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.

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Why Deployment Experience Really Matters

End of War

It’s been interesting reading the reactions to the blog post by soon-to-be-forced-out Major Slider on The Best Defense. Major Slider is one of the hundreds of Majors who was selected to be cut from the Army as a result of the recent Officer Separation Board (OSB). The OSB saga and some of the defense of Major Slider, much of which revolved around valorous combat experience – coupled with the fact that I’m currently deployed – started me thinking about the actual value of combat experience.

When I was coming through OCS and IBOLC, I remember having lots of conversations with young Second Lieutenants who were wary about potentially missing their opportunity to deploy, since it was clear we were teetering on the tail end of the long war. Much of that angst – I think – stemmed from wanting “the stuff” that comes from a combat deployment; the combat patch, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the bucket of end-of-tour awards. For good or for ill, the Army fosters a culture of “badge envy” and the immediate value of a soldier, especially in combat arms, is first assessed by the things sewn, pinned, and velcro’d on the uniform.

Back then, in my infinite mustang wisdom, I tried my best to explain that it isn’t really going to matter if you deploy or not, that the Army moves on and will value and appreciate skill and leadership above whether or not you deployed – more a function of chance and when you were born than any actionable trait. More bluntly, having not deployed would not be held against you in an Army transitioning out of war. I believed that then, and I still do now.

What has changed – and this is partly a function of being currently deployed – is that I think I may have undervalued wartime service. While it’s true that every deployment is different, what remains unchanged is that whatever your job is – infantry, admin, medical, etc. – when you are deployed, you are doing that job more frequently and more real than when you were back home. Weekends don’t exist the same way they do while deployed than when you are home. You are accountable for your equipment twenty-four hours a day, not just until you turn it back into the arms room or the supply cage. There is a constant rotation of duties that is usually measured in hours between the next guard shift, not days – or weeks – between your next staff duty.

Combat operations occur at a frequency greater than the intensity of field training. You may run multiple missions a day, or operations that take place over twenty-four hours at a time, requiring planning and preparation days before the event starts. Each mission is analyzed and assessed through an after-action review process, which if done well, fine tunes the unit’s techniques, tactics, and procedures, making the unit more efficient and effective.

In all this, you are working in close proximity with the same people for hours a day and days that bleed into weeks and months. Conflicts arise and good leaders find ways to stay effective. Personnel management and more importantly – personality and ego management – becomes key to getting anything done. Knowing who to grease and who to avoid becomes critical to the deployed soldier navigating an unrivaled bureaucracy that involves multiple military services, countries, and languages.

All this is done in an adverse environment where someone is actively trying to kill you. At the end, the soldier that emerges is one that has done his or her job in a focused way for a prolonged period of time. Skills are learned and experience gets buried deep into the reservoir of the soldier, ready to be brought out in the future if called upon.

Put simply, the deployed soldier has done his job harder, faster, and longer than his counterpart who hasn’t deployed. That experience is valuable.

All that said, deployment experience does not necessarily create experts in anything other than that experience. One cannot simply say “I’ve been deployed” and hand wave necessary training or assume that anything done once is done forever. Rather, deployment experience is simply an indicator that  a soldier has done his or her job in a focused way for a sustained amount of time – which is more valuable than I once gave credit.

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End of War Reading List: American Spartan

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I’m not going to mince words: I didn’t enjoy reading this. It took me well over a month, and often because I didn’t have the energy to slog through it. In fairness, I might be a bit jaded about the whole thing, reading about places I am currently working around – it can get bothersome.

I’ve written before about the saga of Major Jim Gant, the Special Forces officer known for spearheading the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program in Afghanistan and was later relieved and forced to retire after an investigation into his behavior. Major Gant is also mentioned in One Hundred Victories – another book I read recently about the VSO program.

As Joe Collins points out in his review of the book, the book is important – I’m just not sure that it was very good. It is written defensively and with venom laced words for anyone who stood in Major Gant’s way (top brass, the West Point Lieutenant who wrote the sworn statement that began the investigation, etc.). Ann Scott attempts to write with the detachment of a journalist covering a story that she is an emotional part of, and it doesn’t really work.

The book is fascinating for someone interested in either the VSO program, the intricacies of Pashtun tribal dynamics or what an illicit affair in a war zone looks like.

Major Gant, for his part, is an interesting persona to read about. And as a character study, there isn’t anything better out there (however biased the account may be). Outside of the book, I’ve met people who think he is the greatest soldier ever while others thought he was out of control. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve read and heard, he is the absolute product of the Global War On Terrorism. A dedicated, motivated leader that tried to – in his words – Win the War – and destroyed himself in the process.

