30 March 2012

Poetry Contest for Minnesota Mil-Kids

The office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken, (D-Minn.), a former writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," has announced a creative way to celebrate April as both Military Child Month and National Poetry Month.

(In addition to being the cruelest month, April 2012 may mark an early return of some of the 2,700 citizen-soldiers of the Minnesota's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. At least, that's what some news reports have begun to indicate.)

According to a press release, Franken is hosting a poetry contest on a theme of “My experiences as a Military Child.” Children of military families from Minnesota are encouraged to enter poems of not longer than 300 words. Deadline is April 16.

Entries should include the following information:
  • Name of entrant
  • Parent/guardian name
  • Postal address
  • Telephone number
  • Name of entrant's school
  • Age category (Kindergarten to 6th grade; 7th to 9th grade; or 10th through 12th grade)
The entries will be judged on relevance to theme, creativity, judges' impressions, fluency, structure, and technical excellence.

Ten winners in each category will receive an invitation to Franken’s St. Paul office to meet him, his wife Frannie, and special guest judges including:
The top poems in each age category will be framed and displayed in Franken’s office in Saint Paul, Minn. and in Washington, D.C. Each winner will also receive an autographed book by Garrison Keillor, famed Minnesota author and host of the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion."

For more information, see the press release here. Submit entries to:
poetry@franken.senate.gov
or to:
Office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken
c/o ‘Poetry Contest’
60 Plato Blvd., Suite 220
Saint Paul, Minn. 55107

29 March 2012

War Stories and Coffee Talk

I wore my Afghan media mufti earlier this week. The madness of deploying and not deploying to Afghanistan now over, I'm volunteering again as a board member in our homeowners association. Our suburban neighborhood was developed by Pioneer Hi-bred, a company with a proud Iowa history and connection to the land. Developers interspersed lots of green spaces among the houses and cul-de-sacs, and even designated a prairie restoration area.

One graduate school degree later, I now understand that the term "restoration" presumes that there was prairie there to begin with, and I'm not intellectually prepared to argue that we're turning back the clock in any way.

We city-folk in Iowa tend to think two things about our land:
  1. Before European settlement, it used to be prairie. There may have been buffalo. And tall grasses.
  2. Today, it's industrialized, planted out in corn, hogs, and soybeans. There is very little "nature" left in our patch of the Middle West.
Still, the prairie is a unique feature to our neighborhood, and gives us a sense of place and character that wouldn't otherwise be found in our otherwise cookie-cutter production homes. A few board members, volunteers, and contractors were going to walk the terrain this week. We'd recently hired a crew to conduct a prairie burn, and wanted to assess the results. We also wanted to plan our summer attack on weeds and invasives.

So I wore the same kit that I wore in Afghanistan. I've taken to calling it "mufti," after the British military custom of altering the uniform for off-duty wear. (Think "fez and slippers," because I know I do.)

Red Bull Rising blog readers may remember how I agonized about what not to wear during my 2011 embed with the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT). As a citizen-soldier, Uncle Sam tells you exactly what to pack. When you're a civilian writer, however, Uncle Sam gets a little passive-aggressive: Don't wear camouflage patterns or military equipment. No weapons. Bring your own flak vest.

The Arabic word "mufti" originally meant "an Islamic scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law." I enjoy the multiple layers of meaning. Makes me feel like bit of an infidel.

For the prairie walk, I wore my tan ACU-style trousers (cargo pockets!), my civilian Gore-Tex hiking boots, and a wicking T-shirt under a powder-blue long-sleeved travel shirt. The kind that you can hand-wash in a sink full of non-potable water, and afterward dry in about 60 minutes of Afghan sun. And my Iowa Cyclones ball cap, subdued brown instead of the usual cardinal-and-gold.

To paraphrase a favorite line from "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), however: "Before the prairie must come the coffee."

