Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hey, GI, your number one?

Warning - if the pointy rocks story bothered you, this one won't help.

I'm not sure why so much of the stories I have from Afghanistan revolve around excretory functions. Part of it is probably because it's just a guy thing: The same sort of sophomoric humor that was funny at a Boy Scout Camporee is still funny in the outback of Afghanistan. (In fact, an old saw asks, "What's the difference between Special Forces and the Boy Scouts? Boy Scouts have adult supervision.")

And part of it is probably because for some reason, the change in bathroom habits comes to symbolize all of the other privations a combat tour in a third world country bring about. Until you've done without them for an extended period of time, you don't really appreciate how nice a warm bathroom with sit-down porcelein facilities really is. It's bad enough to go without the Internet for months at a time, or to not have TV, or even electrical power at night - but not being able to use the bathroom without having to walk to a PVC pipe or a wooden outhouse 50 yards away from the sleeping area just seems like more than a modern American should have to bear. It's like turning your back on everything that Western Civilization, Capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution has accomplished for us.

But that's exactly what we had to do: Indoor plumbing is almost non-existent on Army outposts in Afghanistan, and is rare even at the bases at Bagram and Kandahar. While the level of sophistication varies from the simple "piss tube" ( a PVC pipe set up out in the open and routed into the ground) common at A-camps to more rare full-blown porcelain experience with private stall (no waiting) at Kabul or Bagram, the common factor is that latrines are located in a separate facility, and are some distance from the sleeping areas. And woe betide the soldier caught pissing against the side of his tent or hut. We've all done it, in extremis, but it really does quickly stink up the area - not to mention the flies it attracts - so it's a rare act only justified by extreme emergency.

So, to avoid the long late-night walk to the latrine, many soldiers used "piss bottles." (Let me interject here that the following comments only apply to the male of the species - I don't know how the women handled the same issue, and I'm not sure I want to. I do know that I don't have the courage to actually ask on who was over there how she dealt with it.) At any rate, among the men, bottled water bottles or other drink bottles were pressed into service to recycle beverages late at night right there at the bedside, without requiring getting dressed and venturing out for a brisk, sleep-disturbing walk.

Gatorade bottles were particularly prized for their relatively wide mouth. Bottled water bottles were more tricky, since they had a relatively narrow mouth that required precise aim, usually involving direct skin to bottle contact for maximum success. Accurate aim was critical, which was sometimes difficult in the dark. It was important, though, since the results of even a near miss could be tragic - if the stream was directed against the side of the bottle opening instead of straight down into the bottle, there was a real risk of developing too much backpressure, which disturbed both the operator and those nearby, since the swearing which accompanied spraying oneself or one's sleeping area often woke everyone else up.

Also, it was very important that the cap still be present, so the bottle could be neatly sealed for disposal the next morning. It was a definite etiquette violation not to get rid of the bottle very first thing in the morning. One of our guys used to say "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who use piss-bottles and those who don't. And there are two kinds of people who use piss-bottles, those who throw them away and those who don't." Peer pressure pretty quickly took care of those few people who weren't assiduous about getting rid of their bottles, but there were worse things that could happen to them.

During the period that we were temporarily assigned to Asadabad,we ended up sharing a hootch with one of the Army doctors who was up there doing medical care for the civilians in the area. One night right before bedtime, we had just cut the lights in the tent off and those of us who were still getting ready for bed were using our headlamps or flashlights to deal with last-minute activities before turning in. Doc Hagan was in his rack, getting ready to turn in for the night, and was taking a vitamin pill before going to sleep. He put the pill in his mouth, reached down for the water bottle he had beside his bunk, uncapped it, and took a deep drink to wash the pill down.

Suddenly, there was a fit of spraying, gagging and hacking coming from his bed. Doc Hagan lept up from his bed, and rushed outside, flipping the light on and grabbing several water bottles from the stack by the front door of the tent as he went by. There was a great sound of gargling, hacking, and spitting coming from outside the door. After a few minutes, the gargling became interspersed with swearing. Doc Hagan came back in, still swearing, grabbed a few more water bottles, and headed right back out. Yet more swishing and swearing came from outside. Finally, he walked back into the tent, looking about as disgruntled as I've ever seen a man look. What had happened, of course, is that he grabbed the wrong bottle in the dark, and tried to wash the pill down with last night's leftover urine instead of the much fresher bottle of water he had opened that evening.

He was bitching up a storm, of course, and the rest of us were pretty horrified. Dan finally asked him, "Hey man, was it your bottle?" "Well, yeah," Doc Hagan replied, "It was the bottle I left under my bed last night." So, Dan told him "Well, then, it could have been worse. It could have been someone else's bottle."

"Yeah, I guess it could have been." With that, Doc brightened up considerably and we settled back down to go to sleep, the quiet of the night broken only by sudden fits of suppressed laughter coming from nearby bunks. Oh, yeah, and the mortars that went off right behind our hut at about 3am. But, one good thing came out of it: Doc Hagan was religous about getting rid of his used bottles from then on.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Either the beard goes, or I do . . .

One of the interesting quirks of Muslim culture generally, and Afghan culture specifically, and Pashtun culture even more specifically, is the emphasis on facial hair. A beard is a sign of manhood, and to be clean-shaven is considered effiminate, unmanly, and is more or less tantamount to an open admission of homosexuality (and not the older man-teenage boy kind, which is tacitly tolerated among the Pashtuns.) The Hazara, an ethnic group in Afghanistan who are descendants of the Mongols who came there with Genghis Khan, had a terrible time under the Taliban partly because many of them couldn't grow beards. They were, by the way, excellent, fiercely loyal soldiers who didn't mind playing a little catch-up now that they were on the side that was on top.

All US soldiers are expected to be clean-shaven, according to AR 670-1, the army regulation covering uniforms and appearance. That created a bit of a problem, since working with the Pashtuns while clean-shaven was a lot like being an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a biker gang while wearing a pink tutu and a lacy top. The powers that be had therefore, reluctantly, grudgingly, and sorrowfully, authorized SF teams working with the Afghans to grow beards. Of course, it being the Army and all, no way was there going to be a clean implementation of a policy that radical. AR 670-1 is the regulation most beloved of a certain kind of Sergeant Major and those who aspire to be a certain kind of Sergeant Major, and for them, allowing SF operators to grow beards was the biggest blow to their perception of what the Army should be since Clinton instituted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Also, while the senior leadership of the special operations task force endorsed the policy, they were ambivalant about the results, as were many of their subordinates. Part of it was horror: Even though SF is known for pushing the envelope of uniform regulations, outright disregard for them came hard for people who had spent an entire career in a regimented environment. Part of it was embarrassment: The rest of the Army was fighting the war and making time to shave every day, and I'm sure that there was some legitimate fear that many pointed comments would be made later about the troops with scruffy beards and no insignia on their uniforms. And part of it was simply envy: the senior leaders and support personnel were more or less stuck at Bagram airbase, managing and directing everything from the rear, while their juniors were out running around the countryside having the time of their lives. (More than once, I heard one of the rear echelon soldiers assigned to Bagram talking about how we were out there "living the myth." It was usually delivered as the preface to a snide backhanded comment about how little we appreciated the hard work they were doing back there to support us, but you could hear the undercurrent of jealousy; we were, in fact, living the myth: running around with our native troops, operating sua sponte, with little or no direct supervision, killing or capturing terrorists and disrupting their operations - in other words, we were being "real Green Berets" in a way most SF hadn't gotten a chance to be since Vietnam - and we were wearing beards and pakool hats or baseball caps while we did it.)

It didn't usually matter while we were out at the various A-camps, firebases, and other installations in the countryside - unless a dignitary was visiting, or horror of horrors, a journalist was around with a photographer in tow. The rule was that we were not, repeat not, allowed to be photographed unless we were cleaned up. Guidance on how to avoid that short of shooting at the press was not forthcoming. At one point, General Abizaid, basically the guy in charge of the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, visited a nearby firebase. The word went out: anyone with a beard either shaved, or found a mission that required them to be out of the firebase for the duration of the his visit - and made sure that they didn't come home until after the general left. I've always wondered if a man who was smart enough to become the CENTCOM commander was really fooled by all this sleight of hand, or if he at least suspected that some few of his soldiers had lost their deft touch with a daily razor.

Where it really became an issue whenever some of us had to go back to Bagram for one reason or another. There were a series of compromises that attempted to balance the need for facial hair with the need to pretend that it wasn't happening, and, like most compromises, the outcome was usually worse than choosing either one of the alternatives. The facial hair policy was one of those things that led us to question the smarts of the senior leadership we had. Our feeling was that, if they agreed that having facial hair was a good thing for us, they should support and defend the policy, and take whatever heat that it generated, even to enduring snarky remarks from senior officers and Sergeants Major in other units.

And it was the right policy - much of the body language and cultural interaction of a Pashtun revolved around the beard. It wasn't unusual for a Pashtun who was trying to garner sympathy to stroke his own beard, then stroke the beard of the person to whom he was talking. Rubbing beards , or stroking the beard, was a common greeting between friends. It wasn't that we were going to fool anybody into thinking we were Afghan (although a surprising number of people assumed that we were Muslim once the beards had come in); it was that the beards, along with learning the customs and a little bit of the language, made the people that we had to talk to for cooperation or information more comfortable. In the end, it made a marked difference.

But, had the command come out and said "Look, we think that adhering to grooming regulations is more important than getting along culturally - now shave that damn beard off!" it would have been one thing. We would have thought that they were terribly shortsighted, narrowminded and out of touch with what was going on out in the field. But we wouldn't have thought they were a bunch of gibbering idiots. What they came up with, though, made us wonder. The beards were authorized, an exception to policy was authorized, but the senior SF leadership wanted to be able to pretend that it wasn't really happening. Hence, a number of weird and arcane policies were instituted - the gist of which was, "Grow the beard, but don't let anyone in the army know that you've got one, or they might want one too." The problem that arose was, of course, that while it takes 10-15 minutes to shave a beard off (it actually is a more complicated process than I would have thought before I grew one), it takes at least a month to grow a decent one. And, it's a pretty itchy month at that. They're not bad once they're sufficiently long, but the growing in process is uncomfortable.

At first, the policy was simply not to go off Camp Vance (the main SF compound on Bagram) with a beard while in uniform. That one actually made sense, because you could be anybody in civilian clothes - and there were enough civilian contractors running around Bagram to make wearing jeans and a t-shirt plausible. That policy, however, apparently led to complaints that the SF guys out in the field got to wear civvies off of Camp Vance, and nobody else did - so we were told we couldn't wear civilian clothes off of the compound. That meant, in effect, that the one time in a month or six weeks we had an opportunity to use the (minimal) PX, or the Dragon mess hall that actually had much better food than did Camp Vance, we could either shave the beard or stay on the SF compound as if it were a leper colony. Yes, I admit, we were probably bad soldiers over the issue - it wasn't an unlawful regulation, just stunningly stupid - but that had to have been the most quickly circumvented rule ever promulgated. On the other hand, one of the oldest chestnuts in the Army leadership book is "Never give an order that you know won't be obeyed" so I kinda have to ask "what were they thinking?" No-one that I know confined themselves to the compound - especially the guys who dipped and needed desperately to visit their only supply for Copenhagen whenever they got a chance.

So came the next move in the little hirsute chess game we were playing - get in and get out quickly. Anyone on Camp Vance for more than 24 hours was required to shave. Now, nobody needed to be encouraged to get away from Bagram just as quickly as possible, but usually it wasn't possible to get anything done in a day. If you showed up for supplies or paperwork one day, you'd always be short a signature or a truck until the next. The loophole there was the phrase "on Camp Vance." There was an annex, known as the German compound (because German SF stayed there when they were in Afghanistan), so we stayed there and only ventured onto Vance when absolutely necessary (and preferably under cover of darkness.) That actually lasted several months before anyone caught on, so we considered it a success. After that was scotched and the policy extended to cover the German compound, we unilaterally reversed the original policy and began to wear civilian clothes when we went onto Camp Vance. That led to us getting chewed out one night, but over the wrong thing. I was proudest of just how scruffy I had become when I found myself getting chewed out by one of the camp guards, because civilian contractors such as myself weren't allowed onto Camp Vance "without a work order." Of course, I smoothed things over by telling him that it wouldn't happen again - I was just there to pick up a few tools we had left behind.

