Top Gun 2: What Might Have Been

Okay, so I’ve got a confession: I’m a veteran and a military nerd who doesn’t care for war movies. And it’s not because I’m anti-war, or because Hollywood doesn’t “get” us vets, or because the movies trigger PTSD: no, I just don’t care for them because they’re too obvious and in your face. We get it, it’s war: human emotions mixed up with extreme violence, pretty much any producer’s wet dream. What I find more interesting is using the military perspective to look at other popular movies that deal with conflict, because they are often more on point. Take pretty much anything I’ve written about Star Wars, for example.

But there are some movies that bridge the gap between overtly war and conflict-based productions and sci-fi/fantasy. Such as Captain America or Top Gun. Yeah, that’s right, I said it: Top Gun isn’t a war movie.

These two stand out in my mind as classic examples of how one can apply a military mind to examining non-war movies: not tactically, but esoterically. Because anyone who has served a day in the military can tell you, it ain’t all high fives, barrel rolls, and jumping out of perfectly good airplanes alongside the Norse god of thunder. In fact, most of it is as prosaic and mundane as your sad day job. Which is why you get people wondering if the Army owes Cap some back pay from all the time he was frozen, or speculation on his long overdue promotion to major and eventual relegation to office work.

Which of course leads me to wonder: in the upcoming Top Gun 2, will Maverick still be flying?

I’m sorry, let me rephrase that: will full Admiral (four star) Peter Mitchell still be flying?

Yeah, that’s right, if Maverick was a Navy lieutenant in 1986, the year the first film came out, by 2016 he would be a full admiral, the highest rank that the United States Navy can bestow (minus that of fleet admiral, a wartime rank, for all you Navy nerds angrily hovering over your keyboards right now).

How can we tell?

Because judging by – approximate – timelines, Maverick would have commissioned into the Navy somewhere between 1978-1980. Just like the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, the Chief of Naval Operations, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, commander of…you know what, I think you get the idea. Of course, that’s all predicated on the idea that Maverick didn’t get himself kicked out of the service for his antics as a pilot. Odds are, some commander got tired of his smart-aleck remarks and promoted him so that he could go be someone else’s problem child. And so on and so forth, until all of a sudden Maverick has substantial influence in the U.S. military.

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“In thirty years, I’m gonna run this place.” (Paramount Pictures)

Let’s all just take a moment to consider what glory Top Gun 2 could be if it centered on Admiral Peter Mitchell, commander, U.S. Cyber Command. For those that don’t know, cyber is the new and sexy up-and-coming battlefield. Therefore, it would only make sense to put someone like Admiral “Mav” Mitchell into the role of commander. Of course, the admiral’s staff and advisors would have to get used to his little idioms from a bygone era, such as his persistent demands to have U.S. Cyber Command “buzz the tower” of China, or his edict that all service members sound off with, “I’ve got a need for speed!” when logging onto their work stations. His declaration of “You can be my wingman!” to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and requesting high fives after tactical cyber attack reports could possible get under some people’s skin. Indeed, the Director of Naval Intelligence would probably hate him for saying, “It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” when asked anything about cyber operations. And yes, Admiral Mitchell would need to stop making volleyball games mandatory training for all service members. But what better person to have at the helm of a new kind of war machine? One can just imagine the President of the United States calling Admiral Mitchell into the Oval Office and haranguing him about how, “your ego is writing checks that your operating system can’t cash!” I’d watch that movie.

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Can you imagine this in the halls of the Pentagon? (Paramount Pictures)

However, Hollywood being what it is, we are told that Top Gun 2 will feature none of these glorious moments, but will instead be a rehash of “John Henry the steel-drivin’ man versus the steam powered drill,” but with manned versus unmanned aircraft. That’s right, Mav is back in the cockpit again, thirty years later, trying to outfly some state-of-the-art drones. Rest assured there will be some stale attempts at one-liners and classic put-downs that will make us smirk a little and think about dusting off the old aviators, but knowing what could have been makes the whole thing seem just a little sad.

Talk to me, Goose.


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To my Cat, on the Occasion of his Parting

This wasn’t supposed to be this hard to write.

I’d thought about writing this weeks ago, and it all seemed to flow so well. That was before emotion got involved. See, emotion can be a blessing and a curse. It can tie your reader to your story and get them involved. But it can also cause the author to not want to write. However, I have to write this; because it will give some measure of… ending? Closure? I’m not sure. But here goes.

Three weeks ago I said goodbye to one of my best friends. That he happened to be a cat might seem odd to some. It still seems odd to me.

This was not my first loss of a pet. I’ve grown up with nearly every animal you can imagine on a farm, and then some. Being in close proximity to a country road, many pets were killed by cars. One dog was shot by a neighbor. Another dog just disappeared. So loss was something I thought I was accustomed to.

And then came Bertie.

Full name: Bertram Wooster Cat, named after P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable Bertie Wooster. He came to us four years ago, from a friend who had to get rid of him because she was moving. She mentioned he was a little odd. At first my wife – who had never before had a pet – and I weren’t sure. Then we met Bertie and his oddities, and decided we were very sure. Bertie had been hit by a car when he was little, so one eye didn’t work, he had a snaggle-toothed smile, and he was always in a perennial state of desiring closeness.

It was the latter that drew us to him. Bertie didn’t believe in personal space. If he could be on your head, he would attempt it. And if he could sit on both humans – well, that was just the best. After he had taken up his position of occupation he would proceed to purr: loudly, proudly, and raucously. We were his humans.

Soon after we got Bertie, I got orders to go to Afghanistan. Deployments are difficult for service members, but it’s what we sign up to do. For spouses, the loneliness, worry, and uncertainty of it all can be overwhelming. Which is why I was glad that my wife had a small furry friend to look out for her the year that I was gone. He would commonly wander into our Facetime conversations and try to sit between the camera and my wife, filling the screen with his impassive face. I can’t ever thank him enough for being that warm thing my wife could cuddle up to in the long darkness of the night, for being the one who provided some source of comfort.

