Oct 31

(To read all of our election coverage, click here.)

Anytime we write a guest post that gets people fired up, we like to round up the responses and rebut them. When Eric C told enlisted soldiers they could go to hell and the interwebs caught fire, we responded here. When Michael C advocated making soldiers work for free, we responded to the criticism here and here. (When Richard Dawkins called Michael C “sanctimonious” (not kidding with that one), we held our tongues.)
 
Last week, our guest post at Tom Rick’s “Best Defense” blog, “An Afghanistan/Iraq vet says Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”, did quite well, with over 50 comments.
 
We expected some blow back, but we didn’t expect so many commenters to agree with us so vehemently. We decided to share some of their personal experiences with waste, fraud and abuse today.

(For readability, we’ve fixed typos/spelling and punctuation errors, or reformatted some paragraphs, but did nothing to change the meaning of the response.)

Our Favorite Stories of Waste:

“The waste in the Army is simply astounding. Anyone advocating an INCREASE in defense spending simply has no experience in the military. The biggest fraud and waste issues exist in the US military.  I say that as an active soldier who has been through Bagram like the author stated he has as well.”

            - Ghost Soldier

“I worked as a contractor in Iraq/Afghanistan for nearly four years. During that time, the amount of fraud, waste, abuse and criminal negligence that I observed was staggering. Civilian and military personnel alike were responsible for it and their attitudes about it were deplorable. When I would ask them "Why?" their responses ranged from depraved apathy to outright entitled thievery.”

            - panther_modern

“Last March, I spent $750k just to meet obligation goals for 3d MAW.  I spent it on bayonets that sat in the armory unused, tents that sat in my warehouses unused, gerbers that I'm sure were promptly stolen, televisions that were totally unnecessary, etc. There were legitimate things that we could have purchased, but they would have had to go through contracting, which meant that we couldn't buy them in time to meet our obligation goals, and all the while the Comptroller/CO/XO were shitting bricks because they didn't want to lose money for the next fiscal year's budget, even though we had a superfluous extra million dollars in the FY11 budget, and a superfluous extra $850k in the FY12 budget when I left during the third quarter of the fiscal year (which means that it doesn't include the end-of-the-year spending spree)."

            - Lester_Galula

“Amen. I have witnessed on several occasions exactly what Mr. Cummings describes as far as units "wasting" ammunition and conducting end-of-fiscal-year spending sprees, just to make sure nothing is left on the table.

Regarding contractors: I hate to cast stones at them since I don't have any firsthand experience as a contractor, nor have I seen a good analysis on this, but I have observed some peculiarities. For example, my division regularly tasks subordinate units to provide troops for menial tasks like cutting grass and collecting garbage around the base, which takes troops away from their normal jobs like fixing helicopters. Meanwhile, we go out and hire contractors to fix the helicopters in order pick up the slack. Not surprisingly, the troops aspire to take their training and exit the military to become contractors (who never have to cut grass or pick up garbage) as soon as possible. Seems to me that it would be more efficient to do it the other way around: let the troops spend their time fixing the helicopters (utilizing their expensive training, further developing their skills, and keeping them happy) and hire contractors to do the landscaping. I would suspect that civilian landscapers command a lower wage than civilian helicopter mechanics, and that landscaping will be a less critical skill-set for our troops to have in the next conflict.

I also like to point out my closet full of gear received through CIF and RFI. I estimate the total value to be around $20,000. Last deployment I left most of it sitting in the closet (I don't need seven different jackets). At a million troops, that is $20 billion of unnecessary "stuff." In theory this stuff is turned back in and reissued, but I've only ever received new stuff (the camouflage pattern has changed several times), so a good portion of this $20 billion must be recurring.

            - timwalsh300

“Pretty good points here, particularly on weapons acquisition. I don't know how to fix the current system (thank God I'm not an acquisitions guy), but it's clearly broken. I know the author drilled into the JSF and F22, but as he points out, the Army sucks pretty bad at this as well (Comanche, Crusader, etc.). I'm also with you on contractors. There's too many of them, little to no accountability on quality of personnel or performance (at least where I've been), and a faulty underlying assumption that contracting saves money in the long run. Bottom line we absolutely need to get some fiscal discipline in the Pentagon. At a bare minimum OCO funding needs to end so that there is a real budget with a cap on it which forces leaders to make choices and hold people accountable.”

            - Army FAO

Oct 29

(To read all of our election coverage, click here.)

Arguing for something is hard. You have to build a case. Collect evidence. Then you have to sell it, framing the policy or idea as best you can.

Criticism is much easier. All you have to do is point out flaws, and everything has a flaw.

Take politics, for instance. Americans love to complain about our political system, pointing to out-of-control corporate spending, a gridlocked Capitol Hill, or a media that doesn’t hold politicians accountable, shouting, “Our government doesn’t work!” They rarely point out solutions or offer alternatives, because pointing out solutions is tough work. Anyone can complain; very few people can propose relevant, new solutions.

On V hates that. Don’t just criticize...offer an alternative.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign offers plenty of criticisms, while staying vague on the details. (The biggest example so far? The math behind his plan to lower income tax rates.) I understand why politicians, especially one challenging an incumbent, avoid discussing specifics. Why offer something your opponent can criticize? It just leaves you open to attack. Saying nothing risks nothing.

Which makes writing about Romney’s positions on foreign policy almost impossible. As The Telegraph summarized, “What would a Romney-Ryan administration actually do differently from President Obama when it comes to foreign affairs? Beyond the sabre rattling, specifics are scarce.” The last debate only furthered that sentiment. That said, based on what Romney has said in speeches and written on his website, we’re going to dive into Mitt Romney’s policies on foreign affairs, defense spending and veteran’s affairs. We’ll try to answer the question, “Do we agree or disagree with Romney’s policy positions?”

