Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the media II

The New York Times linked to this blog a couple of weeks ago, which explained for me why my site had taken such a jump in its number of visitors. Of course, the NYT discovered the blog and labeled it as a blog by a deployed soldier only after I'd returned. At any rate, I'm flattered by the exposure. One of the other effects of the NYT link was this blog was discovered by a reporter for NPR who then requested a phone interview with me for his story about blogging and social networking while deployed. I was happy to give him my two cents on the issue, though I wish he'd've made it more clear that I didn't want my name associated with the blog because I don't think it's right to use military service to publicize yourself. I did mention the fact that I'm going to be continuing my military service, but fear of reprisals or whatever is not why I don't put my name on the site (see below). At any rate, it was a good article and I'm glad to have been a contributor to it.

I think the blogging done by service members while on deployment is generally a good thing, and I was happy to have been put in a position where I could write about things that people would be interested in reading. I didn't see it as my duty to write positively. I just tried to be as honest with myself as I could be with it, while also keeping in mind that I did not always have the bigger picture on things.

I can see where concerns about blogging on the part of the Pentagon would come in, as they have every right to be concerned with the information that comes out of theater, given how important public opinion is in sustaining the war effort. Service members who are bloggers would seem to have a more authoritative voice on the war than an embedded reporter given their status, but then service members who blog don't really reach very many people. Even with the New York Times linking to this site recently, I've never had more than 300 unique visitors in a day and I average about 50, of whom I probably know a third personally. In short, a site like this reaches such a small proportion of the populace that it simply wouldn't be worth the effort on the part of the Pentagon to try to control it, which was the conclusion the military seems to have reached on the censoring of letters sent from soldiers home during prior conflicts.

The Stars and Stripes recently had an article about the Pentagon profiling reporters. I found the article quite lacking in substance and have no qualms whatsoever about a private consulting group being used to check the accuracy of information being presented to the public by reporters. The Pentagon claims they profile reporters on the accuracy of their reporting, not the content, which is something I believe. That being said, I'm pretty sure that if a reporter consistently reported only on the negative, though true, aspects of the war then he or she might find it harder to get an embed.

I can say that we had many reporters come and go and the stories they put out were accurate and fair in my opinion. Those reporters were treated with respect and granted quite a lot of access to what we were doing. We didn't always give them everything they wanted, but then it was often our call on whether to accept an embed or not, so we made the call, almost always based on factors that had nothing whatsoever to do with the reporter himself and what he or she might write about us (see prior blog entry). We refused to accept one reporter simply because we didn't think she could hack it physically moving up and down the mountains with us. What she may have written, I guess we'll never know.

I think the more interesting question is if the Pentagon is indeed profiling reporters for the sake of controlling the types of stories that get printed, is this necessarily a bad thing? Freedom of press is a great thing, but it doesn't mean every type of information and story is at the disposal of every reporter who wants to come out and write. If we have information that is classified and unreleasable for security purposes, where do we draw the line on war reporting? Moreover, assuming the lawmakers we've elected to make decisions and run the country have access to all the best information available, aren't they in a better position to make decisions on how far to go with this war than the general populace? Well, at least in theory anyway...? Does the public have to have a role in every decision? Do we want democracy to evolve to the level where public opinion controls every decision that's made for the country as a whole? I think ideally you have a selfless leader who makes the right calls based on unbiased thought processes and good information. We're so far from that though that maybe public opinion is the best way to reach a decision.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In the media

You know it's been an interesting tour when during an hour-long layover in Alaska someone just happens to buy a Time magazine and thereby stumble across pictures of members of our team and one of our interpreters. Of course, our guys that had the pictures taken knew that eventually they might show up in the magazine, but none of the rest of us knew they'd be in there since we didn't pay attention to the fact that a reporter was with them. It might have been a nice surprise if not for the fact that two of our guys pictured were bearded and well out of uniform. Unlike the Special Forces, we're not permitted to dress and groom ourselves how we'd like.

Of course, where we could get away with it, many of us did just what we liked regarding our uniforms and beards. Generally we had sense enough to not let pictures get taken of us in such a state. In fact, for the first half of our time we didn't let reporters embed with us at all, and pretty much just kept them away from us, primarily so something like this wouldn't happen. At some point that changed though, and members of our team thereafter appeared or were mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time (twice), El Mundo, and some others. It wasn't until this last one though that some of us were published completely out of uniform. Not sure what if any repercussions our team will feel, but at any rate, I think the main pic of the story makes a helluva recruiting tool for the Marine Corps...

As for the why...why we'd be out of uniform and unshaven at times...well, there's more to it than simply being nasty and undisciplined. For one thing, the Afghan elders and people respect a man with a beard. In fact when we and our ANA would go to a village the ANA commander would always ask to talk to the "spin gheri" which translates as "white beard". Now I'm not sure if the literal translation in Pashtu for "village elder" is "white beard" but that's how my Afghan commanders got their point across, pretty much indicating that in the Pashtu language and culture a beard is synonymous with seniority and authority. We certainly never once spoke to a man of any stature whatsoever that had no beard. The elders I habitually dealt with were dismayed (nearly as much as I) when I shaved a two-month beard I had going. I'm not sure being clean-shaven was any real detriment at the end of the day, but adopting a local custom is not always a bad thing, despite what our pre-deployment training told us about "not going native". I say go native sometimes where it serves you. And frankly, growing a beard makes the Marines feel like their getting one over on the rulewriters on high and is good for morale. You just have to be sure that you've got a group that is professional enough to realize that breaking one rule doesn't mean they are not still Marines, with all the other attendant rules and regulations to follow.

