Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tax Summary 2012

This fall, I attended the most challenging leadership course the US Army has to offer: Ranger school. For 51 days, I planned, led and executed a series of complex missions in a simulated combat environment, in which I was deprived of food, sleep and most shelter. To give you some idea, over the first 20 days we slept an average of 2 hours and 15 minutes per night, and rucked 5-10 kilometers per day carrying 65-100 pounds of weapons and equipment. After those 20 days, I lost track and stopped counting.

I did not pass Ranger school, sadly. I was dropped during what’s called Darby phase, in an event called patrols, which I was allowed to try twice after failing the first time (I also failed my peer evaluations, which I will say more about shortly). Failure is somewhat common, as the school has only about a 42% pass rate overall. Nevertheless, it was a very disappointing and embarrassing outcome for me as an officer. Coming up short in such a lengthy and trying endeavor is occasion to do some soul searching, and the writer in me would be remiss not to articulate some lessons and takeaways from the whole experience.

Ranger school taught me much about leadership, tactics, and my own strengths and weaknesses, much of which I described in a prior entry. As it pertains to today’s topic, the important take away from that earlier post is that I failed Ranger school for many reasons. The shortcomings described therein would almost definitely have been enough to cause me to fail Ranger school on their own, quite apart from any additional shortcomings I will describe here. Under no circumstances, therefore, should the comments which follow be seen as an excuse for why I was dropped!!! I failed in many ways, and all of them were my fault. This post will simply explore a particular failure of mine that is a little more complicated than the others.

Throughout my time in Georgia, I could not shake the feeling that there was another factor at play which was preventing me from succeeding to a greater extent than any of the failures listed in my prior entry. There was another variable, that is, hidden just beneath the surface, which caused other students to view me and interact with me differently than they viewed and interacted with one another. That variable was masculinity. 90% of my peers at Ranger school - and 100% of the RI’s – were cocky, angry, swaggeringly aggressive Alpha-males, and I am none of those things.

***

This is a familiar insecurity for me. I almost blogged about it one time previously during the Elliot Rodger controversy a few years back. To jog your memory, Rodger was a 22 year old college student who went on a killing spree after crafting both written and video-recorded manifestos about his hatred of women who rejected him. The videos also described his hatred for sexually active men who were not plagued with the same lifelong pattern of rejection he claimed to have suffered.

What I almost revealed at the time was that I, too, had written a mini-dissertation about my inability to get girls, only 18 months prior to the Isla Vista tragedy. I was nowhere near as depraved as Elliot Rodger was, but we did suffer many of the same frustrations growing up.
For most of my upbringing, I was the stereotypical high school nerd: skinny, pimply, and bespectacled, with very few social skills. So far as I know, no girl ever had a crush on me, and the crushes I had were bottled up in paralyzing fear of the whole subject. I never spoke about girls with my few friends, and when they brought it up, I tried to change the subject as soon as possible. I was never invited to parties. I was never invited to play truth or dare or spin the bottle or other such middle school games. My first kiss was a week before my 17th birthday. I was still a virgin by the time I turned 20, and that was not by choice. I was pretty insecure about these things, but of course all that was internalized. I never dared breach the subject with anyone.

One night in the winter of my Sophomore year, I was so bothered by my inability to get any action that I logged onto my computer, opened a new word document, and ranted. Just like Elliot Rodger, I wrote myself a little fucking manifesto to try to make sense of my perceived inadequacy. But unlike Rodger, I didn’t blame other people for my woes – this was a rant of self-evisceration.

For four paragraphs, I listed all the reasons I thought I was failing with girls. I wasn’t intriguing, I hypothesized. I wasn’t mysterious, or enigmatic, or affectionate, or engaging, or coy, or subtle. I wasn’t good at flirting or escalating simple conversation. I was too friendly, too innocent, too deliberate, too transparent, too honest, too overeager. But I settled upon one explanation above all: I was too feminine, which in my anger and frustration and ignorance I castigated as something pitiful and shameful. I closed my rant with these exact words:

“I don’t get girls because I’m not sexy. That has nothing to do with my looks. I wish I had the excuse of ugliness, but I don’t. I’m tall with dark hair, bright blue eyes, a six pack and a trim, athletic figure. No, for sexy guys, the body is secondary. Being sexy is about being macho, being the alpha-male. It’s about constructing an aura of confidence and intrigue and masculine libido, and I’m terrible at it.

I don’t get girls because I am a beta-male, which is the polite, technical term for pussy. I am the punching bag that the alpha-males beat up on, the stand-in loser they blow past on their way to a score – the fucking Washington Generals of flirtation. I am the nervous, hesitant weakling that evolution would cast aside to die in a prior era, but which in the modern era it mockingly keeps alive to play video games and watch porn at 3 am.

In other words, I don’t get girls because I’m a little bitch.

The worst part about it is that there’s almost nothing I can do. If getting girls were about knowledge, I could learn. If it were about my body, I could work out, or even get surgery. But you can’t fix bitch. There is no book I can read, no homework I can study, no exercise I can perform, no distance I can run, no medicine I can take, no amount of powder I can dump in my fucking workout shake that will turn me into the cocky, arrogant, douchebag macho-man who takes names and gets what he wants. I am stuck with the testosterone level of a fucking eight year old, and yes, I’m a little salty about it.”

That’s where I stopped. It was 4:00 am. Before I logged off, I saved the document under the title "Tax Summary 2012" - a paranoid effort to ensure that no one besides me would ever think to open it.

