Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shiny Shiny Boots

So it was a 3 anna half hour flight from Chicago to LAX and they put me next to a 19 year old girl who starts the conversation with "I like your tattoos Are you from California? I'm from Texas I never flew on a plane this big before I'm in the Navy Who does this bitch think she is?".

So, yeah, I knew immediately I was about to have a 3 anna half hour conversation. Or at least hear a 3 anna half hour monologue.

She alternated explaining (how to properly attach bombs to the bottom of an F-18 Hornet, how to treat your dress uniform if you're not a fucking dirtbag, how to salute a superior officer if you're not a fucking shithead, how great her all-marine corps family was even though they didn't let her join the marines, and what all her favorite (completely emopop damaged) hardcore bands were) with complaining (about: her ex-fiancee, "all authority", not having had a drink in 5 hours, how hard it is to get in to see bands on the weekends from the base, the inability of her stupid slutty drunk lazy bomb-attaching dirtbag subordinates to follow her Friday quitting time speech re: keeping their shit together on the weekends, her all-marine corps family, how hard it was to get a fake ID). So, basically: the kind of fantasmagoric museum of articulate cognitive dissonance you only ever get in 19 year olds and very inebriated senior citizens.

In addition to the terrifying information that this young woman was in charge of making sure explosive ordinance did not accidentally fall out of the sky onto parts of the state in which I currently reside and type and that she was actually in charge of other people, it occurred to me that this is the kind of individual they are talking about who really needs the whole brassy shindig of the US military to protect her--not from Osama Bin Laden, but from herself.

On the other hand, I once had a drink with Alex Macris--who you may know as the author of the most aggressively researched econocore parts of the Adventurer Conqueror King RPG--and he explained the brevity of his tenure with our esteemed armed forces at West Point on the following grounds:

So, f'r'example: we had to polish our boots all the time. But--well you used to have to polish your boots to waterproof them. That was the point. But now the boots are made of completely waterproof material. There's no point, it's just busywork. I could have been doing--anything. That stuff just drove me crazy. I left.

One could make a decent argument that our military could very well use Alex Macris. But he did not need it.

(I ran Alex's waterproofing parable past the 19-year-old. Her only response was: "Yeah, you gotta keep your boots spitshine. Hey, d'you know Jimmy Eat World?")

Now me myself personally I didn't ever understand about the army and its rules-obsession until I read about the Civil War. And then I got it: Oh, you have these rules and chains of commands and these lines and orders because 5 minutes into genuine combat you are going to have to rebuild all the wagons out of chicken wire because they've been torched, and make new gunpowder out of bacon grease and horse spit, and then eat the horse, and then replace a now-decapitated commanding officer with the closest native english speaker in the next 8 seconds. Because war.

So yes, there are sometimes good reasons for rules--or, as PJFalsemachine says here:

Warfare is very difficult and produces enormous stress in the people who undertake it. As a consequence, the organisations that are directed to warfare develop rituals, manners and structures that are designed to control, displace, channel, and otherwise deal with stress. Because these organisations develop such qualities they then attract individuals who find themselves in personal need of these qualities in normal life. (Italics mine.)((That is, anti-italics representing PJ's italics . -Z))

In Dixon's own words “..those very characteristics which are demanded by war – the ability to tolerate uncertainty, spontaneity of thought and action, having a mind open to the receipt of novel, and perhaps threatening, information – are the antitheses of those possessed by people attracted to the controls, and orderliness of militarism. Here is the germ of a terrible paradox.”

And then he goes on to draw the parallel you are probably already expecting to GMing which I'll try not to repeat too much of.

The most strenuous and obstinate arguments against the games I want to play always end up going "I've been playing RPGs for 300 years and the way you want to do it always ends in horrible badness because (someone at the tale who is an idiot or 12 does something only an idiot or 12 year old would do) and the game crashes and burns and everyone is sad and scarred with napalm and cries. The rules need to be like (some whole other boring endless thing about sucking and extra new rules that suck)" and you wonder Where are you that you know anyone who does that and needs to be told not to and why do you play games with them?

