Saturday, April 28, 2012

Q&A with Owen West: Advisors in Iraq

Originally published at Small Wars Journal.

Owen West: Hi Peter. Before we get to this, looking at your background, let me ask you a question. Why doesn’t the Corps have an AC-130 per company-sized unit? In Iraq, we advisors and our Iraqi charges were supposedly the focus of effort, but the only time we got gunship support was when we brought a SEAL along!

PJM: Actually, the Marine Corps has fielded a kit to arm the KC-130J called the Harvest HAWK. I was lucky enough to be the detachment officer-in-charge in Afghanistan when we got the first kit. The system places a sensor and laser designator on the wing, along with four Hellfire missiles. Inside, there are 10 Griffin missiles (a modified Javelin). With this punch and over 9 hours of on-station time, this was quite a popular option for troops in Helmand Province.

Moving to our discussion of your book, "The Snake Eaters," which is available May 1, let me first dispel some preconceptions readers may have. This is not 300 pages about Owen West. You do not show up until the last 50 pages of the book. Also, I noted in small print at the back of the book that your net proceeds are being donated to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and to the families of fallen advisors and fallen Iraqi “Snake Eaters” (the title refers to the nickname for Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1).

The Snake Eaters is not a memoir. Originally titled The Advisors, the pronoun “I” didn’t appear in the initial draft. Teams of advisors are like jockeys switching atop a thoroughbred in mid- race. My role in mentoring the Snake Eaters was small. But I was the team leader when the town turned, and the editor at my initial publishing house was adamant about personalizing the story. We parted ways, but he was correct that the “unnamed advisor” was clunky and distracting. So the final pages include first-person perspective on our little awakening. 100% of the proceeds are donated. That’s how I convinced my wife to allow me to shave some hours each night and on the weekends. Only two hundred demerit days to go. Know any country music festivals I can send her to as additional repayment? Ironically, tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which honors Marines—especially the fallen—by educating their children. The tradition was started here in New York in 1962 when an outraged Marine saw a newspaper story of a struggling Medal of Honor winner juxtaposed with a fundraiser for cats in the Style section. He organized a small fundraiser that is today the Leatherneck Ball.

The sense I get from the book is that this is a story that you felt was unknown and needed very much to be told. Advising and security force assistance has been largely accepted as an important mission by 2012, but in 2005 -2006, this critical part of the war was fought by under-trained, under-equipped citizen soldiers, with little help from the big American units next door. Can you tell us the feelings that drove you to write over 600 pages of text and how they changed as you worked through this project? And why did you choose to focus on your predecessors so heavily? Does the answer lie in your first impression of 3/3-1 as a well-trained, professional force in which you could see that, “The ghosts of advisors past walked with them”?

When I returned to the States in the Spring of 2007, I was convinced that an advisor model should be employed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This obviously wasn’t a proprietary idea. Krepinevich had written about it in 2006 and then testified in April of ’07, I think it was, my dad and I outlined an advisor model in May, Nagl made the biggest contribution to the debate in June with a template for an advisor corps, and then that summer I gradually established commlinks with dozens of advisors with diverse experiential bases who were similarly convinced that advising worked. I’d been brought up believing that to have a full opinion you needed to live it, and that if you wanted to fully contribute you had to write it down.

Unfortunately Twitter came along too late to change my view of what writing looked like. To be clear: I’m not a professional writer. I grind. My first draft was over 600 pages. It hurt to cut out some men who contributed so much, but no Snake Eater team saw as much combat as our predecessors, led by Mike Troster, a DEA agent. His team of Army reservists plopped in Marineland included a plumber, a postal worker, a guitarist, and a cop, and they are the focus of this book. More than anything I wanted to contribute to the national debate by memorializing their service and illuminating this mysterious job. President Obama has several times differentiated between advising and combat. That wasn’t the case in Iraq, and I know it’s not the case in Afghanistan. An advisor’s first job is to fight.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"Marines Don't Do That!"

Over the past few months the Corps has been hit with a number of instances that can be directly traced to a lack of Leadership and continuous reinforcement of what is now called "Core Values".  For those of us whom are "Long in the Tooth", we've seen these problems surface before and the way we've always dealt with them is via honest, aggressive, clear-headed and pragmatic Leadership that emphasized the implementation of the time-tested 11 USMC Leadership Principles and strict adherence to the 14 USMC Leadership Traits.

