suppose she sees a boy sitting by himself at lunch, and emboldened by her noble spirit, deigns to sit with him and have a chat, as she feels it is wrong for someone to eat lunch by themselves. Suppose also this boy is known to be something of a pariah, not the sort popular people should be seen with – this does not deter our young heroine. Once the lunch period breaks after a pleasant conversation that seems to have cheered the boy’s mood considerably, she departs, finishing the conversation with her ritual employment of the “I love you” phrase. This creates a wellspring of emotion in the boy, who understands love as a very serious concept shared only by very important people. He tries to actively pursue this girl, perhaps coming off as creepy, and only after several months figures out that she did not mean the word “love” in the same way as he understood it, and winds up dejected and heartbroken as a result.
Who is at fault here? Should we be angry with the girl for her careless use of language, or should we attribute culpability to the boy who should have known better? Before we start playing the blame game, maybe it would be informative to look up the word “love” in a dictionary. I propose we use, as it is a freely available web dictionary which many people probably use to try and get a clearer sense of what a word means. Here’s what has to say about love:
love  [luhv] Show IPA noun, verb, loved, lov⋅ing.
1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
3. sexual passion or desire.
4. a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person; sweetheart.
5. (used in direct address as a term of endearment, affection, or the like): Would you like to see a movie, love?
6. a love affair; an intensely amorous incident; amour.
7. sexual intercourse; copulation.
8. (initial capital letter) a personification of sexual affection, as Eros or Cupid.
9. affectionate concern for the well-being of others: the love of one’s neighbor.
10. strong predilection, enthusiasm, or liking for anything: her love of books.
11. the object or thing so liked: The theater was her great love.
12. the benevolent affection of God for His creatures, or the reverent affection due from them to God.
13. Chiefly Tennis. a score of zero; nothing.
14. a word formerly used in communications to represent the letter L.
Clear as mud! There’s obviously some non-sequitur definitions here, but there’s also a lot of room for personal interpretation. Definitions 5, 9, and perhaps 2 might support the girl’s interpretations and defend her from blame, whereas definitions 1, 4, and 6 lend themselves to the boy’s interpretation. Moreover, the preponderance of definitions that deal with sexual matters lend credibility to an interpretation of “love” more serious than the one understood by the girl, giving more favor to the boy. But before we go around blaming people for the nasty feelings and disappointment the boy wound up with, let me change the scenario just a hair.
Imagine the scenario is exactly the same as before. The girl and boy still have all the same qualities, to include the girl’s motivation for engaging the boy in conversation. Suppose now that the only difference in the situation is that, through the course of conversation, the girl feels a deep and profound emotional connection to the boy. She begins to see him in a new light, and she thinks that she might be falling for him. When the lunch bell rings and they have to part ways, she has only a small window of opportunity to express her epiphany, and she expresses to the boy “I love you.” Later, the boy carefully considers the situation and perhaps even looks up the word “love” to help guide his actions. He knows that she is given to using the word “love” rather freely, and he is hesitant to emotionally invest himself in a prospect that seems likely to end in disappointment. He therefore concludes that she meant “love” in a less profound way (more like definition 9, say) – after all, she was probably just taking pity on him for sitting alone and was being a good Samaritan, love they neighbor and all that. The girl is anguished over the boy’s seeming rejection and complete indifference to her profound expression of her deepest feelings and now feels similar levels of disappointment and dejection as our boy had felt in the previous scenario.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s kind of a trick question. Neither the boy nor the girl is at fault nor responsible for the miscommunication and resultant emotional harm caused, in either scenario. Sure, perhaps we could chide them for not being “more clear” or not “elaborating” more, but life is rarely perfect and there are times where we only get one shot at phrasing something. Perhaps I could have concocted a more compelling situation to convince you of the “one-shot” angle, but that’s ultimately irrelevant to my main point. My main point is that our language has become too vague, and there are, often, far too many different definitions for the same word. Simple math will tell you that as you increase the number of disparate definitions for the same word, you increase the odds that the speaker and listener of any conversation will have different operating definitions of that word.
What do I mean by operating definitions? I contend that people are not dictionaries, and they do not walk around carrying seven different definitions for the same word in their head – at least not for every single word that has multiple definitions. In general, it is more natural for a person to pick one definition and stick to it – though they may be aware to varying degrees of competing definitions. There may be cases where they are totally unaware of the different definitions a word has. In any case, the operating definition a person has is their assumed definition – the one they use when they either speak or hear the word.
In scenario 1, the girl’s operating definition of the word “love” was, we’ll say, definition/meaning 9 provided above. The boy’s operating definition was, we’ll say, definition/meaning 4. It is natural to assume, when conversing with another person, they understand the definitions of the words that we use – especially very common words, like “love.” When the girl used her operating definition, she meant to convey meaning 4, and assumed that the boy received meaning 4. What actually happened was that the boy received meaning 9, because he had a different operating definition of the same word. Meaning 4 and meaning 9 are different enough that, at one point in time, they used to be separate words. Instead of saying love when we meant meaning 9, we might say something like “I like you” or “I care about you.”
The only change in scenario 2 is that the operating definitions are reversed, more or less (to get real technical, the boy didn’t have an operating definition, perhaps because he was cognizant of the disparate definitions available to the word love, and reasoned his way to definition 4). Sometimes we get the opportunity to work out miscommunication that results from different operating definitions of the same word – questions like “what do you mean by that?” provide an opportunity to clarify what’s really going on in a conversation. But it is naive to assume that we always have this luxury, and especially in the high-pace arena of politics and public debate, rarely is time spent working out the definitions of important words under discussion. (See this post for an example of some slippery words. Other ones off the top of my head: communism, socialism, feminism, Marxism, universal health care… there’s probably others, but I don’t watch the news overmuch because I easily get peeved at careless use of language.) Miscommunication that would be relatively harmless in the private sphere suddenly becomes a matter of national import and grave concern.
Perhaps you think I am exaggerating? I think “feminism” more than proves my point. Most people have an operating definition of feminism as being a movement that is concerned chiefly with “equal rights for equal work,” (operating definition A) but that is a far cry from what feminism actually is. Some critics, who are familiar with what feminism actually is (operating definition B), decry it. Their message is often dead on arrival, however, because most people assume that operating definition A is what is under assault when they hear the word “feminism.” This doesn’t even account for the slipperiness of operating definition A (any time I hear the word “equal” in the context of political discourse, I become wary) either.

