Apr 26

I call it the “Michael Crichton/Tom Clancy Character Syndrome.” When every character is not just good, but the best, ever. In Jurassic Park, for example, there's the best geneticist, the best computer programmer, and the best big game hunter. Tom Clancy's John Clark is the ultimate spy and Jack Ryan is the ultimate analyst. In Crichton/Clancy novels, no one is just "the guy who's ok at stuff."

It pops up occasionally in non-fiction writing too, especially if you deal with people who live at the extremes of life as Jon Krakauer does in his books. He brings real--and exceptional--people to life. He does a better job than most biographers in probing mankind's limits, physically and mentally.

Krakauer has written about men climbing the world's the tallest mountain, a person who dropped out of society, and the extremes of religious fanaticism. Do the extremes of violence--war--fit into his world? Absolutely. In Where Men Win Glory, he takes on one of our nation's most exceptional contradictions: Pat Tillman, the intelligent football player who dropped a lucrative NFL contract to join the Army Rangers. Overall, he tells Pat Tillman's story well, with perhaps a bit too much applause. In the last quarter of the book, when he takes on the military's handling of his death, he excels at revealing the US Army leadership as one more concerned with PR than mission accomplishment.

Krakauer loves his characters. In Into the Wild, the main character is a recluse, but sounds like the smartest, most gifted, most charismatic recluse who ever walked the earth. Even the violent extremists in Under the Banner of Heaven come across as the most violent, most charismatic extremists you will ever meet. He might not love them, but he certainly admires them.

And Pat Tillman is equally impressive. A professional football player with an extremely high GPA from the University of Arizona is nothing to laugh at. But it seems like he has no faults in Where Men Win Glory. His being an obnoxious American to French people is downplayed as just a guy having some fun. His assault on an innocent student during high school comes across as nothing more than an accident.

After you get past Krakauer's near-worship of Tillman, the work takes off. When I was finished, I understood why Tillman joined the military, and why, until the end, he was conflicted about going to combat. Krakauer captures the bizarre duality of wanting to excel in your job--fighting wars--but detesting the slaughter and devastation that come with it. He also captures the crucial moments of fear Tillman felt, and Tillman's growing frustration with the US Army and the US Army Rangers; all emotions I understand.

But Where Men Win Glory has one central theme bigger than Pat Tillman's tale, and Krakauer argues it very well: the military is a CYA place. When mistakes are made, the military does what it can to avoid punishing those responsible, and then obscures the truth if needed. This happens three times in Where Men Win Glory: the Jessica Lynch rescue, a Marine Corps friendly fire debacle in Nasiriyah, and the death of Pat Tillman. In each case, dramatic mistakes were made; in each case, the military never blamed its subordinate commanders. And in each case, the initial press releases deliberately misled the media.

Maybe the Jessica Lynch rescue, or the history of Afghanistan, or countless other asides take us too far from the Tillman tale. Or they help weave a tapestry that was Pat Tillman's life, and death. And when writing about Pat Tillman's death, you can't ignore the military's impulses to cover up every mistake they make.

Apr 21

I was laying prone on the rocky ground, something I hardly ever did in Afghanistan.

My heart pounded so loudly I thought it would break through my chest. I had never been more nervous. I feared for my life.

I was sitting at the rocky outcrop on the southern part of the Korengal Outpost, the KOP. Taliban swarmed up the hillside, surrounding me. The men who were with me fell back; I couldn't stem the retreat. I knew at that moment I would die on that hill.

And then I woke up, alone in my apartment in Vicenza, Italy. It was the worst nightmare I'd ever had. In my dream, I had returned to the Korengal Valley, later nicknamed the "Valley of Death." I only spent a couple months in the Korengal, but it felt much longer. The place haunted me before I arrived in Afghanistan; it still haunts me.

All these memories came back when I saw the photos of the Korengal Valley last week. Instead of US forces fighting for the population, it is now controlled by the insurgents I fought against.

The US Army, under General McChrystal, decided to move all troops out of the Korengal last week. If I am being intellectually honest, it makes sense from a counter-insurgency perspective. But while I can understand the move rationally, emotionally it just feels wrong.

So here is a collection of links about the Korengal Valley and the recent decision to pull out of the valley:

I first heard about the Korengal Valley through this Nightline piece by Sebastian Junger. I watched it in Vicenza, Italy a few days before I left for Afghanistan. This footage made the war very real, and very sudden.

