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Publications – 2004-2010 articles on military operations

Learning From Veterans began as a project I did interviewing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for my longtime employer, National Journal. NJ relies on subscription revenue and guards its archives jealously, but the editors there have generously unlocked all my articles that draw on these military oral histories and made them available to the public for free.

Since there are so many of these stories, I’ve broken them into several posts by subject area:

- articles on military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (in this current post);

- articles on the human cost of the war, from military families to wounded warriors;

- articles on military technology and procurement;

- articles on understanding the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, from tribal sheikhs to district police;

- and items on individual veterans, both profiles and extended excerpts of my interviews.

Many stories are listed under more than one category.

Articles examining U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The Afghanistan Air War: close air support for ground troops

September 25, 2010

First, Taliban machine gunners pinned the Americans down. When the patrol took cover, another insurgent targeted the position with rocket-propelled grenades. One round overshot; the next fell short. Before the third hit home, however, two American A-10 ground attack jets roared in, firing their 30-millimeter cannon. Gansberger, an apprentice air controller on his first deployment, had radioed for air support and guided the pilots to the target within minutes. “There was a guy next to me who has since become a really good friend, but I didn’t even know him at the time,” Gansberger told National Journal. “All I knew was, he was a squad sergeant, and he had just had a kid [while deployed]. I knew he had never met his daughter…. And he just turned and looked at me and said, you know, ‘Hey, thanks, man — now I’m going to get to go home and meet my daughter.’ And no paycheck ever in my life has ever felt as good as that moment.”

Roadside Bombs Plague Afghanistan: defeating improvised explosive devices

June 26, 2010

“It’s dangerous and it’s tedious, yes,” said Sgt. Robert Price, a combat engineer at Fort Leonard Wood. “But [when] you might have found something, you get that burst of energy and adrenaline.” About 90 percent of the time, he went on, the clues turn out to be nothing. The 10 percent is dangerous enough, however: Price lost his right leg below the knee in Iraq and now walks — and runs, and plays basketball with his son — on a state-of-the-art prosthetic.

Supplying The Surge In Afghanistan: professionals talk logistics

February 20, 2010

“We had guys out there at the outposts in my area of operations starving because we couldn’t get resupply in to them,” said Maj. Erik Berdy, who served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during its 15-month tour in eastern Afghanistan in 2007 and ’08. “The first 90 days we had three outposts that were routinely, almost, in threat of being overrun. They were legitimately under siege. They routinely would go black [nearly run out] on .50-caliber [machine-gun ammunition], Mark 19 grenades, and mortar ammunition.”

With sidebars When All Else Fails, Try Bribery and The Bottled-Water Problem

And accompanied by interviews with U.S. Army officers involved in supply operations by ground and air in Afghanistan: Maj. Connie Mark Lane and Lt. Col. Kirk Whitson.

In Afghanistan, Training Up Is Hard To Do: training Afghan forces

October 24, 2009

In the long run, it is true that “as the Afghans stand up, we will stand down,” to adapt the cliche that is, after many years, finally coming true in Iraq. But that equation is true only over the long run. In the next few years, at least, getting more Afghans ready to fight requires deploying more, not fewer, Americans to train them in boot camp, to advise them in the field, and above all, to fight alongside them. In the near term, training more Afghans is not an alternative to sending more Americans: Achieving the goal requires more Americans.

Accompanied by extended interview transcripts with US Army officers who advised Afghan forces: Maj. Andrew Ashley, Maj. Robert Gully, and Capt. Christian Mitchell.

The Military’s New Hybrid Warriors: waging war while winning hearts and minds

March 14, 2009

“We dropped bombs right next to the mosque, precision-guided bombs…. We never touched the mosque,” Cuomo recalled with pride. In return, he estimated, “our tank platoon was probably hit by a hundred RPGs [about 25 rocket-propelled grenades per tank]. We could leave those vehicles sitting in an intersection, and they would get pounded, and nothing would happen to them,” he said. “If you put a Humvee in that position, it would have been destroyed.” And yet, within earshot of the explosions, Cuomo went on, “there were also times when I was doing patrols in the middle of this, talking to people all of the time, handing out water bottles, handing out candy.”

Accompanied by extended interview transcripts with Army and Marine officers: Maj. Kris Faught and Maj. Joseph Rosen.

Shoot/Don’t Shoot?: rules of engagement

October 13, 2007

Such intense focus from the highest level speaks to the seriousness with which the military takes the rules of engagement, even amid ambiguous and brutal guerrilla warfare, said psychologist Jonathan Shay, recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his work with combat veterans. Shay told National Journal, “The killings that really take up residence as psychological abscesses are those that have a moral dimension of violating that person’s own principles, like when a soldier discovers he’s killed a child” – as Pennington did. “I have very strongly come to believe,” Shay went on, “that the bright line between militarily necessary, legitimate killing, and murder means everything to a soldier.”

Accompanied by sidebar The Court-Martial of Ricky Burke: In civilian life, a wide gulf separates commendable behavior from the crime of murder. In the military, some acts of killing earn a medal, while others lead to a court-martial. The difference often comes down to context – and in the fog of war, proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is often difficult.

