Category Archives: Civil-military relations

A Response To Nicholas Kristof; We are still at war, let’s fight together.

The one of the Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

The one of the U.S. Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

In a recent editorial for the N.Y. Times Nicholas Kristof plays upon his fiddle a familiar tune; building schools is better for peace than firing missiles.  In the abstract this theme is undoubtedly true.  Collectively we know that education is the key to a better, safer world.  It is not a question of whether building schools is better for peace then firing missiles, the question is actually whether building schools is better for peace in Afghanistan.

Kristof cites a recent report from the Congressional Research Service that states that the war in Afghanistan will cost more than any other war in our nation’s history aside from WWII.  He also cites the recently leaked military documents, which incidentally and sadly may cost both American and Afghan lives, for support that the military strategy is a “mess.” Additionally, according to Kristof, for the cost of one soldier “we could start to build about 20 schools there.” And, interestingly, Kristof states that education has been far better at neutralizing extremism than military power.

Mr. Kristof is not wrong for believing that education is critical and must be an integral part of our strategy for success in Afghanistan.  The problem with his point of view is that he does not accurately depict the brutal reality facing both the Afghan population and the U.S. military.  Kristof should consider a more narrow focus on those actual realities including the fact that many schools have no doubt survived the Taliban due to military provided security.

Surely Kristof has met women like Aisha, an Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban? And for what egregious offense did Aisha receive this punishment? Because she attempted to escape the abuse of family members.   Will these members of the Taliban enroll in school? And will this happen before or after they read their autographed copies of Three Cups of Tea? How long will the education plan take to affect a burqa wearing suicide bomber such as the one on June 11, 2010 who killed two civilians and wounded another 16?

Perhaps the worst part of Kristof’s view of Afghanistan is his rather uninformed depiction of America’s fighting men and women.  Many members of the media with experience embedded with NATO forces would tell you that today’s soldier is a true “renaissance man,” or woman.  The primary skill set of most soldiers is focused on warfighting, but our nation’s current mission has required much more.  Soldiers are taking out the enemy while at the same time providing humanitarian relief, meeting with town and tribal councils, and directing civil reconstruction projects.  It is up to the Afghanistan people to use this blanket of security and stability to form political gains and reconciliation.  The military cannot do this for them, but neither can simply building schools.

Kristof actually gives no evidence in support of his claims. In what situation analogous to Afghanistan, is it true that education has neutralized extremism better than military power? Our nation, despite the economy, is generally business as usual and this makes it easy for us to forget that we are at war.  We are at war with two enemies; one who killed thousands of Americans, lest we forget, and the other who gave those murderers safe haven.  Because the average American civilian has gone back to business as usual, does not mean the enemy has.

Even a cursory glance will leave you empty handed in finding a comparable situation where education has been successful as a unilateral strategy while leaving military assistance on the shelf.  We need only look to Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009.  The 23 year old came from a privileged background and studied at a boarding school prior to his enrollment at University College London.  What aboutKhalid Sheik Mohammed whose time at studying engineering in North Carolina “almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist” according to the CIA.  Or the fact that we know that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from middle class and educated backgrounds.  It seems that it is not a lack of education that is our problem.

When the evil of fascism and racist extremism gripped our world during World War II, should the Allies have redirected our D-Day budget to the building of schools on the cost of France?  Was there a shortage of schools throughout Europe that allowed ignorance to rule the day?  Education is a wonderful and helpful tool to enriching lives and changing attitudes, but when a certain evil of this world rises up we must meet it with our intelligence, our material, and when appropriate our military.

Mr. Kristof says that his “hunch” is that CARE is doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.  But what are the statistics on stability in the areas where these schools are located? Are attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda down in those areas?  If there was a decline in violence was it in the absence of security? This blanket transformation of areas within Afghanistan must have surely led to a wholesale emigration of Afghans to these areas, and how are these schools coping with the surge?

I must wonder whether Kristof is aware of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) working to improve the lives of the Afghan population every day.  There are an almost 30 PRTs established by 18 national governments operating in Afghanistan.   PRTs are commanded by a military officer, usually a Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent and typically include representatives from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, and Defense, as well as the United States Agency for International Development.  The PRT in the Zabul region of Afghanistan completed more than 65 projects over the course of a ten month period from 2009-2010.  These projects totaled more than $40 million and addressed medical education, road reconstruction, and quality of life issues.  In the Helmand province the PRT reopened 40 schools since December 2008 and actually built four of the schools.  Additionally, as of January 2010 pupil enrollment in the Helmand province increased 34% among females and figures showed a total enrollment of 83,995 students.    All totaled there are 103 schools open in Helmand, and in 2007 there were only 47.  The gains and accomplishments by PRTs are the result of years of work to reach out to the Afghan population.  As far back as 2004 military civil affairs soldiers from PRT Tarin Kowt worked as the “connection between U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the people.” This early PRT worked to provide supplies and funds for agriculture, education, and construction.  The sacrifice and work of the American soldier to provide solid and sustainable improvement to the education and economic situation of the Afghan people must not be ignored.  Moreover, I have a hunch that these soldiers are doing quite good at bringing peace to Afghanistan.

