Jan 18

For the last week, I've been working in a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility. In plain English, I couldn't check my email or bring my cell phone to work. Last Thursday, I left work in a crazy hurry to (barely) catch a plane flight to Los Angeles for the holiday weekend.

I got around to opening my email Friday morning. The first message was from an ex-Soldier saying to call him immediately. The second email was from a friend in the unit which simply said, "Beachnaw."

It instantly clicked.

My stomach dropped and I hoped against hope that what I suspected would be true wasn't.

(SGT Beachnaw, 1LT Michael C, SPC Watson and SPC O'Briant at OP Restrepo, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)

On Wednesday the 13th of January, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw was killed by enemy small arms fire in Afghanistan. According to initial reports, his team was attacked by an overwhelming number of enemy fighters. He sustained multiple injuries as he laid down suppressing fire so his men could fall back.

Sergeant Beachnaw was in 4th platoon, the Helldivers, for my entire tour in Afghanistan and for four months when we returned to Vicenza, Italy. When I first arrived, he wasn't Sergeant Beachnaw yet, simply Private First Class Beachnaw. A few days later, he was promoted to Specialist.

When Soldiers ask me if they should stay in the Army, I give each a different answer. Some guys need to get out. Some guys should stay in. Sergeant Beachnaw was the latter. He didn't need to stay in for the discipline or because he had nowhere else to go; he needed to stay in the Army because he was awesome at what he did. Sergeant Beachnaw was a Soldier's Soldier, the best of the breed.

In Afghanistan, Sergeant Beachnaw presented the best kind of problem to our leadership: he was the best driver in the platoon and the best shot (After we returned from Afghanistan he went to Sniper school and earned the honor "top gun."). This is a tough situation for a mounted platoon. Should he drive or carry the M14 rifle? We had him do both.

Because he was so good, he never drove my truck. My Platoon Sergeant hand selected him as his driver to drive the most important vehicle in a convoy. The Platoon Sergeant's truck is the primary vehicle for recovering downed vehicles and evacuating casualties. Sergeant Beachnaw had an uncanny ability to recover downed Humvees. He did this on the first convoy I went on, and continued until our last patrol in Afghanistan. 

When we returned, our Platoon Sergeant put Beachnaw in for the Sergeant's board. Not only did he pass but he jumped over to the Scout platoon. He continued excelling in the Army until he died fighting last Monday.

As others have said, Beachnaw always brought a smile to your face. Whenever I passed Beachnaw in the field or in garrison, we would always give each other shit. He was a Soldier's Soldier so if I was messed up, he was going to figure a way to let me know. And I did the same. We did this until the last time I saw him in a training area in Hohenfoels, Germany. He asked why I was afraid to roll with him (do combatives). I said he was the one who was afraid of me. (At the time, we used more curse words.) We never did get to settle who would win in a combatives match.

Then he talked to me about leading a scout team. He wasn't perfect, but he was embracing the challenge. It was amazing to watch a squad leader mature.

The night before Eric C left Vicenza, we went out with a bunch of fellow officers to have drinks. We went to an Irish pub and guys from my old platoon showed up. When Sergeant Beachnaw arrived, he insisted, insisted, that he buy me a drink. So I made him drink scotch. We eventually got on to why we do what we do. I told him that we all have different reasons for signing up, but in the end we kept doing the things we did for each other, the men to our left and right. I then said that one of the biggest surprises was how tight we all became and that bonds with Soldiers like Beachnaw were far and away the most rewarding part of my job. He said that sober he probably wouldn't get what I was saying, but in a bar over a glass of scotch he somehow did.

I did what I did for Soldier's like Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw, among others. He wasn't just good, he was among the finest in the light infantry and America. I, among countless others, will miss him. The Army will miss him because he truly represented the best of what Soldiers are.

If you would like to know more about Sergeant Beachnaw, his hometown television station has done a few reports on him. If you would like to help, Beachnaw's facebook page has a place to donate to bring soldiers to his service.

