Category Archives: Iraq

Operation Hollywood: Tinseltown’s recent wave of films on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In the last three years, Hollywood, along with independent film companies and some documentarians, have begun producing films related to the wars against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the conversation has started is a vast improvement from the early years when all that was available were short news segments from embedded reporters and insurgency propaganda.  In the following selection of films, the viewpoints range from the soldier’s view and the families they left behind to the political woes of elected officials trying to manage the conflicts and the public opinions back home. Are they getting the story right? You decide.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

As delighted as I am for Kathryn Bigelow to be the first female to win best director, it is a shame that with so few movies about Iraq, (and still so many misconceptions among the American people) the one that caught so many people’s attention, got so much wrong.

The cavalier and nonchalant actions of EOD technician SFC James displays none of the characteristics of teamwork and esprit de corps of which the US military is prided today. Also, the convoys consisting of one HMMWV rolling out of Victory Base Complex (Baghdad), or the rogue senior NCO sneaking off base, were far from realistic. The consensus from the vet community is that the CGI was good, but the portrayal in this film was embarrassing.

Brothers (2009)

This film, a remake of a Swedish film of the same name, follows a U.S. Marine captain, his wife and two daughters from pre-deployment preps to his assumed funeral, and ultimately to his return from being a POW in the hands of Afghan warlords. His post-traumatic stress becomes uncontrollable when he suspects his ex-con brother has been having an affair with his wife. This film is sure to stir up emotions through the sometimes-graphic displays of post-combat stress on the Marine officer and his family.

The Lucky Ones (2008)

The Lucky Ones follows three Army soldiers, who through coincidence and cancelled flights, end up renting a car together during their mid-tour leave from Iraq.  Both the young male and female soldiers were wounded in battle and all had other battles to confront when they get home.  This film reminds us that no matter our origins, education level, or years of service, veterans have a way of easily creating bonds and being faithful friends during the thick and thin.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

This film blends together a disaffected high schooler receiving advice from his mentor teacher, a US senator with aims for higher office and the probing veteran reporter that nags him, and two deployed soldiers in Afghanistan. I believe the iconic scene in the film is when the two soldiers are completely surrounded by Taliban fighters. It is winter, in the mountains, and one of the men has been wounded. Rather than try escaping on his own, leaving his comrade behind, the battle buddy stays with his wounded friend, a move tantamount to death for them both. This heroic action illustrates the true ethos of never leave a fallen soldier behind.

The Green Zone (2010)

Some may assume that a soldier’s job in combat is to follow and execute orders from above. But what happens when things just don’t add up? This feature film follows Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller during the early months of post-invasion Iraq. Through personal curiosity and determination, Miller discovers that the faulty WMD intel was just a political ploy for invasion.  This film shows the lengths politicians may go to win the public relations battle and the how it effects the service member on the ground.

Lioness (2008)

Many Americans may not be aware that official policy prohibits women from joining MOS (military occupational specialties) that require direct ground combat.  Soon after the conflict and insurgency began in Iraq, it became apparent that women would in fact be needed to help search female Iraqis and conduct other tasks that would be considered taboo for the men.  Lioness is a documentary about the small group of female Army support soldiers who served alongside U.S. Marines in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles in post- invasion Iraq.  The film primarily focuses on their reflections and coping once they redeployed.

The Messenger (2009)

In a directorial debut by Oren Moverman, The Messenger gives a completely new look at conflict as this film follows a captain and staff sergeant who have been assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Just recently returned from his own Iraq deployment, SSG Montgomery struggles to heal from his own battle wounds while transitioning to his new mission of notifying families of the fallen.

Restrepo (2010)

This documentary follows a U.S. Army platoon in the dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan during their yearlong deployment.  Their remote fire base, Restrepo, was named after their fallen platoon medic.  In ninety minutes, audiences will experience the death of a team member, firefights, and the sleep disorders that these young soldiers have to juggle while patrolling the mountains of a country where the enemy is not always clearly apparent.

Western Front (2010)

Writer and director Zachary Iscol fought in Al Anbar, Iraq in 2004 with the U.S. Marine Corps.  Years later he returns to find a different situation, though the experience resurfaces many old memories.  This honest film ends up revealing the nature of war from all sides.

