On 13 September 2011 a GreySide Group press release reported that Michael Ferguson was brought on as the Vice President of Global Operations. Just days later he and his team of three Americans and a Brit were arrested on illegal weapons charges in the Nampula Airport.
Ferguson spent 21 years with the SEALs to include deployments with SEAL TEAM 1 and SEAL TEAM 8, before becoming a weapons and tactics instructor for the Coast Guard, and, just this month, an executive for the GreySide Group – a Herdon, Virginia based international risk management firm.
According to a BBC report, Ferguson commented he and the others were on a mission to free a vessel held by pirates in Pimba.
Inacio Dina, Nampula’s provincial police spokesperson, told the BBC that the weapons include a FN 5.5mm rifle, ammunition, and communications gear.
Greyside has not yet commented. The US Embassy has said they had no connection to the group.
Other details of this story are unknown at this time.
Just one week after the killing of our most sought after enemy by our country’s premiere assaultmen the headlines have turned predictably back to what (sadly) matters most to far too many Americans…back to National Football League infighting, and reality television, and 5 dollar gas and Lindsay Lohan, and on and on and on.
Just one week after history has altered course into an irreconcilable unknown with our most lethal enemy since World War II – the Islamist – more attention is spent in the collective daily consciousness on meaningless self-indulgence than on asking the question our grandparents so circumspectly posed after Hitler fell and Hirohito’s Japan remained: What now?
The times are indeed grim when our violent land wars are fought by less than 1% of a population that cannot even identify where their fellow countrymen are doing the fighting and killing and bleeding and winning on their behalf. This sort of thing makes me sad.
And then I think of Brian Blonder.
On the tenth of this May there was no more magnificent stage in all the world than the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Though this sacred place holds only nominal natural elevation, it seems high enough, I think, to peer into our national soul. And so when a man goes there, his heart races. And his breath shortens. And his muscles tighten. And his eyes water because this is our American Everest.
It was on this stage – at the foot of our nation’s highest moral terrain – that Brian Blonder received the second highest award given for valor in the face of danger for his actions during an all-day firefight against Taliban insurgents Aug. 8, 2008, during the battle of Shewan, Afghanistan in which he led Marines and Sailors and innovated and persevered and dealt death to more than 50 Taliban fighters and drove the rest from that terrible village in the southern Farah province.
It was aside our American Everest that those attending were reminded, if only for the duration of the ceremony itself, why this nation will endure after all – not because of Yankee versus Red Sox baseball, or free speech, or an independent judiciary (though all of that is quite important, indeed) – but because of the United States Marine Corps, and the weight carried by a few words displayed on a large sign in the foreground of the ceremony concerning the title, Marine…
Earned. Never Given.
The victory in Shewan that day by an out-gunned Marine platoon had everything to do with ‘earning it’ and this incredible defeat of a fierce enemy was not only a function of the tremendous leadership of Captain Byron Owen and Gunnery Sergeant Brian Blonder but also of their men’s unbridled courage and lethality. It was a day that required extraordinary Marines perform extraordinarily. And so they did. And so they won.
Brian Blonder will tell you he just did his job. But that he could have done better here. Here. And here. And he’ll tell you his Marines just did their job as well. Then he’d just assume have a sip of black coffee and a pinch of Copenhagen…and set out on a long run with a heavy ruck into the mountains. Alone.
That sort of quiet-professionalism might just be expected from one of Tennessee’s native sons. Tennessee, a state which produced more soldiers for the Confederate Army than any other state, and more soldiers for the Union Army than any other Southern state, has a reputation for producing hard men built for war…but more than this, Gunny Blonder, who would no doubt rather be training in sweaty utilities than standing at attention in sweaty dress blues, understands that the 10th of May wasn’t about him at all. The 10th of May was about what he represented so well in battle: The United States Marine Corps.
And so these days when the thought of how few Americans have ever heard of Farah Province, Afghanistan or seen Arlington for themselves makes me sad…
I think of Brian Blonder.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as Platoon Sergeant, Force Reconnaissance Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Marine Corps Forces Central Command (Forward) on 8 August 2008 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Gunnery Sergeant Blonder was leading a dismounted patrol through the city of Shewan when his platoon came under intense rocket propelled grenade, mortar and machinegun fire that destroyed a vehicle and trapped several Marines in the kill zone 150 meters away from the enemy. Gunnery Sergeant Blonder exposed himself time and again to heavy fire as he coordinated the suppression of the enemy so that the Marines could be recovered. Later in the battle, Gunnery Sergeant Blonder personally led a flanking attack on the enemy trench system through countless volleys of machinegun and rocket propelled grenade fire. He continued to press the attack as the platoon penetrated further into the trenches in order to defeat the enemy. Gunnery Sergeant Blonder’s tactical ability, superior marksmanship and aggressive fighting spirit inspired the platoon to continually advance on the enemy despite being highly outnumbered. He was a driving force during the eight hour battle and pushed the platoon to gain and maintain the momentum against the enemy until they were destroyed. Gunnery Sergeant Blonder’s valorous actions helped reduce a major enemy stronghold as his platoon killed over fifty enemy fighters, destroying several Taliban cells and opening the highway in Shewan to coalition convoys. By his bold leadership, wise judgment, and complete dedication to duty, Gunnery Sergeant Blonder reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
Esquire Magazine’s monthly column ‘What I’ve Learned’ is an excellently composed editorial on the meaning of life from the perspective of some of the world’s most intriguing statesmen, artists, and philosophers. I am neither statesman, nor artist, nor philosopher (and if you ask any woman who has ever dated me, hardly intriguing) but I am a Marine who just left active duty service. After 11 years since having first raised my right hand, and in the spirit of Esquire’s eminent feature, I spent the first day of my terminal leave reflecting…on what it is I’ve learned.
On Life. (in general)
Life’s much easier when you read wonderful books and stare at inconceivable art and listen to transcendent music and watch inspiring movies. When you allow the great authors and poets and filmmakers and musicians and artists to help sort things out for you, life just becomes easier, I think. Perhaps this is because you realize you are not the first person that has ever felt that he had no clue what’s going on, or what’s to come. You realize you are not alone. And you say to yourself humble things like, “how small I am.” And you become stronger.
But even with the nod of the greats, it’s important we each tell our own story in our own way. It’s therapy, for one. But it also preserves the memory. I never want to forget any of the Marines I ever walked alongside. They are my heroes.
Chapters. (and why a father is always right)
On the last afternoon of my active duty service I met my old man for a drink. We sat in deep couches in a familiar bar and ordered the old fashioned. We first toasted the great naval service of which we had both served, and next the adventure that I had just lived. We sat in that bar for hours and told stories of the great men we knew back then and how I wish the VA would cover the Propecia prescription for my hair loss and finally did what it is a father and a son do after one has come back from war and the other had already been, which is change the subject and talk about mom.
And at some point that afternoon, I can’t be sure exactly at which time, I looked at my dad, who had flown three tours in Vietnam and whose one Marine son had fought in Afghanistan and whose other in Iraq, and asked him what he was thinking about just then. He told me he was thinking about life’s chapters and how important it is to recognize when they start and when they finish. He told me to enjoy this moment.
And that was all he said.
My dad’s lesson was simple that afternoon: It’s essential to sincerely differentiate between “time” and “moments” because life’s shade, import and value are defined by moments and time is just what we have left.
My father the Scotsman was right. But then again, it’s been my experience that a father is always right.
On Love. (swimming in the ocean, shakespeare and everything else)
Pool workouts are straightforward, comfortable and humdrum. But working out in the water is about heart and when you swim in the ocean you have the environment to compete with and the climate and God. And so I prefer to do my swim workouts in the open ocean.
This weekend I did my usual La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores and back swim. The water was cold and the sand sharks off the Shores, harmless though they are, did their best to frighten me (but how I love that they take 30 seconds off my 500 meter split). The only difference between this swim and the countless others I’ve done these past few years is that this was the first ocean swim I’d done since being off active duty.
For the first time this workout was about me wanting to look and feel good, instead of about preparation for training (or not wanting to fall behind my Force Recon Marines during a swim exercise) and, quite frankly, I hated that feeling.
My mind was everywhere during the swim. But at around the 1,000 meter mark it settled on one thing: how much I love the Marine Corps.
It came to me out there that my experience in the Marine Corps was the most wonderful, transformative, rich experience a man could ever hope to have.
