Apr 05

On a hot day in the spring of 2008, my platoon manned a routine traffic control point in Eastern Afghanistan. It was us, a small group of Afghan Border Police, miles of empty countryside, and a trickle of civilian vehicles.

As soon as I got my men into position, I went to the nearest compound to set up an impromptu shura. After a bit of coaxing, I finally got the eldest male to come out of his dwelling. He matched the physical description of a key Taliban sub-commander, and he acted suspicious. He even told me his name--the same name as the Taliban sub-commander. (This may seem odd, but our battalion had already captured three known Taliban throughout the deployment, all because they used their real name. Afghans will lie for hours about what they do, but they always seem to use their real name. More on this interesting phenomena in future posts.)

Part of me was worried: the Taliban sub-commander I was looking for traveled with an entourage of 20-50 armed fighters. Luckily, we had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) overhead. Linked to our Brigade headquarters, who had direct communication with my battalion headquarters, that in turn was linked to my company command post, who could talk to me on an FM radio, the UAV spotted the Taliban posse heading towards my position.

My commander radioed, “Destined 4-6, be prepared, Brigade says they spotted 100 Taliban moving towards your position. Current location at grid XXX-XXX.”

My platoon jumped into action, thankful that network-centric warfare had provided us the early warning.

What amazing technological network allowed this to happen? A variety of systems with equally convoluted acronyms: I plotted the Taliban position on a map system called the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below, or FBCB2. The FBCB2 links into another system called the Command Post of the Future, or CPoF. In addition to those two networks, every command post uses email, internet chat, and adobe chat. And to watch everything, the US Army has unmanned aerial vehicles; drones that can travel hundreds of miles, and hover over the battlefield for hours.

These networks allow Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels to (micro) manage fights in ways they never could before, as they were on that hot day in the spring of 2008.

As I worked with my company commander to identify the exact location of the Taliban entourage, my platoon sergeant got my men ready. My section sergeant put our sharpshooter in position, and repositioned the squad automatic weapon. My team leaders checked weapons and ammunition. We were on edge; we were ready.

I, meanwhile, checked the coordinates Brigade had relayed. I looked up. I checked again. I rechecked.

My platoon sergeant called me on the radio. “Sir, I don’t think those grid coordinates are correct.”

“No, they're right,” I replied. “The UAV is just looking at a herd of sheep.”

And so they were. "Network-centric" warfare isn't a panacea for counter-insurgency, or war in general. It doesn’t cut through fog of war, so much as allow the fog to creep up to levels previously unimaginable. The US Army constantly praises its small unit leaders for their initiative, but it then develops technology so that Generals can call in air strikes and micromanage the fight.

I don’t mean to discount all UAVs, or all communication advances, that combine to make our new "network" technology. But very few technologies have made life easier for the companies on the ground, the level where counter-insurgencies are waged. I'm not anti-technology; I am anti-micromanagement.

(A note on Operational Security: Many of the details in this story could be fleshed out because I have to keep some names and capabilities secret. I hope everyone understands. Also, this dialogue is not accurate but an approximation.)

Feb 22

Our long time readers at On Violence have probably come away with two impressions about me: first, I criticize the Army a lot; second, that I think highly of myself. So do I make the same mistakes as the Army?

Well, I do, and I like to think that I confront them when I see them. Recently I read the fantastic novel, The Ugly American, and it led me to some deep introspection (trust me, I'll have more posts about this book in the future). The book indicts America’s foreign policy system for it’s lack of American foreign language expertise (among other things). Written in 1958, its criticisms of American foreign policy still apply today.

As The Ugly American describes, the American foreign policy apparatus--from the Defense Department to the State Department to our intelligence agencies--lacks the critical language skills necessary to succeed. So obviously I must take language skills seriously, and I must study them on my own.

Actions speak louder than words, and my actions don’t tell the same story. I have never succeeded in mastering a critical foreign language. I tried to learn Tagalog, (the language of the Philippines) to help my study of insurgencies. Later, I started to learn Arabic in case I deployed to Iraq, but that never happened. In each case, I quit because the need no longer seemed important or relevant, and mastery seemed too difficult.

