memorial

There will be no memorial

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As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”

“No,” he said flatly.

Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.

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blogging

Going on R&R in Good ‘Ol Qatar

End of the night photo.

End of the night photo.

While I am completely partial to WordPress as a blog publishing platform, I’ve always liked the simplicity and beauty in pieces posted on Medium. When I was writing my Iraq: Ten Years Later posts, I really wanted to do it right for my 4-day R&R trip to Qatar. That post, for its length, fell mostly flat.

I did some editing on it and posted it on Medium. It’s not perfect, but I think it flows better there than it did here.

Check it out.

books

Taliban Selfie: Taliban Commanders have to send up storyboards, too

mullah2_wideweb__470x382,0I recently finished reading No Good Men Among the Living, which is a good read for anyone trying to get a better understanding of what the war in Afghanistan looks like through Afghan eyes.

I have no intention of doing a full on review/reaction. Incidentally, there is a review of the book by Rory Stewart in the latest New York Review of Books. Most of it is behind a paywall, so I didn’t get to it all, but you can see where it is going.

I did pull a couple of quotes though, towards the end of the book, that I thought were interesting.

One Talib explaining to another the motivations behind the American invasion:

The Americans, he explained, invaded because they hated the Afghan way of life.

Sound familiar?

A Talib’s description of American soldiers on patrol:

The soldiers were swaddled in gear – helmets, vests, wires poking out of various pockets. They walked uncomfortably, as if in great pain.

This is my favorite, about a low-level Taliban commander snapping photos of himself after a successful mission with captured gear to send to his superiors in Pakistan. Photos of his exploits will result in being given more money and resources for future operations. This transaction will be instantly recognizable to modern American commanders who routinely send “storyboards” to their higher headquarters of their missions and training. As the modern saying goes, pics or it didn’t happen:

Using his cell phone, Akbar Gul snapped a photo of himself standing triumphantly amid the weapons and sent it Mufti Latif. This was how Taliban commanders now proved their worth; the movement that had once shunned moving images and photography could no longer operate without them. The photographs wound up in the possession of Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and Akbar Gul was soon rewarded with a few thousand dollars.

Somewhat related, there’s a really great article making the rounds by Jen Percy on “Commander Pigeon,” the only known female warlord in Afghanistan.

life lesson

Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completionPatrol Base

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

 

 

top search of the week

Women at USMC School of Infantry

Female Marine Infantry

Week ending October 12, 2014

It was a good week for the blog. My post 7 Underrated Military Blogs that Can’t Get No Respect got a lot of attention, which in turn pushed a lot of people to those blogs that don’t get enough love. Hopefully with the influx of new readers, they’ll start posting more.

For whatever reason, though, the top search term was ‘women at usmc school infantry.’  In the world of ‘women in the infantry,’ the recent news that would have people looking for stuff is the recent story of the three women who passed the first day of the Marine Corps Infantry School – the much vaunted Endurance Test.

Last year, when this story was hot, I posted an image gallery titled the Faceless Women of the United States Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course. I’ve always found it interesting – and a little weird – that the the images that accompany the stories always have faceless women. It’s done for privacy, and there is an agreement between the USMC and the media to not show their faces. It creates an odd effect though, of a faceless, personality-stripped female trainee. The pictures in that gallery often features a female Marine alone, or with another female, in a gloomy, cold physical trial. It’s especially weird when viewed in contrast with the Marines’ “Infantrywomen of Instagram,” having just finished the enlisted infantry course, with big bright smiles.

The picture accompanying the Washington Post article also features faceless women infantry trainees, in contrast to the exposed faces of the male trainees.

art

The Army is Developing ‘Exosuits’

Before deploying I loaded up my laptop with movies and television shows, determined to build up an arsenal that would keep boredom away, at all costs. My experiences during my first two deployments have made me rabidly boredom-averse in a way someone who experienced the Great Depression might be more likely to be a hoarder. As it turns out, work keeps me pretty busy and I haven’t been able to rip through all of the entertainment that I brought in the way I thought I would.

One of the television series I brought with me was the old cartoon Exo-Squad. I remember waking up early on weekdays and watching the 30 minute episodes and being impressed with the gravity and depth of the content, despite the fact that the cartoon was a 22 minute commercial for a toy-line.

I finally got an opportunity to watch the first season after some twenty years, and while the animation is dated and some of the dialogue is overly cheesy, the series holds up pretty well.

