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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End of War: Adjusting to Garrison Life

6TAyfuE

Reintegration, block leave, initial reset.

A huge source of reintegration frustration comes from transitioning from an environment where leaders at every echelon have more autonomy and control over their formations than they do back at home. What you actually have to do on a day-to-day basis seems to be more tightly controlled at home station than it was forward deployed.

The quicker a leader makes that realization, the quicker he or she can stop raging against the machine and get on board for the big win.

At the platoon level, you go from being able to see the platoon – actually, physically see them – on a daily basis, to losing them to a never-ending stream of details, appointments, and mysteries.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

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Back to the Grind

The Grindery

Alas, vacation is over and it is back to the grind. Over the short break, I managed to read All You Need Is Kill, the Japanese sci-fi novel that Edge of Tomorrow is based on, thus the vacation-breaking “Full Metal Bitch” post. It was fun, and reminiscent of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War – which I ought to re-read and review here. I also finished Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a book recommended to me by an infantry friend. I’ve added both to the “Just for fun” portion the End of War Reading List, because the former has that element of never-ending war while the latter is absurd – both fitting themes for the end of war.

I also had a short test piece published at Uniform Stories titled 10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget. It’s a fun and true list of things I’ve heard NCOs say over the years that I just can’t forget. Check it out and spread the word.

Bonus points if you know what the picture is.

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Preparing for the ‘End of War’ in an era of uncertainty

2014 is a very strange year for the military. We’re still in Afghanistan, but whether we’ll be there past December is uncertain. Units are training and deploying, trying not to be distracted by the strategic level decision-making that actually has a direct impact on their and their families’ lives.

The recently proposed Defense budget will likely shrink the size of the military and could potentially reduce benefits of service, including cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing and Commissary subsidies. The upcoming ‘Officer Separation Board‘ will likely result in some 2,000 Captains and Majors – most combat veterans – being kicked out. Some of them will get the word while deployed.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria are blurring into a single conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s all very discombobulating and is creating an odd climate of uncertainty.

Writing for the New York Times ‘At War’ blog, Air Force Major Brandon Lingle captures this in his piece titled Watching Football, Waiting for War:

In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.

After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”

These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.

And then there is this, a quote from a young First Lieutenant in Stars and Stripes, finishing up a sleepy deployment in Afghanistan:

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”

2014 is a shaping up to be a very strange year.

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General Order #1 and the Man Who Would Be King

This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of
God–Amen and so forth.

(One) That me and you will settle this matter together: i.e.,
to be Kings of Kafiristan.

(Two) That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled,
look at any Liquor, nor any Woman, black, white or brown, so
as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.

(Three) That we conduct ourselves with dignity and discretion, and
if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.

Signed by you and me this day.

Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.

Daniel Dravot.

Both Gentlemen at Large.

After reading ‘The Man Who Would Be King‘ as part of the End of War Reading List, it was recommended to me by a friend that I watch the 1975 version of the novel starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. I watched it over the weekend and I highly recommend it as both a good adjunct to the End of War Reading List and as a really good movie. It is a re-telling of the Kipling novella, with lots of details added in to fill out the film. Connery and Caine are terrific and there are so many good lessons that could easily be pulled from the movie and taught. It’s amazing how we are over a hundred years past the fictional events of the book/film, but the same prejudices and stereotypes persist.

“Different country, different customs. We musn’t be prejudiced, Peachey.”

What I found particularly interesting is the contract that the two adventurers drew up between them (posted above) and the way it sums up in a nutshell the same contract American soldiers adhere to when they go to Afghanistan as part of the infamous “General Order #1” which prohibits alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, the keeping of pets, and certain types of photography.

It is in fact, when the contract is broken, that Peachey and Daniel’s plan falls apart. So, there’s that.

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End of War Reading List: Into the Land of Bones

The Battle of Gaugamela

This was the first book on my list. It was given to me by a friend years ago when she learned I was heading back into the Army. It has sat on my shelf since then and I finally picked it up to lead off the End of War Reading List.

It’s a tough read. It is as readable a history of Alexander’s campaigns into Afghanistan can possibly be (which isn’t very). It’s kind of like jumping into ‘Game of Thrones’ mid-season or picking up the book and starting to read from just anywhere. Lots of strange names and locations that are difficult to place unless you’re already read-in. Mind numbing, but rewarding for someone willing to sit and focus. Not something to pluck through in the moments before falling asleep.

Frank Holt (the author) is a professor of ancient history who specializes in Alexander the Great. He is the guy that you would want to write this book if what you’re interested in historical accuracy.

