Apr 12

I was in the middle of a shura in Pashad, when I received an urgent call from my Company Headquarters. Instantly my mission changed from peaceful shura to hurried cordon and search at a suspected insurgent cache. I paused for a moment to figure out my course of action, then excused myself from the shura.

Parked in front of an ANP (Afghan National Police) checkpoint, I quickly told the ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers--our patrol was loaded with forty ANA in addition to my sixteen men--and ANP leaders we had to go. My men remounted our vehicles; the ANA did the same, just not quite as fast. I was working my personal radio to get more information, head some yelling, and I looked up.

In front of my truck, an ANA soldier aimed a rocket propelled grenade launcher at an ANP soldier about seven feet in front of him. The lever was cocked, and he was ready go.

Uh-oh. (I used different wording at the time.)

As I moved behind my truck, I told everyone to button up inside their vehicles. More ANA and ANP began to square off. The yelling got louder. At this point, my interpreter had no chance to translate my yelling. So I did the only thing I could: I hopped into my vehicle and hoped that both sides would see the insensibility of going Mexican stand-off on each other at less than ten paces (especially silly considering an RPG probably won’t even detonate at ten meters).

As my platoon watched inside our armored boxes, and a surprising number of ANA guys not even realizing what was going on, an ANA First Sergeant arrived. He restored order by slapping the ANA guy holding the RPG, and gesticulating to his men to get in their vehicles. The ANP checkpoint commander took control of his men shortly after that.

Crisis averted.

In hindsight I realize how surreal this event was. It's the equivalent of the LAPD pulling firearms on the National Guard during a riot. And from what I hear, Iraq went through similar types of turf wars. No matter, Afghanistan will have trouble as long as the Army and Police don’t get along. The only real positive note, is that the ANA and ANP leadership eventually got their men under control.

(In defense of the ANA, the Soldier with the RPG thought there were people smuggling lumber through the check point, something that is technically illegal. Konar Province has a huge problem with smuggled goods: semi-precious gems, lumber and ores. Still a weird time to start enforcing the law.)

To succeed in Afghanistan, we need security. The success of both the ANP and the ANA in achieving security will either make or break our efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I had to watch these two groups--each struggling to come to terms with their role in a future democratic Afghanistan-- point loaded weapons at each other.

Apr 09

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

If memoirs are supposed to be true, a snap shot of life in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, why do so many memoirs feel…not true?

It isn't because the authors lie; it is because they omit. My gut instinct--and this has been born out in my reading--is that Soldiers don't always tell the full truth; war is too ugly, too brutal, to present it fully. The most interesting details are often the most painful, embarrassing or immoral. Some writers would rather focus on leadership or politics, others want to focus on honor and good deeds.

So I developed a litmus test of things that, if authors are being intellectually honest, they will include in their war memoir. What qualifies for the litmus test? Something that is unavoidably common in war but that is left out because it is, again, sordid, embarrassing, illegal or immoral.

What isn't included? Some things seem immoral, but are faithfully mentioned in every war memoir (smoking, an uncomfortable reference to porn, post-deployment drinking, etc.) because they are so common. Some things (atrocities, rape, war crimes) are not universal to every Soldier's experience. Some things are considered embarrassing, like PTSD, but almost every memoir I read ended with a Soldier having trouble adjusting to home. (Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is the memoir to read on the subject.) I'm also aware that for each example below I could find a memoir that mentions it. The point is that most don't.

Anyways, without further ado, the list:

1. Masturbating – Unlike past wars, Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have access to an easy supply of women. (GIs had the French and Italian women in WWI and WWII; Grunts had Vietnamese women) And while Fobbits at Bagram Airfield can always have sex with each other, for the all-male world of the infantry, masturbation is probably their favorite recreational hobby. Yet of the dozen or so memoirs I've read, it's been mentioned twice.

2. Dogs - Dogs are ubiquitous in a war-zone (Tom Ricks has an entire series dedicated to them) and they are thematically powerful--as I wrote here. So they should be side characters in every war memoir.

