Friday, November 27, 2009


On this Thanksgiving I’m thinking of my brother Jack a world away in Afghanistan. And with any luck, some time between coming in from one patrol and preparing for the next, he’ll be thinking of us.

Today my family will join thousands of families across the country as we raise our glasses to toast our loved one’s sense of duty. The tradition is one that extends not praise for a job well done (the war is far from over), nor sympathy for a job not worth doing (we chose the path we chose) but respect and love. Respect for the courage to fight when asked to fight and love for the spirit we see grow within them.

In a life too often filled with living we forget it’s the small, simple things that make us most happy. We forget how important things like a cold beer, laughter, bad sweaters, a football game, warm food, and old stories are. But not Jack. Right now whether he’s cleaning the bolt of his rifle sharing a coffee and a laugh with his fellow men or on patrol scanning a valley through his optics, life is at its most simple and complete. He has the love of his family, the admiration of his country, the respect of his fellow infantrymen and a great adventure he will never for the rest of his years on earth forget. Today he remembered those bad sweaters, bad stories, bad football games, and bad hangovers and he smiled because they weren’t bad things at all. They were simple things. And perfect.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Caio Principessa!

Congratulations Ashly and Joshua - Welcome to this world Isabella!!!!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Good Judgment and the SEAL Ethos

The below article was written by a close friend and mentor of mine, Captain Bob Schoultz. You can follow him online at


The SEAL Ethos emphasizes the virtues of toughness, integrity, loyalty, courage, and tenacity. It is a great standard – one that all of us should aspire to live by. It serves as a vision and ideal to guide us – a touchstone to fall back on in times of stress, confusion, weakness or moral uncertainty.

However as I read it, I realize that the SEAL Ethos assumes a healthy dose of good judgment in the warrior who looks to it for guidance. Uncompromising commandments such as “I will not quit” or “I am never out of the fight” or “I will not fail” are inspiring and useful, but cannot be taken literally – we must assume maturity and good judgment in their application. Indeed, discretion IS sometimes the better part of valor, and most of us have little difficulty imagining situations in which we would expect the experienced SEAL to back off and choose to live to fight another day. We would not admire nor respect a SEAL who, because he ‘will not quit’ or ‘will not fail,’ persists in risking the lives and talents of his men with single minded tenacity on a mission or task that may be doomed to failure or ill-conceived to begin with. Fortunately, it is usually safe to assume ‘good judgment’ in our SEALs; but it also goes without saying that ALL SEALs do not ALWAYS demonstrate good judgment – it must be developed and nurtured, and that is an on-going process.

The NSW Center puts SEAL and SWCC candidates through the crucible of being ‘trained in the severest school’ (Thucydides) in order that they understand in the clearest terms, the values and expectations of the NSW culture they are entering. These values and expectations define the boundaries of what the NSW culture will consider ‘good judgment’ from its members. Additionally, each new job, each position of increased responsibility, each new theater of operations, requires the warrior to devote time to learning that new context in order to know what success looks like in that environment. Good judgment is decision-making that succeeds, but those decisions will be different in different contexts, and success must be measured over the long term.

A person’s good judgment may be constrained to a specific context, depending on one’s specialty and experience. A warrior may develop highly refined and nuanced judgment in one environment, and yet be incompetent or inexperienced in another. Good judgment in a specific context also doesn’t make one a good or wise person. Ernest Shackleton was one of history’s great leaders, and repeatedly exercised amazing judgment borne of great insight into the strengths, limitations and needs of people in times of stress and crisis. His personal life however, was a shambles and he was being chased by his creditors until the day he died.

Good judgment is a moving target, and hard to define, but all leaders recognize it as essential. Then why isn’t it explicitly included in the SEAL Ethos? “Never quit,” and “ I will not fail” should be starting points when a person of honor assumes a responsibility or makes a commitment, to himself or others. But sometimes the thinking person may have to ask whether, in THIS situation, such resolution truly is proper. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous speech in which he demanded “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never….’ But Churchill’s quote ends with “. ..never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” These are important caveats.

Mark Twain said that good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of experience comes from bad judgment. This is a clever way to say that we learn and become wiser from our mistakes. It has also been said that smart people learn from their own mistakes; wise people from the mistakes of others. Implicitly built into the SEAL Ethos is the need to see the bigger picture and for good situational awareness, to know what our culture expects and demands of us, and to have the humility to learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. These are the foundations of the good judgment necessary to appropriately understand and tap into the power contained in the SEAL Ethos.

Bob Schoultz Capt USN (ret)
Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership
University of San Diego School of Business Administration

"The MSGL prepares students to succeed in the global arena through study of the principles of ethical leadership, best business practices, and respect for cultural, political, and economic differences."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Culture of Excellence.

Good question posed last week in Jeff Withington’s “Counterinsurgency Leadership.” He writes, “is a good counterinsurgency leader automatically a good conventional war leader?”

My answer (“no, sometimes”) reflects my belief that, on the one hand, a leader should “never say never, never say always”, but is firmly rooted, on the other hand, in the great credence that leadership (from the board room to the war room) is leadership.

Certain leaders are best suited for certain tasks. Take Captain John Collins, a fellow platoon commander at Force. Collins embodies the fighter-leader. He’s smart, strong, and aggressive (and ugly). I love ‘Good-times-Johnny’ to death; I just don’t think he’d be as successful on the bridges of submarines as he was on the bridges of the Euphrates. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a professional, but I don’t think ramming your boat into an enemy sub at 20 knots is a preferred tactic. The hope would be he’d have an XO who would compliment him (and help him with his calculus homework) and maybe things wouldn’t be that bad.

But they would be that bad. Really, really bad. Collins was built to lead Marines, not mathletes. Johnny Collins on a dude tube? Submarines are expensive. (Collins breaks stuff.) Submarines have tiny spaces? (Collins barely fits in his office.) Math? (He writes his op-orders in the dirt with sticks.) A crew of super smart people? (Marine Corps “smart” is way different than Navy Nuclear Officer and Enlisted “smart”.) Patience? (I once saw him eat a Second Lieutenant who delayed one of his raids.) No, Collins wouldn’t do well on a submarine… not at all.

Let me re-attack.

In a conventional war key terrain must be seized and held and lines of battle advanced. In a counterinsurgency the people are the key terrain, security matters, not siege. Lines of battle must become transparent to a population that needs to get back to work. Both prove challenging environments for combat leaders in their own right. Both require men with the constitution for leading professional warriors. Sherman (a conventionally brilliant leader) wouldn’t have the patience for the task at hand in Afghanistan’s RC South. And I’m not sure Petraeus would have had the stomach to burn Atlanta. But this isn’t to say that a Sherman wouldn’t be an asset in the Panjshir valley, or Petraeus at Chancellorsville. Leadership is, after all, leadership…

No matter the case, things are very rarely “automatically so”…think about it using the most mysterious and dangerous practice of all time, dating women.

1. If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll automatically look good with mascara stained cheeks, poufy hair, and her contacts stuck to her eyes, tomorrow.

2. If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you’re automatically out of the doghouse.

3. If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you’re automatically Don Juan.

The answer to each of these makes more sense if you delete the word “automatically” and start using words like “sometimes”, “might be”, or “may” and end it with a statement of probability – like “probably so” or “probably not.”

1. If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll sometimes look good tomorrow. (Probably so.)

2. If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you might be out of the doghouse. (Probably not.)

3. If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you may be Don Juan. (Probably you’re on drugs.)

Love, like leadership, works best when you’re the right man for the job. It can work just fine if you’re not, but it works best if you are. When you fall in love (when love is just right) it doesn’t matter what she looks like in the morning (she’ll be her most beautiful), it’s ok to be in the doghouse (you’ll apologize endlessly and not know what you’re apologizing for…and not care), and when she tells you you’re the best she’s ever had, you’ll actually believe her (because you’ll be in love and it’ll be true). And all this brings up a greater lesson on leadership…

Leadership is about listening. I learned that racing sail boats as a Midshipman. Sailing puts you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to make decisions under pressure, and act quickly and decisively. Sailing requires intellect and teamwork and heart. There is no greater leadership class at Annapolis than a day at sailing practice – and the Chesapeake is a rugged coliseum. Those daily practices and weekly regattas prepared our crews for races to Hamilton Bermuda, Marion Massachusetts, Portland Maine, and Portsmouth England. We trained hard, made mistakes, came to respect the sea with a religious reverence, and sailed fast. We endured hardship and carried on. Sailing fosters a matchless spirit of adventure and excitement that can only be replicated by the experiences we would later have in the cockpits of aircraft, in the engine rooms of ships of war, or on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan.

During a race the skipper is like the platoon commander, section leader, or flight lead. His job is to win. He must also care for his crew and make tough decisions. Ultimately, the sailboat’s skipper (like the platoon commander) is responsible for everything the crew does or fails to do. It’s a heavy burden, but if you’ve ever met the crew we sail with, you know how worth it this is…

In my time as a sailor, I’ve noticed two methods of calling tactics. Some skippers observe all that goes on around him – the shifting winds, the opposition, his own crew – and makes a call: tack, jibe, come into the wind, fall off...

Other skippers observe these same conditions, and ask... “Portside, how’s the trim?” “Mastman, how’s the tension?” “Helmsman, what do you see?” He gets input for what each professional at that position is feeling – and demands this participation from each level – and then calls his tactics based on his determinations and the observations of his crew.

