Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

four feathers 1939

When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’

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Long Goodbye

My first two deployments were short-notice deployments. I found out we were going to Iraq the first week of February, 2003. The war hadn’t started yet and the Commander couldn’t even confirm that we were going there. We were told that we were going to “southwest Asia” for “something.” The Department of Defense already put out a press release confirming the deployment of an Airborne Infantry Brigade, and we were the only one still available, but whatever. We stayed up late for the next two weeks stuffing our lives into duffel bags. We said hurried goodbyes, and we flew away for a year.

My second deployment was similar. I was driving for a General, and he was reassigned to a position in Iraq and had to be there in a couple of weeks. He asked his staff if they wanted to go and we all said yes. I packed, said goodbye, and was gone a week later as ADVON.

This current deployment loomed on the horizon like a giant barge, sitting in the water, inching closer by the minute but appearing not to move at all until finally it was here. We knew about it with some degree of certainty back in November, when rumors swirled we were put back on “the patch chart” – this mythical board that dictates when units will deploy. Further, the predicted deployment date was sometime in the summer, giving us at least a full six months in which to prepare.

That long run-up to a deployment is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it allows more time to train and prepare. A curse – and this is especially true for those who’ve deployed before – because a good chunk of time is spent soaking up the good things in life under the excuse of “soon I’ll be deployed and won’t have this opportunity.” Thus begins a see-saw cycle of hard gym sessions followed by binging on Chips Ahoy and beer, because, you never know.

It’s worse on relationships. It’s the elephant in the room, the thing that is right there and coming that both parties try to ignore so they can “enjoy now.” A couple of weeks before this deployment, I sat in a beautiful sea-side restaurant eating breakfast with my wife, looking out at a bay in Saint Thomas. Gazing at the lush hills, my mind drifted to reading terrain for an attack and our current and projected task organization. We began to argue over something stupid, but it was really frustration about the deployment – an oncoming train that won’t stop.

And then, after months and months of that – preparing and binging, ignoring and acknowledging – the day finally comes and it is time to say goodbye. There is no good way to do it – I’ve done it too many times and the only thing that makes it any easier is knowing that the actual physical act of saying goodbye is the hardest part. There are actually multiple goodbyes; the one in the living room, the one in quiet car ride to post, the first one when you thought you were just going to be dropped off at base before you saw all the other families lingering around, and then the final one where you say “this is it.” Inside that goodbye, there are a dozen false starts. You hug and kiss and say goodbye and step away, only to move in one more time “for real this time.” After that, you finally have to go. You look and try your best to absorb the entirety of that moment; the humid air, the early morning, blue hued twilight sky, the feeling of your loved one’s body against yours, one last time.

And then you break and say goodbye, turn around, and walk away.


Friendship and Loneliness


I recently re-blogged one of my first posts on Carrying the Gun, called The Last Letter WarI was still in graduate school at the time, and I was getting nostalgic for the feeling that letter writing and receiving brought during my first deployment, which was pretty austere. In that post, I lamented the fact that due to the rapid spread of connectivity and smartphones, future wars would likely not depend on good old fashioned mail the way we once knew it. In that, something would be lost – solitude, loneliness, and a deep yearning for outside contact. I admitted though, that all that nostalgia would be lost on a soldier sitting on his cot, waiting weeks or months for a letter that may never come – he’d choose the internet in a heartbeat because it is better, easier, and instantaneous.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece imagining what it might be like to deploy in the current media landscape, where a soldier’s actions are almost instantaneously captured and beamed across the world via the internet at the speed of light, dissected, critiqued, and discarded before the soldier makes it back to his camp. It was a dark thought, especially the idea of having a bunch of snarky twenty and thirty somethings share thoughts on your behavior from the comfort of their computer chairs or porcelain toilets, in 140 characters or less.

Now, I am living in that future.

I tend to find myself reading things that bleed into one another – articles that may or not be related, but share common themes. I don’t know if this is a product of my mood at a given time, which makes me more likely to click and follow through on reading one thing rather than another, or simply a random occurrence that seems to happen pretty frequently. Over the past week I’ve been thinking about those two posts while also having read a number of articles and essays on the topics of friendship, loneliness, and civility. They all seem to be connected, somehow, so I thought I’d share them here. The common denominator in them (with the exception of The Hermit) is the rise of social media as a disruptive force – disruptive, in this case, not necessarily being a “bad” thing (although it might be – the jury is still out).