The Marine Corps Gazette has also done yeoman work in helping Marine Leaders [in this effort] by publishing poignant articles that provided clear-cut guidance on what we expect of our Marines and one of the best is Base Plate McGurk's timeless Feb 1983 Essay titled: "Marines Don't Do That!" . . .

Base Plate and his Pals at "The Ale and Quail" know what they're talking because the values they promote are timeless and I can tell you from firsthand experience that they work - as long as one is willing to make the hard decisions. 

Tien len!  Muon doc lap phai do mau!


Paul Stokes, Major, USMC, Ret
Director of Operations
Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School

From the Marine Corps Gazette archives: "Marines Don't Do That," by Base Plate McGurk, February 1983.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sitting Judgement on the Troops; The Photo Scandal Controversies

The recent decision by the L.A. Times to publish the photographs of American soldiers posing with Talib body parts re-ignited the firestorm raised by the Marine urination photographs: is the American media anti-military and putting our troops at risk, are, were the newspapers standing up to Pentagon pressure and to be commended for demonstrating the value of a free press, or are these acts excusable due to the stress the Marines and soldiers are experiencing?

This isn’t just an academic debate; as a combat journalist for Leatherneck my journalistic integrity has twice been probed when I speak in front of various colleges and graduate schools. The students don’t understand that I have no intention of being a cynical journalist as I live with young men who will haul me out of a firefight. My answer was “I don’t have to be impartial – I have to be accurate,” so let me suggest that the current controversy over these photos misses the point.

It’s worth remembering that in every case the photographs were taken by the Marines and soldiers themselves and emailed to others. No ‘liberal media’ appeared uninvited and secretly snapped pictures; in every case the troops were smiling and grinning to the camera.

But in today’s highly politicized world the newspapers can’t win: if they publish, they’re called anti-American defeatists, yet if they don’t publish they’re complicit in a cover-up and tools of the Pentagon. But since bad news always seems to surface, I’d suggest that decision to publish the photos was the correct one.

Book Review: Owen West's "The Snake Eaters"

Originally posted at the Small Wars Journal.
Judging the book, “The Snake Eaters” (Free Press, May 1, 2012) by Owen West by its cover, I would never have picked it up.  I would have been wrong.  I would have assumed that this was another first-person “there I was” tale from Iraq.  After hearing far too many contractors and retirees try to slyly slur that they “have a bit of a SOF background” in a conspiratorially lowered voice, I would have assumed that the title referred to another attempt to anoint some unit or experience as “special.” 

I would have been wrong.  Owen West has written an eminently useful and readable account of an advisory team in Iraq that, without being pedantic, should make us question the conventional wisdom about counterinsurgency, advising, and what works and does not.  It should also add to our anger about opportunities squandered, troops left twisting in the wind without the proper training and support, and a conceptually ill-disciplined force wandering every which way, rather than fighting a consistent and unified battle.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tragic News Demands Marine Corps Social Media Leadership, Not Retreat

Marines pay their final respects to Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, a dog handler and mortarman who served with Weapons Company, 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, during a memorial service, April 22. Tarwoe was killed in action during a dismounted patrol in Helmand province's Marjah district, April 12. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez)
Moments after I posted my sympathies about the loss of two Marines in Afghanistan on their unit's Facebook page, it was gone. Deleted. Arbitrarily removed as a violation by their public affairs office.

The Department of Defense had published a release about them, but the unit rarely mentioned combat casualties on their page.

One of the public affairs Marines with Regional Command Southwest scolded me in a private message and said he took it down. What were the reasons? Did it violate any of the official terms of use of military social media sites?

“Frankly, it does because we say it does... it read as pointless, shallow and unprofessional.” the staff noncommissioned officer said.

I tried to parse that exchange with the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said we must be seen as the good guys “... (not by) some slick PR campaign or by trying to out-propagandize al-Qaeda, but rather through the steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time.”

A base level of transparency and honesty must be kept in order to remain a source of information for both our troops and the public.

