In a piece by the New York Times posted on 27 December 2011, we learned that the Obama Administration is going to allow the embattled Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to receive state of the art healthcare in the United States before facing any of his numerous legal ramifications. Various people have different opinions on the medical treatment of personnel we regard as “enemy’. I know on the battlefield, it seems counterintuitive to offer medical treatment to the enemy when you have plenty of American soldiers who have been wounded or killed (often by the same enemy fighter’s actions) and yet both get treated in the order that they come into the gate; regardless of political allegiance.
But I’ve seen first hand that the offer of medical aid by the United States is actually the most formidable weapon system we have in a counterinsurgency and counterterrorist environment. So much of our success in these fields is out of our control, but actually in the hands of the local populations who either tolerate or are intimidated into supporting anti-American elements. Whether it’s the leader of an unstable country, or the leader of an unstable tribe, the adage from our kindergarten days holds true: you attract far more flies with honey than vinegar.
You could certainly also argue that accepting Saleh into our hands and treating him medically further exacerbates the anger and resentment of the people of Yemen. Why should this elite receive care from a foreign government when he has clearly neglected his own people for the past couple decades? That being said, a journey of a million miles begins with one step, and Saleh no doubt still has influential supporters–alienated from politics, though entrenched in other legitimate and illegitimate businesses– who will look at this act and remember it in their future decisions in the Arab world. And it could keep us safer in the long run. Interested to hear your thoughts.
But when it was China who had captured a US aircraft earlier this decade, there was at least some underlying assumptions that, no matter how tense our relations may be with China at any given point, our two nations clearly have so many common economic interests that an all out conflict was really not probably in the short term over this matter. In fact, as I reference the Chinese take-over of the American aircraft in early 2001, most readers probably don’t even remember it. To refresh your memory, read here: Spy Plane Standoff
That all being said, now that it is Iran who has refused to return a captured drone, instinctively, Iran is walking a fine line between sovereignty and provocation. But the interesting question in my mind is, what would happen if the tables were turned? What would (does) the United States do when uncovering espionage attempts from foreign countries? Well, when it happens, it remains largely a secret. When your enemy knows that you are aware of his current attempts and procedures, the enemy adapts and continues to transform in a game of cat and mouse. But in even the most rudimentary counterintelligence training I’ve received, rule number one: don’t change your behavior…at least not at initial discovery.
What this tells me is Iran is falling into one of two categories
1) It has tremendous inexperience with counterintelligence and doesn’t know when or how to use its discoveries
2) It’s looking for attention
My limited experience in this space tells me that drones and unmanned vehicles are prepped for loss of communication and malfunction. After all, it’s a robot flying thousands of feet above the surface, and often hundreds or thousands of miles away from its operators…mistakes are assumed to happen. Thus, the actual capture of the drone is of little relative value to Iran, and this isn’t really much of the story that everyone seems to be making of it. But then again, I’m not the guy in the hot seat.
I learned a lot in my tour in Afghanistan, but I think the biggest lesson I came away with was Stay Calm. So often, we all turn on the news to find nothing but hysteria and sensationalism. After all, it sells.
Or at least I thought it did. I was very encouraged to read the following report by Vanguard Group:
It was nice to finally see someone reporting good news. In fact, I feel that news outlets have bombarded me over the years with hyped up panic-button articles that, for once, it was eye-catching to read something that was moderately positive, or at least pluralistic. It made me think about all the times when the bullets started flying, or bombs started going off. My initial instinct was to panic, but when I heard the collected voices of my junior NCOs and my rock-solid soldiers on the radio, it helped me be a better officer and lead them in a meditated fashion. Likewise, if we as a country are going to start pealing back the problems of our day, we require leadership that can look at a situation, take a breath, and speak clearly into the microphone in a calming manner.
As reports of the riots in the Middle East continue to flood news outlets, I follow with a distance that is rather peculiar considering my history and interests. Having spent nearly seven months of my four years at West Point in Egypt and Tunisia, I hold a special place in my heart for the people of both countries. After all, they helped me learn their language, and thus gave me a conduit to understanding the depths of one of the world’s most misunderstood regions. And while a call for liberation is certainly worthy of praise, it’s difficult for me to feel proportionally excited for my friends in Egypt and Tunisia, because there is a third country close to my heart that few have considered in this equation: Afghanistan.
