Monday, July 30, 2007

2005 Mosque Raid

The stories told at Educated Soldier have lately taken a positive tone in sentiment. This isn’t reflective of my two years experience in Iraq necessarily; in fact, there were many periods during my deployments that were very much void of positive elements. However, the vast majority of news coming from Iraq is negative. And since both negative and positive details exist in the country and I choose to report events that others withhold, I tend- in result – to publish these “happy-go-lucky” Iraq tales.

Tonight’s account is going to be a different case. I want to put each of my readers in my shoes during a very significant day during my Ramadi tour. The mission completed that day met every adjective available on the spectrum including both positive and negative connotations. It was both wildly successful in its completion but probably horribly misjudged in its authorization. It was done with the foremost consideration for collateral damage but resulted in one of the most destructive displays of American exploitation of force that I have borne witness. The mission was the scariest of my life for moments and also one of the most boring in its prolonged conclusion…

First, however, I want to display credit where it is just due. The inspiration for tonight’s story and, in fact, inspiration for most of my continued recollections belongs to the continued efforts of two embedded journalists that I have the utmost respect for: Michael Yon and Michael Totten. In both of their recent dispatches, they tackled the peculiarities faced by an American military that struggles between effectively killing an enemy while doing as little in the way of disturbing the warming general populace as possible.

In Mr. Yon’s last report, he observes mid-level officers as they work diligently from their tactical operations center and debate over what level and means of force to use in an attempt to destroy an enemy that has since fled to a permanent residence within their city’s limits. The options that are available to the military officials are interesting in and of themselves. To give you a taste without telling Mr. Yon’s entire account; one of the options available is an airplane-dropped, concrete-laden bomb; the first of its type that I have been made aware of. Just as fascinating is the thought process that is completed by the various soldiers in charge. They want to kill an enemy that has attempted to kill their own men. But they don’t want to do so at the expense of upsetting a civilian population that is slowly coming to understand the benefits of the unit’s presence in their city. Again, the report is located here and I highly recommend that you take the time to access it.

Mr. Totten’s latest transmission from Baghdad relates directly to the story that I am prepared to tell tonight. The unit is which he is embedded is attempting a night time raid; a mission that I, myself, have undertaken countless times. Mr. Totten describes the intricacies of such a raid exactly as I remember them. His unit then faces the exact issue that will be the heart of tonight’s Educated Soldier tale: a possibly hostile mosque. It is well worth your time exploring Mr. Totten’s own adventures; no one does a better job of detailing exactly how it is over there. He neither glorifies the violence nor exaggerates the serenity. He tells the true story of Iraq; a land conflicted by those who want to promote stability interlaced with a small but persistent existence of a group that wants to see nothing of the sort achieved. His stories are a salad bowl of continued boredom and brief instances of sheer terror. Such a mix existed in the Iraq that I came to know very well.

On Sacred Grounds…

A hostile mosque… pictured to the right is “Saddam Mosque.” This facility exists in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. My unit, at the time I was there, was given the duty to serve the eastern half of the city. The Marines, whose command overrode all American jurisdictions in Al Anbar province, were tasked with the direct oversight of the western half of the city. Saddam Mosque’s location sat dead center of our own area of operations. It was in the middle of all confluences; north, south, east, and west. Running directly adjacent to this rather large mosque was the main thoroughfare of Ramadi. While the codename to this road is all too available on soldier-submitted YouTube videos, I am going to withhold such detail because of continued operational security.

This road traveled past the mosque and just west of its location was a large traffic circle. When the 1/503rd Infantry, of which I was assigned, first arrived in-city, this traffic circle was plagued by enemy activity. During our first sweep of the location, our unit’s engineers located no less than sixteen planted improvised explosive devices. After clearing these dangers, an almost immediate return to the area presented at least ten replaced explosives. During our initial time in Ramadi, this traffic circle was also home to many a fire fight. Ultimately, the dangers of this traffic circle would become case-in-point testament to the Ramadi turn-around; upon exiting the city after our year tour, nearly no danger ever presented itself at the traffic circle.

Before achieving these successes, however, much work had to be completed to set the foundation for such a turn-around. Much of this work focused on the ever present “elephant in the room,” the Saddam Mosque.

The Ramadi residents who were ready to embrace peace would often tell us that Saddam Mosque was a major tactical host for the enemy that we faced. Moreover, during most firefights, we were engaged directly from the Mosque itself. However, we were ever hesitant to enter such a sacred facility. This is the dilemma presented by counter insurgency warfare of the type now faced in Iraq. Americans are ever cognizant of the feelings and dignity of the surrounding populace. Our enemy worries less about such things.

The 1/503rd did everything short of actually entering the mosque in attempts to negate its effectiveness as an enemy stronghold. We observed it from surrounding facilities for weeks on end. We patrolled its local area often, both on foot and in humvees, in attempts to provoke the enemy. The hope was that they would be as unwise enough to leave the safety of the mosque and fight us in the streets. This rarely happened. The enemy had the upper hand and they were well aware of this tactical advantage.

Eventually, however, American forces in the city were augmented quite substantially by Iraqi forces. This new battlefield dynamic presented new options in dealing with the Saddam Mosque. After being harassed heavily by occupants of the mosque, it was decided that some attempt had to made to gain authorization to demilitarize this facility. Ultimately it worked like this: one day a platoon lieutenant tired of his men getting shot at from perpetrators in the mosque. He, therefore, implored the company commander to authorize entry into the building. The company commander then asked for the same authorization from the battalion commander. This level of authority wasn’t high enough to allow such action, so he- in turn- asked permission from the brigade commander, a “full-bird” Colonel. Even his power fell short of the necessary level to give the mission a go. So he contacted the Marine commander of all ground forces in Al Anbar. From my understanding, it was at this level that authorization was finally ceded for actions on the mosque.

However, unilateral American actions on such an establishment of Islamic importance would ultimately negate the successes being made in winning the city’s “hearts and minds.” It was decided, instead, that our Iraqi army and police brethren would lead the initial assault on the mosque. However, the gravity of such a mission warrants days of preparation, not hours. First, American soldiers had to patrol throughout the city and inform all the citizens that such an action on the mosque was being considered. We had to convince the populace that our intentions were totally noble and in the best interest of the safety of the city as a whole. Local television stations even warned the citizens that a vehicle restriction was being imposed on the day of the Saddam Mosque raid. Our psychological operations soldiers declared from the loudspeakers mounted atop their humvees that the mosque would be off-limits and that a mixed Iraqi / American force intended to clear the facility of enemy opposition. We were prepared to lose the element of surprise in return for gaining the goodwill of the more peaceful-minded people.

The preparation for the raid of Saddam Mosque constituted the positive elements of such a mission. Americans did everything in their abilities to inform all interested that we were only intruding on sacred grounds for the establishment of the better good of the community. The mission, itself, was ultimately successful in its initial actions. Our entire battalion stormed the grounds and the Iraqi ground soldiers led the way in entering the Mosque. American soldiers eventually entered and, in a city whose level of danger rarely allowed visitation from journalists, one of our soldiers gained his 15 minutes of fame when such a reporter documented his efforts crawling through the building’s ductwork, eventually locating a substantial cache of enemy weapons and materials.

However, in an endeavor to be totally forthcoming, my obligation causes me to tell the entire story. Eventual events of the day’s raid were much less positive in retrospect. To understand what happened next, one must be aware of the composition of the force that occupied the mosque after its initial raid.

On the grounds of the facility, were at least two companies worth of armored humvees. This is to say that there were upwards of forty vehicles all positioned surrounding the mosque, their 50-caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers prepared for action. My company was positioned on the roof of the mosque. Inside the facility were the Iraqi forces.

