middle east

Return of the Infidel

The other day, a reader who named himself كافر (infidel) left this comment on my post Infidel Redux:

I’m curious to know if you still think that things shouldn’t be looked at in a religious sense, now that ISIS is beheading Christian children. I for one am a proud Christian infidel, and IMHO this battle is religious in nature, whether you want to see it or not.

There’s been a lot of traffic to my infidel posts over the past few weeks, no doubt spurred by interest based on the lightning advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq (see here for a good documentary on the group from Vice News). To answer the question the reader raised – has my position changed now that ISIS is beheading Christian children (an un-verified accusation, by the way), my answer is “no.”

The tragic news of James Foley’s gruesome murder also does not change my position. To summarize, I am of the belief that proudly wearing, displaying, or seeing oneself as an “infidel” is unprofessional in a modern military force (and punishable under UCMJ), colors the conflict in religious hokum that doesn’t have a place in our war rhetoric, and plays directly into the enemy’s plan.

One of the smoldering remnants of the Global War on Terrorism is the way troops have embraced the term “infidel” as a kind of scarlet letter. Tattoos, t-shirts, bumper stickers, custom patches, knives forged in pigs blood – a whole industry has cropped up around the term. Dehumanization in war is normal – it happens in every war. That, however, is not an excuse for it.

From Foreign Affairs (ISIS’ Gruesome Gamble):

If the United States decided to step in on behalf of its allies — as it did — then ISIS must have believed that it would be able to strengthen its position within the jihadi camp. ISIS could use the bombings as evidence that the United States is waging a war on Islam, and to portray itself as the defender of Muslims from “Crusader” aggression. In other words, ISIS would steal a page right out of al Qaeda’s playbook.

I'll see your jihadThe advance of ISIS, their brutal behavior, and the language they use themselves (constantly referring to others as infidels) has revalidated those who have embraced the infidel term. It’s an affirmation of their beliefs and it’s convenient to cast a conflict in religious terms – a cosmic struggle where both sides have the backing of God. On social media and on the web, outrage is spilling out – rightfully so – over the behavior of ISIS. But among military folk, that response is often being colored through “proud infidel” language. “I’ll see your Jihad and raise you a Crusade” is a popular phrase, often coupled with an image of a fantasy medieval knight.

It’s unlikely that the infidel trend will dissipate any time soon. Troops are still rotating in and out of war zones in the Middle East and there is an aggressive market ready to cash in on t-shirts and patches. No matter how nasty things get, and no matter how much “they” call us infidels, wrapping ourselves in their terminology plays into their own twisted fantasy while putting ourselves at risk of further dehumanization.

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soldiering

Army Culture: The M9 as Vanity Weapon

Military Generals TalkingOne of the enduring legends of the 82nd Airborne Division concerns Generals Ridgway and Gavin. Both were highly regarded, and one of the stories that continues to circulate about them is how they both insisted on carrying soldier’s weapons in combat. General Ridgway was always seen with hand grenades clipped to his gear (see left), while General Gavin carried a rifle instead of the more convenient Colt M1911.

The weapons that they carried has become a part of their legacy.

Today, the M9 Beretta has replaced the M1911 Colt as the Army’s service pistol. I am not the first to describe the M9 as a vanity weapon, one that denotes status more than anything else. Commanders, staff officers, and anyone wily enough to finagle one from the Arms Room can be seen on this or that FOB with an M9, which mind you, is much more easy to lug around a sprawling base than a rifle or machine gun.

Back on my first deployment, those who had the M9 kept it in a drop leg holster during the war, and then everyone seemed to acquire very slick looking leather shoulder holsters once things settled down and we moved to larger bases. The higher the rank, the nicer the holster.

What weapon a soldier carries becomes a source of gossip for other soldiers, especially if it seems incongruent with that soldier’s duties. I’ve been in some units where the Commander and First Sergeant are the only soldiers to carry a specialized optic that would probably be more useful some someone near the gunfire. A soldier that carried an M9 around would often get quizzed by more grizzled NCOs on whether or not they had actually qualified with the M9. Those who didn’t have an assigned M9 generally derided those who did – unless of course, they suddenly had the opportunity to sign for one themselves.

