Wednesday, August 25, 2010

This is How a War Ends

Not with a bang, but with a ... media-hyped faux exit?

It has been just about a week since U.S. combat troops officially left Iraq. That'd be swell and all, if I didn't know some of the combat troops still in Iraq conducting advise-and-assist missions there. Initially, my anger matched theirs at the fraudulence of all this ceremony; if we're going to end something, let's really end it. But the Iraq War has never allowed for that type of clarity.  For a conflict that infamously had a media-hyped faux victory declaration ("Mission Accomplished"), doesn't a gradual drawdown highlighted by a media-hyped faux exit make sense? If nothing else, one has to appreciate the symmetry of it all.

The big questions revolving around Iraq - was it worth it? (probably not, but unless you have access to Doc Brown's DeLorean, rehashing it only leads to Tylenol), can it stabilize? (no one really knows, but methinks Sadr will play an instrumental role one way or another), and did we win? (well, we didn't lose, but the term "winning" suggests something else entirely ... counterinsurgency, even at its finest, is ugly in its ambiguity) - have been discussed ad nauseam, and these discussions are readily available in books and on the web to anyone willing to seek them out. For me, and I suspect many of my fellow Iraq veterans, watching the news footage of Strykers and Humvees creep into the Kuwaiti desert brought us back to a time and a place where bigger questions than those big questions existed. Back to our wars, whether they were in the 2003 Invasion, the 2005 sectarian civil war, the 2008 Surge, or all of the above. Back to the sand, back to the grind, back to the fear. And it's important to remember that this war isn't over for all of us. But still, even if this withdrawal of combat troops was only symbolic ... symbols serve a purpose. So while this may not be the clean, straightforward exit from battle we as Americans have come to expect, it wasn't totally hollow, either. So that's something, at least.

This is how our war ends. Not with bang, but not quite with a whimper, either. More like an extended coughing fit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Revisiting the WaPo Article

Ever since this Washington Post article by Ernesto Londono came out chronicling the rise and fall of Kaboom the blog, the question of the blog's official registration with my unit has been a point of inquiry for both readers and lecture attendees. Most recently, this came up in an interview for a magazine profile. As best as I can gather, the confusion regarding this emanates from a specific part of the Post article:

Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail that Kaboom was "deemed by the commander to be counter to good order and discipline of his unit." He added that the blog had not been registered with the military, an assertion Dennis Gallagher disputes.

So, here's my take, for what it's worth. There was a form we turned in before the deployment that counted as our "registration." It asked for basic info, like our name, rank, and blog URL. I filled it out in five minutes and turned it in to my troop (company) leadership. Whether or not that made it all the way up to LTC Stover, I don't know - bureaucracy is a messed up thing - but for them to outrightly say that I hadn't registered was, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, reactionary and lazy. It's also likely my father used more pointed language than "I dispute that."

Unfortunately, being the foolish and petulant lieutenant that I was, I didn't make a copy of that registration form. It's not like I was planning on provoking the ire of the Camo Establishment, you know? And in the fallout of the WaPo article, as I got lectured/chewed out for all kinds of things, the possibility of punishment for not registering the blog was vaguely floated. Then, struck by genius lightning, I pointed out that in March 2008 (three months before Kaboom went kaput), USA Today quoted me in an article about military blogs. I had tied in our Brigade's PAO officer when contacted for this article, so clearly any red flags regarding my blog's registration status would've been raised at that point.

The vague threats for this and everything else soon went away, and I got back to the whole war thing. Never even was issued a counseling statement for the whole ordeal, and I got promoted to captain the next month. But LTC Stover's accusation had already been published, and the WaPo never followed up on it, so it was never resolved in any public manner.

Andrew Exum is fond of saying that conspiracy is, more often than not, really just institutional incompetence, as he does here in a book review. And, thanks to my time serving at the behest of Uncle Sam, I'm inclined to agree. And it is with such a thought that I ascribe LTC Stover's misstatement as a PAO book-keeping issue, rather than something more nefarious. They were in a tough place a the time - Big Army wanted to know why the blog had been shut down, they didn't know, and they were the ones who were supposed to be in the know. But I'm also fully aware that hanging me out to dry for an unregistered blog - whether true or not - was the easiest and least messy answer possible for a lot of people.