When I came home, I went through all the normal sort of redeployment things: jumpy at loud noises, restless, grouchy, confused. At times I would feel somewhat lost, or uncertain, or I would wake up in the middle of the night after incredibly vivid nightmares. Those were the times where Bertie would know to flop himself down in the crook of my arm, place his paws on my chest, and blink kindly at me. It was as if he knew what was going on inside my head, as if he could somehow relate because of his trauma. My little PTS buddy.

I was in France working on a documentary shoot when my wife took Bertie to the vet because he seemed to be losing weight. She was loving enough to keep the news that he had cancer until I came back. He was given a month to live. He lasted two. Because he just loved a lot.

By the end, he was staying in our bed all day, occasionally leaving for the necessaries of food, water, litter box. When we would come to bed he would snuggle up to us and the deep, warming, comforting purr would begin. As it did on the day we said goodbye.

I am a selfish person; I had hoped he would die in his sleep while we were at work, or during the night. Instead, we had to make the decision of whether or not to put him down. It is rare that you have to make that kind of decision for something you love. And no matter how many times it happens, no matter how many times the vet tells you that it is for the best – that it will prevent suffering, that it is in fact the kind thing to do – it still tears away a piece of something inside you.

Bertie slipped away peacefully, on my lap, the drugs just making him think that he was out for a doze. We buried him out by the lake, in the dark shade of the woods – an irony, as since he was declawed, he was never allowed outside.

There is a part of me that is so angry at myself for feeling the kind of ridiculous emotion that I have right now, because if you think there’s not that aching feeling in the back of my throat that indicates a powerful feeling of sadness, you are wrong – but there’s another feeling that is stronger: that if some creature can love so profoundly, unselfishly, and wholly, then does it not deserve that same love in return?

I think it does. And I know that somewhere, Bertie does too.

Skywalker on Trial: the Galactic Code of Military Justice

Scene: Galactic Courtroom. Defendant seems blissfully unaware of what’s going on, keeps talking about his training with a “Yoda.”

Judge: “Commander Skywalker, let’s walk through the events that occurred during the Battle of Hoth, shall we?”

Commander Skywalker: “Sure, it’s all the same to me, but I’m kind of busy and –”

Judge: “Commander, this is a military organization, and we have rules. General Carlist Rieekan ordered us to convene an investigation into your actions that day, as per the Galactic Code of Military Justice. The better part of Rogue Squadron was wrecked, our ground forces scattered, and we barely escaped with our transports. Now, you were the commander of Rogue Squadron that day, were you not?”

Commander Skywalker: “Yeah, I was.”

Judge: “And what were your orders?”

Commander Skywalker: “Well, we got word that there were Imperial forces landing and I grabbed Wedge – I mean, Commander Antilles – and we got the squadron and we flew out–”

Judge: “Yes, yes, Commander, I meant, were you delivered orders through a specific orders process, with commander’s intent, overall mission and execution?”

Defendant stares quizzically at Judge.

General Rieekan: “Um, sorry your honor, but my staff was a little busy packing up, and I don’t really like operations orders anyways, I like to use mission command on the fly, so….”

Judge: “Very good, sir, I see. Well then, commander, you then sortied out of the hanger. What happened next?”

Commander Skywalker: “Well then we flew over our lines and towards the Imperial AT-ATs, we passed them, and then I gave the order for attack pattern delta and–”

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T-47 Speeders on approach…straight at the AT-ATs. (Lucasfilm, Ltd.)

Judge: “I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly? You deployed your T-47 Speeders over the top of your own troops in line formation? Rather than coming in from the flank? Putting all your ships on line together towards the main guns of the enemy armor? Main guns that can only fire forward, i.e., your direction of travel? And only after you passed the first walkers did you decide to assume a much less risky formation, attack pattern delta?”

Commander Skywalker: “Uh, yeah, it’s what we do in our doctrine.”

Judge: “So you use tactical doctrine, but don’t use the orders process? Hm.” Makes note. “Very well then, what happened next?”

Commander Skywalker: “Then we started making passes on the AT-AT’s, but their armor was too thick to penetrate with blasters, so Wedge managed to use his tow cable to tangle up one of them and bring them down. Then I tried the same thing but that’s when our speeder was hit and my co-pilot, Dak Ralter, was killed.”

Judge: “Ah yes, Dak. We’ll come back to that. During your squadron’s attacks on the enemy armor, did they at any time cross in front of the enemy main guns?”

Commander Skywalker: “Well, yeah, I think it happened a few times.”

Judge: “Speaking with ground survivors, your aircraft passed in front of the main guns of the AT-AT’s no fewer than twelve times, which accounts for the majority of Rogue Squadron’s losses. In fact, your orders, as recorded by in-flight monitors, were for everyone to ‘keep it tight.’ Commander Skywalker, are you familiar with the concept of tactical dispersion?”

Commander Skywalker: “You weren’t there, you didn’t see what it was like!”

Judge: “No need to get testy, commander, we’re not trying to trap you.”

Admiral Ackbar coughs and looks unsettled from his position on the bench.

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What defeat looks like. (Lucasfilm, Ltd)

Judge: “Now Commander Skywalker, you mention that the weapons on the T-47’s failed to penetrate the armor of the enemy vehicles. Would you say that this is a design flaw?”

Commander Skywalker: “Definitely, we were unable to gain superiority because of that. In fact, our clumsy and inefficient blasters should be completely redesigned.”

Judge: “I see. We’ll make a note of that, although I suspect that Research and Design Department won’t be able to do much about it considering our budget was cut by nearly 100% when Alderaan was destroyed. But back to the matter at hand. As you were entering combat, did your co-pilot make any remarks?”