And this is what I learned…
The Marine Corps taught me the sort of practical things that all men should know but don’t these days like how to shoot a weapon, survive in the wilderness, navigate by compass and map, and take care of your feet.
The Marine Corps taught me the true meaning of words I had only before read about in Shakespeare: honor, obligation, courage, fidelity and sacrifice. These were no longer merely a part of some story from an epic script on war, but real memories about real men in war.
In the Marine Corps I learned what it means to be truly happy and what it feels like to be truly sad. And I realized neither had anything to do with me but both had everything to do with the unit and the definition of a meaningful life.
In my travels I learned that life isn’t very easy for most people in this world. And that we are blessed to have won life’s lottery and to have been born in this country.
I learned that freedom is impossible without sacrifice and neither matters very much without love.
I learned that it’s not what’s on your chest that counts, but what’s in your chest.
I learned that standards matter. I was taught the importance of discipline. And of letting go from time to time.
I learned that all it takes is all you got.
I learned a good NCO is worth his weight in gold…a good Staff NCO is absolutely priceless.
I learned it is important to write letters to yourself along the way because the details will escape you.
I learned there is a difference between regret and remorse.
Phase lines help you eat an elephant. Which is true with so much in life I suppose.
I learned that apathy is the evil cousin of delegation.
The Marine Corps taught me about physical courage, team work, the absolute virtue of a human being’s great adventure and that all men fall.
With respect to tactics, I’ve found it most critical to never say never, and never say always.
I learned the importance of a good story shared among friends. Or a good glass of scotch enjoyed in solitude. Or of the importance of sailing away until you cannot see the coastline anymore…and then coming home, a better man.
I learned that faith matters. And that aside from the importance of believing the universe is so much bigger than any one man could ever comprehend, I learned that I truly believe in the power of a great bottle of wine, the courage of the enlisted Marine and the tenets of maneuver warfare.
I discovered my morality.
I learned how to fight in the Marine Corps…and my time in bars with my brother-Marines has taught me that contrary to our own self-perpetuated mythology, not all blood that Marines shed together is on the battlefield.
The Marine Corps taught me how to think aggressively. How to respond under pressure. How to perform. How to live excellently and that nothing is more important than the mission or the Marine.
The Marine Corps taught me how to laugh – deeper than I ever thought imaginable – and how to cry. And that a warrior’s tears reflect his soul.
Finally, the Marine Corps did more for me than I could have ever done for it…it gave me an extraordinary adventure to live that is mine and that I will never for the rest of my life forget.
And then there’s this last irony…
That I would have the honor of spending these years studying and practicing the discipline of warfighting alongside the wonderful modern Marine-hoplite only to realize that what I learned had so much less to do with war and so much more to do with love.
How do I feel in the 72 hours since I’ve left the Marine Corps?
I miss it already.
Not since 1820 has a US jury carried a piracy conviction. That changed yesterday when five Somali men found guilty of attacking the USS Nicholas were sentenced to life in prison in a Norfolk Federal Court. The sentencing might be a drop in the bucket given the current piracy endemic, but was nonetheless a significant step forward – symbolically and legally – in the fight that wages daily off the Horn off Africa.
The pirates’ defense centered on the claim that they had been abducted and forced to fire their weapons on the Nicholas. Judge Mark Davis ruled in favor of the government and sentenced the men to life in prison plus an additional 80 years for the use of illegal firearms. Life in prison is a tough but reasonable (and in fact, mandatory) sentence considering piracy is a universal crime (the legal cousin of slavery and genocide), and that the last convicted pirate that stood before a US court for sentencing was put to death.
US Attorney Neil MacBride led a landmark case not only because his conviction demonstrates to the American people that the US Navy is determined to interdict and arrest pirates at sea, but also to the world that the US Justice Department is willing and able to prosecute and convict pirates at home.
This sentence also sends a message back to the pirate camps that litter the Somalian coast: if you attack a US ship, you will be captured and jailed for life. Or, as has been the fate of at least two pirates on the Quest and Maersk Alabama in the past two years, worse.
And the Justice Department isn’t done with pirates yet.
Fourteen suspected pirates have recently been indicted by a federal grand jury for their involvement in the attack on the yacht Quest which resulted in the murder of Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. They will face piracy, kidnapping and firearms charges. Currently there are no murder charges as the investigation is on-going.
While the legal impact of this case is indeed in the landmark realm, it’s true the immediate impact of the Nicholas convictions will be nominal with respect to the number of attacks in the short term. It does, however, send an important political message to other nations with a stake in security in the region in the mid to long term. With nearly 800 Somali pirates in prisons in 14 different countries awaiting trial (and hundreds more simply released due to the legal complexity of such cases) the message from the US is this: piracy is an intolerable crime whose thugs will be prosecuted vigilantly and convicted to full extent of the law.
Will other nations that patrol these troubled waters with us follow course?
The U.S. Service Academies are national treasures because they exist exclusively to prepare young men and women to lead our country’s heroes. The Naval Academy holds a distinct place in our national character because America is a maritime nation with a sea-going identity that relies on a strong navy to defend her shores, explore the unknown, protect commerce, facilitate diplomacy, and wage war.
U.S. naval officers are genuinely aware of the connection between their place in this tradition and the significance of sea power – past, present and future. The U.S. Naval Academy, then, has a distinct responsibility to champion, promote and celebrate its position as a national fountainhead of U.S. naval history and an obligation to aggressively convey the bearing our naval history has on our nation’s future to tomorrow’s leaders.
From everything I’ve seen and heard, USNA’s new Superintendant, Vice Admiral Michael Miller, supports this point of view. He is a tested combat-leader, a visionary, a thinker, and a true officer and gentlemen. He is also an Annapolis alum who has spoken of his deep interest in history and naval history in particular – which is a bitter irony considering we are about to witness its death.
From their very first day on the Severn, midshipmen have a shared end-state: to receive a commission and lead Sailors and Marines. In this way, they immediately distinguish themselves from their civilian counterparts at universities and colleges across the country. Midshipmen maintain an incredible bond with each other based on an individual commitment to a collective excellence predicated on unselfishness: the understanding that service before self is life’s most honorable calling. That and the reality that you can’t survive a military academy alone.
What follows over the next four years is a moral, mental and physical evolution that is meant to test individual midshipmen’s devotion to service, steer them towards an occupational specialty that complements their personality and talents and best prepares their hearts for what will be the most challenging and rewarding life’s work imaginable … leadership in combat and at sea.
So perhaps it’s best said that the most critical function of our service academies is to imbue in the cadet or midshipman the ultimate humility: that none of their undergraduate experience is about them.
It’s up to the individual midshipman to embrace this – that they aren’t working so hard at the Naval Academy for themselves but rather for the opportunity to one day work so much harder for someone else – and it’s up to the administration to give the mids tools along the way to make their hard work pay-off.
Leadership training is one such tool. Moral and physical development are others. A rigorous curriculum of math, science and engineering are others still. But the tools learned in the study of history, and HH104 in particular – USNA’s required course in American Naval History – are some of the most important of them all.
As a matter of desired devices, history is entirely commensurate with the challenges of leading men and women in combat or at sea. A sound understanding of history provides the officer a lens to more clearly understand the mistakes and successes of the past, a framework to process the problems at hand, and a workable socio-calculus that helps approach an understanding of what tomorrow may hold.
Moreover, the study of history conveys an understanding of the human design, an appreciation for irony, a keen sense of collective memory, and a moral context to explain the reason they are all fighting in the first place. These are among the most valuable tools a decision maker, mentor, and leader can possess because these are the tools our Sailors and Marines need most from their officers.
All of this is invaluable intellectual training and plebes at USNA are immediately exposed to it in HH104. Just as significant is the specific history that HH104 relates: the complex and storied past of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. In imparting this history, HH104 becomes an essential vehicle of acculturation. It imbues these novice midshipmen with a deeper and clearer comprehension of the experiences and sacrifices of those who have preceded them in America’s Naval Service. The course serves as an essential repository of collective memory and thus an integral means to integrate plebes into the culture of the Academy and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. In other words, the course – like other key components of plebe year – helps transform a jumble of motivated yet unformed individuals into an amalgam of inspired and unified officers-to-be.
Which is why it was so troubling to hear that HH104, American Naval History, is being moved from the 4th Class, plebe curriculum to the 1st Class (i.e., senior year) curriculum at USNA.
