Jul 31

For my brother’s commissioning ceremony, I half-seriously begged him to quote a passage from Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. He gave a good speech, but this is what he didn’t say:

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer...hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that is it is the opposite of primitiveness. ... Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both.

                            -- The Left Hand of Darkness
                                Ursula K. LeGuin

If I could define war, this would be it.

Certain quotes can strike you so deeply and purely, it is hard to look at the world the same again. We’ve all, at some time or another, heard a truism that once learned can’t be forgotten, that shakes or forms your entire world view there after. We should always question our values and the things we take for granted, but nothing has shaken this understanding for me.
This quote is true, too true. In my writing on this website and in my fiction, this concept, war as civilization’s opposite, informs every word I write. War is killing. War is destruction. War, especially total war, disregards tradition, custom and social order; people kill people and destroy things. War has degrees, too, and some wars destroy the social order more than others, but all war is a march away from civilization.
This leads to many possible conclusions and problems. Why should/would someone participate in this thing? Can war, civilization’s opposite, be used to save civilization? Can it possibly be redemptive?
I don’t have all/many/some/any of the answers, but this feels like a good starting point.

Jul 29

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the “9/11 Blame Game” and how both Democrats and Republicans blame the other side for 9/11; and last week Eric continued this topic by describing how Republicans, mainly Dick Cheney and other pundits, have already begun blaming Obama for the next attack. As I wrote the “9/11 Blame Game,” I wondered if conservatives would start blaming President Obama for losing, if we do, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sure enough, only six months in to his Presidency, they have.

Victory is far from assured in either war. Despite the success of the surge in Iraq, the war is far from over; in Afghanistan, the situation grows more tenuous every month. While conservatives could make a case--and probably will in 2012-- that President Obama is responsible for the outcomes of each conflict as President, from a historical perspective this is unsupportable.

I feel that the best historical analogy for Barack Obama is Richard Nixon’s inheritance of the Vietnam war. Few blame Nixon for the fall of south Vietnam. He did what he could to pull out of Vietnam, and still it took years to do so. When historians, politicians and journalists analyze Vietnam, the blame falls on President Lyndon Johnson and the recently deceased Robert McNamara--the men who increased US involvement passed the point of no return.

Further, if by pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan violence spikes in either country, Barack Obama will not be to blame.Whenever the US pulls out of a nation our removal portends better things in the long run. As Bennet Ramberg writes in the March/April Foreign Affairs, in the article called “Precedents for Withdrawal,” violence usually increases directly after the US pull out of a nation (Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Somalia) but then levels out. When, President Obama finally pulls all troops out of Iraq, the country will likely surge in violence again. In the years after, though, the country will stabilize.

Beyond historical analogies, blaming Obama for Iraq ignores the situation he inherited. President Bush never clarified our country’s intention before or after the invasion. Whether building democracy, toppling Saddam, fighting terrorists or finding weapons of mass destruction, we either never specified the goals; or we didn’t leave when they were accomplished. As for the successes of the recent surge, Thomas Ricks describes in this post how the tactical gains of the surge never actually fostered political reconciliation. Even if violence surges in Iraq after the surge that should not be held against President Obama.

Yet, the biggest target for Obama is not Iraq but Afghanistan. After appointing Lt. General Bill McChrystal to ground commander in Afghanistan, the current war narrative now describes this as Barack Obama’s war. This description ignores the length of our stay in that country and it is premature to call it his war. We have occupied Afghanistan for going on eight years, and the country still looks like it belongs in the fourteenth century. The Taliban own the countryside; and have for the last eight years. The war started poorly, and continued worse for eight years. Whatever Barack Obama does accomplish--even if the US pulls out and the Taliban take over--cannot be held against him. It’d be like replacing a football coach in the fourth quarter down sixty points and expecting him to win.
If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq end poorly, some will blame them on President Obama and the Democrats. Unfortunately, no situation will ever be that simple. A situation as complex as two counter-insurgency wars fought in the larger context of a war against Islamic extremism will never boil down to blame between one President or the next. Unfortunately, the entire national security, military, and Congressional branches all share blame. Right now, instead of assigning blame, we can only work towards winning our current conflicts.

Jul 27

(Though we try not to chase current events here at On V, we do believe in being active participants in our democracy. As California residents, we were shocked when we found out that both of our Senators voted in favor of continuing production of the F-22 Raptor. For background on the subject, click here.)

Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer,

We are writing you today to express our dismay at your recent vote in support of adding twelve additional F-22 Raptor fighter jets, in other words, voting to waste nearly 1.7 billion on planes our country doesn’t need. The F-22 Raptor has never run a combat mission in support of ground troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. It hasn't flown a single mission in support of the Global War on Terror. Not one.

