Aug 30

Since 9/11, the Department of Defense budget has doubled.

Think about that. Doubled.

So when Secretary Gates proposed serious cuts to the Department of Defense two weeks ago, I applauded him. Even when he announced that he wouldn’t ask for an actual decrease in total Pentagon spending--the budget would increase by about 1% in raw terms--I still supported him. Secretary Gates understands that a bloated Pentagon budget is a bad pentagon budget.

By asking for across the board cuts Secretary Gates isn’t just targeting individual programs, he is attempting to alter the unsustainable financial culture of the Pentagon. I agree with his strategy for several reasons.

First, as I explained on last week, the Army is about keeping what you have.
No Colonel wants to lose his budget, no General wants to lose his staff, and no senior government civilian wants to lose his responsibility. By ordering each branch to find across the board savings of 100 billion dollars, Secretary Gates is attacking the mindset of bureaucratic leaders to hoard what they have.

Second, because we have to keep what we have, the military is constantly creating new, without eliminating old. The result is our individual branches of the military don’t cut organizations unless somebody tells them to. JFCOM is unnecessary, for example, but the only way to get rid of it is through congress. Too many subordinate units in the military are relics of past wars, and they need to go.

Third, we have too many Generals and Admirals. The accumulation of flag officers only encourages every fiduciary problem plaguing the Pentagon. They get paid more with only an indirect benefit to the men and women fighting on the front lines. There is a rumor that we have as many Generals in Iraq with the drawdown that we had at the height of the surge. What are they all doing?

Fourth, national security is about safety, not jobs. The only people complaining about JFCOM’s demise are--surprise!--people from Virginia. The representatives, Senators and governor of Virginia will feel the sting of losing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars. I understand why they want to fight this move, but be honest: it has nothing to do with our national security.

And this is the worst part, the politicized nature of the Department of Defense budget.  The Department of Defense, and its allied military-industrial complex, are more jobs program than national security platform. Congress makes the budgets, and representatives care more about jobs in their districts then the Soldier on the frontline.

Aug 27

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

It took me five tries to finish Donovan Campbell’s Joker One. Before I finished it, I read, completed and researched four other books, one play and three movies. That’s all you really need to know about Joker One.

But I’ll go on. The narrator of The Things They Carried warns, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Campbell attempts to salvage meaning from the larger waste land of war. Mainly, he wants the reader to “know my men as I do, and that knowing them...will come to love them.”

As you can tell from my “War Memoirs and the Media” post from last month, Campbell loves his men, absolutely and completely. But as I’ve also written before, while this is a great quality for a leader, it is a lethal one for a writer. Campbell wants to present his story “truthfully and completely,” but he is blinded to his men’s faults.

A perfect example opens the Joker One’s third chapter, when one of Campbell’s Marines is accused of underage drinking. Campbell writes, “[He] had stopped by another Marine’s room to say hello. He found a group of Marines passing around a case of beer, but he hadn’t actually drunk any of it...I believed that my man was guilty of nothing more than wandering into the wrong room.” I don’t. Like Judge Judy says, teenagers lie. And 19 year-old Marines (or Soldiers, or college students, or anyone) drink. They also lie about drinking. I did, he did, everyone did. To trust the Marine seems really naive, and if you can’t trust your narrator, how can you believe anything that follows?

The whole episode leads into something endemic to Joker One’s prose: a discussion on leadership. Campbell discusses/teaches the reader how to fairly mete out punishment. Unfortunately, this type of passage pervades the book. During his first firefight, Campbell describes intentionally slowing his breathing to sound assured. Before each mission, his platoon said a Christian prayer and Campbell explains why in bland leadership terms. At three different points, Campbell describes his platoon going out to “take back the initiative.” Campbell wrote Joker One as a project in business school, so the tone makes sense. But it also lends credence to a pet theory of mine: don’t write your memoirs at business school.

The thing that got me most about the aforementioned Marine drinking passage was Campbell’s larger description of the military’s drinking culture. Campbell writes that, “the peacetime, zero-defects leaders of the 1990s entirely eliminated the drinking culture that has been a proud part of the military heritage...” Wow. Anyone who has spent anytime around the military knows this is ridiculous. The military’s drinking culture is alive and well, and it didn’t go on hiatus in the 1990’s. Specifically, I live right next to Camp Pendleton’s drinking culture--where the incident took place--and Marines never stopped drinking.