As for the uniforms, most of that had to do with blending in with the ANA. Most likely even from 500 meters away an insurgent is going to recognize an American by the gear he's carrying and how he carries himself, but there's no use making it any easier for them to target the ETTs specifically by wearing a uniform that looks different.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


This blog is not over yet for those of you out there still reading. I promise I have more topics to explore. I've just got some other stuff I need to catch up on (like LIVING) before I get more entries posted. We did get some rough news today that 4 ETTs were killed in an ambush not far from where we were stationed during our time. That's the most ETTs ever lost in one attack.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letter response

Question from a reporter after I returned:

"I've heard from some troops who served there, as well as think tankers and other folks, that the US presence there was an "irritant" to the local population, and that they only joined the insurgency to get the US troops out of there.

I'm wondering if you've seen the same kind of insularity and isolation elsewhere in Kunar. Did you ever get the sense that the locals don't want you there, and could live fine alone, without US or ANA presence?"

My response:

True, the ETT job is not an easy one, but was by far the most rewarding thing I've done, and I think many ETTs would agree with me.

I do not want to denigrate the observations made by the individuals you talked to with experience in the Korengal, but I'm going to try to give you a bit of additional context on the Korengal before I move on to your questions. I think it's a bit of a simplification to say that Korengalis joined the insurgency to get us out of there. On the one hand, it's true that the folks out in Korengal do not like outsiders typically and will fight whoever shows up in their domain. They do want to be left alone. However, we have to keep in mind that not all the fighters in the Korengal were Korengalis. We heard a lot of voices over the radio that were from Pakistan or speaking Arabic. I think the fact was, that in the Korengal we never had sufficient combat capability (either in number or in the capability of the troops that were there) in order to provide a level of security to keep those outsiders out. So while we might say they fought us so that they'd be left alone, we could equally say they were forced to fight us by outside influence, including people that killed the local leaders when they cooperated with us. I don't believe the Korengalis wanted those outside insurgents in their valley either. The fact of the matter is we simply did not do a good enough job out there to win anyone to our side.

We can also equally argue that the locals' position on our presence was irrelevant. Part of the idea in having forces in the Korengal was to fight the insurgents there, rather than in the more populated areas. Those valleys in Kunar do eventually feed in towards Kabul, and the position at one time was to fight in the hinterlands as a way of taking pressure off the cities, specifically Kabul. Now that we've ceded that territory, it reverts to becoming a lawless region where things happen that we don't like - a safe haven if you will. We went into Afghanistan in the first place so that the Taliban would not have a place to hide unmolested to plot, plan, and train. The fact is, now that we're gone, the Korengal will not be simply a peaceful valley full of folks living a peaceful pastoral existence doing their own thing with no impact on the outside world. It will, and probably already has, become an area our enemies will use to their advantage. If the Korengalis could or would keep out foreigners and live peacefully, then we'd have no issue. But that will not be the case.

As for other areas of Kunar, my experience is with the Pech Valley, which has several large valleys branching off from it, including the Korengal, the Wama, the Watapor, the ChapaDara, and another whose name eludes me where the famous battle of Wanat took place. Go far enough into any of those valleys and we have little influence and no control. The people in the region are certainly not homogeneous, but they do share a lot of characteristics. I think it's fair to say that most do not want to be ruled by what they perceive as a corrupt regime in Kabul, and are probably tired of the US presence. I also think it's fair to say that they don't want to be ruled by the Taliban. They do want economic opportunity. They do want their daughters to go to school. They do want to live in peace. While some share an extremist ideology (and probably more so in the Korengal than other places in Kunar) with the Taliban that they picked up during their time as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet conflict, certainly not all or most feel that way. Many of those people understand why our forces are there and what we're doing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Only when working for the government would you travel 21 time zones west to get to a point 3 times zones to your east. Our diplomats really need to get to work on China so we can fly over that country. If we could have overflown China, we'd have gotten home a day and a half earlier and felt much better on arrival. Instead, we flew from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan, spent a night there and then continued to Germany, Alaska and Okinawa. Upon arrival in Okinawa we dropped off some of our sister teams, spent a few hours at a reception and then resumed our journey. From Okinawa it was still nearly a day's trip to get back to Hawaii, stopping in Tokyo. On the plus side, it is always nice to intermingle with the Japanese, however superficial our interaction with them may have been on our short stay. And fortunately the plane was mostly empty so plenty of room to move about, although this fact is part of why we had to fly so far (We didn't have enough of our own pax to charter a flight to go exactly where we wanted in the fastest possible way.).

In all, we spent nearly 40 hours in the air between Afghanistan and Hawaii and traveled across 26 time zones.