Smoke in the Water

John DeRosa
Apr 21, 2015 · 16 min read

A Military Writers Guild interview with
Founder Nate Finney

Some people you meet are truly genuine in all respects. They treat you with the utmost respect and leave you thinking you are a better person just for spending a few moments with them. I now have the pleasure of sharing one such interaction with you here. A word of advice, break out your favorite notebook because there are valuable gems shared by Guild founding member Nate Finney.

As my inquiries into modeling successful writing practices continue, Nate offers several valuable suggestions — I am now contemplating which book to christen a “great works” notebook; taking Ellen Haring’s advice it will probably be something disruptive. There will certainly be a page reserved for Emile Simpson’s War from the Ground Upparticularly, “continuous conflict idea implicitly challenges the utility of war as a decisive political instrument.” I am also placing Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like To Go To War and Matterhorn on my reading list. I will let my office mates crack the code on the standing desk idea — they all keep getting selected for major command so I can migrate desks soon enough.

As to be expected, an interview with Nate is going to be largely about Scotch and strategy. Despite picking up a taste for Hendricks Gin after a visit to Carl’s Cantina, I am not sure I am ready to take the peaty plunge. I’ll leave the Islay and Speyside for the anointed strategists — for now.

[John DeRosa] How does your day start and are there routines associated with how you start your day?

[Nate Finney] There is absolutely a routine. It doesn’t always involve writing, but it does involve reading. Typically on a weekday I get up and go for a run. I always workout, and it is generally running. Not only does this really get my body going for the day, it also provides time to take in an audiobook or podcast. I am usually listening to something on Audible. This helps me focus, but it also makes me feel like I am productive intellectually, as well as physically. After a workout, I get on a bus to the Pentagon, where I take in my daily social media and read through stories people are recommending or go through my RSS reader to get caught up on the news.

During the workday, I am too busy for anything outside of work. At the end of the day I do my morning routine in reverse, but substitute a book for social media. I just finished War from the Ground Up by Emile Simpson, as I am introducing him at a campus-wide talk at the College of William & Mary and joining him for a session with the research fellows at the Project on International Peace & Security (PIPS) this week (April 10). I wanted to make sure I remembered his key points.

When I finally get home from work, it is all about the family. Then once the kids get off to bed, it is back to work — the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, the Strategy Bridge, the PIPS Military Fellowship, the Military Writers Guild, all of my outside activities. Just kind of catching up. If I have time left over, I continue the book I am reading.

[JD] Is this time a protected time during the week for you?

[NF] As long as I do my best to be completely attentive from the time I get home until the time the kids are in bed (something I’m not 100% successful at, I’m afraid), my wife is great about giving me the space to do what I need to do.

[JD] What kind of time window is that?

[NF] Usually two-three hours. Kids are in bed about 8pm, and I try to get to bed between 10–11pm.

[JD] Describe that space. Is that a creative space or is that a workspace for you? And describe that routine.

[NF] That is interesting, as that has evolved over time. I have an office. I have been lucky enough that my wife has afforded me an office for many years now. It is surrounded by books, a desk, and a chair — all that stuff. These days it seems to be I take my laptop and lie on the floor. Sometimes it is lying on the floor in front of the TV. There I have sports or the news no while I am working through stuff. I can’t do that when I am actually writing, though. When I am writing, I have to be alone, and it is usually on my office floor. I don’t know why it is, but I seem to be more productive stretched out than hunching over a desk.

[JD] When I study for school, I throw everything on the bed and kneel at the side of the bed.

[NF] I have done that as well. At work, I have a standing desk. It seems to work well.

[JD] Ty [Mayfield] does as well.

[NF] That doesn’t surprise me at all. I got to the point where I was tired of sitting on my ass all day. It just works out well. Either standing or lying down, if I am in an elongated position versus a seated position, it seems to work much better.

[JD] How does your routine change on the weekend to decompress?

[NF] I don’t think that I am great at decompression. I know my wife would totally agree with that. I don’t do a great job balancing decompression from work at times. My work-life balance is constantly in flux. That said, on the weekends I do my best to spend time with my family. Hanging out with my kids, seeing the local sights, doing nothing sometimes.