My company was receiving sporadic “harassing” fire from areas throughout the city. Harassing fire is the military’s way of describing what amounts to “pop shots.” However, this could be expected as we were occupying the most prominent figure in the Ramadi skyline, save for the hospital to our distant north. Our complacency was causing many of us to be less than cautious in our attempts to find cover. Many of our torsos, to upper enlisted members’ chagrins, were completely exposed to the entire city. We were a brave, sometimes strategically lazy, bunch.

Of the negative things that occurred that day, this was the first: While occupying the mosque, it was made absolutely clear throughout the city that it was expected for individuals to remain in their residencies. Occupying a sacred mosque and receiving continuous fire found all soldiers a bit edgy, despite our battle-tested demeanors. To the west of the mosque, around the area of the above-described traffic circle, much fire was being generated in our direction. We kept a watchful eye and, to our surprise, after time a large group of men, clad in black and wearing winter ski-masks made their presence known. For reasons still unknown, they decided to attempt to run across the street from the building we were receiving rounds to the opposing side of the thoroughfare. While they weren’t firing at the time we located them, the dynamics of war led all to believe that these were indeed enemy forces. There were plenty of reasons to arrive at such a conclusion: the black uniforms, the ski masks, the continuous gun shots that had preceded their daring dash. In retaliation, about a platoon of us from the mosque’s roof fired on these individuals. I fired on these individuals. To this day, I have little regret for participating in such actions. The fog of war was thick and there was little time or opportunity to stop these men and ask them whether they were friend or foe; circumstances had already dictated their guilt.

Time passed after this activity and soon we faced the second of the mission’s ultimately negative points. No vehicular traffic made its way in the vicinity of the mosque nearly the entire time that we were there. The Ramadi citizens had been warned against such excursions and they seemed to be complying. In a war laden with vehicular explosives, it wasn’t wrong for my unit to expect the worst from any car or truck that approached Saddam Mosque’s grounds. In time, however, one did. Again, from the west, a red hatchback raced toward our location. Our best efforts were made to get this vehicle to stop, but one may be able to imagine the difficulties in such a task given the environmental situation. Despite warning shots, this car continued to speed toward the mosque grounds and was on a collision course with any of the several military vehicles positioned around the mosque. A nearly automatic reaction occurred; the humvees on the ground began to fire. They all began to fire. Machine guns growled loudly and, sporadically, the unmistakable sound of the “Mark” 19 grenade launchers made their liveliness known. Nearly every member of my company on the roof took part in stopping the vehicle via the focused fire of our M-4 carbines. Again, I was as much a part of this action as any member of my unit.

Our company commander called for a cease fire from the roof. Ground commanders ordered their humvees to halt firing. The red hatchback sat idle on the road directly across from my own location on the roof. Oil poured from under the car and, sinisterly, crept in its liquidly fashion toward the opposite side of the road. It was sinister in the fact that the oil looked very much like blood. The car was no longer a threat. However, being that it was surmised to have been laden with explosives, my unit was in no hurry to get near it. In fact, it was deemed that there was little reason to approach the vehicle. Its occupants were presumed dead. While it was military custom to assist the wounded on the battlefield, whether friend or foe, this particular situation presented no such opportunity. Instead, it was decided that we had to ignite the explosives inside this vehicle without endangering soldiers by approaching it. The tool for such a mission was the AT-4; a sort of shoulder mounted bazooka type of weapon. From the roof of the mosque, a soldier friend of mine fired the AT-4 at the car with pin-point precision. The secondary explosions that occurred after the initial impact of the AT-4 round proved our initial assessment correct; the car was indeed heavy with explosives. In stopping the car with an exotic show of force, we ultimately saved the lives of many of our brethren on the ground.


The ultimate goal of this story was to show the many intricacies that present themselves when Americans are faced with such a dilemma. This event occurred in 2005 and, presumably, occurrences of American force such as this one are becoming rarer. Ramadi, at the time, was on some days composed of war-zone activity and on others, peaceful community building. Coalition actions, these days, seem to be more constituted around the latter.

The preparations made for the raid on Saddam Mosque were perfect counter-insurgency tactics. We had to gain the will of the people. If all is told, had the citizens been totally against such a raid, one would not have been performed. We truly attempted to adhere to the desires of the people. However, the mission wasn’t without its hitches. Should we have forgone the destruction of the enemy that initially ran across the street in an effort to lessen the negative connotations that are associated with such American actions while on the grounds of a holy site? Possibly. Was the use of fire power on the vehicle-borne explosive overly aggressive? This could also be possibly true. However, judgment calls are made in the matter of seconds and retrospective thoughts last a lifetime. The livelihood and safety of soldiers demands that we rely on the judgment calls and deny our own susceptibility to submit to the possibility of negative hindsight.

The conflict that is continuing in Iraq is one neither constituted by black nor white. Everything occurs in shades of gray and the hostility and events generated by Saddam Mosque stand as testament to that fact. Our soldiers are facing opportunities of split second decisions that result in life or death and reverberate throughout an entire’s nation’s infrastructure. I implore you to remember these details when you consider the contributions that are being made daily in Iraq.

The Saddam Mosque picture was originally posted on Wikipedia. Its use is authorized by its existence as a commonly owned item. If this image belongs to you and you would like it removed, please contact

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Soldier's Hero

Recently, the publications from Educated Soldier have found their way to various sites throughout the internet. The result of the republishing of the tales originally found here has been the generation of a great many debates concerning the dynamics of the current circumstances in Iraq. Such results have been greatly personally satisfying.

In my current state, as a student in America, I often feel that there is little left for me to offer in a struggle that I fully believe in. My academic pursuits, should they be completed, would situate me in such a position to return to the Middle East in some role to truly make a difference. This is my ultimate goal and it is one that I am committed to unconditionally. However, it is this current period of time; suspended between extended tours in Iraq and an eventual return, that often causes me unrest. So it has been a boon of great fortune that I have been able to hold this venue. I have found Educated Soldier to be my current niche of contribution.

Discussion about the Iraq War is vitally important. This is a principle that I fully buy into. On many other forums, I have made it very clear that I have sources of apprehension that cause me greater fear than a determined enemy in the Middle East. Two of these fears are domestic in nature. First, I fear that the American populace will eventually grow less tolerant toward an on-going conflict in the Middle East because of the perceived monetary burden that is being developed by the conflict and parlayed on the country or because of some moral disagreement with prolonged fighting. Worse yet is the possibility of a future apathetic United States; this scares me more thoroughly than all else. As long as interested parties are continuing to debate the merits and failures of the war, I stand firm in my optimism that eventual goals can be presented and achieved. However, when the public interest wanes and government officials have fewer critics to scrutinize their decisions, the war in Iraq is going to become a lost cause. I fervently believe that success can still be had and that slow achievements are, in fact, leading to that ultimate success. For this reason, an apathetic America is a frightening thing.

Is such an uninterested America an implausible occurrence? I think not. Consider: This is a country mesmerized by the follies of the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of Hollywood. David Beckham is more often front-page news than is the occurrence of American deaths in the Middle East. Our sports heroes (see Vick, Michael, et al) are failing us and we continually divert our attention from news of utter importance to interesting, but relatively innocent, hi-jinks of an out-of-control celebrity community. Because American interest manifest itself in such ways, I don’t think that I am totally lost in suggesting that, one day, all major interest in Iraq may fade; our collective short attention span caught by any of a list of other sources of “entertainment.” So when I can direct my experiences in Iraq in such a way to stimulate continued discourse on the subject, I well with absolute pride.

