Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why I don't trust the media - part one of many

I was leafing through a copy of the Sept 13th issue of Time magazine (yeah, I know, I'm typically a month late getting to any magazine), and came across their story on the "Struggle for the Soul of Islam." The title page of the article has an arresting picture of some Afghan tribesmen at prayer in the desert, with a lake and a striking mountain rising in the distance behind them, and the caption: "Along a stretch of the Pakistani border crawling with al-Qaeda guerillas, conservative Waziri tribesmen stop to pray in the direction of Mecca."

I have a small problem with that. The place where the picture was taken was the Sadr Band lake - a man-made lake (I assume constructed by the Soviets, since the dam says CCCP 1967 on it) at the end of the Sadr river. It's located on the road between Sharana (the capital of Paktika province) and Ghazni (the capital of Ghazni province), and the road from Gardez (the capital of Paktia province) runs north-south nearby. So, for southeastern Afghanistan, its a pretty well-visited place. A lot of truckers pass through there, and a lot of passenger cars and vans, and many of them stop near the lake to eat or to pray.

What it is not is along the Pakistani border. Believe me, it is located many, many grueling kilometers from anything near the border. While it's located in Paktika province, which does share a border with Pakistan, it's as far from the border as you can get and still be in Paktika. Claiming that it's is located along the Pakistani border is like claiming Atlanta is a seaside community because Georgia has a coastline.

Nor is it "crawling with al-Qaeda guerrillas." I don't doubt that some anti-coalition militia (al-Qaeda, HIG, Taliban, et al) pass through there - the place is, after all, along the major route between Sharana, Orgun -E, and Khost on one side, and Ghazni on the other. But there's very little guerilla activity in the area - there are too many Americans in Zormat, Ghazni, Gardez and Sharana to make that tenable - when I was there, the guerillas in Paktika were at the other end of the province, along the Paki border in places like Wazarqua and Torwah. There is a road that leads between the mountains on one side of the Zormat valley and the Sadr Band, and that road was used by smugglers, terrorists and common criminals to avoid the main roads. However, the Americans have been patrolling that road, and one of the major Taliban figures in southeastern Afghanistan recently met an ugly end in a compound near there, so its not nearly as popular with the bad guys as it once was.

It does make a striking picture, though (the mountain in the background is visible for miles, and the contrast of lake and desert, mountain and sky makes for an impressive composition) and it's a lot safer for a Time photog than actually going to the border. Does it make any difference to the story that its not what Time magazine says it is? Not really, in this case - but it does illustrate what I think is a persistent problem with the media: Their willingness to exaggerate, to distort and to make things up if necessary to make a more sensational story. I don't see a whole lot of difference between Time deciding that this was a picture of the Pakistani border, because it made their point a little better, and CBS deciding to use fairly amateurish forgeries to try to smear GW Bush, all because it made a better story. If it makes a better story, then use it, whether it's true or not. That kind of blending of fact and fiction is supposed to be the hallmark of the storyteller or the autobiographer - not of a journalist, who's allegiance ought to be to a true story instead of a better story. These guys are 0-2 with me - this is the second time that Time has run a story where I can say "I know that's not true because I was there and I know better." If they've missed everything I know about, how much faith should I have in their other work, or, by extension, in the work of most media outlets? I've decided that the thing to remember is when a journalist refers to his work as a "story", he's absolutely right - its a piece of fiction designed to entertain, perhaps to persuade, maybe even to exhort, but not to be taken seriously as a reflection of what's happening in the real world.

Friday, October 22, 2004

The value of being dressed for dress rehearsals

The Afghan government had been in negotiations with a senior Taliban leader, but talks had broken off, and the coalition made the decision - take him down. AC-130 gunships started the pre-dawn raid, targeting the towers at the corners of the outer wall to eliminate the heavy weapons - DSHKAs and ZSUs - that were reported to guard the compound. I rode in on the first assault helicopter, taking machine-gun fire from the ground as we swooped in towards the LZ. As the helicopter landed in the open field across the road from the heavily armed compound, I saw that the tower nearest the LZ was still standing - still a threat to us. The first man off of the chopper crumpled face first to the ground as he stepped into view of that tower. Raising my M-4, I leapt from the ramp and ran towards the compound . . .

How the following post will read in my autobiography

Dan, Jack and I were finally heading "home" to our A-camp in the southeast of the country after having been sent up to Asadabad for a little over a month. Notionally, we were there to support Operation Mountain Resolve, but since the premise of Mountain Resolve was that the best way to catch terrorists who were living within spitting distance of the Pakistani border was to spend four days flying a brigade's worth of artillery, vehicles and supplies in before beginning operations, there really wasn't a lot to support. It was an impressive four days, though, watching Chinook after Chinook fly in with a howitzer or HMMWV dangling under it. Apparently, no-one who planned this operation thought it would impress the bad guys into simply making the short trip to Pakistan until they saw Chinook after Chinook flying back out with equipment dangling underneath. Perhaps our intel people were counting on the efficiency and incorruptability of the Paki border guards to keep that from happening.