The story goes something like this: in the not so distant future, humans create a genetically superior species of humanoids called “Neo-Sapiens.” They are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and live longer than humans. Humans use them for slave labor, mostly. The Neo-Sapiens rise up against the humans thrusting the solar system into war (Venus and Mars have been terraformed and colonized). The first season chronicles the Neo-Sapien revolt and the capture of Venus, Mars, and Earth by the Neo-Sapiens.

What’s great about the series is the gray area in war it examines. Nothing is black and white. While the show follows “Able Squad,” a special ops-like team who pilot “E-Frames,” the war they are fighting in is not clearly one pitting good against evil. Throughout the first season there are numerous scenes where humans display open racism (er, species-ism?) against the Neo-Sapiens, often using the derogative “sapes” to describe them. While you are rooting for the humans because Able Squad is likable, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Neo-Sapiens after the way they’ve been treated.

The writers display a pretty advanced understanding of the military, depicting air-to-ground coordination, a court-martial trial, insurgent tactics (fake-surrender), combat panic, the disparities and frustrations of a garrison military versus a wartime military, the importance of pre-combat inspections, and the moral and ethical dilemmas leaders and individual soldiers face in war. There’s even a great scene where two deck officers are arguing over whether to deploy Able Squad, to which one officer yells to the other “Don’t give me a lesson in tactics!”

Additionally, I couldn’t help but “connect the dots looking backward” and make some interesting connections between Exo-Squad and Mass Effect. After an early battle, the show’s protagonist, Lieutenant J.T. Marsh is hounded by an aggressive news reporter who is accompanied by a floating camera robot. The reporter peppers Marsh with questions on his actions in the battle and whether he regrets those decisions, given the consequences. Marsh reacts aggressively and storms away. That scene happens over and over in Mass Effect.

Honestly, the show didn’t hold my attention the way it did when I was a kid, or the way I thought it would. I recently read a review of a video game that I loved when I was a kid that just got ported to iOS. He wrapped up his thoughts on it like this, and I think the description fits how I feel about watching Exo-Squad now:

For me, though, this was a bit like trying on my beloved jacket I wore in high school. It smells familiar and it brings back so many memories to look at it, but putting it on makes me realize how many years have gone by between then and now, and it just doesn’t really fit me anymore.

Anyway, the real point of this article was to point out that the Army is developing Exosuits, not so much like the ones in Exo-Squad but more akin to what we saw the Full Metal Bitch wear in Edge of Tomorrow / Live. Die. Repeat. / All You Need Is Kill.

blogging

7 Underrated Military Blogs That Can’t Get No Respect

Rodney+Dangerfield

I tell you, I can’t get no respect!

I’ve been writing this blog since 2011, and I like to think I write some pretty good stuff. True, it’s not all gold, but generally speaking, I post frequently on topics that are of interest to the milblog community.

Yet whenever a list of the ‘top military blogs’ comes along, Carrying the Gun is never on it.

An article with the headline ‘7 Military Blogs You Need To Check Out‘ has been making the rounds over the past couple of days. Carrying the Gun isn’t on the list – no surprise there.

I think I know why I got the snub:

Here are 7 of the best military blogs out there right now if you’re looking for professional, well-written content. What I like about these site is that they’re either created/hosted by an active duty service member, or they’re a repository of active duty writing. So, you know you’re getting relevant content.

I’ve written some pretty professional stuff on this blog – stuff that’s been picked up by international news outlets. But, I also, quite often, write about nonsense, like the matriarchal town of Troia in Final Fantasy IV and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, on war. I suppose that if I just wrote about military stuff, maybe I’d get on one of these lists.

And while the death knell for milblogs has been rung prematurely before, I am a little frustrated by the fact that the blogs that usually make these lists are either conglomerate sites that pool articles from a bunch of sources or sites that serve as a traffic driver for something else. Milblogs that speak “ground truth” are becoming less and less common. Yes, lots of folks have moved on to Twitter or to mainstream publishing to tell their stories (I’m looking at you, @inthedeserts, @AlexHortonTX). I like to believe there is still a place for more junior folks to lay out their own canvas and say what it is they have to say, without simply trying to drive traffic or go through a round of professional editing to get posted.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to make my own list of milblogs that I enjoy reading. When a new post from one of these blogs appears, I’ll automatically save it for later because I know I’ll enjoy it. These are milblogs that often get no respect, but are both entertaining and informative. This is the “Wack Pack” of milblogs, if you will. Admittedly, a lot of these blogs don’t update as often as they should, probably because they’re tired of getting the ‘ol mainstream milblog snub. Check them out, they need your love.