Baker Boys: Inside the Surge (2009)

This documentary follows the final ninety days of a 15-month deployment in Iraq of Baker Company, First Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry Regiment.  A part of the famed 3rd Infantry Division, the deployment, a part of the surge of 2007, was the third round in Iraq for many of the soldiers.  Through four 60-minute episodes, we get an insight into what COIN looks like on the ground and the imprinted scars of battle that appear once back in garrison.

Warrior Champions: From Baghdad to Beijing (2009)

In Warrior Champions, we learn the inspiring stories of four severely wounded Iraq veterans who have truly made lemonade from lemons.  In as little as a year after losing limbs in battle, these athletes trained and competed for slots in the 2008 Paralympic Games.  These four heroes quickly became the symbols of hope and determination for the myriad new patients that arrived at Walter Reed Army Medial Center.

The Tillman Story (2010)

The Tillman Story tells the truth, which was concealed for many years, of the life and death of professional football player turned Army ranger Pat Tillman.  Through dedication and an insatiable appetite for the answers, Dannie Tillman collected evidence and questioned top officials to get the real story leading to the fall of her son.  Pat’s story is ultimately about patriotism and honor- the traits that were not present when top officials used his death as a public relations ploy.

Posted: 27 Aug 2010.

More Like This, Please

Pentagon reviews the actions of a living soldier for a possible Medal of Honor. Washington Post:

The Pentagon has recommended that the White House consider awarding the Medal of Honor to a living soldier for the first time since the Vietnam War, according to U.S. officials.

The soldier, whose nomination must be reviewed by the White House, ran through a wall of enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in fall 2007 in an attempt to push back Taliban fighters who were close to overrunning his squad. U.S. military officials said his actions saved the lives of about half a dozen men.

It is possible that the White House could honor the soldier’s heroism with a decoration other than the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. Nominations for the Medal of Honor typically include detailed accounts from witnesses and can run hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. The review has been conducted so discreetly that the soldier’s family does not know that it has reached the White House, according to U.S. officials who discussed the nomination on the condition of anonymity because a final decision is pending.

Pentagon officials requested that The Washington Post not name the soldier to avoid influencing the White House review. Administration officials declined to comment on the nomination.

Medal of HonorThe not-naming part seems a little gutless. Our admin can’t review courage above and beyond without being swayed by newspapers?

The article goes on to note that all six MOH awards in the Iraq and Afghan wars were posthumous, three for covering grenades with their bodies.* That the Pentagon and White House are willing to countenance the fact that a soldier can show extraordinary courage and live is important not only for the reality it represents but for the message it sends.

Homefront war coverage in our time has focused heavily on death, PTSD, and the poor treatment of soldiers by their own government, while the actual war front coverage has been largely about despair and failure, even when we win. For all the “support the troops,” there has been very little effort to understand and appreciate those who chose this life and have soldiered on through all the setbacks and political vitriol, or to highlight their extraordinary actions and accomplishments. If the White House wants to win the shooting war,** it needs to remember it has a homefront battle that it has been on the wrong side of. Honoring a live American hero, not least one who stood up in selflessly what is now being deemed a failed effort, could be a good start.

Because this American hero fought in what is now a strategically abandoned position. The Post goes out on this note:

There are at least three Medal of Honor nominations, including the one at the White House, working through the system. The three nominees served in sparsely populated valleys in eastern Afghanistan that U.S. troops have abandoned in recent years.

The valleys, which are within 30 miles of each other, are dominated by treacherous, mountainous terrain that frequently allowed enemy fighters to move within close range of U.S. forces before launching their attack. The remote nature of the valleys meant that troops often had to fight for an hour before attack helicopters arrived on the scene to drive back the enemy.

Senior military officials described the fighting in those valleys as some of the toughest since the Korean and Vietnam wars. “It is a very, very challenging fight,” said one military official. “It is sustained lengthy ground combat.”
The relatively large number of potential Medal of Honor nominations emerging from this remote area of Afghanistan also reflected a war strategy that asked U.S. commanders to do too much with too few resources, military analysts said. Frequently troops were overextended in hostile terrain.