Thank Allah, Baby Jesus, and Grace O'Malley the Pirate Queen alike for that bolt of genius lightning.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Just another Twentysomething looking for a job

Hi interwebz-

As Kaboom's hardcover book tour winds down, I'm preparing to reenter a more normal sort of living, if grad school can be accurately described in such a way. And part of this normality is paying for said schooling, which of course, means working for a paycheck. Considering the diverse and surprisingly connected nature of this blog's readership, I thought I'd consult all of you as I begin my job search.

First, the facts: I'm based in NYC, and am looking for something in the neighborhood of 20 hours per week. While something related to academia or writing makes sense, I'm not above any kind of job - I've worked for McDonald's, Barnes & Noble, and the U.S. Army in the past, after all. (I kid, Uncle Sam.) Bartending and/or tutoring seem the best options currently, and may very well stay that way, but who knows what else is out there, right?

So, if you can possibly/maybe/potentially help a young scribe out, drop me a line at, and I'll respond in kind with a resume. Thanks for any consideration!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Call for Fiction Submissions

Below is a message from my friend Roy, over at Caribou. You a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan and write fiction? Submit! I did. Feel free to disregard that August 15 deadline, I have it on good authority it's being pushed back a couple weeks.



Do you write fiction? Did you serve in Iraq or Afghanistan?

We are Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans looking for short stories
(1500-7000 words) by other military veterans who served in Iraq and/or
Afghanistan. We seek high quality, literary fiction that touches in
some way on military or wartime experience, either downrange or back
home, for an anthology of veterans’ writing. National Book
Award-winner Colum McCann will be editing. Please send your story as a
word document or pdf to, along with a brief bio
specifying your publishing credits and military service, by August 15,
2010. We seek original stories or reprints (if you own rights)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why America needs the Draft

In the waning days of the Vietnam War, the American military made a slow - though ultimately momentous - transition to an all-volunteer force. Considering the state of the armed forces at the time, not to mention the cultural gap in the country as a whole, it's hard to fault President Nixon and friends with such a decision. For a nation still wrestling with its role as a global leader (positive!) and/or as an imperialist regime (negative!), while dealing with social upheaval at home, an all-volunteer (or "professional") force must've appeared like an ideal compromise. It certainly seemed the correct solution during the skirmishes of the 1980's and Desert Storm in 1990-91 - we steamrolled communists and dictators alike, never getting immersed in protracted conflict, and victory parades tended to last longer than the actual battles. This professional force fit the modern American narrative well - dreams could be made in or out of uniform, but no authoritative institution was going to dictate where a young person was going to seek out such dreams. (The dark underside of this narrative, of course, was the continuation of tired stereotypes in popular culture regarding the intelligence and economic backgrounds of those who served, but that's slightly irrelevant to the point of this piece.)

Then came that whole Global War on Terrorism thing.

Nearly nine years after our war in Afghanistan kicked off, and more than seven years after Iraq was, uhh, liberated, a warrior caste entirely separate and distinct from the nation that produced it has evolved into being. The burden of many is being carried by very few. Soldiers deploy two, three, even four times, while combat zones become their definition of normality. Meanwhile ... American society does not comprehend. Let me reiterate that. They. Do. Not. Comprehend.

I do believe that most Americans care. They support the troops, in the classic "I don't know what to say to war vets or do for war vets" kind of way. When people shake my hand and thank me for serving, it does means a lot, and is appreciated. On a personal, micro level, that's often all anyone can do. If particularly connected, devoted, or understanding, a person works with soldier/veteran organizations and gives back in a practical, direct fashion. But that's not something many people do, for a variety of reasons. So the question raises itself - what can be done on a macro level?