I prefer to lead a platoon by the second method. Each of my team leaders are highly trained professional operators bred to observe a situation and act; and each does so uniquely based on their personality, style and tactical approach. Each shooter has a distinct understanding of the battlespace he is operating in; I want to know what my boys are thinking, feeling, believing – so I call tactics as I used to do during a regatta: “Team 1, how’s my flank?” “Team 2, what are you seeing – any movement?” “Team 3, are you comfortable pushing forward 50 meters?” “All Teams, stand by…3—2—1—Execute. Execute. Execute.” And the sniper fires his shot and the breacher blows his breach, and the rifles move forward as they do so well and the house is taken down and the mission is accomplished. And all I had to do was let these professionals do their job. Leadership is easy when the crew knows how to sail fast…

But there’s always the question of those things outside of your control…like the wind and the weather and the storms and the sea…

To this end, the skipper has many competing responsibilities. The most important among them is fostering a culture of excellence. (You must control what you can control.) The bedrock of excellence at the small unit level depends upon (1) flexibility, (2) creativity, (3) commander’s intent, (4) enthusiasm, and (5) “combat velocity.” This foundation provides the mechanism to succeed (and survive) and allows your crew the ability to do their job – no matter the weather.

There’s more to excellence of course – love for the men you serve, the pride you and your team take in your profession, the collective desire to compete (and win), passion, integrity, and a good sense of humor, to name a few – but those things are less the mechanism for excellence, more the architecture. At war’s dangerous fault line – that dodgy place where strategy and tactics (and politics and human emotion and culture and God and everything else) collide – leadership’s “mechanism” matters most. A mechanism accomplishes the mission and keeps brave men alive. The architecture gets you back outside the wire tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day after that…

So let me start here, that leadership, excellent leadership, has two dimensions: near sightedness and far sightedness. Without each the crew’s vision blurred. Truly excellent leadership requires a commander surrender his ego and call tactics not “for his crew” but rather “with his crew.” This 20/20 approach is perhaps best understood as the trigger pullers’ ability to execute their mission (near sightedness), and the commander’s ability to communicate his desired priorities and capitalize on the momentum created by his operators or adjacent units and articulate the changing mission from higher (far sightedness).

Whether fighting a platoon of Marines, or leading a section of Sailors, “20/20 leadership” is a critical paradigm that respects command and control, the chain of command and the other intangibles men face in war (and in the sail boat), while affording our remarkable Sailors and Marines the latitude they require to perform excellently.

Flexibility is a two way street. The small unit commander must be given a certain degree of flexibility by his commander; the degree to which he achieves flexibility depends on the personality of that commander, the confidence that senior commander has with him (and his level of sobriety at the time in question), and the overall command climate.

Flexibility cannot be forced – it must be demonstrated. It is, above all, an ethos – an understanding that no plan will survive first contact, no order perfect, and no situation above Murphy’s unrelenting law: whatever can go wrong in bad times, will. Flexibility is not a personality type, it can be taught and rehearsed – and should be! Flexibility is the ability to rapidly observe, orient, decide, and act on the enemy (or against the problem at hand) as factors beyond your control change. Flexibility requires a union of what is at times a mutually exclusive near sighted and far sighted reality: that to seize this initiative we often have to release most control to our subordinates. When, where and why this happens is the great unknown; that is all a matter of risk, uncertainty and luck – all of these a hard and fast certainty for the junior commander.

Creativity is fostered, not taught. In the complex fight we are in today, faced (at times and as an example) with an enemy with a death wish, the small unit commander’s best resource are his junior Marines and Sailors. Let’s take as an example, an event that unfolds into kinetic warfare. A classical sort of contact in a less than classical sort of environment. Our advantage is that our men have street sense and toughness – an inherent understanding for what’s going on around them, a natural feel for the street and an internal barometer for the precipitation of violence and unrest that might soon unfold. Creativity hinges on the ability of these young men to “turn the chess board around” and think like their enemy. Giving our Marines a voice in our mission planning increases awareness and gives a plan rugged depth – they’ll fight like they know how: brutally and without impunity, like our enemy. The creativity these young men bring to the planning cycle has decisive effects that tend to cripple the enemy’s command and control – at least in the short term. Creativity is a vital tool of combat leadership for the small unit commander – bringing the trigger pullers in on the planning and war-gaming will add surprise to the offense and offer the command inventive ways of waging war and bringing violence to bear on a wicked enemy.

Commander’s intent is critical in small unit leadership because it expresses what you must accomplish, but does not dictate how it must be accomplished. An important distinction I think. The 20/20 leadership model emphasizes “C/I” as absolutely critical. The small unit commander must deliver a crystal clear task, purpose and end-state with all orders he gives. “Here’s what you are to do, here’s why I need you to do it, and here’s what I need it all to look like when you’re finished.” Notice the small unit commander must avoid dictating HOW the mission is to be accomplished; he must leave that aspect, as much as his senior commander and the situation permit, to his subordinate leaders. A coherent commander’s intent will assist execution acceleration and will allow for added creativity and flexibility to guarantee mission accomplishment.

Enthusiasm is a choice made daily and the small unit leader’s force multiplier. All else being equal, enthusiasm enhances training, personal and professional expectations and above all, when considering other factors (serious things such as duty), enthusiasm, in the every day execution of routine tasks, becomes a moral imperative. It is absolutely necessary to constantly echo to your marines and sailors: enthusiasm is a choice. For officers, enthusiasm is an obligation. Above all, create an environment that allows the marines and sailors you lead to be excited about what they do and for the big picture, remind yourself of the awesome responsibility you have to be a leader these men deserve.

Combat velocity is more than speed. Velocity is speed with direction. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of the small unit commander’s decision making cycle, or the speed of his maneuver, with a clear direction. Combat velocity recognizes that in the counter-insurgency fight speed is no longer enough. The small unit commander can and must affect the situation by bringing a degree of order to chaos in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction. Similarly, his subordinate leaders must give direction and foster the speed of the decision making cycles of his own subordinates. Tempo (speed over time) and velocity (speed and direction) must be combined in a near and far sighted sense, as a weapon in themselves.

In the end, 20/20 focus is a leadership model – a tool – that a small unit leader can explain to the men he leads (but must more importantly demonstrate). It is more than a compromise; it’s a strategy for teamwork, excellence, mission accomplishment and success. It reflects the reality that small unit leadership is all about having a clear vision for what’s in front of you, near and far. And respects the independence of nature and the wind and the weather, but celebrates the excellence of one’s own crew. If 20/20 vision is a standard that is daily trained to (flexibility, creativity, commander’s intent, enthusiasm, and velocity), initiative will be gained swiftly, battles will be fought with maximum violence and maximum control, races will be won from Newport to Bermuda and lives will be saved at that dangerous fault line where strategy and tactics collide and all that is left is for young leaders to decide: How should I call my own tactics?

Or better yet, how do I create a culture of excellence?

The answer to what brings men success in leadership with a wonderful platoon, I find, goes back to what brings men success in love with a wonderful woman…

Listen up…hope for the best, and remember things are rarely ever automatically so.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wes Gray's "Embedded" - A Book Review, of sorts.

I prefer to take the Pacific Coast Highway home from work. There’s something about this iconic stretch of southbound ocean highway. The summer-time commute comes at a perfect hour to reflect and be alone and witness the most dramatic part of a Southern California day…the time when the sun is low and the sky is the color of tangerines and plums and the sea is dotted with surfers you watch paddle past a white break into a natural lineup and perform their elegant ballet on top of prevailing swells. Beautiful girls also run along the beach and are as much apart of this inspiring seaside landscape as the sun itself.

The I-5 is faster than the Pacific Coast Highway, but I avoid the 5 and take the PCH home on particularly stressful or particularly beautiful days. This day was both stressful and beautiful. And now I was alone with my thoughts. These turned out to be bad thoughts of putting a stapler to my hand after a day spent behind a desk. Self-stapling thoughts are best for the I-5. You gotta have an edge when navigating the 5. The PCH requires a degree of ‘tranquillo’. It requires the windows be rolled down and a soundtrack carefully selected along the lines of a Joe Purdy ballad, a Bob Marley jam, or anything by Timmy Curran or the John Butler Trio. And all played at a tremendous volume.

I ignore my cell phone on these PCH drives, by exception. I’ll answer if it’s 1.) The person most important to my world (my mom), 2.) The person most important to my work (my platoon sergeant) or 3.) Anyone who might make me laugh or smile (in this case, I answered a call from the Naval Institute’s Mary Ripley).

I was somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas on a drive like this back in July when Mary called me about Wes Gray’s new book. “Alex, what’s going on?” she said, continuing with excitement and without waiting for my response, “listen do you know Wes Gray?” It was a Wednesday. My mind works slower (than usual) on Wednesdays. “Ehmm,” (Thinking hard, but slowly.) “Yes! Of course I know Wes. It’s been awhile. We went to TBS and IOC together. Terrific guy! What’s up?” “Excellent, here’s the deal, he just wrote a book about Marines and the Iraqi Army that the Naval Institute has published, it’s already getting great press, would you be willing to do an interview with him for the Blog?” (Shocked) “Mary, are you kidding me! That’s awesome, and of course I’d like to interview him!” “Great, I’ll send you the book out, give it a read, here’s his number (she reads his number), give him a call when you can, and then call me when you’ve got something good. Ok, gotta run, have a great day Alex.” (Dial tone) “Mary…Mary…hello?” (End call.)

I stared at the road ahead of me with my hands at 10 and 2. Wes Gray had written a book, “Embedded”, on his time in the Haditha Triad as an Advisor to the Iraqi Army. I had done my first tour in Hit and Haditha and explored that Central Euphrates River Valley in the year before Wes had gotten there for his. “Wes,” (I said to myself, but out-loud as I often do) “where the hell are you going with this one?” Neither the setting the sun over the sea to my right, nor the long legged brunette walking her dog to my left could snap me out of this thought. What did Wes have to say about Haditha? This was going to be interesting…

Getting a call that one of my old Marine buddies had just written a book (a relevant book) when I can barely put together a coherent (and hardly relevant) 1,000 words for this column a couple times a month is like watching your childhood friend open that one fantastic Christmas present you wanted, but didn’t get. Wes Gray had just poured his heart into 240 pages of lessons learned from a tour with the Iraqi Army and I had just spent the day at work typing a command investigation for a broken television set. Wes had the Red Rider BB Gun. I had socks.