But that’s just one of many ridiculous statements in Joker One. He also writes that contractors, specifically Triple Canopy, did a great job in Iraq, that the Army is free of nepotism, and that the Marines used population-centric tactics even though that word hadn’t been popularized yet. He mentions his platoon had atheists in it, but still makes them say the Lord's prayer before their missions. The most egregious statement--after that drinking culture comment--is that Campbell thinks “hajj” isn’t a derogatory term. He writes “‘Hajji’ by the way, was our generic term for the Iraqis...In most instances the term wasn’t meant to was easier than the three-syllable “Iraqi”” In Muslim cultures, it is an honorific; in Army terms, it’s meant as a slur. Campbell just loves his men too much to describe them using racist terms.

He doesn’t love everyone though. Campbell’s ire falls on three of his fellow Marines, Ox, his Executive Officer; his CO; and his staff sergeant (all three characters go unnamed). Campbell spends page after page--never explicitly, he seems incapable of being directly negative--insulting these characters.

I don’t understand this focus. Why complain about Ox, but not complain about the Military that sent in a company to control a city of 600,000? Now that seems like poor planning.

Joker One isn’t all bad. A General gives an anti-Army speech; it makes the Marine Corp. look bad but I appreciated  that Campbell included some embarrassing details. Some of the writing is amazing, including a passage on war wounds, or the description of a dead child Campbell passes in battle.

The end of the book is a dark version of hell, men alone in a foreign country, getting attacked daily by an invisible enemy, struggling to deal with heat, exhaustion and spilt blood. An RPG lands in a group of children. Campbell needs sedation. His tough, imperturbable Gunny’s hand starts shaking. This was a brutal tour, one of the worst since the invasion, but Campbell doesn’t make you feel that. Instead, to the very end, he tries to impress the reader with his evenhanded leadership and faith in Christ. Campbell describes one of the ugliest military tours since 9/11 in one of the most palatable ways possible. He closes Joker One with an essay on love.

Needless to say, he lacks the “uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” necessary for successful war literature.

I should probably clarify, Campbell’s over-riding literary fault, loving his men, is not a bad thing. I want Officers to unconditionally love their men. I just think it makes for bad literature.

Aug 25

I had intended to post a follow-up article today connecting last Monday’s personal experience post to Secretary Gates’ recent quest to lower the Defense Department budget. As I was writing that post, though, I realized I needed to explain one crucial detail about the military: that it doesn’t know how to do math.

A few months back, I published a post called “Military Mathematics: Subtraction.” In it, I wrote about how the Army can work you from 0600-1700, and still call that a nine hour work day. “Military Mathematics: Addition” is the inverse. Instead of working you more and giving you less, addition is about using more but getting less.

For the Army more is better; more people, more money, more resources, more reports. If you have a problem, throw more at it. With enough money, people, resources and reports the Army believes it can solve any problem.

If only this approach worked. Adding people rarely solves the problem. This is because in any organization, the difference between the best and the worst person isn’t inches, it is miles. For example...

Detectives - During this current deployment I started watching David Simon’s incomparable TV show The Wire. The central plot concerns a major police task force trying to take down a powerful drug lord. During the first season, the task force’s main problem is that even though it got a bunch of men, they are mostly what the police call “humps,” detectives who aren’t worth a damn. The best detectives spot tiny clues, make difficult connections, and solve impossible cases. The worst detectives usually don’t solve anything, but still take up a spot on the team.

Sales Staff - When Eric reviewed this idea with me, he brought up his experience as a fundraiser during college. The top fundraisers at his work--usually 4 or 5 people--raised 80% of the money on any given night. At least half the room raised nothing. The top fundraisers raised over $100,000, but most people would go weeks without raising one cent. The top salesperson isn’t twice as good as the bottom person, he is ten times as good. So doubling your sales staff isn’t as smart as developing your core group into better callers. (In the Annual Fund’s case, they installed auto-dialers so the best callers could call more people.)

The Army doesn’t get this, especially in staff jobs. Whether it is supply, intelligence, finance or human resources, the difference between the amount of work done by the worst person on staff and the best isn’t small, it is gigantic. If I wanted to improve my staff, in any job, hiring ten more people wouldn’t work nearly as well as hiring one person who truly excelled.

Yet every time the Army expands, it doesn’t think quality, it thinks bulk. For example...

1. Adding Human Intelligence Collectors - A few years after invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army realized that we needed more Human Intelligence. In fact, we needed thousands more trained Human Intelligence collectors. Instead of choosing the best people, though, the Army just filled the ranks with as many bodies as possible. Most of the new HUMINT collectors were 17 year olds fresh out of basic training, far from ideal candidates.

