Sunday, 13 October 2013

What’s In A Hug?

Massachusetts Review

The Morally Injured

Tyler Boudreau

On a summer evening in 2004, I participated in the search of an

isolated farmhouse in Yousifiyah, a small town along the Euphrates

River in the northern Babil province of Iraq. I was an infantry captain

in the Marine Corps. We staged our trucks out of sight from the house

until darkness fell. Then we moved in with terrible speed, our engines

roaring, our hearts racing, and our hands tight on loaded weapons. We

felt some fear during these missions, I suppose, but that emotion always

seemed peripheral or almost disingenuous. Our heavy breaths rose from

something else. I don’t think “thrill” would be too strong a word. There

was something about these raids that served neither cause nor country,

just our own lust for excitement.

Missions, however, are not initiated for the thrill (not explicitly anyway),

but in response to what is known as “actionable intelligence,” information

gathered on the ground through various sources and agents, processed

through intelligence staffs, handed up and down the chain of command,

until it becomes the basis of an operation. In this case, the specific farmhouse

was not suspected but was located in the general vicinity of another

house that was, and so was targeted for good measure. The search itself

was conducted flawlessly: I watched from my vehicle as the marines

knocked on the front door. A man answered and, through an interpreter,

they politely explained that we needed to search the premises for weapons

and bomb-making materials. They asked him if he’d mind stepping outside

with his wife and children while we looked around. The man was

cooperative and amiable. There was no shouting or pushing. The marines

wore friendly smiles. They stepped gently through the house and were

careful to replace anything they moved. Outside, other marines chatted

playfully with the kids and gave them pieces of candy. When the search was

complete and nothing was found, we thanked the man and apologized for

the inconvenience. It was over. Not a shot was fired, not a drop of blood or

a tear was shed, and yet, as we withdrew from that farmhouse and roared

off into the night, I felt something inside me begin to hurt.

What can I call that hurt?

Since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s been a lot of talk

about the “invisible wounds” of war. I’ve talked a lot about them myself.

Thousands of veterans have come home in a state of near mental collapse,

harried by their memories of the battlefield. Some of those veterans have

ended up addicted to drugs or alcohol, or in jail, or homeless. Others have

lost their jobs, their families, or their savings. Many of them, unable to face

their nightmares any longer, have resorted desperately to suicide. And when

the veterans, and the families and friends, and the communities all cried

out, “What do we call this? What do we call this thing that has torn our

young soldiers apart?” the resounding answer was post-traumatic stress.

That was the lesson we learned from the Vietnam War.

To nearly anyone who’d care enough to listen — counselors, doctors,

ministers, peace activists, folks in the community — I would bellow again

and again, “I’m hurting!” And they were all sympathetic, they really were,

and they’d assure me, nearly every one of them, that I was experiencing

this thing called post-traumatic stress. (It seems to be an affliction freshly

discovered after every war.) Of course, I’d heard of it before. When I was

a rifle company commander, at least a dozen of my marines were medically

discharged after we came home from Iraq for PTSD. A dozen more

were punitively discharged for having suddenly picked up a drug habit

in the wake of war. There was talk that they were trying to get out of

our upcoming deployment, scheduled nine months after we got home.

But I felt this drug epidemic wasn’t so much about escaping the future

deployment as much as it was about escaping the past one. Drugs probably

seemed like the most effective means to get their heads out of Iraq.

So yes, by the time I left the military, I’d already heard plenty about the

debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress. But was that what was going

on for me? Could I really call my farmhouse episode traumatic? I think

that would be a difficult argument to make.

And what about all those times when the searches were not so benign?

What about the orders I gave, from time to time, to use a heavy hand?

What about the patrols I dispatched that returned to base with young

marines in body bags? What about the approval I issued to snipers over

the radio one night to shoot a man armed only with a shovel? (He was

suspected of digging a hole for a roadside bomb.) Could any of these

scenarios be called traumatic for me? In each case, there was violence felt

and inflicted by somebody, absolutely, but my role was indirect; I was too

far off to even hear the shot that felled that man with a shovel. Would

any clinician in good conscience diagnose me with PTSD for those experiences

alone? I was in Camp Fallujah in 2004 when the news of Abu Ghraib broke, just a few miles down the road from the infamous facility.

Several of us gathered around to examine the glossy pictorial of the tortured

Iraqi prisoners. The images were distressing, certainly, but I doubt

I’d pick up any disability benefits for having seen them. And yet, for all

these things, including the pictures, I felt that hurt again.

After resigning my commission in 2005, I came home to Massachusetts

and was diagnosed with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs

(VA). I’d been shot at and shelled enough to explain away my very turbulent

emotions. I accepted the diagnosis from the VA and from everyone

else, and I’m sure that my condition was in part that, but inwardly I

knew that the greatest pain I felt was not linked to those moments when

violence was being directed at me but when I was involved in inflicting

it on others. Post-traumatic stress just didn’t seem to fit. So what could I

call this pain? It felt a lot like guilt, so that’s what I started calling it, but

in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) under

PTSD there is no mention of guilt, except for “survivor’s guilt,”which

is about being alive while one’s comrades are dead, not about harming

others. There has been no official name for this type of guilt and that

has struck me since getting out of the military as a significant gap in the

discourse on war casualties.

The term “moral injury” has recently come afloat, and it applies to

exactly the kind of guilt I’m talking about. Though not everyone agrees

exactly on the definition, it’s a term being used more frequently now

across the medical community and among political activists, various faith

groups, and others. “Moral injury” is capturing attention in the media

and veterans’ organizations. Even the military has begun to recognize

moral injury as a category of wound that service members are facing.

Researchers from the VA describe “moral injury” as “involving an act

of transgression that creates dissonance and conflict because it violates

assumptions and beliefs about right and wrong and personal goodness.”

Generally speaking “moral injury” is meant to displace the more severe

sense of guilt, and to give space for the kinds of wounds we inflict on

ourselves that come inherently with the wounds we inflict upon others.

It resonates with the notion that killing hurts the killer, too, even in

self-defense or in the line of duty and that no justification, legal, political,

religious, or otherwise, can heal those wounds. The problem with the

word “guilt” is that it seems to load a disproportionate burden on the

shoulders of individual veterans. A man might wring his hands and say

in anguish, “I killed!” But it’s not as though he thought it up and did it

on his own. There were other factors and other agents involved. There

were greater circumstances to consider. Even war crimes can’t be owned

exclusively by the perpetrators. Moral injury is about the damage done

to our moral fiber when transgressions occur by our hands, through our

orders, or with our connivance. When we accept these transgressions,

however pragmatically (for survival, for instance), we sacrifice a piece of

our moral integrity. That’s what moral injury is all about.

Moral injury does not replace post-traumatic stress. It works alongside

it. An event could be both traumatic and morally injurious, or it could be

only one without the other. VA researchers have found that the two manifest

themselves in similar ways. For example, both have been connected to

symptoms of “re-experiencing” and “avoidance” while generally “hyperarousal”

is associated only with PTSD and not moral injury. What we’ll

probably discover in the future is that most symptomatic veterans are

suffering from both PTSD and moral injury. So far, roughly two million

Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A now well-known

RAND study conducted in 2008 suggested that about 20 percent of

them will have symptoms of PTSD. It’s very likely those figures reflect

a lot of moral injuries as well; however, at the time of the study scarcely

anyone had heard the term.

The problem for now is that while “moral injury” is gaining traction

in the public discourse, it is still viewed by the VA and the military as a

medical issue and those who suffer from it as “patients.” Moreover, the

concept of moral injury is in its nascent stages, remains widely unfamiliar,

and is, therefore, not yet available as a formal diagnosis or a commonly

understood condition for people to rally around. So when veterans or

soldiers feel something hurt inside themselves, there is still only one brand

to choose — PTSD. That’s not good. It’s not always accurate. And it renders

soldiers automatically into mental patients instead of wounded souls.

