25 February 2010

The Karate Kid...practices Kung-fu. WTF?

This post is a little off-topic, and for that, I apologize:
So I was surfing the website for the Bobby Bones Show, an Austin-based morning show that I listen to fairly religiously each morning as I sleep-drive my way to work at 0515 every morning, and I saw that he posted a link to a trailer for what is either a re-make or reboot of the Karate Kid franchise.

Sidebar: I freakin' love the Bobby Bones show, mostly because its personalities are all late-twenty-somethings (i.e., my age), and they are able to make me laugh -- an increasingly difficult task to accomplish these days.

As Mr. Bones rather astutely notes, it stars Will Smith's kid, and Jackie Chan (who I guess is filling the Mr. Miyagi role as coach/teacher/mentor?)

One thing bothered me, though: if the kid is going off to China to study kung-fu (a Chinese martial arts discipline), then why in the name of f*** is this thing called "The Karate Kid".  Should it not be "The Kung-fu Kid"?  Additionally, since I no longer have an MLA guide to writing, can someone tell me if I'm supposed to italicize movie titles, or stick 'em in quotes?  Or are they one of those grey-area things where both are acceptable, so long as you remain consistent...?

Am I the only one bothered by this?  Does anyone else see the ignorance in this misnomer for a movie title?  At least Jackie Chan (maybe) gets an opportunity to be an actor, and not an empty vessel exploited for a cheap laugh (usually at his own expense).  C'mon Jackie: do the Asian American community a favor and stop with the jokes whose punchline is your inability to speak English.  You're better than that, and quite frankly, the racial slapstick is kind of old and passé.

08 February 2010

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans turning-in rifles for pens and typewriters

One of my old high school classmates beat me to the punch and posted a link on Facebook to this article from yesteday's NYT about the recent wave of writing (memoirs, analytical studies, etc.) emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's a short article, so I won't waste time giving you an executive summary.  Instead, I'll talk about what struck me.  In particular was this paragraph from the article written by Elisabeth Bumiller, characterizing today's "soldier-writers":
The current group is different. As part of a modern all-volunteer force, they explore the timeless theme of the futility of war — but wars that they for the most part support. The books, many written as rites of passage by members of a highly educated young officer corps, are filled with gore, inept commanders and anguish over men lost in combat, but not questions about the conflicts themselves. “They look at war as an aspect of glory, of finding honor,” said Mr. O’Brien, who was drafted for Vietnam in 1968 out of Macalester College in St. Paul. “It’s almost an old-fashioned, Victorian way of looking at war.”
That's a hell of a paragraph, dripping with consequence for my fellow comrades-in-arms who dare look inwards and confront their inner drive and motivation.  So I ask myself: have I been seduced by the magnetic charm of the warrior-scholar paradigm?  Hell, we've got Tim O'Brien himself here, saying that "we look at war as an aspect of glory, of finding honor."

My God...is that what I'm doing?

I spent a childhood growing up on a healthy dose of Vietnam movies and memoirs and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which I truly believe left a huge impression on me as a young high school student back in the '90s.  With this pedigree of social commentary under my belt, any implication that I see war as a mechanism to find glory and honor would be downright embarrassing.  I mean shit, who wants to admit that?  Who wants to stand up, raise their hand and say, "Yes, I joined the military because I'm looking for glory."

But wait, let's pause for a second.  Maybe Ms. Bumiller and Tim O'Brien are onto something here.  And let's face it: Tim O'Brien's a hell of an insightful guy (just read his books).

As I was reading the article, I couldn't help but feel that someone had been spying on me, and sent a report to the Times.  Caught in the act!  Or maybe, more accurately, I want the article to remind me of...well, myself.

I mean, isn't that why I'm even posting to this blog in the first place?  Yes, part of it is cathartic like I imagine it is for plenty of service members who write memoirs about their wartime experiences -- to help myself work through some of the things that I've seen and done for the last couple of years in the Army.  But isn't a part of it also because I have indeed been seduced by the warrior-scholar paradigm?  And if I have, the question then is: is that a bad thing?

