Sunday, May 30, 2010

Catching up with ... Hot Wheels

I hope everyone is enjoying a peaceful and relaxing Memorial Day weekend. And tomorrow ... I just hope we all remember and honor.

One of the soldiers I'll be thinking of is Corporal Matt Wheeler - known as Hot Wheels in the Kaboom universe - a Gravedigger critically injured in a 2008 fire during our deployment to Iraq. Still at the Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, where he's preparing to receive his honorable discharge, Wheels was kind enough to answer some questions for the interwebz.

The last many readers heard from you, was June 2008, after you got hurt. Walk us through your recovery process since then - where have you been, who have you worked with, and how has the experience gone for you?

Well, I've been at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio since then. I mainly worked with physical and occupational therapists that specialize in burn rehabilition. In the beginning, I would also see the burn clinic for routine check ups on my burns. The beginning was hard, since everything you did caused you pain. It would be frustating because you often wouldn't see results immediately. Learning to walk again was probably the hardest, each day you just try for one more step then you did the day before. But you drive on and continue the mission and now I'm back up to running 2 miles.

That's fantastic news. When I visited you in San Antonio this past summer, you mentioned how humbling it was to be at BAMC, because of some of the other soldiers you've met. Could you explain in more detail what you meant by that?

Being at BAMC is a truly humbling place. Everywhere you turn there is an injured soldier, some with similar injuries, some with worse. You see people who are terrifyingly maimed and disfigured, but when you talk with them, all you hear is how thankful they are for everything they still have.

What do you miss the most from Iraq? And what do you miss the least from Iraq?

As bad as Iraq sucked, everything over there was a lot ... simpler then it is here. You put on your boots, picked up your weapon and did your job. Thats it, there's no worrying about whose going to pick up the kids, what are we going to do for dinner, or anything like that. You just did what you where told and drove on... simple. What i miss the least, well that's easy. The port o crappers and the millions of flies that came along with them.

Hah. Good call, it's easy to forget just how disgusting those things were. On a much more civilized note, your mother's CaringBridge website, where she updated people on your road to recovery, proved very inspirational for many people. How'd you feel about that outpouring of support from family, friends, and complete strangers?

The support that my family and I recieved with my mother's CaringBridge website was truly outstanding. I know my mother having that outlet was definitely a blessing.

What's next for Matt Wheeler?

It has been a long recovery, but I'm finished with all surgeries and therapy. I should be out of the Army in mid-June. I recently recieved my acceptance letter to Mississippi State University where i am planning to major in agribusiness. I'm really just looking forward to getting on with life!

I know I couldn't be happier for Matt, and his resolve and dedication to duty remains an inspiration to all of his brothers-in-arms. (Even if he was an infantryman surrounded by Cavalry scouts). Give those books, brews, and broads hell next year, bud! And not always in that order.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mama said knock you out

Check out this video of my buddy Ryan in a MMA (mixed martial arts) fight. (He's in the blue and white shorts, and yeah, he wins). Ryan and I served in Iraq together, during my Wolfhound days, and I take full credit for his successes. After all, the couple times he talked me into "rolling on the mat" with him, I let him dominate in order to build his self-confidence. That was really swell of me, don't you think?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Good and Evil

I interviewed a young Marine corporal yesterday, recently back from Afghanistan, for a magazine article I'm putting together. Over the course of our discussion, he brought up an experience of his that defies human comprehension, even in the context of war.

"We were on a dismounted patrol in Marja ... and walked up on a box in the middle of the street. The IEDs we found were never that obviously placed, but we called EOD (explosive ordnance disposal), just to be on the safe side ... long story short, they came out, checked the box out, and then called us [on-the-ground leaders] up ... the box was empty except for a dead baby. It must've suffocated in there, or starved ... we later found out (through intelligence reports) that The Taliban did it for two reasons: One, it was the kid of a local that had turned some of them in. Two, they just wanted to fuck with us, like they were showing they were capable of anything."

These are ambiguous times we live in. Ambiguous wars, ambiguous purpose, ambiguous intent. In Iraq, sometimes I tried to humanize the enemy, and sometimes I didn't. It all depended on ... well, everything.

But pure evil exists. This wasn't an ambiguous act that occurred in Marja. A murdered innocent, not yet even self-aware. Pure evil in its most obvious and egregious form.

Sometimes, I think pure good must exist, if only to combat the pure evil of the world. Pure evil like this.

Sometimes, I think differently. Sometimes I think that good, at its best, can only aim to be ambiguous, if only because of the eternal flaw of humanity, original sin. And what kind of match is ambiguous good for pure evil?

And sometimes, most times really, I just don't know.

I just don't fucking know.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Coach K story

Some of this blog's fine readers sent emails yesterday, asking me to elaborate on the Coach K story I referenced on the Twitter machine. Ask and you shall receive. I recognize I'm going to catch some heat for this though, as Coach Krzyzewski is practically a saint in Army circles, due to his West Point background. What follows is not a story that'll likely be a part of his camo sainthood induction.