Sebastian Junger's recent New York Times OpEd is probably the most thoughtful of the accounts about our retreat/retrograde/draw-down in the Korengal.

For the best images, this photo gallery by Time captures the essence of the valley very well. It was taken after Battle Company and the ROCK had left Afghanistan, but the people are still the same.

Finally, Jeff Schneider captures the fundamental conundrum of the Korengal in this piece for the Huffington Post.

Apr 20

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published at Problogger titled, "9 Things Bloggers Can (and Can’t) Learn from the Army" Check it out.

Apr 19

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

Last week I wrote up a (preliminary) list of things I felt should be included in every post 9/11 war memoir. Of course, the moment I published the post, I realized I left something out: failure. Specifically, a lack of connection between the what happens in the memoir and what happens in the larger war. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, this means an explanation of why we are (or were) failing.

In Iraq, between the invasion of 2003 and the semi-civil war of 2006, something went wrong. If you wrote a memoir about that period, I'd like to know why you think we struggled for three years, and how you feel about this. Afghanistan is a mess that is getting messier. If you served in Afghanistan, I'd like to know how you feel about a war that has taken ten years to possibly lose. Of the war memoirs I've read, only The War I Always Wanted provided this kind of historical context.

I don't necessarily want to know why the failures happened. This is the purview of essays and opinion pieces--which, ironically, most memoir authors write to promote their books. (Mullaney opined on both The Colber Report and The Daily Show about Afghanistan; just today I listened to Matt Gallagher discuss the Apache shooting video.) Memoirs aren't about politics, but human emotion. And I can't think of a more powerful human emotion than the reaction to failure.

So why do authors omit failure?

First, the standard war memoir narrative doesn't necessarily lend itself to this sort of reaction. Usually the story is: Soldier gets trained, Soldier gets deployed, a quick afterword, and the memoir ends. This doesn't excuse it though. Most memoirs were written years after the conflict; writers had the opportunity to reflect on their experience and choose not to.

Second, we have a hard timing owning up to failure. No one wants to think that they specifically contributed to losing a war. In the words of A Farewell to Arms, "what has been done here could not have been done in vain."  No one wants to think their time, stress, energy and lives have been given away foolishly. No one wants to think they were a part of a wasted effort. And yet the first three or four years in Iraq were just that. And no one wants to think they lost a Solider in a war the country was ignoring. And yet the first seven years in Afghanistan were just that.

And I want that reaction.

There is a connection to COIN here. Some of the memoirs depict Soldiers not practicing COIN, the invasion of Iraq in particular. And yet apart from a few asides, no author (except Brandon Friedman) really states that the lack of troops and the overwhelming number of civilian casualties led to Iraq's future troubles. Evan Wright writes in Generation Kill's afterward that he's actually surprised the Iraq War lasted so long.

Michael, when reviewing this post, wrote that a platoon leader usually doesn't have much impact on the larger war. I agree. While that might be true, that doesn't stop Soldiers from saying they helped win wars. Hell, people my age still talk about World War II as if they helped contribute to the victory. If you talk about victory, then you need to talk about failure as well.

(Ed. Note: trish pointed out below that this criticism doesn't apply to pre-9/11 war memoirs and I agree. I've changed the post to reflect that.)

Apr 15
(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.)

I hit him hard against the chest and met resistance. I hit him a second time, harder, directly against his sternum. Adrenaline is speeding my motions. I have to pace myself, find my timing, control my blows. A co-worker joins in my struggle, stabbing at the man's arm. Another person tries to strap him down so he can’t flail at us while we go about our brutal task. I continue to my attack and hear a crack. But I don't relent. I continue hard against his chest. I pause, allowing another co-worker to force something down our victim's throat. We all stand back as we electrocute him.

This goes on in cycles for several minutes. And if we've done everything perfectly, we've saved his life. 

It's called a full arrest. Our patient's heart has stopped or doesn't have the ability to supply the body and brain with the blood they so desperately need. In order to correct the situation we assault the patient's body. It sounds like a back ally beating. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is not a gentle process. Chest compressions require forcing the chest wall in a direction opposite of its normal direction of expansion. More often than not, ribs break. If done improperly a portion of the sternum can sever. Or the xiphoid process can detach and puncture an internal organ. More than that, the compressions have to be timed correctly with precise depth while simultaneously allowing for recoil so the heart can not only pump blood, but fill up with blood as well.

