Jan 22

(Spoiler warning: This post contains plot descriptions for Clint Van Winkle's "Soft Spots".

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

On the surface, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is incredibly similar to Jarhead. (Read our Jarhead review here.)  Both are creative types who went to college after a gulf war to learn creative writing. Both books open with a "going through old gear" scene. Both lose friends after the war. Both are works with literary aspirations--Jarhead more so--and both experiment with narrative.

The primary difference is that Clint Van Winkle wrote a good, but by no means perfect, book.

The title refers, vaguely, to those "soft spots" soldiers feel when returning from a war, particularly veteran's struggles with PTSD and post-war life.  Death haunts Van Winkle, particularly those deaths he caused. Most of the book takes place in Arizona after Van Winkle has come home from the war, though it jumps back in time—for the most part effectively—to cover Van Winkle’s experience manning a turret during the invasion of Iraq. In the present, he takes college courses that bore him, drinks himself into oblivion, and relives his warexperience. Quickly he receives a diagnosis of PTSD, denies it, and then accepts it.

The memoir, because it is based on real life, lacks a satisfying conclusion. At the end, Van Winkle, in a seemingly random decision, moves to Wales and his problems conveniently evaporate. He also has an epilogue on a new treatment of PTSD that feels really out of place, an attempt to bring closure to something that can’t be closed; to a problem that one new cure cannot solve. 

There are other flaws in Soft Spots. The whole thing reads like a confessional; the book is writing-as-therapy exercise in a way. And if I'm being intellectually honest, I kind of hate that type of writing. Van Winkle barely pulls it off. His sheer honesty helps, like when Van Winkle opens with a passage about threatening to kill his wife that is so raw, you can’t help being moved. But at the same time, his immediate analysis of the event is too manufactured; he writes best when he forgets he is writing.

The message of the book, at least one of them, is good. Van Winkle goes to war angry and blood-thirsty, looking to kill but that isn't the came Van Winkle that returns home. He explains the change when talking with his grandfather.

"When I got back from Iraq, and saw my Grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw, and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren't really any different. It didn't matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds, and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn't matter that he'd fought in a "good war" and I'd fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat."

Again, the strength of this chapter is limited by the incomplete narrative. His change from gung-ho warrior into regretful veteran seems incongruous; it happened off the page somewhere. When did he become less violent? When did he connect with his emotions? I don't know, neither will you. Like real life, it probably happened over time but this makes for unsatisfying reading.

Despite all the honesty, you still believe that Van Winkle isn't telling you something. The book feels self-censored, like he looked into his soul but decided to only give you ninety percent. It makes the whole entire exercise feel hollow.

Overall, this is a good book, one of the better war memoirs I've read so far. It is honest, has a good message, and overall there is more to like than dislike in Soft Spots. I still think it would have worked better as a novel—Clint would have been freer to establish a better story structure and write a more honest book—but it works fine right now as memoir.

Jan 21

(Today's post is by Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

As I walked home along a familiar route with the family dog and my father, he paused before a shadow filled alcove and looked into the emptiness. With his hand on my shoulder, he stopped me to grab my attention from my daydreaming. My father, stirred by something familiar, decided to impart a lesson to his son.

He pointed to the inlet.
   
“Always ready,” he told me. “If someone wanted to hurt you, this is the type of place that they might hide to attack.” These were not his exact word mind you, but the sentiment he intended to impart is the very same. Simply, to be mindful. To be safe.
   
Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand. I couldn’t. An imaginative child, I wondered who would ever want to hurt me. My child-like naivety confined my perception of violence to action movies, most of which strangely starred Jean Claude Van Damme. Perhaps a Terminator would be after me. The only reason anyone would want to hurt me, I figured, was that I was the hero of some fantastic adventure story, or the less exciting ally of that hero that he or she must save.  Raised in white suburbia, this was my view of danger.
   
Danger was not, however, foreign to my father. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, danger was always present. Whether it was the terrain you walked that might be laden with land mines or makeshift bamboo traps, a friendly South Vietnamese shop owner who was secretly feeding troop information to the VC, or any bush or tree or elevated position that might hide a lone sniper; my father was taught, and experienced, the value of situational awareness.
   
Soldiers are taught to mind their surroundings. To be watchful. Constantly at the ready. In operations area, especially in our current era, a soldier is consistently in harms way. My father was told and learned through experience, that if an individual is not wearing a US military uniform, they are potentially an enemy. Even women and children were potential combatants. Not that civilians are considered combatants, merely that there were stories of women and children taking up arms to kill American soldiers. With such knowledge and rumors, as well as the constant submersion in an unfamiliar territory, it is understandable that a soldier would be constantly on his guard.
   
When a soldier comes home, certain things do not turn off. At least not right away. Even in peace time. Especially, when that soldier stays in the service. This happened to my father after the war. And here in the US, in peaceful southern California suburbs, situational awareness is viewed as paranoia.
   
