The last letter war

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered by suspicion.

Quiet blankets the platoon area as everyone rips open their letters, reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading. Silence is interrupted only by someone exclaiming some piece of exciting news that no one cares about. “Ha! My wife won $5,000 in the lottery.” “Oh, that’s cool” someone responds without paying attention, turning back to his own letters.

Those who got nothing congregated like laughing hyenas. Not receiving mail somehow made them harder than the others.

Waking up to packages organized by platoon. Like Christmas morning in Habbinyah.

Better than letters (but not always) were packages. Fat boxes of happiness. Candy, cookies, dried meats, protein, baby wipes, games, magazines (the best!), DVDs, newspapers. A friend sent me a long combat knife. My parents loved sending care packages. Once they mastered the basics (the essentials listed above), they moved onto the exotic. One hot summer day, I received two large brown packages from my dad. The bottoms were slimy. I opened up the packages to find rotting pineapples. My dad thought pineapples might be refreshing. And they would have been if they survived the five week trip from New York to Baghdad in temperatures that reached 130Ëš F.

A little more than halfway into the deployment, we got access to an internet tent at our battalion headquarters. I used to take small teams there in the early morning, waking up before anyone else and making the short walk from our compound to the nearby battalion compound. There, we’d write emails and talk on AOL Instant Messenger with anyone online. Soon, the company got access to a cell phone that could be used to call home. Time was rationed out to about 20 minutes per soldier. The phone was used nearly non-stop, only resting to recharge.

The arrival of email and phones replaced written letters. As food and supply got better and the mail became more reliable, even care packages became less important. Soldiers ordered online what they wanted.

It’s with foolish nostalgia that I fear we’ve seen the last letter war. There is something heroically romantic about soldiers’ letters. Yet, we all ditched letter writing when email came along. Some of us, myself included, tried to keep writing. The emotional attachment was there, but was quickly broken by the promise of now.

I don’t think I wrote a single letter during my second deployment.

I have not deployed in the Facebook era, but I can only imagine that with it, letter writing in war is that much closer to dead.

It’s possible that future wars may come accompanied with a short period of time that makes letter writing necessary because of limited supply, speed of movement, and a degraded communication grid. But technology has improved dramatically since 2003, and it’s hard to imagine the internet being far from anywhere. For troops tucked away in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, letter writing might still exist, like an endangered species kept alive artificially by a dedicated bunch of conservationists.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about letter writing. So much of our romantic literature revolves around letters and letter writing. And we tend to think that some of our heroes from “the old days” would scoff at email, Twitter and the rest. I often have to remind myself that more likely, they would scoff at us for waxing nostalgic for an ancient system that moves glacially, and sometimes not at all. Letters never received. Letters that sink to the bottom of the ocean on freighters. Letters that burn in uncontrollable fires. Letters that are stolen. Letters that arrive in bunches in tightly packed wrapping, years after being sent.

No, I’m fairly certain most would agree it is better to have certain and quick communication.

But still.

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London Riots

From photoshoplooter

BLUF – if I wasn’t exposed to the media coverage, I wouldn’t know there were riots at all.

I’m not going to offer a hypothesis on “what this all means.” All I will say is there is a lot of graduate-level debate on what appears to be a high school-level issue.

But, as an American living in London, and one who has seen civil disturbance before, I can offer my personal experience and put things in context for an American audience.

I live in central London in student housing. It’s a very nice area that I would equate to living somewhere just outside of trendy in NYC. I live about two miles from Westminster, where Parliament and Big Ben sit. The riots happened (past tense, they are not persistent) no where near me. Think deep Queens if your center of gravity is Penn Station.

Dramatic Image #1

The news coverage has been persistent, though. And there are certainly some dramatic images. Two nights ago, multiple fires were covered by multiple helicopters, often shown on television in a four-block grid, presenting the image of London burning. Newscasters spoke in near-apocalyptic terms. Friends who know I am in London have sent me messages asking about what’s going on, fearing that I may be stocking up on supplies and barricading myself in my room.

But London was not in anarchy. Nor is it now. For those directly affected, the damage and violence is extreme. But the presentation of the riots makes it seem that London is on the verge of collapse.

Walking home from SOAS late yesterday afternoon, there was definitely an air of anticipation. People chatted with light excitement about the riots, the causes, and the expectations going forward. Police sirens could be heard almost non-stop, but in the distance. Helicopters buzzed above, somewhere over there. Small groups of police officers in crisp white shirts walked around. Stores closed early and restaurants pulled their outdoor seating furniture inside to prevent roving bands of rioters from using them as weapons. For the first time since I’ve been here, my dormitory locked the front doors as a “precautionary measure.” I had an online grocery order which was supposed to be delivered yesterday evening which was cancelled “due to events.” That’s the extent to which the riots affected me.