For a plane without a job, the costs are staggering: it costs over a hundred thirty million dollars just to build one; the Air Force spent 65 billion dollars researching and building the F-22; it costs $44,000 to fly it for one hour and in regular maintenance, the plane requires thirty hours (or 34 to some estimates) for one hour of flight time.

A diverse group of politicians and Generals -- including Senator John McCain, Defense Secretary Gates, USAF Secretary Donley and his Chief of Staff General Schwartz--have all argued to end the program. As Secretary Gates said, "The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense in the spectrum of conflict."

By spectrum of conflict, the Secretary of Defense means the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan and Iraq, A-10 Warthogs, F-16 fighter-bombers and AC 130 gunships run all the combat air missions. Instead of spending 1.7 billion dollars on twelve jets, why not build ten or twenty more AC-130 gunships to support our troops at night? Why not use that money to equip more battalions with Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles? Why not spend it on stronger roads to keep our troops and the Afghanistan National Security Forces safe from IEDs?

Secretary Gates attempts to change the culture of military acquisitions will make our nation safer and save our nation money. We understand that Lockheed Martin and Boeing have vital roles in our California economy, but we mustn’t let California’s economic needs trump our national security. The military must transform to face our current conflict by cutting the waste rampant in it’s budget.

We are extremely displeased you don’t support this effort, and hope you vote in the future to cut the pork from our military budget.

(We forwarded this letter to our Senators and recommend you do the same if your Congressperson supported the F-22 Raptor.)

Jul 24

(This post owes much to Donald V. Coers Introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition)

Prior to World War II, the OSS hired John Steinbeck to write propaganda and the resulting novelette was The Moon is Down. Last week, I analyzed whether it is propaganda (it isn’t) but did not answer the most important question of any piece of propaganda, did it work?

Released a few months after Pearl Harbor, when America was at its lowest, most demoralized point, it sparked, according to Coers, “the fiercest literary debate of the second World War.” Critics, including James Thurber, decried Steinbeck’s soft, realistic portrayal of the German occupiers and the novelette’s fuzzy “fairy tale” plot. Critics,  called into question “[Steinbeck’s] artistic instincts, but, far worse, his political acumen.” In short, Steinbeck wrote art and intellectuals, commentators, and book reviewers blasted him for doing so.

But the book wasn’t meant for Americans, it was meant for the occupied. Did it work for them? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. The Germans, of course, banned it almost immediately in any of the countries they occupied. Meanwhile, the occupied peoples “regarded [The moon is down] as far more effective than the prevailing formula propaganda, which struck them as comical because it was so absurdly exaggerated.”

The numbers behind the book prove its effectiveness. “Hundreds of thousands” of copies circulated behind enemy lines. Dissidents illegally printed and distributed translated copies by the thousands in every occupied country. So popular, they were sold to fund resistance efforts. Weeks after Norway was liberated, the official version of the book was released and sold out two massive printings. The little book spanned the globe; translated copies reached occupied China.

What are we to take from this? As a fitting conclusion to our Propaganda week, it shows that dumbing down any work of art, even to create propaganda, is useless and ineffective. People aren’t dumb, and recognize reality. “Crude oversimplifications of most propaganda are, after all, patronizing.” For the people of the resistance who had daily contact with the Germans, they wanted reality. Steinbeck gave it to them, and they loved it.

Ironically, appropriately, truth is the best propaganda.

Jul 22

In the spirit of “Propaganda Week” at On Violence, I would like to share 5 tips for an effective Information Operations (IO) campaign. While I may joke about how awful some of our Army propaganda, er Information Operations is, it is still vital to a successful counter-insurgency campaign. These tips are for the tactical, platoon and company, level.

If I can convince the reader of one thing it is this: every operation is an Information Operation. Every patrol, every battle, every discussion is a chance to persuade the population to support the government.

1. Honesty really is the best policy. The only times that you will lose the Information Operations campaign is when you are being dishonest. Honesty might not seem like a big deal, but little white lies will slowly eat away at your message. In my example from yesterday, I embellished the role of the Afghanistan National Army. Over time, the people see through that embellishment and you do more harm than good.

So, for example, if you want to write a Good News Story about how the Afghanistan National Police took the lead and arrested a known Taliban operative, ask yourself, did they really take the lead? If people in the local society know that the ANP only do joint operations with the US and don’t patrol regularly, then a story in the local version of the newspaper won’t change that.

