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Postcards from Tradocia

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Finished Symphony

The war in Iraq is officially over, with our last convoys crossing the border yesterday morning. One of our brigade’s convoys was the second-to-last out of Iraq; the honor of the final convoy naturally fell to the active duty troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, who as America’s First Team needed to be last out.

It was a jovial atmosphere in the TOC today for the morning SCUB, and we proceeded according to our usual routine of the last five months. The intel guy started the brief with the weather, as he has every day, saying, “The weather in Iraq for today…” The colonel cut him off abruptly with, “Wait. Do we give a fuck about the weather in Iraq anymore?” Everyone laughed, and he answered his own question with “no,” and the intel guy carried on without missing a beat. For my part, I stated that I’d no longer be briefing the cryptic pile of numbers known as the “convoy equipment status”…unless, of course, the colonel wanted to see it. He said no thanks, and away we went. Finally, the colonel said that now that the war was over, we’d have to refocus on our new priorities. After a pause, he then said, “So I guess I’ll figure that out in a couple of days and let you know.” Cue staff laughter.

His statement was a joke, but it rang true for me. With the closing of the gate at “K-Crossing,” my motivation to work deflated with amazing rapidity. As long as there was a war on, I could continue my menial office tasks as long as I thought that somewhere there was a soldier at the pointy end of the brigade who might be positively affected by the staff I was supporting. But with that motivation gone (the so-called “people-will-die” excuse, as in, “people will die if I can’t print this PowerPoint slide on both sides of the page!”), I looked around at my brown universe and thought, “now what?” Today I felt an incredible urge to just leave, buy a plane ticket home (only $1200!), borrow a car and leave it at Kuwait International. Good war everyone, let’s pack it up!

***

In all of the media coverage about the end of the war, what has bothered me the most is the constant focus on the dead. How many American military personnel were killed, how many Iraqis were killed, look at these grieving widows (but only the good-looking ones, as rather shamelessly featured on CNN’s “Heroes” program)… I’m not trying to denigrate the soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors who paid the ultimate price in the Iraq war, or the suffering of their families; rather, it’s the constant harping, the almost voyeuristic exploitation, the hammering of the point that the only thing that happened for the last eight years was death. There was even an article in the Washington Post chronicling the final US death in Iraq, which had to throw in the execrable John Kerry quote about the Vietnam War: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Even at the last, people are trying to turn Iraq into Vietnam, since all attempts thus far have failed.

All of this coverage makes it hard to remember that, functionally speaking, we won the war in Iraq. So why doesn’t it look like victory? What of the bravery, dedication, and success of the American (and few allies’) military in the face of a brutal and cunning insurgency? Instead, the media and commentators are busy shaping the cultural narrative, painting the war as an expensive failure, a Vietnam redux fought by poor kids duped into joining the military and leaving a trail of weeping families in their wake, ripe for exploitation by “sensitive” and “hard-hitting” journalists.

The whole thing makes me vaguely sick. Why fight for a nation that sees you as nothing but a pathetic victim, a sad charity case like a kid with cancer or a lost puppy? We don’t want sympathy, and we don’t want tears – we want appreciation, and pride, and respect. Not just pride in serving, but pride in victory, in defeating the enemy, in doing the job that the nation asks of us: to fight and win the nation’s wars.

Living with Determination

El Shrimpo off the starboard bow

El Shrimpo off the starboard bow

The Taste of Adventure has arrived at the camp, piloted by Colonel Sanders’ younger seagoing brother, Captain Sanders.

If only it were so – I’ve been in this brown place for five brown months and it’s starting to wear me brown down. The colorless unanimity of the place is in perfect harmony with the dull routine of our jobs here, such that everything – my clothing, food, entertainment, job duties, conversations, sleep schedule – is smeared into one huge tan existence. Yet the routine is comforting, and somehow helps the time pass more quickly. Routine turns everything into a milestone, such that the remaining time here can be measured in trips to the gym, miles run around the perimeter, Mongolian BBQ nights, or any other behavioral metric.

Last night we played Guitar Hero in the tent on the nice 50″ plasma TV our guys rescued from Iraq, which is by far the best thing out of the mountain of scavenged crap that our Hoarding Warrant found. My eyes glazed over after the second container full of stuff came back from the war zone, and I became convinced that he had lost his mind or gone rogue or something and there’d be some kind of Colonel Kurtz moment with him ensconced in a desert hideout, surrounded by a pile of old routers and air compressors.