Here’s what happened…
At some point during last academic year (2009-2010) the Department of the Navy tasked the previous Superintendant, Vice Admiral Fowler, to add a cyber warfare class to the core curriculum. No public announcement was made. Apparently, last spring a small working group, operating in the shadows, was established to come up with a plan to create introductory and upper-level cyber warfare courses. The USNA community knew nothing about the working group’s tasking and work and learned of this development only last fall. The dilemma was how to add these courses without overloading an already full plate.
Surprisingly, the working group recommended moving American Naval History to 1st Class year. Apparently, they didn’t care that this decision will leave new midshipmen adrift and ignorant of the history of their profession, and their nation, for three years. Again, no official announcement was made.
The fact that HH104 was dead only came to light by happenstance. In October, the History Department underwent a routine, external review. The review report was distributed to the Department faculty in late October and HH104’s removal from 4th Class year, buried in the report, was presented as a certainty.
As word trickled out, upset ensued. First, the military and civilian faculty who teach HH104 expressed their unanimous opposition to moving HH104. Then, a number of History faculty who do not teach HH104 registered their dismay that such a major curriculum change would occur without any serious consideration and vote by the Faculty. The general reaction of midshipmen who have heard of the HH104 shift is consternation. Most recently, the shift of HH104 has prompted vigorous and agitated discussion within the Faculty Senate.
What upsets everyone as much as moving HH104 is the way in which it was done. The military and civilian faculty members who teach American Naval History were never consulted as to the effect this shift would have on the professional and academic education of midshipmen, nor was the larger History faculty consulted as a group. This change occurred in the shadows, violated the established policies regarding curricular review, and appeared as a fait accompli.
More troubling than the manner in which the decision to erase HH104 from the plebe curriculum was reached are the future, harmful effects this will have on the Naval Academy and on the Naval Service:
1.) Academic harm. Moving HH104 denies midshipmen an early exposure to the analytical tools History provides which would help them through the rest of their time at the Naval Academy. In HH104 midshipmen not only learn names and dates (which is important), they learn how to conduct research, write a research paper, think analytically, learn historical causation and the ultimate and proximate reasons why things happened the way they did, construct and carry an argument, and approach complex problems with the necessary perspective. And, perhaps most significantly, they learn about the relationship between the birth and evolution of the navy they have just joined and the nation they have just promised to support and defend.
2.) Educational harm. History is the foundation for an understanding of every social science. Teaching the required class in American Government (FP130), currently a plebe-year course, before teaching the context in which America became a government is, at best, sloppy and at worst negligent. Mids take Calc-I, Calc-II, Calc-III and differential equations before they go on to use those methods in tackling a complex electrical engineering problem. How can they possibly be asked to write about Federalism in FP130 without understanding the historical context in which Federalism occurred? From an educational angle, the course that should be taught later in the USNA curriculum is FP130.
3.) Professional harm. Who will give them – early – the basis of historical and cultural thinking called for by the CNO and Commandant of the Marine Corps in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power? This is where West Point gets it right. The U.S Military Academy places an institutional importance on the study of history and its relevance to a successful, professional military officer and the success of its future operations in defense of this Nation.
4.) Moral harm. The aggregate effect of the shift of HH104 affects the Sailors and Marines the midshipmen will one day lead. The Fleet is weaker with a junior officer (of any major) who hasn’t been applying the analytical tools learned in HH104 over the course of four years of study. Our Sailors and Marines will have less effective leaders.
This all concerns me deeply.
Cyber warfare is important and in addressing it in its curriculum, the Naval Academy is being flexible and realistic in preparing midshipmen for the multi-faceted nature of 21st-century conflict. But of the two plebe-year courses that could move, why wasn’t FP130 chosen? It makes good pedagogical sense to have midshipmen learn about American government after taking their three core history courses which give them a sense of American and world history and the historical context in which the U.S. Constitution was framed.
One of the institutional strengths of the U.S. Naval Academy is its ability to adapt and prepare officers of the Naval Service for the next fight. But steeped in this tradition has always been a reliance on history. HH104, as the introductory course in historical thinking and the most effective vehicle to convey the collective memory of the U.S. Naval Service, is the bedrock of professional development at the Naval Academy.
Consider this sobering image: the Brigade of Midshipmen in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in which about 3,000 of the 4,000 midshipmen have no knowledge of, or appreciation for, the names of battles enshrined on the walls there, nor any sense of the sacrifice those letters represent. Because 3,000 of these midshipmen never had HH104 as plebes, they will be tragically unaware of the significance of places such as Tarawa, Okinawa, Khe Sanh, and even Midway. We will now have a 75 per cent “ignorant” Brigade at every football game.
HH104 must continue to be offered to 4th Class midshipmen for one reason alone: none of this is about them. It is about preparing them to be the best officers for their Sailors and Marines – officers who are analytical, creative, and flexible and also soundly grounded in the heritage and history of the Naval Service.
On November 12, 2010, 1st Lt Robert Kelly was killed in Sangin, Afghanistan. He died in the dismount. Boots laced. On patrol. Leading Marines.
I never cried before these wars began. Tears come easier now. Sometimes they are sad tears, when I think of friends lost, wives without husbands, or sons without fathers. And sometimes they are thankful tears, when I think of how much is at stake in all this; and how lucky we are that, at the very moment I write this, safely, from somewhere in the South China Sea, our nation’s most rugged hoplites bravely hold the line in places like Herat, Lashkar Gah, Sangin, Now Zad, and Khost, so that we can have rest and peace and raise our families in places like Houston, New York, San Francisco and Miami. But with war, violence; and with violence, death. And so, like I said, the tears come easier now. For all of us in the Marine Corps family.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family these days and I’m reminded how our Ops Chief at 1st Force, Master Sergeant Moe Pau, would always remind us that we are a family. Moe Pau is one of those men born for war. You’d instantly recognize him in a crowd of men as having an innate gift for warfighting. And it’s more than his towering Samoan frame or his regular gunfighter’s posture; it’s his steady eyes that make you conscious of his true warrior’s soul. And so he’s become one of our teachers. And of all his lessons, the most important one is on the concept of the Samoan family, or the Aiga, which he told us is what keeps our country free. It’s what keeps the platoon, the team, the individual Marine, strong.
I’ve found he’s right.
You see examples of “Aiga” everywhere. If the name of a departed Marine passes by on the ticker tape of CNN before a crowd of patrons in, say, a coffee shop, some might say: how sad. They might shake their head. Some might not even notice. Or worse, notice but not care. But if in that same crowd a former Marine sees that name, if he reads: “Lt Robert Kelly, KIA, Sangin, Afghanistan.” His heart will break. And he will feel like he lost one of his own brothers.
My mom told me once that I’d know if I truly cared for someone if I honestly felt their success was my success. I’ve used this to gauge the genuineness of my friendships and relationships along the years. It’s never failed me.
But there’s a melancholic corollary to my mom’s poignant philosophy, which is this: You know you truly love someone – you know you’re family – if their loss is your loss. This is the essence of the Marine Corps Aiga.
I didn’t know Lieutenant Kelly. But when I heard the news, my heart collapsed as it always does whenever I hear about one of ours lost in the offense. And then someone said…”hey, that was Lieutenant General Kelly’s son.” And I thought: the General has a son? In the Marine Corps? And I was told he has two. Two sons in the Marine Corps. Both combat veterans…
The fact he was the son of a General didn’t change the magnitude of my sadness – a Marine is a Marine – but it reminded me what’s so incredible about the Marine Corps (and all of our military services, actually): here, no one judges you by who your father is. Here, you are judged by your own strength of mind, spirit, body, character and abilities.
Here you make your own name and you are judged by your Marines.
In the Marine Corps, in order to have the privilege to lead Marines you must earn it. Marines are a national treasure and an Officer’s Oath to the President affirms his charge to the defense of this land and her people. And so your Oath is also then to those Marines you lead. Robert Kelly wasn’t bestowed this supreme privilege because his father was a General Officer. Robert Kelly was bestowed the privilege to lead men in combat – the highest privilege of an Officer’s life – because of who he was as a man and a leader of men. Because he earned it.
He understood that the Oath is a warrior’s bond implicitly understood among men in a platoon: they will not fail you in bringing violence and death to the enemy at the decisive point in the most horrifying conditions. And you will not fail them either. Your leadership will be steady. And you’ll never order them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Something like walk a combat patrol in the Sangin. Something like meet the enemy. Something like give your life for your country and for the Marine to your left and right. In this painful way, our nation’s battles are won.
