Retaking the American Narrative: A Challenge to the U.S. Army

So, the other day I was talking with a noncommissioned officer within my organization. We were having an interesting discussion about different issues facing the Army right now, when he made the somewhat alarming remark that he thinks multiculturalism is destroying this country.  

This line of thinking isn’t new at all; in fact it’s been around for hundreds of years. And unfortunately, it has been responsible for some of the darker moments in U.S. history.

You can look at every single wave of immigration that’s come to this country and see the discrimination that they have met. And not just because of their ethnic backgrounds, but against their cultures, as seen with the Germans, the Italians, the Greeks, the Poles, the Chinese, the Japanese, the list goes on. You can see it through successive waves of immigration even up to the present day, as refugees are seeking to escape the increasingly volatile Middle East.

But these cultures are some of the ones that literally form the framework of American society today. Take German culture, for example. When the Germans first arrived in the United States back in the 18th century, they were viewed with deep distrust, because many of them were Catholic, they didn’t all learn English immediately, they had strange customs, and they didn’t drop those customs upon arrival to the U.S. Customs such as Christmas trees, Christmas carols, even Santa Claus… things that we today take for granted as being part of a traditional American Christmas. These came from a culture that was completely condemned by the 18th and 19th century Anglo-Americans. Roman Catholics were viewed as being potential revolutionaries and could possibly destroy American society because they might be loyal to the Pope. Yet, in the American Civil War, thousands of German immigrants and their children were fighting on the side of the Union to preserve a country that in some places still considered them second-class citizens.

What happened with the Germans is indicative of other waves of immigration into the United States, as well. Like the Irish. When they first arrived, their culture was condemned because the Irish drank too much, they were too loud, they were too rowdy – and again, they were Catholics. Fast forward to today when we in our American culture have one day per year that is set aside to drinking heavily and being loud and rowdy  – including by people who are not of Irish descent. How does that fit into the narrative of a so-called purely American identity?

The danger, of course, in this anti-multiculturalism, is that it can lead us down some incredibly dark paths that we have collectively tried to forget about. Rounding up the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor and putting them in camps, comes to mind. There’s the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1917, where to have a German last name and mutter anything remotely construed as being anti-American could have you end up in prison or at the very least under watch by the local authorities. It’s a dark past that also contains the history of our treatment of American Indians, our treatment – obviously – of Africans by enslaving them, and then the eventual Civil War that it took to erase that horrible institution. And then the campaign for Civil Rights that has been going on for the past hundred and fifty years.

If you’re going to say that the American way of life is something that anyone who comes to this country needs to conform to, you also need to understand that in the early 1900s – just the past century – white Christian Americans were lynching black Americans because of the color of their skin, and because of their culture. So if you come to me and talk to me about creeping Sharia law and are ignorant of this part of the white Southern Christian background, I’m going to laugh in your face and tell you to read your history.

Because if we don’t read our history, this is a very bad, violent, immoral, unethical, and, at its heart, un-American past that we need to be cognizant of.

I live down the street from a large Muslim community. I have not seen any mass stoning of women, nor have I seen any large terrorist organizations emerge from this community. What I see instead are very hardworking people from Somalia, Sudan, and Burundi who take America at its face value – that it is the land of opportunity. It is a place where you can come from nothing and your children can become President. It is such a powerful idea that is it has sustained this Republic for hundreds of years in the face of incredible opposition; through a civil war and through multiple armed conflicts. This idea is what is at the heart of what it means to be American.

Instead of pointing at these people as a danger to our community, shouldn’t we be looking at them as the next wave of Americans and helping them along in their lives? Because that’s what they came here for. They came here to have a better life, and like all waves of immigrants, the first wave does take a while to learn the language; it does take a while to learn the culture, to learn the mores of American society. And then it is their children who can speak better English than most of us, who take the American dream to heart, who enlist in the armed forces, enter civic government, go to universities, and end up becoming some of the great inventors, artists, and innovators that we see in our nation’s history.  This cycle repeated over and over and over again is what makes us the greatest country in the world.

In my wife’s church, there is a large population of Africans from Burundi. They are political asylum seekers and what they have seen he is absolutely unbelievable. It is literally hard to believe that you can be in your home, your place of work, your place of worship, or your place of education and have men enter with machetes and select individuals  – your friends, your family – and execute them in front of you. Or even seek to execute you. It is a kind of violence that we cannot understand. But because we do not understand it, we instead only see the “other.” We do not see our fellow human beings in need of help.

