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December 27, 2010
To market, to marketBy Greyhawk
That's a quote from Andrew Exum, who spent some time in Afghanistan earlier this month. His is an opinion I value - here's more from his trip report:
I came away really impressed with the company commander, the ODA team leader, the platoon leaders, and the noncommissioned officers fighting in the northern ARV. Really, really sophisticated, and in high spirits as they're going about their work. ... But make no mistake: U.S. combat arms units are doing a lot of killing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and running the kind of complex, kinetic operations that would knock the socks of a JRTC O/C. So this idea that U.S. soldiers have lost their "warrior spirit" on account of counterinsurgency or have forgotten how to fight conventionally is nonsense. These men are calling for fire, coordinating assaults, and killing Taliban every day of the week under conditions worlds more demanding than anything a U.S. unit went through at the NTC or JRTC in the 1990s. Anyone who thinks U.S. soldiers sit around passing out Snickers bars all day as part of counterinsurgency operations needs to visit the Arghandab.
"Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level," he wrote at the beginning of that parargraph, "is the best I have ever seen it practiced."
Brought this to my mind, it did...
COIN is not a fluffy bunny warfare world where no one gets hurt and we all ride unicorns over rainbows. It is very much killing the enemy. Protecting the population requires it.
That wasn't a warning about approaching the task - the people doing it know all too well it is what it is. It was a caution about marketing to the folks back home. Oversell that fluffy bunny angle and you'll get what we had for much of the past year and a half, perfectly illustrated in this quote:
"You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight," McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he'll add, "I'm going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though."
Our hypothetical Navy Seal knows it is what it is, too. He wouldn't spend the next night crying into his hypothetical pillow. The problem with this particular marketing scheme is that the people (let's call them otherwise steadfast Obama supporters) it's designed to convince aren't buying it, never would have and never will - and they can read that quote in full and understand it completely. Meanwhile, otherwise steadfast war-on-terror supporters can fixate on the "scold" part, ignore the hitting targets bit, and express outrage over the thought that a Navy Seal was off crying in his pillow instead of bein' out killin' Muslims who is all tryin' to come over here and make us wear burkhas!!! The predictable result is a drop in public support for the effort. ("Welcome to the club," our first group might say to the second...)
But the real problem isn't that someone (someone whose work address, if not home, is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) chose the wrong marketing scheme back in 2009 (back when it mattered). The problem - and it's one of many - is that someone thought a marketing scheme was necessary - or that there's one that would "work."
How did we win this war? There are complex answers to that question, but there is also a simple one that is true and is the basis for all the complexities that spring from it: We won the war because United States Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen and Marines do not quit.
That's me writing of (and from) Iraq in November, 2007. I could have supported my point with more facts and figures than the publicly-released ones I used (which really were the important ones, however) but if I had then Bradley Manning might not be alone in his cell today. I'm not sure more facts would have helped anyway - at the time the conventional wisdom was that we'd been handed our asses, countered by arguments that we were in a long, hard slog with no light at the end of the tunnel. I understood the development of those two competing marketing campaigns then, and knew that "we've won" - that simplified, non-intellectual assessment of reality - was at odds with both of them, and true. I'd waited a long time to write that, and I'd like to write the same thing about Afghanistan some day - some day when it's true, too.
If there's any hope for that, it's at least hinted at in Exum's bottom line: "There is cause for much encouragement about the way in which this conflict is being fought at the tactical and operational levels." Those would be the levels where those same Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen and Marines I wrote about three years ago are doing their bit. Above that is a place with no room for such simple concepts; there the experts dwell.
Posted by Greyhawk / December 27, 2010 2:36 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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