In this very Hellenic way, Robert Kelly was the finest among us.
And this idea – the idea that a man would give his life for the men he loved and led and in defense of his country – is the very reason why ours is a different war from that of Alexander the Great or Seleucus. It’s the reason it’s different from the Mongols who razed Bamiyan and Balkh, or from Gurgin. Different than the “Great Game” between the empires of Russia and Britain, which divided the lands and the people of Afghanistan to serve their own political end. Different than the Soviets who attempted holocaust but were repelled, finally, by an extremely popular uprising. And absolutely morally divergent from the Taliban, who came to power by extortion and murder and who ruled by fear and brutality and hate.
Everyone who has come to fight in Afghanistan has failed because they came to conquer and when they went to war, they sent slaves or conscripts. Everyone except this NATO coalition, of which we are a part. When we went to war, we went to liberate and prevent future attacks on our soil, and to give a brave people with a tragic history a chance at Democracy…and America’s Generals send their very own sons. Sons that fight not because they had to. Sons that fought because they wanted to.
To 1st Lt Robert Kelly, USMC, and all the brave warriors now guarding us from above. My tears are first sad, and then thankful. You have our eternal gratitude.
Susan Katz Keating attended the funeral of Brendan Looney at Arlington on the 4th of October. She captured well the moment when Brendan’s fellow warriors said their last goodbye: “Until the day I die, I never will forget the sight and sounds of 82 SEALS removing the Tridents from their uniforms and one by one, pounding them into the coffin with their fists. Brendan Looney, RIP” more here
In April of 2007 1st Recon Battalion’s Lt. Travis Manion was killed on patrol in Iraq. He was buried near his hometown in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Three years later, on the 21st of September, Travis’ best friend, Navy Special Warfare’s Lt. Brendan Looney was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Now these two best friends, college athlete standouts, Naval Academy roommates and American warriors have been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, together.
Their story has touched so many because it transcends our individual differences and reminds us of our national similarity: that we are a free people whose country was founded on the belief that a great life is given to strenuous endeavor.
We lose sight of that unifying similarity as our lives become easier and more convenient. We forget what it means to sacrifice something we love for a greater good and as we enjoy the fruits of labor past, we too often forget our nation’s best and strongest remain overseas, at war.
Knowing the kind nature, strong character, good humor, and deep humility Travis and Brendan shared, I’m certain they’d ask us to forgive those that forget we are at war and that have mistaken a life of “ignoble ease” for the good life and instead ask we focus on the well-being of the men they led and lost. I’m sure they’d insist that any word spoken or written about their own memory address only what was always at their heart’s center: their family, their men, their mission and their country.
But I also know that the Reconnaissance Marines and Navy SEALs they fought with adored them and would demand we celebrate the life they lived, not mourn the life they lost.
And so I remember how Travis used to ball me up on grappling mats or how he was Kate and Mike Geiger’s perpetual third wheel or how Brendan would help us all handle the pressures of Annapolis by reminding us to relax and keep our eyes on the prize or the way he always laughed at one of Matty Midura’s jokes even before he finished them, and I find myself as I always was in their presence, smiling and happy.
When I think about who these men were, what they accomplished and what they will forever mean to their family and friends, comrades and country, I realize something very important – I realize Travis and Brendan have given us the blueprint for a man’s life lived, complete.
In a world of prevailing self-indulgence, gluttony, and short-cuts, contemporary man has gravitated towards weakness. Spirits are fragile. Character is a burden. Hearts are hollow. Souls are empty. Physical labor is offensive and intellectual exploration, uninteresting. Man’s great passions have been replaced by material enthusiasms. While our forefathers regarded the road less traveled a career choice, we look upon it as little more than some romantic distraction from…whatever the hell it is we’re all supposed to be doing with our lives. But not Travis and Brendan…
They chose to ignore our generation’s plague of weakness and fight the war waged on manliness in the only way they knew how: stoically and by example. Brendan and Travis remind us that the spirit of adventure, responsibility, duty, wit, honor, love, sacrifice, imagination, strength, and courage that defined the men who built this country still exist today – and in so doing proved there is hope for man after all.
When Theodore Roosevelt delivered his famous ode to the strenuous life before Chicago’s Hamilton Club in 1899, he was doing more than delivering a foreign policy stump. Roosevelt’s speech was about what it meant to be a man.
When he spoke about manhood, he said, simply, that “the highest success comes not to the man who desires easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
The splendid ultimate triumph being, of course, that a man “showed by their lives that they recognized the law of work, the law of strife; they toiled to win a competence for themselves and those dependent upon them; but they recognized that there were yet other and even loftier duties – duties to the nation and duties to the race.” When Theodore Roosevelt described the noblest nature of man, he foretold the lives of Travis and Brendan.
In the opening lines of his great sermon, Roosevelt invoked the essence of American virtue by addressing the character of her citizens. He exhorted that our tradition of a life of hard work and strife were our greatest national qualifications to lead the free world forward.
When asking the crowd what they would want of their America, he asked them first to consider what they would demand of their own sons, and then to regard them the same. And then I think of Travis’ and Brendan’s parents and how proud they must be that they raised men whose souls were so rich that they were willing to step forward to serve their country in a time of war and that they not only decided to be leaders of other great men, but decided to do so in the ranks of our military’s most elite tribes.
And yet I also imagine that with this deep pride comes an avalanche of sadness that must bury the divine emotional medicines of art, music, poetry, literature, and philosophy under a cold blanket of pain. Burying even Shakespeare: Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/It hath no end.
But the Looney and Manion people are two great American families. To help their sorrow they have the strong love of one another, their faith in God and the devotion and gratitude of their country.
As part of that gratitude, we must honor what the Marine and SEAL warriors demand of us: that we celebrate their lives so significantly lived.
We celebrate the love that continues from their beautiful families, the devotion that endures from their dearest friends and mates, and the lasting legacy of strength, kindheartedness, service, good humor, loyalty, and bravery they have left to this world.
And we celebrate their story, which provides a blue print not just on how to be a good man, but on how to be a superior man; not just on how to be a good friend, but on how to be a best friend. In their lives they demonstrated a love for the ideas and values this country was founded upon, a love for the men they served alongside, and a love for their families that treasured them back. In this we see what so few men have ever felt even in one hundred years of life…that their lives that ended too soon in war are defined forever by love.
Brendan Looney and Travis Manion departed us from the darkest provinces in this world amid violence and bloodshed with a supreme moral distinction between their sacrifice and other men’s deaths. They lived great lives of strenuous endeavor, doing what they chose to do: defend their countrymen as Navy SEAL and U.S. Marine. And so they left those wretched places in the Anbar and Zabul, nobly, and with the happiest of hearts, and will rest forever in Arlington as they belong in our memory, together.
Over a 48 hour period, the 15th MEU/PELARG team conducted offensive air operations in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 5 confirmed enemy fighters, provided disaster relief in Pakistan to 120 victims who had been without aid since July, and seized a pirated vessel, rescuing a crew of 11 hostages and detaining 9 suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia. A busy couple of days and an impressive battle-rhythm by any standard for this dynamic Navy-Marine Corps team.
For her part, the USS Dubuque was 1,500 miles away from her command ship, the USS Peleliu, and attached to Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) – the international counter piracy task force – when the events associated with the pirated motor vessel occurred. She spent the night of 7 September escorting vessels through shipping corridors in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden.
A few hours after first light on the 8th (approximately 0830 Bahrain time), the Turkish frigate TCG Gökçeada, CTF 151 flagship, received a distress call from Motor Vessel (M/V) Olib G, a Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned chemical tanker. Gökçeada immediately launched her helicopters for ISR. Once on station they reported seeing two pirates with RPGs aboard the Olib G.
An hour later, in a second (unrelated) incident, the Antigua-flagged Motor Vessel Magellan Star reported that they were being boarded by pirates and the crew had locked themselves in what they later called their “citadel.”
TCG Gökçeada moved to the scene and discovered a skiff with two outboard motors and no crew. The USS Princeton (CG 59) was less than 15 nautical miles from the Magellan Star and made best course and speed to join the Turkish frigate. The USS Dubuque was ordered to the scene shortly thereafter.
The pirate attack and subsequent boarding and rescue operation took place in the Gulf of Aden, approximately 85 miles southeast of Mukallah, Yemen.