My humble advice to Mr. Kristof would be to spend a week with our nation’s soldiers.  Speak with their commanders, speak with the grunts.  Focus less on the words of the elite in Washington and whilst you roll up your sleeves looking at the schools built by Greg Mortenson, roll up your sleeves and look at the work done by the U.S. military.  When you finish please write an op-ed describing what you saw, and this time around I would bet you will have a more balanced and realistic depiction of the military’s role in Afghanistan.  A needed depiction of our countrymen’s struggle to provide assistance.  The women and men of the military are not aliens from another galaxy or robots constructed by the government.  They are people just like you, from places like Yamhill, Oregon, and they are in Afghanistan doing the best they can, in a bad situation, because their President asked them to.

Posted on 3 Aug 2010


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Float like a starfish, sting like a spider

Army Starfish Program

“The Army’s Starfish Program” seeks to promote decentralization as yet another tool to counter decentralized and networked threats.

The day someone becomes CEO of a large corporation, it is classic to warn them about the dangers of hierarchy by saying “yesterday was the last day that anyone will tell you what is actually going on in the company”.  Conventional thinking is that the military is even more hierarchical.  In reality, however, it is impressive how the Army is at the cutting edge of non-hierarchical thinking.

A good example comes from an article in POLITICO about the book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”.

The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given piece is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia.
“This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge,” write the authors of “The Starfish and the Spider,” Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. “It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.”
What caught my eye about the article was that Brafman was asked about his political ideology, but declined to discuss that because “he is doing consulting work with the U.S. Army trying to help it “become more starfish-like.”

A New York Times article describes another way the military is exploring non-hierarchical thinking, by working with Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea“.  Word of Mortenson’s book spread among military wives, including one who sent the book to her husband, LTC Christopher Kolenda.  Kolenda read about Mortenson’s private initiative that built more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, and he and Mortenson began cooperating.  Soon, Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus were urging their husbands to read the book.

As Colonel Kolenda tells it, Mr. Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, became the American high command’s primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the “Kabul bubble”.
The military has found ways to avoid being like the CEO who doesn’t know what is going on.  But they have been careful to ensure that flattening the hierarchy of collecting information doesn’t compromise the hierarchy of command.  Gen. David Petraeus stressed this theme in an April 2009 talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“You have to be careful   . . .   it is great to flatten [the organization] for information, but there does need to be a hierarchy when it comes to people pushing recommendations up, pushing policy decisions up . . . you can’t shove aside a subordinate organization and just take it over.
He also described the importance of taking initiative, citing a sign he saw at an outpost:
In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively!”
When I first met Petraeus in 2006 at an MIT ROTC event, he told me how impressed he was with some of the ROTC graduates who had served with him.  He described how he would give out his card to those who particularly impressed him, urging them to email him if they had something interesting to tell him.  What is even more impressive than this flattening of the information hierarchy is the way he does so, conveying the impression that he has 5 different ideas as to what is important, and making people feel comfortable bouncing a 6th off him, even if they think he’ll disagree.
It is impressive how the military is learning to have a flat information hierarchy, and doing so without compromising the hierarchy of command.  Boxer Muhammad Ali might sum it up as “float like a starfish, sting like a spider”.

This sophisticated understanding of information flows is a real asset, and it will not be surprising if many in the next generation of CEOs are chosen from people who have absorbed these lessons.  Many will have learned the lessons best in the military.  The United States may become more like Israel, where prospective employers care as much about what you did in the military as what you did in university.

Posted on 2 Aug 2010


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Wikileaks leak an opportunity for frank discussion

President Obama is justified in brushing aside the classified war documents posted on Wikileaks as less than a revelation for the nation’s political discussion, while also deploring their boon to the enemy and the increased danger to our soldiers and allies. Most experts who have reviewed the documents agree with the President.

The trove of classified war documents, however, is impossible-to-ignore authoritative evidence. But of what? The implications are open to interpretation, and eager opponents of the Afghanistan mission are already spinning the data to press their case for hasty American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. For much the same reason that Afghanistan’s opponents tout the leak as game-changing, Wikileaks has given President Obama the opportunity to hold a long-overdue frank discussion with the American people about Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

The President, like his predecessor, has opted to deflect the most disturbing parts of the Afghanistan mission from the American people. Doing so perhaps has protected the mission from reaching a tipping point of popular opposition, but it has also undermined popular understanding of the war and its stakes. As a result, as some war veterans have commented sarcastically, the military has been at war since 9/11, while the country has been at the mall.

In the long run for a long war, an inadequate understanding of the war by the American people cannot sustain the level of national commitment we need to succeed. The media is already reporting growing discontent with Obama’s Afghanistan “Surge”, despite that the execution stage of the President’s strategy has barely begun. It’s time for President Obama to put away the platitudes he inherited from President Bush. Instead, Obama should hold a Melian dialogue with the American people to explain the war’s harsh realities and complexity according to his context as our nation’s leader, so we can deliberately weigh the alternatives as he must. Now that the secrets are in the open, the President can fully make the case that the War on Terror deserves our dogged determination for the foreseeable future because of, not despite, the grim struggle.

