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"General Orders for Sentries" as an operations document (sebastianmarshall.com)
122 points by joeyespo on June 8, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments

This is drilled into you when you join the Navy.

Then you get to an aircraft carrier. You're the in port officer of the deck. You know the rules. You make sure every sentry is checking ID's.

Then someone tries to get through with a piece of laminated red paper with their name on it. You turn them away. They say, "Hey, I'm a contractor, I'm supposed to be here."

You call the Command Duty Officer. He says, "Oh, if it's a contractor, they have their own ID's, let him through."

You ask, "What do the contractor ID's look like?"

He says, "Oh, they're all different depending on the contracting company."

You ask, "Do we have samples of them, or can anyone just make one up and walk on board?"


Then you peek out and stare at the line of about 300 contractors and dock workers who, if you're doing your job, aren't going to get to work on the ship that day.

Lesson: rules are great but execution really matters.

Concur. A charming read that plays on the reader's generally inaccurate assumption that the military is just like "Full Metal Jacket".

I too had to memorize these and then once the screaming stopped, I never saw them again.

I think these are a big deal in the Marine Corps and that's it.

Even in the Marine Corps, many Marines forget them after their initial training. Overall, Marines make sure to be attentive on post and challenge all personnel attempting to enter. The general orders just spell out the reasonable course of action most of the time when on guard duty.

Like most things, it depends. In the USMC infantry the general orders are pretty relevant to daily activity (all the way up to Sgt), so practical application reinforces the learning. I can still rattle off the definition and justifications of deadly force in a single breath, and its been 10 years since I did any interior guard duty. I had to do some scripting in perl 4 years ago, maybe 10% of the day for a year, and I don't remember much of it aside from the shebang at the top and the *.pl file extension.

Every contractor really is a massive security risk. If it was wartime and there was any threat to the navy, all the work would be done by navy technicians. It really shows the extent to which bureaucracy has taken over the American military.

Not bureaucracy, corruption. In my own experience, the contractors cost more (though the individual workers don't see more money) with the extra money going to the company, which spends some of it lobbying or offering nice jobs to those who award the contracts. You see this at all different scales.

Yes a terrible security risk what happens when some one tailgates a bunch of contractors with a made up pass. Easy way to smuggle bad stuff onto a ship.

Sounds like the start of a NCIS episode.

>Every contractor really is a massive security risk.

Exhibit A: Snowden. (while he didn't disclose any really secret information, the NSA/etc. treated the information he disclosed as secret and expected others to treat it that way too)

This reminds me of "two stories of the pistol", some anecdotes where a sentry actually does almost kill some idiot senior officers:


My father's ship was patrolling off the cost of south vietnam. They were told that civilian Vietnamese fishing boats traveling east or west were fishing, whereas those going north or south were running ammunition or troops.

So one day they spotted a sailboat going south. The request permission to shell it. The permission was granted.

Dad thought it was quite funny, the shower of fish in the air when the shell detonated.

It never occured to me until many years later, to wonder about the crew aboard the fishing boat. It was quite common for entire families to live on their fishing boats for their whole lives.

Reminds me a bit of this bit from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: http://hpmor.com/chapter/84


From his belt, the Auror took a mirror, tapped it once, and then said, "This is Junior Auror Arjun Altunay, I'm calling in code RJ-L20 on cell three."

"Code RJ-L20?" the mirror said in surprised tones. There was a sound of pages being flipped, then, "You want to be relieved because a prisoner is attempting psychological warfare and succeeding?"

(Amelia Bones really is quite intelligent.)

"What'd the prisoner say to you?" said the mirror.

(This question is not part of procedure RJ-L20, but unfortunately Amelia Bones has failed to include an explicit instruction that the commanding officer should not ask.)

"He's -" said the Auror, and glanced back at the cell. The Defense Professor was now leaning in back in his chair, looking quite relaxed. "He was staring at me! And humming! "

There was a pause.

The mirror spoke again. "And you're calling in an RJ-L20 over that? You're sure you're not just trying to get out of watching him?"

(Amelia Bones is surrounded by idiots.)

"You don't understand!" yelled Auror Altunay. "It's really awful humming!"

The mirror transmitted a sound of muffled laughter in the background, sounding like it was coming from more than one person. Then speech again. "Mr. Altunay, if you don't want to be busted to Junior Auror Second Class, I suggest you buckle down and get back to work -"

"Strike that," a crisp voice said, sounding slightly remote due to its distance from the mirror.

