21 October 2014

Engineering and SeaBeeing in Kabul

It looked just like "the point of the mountain," a colloquialism in Utah for the Jordan Narrows, Draper, and the boundary between Salt Lake and Utah Counties.

The similarities-- geographic-- are uncanny. But the architecture is other-worldly, to me. The suburbs of Kabul are like an ancient mockery of South San Francisco-- tightly-packed row houses in dingy pastels cubed together in neatly lined streets that defy the mountain terrain.

The flight from Bagram Airfield to the place called NKC (New Kabul Compound) was about 15 minutes. I may have written before, and I will certainly write it again-- a Black Hawk flight will always be cool. Only two of us left the bird at NKC, and CPT Packer was there to greet me.

I was invited (read, "ordered") here to cover an important milestone in the westernization of the Afghan military. A special engineer unit of the Afghan National Army constructed a Mabey Johnson bridge. Now I'm not sure how momentous that is in the grand scheme of the War on Radical Islam, but it's a big enough deal to send me up to cover it. 

And I think it's kind of a big deal because it's a concrete step toward Afghan self-sufficiency. The larger mission of getting these guys to operate independently is really the culmination of thousands of these steps. And too often Soldiers forget that the step doesn't just happen because we are telling the other guys that we are leaving and they'll have to do it on their own. 

If I tried that approach in a high school math class ("Better learn this stuff or you'll be screwed next year in Trig!") without actually teaching, evaluating, and reteaching, I'd be fired.

Imagine how difficult it would be to stand up a modern Army along American lines. Or, just read the news about Afghanistan and you'll get a pretty good idea. Of course, culture and language are easy scapegoats, but the sheer monstrosity of the task is the biggest challenge. 

We're asking them to build an organization of a half a million personnel, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of totally foreign equipment, develop systems from scratch, and oh, fight a war while they're doing it. 

Robert Gates notes glibly in his memoir (I've got an only slightly lame "review" of it here) about similar phenomena in Iraq and Afghanistan. He complained about American politicians' impatience with the governments in our two war zones, and pointed out that it has taken the U.S. a couple hundred years to get some of these systems working. And Congress is still as dysfunctional as ever!

War can be a crucible to make things happen quickly, too. But if left to their own devices, these guys would fight it the old fashioned way-- the way we asked them to fight the soviets. Isn't that interesting? 

Anyway, it's fascinating to catch a glimpse of what "Train, Advise, and Assist" really means in one particular unit. Today it means that an engineer company can complete a fairly complicated, if routine, task on its own once ISAF leaves.

Maybe the reason this was so successful is because the Navy did it. It was a Navy Mobile Construction Battalion that got the ANA engineers up and running. Fun fact: The name, "Seabees" comes from CB (construction battalion). 

I was thoroughly impressed with them. And that's not to take anything away from the engineer Soldiers who advise the ANA brigade, but it has always seemed to me that Sailors are more systematic and particular about things because working at sea has a way of forcing efficiency and reliability. (Karl Weick began his illustrious career in studying reliable organizations on an aircraft carrier). 

Also, I was invited to eat with the honchos. I'm certain it was by accident, but I quite enjoyed the rice nonetheless. 

Tomorrow I fly back to BAF. It's fun being expeditionary for a few days. It was fund hanging out with the guys who wear "Don't Tread on Me" on their shoulders, and it was fun to see Kabul. 

07 October 2014

They Laid out the Red Carpet for Me in Bagram

Travelling to a new base is a lot like a vacation. Except it's not fun, and you have to carry your own bags. And you always depart or arrive in the middle of the night. And you are responsible for two weapons along with your bags.

So it's not like a vacation at all, come to think of it. The flight on the C-130 is exquisitely uncomfortable. Net seating doesn't recline, the roar of the motor isn't muffled, and I am wearing 25 pounds of body armor and have 45 pounds of carry-on on my lap.

We land early that morning and lug our over-sized bags up two flights of stairs in our conex tenements.

I learn that Prax is sharing a room barely big enough for one with two other Soldiers. Of course neither of them have any idea that she is coming. It must be really fun to wake up at 0500 hours to discover you have a new roommate. With four bags.

