Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Memoriam: Travis Manion & Brandon Looney...

In April of 2007 1st Recon Battalion’s Lt. Travis Manion was killed on patrol in Iraq. He was buried near his hometown in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Three years later, on the 21st of September, Travis’ best friend, Navy Special Warfare’s Lt. Brendan Looney was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Now these two best friends, college athlete standouts, Naval Academy roommates and American warriors have been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, together.

Their story has touched so many because it transcends our individual differences and reminds us of our national similarity: that we are a free people whose country was founded on the belief that a great life is given to strenuous endeavor...

The Magellan Star...

Over a 48 hour period, the 15th MEU/PELARG team conducted offensive air operations in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 5 confirmed enemy fighters, provided disaster relief in Pakistan to 120 victims who had been without aid since July, and seized a pirated vessel, rescuing a crew of 11 hostages and detaining 9 suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia. A busy couple of days and an impressive battle-rhythm by any standard for this dynamic Navy-Marine Corps team.

For her part, the USS Dubuque was 1,500 miles away from her command ship, the USS Peleliu, and attached to Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) – the international counter piracy task force – when the events associated with the pirated motor vessel occurred. She spent the night of 7 September escorting vessels through shipping corridors in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden...

Afghanistan. America's Baseball.

Baseball Player I Am Not.

Like most American boys I spent the springs and summers of my youth playing baseball. I say “playing” but I think “showing up” does the description of my little league career more justice. I was arguably La Jolla Little League’s worst ballplayer of the late 1980s (possibly of the entire 1980s) and of the early 1990s (but hopefully not of the entire 1990s) matched in my anti-athleticism only by the unimaginable skilllessness possessed by one of my fellow bench-mates from the notorious season of ’89 who should remain unidentified, but won’t and whose name is Mark Bauman. Sorry Mark, I love you, but the record must so reflect...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pentagon's Mad Men.

We’ve Got to Write as Well as We Fight.

Radio Check.
Let me be upfront and say that my knowledge of military public affairs is limited to the past thirty minutes I’ve spent researching it online, a Navy Times column I read during this morning’s Ops/Intel brief, and a thing I had for this knock-out Air Force public affairs officer I saw only 3 times from afar during my last deployment but wanted desperately.

So I don’t know much about the trade, technically. What I do know is that if articles, op-eds, blog-spots and perspective pieces are the radio check of our minute-by-minute web based news-cycle, the transmission of the Department of Defense is coming in weak and barely readable; while those with a less informed (and in many cases, flat-out wrong) story on defense matters are coming in loud and clear.

Read the rest at Naval Institute Online...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Reality of Piracy.

-Mutatis Mutandis.-
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about military history came from Victor Davis Hanson who taught me that war is like water: its chemical properties have remained unchanged throughout the ages. The Romans called this mutatis mutandis; the idea that, taking account for time and space, things remain the same. The emotions a young Athenian felt griping his shield before clashing with the Persians on the plains of Marathon are no different than what a young Marine feels on a combat patrol just before contact with the Taliban in the valleys of Marjah. Fear, the desire to prove one’s mettle before the enemy, and will to not let down the man by your side has always dominated the moral element of war’s design...

More at the Naval Institute's Blog...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Beautiful Man Project.

When a fellow Marine aviator asked Capt Dan “Trigger” Brown if he had a workout regime he could use while his squadron was deployed in Afghanistan, he delivered much more. He sent forward a Letter of Instruction on how to be beautiful that he and his old squadron-mates created a few years ago in Iraq. This LOI articulates a complete ethos. He calls it “The Beautiful Man Project” and it’s a solid-gold approach to a Marine’s TOTAL fitness of the mind, body and soul. But mostly it’s an ode to being beautiful. To any of you Marines and Sailors currently deployed overseas in defense of our great Nation, here’s a fitness program you need to embrace....

read more at the US Naval Institute's Blog... Image

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Below is a book review I've just written for the April 2010 edition of "Proceedings" Magazine.

"OPERATION PHANTOM FURY, The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq."
Dick Camp
Zenith Press, 2010.


It’s not a popular thing to say we won the war in Iraq, but we did. In 7 years in that place we swiftly toppled a dictator in the longest over-land campaign in Marine Corps history, successfully countered a dynamic insurgency, defeated Al Qaeda in what they themselves crowned the “front line” in their own war on the West and despite all the set backs, frustrations and costs enabled the Iraqi people to grow their own sort of democracy. And while to what degree this hard-earned success will come to be depends on events that have yet to happen, from strictly a military perspective, our action in Iraq was a tremendous (and unlikely) success. The reasons why we won are many and, like war itself, complicated. The Surge, an Awakening, SOCOM raids, American persistence, Iraqi resolve and, I am sure, our autumn 2004 campaign in Fallujah. This book tells that battle’s story.

