Sunday, January 29, 2006

Scenes of Liberation

As I noted earlier, in The March Up West and Smith provide a useful corrective to those revisionists who claim the Bush administration lied when they said our forces would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people. Below is a sample of the reception given to the Marines of 1st Recon, as chronicled by Evan Wright in Generation Kill. (And bear in mind, Wright is an editor at Rolling Stone, a magazine that has been vitriolic in its opposition to the war).

p. 72, Burayqat An Rataw: "Keep your eyes on the swivel," Colbert reminds his chatty team. "This is backcountry."
"But villagers who come out by the trail greet the Marines with smiles."

p. 125-6, North of al Kut: "Two hundred meters past the corpse, there's a farmhouse with a family out front, waving as we drive by. At the next house, two old ladies in black whoop and clap. A bunch of bearded men shout, 'Good! Good! Good!" The Marines wave back. In the span of a few minutes, they have gone from kill-anyone-that-looks-dangerous mode to smiling and waving as if they're on a float in the Rose Bowl parade.
"A kilometer or so onto the trail, we are surrounded by lush fields of grain, then small hamlets nestled beneath palm groves. Rays of sunlight poke through the clouds, turning the dust in the air silver. Fick's impression is that the 'whole place tingles.' And not in a bad way. More villagers run out from their homes, cheering. Grinning fathers hoist up their babies. By one house, teenage girls in maroon dresses sneak out from behind a wall. Defying tradition, their heads are uncovered, displaying pretty faces and long black hair. They jump up and down, laughing and waving at the Marines. . . .
"The road dwindles to a single, rutted lane. We crawl along at a couple of miles per hour, then stop. Several boys, about nine or ten, scramble up from a dry creek bed on our right. They come within about five meters of the Humvee and start yelling, 'Hello, America!'"

p.147, Al Gharraf: "Two men standing by the road outside the shattered town grin and give us the thumbs-up."

p.161, Ar Rifa: "Meesh [the unit's translator] belches. It takes him a long time to answer. Meesh does everything at a sclerotic pace. Even rolling his eyeballs to look at you seems to tax him. He builds up his strength, taking several drags from teh Marlboro hanging from his lip, and says: 'The people of Ar Rifa are grateful to be liberated and welcome the Americans as friends.'"

p.202-203, near Al Hayy: "A shoeless farmer approaches. His face is narrow and bony from what looks to be a lifetime of starvation. Shaking his fist, speaking in a raspy voice, he says through a translator that he's been waiting for the Americans to come since the first Gulf War. He explains that he used to live in a Shia marshland south of here. Saddam drained the marshes and ruined the farmland to punish the people there for supporting the 1991 rebellion. 'Saddam believes if he starves the people we will follow him like slaves. It's terrorism by the system itself.'
"I ask the farmer why he welcomes Americans invading his country. 'We are already living in hell,' he says. 'If you let us pray and don't interfere with our women, we accept you.'
"The farmer, with gray hair and his narrow face wrapped in wrinkles, looks to be about sixty, with a lot of those being hard years. I ask him when he was born. 1964. I tell him we're the same age. He leans toward me, smiling and pointing to his face. 'Compared to you, I look like an old man' he says. 'This is because of my life under Saddam.'"

p.226, Ash Shattrah: "By sundown, any thought that this could be a revenge mission completely disappears. Dozens of Iraqi citizens approach Alpha's hunry Marines on the perimeter, bearing gifts of tea, bowls of rice and flat bread, which Marines refer to as 'Hajji tortillas.' Some townspeople, speaking broken English, are eager to point out enemy positions. A few invite the Marines to come into their homes for a proper meal. Patterson is now forced to order his Marines, who hours before had been fantasizing about killing everyone in the town, to stop eating food brought to them by the locals."

p.227, Ash Shattrah: "After their exciting night at the water plant, the Marines leave Ash Shattrah early in the morning. Locals cheer. To one of Patterson's officers, 'The change in the town was dramatic, like someone pulled a thumb off their backs. We liberated them.'"

p.229-230, Al Hayy: "Civilians line up by the side of the road when First Recon's convoy assembles for its departure. The morning's show of American airpower has whipped them into a frenzy. They greet the Marines like visiting celebrities. 'Hello, my friend!" some of them shout. 'I love you!' It doesn't seem to matter that these young men have just witnessed portions of their city being destroyed. . . . Farther on, there's another shot-up car, with a male corpse next to it in the dirt. More kids dance around the carnage, giving thumbs-up to the Americans, shouting, 'Bush! Bush! Bush!'"