Commander Skywalker: “Yeah, Dak said something about how he had no approach vector and that he wasn’t set.”

Judge: “And having determined that your own co-pilot said that there were deficiencies in your own ship, how did you proceed?”

Commander Skywalker: “I think I told him that it was okay, but it was all in the heat of the moment, I don’t remember.”

Judge: “Your exact words were, ‘Steady, Dak.’ Did you do anything to correct to allow for your co-pilot to determine the fault in the equipment?”

Commander Skywalker: “Um, no.”

Judge: “I see. Dak found further faults with the vehicle, did he not? Specifically, when you asked him to prepare the tow cable for deployment.”

Commander Skywalker: “Yeah, that’s right, as we went in on our final approach.”

Judge: “His exact words were, ‘Oh Luke, we have a malfunction in fire control, I’ll have to cut in the auxiliary.’ Which would seem to point out that there were significant issues in not only the maneuverability of the ship but with the weapons systems as well. How did you conduct preventative maintenance on your ship prior to this mission?”

Commander Skywalker: “I dunno, that’s not my job!”

Judge: “Commander, we have limited ships. As I mentioned, we have pretty much no budget for spare parts. It is imperative that ships are maintained to the best of our abilities. It is clear that no maintenance was conducted on your ship, leading you to be combat ineffective once involved in battle. You then told your own co-pilot, ‘Hang on, hang on Dak, get ready to fire that tow cable.’ What happened next?”

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Poor Dak. He deserved a better pilot. (Lucasfilm, Ltd)

Commander Skywalker: “Then we got hit and I crash-landed the speeder, dismounted, and headed towards the closest walker.”

Judge: “How did your ship end up in the enemy’s line of fire?”

Commander Skywalker: “It was on our approach with the tow cable.”

Judge: “You elected to begin your approach vector around the front of the walker? Hm. All right, then you crashed, and your retrieved two items from your ship, a grenade and an obsolete weapon, is that correct?”

Princess Organa: “Leading the witness!”

Judge: “Fine, fine, a lightsaber. With these two weapons you proceeded to disable a walker, which demonstrates bravery that is highly commendable. In fact, in light of this bravery, and your subsequent courageous but foolhardy attempt to rescue Commander Solo, the court has urged me to look with kindness on your case. Were it up to me, Commander Skywalker, you would be cashiered to some backwoods corner of the Galaxy, maybe Tatooine, for your abysmal tactical performance and the destruction of our limited resources. I would also reprimand you for your negligence in the care of your own equipment, which led you to be manning a flying box during the engagement. However, since we have a severe lack of pilots, an impending operation to rescue Commander Solo, and are essentially desperate, it is the recommendation of the court that you are reinstated to your command. And promoted to general. God help us. Court adjourned.”


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Wherein I Come Out of Anesthesia

So this past weekend I had my wisdom teeth out. I elected to go full pansy and get all the anesthesia the doc would give me. Accordingly, there is a gap in my memory after coming out of surgery. Luckily, my charming wife took notes for posterity on what happens when an Army officer and historian has no earthly idea what he is saying.

The following are in what I am told is chronological order.

“My tongue feels anesthesiologist.” 

” In my dream, Hilary seemed really racist.” Straight up have no idea what dream I was talking about.

As I was coming out from surgery, apparently I kept repeating this to anyone who would listen, emphatically: “I’m the command historian for [redacted] and I can’t feel my face…I can’t feel fuck all.”

“This hotel has weird service. I’m just kidding I know we’re at the dentist.” 

“This is a nice blanket, we should bring it home.” 

“I’m thinking how they did surgery in the Civil War. Whiskey and chopping. Whack. Whack. Saw.” True story. Battlefield medicine in the Civil War was…painful.

“Whatever I say don’t give me my social media device until….I don’t know, I kinda want to do some drugged tweeting.” 

“Dude, if they had this gas in World War I, it would have been happy.” But they didn’t, and instead World War I was miserable and terrible.

“You’re pretty.”

“My name is [Angry Staff Officer] and it,s July 7, 2016. That’s all I really wanted to get out there.” 

“I feel pretty cogent.” Note from wife: You’re not quite cogent.

So then I told this joke, that my brother in law had also told after coming out from having his wisdom teeth removed. It had become a sort of inside family joke, and its actual contents aren’t all that important. What is important is what followed:

“Want to hear another joke? The U.S. Air Force. They have desks and stuff.”

“Dude, can you imagine if they had this shit in the Civil War? Chamberlain wouldn’t have lost his balls.” Now, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain did not actually lose his man parts in the Civil War, but he was sorely wounded in that area and lost the use of them. Which is just terrible, but makes his post-war feats – president of Bowdoin College, governor of Maine, etc – that much more impressive.

“You’re pretty.” 

“I feel like a grown ass man now.” 

“Have given me the laudanum yet?” Let’s jump back to the Civil War comment, as apparently I was really fixated on the idea that I was damned lucky not to be living at that time. Laudanum was an opiate-based painkiller; loads of people got addicted to it, because that’s what you want: tons of veterans addicted to opiates.

“Yeah, but the blacksmith was this dude who had this business [dentistry] on the side. Shoe your horse and pull your teeth.”  No idea how I remembered this, but I was indeed correct.

“I wonder if I can remember the Soldier’s creed. I am an American Soldier, I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army values. I will always place this mission first. I…I like big butts and I cannot lie.” So much for rote memory. Well done, Sir Mix-a-lot.

“Dude, stoned history would be the best.” 

“The history of the Civil War: alcohol, sharp things, lots of pain. No me gusta.” 

Me: “It’s so hard to say stuff.” 

Wife: “Honey you don’t need to say stuff.” 

Me: “I have a duty to history.” 

