30 November 2008

Link of the Day

Not a military link per se, but it does apply to the current War on Terror.

The US has adapted from a large Cold War-era force prepared to fight conventional battles to a much leaner, expeditionary counter-insurgency force. This didn't happen overnight. Retired LT. Col. John Nagl, author of a book on counter-insurgency called "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" noted that successful counter-insurgent forces were "learning organizations", adapting to the enemy's tactics. They did this largely by accepting "bottom-up" suggestions in revising their tactics--taking the input of sergeants and junior officers, many of whom are not constrained by conventional thinking on the ways of war.

Today's link of the day is entitled "Does Experience Kill the Creative Mind". A quote:

"This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you've become an expert in a particular subject, it's hard to imagine not knowing what you do," noted a New York Times feature about a year ago. "When it's time to accomplish a task ... those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path."

The New York Times cites the 2006 book The Innovation Killer, in which author Cynthia Barton Rabe suggests introducing outsiders — those she calls zero-gravity thinkers — for a fresh perspective. Bringing in fresh eyes can foster new solutions to old problems and, Rabe proposes, will keep creativity and innovation on track.

28 November 2008

Starbuck's Coffee

One of my favorite books is From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming. In that particular adventure of ultra-suave British secret agent James Bond, we find 007 traveling to Istanbul to steal a Russian decoding machine. He teams up with a Turkish agent in the employ of the British named Darko Kerim Bey. In his first meeting with Darko Kerim, Ian Fleming painstakingly describes the cup of Turkish coffee that Kerim Bey and 007 and Bond share. Being a coffee lover, I’d always kind of wondered if Turkish coffee was as rich, sweet and strong as Fleming described.

Ten years after reading From Russia, With Love, I wasn’t disappointed.

One of my many additional duties, in addition to flying and blogging, is to initiate various construction projects throughout our area. Lately, the United States has been depending on local Iraqi contractors and businesses, in an effort to attract Iraqi expatriates to settle back in Iraq and resume their businesses. The influx of businesses should revitalize the dilapidated economic infrastructure of the country, and improve at least the economic security situation of the country. Insurgencies prey on those with no other economic options, especially the ones in Iraq, which are fond of offering $20 USD, a considerable sum for Iraqis, to plant roadside bombs. Those with prospective economic security, however, suddenly have something to lose if they join the insurgencies. In a very real sense, the prospect of a real job attracted people towards legitimate business and away from the business of planting bombs.

With that said, we’re currently in the market to build a Crossfit Gym, and I figured that consulting a local Iraqi construction firm located on the base might be a good first step. I had previously made contact with and received a business card from this particular company's team chif.  I noted that his name wasn’t Arabic, but rather, Turkish. I remembered to study up on Turkish greetings before I went into the yard, lest I commit a social faux pas by greeting him in the Arab way. Walking in to the building, I noted that a number of icons were actually dedicated to Paul of Tarsus, the original apostle who hailed from a region in Turkey, and that the local newspapers were printed with Latin characters instead of Arabic, further confirming my belief that the men were, in fact, Turks.

I entered the team chief’s office and greeted him with the Turkish title "effendi", roughly meaning "sir", and we sat down for business. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained to him my situation and gave him specifications for the gym we wanted to build. Roughly eighty feet wide by fifty feet high. Of course, we would want power and air conditioning to compete with the 130F Iraqi summers. We had initially wanted a fifteen foot rope inside the building for climbing, but as the chief and I discussed this, we dismissed the idea, based on the viability of the support structures of the building, and rather settled for a rope hung from a beam outside.

With the crux of the matter done, he explained that it would take a day to do some calculations and then come up with an estimate. At that point, we were joined by two of his collegues, who asked if I would like to join them for Turkish coffee. Remembering the description of the Turkish coffee in Ian Fleming’s masterful novel, and being the coffee glutton I am, I eagerly agreed, noting that I had heard about the merits of Turkish coffee in From Russia With Love, explaining that it took place in Istanbul.

“Have you been to Istanbul?”, asked one of the men, a burly fellow with blue-grey eyes who did not look in the least bit Arabic, but rather Kurdish perhaps?

“No, but I have seen pictures…the Saint Sophia Mosque is very beautiful, one of the wonders of the world”, I replied.

“A very beautiful city” said the man, “In some places Istanbul has remained the same for six hundred years.”

“Well, except for the name, my friend” I quipped, eliciting some laughter from the men. 

I asked for the man's name and explained that his name was Sulemein, a common name in the Middle East.

“As in 'Sulemein the Magnificent'”, I asked, referring to the great Ottoman Emperor.

“You know your history well”, he replied. He explained that he was from Irbil in Iraq, which is part of Kurdistan. Another gentleman, an Iraqi expatriate to Sweden, was originally from Suleimaniya, also in Kurdistan, near the Iranian border.