With that being said, I want to thank everyone who has read my accounts, commented here and elsewhere and has, in general, cared. I think a continued effort by all parties- those that have been in-county, those who have not, those who support the war, and those who oppose – can ultimately result in a situation and game-plan that we can all agree upon and work through. This, ultimately, is my grand goal. And it is also what motivates me to continue to write…

Baptism by Fire

My most recent posts have been fairly thought-invoking affairs. Tonight, in the celebratory mood caused by Iraq’s successful futbol run in the Asian Games, I want to delve into something different and sentimental in a positive sense. I have a story in my head that has been developing for some time. It involves my initiation to war. It is also a story that generated a deep bond between a fellow soldier and me. This friendship is one that I still consider among my strongest despite the recent lack of communication between the associated parties. However, the story is a bit blurry – many details escape me. Some of the details are removed not because of the blur of time, but because I was not privy to them as the events unfolded. As time passed, I learned more about the particulars. However, there is still much that needs to be filled in. If you have the ability to flesh out this story, please contact me and do so; this is worthy made-for-Hollywood stuff. And, to all of those that look up to every individual that dons a uniform, understand this is a story of the types of individuals that we, the ground ponders, direct all admiration. This is, indeed, a story of…

My Heroes

My unit rolled into Iraq with the very lead elements of the entire invading force. Stepping back, however, one looks in retrospect and chokes on the use of the word “invading.” I rode in a humvee occupied by three men. As the most junior soldier, I was primarily the driver. Seated to my right was my team chief and, manning the gun, was another soldier. We had a solid team. None of the three of us were apart in age by more than a few years. We had the same interests; in fact, we were primarily interested in what most boys our age liked: girls, booze, music, and girls and booze. I genuinely believe that our team almost always enjoyed the company amongst each other. As progressing time grinded on other teams and led to nearly inevitable in-fighting, we prided ourselves in our ability to ignore such burdens. Looking back, I think that we were too naive to waste energy in such a fruitless occupation as argument. Besides we were too busy playing “Pictionary” and constantly debating what we would do with a million dollars and… often, we would play this peculiar game that spontaneously occurred amongst bored-stricken soldiers and it worked like this:

One player would suggest a terrible situation. Say, for example, the named hypothetical activity might be something akin to undergoing physical pain of some sort while being forced to observe pornographic actions enacted between grotesque beings. The other participants in the game would then bid with fictitious money until one player named the lowest terms that they would be willing to accept in remittance for participating in the supposed situation. In turn, the remaining players could forever then suggest that Steve, for example, “would undergo physical pain, while watching grotesque porno for only $1,000!” Such were the fun times of the “invading” soldiers.

A notable memory is when my humvee “invaded” the Fertile Crescent. One should remember that, for the past six months, my unit had been living in Kuwait in an area that was surrounded by the endless sands of the desert environment. Traveling through southern Iraq, the topography was no different; flat, sandy, desolate. We traveled through such conditions for a couple of days with nary an actionable event of note to register. Then, without warning, we crested a hill and, in the distance, the sand gave way to lush green grass and sporadic groves of trees. While not parched or striving for vegetation for the same reasons, I can imagine the excitement that overtook nomadic desert-travelers of the past when stumbling upon this location. Typically, one doesn’t take into account how thoroughly they associate livelihood with vegetation often. Even when it's gone, one hardly misses it. However, after being without the presence of environments composed of the color green for a long period and then suddenly having such an atmosphere sprung is nearly an indescribable phenomenon…

It was, perhaps, prior to our peaceful “invasion” of the Fertile Crescent or just upon arriving at its very edges that my baptism by fire occurred.

While I was a member of a “reconnaissance” unit, it was not very often that we conducted reconnaissance on much of anything. This was generally because we were one of the few units in the Third Infantry Division that had absolutely no armored support. We were equipped with humvees only. Moreover, the use of humvees was a bit new to us as well because, in training back at Fort Stewart, we typically inserted via helicopter and proceeded to “hump” our equipment in traveling to our objectives. So, in lieu of such reconnaissance, we often provided security for more vulnerable trailing elements; for example, certain higher headquarters vehicles. In turn, the leading elements through southern Iraq were often Armored Battalions or the well-equipped Cavalry Squadron.

However, one night, something upset this order of battle and we found ourselves pushed pretty far ahead. The element just forward of us had reported pretty significant contact. It was nighttime and this was, without a doubt, the closest I had come to enemy fire. In fact, at the time, I was convinced that the war would be over before I knew it. I was also falsely convinced that modern war was only fought amongst Special Operations ground units and Air Forces. I would learn differently a few miles up the road.

The lead unit was in enough contact to warrant supplementation. This is where my own unit came in. We drove directly into a firefight and it was a phenomenon that, oddly, I will neither ever forget nor ever be able to remember clearly. This dynamic remains because of the adrenaline rush that occurred that caused me to undergo a physical experience that I can only relate to athletes who have ever been in the “zone.” One understands the environment surrounding them but is; ultimately, separate from that environment and a concentrated mental focusing develops.

The ultimate result of the night’s battle was an eventual withdrawal by, not only us, but by the unit that we were supporting. In our place stormed a battalion of tanks. I do remember clearly maneuvering my vehicle out of the area of skirmish and being bypassed by Abrams tanks whose occupants were physically out of their armored tanks, loudly growling in anticipation of slaughter. In an Airborne Division, excitement is generated by the parachute-drop of troops. In Mechanized Divisions, such as the Third Infantry, pride is taken in our mechanical superiority. These tankers were vicious combatants and absolutely loved to take the fight to the enemy.

After the tanks cleared out and little was left of the enemy, I became witness to my first combat air attack. As a team of forward observers, it was often our job to call in artillery or close-air-support (airplanes). Airplanes were going to be used to finish off any remaining enemy on this night but we would not be the ones directing the action. At this point, this particular scuffle had battled on for some time and a heavy congregation of military officials had assembled. Such an occurrence was a perfect opportunity for an established officer to conduct such an air attack from the ground. While we wanted to do our job, I think that my team ultimately understood. Besides, the first taste of war had left us a bit weary and we were satisfied to simply watch the artful display put on by an Air Force that I am forever grateful.

However, the participants in this battle failed to impress me in comparison to the grittiest bunch of individuals that I would come to meet the following day.

After the battle had subsided, we assembled our vehicles in a coherent, secure cluster and attempted to achieve some remnants of rest. Upon waking the next morning, our unit was given a follow-on mission. We were to return to the battlegrounds of last night in order to retrieve some remaining American combatants

Consider this statement: there were remaining, living American combatants on the battlefield.

During our mission that day, we would have additional occupants in each of our humvees. These were the teammates of the men that we were journeying in an endeavor to retrieve. Little of the mission was making sense at this point. However, we dutifully traveled towards the area of the previous night’s battle.

Upon arriving there, a real genuine mess was to be seen. Not only were the sporadic concrete buildings that once stood throughout the area decimated, but enemy pick-up trucks continued to smolder. This was my first evidence of an authentic battleground. Moreover, at some point it had rained. Being on the edge of the Fertile Crescent, the soil here was composed of dirt instead of sand. Currently the ground was neither but, instead, mud. And, if I remember correctly, I recall seeing one of the few armored vehicles we lost in the battle absolutely buried in heavy, brown muck.

Still, we had a curious mission to conduct. At some point, the guest in our vehicle commanded us to stop. When we did, and after he exited the vehicle, the most amazing event that I have ever been witness to occurred. He and members of his unit who had ridden in accompanying humvees scoured the battlefield, and as they did, they recovered fellow soldiers. And these soldiers were most definitely alive and mostly uninjured.