Don't worry, I'm not comparing myself to guys like Nate Fick or Andrew Exum -- guys that went to war, wrote books, then went on to go to the best schools in America and are currently doing amazing things as civilians; guys that are just downright geniuses.  These guys are intellectual heavyweights with wartime credentials that outdo mine by a thousand-fold, and unless I do some amazing shit when World War III pops off, there's no danger of my joining their ranks in the warrior-scholar elite.

Maybe I write because I want to break that age-old stereotype: the one of the soldier as an apish brute.  Maybe I want to prove that just because I put on a camouflage uniform does not mean that I am unintelligent or incapable of understanding issues of larger import or gravitas than what the chow hall is serving for the next meal.  Maybe I want to prove to mainstream America that I understand the national and global policy issues behind the wars that are killing my soldiers better than they do, because I don't shackle myself to 60-second sound-bites from a spin-doctor on Fox News.  Maybe I want to show people that there's more to the military than the whole "Kill!  Kill!  Kill!  Death!  Blood!  Yeah!  Awesome!" visage that is so often paraded around and exploited by anyone with an agenda in their pocket.

I don't know.  I'm just glad that GWOT (Global War on Terrorism -- yeah, it's a Bushism, but one acronymn is better than two separate ones: OIF and OEF) veterans are writing, and that some works are being recognized.  Hell, exposure in this Times article is probably as mainstream as some of these works will ever get, but if that means more people wander over into the Military History section of their local Barnes and Noble or Borders, and pick up Colby Buzzell's My War or Andrew Exum's This Man's Army or hell, even James McDonough's Vietnam memoir, Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat...well, then that's a good thing.

Let's talk about what no one wants to talk about: PTSD

This started off as a comment/response to an old law schoolmate's blog entry, but it started getting rather lengthy and out-of-control, so I migrated it to a full post here.  A rather gifted Jarhead, she somehow manages to balance being a mother, spouse, lawyer and Marine all at the same time.  I won't do her the injustice of trying to summarize her entry, so read it, then come back (she flatters me in her first paragraph -- skip on down to the main body text for the substantial stuff!)

Okay, you're back.  So this post is meant to directly address the feelings of -- I don't know what they are: anxiety, maybe -- that we feel when confronted by disturbing images or events.  I think these feelings in and of themselves are not so strange in the narrow context of following exposure to bad shit: most people would call it a normal reaction.  I think what makes those feelings difficult to reconcile is when, just as Colleen writes in her entry, you are a professional warrior trained to fight, and ultimately to kill if necessary.  We're supposed to be immune to those feelings, right?  We're supposed to just lock them away in a box somewhere, and save it for later!  Save it for all of the yummy and tasty goodness of PTSD, right?!

That works for some people.  But not everyone.  And this is where my discussion is going to probably start jumping all over the place, so bear with me: just buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.

Rewind a year and some change: December 2008.  I'm on pre-deployment block leave, just a few weeks away from getting on the bird and heading to The Big Show (i.e., Iraq).  I'm drinking with an old ROTC buddy of mine, John: an Army infantry officer who deployed to Afghanistan at the same time I left for Iraq.  It was probably late in the evening, and we both had undoubtedly had a few too many drinks in us.  John was one of the few peers I had in ROTC that was truly on the same page as me: we both understood very well the grave and substantial responsibility we were shouldering.  We were both going to be in charge of 20 to 30 people.  Lives.  Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers.  Anything our platoons did or failed to do...well, that would be our responsibility and ours alone.

So, John and I both being drunk and on the verge of embarking on the great adventure known colloquially as war, we start talking about the shit that you don't generally share with other people, namely normal civilians.  What worried us?  Losing soldiers.  Competence.  Ability.  Courage/fear.  Everything.  How would I react in any given situation?  Am I ready?  Am I ready right now to lead soldiers in combat?  Has the Army given me all of the tools and training I need to ensure that I can lead soldiers effectively and not squander their lives?