To conclude, I am going to quote from Specialist Bianchi, a current member of the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He spoke at SGT Beachnaw's memorial service in Afghanistan and he wrote a powerful eulogy:

I am standing in front of all of you today because SGT Beachnaw, I am proud to say, was my friend. SGT Beachnaw was a man of charm and wit, handsome and funny in every way always laughing. He was a fine soldier too; an original founding member of Destined Company and the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He was a veteran of OEF VIII, a Bronze Star recipient a Scout Sniper and a Pathfinder. SGT Beachnaw embodied everything that is a Rock Paratrooper. I remember when we first we met we hit it off immediately, I knew then he would be someone you could depend on even if only for a moment, and when all else was crumbling around you, he would still be there. I asked him not long before we deployed, "Why don’t you come back to Destined Company?" He said to me, “Being a Sniper is what I always wanted to do in the Army.” I know now deep down in my heart that SGT Beachnaw died doing what he wanted to do, and on his own terms. SGT Beachnaw you will be missed. Thank you for being part of all our lives.

Jan 15

According to Carl Jung, there are two judging functions: thinking, and feeling. (Teaser: our new website will dive further into this topic.) In my opinion, most of us tend to feel art more than we think about it. We feel that a movie is good or bad, but can rarely say why a movie is good or bad.

Movies touch our heart strings, make us laugh, or fulfill our lust for blood. This being On Violence, I think you know which we’ll be covering today.

What else, aside from gut emotional reaction or blood lust, could explain success of Inglorious Basterds? (314 million dollars grossed, 4 Golden Globe nominations.) It feels good as a movie; it satiates our collective blood lust. I mean, who can't cheer watching Hitler and Nazis burn to death? Especially perverted, one dimensional Nazis.

Nazis are the only real villains we have left in our post-modern, morally-relative society, a holdover from a more idealistic, black and white era. (You could also say naive.) We can root for them to die, cheer at them being tortured, and laugh as the Jew Bear bashes an officer's head in with a bat, all without having to feel bad. They’re Nazis, they might not even count as human.

But thinking about the film even a little tears the whole thing down. The Basterds carve swastikas into the foreheads of German soldiers so that Germans can't take their swastikas off, but weren’t there only 8 million Nazi party members out of 69 million Germans? Didn’t Nazi’s carve Stars of Davids into the foreheads of some of their enemies?

(This is, of course, if you can even get past the ridiculous plot. First, that Tarantino changes the ending to World War II, which I’m willing to accept. And two, that twelve men with virtually no language or culture training can stay behind enemy lines for months on end. It's stupid. Actually, just don’t think about the plot at all.)

The most damning way to think about the movie is to apply the “Golden Rule” to it, or as Confucious, Jesus and others said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Forget about Nazis. Forget about Hitler. Do we want our enemy's soldiers--be they Indian, Japanese, Nazi, Taliban, Communist, terrorist, Hun, Confederate or Union Jack--carving symbols into the foreheads of our soldiers? Would we want them beating our soldiers to death with baseball bats? 

Is it OK to treat another country's soldiers the way the Basterds do?

The obvious answer to all of these questions, after even just a moment's thought, is no. But we don’t want to think about films this way. We dream of a simpler time, when there was a good and evil, and no gray areas. As Ralph McQuarrie says in an interview about his film, Valkyrie, "Somewhere along the way all war movies became a meditation on war. Because somehow it was like the filmmaker is saying I know you came here to see people get the shit blown up on Normandie but..we can't feel good about it." No, you shouldn't feel good about watching someone get blown up.

So, as my dad told me, "don't think about this movie too hard." Because if you think about it, it all falls apart.

Jan 14

Hey All.

First off, just a heads up but we've been having trouble with our servers. If the website is taking forever to load, or whatnot, we are working on it.

Second, we want to put a quick shout out to the guys over at Blogussion for posting two guest posts by Eric C. The first is titled, "The Two (and a half) Golden Rules of Blogging." The second is, "The Upcoming Articles Widget" over at Uniqueblog.net.