It started with this article in GQ (The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit) about a man who remained hidden in the woods of Maine for almost thirty years. It is a fascinating story, and especially so in today’s interconnected world, where this phenomena seems exceptionally rare. The author, who continually tries to tease out of Chris Knight (the hermit) why he did it – only comes close to an answer when discovering what it is that he missed about his exile, now that it had been taken from him.

“What I miss most,” he eventually continued, “is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.” He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I’d noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he’d sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. “I’d stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars.”

While scrolling through my Timeline on my Facebook, looking for a certain picture, I came across an article I shared from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Faux Friendship in 2009. In it, William Deresiewicz discusses the changing nature of friendship, and especially the loss of the “romantic” friendship, as in, that single friend with whom we are almost cosmically linked. Instead, we have replaced “information for experience.” Think about the throngs of outstretched hands at concerts (or any event) clutching glowing smartphones to “capture” moments they aren’t really experiencing to be shared with others who don’t really care.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Deresiewicz wrote another article for the Chronicle titled The End of Solitude, which is very closely related to Faux Friendship, but worth reading on its own.

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity.

Strangely, I was also pointed to this article called How to Be Polite which feels somewhat related in that it discusses the demise of civility, mostly due to the rise of social media and a more interconnected world.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

Just before I was ready to post this piece, I came across this Mashable article, The Most Connected Man is You, Just a Few Years From NowThe subject obsessively tracks everything he can track with whatever digital tracker exists, creating a cyborg-effect.

“Everyone wants to know if they will be like me in the future, but everyone is already like me; they just don’t think about it like that,” he says. “Your phone is already collecting information about you and your life. If you use a credit card or a car GPS system, you’re already being tracked. But that’s Big Brother. When you take control of it yourself, that’s Big Mother, and that relationship is nurturing, kind and not controlling.

And lastly, just for fun, is this edit of celebrities at the VMAs, looking more and more like citizens of the Hunger Games’ Capitol, ignoring the party going on around them in favor of the pitch-and-toss happening on their smartphones.


Homies at War


A couple of weeks ago, I came across this short documentary at Vice about the guy who made millions of dollars in quarters selling small plastic figures in New York supermarkets. They were called “Homies,” and in the early 2000s, they were wildly popular in New York City.

In March 2003, I deployed to Iraq. My mother worked at a supermarket at the time, and like most supermarkets, it had quarter machines near the exit. One of these machines kept “Homies.”

My mom would send me care packages full of the things I asked for – magazines, food, video games – and then drop in a handful of Homies. It was a strange thing to pull out of a box in Baghdad, but for some strange reason, they became popular in my platoon. I handed them out as I got them and guys set them up around their sleeping area or kept them in their pockets for good luck. A few guys taped a homie to the front sight post of their rifles until someone yelled at them for it.

It was strange to see this documentary, with the guy that once hit it big with his homies now struggling to pay his Verizon bill. Meanwhile, Iraq too has fallen apart, struggling to keep the lid on a dangerous extremist march on Baghdad.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

Killing time at Hotel California (October 21, 2003)

Welcome to Hotel California

[Update (May 14, 2014) - I'm raising money for Operation Supply Drop - a charity that sends video games to deployed troops - by playing video games for 24 hours straight on May 17. All this week, I am reposting some of my favorite milgaming articles as a way to celebrate #8BitSalute. Please help me reach my goal donating (click here) or sharing this post]

Note: I originally posted this last December. I’m reposting it here because this is where it fits in the “Iraq: Ten Years Later” thing.

Also, a shorter, sexier version of this was published at Vice.

Late summer 2003


We’ve been here long enough to understand that we’re not going to find out when we’re going home until it’s actually time to go home. It sucks, but we’ve accepted it. This actually helped develop a positive attitude to the deployment experience. We’ve moved past complacency and we’re now focused on improving our condition.

We were doing the “highway mission” for what seemed like an eternity. Gone were the patrols, snap TCPs, night raids, and even the dreaded all-day cordon and searches. All we knew was the highway. A squad would insert somewhere along one of Baghdad’s busy highways and establish an LP/OP, usually for a 12 hour period before being relieved by another squad. 12 hours on, 24 “off.” That “off” time was filled with weapons maintenance, guard duty, “hey you” details, “hey you” missions, chow, rest, and personal time. It was a pretty unexciting time during the deployment.