By the spring of 2004 Fallujah – a fetid city in the heart of the Sunni Triangle – was overrun by thugs, criminals, assassins, Al Qaeda, insurgents, and other evil men bent on ending the occupation, undermining the rule of law and destroying the vision of the new Iraq through murder, corruption and intimidation. The road to these Campaigns was paved in the confusion of the post-invasion landscape. Fallujah rapidly was a place openly hostile to coalition forces, and soon became Al Anbar’s (and to a large extent Iraq’s) center of gravity. Tensions culminated with the ambush and desecration of four Blackwater contractors in March 2004. “Heads must roll,” was the notorious quote by President Bush and so it was that the city was to be taken back as part of a larger national stabilization movement. Only now, future stability required immediate force. The first push was botched as Marine commanders were not consulted, their advice ignored and Washington ordered action then lost its nerve and ordered Marines back. The enemy declared a victory and the situation worsened. By the autumn the plan to take the city back and return it to the people of Iraq was inked, rehearsed and readied. This time there would be no stall and the Second Battle of Fallujah began. It would be the largest urban action for the Marine Corps since Hue City.

Author Dick Camp sets well these battles’ political stage with stories of tension between Bremer and Sanchez, Rumsfeld and, well, everyone else, but aptly avoids commentary on the war’s domestic political controversy. This technique keeps his work close to what matters most in telling battle’s story: write the strategy and of the men that execute that strategy. Write that, and there will be truth.

Partisan politics and sensitivities have diminished these amazing and hard-fought battle-days in Fallujah…and certainly they diminished what was actually accomplished with the enemy’s defeat: decisive action here broke the spirit of the most committed enemy. Sure, the war would wage in other forms for some years to come, but Fallujah was their Gettysburg. Guerrilla employment became their only choice. And later, largely to the creativity and bravery of our NCO’s and the leadership and sharpness of our company commanders, we defeated the enemy on those terms as well.

The true adversary in Iraq (and I don’t mean the displaced Baathist that just wished the collation out, but rather the trans-national enemy that viewed Iraq as an important battle field in the larger war of fundamentalist East versus the Godless West) was first defeated in those cold November days. Victory in Fallujah meant (despite the numerous limitations we Americans place on ourselves in war) that we were still capable of dealing death, imposing destruction and taking back ground as needed for a greater good. More, it meant that the world’s Islamist soldiers met American Marines and discovered Marines possessed a lethality, courage, discipline, spirit and passion for killing and warfighting they could not comprehend.

And Camp writes of war’s men and methodology as only one who has been there can. I liked especially Camp’s treatment of some of our nation’s most brilliant combat leaders (from General Mattis to Colonel Buhl) and his ability to link combat’s action to dates and moments to personalities, made this history read not like a history at all, but more like a thrilling novel. Most importantly though, we read this book and are reminded about our own nature and morality. Not just as Americans, but as Human Beings. Good military histories do that. They are works in lessons relearned at great cost and through great sacrifice in places far from home by great men who would never call themselves that.

For the men of the Battalions that fought through those streets and for the men that planned it, Fallujah was this place. The First Battle of Fallujah was a lesson in how political clumsiness can be mistaken for discretion and how such extreme cautiousness at such extreme times makes things on the ground worse for the men that must then compose a battle plan or wield steel on unforgiving streets.

The Second battle was a reminder that the American military war machine is still the most lethal in existence. Both lessons instruct, first, as a matter of ethics and Just War, when a battle is waged it must be decisive and swift; and second, as a matter of military history’s human dimension and to paraphrase my old Professor and Hoover Fellow Victor Davis Hanson, that war is like water. Its properties throughout the ages have not changed (fear, violence, chaos, carnage, etc), but its speed has – rifled barrels, machine guns, artillery, precision guided bombs, and drones all kill more men, faster than ever. And that war is war is war.

Camp’s writing captures these important lessons well framed with discussions by Generals and Statesmen at the strategic level on how best to fight and those by Lance Corporals and Lieutenants at the tactical level on how best to kill and stay alive. Camp reminds us that Fallujah was no different than Marathon or Marjah, and that war is indeed like water.

As a young officer platoon commander whose interest now seems only in how to keep up with enlisted men I find to be the most instinctively lethal, intelligent, and disciplined warriors on the contemporary battlefield, I enjoyed Operation Phantom Fury because it reminded me of war’s elaborate design; and with any luck it will remind the American people that Iraq was won largely because it was equally elaborate but fought by men of singular strength and resolve - men like those that fought in Fallujah and did so for no other reason than it was an order and better them than someone else not up to such a task.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life's Gravity.

When I’m about to exit an aircraft on a night jump I always experience a certain degree of fear. When I feel the apprehension come on (it always does) I have a mental immediate action drill I execute. First I wish I wasn't there. This doesn't help. Next I wonder what I'm doing sitting next to all these guys that actually enjoy this stuff. This also doesn't help. Then I get scared. And, while maintaining a straight face, I let the fear saturate me. (What if my parachute doesn’t open? What if? What if? What if?) I take it all in. Look to the guy next to me, smile. "Hey, yea, awesome! Can't wait..." Next, I take a deep breath and picture a smoking hot girl standing on the edge of the ramp with the Jump Master…waiting for me to go. Then, all at once, (and only because I know she's watching) fear becomes adrenalin (and testosterone and other manly chemicals not approved by the FDA), and the adrenalin becomes motion and motion becomes…the quiet of the night. And then there’s the thought of the beautiful hammer back in the bird, missing me, wishing she had passed me her phone number before I jumped out...