There are some good quotes in the book that are worth highlighting, like this one:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

The book is full of small windows into Major Gant’s personality and thought process.

Often he told me he wished he had died fighting in Afghanistan.
“Not a cheap death, something hard,” he said. “Then I could have proven to everyone, in that one action, that I am who I say I am.”

After Jim had his Special Forces tab rescinded, he did this. Is this a guy with a good sense of humor or a man obsessed with an idea?:

Jim placed the tab in a small picture frame over a bloodred image of Marlon Brando as the bald Colonel Kurtz. A short time later, Jim shaved his head.

The last couple of chapters are the most fascinating in the book, describing Jim and Ann’s days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Jim completely collapses as a soldier and Ann reports it with the detachment of a journalist – one reporting on her own behavior with the subject. It’s odd to read, but fascinating nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m glad to be done with it.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
American Spartan – done (August 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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Humanity and Iron Discipline

Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

On the plane ride to Afghanistan I was skimming through the Art of War when I came across that line. Humanity and Iron Discipline popped out to me, and I was struck by how those two ideas juxtapose. My platoon sergeant was sitting next to me and I showed him the line.

He pulled out an ear plug and yelled to me over the roar of the C-17’s engines, “You’re Humanity, sir. I’m Iron Discipline.”

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Infidel t-shirt

Week ending July 27, 2014

Infidel t-shirt was the top search of the week, and while I normally ignore the infidel search terms that bring readers to the blog (since it’s usually the top term), this one is appropriate only because I found this below t-shirt for sale at a bazaar here in Afghanistan.

IMG_3593

The war has jumped the shark.

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“We will never win in Afghanistan…”

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

Major Jim Gant
“American Spartan”

Currently reading “American Spartan.”

Related: The Rains of Castamereand How to Win in Afghanistan.

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Damn it feels good to be a veteran

Forever War

Do you want to know why it feels so good to be a veteran, and why “it” is so addictive?

It’s because often times, you feel like you are at the center of the world. That feeling of being the “decisive operation” goes into overdrive while deployed, but even when you are just sitting at home, watching the news, it’s easy to get lost in yourself because you are a small part of this much bigger thing that gets a whole lot of attention.

Look at this past week’s big news stories. All of them are in the military sphere. Front page news:

On Tuesday, President Obama announced the troop numbers for Afghanistan post-2014, ending speculation over what would happen when this year came to a close.

On Wednesday, the President laid out his foreign policy agenda at West Point, which has serious implications for the men and women who serve to execute it.

On Thursday, the military portion of the internet exploded in response to comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow in which she compared receiving nasty internet comments to war (my response here).

On Friday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General (R) Eric Shinseki resigned after mounting criticism concerning recent VA scandals.

Then yesterday, it was announced that SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the only remaining prisoner of war from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was released in exchange for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.

All of these stories generated lots of hot air and conversation. Fodder for the media and blogging-heads (myself included). Sitting on the couch and tuning to the evening news, story after story is related to MY WORLD.

How can that not be addictive? All of these stories ruled the day, and in each of them, only a tiny number of Americans can actually say they are somehow involved or can relate to them.

It’s exciting. And I think that “center of attention” feeling is what makes getting out and transitioning to being “normal” so damn hard.

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War, as told through Final Fantasy Battles

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I don’t remember how this thought entered my brain. I think it was around the time I was doing this tongue-in-cheek post on “how to win the war in Afghanistan,” which, by the way, I still think is true, if you pay close attention.

Anyway, it occurred to me that you could kind of compare war to different Final Fantasy battles.

For example.

Conventional war looks something like this:

That is to say, it’s a lot of grinding. Attack. Defend. Counter-attack. Push forward. Over and over again.

Special purpose missions, like the raid that nabbed Osama bin Laden are like this:

Lots of special equipment checks immediately before sending your best guys in to do the final deed.

Counter-insurgency? Without a doubt, that’s a dungeon crawl:

Please ignore the un-ignorable commentary. But COIN is essentially a long slog. Bring lots of equipment that you’ll use occasionally. Get sniped and harassed by pretty easy enemies who wear you down over and over again. It sucks. You just want to get to the end, but it takes forever.

And there are shuras, where everything you say has significant consequences:

COP DEFENSE!

Ethical dilemmas:

War crimes:

I know there are more. There are plenty. But I’m going to stop it right there. If you have a good addition, drop it in the comments and I’ll add it.

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The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

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This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material were also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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