While the men might have lived in Turkey, it was now apparent they were Iraqi and Turkish Kurds—the third man was born in Turkey and later moved to Irbil in Kurdistan.

They explained that they were part of a construction company hired by the Americans after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Their claim to fame was that they had developed the T-barrier, a concrete structure ubiquitous to Iraq. Baghdad and most major cities are ringed with thousands of these barriers. During General David Petraeus’ first day as the commander of American forces in Iraq, he walked the streets of Baghdad and ordered that hundreds of the T-barriers be emplaced around the buildings to provide protection for the local Iraqis. By all accounts, this, along with many other efforts at securing the population, was highly successful.

One of the workers shows me a sales brochure for various cement construction projects they have been working on. The brochure notes various projects that “are built in our country, Kurdistan”. The brochure also features such interesting language, such as “Kurdistan and Iraq”, implying that the Kurds viewed the Kurdistan as being completely seperate from Iraq. 

With Kurdistan having its own flag, governing body, and having operated autonomously for almost thirty years, it is easy to see how might actually consider themselves to be their own independent nation.

By this time, one of the workers had brought out cups of Turkish coffee for all of us. While drinking coffee is popular the world over, in the Middle East, it is almost a ritual. T.E. Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”, noted in his famous account of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War One, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that the local Bedouin were “gluttons for coffee”. He writes of the Bedouin tribesmen stopping during the middle of the day to drink coffee even while crossing the scorching Nefudh Desert, a desert thought to be impassible even by Bedouin standards.

Turkish coffee is served in a small cup scarsely larger than a thimble. Thick, rich and strong, you don’t even sip the coffee, so much as you touch the cup to your lips and lick a tiny drop at a time.

The chief explained to me that he moved from Turkey to Irbil to go to a university to study civil engineering, and Suleiman adds that Iraqis are among the most well-educated of the Arabs. I asked if it was true that there was now an American University in Kurdistan (Irbil), to which they all replied that yes, the American University in Kurdistan had been open for a few years now, and was quickly expanding.  

They then decided to drop the bomb on me, “Do you think American troops will really withdraw by the end of 2011”, one of them asked, referring to the recently-signed Status of Forces Agreement between the US and the Iraqi government.

To be honest, I wasn’t certain. Although the prospect of a troop withdrawal according to the timetable seems realistic, the Iraq War has been a conflict filled with unexpected twists and turns, with the dramatic improvement in security being the most recent. However, the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and the proposed “surge” in Afghanistan, which I could not see as entailing more than three or four brigades, seemed to largely fit with what I believed President-Elect Obama’s immediate military strategy seemed to be. 

We discussed the complex demographics of Afghanistan. I thought it was difficult enough as it was to learn a few Arabic words to prepare for duty among the three major ethnic groups in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, there are some 400 ethnic groups and tribes, speaking any one of almost a dozen languages, from Uzbek, Farsi, Dari and Pashtu. Add the complex demographics to the isolated, mountainous terrain and throw in a booming opium trade to finance an insurgency, and you have a far different surge than the surge in Iraq.

With the bomb dropped on me, it was time to drop the bomb on them.

“What do you think will happen to Kurdistan in the next fifty years? Do you think it will be its own independent nation?”

A chuckle that emerged from the group.  The chief paused for a second, choosing his words with care, “We know it is better to be part of Iraq than separate”.

“Besides", the Sweedish ex-patriate added, "We Kurds practically own Iraq”. 

A bold claim? Possibly, but only just so. The men noted that Iraqi president Jalal Al-Talabani is Kurdish, as well as many well-placed advisors within the Maliki government.  But only time will tell whether or not that will exist through the next round of elections.

I had reached the end of my coffee.  I looked at the bottom of the cup and noticed that there was a thick layer of sludge.   I asked if I should try to drink the sludge.

The chief stopped me. He demonstrated turning his cup upside down on the saucer, letting the sludge ooze out from underneath the cup onto the saucer. He explained that an old custom is to read one’s fortune in the sludge at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee. He jokeed that hopefully, the cup of coffee will tell me which way I turn to return to my portion of the FOB.  I hope it does, as the FOB is a large place and it's easy to get lost.  

I followed suit, waited a few seconds and turned my cup back over.  Showing him the remaining coffee grinds in my cup, I asked him what my future held.  

The chief looked at the cup carefully, as if studying it intently, for a few seconds. Finally, he smiled and slapped me on the back.

“My friend, this tells me that you will be here for a year”

I can only hope.