Even as I did this, I knew it was silly and immature. I knew it was exaggerated and written in anger. And I knew it was sexist and derogatory towards pretty much everyone, because I was not totally ignorant of those things. I didn’t care. It felt good. I was finally getting these weights off my chest that I’d struggled with for a LONG ass time. Besides, I would never dare let anyone else read it, so who cared if it was offensive?

I couldn’t phrase it feminist terms at the time, but I now realize the emotions I felt that day were a form of internalized misogyny – just as Elliot Rodger’s self-loathing became externalized misogyny. This article from The Atlantic explains why beautifully.

Success with women is…an important part of men’s self-image—that’s a big part of what it means to “be a man.” This seems to be the kind of thinking at work when Rodger says he feels like women are "treat[ing] me like scum" when they have boyfriends who aren't him. To him, women aren't people; they're markers of who is and who is not a man. If a woman chooses someone else, the thinking goes, that means Rodger and others like him are not men.

This equation of manhood with desirability and sexual prowess is just about everywhere in our society, from the priapic James Bond to the nebbishy, always rejected Clark Kent and his alter-ego, the ever-desired Superman. This rings true in my own experience, too. For me, being a virgin wasn't painful because of the lack of sex or the lack of companionship. It was frustrating because of the sense that I was doing it wrong; that if I didn't have a girlfriend, I was, like that old Marvel character, Man-Thing, a misshapen mockery of a man…

The stigma against male virgins is something that men like Rodger—and men like me—internalize, and is, in itself, a form of misogyny. As Julia Serano writes in her book, Whipping Girl, that misogyny is directed not only against women, but against femininity—against anyone who fails to be that ideal, powerful, alpha superman.

These insecurities are extremely common in men. It is fair to call them typical. As a mentally unstable person, Elliot Rodger had a very atypical response to these commonplace emotions. But as a much more mentally stable person, my response to these pressures (and I think the response of most men) was not to deflect the blame outwards or go on a rampage. It was merely to take a hard look in the mirror and initiate changes to make myself more desirable. In other words, it was to “fix” the things I didn’t quite like about myself; essentially code for becoming less of a wimp.

In the weeks following my little manifesto, that’s exactly what I did. I worked out more, funneling my anger into something productive. I got a new haircut. I changed my wardrobe. I went online and literally studied how to get more game. For what it’s worth, it worked. I had more energy. I felt more confident. As both a cause and effect of that confidence, I did better with women. Before long, the monkey was off my back. All of this improved my mood and made me more secure in who I am. Nobody was harmed by any of it.

Being feminist means realizing that I shouldn’t have had to do any of that to feel good about myself. But at the same time, I’m convinced there was nothing wrong with how I responded. The pressures themselves were wrong. It is wrong that femininity is viewed as a negative trait. It is wrong that men are made to feel ashamed for not being more “alpha”. It is wrong that men and women are taught to link their self-worth with their ability to attract the opposite sex. Shaming is bad in general for things that carry no moral connotations. But in the interim, until those things are fixed, there’s nothing wrong with men becoming more masculine if it makes them feel safer in their own skin.

By analogy, some people are insecure about their noses. It’s unfortunate that society revolves so heavily around physical appearance that people with ugly noses are made to feel insecure about it, and maybe we should try to be less shallow and judgmental about ugly nosed people. But does that make it wrong to get a nose-job? If it will make people happier, they should go for it!

There’s a difference between supporting the patriarchy and adapting to it. There is also a difference between exhibiting traditionally masculine traits, or striving to do so, and demanding others do the same. I recently had a Facebook discussion with a man who phrased it this way (in response to another woman in the conversation):

“I can be stoic and not demand that of others. I can demand that I am strong without being hard on others. I can choose not to cry and still be tender to those that do. My acceptance of those ideals on myself isn't wrong until I attempt to force them on others.

Telling me I'm giving a bad example because I don't cry often is no different than telling a child not to cry because it's "weak". There is a world of difference between me not crying or showing emotion on as broad of a spectrum as you do and saying it's wrong.

Just accept people for how they are, and stop pressuring people one way or the other.

I don’t need to feel guilty about aspiring for the traditional masculine ideal any more than I should feel ashamed of the opposite. It doesn’t make me a bad feminist or a sellout to the patriarchy. Being feminist just means acknowledging that men and women are equal, and that masculinity and femininity are equal; which we personally choose to embody is wholly up to us. I have understood this principle for years now, and it has helped me come to terms with the frustrations I expressed on that winter night in my Sophomore year.

That understanding did not spare me the familiar pang of inadequacy in the forests of Fort Benning, GA.

***

There is no question that the culture at Ranger school is deeply misogynistic. There were no females in my squad, but I heard “bitch,” “pussy,” and “faggot” used derisively - by the instructors, no less – more times than I can count. It was never directed towards me personally, but more of a general warning to everyone: “snivel is for faggots,” or “don’t be a bitch,” etc. In fact, several students had that latter phrase written on the underside of their patrol cap in permanent marker. The Army has a robust EO program with thousands of paid employees whose entire job is to eradicate such language (and, more importantly, the attitudes which underlie it) from the military. I am convinced that none of them would dare approach the 4th Ranger Training Battalion. It would be like bringing a fly swatter to room swarming with hornets.

To reiterate, these mindsets are not an excuse for why I was peered out at Ranger school. They were simply the biggest reason.

