“Iraq finds itself in the face of an undeclared war…”

Joel Wing writes at Musings On Iraq, a great blog for Iraq watchers. He often finds interesting videos and posts them without comment. This is a propaganda video about the origins of the Iran-Iraq War, a subject I’m deeply interested in. It casts the blame for the war squarely on Iran.

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Fieldcraft: Removing the toe cups from Army boots

In the old days, before we were allowed to wear non-issue boots, there were very few modifications that were allowed (tolerated is more accurate). The only boots soldiers could wear were the standard issue black leather combat boots, jungle boots (black or green), jump boots (which were pretty much dress boots), and cold weather boots. I’m sure there are others, but these were the main ones.

My desert boots with a flat sole modification. Baghdad, 2003.

In terms of modifications, you could drive off post and find a boot shop that would remove the standard sole and replace it with something else. Everyone had a preference and swore by this sole or that. On my first deployment, I had my newly issued desert boots resoled with a soft, flat sole on the advice of a buddy who had served in Kuwait. He said the flat sole works better when walking on sand.

The other thing you could do is have the toe and heel cups removed. There is a piece of hard material in the boot that protects the toes and provides support for the heel. To make a pair of boots softer and more efficient for running, some soldiers would have these removed. Young infantrymen heading to Ranger School would often have this modification done to help with the running all over the place during RAP Week.

Removing the cups makes the boots a little lighter and definitely more floppy, like running shoes. The drawback is you lose vital ankle support and the toes can now be crushed if you were to drop something on your foot.

For whatever reason, you may want to remove the toe cups. I have a pair of boots that were damaged on the toe cups resulting in a hard crease forming which pressed down on my toes. To remedy this, I decided to remove the toe cups myself (it usually costs around $60 or so at a boot shop). I tried looking around on the internet for instructions, but couldn’t find any, so I decided I’d give it a shot myself.

The following is one way to do it. If you know a better way, please let me know.

What You’ll Need:
‚ÄĘ A razor blade or sharp knife
‚ÄĘ Needle nose pliers
‚ÄĘ Shoe GOO


1. Make an incision on the front of the toe cup near the sole of the boot about 3″ long. Cut through the leather and the cardboard inside.

2. Work the knife or pliers between the cardboard and the leather, separating them from each other.

3. Grip the cardboard with the pliers as deep as you can. Begin turning the pliers clockwise or counter-clockwise (I had to go back and forth). This will tear the cardboard from the boot. You’ll heard ripping sounds. Continue to do this until you’ve removed all of the cardboard.

The junk inside.

4. Slather the incision point with Shoe Goo and allow it to dry overnight.

5. Once the Shoe Goo has dried, remove the excess ensuring you don’t reopen the incision.

The results aren’t pretty, but this is a functional enhancement. Still, if there is a better way to do it, I’d love to hear it.

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Finished product with a cameo from my reflective belt. You can remove more of the Shoe GOO than I did if you want.

Why we fight

Clarissa Ward: “When you look back at all the lessons that were learned from Rwanda, from Bosnia in the mid ’90s, and yet here we are in 2012 in Syria, and it feels like we’re back to square one?”
Kofi Annan: “Yeah, says something about us human beings, doesn’t it?” Annan replied. “Do we ever learn? Is it in our DNA to keep fighting each other?”

That is how an interview concluded with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on CBS Sunday Morning a few weeks ago. The entire interview is worth watching. Annan’s thoughts on diplomacy, the failure of mediation, and the international community are bared raw, and they might surprise you.

This interview and the violence that is flaring up in the Middle East started me thinking about why we fight.

The Army guidance counselor sat in front of his computer, quickly scanning my biographical information and test results. He was hispanic, probably in his late thirties. A Master Sergeant. In good shape and seemingly out of place and uncomfortable at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) at Fort Hamilton, New York. I remember staring at a pin he wore on his Class B shirt. It was a long silver rifle on a blue background. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but from posters in the recruiting office, I knew it had something to do with the infantry.

He turned to face me in his chair, hands folded in his lap, and like he has done hundreds of times before, said “So, what do you want to do in the Army?”

I replied, emphasizing my choice with a firm nod, “Infantry.”

He held back a smirk and asked me, with apparent slight disappointment, why I wanted to go infantry. I scored well enough on the ASVAB and could have chosen anything.

“I couldn’t imagine joining the Army and doing anything else” I said.

I joined the infantry over ten years ago for a number of reasons which vary in degree of intensity. Teenage angst, lack of direction, unfulfilled patriotism, romantic notions of military service, fantasy, college money. If I had to boil it down though to a single thing, I joined for the adventure. A 19 year old kid looking to be a part of something.

