books

“We will never win in Afghanistan…”

“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.”
-Major Jim Gant
“American Spartan”

Currently reading “American Spartan.”

Related: The Rains of Castamereand How to Win in Afghanistan.

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books

The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

quote-for-to-win-one-hundred-victories-in-one-hundred-battles-is-not-the-acme-of-skill-to-subdue-the-sun-tzu-188541.jpg (850×400)

This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material was also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

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)
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)

books

Book Review: Plenty of Time When We Get Home

Find the latest information on the book here.
Click here for an NPR story on the book.

I’m taking a quick break from the End of War Reading List to review Kayla William’s new book, Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

I just finished it. I read it in two sittings, the first was 200 straight pages, interrupted only because my flight landed and I had to stop to get off the plane. I’m not the type of person that will slog through 200 pages if it’s boring, so it is to Kayla’s credit for writing a book that flows well and keeps the attention of a picky reader.

I’ve earmarked much of the book and will start going through it below, but I want to say upfront that what makes this book special is its honesty. This book stings. The back jacket says memoir, but to me, this is a love story. A brutally honest, real-life, painful, painful love story.

First thing’s first. The book is good, and I’d recommend it to anyone who read Love My Rifle More Than You, is curious about what it’s like to come home from war and try to build a life, or fans of human drama.

The way I like to do book reviews is provide a brief synopsis, and then go through some of the parts that stuck out to me.

Kayla starts off the book just about where her first book left off, and from page one I felt like I was jumping into the sequel. Her first book examined what it was like to be “young and female” in the United States Army, mostly through the lens of a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003. This book links back to that one through the opening chapter, where her future husband, Brian, is injured in an IED explosion on the ride back to his unit after returning to Iraq after mid-tour leave.

From there, the book follows Kayla home and chronicles her journey through bars and post-deployment checklists during the honeymoon phase of redeployment. Brian and Kayla begin dating and start figuring out what it means to be war veterans in an Army getting ready for the next deployment and a nation at war but not really paying attention. Kayla leaves the Army and Brian is medically retired. The book follows them as they try to establish a life on the outside, discussing in parts; the release of Kayla’s first book and her involvement in the veteran community at large, going back to school, trying to find work and a place to live, her own struggles with adjusting to the civilian world, and starting a family.

The crux of the book, however, is Kayla and Brian’s relationship. Brian’s injury – which she brilliantly describes in calculating detail a lá one of my favorite parts in The Short Timers – significantly affects his ability to transition smoothly to civilian life.

Where Love My Rifle was raw and angry, Plenty of Time is reflective. There is still plenty of ‘shock and awe’ in the book, but written in such a way as not to be gratuitous for its own sake.  Kayla’s writing style feels similar, but not as fiery as Love My Rifle, which I think is a good thing for this book.

Both Brian and Kayla can be terribly frustrating. Brian for his outbursts and Kayla for both dealing with it and sometimes not fully understanding it. Through it all, their love for one another is clear.

If there are any faults in the book, it is in the repetition of a few key lines or ideas almost word-for-word that felt like heavy-handed ways to get a point across. For example, on more than one occasion Kayla discusses war news scrolling on the “little ticker at the bottom of the screen” as a way of demonstrating how divorced from the war the general population is.

Also, I feel like it is worth mentioning that Kayla writes unapologetically about her political leanings in the book. She’s never been one to hide them, and is very up front with her advocacy. Still, the last 1/3 of the book discusses in some detail her and Brian’s work with various political organizations. I mention it only because I know there are some readers who can’t help but get worked up about those types of things.

That out of the way, below are the things that I found particularly interesting. These are just reactions to interesting things in the book, so my apologies if one paragraph doesn’t seem to flow fluidly into the next:

Kayla does a fantastic job capturing how funny Brian can be, as he provides much needed comic relief throughout the book. For all of the faults and setbacks in their relationship and his recovery, he comes across as the guy that you really hope would be your friend. Some examples:

-The first thing he says after having a thick piece of metal shrapnel lodged in his head is “Give me a cigarette.”
-When he kept getting falsely accused of sleeping with another guy’s wife, he decided that if he was going to get accused of it and have to take so much shit for it, he might as well do the deed. So he did.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Brian and Kayla have while they are still in their flirting stage in Iraq. It is a nice, genuine moment, albeit foreboding since the reader knows where the book is headed. When my eyes passed over the words “…plenty of time when we get home” I felt something deeply sad.