I see two possible solutions. Perhaps this means I am stuck in a fallacious way of thinking (the false dilemma), who knows. In any case, the first option is to have all of the dictionaries of the world revised overnight to remove ambiguities from every definition, and to ensure that each and every word means only one thing. The second option would be to have the speaker of the word clarify before transmitting their message precisely what operation definition they are using. “I love you” becomes something like “I love you…by which I mean to say like a neighbor.” Alternative options may exist on some kind of gradient between the two, and allowing for the listener to ask for clarification when possible.
I believe the most sensible and practical approach is to hold the speaker more accountable for misuse of language or vagaries. The speaker has more opportunity to clarify intent before speaking than the listener often has opportunity to clarify after something has been spoken. This is especially the case in one way communications – things like emails from your boss that you cannot respond to. In two way communication, things can be more efficient and productive if the speaker exercises caution and carefully considers what words are employed, clarifying murkiness as it comes up. For example: “I think that feminism – by which I mean the virulent brand promulgated by…”
Nobody can be perfect, and I know I am not. But we can all strive to be better speakers and be more mindful of what we say before we say it. Creating ambiguity and nuance is great when we’re writing literature or poems.
But, as I hinted at when I started this post, we’re not all poets. Intentionally inflating the definition of “poet” (for example) to include everyone (such as people who do not compose poetry) represents a behavior that is antithetical to the way I approach communication.

Ethics and Leadership, Part 1

Long, Rambling Preamble

Others argue that (good) morality is a chiefly male enterprise, and it is something I’ve always concerned myself with. Growing up without much of a father figure (save my brother, who had his own problems) made developing a good sense of morality and ethics trickier than it otherwise could have been. Yet even at a young age, I still tried to work out some kind of code – without the help of a religion. And before you get too critical of some of the sophistry evident in those earlier posts of mine, keep in mind I was then a sophomore in high school, with the incessant emotional abuse of my mother and heart wrenching nonsense of my first girlfriend providing constant background noise. Again – without a father figure. At best, I had video games and random internet friends to study under. What were you doing when you were 16?

If I seemed a little pre-occupied with partying back then, it was because I’d seen my brother completely ruin his life due to an indulgence in alcoholism and drug addiction (that began with innocuous partying in high-school – he’s still recovering, at age 29), and my girlfriend of the time (who I had convinced myself I loved dearly) was stringently pro-partying. You’ll notice after the break-up and prophetic-though-emotionally-tinged revelations that followed, I rarely, if ever, wrote about partying again.

The take-away point from all of the above is this: before enlisting in the Marine Corps, my personal ethics had congealed around a simple idea I’d developed with one of my best friends. Together, we determined that there was no higher purpose in life than trying to improve oneself, and the best method for improvement was total honesty. As writers, we were fans of brevity and trying to pack a big idea in a small space. Below is how we phrased our ethics:

Self improvement is the only priority; honesty is merely the best way to achieve it.

