Loyal Subversive

Personal musings on Iraq, Civil-Military Relations, Military History, and whatever else strikes my fancy

Location: Florida

I'm a mobilized Marine Corps Reservist, with nearly 20 years combined active and reserve service. I went to a New England boarding school and attended an Ivy League college, and since I joined the Marine Corps I've associated with a better class of person. I spent 6 months in Iraq working as a civilian contractor. I'm an ABD (all but dissertation) in military history.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Quick Trip to Iraq

Just got back from a short trip to Qatar, which included a quick trip to Iraq, and then I leave for Oman this afternoon, so I'll forgo my thoughts on attitides towards the troops, academic bias, the state of military history, etc. and offer a quick impression of what I saw.
-Saw more evidence that Sunni leaders in neighboring Arab countries are worried about the Shia majority in Iraq acquiring political power. There is an awful lot of concern for the poor benighted Sunnis who have been hurt by the toppling of Saddam. While there are a lot of Sunnis who were not deeply involved with the old regime, there were a lot who were. When I hear commentators in this country bemoaning the lot of unfortunate Sunnis hurt by the war (former officers, for example) I always wonder why they weren't more sympathetic to White politicians who lost their jobs as a result of the Civil Rights movement, White South Africans hurt by the introduction of masjority rule in South Africa, or former communist officials who had to learn new sjkills after 1989.
- Got a good brief on the state of the Iraqi Security Forces, including a reasonable explanation for the seemingly constantly fluctuating numbers. There are two big issues here: (1) The ability of the Iraqi Government to actually track and account for people, and (2) the definition of trained.
On (1), most Westerners grossly underestimate the difficulty of accurately tracking personnel, especially when compounded by different concepts of what it means to be employed. Iraqis not only have a totally different approach to desertion, being "on duty," taking leave, and simply counting heads than us - they also have a long tradition of carrying people on the rolls (and paying them) without actually expecting them to show up. Yes, good old fashioned corruption, just like Tammany Hall or Cook County. At the user level, however, it's an entitlement program, and like any entitlement program it takes a lot of effort to break it.
(2) is a bit more difficult but much more important. When listing "trained" personnel, what does "trained" mean? I consider myself well trained (almost 20 years experience, staff college), but there are plenty of jobs in the US military that I am totally untrained for. More pertinently, they are units in my specialty (infantry) that would consider me untrained because I haven't gone through their training program. We also lack perspective on training, using the current US model, which invests a LOT of time and resources into training people, as the standard. Compare what the Iraqis are accomplishing with the US in most of it's wars (including WW II - for a short time in the earliest part of the war the US Marine Corps reduced boot camp to 3 weeks), and it doesn't look so bad. Bottom line - the Iraqi Security Forces are growing and they're doing better. They are not going to compare to US forces for a LONG time, if ever, but that's an unrealiastic standard. I can't guaruntee that they'll be able to defeat the Sunni inmsurgency and achieve stability, but they're making progress.
- Got to Baghdad for the first time. I was impressed by how fortified it looked, although I also noticed lots of normal activity by the inhabitants and, as always, the rooves were festooned with satellite dishes. Baghdad was WAY different from the way Mosul looked a year ago or from Basra looks even today (got there this trip, too). It drove home that a visit to Baghdad (which is where most reporters and other visitors go) gives a very distorted view of the situation in the country as a whole. Much as a visit to NYC gives a visitor a very distorted view of the US.
- A couple of interesting pionts were made about Al Jazeera (check out their English language web site at www.aljazeera.net. Don't go to the .com site - that's a different entity). Lots of people have lots of problems with AJ, and I'm one of them. AJ runs a LOT of stunningly hateful, inflammatory, and ignorant commentary, and it has a track record of passing on rumor as fact and heavily lacing its reporting with opinion. On the other hand, many of the same complaints can be lodged against FOX News, NPR, and CBS (memogate, anyone?). AJ has it's problems, but part of it's problem is an effort to determine it's code of journalistic ethics (again, something our paragons of journalism still struggle with. Ask Howell Raines and the NYT). It has also blown open the state controlled monopoly, leading to the creation of competitors like Al Aribya (run by the Saudis, no English language site that I could find). And AJ does report things that simply don't hit the western press. So while it is a real problem, and, in my opinion, massively irresponsible, I'm not sure that it's that much worse than our press. I think most of AJ's flaws result from the same factors that make our press flawed.
- Finally, a note about Qatar. At first glance, it seemed to be a decent place. The Emir, while maintaining his political control, appears to be making a real effort to move his country forward (working with US universities to create a center for Western higher education, for example). One of the first thing you notice there, as with most of the Gulf States, is the huge number of expatriate workers ("Gastarbeiter" in another context). Qatar has a population of about 800,000, of whom only about 200,000 or so are actually citizens - the rest are expatriate workers. The handful I talked to (Bangladeshi, Sri Lankin - also see a lot of Pakistanis and Filipinos) seemed to be happy enough - they work in the Gulf for a number of years (often more than a decade), but made a lot more money than they could make at home. It seems to me, however, that the issue of the Third Country National (TCNs, to throw out another term for them) is the real slumbering volcano for the Gulf States.
Off for two weeks (but please post comments anyway - it's the positive reinforcement that will keep me posting, when I should actually be doing something more productivs!)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

