Breaking Through the Fog: Rethinking a Morning Military Ritual


My stiff fingers ritually explore the keyboard in the early morning dark. The coffee maker in the kitchen gurgles like it’s drowning, but I am the one needing that cup of salvation next to me on the dining room table as soon as possible.

Nobody else is awake in the house. Why would they be?

I’d say this is my time, but it’s really not. The hours between five and seven in the morning belong to others: The fictional Marines, soldiers, sailors and security contractors of the future whom I struggle to give the lives they deserve; the people counting on my professional writing in the “real world” of defense and security analysis; my co-writer on the biggest professional gambit I’ve ever undertaken: a novel about the next world war.

Before I am fully awake, the keyboard keys rattle and shake in their metal bed beneath my cold fingertips. Whether those sentences that come out in three-to-four-second bursts are any good or not is less important. The most important part of this moment is the act of sitting down in the dark to get to work. Each character, word and paragraph is an incremental victory in a larger set-piece struggle that occurs every time I open my laptop before dawn.

If it’s a good day, there are creative breakthroughs. Big ones. It’s predictable, because for me the earliest hours of the day are almost always the most creative. Those breakthroughs come from the routine and practiced approach that respects an artistic tradition of early-morning productivity.

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Hemingway drank, it seems, to write in a dissociated state. I don’t have his liver or literary talent so I approach my limitations in my own way. But what I do realize is that in the early morning, I’m not awake enough to get in my own way. I don’t always have to be at the computer. Sometimes I’m rowing or riding my bike in the hazy transition between night and day and I have to hold on to a clear idea until I can pull over to frantically tap a few words into my iPhone.

If the idea is really good, it slips right past me before convention or conceit can keep it from sneaking onto the page.

Sound Mind and Body

For generations, American military culture has carved out the early morning as a special time of day. Battles often begin just before dawn. Recruits in training harden quickly to the rigors of a life under arms with the gut-wrenching fatigue of day after day of unrelenting reveille. Countless miles have been run.

This is an era when military policymakers clamor for “innovation” and “disruptive” approaches. Reform is in the offing at many levels. New physical training regimes are in the works, as Jim Gourley recently noted. The U.S. Marine Corps is implementing High Intensity Tactical Training while the U.S. Army is looking at new ways of physically testing soldiers based on their roles.

This is not to minimize the head-clearing wonders of early-morning exercise or the importance of rigorous training together at dawn. America can be fitter as a nation, a public policy matter for the military as much as for public health experts. But as the 21st Century U.S. military is reevaluating what we should be asking of the bodies of those in uniform, it is worth exploring what we also ask of their minds.

To be sure, I am a civilian encroaching on a cultural and operational cornerstone of the American military’s daily life. But it is because I find the early morning creative space so effective that I believe it is worth reconsidering the value and use of at least some of the dawn hours.

We know routine and ritual matter, and so does tradition. This can be institutional, or it can be personal. It should be seen as an asset, not a liability. Consider one of the most productive and longest-performing American dancers, Twyla Tharp. Yes, you read that correctly: a ballet dancer as a professional paradigm for a community whose primary purpose is, to many of its members, distilled down to killing people and breaking stuff. Those are enduring capabilities of America’s military. Yet the high operational tempo of complex armed and social conflicts draws upon creative thinking more than ever because killing people and breaking stuff is frequently detrimental to mission and strategic objectives. Artistic methodology and vision have a place in the defense community.

Tharp attributes her success to early-morning discipline and routine. An extraordinary athlete and artist, she describes her early morning physical training as essential to unlocking her creative abilities in a field where body and mind must operate at their peak to survive professionally. She is working the problems of the day, as well as those over her creative horizon, in the opening hours. “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way,” she writes in her 2003 book The Creative Habit. Her work has already caught the attention of many writers, among them former Marine and bestselling military fiction author Steven Pressfield, who offers her as an example of how important it is to understand that a steady, workmanlike approach is essential to a professional writer.

If the military were to see its pre-dawn routine in this creative context, it need not be an either-or choice. Exercise and creativity are closely linked and PT can have the advantage of being a group activity, too.

From the perspective of those in uniform, there is more that can be done at dawn than just simply running. “Those are probably my strongest creative times,” says Doctrine Man, who is a committed early-morning exerciser and writer. He pointed out that the Army’s Thirty-Third Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer used to e-mail his “Reimer’s Notes While Running” after recording them during workouts.

It has to be said that service members in a military that has been at war so often since 2001 do not regularly have the luxury of long, thoughtful runs when they are deployed – or even back at home. But that does not mean it’s not worth trying.

An example could be setting aside one morning per week for a platoon to work on a given set of problems ahead of a deployment or upon return from operating overseas. Not everybody has a great idea each Tuesday, or in truth on any Tuesday, but by setting aside this physical and mental space true innovations have a better shot of emerging than they otherwise would. These can be running conversations too, literally, because for some groups that will be more effective. For Twyla Tharp it’s getting in the cab to the gym that begins the daily sequence of a dedicated professional. For Doctrine Man, it’s time on the treadmill or at the desk before the day’s demands avalanche down. For me, it is the opportunity to offer up my time to my characters, co-workers and friends while I sit alone in the dark. Sometimes I go for a bike ride or a row instead because that’s what I need to do to be at my best.

This is one approach to a larger challenge of harnessing and developing creative thinking when modern warfare’s increasingly thorny cultural and technological challenges will often require more than sheer strength or the ability to overwhelm an adversary with physical or kinetic force. Institutionalizing a shift in early-morning military ritual may not be the right answer for everybody. But if you get up early enough and or at least give yourself the space to think, you may come up with an even better idea than this one.


August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project and a non-resident senior fellow at the Council. He is a writer, consultant and analyst. His first novel, GHOST FLEET, co-written with Peter W. Singer, will be published in 2015.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army