Copyright by John T. Reed
Nate Sassaman was the quarterback of the Army football team and led them to their first-ever bowl victory (it was the first bowl Army was allowed to play in). He graduated from West Point in 1985 and was a battalion commander in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He retired from the Army after 20 years as a result of an Article 15—roughly the equivalent of a serious traffic ticket to which you plead guilty. A couple of his soldiers decided to jerk two Iraqis around by throwing them into a two- or three-foot deep pond. One supposedly drowned, but no proof was obtained that the body offered was the individual in question. At least one intelligence source said the guy who supposedly died was, in fact, alive and well. Sassaman says using dead bodies to demand, and get, compensation from Americans is a standard fraud nowadays in Iraq. Sassaman told his men not to say anything about throwing the Iraqis in the water and later admitted having done that.
Sassaman says he did, “...what was right in view of the circumstances, as opposed to blindly making his men walk the gangplank.” Not valid. His men needed to take responsibility for what they did and Sassaman needed to take responsibility for not preventing it. However, acccording to Sassaman’s account, nothing of note happened. Once he covered up the forcing men into the water detail, he needed to take responsibility for that. His circumstances/gangplank explanation is an excuse and we were taught at West Point to say “No excuse,” not to make excuses. He needed to prevent shenannigans and be truthful about them after they happened, but if Sassaman’s account is correct, this incident was roughly the equivalent of a schoolboy prank, not anything for anyone to get excited about.
Based on what I read in his book, I like Sassaman. He sounds like an excellent officer in general—superlative in Iraq combat when allowed to do what he thought was best.
I think his trouble that ended his career happened because of Abu Ghraib and would not have happened given the same facts were it not for Abu Ghraib. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, the Army wanted to be seen as tough on any mistreatment of prisoners. The Army that I know ignores similar stuff routinely. I don’t agree with that, but Sassaman’s main “crime” seems to be that he failed to detect a shift in the political winds in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. The Army felt they needed to make an example of the next guy to be around mistreatment of prisoners and seemingly innocuous events cast Sassaman in that role.
Man out of time
Sassaman also called himself a “man out of time.” That apparently means a man who was good, but who looked bad because he was born too soon or too late.
I don’t think he was born too late. Had he been born earlier, he would have been with me in Vietnam. Commanding men guilty of throwing two Viet Cong or NVA soldiers into a pond such that one allegedly drowned would have produced about the same result back then. Whether his behavior will turn out to be considered OK in the near future remains to be seen, but I see no reason to believe that will be the case.
In fact, he was punished and his career ended for getting caught, not for the behavior of his troops or the cover-up. The military does crap like that on a daily basis and covers it up. The Pat Tillman incident is another recent example where they got caught—although little punished. The U.S. military is absolutely in favor of everything Sassaman did, but when one of their own gets caught doing that which they want, they shamelessly and hypocritically claim they are “shocked, shocked” that he covered it up and they punish him for public-relations purposes.
Sassaman says much the same thing I say in my various articles designed to inspire the U.S. military to reform. Since he is an Iraq vet and was a battalion commander there, he is able to add detail about that conflict and that level of command that I did not experience.
Sassaman talks at some length about the male-female relationships stressed or destroyed by the military. There was a great episode of the TV documentary Carrier that did a great job illustrating those stresses and break-ups. Young people entering the military do not sufficiently appreciate those stresses and probabilities. The military does too little to ameliorate them.
SNAFU and FUBAR
Sassaman also devotes much space—maybe most of the book—to what he refers to as the SNAFU and FUBAR nature of the U.S. military. SNAFU is Situation Normal All Fouled Up—a saying of military personnel that dates back to World War II. FUBAR is another informal military acronym Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. I translate them loosely and with an eye toward cleaning them up for a family audience.
Incompetent, corrupt, etc.
Put bluntly, the U.S. military is not the super skilled force that is depicted by the military itself and many Hollywood movies and TV programs. In fact, the military is profoundly screwed up, corrupt, incompetent, and extremely dangerous to its members and the nation. This is primarily due to its federal government bureaucracy, Soviet-style central planning, and the poor quality of many of its recruits and the relatively poor quality of those who choose to stay in the military as a career as a group. Generally, the best young enlisted personnel and officers leave the military at the earliest possible opportunity leaving a less appropriate group of people to get promoted and run the operation.
Career military personnel dispute that vehemently. Tough. They are what they are. No one need rely on my comments or theirs to judge them. Their record speaks for itself. Sassaman’s book is now part of that record and it is yet another in a long line of military memoirs that reveal what the military is really like, not what is depicted by recruiting brochures, military public relations personnel, Hollywood myth, and the memoirs of top generals.
For example, Sassaman was sent to Iraq to be a battalion commander. That’s normally about 500 men. He says he had 800. Either way, it’s kind of a big deal.