I called Wes later that night. We talked for a while (in guy time, anything longer than 10 minutes is a “long call”) and exchanged those sort of (simple) questions men ask each other after years apart. Wes hadn’t changed. He was still optimistic, funny, smart as hell, humble and witty. I was proud of him and excited to get my hands on his book. I told him we’d meet sometime soon for the interview, he agreed and we wished each other well.

After our meeting (which I’ll describe later) I realized I didn’t want to write a review of “Embedded.” There are already some great book reviews out there – one (an excellent piece) by another one of my IOC classmates, Gabriel Ledeen. His review is published on National Review Online. You can also visit Wes Gray’s blog (below) for a host of other reviews or use the “Google machine” for further research. (

It’s not that I don’t know how to write a proper book review (I don’t), it’s just I feel like the readers here would get more out of sitting in on a discussion between old friends talking about war and women and a book written about a place far away known to few but known well to us and see how we started this journey together and are now in two very distinct parts of our adult life. But really I just want the reader to hear about the author Wes Gray as an introduction to the book itself.

And so Wes and I had our meeting and, as I said, we talked about the things that matter most in this world – things like family, this America and Marines.

It’s good we met at a bar. Coffee shops are boring and no place to discuss war and women and the way of things. Old friends should not meet for a strong coffee when they are still able to meet for a stiff cocktail. A bar was the perfect meeting place for us after all these years. I picked a dark and wooded and isolated sort of place – a place we could talk for hours over Jameson (for me) and cold beer (for Wes) and never be bothered.

I started by asking Wes how the hell he has been. Wes said he was doing well in school, excited about a life in academics and most importantly that he had a new daughter and a beautiful wife and then asked how I was.

I told him I’ve stayed in the fleet all this time and am tired but excited about my work. I told him that I was balding now (but he could see that for himself). I told him I couldn’t keep a girlfriend and had love, but lost it, and that I owed $25,000 to a Lebanese bookie with a pencil thin mustache who kept an apartment in Reno but lived in Sacramento. Wes laughed deeply at this (and me, I think) and so I didn’t tell him that this was a joke because it made the story more theatrical and who was I to mess with good theatre anyhow?

I waved to the bartender and motioned for another round and one old friend asked another old friend how what happened, happened…

ASM: You’re married now since we talked last years ago?

WG: Yes, a husband and a father now!

ASM: How’s that going?

WG: Amazing man.

ASM: No seriously, you can be honest. This part will be off the record. How’s the married life?

WG: It’s great – seriously.

ASM: I don’t believe you.

WG: (Quiet, but smiling.)

ASM: (Now also smiling.) And you have a new daughter?

WG: Yes! Alice Mae Gray – she’s gorgeous!

ASM: That’s amazing. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Wonder Years.

WG: (Laughing.) Dude, you need to get a family – it’s like nothing else.

ASM: I’ll get there one day. Absolutely. So I read your book, Wes. (I like using people’s first name in a conversation like that with a straight face, it’s very ironic and funny I think.)

WG: Yeah, what did you think?

ASM: It was a piece.

WG: Ohh, c’mon! (Yelling, his hands now in the air.)

ASM: No, I’m kidding. (Pause) But seriously. It was a disaster.

WG: (Silent.)

ASM: (Breaking into laughter.)

WG: (Now also laughing.)

ASM: No, Wes, great read. Congratulations!

WG: (Blushing like a little girl.)

ASM: This is going to feel like you’re on Larry King, but I’ve got some questions. Wes, (again with the first name lead-in) let’s start with the basics man – what is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?

WG: The Intelligent Investor, Lord of the Rings Series, and a Long Island Ice Tea (great bang for the buck).
ASM: Wes, “Lord of the Rings” do you seriously want me to write that down?

WG: What?

ASM: Nothing…wow, that’s incredibly dorky Wes.

WG: I know (his head bowed) – but it really is a great series.

ASM: Riight. So what’s your story before entering the Corps?

WG: I was a PhD student in finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. At the 2 year mark in the program (after passing all our tests and research requirements) there is a natural break in the program and a transition from “school-focused” to “research-focused.” I saw this natural break as an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do–serve in the Marine Corps.

ASM: When did you get the idea for “Embedded?”

WG: While I was out there I kept a very detailed journal of day to day operations. Upon return, I put the journal in a more readable format so my wife and family could read through it. Eventually, they suggested I turn the journal into a book.

ASM: What are 5 things every U.S. service person should know when working with Iraqi army?


1. Iraqis are survivors and will beg, steal, and cheat if their future depends on it.

2. Iraqis are very judgmental–they assume Americans are selfish, Christian, and believe Muslims are second-class citizens.

3. Iraqis will die for you–IF you become part of their family

4. Patience is mandatory–everything takes 2-3x as long, so factor that into your planning cycle.

5. The Iraqi soldiers will never be US Marines–they don’t have the money, training, and cultural infrastructure to be a 21st fighting force…but all they need to be is better than the insurgents.

ASM: Explain man love Thursdays.

WG: Iraqi men are very touchy-feely. The soldiers will hold your hand, rub your belly, caress your shoulders, and make you feel very uncomfortable at times. The vast majority of these actions are not homosexual in nature; however, Iraqi soldiers do engage in homosexual activity and frequently joke about the practice.

ASM: Yes, I remember this (now taking a long drink). In the book, you have some stories about a wise interpreter you had, Moody. What was Moody’s view on power and democracy?

WG: Moody’s view (and most of the Iraqis I spoke to) is that democracy is a great idea in theory, but is unrealistic in Iraq at the current time. One of the beauties of democracy is that the majority rules and the minority follows. In Western societies, the minority accepts their position and peacefully tries to gain power via established political venues. However, in Iraq, the minority fights back with AK-47s and RPGs in their attempt to regain power. This is just how politics are done–via violence and domination. Unfortunately, democracy is dysfunctional when the minority is always shooting the majority in their attempts to get power.

ASM: What’s the difference between a young jundi (soldier) and a young Marine?

WG: Lot’s of similarities: love chow, love food, love complaining, brave, etc.

A few differences:

-The “young” jundi is typically 25-30yrs+ whereas the young Marine is usually 18-20

-less training

-less discipline

-more family pressure–jundi are usually the breadwinners for their entire family

ASM: What’s the biggest cultural difference between the U.S. and Iraq?

WG: The biggest difference that affects mission success is a fate-based viewpoint on life. Iraqis tend to have a belief–reinforced via Islam–that their path in the world is set and how things play out in their lives will not change based on how hard they work or the actions they take. This viewpoint makes it very difficult to motivate Iraqis–anything from convincing them to wear their protective gear to planning for a convoy mission.

ASM: What’s the most important lesson you learned in Iraq?

WG: My biggest takeaway is that cultural differences create huge frictions and costs that go largely unnoticed by strategic planners. I think it is easy for planners to quantify the costs and benefits of 50 tanks and 100 Special Forces soldiers, but it’s difficult to quantify costs/benefits of culture so this gets pushed under the rug. In the end, planners will systematically compare the benefits of a particular mission against a cost estimate that is underestimated because the cultural costs are not properly accounted for. My guess is that if strategic planners redid the cost/benefit analysis of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan AFTER proper accounting for the costs of dealing with culture, we would have chosen to not engage in these conflicts.

ASM: Huh?

WG: (Laughing.)

ASM: Seriously.

ASM: One last question buddy, and then I’ll let you get back to your family…do you miss the Marine Corps?

WG: I miss it all the time, but I also enjoy seeing my family everyday and thinking about non-military issues.

ASM: What’s next for you?

WG: I thought you said that was the last question?

ASM: I lied – just like I lied about the Lebanese bookie.

WG: Haha! Got it, ok…

ASM: What’s next for you?

WG: I have my three F’s: Family, fun, and finance. I hope to spend as much time as possible with my family. With respect to fun I hope to play as much golf as possible. And finally, for finance I hope to go on the academic job market this year–hopefully, I’ll be a finance professor at a top business school next year…Insh’allah.

ASM: Thanks Wes.

WG: Thank you Alex.

And then we stood in unison like it was the end of a great meeting of the Sheiks back in Haditha after hours of chai and circuitous banter. And then we gave each other that hand-shake that becomes the half hug that men like to do when they feel that something greater than a handshake is necessary – which after Haditha and a new daughter and running from Lebanese bookies, certainly was.

And the next day, on the way home from work, somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas, I called Mary Ripley…

“Mary, I talked to Wes Gray. I’ve got something good for you…”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Fundamental Wisdom of Mason Phelps.

Most military investigations I’ve read reveal that the mistakes we officers and staff NCO’s make can be traced to ignoring the fundamentals. Commander Scott Waddle, the skipper of the USS Greenville, as an example, ignored the fundamentals of boat-handling back in February 2001 when he conducted an emergency ascent demonstration without coming to periscope depth and clearing his surface waters. Those on the fishing vessel Ehime Maru paid dearly for this commander’s carelessness to the tune of 9 civilians killed.

Six months later the Greenville ran aground entering Saipan, and five months after that to the day, and less than a year after the Ehime Maru, the Greenville collided with the Ogden. I’m not sure of the details, but if I was a betting man (and I am, when the situation requires), I’d say each incident could be linked back to missing the fundamentals.

Some mistakes we make are deadly, others embarrassing, but most all mistakes can be altogether avoided by remembering the fundamentals we were taught day 1 in the forests of Quantico, on the bridge of our first ship, in the classrooms of Charleston, the beaches of Coronado, or the air-space of Pensacola. Why does something as easy as this slip our minds so frequently? Ego, complacency, insecurity, over-confidence, and negligence play a part. But ignoring the fundamentals is always at the heart of it all.

