Nobody wins when everyone's losing. (updated)

Thursday, September 24, 2009
General (that's one-two-three-four stars) Stanley McChrystal has caught a lot of hell this week over a report he sent to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requesting a boost in the number of troops assisting in Afghanistan. (unclassified report here) By the language he uses, referencing previous denied requests for troops, I am suspecting he is going to be asking for something in the vicinity of thousands. Like perhaps 10,000+ new troops for Afghanistan.

After my quick read of the report, I've been able to figure out that Gen. McChrystal thinks we are not doing so hot at fighting the insurgency because: (1)we are failing to snuggle up to the people and make them get used to us and like us the way an insurgency is supposed to be "fought", (2) we're not keeping Afghanistan's leadership honest and corruption-free, and (3) we are not managing the prisons and detention camps appropriately, so that they've basically become collectives for new insurgents.

General Stanley McChrystal would like you to know: we suck at Afghanistan.

But THAT isn't what got him in trouble this week. What got him in trouble was saying that if we didn't get these troops into Afghanistan within twelve months we "risk an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," and our efforts "are likely to result in mission failure."

I'll admit that language shocked me too-"mission failure"-but then I had to think about it. I had to think pretty hard, too.

(edited) What does "mission failure" mean in Afghanistan? The way I understand mission failure is that it occurs whenever you do not achieve mission success. So what does "mission success" mean in Afghanistan? I dug back into that report and I notice on page 2-20 there is paragraph called "V. Assessments: Measuring Progress" that basically announces that ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) needs to come up with some goals and some metrics to determine what "progress" means. In other words the criteria for"mission success" have not been defined yet. Either that or the top NATO commander in Afghanistan has not been informed of them.

(updated) Let me reiterate my definition of mission failure: mission failure occurs when you fail to accomplish your mission. If there is no definition for mission success, then there is no definition for mission failure.

So I don't think there is such a thing as "mission success" and I think that also means that there is such a thing as "mission failure" in Afghanistan. And if you think that increasing casualties, a turning civilian population, a corrupt government, and a growing insurgency in prisons can be "mission failure", then we've already failed the mission.

(updated) General McChrystal also writes in his report on page 1-4 that "resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing can lose it." Here, he is still talking about losing a war that there is no criteria for winning or losing. This might be tricky: mission success does not result from avoiding a loss in the war. It works the other way around. This request is about having enough troops to prolong the conflict, because with the situation the way it is (not on the ground, but on the mission orders) this war is literally "un-winnable." By General McChrystal's own words, these extra troops will only stave off defeat, but will not win the conflict.

This reminded me of something.

A few weeks ago, I was orienting a group of ROTC cadets to a paint ball arena on their first bout with another team. I told them the strategy they needed was simply this: WIN!

I told them a little bit about how to do it. The exercise was to communicate, move and shoot. Just like daddy did it, and just like his daddy did it. They listened to that advice a little bit, but they all liked hearing me say that all we had to do was "WIN!"

And it worked too. Out of a total of a dozen or so bouts in two weeks of paint ball I only lost one of them. I told each of them the same thing and they all fought in about the same way. But there wasn't much guiding them other than my one-word strategy.

The fighting continued until one side was completely wiped out, or time ran out. Whoever held the most ground, or "killed" the most of their adversaries by the end "won" the bout. Sometimes, it wasn't clear who had won, and I merely claimed victory for my side out of pride and habit.

So I think this is what decides a mission's outcome when there are no criteria for success or failure. Sometimes, one entire side is going to get killed off, which can take a long time to do in Afghanistan. Or maybe one side is eventually just going to claim victory and everybody can move on to the next bout.

But, unfortunately, there isn't anyone holding a clock to let us know when we reach the "time-limit" in our big match in Afghanistan. And meanwhile, General McChrystal is doing his best to make sure we don't "lose".

Never Forget

Friday, September 11, 2009
The intentions of this blog being what they are, it would be absolutely negligent of me not to remark on the tragedy eight years ago.

The 9/11 attacks are a substantial historical benchmark in the United States and in many other parts of the world. They have had social, cultural, and political implications everywhere in part because of the nature of the attacks themselves, but also because some of the world-changing events that have followed.

So we say "Never Forget" in remembrance of 9/11, but what are we pledged never to forget?

3,017 people died or are presumed dead in the 9/11 attacks themselves. We will never forget them.

More than 4,000 troops have been killed in "War on Terror" operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. We should never forget them either.

Other actions in the "War on Terror", either by troops or terrorists, have cost an estimated 62,006 people their lives as well. If the "War on Terror" is a direct response to the 9/11 attacks, perhaps we should not forget them either.