Background info: In the fall of 2001, as a freshman at Wake Forest University, I worked as a staff writer for the sports section of the student newspaper, The Old Gold & Black. Along with the sports editor and assistant sports editor, I went to the annual ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) basketball media day, held in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. Each team in the conference sends their head coach and two or three players to the event, and interviews are conducted en masse, meaning we needed to split up to get as many quotes as possible. I ended up with Georgia Tech, some other team I can't remember, and Duke, who was coming off of a national championship and returning star players Jason (now Jay) Williams and Mike Dunlaevy, Jr. Clearly, to an eighteen-year old kid obsessed with college basketball, this was a big freakin' deal.

Background info, Part Deux: I didn't like Duke in the fall of 2001, but I didn't quite hate them to the extent of which I do now. And unlike many Wake students who hate Duke, I never wanted to go there. Why, you ask? For the same reason I don't cheer for Boston, New York, or Los Angeles teams. I'm not an imperialist.

Scaling Mount Tension: We arrived at the conference, ate brunch, and listened to old white people speak. I also sized up Mark Price (a Georgia Tech grad who was there for reasons unknown) and realized he's shorter than me. I found this quite depressing, because while he still made it to the NBA, I couldn't even make my high school basketball team. I cursed the gods, and ate a lot of bacon. Then, the interviews started, and a mad dash ensued to various tables. I spied the Duke placard in the center of the room, headed that way, and used my bony frame to slide up to the front. Who do I find sitting down, two people to my left and five feet away? None other than Coach K.

The Main Event: Long-time readers of Kaboom may find this hard to believe, but I was a bit ... cheeky in my youth. So, yeah, I wanted to ask Coach K a question just for the sake of asking him a question. Fully aware of my nobody status, as student writers were greatly outnumbered by actual media at this conference, I knew my window of opportunity was going to be small.

Luckily however, an awkward pause settled in, as Coach K awaited questions. No one wanted to be the guy (and yes, it was all men) to break open the floodgates. Cue foolish question from foolish student writer: "Coach, with your team coming off a national championship, do you all feel any pressure to repeat?"

Coach K turned his head and stared at me like I had a dick growing out of my forehead for a full five seconds. I know now that such an approach is standard Army officer body language for "WTF?" but this proved my first experience with such.

Then he sneered at me - I don't use that verb lightly - and went into full-on upbraid mode.

I don't recall his word-for-word his response (I threw out my notes long ago), and I don't want to misquote him, so I'll simply paraphrase from the memory seared to my mind: No, we don't feel any pressure, because each team is different. Fair enough. People coach their whole lives to accomplish what we have, nothing can take last year away from us. True. The real reporters know enough about how I operate to not ask a question like that. Wait, wha? Ouch. Can I get a question from someone who does this for a living? I want my mother.

The Aftermath: Was it a stupid question? Yeah, I guess so. But it wasn't a leading one. Or even a loaded one. Fairly innocuous, coming from a college kid obviously in over his head. Was it really necessary to remind me of this fact? (That was rhetorical question, because no, no it was necessary.)

In years past, as I've retold this story at bars, I had a snappy comeback for K, like, "so ... is that a no?" But that didn't happen. What else is there to do when getting scolded by arguably the most famous basketball coach alive, but to stare at the ground and look sheepish, hoping against hope someone else catches his attention? So yeah, that's what I did.

Does this anecdote make Coach K a bad person? No. It doesn't even make him a dick. Maybe he was having a bad day, and felt compelled to lash out at someone else. We've all been there. But it was dickish, and some thirty minutes, a beat writer (one who wrote about sports for an actual living!) tapped me on the shoulder, in between interview sessions.

"Don't worry about it, kid," he told me. "K does that every year to one of the student reporters from the schools [other than Duke.] I think it makes him feel tough."

If such is or was true - and I observed Coach K in a few more press conferences during my time at The Old Gold & Black, and I never had another problem nor witnessed anything similar - than yeah, he's a dick. But he's also a Hall of Famer and an incredible coach, and maybe being a dick is necessary in his line of work, considering the amount of scrutiny he deals with on a daily basis.

This is now two quasi anti-West Pointer posts in two days. If the men in black suits take me away in a helicopter tonight, you'll know why. Tell my golden retriever I love her!

Academies v. ROTC, Round 146

Ahh, springtime. The birds are chirping, mind-numbing Hollywood epics are out in plentitude, and the annual internet fight about the relevancy of the military Academies (West Point, Annapolis, the Colorado Zoomie school, etc.) hath arrived. Quick, everyone run to your keyboards and get real, real indignant.

Last year, Tom Ricks really smacked the Academies in the baby maker. This year is proving to be a bit more even fight, as outlined here by the Small Wars Journal. The blogosphere got all hot and bothered by this - again - particularly some Academy graduates. Predictably, some of these responses were laced with entitled self-righteousness that couldn't help but take some shots at other avenues to officerdom.

I'm not going to do the ROTC version of that, don't worry. I knew some good officers that came from West Point, and I knew some bad ones. Concurrently, I knew some good officers that came from ROTC, and I knew some bad ones. Same song, same dance for OCS (officer candidate school.)

Generally speaking, the strengths and weaknesses of military Academy and ROTC grads differed. To wit, West Point grads *tended* to be more technically proficient as young lieutenants. This is good, it earns instant respect from soldiers and superiors alike. Concurrently though, ROTC grads *tended* to be able to communicate better with soldiers and superiors alike. Frankly, in my oh so humble opinion, not being a social retard is really the most important lesson a young platoon leader can learn. Like anything else, the military is a people business.