A favorite quote of mine from Esquire writer Tom Junod explains the challenge of sustaining America’s will to win at war and the essence of the Wikileaks affair:

The moral certainty that makes war possible is certain only to unleash moral havoc, and moral havoc becomes something the nation has to rise above. We can neither win a war nor save the national soul if all we seek is to remain unsullied–pristine. Anyway, we are well beyond that now. The question is not, and has never been, whether we can fight a war without perpetrating outrages of our own. The question is whether the rightness of the American cause is sufficient not only to justify war but to withstand war’s inevitable outrages. The question is whether–if the cause is right–we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

President Bush allowed his narrative of the War on Terror to be drowned out. The Wikileaks leak has given President Obama the opportunity to convince the American people our cause in Afghanistan is still right and we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

Posted on 28 Jul 2010

Photo: wikicommons

ROTC in New York City: An Untapped Resource

John Renehan writes in the Washington Post today about the need for more ROTC programs across the country. In light of Harvard’s policies on access to military recruiters, brought up during Senate hearings for the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Renehan notes an increasing dearth of opportunities for military officer training, particularly in the Northeast. This raises an important point. The long-standing contention surrounding the presence of ROTC on university campuses has not been limited merely to a select number of Ivy League institutions, though they have often been the most prominent and vocal in opposing the program. Moreover, they are not solely to blame. As this WSJ data shows, the military has been slowly but surely reducing its presence in the urban Northeast in favor of institutions in the South and Midwest. Despite having a population comparable to that of entire states, for example, the resources afforded to New York City for officer training and recruitment appear paltry when compared to its corollaries in other parts of the country. The city deserves better. Here are just a few reasons why:

• New York City has a population of over 8 million people. There are over 605,000 college and graduate students going to school in New York City, the largest university student population of any city in the United States. Yet the city boasts a mere 30 to 40 ROTC graduates each year.

• New York “is the nation’s largest importer of college students.” That is, of students who leave their home state to attend college, more leave for New York than any other place in the country.

• With over 8 million residents, New York City has a greater population than either the state of Virginia or North Carolina.  While both Virginia and North Carolina maintain twelve Army ROTC programs each, however, New York City hosts only two, both of which are granted the same resources and personnel as every other ROTC program in the country despite the enormous differences in population for which they are responsible.

Map of ROTC programs in New York City (green, blue, and white) and their proximity to other colleges and universities.

• Both ROTC Programs are located a significant distance away from the areas most concentrated in colleges and universities and are not easily accessible via subway, a fact that can be problematic given that the vast majority of students in the city do not own cars.

• The Air Force hosts a single ROTC program at Manhattan College in the Bronx. It is the most easily accessible via subway, though the commute is still significant for students attending school in any of the other five boroughs, particularly Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

• The Navy ROTC program, on the other hand, is located beneath the Throggs Neck Bridge and is almost completely inaccessible via public transportation. Moreover, enrollment in the program is strictly limited to students attending SUNY Maritime Academy, Fordham University, or Molloy College. Thus, out of the 600,000+ university students in New York City the Navy is limited to selecting from a collective population of less than 20,000.

• Nearly 60% of Manhattan residents are college graduates, more than twice the national average. Though the 23 SqMi island is host to over 1.6 million people and 40 colleges and universities alone, not a single school in the borough of Manhattan has an ROTC program.

• Neither is there an ROTC program in Brooklyn, which as CPT Steve Trynosky noted in 2006 is “home to a diverse population about the size of Mississippi, which has five Army ROTC units despite a much lower per capita college attendance. In 2005, two of the top five ZIP codes for Army enlistments were in Brooklyn, yet there are no commissioning opportunities in the borough. Could one imagine no ROTC programs for the population of Mississippi?”

• The City University of New York (CUNY) is the third largest public university system in the nation, ranking behind only California State and the State University of New York systems, though all of its campuses reside within a single city rather than an entire state. It provides post-secondary higher education in all five boroughs of New York.

• The CUNY system has over 450,000 students and confers nearly 3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans in the United States. Gen. Colin Powell graduated from the ROTC program at City College, CUNY’s flagship campus. Yet today there is not a single ROTC program at any CUNY school.

• New York City also has a vast array of private universities, including Columbia University, the fifth oldest institution of higher education in the country, and New York University, the nation’s largest private, non-profit university. Yet neither university hosts a program nor do they graduate more than a handful of military officers per year.

• The recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasizes the need to ensure that “officers are prepared for the full range of complex missions that the future security environment will likely demand” and that the DoD is committed to “building expertise in foreign language, regional, and cultural skills,” and “enhancing these skills in general purpose force officers during pre-accession training.” As Eric Chen noted in a previous Secure Nation post, New York City offers a breadth of resources in these areas that are unmatched elsewhere in the country. Take, for example, the latent talent and skill sets offered by the astoundingly diverse population of Queens, a New York City borough in which 138 different languages are spoken every day. West Point’s Social Sciences Department routinely takes their cadets on trips to nearby Jersey City to immerse them in the city’s large and vibrant muslim community. But why stop at immersing cadets in a cultural center when one can also recruit from it? Jersey City is just a five minute subway ride from the middle of Manhattan, but the closest Army ROTC program is located miles away at Seton Hall University. Mr. Chen goes on to note that Columbia University is particularly well suited to meet the needs espoused within the QDR, an argument which is supported by the high quality of the school’s top-ranked programs in Asian languages, anthropology, and sociology.

