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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Repeat deployments and credit card debt

Source: NRMgamingHD

We’re making bank because we’re at war now. This war ends and you’re not going to be able to sustain your lifestyle.

Relax, man. This war ain’t ending any time soon.

The above video is from the amazing mid-GWOT game ‘Army of Two.’

It was released in 2008 at the height of the war on terror, and the title is a play on the much-maligned ‘Army of One‘ recruiting slogan which emerged just before the 9/11 attacks.

The game is meant to be played with two players cooperatively. Salem and Rio, the two characters, are private military contractors (mercenaries) who go to war for money. The entire game is a caricature of where were were at the time.

And it was just fun to play.

I remember getting to this part of the game and nodding in agreement, because it’s a sentiment I saw over and over again. Once the GWOT started, we got into a rhythm of repeat deployments. Many soldiers came home after a year deployed with tens of thousands of dollars in their bank accounts – mainly from not spending anything over the course of the deployment. It was more money than most will ever see on their ATM receipt again.

Flush with cash, spending got a little outrageous. If you were around any military post in the early days of the GWOT, it was ridiculous how many giant HUMMERs you would see on the road.

With the deployments constantly coming, many got into a binge/purge cycle. Spend a lot of money, max out some credit cards, pay it off through the deployment.

And when contracts came up, many soldiers compared their lives (and their salaries) in the Army with what they could be making if they just got out and took a job as a private military contractor.

Someday this war’s going to end.

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A return to extended field training

I have to preface this post with a few warnings.

First, I know there are some units and job specialties that never got away from extended field training. There are also some training events, tank gunnery, for example, which almost always serve as a form of extended field training.

Second, I don’t actually “love” being out in the field – as others might claim they do. I enjoy training, and I view being out in the field as a necessary part of being in the profession – this is how we train. That doesn’t mean I enjoy being bitten by strange insects, being overly cold or hot, sleep-deprived, and away from friends and family. “The field” is where we train – so it must be endured.

Third, this is an Army-centric observation. But I’d be curious to know how extended training exercises have (or have not) changed in the other services since the beginning of the GWOT.

Finally – I love my smartphone and bring it with me to the field (when appropriate/allowed).

Ok, warnings complete.

The below is a trend that I have observed over the past twenty years and something that I’ve been thinking about recently, as the profession turns towards thinking about how to train and prepare for future conflicts.

When I first joined the Army, just before the start of the GWOT, it was not uncommon to conduct extended field training at home station. These were not field exercises tied to an upcoming CTC rotation or pre-mission training for a pending deployment. These were just training exercises that we did regularly. Ten-day field problems, in fact, seemed to be the gold standard. Deploy to the field on a Monday or Tuesday, and come back the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week.

Of course, this meant that you would be training over a weekend.

These were painful training exercises where days dragged on and bled into one another. We lost track of time and what day it was. And it wasn’t fun to be out in the field for that long away from family, friends, and civilization.

Ten days is a long time, and it is almost certain to rain.

But I’d be lying if I said these weren’t some of the best training experiences I’ve ever had. You just can’t replicate the training value of extended field operations. You can’t replicate it with classes, VR simulations, hip-pocket training, or out-and-back field problems where you don’t actually live, eat, work, and sleep in the field.

Being out there over time has its own value. You learn things about yourself. You learn how to adjust your kit. You learn fieldcraft from your peers. You learn how to operate as a small team, out there. You learn the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your teammates.

These extended field exercises are where units get good.

For me, these early training exercises occurred at a time before the smartphone.

When we went to the field, we were really cut off from the rest of the world. We could completely focus on training – there was literally nothing else to do.

Then the wars started.

And to quote an unknown French general: “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Lots of things changed during the first couple of years of the GWOT. One of those things was a reluctance to conduct extended field training.

I remember coming home from my first deployment and learning that conducting any type of training over a weekend would require the Division Commander’s approval. That essentially put an end to extended field training at home station. The unspoken subtext here was “you better have a damn good reason for wanting to train over a weekend.”

This was well-received by nearly everyone. We were all veterans now and had experienced real combat. Why would we need to be out in the field for over a week anymore?

This mandate – which I understand became widespread at the time – had pure intentions. It was meant to preserve family time at home at a time when we knew we would face repeat deployments. It was a good thing.

As a result, field problems at home station became increasingly short.

Smart leaders know it’s not a good idea to deploy to the field on a Monday or return on a Friday.

We started seeing a lot of two or three day field exercises.