Let me express the gravity of this situation: these were men that, apparently, had been on the ground throughout the night. They maintained safety despite being present during a firefight conducted between American humvees and enemy gun-trucks. Afterwards, they remained on the ground and survived a prolonged onslaught conducted by massive American tanks. To add further devastation, they remained on the battlefield as airplanes dropped substantial bombs and an extended amount of ordinance throughout their area of operation.

And, apparently, this is exactly what these toughest of men had planned to do. Moreover, they instigated the entire fight and their efforts led to the eradication of a large number of enemy combatants. These soldier/heroes may not have physically destroyed their opposition themselves, but their presence was a force-multiplier on an unheard of scale. With only their feet, rifles and radios to depend on, they caused havoc unlike any that I have since been presence to. This is why, to this day, I refer to my unit as “reconnaissance” in quotations; how dare I devalue the term when others are embodying it in such ways?

Upon retrieving these men, they eagerly recuperated. I remember seeing many of them relying on oxygen machines to help promote their recovery from pure exhaustion. I have forever engrained in my memory an image of a group of these men, sitting on a small dirt crest, ragged looking. They were weary-eyed and dogged. I guarantee, however, that after a brief refreshing pause to boost their reserves, these men continued to participate in the action in methods much more productive than any of my own.

Friendship Forged of Fire

Years later I would find myself in South Korea. I was in the 1/503rd Infantry Battalion and I was the new guy. For some reason, on this particular night, the entire unit was outside of their barracks, spread throughout the garrison area, in uniform, but hardly under any discernible sort of control. Street lights had little effect and I vividly recall all faces being concealed in shadow.

A unit member caught sight of the combat patch that I, at that time, wore on my right shoulder. This was a time before combat was a given for all soldiers and I was sort of a pariah because of my own experiences. Upon seeing that I had served in Iraq, everyone seemed to have questions. Upon receiving one of these queries that night, I began to recall my tales as a “Recon” soldier when I was interrupted by the loudest reverberation of footsteps I can ever remember hearing.

Rumbling towards me was this fireball of a human being. This guy had shoulders as broad as a linebacker’s and hips inhumanly narrower in proportion. This being was physically constructed to cause massive damage on anything that he found needing such treatment. Upon looking at this man, I would have assessed him as being six foot three and well over 240 pounds; I doubt any of that was fat.

And, to my greatest chagrin, this guy was bee-lining directly for me:

“What the f*ck do you know about recon?!”

This wasn’t a question that was meant to be answered. As the growling individual appeared closer, I recognized that, despite his size, he wasn’t much older than me.

“What the f*ck do you know about being in Iraq two weeks before the war stated?!”

I swear to this day that this man had caused me more fear in two questions that I had developed in a year in Iraq. This guy was an animal. Despite this, I managed a meager reply…

“Well… uh… Sergeant. I was in the Second Brigade Reconnaissance Team…”

My auditory stumbling wasn’t working and my mind raced to find an escape from this confrontation. For some reason, an event that hadn’t been recalled in many moons began to falter from my clenched throat…

“I mean, we rescued these dudes… You wouldn’t believe it, Sergeant- they came out of the ground. They buried themselves, survived some of the worst-“

I was cut off while beginning to recount the events described above.

Sergeant “Joe’s” mood and demeanor quickly changed. As oppressive as he had seemed just a prior second, he had now morphed into a gigantic appreciative Viking-looking individual. He hesitated in surprise and then, with genuine appreciation, continued.

“Objective “Lions?” You were there? That was you?”

Somehow my limited participation in the battle described above was enough to pass muster with this most amazing human being. Sergeant Joe had been in the unit that we had recovered that long past morning in Iraq. While he wasn’t one of the soldiers who had participated in that particular mission, he was one of the soldiers from that same unit. From his recounting, they had worked for Joint Special Operations Command and, in my assessment, completed some of the most wild, hair-raising missions of the early part of the war.

Sergeant Joe and I would go on to become great friends. He never questioned my past war experience again. He should have; my contributions were absolutely limited in comparison to his own. However, for some reason, he took a liking to me. I always looked up to Joe and eventually stood beside him during countless battles in Ar Ramadi. Joe, and people like Joe, is this soldier’s hero…


I believe that the unit of focus above was the 18th Airborne Corps’s Long Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance (LRRS) unit. This unit, I believe, is badged F. Company, 51st Infantry. I also believe that they fall under the auspices of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion. If anyone has further information concerning this mission or these men, please come forward. Enough time has passed to adequately suggest that parading these feats for their extreme heroics will not compromise anyone’s security.

While tonight’s tale may not raise any important questions and may also fail in helping readers understand the current dynamic, I would hope that it goes a long way in promoting the realization of the great sacrifices that have been made and are continuing to be made. Sergeant Joe would do it all again. So would I. I would genuinely hope that the soldiers are given the opportunity to decide when they have grown weary of fighting and not have an American population do so on their behalf.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Paradise: Baghdad...

I am not sure if I should be excited about this but; recently, I have found myself waking each morning most anticipating two daily events: time spent in the gym or running and the authoring of this Blog.

In anticipation of writing tonight’s post, I had developed two separate topic pieces. The first was to be a post concerning the appropriate steps that need to be taken, in my estimation, for Fred Thompson to successfully secure the Republican Party nomination for President. This would have been written with a focus on what Senator Thompson needs to do to garner the votes of military and veterans in particular.

The second idea was to run with last night’s theme and incorporate experiences from Ramadi into a response to the recent news of The New Republic / Private Beauchamp fiasco. I wrestled throughout the day with which story I would present tonight.

And then, while walking to my residency in the fraternity house, an issue totally separate came to mind. And it is that issue that I am going to discuss tonight.

The Baghdad Anomaly

There was a particular period of time during my days in Iraq that saw the country undergo a dramatic change of direction. For many reasons, this period should be studied in depth. One of the notable reasons is to detect what went wrong and prevent it from happening again should we ever face a similar situation. There’s also another, and maybe more currently pertinent, reason to study this transitional period. Better understanding of it may give us a clearer picture of the enemy we are facing today.

So, tonight, I want to relate some events that I partook around the summer of 2003 in and around the area of Baghdad, Iraq.

As it is vital to the comprehensible understanding of tonight’s accounts, one must be aware of my own role during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was in the Third Infantry Division and just a young private. Upon completing my Advanced Individualized Training in 2002, I was assigned to Fort Stewart where it was quickly made clear that my unit would be deploying to Kuwait in a short time. This was well before any of the winds of war in Iraq were present.

That September, on my Mother’s birthday no less, my unit shipped to Kuwait. I was a member of the Second Brigade’s Reconnaissance Team, a unit composed of cavalry scouts and forward observers, of which I was the latter. Our mission in Kuwait was not out of the ordinary. The Third Infantry Division had been rotating brigades through Kuwait for some time now as part of what was then deemed “intrinsic actions.” Our purpose was to train with other international forces in the country, including the Kuwaitis themselves, to better prepare all sides should Saddam Hussein again become aggressive towards his neighbors to the south. Our presence in Kuwait was also a great deterrent against such aggression. This had been such a long standing mission for Fort Stewart units that we were the only division in the army, at the time, that maintained desert-tan painted equipment as opposed to the Army’s accepted O.D. Green camouflage. This was scheduled to be a six month deployment.

Because of our availability in the region, along with our continued training for just such a mission, we were utilized heavily during the invasion of Iraq. The story of the invasion and the Third Infantry Division’s actions during it are well documented. Less accurately depicted is what occurred after we occupied Baghdad.

