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.)

Aug 23

Two weeks ago, Secretary Gates proposed several bold, but necessary, cuts in the Pentagon budget: eliminating the Joint Forces Command, reducing the number of flag officers, and cutting 100 billion dollars form the overall budget. As politicians and politicos stepped in to opine, the big issue became one of our strategic capabilities, would this make us safer? I think it would--we need to cut our budget, as I wrote here--but instead of just saying so, I am going to provide an anecdote that perfectly demonstrates the Army-cum-military way of thinking when it comes to preserving budgets.

My unit was at a training rotation. [Names have been omitted to avoid implication of specific people and units with fraud, waste and abuse.] We had spent the rotation doing basic army training: zeroing rifles, qualifying on M4s, completing squad Situation Training Exercises, and conducting patrols.

At the end of our training window, we had a huge surplus of ammunition--several thousand rounds of live and blank ammunition. What to do?

Even though training was complete, even though every person had qualified with their weapons, and all situational training was complete, we had thousands of rounds. What to do?

We literally could not have spent more time at the range. Some of us qualified several times to improve our scores. We even conducted firing from different positions for variety. Yet we still had tons of excess ammo. What to do?

Anyone in the military--nee everyone in or who was in the military during the 80s, 90s or 00s--knows exactly what we did. We fired every round we had left. In the Army, you fire every single round. You put people on the live-fire range, put their weapons on full-auto, and have them blast away. You expend every round, or as close as you can.

The reasoning is simple. Almost every leader in the Army believes a simple truism: if you don’t spend all your ammunition then you will lose it in the next fiscal year. In fact, by expending all your rounds, you show a need to get more ammo in the next year, even if you have no hope of using it all.

This logic applies to budgets. If you don’t spend your budget during the entire fiscal year, then people assume you won’t get it the next year. This causes most Army units to spend money like drunken sailors in the last two to three months to avoid losing budget dollars in the coming fiscal year.

(I have actually wondered if this logic is more lore than fact. I wrote the Stars and Stripes Rumor Doctor, hopefully he can check it out.)

That personal anecdote--one that no doubt countless veterans can attest to but countless Generals would vehemently deny--sums up the problems with the DoD budget. More than anything, it shows that units only cares about themselves; leaders only care about their personal budgets. In the long run, this leads to gross inefficiencies.

These inefficiencies add up so that when a superpower does deploy its military, the outcome is something verging on gross negligence. Military contractors who over bill the government by gross percentages, the creation of super-FOBs, weapon systems that don’t work--all are products of an inefficient military.

On Wednesday, I am going to relate this anecdote to Secretary Gates’ cuts specifically.

Aug 21

Since it is my goal to share the best war art I’ve found, I would like to share my favorite poem from Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet (Here is my review from last week). It is deceptively short, but powerful. (Thanks to Alice James Books and Brian Turner for reprint permission.)


by Brian Turner


“It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.” - Sa’di


It should make you shake and sweat,

nightmare you, strand you in a desert

of irrevocable desolation, the consequences

seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline

feeds the muscle its courage, no matter

what god shines down on you, no matter

what crackling pain and anger

you carry in your fists, my friend,

it should break your heart to kill.

It is essentially a moral poem, a meditation on how you should feel when you kill (“should” being the operative word). This is the only piece of post-9/11 literature, verse or prose, that deals with this complex emotion this idealistically and realistically. Regret, sadness, anger--all of it is here.

And, as Michael C asked, who is Sadiq? According to this website, it means friend in Arabic. Is sadiq a friend? Or is the the man someone killed? Every detail of this poem, from the title to the lower-cased “god”, is perfect.

Aug 19

Late one evening, we responded to a man who wounded his hand after a night of heavy drinking. While splinting his possibly broken hand, we attempted to unravel the details of how and why. The man was vague, said he punched something because he was angry. After seeing the wedding ring, one of the paramedics put two and two together; he asked the man where his wife was. We found her face down on the floor in an upstairs bedroom.

Medical professionals are not required to like every patient. We're simply required to give every patient an equally exceptional level of care, regardless of individual situation. Whether they are a kindly old lady or our personal worst enemy, every patient is entitled to the same quality care. Ensuring that every patient is treated equally is one aspect of patient advocacy.

A patient advocate must act in the best interest of the patient. Each medical professional needs to access state of mind in decision making situations, ensure safety, ensure that proper information is relayed regarding the patient’s condition and history, and protect the patient’s privacy.

As an EMT, patient advocacy is one of my primary directives. While vital, it is not always easy. Transporting a patient with flu symptoms that is stable and can be safely transported by car is draining (and not just on us, but Medicare too). Often a patient’s attitude can be one of hostility or anxiety. They may be drunk or high. Still other times, you may have a patient that makes it very hard to focus on putting their needs to the forefront. 

I was posed a question before I started working. “What do you do if you show up on scene and your patient just finished beating up his wife? The police want to take him someplace private to 'question' him, do you allow it?”

Of course not. As a patient advocate, you never leave the patient’s side. You can’t let any harm come to the patient. He is in your care regardless of his actions or who he is. 