“We should be stationing our troops in places where they won’t be earning the Medal of Honor because the population and terrain favor us and we have quick access to air support,” said John Nagl, one of the authors of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine and president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank.

Hard to argue with trying to be smart and avoid getting killed. Nagl undoubtedly knows a lot more about warfighting and counterinsurgency than I do. But ways not to earn the Medal of Honor as a strategic and/or tactical principle starts to sound like the other side of that “Courageous Restraint” coin. A kind of “first do no harm” school of warfighting that has led to complaints that troops are being asked not to protect themselves, and to position themselves where they will not be forced to protect themselves. How about stationing our troops in places where they can effectively kill the enemy, cut off the enemy’s movements and supply lines, and protect the population, and giving them the freedom to do those things? If those happen to be places where someone at some point is called on to go beyond, and earns the Medal of Honor, so be it.

Good point on the air support, though. At last check, the troops in Afghanistan are getting tired of not being allowed to kill the enemy, and some Afghans aren’t crazy about it, either. It gets people killed when you do that.

On that subject, Gen. Petraeus, while you’re reconsidering the ROE, please reconsider that “courageous restraint” thing. Courage takes many forms, all deserving of recognition, but actively encouraging soldiers and commanders to engage in poor decision-making is a bad idea. Previously re that, The Taliban Cross.

*Not to include USMC Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was deemed to have been likely brain dead when he fell on a grenade. His Navy Cross became an issue, which may be the kind of thing the White House is now trying to avoid by keeping it under wraps, with Washington Post enablance.

** It’s far from certain whether the White House actually does want to win, though as some commentators have noted, by naming Gen. Petraeus to run the war, the president effected handed political control of that decision to the military, apparently, hopefully, defaulting to victory. Gutless and accidental, but hey, if it gets the job done …

Posted on 1 Jul 2010
Crossposted on

Photo: WikimediaCommons

Tagged ,

More on the Courageous Restraint Award

Jules Crittenden has more to say about the Courageous Restraint Award on his blog at In particular, he notes:

Given that there is nothing to bar higher command from recognizing truly heroic acts in defense of civilians, it raises the question of why they would want to expand that as a philosophy, to the point, the underlying discussions indicate, of commending soldiers who ignored dire threats and died.

Looking at the criteria for U.S. combat awards, honorees must distinguish themselves conspicuously with acts of courage and gallantry in action against the enemy, but there is no requirement that those acts result in piles of enemy bodies or a even single shot fired. Case in point, Wikipedia notes the first female recipients were four nurses for their actions evacuating a field hospital at Anzio in 1944.

While acts of courageous restraint may indeed be heroic or valorous, there are already a sizable number of military awards that could likely fit the bill, whether it is a Bronze Star or the Soldiers Medal, which under the guidelines set forth in AR 600-8-22 is “awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”

Why the Courageous Restraint Award is a Bad Idea

Provincial Reconstruction Team NCOMy initial reaction in hearing that the Army is in the process of creating a “courageous restraint” award, an award given to soldiers who restrain from using force that could endanger innocent lives, was worry. By incentivizing soldiers to not defend themselves with force where it’s warranted increases the chances of them being killed themselves.

In these conflicts the enemy lives amongst the people making it incredibly difficult to discern them easily. The enemy already has and will inevitably continue to increasingly push soldiers’ limits, proving their knowledge of the inner-workings of our military, a fact that we too often underestimate.

It is my belief that the creation of an award for or using current awards for “courageous restraint” is entirely unnecessary and, moreover, that it will ultimately prove to be detrimental to our troops.

I see no harm in commanders unofficially recognizing soldiers within their command for restraining themselves from using brute force as a first course of action. I believe, in fact, that this would help boost morale.  However, solidifying these incentives within the official award system counters many of the ethos necessary for soldiers to have in order to effectively fight armed combatants.

One way to address the issue of using lethal versus non-lethal force is revising the rules of engagement (ROE) when the situation on the ground changes. It has been enormously effective in addressing soldiers’ actions and responses to non-combatants in the combat zone.