Happy Turkey Day

I was going to begin this post with pictures of troops eating turkey on Thanksgiving, but let's  be honest here.  That's one of those obvious news stories.  Ever since George H.W. Bush ate Thanksgiving dinner on the hood of a HMMWV, and since George W. Bush made a surprise entrance at a Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the war, the whole "Troops Eating Turkey" story has been done a million times over.  For the record, I had turkey, dressing, potatoes, the works.  And I'm thankful that I'm as awesome as I am.  
But on to the real story.  You know, Sun-Tzu once said "lure them with the orthodox then strike with the unorthodox".  Well, I intend to have this story lure with the orthodox (Turkey), and
 then strike with the unorthodox...

Behold, more Turkey:

Yes, as I post this message, it's about 5:30 in the morning on the East Coast of the United States, where we are celebrating one of the most American of holidays--Black Friday.  Forget Thanksgiving.  It's actually kind of depressing when you consider that the friendly Native Americans later got killed in mass numbers--they gave the Pilgrims turkey, the Pilgrims gave them smallpox.  Instead, why not concentrate on great capitalistic principles and spend some money!  And if it's money that we don't have, that makes it that much more American.  

Our FOB is the host of a local Turkish Bazaar.  Nothing quite captures the feel of Arabia than buying goods from local...Turks.

If you like The Gilmore Girls, you're in luck.  You're also probably a sad, pathetic human being.

In addition to the selection of carpets at the Bazaar, there's also a wide host of DVDs one can purchase, many not available yet in the US (Hello, Battlestar Galactica Season 5).  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I'm thankful that US copyright laws apparently don't exist in Iraq.

And, of course, what's a Turkish Bazaar without a fully-loaded selection of Hookahs?

Granted, it might be best to do some shopping on Amazon.com, but if you're looking for hard-to-find DVDs and don't feel like putting up with pesky US copyright laws, then the Turkish mall is the place for you.

26 November 2008

Thanksgiving quotes from our special guests

Today's special guests at Wings Over Iraq are George Washington, former US president, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Which I in no way may have simply copied and pasted from the Small Wars Journal website today.

First, Mr. George Washington:

"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us."

"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best."

"Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789."

Secondly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

In this season of hope, I want to say how uplifting it has been to get to know so many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines during the last 24 months.

Many of you are far from home, and I’m sure there’s no place you would rather be than with your loved ones. But know that they, and all Americans, are free and secure because of what the men and women of the U.S. military are doing all over the world – from Fort Lewis to Fort Drum, from Korea to Kosovo, from Bagram to Baghdad.

The holidays are a time to reflect on the kind of nation we are: a nation whose character and decency are embodied in our armed forces. Those who risk life and limb every time they set foot “outside the wire.” The medical personnel, engineers, and civil affairs teams who improve the lives of thousands. And all are volunteers.

To the families of our forces: thank you for sharing your loved ones to defend us all. To our troops: we admire your selflessness and pray for your success and safe return home. And to all: happy holidays.

A new friend came by today

Well, looks like I have a new friend hanging around:

Can't see him? He's actually got a good set of camouflage on:

Now, let me caveat my previous statement: this isn't going to be a pet. As much as fun as it would be to keep Mr. Kitty around, adopting stray Iraqi animals as pets is usually a bad idea, and probably of dubious legality.

But on the good side, he does keep the local snakes and scorpions in check. This is particularly good, as Iraq's snakes are particularly vicious--her bestiary includes everything from cobras to vipers. Seriously, by the time summer rolls around, I will probably be more upset with snakes than Samuel L. Jackson.

Focus: Caption the cat with a LOLCat saying.

Robert Gates retains post as Secretary of Defense

Which is good, as he's published a number of great articles on American power (not only military power, but diplomatic, economic, cultural, etc) which have been saved by Small Wars Journal. Truly a great thinker, who's a fellow John Boyd acolyte to boot.

Secretary Gates at National Defense University

First, limits about what the United States - still the strongest and greatest nation on earth - can do. The power of our military's global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace - and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such.

Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do. The Taliban dispatched within three months, Saddam's regime toppled in three weeks. Where a button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. Where a bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one on the left.

But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain. Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. Look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared. Where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.

Secretary Gates at Kansas State University

The real challenges we have seen emerge since the end of the Cold War – from Somalia to the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere – make clear we in defense need to change our priorities to be better able to deal with the prevalence of what is called “asymmetric warfare.” As I told an Army gathering last month, it is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly in conventional military terms – at least for some years to come. Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos.
We can expect that asymmetric warfare will be the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.
Arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern themselves.

25 November 2008

What doesn't work in Iraq

Actually, the alternate title to this should be "Why you should pirate your music"* .

One of the must-have items for Iraq is an MP3 player. Really, it's become one of those must-have things for pretty much everyone anyway, as few people want to pay $15 for a CD when they could pay $.99 for the one or two tracks they want on that CD. The way to get those tracks (legally) is through a music program such as Napster or iTunes.