(I did learn Spanish. I took five years in high school, and I believe with a little bit of study, and total immersion, I could gain close to fluency. I have learned some of one language, it is just a language half of America knows tambien.)

Even worse than the times I started studying languages but quit, is the tremendous opportunities I have been given, but did not embrace. I lived overseas in Italy, and only learned restaurant Italian. ("Un litre de vino de casa rossa, per favore.") When I deployed to Afghanistan I only learned how to introduce myself. And I spoke to Afghans on a daily basis.

It is my major criticism of myself. Depending on my next assignment, hopefully I can change. I need to embrace learning a foreign language in a critical skill so that I can practice what I preach and improve myself. But I run a blog, work for the Army, work out daily, and am planning a wedding, I don't know if it will happen.

Jan 25

Last week I wrote about the death of one of my Soldiers, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw. Writing about his passing brought to the surface feelings about another friend I've lost, who I haven't written about.

Three years years ago on Jan. 15--the same day I heard about Beachnaw--I received the sad news that one of my good friends from UCLA ROTC, 2nd Lieutenant Mark Daily, had been killed in Iraq by an IED.

I had just started Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (IBOLC). I was living in a house of four UCLA ROTC graduates all attending the same course. We all knew Mark, but I knew him the best. After a long day in class, my phone rang and I learned about our ROTC program's first casualty in the War on Terror.

I suppose I need to back up. Mark and I clicked as soon as we met in ROTC. He joined the program his junior year as a transfer, I joined the same year as a sophomore. The first of many long conversations occurred on the way to a TV show taping in Hollywood. In the back of the ROTC van we discussed the most dangerous threats facing America. We settled on aliens, followed by ants, and then robots. It wasn’t a serious conversation. Later that spring we were on the same squad for the fall FTX. We both shared a passion for history and politics--discussed frequently over coffee at Kerkhoff hall at UCLA.

Mark's thirst for knowledge was his most defining characteristic. Since we shared an interest in current politics--and the wars--we had a lot to discuss. We also vented about the Army and ROTC in our long conversations. After his thirst for knowledge, his loyalty to to his friends, and devotion to his wife, still stick in my mind when thinking about Mark.

Mark graduated the year before I did. We hadn't kept in great contact but a few weeks before I was to leave to go to Fort Benning he stopped by the ROTC program. I decided to see him on my way out to Fort Benning, only a few weeks before he deployed to Iraq. When Eric C and I finally arrived, we drank margaritas, ate tacos, and talked late into the night. He told me about leading Soldiers, and the differences between ROTC and the real Army.

On 15 January 2007, after a long day of IBOLC training above, Mark's wife called to say that he had been killed in an IED blast. Like last week, I put my training on hold to attend the funeral that weekend.

After he passed, Mark gained minor internet fame. On his Myspace page he explained his decision to join the Army, and his powerful words inspired congress people and civilians all around. It was a strong message from an intelligent Soldier.

So after a tribute to a fallen Soldier last week, why another tribute so soon? We needed to do a post on Mark Daily, and Sergeant Beachnaw's passing reminded me that I had not given Mark the respect he deserves. In the current conflict, I have lost two people who were close to me; it doesn't get any easier.

Jan 18

For the last week, I've been working in a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility. In plain English, I couldn't check my email or bring my cell phone to work. Last Thursday, I left work in a crazy hurry to (barely) catch a plane flight to Los Angeles for the holiday weekend.

I got around to opening my email Friday morning. The first message was from an ex-Soldier saying to call him immediately. The second email was from a friend in the unit which simply said, "Beachnaw."

It instantly clicked.

My stomach dropped and I hoped against hope that what I suspected would be true wasn't.

(SGT Beachnaw, 1LT Michael C, SPC Watson and SPC O'Briant at OP Restrepo, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)

On Wednesday the 13th of January, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw was killed by enemy small arms fire in Afghanistan. According to initial reports, his team was attacked by an overwhelming number of enemy fighters. He sustained multiple injuries as he laid down suppressing fire so his men could fall back.