The best commander I ever served under - The Hammer, for those of you that read the book - went to West Point after attending a "normal" school for a year. He seemingly got the best of both worlds, as he was a bad mamba jamba technically (and tactically ... and mentally ... and physically), yet he didn't evoke burning resentment from others every time he spoke. Perhaps his leadership development offers a twenty-first century panacea for young leaders, I don't know.

West Point ain't going anywhere, no matter what the Google machine says. Neither is ROTC. So let's hug it out, fools! (Until next spring, at least.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Catching up with ... Big Ern

In both Kaboom the blog and Kaboom the book, the soldier Big Ern made his presence known for all the right reasons. From his nonstop bantering with hetero-lifemate Van Wilder, to his all too routine ten-hour sessions in the gunner's hatch, to his perpetual rocking of the Hate Fist, this Southern family man still supports Rip It energy drinks and extreme analogies.

Currently in Afghanistan as a dismounted team leader with a Cavalry squadron in the 101st Airborne Division, now Sergeant Promotable Big Ern was kind enough to answer a few questions via email. (For you non-camo inclined folk, Sergeant Promotable means he'll pin on Staff Sergeant rank shortly).

1) Big Ern! I miss your musk. How does Afghanistan compare with Iraq? What's similar, and what's different?

I would say the school system is similar, there are some poor ones here like we found in Iraq. What's different - the ASG (Asia Security Group) here seems to grasp the concept of security better than the IA (Iraqi Army) did in Iraq, at least when we were there (2007-09). There aren't any IPs (Iraqi Police) here to shoot at me, either. That's nice. Also, there a lot more hills to climb [in Afghanistan]. A lot more.

2) What do you miss most about the old platoon? Have you found someone to replace your hetero-lifemate, Van Wilder?

What I miss most about the Gravediggers was that close family we had, how we all bonded together and it seemed like we all knew what the other was thinking. And I will never find someone to replace Muffin Butt!

3) Huh. Apparently there was a nickname between the two of you that I was unaware of. You became famous for rocking the Hate Fist in Saba al-Bor. You rocking the Hate First in the 'Stan now?

Brother I will never quit rockin the Hate Fist! Now I just do it as a team leader on the ground.

4) Any shout outs you want to send to family or friends?

Tell all my friends Big Ern is doing okay , and tell my family I love them!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bizarro Suge Day

Got me some Suge on my mind today, for whatever reason. First, during my daily boogieboarding of the net, I learned that the namesake for my old terp, Suge Knight the rap music entrepreneur, got arrested last night in Los Angeles, for assault with a deadly weapon. Anyone familiar with this Suge Knight can't be that surprised.

Then, on my way to lunch at Subway, I saw a dead ringer for Suge the terp, playing checkers at a street corner. I did a triple-take initially, and had to reverify that it was a different man on my way back from lunch. The old guy looked just like Suge - same portly build, same power mustache, same dark skin tone. He wasn't smoking constantly though, nor was he regaling his friends with stories about knifing Syrians. He also sounded like he was of West Indian descent, instead of north African descent.

I know, this sounds horrible, but that's not it. I can indeed recognize differences amongst black people. I think I just miss the old guy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Advise and Assist Facepalm

This may be old news in the blogosphere, I don't know. But I heard through the camo-vine that "no more combat troops in Iraq" really means renaming maneuver brigades "advise and assist" brigades. No change in soldiers deployed, and limited changes in their training. Serious change to their mission in country, certainly.

I'm all for a slow and gradual drawdown. It's the only logical thing to do for Iraq right now. But I'm also for transparency. And this is ... well, this is straight amateur hour. Did they really think the American people would fall for this? (Don't answer that.)

The older I get, the less I feel inclined to believe in Big Brother conspiracies, because Big Brother isn't scary. Or efficient. He's an accident-prone buffoon, just trying to get by like the rest of us.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Remembering Mark

In November of 2007, the British author Christopher Hitchens wrote a nonfiction piece for Vanity Fair entitled "A Death in the Family." If you haven't read it, I suggest that you do so - NYU's esteemed journalism school recently nominated it as one of the decade's top eighty works in that field. It's about the death of a young lieutenant in Iraq, and the resulting effects on his family, his community, and the author. The lieutenant's name was Mark Daily, a 2005 graduate of UCLA, and he was my friend.

We met in September of 2005 at Fort Knox in Kentucky, and like 40 or so of our peers, we wore gold bars and exuded green - something that, if known at the time, would've mortified us. For seven months, we labored through the Armor Officer Basic Course and Scout Leaders Course together. Even though Mark was in a different training platoon, we became familiar through mutual friends, Matt Gross and Chris Demo, and we cultivated our own relationship from there.