• The number of programs in the city correlates directly with the resources that the military departments grant towards both the recruitment and training of military officers there. As CPT Trynosky again noted “The allocation of ROTC recruiting assets in urban areas is insufficient to serve the large population assigned. Three recruiting officers are expected to canvass the more than 100 colleges and 13 million people in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County. Compare this with the 10 recruiters assigned for 4.5 million Alabamans or five for 2.5 million Mississippians.”

• The scarcity of commissioning opportunities in New York City is pronounced. With the scars of September 11th still prominently visible even today, New Yorkers have a distinctly personal stake in the military and its operations overseas. They should be afforded every opportunity to become military officers, and to serve proudly in defense of their city and the nation.

Posted on 4 July, 2010


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Capabilities and Capacity: ROTC at Columbia University and the Quadrennial Defense Review

“America’s men and women in uniform constitute the Department’s most important resource. Prevailing in today’s wars while working to prevent future conflict depends on the Department’s ability to create and sustain an all-volunteer force that is trained and resourced to succeed in the wide range of missions we ask them to execute.” (p 49)

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is the Secretary of Defense’s “capstone institutional document” that establishes the “policy and programmatic foundation that will enable the next generation to protect the American people and advance their interests.” (QDR p 97) The QDR’s guidance in reshaping the military responds to the demand “America’s Armed Forces rapidly innovate and adapt—the Department’s institutional base must do the same” (p xiv) in a “complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate.” (p 5) The QDR is clear that readying the force for the challenge requires “innovative programs to attract qualified young men and women into the Armed Forces” (p xii) and reforming how military leaders are developed.

Columbia University, with its gifted students and rich combination of first-tier university and New York City resources, offers an ideal partner for ROTC to “recruit personnel with specialized skills” (p 51) and “ensure . . . officers are prepared for the full range of complex missions” by “enhancing these skills . . . during pre-accession training.” (p 54) Recognizing officers need greater academic breadth and depth to be “better prepared to assume the responsibilities of waging war, peacekeeping, stabilization, and other critical missions carried out by our military” (H.R. 5136 p 5), the Department of Defense has already responded with the Alternative Commissioned Officer Career Track Pilot Program to facilitate their advanced education. In the same vein, cultivating an officer corps with the capabilities identified by the QDR necessitates the best possible intellectual foundation for military leaders. The Department of Defense, therefore, has a compelling interest to produce officers with greater capacity and a strong academic grounding in the formative pre-accession (cadet) stage of their development. ROTC at Columbia meets that need.

As it does today, much of the weight of future missions will fall on young officers. In the short term, Columbia-educated lieutenants and captains who developed broader capabilities and capacity as cadets will be better equipped to “rapidly innovate and adapt” to unpredictable challenges. Over the long term, their strong academic grounding will lead to commensurately greater acquisition of capabilities and capacity growth over the course of their military careers. The QDR’s forecast of politically sensitive efforts using smaller numbers of both special operations and general purpose forces (QDR pp 28-30) further emphasizes the growing need for individually exceptional officers.

Where the QDR seeks to ensure “educational institutions have the right resources and faculty that can help prepare the next generation of military leaders” (p xiii), Columbia provides “one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields.” (Columbia University mission statement) Where the QDR describes a heightened need for a full spectrum of engineering, scientific, medical, computer, foreign language, regional, cultural, and other skills, Columbia offers excellent programs in all those areas within a full spectrum of world-class academic departments. Beyond the university’s abundant resources for cadets, Columbia “recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis.” (CU mission) For Columbia, ROTC graduates fulfill the university’s expectation of alumni “to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” (CU mission)

ROTC will be home at Columbia. Columbia has the largest population of student-veterans in the Ivy League and alumni group Columbia Alliance for ROTC has the express purpose of supporting ROTC at Columbia. Growing calls to restore ROTC on campus have come from students, professors, alumni, campus organizations and publications, and university leaders. After years of dormancy, Columbia is reviving its long military tradition, reminded by the martial memorials spread around campus. Columbia’s famous Core Curriculum, required for College undergraduates, was designed as a classical foundation for officer education. The standard-bearer for Columbia officers is founding father Alexander Hamilton and his lifetime of visionary, innovative leadership in and out of uniform. The Alexander Hamilton Society, the campus group for cadets and officer candidates, invokes his heritage.

Columbia is New York City’s premiere university, and there would be substantial symbolic value for the military in the return of ROTC to the Columbia campus. Moreover, a ROTC program at Columbia would solve the military’s absence of ROTC within Manhattan, which has poor access to ROTC despite hosting the highest concentration of college students in the country. Near Columbia are Barnard College, a premiere women’s college, and City College, GEN Colin Powell’s alma mater and the flagship CUNY.

The QDR concludes “[t]he challenges facing the United States are immense, but so are the opportunities.” (p 97) With the establishment of a ROTC program at Columbia, the military has the opportunity to form a valuable 21st century partnership with a global flagship institution in New York City.

* Go to Part II: Needs of the Nation.