For its difficulties, Holt manages to paint the contours of the great campaign well enough, which is the best that could be accomplished, given the extreme lack of source material. He also lightly infuses comparisons to the British, Soviet, and American escapades into Afghanistan where appropriate. It is clear through his writing that Holt holds a very dismal opinion on the West’s current involvement in Afghanistan, but he expresses it not with the venom of a talking head on a cable news channel, but instead the sad disappointment of a respected high-school teacher. It’s not too heavy-handed, but Holt does ride the “graveyard of empires” train.

Before reading this, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexander’s Afghanistan campaign except what I learned from the Oliver Stone movie, which was practically nothing except everyone looked fantastic in antiquity. The book accomplished its job of taking me through the campaign without making me do the hard work myself. There are plenty of notes and references for the historians interested in where the source material comes from, and Holt is always careful to inform the reader what is conjecture and what is sourced.

Holt is good about adding in quotes through history that bring the ancient campaign to life through grim prophecy. Here he is in the introduction, quoting British general Robert Franks on the perils of being in Afghanistan:

It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance at attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.

I earmarked some spots in the book that I thought might be interesting to highlight.

Fortune can turn in an instant – Quoting a British officer, comparing Alexander’s troubles in taming Afghanistan after initial successes to a line from the Second Afghan War (British):

A change has indeed come over the vision of our dream – last night we were all cock-a-hoop, thinking ourselves fine fellows, and that all we had now to do was walk around and burn some villages; and within twenty-four hours we are locked up, closely besieged, after a jolly good licking and all communications with the outer world cut off. (p. 50)

All we had to go do “was walk around and burn some villages” and be done with the whole thing. Turns out, as quoted above, that heavy handedness doesn’t always work the way it ought to.

More on the perils of reckless abandon:

In the so-called fog of war, Alexander’s men jabbed, sliced, torched, and bombarded in a frenzied swath. Innocents no doubt perished in the heavy use of firepower, just as American warplanes have accidentally bombed Afghan allied, coalition partners and even several wedding parties. Twice in one week (December 2003), U.S. forces killed groups of Afghan children while trying unsuccessfully to target individual warlords. Such events take a heavy toll not only on indigenous peoples but also on the luckless soldiers whose orders place them in these winless circumstances. (p. 58-9)

The story of the ‘Silver Shields,’ an elite, veteran unit of Alexander’s forces:

One indication of this sad state of affairs may be found in the history of the elite unit Alexander’s army called the Silver Shields. As these veterans grew old in service and passed the age of sixty, they demanded of Alexander’s successors the benefits and rewards promised to them. Deemed unruly and ungrateful for making such petitions, these worn-out soldiers were sent away to southern Afghanistan where, we are told, they were to be secretly assigned by twos and threes to perilous missions from which they would not return. Betrayed, they still haunt the region of Kandahar. (p. 120)

This book took me way too long to read. It wasn’t very gripping, but worthwhile for someone being plopped onto the end of a cosmic timeline.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
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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The End of War Reading List

Finally__the_End_of_War____by_enricoagostoni

With the future of US forces in Afghanistan post-2014 still uncertain, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to be on one of the last deployments there – someone is going to have to do it, after all.

Ex-blogger Andrew Exum once told me that the value that I would bring as an older, over-educated LT was that if I were to go to war, I’d know what books to read before going, or at least where to start looking.

When it comes to Middle East Studies, Afghanistan is on the fringe. If the field is a purely geographical one, it falls outside of the region unless you have a generous cartographer. If the field is thematic, then there are certainly things that bring Afghanistan into the fold. As it were, my schooling brought Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan in every now and then – but not often.

I could scour my bookshelf and pull out a dozen books about Afghanistan and start reading, but I think history and anthropology only go so far in a post-COIN/post-OBL 2014.

This is the End of War.

I’m turning to you, dear readers, to help me out in recommending books that you think would be beneficial to a young leader going to Afghanistan. It doesn’t have to be Afghanistan specific – it can be about anything – but I’m hoping to build the definitive list of books that would prepare that young leader for a contemporary deployment to Afghanistan. That list, I am sure, is different from the list that would exist for a different young leader deploying in 2003, 2007, or 2011.

The first book I’ve pulled off of my shelf is “Into the Land of Bones,” a gift from a friend back in New York. I haven’t read it yet.

Please leave your recommendations in the comments. I’ll add my own recommendations as I find them and write short reviews as I finish them.

Update: I’m getting lots of recommendations – some will go on the list, others will go “on deck,” because I’m not quite sure yet.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – currently reading
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)

Just for fun

All You Need Is Kill
The Stranger

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