The U.S. Military and Creativity
By: John B. Alexander, Ph.D.
Colonel John Alexander was an original member of the Earth Battalion and served in many interesting paranormal
scouting efforts. Eventually he headed up the non-lethal weapons world for the Army. He continues to be a trusted thinker and solid communicator to the Defense world about many of the gifts created by the members of this circle of pioneers. Thanks for this outstanding coverage of much of the Battalions near legendary works
John. Jim Channon
The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) lists four core values: Integrity, Courage, Competency, and Creativity. In 2006, as a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), I drafted a monograph addressing creativity as it applied to Special Operations Forces (SOF).* Indeed, SOF elements pride themselves their ability to quickly adapt to rapidly changing, and often extremely dangerous situations, and rightfully so. Of concern to me was not the myriad of operations successfully conducted by small units. Rather, it was that problems emerge when large organizations, such as USSOCOM, attempt to institutionalize creativity. To quote on young U.S. Army Special Forces officer I encountered in Timbuktu, “Creativity is directly proportional to the distance from the flag pole.”
Having been involved in many creative projects during my 32 years in the United States military, and observing the Army’s responses to them, my objective was to point out that creativity is much easier to say, than it is to execute in large organizations. Almost invariably, as creative projects gain increased visibility, the more traditional values of the large system come in conflict. When that happens, steps are taken to eliminate the creative project.
In the monograph I addressed seven such innovative Army projects as well as several from the other services. (No service, organization, or individual has a corner on creativity.) The Army projects addressed were all successful, yet all were terminated as opposition from conventional sources rose. One of those projects, the Army’s Organizational Effectiveness program, was probably the largest institutional transformation project ever undertaken by any organization.
The monograph covered several projects, including remote viewing, that run counter to conventional scientific wisdom. Despite theoretical arguments about the fundamental causation, an operational capability was developed. However, because of the perceived controversial nature of some of the material, including remote viewing, an executive decision was made that the monograph would not be published by a U.S. Government organization. Based on my agreement with JSOU, I am free to publish that material in other sources. The monograph will be done in its entirety in book form at a later date.
Given the recent development of the inept and highly fictionalized book, Men Who Stare at Goats, as a movie, it was determined it would be useful to present a more accurate picture of the history surrounding some of those projects. While the book tends to present the material in a ridiculing and somewhat humorous manner, these projects were both successful and developed with a lot of serious thought behind them. Both Jim Channon and I are covered extensively in the book, for which even the title is misleading. (While there was a goat involved, it was physically hit by a martial arts instructor.) This article will present material that provides background on two of the seven projects. One lesser-known project, called Task Force Delta, was closely related to Jim Channon’s legendary and boundary-breaking work on The First Earth Battalion.** In a large part, it was we, the members of Task Force Delta, who initially helped spread the about Jim Channon’s creative endeavor.
Task Force Delta
Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.
— William Plomer
The early 1980s military think tank called Task Force Delta was an extremely creative organization dedicated to exploring concepts of high performance. It is unlikely that any military unit has ever been as cost-effective. General Don Starry actuated the concept when he was the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) commander (1977-1981). He was familiar with James Grier Miller’s Living Systems theory, which was just emerging at that time. This theory posited that all living systems, no matter what size or complexity, had three main functions. Those were input, throughput, and output and they applied from unicellular life, such as ameba, through large social organizations including the U.S. Army.
General Starry believed that systems theory offered lessons that would be beneficial to the Army’s development and the future challenges that it would face. Initially Colonel Mike Malone, a respected leadership and systems theory expert, directed the evolution of the organization. With Malone’s retirement, the Task Force Delta think tank soon moved to the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Then Lieutenant Colonel Bill Witt provided leadership while waiting for the permanent director to be transferred from the Army Chief of Staff office. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Burns, an OE officer for General Meyer, became the director and remained there until the unit was abolished. All of those directors possessed inquisitive minds and a healthy understanding of emerging systems theory.
The basis of the Task Force Delta think tank was an extremely small core group, supported by interested people, all of whom worked in other organizations. The entire staff consisted of one lieutenant colonel, one civilian equivalent, and three administrative personnel. Participation by other people was on a totally voluntary basis. Frank Burns cast a wide net both inside the Army and in the civilian sector looking for people with innovative ideas and concepts they could contribute. Meetings were held quarterly, and most participants had to secure their own funding. Even many civilians with no other affiliation with the Army attended at their own expense. The meetings were so mentally stimulating that members rarely missed a session.