Posted on 28 Jun 2010


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Almost Victorious

Talladega Nights,” reportedly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s favorite, is a crazy fun flick. Unfortunately for McChrystal, the movie he should have paid more attention to was “Almost Famous.”  He might have figured out that what Rolling Stone is all about is stripping people naked and making them appear ridiculous, even while proclaiming there is something noble and uplifting in it all. He might have figured out that, as the rock star in the movie proclaims, Rolling Stone is “The Enemy.” And he might have figured out that, because he isn’t running a rock band, Rolling Stone doesn’t offer the same kind of redemption to a military man, a breed the magazine fundamentally misunderstands and viscerally dislikes. Then he might have figured out that, unlike ”Almost Famous,” where the plane pulls out of its death spin after all the true confessions and the band achieves rock redemption, his plane and all the passengers on it might not. Which is too bad, because there is more at stake here than some rock star’s career. Maybe McChrystal would have thought twice before he allowed Rolling Stone to take control of his war.

UK Telegraph, McChrystal tenders his resignation. But it isn’t over.  ABC’s Political Punch, “McChrystal to Admin Official: ‘I’ve compromised the mission,’” adds, “McChrystal will have a legitimate opportunity to make his case to keep his job, officials said.”

Donnelly and Kristol with some advice to the president: “Don’t waste this crisis.” The likelihood any of those suggestions being taken is not great … particularly the last one:

Most of all, the commander-in-chief must take command.  Barack Obama’s commitment is famously and publicly uncertain.  No one—not his lieutenants, nor his cabinet, nor his generals, nor the American people, nor our allies, nor the Afghans, nor our enemies—can be sure whether the president wants to win the war or just to end the war.

As exemplified by the fact that we are now in danger of allowing Rolling Stone magazine to set war policy.  Speaking of which, given that Rolling Stone is already heavily influencing, if not directing war policy, it is unfortunate that the magazine and its scribbler don’t appear to understand this war. Any of it, start to finish.

The hackneyed analogies of Vietnam defeat and Afghanistan, graveyard of empires, are trotted out early and often. Counterinsurgency is presented to a readership that RS probably rightly assumes is entirely ignorant of the concept, as some novel idea that was only “beta-tested” in Iraq, as if the towering accomplishment there were some minor sideshow. In fact, Hastings’ observations about Afghanistan sound remarkably like the rampant political doom-and-gloom-mongering coming out of Congress and the media re Iraq in the summer of 2007. The Afghan surge prospects are “bleak.” I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of people whose view of history is so skewed they can’t remember the parts they witnessed, and insist on using defeat anaologies that were shown to be meaningless the last time they trotted them out.

As others have noted, the general himself says virtually none of the things that are most damning in the article. With the exception of a mild Biden joke, they are all attributed to unnamed sources and unnamed aides. But McChrystal, in letting RS into his inner circle, gives them a gift. It’s a staff letting off steam that is decribed as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, politcal operators and outright maniacs.” Rolling Stone loves people like that, especially when they are loaded. We get to see them tying one on in Paris, basially with lampshades on their heads. RS tuts, apparently having forgotten the motto of one of its own leading lights. Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” So, we have a gonzo command to fight a gonzo war. Problem?

There are other embarrassingly bad examples of cluelessness. “The Defense Department’s budget is $600 billion a year, while the State Department’s is only $50 billion.” Someone please explain to RS that the State Department doesn’t have any carrier groups, though it benefits greatly from those and other military assets deployed around the globe. That’s the “Big Stick,” not to be confused with the “Speak Softly” part. McChrystal, meanwhile, is declared to have gotten “almost” everything he asked for in his surge. In fact, he got three-quarters, with a deadline and a non-commital comannder in chief plus meddling lesser pols. I’d suggest taking away three-quarters of Hastings’ fee, maybe three-quarters of Rolling Stone’s staff and profits; then let Reader’s Digest and Entertainment Weekly into the RS editorial and publishing offices to make helpful micromanaging policy changes; and see if that feels like “almost” everything RS wanted.

It’s beside the point. In the most fundamental policy aspect of the relationship between the president and the general, there have been no sign of daylight. McChrystal in this article doesn’t complain about the task as his president handed it to him, nor do his aides, whose criticism is leveled at those who have sought to undermine it. He has made the best of a bad deal, going ahead with the kind of determination in less than ideal circumstances we could only hope the commander-in-chief would exhibit in something as critical as national security.

Delving into some actual substance, RS highlights the ROE problems. Here, the article suggests, McChrystal is not only failing to communicate and lead effectively, but his intentions reportedly are being rendered ridiculous somewhere between utterance and executiion. This might have been a more useful area of serious exploration by Rolling Stone. However, Rolling toe isn’t in the business of examining and criticizing the effectiveness of actual policy and strategy. Rolling Stone is in the business of making and breaking stars, and that is what this article is about.

To this end, there is the other rock star in this spectacle. President Obama. McChrystal never actually disparages him in the article, though he and his aides may launch barbs at the bass player, the doo-wap singers and the roadies. McChrystal isn’t the first general to shoot his mouth off … or to preside over a staff that is guilty of making some indiscreet remarks in some unwisely unguarded moments. Many have before. The question is whether this general can still do the job and do it well. The question may also be whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the job as configured, whether the random anonymous jokes and gripes that everyone is exercised about reflect serious problems that need to be addressed.

