31 August 2016

Film Review: 'Citizen-Soldier' Documentary

Film review: "Citizen-Soldier" (2016)

Before I offer a few insights and impressions regarding the new documentary "Citizen-Soldier," a few caveats up front:

1. The movie explores a recurring theme in U.S. history: How citizens routinely pick up their muskets to become soldiers. This is a theme fraught with tensions, between state and federal powers, and between those who argue that the United States must at all times maintain a large, standing, "professional" military, to those who who argue for a smaller active-duty military, augmented by citizen reservists in times of need. This is a central engine that drives much of my own research and writing.

2. The documentary depicts a unit that replaced the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division shortly after my media embed with the latter in May-June 2011. For a 9-month period, Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.) was made responsible for all U.S./coalition missions in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province. Together with Iowa's 2-34th BCT and Vermont's 86th IBCT, this represents the only times a brigade-sized U.S. National Guard unit was assigned as a "battlespace owner" during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

3. There are other connections. Afghanistan was not the first time, for example, that the Red Bull and Thunderbird fought and trod the same ground. In World War II, both units were at the battles of Anzio, Solerno, Sicily, and Mount Cassino. To my particular delight, each unit boasts unique artistic pedigrees, too. The Red Bull shoulder patch was designed in 1918 by Marvin Cone, a citizen-soldier who would later become a well-regarded regional artist. Famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin was a Thunderbird.

I am, in short, a big fan of the 45th IBCT. I am probably genetically predisposed to like this movie.


I like this movie. A lot.

That's not to say, however, that it's easy to watch. Or even fun. It is, however, necessary.

Released earlier this week on DVD and Blu-ray, the documentary "Citizen-Soldier" accurately captures the trials of people just like you and your neighbors—police officers, marketing directors, X-ray technicians—who are routine trained and transformed into soldiers. With this deployment, they tasked with fighting waves of unseen enemies, while traversing unforgivingly brutal terrain. Along the way, they adapt, improvise, and overcome.

"[O]ne thing the Guard is able to do very effectively," says Sgt. Jared Colson, who is a corrections officer on the civilian side. "We're able to look at things practically, and not just according to a manual."

Members of Oklahoma's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment (1-179th Inf.), deployed to Combat Outpost ("COP") Najil in Laghman Province. Through footage shot by Oklahoma and attached combat camera soldiers, as well as other sources, "Citizen-Soldier" tells the story of a few platoons, follows them through various dismounted and mounted patrols, as well as an air-assault—Operation Brass Monkey, into the Saygal Valley. There are laughs, and there are tears.

An important note: Not everyone introduced at the beginning of the film survives the deployment. It does need to be said, however, that the violence is edited tastefully, and the reverence and respect Oklahoma has for its fallen is apparent throughout the journey home. These are sights that may be unfamiliar to active-duty communities: Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts and flag-bearers. Highways lined with Guardsmen and women, rendering final salutes. Citizen-soldiers have their own traditions, their own customs.

The "Citizen-Soldier" project was managed by the directors of "The Hornet's Nest" (2014), which told stories of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan through the eyes of an embedded civilian reporter. The Oklahoma documentary, however, is framed by two elements: First are scenes of present-day Thunderbird soldiers taking part in a live-fire training exercise, which provides a thematic connection to the National Guard's "Minute Man" history and culture.

Toward the end of the exercise, and at the end of the film, Command Sgt. Major of the Army National Guard Brunk W. Conley addresses a group of Oklahoma soldiers. "Think about 1775 […]," he says. "'The British are coming, the British are coming.' And blacksmiths, and inn-keepers drop their hammers, drop their plates and towels and bedding. They drop what their doing. And they run to the greens at Lexington and Concord […]"

"We've been doing this stuff since 1636 […]" Conley tells the troops. "We need you […] to keep the title of 'citizen-soldier.' There is something noble, something honorable, something romantic about that term."

The second framing device is an off-duty gab session among former platoon mates. A casual conversation alongside a river creates a space for reflection. There, the soldiers joke, for example, that their mobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss.—a relatively flat place located near the Gulf of Mexico—was exactly like Afghanistan, except for maybe the all the mountains.