Rules. Rules are ok. The kinds of rules shape the game, as the kind of armies shape the war. But there are many other factors at work in a war: the terrain upon which it is fought, the politics that started it and surround it, the objectives of the war, and, naturally, the kinds of people fighting.


Tavis said...

This is fantastic: articulate breakdown of articulate cognitive dissonance FTW! Now that the OSR has won you are finding new horizons; I am glad to be taught that this is the kind of thing knowing about RPGs lets us talk about.

Roger G-S said...

Less rules, more norms. That's what was missing from the old-school games I played in high school.

Zak Sabbath said...

@roger the GS

that about sums it up. which I hadn;t thought of.

and that's weird because i always say that's the difference between america and (western) europe. we have alotta rules (and rules-lawyering) because we have fewer norms.

Unknown said...

Yeah...I don't do well with authority and people telling me what to do which is why I never got into DnD until i was like 25 and not getting laid and decided what the hell did i have to lose. The game was not as strict and unflexible as i expected DnD games to be so I enjoyed it. The qualities i was looking for in games where it allows you to be innovative were embraced by Dnd and so that has sort of kept me there. When a rule does get in the way of fun i allow houseruling and there rules are meant to be broken or just bent abnormally.

Malcadon said...

Yeah, two quintessential guidebooks needed for role-playing games: A Quick Primer for Old-School Role-Playing Games; and The Art of War. ;)

tedankhamen said...

Not trolling here Zak, just seriously want to know what you make of all those 'RPGs for our troops' book drives you see around Xmas and the fact that D&D and such is banned in US prisons from what I have read. I would think that if one were stuck in a mind numbing organization surrounded by bored to the point of homicide people (i.e. school, prison, Baghdad greenzone, flight to Mars), I'd want to escape with a game. Excuse the off topic question.

Zak Sabbath said...

What I think? I think a lotta military people like RPGs. Ummm...that's about it I guess.

Chris said...

This sends my brain to odd places about rules-heavy games (RoleMaster, Mythus, 3E) being the slumbering, radiation-leaking weapons stockpiles of the gaming world.

There's no point, it's just busywork. I could have been doing--anything. That stuff just drove me crazy.

Now, you see, as a Brit I totally understand the military busywork fixation. We do old and seemingly pointless stuff from 'tradition', a word which is almost a fetish in itself in the British armed forces.

Square-bashing, boot polishing, mast-manning, the gun run (1:20 onwards) - the whole Royal Tournament/Trooping the Colour ceremonial aspect - is a cultic connection to older generations of soldiers. They did it coz they needed to; it was part and parcel of their day job. We do it to 1) prove we're worthy successors to their name and uniform, and 2) measure ourselves against their deeds.

Even the old National Service punishments of whitewashing rocks, washing coal or polishing potatoes had a point beyond the punitive. They were used to teach a squaddie dogged persistence in thankless, seemingly pointless tasks.

Zak Sabbath said...

I still don't get it--every second spent on a thankless, pointless task could be spent on a thankless, pointful task. there;s always trash to be taken out, closets to be sweeped, fittings to be checked.

Every time one of their deeds becomes obselete, they've just cleared up time on the schedule to find some new shit that could be done better.

As a painter, I don't take the time Vermeer would;ve spent mixing his own paint and just take that day off, I fill it up with some new thing I get to do that Vermeer couldn't because he was busy mixing paint.

Tedankhamen said...

Expecting a deep Zaklike sociocultural analysis, gets a shoulder shrug and an honest answer. That'll do.

Alex J. said...

When you order a guy to charge a machine gun nest (or whatever) you don't want his next response to be "I really don't think that's such a good idea." So they get people in the habit of doing things they don't want to do just because they've been so ordered. Only doing sensible things wouldn't accomplish the goal.

DHBoggs said...

Great analogy Zak! Enjoyed the post. A point to think about, that could extend the analogy, is that there is a fairly sharp distinction between officers and non officers in militaries. Officers are freeer to think and act creatively, less constrained by busywork.

huth said...

America has a lot of norm-hostility worked into its norms.

huth said...

What gets me is the people who think you need rules to tell the rules people to not be rulesy.

Zak Sabbath said...