Intimate Killing: the psychological shock of face-to-face combat

July 21, 2007

“I’ve shot a lot of people,” the two-time Bronze Star recipient said bluntly, “but I’ve never [since] had four guys on top of me at the same time.” He had charged over a low hill and come face-to-face with four armed Iraqis. But they were carrying their rifles casually at the hip, while Morris already had his to his shoulder. “I came up looking through my sights, so that gave me the extra second or two,” he explained. “The first guy, I put my rifle on his chest and pulled the trigger twice-we’re within a foot or two-and the guys following him, same thing; there’s just enough time to shift to the next guy, to the next guy, to the next guy.”

The New Iraqi Way of War: guerrilla tactics & factions

June 9, 2007

When U.S. marines began patrolling the western border town of Karibila in February 2004, for example, they ran into homemade land mines. At first, the mines tended to detonate as soon as a Humvee’s front tire ran over them. The engine block would absorb most of the blast, totaling the vehicle but often sparing those inside. Soon, however, said the marines’ commander, Maj. Trent Gibson, “we were getting rear-wheel mine strikes on our Humvees. It was a problem I was boggled over. They were planting the mines upside down,” in a conical hole with a few inches of space below the mine. When a Humvee drove over, its front wheel merely pushed the mine farther down into the hole, shoving its pressure plate up against the dirt; then the weight of the rear wheel set off the explosion, directly under the marines inside. “We failed to appreciate, in the beginning, that you had a thinking enemy that was at least as crafty and innovative as you,” Gibson said. “You learn not to fucking underestimate your enemy.”

Commuting to War: why tactics, not armor, made Humvees vulnerable

March 24, 2007

“We had a 25-mile ride to work,” said Maj. Trent Gibson, the company commander at the time. Assigned to secure the western border town of Karabila, along the insurgency’s supply lines into Syria, Gibson had intended to set up a permanent outpost downtown “and operate from there by foot,” he said. “And then a decision was made, above my pay grade and above my battalion commander’s pay grade, that there would be no bases in [town]. It was considered ‘force protection’: If we were too close to the populace, we would be putting our marines at risk.” In fact, “force protection” may have gotten a lot of grunts killed. For Gibson’s marines, their isolated base was easy to defend, but it was a long drive from Karabila, along only two possible roads. “Before I could get my guys in [town] and dismounted, where they were safest,” Gibson said, “I had to put them on a fixed route in an unarmored or lightly armored Humvee.” The insurgents knew exactly where the Americans had to go — and exactly where to place their homemade mines.

The Other Three Thousand: troops awarded medals for valor

January 13, 2007

An even higher award is the Distinguished Service Cross, worn by such soldiers as Army Master Sgt. Donald Hollenbaugh, whose Special Forces team accompanied a Marine platoon on a probing attack into Falluja in April 2004. One of four men in an observation post atop a captured building, Hollenbaugh saw each of his comrades fall wounded, bleeding from shrapnel to the head. He dragged them to safety, one by one. Then he returned to hold the rooftop alone, making weary circuits to shoot north, throw grenades east, shoot south, over and over, until the Marine commander finally came up to pull him out. It was then that Hollenbaugh learned that his lonely fight had covered everyone else’s retreat. “I was there for I don’t know how long,” said Hollenbaugh, now retired. “There was no emotion involved. It was just work.” Hollenbaugh’s “work” earned him one of just 26 DSCs awarded since 9/11.

Accompanied by profiles of decorated veterans: Paul Ray Smith (Medal of Honor); Brent Morel and Willie Copeland (Navy Crosses); Timothy Nein, Leigh Ann Hester, and Jason Mike (Silver Stars); Jason Dunham (Medal of Honor).

Men and Machines: military intelligence

March 19, 2005

The threats most studied before the war—barrages of poison gas and organized resistance by the Iraqi regular army—had not materialized. Instead, an obscure paramilitary force, the Saddam Fedayeen, was savaging U.S. supply lines, especially past the choke point at Nasiriyah. The marines were ordered to mop the Fedayeen up. “Don’t expect anything but small-arms fire” from AK-47 rifles and the like, a Marine officer remembers being told in his intelligence brief. But as his unit moved into town past Arab men in civilian clothes, the officer recalls, “all of a sudden, they’d reach down into a ditch or behind a wall and pull out an RPG”—a rocket-propelled grenade, packed with enough explosive to blow a Humvee apart. Eighteen dead marines later, the surviving Americans had a new skepticism for their own intelligence.

After Falluja: counterinsurgency in Iraq after the fall of Falluja

November 20, 2004

And even American sources tell of U.S. troops kicking down doors in the dark, rushing in with weapons ready, throwing menfolk to the floor (sometimes stepping on their heads to keep them down), hustling women off to be searched, and putting bag-like blindfolds over the heads of anyone arrested–all eminently sensible precautions against potential ambush–only to discover, ultimately, no signs of insurgents in the house. No one appreciates such treatment: “Don’t step on someone’s head because that’s disrespectful in Muslim culture?” asked Sullivan, the marine who served in Falluja. “Hell, it’s very disrespectful in New York.”

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