I had this experience as I wrote stories that verged on ridiculous concerning the ANA and ANP. I slowly learned that the more effective stories were true stories. So, I began an IO campaign in both print stories for our Battalion--and more importantly via Key Leader Engagement to village elders--about the ANP checkpoint commander who truly fought the Taliban and supported the government. The locals knew he did as well, so I just amplified what they already knew. Over time, the elders supported him and the Coalition Force more because we told the truth.

2. When thinking Information Operations, think advertising campaign. The best advertising needs two things: a great product and a clear message. You should be conducting population-centric COIN, so you have a great product. That means you just need to have a clear message.

If your goal is to recruit more police, then that is your message. If your goal is to have a large turnout for the local election, that is your Information Operations' theme. If your goal is to build support for the Afghanistan National Army, find out what they do well and advertise that.

If your platoon or company does not patrol regularly and fails to help the population, then you don’t have a good product. Your Information Operations will not persuade the population. If, like the best advertisers, you hype a great product--you help secure the population on a daily basis and improve the local’s quality of life--then all you need to do is have a clear and succinct message.

3. Get allies in the local community. When I tried to conduct IO operations, I acted like the typical brand new PL, I tried to do it all and all by myself. Eventually, the District Governor and I started communicating. He began coordinating our efforts with the local community and working with me. He then introduced me to locals I had no idea existed. Once we started communicating, and learning from each other, we could begin jointly  distributing our IO themes.

I had the same result with the local police chiefs. I distributed a thousand pamphlets to the checkpoints saying, “Don’t be corrupt and fight back,” but the best technique was having one powerful and honest checkpoint commander influence to the rest. He helped me persuade them to conduct better Traffic Control Points and to participate on joint operations with ANA. They weren’t perfect, but they got better.

4. Information Operations is not a one man job when at your FOB either. I made this mistake early, planning information operations by myself. The jobs are too large to do by yourself, especially when controlling your own area of operations. Thus, I eventually realized that my interpreter could give me very good advice on how to phrase our messages during Key Leader Engagements. By talking them over before we left on patrol, our messages were stronger during the shuras.

Likewise, on patrol your men will interact constantly with locals. Brief your maneuver unit (be it platoon, section or company) on the vital tasks of Information Operations before you leave and on a regular basis. Whenever your patrol stops, have your men prepared to communicate with locals and do whatever they can, no matter how small, to influence the locals.

5. Include your interpreter. We pay them plenty, so use them as much as possible. You aren’t an Afghan, they are, so use them to make a better IO campaign. I even wrote on my letters of recommendations that my interpreters were joint IO campaign planners with me.

I believe in this so much, I recommend asking them for themes. Have them brief you on what they think you should say. Discuss the nuances of the words. Before a Key Leader Engagement, practice your talking points with them and make sure they understand your points because they ultimately will be distributing them for you.

Jul 21

Yesterday, when I criticized the US Army’s conduct of Information Operations, I left out one crucial point: even our best, most culturally sensitive Information Operations ignore the reality on the ground. Below is an actual Good News Story I wrote in Afghanistan:

Local Afghans Fighting For Afghanistan
Chowkay District- On May 11th 2008, local Afghans reported the location of a suspected IED to Afghan National Security Forces. Within minutes, the Afghan National Army moved to the area and secured the site to protect local Afghans. Soon, the Afghan National Army and Coalition Forces detonated the suspected IED and declared the road safe for the people of Chowkay.

The Government of Afghanistan highly encourages all Afghans to report Taliban activity as these braves citizens did. Afghans in Chowkay are using the Small Rewards Program honorably protect their district and homes.

The Government of Afghanistan and Coalition Forces will pay Afghans who can provide intelligence, parts or the locations of IEDs and IED makers. The Small Rewards Program also pays citizens who turn in weaponry such as AK-47s and RPGs or the location of Taliban weapon caches.

The tide continues to turn against the Taliban and other anti-Afghanistan Forces. Local citizens like the ones who reported the IEDs know that the Taliban continues to lose power in Konar Province. The Afghan National Army can react quickly to threats and they are planning future operations to dominate all of Konar Province by ground or air. With these continued capabilities, the Afghanistan National Army continues to prove they are “Destined for Vectory!” [sic]

While I never lie, I definitely give too much credit to the Afghanistan National Army and local Afghans. I also virtually ignore Destined Company’s role in the discovery and detonation of the IED. In reality, without the US Army, that IED would have killed Afghani soldiers.

Jul 20

Simply put, the US Army is bad at Information Operations. When the US Army tries to publish mass media it frequently sounds more like state-run propaganda than honest journalism. As one Iraqi told the Washington Post, “They do it (newspapers) the same way the prior regime did its newspapers."