Neither of us joined the Army with our eyes closed.  We knew what we were getting into: if you're active duty Army, and if you're a combat arms officer, then you are virtually guaranteed to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year of arriving at your first duty station.  And we knew what was going on.  I was an undergrad at NYU in 2001 when the World Trade Center turned into The Pile (and later The Pit) -- or Ground Zero as the rest of America calls it -- and we kicked off military operations in Afghanistan.  And I was still in college in 2003 when we marched into Baghdad.  I was old enough to be cognizant of what war can do to people: it kills them at the worst, or mangles them physically, or scars them psychologically.

Anyway, so there we are, drinking and sobering each other up with our insecurities.  I remember looking at John and saying, "Hey dude -- this is gonna sound weird, but...I've been looking at fucked up shit on the internet to get myself ready."  To my relief, he responded with, "Yeah bro, I've been doing the same thing."

This was the rationale: we didn't want the first time we saw something terrible or horrifying to be on the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.  I wanted to take care of the shock value ahead of time -- in essence, pop the psychic cherry.  I was hoping to desensitize myself in the hopes that if I was ever confronted by the real-life horrors of war, I wouldn't be paralyzed and I'd still be able to make decisions properly.  I was jealous of my other ROTC buddy Ian, who as a paramedic/EMT, had seen all sorts of fucked up shit.  Hell, I had seen a dead guy with his head cracked open on the curb back when I was living in Bushwick, Brooklyn: but that was only once, and it was at night, and I was drunk at the time.

So almost like we were fulfilling some kind of perverted fetish, we both had ended up scouring the internet for the most disturbing images of war we could find.  I'll spare the detailed descriptions, but you can guess: the kinds of photos that were easy to take back in 2003 and 2004, in the early parts of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom): dead civilians, dead insurgents, etc. etc.  We were hoping that it would somehow prepare us for what we could possibly see first-hand.

So, all that being said, did any of my extracurricular research help prepare me any for what I saw in the year that followed?  Answer: not a damned bit.

The first time you see something bad, it's scenes of people running around, maybe bleeding from their head or their arm or whatever.  That's palatable.  Your brain can handle that: big boom, people hurt, little bit of blood.  Got it.  I'm okay, let's charlie mike ("continue mission").

The next time, maybe it's kids instead of adults.  Okay, little bit worse now.  It really tugs at your heart when you see some grade schooler walking around with an almost cartoon-like bandage wrapped around his head a day after a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, i.e., carbomb) blows up in front of his school.  But you can handle it.  The kids are alive, some are a little bit hurt, but everything's going to be okay.

But that's really the extent of "okay".  Next incident: SVBIED (suicide VBIED) blows up next to an ESU (Iraqi Emergency Service Unit) pickup truck carrying five Iraqi Policemen.  Firefighters are pulling blackened, twisted and mangled things that are totally unrecognizable as human.  In fact, the only thing that makes it apparent that this is a dead body they are pulling out of the molten wreckage are the following: (a) they are loading it onto a bright orange spine board; (b) as parts of the thing catches on corners of the truck's wreckage, strings and ropes of burned meat or tendon or tissue are pulled back to reveal yellow and pink shit underneath, and I know enough biology to know that the yellow shit is the fat in your body; and (c) some of the black, charred things have these big lumps in the middle, which upon closer inspection appear to be all twisty and loopy, which is when you realize that you're looking at a dead dude's intestines.

Pretty horrible, but your brain can still process it.  Because there is still a tangible process to it all.  Those dudes are dead.  I know they're dead because those are their bodies that are being carted away right now.  Got it.  Was it a gross and disgusting sight?  Yes.  Shocking?  Sure.  But I'm over it.  Charlie mike.

