Feb 18

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Political satire is not new. Comedic dissension for political policy, representatives, or current event is an ever growing medium. Comedy central icons Stephen Colbert and John Stewart make a living mocking politicians and our political system. While some portrayals are intelligent and clever, others are derogatory and borderline militant. Certain attempts at satire push a line that both isn't funny and show a lack respect for our political institutions.

Last week, a family member emailed me this political cartoon.

It seemed harmless at first, the usual satirical affair. Yet after I read it, I wondered, “Is this cartoon advocating the death of people supporting Obama?” I felt, and Eric C agreed, that we had to respond to this growing trend of advocating Violence in our modern political discourse.

It’s a single ember in a seemingly growing fire composed of political hostility and outright hatred. Zazzle.com recently received flak for selling the following bumper sticker.

The bumper sticker reads: “Pray for Obama” but cites “Psalm 109:8” as it's inspiration. The passage reads: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership." (NIV) Insulting, but harmless unless you read the verses to follow. Such as "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." The prayer for Obama is not to bestow wisdom or guidance, but for his life to fall into desolation and his family line to die off.

This is a departure for the “Don’t blame me, I voted for ___” bumper stickers that seemed so popular on my block in the early 90’s. There is growing hostility toward our elected officials. Facebook shut down a user initiated poll asking “Should Obama be killed?”  Subsequently, the poll and those who answered are now under investigation by the Secret Service. Currently, President Obama has his own wiki page dedicated to attempts on his life. Recently, Bill O'Reilly suggested Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid need to be kidnapped and waterboarded.

The hatred runs deep along party lines. Consider President Bush’s two rather unsuccessful comedy shows on Comedy Central. That’s My Bush!, whose tagline was “A brilliant man deserves a brilliant sitcom,” only lasted eight episodes. The animated Little Bush managed seventeen episodes. Both portrayed the then President as an idiot and child. While insulting, these shows barely compare to the sentiments conveyed in Death of a President(2006) a docu-drama about George W. Bush's assassination or the novel Checkpoint by Nicholas Baker, about a man planning Bush's assassination. 

At some point Americans made a departure from acceptable and viable methods of protest to advocating acts of Violence against those we disagree with. Dislike for policy has evolved into malice for individuals. A combination of free speech, apathy toward actual political action, and misguided hatred fueled by polarized media outlets have led to an age of political passive aggression. Where outrage once led to rallies, protests, or petitions, the response now is angry blogs, disrespectful artwork, and death threats. 

Differing opinions is not a bad thing nor is disliking an elected official for his policies and public acts. Inspiring violence against those who don’t agree with your opinion is. How we respond to those who disagree with us is pinnacle to solving actual problems. Sadly, not everyone can be Stephen Colbert. Most shouldn’t try.

Feb 17

Every organization has its own culture. Lawyers debate like lawyers, engineers approach problems like engineers, and politicians solve ethical dilemmas like, well, politicians. Culture can influence how you think, how you act, and, in some cases, how you do math.

The military has its own brand of mathematics. Today I am going to talk about subtraction.

I call it Army subtraction: the missing three hours in the work week from 0600 to 0900 to start Physical Training (or PT). The Army can tell you that you only work for eight hours a day, from nine to five, and still have you show up at 0600. How do they subtract those hours?

I call this the “missing” three hours, because apparently I am the only one who misses it. Well, me and every other Soldier below the field grade officer rank (majors and up). They don't seem to notice showing up that early in the morning. Ask any leader in the Army, and they will say the work day starts at 0900 (or 0830 depending on the post).

A full Army work day is from nine to five. At regular units, Soldiers and leaders usually leave work at 1700. When discussing how much people work, the Army counts 0900-1700 as the work day, with an hour and half lunch. When calculating how much a Soldier works, Officers can easily say they put in a forty hour work week.

For me though, from 0600-0900 I feel like I am at work. It feels like work because I am at work doing work related tasks. That, and by law I am required to show up at 0600. (I could write another post on the formation before the formation that many units conduct. Even though first formation is at 0630, units will have Soldiers show up half an hour early for accountability.) This further depletes Soldier's personal time. If the Army understood that Soldiers work an average of 55 hours a week, than they could better understand the strain put on Soldiers.

