Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Directed by Clint Eastwood

This is the kind of film that only an American could make. A film of war, from the point of view of the enemy. It is of Japanese forces who were assigned the task of defending Iwo Jima against the oncoming Americans during World War II. And, in stark contrast to any other war movie, it portrays the imperial Japanese forces as human. With fears, wondering about the what is to come, and wondering about what the enemy is like. Iwo Jima was known as a place where the Japanese were particularly crafty, forsaking some of the stark militarism and bravado for a well prepared defense. The industrial war that the United States had developed to such effectiveness in air and naval bombardment turned out to be ineffective, and the Marines involved won the island at high cost, against an adversary that forced them to pay dearly for the island.

One of the chief lessons that I took care to emphasize in Afghanistan was the craftiness of our opposition. When I worked with newly arriving sergeants I made a point of reminding them of this, and giving examples. One thing that "Letters" does well in the first half is show the dilemma that opposing leaders have when fighting the United States, how do you combat an opponent who has what seems to be unlimited resources? And the intelligence that is needed to do this with honor.

The movie is based on the records of letters home from the Japanese commanding general, written in the days leading up to the American invasion. And they are very human, without the blind bravado that Hollywood usually casts upon the enemy (historical or fictional). They are a mix of fanatic, afraid, fearful of the future, honorable, and driven by shame, sometimes in sequence and sometimes many at once.

Some of the most touching parts are the scenes where the general or the main character are writting letters home. What they are doing that day, what they feel. And reading letters from their wives about the home front. It is very human, and very real. And I can completely relate, having spent the last 20 minutes reading all the letters I received while deployed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Working The Weight

This article brings back good memories. One of my regular workouts was to put on the body armor and walk around the base with a buddy of mine.


September 25, 2007: Some soldiers are using the 30 pound protective vest as a physical conditioning aid, both in the gym and outside. Today's combat soldiers and marines are, like professional athletes, very much into physical conditioning. A little extra speed and strength on the battlefield can save your life. This is especially true now that the protective vest, with all the attachments, weighs in at 30 pounds. Troops headed for the combat zone, wear the vest during all their training. But other have found that wearing the vest in the gym, or while running, helps as well. The more you move about with the vest on, the more you develop the muscles, and lung capacity, that support the weight.

After the first rotation of combat troops came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, some noticed that they were in pretty good physical shape. Those who were deep into physical conditioning quickly figured out that the heavy protective vest was having the same impact as training weights, that are worn to build up certain muscles. Even soldiers who don't particularly like running or doing calisthenics with the vest on, realize that this will make life easier for them when they get back to the combat zone.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

PRT mission to improve Health Care in Khost, Afghanistan

Video clip
This was a good clip to watch, not the least because I know some of the people in it.

There was a New York Times article a couple days ago titled "Building a Dam in a Bid to End Afghan Stability." And the two say a lot about working in Afghanistan. As part of the new ways of doing things, American and ISAF forces in Afghanistan are focusing on building the country, as opposed to hunting down bad guys (not that anyone will walk away from a fight, just that for the most part, the troops are not looking for one.) Of course, as ISAF adds to the health care, builds infrastructure, educates children, builds local governance, it strengthens the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) as a country. It does this by building ties between the local population and the population as a whole, something that did not exist before. And as a generation of children are educated, given health care, and connected to the world beyond their own tribe, a country is created, where there has not been a real country forever. For all the civilizations that have gone into the Hindu Kush to conquer it (and left), none have ever tried to build up the human capital of the area, until now. And the local population is fully aware of what that means for the future.

And the Taliban is also aware of what this means for the future. And so they destroy roads, dams, kill doctors, destroy schools, and intimidate the population into not supporting the efforts and work that is needed to create all of these things. In the long run, this is destructive, and everyone knows it. But they can't get to the long run unless they survive the short term. And here lies the truth of insurgency/counterinsurgency (at least where the United States is involved). Even when everything is being done for the good of the population, in the end, the insurgents have one argument, "do not help the IRoA, or we will kill you." For all the good that our forces and resources could do, every individual Afghan has to ask the question "will I live to benefit?"

