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Midshipmen Tour Gettysburg

April 2012


Every Saturday morning at Annapolis, Plebes and select upperclassmen participate in six hours worth of midshipman-led professional training. These evolutions vary by company and season, including such activities as running through the obstacle course, discussions with combat veterans, and, most recently, a trip to Gettysburg National Battlefield.

Midshipman 2/c Hobart Kistler, a native of Central, PA, has led tours of that most Hallowed Ground for the past eight years, and, needless to say, knows the place inside-out. Under Kistler’s supervision, 40 midshipmen (I among them) from the Academy’s distinguished 13th Company made the trip two weekends ago, departing Annapolis at 0530- early even by a midshipman’s standard for a Saturday.

Having visited numerous Civil War battlefields growing up in Virginia, I assumed Kistler would give the standard tour with our bus driving us between points of interest. I was quite surprised to hear that we would march, run, and charge over the entire field, just as Confederate and Union soldiers did 149 years ago!

Heavy dew still covered the grass as we stepped off the bus at just after 0700 on that chilly morning. Apart from the specter of a few silent cannons visible in the early morning haze, the terrain looked much like any other section of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Kistler began our tour at the site of the first day’s fighting- July 1st, 1863. Marching in columns of four, we entered Herbst’s Woods, where a rebel sniper shot Major General John Reynolds as he desperately deployed his men to stem the Confederate attacks. Next came a sharp rush into the Railroad Cut, where hundreds of North Carolinians squared off with the Union’s elite Iron Brigade. We wrapped things up with a mile-long run up to the Eternal Peace Memorial, dedicated by FDR on the battle’s 75th anniversary, in 1938. There, Kistler told us the story of John Burns, an elderly Gettysburg resident and War of 1812 veteran who donned his faded uniform and flintlock and was wounded five times that day while fighting to keep the Secessionists from overrunning the homestead he had risked his life to defend almost a half-century earlier.

A short time later, we reassembled on Cemetery Ridge, where the Pennsylvania Monument lists the names of all members of the Keystone State to have defended their Commonwealth at Gettysburg. The Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, and Slaughter Pen followed in quick succession as we followed the course of Lieutenant General James Longstreeet’s attack on the Union left on Day Two, struggling to keep an orderly formation through dense, stony woods. The highlight of the morning for many was our charge up Little Round Top, the hill famously defended by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine against repeated Confederate assaults. The 13th Company guide-on was borne during the charge by Midshipman 4/c Brian Wasdin, a descendant of a Confederate soldier from Georgia. The spectacular view from the summit helped many to understand the hill’s strategic importance; indeed, the entire battlefield spreads out to the north and west, as a board game seen from above. When we reached the top, we realized that a group of West Point cadets had been at the top the entire time watching us ascend (I can’t help noting the irony). Descending the rear of the hill, via the route taken by Chamberlain’s men as they made their gallant bayonet charge, we finished our review of Day Two at Devil’s Den, where we explored the numerous sniping positions used by the Confederates to shot at the Union troops atop Little Round Top.

Midshipmen atop Little Round Top

The fighting on July 3rdcentered on Pickett’s Charge, the most infamous assault in American military history. In an effort to recreate the reality of the High Tide of the Confederacy, Kistler instructed all midshipmen to

Midshipmen struggle to maintain alignment while scaling a fence during Pickett’s Charge

remove their boots- by 1863, most Confederate soldiers were barefoot. Forming up rank and file in the same woods where Pickett’s men slept, we proceeded into the mile-wide field separating the woods from the famous Copse of Trees for which the soldiers aimed. Marching at first, and then double-timing, we arrived at the Emmittsburg Road, where Union canister began decimating Pickett’s men. By then the warm noonday sun had us sweating, but we scaled the double fences and broke into a full sprint. All 40 midshipmen let out the Rebel Yell as we charged for the stone wall that marked the Union lines. Arriving breathless, Kistler reminded us that at this point, Confederate soldiers would have just begun the hand-to-hand fighting that in 20 minutes left 10,000 men (twice our killed in Iraq and Afghanistan) on the field.