All that means that Barack Obama will have to be something he has been publicly unwilling to be. A committed, determined and aggressive wartime leader. RS’s own remarks on that make it clear he has impressed exactly no one on that score, even if Rolling Stone doesn’t seem to think winning is possible or particularly important. Hopefully, our president will be presidential enough to figure out that it is important and even winnable, that it is his war and not Rolling Stone’s, and as Donnelly and Kristol suggest, use this crisis to fine-tune it instead of turning it into some kind of bad 1980s hair band’s pyrotechnic spectacle.

Crossposted on

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

Photo: flickr/TheWhiteHouse


Are Hannity’s Freedom Concerts Exploiting Service Members?

Sean HannityRecently Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleged that Sean Hannity’s Freedom Concerts violated its charitable tax status. Specifically the group alleges that Hannity’s Freedom Concerts engaged in deceptive and illegal marketing practices by suggesting that all revenue from concert ticket sales goes to scholarships for the children of killed or wounded service members. CREW and VoteVets, a veteran’s advocacy group, have filed complaints with the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission regarding the Freedom Concerts, the group Freedom Alliance, and the founder of Freedom Alliance, Lt. Col. Oliver North.

If you are like me you have probably never heard of these Freedom Concerts which Hannity and the Freedom Alliance put on together.  I checked out the website and found out that I could be treated to a show by Michael W. Smith, Lynyrd Skynrd , and Charlie Daniels Band in eight cities including Atlanta, Dallas, and Las Vegas this coming August.

According to the website all revenue from concert sales goes to scholarships for service members who have been killed or 100% disabled in an “operational mission or training accident.”  However, the information carries the caveat that musical talent, production, promotion, and venue expenses are deducted first.  It is unclear to me whether Freedom Alliance included this caveat in its materials before or after the allegations from CREW.

Every endeavor, including a charitable one, has expenses but it is the nature of the expenses that is troubling in this instance.  CREW and VoteVets alleged at a joint press conference that 80-90% of the money raised at the Freedom Concerts goes to overhead, not scholarships.

Debbie Schlussel, a conservative blogger, reported that recently only between 4% and 7% of the money raised went to its primary cause, while millions went to consultants and high end transportation, including private planes, for Hannity. According to Schlussel, the average amount for scholarships during this period? No more than $6,000 for some, and few getting more than $1,000-$2,000.

According to its 2006 tax returns, Freedom Alliance’s revenue was $10,822,785 and the organization contributed 3.68% to scholarships or other aid to fallen soldiers.  If you are wondering, 3.68% means that out of the millions reported by Freedom Alliance, less than $400,000 of which went to the charity’s principal aim. In 2007 Freedom Alliance got a little better and actually donated 7% or almost $900,000 to seriously wounded soldiers and scholarships.  However, this is out of the $12,459,317 raised that year.

Schlussel also reported, based on an anonymous source, that North pulled Hannity aside at one of the concerts and told him that the expenses used by Hannity’s entourage had to stop.  The expenses reportedly included a Gulfstream 5 to fly Hannity and his family to the concert, several SUVs for transportation to the event, and suites at expensive hotels on location at the event.  This information comes from an anonymous source and has been disputed by Freedom Alliance.   But perhaps it would be better for Freedom Alliance if these claims are true.  Because if they are false, then where is the money?

MediaMatters verified the numbers from Schlussel’s story but at the same time acknowledged that Freedom Alliance has a broader mission than the Freedom Concerts and that there is no indication that the millions of dollars are not being spent in some worthwhile endeavor to support that cause.  In fact, MediaMatters did not seem to put too much faith in Schlussel’s claims but the tax returns are not great evidence of an upright charity.

That takes us back to the complaint filed by CREW. When we compare this to the initial reporting in 2007 on this issue it must lead one to believe that where there is smoke there is fire.

But the bigger issue, at least in my opinion, is the lack of serious reporting on this issue by the mainstream media.  Blogs have risen in importance recently but why the here today, gone today, interest by the news media? It appears that a major conservative commentator is possible using the war dead and maimed to advance his own career, and no one seems to care.  Do the media only care about attacking conservatives when they can score direct political points for liberals? Or, are we reverting back to that dark time when returning soldiers were cast off as an afterthought? I think it might be a little of both.

This exploitation of service members has to stop. Is there a role for Veteran’s here? Do we need to do more to protect the legacy of our dead and fallen comrades?

photo: flickr

Harvard Gets Its Horn On

Horns from the Harvard Museum

Crossposted at

It’s a far cry from allowing ROTC on campus, but there are signs of sociological advancement at Harvard Yard, where they are celebrating the role that testosterone-fueled male aggression plays in the propagation and defense of species. They’re even encouraging boys to come and explore their … uh … inner horn.

It’s all about horns at the Harvard Museum of Natural History! Boston Herald:  

The Harvard Museum of Natural History’s latest exhibit gives new meaning to the word “horny.”

“The idea is that males use these to battle other males for access to females so they can sire more offspring,” said curator of mammals Hopi Hoekstra of the Horns & Antlers exhibit. “The elaborate shape and size suggests they’re primarily used in sexual selection, but there can be a component that they’re used in natural selection or defense against predators.”

What’s a kid to think?