The problem is that, until recently, the big music programs added a little thing called DRM (Digital Rights Management) to the music files. It was a code inside the song that prevented the song from being copied from person to person. It also had the annoying feature of locking all access to the song if you didn't log in to the music program once a month. So basically, the $.99 you spent to purchase the track really didn't give you the rights to the track unless you paid an extra $10 a month. Make sense? It didn't to me either. Fortunately, the big music programs realized this didn't make sense (or they realized that people switched to simply pirating music instead), and allowed users to download DRM-free music.

One of the big issues comes about when you take your collection of music to another country. Napster and iTunes allow you to connect to their servers from foreign countries and update your music collection and download at will. Other music services don't offer the same features.

Enter Rhapsody, brought to you Real Media, the same people that brought you that disgrace to binary code, Real Player. If you Google search "Real Player Sucks", you will come up with nearly 850,000 results.

It's rare that a computer program will crash by just moving a mouse around on the screen, but the people at Real Media have done it with Rhapsody. For those of you who were lucky enough to be able to download music with Rhapsody in the first place, you'll be shocked to find that you can't download music from Iraq, nor can you log into Rhapsody to update your DRM files, thus making your entire music collection--that you paid for--obsolete.

Rhapsody's FAQ states that you can download music from a military base, provided that you're on the base. Unfortunately, for those of us in Iraq and Afghanistan, this isn't entirely true. The only internet services available to us run through servers in Germany and Italy, and Rhapsody blocks those ISPs because for some reason. Supposedly if you buy music in America, you aren't allowed to take it to Germany and Italy. Are we enemies with those countries again? I get confused...

With that said, I'd suggest that anyone going to Iraq or Afghanistan use Napster or iTunes for their music, so that they'll be able to keep listening to their music across borders. For those of you who subscribe to other services...well, try your luck. DRM in music files that you pay for makes about as much sense as those anti-piracy ads that play before DVDs. You know those ads that you can't fast forward through that tell you how bad piracy is, even though you obviously obeyed the law and bought the DVD legally? Yeah, and they wonder why people pirate DVDs...

Regarding a SOFA, and not the kind you sit on

During the last month, there's been much talk about a proposed agreement between the US and Iraq regarding the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA), with a referendum on the table (expected to be voted on next week) which could potentially call for the removal of US forces from cities by July of 2009, and a complete withdrawal by December 31, 2011. It's a remarkable turn of events in a war filled with unexpected twists and turns, but it still leaves challenges for the ethnic splits in the country. From the Christian Science Monitor:

Most critical for further political stability is a US military presence during this January's provincial elections, and then for important national elections in December 2009. The latter will help cement the Sunni minority's political stake in Iraq's democracy.

Pressure to approve the pact is driven by the Dec. 31, 2009 expiration of the UN mandate for the US-led occupation. A raucous, televised debate in parliament over ratifying the pact reveals just how much Sunnis still expect of a Shiite-led government.

While the agreement could pass with only pro-government lawmakers, Iraq's future would be more secure if a broad consensus were reached. That may require side-deals by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to further accommodate Sunni demands, such as more representation in government.

US pressure is still needed to help the Sunnis and Kurds find a larger role and resolve difficult problems, such as control of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk.

But if the pact is approved, it will signify that Iraq is on an equal footing with the US, claiming sovereignty, independence, and a clear rejection of terrorism.

While this rebirth may not ring with historic drama as a decisive military battle might, it signals the blossoming of a religiously tolerant and democratic Muslim state in a region that could use such a model of "soft power." For that, the US effort may have been worth it despite post-invasion mistakes.

Mail Bag

Got another package today from a former high school classmate named Lauren, who works at Boeing. Yes, as often as I extend good-natured ribbing at Boeing's products (namely the CH-47 Chinook and the AH-64 Apache), I have to admit that they do produce great military aircraft.

With that said, Lauren got me a 2009 Boeing product calendar, complete with some sweet pictures of the Apache, Chinook and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Plus a little sticker that I've seen all over Chinook-land that says "If it ain't Boeing, I ain't going". In appreciation of this gift, I went ahead and posted it near my computer. My colleagues will never forgive me. Well, I take it back, my colleagues really never forgave me in the first place for a lot of other stuff completely unrelated to me having a Boeing sticker near my computer. (The Sackets Harbor Brewing Company in Sackets Harbor, NY features prominently in many of these stories)

For her gracious donation of a Boeing catalog, I am sending Lauren a framed picture of a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. Thanks!

24 November 2008

Today's Blue Milk Run

Often overlooked, the crew chiefs play a valuable role in flying the UH-60 Black Hawk and the CH-47 Chinook. The crew chiefs have a multitude of tasks to perform in the aircraft: they man the door guns, load equipment and troops, carry patients, perform major maintenance, and most importantly, provide an extra set of eyes for pilots of aircraft designed to land on the sides of mountains.

