Sunday, February 24, 2013

Looking back on Iraq

Whatever else you might call it Operation Iraqi Freedom the Iraq War operation New Dawn, The Gulf War part two whatever names it will be given in the future, Iraq is over.  It's left to us to try to write some legacy, to tell our tales. We may not know for a long time what history will view Iraq as, will it be considered a great victory a moderate victory a moderate defeat or just another chapter that country seems to forget? Ultimately it will be for historians not yet born to decide exactly what the Iraq War was to the larger picture of our country's history.

And what of the cost we fought the Iraq War longer than most fo our wars in our history and yet our casualties were much fewer, our soldiers surviving things that even 20 years ago would've been unthinkable.  Our body armor, our vehicles were letting people walk away from things that should have killed them and we've seen people deploy again and again and again in multiple deployment after multiple deployments All of this challenging what we thought is an all volunteer army could do all of this challenging preconceived notions about how long a Republic could withstand an unpopular war and challenging a lot of the notions that we had about warfare itself

But for a lot of people the war's not over.  In a lot of ways a war never really ends until last veteran is laid to rest. We've learned that the scars don't always have to be physical.  A shot fired many years before may end a life further down the road and many miles from an actual engagements. As with all victories post-World War II we're left with no clear victory, No great parades down the avenues, no great celebration of victory only a quiet acknowledgment that perhaps we, just perhaps we won, though getting some to admit that is like pulling teeth.

The Iraq War was nothing if not a roller coaster in a microcosm of the 21st-century from the apparent victory in unbelievably easy 21 day march to Baghdad in the initial phase of the war, the certainty with the elsection in 2005 that victory was around the corner, to the prolonged protracted and losing struggle of insurgency to the moderate gains and victories of security forces of the Surge to the quiet exit of operation New Dawn, it seemed we won and lost too many times to count.  It wasn't one won with massive battalions moving against a large entrenched enemy front, it wasn't won by flying tank columns or long Air Assault missions or Airborne landings deep into enemy teritory, it was won by the company and the platoon that went out on the streets day after day after day.

So here we sit and the war is still fresh in so many people's memory we may not know for perhaps a decade or more whether or not stable Iraq has been truly achieved and yet that was the goal that we were given with no more than nebulous commands of improved security we went forth and pull the rabbit out of our collective hats, cobbling together ad hoc solutions that War Colleges and policy centers spend years trying to devise the sergeant and the lieutenant on the ground figured out by doing.

We learned that in the 21st-century there is no real rear area.  That any place you are in the combat zone is a threat area.  We learned that the days of armies facing armies may well be over, but we also learned that the same skills that make a successful against a large army can make us successful against a small insurgent force.  We learned that the backbone of our army has always been the soldier, that the individual soldier from the private all the way up to the general are the people that always deliver us victories. We learned that we can get all the toys in the fancy equipment that we want but at the end of the day it's going to be that 18-year-old private who has to go out there and find a way to make it work when all that equipment fails.

We are left with many questions about Iraq.  Many on the political spectrum have feelings about it one way or another.  Was it an illegal war?  Was it justified?  Talk about weapons of mass destruction.  No doubt these debates will go on long after we are all dead.   There will be policy wonks from both sides the aisle that will chime in until we are all so sick and tired of hearing about it.  Whenever the next war comes along the specter of the quagmire in Iraq will be raised and we will have to yet again remind the world about the resiliency of the American soldier. 

I wish I had answers for you. I wish I could tell you that every single battle buddy you lost was lost in a good cause. I wish I could tell the family of every suicide something they might take solace in. I wish I could tell you that history will be kind to our war.  But to be honest I don't know the answers and that's probably the greatest legacy of Iraq.  We marched into the unknown and we are still marching into the unknown.  The days of clear victories and clear defeats may will be over. Soldiers Sailors Airmen and Marines who engaged in battle from Basra to Mosul from Kirkuk to Al Anbar fought like the lions and secured some sense of stability through blood sweat and tears shed on thousand fields in thousand wadis in the thousands little towns and hamlets on thousands of streets.