Then, one day, our platoon was tasked with sending two rifle squads to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) for a mystery detail that would last for at least a week. 1st and 2nd squads were chosen (I was a team leader in 1st squad). Without knowing exactly what we were doing, we packed our gear and loaded onto a truck while the rest of the platoon looked on with envy. Their 12 hours on 24 hours off just became 12 on 12 off.

Besides the Green Zone, BIAP offered the most luxury to deployed soldiers in Iraq. It was the enlisted man’s Green Zone. Sprawling and unorganized. Going to BIAP for a grunt, however short, was a welcome respite from life outside the wire. BIAP had a Burger King, a massive PX that was routinely re-stocked, and a first-rate Dining Facility (DFAC). Soldiers would eagerly volunteer to accompany the XO as extra security on his runs to BIAP to secure supplies, just for the chance to use one of BIAP’s facilities. Risking it all for some fast food.

After speeding through Highway 8, we passed the winged statue that welcomes you to BIAP. Passing through numerous checkpoints, our eyes turned towards the center of the airport at the tallest structure on the premises, a multi-story sand colored building. On its side was draped a canvas sign that some unit had placed there that read “Welcome to Hotel California.”

Our truck snaked its way to the center of activity near the Hotel California and the aircraft hangars. Our platoon leader (PL) and platoon sergeant (PSG) left to link up with whomever they were supposed to link up with. This left the rest of us with some free time to explore.

The Burger King was the obvious first choice. Earlier in the summer, our PSG brought back a single Whopper from a trip to BIAP. That Whopper had to be shared with the entire 36 man platoon. Each soldier took a tiny bite and then passed the sandwich to the guy at the next cot, this being repeated until it disappeared. As silly as it seems, that single bite was amazing. The line at the BIAP BK was ridiculously long. Wait times of over three hours were the norm, and by the time you made it to the window, having it your way was unlikely since most of their in-demand supplies had most likely been exhausted. Still, there was something about having fast food that did wonders for morale. Soldiers often joked that when they got back home they would go get fast food at 0200 in the morning on a weekday, just because they could.

Next was the PX, which was housed in an old sheet metal hangar with an extremely high ceiling. This PX sold a little of everything, but the in-demand items were junk food, magazines, and electronics. Items would sell out almost as soon as they were put on the shelves. Soldiers stationed at BIAP obviously had the best chance of snagging prized items, which became a point of animosity for line troops who only got a few minutes to pass through and pick up whatever was left.

The DFAC was amazing. It was called the “Bob Hope” DFAC and a few months later President Bush would fly in and help serve Thanksgiving Dinner there. For a unit that subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for months, the sudden availability of normal food instantly raised morale, while simultaneously stiffening disdain felt towards the lucky ones who had permanent access to it. Each meal presented the customer with multiple choices. You could eat healthy or go to town on french toast, cakes and ice cream. After eating at the DFAC, trips to Burger King happened for the novelty of it or if you happened to pass by and noticed the line was short.

Eventually, our short tour of the amenities ended and our two squads found ourselves sitting in the briefing room of an aviation unit. We would be relieving a couple of line squads from a sister unit. The expressions on their faces suggested they were not happy to go. An officer in a flight suit came in to brief us. Our two squads would serve as an emergency Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the Baghdad area. If someone needed a coupe of rifle squads in a pinch, we would load up on Blackhawks and be inserted wherever we were needed.

QRF hangar

It was an awesome mission template. No guard duty, no nonsense. Just waiting for a call to come down that would move us rapidly to a friction point via UH-60s and do the work of infantrymen. In the meantime, we had some of the finest facilities that OIF-I had to offer at our fingertips.

Our home would be the seventh floor of the Hotel California. Besides the first floor, the rest of the building seemed abandoned. In a painful file, we slowly climbed the seven flights of stairs with all of our weapons, ammo, rucksacks, body armor and personal gear. Once we finally made it to our floor, the two squads quickly scurried looking for the best spot to drop rucks and claim real estate. This was an extremely important moment. Finding a good nesting spot could lead to a relatively comfortable stay, whereas a poor spot could ruin the entire experience.