Mitt Romney’s Worldview - On V Disagrees

As Michael decried a few weeks ago, it seems like every president from now to eternity will have a foreign policy “doctrine” attached to their name. We can sum up Mitt Romney’s doctrine in two words:

No. Apologies.

He wrote an entire memoir with that title, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. Romney incorrectly blames President Obama for “apologizing for America.” Politifact quotes Romney saying (inaccurately), “I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour."

This emphasis on apologies makes us conclude that Romney might be a financial sheep in neo-conservative wolf clothing. He might simply be pandering to his Republican base, but Romney still talks a great neo-conservative game with neo-con thoughts like:    

1. Never apologize for America.

2. America has plenty of enemies in the world. Russia is our greatest geo-political foe; Iran is the world’s greatest threat; China is our rival. Neo-conservatives see a dangerous world they must constantly fight. Romney embraces that, even though none of it is true.

3. The President of the U.S. controls the thoughts and actions of foreign leaders and people.

4. The only thing that matters in foreign policy is strength through military spending. (More on this later.)

As a result, former Bush administration foreign policy folks, especially ones with neo-conservative bents, crowd Mitt Romney’s team. Frankly, we don’t need that foreign policy worldview in the White House again.

Iran - On V Disagrees

Like most Republican candidates in this election cycle, Mitt Romney hasn’t spelled out a different policy than President Obama regarding Iran. He just says--vaguely reminiscent of Herman Cain on Obama’s handling of Libya--that he would do the same things, but better. On Meet the Press, outside of panning Obama’s “policy of engagement”, Romney would encourage sanctions (“which, by the way, the president's finally getting closer to,” Romney admits.) and military action, though he remained vague on when or how he would use it.

When it comes to novel solutions, candidate Romney doesn’t offer any. Like Obama, he hasn’t vigorously ruled out a war with Iran. Obviously, we disagree.

Defense Spending - On V Disagrees

On the issue of defense spending, Mitt Romney has been very specific on what he’d do: increase it. While On Violence believes the military spends money like a drunken soldier on mid-tour leave, a would-be President Romney sees no harm in exploding the size of the Pentagon’s budget. Instead of just opposing defense cuts under coming sequestration (which he incorrectly blames on Obama), Romney wants to ramp up the budget to levels that, in comparative terms, would be the greatest increase since World War II. (For more, check out this excellent guest post at “The Best Defense” by Travis Sharp.)

Defense spending has increased over 50% since 9/11, way outpacing inflation. Even Romney admits, “The Department’s bureaucracy is bloated to the point of dysfunction and is ripe for being pared.” As we too wrote on "The Best Defense" last week, Romney is taking the wrong approach with the Pentagon.

Veterans Affairs - On V Disagrees

Romney cannot cut the deficit while increasing military spending...unless he cuts spending on our veterans. Right now, according to Mitt Romney’s budget outlines, defense spending will skyrocket with no word on whether he will increase spending at the Veteran Affairs department. As this Daily Beast article worries, a Romney presidency could mean drastically reduced veterans services...just like the Bush administration.

Afghanistan - On V Agrees

Mitt Romney has the exact same plan as President Obama: talk with commanders on the ground, get their advice, and then make a decision. In the recent debate, he hinted he will stick with the current timeline, then added some caveats. On Violence would much rather hear either candidate promise to remove all troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, but this policy will work until then.

Oct 25

(To read more of our outside writing, click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.)

Head over to Thomas Ricks’ awesome FP.com blog, “The Best Defense”, to check out our newest guest post, “An Afghanistan/Iraq vet says Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”. To sum up our position: Mitt Romney wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget, but we think the military has enough money as is, it just doesn’t spend it very well. At all.

We’re going to include this guest post, unofficially, in the “Our Communist Military” series as an example of how the military is another example of out-of-control, wasteful, bureaucratic government spending. The military can (and should) learn from what the private sector does well. (Of course, as we’re now going to mention on all “Our Communist Military” posts, we don’t actually think the military is “communist”...that’s just a rhetorical device.)

Oct 25

As we wrote on Monday, most readers probably know that, in general, we support Barack Obama. We should clarify, that’s based on his domestic policy.

Foreign policy, unlike domestic issues, is a mostly non-partisan affair. More than that, the parties can’t agree on what they disagree on. Do liberals or libertarians oppose Guantanamo? Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan and Dennis Kucinich all support American isolationism. Democrats are supposed to be anti-war, but their presidents started World War II, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Kosovo and intervened militarily in Libya.

Politically, both sides of the aisle use foreign policy victories or mistakes to score cheap political points. Conservatives opposed Clinton heading into Kosovo, supported the war in Iraq, and then half-opposed intervening in Libya, depending on what the President did. Liberals protested the invasion of Iraq, then changed the subject when anyone asked them about Libya; they also hated Bush’s drone strikes in Afghanistan, and have ignored them under Obama’s watch.

Even though we support the president, when it comes to his foreign policy, we believe he has a mixed record--we’re not so partisan that we can’t ignore the things we vehemently disagree with. We’ve decided to give President Obama an international relations scorecard divided into “The Good”, “The Bad” and “The Inbetween”.

The Good

Iraq - This will be controversial, but under Obama’s presidency, America ended the war in Iraq. While Iraq remains incredibly violent, this has to count as a success.
   
Libya - Eric C isn’t sure whether he’s written about this on the website yet, but the only remaining justification for invading Iraq is: we ousted an evil dictator, Saddam Hussein. By that metric, deposing Gaddafi was a huge a success. Gaddafi supported terrorism and terrified his own people. Supporting a successful uprising without sending in ground troops counts as a victory. If Gaddafi had stayed in power, it would have been President Obama’s lowest foreign policy moment.

