The Best Defense

. . . and 2. with the Navy

On the water, I responded to various naval officers who noticed that I questioned in my latest book whether the Navy has had any impact on national strategy in recent years. I see raising issues like this as part of my job-that is,  speak up when I think the emperor has no clothes. The commonality in these discussions is that the denunciations are posted on blogs and websites while the attaboys are sent privately by e-mail. As David Halberstam once said to me, "That's the nature of the business. [pause] Suck it up."

Responding to my question of why the Navy hasn't had much effect on national strategy since 9/11, a friend who is a defense expert shot this back:

I would disagree with Tom; naval officers and thinkers have had a profound, but entirely negative, effect on American post-9/11 strategy: think of Mike Mullen, Fox Fallon, Giambastiani and Bill Owens.  The first two fought the surge, fought COIN (and Mullen still is), wanted to bug out of Iraq, favored a "light footprint" and "offshore balancing," etc. etc.  The latter two were apostles of "transformation" of the "transparent battlefield" variety, which led us down a very bad and wrong path.

Meanwhile, here's a comment from an active-duty Navy officer whose name cannot be used here:

The reason the Navy doesn't have the sorts of folks like H.R. McMaster or John Nagl is that our personnel system is set up to discourage folks from taking the opportunities that would give them the knowledge base they need to do it. When I was selected to go to a fellowship at RAND I was counseled that it would negatively impact my chance to screen for command, primarily because the tour would result in a not observed fitness report, which doesn't look good up against the guy that goes and works in an office somewhere, but gets an observed fitrep. I decided that 9 months at RAND couldn't really be that big of an impact, and I would volunteer to go back to sea again after to make up for it, but it was a big impact, despite co-authoring two studies and participating in several project teams. Then when I was accepted to the PhD program in security studies . . . , I was all but told that I would not select for command if I came here, again because of the not observed fitness reports.  We are never going to have warfighters and strategists with the requisite knowledge skills in both sides of that coin if folks have to choose one or the other.  When people point out that Admiral Stavridis managed to get a PhD, from Fletcher no less, and still say competitive up the chain--this is an argument I've heard--I'd say it's not fair to point to one of the most brilliant naval officers in decades as the example, and there are very few others, of how the system works well. 

 . . . I wish we had more naval officers engaged in the national debate over grand strategy, as I think the Navy has a big part to play in it, and our skills sets as naval officers tend to be a bit broader than in some of the other services as we are routinely forward deployed working with allies and friends, engaged with activities beyond the limits of traditional warfighting.  Unfortunately, the best contribution the Navy's added to the national security debate in years might just be the three unnamed snipers who took out those teenage pirates on Easter Sunday.  However capable we are at completing the mission given us, if we don't have a voice in the debate over what the right mission is, or what the right strategy and policy should be, we are selling ourselves short.

Photo: Flickr user Amanda M Hatfield

The Best Defense

How to read a newspaper like a reporter

OK, so it's not How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. But the secret of reading a newspaper like a reporter is to pick stories by bylines. I've mentioned, for example, that I will read anything Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post

writes about Iraqi politics, or life in Iraq.   

Another go-to reporter is C.J. Chivers of the New York Times. I've never met him, but I keep an eye out for his reporting from Afghanistan. Here, for example, from last Friday's paper, is his account of an Army ambush of a Taliban column in eastern Afghanistan, not far from where the Wanat firefight took place:

The lead fighter had almost reached the platoon when Pvt. First Class Troy Pacini-Harvey, 19, his laser trained on the lead man's forehead, moved his rifle's selector lever from safe to semi-automatic. It made a barely audible click. The Taliban fighter froze. He was six feet away.

Lieutenant Smith was new to the platoon. This was his fourth patrol. He was in a situation that every infantry lieutenant trains for, but almost no infantry lieutenant ever sees. "Fire," he said, softly into the radio. "Fire. Fire. Fire."

Now, some of these details raised hackles among some of Abu M 's readers. The private should have aimed for the lead man's chest, one says. (My thought: Perhaps he couldn't see the chest-these are steep hills.) And so on. Read especially the critique by "Old Grunt."  

Be that as it may, I admire both the way Chivers reported this story and wrote it. Read this short, grim paragraph:

Sergeant Reese gave his rifle to another sniper to cover him while he tried to cut away a Taliban fighter's ammunition pouches with a four-inch blade. The fighter had only been pretending to be dead, the soldiers said. He lunged for Sergeant Reese, who stabbed him in the left eye.

Chivers doesn't make himself the hero, as some reporters covering combat are wont to do. Indeed, he is barely a presence, just a quiet observer. The straightforward, even dry, prose fits the story perfectly. It reminds me of a lesson I re-learned one day after being ambushed near Najaf: Nothing is easier to write than a story about combat. The hard parts, of course, are getting there, not getting hurt while, understanding what you've seen and then being able to file it back to an editor on the other side of the planet.

To top it off, Chivers follows it up with a story in today's Times about being a patrol being bombed and ambushed. There is a striking, eerie detail in it: The soldier who was in the initial explosion couldn't be found. Finally they found his body in a tree, hurled there by the blast. Again, Chivers does not make himself part of the story.

Two final points of interest:

  • One of the great false questions placed to journalists has been "what would  you do if you were embedded with a North Korean patrol that ambushes some American soldiers?" The answer, as the two stories by Chivers example might indicate, is: Don't embed with the North Koreans
And that is why I read every word C.J. Chivers files from Afghanistan.