While I knew peer evaluations would be part of the challenge all along, my strategy towards navigating them had been hopelessly na├»ve: “just be a nice guy!” I said to myself. “Help people. Offer to carry the heavy weapons. Volunteer for chore details at every opportunity. Make friends, and avoid making enemies. If people are unkind to you, turn the other cheek instead of firing back. Don’t let fatigue and frustration suck you into petty, trivial arguments. Lend people gum whenever they ask, and offer it unsolicited whenever you can. Don’t give people an obvious reason to peer you, and they won’t. Lay low, do your bit, and you’ll be fine.”

As it turned out, this was exactly the wrong advice for myself. What I saw as turning the other cheek was seen as a sign of submission and weakness. The people who were rated the highest by their peers at Ranger school were not the nice ones. More often than not, they were the ones I considered “assholes,”– people who were needlessly confrontational and aggressive and vain and bossy and rude. Society has another name for these kinds of people, and it’s highly relevant to our implicit assumptions about gender roles: we call them “dicks.”

To succeed at Ranger school, you needed to be a dick. Imagine an ornery drill sergeant from the 1930’s, hyped up on steroids, and you’ll have some vague notion of the sort of leadership they require.

This is not my style of leadership. For example, if I wanted someone in my squad to move from one location to another, I would simply tell them where to move, walk away, and expect that it be done. I treated people like adults, because that’s how I like to be treated, and I saw it as a courtesy they would return in kind.

That was not the sort of leadership the RI’s wanted to see. They wanted the leader who would pick the person up by the collar, drag them into place, order them to get the fuck down in the prone position, tell them their sector of fire, and explain that if they moved a muscle before instructed you would personally kick the living shit out of them. Apparently, that’s the sort of leadership that Privates from Ranger Battalion respect. That’s what makes it stick. And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with that style. It’s tried and tested and it works. It’s just not me.

I am a thinker, not an enforcer. I make decisions. I analyze risk. I plan. I keep the big picture in mind. I consider the long term. I don’t shout, or even get angry much. It’s just not my style. Were I to ever try to adopt the tone of the grizzled, bulldog NCO, it would come off as phony and ridiculous. Besides, I’m just a freshman lieutenant; who am I to scream orders at a senior NCO with multiple combat tours? I’d be laughed out of the room.

Ranger school teaches young military leaders to have unwavering confidence in their every command. Combat leaders must be assertive and aggressive, domineering and dictatorial. All of these traits are associated with masculinity and manhood in modern society. None of them are natural strong-suits of mine.

That is not to say they are totally beyond my reach. I can be confident when I am prepared, and I can be assertive when I am confident. I have trained myself to be more of these things than I used to be. Like most people, I feel anger and aggression every now and again. If you were to array every man on the planet in one giant spectrum according to their relative levels of masculinity, I would not be an outlier.

But I would be below the median – always have been, always will be. And relative to US Army Rangers – at least, the Ranger candidates who made it past RAP week with me – I most certainly was an outlier. As the course went on, that became more and more obvious, and I felt more and more out of place. My ability to lead was crippled before I even stepped into an evaluated leadership role.

It was in this manner that my feminist enlightenment was bookended by two occasions on which I was completely emasculated.

***

This is where my distinction between an excuse and a reason becomes super important. An excuse attempts to evade blame by attributing the outcome to happenstance circumstances beyond the excuse-maker’s control. Someone making an excuse for why the Carolina Panthers lost the Super Bowl yesterday might point out that the referees arguably missed an important call in the 1st Quarter, which not only stalled a Panthers drive, but wound up leading to a Denver fumble return touchdown on the ensuing play. While this is true, it does not excuse a 14 point loss; enough of the game was still under Carolina’s control, even on those two plays, that the Panthers retain full responsibility for the outcome.

A reason, by contrast, merely explains how an event came to transpire, without passing judgment on accountability. The primary reason the Panthers lost the Super Bowl was because of their inability to stall Denver’s pass rush, leading to seven Denver sacks and two forced fumbles. Pointing this out does not suggest that anything besides Carolina itself was at fault for the loss; rather it seeks only to analyze how the game played out as it did.

Ranger school’s unique flavor of misogyny – “directed,” according to Serano’s paraphrased definition, “against anyone who fails to be that ideal, powerful, alpha superman” – is the reason my peers at Ranger school voted me off the island. The reason this is a reason, and not an excuse, is that their decision was entirely justified, and that I am entirely to blame for it. Ranger school’s veneration of traditional masculinity at the expense of femininity is necessary and wise.

To borrow an overused phrase, “let’s unpack that.” Attribute A is a set of traits called “masculinity.” It is traditionally associated with maleness, but we feminists understand it is not directly linked to maleness at all.

Attribute B is a set of traits called “femininity.” It is traditionally associated with femaleness, but again, it isn’t really related to sex. A and B occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, and people of any sex can fall anywhere along that spectrum.

In life in general, A = B, irrespective of the sex which happens to be exhibiting A or B. Neither the set of traits historically associated with masculinity nor those historically associated with femininity are objectively “better” than the other. They’re just traits, like hair color or left/right handedness, which make us unique from (but not superior to) one another. Each have their strengths and weaknesses in different situations.