3. Dogs Dying - Dogs--like people, civilians, and Soldiers--tend to die in war-zones. A lot. Sometimes Soldiers kill them; sometimes they die by accident. Either way, their fate should be mentioned.

4. Animals Dying - Less common, but fascinating. Again, read this post. While dogs tug at the heart strings of every Soldier, cats, horses, and other animals get caught up in the violence as well. (H/T to @Trishlet)

5. Civilians Dying - It happens. It happened a lot on the invasion into Iraq. It happened a lot when the insurgency exploded. An honest memoir will deal with this messy truth about any war.

6. Bad Soldiers - If you're a platoon leader leading 20 or more men, one of your Soldiers sucks. Young Officers seem eager to explain the faults of their bosses, but not their men. This is probably the most difficult thing for an author to include in a war memoir.

7. Fear - Perhaps you weren't afraid. Good for you. But the best passages describe what Soldiers feel, and fear is perhaps the most dominant emotion of war. How could it not be?

8. Outside Plots
- Plot lines that don't have to do with war inform the reader to the larger picture. Jarhead and The Things They Carried did this really well. (H/T to @Brandon Friedman.)

9. Funny Things Happening During Fire Fights - My brother ate oranges after a fire fight. Guys say funny things. War is more comedy than action movie. (H/T to @Schmedlap.) This could apply to humor in General (more to come on this.) Also why I'm eagerly awaiting Kaboom, Orange County Library System.

Of course, someone can follow this list too closely. As I wrote before, there is such a thing as war pornography, an obsession with the muck and dirt and blood. Some prose never gets past it. The solution is a balance, terror and fear, love and beauty, heroism and despair. War tilts the balance, but it is too complicated to be presented simply.

There is another point. You might not want to write about these events as they actually happened. And that's why I wish writers embraced the freedom war novels, and and avoided the problems of war memoirs. If you have any things you'd like to see in war memoirs, please include them below in the comments.

Apr 07

The last time I brought up contractors, I asked hyperbolically, "Are military contractors (nee mercenaries), immoral?" My answer was yes, because of the fraud, waste and abuse endemic to the system.

A "spirited" debate followed with poster Mark over the amenities offered on super FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). I loathe the existence of Green Beans, Burger King, and Salsa Night on bases like Bagram Airfield. He and Gunslinger pointed out that the funds that support these places are not the same that, for example, procure Hescos or build infrastructure. They're right, but I will never like the fact that we support 30,000 troops who conduct zero patrols, and mostly work five days a week.

But as Mark pointed out in the comments--and was reported by a variety of news sources--General McChrystal has decided to drastically limit the accoutrement on these bases. The reason, as the guys at Ink Spots point out, is that logistically Afghanistan can only support so many programs. And unfortunately the patties of Burger King and the espresso of Green Beans have to go.

I think the best quotes come from this BBC piece. "This is a war-zone, not an amusement park," the blog written by Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall says. "In order to accommodate the troop increase and get refocused on the mission in hand, we need to cut back on some of the non-essentials." As McChrystal says, "[the extra amenities] served as a distraction to the military mission." The word "distract" perfectly describes the situation.

To help shed some light on the subject, Starbuck over at Wings Over Iraq pointed us towards these two, somewhat older articles. The first by Max Boot--who I don't always agree with--wonders whether the US Army has actually mastered the logistics issue of warfare, but has gone too far. He quotes the old aphorism, "amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics," then lampoons it with modern day examples.

Mountain Runner--a good regular read--agreed and makes a very good point: the worst part of Burger Kings and Salsa Night is that they create a "little America" mindset. This echoes the ideas of The Ugly American, who harped on the lack of American cultural understanding, with our modern issues.

And since military contractors/military acquisitions continue to provide delightful stories of ineptitude, we'll finish today's post with some of the more ridiculous recent news about our favorite people:

- It looks like Secretary Gates finally overhauled the senior mentor's program. This program allowed retired Generals to triple dip in both retirement pay, contracting work, and government consulting.

- And in a follow up to our post from our last contractor link dump, the draw down in Iraq is being mismanaged by contractors. If you want to know why we oppose contracting, it is because they over-charge the government when they can.