In Afghanistan, my battalion tried its own hand at mass media. I myself wrote “Good News Stories” of our successful missions. My company then pushed them up to our battalion to get published in who knows what form. This was our version of Information Operations.

Information Operations is the Army phrase for public relations or, more cynically, propaganda. All too often, the military on the ground believes Information Operations are the articles we publish in local papers, the handouts we give to locals, or the billboards we put on the wall. Information Operations is all these things, but so much more. If our mission in Afghanistan is persuading people to support the government, then every time we leave the wire we are engaging in Information Operations.

When I deployed to Afghanistan, I didn’t know anything about Information Operations. Fortunately, a shura I conducted, completely by accident, taught me how to communicate to Afghanistan’s population.

I had planned a simple mission: I would bring the District Governor of Serkani to meet with the Pashad Afghanistan National Police checkpoint commander and a handful of elders. I had planned for a simple meeting with a few locals, but I ended up in a village shura with over a hundred locals.

Our district Governor, Mustafa Khan, didn’t have a vehicle. Even if he had a vehicle, he wouldn’t be able to afford the gas to drive it. If he could afford the gas, he wouldn’t have had protection from the IEDs buried in the road. Yet, Pashad is in his district and he needed to get there. I volunteered to take him.

I arrived at the ANP checkpoint in Pashad and established security. I had several dozen Afghanistan National Army soldiers and their Marine Corps trainers with me. When I greeted Sayed Abdullah, the police checkpoint commander, he was excited as always. When he saw the governor, all he could say was, “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” I talked my way around the issue, because I didn’t want to tell him the reason was the IED threat on the road to his village. I trusted Sayed Abdullah, but not the people he could tell.

Sayed Abdullah quickly decided that we should move to an elder’s house. More accurately, he decided we should move to the most respected village elder’s courtyard.

When we arrived, I saw Pashtun culture in action. Villagers greeted us. They brought us chairs. They arranged themselves around the District Governor and myself in order of precedence. And then, they started to arrive. And kept arriving. When we started the meeting an hour later, villagers were still arriving.

At this point, I realized that this wasn’t just a meeting, this was an event. The District Governor knew it and responded accordingly. He greeted the important elders and made a long Afghan speech. The representative of Pashad village made another long speech. The most sincere thing the Pashad Village representative said was that Pashad had not seen a representative of the government of Afghanistan in five or six years. He emphasized this point over and over: in Pashad they did not feel connected to Serkani District, let alone the Government in Kabul.

I learned two important lessons at this unexpectedly large shura. First, communications in Afghanistan and America are not the same thing. The US Army considers mass media, like newspapers and television, as Information Operations; the rural people of Afgahnistan do not. Their media is the village meeting.

Second, I learned that to convince the population of Pashad to support the Government of Afghanistan, this one meeting was not enough. I would have to return again and again to make my point. I couldn’t return alone either, the district governor needed to prove his sincerity as well.

When I returned to base that night, I schedule another daytime patrol to Pashad scheduled for five days later.

Jul 18

I set down John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, a novella about a fictional invasion of an unnamed European country, in frustration after reading the first page of the introduction. I had read that Steinbeck, according to the introduction by Donald V. Coers, worked with the Office of Strategic Services -- the CIA’s predecessor agency. Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down after they commissioned him to write a piece of propaganda.

Propaganda is rarely palatable, and has almost zero chance of being good art. I’m firmly in the Stephen Gauguin camp, “I would never, ever let my own personal, political instinct or leaning color something that I’m writing if it got in the way of the truth. Never. Because then it’s propaganda and I would never do that. Never.” To paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, “If you want to send a message, use a telegram.”

Though many critics discount Steinbeck and his Nobel prize, Steinbeck is in my top five greatest 20th century American writers. The simple beauty of Of Mice and Men and the Chapter 3 of Grapes of Wrath alone certify his literary genius. How then could he write propaganda? A genius should know better.

The Moon is Down takes place in a small, harmless Northern European town. A foreign country--vaguely German, overtly fascist--invades this town and, “by ten-forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.” (Page 1) In other words, the occupiers were ready to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
By the second chapter, we meet the occupiers of the small town. First, Major Hunter, an engineer who should not lead men, “An arithmetician rather than a mathematician” who fought “so he could get back to his fire place.” Next is Captain Bentick, “a family man, a lover of dogs and pink children and Christmas” with a pre-war obsession with English clothes, dogs, tobacco and culture. After him is the ambitious Captain Loft, “who lives and breathed his captaincy..driving ambition forced him up through the grades.” He believed, “that a soldier is the highest development of human life.” Then there are Lieutenant Prackle and Tonder, “snot-noses, under-graduates, lieutenants, trained in the politics of the day, believing in the great new system invented by a genius so great they never bothered to verify the results.” One is a dancer cum artist who loves destroying degenerate art, the other a poet who dreams of "dark women."