In the initial months after my return from Iraq, I busted out my soapbox of self-righteousness, often blaming individuals for this disconnect between warrior and civilian. But as I've transitioned gradually back into the role of a citizen, I've come to understand there's a grander failure to blame for the stated societal gap. People have their own lives, the economy sucks, and day-to-day life drains. As Plato once said, "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And yet ... We have young men and women in hellholes around the globe fighting in our name, regardless of our politics and beliefs. We all own these wars, and are all responsible for them, whether we like it or not. Simply asking people to care and be engaged is not enough. They - and by they, I mean society in general - won't care unless they are engaged themselves, directly. It's depressing, but a reality, nonetheless. For a country steeped in the merits of representing all facets of the population, at least in theory, something clearly has gone awry in terms of who's fighting the wars. There is a class element to all this, though it's not as pronounced or as clear as it was during Vietnam. But it's still there, and why nearly every one of my soldiers came from the south or the midwest.

During Kaboom's book tour this spring and summer, I've heard from soldiers, veterans, and vets' families alike on this. And more often than not, an angry, resentful condemnation comes out: "What have they been asked to sacrifice?" Beyond the dangers of grand, sweeping proclamations like "us" and "them" are kernels of truth. And the answer to their question is ... very little. There's the obvious, in terms of physical blood, sweat, and tears sacrificed abroad. Meanwhile, economically speaking, this is the first time in America's history taxes have been lowered during a time of war. And can you imagine the idea of the government selling war bonds today? On that macro level I discussed earlier, has any element of American life been altered due to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Which brings me back to the Draft. I've become more and more convinced that a healthy republic needs conscription to keep it healthy and honest. The gulf discussed isn't anyone's fault, an unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force - but this gulf must be filled, unless we're intent on recreating Legions loyal to their commanders over country. (An extreme example. We're nowhere near there. Yet.) The Draft would be controversial, debated, and very likely protested. All good things in a properly functioning people's government. Meanwhile, the benefits of such would be twofold:

1) The citizenry would actually hold their political leaders accountable, as they're supposed to. Apathy being a republic/democracy's worst enemy is not a new understanding, but it remains a poignant one. Let's face it - the justifications for going to Iraq in 2003 were, at best, exaggerated and misunderstood. While the world raged in anger, America collectively yawned, giving our leaders the ultimate in passive-aggressive approvals. Think that would've happened if the lives of affluent youth were on the line? Think again. Maybe with a Draft, we still end up in Iraq - but in that case, we'd have found some damn legitimate reason to do so beyond purported weapons of mass destruction. (Oh, you think deposing a maniacal dictator qualifies? Let's invade 80% of the world then!) Could another Vietnam happen, where society is rope-a-doped into a protracted conflict? Sure, potentially, though I think it's unlikely for a couple generations, given the lessons learned from these wars. (Famous last words? Likely.) But even if such were to happen, at least it's then on everyone rather than a select few.

2) Wars would become a collective undertaking by the nation as a whole, rather than an isolated segment of the population. This would prove beneficial to both society and to the military. The number of sons and daughters involved would greatly increase, thus increasing personal connections and a sense of engagement, thus increasing product output. I'm talking war drive stuff here, yo, leaps and bounds beyond a yellow ribbon sticker on the back of a bumper. Further, as stated above, the citizenry (theoretically) would be actively invested in the war's progression, rather than observing from a distance like a fan at a sporting event. As for the military, reinstituting the Draft would shore up that pesky lack of manpower. If we're going to keep getting into long-term, guerilla wars in landlocked countries, that'll prove kind of-sort of-definitely vital in the future. (Don't blame me. People much smarter than me have forecasted small, little wars as the way of tomorrow.)

Here's a couple preemptive attacks against potential retorts:
1) No, crazy graying hippie, the modern soldier is not a mercenary. More often than not, they join(ed) the service for honorable and profound reasons. That said, if we allow this separate warrior caste to continue to evolve for a few more generations, who knows what the result may be. Probably closer to Robert Heinlein's vision of a warrior-citizen, but still not what we've historically desired in America, where the citizen-soldier is revered and celebrated.

2) No, loony tune protestor, I'm not glorifying war. War sucks, and I don't mean that facetiously. It's absolutely the worst thing humanity has to offer. But it will continue to happen in the future, just as it always happened in the past. And young people will continue to be willing to fight for societies that don't deserve them. Don't shoot the messenger. So to speak.