Since post-traumatic stress has been, so to speak, the only game in town,

it has served as something of a one-size-fits-all response to any mention

of grief by a veteran. This default medicalization of a veteran’s moral angst

has created an ongoing dilemma for the mental health community. They

are confronted all the time with veterans who are struggling, searching,

digging, aching to know whether their personal actions and their wars

were just or unjust.

“What do I say to that?” one provider will ask.

“I just try to honor their experience without judgement,” another will

respond. These are typical comments I’ve heard time and again at the many

conferences, events, and gatherings I’ve attended over the past five years

related to combat stress.

While these veterans’ questions undoubtedly relate to their mental

health, the answers do not fall squarely within the providers’ field of

expertise or within any treatment for PTSD. Furthermore, a clinician’s

suppression of subjectivity while attempting to navigate such morally

treacherous terrain is neither possible nor desirable. As a veteran, I really

can’t imagine a more disheartening scenario than being stuck in a room

with a person listening with stony detachment as I grapple exasperatedly

with the moral implications of my actions in war. I’d rather say nothing

at all. And the consensus I’ve gathered from the clinicians I’ve met (and

I’ve met quite a few) is that they’d rather stick with therapy and leave the

larger moral questions to someone else. But who? If PTSD is the only

diagnosis available for these invisible wounds of war, then who can we

turn to for help, if not the doctors?

PTSD as a diagnosis has a tendency to depoliticize a veteran’s disquietude

and turn it into a mental disorder. What’s most useful about the

term “moral injury” is that it takes the problem out of the hands of the

mental health profession and the military and attempts to place it where

it belongs — in society, in the community, and in the family — precisely

where moral questions should be posed and wrangled with. It transforms

“patients” back into citizens, and “diagnoses” into dialogue. At this stage

of American history, it’s hard to imagine just what that might look like,

but, all the same, it’s an attempt that must be made. It’s far too easy for

people at home, particularly those not directly affected by war (and right

now that’s about 98 percent of the population) to shed a disingenuous

tear for the veterans, donate a few bucks, and whisk them off to the

closest shrink . . . out of sight and out of mind. As long as the invisible

wounds of war are medical, there is no incentive in the community or

in the household to engage them. After a while the veterans themselves

become invisible.

So, in practical terms, what does a moral injury look like? The question,

while succinct, has a broad and rather ambiguous answer. The word “war”

itself contributes to the ambiguity, particularly today, because neither efforts

in Iraq or Afghanistan are truly wars in the conventional sense. Officially,

they’re characterized as counterinsurgency operations but it would be

most accurate to call them occupations. Of course these days, “occupation”

is not a label favored in political circles; however, it does give a more precise

picture of just what today’s combat tour is all about. That’s important if we

want to understand the nature of the mental and emotional crises that

follow in its wake. It’s easy to imagine the famous battles of the past in the

trenches, and the beaches, and the mountains, and the jungles, all of them

covered with corpses and steeped in blood. The American consciousness

has been imbued with these images through every mode of popular culture.

But occupations look much different.

In Iraq, with the exceptions of the invasion itself, the assault on Fallujah,

and a few other small-scale battles, the most typical engagements between

Americans and Iraqi insurgents, seen day-to-day, have been minor skirmishes

that would hardly register in the most detailed historical accounts.

The amount of violence witnessed by the average soldier deployed to

Iraq or Afghanistan is quite low relative to that experienced in past wars.

But again, this is a poor comparison because, really, Iraq isn’t a war—not

anymore. At any rate, the fact remains that the US presence in Iraq has

been far more perilous for Iraqis than it has for Americans. Even the most

conservative statistics demonstrate that clearly.

However, mentioning the several hundred thousand Iraqi people

killed since the US invasion in 2003, or the two and a half million displaced,

or the millions more without money or medical care, appears to

be taboo in the American media, the government, and in social circles.

Nobody wants to talk about the Iraqis. It’s always about the troops. But

“moral injury” by definition includes the memories of those who have

been harmed. Without the Iraqi people, the troops can have no moral injuries

to speak of. And the only way Americans can fathom the meaning

of this term, “moral injury,” is to acknowledge the humanity of the Iraqis.

The two ideas are inseparable. What I’ve found most difficult for people

to grasp (and for a while this was hard for me, too) is the full range of

“moral injuries” sustained in Iraq; because it’s not always about the killing.

This is where the precision of the word “occupation” is so helpful,

because one has to imagine just what the troops are involved in to get an

accurate sense of their reactions to it.

I once watched an old video of some Vietnam veterans giving testimony

of war crimes that they’d either witnessed or participated in. What

was most stunning about these testimonies, besides the gruesome events

that they described, was the extraordinary stoicism with which they described

them. Later, I listened to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan talk

about their roles in what they called “atrocities.” The strange thing was

that hardly any of their stories were particularly atrocious by the typical

wartime standards. And yet these men cried. They wept and wept as they

testified to deeds such as striking a man, or ransacking a house, or terrorizing

families, or maybe even shooting a civilian. They described the

daily grind of driving in and out of towns, patrolling through the streets,

searching houses, detaining suspected insurgents, questioning locals, and

all the while trying to stay alive. These were sad stories, to be sure, but

somehow disproportionate to the word “atrocity” and to the intense

emotions displayed by the tellers, particularly in contrast to those Vietnam

testimonies that were, by any standard, horrendous. I thought maybe my

contemporaries were being a little melodramatic.

Then last year, I discovered some of that same melodrama lurking in

myself. I was watching a documentary about Iraq with a friend of mine

(not a veteran). Midway through the piece, a short video clip was shown of

two soldiers searching an Iraqi home. The footage was uneventful, boring

even, capturing nothing but a bit of walking around and some chitchat

between the Americans and the family. Then one of the soldiers, clad in

body armor, sunglasses, and an automatic rifle, feeling in an amorous mood

I suppose, leaned toward a young Iraqi man in the living room and gave

him a hug. The Iraqi submitted with limp arms and an unenthusiastic

smile. The soldier, maybe nineteen or twenty years old, laughed. The

other soldier laughed, too. And that was it. The footage ended.

I felt my face get hot with rage. I blurted something out in anger, something

profane, to match the profanity of what had just been presented in

this documentary without so much as a comment from the narrator.

“What?” my friend asked me. “What’s wrong? Where’s the harm in

a hug?”

“There is harm in a hug!” I shouted. “Can’t you see?”

But he didn’t see. He couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what had just

happened. And in explaining my reaction I felt almost obligated, morally

beholden, to express myself with fury. I wasn’t angry at my friend. I was

angry at how this type of atrocity could be shrouded in a guise of bonhomie.

And I couldn’t avoid that word, by the way — atrocity. So I used

my ire to make up for the apparent mildness of the scene.

The trouble is that no matter how that Iraqi man felt about the hug,

there’s nothing he could have done to stop it. He couldn’t say no to the

hug. And there was no one who could help him. Nobody at all could

stop that American soldier from hugging that Iraqi man — and you could

see in their faces, they both knew it. That’s what an occupation looks like.

And that’s the harm in a hug.

For all my years in the military, all my time training with guns, and

alongside artillery, and tanks, and aircraft, I never comprehended the full

force, the weight, of the United States military until I witnessed its massive

presence in Iraq as one body. Then I began to grasp the grave reality of

American foreign policy and the extent of what it means to be a superpower

on earth. It means nothing can stop us from going anywhere and

doing anything we want to do, whether bombing, or building, or shooting,

or hugging — anything. There may be limits, legal limits, political limits,

moral limits, but I know now that those limits will never be recognized

until after they’ve already been broken; then we’ll decide retrospectively

whether or not to honor them. When that Iraqi man was hugged by the

soldier, he felt, in that instant, the embrace of total American power. That

was the harm. That was the atrocity that I could only convey through

exaggerated emotion. And that was when I understood the melodrama of

my comrades who also used emotion to try to make the very same point.

Through these ostensibly mundane stories, we cried out to the world,

“Our moral fibers have been torn by what we were asked to do and by

what we agreed to do.”