Fast forward to today. I’ve seen the white elephant. Most of it’s pretty terrible. After getting out, my time in college afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my military service. What did it all mean? Was it worth it?

I never figured it out. After five years of sitting on the sidelines the only conclusions I came up with was that I was proud of my military service and I believed in the “system” – for all its flaws – that sends men and women to war. I knew that I missed the Army and I missed being a part of it. That longing was enough to bring me back. And back to the infantry.

I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. “It” being one’s own service and the way it intertwines with and legitimizes violence. I spend a lot of time in my own mind thinking about it. I’m sure others do to. To not think about it is to ignore what makes military service unique; the legal authority for and the application of violence. Individuals carry out that violence, so it only makes sense that individuals grapple with that notion and (hopefully) come to a personal solution as to why they can do it.

“Why we fight” is a question that has no ultimate answer. Social scientists can offer a number of reasons as to why “we” fight on a macro level, but what about the individual who analyzes the intelligence, fuels the Predator, or pulls the trigger?

That “why” can only be answered by the individual. Everyone is going to have a different reason. God, country, family, money, glory, anger. It’s probably not that simple for most, but rather a mix of things that makes it acceptable. As for me, some days I think I have it nailed down and I can proudly go about my day. Other days I tumble with different thoughts and ideas and have to patch together a jumble of reasons to reach an acceptable answer.

That’s why the interview with Kofi Annan held my attention. I was completely drawn in by Annan’s conclusion that maybe we as a species just aren’t ready to be peaceful. It’s a sad thought, but it’s grounded in history, experience, and reality. In his interview, he suggests that there are times when violence might be the only way to reach a solution. It’s a conclusion that he has reached from decades of experience trying to untangle some of the world’s most troublesome conflicts.

That interview coupled with the flaring violence across the Middle East seems to indicate that there is absolutely a time for violence. It’s terrible and not preferred, but it is the status quo. It’s the way things are. To completely accept violence as the best way to problem solve, though, doesn’t work for me (that’s why we have Marines). And to ignore violence or to self-righteously abstain because it is terrible doesn’t work for me either. I know it does for others, and I respect that decision and I’m glad that the abstainers exist – when there are more of them than the rest of us, we’ll probably be in a better place.

But for the time being the world is as it is, not as we imagine it or hope it to be.

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“There is a beast in every fighting man…” Ethics and the ‘Right Way’

Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”
George C. Marshall

That was a gem of a quote towards the end of¬†‘Finding “The Right Way”: Toward an Army Institutional Ethic” by LTC Clark Barrett. It is a product of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) which is a part of the US Army War College. If you are interested in the ethics and morality of soldiering, and especially how one might institutionalize those values in a fighting force, I recommend you make time to read the paper. It’s long (75 pages, although 35 pages are covers, contents, and footnotes) but not dry.

The author uses the events of Abu Ghraib, Mahmudiyah, and the “kill team” as a backdrop into his investigation of the history and current state of the US Army “ethic.” He looks at ethics programs used by some of our allies (including Great Britain, Canada, and Israel) and makes recommendations on how the Army might move forward.

LTC Barrett does not argue that a more robust ethics program will eliminate war crimes or unethical behavior like the ones mentioned above. He points out that in many of the cases involving war crimes there is often a “charismatic leader” who is himself unethical and guides others to unethical behavior. With proper training, though, these charismatic leaders might be stunted by others long before they get to the point of making the wrong decision.

There are a number of interesting things that the author recommends – including the development of a kind of “ethics check” through the use of a mnemonic. In the old days at West Point, cadets used to ask other cadets “All right?” as a way of reminding them that they adhered to the honor code. A cadet who understood that he/she was bound by the honor code and was in compliance would then respond with “All right.”

LTC Barrett writes:

Envision a circumstance in which Soldiers, angered by death and destruction on the battlefield and tempted towards immoral conduct, check themselves when one wise Soldier asks the timely question, ‚ÄúAll Right?‚ÄĚ It may appear Pollyannaish, but this method worked for many decades at USMA. As long as the use of ‚ÄúAll Right‚ÄĚ is not abused, it could provide the outward daily symbol to remind Soldiers of their code and honor, and provide some small check on improper behavior (33).

He also discusses the idea of adopting a “military covenant” in the same way that the British have done (this is something I have written about before). The idea is that in exchange for military service, the “people” or the “government” (it’s not really clear) are indebted to those who serve(d) and that they “should¬†always expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.‚ÄĚ

I’m glad that these types of products are being produced at the US Army War College and I hope that this particular thesis is widely read (so pass it around) and that its recommendations are taken seriously – even if only by those individuals who care so much to read it.