“There are way worse ways to go. Yellow fever. Diphtheria.”

At some point around here I began remembering what I was saying, it became a lot less interesting. But now I have fulfilled my duty to history. You’re welcome.

Anatomy of a World War I Artillery Barrage

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Shells bursting at Ypres

A lot has been said about the role of artillery in World War I, in both its intensity and ferocity. On the opening day of the Somme on July 1, 1916, British guns hurled 250,000 high explosive and shrapnel shells towards German positions. During the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, over 3,000 British guns and howitzers fired a “creeping barrage” on German positions, with the infantry advancing fifty yards behind the moving wall of fire and steel. The Germans developed and perfected the “box barrage” that dropped shells on all four sides of the targeted unit, designed to cut it off from supporting units and sever its lines of communication. Preparatory, or “softening up,” barrages would be fired on pre-planned targets in advance of an attack. The American St. Mihiel Offensive on September 12, 1918 was preceded in some areas by a seven-hour preparatory bombardment. By the end of the war, most attacks by French, American, and British forces began with a swift but short artillery bombardment that massed thousands of guns on one small area, followed up almost immediately by a ground attack.

All sides incorporated poison gas into their artillery bombardments. A mix of high explosive and gas rounds was both deadly and psychologically unnerving.

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German poison gas attack on the Chemin des Dames

Artillery was also used on the defense, where artillery batteries would initiate defensive fire as soon as the front line infantry outposts reported enemy infantry advancing. By 1918, a signal flare fired by the infantry would be enough to unleash salvos from protecting guns on pre-planned points in front of the friendly infantry, the goal being to “catch the enemy in their own wire” before they could reach friendly lines.

All of this sounds very technical and does not convey the intensity and terror that artillery bombardments could bring to soldiers on each side. Which begs the question, what was it like to actually be on the receiving end of an artillery bombardment?

One U.S. soldier was awoken to his first day on the front lines – March 6, 1918 – by the tremendous report of “big shell bursting directly over our dugout. The Boche bombarded us in good shape, at least seventy big fellows bursting every minute. Believe me, the man who said he was not scared is a liar. They mixed gas shells in with the heavy fellows and before long gas was detected. We immediately put on our masks.”

An artillery shell in World War I consisted of a metal casing surrounding high explosive – usually a mixture of TNT or picric acid and ammonium nitrate and other chemicals. Shells were fused to burst either on impact or in the air, depending on the intent. When the shell would strike – such as the shell that detonated over the U.S. soldier’s dugout – the fuse would ignite the high explosive.

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The first thing a soldier would experience would be the concussive force of the explosion, caused by the rapid release of energy compressing the air particles. This is often referred to as “overpressure.” Soldiers feel like the air is sucked out of the area, causing a tightening of the skin and pulsating of the eyes.

Split milliseconds after the overpressure strikes and radiates outwards, it is followed by shock waves that create a vacuum in the immediate area of the explosion. Oxygen is pushed out, sucked back in, and then immediately pushed out again into a gut-smashing wave of energy. The blast wave followed by the shock wave creates havoc on internal organs – brain, lungs, stomach – often pulverizing them if the soldier is too close to the point of impact. Air sucked out of the lungs leaves the soldier gasping for breath. The shock wave is felt strongly in the gut. Blood is forced out of organs and arteries upwards towards the brain. After successive blasts, eardrums could rupture causing bleeding out of the ears.

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Night view of an artillery bombardment

This is then followed by the outward force of the rapidly expanding gases that grabs anything in the nearby area and throws it outward with relentless force. Soldiers standing are the most vulnerable to this part of the blast, as if they are hurled into something solid – such as a tree or building – they can be killed by the impact. Laying on the ground can often mitigate this effect, as the pulse of the blast rolls over them and the shock is dissipated up and out.

The sound – or report – of the blast was incredibly loud, damaging eardrums. Heat from the explosion would burn those caught in the blast – although the overpressure would have already killed them.

So much for the explosion itself.

Shells are encased with metal sheathing, which upon detonation is broken up into tiny fragments that are projected upwards and outwards at speeds of over 60 miles per hour. These shards imbed in flesh or – if large enough – rip parts of the body away. Soldiers struck directly would explode in all directions, leaving nothing remaining of their existence other than blood and fragments of bone, flesh, organs, and uniform scraps. Soldiers entering Belleau Wood in 1918 remarked with disgust at the bodies and body parts hanging from high in the shattered trees. Shrapnel shredded trees, bushes, rocks, anything in the area, creating more deadly fragments.

View of damage done by shell fire directed on a gun position used by the 103rd F.A. Near Rambucourt, France. June 24, 1918

The effects of months of shelling – the WWI moonscape

Now multiply this times seventy per minute, as the soldier mentioned. That is one concussion every second. Bombardments could last for hours.

Small wonder that the armies began to burrow into the earth in 1914-1915. Soldiers built elaborate dugouts for protection, twelve to fifteen feet into the earth, covered by logs and dirt.

However, these fell victim to another hazard: poison gas. Some gas, like mustard gas, sinks to low places after it is released from its canister. Right into dugouts. Troops rushing out of dugouts became vulnerable to high explosive shells, which is why gas and high explosives were often mixed together for maximum effect.

The effects of prolonged exposure to artillery fire have been well-documented, and gave rise to the familiar term “shell shock.” Sometimes referred to as “war neurosis” – now termed Post Traumatic Stress – shell shock in its purest form referred to the effects of constant overpressure, blast waves, deafening explosions, and being in close proximity to horrendous destruction. The effects were physical as well as mental, as can be seen in this disturbing video of a shell shocked British soldier.

Somehow, through all of this, soldiers pushed on. The remarkable durability and resilience of the human body shows again and again through the war, as well as that of the human spirit.