I was in my stateroom that morning having a cup of coffee when Major Mike “Honcho” Ford, a burly southerner with a cowboy’s drawl, knocked on my door. “Hey man,” he said calmly, “we got a ship that’s been pirated. No official tasking yet, I’ll pass you a sitrep when I get it. Go ahead and put the guys on alert-120.” As the 15th MEU’s Maritime Raid Force Commander, the platoon and I had been training with “Honcho” for nearly a year for this mission, so what happened over the next 60 minutes was by now a well-rehearsed standard operating procedure.
I called down to the men’s berthing. Few words were exchanged between my acting-platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Hartrick, and myself. “Staff Sergeant, skipper” “Yes sir.” “A vessel’s been taken by pirates – I don’t have much else for you at this time. Set alert-120.” “On it, sir.” We both hung up.
The guys swung into action, pulled pre-staged shooter’s kits, body armor, weapons, ammunition, communication and breaching equipment and moved it to our assembly area. Comm was op-checked, weapons were function checked and set in the best condition possible, shooters performed their pre-assigned tasks to meet our conditions for a 120 minute alert status while assistant team leaders conducted simultaneous individual inspections: flotation devices, chem lights, breathing devices, roster cards, tourniquets, medical equipment, lights, night vision, weapons, comm…all given one last op-check. I barked out a quick warning order and dropped my kit at our assembly area and moved to the ship’s tactical control center.
Lt. Col Clearfield, the overall Mission Commander, was seated at the desk communicating on various phones and computers. I reported in. “Hey Alex, here’s the update (followed by an intelligence and operational update), go ahead and set alert-60.” “Yes sir.” And we did…moving then into a 60 minute ready posture. The next step would be alert 30, which means full kit, waiting for the green light.
An announcement was made over the ship’s loud speaker as the Dubuque made an impressive 20 knots (not bad for the third oldest ship in the Navy) towards the Critical Contact of Interest (CCOI): “Assemble the crisis action team.” It was repeated again. Everyone it seemed was already assembled, busily preparing their notes, thoughts and briefing products as we awaited the arrival of the ship’s skipper, Captain Bolt, and Mission Commander, Lt. Col. Clearfield.
By now it was late morning, early afternoon on the 8th of September. I was sitting behind the BLT’s Operation Officer, Major Tom Tennant, and across from S2 Capt Mark Powers in the ship’s flag plot. Copenhagen in lip, coffee in hand. The excitement was palpable, but all players were calm, focused and prepared to brief and execute what for us had become a well rehearsed assault package.
Lt Col Clearfield entered. The room came to attention, and was quickly put at ease. He broke out his notepad and briefed us on the situation. There has been a ship taken over by pirates (“suspected pirates” the lawyers would later remind us), the crew of 11 is safe and has locked themselves in the engine room, the pirates are showing no signs they wish to surrender, they are armed and aggressively posturing. We have no official tasking to board at this time. But still, he said, we’re going to plan this out and prepare to execute.
Major Brian Dryzga, a Huey pilot and the MRF’s Air Mission Commander (AMC), briefed that his birds (Hueys and Cobra gunships) were spotted on the deck, loaded with fuel and ammunition and ready to launch when we arrive on station if needed to provide ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) . Honcho talked us through the template, handed out taskings and provided his guidance as the assault force’s immediate officer in charge.
Captain Bolt and Command Master Chief Rosado walked in the room. “Attention on deck!” “Please, take your seats.” “This is what I know…” and he briefed the most up to date intelligence he had from NAVCENT’s Maritime Operation Center (MOC) and TF 151. He paused, issued his intent with the ship’s maneuver and overall plan once on station with the two warships already in the vicinity of the pirated ship, smiled, ordered us back to work and left for the bridge.
We each broke to our rooms and offices. I readied the 15 slides or so that is the assault piece of the brief package, and as I pressed “send” over to Honcho so he could finish populating the entire brief, we had official tasking to take station and be prepared to execute pending higher’s authority…we didn’t, at the time, know just what “higher” meant…but that’s a funny story for later.
A huge lesson here was just how well the Marine Corps’ Rapid Reaction Planning Process (R2P2) works with a capable and well-rehearsed battle-staff.
All essential personnel, including every member of our 24 man platoon (call sign: Blue Collar) who comprises the assault element, crowded into the ship’s wardroom. The plan was briefed and confirmed. We set alert-30 and made our way to the ship’s side port, kitted up and waited for the command to execute.
That command wouldn’t come that evening…we’d later move back to our rooms to get what sleep we could before our 0300 reveille and would reattack the next morning.
A brief anecdote from those hours we spent at alert-30 in the small confines of that side port that would be our final position before we launched the assault: “Hey sir,” yelled SSgt Homestead who was talking to Capt Doug Verblaauw, the ANGLICO Det OIC managing air up on the bridge wing, “the execute order’s now at the three-star level.” Everyone looked at each other half-suspiciously.
Then reports came to us about the pirates onboard. They were armed. They were aggressive. They were pointing their weapons at the warships. They were making demands. They were non-compliant. They refused repeated attempts by the Princeton to surrender. They said they would stay on and fight.
“They’ll say go now,” someone said, “won’t they?” We waited and waited. “Hey,” Homestead yelled, “listen up, the decision is now at CENTCOM.” Pause. “General Mattis!” someone said, and the entire platoon ignited in a spontaneous cheer. A second pause. A sergeant remarks, “Man, now it’s gonna take even longer,” he said, jokingly. “Whatcha talking about man, it’s General Mattis! We’re golden.” “No brother, now we’ll have to wait for him to get aboard…you know the General will wanna be with us on this hit.” Everyone laughed and felt relieved…this was going to happen afterall.
An hour later, still waiting, we asked each other, “I wonder what the hold up is?” Darkness was less than an hour away, time was running out. Homestead again: “Hey guys, the execute order…” we all pulled our headsets off one of our ears to best hear him, “it’s at the President.” From the platoon: silence.
I think it was Staff Sergeant “Big Daddy” Holm who from right behind me captured the mood at that moment when he broke the brief silence with that wonderful and all-encompassing euphemism: “Holy shit.”
The BLT’s Chaplain, LCDR Mike Foskett prayed for us, and by the next dawn, we were off…
Avoiding a commentary on our tactics, I’ll say that we gained a foothold in short order on what was certainly the most challenging entry we’ve made in all of our 15 full mission profile rehearsals.
As we sped towards our assault point, I took my eye from my scope and appreciated, for a split second, what was unfolding: a spectacular symphony of naval power. Huey, Cobra and SH-60 helicopters, a US Cruiser, a Turkish Frigate, an LPD and a pirated ship in a sort of tactical tango. The sun was rising over my left shoulder. Snipers and the birds were covering our approach. The decisive moment was hundreds of meters away, and closing, fast. Back behind the scope. No time.
I was with Alpha Element, which was led by Staff Sergeant Homestead. We were first on the boat and moved to the superstructure as Bravo Element, led by Staff Sergeant Hartrick, made their way aft and then below decks…
The details of what happened next are important as they highlight the individual actions of 24 highly trained shooters who were put in decision points of the highest moral magnitude: when to shoot, when not to shoot. I can’t go into all those details at this time, but the long and short of it was: some of the enemy threw their hands up when rifles were put in their face, some ran and attempted to elude us in the superstructure but were run down and some hesitated but were taken down by less than lethal force, as the situation dictated. The end result was 9 pirates captured in an opposed boarding and 11 crew members rescued.
I’ve never been more proud than I was watching the balance of violence of action and professional restraint that is the hallmark of a true professional warrior.
The crew rescue, which was Bravo Element’s doing, was a second, equally important story. The recovery amounted to a 3 hour effort. And Blue Collar seemed a fitting call sign as I watched my guys defeat half a dozen obstacles in confined spaces using thermal torches, power saws, and heavy tools. The physical stamina of the Marines cutting the doors and barricades the crew set in as their own defense against the pirates was impressive. I watched as they rotated on the equipment, all the while holding security, and thought: these are some tough ass blue collar pipe hitters.
Despite announcements I was making over the ship’s loudspeaker to the crew (in Russian and English), despite loudspeaker callouts made inside the spaces by the Marines, and despite a pre-planned arrangement between the crew and Captain Bolt (which was briefed to me, Cold War style, at 3 am on the morning of the assault, and involved British maritime shipping and insurance agencies, soviet-bloc code words and authentications, a Polish captain, Russian and a mixed international crew, Somalian pirates with hostages who threatened to “burn her” and a Turkish command vessel) the crew kept falling back to defensive positions, scared and uncertain of what was happening. In classical Murphy fashion, they lost their phone’s battery power the very minute we boarded their ship.