Okay fast-forward to the next incident.  SVEST (suicide vest) in the southern part of the city.  Roger, we're moving time now.  Just go south.  Follow the sirens and police trucks and ambulances.  Go go go!  There, one o'clock: two, three hundred meters by the big building on the west side of the street: gaggle of emergency vehicles.  Stop!  Where's the cordon?  The Iraqis have no cordon.  Okay, I see a shitload of people standing around by those fucked up cars -- we'll move in a little closer and establish a cordon around the blast site.  Okay, this is good, stop here.  Button-hook to the right a little bit...yeah, that's good.  Stop.  Hey gunner, face over to our seven o'clock.  Driver, call it up to battery and let 'em know we're stopped, dismounting and give 'em the grid.  Tell the other trucks to conduct survivability moves every now and then, but maintain cordon.  Okay, I'm dismounting now.  Interpreter, let's go.

Hit the handle, grab your weapon, lean into the heavy door with your shoulder, slip the right arm and M4 out, look down for a second (no boobytraps) and let the right foot down onto the pavement.  Take a few steps out, scan your sector, move over to the next piece of cover, take a look around and figure out what the hell's going on.

You see two, no three cars parked near each other: two sedans and a white pickup truck.  Windows all blown out, and all of the vehicles are peppered with paintball-sized holes.  Two of them have streaks of blood all over their front ends.  You've never responded to an SVEST before, and you don't know what to expect.  Once you determine that security is set, you make your way to the gathering of first responders near the blown up cars.  It's morning -- only zero-nine-something -- but the summer heat is already starting.  Next to the cars is a very shallow, but rather wide crater.  More like a gentle dip in the ground, but it's just covered in all of this brown shit -- brown shit just smeared all over the place.

You turn around and scan the area, and you see these little brown splotches all over the street, radiating out from the crater for a good bit -- all the way to the other side street on the other side of where your vehicles are at.  You kneel down to look at the ground, closer at a brown splotch, and realize that it's a piece of human meat that has made the ground wet.  These meat chunks are all over the place.  Hell, your whole platoon just drove right into the crime scene.  Nice job, asshole: now what?  There's no way to walk around without stepping on the splotches.

You look around, and some of your soldiers are starting to realize what they're looking at, too.  Your mind is racing in a dozen directions at once.  The rational part is analyzing the scene, adjusting vehicles, talking to IPs (Iraqi Police), trying to figure out what happened here.  Another part is trying to understand that all of these brown chunks used to be people: real people that had real lives.  Another part of your brain is trying to wrap itself around the sobering reality that an entire life -- all of those experiences and memories and friends and family that's affected by that individual's existence -- can be snuffed out in the time it takes for an SVEST to explode.  And yet another part of your brain is wondering if that strange smell is the odor of all this meat cooking on the ground in the summer Iraqi heat.

So what's the point?  Why did I laboriously take you with me on a perhaps too-detailed description of some of the weird shit that occurs overseas?  During my platoon's response to the SVEST, I believe my mind erected some kind of wall: okay, that's weird, but ignore it, still got a job to do.  Defense mechanism that enables continued performance, perhaps?

But later on: and I don't even know how long it took.  Hours...days...weeks...but later on, I did find myself thinking about that scene over and over again.  And I found myself disturbed by it.

Which brings us full circle to our original topic: the feelings and emotions we feel following exposure to any kind of terrible sight.  And whether it's okay to feel these things if you are a part of our storied institution of warriors.

Let's be blunt: PTSD has become a meaningless, empty label nowadays.  I would argue that it's an unnecessary label.  The stigmatizing label of PTSD is nothing more than the human body's normal physical and mental reaction/response to a traumatic stimulus/event.  Whether it's being shot at in combat, or surviving a car accident on the interstate, I would argue that what we today call PTSD is just a normal physiological and psychological set of responses.  If you go through some fucked up shit, of course you're going to go through some kind of process.  Of course you're going to feel some weird things.  This is normal.

So why the label in the first place?  My cynicism is going to show through here, but I would say because a label makes it easy to categorize.  And the military is all about labels and categories.  Quality medical diagnoses and treatments have been replaced by compartmentalized, quick-fix mass programs that are just ineffectual attempts to preserve the appearance that the Army is helping its (psychologically) wounded warriors.  Dear sir or madam: have you ever been deployed?  While deployed, did you ever see dead bodies or wounded personnel?  Did the sight of these things disturb you?  Okay, well, regardless of your answers, here's a 30 minute PowerPoint presentation, and if you feel like seeking additional help, we'll put you in touch with a mental health professional who has never deployed in a combat status and will likely not understand anything you tell him or her.

