“An Inconvenient Truth” About Fighting ISIS

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In the wake of the tragic ISIS attacks in Paris, President Obama and politicians from both parties have all made statements about either containing or crushing ISIS. Though these statements vary somewhat, they all contain the phrase “NO AMERICAN BOOTS ON THE GROUND.” A few even say that that we can defeat ISIS by air attacks without any ground troops.

Military leaders who are advising the president certainly know that ground troops are essential in any plan to overthrow an enemy. This is especially true with terrorist organizations that move their operations into schools, hospitals, and civilian residential buildings.

Understanding the political calculus that assumes that Americans don’t want another ground war, the political statements proclaim that Muslim countries in the region will do all of the dirty work on the ground, as long as US aircraft lead with bombing sorties. This idea, of course, is analogous to a schoolyard plan to attack a bully. “I’ll hold your coat and cheer while you beat up the bully.” It’s doubtful that any of the middle east countries will agree to a plan in which the US doesn’t assume some of the ground combat.

Even if countries would accept war with limited US risk, history has demonstrated that it is nearly impossible to train and supply soldiers from another culture to be as effective as US forces. This approach failed in Vietnam, and in Iraq. It never worked in Syria. It is heading for failure in Afghanistan. Training people with a different language and culture requires years of work. In many cases, soldiers in third-world countries have had limited education in their local languages and speak no English. Understanding sophisticated tactics and weaponry is nearly impossible for them.

Some of the Middle East countries have standing armies that can fight without US training. However, their armies and air forces are relatively small. And the costs of a sustained war effort would bankrupt their economies in a few months.

But the greatest obstacle of all is the complex culture and relationships within these countries. Most of us who follow current events understand that Sunni Muslim countries and Shiite Muslim countries are virtual enemies. But the sects and tribes in and around these two major groups drive a mix of loyalties and hatreds that are not widely reported by American media.

For example, within the Sunni population in Saudi Arabia the Wahhabi sect supports ISIS and strikes fear in other Saudi groups that might attack ISIS.

Media reports of the Kurdish Military, the Peshmerga, in Iraq have demonstrated that the Kurds are possibly our most capable ally. But Iraq is primarily a Shiite country, and the Kurds are Sunni. The Peshmerga troops have fought well against ISIS, but the Iraqi Shiite government has continually impeded the US from supplying and working with them.

In all likelihood, the whole concept of Muslim allies leading a difficult ground war against ISIS will prove to be a political pipe dream. American voters may currently reject the thought of American “boots on the ground.” But we will experience a terrorist attack sooner or later. In fact, we have already experienced a few smaller attacks, which the administration has spun as “workplace violence” or “single attacks by mentally disturbed people.”

But when we have a major attack like the one in Paris, those same passive voters will demand that the US government move against ISIS. The US military is probably making plans for “boots on the ground” already. And that’s the “inconvenient truth.”

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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Is Today’s Military Strong Enough to Protect US?

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Every Memorial Day, Americans spend at least a few seconds remembering the fallen, service men and women who gave their lives in war. For the past few years, however, more and more of the Memorial Day statements by political leaders and the news media have focused on the people serving today. That gradual shift is understandable. Less than nine percent of today’s Americans are old enough to have known service members who fought in World War II. So most people think of the military in terms of actions since 1990.

Interestingly, most public statements made today about the military, are from people who really don’t know much about it. They don’t know how it works. They don’t understand the people who serve. They themselves haven’t served, nor have many of their friends and family members. And most of the people making war movies understand even less about the military.

President George H.W. Bush (AKA Bush 41) was the last US president to have served on active duty in war. Younger presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (43) and Barack Obama never served on active duty. And in today’s environment of an all-volunteer military, few future presidents will be veterans.

How does the all-volunteer military compare with the Vietnam era Army that included millions of men who were drafted? Along with draftees, the Army of that era included millions more who volunteered to ensure non-combatant military specialties instead of being sent directly to the battlefield.

Since the Army of the 1960s and 1970s included many draftees with advanced education, was it a stronger, smarter Army?

As a draftee who served in that era, and proud father of a son who volunteered for an Army Reserve unit activated during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I have a good view to compare the two eras. And I can say unequivocally that today’s Army is far stronger and more effective than the Army in which I served.