2. The Entire Intelligence Community - Since 9/11 America hasn’t just expanded our intelligence community, it tripled it in size. And we aren’t that we are now three times better at stopping terrorists. In many cases, we are about as good as before, but spending three times as much. [Link to Top Secret America:]

3. Army Cyber Warfare - The Army’s approach to cyber-warfare is going through the same growing pains as the Intelligence Community. The people Cyber Command needs are hackers; the people staffing the place are not. The best hacker isn’t a little better than the hackers we have, they are thousands of times better. By hiring thousands of bodies--be they contractors or servicemen--the Army is avoiding the core issue of hiring the best hackers.

4. Army Suicide Prevention - Instead of addressing the core issue--an overworked military stressed by repeated deployments--the Army started a task force that publishes reports. Instead of solving the issue, the Army threw more at the problem.

Instead of getting rid of the worst and keeping the best, the Army just tries to keep whoever it can. Even worse, most of the organizations created since 9/11, Iraq or Afghanistan--like the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the command centers in Iraq, the bureaucracies created in Afghanistan, the dozens upon dozens of “Centers of Excellence”--aren’t staffed with the best, they are staffed to the brim. Generals add people, not excellent people.

Next Monday, I will tie this post and my last one to Joint Forces Command and Secretary Gates’ recent effort to reform the Pentagon budget.

(A side note: mentions this idea about hiring the best and not just hiring bodies; we highly recommend their podcasts. Also, the book How to Become CEO by Jeffrey Fox covers has similar advice.)

Aug 23

Two weeks ago, Secretary Gates proposed several bold, but necessary, cuts in the Pentagon budget: eliminating the Joint Forces Command, reducing the number of flag officers, and cutting 100 billion dollars form the overall budget. As politicians and politicos stepped in to opine, the big issue became one of our strategic capabilities, would this make us safer? I think it would--we need to cut our budget, as I wrote here--but instead of just saying so, I am going to provide an anecdote that perfectly demonstrates the Army-cum-military way of thinking when it comes to preserving budgets.

My unit was at a training rotation. [Names have been omitted to avoid implication of specific people and units with fraud, waste and abuse.] We had spent the rotation doing basic army training: zeroing rifles, qualifying on M4s, completing squad Situation Training Exercises, and conducting patrols.

At the end of our training window, we had a huge surplus of ammunition--several thousand rounds of live and blank ammunition. What to do?

Even though training was complete, even though every person had qualified with their weapons, and all situational training was complete, we had thousands of rounds. What to do?

We literally could not have spent more time at the range. Some of us qualified several times to improve our scores. We even conducted firing from different positions for variety. Yet we still had tons of excess ammo. What to do?

Anyone in the military--nee everyone in or who was in the military during the 80s, 90s or 00s--knows exactly what we did. We fired every round we had left. In the Army, you fire every single round. You put people on the live-fire range, put their weapons on full-auto, and have them blast away. You expend every round, or as close as you can.

The reasoning is simple. Almost every leader in the Army believes a simple truism: if you don’t spend all your ammunition then you will lose it in the next fiscal year. In fact, by expending all your rounds, you show a need to get more ammo in the next year, even if you have no hope of using it all.

This logic applies to budgets. If you don’t spend your budget during the entire fiscal year, then people assume you won’t get it the next year. This causes most Army units to spend money like drunken sailors in the last two to three months to avoid losing budget dollars in the coming fiscal year.

(I have actually wondered if this logic is more lore than fact. I wrote the Stars and Stripes Rumor Doctor, hopefully he can check it out.)

That personal anecdote--one that no doubt countless veterans can attest to but countless Generals would vehemently deny--sums up the problems with the DoD budget. More than anything, it shows that units only cares about themselves; leaders only care about their personal budgets. In the long run, this leads to gross inefficiencies.

These inefficiencies add up so that when a superpower does deploy its military, the outcome is something verging on gross negligence. Military contractors who over bill the government by gross percentages, the creation of super-FOBs, weapon systems that don’t work--all are products of an inefficient military.

On Wednesday, I am going to relate this anecdote to Secretary Gates’ cuts specifically.

Aug 21

Since it is my goal to share the best war art I’ve found, I would like to share my favorite poem from Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet (Here is my review from last week). It is deceptively short, but powerful. (Thanks to Alice James Books and Brian Turner for reprint permission.)


by Brian Turner


“It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.” - Sa’di


It should make you shake and sweat,

nightmare you, strand you in a desert

of irrevocable desolation, the consequences

seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline

feeds the muscle its courage, no matter

what god shines down on you, no matter

what crackling pain and anger

you carry in your fists, my friend,

it should break your heart to kill.

