Sep 17

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for David Benioff’s "City of Thieves.")

I read David Benioff’s City of Thieves in a day. That’s all you really need to know, review finished.

But I’ll continue. I randomly found this book at a party, sitting on a coffee table with three other books. Its setting (World War II Russia, St. Petersberg/Leningrad) and its author (David Benioff, who wrote the screenplays of The 25th Hour, X-men Origins: Wolverine, and The Kite Runner) instantly grabbed my attention. Then I spent way too much time reading it. Having read the entire thing in a day or so, I immediately wanted to review it, and explain what post-9/11 war writers can learn from it.

The plot is simple, but classic: a young Jew, Lev Beniov, is unjustly arrested for treason and awaits his execution. Instead of a death sentence, Lev and another prisoner--the charismatic ladies man/writer Kolya--receive a mission: find a dozen eggs for a Colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. Find the 12 eggs in four days, or die.

Yet this is besieged Leningrad in 1941. The German army surrounds the city, and the people--out of food and starving--resort to eating glue or each other. This is the first remarkable thing about City of Thieves, the omnipresent sense of anarchy, hunger and suffering. The entire city, except for some military officers, is starving, literally to death. Early on, Kolya and Lev encounter brutal cannibals; it makes them wonder where all the meat they’ve been eating comes from...

City of Thieves is a study in wartime chaos. Benioff has a beautiful understanding of war at its worst, gleaned through what must have been meticulous research. The German einsatzkommandos carve off a pretty peasant girl’s ankles for trying to escape forced prostitution. Passage after passage describes the constant hunger, people eating dogs, pigeons, people and books. A good friend dies after getting shot in the ass by Russian soldiers. Kolya sleeps with a preternaturally skinny girl. The heroes find a field of dead dogs in the middle of a forest, each strapped with an anti-tank mine.

Though a few books came close, I haven’t yet read anything this epic, detailed and compelling in a single post-9/11 war memoir.

(Major spoiler follows. Sorry Michael.) This probably has to do with the book’s characters. The core of the book isn’t about war, but the relationship between the two main characters, Lev--the small, big-nosed Jew, son of a famous poet who dreams of making love to a woman--and Kolya, the talkative soldier and braggart. Their conversations are usually pretty brilliant and always readable, with Kolya teaching Lev about Russian literature, war, politics and of course, women. If I’m being honest, the Kolya’s character eventually annoyed me. I get tired of flawless “superman” characters; his only real character flaw is that he annoys the narrator. It’s never a good sign that when a character gets shot, you mutter “Finally.” Still, he is real enough, and like I wrote above, his dialogue is always readable.

I should clarify, I’m not sure City of Thieves will end up as “classic literature” as much as it is just a really good read, written expertly and maturely. Then again, it contains a story within a story, and another character fake narrating his own Russian “classic,” so it has at least a few post modern touches. Despite the horror inside, I wouldn’t describe the book as enlightening, just very, very good story expertly told, and isn’t that enough?

Which brings me to the most interesting part of this book. It is a memoir. Technically, this book is a story within a story, told by Benioff’s grandfather to his grandson. I don’t know if this is true--I have to assume it isn’t. Even the grandfather tells Benioff “You’re a writer. Make it up.”--but this blurring of fact and fiction gives the book more power. Taken with The Things They Carried’s pretense of reality, I’d have to say that the best war literature is fiction pretending to be a memoir; this satisfies the readers lust for “authenticity”, but allows the artist freedom to abandon the facts for the truth.

Sep 15

As Operation New Dawn spread it’s bright light of freedom across Iraq, everything changed: people stopped fighting in the streets, a government formed as the contentious political parties put aside their differences, and the economy of Iraq boomed as unemployment ended.

Well, none of that happened, but we changed the name. That has to count for something, right?

The only real thing I’ve learned in the last two weeks is that the media and politicians don’t understand our current wars. Why President Obama declared the end to major combat operations or, even worse, said that all combat troops have left the country, is beyond me--especially when his predecessor made the exact same mistake.

I continue to do what I have since I got here: military intelligenc-ize. In layman’s terms, that is a lot of reading and plenty of writing. Good military intelligence people (cue age old joke about oxymorons) aren’t just analysts, they are detectives, historians, and academics.

Since it looks like I will be coming back sometime next year, a lot of my work is studying up on Iraqi culture, politics and the threat groups threatening stability here, trying to combine the different skills of MI analysts. That, and dodging the ridiculous monster-bugs that scurry around this place. The camel spiders aren’t the half of it; they have these gigantic beetle things that could carry away a small child.

One final note: a few people have asked about how they can still support the troops over here. To be honest, we don’t need much--our chow hall has prime rib and steaks and shrimp and lobster and a Caesar salad bar--but plenty of other people do need help. So instead of sending me anything, please donate to a charity of your choice. I recommend my personal favorite PUSH America--Pi Kappa Phi’s charity that helps disabled people live full lives. Recently, some chapters have started helping disabled veterans. Follow this link to give through the UCLA chapter.

And since an update isn’t good enough, here is a picture from my last Afghanistan deployment:

I wish I had a better caption of what makes this interesting, but look at me--all small looking--against the evil looking Apache AH-64. This was one of the primary refueling points for helicopters along the Konar River valley. The AH-64’s primarily escorted Chinooks transporting supplies and men, but we loved if we could pull them off to help us out.

Sep 13

(Real quick: technical issues stopped this post from going up last Thursday. We'll be back on schedule this week.

Two weeks ago, I looked back at some of my earlier posts on the Rules of Engagement. One post described techniques US Soldiers use(d) to skirt the RoE in Iraq. Today I describe a technique used in Afghanistan.)