Policy wonks call this a low intensity conflict and yet anyone survived IED blast anyone who survives a complex ambush anyone who was constantly watching for snipers and yes anyone who is hit by any of those knows that low intensity somehow just doesn't measure up to the reality. Low intensity belies the fear that we felt every time we put on our increasingly heavy armor every time we got into vehicles that seemed doomed to fail. Hundred thousand dollar vehicles being torn to shreds by $25 bombs.

Veterans of Iraq are left with an understanding of just how fragile the freedoms they enjoy are.  They are left with an understanding of just how easily lives are ended and torn apart. Veterans of the Iraq War are left with a hollow look in their eyes as they look forward, toward a hopeful future, all the while glancing behind them at the ones they left behind, in a hellish place and a hellish time.  We are left with a responsibility to share the stories, so that our battle budies are not forgotten. 

The sounds of battle have long since faded. The full story is not yet written. The cost was great, far too many good men and women are no longer here to share drinks at the VFW, many more are left with crippling injuries. Yet, despite this, or maybe because of this we never gave up. When hope seemed lost and all we saw was defeat, we never gave up.  Perhaps that is the best legacy we can leave.  When the politicians declared it a lost cause, we held the line. When we were tired and hurting, we grabbed our weapons and kept fighting. Perhaps the best legacy we can leave is a class of Americans that truly knows what it means to be a Warrior. A few million Americans now know just how fragile and priceless their freedoms are, and can pass that lesson on to their country.

There will be many questions we will not receive answers to in our lifetime, but at least we can take small solace in knowing that the Veterans of the war gave it their all. In a bad time, in a bad place we tried to do a good thing, and that is just about the only thing we can easily say about our war. Perhaps the best epitaph for the Iraq war would be the simple words "they did their best"

Monday, February 11, 2013

Equal Pay, Not Always Equal Roles

Right now in the middle of a war-zone there is a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry, he is most likely doing work that one might consider extremely hazardous, and chances are he'll get shot at at least once today.  In Fort Drum New York, there is a Staff Sergeant whose sole job in the army is the ensure that a training area is functional, he will most likely do some paperwork, then go to sleep in his own bed after close of business.  Those two individuals despite wildly different jobs get the same base pay.  The only difference in pay would be hostile fire pay which is a whopping $225 a month (at leas that's what it was when I was in).  They get the same BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), BAS (Basic Allowance for Subsidies) and get access to the same medical dental and housing benefits.  In fact the guy whose in the rear may actually have more opportunity for early advancement than the infantryman that's been deployed 3 or four times. 

Which is one of the many reasons why opening the doors to women in Combat Arms doesn't really make any sense.  If it were truly about opportunity, you would think that they would offer women careers with MORE opportunity for career development, or possible follow on civilian careers not less.   If the move really was about equality don't you think we'd want to open a job that actually has a civilian equivalent?  Maybe a Medic, or Police Officer, or a Dentist?  But those jobs are already open to women.  Indeed pretty much every job that you can actually translate to the civilian world is open to women, so WHY the Combat Arms?

Well it's said that promotion is faster in Combat Arms, specifically the Infantry.  This is true, to a point.  In the officer ranks you're usually going to move to O-3 (Captain) in roughly 5 years, which is quite speedy, however there the rapid career progression abruptly stops, and from O-4 (Major) on, the competition is so fierce it is often a marvel that officers aren't regularly trying to off one another so they get the desired posting and best OERs (Officer Evaluation Reviews) If your OERs don't make you look like you walk on water, it's a death knell in you career.  Even an OER that says you did your job and did it well is not enough to get you promoted.  You have to shine, and keep shining, all the way to the day you decide to take off your uniform.  There is also one slight detail they never tell you about leadership in the military; at any point an 18-24 year old nowhere near you can screw up, and torpedo your career. 

For a lot of good reasons, the Infantry go to the field a lot.  Going to the field looks good on the OER.  It looks good that you're training, and units will often face "graded" FTX's (Field Training Exercises), much like a giant practical exam.  This matters to much that some commanders, if they could get away with it, would just deploy their unit to training areas and leave them there.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg with Combat Arms, because there is one, obvious, but painful secret to Combat Arms, at some point, even if you do everything correctly, you will have to order someone to their death.  A leader's job in the military is not to kill the enemy, but rather to manuver the troops to the correct position so that they can kill the enemy.  To do that you will have to knowingly trip ambushes, send patrols into areas you know the enemy is strong, sometimes even make the call to deny MEDEVAC because the situation is too hot.