A story I was told recently about the fisherman’s $10 hook reminded me not to over think things and that everything in life – from fighting for a piece of some enemy’s terrain or a piece of some girl’s heart – comes down to the fundamentals. And this wasn’t my wisdom (it never is); this was the wisdom of Mason Phelps.

This story is not about our great fleet, our Marine Force, or logistics or terrorism or anything that specific or topical. This is a story about how I came to be reminded about the fundamentals at a very important time in my own career, at that dangerous time when we think we have our job figured out. This story reminded me how we must stay humble and hungry and eager to learn more and more and remain on-edge and that we must never fail the troops or sailors we work for in any instance that could otherwise be avoided. This is that special trust and confidence part. This story is also a reminder to our Navy’s leaders the importance of finding your own mentor or life coach. I’ve found this matters a great deal.

Ironically, (and in classical naval fashion) this story starts with a cold bottle of booze and laughter among friends. For these reasons, especially the part about never failing our Sailors or Marines, I wanted to share this story here; a brief account of Mason Phelps, the fundamentals and the $10 hook…

On Saturdays I drink an ice cold bottle of Sancerre at noon and eat fresh shrimp roasted in garlic and salt and a mahi steak served on a toasted bialy loaf with shredded lettuce and a sweet Cajun sauce. I order a bottle of Pellegrino, but usually only drink half. This restaurant is first a fish shop, but it feels like a provincial seaside café. It’s a small market, a perfect sort-of small and inside are black-and-white pictures of La Jolla’s fishermen legends and sailors and there are menus written in colorful chalk and also sturdy wooden chairs and tables that customers share when they sit down to eat, even if they don’t know each other. The employees here are the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered – all local surfers or divers, and all ocean enthusiasts. Joe makes beautiful pottery he sells far too inexpensively. There are a few more artists that work here too, I think. There are also some students.

I usually eat Saturday lunch in this place with my friends Andreas and Sid. We ridicule each other and talk about girls and the night before and plan for the night to come and drink icy-dry white wine and laugh and silently feel very happy we have each other as best friends to spend Saturdays with but never mention it because that would be far too sensitive a thing for young men to say. And so we ridicule each other and laugh and talk more about girls and the good lives we lead and how lucky we all are.

Light lunches go best with light conversation.

By one o’clock the icy-dry Sancerre has quenched my thirst and slowed my heart rate and for the first time that week I relax. By this time the sun is always over-head and bright and has burned away the last bit of morning layer fog which is this sea town’s natural blanket that visitors complain about, but that I love. Sid goes to swim or to box and Andreas to accomplish tasks he hasn’t the time for during a busy week or to Bikrams Yoga, and I go to Mason’s house to learn. Saturdays are best spent with close friends and icy-dry white wine and even better if you can learn a thing or two.

Mason Phelps is my life coach. He has also become one of my very best friends. His house is high on Mount Soledad, which is an impressive place in the world, in a wooded draw not far from mine, but on a much more inspiring street lined with enormous trees (I’m not sure which kind) and wildflowers and villas. I always use the side entrance, which I think over the years has become the front entrance, as is often the case when kind, easy-going, down-to-earth people find themselves in beautiful homes with many ways inside. I don’t have to ring the doorbell anymore, but I always call before I visit.

Mason greets me in the hallway. He extends his strong, tattooed arm for a handshake. I grab his hand and pull him to me for a bear hug. This feels more like two wrestlers clashing on the mat than a comforting exchange between friends, but it’s nice, nevertheless. Our hug is followed by some expletive (or series of expletives). I remind him he is a dirty-scum-bag-enlisted-Marine and he reminds me that I am a weak and feeble and worthless-aristocrat-Marine officer. We laugh, curse each other’s mother, and I follow him to his patio. That sort of banter is Marine-speak for “I love you.”

His patio is my classroom for the afternoon, though on other afternoons my classroom has been his office, or his garden, in his art galleries, or on his favorite tailor’s shop floor; of course there is the bar at the La Valencia Hotel, and the red leather booths of the Manhattan Room. These have all been my classrooms. And there is always wine or scotch to be had during class. But as is the case in any school, the classroom isn’t as important as the teacher. On this particular day my classroom was his patio and he poured me a rich, dark red wine and he knew that what he was going to teach me this day was going to change my life, but I didn’t know that yet. What I did know was how much I loved Saturdays. And that my teacher was a force of nature.

Mason Phelps is in his early 80s and built like a bare-knuckle Irish prize fighter. He has strong, broad shoulders, a square jaw, considerable hands with rugged knuckles and lean legs. His skin is a firm, tan leather and his eyes are crystal blue and sea grey and wise and set deep into his head. He walks with a natural toughness and confidence that reminds me of Churchill’s gait. He speaks in gruff cadence and with such unique inflection I find him captivating and stage-worthy. He is quick with a big smile, a big story and a perfectly placed (big) curse word.

He is not like most of us who are (not sadly or apologetically, but truly) nothing very special. Mason Phelps is a character you would expect from the pages of the Great Gatsby, or better yet from the Green Hills of Africa or The Sun Also Rises; but Mason is much better than any character in those works because they are characters of fiction and Mason is a real character and the truest spirit I know or could ever hope to know in a man that is real and not my own father or the creation of Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, or Ernest Hemmingway himself.

Beneath the scars that 80 years of hunting, football, the Marine Corps, war with the Japanese, bar-fighting, factory work, mountaineering, business, adventure skiing, world travel, deep sea fishing, and living life hard and fast and with deep passion and meaning, (as man was intended to live), beneath the buckskin tattooed arms, and the strong back and barrel chest…beneath it all, is the most perceptive, kind, buoyant, magnificent and complete heart in all the world. And certainly the finest on all of Mount Soledad.

Life’s education always starts beneath our scars.

Throughout his 80 some years Mason has balanced his rugged and aggressive and restless leanings with a natural kindness, a powerful intellect, an enthusiastic disposition and other soft traits that are necessary for great men to possess, but not appropriate to write about or discuss unless in the company of only close friends and family, or with the permission of the man himself; permission which will never be granted so long as that man is a Marine and has tattoos and buckskin and a barrel chest.

But it is true that Mason did change throughout the course of his life, as some of us do; while some of this change was his own doing, most of this change was the result of the love of an even more powerful and impressive woman, his wife Elizabeth. And though the story of how a petite and beautiful and amazing Greek American women from Pittsburg and her equally wonderful and beautiful daughters helped to calm and captivate this restive man’s heart is one of my favorites, the story of what happens after I drink icy-dry white wine and the fog burns away and I climb Mount Soledad to his home on a particular Saturday afternoon to learn about the fundamentals is the story I set out to tell.

To tell this story completely I have to go back to my first deployment to Iraq where I first saw a battle-hardened battalion march through the dust on the edge of our empire. Returning from this place, a place then lost to time and Western ethics and virtues, was a life-altering experience. I did not return cynical or defeated. I did not return angry or resentful. I returned older and with stories of adventures of what was not everyone’s experience in that war, but what were certainly mine. There was sadness too, but a man’s life is nothing without some kind of great sadness. And this is how my heart felt when I met Mason for the first time…older, and just a little sad.

Meeting a life coach at a time when your heart turns older and becomes just a little sad is necessary, though I didn’t know this at the time. And what I felt on that Saturday when I first met Mason Phelps is the same thing that I have felt every Saturday since, and luckily (but by choice and perhaps by no luck at all) my heart has become less and less sad.

Mason does not teach me how to be a father or a husband or even a man. He is not instructive or didactic with his life lessons. That has been my own father’s job, and he has been a masterful mentor to his two sons and is my hero for it. Mason teaches me in the Socratic manner and all about life’s other things. The answers are always mine to discover, though he knows the outcome and never tells.

In this way, Mason has taught me about art and literature and politics and history and friendship. In his garden we discuss government and culture. In his kitchen (and with Liz in the other room) we rant about the Marine Corps and beautiful girls. In his office we discuss history and religion and the American West. On his patio we discuss love and life and all things pertaining to the exploits of deep-sea fishing, hard-nose business, Mark Twain and a man’s strength of character. No matter the subject, and no matter the place the subject is discussed, the moral of the lesson Mason wishes to teach me remains the same: it’s all about the fundamentals.

This particular Saturday, after I was done with the icy-dry white Sancerre and after Niko had left to box and Andreas to accomplish the tasks at hand and after I had climbed the hill to Mason’s house, the subject and the moral of my lesson were the same. On this day the story was the $10 hook.

You'll recall I entered through the side of the house (as I always do), and that I had met Mason with expletives and a wrestler’s hug and more expletives which meant “I love you.” And that today I followed him to our classroom which was his patio and that there he poured me rich, red wine which always tastes good in the later part of any afternoon. And you’ll remember that my heart was older now, and still sad, though not nearly as sad as it was before I had met Mason Phelps. This is the way that Saturday was – the day his lesson was the most uncompromising and honest and simple and important of them all.

Mason started by telling me about shapes and forms and proceeded to discuss all quantity and space and structure and change. He told me that these things are best understood by mathematics. He told me that mathematics was the mechanism by which the complexity of nature became plain. He said the fundamentals began here, at that unique point in the universe where the confusing could be reduced to the unconfusing, to integers and symbols, and 0s and 1s; except he said all of this differently and in his unique way which I cannot recreate in prose because I am not that good of a writer. He told me that this understanding of things only began here, because life was never as easy as integers and equations, even though I told him I thought it ought to be.

He agreed, and we laughed, though I was quite serious, but didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my place to say anything during this lesson. I had too much to learn.

Mason looked into the afternoon sky and he told me that everything that matters in life – from the men I now lead, to the love I will one day love; from economics, religion, politics, family, philosophy and culture, to war, literature, health, friendship, art, and science – must be approached from the most fundamental angle, and understood by the most fundamental method…

And then he looked me into my eyes and asked me if I understood and I said that I did.