I’m glad the Naval Academy provides us with opportunities to tour local battlefields. 13th Company’s visit to Gettysburg, while brief, was an excellent reminder to all participants of the hardships endured by our antecedents in service. As we midshipmen prepare to enter the Fleet as ensigns and 2nd lieutenants, we will undoubtedly face challenges of our own; yet recognizing the not-so-remote heritage of valor, suffering, and triumph made evident through our tour of Gettysburg will provide reinforcement in moments of trial.

Many thanks to Midn Hobart Kistler for helping with this article.

Posted by jjames in History, Navy | 7 Comments

Last week, Sen. McCain delivered a speech to the Brigade of Midshipmen as part of the Forrestal Lecture Series. Like most USNA graduates who return to speak at the Academy, Sen. McCain began his speech by joking about his terrible performance as a midshipman.

Sen. McCain discussed the differences between leadership and management. He believes the nation is producing too many managers and not enough leaders- citing the increased number of MBA graduates as proof of this trend. Being a manager is easy, as the manager must merely maintain the status quo. Leaders must motivate and inspire subordinates to reach new limits.

Lamenting the military’s one strike policy on mistakes, Sen. McCain noted that most great U.S. Navy leaders would not have made it out of the lower ranks had they served in today’s armed forces. This intolerance towards failure of any kind has caused our military to become more risk averse than ever before.

While Sen. McCain criticized changes in military policy, he vehemently stated that America was not on the decline. Supporting his opinion, he remarked that the U.S. political and economic system is still the golden standard. This part of the speech sounded very much like President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. They both chastised and dismissed those skeptical of long term U.S. standing in the world, while conceding that the U.S. will face difficult choices in the years ahead.

Sen. McCain then switched gears and discussed current decisions facing the country. He deplored the fact that people are fighting and dying in Syria for what Americans fought many years ago for and receiving no help from the U.S. Criticizing Obama’s inaction in Syria, he quoted Gen. Mattis that replacing the Assad regime would cripple Iran. He did not mention the possibility that the U.S. aiding the Syrian rebels might cause Russia to counter by escalating their help to Assad.

When asked if he had ever sacrificed his morals for political expediency, he at first said no, then he changed his mind and called himself a “coward” during the 2000 GOP primary in South Carolina. At the time, the hot issue in South Carolina was whether or not the state capital could fly the Confederate flag. He said it should be left up to the states to decide, when he personally felt it was wrong. After the election he went to South Carolina to apologize. I think the entire Brigade was amazed that someone who survived over five years in a Vietnamese POW camp could call himself a coward.

Answering a question about Obamacare or Obama cares (depending on your political leanings), Sen. McCain said he thought mandatory health care was unconstitutional because it violates both the Commerce Clause and the 10th Amendment, which gives all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states. Furthermore, he reminded the audience that President Obama promised medical costs would drop, and they haven’t (though since the act doesn’t take effect until 2014, I don’t think anyone can say for sure how the act will affect health care costs).

In conclusion, the Brigade enjoyed hearing from a legend. Next week, Secretary of State Clinton will speak to the Brigade. The Naval Academy, while an imperfect institution, does do a great job of bringing in interesting speakers.


Completely Preventable KIA

February 2012



Pfc. David Sharrett and his father

Pfc. David Sharrett was killed on January 16, 2008, in Balad, Iraq. This is an unfortunate learning moment for everyone in the military. The full Washington Post article can be accessed here:

On the morning of January 16, 2008, a helicopter spotted six unarmed insurgents running into a brush. At 0515, the company’s executive officer, Lt. Hanson, led a team to capture the insurgents. Lt. Hanson failed to tell his men to activate their infrared sensors, which help air support and fellow soldiers identify friendlies. Meanwhile, the insurgents armed themselves from a hidden weapons cache in the brush. As the team approached the brush, the insurgents opened fire, killing Pfc. Danny Kimme and Cpl. John Sigsbee.

In the midst of shooting back at the insurgents, Lt. Hanson shot his own soldier, Pfc. Sharrett, at point blank range, severing his femoral artery. During the firefight, Lt. Hanson said to one of his men, “We’re getting shot at, and I don’t know where any of my guys are.” Then, Lt. Hanson left the scene on the first helicopter to land, leaving his men behind with no leader to get accountability. The unit did not realize Sharrett was missing until over an hour later. At 0635, the unit finally recovered Sharrett. He died soon after arriving at the combat hospital.