At least we were able to grab a chopper flight there and back. One of the teams tasked for Molehill Resolve had done a non-stop 26 hour vehicle convoy out of Bagram, through Kabul to Jalalabad and on into A'bad on some of the worst roads on the planet. It still shouldn't have taken 26 hours, but one of their trucks broke down about halfway and had to be towed, which reduced their progress to about 3 miles per hour. They felt like the only reason they didn't get ambushed was that the bad guys got bored waiting for them to get into the kill zone. ("Shah, are they coming?" "Yes, my friend, the Americans are heading for us" 30 minutes later "Shah, are they coming? "Yes, my friend, the Americans are heading for us" 1 hour later . . . Until finally the bad guys wander off disgusted as the US convoy is still inching its way down the road, stopping every so often to adjust the tow cable.) Travelling slower than the attention span of your enemy isn't taught as a counterambush technique, but maybe it should be.

We got into Bagram from A'bad and found out that we would be there for at least a week. The biggest problem with flying anywhere in Afghanistan was that moving around the country entailed catching a flight on one of the supply rings that visited most, but not all, of our bases once or twice a week. We had just missed the flight back out to our base, so we were stuck. We made our way over to the German compound (so called because the German Special Operations Forces had stayed there when they were in-country) to find a place to hide out for a week instead of becoming REMF targets in the main SOF compound nearby.

As we were unloading our stuff, we ran into Donnie, one of the team leaders from our company. We talked a little while about why we were in Bagram, and he told us that his team was part of an assault on a senior Taliban commander's compound, and if we weren't doing anything, he could really use some more people . . . It wasn't a hard choice between making a combat air assault right into a bad guy's compound or sitting around in Bagram doing nothing for a week, so we pretty quickly found ourselves assigned to the mission. The next day, we flew from Bagram to Kandahar by C-130 - Task Force 160 was providing the choppers for the assault, and they were in Kandahar. It was easier for us to go to the choppers than to bring the choppers to us.

In Kandahar, we went through the typical planning and rehearsal for a large scale mission like this. Most of the missions that we did in Afghanistan were pretty ad-hoc, but this particular bad guy was supposed to have heavy weapons, a militia of 70-80 guys and a brother in law in a compound about a klick (km) away with more bad guys and a no-shit working tank. So, we were taking all the planning pretty seriously. As it shook out, I found myself on one of the teams that would control the perimeter of the compound while the rest of us went in to clear it. My team's job was to move through an orchard along one wall of the compound to the main gate and keep anyone from leaving that way until the team inside moved past it. At that point, we would pick up and move to the far corner and keep an eye on both walls, and on the nearby compounds.
Since we were closest to the compound which supposedly had the tank, we had taken along a Carl Gustav (a kind of reloadable bazooka or anti-tank gun.) Craig, the biggest guy on our team, was naturally carrying the Carl Gustav - since I was the smallest guy on the team, it naturally made sense for me to carry all of the spare ammo. That meant that while everybody else was carrying belt kit or a small daypack, I had a full blown ALICE large army rucksack crammed with Gustav rounds to haul around on this event.

We didn't want to depend on radios to let the inside guys know when we were in position - and we didn't want to shoot each other over the walls because we each thought the other element were bad guys. So, we planned to use chemlights (glowsticks, for you rave fans) to let us know where the other team was. When the inside team cleared the main gate, they would throw a bundle of blue chemlights over to let us know they were in position. That was our signal to cross the gate and move to the corner, where we would throw a bundle of green chemlights over the wall to let them know that we had control of the outer perimeter.

Earlier, an SF team in Kandahar had built a Hesco perimeter just outside the main US compound. That was a nice secluded spot, with a huge expanse of flat ground to practice on, so we did our rehearsals and weapons test firing there. To keep any of the Afghanis from recognizing the layout of the compound we were planning to hit, every rehearsal, we would mark out the compound layout with engineer tape and stakes, practice the assault, and take the tape back up. We even did a practice assault with the helicopters, so we had a pretty good idea of how things were supposed to go.

