The Best Defense

The hubris of the Obamites on Vietnam: Just because you weren't there doesn't mean you won't make the same mistakes

Vietnam? What's that? Obama administration officials ask the estimable James Mann.

"What does that have to do with me and the world we're living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations.

Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren't alive during the Vietnam War doesn't mean you won't go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences -- that was LBJ's recipe. It didn't work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That's a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

In our system, White House officials have the upper hand in the civilian-military relationship, so it is their responsibility to be steward of it. That's the price of "the unequal dialogue." If the relationship is persistently poor, it is the fault of the civilians, because they are in the best position to fix it. The first step is to demand candor from the generals, and to protect those who provide it. Remove those who don't.

Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that's when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.


The Best Defense

The soldier's load: A response from an officer in Afghanistan who is a climber

By Lt. Lucas Enloe

Best Defense guest columnist

I can definitely understand Mr. Woods' perspective, from a number of levels. Having carried rucks weighing upwards of 60 pounds up mountains, I can certainly say that it sucks. I'll admit that I haven't done any rucking in Afghanistan yet, where it would only suck even more. That said, Mr. Woods' argument that applying the philosophy of extreme alpinism would significantly reduce soldier loads is wrong. As an avid alpine mountaineer myself, I can safely say that even the extremest of alpiners would still be forced to carry heavy packs on extended trips. Take, for example, an 8-day trip up and around Mt. Rainier. Even when climbing with some incredibly talented and experienced mountaineers, the average pack weight was about 65 pounds. Food weighs a lot. And that was operating under the convenience of being able to melt snow to get fresh water. Soldiers in Afghanistan don't have that luxury.

Imagine all the food, water, and gear a hiker would need for even a short three-day hike. Now add a weapon, your basic combat load of ammo, radios, and a week's worth of batteries. And contrary to Mr. Woods' point, even if I was carrying no extra weight, I'd still need a significant amount of water, you know, because I'm doing combat patrols at 7,000 feet in 95 degree weather. The problem isn't that soldiers and NCOs are taking more than they need, the problem is that what they need is pretty heavy. As much as I would like to say "Yeah, let's make our weapons and ammo and armor and water lighter!" I know the ridiculous amount of time and money it would take to do that.

Mr. Woods then argues that somehow the 60 pound ruck is a major cause of difficulties in counterinsurgency operations, and then implies (I think) that we should do without body armor or helmets. I don't think I need to go into more detail other than to say that I strongly disagree. Unfortunately Mr. Woods' lack of military experience is the primary reason for a large part of his argument being infeasible.

That's not to say that all of Mr. Woods' points are wrong. The Army has, to an extent, recognized the need for lighter gear in Afghanistan (see the introduction of plate carriers, M240Ls, etc...), but I think it can do better. By studying the design of similar gear in the civilian sector, I think we can make the load easier on our soldiers. Take, for example, the shape and design of our rucks. If you compare your standard issue ruck with some large-capacity expedition packs made by companies like Gregory or Arcteryx (or Mystery Ranch, whose packs I've seen running around in Afghanistan), and you'll notice that the Army's ruck is much rounder, whereas the packs are narrower, but taller. Having carried both I can say with absolute certainty that my civilian pack is far superior to my issued ruck. I think that by studying the design philosophy of civilian mountaineering equipment the Army can continue to improve our gear.

Again, though, any major changes in gear take time and money. Until then, we'll have to continue to rely on the NCO corps to train our Soldiers, both physically and mentally, to deal with the burden they'll bear in combat. I definitely welcome any disagreements or other perspectives on this issue.

Lucas Enloe is an Army 1LT currently in Afghanistan. He has years of experience in walking uphill.