Some sessions could best be described as data gathering and mental cross-pollination. Presentations on a wide range of topics would be arranged. For many of the civilians it was a unique opportunity to provide ideas directly to an Army audience that was open to new ideas. Some noted their frustration at previous attempts to beat on the Army’s front door only to find that most offices were just too busy to listen. In those times, fighting fires was the theme of the day.
More important than the formal sessions was the ability to network with bright, innovative people. It was not uncommon for informal gatherings to go on late into the night, sometimes at the expense of nodding off the next day. That really did not matter. Also significant were the interpersonal contacts that routinely assisted participants in their regular assignments back at home station. Many deep bonds were formed. In fact, a substantial number of these relationships continue today, nearly 25 years later and long after the official demise of the Task Force Delta think tank.
On occasion, tasks would be assigned to the members attending the Task Force Delta think tank meetings. An example is when Lieutenant General Max Thurman, then Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, asked the group to explore all aspects of future Army personnel issues. The topics ranged from recruiting and retention to professional education, health and welfare, leadership principles, organizational structures and assignments, and emerging human capabilities. In response, meetings were conducted from Monday through Thursday noon. Initially plenary sessions occurred and later small, self-defined groups that discussed specific aspects of the personnel system. As with other meetings, these sessions tended to run through meals and late into the evening.
At noon on Thursday the discussions stopped, and the real work began. Each person decided what topic area they wanted to contribute to. A chapter outline was provided, and the teams went to work. Being very self-motivated, most people worked continuously throughout the night. When General Thurman arrived at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, he received a bound book containing the deliberations on all aspects of the personnel system and many suggestions about how to deal with future complex issues.
Two items are important to remember for this 1982 time: a) word processing, as it is commonly known today, did not exist and b) the think tank conference attendees were all volunteers. Nobody had a laptop computer, shared networks, or memory sticks. The physical requirements of producing a written document of that magnitude took tremendous effort. Nobody was graded on their input, nor would their efforts ever be reflected in personal efficiency reports. Some of the participants were civilians, whose only motivation was the excitement of being able to collaborate in a truly high performing organization and the possibility that somebody might read their concepts and recognize that it could be applied in the Army.
Obviously the book had not been edited, and chapter formats did not all match; that would come later. The success was definitively demonstrating the primary effort necessary to create such a complex document in a short period of time. The Task Force Delta think tank proved what systems theorists predicted about the possibilities that emerge when high performing organizations are tasked and then given permission to respond as they deem necessary.
The networking efforts went far beyond periodic meetings. The Task Force Delta think tank led the way in obtaining and initiating computer networks that were populated by regular people, not just techno-wizards. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, only a few researchers and innovative managers understood the potential power of computer networks. Malone envisioned a small organization that could be used to research the possibilities that emerging technology and networking provided by the think tank. At this time, personal computers were scarcely known. Yet many of the think tank members were given one to take home and use. Most of the communication was done during off-duty hours and transmitted at the rate of 600 baud, thus simple messages could take several minutes to download. In an age where 24 mega bits per second (Mbps) is attainable, communicating at such slow speeds is almost inconceivable.
While the Internet concept in 1980 was embryonic, the ability to network was considered extremely innovative. For the first time, the Task Force Delta think tank members demonstrated how to staff papers around the world in less than 24 hours. This ability was a dramatic improvement over the telecommunications of the day, or sending printouts via mail and taking weeks for coordination.
Following Malone’s initial guidance, the composition of the Task Force Delta think tank remained closely balanced. He insisted that organizational composition include what he termed both “bumblebees and butterflies.” In other words, as a counterweight to some pretty far out ideas, he wanted people with their feet planted firmly on the ground and an excellent sense for the realistic needs of the Army. As we were just coming out of the Vietnam War, virtually all of the Army officers involved had combat experience, which served well as a sobering reminder of the real world.
What the Task Force Delta think tank demonstrated was that high performing networks could provide significant advantages over traditional organizational communications. The financial costs were very small compared to the return of efforts provided from the vast volunteer network that addressed a myriad of tasks because they found it interesting. People worked extensively, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Guidance was minimal and generally not necessary. Participants with difficult problems could have near instant access to a wide range of technical experts. As each scouted the burgeoning intellectual terrain, they reported back, often self-initiating new areas of inquiry. However, some traditional leaders viewed such intellectual freedom as a threat. Shortly thereafter, the Task Force Delta think tank was closed.