The "I'm not really in the Army, even though I'm carrying a gun" strategy actually worked for us more than once. A few of us from my team found ourselves in Kandahar on a temporary assignment. We had been attached to an SF team that had the horrible misfortune to have been stuck on Bagram for the entire deployment. This team was working on a mission in conjunction with a SEAL platoon, and we were down there to help out. All of us - SF, SEALs and some support guys - found ourselves living in the SF compound on Kandahar for almost a week. The SEAL platoon was newly arrived in country, and the SF team had been stuck on Bagram, so only the three of us from our team had beards, and we were going right back out into the countryside when we got done at Kandahar. The Kandahar SF compound, however, had almost the same byzantine facial hair policies that existed on Bagram, so by rights, we should have shaved the first night we got in. We dodged it by staying in civilian clothes whenever we weren't actually training, which led most of the army guys assigned to the compound to assume that we were either civilian support specialists or Navy intel weenies (even less military than the civilians, in their opinion.)

I didn't realize how firmly the assumption that we were navy guys had taken hold until late one night after we returned from a training exercise. We had missed supper because we were out training. That wasn't a problem, since we were told that we'd have hot chow waiting for us when we got back in. I thought that was remarkably civilized - missing chow for training usually means getting thrown a box of MREs as a substitute. When we got told "hot chow would be waiting", we thought it was being set up just for us. What they actually meant, it turns out, was that there was a late night meal laid on every night at 2300 (11pm, actually, since I'm in the National Guard), and we were welcome to join in. We got back a little bit after 10pm, stowed our gear and headed over to the mess hall. Dan and I were a little behind everyone else, since we stopped to change back into civvies before heading over. One of the guys comes back around the corner, and tells everyone the main door's locked. Not a problem: we checked the back door and it was open. They probably had the front door locked to keep other people from rogueing our chow. Once inside, we found a pretty nice supper laid out, and proceeded to tuck in.

Probably around 10:40pm or so, Dan and I finished up and headed back towards the tents. We'd made it maybe 20 feet from the messhall when we were confronted by the First Sergeant of the support company that, among other things, ran the messhall. "What the hell are you people doing?" Well, it seemed obvious to us, but it never pays to be rude to the guys that control the food: "We were eating - by the way, thanks for laying that on for us." Well, that really set him off - we had broken into the chow hall to eat early, we had ignored the posted chow times, we had been very bad people indeed. I tried explaining that we had been told the chow was there for us, and we didn't understand that we were supposed to wait until 2300 - hell, that was the first we knew the chow hall was open at 2300. That didn't make him any happier, but it did transfer his anger from us to the chain of command that had miscommunicated the chow message, and he made it clear that he intended to take it up with them right away. He looks at us and snaps "Where's your master chief?" Now, a Master Chief is the senior enlisted rank in the navy - equivalent to a Sergeant Major. The proper thing to do would, of course, have been to set the record straight, explain to the First Sergeant that we were in the army, and suggest that he take up any complaint with the Major who was in charge of us. But, at the time, it seemed easier to say, as I did then "Y'know, I don't know right this second, but I can find him for you if you need him." The First Sergeant tells us that he'll find him later, and that was the last we ever heard about breaking and entering into his messhall. As Dan and I were walking back to our tent, he leans over and whispers "That guy was in the Q course with me. He was on my team in Robin Sage." It turns out that Dan had gone through Special Forces training with the guy who was now First Sergeant of Support Company, and had been in close company with him (on the same team) for the last month of training. Dan recognized him right away, but the First Sergeant never saw through the unkempt hair, shaggy beard and scruffy clothes.

The great irony, of course, is that no-one outside of Camp Vance seemed to care. There were a number of military and civilian organizations with people running around Camp Vance, many of whom were not subject to uniform regulations. These ranged from government agencies with 3-letter acronyms (yes, that's right, the DMV had a branch office there) to the electricians, carpenters and plumbers provided by Brown and Root (a division of Halliburton, and actually known now as Kellogg, Brown and Root, or KBR, thus proving that everyone wants to be a 3-letter acronym.) In other words, once off of Camp Vance, nobody knew or cared why somebody was sporting a beard (oh, I'm sure that the odd conventional unit Sergeant Major here and there might suspect, but they weren't going to confront anybody over it, as long as they weren't wearing US Army insignia along with the facial hair - beards were covered by a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy of their very own. )

Of course, it could have been worse - a team that was there on the rotation before us got a temporary assignment to support a Civil Affairs unit working in Herat, in the Southwest. They knew going in that the assignment to civil affairs would last about six weeks, and they'd be right back out with their Afghan militia after that - so they decided not to shave their beards just to have to regrow them. The civil affairs guys had no problem with that decision, but one of the senior SF officers back at Bagram did. He told them to shave and stay clean-shaven until they finished their temporary assignment. (Even though the senior officer outranked anyone on the team, he couldn't technically order them to shave - he could just express a strong preference, with the unspoken promise of trouble later if the team defied his wishes; which is exactly what he did.)

Since Herat was halfway around the country, the senior officer wasn't able to actually check to see if the team was shaving. So, he hit upon what seemed to be a beautiful idea to enforce their compliance. Each team in Afghanistan was issued something called an SOI - Signal Operating Instructions - which contained all of the information (frequency lists, for instance) used for communication. There was a part of this particular SOI that was changed every week. The new information was sent to the teams by radio the day before it changed, so nobody would know what it would be until it arrived over the air. The team was instructed to take a team picture every week with the new SOI information held up on a sign in front of them, and to transmit it back to Bagram. A frankly brilliant plan taking excellent advantage of the technological sophistication of the US military - applied, of course, not to winning the war with the Taliban, but to winning the war between Bagram and the deployed teams. Fortunately for this particular team, though, every really brilliant plan has a fatal flaw. Just as technology made it possible for Bagram to monitor the stubble level of a team across the country, so too did technology allow the team to "get over" on the situation. This team had taken several team photos when they first arrived in country, while they were still clean-shaven, and, in these pictures, they were holding up a sign with their team number on it. It was a simple enough process to photoshop the SOI information onto the sign and send a new picture back to Bagram every week. And the cat and mouse game continued . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Warning: Self referential post follows:

I was looking at my sitemeter thingy and I found out that this blog has passed 2200 hits in a little more than 2 and a half weeks. Now, compared to a site like Instapundit or the Mudville Gazette, that's not much, but I think it's pretty amazing. According to the neat little graphs that sitemeter kicks out, the number of visits per day has been ramping up steadily (with one little hiccup around the 19th when I didn't post anything for a few days.) Right now, I can expect about 150 visits to the site per day.

When I started this blog, I really didn't expect to have anyone outside an immediate circle of family and friends reading it. I know that 150 visits per day doesn't equate to anything like 150 steady readers. For example, I always get a few hits referred by random blogs right after I post, so I suppose that some people are following the "latest updated" list to my site. Also, I suspect from the pattern of domain names that visit here, that some people look in more than once a day. And, probably a few people a day follow one link or another here, read a few posts, and decide it's not for them.

I'd guess that 150 hits per day equates to about 75-100 regular readers, but I don't know. Does anyone else have any experience with, or know any rules of thumb for, calculating regular readership from hit rate?

(And, I have to say, even 75 regular readers just astounds me. The number of people who I expected to be reading this - Hi Mom! - totals up to less than 10. It's a little surprising anyone who doesn't already know me would be interested in my less than heroic war stories and fractious opinions. But thanks.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Say it with JDAMs

According to this story, there was a recent incident in Khost where we offed five ACM (anti-coalition militia) after they launched rockets and mortars at our base there, and at three Afghan border checkpoints.

There are two points to take away from this. First, I suspect that the Taliban will be with us for the foreseeable future, as long as they continue to have safe havens inside western Pakistan, and as long as they continue to receive funding from Wahabbi extremists. Now, I understand the political realities around the Musharef government - he's doing a hell of a job keeping the Paki islamic nutcases from taking over the asylum, and any large scale incursion by the US military runs the risk of being the tipping point for Pakistan. If Musharef falls over anti-US sentiment, any other government that emerges would likely be worse, plus we'd have to worry about where the Paki nukes end up. And it's the calculations around the danger of internal unrest that also prevent Musharef from "grasping the nettle" and cleaning out the rat's nest of the tribal areas himself. I'm less sure of why we continue to tolerate the financial support for islamic terrorists that many of the richest and most powerful Saudis provide, but I at least understand the reasoning that we should let them deal with it internally rather than risk the fall of the kingdom of Saud. We may have to intervene militarily in Iran or Syria in the near future - better not to also risk having to intervene in Saudi Arabia.

However, if the Taliban continues to receive Saudi money to support their operations, and they continue to be able use Miram Shah (a city in western Pakistan) as a safe haven where they can stage operational and logistical support, they're not going to go away. The best we can hope to do is to marginalize their influence with the Afghan population, particularly the Pashtuns in the southeast and east of the country. That, coupled with strong intervention at the border, seems to be the best bet. And it appears to be working, but the best we can hope for is a reduction in the level of Taliban operations, and not the end of them. I suspect we're facing a long period of "an acceptable level of violence," as the British used to phrase it during the Northern Ireland conflict.

The second point is that, when you really, really want to get someone's attention, say it with warplanes. It's incredible how much difference in attitude a chain cannon, rockets, and a few 500 lb bombs can make. The A-camp we occupied when we first got to Afghanistan had been established less than two months earlier, and the team that was there before us was still working to get the local area under control. Rocket and mortar attacks were an almost nightly occurence. After a few of them, the team figured out that many of the attacks were being launched from either inside or right next to a local farmer's compound. The team questioned the farmer about it, but he claimed that while the Taliban might be using his fields to launch their attacks, he hadn't given them permission to, and no, neither he nor his family had seen or heard anything - they were always asleep inside his compound when the attacks occurred.

Since the farmer wasn't any help, the team decided to hide a few soldiers out near the compound every night to try to pick up on the attacks. A few nights before we took over, right around 2am, the outpost saw some men drive up to the farmer's fields, literally right outside his walls, and start to set up a mortar. The team called in an A-10, who responded by dropping a couple of 500 lb bombs on the would-be firing party.

The bombs had the effect of breaking up the mortar attack for the night. They also demolished one of the outside walls of the farmer's compound, and ruined a good bit of his orchard. The next morning the farmer showed up at the camp, complaining loudly about the bombing and demanding compensation for the damage. The team explained to him, correctly, that US policy is to pay for damage caused by accident or neglect (for example, if a bomb had inadvertently been unshackled from the plane as it flew overhead), but not to pay for damage that was a result of combat operations. They suggested that he apply to the Taliban for recompense, since it was their choice of firing position that led to his wall being knocked down. Finally, they flatly told him that if they were attacked from the same location again, they would drop bombs again, so if the farmer was really concerned about his family and property, he would help them find the Taliban that were using his field as a firing pit. The farmer left, not very happy.

As part of the turnover, the team that was leaving briefed us about what had happened. We filed it away in case we saw rockets coming from that area, but we didn't think it was very likely. We didn't think that anybody would be stupid enough to try to re-use a place that they had been bombed in. We were wrong. The second night after we took over the camp, at about 2:30 in the morning, we heard what sounded like a short but vigorous firefight coming from the direction of the farmer's compound. If we had been there for awhile, we would probably have rolled out to see what was going on, but with less than a week in country and with only two days out in the bush, we decided to give this one a pass.