Moral injury does not necessarily imply that the injuries are inflicted by

others, like when a soldier is ordered to perform a morally dubious task,

although the term does leave room for that. In some cases, we injure ourselves

through acts of commission or omission, through direct participation

or indirect approval. Back at that farmhouse in Yousifiyah, I remember

fighting an urge to go inside, just to look around. I had no tactical

reason to go in, but then I didn’t need much excuse; I was a captain, after

all. But, at the same time, I was reluctant. Somehow I knew that crossing

that threshold would increase my culpability in this occupation. If just

being present on a search, if feeling the thrill of it, was a moral affliction

upon my soul, then wandering into this home, uninvited, unnecessarily,

and purely out of curiosity, would surely be a larger wound to bear. So I

stayed outside. I think at that point in the deployment I’d already begun

to sense what I was doing to myself and what I was quietly standing by

allowing my country to do to others.

Moral injury is a term that loosens the noose a bit around the necks of

veterans who are harangued by enormous personal guilt and distributes

the responsibility for their actions (justified or not) more evenly among

the chain of command, the government, and maybe even the American

people. Simultaneously, moral injury reaches out to those who may be too

quick to exculpate themselves. It broadens the burden of responsibility

for acts that may not be criminal by the strict letter of the law but that

are clearly hurtful to other people and, therefore, morally questionable.

It implicates all participants of war, whether commanding, supporting,

or just standing idly by, and it gives a name for the hurt that comes from

doing so. It pulls moral transgressions that are not necessarily traumatic

out of the mental health profession and into society, into the living room,

and makes these notorious “invisible wounds” all of our problems, not

just the problems of the VA.

Moral injuries are not about benefits or blame. They’re not about treatment

or medications. They’re not about disability. They are about our

society and our moral values. A moral injury is not inherently the same

thing as a war crime, though clearly the two ideas overlap. But when we

talk about war crimes, we seek justice; when we talk about moral injuries,

we seek a deeper understanding of our humanity. We seek healing, in

some spiritual sense.

The goal for now is to get the idea of “moral injury” out there, get it

heard, get it recognized universally as a wound that must be healed communally,

not medically. And the first step is understanding what a moral

injury looks like in an occupation environment. No doubt, it will sound

strange to those accustomed to the more traditional war stories, because

occupations look so much different. There aren’t going to be staggering

American casualty statistics. There won’t be massive armies clashing

on the fields of battle. There aren’t going to be blood-speckled bodies

stacked up around fighting holes or littered in the trenches. There won’t

be any glorious combat actions and medals of honor to go with them. It’s

not going to be material for thrilling stories that yank you to the edge of

your seat. In an occupation, moral injury just isn’t going to look like that.

It’s going to be dull. It’s going to be a man with a shovel or a farmhouse


It’s going to be a hug.


Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Failure in Generalship

By Lt. Col. Paul Yingling

Armed Forces Journal

May 2007

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

The Responsibilities of Generalship

Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted that passion, probability and policy each play their role in war. Any understanding of war that ignores one of these elements is fundamentally flawed.

The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman must stir these passions to a level commensurate with the popular sacrifices required. When the ends of policy are small, the statesman can prosecute a conflict without asking the public for great sacrifice. Global conflicts such as World War II require the full mobilization of entire societies to provide the men and materiel necessary for the successful prosecution of war. The greatest error the statesman can make is to commit his nation to a great conflict without mobilizing popular passions to a level commensurate with the stakes of the conflict.

Popular passions are necessary for the successful prosecution of war, but cannot be sufficient. To prevail, generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy. The general describes both the means necessary for the successful prosecution of war and the ways in which the nation will employ those means. If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. The statesman must then scale back the ends of policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means. If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results.

However much it is influenced by passion and probability, war is ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the responsibility of policymakers. War is a social activity undertaken on behalf of the nation; Augustine counsels us that the only purpose of war is to achieve a better peace. The choice of making war to achieve a better peace is inherently a value judgement in which the statesman must decide those interests and beliefs worth killing and dying for. The military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to make such judgments. He must therefore confine his input to his area of expertise — the estimation of strategic probabilities.

The correct estimation of strategic possibilities can be further subdivided into the preparation for war and the conduct of war. Preparation for war consists in the raising, arming, equipping and training of forces. The conduct of war consists of both planning for the use of those forces and directing those forces in operations.

To prepare forces for war, the general must visualize the conditions of future combat. To raise military forces properly, the general must visualize the quality and quantity of forces needed in the next war. To arm and equip military forces properly, the general must visualize the materiel requirements of future engagements. To train military forces properly, the general must visualize the human demands on future battlefields, and replicate those conditions in peacetime exercises. Of course, not even the most skilled general can visualize precisely how future wars will be fought. According to British military historian and soldier Sir Michael Howard, “In structuring and preparing an army for war, you can be clear that you will not get it precisely right, but the important thing is not to be too far wrong, so that you can put it right quickly.”

The most tragic error a general can make is to assume without much reflection that wars of the future will look much like wars of the past. Following World War I, French generals committed this error, assuming that the next war would involve static battles dominated by firepower and fixed fortifications. Throughout the interwar years, French generals raised, equipped, armed and trained the French military to fight the last war. In stark contrast, German generals spent the interwar years attempting to break the stalemate created by firepower and fortifications. They developed a new form of war — the blitzkrieg — that integrated mobility, firepower and decentralized tactics. The German Army did not get this new form of warfare precisely right. After the 1939 conquest of Poland, the German Army undertook a critical self-examination of its operations. However, German generals did not get it too far wrong either, and in less than a year had adapted their tactics for the invasion of France.

After visualizing the conditions of future combat, the general is responsible for explaining to civilian policymakers the demands of future combat and the risks entailed in failing to meet those demands. Civilian policymakers have neither the expertise nor the inclination to think deeply about strategic probabilities in the distant future. Policymakers, especially elected representatives, face powerful incentives to focus on near-term challenges that are of immediate concern to the public. Generating military capability is the labor of decades. If the general waits until the public and its elected representatives are immediately concerned with national security threats before finding his voice, he has waited too long. The general who speaks too loudly of preparing for war while the nation is at peace places at risk his position and status. However, the general who speaks too softly places at risk the security of his country.

Failing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in professional competence, but seeing those fields clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character. Moral courage is often inversely proportional to popularity and this observation in nowhere more true than in the profession of arms. The history of military innovation is littered with the truncated careers of reformers who saw gathering threats clearly and advocated change boldly. A military professional must possess both the physical courage to face the hazards of battle and the moral courage to withstand the barbs of public scorn. On and off the battlefield, courage is the first characteristic of generalship.

Failures of Generalship in Vietnam

America’s defeat in Vietnam is the most egregious failure in the history of American arms. America’s general officer corps refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars, despite ample indications that such preparations were in order. Having failed to prepare for such wars, America’s generals sent our forces into battle without a coherent plan for victory. Unprepared for war and lacking a coherent strategy, America lost the war and the lives of more than 58,000 service members.

Following World War II, there were ample indicators that America’s enemies would turn to insurgency to negate our advantages in firepower and mobility. The French experiences in Indochina and Algeria offered object lessons to Western armies facing unconventional foes. These lessons were not lost on the more astute members of America’s political class. In 1961, President Kennedy warned of “another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by evading and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.” In response to these threats, Kennedy undertook a comprehensive program to prepare America’s armed forces for counterinsurgency.

Despite the experience of their allies and the urging of their president, America’s generals failed to prepare their forces for counterinsurgency. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Decker assured his young president, “Any good soldier can handle guerrillas.” Despite Kennedy’s guidance to the contrary, the Army viewed the conflict in Vietnam in conventional terms. As late as 1964, Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated flatly that “the essence of the problem in Vietnam is military.” While the Army made minor organizational adjustments at the urging of the president, the generals clung to what Andrew Krepinevich has called “the Army concept,” a vision of warfare focused on the destruction of the enemy’s forces.