- And finally, our favorite villain, KBR. The federal government recently sued KBR over contract fraud for the Iraq war. And since everyone wants a piece of them, some soldiers are suing KBR saying they knowingly allowed US Soldiers to be exposed to carcinogens.

Apr 06

Quick heads up:

Eric C just had two guest posts published this week. The first is over at Unique Blog titled, "Bad News: The Gatekeepers Still Exist." Eric C likes this post, it's an analysis of new media vs. old media.

Eric C also had a guest post published on MaxBlogger. It's kind of conceited, and Eric promises it isn't his fault.

Check them out.

Apr 05

On a hot day in the spring of 2008, my platoon manned a routine traffic control point in Eastern Afghanistan. It was us, a small group of Afghan Border Police, miles of empty countryside, and a trickle of civilian vehicles.

As soon as I got my men into position, I went to the nearest compound to set up an impromptu shura. After a bit of coaxing, I finally got the eldest male to come out of his dwelling. He matched the physical description of a key Taliban sub-commander, and he acted suspicious. He even told me his name--the same name as the Taliban sub-commander. (This may seem odd, but our battalion had already captured three known Taliban throughout the deployment, all because they used their real name. Afghans will lie for hours about what they do, but they always seem to use their real name. More on this interesting phenomena in future posts.)

Part of me was worried: the Taliban sub-commander I was looking for traveled with an entourage of 20-50 armed fighters. Luckily, we had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) overhead. Linked to our Brigade headquarters, who had direct communication with my battalion headquarters, that in turn was linked to my company command post, who could talk to me on an FM radio, the UAV spotted the Taliban posse heading towards my position.

My commander radioed, “Destined 4-6, be prepared, Brigade says they spotted 100 Taliban moving towards your position. Current location at grid XXX-XXX.”

My platoon jumped into action, thankful that network-centric warfare had provided us the early warning.

What amazing technological network allowed this to happen? A variety of systems with equally convoluted acronyms: I plotted the Taliban position on a map system called the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below, or FBCB2. The FBCB2 links into another system called the Command Post of the Future, or CPoF. In addition to those two networks, every command post uses email, internet chat, and adobe chat. And to watch everything, the US Army has unmanned aerial vehicles; drones that can travel hundreds of miles, and hover over the battlefield for hours.

These networks allow Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels to (micro) manage fights in ways they never could before, as they were on that hot day in the spring of 2008.

As I worked with my company commander to identify the exact location of the Taliban entourage, my platoon sergeant got my men ready. My section sergeant put our sharpshooter in position, and repositioned the squad automatic weapon. My team leaders checked weapons and ammunition. We were on edge; we were ready.

I, meanwhile, checked the coordinates Brigade had relayed. I looked up. I checked again. I rechecked.

My platoon sergeant called me on the radio. “Sir, I don’t think those grid coordinates are correct.”

“No, they're right,” I replied. “The UAV is just looking at a herd of sheep.”

And so they were. "Network-centric" warfare isn't a panacea for counter-insurgency, or war in general. It doesn’t cut through fog of war, so much as allow the fog to creep up to levels previously unimaginable. The US Army constantly praises its small unit leaders for their initiative, but it then develops technology so that Generals can call in air strikes and micromanage the fight.

I don’t mean to discount all UAVs, or all communication advances, that combine to make our new "network" technology. But very few technologies have made life easier for the companies on the ground, the level where counter-insurgencies are waged. I'm not anti-technology; I am anti-micromanagement.

(A note on Operational Security: Many of the details in this story could be fleshed out because I have to keep some names and capabilities secret. I hope everyone understands. Also, this dialogue is not accurate but an approximation.)

Apr 01

(Today's guest 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.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

I have chosen to forgo my scheduled post on why Top Gun is one of the top 30 Naval Avionics films of all time (just above Iron Eagle 9: Navy Planes and Stealth with Jamie Fox) to address a growing threat: Nazi Zombies. They are on the rise and threatening to rip away not just our way of life but our basic human rights. Mainly, the right of not having our flesh gnawed on by the soulless undead.