Once everyone had claimed their spots, we began to explore the floor. It looked like this floor housed office space for Iraqi travel agencies. Most of the furniture was gone, but there were still some desks and cabinets with travel brochures and travel information suggesting a time before the war when Iraqis traveled for leisure. The tall windows were blown out, which let in a welcomed cool breeze that kept the air temperature much lower than outdoors. From our floor, we could see out over the sprawling airport all the way to where it met the beginning of Baghdad proper. A darker haze sat low in the sky there.

The spartan conditions of OIF-I brought out the latent talents of many soldiers. Amateur electricians became local superstars, and we were fortunate to have a couple with us for this mission. After only a few minutes of messing around, they managed to get some lights on and jerry-rigged some electrical outlets. With that, the opportunities for what was possible expanded exponentially.

With electricity, freedom from details, and an unknown amount of free time, it took little deliberation to decide that we needed to buy a television and an Xbox. Before our first night was over, we had both, with four controllers and a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved. Under warm amber lights, both squads gathered around the television while the amateur electricians put the finishing touches on their setup, connecting wires and double checking their work. With everything ready, the television was turned on followed by the Xbox. Before anything appeared on the screen we heard a loud pop. Smoke started to rise from the Xbox. Our eagerness to start our game time blinded us to the reality of circuitry outside the US. The Xbox would only operate on a 110 circuit, and we plugged it into a 220 circuit. We were completely bummed, especially the guy who shelled out the big money for the Xbox.

It was late and the PX was closed, so we decided that we would go back to the PX first thing in the morning with the Xbox and try to exchange it, under the premise that we plugged it in and didn’t work (which was true).

With our second Xbox in hand, we again gathered around the setup, eager to get our game on. This time we plugged the Xbox into a small orange transformer that was supposed to downgrade from 220 to 110.

It worked!

The Xbox started up and the Halo title screen flickered on the television as we simultaneously heard a pop. Smoke rose from both the Xbox and the orange transformer, which was now hot to the touch. Apparently the small orange transformer was only capable of handling small electronics, not the heavy-duty power needs of a modern gaming machine.

Two Xbox’s down, but determined to make this work, we devised a new plan. One of us would go and try to exchange the second (!) fried Xbox while I scoured BIAP for a transformer powerful enough to work the system. Strangely, the PX had no problem accepting a second fried Xbox from the same guy in two days and exchanging it for a third, brand new one. Meanwhile, I spent the better part of the morning creeping around BIAP, looking for heavy-duty transformers. After asking around, I learned that there was a hole-in-the-wall store on BIAP run by Iraqis. The store was actually right next to Hotel California, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone had clued you in. Behind a blank door was the store, and the shelves were stocked with local food, jewelry, painting, and other souvenirs. Stowed away in the corner were a bunch of metal boxes of various sizes. These were the transformers. Although I could have settled for a smaller model, I didn’t want to disappoint the squad. I bought the biggest transformer they had which weighed at least thirty pounds and could have powered a home.

Transformer in tow, I made the slow ascent to the seventh floor. When I walked in with the transformer I received a hero’s welcome for delivering the goods. With more transforming power than we could ever need we once again setup our system and carefully turned the power on, expecting another sizzle and pop. This time, we reached the main screen and were greeted the heroic title music of the Halo series.

The next two weeks became an in-country orgy of gaming madness. We were never called for a QRF mission. We spent our days bringing to-go plates up to the seventh floor and playing 4-way Halo tournaments all day long. We gave each other terrible nicknames like “Fat Elvis” and “Mercutio.” If someone got on a hot streak, we changed the game to something we called “The One” (a nod to the Matrix, which we were all a little too obsessed with at the time) and played 3 vs. 1 until all was restored.

We’d play straight through mortar attacks, glancing briefly outside the window to make sure the rounds weren’t walking in too close to our seventh floor retreat.

Those two weeks seemed to last forever as we settled into our new norm of hot showers, good food, video games all day, and the only threat of work being a high-speed mission that would whisk us directly to the ultra-elusive enemy, where we would close with and destroy him. When our PL and PSG showed up to pick us up, we reluctantly packed up our gear and wore the same sad faces of the guys we relieved two weeks earlier. Our leadership could sense that we had been getting over, especially as we loaded a couple of big screen televisions into our dusty truck to be brought back to our humble firebase where they’d be useless.