That line is challenged most often in the case of Marines killed in the line of duty. It is not a bad news story, but is an unfortunate reality of a nation in the midst of a decade-long war. Our nature in the military is to keep our darkest moments to ourselves, but if we wish to establish a foothold in this social space, we must accept that those habits need change. A unit may lose a Marine, but the nation can and should mourn that loss.

This is a place much different from the one our leaders were brought into. Twenty-some years ago when they were commissioned, the internet did not exist. Reporters came on base for a story now and then, but the military was not engaged in long wars. We weren’t the center of attention.

Now, our president shares his thoughts in 140 character bursts. The sergeant major of the Army responds directly to soldiers’ questions online.The Arab Spring was organized and reported on the smart phones and laptops of a young, connected class of citizens.

If we accept that social media is a tool commanders should embrace like any other, then we also owe it to ourselves to consider how we are using it.

A snapshot of recent Facebook posts shows that the 200 Marine commands on Facebook are reaching out to many different audiences: Earn an associates degree in TV repair at the base education center. US Marines train with Filipinos. Female officers will attend infantry school. There's a joke about the “Army survival manual” page one: call in the Marines. Afghans are taught explosive ordnance removal. And don't miss the wine tasting Friday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the graduating class at West Point last year about the dangers of not being as open as possible with the American people. A point put into executive order by the president.

“We in uniform do not have the luxury anymore of assuming that our fellow citizens understand it the same way ... This is important, because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them,” Mullen said.

Social media allows us to tell our own story quicker than ever before and unfiltered by any journalist’s pen. It is the most revolutionary concept in communications, and the way we go about communicating death will prove to the public how serious we are about being a part of this new era. We must change not only for the sake of honesty regarding the costs of war but to recognize brave men and women, honor them, and let their friends and families know that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.

On April 11, two Marine pilots with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit died in a training accident in Morocco. Shortly after, Headquarters Marine Corps' Marines Facebook page offered a short status update on the situation. The names hadn’t been released, but the few details that were available were published. They made it clear: we’re the source for information – even sad information.

Meanwhile, the 24th MEU took its Facebook page offline.

In the days after the accident as the names of the Marines were released, Headquarters Marine Corps again was in front sharing that info while the MEU page had disappeared. They eventually came back online and offered this explanation: “We unpublished our page out of respect for the proper release of information to the families that lost a Marine.”

I reached out to Tech. Sgt. Jared Marquis, Content Management Course instructor at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Md., for a response on this approach. He explained, “Shutting down a Facebook (page) during this time frame is not going to stop the conversation from happening. The only thing it does, in my opinion, is limit the ability of the (public affairs) office or unit to educate people on the importance of waiting until the official release. It also eliminates the ability to push out key messages. The conversation is going to take place because the audience shares more than the unit Facebook. It will happen person to person, or in other groups … The problem with this is that now the (public affairs) office or unit is no longer even involved in the conversation and has no rumor control or education options. In addition, the unit runs the risk of losing audience members. If people feel they can get information, even incorrect information, somewhere else, they will.”

Did the postings by HQMC show a lack of respect for the proper release of information to the families that lost a Marine? Or did HQMC strengthen their role as a news source while the MEU forfeited some of its own credibility?

The video story about the crash has been seen more than 8,000 times and the posts about the crash on their Facebook wall were some of the most popular posts of the week. For the MEU, we can look back at a post from a few weeks prior to measure the effect of their actions.

On March 27, just as they were heading off on deployment, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit began warning its 17,000 Facebook fans that they were considering taking down the page. The command cited comments as a security concern. They promised if the page was taken down to continue to work with traditional media to provide information about their Marines to the world back home. Mothers and spouses responded to the announcement begging the command to keep this line of communication open.

‎One poster wrote, “I am feeling a bit of anxiety as the tears run done (sic) my cheeks at the thought of you canceling this page.” Another pleaded, “Please be considerate of others this is their only way for information of their loved ones.”

Their audience was telling them they did not want to use traditional media to follow the Marines, and they were upset at the very suggestion of such an old idea.