When I walk into the local Starbucks for a cup of the dark stuff, I'm greeted by the same National Guard officer who hired me on temporary duty back in summer 2010, after my wife and I learned three weeks before mobilization that I'd not be deploying with the rest of the 2-34th BCT. I'd worked with him previously, when he had been the brigade's executive officer. In 2010, he had been the state mobilization officer, and asked me to join an Iowa "white cell" team. Our mission was to help get the Red Bull to Camp Shelby, Miss., then to Fort Irwin, Calif. After that, we joked, the brigade would be "beyond our help."

In effect, this was the gentleman who started "Operation Bad Penny"—my continual visitation of Red Bull units through post-mobilization training and simulated combat.

A couple of weeks after hiring me for stateside duty, my new boss was himself called to deploy with the 2-34th BCT. He eventually commanded an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) in Panjshir Province, then part of the 2-34th BCT's "Area of Operation Red Bulls."

When he spots me in Starbucks this week, I'm pretty much wearing the same thing I wore when I got of the helicopter in Panjshir, minus the body armor. After we shake hands, he turns to his coffee shop colleague, and proceeds to tell the story of how his team had gotten the word that some civilian V.I.P. named Sherpa was in-bound. He hadn't made the "Bad Penny" connection that it was me, however, until I'd arrived in person at FOB Lion. It's a story I've heard him tell before, of course. I've even told it a few times myself.

It's like I say: "Big Army, small world."

27 March 2012

The Boys Get More Toys

In a Holiday 2011 blog post, I noted that the manufacturer of Matchbox-brand toy cars had produced a design that mimicked the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected ("M-RAP") armored vehicles used by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The "SWAT Truck" was available in either basic black and friendly Infantry blue. The black one had "SWAT" painted on its sides, while the blue one said "police." Although altered, the design strongly resembled Navistar International Corp.'s MaxxPro.

During a recent dismounted patrol of local toy stores, my 4-year-old son Rain and I noted the Matchbox design has been re-issued, as part of 2012's "MBX Airport" series. Bright fire-engine red, with "Guard Services" and a Grecian helm logo on the side panels, this armored vehicle just screams "relax, dear traveler, and leave the flying to us."

Here's a fun travel tip: If, while preparing to board your next flight to sunny Cancún or Honolulu, you see an MRAP parked next to your aircraft? You should probably consider taking the bus instead.

The back-of-the-card prose on the 2012 Matchbox SWAT truck is even more inscrutable than that of its black-and-blue brethren, which noted selling features such as a "fully armored exterior [that] will crush any obstacle that appears in its path! Time to restore the peace!"

Here's how the red-truck version reads:
Great adventures fly in and out of the Airport every hour! World travelers come and go by vans and taxis. Transporters load exotic high-performance cars for international events in far-off lands. Cargo carriers careen from runways to access roads and the Rescue Crew is always ready to spring into action!
Careening cargo? Exotic cars? What kind of airport is this?!

(Answer: In Rain's world, it's probably an airport that also hosts a swarm of Matchbox "Mission Helicopters," an 1985 design also re-issued in 2012, and painted out in digital (?!) jungle camouflage pattern. They look a little like AH-64 "Apache" helicopters, with shorter tails.)

In the real world, military leaders have reportedly begun speculating what to do with a rag-tag fleet of hard-to-maintain MRAP trucks, given that the latest wars are winding down.

As the Washington Post's Marjorie Censer noted in a March 7, 2012 article, the "MRAP [...] is something of a relic, bought specifically to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan but far too bulky for a future characterized by drones, cyberwarfare, and intelligence and surveillance technology." The trucks each cost between $10,000 to $20,000 to maintain annually.

Plus, maintaining the many different kinds of MRAP trucks is a logistical headache. In a 2011 Defense Logistics Agency (D.L.A.) news article, the organization manages more than 40,000 line items [parts and supplies] for the MRAP and stocks about 25,000 of them, said John Dreska, DLA Land and Maritime MRAP program manager. Dreska heads a team of 120 government employees and contractors whose sole priority is to support repair-parts sustainment for more than 13,000 MRAPs fielded in Afghanistan and about 1,500 used for pre-deployment training in the United States."

Some MRAP trucks could find themselves repurposed by Iraqi or Afghan security forces, or by other allies. It's not unthinkable, however, that some surplus MRAP trucks might eventually show up in U.S. law enforcement, just like Tommy guns and black rifles previously migrated to civilian use.