Killing Osama bin Laden - Have you heard about this? Yeah, we thought so.

Here’s what we know: When Obama entered the White House, he made finding Osama his top priority, and he did. He made a tough (but right) call that violated the sovereignty of another country, and killed America’s number one enemy. Our only criticism is that it would have been better to capture Osama--for intelligence purposes and to stop conspiracy theories--but we get that America never would have accepted that. (And you could argue that a President Romney probably would have made the same call as Obama. Obama made it, so he gets the credit.)
   
The Bad

Failing to close Guantanamo - For the rest of this post, expect us to admonish the Obama administration for continuing the disastrous policies of the Bush administration. Specifically, policies that violate civil rights or governmental openness. Failing to close Guantanamo is exhibit one.

The issue isn’t that Obama broke a campaign promise, though he did. The issue isn’t that Guantanamo makes America look bad internationally and may even encourage young Muslim men to become terrorists, though it does. The issue is that many innocent people were locked away in a secret prison with no access to lawyers, due process or any of the rights and freedoms we claim the terrorists hate so much.
   
Over-Classification/Leaks - As we’ve written about before, the Obama administration leaks classified information when it makes itself look good, but has continued the Bush Administration’s policy of punishing whistleblowers. Whistleblowers, by exposing corruption and waste, promote good government. Worse, Obama promised to do otherwise.

Afghanistan - A post on “Danger Room” made the less-than-shocking claim that the recently ended Afghanistan surge probably didn’t help. Worse, while President Obama has been in charge, Afghanistan has rioted over burned Korans, seen a platoon commit war crimes, and a dramatic increase in “green on blue” shootings. Afghanistan has been slowly going downhill since 2006, and President Obama hasn’t been able to solve that problem.

The Nuanced

Targeted Killing - On the one hand, a targeted killing took out Osama bin Laden. On the other, it also killed an American civilian (Anwar al Alawki) and his son without trial or declaration of war. More to that point, drone strikes killed dozens of innocent civilians the U.S. government doesn’t acknowledge. Those strikes radicalize populations, creating more terrorists. On the one hand again, those strikes have utterly decimated Al Qaeda. Only years down the line will we ever know if these strikes worked or were violations of Just War theory. So for now they fall in the nuance category.

Veteran’s Affairs - President Obama and the First Lady have launched several initiatives to help veterans. At the same time, the department of Veteran’s Affairs stills works about as well as it ever has...which is poorly. (I’m still waiting for my post-9/11 G.I. Bill to come through...) Like targeted killing, the VA is firmly in the “eh” category.

Oct 24

(Our posts on the 2012 election:

- Election 2012: On Violence’s Thoughts on Obama

- On V in Other Places: “An Afghanistan/Iraq vet says Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”

- Election 2012! On Violence’s Thoughts on Romney

- They Agree! Readers React to “Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”

- President Obama Sunk Our Battleship(s)!: Or How Politicians Don't Understand Modern Warfare

A few months after we began On Violence, spammers started showing up. (They actually showed up really quickly. We barely had fifty readers a week, and already spambots wanted to advertise handbags and Nike sneakers on our then-insignificant website. Odd.) To fight them, our blogging platform has a pretty neat feature: the spam quiz.

The spam quiz does something really simple: it asks each commenter a question. The reader answers it, and the comment goes through. This spam prevention feature does, however, pose a fairly interesting riddle: what one thing does 99.99% of the population know? Think of a word or phrase, and someone in society won’t know the answer. Or they’ll spell it incorrectly. We chose the one thing we reliably knew everyone of our commenters would know:

The last name of the current American president.

Some conservative readers have bristled at this choice. One commenter wrote something to the effect of, “I wish I didn’t have to enter that person’s name on Veteran’s Day.”

I wrote this post today 1. to reassure our conservative readers that, come inauguration day in January, if Mitt Romney gets elected, we’ll change the password and 2. to introduce our series on the candidates for president we’ll be running over the next two days. Confronted with the first presidential election in On Violence’s short history, we want to write something about both men campaigning for the country’s highest office. We’ll discuss Barack obama first, then Mitt Romney.

This isn’t an endorsement, even though it is probably pretty obvious which candidate we support. (For Eric C, the idea of voting for a Republican makes him laugh. For Michael C, the Republican party left him--and other moderates--at some point in the last ten years.) But we can say that neither candidate comes out glowing.

We’ll focus on the this blog’s main topics: foreign policy, defense spending, veterans affairs and civil rights (Unfortunately, each candidate has remained silent on the issue of post-9/11 war memoirs.) We will criticize both candidates for their failings on foreign policy, and compliment them where they get it right. For Obama, we’ll analyze his time in office, good, bad and inbetween. For Romney, we’ll discuss his stances on the issues. Both candidates get an equal word count.

Enjoy!

Oct 22

On Meet The Press on Feb. 28, 2010, John McCain told David Gregory, “We have the highest trained, most professional, best military in history.” Milbloggers, last year, signed a joint statement opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. It opened with the line, “We consider the US military the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. No other organization has freed more people from oppression, done more humanitarian work or rescued more from natural disasters.” President Obama has described our military as “the strongest military the world has ever known.”
       
There’s just one problem with this...

That military just lost two wars in a row.

And that’s not all. Since World War II, America has, at best, won one war, lost a few and drawn all of the rest. Korea ended in a stalemate. Vietnam was, well, Vietnam--now a synonym for quagmire. We defeated the Iraqi army in the Persian Gulf War, but bungled the war in Iraq a decade later. Our troops remain in Afghanistan, gaining little forward progress.

