soldiering

Flash-to-Bang: Nonsense on the internet, hearing it from soldiers

 

Smoke Grenade

Just about everyone I meet in the Army has a Facebook account now. It is more odd to not have one than to have one. Whenever I am up, standing in front of soldiers, I automatically assume I’m being Snapchatted. Social media is out there and exists. There’s no putting it away.

There are loads of military themed sites that vie for the attention of service members and veterans. Years ago, it was soldier blogs that made waves, giving others a peer inside the world of the military. Those have mostly died off, replaced instead with aggregate sites that allow many more voices to be broadcast to a much wider audience. These are sites like Task & Purpose, We Are The Mighty, The Rhino Den, Havok Journal, SOFREP, etc.

Then there are the strictly social media landing spots – Power Point Ranger, U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments, Gruntworks, Doctrine Man, etc. The list goes on and the low barrier to entry – an internet connection and an idea – allow these sites to rapidly proliferate and compete for the attention of its audience.

While aggregate sites allow for the display and dissemination of partially to fully formed ideas, the social media sites are pure candy. They post clickable, shareable, rage-baiting images and ideas designed to trigger an emotional response. Some of it is hilarious. A lot of it is nonsense.

Last week, before the media event and graduation at Ranger School, I heard soldiers speaking with confidence to one another that the outcome was pre-determined because of the Havok Journal article that claimed the President was going to be at the graduation, so ipso facto, the women got a free pass. In the circles I heard the claim, no one made a correction. No one said it was nonsense. It was read on the internet, disseminated, and settled.

A couple of months ago, when this article about the demise of Army leadership began making the rounds again, I was approached by a good soldier asking me why he should stay in the Army, because that article resonated with him.

Back in Afghanistan, I watched junior soldiers grow enraged over the ARCOM awarded to MSG Moerk because they saw a thousand memes on it. I could never imagine why a junior soldier – or any soldier – would be so interested (and outraged) at an award a senior NCO gets at a post, far, far away.

I’m not sure I’m shedding any new light on this. I’m sure in institutions all over the world social media is having a similar effect. I certainly see it in politics. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot more in the military recently.

There is still this assumption that what happens online, stays online. That is an outdated understanding of the internet. What happens on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, interplays with conversations in morning formations. That funny picture I clicked ‘like’ on before PT becomes the actual thing someone references during the run. Only, out in the wild, removed from its original context of a funny thing on a goofy military site, it might not be so funny.

Related: The Military Meme Machine. I’m not a fan.

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The unexpected benefit of last week’s historic Ranger graduation

Shaye Haver, Kristen Griest

Only a tiny fraction of soldiers in the Army will ever attend Ranger School. Infantry officers and members of the 75th Ranger Regiment will most likely get a shot (or multiple) at going to the school. For the rest of the Army, depending on where and when you are, it can be challenging to get the opportunity to go.

And if that chance appears, it is even more challenging to get soldiers to volunteer.

Even in the infantry, where you might expect to find more eagerness, finding volunteers is not easy. The question “Who wants to go to Ranger School?” is often met with blank stares and laughs.

Everyone knows the school is challenging and “sucks,” and the idea of voluntarily thrusting yourself into that can seem anywhere from unappealing to masochistic to the soldier who already spends a lot of time away from home, deployed, training, or in various states of misery. At 30th AG at Fort Benning, where all infantrymen begin, just about everyone is committed to being an Airborne Ranger and being all they can be. Somewhere between laying on a cot at 30th AG, dreaming of what could be, and mile 23 of a loaded foot march under the hot Georgia sun, that eagerness fades away. The reality of what it means to “suck” seeps into the soldier, and the idea of what might transpire at Ranger School becomes understood.

The school carries its own mystique. In the book Black Hearts, author Jim Frederick accurately describes the deference afforded to the Ranger tab and the cult that surrounds it as “shamanistic.”

On top of that, Ranger School has always been a bit of a mystery. It’s all tales of privation, darkness, and pain. It’s about small camps in the middle of nowhere, cutoff from civilization. The high attrition rate frightens soldiers away before they ever even think about putting a packet together.

It’s certainly too early to tell for sure, but I think last week’s historic graduation might not just have an effect on whether the course ultimately opens up to women (and it’s hard to imagine how it won’t at this point), but I think there are likely a lot more men who are suddenly rethinking whether they might consider going to the school themselves.

Put simply, those who may have been frightened by the mystery or questioned their own ability are looking at Captains Griest and Hayer and thinking “Well shit, if they can do it, maybe I can do it too.”