It is essentially a moral poem, a meditation on how you should feel when you kill (“should” being the operative word). This is the only piece of post-9/11 literature, verse or prose, that deals with this complex emotion this idealistically and realistically. Regret, sadness, anger--all of it is here.

And, as Michael C asked, who is Sadiq? According to this website, it means friend in Arabic. Is sadiq a friend? Or is the the man someone killed? Every detail of this poem, from the title to the lower-cased “god”, is perfect.

Aug 19

Late one evening, we responded to a man who wounded his hand after a night of heavy drinking. While splinting his possibly broken hand, we attempted to unravel the details of how and why. The man was vague, said he punched something because he was angry. After seeing the wedding ring, one of the paramedics put two and two together; he asked the man where his wife was. We found her face down on the floor in an upstairs bedroom.

Medical professionals are not required to like every patient. We're simply required to give every patient an equally exceptional level of care, regardless of individual situation. Whether they are a kindly old lady or our personal worst enemy, every patient is entitled to the same quality care. Ensuring that every patient is treated equally is one aspect of patient advocacy.

A patient advocate must act in the best interest of the patient. Each medical professional needs to access state of mind in decision making situations, ensure safety, ensure that proper information is relayed regarding the patient’s condition and history, and protect the patient’s privacy.

As an EMT, patient advocacy is one of my primary directives. While vital, it is not always easy. Transporting a patient with flu symptoms that is stable and can be safely transported by car is draining (and not just on us, but Medicare too). Often a patient’s attitude can be one of hostility or anxiety. They may be drunk or high. Still other times, you may have a patient that makes it very hard to focus on putting their needs to the forefront. 

I was posed a question before I started working. “What do you do if you show up on scene and your patient just finished beating up his wife? The police want to take him someplace private to 'question' him, do you allow it?”

Of course not. As a patient advocate, you never leave the patient’s side. You can’t let any harm come to the patient. He is in your care regardless of his actions or who he is. 

My conviction has been tested. I’ve treated and transported assailants, addicts, vagrants, child abusers, spousal abusers, and diagnosed psychotics. I’ve seen people at their very worst. Not just their weakest, but at their most vicious and cruel. I've had the same man spit on me, kick me in the face breaking a very nice pair of Oakley sunglasses, and call my mother an assortment of derogatory terms; he received the same level of care as Grandma Nicey McHuggington. I would give every other patient. After he kicked me in the face, I did however, opt to drive the ambulance rather than ride in back.

You ignore your emotions whatever way you can. Some try to know as little about their personal history as you can, or block the image of them hitting their child from your mind. Some pretend the patient is someone else with a different history. You also tell yourself that when they get to the hospital, they’ll have an opportunity to change. Whatever you do, you do your job. 

Deep down there’s a part of you that wishes the child abuser resisted arrest. You think of what they do to rapists in prison. You hope the man who beat his wife goes to jail. You hope justice is done. But it never shows. They are your patient and you their advocate. And when necessary, and it can be, you offer care and safety without discrimination or prejudice.

Aug 18

Last year, when I wrote about one of my greater exploits as a Platoon Leader, in “A Tale of Two MEDCAPs,” I omitted a crucial detail: the pictures of the MEDCAP. It was only after we posted the article that I realized what an opportunity Eric C and I had missed. So we are fixing that problem today.

The Army and Pentagon still haven’t learned to appreciate the soft side of warfare. Good counter-insurgency doesn’t get the respect of the Generals; really big battles do. So when I say my greatest accomplishment might be a MEDCAP, it shows how different my perspective on operations is from higher leadership. Nonetheless I would still argue that that single MEDCAP did more than a month worth of fighting throughout our AO.

These are the villagers lining up before the MEDCAP started. The line wrapped around the building to the right for a couple hundred feet before the day was done.

This is true coalition partnership. An Afghan doctor works with an American doctor and an Afghan Army Medic to treat the local civilian on the right. The most common ailment was arthritis pain.

While the MEDCAP was treating local Afghans, the District Governor called a shura to discuss issues. Not much was decided on this day, but like all things it was a start.

Aug 16

Despite General Casey’s predictions that the Army will be in a perpetual state of war for the next decade, realistically the US will wrap up major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan well before that. And as soon as those wars end, our military will have to start training for the next one.

The key question is how.

I have a simple proposition: while training rotations at Maneuver Training Centers shouldn’t disappear, we should start supplementing them with deployments to real-world missions, like UN peacekeeping missions.