At the end of the day, going to the chow hall with an M9 is so much easier than with an M4.

video games

A beautiful game about the GWOT: The Sun Also Rises

Pretty_screenshot_05I just read about this beautiful looking game titled “The Sun Also Rises.” It’s currently in development and is looking for additional funding via Kickstarter. Here’s the description:

The Sun Also Rises is an Interactive Narrative Adventure that explores the Global War on Terror through a collection of vignettes based on personal accounts by U.S. Soldiers, their families and people from Afghanistan. We want to focus on empathizing with human struggles and portray a side of war that is often overlooked.

What makes this especially interesting, besides the abstract, dreamy vibe they’re going for, is the fact that the game is narrative focused, which as I’ve written about before is much more akin to what “war” is like as opposed to the nonsense in Call of Duty or other titles.

More:

We want to weave a broad tapestry of the diverse issue of war. These include PTSD and lack of treatment, reintegration of soldiers into everyday life, the interactions between soldiers and civilians, sexual assault in the military, the indoctrination of children into the Taliban, the difficulties of being part of the U.S. Military’s chain of command, and many more. As we continue to research and hear peoples’ stories, the stories we tell in TSAR will grow and expand.

The trailer is gorgeous:

I want to see this get made. I’m donating.

 

soldiering

Why Deployment Experience Really Matters

End of War

It’s been interesting reading the reactions to the blog post by soon-to-be-forced-out Major Slider on The Best Defense. Major Slider is one of the hundreds of Majors who was selected to be cut from the Army as a result of the recent Officer Separation Board (OSB). The OSB saga and some of the defense of Major Slider, much of which revolved around valorous combat experience – coupled with the fact that I’m currently deployed – started me thinking about the actual value of combat experience.

When I was coming through OCS and IBOLC, I remember having lots of conversations with young Second Lieutenants who were wary about potentially missing their opportunity to deploy, since it was clear we were teetering on the tail end of the long war. Much of that angst – I think – stemmed from wanting “the stuff” that comes from a combat deployment; the combat patch, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the bucket of end-of-tour awards. For good or for ill, the Army fosters a culture of “badge envy” and the immediate value of a soldier, especially in combat arms, is first assessed by the things sewn, pinned, and velcro’d on the uniform.

Back then, in my infinite mustang wisdom, I tried my best to explain that it isn’t really going to matter if you deploy or not, that the Army moves on and will value and appreciate skill and leadership above whether or not you deployed – more a function of chance and when you were born than any actionable trait. More bluntly, having not deployed would not be held against you in an Army transitioning out of war. I believed that then, and I still do now.

What has changed – and this is partly a function of being currently deployed – is that I think I may have undervalued wartime service. While it’s true that every deployment is different, what remains unchanged is that whatever your job is – infantry, admin, medical, etc. – when you are deployed, you are doing that job more frequently and more real than when you were back home. Weekends don’t exist the same way they do while deployed than when you are home. You are accountable for your equipment twenty-four hours a day, not just until you turn it back into the arms room or the supply cage. There is a constant rotation of duties that is usually measured in hours between the next guard shift, not days – or weeks – between your next staff duty.

Combat operations occur at a frequency greater than the intensity of field training. You may run multiple missions a day, or operations that take place over twenty-four hours at a time, requiring planning and preparation days before the event starts. Each mission is analyzed and assessed through an after-action review process, which if done well, fine tunes the unit’s techniques, tactics, and procedures, making the unit more efficient and effective.

In all this, you are working in close proximity with the same people for hours a day and days that bleed into weeks and months. Conflicts arise and good leaders find ways to stay effective. Personnel management and more importantly – personality and ego management – becomes key to getting anything done. Knowing who to grease and who to avoid becomes critical to the deployed soldier navigating an unrivaled bureaucracy that involves multiple military services, countries, and languages.

All this is done in an adverse environment where someone is actively trying to kill you. At the end, the soldier that emerges is one that has done his or her job in a focused way for a prolonged period of time. Skills are learned and experience gets buried deep into the reservoir of the soldier, ready to be brought out in the future if called upon.

Put simply, the deployed soldier has done his job harder, faster, and longer than his counterpart who hasn’t deployed. That experience is valuable.

All that said, deployment experience does not necessarily create experts in anything other than that experience. One cannot simply say “I’ve been deployed” and hand wave necessary training or assume that anything done once is done forever. Rather, deployment experience is simply an indicator that  a soldier has done his or her job in a focused way for a sustained amount of time – which is more valuable than I once gave credit.

books

End of War Reading List: American Spartan

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I’m not going to mince words: I didn’t enjoy reading this. It took me well over a month, and often because I didn’t have the energy to slog through it. In fairness, I might be a bit jaded about the whole thing, reading about places I am currently working around – it can get bothersome.

