A Side Platter of Snark

20 Questions with Doctrine Man!!

Turning the tables on Doctrine Man, Army Major Luke Richards steps in as a special guest blogger, offering a rare interview with the mad doctor of snark himself. Major Richards is an EOD officer serving as a Strategic Planner in the US Army Combined Arms Center Commander’s Initiatives Group. He has served in EOD positions since 2005, including deployments to Iraq as an EOD Company Commander and EOD Battalion S3. He began his service as an Infantry officer, serving in multiple leadership positions within 25th Infantry Division.


LOOK! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Doctrine Man… Oh, well, there goes the FOB.

The mysterious and alluring Doctrine Man is the pseudonym of a career Army officer, strategist, and recovering doctrine writer. While it seems like everyone has one of his cartoons posted somewhere in their office, many may not realize that he also provides a large, albeit very informal, professional leader development program weaved in and among his snarky comments.

Years ago, when I first stumbled upon Doctrine Man, his witty comments inspired the team during our journey to a faraway land, as we suffered through countless inventories and endless PowerPoint trauma in a deployment devoid of wartime rules of accountability and teeming with storyboards. Those times were remarkable, but paled in comparison to time in the mythical land of TRADOCia, where I discovered the pinnacle of mission command, education, and development of our future leaders. It is also where Doctrine Man reigns in relative anonymity, thriving in ambiguity (or “plain sight” as I soon learned): a requirement described throughout the Army’s Human Dimension White Paper that Tom Ricks critiqued and Doctrine Man defended recently as both valuable and necessary.

I often pondered Doctrine Man’s secret identity and if I would find him while “doing hard time” at Leavenworth. I did. And after reading his interviews with Angie Ricketts, Tom Ricks, and John Nagl, an idea came to mind. Someone needed to interview Doctrine Man, but how and where do you find a fabled comic anti-hero? Well, the interwebs are a great place to start, and here we are today…

1. When did you develop Doctrine Man and what inspired the creation?

The actual idea of Doctrine Man came from Gina Cavallaro, an old friend who used to write for Army Times. We were doing an interview in 2008 and she said, “You are like some kind of doctrine superhero, like ‘Doctrine Man’ or something.” The idea stuck. Then it was a matter of creating a comic around a costumed superhero drawn in PowerPoint, every mediocre staff officer’s kryptonite.

2. Tell us a little about the additional characters in Doctrine Man comics, did you base them on real people?

That one guy wearing Air Force tiger stripes who doesn’t fly.

Yeah, pretty much every character is based on someone I've worked with, or an amalgamation of several. The Bright Idea Fairy is supposed to be me: the cigar-smoking, coffee-slugging strategist with a deep sarcastic streak. The pilots are all people I served with in Iraq. The short guy brings together a few different people who always kept me laughing. Recently, I've brought in a few new ones, from John Kerry to Kim Jong-Un, as the comic matures to take on a broader audience. Let’s be honest: there aren't too many characters quite as ridiculous as those two.

3. You recently highlighted resurgence in military blogging along with The Pendulum and The Bridge — Medium. Who is your favorite contemporary blogger?

I don't think it’s possible to have a favorite, but there are definitely several that are producing original, hard-hitting content that are deserving of recognition. Nate Finney at The Bridge, Tony Carr from John Q. Public, Brian Jones from Task & Purpose. This barely scratches the surface of what’s out there, and I don't have time to list them all. We're seeing a blogging renaissance with the evolution of the format. I really think that in the next five years, you're going to see an intellectual revolution as the bright young leaders of today mature into the senior leaders of tomorrow, and it’s all starting in these contemporary blogs.

4. As much as you are comfortable, describe a time when Doctrine Man landed you in the hot seat with a former boss.

A few years ago, I was working for Lt. Gen. Bob Caslen, currently the Superintendent at West Point. My battle buddy Thom Shanker of the New York Times wanted to write a profile piece. I was torn. Do I ask permission and run the gauntlet with the public affairs folks, or just do it and beg forgiveness later. I chose the latter. What I didn't expect was the profile making the Early Bird and ending up on General Dempsey’s radar. I think Lt. Gen. Caslen’s email started “Come and see me. You're not in trouble. Yet.”

The upside is that he has a terrific sense of humor. I can't confirm this, but it’s rumored that he keeps a framed cartoon in his office.