I know from personal experience that changes to the ROE are quickly disseminated to all units to ensure immediate compliance. Any changes that have been made recently and changes that still need to be made to the ROE should be taught and re-taught to all soldiers, emphasizing its importance as well as incorporating much more of these ‘restraint’ scenarios, where soldiers are faced with decisions between lethal and non-lethal force, into training.

While I would not argue that American lives are more important than any other, I would argue that it is our duty to do whatever we can to protect the American soldiers who are voluntarily putting themselves in harms way.  Incentivizing them to not protect themselves is not the answer.

photo: flickr/soldiermediacenter

Tagged , ,

A Response to Tom Ricks: My Definition of Chaos

Tom Ricks’ article on chaos construes chaos as an unfamiliar, complex system, which, with experience, can be mastered over time; chaos as extreme kayaking from my interpretation.  From Ricks’ writing, I infer his definition of chaos to be the third option given by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “a state of utter confusion.”  But, as one who has experienced the fog of war, I submit that the second option given by Merriam-Webster,“a state of things in which chance is supreme,” is more relevant and meaningful to veterans, those who made it back.

I used to sit in my bunk at night in Baghdad and imagine that I was on top of one of the many mortar shells the insurgents fired at us, riding it at its highest point before it arced over.  Beneath me, blissfully unaware, camouflaged soldiers and Iraqis mingled in a delightfully unpredictable way, spread out in random patterns that defied symmetry or order.

Maybe a random gust of wind would push me a little left or a little right, push me away from a cluster of boys playing soccer in a dirty field.  Maybe a truck would pull forward, clearing a path for hot shrapnel to tear into the line of men waiting to pick up their benzene.  Maybe a little girl would decide that she wanted to run out into the street and wave to the friendly Americans.  Maybe one of the guys inside the armored vehicle would decide he wanted to stretch his legs, open the door, and step outside.


Chaos, the kind I know, has little to do with a traffic jam in Calcutta or whitewater rapids.  There is chance in those systems, but, as Ricks notes, it does not reign supreme.  In warfare, chance does reign supreme.

We tilt the deck in our favor.  We shoot better.  We have better armor.  We communicate better than our foe.

We bring order to the variables we can.  But we only hold a few of the cards.  We can’t always control where or how we enter the rapids, nor even tell where the rapids are.

War is not perfect chaos, for we have a little control.  But it is damn close.  The little girl I mentioned before is real.

Why her?  I’ve asked God that a million times.  Or the men who did not come back – I will refrain from using their names to respect their dignity… it seemed to me that God usually took the good ones.

He took some of the bravest, most decent men I have ever met.  Because they happened to pick the left side of the truck and not the right.  Because they volunteered to stand a watch before it was their turn.  Because – well, there really isn’t any because.

I don’t know anything about Napoleon’s mind.  Or any of those who planned strategy in Great Halls of power.  I do know that those who are able to master their fear of that terrible unpredictability, who are able to accept that they are dead before they enter battle, are able to operate with greater alacrity and navigate the rapids.

But the fact that some of us were able to survive longer does not delay the inevitable.  Bullets fired by children kill just as surely as the bullets fired by my elite snipers.  There is more predictability, less chaos if you will in my snipers rounds.  But, if you roll the dice enough, my kind of chaos again, you will find that you can get the real definition of Chaos from its source.

WikiLeaks: An exercise in free press or endangering US troops?

On Monday, 5 April, the whistleblower site WikiLeaks caused uproar when they posted a video from an Apache patrol from 12 July 2007, in New Baghdad. In the subsequent firing from attack aviation, two local Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, were killed. The US Government (USG) has not denied the authenticity of the footage. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange reported that the video was provided by government sources to WikiLeaks.

I applaud WikiLeaks for exercising the first amendment and playing a vital role in checks and balances in the United States. Though, in their attempt to uncover the “indiscriminate slaying” of the crowd of Iraqi men, they are now endangering service members currently deployed to Iraq. In addition to the ongoing string of bombings in reaction to the parliamentary election in March, more fuel has been added to the fire.

