Wednesday, January 7, 2009


In the past two days I have written nearly two complete posts which will have to remain for consideration at another time. Something didn't feel quite right, so I hovered over the "PUBLISH POST" button and refrained from clicking. Then I realized why I had non-clicked; there was something out there that I had not discovered yet that layered upon one of the subjects that I have explored before. My thoughts on this subject go back to a concept that began to jell for me in Afghanistan.

This concept began swirling around in the back of my consciousness at first as a vague feeling that something wasn't working. It coalesced into a pool of misgivings, congealed into half-formed ideas and finally jelled over the next couple of months into the wiggly self-standing mass that I've expressed before directly and indirectly. It is a criticism, in part, of My Army; one made out of respect and a sincere desire to witness and be a part of success in the protection of these United States through our efforts in the Long War.

As I stumbled through the internet, uncomfortable with not one but two postings which sat still steaming in my "POSTS" archive with the red-lettered Draft next to them, I was led by my Irish nose to this gem in Baltic Security and Defense Review by LTC (Dr) Robert Cassidy entitled "Counterinsurgency and Military Culture: State Regulars versus Non-State Irregulars." While this scholarly paper addresses the military command culture of the Army, it is this culture that permeates down to the soldier level and which I found to be unsupportive of our objectives in Afghanistan (and by extension Iraq, which I am unqualified to address specifically.)

I have expressed these same thoughts in less scholarly fashion on more than one occasion. There are two instances in particular in my experience where there are direct, to my mind, soldier-level examples that I mentioned in my Afghan ramblings. The first took place during Operation Nauroz Jhala, and the second after my migration to Nuristan.

In the first example, my sad peschak (hundred cats) and I were operating in the Afghanya (or Afghania) Valley, a sub-valley of the Tag Ab Valley, with a company of ANA, their Army ETT's, a light platoon of Pathfinders from the 82nd Airborne, two Psyops Operators, and a squad of elite 82nd Airborne soldiers from Task Force Fury. We were in the "Clearing" phase of the operation, sweeping the valley from one end to the other. For the first few days, we had divided the American mentors up to support three separate but parallel lines of advance up the mile-wide Afghanya Valley, with the TF Fury element operating in trail behind the center group, giving them flexibility to bound left or right to support any serious contact. On the fourth day, we entered the Ghain Valley, a thumb-like appendage of the Afghanya. LTC Jhala had expressed his belief that this area was where the Taliban leadership would escape our hammer. There was no anvil, as his recommendations for the placement of a blocking force at its terminus had been ignored.

As we moved into the Ghain, the TF Fury soldiers came into direct support of my sad peschak. Mind you, we had been given very little time with these cats to prepare them for this operation, concentrating our efforts on the most dangerous aspect; house clearing. The ANP moved exactly as I have described them; like a herd of cats. Their tactical movement bore scant resemblance to the tactical movement of the more highly trained ANA and no resemblance whatsoever to the movements of the elite kids from the 82nd. The airborne troops held my peschak-ha in absolute disdain. They couldn't get enough of amusing themselves derisively at the ANP's expense. While the ANP couldn't understand a word that was said, they understood every word that was said.

Disrespect requires no translation.

It took a lot of work to help my ANP through the Psyops that were laid on them by these "highly-trained, elite" soldiers of the Airborne Pride of the Army. I wanted to butt-stroke the muscle-headed airborne bastards. (For those of you who just got a funky visual, the butt-stroke is a close combat technique, part of the "bayonet drill," it involves clobbering someone in the head with the butt end of your rifle. It is the Infantry equivalent to two-by-fouring a jackass.) This was a cultural display on the part of our young soldiers that was not entirely their fault. They were completely untrained in how to work with indigenous forces and bred to look down their noses at others they deemed inferior.

In the American Army, there is a hierarchy, as most are well aware. This hierarchy is based on the "Hooah Factor" or the degree of eliteness of one soldier as compared to another. In the Infantry, the Airborne is higher than the Leg, for instance. In any initial sizing-up, an American soldier is weighed by his or her rank, apparent physical prowess, qualifications, what unit they belong to, and what badges they wear; and their ability to project a stream of urine for any distance is immediately assessed. It is the unspoken pissing contest. It is bred into our beings as younglings while still sopping wet behind the ears and is actively encouraged and trained. It becomes second nature. In fact, it is in our natures even before we reach the reception stations. Soldiers want to be elite.