In fact, I believe that today’s US Military is the best-trained, best-equipped, and most effective military force the world has ever known. Nevertheless it faces one overarching challenge that makes our future security somewhat shaky.

To maintain a balance of power, the country’s Founders ensured that the commander-in-chief of the US Armed Forces would always be our civilian president. That was a preferable structure for the first 200 years of the republic. Our last three presidents however, men with limited understanding of the military, haven’t managed military strategy effectively.

All three have used the hackneyed talking point, “We don’t want to be the world’s policeman.” Professional military strategists know that we MUST act as the world’s policeman. That doesn’t mean that we will attack other countries. It means that we will keep the peace through visible strength, and will use that power to protect others. If we do not act as the world’s policeman, ambitious dictators, oligarchs and jihadists will seize power as their region’s police. The world will be a more dangerous place, millions of people will suffer and die. If we don’t act as the world’s policeman, people like Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri will rule, and eventually threaten the American People.

Recent politicians have also manipulated polling results to proclaim that “Americans are tired of wars, and don’t want to see more boots-on-the-ground.” Poll results of course, depend on the questions asked, and the population chosen for polling. What political talking point would we hear if the question was, “Would you favor using American troops to ensure that ISIS doesn’t gain power in the United States and threaten your country’s security?”

To consider the military leadership capabilities of recent presidents, we might ask these questions:

  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have permitted Osama Bin Laden to prosper in 1999 when his position was known, and our military had a means to stop him?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have invaded Iraq, knowing that Iraq’s Sunni army was our only counterbalance to the rise of Shiite Iran to become the dominant power in the Middle East?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have dismissed the conquered Sunni Army in Iraq, and allowed them to become a guerilla force to kill our service members and Shia civilians for the next seven years?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have delayed the Surge for years, knowing that it was the only way to control the civil war in that country?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have pre-announced our departure timetable and left Iraq’s poorly organized military to defend themselves?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have REPEATED the grievous error of pre-announcing our departure plans, by doing the same in Afghanistan?
  • Would a knowledgeable military strategist have declared an air campaign against Isis to be restricted to Iraq, knowing that ISIS has consolidated its power in Syria?

It appears obvious that the American Military, despite its enviable manpower, training and equipment cannot be wholly successful when led by today’s politicians. Americans cannot ensure the safety of their children and following generations, unless we can move more decision power and planning leadership to military professionals and away from vote-chasing amateurs.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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College Journalism on Steroids in Indiana

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When I arrived at Ft. Benjamin Harrison to enter DINFOS–the Defense Information School–I didn’t know what to expect. Just a few weeks past Army basic training, I was just happy to be in a place where there were no screaming drill instructors, no marching, running, or weapons training. Realizing that it was a genuine academic institution was icing on the cake.

The difference between DINFOS and an ordinary college curriculum was that students worked as much as 12 hours a day, six days a week, and occasionally on Sundays. The six-month course therefore included more lecture and writing assignments than four-year journalism students received at the state’s most renowned university.

My fellow students included members of the four major services as well as the US Coast Guard and a few Defense Department civilians. Along with standard journalism, the course provided an insider’s understanding of the military, as well as discussions on US strategies in international affairs. Many of us, including me, had worked on newspapers or radio stations before entering the military. Yet we all learned a great deal and sharpened our skills, as we experienced the military’s “immersion journalism training.”

We graduated with confidence that we were capable military journalists who needed no hand-holding. And we worked within the DINFOS slogan, “Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay.” Although my DINFOS days were many years ago, I still count some of the lessons learned there as the best skills training I ever received…far more valuable than regular college courses or grad school that I later attended.

It All Began With The War in Vietnam

I wasn’t at Woodstock between August 15 and August 18, 1969. And unlike many young guys of my generation, I never wore a tie-dyed shirt. Instead, I was one of the other guys, wearing US Army fatigues, courtesy of my local draft board.

But I was one of the lucky ones. In fact I was among the luckiest. Thanks to some early experience in journalism and broadcasting, the Army sent me to its Defense Information School, declared me to be a military journalist, and eventually posted me in Hawaii for the remainder of my short Army career.