The next morning, the local chief of police shows up with the farmer. This farmer had shown up at the police station early that morning to ask the chief to intervene with us on his behalf. Naturally enough, we wanted to know why - had he been helping the Taliban? Not helping, exactly, it turned out, but he had known the bad guys were using his field to fire at us. He didn't want to get involved, though, so he had ignored them. After his compound got bombed, he was a good bit less neutral, and, the night before, when men on motorcycles showed up and started setting up some rockets, he had leaned over the compound wall and told them to leave. They refused, so he opened fire on them. After a brief exchange of gunfire, the bad guys figured out that they were out in the open and he was behind a wall, so they decided to leave. The farmer was worried that we would be upset with him since he hadn't told us beforehand, and hadn't helped us capture the Taliban. We assured him that shooting at them worked just fine for us, and we parted friends. We got rocketed and mortared some after that, but never from that direction.

Quick answer to a question on another site

Lilly asked about the numbering scheme for A-teams, and Jack Army responded in this post. Since it seems like at least one person in the world is interested, I thought I'd explain a bit further.

Almost all of the Army's Special Forces fall under USASFC, the United States Army Special Forces Command, which in turn falls under USASOC, the United States Army Special Operations Command, which also commands the Rangers, Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, and the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment. USASOC is part of SOCOM, the Special Operations COMmand, which runs all of the military's Special Operations Forces (Army SF, Navy Seals, etc.)

Army Special Forces is broken down into Special Forces Groups (usually referred to as "Group.") There are 5 active duty groups, and each is responsible for a different region of the world. 1st Group is responsible for the Asia/Pacific region, 3rd Group for Africa, 5th Group for the Middle East and Central Asia, 7th Group for Central and South America, and 10th Group for Europe.

There are also two National Guard groups, the 19th and 20th. In days past, 19th Group was closely aligned with 1st Group, and 20th was aligned with 7th Group. That was an artifact of the days when there were four Reserve / Guard Groups (11th, 12th, 19th and 20th) and only four active duty groups (before 3rd Group came on line.) Each Reserve Group was paired with an active duty group. 11th and 12th Groups were deactivated in the early 1990s as part of the "peace dividend" after the "end of history" (anybody remember that now?) Now, with the GWOT, that pairing is pretty much out the window, and there's a good bit of discussion about how to handle the National Guard groups going forward.

Since 9/11, part of some groups have been deployed to areas outside their assigned region to support the GWOT. For example, parts of 7th Group have been deployed to Afghanistan.

Each Group is organized into three battalions, and each battalion is organized into three companies. Each company in turn contains six A-teams. So, a given SF soldier might be assigned to a team in B Co, 2nd SF Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, for example.

In addition to a place in a company and battalion, each A-team has a unique identifying 3-digit (except for 20th group, see below) number. For example, a team might be known as 931 or 562.
The first number designates the Group the team belongs to: all 5th Group teams begin with 5(say, 573). 10th Group uses 0 as their starting number (say, 062), and 19th Group uses 9 (say, 931.) 20th Group is different; they use 20 as their group designator, so they have 4-digit team numbers (say, 2044.)

The second number designates the company within the group. There are 9 companies per group (3 battalions x 3 companies per battalion) and the numbering scheme reflects that organization. The companies are numbered sequentially, starting with 1 (Alpha Company of 1st Battalion) and running to 9 (Charlie Company of 3rd Battalion.)

The third number designates the team within the company, from 1 to 6. (The company headquarters, or B-team, is usually designated with a 0 (for example, 970.) It used to be standard to assign the number 4 to all of the HALO teams (teams specializing in free-fall parachuting - 774, for example) and the number 5 to all of the SCUBA teams. Beyond that, some Groups standardized team assignment for other teams (Lilly mentions one group that designated all of its recon teams with a 2) but that wasn't consistent across the groups.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

What a maroon, what an ignoranimus...

It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic: So I'm reading Major K's post on the recent anti-war protests fifth column in this country, and I click through to CNN's coverage of the protesters, and here's this doofus:

"This country was founded by acts of civil disobedience," said David McReynolds, 75, of New York, as he marched along 42nd Street . . .

WTFK? This country was founded because, when civil disobedience failed, men with military and political virtue were willing to fight for it. Or does this guy really think that we gained independence from England, and went on to create and maintain a constitutional government, through teach-ins at Harvard?

These people really don't live in the same world I do . . .

And what kinda pisses me off about it is that the existence of people like me makes it possible for people like them to exist without ever having to confront the lunacy of their beliefs.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Interesting, in a morbid sort of way

From a Michelle Malkin post dismissing the myth that blacks are being killed disproportionately in Iraq:

A breakdown of KIA's by the NYT. It covers officer vs. enlisted, race, sex, age, education level and pretty much supports the idea that it's a war being fought by the working and middle classes (i.e., most of us.)

It also indicates that the Army and Marine Corps are pretty much getting it in the neck vs. the Navy and Air Force, but that's not surprising given the US's current global air and naval supremacy.

I'd be interested to see a breakdown by rank (that is, enlisted, junior NCOs, senior NCOs, company and field grade officers) and by MOS (combat vs. combat support vs. service support), because it would give a better picture of who's being targeted, but that's probably not of general interest to the NYT's readers.

The anti-war protests probably had at least one benefit

I'm not going to comment on the anti-war protests this weekend in Fayetteville and San Diego per se. I think the conduct of the protesters was reprehensible (protest the policies, not the soldiers - as so many other people have pointed out, protesting in Washington DC is acceptable; protesting at military bases is just wrong), but I don't really have anything new to add to the analysis. Lt Smash was there for the San Diego protest, while Ray was at the one in Fayetteville.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't a total loss for the military side, though - my experience from back when I was in living in Fayetteville is that SF operators view confused left wing radical college females as legitimate targets, and, by busing in out-of-town protesters, Code Pink et al,created a target rich environment. (If you accept 1500 protesters in Fayettenam, I'd guess a good thousand or more would be female - based on my instinct that college age women are overrepresented in these things, and heterosexual males of any age are severely underrepresented.)

I'm sure that the approach was pretty much the same as the one guys I knew used to use up at the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area when fishing for coeds: play the tortured, conflicted soldier to the hilt - a sensitive soul who's been forced by circumstance to become a dangerous killer, maybe with a touch of the warrior-poet thrown in. It would be interesting to see some statistics on how many of these earnest young women, after marching against the war, went out to celebrate their victory and found themselves providing "aid and comfort" to one of the poor victims who were forced into involuntary servitude as soldiers for the man. I'd bet it would be more than you'd think. I certainly hope so.

What I learned from life in a combat zone

There was some discussion in my unit at drill this weekend about pulling together the "lessons learned" from our recent deployment. The idea is that we'd make a list of things we wished we had known before we went to help out the next time we or somebody else gets deployed.

Its a good idea, and there are some things I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now (driving around in a HMMWV? - always have a 15mm wrench with you!), but I have to admit that I really didn't learn all that much that I didn't know before. I did figure out that some things that I'd been taught in the military before I went really are important (and some other things, of course, aren't.) Most of what I "learned" from my time in Afghanistan is that there's some good advice already out there that's worth taking.

In one way and another, I mostly learned that my Scoutmaster was right - Be Prepared:

"Take care of your equipment and your equipment will take care of you." The best maintenance is preventive maintenance. Consistently cleaning equipment, doing checks and services on equipment, repairing equipment before it fails, makes all the difference in combat readiness. It's not sexy like bouncing compounds or patrolling, but it's just as important to mission success. Spend some time every day cleaning weapons, servicing vehicles, blowing the sand and dust out of radios, whatever. Have a schedule for maintenance (kind of like changing your oil every 3000 miles), and stick to it. Spend some time before the deployment and make sure you have the tools and equipment (e.g, headspace and timing gauges, ohmeters, wrenches) to do your maintenance before you go -if the army gives you the equipment, it should give you the tools to work on it, but that's not always the case.

With that said, equipment always fails, and it never fails at a convenient time. Always have a plan for how to get along without any piece of equipment, and always have a plan to deal with it when it fails (for instance, always, always have a tow strap, jumper cables, and the like with you when driving around in GMVs and such.) Know and rehearse how you're going to maintain security when something breaks and you have to repair or recover it out in the open. There are no time-outs in war, and more than once, I've seen security go to hell when a few guys were under a HMMWV trying to replace a half-shaft.

"Two is one and one is none." If you really can't figure out what you would do without something (like a gun), you'd better have two of them. True story - we had some Polaris ATVs that we used to scout out in front of the main convoy. The riders would bungee their rifles down to the handlebars. One day, one of the scouts flipped the ATV - he wasn't hurt, but his rifle barrel was bent. Not something you want to be without in Indian country. (My advice was that he turn the rifle upside down and flip the ATV over again to straighten the barrel - he didn't try it.)

"Take care of your soldiers and they'll take care of you." Kind of the same deal as equipment. Don't neglect PT just because you're in a war zone - sooner or later, you'll need all the strength and/or flexibility and/or aerobic capacity you can muster. Have a rest plan. Guys can't operate at a fever pitch for months on a time - factor some downtime into the optempo.

"Have a plan. Have another plan for when the first plan doesn't work." (Also stated as "Hope is not a method.") Maintenance is half of implementing the Boy Scout motto in combat. Planning is the other half. It's not enough to have a plan - have alternate plans in case something goes wrong with the first one. Plan for contingencies. You should always be asking the what-if questions, and should have planned and rehearsed, or at least briefed, how to deal with them. Know MDMP (the military decision making process - a process for mission planning) and know what steps you have to hit, and which ones you can skip.

"Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse." A truism of war is that an OK plan well executed will trump the perfect plan that gets screwed up. Once you have the perfect plan, make sure everyone can make it work. Spend more time practicing than planning, and make sure everyone involved knows the plan, knows the objectives, and can execute if he has to. Always do pre-combat inspections - anyone can forget anything, so it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes checking something off.

"Be polite, be professional, but always have a plan to kill everyone you meet." Always good advice, but particularly true in an insurgency. You don't want to alienate the populace, but you don't ever want to forget that the populace includes people who will give their own life to see you dead. Don't let that happen - don't mistake politeness for weakness. Explain why you have to do something (search a car, or handcuff a prisoner, or whatever), be apologetic, but firm - don't ever fail to follow a security measure because you're concerned about making one of the locals angry - and that includes opening fire on a sedan because it doesn't freaking stop when it's supposed to.

"Semper Gumby" Always flexible - it should be the army motto. The flip side of planning is that plans never survive first contact with anything - the enemy, the terrain, the weather, or (especially) higher headquarters. Get used to being flexible, and changing things as you go. Don't get trapped by a planning tempo that lets the bad guys get away because you can't react to changes quickly enough. Know your capabilities, the capabilities of the people around you, the capabilities of the equipment you have, and be able to formulate a new plan out of them on the fly. What really matters is the commander's intent - get used to making that happen,even if everything else changes. If all that fails, and things go wrong, remember:

"Bad news doesn't get better with age." If there's a problem, or something didn't happen that should have happened, or something went terribly awry - go ahead and pass it up the chain of command. The sooner you can get somebody else to share ownership of your problem, the better off you are. And last, but most important:

"Be aggressive." Finally, when all else fails, charge. Violence of action will cover for a multitude of tactical and practical sins.