Yet when he arrived, there was no one and no instructions on how he was to get from Kuwait to his unit in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. He had to hitchhike using military aircraft and motor vehicles from Kuwait to the location of his unit. I had to do the same in Vietnam, but not to get to my initial assignment. There, I was promptly sent to a replacement depot where I got jungle uniforms, military scrip money, and so forth. Then I was transported to my unit—II Field Force HQ—by military vehicle. At II Field Force, they promptly sent me to my unit. I do not recall sleeping more than one night in the replacement depot and my next night’s sleep was in the hooch where I was an officer for many months.
I was a 1st lieutenant then. Sassaman was a lieutenant colonel and slated to take over command of a battalion. Most lieutenant colonels never get that honor. Yet he was essentially homeless and dedicated transportationless from when he arrived in the Middle East until he found his way to his unit. He spent one night sleeping on a pallet outside a concrete shack next to an American operated runway. His final-leg plane was hit by ground fire as it was landing! The current U.S. military is apparently even more SNAFU than when I was in, which is saying something.
Not trying to win the war
Most importantly, Sassaman says we were not trying to win the war, just trying “to put the best face possible on” it. Apparently, that part of the U.S. military has not changed since Vietnam. I made that same comment about my experience in Vietnam. See my various articles at www.johntreed.com/military.html. A 21st century West Point grad said she had the same impression in Iraq. No one trying to win the war, just “pay your debt to society” then go home.
“Looking good was tantamount to doing good,” says Sassaman on page 3. “...all very much surface stuff... little or nothing to do with the root of the mission...”
I have repeatedly said the same thing: that the U.S. military, including my alma mater West Point, is too content to talk a good game and look the part and insufficiently interested in correcting the problems that led to defeat in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and likely in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are focused on process and not focused on results. See my article on that. Such a focus is typical of and almost the definition of bureaucrats, not warriors as the military lately likes to call themselves.
Sassaman says the best top officers are those who have been in actual combat. That’s logical. And it describes Sassaman’s resume. The problem is it also describes the resumes of General William Westmoreland who lost the Vietnam war, and the many generals who were relieved for incompetence in the Civil War and World War II. It does not describe the generals who were relieved for incompetence in Vietnam because the incompetent generals were not relieved in Vietnam. They were promoted. It also fails to explain the success of generals who never saw combat close up as troop commanders like Jomini, Marshall and Eisenhower.
In fact, although logic supports the conclusion that the best generals have been in combat as soldiers or combat leaders, the empirical evidence does not support that conclusion. Successful generalship apparently does not require, and may not even benefit from, front-line combat experience. West Point taught Sassaman logic and the scientific method better than that.
Sassaman says he has always been optimistic but that “...Iraq sucked much of that out of me.”On page 207 he says,
For a while it had seemed as though there was real purpose to our work, but much of that spirit of nobility had been drained by now. In my heart, I questioned whether it was possible to turn things around.
I went through that same sad metamorphosis, although again it was during my first ten days with a U.S. Army unit, the 101st Airborne Division. I was jaw-dropping appalled at the incomptence, sloth, and not-even-batting-an-eye corruption. It’s been so long since my time with the 101st that I barely remember why I loved the Army before I met the Army. Reading books like Sassaman’s and David Hackworth’s About Face remind me of the noble notions I had of the Army and the Hollywood images I had of what Army officers do. Being an Army officer could be a great career. Sassaman, Hackworth, and even I had moments when it lived up to our pre-active-duty notions about what it would be like. But they were fleeting and anomalous. The overriding, vast-majority-of-the-time and controlling fact is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where careerists thrive and idealists are shredded.
All family and tribe
According to Sassaman, and others I’ve read, the Iraqis are loyal to their relatives and tribe and other parochial groups in ascending order of closeness to them. They are not loyal to any principles. It’s all rule of man, not rule of law. They are not interested in democracy, capitalism, etc. When Sassaman’s men got into a firefight with insurgents who fired on them, a civilian mother of a young child was wounded. The Americans tried to med-evac her, but the Iraqis put her on the front lawn of her relatives’ house where she bled to death. The sick bastards to whom she was related then let her baby starve to death solely because he was the son of a woman killed by the Americans! They refused to pay any attention to the fact that the woman was killed in a crossfire instigated by the insurgents and that the Americans had no desire to kill the woman nor any knowledge that she was where she was at the time.
Not suited to 9 to 5
On page 42, Sassaman says he considered “the private sector” when his five-year obligation was up, but after a few interviews, he realized that he, “was completely unsuited to the suffocation of the nine-to-five world; and that remains true to this day.”
Gimme a break! For starters, his division of the world into the exciting Army and the “nine-to-five cubicle private sector” is childlike. The Army is eight-to-four except for rare periods like combat assignments and occasional field training. One of Sassaman’s jobs was in admissions at West Point. Why was that not a “suffocating 9-to-5 cubicle assignment?” Furthermore, the Army is a federal government bureaucracy. It offers the excitement of hurry up and wait, SNAFU, and shoe shining infinitely more than its Hollywood image of non-stop combat.