What we didn't have a clue about is what the ground looked like. The night of the assault, we boarded the choppers about 2am and took off to the north. The flight was about 30 minutes longer than we expected - we found out why later - but we finally got to the objective and started off the assault. When we hit the LZ, the towers that were supposed to be down were still standing - and as Scott stepped off of the rear ramp of the Chinook, he went down face first. Since the towers were still up, we naturally assumed the worst - until he started struggling to his feet and moving off towards the compound. As soon as I stepped off of the ramp, I understood why he had fallen - the ground on the LZ was rough and broken, and staggering around under the weight of equipment and the rotor wash from the Chinook made tripping and falling almost inevitable. Worse, both sides of the road running beside the compound were bordered with 2' high mud "fences" and on the far side of the far fence was a 3' deep irrigation ditch. So, my first combat charge ended up being more of a combat clamber as I made my way over walls and through ditches towards the compound while carrying the Gustav ammo.
We got to the first point outside the main gate and set in, keeping an eye on the walls. In a matter of minutes, the blue chemlight came through the gate, and we moved off to our final objective at the corner. I dropped the rucksack full of ammo and moved to the wall to throw our chemlights over, signalling that we were in position. That's when I realized that I had miscalculated - our intel was that the walls were 10'-15' high; these walls were more like 20'-25' up there, and, while we had rehearsed this little ballet over and over - a quick dash into the open, throw the bundle, and then run back to cover - I had never done it wearing body armor and full kit. I ran out to the side of the wall, threw the chemlight bundle as well as I could with the body armor binding my shoulder- and watched them bounce off of the wall. I picked them up and threw them again - almost: they caught the edge of the top and slid back down. Picking them up a third time, I tried an underhand toss - the bundle went straight up, higher than the wall - and then came straight back down. About that time I heard Ross, the machine gunner on our team, calling my name in a hoarse whisper. I had already been out in the open way too long, and I spun around towards him and crouched, fully expecting him to tell me that a squad of bad guys were closing in on our position, or that there were guys starting up the tank, and I should get down. I wondered what to do about letting the inside team know where we were. "What? What is it" I whispered back. "Man, you throw like a girl" he replied. Well, that just made my whole night - I turned back to the wall and finally got the damn chemlights over it. Then I stomped back to our little ditch outside the compound, settling in to wait for the clearing team to finish inside.

Please stay tuned for Part Two of this little reminisce entitled "We get screwed by the Air Force", coming soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Another pointless rhetorical question

What is it that people see in the Hummer? I'm seeing more and more of them rumbling around the road, and I really don't know why someone would choose to drive one. There's got to be more to it than penis envy, or overcompensation, or whatever, but I can't for the life of me see what.

I got to test drive the vehicle on which they are based - the HMMWV - for nine months, and it's an excellent vehicle designed for a very specific purpose: keeping people alive in dangerous situations while traversing difficult terrain. Being in an uparmored vehicle with a .50 caliber machine gun or a Mk-19 in the turret is terribly comforting when there are people around who really, really want to kill you. It also has some painful shortcomings: it's too cramped, has to little cargo room, is terribly noisy and uncomfortable, and vibrates like mad. It makes absolutely no sense as a general purpose vehicle. While I'm sure that the luxury Hummer addresses these points, the HMMWV is a silly starting point to design a luxury vehicle from.

I'm convinced that if someone created an expensive luxury vehicle based on a tractor cab (the front part of a tractor trailer rig), there'd be people out there fool enough to buy it. I can hear it now "But look at all the stuff I can haul if I need to." "I can see the road better." "It just makes me feel good to drive it." Or whatever silly reason there might be to drive something that impractical.

Re-reading this post, I think I'm probably wrong - it is all penis envy.

Monday, October 18, 2004

What the hell is Kerry thinking?

I had resolved not to turn this into a rant-forum, but then, I've never been too good at keeping resolutions. I was discussing the upcoming election yesterday, and one of my acqaintances expressed surprise that I wasn't supporting John Kerry, since he's promised to enlarge the army and double the size of special forces.

Regardless of your political inclination, throwing out a promise to "double the size" of SF is just a dumb idea. The SF community can't fill the number of slots it has now without compromising the quality of the force. The reason that SF is able to work the way that it does, and accomplishes its mission as well as it does, is that each special forces soldier is special: specially trained and specially selected, meeting a higher standard than most people are asked to meet. Increasing the size of the force without keeping that standard will make SF less effective, not more.

There are four special operations forces truths; they're hard truths learned from many bitter experiences where the powers that be thought that they had a plan, much like Senator Kerry's plan, to short circuit the hard work that must go in to developing special forces :
  • Humans are more important than Hardware
  • Quality is better than Quantity
  • Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced
  • Competent Special 0perations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur

Kerry's promise flies in the face of at least two of these truths.