There's another thing that you never see in a Hollywood movie about combat, there is no privacy.  None.  In the sleeping areas of COP Kamalayah it would not be uncommon to see a man strip naked, preform minor personal hygiene (in this case just run a baby wipe over certain areas) then put on a new set of underwear, and a new t-shirt.  Spartan conditions wouldn't be adequate to describe living on the front lines, and there are front lines, despite what the news might tell you.  The Forward Operating Base is usually pretty secure, and despite constant attacks you're not likely to be injured or die in such attacks.  At a COP, its another story.  There's no bunkers, aside from the ones designed to shoot back out of.  These small outposts are usually no bigger than one or two buildings, and as the attacks on COP Keating or COP Restrepo show, VERY vulnerable. 

It must also be pointed out that the statement "women have been in combat . . ." is extremely misleading.  Yes women have been shot at, and returned fire very effectively.  They can react to ambushes, and have proven that they can man turrets, and kill the enemy if attacked.  that is quite a different thing than going out and actively LOOKING for the enemy.  The Infantry's main job is to find the enemy, wherever they maybe, engage them, often in ranges less than 50 meters, and kill them.  This means going away from where the "safe" FOB, or COP is and walking, running and sometimes repelling to where the enemy is.  To anyone not familiar with this, to describe this as a Herculean effort would not be an unfair assessment.

I doubt any of this will be made evident to the American people until many years and perhaps another war after implementation.  Even so, as with all assessments about warfare, one must always look at the facts and approach any decision with he utmost care.  Combat is not some hypothetical thought experiment, but the very real consequence of national politics.  There is no politician in the world that can shape combat into some pristine sporting event, its a very brutal test of individual, and unit mettle, resolve, skill, and sheer luck.  Failure of anyone of a number of minute factors mean the difference between going home with an interesting story, an interesting scar or in a body bag.

Out on your ass

The March edition of Esquire magazine will feature an interview that is supposedly with the SEAL that shot Bin Laden and there were a few eye raising moments in the article.  Perhaps the most important moment to my mind is the part he talks about getting out (actually forced out) following a 17 year career.  While I can't verify this article, I would point out that this actually highlights some of the pitfalls of the coming reductions in the force that will cause incredible pain in the military community. 

It's known as getting "RIF'd" the process where in numbers are looked at and Officers and NCO's with little warning are given notice that they are in an MOS that is over strength and thus will be cut from the force.  There is no appeals process, and there is little time with which to plan the drastic change in your life and lifestyle.  Some are lucky to get three months.  Some get considerably less.  One day you're showing up to PT and conducting business as normal, the next you're scrambling to build a resume, look for a job, and a place to move, while also trying to clear post.  Very few are able to land on their feet right away. 

Anything short of 20 years, even if it's only short by one or two years, is a total loss, and the only hope you have is to hope that somehow you can get VA disability that might pay some of the bills in the interim.  While there are jobs for certain MOS' namely those that work in Commo, or Medical fields, there are some jobs like Calvary Scout, Artillery Crew Member, Tank Mechanic, or Special forces to name a few that have no real civilian equivalent.  Even MPs who one might think might have an automatic in with federal state or local law enforcement fare little better, and that is when the economy is going well.  After six years as an Army medic, the only job I could find was at a Walmart. 

My story also highlights another problem with the coming RIF.  See when I got out I was still young enough that I could bounce back, and going to college would not have been overly stressful change in lifestyle.  I also luckily had the Post 9-11 GI Bill, even if it is plagued with systemic problems.  I had no wife, no children, and could get an apartment.  Imagine if I had lived in base housing had a wife two kids, and a dog, with 2 cars.  There is almost no way I could have gone from that to living in an apartment complex with other students, working a job and going to school.  Sadly that's just the reality that faces many service members.  This is not getting laid off from a manufacturing job, or a job that I can just find another even if far removed, it is a complete change in lifestyle.  