So, when I hear a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army stating that he thinks that multiculturalism is destroying America, when multiculturalism in fact created the America that he knows today – because the original America is not one that he would recognize – I become fundamentally concerned. Concerned that the narrative that we created in the wake of 9/11 to fight the global war on terror has taken on a new, radical, and essentially evil form.  It is opposed not only to American values, but also to the Army Values, especially those of respect and integrity. Those two Army values are linked inextricably with how we, as American Soldiers serve and protect our nation.

If this is the case – that we have created a new narrative, one that is filled with hate, for fear of the other – then it is incumbent upon us in the United States Army to go back to our original narrative. There is no need to create a new narrative, there is one that exists already. And that is the one that we state all the time: whether it be in the Soldier’s Creed or in the Army Values or, hell,how about the oath we took to enlist in this great institution?  It’s our job to reclaim that narrative and spread it far and wide. Because I can tell you that the other narrative – the one that is being carried on right, now that multiculturalism is the death of American society, that Muslims should be feared, that refugees should be rejected – that is entirely the narrative of our enemy in the Islamic state and the radical terrorist world.

Additional Duties? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Additional Duties! Ten Tips for Executing the Role of Executive Officer

This post first appeared on the blog Point of Decision and has been reposted in its entirety with permission.

So, you’ve pinned (or rather, hook-and-loop fastened) your black bar to your chest. Gone are the days of people calling you “Butterbar” and ignoring what you have to say. It’s a new era, right? Wrong. You’re a lieutenant, get used to being commonly ignored. However, that has its upsides, as you will eventually learn.

With that black bar, though, your time as platoon leader is drawing to a rapid close, and therefore your life is about to take a dramatic turn for the worst: you are either going to the staff or to be an executive officer. Both are a far cry from the down-in-the-dirt fun of being a platoon leader, and both involve the intense application of your new Combat Power: PowerPoint. If you’re going from platoon leader into an executive officer (XO: hint, does not mean hugs and kisses, that could get you in some SHARP hot water) billet, then maybe these words will be of some use. If you’re coming from the staff, it will all seem eerily familiar and yet better.

So here, from my just under two years of XO time, both in garrison and deployed, are my nuggets of wisdom. Take them or leave, them, because what do I know, I’m a lieutenant.

10. Executive Secretary

You’ve arrived in your office. You’ve met the commander and the platoon leaders, and the 1SG has crushed your hand in a grip like a vice, just to set the parameters of your relationship. Congrats, you’re the XO. Get used to that title, because you’re going to hear it a lot. XO this, XO that, where’s the XO, I need the XO now, XO these slides are late, etc, etc, etc. You’re going to begin to feel like you are like an executive secretary rather than the executive officer. Well, you’re not wrong. Your job is to synthesize ALL the data that comes in from the company and give your commander a snapshot of the company, whenever he asks. You will also be writing memos. So many memos. Do yourself a favor, get out AR 25–50, and learn how to write a memo. This is going to pay dividends when instead of the S-1 kicking your memos back, you’re able to call the S-1 and tell them that the margins on their LOI are all wrong. It’s the little things.

9. Mentorship

As always, Doctrine Man has answers to all of life’s persistent questions.

Look at you. You are the XO. A senior lieutenant. You are like the god of the lieutenants. You have at least three, and they exist to serve you, right? NO. Bad LT. It’s the other way around. Yes, they may be young, and confused, and ask the stupidest questions in the world, and NEVER understand that there are regulations which give all the answers, and are always making mistakes, but remember, just a year ago, you were them. So shut your ego off, and do your job, which is to mentor. Not just talk at them. Sit down, get to know them. Offer advice. Get them involved in organizations that will help their careers. If they’re good stuff, let everyone know about it. If they need work, well, work on them. It can be a hard road to travel because there’s not a huge age difference, but in the end, they will thank you.

8. PowerPoint

Let this be your motto.

Remember how you used to brief? Out in the field, maybe with a sand table, but probably not, usually with a notebook and something to point with (because sticks are symbols of power). Not anymore. Now you brief with PowerPoint. More importantly, you prepare briefs for the commander. The better his slides, the less the staff will pick on him. And by better, I don’t mean fancy transitions or graphics: I mean content. The bare bones, the essentials. Anything else is just decoration that is meant to disguise that you have no idea what’s going on, and a sharp S-3 will be all over that. So do your boss a favor, and make some damn good slides.

