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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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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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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Arabic literature and beyond: Bulaq | بولاق

I’ve been listening to the Bulaq podcast since episode one. I’m not exactly sure how I found it, although it was probably from the Arabist or Jaddaliya.

Bulaq has become one of my favorite podcasts, despite the fact that I read very little Arabic literature. And most of the Arabic literature I have read came based off of recommendations from the podcast or ArabLit.

While the episodes mostly focus on works of Arabic literature – in Arabic and in translation – I specifically enjoy the commentary and cultural criticism from the episode’s two hosts, Ursula Lindsey and M Lynx Qualey.

In their latest episode (Women in Love and Lust), they discuss the topic of sex in Arabic fiction and poetry over the past 1500 years with editor Selma Dabbagh.

Here, Ursula raises how troublesome it can be just having these converations.

“The topic of Arab women’s sexuality is a kind of cultural minefield in which there is a long history of Western attention to the status of women in the Arab world, and specifically of their sexual freedom which is loaded with all sorts of stereotypes, and really is self-interested and sometimes malicious agendas.”

Women In Love and In Lust | Sowt

Yes. Afghanistan being the most palpable recent example.

The conversation goes on and is related to the topic of imperial feminism. That is, the idea that the defense of women can be (and often is) used as justification for empire or empire-building. It’s an important topic and one that can be shocking if you’ve never heard it before.

We’re all in our own unique information bubbles. It’s good to have things in your information diet that challenges the status quo and might even make you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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The Shadow Commander

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one’s family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

“ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration … reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.””

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

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The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

city-college-campus-in-harlem

When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is – generally speaking – an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probably produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”

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