“Daddy wants a Mommy. I think the very basic idea that males want access to females to find a mate is something pretty young kids can understand,” said Hoekstra, who chuckled as testosterone-fueled footage of male deer butting heads played on a TV. “I think there’s definite potential to appeal to young boys especially.”

Sheesh, what next? “Daddy wants a Mommy” … sounds like hate speech. How’d that one get past the PC police? Someone must have dropped something in the latte over there.

Horns are great. Remind me to tell you about the time in the Great North Woods when I watched a stand-off between two bull moose over a nearby female. Also witnessed the XXX part. Very powerful display of the forces of nature, from the dopey death stare of a mature bull moose with a full rack facing down a whiney nub-horned adolescent … no real contest … and the great crescendo of nature’s glory, with urgent moose noises. All about 30 feet in front of my lean-to at Chimney Pond at the foot of Katahdin.

Moving on, someone should tell Harvard about guns and the important role they play in the hands of both men and women even to this day in the ageold struggle vs. tyranny and oppression, creating conditions conducive to individual freedom of expression, free enterprise, that kind of thing, and thwarting threats to same. History’s great pageant continues to unfold to this very day. Could make a great exhibit or even an academic training program, in real-life cooperation with the United States military. There’s a definite potential to appeal to young men and women who care about freedom, national security and making a difference in the world, that kind of thing. Imagine if the world’s greatest university actually chose to contribute.*

* Harvard has not allowed ROTC on campus since 1968. Originally, due to opposition to efforts to keep international communism from swallowing entire countries. More recently, Harvard has shunned the military due to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy re homosexuals that was enacted as law by the Clinton administration and a Democratic Congress.

(Don’t get me started on Harvard’s selective observance of this nation’s laws. Re military service, Harvard has insisted on shirking civic duty despite a dire threat to the nation from the kind of people who hang homosexuals and would subject Harvard liberals at a minimum to the dhimmi tax, if not gleefully beheading them. It’s weird, and perhaps worthy of many doctoral dissertations on enlightened lack of self-interest.)

Harvard, though it has had no problem taking ROTC stipends, requires its ROTC cadets to hoof it to MIT and Boston University, though recently the universty has agreed to allow bigshot military celebs like Gen. David Petraeus on campus for commissioning ceremonies with grudging peacenik invocations and thinly disguised anti-war speechifying.

Prior posts re the Ivy League-Military interface:

10-Minute Leadership Course

Army Gives Money to Harvard (Though Harvard Barely Gives the Army the Time of Day)

Hasta La Service Academies

Brown Stain

Pahk Your Warmongah Values Outside Hahvahd Yahd

Harvard Yard (Home of American Heroes)

The Post 9-11 GI Bill: Year One

US Department of Veterans Affairs SealBy now, many US veterans have completed their spring semesters. They are either moving on to their first post-military jobs, traveling overseas for language study, getting prepped for prestigious internships, or waiting out the storm we call the post-financial crisis job market in America. Either way, this month marks the completion of the first academic year of existence for the Post 9/11 (Chapter 33) GI Bill. The new GI Bill, now open to all honorably discharged veterans (regardless if they ‘invested’ the $1200 upon the beginning of their service), has many advantages over the Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), to include BAH payments while in school. Though this all came at a frustrating cost- as payments were months late, differing in amounts, and getting a hold of a VA educational counselor seemed impossible at times.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-profit veteran’s advocacy group has been a strong champion of veteran’s health and education issues in its three years of existence. This year, they meet with numerous Congressmen on the Hill to discuss issues affecting veterans, including the struggle to find civilian jobs and the new GI Bill. Army veteran and Columbia undergraduate student Marco Reininger delivered a testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on 21 April 2010, outlining his suggested improvements to GI Bill.

The following is an outline of just some of the issues veterans faced this year with the VA’s new Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Applying for the new GI Bill. I have to say I was quite shocked upon leaving active duty last spring, when I discovered that I had to apply for the GI Bill. I served nearly seven years and was honorably discharged – wasn’t I going to receive the GI Bill automatically? Unfortunately the process was not that simple. VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application) is a site that allows veterans to apply for medical compensation and education benefits online, though has no tracking mechanism to follow the progress of our application. To complicate matters worse, we most likely applied for our benefits in one state, but moved to a different state once school started. I know I experienced some lag time with the transfer of my file (which was done via USPS) when I moved from Georgia to New York to attend graduate school last fall.

School certification process. Up until mid-August last summer, no one- veterans, school financial counselors or VA employees- knew what the new tuition rates would be, how the payments would be dispersed, etc. It was an especially nerve-racking time for veterans who were giving up their military life to transition to being a college student, either for the first time or returning to school after their service.  We didn’t know whether we needed to take out Federal loans or whether the GI Bill would cover all our costs. To further complicate matters, the VA had not instituted any formal training for university administrators. Frequently, when calling our university financial aid office, we were directed to the extremely vague VA website. The site makes each process seem very simplistic and streamline, though as any veteran or spouse can tell you, the VA processes are more times than not, anything but simple.

My university waited until after the semester drop period to certify our course load, in order to not have to issue amendments in the event that our schedule changed. This meant that the VA was receiving our paperwork nearly one month after the semester began. Again, with no online tracking system, students nor the university were able to see the progress on the paperwork.