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Though I never heard a “shot fired in anger,” I was nevertheless connected to the Vietnam War in ways I would never have expected. In my journalism job at US Army Hawaii, I touched people and events that eventually affected the war, and may have actually changed history. As I re-entered the civilian world and pursued a very different career, memories and questions about those Army years have stayed with me.

Until very recently, I never shared that story.  And instead of telling it now, I decided to write a novel combining real life and fiction. The result is a book that’s nearing completion. It’s called “The Victory That Wasn’t.”

Drafted! Feb 7, So Many Years Ago

Feb. 7, was the anniversary of my first day in the Army. My memory of that day is indelibly branded in my brain, in great detail.

On the morning of Feb. 7, I was home alone in our house on Glenbrook Rd. I had said goodbye to my dad the night before, since I knew he left for work at 6:30 AM and I wanted to sleep later to prepare for a very long day. None of our family has ever been good at saying goodbye, but I knew that my dad, a flag-waving patriot, was proud of me. My mom left for work a bit later that morning. A typical stoic Scott—raised in Glasgow—she would never shed a tear, but mumbled something like, “Don’t forget to write.”

So home alone for the last time, I left my house and car keys on the kitchen table, called a taxi for the short ride to the Stamford, CT railroad station,  and headed for the train to New haven.

Once I boarded the train, the situation began to feel real. Though I had feared and resented the notion of being drafted, I began to see the experience as an exciting adventure. As we arrived in New Haven, uniformed Army people met the train, as stipulated in my draft instructions. I suddenly realized that there had been many other young guys on that train, and that we were all headed to the same destination. At this point, the Army people were relatively polite. We were still civilians. They guided us to Army buses that brought us to the Army induction center. Once we arrived at the center, our uniformed guides were far less courteous.

The induction center was a scene of organized chaos. We each received pre-numbered forms that already had our names and basic information. Since we had all previously reported for our physical exams, we were ready to be sworn in. We all robotically raised our right hands, and swore allegiance to the United States, repeating the words of a young lieutenant who conducted the two-minute ceremony.

The uniformed guys telling us where to go were now MUCH less polite. They brusquely lined us up in groups of 50, for blood-typing, the last piece of data to be stamped into our dog tags. Each of us had a temporary number, and a medical tech guy carried a series of blood-typing modules with corresponding numbers. He simply matched each number, used the module’s tiny, sharp lancet to draw a drop of blood, and stowed each module into a container. Within an hour or so, we each received our two dog-tags on a neck chain, and could read our blood types stamped into them. For the next 30 years I always wrote my type, A+ onto medical forms, as stamped into my two dog tags. Having my type checked again after all of those years, I learned that the Army techs had it wrong. I am one of only 3.4% of the population with blood type AB+.

Leaving the New Haven Induction Center, we boarded buses for the three-hour drive to Ft. Dix, NJ. We arrived after dark, and were chased off of the buses by sergeants who loudly affirmed their control. Though exhausted at the late hour, we took written tests that measured our IQ’s and ultimately indicated the kind of jobs we might have after basic training. We were then organized roughly as a company called Yankee Company, with four platoons of 50. The platoons were created more or less in alphabetical order. For example, all of the guys in Platoon One had names beginning with the letters A through G. Since my name begins with the letter V, I was in the last platoon—Platoon Four. Each platoon had four squads of 12 or 13 members, still organized alphabetically.

It seemed odd to me that my name, beginning with V would be one of the three last names in a company of 200. But then I learned that our platoon was different from the other three. Our first squad was NOT composed alphabetically. Instead it began with names of 12 convicted criminals.

Judges of that era offered certain felons a choice between prison and the Army. When the would-be convicts chose the training they would receive, their choices were limited to combat roles. Typically macho kids under these circumstances chose Airborne, the most dangerous, yet glamorous part of the Army. In a foolish experiment, Army brass decided to keep newly recruited Airborne volunteers together as discrete units through all phases of their training—from basic through Infantry and then Airborne schools. As a result 25 percent of our platoon members were hardened gang-bangers, several of whom committed anti-social acts from Day 1. What could go wrong with this plan?

And that’s how and why I have privately remembered Feb. 7, every year since that first day of my Army career.