Which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of World War I; all that suffering, perseverance, heartbreak, and self-sacrifice: and for what?


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Staff Meetings and their Corresponding Cocktails

We’ve all been there. It’s 1700 on a Friday and you’re still stuck in a meeting that began at 1300, and the S-3 still has twenty more slides to brief. What you could really use right now is a good stiff drink. Your mind wanders off to consider your options, as the monotonous drone of the Good Idea Fairy buzzes on in the background.

Fortunately, you’re not alone. In fact, there are even cocktails that are paired for each type of staff meeting. After a scientific* study, here are the results. Stock your Camelbak accordingly.

*No science was used in this study.

Commander’s Update Brief – Bloody Mary 

Depending on your command, this might be the meeting that kicks off the day and lets you know what you’re in for. As sure as the commander is going to find something in the current ops slide that will create more work for you, this vodka and tomato juice combo will be get life flowing in your veins. The Tabasco sauce might make your eyes water if you are weak of heart, but your excuse can always be that the slide transitions were so beautiful that they moved you to tears. As an added bonus, you can use the vodka-soaked celery stick as a pointer if you have to brief the boss. Chin up, the day is better already.

Training Meeting – French 75

Training meetings are a marathon, not a sprint. As you listen to the executive officer argue with the S-4, take heart knowing that this drink’s namesake was the 75mm field gun, the warhorse of the French army from 1914-1918 during World War I. If that’s not a marathon, I don’t know what is. You can use this liquid courage to take people to task when they insist that mandatory training comes before mission essential training. If necessary, steal their copy of Army Regulation 350-1 and beat them with it. The French 75 will make sure that you won’t remember it for your 15-6 investigation later.

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In other words, fire for effect.

Command and Staff Call – Old Fashioned

Ah, command and staff. So formal. Much importance. Very long. When you sip your bourbon-based deliciousness, you will feel all the old sentimentality of the old garrison Army coming back to you. You may even feel classy. Regardless, it will ensure a feeling of benevolent resolve as commanders harangue your boss for not reigning in his or her staff officers. If you’re lucky, you may even get lulled off to sleep with this drink’s loving embrace. Just remember to wear your dark eyepro; all bets are off if someone with a sharpie catches you sleeping.

Maintenance Meeting – Dirty Martini

There’s nothing fun about maintenance meetings, unless you really like reading down a list of things that are broken that you have no spare parts for. Luckily, unless you are a company executive officer or got tagged to be the unlucky one in the S-4 who attends these meetings, you may miss out on these all together. However, if you do end up staring at the battalion executive officer down a long table wondering what life choices you made that brought you to this point, here’s your salvation. The martini is a classy drink, and a dirty martini is what classy maintainers drink. The salty taste will keep you focused on the long lines of text on the O26 report in front of you. And if you get too annoyed with someone, the olive serves as a good long range projectile.

Shift Change – Margarita

Tequila is said to make people’s clothes fall off, but in this case, try to keep them on. This is for those who are coming off shift, and the joy in being able to dump all of your problems into someone else’s lap and get the hell out of the operations center calls for a celebration. The margarita is definitely a celebration, and is sure to leave you giddy as you rattle off the long list of things that are no longer your concern to the new shift leader. Hopefully you can still find your way back to your billets without trying to accost random strangers by singing them showtunes.

Military Decision Making Process Course of Action Brief – Gin and Tonic

Ah, MDMP, how do we love to hate you. There’s nothing like the smell of a good course of action brief in the morning…it smells like….alcohol? Yes, that’s right, if you’ve got to brief a course of action to the boss, it would be best if you were imbibing with some liquid courage. A gin and tonic is light enough that it won’t feel like you’re getting tipsy, and since it is clear colored it will just look like water. So when the operations sergeant major says something like “hydrate or die,” flash him a wink and down the whole thing. You’ll feel great, I promise.

Incidentally, the G&T is the author’s go-to drink for domestic contingency operations.*

*Real life.

Operations Synchronization – Long Island Iced Tea

This last one is for those poor few, those unhappy few, those bastards stuck in S-3 operations. We raise our glasses to you, you poor souls, who wander the halls of the operations center like blind mice in a maze. For you, the operations sync meeting is a small piece of Dante’s Inferno all rolled up into a Kafka-esque nightmare. Therefore, you’re going to need the drink with the most alcohol in it per square liter. And for that, we turn to none other than the long island iced tea. The staple of drunk white people everywhere, two stiff long islands at the beginning of an ops sync act like anesthesia before a major surgery: you won’t remember a thing. 


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Is the Way the Army Looks at Uniforms Completely Wrong?

This piece was inspired by Alice Rawsthorn’s TED Talk on design.

Ever been that one person at a Revolutionary War battlefield who loudly questioned why the British were wearing bright red coats that made them extremely visible? Or looked at pictures of Polish winged hussars and thought they seemed preposterous? Or wondered why U.S. dragoons used to have horsehair crests on their hats?

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U.S. Dragoon, the badass of his day. (Don Troiani/Wikimedia Commons)

Would you believe that all of those designs were conscious and deliberate, meant to convey a psychological meaning as well as being functional? Red coats made it easier for British commanders to identify their own men, and gave enemies a psychological fright at facing those dreaded redcoats. The wings of the Polish hussars rattled fiercely when they charged which – like the rattle of an incoming A-10 Warthog or the scream of a Tie Fighter – chilled the bones of their enemies. Similarly, U.S. dragoons wearing horsehair crests looked substantially larger and more imposing.

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Armor and wings of a 17th century Polish Winged Hussar (National Museum in Krakow/Wikimedia)

In short, uniforms were meant to convey a message, appealing to the human dimension that is always present in warfare.