1. WAR IS SCHLEP – A milblog told mostly through comics (think Terminal Lance, but for junior Army officers). The story of a young Infantry Lieutenant, from his days at ROTC, studying abroad in the Middle East, to Infantry training and beyond. Hilariously captures some of the absurdities of military life. HASN’T POSTED FOR A YEAR!

2. Grand Blog Tarkin – Security issues told through a fantasy/sci-fi perspective. A conglomerate site that allows writers – many who are active-duty service members and veterans – to get creative. Example article title: Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

3. On Violence – Run by two brothers (Michael and Eric), one a former Army officer, one an anti-war activist (I realize activist might be the wrong word, Eric). They write brilliant and easily digestible articles on, well, violence, and everything that word touches. One of the most reasonable, sane milblogs you’ll find.

4. Fear and Loathing in the Infantry – Ground truth from a junior infantry officer. Does not post nearly as much as he should, but fortunately makes up for it through his Twitter account (@intheinfantry)

5. Kings of War – Kings of War is a blog run out of the War Studies Department at King’s College, London. I learned of it when I went to the peacenik school down the street from them. They go through spurts where their stuff is fantastic (this is one of my favorite KoW articles ever – Killing them Softly: Warriors Lost in a Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia), and they are intermittently prolific, sometimes offering up multiple articles a week before going dark for a month or two.

6. The Best Defense – True, The Best Defense is well known in milblog circles, but the typical 3 posts a day that show up right next to each other in my feedly almost always gets saved for later. Tom Ricks finds interesting things going on in the security universe and almost always has an interesting comment, headline, and picture to go along with it. Usually very short articles, sometimes just a sentence or two. Always enjoyable.

7. Carrying the Gun - The most underrated blog in the milblogosphere. War, the Middle East, and video games are the usual topics, but the author has been known to dabble in nonsense. A must read for everyone on the internet.

Bonus Blog! True Boots – A “boots on the ground” perspective from a prolific and thoughtful veteran. You won’t always agree with her, but she will usually have a better argument than you.

reflections

Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

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When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’

art

Brian Eno on composing the 3 1/4 seconds long startup sound for Windows 95

This is so interesting. From an interview with the San Francisco Gate in 1996.

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

video games

The Beautiful Female Warriors of Troia

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The castle and town of Troia (or Toroia, for those who played it on SNES in the 1990s) has always fascinated me. The nation is governed by women. Its leaders and warriors are all female. Both the town and castle are marked by their greenery and water. It’s lush and peaceful. The music of each castle in Final Fantasy IV reflects the character of its nation; the imperious Baron, the warrior-minded Fabul, the sadness of destroyed Damcyan. Troia’s music reflects peace and contentment.

Playing it as a kid, I was always impressed and intimidated by the order and symmetry of the castle, especially compared to the mish-mash style of the other castles. Troia is swarming with female warriors, but it is also the only castle that has frogs in the water, a seemingly insignificant but nice touch that makes the castle appear friendlier. There is a soldier inside who confesses that Troia has never been in a war before, but the impression given through exploring the town and castle is that Troia is a powerful nation that jealously guards her power. I always imagined that their military might is such that they wish to avoid war for fear of unleashing it, in the same way martial artists swear that the best way to win a fight is to avoid getting in one in the first place – a line of thinking I never understood as a child.

In furiously Googling conducting research for this piece, I came across some familiar scenes from Troia. Considering Troia is female run, it surprised me as a kid (and more surprising now) that the town is also home to a pretty robust prostitution racket. I’m sure there is an argument in here somewhere about the politics of sex and who has the upper hand, but I would have expected that in a matriarchal nation like Troia, prostitution wouldn’t feature so prominently. In the North American version of Final Fantasy IV, a lot of the text in the Troia was modified to try to present something other than what was going on (click here for an in-depth look at what was changed). Instead of a “pub” for example, they changed one location to a “Cafe.” Some of the lines that the patrons speak are completely re-written, making the whole visit awkward at times. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to decode that something scandalous was going on – even as a 12 year old kid.

The video below is from the “pub” in Troia, in which you have to purchase a special – and expensive – pass to gain access. It’s a strange departure in the game. Once you talk to the guy at the desk you get sucked into a performance that looks like a kind of cabaret show. There’s a creepy feel of being at a night club in the middle of the afternoon, with only one other patron in the audience and the normal, calm village music softly playing in the background until the show begins. During the show, Cecil gets pulled into one of the chairs and is surrounded by the dancing girls. It’s an old game with basic graphics, so you have to use your imagination as to what’s going on. I’ve always been haunted by the way Cecil dips his head after he is pushed into the chair. He looks shamed, and he holds it until all the girls leave, one by one and the town music fades back in.