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Postcards from Tradocia

Top of the Mountain

TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

“You’re at the top of the mountain, gentlemen,” our ACE said, addressing us on our first morning back at the freshly-renamed Cyber Center (or Cellar, if you prefer) of Excellence. “From here on out, it’s all downhill.”

I’m back at Fort Gordon for my third and final phase of warrant officer basic course (WOBC), and the mountain analogy is an apt one: descending from the summit, I look into the valley below, and I’m not sure I like what I see. I’m not sure what I expected, but I always thought it would look more like the Shire. Instead, from afar, it’s more like Dagorlad.

I can’t coalesce that idea any further, so don’t read too much in to it; it could be a manifestation of Army school-induced ennui, or a sign of all-too-common mid-career fatigue. Always in motion, the future is – so what one sees from the peak may look different at the floor of the valley.


ROACH MOTEL

There are three hotel-like buildings on Fort Gordon. Last time, I stayed in Ring Hall, a seven-story facility crawling with cute baby lieutenants. This time, I was assigned to Stinson Hall, a kind of skeezy drive-in motel deal with sticky old carpet and peeling paint. As soon as I opened the door, I had reservations about the place, but it’s free living and besides, I could park right outside my door. Hell, it’s not like I was in Iraq or something…how bad could it be?

My rhetorical question was answered by the next day, when I went to put away some groceries in the under-counter cabinet. A pair of dead cockroaches greeted me – but hey, they were dead! On the counter went the groceries, and I liberally applied bug spray around the door and in the cabinet, but the next evening the roaches had their revenge.

Getting up from my chair, a roach was casually sitting on the floor, which of course led to me screaming in terror (it was armed, I swear). I stomped on it but not hard enough, so I went to the cabinet for the bug spray – only to discover a group of the fuckers fairly taunting me. I gave them a blast from the spray can and slammed the door shut, only to find another pair had escaped chemical death. I hit them with foot and spray; within minutes, I had five dead roaches splattered across my floor. That was IT (cue the reaction GIF) – I called the front desk and politely said, “get me the FUCK out of here.”

That night, I moved over to Griffith Hall, thus completing the trifecta of lodging on base.

 

I Used to Bullseye Womp Rats

The problem with ship's-eye-view is you get a lot of pictures of guys' nuts

The problem with ship’s-eye-view is you get a lot of pictures of guys’ nuts

I’m not what you’d call the world’s biggest Star Wars fan. I love the original trilogy and all, but aside from a couple of video games, I never delved any deeper into the lore or the so-called “expanded universe,” and after the debacle of the prequel trilogy, I decided that Star Wars was dead to me.

My favorite thing about Star Wars – more so than light sabers or Jedi or Darth Vader – was the space combat. Space dogfighting makes no sense, but it’s awesome and it also makes the PC games X-Wing and TIE Fighter the best things to come out of Star Wars media. When Fantasy Flight Games released their X-Wing Miniatures Game two years ago, I didn’t pay much attention, but I should’ve known I would get sucked in eventually. It’s essentially Space Dogfight: The Game, and with my love of the PC games combined with my tabletop game renaissance, playing the game was almost a foregone conclusion.

I spent many hours of my youth playing other miniatures games like Warhammer 40,000 , and while X-Wing bears some similarities to that granddaddy of the genre, it is better in many ways while also being difficult to directly compare. X-Wing is a much faster game; a typical session is 60-90 minutes, while Warhammer is usually a multi-hour affair. This is largely a function of the smaller size of the game – the photo above shows all of the models on both sides during that game, compared to Warhammer which might feature a hundred or more models in a single battle.

Like in Warhammer, X-Wing has a squad-building component, where you select your force composition before battle, which is probably half the fun of the game. What’s becoming my favorite part of the game, though, is the mind game of choosing each of your ship’s maneuvers and trying to intuit what the opponent will choose. You see, each of your ships has a dial that is used to select its move for the turn, and these dials are placed face down on the board, only to be revealed when that ship comes up in the turn order. You have to choose your move without knowing what the opponent will do, and so you need a good grasp of the game state, each ship’s capabilities, and the mind of your opponent in order to win.