Upon the successful toppling of the Hussein-led government in Baghdad, my unit was assigned with the authority to maintain security at the capital city’s main train station. I recall nights spent at that train station absolutely vividly. In many ways, time spent at the train station was the most surreal and interesting period in my life. Our security was always augmented by three older Iraqi gentlemen. They were very highly educated engineers and had vested financial interests in seeing the train station maintain safety. I was involved in countless memorable conversations with these gentlemen. Their knowledge was their most remarkable quality; one of them, in fact, had completed extensive advanced academic work in Europe. Had they been Americans, they would no doubt have held positions as Chief Officers in some capacity and would have been deep in financial luxuries. But, here they were in Baghdad, content to sit in folding chairs day-in and day-out and support the Americans in assisting them.

Many of the events that occurred during those nights in the train station will remain personally held tales. Unfortunately, the revelation of those events might incriminate some of my buddies still on active duty. Not because we performed any outlandish acts, but because we were often guilty of breaking General Order #1 while in the presence of these gentlemen. Let it be said that our Iraqi engineer friends were very welcoming home-makers who often treated us to extended-course meals at their homes and always ensured that we had plenty along the ways of entertainment during long nights positioned at their rail hub.

The level of calm that immediately followed the downfall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad was remarkable. It now seems asinine to suggest that the following events occurred, but they did. My unit used to travel to city center Baghdad, abandon our Humvees but to a couple rotating guards, drop all of our protective gear, enter restaurants and eat full-service meals. Imagine this: I used to travel to this same area of the city and receive a haircut from an Iraqi barber who would wield a straight-edged blade without so much of a raised eyebrow from my compatriots. There was even an instance that our Humvee, by its lonesome, left the Baghdad International Airport after escorting an official and traversed the streets of Baghdad in search of pirated DVDs. Occasionally, I will tell stories of complacency, of soldiers asleep while behind the gun atop a Humvee, that occurred during this period and then wonder how I ever let one partake in such lazy and dangerous activity. And then it occurs to me that this sort of activity was a product of the environment that we then knew.

Of course, this fun wouldn’t last. After being promised a return home during a celebration on July 4th, we were quickly informed that such guidance was misinformed and that we would be, instead, augmenting units in a then unknown city called “Fallujah.” Upon settling in our camp outside of the city proper, we began to travel back to Baghdad during our “off” days to return to the luxuries that were once common fare for us. About once a week, we could look forward to one of these trips to city center Baghdad. And then, one week, peculiarly, these much anticipated journeys ceased.

We were informed that the unit that had replaced us in Baghdad, the First Armored Division, had let the city fall into chaos. I remember all the fun ending with the report of the death of a soldier in the same city center that I had once loved. He had apparently been waiting in line for some sort of comfort object, perhaps ice cream at a stand or a coke- objects that I, too, had once waited in line for- when he was approached from behind and murdered. I believe that the instrument of death was a gun, but it could have been a knife. The story, in its full accuracy, escapes me now. The accuracy of the story is less important than the nuances that surround it. It was at this point that Baghdad began its quick fall into violence.

At the time, the violence in Baghdad seemed quite isolated apart from the limited fighting we were doing during our patrols on the outskirts of Fallujah. We attributed the conflict in Baghdad to the lesser abilities of our Armored Division counterparts. Of course, in retrospect, that was not the case. The First Armored Division is certainly as capable as any in the world and the up-rise in insurgent activity, ultimately, manifested itself in areas far outside of their jurisdiction.

So this raises many questions that I have yet to hear quality answers. The answers lack, in part, because this is now a forgotten part of Iraq history. But this soldier, nonetheless, wonders, “What happened?” There was a notable period of time in Iraq between the fall of the government in Baghdad and the beginning of the greater insurgency conflict as we now understand it, which was void of violence. Why was this? Did the “bag guys” really need a month to two to regroup and retaliate? Or was it the case that, during this two month gap, combatants from outside the country were being filtered in?

I have no good answers. I hope, however, that by continuing to spread the experiences that I remember, some may come to pass. And, hopefully, these answers can go a long way in helping us understand the enemy that we currently face.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ramadi, Part One

It has been brought to my attention that one of the most vital contributions that can be made by Educated Soldier has been short in coming since its inception. Readers have suggested that this site has lacked proper expressions concerning the author’s experiences in Iraq.

This submission has not fallen on deaf ears. After all, any blog can offer opinion on the world of politics. Any site can analyze and criticize the latest news with its daily posts. And I intend to continue to do just that with future updates. However, tonight, I want to take a brief reprieve. I want to go back to why Educated Soldier started and why this blog should stand apart. Tonight, I want to take you back to Ar Ramadi, Iraq.

I don’t want tonight’s post to be a singular entity. Two years experience in Iraq can not be expressed in one blog post. If it could, reader interest would surely wane around the account of day three- especially given the surprising lack of action that would, no doubt, constitute a continuing theme. Instead, tonight is going to be the preamble to something much larger. Intermittently, I intend to post follow-ups to this introduction; a continuous series of war stories, if you will.

This Iraq story was referred to during last night’s post. I had intended to publish it then but it was bumped to allow space for more time-sensitive news concerning the Defense Funding Bill. Also, as expressed last night, the motivation for the authoring of this story was drummed up by the reaction that I have been witness to over at Michael Totten’s Middle East Journal, where readers are in a furor over Mr. Totten’s first Correspondence from Baghdad. His readers are afire because his report was surprisingly positive. Supporters of the war in Iraq are interpreting this message far differently then those who oppose the ongoing conflict. In Mr. Totten’s post from Iraq, I saw similarities to my own time in the country. Hence, I became quickly convinced that people needed to hear this soldier’s story…


Before entering the military, I had been an avid reader of war stories. Two books, by the same author, stick out as being particularly influential: Gary Linderer’s Eyes of the Eagle and Eyes Behind the Line. Both of these books told of the author’s harrowing experiences as a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit member in Vietnam. I read these books with furious enthusiasm and decided that I wanted to be a “LRRP.” I eventually ended up in the Army as a Forward Observer, a job that I found satisfactorily close in its entry-level description to those that I read about in Linderer’s books.

Linderer did a thorough job in his books of describing conflict in detail. Yet, I found myself always wondering about Vietnam: if every mission ended in violence and the conflict was as vicious as portrayed in movies and television, how did anything get accomplished? And surely things got accomplished. Logistical bases were built, supplies traveled back and forth, and the daily life of soldiers somehow managed to continue. While my experiences surely can’t compare to those that were earned by the LRRPs of Vietnam, I feel that I have learned something about the general dynamic of war that can be applied to all associated situations.

Before participating in Iraq myself, from the reading that I had done, I had the same perception of war that I think most Americans do now. I had been under the impression that war was some crazy phenomenon that was absolutely unlike anything we recognize in our own little niche of the world. If I can make one thing clear tonight and during any of my Iraq-related posts, it is this: war, on a daily basis, lacks excitement for the fighting man and is, indeed, more like home than one might imagine. This is to say that people in Iraq, for the most part, do what you and I do in America. They go to work. They shop. They socialize with neighbors and their children play in the streets.

I was deployed to Iraq twice. The first tour was during the invasion with subsequent duty taking place in Baghdad. The second tour was in Ar Ramadi, when Ramadi was considered the hotspot for enemy activity. It is this second tour that will be the focus for all associated comments during tonight’s text. Even Ramadi, during this conflicted period in 2005, was- in retrospect- less violent than one might imagine. Let me be clear; every time I make such a declaration, I have to take a big swallow of pride. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that I served, on the ground, in an area that was considered the worst of the worst at the time I was there. And I don’t want my minimization of the violence in Iraq to be, in any way, misconstrued as some sort of softening of the respect that I have for those who made far greater sacrifices than myself. But, for one to understand Iraq from the outside, one must first understand this paramount detail: it is not the cacophony of constant explosions, bullets and bloodshed that you may have been led to believe.