(Which is why Amelia Bones often sits in on a coordination center of the D.M.L.E. while doing her Ministry-required paperwork.)

"Auror Altunay," said the crisp voice, seeming to approach closer to the mirror, "you will be relieved shortly. Auror Ben Gutierrez, the procedure for RJ-L20 does not say that you ask why. It says that you relieve the Auror who calls it in. If I find that Aurors seem to be abusing it, I will modify the procedure to prevent its abuse -" The mirror cut off abruptly.

Yes, I loved that section.

Some other military practices of interest:

The five paragraph order format: Situation, Mission, Execution, Administrative and Logistics, Command and Signals. Execution always includes the commander's intent, even if it's one sentence. The situation may change, and the lower ranks need to know the goal, not just what to do.

If you like the way the military thinks, read Gen. Krulak's brief memos from when he was Commandant of the USMC. Typical Krulak: "Marines on riot control duty will be armed. If the situation does not require weapons, it does not require a Marine."

Worth reading: "The Defense of Duffer's Drift".[1]

[1] http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/199th/ocs/content/pdf/T...

They teach 'SMEAC' to remember this, the military is full of these kinds of mnemonics:


Though it's generally a bit lame to act all military outside of the military, especially if you've never served, and especially in front of serving or ex-serving members.

Seb would last about 10 seconds at USMC officer school before he learned he needs to stop being so mouthy.

"Commander's intent" and the idea of familiarization courses were two ideas I found in the Army that I think apply to Development/operations.

Another useful concept is the 1/3 rule. If something has to be done, a level of command can use only 1/3 of the time available - 2/3 of the time belongs to the lower levels. This repeats downward.

That doesn't leave much lead time at the bottom, but the military also uses warning orders - "We're going to move out tomorrow, details to follow" - to get units ready.

I've just gone through Warfighting, the USMC's military doctrine pamphlet. Well worth a read, and surprisingly applicable.

I like the author's careful descriptions of what is good about the document, but it seems like common-sense pragmatism. Surely there are other, equally pragmatic and sensible, documents? (I admit that I don't have any examples, but I am not often exposed to good or bad procedures documents.) Why does this one deserve particularly to be singled out?

EDIT: As dragonwriter (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9682195) correctly points out, it would be wrong to demand that everything written about be the unique best object in its class, and I do not mean to do so. I mean instead that the author literally singles out this document as "one of the finest written processes of all time", which seems to be more than the analysis demonstrates.

Also, because I am that guy, this:

> there's thousands of permeations of things that can go wrong

should be 'permutations' (or, more likely, probably 'combinations'), not 'permeations'.

Surely there are other, equally pragmatic and sensible, documents?

I was reminded of the Four Rules for Firearms Handling. I think you're selling this sort of thing short, however. It's not as if some junior officer just sat down one afternoon and wrote these rules. Rather, they are the end result of a long process of trial, error, disaster, and rewriting.

> I think you're selling this sort of thing short, however.

I don't mean to do so!—although I see how "common-sense pragmatism" can sound derisive. I agree that it is much harder than it might seem for a document not to get in its own way; sort of the procedural version of Twain's "I would have written a shorter letter if I had had more time." I didn't in any way mean to question the value of this document, only its unicity.

Sebastian Marshall writes in a fairly hyperbolic style. If I were to apply a de-hyperbolizing filter, I think the post title would be something more like "this document is a pretty good example of how processes can evolve and become perfected over time."

Not sure if anyone is reading this thread any more, but...

> If I were to apply a de-hyperbolizing filter, I think the post title would be something more like "this document is a pretty good example of how processes can evolve and become perfected over time."

Actually, I wasn't using hyperbole at all: I've studied a lot of operations documents, and this is (literally) my favorite one of all time. It operates on many levels, effectively changes normal human behavior for a number of different actors with very different motivations and communication styles, and it's critically important.

It's also very well debugged. It's really a very fine document, again, my #1 in operations that I've read. (#2 is probably Dalio's Principles at Bridgewater.) If anyone has anything equally good as a candidate though, shoot me an email -- I love studying, corresponding about, and discussing this stuff.

> Surely there are other, equally pragmatic and sensible, documents? (I admit that I don't have any examples, but I am not often exposed to good or bad procedures documents.) Why does this one deserve particularly to be singled out?

