Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Mad Science: Keeping it Personal

“The personal, as everyone's so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry. The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here – it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft-. Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide out from under with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Do as much damage as you can. Get your message across. That way you stand a far better chance of being taken seriously next time. Of being considered dangerous. And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous, marks the difference – the only difference in their eyes – between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it's just business, it's politics, it's the way of the world, it's a tough life, and that it's nothing personal. Well, fuck them. Make it personal.”
     --Quellcrist Falconer
from Richard K. Morgan’s masterwork Altered Carbon

My friend Mike posted a link on Facebook this week from the Washington Post about the Army’s ongoing struggles to retain talent over the last few years, and I replied to it basically to rebut the author’s point.  Which is to say that while the author of the article is at pains throughout the piece to show why life as an Army officer sucks and how Army officers are essentially indentured servants of the U.S. Government, my own personal memories of the Army are nothing like that at all.  
I mean, yeah, I served “the needs of the Army” first and foremost, but I understood that going in.  That was part of the deal.  And it’s not like they had me out there washing potatoes or anything.  Sure, they could send me to a backwater rice-farming village in the Republic of Korea, but when I got there, I was still a captain in the armored cavalry.  I was still doing the job I’d been hired to do, and I was still doing it with the best people with whom I have ever personally had the pleasure of working.
I guess what I’m saying is that when I got those orders to Korea, I wasn’t pissed or anything.  I didn’t cry foul, nor did I particularly feel like I was being treated unfairly.  Fact was, I was a newly divorced guy in a world where lots of guys were married, and some already had kids, and I knew damned well that there was absolulely no reason why I personally shouldn’t be one of the ones going on an unaccompanied tour overseas instead of those other guys.  True, I didn’t have any burning desire to go, but on the other hand, somebody had to, and I was as good a choice as anyone and probably better than most.  
It is what it is.
I wrote here recently about Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying, “Walk softly, but carry a Big Stick.”  I love that one.  