While the past few months have been particularly embarressing in military social media in regards to the crazy, conspiratorial posts about the school, the one guy heard from another guy about lower standards posts, last week’s very transparant lead up to the graduation ceremony saw a significant change in what was being shared and discussed online. As more information emerged on what actually happened in the woods, mountains, and swamps over the past six months, the “haters” kind of faded into the background.

There was a popular image that was floating around 11872221_988415437887198_655607911683504486_oonce it was announced the two female Ranger students had passed. It essentially says that Ranger School is now a different institution. The implication was that the only way they could have possibly passed was because the standards had been lowered.

As stupid as that image was, it was actually right in one regard. Ranger School will be different. More men will now be willing to raise their hand and volunteer for the school, simply because they’ve seen that a woman can do it. It’s not misogny that’s will drive them, but the fact that female Ranger students have so much more to overcome in order to pass the course, and despite their shortcomings, two were able to do it.

The Army wants more Rangers. The school wants to graduate as many Rangers as they can. It’s good for the Army. But Ranger School will not, rightfully, lower standards to do it. The best way to effect the net number of Ranger graduates is sending more, better prepared students.

Most men self-select themselves out by never volunteering in the first place. The fact that two women have made it through removes some of the self-doubt that prevents a majority of soldiers – both combat arms and support – from ever considering volunteering.

In conversations among infantrymen, I already hear men talking about Ranger School a little differently now.

“It’s pretty motivating that they made it through. Hmm…”

soldiering

Today is a good day for the Army

West_Point_-_The_U_S__Military_Academy

Today CPT Griest and 1LT Haver graduate Ranger School, ending a journey that’s lasted years.

As interesting as the topic is to me, I purposely haven’t written much about it because frankly, the room is crowded and loud.

Today is a very good day to be in the United States Army and I’m proud to serve.

iraq

Iraqi Security Forces and the Will to Fight

Iraqi Flag

Originally I wanted to write a longer post on the Iraqi film al-Qadisiya (القادسية). I’ve been fascinated by it since graduate school when I first learned it existed. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot written about it English, and most of the basic Arabic articles I’ve seen say similar things.

The movie was commissioned by Saddam Hussein himself sometime around 1979. He hired prominent Arab film-makers to make what was widely reported at being the most expensive Arab film ever made. The excellent score was written and composed by the late Walid Gholmieh who later would work with the Gorillaz shortly before his death in 2011.

I haven’t been able to find a version of the movie with English subtitles, but just by skimming through it, you can see the scale of the film. Lots of extra, lots of costumes. It was an epic.

The film depicts the battle of qadisiyyah between the early Muslims and Persians. The Muslims win and later go on to seize territory in both Persia and the rest of the Middle East.

Without question, Saddam chose this battle because of its resonance with Muslims and its tie-in to contemporary nationalist aspirations. This was the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and while both Iraqis and Iranians were Muslim, only one side consisted mainly of Persians. Saddam wanted to stoke pride in the ability of his citizens, and those who served the nation by “carrying the gun.”

But there really isn’t much more for me to say about the movie without doing some serious research.

It did get me thinking about the will to fight, and the issues the Iraqi Security Forces have been facing. As a military, Iraq has been the butt of jokes, for seemingly fleeing in the face of a small force of religious zealots.

It’s easy to just write off the Iraqis as cowards, as plenty of people do, but it doesn’t tell an accurate story.

Service in the Iraqi Army just about guarantees combat. Training is accelerated to get soldiers to the front as soon as possible. Incentives and benefits are generous (steady work) to encourage enlistment, where just showing up to sign up can get you killed in a fiery car bombing.

And what is it that they are signing up for?

An Army that suffered through a terrible war of attrition with Iran that left indelible scars on the entire populace.

An Army that was demolished in the Persian Gulf War in days and sent reeling back to to Baghdad.

An Army that atrophied under crushing sanctions and airstrikes for twelve years.

An Army that melted away during the invasion of Iraq.

An Army that was told not to return after being disbanded in 2003.

An Army that struggled to rebuild itself in fits and starts throughout the 2000s.

And all to defend a state that suffers from severe corruption and can barely govern.

On the other hand, the enemy they face appears well-organized, motivated, and aggressive. Their ideology is rooted in familiar terms and promises much more than a steady pay-check. They are unafraid to die for their cause, and in fact, welcome it. They have a worldwide fanbase that injects them with the certainty that their cause is righteous.