So with such a huge role to play, sometimes the crew chiefs need a little bit of training too. The blue milk run of the day (yes, that is a nod to the Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron books) was to give the crew chiefs a little bit of training on a variety of tasks, to include hand and arm signals for directing an aircraft.

The crew chiefs are trained by a Flight Instructor, who is generally a senior crew chief who has logged hundreds of hours in the aircraft. Today we worked on hand and arm signals for guiding a helicopter into a landing spot. The Flight Instructor and one of the crew chiefs hopped out and reviewed the signals. I watched from afar.

I'm a little rusty on my hand and arm signals. Let's zoom in and see if we can't study the following signal:

Hmmm, either "Move Back" or "What the hell is he doing this time?" To be honest, either would probably be correct.

All in all, a worthwhile mission. Training crew chiefs is important; after all, no crew chief ever crashed an aircraft, although plenty of crew chiefs have saved them.

It lives!

So I've learned my lesson in electrical engineering. That is, I shouldn't plug something that's rated for 110V power into an outlet that's rated for 220V power. Even if you have an "adapter", that just helps it fit the slot--it does nothing to convert the power to something you might be able to use. It took a loud "bang" and a spark shooting out of my computer to teach me that.

Fortunately, it was just the power supply unit that was bad. $80 and one week's worth of shipping and handling later, my computer booted straight up as if nothing happened. Sweet.

So, with that said, I'd say that power transformers for 110V/220V power supplies should be #1 on our Christmas lists. Well, that and a Nintendo Wii for me, that is...

23 November 2008

Applying the Right Lessons OR What is "The Surge"

Without a doubt, the security situation in Iraq has improved drastically over the past two years. The causes for this improvement are manifold, and are often open to lengthy debate. It is true that significant improvements have stemmed from the Sunni Awakening movements which began before The Surge of 2007 was underway. Moreover, some experts claim that massive ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods--driving minority groups out of contested villiages much like gang activity in the US--have oddly enough, contributed to an improved security situation.  The stand-down of Shia cleric Motaqua Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army wasn't a bad break, either.

However, the Surge of 2007 is almost universally praised as contributing, at least in part, to the improved security situation in Iraq. The Surge added five brigade combat teams, about 20,000 troops, to Iraq. It also added a vastly-improved counterinsurgency strategy, drafted by military thinkers such as General David Petraeus and Lt. Col. John Nagl. This new strategy pushed American troops out of large forward operating bases and into the streets of the local communities. Soldiers lived and worked among the local citizens, and were given classes on cultural communication. The paramount mission of the American forces became protection of the local population, one of the key principles of counterinsurgency warfare.

Increased contact and communication with the Iraqi people helped to build a rapport with the local citizens, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, who then began to work with the American forces much more closely in order to root out insurgents, bombmakers and criminals. The "insurgency" facing Iraq was incredibly complex, as it was composed of multiple insurgent and terrorist groups, as well as foreign fighters and mafia-like criminal elements as well. But through the combined efforts of the Americans, the Iraqi army and police forces, and concerned local citizens, the streets became much safer and the death toll took a dramatic turn for the better.

But although Iraq has taken a dramatic turn for the better, Afghanistan has experienced the opposite effect. Many politicians have talked about a "Surge" in Afghanistan, citing the success of the surge in Iraq. General David Petraeus, although optimistic that NATO could quell much of the re-emerging insurgency in Afghanistan, cautions that every counterinsurgency scenario is different. Afghanistan is a largely rural area and has over 400 different tribes and ethnic groups, as well as a massive opium trade.

A number of military thinkers have gotten together and discussed what lessons from the Iraq "surge" could be applied to Afghanistan, as well as how the Afghan Surge should be adapted to meet the climate of Afghanistan at Small Wars Journal.  Feel free to check it out and add a comment or two.  Preferably to this blog because I need the traffic.  

22 November 2008

Weather back home

Just got a series of pictures in from a fan (okay, the only fan at this point) in Syracuse, NY.  This is what we in Upstate New York call "a light dusting":

By the time February or March rolls around, you won't be able to see the damn house...

Yarr, matey

More often than not, pirates are awesome.  Pirates of the Caribbean.  International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  NC State University's student body president was a man whose name on the ballot was literally, "The Pirate Captain".

But in Somalia, pirates are real, and they've been dominating the news as of recently.  What's interesting to note is that just as the land forces have been adapting to fighting Fourth Generation Warfare (state vs. non-state actors and irregular warfare), our sea forces are doing just the same.  

Indeed, just as America was impacted by the lack of ground troops in Iraq (until the Surge of 2007), which was born of the drawdown of the military after the Cold War, modern navies are facing the same phenomena.  For example, the Royal Navy of Britain, famed throughout the world for destroying piracy, is under a budget crunch after the Cold War and can only deploy a handful of frigates to hunt for pirates in the Horn of Africa.  