In recent years, the threat of zombie armageddon has been steadily encroaching on our culture. The best and brightest have saturated the media with warnings. In 1968, George Romero was the first to speak against the festering menace with his documentary The Night of the Living Dead, in which seven people in a small town in Pennsylvania attempt to fend off the first documented zombie attack.

Obviously, official government policy is to deny the event ever happened. Bureaucrats denote such occurrences as "fiction" and call those who investigate them “crazy,” yet more and more people have released their tales of zombie survival. From Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead series to the newly popular 28 Days Later, awareness of the undead pandemic is spreading. Even written account have reached publication. Max Brooks’ World War Z recounts the testimonials of several of those who were cunning, determined, or plain lucky enough to survive the Zombie apocalypse. 

Still, these tales pale in comparison to the greatest zombie threat to date. I speak of course, of the Nazi Zombie.

This is a game changer. While once we were faced only with creatures who may have once been friends or neighbors, now we face war criminals and men who were likely monsters before they became undead. It’s a development that can cause the novice to zombie combat additional fear and skepticism. Few things are more terrifying than a German SS bearing down after taking three rounds to the chest while chowing down on the remains of PVC Riley (poor bastard), it's dead lifeless eyes looking to you for the next meal that fails to satiate its undead hunger. 

One thing is clear, regardless of what type of zombie horde you face, the only way to ensure survival when they begin to overrun society is to be prepared. Always have a reserve supply of food and a fortified place to hold up until the walking dead pass by. Keep yourself fit so you can out pace the slow moving rotting corpses. Conserve your ammo and practice your aiming. Body shots are useless, take out the brain and you take down the zombie.

But these are just a few tips. Not enough to guarantee you’ll live to help me rebuild society. Mainly, you must do your research. It’s important to watch the accounts of other survivors and their friends who didn’t make it. What did those survivors do right? What did their friends do wrong? And check out the The Zombie Survival Guide or this wiki. Above all, stay alive, humanity needs you.

Mar 31

Last Fall, Eric C ran across a passage in The Moon is Down that captured his thoughts so well, he just posted it straight up. The conclusions of The Ugly American (you can read Monday's review here) made me feel the exact same way.

In The Ugly American, Ambassador to Sarkhan Gilbert MacWhite lays out six conditions he demands of every foreign service officer traveling to the fictional country of Sarkhan. Change some of the words from Sarkhan to Afghanistan, and you have what I believe would be six fantastic ideas for counter-insurgents abroad:

1. I request that every American (and his dependents) sent to Sarkhan be required to be able to both read and speak Sarkhanese. I am satisfied that if the motivation is high enough, any person can learn enough of the language in twelve weeks so that he can get along. This should be required of both military and civilian personnel.

2. I request that no American employee be allowed to bring his dependents to Sarkhan unless he is willing to serve here for at least two years. If he does bring his family, it should be with the understanding they will not be given luxurious quarters, but will live in housing which is normal to the area; their housing should certainly not be more luxurious than they are able to afford in America. They should also subsist on foods available in local stores--which are wholesome and ample.

3. I request that the American commissary and PX be withdrawn from Sarkhan, and that no American supplies be sold except for toilet articles, baby food, canned milk, coffee, and tobacco.

4. I request that Americans not be allowed to bring their private automobiles to this country. All of our official transportation should be done in official automobiles. Private transportation should be taxi, pedicab, or bicycle.

5. I request that all Americans serving in Sarkhan, regardless of their classification, be required to read books by Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, Chou En-lai, Marx, Engels, and leading Asian Communists. This reading should be done before arrival.
[Editorial note: This is an anachronistic holdover between capitalism and communism, but they totally apply to knowing your enemy.]

6. I request that in our current recruiting program we make all of these conditions clear to any prospective government employee, so that he comes here with no illusions. It has been my experience that superior people are attracted only by challenge. By setting our standards low and making our life soft, we have, quite automatically and unconsciously, assured ourselves of mediocre people.


And now my thoughts:

Now, obviously some of these would only work metaphorically, and some would work literally. The important point is that at the time of printing, in 1958, these ideas were radical. They still are today.

