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. (http://embeddedmarine.blogspot.com/)
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.
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?
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
-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: 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…”