Having failed to visualize accurately the conditions of combat in Vietnam, America’s generals prosecuted the war in conventional terms. The U.S. military embarked on a graduated attrition strategy intended to compel North Vietnam to accept a negotiated peace. The U.S. undertook modest efforts at innovation in Vietnam. Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), spearheaded by the State Department’s “Blowtorch” Bob Kromer, was a serious effort to address the political and economic causes of the insurgency. The Marine Corps’ Combined Action Program (CAP) was an innovative approach to population security. However, these efforts are best described as too little, too late. Innovations such as CORDS and CAP never received the resources necessary to make a large-scale difference. The U.S. military grudgingly accepted these innovations late in the war, after the American public’s commitment to the conflict began to wane.

America’s generals not only failed to develop a strategy for victory in Vietnam, but also remained largely silent while the strategy developed by civilian politicians led to defeat. As H.R. McMaster noted in “Dereliction of Duty,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff were divided by service parochialism and failed to develop a unified and coherent recommendation to the president for prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson estimated in 1965 that victory would require as many as 700,000 troops for up to five years. Commandant of the Marine Corps Wallace Greene made a similar estimate on troop levels. As President Johnson incrementally escalated the war, neither man made his views known to the president or Congress. President Johnson made a concerted effort to conceal the costs and consequences of Vietnam from the public, but such duplicity required the passive consent of America’s generals.

Having participated in the deception of the American people during the war, the Army chose after the war to deceive itself. In “Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife,” John Nagl argued that instead of learning from defeat, the Army after Vietnam focused its energies on the kind of wars it knew how to win — high-technology conventional wars. An essential contribution to this strategy of denial was the publication of “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War,” by Col. Harry Summers. Summers, a faculty member of the U.S. Army War College, argued that the Army had erred by not focusing enough on conventional warfare in Vietnam, a lesson the Army was happy to hear. Despite having been recently defeated by an insurgency, the Army slashed training and resources devoted to counterinsurgency.

By the early 1990s, the Army’s focus on conventional war-fighting appeared to have been vindicated. During the 1980s, the U.S. military benefited from the largest peacetime military buildup in the nation’s history. High-technology equipment dramatically increased the mobility and lethality of our ground forces. The Army’s National Training Center honed the Army’s conventional war-fighting skills to a razor’s edge. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the demise of the Soviet Union and the futility of direct confrontation with the U.S. Despite the fact the U.S. supported insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Angola to hasten the Soviet Union’s demise, the U.S. military gave little thought to counterinsurgency throughout the 1990s. America’s generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past — state-on-state conflicts against conventional forces. America’s swift defeat of the Iraqi Army, the world’s fourth-largest, in 1991 seemed to confirm the wisdom of the U.S. military’s post-Vietnam reforms. But the military learned the wrong lessons from Operation Desert Storm. It continued to prepare for the last war, while its future enemies prepared for a new kind of war.

Failures of Generalship in Iraq

America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.

Despite paying lip service to “transformation” throughout the 1990s, America’s armed forces failed to change in significant ways after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In “The Sling and the Stone,” T.X. Hammes argues that the Defense Department’s transformation strategy focuses almost exclusively on high-technology conventional wars. The doctrine, organizations, equipment and training of the U.S. military confirm this observation. The armed forces fought the global war on terrorism for the first five years with a counterinsurgency doctrine last revised in the Reagan administration. Despite engaging in numerous stability operations throughout the 1990s, the armed forces did little to bolster their capabilities for civic reconstruction and security force development. Procurement priorities during the 1990s followed the Cold War model, with significant funding devoted to new fighter aircraft and artillery systems. The most commonly used tactical scenarios in both schools and training centers replicated high-intensity interstate conflict. At the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. is fighting brutal, adaptive insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, while our armed forces have spent the preceding decade having done little to prepare for such conflicts.

Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America’s generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq’s population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America’s generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as “Fiasco” and “Cobra II.” However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.

Given the lack of troop strength, not even the most brilliant general could have devised the ways necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. However, inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise “Desert Crossing” demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America’s generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America’s generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.

After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. The Iraq Study Group concluded that “there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq.” The ISG noted that “on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” Population security is the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency. For more than three years, America’s generals continued to insist that the U.S. was making progress in Iraq. However, for Iraqi civilians, each year from 2003 onward was more deadly than the one preceding it. For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq. Moreover, America’s generals have not explained clearly the larger strategic risks of committing so large a portion of the nation’s deployable land power to a single theater of operations.

The intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship. Any explanation that fixes culpability on individuals is insufficient. No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results. In both conflicts, the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions. To understand how the U.S. could face defeat at the hands of a weaker insurgent enemy for the second time in a generation, we must look at the structural influences that produce our general officer corps.

The Generals We Need

The most insightful examination of failed generalship comes from J.F.C. Fuller’s “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure.” Fuller was a British major general who saw action in the first attempts at armored warfare in World War I. He found three common characteristics in great generals — courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.

The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.

Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America’s general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.

If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America’s military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.

To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.

Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told. Congress must ask for a candid assessment of the money and manpower required over the next generation to prevail in the Long War. The money required to prevail may place fiscal constraints on popular domestic priorities. The quantity and quality of manpower required may call into question the viability of the all-volunteer military. Congress must re-examine the allocation of existing resources, and demand that procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face. Congress must be equally rigorous in ensuring that the ways of war contribute to conflict termination consistent with the aims of national policy. If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads them.

Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.

Mortal Danger

This article began with Frederick the Great’s admonition to his officers to focus their energies on the larger aspects of war. The Prussian monarch’s innovations had made his army the terror of Europe, but he knew that his adversaries were learning and adapting. Frederick feared that his generals would master his system of war without thinking deeply about the ever-changing nature of war, and in doing so would place Prussia’s security at risk. These fears would prove prophetic. At the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Frederick’s successors were checked by France’s ragtag citizen army. In the fourteen years that followed, Prussia’s generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like those of the past. In 1806, the Prussian Army marched lockstep into defeat and disaster at the hands of Napoleon at Jena. Frederick’s prophecy had come to pass; Prussia became a French vassal.

Iraq is America’s Valmy. America’s generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand. They spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little to prepare for these dangers. As at Valmy, this one debacle, however humiliating, will not in itself signal national disaster. The hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.


Monday, 24 June 2013

After The Storm

I haven’t returned to Baghdad to be a war tourist, attuning my eyes to the many long shadows cast by trauma, but it’s difficult not to do just that. The last time I was here I wore desert camouflage and carried an M4 carbine as a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division. That was in 2003 and 2004, when there were up to 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. In the years since, I’ve often wondered what it must be like for Iraqis struggling to reclaim a life for themselves: the welder, the student, the taxi driver, the old woman, the couple getting married. I’ve also wondered how it would feel to walk down a Baghdad street without a flak vest and 210 rounds of ball ammunition strapped to my chest.

Back then, my unit escorted long, serpentine supply convoys through the city. Insurgents staged complex ambushes, driving cars loaded down with explosives. The black scorch marks of vehicles burned to the ground remained long after their hulks were removed, giving me pause whenever we passed them by. One day our squad leader yelled at my machine gunner and me to drop down from our positions in the hatches at the rear of our Stryker vehicle—and mortar rounds suddenly burst in the air, raining down a deadly spray of shrapnel. We rode through the storm of metal, hearts pounding in our chests. Memories like these reenact themselves in my mind now as we drive through the city, and for a moment I imagine I’ve returned to Baghdad the way a ghost might haunt the world it once inhabited.

But things have changed. This isn’t the Baghdad I once knew. Just off Abu Nuwas Street near the Tigris River, where sniper fire was once a daily hazard, the sounds of war have been replaced by the sounds of children playing soccer on the grass. They whoop, high-pitched and full throated, like birds calling to each other. On Haifa Street, where bitter sectarian fighting raged from 2006 to 2008, young men pause in the doorway of a local market to finish a conversation as Iraqi pop music blares from a boombox. Near the university several young women laugh as they cradle textbooks and notebooks, their head scarves a splash of color against the drab building facades. Everywhere around Baghdad there is the sound of a city regaining its voice.