Kayla’s great at capturing how little things matter. She often opines at length on the importance of a good commute, being a thrifty spender, and how hard it can be to get in a good workout. She describes the way their crazy dog Kelby wreaks havoc on their attempts to get their lives under control. How can they get their shit together when they have this maniac dog costing them tons of money and making life miserable?

Through the book, it seems incredibly irresponsible to read some of the lines from doctors and military officials in giving advice on how Brian should proceed after receiving his injury. From “just avoid activities that seem dangerous” to “you should just feel lucky to be alive.” It serves as a reminder that in those early years after the wars began, we (as a nation) didn’t really know what we were doing. Things have gotten significantly better since then, but it should serve as a reminder that things progress, and we should be humble in all of our so-called certainties.

Refreshingly, even after over ten years, Kayla hasn’t forgotten how wonderful some of the simple pleasures are upon redeployment. The first part of her book is peppered with references to “hot and unlimited” showers and other similar gems. As time and distance separates the veteran from war-time service, it gets easier and easier to forget those simple things.

Kayla writes an interesting story about repeatedly losing her shit at bars when no one would buy her or her friends drinks after getting back from Iraq because people assumed they weren’t combat veterans, because they were women. And then Kid Rock bought Kayla a beer.

She writes about a guy who should be everyone’s hero. The guy that says confidently that he or she is dealing with PTSD. I’ve met guys like him – the guy that is respected and a good soldier who is not afraid to say when he is hurting. The guy who drops the tough-guy facade and speaks the truth. We need so many more of them.

Kayla manages to capture a great scene depicting one of my favorite things: absurdity. Here, she is describing an accountability formation for soldiers who are assigned to a particular unit, but all in different situations which has them wearing different clothes. As stupid as this is, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read it. It reads like a scene out of Enlisted.

“One day when I went in with him, I was completely astonished at what the formation looked like. Soldiers who had assignments like Brian were there in suits. Others were in BDUs (battle dress uniform-camouflage). Still others were wearing PTs (physical fitness uniforms). Many were on crutches and clearly struggling to stand upright. Some were actually dragging IV stands with them. “What the hell?” I said. “Isn’t this excessive? Can’t they just send the squad leaders by their rooms or something?”

In a small, but very interesting anecdote, Kayla captures how selfish soldiers and veterans can be when she writes about an argument with her mom after she (mom) failed to pay a bill Kayla had trusted her with. When deployed, there’s this feeling that life should revolve around you and everyone should stop what they’re doing at once if you need something. Kayla repeatedly writes about how easy it is to do things when “someone’s not trying to kill you.” When Kayla yells at her mom for missing the bill, her mom turns the tables and tries to guilt Kayla out (which family members are very, very good at). Kayla argues back that it’s “her turn to be crazy” which goes back to the world revolving around the combat veteran. No one else should be allowed to be upset or tired or anything, so goes the thinking, because hey, at least YOU’RE not the one with someone out to kill you.

It’s an interesting area which I don’t think has been explored enough. I also got the feeling that for as honest as Kayla is in this book, there is more behind the relationship with her mother than is revealed here.

The two most powerful parts of the book describe Kayla breaking down, contemplating suicide, and a terrible, alcohol-fueled confrontation she has with Brian. It’s raw and honest. It’s terrifying. The confrontation will make you angry. Angry at both Kayla and Brian for letting things get to that point. But it’s real. And it is an amazing thing to read and it must have been a terribly painful thing to write.

Towards the end of the book, there is a telling scene where Kayla and some other female veterans get together to discuss another book by a female veteran (Hesitation Kills, by Jane Blair). It was interesting to read about a bunch of female vets hating (mostly) on someone else’s experience. They discussed at length, some of the things that annoyed them about Jane’s experiences, like choosing to forego drinking water to spare herself the embarrassment of having to stop and pee, or her belief that maybe as a female (and an officer) she might not have to go to war.

Admittedly, as I read this I started to think that maybe this was just a bunch of girls, hating on another girl, like girls (in popular media) tend to do. As I thought about it, I realized that this “hating” is essentially the same thing that male soldiers do when talking about other military people, especially those who put themselves out there and write a book. The military – male and female – is made up of a bunch of ambitious ‘type A’ personalities, and when one steps up front and says something, especially if he or she puts it down in a book, seemingly seeking recognition, it is very likely that that is going to be challenged, dissected, and attacked.