When I received word about Mark's passing (his Humvee hit a deep-buried IED on January 15, 2007, and he died instantly), I could only remember the times we disagreed and argued, for whatever reason. These debates were almost always esoteric and philosophical in nature; I think we gravitated towards one another for these discussions, knowing our other, more pragmatic, friends would've scoffed and told us to focus on the tasks at hand. Still in Hawaii at the time of his death, about a year short of my unit's deployment timeline, I became overwrought with a type of survivor's guilt fairly common in military veterans. Mark was the first from our Basic class to fall (we'd lose a second, David Schultz, on January 31, 2008), and it became the dreaded "this is for real" moment all young soldiers experience in their wars. Demo and I now lived together in Honolulu, and we did the only thing there is to do for 23-year old kids caught in such a situation: we got rip-roaringly drunk that night toasting to Mark's name, and did our best to suppress the fears his loss had incurred upon our souls and psyches. After all, our battles in Iraq still awaited, a fact no longer gilded with romanticism.

Before he deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division, Mark posted a brief statement on his MySpace page, entitled "Why I Joined." The entire piece resonates even today, in a post-Surge America and post-Awakening Iraq, because it puts on display the type of individual that made these movements work in the first place. "Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest," Mark wrote, "who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics." Mark channeled idealism into action in a manner that seemed natural to him, but remains all too rare in our modern world.

Why'd we sometimes disagree? He saw the best in people, I feared the worst. He was inspired by Hitchens, I called Hitchens a chickenhawk. Although he was sympathetic to anti-war statements and arguments regarding Iraq, he instead focused on the opportunity we had to instill democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I, uhh, didn't. Mark also became the first person to tell me to stop concerning myself with how we ended up in Iraq - it didn't matter anymore - and to instead focus on what could be done since we were already there. And he was right. We were second lieutenants destined for the war regardless of our personal opinions, and the decisions made in 2003 were now as irrelevant to our lives as they were to the Iraqi people living in the midst of it all.

With the passage of time, and through my own deployment to Iraq, I've been able to focus on the good times with Mark. Laughing about being covered head-to-toe in mud while fixing a tank track. Ganging up on political fascists and berating them into intellectual submission. Drinking beers at Irish pubs in Louisville, reminiscing about field exercises, talking about them like they were actual war stories. He was a driven mind, less of an oddball than me, and I genuinely liked and admired him - things that aren't always the case with battle buddies.

Eternal thanks to Mr. Hitchens for writing "A Death in the Family." I reread it last night, for the first time since it came out. Powerful, poignant, and genuine. I doubt he'll ever read this, but if he does, I do apologize for calling you names, though I'm sure you've been called worse.

In retrospect, I think that I was even a little jealous of Mark's rugged optimism; young men like him weren't supposed to exist anymore, except maybe in the minds of our Greatest Generation grandparents. But he did, and all of us that were there with him at Knox are better off because of such. Even then, we knew Mark to be the lieutenant we wanted our platoons to think we actually were. He set a high standard and gave us something to aspire to as leaders - something I suspect lingers in all of us, whether we're still in the Army or not. I know such remains the case for me.

See you at Fiddler's Green, Mark.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On COIN, Courageous Restraint, and Clowns

Like most able-minded people, I think the courageous restraint medal idea isn't a good one. Our troops have to deal with enough ambiguity on the ground already, and even in a counterinsurgency, they need to be warfighters willing and able to kill in an instant. The piling on against this idea, particularly in the blogosphere, has been pretty massive, to include such tactical luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin.

While I hate the idea of this medal, and am pleased that it looks to be going the way of the dodo, some of the undertones in the reactions against it have been troubling. The aforementioned military deferment expert Rush referred to it as the "Yellow Heart medal," because presumably, there is nothing courageous about restraint. Any cursory Google search on the topic will yield a litany of cowboy wordage on the subject, essentially proclaiming the American way to be shoot and ask questions later.

Sigh. We're four years into the COIN-era, and **** like this still happens.

(Quick sidenote: A few weeks ago, during a radio interview with shock jock Mancow Muller, I was asked how awesome is it to kill ragheads, or something to that effect. There are few things in this world I detest more than posers. How do people not realize by now that we turned Iraq around by NOT killing unless we absolutely had to?)

First, a good general rule of thumb in any counterinsurgency: the less shooting happening, the better off you're likely doing. This certainly applies in the build and hold phases, while the initial clear phase is totally dependent upon the specific area and situation. I know this doesn't fit into the typical American viewpoint of war, but we've been over this already. COIN is atypical warfare.

Second, I'm not sure why this idea is President Obama's fault, or somehow symbiotic of a PC nation and culture. A Brit, Major General Nick Carter (perhaps of Backstreet Boy fame?) proposed the idea for NATO forces. Blaming 90s pop music seems far more appropriate.

Third, just because soldiers can shoot doesn't necessarily mean they should. I've lived this. Dismounted with 10 of my guys, caught in the crossfire of a firefight between the Iraqi Army and the Sons of Iraq. (Yes, I know they're technically on the same side. The Sons of Iraq were augmented by some ... acquittances who started shooting at us). We conducted a movement a contact behind a creeping Stryker, straight up the gut of the firefight, and effectively ended it. We were getting shot at, but not a one of us returned fire. Why? Because the "battlefield" was an Iraqi neighborhood.

