Go to War, Write a Book, Work in Advertising.
Remember Piers Platt, the Rosetta analyst we interviewed back in December 2010 about recruiting practices for strategy consultants? He just published a book about his deployment in Iraq!
It’s called Combat and Other Shenanigans: Tales of the Absurd from a Deployment to Iraq, and as the title would suggest, it captures the lighter moments of military training and deployment. The funny stuff like pranks played on new recruits (See excerpt below. Can of squelch, anyone?) that happened amongst the dangerous and courageous business of being at war.
We knew Piers was a stand-up guy and seriously brilliant strategist, but he’s also an engaging writer. Let’s face it: Asking what deployment is like is similar to asking about a medical procedure. You’re curious, but you don’t know how to politely approach it. You don’t want to be too invasive and you’re not sure you can stomach the details.
Here’s what Piers had to say when we spoke about his book:
JS: Why did you need to tell this story? And once you decided, how long did it take? Did you write with a goal in mind?
PP: I started writing it as a tribute to the men I served with. I wanted to tell the story of our 13-month deployment, because it was hilarious at times, but also speaks to the professionalism of those soldiers. It turned into a bit of a catharsis exercise…and ended up a very bitter book! In reading the first draft, my wife made me realize that no one would want to be bitter for 200 pages. So I did some heavy editing and rewriting…and trimmed it down to the funny stories, looking for a unique niche in the market. It took me 6 years, working on and off, to get it to the place I wanted. Hopefully, it still shows the outstanding character of my men.
JS: Your writing style kind of reminds me of PJ O’Rourke. Your memoir is a collection of humorous stories that unfold against the most stressful of backdrops. Is “military humor” critical to survival? How do you keep your head together in those conditions? Or, what are the traits of a successful soldier? Are they innate or learned?
PP: That’s quite a compliment, thanks! Humor is so critical to survival. I would say that’s true in any big organization, where bureaucracy tends to overwhelm common sense, sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of things. And the Army has a lot of bureaucracy.
And [keeping a sense of humor] is especially important in combat…if you didn’t work to find the lighter side of things, it quickly got very depressing. I think humor – and the ability to laugh at yourself – is a critical trait for soldiers and leaders in general. Acknowledging faults and flaws to people is a quick way to gain their trust and respect. I think anyone can learn to do that, but it’s more intuitive for some.
In the soldiers I admired most, I saw a lot of initiative and accountability. Many of these guys came to the Army with no more than a high school diploma. Whatever leadership skills they had they learned on the job. They had a natural tendency to take charge, to do things right, not to back away from responsibility.
JS: What is the most valuable thing you got from your experience in Iraq? Are you a better leader because of it?
PP: Perspective is the most valuable thing. Iraq taught me that we’re incredibly lucky to be living in America, and I’m personally lucky to be alive given some of the close calls I had. So I try to remember that, and (a) to make the most of every day with my wife and daughter, and (b) it allows me to keep a pretty even keel at work. We’re not making life or death decisions in the Marketing world, so there’s not much that gets me stressed out nowadays!
JS: What’s next? Are you still in the Army? Could you deploy again?
PP: No, I’m no longer in the Army or Reserves. I miss it but I like being home. I wouldn’t want to put my family through another deployment. I haven’t resigned my commission, so technically they could call me up if the situation was dire enough (and with the whole Crimea situation, you never know!)…but it’s pretty unlikely. I’m planning to write more.
Combat and Other Shenanigans is available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble. During the upcoming May 18-19 promotion, you’ll be able to get a FREE copy of the book, here.
Here’s a funny excerpt:
Private jokes are an immensely entertaining time-killer for the many “wait” periods of the Army’s “hurry up and wait” work rhythm, while also letting the NCOs involved blow off a little steam. They all follow a similar pattern:
1. Order a Private to complete a task that is either nonsensical or impossible to achieve, but sounds plausible to an inexperienced soldier
2. Subtly reinforce that this task is critical to the unit’s combat effectiveness and by extension, our country’s national security
3. Watch selected Private struggle to understand / interpret his instructions, but brush them off if they request clarifications
4. Profit as you watch the unfortunate victim attempt to carry out his orders
For instance, a Private will be summoned to the NCO’s location, and told to check a tank’s armor for “soft spots.” The Private will be handed a hammer and a can of spray paint and told to circle any spot that sounds suspicious when hit with the hammer. The end result is a bewildered Private and a tank that looks like it has contracted chicken pox.
Otherwise, a Private might be asked to “check the tank’s shocks” by jumping up and down on the back deck – an utterly futile action on a 70-ton vehicle. A Private might be handed a plastic bag and told to get an exhaust sample from a tank’s engine, which, being a hugely powerful turbine, blows a massive blast of hot air behind the tank. Besides being nearly impossible to hold the bag in the strong exhaust stream, the exhaust is hot enough to melt the bag.
Private jokes can be fairly elaborate, too: while performing maintenance on a radio, a Private will be told to go get a can of “squelch” from the communications shop. “Squelch” is the Army term for the squeaky burst of static-like noise that occurs when you start broadcasting over secure radios. It’s a noise, not a physical thing. The victim then reports to the communications NCO, who has not been forewarned, but immediately recognizes the prank:
“Hmmm…squelch? No, we just gave our last can to Charlie Troop. Tell you what, though…I think 601st Maintenance had some last week. Why don’t you try them?”