p.233-234, Al Muwaffaqiyah: "The battalion convoy pulls onto a dirt lane and enters a series of shaded agricultural hamlets. We stop, and the residents pour out from their homes, waving and smiling. To the Marines, the villagers' warm welcome is confusing, given the fact that less than two kilometers down the road their neighbors were just wiped out by a 1,000-pound bomb dropped by an American F-18. . . . We see the tiny heads of children poking around the corner of a small adobe hut. Several girls, maybe eight or nine, run toward us. . . . A few hundred meters up from Colbert's team, Meesh meets with villagers, who warn the Marines against trying to enter Al Muwaffaqiyah. They give Meesh detailed information about paramilitary forces that are setting up an ambush on the main bridge leading into the town."

p.256, Al Muwaffaqiyah: "Originally, the Marines in Bravo were told they were going to speed through the town, but there is a delay. While we wait, young adolescent boys trickle out of the deadly ruins. They come to within thirty meters or so of the Humvees and wave. One kid, probably about eleven, stands in the wreckage of a buidling destroyed by the Marines. He blows kisses and shouts, 'I love you, America.'"

p.275: "The battalion spends two days on the road. Huge, cheering crowds turn out in towns Marines smashed through just days ago. Kids run around in muddy lots beside the road, playing soccer, screaming 'Bush! Bush! Bush!' or 'America! America!' It's the Marines' moment to be hailed as conquerors, or liberators or heroes."

p.288, Baghdad: "We enter the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, an industrial district of factories and warehouses. The streets are filled with newly liberated Iraqis in the throes of celebration. Though the city center will not fall for another twenty-four hours, freedom fills the air, along with the stench of rotting corpses, uncollected garbage and overflowing sewers. . . . As we pass by, the looters wave and give us the thumbs-up -- thanking the Marines for making all this possible. Some stand in clusters, chanting the words everyone in Iraq now uses to hail the American liberators, 'Bush! Bush! Bush!'"

p.325-6, Baghdad: "Young men line the street and greet the Marines in halting, yet formal English. 'Good morning, sir," they say.
"The Humvees drive for about 500 meters until a cluster of residents blocks the road. They stream out of their homes bearing jugs of water and hot tea, which they offer the Marines. Small girls emerge carrying roses for the Americans.
"The neighborhood me gather around the Humvees, puffing cigarettes and bitching about life under Saddam. Most of their complaints are economic -- the lack of jobs, the bribes that had to be paid to get basic services. 'We have nothing to do but smoke, talk, play dominoes,' a wiry chainsmoking man in his late thirties tells me. 'Saddam was an asshole.'"

p.328, Sadr City: "On the morning of April 13, Colbert's Humvee leads the rest of the platoon into the slum know as Seven Castles. . . . The platoon stops in the crest of the berm overlooking the neighborhood.
"Within minutes hundreds of children run up and surround the Humvees, chanting, 'Bush! Bush! Bush!' They are soon joined by elders from the neighborhood. . . . Fick [the platoon leader] tries to find out what the neighborhood requires. Initially, elders who emerge from the mob tell Fick they need just two things: water and statues of George Bush, which they plan to erect up and down the streets as soon as the Americans help them pump out the sewage currently flowing in them."

So for whatever mistakes were made after the fall of Baghdad (a subject I'll tackle after I've read Bremer's memoir), it is important not to let revisionists obscure the fact that our troops WERE greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people.

Ben's Book Corner (I)

The first in an occasional series that will likely be of interest to nobody but me (and my brother-in-law Seth, maybe).

Since there is not a lot to do while living in barracks, I have been reading a lot lately. And naturally, books about Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom are at the top of my reading list. Since returning to active duty, I've finished three books about OIF.