Some countries have paid ransom for the capture of their vessels, such as Saudi Arabia, which paid for the safe recovery of a $100 million oil tanker.  Other countries, such as India, have taken a far more aggressive approach, blasting one pirate "mother ship" out of the water.

Somalia has largely been a lawless country for the past fifteen years.  One should note that piracy--much like most of the activity we define as terrorism--emerges from areas where central government is weak or inefficient, and economic possibilities are limited.  Even the navies of the world are not immune to the shift in the patterns of conflict that Fourth-Generation Warfare has brought to the world.    

Links regarding the latest round of Somalian piracy can be found at Small Wars Journal online.  

Book of the Week

The Iraq war can be very difficult for the average Westerner to understand.  I've been trying to read a variety of books (rather voraciously) in order to better understand the situation myself.  It's amazing how this war, much like the conflict that engulfed the former Yugoslavia, dates back to conflicts and situations which arose hundreds, if not thousands of years earlier.

I have to give plug to two books about the Mongols, which shed light on the situation in Iraq.  One is The Devil's Horsemen by James Chambers and the other is Great Captains Unveiled by B.H. Liddell Hart.

Although the Mongolia is far removed from Iraq, the Mongols could travel as quickly and as far as most modern armies, which is pretty amazing when you consider that their horses were no larger than your average pony.  They developed a system of fighting similar to the "blitzkrieg" that was later copied by Napoleon, Rommel, Patton, and studied intensely by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, largely credited with drafting the invasion plans for Operation Desert Storm.

In 1258, the Mongols were on the outskirts of Baghdad, which was one of the most advanced cities in the world.  It housed universities, astronomical observatories, and hospitals.  The Caliph (roughly a king) of the Abassid Empire, based in Baghdad, was overconfident and thought that his army was a match for the Mongols.  What he failed to take into account was that his vizier (roughly second-in-command) was a Shiite Muslim, and gave the Mongols the plans to Baghdad, in the hopes that the Mongols would oust the Sunni and give him control of the city.  The Mongols completely destroyed the city, and the new Shia leader only ruled for a few months before he died.  Legend says he died of a broken heart, because his kingdom was reduced to rubble.

James Chambers, as he recalls this story in The Devil's Horsemen, says that there had been "some sectarian conflict" in Baghdad at the time, which is about as accurate as saying that Rosie O'Donnel "kind of likes cupcakes".  Looks like things remained the same for the next eight hundred years.  

Baghdad was the center of the Islamic world up until that point.  The destruction of the city, which was the intellectual heartland of Islam was a catastrophic event to the Islamic world.  Some even partially credit the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to the destruction of the great learning centers in Baghdad, snuffing out the voices of reason and replacing them with fundamentalist thinking.  

Sackets Harbor Heroes Comittee

Before I departed for Iraq, I was invited (but unable to attend) a farewell dinner hosted by the Sackets Harbor Heroes Comittee, a local group dedicated to supporting the military community of the village of Sackets Harbor, New York.  

The town of Sackets Harbor was an important base for the United States during the War of 1812, and two battles were fought around this port on Lake Ontario.  The US maintained the base up through World War Two, and it has been the home of General Ulysses S. Grant, and the birthplace of General Mark Clark.  It served as the jumping point for establishing Camp Pine in Upstate New York, which later evolved into the current-day Fort Drum, New York in the 1980s when the 10th Mountain Division was re-activated.

Fort Drum had little on-post housing when it opened, and many junior officers settled in this tiny community, some 40 minutes away from Fort Drum.  In the summertime, that is.  The annual snowfall of approximately 10-12 feet makes the morning commute just a tad longer.   It has been a gracious host to the local military community, and the local landlords (who rent out rooms in the 150-year old Madison Barracks compound) have been more than understanding of the various challenges that face the local military community.

I just sent them an invitation to subscribe to this blog.  I feel sorry for the small village during this deployment.  Sackets Harbor maintains the small-town atmosphere reminiscent of 1812, and doesn't let in big businesses or chain stores.  Instead of Starbucks and McDonalds, there are small locally-owned coffee shops and restaurants.  I've spent a lot of time (and money) at all of the local eateries, but there's one in particular that I've spent more than my fair share at.

Before I left for Kuwait, I made sure to stop by the Sackets Harbor Brewing Company, and told Lindsey, the local bartender, that was about to depart.

"Who's going to drink all of my Amber", she exclaimed, referring to the particularly good ale that is Sackets Harbor 1812 Amber.

 Yes, indeed, the economic woes that plague the rest of America will be felt even morefold in Sackets Harbor without me to purchase glass after glass of Sackets Harbor 1812 Amber for the majority of 2009.  

21 November 2008

Army Senior Leaders Embrace Blogging

When I was in the 82nd Airborne Division, I got to serve under now-Lieutenant General William Caldwell.  LTG Caldwell was a great officer to serve under for two reasons.