The platoon bay.

The platoon bay.

Arriving back at our company firebase, the rest of the platoon glared angrily as we settled back into our old spots in the platoon bay. Our gifts of Red Hot Cheetos were welcomed, but it didn’t change one of our most basic rules: if you got out of the firebase, you were getting over. This was especially true because the platoon had to accomplish the same amount of work with half of the guys. And word had spread quickly that we were living the high life at BIAP, despite our assurances that it wasn’t that great.

We would only spend a few more weeks at our company firebase before moving to a larger consolidated Forward Operating Base (FOB), complete with a DFAC of its own and four man rooms. There, all of us would get to enjoy the high life a little bit.

But nothing will beat those two weeks at Hotel California.


Military Meditation

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster). Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times. Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris. Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess. Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic. So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire. In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.” As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center. After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book. I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book. In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though). When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.” I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. -@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhiliration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person. I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans. While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation. To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked. The classes were free, so what did I have to lose? I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever. In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment. So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.


Conquering as Virtue


Recently, I sat talking with another officer about what a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 might look like, especially in its historical context with the writing on the wall making it close to the end of the war, if not the end. What, I thought, is the driving force of a young soldier going to Afghanistan in 2014?

In 2001, it was revenge. In Iraq, 2003, it was pre-emptive defense (or so they said). In the years leading up to today, it was some form of chasing down the last remnants, battling out the long slog, “surging,” mopping up, “setting conditions” or some other conglomeration of words that hinted at elusive victory.

A deployment in 2014 will likely look very different than other deployments. The 2d Cavalry Regiment is currently rolling through a sleepy deployment where the most exciting thing in months can be *almost* getting to fire an illumination round. The – workout twice a day and evenings at Green Beans coffee – kind of deployment.

OBL is dead and whether we stay in Afghanistan past 2014 is up in the air.

What then, motivates a soldier to fight?

I started thinking that maybe it is the mechanical aspect of war, the fight itself. There is certainly a pull to it, especially for young men (and women) who want to prove themselves in battle. But sitting there in that conversation, mind buzzing with caffeine, I thought back to my own experience. Getting shot at was not fun – at all. I felt exposed and on the brink of destruction.

But afterwards! Afterwards was amazing. The feeling of escaping death. Looking it in the face and winning. Not wanting to do it again because it felt so close, but wondering if I could.

Back in my office, I said, “No, it’s not the mechanical fight, running a battle drill and surviving that provides the pull.”

We discussed what it must have been like for soldiers in ancient times, wielding sword and shield, fighting face to face. Slashing and hacking. No, while romantic in hind sight, having an extremely short life expectancy couldn’t have been very “fun.” While there were certainly some who relished the actual fighting (as there are now), we agreed that most ancient soldiers probably loathed it and feared it.

But, what they had that we don’t was the Virtue of the Conqueror.

That is, winning the battle and winning the war was virtuous in its own right. It was generally understood. Conquering was a virtue. Invading, advancing, reaping reward for your people – that was valued in and of itself.

For the modern American soldier, conquering is not a virtue. Outside of military bases, there are no banners hailing the conquering hero, or even welcoming them home. War, now, is an afterthought. Something “over there” that really needs to end soon so we can get this country back on track, or so they say.

Without the Virtue of the Conqueror, the whole notion of “why we fight” is so much trickier today. If this were ancient times and we served in an army of conquerors, it is doubtful that Vietnam vet turned Hollywood screenwriter William Broyles would have felt the need to pen “Why Men Love War” or British Iraq vet turned journalist would write “Iraq is always with you.” It was much easier to explain the whole thing when everyone just understood that you went to war to win and bring victory. That’s it.

So, as always, I offer nothing that brings us closer to understanding why, but I do posit that without the Virtue of the Conqueror, it is easier to understand why we have such a hard time reconciling it now. I like the thought of two ancient grizzled veterans getting drunk in a dank tavern, discussing the meta-physical elements of war, wondering “what it all means.” But I’m not sure they had to do that because they were too busy celebrating victory or dead.

Incidentally, Jill Sargent Russell posted ‘The Art of Victory‘ on Kings of War yesterday. It’s a good post that I think is talking about the same thing I am, but in a more academic way.