And, of course, I also learned that some things that matter a lot to a peacetime army don't matter a damn when the shooting starts. I also learned that there are good Sergeants Major out there and not so good Sergeants Major out there, and that the not-so-good ones had trouble making that adjustment. Another true story: The army has found this thing called a Hesco barrier - it's basically a big collapsible wire cube with fabric sides. You set the cube up and fill it with dirt, and it creates a barrier big enough to stop small arms, RPGs, car bombs and the like. All of the camps out in the countryside had been screaming for them, along with Afghani police stations and government offices, and they were in critically short supply. So one day towards the end of our rotation I'd gone back to Bagram, and I find an engineer unit tearing out the Hesco wall between Camp Vance (the CJSOTF compound) and Disney Drive (the main road through the airfield.) Now, understand, this wall wasn't between the compound and the outside village - it was between the compound and the rest of the US Army. So, I thought maybe they were getting rid of the wall and were going to replace it with a fence or something. I asked the engineer running the detail what would happen to the Hescos - maybe we could re-use them. His judgment was that the Hescos, which were nearly two years old, couldn't be disassembled, transported and reassembled with any degree of success. We got to talking, though, and I asked him why they were tearing them out and what they were going to replace them with. It seemed to me to be a pretty low priority job, and we sure could have used the dozer and front-end loader out where we were for a few days. It turned out that the engineer shared my opinion of the importance of the work he was doing. He told me that they weren't putting up a different kind of fence - they were replacing the Hescos. "They're doing what?", "Replacing the Hescos", "Why are they replacing the Hescos?" He explained that the Sergeant Major thought that the current Hescos looked sloppy and weathered, and it didn't project the proper military appearance. So, he took Hescos that could have been sent to the various firebases, camps, and Afghan government installations that were under constant rocket and mortar attack, and instead used them for a beautification project on Bagram, the safest place in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Hey, pick me up a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a box of rocks ... not too pointy

Those of you with delicate sensibilities may want to skip ahead to the next post, which is quite nice and deals non-controversially with other blogs I like.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) was headquartered in Kabul, and didn't have any standing garrisons outside of the capital. Instead, they would rotate a brigade or so at a time out into the countryside, then bring them back to Kabul, pay them, and put them on leave for a few weeks. (The banking system was nonexistent outside of Kabul, so soldiers from outside of the capital would have to get paid, and travel home to give money to their family. At least that was the reasoning behind the system, although I suspect the men enjoyed getting two months off out of the year.)

Every four to eight weeks, we'd pick up a new rotation of Afghan National Army soldiers for a four to six week tour of duty at our camp. We typically got half a battalion worth of ANA soldiers - about 130-150 men - coming into camp to work with us. That meant that, at first, every month or two, we were starting over with a new group to evaluate, bring up to speed, and finally, take out on operations. Later, we got some of the same soldiers rotating through a second time, which sped up the process considerably.

One of the biggest issues with a new group was enforcing the rules about camp hygiene. In the Afghan countryside, there wasn't a lot of emphasis on public health and disease mitigation. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of the Afghans were "ground-shitters." If you needed to go, pick an unused spot, screened from view, and have a go at it. That wouldn't do inside the camp, for aesthetic reasons as well as health reasons, so we spent a lot of our time convincing the Afghans to use the latrines.

Thanks to the primitive nature of the facilities at the camp, the process for dealing with bodily functions was a bit elaborate, and must have seemed a little ridiculous to someone used to letting fly in any convenient corner. We had four plywood latrines built for the Afghanis - the latrines were basically an upright, raised box with a door and latch, and a hole cut in the bottom of the platform. Underneath the hole was a 55 gallon drum, cut in half, that acted as a receptacle. No seat required - Afghanis came from the Asian squatting tradition instead of the Western sitting tradition. If you needed to crap, that was the place for it. The contents of the barrel had to be burned every day or so, by mixing in diesel fuel, stirring and igniting. That process had to be repeated until there was nothing but ash left, which could be dumped and buried. That meant that there needed to be as little liquid in the barrel as possible, so the poo and diesel mixture would burn efficiently. That meant, in turn, that if you only needed to piss, you used one of the "piss tubes" set up to the side of the latrines. The tubes were 2" PVC pipe that routed the piss outside the inner wall, into a pit containing a mixture of rock and lime. Explaining all this, and fielding the questions that followed, through an interpreter, to a bunch of guys who came from a culture that was in many ways painfully modest, was always a fascinating experience. The rules were usually greeted with a good bit of skepticism and some resistance - the latrines and tubes were placed to be out of the way and close to the wall, while the Afghan soldiers were staying in tents in the center of the compound, and the Afghan officers were sharing the one good building with us. That meant that any late night elimination required a bit of a hike, unless one chose to use one of several handy patches of ground that were much closer.

We learned a lot of lessons during the first ANA rotation, and some of them were about how to deal with the whole hygiene issue. We found out that the whole "piss here, crap there" was pretty foreign to most of the Afghanis, even with their basic training in Kabul, so we had to set the rules out early and really push the Afghan chain of command to enforce them. We also figured out, that, with the limited amount of time we had to train and work with the Afghan soldiers, it didn't make a lot of sense to use them on fatigue details. During the first ANA rotation, we had a designated detail of soldiers (usually ones who had managed to piss their sergeant off in some way) assigned to camp maintenance and improvement projects - every day, they would fill sandbags, build fighting positions, clean up the camp, and burn the latrine barrels. None of them liked that duty (who would?), and it cut into our training time with them, so we decided to hire locals to take care of those things. We hired two men from the local village just to burn the barrels and shovel lime into the piss trenches. They got the munificent salary of seven dollars a day (about twice the going rate for a day laborer in the area, and two dollars more a day than we paid the locals who were filling sandbags for us) and two meals a day in exchange for taking on the most distasteful job in the camp.

We hired our labor detail right after the first ANA rotation left the camp, so for about two weeks, the sanitation engineering management contingent had it pretty easy. All they had to do was take care of one barrel used by the small Afghan security contingent left in the camp, and the one barrel from our latrine. (Our latrine was right next to the Afghan's, but was distinguished by a raised plywood platform with a toilet seat screwed to it, and by a combination lock on the door, placed there after we found muddy footprints on our toilet seat one too many times.) Neither barrel would become very full from a day's use, so the burn crew was only working about an hour a day. That would change once a new contingent of 150 men showed up, of course.

We felt like we were ready for the second rotation. A few of us convoyed up to Kabul and picked up our boys, and brought them back down to the camp. The camp rules were first discussed the Afghan officers and sergeants, and then, with their help, read and explained to the entire contingent. We managed to make having civlilians handle the shit burning detail into a useful tool to help enforce the camp rules: any Afghan soldier caught going on the ground would find himself assigned to help with the barrels for a few days, which we figured would cut way down on the recidivism rate - as long as we could catch a few and make an example of them.

That night, one of our guys went up into a guard tower overlooking the compound with a pair of night vision goggles(NVGs), a handheld umpteen million candlepower spotlight, one of the American ETTs (embedded tactical trainers: soldiers assigned full-time to training the ANA) and the Afghan Sergeant Major. Sure enough, it was dark, and there were some secluded spots that seemed much easier than the trek to the latrines. Cue our first victim, squatting peacefully in the dark. The NVGs got turned off, the spotlight got turned on, the Sergeant Major identified the culprit, who was pretty horrified to have his private reflections interrupted by the bright and shining beam of authority. Word apparently made it around the tents, because, after the second victim, everybody else walked pretty ostentatiously back to the latrine area. And that, we thought, was that. We had dramatically established a zero tolerance policy for poo in the camp.

Our grand hygiene strategy, though, failed to consider the cultural diversity of the Afghan people. A few days later, we hear a complaint from the Afghan soldiers - one of the barrels isn't being burned, and some of the soldiers can't go until it is. We checked, and, sure enough, one of the barrels was full to overflowing. That raised two questions - why wasn't this particular barrel being burned, and why couldn't the soldiers use one of the other latrines. The Afghan sergeant answered the second one for us. This rotation included some soldiers from near Herat in the southwest part of Afghanistan. Iranian influence was pretty strong in that area, both politically and culturally, and a lot of the soldiers from that area were Shi'ite Muslims instead of Sunni. The Shi'ites had taken to using one latrine exclusively, and that was the one that was overflowing -and the one that pretty quickly became known to the Americans as the "Shia Shitter."

So our medic went and found our burn laborers - why wasn't the barrel being burned? He told us later that he was afraid that the answer was going to turn into some religious dispute over Sunnis burning Shia waste, so he was relieved to find out that they had a practical excuse: The barrel was too heavy. The obvious question got asked, "How can the barrel be too heavy for two men to lift?" The unspoken question was "What are you people eating?" The laborers didn't know why, they just knew that they couldn't lift it, so they had left it in place. Our medic had one of the Afghan sergeants round up a detail, and went out with them to deal with the barrel of heavy poo. Sure enough, four men could barely maneuver the thing out from under the latrine and out through the gate. Once outside, our medic had the barrel dumped into the burn pit. He told me later that the barrel was full of small rocks mixed in with the crap.

It turns out that, out Herat way, the custom is to use a rock in lieu of toilet paper. Our Shi'ite soldiers would pick up a small rock on the way to the crapper - easy enough to do, since we had gravelled that part of the camp - and discard it into the barrel when they were finished. So, another rule had to be added to camp policy - use the toilet paper, not the gravel.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Yet more links. . .

I added a few more links to the right - and I've re-categorized the list a bit.

Froggy Ruminations is the personal blog of a fellow operator - the fact that he's dead on with his posts is an added benefit.

Jump Blog is the blog of a former paratrooper who's now a techno-geek working on the America's Army game. Sadly, he's a former paratrooper because of a medical condition. Interesting writer - and I'm not just saying that because all techno-geek paratroopers are great writers, in addition to being good-looking and incredibly interesting people (... I'm just sayin'). Clever title, by the way. A jump log is a chronological list of all the jumps an individual has made. The jump log is a very important document in the life of a paratrooper, both because the senior and master parachutist ratings depend, in part, on the number of jumps he's made (as verified by his jump log) and because drawing jump pay (currently $150 a month) depends on being a "current jumper." (The rules are sort of arcane, but basically, a paratrooper has to make at least one jump every three months to get paid. Eligibility for pay is determined by the jump log.)

The Afghan Warrior is an interpreter for the US Army. By the posts, I think he's assigned to the Camp Pheonix mission. Interesting perspective on current events in Afghanistan.

Afghan News is the Afghan News Network. Its a good way to keep up with what's going on in Afghanistan, if you happen to be interested.

So what do you do for a living?

There used to be this guy in my unit who had a thing about girls (no, really.) Let's call him Joe. Inevitably, if you're chatting a girl up in a bar, one of the things that will come up is the question of what you do for a living. Joe's thing was to assume the most outlandish possible profession possible, and convince the girl that that was his calling. He would do the research and could talk a convincing line. No good reason - it was just something to do. One of his favorites was being the pilot for the Goodyear Blimp. (Two mutual friends of his once met each other in a bar in Raleigh over this. One of them overheard the other one telling a girl about flying the Goodyear blimp. He walked up and asked "Hey, do you know Joe...?" )

We were doing some training at JRTC (the Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. We'd come back in from a fairly lengthy training mission and had some downtime, so we grabbed a car and headed to Alexandria, mainly to go to Tunk's Steakhouse. Somehow, though, we wound up at a bar afterwards. Joe had insinuated himself into a group of young women who were also out drinking, and was talking to one of them pretty intently. It turned out that she was unmarried and an accountant for a local firm - so far, so good - when the conversation turned to Joe's line of work. "Oh, I'm Arnold Schwartzenegger's stunt double." "Excuse me?" "I'm Arnold Schwartzenegger's stunt double. We're out here shooting a new movie out on Fort Polk." Well, at least on the face of it, it was plausible. Joe had the right build for it, but this girl was having none of it, and threw the bullshit flag. "There is no way. C'mon, what do you do really?" Joe, no doubt having had previous experience in having his cover story rejected, laughed it off like it was a joke. "Oh," he told her, "We're in the army. We're doing some training out on Fort Polk." They chat a bit more, and then she asks "So what do you do in the army?" He squared his shoulders, stuck out his chin, and told her, "Well, actually, I'm in Special Forces. Y'know, a Green Beret." She looked at him for a long moment, and then in this exasperated tone of voice, said, "I'd believe you were Arnold Schwartznegger's stunt double before I'd believe that!"