7. Additional Duties as Assigned

When you were a PL you probably had a few extra duties, like safety officer or environmental officer. And that was probably a bore. Well, there’s this line in most officer’s job descriptions: extra duties as assigned. And oh brother (or sister), you are going to be the poster child for additional duties. Let’s see, so you will definitely become lead Safety Officer, Maintenance Officer, Operations Officer, Combined Federal Campaign Officer, Voting Assistance Officer, Container Control Officer, Equal Opportunity Officer, Historical Officer, Victims Advocate Officer, Guy Who Makes the Coffee Officer, Mess Officer, Color Coordination Officer, We Should Get That Guy Who’s Retiring a Plaque Officer, Ooh I Saw Something Shiny Officer, and…well, you get my point. If it’s not in the commander or first sergeant’s job description, you own it.

6. Sense of Humor

You will have days like this. And they will make no sense.

Laugh. Daily. Make jokes at meetings. Play pranks on your staff (not your supply sergeant though. Never piss off the guy or gal who can suddenly add $20,000 to your clothing record). Smile when your day sucks. Odds are, everyone else’s day sucks, too. You’re the head of the ops section, so set the tone from there. And if your humor eventually turns snarky and sarcastic, then you’re one step ahead of your peers for when you go be on staff.

5. Knowledge is Power (And you’ve got the power)

You are the person with their ear to the ground. You should have an intimate knowledge of what is going on in the company at all times. Eventually, you will get so in tune with it that you’ll know where everyone is at any given time of day, because you’ve synced the company calendar to your brain. It’s scary, but cool. With all this knowledge comes an element of power. Don’t use it to make people feel stupid. Use it to help people out. Granted, some of the knowledge is close-hold between you and the commander; don’t go spreading it around. Gossip can come back to bite you. Hard. So play nice.

4. The Commander is always right

This one is pretty simple and self-explanative. You can disagree in private, but don’t undermine your boss in public. Once they make the call, take a deep breath, and deal with it.

I would also add to this: learn from your CO. If they make mistakes, note them. If they are successful, learn what it is that makes them a success. Because in just a few years, you will be in their shoes. And the view from up there is very different from the view as an XO.

3. Protect the Property Book!

Yes, in this analogy, you are Milton, and the Property Book is the stapler.

This must be your mantra when you wake up in the morning: I will not lose accountability of the commander’s property. You and the supply sergeant are the two lone sentinels on the walls that protect the commander’s property. You had best protect it well, as EVERYONE is going to want it. Sure, you can give away that nice new OE-254 antenna to that squad leader who says that he’ll give it right back, but still hasn’t returned the range box and the range was three months ago. Or you can say, “Aw hell no” and risk making people upset. Hint: make people upset. The property book is your sacred trust. Guard it with your life, because the best way for you and your commander to get into trouble is from missing high value items. Does that mean you’re going to tick people off? Yes. Get used to it.

2. Your Ops Sergeant is Your Best Friend

Your commander may become your friend, but he or she is your boss. You might be friends with the first sergeant, but he is the boss’s right-hand man. The job of XO can be a lonely one, so that is why the Army, in its wisdom, gave you an Operations Sergeant. They have that thing that you lack: years of experience. They are also an NCO and can handle things in ways that officers aren’t supposed to. Work closely with your Ops Sergeant, develop a strong team, and nothing can overcome you. Not even the battalion command sergeant major, who dares you to touch his grass.

1. What Success Looks Like

Right about now, you’re thinking success looks like you getting pats on the back after meetings and maybe some new bling in the form of an ARCOM. Disabuse yourself of that idea, because it ain’t it, buddy. Yeah, once in a while someone will say “good work, XO,” in passing. It’s not exactly the most glamorous job. But what people will notice is when your boss looks good; also, the converse. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a hands-on commander or a “I’ll be in late today” commander. The commander that says in a briefing, “I’m not sure, sir, my XO didn’t tell me,” is sunk. They’ve lost all credibility, and guess what, so have you. Make your commander shine. The sign that you’re doing your job right is that they look good.

Captain America had a GREAT executive officer when he was in his command tour.


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A Veteran’s Response to Allen West

Guest post by Combat Cav Scout. His opinions as written here do not represent or reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army. Title photo courtesy Politico.

I don’t, as a general rule, give much mind to the opinions of war criminals. So imagine my astonishment as I sit here with a browser window open and displaying a blog post written by war criminal Allen B. West. The blog post, which you can read here, is about what I would expect from West in terms of tone and position. But the topic of discussion was what caught my eye and my attention. In this instance, West states that he has “a PERSONAL message for the Muslim father whose son was killed in Iraq.” So I decided that it was high time to get my hate-read on and I dove right in. And – surprise, surprise – it left me furious.