I’ve written before about the saga of Major Jim Gant, the Special Forces officer known for spearheading the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program in Afghanistan and was later relieved and forced to retire after an investigation into his behavior. Major Gant is also mentioned in One Hundred Victories – another book I read recently about the VSO program.

As Joe Collins points out in his review of the book, the book is important – I’m just not sure that it was very good. It is written defensively and with venom laced words for anyone who stood in Major Gant’s way (top brass, the West Point Lieutenant who wrote the sworn statement that began the investigation, etc.). Ann Scott attempts to write with the detachment of a journalist covering a story that she is an emotional part of, and it doesn’t really work.

The book is fascinating for someone interested in either the VSO program, the intricacies of Pashtun tribal dynamics or what an illicit affair in a war zone looks like.

Major Gant, for his part, is an interesting persona to read about. And as a character study, there isn’t anything better out there (however biased the account may be). Outside of the book, I’ve met people who think he is the greatest soldier ever while others thought he was out of control. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve read and heard, he is the absolute product of the Global War On Terrorism. A dedicated, motivated leader that tried to – in his words – Win the War – and destroyed himself in the process.

There are some good quotes in the book that are worth highlighting, like this one:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

The book is full of small windows into Major Gant’s personality and thought process.

Often he told me he wished he had died fighting in Afghanistan.
“Not a cheap death, something hard,” he said. “Then I could have proven to everyone, in that one action, that I am who I say I am.”

After Jim had his Special Forces tab rescinded, he did this. Is this a guy with a good sense of humor or a man obsessed with an idea?:

Jim placed the tab in a small picture frame over a bloodred image of Marlon Brando as the bald Colonel Kurtz. A short time later, Jim shaved his head.

The last couple of chapters are the most fascinating in the book, describing Jim and Ann’s days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Jim completely collapses as a soldier and Ann reports it with the detachment of a journalist – one reporting on her own behavior with the subject. It’s odd to read, but fascinating nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m glad to be done with it.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
American Spartan – done (August 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

video games

“Above all else, stay alive.”

Lans Staying AliveIn my limited free time, I’ve been replaying Tactics Ogre for the PSP (on my PS Vita courtesy of Operation Supply Drop). This is one of my favorite games of all time, if not the number one. I originally played it when I was a teenager for Playstation and then years later when I was in college and working as an intern in Washington D.C., playing it on the Bolt Bus between there and New York.

I’ve been playing this game on and off for over fifteen years, and I’ve never finished it. The game is non-linear, which I love, and from what I understand, it has multiple endings – none of which I’ve seen. It’s an adult game, with ethical dilemmas that rival modern games like Mass Effect.

One of the things I’ve found intriguing is the character Lanselot’s mentorship to the main character, Denam. On two separate occasions he lectures Denam on the importance of staying alive above all other things. In one of his first meetings with the main character, he says:

“So you’re off to aid one of the Duke’s men. I regret we cannot join you. Above all else, stay alive. Win or lose, while there’s life, there’s hope.”

And then later on, in a quiet moment before one of the game’s pivotal scenes he again advises Denam to stay alive:

“Risking your life is one thing. Losing it is another. The best way to aid your people is to stay alive. See the battle through to the end. And there’s your sister to think of.”

It’s a curious piece of advice in a video game, from a famous warrior. You would expect advice of honor on the battlefield, bravery, or skill. There’s a part of me that thinks the advice might have served as kind of early tutorial in the game. The original Tactics Ogre for Playstation was much more unforgiving when it came to death – if a character was slain in battle he/she was perma-deathed. Lanselot’s advice might have been there to warn the player to protect life, as training a new character was a long and arduous process. The updated version for PSP/Vita still has perma-death, but there’s a timer on the character as in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Still, whether it served as a tutorial for the player or actual advice, it is refreshing to see it.

Is it not true?

quotes

Humanity and Iron Discipline

Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.
-Sun Tzu
The Art of War

On the plane ride to Afghanistan I was skimming through the Art of War when I came across that line. Humanity and Iron Discipline popped out to me, and I was struck by how those two ideas juxtapose. My platoon sergeant was sitting next to me and I showed him the line.

He pulled out an ear plug and yelled to me over the roar of the C-17’s engines, “You’re Humanity, sir. I’m Iron Discipline.”