Any training is good training, but squeezing in an FTX between Monday and Friday is not the same as being out there for five, seven or ten days on end.

This is not to say extended field training didn’t happen. It did. CTC rotations necessitate longer times in the field. And units routinely engaged in progressive train-ups (squad level STX/live-fires –> platoon level STX/live-fires –> company level STX/live-fires, etc.). Many of these train-ups occurred over longer periods of time – a week or more.

But the trend, so it appears, is that these types of extended field exercises are occurring less frequently.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the changes we implemented during the GWOT (with good intentions) are ingrained and hard to budge from. Asking a formation to stay out in the field for longer periods of time – over weekends – is tough. You are asking them to miss family events, social functions, and hobbies.

On top of this – and this one hurts – we really need to improve our electromagnetic signatures – not just with our military equipment but with our personal devices. Not only do our smartphones and watches emit signals which put us at risk of detection, but being connected (during combat) opens us up to an entire world of threats.

Source: Twitter

When cellphones – and then smartphones – emerged and became ubiquitious over a decade ago, commanders at all levels had to wrestle with their permissibility in the field. It was not uncommon early on for commanders to outright ban bringing phones to the field.

That seems to have changed as well. Banning phones seems heavy-handed and overly harsh.

We have become so accustomed to constant contact that the idea of leaving the smartphone at home teeters on unreasonable.

What if there is an emergency? What if I’m expecting an important call from someone?

It’s all very strange, because times have changed. And that expectation of constant contact is real. The world we live in today is not the world we lived in during the 1990s or early 2000s.

But the threats that we are likely to face in a future conflict have changed as well, and they are very real.

And they carry serious consequences.

These changes create additional challenges for commanders to contend with. None of them are easy.

Much of the discussion surrounding future conflicts revolve around improvements in technology and leveraging that tech on the battlefield. Getting the best tech and employing it tactically is important.

But as our own wargames (and FICINT scenarios) demonstrate, the opening shots of a conflict between great powers will likely ‘cancel out’ many of the tech advantages of each actor. With that, the side that is able to operate in a tech ‘blackout’ – while leveraging that same tech when available – will likely have the advantage.

This means a return to extended field training to develop the analog skills required when all that tech goes down. This means training in “tech blackout” conditions. This means using communications windows (to include use of personal devices) to replicate what we may face on the battlefield.

There is a way to bring back this type of training without being overly harsh about it or creating unsafe conditions. It takes deliberate planning, unit buy-in, creativity, and empathy. But it can be done.

And if we are serious about the profession, and winning the next conflict, it is necessary.

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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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Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

A helicopter takes Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: ISAF

This is the second time I’ve written about a FTGN Podcast episode. The first was on retired General Joseph Votel. This one is their recent episode with retired General Stanley McChrystal. Retired generals do a lot of interviews, and they are (often) master communicators. It’s rare, then, that I actually find myself latching onto something that really grips me. In General Votel’s case it was his thoughts on reflecting that got me thinking.

For no other reason, you should listen to this episode because in it, McChrystal discusses how he dealt with his resignation in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article. This is the only time I ever really heard him talk about that. It’s a mini case-study in resiliency. And he makes an argument for narrative patience – what seems like an overwhelming avalanche today mostly dissapears by tomorrow.

Outside of that, it was three little things that caught my attention.

First, McChrystal mentioned John R. Vines as one of his significant mentors. John Vines is one of those names that you hear a lot in the Airborne/Ranger community of yore. He was the Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division when I arrived in 2001. When the GWOT started, he held roles in Afghanistan and later went on to command Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2005-2006. I’ve only interacted with him in the way that a Private normally interacts with a Division Commander – from the position of attention or parade rest, far away in a formation. What I remember, though, is he had an incredible reputation for being a paratrooper’s paratrooper. I always had the sense that he was revered as the epitome of what it meant to be an officer in the 82nd.

His name is not one you hear much about these days. He retired shortly after the GWOT began. But I suspect his leadership and mentorship had a significant hand in the careers of many of the General Officers we know today. McChrystal, Petraeus, and Votel were all Deputy Commanding Generals of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Vines’ thumbprint was (and is) deeply embedded there. I can only imagine there is still a cadre of senior officers who can point back to Vines as their chief mentor.

