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.

Aug 08

“Most troops are not willing to die to help their boss avoid some unfavorable press.” 
    - Colonel Richard Kemp, The Journal of International Security Affairs

“But these [the ROEs, liberals] are the problems of the modern US combat soldier, the constant worry about overstepping the mark and an American media that delights in trying to knock us down. Which we have done nothing to deserve. Except, perhaps, loving our country and everything it stands for...This entire business of modern war crimes, as identified by the liberal wings of politics and the media...well ...the public does not have that right to know.”
   - Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor

It’s a common complaint about the Rules of Engagement: they only exist because “military leaders are afraid of bad public relations.”

They are absolutely right. Military leaders do fear bad publicity. I think that’s a good thing.

Military leaders should care about the opinions of our citizens. And not just Americans, but the opinions of the civilians in countries we occupy, and the citizens of the world. In our democracy, our military serves at the behest of the governed, and thank God they do. Some Warfighters--like Luttrell--want the rest of the country to turn away and let “them do their jobs” when they deploy. In a democracy, that is impossible.

But it isn’t just the opinions of Americans that matter. When our troops deploy to a foreign nation, public opinion matters more than almost anything else. In state-on-state war, the enemy is easy to find, and the populations of the nations involved are on one side or the other. But we haven’t fought a war like that in decades. In modern, messy counter-insurgencies, winning over the civilian population is the goal, not the destruction of the enemy’s forces.

So we care about bad PR in insurgencies. Not doing so is quitting before we get started.

We also care about preventing insurgencies and state-on-state wars in the first place, so we have to care about the thoughts of the citizens of the world. Our military is probably America’s most prominent ambassador around the world. It certainly gets the most press coverage. Our success in Afghanistan and Iraq will strengthen our position internationally. If we win, but alienate other people, I mean, that’s the definition of pyrrhic victory.

Finally, Americans care about how we win wars--not just if we win. Frankly, the only alternative is that our military would not care what Americans think, believe or feel. That just seems like a dangerous road to travel down. So if our citizens--in whose name the military fights--don’t want to see dead children, torture or murder on its behalf, then so be it.

Military leaders constantly praise duty. Following the Rules of Engagement and the will of the American people is a part of that duty. (Think MacArthur at West Point, or the Army Values)

The military cares about bad public relations. And we should thank God they do, because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be in a democracy.

Aug 06

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

Way back in May 2009, I was outraged by two different interviews--the first by Craig Mullaney on the Daily Show discussing his memoir, The Unforgiving Minute; the second by Donovan Campbell on Fresh Air, discussing Joker One. I told Michael, "These interviews are BS. I'm writing a post about them for the website." He said, "Not until you actually read the books." So I began the post-9/11 war memoirs project.

Having reviewed The Unforgiving Minute two weeks ago, I started thinking about these two interviews again, and how they exemplify the mistakes of both books: The Unforgiving Minute fails to put the war in Afghanistan into proper context; Joker One rings emotionally untrue.

The Unforgiving Minute and Political Context

Regular Daily Show viewers know John Stewart doesn't think America's wars are going terribly well. He recently described the war in Afghanistan as, "rebuilding a war-torn society, while simultaneously fending off an extremist fueled insurgency in a country that's an unyielding mountain hell-scape in an opiate-based feudal economy." Last Tuesday, outraged by the wiki-leaks documents, Stewart referred to Afghanistan as an "existential trap."

But when Mullaney appeared on the show last year, it was a different tone altogether. Stewart mostly asked harmless questions about the difficulty of military training ("What gave you the strength of spirit...What gave you the fortitude?”). Even the segment is blandly titled, "Craig Mullaney tells Jon what gave him the fortitude to get through Ranger school."

The focus of The Unforgiving Minute is on training, so it makes sense that Stewart doesn't ask about Afghanistan until two-thirds of the way through the interview. When Stewart finally does ask about Afghanistan, you'd be forgiven if you thought we were winning that war. Mullaney describes the skills needed to win in a counter-insurgency (You must become "The bionic-counter-insurgent" who knows languages, medicine, veterinarian skills and architecture.) as if our Soldiers already had these skills. But Mullaney's service occurred pre-COIN, pre-Iraq surge in 2005. Even if he were a COIN-dinista ahead of the curve, the rest of the military wasn't. He should say that, when asked about it.

Mullaney also doesn't mention--in either the interview or the memoir--that the war was going terribly, but it was. In the words of Spencer Ackerman, from 2004-2009 "the U.S. let Afghanistan rot." I wish the Soldiers who were there would say that too.