Every situation is different. Had one of my guys felt threatened or identified a positive target, I guaran-damn-tee you he would've iced that bastard. But they didn't start spraying and praying, that's the point. And, just speaking for myself here, it was pretty difficult to avoid that temptation - it's human nature to defend yourself when you're in peril. Courageous restraint does exist - watching Staff Sergeant Boondock all too calmly direct the Stryker in front of us with AK rounds hissing around him remains one of the craziest -and bravest - things I've witnessed. Did he get a medal for such? Nope, he was just doing his job. (And it must be noted, that even were he awarded such a theoretical courageous restraint medal, SSG Boondock wouldn't wear it. He's a Cavalry scout through and through, and all that matters to him is his Combat Action Badge and his spurs).

So yeah, Rush (and others), courageous restraint does exist. (Insert way too easy prescription drug abuse joke here).  Let's leave the wargaming and strategery to the David Kilcullens of the world, alright?

To his credit, General McChrystal stated yesterday that U.S. Forces already have "a number of ways to recognize courage," and that "courage in uniform can come under enemy fire in the most traditional ways or if you come under actions that may not be as expected or as traditional and involve killing. It may involve protecting civilians."

Courageous restraint, in certain circumstances, has been and will be awarded by the military, but we don't need a new medal for it. Concurrently though, we don't need the clueless, mongering wannabes spouting off about things they know nothing of, either. The kids will have a hard time enough explaining their experiences to their family and friends when they return home, even without drivel like this out there.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In Defense of Stream of Consciousness

Well, my tome Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War has been out for about six weeks now, and it continues to exceed all expectations. The wild ride aspect of it is stabilizing a bit, or maybe I've just gotten used to it all. Anyways, there's been enough time and reviews by now for a sort of consistent feedback pattern to develop. The most polarizing aspect of Kaboom, by far, has been the stream of consciousness pieces scattered intermittently through the book.

Some have described these pieces as "poetic" and "brutally honest." Others have found them "distracting," "melodramatic," and "rambling." Clearly, I'm far too biased (and like most writers, hypersensitive) to be able to objectively comment on what my stream of consciousness selections did or did not to for Kaboom. So I'll simply explain why I included them.

But first, as usual, a few caveats:

- I can't help the random old people who don't "get" stream of consciousness, except to provide this link to its Wikipedia entry. Good luck understanding a narrative style most of us learn in seventh grade, crank-stars!

- Jack Kerouac did not invent this narrative technique. See above Wikipedia entry. It has been around a long, long time.

And now, the main event!

I've read my fair share of war memoirs, both of the GWOT-era and before. Like anything else, some are good, more are bad. A troubling theme I've noticed though, especially in officer memoirs, is a whitewashing of events, people, and experiences. Either consciously or subconsciously, modern war memoirs tend to take on a pseudo-Hemingway style framing of existence in war. (I love Lord Ernest as much as anyone, but there are only so many ways to write "we warred today. Then we ate red meat. Then we made love to exotic women who cook and don't talk" before it becomes ... hackneyed.)

Life often sucked in Iraq. I was most aware of these moments when I had time to be aware of them, i.e. when I had time to think rather than pushing through the latest mission. Sometimes this occurred in a Port-a-John, other times, in the back of my Stryker. And were these thoughts often crazy and rambling? Damn right they were. That happens after days on end of 18-hour patrols and 3-hour naps, and like I've written before, my addiction to Rip-It energy drinks was both very real and very necessary.

Above all else, I wanted Kaboom to be an honest portrayal of men at war. Do I wish some things occurred differently? Sure I do, but they didn't. Do I wish my men and I always knew the right answer and the most tactically sound route? Of course, but that's wasn't our reality nor was it ever realistic. Kaboom doesn't offer up the reader an Audie Murphy hero; it's about the slow, messy grind of a scout platoon trying their damn best in a counterinsurgency. The word "ambiguous" doesn't just capture our war in general, it captured our mission sets and daily lives.

If I were to write Kaboom today, the book would be much different, and likely lack many - if not all - of those stream of consciousness moments. Because to include them now would be contrived and forced. But since those pieces were either written still in theater or right after we returned, including them was absolutely vital to that ambition of mine to keep the book authentic.

So, that's the because.

With the exception of the occasional superman poser that never made a mistake in Iraq, the feedback I've received from GWOT veterans with regards to these pieces has been universally supportive. Maybe it's because they understand the language, or maybe it's because they've been there. I recently had a vet pull me aside and point out "In a Little Plastic Bin" as his favorite part of the book, because of the ugly truths it describes. And he was in Iraq in 2003 - a totally different war, a totally different experience. But he had been there.

And that's the why.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book review - "Senator's Son"

Papa Hemingway once quipped that "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened." Such advice certainly applies to Luke Larson's Senator's Son, a work of fiction that borrows heavily from the all too true experiences of Marine units during the Sunni Awakening. Larson is able to compact the vignettes and stories of many into one single company stationed in Ramadi, thus providing an approachable, concentrated story for those unfamiliar with the nuances of counterinsurgency and the Surge.

Senator's Son is written by a junior officer and written about junior officers. It chronicles the successes and failures of four very different platoon leaders - Bama, Cash, Rogue, and John - in al Anbar Province. One of them gets seriously injured and sent home, to fight the wounded warrior battles, while the others must continue on in the Suck. (Or the 'Ville, as Marines seem to call it). Initially they commute to the war, but gradually realize that standard techniques and tactics aren't leading to victory. Under the leadership of their forward-thinking company commander, the LTs and their Marines start to embrace the population as a means of weeding out insurgents, rather than directly attacking the enemy. Such an approach seems obvious now, and is indeed very trendy in national defense circles, but it's important to remember just how revolutionary this was in 2005-06. Certainly the Iraq my men and I found in 2007 would've been much different without leaders like Larson paving the way. (COIN-friendly active verb, intentional!)

