I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting to 50%

Matza, for my non-Jewish friends who may not know, is a cracker-like substance that we eat during Passover. It’s unleavened bread, meant to remind us of our hasty escape from Egypt when we didn’t have enough time to stop and let the dough rise. It has certainly always reminded me of our dash through the Sinai, what with being as dry as the desert and tasting like baked sand.

Passover ended a few weeks ago now, but I've still got some left over Matza that I'm nibbling on at the moment.  I have to admit that this year the taste, unpleasant though it is compared to, well, food (Matza is technically a building material) was actually somewhat welcome. It’s such a unique flavor that it instantly transported me to the large, rowdy Seders that we held in our home when I was growing up. Last year I managed to miss both Seders on Camp Leatherneck, and this year if I’m not the only Jew for 30 miles then the others are keeping a low profile. So a little Matza, some Kedem grape juice and of course some Osem coconut cake for dessert were a nice break from the routine. Special shout out to the Jewish War Veterans and Project MOT for their unexpected but much appreciated K-for-P care packages.

In other news, the MST is at it again, having pulled the plug on the unfettered if, uh, unhurried Internet access we briefly had in the tents. We’ve filed our appeal (haha), but for now it’s back to the computer cans for a few minutes online, usually around 11:00 AM eastern if you’re wondering. I know, I know. Cans instead of cot. War is hell.

Of course this also means no more Skype. We do have a satellite phone now which I haven’t used as often as I should, so if you get a phone call from some strange-looking number don’t screen it, it’s probably me. I’m told it sometimes comes up as an 808 area code. That’s Hawaii – a place that I am, I’m pretty sure, not in.

In non-me related news, the fighting pre-season is over – those few weeks in early spring when the weather warms but before the (poppy) harvest causes things to quiet down. The lull should last a few more weeks or so, and then comes the regular season, as it were. Still, we’ve had a few busy days here and there. As always I can’t get into specifics – which trust me is as frustrating for me as for you – but I will say that the diversity of crap that is happening is greater than what I remember from last time.

That said, I think a lot of people view the sensationalism and the deadliness of insurgent attacks as a metric of our success (or failure). IMHO, it’s the wrong metric – or at least it’s an incomplete and often misleading one. To offer an imperfect but perhaps illustrative analogy, Hitler’s concentration camps were never so murderously industrious as in the waning months of the war, but the increasing pile of bodies was hardly an indicator of underlying German strength – just the opposite.

Or to fast-forward a generation, one of the lessons I thought we learned in Vietnam was that body count isn’t how you measure success in war (though it can be a pretty direct measure of success in individual battles). It’s true for us, and it’s true for them. In counter-insurgency – or in the “transition and support” phase that we’re currently in – I think you’re winning as long as the number of secure areas, supportive civilians and capable indigenous security forces keeps growing. I guess that’s a form of body-counting too, but it’s the living bodies, not the dead ones, and that is kind of an important distinction.

So, to use a prevalent phrase around here, are the positive atmospherics spreading? Are the good vibrations…vibrating? From what I see they are, albeit not without setbacks, but I’ve got a limited view. Unlike most of the chattering class I was encouraged by the remarkable success of the ANSF during the recent attacks in Kabul and a few other places. As I wrote to my family at the time:

    In war, people carry out attacks. In this form of war, the Taliban and their allies target civilians and diplomats, but even outside of war, what happened in Kabul and elsewhere could have happened in Washington, D.C. or New York or Moscow or Jerusalem. I'm no Dwight D (though I am a captain-select) but it seems to me that the end results of those attacks are quite encouraging militarily. If the goal is an indigenous security force capable of containing, combating and defeating such a complex, coordinated attack, the events of two days ago showed that the ANSF are much further along than most people realized. From what I can gather (and this is all public information) there were over three dozen attackers, including over 20 suicide bombers, and nearly every single one was killed or captured before he could cause casualties. ISAF provided almost no assistance because none was requested or needed. Further, out of 11 non-Taliban deaths, 8 were Afghan security forces killed in the line of duty and only three were civilians.

Now is the price we’re paying for this progress worth it? That’s something each voter back home has to decide for him or herself. In country, in uniform, it’s not my place to state my opinion on matters of policy – and you know how hard that can be for me.

But will the successes stick? Will Americans enjoy greater security as a result of our investment here? There are no guarantees, but I believe we have the power to shape those answers over the next few years. I’ll leave it at that.

Well it has been over a month since my last post – what else can I share? As you saw in that e-mail excerpt, I’ve been selected for promotion to Captain. There’s no telling when I’ll actually get promoted – I’m number 600-something on a list just shy of 2000 – but I’m hopeful it’ll happen before my EAS – End of Active Service – date of 1 December.

That’s right, it’s been nearly four years since I took the oath (December 12, 2008 to be exact) and more than four years since I first started this journey, with those painful months of whipping myself into shape for OCS. I always suspected I’d do my four years and move on to the next thing, but I didn’t want to make the decision until I absolutely had to. Technically, that won’t be until August, assuming the “career designation” board offers me the opportunity to stay in. But having spent 15 of the last 25 months in Afghanistan and a good chunk of the other 10 months away from home for training, I’m ready to pursue other things. No doubt I’ll have more to say on that as the date approaches.

I've got some pictures to post...but for whatever reason I'm being blocked from uploading them right now.  I'll try again when the MST is sleeping.

And lastly, in newspaper news, I think I’ve only linked here to my very first Conway Daily Sun article. I’ve had two more published since: Respect and Suspicion and Long Day. They’re meh at best…the second one especially I don’t really like. It reads like a rambling transcript from a therapy session – but hey, at least it gives you a sense of life out here. The one I’ve just written, which will hopefully be published soon, is a little better and at least somewhat coherent from start to finish. It’s called “V-mail and Gmail.”

Well I think that about wraps it up. My tracker thing says I'm almost 50% done with this deployment.  I'll drink (some grape juice) to that. 

I’m pretty terrible at knowing what people back at home might want to hear more about so if there’s anything, just let me know!