Williamson Murray and Major General Robert Scales' The Iraq War: A Military History is a good primer on the liberation of Iraq. It is clearly written, and offers a concise history of the origins of the war, the armies involved, and the military campaign that led to the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. After the war, a former infantry colonel I know -- who is also a Foreign Area Officer for the Middle East -- said that Iraq's army was so weak by the time of the war that it wouldn't have taken much force to defeat it. (And by extension, that Tommy Franks should not get too much credit as a military genius for the campaign). Murray and Scales accurately convey that in conventional military terms, the outcome of the invasion was almost predetermined before the first shot was fired, and that the Iraqi generals did little if anything to offset this disadvantage once the war actually began. If there is one weakness to this volume, however, it is that its narrative ends in August 2003. This is roughly equivalent to writing a book about the Franco-Prussian War and ending at the Battle of Sedan, or about the Phillipines War through the Battle of Manilla Bay. The history of the Iraq War will inevitably be determined by the counterinsurgency fight Coalition forces have been waging since Summer 2003. To their credit, Murray and Scales acknowledge this limitation. Nevertheless, The Iraq War will someday serve as an excellent first chapter of a more comprehensive history of the war.

Bing West and Major General Ray Smith cover much the same territory as Murray and Scales in The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, only through a Marine-centric focus. Both the authors are former Marine commanders, and had uninhibited access to Marines as they advanced towards Baghdad. (This results in a slightly skewed, Marine-centric analysis of OIF, something the authors readily acknowledge). Although the authors try to accurately convey the sensation of the combat surrounding them, they are unable to provide as much of a feel for the battlefield as John Keegan is able to for battles he was not actually present at in The Face of Battle. (This is less a knock against West and Smith as it is praise for Keegan). However, West and Smith vividly depict the confusion that marked the battle for Nasiriyah, a near perfect example of Clausewitz's "fog of war." They also put to lie the idea that U.S. forces were not greeted as liberators, something I'll go into greater detail later.

If The March Up takes a macro approach to the 1st Marine Division's drive to Baghdad, Evan Wright's Generation Kill takes a micro approach, following a team from 2nd platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Marine Recon. Wright amazingly captures both the exhilaration and confusion of battle, as well as the broader tragedy of war. He recounts several civilian shootings by the Marines, each justified by the rules of engagement and the laws of war, yet each equally heartbreaking in its effect on both the Marines and the Iraqi people. Most importantly, Wright's portrait of the American enlistedman is the best I have ever read, and really rang true based upon my experiences. He almost perfectly captures the bravado, humor, and comradery of the Marines as they risk their lives daily.

In the end, the book that suffers the most in direct comparison to Generation Kill is not The March Up, but rather a book about Marines in another war, Anthony Swofford's Jarhead. Swofford's prose is simply beautiful, and at times seems consciously evocative of Tim O'Brien's classic collection of Vietnam stories, The Things They Carried. But when I read Jarhead a few months ago, somthing about it made me uncomfortable, although I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. Having finished Generation Kill, Jarhead's problems became apparent. First, at least one of the stories Swofford claims to have personally witnessed have been exposed on as an urban legend, so there is something of a credibility problem right off the bat. Second, compared to every enlisted man I've ever know, Swofford is horribly pretentious. He describes bringing authors such as Camus and Sartre to read on deployment whereas his fellow Marines can't rise intellectually above Tom Clancy. I have a Harvard PhD, and yet I'd never be so outwardly arrogant and condescending as Swofford is. Finally, Swofford comes off as something of a whiner in comparison to the Marines of First Recon as depicted by Wright. Swofford is constantly making an existential complaint over having been trained to kill and yet never having the opportunity to do so in the First Gulf War. Yet there is hardly a trace of self-pity in Wright's Marines who actually have to fight and find that war is a terrible and bloody affair. Instead of complaining and dwelling over what they have done, at the end of the book, a year after the fall of Baghdad, Specialist Person wants nothing more than to reenlist in the Corps when he hears that 1st Recon is about to deploy to Iraq once again.

Although the media loves to portray soldiers and Marines as endlessly conflicted Swoffords, in my experience the overwhelming majority of enlistedmen are more concerned with their buddies and completing the mission than overcoming their existential angst. The soldier (sorry, Marine) I would rather have in the field with me is the same one who makes for more sympathetic reading.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Iraqis Express Optimism About Future (Again)

According to a new survey conducted by the World Bank, 65% of Iraqis say their lives are getting better, and 56% are optimistic about their country's economic future. Afghanis are even more optimistic, with 70% saying their circumstances are improving, and 57% saying the country's condition is improving.

As "Instapundit" Glenn Reynolds put it, "Apparently, being crushed under the iron heel of Chimpy McHitlerburton's evil empire isn't so bad."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Welcome to Hell, a.k.a. Fort Bragg, NC

Talking on the cell phone to his wife, one of the Captains I'm with said, "Honey, I'm in hell!"