It was a long time after that before we stopped going up to him and asking "Excuse me, Mister, but are you a reeeeal Green Beret?"

Monday, March 14, 2005

I'm not sure what to think about this one . . . well, now I am

I have mixed feelings about this one. Browsing Curmudgeonly and Skeptical last night, I found a link to a site where unwashed scum Howard Dean liberals can post their "apologies" to the world for the re-election of Bush. That site includes this photo:

One the one hand, the Marine is wearing a Combat Action Ribbon, which is the equivalent of the army's Combat Infantryman's Badge. It's awarded for direct participation in ground (or surface) combat, and I'm always willing to cut someone who's in that club a lot of slack.

On the other hand, what he's doing is clearly wrong. Not by voicing his opposition to Bush, but by wearing his uniform while making a political statement designed to embarass the Commander in Chief.

Marine Corps regulations are pretty explicit in that regard, (I've excerpted the pertinent section at the bottom of this post.) My reaction is that some Sergeant Major should be watching this guy clean latrines with a toothbrush, but maybe that's unfair. Should this be overlooked because of his combat experience? I'd be interested in hearing what other servicemen / veterans think about it.

(Of course, he may have only appeared in the picture so that he could sleep with the sociology major standing next to him - I'd have to respect that at least a little bit . . . )

OK, now I'm sure what to think about this - According to Major Mike, what I took to be the Combat Action Ribbon is actually the Sea Service Deployment ribbon, so, at least at the time this picture was taken, the Corporal in question hadn't been anywhere near Iraq (my bad for not picking up on the lack of an expeditionary medal, which is awarded to anyone who serves in a combat zone. ) Now I'm just sorry that the military has eliminated flogging. . .

Excerpt from Marine Corps Regulation MCO P1020.34F, covering the wear of the Marine uniform:(Section 110002.1)

a. Members of the Armed Forces (including retired members and members of reserve components). The wearing of the uniform is prohibited under any of the following circumstances:


(2) During or in connection with the furtherance of political activities, private employment or
commercial interests, when an inference of official sponsorship for the activity or interest could be drawn.


(4) When wearing of the uniform would tend to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces.


the Secretary of the Navy has prescribed that:

a. The exercise of the rights of freedom of speech and assembly does not include the right to borrow the inherent dignity, prestige, and traditions represented by uniforms of the naval service to lend weight and significance to privately held convictions on public issues.

b. Members of the Navy and Marine Corps (including retired members and members of Reserve components) are prohibited from wearing uniforms of the naval service while attending or participating in, or continuing to attend or participate in, a demonstration, assembly, or activity with knowledge that a purpose of such demonstration, assembly, or activity is the furtherance of personal or partisan views on political, social, economic, or religious issues...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

They shoot cows, don't they?

Papa Ray's story about shooting the water buffalo (or at least being there when "someone" shot a water buffalo) reminded me of something that happened to us pretty early on in our deployment:

I suppose because everyone involved is very aware of what one can do, the Army has a horror of a loaded weapon that approaches that of the most ardent gun control proponent. In peacetime, there are multiple layers of rituals and procedures to ensure that no-one ever has a loaded weapon off of the firing line of a range. Even in a combat zone, the emphasis seems to be more on ensuring that weapons are unloaded when not needed than on being sure that weapons are loaded when they are needed. Driving into the US Army's compound in Kabul, there is a line where all crew-served weapons are unloaded ("cleared") under the watchful eye of the camp guards before you can proceed deeper into the camp. (A "crew-served" weapon is one that's big enough to have more than one man assigned to it in a standard infantry platoon - machine guns are crew served weapons, for example.)

On Bagram, it was an against regulations to even carry a round chambered in a personal weapon, even a pistol - a regulation that we typically ignored, what with all the Hajis floating around doing day labor. Getting killed on Bagram would be bad enough, but getting killed while carrying empty gun would just be embarassing. (A Haji was one of the locals, for the more politically correct; also known as an HCN - host country national - for the bureaucratically inclined.)

I'm ashamed to admit that at the beginning, we let ourselves get infected by the unloaded equals safe mentality, while at the same time trying to make sure our weapons were up when we needed them, so we came up with a system that invited disaster. Whenever we rolled into camp, we'd clear the crew-served weapons, but, to save time when putting them into service, we'd replace the belt on the feedtray, so that all we had to do was charge the weapon (basically, "cocking" it by pulling the charging handle to the rear and releasing it.) The SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) then became pull the charging handle and go. Which, inevitably, created a problem. To load a Mark 19 - basically,a cross between a grenade launcher and a machine gun - you had to pull the charging handle not once but twice, with the trigger held down. Pull it a third time, and the weapon discharged. Now most people in Special Forces can count to two without a problem, but interpreting the SOP requirement of "pull the charging handle and go" was trickier. When reloading the weapon, did you lay the belt back in the feed tray, so that the weapon was ready to be charged (so the next guy to need the gun would have to pull the charging handle twice), or did you load it and pull the charging handle once, so that all the next guy had to do was pull the charging handle one time and go? You'd think that we'd have seen this one coming ...

We were heading out on a local patrol one day, and I was in the passenger seat of the lead vehicle with the Mk-19 on it. We did have a rule about not charging the crew-served weapons inside the camp. There was a series of fields on the other side of the road from the camp, and it was a good ways before there were any compounds to worry about, so, we'd wait to get through the Afghan Army checkpoint at the main road outside of camp, then pull over to the side of the road and charge the weapons. We made it out of camp and pulled over, and our gunner started to work on the weapon. He laughed, "Hey, I wonder if they already pulled the charging handle once already?" Cha-chink. The charging handle rode forward once. "No way they'd do anything that dumb." Cha-chink. The charging handle rode forward a second time. DHOOOMP! The Mk-19 sent a 40mm HE (high explosive) round sailing out over the field in a high arc. "Fuck, Fuck Fuck - where'd the round go?" "Can anyone see the round?" A few moments later there was a dull CRUMP and a cloud of smoke and dust from behind a small rise in the field. Suddenly, cows and goats came flying over the rise, running like - well, like a scared herd of cows and goats.

A second later, the radio comes to life, "Mongoose zero-five alpha, this is mongoose zero five. Are you guys OK?" "Yeah, we're fine." "What happened?" "Everything's OK. Uh, we'll explain when we get back in. Mongoose zero five alpha out." With that out of the way, it was time to find out if we were really fine. "Did it hit anybody?" "No, there wasn't anything out there but some animals." "OK, let's roll." It was already obvious that we'd have to do something about how we handled the crew-served weapons, but for the moment - no harm, no foul, and we had a mission to run. With the weapons charged and ready to go (and with an impromptu test-fire of the Mk-19) we headed out on patrol.

When we got back, we talked it over. The gunner was terribly embarrassed - the Army conditions you to think of an accidental discharge (an AD), or what they've lately taken to calling an ND (negligent discharge), as a personal failing - something that might happen to a private in a finance unit, but not to an experienced SF operator. Our gunner was harder on himself than anyone else was - he felt like he should have unloaded and reloaded the weapon instead of taking the chance if he wasn't sure. In retrospect, of course, he was right, but the rest of us in the vehicle had the same chance to catch the problem and didn't see it - in this case, the AD was the fault of the procedure and not the soldier.

The solution we came up with would have given big army conniption fits if they had found out, but we didn't have any more ADs. We decided that ADs happened when people screwed around with weapons that might or might not be unloaded, so - we'd keep the crew-served weapons hot all the time. Except when they were being cleaned, they were loaded, charged and ready to go. And we all felt like that was all there was to it. We had fixed the problem and didn't need to do anything further. There was some discussion about painting a cow or a goat on the door of the vehicle, but nothing ever came of it.

And that, we thought, was that. Until the next morning, when the Afghan Sergeant of the Guard showed up with an interpreter in tow. "What's going on?" "The sergeant says that there's a man at the gate who wants to talk to the Americans. He lives near here" the terp replied. Great, we've only been here a few weeks, and we've already got the neighbors dropping by. That's a good sign. "OK, did he say what he wanted?" The terp got this little half-smile, like he was trying to suppress a grin. "Yes, he says that yesterday, you killed his cow."

Well, damn. That's not a good sign. We went out to talk to this guy, and found him holding what looked like some huge strips of beef jerky, and deep in conversation with one of the Afghan soldiers. This particular soldier was an older man named Naji Shah -one of the original Muj who fought the Soviets, in fact - and he came from the area. Naji had become sort of the camp factotum - negotiating with the locals for supplies and labor, and making sure we didn't get ripped off too bad. We invited our neighbor in to talk, and sent one of the Afghans to grab some chai and candy for our guest. After a good bit of small talk - Pashtuns don't jump into business without a good bit of chit-chat - he came to the point. We had killed his cow, and it would be nice if we could pay him something for it. Well, that sounded fair. How much did he want? The interpreter, Naji, and the owner of the cow in question, got into a heated discussion. After a few minutes of back and forth, I had to interrupt the conversation and remind the interpreter that he was there because we didn't speak Pashtu. So, how much did the farmer want? "Two thousand." the interpreter told us. Naji looked disgusted. "Two thousand Afghanis?" I asked, "That doesn't sound like a lot of money for a cow." "No, two thousand dollars - American" the interpreter added, in case we didn't get it at first. OK, that was a lot of money for a cow. Dan was in there with me, and he seemed to think it was a lot of money too. He looked at the terp and said "ask him why the cow is worth two thousand dollars." After a brief conversation, the terp looked back at us and said "He says that it was a very special cow, very valuable. He says he walked all the way from Pakistan with that cow." So Dan looks at the famer for a second, the tells the terp "Tell him that if the cow walked all the way from Pakistan, he must be a very skinny cow. Why should we pay 2000 dollars for such a skinny cow?" Another conversation between the terp and the farmer, and the terp tells us "No, he says that he has spent years and years feeding the cow and making him fat again, so he is a very valuable cow." Then Dan tells the terp "Years and years, huh? So that cow was very old and about to die anyway?" The terp translates that for the farmer, and we're treated to an impassioned speech - we couldn't understand it, but it was obviously very eloquent, with lots of impassioned gestures. I realized that Dan could do this all day, and while it was amusing, it really wasn't getting us anywhere. I interrupted and told the terp to tell the man that we had to go and call our superiors and get permission to pay him for his cow. I gestured to Naji and got him to follow us out.

Once outside, I asked Naji "Is that cow really worth $2000 dollars?" After the terp had translated for us, there was an impassioned outburst from Naji. The terp looks back at us and tells us "He says that, in this area, you can buy a wife for two thousand dollars." Dan chimes in "So ask him if a good cow is worth more or less than a wife around here." It turned out that a wife costs a good bit more than a cow- ironically, this didn't make us feel any better about the way the Pashtuns treated their women. After some discussion, Naji suggested that he go back in and negotiate with the farmer. We agreed, but told him to err on the high side of fair when setting a price.

After about a half hour, Naji came back with our terp. They had agreed that $300 was a fair price. Naji thought that it was a bit too much, but not excessive. We went back in and paid the guy $400, telling him that the extra $100 was for the trouble and expense of replacing the cow (After all, it was apparently going to require a walk to Pakistan and back for our neighbor.) The farmer seemed pretty happy about getting $400 for a cow that was probably worth about $150 on the local economy, but he did make one more run at upping the ante. After we handed him the money, he talks to our terp a minute. The terp turns to us with this "you're not going to believe this" look on his face, and says "He thanks you for the payment, but he also says that you also scared many of his sheep." I told the terp to tell him, politely, that unless a sheep dropped dead of a heart attack, we weren't paying for emotional distress. Our farmer friend accepted that with good grace. I didn't know how to say "You can't blame a guy for trying" in Pasthu, but I'm pretty sure that was the body language I picked up.

