Feb 12

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

Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted is the best post-9/11 war memoir of the eight I’ve read so far. This is probably because, unlike the other memoirs I've read, it reads like a novel.

Starting with an intriguing set up, the book bounces back and forth between Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq a year later. In both battles, he sets up scenes that made me feel like I was there. He ends his book well, with a tragic bookend you can’t help but see coming, but is still so random that it works. This book held me the whole time; the best word to describe it is vivid.

Like each memoir I've read so far, this book has a neat little thesis. Friedman discovers, near the end, that, “We killed terrorists and insurgents. In the process we killed civilians. We shot kids. It became pretty standard guerilla war. In a way, it became the war I always wanted.” Meaning of course he never wanted this war at all. This moral is a little too simple, and a little too neat, but it feels honest. This is a memoir, you're allowed--nee required--to moralize. It helps that this moral is true. One could view the entire American military adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan as a story of Soldiers/politicians/generals never getting the war they wanted.

The book also has the best awareness of counter-insurgency of any of the war memoirs. Children and civilians die in a sloppy invasion in Iraq; it is no surprise that an insurgency took root post war. Unlike the memoirs by Fick and Mulaney, (which I'll be reviewing next) this book explains why America remains stuck in two foreign wars.

As I wrote above, the highlight of the book, for me, is the description of Operation Anaconda, the now infamous battle in the Shahi-Kot Valley, one of the largest in the war in Afghanistan. Friedman captures both the large and small strokes perfectly. Friedman describes the broad strokes of the battle like a practiced historian. But he also includes a visual, of a horse running around a farm half mad, while thousand-pound bombs and artillery shells fall around him, miracously surviving days after he should have died. It is the single best image in any of the memoirs.

There are mistakes unfortunately, including small ones like spelling mistakes and typos. ­­­­Friedman writes that he won't reveal another officer's name, then accidentally reveals it two pages later. It has those damn gray scale photos in the middle of the book. The flashbacks are italicized, which becomes annoying to read after a paragraph. The War I Always Wanted was published by smallish sized publisher, which probably explains a lot of these mistakes. [Update: I've been told the mistakes have been fixed in subsequent printings.]

It's too bad this book hasn't been more popular, because like I said, I really enjoyed it. If I had to recommend a recent war memoir, I’d recommend this book way before the more popular Unforgiving Minute or One Bullet Away. Definitely before the Hollywood-movie-inspiring Lone Survivor or Jarhead.

In the end, The War I Always Wanted is limited because it is a memoir, not a novel. It contains before and after bookends that feel out of place, but a memoir demands these bookends. I guess no matter how good a war memoir is, I still wish it was a novel.

Feb 10

On the outskirts of Vicenza Italy, there is a beautiful hill overlooking the town called Mount Berico. At the top, there is a church, and of course a coffee shop. Most importantly, there is a breath taking view. Though it wasn't the best coffee, it was the best atmosphere in town.

Eric C and I used to relax by making the forty five minute journey to the top of the hill. Whenever we had visitors, we took them there, joining the throngs of Italian tourists who visited this important church andpilgrimage site.

There is also a set of stairs--nearly several dozen going up 700 meters--leading up to Mount Berico. These stairs are part of their religious tradition; the truly pious walk up in devotion, sometimes on their knees.

Unfortunately, a set of steep stairs is an inviting location to run.

Vicenza, Italy is also home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and two of its six battalions. In the morning, the paratroopers of the 173rd would look for the tallest, farthest places to run, and Berico was the nearest hill.

Inevitably, the town and the Soldiers came into conflict.

The local government eventually banned running downtown. Soldiers would run and call cadence, which had to end, because it woke up locals. Even after the cadences stopped, local Italian officials prohibited running downtown because soldiers conducted PT in the middle of the historical square (Soldiers were vomiting on the sidewalks or, again, waking up the locals.).

After banning downtown, the steps leading up to Monte Berico were banned. Again, the same reason: soldiers were vomiting on the steps. Italians described American Soldiers as a nuisance to civilians walking the steps. There were several other routes upBerico, so only the steps were banned.

Last summer, the entire hill was banned because of the continued disturbance and the alleged destruction of park land around downtown Vicenza . According to the local Italian papers, the response of the American soldier’s has been less than stellar. This caused bad press for American soldiers.