The civilian world is infinitely varied. You can work anywhere in the world, indoors or out, nine to five, five to nine, nights, weekends, intermittently, 16 hours a day, etc. The civilian world is real. You compete as Sassaman did on the football field on a daily basis in the civilian business world. I would recommend he become a football coach, which I understand he is now doing part time. That is civilian and it is not nine-to-five although you do often have a cubicle and if you are a high school teacher in addition, it is an eight-to-four working hours position. If the entire civilian world is nine-to-five cubicles, what exactly does he plan to do now that he is out of the Army and has declared the entire civilian job market beneath his action-figure self!
I suggest he admit his “suffocation” pronouncement was bullshit coming out of the mouth of an ignorant, arrogant, narrow young man and get real with the rest of his life.
Non-combat combat officers and non-coms
Sassaman says career officers were “climbing over each other” to get into Desert Storm. Why? He says they wanted a combat patch for their right shoulder. He further says they had no interest in actual combat per se, they just wanted to set foot in the combat zone so they could get that patch.
In the Army, you wear the patch of your current unit on your left shoulder. You normally wear no patch on your right shoulder. But if you were ever in combat, you can wear the patch of the unit you were in during your combat tour on your right shoulder. When I was in the Army, during the Vietnam war which ended in 1973, almost everyone had a combat patch on their right shoulder, and those who did not did not want one. But I am not surprised my what Sassaman says because when Desert Storm happened in 1991, few career soldiers had such combat patches. See my article on whether military personnel all earned their medals.
Sassaman further says that those who did not get to serve in Desert Storm got out in droves because they figured they could no longer compete with those who did for promotions. They were wrong about that. Would that the Army were so logical.
He repeatedly accuses many non-coms and fellow officers of cowardice and aversion to combat and activities that might lead to combat like patrolling outside the wire (the border of the base camp). I am surprised to read this. I recall few such reports in Vietnam other than some of our foreign allies and some rear-area officers who were reluctant to even visit the front.
PhD in military history
On pages 52 and 53, Sassaman names a general whom he says was the only active officer with a PhD in military history. I guarantee you there is more than one civilian with such a degree. Typical of the U.S. military that it would send zillions of officers to study less relevant subjects. One of my classmates got a PHD in philosophy paid for the Army. International relations is big, in spite of the fact that killing foreigners is a more accurate description of the military’s job than relating to them. Granted, such relations are tangentially helpful, but they are not military. Military history is.
On pages 54 and 55, Sassaman reveals that generals are shameless politicians. Well, that’s what I always heard when I was cadet at West Point. I am surprised Sassaman did not learn that until he worked with a general closely.
Sassaman often expresses poignant thoughts about the effect of his military career on his wife and kids. It seems pretty awful, but like most career military families, they grin and bear it. To me, life is too short. I doubt military families would be so compliant if they had ever experienced adult civilian life. That is probably the main reason the military recruits teenagers and promotes only from within. Grown-up civilians who knew better would never put up with the way the military treats families.
Sassaman also says that many career military people like being separated from their families. I agree. I saw that, too. But those guys should not have families.
However, I must note the Clintonesque nature of Sassaman’s protestations that he did not like being away from his wife and kids. Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana, but said he did not inhale. Sassaman admits much separation from his wife and kids, but says he did not like it. Either way, they did it. I did not. Neither did the vast majority of people. Sassaman did not have to do it. He could have gotten out of the military. He could have made assignment choices within the military based in his family being first. Instead, he made those choices based on his career being first. Actions speak louder than words.
America is not trying to win the war in Iraq
According to Sassaman, the U.S. is not trying to win the war in Iraq. I believe him. He offers numerous facts as proof. They are persuasive. I saw the same stuff or slightly different variations of it in Vietnam.
Unless they are forced to do otherwise, the U.S. military will feather their combat area nests. The tendency of today’s military is not to win wars but to increase their creature comforts the longer they are in country. There will be an officer’s golf course in the green zone if the U.S. stays in Iraq long enough. I do not believe the Army or Marines built any golf courses in Europe or the Pacific between 1941 and 1945.
Sassaman severely criticizes his superior in Iraq, a brigade commander. He describes him as a guy suited to be a commander of a brigade not in combat. Since the whole purpose of an infantry brigade is to be in combat, and stateside brigades can be sent into combat on a few days notice, Sassaman is saying the guy was not fit to be a brigade commander at all.
Sassaman says the various battalion and brigade and division commanders were allowed to do their own thing even when their own thing violated military best practices like aggressive patrolling and when the inconsistencies between predecessors and successor units were detrimental to any plausible mission definition and where inconsistencies between adjacent U.S. units, like Sassaman’s infantry battalion and nearby Civil Affairs units, were undermining each other.
Sassaman says his infantry brigade commander repeatedly said to him, “If you never patrol, no one will ever get hurt.”
The alternative to patrolling is to stay inside your base camp except when ordered out. Failure to patrol gives the enemy freedom of action and increased ability to set ambushes, fire mortars, intimidate the civilian populace, and so on.
