Afghanistan as Vietnam
I am wrapping up my time in Kabul and getting ready to press embed with the Marines down south in early March. I am currently working on something I cannot blog about and it is boring. Inshallah I’ll have a story to tell soon in the meantime I have been catching up on some reading (when the net works here) during my downtime. I recently came across a Men’s Journal article written by Robert Young Pelton (RYP) on his brief embed with a Human Terrain Team. Mr. Pelton’s article was neither positive nor accurate and completely lacked the ring of authenticity. Old Blue over at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure was the first off the mark questioning the factual content of Pelton’s article and he took it apart with his usual humor and sharp insight.
Amazingly RYP responded to Old Blue on his blog and other blogs and then engaged Old Blue in a direct email exchange where he threatened Blue with retribution from on high. That is called playing a weak hand where I come from normally a stunt pulled by a weak man. Blue was kind enough to forward me the correspondence and ask for my humble opinion on the matter. I spent the better part of a day reading various blog postings and related articles and I got a strong sense of dÃ©jÃ -vu. Then it hit me; Pelton was trying to come up with a Vietnam tale. This was his first installment of the Afghanistan version of Dispatches.
My Dad and three of my four uncles were career Marines like me infantry officers and there was seldom a time during the Vietnam conflict when one or more of them was not deployed in harm’s way. I have read everything I could about Vietnam since childhood and remember when Michael Herr’s Dispatches was published in the late 70’s. Dispatches is a travel log of sorts where the reader gets to hear the personal stories of the forgotten men at the front. The stories were typical of that period the generals were liars and clueless, the troops just wandered around the jungle not knowing where they were going or why they were there, they hated their officer’s and senior NCO’s, they committed atrocities and one of the front line grunts in the book carried a bag of severed ears with him. All the “cool kids” (fellow journalists) got together for dope smoking sessions and talked with authority about what was really going on because they were out and about covering the action and knew the real score. The military brass hung out in Saigon doing nothing constructive except for concocting lies to tell the press at the infamous five O’clock follies (the nightly press briefing in Saigon.) Some of the material in Dispatches was used in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. Michael Herr and his fellow journalist defined the Vietnam generation in our collective consciousness and stuck them with a reputation that they did not earn and did not rate.
I liked Dispatches when it came out because I thought it was an authentic account of “real war.” I was also 18 at the time and not the brightest 18 year old you have ever seen either. I have since spent 22 years in the military as both commissioned officer and an enlisted man and now recognize Herr’s book for what it is. Fiction. Philip Caputo a soldier/author who served in Vietnam (Army infantry I think) is on record with this quote “Herr has told me, and he’s told other people, ‘I’ve made a lot of that shit up.’ But out of real stuff.”
Let me ask you dear reader, a question. How many Army general officers do you think ride around Afghanistan in “skull adorned black painted hot-rodded Blackhawks?” YeahI’m betting on zero too. Where does such imagery come from? It comes from movies about Vietnam. I say that knowing full well that Old Blue has posted an apology to RYP on his blog acknowledging that he was sent a picture by RYP of a Blackhawk helicopter with a faded grim reaper type illustration on the rear of the right engine nacelle. Big deal that is a long way from hot-rodded black rotary birds with skulls painted on them. Blue was keeping his word as a real man does by posting that mea culpa but we all know what he saw in the picture and what Pelton describes in his story are two different things. But good on you Blue for being a man of your word (as if guys like him would have it any other way.)
There was nothing remotely “authentic” about the classic Vietnam movies (with the exception of the Marine Boot Camp portion of Full Metal Jacket) and many now know they did a disservice to the men who had fought and died in that conflict. I know their depictions of haunted veterans who were unable to cope were absolute nonsense my Dad, all my friends Dad’s, as well as all the Dad’s of my High School classmates had served multiple tours in Vietnam. They had none of the typical symptoms of PTSD, they were not substance abusers, they were not haunted gilt ridden losers. They were and continue to be highly functioning reputable members of their communities. The book Stolen Valor is one of the best on this topic ever written and documents exactly where the common perception of Vietnam Vet as dehumanized, barely functioning, drug addled loser came from. It came from Hollywood and writers like Michael Herr. This is the legacy Pelton is reaching for in his hatchet job on the Bagram Human Terrain Team.
RYP is trying to sell a tired old Vietnam era song about Americans at war and he is wrong. I enlisted the military in 1979 the same year our president said he was thinking of enlisting because the military was such a proud organization full of quality people. Back in 1979 that was not the case which is why I know (at least on this topic) that President Obama was passing on contemporary democrat talking points. Another word for that is “telling a bald face lie” but who cares? President Obama’s fibbing on this subject pales in comparison with Hilary’s bizarre war stories or Biden’s blatant plagiarism of a British politician’s life story. Sorry the “stimulus Bill” saga has fouled my mood and I digress.
