27 August 2014

Is America Wasting Blood and Treasure in Afghanistan?

Some are fond of calling it a "boondoggle." Others call it "meddling." Those are the charitable descriptors.

A sizable faction refer to our Afghanistan intervention as an "invasion," and "occupation," and the worst kind of neo-colonialism.

Do they not know that the Afghans want us here? And overwhelmingly so?

The United States led the 2001 invasion in order to topple the Taliban regime, which it did quickly and decisively. NATO was pulled into a longer commitment partly because of the elusiveness of Osama Bin Laden and the resilience of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Now the country is on the brink of a breakthrough. It is fashionable for people living in the comfort and security of the West to belittle prospects in central Asia, but they neglect to account for the enormous progress Afghanistan has made. They also forget that a vast majority of Afghans want peace and liberal political arrangements.

Of course they could not guarantee it one their own. Their military is far too weak, their economy anemic, and their enemies determined. But every day, thousands of Afghans put their lives on the line trying to secure freedom from the barbarians.

Would those in the West who mock ISAF's mission and Afghanistan's possibilities abandon those patriots? "It is a waste of money," the critics say, as if the beheading of a pro-freedom mullah is just a matter to be reckoned in dollars and cents. As if the plight of the elders from Nuristan, who recently appealed to the government in Kabul for help to rid them of the "scourge" of insurgency after militants massacred 1,110 people there would result in the U.S. misspending money.

Is it a boondoggle to help people escape this vicious gangsterism?

If, with a snap of fingers or flick of a magic wand, the Taliban could be eliminated, then even the most ardent anti-interventionists would probably agree to it.

But these things must be fought for.

Nothing worth fighting for is a waste.

(Photo by SPC Nevada Jack Smith)

22 August 2014

Kissing up to the Master Sergeant

He's got "master" in his title, after all.

Prior to my first deployment, to Kosovo, then-SFC Paul Wade presented his vision for our unit.

"My job is to make sure these guys have fun," he declared as his enthusiastic and semi-well-behaved German Shepherd prowled the room during a Family Readiness orientation before we deployed.

And fun we had. Our time in Kosovo was no picnic, but we made it count.

As many Soldiers are fond of saying, "we work hard and play hard." For nine months our seven-man section met resistance from the command staff, but still managed to produced a 30-plus-page monthly task force magazine, which required the management of printing contracts off base; produced 11 video magazines and distributed fully-functioning DVDs to the task force; Established one of the first Army unit YouTube channels; developed and managed a Pleistocene-age intranet site; produced a 20-minute end-of-tour video, the likes of which had never before been conceived by a brigade-level element; and took care of the countless command photo-ops and "hooah" videos that always fall to any public affairs unit.

But our NCOIC made sure we had fun. So we had barbecues. We played volleyball (poorly). We met new people and new units. We got creative with our photography and video-making. We visited historic sites and hiked mountains. We had snowball fights. We ate on the economy-- sometimes it was good, sometimes not so much.

More than anything was the comraderie developed from small, but meaningful, interactions every day. Hanging out at chow, joking around about a mission, that kind of stuff. Wade had a penchant for making fun of me in an exaggerated Mr. Peabody voice as he pushed up his notional spectacles. When we started to guffaw, he'd put his monologue into high gear until we split at the seams from laughter.

All of these morale-building efforts took, well, effort. They didn't just happen. Someone had to make sure we had fun. That someone was SFC Wade.

I'd put his photography, writing, and graphic design skills up there with anyone's in the Army. But I'd put his capacity for having amd making fun second to none.

He is now a master sergeant, and sits in an office most of the time, I presume. I get his Facebook updates, and it looks like he is still committed to the f-word.

When all is said and done, all sentient Soldiers with the capacity to emote (so you can omit most light colonels and above), hold on to a set of memories from deployed life that includes friends made and good times had. Yeah, we worked. That work probably made an impact. But the real impact on me and most junior Soldiers was the fun.

Thanks, Master Sergeant.

18 August 2014

The Responsibility of Learning

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on August 18, 2008.

I am an American Soldier.

My brief experience in the United States Army has been eye-opening. It strikes me with awe to think of the vast resources with which we are trained to fulfill our mission, and the professionalism with which most soldiers approach it. It has also given me plenty to think about in terms of learning.

Whether it's called "training," or "learning," the process is the same. What I get at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) depends upon the same fundamental principles as what a third-grader gets in his science lesson, or what a high school math teacher tries to give her students in a geometry lesson.

Given that an organizational goal is that its students learn some set of information, the entire responsibility of the affair rests on the organization. When students are learning, or don't meet the programmed outcomes, then at least one of the things designed to produce the outcome has failed. In standards-based teaching system, instruction is planned from the end goal. Each instructional unit is designed to bridge the gap that exists between students' abilities and the standard ability.

For example, if I want to teach someone how to create a header in MS Word, and I plan the instruction, then I would expect anyone who received my instruction to be able to create a header. If the student attempted to follow my instruction and couldn't create the header, then some part of my instruction was faulty. There is no other way around it.

Teachers have a hard time coming to grips with this reality. They want to attribute all of the gaps in learning to students. True, some student behaviors contribute to a lack of learning, but instruction can resolve such a lack.

The military instructors at DINFOS need to learn the lesson even more. If a certain instructional strategy consistently has bad reviews and results in poor knowledge acquisition, then it should be abandoned. When do teachers continue to put their faith in methods that yield such dismal results?

17 August 2014

American and Afghan Alike—Honoring the Fallen

Pashtun names-- a dozen or so this week-- blare across the screen.

They represent personnel of the Afghan National Army, National Police force, and local police who have died in duty during the last few d
ays. I could pronounce some of the names if I tried, but I don't recognize any of them.

Still, they are my comrades. A two-star general, the one who commands all ISAF troops in southern Afghanistan, orders us to stand as we pay our respects. We honor the fallen of ISAF-- including American troops-- if there are any.

One American has died in our regional command this month. That means Afghans are taking the brunt of the insurgency. And while a dead American Soldier will always be a harder loss to bear than one from another country, Afghan KIAs (killed in action) are recognized as a sacrifice just as sacrosanct. 

The presentation that announces the troop deaths reads,
Soldiers do not fight because they hate what's in front of them. They fight because they love what's behind them. 
I can't pretend that American Soldiers would admit to loving Afghanistan enough to die for its freedom. But some of them have died, and all of us know the risk. And here we are.

We will soon leave, and these Afghan patriots who are fighting barbarism will continue to fight. To those back home who say that Afghanistan is a hopeless cause, I say you should meet some of the people who are willing to lay down their lives for a more civilized future. They have hope.

I haven't met many of them. But I have seen their names. I know what they did. And yes, I honor them.