If our military is so great, why have the last fifty years been so disastrous? Why has our military absolutely failed in two wars after 9/11? Why is the “greatest military to ever walk the face of the Earth” still in Afghanistan?

I’ll use a sport’s analogy. No one would say that either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics currently have the best basketball teams in the world, because neither team won the championship last year, let alone made it to the finals. Historically, they’re great franchises--with championship eras throughout the last five decades--but in the current rankings, the Heat (unfortunately) rule the roost.

In other words, what have you done for me lately?

Which brings us to the question Michael C asked all last week: who is to blame for America’s military failings over the last fifty years, but especially the last ten? Most people blame politicians. In the 2000s, liberals blamed neo-cons for sending our troops to needless, gigantic overseas, nation-building wars; conservatives blamed the liberal media and ROEs (or deny we have a problem in the first place). We could also blame the last decade on the size of our military, which is too small to fight two wars simultaneously, though few people want a larger military.

To return to the basketball analogy, I blame the organization. Michael C called out the generals last week--in sports terms, the general managers and coaches. I want to blame the entire franchise. That’s right, I think the entire military carries some responsibility.

I’d point to a military culture--from the bottom up--that fails to adapt to modern wars, particularly population-centric counter-insurgency. (Let’s face it, the average soldier and his supporters hates population-centric counter insurgency.) I’d point to a bloated military that spends a lot, but wastes much of it, and no one seems to care. I’d point to lax recruiting standards over the last decade. I’d blame the military culture that causes college educated officers to abandon it in droves. I’d blame nepotism, cronyism and the military industrial complex.

I know why the military escapes blame: Vietnam. America feels like we abandoned our troops during and after the Vietnam war. (Check out a related On V post here.) When the lead up to the Iraq War came, the message was clear: we would support our troops. Even protesters and politicians who criticized the war supported the troops/the military. We learned the lesson from Vietnam; we wouldn’t abandon our soldiers again.

To say our military is the greatest military in the history of the earth is to insulate it from any sort of criticism, which insulates it from improvement too. I support our troops but support without criticism is meaningless. Our culture now refuses criticize our troops, lest we seem unpatriotic or disloyal. By not criticizing the military we have a tool we can’t improve; a knife we refuse to sharpen. Military political correctness has weakened our military.
   
America will continue to lose wars until we fix this problem.

Oct 17

On Monday, I laid out my template for assigning blame in a historical context. Regarding America’s most recent foreign policy debacle, the Iraq war, I nominated the usual suspects: President Bush, VP Cheney, the entire Secretary of Defense’s office, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. This ThinkProgress article does a pretty good job of summarizing the popular narrative of who to blame for Iraq, politicians.
   
The military as a whole embraces this thinking too. (That is, if they aren’t defending Iraq as successful in the first place, which Eric C and I stipulated yesterday that it was not. Because it wasn’t.) Military supporters--including former generals, academics and milblogs--love to blame politicians for “Mess O’patamia”. And lots of politicians too. So if it isn’t Cheney and Rumsfeld, it is “the politicians back in Washington who...”

Tie our hands with restrictive ROE!” or...

Force our men and women to do costly state-building which isn’t our mission!” or...
   
“Don’t know how to do strategy. Strategy is dead!

Notice who escapes blame? The generals.

As Thomas Ricks (who is one of the few pundits and historians who has blamed the generals for iraq, particularly in Fiasco) wrote in his recent Harvard Business Review article, the U.S. used to hold officers, particularly generals, accountable, especially in World War II. Back then, General Eisenhower went from a “regimental executive officer to a five star general in about four years” and “of the 165 men who commanded combat divisions, 16 were relieved” of command. The utter definition of accountability.

That accountability has disappeared.

So when it comes to Iraq, few people blame the flag officers of the uniformed military, who could arguably shoulder the majority of the blame. As a body, they completely failed to understand the lessons of the Vietnam war. They failed to even fathom that urban combat would dominate the contemporary battlefield. They failed to prepare soldiers in language training.

They failed over time too. In the 1990s, they failed to develop and train the Army and Marine Corps to fight irregular wars. They failed to develop a coherent plan to invade Iraq. They failed to properly advise the president of the United States. They then failed to understand the counter-insurgency environment they found themselves in.

Instead, the generals prepared and tried to fight the war they wanted to win.

By blaming politicians for the strategy, generals and admirals have managed to avoid the fact that they failed to prepare the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for the post-Cold War war. It’s like a coach who fails to recruit, practice well and motivate his team, then blames the losses on the athletic director for tough scheduling. The coach still deserves the blame.

Way back, I wrote that the Army needs a “post-9/11 AAR” (so did Andrew Bacevich). Do we really trust the generals with it? They failed to understand that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a detrimental policy, not a beneficial one. They failed to forecast that the Pentagon’s retirement system would bankrupt the services. They have failed on weapon system after weapon system. They failed on understanding the nature of war and warfare after the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

When it comes to assigning accountability and blame for the post-9/11 wars, we must remember the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They deserve some of the blame. (I would argue a lion’s share of it.) Will they ever get it?

I doubt it.

(Final point: Some people have criticized the general's conduct of the war, including Thomas Ricks, as we wrote above, and most notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in an Armed Forces Journal article, "A Failure of Generalship". However, Yingling is notable for being one of the few voices assigning blame to this large group of people.)

Oct 15

In the debate over the Iraq war--a debate that started before, continued during, and still evolves as I write this now--the arguments are pretty simple: liberals (or progressives or Democrats) blame President Bush for the war, with a little sprinkling of former VP Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s lackeys/subordinates/henchmen; conservatives (or Republicans) somehow blame liberals for not supporting the military enough, or (now) argue that we won because we removed a dangerous dictator, Saddam Hussein.
   