[JD] My apologies then for sending you weekend work.

[NF] No, no, no, that’s fine. I do plenty of work on the weekends. Whatever I cannot get done during the week (which is a lot), the weekend is my catch up time. As far as writing, the weekend is also my writing time.

[JD] So let’s talk about that time.

[NF] It is pretty much in the morning when we wake up. During the weekend mornings, my kids have their free time. They can read. They can play. If they haven’t had too much TV during the week, they can watch TV. It is the time they can be with themselves. So I take that opportunity myself and catch up on my writing.

Once it gets to lunch time, it typically transitions to family time. We will have lunch together. If it is nice weather, we will go on a bike ride, a run, whatever gets us outdoors. In the late afternoon, after the kids are tired, I get more writing time.

If it is football season, I’m lying in front of the TV working. If it is not football season, I am typically lying on the floor in my office or up on the bed. This is the time that I lay out what we are working on for The Bridge at the time, or my personal writing — which I am not doing a whole lot of these days. Currently I am mostly taking notes and preparing for later — between everything I have going on at work and in my extracurriculars, I haven’t been doing a lot of personal writing. This is the first time since about 2007 that I haven’t been writing a lot on my own. Honestly, that sometimes scares me.

[JD] Are you journaling to keep your writing alive?

[NF] I have never been much of a journal guy. I have an Army Green notebook on my nightstand next to the books I am reading. I use it to scratch out notes based on what I’m reading at night for something to write about later.

I have a Red and Black notebook that I use for books that require remembering. It is exclusively for the themes of major books. The first is On War from Clausewitz, of course, followed by a lot of Colin Gray; the things I think I will use in the future. That is my “great works” notebook. I can go back and remember what the books I read were about. I learned this from another Army strategist, Buzz Phillips. Sometimes the notes are a 5x8 card printed out and pasted in there; sometimes it is just hand-written notes. It’s great because I can go back to years past and the key passages I took notes on are easily accessible, including passages to quote in articles.

Other than that, most of my ideas go down in a note on my iPhone or iPad. After a while, I transition those notes over to Evernote based on the topic.

Really, for me writing is either an itch I get about a topic, or it’s something I don’t understand and I want to learn more. The majority of my writing, my published writing especially, stems from me trying to work through a problem; there is something I am not sure about. If that’s the case, I put down a draft thesis, make an outline, then I start filling in the outline. Once I get to a place where I think I have an argument, and I think I know what to write about, then I actually start writing in earnest.

An example is an article I wrote for Infinity Journal on Air-Sea Battle. That was me struggling with the idea. Is it a strategy? Is it an operational approach? What is it?

[JD] I love the idea of the “great works” book. That is certainly something I would like to adopt. Of those great works, what are you reading lately?

[NF] Like I mentioned earlier, I just finished Emile’s book, War from the Ground Up. It is a great book to supplement things like Clausewitz and other works on strategic theory. It was good for me because I disagreed with aspects of it — it made me think. I have already sketched out an outline to work through some of his arguments.

I am also reading, Bliss, Peacemaker [by Frederick Palmer]. It is about Tasker Bliss, a general in the U.S. Army. He was the Chief of Staff of the Army in 1917 right up to the beginning of World War I. He then was pulled over to be the military representative on the Supreme War Council. President Wilson then brought him on for the Peace Commission during the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles. The guy fascinates me.

I have recently been interested in how we mobilize forces — how we go from a small force to a large force in the event of a major war. Even more than that, he was a guy, like Eisenhower, who didn’t have a whole lot of command opportunities. He would ceratinly not be a four-star general in our Army today, because he wasn't on a “command track.” At one point, during the Spanish-American War, he was a customs official in Cuba. Yet, he was ultimately chosen to do jobs what were high level, strategic, and also statesmen-like jobs.

I am interested in how these type of guys guys got to where they did and achieved what they did. What was the intellectual experience or framework behind them that made them so successful? Mostly as a consequence of what we have seen in the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of people have said our generals can’t think strategically, or that we don’t have enough strategic thinkers in the military, so we have to build specific career tracks or programs or broadening opportunities to help them get there. I think it is a lot deeper than just professional military education. It was the development of these men before they entered the military.