This sort of mind game is known as “yomi,” a term popularized by game designer and fighting game dude David Sirlin. He presents this idea:

Yomi is the Japanese word reading, as in reading the mind of the opponent. If you can condition your enemy to act in a certain way, you can then use his own instincts against him (a concept from the martial art of Judo). Paramount in the design of competitive games is the guarantee to the player that if he knows what his enemy will do, there is some way to counter it.

What happens, though, when your enemy knows that you know what he will do? He needs a way to counter you. He’s said to be on another level than you, or another “Yomi Layer.” You knew what he would do (yomi), but he knew that you knew (Yomi Layer 2). What happens when you know that he knows that you know what he will do (Yomi Layer 3)? You’ll need a way to counter his counter. And what happens when he knows that you know….

It’s this sort of recursive thought process that happens during maneuver selection in X-Wing (at least, among people who have played enough to be familiar with the game and the moves available). Actually, the game may not meet Sirlin’s criterion of three “yomi layers,” since there are often situations where each ship has a limited number of viable moves, and despite knowing with high confidence what the opponent will do, you may not have a counter-move available.

At first, this aspect of the game wasn’t apparent to me, as all I worried about was avoiding ramming my ships into asteroids and each other. Move selection at the outset, then, was mostly about just making the game work on a basic level. But as I’ve become more experienced, I’m better able to “see” the battlefield, and visualize both my own moves and those of the opponent.

All told, the game is a worthy addition to the space dogfight heritage of Star Wars, but more importantly, it’s a good game on its own merits, not just for being able to repeatedly make groan-inducing quips from the movies (“they came…from…behind…!”).

The Atropian Gambit

Last month I completed what was only my fifth annual training period in my twelve years of service in the National Guard. It’s a figure surprising even to myself, until I remember that those other seven years were blanked out by deployments or Army schools, such that I now have over three years of active federal service. For being a “weekend warrior,” I sure have put in a lot of time.

This AT was optional too, but in my new role as a warrant officer, I felt like I had to step up get integrated with the section and the unit. Plus, the S-6 actual was unable to attend AT, meaning that without me, the section wouldn’t have an officer. That meant that my role would be to serve as the S-6 – a job normally held by a major – and I would be walking into the mission essentially cold, having participated not at all in the planning or preparation for the event. It also meant that I would be taking the one role that I explicitly cited as a reason not to become a commissioned officer as my first job as a warrant officer. Talk about karmic re-balancing…

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Book Review: Wool

Wool is a post-apocalyptic novel by Hugh Howey. In it, the world is all fucked up and people (all of the remaining people, presumably) live in giant underground silos. Nobody knows what happened to the earth, or why everyone lives underground, and indeed everyone in the silo where all the action happens thinks that their silo is the only one in existence. This proves to be false, of course, along with a bunch of other stuff they believe. Wool is pretty good, and was a gripping read for most of its length, but was ultimately disappointing in several key ways.

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Metal Gear Rising: Action Game of the Forever?

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is one of the best games of the PS3 generation, the best “character action” game ever made, and maybe one of the best video games of all time. Here’s why:

CUT AND TAKE

CUT AND TAKE

1. Raiden is badass
Yoji Shinkawa’s tremendous artwork is translated in stunning style here. Not only is Raiden’s visual design phenomenal, but the animation as well. Pictured at right is the most satisfying animation in all of video games, and it’s a vision unimaginable prior to the HD gaming era. Cutting a cyborg in half in slow motion, then removing its spinal cord nanomachine healing core, then crushing it in your hand to absorb its delicious electrolytes, all in real time – if that doesn’t get your blood pumping, you might be dead.