When I stepped off the plane, collected my bag from the luggage belt, and walked out into the city, I didn’t know what to expect. It was late December 2010. News reports of targeted assassinations via silencer-equipped pistols occupied my thoughts. I couldn’t dismiss the possibility of being kidnapped. But as much as my fear counseled me to jump back on that plane, I wanted to know what had become of this place where I’d once come to war. If I was going to meet the new Baghdad, I’d have to put some old habits and memories to the side.

A City of Walls

My first day back I spread out a map of the city on a table in a shaded inner courtyard. It’s an outdated map with many red and blue adhesive dots placed on various parts of the city. Many of the names of neighborhoods have changed since the invasion. Saddam City, as it’s listed on my old map, for example, now goes by Sadr City, after the deceased Shiite leader Muhammad al Sadr. The dots create an overall pattern as I step back for a bird’s-eye view: blue to one side, red to the other; Shiites dominating the eastern side of the Tigris, Sunnis clustered on the western. The Sunnis have pushed farther west as Shiites have made inroads into neighborhoods adjacent to the river. Although there are still a few mixed neighborhoods, Baghdad is no longer a model secular city of the Middle East, as Iraqis once proudly described it. Years of violence have created a new landscape defined by tribe and religion.

With a population of nearly six million, Baghdad has become a city of walled enclaves regulated by Iraqi Army troops, federal police officers, local policemen, private security guards, and other groups such as the Sons of Iraq, who are like your local Neighborhood Watch crew, only armed with AK-47s. The demarcations are formed by massive concrete blast walls known colloquially as T-walls because they resemble giant T’s flipped upside down. Religious flags wave from rooftops, mosques, and intersections in predominately Shiite areas. Sunni neighborhoods are marked by a lack of flags.

“Baghdad is a huge camp, man,” says my interpreter, Yousif al-Timimi. “America didn’t bring democracy. It brought walls.”

The River Taxi

One morning I take a water taxi out onto the Tigris River with a boatman named Ismail, who tells me that he inherited his trade from his father in a tradition stretching back for generations. As he steers the prop with his left hand and talks about his life, I try to push to the back of my mind the fact that we’re out in the open, in a clear field of fire, and that a sniper could be in a hide right now debating the physics of his ballistic art—steeped in the contemplation of the elevation and windage, the slight breeze I now feel in my hair, the pitch and yaw of the boat as it slices upriver through the waves, the humidity in the air between us.

And so I focus on the Tigris as it winds its way through the heart of Baghdad. It’s a wide river with an unassuming surface of sunlight and shadow, a storied river that doesn’t advertise the inexorable pathos transported in its depths. In the winter of A.D. 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad under Hulegu Khan, great destruction was visited upon the city and its inhabitants. The Bayt al Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was plundered, its contents thrown into the Tigris—philosophical tracts and treatises, art, poetry, historical tomes, scientific and mathematical works—the intellectual wealth of centuries. When the Mongols were done pillaging, it’s been said, the Tigris ran black with ink.

More recently, it flowed with bodies. In the winter of 2004 soldiers from my battalion manned a johnboat to search an island upriver in the city of Mosul, where a mortar firing position was rumored to be. The boat capsized, and weighed down by their equipment, one soldier and three Iraqi policemen disappeared into the water. My company helped cordon off the riverbanks so that patrol boats and Navy divers could recover their bodies. Before they could find them, the search teams pulled up the bodies of a student from Kirkuk and an Iraqi policeman we weren’t even looking for. As I sit in Ismail’s water taxi, I’m hesitant to reach over and put my hand into the water. The Tigris has become a kind of graveyard; it deserves respect.

I take a series of photographs. Iraqi Army soldiers materialize from their posts under the bridge abutments and order us to shore. We’re briefly detained and questioned by the local commander, who stands in the doorway of a guard shack wearing only a bemused expression and thermal underwear, his combat boots left unlaced, a tiny cup of Arabic coffee in his hand. He orders us not to take any more pictures of the bridges and then releases us. Before we can go, one of the soldiers insists I share from his plate of scrambled eggs. He tears his flatbread in two and shoves a piece into my hands with a smile.

Back out on the Tigris, Ismail tells me there was an incident last week involving a magnetic “sticky” bomb, and that it may also have involved a water taxi. The Iraqi military keeps a vigilant eye on the river. Which makes me wonder how Ismail is able to make a living under such conditions. When were the good times? I ask.

Ismail responds, “Good times?”

Al Mutanabbi Street

A small bird roosts in a cage just outside the door of the Shahbandar café on Al Mutanabbi Street, where poets and philosophers refuse the chessboard for the stimulant of engaging conversation, debate, and intellectual inquiry. As I take a seat beside Mohammed Jawad, a 63-year-old biology professor, I can’t help but notice the framed photos of those who died in a 2007 bombing that killed dozens inside and outside the coffee shop. When I ask him about the attack, Jawad says, “The bombings are like the rings on a tree. What do you call them? The growth rings?” I nod as he continues. “Trees experience fire and times of no water. It’s a matter of periods. The growth rings show us the good times and the bad times. These are the bad times now, but it’s all a part of the growth of the tree.” He pauses, sips his chai. “Let me tell you, history is manufactured by war.”

Later, as I walk down Al Mutanabbi Street, where tables are stacked with poetry collections and textbooks for sale, I notice the many short, hard glances I’m getting from those going about their business. It’s Saturday, around noon, and the street is busy but not packed. Although I hadn’t noticed it at first, something inside of me has clicked back into place. I catch myself turning in slow, smooth circles as I walk—I’m scanning the scene behind me to determine if there are any threats. It’s a habit I’ve mostly broken back home in the States. I try to look casual, as if I’m merely curious about the books I’ve just passed, but in fact I’ve instinctively reverted back to my days on foot patrol. Whom do I discover trailing me? A poet, who simply wanted to resume a conversation we’d started in the café.

“Of course, I’m a poet,” he says. “What else can you do but write poetry in a country like this?”

In Firdos Square the ghost of Saddam Hussein hovers over the pedestal where a statue of him was famously pulled down. So many people here will tell you that although they may have wished for Saddam’s removal from power, they miss the grand vision in which the difficult seemed possible during his reign. After one of the bridges over the Tigris was bombed during the 1991 air campaign of the Gulf War, for example, Saddam vowed that the bridge would be operational within one month. It was an audacious deadline that locals say the construction crews succeeded in meeting. In contrast, the Saddam mosque at the center of the city remains unfinished after more than a decade. Massive concrete columns and rebar rise to impressive heights, while the domes they’re meant to support exist only in the architect’s blueprints. It was envisioned to be the largest mosque in the Middle East but stands now as a mere sketch of greatness.

The Private Club

Tonight I find myself smoking a sheesha, or hookah, loaded up with mint-flavored tobacco, at Al Alawiyah Club near Firdos Square. Swanky. Once past a maze of blast walls and bored security personnel, I sit in a large gazebo near a water fountain lit by blue filtered lights. A well-dressed and sober-faced man smokes his own sheesha two tables over. According to gossip, he’s an Iraqi Army general who would rather smoke alone than go home to his wife. I’m told this by Rawaa al-Neaami, the businesswoman who invited me to the club.

Al-Neaami wears jeans tucked into black leather boots, a frilly blouse, and huge earrings. Her hair is cut short and dyed a mixture of colors, mostly reddish hues. She’s started a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad to empower young adults. Classes at her school include yoga, dramatic dance, filmmaking, graphic design, and creative writing. “I believe, as a human being, not just as an Iraqi woman, that these skills have a major role in developing students. In fact, they are the soul of our life,” she says. “This is the real jihad. The real jihad doesn’t mean I have to carry a weapon and kill.”

Her latest project, she tells me, involves going into juvenile detention centers in Baghdad to encourage young people through art. She’s been surprised by those she’s discovered there. The inmates range in age from 5 to 18 years old. Many are simply orphans created by the years of sectarian violence. She plans to film a documentary to tell their stories.