[JD] Do you think those generals, before they were even commissioned, approached their university education much differently than our newly commissioned lieutenants?

[NF] I think their education pre-university, back then, was much more focused on holistic education and developing citizens that could think deeply and analyze things without having an [operational research analyst] there giving them numbers. They were always reading. They were always talking to people. Eisenhower and Bliss looked for opportunities to engage with other people on social and professional levels and learn from them.

[JD] Is that before we began using our education system to chunk out workers for the industry?

[NF] My sense is that it was before that, when Americans were still learning Latin and Greek, the humanities, and literature. As opposed to a primary focus on math and English — not English literature, but composition. I think it is something that is currently missing in our education system.

[JD] Do you see parallels in up and coming strategic thinkers. Some of which are not U.S. Army officers — Nate Fick at CNAS and Emile Simpson. They had a different educational development track. Nate was rooted in the classics, and you can see that in his book [One Bullet Away] and how that affected his writing.

[NF] That is entirely possible. I think it is as much as a way of thinking as anything else.

There isn’t a whole lot of opportunity to stretch for those rings while you are in the service. You can do it on your own time; that is absolutely true. I encourage everyone do that. I try to do that myself. The daily grind, however, challenges that idea. Some people would suggest broadening assignments, but it is much more than one or two broadening assignments in your career track. Is it an approach to your career? Is it an approach to your life? My sense is, Nate and Emile were in the military because it was something they wanted to do. It wasn’t the only thing they wanted to do. It was something in addition to everything else. They have their own path that they are on. It doesn’t involve being a strategist within the military or being a general officer.

As a captain or major in the Army, you have to choose between command track and specialization in something like strategy. There are things on the command track that staff officers don’t experience. There are things that a staff officer experiences that those on the command track don’t. There is a fine balance between the two.

Can you imagine a major or lieutenant colonel today being sent over to collect customs duties in Iraq? Then can you imagine them becoming the Chief of Staff of the Army? There are more and more examples of that throughout the time period of the careers of Eisenhower and Bliss. Then there is the question of how much daily interaction those generals had as younger officers with decision makers and how much more they were connected to politics. Today, if someone were to get a job on the National Security Council, it is not going to get them promoted to general officer — in fact, the chances are good they’d get a mediocre evaluation that would hurt them. Careers today are built on good evaluations from within the Army, not what jobs were actually done or what people they worked with.

[JD] Is there a genre of reading you prefer?

[NF] History and sci-fi are the two genres I prefer. There is material I read to get smart — strategic theory, anthropology, that kind of thing. For personal interest, it is history, biographies, and history, but then also sci-fi.

[JD] Two ends of the time spectrum.

[NF] One allows you to think about things based on historical trends — which is basically what sci-fi is for me. It is how people project out from known points. Right now, I am listening to a book, Reamde by Neal Stephenson. It is not sci-fi, per se. It is nominally in the future. It is about massive online gaming like World of Warcraft. The [protagonist] starts his own company based around the founding of an online game. There is an economy built into it; billions of dollars flow through it. People buy things and sell things in the game that can be translated into currency in the real world. There are social dynamics, with people forming groups and coalitions, ultimately resulting in wars in the game — all being projected out into the future, which is fascinating.

[JD] How do you find what to read?

[NF] Most of the intellectual, strategic thinking selections I get from other people. Folks like Rich Ganske, Mikhail Grinberg, and Ty [Mayfield]; the guys I talk to every day. They’ll suggest good books they just read. I also get recommendations from people on Goodreads, or someone hands off books that they finished. So 98% of what I read these days, someone has recommended it.

For sci-fi, it is less so. I just go looking for something interesting — usually on Audible. I will look at the “what other customers are reading” section, for example.

[JD] This next question has been challenging for everyone except Ty. What is the book you’re most likely to give as a gift or one you’ve given as a gift the most?