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The Longest 15 Days, Part 2

Can't even tell I'm missing a leg here

Can’t even tell I’m missing a leg here

Hopefully I’m not breaking any kind of non-disclosure agreement by writing about WOCS. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sign anything to that effect, but there was a lot of paperwork and I was pretty tired. What follows are a few more anecdotes about WOCS. Still more to tell…

Also, as requested by Sabathius, here’s a Delobius action photo. (I’m the one in the middle, after being a “casualty.”)

 

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Book Report

As befits students, we had to do a book report here at WOBC. God forbid we read a whole book though – we each were assigned a chapter. Here’s mine, in case anyone wants to read it.

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Ten Years

Ten years ago yesterday, I made my first post on this blog. It wasn’t much of anything; I started it on a whim, just in case something interesting happened and I wanted to write about it. A month later, I found out I was going to Iraq, turning this into a “milblog,” placing me among a growing wave of servicemembers writing about war in the 21st century.

After I returned from Iraq in September of 2005, I wasn’t sure that I was going to keep writing; after all, daily life isn’t nearly as interesting as war stories, even if the war stories themselves were portraits of mundanity. I sputtered along, though, writing in fits and starts, about whatever came to mind, posting pictures here and there, commenting on a few things whenever the mood struck. Mostly, though, I wrote about the Army, and the places I went, and the dumb things I saw.

Ten years on, and I’m still not sure what this blog is about. I often have thoughts or opinions and think they might make good posts, but they rarely make it to print; for some reason, I consider few of my opinions or ideas interesting enough to share even with the tiny audience that I have here. Maybe it’s a change of perspective; being older now and having seen and experienced and read more, my ideas seem less original, less outrageous, less noteworthy than when I was younger. Being of a retiring nature also affects my desire to write – as in real life, when too many voices are raised, my instinct is to clam up, as if to concede the field of discussion to everyone louder than me. Considering the cacophonous millions of the internet, it’s a wonder I say anything at all.

“Why write?” is a question I’ve struggled with often over the years, and I’ve never had a satisfactory answer. I don’t do it for fame, or for an audience, or to influence anyone; and yet I wonder what the point is if no one reads the things I say. The thoughts are already in my head, fully formed, so it’s not as if I’m resolving things for myself by writing them down – my inner monologue is fully developed, so I suppose I do it for the “audience,” whoever that is. I love telling a story, so I guess that’s what it’s about: writing in hopes that the story of my thoughts, ideas, and life comes through in my disjointed postings.

In the next decade of blogging, I’d like to write more, about anything and everything – turning off (or at least dialing back) my internal censor and just putting my thoughts and opinions to words. Who cares if nobody reads them? Somebody will, eventually – and if one person does, that’s good enough for me.

I’ll check back on this post in 2024 and see how things went.

WOBC, Week Seven

A couple of weeks ago all of the new students had a reception with the post commander. He shook the hand of every student – there were a couple hundred of us, probably – and did what all generals do, which is talk. He was more engaging than most, though, and one comment in particular earned him much credibility.

Because of its role in training new soldiers, as well as providing MOS training for existing ones (like me), Fort Gordon is what is known as a TRADOC post. This means that operations are overseen by Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which has a stigma of applying an extra layer of administrative overhead and general silliness to the already-absurd functions of an Army base.

In his talk, the post commander discussed some of these challenges, and said that he had to learn to speak “tradocian,” (pronounced tray-doh-sheean), and that one had to speak this language well among the denizens of the world of Tradocia. And in that moment, a new term was born, and a new understanding; for we are truly living in Tradocia, perhaps a synonym for my Demon World terminology. (This also brings to mind what would be my album title, or band name, for my Army career: “Postcards from Tradocia.”)

He also showed a weird propaganda video for Fort Gordon, highlighting its “best-in-Army” features, and the amazing things about the local community. What was most bizarre, though, were the 3-D models of the general and his command sergeant major featured in the video that were voiced by each man respectively, and were utterly creepy and terrible-looking. He made light of the weird avatars after the video was done, but if I was him, I would probably use my powers as a general to get that weird shit removed.