Sergeant Beachnaw was in 4th platoon, the Helldivers, for my entire tour in Afghanistan and for four months when we returned to Vicenza, Italy. When I first arrived, he wasn't Sergeant Beachnaw yet, simply Private First Class Beachnaw. A few days later, he was promoted to Specialist.

When Soldiers ask me if they should stay in the Army, I give each a different answer. Some guys need to get out. Some guys should stay in. Sergeant Beachnaw was the latter. He didn't need to stay in for the discipline or because he had nowhere else to go; he needed to stay in the Army because he was awesome at what he did. Sergeant Beachnaw was a Soldier's Soldier, the best of the breed.

In Afghanistan, Sergeant Beachnaw presented the best kind of problem to our leadership: he was the best driver in the platoon and the best shot (After we returned from Afghanistan he went to Sniper school and earned the honor "top gun."). This is a tough situation for a mounted platoon. Should he drive or carry the M14 rifle? We had him do both.

Because he was so good, he never drove my truck. My Platoon Sergeant hand selected him as his driver to drive the most important vehicle in a convoy. The Platoon Sergeant's truck is the primary vehicle for recovering downed vehicles and evacuating casualties. Sergeant Beachnaw had an uncanny ability to recover downed Humvees. He did this on the first convoy I went on, and continued until our last patrol in Afghanistan. 

When we returned, our Platoon Sergeant put Beachnaw in for the Sergeant's board. Not only did he pass but he jumped over to the Scout platoon. He continued excelling in the Army until he died fighting last Monday.

As others have said, Beachnaw always brought a smile to your face. Whenever I passed Beachnaw in the field or in garrison, we would always give each other shit. He was a Soldier's Soldier so if I was messed up, he was going to figure a way to let me know. And I did the same. We did this until the last time I saw him in a training area in Hohenfoels, Germany. He asked why I was afraid to roll with him (do combatives). I said he was the one who was afraid of me. (At the time, we used more curse words.) We never did get to settle who would win in a combatives match.

Then he talked to me about leading a scout team. He wasn't perfect, but he was embracing the challenge. It was amazing to watch a squad leader mature.

The night before Eric C left Vicenza, we went out with a bunch of fellow officers to have drinks. We went to an Irish pub and guys from my old platoon showed up. When Sergeant Beachnaw arrived, he insisted, insisted, that he buy me a drink. So I made him drink scotch. We eventually got on to why we do what we do. I told him that we all have different reasons for signing up, but in the end we kept doing the things we did for each other, the men to our left and right. I then said that one of the biggest surprises was how tight we all became and that bonds with Soldiers like Beachnaw were far and away the most rewarding part of my job. He said that sober he probably wouldn't get what I was saying, but in a bar over a glass of scotch he somehow did.

I did what I did for Soldier's like Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw, among others. He wasn't just good, he was among the finest in the light infantry and America. I, among countless others, will miss him. The Army will miss him because he truly represented the best of what Soldiers are.

If you would like to know more about Sergeant Beachnaw, his hometown television station has done a few reports on him. If you would like to help, Beachnaw's facebook page has a place to donate to bring soldiers to his service.

To conclude, I am going to quote from Specialist Bianchi, a current member of the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He spoke at SGT Beachnaw's memorial service in Afghanistan and he wrote a powerful eulogy:

I am standing in front of all of you today because SGT Beachnaw, I am proud to say, was my friend. SGT Beachnaw was a man of charm and wit, handsome and funny in every way always laughing. He was a fine soldier too; an original founding member of Destined Company and the 4th Platoon Helldivers. He was a veteran of OEF VIII, a Bronze Star recipient a Scout Sniper and a Pathfinder. SGT Beachnaw embodied everything that is a Rock Paratrooper. I remember when we first we met we hit it off immediately, I knew then he would be someone you could depend on even if only for a moment, and when all else was crumbling around you, he would still be there. I asked him not long before we deployed, "Why don’t you come back to Destined Company?" He said to me, “Being a Sniper is what I always wanted to do in the Army.” I know now deep down in my heart that SGT Beachnaw died doing what he wanted to do, and on his own terms. SGT Beachnaw you will be missed. Thank you for being part of all our lives.