This jibes with two major trends of modern war memoirs: First, memoirists write retroactively about counter-insurgency theories the military hadn't embraced yet. At least three memoirs, mostly Marine memoirs about the early Iraq war, preach an acceptance of counter-insurgency that happened when our authors wrote their books, not when they were downrange. Second, don't expect proper military and political context from military memoirs.

Joker One and Emotion

In this heartbreaking interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Donovan Campbell describes, and you can hear the sorrow his voice, losing a man.

What got me, though, was the afterward. Gross asks, “Did the men in your platoon want revenge?” He answers, “For some of them it changed for a short period of time... we had a time back at the government center and some of the men were stunned... just trying to process it... some of the men wanted to get someone. Over the long run their attitude towards the mission didn’t change.  Team leaders did a great job... we don’t act out of revenge, anger.”
Campbell downplays the emotions his men must have felt. The reality is that when you lose a friend or fellow Soldier, especially in a war as long and stressful as a counter-insurgency, you want revenge in the worst way possible. You'll dream about it, you'll think about it. Put another way, you'll want "to kill very, very badly, and that a part of me didn't really care what it was that I killed as long as I got to do so." This is, of course, from the text of Joker One.

Whether you act on these emotions, that's a different story. But your emotional state, if we're being intellectually honest, is one of revenge. The short answer to the above question would have been "Yes," followed by an explanation for why that could never happen. Joker One's primary flaw is that Campbell loves his men. As I've written before, that's a beautiful quality for a leader but a terrible one for a memoirist. It prevents proper analysis, and in this case, understanding of human emotion.

One Final Point

Neither John Stewart or Terry Gross asked the hard questions. (Like, how did it feel to be a part of a losing campaign? How will we win in Afghanistan/Iraq?) Both were more interested in finding out about the daily lives of Soldiers, rather than their political or strategic opinions. But Soldiers have an experience and worldview most reporters/pundits/politicians can never achieve, no matter how many deployments they go on.

I want to hear Soldier's voices too, on more than just the easy stuff.

Aug 04

Today we have a two for one special--two Iraq-related posts for the price of one. First, an update by Michael C on his current deployment, then a list of articles of the most important stories about Iraq.

An Update

This deployment is nothing like my last trip downrange. On my last tour, it took five minutes to get hot water in the showe (if it came), the food consisted of two warm trays of heated...stuff, and I shared a room and an AC unit that constantly broke with 8 other people. Conditions were spartan.

This deployment the water is always warm in the shower (sometimes too warm), the chow hall has a Caesar salad bar, sandwich bar, ice cream freezer, and steak on Fridays, and I have my own room and a working AC unit. Conditions are lush.

And the work environment is completely different. In Afghanistan, I executed someone else’s mission and controlled my own battlespace. This time I work for other people, but I get to choose my own work and I never leave the wire. A surreal experience.

A Second “Remember Iraq Link-Drop”

A few months back, in a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, I reminded our readers that Iraq was still relevant. While Iraq isn’t nearly as precarious as Afghanistan, as recent events have shown, Iraq is far from stable.

Recently, Violence in Iraq has peaked to the highest death toll levels in two years. The main cause--and the most worrying issue--is that Iraqi has failed to form a new government after the March elections. If the Iraqis don’t get past this political impasse, expect violence to increase.

But the Obama administration is staying the course with the troop drawdown in Iraq. Both President Obama and General Odierno have stated that we will have less than 50,000 troops in Iraq by August 31st, and I believe that.

Oh, and the new mission will be called “Operation New Dawn” which sounds like “Nude On” if you say it fast. So, on September 1st, I will get my “Nude On” with everyone else at my base.

Right on the heels of the “Top Secret America” article condemning the use of military contractors in intelligence, we find out that military contractors in Iraq have a bright future with the State Department. I wish there was a better solution than hiring more contractors (State Department security? a militarized peace corps? our military?), but it looks like Triple Canopy, Xe nee Blackwater and other security firms will remain in Iraq until at least the end of 2011.

Finally--to show that contractors aren’t the only perpetrators of fraud, waste and abuse--the Pentagon announced that it can’t account for 8 billion dollars of Iraqi rebuilding money. Sarcastic applause.