One of the biggest misconceptions I brought with me to Kandahar in mid-2009 was how disconnected the society would be from events around the world. I knew the major population centers, like Kabul, would have decent connectivity, but I could not imagine a globally aware population springing up from the isolated villages in Zhari and Maiwand. As my relationships with village leaders and Afghan Army officers strengthened over my 12-month tour, I found that the proliferation of cellphones and radios offered a primitive, but effective, means of relaying world information even in the most remote locations of the Afghan deserts. Concurrently, the information flowed in only one direction, and in my experience with village leaders, was restricted as a privilege for the powerful.
What worries me most as a veteran of Afghanistan is how those village elders with whom I drank chai daily will react to the wave of protests and coups in their brother Arab countries. I’m not talking about the more developed areas around Kabul or Kandahar, but the isolated villages where the Taliban roam and intimidate freely. The leaders of these villages were raised in deep-seated and conservative manifestations of Islam. We in the West may have looked upon the governments of Tunisia and Egypt as dictatorships. But let us empathize with these Afghan tribal elders as they listen to their radios today, hearing of coups toppling leaders, using things like Twitter and Facebook for coordination.
If I were a senior tribal elder in Zhari, I’d look upon these countries and see Egyptian and Tunisian women walking freely outside without escort and without burqas. I’d look at these nations’ youthful resistance as a severe sign of disrespect toward elders, and thus a violation of the patriarchal value system our faith honors. If I were an Afghan tribal leader, it would be easy to designate former Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as victims of their own leadership philosophies — their failure to instill Islamic discipline in the countries they command. I would view their investments in education and communication as the kindling of their downfall.
It’s hard to tell a tribal elder to liberalize his village and let women go to school when he hears of such threats to power happening in other Muslim countries. If I were a tribal elder wanting to retain an Islamic community, it might even be in my best interest to further isolate my village from the toxins of the Internet and equal gender rights to keep away future threats to what is the true Islamic way of life. But the free flow of information, be it through modern or primitive means, is the key to a successful democracy. If grass-roots Afghan leaders view this information flow as a threat to their authority, what are the implications for our goal to democratize this country and leave it more stable than we found it?
The wave of uprisings may be viewed in the contexts of the individual countries, or in the Arab region as a whole. But the fact is that the entire world, including Afghanistan, is watching very closely. As thrilled as I am to see my Egyptian and Tunisian friends in the streets asserting — and achieving — their right to be heard, I know that there are still American, Afghan and NATO lives in grave danger in the same battlefields from which I returned not so long ago. Those are my brothers fighting to bring democracy to a country that has been tormented by war for centuries. It is an intimidating challenge. The voyage has thus far been painful, and the currents of history continue to work against them. I just hope that this wave of liberalization across the Arab world doesn’t push us farther back to shore.
Bruce Fleming recently published an OpEd piece in the New York Times which provoked a rather emotional response from me as he referred to the Service Academies as “mediocre”. He cited a football star receiving preferential treatment for drug use at Navy. He complains that we only produce 20% of our respective officer corps, and are obsolete compared to ROTC and OCS programs. He insists that Academy officers are burnt-out leaders, incapable of maximizing tax-payer investment. Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that the Academies do waste extravagant amounts of time and money for senseless efforts; they need work. But to pin the word mediocre upon these institutions, and thus its graduates who’ve done so much for our country, is absolutely ludicrous.
First, allow me to be the first in Fleming’s supposed vast Academy exposure to argue that YES, an Academy graduate is indeed different than an ROTC or OCS counterpart: not better, but different, and importantly so. I can only speak as a West Pointer, but I believe my perceptions are akin to those from other academies. Every waking moment of my life at West Point was dedicated to serving something greater than myself. Sometimes we serve orders from a higher rank; other times we endure sacrifices to serve the comrades on our left and right. But at all times, we are training and learning to better serve our nation. ROTC programs at civilian universities are simply unable to produce the same intensity in the cadets’ day to day lives.
Most undergraduate students strive for good grades in order to boost their GPAs. Cadets study so they have the answers when lives and equipment are on the line. Most university professors are genius PhDs. West Point Instructors are role models who have already inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle; they have a vested interest in developing the cadets who will one day serve as their Lieutenants when the instructors take battalion and brigade command. Most college students avoid cheating out of fear of getting caught. Cadets do not cheat out of loyalty to a Code and the realization that honor is a virtue that can save American lives and dollars.