I’m not sure what the discussion is like about the riots in the US, but a lot of the conversation in the media here has been about the crowd control methods used by UK police, with the accusation offered that UK police are too tame. Water cannons and tear gas are deemed “continental” methods, something not appropriate for British police. British cops police through “community consent.”

I woke up this morning and checked the news, curious to know if the world had ended. It appears that nothing major happened last night.

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I’m from the internet.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

(Don: This article post is from 2011, and many of the links are dead or take you to strange places)

My parents have a small bathroom in their house on the first floor. It’s tiny and sparsely decorated. The only wall adornment is a dusty ‘motivational’ poster in a frame.

Stand in the bathroom and look left.

If you can’t read the text, it says “VISION: Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.” It’s attributed to Jonathan Swift.

I’ve stared at that poster a lot. People can interpret the meaning in a number of ways. “Seeing the invisible” might mean seeing the invisible dead people who move among us without our knowing it (except, of course, for those who can see them). To me it means picturing something that doesn’t exist. Yet.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of people have written about the civil-military divide. Kings of War had a piece on a French officer’s lament over the public’s (mis)understanding of the meaning behind the death of some of their soldiers, which sparked a debate on ‘why soldiers fight’ in the comments. Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the Huffington Post chronicling the “display” of the military for public consumption, and how it lacked real meaning. Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West point fired things up when she suggested that the awkward offer of ‘thank you for your service’ may originate in guilt. Back to Kings of War, “Captain Hyphen” confirmed the awkwardness, to which MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons responded by asserting things have never been better in terms of the civil-military relationship.

So what’s going on here? Is the civili-military divide – the gap – bigger than it has ever been or not?

MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons makes some good points in his argument describing how the divide is as close as it can be:

There have to be at least 5,000 members of the media who have been embedded with military units since 2003. They have the names and email addresses of let’s say 100,000 service members in their cell phones and blackberries and vice versa. Soldiers have real friends in the media today. They are doing a great job writing about soldiers and what they are doing overseas and at home now more than ever, and that’s as it should be. The media uses military analysts who are ready to discuss and explain all the intricacies of the mission or whatever the military is up to. The Pentagon now gets it regarding social media and its connection to the civilian world.  Active duty officer’s blog openly about topics in the military – leadership among the popular topics – this was unheard of in the Army I grew up with.

I agree that the information is out there. Anyone can spend the time and learn as much as they want about the military world. You can follow lots of service members on Twitter and read their blogs, and get all up in their world.

In the media rich environment we live in today, the same can be said for just about anything.

Feeling similarly to Mike, a few years ago I raised this exact thing to one of my mentors. “Are we beating a dead horse here?” I asked. “Everyday I see stories about us in the media.” To which he wisely responded “Yes, there’s a lot out there, that’s true. “But” he continued, “You know, when you drive a Jeep, the only thing you notice on the road are other Jeeps.”

She doesn’t drive a Jeep

The information is out there, but it doesn’t count if people don’t care.

Once, while sitting in a history class during a summer session, the professor threw out the question “How many American troops have been killed in Iraq?” to which a girl – probably 20ish – responded “I don’t know, like, 30 or 40.” At this point in the war, some 4,000 American troops had been killed. My jaw literally dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up my heart. I was offended. How could an American college student not know, or even come close to knowing the number of American war dead?

To me, that is an example of the civil-military divide.

People like Mike Lyons, Captain Hyphen, and myself drive Jeeps and we see Jeeps all over the road. But the majority of the country, like the girl in the history class, don’t drive Jeeps. As a veteran himself, Mike Lyons is in the game. And as a veteran, he’s going to notice all the military stories, all the Jeeps. In fact, as a military analyst for the media, it’s his job to notice.

Unpacking

The term ‘civil-military divide’ gets thrown around a lot without explanation. Like ‘transition,’ we talk about it without really talking about it. What do we actually mean? While this may seem tedious, explaining helps.

  • ‘Civil’ means civilians. Regular men and women. Except, they never served in the military.
  • ‘Military’ means the men and women who serve or served in the military.
  • ‘Divide’ suggests a gap between the two entities.

Significantly, when the term is used, it usually suggests that the civil-military divide is unnatural. There’s a sense that somehow the gap has ‘grown’ from a point in which there was no gap or it was at least a lot smaller. Besides being undesirable, it’s also described as being unhealthy for the country (unless we’re talking about civil-military relations, which has more to do with civilian control of the military. These two things are interrelated, but not the same).