No, I thought, you're at Ft. Bragg, but it can be an easy mistake to make sometimes.

Instead of deploying right to Iraq as I originally thought, at 0700 Saturday morning I was on a bus with seven other captains from my company at Ft. Jackson heading to Ft. Bragg. We passed the two hour trip watching "Black Hawk Down." Although I've probably seen it a dozen times, it took on a special resonance this time, as I tried to imagine how I would react in a similar tactical situation.

When we pulled off of I-95, I was struck by Fayetteville's contradictions. We drove past the old slave market downtown, and then a mile or two later past the gleaming Special Forces and Airborne Museum. We turned onto Bragg Boulevard and were reminded why Fayetteville once carried the sobriquet "Fayettenam" -- mile after mile of strip malls filled with pawn shops, check cashing stores, tattoo parlors, used car dealerships, fast food restaurants, and "gentlemen's clubs" or varying degrees of shadiness. Finally, when you arrive on post itself, you pass through expansive groves of tall pines interrupted by golf courses, tidy housing sub-divisions named after World War II battles, historic red brick command buildings, and shiny new barracks that would put most university dormitories to shame.

Unfortunately, that is not the part of post on which we are staying.

The activated reservists awaiting deployment have been relegated to the old "Division" barracks that were built towards the end of World War II, condemned immediately after the war, but saved from being destroyed by the necessity created by the Korean War. These also happen to be the same baracks I stayed in while a cadet in the summer of 1993. We are now living in an open bay with cracked concrete floors that are permanently gritty (becuase there is no grass, only sand, outside the barracks), smudged khaki-walls with chipping paint, and bathrooms too revolting to provide an adequate description. During the day, the heat rises and the second floor becomes uncomfortably humid, yet last night the barracks were freezing.

No, this is not hell. But the Captain would not have been far off if he had described this as a sort of purgatory.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Second Week of Training

We have just completed our second (and final) week of training at Ft. Jackson.

On Monday, we had a weapons refresher training, which included reorientations on the M-16, M9, M240, .50 Cal, Mark-19, and SAW. We also learned "Reflexive Firing" Drills, in which you fire at targets of opportunity by raising the rifle from the "Low Ready Position" (muzzle of the M-16 down, butt adjacent to the upper chest) to a firing position. This drill emphasizes speed of fire over precision, and is a better simulation of real-life firing than shooting from a prepared position.

On Tuesday, for only the second time, I managed to zero (aligning my sights) my M-16 in the minimum number of rounds possible. Then on Wednesday, I shot a 33 of 40 on the qualification range, a higher score than my best effort while on active duty. (And this despite the fact my 100-meter target was effectively camoflagued by the late afternoon shadow that fell across my firing lane). I still am short of being an "expert" marksman, but I shot well above the Company average, and am somehow becoming a better shot as I get older.

Part of me thinks this must be a by-product of maturity, and that I am no longer rushing my shots, breathing correctly, or jerking the trigger. But I also think that it has something to do with what is at stake in this training. During the Reflexive Fire drills I had perhaps my deepest realization to date that I could find myself in combat in the near future, and be forced to make split-second decisions on whether or not to fire my weapon. And whereas it was possible to coast as a lieutenatnt with less than perfect knowledge of various technical matters, now it is critical that I know how to man and trouble shoot all the heavy weapons systems.

We concluded training with classes and training on convoy and urban operations. It was good training, but once again, only a fraction of what we will need to know and be proficient at before deployment to Iraq. Tomorrow I am off to Ft. Bragg, NC, for a one-month course on Civil Affairs conducted by the Special Operations Command. I do not know if this represents a significant change in my eventual duty position or not, but like most of the other soldiers and officers here, I am eager to get to Iraq and begin performing my mission.

Monday, January 16, 2006

One Week Down, 51 To Go

Some answers to the most likely to be asked questions about my first week back in the Army.