Someone once said that a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for. The same is true of infantry and armor battalions.
The basic idea of military personnel risking their lives in battle is that more Americans will die in the long run if we violate best practices and principles of war like the best defense is a good offense and taking the initiative to avoid casualties in the short run.
During his tour in Iraq, Sassaman had to switch to another area. When he returned to his old area, he found that in just two weeks of absence, the progress had begun to crumble because the other American unit that replaced him did not maintain the security of the civilians thhe way Sassamon’s unit had.
Arrive and leave as a unit
Today, as in World Wars I and II, U.S. soldiers arrive in the war zone as a unit and depart the same way. In Vietnam, we all arrived and left as individuals. Not doing that is supposedly one of the lessons of Vietnam. In fact, both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage of the Iraq approach is one unit gets to know the local people then gets yanked out an d the new American unit knows nobody and nothing and blunders in and undoes all the good created by the relationships built by the prior commander and his men. Probably the best approach would be an overlap such that the old unit could show the new unit around and introduce them to the locals and the new unit could observe the old unit for a while. That would cost more money and have more troops in country, but it would apparently be a better approach than the current yank-the-band-aid off, reinvent-the-wheel, again and again approach we are currently using in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sassaman says the typical duration of being a battalion commander was two years. Wow!
In Vietnam, it was six months because they were trying to let as many lieuutenant colonels as possible get their combat zone battalion commander ticket punched. Such short tours—either six months or two years—suggest the Army has priorities higher than winning the war—namely taking care of the careers of high-ranking officers. My impression of what we did in the Civil War and World War II was keep you in your present command until you either scrwed up and got fired or did really well and got promoted. Of course, we won those wars.
Advice from prior commander
Sassaman says his predecessor as commander of the 1/8 infantry mattalion was very generous with his time helping Sassaman get acclimated. He also says this is very unusual in teh Army. He said some officers refuse to even speak to their successor. Actually, he said being, “so benevolent to a successor was rare.” I have trouble imaging a civilian executive pulling such a stunt.
Really!? They ought to be shot. Men can die from that refusal to facilitate a smooth transition.
As with David Hackworth’s book, albeit to a lesser extent, this book contains a number of practical suggestions that could be extracted to create a text book on infantry tactics. At my age, I’ll never need it, but it reminds me fondly of why I wanted to be a career army officer back when I was a teenager.
Sassaman was beside himself with anger at Civil Affairs—a group of Army officers not under his command. Sassaman tried to win coopeation of Iraqi locals with various carrots and sticks inculding construction projects. But the Civil Affairs guys would come into his area, ignore him and his approach and had out gobs of “carrots” to Iraqis who had not cooperated with Sassaman, thereby undermining Sassaman’s approach.
Sassaman says the brass liked spending money on construction projects because they gave the generals something to show off when VIPs came to Iraq for a tour.
Sassaman complains frequently about vague missions and objectives. Arguably, no military mission should ever be vague because the military kills people and destroys property. Neither of those should be done based on vague criteria.
Don’t poo poo destroying property. Liberals are big on dismissing the importtance of property. But in third-world countries like Iraq, the people have almost no property. If you destroy some of it, they do not just buy another or file an insurance claim. They may never replace it and may suffer greatly for its lack. In Vietnam, many peasants owned a water buffalo which was their meal ticket. American often killed them accidentally and, I suspect, for the hell of it. Camels seem to play a similar role for some families in the Middle East. And many die at the hands of the Americans.
Sassaman was big on handing out Army Achievement medals—2,000 of them. I do not know how that compares to normal or other units. But it brings up a point I made in my article on whether the military deserve all the medals they award to each other. I said that some units gave out more medals than others which often led to retalitory medal awarding by the units who feel they are being left behind. Such medal inflation competition tends to act like a rachet. That is, once instigated, it does not subside, because no one wants to waste their precious political capital on anything that will not benefit them personally, like restoring the awarding of medals to their statutory criteria for the medal in qusetion.
Speaking of medals, Sassaman tells of an officer who ordered a stupid blowing up of an empty bunker and got a Purple Heart for getting hit by some shrapnel from his own explosion. You’re only supposed to get Purple Hearts from wounds inflicted by the enemy. John Kerry reportedly got one of his there Purple Hearts for the same thing. In Vienam, getting a third Purple Heart got you out of Vietnam and Kerry used his third one for exactly that purpose after only four months in country.
Freedom of action
Sassaman says he gave his subordinates freedom to “march to the sounds of the guns” whenever there was a fight. That is, if a unit of 1/8 Infantry comes under fire, all other 1/8 units in the vicinity can go there to help without asking for permission. I like that, although it could be used against the unit by the enemy if it was a lockstep pattern. For game theory purposes and to avoid setting a pattern, I would think he would have to modify that order somewhat to make his battalion’s response to attacks somewhat of a mystory to the enemy. Otherwise these predictable conversions could be used to draw them into an ambush.