1.) He has embraced the art of public diplomacy known as milblogging (military blogging), and runs a blog at the US Army Combined Arms Center, under the name "Frontier 6".

2.) He gave us all the day off after one of the legendary 82nd Airborne Division 4-mile runs.  Therefore he pwns.

In all seriousness, it is actually rather revolutionary that one of America' top generals maintains a blog.  The military's attitude towards blogs has come almost full circle.  In 2001, many senior leaders seemed to be largely unaware that blogs existed.  As the war went on, and pictures from scandals such as Abu Ghraib hit the Internet, and message boards tipped off bomb makers to weaknesses in Humvees, the Army's leadership cracked down on blogs and "The Myspace".  

Now, with a new counterinsurgency strategy, the miltiary has taken a different approach to blogs.  Properly maintained and screened to prevent valuable intelligence from leaking out, blogs present a real-time unfiltered look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as America's efforts throughout the world, from South America to the Horn of Africa.   

Whereas officers at the Command and General Staff College in years past calculated force ratios for the giant Soviet-esque Red Horde coming through the Fulda Gap in training exercises, they are now required to maintain a blog as well as practice public diplomacy by reaching out and speaking to non-military communities.  

The concepts of "fires" has evolved--it used to mean artillery and air support.  It now includes information operations, which can include blogs.  

For a new media-savvy generation, often skeptical of news reports from established news media outlets and official government sources, blogs--largely unmoderated news sources--are oddly enough one of the more sought-after outlets for news reports coming from Iraq and Afghanistan.

You know it was a good mission when...

Regardless of the good-natured ribbing we all give one another, I suppose it was a good mission when the Diet Coke stays upright next to the seat with no spillage.


I guess in the future, I should probably avoid putting my Coke Light (as it’s known in other countries) next to the seat, but hey, it stayed put for this mission.  

Things I wish I had, Part 1

Okay, after the untimely demise of a power supply unit in my desktop and my brand-new coffee maker from Starbucks (that I smuggled inside a shipping container), the number one must have item is a 220V/110V power transformer.  They conveniently don’t mention that it’s merely an adapter to fit the plug into the Euro-style port, not to convert the power to something fit for US appliances.  As I found out with a “bang” from my desktop’s power supply unit and a “pop” from my coffee maker.   That’s why I’m glad the coffee maker came with a three-year warranty. 

America's Best Leaders

Okay, maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think US News and World Report hit it right on the head when they named "America's Best Leaders":

20 November 2008

Today I got my first package (plus a letter) from a supporter of Adopt a US Soldier, Haley from Birmingham, Alabama.  Let’s see what she sent:

There were also two 32-ouce Gatorades in here as well, which got promptly snatched up by a few other Soldiers.  All in all, quite the care package.  Thanks!

With Christmas coming up, I am going to need to take a picture of all of us in front of one of our aircraft or something to send out as a Christmas “Thank You” package.  

19 November 2008

The Sesame Foundation: Helping Military Children

 Today's link of the day is from the Washington Post and concerns the Sesame Foundation (run by the same people who bring you Sesame Street).

In April, in response to the staggering number of military families with young children facing deployments of a Mom or Dad, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind "Sesame Street," launched Phase 2 of an initiative specifically designed to support military families with children between ages 2 and 5 experiencing deployments, multiple deployments or when a parent returns home changed due to a combat-related injury.

When we think of the causalities, challenges and sacrifices of war, we rarely think of the smallest members of our military families who forfeit something irreplaceable when a parent is deployed: having Mom or Dad at home. For a small child, Mom and Dad are the world, and having that world "disappear" is both upsetting and confusing...A 2008 Rand Corp. survey found as many as 700,000 children under age 5 have a parent in the military. And an estimated 300,000 U.S. troops are experiencing major depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 320,000 suffered some sort of brain injury. This radically alters the reality a family endures once the deployed spouse returns, making the homecoming almost as difficult as the deployment.

This is why Sesame Workshop used its characters and powerful real stories of active service personnel to produce our bilingual "Talk, Listen, Connect" kit. Thus far, we've given away more than 600,000 kits with an increasing number of families of members of our Armed Forces looking for tools and resources to address their family's needs. TLC helps families identify and bridge the communication gap that arises from a small child's inability to express his or her emotions and a parent's uncertainty in addressing the complexity of the situation Who better than their friend Elmo, whom they identify with, to let them know it's OK to feel the way they feel?

As an extension of TLC, Sesame Workshop in partnership with the USO created "The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families": a free, 60-minute experience featuring a live Muppet performance and giveaways that traveled across the U.S. from July to November 2008, performing at 43 military installations from California to Florida. You have to witness the faces of the kids' parents and the emotional expressions of gratitude I received to know we were fulfilling our "mission."

