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This summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the State Department’s China desk as a member of the Kimsey Program. A ’62 West Point graduate, Mr. James Kimsey deployed to Vietnam and the Dominican Republic before leaving the Army to found AOL. Mr. Kimsey generously funds this program which brings ten service academy cadets and midshipmen to Washington, DC, for summer internships.

Each cadet and midshipman interned at a different government agency for three weeks. In addition, Mr. Kimsey organized meetings for the group with successful leaders in business, government, and the military. In a mere three weeks, we met with General Stanley McChrystal; Colonel Gregory Gadson, Director of the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program; Robert Kimmitt, former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; and Chris Matthews. These interactive dialogues gave us a chance to ask many questions and learn from these successful individuals.

While interning at the State Department, I did everything from reserve a private dining room at a restaurant in Honolulu to coordinate a meeting with Chinese general officers. The desk officer also extended me the opportunity to sit in on a meeting between him and Mongolia’s ambassador to the U.S. In preparation for the Mongolian president’s visit to Washington, the desk officer needed to produce a joint statement with the Mongolian ambassador. I found the debate between the two extremely interesting, with each side deliberating over seemingly minute details. They spent several minutes deciding whether to use “agreed,” “acknowledged,” or “noted” for one sentence in the joint statement.

I gained significant respect for the State Department workers. The officers at the China desk worked ten to twelve hours a day- assuming no crisis or major meeting between the U.S. and China. These highly skilled foreign and civil service officers could all make more money and work fewer hours in the private sector, but, fortunately for our country, they choose to use their skills at the State Department instead. Many of the foreign service officers at the China desk had deployed to extremely dangerous countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you believe that war is just an extension of politics, then the relationship between DOD and DOS has always mattered significantly. But since future wars will likely involve terrorist groups in failed states, this relationship will become ever more important, and complicated. State, in conjunction with U.S.A.I.D., distributes the foreign aid that could turn these failed states around- if distributed appropriately. As shown by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, the State Department and the military are both more effective when they coordinate their efforts.

In addition to the State Department, Naval Academy midshipmen interned at other government agencies including the FBI, the DIA, and ATF. My internship afforded me the opportunity to access how another government agency works. I believe this practical experience will aid my decision-making as an officer.


Over My Paygrade

June 2011


A fellow Academy mid posted this piece for Thomas Ricks’ blog questioning whether or not operations in Libya were constitutional. The masterpiece can be accessed here:

Yes, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. No, President Obama did not ask Congress to drop bombs in Libya. I agree that the law is ambiguous on who can deploy military force in this situation, but that question should be left for constitutional law professors and politicians to debate (not officer candidates).

I quote, “It is [servicemen and women’s] professional obligation and ethical duty to disobey their orders until constitutional and legal requirements are either changed or met.” So because ENS X and the Commander-in-Chief differ on whether or not air strikes constitute war, ENS X should “disobey” POTUS. We wouldn’t have a Constitution to begin with if we ran our military this way.

Posted by jjames in Foreign Policy | 8 Comments

Recently, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, spoke to Naval Academy midshipmen.

As any good ambassador would do, Mr. Haqqani began by highlighting the long and close relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. He noted that Air Force pilot Gary Powers took off from a secret U.S. base in Pakistan on his ill-fated U-2 mission. However, he stressed that American policy-makers, who think and act globally, must understand that Pakistan has always, and will always, think and act regionally. Specifically, Pakistan’s main foreign policy concern is to protect against India. He emphasized the complexity of U.S.-Pakistan relations. I agree with his argument that you cannot possibly understand U.S.- Pakistan relations by listening to twenty second sound bites. As he mentioned, the relationship is never entirely good, nor is it ever entirely bad.

With regards to Afghanistan, the Ambassador believes that both countries share blame for playing the “religion card” during the Soviet invasion. Both sides also share blame for not supporting a stable Afghanistan in the 1990s. By not re-integrating the CIA- and ISI- backed religious fanatics, we planted the seed for the Taliban movement to take root. According to Mr. Haqqani, the U.S. should have invested half a billion dollars per year to stabilize Afghanistan after 1989. Doing so would have cost significantly less than the $444 billion we spend in the country per year (according the Congressional Research Service’s 2011 “Costs of GWOT” report).

