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Publications – 2004-2010 articles about Afghans & Iraqis

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;

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

- articles on military technology and procurement;

- articles on working with and understanding the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, from tribal sheikhs to district police (this current post);

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

Many stories are listed under more than one category.

Articles on understanding and working with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq:

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.

Chess With the Sheiks: working with tribes

April 12, 2008

Danjel Bout took command of his infantry company in Iraq, about 130 soldiers, after his predecessor, Capt. Michael MacKinnon, was killed in October 2005. MacKinnon, a regular Army officer, had been a friend and mentor to Bout, a National Guardsman from California. “MacKinnon taught me to not just assess the combat situation,” Capt. Bout told National Journal. “One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was to think through the second- and third-order consequences toward the civilian population. You’re not playing checkers anymore. This is chess.”

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.

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.”

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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