A Fortunate Ride Home

This particular phenomenon became known to me late during this second tour. As most readers know, most American soldiers in Iraq are afforded two weeks leave during their deployment to return home, travel the world, or do whatever it is that they choose to do. Because of my position within my company, I was given a leave date that was late in the deployment and very close to the time that we were scheduled to redeploy home as a unit. To clarify this detail, it sort of worked like this: I was the second highest ranking enlisted man in the duty that I performed for the company. The highest ranking enlisted man had to be present during the last weeks of the deployment to ensure a smooth transition with the incoming unit. This caused the necessity for the highest ranking individual to take leave before the man that followed him in authority. Basically, I was going home last.

The interesting part is that, with such a late leave date, I was pretty well assured that I wasn’t going to be afforded the opportunity to take leave at all. The continuing rumor in Ramadi was that leave was being canceled; the last scheduled people weren’t going to get such a luxury, etc, etc, etc… This is a particular phenomenon in the Army caused by something that we like to refer to as the “Joe Network.” Because of my anticipated lack of leave, I decided never to inform my parents that such an event might occur. I figured that the disappointment of not coming home would be far greater then the anticipation that they could gain from knowing a tentative date.

Of course, this all resulted in me, indeed, receiving leave. So I flew out of Iraq and, after a few stops, eventually arrived in Tampa, Florida. Still in my fairly dirty combat-worn uniform, I traveled by cab to the distant suburb that my parents resided. This is when it became sickeningly apparent that the situation I understood in Iraq was being misrepresented in America. My cab driver maintained his respect for an individual in uniform while, nonetheless, detailing me on the dire state of affairs in Iraq. Not only was the war lost, but we weren’t making progress, the Iraqis didn’t want us there and the establishment of a stable democratic Iraq was completely unfeasible. It was at that point, listening to this cab driver, that I realized that there may be a major disconnect between the ground truths that I knew and what Americans thought they were aware of.

While it digresses from the point of this story, it wouldn’t be fair to move on without concluding this tale. My trip with the cab driver eventually ended, thankfully, at my chosen destination: the front door of my parents’ apartment. Still in uniform, bags in hand, and my parents totally unwitting, I rang the doorbell. My Dad answered. My Mom quickly followed and I remember her vividly being frozen in place by the shock of seeing her son temporarily home from Iraq. For one of the few times in my recollection, my Dad’s eyes welled with tears. That was a moment that I will never forget. For all the sadness that is associated with war, it has given me about three different days of my life where I was completely filled with absolute happiness and overwhelming emotion that can only be understood by those that have returned safely from combat.

"Chaotic" Ramadi

My year in Ramadi was difficult. We patrolled daily. Those patrols lasted for hours and it was typically hot and the soldier usually found himself in some position that lacked comfort. Our battalion owned a large section of the city and we were tasked with maintaining stability in various ways. We walked the streets every day in an attempt to do little more then mingle with the people, gain information and provide any service within our ability. To this day, if given a decent satellite image of the area I patrolled, I can tell you with a great deal of confidence who, in 2005, lived in most of the residencies pictured. I dealt daily, and with an intimate amount of detail, with the citizens of Ramadi throughout my tour. And here is the point that bears expressing repeatedly: I hardly ever felt in danger. In fact, more times than not, my complacency during missions put me more in danger of the First Sergeant’s reprimand than the enemy’s wrath.

Here is where my duty as an author tonight becomes difficult. I need to express to you a dynamic that can only be totally understood by those that spend months to years on the ground, meeting Iraqi citizens, learning the social dynamic, and genuinely experiencing the strange wonders of war. As an observer of war, if you have ever questioned what motivates soldiers to continue to “drive-on” mission after mission and day after day, then this is your opportunity to truly understand how war works. We drive on because, typically, we have no fear.

This lack of fear isn’t developed because we are superhuman. It is developed because, typically, there really is nothing to fear. Readers must understand that, while my unit lost many men to death and injury, most of these soldiers were lost in highly isolated events. Typically, it worked like this: we would patrol for a week or a week and a half throughout our entire sector. We would not see any sign of danger or misfortune. The Iraqi citizens that provided us with dependable information would be totally short of warnings for these periods of time. This occurred because there was nothing to report, and the lack of danger and misfortune was because these peculiarities were, indeed, absent. And then, one day, you would go on patrol, the entire environment would be different and, suddenly, you would have a fight on your hands. More often than not, the battle would be over before your senses came to the realization that you were actually fighting and then you would be left with another week or longer of prolonged peace.

And this was in Ramadi… in "chaotic" 2005. This was just after the stronghold in Fallujah was eradicated and the insurgent focus was steadily on this city in Al Anbar province. While it probably was the deadliest place for American troops at the time, it just seemed like another location many miles from America to those us that were there.

There seems to be some sort of necessity in America to express everything in extremes: you are either rich or poor; it’s cold or hot. Nobody ever “sort of” likes a movie; it either “sucks,” or was the “best movie seen in a long time.” Unfortunately, many times such explicit terms don’t adequately describe the condition of war. War can, very well, develop in mild forms. And this is the state of Iraq as I know it. It’s hardly peaceful. At the same time, if war is constituted by constant fighting and death, than I am still a virgin of war myself.

It's NOT About Left or Right

None of this is to suggest that “Big Media” is lying to you. I have considered the role of news providers and, after some inner-debate, I have mostly concluded that they are innocent in their intentions. I recently ran across a report that suggests that “Leftist” media surely were on the side of the Right circa 2001. The more I considered such as example, the more I concluded that it was reasonable to assume that media have honest intentions. Of course, for every Keith Olbermann, there is a Bill O’Reilly, but I am going to suggest that most media outlets are more moderate, if one were to assess, then either Republican or Democrat.

However, typical journalists of today do have a major shortcoming. They are, primarily, reactive types instead of proactive. When news occurs, they travel to the site and report in retrospect. This is what occurs in Iraq. Every car bomb attracts a small company of reporters. And, therefore, every car bomb becomes sufficiently accessible by the average American. There is much less for the reporters to gain by actually embedding with a unit and chancing a situation like that described in Ramadi. Journalists can not afford weeks on end with little to report. The money is made by staying stationary in Baghdad and delivering a synopsis of newsworthy material from there, occasionally traveling to the site of actual violence. This is how journalism works. Unfortunately, typical Americans fail to understand the process of journalism and somehow end up attributing one explosion in Mosul, Iraq to a fallacy of explosions throughout Iraq. I hope this much is clear; a single explosion in Mosul is just that; a single explosion. Meanwhile, it is very likely that Iraqis in Basra are simultaneously buying their groceries, interacting peacefully with Coalition troops and, more or less, continuing with their on-going lives.

When I arrived in Ramadi, it was a pretty ugly place. The safekeeping there had been neglected in favor of places like Fallujah. The main thoroughfare that dissected the entire city, east to west, was completely barren. Vehicles rarely traveled it. Most of the markets in the city’s center were empty. American neglect was so absolutely evident. Also evident was how badly the Iraqis yearned for our attention. This manifested itself by citizens' quick return to the streets and markets as soon as we made continuous presence known. I saw tangible difference in the condition of Ramadi, Iraq in six months time. By the time I left the city, Iraqi Army and Police bases were established and large portions of our former jurisdiction was in their hands. Imagine my surprise to return home and find out that we were “failing.”