Origins of the First Earth Battalion
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
During the late 1970s and early 1980s one of the Army’s brightest and most futuristic thinkers was Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon. A military intelligence officer by training, Channon served 10 years in the Infantry, including an assignment as a platoon leader in Vietnam. He also had spent some time in Public Affairs. As such, he was even assigned the Army interface with Hollywood. During this period Channon initiated a scouting mission to explore the various emerging human potential movements that were burgeoning in California at the time. This effort was purely volitional and conducted mostly on his free time. In no way could his activities be construed as part of the domestic surveillance activities that later led to extreme difficulties for the military.6
Among his personal skills Channon was (and still is) a phenomenally gifted artist. He had an extraordinary ability to listen to people describe abstract concepts, then quickly transform those ideas into easily understandable graphics. In fact, some of the basic symbols and graphic designs used in the Army today originated with Channon over 25 years ago. His artistic ability and mental acuity were widely known by senior officers who often coveted his capabilities. Before Thurman briefed the U.S. Army senior leadership, he would always ask, “Where’s Jimmy?” Although assigned outside of the Pentagon, even on the West Coast, Channon would be summoned to quickly create the visual briefing materials. His renderings included a vast number of the normal overhead transparencies as well as his large-scale summaries called “monster-grams,” continuous charts that would cover many feet and could be taped to the walls of the briefing room. The state of the art in projection technology had not advanced to a degree anywhere close to what is available today.
Channon was also a key member of the Task Force Delta think tank and worked closely with Frank Burns and others in that circle. Therefore, he was one of the group who were seriously engaged in studying cultural transformation in the post-Vietnam era. As repeated attempts to convey transitional concepts in traditional briefing format failed, Channon realized that an innovative framework was required to help people fully understand the significance of these events. As with all organizations, especially old institutions, change is mightily resisted. The concept, he believed, had to be one that fostered free thinking, or what later became known as “out of the box” thinking.
The name First Earth Battalion literally appeared in his head during one of his many transcontinental flights. He terms this innovation as a “mystical hit.” The concept was to create a large catalogue of possibilities and display them graphically. At that time a book titled The Whole Earth Catalogue was selling widely in New Age circles. It contained pages and pages of new technologies, techniques, and materials from which the reader could choose. Similarly, Channon created the First Earth Battalion catalogue as a field manual, which was designed to provide readers a permissive-thinking platform. Channon now describes the Earth Battalion as protomythological—looking at the future while rooted in a historic framework (the battalion). The motto of the First Earth Battalion was dare to think the unthinkable. These words were taken in a positive sense, not the foreboding notion that meant massive death.
Channon’s drawings were done in black and white. Often they were sketchy and suggestive with limited text, and the concepts intentionally never were written out in detail. He wanted people to fill in the missing material for themselves. The concept was to get people to think, not to view the catalogue as a finished document, or worse, a total blueprint for an actual Army organization.
Many of the concepts were way beyond the understanding of traditional Army officers. For instance, exchanging soldiers and their families to populate critical targets in opposing countries was never seriously considered as a viable operational concept. Rather, by describing a conscience corps, Channon was focusing on the consequences in human terms should a nuclear exchange occur. In truth, many in the military had become rather cavalier when discussing nuclear strike capabilities. However impractical in reality the notion was, it did cause readers to think about the implications of nuclear strikes in a new and more personal light. He eventually bundled these ideas under what he called “combat for collective conscience.” As he predicted, global opinion today is shaped by the ethical judgments of the world that watches combat unfold.
Well before the current outpouring of concerns about global warming, Channon’s work had strong ecological preservation components. He envisioned energy conservation, recycling technologies, and reforestation as voluntary integrants of the military, not issues to be forced on posts through draconian legislation. In many areas Channon’s concepts were way ahead of their times; and he readily acknowledges the need for an incubation period, often years and maybe decades, before new ideas can be brought to fruition. As a further example, in a 1979 version of the First Earth Battalion, he already envisioned strategic micro forces—smaller units that could act decisively without requiring the massing of larger forces. In a way, he was describing what SOF has become but at a time when these elements were not as highly regarded as they are today.
Balance was an essential element in much of Channon’s work. In some areas the Army could easily accept his ideas. Physical fitness, albeit with lower impact on joints, was reasonable. He was a strong advocate of establishing and maintaining a healthy diet. New theories were emerging about how the brain functions and exercises to enhance cognitive capabilities. The use of previsualization before engaging in complex tasks was encouraged. Also advocated were ancient, and proven effective, meditation techniques.