I've tried to filter my thoughts about 9/11 through the three personae I attempt to use in this blog in remembrance of all of these that have lost their lives as a result, and as an exercise in developing my own thoughts about the attributes of each character.

The Soldier is ashamed of 9/11. It is the Soldier's duty to protect the people from attackers who would harm the innocent. The soldier would trade his life for any of the civilians who died at the World Trade Center. Many Soldiers died at the Pentagon in the act of serving their country on duty. The Soldier's loyalty is to his comrades-in-arms and the people he protects. The Soldier never forgets because he refuses to let any more harm come to the people he is pledged to defend.

The Citizen demands answers for the attacks on 9/11. It is the Citizen's duty to ensure that the government is prepared to provide for the defense the country, and to demand that a proper course of action be taken to prevent an attack from happening again. The 9/11 commission investigated and made a report documenting the events of 9/11 and making recommendations for ensuring the future defense of the United States. The Citizen watches his leadership and does his part to contribute to the well-being of the nation, any way he can. The Citizen never forgets because his memory will serve as the motivation to demand answers from his leaders and ensure that they perform their task of defending the state.

The Human Being weeps for those who were killed in the attacks, and for every person who was killed on their behalf in retribution. The Human Being weeps for the humiliations and torture performed in prisons and detention centers in the name of justice or in the name of self-preservation or defense. The Human Being's duty is compassion for his fellow man and taking care to preserve their rights to life and freedom, as the Human Being enjoys naturally. The Human Being never forgets, because the death of another man should be the thing that affects him the most, and the torture of another man, or restriction of his natural rights is suffering almost unbearable to observe.

I won't forget 9/11.

9/11 is one of the reasons I do what I do, and one of the reasons I write here in this diary.

Right place, right time, right uniform.

Friday, September 4, 2009
"...right place, right time, right uniform..."

Those were the words spoken to me by a Command Sergeant Major I came to know after some time spent in his battalion. He was giving a squad of us junior soldiers advice on how to get to the level he had achieved in his career, and become a Sergeant Major. "All I've had to do is be in the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform," he said. It's a oft-repeated guideline to success for troops in the Army.

Many went home that night thinking, "is that all I have to do?"

I went home that night thinking something very similar. "Is that all somebody has to do to become a Command Sergeant Major?" This seemed like a troubling thought.

Here's my problem. I think that in any organization, the cream of the talent should rise to the top. People get promoted on their merit and succeed to higher and higher ranks and positions. The people at the top should be the best at what they do. A CEO should be the most capable to lead a company successfully, understanding every aspect of his business. A Command Sergeant Major should be capable in every aspect of "sergeant's business": training and leading troops, preparing them for combat and moving them in their formations.

Is the pinnacle of "sergeant's business" being in the "right place, at the right time, in the right uniform?" I suggest that there is more to it. Or there ought to be.

After a seven-year suspension, the Army Qualitative Management Program (QMP) is being reinstated. The QMP will assess around 19,000 senior NCOs and determine whether it is desirable to have these NCOs at the very top of enlisted leadership. This shouldn't sound crazy. Page 1 of Army Field Manual 601-280 states that the number one goal of the Army Retention Program is to

"Reenlist, on a long term basis, sufficient numbers of highly qualified Active Army soldiers"

We want the very best to stay in. The highest qualified are the most desirable. When I was trained in Army retention, the "highly qualified" describer was emphasized as one our most important criteria for a reenlistment candidate. It was more important than meeting retention mission requirements. It was more important than anything that had anything to do with retention.

What the QMP is looking for is senior NCOs who have records of misconduct. Things like DUIs, removals from leadership positions for cause, failure to complete necessary schooling or failure to perform well on regular evaluations (NCOERs). These NCOs that are identified as undesirable will be given the option to apply for immediate retirement. If they do not choose to retire, they will be separated within six months. That's the deal.

The senior NCOs being targeted and identified by the QMP are NCOs I would not categorize as "highly qualified" for retention. I think the QMP is a good thing. If it manages to do what it is supposed to do than I think it can eliminate a few of the Command Sergeants Major out there who believe that in order to succeed, you only need to be in the "right place, at the right time, in the right uniform."

There is still something more to be said here. How do we find ourselves with enlisted leaders in the senior NCO grades that have DUIs or letters of reprimand in their background? Why is the QMP even necessary? Why was it suspended for seven years? I suppose there is still a problem with the overall promotion scheme, beginning at the lowest levels. This is a problem I am still trying to work out my own explanation for, and so you'll have to wait for another episode.