I implore you to trust in what I am expressing to you. Read Michael Totten’s most recent report from Iraq with an open mind and consider that all might not be lost. I saw progress in 2005’s Ramadi. My old unit returned to the same bases in Ramadi and is still there today. I talk to old friends several times a week. The progress that was started during my tour has manifested itself in ways that are difficult for even a fervent believer such as me to conceive. My friends consider the city safe with no qualifiers; just safe. Along with these word-of-mouth reports come others from Al Anbar telling of Iraqi citizens fighting on their own behalf and, subsequently, terrorists exiting the area. Why the need to spin these stories into anything different than what they are? They are tales of success. I tried to express my belief in success in 2005 and found deaf ears. It’s unfortunate that these same positive tones are meeting their own troubling responses…

I appreciate your following with this first account of my experiences. I can’t hide the emotion or frustration that builds when I consider American assumptions of Iraq. These are my very real tales. For those of you who have only television, radio and the internet to make you aware of the situation there, please use these truths as a portion of your overall visualization of what is occurring. I have no reason to lie to you and no motivation to encourage you to buy into something that isn’t genuine. I am enthusiastic in my approach to telling these stories because I dearly want the world to be aware of a truth that I think is often, unfortunately, and many times unintentionally, hidden behind a fog of unreliable reporting and uninformed accounts of events.

Look for more reports of my time in Iraq in future Educated Soldier posts. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Congress Suggests Standard Training for All Security Contractors

I had two intentions for tonight’s agenda. The first was to mention a bit of news that I had recently come across. The second goal was to relate some of my experiences in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. However, I have decided to delay the Iraq story until tomorrow. In its absence, I suggest you check out Michael Totten’s newest report from Baghdad HERE . His latest dispatch was my motivation to write the Iraq tale that will appear tomorrow. Until then, I hope you find the following useful…

The News

The House Appropriations Committee today authorized its latest Defense Budget legislation. This, in and of itself, is known news to all interested. Most media reports that I have seen have focused on what the bill lacks: a clearly defined mandatory withdrawal date for American forces in Iraq. This has been noted as especially surprising as the bill was largely drafted by Representative John Murtha. Nearly everyone knows where Representative Murtha stands on the issue of immediate troop redeployment.

However, while reading the summary of the bill, I came across a piece of information that was particularly interesting to me. Those who have followed Educated Soldier since its inception can attest that one of the earliest posts concerned the use of contracted security operators in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That article can be accessed here.

The concerns of these operators are especially important to me. Many of my friends that left the service chose to follow the lucrative contracts and continue to serve in-theatre in this capacity. Because of these close relationships, I have followed the activities of the security contractors pretty closely. It seems that the United States Congress has also been watching keenly.

The bill includes the following provision:

Requires the Secretary of Defense to develop minimum standards for all contractors performing security functions and to establish a clear set of rules of engagement for those operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.”

There is a lot of information contained in that short passage. The mention of “rules of engagement” is a touchy one for those critical of the security contractors. To my knowledge, the contractors have not been restricted by the Rules of Engagement posed on authorized United States military nor have they been subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, because of the sensitivity of these issues, I am going to abstain from presenting any sort of opinion on these matters.

Instead, I want to discuss the proposed development of minimum standards for the security contractors. The highly funded entities that solicit these contracts have been the source of much conversation at many of the military discussion boards that I frequent. When I completed time in the military, the security companies that I was personally familiar with (Blackwater, Triple Canopy, DynaCorp, etc) were operating, on the ground level, with the services of some of the best-trained military Special Operations-types money could buy; literally.

Apparently, from my understanding, this level of competence has been lowered. The trend downward was encouraged by the hefty number of contracts offered to these companies, notably to Blackwater. There came a point in time when an unfortunate dynamic became apparent: more contracts were available then were highly trained individuals to accept them.

While I was in the service, it was assumed that one needed some Special Operations experience to be considered for employment by Blackwater. Special Operations experience that would qualify would be the completion of any of the following training, for examples: The Navy’s BUD/S Program, The Army’s Ranger course or the Special Forces qualification course. If one had experience in the Marines’ Force Recon units or the Air Forces Para-Rescue programs, again, one would have been deemed prepared to attempt gaining employment with Blackwater.

I witnessed the beginning of the quality recession myself. It began about the time I completed my service requirement. In 2005, my fellow brothers-in-arms were signing contracts with Blackwater having never completed any of the mentioned Special Operations courses. However, these soldiers were trained in the combat-arms fields of their respective branches and each of them had seen very real combat. While not having the credentials of the original Blackwater operators, they were capable performers regardless. The level of skill was declining, however it was not yet low enough to warrant concern.

Now my understanding is that, in a need to fill the high number of contracts, individuals are being hired with drastically less experience. It is the running joke among military-types that the current prerequisite for such employment is no more then past mall-security duties. While the joke is funny because of its assumed outlandishness, it is scary in its truthful depiction of the current situation. The security companies are offering employment to nearly anyone with a clean record and desire to do the work.

And this is why such provisions had to be included in the new budget.

Blackwater is an enormous company. Their original founder, Erik Prince, was the benefactor of a 1.3 billion dollar inheritance. Their training facility in North Carolina spans over 7,000 acres and is considered one of the nation’s premier facilities for such use. It has been reported that a large segment of America’s servicemen utilize its facilities. Blackwater has been said to have trained individuals from local police departments all the way to the highly specialized members of the United States’ Special Forces Operation Detachment – Delta, also known as “Delta Force” or “Combat Applications Group.”

This is to say that Blackwater has had the means to train its operators. Even a mall security guard could become somewhat proficient at such an equipped compound. The dilemma falls on the less-wealthy companies that lack such grounds for training. These companies also have contracts to fill. The fear is that they are sending operators to hostile areas lacking the proper training and skills.

And the only remedy seems to be government regulation. It will be interesting to see just how such a provision plays out. My assumption is that some of these smaller companies may falter under the demands of industry-standard training. Meanwhile, Blackwater will probably argue that they should be exempt as they have already been providing such education to their contractors. Only time will tell…

The official summary of the Appropriation Committee's Defense Funding Bill can be accessed here (in PDF format).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Democratic Party Debate: The Grades

I want to readdress the Democratic Party debate. Last night’s Educated Soldier did a thorough job of assessing the event. However, towards the end of the report, I felt that I really lost steam. A night of rest has reinvigorated me; encouraging refocused thoughts. Thus, I have decided to produce a critique of the debate a bit more basic in format and, ultimately, more enjoyable for the reader.

Taking a cue from Blogs for Fred Thompson, I want to rate the participants using a standard American scale: A through F. An “A”, of course, represents an exemplary performance; the most outstanding of all candidates. “F” stands for failure. To earn such a mark, I feel that you would have had to alienate your base or really greatly miss some genuine opportunities to shine. I may also implement a plus / minus (+ or -) system to grade with more refinement.

As always, there has to be at least a single detail that needs to be brought to attention before continuing. Here it is: I am judging the candidates on their performances. This is to say that I am more concerned with how intelligent, intellectual and “on top” of the topics each of the candidates seemed to be. Their platforms will hold less weight. This is for two reasons: First and, most obviously, is that as a conservative, there isn’t much that I agree with the platforms so it would be a futile effort for me to dredge in such criticism and, second, this debate didn’t go very far in introducing any real platforms anyway. Those details seem to always hide until after the Primaries and the introduction of the Presidential Debates.

Now, on with the festivities.

The Winner

If I would have created this post and assessed grades directly after the debate last night, this category would have been entitled “The Winners” (notice the use of the plural). However several factors worked to change my mind. The most notable is one probably unfair to the candidates but surfaced nonetheless:

I visited other sites. I read their own assessments of the debate and I found myself agreeing with them. The more I became influenced, the more I realized that there was really a single clear winner last night.

*Drum Roll please*

Senator Joe Biden: I really think he did everything right. More importantly, he did nothing wrong. This is important because he isn’t considered a top runner in this race and any little misstep at the debate could have been lethal (which is something I will address when discussing one of the night’s biggest losers).