Mr. Haqqani explained that the U.S. will not feel the direct impact of a hasty ISAF withdrawal in Afghanistan. Pakistan will feel that impact. Pakistan does not want an endless war or a precipitous pullout of U.S. forces. Both options jeopardize Pakistan’s security. The Ambassador believes that it is in the interest of both countries to defeat the Afghan insurgents.

I was most surprised when he said that the CIA and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan have a better working relationship now than at any time since 1989. Proving this point, the Taliban have bombed four ISI offices in recent years. The Taliban would not waste time bombing ISI offices unless the ISI posed a threat to the Taliban. Even so, I still think the U.S. should be wary of an organization that funded the Taliban before 9/11.

The Ambassador listed three goals for Pakistan to reach in the next decade: to keep moving towards democracy, to maintain stable relations with India and Afghanistan, and to continue economic growth by building oil pipelines to the Indian Ocean. Pakistan also strives for self-sufficiency; Pakistan does not want to survive on foreign aid. Considering Afghanistan and Pakistan have the largest number of uneducated children in the world, Pakistan will not achieve this self-sufficiency “one school at a time.”

Ambassador Haqqani inherently has a biased point of view. Even so, after listening to him talk, I felt reassured that the U.S. has a friend in Pakistan.

Posted by jjames in History, Navy | 6 Comments

The Blogging Navy

April 2011


How does the increase in blog readers and writers affect the Navy? I can think of several reasons why blogs are good and bad for the Navy.

The Good:
• Users can write anonymously. When a sailor comments on a blog post from ADM X and chooses to do so anonymously, that sailor isn’t responding to advance his career or curry favor with the brass. He writes because he believes he has a good idea. If he writes well, his idea may induce change.
• High ranking officers can receive feedback instantaneously from all levels of the chain of command. In McCain’s book “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain lauded how his father, ADM McCain, had his staff meet one on one with low ranking sailors to elicit these sailors’ opinions. Now, any high ranking officer can post on his blog and receive comments from anyone with a computer and the impetus to write.
• When anybody can post anything, anytime, and anywhere, little is secret. I think blogs amplify the CNN effect. Everyone will follow the regulations a little closer knowing that his actions could be reported (anonymously) on a blog.

The Bad:
• Users can write anonymously. Without knowing a writer’s background, you can’t verify his experiences. A recent Economist article discussed how this anonymity allows people to fabricate facts and events on blogs for “LOLs.” Other (non-Navy) blogs have begun linking blog posts to the user’s Facebook accounts. While linking blog posts to Facebook accounts eliminates anonymity’s positive effects, the blogs using this new technology have seen a decrease in the quantity of blog posts and an increase in quality.
• When anybody can post anything, anytime, and anywhere, little is secret. I don’t pretend to have any data or statistics on this, but I do know that everyone makes mistakes. More chances to write one’s opinion means more chances to leak classified ship movements or operations into the world-wide-web.
• Blogs promotes the idea that it’s okay to question authority. Yes, it’s great to get feedback, but, in the end, the commanding officer is in charge. If sailors become accustomed to questioning orders on a blog, whether those orders came from LT Y or POTUS, then the hierarchical military structure breaks down. Knowing that his decisions could be posted online for the world to see could distort a commander’s judgment.

Like any change there are positive and negative effects. What really matters is how we as a Navy counter the negative effects.

Posted by jjames in Cyber, Navy | 4 Comments

Piracy in Somalia

March 2011


Martin Murphy, a piracy expert at the Center for Foreign Policy Studies, believes that Somali pirates are the biggest threat to the peaceful use of the sea since the Second World War. These pirates have attacked as far south as Madagascar and as far west as India. He argues that the number of naval ships protecting commercial ships near Somalia is like four policemen patrolling an area the size of Texas.

What do we do? I don’t think putting armed personnel on commercial ships will reduce piracy. First, approximately 11% of the world’s shipping passes through the Gulf of Aden. Arming enough ships to make the pirates think twice before attacking would be extremely expensive. Second, this is the Wild West. No rules of engagement exist for when we can attack the pirates and who can attack them. Imagine the uproar if a private security contractor killed an innocent Somali fisherman whom he suspected of piracy. And no one knows what to do with the pirates captured on the High Seas (technically, a U.S. Navy ship captain can hang the pirate from the yardarm, though that’s not going to happen). Lastly, Somalia’s per capita G.D.P. is $600. Averaging about $5 million per ship taken provides a huge incentive for Somali pirates to continue pirating.