For years, the U.S. Army has been dithering between different uniform designs, seeking a “one size fits all” approach to a combat uniform. The output has been the new Army Combat Uniform, commonly referred to as multicam. While we all breathed a sigh of relief as we put off the digital universal camouflage pattern – that was only universal as long as you were operating in an environment purely made up of gravel – and donned something that makes us look like Soldiers again, the argument continues about whether the Army’s approach is the best. Sure, one uniform is cheaper that multiple patterns. But does it really serve the need of all operating environments?

The Army of today is called upon for a myriad of missions: conventional war, deterrence, counterinsurgency, and disaster relief, to name a few. Yet, with the exception of Special Operations Forces (SOF), all wear the same uniform and equipment.

That exception is notable. SOF are allowed to grow out their beards and wear whatever they like. Part of this is for function: they often need to be able to blend into local populations and use a diverse group of weaponry. The other part is form: a fully bearded SOF warrior, tall and imposing, carrying a unique weapons system, bedecked with all the implements of destruction conveys a certain deadly intent.

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Army operator, operating (Courtesy Pinterest, of all places)

In other words, just the very way that they appear is a psychological weapon.

As Alice Rawsthorn mentions in her TED Talk, the pirate Blackbeard cultivated a terrifying demeanor – bushy beard, large hat bedecked with lit slow-burn matches, large coat containing armaments – all meant to discourage resistance and encourage his victims to surrender rather than fight. This allowed him to harbor his force rather than lose men in constant combat.

His appearance fulfilled both form and function.

During America’s Long War – the Global War on Terror – there was a lot of talk about doing simple things to build trust with local nationals, like removing helmets and sunglasses. Reports were coming in that just the Americans’ dark sunglasses alone made it difficult for locals to feel like they were talking with a human being. Because a U.S. Soldier, fully dressed in body armor and helmet, wearing gloves, hung with grenades, flash bangs, chem lights, RipIts, and carrying their weapon makes for an imposing sight.

Which begs the question: are we completely missing a point that armies have realized for hundreds of years? That uniform and equipment are as much about form as they are function?

Imagine uniforms designed for counterinsurgency missions that are made with the intent to convey familiarity and a willingness to work with rather than against the local population. Uniforms for disaster relief that emphasize a helping hand rather than a conquering military force. Obviously, the current uniform does the trick for deterrence and conventional war.

Currently, the Pentagon’s Playground at DARPA is working on a soldier system that brings us one step closer to making Ironman a reality – although without the charming and sarcastic attitude of Tony Stark. While that is good news for the conventional battlefield, it takes us one step away from the human dimension.

For all the new aspects of war in the digital age, war is still made up of human actors with human emotions. How we present Soldiers should reflect the mission, as well as the ideals, norms, and values of the U.S. Army – in addition to the protection, comfort, and well-being of the Soldier. It’s a tall order, but it is one that we should be mindful of as we enter the 21st century and the ever-expanding number of Army missions.


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Is DoD Contracting Out of Control?

When I walked off the ramp of the C-17 and the dusty heat of Bagram Airfield slapped me in the face, I went through the same thought process as thousands of U.S. servicemembers before me: what the hell am I even doing here?  

It was the fall of 2013, and I was arriving in Afghanistan to participate in the responsible closure and transfer of U.S. bases to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Or, in more common parlance, I was there to remove the detritus of twelve years of war.

Which is why I grew more and more confused as our Toyota Hilux rolled through the maze of streets, shacks, B-huts, T-walls, electric wires, and bunkers that made up Bagram Airfield: I thought we were leaving? Why is there so much new construction?

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Bagram Air Field (Photo by Author)

As we completed our relief of the unit we were replacing, it became rapidly clear that although everyone at the top of the food chain had made retrograde a priority, that had not trickled down to the lower levels. Base and camp commanders fought tooth and nail to keep their little fiefdoms.

And construction projects that had been contracted years ago still went into motion, even as the President confirmed an end to the U.S. combat mission by the end of 2014.

Our battalion headquarters set up in tents on the edge of the base, adjacent to a massive construction site where hardstand barracks were being built, complete with electricity and running water. U.S.and Coalition personnel had been on Bagram since 2002, but only now they were building hardstand structures that were strong enough to withstand 107mm rocket blasts? That one flummoxed me.

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Temporary housing at Camp Warrior. (Photo by author)

The project was months behind schedule and the base was becoming crowded to overcapacity as troops pulled off forward posts and consolidated on Bagram, there to serve out the duration of their tours; often as little more than tourists. Why not just send them home? I often thought.

I didn’t have too much time for that thought, as I was too busy fighting a new kind of war: a war against contractors.

You see, the U.S. military does not have the time or manpower to fully maintain all of its overseas bases; what is does – or did – have, is a lot of money. And that money was being liberally spent on contractors who maintained base housing, electricity, plumbing, water, laundry, internet, and food. Contracts were written based on a certain population that the contractor would be supporting. Which is why “retrograde” became a dirty word to them.

Here’s how the process would work: United States Forces – Afghanistan kept a timeline of what bases needed to be closed, what bases were to be transferred, and what bases were to be right-sized to support a smaller population of troops. They would send those orders to the division level, as well as notifying (sometimes) base commanders. Division would pass this on to brigade, who would then send us our orders, which usually consisted of tearing down whole swathes of temporary structures.

At that point, I’d head on over to whichever U.S. base or part of Bagram that we were going to be leveling and do a quick recon. When I first started, I was continually surprised at how nine times out of ten the housing was still occupied by tenants and the life support structures were still up and running. As time went on, and I learned how contracts operate, I stopped being surprised. Even if provided with the orders and timelines of when camps would be coming down, even if their tenants had all moved out, contractors were numbingly slow in cutting the power and removing all their property from the living areas.

Because every day that they could show they were supporting personnel was another day that they were drawing a paycheck. A paycheck composed of taxpayer dollars.