In the particular situation of armed combat, however, A > B. Stereotypically “masculine” traits like aggression, confidence, decisiveness, anger, toughness, and brute physical strength are clearly preferable on the battlefield to the opposite traits. This may not be true in the Army in general; as warfare becomes more complex and less conventional, traditionally feminine attributes may be more helpful in other sorts of military work (like negotiating, civil relations, interrogation, etc.). But when it comes to the lethal small unit missions Ranger school trains for, masculinity inspires more confidence in the troops and more fear in the enemy. It enables longer movements through harsher conditions in shorter times. I’m not going to bother to explain this any further, because any soldier reading this will agree with me, and any non-soldier reading this doesn’t have much leg to stand on. I’m not sure why this is: perhaps it is due to human nature, or perhaps it is due to deeply ingrained sexism. But for the time being, it is absolutely true.

There is nothing immoral about masculine people having an edge in certain endeavors, or vice-versa, so long as that edge results from masculinity’s inherent merits, rather than from social discrimination (as I explained here). This means that for the time being, creating an environment of inclusion and equal opportunity needs to be weighed against competing priorities. When we’re training leaders for the world’s most lethal warriors, accomplishing the mission and surviving are simply more important priorities. The lives of soldiers and the success of their missions should trump equal treatment of all sorts of persons within their ranks.

Ranger school is right, therefore, to value A over B, to pressure its students to become more A, and to weed out those students who are not sufficiently A.

Of course, like the rest of society, Ranger school is wrong to continue associating A with men, and B with women, especially now that women have gained access to Ranger school. Female candidates should be given every opportunity to meet the same standards. Derogatory use of the words “bitch,” “pussy,” and “faggot” indicate Ranger school is unsurprisingly less than enlightened in this regard.

But however they phrase their hostility, Ranger school is right to be prejudicial towards traditionally feminine behavior, because traditionally feminine people really are less effective combat leaders. To be more specific, Ranger culture is unjust to the extent that assumes all women submissive and dithering and weak. But to the extent that that culture weeds out those who truly are submissive and dithering and weak, male or female, that is to be commended.

***

I think it’s a bit harsh to describe myself as submissive, dithering or weak. Physically speaking, I was at least as tough as anyone in my squad. I got one of the fastest times on the 12 mile ruck march. I passed RAP week, the initial four day hell of incessant physical punishment, without much problem. I never came close to quitting. I made timely decisions under pressure. By the last two weeks of the course, I was running patrol lanes which I still believe were good enough to pass, TAC dependent. Fuck, I made it 51 days through one of the toughest combat leadership courses on the planet! By any civilian standard, I’m a certified badass.

But by Ranger standards, that’s not enough, for one simple reason: as of now, my personality is not the sort that inspires organized violence. I can memorize all the steps. I can brief an eloquent OPORD. I can learn how to use NODS and mount an M240B machine gun on its tripod and input the frequency in a SINGAR radio. I can master all these things, but until I develop a little more experience and confidence leading soldiers through trying circumstances, I won’t make the cut.

Just as a less mature me once complained that the men who got the most sex were often the biggest jerks, I recently found myself lamenting how soldiers who were complete morons in every respect except their own confidence could pass the same patrols and peer evaluations which I had failed. And in both cases, I had to get over that fact that being a friendly and intelligent and hard working person is not enough to make either soldiers or females rate you highly relative to other men. In romance and Ranger school, traditional masculinity is just better.

In both cases, patriarchy exacerbated the insecurities I felt as a consequence of failure. But in neither case was it to blame for the failure itself.

I am not a victim of anything – I’m just not cut out to be a Ranger.

Yet.

I refuse to believe that I failed Ranger school because of any permanent deficiency in me; even if that were true, such a belief is not productive towards maximizing what one can accomplish with ones abilities. There may be such thing as “natural born leaders,” but for the rest of us, leadership is just like any other skill: it has to be learned. Once learned, it must be practiced if it is to develop and improve. Last fall, I just didn’t have enough practice.


Accordingly, I will respond to this setback in the same way I have responded to every other failure in my adult life: by working on my weaknesses and redoubling my efforts to improve as a leader and a man. I’ll strive to become more confident, assertive, and traditionally masculine in those situations that require it. In those situations that don’t require it, I’ll just be me. And most importantly of all, in neither case will I feel ashamed for such behavior. Like Darby itself, I’m past that phase.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Five reasons I failed Ranger school

Most people learn from their own mistakes, but as my father’s co-worker once told him, “it’s a smart motherfucker who learns from other peoples mistakes.” It is in this spirit that I will open up today about my own failures this past autumn, when I was dropped from Ranger school as a double-no-go on Darby patrol lanes and peers evals (I recycled once, and spent 51 days there in total).

This post is designed for military personnel preparing for Ranger school, so that they might learn from the mistakes I made and better prepare themselves for parts of the school they may not have heard about. It is not designed as a comprehensive guide on how to pass – there are certainly plenty of those in circulation elsewhere – but rather as an opportunity for introspection, which I hope others may find incidentally helpful. If you’re a civilian, you may not understand some of the terminology I employ, so bear with me.

Here’s five reasons I failed Ranger school.

1. My tactical knowledge was completely inadequate. My branch is Quartermaster, I did not get the chance to attend a pre-Ranger program, and at the time I showed up to Ranger school, I had only been in the Army for four months. I came in with no tactical exposure outside of ROTC patrol lanes and two weeks of convoy ops at Quartermaster BOLC. To put it mildly, Ranger patrols are a whole different beast. It wasn’t just the elaborate steps I that I had to memorize; little things that other Rangers knew like the back of their hand (like how to mount the tripod on the M240B, or how to emplace a Claymore mine, or how to load the frequency into the handheld radio) were totally new to me. My expertise and domain knowledge were severely lacking, so I spent the entire first cycle of Darby playing catch up. As anyone who has ever attended Ranger school will attest, it’s not a very conducive learning environment. My first few lanes were an absolute abortion, and although I got much better towards the end, it ultimately proved too large a hole to dig myself out of.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: unless you’re coming straight from IBOLC (where they teach you all that stuff) or an 11B MOS, study up. They have YouTube videos teaching you how to do a lot of the basics that I didn’t find until after. This is just as important as physical preparation in my opinion. It will really give you a leg up.