Well, we didn’t win. (If you think we did win, it looked something like this. And you might as well stop reading this post: you won’t agree with anything else.)

America needs to figure out why. We need to hold our government accountable. At least, we need to find out why we screwed up so royally so we don’t do it again. (You know, like with Iran.)

Unfortunately, accountability means holding people accountable. That means blaming specific individuals. And I don’t like how we--American society/media/intelligentsia--go about doing that.

This ABC News article from 2007 captures the way most journalists and historians assign blame. We look for the one individual, or maybe group, and blame them. That’s why liberals blame Bush or Cheney, and conservatives blame liberals as a whole. The ABC article basically concludes that the conservative politicians caused the war.

As a history major, I sharpened my intellectual teeth on single cause explanations for events. That’s why in thirty years, I expect to read a history book blaming the Iraq war on President Bush. And maybe another one blaming it all on Cheney. And an Errol Morris documentary where Rumsfeld passes the blame onto everyone else. Meanwhile, conservative historians will fire back that we could have “won” the Iraq war if we simply had the right policies in place.

Those simple explanations just don’t cut it, though. Multiple actors--each making terrible decisions--caused the Iraq War fiasco. We can’t blame the Iraq war disaster on just President Bush. Or any single person. Or even just the executive branch. Instead, we need to spread around the blame.
   
I like to think of historical causes on a 0-100 point scale, assigning responsibility by percentage. The question is, “How much did any one individual factor contribute to the failure?” If I had to assign blame for Iraq, I would proportion it out something like this (readers can dispute the exact percentage, that’s not really the point):

Al Qaeda                        - 5%

Saddam Hussein             - 5%

Paul Bremer                   - 10%

President Bush               - 10%

VP Cheney                     - 10%

The Sec Def’s Office        - 40%

Of course, this proportioning of blame could be spaced out for different time periods. We could assign blame for starting the war in the first place, then assign blame for conduct of the war and then assign blame for why the war just dragged on for so long. Either way, this is how I prefer to explain history, my own historiography if you will.

Careful readers will notice that my proportioning of blame doesn’t add up to 100%. That’s on purpose. While the politicians running the Bush administration do deserve the lion’s share of the blame, especially for starting the Iraq war in the first place, another gigantic group also deserves some heat. The group of people who advised the politicians. Who led the invasion. Who planned (or failed to plan) for a post-invasion Iraq.

That gigantic group of people has been so far historically immune to criticism. I’ll tackle them Wednesday.

Oct 12

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

Each episode of Band of Brothers has moments of heroism, followed by moments of heartbreak. The series builds on itself too, increasing the emotional tension until, as viewers, we almost can’t take anymore.

By episode eight, “The Last Patrol”, I wanted to scream, “Enough.” Seriously, can this company take anymore?

The men of Easy Company never got the extended R and R they expected (and deserved) after Bastogne. During “The Last Patrol”, Easy Company sits on one side of a river receiving mortar and sniper fire from a German company on the other side. The grunts on each side, American and German, just want the war to end. The leaders still want glory, so regimental headquarters decides to start sending patrols across the river at night to capture prisoners.

More germane to today’s post, “The Last Patrol” introduces us to a new officer, Lieutenant Jones, one year removed from West Point. It also reintroduces us to Pfc. Webster, the Harvard educated English major who, unlike Sgt. Toye, chose to stay in the hospital while Easy went to Bastogne. Toye lost his legs; Webster reports to the company unscathed. The difference is stark: Lt. Jones and Webster enter Germany bright-eyed, optimistic, and healthy, mentally and physically; Easy Company barely fields 80 physically and emotionally unhealthy men.

Unwittingly, the creators also wrote the perfect episode to capture my emotions during war. I showed up late to my battalion’s deployment to Afghanistan, after my men had already lost fellow soldiers. When I took over 4th platoon, many of the guys treated me like Lieutenant Jones.

This episode captures my emotional feelings during deployment better than any other single piece of art, except for maybe The Things They Carried. When I recently rewatched this episode--for the first time since my deployment to Afghanistan--I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh my God, that is exactly how I felt.” Which actually happened several times throughout “The Last Patrol”...

“The feeling you might live through it.”

This thought, which dominated the episode, dominated my thoughts for the last three months of my deployment. My men too. Actually, this thought/feeling hit me/us twice during deployment.

The first time was when we left the Korengal. One day, our battalion headquarters decided that, in two months, our platoon would leave the Korengal for Serkani district. My men--who had watched over half a dozen fellow soldiers in our company die and one of our own lose his legs--felt that they might actually survive.

Four months after that, we started fielding MRAPs. Riding in these vehicles felt like riding in giant lifesavers,  impenetrable boxes that could survive a nuclear blast if they needed. (They couldn’t, but felt like they could.) Insurgents had started planting IEDs in the roads. Driving around in MRAPs just felt safer.

From June on we had the feeling that we would probably make it home.

“Ghost patrols”

I never ran one. It’s illegal. When he chose to do this, Major Winters specifically disregarded the orders of his commander. By this point in Band of Brothers, Winters has already cemented his position as uber-officer extraordinaire. Most viewers sympathize with Winters and Easy Company avoiding the patrol. I just want to point out most battalion commanders I knew would fire on the spot any lieutenant or captain caught running ghost patrols.

And they still happen constantly in war.

“Toye broke out of the hospital.”

The men of Easy company greet Pfc. Webster by saying this when he finally leaves the hospital. Unlike other soldiers who escaped the Army medical system to rejoin their units, Webster took as long as he could. Webster missed the hardest part of Easy’s time in Europe, so he’ll always be the guy who missed out. As a new lieutenant, like Lt. Jones, I got a slightly different question...