This was endemic everywhere we went in Afghanistan: Logar, Ghazni, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar. In the way of any block of buildings to be torn down, incinerators boxed up, or office areas to be bulldozed stood a contractor.

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“Temporary” housing. Most were about ten years old, equipped with contracted internet, electricity, AFN, and HVAC. (Photo by author)

When I went to oversee the paperwork for getting rid of an incinerator, I met a grizzled gent who had been there for a few years. Prior to that, he was at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. In fact, he’d been there since just after the invasion. Which meant that he’d basically been a contractor since the beginning of the wars on terror.

As a good ‘Merican capitalist, I can’t frown on people like that. However, I did get pissed off at the contractors that would take advantage of unwitting service members by getting them to sign their letter of agreement (LOA), thereby continuing their contracts. The military police on Bagram spent half their time checking LOA’s, trying to catch the people whose contracts had ended but were in essence squatting in buildings and installations.

The worst, however, was the company that tried to rope us into experimenting with their “new” technology for Soldier and vehicle protection. One of their representatives approached one of our less-than bright NCO’s, talking up all this new protective gear and asking him to see if our unit would try it out. After a lecture on how DoD acquisitions works, the NCO broke off contact with the contractor. But for a company to have the gall to risk Soldiers’ lives just to get a contract left me furious.

Is this a rant that all contractors are evil and that the Army needs to get away from the process? Not entirely. I met many who were good people and just trying to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Contractors risk their lives to provide services to troops that make our lives incredibly more comfortable. In fact, two contractors were killed in a rocket attack while we were at Bagram.

However – and there is always a however with me, you know that – I encountered too much about the system that left me feeling disgusted. It was too ripe for corruption, bad business dealings, and for mismanagement. Obviously, much of the blame has to be laid at the door of the U.S. military, for not practicing adequate oversight of where taxpayer dollars are spent. The entire system needed to be reformed and reevaluated, I thought at the time.

Which is why when I read that because of reduced troop levels in Afghanistan, aircraft maintainers are being replaced by contractors, I grimace.

The shell games of troop numbers continue, as contractors assume more and more roles.

Clearly we aren’t learning anything.


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Not Understanding the Fight Against ISIS: An Open Letter to Donald Trump

Today’s guest post comes from Barefoot Boomer, who is a glutton for punishment, this being his second post. Read his first post here. Boomer is a career Army officer and strategist. He is also a historian with an emphasis in American and German military history.  The content and opinions of this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.

Dear Sir,

On Monday, I sat in the US-led Coalition Headquarters in Kuwait and watched the Memorial Day campaign speech you gave.  Through all the bumper sticker messages, the talking points, and the rallying cries, I heard something disheartening.  You said something that I found not only untrue but also misleading for your supporters and potential voters in the November election who are still undecided.

Trump

The phrase that caught my attention dealt specifically with our current fight against the Islamic State, of which I am a part.  In most speeches of yours which I have listened to, and in most soundbites that get pulled from them, there is a question about how well the fight against ISIS is going and whether or not we are winning.  You say that we are not.  I wanted to take this opportunity to help set the record straight a bit on how we are fighting this war…and how we ARE winning.

The specific line from the speech on Monday is quoted below.

“When you think of the great General Patton and all of our great generals they are spinning in their graves when they watch we can’t beat ISIS.  We’re gonna beat ISIS.  We’re gonna knock the hell out of ‘em.  We’re gonna end it….we’re gonna end it.”

My response to this claim is unequivocal.  WE aren’t beating ISIS.  The IRAQIS are. 

And they should be.

This war is not like the past two Iraq wars the US has been involved in, with hundreds of thousands of troops and American forces in direct combat with the enemy.  It is not what most Americans envision when they think of us going to war, either.  They see American Soldiers killing bad guys and YUUUUUUGE battles with tanks and cruise missiles and explosions on their TV screens, like the first Gulf War.

But this is not that kind of war.

Our role is not to go in on the ground and kill ISIS fighters.  Our role is to enable the Iraqis, ALL Iraqis – Sunni and Shi’a and Kurd and Christian alike – to fight for their country against ISIS.  Our role is a supporting one that helps the Iraqis win for themselves.

While ISIS is scary and violent and have conducted terrorist attacks against us in the West, to the Iraqis ISIS is an existential threat.  The Iraqis must deal with them directly or their government will collapse and the country could descend into further chaos.  This is why Prime Minister al-Maliki asked for our help back in 2014.  When ISIS started taking more and more territory in Iraq the Iraqi government asked for more assistance, and we responded by forming a coalition of nations to help them.  And that help has come in the form of what the U.S. does best: air strikes, logistics, Special Operations Forces, training and – most importantly – moral support.  With sixty plus nations behind them, the Iraqis are taking back their country from ISIS, and they are winning.  The bottom line is this is not OUR fight.  It’s THEIRS.

And they are doing a great job at it.  The Coalition, led by the Iraqi Security Forces, has destroyed ISIS’s economic base, curtailed the flow of foreign fighters, targeted their leadership, destroyed large caches of their weapons, taken back about fifty percent of the ground they took from Iraq, and killed thousands of ISIS fighters.  ISIS is losing and the Coalition has the momentum.  The Iraqis have retaken cities and towns from northern Iraq down to Baghdad and up to Fallujah, freeing thousands of their citizens from the horror of life under ISIS.  It is because of our support, and the hard work of the Iraqi Security Forces, that we are winning.

Again, this war is different for us.  Our aims are limited and the optics are much more important than they normally would be.  The geo-political nuance of the war dictates that the narrative be different as well.  We must make sure that the fight against ISIS in Iraq is waged in specific ways.