Deep in the engine room, Bravo Element continued to work the problem, as 1st Lt Williams and his trailer Marines rushed to conduct a detailed clearance of all spaces as well as augment the breaching effort. Alpha Element coordinated the entry of the US Coast Guard LEDET (Law Enforcement Detachment), NCIS, the Dubuque’s VBSS team and a constant resupply effort that was underway to bring us water, breaching tools, and the ship’s damage control experts.
They finally cut one last hole, and called in with our loudspeaker that it was safe, the Marines had control of their ship, and to please come out. The ship’s captain peered hesitatingly from behind a steel bulkhead, still unwilling to come forward. Sgt Chesmore ripped an American flag patch from his shooter’s kit and held into the room as a final identification. The captain broke into a huge smile and immediately called his crew from their hiding places. They ran forward, unlocked the final barricaded door in their “citadel” and were escorted topside. Excited. Exhausted. And happy to have their ship back.
As I walked the captain up to his bridge, he examined all the cut doors, and burnt hallways and remarked, “bastard pirates, they really did a number to my ship.” Walking behind him I replied, ironically: “Yeah. They sure did.”
While this was the end of the day for us, the Navy’s day (which had started much earlier and ended much later) was still far from over. The Navy’s VBSS team, led by Lt. Danny Rigdon and Ens. Mark Bote boarded and took charge of the bridge while their aggressive and highly trained petty officers set to work at once on the rest of the ship (now a highly sensitive crime scene). The Dub’s veteran (read: old) DCA, Lt Jg Mike Fought came aboard and assessed all the ship’s damage and aided with damage assessment. The entire crew of the Dubuque – from those in Combat, in the bridge, down in engineering, out on the boat decks, and up on the flight deck – contributed to the day’s success. It was a 1,000 man effort. Blue and Green.
The actions of the day reflect the potency of a Navy-Marine Corps team afloat that, above all else, trusts each other. It reflects the importance of actually performing VADM McRaven’s tenants of: simplicity in planning, repetition in rehearsal, and security, speed, surprise, and purpose in execution. But really, the Dubuque’s Commanding Officer, Captain Bolt, said it best when he closed the debrief saying that “the word of the day was professionalism.” And I think that captured the true spirit of this operation. Well, that and the few choice words of Big Daddy Holm…
More from Alex on Piracy: The Reality of Piracy
Like most American boys I spent the springs and summers of my youth playing baseball. I say “playing” but I think “showing up” does the description of my little league career more justice. I was arguably La Jolla Little League’s worst ballplayer of the late 1980s (possibly of the entire 1980s) and of the early 1990s (but hopefully not of the entire 1990s) matched in my anti-athleticism only by the unimaginable skilllessness possessed by one of my fellow bench-mates from the notorious season of ’89 who should remain unidentified, but won’t and whose name is Mark Bauman. Sorry Mark, I love you, but the record must so reflect…
For some reason recollections of youth baseball stick out more than any other memories from the time. I remember much from those simpler days. Ill-fitting baseball pants (more horse-jockey than major league). Size “youth-small” jock-straps (“youth small” were for 8 year olds and should have offended me at 10, but didn’t). Itchy socks (why the hell I insisted on Civil War-style wool socks, I’ll never know). A snug one-size-obviously-does-not-fit-all jersey (that would grip my soft and lumpy pre-teen body like a polyester saran wrap and should have embarrassed me, but, again, somehow didn’t). Cleats one or two sizes too big (mom always bought clothes for me like she was buying futures at the Chicago Commodities Exchange: “Don’t worry sweet-pea these are for you, and your younger brother!”). We didn’t wear sunglasses (that’s what the glove was for) but having just the right batting glove was a big deal (an important life lesson: if you can’t be good, look good). And who could forget the classic ball-caps of the day? Those Bush I-era caps were unquestionably amazing. Synthetic-netted backs, adjustable plastic head fittings, and that massive billboard-puffy-painted styrofoam front advertising the neighborhood sponsor-de-jeur. Great hats.
I remember other things from my baseball years. Allergy attacks. Big League Chew. Uncomfortable carpools in wood-paneled station wagons. Chewing barbeque sunflower seeds, swallowing that sweet-salty pulp and nearly suffocating to death in right field. Pretty girls I didn’t know I wanted yet (but one day would) not-watching from the bleachers in short jean shorts. Chasing butterflies in the on-deck circle. Sitting on the bench not flirting with the pretty girls in short jean shorts. Leaving each game as clean as I arrived; and, most encompassing of all, being legendarily bad at the game of baseball and not being all too interested in getting any better.
So Why Play?
I played baseball because, like most all good red-blooded American kids, I innately understood that I had to. Somewhere deep down in that chunky little body of mine, there was a chunky little heart that knew there was something that moved me about the game. I think I was called to action by the legacy of what it all meant, by the sights and sounds of the game’s elegant arena, and other mystifying nuances of baseball magic that is the command of this great American pastime over a young man’s soul. And who among us can deny the intoxication of a cold fountain soda and an authentic ballpark super dog covered in mustard and ketchup on a hot summer day? No, I didn’t play baseball because I wanted to…I played baseball because I had to…
The Tribulations of Fatherhood & Baseball’s Life Lesson.
My dad was really the one that had it rough back then. Me? I didn’t know any better. But my poor father. All those game days he had to endure. Man. The sheer misery this former collegiate rugby player and Vietnam Vet certainly suffered watching his (slow, fat, talentless) son strike out at the plate, miss the ball out in the field, warm the bench (not flirt with hot chicks), choke on sunflower seeds, clear his throat violently and put his glove on his head. The terrible indignity! As if coming home three times from Vietnam wasn’t hard enough, now he had to sit stoically by in active support of weakness, next to other fathers whose offspring didn’t suck.
But he was always there for me. Through all the discomfitures. Sitting in those wooden bleachers with that chipped green paint, cheering me on. Doing that very thankless fatherly task of supporting his son’s mediocrity. All this was the tough part. My old man’s ability to maintain a physical presence beside his fellow men under such upsetting circumstances is a testament to the Martin commitment to never showing weakness…even in the face of our own weakness.
No, my dad never gave up; he continued to coach me along with valuable lessons in the game of baseball despite my proven inability to ever demonstrate either improvement or interest.
One such essential baseball lesson became an essential life lesson and was the most important and basic message of them all (more important than the lesson that instructs a father must stand behind the real-life embarrassment he knows he’s half responsible for)…this lesson was to keep your eye on the ball.
A Story that Proves Valuable Life Lessons Aren’t Always True
Sometime during the summer season of 1990 I was traded by the coach of the blue team to the coach of the red team for a warm six pack of Miller Light, a September 1987 edition of Playboy and a Jimmy Buffett CD. I learned this in the summer of 1998, when I was dating the daughter of the coach of 1990’s yellow team. Somehow, even all these years later, this is more sad than funny. But besides my own management’s heartless dealings, another thing happened in the summer of 1990: I got my very first hit.
I’ll never forget the pageantry of that at bat. Walking up to the plate, digging in my cleats (they were bought just before the season of 1988, so they fit just fine), gripping the bat, and closing my eyes tightly as the pitcher released the ball. Next I remember slow motion and white light, some b-side arena rock song by Queen and feeling the pain ringing in my hands from the sweet connection of that leather-coated rubber and string with aluminum. The bat slung the ball deep into the outfield (it should have, I had the physique of a Tely-Tubby), I opened my eyes, smiled (probably even giggled) and trotted to first base.
What for every other kid in the ballpark that day should have been a stand-up triple, was, for this young braveheart, a very long single. And my very first hit. It was a great day. It was the day I learned that skill, hard work, training, dedication and adherence to the fundamentals and principles of the game required for superior performance and execution (principles like ‘keep your eye on the ball’) could all be overcome by (quite literally) blind luck.
Yes, that day I learned that sometimes shortcuts do work. I was so happy with myself I think I waved. I probably even bowed. And I tucked that little gem of a life lesson deep down beneath the delicate architecture of my own moral courage, should life’s later challenges once again require such blind-luck-swingings.