I suppose “self-improvement” is rather vague, but we took it to mean becoming stronger, smarter, inflicting less damage on the world and causing greater good, among other things. And honesty meant total honesty – critical honesty – none of this politically-correct coddling horseshit. If I found fault in myself or others, honesty demanded that such faults be addressed and corrected. Regular introspection and self-reflection were thus necessary requirements for self-improvement. Things like integrity, accountability, resolve, respect for logic and rationality, and so on, naturally folded into our conception.

But it isn’t easy ‘going-it-alone,’ if you will. Isolation seems to have a distinct effect on the mind, and I believe the mind naturally seeks to commiserate with like-minded individuals in order to cope with that isolation. Unfortunately for me, it is notoriously hard to find people above self-indulgence and consumerism in the general American populace. I used to wonder why that was, but now I know I was just looking in all the wrong places. I wanted something more, some allies in the fight against decadence and mindless consumerism. Someone else always says it best, and in this case, that someone else was me, albeit a year or two ago (from my memoirs):

American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

This isn’t a post about the military failing to live up to my hopelessly high ideals. On the contrary, this is a post about Marine Corps ethics, which are surprisingly robust and cogent. Then again, the Marine Corps has produced stellar heroes like Major General Smedley Butler, Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Sergeant Major Dan Daly, and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, to name a few. (MRAs and feminists alike might note the lack of female exemplars. Sorry – none come to mind, except for Opha Mae Johnson, who we remember merely for being the first female Marine.) Oh, while we’re at it, why not throw in Colonel John Ripley, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, and a personal favorite of mine from more recent times, Captain Nathaniel Fick (read or watch Generation Kill to understand why I admire him)? This list is by no means exhaustive, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that the Marine Corps has a lot of intelligent and well-reasoned things to say about ethical behavior and leadership.

So, Marine Corps Ethics

The Marine Corps, like myself, tries to distill ethical behavior down to the absolute simplest ideas it can. The backbone of Marine Corps ethics revolves around a set of three values – called the Core Values – that are taught to every Marine during basic training. If you’ve ever known a Marine, you probably know them already – they are Honor, Courage, and Commitment. Those three words conjure the essence of the Marine Corps – the fabled “esprit de corps” – the much talked about “brotherhood” of the Marine Corps. Let’s take a closer look at the Core Values.
HONOR is the idea that Marines must possess the ultimate sense of gallantry in service to the United States of America, and embody responsibility to duty above self, including, but not limited to:

  • INTEGRITY: Demonstrating the highest standards of consistent adherence to right, legal, and ethical conduct
  • RESPONSIBILITY: Personally accepting the consequences for decisions and actions. Coaching right decisions of subordinates. A chain is only as strong as the weakest individual link, but a battalion of Marines is more like a cable. Together we are stronger than any individual strand, but one strand may hold us together in a crisis if it’s strong enough. One Marine taking responsibility for a crisis may save the day.
  • HONESTY: Telling the truth. Overt honesty in word and action and clarifying possible misunderstanding or misrepresentation caused by silence or inaction when you should speak up. Respecting other’s property and demonstrating fairness in all actions. Marines do not lie, cheat, or steal.
  • TRADITION: Demonstrating respect for the customs, courtesies, and traditions developed over many years for good reason, which produce a common Marine Corps history and identity. Respect for the heritage and traditions of others, especially those we encounter in duty around the world.

At first, one may be inclined to think that respecting tradition for tradition’s sake is a fallacy, and such a reader would be correct. Note, however, that the Corps compels obedience to traditions that have been “developed over many years for good reason.” The Corps has a keen interest in adopting and maintaining only those traditions which make sense or serve some useful purpose, generally speaking. Most Marines will be able to explain the origins of their uniforms and certain customs to you, as most are emblems of former battles or serve to honor former heroes – try asking a soldier (Army) why his uniform is the way it is or why he acts the way he does and see what sort of response you get.

So, who would be a paragon of honor? In the opinion of this Marine, Smedley Butler fits the bill. Like all of the examples I mentioned above, he could easily be a paragon of all three Core Values, but I chose him for honor for a specific reason. He certainly served his nation with gallantry, but his personal integrity, responsibility, and honesty were peerless. There is a well known example from his time as a younger officer – then Major Butler exposed himself to enemy sniper fire in order to direct the fire of his own men to the snipers’ nests. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for this action – which, tellingly, he then tried to refuse! He claimed he was merely doing his job and had done nothing spectacular to earn the award. Later, in his post military career, he would warn of the burgeoning military-industrial complex decades before Eisenhower gave it a name – demonstrating again his integrity and honesty.

COURAGE is the moral, mental and physical strength to resist opposition, face danger, endure hardship, including, but not limited to:

  • SELF-DISCIPLINE: Marines hold themselves responsible for their own actions and others responsible for their actions. Marines are committed to maintaining physical, moral, and mental health, to fitness and exercise, and to life-long learning.
  • PATRIOTISM: Devotion to and defense of one’s country. The freely chosen, informed willingness to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
  • LOYALTY: Steady reliability to do one’s duty in service to the United States of America, the United States Marine Corps, one’s command, one’s fellow Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, citizens, oneself and to one’s family.
  • VALOR: Boldness and determination in facing danger in battle, and the daily commitment to excellence and honesty in actions small and large.