The best analogy for the Army’s near future is the US Army after Vietnam. Despite massive problems--drugs use, failed leadership, inadequate resources--the Army reformed itself. It modernized the force, changed training, and looked squarely at Russia and said “we will change to fight that.” In the first Persian Gulf war, the strategy vindicated itself.

To train for the USSR, we developed maneuver training centers, giant expanses of land with dedicated opposing forces. These centers helped the US Army train for conventional maneuver wars. Brigades faced off against one another, lessons were learned, careers made or lost. Those military training centers trained almost exclusively for one type of war: high-intensity, industrial, maneuver-focused, and state-on-state.

Hopefully, the Pentagon is learning that it is really bad at predicting what future war will look like. In some cases, it may look a lot like the first Persian Gulf war. In those cases, we will need to continue training at maneuver centers like the ones in Fort Polk and Fort Irwin.

However, clean force-on-force wars are disappearing. Instead, future wars will be messy affairs, like Iraq or Afghanistan. They will involve genocide, natural disasters, civil wars and politics. They will always involve massive population centers, something maneuver training centers are atrocious at replicating. They will involve building infrastructure, battling corruption and distributing aid.

To really train for the next war, we need to join the one organization dedicated to constantly fighting little brush fire wars: the UN Peacekeeping force. Currently, the UN deploys thousands of Soldiers in peacekeeping missions, mostly drawn from developing nations like Pakistan and Brazil because it pays its soldiers sorely needed cash.

We should tag along on these peace-keeping missions, but refuse to accept the UN’s money. Then, when the security council approves a 3,000 man peacekeeping mission, we would bolster it by an additional 5,000 (roughly the size of a Brigade Combat Team) for free. I doubt any peacekeeping mission would object to the assets of the US government.

Everyone benefits. The deployment experience would provide cultural knowledge to every officer, NCO and soldier deploying to the third world for the first time. Our military would learn how to work with multiple foreign governments, NGOs, inter-agency and other militaries. The deployments would teach our soldiers flexibility, and also the political side of warfare. And our Army would gain experience in the troubled areas around the world.

The only possible problem with deploying US troops is the current state of exhaustion of our force. Only four to five years after we have severely drawn down the mission in Afghanistan could we hope to deploy combat brigades to bolster UN peacekeeping missions. Doing so, though, would benefit our military and help repair our battered international reputation.

Aug 13

I'm not a poetry expert.

Or put another way, I don't have refined taste in poetry. Unlike prose--novels, memoirs, essays--I don't feel comfortable putting out nuanced opinions on the quality of verse. I know really great poetry when I read it, and I know really bad poetry when I read it; I just can't recognize the stuff in between.

Fortunately, Here, Bullet--Brian Turner's poetry collection, centered around his experience as a Soldier in Iraq--is great poetry. It could be the best war literature of any medium published since 9/11; it's certainly the best book I've read so far. I've spent the last couple weeks explaining why war memoirs don't make for great literature, and it's draining to be so negative, so often. It's a relief to come out and say I love something. Every semi-literate person interested in the Iraq war needs to read this book, ingest it, remember it, and share it with others.

Here, Bullet opens with a bang:

    "The word for love, habib, is written from right
    to left, starting where we would end it
    and ending where we might begin

    Where we would end a war
    another might take as a beginning,
    or as an echo of history, recited again."

Wow. Six lines, but so much is going on: Arabic culture, history, writing, war. These lines introduce the book's primary theme, and the thing that sets this book apart more than any other work of literature I've read by Americans about Iraq: an understanding of Iraq's (ancient) history. Iraq--Mesopotamia--is the oldest place in the world, the birth place of civilization. Baghdad, in particular, is the historic home of the Caliphate, the center of the Islamic world for centuries, with more history per square foot than anywhere else in the world (Michael disagrees and thinks Rome has more history, but still). This is the first book I've read where I felt that connection to Iraq. It was a revelation. Aside from some stories on Baghdad museum looting, no one has really mentioned it.

"This is the spice road of old, the caravan trail/of camel dust and heat..."

Brian Turner's instincts are mostly impeccable. There's maybe one bad poem in this collection. Like a trained rifleman, he focuses his sights on all the right targets. Turner writes about the Baghdad zoo fiasco, an incident I think represents the entire invasion. He pays attention to animals, using their imagery to fuel his verse. Ox and buffalo pop up again and again ("remembers her standing at the canebrake/where the buffalo cooled shoulder-deep in the water...") He finds beauty everywhere he looks: "Owls rest in the vines of grape." "Bats fly out by the hundred."