2. I had tremendous difficulty moving at night. Ranger school was my first time using what the Army calls NODS (Night Optical Devices), commonly called Night Vision Goggles or NVG’s. I went in the late fall when daylight is short, and patrol lanes would run from about 3pm to about 3am, so we wore these devices roughly 70% of the time we were moving through the woods. Prior to Ranger school, I didn’t worry about that too much, because I figured the goggles should be pretty self-explanatory: you put them on, and viola! – you can now see at night. Right?

I soon found out the devices are not that simple. There are all sorts of knobs and levers and clamps that need to be fiddled with if you want the device to attach to your helmet, fall in front of your dominant eye, and stay put without jiggling while you walk, none of which I knew how to attach or adjust. I say dominant eye because they are only worn on one eye (who knew?), while the other is kept open and unaided to help with depth perception. That depth perception needs helping because the lenses can only focus on one depth at a time; they do not allow the eye to seamlessly transition between near and far objects as it does under natural lighting. I had no clue about that either, and no one bothered to tell me until I was halfway through my second time through Darby phase. So for the four and a half weeks prior to then, (and 3 of my 5 patrol lanes) I was stumbling on every log in Georgia with one eye closed, thinking I was just clumsy or scared of the dark or something. This made a hell of a racket, and slowed people down around me, which is not a good way to endear oneself to one’s fellow squad mates.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Find a set of NODS and practice Night Land Navigation with them, with a heavy ruck on your back, in the woods. If this isn’t possible, at least practice clamping them onto your helmet in the dark. Turn them over in your hands until you know their every bump and latch and lens by touch. Make this muscle memory, because you won’t be allowed to violate light discipline just to fiddle with them during lanes.


3. I was far too focused on myself, and not nearly focused enough on the others in my squad. I am very much an introvert, and especially so under stressful conditions. I am at my best when I have some time alone each day to clear my head, unwind, and get organized. Being around the same group of people 22 hours a day did not allow for that. The result was that I tended to withdraw from the group and be antisocial, to the point where I was dissociable from the rest. Whereas other people de-stressed by socializing, and leaned on each other for motivation during rough times, I internalized it all, which meant I became more and more reserved as things became more and more stressful. That’s not a good way to make friends, and it’s certainly not a good way to lead.

Part of the problem was the way I prepared. In the weeks leading up to Ranger school, I approached the course with the attitude of a runner training for a super-marathon: bracing myself for a daunting feat of individual endurance. I created a daily motivation book, for example, full of quotes and stories designed to pump me up for the day’s challenges. I spend many hours ruck marching to prepare my body and mind for the rigors they would endure. I researched basic infantry tactics to bolster my knowledge of what I would be tested on. Whatever happened, I resolved firmly to myself that I would not quit for want of personal comfort, so that upon the completion of the course, I could prove to the world that I was tough enough for battle. In so doing, I imagined the entire course as a self-centered exercise of personal willpower. Sure enough, I did exceedingly well in those parts of Ranger school that required heart and grit and determination not to quit (like RAP week, the ruck march, general pain tolerance, etc).

But I soon found that personal willpower is not enough if you cannot motivate those around you as well. Once you pass the initial hell of RAP week, Ranger school is much more a group assessment than an individual test. You cannot merely decline to quit – you must perform as a leader of men. It is not enough to just keep going – you must motivate those around you to keep going as well. You must lead by more than just example, even when not in a leadership position. To be painfully honest, I was poor at that.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Ignore anyone who tells you Ranger school is just a matter of “not quitting.” I never came close to wanting to quit – it didn’t matter. Be a leader. Be group minded and results oriented. Doing your job is not enough. Make sure everyone else does theirs. And make sure to reach out and try to connect with the others in your squad. If you’re an officer, especially try to connect with the enlisted, and vice versa (you won’t wear rank, but everyone will find out what everyone else is in the early going). If you naturally tend to withdraw from others in the face of a challenge, take proactive steps to counteract that tendency.


4. I was a sleepy ranger. Prior to Ranger school I thought I would be fine operating on very little sleep, because that’s how I lived throughout much of my college years. But in college, you’re only awake if you have to do something important towards your grade, and that something is rarely physical. In Ranger school, they exhaust you physically, and then make you lie on your stomach for hours with nothing to do besides watch out for imaginary bad guys. I accidentally fell asleep in security on multiple occasions, one of which caused the RI to fire my 249 in my face, and contributed to the squad leader failing the lane. I felt horrible, but at the same time didn’t know what else I could have done to stay awake. I did pushups in place. I chewed gargantuan wads of gum. I even tried to recite the prime numbers from 1 to 100, just to keep my mind active. Nothing seemed to help. I hallucinated on several occasions, even while we were up and moving. Maybe it was just a lack of discipline on my part, but everyone else fell asleep at least once or twice as well. I suppose everyone has a biological limit for that sort of thing, and I met mine.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Sleep whenever you can. Do your best to stay awake when you must. Find battle buddies whenever you are struggling. DO NOT try the plan where one guy sleeps while the other stays awake to post guard – chances are, without anyone to talk to him or keep him company, the other one will accidentally drift off as well.