I also have four bags. And I also have two roommates. I wonder who is more annoyed-- them or me. Prax, at least, gets a wall locker. I get my lap again.

Two days later we are beginning to settle in. BAF is huge, but we don't realize it quite right away. The main drag is called Disney. A nod to the reach of American culture, I assume, like "Hotel California" (a large tent where transients stay). We feel sheepish on discovering that it is name after a Soldier killed here in a heavy equipment accident in 2002. SPC Jason Disney was a transportation specialist from Nevada. The street signs take on new meaning, to us, at least.

On Sunday we get a longer tour, and some introductions, from a broadcaster on his way out. He takes us to the US Army Corps of Engineers compound and a nearby villa that is used for jirgas and other high-level meetings. We stop and smell the roses—the first we have seen since leaving the U.S. Then we visit the guys in "Dustoff," the operational name given to every medevac unit I have ever met. It seems, I don't know, ironic, that American troops occupy these structures built by the Soviets 30 years earlier.

We also drive by the secret prison that has been the source of some controversy. It looks like every other secret prison I have seen.

It is much cooler up here. And I feel more comfortable, as the weather probably mirrors the Wasatch front almost exactly. I don’t sweat unless I mean to anymore. The food seems better, too, but that might just be because it is different.

By the fourth day at BAF, one third of the occupants of my little unit has left. Suddenly I am like the wealthy gentry of US Forces – Afghanistan, what with my own wall locker and a bottom bunk. My other roommate, an Army captain, is in the same spot nearly every time I step into the room—legs in a sleeping bag, sitting on his bunk, typing away on his laptop. He says he is leaving soon, so I assume he is sending off hundreds of emails to friends and family eagerly awaiting his return. I’ll have to start doing that soon, I guess.

A new assignment brings new opportunities, and so I begin a new workout regimen. The gym is quite inviting—a new hardened structure that makes me feel like I might be paying $69 a month if I were back home.

Our office is hardened, too, which means that during a rocket attack we don’t have to evacuate to one of the hundreds of bunkers outside. We came under such an attack the other day, but I just kept working merrily.

It’s a strange time to be here, at the world’s largest forward base. Americans are leaving in droves, and all the talk is about Resolute Support and how NATO isn’t doing anymore combat and how it’s really great that we’re giving the Afghans a bunch of MRAPs. It’s great not because the equipment will help them in their fight against the Taliban, but because giving them the vehicles makes the U.S. seem less wasteful.

Speaking of waste, we should be here about seven more weeks. Then we get to travel again. Back to the U.S. It’s like vacation, except…

03 October 2014

Remember Keating: A Five-Year Retrospective, Part 6

This is the final part in a six-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5.

Three Medals of Honor have been awarded in connection with COP Keating, two from the final battle. As the highest honor a soldier can receive for action in combat, these awards ratify the ways the soldiers fought. In essence, they legitimate the way they organized themselves. That organizing activity was heavily influenced by the Warrior Ethos.

SSG (Ret.) Clint Romesha.
Properly understood as a tool that soldiers use to enact and make sense of their environment, the Ethos is a powerful instrument in combat. The actions of the soldiers in battle of COP Keating illustrates as much in several ways. While soldiers act during combat, they do so without carefully rationalizing those actions. Instead, they look for validation after the action. The language of the Warrior Ethos gives them material to make the necessary meaning.

None of this is to say that the American soldiers had not been combat effective until 2003, when they were enlightened with a breakthrough mission statement. But to dismiss the power of the Warrior Ethos is to commit two major errors. One is to ignore the overwhelming superiority of U.S. combat performance relative to the nation’s battlefield enemies. The other is to ignore the fact that the current force is regarded as the greatest fighting force of modernity.

Certainly many factors contribute to the effectiveness of soldiers in combat, but to take the extreme position that the Warrior Ethos affects it in only a minor way to is take the position that words don’t matter, that what trainers tell Soldiers don’t matter, and that soldiers are merely components in some mechanistic, post-human form of warfighting.

That claim defies the human dimension of battle, and the centrality of human relationship in organizing in it.


The above was adapted from a paper I submitted in a doctoral seminar in organizational communication. The paper was titled, "More than Mere Words: Enacting the Warrior Ethos in Combat."