Perhaps a rule in the form of "If you like this rule, stop playing" is called for.

David Rollins said...

Zak, there are not enough pointful tasks available to combat soldiers. The job is long terms of boredom punctuated by minutes of intense action. Aside from the traditional aspects mentioned above, the mind-numbing busy work in many ways is used to fill that down time. These repetitive tasks and shared experience also serve to break down the individuality of the soldiers. Time spent together doing the same thing to try to look the same supports that breakdown. This erosion of the sense of self is a part of military team-building and has been for generations. Also, an ability to follow ridiculous orders, even knowing they are ridiculous is something a person needs to get used to in the military.

John said...

@Alex J: The Spanish Anarchists managed to run their militia on the principle of informed consent, and they hardly even got massacred at all.

Zak Sabbath said...


Well,if it is all psychological, then that would seem to go to Dixon's point: the people who need and are willing to do that rather than who dedicate themself to a task because they see the ends of that task have a value they value and are willing to sacrifice autonomy for it are...maybe not the most versatile thinkers on or off the battlefield and could be a net minus.

"Could". I'm no general.

It does feed rather neatly into the GM thing though: if you _need_ the rules you're probably not the kind of person whose good at making rules.

Zak Sabbath said...

And not enough needful tasks? Man, have you seen Kabul? It could use some work.

And, as a famous comedian once said, if they're stateside, when they're done with Kabul they could get started on Detroit.

Mr. Blue said...

Enlisted (which I was) are also encouraged to act creatively. The focus is more narrow than an officer's, but the US Military always encourages soldiers - of all levels - to find creative ways of accomplishing missions.

Officers just think more highly of themselves while enlisted work for a living ;)

Zak Sabbath said...

Well it would appear, MR Blue, that you and David above have a difference of opinion or observation.

I, not having ever served, would be curious to hear you two have a conversation about it.

Mr. Blue said...

Polishing boots well takes a measure of self-discipline - that's the actual point of the task.

You don't want soldiers who can't discipline themselves to sit still for 20 minutes and shine a boot... imagine some attention-deficit idiot trying to man a strategically important foxhole who can't stay focused on a ridiculously boring task. Like looking straight ahead for 10 hours in search of bad guys. Or another guy, who ignores his general orders and abandons his seemingly unimportant post before he was properly relieved because hey, "it's just busywork".

Some leaders, usually fresh out of ROTC or West Point (2LT "butterbars") break rules mostly because they know how smart they are - those are the leaders that get people killed.

My general statement: Good leaders know the rules, but also know the right time to break them.

It applies in real life as much as it does in gaming!

Zak Sabbath said...

As I have repeated several times--while, yes, doing a meaningless repetitive task requires discipline, so does doing a meaningful repetitive task.

Suggestions for meaningful repetitive tasks as-yet not undertaken are peppered throughout these comments.

Mr. Blue said...

Officer-Enlisted antagonism is one of the great, time-honored traditions of the military :)

Mr. Blue said...

Sure, but soldiers aren't construction workers or slaves - their tasks are usually centric to combat readiness.

Boot cleaning is a minor task taken out of context for the most part (and many infantrymen do seriously need to keep their boots clean for a number of real and practical reasons).

Most of my time spent in a mechanized infantry type role was in battle training. Fire team movement, target practice, tactical theory, gun cleaning, HMMWV maintenance, etc.

Zak Sabbath said...

My understanding from the military who I am acquainted with is that they very much _are_ construction workers since about 2003 and that they have always been--if not slaves--then people expected to fuckton of cleaning all the time.

And while I do appreciate the ability to stand at post and do nothing is a useful skill I fail to see how cleaning a boot is somehow a more soldierly task than changing a lightbulb.

GameDaddy said...

There's two kinds of soldiers. There are the ones that go on watch, and get killed because they get distracted thinking about changing lightbulbs... And there is the kind that go on watch, and for eight or twelve hours straight look at that same endless boring horizon and manage to spot the bad guys sneaking up on the command post, then frag them getting a bronze star or whatever in the process. Doing boring needless stuff is very necessary to practice for the times when you really need the skills to complete the boring needful tasks.