This post could be dismissed as the gripe of a disgruntled Officer (and it is) but serious issues are at play. In the last year, the Army passed the civilian world in its ratio of suicides. The number of divorces, mental health referrals, and discipline issues by Soldiers continue to climb preciptouisly. And despite assurances otherwise, junior officers continue to flee the Army in droves.

The missing three hours every morning are not the cause of all these problems--the two ongoing wars are--but they contribute. Those three hours every morning are time away from family. By calling an eleven hour work day an eight hour work day, the Army steals three hours every day. And waking up at 0500 in the morning makes it much harder to spend quality time with your family when you get home from work at 1730.

The Army subtracts three hours from every work day. Only Army mathematics could make this work. The result is stressed out soldiers, families and systems. Could the Army find the time to start the work day at 0800, still do PT, and do all its other work? Absolutely, but that is another post.

Feb 16

Quick heads up: Eric C just had a guest post published yesterday at Daily Blog Tips titled, "9 More Ways to Promote Your Blog Online." Check it out.

Feb 15

In my mind, we need two things in Afghanistan. The first is better COIN techniques, and the military is slowly but surely on its way there. The second is troops. If we need thousands upon thousands of additional troops, why don't we ask China for help in Afghanistan? In a long term view, it is in China's interest to create a secure Afghanistan, and by extension Pakistan, a region vital to the stability of central Asia.

There is already a precedence for deploying non-Nato troops to Afghanistan--America’s coalition in Afghanistan includes the Republic of Korea and Poland. Could we bring in the largest military in the world, the People's Liberation Army of China, to occupy some ground?

Before I get into why this won't work, let's think about China's amazing capabilities.

China could easily send as many troops as the US currently has deployed (the US has about 100,000 Soldiers deployed including both combat and support troops). This would be a fraction of China's 1.6 million men in uniform. In comparison, the US Army has around half a million men in uniform.

Imagine the possibilities with that many additional troops. The People's Liberation Army could take over Helmand and Kandahar provinces, basically the whole of Regional Command South. That would free the US to control Regional Command East, that includes the capital of Kabul, Bagram Air Field, and the closest areas to the Pakistan tribal areas. Or the US could take the South and the Chinese could take the East. Or the Chinese could secure the West and North areas while the Germans, Italians, and Canadians help the US double down on the South and East. With the thousands of troops China has, we could execute a true population-centric counter-insurgency in a variety of ways.

Of course, we could just take the additional 100,000 troops and line them up on the border. This would make the Pakistan FATA sanctuary a non-factor. The point is, with another 100,000 troops, the options are almost limitless.

In casual conversation with other Soldiers, this idea always gets massacred, and I can see why. Realistically, it is in China's interest to allow the US to devote thousands of troops and billions of dollars in Afghanistan while they invest soft power in Africa, South America and other parts of Asia. Being intellectually honest, they have more to gain flexing their influence while America remains mired in expensive military quagmires.

Getting China to sign off on this plan, or getting domestic support is a long shot. We could ask, but would risk diplomatic capital if the Chinese refused. Also, too many American leaders view the Chinese as the enemy--or our future enemy--to allow them to come in and save the day.

This is unfortunate, we really could use 100,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.

Feb 12

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

Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted is the best post-9/11 war memoir of the eight I’ve read so far. This is probably because, unlike the other memoirs I've read, it reads like a novel.

Starting with an intriguing set up, the book bounces back and forth between Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq a year later. In both battles, he sets up scenes that made me feel like I was there. He ends his book well, with a tragic bookend you can’t help but see coming, but is still so random that it works. This book held me the whole time; the best word to describe it is vivid.

Like each memoir I've read so far, this book has a neat little thesis. Friedman discovers, near the end, that, “We killed terrorists and insurgents. In the process we killed civilians. We shot kids. It became pretty standard guerilla war. In a way, it became the war I always wanted.” Meaning of course he never wanted this war at all. This moral is a little too simple, and a little too neat, but it feels honest. This is a memoir, you're allowed--nee required--to moralize. It helps that this moral is true. One could view the entire American military adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan as a story of Soldiers/politicians/generals never getting the war they wanted.