This elitism is expressed in many different relationships. Marines are the same way, as they are instinctively bred to match streams of urine with any Army soldier, especially Combat Arms soldiers. Marines naturally assume that they are superior to any non-Combat Arms and most Combat Arms soldiers. Soldiers naturally assume that they are more intelligent than any Marine, but this is largely in reaction to the inbred haughtiness of Marines and takes advantage of the Marine ASVAB minimum score. In all fairness, the Marines set the standard for training all Marines as fighters and support tasks as a follow-on skill as opposed to the Army's history of a cursory basic training for support soldiers, a culture we've paid the price for heavily in the current conflict.

Oddly enough, the Marines seem to be getting the "working with indidge" thing a lot better than the Army is, too. I did not witness the same tendency to look down their noses at Afghans among Marines that I noticed among soldiers. I think this odd because the Marines assume that they are elite, as opposed to the Army, where most of the Army finds itself resentful of the few "elite."

This quote is out of context, and yet it applies perfectly:

Because cultural preferences tend to value certain roles and to devalue other roles, military culture can impede innovation in ways of warfare that lie outside that military’s preferred core roles. ~ LTC Robert Cassidy

One innovation would be to grant respect to the host nation's forces and instead of disrespecting them, work patiently with them to raise their performance. To an Afghan, there is no greater wrong than to be disrespected as a man. The only thing the young 82nd soldiers could have done to make it worse would have been to make a pass at their wives or mothers. Given their performance with the Afghans, I think that if the opportunity had arisen, that's precisely what they would have done. My ANP were left with the impression that on the whole, Americans suck, and that my little crew was an anomaly. Keep in mind that when you lose the hearts and minds of those who are supposed to be fighting on your side, then you are really screwed.

The second example centered on my experiences with the arrival of our new SECFOR team in Nuristan, led by SSG Smokey Jackalacker and our experiences with a squad of MP's who determined that they could project a stream of urine for a greater distance than could CPT Mack or myself, largely due to the fact that we were National Guardsmen (another immediate loss of elite-points in any dealing with Regular Army types.) These two experiences were intertwined, as SSG Jackalacker found a willing listener and enabler in his fantasies of "sweeping the objective" and "double-tapping everyone on the objective" in the MP's. In hours of discussions with SSG Jackalacker, I could not disabuse him of the concept that he needed to be scary to the Afghan civilians. He tried his best to look like an alien invader (actually, he was enamored of the "Transformer" cartoon series, and you can see it in this picture.)

SSG Smokey Jackalacker as Optimist Prime..."In the beginning, there was the cube..."

Looking closely, you will note that SSG Jackalacker is wearing every bit of kit that was issued to him and more. If it looks like he's carrying about two basic loads of ammunition, it's because he is. He's actually got layers of magazine pouches (because we got into so many firefights where we had run out of ammunition.) We never wore knee pads, and we only wore the shoulder armor (DAPs, or Deltoid Armor Panels) when in the turret of the humvee. He never took them off, because they added to "the look." Note also that he is wearing a neoprene face mask, which he thought made him look even scarier to the Afghan civilians. It did. It also made him look like something other than a human being, exactly what you don't want when your job is winning their hearts and minds. He thought we were trying to win their hearts and mimes and thought that the articulated robot toy look would appeal to a mime. The cool part was that he if you pressed the button in the middle of his back, he turned into a truck.

"I've been in the Army for thirteen years, Sarn't, and all that time I've trained to kill, to fire and maneuver. Now you're telling me that's not my job?"

"Be friendly to everyone you meet, but have a plan to kill them," I told him, "Take off that mask and use a shemagh."

"But my face is cold," he faux-whined to me, desperate for an excuse to continue his charade.

"Take the &*$%#@ thing off or I will confiscate it. Use a shemagh. It will keep your face nearly as warm, it will do a better job of keeping the dust out of your mouth, and Afghans wear them on their face all the time. You will look like a human being to them instead of a bad Sci-Fi character. This is important."

He wore the neoprene mask whenever I wasn't around.