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The Junior Officer Reader – The Good Soldiers

While at OCS, a friend and fellow infantryman – who is now the most high-speed Quartermaster in the Army – recommended that I read ‘The Good Soldiers,’ a book about¬†a battalion (2-16, 1st ID) of infantrymen deployed to Iraq as part of the “surge” (New York Times Book Review). He thought so highly of the book that he gave me a copy. I meant to read it immediately, but it has sat on my bookshelf for almost a year collecting dust.

I finally had an opportunity to read it over the past week and finished it in two days. I was completely sucked in. I’ve read a number of books about the Iraq War by both soldiers and journalists (David Finkel, the author, is a journalist for the Washington Post), and at times they seem to bleed into one another. I’m only ever able to pull one or two things from each book that differentiates it from the rest. If the book is done well, those one or two things will be powerful enough to make the book worthwhile.

The Good Soldiers was one of those books. There are familiar themes here that are typical of the Iraq War saga: Soldiers – leadership included – struggling to understand what it is they are supposed to do and searching desperately to find decency in their mission, showing up in theater ready to be different from those before them but ending up just the same, flashes of humanity in terrible situations, the absurdity of war, and the complete fear that grips a unit in those last few weeks of the deployment.

But the thing that got me the most were the stories of the wounded. The author would cut back to follow the wounded who were recovering at hospitals outside of Iraq with their families at their bedsides. Incredible stories of medical miracles, keeping wounded soldiers alive in impossible situations. The emotional roller coaster of watching a wounded soldier fight to stay alive against incredible odds for months and seem to crest the hill that would lead to eventual recovery, only to die, suddenly, news passed back to the unit in Iraq via email.

Something that was in the book that I wasn’t aware of when I started, but recognized as I was reading it, was that the event that would become widely known by the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video is written about in the book. The same sense of drama and misunderstanding exists in Finkel’s detailed account, which he says was culled from “multiple sources, all unclassified.” Different though, is the context in which the event occurred was on full display in the book. The WikiLeaks video removes the event from its original context (a cordon and search in which a number of soldiers from 2-16 were shot) and then provided their own with the damning title, “Collateral Murder.” The Good Soldiers was worth the read if only to understand that event with more clarity.

What I love about war books done by journalists as opposed to soldiers is the lack of focus on weapons and tactics. Soldiers can’t help but write about that stuff. Journalists don’t care that much and instead focus on what they see, which is not acronyms, nomenclature, and the tactical employment of men, weapons, and equipment. What you get is a picture of what is happening that isn’t communicated through a military prism. An IED blows up a humvee and people die. There are no excuses or explanations. None are needed. When reading these accounts from military men (and women) there are always thoughts of how it could have been better, how to make it work next time, what decisions could have been made to get to a different result. Journalists just show it. And it often appears as if there is no way to do it better, no way to make it work, no better decision to be made. It’s war and it’s always been war.

It’s a scary book. One of the major themes which is addressed in the dramatic decision made by the battalion commander at the end of the book is mission vs. men: Is there ever an instance when it is acceptable to cast a mission aside to preserve the lives of your men? Is there a right answer? Is there an ethical answer? Is there a doctrinal answer? Does it depend on who’s answering the question?

Highly recommended. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, available on Amazon.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12

Life Lesson: Arguing with irreconcilables (or, posting in the comments)

This one took me a long time to learn. Everyone’s got an opinion, and lots of people like to share it. Reasonable people can be convinced by a good argument to think differently.

Then there’s what I call the “irreconcilables.” These are the folks who feel so strongly about something that they have decided they cannot be convinced otherwise – regardless of facts, statistics, new evidence, or anything else. I’ve wasted great amounts of time and energy arguing with irreconcilables only to find myself at the end feeling exhausted with nothing to show for it.

Irreconcilables exist all over the place, but you can find them in their greatest numbers in the comments section of blogs. Don’t argue with them. It’s fruitless. You can post your thought in the comments, but know that attempting to convince an irreconcilable of anything they have declared they disagree with is futile. Better would be to state your thought and move on.

Don’t argue with irreconcilables. You’ll be much happier for it.

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Radical Islamists or football hooligans looking for a fight?

“You won’t understand the Middle East until you get lost in Cairo.”

That’s a piece of advice I received from a former American ambassador who spent a great deal of time living and working in the Middle East. What he meant is that understanding the Middle East is difficult and things are not always what they seem. To grasp what is going on, sometimes you have to go a lot deeper than what feels comfortable.

