The Rains of Castamere

"When I go home people'll ask me, 'Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?' You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is." -- Black Hawk Down (2001)
“When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” — Black Hawk Down (2001)

Doctrine Man posted the above photo and quote from Black Hawk Down yesterday as part of this weekend’s steady stream of Memorial Day related posts to counteract a supposed disinterested public while also helping us lose ourselves in a “twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.”

The quote is a variation of the answer to “why we fight” that usually boils down to doing it “for your battle buddies on your left and right.” That is, today, the reason we go to war is simply to protect the ones with whom we’ve gone to war. Put simply, we’re there and doing it because we’re there and doing it.

Force protection.

I’ve always had a hard time swallowing this. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to be a lowest common denominator rationale – there’s no good reason we’re doing this (conquering, for example), so the best we can come up with is this pseudo-spiritual link between the men and women in a given unit. The concept is popular among troops and when uttered, is usually met with nods of gritty determination from exhausted soldiers grasping for a reason to strap on heavy body armor, pick up their rifles, and step out on another ghost patrol.

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?”
-As quoted in Stars and Stripes (November, 2013)

Earlier today, I read about Mad Jack” Churchill, a British officer who was known to go into battle with a longbow and sword. It’s an incredible Jack_Churchill_leading_training_charge_with_sword.jpg (1003Ă—643)story and the picture is otherworldly. It was this macabre quote of Churchill’s though, that captured my attention: “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years.”

This is reminiscent of LTC Kilgore’s famous quip of “Someday this war’s gonna end...“, spoken with the sick sadness of a man lost in war, warning his troops to soak up as much of the grim death before it’s all over.

While Kilgore is fictional, Churchill is not, and there seems to be a “type” that indeed is a ‘war-junkie.’ I’m not sure it’s necessarily for the mechanical aspects of war – the shooting, the bleeding, the death. Rather, it’s the whole experience of the campaign. It’s the sights, sounds, and feelings swirling around for years. It’s life in the emerald city. It’s an endless summer where the only victory is survival.

“The dead only know one thing; it is better to be alive.”
-Joker, Full Metal Jacket

In generations passed, strict dedication to duty might have been enough to sustain the fighting heart. Or perhaps, simply, the casus belli was better, or at least understood. Certainly in a firefight, the only thing that matters are those on your left and right, for they will bring you home (the “warrior,” mind you, is dead). As soon as the first bullet is fired, the world washes away and all are instantly swept to a dark arena where humanity disappears and natural instinct takes over.

My point though, is that in order to get to that arena – that point in time where the only thing that matters are those on the left and right – required a series of decisions made by men and women on and far from the battlefield. It is in those decisions where we should find the answer to “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man?”

Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Sacrificed all
Dared all-and died

I’ve heard it said that this generation, more than others, needs to know the “why” more than those of previous generations. I’d say that’s fair and true. “We’re going on this mission because I told you so” might get them out of the wire, but it is unlikely to tame (or unleash) the “beast in the heart of every fighting man.”

And it will certainly leave them thinking about what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

Something to think about.

This, incidentally is the 500th post on Carrying the Gun.

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The Junior Officer Reader – Black Hawk Down

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Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu (Day of the Rangers).

When I first joined the military in 2001, Black Hawk Down was the book du jour for young infantrymen. At 30th AG, where all infantrymen get their start, just about everyone had read the book or were currently reading it. For some, it was the inspiration to join. For others, it represented the high end possibility of life in the peacetime infantry.

I never heard of the book.

Sure, I knew about the events in Mogadishu in 1993. But I didn’t understand them. I was 11 years old at the time. What I knew was that there was a major firefight in some far-off African city. A lot of Americans soldiers were killed, and these were some of our best.

I remember being marched to chow and passing the placards featuring the Medal of Honor citations for SFOD-D snipers Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon. Gung ho recruits who were more familiar with the book and story told of their heroic attempt to protect downed Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant, dropping into the crash site and holding back a violent Somali mob until they were ultimately overrun. Shugarts’s body would be seen on television screens across the world as it was dragged and displayed through the streets of Mogadishu.

I finally dove into Black Hawk Down (1999) a few weeks ago and just finished it. It was a difficult book to read because the detail was so intricate that the action was hard to follow. Bowden painstakingly recreates the battle, telling the same story and meta-stories from different angles and perspectives, including the Somalis. The reader is rocked forward and backward through moments of time, sopping up every detail of a gruesome battle.

For the junior officer, the book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of careful preparation. Task Force Ranger decided not to bring their night visions devices on the raid since it was supposed to be an in-and-out mission during daylight hours. This left them stranded in the city during the night without the device that would have given them a significant tactical advantage. Some of the men chose not to wear their bullet proof armor plates, opting for speed over safety. At one point, the Ranger Commander regrets choosing to leave bayonets back at their base, as they were growing dangerously close to running out of ammunition. I don’t remember the last time I saw a bayonet.

Unity of command is another important issue found here. At times during the battle, Rangers found themselves intermixed with operators, and it was not clear who – if anyone – was in charge.

Something captured well by Bowden is the hierarchical structuring the military does to itself in terms of eliteness and professionalism. The Delta operators thought the Rangers were unprofessional who though that the 10th Mountain Division was a joke. It wasn’t just an acknowledgement of different mission sets and training, but a real animosity that often manifested itself in tactical decisions made out of spite or anger.

Before I read the book I already understood the cultural significance that Black Hawk Down has had on the Army. It is the battle in which all modern battles are compared to. It is the benchmark. It is constantly referenced as both a joke (“Irene,” “This is my safety”) and a lesson (night vision, armor plates).

I also found the descriptions of the Rangers interesting. Bowden writes that the “high and tight” was the haircut that marked the professional, high-speed Ranger. Today I think you would be more likely to see a more civilian-inspired hairstyle, emulating the guys on the next rung on the hooah ladder.

I’m not sure that any mission since then – including the Bin Laden mission – has had or will have more significance to the culture of the military than Black Hawk Down.

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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
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12