There’s no change in my father’s thought process. Simply in one part of the world, how he thinks in regards to what is around him is considered valuable, where as in another part of the world, it is strange. This is because the world itself is different. When a soldier comes home, it’s no longer a war zone. But it’s too difficult to ignore something that was so ingrained into their thought process.
   
Combat veterans come home and often have a difficult time adjusting. The variation of returning to peace is vast. Some miss their comrades. Some cannot sleep unless they have a pistol under their pillow. And some are thought to be paranoid because they cannot shut off what they learned.

For more on this topic, please read "When They ARE Out to Get You."

Jan 20

Within the last year, the media--and its customers--stopped caring about Iraq. As Violence increased in Central Asia and decreased in Iraq, our nation's focus returned to Afghanistan. Since it seems like an afterthought that US forces leave Iraq at the rate of a Brigade a month, I thought I would send out an update on the region, and fall just short of making a prediction on Iraq's future.

The most immediate news is that Iraq's government has delayed upcoming elections. Originally scheduled for January, they won't be held until March. Security is still the primary concern, but Iraqi military forces are making strides. A recent bomb plot locked down all of Baghdad and the result was quite a bit of gossip well described by the LA Times.

Thomas Ricks has an ongoing series on the "unraveling" in Iraq. His posts are informative, pointing attention back to the forgotten war. His pieces are more predictive than actual reporting, but I generally think that a Kurdistan state of some sort will emerge in the near future.

This is a sobering reminder that despite the progress, we have quite a way to go in Iraq. The situation could sour at any time. This NPR article describes the slow economic progress due to continuing corruption. At the same time, their oil production increases.

How could I not include a story on fashion in a link dump? Here NPR describes one of the odd ways Iraqis are expressing their growing freedoms compared to the post-invasion chaos.

It also seems like I can't do a link dump without mentioning Blackwater nee Xe (until they change their name again). In this case, Iraqis were forced to settle lawsuits company, and now want just compensation.

Whether or not Iraq unravels, the length of time between deaths for US Soldiers is increasing. (Remember, in 2003 and 2004 violence was very low as well.)

Finally, quite a bit has been made of the movie The Hurt Locker; look at the award it's won. I still haven't seen this--I blame living in Italy--but as soon as Eric C emails in a Netflix DVD, I'll have a chance to see it. Eric C predicts it will be nominated for Best Picture next month (and he isn't the only one).

(Side link: on TR's blog he describes the six things on General Casey's mind. General Casey didn't use an Army-Level AAR to develop them but it kind of relates to what we said.)

Jan 18

For the last week, I've been working in a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility. In plain English, I couldn't check my email or bring my cell phone to work. Last Thursday, I left work in a crazy hurry to (barely) catch a plane flight to Los Angeles for the holiday weekend.

I got around to opening my email Friday morning. The first message was from an ex-Soldier saying to call him immediately. The second email was from a friend in the unit which simply said, "Beachnaw."

It instantly clicked.

My stomach dropped and I hoped against hope that what I suspected would be true wasn't.

(SGT Beachnaw, 1LT Michael C, SPC Watson and SPC O'Briant at OP Restrepo, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)

On Wednesday the 13th of January, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw was killed by enemy small arms fire in Afghanistan. According to initial reports, his team was attacked by an overwhelming number of enemy fighters. He sustained multiple injuries as he laid down suppressing fire so his men could fall back.

Sergeant Beachnaw was in 4th platoon, the Helldivers, for my entire tour in Afghanistan and for four months when we returned to Vicenza, Italy. When I first arrived, he wasn't Sergeant Beachnaw yet, simply Private First Class Beachnaw. A few days later, he was promoted to Specialist.

When Soldiers ask me if they should stay in the Army, I give each a different answer. Some guys need to get out. Some guys should stay in. Sergeant Beachnaw was the latter. He didn't need to stay in for the discipline or because he had nowhere else to go; he needed to stay in the Army because he was awesome at what he did. Sergeant Beachnaw was a Soldier's Soldier, the best of the breed.

In Afghanistan, Sergeant Beachnaw presented the best kind of problem to our leadership: he was the best driver in the platoon and the best shot (After we returned from Afghanistan he went to Sniper school and earned the honor "top gun."). This is a tough situation for a mounted platoon. Should he drive or carry the M14 rifle? We had him do both.

Because he was so good, he never drove my truck. My Platoon Sergeant hand selected him as his driver to drive the most important vehicle in a convoy. The Platoon Sergeant's truck is the primary vehicle for recovering downed vehicles and evacuating casualties. Sergeant Beachnaw had an uncanny ability to recover downed Humvees. He did this on the first convoy I went on, and continued until our last patrol in Afghanistan. 