The MP's were performing soldier training and SSG Prince, the MP squad leader, was also responsible for the local security plan while we were staying in the village of Alingar (scene of "Smokey Jackalacker And The Hyena Of Doom" and "Nighttime In Shades Of Green.") We were staying in the Wuliswahl's (Sub-Governor's) compound there, and the MP's had guards at the gate to the walled compound to wand visitors for our greatest tactical threat at that point, a suicide vest. The visitors to the compound were often village elders who had come to see the Wuliswahl. The MP's assigned females into the rotation to wave wands over the bodies of these elders, who already found it hard to swallow that they had to be searched in the first place. Now, in addition to the ignominy of being searched coming into their own District Center, they were being searched by females? Thankfully, we had stopped short of cavity searches, which to the Afghan patriarchs would have been the next natural step in humiliation of them on their home turf.

When those village elders went home to their villages and had chai with their neighbors, do you think that they were talking about the Americans working diligently to improve the professionalism and ability of the ANP to provide security in their districts? No. They sat and complained about being humiliated for having the unmitigated temerity to go and visit their Wuliswahl in their own District Center. Now that, my friends, is counterinsurgency at its most devastatingly effective. For the Taliban, that is.

When I forced SSG Prince to reassign the females from this task, he objected vigorously, saying, "F&%# 'em. They're soldiers doing their jobs and those elders are going to have to get used to it."

"No, they aren't going to have to get used to it, Staff Sergeant. You are going to get used to them. This is their District Center and it's bad enough that we have to search them in the first place. They didn't ask for us to come here, and the Sub-Governor has graciously allowed us to use his compound. We are going to respect their values and not insult them. Make that happen."

Soldiers operate among populations, not adjacent to them or above them ~ FM 3-0 Operations

For Afghanistan, counterinsurgency in difficult terrain against tribal mountain fighters requires special operations forces and specialized general purpose forces with agility and knowledge of the people and terrain. Thus, irregular war there seems to require the opposite type of military culture, force structure, and doctrine that the American military went to war with in Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of this long and irregular war. Finally, there seems to be a contradiction that inheres in irregular wars that see big power conventional forces fighting irregular adversaries: it is a paradox of hubris and humility. ~ LTC Robert Cassidy

As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater. ~ Aristotle

I had to put up with some childish games out of the MP's after that; nothing that you could bring thunder on them for, just silly BS. As soon as I went on pass, they went back to doing whatever they wanted. The culture of elitism is hard to overcome. SSG Prince is still convinced, I am sure, that he was right. I am also sure that he remembers the situation completely differently than I do. Sometimes we look at history through the lenses that suit our prejudices.

LTC Cassidy describes in his paper how the Army chose to avoid responsibility for the failure of the counterinsurgency and resulting defeat in Viet Nam. He describes how a book commissioned by the War College took a left turn at Albuquerque and never quite made it to Pismo Beach:

In the late 1970s, the Commandant of the U.S. Army War College arranged for Colonel Harry G. Summers to be assigned there. The Commandant assigned him to write a book on Vietnam and to apply and to incorporate the findings of a previously documented report, a BDM Corporation study which had found that the U.S. Army never learned how to prosecute counterinsurgency and that it learned from Vietnam, only, the notion to avoid such interventions. Instead of applying the BDM report, however, Summers employed for his theoretical framework Karl von Clausewitz's On War. Consequently, the argument which Summers put forth in his book, On Strategy: a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, proffered conclusions that were absolutely converse to the conclusions of the BDM study. Summers concluded that the Army failed in Vietnam because it had not sufficiently focused on conventional warfare. In other words, the U.S. Army's problems in Vietnam stemmed from its deviation from the big-war approach and its temporary and very incomplete experiment with counterinsurgency. Not surprisingly, Summers' book was readily embraced by the Army culture while the BDM report drifted into obscurity. ~ LTC Robert Cassidy

LTC Cassidy is discussing culture writ large, and I am discussing that same culture as it trickles down to the soldier level. It takes time to change the culture of the Army.

