Friday, September 25, 2009

Reality Bites

Note: While my arm is healing, I'll do my best to drop by and divvy out small, decadent portions of interesting links like so many amuse-bouche.

There's a war in Afghanistan that hasn't reached the media by its design: the information counterinsurgency. Mike Yon has been disembedded from the much sought after unit 2 Rifles following his criticism of the purseholders of the Ministry of Defense (namely the shameful lack of helicopters in theater). The media ops of the British military made it their mission to complicate Mike's critical job of reporting on the soldiers in Helmand Province, the flashpoint of Taliban resistance. He has a clear and indelible respect for the British fighting men, so to see him tossed out on his ear by some desk riding pogue is most alarming. One particular line about a media ops major caught my attention:

"Media Ops people—who do not leave their base or go on missions—who are spooling out “the message” to the media. They are clueless about the state of the war in Afghanistan. For instance, many of the Media Ops officers will insist that we have enough helicopters in Afghanistan. Those officers are either completely oblivious to the actuality of the situation or lying."

Shades of experience. In the 15th month of our tour, my platoon was called on our rest day to take part in a meticulously crafted PR stunt in downtown Baqubah. We were to escort the deputy prime minister of Iraq to demonstrate that the city's security situation had improved (it had) and that it was safe to mill about the city (it wasn't). Each Stryker was crammed with lite colonels, full bird colonels and generals - layabout officers that clearly did not get out much, judging from their jacked up chinstraps and alarming lack of weapons. In my truck, two Associated Press reporters chatted with a public affairs lieutenant from the Air Force.

I developed a system of determining the amount of time someone spends outside the wire by evaluating the uniform and equipment of a soldier:

[] Magazine pouch attached to the receiver
[] Immaculate weapon
[] Two or less magazine pouches attached to body armor
[] Crisp, distinctive crease on the sleeves indicating a uniform press
[] Lack of night vision goggle mount
[] Bright digital patterns on body armor
[] Boots show visible signs of cleaning

For the lieutenant, I checked all the above. Now, I understand everyone has a role to play and sometimes that means not going outside the wire. I get it. But as a public affairs officer, she was, as Mike put it, spooling out the message to the media. In her five months in Iraq, it was her first time in the wild brown yonder. The AP reporters were pressing her about the improved security situation, namely the role the Sons of Iraq played in the new security apparatus. As a base dweller, it was patently impossible for her to see a SoI volunteer, much less work with one.

Sprinkled among the brass and reporters were pitifully dirty soldiers with very little rest. Their body armor vests were faded to a light brown hue like they were dragged behind a pickup on a dusty back road. Their desert tan boots bore shades of black that could only result from wallowing in the open sewers of Iraq's most deplorable slums. At their feet were myriad brass shell casings from firefights deadly and ubiquitous. Yet the public affairs officer enlightens the press of the situation on the ground. As it happened in Iraq 2007, so it happens in Afghanistan 2009. The story of the war is kept away from those intimately involved in favor of those far removed and easily corruptible. This is the starting point of ill-equipped soldiers getting killed: message control and a strong aversion to the realities of protracted counterinsurgency operations.


Joe said...

I'll never forget the CSM that hopped into our truck to do a ride-along for PR and asked, "Hey, you guys got any extra 9mm mags? I ain't got any." And I'll never forget when my TL whirled around and said, "If something happens sergeant major, just stay in the truck and hand ammo cans to my gunner as he calls for them."

Alex Horton said...

Haha, that's awesome. It was probably the most high speed moment of his tour(s).

themorethingschange... said...

Nice job Alex. Looks like your broken arm isn't slowing you down too much. This writing thing becomes a compulsion doesn't it..

I enjoy Yon's dispatches immensley and was thus aware of the problems he had with the British. I've just read ( about Maj Gen Mackay resigning over the lack of response to what he sees as vital to success - not to mention safety - for British troops in Afghanistan. There was also an article which quoted a surgeon who'd done five tours talking about the upsurge of groin and neck injuries among the British. And how do the British respond - their guys are doing more foot patrols. Makes you want to smack somebody!

Also read somewhere a report from a young British soldier about the lack of respect they face at home. He told of being spit upon and barred from pubs - tho not all I expect. It reminded me of the Vietnam years here.

I hope men like Michael Yon and the bloggers who contribute to the pool of information available (to those who care to read) it prove to be the vanguard of a new reportaqe.


Unknown said...

Just scattershooting while wondering what happened to:

- LT Watada

- The War On Big Tobacco


Alex Horton said...

Last I heard Watada was acquitted. I've emailed BT a couple of times but he hasn't responded. He should have come home in June.