When the force is looking to cut numbers anything can be an excuse to let someone go.  Failed a hearing test (common in artillery crews), bad OER/NCOER, or sometimes there is no given reason at all, your number was just called.  The real shame of it is that the leadership that the Army desperately needs, are often lost in these draw downs, the mid level officers and NCOs usually the first to get cut, are also the ones with experience vital to the smooth function of a military.  After over a decade at war these are the most combat experienced Soldiers and Marines.  Sadly it doesn't matter how many deployments, how many medals, or how much you've invested in your career, when they pull your number that's it. 

I would like to say that there is some hope, that perhaps this draw down will be taken with lessons learned from earlier draw downs, but signals from Washington seem to negate any real hope of that.  When the Secretary of Defense and the Service Chiefs of Staff are warning of a hallow force, I tend to think that "Draconian" is the only way to describe the coming RIF.  What lessons learned will be forgotten, only to have to be relearned later on down the road in the cost of lives.  The painful and even cruel lessons Afghanistan and Iraq taught the military may be lost entirely only to have to be repeated later. 

Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all is that for anyone that has put in over 10 years, getting RIF'd is the ultimate let down.  At that point you are almost certainly committed to doing your full career, short of injury.  Regardless of the reason you are discharged, short of medical retirement, that investment of years of your life, and quite literally blood sweat and tears is just gone.  No one who has not served will appreciate your shadow box full of medals badges and memories, even if you tell them of the multiple deployments it will only come as a curiosity, not any real interest.  You are suddenly left to the mercy of people who neither know, nor care what you've done on their behalf.

Being RIF'd is something that the military has learned to live with.  We don't like it, and it bothers us intensely that we live with a code of honor only to have that code betrayed by numbers that have nothing to do with us.  It's cold, its harsh and it's the polar opposite of the values we're taught since day 1 of basic.  It's a dark thought in the back of every service member's mind that one day we might be forced out on our ass.  Whatever happens with the looming sequester, Service Members must be ready, and have a back up plan in place should their number come up.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

To Succeed you have to Secede?

The State of Virginia, long one of the most powerful states in the union, is sussing out the possibility of printing their own money independent of the US Treasury, which might seem strange if things were a-ok.  But they're not.   Its often joked about, and many people laugh about the die hards of the Deep South that still call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression" (which they're actually justified in calling seeing as only two major battles were actually fought in the North).  But no one seriously thinks that the Union could break apart again. Or do they? 

It is becoming ever more clear that some states, not all of which are in the South, are getting fed up with having to deal with the insanity that often comes out of Washington DC.  There are some states that have a balanced budget, or even budget surpluses, and are tired of supporting other states that can't seem to get their act together.  The corruption in Washington and the myriad of lobbyists make it so that most Americans truly feel that the Federal government doesn't represent them.  To say that the average American fees that their tax dollars are being wasted is an understatement. 

So could the States start to break away?  It is arguable that there are some states like Texas that actually could break away, and do alright for themselves as a small country.  Virgina is another state.  California, theoretically could too if it got it's budgetary house in order (which it won't as long as they elect people like Jerry Brown).  Every State has it's own internal economy, road system, and defined borders.  They each have their own governments, tax system, and police forces.  Perhaps more importantly every state has their own military (the National Guard) that they could use to defend themselves if they need too.  Most of our states are bigger that most countries so yes it could happen.   

Some States like Illinois, or New York might actually break apart internally, if things came down to it.  Chicago and New York City may see themselves as the center of their prospective states, but the rest of the people living in those states absolutely hate how their tax dollars get sucked up by the big cities that then export laws that the rest of the state doesn't agree with.  The corruption in Chicago has long been a running joke, and a black eye for Illinois, which might explain why Springfield, despite being the capitol, is not where state business actually gets done.  Likewise, while Andrew Cuomo might actually be popular within the five Burroughs, go to a place Like Bath or Buffalo, and you'd be amazed at just how opposed they are to just about everything Albany does.  Sadly as NYC happens to be the largest city in the country let alone the state, it's pretty clear that NYC can simply out vote the rest of the state.  Were we to see a break-up of the union, in an "every state for themselves" type of break up, it is possible that NYC and Chicago could be isolated from the states they once called home.