Currently, we only react to piracy after the pirates have taken a ship- like the Maersk Alabama incident or the recent kidnapping of an American couple sailing around the world. The only long term solution to Somali piracy is to restore Somalia’s economy and ensure Somalia has a stable government. After the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the U.S. gave up on restoring the country. Dr. Murphy, the piracy expert, believes that Somali pirates have more sanctuary on land than any other pirates in modern times. Until a 2008 U.N. Resolution, the U.S. could not legally take the fight to the land. By encouraging legal industries like farming and fishing, the U.S. could reduce the number of Somalis who steal ships to merely to survive.

In conclusion, Somali pirates are not terrorists. They terrorize ships’ crews when they attack, and they kill civilians. But their motives for taking ships are purely mercenary. Terrorists, on the other hand, work to enact some type of religious or political change. Somalia may harbor Al-Qaeda cells because they are a failed state, not because the pirates want global jihad. The U.S. government does not list Somali pirates as terrorists; we should not fight them as such.

As we midshipmen at the Naval Academy prepare to go on spring break, I wonder how much rest and relaxation improves performance.

I know that when we come back from a break, both moral and focus improve throughout the Brigade of Midshipmen. But no operational unit can afford a spring break. Unlike cadets and midshipmen, the sailor or marine who enlisted right out of high school doesn’t have the luxury of knowing they will get a week off every spring. I would imagine that having time to reset after a deployment would improve performance and keep more sailors in the service. But with the Navy constantly trying to do more with less, how do we balance work with rest?

Striking a proper balance keeps people motivated and focused on their jobs- especially important qualities for all military personnel. Time-off gives the sailor time to manage his or her personal life and increases the chance that he or she will re-enlist. However, due to multiple combat deployments, the military divorce rate has steadily increased every year since 2001 and is now above the national divorce rate, according to a Pentagon study. Considering the U.S. military budget is not going to increase 13% like China’s budget did last year, all military branches will have to increase efficiency and put sailors where they are most needed. Yes, military life is inherently tough, but increasing off-time increases the likelihood that good sailors will stay in the service. With more sailors, the burden on each “link in the chain” will decrease.

Increasing efficiency is the goal of every military, political, and business leader. Every unit wants to win the Battle E- note the E for Efficiency. While becoming more efficient sounds good on paper, in reality it’s difficult because it requires changing the “way it’s always been done.” We midshipmen should enjoy spring break, but realize what a sea-change in leave time awaits us in the fleet.


A Poppy Plant Diesel Engine?

February 2011


A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly described two former Army veterans who devised a novel idea to defeat the insurgency: turning poppy plants into fuel. Article can be accessed here:

This idea could revolutionize the Afghan economy.

According to the article, shipping one gallon of gasoline to a forward operating post in Afghanistan costs up to $400. Plus, every supply convoy we sent out is one more supply convoy that the Taliban could possibly attack. Recently the Taliban have targeted convoys in Pakistan, causing U.S. officials to route supplies through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, buying local bio-diesel costs $10 per gallon and supports the local population.

Using poppy plants as fuel is a much better strategy than trying to destroy every poppy plant. Eradicating poppy plants only hurts the overall war effort. When Afghan farmers watch U.S. aircraft spray and destroy their crops, we aren’t exactly winning over “hearts and minds.” Afghan farmers grow poppy, not to under-mind U.S. strategy, but rather because poppy is the regional cash crop. While local farmers could grow wheat and grapes, these plants perish much quicker than poppy plants perish. Given the uncertainties of a war-torn country, having extra time to get your crop to market could be the difference between feeding your family and going hungry.

Furthermore, the U.S. eradicating poppy fields incentivizes other Afghans to grow poppy plants. This may seem counter-intuitive, but every poppy plant we destroy increases the price of poppy. The higher price for poppy will cause more farmers to switch to growing poppy plants.