When we returned, our Platoon Sergeant put Beachnaw in for the Sergeant's board. Not only did he pass but he jumped over to the Scout platoon. He continued excelling in the Army until he died fighting last Monday.

As others have said, Beachnaw always brought a smile to your face. Whenever I passed Beachnaw in the field or in garrison, we would always give each other shit. He was a Soldier's Soldier so if I was messed up, he was going to figure a way to let me know. And I did the same. We did this until the last time I saw him in a training area in Hohenfoels, Germany. He asked why I was afraid to roll with him (do combatives). I said he was the one who was afraid of me. (At the time, we used more curse words.) We never did get to settle who would win in a combatives match.

Then he talked to me about leading a scout team. He wasn't perfect, but he was embracing the challenge. It was amazing to watch a squad leader mature.

The night before Eric C left Vicenza, we went out with a bunch of fellow officers to have drinks. We went to an Irish pub and guys from my old platoon showed up. When Sergeant Beachnaw arrived, he insisted, insisted, that he buy me a drink. So I made him drink scotch. We eventually got on to why we do what we do. I told him that we all have different reasons for signing up, but in the end we kept doing the things we did for each other, the men to our left and right. I then said that one of the biggest surprises was how tight we all became and that bonds with Soldiers like Beachnaw were far and away the most rewarding part of my job. He said that sober he probably wouldn't get what I was saying, but in a bar over a glass of scotch he somehow did.

I did what I did for Soldier's like Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw, among others. He wasn't just good, he was among the finest in the light infantry and America. I, among countless others, will miss him. The Army will miss him because he truly represented the best of what Soldiers are.

If you would like to know more about Sergeant Beachnaw, his hometown television station has done a few reports on him. If you would like to help, Beachnaw's facebook page has a place to donate to bring soldiers to his service.

To conclude, I am going to quote from Specialist Bianchi, a current member of the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He spoke at SGT Beachnaw's memorial service in Afghanistan and he wrote a powerful eulogy:

I am standing in front of all of you today because SGT Beachnaw, I am proud to say, was my friend. SGT Beachnaw was a man of charm and wit, handsome and funny in every way always laughing. He was a fine soldier too; an original founding member of Destined Company and the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He was a veteran of OEF VIII, a Bronze Star recipient a Scout Sniper and a Pathfinder. SGT Beachnaw embodied everything that is a Rock Paratrooper. I remember when we first we met we hit it off immediately, I knew then he would be someone you could depend on even if only for a moment, and when all else was crumbling around you, he would still be there. I asked him not long before we deployed, "Why don’t you come back to Destined Company?" He said to me, “Being a Sniper is what I always wanted to do in the Army.” I know now deep down in my heart that SGT Beachnaw died doing what he wanted to do, and on his own terms. SGT Beachnaw you will be missed. Thank you for being part of all our lives.

Jan 15

According to Carl Jung, there are two judging functions: thinking, and feeling. (Teaser: our new website will dive further into this topic.) In my opinion, most of us tend to feel art more than we think about it. We feel that a movie is good or bad, but can rarely say why a movie is good or bad.

Movies touch our heart strings, make us laugh, or fulfill our lust for blood. This being On Violence, I think you know which we’ll be covering today.

What else, aside from gut emotional reaction or blood lust, could explain success of Inglorious Basterds? (314 million dollars grossed, 4 Golden Globe nominations.) It feels good as a movie; it satiates our collective blood lust. I mean, who can't cheer watching Hitler and Nazis burn to death? Especially perverted, one dimensional Nazis.

Nazis are the only real villains we have left in our post-modern, morally-relative society, a holdover from a more idealistic, black and white era. (You could also say naive.) We can root for them to die, cheer at them being tortured, and laugh as the Jew Bear bashes an officer's head in with a bat, all without having to feel bad. They’re Nazis, they might not even count as human.

But thinking about the film even a little tears the whole thing down. The Basterds carve swastikas into the foreheads of German soldiers so that Germans can't take their swastikas off, but weren’t there only 8 million Nazi party members out of 69 million Germans? Didn’t Nazi’s carve Stars of Davids into the foreheads of some of their enemies?

(This is, of course, if you can even get past the ridiculous plot. First, that Tarantino changes the ending to World War II, which I’m willing to accept. And two, that twelve men with virtually no language or culture training can stay behind enemy lines for months on end. It's stupid. Actually, just don’t think about the plot at all.)

The most damning way to think about the movie is to apply the “Golden Rule” to it, or as Confucious, Jesus and others said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Forget about Nazis. Forget about Hitler. Do we want our enemy's soldiers--be they Indian, Japanese, Nazi, Taliban, Communist, terrorist, Hun, Confederate or Union Jack--carving symbols into the foreheads of our soldiers? Would we want them beating our soldiers to death with baseball bats? 