Steinbeck closes the description simply, “These were the men of the staff, each one playing war as children play ‘run, sheep, run.’”

What’s with all this description? In a novella of 100 very small pages, Steinbeck devotes four to character development...of the enemy! When I first read this chapter, I wrote in my notes, “What is w/ these descrips?” Steinbeck clearly does not know rule one of good agit-prop: never humanize your enemy. These men aren’t enemies; they aren’t strong, powerful and evil.  These aren’t the Nazis of film; they don’t cackle or hiss.
No, they are people; flawed humans like us all, just wearing uniforms. From Major Hunter’s detachment to Lt. Tonder’s strange fantasies, each man is tragically human. As the introduction describes, “There are no heel clicking Huns, no depraved, monocled intellectuals, no thundering seig heils” As the novel progresses, their demoralization and sadness only makes them more human, more pitiable.

Steinbeck didn’t write propaganda at all, and this made his novel more successful. Some of the best art, as my sophomore English teacher told me, acts like a mirror reflecting the world back at itself. Steinbeck struggled to present the world the way it was. He had “learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations” and put himself in the place of the conquered, then he wrote what he saw and learned about honestly.
In short, he wrote the truth. And the truth is not propaganda, it is art.

Jul 17

For the next week, On Violence will present a series of posts on the issue of propaganda--in Army parlance “Information Operations.” We will be going off our usual posting schedule and will have posts tomorrow, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

Partly inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, partly by my real world experience, we hope to present some unique views on America’s most important tactic in counter-insurgency. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the GWOT at large, it is a tactic we are failing to implement.

Our beliefs are simple. As our mom always said, honesty is always the best policy. So many of the American mistakes during the Global War on Terror involved secrecy--as in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo--or cover ups--as in the circumstances surrounding SGT Pat Tillman’s death. The best propaganda is the truth, and when America tells the truth about itself it is the best propaganda in the world.

Jul 15

(This continues the topic of the 9/11 Blame Game we discussed earlier.)

Since leaving office, Dick Cheney has become Barack Obama’s harshest critic on national security. He accused President Obama of making our country less safe when Obama eliminated enhanced interrogation (torture) and moved to close Guantanamo. Cheney has essentially blamed, or at least heavily insinuated, that America’s next terrorist attack will be Barack Obama’s fault. And many republicans agree with him.

The Republicans may have good polling on national security, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they--specifically the Bush administration--will be blamed for the next attack. Why? Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2003 all terrorist roads lead through Iraq. An example is Younis Tsouli. A March/April Foreign Policy article describes Younis as, “one of the world’s most influential propagandists in Jihadi chat rooms.” He served as Abu Zarqawi’s “public relations mouthpiece on the web.” How did this unlikely English college student become a terrorist? Constant viewing of the “the online images of the war in Iraq” motivated him to become a terrorist. Repeated studies show the US-led invasion as horrendously unpopular in the Middle East and Muslim-world as a whole.

More important than inspiration, Iraq trains future jihadists. Just as Osama Bin Ladin’s generation trained in Afghanistan in the eighties, the next generation of jihadists will have trained in Iraq. Already, Arab fighters from Iraq move into Afghanistan to teach Afghanis the techniques of modern terrorism.

While Iraq motivated and trained future jihadists, Bush’s failure to stabilize Afghanistan will most likely go down as the largest strategic blunder of the Global War on Terror. Afghanistan was already a safe haven for terrorists before 9/11; nothing has changed since. After failing to capture Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration has failed to pacify the region.

If any terrorists strike America, these failures--not closing Guantanamo or restricting torture of terrorist suspects--will be to blame. But another attack is inevitable. Like earthquakes or other natural disasters, the question is not if but when (Although, we sincerely hope America and its allies are safe from terrorism, we are not naive enough to believe that is possible). Even if Bush had executed a perfect foreign policy agenda, American would still be at risk in the future.

America’s politicians and journalists should resist blaming either party for the attack. Terrorism should not be exploited by either political party.

Jul 13

On July 6, The New Yorker published the story of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, the Rakkasans and their tour of Iraq in 2006. Raffi Khatchadourian’s article captures the difficulties inherent in nation building, like target identification, war crimes and the proper way to disarm a population.

Many Soldiers will have heard stories about Colonel Steele and his Rakkasans before reading the article; I first heard about them during my infantry officer training in early 2007. Now that the New Yorker has broken the ice, I feel comfortable publishing what I have heard. The following story is not a word for word quotation, but what I remembered and recorded in my journals during my training.