Meanwhile, paramedics must start an intravenous line to push medications that affect the heart. This requires an eighteen gauge or larger bore needle to ensure the vein doesn’t collapse. Medications are given that directly affect the body's normal physiology, forcing the heart to act the way we want, constricting blood vessels, and dilating the smooth muscle of the lungs. We intubate by placing a tube down the throat so we can supply oxygen directly to the lungs. With a bag, we provide positive pressure to the lungs to cause them to expand and fill with oxygen. Finally, we use controlled burst of electricity to affect the heart rhythm. Though it can benefit the normal electrical cascade, each shock infarcts muscle, killing a small portion of the heart.

Saving a life that is nearly gone requires vigorous and violent effort. Without an understanding of what is happening our actions seem barbaric and malicious. Such is the importance of context. Without it actions are purposeless. Violence is incomprehensible. Without context CPR seems like an assault. Similarly, without context, a war on terror is interpreted as a military invasion and occupation, or a suicide bombing is construed to be a man wanting to die while causing others to die. There is context to these actions and events that go missing. It’s important to understand and address the motivations and purposes of such actions in order to prevent further violence.
Apr 14

The Army loves football. Two sides face off, taking ground and battling to a violent finish, what's not to like?

I also love football. And today I want to connect it to counter-insurgency.

Most people watch football by "following the ball," meaning they focus on the player holding the football. They ignore, for the most part, the other players on the field. The quarterback takes the ball from the center, then throws it to a receiver down field, and the viewer watches those players the whole time. The camera follows the ball; so does the average viewer.

Why is this? Because the action is the exciting part of the play; its the sexy part. I mean, the player with the ball is the only one who can score. He's also the one who is going to get hit.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Regular viewers hardly ever watch the offensive linemen during a play. Even hardcore fans would struggle to name an offensive linemen. No one chooses linemen for their fantasy leagues. They're the unsung heroes of the gridiron, primarily because fans are too busy watching the ball. Every great run, and every great pass, has an offensive linemen creating the play. Watching the ball means you are missing the offensive lineman, the defense and the creation of the play.

Ok Michael, how does this relate to counter-insurgency?

The Army only watches the ball during counter-insurgencies. The ball in this case is the death of American Soldiers. The event that leads to that death, for example an IED, is only the end result of a long process. An IED ambush requires reconnaissance, logistics, intelligence, bomb-making, local support, information operations and finally, direct action. But both maneuver commanders and intelligence specialists primarily care about the final explosion, not the whole process. The IED explosion is like the touchdown, everything before that is the action away from the ball.

We spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on countering IEDs at the point of impact. We notice explosions. We care about the so-called “kinetic” events. But those are like following the ball, not following the creation of the play.

Strategically, as a nation, we follow the ball--meaning the death of American Soldiers. That is really the only metric that the American public cares about. It is like tracking touchdowns, but no other statistic on the battlefield.

As a military, we get distracted by the sexy part of the insurgency--the IEDs--and we ignore the complex part of the insurgency--everything else. We have improved (read the Flynn report and the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual) but we have a long way to go.

Apr 12

I was in the middle of a shura in Pashad, when I received an urgent call from my Company Headquarters. Instantly my mission changed from peaceful shura to hurried cordon and search at a suspected insurgent cache. I paused for a moment to figure out my course of action, then excused myself from the shura.

Parked in front of an ANP (Afghan National Police) checkpoint, I quickly told the ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers--our patrol was loaded with forty ANA in addition to my sixteen men--and ANP leaders we had to go. My men remounted our vehicles; the ANA did the same, just not quite as fast. I was working my personal radio to get more information, head some yelling, and I looked up.

In front of my truck, an ANA soldier aimed a rocket propelled grenade launcher at an ANP soldier about seven feet in front of him. The lever was cocked, and he was ready go.

Uh-oh. (I used different wording at the time.)

As I moved behind my truck, I told everyone to button up inside their vehicles. More ANA and ANP began to square off. The yelling got louder. At this point, my interpreter had no chance to translate my yelling. So I did the only thing I could: I hopped into my vehicle and hoped that both sides would see the insensibility of going Mexican stand-off on each other at less than ten paces (especially silly considering an RPG probably won’t even detonate at ten meters).

As my platoon watched inside our armored boxes, and a surprising number of ANA guys not even realizing what was going on, an ANA First Sergeant arrived. He restored order by slapping the ANA guy holding the RPG, and gesticulating to his men to get in their vehicles. The ANP checkpoint commander took control of his men shortly after that.

Crisis averted.

