Watch It Burn Part II - Burning Man and the Art of Expeditionary Logistics
In the previous installment of this series, the author examined the Fyre Festival and discussed some of the lessons that could be gleaned from its failure. While the Fyre Festival certainly provided an interesting context for a discussion on a failure of logistics, this installment deals with an event on the opposite end of the spectrum; one that has been a resounding success for more than 30 years due to an incredible amount of expert planning and coordination. Burning Man, as discussed below, is one that many people may not be familiar with but that has grown into a vast logistical undertaking quite unlike anything else in the country. This provides a unique opportunity for military logisticians to learn from our civilian counterparts, though this time from their success.
There are many opportunities in a logistician’s career where one can feel like an artist. This feeling can emerge when watching plans come together after months of discussion or when observing the fluidity of confident and empowered subordinates making on-the-ground changes to overcome adversity. At other times, when resupply missions based on finely tuned and accurate consumption rates arrive just before they are needed or when the final tent stake is struck in a well thought-out, perfectly covered and aligned tent city, one can reflect on everything that made these works of art possible. We are privileged to witness events such as these transpire in every clime and place, knowing first-hand how much planning and hard work the Marines and Sailors to the left and right had put in to make them possible.
As any logistician knows, the job is both an art and a science. In order to achieve the proper blend of art and science required to support expeditionary Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) operations, one must attend formal training, gain technical proficiency, and ask advice from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), but there is a requirement to also seek creative solutions. The effort to seek creative solutions has led the Marine Corps logistics enterprise to embrace internships, fellowships, tours at civilian industry and supply chain leaders such as Federal Express, and with Ivy League schools such as Penn State (Marine Corps MARADMIN 682/18, 2019). While this effort is praiseworthy and reflects an effort to learn from the best the civilian sector has to offer, there is one major civilian organization that has been continuously overlooked by Marine Corps logisticians, but whose experiences over the last thirty year have an exceptional level of applicability in the conduct of expeditionary logistics in an austere environment.
Every August, the crowds at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport begin to change. In truth, there are several distinct seasonal crowds that come through this mid-sized airport ranging from colorful skiers and snowboarders during the winter months to camouflaged men and women during hunting seasons. The crowds that show up in August, though, have their own distinct air and culture about them though that sets them apart. They call themselves Burners and they are participants at an annual festival called Burning Man*. Burning Man is an event that started in San Francisco in 1986 and that has morphed into a massive undertaking in the Black Rock Desert, approximately 100 miles north of Reno, Nevada with more than 69,000 participants (Burning Man, 2019 & Wikipedia, 2019). It is planned and executed by the Burning Man Project, a small group of permanent year-round employees and their executive leadership who are also responsible for the supervision a multitude of events and initiatives around the world (Burning Man, 2019).
What makes Burning Man unusual and worthy of the attention of military logisticians is that the infrastructure of their flagship festival is built from the ground up in the middle of the Black Rock Desert each year and dismantled completely at the end of the event in the spirit of “Leave No Trace” (Burning Man, 2019). This ultimately includes establishing medical facilities, space for approximately 69,000 personnel to billet, an extensive road network, a trash removal process, locations for massive art displays, and an expeditionary airfield that supports around 800 takeoffs and landings per day (Hughes, 2017). The sheer scope of this evolution makes it unique and greatly exceeds what is seen during most military exercises, providing a tremendous opportunity for lessons learned.
Differences in Purpose
While there are certainly some similarities between Burning Man and your last major training exercise, there are obviously some significant differences. For example, it is a safe bet that there were more assault rifles and automatic weapons at your last visit to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms, California or to the Fort Irwin National Training Center. But while military logisticians provide support in order to facilitate objectives such as training, the generation of combat power, or to support humanitarian assistance, the logisticians at Burning Man provide support in order to facilitate an “experience” (Goodell, 2019). They construct a livable area where the 69,000+ participants are able to build, play, explore, and share in accordance with their 10 principles (Goodell, 2019).
