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.)

Jul 29

(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.)

I recently re-listened to the song “Believe” by Yellowcard. A friend was with me, and she made an off-hand comment about how heroic firefighter are. The comment bothered me a little. Her sentiment, while a nice gesture to public servants, is ultimately belittling.

Something unfortunate happened after 9/11: the use of the word hero became synonymous with certain job professions. All firefighters are considered heroes. All soldiers are heroes. All police officers are heroes. And so on.

As an EMT, I have had the privilege of working closely with fire and police personnel. What they, and what we, do is often hard work. In most area, fire engines and vans respond to emergency medical calls. If it’s someone with emotional problems or an assault, we’ll see police there too. On a traffic collision, the highway patrol is called to make the area safe while we work and they stay long after we leave with the patient. Not to mention dispatchers, maintenance workers, security personnel, doctors, nurses, techs, etc. Working these jobs can mean exhausting days and sleepless nights. 

However, these things are part of the job description; it's the job they signed up for. A firefighter, an EMT, or a police officer doing his job does not make him or her a hero. It earns him or her the amount which they are paid (granted EMT's and law enforcement personnel are drastically underpaid, but firefighters make excellent money). To be a hero, one must go above and beyond the call of duty. Go beyond what is expected of them. 

We’ve all heard the accounts of survivors of the twin towers. As men and women escaped down the staircases, firefighters ran up them, never to come back down. As Yellowcard says in the song, "Climbing higher through the fire/Time was running out/Never knowing you weren't going to be coming down alive" That is damn heroic. Those firefighters are no fools, they knew with jet fuel burning in those towers, their lives were in constant danger. Soldiers who travel to combat zones, travel along IED filled roadways, remain in spite of minor wounds, and go home with major ones. Those Soldiers are heroes.

Now contrast that with firefighters who work during fire season then go on unemployment for the rest of the year. Soldiers who never see combat tours. Police officers who don’t patrol the streets. Comparatively, these people are not heroes. Yes, they are good and perform necessary public services. But a uniform does not make a person a hero. An occupation does not make a hero. And calling men and women heroes that haven’t earned it belittles the contributions of those who fought, bled, risked their lives, and died to be called such.

(Longtime reader Will M. found this recent Op-ed post by William J. Astore on the same theme. Check it out.)

Jul 26

One of the weirdest things about going overseas for the first time was discovering different architecture. I was so used to American architecture that you almost forget other building style existed.

So this is the flavor of Afghanistan. Gotta love blue trim and faux bricks. These were taken in “downtown” Serkani, next to the district center.

Jul 26

Last week The Washington Post unleashed a two-year investigative report about the rapid, largely unsupervised expansion of the American intelligence community. After spending a few hours browsing the site they created, I decided that I didn’t want to just tweet this article.

I wanted to link to it on our blogroll.

Top Secret America goes beyond just good reporting, it is also a resource--one that can be browsed for hours. In addition to a series of three articles, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have catalogued the scope of America’s Top Secret security clearance community, mapping and listing the companies and agencies that make up our intelligence services.

This interactive website that is more comprehensive then anything the government has. I have a feeling top intelligence officials were learning plenty from reading this article, not to mention the greater public and politicians. This will be the go-to resource for intel officials who want to know about the entire apparatus.

Just think about what this website and series of articles means for our intelligence system. What does it mean that I, a military intelligence professional engaged in intelligence work every day, have spent hours looking at this site? What does it say about our intelligence branch when two reporters probably written a report with more accurate, insightful, comprehensive and effective information then anything by the intelligence community?

And the two reporters did it with mostly publicly available information. All this stuff is already out there, they just compiled it in a meaningful and analytic way; the way intelligence people are supposed to do with their work. (For example, much of their information is in Jeffrey Richelson’s The U.S. Intelligence Community, that covers much of the same ground.)

More than anything else, Top Secret America shows the lack of comprehensive oversight and planning of our national intelligence community. It also shows the unhealthy reliance on contractors at every level. Plain and simple, this is an article people interested in intelligence and national security should read from front to back, and hopefully politicians do too. Hopefully we’ll have more on it in the future, we know we’ll be using it as a resource.

(To learn more, check out these On The Media and Talk of the Nation interviews with the writers.)

Jul 21

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

Thomas Ricks recently brought up a great point: a lot of war memoirs have terrible titles.

Now I love titles. I love coming up with fake titles for hypothetical bands, albums, blogs and novels. So when I started reading post-9/11 war memoirs, their (sub par) titles were one of the first things I noticed. Most are either bland (War, My War, War and Decision), boring (Wiser in Battle, My Year in Iraq, One Man's Army, Good Soldiers), or over-the-top (Warrior King, Lone Survivor, Seal of Honor). And they tend to have really long and really hyperbolic subtitles, like "A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood," or "The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10." 

Since TR brought up this issue, and since I've been thinking about it, this week, and next, I’m covering war memoirs titles. Which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t, and why. To research, I found the forty most popular titles I could, and began blasting them apart. But to show I'm not entirely negative, I'll cover what I liked first. In no particular order, my...

5 Favorite War Memoir Titles

Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher - Now that's how you write a title/subtitle combo. Boom. I'd read this book. (And will when I have time.)

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer - Krakauer uses the always-effective "quote the classics in the title" formula, and uses it perfectly (though I wouldn't describe Tillman's story as an odyssey, that's a minor quibble). This title is philosophical, heroic and tragic, all in 4 short words. Might be the best.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So
by Anthony Lloyd- Haven't read this yet, but this title makes want to. Since that's really a title's only job, it has to be considered a success.

by Michael Herr- Short, evocative, perfect.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq
by John Crawford- At sixteen words, it's a little long, but what can I say? The title and subtitle work well together. The title intrigues, and the sub-title describes without giving away too much. Plus it shows an awareness of the central problem with memoirs: honesty.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - This isn't a memoir, but it's the only book that I know of that has its thesis in the title. And that cracks me up.

...And 4 More Almost Great Ones

Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army
by Kayla Williams - I love the title--it's probably the best I've read--but the subtitle is redundant.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien- Michael says I'm biased because so many books I liked ended up on this list. I'm not. Good follows good. Most classics have classic titles, because good writers know how to write good titles; it's the same skill set. And The Things They Carried is a classic title. (Though it violates one of my personal, esoteric title pet peeves: including the name of a story or song track in the title of an album or short story/essay collection.)

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
by Colby Buzzell - This subtitle should have been the title. And seriously Buzzell, google your title before you send it to the printers. Rooney's book came out years before yours.

The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War
by Brandon Friedman- Again, I love the title but hate the redundant subtitle.