I enjoyed reading the book. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought getting through it might be a chore. It is very easy to get burned out on military books. Kayla masterfully paints a narrative that is accessible to anyone, who like I said earlier, is interested in human drama. It is incredibly brave to open your life up, warts and all, to a voyeuristic gazing public salivating for details about what goes on behind closed doors. Kayla lays it out and lets us look in and see, and I think anyone who reads this book will be better off for doing so.

books

End of War Reading List: The Man Who Would Be King

I made a note to check out this book by Kipling while I was reading Into the Land of Bones. The plot, two British travelers attempting to be kings in a remote part of Afghanistan, was intriguing.

The book is short, but pretty dry. Work left me tired in the evenings and I could barely get through a couple of pages before falling asleep.

I’m adding it to the list, if only to serve as another reminder to be humble in graveyard of empires. All the guns and gold in the empire might add up to nil.

There is a movie version out there that I hope to see.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
The Man Who Would Be King (started after reading about it in Into the Land of Bones) – done (Feb. 3, 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)

books

End of War Reading List: Into the Land of Bones

The Battle of Gaugamela

This was the first book on my list. It was given to me by a friend years ago when she learned I was heading back into the Army. It has sat on my shelf since then and I finally picked it up to lead off the End of War Reading List.

It’s a tough read. It is as readable a history of Alexander’s campaigns into Afghanistan can possibly be (which isn’t very). It’s kind of like jumping into ‘Game of Thrones’ mid-season or picking up the book and starting to read from just anywhere. Lots of strange names and locations that are difficult to place unless you’re already read-in. Mind numbing, but rewarding for someone willing to sit and focus. Not something to pluck through in the moments before falling asleep.

Frank Holt (the author) is a professor of ancient history who specializes in Alexander the Great. He is the guy that you would want to write this book if what you’re interested in historical accuracy.

For its difficulties, Holt manages to paint the contours of the great campaign well enough, which is the best that could be accomplished, given the extreme lack of source material. He also lightly infuses comparisons to the British, Soviet, and American escapades into Afghanistan where appropriate. It is clear through his writing that Holt holds a very dismal opinion on the West’s current involvement in Afghanistan, but he expresses it not with the venom of a talking head on a cable news channel, but instead the sad disappointment of a respected high-school teacher. It’s not too heavy-handed, but Holt does ride the “graveyard of empires” train.

Before reading this, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexander’s Afghanistan campaign except what I learned from the Oliver Stone movie, which was practically nothing except everyone looked fantastic in antiquity. The book accomplished its job of taking me through the campaign without making me do the hard work myself. There are plenty of notes and references for the historians interested in where the source material comes from, and Holt is always careful to inform the reader what is conjecture and what is sourced.

Holt is good about adding in quotes through history that bring the ancient campaign to life through grim prophecy. Here he is in the introduction, quoting British general Robert Franks on the perils of being in Afghanistan:

It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance at attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.

I earmarked some spots in the book that I thought might be interesting to highlight.

Fortune can turn in an instant – Quoting a British officer, comparing Alexander’s troubles in taming Afghanistan after initial successes to a line from the Second Afghan War (British):

A change has indeed come over the vision of our dream – last night we were all cock-a-hoop, thinking ourselves fine fellows, and that all we had now to do was walk around and burn some villages; and within twenty-four hours we are locked up, closely besieged, after a jolly good licking and all communications with the outer world cut off. (p. 50)

All we had to go do “was walk around and burn some villages” and be done with the whole thing. Turns out, as quoted above, that heavy handedness doesn’t always work the way it ought to.

