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On Curling

On July 12th, in valley called Wanat, little more than a platoon of Soldiers fought a tenacious battle against over a hundred insurgents, a battle so close and personal that both insurgents and Soldiers lobbed grenades at each other from less than ten meters. Hundreds of miles away, watching helplessly on 42 inch plasma screens, Battalion, Brigade and Division commanders tried to control the fight.

The modern battlefield is a schizophrenic place. Just like curling.

Yep, curling. Eric, Matt P, my fiance, and I (along with a good chunk of trendy Americans) have been obsessed with the slowest team sport ever. Shuffleboard on ice is more addictive than heroin.

So how does this slow paced winter sport relate to Afghanistan? After watching a few ends of curling everyone becomes an expert. I started making comments like, “Why don’t they go for a double take out?” Or “I would draw towards the center.” Or as Eric C said, “The US is getting took right now.”

My comments are pretty ignorant though. It doesn’t matter how much I read on wikipedia, or how many hours I consume of CNBC’s curling coverage, I will have a severe gap in my curling knowledge. I have never curled before and though I want to, I might never actually throw a rock towards the house.

This is a perfect example of an important truism: years of study are useful, but nothing compares to experience on the ground. Just throwing one rock on the ice, or playing one match, will give the curling addict a much greater understanding for curling than any amount of off the ice research.

For Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, remember curling. Study Afghanistan as much as you want, drink in the culture, read the Kite Runner, learn bits ofPashtun, and study maps of your area of operations (AO). Until you hit the ground in your AO , you won't have a true appreciation for the terrain. Watching combat from a video screen gives you images, but not the knowledge of being on the ground.

Understanding this will help staff officers and senior leaders on deployment. Staff officers should go on as many patrols as they can when deployed. It sounds incredible, but many Soldiers on Battalion and Brigade staffs never leave the Tactical Operations Center. Many leaders and staff officers don't see the need to go on regular patrols. Obviously they are wrong. (Ranger School is a good substitute for those who can attend, but it can't fully replace patrols in actual combat zones.)

Can you even imagine a curling coach giving advice to his guys if he had never thrown a rock before? How much would you trust color commentators who had never even played curling before?

The point is you wouldn’t. So, senior leaders and staff officers, when you deploy, remember curling.

five comments

Two thoughts:

1. NBC had waaaaaay too many commercials during their coverage of curling. Really lame, really bad directing and programming.

2. I think leaders and generals need to respect this distance they have. It is a common theme I’ve read about. Also, makes you wonder when the leadership of the military has never gone to war, how they can effectively lead one.

Good point Eric. The Army works off the philosophy that to be a general, you have to have been a PL to understand platoon operations. But from field grade rank on up, the difference between deployments for company sized units and brigade headquarters is gigantic.

Along the same lines, you have a different understanding of something once experienced. If you’ve never stepped on the ice, slid a stone toward the keep, or swept the ice you’ll be lacking in your knowledge of curling. In the same way, studying the operations field, reading reports, learning the culture, and listening to stories of those who have been there can prepare a soldier, but it’s only a partial knowledge. One can be a expert on the topic of Afghanistan through study but lack the experience of being there. It’s a partial knowledge. My point being, I agree that a commanding officer should immerse himself in study material to better know the region in which he operates, but in order to command effectively he must also have served in that same field.

Now there is a disconnect when the operations field is new. At the outset of the Iraq invasion, one would think that officers who served in Iraq in Desert Storm would have the experience I speak of. Yet Desert Storm was a different war fought in a different manner. The experience doesn’t translate directly.

Still, because the operation is new, meaning there may have been no officers with first hand experience on the current conflict, there may have been no better substitutes than those officers who had seen the region, but in a different way. Michael C wrote a great post a little while back about generals wanting to fight the current war with the previous war in mind because that’s what they know. Couldn’t remember the title though.

Yeah Matt I don’t know exactly which post you were looking for. I thought of another analogy to prove this point. I learned more about Italy by living there than I ever could have otherwise. So again, study is great, but experience is better. (And by the way, experience is great but ten times better with study. So Study+Experience=Success.)

Did you read this one, Michael?

Personally, I must say I don’t believe much in study at all, simply because the information/data has either deliberately been corrupted or, which is much more common: you are in fact studying the misunderstandings and blindly accepted conclusions of others.
So, this is the story of my own study-history. I too often disagreed and when you do that loud and for everyone to hear, it has consequences!

However this is not how study should be and if and when the books are written by people who are mentally up to doing the job properly, of course education becomes very precious.

As for the practical side of it, theory hardly ever works without the student being given the opportunity of trying it out in the field (experience on the ground). You’re pretty much right about that one!