Who We Are -- I was one of 107 IRRs who reported to duty at Camp McCrady on Ft. Jackson last Sunday, approximately 90 of whom made it through the medical and dental screenings. I am currently living with about 20 other officers in an open bay barracks. About half the officers are West Point graduates who served their five years on active duty, but hadn't yet completed their total eight year commitment. Suprisingly, most of these Captains say they were strongly considering volunteering anyways when their recall letters arrived. There are 3-4 retired field grade officers, including some Vietnam veterans, who volunteered to return to active duty. And then there are a handful of officers in my situation, who have already completed their eight-year commitment, but chose not to resign their commissions in order to avoid being deployed to Iraq, in essence volunteering for active duty.

Among the enlisted soldiers recalled, there is a fair amount of cynicism regarding being back in the Army again. Yet this is not surprising, as soldiers are never happy unless they have something to complain about. Only two soldiers have complained about being reactivated on political grounds, one of whom is a kid in a rock band in Green Bay covered from head-to-toe in tattoos and is trying to apply for conscientious objector status. However, these two are outweighed by the roughly dozen soldiers I've heard support strong support for the war, or the retired senior NCOs who volunteered to returned to active duty.

What We Do -- The first four days were spent in endless lines inprocessing (i.e. going through mental and dental screening)and pre-deployment paperwork (i.e. legal and financial matters). Think of your worst experience at the Deparment of Motor Vehicles, only stretched out over three days. On Friday, we finally transitioned to actual refresher training. Thus far we have covered first aid, NBC training, land navigation, and communications. We have only had Physical Training (PT) once so far, but given how many people reported to duty overweight, it is unlikely that we will be doing anything too strenuous.

What We Wear -- Since I left active duty in 1998, the Army has begun the transition to something called the Army Combat Uniform (ACU). All the tabs on the uniform are velcroed rather than sewn on. The camo pattern is computer generated, and a paler green (think boiled lima beans) than the previous Battle Dress Uniform. Although the desert boots worn with the ACU are more comfortable than the old boots, the uniform is still somewhat ungainly looking.

What We Eat -- The food here is mediocre at best. Maybe I was just spoiled by the award-winning dining facility at my last unit in the 82nd Airborne, but the dining facility here is just plain bad. Because Camp McCrady is at the extreme corner of the post and we are not authorized private vehicles, we do not have many other options.

How We Sleep -- Not much. In addition to the long training hours and early wake ups, the Officers' barracks is plagued by chronic snorers. Unfortunately, we've figured out that the chief culprit is the senior officer in the bay, a full-bird Special Forces Colonel. He is a great guy, but it is not like we can go up to his bed in the middle of the night and roll him over to make him stop. Ear plugs help a little, but not completely. The most ironic part of this is that my wife tells me David is now sleeping 5-6 hours a night. So in the end, my two-week old son is getting more sleep each night than I am.

In the end, I am doing okay. It is hard for any amount of idealism to survive the inanities of Army bureaucracy, but so far I have not been deterred. I miss my wife and my baby and my dog (and decent coffee, but that's another story). But the dedication of the officers and soldiers here has me convinced that I am doing the right thing.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Some Common Sense on Body Armor

Below, from today's New York Times, is an excellent dissection of the latest "controversy" regarding body armor and Iraq by a infantry officer with combat experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I was at the Pentagon, I attended Congressional hearings in which Representatives would berate Administration officials because they saw Humvees in Iraq without doors. Apparently, these Representatives (and the reporters who repeated their charges uncritically) did not realize that the first thing Army units do in a tactical environment with an unarmored Humvee (as most were prior to OIF) is to remove the doors from their vehicles in order to increase their fields of fire and ability to rapidly dismount the vehicle in case of ambush.

January 14, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
All Dressed Up With No Way to Fight

THIS week Senator Hillary Clinton, citing a secret Pentagon report that suggested some marines killed in Iraq might have survived had they been wearing more body armor, became the latest in a long line of politicians to castigate the Pentagon for a supposed failure to adequately protect our fighting men and women. Well-intentioned as the senator might be, the body-armor issue, like so many in war, is just not that simple.

From 2000 until 2004, I was an infantry officer in the Army. I deployed with a light-infantry platoon to Afghanistan in 2002, then with a platoon of Army Rangers to Iraq in 2003 and back to Afghanistan in 2004. While I can testify that soldiers usually appreciate the protection body armor gives them, the load shouldered by the average infantryman often hinders his ability to fight - especially at high altitude as in Afghanistan.

