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Of morale and angels, Kiev and Ragnarok

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — not to mention crushing Khomeini, lubing your M16, and that Afghan powerpoint ]

Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael

Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael


In my previous post, Of morale, angels and Spartans, I raised the question of how our increasingly visual and graphical age could visually represent morale. I noted that the Muslims outfought a larger force at the Battle of Badr, and that the Qur’an suggests that this was because thousands of “angels, ranks on ranks” fought alongside them.

Dave Schuler suggested the Archangel Michael — which sent me all over in search of a suitable representation. The icon above, by Andrei Rublev, is the most profound and beautiful work I was able to find, but hardly serves our purpose.

I ran across a politically explicit comntemporary image in which the Archangel wears Airborne insignia:


— but it was this image from the Maidan in Kiev that came closes to the sense of military power in angelic form —

Archangel Michael Kiev Maidan

— although I’m not sure that military power or prowess is necessarily the same as morale or esprit de corps…


Synchronistically — or coinidentally, as sceptics would say — Justin Erik Halldór Smith headed his blog post Ragnarök on the Seine today with an image of Peter Nicolai Arbo‘s Wild Hunt, or Aasgaardreien. Here’s a detail:

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt detail

And here’s “the big picture”:

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt 602

That’s probably closer to “amok” than to “esprit de corps” — although the relationship between them is worth pondering.


I’m still not convinced that contemporary minds will “get” morale from any graphic image yet devised.. I can’t help remembering the M-16 manual I picked up one day at a library sale or flea market, titled The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance:

Treat your rifle like a lady

My guess, however, is that we’ll wind up with something closer to this:

Powerpoint for McChrystal


Image sources:

  • Andrei Rublev, icon of Archangel Michael
  • Archangel Michael, Especial Forces graphic
  • Sculpture, Archangel Michael, Kiev
  • Peter Nicolai Arbo, Aasgaardreien
  • M16 manual, DA Pam 750-30
  • Powerpoint, Afghanistan Stability
  • The photo of the Kiev St Michael is by Mstyslav Chernov, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license
  • “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

    Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

    “It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

    The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

    but it’s got electrolytes…

    We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

    We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

    I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

    “To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

    Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

    “The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

    While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

    “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

    Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

    “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

    This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

    Simplification for Strategic Leverage

    Sunday, December 5th, 2010

    Remember this much ridiculed visual monstrosity?:

    Excessively complex representations, much less the bureaucratic systems in practice, are poor vehicles for efficient communication of strategic conceptualizations to the uninformed – such as those downstream who must labor to execute such designs. Or those targeted by them for help or harm.  In addition to the difficulty in ascertaining prioritization, the unnaturally rigid complexity of the bureaucracy generally prevents an efficient focus of the system’s resources and latent power. The system gets in it’s own way while eating ever growing amounts of resources to produce less and less, leading to paralysis and collapse.

    Does it have to?

    Here’s an interesting, very brief take on analytical simplification from a natural scientist and network theorist Dr. Eric Berlow on how to cull simplification – and thus an advantage – out of complex systems by applying an ecological paradigm.

    Cognitive simplification will be a critical strategic tool in the 21st century.

    Analysis of the Hasan Slide Presentation: Cameron at SWJ

    Sunday, November 15th, 2009

    Charles Cameron has been guest blogging here on radical Islamism and his last post was a preliminary look at the powerpoint presentation of Major. Nidal Malik Hasan, the shooter in the Ft. Hood massacre.  Charles promised a follow-up here but his next “post” that he submitted was a scholarly, 10,000 word, magnum opus!  We quickly decided that SWJ was a better venue for a doc of such a magnitude and Dave Dilegge took care of the rest.

    I’ve read the paper twice. It’s a tour de force.

    The Hasan Slide Presentation

    Download the full article: The Hasan Slide Presentation (PDF)

    There is no place as private as the interior of a human skull: the mind remains inviolate.

    Words can reveal some of what goes on inside us, actions can speak some of our intents and passions forcefully, at times explosively. And yet there is no place more secret — and what a hint, a phrase, a gesture, a speech or an explosion cannot reveal, what even the best forensic examination can only label a probability, is the complex interweaving of thoughts half thought, doubts entertained, emotions pushing on through, and clashing, building at times to a perfect storm perhaps, with all doubts and constraints cast aside and the emotions unleashed in a blind and defining moment.

    Major Nidal Malik Hasan MD MPH, a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army, has now been charged with multiple specifications of premeditated murder in the mass shooting at Fort Hood, under Article 188 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

    Assuming that Major Hasan was in fact the shooter at Fort Hood and that, as alleged, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” during the event, the main question of fact and interpretation now would be whether Hasan was more an introvert under pressure whose “break” took the jihadist cry “Allahu Akbar” as its outlet, or a patient and long-standing lone wolf jihadist of the sort abu Musab al-Suri calls for (Jim Lacey, A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad, p. 19), or a wannabe with failed or actual al Qaeda connections, or an al Qaeda or related “soldier” under orders.

    This analysis attempts to provide some leads in that inquiry, by a careful reading of the only substantial documentation we have from Major Hasan himself, which may throw light on his trajectory.


    Sunday, November 9th, 2008

    Working hard on a modest writing assignment for a national security anthology type book.  I’m not sure about the rest of you but I find that the kind of shorthand thinking involved in blogging “conversations”, while very stimulating at it’s best, can interfere with the reflection needed to craft more polished and professional prose – a struggle for me in any event. A certain amount of gestation and revision, more focus on developing the concept, is required for that level of writing instead of trying to casually brainstorm ideas, observations, criticisms and questions ( not to mention better sentence structure than you will normally see here).

    As a result, I stepped back from blogging the past few days until I have finished the rough. I’ll put up a recommended reading post on Sunday but blogging may be light until I finish.  Not sure when.

    As an aside, I will strongly recommend ( again) Garr Reynold’s  Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter) for anyone involved in intellectually oriented creativity, not simply those who’d like to have slick looking powerpoint presentations.  Since I’ve started incorporating his suggested design principles into my planning process I can honestly say that I’ve risen to an entirely new level.

    A case in point, for those who are not longtime readers, I teach history and periodically give presentations on  teaching methodology and curriculum to adults. Normally, I’m a fair public speaker and receive favorable feedback but I’ve done two new presentations recently, both using Reynold’s methods and Sliderocket to deliver the content, once to students and once to an audience of professionals. No comparison. The effect was stunning in each instance. It was akin to having five year’s progress crammed into a month.

    Zenpundit has a large number of .gov, .mil and .edu readers for whom slideware is de riguer.  Sliderocket, a web application ( you can download a copy though to your laptop for a back-up)  deserves generous kudos in it’s own right; my only criticism is that the Sliderocket folks need to have an embed code function for those of us who need to, from time to time, put the slideshows up in a blog or wiki.

    If you are still on powerpoint instead of Sliderocket, then you are driving a Model T.

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