Let’s start with the headline: “I have a PERSONAL message for the Muslim father whose son was killed in Iraq.” Grammar and unnecessary emphasis via capitalization aside, this headline pisses me off. West, a former Army officer, decides from the very beginning that he will not name the Gold Star Father whose son gave the last full measure in Iraq. He does not call him “Mr. Khan” or even “Khizr Khan” in the headline, but reduces him to “the Muslim father.” The deliberate depersonalization of Mr. Khan in the headline is telling. It is a reflection of West’s readership, to whom he is pandering – hardcore right-wing Islamophobes who will have a visceral reaction to any mention of the word “Muslim.” Mr. Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention on national television and became an instant celebrity; there is no reason to avoid using Mr. Khan’s name in the headline other than to point out his Muslim faith to readers.

West asserts that “It appears things have devolved into such a level of immaturity relating to the speech that I believe there’s a need for a clear analysis of Mr. Khan’s address, and what he should have presented.” For those in the back who might not have heard, Allen West said that there is a need for him to educate the world on what Mr. Khan “should have said.” What a Gold Star Father whose son was killed in Iraq for this country should have said. “Hey, I know your son was killed saving his soldiers in a foreign country, but please sit down and be quiet so I can tell you how to feel and what to say.” According to West, Mr. Khan is thinking and feeling and saying the wrong things about his son’s death. Can you imagine, can you fathom a universe in which such an implication would be okay? Because I can’t. Shame on you, Allen West.

“Their son and I share an unbreakable bond,” West writes. Personally, I find it ridiculous for West to make such a statement. Captain Humayan Khan’s service to our country ended in an act of heroism which claimed his life, the life he sacrificed to protect his soldiers from a suicide bomber. Allen West’s service ended when he was forced to retire after committing a multitude of crimes against an Iraqi policeman being held as a detainee. The detained police officer was beaten in front of West, who then fired his pistol in the air, counted down from five, and fired his pistol again next to the police officer’s head. Every one of these actions is a crime. West’s service is marred by illegal and cruel treatment of a detainee. Captain Khan’s service is marked by courage, sacrifice, and heroism. For West to compare the two is unconscionable.

From here, West proceeds to harangue Mr. Khan, a man who immigrated to this country and then gave his son for love of it. And he does it in the standard way: with lies and venom and an assumption that he, West, somehow knows better.

West presumes much in his open letter to Mr. Khan. “Undoubtedly you would agree,” he writes, “we have witnessed a few unconstitutional actions from [President Barack Obama.]” Undoubtedly you would agree, Mr. Khan. Undoubtedly. West then takes the opportunity to use his presumptuous speech to Mr. Khan to attack Secretary Hillary Clinton for the scandal surrounding her use of a private e-mail server. “Perhaps Mr. Khan,” he goes on, you could have addressed the necessity for high standards of honor, integrity, and character in a commander in chief.”[sic] Here, I agree with West. These traits are incredibly important in a President. Honor – like when Donald Trump promised to give $6 million to veterans’ charities but had to be held to that promise by journalists. Integrity – like when Donald Trump has been caught in lies too numerous to mention. Character – like when Donald Trump made sexist statements about Fox reporter Megyn Kelly, publicly bullied a disabled journalist, or mocked a POW for being captured. I have to wonder if Allen West is wise to invoke these personality traits when the candidate he is supporting for President seems to have none of them. West asserts that Captain Khan would not have been treated in the same manner as Secretary Clinton had Captain Khan kept the same type of e-mail server as Clinton. I wonder what sort of sentence a junior enlisted soldier would receive for allowing a detainee to be beaten and then performing a mock execution, because I seriously doubt it would end at a $5,000 fine and a retirement with full benefits.

West then doubles down on the right-wing histrionics by writing that he finds it “interesting” that Mr. and Mrs. Khan “would take the stage to support a sitting president and one desiring to be president, who had abandoned Americans in a combat zone and lied about it.” Here, one can only assume that West is referring to the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Except, according to the House Select Committee on Benghazi led by Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, President Obama actually did attempt to help the Americans under siege in Libya. “Despite President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s clear orders to deploy military assets, nothing was sent to Benghazi, and nothing was en route to Libya at the time the last two Americans were killed almost 8 hours after the attacks began.” (pages 141-142) The Secretary of State (that being, at the time, Hillary Clinton) doesn’t deploy military forces. That’s not her job. That’s the job of the Secretary of Defense, as directed by the President – both of whom ordered military forces to Benghazi to render aid. Neither the President nor Secretary Clinton “abandoned Americans in a combat zone.” Again, remember that these are the words from the official findings of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. This committee worked very publicly to find any possible blame which they could lay at the feet of President Obama and – especially – Secretary Clinton. If the Committee had found such evidence of betrayal or abandonment, one would imagine that it would have been shouted from the rooftops. This means that Allen West is either outright lying, or he is woefully and willfully uninformed considering that the report is available publicly online.