But in Iraq, as well, the "soldier's load" is often unbearable. Most studies recommend that a soldier should not be burdened with more than one-third of his body weight. But if you take a 160-pound soldier and put 40 pounds of Kevlar and body armor on him and then he picks up an automatic weapon, ammunition, water and first aid equipment, it's not long before he is carrying half his body weight - and he is then expected to run, jump and fight insurgents, themselves carrying little more than a 10-pound AK-47. All of this, of course, often takes place in 120-degree heat in the cities of Iraq.

Lost among the politicians' cries for more extensive armor for the troops is the fact that most soldiers, in my experience and based on discussions with many, feel they have enough armor already - and many feel they are increasingly being burdened with too much equipment. And the new supplementary body armor unveiled this week in Washington doubles the weight of the equipment - worn over the torso and, now, the upper arms - to 32 pounds from 16 pounds (for a medium-sized soldier).

While an Army spokesman said yesterday that the new equipment was developed based on feedback from units in the field - and certainly, he assured me, not from any political pressure - the statements from soldiers in Iraq tell a different story.

An article last week from The Associated Press noted that "soldiers in the field were not all supportive of a Pentagon study that found improved body armor saves lives" and that some argued "that more armor would hinder combat effectiveness."

As an Army captain told The A.P.: "You've got to sacrifice some protection for mobility. If you cover your entire body in ceramic plates, you're just not going to be able to move."

Thankfully, many military leaders at both the tactical and strategic levels recognize they must strike a balance between protecting soldiers and preserving their mobility and fighting abilities. At some point, the public's desire to wrap ourtroops in a protective blanket of armor just gets ridiculous.

"We don't want a medieval knight," Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the director of force development for the Army, said this week. "We are not going to be hoisted onto a horse."

Similarly, lower-ranking Army officers and noncommissioned officers with whom I have spoken over the past few days stress the need for two things: the development of lighter armor, and also the preservation of a leader's right to tailor his unit's load - including the body armor they wear - depending on the mission.

Sadly, this controversy - like the debates over Army interrogation tactics, prisoner abuse and troop withdrawals - takes place within the context of a nation grown weary of its adventure in Iraq and a Bush administration on the defensive. Elected officials like Senator Clinton, while no doubt genuinely motivated by concern for the welfare of our soldiers, also see political opportunity. And the voices that get overlooked are the most important ones: those of the soldiers themselves.

Much of this furor started a year ago when a soldier from my hometown, Chattanooga, Tenn. - apparently encouraged by an embedded reporter from the local newspaper (which, incidentally, was once owned by my family) - complained of digging through scrap heaps to jury-rig "hillbilly armor" for his unit's vehicles in a Kuwait question-and-answer session with Donald Rumsfeld.

Secretary Rumsfeld's callous answer - "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have" - was roundly criticized as being out of touch with what the rest of America felt: that the men and women who serve our country in battle deserve nothing but the best equipment.

The problem with this noble sentiment is that the American public and its elected representatives don't always understand what military officers and soldiers do: that the safety of individual soldiers must always be balanced against the ability to accomplish the unit mission.

I worry that this timeless lesson is now being forgotten in the interest of minimizing American casualties. "Protecting soldiers," as an Army spokesman told me the other day, "is our No. 1 priority."

Excuse me, but shouldn't winning the war be our No. 1 priority?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Quotes of the Day (I)

(When I started as a speechwriter, I began keeping a journal of interesting quotes I came across in my readings, in theory to use for future speeches. I will periodically share some of the more interesting quotes, not all of which I will necessarily agree with).

"The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite and for this reason, no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 23

"The Constitution is not in its application in all respects the same in cases of rebellion or invasion involving the public safety, as it is in times of profound peace and public security."

Abraham Lincoln, 1863

CPT "Dennis" Nguyen

I still owe a longer post on my first week here at Ft. Jackson, especially given that today we transitioned from inprocessing to actual training. Today was first aid and Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) training, and yes, I still hate going into the gas chamber.

During some downtime yesterday, I struck up a conversation with one of the other officers activated from IRR, a quiet Vietnamese man who is a Military Police Captain. CPT Thinh "Dennis" Nguyen was born in South Vietnam in 1967 to a ARVN major. When Saigon fell in 1975, his father still managed to rally 20,000 South Vietnamese troops, but faced with the reality that they had no logistical base from which to fight, he ordered them to go home to take care of their families. Dennis's father returned home as well, but was quickly arrested by North Vietnamese agents and sent to a concentration camp in the North, where for ten years he endured starvation and torture.