A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong

Multiple Deployments? PTSD? Deployments linked to suicide? Oh please!

Multiple Deployments? PTSD? Deployments linked to suicide? Oh please!

Saw this article from the Washington Post making the rounds a couple of days ago: In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with demons of post-traumatic stress. It’s about soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division who are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Not sure why I decided to read it – I think someone said it was an important article so I jumped in.

It’s a good article, but one of two things are happening here: either the journalist doesn’t understand the nature of the modern, all-volunteer military (doubtful), or he’s taking advantage of the fact that most Americans certainly don’t.

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas — pulling a friend’s body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from e-mail that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

The first paragraph is catching. Seven deployments! That’s pretty incredible, and probably unfathomable for someone reading this who has not served in the past ten years. It’s incredible to me – as someone who has served!

But it is the second paragraph that had me leaning in and wondering where this article was going. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. What is he talking about there? That sentence is making it seem like these men were forced to go overseas, specially selected, when they certainly were not. Stop-loss as a policy has ended. These men chose to stay in the Army, which is admirable. They are not victims of the Army preying on their war experience to close this thing out. The Army is not having any problems recruiting or retaining its soldiers. These soldiers chose this, proudly.

The author then goes on to list some soldiers and the problems they faced upon redeploying from previous tours. All good stuff.

Later, he writes this:

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Chosen? Again, this line makes it seem like the Army singled him out, which the article is not substantiating. It appears that Borce wanted to go, despite dealing with readjustment issues. The Army “chose” the 10th Mountain Division, of which Borce was a member. That is all.

Further on, he writes this:

“The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues,” he said. “Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up.”

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty sure that this was the line that compelled me to write this down and make sure I responded to this here. It was just a few weeks ago that a study came out confirming that deployment factors are not related to the spike in military suicides. If you didn’t know that, you would probably buy in to the popular narrative that deployments are related to the military’s suicide problem – which the studies show is not the case.

Lots of people like to write about the “veteran as victim” narrative and the civilian-military divide. While there was some good stuff in this article, I got the sense that it painted the soldiers in this story as victims of their own professionalism. They are professional soldiers, capable of coping with multiple deployments – that is a good thing, and worth writing about. The style and juxtaposing though, hints at things that don’t exist, and to me, that does nothing to inform the public of the reality of what is going on with their military, but rather only reinforces tired old narratives that don’t want to die.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

The Great North East Blackout of 2003 and the Fury of the Veteran (August 15, 2003)

I was leaning against the locked door that leads to the next car of the F train, hands in the pockets of a new $300 leather jacket I just 20130816-152046.jpgbought with war money. I was home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. It was December, 2003. Saddam Hussein would be captured in a few days. I was heading to Manhattan from my parents’ home in Queens for some fun.

There were plenty of seats available but I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to watch. The light above me was out, casting my corner a little darker than the rest of the car. I leaned there, rocking back and forth, straining my abdominal and leg muscles to try and stay as still as possible, enjoying the way my back lightly slammed against the thick glass of the door, over and over again. I watched the silent, tired commuters sitting there, all bundled up for winter, listening to music, reading, sleeping, staring into space.

Not caring about the war in Iraq.

My mind raced back to Baghdad and the thought that somewhere out there, right now, some young American soldier like me was experiencing the worst terror of his life. Right. Now.

The train rocked to a stop at 169th street in Queens and the conductor said something inaudible. The bell rang and the doors opened, and then closed. No one got off and no one got on.

As the train lurched out of the station and got back up to speed, the rumbling drowned out anything but the conversation happening in my own head. I shouted to myself internally how these people had no idea what was going on over there, what we were doing for them. Look at them, they don’t even care.

I thought back to the summer.

August 15, 2003.

“Did you hear about this blackout back home?”

I shifted barely on my cot, turning towards the source of the question. I felt my damp skin lightly peel away from the canvas.

“No, what blackout?” I responded.

“Apparently there is a big blackout all over the north east. Everyone’s bitching about it.”

“New York, too?” I asked, propping my head up in my hand as I lay on my side, suddenly a bit more interested.

“Yeah, they’re bitching the most.”

I laughed slightly.

“Waah! I’ve got no electricity and now I can’t go to work for a few days!” another soldier interjected from across the bay, overhearing the exchange.