To illustrate his point further, he told me a wonderful story. (No one tells good stories anymore, except for Andreas’ older brother Niko, who is one of the best story tellers I know.)

“A guy starts tuna fishing off San Diego,” he said as he sank back in his chair.

I poured myself more wine and listened closely.

“And he spends half a dozen years and tens of thousands of dollars learning how to catch these tuna so that one day he can hunt big marlin. Soon enough he is ready for big marlin and for Mexico and all that went with such an adventure. This guy spends thousands of dollars on first class plane tickets, and even more on new reels and rods and even more still on the finest boat and crew and a captain who knows exactly where the marlin swim. And he goes to sea and spends days on the boat, and finally the marlin come, and he catches one, and wrestles it for hours…until his hook snaps, and the marlin swims away, along with all of the other marlin. And as the boat turns about and they make their way back to the harbor, the ship’s captain tells him what he already knows to be true, ‘so many thousands of dollars spent, so much time and money wasted, when all that really failed was a simple $10 hook…a fisherman must never forget the fundamentals: the quality of his hook.’ And the fisherman said: ‘Yes, yes, I remembered so much, but I forgot to check the hook.’ ‘And that’s the thing about life,’ he continued to say, but this time to himself, ‘so much time and money spent on so many things – I too often forget to check the hook.’”

Mason looked at me, and I told him I understood the story of the hook and the importance of checking the foundation and of the fundamentals. And he told me that was good, though his eyes told me that he knew I was still going to screw up later in my life something that had to do with the fundamentals, but that this was ok, because making honest mistakes was how I was going to grow.

Later that month, and on a different sort-of Saturday in a different sort-of place, I told the fine men in my platoon Mason’s story about the hook after returning from a 30 mile hike into the Sierra Nevada Mountains in which a few forgot to bring their ponchos and it hailed and rained and they were without the most simple piece of equipment despite their two hundred dollar boots and millions of dollars of training and weeks of preparation…the poncho was this mission’s “hook” – and it was all about the fundamentals.

We agreed, as a family during our mission debrief, that we couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes when it came to checking our hooks or with the fundamentals.

I think the boys liked Mason’s story which has become the foundation of my life and most importantly the foundation of this Force Reconnaissance Platoon. And I think this should be the foundation of every section, squad, division or platoon in the Navy and Marine Corps.

I haven’t told Mason this part of the story yet, but I think when he hears it he will laugh and not be surprised at all; I think he’ll call me names with curse words and try to put me in a head lock for not telling the guys the story of the hook before the long mountain patrol. (This will be another way for him to say “I love you.”) But really I think he’ll be happy that I have listened to his wisdom, even though he would never call it that.

I’m not sure what there is to learn this Saturday (there’s always something), but nothing could ever be as important as the fundamentals and hearing the simple story of the hook after icy-dry Sancerre and laughing with my friends.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An exhale...

COME, said my Soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after death invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on,
Ever and ever yet the verses owning - as, first, I here and now,
Signing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,


Sunday, June 28, 2009

The High Energy Physics of Warfighting: Infantry Officer’s Course, Gravity and other things.

Tonight I listened to a presentation on the universe and the way of things by Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s own legendary space exploration project manager, Tony Spear. He discussed the Mars Pathfinder Mission. Einstein. Darwin. Newton. Curiosity. Gravity. Human consciousness. Systems engineering and String Theory. Literally the “ups and downs” of things. We listened, awe struck, to explanations of those far away cosmic lights we so often gaze, half drunk, half amazed. It was a magical evening – the rare sort where different people gathered from different backgrounds to meet a differential calculus that left us agreeing: oh my, how small we are. And how much the very same.

As a final question, one astute listener asked of the electrical engineer: Why does the science of man evolve so wonderfully, and the morality of man so malevolently? The audience paused. And listened. Tony reminded us we are humans, mere mortals, composed of DNA and matter and particles tied to a universe and a universe beyond our own universe and that perhaps our violent nature, though chemical and natural, could be overcome by altruism, education, and science. And, as a group I think, we breathed that wonderful sort of exhale we remembered breathing as young students some time ago who sat before the rare professor that affected us so deeply. And we paused, reflected, learned, and walked off, better.

After the talk, I had the chance to speak with Tony Spear. We discussed important things like robotics, good family, the future of warfighting, fine scotch and curvy women. His mind worked much faster than mine, so I emphasized the fine scotch, and poured him another. In between his captivating thoughts on mathematics and the cosmos, we discussed the human element of combat, the nature of man, and moral philosophy. A two-piece band spun Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” from the outside patio. And the universe around us chaotically expanded and violently contracted while we drank, and laughed and learned. And my mind went to where it always goes when Jameson grabs a hold of my heart…the Marine Corps.

As the band played, and the cocktails flowed, I related to Tony what I felt where the limitations of technology on the modern day battlefield. A complex computer system can hover at 15,000 feet and capture images of men and donkeys crossing the Syrian border into Iraq near the Sinjar Mountains…but only a trained sergeant behind a long scope in an uncomfortable hide site can observe those same men and report the human element. That they have sweat coming from their brow, not a physical sweat, but a nervous sweat. That their movements are erratic, unnatural, and anxious. The computer in the rover at 15,000 feet has told the commander that two men are crossing the border at 2 in the morning. The sergeant in the hide site has told that same commander that two men have crossed the border, and are “suspicious”…they’re marked…15 minutes later a CAAT team intercepts those men 4 miles outside of Sinjar City. They’re carrying weapons, maps, and Al Qaeda propaganda. The limits of science, for now anyway, are apparent: it takes a human process to identify a human process.

And so I think this much is true: one day we might just have an algorithm that will train a computer system to think like a fighter pilot, or a ship’s navigator…but until that day comes, we need the well-trained human fighter pilot in the dog fight, the human ship’s navigator in the sea’s violent storm…because combat, on land and sea, is a complex sequence of human emotions and human processes, the likes of which no super-computer can negotiate. And this is a part of the complex physics of warfare.

Second Lieutenants are taught these physics - the science, art and dynamic of war - deep in the hills of Quantico, Virginia: how to accomplish my mission, and survive. The Greeks called the method to accomplishing a goal techne, literally craftsmanship. The Marines call it knowing your stuff. Whatever you call it, this is how they distinguish themselves from the Army’s infantry schools: adherence to a flexible doctrine of speed and violence centered on Maneuver, not attrition.

The Infantry Officer Course is the world’s foremost graduate school of this form of combat: Maneuver Warfare. Headquartered in an unornamented brick building, discretely located beyond the larger halls of the Basic Officer Course, most basic students pass by the hall with a quiet reverence for the training that takes place here. The walls are made of concrete blocks, painted hospital white and filled with pictures of past graduates, heroes, reminding students of those who came before them. Quite literally the God’s and Generals of the infantry. Leave your Oprah culture sensitivities, self-help literature and coffee cups whose lids warn its contents are “hot” at the door - this is the church of violence.

Before students enter the hall for their indoctrination brief they pass a very appropriate adage written in ominous black script: Those are best who survive the severest of schools. In that hall, and in the forests beyond, the handpicked warrior cadre bring a human dimension to Thucydides’ meditation, and dedicate more than three months to imbue them with three simple tenets and instill in them an overarching warrior ethos: Shoot. Move. Communicate. All the rest is taking care of your Marines.

All the rest, students learn, is a matter of internalizing a violently seductive and explicitly necessary warrior ethos, an Elegant violence, while maintaining a moral commitment to mutually competing events, and emotions.

The Marine Corps infantry is tribal. It has to be. Tempering the violence, while maintaining aggressiveness means the junior commander must be grounded by an unteachable moral commitment that is exhausting, unrelenting, and absolutely imperative to his tribe. This is elegant violence. Between firing machine guns, guiding fire from close air support and hiking miles with a hundred pounds of gear in exhausting terrain, conversations among students turn to just this, the conversations of “all the rest.” All these things, and a million things in between, are what students learn at the graduate school of combat leadership. Nothing you’d ever see on Oprah, but that you always wish you would…here students become their own self-help mechanism. And there is something very pure about all this, conversations held behind camouflaged faces stuffed with Copenhagen in dirty utilities, starving, half way through the most tiring event of their life. This is the sort of informal curriculum offered by the graduate school of combat leadership.

But “all of rest” is only able to take place because of the school’s foundation of formal instruction. It is their common language, such a thing is a requirement for all professionals. The students at IOC quickly realize that every religion has a church, every church a tribe, every tribe a holy book – the religion was America, no one doubted that, but the church was violence, the tribe, the infantry, the scripture, maneuver, and their sacred trust was to the men whom they would soon serve. In an age when one so easily suffocates among the inane, the hyper-sensitive, the pessimistic, the cynical-self-loathing and weak-spirited critics, worshiping such things breathes life and adventure into their restless hearts.

This holy book, the professional literature behind the infantry skills and warrior tribalism taught at IOC, is Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting. It teaches Maneuver, the lifeblood of the naval infantry: How friction, uncertainty, danger, fatigue, fear, complexity, disorder and violence can be overcome by fluidity, boldness, communication, initiative, responsiveness, creativity, and strong will. The application of our strength, it reads, against a selected enemy’s weakness in order to maximize advantage – this is the aim. To this end the maneuverist requires both speed and surprise.

MCDP-1 is very clear about this. The only problem is that in today’s counter-insurgency fight we require more than a science – more than even an art and a dynamic. We require more than “speed” in operation and more than “surprise” in the attack. The junior commander on today’s battlefield requires an understanding of physics. Fusion of art, science and dynamic is just this sort of physics and this is what is required - a complete incorporation of the principles of high energy physics: a theory of everything.