More Reflections on Iraq

I appreciate the comments received to date, and thought I would post something on Iraq on the theory that it might be of interest to you. Right now the Shia are celebvrating Ashura, and from the news reports it looks as if the bad guys are targeting the celebrations. Recall that last year there were a number of car bombs during Ashura which killed hundreds of people. So far the Shia have been remarkably restrained in their response, which I think is the most hopeful sign for the prospects of a stable, democratic Iraq - despite generations of suffering at the hands of the Sunnis, the Shia don't seem to be bent on revenge.

Working in Basrah really brought out the culture clash between the US military and the Iraqis. If you're interested in this, I highly recommend Patai's The Arab Mind, which has been effectively banned from most Middle Eastern Studies programs ( just another tribute to it's accuracy in my opinion). Most people in the academic field will probably condemn Patai and what I am about to say as hopelessly ethnocentric and orientalist (at best) and something that shouldn't be said 9or, as Orwell would say, crimethought). Anyway, I freely admit that I have no academic training whatsover in Middle Eastern Studies - my comments are based on my experience actually working with the Iraqis.

It's hard to think of two cultures more oposite than the Iraqis and the US military. The US military has a culture of directness, hardwork,"can-do," and taking responsibility. The Iraqis are very indirect, and tend to be passive, do not have a sense of urgency, and do not take responsibility. The cultural differences lead to real misunderstandings:
For example, Americans in general, and the military in particular, expect to quickly come to the point in the first meeting. Iraqis expect to build a relationship over time before discussing anything of importance. That part's easy, and everyone has been briefed on this before they get there, although the pressure of events leads most of us to try to do business in the first meeting anyway. More fundamental is the disconnect in communication: Americans expect Iraqis to do what they say; Iraqis are always stunned when Amercans actually mean what they say (the exception is any promise to do something for them - they will remind you of that at every opportunity).
Iraqis will promise all kinds of things (for example, "I will have a hundred men there to help first thing tomorrow.") These promises are not lies - I am convinced that they are completely sincere when they are made. However, they are made without any intention of actually fulfilling them. Patai has a number of explanations for this, but suffice to say that it took me awhile to learn to deal with Iraqi commitments (a hundred men means about 15; first thing tomorrow means about 10 AM; delivery by the end of the week means in about a month, maybe; etc.). Of course, nothing annoys an American soldier as much as someone who can't fulfill their commitments.

I think the US military is actually pretty good at realizing that we don't really understand the Iraqis (and we invest considerable effort at trying to remedy this). We often forget that the Iraqis misunderstand us just as much - perhaps more so, since I detected few signs that Iraqis realized they misunderstood us or made much effort to understand us better. As a result, when Americans reached an agreement with the Iraqis, the Iraqis didn't realize that the Americans meant it. This often has very direct consequences ("if you climb that well, I will have you arrested.") I had a number of Iraqis threaten members of my staff - they were always astounded when I had the local police captain arrest them. In fact, Iraqis were always shocked when I carried out any threatened sanction for a transgression.