How does this relate to counter-insurgency? To the US Army, running at a pilgrimage site every morning for PT exercises was harmless. To the locals, it was anything but. The key is US Soldiers failed to realize how offensive their behavior was.

If US Soldiers can't get along with western Europeans in downtown Vicenza, Italy, how can we expect to do so in diverse cultures like Iraq and Afghanistan? The American Soldier (Officer, NCO and Enlisted) has great difficulty breaking from his own cultural viewpoints. As an Army we must face facts: many Soldiers lack empathy.

Not to toot my own horn, but when I first saw the behavior of soldiers on Mount Berico, and doing PT in general, I guessed that Italians would not be pleased with it. Sure enough, communicating this was difficult.

The only way to convince Soldiers not to run up those steps--to understand the error of their ways--was by a simple analogy. I asked, if French soldiers conducted PT runs around the graves of Normandy, and vomited on the sidewalks, how would you react? Probably beat the crap out of those Soldiers. An easy analogy, but almost the very definition of lacking empathy.

(I would provide some of the links to the original stories, but they are in Italian and most of our readership speaks English.)

Feb 08

In an earlier post, I advocated for the return of our soldiers from overseas bases. Today, I want to explain why stationing a quick reaction force overseas, like the 173rd ABCT, is pointless. At the very least, I want to point out the futility of such a policy in contemporary times.

At the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team stayed home (In all honesty, it didn’t exist as a Brigade, though Vicenza housed an Airborne battalion). By the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the decision was made to send the 173rd ABCT, with its two infantry battalions, into Iraq via an airborne insertion. This quick decision to secure the north of the country makes perfect sense for the mission of the 173rd ABCT. As European Command’s rapid response unit, they should kick the door in for operations like the invasion of Iraq.

However, the job of the door kicker is no more. As both Afghanistan and Iraq turned into extended occupations, no brigade could sit on the sidelines. So, a year after returning from Iraq the 173rd ABCT deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom V. It later deployed to Afghanistan in support of OEF VIII, and it deployed in the end of 2009 in support of OEF IX.

I guess my question is, if we station a brigade in Italy to act as a rapid response unit, then why would we deploy it? When the Army deploys the 173rd ABCT it sends no unit to replace its capability. Thus, at some level, the Army or national security apparatus has decided that a brigade-sized quick reaction force stationed in Europe is not a pressing need. Thus, if it isn’t needed, why do we have it there?

Every so often, I hear that the reasons we put bases in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Turkey, Krgyzstan and Italy is to allow our military to forward project our forces. Even in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, we only used the 173rd ABCT once, and we didn't use the other units in Europe until after the initial invasion. Basically, the idea that the military uses force projection is a farce.

After our ongoing wars, we will most likely return to joint military training with our allies. Honestly though, that can still be done via air travel, and for a much cheaper cost. Perhaps those who want to leave the 173rd ABCT in Italy will say that the 82nd Airborne Division is covering down when the 173rd ABCT deploys. If that is the case, then couldn’t they cover down permanently, with the 173rd ABCT stationed in America?

Feb 05

I love America--if I'm being honest, I love California more, but that's just splitting hairs. Though I loved living in Europe, I'll take my home town any day.

The thing is, I don’t hold much stock in this affection. I know how capricious and random my love for my home country is. Though I love my country, other people don't. And this is okay, because America isn't objectively any better than any other country.

The most accurate analogy is sports teams. I love the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael C loves his Bruins. We both love the Anaheim Angels if they make the playoffs. I hate Notre Dame, the Yankees, and every Boston area sports team. But I also realize no sports team is objectively "better" in terms of character or intrinsic quality, no one is wrong for lovng their team.
   
An example. My brother and his fiance went to UCLA. A good friend of our family went to USC. During a car ride, both got into argument (I may have started it) over which team had worse fans. My brother's Bruin-ite fiance claimed USC fans were the rudest she had ever seen. The Trojan claimed to have seen UCLA students make a lewd gesture towards his USC parents. Both claimed the other sides fans were vulgar and rude; both had virtually the same anecdotes.

Anyone on the outside can see the truth: neither school has better fans. They are all just fans.