Still, one wonders if there might be a line drawn in the stateside sand, especially when it comes to Airport rent-a-Spartans and shopping mall cops. Inshallah, even the Big City P.D. won't need to drive around in top-heavy trucks that are designed to take bomb blasts from below.

Note to the city council members everywhere: The citizens of Mayberry R.F.D. do not need to be protected and served by surveillance drones. Or MRAP trucks. Or Blue Thunder.

But, if you ask nicely, Rain will let you play with one of his.

*****

Click here for a YouTube video comparing and contrasting the 2011 Matchbox "SWAT Truck" designs, starting at the 45-second mark.

22 March 2012

The Constant State-by-State of War

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog in late 2009, I was preparing to deploy as a member of the Iowa Army National Guard. My buddies and I kept a digital ear out for news of Vermont's 86th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), the unit we planned to replace. We sifted and scanned Vermont newspaper and television reports, U.S. Army public affairs releases from Afghanistan, and posts from mil-bloggers and Facebookers.

The 1,500-member 86th BCT had originally deployed as the command-and-control headquarters for Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, a U.S. and coalition training mission that had been in place since 2003. (A quick review: In Army speak, the term "combined" means "U.S. plus allies." The term "joint" means one or more branches of the armed forces: Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard. A "task force" is an group of disparate units organized around a specific mission.)

The CJTF Phoenix mission was to advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (A.N.S.F.), including various forms of Afghan police and military units. It controlled 8- or 16-person Embedded Training Teams (E.T.T.). Coalition partners call their ETT personnel "Operational Mentor Liaison Teams" (OMLT, pronounced "omelette").

An additional irony? Such Foreign Internal Defense ("FID") training missions have traditionally been considered a core mission of U.S. Special Forces. The National Guard, on the other hand, often has to battle "second-string" stereotypes when encountering active-duty soldiers in the field. Even after more than 10 years of deployments, and transformation into an operational reserve.

That U.S. National Guard soldiers tend to have civilian-acquired work experiences and skills is often touted as an advantage in the advise-and-assist context. Citizen-soldiers who are law enforcement professionals back home can be used to mentor Afghan National Police, for example. Teachers and coaches, business owners and managers can be more familiar with non-military mentorship models. With the possible exception of the National Guard’s joint Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.), however, in which citizen-soldiers and -airmen are deployed based upon their civilian-acquired agricultural skills, it’s hard to move such assumptions and assertions beyond the anecdotal.

In 2009, in the middle of a foreign country, a deployment, and a war, Vermont's 86th BCT reconfigured to a mission in which they would act as "battlespace owners" for the provinces of Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamiyan Provinces. Two more U.S. National Guard brigades—each approximately 3,000 personnel each—would follow. Rather than being sliced up into smaller companies and battalions, and assigned to support active-duty brigades, the National Guard brigades were kept relatively whole.

Iowa's 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) deployed to Afghanistan from October 2010 to July 2011. It took over the mission in Parwan (where Bagram Airfield is located), Panjshir, and Laghman Provinces. One Red Bull battalion, the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.) was attached to active-duty brigade in Paktiya Province. A 400-member Nebraska Army National Guard unit with historical ties to the Red Bull, the 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry (1-134th Cav.), deployed alongside the 2-34th BCT. Based at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, the 1-134th Cav. deployed as mentors and trainers for Afghan National Police.

Oklahoma's 45th BCT ("Thunderbird") took over the Red Bull's mission in July 2012, maintaining responsibility for Laghman Province and other areas. After the Thunderbird took over, my Red Bull buddies and I again took to the Internet, this time watching for Oklahoma newspaper and television reports, U.S. Army public affairs releases, and posts from mil-bloggers and Facebookers. As of this week, nearly all of the Thunderbird units have returned home to Oklahoma. Rather than hand-off to another U.S. National Guard unit, in February the Thunderbird transferred authority to an active-duty unit.

