Skip to content

News – my new job at AOL Defense

This Monday, I sat down at my new desk in my new job as deputy editor of AOL Defense, a website where I’ve written with increasing frequency as a freelancer but am now on staff.

What does this mean for Learning from Veterans?

For this website, it simply means that I’ll be writing too many articles to post links to each of them here; from now on, the best way to see my latest work is to go to my author page on AOL Defense , “friend” me on Facebook, or “follow” me on Twitter, although I’ll continue to update this site as well.

For the oral history project as a whole, it means I have a new outlet to get post-9/11 veterans’ insights into the debate. I’ll cover plenty of other national security subjects as well — although my more than 200 interviews with veterans inform everything I do — but my new boss, Colin Clark, supports my oral history work and sees it as a unique way to enrich our coverage of a wide range of defense issues with the first-person perspective of the people who actually have to implement the policies and use the equipment. I conducted my 204th oral history interview yesterday, I’ll do my 205th Friday, and I’m happy to talk to anyone who’s deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11 (click here for participation guidelines).

My title and contact information may change; my mission and my passion are the same.

Commentary – in Afghanistan, ending “combat mission” doesn’t mean ending combat

My latest commentary over at the National Journal security blog tackles Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent suggestion that we formally end the U.S. “combat mission” in Afghanistan in 2013, a year before the deadline to (more or less) withdraw our forces:

The end of the “combat mission” doesn’t mean the end of combat. As long as we have troops in a country at war — or civilian personnel for that matter — those troops will be a target, no matter what you call the mission. That’s particularly true here because our troops will transition from “combat” to a so-called “advise and assist” mission. Effective advisors don’t just hang out at safe training bases and wave “bye-bye” to their students march off to battle, they accompany them into combat…..

My brief comment draws on a much more in-depth story I wrote for National Journal based on interviews with U.S. advisors about what it really takes to train the Afghans to “take the lead” themselves, available here.

Click here for the full post in context of the ongoing conversation — but you’ll have to come back here to comment, as the NJ blog doesn’t allow you to make them.

Publications – the budget’s silver lining for the U.S. Army

Yes, the President’s proposed 2013 budget hit the Army hard, as expected, but there were some surprisingly silvery linings for the service:

The Army may be in the cross-hairs of the budget cutters, but it’s had a surprisingly good week. While the number of soldiers will drop to 490,000 as long expected, the service is getting a lot of what it wanted to cushion that fall – starting with time….

There are some particularly interesting hints on national strategy:

The Pentagon has started to caveat its grand strategic mantra of a “pivot to Asia” – i.e. shifting from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preparing for “AirSea Battle” against China….This is particularly good news for the Army because [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta specifically promised the U.S. won’t walk away from the ground presence it’s had in the Middle East since 1990.

But ultimately the Army needs to get proactive, not just reactive, and go beyond fighting off cuts to deciding what its defining mission will be in the coming post-Afghanistan era:

At the latest of a series of conferences on the future of the Army, junior officers openly debated with top generals over how to sell the service to the Congress, the country, and its own war-weary soldiers wondering whether to get out. Should the Army seek the clarity of a new crusade to replace counterinsurgency in the Middle East? Or should the service present itself as the nation’s jack of all trades, humbly ready to take on any mission?

Those three points come from three pieces I wrote for AOL Defense in recent weeks. Click on any excerpt above to read the article it’s from, or go to my profile page on the AOL website to see all my recent stories.

Publications – Air Force buys Brazilian airplanes for Afghan pilots

With all the focus on budget cuts, I found a program I think the military could and should spend more on, and in the Air Force at that:

Just before the New Year, the U.S. Air Force finally selected a new Light Air Support plane for ground attack in counterinsurgency, picking the Brazilian Super Tucano over the American AT-6– whose manufacturer, Wichita, Kan.-based Hawker Beechcraft, is filing suit over the decision [update: leading the Air Force to issue a stop-work order on the 4th]. But just as important as what the Pentagon is buying is how many and for whom: just 20 aircraft, with an option for another 15, which will go not to equip regular U.S. Air Force units but to train the embryonic air force of Afghanistan.

