reflections

The Fire of COIN is Gone

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As I was getting out of the Army in 2006, the debate about “how to win” in Iraq and Afghanistan was heating up, and counter-insurgency (COIN) was gaining traction as the “graduate level of war.” As a college student who liked to read about what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an interesting time. I enjoyed reading about junior officers struggling to make an impact, and the importance of the strategic corporal.” I told friends that getting out of the Army in 2006 felt a lot like being taken out of the game at halftime and having to watch the rest from the sidelines.

COIN was hot. Very smart and eager men and women ground themselves to the bone trying to figure out what it was and how to employ it. It provided an organizing purpose to be excited about. Field manuals, books, debates, blogs, dreamy instructional videos – it was the constant topic of the day.

And now it’s dead.

No one is really talking about “winning” anymore, because the wars just kind of faded away. Back in the Army, no one is really talking about COIN or strategy. We lack that kind of overarching purpose to drive us on.

In the midst of cutbacks, drawdowns, and realignments, I think I am starting to see a trend towards what the “next big thing” is in terms of organizing principle, something to get excited about. It seems that what the Army struggles with today is how to satisfy all of the ever-increasing demands placed on it while still empowering junior leaders and building lethal teams. It’s not as sexy as COIN, and it doesn’t get any cool monikers like “the graduate level of war,” but effective management in the 21st century Army seems to be the holy grail. It feels like in order to accomplish everything that is being asked, something (and likely, many things) have to fall off the table.

The new COIN isn’t getting simply back to basics, exactly, but more like figuring out what a true modern Army looks like, how we train, and how we fight. If the wars never happened, what would the Army have become? It feels like that’s where we are, or where we’re trying to get to.

reflections

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Moments of Dread and Waiting

Not much to say on this, other than there are often moments during a deployment where there is an event, there is a report, and there is a lot of time spent waiting for the other foot to drop. What is going to be the result of this? Who is going to get fired?

What may have seemed like a big deal in the moment may be ridiculously insignificant by the time it makes its way up the flagpole. Other times the lamest things become huge deals.

The recent infusion of the immediacy of communication in a deployed zone heightens this phenomenon.

reflections

Afghanistan Post-Mortem: Adhan during a mortar attack

Oh puh-leaz.

Early one morning, sleep was interrupted by a mortar attack.

Generally speaking, the scariest part of an indirect fire attack is the adrenaline spike that occurs as a result of alarm – something I experienced during the Scud attacks of early 2003 as well. The speed in which someone needs to launch a mortar attack while also avoiding being killed in a counter-attack – usually – prevents any reliable accuracy.

So the alarm goes off and you kind of wait for the boom, and imagine for a half-second what it would be like for a fist sized piece of shrapnel to come flying at your neck.

I was already awake, getting ready to go to the gym. The mortar exploded with a dull thud far from our area, and the platoon went back to sleep. I started walking to the guard towers to check on the guys. As I was walking, I heard the the low melodic sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting through the still night from a nearby mosque.

I remember physically laughing at how cliché that was.

reflections

Afghanistan Post Mortem: The DFAC at the Edge of the World

There was a small post that we visited from time to time, to move in or out personnel and equipment. It was hours away by vehicle and we really didn’t like going there. It was far from the big American bases and the terrain was mountainous and nasty.

We called it Mordor.

The first time we went to Mordor, we arrived in the middle of the night. For security reasons, no lights were kept on at night, so the base was completely dark. Just outside of the main gate, we were met by a small group of Americans in the darkness, wearing helmets and night vision goggles. We were dropping off a few people and would only be on the ground for less than an hour. Our helmeted American hosts said they had a small dining facility on the compound and we were welcome to grab some snacks and drinks before the long drive back to our base. He pointed somewhere deeper into the darkness before dissapearing.

With the bulk of the platoon waiting at the trucks, a few of us made our way into the darkness. We walked through a small gate and along a small road. Eerily quiet trucks zoomed past us, literally brushing up against us as we tried to make out the dark figures in the back, lounging as the faint sound of their trucks faded into the darkness.

We kept walking, up a hill now, eventually seeing a single source of dull red light over a indistinct door. We were told that the red light would mark the entrace to the dining facility.

We opened the door and entered, finding ouselves suddenly bathed in bright, fluorescent white light. I squinted and rubbed my eyes as my pupils adjusted. Sinks lined the wall, with small soap dispensers above them and clean mirrors to look at yourself. A corkboard across from the sinks listed MWR events taking place on the small post, as well as information on the Army’s SHARP and EO programs. The small group I was with must have looked a bit perplexed, as the attendant – a junior soldier sitting at a small register – interrupted our bewilderment by informing us that the dining facility was about to close, and he needed to scan our ID cards.

We scanned our ID cards at the register and then walked into the dining facility, loading up our cargo pockets with Rip-Its and cookies before dissapearing back into the darkness, looking for our trucks.

reflections

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Fallen Soldier Ceremony

One late evening, my phone rang in the middle of the night. I answered it, expecting some emergency or another. It was the Operations Sergeant Major. A soldier in the command had been killed and he was being flown from our airfield to another, en route home. I needed to get the platoon together, he said, for a fallen soldier ceremony.

My commander had just flown in a few hours earlier, and when the platoon sergeant started rounding everyone up for a very strange midnight formation, they all figured it was the CO, pissed about something he had observed.

Once everyone was together, we briefed them on what we knew (very little) and moved to the flight line.

In other years, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to rally the hundred or so soldiers it takes to form an unbroken chain of troops to create a corridor between the aircraft and the hospital. But in 2014, it took a lot of phone calls and maybe even some personal favors.

We all stood there in the dark on the asphalt, not really knowing what was going on. Nearby crew chiefs conducted final preparations for the flight. It was dark, quiet, humid, and groggy.

Eventually, we all started forming the corridor in an orderly, military fashion, without ever having anyone tell us what to do. It all kind of just happened.

Time passed, and the door of the non-descript building that served as the mortuary affairs office opened up. Large men carried the flag-draped casket inbetween the two ranks of soldiers forming the hundred meter or so corridor to the waiting Blackhawk.

Someone called us to present arms, and we did.