Watching a war through the lens of brigade-sized deployments, state by state, is an accessible way to perceive the ebb and flow of the past 10 years. In the beginning, it was team after 16-person mentor team. Occasionally, a state would get tapped for the CJTF Phoenix mission—a brigade's worth of headquarters staff, plus yet more advise-and-assist teams. Then, for a grand and glorious moment, the states were asked to muster fully trained, fully resourced fighting brigades. Newspaper reporters wrote sentences like, "the largest deployment of Iowa troops since World War II."

Now, with American resolve, purpose, and troop numbers waning in Afghanistan, U.S. political and military leaders have taken to describing a "new" mission of advising and assisting Afghan forces, and withdrawing troops by 2014. Given that the advise-and-assist mission started in 2003 and never stopped, this latest language seems like rhetorical repackaging. Meet the new mission, same as the old mission.

During mobilization in 2011, Ohio's 37th BCT ("Buckeye")—was re-configured to fulfill an advise-and-assist mission in Northern Afghanistan. It arrived Afghanistan in February 2012.

The Red Bull Rising crystal ball is currently in for servicing and recalibration, but it seems as if the moment of brigade-sized deployments might be over. Perhaps National Guard units will be more likely to deploy piecemeal as companies and battalions, or as 16-person mentor-and-trainer teams. Even the National Guard-specific Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.) may be winding down. In a recent ceremony in Paktya Province, for example, the outgoing Nebraska ADT transferred its responsibilities to the co-located Provincial Reconstruction Team (P.R.T.).

During the Association of the United States Army (A.U.S.A.) annual convention and trial-balloon festival last fall, there was much talk of assigning the advise-and-assist mission to the Reserve Component. (Other, contradictory balloons: Assign to the U.S. Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve most or all of the heavy/armored and field artillery forces.) Proposals to create and train specific advise-and-assist capability, whether in the active- or reserve-components, seem to have stalled. The consensus seems to be that the military will continue to take such teams ad hoc and out of hide, rather than create specific organizations or structure. Every soldier wants to grow up to be Patton or Schwarzkopf; few aspire to be Lawrence of Arabia.

That's not to say that operational deployments are over, or that war isn't still a dangerous business. While 70 headquarters soldiers of the Indiana National Guard's 76th BCT ("Night Hawks") were engaged in send-off ceremonies to Afghanistan last January, the Hoosier state simultaneously learned of the loss of four Indiana combat engineers assigned to the 713th Engineer Company, Valaparaiso, Ind.

Sobering times.

War beats on.

*****

For additional insights into the history of the advise-and-assist mission, see Jeffrey Courter's "Afghan Journal" and Benjamin Tupper's "Greetings from Afghanistan" and "Dudes of War." Also, check out former U.S. Marine officer Jonathan Rue's "Build a House and Burn it Down," in which he reflects on his experiences training Iraqi soldiers. And Joseph Trevithick's insightful attempt on Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog to untangle the historically convoluted U.S./coalition command structures in Afghanistan.

15 March 2012

The Ruck-March Down Memory Lane

In literature, the story goes, every narrative can be reduced to one of two prompts:
  1. A hero goes on a journey.
  2. A stranger comes to town.
Maybe deployment counts as both. In ancient Greek mythology, when the warrior-king Odysseus returns from years of war and struggle, only his dog Argos recognizes him. In other words: The hero goes on journey, but a stranger returns. That's two for the price of one.

Vietnam War veteran Charles A. Krohn recently wrote a guest-post at Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog. The post was titled "Some reflections on the Vietnam War after visiting where my battalion was cut off and surrounded near Hue during Tet." In returning to the battlefields of his youth, Krohn, who also wrote 2009's "The Lost Battalion of TET: Breakout of the 2/12 Cavalry at Hue," gained insights that potentially apply as much to Afghanistan and Iraq as to Vietnam. For example:
One thing's for sure: The nuances have changed completely. Not only are there no Americans on the roads, in the air or in the fields, doing what Americans do, the Vietnamese seem perfectly in control of their own destinies. Maybe they were then too, but we were too driven to notice. Accomplishing the mission was everything.