In Afghanistan, the Rules of Engagement are simple: soldiers can only shoot at targets they can see, targets that are directly threatening their lives. Putting it simply, this sucks. Ask any Afghan combat veteran. In that rugged countryside determining the exact location of the enemy, or even seeing him, verges on impossible.

Soldiers presented with tough ROE, and tough fighting conditions, often find work-arounds. In Afghanistan, they developed “observer training.”

“Observer training” means someone--the Forward Observer, the Platoon Leader or even just Soldiers--calls a fire mission, then the artillery or mortars fire that mission. If you are off target, you correct until the rounds go right where you need them to go. It is a vital skill for Soldiers, and has been since World War I.

In Afghanistan, many units realized if they called up a mission as “observer training” they could fire at suspected enemy locations. Now, these areas had to be empty of civilians, or at least not populated areas, but they could have rounds fired into them.
Here’s an example of abusing “observer training.” Armies have been intercepting radio signals since World War I. And shortly after they started intercepting them, they learned to find the direction they were broadcast from. The US Army can figure out the location of insurgent radios; many times, we can come close to pinpointing the locations of insurgent command and control (C2) cells.

Yet, that isn’t, in most cases, positive identification. Especially, if they are far out of range from the actual battle, all we know is a location is broadcasting. If a battle is going, and the right code words are being used, then we are close to a positive identification. Unfortunately, we still aren’t there, and that is why units conduct “observer training.” Using hunches and suspicions, and labeling their actions “observer training,” units can get away with firing at the enemy (or what they suspect is the enemy).

But all of this misses the most important point about using "observer training" to fire on suspected enemy positions: it does not work. Firing at unknown locations in the hopes of killing enemy based on scant intelligence does not work. In Afghanistan, our Army frequently protects itself with firepower, even though this makes us weak in the long run.

Sep 09

Methamphetamine is a violent and volatile drug. While I may not completely understand the nature of drug addiction, the appeal of meth boggles my mind. Aside from the various psychological effects it can have, why take a drug that literally causes your body advanced decay?

It destroys the normal function of essential neurotransmitters leading to profound physical effects, raises blood pressure, and causes liver and kidney damage, uncontrolled muscle contraction, heart palpitations and dysrhythmias, as well as rotting teeth and hair loss. Then there are the effects on the brain. The decaying neurons there lead to paranoia, hallucinations, and abhorrent behavior that makes them dangerous and potentially violent.

It's always an experience attempting to take someone hopped up on meth to the hospital. It's an exercise in controlled chaos. There are anywhere from eight to eighteen people attempting to control one person who is usually screaming, spitting, biting, crying, pissing, flailing, and completely deranged.
When a user does become violent, this one person is a juggernaut. He pushes the word violent to the limit. Their physical strength peaks to superhuman levels, throwing sheriffs across the room with one hand climbing to their feet from being pinned by two plus two hundred pound grown men. Not to mention invulnerability to pain. I've seen a man take a taser to the chest and shake it off, strain against handcuffs to the point of tearing flesh, and punch into objects breaking bones in the hand and arm quite visibly only to continue punching other objects. 

We found our patient handcuffed and restrained to a chair by two sheriffs. He was screaming nonsense about alien conspiracy and how he knew the truth. Hallucinations and delusion had convinced him that we had come to take him away for experimentation because he knew too much. The maddened cries for help and curses of revenge periodically interrupted by outburst of attempts to harm us were indicative of behaviors we've come to associate with meth overdoses. 

As the emergency medical personnel entered, his drive to fight escalated as if our presence confirmed his belief that he would be taken away for torture. Bruised and exhausted, eight of us wrestled him to the gurney and struggle to restrain his arms and legs. I left my sunglasses on because it was sunny. It was a mistake, I realized while attempting to restrain his kicking legs when one heel found it's way to the bridge of my nose cracking my new and beautiful polarized Oakely's. 

He was tazed him twice to gain control to strap him down. Sedated three times. All attempts to subdue him were less effective than pure manpower to securing him to the gurney. By the time he's in the ambulance, I'm barely strong enough to hold the wheel steady, I'm drenched in sweat mostly but not entirely my own, and I'm annoyed at the crack just on the edge my field of vision. But as tired and broken as I feel, I imagine the terrible discomfort that poor bastard in back will be feeling when he sobers up and realize: it could be worse. At least I have healthy teeth.
Sep 02

When General McChrystal took command of all international troops in Afghanistan last June, the rules of engagement became the hot new topic for politicos debating our policies in Afghanistan. Since General Petraeus replaced him, the number of pundits opining about policies “tying our Soldiers hands behind their backs” has only increased; Congress is contemplating legislation on this issue.

As a huge fan of both population-centric counter-insurgency and restrictive/tight Rules of Engagement, I have issues with these criticisms, which can be seen in some of my earliest posts at On Violence.

- In “Arcs of Fire”, I describe how our weapons are designed to saturate an area with lead and explosives, not the ideal weapon for a precision counter-insurgent.

- In “Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities”, I talk about a technique common during the Iraq war to avoid prosecution for possible war crime violation.

- In “Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires”, I take a common military tenet--overwhelming firepower leads to victory--and show that, in a counter-insurgency, it really doesn’t.

These early posts weren’t just about the rules of engagement; in many ways, they were more about good counter-insurgency. The rules are the same either way though, the principle behind them.

Particularly, my post on “dropped weapons” still strikes home. Even with great policies, Soldiers will try to figure out ways to game the system. Unless the know the principles behind the policy, the why behind their actions (which at times put them in very dangerous situations) they won’t do the right thing. Next week, I am going to talk about a tactic I saw in Afghanistan that skirts the rules of engagement.

Aug 30

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

Think about that. Doubled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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