The Barbershop

One evening I decide to get a haircut on Al Karradah Street. When I was here as a soldier, three of us once left an abandoned house where we’d set up an observation post to buy a block of ice from a delivery truck. It was August, and we didn’t spot a truck. But on the way back to the house we passed a barbershop, and I mentioned that I could use a haircut.

“You want to get a haircut?” my squad leader asked.


I don’t know what any of us were thinking, because the security situation in 2004 made sitting in a barbershop with a plate glass window ludicrous. Still, I went inside while my squad leader and grenadier pulled watch out on the sidewalk. The only other customer was an out-of-work university professor who spoke excellent English. I propped up my weapon within arm’s reach, sat down, and had an amiable conversation with the good professor while the barber worked his trade. So I guess I got what I was really after, a sense of normalcy.

Congenial as our talk was, running through the back of my mind was a wide variety of dangerous scenarios. The plate glass window facing the street was an invitation for all of us to make a small-print, page-18 news column back home. When the barber scraped the bristled hairs on the back of my neck with the flattened edge of a straight razor, I felt alert to every nuance possible within the moment. A subdued but crackling tension seemed to fill the air.

I now sit in a brightly lit and busy barbershop. The atmosphere is relaxed, even cheerful. It’s after sundown, and outside, a man with a pushcart kitchen slices thin cuts of meat from a rotisserie for shawarma, or flatbread sandwiches. Redolent smoke drifts along the crowded sidewalk. Inside the barbershop, mirrors in front of and behind us create an illusion of multitudes. As the hair falls to the floor below, I’m acutely aware that for some of those present, I’m beginning to look more and more like the soldier I once was.

The New Baghdad

Before leaving Baghdad, I stop in Al Karradah district to buy an Iraqi-made hookah to take back home. Jaywalking through early evening traffic, I notice how energetic street life is. Shop doors are propped open. Upscale fashion retailers feature the latest clothing lines on headless mannequins in glass-front displays. Toy stores, hardware stores, cell phone shops, local grocers—there’s a bustle and vibrancy of activity not only among the street vendors but also among the established merchants.

Even so, only yesterday a mortar crew attacked a Shiite gathering in Baghdad, wounding five. A bomb exploded near a mosque in Al Utayfiyah district, injuring three. In Mosul a woman’s body was left in the street. When I speak with people here, I recognize years and years of frustration in their voices. And yet, as I look around city neighborhoods, beyond the T-walls and the Hueys patrolling overhead, I also see signs of renewal and growth.

Something has changed within me as well. With each passing day, the adrenaline that accompanied my return to the city has subsided. I can see more clearly now that Baghdad is becoming a new version of itself—not a place defined by war, where journalists and the addicts of danger ply their trades, but a more livable, thriving place. Although it will certainly take time, and the aftermath of war will leave an indelible signature here for the rest of our lives, Baghdad has begun to re-imagine itself as a majestic city once more.

Brian Turner

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Philoctetes in Iraq

Commentary by Claudia Honeywell


The path from virtue to violence is a common theme in Greek tragedy. Think Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, a character who begins with the good intention of maintaining order in Thebes but under the pressure of internal rebellion issues the hubristic and unethical order to leave the body of his nephew Polyneices unburied. Lt Col Sassaman and the men he commands respond to the escalating violence with their own escalating callousness, a consequence of Sassaman’s failed attempts to negotiate with the Sunni sheikhs. In Filkins’ portrayal, this hardened, post-diplomatic commander displays a previously unacknowledged appetite for violence: “‘Come back in a couple of weeks,’ he said. He smiled as he spoke. His eyes were glowing. ‘We are going to inflict extreme violence.’” Violence fosters in Sassaman’s unit a new lack of respect for the Iraqis that betokens for Sassaman a corresponding loss of self-awareness: “The only thing they understand is force—force, pride and saving face.” As Sophocles’ Creon turns on those he had trusted, Sassaman comes to suspect all Iraqis of participating in a conspiracy against law and order.

Sassaman describes his circumstances as “incredibly unfair.” When he honored his diplomatic agreements, the insurgents took advantage of him: “As Sassaman had promised, he had scaled back the number of patrols in the Sunni countryside. The insurgents had used the pause to organize and step up their attacks.” Trained to use force should diplomacy fail, Sassaman cannot make headway with either strategy. Sassaman soon trusts no one outside his unit and protects his own men at all costs.

Read the article here.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Bad Taste or Just Funny? Bluestone 42

British comedy, BBC 3, bomb disposal team, Afghanistan. Not the funniest thing on tv, but I laughed. Black humor is my thing, is it bad taste?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

You’ll probably be hearing about us again. Yesterday, my platoon had six injured and one killed. We had a fire fight that lasted nine hours. We killed a lot of VC on this operation we’re on now, but we also have had a lot killed. I wrote Sue and told her to give you back my ring. It’s still a good ring although it doesn’t work too good. I can always give it to some other chump, I mean girl. Well, Mom, I don’t have much time, and I just wanted you to know I’m all right.

When you go to church, I want you to give all the people you see this address and tell them to send anything they can, like old clothes and anything. I went down to this orphanage the other day, and these little kids are pitiful. They sleep on plain floors and don’t get hardly anything to eat. The reason I want you to tell everyone to help them is because I feel I may have to killed some of their parents and it makes me feel sick to know they have to go on with nothing. Address: Mang-Lang Orphanage, Le-Loi Street Tuy Hoa, Vietnam.

Love, Your son,


PFC Daniel Bailey was assigned to A troop, 2nd Battalion, 17th Cavalry, 101 st Airborne Division, May 1966 to June 1967 operating in II Corps.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Iraq Experiences: Joel Oyer

Marine artillery sergeant Joel Oyer initially supported the war as he entered Iraq with the 2003 invasion force. He tells of his gradual disillusionment with the war and the continuing occupation.

Part of a collection of films by Eric Herter.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Inches That Matter

There are plenty of these kinds of videos on youtube and I usually make a point not to watch them. I’m not sure why I made that decision (I’m not in the least squeamish, blood and guts bring it on). I suppose I should be interested in the tactical minutiae of war making. But, maybe because this is the ‘glamorous’ part of war, the action, the people doing the fighting, the human side of war, it can very easily get sentimental, things become subjective – emotional. I try to avoid that.

One thing that I noted from this is the seemingly casual attitude of these marines – just another day at work I suppose. But, that casual inattention got a guy shot in the shoulder by someone they knew was a sniper. Nuff said.

Hands up, I do admittedly have a soft spot for marines (I don’t know why or where it comes from).

If this is a counterinsurgency war (the video was posted in 2010) , then the mistaken killing of non-combatants in the homestead near the target house should be considered a greater failure than the marine who got shot in the shoulder. One, a few inches saved from death, the other several feet too close. A mistake that will have strategic consequences, the worst in a counterinsurgency.

Sunday, 3 March 2013


It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M.,
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way piano wire thrums when given slack.
And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth:
the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
crackle over the radio in static confusion,
because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.

PFC B. Miller

(1980-March 22, 2004)


By Brian Turner from his book Here, Bullet.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Here Are The Young Men

Marines’ Faces Before, During, and After Serving in Afghanistan

How do life-changing experiences concretely impact the way we look? Does tragedy truly show up in our eyes and brow? These are questions that fascinate Claire Felicie, who photographed the faces of 20 Dutch Marines before, during, and after their tour of duty in Afghanistan. From first photo to last photo, only 12 months passed, but a great deal happened in these young men’s lives.

Yes, some of the shifts in appearance are environmentally induced; there’s nothing other than the scorching Afghan sun to blame for those new freckles and bronzed noses. But there is something else in that third picture; a dullness to the eyes, a stiffness to the jaw. Isn’t there?

What’s interesting about this project is that you can convince yourself that someone changed dramatically from middle to right, only to compare right to left and talk yourself out of it. It must just be angle or lighting, you say. But even after you’ve concluded that wrinkle isn’t really any bigger, it’s undeniable that there is a difference. No this was not a perfectly controlled scientific experiment, but there is no science to walking into a room, looking into a friend’s face, and immediately knowing that something has happened. It’s not about the obvious clues like a frown or matted hair, but something far more nuanced.