Has it always been this way? No, within the U.S. military there has been great debate on if this is part of war. The initial efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were led by those who believed that this had no place in the work of the military. The current efforts are those who say if the U.S. does not succeed in this, they fail in the whole thing, and the "successes" that were achieved in combat amount to nothing (which is a story that the U.S. has seen before). There is a story of a retired U.S. Army officer, who when talking with one of the officers who has played a part in developing the counterinsurgency doctrine that many are now trying to implement said "it would be sad if twice in a lifetime we would fail to learn the same lessons."

I was asked by friends "what does it feel to be a part of history." Well, my work there ended up fitting squarely into this development of theory. And the realization that I was intimately involved in a new way of looking at war, had me in awe.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 2007-2008 season gala quotes

"You two look real good. Is someone going to take your picture?"
Well, since she was asking, of course we asked if she could.

"I know you, do you work for ___? We met at the Korean picnic" (three years ago!)

"Welcome back. We're glad you are safe"

"I don't mind that you can't remember girls names"

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield

The Afghan Campaign
This is about a soldier in the time of Alexander the Great of Macedon, around 330 BC. Alexander the Great has conquered everywhere using standard tactics of drawing out his enemy and defeating it on the battlefield. And he has conquered the Persian empire, the greatest in the world. And, on the way to the riches of India, lay the Hindu Kush, present day Afghanistan.

The Afghan Campaign is written from the point of view of a new soldier. During the war against the Persians Matthias joins the Macedonian army, following in the footsteps of his brothers. However, he is too late to join in the glorious wars against the Persians. But, he arrives in the Hindu Kush, after the main battle. But the war is not over. Over the course of the campaign, Matthias sees victory, loss. Friends are killed in barbaric ways and he takes part in atrocities that make him sick. His family gives his support, and his fiance leaves him. And at the end, he is frustrated with the war, has the spoils of war that his brother tells him to take home, and decides to continue with Alexander.

So, what is the point? Why this pseudo-history of the ancient world? The question for this is not to present a history, but to present an experience. So, do I think it is accurate, all things considered. And, well, it is. When you are in the middle of things, you don't have too much time to think about the big picture, unless you have that kind of position. Your general thoughts as far as war is concerned are about the day in question. But there are times to think about other things. You are very concerned about your comrade around you, their fortunes, successes, failures. Their hurts and their victories are shared and felt by you. And you think of loved ones behind. Of people back home who support and love you. Of those who have forgotten you. And those who have let you go and gone their own way.

Someone asked me if I missed anything about serving in Afghanistan, it was that. The sense that we shared in the struggles, successes and frustrations of each other. The guy who we all said had the worst job in the office, as he was having his direction of effort changed
almost hourly, and never could get what he was doing done well enough to be satisfying. The senior officer who did not have a well defined job, who spent his time making snide remarks and complaining about little mickey mouse issues. The guys who got regular packages and letters from home (I was one of them), especially the newlywed whose wife sent him a package including baked cookies weekly (the winner). We worried about the guy who was a bit of a loner and never got packages (and were real relieved when his mother sent something). I loved it when all the guys on the staff were pulling for me when I gave a big presentation that needed very senior officer support, giving me feedback, suggestions, and general "ask for whatever help you need" support. We talked to our families and shared in the fustrations, joys, stories (funny, sad, frustrating and proud). The ideas, dreams and hopes we had for the future. All the things that make us real human beings. And Pressfield presents that well, both the good and the bad.

Obviously, the book is for a certain type of person. The gore exists, as it is also a part of war. But it is not there for its own sake. It is there because it is part of the environment that shapes the people. And to that extent, it, like some of his other works (e.g. Gates of Fire), does the job wonderfully.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Some pictures

Some pictures from the past few months. I suppose a philosophical thought may come to me at some point.

Afghanistan pictures

Saturday, September 01, 2007


First thoughts.

Apartment feels big. Walls are far away. Lots of stuff in luggage and boxes that are looking for a home. Boxes of mail. Already paid bills.

Clean kitchen.
Good company.