Anonymous said...

I admire the system you've developed to rate the level of pogue a soldier is; it's also very accurate.

Ry Jones said...

Watada was allowed to depart the army under other-than-honourable conditions.

Anonymous said...

Garet Trooper
by SSgt. Barry Sadler

This is dedicated to the parade field trooper
Who never leaves that nice soft garrison
And always looks real pretty

Now in the war torn jungles of Vietnam
You’ll find a certain kind of man
You’ll see him everywhere
He’s a trooper, a garet trooper

Yeah, he’s five foot four, 228 pounds of blubber
Got him a nickel plated 45 tied down low, quick draw holster
Two bandoliers of brasso-ed ammo
Yeah he’s a trooper, a garet trooper

He’s fought from Saigon to Ninh Thuan
In every bar that is, and then only with the girls
And he ain’t won one yet
But he’s a trooper, a garet trooper (garet trooper)

He’s got a hip knife, a side knife, a boot knife, a shoulder knife
And a little bitty one that’s a combination flare gun, dinner set,
and genuine police whistle
But he’s a trooper, a garet trooper

Now I run into one the other day, He told me a story,
He said he'd just this minute come back from
a fifteen day runnin’ fight with the Cong
Said he captured a lot of loot
You know what I saw when I looked down? A spit shined boot
Yeah, he’s a trooper, a garet trooper (garet trooper)

Now poor ole pilot come back today
Half his crew was killed, aircraft shot to hell
But he don’t say much
He’s not a trooper, a garet trooper

And out in the hills and the jungles and the swamps
Living like a bunch of dogs
Are some men wearing funny little green hats
They stay out there and fight for months on end
They don’t say much ‘cause they’re not troopers,
garet troopers (garet troopers)

And I bet finally, when I leave this war torn land
The last thing I’ll see will be,
though I may be in a drunken stupor
I bet it’ll be a garet trooper (garet trooper)

Yeah, they’re all over the place
Ain’t hardly worth going to war no more

Unknown said...

The last stanza of a famous Rudyard Kipling poem:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Anonymous said...

I've worked in PR at both a water/sewer utility and sanitation (garbage/waste). First thing I did at these jobs is go out--that means to the water AND sewer treatment plants, and to the trenches where pipes are fixed, as well as to the landfills and such. I thought it was important for me in my job to fully understand the operations end and the only way to do it is to go out and see it and get into it.

Oh, BTW I was an infantry grunt in the Army way before I got into PR.

Alex Horton said...


That's the only way to do it: to see for yourself.

Kevin R.C. O'Brien said...

Whoever did that transcription of the Barry Sadler song isn't a vet (I don't mean the guy that posted it, but whoever wrote the words down).

It's "Garritrooper," which is at once a portmanteau of Garrison and Trooper, and a rhyming joke, because a garritrooper is quite distant, socially and all, from the rhyme, paratrooper. And the second city in the "bar fight" is Nha Trang -- which was the HQ of SF, Vietnam from about 1963 and then 5th SF Group from about 1965 to 1971 when Abrams threw SF out.

There are a couple other errors too, but those two pulled my chain.

I do agree with the assessment criteria. The concept is as old as warfare -- when you read Brit memoirs of WWI or German ones of the Eastern Front, or stories of the US Civil War, you'll see the same front/rear divide. It's pretty much an impenetrable barrier, and those on both sides know which side the strength of character is on.

If I were bald, and fierce, and short of breath
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

[Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details", c.1917]

I'm still amazed to run into E-8s and E-9s and O-5s who have bare right shoulders... we've only been at war eight years and these clowns haven't even gotten to the FOB yet. Half the National Guard has been twice.

Peter said...

Then it's Tommy this an' Tommy that, an Tommy how's yer soul,

But it's thin red line of 'eros when the drums begin to roll.

Some things never change, from Kipling's day to Sasson in WW1, to Bill Mauldin in WW2, who, BTW, publicized the term "Garritrooers", the men too far forward to wear ties, too far back to fight.

In my day it was Saigon Commandos, today I believe the term is Fobbits.

Do they still call an Infantryman a Snuffy? Or a Grunt? It's been a very long time since I wore funny clothes and bad haircuts.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

The Sniper said...

They still use grunts. Not snuffy, though. We always just said "Joes" but we were referring to ourselves.

Fobbits is the term du jour, but REMFs and pogues still get used a lot.

And Alex, your checklist is dead on, but you forgot the following:

[] more battery operated items on the M-4 rails than most lesbians use at an orgy

[] only one first aid pouch... and it's got cigarettes in it

Alex Horton said...


I'm always open to a revised list!