• How To Get Along with the Military

    November 26, 2012

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Despite the utter failure of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is certain: our future wars will continue to feature civilian-military mixed efforts. This is the sadistic high school football coach’s version of “we’re gonna do this over and over until you losers get it right.”

    Getting along is not easy; military personnel will always vastly out number civilians and so most of the adapting needs to happen on our side of the equation, not theirs. The military has its own culture, which you do not share.

    Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson has an article in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the US military to understand it. His piece is very good, and worth reading, but does not go far enough. Some additional ideas, in no particular order:

    1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.

    2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind.

    3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).

    4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules to earn respect. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.

    5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Expect to decline to do so unless in private.

    6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried along.

    7) Speaking of which, always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos.

    8 ) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.

    9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.

    10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics or news, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”

    11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.

    12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not an asshole like the last civilian. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.

    13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.

    14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.

    15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know from books. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.

    16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime” without meaning it.

    17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than pissing someone off by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).

    18) Special for State Department heroes: don’t ask officers to fetch coffee for you, don’t wear bow ties, don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights, don’t complain when your shoes get dusty, don’t wear white pants to the field, don’t show up without a Powerpoint, don’t ask soldiers to take notes for you, don’t talk about your next assignment to Paris, overall just don’t be a dick and make it harder on the rest of us.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • MattieB said...


      “Don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights.” LOL, This is tantamount to imposing a trappist vow of silence on the State people. Which might be a very good thing.

      11/26/12 3:51 PM | Comment Link

    • Meloveconsullongtime said...


      For State Department equivalents of Generals (eg Consul Generals, such as former Consul Generals in Russia) different rules apply:


      11/26/12 6:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      19. When in doubt about your mission, act boastfully about something you ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.

      – “Catch 22”

      11/26/12 6:48 PM | Comment Link

    • jim hruska said...


      I’d like to add to your list a thought that applies to everyone dealing with soldiers.
      DO NOT use sarcasm. It doesn’t fit into anything that a soldier does.

      11/26/12 7:10 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “DO NOT use sarcasm. It doesn’t fit into anything that a soldier does.”

      That’s real sarcasm. LOL SNAFU SUSFU FUBAR BOHICA etc etc

      The military has more words for sarcasm than Eskimos have words for snow. It defines them.

      11/26/12 8:12 PM | Comment Link

    • Expat said...


      And if you want to learn more about the US military, or rather militarism as a key feature of US nationalism (“we’re number 1!”), ck out this article by Michael Schwalbe:

      Micro Militarism – Behind the “Support the Troops” Rhetoric


      11/27/12 4:07 AM | Comment Link

    • jim hruska said...


      Sarcasm is not a leadership trait.
      A soldier has no means to deal with sarcasm.

      11/27/12 3:30 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “A soldier has no means to deal with sarcasm.”

      In this outfit he better damn well learn.

      To quote that great military leader, General Sinclair: “I can do whatever the F’ I want.”


      11/27/12 4:22 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      15) Don’t play soldier…unless you work in DS.


      11/27/12 4:54 PM | Comment Link

    • D O said...


      If you believe that sarcasm has no place in the military you have never seen us train or deal with constant stress of the job. Sarcasm is how we get through the day and deal with the bullshit that is thrown at us. The only time sarcasm is not present is when we are in direct and immediate danger and even then we find ways to laugh about it.

      11/27/12 4:56 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      20. Don’t be jealous of the amount the military wastes on just one system could fund the Department.


      11/27/12 7:56 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Oh, wait…that was sarcasm.

      11/27/12 7:59 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Also for State – do your job, stop using avoidance as a tactic to avoid resolving in-country problems you were hired to help address but are struggling with because someone with connections helped you get the job in the first place that you probably shouldn’t have gotten

      11/27/12 8:56 PM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      Comments flow when the topic is light.

      Use of sarcasm depends on the situation and the people. Sarcasm and razor sharp wit can provide invaluable insight when understood by others and can also reveal what’s not being said. This is where training comes in along with unit cohesion. Understanding each other can and does result in achieving the objective with fewer complications, and is applicable to any group. Knowing your team’s actions and reactions is improved with discipline, but does not always require flawless adherence.

      Alternate ways of speaking and thinking are worthwhile when used properly. However, some in government take great exception to sophisticated forms of humor, because they will not be able to understand it.

      11/28/12 6:32 AM | Comment Link

    • Lafcadio said...


      One of my favorite stories of a State Department slight towards the military involves a task force I was working on a long time ago (the State Department convenes task forces to deal with international crisis). The The task force director asked if any military reps were present, and the Public Affiars person said she saw a couple of guys out in the hallway who had short hair, but they probably weren’t military, because they appeared to be reading, but their lips weren’t moving.

      Naturally, all the State Department dorks had a good laugh.

      I’ve had feet in both camps. I can say that when I crack a joke about an fso writing a poem to his girlfriend while everyone else is gang-banging her or how the winning fso bench press was 90 lbs., they don’t find it very funny.

      11/28/12 9:34 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “One of my favorite stories of a State Department slight towards the military…”

      Amend that to “of a slight by a jerk who worked in the State Department…”

      “Naturally, ALL the State Department dorks had a good laugh.” == group jerk-off

      Now that describes the State Department I knew.

      11/28/12 12:37 PM | Comment Link

    • hruska at rangeragainstwar said...


      Can anyone advocating sarcasm as a military tool please give me an example of sarcasm in a OPLAN or Intel analysis ?!?Or Cdrs guidance, or a staff study?, OR mett/t analysis?Or in a funeral speech at a memorial service!?
      Of course soldiers /people are sarcastic , but that ain’t leadership. How can sarcasm benefit a Plat. Ldr with a unit slap full of 19 year old first enlistment soldiers.? Sarcasm is for incompetant bufoons.
      I abandoned sarcasm as a 2LT/mortar plat. ldr b/c my 18 year service veteran sqd ldrs didn’t fine tune and understand. I bent myself to their abilities. Same at the company level.
      I speak as a small unit leader having lived with the troops.
      Have all the fun you want pimping my ass, but you are missing my point.
      All soldiers are not sophisticated as you slick talkers.
      jim hruska

      11/29/12 12:06 AM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      @hruska at rangeragainstwar

      I hear loud and clear. Sarcasm does not belong in combat or serious training, because of its poisoning effect in reinforcing a negative.

      Serious training provided what I needed to excel beyond where I came from. Switching outfits to get to a better program led to invaluable lessons and results, than if I had stayed put in the less serious location. As an older person, I was ribbed for awhile before my performance shut them up. Being 17 years their senior, I showed that age will not slow one down if motivation to excel is present, and personal betterment is the reward.

      However, I refer to my college days as a 36 year old member of a track and field team. The principles of training apply to many areas, and seriousness works very well, something civilians who are never in a serious training situation can understand.

      Discipline in the face of danger saves lives, something which our society may be facing in the near future if they desire to re-enable just and proper federal government which we currently Do Not have.

      11/29/12 5:05 AM | Comment Link

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