My platoon mentor for infantry officer training had just come from 3rd Brigade of the 101st. During down time, he would answer questions from the new lieutenants about warfare, deployments and counter-insurgency. One day, as we waited to practice room clearing a soldier raised his hand and asked about Rules of Engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan or Iraq and his thoughts on it.
“That’s a good question.” He paused. “I have a story that shows the difference between killers on the ground and politicians covering their asses, acting politically correct.    
“I was with the Rakkasan’s during OIF IV. One day CJTF headquarters decided to change the ROE. The change altered the criteria needed to engage a ‘target.’ Basically, it said that if two sources confirmed a target then it could be destroyed. What JAG didn’t realize at the time, was they hadn’t defined the term ‘target.’ They meant hard target as in buildings or vehicles. A rational person could also describe a target as a hostile individual.

“So we devised a plan where we had informants give us names of an IED cell. We then took pictures of individuals in the area they operated. We had another source point out which ones were the IED cell. With the second identification, we had our two sources confirming our targets. Our source even gave us home addresses.

“We called the operation ‘Judgement Day.’
“A few nights later in the dead of night we simultaneously hit the houses. As the targets prepared to surrender the soldiers entering didn’t pause or stop; just put two in the chest and one in the head.

“By the last house, the word had gone out that the coalition forces were no longer detaining suspects. The last man held up his baby son in front of his face. SGT _______  used his M4 to push the baby to the side and put two rounds in his face. Oh, in another house, one of the target’s daughters ran to him as the team came in and she accidentally took several rounds and died with him.

“After we executed the mission and the word went up to higher, CJTF headquarters quickly adjusted the ROE to restrict targeting individuals like we had done. They basically made only High Value Targets kill on sight and that authorization had to come from Corps level.”

The platoon was silent. Slowly the guys started to comment how awesome that mission sounded, and how it sucked we could not conduct missions like that more often.

I disagreed. Operation Judgement Day epitomized bad counter-insurgency to me. Practically, the death of one little girl outweighs the benefits of killing three insurgents to a local population. And of course, ethically, killing little girls should be avoided at all costs, and never treated casually or flippantly. I don’t know if anyone else felt the same way, but no one agreed with me. As we discussed ROE, and I took the position that this mission made no sense, my fellow lieutenants--all about to be Platoon Leaders--disagreed with me and supported Operation Judgment Day.

The US Army has a long way to go before population-centric counter-insurgency, the intelligent, difficult style advocated by General Petraues, David Kilcullen and John Nagl, is accepted by the Army as a whole. While it may be doctrine, that does not mean that the Army at large buys into it. Or, as my story shows, has been trained in it.

Jul 10

Of the many ideas created by the Greeks, the concept of the “decisive battle” still influences modern military theory. In the decisive battle, all that matters is defeating the enemy in one battle--campaigning simply leads to this battle.

In modern war, a single battle cannot win the war. Yet, our military focuses on the fight, and only lightly covers the idea of outmaneuvering opposing forces. Why? Perhaps, because we were taught as kids, and re-taught as adults, that one final battle will win the war--that one person alone can win the war. Our culture believes in the decisive battle.

Don’t believe me?   

In the first Star Wars, victory means a single missile fired by one pilot. Even though the campaign continues for two more films, the rebels destroy the Empire in Return of the Jedi with the exact same strategy.   

In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, two small hobbits win the war by throwing one ring into a lava pit.

Think the Chronicles of Narnia. One final battle versus the White Witch won the entire campaign.

Think of war movies and their focus on single battles: Tora! Tora! Tora!, Saving Private Ryan or Gettysburg.

Think Robin Hood and his final battle against the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Prince of Thieves or any other iteration of the film. Or think of DragonHeart, Transformers, or X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Virtually any action movie or even Disney film ends in a decisive battle.

This isn’t an accident. Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.

Real wars begin slowly and few have easy entry points. Real wars end slowly, usually as one side slowly caves in on itself. Real wars never turn on the actions of one man. Counter-insurgency is very rarely even fought in battles.

Does this matter? In our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our society wants narratives, and the media delivers. The surge was presented as our decisive battle. Replacing Lt. Gen. McChrystal, and Gen. Petraeus before him, was presented as the decisive move. Unfortunately, counter-insurgencies are not won by a single person or a single battle; only Hollywood films are.

Jul 08

Every so often, a person asks--boldly in my opinion--whether I was scared when I deployed to Afghanistan. I rarely provide a straight forward answer; it is too hard to be honest. I obscure my answer in half-truths without ever admitting the reality of war.