More on the perils of reckless abandon:

In the so-called fog of war, Alexander’s men jabbed, sliced, torched, and bombarded in a frenzied swath. Innocents no doubt perished in the heavy use of firepower, just as American warplanes have accidentally bombed Afghan allied, coalition partners and even several wedding parties. Twice in one week (December 2003), U.S. forces killed groups of Afghan children while trying unsuccessfully to target individual warlords. Such events take a heavy toll not only on indigenous peoples but also on the luckless soldiers whose orders place them in these winless circumstances. (p. 58-9)

The story of the ‘Silver Shields,’ an elite, veteran unit of Alexander’s forces:

One indication of this sad state of affairs may be found in the history of the elite unit Alexander’s army called the Silver Shields. As these veterans grew old in service and passed the age of sixty, they demanded of Alexander’s successors the benefits and rewards promised to them. Deemed unruly and ungrateful for making such petitions, these worn-out soldiers were sent away to southern Afghanistan where, we are told, they were to be secretly assigned by twos and threes to perilous missions from which they would not return. Betrayed, they still haunt the region of Kandahar. (p. 120)

This book took me way too long to read. It wasn’t very gripping, but worthwhile for someone being plopped onto the end of a cosmic timeline.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
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)

books

The End of War Reading List

Finally__the_End_of_War____by_enricoagostoni

With the future of US forces in Afghanistan post-2014 still uncertain, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to be on one of the last deployments there – someone is going to have to do it, after all.

Ex-blogger Andrew Exum once told me that the value that I would bring as an older, over-educated LT was that if I were to go to war, I’d know what books to read before going, or at least where to start looking.

When it comes to Middle East Studies, Afghanistan is on the fringe. If the field is a purely geographical one, it falls outside of the region unless you have a generous cartographer. If the field is thematic, than there are certainly things that bring Afghanistan into the fold. As it were, my schooling brought Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan in every now and then – but not often.

I could scour my bookshelf and pull out a dozen books about Afghanistan and start reading, but I think history and anthropology only go so far in a post-COIN/post-OBL 2014.

This is the End of War.

I’m turning to you, dear readers, to help me out in recommending books that you think would be beneficial to a young leader going to Afghanistan. It doesn’t have to be Afghanistan specific – it can be about anything – but I’m hoping to build the definitive list of books that would prepare that young leader for a contemporary deployment to Afghanistan. That list, I am sure, is different from the list that would exist for a different young leader deploying in 2003, 2007, or 2011.

The first book I’ve pulled off of my shelf is “Into the Land of Bones,” a gift from a friend back in New York. I haven’t read it yet.

Please leave your recommendations in the comments. I’ll add my own recommendations as I find them and write short reviews as I finish them.

Update: I’m getting lots of recommendations – some will go on the list, others will go “on deck,” because I’m not quite sure yet.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – currently reading
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)

Just for fun

All You Need Is Kill
The Stranger

books

The Painting at the Spouter-Inn and other gems from Moby Dick

The Spouter-Inn, 18x24" acrylic on canvas, 2009 (Marlene Angeja)

The Spouter-Inn, 18×24″ acrylic on canvas, 2009 (Marlene Angeja)

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.- It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.- It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.- It’s a blasted heath.- It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.- It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

After a long time, I finally finished reading Moby Dick. The above was the most memorable part of the book for me, which took place very early on. The picture I chose was the one that I thought captured the description in the text. Here are some of the other gems I found in Melville’s classic that readers of this blog will appreciate:

On the emotion of the first encounter with the leviathan:
Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world; — neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunter sperm whale.

On commanders and their more capable subordinates:
“Now, as you well known, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours — watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straight-away against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he have a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.”

On emulating the leviathan:
Oh man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among the ice. Do though, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equatorl keep they blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

On the joy of sperm, or sea-madness:
Squeeze! Squeeze Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwitingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, — Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
     Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy, but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermacetti.

Ahab, on the Leviathan-slayer:
“Not forged!” and snatching Perth’s levelled iron from the crotch, Ahab held it out, exclaiming — “Look ye, Nantucketer; here in this hand I hold his death! Tempered in blood, and tempered by lightning are these barbs; and I swear to temper them triply in that hot place behind the fin, where the White Whale most feels his accursed life!”

Ahab on his mad obsession:
“Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!—lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the airs smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swarths—Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there, Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail.

On the mission:
They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things — oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp — yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.

Ahab on the uncompromising end:
Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!”

“A New Theory of Biology,” was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page: “The author’s mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.” He underlined the words. “The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary.” A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose — well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes — make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. He picked up his pen again, and under the words “Not to be published” drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed, “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!”

books

Book Review: The Short-Timers

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

timers2

Like all my book reviews, this isn’t really a book review. It’s more of a reaction.