This makes me think about the American Way of War–maybe best expressed as "you move over, we're taking over." Despite our good intentions, sometimes I think our various invasions are unwise, unproductive, and indecisive. If we had provided material assistance, I suspect the South Vietnamese would have made a good showing of themselves without our fighting the fight for them or looking over their shoulder to make sure they were following our doctrine, rather than their indigenous impulses.
Personally, I find Krohn's example as compelling as his words. (Click here for a bonus installment regarding his Vietnam travels.)

In person and in print, I've encountered occasional fellow travelers, veterans who have chosen to revisit the same ground on which they once fought, or the units with which they once served. Others may be family members. Or poets. Or bloggers. People who are attempting to make a personal connection to history.

Some of them—myself included—choose to visit active zones of conflict. Although we sometimes wear media badges, the most valuable results of such journeys are probably more personal "journal" than newspaper "journalistic." They tend to be written in first-person, not third-person. At their very best (and sometimes worst), they are mash-ups of pilgrimage, personal reflection, and privileged observation.

(Side note: If journalism is the "first rough-draft of history", I wonder how best to describe these more reflective endeavors. "Embedded journeys of self-discovery"? "Ruck-marches down memory lane"? "Armed navel-gazing expeditions"? Discuss.)

After all, one embed doesn't necessarily make you a war correspondent. Save that label for true heroes and crazies. I went to Afghanistan one time myself, and have no plans to go back. One online acquaintance of mine might call that being a "war groupie." The term is as funny as it is potentially accurate. However, I've started describing my own, Red-Bull-driven experience as war tourism. "I have seen war," I like to remind people, "but I have not seen battle." I no longer feel the need to run toward the sound of the guns. Combat is for kids. Tourism is for artful codgers like me, and the people who come after, at times and places at which festive adult beverages are, one would hope, available for purchase.

I've seen occasional travel-agent advertisements for "memorial tours," "valor tours," or "personal history tours" to places like Sicily and Saigon. Apparently, veterans and their families can load up by the busload, and take in both the night life and the battle sites. I've also seen political groups who have organized "peace tours" full of veterans seeking resolution or reconciliation. Same roads, different paths.

It's taken me a long time to realize that the soldier and the veteran face fundamentally different questions. Everybody knows why they deploy: You do it for your buddies. You do it for God and country. You do it because it's your job. You do it because you want to test yourself.

Few remain as certain, however, after the fact: War is irrational, chaotic, the wrong place to look for reason. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.

Everybody knows why they go, but few can say what it all meant, after it's over.

Krohn, by the way, served as public affairs advisor to the director of the infrastructure reconstruction program in Iraq, 2003-2004. In a comment made to the "Best Defense" guest-post I cited earlier, he notes:
The most flagrant thing I found was our failure to inform the Iraqis why we invaded their country, displaced their government and established an occupation authority. [...]

[F]or the first year we only broadcast our messages on a terrestrial TV system inherited from Saddam, although many/most Iraqis went to satellite reception as soon as Saddam lost control. They got their news from Al Jazzera. The message from AJ was that we invaded to steal their oil, demonstrate contempt for Islam, etc. The gist is that for a year we never really told the Iraqis why we were there or what we were doing.
So, tell me if you've heard this one before:

A government fails to tell its people exactly what's at stake overseas. The people are left to come up with their own answers.

"A hero goes on a journey." A stranger comes back.

And he spends the rest of his life trying to figure it all out.

09 March 2012

Book Review: 'National Guard 101'

There's an instruction manual for every job, weapon, and vehicle for those who enlist in the U.S. National Guard, but precious few published resources who marry into it. For the most part, everything has been passed down by word of mouth. It's all been tribal wisdom, gossip, and war stories. Until now.

Author Mary Corbett, a spouse with ties to the Minnesota and Georgia National Guards, has written "National Guard 101: A Handbook for Spouses". In 205 pages, Corbett cuts through acronyms and agencies, histories and traditions to deliver practical insights for National Guard families in a breezy, conversational manner.