Anyway, playing Guitar Hero reinforced the fact that I’m an insufferable snob when it comes to music games, in that I only want to play Rock Band and can’t stand Guitar Hero. It’s the aesthetics of the whole thing; I could go into detail but everyone laughs at me when I describe it so I’ll leave it at that. It was still fun to jam on the plastic instruments, though the drums were sorely missed, as was the booze. Playing also made me realize that I have a strong emotional attachment to the various Rock Band games, having played countless hours of the game with many friends, in many locations. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Rock Band changed my life, however absurd that might sound, and it’s a topic that bears full exploration at another time.

Meanwhile, a war is still going on, and as such some of our future replacements came to visit us this week. It was called a “pre-deployment site survey” or PDSS, which is a fancy term for a five-day binge of PowerPoint, shaking of hands, and driving around Kuwait. One of the officers that came with the PDSS was a trainer, responsible for planning the mobilization training for our replacements, and he was eager to ask me questions about our SharePoint site. No problem – I love playing show-and-tell so he sat down and I asked him what he wanted to know. Ninety minutes later, I had basically broken down our whole operation and given him a copy of all of our SOPs, forms, documents, you name it. Luckily I pay attention when I’m performing the monkey’s job of advancing slides in staff meetings, since for all he knew I could’ve been some Asperger’s-afflicted computer guy who didn’t know shit about anything. I kept trying to point him at the actual subject matter experts for each thing – why are you asking me when I don’t do that job? – but he just plowed onward, evidently deciding that I was indeed the “main effort.” True enough, I guess – Walter doesn’t call our shop the “S-Delobius” for nothing.

Long Way Back from Hell

Here we are, in the final month of the Iraq war, and as I expected, it doesn’t feel any different this far in the rear. As a computer guy at a headquarters, I’m about as far from the war effort as one can get: I’m supporting the people who are organizing the people who are in charge of the people who are actually doing the work.

It is, by all accounts, an incredibly well-ordered withdrawal; mundane, even, despite the vast scale. Meanwhile, Pakistan is cutting off our land resupply into Afghanistan, and Russia is threatening to choke off the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which could precipitate a serious logistical crisis for NATO. The retrograde from Iraq is just a continual reminder to me that we should’ve left Afghanistan years ago, as it’s a strategic, logistical, and economic dead end. I’ve written about this before (as have others), and my point still stands.

***

Micro-humans?!Yesterday night while walking to the latrine trailer for my nightly oral hygiene ritual, I witnessed a pair of soldiers embracing outside one of the female barracks buildings. Maybe they were a couple; General Order 1B doesn’t prohibit hugging or having relationships, just no serious hanky-panky. But then they kissed, making me d0 a double-take, looking much like Dolza (pictured at left) when he saw Rick Hunter kiss Lisa Hayes. I guess I’ve been away from the World for too long when something like that surprises me.

Speaking of, there’s a civilian worker at the help desk whose name is Lisa Hayes, which is funny to me, since I sometimes picture her working on my trouble ticket on the bridge of the SDF-1.

***

The brutal Kuwaiti winter is fully upon us; it snuck up on us, without warning, and now it’s a bitter 40 degrees in the morning, sending everyone to their duffel bags, digging for long-forgotten fleece jackets, hats, and gloves. Most of us hardy Minnesotans (intoned with the proper accent, doncha know) scoff at such accoutrements of true winter, but the continual wind here does warrant some additional clothing. Still, I’m pretty sure no one needs to equip Layer 7 of the ECWCS, despite the fact that I saw a soldier wearing the parka one morning. I wanted to ask him if he was on his way to Antarctica, but thought better of it.

Whiplash

Staff sergeant, noooooo!

Staff sergeant, noooooo!

As you can see, death awaits us at every turn here.

(This poster is likely prompted by the recent death of a 10th Mountain Division soldier from rabies.)

Last Saturday there was a widespread power outage in our part of the camp. This didn’t bother me much, since Saturday is my day off, and the weather was pleasant, so we propped the bay doors open and I sat and read and enjoyed a nice Burger King lunch over on the other side of camp. Unfortunately, the power went out at the TOC too, basically cutting the head off our entire operation here.