After finishing Love My Rifle More Than You, I wanted to take a short break from war books. They can be draining. Unfortunately, I came across this blog post (by way of The Fighting Leprechaun) that argues Stanley Kubrick messed up the movie Full Metal Jacket (one of my favorites) by not sticking to some of the original plot lines in the novel it is based off of, The Short-Timers. Mistakenly, I always thought that FMJ was based off Michael Herr’s Dispatches – it turns out that was Apocalypse Now. As you can see, it all gets pretty confusing.

As a a big fan of FMJ, I set out to read The Short-Timers and it totally sucked me in. Lots of  the dialogue in FMJ is lifted right off the pages of The Short-Timers, and it was interesting to read the book with the images I already had of Joker, Cowboy, GySgt Gernheim and Animal Mother in my head. In some cases this made the dialogue jump out at me, since I could hear Joker imitating John Wayne in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I was just reading the novel for the first time. But it also handicapped me in other ways. I loved Animal Mother in FMJ as a necessary evil. The guy you need in your squad, despite wanting to admit it. The “you need me on that wall” guy. In The Short-Timers, Animal Mother is hardly likable at all. He’s still a bad-ass, but he is a war criminal and a menace.

I’ve read a number of Vietnam books recently, and a lot of them were good. This book, however, really made me hate war. It was graphic and probably hyperbolic (it is a semi-autobiographical novelafter all). I found myself uncomfortable and disgusted reading it, but not able to stop reading. Not wanting to stop reading.

Figuring that I was going to write a reaction blog to the book, I started to highlight a couple of passages that stuck out to me, because they were either similar to modern experiences or the opposite.

This is Cowboy talking to Joker about how the war is fucked up and why he can’t risk any more marines to try to take out a sniper that has already killed some of the squad. The whole dialogue is interesting, plus there’s the feeling of betrayal for not being able to hoist the American flag, something that was experienced in GWOT as well.

   Cowboy spits, his face a sweaty stone. “After the NVA pulled out, the lifers sent in the Arvin Black Panthers to take the Forbidden City. Shit. Nothing left but rear guard squads. We stomped the NVA and they stomped us and the lifers send in the Arvins, like the goddamn Arvins did it. Mr. Shortround said it was their country, said we was only helping out, said it would boost the morale of the Vietnamese people. Well, fuck the Vietnamese people. The horrible hogs in hard, hungry Hotel Company ran up an America flag. Like an Iwo Jima. But some poge officers ordered them to take it down. The snuffies had to run up the stinking Vietnamese flag, which is yellow, which is the right color for these chickenshit people. We’re getting slaughtered in this city. And we can’t even run up a fucking flag. I just can’t hack this shit, bro. My job is to get my people back to the World in one piece.” Cowboy coughs, spits, wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Under fire, these are the best human beings in the world. All they need is for somebody to throw hand grenades at them for the rest of their lives… These guys depend on me. I can’t send my people out to get that sniper, Joker. I might lose the whole squad.”

Clearing roads for mines/IEDs. Not a new thing.

     I was writing a feature article about how the grunts at the Rock pile on Route Nine had to sweep the road for mines every morning before any traffic could use the road.

Probably one of my favorite lines from the book. This line is a part of a long stream of consciousness explanation of how Joker sees himself as part of the machine, his place in the war.

    In the darkness I am one with Khe Sahn – a living cell of this place – this erupted pimple of sandbags and barbed wire on a bleak plateau surrounded by the end of the world.

I find myself fascinated more and more with Vietnam not because it seems familiar – which it does at times – but how completely foreign the experience seems from my own. It’s something I’ll need to write about later.

After finishing The Short-Timers, I came across a couple of related and interesting articles. Gustav Hasford, the author of the novel, died in 1993. Someone runs a blog in his honor that runs pieces by or about him from time to time. The lead was this one, titled VIETNAM MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY. It’s a railing against Hollywood and especially the depiction of Vietnam veterans a lá Rambo. It’s fantastic.

Then, while searching for the etymology of the phrase “Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?” which was used in both the movie and the book, I came across this scholarly article about myth and myth making in America from WWII through Vietnam. It’s really fascinating. John Wayne was the hero that simultaneously made war palpable to the Vietnam generation but was rejected when the reality of war – and homecoming – became apparent.