"If your Soldier peruses this book, s/he may chuckle at my oversimplification in some areas," Corbett warns in her introduction. "That's fine because this book is for you. That's all a big fancy disclaimer that means consider this more of an essay than a research paper." [ix]

While she gets around to talking about brigades and big-wig party functions, Corbett aims squarely at the 150-person company level—the organizational building-block of the U.S. Army.

She briefly addresses Air National Guard concepts, because many social functions and stateside operations are neither "green" (ground/Army) nor "blue" (air/Air Guard) but "purple" (joint).

Families of new soldiers, as well as those of newly promoted non-commissioned officers and company-grade officers have the most to gain from Corbett's presentation. Even families who have weathered multiple deployments, however, may learn some useful tricks.

Corbett explains the basics with enough detail to be useful, but not intimidating. She applies liberal amounts of humor and word-play. (A field training exercise is "going to the woods." Annual Training is "going to camp.") Topics include:
  • How a National Guard soldier can be either part-time or full-time, on either state or federal duty, or work as a civilian federal technician.
  • What your soldier does in his/her military job, and how to describe it to civilians.
  • How to introduce yourself and find the right person when you walk into an armory.
  • Survival skills and strategies for military events. ("Do NOT let your soldier tell you want to wear.")
Best of all, she offers spouses practical tips on how to build support systems that will work during deployments. As with most things military, there's an acronym involved.

There are five kinds of people, Corbett writes:
  • Those who say they will help but really don't want to help ...
  • Those who offer help but put the ball back in your court ...
  • Those who offer help on their own terms ...
  • Those who will help you, but make you feel guilty about it ...
  • Those who are always there, ready and willing to help with anything.
Military spouses don't like to ask for help. No one does. But the ideal type of helpers who are "always there" are few and far-between.

Corbett's solution? Collect them all. Create a Personal Assistance League ("PAL")—a list of 10 or more people who are explicitly committed to helping out with small tasks, like babysitting, or leaf-raking, or cooking meals. She even recommends nominating a "mother hen" to help reach out to people, on the phone or in writing, asking for a concrete commitment.

In Army-speak, Corbett may have cracked the code on how to operationalize people's good-intentions. By establishing expectations and requirements up-front on a schedule, and sharing the load, everybody wins.

*****

One "Red Bull" connection of note: Corbett dedicates her book to the memory of U.S. Army First Lt. Nathan A. Nieber, 26, was killed in a 2002 boating accident while on stateside active-duty with the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment (2-135 Inf. Reg.), 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota National Guard.

Disclosure: The Red Bull Rising blog received a review copy of this book.

06 March 2012

Poetry as Diplomacy During a Hot War

Christopher Merrill, a poet, essayist, and director of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program in Iowa City, Iowa, recently published an essay recounting his impressions of two cultural diplomacy missions he made to Eastern Afghanistan. In May 2011 and again in January 2012, Merrill travelled to the Afghan capital of Kabul, as well as the city of Jalalabad in Nangahar Province. While in Afghanistan, he travelled via U.S. military convoys, as well as contracted helicopters.