Larson's prose is lean and sharp, which fits the subject matter nicely. He understands the subtleties of counterinsurgency, without declaring it a panacea, something he undoubtedly learned during his two tours to Ramadi in 2005 and 2007. Some of the enlisted personnel he writes about drift into stock character territory, but that's a small complaint, given the breadth of topics explored in the novel. Recommended, especially for current and future small unit leaders.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dispatches from the Front: Route Clearance and Escalation of Force in COIN

Today brings us a guest post by Lieutenant Smiles, an Army engineer currently deployed to Afghanistan.


The success of COIN in Afghanistan rests on the shoulders of Route Clearance patrols. If you’re not familiar with route clearance, it is the act of deliberately sweeping roads/routes for IEDs. Simply put, our only job is to look for and get rid of IEDs. Having done this a while I can say that there are generally only two outcomes – either you find the IED before it goes off, or you find it because it goes off.

I’m currently stationed in Southern Afghanistan patrolling a route that was averaging about 50 IEDs each week approximately 5 weeks ago. With constant patrolling, a little blood, and a lot of C-4 the route has been considered safe enough to open for civilian traffic. Route Clearance is very rarely considered the main effort in the COIN fight because our patrols are generally of the mounted variety, isolated in our up-armored vehicles from the people we patrol around. Occasionally we stop to question shady individuals, or to delete pictures being taken on cell phone cameras, but by and large we don’t build relationships with locals.

The use of escalation of force by Route Clearance patrols is pivotal in determining the outcome of Afghanistan’s COIN fight. We’re not involved with the locals, yet constantly surrounded by them. The most lethal threat that Afghans pose to Route Clearance patrols is not the Suicide Vehicle Borne IED (SVBIED). The reality is that this threat is non-existent. It was used with great success by the insurgency in Iraq, but has not caught on in Afghanistan. In fact the numbers are so stark, that SVBIED events average about 1 per year since we put troops in this country in 2001. The number of coalition convoys targeted by this device is equally small, yet this TTP is one that is taught by Army trainers preparing units to deploy to Afghanistan. It’s taught again when you get into country as well. Placing such emphasis on a virtually non-existent threat has put RCPs in a precarious position to influence the outcome of the COIN fight.

Driving in Afghanistan is a harrowing experience without having to dodge IEDs. There is no formal driver’s training and traffic laws are non-existent. General McChrystal put together a mandate allowing civilian traffic to pass military convoys, but Route Clearance patrols have been the last to follow. We are frequent offenders of this due to the perceived threat of SVBIEDs. The result of this perceived threat, along with normal Afghan driving, which can be described as erratic (at best), has resulted in 3 different shootings by RCPs in the last 35 days. Civilian casualty count? About 20 wounded and 6 killed. After the bus shooting (by an RCP) in early April, the city of Kandahar rioted. Yes, Rioted. The “Death to the Infidels” kind of riot. The kind of riot that deteriorates the progress the coalition has fought for. 

If this fight is to be won, RCPs (and other ancillary units) that operate on the fringe of the COIN fight need to do a better job of recognizing credible threats and managing escalation of force.

Friday, May 7, 2010

From the 775

It has been a wild and wooly week in Reno. Really, a very nice and humbling homecoming. The highlights have definitely been talking to kids at my elementary school and high school - their questions are just refreshingly honest and direct. Got one last book signing tonight at the Barnes and Noble on S. Virginia Street, and then it's back to the BK.

In the mean time ...

My review of Sebastian Junger's new book WAR, in the Huffington Post: Linky

BookDaily made Kaboom their featured book of the day. Many thanks!

And here's some video footage of my speech earlier this week at the University of Nevada:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Washington Post's Impact of War - these wars belong to all of us

The Washington Post has a new veterans'-related blog entitled "Impact of War." Their editors were kind enough to ask me to write a piece for them, and considering I owe my current livelihood to that paper, I agreed. Check it out!

What is wrong with America, reason #456,892

A book that owes its existence to Twitter, "Sh*t my Dad Says," is currently in the top 20 of Amazon sales. (No, I'm not going to link it. Because it's a stupid book for stupid people that got its start on fucking Twitter).

Meanwhile, "Seal of Honor: Operation Red Wings and the Life of LT. Michael P. Murphy, USN," about the SEAL awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, ranks in the 1600s. A more than respectable showing, for sure, but still.

WTF America.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Catching up with ... Ken Babbs

Military historians and literary buffs alike should be familiar with the name Ken Babbs. A former Marine Corps officer, Babbs served in the early years of Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He was also a great friend of Ken Kesey, the author made famous by his works One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Meanwhile, Babbs and his fellow Merry Pranksters came to life for most of America in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Ken was and is a writer of his own merit, and recently shared with me an excerpt from his upcoming Vietnam War novel, "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" I found the excerpt riveting - funky and colorful, as you'd expect from a Merry Prankster, but written in a distinct, offbeat voice that Vietnam books have lacked up to now. I can't wait to read the whole book, and personally believe much critical acclaim awaits it.