I was an armor officer back in the day.
This pic is from the Wikimedia Commons.
Well, what I realized in Korea--in a way that I don’t think I ever would have in a Stateside unit--was that being in the Army, being in the cavalry, that was me.  I was the Stick.  And I realized that, speaking philosophically, I didn’t want to be the Stick.  I wanted to either be the guy holding the Stick, or I wanted the Hell out of that analogy.  I certainly didn’t want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary guarding border outposts that frankly haven’t been in any real danger since the 1970’s, and I knew that if I stayed in the Army, there was a good chance that that was exactly what I’d wind up doing.
Remember, this was 1999.  The U.S. had recently intervened in Kosovo, Haiti, and Mogodishu, and we kept standing forces in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Italy, Germany, and Korea.  I might’ve missed some.  Anyway, my point here is that there was a lot of standing around in other countries going on, some of it was legitimately dangerous, and none of it seemed like it was either particularly well-considered or necessary to our nation’s vital interests.  We can argue about that, but my personal opinion is that the ROK Army would kick the holy living crap out of the DPRK Army, that all they really need from us is some air support and maybe a few batteries of long range rocket artillery.  That’s fine, but then why keep cavalry on the ground?  That shit is expensive, and it breaks up families.  And, I mean, if it’s necessary, that’s one thing.  But if the problem is that the policy makers are just too busy to really re-think the plan for the modern era, well...
I didn’t want any part of it.  I just didn’t.  I loved the people that I worked with in the Army, they are still the best, but just their company alone wasn’t enough compensation for all the rest of the crap that came along with that particular job.  Meanwhile, the domestic economy was going gonzo with the last gasps of the dot-com bubble, and it looked like it was gonna be easy to get out, get another job, and make lots and lots more money.
My feet touched Korean soil in September, 1999.  I’d filed my resignation by October.  I spent that entire year trying to be the best staff captain I could be while knowing that nothing I did made any difference whatsoever to the rest of my life.  I think I did okay.  When my Squadron XO asked me to forgo mid-term leave so that the Squadron would have an experienced guy around on the staff during Christmas, I did it without complaining.  I also got to lead our Squadron’s staff through a couple of computer training exercises because our Squadron Commander realized that he didn’t trust our Operations Officer, but he did trust me.  And I got to play OPFOR Commander for an actual field training exercise in which I had two cavalry troops and an infantry company under me, and we opposed an entire Brigade river crossing for... well, several days anyway.  That was a riot!  Eventually, they had to rule that the Good Guys got across the river because otherwise the Brigade wasn’t going to meet its training objectives, but still.  I have fond memories.  It’s fun figuring out what you can do when you don’t care who you piss off.
By the way, here’s a tip for all you wannbe OPFOR Commanders out there--cause enough initial carnage to get the Good Guys’ logistics trains moving, and then bomb their hospital or MedEvac outfit.  It’s a soft target, they never see it coming, and it always causes absolute panic.  I’ve been an OPFOR Commander twice, and I’ve used that move both times.  It always causes a delay of at least a couple of hours in which you can counter-attack and gain the upper-hand.  What’ll happen after that is that the entire exercise will go off the rails, and the referees will have to step in to make sure that the Training Objectives are met.
I’m telling you.  Proven technique, that one.
If you’re reading this because you’re a Dungeon Master, and you like it when I write about D&D, let me just tell you that this strategy also works in Dungeons and Dragons.  Most DM’s target the Wizard because he’s the softest target, but what you really want to do is go after the Good Guys’ Cleric.  First off, the Party is already gonna be looking for you to go after the Wizard because that’s the traditional go-to move, but trust me on this.  Once you have the Cleric out of the way, the Party won’t be able to heal.  Then panic is guaranteed.  At that point, you can either kill the Party or let them live, but regardless, you will have established who’s boss, and that’s the point, right?
It works.  That’s all I’m sayin’.
Anywho, Mike pointed out that it’s a Big Army, that there are lots of things to do besides be in the Infantry or the Cavalry, and why should anyone get out when they have such good opportunities for school or interesting overseas travel or whatever.  And that’s a good point.  If the Army had offered me the opportunity to skip Company Command altogether and go straight to Foreign Area Officer (FAO) training, I probably would have accepted.  Philisophically speaking, it might have made more sense to transfer me wholesale to the State Department at that point, but whatever.  I’m not opposed to government service or anything.  
It was just that when I really thought about it, the US Army looked more like a full-time Army of Occupation than it did an Army designed to actually fight and win our nation’s wars; it was that I signed up to be an armored cavalry officer, but in five and a half years, I spent all of eighteen months in an actual tank unit, and the rest of my time I spent on staffs somewhere dreaming about tanks.  And I’m not saying that this is unfair or even any different than what I agreed to do when I signed on in the first place, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do full-time for the rest of my life.  
What I’m saying is that in exchange for my education, the Army demanded five years of my time, and I fulfilled my end of the bargain.  As those five years came to an end, I was in a space where I had some time to really think about my future--about what wanted--and what I decided was that I wanted something different out of my life than an Army officer’s career.  It’s not that the career was wholly unattractive or anything, but at that point, I’d already followed my father around for the majority of his career as a Marine infantry officer, and I’d invested nearly ten years of my own life in the military if you count my time at the Academy, and at least for me, it was time for something new.
It was the right decision for me without doubt.  Your mileage may vary, and that’s fine.
While we’re talking about jobs, I’ll confess something.  I got passed over for a promotion at work recently, and I was pretty damned disappointed.  There’s a lot to the story, and I don’t really want to get into it all here, but I will say that I don’t think that they hired the most qualified person; I think on paper that I was clearly more qualified than the person who actually got the job.  That leaves me to think that something else was at work besides job qualifications, and I’ve been at something of an existential career crisis ever since.  
Why is it that they didn’t take me?  Am I an asshole that no one wants to work with?  Do I have some unfortunate reputation that I don’t know about, that despite the MBA and the years of experience in the field, they just don’t like what they’ve seen from me?  This is the kind of thing that keeps otherwise smart people stuck in middle management, and I went around and around with it for months.
Finally what I decided was that I needed to change the premise.  That it was a sucker’s game trying to put forth whatever aura of mystic nonsense these guys wanted to see from me, that doubling down on work and hoping that somebody would finally notice was a dumbass move.  What I needed to do instead was to play my strengths.
I’m multi-talented, and I have a decent job with terrific hours.  That is good.  My problem isn’t that I’m a good or a bad engineer, that I’m dedicated or not dedicated.  My problem is that I’m a European history major who works as an electrical engineer, and I also write freelance and coach a triathlon club, and I have an MBA in international finance, and if push came to shove, I could probably win the Connecticut State Master’s Swimming Championship in the 100 and 200 butterfly.  And even looking at just the engineering part of my resume, my specialties are far broader than the norm for the industry.  I started in Overhead Distribution, then went to bulk power business analysis, and now I run load flows and do bulk power system stability.  Any one of those would be enough to provide the basis for an entire career.  I can do all three well.  
It’s a conundrum for HR managers, I think.  They look at me, and they say, “But, uh, we just need a guy who can run load flow.  But we need a load flowspecialist.”
The Army, for all its faults, had far more room for Generalists than does Corporate America.
What I need to do, then, is to use the extra time that God has given me to do more of what I want to do, and if I can find some way to make that something pay a little, then that is where my extra effort ought to go.  Or, to put it another way, instead of worrying more about proving myself to people who don’t seem to be paying attention, I need to try to be a better triathlon coach and a better, more consistent writer, and in doing that stuff, hopefully I’ll develop a few ancillary revenue streams.  I’m therefore writing more for About.Com, and--to get to the point, finally--I’m trying to get some of my short fiction out there into the marketplace.
The bottom line is, I commissioned an artist to draw a cover for “Sneax & Elaina Emboo vs. the Fire Elf” this week, and I made a barter deal with another to get a cover done for “The Stone Priest’s Wife.”  I’m hoping to get both up on Amazon as $.99 e-books.
I don’t know how that’s going to go, but I’m excited by the idea, and I hope that it at least looks good when I’m done.  I guess we’ll see.
That’s all I’ve got this week.  Stay safe and try to keep out of the snow!

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