The issue of military deaths and Facebook is understandably difficult because of that paradigm shift. A generation ago memorial services were closed affairs, safe behind the base gates. Leaders were mentored by a group who remembered Vietnam as a war spoiled by the media’s desire to use death as a “gotcha” story on the nightly news.

Once we joined the social space we accepted some basic ground rules. One of which is that honest and open communication is the duty of the company and the right of the consumer. Today’s generation is inherently more transparent in actions and expectations.

Tragic news does not require us to avoid the conversation but begs us to lead it. Headquarters Marine Corps has demonstrated the success of that thinking by attracting the largest audience of any military branch. Embracing a policy of transparency and being willing to engage and lead the discussion on one of our most sensitive topics is vital to our credibility as a military institution. If we do that, we can tell the world we take care of our own even on their worst days, and we can show the dedication Marines have to gear up and head out on the next patrol.

EDIT, Thursday May 26, 9:04 p.m.: this post has been edited to include the full name and title of the DINFOS instructor quoted.

This piece has been republished in Social Media Today.

Randy Clinton is an active-duty Marine. He is a public affairs specialist and manages the social media site for his unit. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corps.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Disruptive Thinking and Opportunistic Leadership

Over at Small Wars Journal, I wade into the disruptive thinkers debate and drop a little Marine Corps history. Read it here.

Also, catch up on Disruptive Thinkers pieces by Jonathan Jeckell, David Wise, and Mark Mazarr.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Disruptive Thinking: Needed or Nuisance?

There is an important debate going on at the Small Wars Journal.  Navy LT Benjamin Kohlmann (and instructor pilot at VMFAT-101) offered an essay the other day on why "The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers."  The interest and debate was overwhelming.  I followed up today with an essay entitled "Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem."  There are more essays pending for what has become quite a hot-button topic.  Weigh in here or at SWJ.  The below excerpt is a snippet of the dialogue.
"The Department of Defense is exhibiting the classic symptoms of a “resource advantaged” corporation that has passed its prime, as I will describe in slightly more detail below. This is a common problem in the business world and, while we cannot run the military entirely like a business, we can certainly learn lessons from the business world about how to avoid decline into irrelevance and how to regain competitiveness. Sure, the U.S. military remains peerless, however we must acknowledge that it has lost some of its edge and surely has passed the point of diminishing budgetary returns. At the grand strategic level, we must recognize that a national security apparatus that insists that we must spend as much on defense as the next 19 nations combined, only two of which can be defined as potential adversaries, has lost sight of the big picture. We should be seeking to husband our fiscal resources and recreate the conditions for our hegemony by investing not only in military capabilities, but in the bases of our economic predominance. Thus, the problem we are trying to solve is as follows. America’s defense complex faces a period of strategic reset and retrenchment, during which disruptive thinking is required in order to challenge the status quo and effect a reorganization and reprioritization of the Department of Defense and its industrial and conceptual supporters. A detailed treatise on all the aspects of this challenge and the potential solutions lies far beyond the scope of this essay. My intent here is only to begin to outline the broadest aspects of the mission and to highlight some specific problem areas where disruptive thinking is needed and some solutions have already been suggested."

Saved Rounds 120409

Bing West - The Last US Field Commander in Afghanistan
The Diplomat - Taking the Piracy Fight Ashore
Fast Transients - Real OODA Loop and IWCKI
Marine Corps Times - Marine General Faces Battle with Cancer
Foreign Policy - Trained in the U.S.A.
New York Times At War blog - A Short History of Blood Chits
Foreign Policy- This Week at War - The Navy's Pacific Problem
Abu Muqawama - America in Australia
Rethinking Security - Why Operational Access is No Revolution
Paradigm Cure - The Truth That Refuses to be Spoken
O'Brien on Leadership - Why Your Staff is Growing
Gunpowder and Lead - Coups and the Politics of Security Assistance
The Best Defense - Mattis to Daddis: Strategy Should Come from Civilians, Not Generals Who Execute
Small Wars Journal - The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers
Foreign Policy - This Week At War: Syria as Prologue
Wings over Iraq - Slipping Through the Cracks
Zenpundit - The Strategic Dilemma of Bitter-Enders
Marine Corps Times - Afghans, U.S. Sign Deal On Night Raids
Marine Corps Times - Marines Poised for More Philippine Tours
Rethinking Security - The Return of Power Projection

Friday, April 6, 2012

Why Physical Fitness Research Is Important to the Marine Corps

There is an endless supply of workout programs. A quick Google search will find bulk up workouts, endurance workouts, boot camp workout, etc. Which of these is most beneficial to Marines? It can be argued that each of these programs have some usefulness to Marines. However which one would be the best at preparing Marines for deployment to a combat zone?