If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We publish reader posts every other Thursday.

Jan 13

After every mission, Army units conduct an After-Action Review (AAR). Basically the unit gathers around and discusses what they did well, what they did wrong, and what to improve on the future.

The AAR is one of the few Army tools that lives up to its hype. The civilian world uses them; they just changed the name. Some call them “hot washes,” some call them evaluations, some still call them AARs. The point is, they are used all the time.

From divisions down to squads, from training to combat to office work, units throughout the Army use AARs to assess their performance. There are squad AARs, platoon AARs, battalion AARs and mission AARs. I propose a new AAR.

The Army level AAR.

The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS? Why didn't he have an Army level AAR to go to?

If our leadership wants to do this well it has to do it the way units conduct AARs. Units don’t commission contractors to provide input. Units don’t bring in outside consultants. Units don't study issues for months or years. No, good units sit down and hash out their issues. They:

1. Get everyone who was involved.

2. They put everything on the table.

3. The leaders analyze the answers.

4. Then the leaders make a plan.

5. As a unit, they hold themselves accountable for progress.

General Casey should bring in all the Army generals, or as many as it can reasonably fit in one room (I know there are hundreds of Generals, more now than in WWII, but bear with me.). For one day they should brainstorm everything the Army has done well and done poorly since 9/11. When they are finished, they will publish the results on the Army blog. General Casey, as a leader, will implement the changes the AAR recommends. It sounds unrealistic, but that doesn't mean its not the right way to do things.

We are slow to change. We are slow to identify our problems. We are slow to admit that we are failing. The US Army has been the primary operator in Afghanistan and Iraq, two conflicts we have not won. The US Army does not need outside advice to win those wars, it only needs leadership. And the Army level AAR.

Jan 11

When I watched The Battle For Algiers, I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?”

Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

The scene is short but poignant, illustrating the truth that war isn't fair--for either side.

It’s one of those phrases that is so universal it almost becomes meaningless: All’s fair in love and war. (First said by John Lyly by the way.) Used more often to describe love than war, the sentiment is more true for war. War's brutality, destruction and unflinching moral calculus are unarguable facts of life. (This is why Eric C argues that war is the opposite of civilization.) The higher the costs, the more laws, traditions and customs lose their value.

It is something I feel I’ve understood since was a kid. There can be no “rules” for war. If life and death are on the line, both sides will do whatever they can to survive. Winston understood this in the novel 1984, when he promised to throw acid in the face of a child. The American revolutionaries understood this when they used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British. The Taliban understand it now in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, many Soldiers don't understand this. In the New Yorker, (in the article "Kill Company" that we discussed in our post, "Operation Judgment Day.") one Soldier describes the "frustration with what an insurgency is--that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms." Calling your enemy a coward ignores the reality of war. An insurgent doesn't wear a uniform for the same reason the US Army wears body armor, it helps each survive. Or win the war.

My men in 4th Platoon frequently said the same thing. They called IEDs unfair after personally experiencing the tragedy they can cause. My men weren't unique: soldiers despise the IED. An unseen enemy just does not sit well with American Soldiers who want a stand up fight. In Westerns, the good guy and the bad guy faced off in a duel, what could be more American? In Afghanistan and Iraq the bad guys are on the second story with a rifle, shooting before the gunslinger can even see them.

Yet how unfair must guided bombs, helicopters, and a limitless supply of training and ammunition seem to the insurgents? We must appear ridiculous in context. Huge armored warriors who can fire nonstop, and who introduce a new vehicle every other year with more gadgets, more weapons, and more intelligence. In fact, Pakistani's consider drone attacks cowardly. (I also doubt that saying "we worked hard to earn our gigantic military budget" would mollify our critics.]

All is fair in war, because when you fight, nothing is fair (especially for the civilians). Because nothing is fair, all is fair.

Jan 08

(Spoiler Warning: This review contains plot details of the book Jarhead. Seriously though, this should not keep you from reading this post.)