In 1979 the military was recovering from the debacle of Vietnam and had serious race, drug, and morale issues. I joined in 1979 because I had run out of viable options and needed to get out of the house. It turned out to be a brilliant move but at the time it was demoralizing at least in my case it was. The military did not start to recover and then transform itself into the organization we know and love today until the early 80’s and that transformation started with a zero tolerance drug policy. It was also aided by a gigantic pay raise and a new mandate for professionalism made by Ronald Regan. Under President Regan the military completed its stunning transformation into the most professional Armed Forces the world has ever seen.
I am a rather harsh critic of our efforts in Afghanistan. I have written repeatedly on the topic of risk aversion and how that drives our tactics costing us momentum. I remain convinced that we will take more casualties by trying to avoid them then if we followed our own counterinsurgency doctrine and got off the big FOB’s. But I have seen no indication on the bases I have visited (and I have been on a lot of them) that today’s military is in any way similar to the force I joined back in 1979. General officers are not frivolous people who fly around the battle space dropping in on combat outposts for a five minute grip and grin. Lieutenants assigned to Human Terrain Teams are trying to adapt scientific theory into action in the midst of the most complicated environment any military has ever operated in before. Lt Jones, it seems to me, demonstrates initiative and enthusiasm for his difficult task well above the norm. The officers and troops living outside the main FOB’s are not clueless draftees counting down the days until they fly home on the “freedom bird.” They are mission focused and when they bitch the topic is normally about being able to do their jobs better by being allowed greater freedom of action and movement.
I do not agree with current “force protection” policies and what appears to me to be an addiction to high technology solutions for tactical problems. But I understand where this mind set comes from. The military does not like losing its men or woman in combat. They are also terrified of inadvertently offending local sensibilities by allowing the American military outside of the bases and into the local bazaars with the people. When you see the number of blond and red headed children in Jalalabad (a Soviet Army R&R base was located there back in the day) you can understand why senior commanders are worried.
The American media is not going follow RYP’s lead and try to play “got ya” with the Pentagon in the near future. They have invested too much getting Barrack Obama elected to try to shoe horn Afghanistan into their Vietnam template. The main stream media also has an access problem in Afghanistan. It is possible to travel throughout most of this country without elaborate security measures but I do not know of any media organization who has figured out how to do it. Quite a few reporters were kidnapped in Afghanistan last year while trying to get out on their own to develop their stories. Afghanistan is a dangerous place where you really need to know what you are doing if you’re going to move outside the main cities. But it can be done and there are thousands of internationals in this country who live and work outside the wire with the Afghans daily to prove that point. The press has not broken the code on that and until they do their ability to deliver independent analysis will be minimal.
But there are guys like Pelton out there who are chasing little specks of Pulitzer dust and they know exactly the tone and tenor of the stories they need to write in order to achieve their goal. They are not going to be successful due to our military men and woman who are now able to enter the debate via the World Wide Web. Read Old Blue’s blog it is there you will find honest, pointed, at times even harsh criticism of how this war is being prosecuted. He is one voice in a sea of thousands of active duty mil bloggers who are not going to back down because some “jurno” threatens them. They also know more, explain more, and are funnier than RYP.
And there are guys like me and The Bot who are from the military, understand the military, understand Afghanistan, its people, culture and language, who are way outside the wire. We have the backs of our milblogging brothers and sisters in arms. I am absolutely disgusted at how Pelton depicted Lt. Jones in his article. It is the kind of yellow journalism which makes the blood boil. Gratuitous insults while depicting a young officer working a difficult, poorly defined billet is beneath contempt. It added nothing to the overall story line serving only to make Pelton look like a grade A number 1 asshole.
Pelton – if you want to be this war’s Michael Herr you need to get out like we do to get an understanding of this complex, dangerous, confusing situation the international military and aid agencies face here daily. Until you put in the time and effort that Old Blue or bloggers like I have you’ll have no voice and no real impact. Stop taking the easy way out you jerk.
I mentioned The Bot above because that knucklehead is two blog posts in arrears. He promised to cover me during my current gig and I’m now resorting to calling him out on the FRI blog. The Bot has been conducting a survey of all the Northern Provinces with just his driver as escort. I saw him briefly 10 days ago in Kabul and was disgusted to observe his Dari is almost fluent again. My Pashto is still pretty basic and I forgot most of my Dari but the Bot seems to pick this stuff up with little effort at all. Frigging annoying if you ask me. A little help in the comments section to motivate The Bot would be appreciated. He has fascinating tales to tell from the North which is becoming more dangerous and volatile. He doesn’t have too much good news but he does have fair and accurate news which is getting harder and harder to come by these days.