Truthfully, no two people experience war in the same way; and they never feel the same about it. I can speak about my experience and say, I did not want to die. I confronted the reality and would have sacrificed myself if needed, but I did not want to die. The thought of dying terrified me.  

Is the fear I felt a universal emotion or was I alone?

I deployed from Vicenza, Italy with twenty-two guys, three of whom had deployed before, the rest who had not. (Our Brigade had deployed a few months earlier and we were mid-tour replacements.) The rest of us, 2nd Lieutenants or Privates First Class, were scared--or I assumed others felt the same as I.

The fear, if it was there, was always hidden. The infantry prides itself on giving nothing away. An infantry soldier will complain, but never in a way that will make him seem weak. Weakness should be avoided at all costs. When joining a fighting force dedicated to revealing no weakness, it is expected that you will hide your emotions.

I acted the same way with my family as I would the infantry--I revealed no weakness. I was heading to danger but I avoided letting anyone know. When deploying to the Pacific in WW II, my grandpa told his family he simply drove a truck. I told my family that I was merely the truck driver’s boss.

The fear that started in Vicenza never really left throughout deployment. Routine set in eventually -- there are only so many places you can go and so many things that can happen -- but then something would change the entire focus of operations and fear would creep back.

To answer the question: yes I was scared. I was fearful of never seeing my twin brother again, never seeing my girlfriend again and never seeing home again. It worked out fine for me. As I returned from deployment, regret replaced my fear: first, the regret for those Soldiers who did not come back, and, second, for the soldiers too embarrased to admit they are scared.

Jul 06

An article in Psychology Today (somehow it showed up downrange and I read this while I was leaving Afghanistan) asked psychologists if they had no restrictions--ethical, practical or physical--what experiment would they perform? I quickly thought about this premise and military theory. So, if I could perform a counter-insurgency experiment, what would it look like?

I would start with two light infantry battalions. The battalions would be the exact same in every way, and differ only in the quality of their soldiers. Battalion A would be the ideal infantry battalion: perfect Army Physical Fitness scores, all soldiers able to ruck march for 12 miles at 13 minute miles, all expert marksman with their M4s and assigned weapons, all wearing Expert Infantry Badges. Battalion B would be average in traditional army metrics; but, every soldier in this battalion would speak the local language (Either Pashtun, Dari or Arabic). Battalion A and Battalion B would then deploy to the same control area of operation. (Ideally, in some sort of parallel universe. This is why the experiment is impossible.)
That’s the experiment. As every scientist has a bias, I have mine. Who do I think would win this counter-insurgency fight? Battalion B, hands down.

Battalion A would dominate all its lethal fire fights but would have to fight throughout their deployment. While they would kill insurgents, they could never connect with the population. They would never truly build support for the government or separate insurgents from the population.

Battalion B would not dominate the fight initially, but they would excel in this hypothetical experiment. Imagine it. As soon as they arrive, they start addressing issues at the local level. Locals would have never seen a US force so involved in their AO. They could connect with the leaders, and then the entire population. They would learn what US tactics are unpopular, and then could choose to discard them. While insurgent forces would win early victories against the less able US force, their support among the population would dwindle and they would be forced to move elsewhere. Or, they could give up arms and rejoin society.

Of course, after I wrote the scenario, I realized Battalion B is essentially an Afghanistan National Army battalion--tactically poor but culturally awesome. However, the differences between an ANA battalion and Battalion B are critical. The Aghanistan National Army soldiers lack the characteristics that give the U.S. Army its strength. The largest issue with most host nation soldiers is incredibly high desertion rates. Second to that is massive corruption of Afghanistan National Security Forces (They make KBR look like the Red Cross). Because of this, US battalions have a status as “honest brokers” in resolving local issues--imagine if they spoke Pashtun or Arabic.

It might seem confusing why the US Army couldn’t perform this experiment in one of its two ongoing wars. It could try, but you could never truly control the external variables. As I wrote in "Will the Surge Work?", an area of operations can change dramatically in only twelve miles and or twelve months of time.

What are we to take from this crazy thought experiment? Well if you agree that Battalion B would perform better in Afghanistan, then you need to support training and resources to get our battalions as close to that as possible. Currently, the Army makes no deliberate effort to improve the language training at the maneuver battalion level. We talk a good game about counter-insurgency as a military, let’s step up on language training.

If you have a counter-insurgency experiment you wish you could perform, please share it below.

Jul 03

As Troy (2004) opens, a young boy asks an over-sexed and hung over Achilles why he goes to fight, considering that his opponent is so monstrously huge and terrifying. Achilles turns to the boy and says, “That is why no one will remember your name.”