Aug 02

When I was in Afghanistan, one of my favorite tactics was giving gifts to locals. I gave away fuel, building contracts, HESCO barrier walls, stuffed animals, humanitarian assistance and security. If I could provide it, I tried to give it away. It’s the new way to wage war, but it worked. When I told this to Eric C, he remarked that simple gifts can mean a lot for people living on a dollar a day.

He’s right, but he didn’t know the corollary to his statement: a gift from someone who lives on a dollar a day is nearly priceless.

When I first showed up to Serkani District, the Taliban attacked the police (ANP) checkpoint near Pashad every other day. Insurgents would blast the checkpoint walls with gunfire and sometimes RPGs, then flee back to the mountains near Pakistan. Because of a lack of manpower, Destined Company and the Afghan National Army couldn’t do much about it.

Until we came.

As soon as 4th Platoon arrived in Serkani from the Korengal, my commander told me that protecting the ANP from these attacks was my number one priority. Attacks usually happened at dusk, so we timed our patrols for afternoon and nighttime. We also prepared to QRF (quick reaction force) if the checkpoint commander gave us a call. For the first few weeks we had some false alarms, but no action.

One night, I got a frantic call to get to Pashad. We went. Long story short, we identified and took care of some insurgents who had just shot up the ANP checkpoint.

The checkpoint commander Sayed Abudullah, my RTO (radio guy), my interpreter and I sat outside the ANP compound, next to my humvee. It was a weird conversation: Sayed Abdullah was incredibly grateful for what we had done that night; I felt like we were just doing our job. As we talked about our recent success, an ANP soldier walked up with two oranges and gave them to Sayed Abdullah. He insisted my RTO and I have one.

Sayed professed that this wasn’t much, but a symbol of his thanks. He kept repeating how grateful he was that we could hit the Taliban for him. A few months before, his son was shot in the stomach and could no longer work at the checkpoint. For him this was personal, and we had done much for his safety by finding the Taliban at night.

So I ate his orange, knowing that fresh fruit is common but expensive in Afghanistan, and small by American standards. It was delicious nonetheless. I felt honored.

Jul 30

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

Last week, I wrote about the great war memoir titles. But the only thing more obvious than a great war memoir title is a horrible one. This week I’m running down the worst trends in bad war memoir titles.

First, they tend all have really long, really obvious subtitles. Does every war memoir need one? Good writing uses as many words as needed; no more, no less. Most subtitles add words that aren’t needed. The two worst are “An Iraq War Tank Commander's Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery,” and “ A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood.” Good writing is concise writing, every word a shining diamond. These subtitles are neither.

I think publishers require subtitles. Why? I can make the leap that Jarhead is about Marines, or that The War I Always Wanted is about war. The War I Always Wanted’s subtitle, The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War, is particularly redundant. Props go to Junger, Herr, Finkel, Franks and Rooney for leaving the subtitle off. But 5 out of 40 is pretty bad.

Second, books about Marines always include the word “Marine” in the title.
This isn’t the case for the Army, Air Force or Navy. I hate needless Marine glorification. For some reason, Marines need everyone to know that they’re Marines.

My guess is that books with “Marine” in the title tend to sell more. Still, it seems needless.

Third, if you have to clarify that you’re a Soldier, you’re probably a Senior Level Officer. Tommy Franks’ American Soldier and Ricardo Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story both have “soldier” in the title, and neither is really about a Soldier, at least not one on the front lines.

Fourth, extreme exaggeration isn’t helping. If you have to say your memoir is epic--e.g. House to House: An Epic Memoir of War--it probably isn’t. Unless you're Irony King Dave Eggers, leave out the superlatives. The vainest title I’ve found is Warrior King: The Triumph and Betrayal of an American Commander in Iraq by the self-described “warrior king” Nathan Sassaman. Finally, They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq annoys me. More on this a later post, but why is every unit the "hardest" hit? Because books and films only cover the most extreme, most violent parts of the warzone, the public has a distorted view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fifth, a number of titles have egregious intellectual errors. Like Evan Wright’s Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the new Face of American War. As I mentioned here, if the Millennial Generation is Generation Kill, then what the hell was the greatest generation? Generation Holocaust? Generation Genocide? Nathaniel Fick writes that, for Swofford’s Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, most Marines don’t really use this phrase. And of course, as we wrote before, Patrick Robinson and Marcus Luttrell got their title flat wrong.

Finally, Sebastian Junger’s War annoys me. Since I think his book could suffer from seeming to (mis)represent the entire Afghanistan war, obviously I don’t like his title which extrapolates this book to represent all war. (On the plus side, technically it references every quote ever said about war.)