They have plenty of guys already, who can change light bulbs, and contractors as well to help change the light bulbs, so the soldiers don't need to do it and can focus on combat skills.

The difference in training right for the actual situation, life or death. No inbetween. You either watch the horizon skillfully, or you get fragged by the sneaky mofo's that infiltrate your line of defense (Called a perimeter in militarese).

The shining part is just practice for the real thing...

Zak Sabbath said...

My response to this would be to repeat things I've already said in the comments and ask if you read them so I guess I'm not going to take the time to rewrite them again.

Engage if you are so inclined.

noisms said...

Zak, I know your answer to this up the thread was that they could tidy up Kabul, but that's a bit of a flip answer - most US troops aren't stationed in Afghanistan, and the rationale behind reconstruction efforts should be that Afghanistan does that itself.

Sure, they could "clean up" Detroit like you say - and then great, suddenly you've lost loads of job opportunities for unemployed civilians in Detroit.

On top of that, you want to teach discipline in apparently meaningless tasks precisely because they are meaningless. You don't want to cultivate a sense among soldiers of "Why am I doing this since it's meaningless?" You want to cultivate a sense that "I will do what I am told, because even though I don't know why and it seems meaningless, I assume there is a reason."

huth said...

Or a rule of such sublime specificity and complexity that it envelops their entire consciousness in Zahirian pocket universe of singular contemplation, so they can't post on any more.

huth said...

Sure, they could "clean up" Detroit like you say - and then great, suddenly you've lost loads of job opportunities for unemployed civilians in Detroit.

Although the influx of people with money to the downtown core might lead to an increase in the robustness of the local economy.

Zak Sabbath said...


Regardless of the politics or practicality of the useful task in question (which are debatable in any situation and are not the point):

Standing guard is an apparently but _not actually_ meaningless task.

No-one has yet given any compelling reason why soldiers could not train for such tasks via other apparently _but not actually_ meaningless tasks. It would be more efficient.

The only argument forwarded--that there are not that many meaningful tasks--is not convincing.

Either someone can try to make it convincing or make a different argument.

James said...

Man, some of what Zak said here reminds me of things my Dad told me 18 years ago when I was about to join the military. He did 20 years in the army and was in Vietnam. He warned me before I went into the military about the unnecessary busy work created to keep the troops occupied. Such as repainting walls that didn't need repainting. He thought that time would be better spent training, or heaven forbid, leaving work early to spend time with family and friends.

I'm doing a reserve air force tour right now in the Middle East, and a lack of critical thinking is still prevalent. When Libya kicked off, a lot of the guys wished they were helping with that fight. Not because they believed in some cause... they didn't even talk much about what the cause was. The biggest reason they wanted to go was that they would get combat pay, but be able to spend their off time getting drunk and laid in the Med, as most of the involved bases were European. The rights or wrongs of the conflict didn't readily come into discussion.

I can't say it is the military, either. I've also dabbled in the rules-heavy corporate world and politics and the same kind of blind 'follow-the-leader' attitude is there in any large organization. Morality is not a factor, but lying and cheating are in play if it can get someone ahead. The only thought that is developed is how much the person is being paid, and what might be threatening the paycheck. If the organization demands mind-numbing busy work from subordinates, than that is what leadership gets because rocking the boat might harm the chance for a higher paycheck later.

Callan S. said...


It's pretty obvious to everyone that some guitars are better quality than others. Put a great guitarist on a poor quality guitar - you wont get the best out of that guitarist.

The guitar IS part of the performance. An integral part, lending various qualities to it. Yes, it's not the entirety of the performance - that does not mean it's 100% not a part of the performance, either!

You know the parallel I'm drawing. This is why I think trying to say it's ALL up to the mythical awesome GM is...missplaced.

And when it's NOT all up to the GM, then it's a question of whether a proposed rule actually carries any load itself, or it leaves it all on the GM's shoulders as much as if he had used no rules at all.

Here's a deadbeat rule I'm making up now (I'm going to lay into my own creation!) - roll 1D20. On a 20, something awesome happens!

This rule is ass - it carries not even part of the creative weight for the GM.