As Colson says earlier in the film, "Everywhere is up. Everywhere you walk is up." And the bad guys hold the high ground.

If you are an adult friend or family member of a U.S. National Guard or reservist who deployed to Afghanistan, you will want to see this film. If you are a veteran of Eastern Afghanistan, you might also enjoy the added bonus of seeing some of your old stomping grounds. (The usual trigger-warnings apply, however: While the film is rated "R" only for language, there is plenty of bang-bang and roadside boom here. The kind that might keep your mom up at nights. Depending on your own deployment history, maybe you, too.)

If you are a U.S. citizen and taxpayer, seeing this film should be a requirement. This is what you sent your neighbors to do, on your behalf: Leave their jobs, their friends, their families, the comforts and safety of home. Engage an enemy. Climb mountains. Search out bombs. Build a nation.

More important than what they did, however, "Citizen-Soldier" shows you who they are.

24 August 2016

Re-run: The Arts of War and Parenting

The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is currently on family vacation maneuvers at an undisclosed training area, somewhere in the Middle West. This re-post from August 2011 may or not be applicable:

The Iowa State Fair ended this past weekend. A couple of different days during the fair's 11-day run, Household-6, the kids, and I braved the heat, the crowds, the animals, the carnival rides, and the foods-on-a-stick. With Lena, now age 6, and Rain, age 4, we've moved beyond strollers and backpack kid-carriers. We travel more lightly now, if not exactly more efficiently.

In conducting our state fair maneuvers, I was repeatedly surprised how much Army techniques and tribal wisdom are applicable to parenting on the march:
  • "No battle plan survives contact with your kids."
  • Everyone in your squad should know the plan.
  • Move in buddy teams. Always maintain visual contact.
  • Conduct periodic tactical halts. Check buddies, equipment, supplies, and morale.
  • Always brief a "lost soldier" plan.
  • Always brief primary, alternate, and emergency means of communication.
  • Identify rally points.
  • Check fluid levels before, during, and after operation. Report all classes of leaks (I, II, and III) to a supervisor immediately.
  • Know your pace count. Recognize your kids' pace count may be 4 or 5 times your own. Your fastest speed is that of the slowest member in your squad.
  • "Strategy is for amateurs. Logistics is for parents."
  • Basic combat load is one day's supply of water, wipes, cleanser, and clothes.
  • Hasty decon is a squad-size operation which sustains the combat potential of a contaminated force by limiting spread of contamination.
  • "This is my kid. There are many like him, but this one is mine."
  • "I am responsible for everything my kid does and fails to do."
  • "Never leave a kid behind."
And, finally, to paraphrase the ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu:
  • "The supreme art of parenting is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

17 August 2016

Re-run: Overheard in the TOC ... or at Daycare?

The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is currently on family vacation maneuvers at an undisclosed training area, somewhere in the Middle West. This re-post, from those heady pre-deployment days of December 2010, may or not be applicable to our current family banter.

There are any number of comments that seem to have equal application, whether spoken in a military unit's Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") or in a children's daycare setting. In other words ...

"At the TOC or Daycare? You Make the Call!"
  • “Who told you do that?”
  • “Why didn’t you do what I told you to do?”
  • "Was that a good decision or a poor decision?"
  • "How many can YOU count?"
  • "If I take away this many, how many do you have left?"
  • “Where did you last see it when you lost it?”
  • "How do you draw a ..."
  • "Time to take a nap!"
  • "Where were you when you saw the bad stranger?"
  • "Hey, that's mine!"
  • "Stay on your side!"
  • "Clean up your things."
  • "Everybody--QUIET!”
A quick shout-out to Saber2th for the inspiration for this. I should note that, despite what people think, he really does play well with others.

10 August 2016

Re-run: 'Dude Ranch' or 'Forward Operating Base'?

The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is still on family vacation maneuvers at an undisclosed training area, somewhere in the Middle West. This re-post from June 2014 seemed applicable:

Back in 2012, I wrote a post comparing and contrasting "Summer Camp"—what old citizen-soldiers in the National Guard still jokingly call annual military training—with "summer camping."