OIF I was a fantastic example of the art, science and dynamic of war unfolding to completion – and victoriously. Even OIF II, highlighted by sustained kinetic fights on the streets of Fallujah and the cemeteries of Najaf, carries a more conventional legacy. Counter-insurgency however, which has defined OIF III, and OIF IV, is less about killing the enemy, and more about, as historian Max Boot has said, identifying the enemy. The tactical complexities that the Marines of the Anbar daily find themselves in is one that transforms from ‘potential energy’ to fully kinetic to potential and back again within seconds. This situation requires more than artful leadership, scientific execution and dynamic planning by platoon commanders. This counter insurgency fight requires combat physicists who maintain the legacy of the artists and scientists of wars past who taught, rightfully so, that the 2-dimensional battlefield was now a 3-dimensional battlespace but who also implement and improve on tactics that reflect an appreciation for the contemporary counter insurgency paradigm, one that requires a 4-dimensional approach. Simply put, high energy physics is the new techne.

The “high energy physics” approach to battle would amend MCDP-1 to reflect such changes…because it not only applies to the counter-insurgency fight, but also to more conventional situations. The amendments, best highlighted in terms of the Six Warfighting Functions (Maneuver, Intelligence, Logistics, Command and Control, Fires, and Force Protection), would include the use of some real world physics: the theory of time/space, the use of mathematical models to reconstruct and predict the enemy’s planning cycle, and the application of velocity in combat, to name a few.

Take maneuver. As taught we fight in a left/right, up/down, front/back battlespace. Three dimensions. The reality is that we fight in a 4D battlespace. This is the understanding that the 3-D world unfolds within the framework of TIME. It is not enough to think about the enemy in a 3-D context, as we do, we have to arrive at our assumptions of his movement and his will in terms of the expiration of current time and the value he assigns to soon-to-come time. The counter-insurgency fight is a struggle against this time…the enemy’s time must become your time. Now you have the initiative. Each patrol, each checkpoint, each raid is more so a factor of the enemy’s own planning cycle, his own appreciation and measure of time. The science of war as applied from MCDP-1 teaches us a 3-D approach to warfare, the physics of warfare teaches a 4-D approach that is vital to success of small unit operations in theatre.

And intelligence? Intel literally drives the small unit leader’s operations in the world of counter-insurgency. MCDP-1 does not disagree, but teaches the value of intelligence is in our planning, incorporated to build OUR greater tactical and operational picture. A “high energy physics” approach favors intelligence that takes real form, as a scientific model or a tactical barometer or a re-usable equation – a mechanism used to predict the not-so unpredictable decision making cycles and planning processes of the enemy, thereby building THEIR greater tactical and operational picture for us by reconstructing the enemy’s intent allowing us to construct our plan accordingly. A “high energy physics” approach then, favors the design of an algorithm which puts us at the center of their planning meetings, not our own, which are usually really long and kind of boring anyway.

As for ‘command and control’, MCDP-1 preaches the importance of speed. Speed is certainly an essential element of warfighting and in a more kinetic, conventional fight, perhaps speed is decisive. But in a counter-insurgency fight speed can be dangerous. Speed here requires direction. Speed with direction is velocity. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of your decision making cycle, or the speed of your maneuver, or the speed of an infinitesimal amount of factors unfolding at an unprocessable rate layered by the direction of your order, or the direction of your squad’s position, or the direction you give the uncontrollable factor of time that is threatening to consume your initiative, and your 3-dimensional posture in an intolerant 4-dimensional moment in TIME. Combat velocity recognizes that counter-insurgency fast becomes the ‘combat infinity’ and can only be leveraged to a position of advantage if the speed of the environment and the speed of your decision making cycle is given an appropriate direction. Speed is no longer enough. Despite the chaos of the combat infinity, the small unit commander can affect any situation by bringing a degree of order in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction.

And of course there are “fires” – which are now kinetic (indirect or air support) and non-kinetic (psychological operations, media, etc) but all still a matter a physics: force (or desired effects) still equals mass X acceleration. Think about it. In a kinetic and non-kinetic world, “high energy physics” is changing how we should be interpreting the teachings of our holy book. Even the “logistics” warfighting function requires a look from a physics perspective…if you’ve ever tried to get a supply clerk to move quickly or watched a request chit meander up and around the chain of command, you’re familiar with a very Newtonian reality: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force, usually this looks a lot like the boot of a motivated staff non-commissioned officer on the behind of a not-so-motivated lance corporal.

A “high energy physics” approach to Maneuver Warfare is, ultimately, a fusion of the art, science, and dynamic of maneuver warfare beyond the kinetic and conventional world of small unit operation taught in MCDP-1. Since the Marine Corps is fundamentally an organization of mutually supporting small units with a rich history in unconventional small wars, it is time to amend our holy book – if such a thing can be done – to reflect what physics has always been telling us all along…that time is everything, that speed is nothing without direction, and that while we will never be able to define ‘infinity’ we can approach an understanding of it…oh yeah, and that the answers to all of these questions will never be found on Oprah, in a self-help book, or in an aimless and drunk harangue from a grumpy and cynical undergraduate, but rather in those conversations of “all the rest” in the infantry officer’s Church of Violence and soon empirically, in those faraway and unforgiving streets where the only peace was yesterday.

And I think men of science like Tony Spear would relate well to this view of things…that the world we know is ever-changing, and dynamic, and violent and requires men who stand before such change and demand missions to mars and close air support. Because at the end of the day such things as Einstein, Darwin, Nimitz, Halsey, Newton, Curiosity, Gravity, Courage, Human consciousness, Systems engineering, a fine Fleet, String Theory and Maneuver Warfare share one thing in common to both physicist and warrior…they are quite literally the “ups and downs” of things, and deserve a moment’s thought and well-deserved exhale. And while even Tony Spear could not answer why we evolve so wonderfully in our science and so slowly in our morality, he certainly affirmed the importance of the education of both scientist and warrior. And the physics we share.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A classic moment in broadcasting...

Every man has experienced the breaking point.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fighting Fires, revisited.

I originally wrote “Fighting Fires” in map pen on the back of a patrol order I had given to my squad leaders on the afternoon of 26 October 2006. It was later posted online for the three people that read my column. I also read it to my platoon as a response to their friends and family who would lecture them on the rights and wrongs of Iraq…”just tell them you fight fires.” I thought this would be an appropriate follow-on piece to last week’s 58 Words.

My intent with last week’s article was not to say, (as an American) “here’s what happened in Iraq and why it was right,” but rather (as a Marine) “what happened in Iraq, happened…things are going well, it should be talked about more, I’m happy.”

While it is quite appropriate (and important) that the citizen-reader voice his or her opinion on Iraq (a costly issue both in lives and treasure), I don’t think it is appropriate for an active duty Marine Corps officer (like me), to do the same. And so last week I removed myself from the follow-on debate on my Naval Institute posting.

The truth is I find great strength in maintaining my bearing as a political agnostic. At least as long as my affinity for Jameson and spontaneous travel are being bank rolled by a paycheck from the Department of the Navy anyway.

Simply put, my duty is to my mission (whatever, wherever and whenever that may be) and my Marines. Period. End of story. So while I won’t comment directly on the after-math of 58 Words, I will share with you something I believed back as a bright-eyed Lieutenant and still believe as I write this as a balding Captain: the men and women of the armed services fight fires…always have, always will. This is a story about Iraq, violence, politics, fires, and going at it with your boots on…

When five firefighters from the San Jacinto Ranger Station were overwhelmed by flames in the Esperanza fires on the 26th of October the first report I heard was that “five firefighters have just died trying to protect an abandoned house.” How sad, I thought. What a shame. How terrible those five men gave their lives for a deserted piece of property.

Later that afternoon an ambitious news team climbed to a canyon bluff overlooking the fire. The footage they captured made my heart stop. The inferno was fierce, violent, and just plain frightening. It consumed acres of arid land in minutes, leaping entire roads, and canyons slowing for a moment, only to catch the wind like a ginger sail and gain speed again towards the next home or terrain feature. There was a certain rhythm to the blaze – the kind of violent rhythm familiar to many Marines – it was the rhythm of chaos and fear. As I watched this footage, paralyzed by the sheer force of what I saw, I realized something about the men who laced up their boots that morning to meet this chaos, something very powerful, and strangely calming:

The men of Engine 57 did not die protecting an abandoned house, they died fighting fires.

This is a very important distinction I think, and it has everything to do with the men and women who put it on the line everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the one hand, yes, the firefighters were in vicinity of an abandoned home when they fell; so in a sense, they died protecting a deserted home. But there’s an important distinction here – they did not die for the home. The home was simply the front line, the line of departure from which these men decided to fight the blaze. That house was the fault line, a professional chasm which divided those who did not have the training, material, and duty to fight fires, and those who did. That day violence put down the five brave men who did.

It’s hard for some Americans to deal with the notion that people in these positions (police officers, firefighters, and military personnel) know exactly what they are putting on the line and the sacrifice that daily hangs in the balance in the routine execution of their duties.

Maybe it’s because some Americans tend to view these things through a complex social lens of politics, materialism, religion, and determinism. Maybe it’s because they heard the same news report I did that morning and didn’t tune in for the footage of the actual fire. Or maybe they saw the footage and still saw it as hollow.

Whatever the case, when the list of dead and wounded come in each day from the front lines of our Long War, these same Americans think what I did when I heard the first the reports of the San Jacinto firemen: How sad. What a shame. How terrible that they gave their lives in such a way, for such a thing, in such a place.

The story of the men of Engine 57 is a reminder to all of us that these men, like those firefighters, were in the offense when they fell, facing head on hundreds of degrees of violence, and chaos, and madness. They died while faithfully executing the duties to which they had so meticulously trained. They died with their boots laced, and their eyes forward. They died on duty.

As reports come in of our protectors killed in action across the world we owe it to their memory to acknowledge perhaps the darkest of truths and the greatest of hopes: That fires and wars will always rage but, as Thucydides wrote, that there are men who see this violence and yet still go out to meet it, is our greatest hope. Hope grows from this dark truth, right from the dark soil of our own human condition: some will only ever see an abandon home in Esperanza, or an impossible democracy in Iraq, while others will see in this very same instance a front line for fighting fires.