But in Here, Bullet, these very alive animals live in a world filled with ghosts and the dead. “The ghosts of American soldiers/wander the streets of Balad by night...And the Iraqi dead,/they watch in silence from the rooftops.” It is all so haunting and perfect. "...when the dead/speak to us, we must ask them,/to wait, to be patient..." When the narrator watches others through his scope at night, he feels as if he has become a ghost.

And of course there is sadness. "Eulogy," based on real events, is so sad it is almost unreadable. So is the poem "16 Iraqi Policemen." This realism could have become a distraction or a crutch, but I think it adds to works impact.

Some final notes:
- Turner's poem "Hurt Locker," at one page, is way better than the film The Hurt Locker.
- The poem "What Every Soldier Should Know" is beautiful. You should try to find it.
- Turner quotes TS Eliot twice, first in his eponymous poem, "because here, Bullet,/here is where the worlds ends, every time."; next April's air is "dry/ as the shoulders of a water buffalo." I love Eliot, so I love this echoing. It shows Turner is a poet's poet, someone who recognizes history and what came before.
- Finally, there is the poem Sadiq. I'll try to post it here if Mr. Turner will let us.

One of my goals in writing art posts here at On Violence is to find the great war literature of this generation. That's why I am usually so negative; I haven't found greatness yet. I haven't found books I would canonize.

Until I read Here, Bullet. An anthology came out in 2005, Voices in War, canonizing the works of writers writing during wartime--essentially the canon of war literature. The editors included Brian Turner. That sounds about right to me.

Aug 11

This week we have good news, ROE news and then an update on my old stomping grounds, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

Good News:

Remember when we argued that America needed a new “Marshall Plan” two months ago? Well, apparently the billionaires were listening. Last week, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates announced that 48 billionaires have pledged to donate half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. While we wish “philanthropic causes” was more specific--and specifically international--we celebrate this news.

Remember back in January when we took on the sacred cow of the federal budget? Well, Defense Secretary Gates took it on this week. He laid out his plan to cut the Pentagon’s budget this week. Let’s hope he is successful.


Three articles came out in the last week about ROE that, taken altogether, are really funny.

First, this report says that not killing civilians lowers violence in Afghanistan, which we think is obvious but we’re glad we have statistical proof for the anti-COINites. It basically supports stringent ROE and tactical patience from Soldiers and Marines.

Second, General Petraeus released his new ROE for Afghanistan, and it isn’t much different from General McChrystal’s version, thankfully.

Third, in retaliation Mullah Omar--leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan--released his own ROE against civilian casualties.

On Afghanistan:

Stars and Stripes has a new reporter embedded in Konar Province, Afghanistan, and her photos and stories bring back memories. Here Dianna Cahn writes about the struggle for the current unit in the Pech, then here she describes how FOB Michigan is taking massive amounts of contact. The Pech is a mystery for me, even having been there. Do we ramp up the number of troops? Try something new? (Yes.) I don’t know, frankly, what the military will try next, I do however doubt it will work.

Aug 08

“Most troops are not willing to die to help their boss avoid some unfavorable press.” 
    - Colonel Richard Kemp, The Journal of International Security Affairs

“But these [the ROEs, liberals] are the problems of the modern US combat soldier, the constant worry about overstepping the mark and an American media that delights in trying to knock us down. Which we have done nothing to deserve. Except, perhaps, loving our country and everything it stands for...This entire business of modern war crimes, as identified by the liberal wings of politics and the media...well ...the public does not have that right to know.”
   - Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor

It’s a common complaint about the Rules of Engagement: they only exist because “military leaders are afraid of bad public relations.”

They are absolutely right. Military leaders do fear bad publicity. I think that’s a good thing.

Military leaders should care about the opinions of our citizens. And not just Americans, but the opinions of the civilians in countries we occupy, and the citizens of the world. In our democracy, our military serves at the behest of the governed, and thank God they do. Some Warfighters--like Luttrell--want the rest of the country to turn away and let “them do their jobs” when they deploy. In a democracy, that is impossible.

But it isn’t just the opinions of Americans that matter. When our troops deploy to a foreign nation, public opinion matters more than almost anything else. In state-on-state war, the enemy is easy to find, and the populations of the nations involved are on one side or the other. But we haven’t fought a war like that in decades. In modern, messy counter-insurgencies, winning over the civilian population is the goal, not the destruction of the enemy’s forces.

So we care about bad PR in insurgencies. Not doing so is quitting before we get started.

We also care about preventing insurgencies and state-on-state wars in the first place, so we have to care about the thoughts of the citizens of the world. Our military is probably America’s most prominent ambassador around the world. It certainly gets the most press coverage. Our success in Afghanistan and Iraq will strengthen our position internationally. If we win, but alienate other people, I mean, that’s the definition of pyrrhic victory.