Who is the John Wayne of our generation?

books

The Junior Officer Reader – Love My Rifle More Than You

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

LoveMyRifleMoreThanYouA lot of the people who read my blog are young infantry officers. I usually find out awkwardly at some formation when a random 2LT comes up to me and says “Hey, I read your blog.” So, to the young LTs reading this. You should read Love My Rifle More Than You because you may soon have women serving with you (probably not too soon). In the field. Taking poops. This, along with Hesitation Kills offers some of the best insight you can get on what it’s like to be a female in the modern military. It sounds pretty tough.

I just finished reading Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. I feel terrible, because this is a book I should have read a long time ago. I’ve met Kayla on several occasions and I’ve had her book for several years, but I never got to reading it. When I first decided to come up with a list of books that I think would be good for a junior officer to read, I knew her’s was one of them and it’s been on my list from the beginning. With the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, it seemed to be the perfect time to revisit the book.

Like a lot of soldier memoirs, this one takes place (mostly) during the opening of the Iraq War (2003-2004). Kayla writes a little bit about her life before the military, which colors her experience in the Army and in war (pissed off, rebellious youth). Kayla was a rebel growing up – not what we think of when we think of typical Army material (although for some reason the Army attracts rebels too). She signs up as an Arabic linguist before 9/11 and suddenly finds her skills more useful than I’m sure she ever bargained for. She eventually is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and deploys to Kuwait before the invasion, and then bounces around Iraq doing missions with artillerymen and the infantry.

Pretty standard stuff in terms of the Iraq War memoir. Kayla covers a lot of time through the book and shoots through what were probably some pretty significant events to show the fuller picture. If the book has any faults, it’s that I wanted to know more about anyone of her experiences in the Army. She could have chosen anything – the animosity she felt to her female NCOs, the strange relationships she had with her peers, or the decision to wear mascara to a USO show and how that became a big deal. I’d have liked to see a lot of these smaller things unpacked and discussed in more detail. But that’s not the book Kayla wrote, so it’s a fault of me just wanting to know more.

What makes this book different from other war memoirs is it focuses much on Kayla’s experience as a female in the Army – and deployed – at a time when war and deployment was very much new for most of the Army. The beauty of the book is Kayla’s honesty about how she felt as a woman who was often objectified by her fellow soldiers, even though that can make for some uncomfortable reading. She talks about the ambivalence she felt in trying to perform to a higher standard in order to shut up her critics, who were always looking for a reason to look down on women, and the struggle in trying to resist the urge to use the greatest asset she had – the fact that she was female – as an excuse to get out of details or carrying something heavy.

Besides the insight on what it’s like to be “young and female in the US Army” Kayla hits some important points that reminded me of some things I had forgotten. Reading about her redployment home, and how everything seemed so trivial and insignificant, made me remember how I felt those same things in the year(s) when I first came home (as an aside, there’s no hope for me now – I’m too far down the rabbit hole of reality television and created drama to ever experience that self-righteousness again). Maybe because I’m so far down that rabbit hole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the drama between Kayla and her various female NCOs who were all described as prissy and seemingly incompetent when it came to leadership. This reminded me of people I knew who grew up in the Army of the 1990s who did not expect – and were not prepared – for the Army of the 2000s.

Lastly, the part that stuck out to me the most was the real pride Kayla described when she received an award, an ARCOM, from the infantry unit that she had served with for a short period of time during her deployment. It reminded me of how small things, in this case, processing some paperwork to recognize a job well done, can go on to mean the world to someone who joined the Army to do good, but is often just pushed through the grinder (put your men and women in for awards!).

Incidentally, I had the book on me the other day and a fellow infantryman asked me what it was about, to which I replied that it was “About the experiences of a female soldier in the Army.” He replied, “Yeah, I mean, but what is it about?”

As if that wasn’t enough.

Since the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, women in combat generally and women in the infantry specifically has been the topic du jour here at Fort Benning (home of the Infantry). Most still think that this is something that’s not going to happen, or that it shouldn’t happen. To me, it seems like the time for argument is over and the time for realization and actualization is now. As leaders, it’s now our job to understand the unique challenges and opportunities fuller integration of the military will bring.

Any leader that wants to get ahead of the game and understand some of the issues that will be faced in a more integrated military would be doing himself a favor by reading this book.

These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams) 2/3/13
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12