When we last left Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, we were discussing the book's promotion of rape and it's degradation of women. Today, I want to discuss what the book does right and, more commonly, what it does wrong. Hopefully by the end, you’ll know whether or not you should read it. (Spoiler Alert: you shouldn’t.)

Jarhead is a "non-fiction" memoir of Swofford’s experience in the first Persian Gulf war. Trained as a bad-ass Marine sniper--thankfully he doesn't dwell on the training sequences--Swofford and his platoon nervously await battle in Kuwait. They spend many boring months in Saudi Arabia until the war finally lurches to a start. When they finally get to the frontlines, the platoon sees little real combat, and in the end a senior officer takes away Swofford’s only chance at a kill.

In between this somewhat limited plot are flashbacks to Swofford’s childhood spent dreaming of becoming a Marine, growing up in Japan, and wandering around aimlessly post-gulf war. Some of these passages--particularly the one with the girlfriend in Japan--are quite good. Others--like Swofford’s petty family dispute between him, his father and his brother--are quite bad.

Ultimately, the book sins twice, by being both inaccurate and biased. This is why it fails.

Accuracy

Martin Amis, in his blurb for the book, praises Jarhead's "reportage." Put bluntly, this book's reportage sucks. A lot of events never could have happened, and his descriptions often seem totally innaccurate.

Many scenes just don't pass the sniff test. Like the story about a wife sending a soldier a sextape; it feels like an urban myth appropriated for the novel. [Update: It was.] When the platoon fake rapes a soldier in front of a reporter, it is unbelievable that an officer would let it happen and that a reporter wouldn't report on it, especially if he has a camera. When Swofford threatens another soldier with a gun, that's court martial material. And when Swofford gets stranded out in the desert, well, I'm not the only one who doesn't think it could happen.

One example is particularly egregious. Specifically when artillery shells start raining down on Swofford and his platoon. “The first few rounds land within fifteen feet of the fighting hole Johnny Rotten and I are digging.” (pg. 189.) Wait. Artillery rounds landed within fifteen feet of you and you didn't get blown to kingdom come? When I first read this, I had to call Michael, it sounded so unbelievable.

Maybe Swofford was grossly exaggerating, maybe he just made it up for excitement. The point is, it isn’t true, like too many scenes in this book.

Appearances

The title could sum up the entire book: written for civilians (particularly anti-war liberals) about what they think a "jarhead" is. It is a memoir about appearances, about seeming to be one thing without actually being that thing. Swofford seems determined to portray Marines, the military and Soldiers in general as blood thirsty, horny sex addicts/perverts; a portrayal of the world that is cynical, ugly and brutish, in which war and Soldiers are both our salvation and our sin.

But that's just it, it is all an appearance, or a mirage. As one Marine pointed out, "'jarhead' isn't even a term most Marines use." The book wasn't written for Marines; it was written for critics.

Published in 2003, during the lead-up to Iraq, I think the book was written because of the war. It definitely was published for that reason. The book jacket reads like a who’s who of progressive literary reviewers, with glowing reviews from the SF Chronicle to the NY Review of Books. But Newsweek tips its hand as to why they enjoyed the book, “If you want a clear-eyed sense of what might be going on today in the staging areas surrounding Iraq...read Jarhead.”

Swofford wants to shock you. That's why he writes about rape so much. That's why certain passages are so nihilistic. That's why Swofford would rather focus on the obscene--my favorite example is when he describes sand getting into his “ass crack and piss hole” Really? Piss hole?--than write about war as it actually is.

This second sin of the novel is more unforgivable. It makes the book no better than propaganda (as I’ve written before) and we need to dismiss it.

Jan 07

(Today's post is by 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 studied Tae Kwon Do for six years; I earned a black belt for my time and effort. Though challenging, the time spent gave me confidence, physical endurance, and the ability to defend myself should the need arise.
   