Finally, Americans care about how we win wars--not just if we win. Frankly, the only alternative is that our military would not care what Americans think, believe or feel. That just seems like a dangerous road to travel down. So if our citizens--in whose name the military fights--don’t want to see dead children, torture or murder on its behalf, then so be it.

Military leaders constantly praise duty. Following the Rules of Engagement and the will of the American people is a part of that duty. (Think MacArthur at West Point, or the Army Values)

The military cares about bad public relations. And we should thank God they do, because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be in a democracy.

Aug 06

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Way back in May 2009, I was outraged by two different interviews--the first by Craig Mullaney on the Daily Show discussing his memoir, The Unforgiving Minute; the second by Donovan Campbell on Fresh Air, discussing Joker One. I told Michael, "These interviews are BS. I'm writing a post about them for the website." He said, "Not until you actually read the books." So I began the post-9/11 war memoirs project.

Having reviewed The Unforgiving Minute two weeks ago, I started thinking about these two interviews again, and how they exemplify the mistakes of both books: The Unforgiving Minute fails to put the war in Afghanistan into proper context; Joker One rings emotionally untrue.

The Unforgiving Minute and Political Context

Regular Daily Show viewers know John Stewart doesn't think America's wars are going terribly well. He recently described the war in Afghanistan as, "rebuilding a war-torn society, while simultaneously fending off an extremist fueled insurgency in a country that's an unyielding mountain hell-scape in an opiate-based feudal economy." Last Tuesday, outraged by the wiki-leaks documents, Stewart referred to Afghanistan as an "existential trap."

But when Mullaney appeared on the show last year, it was a different tone altogether. Stewart mostly asked harmless questions about the difficulty of military training ("What gave you the strength of spirit...What gave you the fortitude?”). Even the segment is blandly titled, "Craig Mullaney tells Jon what gave him the fortitude to get through Ranger school."

The focus of The Unforgiving Minute is on training, so it makes sense that Stewart doesn't ask about Afghanistan until two-thirds of the way through the interview. When Stewart finally does ask about Afghanistan, you'd be forgiven if you thought we were winning that war. Mullaney describes the skills needed to win in a counter-insurgency (You must become "The bionic-counter-insurgent" who knows languages, medicine, veterinarian skills and architecture.) as if our Soldiers already had these skills. But Mullaney's service occurred pre-COIN, pre-Iraq surge in 2005. Even if he were a COIN-dinista ahead of the curve, the rest of the military wasn't. He should say that, when asked about it.

Mullaney also doesn't mention--in either the interview or the memoir--that the war was going terribly, but it was. In the words of Spencer Ackerman, from 2004-2009 "the U.S. let Afghanistan rot." I wish the Soldiers who were there would say that too.

This jibes with two major trends of modern war memoirs: First, memoirists write retroactively about counter-insurgency theories the military hadn't embraced yet. At least three memoirs, mostly Marine memoirs about the early Iraq war, preach an acceptance of counter-insurgency that happened when our authors wrote their books, not when they were downrange. Second, don't expect proper military and political context from military memoirs.

Joker One and Emotion

In this heartbreaking interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Donovan Campbell describes, and you can hear the sorrow his voice, losing a man.

What got me, though, was the afterward. Gross asks, “Did the men in your platoon want revenge?” He answers, “For some of them it changed for a short period of time... we had a time back at the government center and some of the men were stunned... just trying to process it... some of the men wanted to get someone. Over the long run their attitude towards the mission didn’t change.  Team leaders did a great job... we don’t act out of revenge, anger.”
Campbell downplays the emotions his men must have felt. The reality is that when you lose a friend or fellow Soldier, especially in a war as long and stressful as a counter-insurgency, you want revenge in the worst way possible. You'll dream about it, you'll think about it. Put another way, you'll want "to kill very, very badly, and that a part of me didn't really care what it was that I killed as long as I got to do so." This is, of course, from the text of Joker One.

Whether you act on these emotions, that's a different story. But your emotional state, if we're being intellectually honest, is one of revenge. The short answer to the above question would have been "Yes," followed by an explanation for why that could never happen. Joker One's primary flaw is that Campbell loves his men. As I've written before, that's a beautiful quality for a leader but a terrible one for a memoirist. It prevents proper analysis, and in this case, understanding of human emotion.