If the Iraq War issue is the primary concern among Democratic voters and, really, the American populace as a whole, which recent Senate antics have seemed to have proven true, than Senator Biden easily portrayed himself as the Democratic candidate who most strongly had a grasp on the country’s most important issue.

He used this topic to utterly deflate Governor Richardson by exposing the Governor’s proposal of a six-month withdrawal as implausible. He also presented a well considered political plan for a troop withdrawal himself and scored points for declaring that any unilateral troop removal (without considering the need for altered political strategy in the country) would ultimately result in the deaths of those Americans left in the Green Zone. Senator Biden impressed by being able to suggest withdrawal in a manner that seemed sensible to even one of the War’s most persistent supporters: me.

Senator Biden then completed the mission that Senators Obama and Edwards failed: he rhetorically slayed Senator Clinton. Both Senators were asked how they would end the conflict in Darfur. Senator Biden was adamant in his response. He stated that American troops need to make a presence there and that a no-fly zone needs to be implemented. Senator Clinton tried to echo Biden’s passion but was tripped up when host Anderson Cooper asked her, point blank, if she supported the use of American troops in the region. While Senator Biden stood true to his convictions when posed this same question, Senator Clinton faltered and, ultimately, took her answer into topics more comfortable to her.

Grade: A+

"Second Tier" Winners

Barack Obama: If one candidate of the night was most successful in entering the debate with a mission and then following through with that mission, it was Senator Obama. He wanted to talk about education and the influence of special interests. And the junior Senator didn’t let any question get in the way of his talking points.

While that may sound deceptive to some, I give Senator Obama credit for sticking to his comfort zone with poise. As I stated last night, this guy has strong stage presence and is an outstanding speaker. Something else I had already mentioned is that my critique is an assessment of performances. With the exception of Senator Biden, Obama was the most exemplary performer.

He only nearly got tripped up once. Senator Gravel countered Obama’s claim that he does not accept special interest contributions by pointing out that Senator Obama did accept such funds, but was allowed to rule them out by categorizing them as “bundlers.” This may well have been true. It may have also been damaging. But no worries for a candidate on his feet like Senator Obama, who quickly retorted that one only has access to such financial dealings of candidates because of legislation that he, in fact, introduced. In retrospect, this comment has been called in to question as the legislation referenced by Senator Obama is, apparently, still awaiting approval. Let me remind you, however, that this is a debate and facts have never been a requisite at such an event.

So, on basis of solid theatrical talent alone, Senator Obama’s performance warrants:

Grade: B

Another candidate who was successful in so much as he didn’t hurt himself was Representative Kucinich. He only had one memorable moment during the debate; when he referenced biblical material in response to the question of reparations to African Americans for slavery. This moment was also notable for Kucinich because he was the only panel member willing to take a stand and state enthusiastically that he was ready to deliver those reparations. All other candidates predictably used the question to spin towards other topics.

Representative Kucinich loses some points because, as an individual with low support in the polls, he really needs to shine in these debates and present himself as a candidate different from the Obamas, the Clintons and the Edwards of the field. He gets a “B” for trying but, ultimately, this is the final assessment:

Grade B-

The Losers

Senator Mike Gravel: Remember when I said, above, that any misstep for a trailing candidate could prove lethal to their campaign???...

In trying to be professional in my assessment of this debate, I find myself at a current obstacle. Personally, I found the Senator to be incoherent in his answers and, in all honesty, quite eccentric (and if you are one of those that feels that eccentrics can be seen positively or negatively, let me assure you that in Senator Gravel’s case, it wasn’t good). Many times during the debate, he simply forgot to answer the questions. And this wasn’t necessarily intentional. Sure, Senator Obama rarely answered the questions directly either, but he at least transitioned smoothly and usually referenced the original question at some point during his answer. Senator Gravel just went on unrelated tangents. To me, this is the Ron Paul of the Democrats. The guy’s a wildcard and the people that support him probably d0 quite enthusiastically, but – after last night – I find myself not understanding how anyone could.

In the same manner that people remember Howard Dean's bellowing of "BEYAHHHHH!" during the downfall of his campaign, people will always be able to look back similarly at Senator Gravel exuberantly grumbling last night that the soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq "Died In Vain..."

Grade: F

Governor Bill Richardson: Blogs for Fred Thompson makes a great point. This guy is fighting for a Vice President spot and is slowly ruining his chances in that race as well. Senator Biden exposed Richardson’s plan for troop withdrawal in Iraq as hyperbolic rhetoric. Worse, Richardson’s performance was the antithesis to both Biden’s and Senator Obama’s. While they were graceful on stage, Governor Richardson seemed overwhelmingly uncomfortable. As much as I can feel sympathy for a politician living a life surely plump with luxuries, I feel it for him. Buried behind that unconfident tone and weak articulating ability are surely ideals that Governor Richardson genuinely holds dear and wants to express. He just hasn’t figured out how to do it.

Grade: F

Senator Edwards: While Edward’s performance wasn’t nearly the train wreck of the others in this category, it wasn’t stellar either. John Edwards needs to learn fast that he has to distinguish himself from Obama and Clinton. In my assessment, if Edwards looks equal to Clinton, Democrats are going to choose Clinton. It’s even worse for Edwards if he is seen as no different then Obama because the Senator from Illinois is ostensibly more likeable which goes a long way in a field like this. Furthermore, Senator Edwards’ admission that he is internally tormented by the debate over gay marriage is weak. Pick a side and fight for it. Or let your campaign fade. This is the man that suggested that the field needs to be whittled to allow for only those with an authentic opportunity of victory to continue. With sustained “non” performances like last night’s, the field will, indeed, be reduced and he will be one of those eliminated.

Senator Edwards’ grade gets raised from a flat “D” for his successful stage presence. While he was unconvincing in his individuality, he at least spoke articulately and seemed understanding of current issues. Nonetheless, the final assessment is still only:

Grade: D+

The Rest

Senator Chris Dodd: Maybe it was because of the format of the debate, but Senator Dodd had the distinction of being the most forgettable of the night. I can’t think of a single moment where the Senator did anything to interest me. However, on the same note, if he too is only fighting to ultimately become the Vice President, then he did what any such individual should do: polarize yourself as little as possible. In the end, it will be one of the night’s competition that will ultimately have to choose you as a running mate. It was a smart move for Senator Dodd to say nothing to make him stand out as being notably against any of the other candidates’ principles.

If this was the debate for potential Vice President candidates, Senator Dodd would receive an “A.” Unfortunately, this was a debate among hopefuls vying to become President. So, instead, Senator Dodd receives:

Grade: C

Senator Hillary Clinton: I have read the reports and apparently, Senator Clinton had strong body language last night and her stage presence was impeccable. That may be true, but her competition right now is Barack Obama and his own presence, in my assessment, was better.

Ultimately, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are running on the same general platforms. They don’t differentiate much on most issues. So one of these candidates has to bring something to the table that exists outside the field of simple politics. Senator Clinton didn’t exhibit any extra qualities last night to cause me to find her any more appealing then Senator Obama. He, at least, displayed a clear sense of humor.

Senator Obama appeared genuinely interested in driving American forward through political discourse. I got the impression last night that Senator Clinton was genuinely interested in driving Senator Clinton’s legacy forward. Clinton may, in fact, be more qualified then Senator Obama for the position of the President of the United States. But ultimately, one is a junior Senator and the other is a candidate whose biggest contributions came as First Lady. Voters are going to look for intangibles. I detected the presence of none from Senator Clinton last night.


Grade: C

To access my earlier assessment of the debate, complete with more Candidate quotes and commentary, please click HERE