Merrill's essay, "Leaving Afghanistan," was published Feb. 20 by the U.K. literary magazine Granta. In a Feb. 28 interview on Iowa Public Radio's "River to River," Merrill told IPR's Ben Kieffer that his visits, funded by the U.S. State Department, were intended to win hearts and minds by finding common ground with Afghan partners. He participated in roundtable discussions, writing workshops, and even a televised mushaira—a traditional poetry reading. Said Merrill:
There were a lot of soldiers—National Guardsmen from Massachusetts--one of whom could be heard to be saying, "We're doing a mission for poetry"?! They probably thought this was a pretty outlandish idea. But the fact is [...] the colonel riding next to me in the M-RAP and is a long-time veteran in Afghanistan—he thought this kind of thing is exactly what we now need to be doing. Trying to find ways to connect with Afghans, in ways that are important to them. To Afghans, poetry is absolutely essential. They are known as great poets. They have rich poetic traditions everywhere I went—in Kabul, and Jalalabad—I was hearing about the poetry festivals. To have a chance to connect on a level that is important not only to me, but to them, was really pretty thrilling.
Later, Merrill put the mission into larger strategic context, explaining that efforts to build sustainable governmental, economic, and cultural institutions must take place at the same time soldiers are fighting insurgents.
[A]ll cultural diplomacy missions from the outside might look a little complicated. But in fact, that cultural diplomacy is the key to every country's effort to find common ground with other people. We only do missions to places of strategic interest, to places where we hope to make a difference. Think about the missions that these [soldiers] do every day. Some times they're taking a U.S.A.I.D. official out with his or her counterpart in a ministry. They're trying to develop a crop. They're trying to get a distribution for crops. They're trying to build courthouses. All of the different parts to rebuilding a society. Cultural diplomacy plays a part in the larger diplomatic effect.
Merrill described meeting in U.S. State Department-funded "Lincoln Learning Centers", which are library rooms and computer labs administered by the Afghan Ministry of Information. "In Afghanistan, you can't call them an American space, because they'll be a target for the Taliban," said Merrill. "So they're called a Lincoln Learning Center." Some Afghans word business suits to the cultural meetings. Others wore traditional garb, including a woman who wore the blue burqa familiar in the region.
The idea was to create a space in which we could talk freely and frankly about the things that mattered to us. And what we really wanted to talk about was poetry. The interesting thing to me was that this woman in the burqa began the conversation by talking about with the oppression of women in Afghan society. She ended by reciting a poem in Pashto that was translated for me, that ended with a three-fold curse: "May you fail all your exams, may you become a slave like me, may tears run down your face like mine." It left the room just silenced.
Merrill's interview took place in the days following riots in Afghanistan, incited by the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. personnel stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. "There are an awful lot of people working very hard [in Afghanistan], but the odds are very long," Merrill said. Later in the interview, he observed:
It reminds us how absolutely fragile the situation is, how quickly things can go south with an act of blasphemy ... even if, as it seems likely, it was done accidentally. It seems like sparks applied to tinder that was already there. The grievances that Afghan people feel that their government is corrupt, there's no work, there's no heat in a lot of places, there's so few jobs ... And there's this large occupying force that may be working on their behalf. Still it seems very difficult to them. An incident like this happens, and all bets are off.

02 March 2012

The Sherpatudes

Here is a list of epigrammatic tips inspired by the most recent Red Bull Rising post. It's a mix of maxims regarding organizational analysis, knowledge management, and working in a tactical operations center ("TOC").

Behold, the "Sherpatudes":
1. Continually ask: "Who else needs to know what I know?"
2. Continually ask: "Who else knows what I need to know?"
3. Never speak with complete authority regarding that which you lack direct knowledge, observation, and/or suppressive fires.
4. Never pull rank over a radio net.

5. Let the boss decide how he/she wants to learn.

6. Let the boss decide how he/she wants to communicate.

7. "I am responsible for everything my commander's organization knows and fails to know, learns and fails to learn."

8. Know when to wake up the Old Man. Also, know how to wake him up without getting punched, shot, or fired.

9. The three most important things in the TOC are: Track the battle. Track the battle. Track the battle.

10. Digital trumps analog, until you run out of batteries.

11. Always have ready at least two methods of communication to any point or person on the map.

12. Rank has its privileges. It also has its limitations.

13. Let Joe surprise you.

14. Don't let Joe surprise you.

15. The first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't.

16. The problem is always at the distant end. Except when it isn't.

17. Exercise digital/tactical patience. Communications works at the speed of light. People do not.

18. Your trigger finger is your safety. Keep it away from the CAPS LOCK, reply-all, and flash-override buttons.

19. The warfighter is your customer, and the customer is always right.

20. Bullets don't kill people. Logistics kills people.

21. Knowing how it works is more powerful than knowing how it's supposed to work.

22. Cite sources on demand. State opinions when asked.

23. Work by, with, and through others. It's all about empowerment.

24. Do not seek the spotlight, Ranger. Let the spotlight find you. Then, make sure to share it with others.

25. Both the Bible and "The Art of War" make this point: It's never a mistake to put oneself in someone else's boots.

26. Humor is a combat multiplier. Except when it isn't.