Many kinds of people fight fires too…everyday. No doctor, nurse or corpsman, for example, can stop in the middle of a surgery to question the morality of a “just war”. Just as we cannot lay down our rifle during a gun fight. Their morality is that patient beneath their steady hand, and trained eye. Their morality is to heal, not to question why there is healing to be done. A Marine’s is to seek battle, not to ask why there are battles to be had.

And there is something pure in all of this, in fighting fires. There is something pure about a 19 year old with a colt rifle, a dip of Copenhagen, and a raw sense of courage. It’s every bit as pure as our apolitical resignation to our duty as killer and healer, each with an end to our means. Each with doubts and fears and questions, but each with, above all else, a common understanding that beneath these uniforms there lies a heart that cares for something and someone other than themselves.

This is the way our protectors would want to be remembered – it’s the way I would want to be remembered – not piteously, that we were killed by a roadside bomb or a well placed sniper round, not gloriously, as Hollywood depicts, but honestly and without sadness…that we fell in the line of duty with every expectation of our own fate, our boots laced and our eyes forward doing what it was we trained to do all along,

Fight fires.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

58 Words.

In the Tuesday May 26th edition of the Wall Street Journal Iraq was mentioned only once. Precisely fifty-eight words on page A13. Below the fold. Only five dozen words and a few inches of column space that day on Trade Minister Falah al-Sudani’s resignation amidst allegations of corruption. On the Journal’s front page, news of Pyongyang’s pomposity, an article on “The Culture of Bling” (lamenting that hard times have hobbled Hip-Hop artists’ ability to buy diamonds and gold), and a center-page expose on our own crack-down on corporate bribes, corruption and scandal. This front page layout confirmed what I already knew: the North Koreans are unpredictable, “The Culture of Bling” is ridiculous, and corruption in government is not limited to Baghdad. And just fifty-eight words on Iraq.

All of this struck me as interesting (and sad and shameful) because there is actually a wealth of good news to report from Iraq these days and the American public isn’t hearing these stories. Instead of “good news from the front”, the stories that received the ink and press real estate that day in the Journal (and every other paper of record for that matter) were features on American Idol, drug abuse in baseball, and another plunge on Wall Street.

These days, fifty-eight words on a corrupt Iraqi Trade Minister. Just 18 months ago, 5800 words on civil war, death, chaos, ethno-sectarian violence and the aimless Iraq war that would have no chance for victory. Pundits would daily pound soft fists on keyboards in passionate defense of why America would lose in Iraq. And at times they were right. We did enter the war with bad intelligence. The Bush Administration did choose to focus on WMD. The Pentagon did not predict the effects of a post-invasion peace, a disbanded army, home-grown violence or Al Qaeda infiltration. The State Department did not have the answer to the challenges of Kirkuk, the rough tides of ancient tribal politics, or introducing democracy to the non-secular Islamic masses. And the Bush Administration never seemed to deliver a clear message to the American public. Things were bad. They often are in war. But things got better…and the stories stopped.

What happened in Iraq since 2005 and why is no one writing about it?

What happened was a lot of things all at once. Al Qaeda over-played their hand, destroyed the Askariya Shrine, revealed a truly corrupt and bankrupt ethos, and alienated Sunni sympathizers; Sunni and Shiite battled each other in the streets of Baghdad, tired, and sought détente; SOCOM relentlessly pursued high value collaborators and enemy leadership; the Sons of Iraq patrolled their neighborhoods and pushed AQI to the seams, Marines and Soldiers walked the earth during the Surge; security tightened; violence dropped by 80%; the Iraqi army grew and was trained; local governments moved forward; the population eased; 300 new businesses started in the first half of 2008 alone; schools re-opened; oil revenue grew; refugees moved home and literally scores of other pivotal factors and turning points of personality, social condition, money-politics, tribal diplomacy, a lot of time, a little luck, and a inestimable degree of hard work and sacrifice by thousands upon thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, happened.

As for why no one is writing about Iraq these days, I see two reasons: 1.) Journalists aren’t historians and 2.) Integrity is lost in the main stream media.

To start, journalists are professionals trained in the art of capturing a single moment. They lack the historian’s eye trained to capture and make sense of a series of moments. Where the pundits, politicians and journalists have always found the chaos of war anomalous, historians have always understood it as the way of things. Historians understand that beneath the fabric of that chaos are the factors and conditions that will determine outcome, or in some cases, have determined outcome.

Historians will write their judgments of Iraq once they gain the perspective they require to complete their complex calculus. Journalists don’t have that kind of time. The Iraq story is less-violent, less-messy, and less-provocative than it was last year. It’s altogether less-interesting. And so they turn to more marketable stories of American Idol pageantry, Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring, and greedy Wall Street tycoons drying off from their morning shower with piles of your 401k money.

And while this is all very frustrating, I get it. Totally understandable. Cash, violence, and live entertainment…what can I say, I’m a Marine, it sounds like a good night of liberty. But then there’s this lack of integrity thing, which is a little harder to stomach.

If journalism was in fact a business first, it would make sense to me that they write whatever it takes to sell papers (about things like drugs, violence and bankers showering with money, for example). But I don’t think journalism is about business first. I think journalism is about discovery first. It’s about honest and fair reporting. It’s about digging up stories, holding people accountable and other things I can’t remember.

I do remember what Bob Woodward told me when I met him back in 2003 as a Midshipman in Admiral Crowe’s National Security Studies class at Annapolis. He told me that a free press is the bedrock of any free nation and that journalists should aspire to be the watch dogs of this country. I also remember thinking he had a nicely cut grey suit, great hair and that he must have had plenty of pretty girls chase after him in his day.

But the steel-eyed and measured approach of an iconic Woodward is lost to a bumbling and soft new age. And what we have is a story in Iraq that isn’t over being lived, but finished being told. While it is true we are morally, fiscally, spiritually, politically (and really in all ways) exhausted with Iraq, there is still reporting to be done. Integrity includes “finish what you started,” “dance with the girl ya brung”, or any related measure of sound southern wisdom. Americans are still fighting this war. Still losing sons and daughters. We still have a great stake in how this story ends and deserve to hear how it unfolds.

And then I wonder if editors across the nation missed a chance to write 5800 words on the great progress in Iraq? Or if the Wall Street Journal got it right in what their fifty-eight words implied and only a few short years ago I would have never believed:

Today a member of the Government of Iraq (an internationally recognized government most said could never exist) broke the law (a law that was ratified by a democratically elected Iraqi Congress in an open election) and will be tried before his fellow citizens (with due process and the full rights of the accused) and if found guilty (in an independent Iraqi court), will be held accountable for his offense.

Now that I read it this way, fifty-eight words was just enough.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mountains of Hope. A book review, of sorts.

Last night I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy. It was a good film screened with an unexpected personal consequence: softness. I can’t explain it exactly. I just started acting all emotional and sensitive. I was feeling all touchy and weird and squishy – like I needed to drive to the nearest grocery store and put all of the shopping carts back, kiss a kitten, or start recycling. I’m a Marine, and feelings like this just aren’t good for business.

I needed something that would shake this new-found compassion out of me. I headed for my scotch cabinet, had a liberal pouring to match my liberal pourings and picked up a book on global espionage and retired CIA agent Bob Baer's expedition throughout Southwest Asia in the mid-1990s. Something like this usually does the trick, lots of girls, lots of guns. Lots of other things. But somewhere between tales of isolated Russian outposts and rouge Taliban fighters, Baer revealed a unique place far and away in the world – the Soghdiana. It was an unpredictably beautiful tale (damn). And I was stuck. And I did what comes natural…nothing. And kept on reading. And kept on drinking. And kept on reading. And drinking…

Baer’s story describes the inhabiting tribe, the Yaghnobi, as unique in that they are predominantly Muslim but instead of praying toward Mecca they pray facing the highest peak, which they consider the jumping off point to heaven. Cradled by some of the most remarkable mountains in the world, theirs must seem a true kingdom of heaven.

The Yaghnobi believe that they've been sheltered from three millennia of strife, famine, war and disease by the glaciers and mountains that surround them. And so far their tribe's traditions have survived despite global revolutions of industry, technology and information and even the implacable tides of war.

By Western standards, the Yaghnobi are primitive. They have no monuments commemorating the discovery of new worlds, no memorials to those who have inspired change through art or music, no shrines to generals or deities. The Yaghnobi don't even have running water or electricity – to say nothing of education or modern medicine. This strikes me as tragic.

After some thought, and some time (at this moment) spent away from the din of hands-free cell phones, octuplets, and apart from the new world reality of Al Sadr's militias and Zimbabwe’s 2,000 percent inflation rate, I admit with a healthy respect – it must be nice to have such a pleasingly simple world view.

In the West we celebrate an individual’s pluck and a society's evolution: exploration, social and economic progress, personal liberties, collective freedoms, creative genius, risk taking, courage and creativity of all kinds.

In the West we look at the Yaghnobis' mountain peak and wonder “what lies beyond?” That's always been our perspective—to look beyond. This must be the perspective of a people constantly on guard, constantly at war. In the complexity of our “mountain” we have forged a distinct national character.

The Yaghnobi see the very same mountain peak and ask what lies within. Theirs is the perspective of a people removed from history's revolutions and war's tides. In the simplicity of their mountain-perspective they've forged a remarkable cultural oasis.

I celebrate the varied cultural threads of our national fabric, which is, by the Framers' design, complex. This complexity—this elegant untidiness—is what Whitman so aptly referred to as America’s "athletic democracy." Our society has been deeply enriched by many diverse cultures, but remains, at its core, Western.