Preparing West Point’s new football coach for another season on the banks of the Hudson.

5. Have you had any close encounters with EOD people before; provide highlights?

Oh, yeah. In a good way, too. It was summer 2003, and an entrepreneurial soldier tipped over a burning barrel of human feces in the ASP maintained for captured enemy ammunition in Mosul. Our FOB was located adjacent to the ASP and as the fire spread, ammunition cooked off and created a deluge of shrapnel. We were set on hunkering down and waiting out the storm when a couple of EOD techs came into my TOC, shaking. The worst was yet to come, they said. It’s not every day you see EOD-types that scared, and that alone convinced us to evacuate the area.

6. You asked both Tom Ricks and John Nagl, so now it’s your turn. We're back in Iraq and I heard you helped plan the 2003 OIF invasion. Any suggestions for our current strategy against ISIS?

I think we're seeing the beginnings of what we needed to be able to do after 2011: focus on the advise and assist mission, with some combat power in the region to help the Iraqis maintain security while we fulfilled their FMS requirements. It’s been said that the security cooperation mission that remained after 2011 carried the same strategic objectives with around 150 personnel that were intended for a stay-behind force of 10,000. Tell me that makes sense?

The question we should be asking today is what is our Grand Strategy for the region? We can’t fight Syria and Iraq in isolation. The silence on that issue is deafening. Which, if you're paying attention, is probably a good sign that we either a) don't have one, or b) are making it up as we go. Neither of those are good options. The good news is that we've got some great leaders on the ground, and some very smart people thinking this through on the military side. That said, there are four letters in D-I-M-E.

7. So using all the instruments of national power or Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic (DIME) is useful when developing a strategy?

Yes. At least, if you want the results to be lasting.

8. We all love it to death, so tell us a little about your affinity for the infamous reflective belt.

It’s no secret that I enjoy poking fun at the reflective belt. But to be honest, I think it’s an important part of our kit. I wouldn't go anywhere without one. In fact, I feel naked if I don't wear one to wash my Jeep on Saturday morning.

Okay, I’m just pulling your chain. I despise the reflective belt. It epitomizes the risk averse culture we've worked so hard to excise from the rank and file. We preach the gospel of mission command, but the very existence of the reflective belt runs counter to that. Remember, I'm just old enough to remember the days when only road guards wore reflective material, and that was good enough. We trusted our leaders — even the most junior—to make responsible decisions about safety. Whatever happened to that level of trust?

But it gets worse. Recently, a unit I follow on Facebook posted pictures from an awards ceremony where everyone in the formation was wearing reflective belts and eye pro. For an awards ceremony? Are we afraid that someone is going to get poked in the eye by a mishandled Army Commendation Medal? I get it, things can happen, people can get hurt. But weigh the situation and consider for a moment that it sends a message about how we lead, how we view risk.

9. You write a lot about reading and reference many books in posts, do you usually read a book from front to cover or read several at the same time?

I tend to keep piles of books around the house, and I'll read them in short bursts, two or three at a time. It’s sort of like having food cravings, except with books. There are times when I want to read some brain candy (fiction) and there are times when I want to stretch the mind a little. In between, I also consume a few magazines: The Atlantic, Fast Company, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Wired.

10. We've heard experts describe the Army’s challenges with consistent messaging, how many different Army slogans do you remember and tell us your favorite wasn't “Army of One”?

I'm a “Be All You Can Be” baby, which will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also immortalized in Stripes, which is more than we can say for any slogan in the past 20 years. The “Army of One” slogan was simple enough, but a poor choice for an organization that’s built on the concept of “team.” I think “Army Strong” is a great slogan, and the use of the Army Star in the branding is brilliant. But we'll change it soon. We always do.

We could take a lesson in branding and marketing from the Marines. Successful branding is about consistency, and they've mastered that simple concept. That allows them to develop commercials that show Marines climbing mountains to engage a fire-breathing dragon in a swordfight. Kids see the uniform, the sword… they say “ooh” and “ahh” and line up at the Marine recruiting office.

11. Let’s do a little reflecting, describe a few key leadership lessons you learned thus far.

If you've been reading my blog, I've been laying out those lessons over the past few weeks. Try this, this, and this. We learn from so many people over the course of our careers… this is my effort to thank those who had the greatest influence on me, whether they want to admit it or not.