Ken blogs at SkyPilot, and was kind enough to answer these questions I sent him.

1. Why write "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" now? After all, it has been nearly fifty years since you served in Vietnam. Did it take that long to come to terms with your experiences over there, or were there other factors at play?

I first wrote the novel in '62 and '63, a long chaotic rambling  mass of typewritten pages sent home from Vietnam while I was there  in a Marine Corps helicopter squadron flying the H-34 D, the Dawg.  When I got home I cobbled it all into a work of total fiction, giving  it the verisimilitude of the places I'd been and the actions I was in  while interjecting made-up characters and invented situations layered  with salty language, persnickety relationships, shoot-em-up action, all  done in what I hoped was an entertaining fashion. My agent, Sterling Lord, who was also Kesey's agent, had some great  suggestions when we met in NYC in '64 on the famous bus trip  described in "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test." But, sad to say, by the  time I got home from that excursion, Kesey and I were into movie-making and I let the book lapse for a while. 44 years to be exact. I decided to dig it out and check it out, see if it had any potential  after all those years. I found out the verisimilitude was still there  but the book was a clunker, so I took it upon myself to rewrite the  whole damned thing. Took a few years, but has reached a very  satisfying conclusion, keeping the made-up characters, invented  situations, salty language, persnickety relationships and shoot-em-up  action, written in an entertaining fashion. As for coming to terms with my experiences over there, I've never had  any problems with that. Took about six weeks to realize although our intentions might have been good, after all, those dirty commies were launching the dreaded  domino effect and looked like it was up to us to thwart their evil intent, but what were we going to accomplish that in this sinkhole? Buddy  up and cover each other's back and see if we can get out of this mess  alive.

2. My favorite part of  "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is when you bring a serious dose of reality to the Vietnam War debate between Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, darkly and accurately pointing out that no one there but you had seen the ravages of war. How did Wolfe's report on these events match up with your memory of the experiences, both in regards to this moment and with his book in general?

Well, gotta admit I haven't read EKAT since it came out but I get all  kinds of questions about it, particularly when I speak to high school  classes, for it is a book that continues to resonate amongst young  people and you have to give it its due, it's been in continual print since 1968. Wolfe was on top of his nouveau bonzo writing game at the time. As for how his report gibes with my memory I have to say, what  memory? Remember what Leary said, "If you can remember what happened  then you werent' there." But I do have fond memories of Wolfe when  he was around, very dapper, smart guy with a photographic memory, could recall whole conversations and put them down on paper. I'm  looking forward to his take on WSTWB. Not much of an answer but I'm not inclined to dip back into EKAT. I'm  waiting for the movie, gonna be made by Gus Van Sant. Everybody  should see the job he did on "Milk."

3. It seems like over time, the message of the Merry Pranksters has been lumped into that of the Hippies, but I've always felt that you all were a different entity entirely. How do you want the Merry Pranksters to be remembered?

Kesey and I fell in the crack between the beat generation and the hippie era. Too young for one and too old for the other. But we were revolutionaries then and still are. Under the asphalt, emerging into the light occasionally for a bombast, then retreating to dirtville,  who was them masked men, Martha? Psychedelic warriors, toiling in  anonymity, not chasing the fantasies, wrestling the exigencies. Hippie is not a dirty word and the unwashed masses bleed the same  color red. When the bell rings its summons we slip into the phone booth, slip off our mild mannered docile accoutrements and assume the  mantle of harbingers, deftly side slipping the in your face shouting  toe to toe contenders for the championship belt of true  righteousness, necks stiff as a pole whacker's dick; for we know  there is a force afield that wants us fighting with one another,  getting us to take our eyes off the ball long enough we are fleeced  out of our very pockets emptied of the pitiful small change saved for  that so-called rainy day, it is up to us to demonstrate another way, not one of contention but one of kindness and cooperation and roll up  the sleeves and get the real jobs done, clean up the oil spill, house  the hurricaned homeless, put everyone to work on their neighborhood  blights, plant gardens in vacant lots, fresh food stalls on the  corners, free Wi Fi for all. Get that done we can slip back into  obscurity, rest up till the next round. It's not about being  remembered. It's about getting something done in our miniscule feeble  way. As Jerry Garcia once said, "Somebody has to do it. It's just  pathetic that it has to be us."

4. You still live in Oregon, with many of the other Pranksters. How does Ken Babbs spend his days and nights now? And what's next for you, both in writing and otherwise?