Everyone who trains in martial arts does so for personal reasons. When I began, it was after my final rounds of chemotherapy, which left me with poor posture and an unusual walk. It was my father's hope that physical activity based on form and body movement would counteract my condition. The reasons for others varied. One man wanted to lose weight. Another worked for the sheriff's department. Some of the kids joined because they wanted to have fun. Parents wanted to give their kids a safe environment and outlet for their energy. And still another woman joined because she was sexually assaulted.
   
Tae Kwon Do is violent. I have no illusions about this. Indeed, all martial arts are inherently violent. You kick, you punch, you grab, and you throw people. If it wasn't violent, there would be far fewer bloody noses and broken bones. However, in Tae Kwon Do, as in most other martial arts, you don’t learn to do harm to others, but to protect yourself. Learning martial arts is learning self defense.
   
Specifically, one learns how to “disable” an opponent. To disable is to incapacitate, wound, or injure. In order to disable an opponent, we are taught to act violently. In most situations we are required to do harm to an attacker. This means throwing them to the ground, rendering them unconscious, or in some way wounding them so that they no longer wish to or are able to hurt us. We were learning to hurt someone so that they can’t hurt us.

It’s called self defense. Undoubtedly there are people who learn martial arts not for defense, but for offensive purposes. I call this the “ninja” complex. Basically, some fool learns how to punch and kick properly because he or she wants to be a bad ass or thinks he or she is a ninja. It’s like the Karate Kid. While it’s unlikely there would be an entire dojo dedicate to producing bullies, it must be understood that bullies will result every time power is gained.

Regardless of those who use martial arts to willfully harm others, martial arts exist to promote self defense not persistent violence. It's a paradox. Sometimes in order to maintain personal peace one is required to act violently. Martial arts is the discipline of that violence.

Jan 06

Rule #1- Always know where you are.
Rule #2- Always look good.
Rule #3- If you don’t know where you are, still look good.
    - Special Forces Joke

The US Army is the most fashion conscious organization on the planet. Throughout the ages the armies of the world have cared about style--think khakis, camouflage pants, the blazer, the beret, the peacoat, and the trench coat--but I think the US Army takes it to a new level.

The US Army doesn’t abide by “modern” fashion sense; it definitely adheres to its own code though. Your boots must have the laces tucked in, with the pants bloused. If your boots happen to be black leather, shine them every night for an hour. Berets will be cared for meticulously, shaved and shaped to perfection. Your hair will not touch your ears nor grow over two inches in length; a clean shaved face will lead to victory. Most importantly, everyone should where the same uniform, boots, ruck sack, and equipment, no matter personal preference.

Uniformity (in dress) will yield victory.

Failure to adhere to these standards will be noticed. I"m pretty sure a Sergeant Major's only job is enforcing these standards. Rolled up sleeves? He’ll catch that. Missing badges on an ACU? He’ll spot that. Non-standard boots? Oh yeah, you’ll catch hell for that. I've joked before that to graduate the Sergeant Major's Academy, the students have to do an inspection of a lieutenant with nine uniform mistakes and spot them all in thirty seconds or less. It's like a JMPI but for uniforms.

The reason for this is that a combat unit needs discipline. Forcing soldiers to meticulously care for their uniforms--shining boots, shaving berets--teaches them the discipline to do what they are told. I agree with enforcing discipline: war is chaos, discipline is the only way to overcome that chaos.

Unfortunately, uniformity (in dress) is not discipline.

The Armies that deployed to both Afghanistan in 2002 and that deployed to Iraq in 2003 were the most uniformed service we have ever had. Yet we still struggle in Afghanistan and it took until 2007 to learn the right way to win in Iraq.

Our enemies don’t have uniformity. But they have discipline. A discipline forged in the fire of constant threat of death.They need unrelenting discipline to stay alive.

I am not the first to gripe about uniforms in the US Army, nor will I be the last. But if we can learn a lesson from the last nine or so years of war, it is that uniformity in dress teaches uniformity in thought. The US Army took years to adapt to the situations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our uniforms didn't cause this, but our uniformity in thought probably kept change from occurring much earlier.