No smaller than platoon
Sassaman also operated in units no smaller than platoon (about 30 to 40 guys). Makes sense. That assumes that the enemy never operates in units bigger than a squad or platoon. But from what I have read and heard, that is, in fact, the case.
Sassaman frequently complains that the Army was drying to put a good face on everything, successes and screw-ups alike. Welcome to Vietnam. Some things never change.
Sassaman came up with a somewhat effective anti-IED tactic. His men often had to travel on a four-lane divided highway. He had them straddle the line dividing the lanes to stay as far away from each shoulder as possible because that’s where the IEDs were hidden.
However, this backed up Iraqi traffic because the military convoys went at about 40 mph and the Iraqis wanted to go 65 or 70. The brigade commmander ordered Sassaman to go back to driving in one of the two lanes. Sassaman ignored the order on the grounds that it would risk his troops. He could have been court martialed for that. No doubt the boss would give him a worse and therefore career-ending efficiency report for not following that order. If the boss was worried that the order might not look good, he would simply use some subjective negative comment to punish Sassaman for defying him.
We were taught not to be predictable in ranger school. Sassaman, who is also a graduate of ranger school, knows that and mentions it. He attributes one attack that was successful for the enemy to his boss insisting on his men following a predictable pattern of movement every day. I agree.
But the book tells of many other behaviors that also strike me as patterns. For example, Sassaman says the men in his battalion always went charging toward the scene of any fight that broke out. He cites it as evidence of the appropriate aggressiveness of his men. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it is nevertheless a pattern.
In addition to graduating from Sassaman’s two alma maters: West Point and ranger school, I have also coached 15 football teams. In football, I used and advocated game theory which, in the extreme, means to make decisions like play calling randomly. If I were a commander in Iraq, I would strive to be unpredictable in everything that could be perceived by the enemy, including our response to ground attacks against my men. The welfare of the men is your second priority after the mission. But neither the welfare of the men in general nor the accomplishment of the unit’s missions are served by being so predictable in your response to an ambush that you set yourself and your men up for a much larger ambush. Sassaman was a star football player, but that is a very different perspective from a coach.
In Vietnam, we had Vietnamese civilians in our camps every day during daylight hours. As with Iraq, we knew some of them were spies for the North Vietnamese, but as in Iraq, we did not know which ones.
My superiors there had a pattern. They paid the troops on the first of every month starting at 6AM. The Vietnamese spies among us saw that there were long lines of men standing outside waiting to receive their pay at that time. Consequently, the enemy would fire three Katyusha rockets at us on the first of every month at 6AM. You could set your watch and calendar by them.
That was also a pattern for the enemy. We probably should have had aerial observation on the radius of those rockets every pay day starting around 5:30 AM then counterattacked the location from which they blasted off instantly from the air. The idiot enlisted men also could have gotten their pay automatically deposited into their checking accounts instead of getting paid in cash—a type of funny money called scrip in Vietnam and World War II. Whenever I was pay officer, I chewed out every single troop for not getting automatic deposit. “I don’t have no checkin’ account, sir.” “Get one.”
Anyway, in our case, the rocket attacks against us never hit anyone. The biggest problem they gave us was that one was a dud and that screwed every thing up for hours while the demolition guys screwed around with it. Those attacks stopped when we invaded Cambodia in April, 1970. Before that invasion, I heard outgoing artillery being fired about weekly and incoming about monthly or a little less. After the invasion of Cambodia, where the enemy had sanctuary, I never heard another shot fired in anger by either side. (We are now letting the enemy have sanctuary in Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.)
Sassaman’s basic approach was to make the enemy regret actions against his men. I agree. He said it was more law enforcement than military action. It also reminds me of the statements I made to my high school football players and their parents in initial meetings. It went something like this.
If your son breaks a team rule, I will punish him. I will punish him sufficiently to cause him to regret what he did and to cause him to vow never to break a rule again. I will punish your son severely enough so that the other boys on the team are glad they did not do what your son did and resolve not to break any rules in the future if they had previously been considering doing that. Basically, I use recidivism as a gauge of whether my punishments are too lenient. If there is recidivism by the boy who broke the rule or imitation by another boy breaking a rule, my prior punishment was apparently too lenient. I throw recidivists off the team. Over time, my punishments have become more severe because I found teenage boys are tougher to keep in line than I originally thought. But I learned my lesson. If I seem to harsh to you, it is what I call grandparent syndrome. That is, you only saw the latest violation, not the prior ones that caused me to ratchet up my punishment level. There is also parent-versus-coach syndrome, that is, we coaches coach thousands of boys and gain huge amounts of experience from it. Parents typically only have two or three boys at most and therefore have far less experience with tenenage boys.
I think that roughly describes how Sassaman’s battalion dealt with any defiance of his authority by Iraqis in his area of operations. He also had a tit-for-tat policy. If the enemy shot at Sassaman, he shot back and attacked with massive force and artillery. If hostile kids threw rocks at his men, they threw rocks back at the kids. [Note to non-baseball-playing countries: We Americans throw much better than you soccer players.]