I am a big supporter of Amy Goodman and her independent media outlet Democracy Now!. In fact, I flocked to Columbia University’s auditorium Tuesday night to see her speak as part of the conference Facing the Fracture. Though I am disappointed that she failed to note the pattern of on-the-ground threats in the area and how this affects the operating capacity of these combat pilots. Dr. Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist noted that the neighborhood was contested and the assumed threat of a shoot down was very high. In the end, one of the men shot in the video was in fact carrying a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which had it fired, would have downed the Apache in seconds.

Independent journalist Rick Rowley essentially excused two of the Iraqi men in the group, for arming themselves with automatic rifles. During his interview with Democracy Now! he stated that since it was during a time of civil war, it is justified for Iraqis to carry AK-47s, in what he previously called a peaceful neighborhood of refugees.  In my view, the quelling of violence in Iraq will be largely dependent on Iraqis laying down their arms, despite their fears of instability. In addition, the economy won’t get the boost it vitally needs until the rifles are kept out of the marketplaces.

Upon my initial screening of the Apache footage, it was apparent to me why there was such a strong public reaction. The pilots were clearly heard on the audio laughing. To the outsider not familiar with the psyche in war, it seems that these combat pilots were actually delighted to pull the trigger. I laud Benedict Carey for writing in the New York Times about the psychological distancing necessary for combat soldiers to complete their missions. In fact, it is essential for the soldiers not to be overly emotional during moments of intense decision-making. Over the years, the American public has turned their back on the strain war causes, focusing instead on the isolated failures. At our computers now, we have the luxury of replay and fresh eyes. To the overworked, sleep-deprived attack aviation pilot, the threat was present, and in line with their training, they took the actions necessary to ensure their safety.

As Nancy Scola addresses, Reuters hit a wall when approaching the USG for the helicopter footage, citing the Freedom of Information Act. The line is unclear regarding civilian access to information that details ongoing combat operations and US tactics. The US military fervently defended the Apache pilots as engaging with a hostile force. The Reuters investigation claimed the men were innocent non-combatants. A game of he said, she said, ensues. Currently, the USG does not have plans for reopening the case for further investigation.

If anything, this video should give more insight into the stresses of a 3rd, 4th, or 5th combat deployment.  Attack aviation spots a military-age male through their scope, mounting a medium-sized object on their shoulder- what are they to think?  Had this been a different circumstance and had they hesitated, we may be watching videos of the Apache in flames on the ground with jubilant Iraqi men dragging the burnt corpse of the pilot through the street. This is not a hawkish statement in an attempt to write off this tragedy. The reality is that the fog of war does not allow one to see every detail. The number one priority is survival. To point out black dots on footage after the fact and call the pilots indiscriminate murderers is not just. If being a combat pilot were an easy job, couldn’t we all do it?

Severe Clear: A Sincere, Unrefined Film of Marines in Iraq in 2003

Lieutenant Mike Scotti never thought he’d wind up making a movie.  And that is what makes Severe Clear, the full-length documentary that came out of Scotti’s personal footage, so successful.

Disconcertingly, this is a movie that espouses no message,  no morals or ruminations on why we went to Iraq, no thoughts on how our experiences in Mesopotamia might inform our efforts in Afghanistan.  Severe Clear incorporates almost no hindsight; even the narration draws only from diaries and letters Scotti kept while in Iraq. Severe Clear is a time capsule, an unadulterated look at one of the most significant moments in America’s history.  The fact that the movie also happens to be hilarious, exciting, moving, and troubling only adds to its appeal.

In March of 2010, a staggering 25 hours of video were uploaded to Youtube per minute.  And what amazing topic does all this content cover?  It’s you.  It’s your opinions about the iPad, it’s your pet doing stupid things to furniture, it’s that crazy dance your friends did at their wedding.  But all of that is 2010.  March 2003 was a very different time for self-documentation.

Personal camcorders (using Mini-DV tapes) had finally reached the the size where they were truly portable.  At the same time, the significance of these little devices had not yet dawned on most people.  Facebook didn’t exist.  No one’s life had yet been ruined because some embarrassing recording of them had made it to the internet.  The military had no policy on the use of personal recording devices in war.  As a result, Scotti had total freedom to film whatever he wanted.  He (and several of his friends, from time to time) wore the little cameras around their necks and ended up capturing what they experienced with almost obsessive regularity.