Because its good enough to serve as an example, and the author was familiar with it? If there are many equally good examples, and there is value in an example, then there doesn't need to be anything above the other alternatives (and, if they are equally good, there won't be, by definition) to select a particular one -- doing so at random, or by aesthetic preference unrelated to the function is fine.

I didn't mean "why is it worth writing about?", though I see how my comment could come across this way. I meant rather that the introductory sentence:

> "General Orders for Sentries" is one of the finest written processes of all-time.

seems to indicate an almost uniquely special document, whereas what I saw was a well and carefully written document that nonetheless seems not to be unique (though I have no examples to prove my contention).

It is permutations if the order of events is relevant to the outcome. Theoretically, every single step you take may look "correct", but still end up badly if performed in disorder.

I agree, and did not mean to suggest that 'permutations' was absolutely the wrong word, but I think that it is not really what the author meant.

To be sure, I agree that the correct outcome is likely to result only from one (or only from a few) of the possible permutations of the correct steps, and "doing the right thing at the wrong time" might as well be "doing the wrong thing"; but, I think, the same is not true of things going wrong (which is of what the author was speaking), where it is unlikely that permuting them will cause a good outcome.

> but, I think, the same is not true of things going wrong (which is of what the author was speaking), where it is unlikely that permuting them will cause a good outcome.

No, but there are still different permutation of things that can go wrong, and different permutations (not just combinations) present different challenges, even if none of the permutations converts "gone wrong" into "good outcome".


Tbese rules are so important a lowly sentry fored the superintendent of the naval academy to resign when the admiral got into a scuffle over showing an ID.


I was actually kind of close to that, the incident got added to the long list of examples provided to the enlisted. It is incredibly stressful for a PFC when he has to ruin an officer's day, knowing that they'll not be thrown under the bus lets them do their job. When I was going through the School of Infantry I witnessed a PFC, guarding an ammo depot, buttstroke a LT who had ignored the sentry's instructions to leave the secured area. The LT was discharged and the PFC got promoted pretty much on the spot.

Forgot my favorite "unofficial" one: "I will walk my post from flank to flank and take no sh*t from any rank" ;-)

Ah, brings me back to my Army days and having to memorize variations of these at every assignment before patrolling some of the most uninviting, inhospitable places on the planet.

Most formal order documents are like this. You can find tons of operations, warning, and fragmentary orders online, including orders used in combat theaters previously. But be ready for an increasing amount of entropy as you move from formal operations orders to warning orders to fragmentary orders. Often, FRAGOs aren't even typed up in a document, especially in combat arms.

While the exact formats may not be appropriate for non-military use cases, and some details and names of elements may need to be changed in non-military contexts, familiarity with the standards of reasoning for what goes into operational, warning, and fragmentary orders and when each is appropriate wouldn't hurt for people who need to give direction in terms of how to give good, clear, complete (to the extent situationally appropriate) direction which makes clear the intent behind the directions and context in which it is applied.

This seems like a good argument for well-thought-out codes of conduct at conferences and whatnot. Sure, "just don't be a dick" sounds like a good rule on the surface, but spelling out the rules can make things run much more smoothly in practice.

Wow, neat. I'm a little late to the party here: I think I wrote under a dozen non-announcement blog posts from May 2014 to May 2015... glad this one resonated and was useful.

> To salute all officers and all colors and standards not cased.

What does 'not cased' mean in this context?

Cased = folded. Very roughly, the distinction is between a flag displayed vs. one considered to be in storage.

It could be said that the radar crew that spotted the Japanese on their way to the Pearl Harbor attack failed in their duty. I've ready various discussions as to why; one was that they were expecting US planes in that area, the other is that the planes they spotted gave such a strong signal that the radar crew regarded it as malfunctioning equipment.

I wonder if this being posted here is in any way related to the events which took place on the latest episode of Game of Thrones...

First of all, no, it isn't.

Secondly, this could be construed as being on the same continent as a spoiler, which, well, don't do that.

I've spoiled nothing!

For those who've seen it, they know precisely the content to which I refer, and to those who haven't, I am in no way spoiling because of how vague I remained.


A group of folks were ordered hanged in the most recent episode.

OK that's definitely a spoiler. (NB: I have not seen this season.)

What did it spoil? Some group of people got hanged?

If it was a spoiler, than you can precisely predict what happens in the show in your next comment.

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