The problem with this formulation is that it suggests that there are only two types of people in this country, military and civilian. Once someone goes through military training they begin seeing the rest of the country – those who haven’t served – as ‘civilians.’ This is usually done with a hint of superiority (see Ricks, 1997). Civilians, on the other hand, don’t view the world this way, unless they’re forced. That is, civilians don’t think of themselves primarily as ‘civilians,’ highlighting their non-militaryness. If they do, well that’s a shame.

A friend of mine wisely informed me that the only time she realizes she is a ‘civilian’ is when someone from the ‘military’ reminds her.

Civilians ———– GAP ———– Military (the push comes from this side)

My point is that the civil-military divide is mostly viewed from the military point of view. We talk about it, we write about it and sometimes, we suggest ways to address it. And in doing so, we give it power and the meaning we want.

Something we can never know is how much thought ‘civilians’ give to the civil-military divide on their own time. Do they sit around and discuss how out of touch they are with the military? I doubt it. Every now and then an article might pop up somewhere urging Americans to pay more attention to the lives and sacrifices of service members. Usually though, these are family members of troops, or someone who had a chance encounter with a veteran, for example, and was suddenly inspired.

The trend suggests that American society is becoming less interested and more disconnected with the military. So, expecting an ‘about face’ (or the civilian equivalent) is not promising. Since we are the ones talking about it, we should charge ourselves with fixing it.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

Getting back to my parents’ bathroom, the problem with the entire civil-military divide debate is the lack of vision. A lot of time and energy is spent thinking about what constitutes authentic appreciation of the military and what is just political theater. There is little, though, offered in terms of solutions.

What would the country look like if the divide was completely eliminated?

Alas, I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do have some ideas.

Not being outright disrespected is a good start.

ROTC in more schools is good too. Active student veteran clubs at college is good (so long as the club interacts with the rest of the campus and doesn’t become a Fortress). It would also be helpful if military service was not always cast as the last refuge of the downtrodden.

Strangers thanking the military for their service is nice. Awkward, yes. But not a bad thing.

But, if the divide was completely eliminated, would that mean that stopping to thank a service member would be all the more strange, since interactions between society and the military would be the norm?

If the goal is to close the gap, I argue the more interaction the American public has with the military, the better. Until the Zombie Apocalypse, the American public is unlikely to swarm any military bases in an attempt to get to know them better. In the interim, it would be helpful if all the energy spent grumbling about the civil-military divide was instead invested on imagining and ultimately enacting solutions.

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College Success: Leveraging Your Vet Cred

Be Exotic

As Veterans, we hold a powerful tool to employ on our quest for a first-rate education: our stories.

Our experience in the Armed Forces makes us different from the average student. In the words of a scholarship advisor and friend, we are “exotic.” There’s no getting around this fact. In a country where less than one-percent of the population serves, we represent a tiny portion of society, and people are curious about us. This curiosity can be used to our benefit to help us get the best education possible.

Over the past five years, I have employed my military experience to great effect, not on my resumé, but in personal statements and essays. As a result, I have been able to augment my education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill in a variety of ways, such as pursuing my graduate degree in London. To be blunt, I’ve used my military experience to my advantage. And you can, too.

It’s Not Cheap or Dishonorable

At this point, I know there are some Veterans who will read this and think “I don’t feel comfortable using the story of my service for personal gain.” I understand that sentiment, because at one time I felt the same way.

I got out of the Army in 2006 and went straight to community college. As an older student who deployed twice to Iraq, I wasn’t interested in student life or anything that would distract me from my ultimate goal–getting my degree and getting on with life. I walked briskly between classes with my head down, ignoring students around me. I chose not to seek out other veterans on campus–there were many–out of a fear of somehow getting sucked back into the world I had just left. I was in college for a new and different experience.

When I transferred to the City College of New York (CCNY) in 2008, I began to apply for scholarships and fellowships. Without fail, these required personal statements or essays describing leadership challenges, organizational experiences, or service stories. At first, I refused to write anything about my military service, because I felt that it would be dishonorable to do so, or it would be cheap. I thought that if I was going to be successful, it would be of my own accord and academic record–not because I had war stories.

The truth is though, for those of us who joined shortly after high school, without our military experience, there really isn’t much else to write about.

Thankfully, I had a number of excellent mentors at CCNY who strongly encouraged me to include my military experience in my applications. After much wrangling, I relented. Not only did I begin to include my military experience, but I highlighted it.