I understand that mistakes happen in combat, but Pfc. Sharrett would not have died had Lt. Hanson acted like an officer both before and after the actual combat. During the mandatory investigation of the incident, Lt. Hanson did not mention that he had fired his weapon. The Army initially told Sharrett’s family that Sharrett was not killed in a friendly fire incident. Lt. Hanson completed his tour with his unit, returned back to the U.S., and eventually made captain.

I’m amazed this story hasn’t garnered more media attention after the strikingly similar Pat Tillman incident. If everyone involved had been forthright from the beginning, this incident would not have landed on the front page of the Washington Post. I want to believe that the U.S. Military will learn from this mistake and remember the simple adage the upperclassmen taught us during Plebe Summer: honor above all else.

Posted by jjames in Army | 8 Comments

On Monday, General Mattis, Commander, U.S. Central Command, spoke to the Brigade of Midshipmen on leadership.

He began his speech by noting his surprise that anyone would invite him to speak publically after the wrong audience caught wind of some of his previous comments. I admired his ability to laugh at himself. He described how humor had helped him overcome some very non-humorous combat situations, calling humor “a bulletproof vest for the heart.”

In his speech, he constantly stressed integrity and resoluteness, labeling those qualities as the main difference between a man and a boy. Fighting an insurgency requires service-members to hold true to their morals when interacting with the local population. Gen. Mattis described one incident where an Iraqi working on a U.S. base in Fallujah was given two grenades by local insurgents. This Iraqi would be paid $300 for each grenade that went off in the compound. The Iraqi did not throw the grenades. Afterwards, he explained to the Marines that the day before, a young Marine stopped some local thugs from beating him up. Gen. Mattis used this example to illustrate how the morally right decision in combat saves lives.

The general also emphasized that units succeed or fail based on the unit’s leadership. His comments about the first time stepping out in front of your platoon or division resonated with the soon-to-graduate first-class midshipmen.

One civilian asked Gen. Mattis how he felt about the increasing civilian-military disconnect. He demonstrated the military’s improved relationship with the civilian world by contrasting the present relationship with the relationship in 1972, the year he became a Marine. Back then, the military leadership didn’t trust the civilian world, and vice-versa. Today, during Congressional hearings, Congressmen always thank military officers for their service, even though they may criticize those military officers during their testimonies.

He kept a surprisingly optimistic outlook on the proposed budget cuts. President Obama’s strategic shift towards the Pacific coupled with the $457 billion defense cuts means the Marines will downsize. Gen. Mattis said that while the Marines might do less, they will continue to maintain their high standards in training and in combat. I hope the latter part will be true of all the services.

The Small Wars Journal recently detailed the winners and losers of the proposed defense budget cuts. Thanks to President Obama’s new realignment towards the Pacific, the SWJ categorized both the Navy and drones as winners in the budget battle. With increased money flowing to both, new developments in drone technology will, or should, cause to the Navy to at least rethink its strategy.

The new threat to America’s Navy is China’s anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of over 900 miles, according to a Naval War College paper “Using the Land to Control the Sea.” China’s military believes the new missile will keep carriers farther from its coast. While China may or may not have the ability to strike a carrier 900 miles away today, we can assume that their missile technology will only improve. It’s possible that China could destroy one eleventh of our carrier fleet, and threaten the lives of 5,000 servicemen, with one missile.

Carriers will not go the way of the battleship anytime soon; the ability to launch aircraft off ships is valuable in any war. However, is it better to have dozens of smaller carriers specialized in launching UAVs and helos or fewer super-carriers capable of launching both UAVs and manned aircraft?

I think that there is more room for improvement in UAV technology. When I think about the technological advances in my lifetime, robotics, computers, and wireless technologies come to mind. These developments allowed for the increased reliance in unmanned vehicles and aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, considering the rising cost of developing the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, policymakers will be loath to develop the sixth generation. The Navy is already seriously considering using UAVs as tankers circling above the carrier.

