Thank you!

The end of the year is a good time to stop and reflect on things, and I want to express my thanks to you who continue to read, share, and comment on this blog. It’s a very small (but dedicated) community of folks who try to think and write critically about the military, the Middle East, and whatever else finds its way here, and it isn’t always very good. It’s much easier (and shareable) to post listicles and hooah pictures of military gear for clicks and ‘likes’ than to unpack whether it is right or wrong for members of the military to openly display “infidel” gear, or if maybe the civil-military divide isn’t really that big of a deal, or to challenge the popular notion that America’s youth are not shouldering their share of the military burden.

So, to those who have been following the blog since its beginning or just recently started reading, thank you very much for being a part of a thoughtful community.

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“Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

I finally began listening to DUSTWUN on season 2 of Serial. I didn’t know about Serial until a couple of weeks ago when everyone in my social media started talking about it and acting very surprised that it was going to cover the Bowe Bergdahl saga – a topic I’ve purposely avoided writing about here.

Serial, for the uninitiated, is a series that premiered last year that tells a non-fiction story over a number of weeks, diving in deep for detail and drawing back wide for perspective. I only recently learned about it, but many of my friends seem obsessed with it in the way that some people grew obsessed with This American Life.

The cursory impression that I got is that the fact that Serial was going to cover this was weird because this is a military thing and that was outside of the supposed purview of Serial. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s just the vibe I was picking up from reading all of the posts.

Part of the reason I’ve purposely avoided writing about Bowe Bergdahl is because 1) he’s still in the Army, and 2) the arena is loud an venomous. Havok Journal recently ran a short piece that summed it up pretty nicely.

But with the excitement surrounding the new season of Serial, I decided to give it a try and I listened to the first episode.

The crux of episode 1 revolves around a series of interviews conducted by Mark Boal. Mark Boal is the journalist/screenwriter wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. He also wrote the expose about the Afghanistan “kill team” for Rolling Stone. I’ve always been a little put off by his style because, as I wrote a few years ago:

“Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposĂ© â€“ and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.”

The host of Serial, Sarah Koenig, addresses the non-chalance of Boal’s interview style, and it does make sense, as the interviews were conducted at length, over the phone, over multiple days. The interviews were not intended to be used in a radio program, but instead were to serve as source material for a film Boal is writing on the subject.

There comes a point in one of the interviews where Bergdahl is trying to explain his rationale for walking away from his post, essentially to cause a stir due to his absence in order to get an audience with a General so that he could explain in person how bad his unit’s command was. Before he begins, he needs to make sure Boal understands the context and terminology. The back and forth between them stops and Bergdahl asks “Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

There is a short silence. I can almost hear Boal stopping, suddenly more interested in what Bergdahl is about to say.

Again, from a couple of years ago.

“But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.”

I’ve since listened to episode 2, and the series is well-produced and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about what happened without the noise of the internet.

Also, Task & Purpose is covering the series in their own podcast. It features Lauren Katzenberg of T&P, James Weirick, a former USMC JAG, and Nate Bethea, a former Army infantry officer whose writing (and thinking) I admire. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think it might be an interesting thing to put on after an episode.

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A different take on that “Millennials and War” poll

Millennial Soldier

You likely already saw the poll released last week from the Harvard Institute of Politics regarding millennials and their thoughts on ISIS and military service. To summarize, 60% of young Americans (18-29) now support sending US troops to combat ISIS on the ground, and just about the same percentage (62%) says that they would be unlikely to serve in the event the US needed more troops for that fight.

It sparked a debate online in the military sphere and much of that debate manifested itself with military folk displaying indignation that a bunch of hipsters (that’s how I read millennial) want the military to go fight ISIS, but aren’t willing to go do it themselves.

This idea gets veterans worked up because it fits neatly into the continuing trope that there exists this “warrior class” made up of the “less than 1%” that does the nation’s dirty work while the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd critiques them from the sidelines.

The difference here is that for the first time (as far as I know) the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd actually supports direct ground combat against someone.

At the heart of the discontent is the fact that a generation of Americans could be willing to send American troops to war but not willing to serve themselves in that same war – a concept that feels foreign to American values.

What has been lost in the debate is the fact that this poll, in a strange way, validates the all-volunteer force as a concept. This is the first generation of Americans that grew up outside of the shadow of Vietnam, and instead under the warm blanket of “shock and awe,” Call of Duty, and Zero Dark Thirty. All of the conflicts this generation has seen came completely through electronic screens,  fought by an all-volunteer military with very little asked of them. They’ve seen the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Years upon years of war, fought by someone else.

This is a generation that not only feels comfortable sending the military to fight wars they are not personally interested in fighting, it is the only thing they know – it is the norm.

We have created exactly what we sought to create – a specialized, professional military filled with volunteers who want to serve, and a populace that feels comfortable using it.

Instead of getting upset about it – because really, there’s nothing you can do – shouldn’t we be celebrating it?

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Desert Wolverines: Living the ‘Red Dawn’ fantasy

Wolverines!

I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.

The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.

I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.

What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.

Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.

Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”

“Maybe,” he said.

When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”

Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:

“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commander’s cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.”

One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.

If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.

Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.

Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.

The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.

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