GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.

And it should be.

I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.

I’m not sure that I do.

I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.

That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.

Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.

Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?

We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”

Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.

But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.

Then twenty years goes by.

When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.

What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.

“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”

I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.

What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.

So here we are.

Twenty years is a long time.

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Watching it happen

I’ve written about this before.

And it’s happening again.

We’re living in a very strange time, where events are beamed to our televisions, computers, and phones as they happen.

Real people are out there – in the arena – doing incredible things and experiencing real trauma.

And we watch – in real time – and critique, scowl, and gossip.

The flash-to-bang is getting shorter and shorter. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were the opening acts.

January 6th and the fall of Kabul are the most recent manifestations of this phenomena.

Things used to happen and then you’d read about it, dispassionately, in a newspaer the morning after. If you were lucky, there was a picture that accompanied the article.

Today it’s all reaction and little reflection.

Emotion and absence of mind.

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If you control the countryside, you control the towns

We got it wrong. We always get it wrong.
Image source: The Times

Good episode from Angry Planet on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Conquerors and nations have been trying to rebuild Afghanistan in their own image for thousands of years. The U.S. is just the latest to fail. The Soviet Union also failed, with a little push from the United States. But they learned their lesson in only 10 years, from 1979-1989.

Angry Planet – When the Soviets Fled Afghanistan

I loved the quote that titles this post from Mark Galeotti:

“If you control the countryside, you will control the towns.”

Basically, we did things backwards. Control the towns, control the provincial capital, and then the province turns blue, right?

Wrong. The province is red with a blue dot where the city limits end. We got that wrong. We always get this wrong.

There really needs to be a post-mortem on this whole endeavour. There was a way to do it better.

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The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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On the “unpopularity” of Serial Season 2 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I just finished listening to the final episode of DUSTWUN, Season 2 of the Serial podcast that covers the Bowe Bergdahl saga. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. I would especially recommend it to anyone who already holds strong feelings on the subject. Listening to it with a critical ear might not change your mind, but provide some nuance you may not have been aware of.

I’ve also been listening to Task & Purpose’s podcast that has followed each episode. It’s their first foray into podcasting and Lauren Katzenberg does a very good job of keeping things moving along. In their final episode, they talked about the relative unpopularity of this season of Serial, as opposed to the more popular Season 1. After hearing that, I started searching around to see if there was any data to support the idea that this season has been less popular. I was only able to come up with this post that says it did fine, in terms of popularity (measured by podcast downloads).

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year — what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

The vibe I got over the course of the season is a general sense of dissatisfaction from the audience, evidenced through discussions in social media. I’d blame this partly on the fact that the Berghdahl saga is unsettled, and partly because of the built-in bias of most listeners.

I couldn’t help but think that the supposed unpopularity might have been due to the ongoing disinterest in anything Iraq or Afghanistan unless it involves some form of military fetishization, evidenced most recently in the disappointing box office numbers of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

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Rage Quitting Millennials

I have two articles that went up on Task & Purpose this week.

The first is a different take on the Millennials and war poll that suggested that Millennials are comfortable sending troops to fight ISIS but not interested in joining the fight themselves.

The second is about rage quitting video games while on deployment, and wondering if there wasn’t more going on than just gaming.

Check them out. And if you like them, share them.

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End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

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Afghanistan Adventures

I imagine a time when this intersection was always busy.

With post-deployment leave over, I thought I’d wrap up the end of war with a single post, pulling in whatever was significant over the past year, and some thoughts that seem relevant.

Of course, the actual deployment started long before actually deploying. Once the word came down that we were going, there’s an instant gravitational pull to start reading and studying. I began the End of War Reading List as an attempt to get a grasp on what one might expect as the end of a war nears. Before deploying, I wrote about how strange it was to be preparing to deploy to a war that we knew was coming to and end, all while other officers were being handed pink slips and the writing on the wall told of a coming smaller force.

Pre-deployment musings generated this popular post on “why we fight.” The answer: force protection.

Keeping with the Game of Thrones theme, the Battle of Castle Black seemed remarkably familiar to what a deployment to a small outpost can feel like.

And then, the deployment actually began.

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to post while overseas. My last deployment was in 2005, and I quickly learned that things had changed significantly and war in 2014 comes with a 3G data plan for your smartphone (not really, you have to pay for it). I had my own room and I had nearly 100% reliable WiFi from my quarters. And if I didn’t, there was always a green line somewhere nearby. It became clear, rather quickly, that the standard model of soldier morale (chow, mail, pay) was changing.

I read a lot about Major Gant.

I also read about the careful balancing of humanity and iron discipline in maintaining a lethal force.

After almost 20 years, I finally finished Tactics Ogre, and continued to pull amazing lessons from it.

Working for 9 months straight confirmed to me why deployment experience actually matters, and why it is so valuable.

The M9 continues to serve as the Army’s vanity weapon (I’m not saying I didn’t have one, I’m just saying).

I published a longform version of the Battle of As Samawah after it was rejected somewhere else.

9/11 in Afghanistan was like any other day.

FOBs are kept running by an unseen, mysterious bevy of small green insect looking creatures.

I thought a lot about drones – and how they are our Magitek Armor.

I tracked down Richard Johnson while passing through Bagram, and he graciously drew a sketch of me, which was rapidly corrected.

I got seriously good at PowerPoint.

The absurdity of war continued to fascinate me. The axiom “pics or it didn’t happen” became ultra-apparent, and I was pleased to learn that the Taliban follow the same general guidelines.

Nostalgia floweth over.

I discovered my new favorite military force, and pondered the role of “hate” in war.

I got really, really sick and then the war ended (over and over again).

The platoon leader is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do. 

American Sniper came out. I still haven’t seen it.

We all feared the reaper.

As the deployment came to a close, the Universal Truths of Relief in Place were once again, confirmed.

We waited and waited. And waited.

And then we came home, and the adjustment period began.

Last week, the May-June issue of Military Review was released and a piece that I co-authored was published there highlighting some of the steps our platoon took in operating resiliency at the platoon level.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, our NTC experience and all of the troubles and gripes that accompanied it, was actually validated by the deployment. Of course, we were only at NTC for a month, but it did a good job at replicating a lot of the problems we would face in Afghanistan. In many ways, it was easier to accomplish some things in Afghanistan than it was at NTC – which is good.

I’m not sure it’s all over. There are no clean breaks.

Leave is over, work begins, and everyone is still adjusting.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Moments of Dread and Waiting

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

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

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

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