Second, McChrystal discusses the fact that many of the most professional, courageous, and competent special operators he knew and served with were not all that different from the adversaries he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not that different,” in the sense that they too were wholly committed to a cause and willing to die for it. They were stoic, dedicated, and professional. It is refreshing to hear this from someone of McChrystal’s stature. Too often, our enemies or adversaries are simply dismissed as maniacal or incompetent. No one wants to give credit to an adversary, but in refusing to do that we blind oursevles to reality. McChrystal says that it is by “accident of birth” that he – and others like him – are on this side of the battle.

And finally, when asked to recommend a book, McChrystal recommended the classic Once an Eagle.

Still haven’t read it.

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Zero Dark Thirty: I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit

“What time are we going on the raid?”
“Zero Dark Thirty, bro.”
“You are such a tool.”

These are my unfair thoughts of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I have not seen. A movie I am not against. A movie I will see when I get the chance.

Zero Dark Thirty has already been the subject of skepticism and pre-emptive statements from government officials. Besides the inaccurate depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and their futility, there are a number of other things that worry me about Zero Dark Thirty, a tightly shot, beautifully cast, suspenseful punctuation mark to close ten-plus years of real drama, neatly packaged in an easily digestible 160 minutes.

I go to the movies almost every weekend, and I’ve seen the various trailers for Zero Dark Thirty at least a half dozen times. Like any good Hollywood customer, my body has been trained to respond to the cues I’ve been fed. The eerie music, the fading cuts, the crescendoing sounds leading to a quiet scene of night vision-fueled monochromatic green, showing what I know to be the OBL raid, what I assume to be one of the final scenes of the movie.

The trailer got me pumped up for a movie I never really wanted to see, a movie that will undoubtedly become known by the American public as the definitive story of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ A movie that was originally being written as the failure of that endeavor, and was pretty much completely re-written after the OBL raid as a thriller.

You know, to reflect victory.

I’m sure that it’s going to be a great, fun movie. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to make me anxious, and like Kathryn Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker, it will probably make me feel things that I’ve felt before. Fear, tension, frustration, anxiety, and maybe relief. I’ll probably leave the theater with my chest out, proud to be an American!

In fairness, I liked The Hurt Locker. I thought it was a film that captured the “feel” of being an American soldier on an Iraqi street better than anything else I’ve seen. The scene of the main character overwhelmed by the colors, choices, and ultimate insignificance of the cereal aisle resonated with me and many other veterans I know as a snapshot of “what it’s like” to come back from war. I forgave the movie’s caricature of American soldiers and the details of uniforms and equipment as trivial and insider knowledge that just wasn’t that important. It was a movie, after all. Not a documentary.

Over time though, my thoughts on The Hurt Locker have changed. Because of the film’s success (it won Best Picture in 2010), it became the de-facto Iraq War movie. When I was still in college, people would respond with “Oh, I’ve seen The Hurt Locker” upon meeting me and learning that I was in the Army and had deployed to Iraq. The fact that they’ve seen The Hurt Locker was their way of connecting with me, to let me know that they understood what it must have been like. And that is a little unnerving.

It’s no fault of theirs, though. As a culture, we learn from movies. Most of my imagery of the Vietnam War comes from movies; Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I’m sure those are gross characterizations of “what it was like.” I’ve gone further and read about the war, but the images from the movies still color what I learn.

A successful movie based somewhat on reality will become the reality for those who see it. There is already so much buzz surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, it will undoubtedly be successful. This story will become the historical record. Not just for Americans, but for people across the world who will see it and accept it as the way “it” happened.

So here’s why I’m a little concerned:

For those who don’t know, “Zero Dark Thirty” is military vernacular for extremely late at night or extremely early in the morning, a time when it will almost certainly be dark. It’s one of those military terms that is overused by gung-ho new recruits during basic training and discarded by more weathered troops because of how lame it is. Like “hooah, “squared-away,” “get some,” and “hurt locker” (a term that I never even heard until it was the title of the movie).

It means you've been fooled.
It means you’ve been fooled.

To the general public, it sounds cool and ominous. I’m sure that one of the screenwriters came across the term during time spent with US troops, and scribbled it down in a little notebook. I’d be curious to know what the original title was going to be, before the successful OBL raid, when the movie was about the failed manhunt for OBL. 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.

Only it’s not.

It’s exploitative, voyeuristic, and pornographic.

Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on the one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposé – 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.

Of course, the filmmakers can always deflect any criticism by saying “It’s a movie, not a documentary” which is true. But that ignores the reality of how it will be consumed – how they know it will be marketed and consumed. That, to me, is irresponsible.

I’m not boycotting Zero Dark Thirty. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it and I’ll see it when I get the chance. But I won’t accept it as anything but a fantasy.

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