I’m not sure what my dad did after that hit – he probably told everyone in those bleachers that the kid that finally hit the ball was his son; which if I was my father, would have been news to all of them.
The very next play I was thrown out at second. And I struck out every other at bat that season.
Luck gets you only so far.
I never did learn how to follow a baseball from a pitcher’s hand to the face of my bat (or anything else about baseball really); but I also never forgot the importance of keeping your eye on the ball.
And this, the keeping your eye on the ball part, has everything to do with Afghanistan.
Keep Your Eye On the Ball
Our decision to authorize 30,000 more combat troops into Afghanistan was a wise one. Our decision to set a timetable for July 2011 withdrawal was not. With the effects of the approved surge still unknown (the last of the combat surge units don’t even finish arriving until the end of this month) we mustn’t set dates not associated with achievement.
If success in this war is indeed critical to our national security (it is), then we must let General Petraeus, and the rugged men and women in his charge, do their job.
The General’s approach to this war has been that “any troop withdrawal would depend on the situation on the ground” and last week responded to the President’s announcement explaining that the July date “is not the date when the American forces would begin an exodus.” Which is a good thing; and Vice President Biden later back-pedaled saying it would be a “transition.” All this is semantics.
Our message simply must be one of commitment to win a war we are in fact capable of winning. And as far as fighting a successful counter-insurgency and subsequent nation-building goes, it’s the Commander in Chief that should say so.
The President must do what the Bush Administration couldn’t do with the Iraq War: ask for the patience of the American people, make his case, stress our commitment to success there, enable the mechanisms that will provide for such a thing, assure Americans, Afghanis and NATO that together we will prevail in war, and then lead us in the winning of it.
And this will be no easy task. With 155 Americans lost in the past 3 months (the most violent in this war’s history), things are as violent as ever. We’ve got to keep in mind though the reason for the increase in casualties is related to the increase in offensive operations. And with 6 out of 10 Americans opposing the war, we’ve got to keep in mind why we went there in the first place.
It should also be pointed out that we already defeated the Taliban and al-Qaeda there once, soundly, in 2001/2002. We defeated them at Mazar-I Sharif, in Kabul and Kunduz, at Kandahar and Tora Bora. Then Iraq became our main effort, and they had 7 years to reconstitute, refit, and counter-attack. This a predictable strategic consequence of a country faced with a two-front war: a main effort is assigned, and one stalls at the expense of the other. But now our focus is back to Afghanistan, and so we must accordingly rededicate our commitment to make it a place that resists the influence of evil al-Qaedists.
General Petraeus’ strategy will focus on mapping the human terrain, engaging key leaders and mullahs, conducting precision strikes on principle enemy lieutenants, engaging the intelligence activities of neighboring countries, surging combat power to essential population areas to provide the blanket of security needed to reenergize the local political and economic machines, and mobilize the local police and national Army.
Another essential aspect of his strategy will be to reconcile with the Taliban, which was instrumental in Iraq’s turn. “It’s the case in a counter-insurgency that you must sit down with those who were once your enemy in order to achieve success,” General Petraeus said. “We sat down with many in Iraq who still had our blood on their hands – but this is how counter-insurgencies are waged and won. It is how things were done in Northern Ireland. It is how it was done in Iraq. It is how they are done with any counter-insurgency. And it is how we’ll have to do it here.”
Too much is at stake for us to leave Afghanistan prematurely. Al Qaeda will regain their former sanctuary they enjoyed during the anarchy of 1992-1996 and beyond, there will be heightened regional and global risks associated with the Pakistan-India-global-terrorism equation, and a battleground to continue to engage this evil transnational enemy will be surrendered.
As the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano points out, “Fighting terrorists in South Asia is not easy. But it is a worthwhile effort that offers the promise of a more enduring peace and a safer world for our civilians and allies. Now is the time to vanquish al-Qaeda and its affiliates, not give them a second lease on life. Running away would end nothing. Indeed, it would be but the prelude to more 9-11 style misery.”
And this has everything to do with the virtue of the lessons of little league baseball.
AFGHANISTAN: AMERICA’S BASEBALL.
A withdrawal in July of 2011 would perhaps bring us a moment of national calm; those of us in uniform would come home. The casualties would stop. The money that daily pours to our efforts there would be freed up for other use. But all this, should we not proceed with a conditions based approach, will not last for long.
Al-Qaeda will grow stronger. Attacks will increase world-wide and at home and we’ll find ourselves asking why we left Afghanistan before the job was done.
So what’s the solution? Aside from allowing General Petraeus to do his job; aside from mobilizing an economy deeply rich with natural resources to replace the opium trade; aside from daily killing al-Qaeda in place; aside from nation-building; aside from a calculated and aggressively waged counter-insurgency; aside from a national recognition (led by our President) that we are a nation at war – that this is not a war of choice, but a war of necessity – aside from all of this we must all remember that this is a war we simply cannot afford to lose.
If there’s one thing my experiences as La Jolla’s worst youth ballplayer (arguably of all time) taught me it’s that a lack of dedication and focus can really only get you to first base (and then only sometimes, and rarely gets you noticed by the pretty girls in the stands), and that it’s the commitment that counts.
In the case of war in Afghanistan there is no virtue in pursuing policy that amounts to the blind-luck-swingings of my youth. Here the most essential of little league baseball’s life lessons persists: that we don’t do this because we want to, we do this because we have to…
All the rest is just keeping our eye on the ball.
 Though I’m now completely traumatized by this, it’s hard to argue with such prudent logic.
 This makes more sense when drunk. And in between tears.
 Something obviously other than girls in short jean shorts. Which these days, is about all it takes.
 Sorry dad.
 I have since vowed to myself that if I’m in a similar situation with my own son, I must be present, but also wildly intoxicated.
 To this life lesson my dad would later add: “don’t get anyone pregnant” and, “don’t worry about that grade son, the world is run by C students.”
Let me be upfront and say that my knowledge of military public affairs is limited to the past thirty minutes I’ve spent researching it online, a Navy Times column I read during this morning’s Ops/Intel brief, and a thing I had for this knock-out Air Force public affairs officer I saw only 3 times from afar during my last deployment but wanted desperately.
So I don’t know much about the trade, technically. What I do know is that if articles, op-eds, blog-spots and perspective pieces are the radio check of our minute-by-minute web based news-cycle, the transmission of the Department of Defense is coming in weak and barely readable; while those with a less informed (and in many cases, flat-out wrong) story on defense matters are coming in loud and clear.
No One Reads the Marine Corps’ Website, Except for Marines.
In a given morning I’ll scan a couple dozen websites and blogs for various angles on the day’s same headlines. CNN, FOX, The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Salon.com, VictorHanson.com, NationalReviewOnline, RealClearWorld, TheHill.com, Politico, TheDailyBeast, RealClearPolitics, GovExec.com, are a few of my usual stops. Some lean right, some lean left – all are well done, receive millions of unique hits each day and maintain a significant base of loyal readership that fuels the national debate.
Before my morning ritual of coffee drinking and mouse clicking comes to an end, I’ll visit the military sites. I’ll stopover at USMC.mil and DoD.gov before getting on the secret computer and reading what’s come down on the high side from CENTCOM and the EarlyBird. What I notice between the news I’m reading in the popular media and what’s coming down on the secret side is (not surprisingly) incredible. And for many important security-orientated reasons, ought to be kept that way. But, there’s no reason why other truly important (unclassified) stories, like some I read about on USMC.mil, can’t be tailored ‘fit to print’ and digested by a greater audiences accessed through more mainstream outlets.
No one reads the Marine Corps’ website, except for Marines. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because the U.S. Department of Defense is doing a lot of good in the world and all anyone reads about is the bad. Or some perversion of the good.
It’s a problem because in a world shaped by instantaneous media, framed by a post 9/11 landscape, information is power and flows fast and freely. That and the ‘little guy’ (who might be drinking beer in Queens or building a bomb in Sanaa) has a voice.
‘Everyman’ has (at least some) power to shape opinion and policy and communicate in ways they never could before in the history of media. Stories are read, watched and listened to without the benefit of the full (to say nothing of the true) story (my contributions to this forum excluded). The order of battle has changed for good and the human terrain is now the most critical to the wars we wage; 0s and 1s are more powerful than gunpowder, public opinion (at home and abroad) matters now more than ever and did I mention no one is reading the Marine Corps’ website?