The $400 turned out to be a pretty good investment. After paying him and drinking another cup of chai with him, we got up, told him goodbye and started to leave. The terp stopped us "He says, that he knows about some men in the village who are helping the Taliban. Do you want to talk to him about it?" Oh, yes, indeed, we do.

But at least someone in Papa Ray's unit got a meal out of their encounter with a deadly battlefield herbivore.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Found two more blogs I like

Both milblogs:

Major K is a army intel officer in Iraq. (Another Guardsman!) Compelling stuff.

Jack Army is a SF guy who's detailed to recruiting duty. Has to have the most thankless job in the army right now.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Thanks for playing "You Bet Your Life!"

And the answer is . . .

OK, so it was a trick question. The common thread in all of the shoot / don't shoot scenarios I outlined below is that the man behind the trigger held his fire. If you thought differently, though, that's OK - some of these scenarios aren't set up for cut and dried decisions.

Situation One: This one came from a friend of mine while we over there. There was confirmation later that they were the bad guys, but the sniper didn't see any weapons and he was concerned that they might have been pack mules. The bad guys had been known to grab men up off the road and make them do the heavy carrying, so without seeing weapons, our guy didn't take the shot. I think it was the right call, but it would have saved a lot of trouble later on if he had just shot the bastards.

Situation two: Less than 72 hours after I got to Afghanistan, there I was ... We were doing a "relief in place", where another SF team about to go home was handing off their area to us. A few of us had gone forward to meet with them to plan the handoff, and they offered to take us along on some missions so we'd have a feel for what we were getting into. So there I am, standing outside the gate of the compound and trying to look like I know what the hell I'm doing, when this guy starts walking up at a pretty good clip, smiling and jabbering away in Pashtu. I didn't know what the hell he was thinking, and I still don't - if some guy in body armour festooned in grenades and ammo pouches was pointing a rifle at my chest and yelling at me, I sure wouldn't be smiling. Finally, he got the point and stopped walking about 10' away from me, and I managed to get him to put his hands up. The hidden hand was just holding his shawl, something I figured out later was fairly typical. If that hand had moved, though ... Turned out he was a neighbor, and had been embroiled in a long-standing property line dispute with the owner of the compound we were searching, and just wanted to see if there was anything he could do to make sure his neighbor got it in the neck.

Situation three: I was the buddy by the chest on this one. The guy with me was a big, burly coalminer type from out west - western Pennsylvania, where his family really had been coal miners. It didn't help that the woman was waving the knife all over the place, screaming and yelling. Later, the terp told us that she was calling us "Spetnaz" and yelling "Just tear the chest up. Blow it up. I don't care." She intended to use the knife to pry the trunk open, but she never got the chance. I heard the commotion behind me, and turned around to see this really big knife waving in my face. Before I could react she was on her ass - my coalminer type buddy grabbed her by the wrist and the scruff of the neck and put her down pretty firmly. Of course, if she had been a male, I'd never have had my back turned in the first place. My lesson learned was that sexism could get me hurt. Never let somebody behind you, even if it's a 5' tall, 90 lb. woman.

Situation four: So we're searching this compound, and I hear on the radio that they've detained a man with a gun right outside. I went out to talk to him and found out what happened. It was a really foggy morning, and we had already secured the compound and were doing our detailed searches and interviews. Our perimeter security was just sitting there keeping an eye on things when they saw a man with a shotgun appear out of the fog. Of course, the man with the shotgun saw an armoured HMMWV with a .50 cal machine gun on top suddenly appear out of the fog, too, so it's hard to tell who was more startled. It turned out that the guy was out rabbit-hunting. He even had the only (mostly) beagle I ever saw in Afghanistan. We detained him until the search was over, but our guys fired up a chai burner and had some tea with him while they were waiting. (a "chai burner" is an Afghani propane tank with a stove attachment on top - you took your life in your hands every time you lit one. We had taken to carrying one in each vehicle to heat water and meals while on patrol.) He was actually a pretty good guy - we got an invitation to come to his place for an early breakfast and a rabbit hunt sometime.

Situation five: Decided not to have the Afghans shoot back because of the danger of hitting civilians in the village. There were a couple of security guards that stayed in the bazaar at night, and some of the shopkeepers slept in their shops, so... In retrospect, I'm not sure that the attack wasn't an attempt to provoke us into causing collateral damage, anyway. We did have an A-10 (an attack aircraft) pick up the car on the way out of town, but by the time we had the aircraft on the target, the bad guys were in one of three cars driving away from the bazaar, so the aircraft didn't fire either (I actually think that all three of the cars were bad guys, and the other two were pulling security for the attackers, but there was no way to be 100% certain of that.) Anyway, we got some good rapport points out of the incident - the officer in charge of the Afghans in the compound went with us to talk to the local chief of police about the incident the next day, and they were both pretty impressed with our restraint, and made sure the story got around. "The Russians would have leveled the entire village for something like that, and the Americans wouldn't even let us shoot into the village because we might hurt innocent men." Of course, I'm sure our adversaries viewed that as a weakness, but I think that it's part of the reason we're winning over there while the Soviets lost.

Situation six: The Afghan soldiers were supposed to be in a fixed position, and they weren't supposed to be anywhere near where our guys were. But, sua sponte, after calling their report in, they decided to move around themselves and try to intercept the bad guys. They called it into their officer, but we didn't get the word. Part of the problem was that we retreated the the Opcen (operations center) when an incident started - the Afghans weren't allowed in their because of all of the classified commo gear, so we didn't have a direct line of communications with their leadership when we needed it. After that night, we started sending a US soldier with a radio and an interpreter to stay with the Afghan commander whenever something was going down. Anyway, after a lot of give and take ("Say again your grid coordinates?"), puzzling over maps, and running back and forth to check with the Afghans, we figured out that we had 2 armed patrols 50 feet from each other and about to throw down. Fortunately, the Afghan soldiers never saw our guys, and our patrol held its fire until it was sure of its target. Unfortunately, in all the confusion, the bad guys got away.

You'll notice that there wasn't anything here about roadblocks or checkpoints - that's because we never did them, at least not alone. We had the Afghan Army manning any checkpoints or roadblocks that we set up. Sometimes we'd go along in an "advisory" capacity, and sometimes they ran them on their own. Either way, there didn't seem to be any confusion on the part of the populace that trying to run an Afghan Army roadblock would be a bad idea.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Killing the innocent . . .

I only remember being really disturbed one time about a shoot/ don't shoot decision.

"You shot the dog?"
"Yeah, well, I was number one in the stack, and when I went in the door, there was fucking Cujo, right there in my face, fucking barking and snarling and lunging and drooling. So I shot his ass."
"Man, I can't believe you shot the dog."

I really didn't think it was a bad call - a dog can do a lot of damage if it wants - but it bothered me a little bit. The bad guys we were hunting had made a deliberate decision to try to screw up life for their neighbors, and to try to kill us, so I didn't (and still don't) spend a lot of time worrying that I was trying to kill them first. This dog, though, belonged to the family that lived in the compound we were bouncing, and was just reacting to the sudden threat. Most Pashtuns keep dogs as watchdogs or attack dogs, but they consider them unclean and don't develop a lot of attachment to them. This one apparently was more of a pet than usual. It was really heartbreaking to see the kids afterword, crying over their dog. We all felt awful about it - not the shooting, but the aftermath. That one definitely went in the minus column for rapport building. I'm sure years from now, that kid will be saying "Damn Americans. They killed my dog."

On the other hand, it certainly wasn't the only dog we killed. There were a lot of feral dogs there, and they would try to inflitrate our burn pit / garbage dump outside the compound. We had multiple rolls of concertina around the pit, but these dogs could have been VC sappers, they were so good at getting through it. There was a real risk of disease from them, so guys would snipe them from the roof, using silenced weapons so as not to set the camp off. It was a bit disconcerting how many center mass shots a dog could take from a 5.56 before it went down. The guys eventually started taking only headshots - it was considered the height of artistry to make a clean shot that caused the dog to fall into the burn pit, so that nobody had to drag the body over there later.

I never joined in - I have a soft spot where animals are concerned - but I also did in my share of dogs. For a while there, I was known as the "Puppy Slayer", since I was the one who always seemed to take care of the injured or diseased puppies that we ran across or that showed up in our camp. The first time, we were out on a patrol and spending the night at the police compound in a small village at the foot of some Taliban infested mountains. This little puppy wandered up, scrawny and starving, and so infested with mange that he had literally scratched his ears to ragged ribbons. It was just pitiful.

Bobby, my team's senior weapons sergeant, was, if anything, more softhearted than I was about animals. He was another conscientious objector from the Dog Sniping Range back at camp. He and Dan were looking at the puppy and talking, then Dan walks up to me. "Man, that's just pitiful." "Yeah, it sure is." I replied. "I was just talking to Bobby. He thinks we ought to put it down." "Yeah, you're right. Let's go talk to the doc." Jack looked at us like we were talking a foreign language: "I'm not wasting my drugs on putting a dog down. What if we get hit tonight? What if one of us needs the drugs tonight?" Dan and I agreed that he was right, and Dan went back to talk to Bobby. He comes back a few minutes later. "So," I asked, "is Bobby going to take the dog out?" Dan looks at me a little uncomfortably for a minute and said "He says he can't do it." I realized that Dan was telling me he didn't want to do it either.

I told Dan I'd take care of it, and asked him to let the Afghans know they'd hear a shot from right outside the wall in a few minutes, and not to panic. I went to the back of the GMV and grabbed an MRE. I ripped it open and took out the main meal pouch, then went over and scooped the puppy up under one arm. He kind of snuggled in to the crook of my arm, which made me feel even worse. We went out of a small back gate in the wall, and I set the puppy down, petted him for a few minutes, and opened up the MRE pouch. I petted the puppy again, set the meal down in front of the him and he dug in. I let him eat for a few minutes, gobbling and growling, and then drew my pistol and shot him in the back of the head. Fortunately, he went down immediately, pitching into the remains of the beef stew in front of him. I walked back to the GMV, got my e-tool, and covered him and the MRE over with dirt. Everybody was pretty quiet for a few minutes after that. It probably seems a little strange, wasting pity and remorse on an animal in the middle of Afghanistan, but there you have it.

And a few more links worth following . . .

Two great military blogs:

Doc In The Box is a currently deployed navy corpsman (although it looks like he'll be back soon.) Its a great blog with a nice mix of personal stories, analysis and links. His description of the paperwork minutia and briefing merry-go-round before coming home brought back unfond memories. Check it out.

This is Your War isn't really a blog at all. It's a war diary, and it's personal, intense and compelling. The author is a National Guardsman in an infantry unit in the sandbox (Go Guard!) Whether he's taking you along on a patrol, describing his Sergeant Major's insanity, or describing the activation and train-up before the war, it's terrific stuff.

And one non-military:
The Special Constable is another British law enforcement blog, this one from a part-time volunteer copper. One thing I learned about the British years ago when we were crosstraining with the SAS - they tend to do things with a little bit more flair and style than we do, and a wry, understated humor seems to be built into their institutions.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Would you take the shot?

In my example of the checkpoint shooting, I made the point that, under incredible time pressure and with the highest stakes possible, a soldier has to make a decision. If he guesses right, he's a hero; if he guesses wrong, he's created a tragedy.

And, understand the incredible time constraints that the soldier's decision must happen under. Not only because the foe isn't concerned about bystanders, or in many cases, his own life, but because of a simple reality of fighting - "action beats reaction." In its simplest form, that means that if you're holding a gun leveled at my chest, and I'm holding one by my side (or, if I'm good enough, in a holster), I can kill you. Now you'll probably return fire and take me out too, but I can get the shot off, because your action beats my reaction. Why?