“What took you so long to get here?”

At some point, Nixon asked the lieutenant when he graduated. Lt. Jones says, “December 6th”. Nixon says, “D-day?” And laughs, implying, “What took you so long to get here?” In my case, U.S. Army European Command only scheduled, “Individual Readiness Training” every two months. Regulations said I had to attend five days of utterly nonsensical training before I was fully “qualified” to deploy.

But how do you explain that to guys who had watched one of their favorite NCOs lose all feeling in his arm by a bullet? And countless other friends die? Or a well-liked specialist lose both his legs? You can’t, and you’ll always be...the guy who missed out.

As a result, taking over fourth platoon will be the single best and worst job I have ever had, and possibly will ever have. Don’t get me wrong, I loved fourth platoon’s “Helldivers’, and I wouldn’t trade my deployment with them for anything in the world (except to have shown up earlier). But I don’t think any job will demand more from me than gaining the respect of battle hardened veterans as a brand new lieutenant.

After hating the Hurt Locker, I was worried that maybe my military experience had ruined war films for me.

I’ve heard this from Vietnam vets who can’t watch any films about that era without thinking, “What a load of hogwash.” Well, when it comes to World War II, I can still relate to it. Especially this episode of Band of Brothers.

Oct 10

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)

As I wrote on Monday, we have terrible brand management in Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? Read “A Gathering Menace” in The American Scholar. Neil Shea describes the military platoon equivalent of “Popcopy” employees. While most platoons are probably better than this one, plenty are probably worse.

We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan because, in marketing terms, killing civilians harms our brand. Killing isn’t the only way to lose the war though. Countless smaller actions--from throwing a pee bottle to burning a Koran--might seem minor, but taken together they tell Afghans, “Don’t trust Americans.”

Now, I’m no marketing expert (I just started business school), but I do have suggestions for improving the US Army’s brand in Afghanistan:

Do:

1. Learn the local language.

1a. If you can’t do that, at least hire competent interpreters.

2. Embed troops for longer amounts of time, returning them to the same area of operations.

2a. Actually support the Afghan Hands program. (Which doesn’t currently qualify officers for key developmental time. Allegedly the most important program in Afghanistan actually harmed officers’ careers. Think about that.)

3. If you destroy it, rebuild it. (See point 3a’s corollary.)

3a. Avoid destroying buildings. Strong governments don’t destroy their own buildings.

4. Live off the local population whenever possible.

5. Hire locals, not “third party nationals.”

6. Think, “If this would piss off Americans, could it piss off an Afghan too?”

6a. Or, “If a Chinese Colonel did this to my family, would I be happy about it?” 

Don’t:

1. Don’t burn copies of the Koran.

1a. Actually, don’t do anything with Korans without consulting an Islamic scholar.

1b. And whatever you do, don’t use them in interrogations.

2. Don’t torture. At all costs, even if “U.S. soldiers” aren’t doing the torturing.

3. Stop doing night raids on the wrong houses.

3a. Quit doing them period, if possible.

4. Stop supporting corrupt psuedo-dictators.

4a. Or his corrupt brothers.

5. Don’t kill children.

5a. Women too.

5b. Old men who cannot fight would help as well.

5c. Or mentally disabled kids.

5d. People gathering oil from a broken down truck.

5e. Massacres are out too.

6. Don’t throw pee bottles out of your MRAPs.

6a. Don’t litter either.

7. Don’t drive around cities so fast  that you run over little kids.

8. Don’t fire artillery shells into small towns.

9. Don’t pay warlords protection money through incompetent contracting.

9a. This means putting your best officers into difficult contracting jobs, not your worst.

10. And don’t curse out the locals. They’ll know you are cursing at them. And it won’t work.

Oct 08

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)
 
When I first saw the pile, it jarred me. Pile is the wrong word. Not just a pile, nor a mound, but a mountain of water and Gatorade bottles lying in the bottom of a draw just beneath the Korengal Outpost.

As a still jittery, newly deployed lieutenant, I spent my first few weeks in the ‘Stan furiously staring at the sides of roads. Hidden from view leaving the base, I didn’t notice the pile until we headed back to the KOP after several hours sitting in an over-watch position. When we turned a corner to wind our way up hill, I noticed the pile.

I pointed it out to my driver, “What’s that?” (Gratuitous curse words have been excised for readability.)

“Oh, those are trash bottles.” He pointed at the guard tower a couple hundred feet up the mountain. Bottles covered the hillside, detritus from hundreds of hours of guard duty. They rolled down the hill and collected in the draw.

Infantry Officer Basic Course doesn’t teach you about pee bottles. Neither does ROTC, nor Ranger School. When soldiers go on patrols that last days or sit in a guard shack for hours, they have to take a piss. On a patrol, you just pee on the side of the road. In Ranger school, I took a knee and pissed more times than I can count. In a guard shack, you peed in a used water bottle. At the KOP, you tossed that water bottle down the hill.

As a mounted platoon, our gunners couldn’t just take a knee, so they pissed in water bottles too. No one wants to sit in a turret with one or more bottles filled with urine; most gunners in Afghanistan just threw them on the side of the road.

As did my men. Since we had a killer cook/First Sergeant combo, we used to drink ice cold Gatorades. That’s what my men used to throw out of their vehicles, which is too bad for the local civilians: a Gatorade bottle filled with urine looks awfully like a yellow Gatorade.

I didn’t catch onto this for months. When I finally saw the gunner of our lead truck do this, I freaked out. I made a rule: we don’t throw bottles out of our trucks. This was one of those things you learn as you go as a new platoon leader.