5. Under conditions of exhaustion, my attention to detail went to shit. Attention to detail has never been a strength of mine, and extreme fatigue made it downright horrendous. On one occasion I packed my helmet in my A-bag instead of my ruck, thinking we wouldn’t need it that day, and forgetting the RI’s instructions to keep it with you out of sheer absent mindedness. I was right – most of us didn’t need it that day – but of course I was one of the five students voluntold to go on a drop-zone detail that did require it. So that was a major minus. On another occasion, I got a major minus for having my M249 on fire during a debrief – again, I just forgot to switch it back. Sometimes I forgot the day’s challenge and password, or tied the wrong knot in my 550 cord, etc. etc. It may seem trivial to civilian friends, but that stuff is life and death in battle, so it really must not happen.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Focus. Try. When you inevitably do make mistakes, don’t become exasperated or disheartened by them, but don’t become numb to your own mistakes either. Don’t try and de-stress beforehand; sometimes, stress is helpful. I wasn’t stressed enough. I saw this as a strength – proof that I was unfazed in the face of adversity – but my squad mates interpreted it as indifference to the outcome. Light a fire under your own ass so other people won’t have to do it for you.

Someday, I hope to go back and apply these lessons myself by giving the course a second go. In the meantime, I hope they ca at least help someone else. Best of luck!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Some thoughts on a less cogent criticism of Making a Murderer

My last post dealt with several reasonable, principled complaints with how the makers of the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer presented the facts in the case of Steven Avery. Unfortunately, not all the shows detractors make such good points. Diana Alvear, for instance, believes “what Netflix missed with ‘Making a Murderer’” is how sad it is that Teresa Halbach was killed. “[T]he most troubling aspect to this entire story,” she writes, “…is that a young woman’s death has been treated as a mere plot device…Teresa deserved more than the mere minutes they gave her on screen.”

I think this is a stupid reason to object to the show. What Teresa Halbach deserved was a long and happy life. More time on camera is a poor consolation for that being taken from her. A commemoration video might have been appropriate for her funeral, or as a thoughtful keepsake to be distributed among her loved ones for occasional remembrance later on. But such a video would not interest the hundreds of millions of Netflix viewers who never met her, however callous Alvear deems that to be.

Allegations of corruption, on the other hand, which challenge people’s deepest assumptions about their most trusted public officials, apparently DO interest Netflix viewers. So does raising the possibility that two innocent people may be languishing in prison, and that we might yet do something about it. People like controversy. There is no controversy about the fact that Teresa Halbach is dead, nor that her death is a tragedy. There are thousands of murders every year and OF COURSE our sympathies go out to the victims and their families. But drumming up the sadness of it all is simply not relevant to the central question being decided in those courtrooms, which was who did it?

What relation do the facts that Halbach loved photography, and won’t ever get married, and was a caring person with a close-knit family truly have with that underlying question? How is it “not standing up” for Teresa to try to find the truth regarding who killed her, even if it comes at the expense of those incidental facts? How is questioning the state’s version of that story something Teresa “deserves better” than? If it turns out her true killer is still out there, isn’t a documentary like this exactly what Teresa would want?

Alvear writes that “what I am trying to do with this essay” is “give Teresa Halbach the justice she deserves.” That’s a pretty ambitious aim, because she’s dead as a doorknob, and nothing will bring her back. No matter what happens to Teresa’s killer, she won’t get justice. How many minutes of screen time she gets to commemorate her life is of literally no consequence to her.

But Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are not dead. If there were injustices done to them, those injustices might yet be rectified.

It is very possible Steven Avery really did kill her . I don’t know beyond a reasonable
doubt either way. But Alvear doesn’t either. Nobody can; and yet, there he sits, in jail for life all the same. That’s the point the documentary made, and apparently it went right over some people’s heads.

PS —  Giving one, short, powerful sentence its own line of text apart from other paragraphs can occasionally highlight that sentence’s implications in a rhetorically effective way. But you can’t replicate that effect an infinite number of times in the same article. Even if I agreed with you, it would have been hard to read this last bit without rolling my eyes at the overdone drama of its presentation:


Note to any aspiring writers out there: hitting the Enter key after every damn line of text just makes your opinion read like an amateur Buzzfeed editorial.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Some thoughts on Making a Murderer and its critics

Recently I watched the viral Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” I loved it. You should watch it if you have not done so already. This post contains spoilers, so don’t read on if you haven’t watched it yet. The post also will not bother to summarize the events of the show, so even if you lack the faintest inclination to one day watch the show, go away: what follows won’t make much sense to you. I’m presuming anyone who’s still reading has seen the show.

Regardless of your thoughts on its content, the series was a tremendous piece of film-making. I especially loved how, despite being a documentary, the show does not have a narrator. I always felt the narrator was redundant in most made-for-TV documentaries, and sometimes insulted my intelligence. The show seems much more intellectually serious by allowing the viewers to piece things together themselves.