My conviction has been tested. I’ve treated and transported assailants, addicts, vagrants, child abusers, spousal abusers, and diagnosed psychotics. I’ve seen people at their very worst. Not just their weakest, but at their most vicious and cruel. I've had the same man spit on me, kick me in the face breaking a very nice pair of Oakley sunglasses, and call my mother an assortment of derogatory terms; he received the same level of care as Grandma Nicey McHuggington. I would give every other patient. After he kicked me in the face, I did however, opt to drive the ambulance rather than ride in back.

You ignore your emotions whatever way you can. Some try to know as little about their personal history as you can, or block the image of them hitting their child from your mind. Some pretend the patient is someone else with a different history. You also tell yourself that when they get to the hospital, they’ll have an opportunity to change. Whatever you do, you do your job. 

Deep down there’s a part of you that wishes the child abuser resisted arrest. You think of what they do to rapists in prison. You hope the man who beat his wife goes to jail. You hope justice is done. But it never shows. They are your patient and you their advocate. And when necessary, and it can be, you offer care and safety without discrimination or prejudice.

Aug 18

Last year, when I wrote about one of my greater exploits as a Platoon Leader, in “A Tale of Two MEDCAPs,” I omitted a crucial detail: the pictures of the MEDCAP. It was only after we posted the article that I realized what an opportunity Eric C and I had missed. So we are fixing that problem today.

The Army and Pentagon still haven’t learned to appreciate the soft side of warfare. Good counter-insurgency doesn’t get the respect of the Generals; really big battles do. So when I say my greatest accomplishment might be a MEDCAP, it shows how different my perspective on operations is from higher leadership. Nonetheless I would still argue that that single MEDCAP did more than a month worth of fighting throughout our AO.

These are the villagers lining up before the MEDCAP started. The line wrapped around the building to the right for a couple hundred feet before the day was done.

This is true coalition partnership. An Afghan doctor works with an American doctor and an Afghan Army Medic to treat the local civilian on the right. The most common ailment was arthritis pain.

While the MEDCAP was treating local Afghans, the District Governor called a shura to discuss issues. Not much was decided on this day, but like all things it was a start.

Aug 16

Despite General Casey’s predictions that the Army will be in a perpetual state of war for the next decade, realistically the US will wrap up major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan well before that. And as soon as those wars end, our military will have to start training for the next one.

The key question is how.

I have a simple proposition: while training rotations at Maneuver Training Centers shouldn’t disappear, we should start supplementing them with deployments to real-world missions, like UN peacekeeping missions.

The best analogy for the Army’s near future is the US Army after Vietnam. Despite massive problems--drugs use, failed leadership, inadequate resources--the Army reformed itself. It modernized the force, changed training, and looked squarely at Russia and said “we will change to fight that.” In the first Persian Gulf war, the strategy vindicated itself.

To train for the USSR, we developed maneuver training centers, giant expanses of land with dedicated opposing forces. These centers helped the US Army train for conventional maneuver wars. Brigades faced off against one another, lessons were learned, careers made or lost. Those military training centers trained almost exclusively for one type of war: high-intensity, industrial, maneuver-focused, and state-on-state.

Hopefully, the Pentagon is learning that it is really bad at predicting what future war will look like. In some cases, it may look a lot like the first Persian Gulf war. In those cases, we will need to continue training at maneuver centers like the ones in Fort Polk and Fort Irwin.

However, clean force-on-force wars are disappearing. Instead, future wars will be messy affairs, like Iraq or Afghanistan. They will involve genocide, natural disasters, civil wars and politics. They will always involve massive population centers, something maneuver training centers are atrocious at replicating. They will involve building infrastructure, battling corruption and distributing aid.

To really train for the next war, we need to join the one organization dedicated to constantly fighting little brush fire wars: the UN Peacekeeping force. Currently, the UN deploys thousands of Soldiers in peacekeeping missions, mostly drawn from developing nations like Pakistan and Brazil because it pays its soldiers sorely needed cash.

We should tag along on these peace-keeping missions, but refuse to accept the UN’s money. Then, when the security council approves a 3,000 man peacekeeping mission, we would bolster it by an additional 5,000 (roughly the size of a Brigade Combat Team) for free. I doubt any peacekeeping mission would object to the assets of the US government.

Everyone benefits. The deployment experience would provide cultural knowledge to every officer, NCO and soldier deploying to the third world for the first time. Our military would learn how to work with multiple foreign governments, NGOs, inter-agency and other militaries. The deployments would teach our soldiers flexibility, and also the political side of warfare. And our Army would gain experience in the troubled areas around the world.

The only possible problem with deploying US troops is the current state of exhaustion of our force. Only four to five years after we have severely drawn down the mission in Afghanistan could we hope to deploy combat brigades to bolster UN peacekeeping missions. Doing so, though, would benefit our military and help repair our battered international reputation.

Aug 13

I'm not a poetry expert.