There are a few learned during the past few years that I’ll spend more time on in the future. One of those I learned from Lt. Gen. Bob Caslen: “Facts, not emotions.” Simple, effective, and speaks volumes to dealing with issues. Sort of a Dragnet feel to it. Keep your emotions to yourself. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell taught me the value of treating a person you're conversing with as if they are the only person in the room. That one is incredibly powerful. When we were taking on a major initiative, General Dave Perkins would tell us to find the one thing that would establish irreversible momentum and put all of our effort into it — while it might seem obvious, it’s surprising how much effort we put into things that don't matter instead of focusing on what is. Finally, Lt. Gen. Bob Brown reminded me of something I've known for years: of all the services, the Army is the one service that is built on people, not platforms. When we talk about programs that affect our people, we need to remember that. It really is all about the people.

12. Who is/was your biggest motivator or inspiration for service to the nation?

I find motivation in our history, from those whose footsteps we follow in today. My family has served in the ranks in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War, and I use those family members as a great source of pride and motivation.

13. We buried counterinsurgency records and doctrine deep after Vietnam, how do we prevent this from happening again?

Don't listen to anyone who says when need to get back to the way we used to do things. We need to put those voices out to pasture and embrace what we've learned over the past 13 years.

14. How do we achieve the Human Dimension White Paper’s endstate without creating a bunch of special operations SAMS graduates?

We have to build irreversible momentum early that can help keep the train on the tracks and moving steady. The same people who would bury the lessons of the War on Terror would love nothing more than to put an end to the Human Dimension effort. They prefer high-dollar programs that produce hardware systems. Those are easier to budget, easier to manage, easier to sell. The Human Dimension is soft and squishy. Harder to program. Tougher for a limited imagination to grasp. Momentum is the key. Push hard now while all the key proponents are in place and establish a momentum that will endure as key leaders change. That momentum will keep this moving through to the endstate.

15. Which former and current military leader do you admire the most and why?

Retired Marine General James “Chaos” Mattis. For all the hype, for all his quotable quotes, the man is an absolute genius, and the best combat leader of our generation. He is the embodiment of the warrior-scholar. After him, I'd have to say former EUCOM commander Admiral James Stavridis. Again, a brilliant mind, the kind of leader we should all strive to become. You'll notice this answer also saves me from having to pick ONE leader… there are way too many to count.

I've also had the good fortune of working for and with some terrific Army leaders, from the NCO ranks all the way to 4-star general. I've started writing about them, a little at a time, reflecting on what I learned from them and sharing those lessons with others. Some of the best lessons came from years of working at the most senior levels of the Army, serving for a handful of very influential leaders who have done more for our Army than most people will ever know. More on that in the weeks ahead.

16. The US military is studying and increasing gender integration, do you think the US military can handle the change and will this improve force readiness?

If we truly believe in talent management — the right person for the right job at the right time — then gender should be irrelevant. But there are corners of the military that more closely resemble the He-Man Woman Haters Club, so we have some work ahead of us to change preconceived ideas of gender roles. In the end, the moment you realize that a woman is dragging your ass out of firefight will be a wakeup call. And it will happen. It’s just a matter of when.

17. What is a typical weekend like at Doctrine Man’s house?

Over the past few years, weekends are when I catch up on cartoons and other side projects. Now that the blog is gathering steam, add that to the mix. The good thing is that I'm a strong multitasker. I answered these questions, wrote an OER, and watched Monday Night Football simultaneously.

18. What is your fondest memory from your time in the military?

Every time I came home from a deployment and reunited with my family. Those memories stay with you forever.

19. What advice would you pass to a young Padawan entering military service these days?

Read everything you can get your hands on and write as prolifically as you can. For most of us, our words are our only legacy, so it’s up to us to make that legacy matter. If you leave the ranks without establishing your legacy, then you missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference.

20. Us EOD dudes are linked tight with intelligence or the “INTs”. RUMINT revealed that you are retiring soon, is this true and will we continue to hear from Doctrine Man?

Doctrine Man is bigger than one person, more than the ideas of a single individual. So, while I am trading one uniform for another, Doctrine Man will continue to thrive. There are just too many of us now to stop the train.

The end? Not by a long shot.