***

Speaking of weird videos, we also had to attend the graduation ceremony of another WOBC class. While waiting for the graduation to start, we had to watch a Signal Corps video (YouTube link), which seemed like another vaguely lame Army video, but then a laser beam shoots out of space and makes Signal Towers explode, which made it the best video I’ve seen in my 11 years of enlistment. Then a soldier talks about fighting our nation’s greatest enemy, which turns out to be mildew, and also a radar dish glows blue and vibrates, so it’s basically the crowning achievement of the Signal Corps.

After that, we watched another video about Army families, and how they’re really great and we’ll take care of them. Maybe I’m cynical, but saying that people love their families isn’t exactly new or hard-hitting stuff, and was a weird choice of video for a graduation. It used a slower version of the song from the Army Strong commercials, which was a good choice – it’s a great theme – but I would’ve preferred something to get me a little more pumped up. I guess now that we’re a “peacetime Army,” getting pumped up isn’t our goal anymore.

***

Indeed, my life here in the Demon World has become one of such indolence that I’m afraid I might never be able to work again. To continue the graduate school analogy from my previous post, it’s much like being in school (well, it is school, technically), except I already know most of the material. That means that my days largely consist of thinking about something else; any mental refuge will do as long as it can allow me to maintain consciousness. Evenings and weekends consist of relaxing, playing video games, drinking, whatever – with no responsibilities other than class, it’s a veritable vacation for one who comes prepared to entertain himself.

The problem is, it’s poor preparation for doing anything in the Human World.

At least I’m lucky that I didn’t get hit with the mind-control rays that are apparently flying around this place, like this woman (YouTube).

WOBC, Week Three

I’m not sure why the “Sex Rules” are only for leaders. Interestingly, I realized that I framed

It's important to have rules

It’s important to have rules

this image such that it sums up the Army’s current attitude towards sexual relations:

“IS A CRIME” – “NO” – “IT’S SEXUAL ASSAULT” – “CONTACT IS WRONG”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

I’ve settled into a routine here, after the turbulent first week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t halfway enjoying myself. Our “ACE” (no idea what the acronym means, but it’s a

senior warrant officer assigned to the class as adviser) only interacts with the student class leader, which means that most of the time, we’re free to manage our own affairs. Maybe it says something about the amount of coddling soldiers receive when simply deciding when to get up and when to go to bed qualify as major personal freedoms, but it’s nice to be treated as an adult all the same.

The accommodations are much nicer than over at the NCO academy; it’s downright civilized to have your own fridge and microwave and toaster, and to be able to roll out of bed and go to your own bathroom and not see any other naked men on the way. My room in the on-post hotel is basically a studio apartment (though no stove), and I go to class all week, so it’s kind of a student lifestyle here. In a way, this feels like Army graduate school (though not in terms of academic rigor, at least not for me); Iraq felt like being an undergrad (not basic training or AIT – the experiences are their own things). In a very real sense, Iraq was the college dorm life experience that I never had; I was a commuter student in college, so I never had that during my actual school days.

Apparently the lieutenants living here never left college, as they seem to be treating this place like a dorm. I was awakened at about 0300 Saturday morning by drunken yelling outside my window, followed by pounding footsteps on the floor above me. I know they were 2nd lieutenants and not warrant officers, because all of us crusty warrants have kids and bills to pay and divorces to fund, and so can’t afford the all-night per-diem-fueled benders that the butter-bars can. Also, you kids get off my lawn!

But they are kids – as a relative baby-face myself, it might sound ironic – but some of these young officers might not yet be old enough to drink. Seeing young privates is one thing; you know they’re supposed to look like that. But officers…I guess that in the units I’ve been a part of, the lieutenants had at least a couple years under their belts before showing up (whether by luck or by design), and so I never dealt with the stereotypical new officer. Us new warrants dutifully salute the new lieutenants, and marvel at their youth and naivete after we pass. I’m sure they’re not all clueless naifs, but it doesn’t help when you overhear them saying things like, “Are you wearing your warmsies?” on a cold November morning. Would you like some graham crackers and a nap with your “warmsies”?

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