Establishing a balance between mind and body seemed to resonate well in the Army. However, Channon’s notions of integrating spiritual concepts, especially ones that transcended national boundaries, were of more concern to some casual observers. In fact, the First Earth Battalion did suggest that individuals would operate in a global, not national, context and focused on planetary peace making. The acknowledgement of a tripartite balance of body, mind, and spirit is less well accepted within military circles. The concept of the warrior-monk has survived for millennia. However, in the U.S. Army, spiritual matters were generally left to the chaplains and seen as matters of personal choice. Channon, however, invoked the need for balance in all three domains, and did so unapologetically.
At the time Channon wrote the First Earth Battalion, General “Shy” Meyer was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. As the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, he had inherited an Army that was in need of repair. Meyer’s efforts to rebuild the Army continued as he was selected over many more senior generals as one of the youngest Army Chiefs of Staff. Throughout his tenure Meyer strived to create an environment that permitted exploration. Channon viewed the publication of the First Earth Battalion, and its acceptance by many senior officers, as a mechanism for more junior officers to see that they had permission to think more freely.7
A limited number of original copies were made of the First Earth Battalion. Initially these 300 copies were circulated to selected members of Task Force Delta think tank. The draft annotation on the title page expressed the notion that this document was a living instrument. Demand for copies quickly grew as information about the script spread via word of mouth. Those officers holding originals began photocopying additional copies and handing them to friends. Channon notes that this was an intentional means of distribution as it created a mystique about the nature of the manuscript and gave it enhanced value. Many people who had only a vague notion of the Task Force Delta think tank wanted copies of the coveted First Earth Battalion. People who never would have normally read the paper did so because of the preternatural aura associated with owning a copy. The underground distribution technique probably ensured wider readership than it would have obtained had it been formally printed and officially sent out. The effectiveness of this scheme has been noted. Over the decades, photocopied versions of the original manuscript could be found with officers who were interested in future concepts. With the military today, a sub rosa element that circulates this document still exists.
Soon this somewhat mysterious concept was to escape beyond the bonds of the Army. Within a short time civilian media were asking Channon for information about the First Earth Battalion. In February 1982, a popular publication of the day, Omni Magazine, carried an article by that title. That was quickly followed by a Dateline segment on NBC that featured Lieutenant Colonel Channon discussing the inner workings of the notional organization. Despite prior approval of the Public Affairs Office at Fort Lewis, Washington, many senior officers in the “Big Army” were not happy seeing a lieutenant colonel pushing the conceptual envelope on national television.
Under-appreciated by a number of traditional-minded generals, Channon retired from the Army in September 1982. He retained the copyright for First Earth Battalion, and in recent years he has slightly updated the original publication by adding a colored cover. It is currently available on the Internet. In 2005 more than 10,000 copies were downloaded for free; printed copies are sold to those interested in that format. As testament to the efficacy of the notional concepts Channon brought to the Army, he successfully transitioned those same skills to the civilian sector. There, he has assisted a dozen of the world’s largest 100 companies (and many others) to envision their futures. He provides multidimensional graphics and storytelling magic that allow their employees to more fully comprehend, and be charged, by the company’s objectives.
In a recent interview, Channon noted many of the key aspects that led to the development of First Earth Battalion. At that time the Army depended heavily on formal written documents to convey structural information. Various field manuals and other official publications provided rather sterile, highly organized transfer mechanisms for technical information. Eschewed by the military, Channon opined, was transmission of the cultural information that engendered the soul of the organization. Like today, the late 1970s was a period of cultural transformation as the Army struggled to recover from the distasteful experience of Vietnam. To be successful, the change must be deeper than doctrine documents. Channon’s objective was to revitalize the Army he loved at a most visceral level.
Channon studied various religious rites of passage. Throughout history these rituals have evoked primal emotions, a very scary notion, even counterintuitive, for many staid military officers. He noted also the importance of symbology and ceremonies. True loyalty was not something obtained by a written or sworn oath. Rather deep and abiding loyalty comes from shared common experience, especially when endured in hardship. To communicate culture means establishing programs that produced many such shared experiences and often incorporated historical events of great importance to the organization. He noted that cultural transference through ceremonies has tended to be squeezed out by the exigencies of day-to-day business. The importance of this medium is still not fully understood.
Beyond the printed document, Channon embodied the essence of cultural transformation. He advocated and demonstrated the ability to simultaneously communicate complex, value-laden information on multiple channels simultaneously. Employing visual and auditory effects as well as orchestrated emotional stimuli, Channon’s techniques had the ability to initiate concordance in multisensory modes so that soldiers would integrate the Army’s values at a deep-seated, core level.