“Or perhaps, as it seems, your speech was politically driven, and not based on principle? After all, you did take the stage before a crowd that disrespected a Medal of Honor recipient…is that cool with you?” It’s funny to me that West would accuse a Gold Star family of using their son for selfish political ends, then immediately decry the disrespect which a small fraction of the audience showed toward Medal of Honor recipient Captain Florent Groberg. (By the way, Florent Ahmed Groberg is also an immigrant of French and Algerian descent, but no one from the Republican party is admonishing him for endorsing Hillary Clinton for President. It would be super nice if the GOP could at least spout consistent vile rhetoric.) Why doesn’t West reprimand General Allen for appearing on the stage in front of a crowd which disrespected Captain Groberg? Why doesn’t West rebuke Captain Groberg for appearing on the same stage, in front of an audience which disrespected General Allen? West is punching down in the most obvious way, but it couldn’t be because the Khans are Muslim, could it? I mean, it’s not like West has a history of abuse toward Muslim people… oh, wait.

Now come perhaps the most vile parts of West’s blog post. Addressing Mr. Khan, West writes that “those of us with knowledge could just as easily bring attention to SGT Hasan Karim Akbar and Major Nidal Hasan, both Muslims serving in the U.S. Army.” Sure, your son was a hero, but what about the two Muslims who committed acts of terrorism?! I don’t recall West ever mentioning men like Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, Edward Lin, Charles Whitman, or any of the veterans who have joined the so-called militia movement. According to the Department of Defense, there are over 5,000 Muslims currently serving in the United States armed forces. But because West can name two, he insists that Captain Khan’s noble and heroic sacrifice – and the service of all the other Muslim service members – is cancelled out. I wonder how West would feel if someone were to pigheadedly suggest that we should cancel out all black service members’ deeds because of his misconduct.

The remainder of the blog post is spent informing Mr. Khan what he should have said during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. According to West, Mr. Khan should have explained how “humble and thankful” he is to live in America (which he did). According to West, Mr. Khan should have repeated the lie about President Obama abandoning “Americans in combat.” According to West, Mr. Khan should have expounded upon the incredibly bigoted words of Winston Churchill wrote about Islam. These parents stood on that stage in front of the world to honor their son – killed in combat against the enemies of the United States – and to state their opposition to Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies. And West insists that, instead, they should have spent their time denouncing their own religious faith. The amount of gall it takes to contend such a thing is mind-boggling.

West decides to finish strong, of course, admonishing a Gold Star Father for having the nerve to speak his mind about his own son. “Mr. Khan, I grieve for the loss of your son. However, I grieve even more that you used his sacrifice and loss as nothing more than a damn politicized stunt. May God forgive you for it.” I eagerly await West’s blog post featuring a similar tongue-lashing to Patricia Smith after her speech at the Republican National Convention.

West is either willfully ignorant or a blatant liar. He is a dishonored criminal and a disgrace to all who wear or have worn the uniform. He is not fit to speak to the manner of Captain Khan’s service, nor to the opinions of Mr. and Mrs. Khan. He has a forest full of timber in his eye, and he has the nerve to dress down the parents of a fallen war hero who don’t owe anyone an explanation as to their opinions. Allen West should be ashamed of himself for daring to write this vile hit piece, and I hope he understands that he will never be half the American that Khizr, Ghazala, and Captain Humayun Khan are.

Shame on you, Allen West.


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Winning the Civil War, Finally

Today’s guest post comes from Barefoot Boomer. 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.

The Army says it leads from the front.

 It needs to lead from the front, again, and this time finish what it started 170 years ago.

For most of its history, the Department of Defense, and the Army specifically, have been pulled forward on social issues by its civilian leadership.  Desegregation, gender equality, and now Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) rights.  And as our civilian leadership has pulled us forward we have helped pull the country forward.  But there is one issue that the military has let lapse which has had dangerous, far-reaching effects on the country.  That is its stance on the Civil War, its relationship with the Confederate Army, and the acceptance of the Confederate battle flag.

The Army’s torrid relationship with Civil War history began almost immediately once the last Confederate soldier surrendered in 1865.  After the assassination of President Lincoln, the plan for Reconstruction fell to a Southern sympathizer in Vice President Andrew Johnson.  Johnson continued the Reconstruction Plan of his predecessor, one that was liberal and equally forgiving to the South.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all” was Lincoln’s cry from his 1865 inaugural speech and so there was none.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

But as Reconstruction wore on it was clear that old had become new again; the old Southern systems and rules of society had returned, albeit now in the legal form of slavery backed by stringent racial codes.  The old cast of characters of Southern leadership was once again in charge and not much had changed since before the war.  By the time the occupying Federal army returned to their homes and the old Confederate states were readmitted into the Union it was like nothing had really changed.  The failure of Reconstruction ensured that the gains made by the North in those four years of bloody war were all but lost.