Eight years into the Iraq war, in a pretty established place like the rear of the rear of Kuwait, one wouldn’t think that a combat brigade headquarters could get blacked out for hours at a time, but indeed it can. This of course prompted a flurry of activity, mostly led by the S6 team – “set up the JNN!” “get the backup generator running!” “throw up the tent!” Since the weather was nice – and it’s not like it was going to rain – I suggested that they just run an open-air TOC. Set up some folding chairs and tables, plop down in the parking lot, and there you have it!

Nobody much liked my idea.

Another outage was planned for Sunday, though it was affecting some other part of the camp; naturally, everyone’s skittish about the prospect of losing power again, so the preceding week was marked by a series of debates about how best to prepare. A few of us (myself included) defended the “do nothing” position pretty strongly, mainly because a) we have a viable backup plan (drive across post to another building and operate there until power comes back on) and b) it wasn’t going to affect us anyway (per the plan). But in the face of last week’s confusion, we had to be seen as doing something – something always being better than nothing, you see – so off we went, running extension cords and positioning generators and calculating amperages.

Ultimately, nothing happened, as predicted. This stuff almost writes itself!

It’s the latest example of our reactive decision-making, where when something bad happens, we have to fix it right now, even if waiting and coming up with a better plan (or indeed, doing nothing) would be more effective.

It’s Getting Boring by the Sea

Fire retardant paint

Fire retardant paint

A power outage this morning gave me an hour of blissful silence – the first time in nearly four months that I haven’t been bombarded with some kind of continuous droning sound. Generators, air conditioners, fans, vehicle engines – this place is awash in white noise and it drives me insane. Even outdoors, there is no place that is truly quiet; if nothing else, the diesel-powered light sets every fifty yards make sure of that.

***

Inside the bay, the fire inspectors decided that our eight foot plywood walls looked too flammable. Luckily, that could be cured with a liberal application of magical Kuwaiti fireproof paint (pictured at right)! OK, so it’s regular indoor latex paint, but apparently the idea is that the paint will “soak” into the wood, rendering it less prone to bursting into flames when we burn furniture & old uniforms for warmth during the approaching brutal Kuwaiti winter. (The winter might be brutal yet, if only by our own doing – I’m wearing pants and a sweatshirt as I write this, thanks to the pair of monstrous air conditioners that are still running full tilt.) I guess I’m not a highly-trained Army fire marshal, so maybe the idea has some merit, but it sure seems like some pointless busywork to me.

***

Last week at dinner a few of us noticed that one of the regular tables near the salad bar had been replaced by a table only half as long, leaving a big gap. Upon discussing the issue, it was revealed that our sergeant major (technically “Command Sergeant Major,” or CSM) was angry about the salad bar running out of certain items, so he stormed off and demanded that the DFAC staff keep a cart of extra stuff on hot standby in that spot, making a sort of vegetable-QRF. We proposed that it be named the “CSM’s Memorial Salad Cart” and that the floor be taped off to mark the area. The half-table also sparked jokes that the CSM had hulked out and broken the table over his knee, which actually seemed more plausible than the salad cart idea. I guess if you’re high enough rank, you can make anything happen, though I’m not sure that deploying lettuce carts would be a priority for the use of my powers if I was an E-9.

Hell is Home

Halloween in the war

Halloween in the war

Happy Halloween from the geeks in Kuwait! (If you can’t read, the shirts say: “No! I can not give you access to YouTube!,” “DISTANT END’S FAULT,” “If @ first you don’t succeed, CTL-ALT-DEL,” “Jean-Luc Picard is my co-pilot,” and “JUST SHUT UP AND REBOOT”)

Money for Nothing

Spoils of war

Spoils of war

The departure of US forces from Iraq – also known as “planned retrograde” and “responsible drawdown” – is proceeding apace. Being far in the rear, I don’t see much change day-to-day as a result – except for the rapid proliferation of crap that’s filling up our office.

As can be imagined, the breakneck pace of the drawdown means that units are shucking stuff as quickly as possible, turning the whole theater into a scavenger’s paradise. Some of our guys were in Iraq and collected box after box of stuff, like the 68 (!) toner cartridges pictured at left. They sent back KVM switches, VOIP phones, laptop computers, hard drives, cables and wire, and fifty or a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Cisco networking equipment. One of the big fiber switches was even labeled “Al-Faw-Core,” which I guess meant that it came out of Al Faw palace, one of Saddam’s big buildings that later became the headquarters for US forces in Iraq on Camp Victory.