Whoops: soldier's acting up?  But he was such a good soldier in Iraq!  Well either he's an asshole that needs to be chaptered out of the Army, or he's got PTSD.  Oh wait, he has PTSD?  Well, he's no good to us -- put him on medical profile and let the head-shrinkers deal with him.

You see -- it's easier to label people because when you do, it makes the immediate problem go away.  No matter how much the military tries to sell its newfangled programs for helping out returning veterans, the sad truth is that the military (especially the Army) is astonishingly ill-equipped to properly handle or treat an entire generation of soldiers who have been exposed to multiple tours of combat and overall bad shit.

So, let's get back to talking about me.  Here I am, safe and sound, deployment complete.  The sights, smells, sounds of all the bad stuff: thousands of miles away from here.  Do I still think about these things sometimes?  Sure.  Am I totally desensitized to the horrors of war?  No, and I doubt I ever will be.  I'm not sure anyone can ever truly be desensitized or made immune from these normal feelings.  At least not with the way the Army deals with reintegration upon redeployment back home.

The Army (and the Marines and everyone else) spend an untold number of dollars and weeks or years of its time training you, Soldier or Marine, to be a warrior.  You will move your selector switch from safe to semi, scan your lane, and kill any green motherfucker that pops up in your sights.  You will pick up your radio, map and binoculars and call in some 155mm artillery HE (high-explosive) and smoke the shit out of that grid.  You will put your thumbs on the butterfly trigger of that M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun and blow the shit out of any dumptrucks that attempt to breach that IP checkpoint 500 meters to our north.  This is what you were trained to do.

But when you come back, all of a sudden it's "Stop!  Wait, just kidding.  We wanted you to be warriors and we want you to be turned on and on red alert all the time, but not anymore.  It's not okay to be on high alert anymore."  Because if you're on high alert, guess what: you might have PTSD.  Or you're crazy.  So get over it, the Army tells us.  Re-adjust, reintegrate.  So you do it.  You reintegrate.  To only have to re-learn how to ramp yourself up again when you find yourself in the desert or mountains again a year later.

Why can't we just accept that yeah, people are going to be amped after deployment.  Why can't we accept that as normal and go from there?  Why label it?  Why stigmatize it?  Why force our warriors to shun the very warrior culture that very possibly kept them alive for 365 days?  Why can't we teach them to hang onto it -- even if it's just a little bit of it -- so they don't have to feel like they're crazy for it?

Now let me be clear: I'm not saying that it's okay to have brigades of soldiers running around in the U.S. pretending like they're still in Iraq.  However, the process of reintegration is too rushed.  And it's too superficial and empty.  Have you watched the PowerPoint on reintegration?  Yes?  Okay, you're good.  Next soldier.  Have you watched the PowerPoint?

So, my colleague Colleen wonders whether the feelings of disgust/anger/remorse, etc., at seeing images of violence and war or whatever are normal or common -- even in the face of her professional background as a Marine.  I would say yes, this is normal.  There will of course be a large subset of military folk that will continue to toe the party line of machisimo, exhorting an invulnerability to quaint things like feeling or emotion -- but those dudes are just lying to themselves.

Whatever you end up feeling in response to some out-of-the-ordinary shit -- whether it's the shock of seeing destruction, or the grief of losing a soldier, etc. -- is a completely normal reaction.  Everyone's reacts in different ways, and everyone has a different timeline for how long they are affected: for some, it's measured in seconds, and for others it can be years.  The biggest thing is being aware of the fact that your body and mind are going through a process (regardless of how brief or prolonged it may be), and that it's completely normal.

To readers who've seen the shit: I hope this helps.  You're not alone, and don't let anyone make you think  you're crazy.  Be aware of what's happening to you, and be rational enough to think about it and analyze it and if it's a problem, then attack it.