With that said, it has received a lot of criticism since its release. Factually, it leaves out a lot. Prosecutor Ken Kratz spoke to the media about many pieces of incriminating evidence which were left out of the documentary, including some non-blood DNA from Avery (possibly sweat or skin cells) found on the latch of the RAV-4 hood, and the fact that he bought shackles and handcuffs just three weeks before the murder (Avery claims he used these as sex toys with his ex-fiance, Jodi Stachowski). Jodi, for her part, has changed her tune since the documentary was filmed, telling Nancy Grace she now believes Avery is guilty, and revealing that he often beat her and threatened to kill her. Penny Beernstem, the original rape victim who misidentified Avery, reveals that shortly after his release he called her and asked her to buy him a house as recompense – while not relevant to his murder charges, it doesn’t paint as flattering a picture of the man as the filmmakers let on. They also omit that he was facing entirely separate sexual assault charges in 2004, and that while he was imprisoned, he had made statements to other inmates regarding his plans to build a “torture chamber” upon his release. The New York Times added some additional information.

My thoughts on all this...I was never certain Steven Avery was innocent, and I can be even less so now that I have read this new information. Personally, I am much more convinced of Brendan Dassey’s innocence (and more outraged by his treatment at the hands of prosecutors) than I am of Avery’s, but even that I cannot be sure of. All I know is that I have enough doubt about the guilt of Avery to believe he deserves a new trial, with jurors who were not prejudiced by the media fanfare surrounding his case. And I have enough doubt about Dassey’s confession(s) to believe that he should be exonerated outright, and allowed to go home.

As always, the internet has provided some interesting analysis. Reddit found perhaps the most plausible theory I have seen yet of Avery’s innocence, implicating Scott Tadych and Bobby Dassey, and claiming that Avery was actually framed by two people at the same time: the killer(s), and the police. One author on Slate felt the show was emotionally manipulative for only showing a one-sided story biased towards Avery’s innocence. The most interesting of all came from the New Yorker, which compared the unregulated bias of the vigilante justice genre in film and writing to the same certainty of truth which could have plausibly led the Manitowoc County prosecutors to frame Avery in the first place.

My thoughts?

Obviously, I agree it was one-sided. Duh. They weren’t doing close-ups of the Halback family at their dinner table, or extensive interviews with Ken Kratz as he drove his car and ruminated on the state of the criminal justice system. From the makers’ perspective, 10 years seems like a long time to invest into a documentary if you aren’t driven by a passionate opinion as to the justice behind your cause. When Penny Beernsten says she declined to participate because she was convinced the filmmakers were already convinced of his innocence, I believe her.

And, yes, of course they omitted evidence. But, I don’t think which evidence they omitted was necessarily related to the fact that it was biased. As Avery’s old lawyer Dean Strang pointed out afterwards, it would have been impossible not to omit some of it. You can quibble about which evidence was important enough to make the cut in a 10-hour piece, but when they had 240 hours of courtroom footage alone, you can’t expect them to include it all. It’s important to note, also, that what was left out was not solely arguments supporting the prosecution. The media is asking Kratz what he thinks of the evidence that was not included, but surely Dean and Jerry also had rebuttals to those theories which also were not mentioned in the documentary.

Ultimately, I think those criticizing the producers for unwarranted certitude and emotional manipulation may underestimate the shows audience. It’s not every sort of person who devotes over ten hours of their life to watching a documentary about courtroom proceedings. Making a Murderer does not have the incessant sex and violence of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Narcos, or other viral dramas. Those shows are all excellent and captivating, but their appeal is somewhat lower brow – certainly more accessible to those viewers who are, shall we say, as impressionable as Brendan Dassey. Restrained by the boundaries of chronological nonfiction, there are times when Making a Murderer becomes downright dry by comparison. Those most likely to be transfixed by the show, and most outraged by its alleged scandal, are likely those thoughtful enough to ruminate on the criminal justice system at large. People like you, me, and the authors of think pieces in The New Yorker will not be satisfied taking the documentary’s claims at face value – like any good lawyer, we dig deeper. To me, it seems like the indignation the show engenders is not designed to end the public debate once and for all, but only prod formerly indifferent viewers into additional research and activism on a cold case.


If the documentary is slanted, it is only to counterbalance the impossibly steep uphill slope of Mr. Avery’s remaining legal battle. This is a man who has exhausted all of his appeals, for the second time. He has no remaining right to appointed representation. The legal question is settled. In the authoritative eyes of the law, there is only one story, and that is the story of the prosecution. Making a Murderer presents a one-sided rendition of events because the other side has already won. It invites the viewer to challenge the prevailing narrative, and reopen questions formerly closed. Mr. Avery and Mr. Dassey were convicted in a climate of horrified public outrage; by creating countervailing outcry in the opposite direction, Making a Murderer merely evens the scales of mob justice. Immediate exoneration of the accused and vilification of the prosecutors is not something the documentary could possibly hope to achieve. To its makers, success looks like a new trial, a decade detached from the passions of the first, combined with renewed public skepticism of the authorities in general. I would welcome both of those things.

What NOT to do when a loved one’s favorite sports team suffers sudden defeat

A few weeks ago the Minnesota Vikings played a single-elimination playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings were strong underdogs, but the game was very close up through the final minute, when the Vikings trailed by only one point with the ball deep in Seahawks territory. All Minnesota needed to win the game, pull off a huge upset and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009 was for their kicker, Blair Walsh, to make a chip shot field goal from just 27 yards away. The conditions were frigid, but Walsh is one of the best kickers in the league, and during the regular season, NFL kickers made field goals from between 20 and 29 yards on 229 of their 233 attempts.

Tragically, he missed the kick (video here). In the span of less than five seconds, the Vikings chances of winning went from 98% to 0%. Their season was over.

As has become common after major sports moments, YouTube was soon filled with dozens of “reaction videos” depicting either the heart-wrenching agony of Minnesota fans or the incredulous joy of Seattle fans watching the game live. One of these videos caught my attention.