Felicie came up with the idea for this project when her 18-year-old son decided to join the Marines. He was eager to go to Afghanistan and she spent lots of time thinking about how the experience might change him. In the end he never went— instead getting stationed in the Caribbean—but she did. Through one of his friends, she connected with a squad that was being sent to Afghanistan. She photographed them first while they were still on base in the Netherlands; a lingering shoot full of stories of their families and eagerness to depart. Nine months later, just six weeks after they lost two of their men to an IED blast, she met up with them in Afghanistan. The photo session was rushed. The men had just returned from patrol, drenched in sweat, and were eager to shower. She had time for just one portrait of each Marine. She caught them again three months later, when they’d returned to the Netherlands. Again, they had plenty of time, but something was different.

“They were saying they were good; they were fine,” Felicie says. “But then I let them sit and look through the camera. When they sat down they said nothing and I said nothing also, it was then I saw, their faces had changed.”


The series ‘Here are the young men’ is divided in three subseries:

Marked‘: black and white triptychs of marines before, during and after their tour of duty to Afghanistan.
Armoured‘: black and white portraits of marines back from patrol and photo’s of their good luck charms.
Committed‘: colour photo’s of marines on their base Combat Outpost Tabar in Uruzgan, Afghanistan.


Friday, 1 March 2013

The 'Good' Iraqis

The List: Accounting for the Iraqi Allies America Left Behind

For the Iraqis who bravely helped Americans, the war continues. One American is trying to help them find safety.

By Matt Gallagher

Most Americans greeted the end of the Iraq War the same way they responded to the beginning of it—with a shrug and a yawn. The List, a documentary screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a timely reminder of what’s still at stake, and that the war there isn’t over for our allies just because we’ve mostly departed. In many ways, actually, it’s just begun for them, as they flee or hide from their past—from us..

Kirk Johnson (left) in “The List” (Principle Pictures)

For me, the film resonated because of a man named Suge Knight.

For many months in the throes of the Iraq surge, my scout platoon and I patrolled the dusty towns of northern Baghdad province, trying our hand at counterinsurgency and winning over locals’ hearts, minds, and pocketbooks. Sometimes it worked. With us throughout, for every midnight counter-IED mission and every tedious patrol tallying hours of working electricity, was a middle-aged interpreter we called Suge, because of his striking resemblance to the hip-hop entrepreneur.

Suge was more than our translator—he was our only conduit to the foreign land we found ourselves stewarding. He became a friend, confidant, and mentor to my men and me on matters ranging from the nuances of Arabic culture to the nuances of an even more mysterious tribe—women. His English was sometimes choppy, but his loyalty was as relentless as the desert sun. He wasn’t just with us, he was one of us, a subtle but critical distinction.

At the end of our 15-month tour, we went home. Another unit replaced us, and Suge stayed with them.

I think of Suge and his family often, especially as news of car bombs and sectarian strife continues to come out of Iraq. Every time he stepped out of the wire with us, he was risking not only his life but the lives of his family—insurgents’ reprisals against locals working with coalition forces were swift and merciless. He wore a mask in some neighborhoods, but he never once asked to stay on base or inside a vehicle. Suge told us sometimes about his desire to immigrate to the United States, about his fears that some of his family wouldn’t want to move, and about his frustrations with the slow immigration process.

I wrote a character statement for Suge, proclaiming his bravery and dedication to duty. I haven’t heard from him for a couple years, and wish now that I had done more then.

Every time he stepped out of the wire with us, he was risking not only his life, but those of his family.

The List tells the story of a man who did do more: Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker who served as regional coordinator on reconstruction in Fallujah throughout 2005. Disturbed and disillusioned by his experience there, Johnson returned home hoping to shed his wartime memories. That plan changed after he received a message from an Iraqi with whom he had worked—who had found a severed dog’s head thrown on his front steps with a note: “Your head will be next.” A neighbor had spotted him at a checkpoint leaving the Baghdad Green Zone he had stealthily gone to and from for years to work for America, and now a local militia was out for blood.

The interpreter and his wife needed to leave Iraq, but the U.S. immigration bureaucracy wasn’t sensitive to the immediacy of the appeal, to put it mildly. Rather than wait for the years-long process to play out, they fled their homeland. Shortly thereafter, Johnson wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times detailing his friend’s plight and arguing that the U.S. government had a moral obligation to resettle to safety Iraqis endangered due to their affiliation with our military or government.

Johnson was subsequently inundated with messages from Iraqis, usually former or current interpreters working for the military who were experiencing similar threats. He began documenting the names and whereabouts of these individuals, and enlisted the pro bono legal service of various prominent law firms in his fight to resettle these men and women as quickly as possible. The List was born.

Now a full-fledged nonprofit, The List Project has helped nearly 1,500 Iraqis find safety in the United States. (Full disclosure: my boss at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff, sits on The List Project’s advisory board.) The List’s marketing team is likening Johnson to Oskar Schindler, something that seems a bit melodramatic until one actually sees the film. The joy, fear, and despair for Johnson and former interpreters like Yaghdan and Ibrahim are anything but melodramatic. They are the hard-earned emotions of men and women who have stared at the worst aspects of the human condition and refused to either blink or quit.

Still, the film makes clear that America has yet to live up to its obligations to the great majority of the Iraqis—36,000 working for the Department of Defense alone in 2009—who assisted in innumerable ways in the eight-plus years America occupied the country. Between 2006 and 2009, fewer than 3,500 U.S.-affiliated Iraqi refugees were admitted to America, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, I wonder how Suge and his family are.

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies: Helping those who helped us...:


via Matt Gallaghers blog Kerplunk:

Operation Homecoming

The two stories I found most poignant were Sangjoon Han's 'Aftermath' and Jack Lewis's 'Roadwork'. Both stories involve Iraqis at the most intimate level, at their deaths, and the aftermath.

OPERATION HOMECOMING is a unique documentary that explores the firsthand accounts of American servicemen and women through their own words. The film is built upon a project created by the National Endowment for the Arts to gather the writing of servicemen and women and their families who have participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through interviews and dramatic readings, the film transforms selections from this collection of writing into a deep examination of the experiences of the men and women who are serving in America’s armed forces. At the same time it provides depth and context to these experiences through a broader look at the universal themes of war literature.

The writing in OPERATION HOMECOMING covers the full spectrum — poetry, fiction, memoir, letters, journals and essays. The stories recounted here are sad, funny, violent and uplifting. Yet each one displays an honesty and intensity that is rarely seen in explorations of the war. Through an extraordinary group of men and women it presents a profound window into the human side of America’s current conflicts.

At the core of the writing in OPERATION HOMECOMING is a deep desire by all those who have served in war to come to terms with their experiences. Throughout the film the servicemen and women, young and old, express a profound hope that people will listen to their stories and try to understand what they have seen.

Memory Lapse

Memory…  is nothing else than a certain concatenation of ideas…

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
All photographs courtesy of Maurice DecaulThe author with fellow Marines at the 2003 birthday ball.

A while ago, I was going through my files when I came across a cache of partly crumbled photographs. One was of me holding the sight box for the M252 mortar in Garden City, N.Y., parking lot. In another, I sat with Oum in the open hatch of a UH-1W at Camp White Horse, outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. There was another of me and the guys at the 2003 Marine Corps birthday ball. I looked like a boy in those photos. At the bottom of the stack I found one photo of us standing with First Sgt. Allen. I was wearing a set of borrowed Alphas; she wore a black evening gown, First Sergeant stood adorned in dress blues, everyone was smiling, teeth shining. I stared at it and whispered to myself, “very different times.”

I’d forgotten about these photos, until one night when I was at her house searching a shoebox and I came across the mangled photo album that had stored them for years. They were all there, near the letters we had sent each other while I was overseas. The photographs were wrinkled, crushed and forgotten like the discarded notions that had once been the impetus for “us.”