All this is a problem because we’ve got to write as well as we fight. And we’re not. Each day we lose key ground in the arena of public opinion. Ground we can’t afford to be losing and shouldn’t have to surrender in the first place. Not to beer drinkers in Queens or bomb makers in Sanaa. Not to no one.
The Pentagon’s Don Draper & Co.
Strengths and Weaknesses.
All this is not the fault of the Public Affairs Office. My experience with those in this line of the work is that they are extremely smart, capable, creative, professional and good looking (at least she was from a distance). No, the fault is not theirs. The failure is institutional. The Department of Defense is the nation’s war machine whose principle undertaking (to blow stuff up) is not tailored to appeal to (or really even make sense to) the average well-read and informed citizen (to say nothing of the average drooling, self-medicated FaceBook-dazed idiot). So that’s the first problem, tough message. Then there’s that second problem – what makes a good warrior or a competent staff member doesn’t make a good advertiser. And aggressive advertising and an on-point message is what we need these days.
All branches of our military adhere to the fundamental American-warrior tenants of service before self, commitment to a greater good, honor, and quiet professionalism. These values are effective in war but do not resonate in the always-be-closing culture of your hottest Madison Avenue advertising agency.
It seems the U.S. military’s greatest strengths in its execution of war – the power of our enlisted men and women and our collective values and ethos (and other stuff like discipline, stoicism, selflessness and our God given right to air supremacy) – run counter to the things needed to achieve our desired post-modern end-game (winning the information war) which includes sex-appeal, a well-articulated (civilian translated) message, and any sort of press or attention we can get on Craigslist, Twitter, or Google.
Recognizing that both problems with the information-war-end-game (the Pentagon’s message and its military staff) are institutional creatures and necessary for the conduct of our national defense (and really long PowerPoint meetings), it’s pretty clear that it can only be fixed by means of the post modern economy’s dirty little answer to all dirty little post modern business problems: outsourcing!
Dirty, dirty outsourcing.
The Pentagon needs to outsource a Madison Avenue advertising agency to do that which it cannot: give their good work a better message. “Task Force Mad Men” – an elite unit of civilian contracted advertising executives – would do just that. Headquartered in the Pentagon, in a specially designed and smartly decorated corner office, they’d handle the DoD’s media-relation woes with ease, humor, and welcomed sex-appeal; all without the burden of such things as honor and quiet professionalism.
Of course we wouldn’t want to hinder their creativity with those stuffy Pentagon rules, so they’d be able to wear great suits, drink stiff Manhattan’s at 1030 in the morning and chain smoke cigarettes while inventing brilliant ways to sell the plans, policies and events of the U.S. military war machine to both the educated and the drooling.
By their exclusive talents and skill sets (and for the right price) they will be uniquely suited to advertise on behalf of an entire body of government incapable of doing it for themselves. Their job would simply be to articulate to the world what it is the U.S. military does (help when possible, dominate always), and integrate these stories with what it is the public is reading, watching, and thinking we do (blow stuff up). They would exist to achieve the desired end-game in the information war.
Mad Men’s Mission: Explain Iraq, and…Everything Else.
Mission 1: Explain Iraq.
The Bush Administration couldn’t do it. Iraq was an unpopular war that many Americans disagreed with from the start. But aside from the politics of the thing, the war (all things considered and as wars go) was waged well: a remarkable 3-week ground campaign, a successfully waged counter-insurgency (which, as a matter of military history, is outright momentous), the development of a new army, the construction of a national economy, the birth of an independent judiciary, and the establishment of a Congress and consensual national government were all events that didn’t need to happen, but did, largely due to the political agnosticism, professionalism and dedication to mission accomplishment by the men and women of the Department of Defense who served there.
Placing politics aside, and viewing the war in Iraq with the necessary comparative circumstance (that is, from the eyes of a soldier who walked the earth and understood his purpose there in ways the civilian-citizen could not) Iraq was a great success. And as our troops begin their exit from that place this month, they deserve that due respect of what their service meant and has accomplished.
Instead they return to an ambivalent American public largely unaware they were gone in the first place; the media will report on “news” as irrelevant as Bristol Palin’s love life and as boring as Tiger Woods’ being sorry. Too politically traumatized to say “welcome home” and too anti-Bush to say “job well done,” pop-media will not report on our servicemen’s return from a 7 year war no one expected them to win anyway.
Mad Men’s Mission 1: President Bush Couldn’t Explain Iraq Sober. Have a six martini, emergency Crisis-Action-Team-style lunch and explain Iraq, half drunk.
Mission 2: Everything Else.
Next the Mad Men will need to explain everything else. This will be done probably between stages of blacked out drunkenness and hungover self-loathing. They’ll need to start with why every Pentagon project is so damn expensive (because it really does take $100,000 worth of vehicle armor to defeat the blast from $100 worth of explosives) and ending with, you know, everything else. And they’ll need to do so across the spectrum of popular culture and media and in ways that can be digested, understood and reasoned by the American public. Even to the drooling idiot who just now friend-requested me on FaceBook.
And they’ll have to explain other things too. Hot-topic issues like Afghanistan. And less heated and politically mild issues like the repeal of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell.
Operations in Haiti are still underway, but Wycleaf Jean’s stripper addiction is more of a story than the East Coast MEU’s life saving and rebuilding efforts in that country.
What about Pakistan? As I write this I’m sitting off the coast of Karachi in a plastic chair in a tiny ship’s cabin that’s 98 degrees. 20% of the country is underwater. A dozen helicopters are leaving this ship and the others around us, all to fly north to help save thousands of men, women and children from drowning. Two out of every three Pakistani’s “hate” America. Most have never met an American. But they “hate” us. Many Pakistani’s secretly believe there is a Marine Regiment somewhere in hiding, just waiting to come and take over their country (which is precisely why my platoon and I are still sitting on the ship and not headed north on the helicopters). And so now, despite their hatred of us, many Pakistanis will meet an American for the first time and will do so with outstretched hand as they’re lifted to safety by the brave pilots and crew chiefs that will save them.
Explain that Mad Men! Please explain that, because if you go online right now you’re more likely to read about Blago than the DoD’s impressive humanitarian efforts here to help save the drowning masses that, up until now, so despised them.
And these are just some of the many stories that must be told and sold to the American people and an audience worldwide.
A Sales Strategy That Might or Might Not Work.
Like any DoD strategy, this Public Affairs strategy is bullet-proof and incapable of failure. And, like any DoD policy, I have a concrete 5-pillared plan of execution and have staffed out the details. So you can read about those later.
MAD MEN 5 PILLAR PLAN OF EXECUTION.
1.) Hire only long-ball hitters. Mad Men style.
2.) Spend the money.
3.) Engage the mainstream.
4.) Put an end to quiet professionalism.
5.) Other things I can’t think of.
And it’s really as simple as all that.
While it’s hard to say that we’re a “nation at war” when the average American is more familiar with what happened in the last six seasons of Lost than in the last 9 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s easy to see we’re not the world’s favorite. The military certainly understands there’s a war going on and we’ll all be fine for now (remember our cry: help when possible, dominate always! except in Latin), but for later’s sake, we need the drooling masses to know there’s a war going also. Which is precisely why the Pentagon must have their Mad Men who will write as well as we fight and deliver their radio checks loud and clear. All this or else some beer drinking bozo from Queens will have the final say – and I was kind of hoping to have the beer-drinking-internet-blogging-bozo market cornered should this whole thing fall thru.
 This sentence is not, for the record, well written.
 Does anyone know the Latin for this? It could go on the DoD seal.
 Their secondary mission would be to look really cool, get bombed and run freely around the Pentagon in the middle of the work day, and later write an HBO miniseries based on events that actually happened. Everything would be free game so as not to inhibit their artistic genius. Except sexual harassment, that would need to be toned down a bit and would be best practiced after hours at their favorite K-Street saloon.
 (If at all possible, just hire the actual cast of Mad Men.)
- On Midrats 23 November 14: “Episode 255: Commanding the Seas -the Surface Force with Bryan Clark from CSBA”
- A Magical Metrical Mystery Tour of Ineffective U.S. Drug Policy
- On Midrats 16 November 14, “Episode 254: John A. Nagl: 13 Years into the War”
- Gabe’s Gambit: Celebrating the Marine Corps Birthday and Reflecting on Talent Management
- On Midrats 9 November 14 Episode 253: “The Fleet we Have, Want, and Need” – with Jerry Hendrix