The mainstream media sometimes describes Burning Man in a negative light making it sound like it has no military applicability (Christine, 2018). Upon closer analysis though, those same critics would see that regardless of the purpose of the event or actions of a few individuals, there are many useful learning opportunities for many different military occupational fields. After all, both military exercises and Burning Man have logisticians planning and working through the friction of providing life support while balancing priorities such as budgets or medical and environmental concerns and also concurrently mitigating issues like weather and security.
There are two groups that would benefit the most from sustained involvement with the 110 members of the year-round Burning Man staff and they are the Marine Corps Aviation Ground Support (AGS) community and the staff of the Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group (MCLOG) (Burning Man Year-Round Staff, 2019). The involvement would need to be sustained throughout the year as the planning for the next year’s Burning Man begins upon completion of the previous one, very similar to how Marine Corps exercises are planned. Planning conferences begin after the event is completed with an analysis of lessons learned and are followed by frequent planning conferences throughout the year.
The Marine Corps AGS community is responsible for the planning, coordination, and conduct Airfield and Air Base support functions (Marine Corps Tactical Publication 3-20B Aviation Ground Support, 2016) and they could benefit by observing the planning, creation, and use of the Burning Man airfield. Incorporating two senior 7002 Expeditionary Airfield and Emergency Services Officers into the Burning Man airfield planning team would provide a unique perspective on how other organizations create expeditionary airfields that support high volumes of landings and takeoffs while meeting required safety metrics. Undoubtedly, both Burning Man and Marine Corps personnel would share concepts and ideas that would enhance operations and safety for both (Burning Man Airport - 88NV, 2019).
The staff of MCLOG, the second group, could also benefit from incorporation into the Burning Man planning team. MCLOG “provides standardized, advanced individual training in MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) logistics operations and unit readiness planning at the Battalion and Regimental levels, conducts Battle Staff Training, facilitates logistics education and manages doctrine, training standards, tactics and institutional training programs in order to enhance combat preparation and performance of Logistics combat Element units in MAGTF operations” (Marine Corps Logistics Operations Course, 2019). Having members from MCLOG integrate instead of allowing each individual logistics battalion or Marine Expeditionary Force to do so would ensure that only appropriate lessons learned are adopted. This would occur because the MCLOG staff has the experience and skill to view all of the Burning Man planning activities through the lens of Marine Corps expeditionary logistics operations. There would likely be quite a few interesting and unique planning techniques applied by the Burning Man staff in the formulation of their plan, but only by filtering out those techniques or procedures applicable to expeditionary logistics could the service truly benefit. To capture these lessons learned, MCLOG would be best served by observing and supporting the city lay-down planning and observing the Burning Man operations cell.
The day-to-day operations would be useful to observe as the Burning Man staff also plan and rehearse responses to various life-support related incidents. These include events such as increases in gastrointestinal (G.I.) cases reported by medical personnel, an attack by an active shooter, and a severe rain event which would make retrograde through the soft, silty deserts impossible. Each of these cases is discussed with the approved response identified and then practiced repeatedly in advance of the actual event in order to reduce the risks that the “Burners” face.
Marine Corps logisticians are typically quite busy. If there is not an exercise or field training event to support, then there is always the supervision of maintenance activities, or the conduct of a self-guided inspection, or a multitude of other actions needed to move or sustain their organization. However, time should be allocated for MCLOG to observe as Burning Man offers a unique and valuable opportunity to analyze the creation of a camp and airfield designed to support a force larger than a Marine Division; something that many Marine Corps logisticians have no experience doing and likely will not until the next large peer-to-peer conflict. So while day-to-day activities consume most logisticians, it would still be worthwhile for senior logisticians to attempt to gain lessons learned from Burning Man.