Very soon after, a sentiment of resentment splashed with a bit of melancholy began to rise within me so I gathered them and took them when I left.

The parking lot photo showed me standing gaunt and blank wearing woodland camouflage the afternoon I left Garden City for Camp Lejeune to prepare to go to Iraq. This was a picture of a young man who was anxious about war but too indoctrinated to acknowledge it. My photo was taken by the woman whom I had married months before, certain that we would grow old together. The day she took my photo she had worn indigo sweatpants, a canary yellow hooded sweatshirt and plain white Converses. Her hair only lightly grazed her shoulders. As I looked at myself in the photo, I began to remember that as the bus departed Garden City that evening, what she had been wearing that day would become my singular unaided recollection of her. From then, I would need a photograph to remind me of the contours of her face. I was puzzled why but time was too precious then to ponder such things. So I let the question slip, promising myself to ask again at another juncture.

I had forgotten her facial features as soon as the bus started rolling. As much as I tried to recall her face, it was as if I had never stored it in the infinite expanse of my long-term memory. But this of course is not true. I recall her face with ease now and I would describe it as round, with high cheekbones and eyes brown and intensely intelligent. She was then and is now quite beautiful. But the evening I left, remembering such details became an exercise in both frustration and futility.

Garden City, N.Y., 2003.
As I began thinking about the answer to my question, I thought that it would be helpful to first define what memory is, so I consulted a text for an answer.

According to “Psychology,” a textbook by Schacter, Gilbert and Wegner, “memories are the residue of [those] events, the enduring changes that experience makes in our brains and leaves behind when it passes.” According to the authors, “if an experience passes without leaving a trace, it might just as well not have happened.”  In a sense, our memories define who we become.
Socrates describes memory “as a block of wax.”

Let us say that the tablet is a gift of memory, the mother of the muses; and that when we wish to remember anything which we have seen, or heard, or thought in our own minds, we hold the wax to the perceptions and thoughts, and in the material receive the impressions of them as from the seal of a ring; and that we remember and know what is imprinted as long as the image lasts; but when the image is effaced, or cannot be taken, then we forget and do not know. 

While Aristotle, speaking on memory and recollection, notes:

      It is obvious, then, that memory belongs to that part of the souls to which imagination belongs; all things which are imaginable are essentially objects of memory and those which necessarily involve imagination are objects of memory incidentally. 

      The lasting state of which we call memory- as a kind of picture; for the stimulus produced impresses a sort of likeness of the percept, just as when men seal with signet rings. 

      Hence in some people, through disability or age, memory does not occur even under a strong stimulus, as though the stimulus or seal were applied to running water; while in others owing detrition like that of old walls in buildings, or to the hardness of the receiving surface, the impression does not penetrate. …  

      We must regard the mental picture within us as both an object of contemplation in itself and as a mental picture of something else. 

But we did have experiences that left behind traces that I could recall easily. The trip we took around lower Manhattan on the Circle Line. The day we were married. Us walking to the subway to take the No. 2 train the afternoon of the West Indian Day parade in 2002.  These were all pleasant days that come to mind with out any retrieval cues and I believe that the idea of a pleasant day has much to do with why it was so difficult for me to remember her face that other day.

State dependent retrieval is defined by Schacter, Gilbert and Wegner as the tendency for information to be better recalled when the person is in the same state during encoding and retrieval, or more simply when I tried to retrieve an image of her face from that day filled with uncertainty and angst, I found it hard to do so because for the most part, my most vivid memories of her face up until that point included some sort of cheerful experience. Certainly, that day my state of mind, and I suppose hers too, was not the same as the day we were married. Still eight years since, even as our relationship and marriage have collapsed, I find it hard to remember more than what she wore for my grand sendoff and maybe it is O.K. that that day an image of her face was not imprinted on my block of wax.

Kuwait, 2003.

After the initial weeks of settling into Nasiriyah, the sergeants had devised a structure for the platoon’s day to day operations. One day of guard. One day spent patrolling. The third day spent as quick reaction force a k a, the rest day. This cycle was repeated until the morning that we left Iraq for Kuwait. That morning, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” streamed from our Humvees, moving us along like running cadence. That morning I smelled the smoke from our burn pit which rose from the desert like a date palm, for the final time and saw the men of the Italian carabinieri sitting in front of the compound without cover but not without cheerfulness. We waved to each other and I wondered how they would manage the monotony and defend against complacency.

Routines have a way of creating the impression of security. But in Nasiriyah one had to be hypervigilant. One’s weapon had to remain serviced and accessible. One never left the compound without a helmet or an interceptor vest or an interpreter. One stayed on edge awaiting that rare skirmish.

To relieve stress and pass time we would often pontificate about how different life would be once we returned home. For inspiration most of us relied on pictures of wives or girlfriends to ignite recollections or to stimulate dreaming. I taped the picture of her I’d fished from my cargo pocket in Garden City to the roof of my Kevlar and over the months my sweat and the sun’s rays quickened its fading. The morning that we left Nasiriyah, I shared this photo with an Italian who shared with me his talisman, a picture of his small daughter. He asked whether I had children and I said no, but we still joked about how in the future my son would marry his daughter.

There was scuttlebutt about Britain’s Royal Marines habitually burning all traces of home before going into combat and I remember thinking how stoic of them, but I could never bring myself to do it. I correlated her fading image with my tenuous conception of home. I wanted to get home; therefore I wanted to get to her. The photo was my talisman. I sealed it inside a Ziploc bag to stave off continued deterioration and there it stayed until I lost it.

In October I saw on the news that a suicide bombing had occurred in Nasiriyah, not far from where we had been relieved by the Italians, and that the bombing had killed more than a dozen of them. Maybe the Brits had it right all along. What good is sentimentality in the face of circumstance? I had not learned that Italian’s name but that night I got on my knees and prayed for all of them and for him and his family. I haven’t spoken with God in a while but I truly hope that he heard that prayer.

The author and Oum, a fellow Marine, in Iraq, 2003.

The problem with writing from memory is the problem of truth.

There is a concern when writing nonfiction, autobiography, memoir etc…about truth and relating truth to one’s readers. Truth, of course, is paramount. The reader expects it and it is the writer’s obligation to remain truthful to experience and memory but this notion of truth is not truth with a capital T. It can never be.

In fact, the notion of what is true will be colored by the author’s experience, perception of that experience, his biases and his own fading memories. Stories regardless of genre should be read with these parameters in mind.  A piece of nonfiction can never be truly devoid of untruths. What is important is the author’s intention to relate the facts as he truthfully recalls them and the readers’ acceptance of the limitation imposed by nonfiction. Because our memories define who we become, when writing from memory subjectivity though not ideal will color the writing. How one perceives the self will undoubtedly inform how introspective a piece of writing culled from traces of experiences will be.

Several days ago we sat at a diner to talk a few things over and she looked at me squarely and asked, “Did we not have good times?” As I spread jam on my toast, I thought back to the day we took the Circle Line, how at ease she had looked. I thought to myself, “Yes, sometimes.” When the bill came she insisted on paying her share, then we went our own ways.

The next day, I bent to scrub soap scum from my bathtub, half kneeling, half praying. I wanted to inter the unshaven face I regarded in the mirror. I turned the tap and water splattered about the sink and a few drops splashed haphazardly into the cup I was holding. Off.  Water from the cup rinsing the loosened soap scum was an earsplitting contrast to life’s insufferable silence.  If I succumb to the stillness, I thought… but there is not a soul to talk to in the house except, me.

It was late and the day had slipped unhurriedly by. I walked back into my bedroom and looked down at the chaos of papers and photos strewn across my bed and decided it was time to put it all away.

Maurice Decaul served in the Marine Corps for nearly five years. He deployed to Nasiriyah, Iraq, in 2003 as a squad leader with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. He lives in Brooklyn and is studying at Columbia University.

Home Fires features the writing of men and women who have returned from wartime service in the United States military.