For most of us, our military service is the defining experience of our lives. To omit that is doing an injustice to ourselves, and placing us at a disadvantage. Our service should not be omitted, but celebrated. The things we have done and achieved are often incredible, and reflect well on both ourselves and the Armed Forces. Why hide that?

Embracing my military experience not only led me to academic success, it also forced me to pay attention to student Veteran issues on campus and find ways to get involved in veterans advocacy. With a group of other City College Veterans, we started the City College Veterans Association–an advocacy and social club for Veterans on campus. Having a community of Veterans on campus that encourages one another and shares stories builds confidence, and makes owning the Veteran identity easier–and a lot more fun!

Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures

There are a few things to keep in mind when leaning on military experience in academic settings.

1. Keep it clean. “No shit, there I was…” is a great way to start a story with buddies at the bar, but doesn’t work well on a personal statement. Also, unless it is absolutely necessary, leave out the blood and gore.

2. Highlight leadership. Enlisted or officer, most of us have served in leadership positions at some point during our military careers. Good leaders know that it’s not just about telling people what to do. Stories about complex leadership challenges while serving stand out.

3. Fight stereotypes. Most Veterans I know are extremely thoughtful and have very complex ideas on the nature of war and military service. This surprises a lot of people. Find stories that demonstrate this.

4. Be a story teller. People love stories, and Veterans have the best. When you get an opportunity to share your story, think of it as an opportunity to sharpen it, and tell it better (without embellishing, of course!).

5. Know when to reveal, and when to conceal. Sometimes a military story just isn’t appropriate or doesn’t fit. Don’t force it.

Scholarships

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an amazing benefit, but it doesn’t do everything for everyone. Here are links to some scholarship programs where military stories can be leveraged:

And here’s a link to a comprehensive list, courtesy of CUNY.

Good luck!

This was originally posted at VAntage Point, the VA’s blog on June 21, 2011.

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al-Qadisiya

I’m writing my dissertation on the Iraqi military experience during the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait. In Iraq, the war is called qadisiyat saddam (قادسية صدام), or Saddam’s Qadisiya.

The Battle of Qadisiya was a 7th century battle between the Arab-Muslim army and the Persian-Sassanid army.

The Battle of Qadisiya became the theme du jour in Iraq. It was referenced in speeches, stamps, money, monuments, and most notably, film.

Saddam Hussein commissioned a film to be made commemorating the battle in 1981. It is purportedly the most expensive Arab movie ever made.

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The smell under the body armor

Recently, I was cast as an extra in a big budget Hollywood film. I played a marine (it couldn’t be helped). For a few hours, I had to wear fake, pillowy body armor, and a fake, plastic helmet. It looked like the real thing, but without SAPI plates and kevlar, it was only make believe.

Still, wearing the gear, I began to sweat. After a few hours of standing around and doing my best marine impression, I sat down, and as my body armor shifted slightly, it created a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that quickly swooped into my nostrils.

The smell!

For an instant I was whisked away from the comfort of cool, cloudy London to bright and sunny Baghdad. Taking in that smell was like going 88 mph with July 2003 on the time circuits. The smell of body armor, uniform and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released is unlike anything else. It’s a small cloud of awesome. It’s not a bad smell. It’s hot and only lasts for a moment. It’s hard work. And then it’s gone.

Smells trigger memories.

For some, the deep and cutting whoop whoop whoop of a helicopter, or loud, sudden sounds usher in old memories of busy skies and tense moments. Others are reminded of the past by the things they see: garbage, crowds, stillness. Sights and sounds don’t do it for me. Smells, more than the other senses, makes me remember. And I’m grateful for it.

Grateful because it’s not just memory. It’s a small portion of the feeling associated with that time. The smell is familiar, and the brain does quick work, conjuring a host of feelings that have long sat dormant. Not deep, reflective feelings. But bio-chemical feelings. The ones you actually feel, not think. The memory that rests inside of bones, muscles, cells, and blood vessels.

For a moment, that stuff is activated. Not fully. But enough to make you pause to remind yourself where you are. For that instant, dull lightning throbs in the body and turns on things that stopped working, stopped paying attention, long ago.

Smell is primal and chemical. It’s not sound or light waves. You ingest it and it becomes a part of you.

Other smells that trigger memories for me:

Early Morning Urban. The smell of cool air mixed with overnight garbage. Sometimes on the way to the gym in the morning I’ll catch this.

Early Morning Desert. Still air and dust being slowly warmed up by a rising sun. I think it’s mostly the dust. Small particles. You can taste it.

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