The movie begins with the typical grab-assing and antics of Marines that are bored and restless.  But whereas other war movies have dutifully reproduced military culture and humor on screen, the effects are different when seen through the eyes of a participant.  In one clip, we listen to Scotti complain about the press as he films some of them milling about camp; soon after, we catch him zooming in on and tracking a female reporter’s (nicely toned) rear end.  The camera itself plays a part in the movie.  Sometimes it’s the butt of jokes, but we also get to see it being used tactically, for its nightvision and zoom capabilities.

The camera work during action scenes reflects the nature of combat itself.  The dark footage shakes from gunfire.  More often than not, the camera ends up sideways on a table and we see only lopsided glimpses of the firefight.  Video cuts in and out; barked orders only confuse the matter.  We soon find out that the Marines are as confused as we are during combat. Scotti brings the camera out to an enemy’s position the day after a night battle.  He shows us bloody uniforms and expended ammunition, but the attackers are gone.  Who were they? Where did they get their weapons?  We don’t find out.

There are many things this movie won’t do.  It won’t provide any sort of closure on the men of Scotti’s unit.  What happened to them after the invastion?  Scotti shares with us the death of one close friend, but only mentions that others have also been lost.  The guys we saw in the beginning, playing pranks on each other, making stupid faces into the camera, are they alive still?  The movie doesn’t help answer the question “what went wrong?”  The opinions Scotti does offer are those he had in 2003, which he himself admits were less than informed.  At one point in the movie, he marvels at the ruins of the ancient city Babylon, musing “I thought this shit only existed in fucking Led Zeppelin songs.”

My advice to potential viewers of Severe Clear is to forget about the movie doesn’t do.  It’s not a war drama, and it’s not really a documentary, so don’t compare it to others in those genres.  Go to Severe Clear to remind yourself what March 2003 was like for America, the Marine Corps, and one Marine in the middle of a war he didn’t really understand.  Enjoy it, and take from it what you will.

The Army’s Equal Treatment of Heroes and Cowards

On a sweltering hot day in Baghdad, I snapped to attention, my arms locked at my sides, rivulets of sweat pouring down my face.  I blinked through the salty drops and tried to focus on the scene playing out in front of me.  For a moment, I felt a wave of nausea.

Two first lieutenants were standing side by side.  One of them had been decorated for valor in battle, his men loved him, and he was a good and trusted friend.  He had led his men through multiple firefights, and, on one particularly awful day in Baghdad, he had sprinted back and forth tending to his wounded men and making sure all of them made it onto the casualty evacuation vehicle before he collapsed into my arms, severely concussed and suffering from c-spine injuries.

The other lieutenant had been relieved of duty after he curled into a ball and cried during a firefight.  His patrol had been hit by an IED and they had lost a soldier.  And, when his men needed him the most, he failed them.  He froze and it was only by grace that a follow-on attack did not inflict more casualties.  The battalion commander created an imaginary position for him on the battalion staff that did not technically exist, the assistant S-4, or the assistant battalion logistics officer.  He was useless as an Infantry officer, a disgrace to his chosen profession.

A senior officer approached the two lieutenants and, pausing before each, stripped off the rank of first lieutenant and replaced it with the rank of captain.  I blinked again, and then began to applaud with the other assembled soldiers, but I was really applauding for my friend, a true captain of Infantry, while trying to suppress my feelings of revulsion that yet more brave men would have to salute this other man, if he could be called that.

Both men receive the same paycheck.  Both men wear the same rank.  But the character of the two could not be more different.  And I think the problem is one of bureaucracy, a classic example of focusing on quantity and not quality.  It is absurd that a hero and a coward would be promoted at the same time because the Army needs to report to Congress that it has bodies filling positions.

The Army has a stated policy of masking all lieutenant’s officer evaluation reports (OERs) upon promotion to captain.  My Infantry Officer Basic Course company commander told me, “If you have a pulse and you don’t get arrested you’ll be promoted to captain at thirty-eight months.”  And my company commander and battalion commander, after giving me a glowing evaluation report that ranked me as the best platoon leader in the battalion, told me to “hang it on the fridge so your girlfriend can see it.  Because no one else will.”