The Air Force Light Air Support program [has] been closely watched as a leading indicator of whether the U.S. military was willing to invest in the kind of low-cost, low-altitude, low-tech airplanes best suited for close air support in counterinsurgency. The answer is, not much.

At $355 million for 20 aircraft – just under $18 million apiece – the Super Tucano buy is peanuts by Pentagon standards….

Click here to see the full story online at AOL Defense.

Commentary – low hopes for Iraq

There’s an interesting, if depressing, conversation ongoing over at the National Journal expert blog about what’s to come for Iraq. A snippet from my own contribution:

I normally try for guarded optimism on this blog, but the latest news from Iraq makes that hard. The situation increasingly sounds like one of Shakespeare’s darker history plays about England’s slide into civil war, with the Sunni Arab vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi not only fleeing arrest on dubious charges but taking refuge in the de facto autonomous Kurdish territory, beyond the reach of the Shia-dominated central government. Now all three major factions are involved. At the very best, this is a recipe for dysfunction, paralysis, and continued low-level violence, with the Sunni Arabs and (mostly) Sunni Kurds stalemating the Shia Arabs.

At worst? My mind recoils at the idea of Iraq sliding back into genocidal civil war…..

There’s also an article well worth reading on this subject by a retired Army officer of my acquaintance, Lt. Col. Nathan Freier: “the Arab Spring’s rampant political disaffection and tech-enabled populism are potentially as potent in Iraq as they are anywhere else in the Arab world. And, as Iraq is still in the midst of dislocating political transition, it is more vulnerable to sudden, contagious instability than most Middle Eastern states….”

Click here to see the full discussion at the NJ blog, but you’ll have to come back here to comment, below.

Publications – the Army looks beyond the drawdown

Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in the morning. With big cuts on the horizon, the silver lining is that the Army is being forced to explore some new ideas — and some old ones long ignored — on how to make the most of what it has. I’ve written a series of three articles on this over at AOL Defense, but all three are looking at different pieces of the same movement towards reform.

The most recent and broadest story, which I’d recommend reading first:
…The Army already has marching orders to reduce its manpower from the current 565,000 active-duty personnel to 520,000, and no one expects it to stop there. But some Army leaders are looking past the lean years and planning how to build back up again in a hurry if they have to. Their message to budgeteers: We understand you’re going to cut us, but do it carefully so we keep what we’ll need to regenerate in a future crisis – a concept that’s being called the “expansible Army.”

The Army Reserve’s piece of the puzzle:
With the regular Army shedding personnel to fit in ever-tighter budgets, the U.S. Army Reserve is positioning itself as a low-cost way to keep skilled, experienced veterans associated with the military. The plan, in a nutshell: If you can’t keep ‘em in the regular Army, keep ‘em in the Reserves….service leaders want to offer a more flexible range of options for different levels of commitment along a “continuum of service” – including creation of a new non-drilling, unpaid “inactive reserve” status with no obligation to deploy –- and more freedom to move back and forth between the reserves and active duty.

And the Army’s take on the strategic context:
With budgets falling and China rising, the U.S. Army wants in on the one theater where President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have promised to keep investing: the Pacific….Conference participants emphasized that the country could not afford to return to the Cold War model of permanent bases and garrison forces around the world. “[But] do we always have to put 20,000 boots on the ground when we have an obligation to provide presence?” asked Robert Toguchi….
Readers are welcome to comment below.

Publications – strategy and budgets collide

“The sinews of war are infinite money.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero

The coming cuts to the defense budget loom over every issue in national security. Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, but policymakers talk budgeting — which, after all, is simply what logistics boils down to at Washington level. Lately, I’ve written two stories for AOL Defense exploring this topic from the respective perspectives of the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

First, from a roundtable discussion with the Pentagon’s policy chief, Michèle Flournoy:


We’re going to do downsizing right: That’s the essence of the pledge made today by the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Policy, Michèle Flournoy. It won’t be an easy one to keep….The problem with all this, of course, is that every previous budget review started with similar and equally noble pledges to put strategy first but all ended up shaped primarily by bureaucratic politics…..At least one part of the institutional politics genuinely has changed since the 1990s, however: The Department of Defense is now lobbying for the Department of State.