[NF] I can definitely answer that. If it is a new strategist, I recommend a host of books. Surprisingly, they all revolve around On War. There are a number of books, I believe, people should read before On War, so they understand the context of what he was writing about. Such as Tony Echevarria’s Clausewitz and Contemporary War or Hugh Smith’s On Clausewitz.

As far as recommendations to people in general, the book I often give is What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes. Karl was a marine in Vietnam. He also wrote Matterhorn. Matterhorn was his first book about a platoon of marines and their experiences [in the Quang-Tri province of Vietnam]. His second book was What It Is Like to Go to War, and it is a psychological look at how war affects people and how people effect the war. I think Rich Ganske was the person who recommended it to me. It took me back to a time in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that other books never have. For me, the most important thing this book does does for people who have never been to war, like my wife and family, is give them a real sense of what it truly, tangibly, felt like — what it emotionally feels like to go through war. I don’t think enough people understand that aspect of things. I don’t think people understand what it may have taken to write that book, either.

[JD] What’s the drink of choice?

[NF] Scotch. That is an easy one for anyone who knows me. There are two main kinds of scotch I like: Islay, which is a smoky — the peat used in making it makes the Scotch taste like smoke in the water. Then there is Speyside, which is a sweeter and rich. Right now, I enjoy Glenrothes, which is the Speyside, non-peaty, is my favorite. For the peaty Islay, it is Kilchoman. Both of those I got from my wife as an anniversary present. They’re fantastic. Then as a stand-by it is Oban. Definitely drink them all neat.

[JD] I am not a Scotch drinker.

[NF] Most people are not. The first time I had Scotch was after I became an Army strategist. It was a cultural thing. After two or three times drinking it, I was hooked.

[JD] Like beer! Beer sucked when you first drank it. Then it grew on you.

[NF] Absolutely. And I do love beer. I won’t pass up a good beer.

[JD] Where was the most adventurous place you have traveled?

[NF] That’s a hard one.

[JD] So don’t say Iraq or Afghanistan.

[NF] Well, driving down a road waiting to be struck be an IED is adventurous…at least it felt that way at the time. Yet I guess I would say when I was an undergraduate in archeology I did an archeological dig between my junior and senior year. I had done some in the southwest where I was going to school, but I wanted to get away and always had an interest in the British Isles. So I went to the United Kingdom for about a month. For three weeks the dig was in southwest Wales and for about a week we were on a monastic island in Northern Ireland. It was adventurous for me because I was just seventeen-year-old kid going overseas for the first time. I signed up for this field class with folks I have never met from the U.S., France, Australia, and a few other European countries through the University of York. We lived in tents right on the site. We spent all day in the dirt on top of a British Iron Age site finding fantastic material. I got to help write a paper for the University of York about that site. Then in the evenings it was sitting around the campfire drinking and swapping stories. For a seventeen-year-old American that was great. Then when we moved to the monastic island we stayed in the Republic of Ireland and had to pass over the border into Northern Ireland every day. There was one time we stopped by a pub north of the border on our way back and apparently there was some issue at a bank. As we were walking down to the pub, all of a sudden, some Irish troops popped out of a couple of vans and secured a bank that was apparently threatened with a bomb. All of that made it pretty adventurous. As a young guy digging in the dirt with people from countries I had never visited, it was fascinating.

[JD] As a founder of the MWG, what bold steps would you like to see the Guild take?

[NF] Getting everyone involved doing as much as they can, as much as they want to advance the Guild. It is like you doing these interviews, John. Everyone has their own talents, their own desires, and their own reasons why they joined. Everyone came with their own experience and skill set. If we can challenge and push everyone into the Guild based on their skills and what they want out of the Guild, I think that will go a long way to push people to do great work, to bring in and foster new talent. The challenge is, everyone is busy. We all have our own lives.

[JD] So what is an incentive?

[NF] One incentive is publication. Right now, Ty and I are working on a book deal with the University of Oklahoma Press based on a series from The Bridge on Professionalism and Ethics. We have slowly begun drawing publishers, editors, and agents into the Guild. The more we can build those connections, the more incentive it will be for people to write, get published, and continue the cycle of getting the ideas of smart people out there.

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