When faced with fear it’s important to lie to yourself.

When I’m getting physically “conditioned” by the likes of a Gunny Cederholm or Gunny Leandro I get tired fast and want nothing more than to stop. With guys like this, failure is not an option, so I developed another mental game to deal with exhaustion. I picture myself in a Nike commercial. I see myself running effortlessly and my sweat becomes the different colors of Gatorade and my boots get lighter and motivating music plays in my head…and, well, who wouldn’t want to look good in a Nike commercial?

When faced with fatigue it’s important to appeal to your vanity.

When you find yourself in a situation that is both scary and tiring, it’s best to picture yourself in a Nike commercial surrounded by a bunch of gorgeous girls. Success here depends on your ability to be both vain and lie to yourself.

And so it goes, that across the broad array of human emotion, fear and fatigue interest me most. These I find the most atomic of man’s passions, the most enduring and complex. Sure, love is famously confusing, desperately sought and certainly the most celebrated. Sadness is an indispensable part of our own life’s film. And happiness, as Frost reminds us (O Stormy, stormy world…), makes up in height what it lacks in length. But whether we’re feeling love, sadness, or joy (or anything else) no emotion persists (or directly influences our ethics, heart, soul, body and mind at once) like fear and fatigue. These two things – more so than any of the great passions – deliver man to his brink and force his hand. Will I or won’t I? Should I? Could I? I will. I won’t. I can’t. I must…

This great life is our story. Our story is given a voice by our character. Our character is built (and revealed) by the decisions we make. And our decisions are (without exception) acted upon by fear and fatigue – life’s mystic, unforgiving and prevailing emotional gravity. Whether or not a great life becomes our great story is entirely up to us. All this hinges on our ability to recognize, understand, cope with, and ultimately overcome (which in some cases might mean to submit to) fear and fatigue.

The problem is not that this gravity exists; the problem is to what extent we allow this gravity to affect our decisions – our life’s story.

I celebrate these things that give such spectacular color to life’s brinksmanship. This gravity comes in all forms – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial and moral fears and fatigues – and we feel them each day as they directly shape our decisions for better and worse and lead us only to our next challenge (and to drink) and moves us forward, or not at all and with desperate and absolute regret. It’s all quite dramatic.

But no good story is without good drama…or a hero. If a man doesn’t possess the desire to be the hero of his own life’s story (and if the definition of a hero is someone of strong character who serves others first and does well by his fellow man and who acts remarkably, or at least tries his best to), then who would want to be?

I was thinking today about this sort of thing. About some men of my generation (in particular) who I know would feel uncomfortable using words like “remarkable” when describing their own life’s story. And then I thought about a man’s character and the things we do (and those we don’t do) because of fear; and the things we can do (and those we cannot do) because of fatigue. I was thinking about fear (or worry, apprehension, concern, fright, trepidation, anxiety, alarm or horror) and fatigue (or weariness, exhaustion, or plain tiredness). And I thought about how toughness matters. I thought about how important it is to recognize your fears, address your fatigue and carry on…or, as a close friend pointed out over lunch some time ago, how sometimes there is great virtue (and toughness) in recognizing the fear and fatigue that faces you as insurmountable, and deciding to pack it up and head home…and then I wondered if toughness mattered at all to the bulk of men in today’s extra-soft, extra-sensitive, extra-safe culture of cuddle cures all?

I’m not so sure.

And then there’s the decisions we make. The part that comes after we recognize that gravity of fear and fatigue pervades and that all decisions we make (the ones that matter anyway) are influenced by anxiety and exhaustion, fear and fatigue.

I read somewhere (or maybe someone told me) that a commander’s success on the battlefield depends more on his ability to know when to give an order and that truly there are only three orders to give: “Yes.” “No.” Or “not yet.” “Not yet” being the most difficult of them all. Timing matters in battle. (As does good judgment, wisdom, sobriety, excellence, courage, and blind luck.) Timing also matters in other things like dating but good judgment, wisdom, and sobriety matters much less. Blind luck always counts and as demonstrated by the girl a guy like my buddy A-Beautiful-Joe somehow managed to land, “a good man” is quite relative and in the eyes of the beholder. Sorry ABJ, but she could have done a lot better…

But in all this we find life’s great challenge: move to the edge, face your fear or fatigue (or both) and make a choice (whether in war, with women, or on Wall Street, there are only three)…Yes. No. Not yet.

And it is really that simple if life is as I think it is – a confusing, beautiful, messy, remarkable, sad, inspired and chaotic series of experiences and memories shaped by the decisions we make (or by those we don’t make). It really is as simple as “yes”, “no”, or “not yet” so long as we have the courage to be our own life’s hero…so long as we strive to serve and be remarkable and remind ourselves that our life is our story and our story is about our character and our character is about our decisions…and decisions are about our recognition of and our response to life’s mystic-gravity…fear and fatigue.

And while how a man deals with such things vary (some have God, others Glenlivet) I’ve found it best walk to the edge, remember you are your own life’s hero, think of a beautiful girl, and jump.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On a rainy Gulf Coast day...

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.