To readers who haven't seen the shit yet: there's nothing I can say or write that will prepare you.  Nothing you look at on the internet is going to simulate the sensation of seeing and smelling and touching the fucked up shit that goes on overseas.  Just trust in yourself, and trust that whatever reaction you have is normal.  Trust your training and trust in your ability to overcome whatever intense shit you feel right at that second to do your job and take care of your soldiers.

03 February 2010

Blinders for the public?

The New York Times' At War blog has a good entry by Wesley Morgan, a student at Princeton who had spent a decent chunk of time in Iraq and Afghanistan for research.  He discusses the general public's isolation and perhaps even ignorance of the daily horrors of combat that take place in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Much is attributed to other factors that drive the two wars to the corner as distractions from more tangible issues, namely the economy.

And you know what?  Young Wesley is right.  But I'm not completely sure that this is something that we need to be disturbed by.  My first reaction is to be all up-in-arms: why the hell don't people care?  People are dying, for God's sakes.

But maybe this is just an illustration of how lucky we as a nation are.  The fact that we can be entrenched in two separate wars, and preserve the ability for the majority of the American populace to go about daily life unaffected -- that's a good thing, right?  I mean, it's a good thing that only a small percentage of the people have to experience the trauma of losing a loved one in combat.  Or the stress of being separated from a spouse/parent for a year at a time.

No.  That's not a satisfying answer.  Less than one percent of the American population currently serves in the military.  But I want people to care.  I want people to know about the things happening overseas: both the good and the bad (an important emphasis placed on the word and).

A lot of people will talk about today's American military and its increasing isolation from the general public.  For the first time...ever, we are fighting two major conflicts not with conscript soldiers, but with a professional all-volunteer force.  Are we seeing the development of a separate warrior class in our society?  And if so, is that good or bad?

Traditional thinking says: bad.  Old school military thought says that war is a military means to a political end (Clauswitz).  The Constitution itself subordinates the military to civilian policy-makers.  So where do we stand today?  We've got probably the brightest generation of senior leaders serving in the military right now, and today's platoon leaders/company commanders are going to be tomorrow's battalion commanders and generals.  The wealth of combat experience that the up-and-coming generation possesses is astonishing.  But what will they/we make of this gap with the rest of society that some perceive?

Another question is, on whom does the onus fall to close the gap?  That's probably the more difficult question.  Who possesses the obligation to do the azimuth check?  Honestly, I don't know.  My emotional side says the general public: we (the military) are suffering the horrors of war first-hand, therefore it is the public who get to enjoy daily safety that is obligated to learn more about what the hell is really going on in this world.

But another side of me says, The public will NEVER understand.  Take a sample or cross-section of America: how many people do you think really understand what counterinsurgency is?  How many people understand what exactly the 2006 "surge" in Iraq entailed, and how it fits into counterinsurgency theory?  How many people understand that The Surge's success was due not only to "sending a bunch more troops to Iraq", but also the reconciliation of Sunni insurgent groups, which later came to be known as the Sunni Awakening?  How many people even know what the difference between a Sunni Muslim or a Shi'a Muslim is?  How many people know that muslim describes people, while islamic describes things?  How many people understand that Afghani is NOT a word, and that the proper term is Afghan?  The general public does not know or understand these things -- these basic, academic things -- which leads me to believe that they will never understand the more exotic shared-military experiences: grief, fear, victory, frustration...

Which goes back to the question: where does the onus fall?  Is it my responsibility to teach Joe Civilian the difference between a Sunni and Shi'a?  Or is it Joe Civilian's responsibility to go out and educate himself about the policies that are being enacted by the people he voted to put in office?

I don't know.  This blog entry is obviously much more disjointed than my usual entries, and maybe it's because I'm so conflicted on the issue.  So let's return to the initial discussion: the general public, and their isolation from war.  I'll close this one by quoting from an entry I wrote back in 2008:
Think back to the last time you thanked a soldier/sailor/Marine/airman for their service. Was it when you accidentally bumped into them on the subway? Or in the mall? Or at the airport?