There are already a number of disturbing signs that the army is cutting standards to meet current needs. The GT (general technical - the army's rough measurement of "smarts") score required to join SF has been cut from 110 (where it had been for years - its the same requirement required to be an officer) to 100. The official explanation was a beautiful bit of bureaucratic misdirection, by the way - the memo announcing the change explained that research had shown that on any given test, an individual's GT score could vary by as much as 10 points, so all SF was doing was giving people who could have made a 110 on a good day a chance. The memo failed to point out that it was giving an equal chance to people who should have made a 90, but got lucky on one particular test on one particular day.

SF has also eliminated the swim test (a 50 meter swim in boots and fatigues) from its entrance requirements, with the "explanation" that soldiers can be taught to swim during SF training. Very true, but a) that training has to come from time that used to be used teaching some other skill, and b) it takes the onus off of the individual soldier to prepare on his own for training. Being self-reliant, willing to take the initiative and work towards a goal without oversight or direction is a hallmark of SF, and the swim test was as much a test of that quality as it was of physical ability.

Also, SF - which used to require a soldier to be at least a sergeant before applying - is now allowing young men to enlist directly into SF. This isn't the first time that SF has allowed men to join "right off of the block", and by itself it isn't a bad thing - as long as it isn't overused as a recruiting tool. Some of the most important qualities an SF soldier must possess are maturity and responsible judgment, and usually, those qualities require some experience in the world. Having one or two "SF babies" with no experience beyond the "Q" course (the Special Forces Qualification Course) on an A-Team isn't a bad thing; but if the time comes that one-third or one-half of the team has little or no experience, then it will fundamentally change the capabilities and possibilities of that team or of that company, or of that group, or of SF as a whole.

The most disturbing trend, though, is the "numbers focus" at Special Forces Selection ( a grueling 3 week tryout for a slot in SF) and the Q course. The party line at the general officer level is that "we're alright, jack" and everyone coming out of the course is fully qualified and deserves to be there. Talk to the sergeants running the course over a couple of beers, though, and a different story comes out. There is increasing pressure from the commanders of the Special Warfare Center (the people who run Selection and the Q course) to produce numbers, and that means letting substandard performers through the course. The good news is that the training in SF is as good or better than its ever been; the bad news is that soldiers who don't meet the standards that the training sets are being allowed to slide through.

The real danger in all this is that it accelerates the "conventionalization" of Special Forces - turning SF from a special operations force into a conventional army unit in everything but name. As individual SF soldiers who are less self-reliant, less capable of mature judgment, less capable of executing an SF mission are added to the mix, A-teams will become less capable of independent planning and action, and there will be more and more justification for running SF in a more conventional manner, with more planning, oversight and micromanagement at the staff level. That will in turn diminish the team level experience with being self reliant, and lead to yet more oversight and less special operations capability. At some point, we may as well redesignate the 82nd Airborne Division the 82nd Special Forces Division and - like magic - add another 20,000 "special forces operators" to the force. Kerry's thoughtless plan to double the size of SF will accelerate this trend unacceptably, will lead to the dilution of SF capability, and will make us less capable instead of more capable of meeting the military challenges we now face.

Well, I'm back

...after having spent nearly a year in Afghanistan. My profound observation of the day: It wasn't at all what I expected.

I got through my time there without doing anything particularly heroic - fortunately, without being in a situation where doing anything heroic was required or expected. I've been to war, been to combat, and I still don't have the slightest idea how I would react to a Saving Private Ryan moment when things go really, really bad. Having had the slightest taste of what that would be like, I have an even more profound respect for the soldiers who have gone through the real thing. (Something most people probably don't consider about exceptional acts of heroism - in order for the conditions for heroics to exist, things have to go terribly, terribly wrong.)

Looking back on everything, I'm grateful for two things - I came back in one piece, and I didn't do anything stupid that would have caused someone else not to come back in one piece.

Why this blog

I'm a part-time soldier who just returned from Afghanistan and who is trying to get his civilian life back in order. There's a group of people out there I'd like to be able to share my stories, experiences, uninformed opinions, angry rants, and bad attitudes with, and this format seems a lot more convenient than emailing the bunch of them everytime think of something or make a change. If you're one of those people, welcome. If you're just browsing through, welcome also, but be sure to read the disclaimer and the fine print below:

Some notes about any reminisces included in this blog: I'll only use the first names of anyone else I mention, and those names will be changed to protect the egregiously paranoid. Anyone who was one of "those disgruntled few" will be able to make the translation, and for anyone else who happens in here, the stories will read the same anyway. It might seem awkward to anyone who's ever been in the military, since addressing people by their last name is damn near universal - but its the best that I can do. We didn't give the Afghanis our names over there - and without their OK, even first names are off-limits here.

Which brings me to my second note - my stories of the war are just that - stories. I don't guarantee the accuracy of my recollection of events. If anyone remembers any details I happen to omit, or disagrees with me about the way something happened, let's talk. If anyone disagrees with my opinions, or my politics, start your own blog.