There’s a scavenger yard here, mysteriously called “whiskey-two-november” (W2N), that I have yet to visit, but driving by it the other day, I saw nothing but trucks pulling in and dropping loads of…stuff. As far as I can tell, the storage yards here are enormous – I saw one yard full of nothing but giant truck tires, maybe taking up as much space as a football field. (Here’s an article about W2N, by the way.)

This incredible movement of stuff should come as no surprise; the end of every American war has been accompanied by a similar rush for the exits. Just one example, from Smithsonian magazine: “At war’s end, the U.S. military unwittingly enhanced the legend of their endless supply of cargo when they bulldozed tons of equipment—trucks, jeeps, aircraft engines, supplies—off the coast of Espíritu Santo.” The place is known now as Million Dollar Point; maybe we could call the reclamation yard here the Billion Dollar Litter Box.

 

Wasted Years

Faking the funk

Faking the funk

We’re into our fourth month here and things are still plodding along. I’ve settled into a comfortable routine now – Fridays are movie night, Saturday is my day off and it’s also Mongolian (MANgolian) night at the Zone 1 DFAC, Sundays we play Cosmic Encounter before everyone else watches the Vikings lose once again. Hours become days, days become weeks, and time ticks away steadily, just as planned. I’m familiar now with the method of accelerating time in a place like this.

I begin to wonder, though, whether I’m a little too good at such techniques. We have six or seven more months here, which means another 25 weeks of heads-down living, a lifestyle defined by living in a cave and counting time by the menus posted on the DFAC walls. After this, more Army schools lie ahead for me – some perhaps as long as eight months – where I’ll have to further hone my time-passing techniques.

It begs the question: when does it end? Passing the time is an essential skill for any soldier, but when does the countdown clock end and real life begin? Or does it mean that, as a soldier, one is only allowed to live in the spaces between deployments and schools and training, spending the rest of the time just trying to get by?

I’ve thought about this since, just like last time, this deployment represents a transitional period for me, both in my life at large and in my career. I’ll likely pursue the path of the warrant officer after this trip is done, but down that road lies more long schools and more time to kill. I have at least another ten years in this man’s Army (many more if I remain a full-timer), but what does that mean? It’s easy to just get carried along with the current in this organization, just grabbing opportunities as they float by; indeed, that’s part of the appeal. But where does it lead? For example becoming a warrant officer is great and all, but is it a means to an end, or is it just “as long as I’m here, might as well carry a coffee cup everywhere and get saluted occasionally”?

This deployment raises these kinds of questions much more than the last one, because it’s so much more mundane. It’s an office-job deployment for almost everyone except the bare handful of the brigade who’s actually on the road, and though it should be historic being here for the end of the Iraq war, I can’t help but feel like it’ll be a giant anticlimax. When the last convoy crosses the border in December, I don’t think there’s going to be some Empire Strikes Back-esque celebration (“the last MRAP is away. The last MRAP is away.” *cheers*). Instead, the end of eight years of war will probably be met here with a collective shrug. And that makes it all the more difficult to be here – after all, if it’s just business as usual, and we’re all just pushing papers and making PowerPoint slides and making work for ourselves, what are we even doing?

For some of us, our entire careers have been defined by the GWOT, and soon it will be over. The end of this war, and winding down in Afghanistan, combined with impending budget cuts, means big changes for the National Guard. What will it mean to be a Guardsman in the post-GWOT world? Will it go back to the good ol’ days of drinking all weekend during drill and going to “summer camp” once a year, coolers in tow? Or will it be something different altogether, something we can’t predict?

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

A Chinese pickup truck

Apropos of nothing, here's a Chinese pickup truck

A few weeks ago, one of the guys from the commo shop at the camp command cell asked me: “what exactly does the brigade headquarters do?” I paused for a moment, then answered, “well, mostly we make work for the battalions.” It was a flippant answer but largely true; from top to bottom in the Army, the job of a given echelon is to tell the echelon below it what to do. It also encapsulates the attitude of any given echelon towards its superior one: “fuckin’ guys at battalion,” “fuckin’ guys at brigade,” “fuckin’ guys at division,” and so on.