Then, most recently, about the Army’s quest for new missions in the post-Afghanistan War world:

Escalating cyber threats, a struggling economy, the rise of China, and the unpredictable impact of the Arab Spring will dominate the next decade. At least, that’s the best collective guess of a conclave of academic experts, government officials, and military officers from the U.S. and abroad, convened by the United States Army…..It sounds like, no matter which “alternative future” ends up coming true, there’ll be plenty of work for the U.S. Army. Now the service just has to translate the experts’ guesses into arguments for its looming budget battles.

Readers are welcome to comment below.

Commentary – not a word for veterans in GOP debates

A sad, slightly bitter observation on which to end Veterans’ Day: I can’t find one mention of veterans in the transcripts of the Republican debates. I say this in dismay not at the state of one party or another but at how easily we all forget.

I wrote more on this at the National Journal expert blog:


….I understand it’s a televised debate with eight participants getting 60 seconds a question, so I didn’t expect profound policy analysis. I understand the debate was focused on the economy, so I didn’t expect a lot of time on veterans’ issues.
But not one word?
Not even a perfunctory reassurance amidst all the talk of cuts that “of course we can’t slash veterans’ benefits”?
So let me offer six sentences of my own. Imagine I’m trying to fit it all in 60 seconds….

And my own take on what we owe our veterans is here.

Appearances – Veterans of five wars tell their stories – November 5th

On Saturday, November 5, in slightly early honor of Veterans’ Day, I’ll have the honor of moderating a panel of veterans from five wars — World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — in a public event at Chevy Chase Library in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

The event runs from 1:30 to 4:00 pm and the address is 8005 Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. From the program:

The program will feature a panel discussion among multigenerational veterans moderated by Sydney Freedberg. The program will also kick off a book drive to support Blue Star Families and their Books for Kids Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Blue Star Families is a non-partisan, non-profit organization, created by real military families. The book drive will run from Nov. 5th through Dec. 15th. New children’s books can be dropped off in collection boxes at Chevy Chase Library. Admission is free and open to the public. We welcome the donation of new books for children. For more information, call 240-773-9590.

The rather gorgeous official flyer is available for download here: Chevy Chase Veterans’ Day – FINAL

Publications – AOL @ AUSA: The Army braces for cuts

October 10-12 was the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army here in D.C., and everywhere the theme was “brace for impact” as the Army prepares for a new round of downsizing now getting underway before the war is entirely over. I always make a point of attending the AUSA conference, and this year I went under the auspices of AOL Defense, for whom I wrote several stories:

- on the lessons-learned of the last downsizing:

“Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself because we’re going through the perturbations of a downsizing: Have a vision,” summed up retired Brig. Gen. John Sloan Brown…. Amidst the steep downsizing of the late 1980s and early ’90s, he said, “a relatively select group of folks envisioned a future that they could put into practice when funded.”

- on a new effort to strengthen infantry squads:

To solve a tactical problem, the materiel development community might propose an upgrade to the M-4 carbine, but if adding more days of training or a new marksmanship simulator would solve the same problem more effectively — or, especially in these increasingly cost-conscious days, more affordably — the new approach would steer funding towards the training enhancements instead…

- and on managing the reduction in the size of the Army that has already begun:

The balance between the Army’s resources and its commitments is “precarious” even as the number of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan declines, because the total size of the Army is going down at the same time. If the demand for troops continues to drop as planned, Army leaders say they should be able to handle the nation’s military missions. Any deviation from the plan, however, voids that guarantee….

Click here to see summaries of and links to all my stories for AOL Defense. All readers are welcome to comment below.