I will never fly a plane off a carrier, so I won’t pretend to understand how to. But I do know that drones weigh significantly less than piloted aircraft. The carrier landing X-47A prototype weighs 5,500 lbs fully loaded, compared to over 50,000 lbs for the F-35. Lighter planes need less space to take-off (thanks to varying cable resistance, the landing distance is about the same regardless of weight). Relying more on UAVs should enable our Navy to develop more, smaller carriers. Since drones are typically smaller, we could still have the same number of aircraft on a UAV-dominated, light carrier. In addition to having more carriers with which to promote America’s interests abroad, losing one of these ships will mitigate the impact on the overall war effort in a major power war.

Nonetheless, certain missions still require human eyes in the sky. Drones are most useful during super dull or super dangerous missions, but a pilot can provide a better perspective, and presumably a better response, in constantly changing conditions. In sum, I don’t know what the future of naval aviation will be, but I think we would regret leaving any option off the table.

Posted by jjames in Navy, Strategy, Tactics | 24 Comments

Russia’s decision to send its one aircraft carrier and four other warships to Syria doesn’t help anyone. While the Russian warships in Tartus, Syria, the only Russian base outside the former Soviet States, unequivocally demonstrates Russia’s support for the government, Russia flexing its muscles demonstrates its weakness. The Economist reckons that the U.S. Sixth Fleet alone has more firepower than Russia’s Navy.

It’s a lose-lose situation for the Russians. A poorly organized group of rebels are not going to be intimidated by the mere presence of some Russian ships. I doubt the Russian Navy would fire on the Syrian protesters, given that they recently failed to intervene when Cyprus blocked weapons and ammunition from entering Syria. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing Bashar Assad’s government, Russia would lose its southernmost naval base.

But the Russians won’t win even if Assad maintains control. By supporting the ruthless dictator, Russia further alienates itself from the new governments in the Middle East as well as Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. The U.S. should capitalize on this opportunity.


Recruiting for Annapolis

November 2011


Last week, I had the opportunity to leave the Naval Academy a few days early for Thanksgiving in order to visit high schools in my hometown, Richmond, Va. My orders were simple: to promote the Navy and the Naval Academy.

Wearing inspection-ready SDBs and carrying a briefcase full of USNA pamphlets, I surprised the schools’ front desk workers who were not used to seeing a service-member in their school. At most of the schools, I set up a table in the school cafeteria during the students’ lunch break. Interested, or just curious, students would trickle over to my table to find out what this guy in uniform was doing in their school cafeteria.

Many students did not understand the purpose of the U.S. Naval Academy. However, what surprised me the most was how little the faculty knew about the Naval Academy. Several high school teachers did not know where the Naval Academy was, or what the institution had to offer. I understand that less than 1% of the nation serves in the military, but I think high school teachers especially should know about the great opportunities offered at the Naval Academy.

Not that the Academy is lacking applicants. Reading through the Naval Academy Class of 2015’s profile reminded me of how selective the Naval Academy is. This year, the Academy will likely have over 17,000 applicants (another new record) and admit 1,400 of them. About 1,200 of those admitted will arrive on Induction Day. Many students left my table when I told them the admission rate. For those who stayed behind, I added how the acceptance rate was 0% for those who didn’t submit an application. I think the increased cost of higher education in the U.S. coupled with the poor economy incentivizes prospective candidates formerly on the border of applying to at least throw their hats in the ring. The free tuition and guaranteed job convinced many of the high school students I spoke with to research the Academy.

One school had me speak for an Air Force JROTC class. Many of the students in that class were in the process of applying to one of the service academies. For this group, I tried to emphasize the difference between the service academies and civilian schools. The service academies stress leadership; civilian schools stress academics. I did have a difficult time answering why a student should chose the Naval Academy over an ROTC program. After stalling for a minute by discussing how military training at the Academy is more intense, I came up with a better answer. I told the student that the lifelong bond between midshipmen at the Naval Academy would be stronger than the bond among students at most civilian schools.

Overall, I enjoyed talking about the Naval Academy with these kids. The experience certainly caused me to reflect on where I was four years ago, and why I came to the Academy.