At the time, I felt that covering Afghanistan with our piss-filled bottles wouldn’t endear us to the locals. It wouldn’t lose us the war on its own, but it definitely didn’t help us win it either. Last spring and winter, I wrote several thousand words on emotion, rationality, business school, cultural empathy and “gratitude theory”. I have so far ignored a very relevant question to our counter-insurgency operations since 9/11:

Do we have a very good brand in Afghanistan?

 

Did we have a good brand in Iraq?

Do we enable, enrich or empower the population? How does the U.S. Army (a lexical stand in for all our troops in Afghanistan) compare to our market competitors--the Taliban, Hezb il-Gulbuddin and the Haqqani Network? What about our sub-companies like the Afghan government? The Afghan National Army? Or any other parts of the Afghan National Security Forces?

I don’t think the Taliban (our market competitors) fills bottles with urine and throws them around the countryside. In fact, the Taliban probably avoids tons of insults the U.S. Army doesn’t. They don’t burn Korans. They speak the same language. In other words, the Taliban has a better brand reputation than the U.S. Army, even though we have more money and will send Afghan women to school. NATO and US forces make simple, easily avoidable mistakes that hurt our brand’s reputation.

Wednesday, I’ll share my ideas to improve the U.S. Army’s brand in Afghanistan.

Oct 05

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here. To read the rest of our "War at its Worst" series, please click here.)

When Band of Brothers first came out, I wasn’t able to catch every episode on its first airing. (Band of Brothers premiered in the pre-DVR era. Odd to think that just ten years ago, we couldn’t record television shows.) I watched the first three episodes, then missed a few in a row. I came back to watch the two episodes that took place in Bastogne.

Then, as now, those episodes remain my favorite.

Mythically known as the “The Good War” (thank you, Studs Terkel), the American public doesn’t question or criticize World War II like they do other past wars. The art inspired by World War II usually doesn’t have the same nuance. The myth of “The Good War” has perpetuated itself throughout the decades. If I had to level a criticism at Band of Brothers, a series that I deply admire, it would be that it embraces this sepia-toned remembrance of a golden age, when war was real war and America fought to stop evil incarnate, no grey areas allowed. If you don’t believe me, just rewatch the series’ introduction...filmed in sepia-tone to a grand orchestral score. Or the final two episodes. I don’t blame the creators; in today’s culture, they couldn’t avoid it.

“The Breaking Point” and “Bastogne” cut through that false nostalgia, and I love them for it. As Sherman said, “War is all hell.” As Tim O’Brien’s narrator elaborates in The Things They Carried,

“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. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

“The Breaking Point” and “Bastogne” pledge allegiance to obscenity and evil. The soldiers on each side didn’t fight a “good war” in the forests of Bastogne. They fought a war at its worst, at its coldest and at its ugliest.

In “Bastogne”, a medic scrambles for supplies, stealing medicine and bandages off bodies of dead soldiers and civilians, begging, bartering and stealing whatever he can. Men suffer in the cold, unable to do anything more than sit together, half-freezing to death. Driving into town in “Bastogne”, the medic’s jeep casually passes a mound of dead bodies stacked on top of one another. The episode ends with a scene of pure hell: the Axis have bombed the hospital/cathedral, everything is on fire and death falls from the sky. All the men from Easy Company the medic has been transporting from the front lines to the hospital have, tragically, died.

While the shelling in “Bastogne” scares the hell out of me, the shelling in “The Breaking Point” is worse. Of all of my “War at its Worst” posts, watching the men of Easy Company helplessly getting shelled is the most terrifying. Sitting in fox holes getting shelled with nothing to protect themselves, the men lose their composure. Lt. Compton sees his friends maimed, and leaves the front lines. One man starts digging a hole in the frozen earth with his bare hands.

I couldn’t find a video on Youtube that really captured these episodes. Instead, I think the words of the veterans who survived are enough. I’ve included them below.

“Bastogne”

“When we left for Bastogne, we were short of equipment. We didn’t have enough ammunition. We didn’t have enough warm clothes. But we had confidence that our higher military authorities would get to us whatever we needed.”

“And there was a ridge with a treeline. We were dug in on that ridge. The Germans knew right where we were, and they really gave us a shellacking.”

“Well, like in Bastogne, we were down to one round per man there for a while. Fog was in, they couldn’t drop, resupply us. Every time they tried to drop supplies to us, they dropped them to the Germans.”

“One of the guys got hit in the arm with a piece of shrapnel. It took his arm off above the elbow. As they were taking him out he said, ‘Get my wristwatch off my arm.’”

“Then a medic came along and he really saved my life, because he stuck a syrette in the key position of morphine.”

“Even today, a real cold night, we go to bed, my wife’ll tell ya, that the first thing I say, ‘I’m glad I’m not in Bastogne.’”

“The Breaking Point”

“I’ve seen death. I’ve seen my friends, my men being killed. And it doesn’t take too many days of that and you’re changed dramatically.”

“I was hungry, had no food. Didn’t have much ammunition. It was cold, we didn’t have no clothes. You couldn’t build a fire. You build a fire, some crazy thing’d shoot at you.”

“Everywhere you would look you would see dead people, now. Dead soldier here, there. Ours, theirs. Then civilians besides dead animals. So death was all over.”

“You don’t have a chance, when your friends go down, you know, to really take care care of them as you might, especially if you’re under attack, moving, whatever. And I withstood it well, but I had a lot of trouble in later life because those events would come back and you never forget ‘em.”

Oct 03

Over the last few years, the Fayetteville Observer--newspaper of record for Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne--has written several award-winning series on the mental health of soldiers and their experiences returning from war zones.