Our star performers are leaving the Army because the Army is not recognizing and rewarding exceptional productivity with faster promotions and increased responsibility and pay.  General Petraeus is a star performer and he is proof of the outsized impact one leader can have on an organization.  But it is more by luck than design that Petraeus arrived at the right time in Iraq, for the system is designed to retain and keep the mediocre officers.

I am surrounded by brilliant officers at Harvard Business School.  They are all headed to some of the most prestigious firms in the country: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Co.  And many of them echo the same frustration: why does my voice matter so much more when I am here, when the Harvard brand gives me legitimacy, than it did when I was a servant of America?

Our frustration is not what bothers me.  What bothers me is the plight of the men and women who suffer under the poor leadership of these mediocre officers.  They have sworn an oath to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”  And, not all the time, but sometimes, those orders make men and women die needlessly.  One time is too many.

Iraq in 2005: Perspective From a Marine F/A-18 Pilot

Back in 2005, most citizens of Ramadi, Iraq, proclaimed publicly that they preferred the rule of Saddam Hussein to that of the ineffectual Iraqi democracy backed by the United States.  Living conditions in Ramadi during 2005 were horrific.  Basic governmental services were non-existent; police didn’t patrol the streets; water and electric services were self-help; sewage lines were not repaired and left a foul stench in the city that became emblematic of the bigger political troubles brewing beyond plain sight.

Worse, individual physical security was nearly always in jeopardy.  Citizens could just as easily be killed in their homes by errant bombs or bullets from fighting between insurgents and US forces as be killed in a public place by an Islamic extremist suicide bomber.

Iraq, once the “cradle of civilization” – and more recently a place that engendered moderate Muslims to balance education and modernity with religion – had become a wasteland of political maneuvering via repeated maniacal violence.  The invasion by US forces in 2003 removed the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a fledgling government that could not provide for basic services much less the hope of a brighter future.

In 2005, instead of one clear and known enemy in Saddam, the Sunni citizens of Iraq had several unclear enemies both known and unknown: the US military, Al Qaeda, the central Iraqi Government, the Shia Iraqi Army Soldiers, and even the members of the other competing tribes in adjacent neighborhoods.

Economic and political development, and specifically the transition to democracy, traditionally produces conflict as political actors vie for control over the political process, maneuver for control of resources and alliances, and sometimes simply struggle for survival.  History shows us that Western democracies have sometimes struggled for decades before stabilizing.  And while we don’t know yet what Iraqi democracy will look like when the dust settles, or if it will survive at all, we do know that their “transition” has been fraught with pain and peril.

Though questions remain about the intelligence failures and narrow world view that brought us to the invasion, the United States must examine how it managed post invasion Iraq, why it pushed Iraq toward democracy, and how it could have better facilitated stability and a return to normalcy in the post Saddam era.

The difficulty began because the invasion plan called for a small/light force instead of a heavy/intrusive one.  Decision makers concluded from history that a small footprint of US personnel would reduce Iraqi resistance and resentment and motivate Iraqis to solve their own problems.  Unfortunately, the American effort turned out to be under resourced, misdirected and too reliant on the military.

The convenient lesson to draw from the Iraq experience would be that the invasion itself was a mistake; that the US invaded the wrong country, for the wrong reasons. This would be the wrong lesson to learn.  While the 2003 invasion may have been a mistake, history tells us that you don’t always get to choose your battles – sometimes they choose you – and we may find ourselves in a “post invasion Iraq” scenario again.

The lesson we should learn is that since the US attempted to establish democracy in Iraq it should have acknowledged from history that the transition to democracy would likely lead to struggle and violence and thus the requirement for greater US effort and resources. The effort and resources should have included an array of US capabilities and assets to include governmental and non-governmental agriculture, commerce, and political resources among other things.  It is in the US national security interest to not only win the combat, but to win the peace.  If democracy is the goal, the US must recognize the perils of democratic transition and be prepared to commit more than military resources alone to win that peace.