I also learned that Iraqis don't take "no" for an answer. Part of this is a result of a culture which emphasizes connections over regulations and part of different ways of reaching decisions - Americans expect to "slap the table," while Iraqis expect to repeatedly discuss a topic in the course of reaching a consensus. This results in Iraqis constantly revisiting issues that Coalition personnel considered resolved, to the annoyance of both parties.

The Iraqis also exhibit habits of thought that are alien and annoting to Westerners, particularly military types. For example, last year, the Iraqi leadership requested that coalition forces stay out of the holy cities during Ashura. When car bombs went off, many blamed the coalition for not providing enough security. There is also a real penchant for non-rational thinking and conspiracy theories. In April last year terrorists set off 5 car bombs in one morning in Basrah - the first major attacks in the city (this was the attack that blew up the bus of school girls). A rumor that these explosions were from rockets fired by British helicopters started immediately, and the first British troops to respons were met by rocks thrown by an angry crowd (this in Basrah, where the coalition has one of the best relationships with the Iraqi citizens). (Note: before someone posts a comment on how this was a reasonable assumption because all the Coalition does is bomb innocent Iraqis, let me note that we hadn't dropped any bombs in Basrah since the initial invasion; that a car bomb is FAR more devestating than any rockets a helo can fire; that the one thing that amazed me in Iraq was how discrete are bombing had been - one building devestated, the surrounding buildings almost untouched -the windows were blown out, nothing else; and that you should take all the reports of "indiscriminate bombing" with a grain of salt.)
There were plenty of other rumors - my favorite was at the end of Ashura - the rumor was that a black Mercedes was driving around handing out drinks of Kool-aid, which was poisoned, and that more than 30 people had died. Except, of course, that it was completely untrue and by the next day it was completely forgotten.
Anyway, enough for now. If I get some comments indicating interest, I will expand on this theme. Of course, I may anyway.

Another shot of an Ashura procession in Basrah, early March 2004. FWIW It didn't look as if they were hitting themselves too hard - maybe that came later. The freedom to celebrate Ashura was a real big deal, however. Posted by Hello

Shia Arabs in Basrah self-flaggelating as part of Ashura 2004. This was the first time the Shia had been able to openly celebrate Ashura since Saddam had tightened his grip on Iraq (about 20 years or so). Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Support our Troops...Bring them Home

Let me open by saying that there are a number of people who are sincerely opposed to the war in Iraq and who also sincerely care about the men and women in uniform (see my friend Mark G.'s blog http://21stdistrictohio.blogspot.com/ for an example of someone in this category).
Having said that, I'm thinking of making up a bumper sticker that says:

"I'm supporting your opposition to the war
by serving in uniform
because I don't think you're smart enough to make your own decisions either."
After all, everyone in uniform volunteered, and the vast majority of us believe in what we're doing. The kind of support we want is the tools to do the job and the recognition that this will be a long job. No one in uniform expects this to be over any time soon, but most also think that cutting and running will only make things worse.
I find most of the anti-war discussion of the troops to be incredibly condescending - especially the allegations that the men and women in our military are "forced" to serve because they are too disadvantaged to do anything else. This smacks of the old, ugly stereotype of the Vietnam Veteran as an underpriviliged person trapped into serving and then severely damaged by that service. That stereotype has been repeatedly debunked (see Burkett, Stolen Valor and Spector, After Tet) but will not die, and I'm not happy about seeing another generation of veterans tarred with the same brush.
In my experience, the vast majority of service men and women, both active and reserve forces, see the war in Iraq as necessary and an important step in enhancing our nation's long-term security. Most are not that interested in the whole WMD/terrorist link issue. They're more focused on the fact that Saddam was a brutal dictator who was stealing from his own people to support a stunningly opulent lifestyle (you have to see the palaces to believe it - and they are all over. And kids starved because that's where the oil for food money went.
The web and the papers are full of stories about deserters going to Canada and veterans against the war, but these are news because they are a real "man bites dog" story - these individuals are stunningly unrepresentative. Last figures on deserters and AWOLS I saw were pretty low - much lower, for example, than World War II. The vast majority of servicemen and women are willing to go to Iraq, but few of them callt reporters to ensure their views are on the evening news. Same for veterans - a saw an article a short time ago listing membership for the main anti-war veterans groups (sorry, can't recall the reference - think it was NYT but maybe not). Anyway, what struck me was how small these groups were - less than 300 all told, assuming there were no "double members" who were in more than one group. In my town, there are more people attending weekly Boy Scout meetings.
Bottom line - it's easy for a vocal minority to capture the attention of the press. Those individuals are fully entitled to their opinion, and I don't think that veterans who are opposing the war have "betrayed" anyone or anything. But I DO resent any implication that they speak for me, or for most men and women in uniform, or in fact anyone other than themselves.
And I also resent the implication which I see (perhaps mistakenly) in a lot of the anti-war rhetoric that my fellow servicemembers and I are unfortunate victims who need to be rescued from our service.
On a lighter note, if your really want to do something that a lot of reservists (including me) would really appreciate, write your elected representative and urge him or her to lower the retirement age for reservists to 55. If you're really gung-ho, ask them to look into making it easier for reservists to return to full-time active duty.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Dissertation topic