For the most recent edition, “The Last Battle”, writer Greg Barnes reached out to me to expand on my thoughts from the guest post “Checking the Mental Health Block” I wrote for VAntage Point. I also spoke about being a junior leader dealing with mental health problems in my platoon.

Check out this valuable series on a topic far too neglected in our current political climate.

Oct 01

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.)

If conservatives hate one thing more than Obama, single mothers and soccer, it is the unstoppable monster of “political correctness”.

If you really want to, (I don’t recommend it) dive into these conservative manifestos on the origins of “political correctness”. We prefer the (ideologically neutral) Wikipedia definition:

“A term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts...Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when it was adopted as a pejorative term by the political right in the 1990s.”

While I utterly loathe the term “political correctness” or its abbreviation “PC”, milblogs don’t seem to mind one bit:

Deebow, writing on BlackFive, writes that “the death cult of Political Correctness” will cause America to lose the war in Afghanistan.

Uncle Jimbo, also on Blackfive, writes that he won’t obey, “the PC thugs who are attacking the free speech of business owners.”

Patriot, on A Soldier’s Perspective, bemoans “political correctness run amok.”

This Aint Hell connects political correctness to gay pride day at the Pentagon.

On The Captain’s Journal, Glen Tschirgi advises republican candidates for president to “make a clean break from political correctness” and blame “Islamofascism” for terrorism.

Many critics of rules of engagement blame them on “political correctness.” Military supporters and anti-PC advocates Representatives Allen West and Joe Walsh blamed political correctness for the Fort Hood attacks.

In “Our Communist Military” series, we want to show how ideology doesn’t meet practice. Most conservative milbloggers embrace libertarian ideals. They love the freedom to say and think how they want, no matter who it pisses off. They want, nee embrace, the freedom to offend whoever they want. (Take, for instance, this post.) They label any persecution of this ideal as “political correctness”.

All of which sounds great to me, as a moderate who embraces human rights, like freedom of speech. However, I would ask my fellow milbloggers, “Are there any occupations or professions they don’t want to offend? Do military blogs and military supporters who oppose “political correctness” have their own version of political correctness?”

Yes, they do. I call it, “military political correctness”.

In the same way that small-government libertarians drill a Nimitz-class carrier sized-hole through their own ideology to protect defense spending, conservatives critical of “liberal political correctness” completely extend “military political correctness” protection to the military and its service-members. Conservative milblogs and pundits silence any and all criticism of the military, labeling transgressors traitors or worse. Apparently, America’s toughest warriors are the most easily offended group on the planet.

Example 1: Every soldier a hero.

According to anti-political correctness advocates, political correctness creates euphemisms for offensive words, names and phrases. “Differently-abled” instead of “handicapped”, or worse, “retarded”. “Homosexual” instead of “gay”. And so on.

For the military, we call every soldier a “hero”.

In March, writing in Esquire, Stephen Marche examined how America now extends the phrase “hero”--which used to refer to the extremis of valor--to every soldier in every branch regardless of how many times they have deployed. Of course, some milblogs responded. Then in May, Chris Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation came under fire from every corner of the conservative media sphere for questioning the use of the phrase “hero” for every fallen soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of addressing his points, many conservative blogs simply insulted him.

If you listen to Chris Hayes’ whole question, he posed it with all due deference and respect to servicemen and women. Same with Stephen Marche. But some conservative bloggers wrote that neither pundit should even have had the gall to ask the question. How is shouting down Chris Hayes and calling him names from venal to traitor to ungrateful and saying he can’t even ask the question not “political correctness” at its finest?

Worse, pundits, reporters and writers use the euphemism “fallen hero” for “dead soldier”. Orwellian language like this hides the costs, and very real sacrifices, of our men and women in uniform behind a euphemism.

Example 2: Every soldier is equal in sacrifice.

In my op-ed, “I didn’t deserve my combat pay”, I pointed out that every soldier earned the same combat benefits no matter how dangerous their service. Most soldiers and marines in combat MOSs deployed to dangerous war zones--like Helmand, Kandahar or Kunar in Afghanistan--agreed with me. Most service members deployed to Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait disagreed.
   
So watch this video:


Or this one.

Clearly, not all deployments are “equal”. As Rosa Brooks writes in By Other Means, the Air Force (counting deployments) is less dangerous than ranching or farming. Of course, if you try to have a conversation about making combat pay higher for the troops who deserve it, conservatives will shout it down as “hating the troops”.

Yep, milblogs embrace political correctness when it comes to pay...to make it more communist.

Example 3: Don’t criticize the military...they sacrificed for your right to say that.

We’ve debunked the “have you been there argument” before, but it won’t die. In the comments section of BlackFive a few weeks back, two commenters again questioned my military service. In this case, one of the writers refused to believe a former soldier would label the military “communist”. We regularly receive emails from Luttrell supporters saying something like, “I can’t believe two people who have never served in the military would dare to question his sacrifice.” We’ve gotten this same comment about our stance on the rules of engagement too. In our post launching this series, commenters again (mistakenly) believed I had never served in the military.

Well, I have. Guess what? It still doesn’t matter.

Example 4: The liberals hate the troops.

Many milblogs enforce their “military political correctness” because they believe that every liberal the world over utterly hates soldiers and their families.
   
Guess what? Liberals don’t hate the troops. Conservatives want liberals to hate the troops. They want to accuse them of hatred, which amounts to treason, because that silences any criticism of the military and its bloated spending priorities. Or its performance in the last two wars.

If political correctness exists--a debate for another time and another website--it exists on both sides of the aisle. Liberals have their “hate speech”, but so do conservatives.

Just don’t tell “Our Communist Milblogs”.