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.)

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.