Iraq is a game-theory situation and game theory researchers have generally found the tit-for-tat approach, combined with a sort of statute-of-limitations forgiveness, is the most effective. I don’t believe they teach game theory at West Point or in the Army, but Sassaman seems to have figured it out by himself. I do teach that in my football coaching books particularly my most recent one: The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. Game theory also tells you to be unpredictable. Sassaman also did that but was ordered not to on a number of occasions by his idiot brigade commander resulting on one occasion in the enemy killing one of the sergeants to whom Sassaman was closest. They do teach not establishing predictable patterns in Army Ranger School, although I doubt the teachers there have ever heard of game theory.
It may surprise some, but Sassaman said these tit-for-tat tactics generally won the respect of the local populace. I am not surprised, They do the same with most football players and their parents including some of the misbehaving kids. An older coach once commented with regard to my initial nice-guy, lenience in coaching, “You are being tested by some of the kids and you are flunking the test.” In other words, he said I needed to respond to the teenagers’ mbisbehaving more like I did with my soldiers when I was an Army officer. Take off the kid gloves and focus on getting the job done, that is, do whatever it takes to get our reasonable team rules complied with. Same applies to locals in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will test you by breaking your rules to see what you do about it. Acccording to Sassaman, most U.S. commanders in Iraq are flunking the test.
Civics and economics classes
Sassaman said much of what he had to do along the lines of nation building was taught to him, if at all, only in high school civics and a college economics course. He also said they got no guiidance whatsoever on how to approach this. Just figure it out for yourself, colonel.
It is obviously dead wrong to expect military officers to accomplish suchh tasks with military training and equipment. Obviously, if we are going to get into the nation building business, which we should not, we have to provide the people responsible for doing it with appropriate training and equipment. Expecting a bunch of guys who were trained to kill people and yell “huah” to engage in nation building in a culture as foreign as Iraq is stupid on its face.
25 years or more
Sassaman estimates what we are doing now is going to take 25 years or longer. If so, get out now. The American people are not now, and never were, interested in 30 years of expensive fighing and nation building in Iraq.
Bottomless pit of ‘resources’
At various places in the book, Sassaman says we did not put enough “resources” into Iraq. As a civilian entrepreneur who only gets to play with his own life-savings “resources”—the ones I get to keep after Sassaman’s prior employer, the U.S. government, gets done taking them—I never cease to be amazed by the total lack of financial perspective and sense of proportion of those military “leaders” who have spent their entire lives since teenagehood in the U.S. military.
Someone once asked union leader John L. Lewis what he would ask for if his union got all the things it was asking for. “More!” he said. Same with the military. In Vietnam, General Westmoreland kept asking for more and more and more. Yet he was fighting against a third-world army wearing flip flops. and he still managed to lose the war.
Does it ever occur to military officers like Sassaman that the American people gave them thousands of lives and a trillion dollars to use to win the war? To this day, Vietnam vets claim we lost because the civilians did not support us. Jesus H. Christ, they gave us 58,000 lives, twelve years, five million men who served there , and something like a trillion 2008 dollars! How the hell much do you guys need? Where the hell do you think all that money comes from?
I know the problem. I was in Vietnam. We had a trillion dollars worth of men and materiel, but the military was so SNAFU that 85% of our trucks were deadlined for lack of parts, lack of motivated mechanics, lack of mechanics tools, lack of mechanic training.
People trained as A were used as B and vice versa. (I was a ranger, radio officer, satellite communications officer, who could speak Vietnamese, which was a very rare skill in the U.S. Army. I volunteered for jobs where those skills would be used. Instead, they made me communications platoon leader of a heavy artillery battalion. Two-thirds of my platoon did things—wire communications and radio repair—I would have been trained for at the Fort Sill communications officer course that I did not attend. Even then, I only had that job briefly. I spent most of my tour in Vietnam in other jobs where I was the assistant to guys who were not authorized to have an assistant. Your trillion tax dollars at work training then paying me.)
President Gerald Ford once said that if the government made beer, a six-pack would cost $80. I would add that it would also taste like crap and you would have to stand in line to get it.
And if the government made war, it would cost three trillion dollars to defeat a bunch of barefoot, fourth-grade dropouts armed only with AK-47s, RPGs, old artillery shells, and cell phones. The government’s military organization and approach—Soviet-style central planning and Kafkaesque bureaucracy—is so inept, dysfunctional, and inefficient that the U.S. military is easily stalemated by rag-tag, disorganized, third-world, six-man cells of untrained, barely-equipped criminals.
To read more about how the U.S. military gets mind-boggling quantities of taxpayer resources and squanders them criminally ineffectively while still sincerely feeling that we did not give them enough, see my articles on process orientation versus results orientation, Does the U.S. military really have any expertise?, The U.S. military’s 30-year, marathon, suck-up tournament or How Americas chooses its generals, and military integrity.