However, implementing this plan will anger local drug lords and cause massive regulation problems. Just because some poppy plants are being used as biofuels doesn’t mean the drug market has evaporated. The U.S. will have a tough time regulating this poppy seed-biodiesel market. Even so, part of winning this war is restoring the Afghan economy- might as well work with what you’ve already got.

Posted by jjames in Army, Foreign Policy | 2 Comments

When is it going to start?

Here I was in a racquetball court with 83 other midshipmen anxiously anticipating the start of the Naval Academy’s SEAL screener. After entering the racquetball court at 1630, we had no idea if we would be waiting for five minutes or five hours. That was the point; the cadre running the screener wanted to build up our nerves. Waiting inside those racquetball courts elicited different responses from different midshipmen. Some lied down and tried to sleep (though I doubt anyone actually could). Some sat down and adjusted their ruck sacks. And others tried to keep their spirits up by saying funny movie quotes.

How long will they keep us waiting? Have all the power bars and energy gels already worn off?

With a loud siren blasting from the megaphone, the screener officially kicked-off. We had been waited in that racquetball court for three hours. After forming up into boat crews and gaining accountability, we ran over to the Severn River and jumped in for the first- but certainly not the last- time. Then, we organized ourselves into boat crews and raced (on land) against the other boat crews while carrying Zodiac inflatable boats on our heads. After the race and a short ruck run, we did some log PT- completing overhead presses as a boat crew with heavy, fifteen-foot long logs.

Just like at BUD/S, we had to have our swim buddy with us at all times, except during the individual races. Fortunately for me, my swim buddy and good friend, John McDonough, was a physical beast. An ironman finisher and ultra-marathon runner, John had been preparing for this screener since I-day, the first day of plebe summer. No matter how bad things got, I always knew John would put out 110%.

After another ruck run, complete with 200 meters of bear crawling, we completed back to back physical screening tests (PST). These tests consisted of pull-ups, push-ups, a mile run, and a 350 meter swim (they shortened the distances for us). Next, we went on another short ruck run, jumped in the Severn…again, and completed more basic PT. At around 0530, the cadre told us that we would get a two hour break. I immediately grabbed all my gear and walked back to company area with John. Some of the underclass from my company helped us out during this break, and I cannot thank them enough. They had Gatorades, food, and hot chocolate waiting for us. Most importantly, they dried all our camis and gear.

Lying down on this sofa in dry clothes sure does feel good. Are you sure you want to go back?

After quickly reading the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, I reported back to the designated location. The cadre did not leave us in dry clothes for long, as we kicked off the morning by running to the river and jumping in. We then loaded the Zodiacs boats into the water and raced against the other boat crews to various point in the river. Finally, the cadre told us to paddle to Naval Station Annapolis- across the river from the Academy. After bringing the boats ashore, we threw on our ruck sacks and prepared for a long ruck run. Naturally, the cadre didn’t tell us how long the run would be.

See that guy in front of you- catch up to him! Will this be the last lap? I sure hope it is. Just keep running.

After finally completing the ruck run (it ended up being about 4.5 miles), we did various teamwork exercises. As always, it paid to win. Next, we went back to our boats (and the Severn) and paddled back to the Academy. Once again, we raced the other boat crews to the different waypoints.

After paddling back to the Yard, we competed against one another in a 250 meter Severn River swim. Swimming is my forte, but swimming in open water, against the current, on a cold November day tested that strength. My swim buddy and I completed the swim, and immediately began more boat crew races (on land) with the zodiacs over our heads. Breaking shortly for dinner, we ran over to the pool for some more swim PT. For me, the worst part of swim PT was executing flutter kicks and push-ups with a charged mask. Charging your mask means you fill it up with water. Before the screener, I didn’t think this part would be that difficult. Granted, you wouldn’t be able to see a darned thing with a charged mask, but how could it be that bad? I didn’t factor in that the water from the mask would trickle down into the back of your throat.

Don’t you dare take that mask off! You just threw up all over the pool deck. Will this go on for another day?

During this pool phase, we had to jump off the ten-meter tower. Jumping off this tower used to be a requirement for all midshipmen, but the higher-ups changed that requirement starting with my class. I was secretly very happy when they made that change. Walking up the tower, or rather bear crawling up, I realized that I wasn’t nervous at all about jumping off. In fact, compared to the other evolutions, this jump was easy.