There are two methods this could be possible. First, take advantage of the active duty Marines who are already Burners**. These individuals could be presented a specific list of Requests for Information (RFIs) to consider the next time they attend Burning Man. While informal, this may be the most cost effective and least intrusive method. Second, formal communications could be extended to the Burning Man Project leadership asking for permission to allow Subject Matter Experts to observe the planning and execution of the next Burning Man in an official capacity. Doing so would formalize the relationship and clarify what is allowed by both parties. Pursuing both would greatly benefit the expeditionary logistics capabilities of the Marine Corps while driving home the mindset that creative solutions are encouraged and that outside-the-box thinking is required at all levels. After all, the Marines and Sailors who receive support in an expeditionary environment deserve nothing less.
*For the record, I am using the term ‘festival’ in this article because it establishes a common understanding and provides clarity to my anticipated audience, but if you do attend Burning Man, do not, for the love of all things sacred, refer to it as a ‘festival’ because that is a huge faux pas (Berry, 2017). An invitation to Burning Man is an invitation to get involved and create an amazing experience for the people to your left and right (Goodell, 2019). Festivals are events where one experiences another’s art, but at Burning Man you are encouraged to create art (Berry, 2017). For additional insight, please refer to the article by Graham Berry listed in the references.
**Yes, there are active duty personnel in all of the services who are Burners. Identifying those Marines who are would not be hard as a quick search query on Marine Online could identify people who have ever requested Annual Leave between August 25 and September 2 with a destination of Reno, NV. I apologize to those active duty Devil Dog Burners who just got sweaty palms.
Berry, Graham. (April 8, 2017). Friends Don’t Let Friends Call Burning Man “a Festival”. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://journal.burningman.org/2017/04/opinion/serious-stuff/friends-dont-let-friends-call-burning-man-a-festival/.
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Burning Man Airport - 88NV. (2019). Airport - 88NV. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://burningman.org/event/volunteering/teams/airport/.
Burning Man Camps and Placement. (2019). Camps and Placement. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://burningman.org/event/camps/registered-placement-sectors/.
Burning Man Year-Round Staff. (2019). Year-Round Staff. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://burningman.org/network/about-us/people/year-round-staff/.
Christine, Theresa. (October 24, 2018). Here’s What Happened When I Took My Mom to Burning Man. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/took-mom-to-burning-man_us_5bcde69de4b0d38b587aa1e1.
Goodell, Marian. (February 9, 2019). Cultural Course Correcting: Black Rock City 2019. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://journal.burningman.org/2019/02/philosophical-center/tenprinciples/cultural-course-correcting/.
Hughes, Trevor. (August 27, 2017). Burning Man Airport Emerges in Nevada Desert. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/27/burning-man-airport-emerges-nevada-desert/606703001/.
Marine Corps MARADMIN 682/18. FY19 COMMANDANT’S PROFESSIONAL INTERMEDIATE-LEVEL EDUCATION BOARD (CPIB) RESULTS. Retrieved March 11, 2019 from https://www.marines.mil/News/Messages/Messages-Display/Article/1704398/fy19-commandants-professional-intermediate-level-education-board-cpib-results/.
Marine Corps Tactical Publication 3-20B Aviation Ground Support. (May 2, 2016). MCTP 3-20B Aviation Ground Support. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/MCTP%203-20B.pdf?ver=2018-10-30-131227-370.
Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group. (2019) Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://www.29palms.marines.mil/Units/Marine-Corps-Logistics-Operations-Group/.
Pin, Bobby. (2012). Planes. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from http://galleries.burningman.org/pages/view.php?ref=42464.
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Shamsian, Jacob. (August 29, 2017). There’s a Smart Reason Why the Burning Man Festival is Laid Out Like a Giant Clock. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://www.thisisinsider.com/why-burning-man-festival-black-rock-city-circle-2017-8.
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Wikipedia. (2019). Burning Man - Wikipedia. Retrieved March 12, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man.