Sassaman says that U.S. military commanders pay protection money to Iraqi sheikhs to get them to use their influence to stop the violence. $10,000 to 50 different sheikhs (page 119). I have noted that seems to be what’s happening in other articles I have written at this Web site about Iraq. If that’s what the American military is about, I have no idea why anyone wants to be part of it. I also said I thought we learned our lesson about paying bribes to Middle Eastern poo bahs in the Barbary Coast War.
They were capturing our merchant ships and kidnapping our sailors. They said they would stop if we paid “tribute” or protection money bribes to them like the European powers did. Initially we did. Then, in 1800, one political party adopted the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” We subsequently kicked their butts militarily, and the Europeans followed our example. The event is memorialized in the Marine Corps Hymn line “from the shores of Tripoli.”
The only legitimate purpose I see for paying bribes to Iraqi sheikhs is analogous to using a man in motion in football to diagnose the opponent defense. In football, you put a man in motion before a play. If one ofthhe defenders follows him, they are in man pass coverage. If several defenders shift positions inthe direction of thhe motion man, they are in zone pass coverage.
Similarly, if you pay a sheikh to stop violence, and violence stops, he is a criminal and should be incarcerated or killed. If the plan of the U.S. government in Iraq is to bribe the head criminals there into behaving in ways that serve the public relations purposes of the administration, we should not be in Iraq. If I understand correctly, that is Sassaman’s conclusion as well.
On page 164, Sassaman says “highly regrded by the press” General Raymond Odierno, current head U.S. military commander in Iraq, ordered his subordinate commanders to “Spend money.” That is not the role we were trained to fill at West Point. Nor is it the role for which we enrolled in West Point. But it apparently was one of the few things the shameless U.S. military was able to use to achieve progress in Iraq.
Pilots and snipers
Sassaman highly praises chopper pilots and snipers. I agree, I have already praised chopper pilots and medics highly in other articles I wrote at this Web site, e.g., “Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?”)
I have not previously written about snipers and only know what I see in the media, but they sound like the real deal. They have true skills, not just Hollywood or Pentagon PR hype. When the situation fits their skills, I think they are highly effective. But as with rangers and SEALs, the public and the military leadership seem not to recognize that, great as they are, snipers have many, many limitations. They have to be hiddden. They must have some way of telling good guys from bad guys when selecting targets. They are not supermen who can do anything and everything better than soldiers who have not been through sniper training. They are not “elite” in a general sense; only in a sniper skills sense.
Sassaman frequently mentions corruption among Iraqis. I have also seen that a number of military officers have been taking bribes from contractors and suppliers over there. For example, Sassaman had to make the local electric utility stop delivering electricity to residents who bribed Baghdad officials instead of to everyone in town fairly. We cannot be a part of that and it is untenable. It is one of the reasons we probably cannot nation build in Iraq. There is an organization called Transparency International which surveys the amount of corruption in all the countries of the world and publishes annual results. In 2008, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand are the least corrupt—tied for first place. The U.S. ranks 20th. Myanmar and Somalia are ranked 179th which is last. Iraq is 178.
Wa cannot nation build in such places. When we did our successful nation building in Europe and Japan after World War II, we were working with cultures that ranked high on honesty and respect for the rule of law. Places like Somalia and Iraq are thug societies. We have the muscle to be the head thug, and the money to be the highest bribe-payer, but that is not what America is about or what our taxpayers want to sped their money and lives on.
Calling families of wounded or killed
Sassaman says one of his duties was to call, from Iraq, the families of soldiers who were wounded or killed. Really!? I never heard of such a thing. Sounds like a bit much for a combat commander. Apparently so because Sassamn reached a point where he was unable to continue to make such calls. He says they were too emotionally draining and that there were too many of them.
I don’t think the Army ever should have gone down that road to begin with. What do you say to such people, some of whom oppose the war? Let George W. Bush call them. It was his idea to send them there, not Sassaman’s. A high percentage of war injuries and deaths are caused by accidents and friendly fire—about 15% to 25%. We never know for sure because the Army is not anxious to report such manifestations of mistakes. But if you call the families, you have to tell them what happened. How many times can you tell a family that their son was killed or injured by someone’s mistake.
‘Playing the game’
Sassaman says repeatedly that he “played the game.” (e.g., pp.154, 5, 8) This is probably a phrase that civilian readers need someone like me to translate. I used it many times when I was in the Army. It was used many times by superiors and peers when they talked to me.
I am going to choose my words carefully here so please pay correspondingly extra attention to them.
When I was in the Army, the phrase “play the game” referred to compromising your integrity and/or dignity. In other words, going along with things that you did not like but that you reluctantly accepted as part of the package because that was just the way it was in the Army.