For example, virtually every Soldier spends an hour each day conducting physical fitness. Soldiers are tested twice a year in the Army Physical Fitness Test, and their results are put in evaluation reports, and rewarded with medals in some cases. Yet virtually no unit studies languages regularly, and testing for languages is voluntary, even with units about to deploy.

Points 2, 3, and 4 don't apply directly, (no Soldiers or Marines bring their dependents to Afghanistan or Iraq) but the principle does. We deploy in relative luxury. We have access to DVDs, air conditioning, and some Super-FOBs have Burger King. Compared to the immense poverty of the surrounding countryside of Afghanistan, this is just insulting. If Afghan Soldiers can get away without AC, our Soldiers should. We should live like Afghans, the way insurgents, and good counter-insurgents, do.

Overall, the demand for luxury is a loss of focus on the mission. Much has been made of General Stanley McChrystal’s spartan living habits in Afghanistan. I have a feeling this comes from an understanding that luxury like gourmet coffee, steak and shrimp dinners, basketball tournaments, and salsa night do not contribute to mission success.

Which rule would you like to see America implement for better COIN?

Mar 29

After President John F. Kennedy read the novel The Ugly American, inspiration struck, and he decided to have every senior State Department official, and every single American military officer, read the book.

Unfortunately, he never gave the order, because he didn't believe the officials and officers would actually read the book. (This story is one of legend, otherwise we would link to it.) Fortunately, The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, hasn't gone away.

It is as relevant today as it was when it was first printed, before the Vietnam war (which it predicted). The Ugly American captures the essence of unconventional warfare in fiction. Or, in On Violence terms, it describes political war; it should still be read by all American military officers.

The authors originally set out to write a series of non-fiction accounts of State Department officials in southeast Asia based off their personal experience in the region. As they developed their stories, they realized that only fiction could capture the zany reality they saw. So they created a southeast Asian nation, Sarkhan, and the diplomats, politicians, and military officers stationed there. The Ugly American is a series of interconnected short stories about Americans trying to influence Sarkhan while both communists and capitalists try to consolidate power.

This struggle is not a war between nation states, but the struggle of competing ideas. The book's struggle of ideas--capitalism versus communism-- mirrors today's battle between extreme Islam and Western democracy. Unlike state war, the political war in The Ugly American follows different rules.

As a Philippino diplomat describes it on page 109, “I know that you’re a diplomat and that warfare is not supposed to be your game; but you’ll discover soon enough out here that statesmanship, diplomacy, economics, and warfare just can’t be separated from one another.” The intersection of diplomacy, economics and warfare might as well be ripped from General Petraeus’ Field Manual on counter-insurgency.

And while the book as a whole capture the interconnectedness of warfare, the individual stories themselves shine. They tell the stories of ambassadors--good and bad, American, Russian and Asian-- military leaders, politicians, and most importantly “ugly Americans.” The best part of the novel is that the "ugly American" of the title is the most influential in Sarkhan.

His name is Homer Atkins. He provides only simple engineering insight, but does so in a way that the native Sarkhanese adopt the ideas wholeheartedly. Homer Atkins doesn’t care about living lavishly, he learns the local language, and he genuinely cares about the people of Sarkhan, not just the threats against America.

In another story, we hear about an Air Force Colonel named Hillendale, probably an intelligence officer, who manages to influence massive numbers of Sarkhanese without really trying. He sings songs, reads palms, and eats food with them. (He also knows the language, a point that occurs over and over. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and last summer.) Most importantly, he uses hardly any money while he influences people.

The lessons of Homer Atkins and Colonel Hillendale are just two of many. The most important lesson, and why all current and future military officers should read this novel, is because it persuasively describes political war. (Also, while I have been insanely positive in today's post, on Wednesday I will provide some of the downsides of this thoroughly enjoyable novel.)

And if he hasn't read The Ugly American, I would advise President Barack Obama to read it too. Hopefully he finishes the job President Kennedy started, making all military officers and State Department officials read this novel. (Although, I bet 90% of officers wouldn’t even if the president told them to.)