Recently, the Sherpa clan rounded up the extended family for a week's vacation in southeastern Arizona. Soon after getting boots on ground—faster than you can say "Huachuca"—I began to notice potential comparisons between daily life on a Dude Ranch, and that of living on a Forward Operating Base ("FOB") downrange.

In other words, I felt right at home.

Here are a few of my notes:


  • If you are eating regularly in a "chow hall," you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If you are eating regularly in a "dining facility," you are on a FOB.

  • If you are on constant lookout for rattlesnakes, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If you are on constant lookout for camel spiders, you are on a FOB.

  • If you observe people who are playing cowboy wearing white Stetsons, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If you observe people who are playing cowboy wearing black Stetsons, you are on a FOB.

  • If you are living in a pink building and shooting at tin cans, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If you are working in a pink building and living in a tin can while other people shoot at you, you are on a FOB.

  • If "clearing barrel" means executing a successful maneuver on horseback, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If "clearing barrel" means a safety device into which you pull a trigger, you are on a FOB.
  • Bonus tip: If "Trigger" is your horse, you are on a Dude Range.

  • If drinking water is plentifully supplied in plastic bottles, you could be on either a Dude Ranch or a FOB ...
  • If the plastic bottles are re-supplied daily by Housekeeping to your room's refrigerator, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If the plastic bottles are stored in bulk and located under a plywood lean-to near a corner of your building's exterior, you are on a FOB.
  • Bonus tip: If there is an ice machine where those bulk plastic water bottles would be located on a FOB, you are on a Dude Ranch.

  • If there are A-10s flying overhead, you could be on either a Dude Ranch or a FOB ...
  • If the A-10s sound friendly and outgoing, you are on a Dude Ranch.
  • If the A-10s sound angry, you are on a FOB.

03 August 2016

Re-run: 'Summer Camp' vs. 'Summer Camping'

The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is currently on family vacation maneuvers at an undisclosed training area, somewhere in the Middle West. (Ironically, commo was the first thing that was lost on the trip.) This re-post from June 2012 may or not be applicable:

National Guard soldiers often say "Summer Camp" when they mean "Annual Training."

When I recently posted pictures of my kids' first backyard camping experience, a number of Facebook friends and Red Bull Rising blog-readers compared the new Sherpa-family "King-Dome" to a U.S. Army brigade's Tactical Operations Center ("TOC").

Can't tell the difference between camping for pleasure, and Summer Camp for Uncle Sam? Here are some rules of thumb to help you find your way:
  • If you're carrying a weapon with no bullets, but wearing a bullet-proof vest, you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're locked, loaded, and practically bear-proof, you're camping.
  • If you're wearing a reflective safety belt over camouflage clothing, you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're wearing a mix of bright colors and camouflage clothing, you're hunting.
  • If you're wearing bright colors and mismatched clothing, you're camping.
  • If you're "humping a pack," you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're "backpacking," you're camping.
  • If you're walking with others in a single file, you're camping.
  • If you're walking with others in "Ranger File," you're at Annual Training.
  • If a guy wearing a reflective safety belt is talking to you about safety, you're at Annual Training.
  • If a guy in a Smokey-the-Bear hat is yelling at you and calling you names, you're at Basic Training.
  • If you're sleeping in a building but working in a tent, you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're showering in a building but sleeping in a tent, you're camping.
  • If your tent is air-conditioned but your vehicle is not, you're at Annual Training.
  • If your vehicle is air-conditioned but your tent is not, you're camping.
  • If your camp stove burns "mogas," you're at Annual Training.
  • If your camp stove burns white gas, kerosene, diesel, automotive gas, aviation gas, Stoddard solvent and/or Naphtha, you're camping.
  • If the camp store is "back on cantonment," you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're allowed to purchase beer at the camp store, you're camping.
  • If you're chewing coffee grounds to stay awake, you're at Annual Training.
  • If you're all clustered together around a coffee pot, in an air-conditioned tent, and watching pretty pictures on a big flat-screen, you're at a brigade staff meeting.