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.

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books

Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that statement. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service is a subject that generates deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure him and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!

 

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)

books

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

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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!”