If you want to talk about rules where the GM carries the majority of the creative weight, like 90% of it, okay, fair enough. Or even "Hae, you think the GM carries 100% of the weight, but you is wrong!", cause maybe I am wrong.

But making up rules where the GM carries 100% of the creative weight - in all my 300 years of gaming, that's just no good.

Wait? 300? I mean 3000! Now you're impressed!

Zak Sabbath said...

How drunk are you?

Zzarchov said...

I will do my best to give my 2 cents,

If you make people do meaningful work, they may be motivated to do work because it is meaningful.

If you make people do meaningless work, they will do work because they are told to and no other reason (since there isn't one).

If people do work that is meaningful, and are given a task that appears to be unrepentantly meaningless, they may not dutifully obey that task.

That task may be very important, just not in any way the soldier knows, or should know. It may be meaningful because well, someone gets to be the king and someone gets to be the pawn. It would then require that the soldier motivated by meaning have great trust in his superiors, which may not exist as he may be given an order by someone he didn't know existed 30 seconds ago (the chaos of battle).

So if you are given a task you find meaningless from someone you've never met before, you must be able and trained to do it anyways. Your job isn't to find meaning, its to do it the best you can.

If you don't have that kind of discipline, the discipline to do things that are stupid or meaningless, it really makes it hard to orchestrate large scale state sponsored homicide.

(I am not insulting others who have also served, but I quickly found it uncomfortably weird that its a war crime to shoot the dictator who started the war, but A-Ok to shoot the innocent people drafted against their will to fight for him.)

Zak Sabbath said...

If there are field tasks that are secretly but not apparently meaningful, then there could easily be training tasks that are secretly but not apparently meaningful.

A rule that you don't need to know why until a later date or changed and relaxed circumstance is fine. No different than all the other "act responsible now, be totally not on the weekend" rules the military already has.

freddyboomboom said...

I'm guessing your "ordie" (ordinanceman) seat mate is stationed in NAS Lemoore... Or NAS Purgatory as I called it in my time there... Still have the NAS Purgatory command ball cap I had embroidered special...

What is to follow is mostly just observations and ruminations, feel free to skip it. :)

I usually only had to have my boots polished during inspections, which were relatively few and far between after boot camp. On a day to day basis they just needed to be blackened so the scuff marks wouldn't show. But then I wasn't ever in the running for "sailor of the month". :)

My day to day job was fixing airplane parts, and airplanes at my last duty station.

The only times I had boring "shit" jobs was boot camp, on "duty" days, and when I was a transient trying to get back to my ship, that went on cruise when I was home on leave (vacation). And on duty days, at worst I might be on a working party that has to pick up the trash on the pier, or help onload supplies (think chain of guys tossing cases of food to each other along passageways, and down ladderwells into the storerooms in the bowels of the ship). Once I got a bit of rank (E-4 and above), not even working parties any more

Otherwise, we had to clean our work and living spaces once a week, besides the daily take out the trash and sweep the floors bit.

So in the US Navy, if you have an actual Rating (aka rate aka job) like Avionics Technician you don't usually spend your days painting rocks and such-like exciting stuff.

In our off time, especially "at sea" we played a fuck-ton of RPGs. Traveler, D&D, Shadowrun, Champions, Battletech, Star Wars (original West End Games version), etc. I think I'm showing my age. :)

If you've read this far, my comment about the rules: I remember pretty much every RPG rulebook mentioning something about being guidelines more than rules, and the reader is free to alter, drop, or make up new rules at whim. In fact, my Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game manual says on page 28 (the gamemastering section) "If our suggestions get in the way - toss 'em out. Having a good time is more important than attention to picayune details."

And I think someone that HAS TO strictly adhere to every rule in an RPG needs to get a life.

Callan S. said...

Heh, and here I assumed I wouldn't run into conservative thinking!

Next time someone uses some part of your outer appearance to dismiss you, you can remember how easy it is to do rather than just be annoyed someone would do that to you.

Zak Sabbath said...

I still have no idea what your talking about.
Literally, as in:
-Point of View Meant To Be Expressed
-Reason It Is Underneath This Post