Thursday, March 26, 2009


The US Army is a Southern, Christian organization. The South's real revenge after the Civil War was the infiltration and conquest of America's armed forces. Food, jargon, and training sites in the Army are overwhelmingly southern in nature, and the Chaplain corps displays an evangelical zeal straight out of an old-time revival tent.

Chaplains play an odd role in the US Army. I'm ignorant of the history of Army chaplains, but I do know this: they don't carry weapons. Every Battalion has one, who is an officer, along with an enlisted "chaplain's assistant". In fact, "Chaplain's Assistant" is one of those great jobs in the Army that gives on-the-job pastoral training, followed by a free seminary education thanks to the G.I. Bill.

I would call a chaplain a "morale officer" first and foremost. Problems at home? Talk to the chaplain. He can recommend reduced duty, offer counseling, even act on a soldier's behalf for transfer to another unit. Spiritual crisis? Motivational crisis? Talk to the chaplain. Suicide awareness training? Chaplain takes the lead. Sunday services, Friday Bible Study? The chaplain runs those, too.

In a theater of war (or sort-of-but-not-really-war-anymore, like we have in Iraq), the Chaplain might get tasked with putting on a movie night, or organizing a horseshoe contest (that Southern thing again). The chaplain of my current Battalion was assigned the delicate task of reaching out to the Chaldean Christian community in Kirkuk, to try and facilitate the filling of two vacant seats on the City Council - seats that are reserved for Chaldean Christians. (The Kirkuk City Council has a quota system: x number of seats for Kurds, y number of seats for Arabs, z number of seats for Turkomen, and 4 seats for Christians. Can you imagine a system like that in the US?)

Every once in a while, I read an article in Stars and Stripes about a Muslim chaplain (scary!) or a Jewish one (in New York or Florida, maybe?) but in my 6 1/2 years in the Army, I have never come across either. I've mostly met Baptists, to be honest. The Air Force has a Catholic chaplain who does mass over on the other size of Camp Warrior, and I met a Lutheran one during my time at Ft. Bragg.

Where was I going with this all this? Oh yes! My mom's bible-study pals read my blog, and this is a tip-of-the-patrol-cap to them.

Maybe it's the "service" mindset, or some innate openness to the Lord that resonates with these people, but I often find myself hanging out with the chaplains. 1) They are easy to talk to - their job is to build rapport with the soldiers and be sensitive to their mindsets. And hey - that's my job too, except with the Iraqis! 2) They have a BBQ budget, and hanging with them is the only way to score a steak or burger that hasn't been overcooked into A1-covered shoe leather 3) They run the church services on Sundays.

I am guilty of planning missions so that I won't miss Sunday service. Although the Army teaches that the "Mission Comes First", it comes in second on Sunday morning.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mindset of the Mission

The US Army has a couple of special training centers (one in Ft. Polk, Louisiana, and one in Ft. Irwin, California) that specialize in big, life-like wargames. Whole army battalions get sent to these places to live out 4-week training scenarios, where every piece of the military puzzle gets put in place and exercised: units invade imaginary towns, set up ersatz command posts, and conduct patrols while civilian role-players act the part of villagers and enemy insurgents. The point of the exercise is to let soldiers learn their job a little better without the dangers of actually getting shot at (blank ammunition is used).

The war-game at Ft. Polk is called "JRTC" (for Joint Readiness Training Center), and the one at Ft. Irwin is called "NTC" (for National Training Center).

6 months in country, I realize that the Iraq occupation is now nothing more than JRTC Part II.

Where once upon a time, the Army planners designed JRTC to mimic actual conditions in Iraq, now, the American units strive to make their real-life war experience as close to JRTC as possible.

In Iraq, following the doctrine of the training manual has become more important than keeping pace with the rapidly changing socio-political scene on the ground.

For example: the recently-passed Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) between the US & Iraq imposes restrictions on the US military. Mainly, all patrols are now required to be "joint" patrols, meaning the US cannot send platoons driving around the cities unless there is a specific operation in conjunction with the Iraqis, and the Iraqis are on board and involved in every way.

This rule is being brazenly ignored by the Americans, everywhere I have been. In Sadr City, a "joint patrol" meant stopping by the local Iraq Army post, rousting the first soldier one could find, throwing him into the back of an MRAP, and continuing on with the pre-planned mission, without coordination or oversight from the Iraqis. In Kirkuk my current battalion, to its credit, has a whole company dedicated to joint operations with the local police. Two other companies, however, conduct a full schedule of patrols, three to four a day, completely on their own. Some of these patrols are security related, but many others amount to little more than an excuse for a platoon to say they "did something" that day, cruising about town, stopping and talking to people as the mood strikes them.

Normally I would say fine, there is nothing wrong with that. But what happened to the SoFA? At what point are we going to release our grip on the security of the cities, and let the Iraqis sink or swim?


I liken the Iraq situation to this: Imagine you are pushing a guy up a hill in a wheel chair. While you are pushing, you are yelling at the guy, "Get up! Get up and walk to the top of the hill! Will you freakin' get up and walk, already?" BUT, you never slow down enough to let the dude actually get out of the wheelchair and stand up. Nor do you stop and tip the wheelchair over so he is forced to climb the hill on his own two feet. Instead, you just keep pushing, and keep yelling, while the guy in the wheelchair slowly forgets what it is like to walk on his own, his muscles atrophying away.

See what I'm saying?

We have GOT to stop pushing the wheelchair. And we're not, because the buzz-cut Colonels demand a WAR experience - they want the action and adventure they saw at JRTC, they want the History Channel rush of adrenaline. All the soldiers do, on some level.

But Iraq doesn't need an army to occupy it right now. It needs Waste Management. It needs Bechtel Construction, Fluor Daniel infrastructure, GE Power Plants.

The US Army has become a hindrance.

Our fixation on catching bad guys polarizes our perspective so that the real reconstruction effort (which will bring security more surely than all our humvees and MRAPs) is an afterthought: a neglected, half-assed, dog-and-pony show for the press.

Obama, Obama, tsk listened to the Generals, didn't you? 16 more months of combat operations? Wrong answer, in my opinion.