Awesome weekend in our nation’s capital. After checking in to the hotel, my first stop was a little office near the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue—the Center for a New American Security. It was more than simply a social call (although I did grab a massive Guinness afterwards); I had a great conversation with Commander Herb Carmen regarding the use of airpower in counterinsurgency, a topic all the more important after the events of this past week. It was a fascinating discussion, and reiterated many of the salient points brought up in a recent blog post at Abu Muqawama.
One of the most interesting things we discussed was the theme of “cultural communication” between members of the different military services. Indeed, one commenter at Abu Muqawama mentioned that any counterinsurgency class for aviators had to be designed for a more, shall we say, ADD crowd, and there’s a great deal of truth to this. In general, military aviators tend to be a very visually-oriented group, which prefers to get much of its information from pictures.
(For example, take a look at a book of instrument approach procedures. Older books will have written text describing the missed approach procedure, for example, it will literally say something to the effect of “Climb to 2,000 feet, then execute a climbing left turn to 4,000 feet to intercept the ART VORTAC”. Newer approach procedures, on the other hand, simply have a series of pictures in the missed approach diagram—an arrow straight ahead pointing at the number “2000”, then a left arrow to the number “4000”, and so forth.)
I also had a chance to meet Andrew Exum, and we chatted briefly about his recent blog post on airpower in counterinsurgency. Ex grabbed a Moleskine notebook (I believe he prefers the full-sized "squared" version) and read a few notes he took during a meeting with General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan (presumably during his trip last summer). Gen. McChrystal had said that even if airpower is used to kill insurgents and produce a tactical victory, it must always be weighed against the probability of collateral damage and the propaganda victory it might give the enemy. This was reflected in one of General McChrystal’s first acts upon taking command in Afghanistan—curtailing the use of airpower. It’s a risky move, for certain, and will require greater effort on the parts of both ground troops and aviators to better coordinate combined arms operations. But the risk of losing the battle for the minds of the Afghan is far too great—we must adapt.
After a great visit with the CNAS crew, it was off to the Milblog conference. I was quite amazed—when I told people I was attending a conference for milbloggers, most thought it was going to look like a Star Trek convention. Far from it. The event was attended by Admiral J.C. Harvey, Gary Trudeau (of Doonesbury), Jamie McIntyre, and featured a recorded message from General David Petraeus, who thanked milbloggers for their contributions.
One of the most interesting conversations I had during the conference was with Lt. Col. Mitchell Bell, who runs “The SandGram”. Lt. Col. Bell began milblogging in 2005, during a deployment to Western Iraq. His blog featured amusing anecdotes from his time in Iraq. I found that we both had a similar experience with blogging while deployed—we both felt that any day, we were going to get called into the commander’s office and explain exactly why we were operating a blog. I also kind of wonder what went through Greyhawk’s mind when the official MultiNational Corps-Iraq screensaver featured a screen shot of the Mudville Gazette emblazoned with the words “Bloggers—are you violating OPSEC (Operational Security)?”.
Lt. Col. Bell also echoed a sentiment from the “View from the Top” panel, which mentioned that the milblogosphere was self-policing. Indeed, senior milbloggers will frequently keep more junior milbloggers in line, dissuading them from gripes against individuals in the chain of command, and posts which violate OPSEC.
I also ran into a good sidebar conversation between Commander Salamander (US Naval Institute) and Jamie McIntyre. CDR Salamander mentioned that a number of milbloggers (including yours truly) had received media inquiries from the BBC regarding the “Collateral Murder” video, as the military’s public affairs units were completely unwilling to discuss the video at all. During the panel, McIntyre noted that it was the milbloggers--not the mainstream media nor WikiLeaks--which provided the best analysis of the video.
But it was Robert Cagle—one of the directors of Team Rubicon, a volunteer emergency medical response team—who provided the best quote of the weekend. Shortly after the Haitian Earthquake, Team Rubicon received literally millions of dollars in donations, allowing them to fly a team of dozens of medical specialists to Haiti in order to provide medical care to the victims of the tragic quake which killed nearly 200,000 people. He told me a heart-wrenching story of a nine-month old girl whose legs were infected with gangrene, and had not seen medical care for twelve days. Although the girl survived, the doctors were forced to amputate the legs. Cagle said that we in the Western world have no idea what it is like to go for so long without life-savin emergency medical care.
Cagle remarked “there are people literally alive today based on the work that milbloggers do each and every day”.
One final highlight: I got to meet Matt Gallagher--author of Kaboom--and received my very own advance copy of his book. At a first glance, the book is great, as Gallagher juxtaposes poetic descriptions of the landscape with cynical anecdotes about Army bureaucracy. In one section of the book, he even uses an appropriate T.E. Lawrence quotation that's not one of the oft-cliched ones. As the Navy would say, Bravo Zulu.
Edit #1: Probably the most recognizable attendee was Greyhawk, who's an excellent speaker, and has some positively awesome stories and experiences. If you ever get the chance to meet him, invite him over for a beer (or three).