Is it OK to treat another country's soldiers the way the Basterds do?

The obvious answer to all of these questions, after even just a moment's thought, is no. But we don’t want to think about films this way. We dream of a simpler time, when there was a good and evil, and no gray areas. As Ralph McQuarrie says in an interview about his film, Valkyrie, "Somewhere along the way all war movies became a meditation on war. Because somehow it was like the filmmaker is saying I know you came here to see people get the shit blown up on Normandie but..we can't feel good about it." No, you shouldn't feel good about watching someone get blown up.

So, as my dad told me, "don't think about this movie too hard." Because if you think about it, it all falls apart.

Jan 14

Hey All.

First off, just a heads up but we've been having trouble with our servers. If the website is taking forever to load, or whatnot, we are working on it.

Second, we want to put a quick shout out to the guys over at Blogussion for posting two guest posts by Eric C. The first is titled, "The Two (and a half) Golden Rules of Blogging." The second is, "The Upcoming Articles Widget" over at Uniqueblog.net.

If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We publish reader posts every other Thursday.

Jan 13

After every mission, Army units conduct an After-Action Review (AAR). Basically the unit gathers around and discusses what they did well, what they did wrong, and what to improve on the future.

The AAR is one of the few Army tools that lives up to its hype. The civilian world uses them; they just changed the name. Some call them “hot washes,” some call them evaluations, some still call them AARs. The point is, they are used all the time.

From divisions down to squads, from training to combat to office work, units throughout the Army use AARs to assess their performance. There are squad AARs, platoon AARs, battalion AARs and mission AARs. I propose a new AAR.

The Army level AAR.

The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS? Why didn't he have an Army level AAR to go to?

If our leadership wants to do this well it has to do it the way units conduct AARs. Units don’t commission contractors to provide input. Units don’t bring in outside consultants. Units don't study issues for months or years. No, good units sit down and hash out their issues. They:

1. Get everyone who was involved.

2. They put everything on the table.

3. The leaders analyze the answers.

4. Then the leaders make a plan.

5. As a unit, they hold themselves accountable for progress.

General Casey should bring in all the Army generals, or as many as it can reasonably fit in one room (I know there are hundreds of Generals, more now than in WWII, but bear with me.). For one day they should brainstorm everything the Army has done well and done poorly since 9/11. When they are finished, they will publish the results on the Army blog. General Casey, as a leader, will implement the changes the AAR recommends. It sounds unrealistic, but that doesn't mean its not the right way to do things.

We are slow to change. We are slow to identify our problems. We are slow to admit that we are failing. The US Army has been the primary operator in Afghanistan and Iraq, two conflicts we have not won. The US Army does not need outside advice to win those wars, it only needs leadership. And the Army level AAR.

Jan 11

When I watched The Battle For Algiers, I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?”

Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

The scene is short but poignant, illustrating the truth that war isn't fair--for either side.

It’s one of those phrases that is so universal it almost becomes meaningless: All’s fair in love and war. (First said by John Lyly by the way.) Used more often to describe love than war, the sentiment is more true for war. War's brutality, destruction and unflinching moral calculus are unarguable facts of life. (This is why Eric C argues that war is the opposite of civilization.) The higher the costs, the more laws, traditions and customs lose their value.

It is something I feel I’ve understood since was a kid. There can be no “rules” for war. If life and death are on the line, both sides will do whatever they can to survive. Winston understood this in the novel 1984, when he promised to throw acid in the face of a child. The American revolutionaries understood this when they used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British. The Taliban understand it now in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, many Soldiers don't understand this. In the New Yorker, (in the article "Kill Company" that we discussed in our post, "Operation Judgment Day.") one Soldier describes the "frustration with what an insurgency is--that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms." Calling your enemy a coward ignores the reality of war. An insurgent doesn't wear a uniform for the same reason the US Army wears body armor, it helps each survive. Or win the war.

My men in 4th Platoon frequently said the same thing. They called IEDs unfair after personally experiencing the tragedy they can cause. My men weren't unique: soldiers despise the IED. An unseen enemy just does not sit well with American Soldiers who want a stand up fight. In Westerns, the good guy and the bad guy faced off in a duel, what could be more American? In Afghanistan and Iraq the bad guys are on the second story with a rifle, shooting before the gunslinger can even see them.

Yet how unfair must guided bombs, helicopters, and a limitless supply of training and ammunition seem to the insurgents? We must appear ridiculous in context. Huge armored warriors who can fire nonstop, and who introduce a new vehicle every other year with more gadgets, more weapons, and more intelligence. In fact, Pakistani's consider drone attacks cowardly. (I also doubt that saying "we worked hard to earn our gigantic military budget" would mollify our critics.]

All is fair in war, because when you fight, nothing is fair (especially for the civilians). Because nothing is fair, all is fair.