It's the difference between movement time and response time. If I decide to kill you with the gun I have at my side, even with your gun leveled at my chest, you don't know that. And you won't know it until I start to move. Once I start to level my weapon, you have to observe what I'm doing, figure out that its hostile and what your options are (squeeze the trigger, throw yourself to one side, what?) decide to respond, and only then start your movement to counter mine.

Even knowing that, and even within the rules of engagement, there can be vehement disagreement between soldiers about shoot / don't shoot decisions. I saw a long term friendship destroyed by the comment "I don't believe I'd have taken that shot." The army has a tradition of the AAR, the after action review. After every mission, the unit gets together, rank comes off, and everything is discussed and analyzed. Its designed to allow the team to figure out what mistakes were made, how to avoid them in the future, and how to do better. The idea is not to pin blame, but to do better, but they can still get pretty heated - especially when examining a decision that's ethical in nature, like whether or not to kill another human being. Understand, those arguments can cut both ways - it's not always about "you shouldn't have shot him because he wasn't a big enough threat" - sometimes the issue is "by not shooting him, you chose to put my life at greater risk." And sometimes the issue is, "if he get's away now, he's going to try to kill us later."

Below are some scenarios a soldier might face. I've left out the obvious "a car is speeding towards your checkpoint, and doesn't stop when signalled." So, with all the above in mind, would you take the shot:

Situation One: You're in a sniper position, and you see a patrol you're covering take fire from a clump of brush and trees on the edge of a creek. You don't have a clean shot, but a few moments later, you see three men leave the clump of trees, and move down the bank to a small boat. You don't see any weapons. Do you shoot?

Situation Two: You're providing perimeter security for a compound that's being raided. As you move into position, a man in a field next to the compound starts walking towards you. He's smiling, and holding out one hand, but the other one is hidden under his shawl. You raise your rifle and yell "Dresh" (halt) but he keeps coming - again you yell, in Pashtu "Halt, raise your hands." He doesn't comply - Hell, maybe your pronunciation is so bad he doesn't understand you. Do you shoot?

Situation Three: You're a room in the compound of a known Taliban, providing security for your buddy who's searching the room. The compound owner isn't there, but his wife is. There's a locked chest that needs to be opened. Your buddy is standing next to the chest. The interpreter is telling the woman that unless she finds the keys, the chest will be broken open. The woman is yelling and screaming. This goes on a few minutes - now the terp is yelling too, and the woman is hysterical. Suddenly, with a howl, she grabs a large knife from under a pile of cloth and advances on your buddy. Do you shoot her?

Situation Four: You're in the turret of a GMV outside of a compound being searched. Early morning fog has limited visibility to about 20 ft. Suddenly, an local appears out of the fog on the road outside the compound - he's holding a shotgun in both hands. Do you shoot?

Situation Five: It's 2am, and you're on duty on the roof of a SF compound. You see a car drive into the center of the nearby town, and see some men get out of it. One man is carrying what looks like a piece of pipe or a shovel, and the others have bags of something heavy. They disappear behind the wall of a building being constructed. You can still see the car. A few minutes later, you start taking mortar fire from the town. The Afghan sergeant of the guard wants to return fire towards the town into the building. Mortar rounds are getting closer - do you let him shoot?

Situation Six: You've been taking rocket fire from a spot to the south of your compound. Bad guys would sneak in, set up the rockets on a timer, and leave before the rockets go off. To counter that threat, you have several Afghan soldiers hidden out there in three or four man fixed position "observation posts" and a US roving patrol working the area to the south. The Afghan commander says that one of his OPs saw some men moving north through the field to the south carrying what might be weapons. You send your patrol to intercept. The OPs lose sight of the bad guys several times, but you finally get the US patrol close to where the last sighting of the bad guys was. The US patrol settles in a drainage ditch, and sees movement behind a nearby wall. They see a head and the barrel of an AK-47 pop over the wall, look around a moment, and pop back down. Do you shoot?

So, assuming that the rules of engagement allow it under the circumstances, do you shoot? Why or why not?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Next time, I'll use the media coverage of the Punic wars to illustrate my point

This is what comes of using a recent incident as an example - its trying to hit a moving target:

Some updates on the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena hostage story.

Michelle Malkin and PowerLine both discuss contradictions that appear in her story, depending on whether she's simply narrating what happened or trying to slam the US military. The Malkin piece makes it appear that CNN was caught actually embellishing her account to make the US look worse.

Major Mike has done a good job of totting up the real cost of ransoming this woman.

Another update: It looks like the reason the US forces didn't know the Italians were in the area is that they didn't tell them.

Lest this make you think badly of Italians as a people, here's a less well known Italian who didn't get out, but who deserves our respect.

The fog of war: Why I don't trust the media, part 2.

(Part one is more personal, and is here.)

You might want to go get a cup of coffee - this is going to be a fairly long one. I've seen several news stories about the war lately, and I've read a fairly long thread about the changing role and influence of journalists in the political realm. In short, the initial post expressed concern that the Bush White House is de-legitimizing the press, and, in the comments that followed, a countervailing argument emerged that the traditional political press is delegitimizing itself by no longer representing the interests of the public. I also read Major Mike's post, "Military Distrust of the MSM" about the military's contempt and distaste for the mainstream media, and I'd have to say that he's dead on. That's led me to think about the relationship between the "deligitimization" of the mainstream media in the political realm, and what I think is a similiar situation in the relationship between the press and the military. Here, even though I think there are some similarities between the political relationship of the press and the government and the relationship of press and military, I'm going to draw a sharp distinction between the political context of a given war, and the conduct of war by the US military in general - even if that's a distinction far more likely to be recognized by the military than the media. Why does the typical serviceman feel such contempt and distrust for the press as an institution? How did we come to this state of affairs? I plan to discuss that question, and, along the way, I'll touch on a few recent and not so recent stories to illustrate some of why I think the gulf between journalist and soldiers has become impassable in the 21st century. One disclaimer - I'm addressing trends and majorities here - I don't think that the press (or for that matter, "the military") is as monolithic as they appear here.

And I don't think that its a simple as the "pro-journalism" theory that the military prefers to be able to cover up its "war crimes" without the just and fair light of journalism shining on them - and that military members dislike the MSM because journalists hold the military accountable for its actions. Of course, dislike of negative publicity or the risk of negative publicity is part of it- nobody likes to have their every action examined under a microscope, especially by people who seem to be looking for ways to cast those actions in the most negative light possible. And I think that there is some resentment from many service men about the self appointed role modern journalists seem to play as arbiters of the morality of war. Understand, I'm not taking refuge in the argument that people who haven't shouldered a soldier's burden can't really understand a soldier's actions - although I think there's some truth to that. I am saying that the resentment of journalists taking on the role of moral arbiter exists. But neither do I think that the "pro-military" position that journalists are all aligned in looking for ways to undermine US foreign policy and the US military holds up - although I think that the perception that the majority of journalists have political views that are fundamentally opposed to US interests, and that their choice of stories and of tone tend to reflect that bias, does offer at least a partial explanation for the distrust the typical service member feels towards the press. But there are a number of factors - some outside the control of journalists, and some very much their responsibility - that cause people in the military to distrust and fear the inevitable distortions of truth that happen when the media reports on the conduct and consequences of war. Some of these factors include:

A shift in cultural perspective among mainstream journalists
Eason Jordan discussed CNNs "international" orientation and perspective in a TBS interview several years ago:

We certainly tailor our programming for the marketplace; most of CNN's consumers live outside the United States. A great deal of our programming originates from outside the United States. Many of our journalists come from outside the United States. The reality is that we are a US-based news channel, but that doesn't mean we're American in perspective with our international service. In fact the person who oversees all our international outlets is not an American at all, he's British, and we hired him from the BBC several years ago. There are more than fifty nationalities of journalists who work at CNN International producing that service. If we were to move CNN's base to Egypt maybe they'd say we're Egyptian—you have to be based somewhere. It's the people who produce the channel and the people who provide the reporting who are really responsible for it, and those are people from all over the world, the very best journalists and program makers we can find. No matter what CNN International does, as long as CNN's headquarters is in the United States people are going to say, well, it's an American service. But the reality is that it's an international service based in the United States, and we don't make any apologies about that.

In large part, it seems that the current generation of journalists see themselves as supra-nationalists. Having slipped the surly bonds of patriotism (which they would refer to as "nationalism") and having overcome classical liberal morality that would see the US as a force for good in the world, journalists feel themselves accountable only to "getting the story" and to what they would consider an internationalist point of view. Since military service is one of the ultimate expressions of patriotism, and the US military in particular views itself as moral force - fighting the good fight and obeying the laws of warfare even when their opponents do not - its little wonder that the two institutions fail to see eye to eye.

But I think that the end of patriotism in journalism cuts deeper than just misunderstandings. Kevin Sites, the journalist who filmed the shooting of an injured insurgent by a Marine in a mosque in Fallujah, covered his reasons for going with the story in a post on MSNBC. While I discuss that incident in more detail below, I think that its telling that not once in his decision making process did he ask if the story was good for the war effort. Maybe, given the new morality in journalism, there's no reason that he should have. But not at least thinking about that aspect of the story indicates a very different cultural view than say, Edward R. Murrow or Ernie Pyle. Mr. Sites claims that he's not anti-war or anti-American. Maybe not, but the culture that he moves in, and the implicit moral worldview he has as part of that culture, arguably are.

As an extreme example, Mike Wallace, in a famous PBS discussion, once admitted that he would not take action to prevent the death of US soldiers if it got in the way of a story. (Peter Jennings at least had the grace to struggle with the question.) That kind of disconnect between the patriotism and morality of the soldier and the patriotism and morality of the journalist, should and does invite the contempt of the soldier for the reporter.

Lack of understanding of military matters by reporters who cover the military
Here, I'm not talking about sympathy, or a common world-view between reporters and soldiers - I'm talking about the fundamental lack of understanding of how military weapons, planning, operations and members work. Typical reporters covering the military in Iraq and Afghanistan may have a lot of experience covering bloody little third world adventures that they call wars, but they seem to be clueless about how western militaries operate. My impression is that dealing with most reporters is like a soldier talking to a "military beat" reporter is like a Ford engineer finding a senior editor at an automotive magazine who doesn't know the difference between an automatic and a manual transmission. Given the cultural divide discussed above, its hard to believe that ignorance of military matters isn't a deliberate decision for the war journalist, an expression of his disdain for the military culture.

Let's look at the most obvious unasked question out of the Abu Gharib prison mess - where was the chain of command? And I'm not talking about the BG who ran the prison and who started whining about how she was being "scapegoated" when the story came out - although the primary tenet of command is that the commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen is his command. But the highest ranking soldier to be charged or discussed in the press so far is a junior NCO, and all the rest are junior enlisted soldiers - where was the immediate supervision? Where were the senior NCOs and junior officers who should have been enforcing standards and keeping control of their men? Where were SFC Jones and CPT Smith in all this? And that's the question that should have been asked, whether you believe (as I do,for a number of technical and practical reasons, not just moral ones) that what happened at Abu Gharib was an abberation, or whether you think that PFC England was emailing her amateur dominatrix photos to the SecDef every night.