The Civil War, the Lost Cause, and the U.S. Army

After the Civil War was over most of the nation went back to some sort of new normalcy, tired and weary from four years of bloody fighting.  The North, victorious, looked to the West, and the future.  The South held a grudge.  That grudge forced them to look back to how their lives were prior to the war and yearn for rebuilding it.  Ideas that form the basis for what is now called the Lost Cause mythology began to coalesce in the minds of Confederate veterans and become a part of the South’s quest to “rise again.”

Attempting to justify why they lost the war and how their culture and society were destroyed, Confederates saw their defeat in terms of things out of their control and in reasons wholly devoid of historical fact.  The Civil War historian Gary Gallagher lays out the tenets of the Lost Cause very succinctly.  As Southerners saw it 1) the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but about Constitutional legacy and the rights of individual states over a powerful federal government, 2) it was a hopeless war that the South was never intended to win due to overwhelming Union power, and 3) that the valiant Southern armies were never defeated on the battlefield and fought gallantry and with honor against those overwhelming odds.¹

This Civil War historiography began to permeate every facet of teaching and understanding of the war, mainly due to former Confederates writing the bulk of the history of the conflict.  The Lost Cause became the default excuse for not only why the war was fought but also why the South lost.  Southern society latched on to the ideas of the Lost Cause and have inculcated them deeply into their psyche.  The nation preached reconciliation and rebuilding ties between former adversaries and held remembrance ceremonies featuring old grey-bearded veterans shaking hands.  The façade of coming together covered up the deep-seeded resentment of the South for losing and allowed them to write the history they wanted to, making themselves look good and attempt to absolve them of blame.  And it continues to warp our ideas and views of the conflict today.  New scholarship about the Civil War is still tainted with the propaganda of Southern veterans 170 years on.

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Gettysburg veterans shaking hands across the stone wall at the site of Pickett’s Charge, on the 50th anniversary of the battle.

These myths and ideas have infected not only Southern history and culture but the military as well.  The US military has a strong Southern tradition stretching back to before the Civil War.  After the war was over a good number of veterans joined the new US military and became part of the organization that they previously fought against.  Fighting in overseas operations like Cuba and the Philippines these old Soldiers distinguished themselves over and over and continued the Southern traditions of military service and honor.  Yet they also brought with them the same prejudices and ideas they had during their time in the Confederate army.  Teamed with the ideas of the Lost Cause this turned the US military into a safe refuge for Southern sympathizers which continues to this day.

The Army has done its best to be as inclusive as possible when it comes to Confederate veterans and military history.  Taking a cue from the government that wanted peace as quickly and painlessly as possible, the Army accepted Confederate veterans into its ranks after the war, identified Confederate service as part of unit lineage, and even recognizes Confederate veterans in the Veterans Affairs system.  You can have the VA place a Confederate marker over a relative’s grave with the right paperwork at no cost to you (but at cost to the VA).

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U.S. Army Soldiers in Vietnam display a Confederate battle flag

The tradition of Southern military service ensures that a large proportion of the US military comes from the South.  According to the Department of Defense’s 2014 report on population breakdown within the department it shows that almost 45% of all new enlisted acessions (recruits) come from the Southern states, a steady increase over the past few decades, while ascessions from other regions of the country have declined.  As the conclusion of the report notes:

“Geographically, the military continues to obtain its proportional share of AC accessions from the West and Midwest, but accessions from the South are overrepresented, and accessions from the Northeast are underrepresented.”

Partner this disproportional recruiting ratio with the mainly white, Southern officer corps that is also traditionally politically conservative, the continuation of support for a Confederate heritage within the Army has fruitful ground to grow in.

What the Army Must Do

If the Army is to lead on this issue again and uncouple the organization from Confederate history there are three things that they must do.  These three things are key to not only removing the specter of racism and hatred from our history but is necessary to finally “bind up the nation’s wounds” and finish the war once and for all.

1. Renounce any historical/heraldry ties to the Confederate Army and again side with the Union

The Army as an institution has a sense of history and honor.  We recognize unit actions, battles, and campaigns, as well as the bravery and valor of specific Soldiers.  There was a conscious decision after the Civil War to identify Confederate military history as part of the overall American military historical narrative.  This was in line with the government’s decision to re-integrate the South as fast as possible after the war.  Unit lineages were continued into the post-war Army and Southern exploits during the war were incorporated into the overall Army history.