Note the mother’s reaction especially: 

“What?....
Awwwwwww, saaad…
Awwww…
I feel sorry for him…
awww…[unintelligible]…aww…awwwww, saad….Awww…”

Adding insult to injury, the poor dude’s sister chirps in: “at least he’s still got his looks, that’s all that matters!” 

Meanwhile, his mother sees fit to add “Are you crying honey? You feel like it, right?”

……………………………………...

Gals...........

…………………………………………………………………..

I don’t know where to start, so I’ll say this: that kid is an absolute saint. Those who have never felt the way he's feeling may not appreciate the amount of restraint he displays in this video. Allow me to demonstrate, by method of comparison. I am not an especially violent man. I love my family very dearly. If I were in this boy’s shoes at that moment, it would have taken every fiber of self-restraint I possess to refrain from throwing something at my relatives. Every fiber of self-restraint I possess would not have been sufficient to prevent me from screaming at them to SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!

For a sex that is supposedly better at emotional intelligence and picking up on social cues, far too many women make this blunder. It’s not only women, but it mostly is. Nor is it just my mother or my sister (they're actually much better at this now than they used to be, and I really enjoy watching games with them as a result). I've been at friends' parties for big games, and ALL the Mom's do this. And it's not intended as an intentional way to get under our skin, either, because I know the difference. For all I can tell, the mother in this video was making a sincere, good faith effort to console her son.

Maybe it’s due to biological differences regarding competitiveness and the hormones which produce it. Maybe it’s socially pressured ignorance about sports and sports fandom. Maybe it’s the patriarchy, who knows. For whatever reason, many of our female friends appear completely lost in these situations. In service to sports fans everywhere, let me try to help them out. Your willingness to obey this one rule I'm about to give you is very likely the difference between whether we enjoy watching sports with you, or would prefer to watch them alone. Listen up, Moms...

If your son, daughter or husband is PASSIONATE about a sports team that you are considerably less passionate about, and you are watching an important game with that family member, and their team suffers a sudden and devastating turn of events in that game...for the love of all that his holy, shut up.

I am entirely too well acquainted with the emotions the Vikings fan in this video went through, but for all my writing powers, it is still a very difficult feeling for me to describe. Your heart skips a beat, and then sinks. For a few seconds, your mind races, trying to justify disbelief in what just happened – perhaps scanning the field for penalty markers, or begging for a replay challenge. Eventually, shock segues into misery, which can linger for weeks. No matter how much you try to grow up and move past it, the rotten sensation in your stomach returns each time you remember just how close your team was.

But in that first moment, before the heartbreak settles in, what we’re feeling is mostly a defensive reaction. It is borne from profound embarrassment, in front of our peers and in front of rival fans. To support a team publicly is to put your own neck on the line with every win and loss. To not merely lose a big game, but lose it spectacularly, is as mortifying as it is sad, because you know that everyone else knows you’re in pain. It’s a moment of weakness, and men instinctively guard those moments with seething anger.

When we flip out after an event like this, we're not acting. We are not deliberately putting on a show to prove our masculinity. Many male sports fans will legitimately feel threatened when their team loses, and the resulting fight or flight response is all too real. Maybe it's the same for women, but I haven't seen it to the same degree.

In such a state, we become acutely aware of the contrast between how torn up we are inside, and the relative indifference of most people around us. For some reason, this makes it worse. There is something intensely aggravating about being surrounded by people who can’t remotely relate to how devastated you are, and listening to them halfheartedly try to cheer you up.

“Hey, there’s always next year!”

“They tried their best, honey!”

“Oh well, it’s just a game.”

If you have ever said these things in the immediate aftermath of such a loss, you don’t get it, and you almost certainly irritated someone who does. 

Watching this video made me wince and squirm at how awkward the “saaaaaddd” was – not because it wasn’t sad, but because it was so clear from the woman’s tone that she was not saddened. She couldn’t care less! She didn’t even know enough about the sport to know what the missed field goal meant, initially asking “What?” as if confused by all the fuss. She only let loose those empty awws to pretend that she cared, in an attempt to fit in with the reaction of her family around her. Because that was so transparent, her comments instead only highlighted the distinction between how indifferent she was and how devastated her son was, thereby rubbing salt in his wounds. I’m not even a Vikings fan, and I felt a powerful urge to smack her.

So next time this happens, football-illiterate Moms of the world, please swallow the urge to console us. If you don't understand what happened, google it later. If you feel bad for one of the losing players, send them a silent prayer. But shut up! We love you. We know you mean well. It's just that for whatever reason, our immature monkey brains are wired in such a way that your clueless voice is the absolute last thing we want to hear in that moment.


Just as many of us are programmed to flip out and yell and break things to subconsciously defend our machismo, many of you may feel compelled to comfort loved ones going through pain. I get that, and it’s admirable. But in the immediate aftermath of cataclysmic sporting defeats, it’s also unwanted. If you must speak, say something to the effect of what this woman did to her Viking fan friend/relative: “Oh, Troy…I’m so sorry,” with a tone of sincerity rather than of mild disappointment. Don’t get offended when we ignore it: it’s not about you. Don’t mind the fact that Troy, in this video, is being a bit ridiculous; in the back of his mind, he knows this. He doesn’t care. You shouldn’t either. Don’t let us break anything valuable, or anything  that belongs to you. But besides that, put up with our sulking for a few hours. We’ll get over it soon enough.