Of course at this point all this is hypothetical.  The idea of the Union actually breaking up is abhorrent to most Americans, so for the time being this is just elaborate saber rattling.  It is important to note that words, and idle threats have become official policy before.  Our own history should show, we are an agreeable people who will try to negotiate right up until the point that we simply can't stand it anymore, then we will act.  The Deceleration of Independence, is a boldly worded document, that describes the feelings on the individual rights of man, and how the usurpation of a government should not be tolerated.  When one reads the charges against the King, one can not help drawing parallels to today.  The people feel like they aren't being represented, they feel the tax burden is too high, and is feeding a system that has no desire to actually spend this money wisely. 

We should be aware, not as a reason for paranoia, but as a wake up, that such rumblings are being made by more and more people.  Rather than dismiss this and say "that'll never happen" we had best take a long look in the mirror and ask "Could it happen, and if so why?"  I do not ascribe to conspiracy of shadow governments, and Roswell aliens, but I do believe that there are people who are plain and abusive in how they use their political powers.  Tyranny almost never starts off with grand gestures, indeed it almost always starts off simply with good intentions.  A look in the mirror, is a very good idea, lest we too quickly travel down that road. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

They See Me Dronin

Just recently the UN announced that they would be investigating the US Drone program, as potentially a war crime.  Now before you get up in arms either agreeing or disagreeing with this this IS the same body that keeps putting places like Syria and North Korea on “human rights” commissions.  Also you have to keep in mind that even if the UN DOES find that it’s a war crime, and even if they DO send it to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, we are not bound to that court by treaty or any other obligation in any legal sense, and even if all of Europe and the rest of the people that have a mild distaste for America were to try to actually prosecute any American for war crimes. . . well they’d have to get through the United States Military first.  

Sadly though, it has taken the bloated, stinking carcass that is the UN to raise this question; is our Drone program going too far?  Remember that when President Bush started putting Hellfire missiles on the Predator drones, it was seen as a logical step, and at the time was used for purely tactical missions.  We’re watching Route X-ray to see if anyone emplaces IEDs, hey, there’s some guys putting some in now. . . gee wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something about that.  From there, there were drone strikes against high valued targets, but usually with over watch.  Remember when we bagged Abu Musab al Zarqawi?  He was a legitimate target at the time, and pretty much everyone that was in Iraq at the time would agree he was a very bad boy.  It’s actually hard to argue a rationale for NOT killing him.  But the problem is in killing him; we also killed his wife and a few kids.  How do you balance that?  Well the guy WAS running around sending car bombs (and pretty big ones) into Shi’a holy sites causing the Shi’a to predictably try to slaughter all Sunni. 

The Drone program and air power in general always has that tricky little problem.  Yes we can use it to kill people we can’t get any ground pounders to in a timely manner, but regardless of how “surgical” we are the fact remains 500 pounds of explosives, will kill anyone in the vicinity regardless of if they’re good bad or ugly.  What the program has become though has been much more strategic.  We’re not just aiming for people in our battle space, we’re hitting people all over the world.  It’s not just observing the bad boys and waiting for them to do bad things, its hitting them where they live, white literally.  In the process we’re also killing everyone they happen to be with.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a goat farmer and his family that are being forced at gun point to provide sanctuary, they’re getting killed right along with the bad guys we meant to kill. 

There’s also another problem with this program.  The “kill list”.  Put simply there is a list of people that are- no questions asked- GOING to be killed if we ever find them.  That’s not unusual in a lot of ways.  We all remember the “deck of cards” that we were issued in the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The whole idea was to eliminate the Baathist chain of command and *hopefully* eliminate organized resistance.  We learned quickly that it doesn’t work quite like that in the 21st century, but the idea is sound except for one major glaring difference.  We were trying to capture these guys.  Even Uday and Qusay were given the opportunity to surrender before the 101st and Delta brought down the house around them. 