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Shoulder sleeve insignia of the 116th Infantry Brigade Comabat Team, which traces its lineage to the Stonewall Brigade. (Patch is no longer worn; BCT instead wears the 29th ID SSI)

While understanding the war in its totality from a historical sense is wholly appropriate, the idea that the United States Army would incorporate the history of units in an army that fought against it for four years and killed hundreds of thousands of its Soldiers is incomprehensible.  There are still strong familial ties to those Confederate units that can be noted in other ways, but to formally identify current United States Army National Guard units, with Confederate units flies in the face of the sacrifice of the units that fought against them.

The Army should disassociate itself formally with any heraldry or ties to Confederate units that are still recognized in the official rolls.  They should have their service records reflect reinstatement into the Army after 1865 and have any battle honors or streamers for their part in the Civil War removed from their official records.

2. Identify the Confederate flags and related paraphernalia as hate symbols and ban them

The Army puts a lot of effort into its Equal Opportunity programs and tries to ensure that every Soldier is treated with dignity and respect and that they act in a professional, Soldierly manner.  There are codes of conduct and regulations that govern the display, support of, and voicing of racist and hateful speech or paraphernalia.  These are covered in Army Publication 600-20, Army Command Policy, which governs actions and activities of Soldiers.  Two chapters in this policy document, specifically, look at these areas.

Chapter 4, titled Military Discipline and Conduct, discusses how Soldiers will act while serving in the United States Army.  A specific part of the chapter, 4-12, Extremist Organizations and Activities, notes that “Military personnel must reject participation in extremist organizations and activities.”  It prohibits Soldiers from having any involvement in any organization or group that advocates violence against the government or against people of different races, creeds, religions, or national origin.

Chapter 6, in the same publication, governs the Army’s Equal Opportunity Program.  This program is designed to “ensure fair treatment for all persons based solely on merit, fitness, and capability in support of readiness” and ensures the Army “provide an environment free of unlawful discrimination and offensive behavior.”  The policy applies to Soldiers at all times, on and off post, on and off duty, and in all aspects of both their civilian and military lives.

As these two chapters note, the Army has clearly defined regulations against participation in extremist or hateful organization and the display of hateful and racist, discriminatory paraphernalia.  The Confederate flag, in particular the Confederate Battle Flag has long been identified as a symbol of hatred and racism.  Carried and displayed by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate groups, and ultimately being the symbol of the Confederacy, the display of or support of it is in direct contrast to service under the United States flag.

3. Rename all Army posts named after Confederate Generals or Soldiers

One of the most blatant homages to the Confederacy is the naming of Army posts after Confederate General Officers.  These names date back to the World Wars and America’s rush to prepare for conflict.  As the wars in Europe raged and it looked more and more likely that the United States would be pulled into them, the War Department began mobilizing and training Soldiers to increase the size of the Army.  There was a need for large expanses of land in order to train and the South had a lot of it, close to ports on the coast that would facilitate movement across the Atlantic.

The War Department negotiated with state and local officials to purchase the land and depending upon the post, either the local population voted on its name or the Army named it themselves.  These locations were in the South and the Civil War was only a couple decades removed so the obvious choice by all was to name them after Confederate heroes.

One of the biggest, and probably most meaningful, steps the Army can take to remove the Confederate stigma is to rename these posts.  Since they are Federal property it would be fairly easy to do so and would show that the Army is serious about moving forward instead of holding on to a controversial past.  The Army could have its heraldry organization put forth names and the Army could vote on which one they like best.  It would not only replace the name with one more fitting our values but also would ensure that the Soldiers got a say.  A list full of Soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, and were awarded the Medal of Honor, would make a very promising and popular alternative.

Why It Matters

The question then becomes why?  Why take the time and effort to literally change Army culture?  Southern sympathy and Confederate heritage is rampant amongst the military, and why take any action that may cause controversy or become contentious?  The answer is a plain and simple “because it’s who we are.”  The Army.

1. Finish what we started.

In the months leading up to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, President Lincoln worked tirelessly to ensure that the fight to preserve the Union was not done in vain and that the nation would be restored, not as it was but as a new nation of promise, hope, and liberty.  He drove Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution finally abolishing slavery, and follow-on amendments giving freed black Americans the freedoms they deserved as citizens.  He would have, one would hope, have been able to lead the nation through a Reconstruction that was more successful.  His assassination prohibited that.