Not everything we do at our level, though, is designed to make work for subordinates. Another large percentage of our job is devoted to what I’ve previously named “organizational fratricide,” in a seeming effort to make our jobs as difficult as possible. An example:

Every morning, we have the “shift change update brief,” or SCUB, where each major staff section updates the commander and the staff about the vital signs and operational highlights of the brigade for the day. (Note that in addition to the SCUB, there’s the SUB and the CUB. There might be a FLUB and a BUB and a GRUB out there somewhere, but I’m not sure.) This brief is only about ten minutes, and my little slice of it is to describe the overall communications status of the brigade. Part of this is reporting the number of radios and other commo equipment installed in vehicles.

Apparently, these numbers are derived from incredibly complex quadratic equations, because the numbers seem to be different every damn day and they’re subject to endless scrutiny and discussion. It seems simple enough to me: we need N radios, there are X radios installed in Y trucks, with Z extras on hand and W of them are broken. Simple, right? Wrong!

Who determines the “required” number? (The unit does. No it doesn’t! The S6 does. No it doesn’t! Operations does. …) Should we include a 15% “fudge factor” or not? How many are really “on-hand”? Do we report spares? (A shrewd battalion might not, to prevent those “fuckin’ guys at brigade” from pilfering their stocks.) These two battalions have the same mission – why are their numbers different? How do you know the unit is reporting the right numbers? They say this many are “installed” but are they really? Do the commo shop’s numbers match the number of trucks reported by the logistics shop?

I have been asked all of these questions and more during our morning fun-fests, questions that I’m ill-equipped to answer. My initial philosophy was to report the numbers that the units reported to us, but of course that was the wrong answer. They don’t know what they’re talking about! Those numbers are wrong! It became like some kind of tactical Sudoku – trying to massage the reports into a number that was acceptable to all parties. I think we finally have it ironed out (with little help from me – I tried to stay out of the way and avoid as much friendly fire as possible), but I could be wrong. The whole thing could change next week and the arguments could begin anew.

To paraphrase Meat Loaf, “there ain’t no MRAP hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”

Add to but not take away from

Home of the secret squirrels

Home of the secret squirrels

Believe it or not, I got hassled for taking the picture here. In case you’re wondering, it’s a photo of the secret squirrel headquarters food court; hardly considered to be a sensitive location under the most restrictive of circumstances, but apparently enough to draw a young sergeant’s attention. After I snapped the photo, he approached (both of us in civilian clothes) and introduced himself. He politely informed me that we weren’t allowed to take pictures anywhere, and so I shouldn’t make it so obvious that I was doing so. I equally politely informed him that the photography policy letter was posted right by the entrance to the DFAC, and that photos were explicitly allowed as long as they didn’t include any sensitive areas (like the perimeter, entry points, secure areas, etc.). He said that he was just repeating what he was told, and we went our separate ways.

It illustrated a classic problem in the Army: the idea of “adding to but not taking away from” policies, directives, and regulations. It works like this: some level of command issues a policy that says X. When viewed at that level, the policy seems entirely reasonable and appropriate, so it’s sent down the chain. The problem is that each successive layer of command, in an effort to meet the higher echelon’s intent, adds its own interpretations and restrictions to the policy, figuring that by narrowing the boundaries they can make sure everyone colors inside the lines. By the time some policy from on high reaches something like a platoon, the thing that started as X ends up looking like (((((X)+1)+Y)+2)+Z). Thus, a policy that limits photography to non-sensitive areas only becomes a policy that bans all photography (easier to enforce) and logically leads to making cameras contraband items and inspecting barracks to ferret out such devices. After all, you can’t be wrong that way, right? It sounds ridiculous but such is the mentality sometimes. It’s also an example of “second and third order effects” that everyone needs to be aware of when making decisions that will be carried out by people far away and not under your direct control.

***

Meanwhile, more and more people arrive at the camp; maybe new units, maybe some rotating out of Iraq already. The DFAC is a madhouse at lunch now, with lines stretching out into the hot sun from both doors for almost the whole lunch period. It’s a minor irritation, since the line moves quickly, but I can’t help but direct my silent ire at the wearers of each new unit patch that shows up, as if they’re each personally responsible for the delay.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in Iraq (and even if I did, I couldn’t tell it here), but strangely our brigade’s job might not be much different in 2012 after our withdrawal is complete. Bases will still need to be guarded, convoys will still need escorts, camps will still need command and control; the end of this eight years of war might be a giant anticlimax for us who are still in it. For the other units, based in Iraq, the change will be drastic, but for us REMFs, life at Fort Hood East Campus will go on much the same as before.

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