From ARMY Magazine, Vol. 67, No. 3, March 2017. Copyright © 2017 by the Association of the U.S. Army and reprinted by permission of ARMY Magazine.
By Joe Byerly
Walk into any organization in our Army and there is one thing I guarantee you will find on a desk or in a cargo pocket: a small, green, government-issued notebook. It doesn’t matter whether a soldier is a sergeant or a general officer, odds are they will have one of these Army mainstays in their possession. Beyond their utility for taking notes, these notebooks also represent a greater ideal. They represent hard-won knowledge from intense training exercises. They represent ideas for improving our organizations and our warfighting capabilities. They represent our successes and our failures. They also represent the first step to leaving a legacy in our profession of arms.
Instead of keeping our ideas to ourselves in our green notebooks, we should share them. One way we can do this is to write for professional publications or military blogs. Unfortunately, many in uniform are reluctant to share their ideas for fear of backlash from their chains of command and peers, or for fear of being viewed as telling others what to think, or they do not believe their writing is even publishable.
Writing has several benefits that I believe outweigh the negatives. First, writing for an audience other than ourselves helps us to better solidify our thoughts. Second, in publishing our ideas, we start important conversations that may lead to changes across the Army or may lead to even better ideas from others. Third, we may contribute to our legacy in the military with an idea that will outlast our own terms of service. Finally, there are plenty of resources available to help those who need writing support, so there should be no fear of sounding unintelligent.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to E.M. Forster, is: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” This speaks to this idea of the importance of writing for an audience. I believe that when we write for others to read, we challenge ourselves to be even clearer in our thoughts and arguments. As I’ve put pen to paper for my own blog or for other outlets, I have found that I achieve a greater level of clarity in my ideas and convictions because I can see my thoughts written out on paper or a screen. Also, by thinking through subjects from the point of view of a person who might be unfamiliar with an idea, we aid our own level of under- standing on the topic we write about.
Many professionals do not want to write because they feel by doing so they are telling people how to think or that no one will even care what the author, regardless of rank, thinks about a subject. What I have learned over the years is that published ideas, both good and bad, serve as a fuel for workplace conversations. And these conversations, which are a form of pro- fessional development, can have positive second and third order effects that the author never intended. For example, an article about improving performance counseling could lead to leaders reassessing and eventually changing their counseling programs in a unit on the other side of the globe. The changes may not be exactly in line with the article, but it was the article that got that commander or first sergeant thinking and talking about counseling in the first place.
Published ideas can have major impacts across the formation. In a 1913 issue of the Cavalry Journal, then Lt. George S. Patton Jr. wrote a short piece on the need for the Army to adopt a new saber and change methods in which the institution trained swordsmanship. His article, along with other efforts, served as a catalyst for the Army to do exactly as he suggested. The new saber was even named the Patton Saber.
In more recent history, the articles and message board discussions at Small Wars Journal and the military blog Abu Muqawama influenced major changes in the ways in which the Army approached the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal eventually brought Andrew Exum, the editor of Abu Muqawama, onto his advisory team in Afghanistan. And finally, Benjamin Kohlmann’s 2012 article, “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers,” eventually led to the creation of the nonprofit Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, which has played a major role in military innovation in the United States and Australia.
Today’s operating environment provides similar opportunities to military professionals. There are plenty of nascent concepts that could use some fresh thought from practitioners across the Army. Drone and swarm employment and information operations on social media are just two examples of ideas that should be discussed and debated in our professional journals.
Another reason we should publish our ideas is that it allows us to create a legacy that will continue to give back long after we are gone. Tony Burgess and Nate Allen wrote the book Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level 16 years ago, and even though the authors have since retired, their lessons continue to contribute to the profession of arms by shaping company-level leaders today. Additionally, most of the professional development sessions I have participated in over the years featured articles from ARMY magazine and other publications written decades ago. You never know how many times and in how many different venues an article you write today will be used to teach others who have not even entered the service yet.
Finally, because of the increase in the number of printed and online professional outlets, there are numerous places to share your thoughts. It has been my experience that most of these venues have excellent editorial staffs that will help clean up poor grammar and typos. The Military Writers Guild, an international network built around the sharing of ideas in the national security space, continually helps others with editorial support and links writers with publications.
I have learned that the art of writing does not come naturally to most people and that the only way to get better at writing is to do it. I learn something every time a manuscript gets rejected or a peer or mentor sends me back an article with more corrections than I thought possible.
Taking a quickly written thought from our green notebooks, developing it and sharing it for all to read is nerve-wracking, but the payoff is worth it. We improve ourselves as military professionals by seeking clarity in our thoughts. We start conversations in offices across the Army that can improve organizations. We set the stage for potential changes in our institution and improvements in our warfighting capabilities. And finally, we leave a legacy that will outlive any PowerPoint slide we design
If you have already taken the first step in writing some ideas down in your notebook, go ahead and take one more step and make our profession stronger.
3 thoughts on “Above and Beyond the Green Notebook”
This is absolutely brilliant. I have never seen the need for sharing one’s written thoughts with comrades in arms better expressed.
Joe, you capture some great points here. In my time serving in the infantry (7th ID) during the late ’80s and early ’90s, I met some of the most dynamic and interesting people across all ranks and roles. The buck sergeant who would sometimes breakout in song during a long road march, and we all agreed he was legit and should make a go of professional singing (don’t forget, infantry soldiers aren’t known for their charitable criticism, so if you get their praise, it’s for real!); the platoon sergeant who despite having limited education and poor grammar, still taught me some of the best leadership lessons to date. Regardless of my now graduate degree and senior business position, I have yet to recall anyone better. And there are countless others who I wish their poetry (our singer), or leadership lessons, or sometimes just that special irony that exists in the military was put on paper.
So I echo your points: write, because it matters. It matters regardless of what you may think of it now. Get it down and pin it to paper. Save it to your computer or wherever in the cloud. I’m convinced some of the best writing comes from a military view. Read Shakespeare’s Henry V, for example: “Once More unto the Breach”. Servicemen and women get some of the most worldly experiences at a young age, leadership opportunities, and doing things that many of their civilian counterparts will never in kind experience. Share those experiences even if it’s just for the future times with your kids or grandkids.
Within each of us is a story which deserves to be told. The importance of our story may not be clear to us. But rest assured, it will make things clearer for someone, someday, somehow.