Every time you Facebook, you defeat terrorism

Good thing, too, as I suspect we log more hours on Facebook than in the air:

From Can Facebook Defeat Terrorism? on MountainRunner.com

"These young leaders will form a new group, the Alliance of Youth Movements, which will produce a field manual for youth empowerment. The field manual will stand in stark contrast to the Al-Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism, found by Coalition Forces in Iraq.

The gathering was inspired by the success of the One Million Voices Against the FARC, a group started on Facebook.com by young people in Colombia. Aided by social networking technologies, the organization inspired 12 million people in 190 cities around the world to take to the streets in protest against the FARC, an extremist group that has been terrorizing Colombia for more than 40 years. The magnitude of the marches illustrated once and for all that the FARC lacked a strong support base. Within days of the protests, the FARC witnessed massive desertions from their ranks. The Colombian group will share their ideas with leaders of other groups that use social and mobile technologies to promote freedom and justice and oppose violence, extremism and oppression."

18 November 2008

How important is it to re-enlist?

I'd say it's very important, considering the latest New York Times article which reports that the Army and Marine Corps will need to add about 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines to their ranks, even with an expected drawdown in Iraq.  


This country must also be prepared to fight if needed. To build an effective military the next president must make some fundamental changes.

More ground forces: We believe the military needs the 65,000 additional Army troops and the 27,000 additional marines that Congress finally pushed President Bush into seeking. That buildup is projected to take at least two years; by the end the United States will have 759,000 active-duty ground troops.

That sounds like a lot, especially with the prospect of significant withdrawals from Iraq. But it would still be about 200,000 fewer ground forces than the United States had 20 years ago, during the final stages of the cold war. Less than a third of that expanded ground force would be available for deployment at any given moment.

Adopt a US Soldier

During college, I met a person named Lauren Janning, who does volunteer work for an organization called Adopt a US Soldier.  I signed up at their website, and within a few hours, I received about three or four e-mails from people wanting to adopt a Soldier (I hope they realize I’m a commander and have a lot of Soldiers under me that want stuff.  I should probably reply with that information).  Lauren even got the employees of US Bank to adopt my company, which is quite welcome now that Christmas time is coming around.  (And luckily for her, she’s one of the few bank employees I know that isn’t getting bought out by another bank this year).

06 November 2008

Aerial Gunnery in Kuwait

One of the first things an aviation unit does when it arrives in Kuwait is to conduct some refresher training in a desert environment, which is one of the harshest environments for Army Aviation.  In addition to familiarizing ourselves with the challenges of landing in dusty environments, we also did some aerial gunnery practice before heading into Iraq.

I read as much as I could about Arab culture before coming to Iraq, and I’d spent several months in third-world countries, but nothing could prepare myself for interacting with the local population here.  I was serving as the officer in charge of the aerial gunnery range, observing a helicopter firing at some targets, when I saw a Jeep Cherokee drive up upon the range, and a local Kuwaiti man and woman exit the vehicle, speaking animatedly. 

Getting up close and personal with the local wildlife of Kuwait...

Here’s where I need to segue here into a bit of military strategy.  Much has been written about the Surge Strategy of 2007.  With the addition of 20,000 troops to Iraq also came a revised counterinsurgency strategy that included interacting with and building a rapport with the local population.  That being said, soldiers were given courses in cultural communication and basic Arabic in order to better facilitate communications with the citizens of Iraq.  You might think that someone trained as a pilot would be best to simply sleep through these classes.  You’d be wrong.

Using some pidgin Arabic (as well as some hand gestures and pointing at an Arabic phrase book), I was able to determine that the local man was no threat to us, he was simply trying to make an honest living collecting brass from spent shell casings, and wanted to know when we’d be done shooting.  I took the liberty of typing the time into his cell phone.  Fortunately, we in the West borrowed our numbering system from the Arabs, so that made communication a little bit easier.  Plus, I’ve been able to talk my way out of being of quite a bit of trouble in more than one foreign country, so I’m well-qualified in that area.  

A slightly dusty takeoff from a UH-60 Black Hawk

01 November 2008

Update from Kuwait

Kuwait serves as an initial base for troops entering Iraq.  While the facilities in Kuwait aren't Club Med, there's certainly enough to keep everyone occupied.  I could go on about the multitude of fast-food facilities, the quality dining facility, but I won't.  Nor will I talk about the Halloween party at the USO (that was certainly a highlight, particularly when the British people showed up).  I'll praeiterate the quality of the on-post gym, too.

Rather, I think this sums up the quality of life in Kuwait.  

Okay, so it was about $3.50 for a Venti Coffee and about $4.70 for a Venti Capuccino, but in the middle of the desert, I'd say it's worth it.  And if you think I'm a coffee snob, consider that most men would rather wake up to coffee than women