The military has fought its share of insurgencies, with mixed results.  Winning or losing has come at the price of blood and treasure but the effects on America were negligible.  Not so with the Confederate Insurgency.  The fight switched from one with armies to one of ideas after 1865 and the North has since lost, badly.  The prevalence of Southern sympathies amongst many in service, the inclusion of the Confederate army history into our own, and the handwashing of the dichotomy between our values and those of the Confederacy show just how deep the insurgency has found its way into the military.

So, it falls to us, then to finish what we started and fully restore the Union.  That means we must fight the insurgency that continues unabated today.  And the Army must lead as we did in 1861 to 1865.  We must begin by ridding ourselves of the propaganda, heraldry ties, and historical fallacies that link the Army with the Confederacy and link ourselves with the Band of Brothers from the Union blue.  Their legacy is our own and we must honor their sacrifice and efforts by finishing their fight.

2. That “new birth of freedom.”

There were still dead from both sides scattered across the battlefield in mid-November of 1863 when President Lincoln made his way up to the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The previous year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation aimed more at militarily hurting the South than freeing the slaves.  But the comments of his Gettysburg Address, short and powerful, would link the idea of Union and ending slavery as co-reasons for continuing the war.

What Lincoln said in his barely two minute address established the moral bedrock of the Civil War and the Union cause.  Surrounded by citizens from the local area and Union Soldiers, he linked the birth of America, based on the ideas of freedom, to the fight they were engaged in at the time and implored them to not have let those who died during the battle, and ultimately those who died during the war, to “not have died in vain.”  His clarion call of giving all of America “a new birth of freedom” set the bar for how he saw America after the war.

His words were not just to those gathered on that hilltop in Gettysburg or their contemporaries.  Lincoln’s words were for all of us.  He recognized that in order for the Union to survive that we would have to extend the freedoms guaranteed under our founding documents to all American, regardless of color, creed, religion, or background.  And he spoke to not only the generation fighting then but to the subsequent generations of Americans to come.  To us.

The increased racial division and tensions that plague our nation are a direct result of us not fulfilling the task President Lincoln gave us.  The loss of the insurgency in the South after the war, the decades of racism and violence against African Americans, and the current political, social, and cultural problems may have been prevented had we as a nation listened to President Lincoln and fulfilled our obligation to ensure that every citizen, no matter what color, race, creed, or religion, enjoys the freedom offered them.  As the nation looks to the military as a trusted agent, we should use that trust to lead the way again and protect those freedoms that Lincoln

3. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Imagine you’re a Non-Commissioned Officer or Officer on your way to work on post.  It could be Benning or Hood or Stewart or Lee.  You drive past the “WELCOME” sign like you do every morning with hardly a glance.  Yet, this morning, you see the name.  Really notice it.  You’ve researched it or saw something about who the base was named for, who they were, and what they did.  You know that man and his history.

And now imagine you’re African-American.

That vignette may seem extreme or tongue-in-cheek but the Army considers itself a profession.  Professions have codes of conduct and rules that guide and limit behavior and establish a cultural norm.  The Army has our Army Values, steeped in the ideas of courage, sacrifice, and honor.  It is anathema for us as a culture or an organization to believe in this code of conduct and continue to accept anything having to do with the Confederacy or its legacy.  If we as a profession truly believe in our values, believe what we preach, and want to be taken seriously as an Army Family, then we are obligated to do the right thing and remove the stain of the Confederacy from our organization.

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The Army Legacy of Leading

The Army has the opportunity, now, to finally bring the darkest and most turbulent time in American history to a close by taking, again, its rightful place as the defender of the Union.  She must reject the ideas of the Lost Cause.  Reject the hatred and racism of the movement that tore this country in two.  She must remove traces of the traitorous Southern army from its rolls, and prohibit the owning or displaying of any rebel flags or symbols.  These are things the Secretary of the Army can do.  Should do.

If the Army is to live up her own values of Honor, Respect, Selfless Service, and Integrity she must take up this fight.  The Army models itself as a profession, with each Soldier held to a high standard of professionalism and standards.  If the Army is truly going to practice what she preaches regarding race relations, Equal Opportunity, and being a team then she MUST resolve to rid herself of the vile and disgusting specter of the Confederacy and its legacy.

It is up to us to make sure that she does this.  Not only for those Soldiers who are serving our nation today, sacrificing their lives for the nation, but also for those who have come before and fought for the rights that the Confederacy strove to refuse them.  It’s up to us to make sure that Soldiers in the future know the honor and glory of the Union, the sacrifices they made to keep America whole and to ensure that ALL Americans enjoy the freedoms that our founding documents and our service provide.

It’s up to us.  Now.  The time has come to finally win the Civil War.


Notes.

  1. Gary W. Gallagher, “Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War.”

 

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

ypres battle

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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