If these are the only times you think about the kids that are making the ultimate sacrifice out there, you need to start thinking about them more.

Don't thank ME for my service. I haven't done a thing. Thank the guy with the patch on his right shoulder. Or the girl that has to learn how to use a metal hook for a hand. Or the family who lost a son/brother/father/husband /sister/mother/daughter/wife... The 18 year old kid who no longer has any need for left-foot shoes. The father who came home unrecognizable to his baby girl and worries about hugging her good night because she's too scared of him now...

Thank them, and do it often. It's not really an option for any of us...it's an obligation. 

Funny -- I'm reminded of an incident a couple nights ago where I was in Wal-Mart, and some random older lady gives me a card saying, "This is for you."  On the card was printed the words, Thank-you for your service.  A nice gesture -- the exact kind of gesture that I ask for in the above quote.  But it seemed so...fake.  Contrived.  Almost disingenuous.  Maybe it was the fact that she was handing out friggin' business cards: was a handshake and a verbal thank-you too much for her to offer?

A COIN vignette from Afghanistan

Great vignette from C.J. Chivers' excellent blog at the NYT.  Reminds me of a missed opportunity my platoon had in Iraq.  We were heading north on a main route that handrails the dry riverbed that cuts Kirkuk in half.  It was probably mid-day, and traffic was heavy in the area we were in.  We were stopped at a red light (yes, we followed the rules of the road...a topic of discussion that warrants its own post later on) and we noticed a LN (local national) had a broken-down vehicle.

Lead truck called it out over the platoon internal net.  One of my squad leaders recommended we stop to help the guy push his car out of the road.  Some of the guys in my truck immediately reacted with a "Fuck no!"  But I took a few seconds to chew on it.  Would it increase risk to us?  Of course -- every time you stop and dismount, you incur risk.  But what about the benefit/gain?  I'm talking beyond the immediate effect that would be experienced by the LN (in the form of a helping hand).  But every other civilian and pedestrian in the area would see a platoon of American soldiers stopping to help out one of their own.

Would the IO (information operations) gain be likely limited?  Yeah, probably.  But who knows -- that could've been a dozen, maybe two or three dozen people that could have seen American soldiers doing something positive.  A couple dozen people that could have talked about it later that evening when they sat down for dinner with their families.

In the end, other Iraqis came to the aid of the LN before we could properly establish security and dismount.  Whenever I look back on that missed opportunity, I always wish I had been able to make the call sooner.  COIN discussions invariably talk about "the strategic corporal", the idea being that junior leaders are making tactical decisions that can have strategic effects, both positive and negative.  So although my platoon missed a chance on that summer day in Kirkuk, it's good to see that the Marines that Mr. Chivers is embedded with not only recognized an opportunity, but acted on it.

01 February 2010

2010 QDR making waves

The defense/national security world has been abuzz for the last few days with leaked information leading up to today's official release of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  The report can be found and downloaded here.

So, what's the big deal?  Let's start with the QDR itself.  Published every four years, the QDR serves as an overarching framework for the Department of Defense.  Think of it as a very broad Commander's Intent (for the five-paragraph OPORD-minded folks in the audience).  My first run-in with the QDR was back in 2002 when I wrote a paper on the 2000 QDR for a college course (I think it was a class on public policy).  Ever since 2002 (and probably earlier than that, even going back to pre-QDR days), the American military has focused on posturing itself so that it could fight two conventional wars on two separate fronts at the same time.  This has driven force structure and force strength, as well as pursuits of various technologies (as technology increases in capability, you might see a down-sizing in ground troops -- all part of the delicate balance between capability and budget constraints).

So once again, the question begs: what's the big deal about 2010's QDR?  From what I can glean from the web, it appears the the DoD is, for the first time in seemingly forever, abandoning the two-war construct, and shifting towards a full-spectrum operations capability.