Dec 23

(Happy Holidays! On Violence will leave you with this post until Monday, when we begin our discussion on the most informative foreign policy event of the year. For last minute shopping tips, check out the On Violence Christmas Recommendations.)

Before I deployed to Afghanistan, I feared death. But the first time I truly felt afraid was while watching Black Hawk Down.

I first watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in high school and, like everyone else who was in the movie’s target demographic, I loved it. Filled with violence, heavy weapons and wartime glory, Scott made the perfect war film for young males. True, many young American tragically die throughout the film, but interspersed between the deaths are feats of heroism performed by Rangers and Delta Force, like when William Fichtner throws a grenade through a window like a hundred yards away to blow up a sniper position.

So Black Hawk Down joined my DVD collection. I watched this film all the time in college, sometimes with fraternity brothers, other times with co-eds (Josh Hartnett helped in this regard). Great sound and special effects, based on a terrific book, well directed and shot, what’s not to like?

After my first year at UCLA, I joined the Army ROTC. In the spring, we did our yearly training exercises at a training area near Monterey. I fired my M4 at ranges and participated in squad combat drills with blank rounds. I spent a summer at Cadet Command’s Warrior Forge training for two weeks in squad, section and platoon operations. The sound of an M4 firing became embedded in my head. The sound became real for me.

During my senior year at UCLA,, we received our branch assignments. I would branch into the Infantry, something I both wanted and feared, because I wanted to be a real soldier but I was afraid of dying. I made peace with the fact that I would deploy to Iraq. Deploying became real to me.

A few weeks after receiving our branches, I rewatched Black Hawk Down. All of a sudden, the sounds of an M4 firing were not detached movie sounds. They were real. The deaths of the soldiers were no longer an intellectual fact I simply knew; it was an emotional fact I understood. The soldiers became real; the emotions became my own. I realized I was watching real soldiers who died.

The deaths were real, something that could happen to me.

Suddenly, I was afraid.

Nov 23

Cliched, I know. Writing a "what are you thankful for" post on Thanksgiving. Yet we're all thankful for something.  I am thankful for the bond I formed with my men.

I could be thankful that I brought all my men home. And I am thankful that I did. (A week before I joined my platoon, we had a soldier lose his legs. I later met the soldier, and based on the recollections of his comrades in the platoon and my experience, he is a tremendous individual.) Still, that is not what I am most grateful for.

For me, I am thankful to have known and led as many great guys as I did.

Read any war memoir, novel or history book, and the author inevitably describes the unbreakable bonds formed between men who fight. I first heard about this in a class on the Civil War at UCLA. Then I heard it repeated in every speech I ever heard from an officer. I had heard it so much before I deployed, I almost didn't think it could be true.

But it was.

You see movies like Platoon or Saving Private Ryan--or even action films with sci-fi Marines like Aliens--and you wonder, could a platoon of guys ever really match that? Tim O’Brien (who Eric C posted about here) created an entire cast of characters with intense bonds in both The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone. Could reality ever match fiction?

It can and it does. We had the medic equivalent of Spicoli, we had a Southern Medic with a regrettable tattoo, we had guys from all over America but still everyone from California segregated into one truck, we had a mouthy guy from Vegas, we had a platoon sergeant who could put the fear of God into young soldiers (and platoon leaders), we had guys who were ostracized, guys who trashed on each other, guys playing cards, NCOs who yelled “who the f*** said that?”, NCOs known for the size of their arms and quick tempers. We had it all.

I am thankful to have been there with those guys. It is so cliched, it is beyond cliched. Yet the bonds soldiers make isn't make believe, it is what happens. I still can’t believe it.

Nov 18

Last Monday, I woke up knowing I had a rough day ahead of me; I had to deal with government contractors. First, I had to go to both the California DMV to renew my registration, and then to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center (VPC) to pick up my car from Italy.

