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.

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

“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.

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)