Photo: dvids

Thoughts From a Former Army Captain on the Nisoor Square Shootings

Contractor is such a convenient word. The ubiquitous word for outsourced government services has such a broad scope that it is more likely to convey images of electricians and construction workers than it is to say, conjure up the spectre of armed civilians taking life while operating in a foreign, sovereign country. These American mercenaries are a supposedly efficient solution for a two-front war that has stretched a ten division Army to the limit. But, more importantly, they are not a fair or a moral solution. The current strategic and structural deficiencies that created a context in which private companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy thrived should be remedied as soon as possible before the United States find its’ prestige and honor further tarnished by more incidents like the Nisoor Square shootings.

The Nisoor Square shootings are a perfect example of the consequences of structural deficiencies that created an accountability vacuum around these guards who, from anecdotal experience and according to a recently released Senate report, are “reckless.” The changes that took effect in the wake of the Nisoor Square incident have not been substantive enough to align the mercenary culture with American morality.

I have driven through Nisoor Square many times, and, at a time when violence was peaking in Iraq: the spring and summer of 2007. The square is in fact a traffic circle just outside the Green Zone and it is almost always packed with cars. I am not surprised that a car drove towards the Blackwater convoy. In fact, I would be more surprised if a car didn’t drive towards their convoy. They are, after all, in the middle of an enormous city.

I am surprised by the amount of devastation wrought. Even ceding the dubious premise of a threatening car, I fail to comprehend how seventeen people were killed. Many of these men are former special operators; they are highly trained in hostage rescue and precision, discriminatory fires. At least one guard tried unsuccessfully to get the others to stop shooting . Combining this apparent fact with the scale of the shooting, the age of the victims and that some victims were shot in the back, does not suggest these men reacted in self-defense.

As the Senate Report and the aftermath of the Nisoor Square shootings illustrates, these mercenaries are such an alien entity to the military they operate with little supervision which translates into little accountability. And the people they protect, State Department diplomats, who complained of post traumatic stress disorder from the occasional mortar attack on the Green Zone , do not strike me as the type of people to report on misconduct by these guards. The culture in that organization, which nearly revolted at the concept of mandatory duty in Iraq at a time when the Army desperately needed help, does not lend itself to ratting on the men who cut corners to protect them.

The accountability issue is two-sided: civilians who are not trained for war are unlikely to question former SEALs and Green Berets protecting them and ad hoc solutions that attempt to integrate a civilian company into judicial processes designed for soldiers are unlikely to correct systemic deficiencies in the morality and culture of these private organizations who have sworn no oath to the constitution and who bear only as much loyalty to the strategic goals of the United States as one can expect from a man or woman who has agreed to potentially give his life for money.

As a soldier, I find the differences in pay immoral in the sense that they are unfair to our men and women who stay in uniform. At the end of the day, the United States government is writing the checks to military personnel and to mercenary companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy. An Army captain responsible for the lives of up to 200 men in a company is paid around 60k. An Army captain who hangs up his uniform and joins Blackwater or Triple Canopy can typically command a paycheck of 250-300k. I do not think this is the message that we want to send to our servicemen and women. Does the United States government really value the services of a private mercenary at four to five times the going rate it values those who are willing to die defending the American way of life?

Truly, the only solution for this problem is to create a flexible pay structure and a separate command administered by the military that can take advantage of the need for highly qualified combat veterans. A more flexible career path and incentive system would allow the military to retain more of these men and women that possess critical specialties. This system would allow accountability at the top while taking advantage of clear, well-established judicial processes for those trigger pullers who operate at the bottom. Relying on mercenaries and private CEOs who operate in an environment that is rife with the potential for another crisis creates a moral imperative for action.

General Douglas MacArthur, advocating a stiff punishment for Japanese General Tomayuki Yamashita for failing to prevent war crimes in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation, wrote these timeless words:

The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being. When he violates this sacred trust, he not only profanes his entire cult but threatens the very fabric of international society. The traditions of fighting men are long and honorable. They are based upon the noblest of human traits – sacrifice.

One of the victims in Nisoor Square was a nine year old girl. The Blackwater guards who killed her are acquitted and free not by the weight of the evidence but because of an inept investigation. What is our excuse if this happens again?