Quotes from the Soldiers are taken from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by the eminent Jake Tapper. References to enactment, sensemaking, and other social psychology ideas are mainly from the various works of Karl E. Weick. 

Remember Keating: A Five-Year Retrospective, Part 5

This is the fifth part in a six-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 6.

Five soldiers were pinned down in a Humvee on the COP. The insurgents who were firing a seemingly endless supply of small arms rounds and rocket-propelled grenades had obviously studied how to disable the Americans’ best positions.

The soldiers—SGT Justin Gallegos, SGT Vernon Martin, SGT Brad Larson, SPC Stephan Mace, and SPC Ty Carter—understood they might die trying to escape, or would certainly die if they remained in the truck. Planning their egress, they made their move. Gallegos, Mace, and Martin were all hit immediately. Carter and Larson ran back to the truck. Mace was wounded by both RPG and small arms fire.  As he lay on the ground, bleeding and more exposed than ever, Mace tried to crawl on his elbows toward the Humvee. Carter saw him about fifteen yards away.

SPC Ty Carter
"I’m going to go get him," Carter told Larson. "No," the sergeant replied. "I can see him, he’s right there," Carter insisted. "You’re no good to him dead," was the reply from the senior soldier. They argued, and Carter continued to plea. Eventually, Larson consented, and Carter went out again to administer aid. The two soldiers carried Mace back into the Humvee under fire, and later to the aid station.

Perhaps the most conspicuous, and romanticized, element of the Warrior Ethos in the popular imagination of "leave no man behind." Carter’s persistence and selflessness would earn him the Medal of Honor; at the presentation ceremony, President Obama described Carter’s actions as "the story... of what our troops do for each other," explaining that "he displayed the essence of true heroism— "not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

"I will never leave a fallen comrade" expresses two truisms that make soldiers more effective in combat: one, they have received training aligned to social cohesion that helps them enact it, and two, they are imbued with the trust that makes the enactment natural. Both phenomena are evident on the battlefield in cases like Carter rescuing Mace and in the anecdote that began this paper.

Mission Statements serve to focus purpose and create organizational unanimity of goals. In this way, they help an organization allocate resources to for “translating organizational objectives into a work structure so that time, cost and performance parameters can be assessed and controlled.” . In the Army, soldiers are systematically trained to leave nobody behind. While the ethos of rescuing fallen soldiers is not new, its inclusion in a written mission statement as the ultimate line of the Warrior Ethos has encouraged the Army to explicitly incorporate it into large programs, such as Combat Life Saver, begun in 2007.

Perhaps a more elemental dimension of the leave nobody behind ethos is the trust that it instills in soldiers. Sociologists refer to trust in military action as social or unit cohesion, and its power is well documented. Interestingly, trust comes from drill—time spent on organizational action—by unit members acting together. Perhaps counter intuitively, then, drill and rehearsal don’t have as primary benefits preparation for a particular course of action, but to instill trust. Wong, et al., found that soldiers feel empowered to do their jobs when they believe that their team mates support them and will keep them safe.

Trust on the battlefield runs deep, as evident from Romesha’s emotional recollection of his own decision during the Battle of COP Keating. In an interview with Romesha on the eve of the Soldier’s Medal of Honor ceremony, Tapper asked about the importance of the Warrior Ethos:
"Tell me why it’s so important to you that the enemy not get their hands on a dead American soldier. Why does that thought bother you so much?"
Romesha: "Cause they’re ours. I mean, to give closure to the family, you know to have their son one more time. We’re not going to leave someone behind. Never gonna do it."
Perhaps this sentiment precedes action, to some degree, but it is justified and intensified after action. Carter didn’t have any particular fondness for Mace, but said in hindsight that he had to risk his life to save his team mate because they were both soldiers.

It was the ethos in action.


The above was adapted from a paper I submitted in a doctoral seminar in organizational communication. The paper was titled, "More than Mere Words: Enacting the Warrior Ethos in Combat."

Quotes from the Soldiers are taken from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by the eminent Jake Tapper. References to enactment, sensemaking, and other social psychology ideas are mainly from the various works of Karl E. Weick.