In effect, the Marine Corps idea of Courage could be summed up as “doing the right thing,” regardless of circumstance or personal expense/danger/peril. Marines are often reminded that being a good Marine means “doing the right thing, even when no one is looking” and this is essentially a matter of having the courage to do said right things. Sometimes it takes courage to report the discrepancies of your buddies, for instance – but if everyone in the Marine Corps lacked such courage, and valued friendship over duty, discipline would quickly erode and have a precipitous effect throughout the rest of our operations! As is outlined in our General Orders, a Marine knows no friends in the line of duty.

Paragon of courage? None other than Chesty Puller, of course. My own words would do him shame, so here’s one of his many telling quotes: “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!” MRAs may find something to like in this quote: “Our Country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be any AMERICA because some foreign soldier will invade us and take our women and breed a heartier race!” But he wasn’t just bark. Take a look at some of his bite, as evidenced through one of his MANY award citations:

Fighting continuously in sub-zero weather against a vastly outnumbering hostile force, Colonel Puller drove off repeated and fanatical enemy attacks upon his Regimental defense sector and supply points. Although the area was frequently covered by grazing machine-gun fire and intense artillery and mortar fire, he coolly moved along his troops to insure their correct tactical employment, reinforced the lines as the situation demanded, and successfully defended the perimeter, keeping open the main supply routes for the movement of the Division. During the attack from Koto-ri to Hungnam, he expertly utilized his Regiment as the Division rear guard, repelling two fierce enemy assaults which severely threatened the security of the unit, and personally supervised the care and prompt evacuation of all casualties. By his unflagging determination, he served to inspire his men to heroic efforts in defense of their positions and assured the safety of much valuable equipment which would otherwise have been lost to the enemy. His skilled leadership, superb courage and valiant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds reflect the highest credit upon Colonel Puller and the United States Naval Service.

COMMITMENT is the promise or pledge to complete a worthy goal by worthy means which requires identification with that goal and demonstrated actions to support that goal, including, but not limited to:

  • COMPETENCE: Maintaining, and improving one’s skill level to support the team. Commitment to growing toward a standard of excellence second to none.
  • TEAMWORK: Individual effort in support of other team members in accomplishing the team’s mission. Marines take care of their own. All worthwhile accomplishments are the result of team effort.
  • SELFLESSNESS: Marines take care of their subordinates, their families, their fellow Marines before themselves. The welfare of our country and our Corps is more important than our individual welfare.
  • CONCERN FOR PEOPLE: The Marine Corps is the custodian of this nation’s future, her young people. We exist to defend the nation, but just as importantly, we are in the business of creating honorable citizens. Everyone is of value, regardless of race, nation of origin, religion, or gender. Concern includes a commitment to improving the level of education, skill, self-esteem, and quality of life for Marines and their families. On the battlefield, a Marine is fiercest of all warriors and the most benevolent of conquerors.

Emphasis in the Marine Corps, from day one, is on the triumph of teamwork over individualism. You can’t turn shit into gold, unfortunately, and as the youth of our nation decline in moral character, the Marine Corps can only do so much to undo the 18 years of poor training that many potential enlistees “receive” as a result of poor social circumstances. Still, for those that are willing to learn, or looking for something more in life, the Marine Corps provides excellent guidance.

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone is my paragon of commitment. After being awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Guadalcanal (where his 15-man unit was decimated to two men, who still managed to hold off 3,000 Japanese troops), he was shipped back to the States to go on a sort of public relations tour for war bonds. Generally, Medal of Honor recipients are not allowed to go back to combat, but Gunnery Sergeant Basilone was committed to the defense of the nation and the unit of Marines he had left behind on the front lines. He returned to active combat duty and gave his life in the battle of Iwo Jima, one of America’s (and the Marine Corps) bloodiest battles. (Anecdotally, my grandfather, who retired from the Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel, survived Iwo Jima.)

Parting Thoughts

The bulk of this post comes from work I had done previously in preparing to teach an ethics course at my command. I pored over order after order, assembling the best and what I felt was the easiest to understand information about ethics. I relied on materials that are used to prepare company grade officers for taking command of their units, and tried to make that information as accessible to junior enlisted Marines as possible. I think it is accessible to a wider audience as well.

I think it’s pretty easy to see why Marine Corps ethics and values resonate with me – my insistence on honesty and self-improvement are part of the building blocks of ideal Marine behavior. I hope you enjoyed this crash course in Marine Corps ethics and leadership.