Numerous research articles have been written (see the end of this post for a few sources) on this topic. However few if any have used a large active duty population for their sample population. None of these studies follow Marines over an extended period of time such as 3 or 4 years.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Myth of the Post-Power Projection Era

These were Frank Hoffman's kickoff comments at the Expeditionary Warrior game Mar. 5, 2012.
There is a myth in this town that power projection in the traditional sense is obsolete. Let me be precise, there is an emerging but erroneous sense among the Defense Illuminati of Washington that what we call expeditionary power projection or classical amphibious operations are passe. James Thomas of the well-respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has said we face the prospect of a “Post-Power Projection era.” He was not talking about global strike or virtual Stand Off warfare, he was talking about one of the foundations of our American primacy and influence; our forward bases, our incomparable reach and assured operational access.

Thomas is not alone nor the first to point out that several regional powers are acquiring capabilities designed to target U.S. naval and aerospace assets and their supporting bases with greater precision and lethality. This difficulty has been echoed Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, also from CSBA. He noted that the Defense Department was overly invested in “wasting assets” based on outdated operating concepts including amphibious power projection.

Such commentary, in the midst of the Pentagon’s efforts to define budget priorities in an era of declining resources, has led to recommendations that would reduce if not eliminate the amphibious component of the U.S. power projection arsenal. One such study, conducted by the Center for a New American Security concluded that Amphibious Warfare could be eliminated as a mission since we had not conducted an opposed landing for 60 years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Operational Access is No Revolution

This post was coauthored with Nate Finney and originally posted at Adam Elkus's Rethinking Security blog.  Nathan K. Finney is an Army officer and strategist (Functional Area 59) currently assigned to the Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth. He previously served at the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan and writes for various journals and blogs, including hisown, on issues that involve security sector reform, security force assistance, stability operations, and the integration of civilian and military agencies. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Army or Department of Defense.

The newest shiny object in the military – the concept that will bring about a “revolution in military affairs” following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is operational access. This concept has its roots in two reports from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which asked “Why AirSea Battle?” and set “A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept” around AirSea Battle. These concepts ultimately led to the establishment of an AirSea Battle Office in the Department of Defense and the publication of the overall thematics of AirSea Battle pushed in the Joint Operational Access Concept. It is important to note that the creation of this AirSea Battle concept was tasked to the Air Force and the Navy by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Losing the battle of the budgetary narrative, the US Army and US Marine Corps recently joined the bandwagon by publishing their addition to the operational access concept – Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Blocking and Tackling for Intel Training

As the Marine Corps braces for budget and personnel cuts and a transition to peacetime, our training programs will revert to general skills without a particular deployment in mind. With the inevitable lack of funding and the difficulties of conducting intelligence training without an active enemy, how can intelligence shops across the Marine Corps best utilize their limited time and resources? It starts by identifying our core mission requirements and capabilities and focusing our attention towards the mastery of those requirements. These tasks are the equivalent of blocking and tackling for an intelligence section.  Nothing fancy, just the basics.

Consider a few of the following questions:

• What are the absolute basic skills that an effective intelligence shop needs to possess?
• What skills are utilized across the range of military conflicts?
• Which have an excellent return on time invested and are not outdated by technological changes?
• How can we use our deep experience to better train a section without that knowledge growing stale?

With these questions in mind, I have identified a few basic tasks that all intelligence shops should be trained to conduct. While in no way exhaustive, it does touch upon some of the timeless requirements of an intelligence section.

Core Intelligence Skills
- Conduct effective patrol and unit debriefs
- Write clear, concise reports
- Effectively brief superiors in a timely manner
- Know and implement operational security techniques
- Threat Analysis- DRAW-D, EMPCOA, etc