Keep in mind that this isn’t just happening in Afghanistan.  We had two drones flying over Libya when our Consulate was being attacked.  We seem to be racking up quite a body count in Yemen, and we are apparently killing Al Qaeda’s #3 guy almost every other week in Pakistan.  We’ve had these drones shot at or shot down in or near Iran.  We’ve even seen what MIGHT be drone action in Mali.  So this once tactical program has ballooned almost out of control.  Right now in the United States Air Force there are more drone pilots than actual-at the stick, flying an honest to God airplane- Pilots, and no one seems to question how that happened or if this is actually a good thing. 

Remember how I said Iran shot down a drone?  Well does “interfered with the programing, and hacked into it” count as “shot down”?  The worst part was this was supposed to be a super-secret squirrel stealth drone.  Maybe the words “Stealth Technology” and “Iran” in the same sentence ought to make you sweat.  Could a pilot in the cockpit have made a difference?  We’ll never know, but it’s kind of hard to affect the plane if you’re not physically touching it. 

And then there’s WHO we’re targeting.  You think that there are as many honest to God terrorists in the world as we’ve managed to kill with our drone program?  What about Anwar al-Aulaqi?  He was a US Citizen.  Yes he was a very bad boy who MAY have had a hand in 9/11, yes he CERTAINLY had a hand in egging on Major Nidal Hassan to do what he did (maybe even Nasser Abdo, though that one is a bit fuzzy) but he also happened to be a US citizen.  When we killed him, he wasn’t directly shooting at our troops, or actively engaging in what we might call “acts of terror”.  He was calling for Jihad, and encouraging his fellow Muslims to kill Americans.  Now that’s a strong case for all sorts of legal action, but you can also make an honest legal argument that he was within (very narrowly) his 1st Amendment Rights.  Much as we would like to we don’t blow up a Klu Klux Klan rally when they call for the killing of all blacks.  Neo-Nazis, Black Panthers, Communists, Occupy Wall Street. . . all have called for violent action against one group of people or another at one point.  We didn’t launch missiles at them.   If we owe American Citizens more than a missile to the face, then what do we owe non-Americans? 

So is the program guilty of War Crimes?  Well that’s actually not as easy to answer as you might think.  You see the wonderful Geneva Convention, gives us a lot of really nice rules for civilized warfare.  Don’t kill the enemy when they’re drinking tea, don’t eat their women or rape their dogs, and definitely don’t chuck their babies into mosh pits, but the funny thing about all those rules, is they apply only to UNIFORMED enemies.  In fact you have a grand total of three days once conflict begins, to put on something even approaching a uniform.  It doesn’t matter if it’s wrapping yourself in a giant flag toga, as long as it’s clear you’re on one side or another, you’re protected.  All those rights and protections go out the window when the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms. 

There’s also another problem with the “War Crimes” argument.  Essentially the ICC and the UN have cried wolf so many times that even if the US is actually committing what might legally constitute a war crime, there’s literally no credibility left.  When faced with actual genocidal rampages like in Darfur, or Somalia they’re mum, but when the US conducts legitimate military operations, and people get caught in the cross fire, tragic as it may be, they scream like they’ve just found Nazis hiding out.  Even if the targeting is morally questionable, the tactics a professional affront, and the whole damn thing stinks to high heaven, the UN has absolutely NO room to point fingers. 

As much as I could care less about the ICC or the UN, We owe it to ourselves, as a nation, and more importantly as men and women who have put on the uniform and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, and bare true faith and allegiance to the same, to ask ourselves if this program HAS gone too far.  Where do we draw the line?  What’s the risk, what’s the reward?  Should we talk about how much we rely on these things, and where might this lead if played out to its conclusion?  I’m not suggesting this could go full Skynet, but we ought to think about this strongly.  The soldier on the ground is taught time and again DO NOT FIRE if there are women and children in the way.  Always wait for a clear shot.  Shouldn’t our Drones do the same thing?  I want you to sit down and actually think about this.  Figure out what you believe, for or against.  Ask your elected officials.  Write letters call their offices, go visit even.  The fact that it’s take the UN to step in to make us gut check ourselves  tells you we’re not really examining how we prosecute this war.