A young Iraqi soldier signing up for the Army today was likely born in the mid-1990s. His youth was spent under sanctions and US occupation. His life, thus far, has probably been pretty shitty. He has few job prospects and is being encouraged to join the Army, to fight ISIS.

He will likely see combat.

If he should be injured, where and how will he be treated?

If he should die, will he go to heaven?

It’s very easy to sit on this side of the world and sling the word “coward.” It’s much more difficult to consider what is actually happening over there.

There are examples of successful Iraqi units, though. Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ Gold Division is touted as the most successful Iraqi force. But it’s small. And the training required is more intense and longer in duration than typical units. And there there is a risk of relying too heavily on one, well-trained unit to the detriment of others. This is what happened to the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. They eventually became a praetorian guard for the dictator.

From what I’ve seen, the only sort of appeal to to something higher from the Iraqi state has been the “othering” of ISIS through state-sponsored cartoons and propaganda. For all of its disgusting elements, ISIS remains appealing to a disenfranchised youth. Simply making fun of it isn’t enough. What alternative does the state offer? What motivates an Iraqi soldier to give his life in service to the state?

When placed in those terms, it’s easier to understand why a poorly trained Iraqi regular might drop his weapon and flee Ramadi or Mosul in the face of an approaching enemy. Where is the example of the stalwart Iraqi soldier?

Saddam knew.

@dongomezjr

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Student Veterans

city-college-campus-in-harlem

There’s been a lot of slinging going on about trigger warnings and microaggressions lately. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of “spoiler alert” for those who might be affected by being exposed to something traumatic. For instance, this article on Life Is Strange makes the argument that the game might have done a better service to its players if it gave them a trigger warning because of the traumatic nature of the content. Others argue that by doing that, it robs the game of some of the suspense and surprise.

Microaggression is a term that I’m not sure really has a rock solid definition yet, but is pretty much a form of discrimination or passive aggressive hate.

“Oh you were in the military, huh? You weren’t able to get into college?”

There’s this back and forth going on about these things, with some people arguing that we need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s potential feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. Marching towards a better world is a good thing, in my view.

But a lot of these conversations are very focused on students and especially students who may have faced some kind of hardship in the past. PTSD comes up a lot, and so naturally, it gets me thinking about student veterans.

I attended college between 2006-2011. The Iraq War was at its height both in terms of unpopularity and casualties. I was taking a lot of courses on the Middle East and international relations, and the Iraq War came up a lot. Professors spoke about the war as a self-evident failure. It was a joke and an embarrassment. Students nodded along and scribbled notes.

Not once did any of my professors ever ask “are there any veterans in the class?” It wasn’t even considered a possibility. Those who served were someone else, somewhere else.

For anyone that served overseas, especially in Iraq, it is likely that the experience was formative. It was for me. I was young and the work was extreme. My entire being is tied up with the name and the place, for good or for ill. And to have it spoken about so casually by college professors and students as a failure or a joke was painful as a new student, trying to make my way on campus, unsure of how I was supposed to behave.

Early in my college career, I’d challenge. I’d raise my hand and offer my perspective. I’d counter a student who stated categorically that American soldiers habitually raped Iraqi women. I’d correct misconceptions about the nature of military service and the rules of engagement. My jaw dropped when one student answered “about thirty or something” when asked how many soldiers had died in the Iraq War (the answer, at the time was more than 4,000). I felt like as one of the few student veterans on campus, I had a duty and responsibility to say something.

But it was exhausting.

I learned quickly that once you “out” yourself as a student veteran, that’s it. When people see you, you’re now the “Army guy.” It doesn’t go away, and whenever a topic that has anything to do with “the war” or the military comes up in class, all eyes fall on you.

Later, when I went to graduate school, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other students or my professors. I didn’t want them to see me as a military man. I wanted them to judge me fairly. When students or professors said off the wall shit, I kept my thoughts inside.

In fairness, it is an odd world where a war happens, soldiers fight it, and then come home and go to college while the same war rages on.

And in super-fairness, I went to the City College of New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – neither of them exactly right wing war bastions of death.

But, if we’re going to move towards a world that is more considerate of peoples’ past experiences, then that should include student veterans. Whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, if they fought overseas – or even if they didn’t – their minds and emotions are likely intertwined with that discussion. Veterans certainly don’t need a trigger warning – the idea of being warned before they’re offended is comical. But what they do deserve is a fair chance at being heard.

And an understanding that they exist.

@dongomezjr