“What do they have to bitch about? It’s like a 120˚ here and we don’t even have air conditioning. Plus, people are trying to kill us!” came another soldier, piling on.

“If they only had to do this for a couple – no, if they had to do this for like, one day, they’d stop their bitching.”

August 3, 2013. From Disgrunted Vet, a poem by Nathan Allen Hruska:

No, my countrymen would rather
regurgitate their professor rhetoric,

upgrade to the newest smartphone,
complain to their overpaid therapist,
blog about their first world problems,
while my friends are dead, or still dying.

How can I love my flag so dearly
and hate my country so deeply?

I started this blog post wanting to write about the blackout of 2003 from my perspective as a miserable soldier in Baghdad. I have been recounting my deployment for my blog and this was a unique moment in the deployment.

The theme of the post was going to be of the “oh you think you had it bad” sort. We were infuriated that anyone back home would complain about having a power outage when we were overseas in a terribly austere environment that was significantly worse. We were bitter and jealous, but also feeling entitled.

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but this generation of veterans – myself included, as per my internal tantrum on the F train – likes to compare any inconvenience that civilians might complain about to our current or worst possible circumstance, and then self-righteously declare that those people back home have no right to complain because at least they aren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.

This, I think, is probably one of the byproducts of being constantly reminded – mostly by ourselves – that we’re a part of the “less than 1%” who serve in the military. Then there are the predictable interruptions in sporting events and political speeches to “recognize the service and sacrifice of our military.” All nice gestures that have become robotic and meaningless through forced repetition.

Like Nathan writes about in his poem, and like I experienced on the F train while on leave, I think at some point we (veterans) can’t help but compare what we’re experiencing and what we’ve experienced to the candy-laden reality we see in the media. It can be maddening.

But it’s also unfair.

When Nathan writes about his countrymen preferring to update their smartphones than honor their war dead, it’s not an actual thing that is happening, just as when I stared hard at the tired New York commuters with hate, for – I don’t even know what. They just weren’t experiencing what I experienced, and it made me angry.

We roll our eyes at constantly being called heroes and blush at the unsolicited ‘thank you’s’ at the airport, yet we get outraged if someone complains about a power outage without mentioning how bad we have it on the frontier.

All that said, I think this is all part of the process of “transitioning,” a word that gets thrown around a lot in veteran circles without ever being really discussed. You can’t just read this blog post and suddenly understand that it’s okay to let people complain about losing their power, or to ‘ooh and aah’ over a new smartphone, all while American service members are fighting and dying overseas. I think, “transitioning” is a process that does not have a set timeline or result. Every veteran’s experience will vary. And it is a thing that has to be experienced as an individual. And that’s okay.

But seriously, you have no idea how hot it was in Baghdad 2003 and you have no right to complain.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

War Music of 2003

Not gonna get us

One of the neat features of having satellite radio is the year of the current song is sometimes shown on the display. Like most people (I imagine) I can’t help but associate years with important events. When I see a song come on with the year 1969 displayed next to the title, I can’t help but think the context for the song is the Vietnam War – either a reaction to or an escape from. This, of course, isn’t always the case, but my mind instantly goes there. It doesn’t matter the year, I try to make some kind of connection.

Whenever I see 2003 I’m always  reminded of the fact that I wasn’t in America, I was deployed. I was not around to hear the song get released, hyped, and played out. Songs that came out in 2003 have a special meaning for me, but unlike when I see 1969, I don’t think the songs of 2003 are reactions or escapes from the Iraq War.

They completely ignore it.

The songs of 2003 seem so far removed from what I was experiencing, but, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. These songs are a reminder that life goes on, war or not. While I was at the center of the universe, the rest of the world enjoyed themselves, from the window to the wall, my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

Most of these songs I didn’t hear until I got back home. They make me think of Iraq.

More than any other song, Hey Ya is my war song.

Our interpreter, M, was a big fan of 50 Cent. M was in his fifties, but loved to greet us with one liners from 50 Cent songs.

Patrol music.

I didn’t learn about this song until December when I was going on leave. An NCO was telling me he was going to get ‘crunked’ and I had to ask him what that was.

This was M’s favorite.

I remember standing in full body armor and helmet after a patrol, watching this on our day room television and being completely entranced.