One Final Point

Neither John Stewart or Terry Gross asked the hard questions. (Like, how did it feel to be a part of a losing campaign? How will we win in Afghanistan/Iraq?) Both were more interested in finding out about the daily lives of Soldiers, rather than their political or strategic opinions. But Soldiers have an experience and worldview most reporters/pundits/politicians can never achieve, no matter how many deployments they go on.

I want to hear Soldier's voices too, on more than just the easy stuff.

Aug 04

Today we have a two for one special--two Iraq-related posts for the price of one. First, an update by Michael C on his current deployment, then a list of articles of the most important stories about Iraq.

An Update

This deployment is nothing like my last trip downrange. On my last tour, it took five minutes to get hot water in the showe (if it came), the food consisted of two warm trays of heated...stuff, and I shared a room and an AC unit that constantly broke with 8 other people. Conditions were spartan.

This deployment the water is always warm in the shower (sometimes too warm), the chow hall has a Caesar salad bar, sandwich bar, ice cream freezer, and steak on Fridays, and I have my own room and a working AC unit. Conditions are lush.

And the work environment is completely different. In Afghanistan, I executed someone else’s mission and controlled my own battlespace. This time I work for other people, but I get to choose my own work and I never leave the wire. A surreal experience.

A Second “Remember Iraq Link-Drop”

A few months back, in a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, I reminded our readers that Iraq was still relevant. While Iraq isn’t nearly as precarious as Afghanistan, as recent events have shown, Iraq is far from stable.

Recently, Violence in Iraq has peaked to the highest death toll levels in two years. The main cause--and the most worrying issue--is that Iraqi has failed to form a new government after the March elections. If the Iraqis don’t get past this political impasse, expect violence to increase.

But the Obama administration is staying the course with the troop drawdown in Iraq. Both President Obama and General Odierno have stated that we will have less than 50,000 troops in Iraq by August 31st, and I believe that.

Oh, and the new mission will be called “Operation New Dawn” which sounds like “Nude On” if you say it fast. So, on September 1st, I will get my “Nude On” with everyone else at my base.

Right on the heels of the “Top Secret America” article condemning the use of military contractors in intelligence, we find out that military contractors in Iraq have a bright future with the State Department. I wish there was a better solution than hiring more contractors (State Department security? a militarized peace corps? our military?), but it looks like Triple Canopy, Xe nee Blackwater and other security firms will remain in Iraq until at least the end of 2011.

Finally--to show that contractors aren’t the only perpetrators of fraud, waste and abuse--the Pentagon announced that it can’t account for 8 billion dollars of Iraqi rebuilding money. Sarcastic applause.

Aug 02

When I was in Afghanistan, one of my favorite tactics was giving gifts to locals. I gave away fuel, building contracts, HESCO barrier walls, stuffed animals, humanitarian assistance and security. If I could provide it, I tried to give it away. It’s the new way to wage war, but it worked. When I told this to Eric C, he remarked that simple gifts can mean a lot for people living on a dollar a day.

He’s right, but he didn’t know the corollary to his statement: a gift from someone who lives on a dollar a day is nearly priceless.

When I first showed up to Serkani District, the Taliban attacked the police (ANP) checkpoint near Pashad every other day. Insurgents would blast the checkpoint walls with gunfire and sometimes RPGs, then flee back to the mountains near Pakistan. Because of a lack of manpower, Destined Company and the Afghan National Army couldn’t do much about it.

Until we came.

As soon as 4th Platoon arrived in Serkani from the Korengal, my commander told me that protecting the ANP from these attacks was my number one priority. Attacks usually happened at dusk, so we timed our patrols for afternoon and nighttime. We also prepared to QRF (quick reaction force) if the checkpoint commander gave us a call. For the first few weeks we had some false alarms, but no action.

One night, I got a frantic call to get to Pashad. We went. Long story short, we identified and took care of some insurgents who had just shot up the ANP checkpoint.

The checkpoint commander Sayed Abudullah, my RTO (radio guy), my interpreter and I sat outside the ANP compound, next to my humvee. It was a weird conversation: Sayed Abdullah was incredibly grateful for what we had done that night; I felt like we were just doing our job. As we talked about our recent success, an ANP soldier walked up with two oranges and gave them to Sayed Abdullah. He insisted my RTO and I have one.

Sayed professed that this wasn’t much, but a symbol of his thanks. He kept repeating how grateful he was that we could hit the Taliban for him. A few months before, his son was shot in the stomach and could no longer work at the checkpoint. For him this was personal, and we had done much for his safety by finding the Taliban at night.

So I ate his orange, knowing that fresh fruit is common but expensive in Afghanistan, and small by American standards. It was delicious nonetheless. I felt honored.