Because of the economic and political situation in Vietnam, in 1981, at age 14, Dennis and his brother (then 12) escaped the country on a 22-foot fishing boat with over forty other men, women, and children. They sailed without food or water for ten days before they finally arrived in Malaysia. (As Dennis says with eloquent understatement, "It was a difficult journey.")

He and his brother eventually came to the United States and were placed in foster care with a family in Houston. His father was released from the camp in 1985, and in 1991 his family was able to arrange to immigrate to the United States. Dennis went on to college, and has a successful practice as a chiropractor in Texas. When the other officers in the car asked Dennis why he joined the Army, he said he just wanted to give something back to his new country.

Elie Wiesel once wrote that "No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Having escaped from a communist nightmare in Vietnam, CPT Nguyen has now volunteered to help bring the freedom he enjoys to Iraq.

I do not think words can express the admiration I feel towards this quiet man. I am proud to be serving with him.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ft. Jackson, South Carolina

I made it to Ft. Jackson safely, and have spent the better part of the past 48 hours in some type of line for either inprocessing or deployment paperwork. Above all else, I'm exhausted. First formation the past two days has been 0500, and I'm living in an open-bay barracks with about 20 other officers, at least half of whom are snoring at any given time.

So in other words, I'll provide a more in depth report on my activities here as soon as I'm doing more than running on fumes.

For now, I just wanted to highlight this article from today's Miami Herald on what the Army is doing to punish those involuntarily activated IRRs who do not report for duty.

Does this remind anybody else of the scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in which King Arthur and his knights are repelled at the French castle? ("Now go away, or we shall taunt you a second time!")

Only the Army bureaucracy would conceive of discharging soldiers who don't want to be in the Army anymore as a punishment!

Penalties Eyed For No-Show Reservists
The U.S. Army has begun to consider discharging soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve after they failed to heed orders to return to active service.
By Robert Burns, Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Army took initial steps Monday to expel dozens of reservists who failed to report for active duty, in effect warning hundreds of others that they too could be penalized if they don't heed orders to return to active service.
The proceedings mark a turning point in the Army's struggle to deploy thousands of soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve, a rarely mobilized group of reservists, to war zones in which some have resisted serving.
These are soldiers who had previously served on active duty but not completed their eight-year service obligation. Unlike those in the National Guard or Army Reserve, they are not required to stay in training. Many have requested a delay in returning to service, have asked to be exempted or have ignored their orders.
The Army began mobilizing them in the summer of 2004, reflecting the enormous strain it felt in providing enough soldiers for Iraq at a time when it was becoming apparent that no early withdrawal was likely. So far, mobilization orders have been issued for more than 5,700 IRR soldiers since mid-2004.
Review panels
The Army announced that about 80 soldiers will face review panels, known as separation boards, although the number may grow.
If the panels conclude they intentionally did not obey a mobilization order, they would face one of three levels of discharge from the service: honorable, general or other-than-honorable.
They do not face criminal charges.
As of Dec. 11, the latest date for which the Army had figures, 3,954 IRR soldiers had reported for duty. In addition, more than 1,600 had been excused from duty and 463 had been sent orders but not yet reported. Of those 463, the Army has been unable to locate 383. The other 80 are the ones who now face discharge.
When the Army initially found that it was facing resistance from some IRR soldiers who did not want to get back in uniform, there was talk of declaring them AWOL and pursuing criminal charges against them. But that was deemed too harsh and the Army spent many months trying to contact those who were ignoring their orders.
In its announcement Monday, the Army said that in addition to those who have openly refused to report for duty, those who do not respond to repeated communications from the Army may face discharge proceedings.
All of the 80 who now face discharge proceedings are enlisted soldiers, according to Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. It was not immediately clear, he said, how long it had been since the Army took discharge action against IRR soldiers who refused to be mobilized, but it probably has been more than 15 years.
Types of discharge
Of the three possible types of discharge that an IRR soldier may face in these proceedings, the most severe is ''other than honorable.'' While a soldier given an honorable or general discharge would continue to be eligible for payment for accrued leave, and for health benefits and burial in an Army national cemetery, those given an ''other than honorable'' discharge would not be. Two even more severe types of discharge -- bad conduct and dishonorable -- will not be considered in the IRR cases, the Army said.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My Call To Duty

Less than 24 hours until I mobilize to Ft. Jackson.