The book also has the best awareness of counter-insurgency of any of the war memoirs. Children and civilians die in a sloppy invasion in Iraq; it is no surprise that an insurgency took root post war. Unlike the memoirs by Fick and Mulaney, (which I'll be reviewing next) this book explains why America remains stuck in two foreign wars.

As I wrote above, the highlight of the book, for me, is the description of Operation Anaconda, the now infamous battle in the Shahi-Kot Valley, one of the largest in the war in Afghanistan. Friedman captures both the large and small strokes perfectly. Friedman describes the broad strokes of the battle like a practiced historian. But he also includes a visual, of a horse running around a farm half mad, while thousand-pound bombs and artillery shells fall around him, miracously surviving days after he should have died. It is the single best image in any of the memoirs.

There are mistakes unfortunately, including small ones like spelling mistakes and typos. ­­­­Friedman writes that he won't reveal another officer's name, then accidentally reveals it two pages later. It has those damn gray scale photos in the middle of the book. The flashbacks are italicized, which becomes annoying to read after a paragraph. The War I Always Wanted was published by smallish sized publisher, which probably explains a lot of these mistakes. [Update: I've been told the mistakes have been fixed in subsequent printings.]

It's too bad this book hasn't been more popular, because like I said, I really enjoyed it. If I had to recommend a recent war memoir, I’d recommend this book way before the more popular Unforgiving Minute or One Bullet Away. Definitely before the Hollywood-movie-inspiring Lone Survivor or Jarhead.

In the end, The War I Always Wanted is limited because it is a memoir, not a novel. It contains before and after bookends that feel out of place, but a memoir demands these bookends. I guess no matter how good a war memoir is, I still wish it was a novel.

Feb 10

On the outskirts of Vicenza Italy, there is a beautiful hill overlooking the town called Mount Berico. At the top, there is a church, and of course a coffee shop. Most importantly, there is a breath taking view. Though it wasn't the best coffee, it was the best atmosphere in town.

Eric C and I used to relax by making the forty five minute journey to the top of the hill. Whenever we had visitors, we took them there, joining the throngs of Italian tourists who visited this important church andpilgrimage site.

There is also a set of stairs--nearly several dozen going up 700 meters--leading up to Mount Berico. These stairs are part of their religious tradition; the truly pious walk up in devotion, sometimes on their knees.

Unfortunately, a set of steep stairs is an inviting location to run.

Vicenza, Italy is also home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and two of its six battalions. In the morning, the paratroopers of the 173rd would look for the tallest, farthest places to run, and Berico was the nearest hill.

Inevitably, the town and the Soldiers came into conflict.

The local government eventually banned running downtown. Soldiers would run and call cadence, which had to end, because it woke up locals. Even after the cadences stopped, local Italian officials prohibited running downtown because soldiers conducted PT in the middle of the historical square (Soldiers were vomiting on the sidewalks or, again, waking up the locals.).

After banning downtown, the steps leading up to Monte Berico were banned. Again, the same reason: soldiers were vomiting on the steps. Italians described American Soldiers as a nuisance to civilians walking the steps. There were several other routes upBerico, so only the steps were banned.

Last summer, the entire hill was banned because of the continued disturbance and the alleged destruction of park land around downtown Vicenza . According to the local Italian papers, the response of the American soldier’s has been less than stellar. This caused bad press for American soldiers.

How does this relate to counter-insurgency? To the US Army, running at a pilgrimage site every morning for PT exercises was harmless. To the locals, it was anything but. The key is US Soldiers failed to realize how offensive their behavior was.

If US Soldiers can't get along with western Europeans in downtown Vicenza, Italy, how can we expect to do so in diverse cultures like Iraq and Afghanistan? The American Soldier (Officer, NCO and Enlisted) has great difficulty breaking from his own cultural viewpoints. As an Army we must face facts: many Soldiers lack empathy.

Not to toot my own horn, but when I first saw the behavior of soldiers on Mount Berico, and doing PT in general, I guessed that Italians would not be pleased with it. Sure enough, communicating this was difficult.

The only way to convince Soldiers not to run up those steps--to understand the error of their ways--was by a simple analogy. I asked, if French soldiers conducted PT runs around the graves of Normandy, and vomited on the sidewalks, how would you react? Probably beat the crap out of those Soldiers. An easy analogy, but almost the very definition of lacking empathy.