With images of violence streaming in from Egypt and across the Middle East, it is understandable that some would respond with anger – anger over the senseless death of one of our ambassadors, members of his team, and the Libyan guards who died trying to protect them. While the events in Benghazi appear to be a departure from the norm (the norm being violent protest at US embassies, but not resulting in the deaths of American personnel), it is hard to understand how anyone can protest on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to do so after the violent attack in Benghazi. I get the sense that there are many who don’t want to “understand,” but rather want to “do something.” To react.

For those who simply want to react, there’s probably not much I can write here that will convince them otherwise. If a person get punched in the face, it is completely appropriate to punch the person back. But nations are not people. Nations have responsibilities that go far beyond the immediacy of emotion and reflex.¬†It would be too easy to declare a simple cause, like “they” hate us or this is “their” religion. It’s easy to reach for that because it requires no extra thought or work. It’s the reaction of ignorance and laziness. It’s a way to cast things in stark contrast to one another. Right and wrong. Good versus evil.

If only things were that simple.

So the rest of this post is intended for those who understand and agree that the world is a complex place.

There are a number of things at play when trying to discern why there is violence against our embassies. Without question, the inflammatory video the “Innocence of Muslims” served as the catalyst for the inexcusable violence. But underlying this is a history of deep mistrust of the US because of foreign policy decisions and interventions of the past, anger over US support for Israel and our inability to mediate an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the constant stoking of emotions by leaders in these countries to push blame for almost anything on foreigners and meddling. This does not excuse the violence, but rather lays out that there is no single motivation for the behavior of a violent protestor.

In the case of Egypt, and probably other nations as well, domestic politics are influencing these events to a greater degree than is given credit. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a “protest culture” has emerged which has proven that massing people for a common cause can effect real change. In Egypt, much of the violence between police and the population is accredited to the “Ultras” who are essentially what we would call football hooligans. Originally I wanted to write this entire post about the ultras, but I’ve found a couple of good sources that do a better job (The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and “Egyptian Ultras Emerge as Powerful Political Force“). And like in London last year, I suspect there are a lot of people that simply come out and do it for the lulz.

Among these protestors, there are radical Islamists. These are most likely the ones who are carrying the flag of al-Qaeda and pushing the violence to more extreme levels.

All of these actors come together with their different grievances and mass them against something they don’t like; in this case, the US (for whatever reason). Someone who protests at the embassy isn’t by default a radical Islamist. She could be an Egyptian college student who is angered by the United State’s refusal to take legal action against the producer of the inflammatory film (the notion of Freedom of Speech protecting even inflammatory speech is not always understood or respected). It can also be a member of a football club who showed up for a good fight. Or it can be a radical Islamist, who seeks to take advantage of a dangerous situation to advance his own agenda.

The point of this post is to hopefully encourage anyone interested in what is happening across the Middle East to dig deeper than the headlines and try to understand what is going on, instead of simply lumping millions of people together into a mush of anti-American radical Islamists.

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Toxic Culture: Hazing

I read this great essay by LTC (ret) Peter Fromm that was posted at The Best Defense. The author teaches ethics at USMA and explores his own experience with hazing as a cadet there in the 1970s.

This is definitely worth the read for anyone interested in military culture. Anyone who has been in the infantry for a little while will identify with hazing. Most infantrymen I know support healthy ribbing so long as it is safe and promotes unit camaraderie and esprit de corps. No one I know thinks hazing that results in pointless humiliation or harm has a place in the Army.

Still, this stuff happens. Leaders who want to make the Army better have a responsibility to squash this wherever it occurs.

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Army Myths: (insert school name) has to pass international students because their home country will kill them if they fail

“We had international students in our Ranger class. They pretty much got pushed through the course, because one time they sent home a student and he was killed for failing.”

I still hear variations of this one, despite the fact that all around I’ve seen international students fail a course and get recycled or sent back to their country. While it might be true that international students get cut a little more slack by American instructors, straight up failing usually results in failing the course, just like American students.

I’m not sure where this rumor started or if there is any merit to it. The original rumor that I heard was about a student from Thailand who failed Ranger School and was executed when he returned home. Since then, I’ve heard variations of this where the country is different or the punishment is less severe (substitute beating for killing). Nobody wants to fail a course, and I’m sure it is embarrassing for any soldier to travel across the world only to have to return back without success. But I find it hard to believe that a professional military would summarily execute one of their own. And if it did happen, we would probably know more about it, and it wouldn’t just exist as a Joe-Rumor.

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