Ours is a unique Republic firmly rooted in the rule of law, individual liberties, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature, secularism, the free market and also (let's be honest), Reality TV, Monday Night Football and a good cup of Starbucks coffee. As such, I think there's an important lesson to be learned from the Yaghnobi.

Every day we all struggle to climb our own personal mountain. We struggle with what best course to take in life — things like how best to support our children and ageing parents, pay off our credit cards, keep our marriages or relationships intact and our jobs in place…and other things like how to be decent people and happy.

As Marines, it's not only combat itself we struggle with, but also the choices we're forced to make in life’s battle. This Fight (capital F) binds. These are our mountains. We've been bred as warriors to relish that life is a struggle and that mountains were not made to be prayed to or sat before – but that mountains were made to be climbed.

The Yaghnobis' world suggests different; that we may be able to succeed without so much struggle — or that we might at least benefit by taking the occasional pause. Of course this requires that we redefine what we mean by "succeed." We’ll never get very far when their “pause” means our “regret” and their “exhale” means our “weakness.”

No matter the definition, I think that what we are to learn from the Yaghnobi relates to our identity and how we lead our lives. We are to learn that adding some “pause” to our diet will boost the individual and collective “hunger” we so celebrate, not curb it. We are to learn that if, from time to time, we take a break between mountains to ask questions of each other and ourselves, we might just discover an even greater strength that lies within…something I think the politicians on both aisles-sides are sorting out as we speak…that no matter if ours is a mountain of hope or a mountain of bullshit, or, quite frankly, a mountain of both – that the mountain is ours for the climbing. And a great mountain is best climbed after a greater pause.

April is Over.

Coming home from Iraq took 26 hours and 13 minutes. Actually it took 110 hours and 22 minutes but that includes C17 flights, bus rides, tent dwelling, and the semi-conscious two step that is the hallmark of military travel. Our flight plan was an absolute nightmare and had me convinced one of us had probably slept with the DoD travel rep's sister. How else can one explain being routed from Iraq to Kuwait, Kuwait to Germany, Germany to Iceland, Iceland to Canada, Canada to Chicago, and Chicago to Riverside? Clearly someone was screwing us for past wrong screwings. Redeployment is military speak for the process of going from point A to point B via points C, D, and E.

We arrived on base at 230 am on a Monday morning. We turned in our weapons and were greated in darkness with some signs, dozens of adorable midgets running to the arms of their fathers, and a big cake that read: Congratulations! But was spelled wrong. The crowd dispersed in minutes leaving behind myself, tossed signs, and a misspelled cake. I didn't have the heart to call my folks to warn them of the early pick-up, though I know they wouldn't have minded, so I grabbed a case of beer and went into my office. I opened my laptop, saw that I had 647 emails, closed my laptop, went into the passageway, sat on my sea bag and cracked opened an ice cold beer. Dark became light and sober became drunk. Coming home is an anti-climax. But no one cares, because we're home.

Soon enough I was back in the arms of my mom and sister and happy and on my way to a breakfast of waffles and mimosas.

I meant to sit down once home and write a thoughtful piece on Iraq. This is why that entry never happened. We'll start where any good story does, after a couple rounds of champagne and orange juice...

After coming home we were all granted 96 hours of liberty. I don't remember much from this time, but do recall that at one point I was finger painting a spaceship on my wall in a pair of tight blue underwear. I was immediately sent on a sight survey to set-up some training that is coming up in June. It was in Hawaii, so I didn't mind. Here I spent a week learning how to organize and coordinate a complex training package. I was also robbed by a blonde Nebraskan co-ed and got a sun burn. My flight landed on a Thursday night. I unpacked from the Hawaii trip and repacked for the next two weeks. I slept for 48 minutes. My head was swollen so I dunked it in a sink of ice, shaved, drank a coffee, and drove to work. I sat in on a few meetings, met with my team leaders, and laughed with friends. Next I drove to Los Angeles and checked in at the Chateau Marmont. I ran upstairs, poured myself a couple ounces of Jameson to calm my exhausted nerves, took it into the shower and thanked God I had made it this far...a driver picked a few of us up and made our way via surface streets to a medley of great hip hop to the Staples Center for the Brittney Spears concert. More on that later. We came back to the Chateau. This time I drank to quiet my head-ache. I ordered a fruit plate and watched an old Gregory Peck film. I left the hotel at 5 am and drove to the San Diego Airport. I went immediately to the bar, ordered two double Bloody Marys and boarded a 11 hour flight to Germany. I sat between Geoff and a plumb man who ran a gay travel agency in the Bay Area. I think I still have his card if anyone is interested in a gay cruise down the Danube. We got into Oslo later that day. I checked in the hotel, poured myself a drink and thought about writing a thoughtful entry on Iraq. Instead I went to a Scottish restaurant and ordered Italian. I'm writing now from my bed in an Oslo hotel room. My underwear is too tight. I smell like coach. I can't figure out how to work the shower and am too embarrassed to call and ask.

For the next two weeks I'll be attending the Norwegian Winter Warfare Course where we'll do all the things I avoided doing while growing up on the beach in San Diego like skiing, hiking, being cold or doing anything really that involves any degree of discomfort over any period of time. And so there it is, a brief explanation of why you and the five other people that read this column haven't heard from me in awhile...until that time comes, I hope you find yourself warmer than me, and in more comfortable underwear. And when I come home I'll write that piece on Iraq...but for now, April is over.

Spoons and Cigarettes.

I sat down tonight for a meal served to me with an ice cream scooper. I shared a table with assorted undesirables of the rigid 2nd Marines and Al Asad food services – a Lance Corporal who chewed with his mouth open, an obese and political KBR worker, a squinty Captain who wanted to exchange TBS stories, an evangelical Navy Lieutenant Commander who thought I needed some saving and a delicate little laundry worker from Nepal who shoveled sloppy selections into his mouth with two dirty hands, giggling, amused at my obvious unease.

It was the perfect storm of bad manners, bad food, bad politics, and bad memories. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t take it anymore and excused myself for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I’ve found the theater of my rubbing my hands over my eyes, patting my shirt pockets for a fresh pack and excusing myself for a smoke is believable enough to sell an exit and more polite than the alternative of plunging a plastic spoon down my throat in protest of this sort of social misery.

I smiled. They smiled back. I feigned exit, entered an adjacent room, sat down and watched the news. Five minutes later I got up and went looking for that plastic spoon...

It’s exasperating. This week we were bombarded with news of dangerous North Korean bravado, failures at Doha, Austrian incest, Mexican melt-down, Chinese cyber-espionage, doom and gloom speculations on Afghanistan, daily Geithner bashing and the requisite chronicles of celebrity tragedy. Moderators of seriously named programs ask less than serious questions of even less serious guests, interrupting to answer themselves. It’s a serious waste of our time.
This sort of coverage ensures we’ll all begin (and end) each day just as miserably as everyone we’ve just seen reported on. It’s enough to drive anyone to pass on the cream and bring on the Kailua with a first cup of morning coffee. And second. And third. And...f*ck it, just hand me the bottle.

Sure, the media’s responsible for reporting news with the integrity and accountability of WorldCom. But we’re responsible for watching, approving, and demanding more blood tomorrow. And let’s not forget those that create the events that lead to such awful news to begin with; they deserve blame for, well, making news so awful to begin with...
Dangerous North Koreans threaten pan-Asia (and the rest of us for that matter), not Japanese. Backwards Arab petrolcrats (and even further backwards Arab fundamentalists) undermine the Arab-block’s relevancy in the next century, not the West. Sexual criminals don’t deserve an hour on Dr. Phil to lament their “condition”, or explain their own “tragic history”. They deserve equal protection under the law, due process, and, if proven guilty, a very, very long prison sentence.

But it’s not that networks report such horrible things that bother me (horrible things happen in the world, I want to know). What bothers me is the manner in which they report them. It’s a noisy and casual, amateurish and ambivalent sort of reporting. What bothers me even more is the manner in which some watch and bemoan and whine and criticize and then carry on complacently, just happy none of it is happening to them. Though what bothers me most of all is the arrogance and hopeless attitudes of that self-absorbed, defeatist, fragile lot that acts as if we are the first to see crime, war, poverty, violence, financial ruin, terrorism, famine, failed states, disease, or genocide; these that forget their own grandparents endured a stock market crash, unemployment, a two-front war, neglected poor, greedy elite, and the same left-right politics just two generations ago. To say nothing of the fact that, during the prohibition years anyway, they were expected to endure such things sober (and in black and white).

It’s an odd time we’re in – a reality-based moment defined by the hyper-sensitive, hyper-connected, hyper-emotional, and hyper-aware. We have more resources for learning than ever before and less desire to access them. More opinions and less questions. WE TALK TO EACH OTHER NOW MORE THAN EVER, WITH SO MUCH LESS TO SAY.

We’re quick to volunteer from the comfort of our home, eagerly participating in yesterday’s Earth Night to “make a difference”, but so less eager to use that same hour to volunteer locally, or help our own kids with their homework. When our economy soars, we’re fast to absorb a mortgage we can’t afford. When it tanks and we lose our home, it’s someone else’s fault. We join hundreds of thousands to protest the G20, but won’t admit (or don’t understand) that free trade lowers prices and creates jobs, jobs makes wages, wages buy food and medicine and some guy in Kuala Lumpur earned a wage that fed his family for making that stupid hat you’re wearing while you protest the job he made it at. And we’re hungry for “developing” headlines around the world. Suspicions become convictions and assumptions become facts, all instantly – and between text messages – and without any sort of analysis, critical thought, or investigation. Our i-world gives us the ability to know most everything about anything, anywhere and at any time, but the inclination to medicate, press play and worry about it tomorrow.

Yes, it’s an odd time indeed. But there is a solution to all this, in the short term anyway: always have a way to kill yourself, or be excused. For this, I’d recommend the plastic spoon, and pack of cigarettes…