It is a sad day around the house, as I try to savor the remaining time I have with Marya, David, and Precious, our half-pit, half-boxer puppy. More than ever before, I have to remind myself of why I decided not to try to get out of this deployment, even though the Army offered all involuntary activated IRRs (Individual Ready Reserves) the opportunity to resign their commission rather than deploy to Iraq.

First, regardless of whatever one believes about how we got into this war (a process I'm still extremely comfortable defending), it is now the central front in the War on Terror, and a fight we must win. After 2.5 years working on the Iraq desk at the Pentagon, I still firmly believe from the many Iraqis I've met, and the horrifying videos of Saddam-era torture that I've seen, that we are helping the Iraqi people.

Second, if I don't go, they will make someone else go in my place, and I can't in good conscience put a rifle in someone else's hand and ask him to fight for me when I'm still physically able.

Finally, although it absolutely breaks my heart to miss David's first year, thousands of other servicemen and women have already made a similar sacrifice. If we only had an Army of orphans and bachelors we'd been in a pretty sorry shape. And I believe that if we do not do everything to defeat the terrorists in Iraq now, I'm afraid my son will be fighting them again in 20 years.

Lest I seem too noble, remember, I wasn't exactly pushing people out of the way to get to the front of the line at the recruiting station. It is unlikely I would have ever volunteered to be called back to duty and serve in Iraq. And in some ways, this is less dramatic than it seems. Once the Army figured out who I was (Harvard PhD, former Strategic Planning Director for Iraq at DoD, Director of Speechwriting at the NSC, 92% lifetime winning percentage in Stratego), I received emails from MNSTC-I, General Casey's staff, and Embassy Baghdad notifying me they wanted to bring me on board. So in essence, I'll be travelling half way around the world and taking a 50% pay cut to do essentially the same work I've been doing the past two years,only now with people shooting at me.

In the end, I have no doubt that I am doing the right thing. But this is a harsh reminder that the right course and the easy course are seldom the same.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Before We Get Started . . .

Assuming that my command will allow me to maintain this web log, it is helpful to establish a few ground rules at the outset.

1. Security First- For obvious reasons, I will have to restrict some content in order to avoid revealing any tactical or classified information that could adversely affect ongoing operations.

2. Time Lags - Because I do not yet know what duty position I'll have in Iraq, I cannot guarantee that I'll have regular computer access, and hence how frequently I'll be able to provide updates. So if I have not posted anything in two weeks, please do not call my wife to make sure I'm okay. It is more likely that I'm being lazy than hurt.

3. No Politics - Okay, so this is probably more akin to a New Year's Resolution than a strict guideline. But if you are reading this blog, then you likely already know my political beliefs. I'm neither egotistical enough to believe that I am right on all issues, nor arrogant enough to believe that I can convince everybody to think as I do. So I will try to do my best to limit this web blog to reporting on what I see and do in Iraq. (Of course, I may occassionally link to articles that I find interesting . . . )

4. Security Last (Anonymity) - I am usually annoyed by bloggers who dodge accountability for their views through anonymous blogging. That being said, I will now explain why I seek to dodge accountability through anonymous blogging.

Because of my proximity to the White House, the Washington Post wanted to do a story about my deployment. The NSC Press Office cleared, and the interview date was set, when the White House Executive Secretary (a former CIA security officer) pointed out that it only takes about 15 seconds to find my home phone number and address online. There has been a problem of NSC officials linked to Iraq policy with public contact information (i.e. academic email addresses) being harassed by anti-war protestors. Although I believe that most anti-war protestors have noble (if, in my opinion, misguided) intentions, it only takes one nut to cross the line and pose a real threat to my wife and newborn son. Moreover, a human interest story in the Post would be the equivalent of taking out a full page ad to any professional thief that my family is home alone while I am deployed. Therefore, I will be blogging under the nom de guerre of "Ben of Mesopotamia" (yes, a somewhat pathetic allusion to T.E. Lawrence) rather than my real name.

Since the purpose of this web blog is to keep my friends and family informed about my activities in Iraq (and to keep my wife from having to answer every email asking how I am doing), I ask anybody who wants to share this web blog with a third-party to please respect my family's privacy in this matter. If I end up saying anything controversial, I will take responsiblity for it at the end of my tour of duty when I can be at home to protect my family.

Thank you.