A 4:45 reveille blows up the dreamtime revelry and the dog jumps on  the bed and washes Ken Babbs's face, the bladder is pounding, the  floor is cold but it's outside to take a leak along with the dog and  back in to get the fire going in the woodstove while the teakettle sings on the stove, come make coffee, come make coffee, wait till Ken brushes his teeth, please, morning mouth is strong enough to kill whatever flies try sleeping on the cutting board, blow them away, Ken loves to kill the morning blahs swilling the java eating the toast  making the tea arousing the wife making her lunch, now with dog  bounding alongside, a quick sprint to the road, breaking rhythm on  the bridge as taught in the military manuals, get the paper out of  the box, back to the house, doggie treat for Ken, pissing off the dog  but it's a trick, he gets one too, the old one two punch line never  fails to garner a laugh and it's out the door to go to work as a high  school English teacher and department head, not Ken but his wife, pat  her on the po po, bye now, Ken must do the dishes, the laundry, vacuum, tidy up the mess around the TV from last night's nachos and  drinks and damned cat still sleeping, up up up outside, no need to  crap in the litter box, just another thing to clean up, then all  quiet, do the email to warm up before getting to work on the next  book now that the old Vietnam novel is in the hands of the publisher, a short lull before the editor contacts me with his lists of refinements, it's noon already and Ken Babbs is fixing his lunch and racing the dog to the mailbox and finally getting dressed, into his workaholic uniform, old tattered and patched set of Marine Corps utilities, to  go out and tame the wild expanses of the six acre spread threatening  to overrun the house, must beat back the intruders, impossible to wipe them out, pacification program full bore with time left to cut  and split firewood even though it is may and may day has come and  gone and the may pole is forlorn in the yard with wilted flowers  hanging on the lines that were wrapped in a ring around the maypole  dance Ken Babbs did in the rain cavorting happily in the nude how  else he gone git dirt and grime removed, but enough of the dilly  dallying, time now to prepare supper and hopefully Ken remembered to  take something out of the freezer in the morning so he doesn't have  to do the burn it up in the microwave thing trying to thaw out the  artichokes, but per usual, after following the mandatory 2 glasses of  wine while cooking instructions in the manual, supper arrives on the  table in time to chow down, tell one another our adventures during  the day, feed the dog, clean up the cooking supper mess, and hit the  couch for Seattle Mariners baseball, no more basketball now that  Portland Trailblazers are out of the playoffs, boo hoo, two big chunks of oak in the woodstove will keep it going all night and a few  pages of reading Philip Caputo's new book, his Vietnam book, "A Rumor  Of War," was a good one as was "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien  another good one, eyelids getting heavy, Ken Babbs is going to sleep. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hey PEN - what the hell?

One of the privileges of living in the megaopolis of New York City has been the multitude of literary events that occur here on a regular basis. And so, on this crisp Saturday afternoon, I headed into Greenwich Village to Le Poisson Rouge, which hosted the War Panel, as a part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. (According to that eternal exercise in groupthink, Wikipedia, PEN used to stand for "Poets, Essayists, and Novelists," but it now encompasses writers of any form of literature.) I'm not a PEN member (renegade bloggers-turned-bookers don't rush until next semester, I guess), so I paid the full $10 entry fee, grabbed a beer, and took a seat.

The panel, which consisted of Deborah Amos (Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East), Philip Gourevitch (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda), Arnon Grunberg (Amuse-Bouche), Sebastian Junger (WAR), and Daniele Mastrogiacomo (Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban), proved both enlightening and engaging. Each panelist brought forth keen insights, and I'm quite thankful to both them and PEN, because I really did learn a lot. This was no mean feat, considering an audience intent on politicizing their every word.

That said, PEN, what the hell? Every single panelist served in combat in one capacity - as a journalist. They were either embedded with soldiers, embedded with civilians, or interviewing one or both of these groups after the fact. No matter how deep their embed experience, a journalist carries with them a voyeuristic approach to their work - it's not fair or unfair, it's just the nature of reporting. Someone like Nate Fick or David Bellavia would've been perfect for such a venue, speaking from the soldiers' mentality. And what about having a panelist speak from the perspective of a civilian brutalized by the realities of war? (Unfortunately, I'm quite ignorant to the recent literature of this realm; I ask my readers to recommend some books of this vein in the comments section). As it was, despite the wide range of topics covered by these journalists, they all essentially spoke from the same platform - that of someone with a telescope, who dabbled in other peoples' lives and experiences from an emotional and mental distance, if not a physical one.

A few And Suches, because paragraphical organization is for jesters and wenches:

- I heart war correspondents. (Hi Ernesto!) They provide the public a much-needed service, a service that all too often the public doesn't give enough credit. I'm just pointing out that their voice isn't the only one that emerges from war.

- I would've been terrible in such a capacity, so no, I'm not suggesting I could've done a decent job as a panelist. I'm far too irreverent and spontaneous for the severe PBS environment the event had going on. Like I said, Fick, Bellavia, etc. would've been ideal. For example, even just in the audience, I laughed at a terribly inappropriate time, and I'm pretty sure the moderators held it against me when it came Q and A time, because they didn't come near me.

- Junger came the closest to speaking from a soldiers' experience, and I almost "Hooahed" a couple times as he spoke. Big ups to him, he gets it. He also was the first to bring up that objectivity can't exist in war reporting.

- Yes, Grunberg is the same embedded journalist who worked in Saba al-Bor during my time in Iraq, and his positive mention of Kaboom the blog inadvertently brought about its destruction. Kind of funny haha now. Not so funny haha then.

- I approached Amos after the event, mainly to disagree with her assertion that the American presence in Iraq  (and maybe Afghanistan?) is no longer yielding positive effects. She then pointed out that our books are often grouped together in Amazon bundles, and subsequently charmed the hell out of me. I even went out for a post-event drink with her, her very chill husband, and her friends. I promise to argue with her over email, though. Guinness trumps principled argument, what can I say?