In hindsight I realize how surreal this event was. It's the equivalent of the LAPD pulling firearms on the National Guard during a riot. And from what I hear, Iraq went through similar types of turf wars. No matter, Afghanistan will have trouble as long as the Army and Police don’t get along. The only real positive note, is that the ANA and ANP leadership eventually got their men under control.

(In defense of the ANA, the Soldier with the RPG thought there were people smuggling lumber through the check point, something that is technically illegal. Konar Province has a huge problem with smuggled goods: semi-precious gems, lumber and ores. Still a weird time to start enforcing the law.)

To succeed in Afghanistan, we need security. The success of both the ANP and the ANA in achieving security will either make or break our efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I had to watch these two groups--each struggling to come to terms with their role in a future democratic Afghanistan-- point loaded weapons at each other.

Apr 09

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

If memoirs are supposed to be true, a snap shot of life in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, why do so many memoirs feel…not true?

It isn't because the authors lie; it is because they omit. My gut instinct--and this has been born out in my reading--is that Soldiers don't always tell the full truth; war is too ugly, too brutal, to present it fully. The most interesting details are often the most painful, embarrassing or immoral. Some writers would rather focus on leadership or politics, others want to focus on honor and good deeds.

So I developed a litmus test of things that, if authors are being intellectually honest, they will include in their war memoir. What qualifies for the litmus test? Something that is unavoidably common in war but that is left out because it is, again, sordid, embarrassing, illegal or immoral.

What isn't included? Some things seem immoral, but are faithfully mentioned in every war memoir (smoking, an uncomfortable reference to porn, post-deployment drinking, etc.) because they are so common. Some things (atrocities, rape, war crimes) are not universal to every Soldier's experience. Some things are considered embarrassing, like PTSD, but almost every memoir I read ended with a Soldier having trouble adjusting to home. (Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is the memoir to read on the subject.) I'm also aware that for each example below I could find a memoir that mentions it. The point is that most don't.

Anyways, without further ado, the list:

1. Masturbating – Unlike past wars, Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have access to an easy supply of women. (GIs had the French and Italian women in WWI and WWII; Grunts had Vietnamese women) And while Fobbits at Bagram Airfield can always have sex with each other, for the all-male world of the infantry, masturbation is probably their favorite recreational hobby. Yet of the dozen or so memoirs I've read, it's been mentioned twice.

2. Dogs - Dogs are ubiquitous in a war-zone (Tom Ricks has an entire series dedicated to them) and they are thematically powerful--as I wrote here. So they should be side characters in every war memoir.

3. Dogs Dying - Dogs--like people, civilians, and Soldiers--tend to die in war-zones. A lot. Sometimes Soldiers kill them; sometimes they die by accident. Either way, their fate should be mentioned.

4. Animals Dying - Less common, but fascinating. Again, read this post. While dogs tug at the heart strings of every Soldier, cats, horses, and other animals get caught up in the violence as well. (H/T to @Trishlet)

5. Civilians Dying - It happens. It happened a lot on the invasion into Iraq. It happened a lot when the insurgency exploded. An honest memoir will deal with this messy truth about any war.

6. Bad Soldiers - If you're a platoon leader leading 20 or more men, one of your Soldiers sucks. Young Officers seem eager to explain the faults of their bosses, but not their men. This is probably the most difficult thing for an author to include in a war memoir.

7. Fear - Perhaps you weren't afraid. Good for you. But the best passages describe what Soldiers feel, and fear is perhaps the most dominant emotion of war. How could it not be?

8. Outside Plots
- Plot lines that don't have to do with war inform the reader to the larger picture. Jarhead and The Things They Carried did this really well. (H/T to @Brandon Friedman.)

9. Funny Things Happening During Fire Fights - My brother ate oranges after a fire fight. Guys say funny things. War is more comedy than action movie. (H/T to @Schmedlap.) This could apply to humor in General (more to come on this.) Also why I'm eagerly awaiting Kaboom, Orange County Library System.

Of course, someone can follow this list too closely. As I wrote before, there is such a thing as war pornography, an obsession with the muck and dirt and blood. Some prose never gets past it. The solution is a balance, terror and fear, love and beauty, heroism and despair. War tilts the balance, but it is too complicated to be presented simply.

There is another point. You might not want to write about these events as they actually happened. And that's why I wish writers embraced the freedom war novels, and and avoided the problems of war memoirs. If you have any things you'd like to see in war memoirs, please include them below in the comments.