Ten Years in Afghanistan

October 2011


I had just turned twelve years old. When I saw the planes hit the towers, I never thought I might one day deploy to the country harboring those terrorists. Now, ten years later, we are still fighting in Afghanistan.

The war has now been overseen by two Presidents, three Secretaries of Defense, four Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and five CENTCOM commanders, and yet only one civilian leader of Afghanistan. We fought a relatively traditional war our first two years in Afghanistan, with one Taliban-controlled city after another falling to coalition forces. Like a football team up by four touchdowns at halftime who lets their opponent tie the game, we gave up our momentum in Afghanistan and are still trying to gain it back.

To regain the momentum, the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” instructs military personnel to win over hearts and minds. To win hearts and minds, you have to understand the Afghan’s perspective- but the perspective of an Afghan Pashtun is very different from that of a Hazara, which is very different from that of a Tajik, which is very different…

Considering the complex tribal relationship and its importance to the war-effort, I expected the Naval Academy midshipmen to study the war in depth. Thus, when I entered the Academy in 2008, I was surprised at the lack of emphasis placed on learning about counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. We have mandatory, year-long courses in English, history, and physics, but not a single required course about the current war. Only recently did USNA start an Afghan Studies club and Arabic language courses; a handful of political science electives specifically study Afghanistan. Studying about the current war in-depth is possible, as the Academy regularly brings experienced officers and civilian leaders to discuss the war. But with the other time commitments, this optional learning takes a back seat to the paper due tomorrow.

I think the reason the Naval Academy failed to prepare for the long-term in Afghanistan is that the U.S. as a whole did not prepare for the long-term. This initial optimistic outlook is a recent trend. In 2003, General Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, said that winning in Iraq would require “several hundred thousand soldiers” to rebuild Iraq and prevent sectarian violence. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz responded that General Shinseki’s number was “wildly off the mark” as Iraq had no history of sectarian violence. We will debate whether we should have sent sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq for the next fifty years. However, one fact is certain: our strategy cannot resemble the midshipman so concerned with the assignment due tomorrow that he fails to study the country he may deploy to next year.

According to the Center for New American Security’s latest report on Afghanistan, “The United States has vital national interests in South and Central Asia that will endure far beyond 2014.” Future officers should take note.

After an early morning workout with the plebes, forty midshipmen from my company and I journeyed to Alumni Hall at the Naval Academy to attend the 2011 USNI Naval History Conference.

Although I required those forty midshipmen to attend, we all found the conference relevant to our future career choices. Every Saturday, the underclass midshipmen complete Saturday Morning Training (SMT). My job is to organize the SMT each week. The conference was probably the best SMT thus far- providing a unique opportunity for the plebes to hear from the extremely distinguished speakers.

The first panel discussed a topic aspiring aviators at the Academy dread- unmanned airplanes replacing pilots. I have no idea when or if UAVs will completely overtake manned planes, but the Economist recently labeled the F-35 the “last manned fighter.” Even so, I predict that unmanned aerial technology will not significantly affect aviation billets when my plebes graduate in 2015.

With three former astronauts, the second panel discussion inspired us all to reach new heights. CAPT James Lovell discussed his involvement in the Gemini and Apollo space programs. I found it interesting that he originally saw service in the space program as a sidetrack in the naval aviation career path. CAPT Wendy Lawrence explained how she worked for over two decades to achieve her goal of becoming an astronaut. MajGen Bolden, Administrator of NASA, told us how one statement from a friend encouraging him to apply for the astronaut program changed his life forever. On a separate note, he argued that China’s rise in the space program will be good for the NASA as Americans need someone to compete against. All three worried that money for the space program would be slashed even though NASA spends half of one percent of the U.S. budget.

I am glad that we all attended; I think events like this conference will inspire future junior officers to read and write for the Naval Institute.


USNI Naval History Conference

September 2011


This Saturday, I am having all the plebes in my USNA company attend this conference- considering it’s about a ten minute walk from our living spaces. With numerous admirals, a former Secretary of the Navy, and CAPT Lovell in attendance, I’d hate for my plebes to miss out on this great opportunity!

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