Norman Schwarzkopf, the late hero of Desert Storm, is credited with saying, “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war.” Though Stormin’ Norman’s contributions to that war will certainly go down in the history books, one could argue that this famous quote could be his greater legacy.
During my military service—post Desert Storm and into the war on terror—I heard it repeated countless times as justifications for military exercises, i.e., sweat. Small wonder. It is hardly debatable that a well-drilled, well-exercised military would be more prepared for the horrific, dreadful challenge of a real war. And that’s what the US military does during peacetime—sweats.
The scenarios that drive the sweaty exercises can be anything from unit-level tactical (there’s a tank over that hill!) to national-command-authority strategic (there’s been a coup in Moscow!)
During my time in service, it was my job to write the scenarios for these exercises. I was a naval intelligence officer attached to the United States Indo-Pacific Command. USINDOPACOM (in Pentagonese) is the vast military command that unites the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines into a single fighting force that covers the Pacific Ocean and littoral countries.
In a headquarters building overlooking Pearl Harbor, its commander, a four-star admiral, controls every operating American unit in that hemisphere. My job was to write war games for him that would make his vast command sweat.
To this day, I don’t think most Americans appreciate the scope of what an organization like USINDOPACOM does. Tsunami in Java? Find ships, helicopters, and cargo planes to evacuate as many people as possible, never mind the ruined ports and airfields. Massive cholera outbreak in Cambodia? Get a hospital ship off the coast with a thousand beds; send in Marines to secure a landing zone to get the sickest out at once; have the army build a mobile hospital in a swamp. Do it all in the next twenty-four hours.
And, of course, USINDOPACOM must also contemplate the scariest scenarios—violence erupting with North Korea or China.
In each of these cases, my job on the admiral’s staff was to dream up the “message traffic” –properly formatted, mind you—that simulated intelligence reports coming in from America’s various agencies.
I went to great pains to have these messages reveal only part of the story. I was supposed to make the admiral’s far-flung military operate with incomplete information. Then—always—about two-thirds through the scenario, I was to initiate a cruel twist, an unforeseen disaster that would make all the plans go awry.
The staff loved my inventions. They had no idea the monster they’d created in me.
Before I knew it, I was creating characters trapped on mountaintops (search and rescue missions), whole colonies of fake villains in the jungles (counter-terrorism), and a series of unfortunate events that would lead to a full-scale mobilization (the outbreak of war and its aftermath).
I’ll never know if the units spread all over the Pacific appreciated it, but I went to great pains to create detail. In my head, the more detail I created, the more realistic it all seemed. After a while, I was imagining those far-off first responders as my readers, hanging on every coded word. (They weren’t, of course, but I liked to flatter myself at the time).
Now, as a writer of geopolitical thrillers, it isn’t hard to see how I might rely on this experience. Every time I’m plotting, I think back to those days. I remember the crises that would keep us awake at night. I remember the way the units would respond to them.
But most of all, I think about the valiant mission of INDOPACOM and the heroics of so many of the people I met. They were regular people doing extraordinary things, bound together by a common purpose—to keep the world safe. They still are.
There are many differences, of course, between novel and war game writing. They are strikingly similar when it comes to high-level scenarios, the starting point of making a novel. But in a novel, I’m able to take the reader into the mind of the commander on the ground or the bad guy stalking him. I could never do that with dry, terse message traffic. Both, however, have been satisfying in their own way.
I will never forget my experience with USINDOPACOM. I’m grateful to have been in a job that honed my imagination. But, more to the point, I’m grateful that the men and women of USINDOPACOM are still out there—sweating.
May they never bleed.