Why do we love our sports teams? Most of the time it's because that team is the closest to you, or your parents rooted for them, or you went there for college. If you live in Southern California, then you probably love the team from the area you grew up in. Or you root for whoever is winning. In New York, you instinctively hate on your local teams if they don't win a championship.

In other words, the reason you love your sports team is completely random. Just like your love for your home country.

I love America because I grew up in America. It is familiar to me, and my pleasant memories of it from my youth make me love it. But I didn't choose the country I was born in. It’s one thing to say America is the country for which you have the most affection, but it is another thing altogether to realize it isn’t objectively the best.

CS Lewis made this point once, and I’ll paraphrase it: do you think it is an accident, or divine providence that 99.9999% of people love the country they grew up in?
   
Like I said, think sports teams. I love the Lakers and hate the Celtics, but I realize this love is irrational. Neither team is actually better or worse than another. Sure Kevin Garnett is over the hill, but I shouldn't hate him for that. I hate Florida, but I felt bad when Urban Meyer had heart trouble. We care about our sports teams, but not in any meaningful way.
   
In the end, I wouldn’t kill over the Lakers, and that's really the main difference between sports teams and nations.

Feb 04

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader 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.)

His name was Rainbow. Probably wasn’t his given name, but that’s how he introduced himself to me and my fraternity brothers. He came to us in the summer of my junior year at UC Santa Barbara, a vagrant in the truest sense. He was on a trek from Santa Barbara to San Francisco with only what he could carry on his back and pack onto his three wheeled bike.

 


Rainbow was a Christian. I mention this because it’s not only integral to the story, but understanding his personality as well. He took the teachings of Christ so seriously he gave up his possessions because of the story of the rich man who would not give up his wealth to follow Christ. Such was his love and resolve.

Rainbow was only passing through Santa Barbara. He'd heard that we were a Christian fraternity and asked to stay with us for a few days, setting up a tent in our back yard and proselytizeing to the locals before he continued on his journey. We agreed because it was a unique opportunity for us as a house to learn from an individual who lived quite strictly to “Christ’s laws,” as he called it.

On his last night with us, Rainbow went to talk with another homeless man that lived around our street, the man we had dubbed, "Legion." We called him Legion (a Biblical reference to possession) because he claimed to be influenced by voices, hated Christianity, and occasionally claimed to be “of the devil.” We’d talked with Rainbow about Legion previously and Rainbow didn’t want to leave Santa Barbara without confronting the disturbed man. 

We heard Legion screaming, but this was not new; he would occasionally scream at cats or the voices only he could hear. We heard something new this time; we could also hear Rainbow pleading with him. Rainbow wished to pray with Legion but Legion would have none of it. We stood on our porch watching the spectacle. It began with a push and escalated to Legion flailing wildly and throwing Rainbow to the ground.
I ran to call the police as two of my fraternity brothers rushed to Rainbow’s aid. While Rainbow was on the ground, he didn’t fight back. He simply curled himself into a ball and screamed as loud as he could: “Jesus loves you!” and “I forgive you!” and “God bless you!”

Legion eventually ran away when he saw people coming to intervene. And Rainbow himself seemed unharmed other than being slightly tenderized. Rainbow refused to file a report with the police. He never tried to talk with Legion again and soon he was gone, continuing on his journey north. 

What remained was something the three of us would always remember. This was an actual demonstration of passivity in literal terms. Rainbow refused to defend himself from attack and even went so far as to bless his enemy. It was something we wondered whether we could and even whether we should do given what we individually believe and the world we live in. The three of us each came to our own conclusions, but the moral question remains.

Can and should a Christian, or any pacifist, love his fellow man so much as to allow him or herself to endure pain or even death?

Feb 03

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama proposed a three year spending freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending. It’s a budget policy I endorse, I just worry about the implementation.

Officials at the Pentagon aren’t worried though. In fact, the Defense Department plans to higher more workers. Politicians want to protect Americans, and they view defense spending as political capital to stay elected.

Anyone working in a branch of the Department of Defense should know that we could more than afford to tighten our belts. If President Obama forced the DoD to cut costs, trim spending, and lower it's budget, two things would happen: first, across the Air Force, Navy and Army we would become more efficient; second, our leaders would have to look at the budget and prioritize on issues that are immediately relevant, making us more effective in the long run.