Either way, the immediate chain of command is the dog that didn't bark in the night. But nobody with enough voice in the mainstream media knew enough to raise it as far as I can tell. That kind of ignorance of the military means that reporters simply can't provide the context around their coverage of military operations, and that increases the problems the next issue causes:

Simple cluelessness and willful ignorance in the journalist's audience
One of the things that I think works to the detriment of military journalism, but is largely outside of their control, is the lack of understanding of the realities of combat that exists in the general public. That lack of understanding is the result of their lack of experience with military matters. Maybe it's partly the fault of the military, but the public really doesn't get how much influence Murphy's Law and the fog of war have on the outcome of combat. I think that this is most clearly demonstrated by the recent media coverage of the rescue of the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. The facts about the incident haven't emerged yet, but I can apply Occam's razor to my own experience with war and come up with what the most likely interpretation is:

The Italian agent had just grabbed the hostage, or picked her up after negotiating (read bargaining) for her release. He's either worried about the terrorist's grabbing her back, or deciding to take her back after releasing her, and he doesn't trust the Iraqis in the area - probably, given where they were, many of whom were at least passive supporters of the insurgency - so he's going like the hammers of hell, making for a safe area when he sees a roadblock ahead. He probably didn't coordinate with US forces in the area ahead of time, either because he was acting on time sensitive intel and didn't have time, or because of opsec concerns - or he did and the unit conducting the roadblock didn't get the word. He had a limited time (probably a matter of seconds) to figure out that the roadblock was US, and not the bad guys, and he didn't make it. The US forces saw a car speeding towards them and took the shot. Tragic, but not wrong.

That may not be the correct explanation, but it's the simplest explanation and should be the default one, at least until somebody comes up with something to contradict it. That's a very unsatisfying outcome for people who expect war to be like the movies (or at least a morality play), with a clear delivery of good outcomes for the good guys and bad outcomes for the bad guys. People don't want to hear that sometimes things just go wrong, and that while there may be lessons to be learned, there's nobody at fault. Sometimes in combat, the right decision at the time can lead to tragic results. If it's a car bomber, or a wounded insurgent playing possum, the soldier's a hero. Otherwise he's the instrument of a terrible tragedy - but either way, he did the right thing and made the right decision under terrible stress.

Sometimes, simple cluelessness on the part of the audience makes the transition into willful ignorance. People who want to politicize the conduct of the war, to use the happenings in the war to make some point about the policies that led to the war, will I think, look for underlying motives or plans where none exist - thus, a recent thread on a fairly right wing site that supports the war in Iraq included speculation that the Italians deliberately tried to run the roadblock to create political issues for the Bush administration. Other left-wing sites include discussions about the "deliberate execution" of a wounded insurgent in a mosque in Iraq. Right now, the Italians are going on and on about the latest victim of an absurd war." It's this mindset that leads to the next issue:

Anything can be politicized, and, thanks to the cultural shift among journalists, probably will be
In World War II, a reprehensible incident occured when George Patton slapped a soldier suffering from battle fatigue. Now, most people thought it was wrong then, and - thanks to people like Grossman - we know it was wrong now. But it did have the potential to change the course of the war for the worse. And we never will know the opportunity cost - in lives and potential gains - that we incurred in relieving perhaps the best large armoured force commander of the war, on either side, at such a critical point. Should Patton have been punished - yes. Relieving him was a mistake, though, but one made inevitable by the storm of publicity he incurred.

Now, thanks to increased coverage driven by more competition and better communication, multiply that incident by a thousand or more, and change the equation further - in World War II, US reporters largely felt a responsibility to support the war effort. (As I discussed earlier, I believe that that no longer holds true.) Looking back at the recent Italian hostage story, Giuliana Sgrena, who works for the communist newspaper Il Manifesto, has gone from sobbing for her life and pleading with the US and Italian governments to help her on a videotape a month ago, to announcing now that her captors "never treated me badly." And today's CNN post offers her an entirely uncritical forum to advance her anti-US, anti-war agenda, describing the killing of Nicola Calipari, the Italian agent who was with her in the car as an "assassination", and claiming that "the Americans may have targeted her on purpose because the U.S. opposed negotiating with kidnappers."

Technology and competition among news agencies has led to much greater access to combat operations than ever before. The more opportunities that there are to take things out of context, to interpret military conduct in terms of opposition to policy, the more it will happen. Now, I'm not arguing that conduct that violates the law of land warfare or the norms of human decency that exist even in war shouldn't be exposed and punished. I am arguing that journalists who are ideologically driven to believe - or who provide fodder to those who are so driven to believe - that the US military doesn't largely do the right thing in war, or that any action by the military in war is prima facia an immoral, illegal act, will seek out any opportunity to distort reality to convince the public that the US military is engaged in illegal or immoral acts as a matter of policy. Journalists opposed to military action or to US policy have, because of greater access and better communications, far greater opportunity for their mischief than they did previously. Sometimes, though, distortions of truth don't happen solely for ideological reasons (although there may be ideological undertones), but because of the emergence of:

"Gotcha journalism"
My own experience with this involves the BBC rather than a US journalist, but I don't have any sense that US reporters behave any differently. One morning, we got the word from our gate guards that their was "an American", but not a soldier, at the gate to see us. We found this to be a bit startling - so far, none of our countrymen had dropped our cozy little nest in southeast Afghanistan to chat or have a cup of coffee or whatnot. When we got out to the gate, we found, not an American, but a British reporter with entourage. He seemed quite nice and wanted to do a story on the emergence of the Afghan National Army (ANA). We helped him arrange a few interviews with the Afghans and thought that was the end of it. He wanted to get a few of us to talk to him as long as he was there, but I suspect that it was wishful thinking on his part - he knew that interviewing an A-Team, or getting inside to get pictures of our equipment or compound without prior coordination was a non-starter. Later, we heard from one of the interviewees - an officer in the ANA who spoke some English but who had done the interview through an interpreter - that our new reporter friend had been quite keen on getting the Afghans to make an anti-American statement. He asked a number of leading questions along the lines of "Does it bother you when the Americans treat you like second-class soldiers?" The Afghans were pissed about it, but handled the situation professionally, which made me feel pretty good about our rapport with them. Later, we heard from one of our friends in the local police that the reporter had done the same thing - gone by the police station to talk to the police chief (who was also the acting "sub-governor" of the local area.) In that case, the police chief threw the reporter out of his office. (And, one of the local cops stole a pretty nice digital audio recorder from him - he told us later it was in retribution for the disrespect the reporter was showing his American friends, although I suspect he didn't mind having a pretty nice recorder. So, if any of you know a BBC reporter who's missing one, tell him I don't have it but I know who does.)

More recently, and more seriously, a Marine shot and killed an unarmed, wounded man in a mosque. And, if all the information you have on the incident comes from mainstream "journalists", that's probably all you know. Try this story instead. Insurgents had turned a mosque into a weapons depot and strongpoint. A team of Marines went in to secure the mosque, and, after heavy fighting that included engaging the mosque with tank fire, finally secured the mosque and removed the insurgent's weapons. When they withdrew, they left behind five wounded insurgents. They intended to go back and get them, but the situation was fluid, and that never happened. The next day, a different group of Marines took fire from the mosque, and again had to go and secure it. When the entered the mosque, they saw what appeared to be five dead bodies - the only person who knew differently was the embedded reporter, Kevin Sites, who had made the entry with the other Marines the day before, and knew that these were the wounded from the previous battle. These marines didn't know where the bodies came from or what they were doing there, but they did know that one of the insurgent's tactics was to feign death or surrender and then attack. One of the Marines saw movement from the body. "He's faking being dead." Another marine took the shot and killed the threat. After that, the other two remaining wounded gestured to the Marines and made it clear that they were alive and not feigning death. A Navy corpsman with the Marine patrol then provided medical aid for the remaining wounded.

All that boiled down to 15 seconds of video of the Marine taking the shot - because it was the most dramatic moment? Probably, but I think that there's also a large element of taking the part that makes the subject look the worst, and presenting it without explanation and without context. Why bother with that - the political partisans with whom the journalist is in sympathy will fill in whatever context they like. Kevin Sites was sufficiently concerned about the appearance of gotcha journalism to issue, not an apology, but certainly an apologia. He claims he was "haunted" by not being able to explain the process, and explicitly disavows "gotcha" journalism. However, his defense doesn't ring true - he discusses presenting "mitigating" factors on behalf of the Marine, as opposed to explaining the justification for the action in the heat of combat. He claims that he was not supporting a left-wing or right wing agenda, and justifies that claim by implying that the Marine was guilty of an immoral act but then covering the "other side" of the story by discussing "mitigation"- despite the fact that he notes early on in his comments that he was:

"well aware from many years as a war reporter that there have been times, especially in this conflict, when dead and wounded insurgents have been booby-trapped, even supposedly including an incident that happened just a block away from the mosque in which one Marine was killed and five others wounded."

But then later in his article he cites the rules of engagement requiring hostile intent, and says "Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all." Even in his article written 9 days after the incident - and long after the damage was done in terms of the video - he never notes the context, that in that situation, feigning death - with the known insurgent tactic of booby-trapping the wounded - could by itself be a hostile act, and that approaching the man to search him could have led to the death of the Marine doing the searching when the boobytrap went off.

Instead, a complicated story covering two days boils down to 15 seconds:

"However, the Marine could legitimately believe the man poses some kind of danger. Maybe he's going to cover him while another Marine searches for weapons. Instead, he pulls the trigger."

And, to be fair, the coverage could be from his network may have been more balanced than his article implies. But Mr. Sites goes on to say:

"I knew NBC would be responsible with the footage. But there were complications. We were part of a video "pool" in Fallujah, and that obligated us to share all of our footage with other networks. I had no idea how our other "pool" partners might use the footage."

I find that to be disingenious in the extreme. Mr. Sites, a journalism with years of experience, had to have had a very good idea how the "other pool partners" would use the video - in exactly the way they did use it, replaying 15 seconds over and over without context, without explanation. Gotcha, USMC! That sort of behavior from the press may be amusing when the intent is to catch the President saying "Fuck" on tape, but it is reprehensible when it is directed at men making good faith, immediate, life or death decisions. It may increase ratings,and it may have improved Mr. Sites's standing among his fellow journalists, but it provides fodder for those who want to draw moral equivalences between the two sides ("They may target civilians, employ suicide bombers, and use mosques as firing points, but, look, we shoot unarmed men. Both sides are equally immoral") and rightly invites contempt for for the press from the military.

Equally troubling, in this case, is the misleading effect the video clip has lifted out of context and endlessly repeated. Dowdification (after Maureen Dowd) is the act of lifting quotes out of context to impute a different (usually straw-man) position to a public figure than the one he actually takes. Lifting the video out of context and playing it over and over is equally misleading and even more compelling. Did it happen? Yes. Is it the truth? I would argue that, in any way that matters - except for public reaction - no. And that leads to my last point:

Immediacy is not accuracy
It's been observed that, if there had been cameramen attached to the WWII Italian campaign, we would never have won the war. Daily horrific images would have conveyed to the American public that we were losing the war, and calls for negotiation or withdrawl would have become overwhelming. One can draw military parallels between the Bulge in WWII and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam - both of them were a last-ditch military act of desperation on the part of the enemy, and both were overwhelmingly defeated after intense fighting. The difference was Walter Cronkite, who's on-camera reaction is widely viewed as a turning point in the public's support of the war. Or, to be fair, the difference was in the immediacy of the images that came out of Tet, and it the mainstream press's inability to understand or put those images in context.

One way to define pornography is that it appeals to the prurient interest, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. I would argue that combat video, without context, without background, without information is akin to pornography in that sense. Carnage, destruction and death will always be intensely disturbing - they disturb the people who are there, too. But until the mainstream press figures out how to use the immediacy of video and real-time communications without appealing to the prurient interest and the worst political impulses of the public, they are providing immediacy at the cost of accuracy.

In conclusion, it seems that a number of issues have emerged that create the divide between the military and the press. Some of those were created by changes in technology, but perhaps more fundamentally, many have been created by the changes in the worldview and the culture of the press itself. While I think that technology issues could be overcome, I'm not so sure about the cultural divide between the soldier's view of the world and the reporters. Maybe that's a good thing, and maybe it's not, but I think that journalists fundamentally need to look to themselves to ask where they go with this now. And the American public needs to look to the mainstream media and ask it that's who we want telling us about our military.