The American military has been compelled by the challenges of two ongoing irregular wars to become an institution that can learn, innovate, and adapt in contact. However, the disadvantages that the American military accrued to itself by embarking in 2001 on an unanticipated long irregular war characterized by multiple counterinsurgencies, still encumbered by a deeply embedded regular war military culture, are essentially temporal: military cultural change requires five to ten years; it generally requires a minimum of eight to 12 years to prevail in counterinsurgency; and the U.S. domestic political cycle exhibits a fickleness every four or eights years. Time is everything when a democracy wages protracted irregular warfare. To paraphrase a quote attributed to an anonymous Taliban guerrilla in Afghanistan, the U.S and the West may have the all the nice wrist watches, but, the insurgents have all the time. ~ LTC Robert Cassidy

LTC Cassidy points out and demonstrates that the Army has a preference as to what kind of its nation's wars that it wants to fight. SSG Jackalacker is an example of how that preference trickles down to the soldier level and becomes a personal preference. One of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Brandon Friedman, wrote a book entitled The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War in which his lamentation echoes and gives, I'm sure, a greater prose to SSG Jackalacker's cartoonish whine. Apparently neither of them has gotten over their disappointment with the war their nation needed them for as opposed the war they always wanted. Mr. Friedman blamed the administration, and his disillusionment with the war that he wound up being tasked with brought him to actively campaign politically. He seems to express some sort of enlightenment that came from his shattered quest for glory, but the truly enlightened never went to war with visions of glory, for there is no glory in war itself; there is only a magnification of the character of each participant. All of the trappings, whether they be massed tank battles, isolated firefights with insurgents, or the sudden destruction of an IED are just the stage upon which that character is exposed and magnified.

“I will be damned if I will permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions, to be destroyed just to win this lousy war” ~ Anonymously attributed to an American general from the Viet Nam era

LTC Cassidy seems to feel that we have turned the corner in finally adapting to counterinsurgency. It is possible, given that we have a Commander in CENTCOM who has successfully implemented counterinsurgency on a national scale in Iraq, that it will be pushed down now, but as LTC Cassidy points out, that change takes years. I submit that it requires forceful effort to push it down to the soldier level. The young idealists who join the Army and Marines have visions in their heads of what it's like, bred by movies and video games and books of the glories of yore. Their visions of what it means to be a soldier are carried within them and like those of Smokey Jackalacker will die hard. If we continue to breed in them the ugly elitism and lack of respect for those who we must win for first in order to secure our own peace, our job is that much the harder.

One thing that surprised me in action was the disconnect between the conventional forces and the Special Forces. Counterinsurgency has typically been the realm of the Special Forces, but this is too large for just the SF. The job that my team did, that Bouhammer did before us and Vampire 06 has done after us, is traditionally a Special Forces mission. Just to clarify for anyone who might care, I am not a Special Forces soldier. In fact, there's nothing for me to feel especially elite about; but I know what I know. What I know is that the thing that makes the Special Forces so special is their attitude, the same one that gave them their nickname; Quiet Professionals. The SF have found a way to be elite without having to act elite. Just as we have had to borrow lessons from them on how to train indigenous forces, we need to learn from them how to have the humility to work with others and to respect other cultures. We need to learn how to be elite without having to be better than anyone else.

We can start, I suppose, with dropping our preference as to what type of war we personally want. It does boil down to that, because an institution's preferences always stem with the preferences of the members of that institution. We are here to fight our nation's wars, not just the ones that we would like to fight or the ones that suit our childhood images of war and glory.

There is more to discuss in the paper by LTC Cassidy, but that's a start. Overall, it's a subject that bears further review and discussion by Army leadership. LTC Cassidy presents a very well thought-out and researched effort; and I think he makes a lot of sense. It struck a nerve with me, as there is so much of this that I've perceived before, but he demonstrates why he has a doctorate and I don't with his lengthy set of references and excellent assembly of the information he has gathered. It's not a long read, and I recommend it.


  1. The problem is not the existence of elites. Elite troops work hard to attain that title. The problem is with elitists, who believe themselves to be elite and therefore entitled, regardless of whether or not they are elite.

    As you note, there are hierarchies within the military and the most elite of the Army (SF) are known for their lack of elitist attitudes. One can exhibit confidence without conceit and can gain respect and exhibit authority without abuse.

  2. Nice piece, but a couple of things:

    First, I’ve never been associated with Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m not a member and I’m certainly not a founder. I work for We help veterans get elected to public office. Second, the fact that you compare me to this Jackalacker turd makes me think you probably haven’t read the book. If you’d like a copy over there, let me know and I’d be happy to send one your way.

  3. Brandon, thanks for straightening that out. Mea Culpa. I clearly misstated which organization you work with, and I'm willing to admit that I may be wrong about the lumping you in with Jackalacker. I'm not too proud to post an objection, especially when I misrepresent someone personally.


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