Ok, Anthony asked about my dissertation, and I'm a sucker for any sort of attention: It's on U.S. Marine operations in Somalia (Restore Hope - Dec 92-Mar 93). (I'm pretty sure Mark already knew that). So if you have any questions about Somalia, ask away.
Now i'm really logging off for awhile - I have a disgustingly bourgeois suburban life to lead, and tonight that means bunco at a friend's house.

A slightly larger than normal crowd waiting to join the New Iraqi Army Posted by Hello

With some of my British and Iraq friends inside the Recruiting Center just before I left Basrah Posted by Hello

In Basrah with a friend from the Royal Regiment of Wales (RRW) ready to deal wityh the morning crowd Posted by Hello

Memories of Basrah

First, let me thank Jane, Simpleton, and Mark G. for welcoming me to the blogosphere. Nothing like positive reinforcement. I realize going into it that this is a bit of an exercise in self-involved ego mania, but I hope I will be able to post things of interest to a few of you and I hope even more that some of you will be inspired enough to comment. Also, here's a link to a blog by one of my friends, Mark G. He's a professor of military history and also pretty smart: http://www.warhistorian.blogspot.com
One admin note - I will probably onlty be able to post about once a week.

Anyway, I've posted a little eye candy for you - some snaps from my time in Iraq running a recruiting station for the New Iraqi Army. I worked with the local Iraqi police and with the Brits. I also had a platoon of contract security - Gurkhas (mainly former Indian Army) who were great (some snaps of them later).

The walls and barriers the crowd are standing on were put in to protect the applicants from car bombs - a real concern, the recruiting center in Baghdad was bombed twice - the first time about 60 recruits were killed, but blast walls were put up before the second bombing which protected the recruits but not, alas, the unfortunate bystanders on the street. My biggest problem was dealing with the crowds. Most, admittedly, only wanted a job, but there was no shortage of applicants for army, despite the dangers. My understanding is that there is still no shortage of recruits (I wouldn't be surprised if recruiting in Iraq was better than recruiting here). I had more than one man break down in tears when I told him he didn't meet the standards set out and couldn't join.

One of our biggest challenges was conveying the nature of service in the New Army. Most adult men had been drafted into the old army and hated it - they were mistreated and abused. A lot had deserted or run off to a remote village to avoid serving. They all said that they were volunteering to join the New Army because they new it would be different from the old one. However, they usually didn't grasp the American concept of basic training - conditioning hikes, physical training, and long training days. While the enlisted men in the old army were mistreated, they seldom conducted real field training.

Anyway, enough for now. Thanks for reading

Thursday, February 10, 2005

First Post

On the remote chance that anyone actually reads this, I have started this blog b/c I wanted to post to someone else's blog, and this seemed the easiest way. Anyway, I called it "Loyal Subversive" because it seemed clever after 15 seconds of thought and because I have been a bit of a subversive in every organization and institution I have belonged to, in that i always thought that the accepted wisdom was flawed and that the the organization/group could do a better job.

Anyway, the comment I was going to post on warhistorian.blogspot.com was about the Ward Churchill controversy. While lot's of people are debating the issues of free speech, I just can't get over the deep impression, that, given Churchill's comments, had I been killed while I was in Iraq he would have been delighted, and he would be delighted if any of my good friends over there now got killed. Makes it hard for me to be detached.