Issuing of Emergency Assistance. Last fall, when VA discovered they were not able to handle the load of student certifications, they began issuing $3000 emergency checks as a hold over until the paperwork was fully processed. This was essentially a band-aid to a greater processing problem. Vets were happy to stand in line at their local VA post or apply online for a mailed check. Many months later though, vets discovered their BAH payments were reduced by $750/month. This was the VA’s method of choice for collecting the $3000 back. Anyone can imagine the stress an abrupt deduction in pay can cause for a student living on a fixed budget. Recently, I received letters from the VA Debt Management Center stating that if I don’t send a check for $1500 to the VA, I will be reported to a collection agency. (Ironically enough, my summer internship is an unpaid job at the Pentagon- I’m once again serving, this time for no pay, and the VA is hassling me in the process! C’est la vie.)

Bottom Line. The GI Bill is a form of compensation for our service- not a scholarship. There seems to be a misconception with some of our civilian counterparts that we are ‘going to school for free.’ I feel that it is almost universally understood that the men and women of the United States military are severely underpaid for what they are asked to do for their country. They do what many can’t or won’t. The GI Bill is a small payback to the brave men and women for all their sacrifices. When the systems in place cause so much frustration in order to utilize these resources, it sends the signal that the government is not willing to take the extra time to properly recognize our veterans.

In addition, the universities need to expand their knowledge on veteran’s issues. They need to understand that although many do not have the wounds of war physically apparent, they will carry pieces with them for the rest of their lives. Around one in three hundred people in the US today have served. Yet, you will find a much greater proportion in college today. That goes to show the determination and high goals veterans have for themselves.

Luckily, there are those who support the vets tirelessly. In early June, the Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act. Although it does not fully address the personnel and customer service improvements needed within the Veterans Administration, it does aim to open up benefits to guard/reserve and allow active duty service members to receive the book stipend, which is not covered by tuition assistance.

Finally, the veterans need to stay informed. Read the VA website as often as possible. Reach out to fellow student veterans. Contact your representative or senator to push for enhanced legislation. Complacency will not help improve the system for our friends, children, or grandchildren. We fought together in battle; there is no reason for us not to continue to band together towards these benefits.


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Military Ad Campaigns: Why the Marines Still Rule Madison Ave.

USMC Ad: The Few The Proud The Marines

USMC Ad: The Few The Proud The Marines

As I’ve been driving along I-95, making my way north, I’ve taken notice of the great frequency of billboards advertising the United States Marine Corps. What struck me was not so much the content and veracity of these ads in particular but rather the incredible effectiveness of the Corps’ overall advertising campaign. Just a glance at those strong, composed young Marines in their dress blues makes one aspire to be one of them. That got me thinking, what about these ads makes them so effective?

1) Consistency. The Marine Corps’ message has remained pretty much the same for decades. The Few. The Proud. The Marines. This is their message, their mantra. They found something that works and stuck with it. The words are timeless. One can see their use here in a 1970s tv ad all the way through to the present day. Compare this to the Army’s ever changing slogans (Be All You Can Be, Army of ONE, Army Strong) or the Navy’s (Accelerate Your Life, Global Force for Good) or the Air Force’s (Aim High, Cross Into the Blue, Above All). None of the other services have found one that resonates nearly as well across the generations as The Few and The Proud.

2) Exclusivity. The Marines present themselves as a very exclusive club, quite accurately I might add. They are a (comparatively) small, elite group of warriors. This does well to excite the imaginations of their target demographic – young men – and proves a source of great inspiration to many. With ads like this they set themselves apart, as something great, something to strive for. The requirements for entry into the other services may be different from those of the Corps, but they are certainly no cake walk. It takes a great deal of effort, talent, and competitive edge to become an Air Force Pilot, or an Army Ranger, or a Navy Submariner. And yet these services are rarely associated with the word “elite,” at least not nearly to the same degree as the Corps. It stands to reason that they could incorporate more of that certain air of exclusivity that most of their present campaigns lack.

3) Mythology. More than any other service, the Marine Corps has embraced their own mythos. They have an enduring legacy, one that shines through in their traditions, their uniforms, the manner in which they conduct themselves. So too do the other services. But the Corps has been able to capitalize on this legacy, this mythology, to much greater effect. From the crucible to the silent drill team to the never ending line of warriors in dress blues, they know how to tell their own story in a way that awes and inspires. The other services have achieved this on occasion, I point to the Army’s recent Officer campaign as one example. But by and large their strategies have involved a hodgepodge of stories and messages, from “adventure on the high seas” to “help with college loans.” If there is one thing I would note it is that the services need to embrace their mythos, and make every effort to share it with the world. It is Service Members’ identification with that legacy, that sense of belonging to something great, that more than anything else inspires them to serve, and to continue to serve for years to come. College money may help, but they need to believe in it first.

4) Simplicity. The Marine commercials don’t say much. Because they don’t need to. The images say it all. One of the best Army commercials I ever saw was the premier of the new Army Strong campaign that was shown to a few of us Junior Officers back in 2006. It was epic. And not a single word was spoken. Sadly this version never appeared to make it to air, but was instead replaced by a variety of voice-overs. Effective? Sure. But not nearly as inspiring as that first commercial. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Actual words often just get in the way.

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