(I would provide some of the links to the original stories, but they are in Italian and most of our readership speaks English.)

Feb 08

In an earlier post, I advocated for the return of our soldiers from overseas bases. Today, I want to explain why stationing a quick reaction force overseas, like the 173rd ABCT, is pointless. At the very least, I want to point out the futility of such a policy in contemporary times.

At the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team stayed home (In all honesty, it didn’t exist as a Brigade, though Vicenza housed an Airborne battalion). By the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the decision was made to send the 173rd ABCT, with its two infantry battalions, into Iraq via an airborne insertion. This quick decision to secure the north of the country makes perfect sense for the mission of the 173rd ABCT. As European Command’s rapid response unit, they should kick the door in for operations like the invasion of Iraq.

However, the job of the door kicker is no more. As both Afghanistan and Iraq turned into extended occupations, no brigade could sit on the sidelines. So, a year after returning from Iraq the 173rd ABCT deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom V. It later deployed to Afghanistan in support of OEF VIII, and it deployed in the end of 2009 in support of OEF IX.

I guess my question is, if we station a brigade in Italy to act as a rapid response unit, then why would we deploy it? When the Army deploys the 173rd ABCT it sends no unit to replace its capability. Thus, at some level, the Army or national security apparatus has decided that a brigade-sized quick reaction force stationed in Europe is not a pressing need. Thus, if it isn’t needed, why do we have it there?

Every so often, I hear that the reasons we put bases in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Turkey, Krgyzstan and Italy is to allow our military to forward project our forces. Even in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, we only used the 173rd ABCT once, and we didn't use the other units in Europe until after the initial invasion. Basically, the idea that the military uses force projection is a farce.

After our ongoing wars, we will most likely return to joint military training with our allies. Honestly though, that can still be done via air travel, and for a much cheaper cost. Perhaps those who want to leave the 173rd ABCT in Italy will say that the 82nd Airborne Division is covering down when the 173rd ABCT deploys. If that is the case, then couldn’t they cover down permanently, with the 173rd ABCT stationed in America?

Feb 05

I love America--if I'm being honest, I love California more, but that's just splitting hairs. Though I loved living in Europe, I'll take my home town any day.

The thing is, I don’t hold much stock in this affection. I know how capricious and random my love for my home country is. Though I love my country, other people don't. And this is okay, because America isn't objectively any better than any other country.

The most accurate analogy is sports teams. I love the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael C loves his Bruins. We both love the Anaheim Angels if they make the playoffs. I hate Notre Dame, the Yankees, and every Boston area sports team. But I also realize no sports team is objectively "better" in terms of character or intrinsic quality, no one is wrong for lovng their team.
An example. My brother and his fiance went to UCLA. A good friend of our family went to USC. During a car ride, both got into argument (I may have started it) over which team had worse fans. My brother's Bruin-ite fiance claimed USC fans were the rudest she had ever seen. The Trojan claimed to have seen UCLA students make a lewd gesture towards his USC parents. Both claimed the other sides fans were vulgar and rude; both had virtually the same anecdotes.

Anyone on the outside can see the truth: neither school has better fans. They are all just fans.

Why do we love our sports teams? Most of the time it's because that team is the closest to you, or your parents rooted for them, or you went there for college. If you live in Southern California, then you probably love the team from the area you grew up in. Or you root for whoever is winning. In New York, you instinctively hate on your local teams if they don't win a championship.

In other words, the reason you love your sports team is completely random. Just like your love for your home country.

I love America because I grew up in America. It is familiar to me, and my pleasant memories of it from my youth make me love it. But I didn't choose the country I was born in. It’s one thing to say America is the country for which you have the most affection, but it is another thing altogether to realize it isn’t objectively the best.

CS Lewis made this point once, and I’ll paraphrase it: do you think it is an accident, or divine providence that 99.9999% of people love the country they grew up in?
Like I said, think sports teams. I love the Lakers and hate the Celtics, but I realize this love is irrational. Neither team is actually better or worse than another. Sure Kevin Garnett is over the hill, but I shouldn't hate him for that. I hate Florida, but I felt bad when Urban Meyer had heart trouble. We care about our sports teams, but not in any meaningful way.
In the end, I wouldn’t kill over the Lakers, and that's really the main difference between sports teams and nations.