Two of the other Lieutenants in my Company are ROTC graduates, the remaining two are OCS. Do they understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. I put my lives in their hands each day. But I feel my Academy experiences afforded me greater insight into the strategic reasoning behind the missions we execute. We’re groomed by the higher echelons of the institution to carry out its orders of critical importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t ROTC and OCS Lieutenants who do not embrace such a broad vantage point, but I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize ethical values, a global perspective, and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.
True, Academy graduates only comprise 20% of each service’s newly commissioned officer class. That being said, Academy graduates also make up over 50% of our military’s Flag Officer corps, meaning the Generals and Admirals charged with our nation’s defense; certainly not titles assigned to the mediocre. Is this high Academy concentration at the Flag level due to favoritism and networking? Sure, perhaps in some part. No institution in the world is a complete meritocracy. But I’d argue that it’s largely because of the culture in which Academy graduates are raised as committed leaders with a global exposure, dedicated to a lifetime of service to the country.
Secondly, Mr. Fleming believes that the Academy admissions process unfairly values athletics, rather than an “accomplished cellist or people from religious minorities.” For starters, I was both an accomplished violinist in High School and a Hindu-Vegetarian upon applying to West Point. I feel these factors contributed to my application, not hindered it, and I know plenty of graduates who fit either mold as well. Furthermore, athletics is highly regarded in our profession as a conduit to solid leadership under physical duress; something I believe most officers would argue should outweigh academic prowess in a military academy’s admissions process.
Mr. Fleming further grumbles of lowered academic admissions standards in the interests of affirmative action. As one who has served as a minority at war, I will assert that race and religion are huge issues in today’s military. I will speak from first-hand experience as the only minority platoon leader in my deployed Company: race and religion matter, and the army needs leaders who understand ethnic social tension. I am not ashamed of my Academy for attempting to produce an officer corps that is ethnically representative of the soldiers and NCOs it leads. The Academies do not admit cadets because of ethnicity, but a candidate’s ability to understand ethnicity and the unique role it plays in grueling military social dynamics.
Finally, Fleming does bring up the valid point that Academy graduates aren’t maximizing return in military service of the nation’s half-million dollar investment. Around 50% of West Point graduates leave the Army after their minimum five year commitment, I’m sure the other Academies’ statistics are comparable. I understand why this appears as a drastic waste of tax-payer money, but remember that Academy graduates still make phenomenal contributions to the country out of uniform. At every Academy event I attend, I meet hundreds of lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, marketing gurus, academics, writers, engineers, and policy makers. Now, Fleming may be angered by Academy graduates’ civilian pursuits; I am reassured by them.
I am thrilled that there are members of the Long Gray Line, former combat platoon leaders like myself, among the financial elites of our American society. It shows me that, among the cohort of Americans profiting most from my soldiers’ sacrifices, there are several who have been in our shoes. There are those who can speak on our behalf when our nation’s power brokers forget the daily blessings they enjoy as citizens of the United States. I am relieved that there are graduates who reassign the military values of service, honor, and loyalty to the mediocre ethical stylings of both Wall Street and Main Street. Perhaps if the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Sterns had a little “service immersion” in their youth, I’d imagine our country would be a lot stronger than it is today. Whether in a Command Post or a Board Room, good leadership transcends its landscape. I’m proud of the Academy graduates who bring weathered leadership where it is most needed.
It seems Mr. Fleming’s criteria for mediocrity rests heavily on academic metrics. But I assure my audience that there is very little that is academic about combat leadership. It is about heart. It is about fortitude, honor, and courage. Now, you may call a West Point or Naval Academy graduate mediocre…but try visiting any other college in America and collecting a thousand 23 year old kids ready to lead just as many lives into hostile fire. I doubt you’ll be successful. To produce a thousand officers with the grit and spirit of warriors and the intellectual curiosity of scholars, we need a venue of tremendous investment and concentration: this is why you need the service academies.
I wonder if Mr. Fleming would have been ready for such a calling at age 23. Even if not, I surely wouldn’t have the arrogance to call him mediocre.
I find it ironic that Mr. Fleming is about to publish a book entitled “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” considering his most recent opinion piece does nothing more than widen it. But I can somehow understand why he would write an article antithetical to the best interests of reconciling civil-military differences so vital to our national security. After all, the bigger wave he makes with such an OpEd piece, the more attention his new book will receive and hopefully the more books he’ll sell. Well, I know I’ll probably buy one now. Congrats, Mr. Fleming…Mission Accomplished.
To the USMA Class of 2010, I’m proud to have served with you. You’re more than ready for the challenges to come. Thank you for your service. We’ll see you on the objective . Live, Serve, and Die We Pray…