This must be an Iraqi fight.  Even though they have asked for our help, they have not asked for U.S. ground combat forces to be used.  Our job is to give them the support they need and to enable them to take the fight to the enemy themselves.  Iraqi Security Forces have reclaimed territory from ISIS and are continuing to drive them out of the country.  We must make sure that the Iraqis take the lead and are the ones with the victories.  This cannot have a U.S. face on it.  If we want to fulfill the promise that Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was designed to give them, then we must let them earn it and finish the job.

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Iraqi Security Forces convoy, courtesy Daily Mail

This must be an Islamic fight.  The best way to de-legitimize ISIS and to destroy their narrative is to help our Muslim friends and allies in the region destroy them.  The rhetoric by some pundits in the U.S., including many of your supporters, has been that the fight against Islamic extremism must include Muslims.  What better example of them doing just that than the fight going on for Iraq right now?  Not only are the Iraqis fighting for their homes and loved ones but other Muslim nations are contributing to the fight as part of the Coalition.  Helping Muslims in the fight against ISIS not only shows solidarity with them against a monstrous enemy but also helps in the greater fight against Islamic extremism that we have been engaged in for the past fifteen years.

This must be a Coalition fight.  The Coalition that the U.S. has helped build to fight ISIS has grown to more than sixty nations now, to include the Iraqis.  Each nation brings with them specific capabilities and forces that can assist the Iraqis in pushing ISIS back and regain their sovereignty.  This cannot be just an American fight.  The Coalition of dozens of nations must stand together against ISIS and its evil.  We have been training, advising, and supporting the Iraqi Security Forces in their drive to rid their country of ISIS, and any negating of our Allies and Partners that you and your supporters have done, along with the “losing” rhetoric, is hurting us and our mission.

It’s understandable why you would say such a thing; the political calculus, the anti-Democrat rhetoric, the attempt to seem as pro-military as possible, these all play into the position your supporters hold about the war we are waging.  This is a contentious Presidential race and it’s not the first time a candidate has used a conflict for their political gain.  All candidates triangulate and say things on the campaign trail to win the most votes.  But your fundamental misunderstanding of how we are fighting this war and why, purposeful or otherwise, is giving your supporters the false idea that this is really our fight, and that we are losing it.

You think your rhetoric is helping, but it’s not.

You think “winning” is thousands of U.S. troops on the ground storming Raqqa or Mosul, but it’s not.

You think feeding the fear and anxiety that people have about terrorism and ISIS and Islam in order to win your party’s nomination will help us in the long run but it is doing the exact opposite.  Telling your supporters that we are losing, that our military is weak, and that it takes American military might to “win” sends the wrong message to not only the American people, but the Iraqi people and the world as well.

Mr. Trump, if you truly want to help us defeat ISIS then change your tone to one more supportive of the mission we are undertaking on behalf of not only the American people, but the Iraqi people as well.  Maybe come to Iraq and Kuwait and see the good work that the Coalition is doing in support of the government to rid ISIS of its’ safe haven and restore Iraq’s sovereignty.  If you really love the American military and want us to be strong and want us to win as you say you do, then I ask that you please change your message.  Help us by supporting our mission in helping the Iraqis as they fight and die for their country.  And for us.  I’m sure General Patton and all the rest would approve.

Signed,

@BarefootBoomer

The content and opinions of this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.


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Mil-splaining Memorial Day: Stop it

So Memorial Day weekend is just about upon us, which means one thing: the proliferation of Memorial Day memes in my Facebook feed that waver back and forth between letting me know the differences between this holiday and Veterans Day, and letting me know that no fun is to be had this weekend.

And like most memes, they never seem to care if they’re trivializing a private and solemn moment to “make a statement.”

Like this…

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Or this…

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Yes, I mourn for the friends I made who will never come home because they were killed in action. And yes, I too get annoyed and frustrated by advertisements for Memorial Day sales and the like.

But here’s the bottom line up front: Memorial Day isn’t about us telling everyone to shut up and be dour. It’s about actually living, loving, and appreciating the world that we have been graciously allowed to live in, for those who cannot.

It is NOT about mil-splaining to civilians the difference between Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day.

For all the talk out there of the civilian-military divide, there seems to be a disconnect between actually working to fix the problem and just kvetching about it. Those who are most commonly posting memes letting everyone know that no one will be closer to them than those who bled with them are usually also those responsible for a plethora of memes shaming civilians who say, “Thank you” to a service member on Memorial Day.

Knock that off, right now.

These types of memes and accompanying statements do two things: one, they cut short and stifle a genuine attempt of a well-meaning civilian to say thanks for what we do. They may not know the significance of the day to us, that it brings back memories that are painful, that we cringe when we hear someone say, “Happy Memorial Day,” that our thoughts are somewhere else; what they do know is that it is a day that is important to the military. And they are seeking in some way to convey their appreciation.

So instead of immediately responding with, “This day isn’t about me, it’s about those who died, how dare you, etc,” just say, “Thank you for your support.” And then talk to them, open a conversation; at some point in there, you might just find a genuine connection with that person, where you can tell them about someone who was close to you who is no longer present. This will be far more meaningful than replying with a trope.

Secondly, when you advertise to everyone that this day isn’t about you, you’re actually making that day about you. You are drawing attention back to your own service. Which is literally what you just said today was not about.

I guarantee you that if you were to bring back a fallen service member and ask them if they weren’t just enraged at how people say, “Thank you for your service,” on Memorial Day, they would look at you in confusion and say, “Why the hell do you care about that? There is life to be lived.”

After all, Abraham Lincoln did not say in his Gettysburg Address, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to correcting anyone who gets the meaning of Memorial Day wrong.” What he said was, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

And what is that unfinished work?

It is living. It is experiencing life. It is appreciating our freedom from tyranny, from slavery, from oppression, from war, from destruction. It is appreciating our families, our friends, the simple joys that make up every new day.

Please savor life this Memorial Day; those who died through no choice of their own would wish that you did so.


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