I'm no fan of the DMV. I believe it is a model of government inefficiency. It's only redeeming feature is that my local DMV shares a parking place with my favorite breakfast place. Combine this with the fact that wait times are up across California, and I dreaded the day ahead of me.

I arrived at 7:45. I waited in line for 15 minutes before they opened, got a call number, and within twenty minutes I was at a window registering my car. Beginning to end, the whole experience took about forty minutes, and the DMV helped almost fifty people in that time, if not more. Three employees helped me: two were very friendly, and the other was quick and efficient, handling almost all the vehicle registrations by himself.

After eating my eggs benedict, I went to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center. For Soldiers deployed overseas--in places like Italy or Germany--the government ships their cars over to them. The Vehicle Processing Center is where soldiers pick up or drop off their cars.

Despite having ample personnel--I counted at least half a dozen within eye sight--and despite only four customers to serve--only one of whom was in front of me--I waited over an hour to talk to someone. And I had even called them to let them know I was on my way. Once they called my name, it took fifteen more minutes to process my car. Throughout my wait, I watched the workers walk to the front, shuffle papers, and then return to who knows where.

The employees who had processed the car didn't clean the windshield where their stickers left residue. They also somehow lost the screws for my license plates. (In fairness, Juan, the employee who finally helped me, was amazingly friendly and clearly the hardest worker in the joint. Without him I would have lost it.)

What can we learn from this? In all honesty, not much. These are two isolated incidents, and I consider anecdotes the worst way to prove a point. I could easily have walked in at slightly different times and had reverse experiences. But I want to provide a moral anyways.

Government employees, contractors, and investment banks are all inefficient for the same reason: lack of competition. Conservative economists (Bernanke, Paulson, Greenspan, etc.) uphold the free market as the ideal form to foster competition. I agree. Take the DMV. Who else can provide your registration or licensing? No one. They have a market of one, and no pressure to perform.

When government contracts out their job, though, you now have a market of one contracting to another market of one. In the case of the VPC, they don't have to worry about customer service because they have a long term contract with the government. It's customers, the military, have no alternatives. Contractors, like the VPC, Kellogg Brown and Roote, and Booz Allen Hamilton, thrive off these long term contracts and the lack of a market place.

The DMV is terrible. And contractors are somehow worse.

Tomorrow, we plan on recapping the recent spate of military contractor news, including KBR's Iraqi draw-up, and how, in the world of military contracting, rape is now legal.

Oct 26

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, the next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue, the following story explains why.)

Like all young teenagers, I knew everything. At 18, I believed I knew enough history that I could predict the future.

My high school, the prestigious San Clemente High School, ran an International Baccalaureate program. For my senior thesis in the fall of 2001, I chose to analyze the recently begun Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I boldly predicted its failure. I compared it loosely to the US experience in Vietnam and wrote that the US would be stuck in a quagmire for years to come. (To show my ignorance of history, I totally ignored the Russian example. I don't know why.)

The paper was amateurish. Comparing two wars--one historical and one ongoing--and trying to sum it all up in 4,000 words was probably a bit audacious. Especially bold because at the time I didn’t regularly read the Economist and I hadn’t yet read David Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Theory and Practice and The Accidental Guerilla, The Sling and the Stone and Eating Soup with Knife had all yet to be published.

Two years later, as Iraq was in full swing, I generally admitted defeat. Afghanistan had dropped out of the news and the casualties were not severe. At the time, 2004 to 2006, America generally referred to that as the successful war. Rumsfeld basked in the success of the Rumsfeld doctrine. My initial prediction had been wrong.

Except that by mid-2007, after the surge “worked” for in Iraq, Afghanistan emerged from the cocoon of peace. It turns out, we hadn’t created a successful government or quelled the Taliban or even formed an army. This meant that in very general terms I was right in my initial prediction.

I don’t remember if I predicted that we would be in Afghanistan for a long time, in which case I was right; or if I predicted we would simply not “win” in Afghanistan, which remains to be seen.

This is why On Violence avoids making predictions. Anyone making predictions about the future, including me, Eric or any of the hundreds of pundits and politicians out there, should do so humbly. You never know when you may be wrong, or right, or wrong and then right again.