Again, I haven't read the thing yet, but my guess is that this will come as no surprise to the Army or Marine Corps, who have bore the brunt of the human cost of the counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade.  Army doctrine has transformed from the conventional fight-the-Soviets mentality of AirLand Battle (ALB) of the 1980s to a full-spectrum operations mindset that we see today.  Hell, ALB (or a close cousin of it at the very least) carried the Army through the Gulf War back in 1991.  The humongous troop levels (500,000+) along with the very conventional maneuver warfare battles involving entire divisions and even corps were a perfect illustration of Army conventional warfighting doctrine in full motion.

Counterinsurgency, non-lethal effects, non-kinetic operations, stability and support operations, advise and assist: all of these buzzwords are the result of a transformation in Army doctrine that has been in effect ever since the middle 2000s (picking up steam with the publication of Field Manual 3-24, General Petraeus' meteoric rise in the ranks, and the Iraq surge).  However, the very first seeds of the modern Army doctrinal transformation can probably be found in the aftermath of the 1993 Somalia debacle.

The Marine Corps has accustomed itself to adapting to new doctrine in modern history (20th century to the present).  The smallest of the service branches, it has had to transform itself a number of times in order to maintain relevance.  During the inter-war period between WWI and WWII, the USMC was at the forefront of developing counterinsurgency doctrine due to its involvement in the so-called Banana Wars in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Out of this experience came the Marine Corps' Small Wars Manual, which prior to FM 3-24's publication in 2006, was the military's last actual doctrinal publication on counterinsurgency.

The USMC again reinvented itself as amphibious shock troops, illustrated by their storied Pacific island campaign of WWII.  The USMC also showed some innovation during Vietnam with some small unit counterinsurgency tactics that are being examined again today, especially by those that are in or heading to Afghanistan (the Combined Action Program/Platoons in particular).  In recent history, however, the Marine Corps (or at least their utilization in the Global War on Terror) has drifted away from the first-in/first-out shock troops employment, and more towards a role analogous to the Army's: a land force entrenched in full-spectrum operations mission.

This is probably the result of the operational tempo required to deploy and sustain the high numbers of American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, necessitating that the Marine Corps shoulder its share of the burden of fighting the "long war."  Regardless, the 2010 QDR's policy shift should not be a surprise to leaders in the Marine Corps, as both the Corps and the Army have been going down this path for a number of years now.

So who will be surprised?  Not surprisingly, the remaining services, in particular the Navy and Air Force.  Strategic force projection is what the Navy and Air Force have always been about, and depending on how much the strategic outlook has been changed by this year's QDR, the USN and USAF may be severely impacted (budget-wise, and via other allocations across the board).

Will update with more thoughts once I've had a chance to read the QDR...

Catching up on a week's worth of news

Lots to catch up on.  First week back at work complete.

The following story was brought to my attention by one of my fellow lieutenants: apparently, Trijicon (the company that makes the ACOG sights) has been inscribing Bible verses on their optics, and has been doing so for decades.  I was pretty incredulous, but when one of my fellow lieutenants prompted me to look it up on Google, lo and behold, a slew of results popped up.

I've used ACOGs for years now, and not once did I ever suspect the last few digits in the string of characters on the bottom of the optic to be a reference to a Bible verse.  I think everyone assumed that it was part of the model number, seeing as how it followed the numbers denoting the magnification factor and field of view of the optic, e.g., 4x32JN8:12 = four-power magnification, with a field of view of 32 degrees.  The JN8:12 was just assumed to be some kind of obscure manufacturer's nomenclature.  It will be interesting to see what waves this ends up making in the military community, especially for troops that are downrange in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now that these Bible verse references are public knowledge, there is obviously an IO (information operations) disadvantage to walking around in-sector with an ACOG inscribed with a Bible verse.  Nonetheless, Trijicon has provided only 100 kits (yes, you read that right: only 100) to the military to remove the etchings from the tens of thousands of optics that are currently in the inventory.

I suspect that units will probably etch over the verses at the local level.  Regardless of the negative atmospherics of having these Bible references on the optics, Trijicon optics are some of the best out there and most widely used, and, barring a command directive, I highly doubt that soldiers or Marines are going to start dismounting ACOGs from their rifles because of bible verse references.