Or put another way, I don't have refined taste in poetry. Unlike prose--novels, memoirs, essays--I don't feel comfortable putting out nuanced opinions on the quality of verse. I know really great poetry when I read it, and I know really bad poetry when I read it; I just can't recognize the stuff in between.

Fortunately, Here, Bullet--Brian Turner's poetry collection, centered around his experience as a Soldier in Iraq--is great poetry. It could be the best war literature of any medium published since 9/11; it's certainly the best book I've read so far. I've spent the last couple weeks explaining why war memoirs don't make for great literature, and it's draining to be so negative, so often. It's a relief to come out and say I love something. Every semi-literate person interested in the Iraq war needs to read this book, ingest it, remember it, and share it with others.

Here, Bullet opens with a bang:

    "The word for love, habib, is written from right
    to left, starting where we would end it
    and ending where we might begin

    Where we would end a war
    another might take as a beginning,
    or as an echo of history, recited again."

Wow. Six lines, but so much is going on: Arabic culture, history, writing, war. These lines introduce the book's primary theme, and the thing that sets this book apart more than any other work of literature I've read by Americans about Iraq: an understanding of Iraq's (ancient) history. Iraq--Mesopotamia--is the oldest place in the world, the birth place of civilization. Baghdad, in particular, is the historic home of the Caliphate, the center of the Islamic world for centuries, with more history per square foot than anywhere else in the world (Michael disagrees and thinks Rome has more history, but still). This is the first book I've read where I felt that connection to Iraq. It was a revelation. Aside from some stories on Baghdad museum looting, no one has really mentioned it.

"This is the spice road of old, the caravan trail/of camel dust and heat..."

Brian Turner's instincts are mostly impeccable. There's maybe one bad poem in this collection. Like a trained rifleman, he focuses his sights on all the right targets. Turner writes about the Baghdad zoo fiasco, an incident I think represents the entire invasion. He pays attention to animals, using their imagery to fuel his verse. Ox and buffalo pop up again and again ("remembers her standing at the canebrake/where the buffalo cooled shoulder-deep in the water...") He finds beauty everywhere he looks: "Owls rest in the vines of grape." "Bats fly out by the hundred."

But in Here, Bullet, these very alive animals live in a world filled with ghosts and the dead. “The ghosts of American soldiers/wander the streets of Balad by night...And the Iraqi dead,/they watch in silence from the rooftops.” It is all so haunting and perfect. "...when the dead/speak to us, we must ask them,/to wait, to be patient..." When the narrator watches others through his scope at night, he feels as if he has become a ghost.

And of course there is sadness. "Eulogy," based on real events, is so sad it is almost unreadable. So is the poem "16 Iraqi Policemen." This realism could have become a distraction or a crutch, but I think it adds to works impact.

Some final notes:
- Turner's poem "Hurt Locker," at one page, is way better than the film The Hurt Locker.
- The poem "What Every Soldier Should Know" is beautiful. You should try to find it.
- Turner quotes TS Eliot twice, first in his eponymous poem, "because here, Bullet,/here is where the worlds ends, every time."; next April's air is "dry/ as the shoulders of a water buffalo." I love Eliot, so I love this echoing. It shows Turner is a poet's poet, someone who recognizes history and what came before.
- Finally, there is the poem Sadiq. I'll try to post it here if Mr. Turner will let us.

One of my goals in writing art posts here at On Violence is to find the great war literature of this generation. That's why I am usually so negative; I haven't found greatness yet. I haven't found books I would canonize.

Until I read Here, Bullet. An anthology came out in 2005, Voices in War, canonizing the works of writers writing during wartime--essentially the canon of war literature. The editors included Brian Turner. That sounds about right to me.

Aug 11

This week we have good news, ROE news and then an update on my old stomping grounds, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

Good News:

Remember when we argued that America needed a new “Marshall Plan” two months ago? Well, apparently the billionaires were listening. Last week, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates announced that 48 billionaires have pledged to donate half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. While we wish “philanthropic causes” was more specific--and specifically international--we celebrate this news.

Remember back in January when we took on the sacred cow of the federal budget? Well, Defense Secretary Gates took it on this week. He laid out his plan to cut the Pentagon’s budget this week. Let’s hope he is successful.


Three articles came out in the last week about ROE that, taken altogether, are really funny.

First, this report says that not killing civilians lowers violence in Afghanistan, which we think is obvious but we’re glad we have statistical proof for the anti-COINites. It basically supports stringent ROE and tactical patience from Soldiers and Marines.

Second, General Petraeus released his new ROE for Afghanistan, and it isn’t much different from General McChrystal’s version, thankfully.

Third, in retaliation Mullah Omar--leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan--released his own ROE against civilian casualties.

On Afghanistan:

Stars and Stripes has a new reporter embedded in Konar Province, Afghanistan, and her photos and stories bring back memories. Here Dianna Cahn writes about the struggle for the current unit in the Pech, then here she describes how FOB Michigan is taking massive amounts of contact. The Pech is a mystery for me, even having been there. Do we ramp up the number of troops? Try something new? (Yes.) I don’t know, frankly, what the military will try next, I do however doubt it will work.