Writing in the Military: The Problem of Time

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By LTC Scott Shaw

In a recent article, US Army Major and Strategist Matt Cavanaugh states there are three reasons that military officers do not write and thus do not contribute to our profession: the failure to wield the pen, the failure to wield the mind, and the failure to wield the heart.[1] He uses the three characters that Dorothy meets on the Yellow Brick Road, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion as the vehicle to illustrate his argument. It’s a very thought provoking piece, however I would like to add a fourth reason using Matt’s vehicle – Dorothy herself.

Dorothy, as you likely recall, is moved by tornado to the Land of Oz where she lands on the Wicked Witch of the East killing her, angering the Wicked Witch of the West, and is directed to the Wizard himself, picking up the three fellows along the way. Further, Dorothy is then captured by (then kills) the Wicked Witch of the East, meets the Wizard, helps solve all the fellows’ problems, readies for a balloon ride back to Kansas, and magically is transported back home. Or was she there in the first place? It was a very busy day for Dorothy, who constantly had to adapt to an ever-changing environment while coaching her new friends along the way.

What was missing from Matt’s argument is the fourth reason that military officers don’t write – a lack of time. I’m a Soldier, a Leader (a Lieutenant Colonel of US Army Infantry currently serving as a battalion commander), a husband with a working spouse, and a father to two kids. With regard to professional military writing, I have published one article, written a book review, and published a document to friends on my lessons learned in command over the past two years. I blog a little, have a Twitter feed, and work the organization’s Facebook page with a couple of our Lieutenants. I will acknowledge that I am not living up to my potential as a military officer writer right now. If I want to write and publish, I either have to take time away from the Soldiers I lead or my family.

Many military officers are like Dorothy. As we rise up the ranks, each assignment brings a new environment with a new cast of characters, and new set of problems to solve. Every new job requires us to “figure it out” all over again. It is during these assignments, where we are absorbing a great deal of valuable experience, that officers could benefit from coaching from others on how to be efficient, some muse to inspire them to write, and some top cover to get it done.

A lack of knowledge of where or how to be published is another time consumer for a beginning military officer writer. There are many venues for ideas to be published. You don’t have to register your own URL and start blogging, but many quality military officers and others have. All one needs to do is check the blogosphere for a like-minded thinker. If immediate feedback on published work is not desired, there are many professional bulletins from the US Army that are willing to publish articles from military officers on relevant topics to their audience. From personal experience, those functional branches are not branch parochial about taking articles from authors outside of their branch. Infantry, Armor, or the Fires Bulletin are three such examples.

I applaud the call for military officers to pick up the pen with courage and intellectual rigor. We need to be pushed to write more but I think that coaching others and providing top cover is the effective manner. Military officers are a group of people who sacrifice much in the defense of our Nation. We need some looking after from those who have better time management skills and the ability to provide a shelter or advice during times of business. We could likely also use a muse with some ideas. Matt’s idea prompted me to write this. It is my hope that this may further the discussion.

[1] For the purpose of this article, I use “military officer” but this article is aimed at those non-commissioned officers and junior enlisted who write as well.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Writing in the Military: The Problem of Time

  1. Dave Hodne

    Scott, Thanks for this response to Matt Cavanaugh’s article. I agree with Matt that you can’t lead if you can’t communicate (verbally, in written form, and even through nonverbal cues), however, I disagree with Matt’s implication that failure to publish is a failure to contribute to the profession. I am proud of my published works (and even prouder of the published works of my subordinates), but I won’t diminish the invaluable contributions of both seniors and subordinates who never published (whether by choice, lack of time, or lack of interest). These great leaders simply always set the example for others to follow in so many other meaningful ways (active mentorship, performance counseling, intellectually stimulating discussions, directing reading efforts, developing new tactics and procedures, pioneering new fields (technical and tactical), improving equipment and gear, writing doctrine, and talking to Soldiers at ranges, motor pools, etc…I can go on…). Continue to trust your instincts as to how you lead and care for the Soldiers of your Battalion. Where publishing remains a personal choice, I prefer to emphasize that our young leaders read voraciously and invest in their own self-development (a point I emphasized often in conjunction with formal development sessions). Ultimately, this investment will make them better writers, and will also help them accrue a foundation of expert knowledge (both tacit and explicit) that will come in handy when they’ve formulated their ideas and share their expertise…verbally or through writing…

  2. John Gassmann

    Thank you for your thoughts, sir. I agree that top cover to provide the maneuver space to write is needed, but I wonder if we’re thinking about it wrong. Perhaps the issue isn’t leaders carving out time in their schedule, but that the schedule is overloaded with things that are urgent instead of important (apologies to President Eisenhower).
    Looking back on my company-level command time, I can see now just how consumed I was with bureaucratic minutiae. I should have given many of those things to people who could do them better than me anyway and focused more on the things have a long term impact.
    Your very right in that mentorship would help and I plan to preach this delineation to any future company commanders that will listen.
    Lastly, I wonder if our vehicles for publication are outdated. Instead a branch magazine that publishes every quarter, maybe we need branch blogs that compile the best of each quarter with responses for publication.
    Again, thanks for your response. You and Matt Cavanaugh are helping us think about our roles in the profession.

    • John,

      I brought up the idea a few years ago of Armor Magazine hosting a branch blog. Due to staffing, they declined. I think you are right, it allows folks to write and share ideas under the 2500 word count.

      A great example of a branch blog is Project MP Junto. They are on FB, Twitter, and a run a site in medium. If there was a branch blog, it would probably have to be run by volunteers like Project Junto.

  3. Martha Stack

    I think this is very true. You have no time to write which is sad.

    I also think after reading the first article which is referenced in the first sentence…that there is a fear of having voiced your opinion in print and it can never be retracted (as in when times change, one might regret what was written or if more experienced, would voice the words differently). Also a fear of being perceived to be looking to be a stand out. So one who has the confidence tow rite might be typecast as a suck up. And consequently one chooses not to publish until after they leave the service.

    Any thoughts? I know you have them but probably have no time to voice them.

    On Friday, February 26, 2016, From the Green Notebook < comment-reply@wordpress.com > wrote:

    > jbyerly81 posted: ” By LTC Scott Shaw In a recent article, US Army Major > and Strategist Matt Cavanaugh states there are three reasons that military > officers do not write and thus do not contribute to our profession: the > failure to wield the pen, the failure to wield the m” >

    • dan sukman

      very true on the courage to write…people are apt to do two things when they read your work…praise or criticize, and they are more likely to do the latter

  4. Aron

    good article, very useful to take note of

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