In screenwriter David Benioff and director Wolfgang Peterson’s version of the Trojan War, Achilles fights for fame.  He doesn’t care about Greece or the Delian league. He doesn’t point to the two naked women in his bed and say, “That’s why.” He doesn’t mention the respect, or his desire to protect his homeland. No, he wants to be remembered, hopefully for a thousand years. This is, perhaps, the worst character motivation in the history of cinema.

When translating ancient literature to film, the old junk gets cut and replaced with modern themes and motivations. I accept this. However, Achilles’ desire for glory does not work as a modern theme. They take the character flaws of vanity and pride -- traits we can all relate to -- and change them to an obsession with fame only movie starlets, star atheletes, and reality show C-Listers can relate to. He might as well say, “I fight because I want Hollywood to make films about me in 2004.” It’s circular logic: this movie’s production is also Achilles motivation.

This logic, and motivation, is fundamentally flawed. Who can predict who/what will be remembered in later years? The Trojan War allegedly took place during the dark ages of ancient Greece -- not a great time to record your history for posterity. Wars and famine routinely wiped out whole city states. The Greek language fundamentally changed after the alleged war. Poets and dramatists, including Homer, rewrote stories as they saw fit.

In fact, very little from Greek antiquity made it to modern times. How many plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Aechysclus, among countless others have we lost? It’s a miracle we have anything. Despite these hurdles, Achilles believes that he will be remembered? I doubt it.

Realism, historical accuracy, and literary faithfulness aside, this is a terrible moral justification. Going to war to achieve fame has to be the saddest explanation for taking another person’s life I’ve ever heard. You know who kills to be famous? Serial killers.

Finally, in the context of the modern soldier, this reason rings hollow. No soldier went to World War II or Iraq saying, “I want to be famous.” Just writing it feels ridiculous. Now, how many actors and film makers go to Hollywood to become famous? Exactly.

Jul 01

As an officer in Afghanistan, your age is inversely proportional to how many meetings (shuras in Pashtun) you will conduct in Afghanistan. My captain conducted many, but my fellow lieutenants and I conducted shuras with locals everyday. Our Brigade and Battalion Commanders conducted province level meetings but weekly at most. We deploy our Platoon Leaders to a country with a culture that emphasizes age and wisdom, and we expect them to succeed.
An anecdote will explain. After a routine patrol in the south of our district, my platoon stopped in a refugee camp. A small village tucked in a draw next to the mountains. Coalition Forces had never stopped there before and on a whim, I decided I wanted to meet the people.

When we parked the trucks, I got out and became a rock star. The village could not believe we had stopped--this was a refugee camp with vague legal status. When he elders saw me, they knew what to do and quickly brought us to a UNICEF tent in the middle of the mud structures, the only outdoor shade in the whole village.

I was greeted enthusiastically—again typical Pashtun courtesy. With me was an ANA sergeant who was only in his late twenties. He only grudgingly sat down to meet with the elders; he looked anxious and uncomfortable. As I sat down, I faced a dozen or so elders, none of whom looked younger than sixty (which means they were probably in their forties). Around us, all the young adults (the same age as me) watched eagerly, silently learning the customs of their elders.

They had nothing to give but still offered me Chai. They described the typical ails of an Afghan community-- only exacerbated by severe unemployment. As we sat, people congregated around the outside of the meeting. There were upwards of sixty people, but I only spoke with two of the locals, clearly the two most respected elders. We talked for about half an hour and then I left.

This meeting was not unique. When the U.S. Army interacts with Central Asian cultures it runs into the same problem: their culture values age while we send representatives who are in their mid-twenties. I, a twenty-four year old college graduate, conducted daily meetings with the elders always more than twice my age, usually more.

Why did these elders listen to me?

A combination of the carrot and the stick (An aside: I recently learned that apparently Iranians and Afghans don’t like this analogy because it implies they are donkeys. Eric made a good point: how would Americans like to be told they either get the dog biscuit or the rolled up newspaper?) compelled them to ignore their cultural values and accept a young Lieutenant. In my districts, I had the stick. Simply, I led a mounted platoon armed with missiles, machine guns and automatic grenade launchers not to mention the ability to call for artillery or air support. We could bring security to an area or we could decide to stay on our FOB. In heads up fighting, nothing the Taliban had could hold the field for more than a handful of minutes.

In the long run, the carrot was why I was invited back. The locals were not afraid of me, they wanted what I could provide. I could provide local improvement projects to improve the quality of life, and I did. I could improve the strength of the local government, and I did. I could bring medical supplies or food, and I did. These meetings taught me a valuable lesson: while I didn't have wisdom, I had resources. And, the most important of these resources was the aid I could bring.