Don’t kid yourself. If you wear a uniform, you know how much money we waste every year. Look at how units run their budgets. At the end of the fiscal year, all units in the Army, Air Force and Navy make sure they spend all their funding. Down to the last drop. Use it or lose it.

For example, units tend to always order their full allotment of ammunition. Even if they don’t expend it all during a training exercise, they fire it off at the end to ensure their allotment stays at the same level. In the Army, as across the Pentagon, you keep what you can get.

My critics will say that we are at war. I don't disagree. But my critics have to explain the vast amount of waste in the Army. Bagram Air Field serves shrimp and steak dinners to troops who have never seen combat. We station thousands of troops overseas for no ostensible purpose. In combat, we fire unnecessary bombs or artillery rounds at nothing. Contractors overcharge the government. Airmen receive combat and hazardous duty pay while stationed at Qatar and Kyrgyzstan (Sorry Yates). I could go on (and I will in future posts). We have more Generals in uniform now than in WWII (and they have retired Generals contracted to advise them).

In good businesses, managers can both increase profits and drive down costs. In good households, savers earn more and keep their costs down. In both of those examples, tightening budgets is a good thing, so why is the Pentagon exempt? The Pentagon should embrace budget cuts, not fear political repercussions.

(And I don't usually say, hey Speaker of the House Pelosi agrees with me, but even she has called for something similar.)

Feb 02

Hey All,

Two quick things. First, Eric C had a guestpost published on Fuel Your Writing, titled, "Less is More: Aristotle and Four Simple Steps to Better Short Stories." Please check it out.

Second, long time reader Chris C has a new blog, called "Predigested Opinion Spigot." Please check it out. New content is coming on Wednesday.

Feb 01

Since General McChrystal originally posted his counter-insurgency guidance--and classified Rules of Engagement--pundits and bloggers in the right wing media have made quite a few accusations. Some have called Obama's new Rules of Engagement are an outrage. Some call them Rules of Endangerment. Some have said they put our Soldier's at risk. One blogger has even said that our Soldiers wonder who is the bigger enemy, the Taliban or Obama's Rules of EngagementHell, Marcus Lutrell wrote a whole book on 'em.

General McChrystal created a strict ROE for Afghanistan for a specific reason: to win. He modeled the new ROE on policies that have proven successful in Iraq and other counter-insurgencies.

And it is right he did so. Leaders must make the Rules of Engagement. While the Soldiers and NCOs on the ground makes the split second decisions about how to use ROE, leaders must establish the guidance.

This seems backwards to some people. Many Soldiers (and bloggers) think we should always trust the NCO on the ground. The thinking goes, "No politician in Washington, no General in the Pentagon, nor any staff officer at Bagram Air Field can make better decisions than the leaders on the ground." This is a false dilemma. Often, what Soldiers believe keeps them safe actually endangers the mission.

In war we have to do things that put our lives at risk. In a counter-insurgency, that means risking lives to save or limit civilian deaths. In World War II, storming the beaches of Normandy was excessively dangerous to our troops, but we had to do it. In counter-insurgency, a new ROE will make life more dangerous for Soldiers, but it will help us win.

But why do Leaders make the ROE?

COIN is a war of degrees. Traditionalists still expect Generals to move troops around on a big board the way Civil War generals did. Traditionalists still look for ways to attack the enemy, not protect the population. Traditionalists still want big operations. However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not about big maneuver operations; they are the sum total of small patrols repeated consistently over time. Generals no longer tell units how to maneuver, they make small changes in tactics and strategy that are repeated over time.

The rules of engagement are one tool they can use to make those changes.

The FM 3-24, the new counter-insurgency manual, describes the paradoxes of defeating an insurgency. One of those paradoxes is that wildly engaging (and missing) the enemy makes the counter-insurgent look weak. Another is that killing the enemy frequently costs you support and makes the enemy stronger. These two ideas don’t make sense in regular war, but counter-insurgency is counter-intuitive.

Soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers new to counter-insurgency do not fully understand political war. ROE exists to force soldiers to follow good counter-insurgency theory, even though it seems counter-intuitive.