After leaving the warm pool, we did some more PT, and jumped into the Severn…again. Looking back on it, I can’t remember not being wet during the screener. Upon exiting the water, the cadre said, “Fall-in on your gear and get out your mask and fins. Up next is another open-water swim.”

Not again…just do it. You promised yourself a million times you wouldn’t quit. Then again, those promises weren’t made when you were cold, wet, tired, and miserable.

Here 56 men out of the 83 who started this screener expected to swim half a mile in 57⁰ degree water at night. After we donned our fins and mask, the OIC said, “Group one prepare to enter the water. Ready…You’re secured.”

No way? It can’t really be over. It is over. Finally, we did it!

After a full night and day of being wet and cold, we finished. Everyone broke into cheers, mids hugging fellow mids who, 30 hours ago, were complete strangers.

The OIC made it extremely clear that this screener, while tough, was nothing in comparison to BUD/S training. Even though less than a third of the finishers will receive a Naval Special Warfare billet, each participant pushed his mental and physical limits and thus gained valuable experience for any Navy or Marine Corps community.

Posted by jjames in Navy | 7 Comments

On January 31st, Naval Academy midshipmen John McDonough, Stephen Honan, and Blaine Tonking will start the 135 mile Arrowhead Ultramarathon. To put this in perspective, 135 miles is equivalent to 5 marathons or the distance between Washington, DC and Philadelphia. However, if running 135 miles isn’t challenging enough, the temperatures at the snowy northern Minnesota race course routinely reach -40 ⁰F. And, by the way, you have to finish in less than 60 hours.

These midshipmen, beyond peak physical condition, have already finished other shorter (though shorter is a relative term here) ultramarathons such as the JFK 50 miler and the MOAB 100 miler. All three are members of the Naval Academy marathon team, and all hope to service select SpecOps or SpecWar.

The race is so long that the race directors require each participant to have at least 3000 calories of food and a sleeping bag rated for -20 ⁰F on them at all times. Because of the terrain, many participants choose to tow this gear on sleds.

Towing their gear, former MIDN Luke Finney and Blaine Tonking run Arrowhead in 2009. That year, Finney became the youngest finisher in race history.

Why are they doing this? Besides testing themselves physically and mentally, they hope to raise $30,000 for the Special Operations Warriors Fund (SOWF) by running.

About SOWF:

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation mission is devoted to providing a college education to every child who has lost a parent while serving in Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations during an operational or training mission.

The Warrior Foundation is currently committed to providing scholarship grants to more than 760 children. These children survive over 600 Special Operations personnel who gave their lives in patriotic service to their country, including those who died fighting our nation’s war against terrorism as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan and the Philippines as well as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” To date, 143 children of fallen special operations warriors have graduated from college.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation also provides immediate financial assistance to special operations personnel severely wounded in the global war on terror. Once notified of a special operations soldier, airman, sailor or Marine hospitalized with a severe injury, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation immediately sends funds to the service member (or his/her designated recipient) so the family and loved ones can immediately travel to be bedside.

The rest of us now have no room to complain about a measly 1.5 mile long run.

To read more about these incredible future officers: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by jjames in History | No Comments

Can’t Last Forever

January 2011


I hope somebody in Washington paid attention to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain finally succumbing to deficit spending. We’re no better, those nations just fell faster.

In the past ten years, our nation’s debt as a percentage of GDP has risen from 32% to 66%. Even worse by 2020 the Congressional Budget Office’s “most politically likely scenario” predicts the debt to GDP ratio to rise to 90% by 2020, and to 233% by 2040. These figures don’t include promised medicare and social security payments. In comparison, during the Second World War this ratio was 106%.

Something’s gotta give. In 2009, the U.S. spent $187 billion (more than China’s defense budget) paying off interest on government debt. More debt equals more interest payments, Eventually the U.S. will have to implement “austerity measures.” What will it be… medicare? Social security? According to Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, a declining power cuts military spending first. With interest payments on the national debt infringing on government spending, voters want their entitlement payments over a new EFV for the Marines.

Congress does not want to cut military spending during wartime- as we are seeing with the current resistance to the modest cuts offered by the SecDef (even though the defense budget will still increase). But basic arithmetic will force the U.S. to downsize its military. At least the Pentagon is getting a head start.

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