3) No, rabid Army fanatic, I don't think the Draft would destroy the armed services as we know them. But the effects of the Draft on the military is an altogether different topic. Let's tackle that one some other day, and for now, just realize that if the Army can accept women and gays, it'll probably make soft, spoiled Caucasians just as welcome.

4) No, illiterate Bush apologist, my feelings about the Iraq invasion don't have to neatly equate to my feelings about counterinsurgency in Iraq in 2010. Complexity! It's what's for dinner.

5) And no, logical reader, I don't believe the Draft would work perfectly solve all our ills, be them personally, domestically, or globally. No doubt, the rich would find a way to weasel their children out of the Draft one way or another. But let's at least make them earn that deferment, you dig?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Missing It

I woke up the other morning to a text from a good friend who, like me, served in Iraq as a platoon leader, and like me, separated from the Army at the end of his initial commitment. "Don't you just feel like kicking in a door again?" he asked. Though platoon leaders tend not to be the door-kickers, I understood his broader point, and replied with "damn straight."

I've been out of the military for just over a year now, and I've been shocked at how much I miss (parts of) it. The camaraderie, of course, can't be replaced in the civilian world, nor can the ability to act like a boorish 16-year old with a gun. (I'll leave it to the reader's judgment whether or not the latter is a positive or a negative). But the pure sense of purpose we had in combat is what I long for the most. The missions changed day-to-day obviously, as did our tasks and purpose, but at its base level, soldiering in Iraq offered a clarity normal life can't. "Kill or be killed" felt a lot more pressing than "Pick up a gallon of milk," you know?

Of my friends and peers who left the service the same time I did, I'd say roughly half have expressed interest in returning for the reasons outlined above. Civilian life is boring, they'll say, or At least the bullshit in the Army mattered. One close friend stated outright that he was certain he'd get sued for accidental sexual harassment if he worked in corporate America another day, because "women don't have a sense of humor." (His words, not mine.) I understand their arguments - for all its faults and dangers, the Army and combat offer thrills and adventure. It's easy to get addicted to that, but not so easy to kick.

The other half of my friends, though, want nothing to do with returning to service. More often than not, these guys lost something or someone over there, rather than getting lucky with their close calls. For them, thrill and adventure are boyish fantasies of a past life. They may long for the camaraderie, and usually detest the civilian mindset as much as the other group, but they are as done with the service as done can be.

(Two quick caveats: One, I'm aware the sample size of junior officers I cite is tiny, and should not be utilized for statistical purposes. Two, the current climate of the economy must be referenced as a factor in retention, as well.)

I think I fall somewhere in between of these two camps. My platoon and I were very lucky in that we lost no one, and the only real tragedy that befell us was the Hot Wheels incident - which he survived. I miss the people in the Army everyday. But I don't really miss the Army. I don't miss the endless series of PowerPoint presentations. I don't miss the empowered clowns misconstruing and mangling their Higher's orders while passing them down to us. And I don't miss being away from my friends and family for months on end.

As an officer, the only real opportunity one has to soldier is as a platoon leader. Commanding a company sounds intriguing, though it's still nothing like being a PL, but even that is only 18 months of a twenty-year career. Even if I were to sign back up, moving from the IRR back to active duty, I couldn't go back and be a scout platoon leader. The bureaucracy simply won't allow for it; there's a whole new crop of bright-eyed lieutenants eager for the opportunity to lead soldiers and Marines. And good on them for such. So, I remind myself, even if the mind has diluted various memory shards of the negative times, it wouldn't be the same. Office Space in Camo as a staff officer would await, not door-kicking. I joined the Army to lead, and lead I did. But I got out because I didn't want to manage, and manage I would. Eminem wrote a song about the world turning. Apply it accordingly. And don't click that link if you hate rap or profanity.

Anyways, off to get a gallon of whole milk! This bowl of Golden Grahams won't eat itself.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Book TV airing

Here's a link to the Book TV coverage of Kaboom, which aired on CSPAN-2 today. The event itself took place in June at the DC bookstore Politics & Prose. Hope you enjoy!