I was almost always in trouble with my superiors because I refused to play the game throughout my time as an officer. My superiors ordered me to “start playing the game” or else. My peers urged me to start playing the game for my own physical and career safety. “We agree with your stance, Jack, and we admire your guts,” they would say. “But we’re worried about what the lifers are going to do to you if you don’t start playing the game. It’s not worth it.”
Very simply, I decided that it was worth it as a matter of principle. Luckily, I survived and prospered after I got out of the Army. That was neither the expectation nor the desire of my superiors when they were retaliating against me. Fortunately for me, none of them had ever encountered an officer who did not play the game before, or so they told me, so they underestimated how much it took to harm a junior officer physically and/or careerwise. For my part, I greatly underestimated how hard they would try to hurt me and how much protection I would get from the Pentagon. Apparently, Sassaman made the same mistake I did with regard to estimating how much damage his superiors would be willing to inflict upon him and overestimating how much protection he would get from “the Army.” (I did not urge anyone to make a false statement like he did. I did not do anything of that nature because it was wrong. But I was also very conscious that my superiors were eager to court martial me. They repeatedly tried as I was told by JAG officers on a number of occasions. So I always “covered my ass” with documents and/or witnesses to quote another related Army phrase to avoid giving them a clear shot at me. Sassaman assumed, naively that his superiors, or at least enough of them, would protect him if he played the game and did a good job.)
Want examples of what “playing the game” means? See my article on O.V.U.M. That is an acronym I invented. It means things that are Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory. The most common example back then was attending so-called “command performance” parties. Those were social parties hosted by the battalion and/or brigade commander on Friday or Saturday night after duty hours. I refused to do that. If I understand correctly, Sassaman complied with all OVUM he encountered during his 20 years as an officer. Those events force you to compromise your dignity.
Compromising your integrity was what I named O.P.U.M. or actions that were Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory, most commonly, signing false reports. See my article on whether the phrase military integrity is a contradiction in terms.
Did I ever meet Sassaman? Nope
Did I ever see him compromise his integrity? Nope, although he admits doing so with regard to whether the detainees in Iraq were forced into water.
Do I think that was the first time he compromised his integrity thinking it was what his superiors wanted him to do? Again, I never had any first-hand knowledge of him doing that. But my sense is that he is saying it was not the first time when he uses the phrase “playing the game.” In my article on General Petraeus, I discussed the extremely low probability that he could have reached the rank of four-star general without signing a false document or suborning that being done by one of his subordinates.
Reading between the lines
I am reading between the lines here, but my best guess is that when Sassaman uses the phrase “playing the game,” Sassaman is expressing frustration and anger that he put up with all the bullshit in the Army, including signing their damned false documents and going to their damned boring parties, for 18 years, yet his superiors still had no qualms about ignoring all those “playing the game” favors he had done for them and letting his career be destroyed by yet another playing-the-game action on his part, namely, covering up the water aspect of the detainee incident. I also sense that Sassaman intends the phrase “playing the game” as a code meant to be understood in more detail by West Point grads and other current and former military officers like me than by civilian readers.
Like I said, I cannot be sure that’s what Sassaman intends, but that is what it means to me as a fellow West Point graduate, airborne, ranger, combat zone veteran.
On page 155, Sassaman says, “I admired those who knew how to continue playing [the game] without sacrificing their souls...” I know what he means, but I don’t think that phrase captures it correctly. The feeling one has when an officer in the U.S. military is that you are a prisoner. I felt like a caged tiger who was being poked by my superiors to show me and the other lieutenants who was boss. Prisoners in penitentiaries and prisoner-of-war camps do little things here and there to psychologically show themselves that they have not been totally crushed by their jailers. The American sailors who were captured by the North Koreans in the USS Pueblo incident gave their jailers the finger, telling them it was an American good luck sign. When the Koreans found out what it really meant, they beat the crap out of them.
Sassaman seems to be talking about fellow officers who behaved correctly when their superiors were out of sight in order to prove to themselves that the Army had not totally destroyed the noble impulses that they possessed when they entered the Army. But Sassaman is wrong to say those guys did not sacrifice their souls. They sold part of their souls to the devil of careerism or they would not have been promoted to field grade and general ranks. That’s where the analogy to prisoners comes in. If you are a prisoner, you are not autonomous in general or to the extent that free men are. But you can retain small amounts of autonomy that you know your jailers would not approve of if you make a considerable effort to do so and are willing to risk the retaliation of you get found out. Prisoners and the career officers Sassaman is praising retain a self image that they are still basically good people even though they have to seem otherwise as they “play the game” day after day, year after year.
The way Sassaman says it suggests he admires those who only allowed themselves to get “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or your aren’t. And you don’t get to be a major or lieutenant colonel or higher in the U.S. military by retaining your integrity/dignity virginity.
Sassaman says he played the game until he got to Iraq, then he figured out he was “not cut out for” playing the game. I wrote “slow learner” at the top of page 155. He graduated from West Point in June 1985 and arrived in Iraq in June, 2003—18 years later. I figured that I was not cut to play the game in the first ten days of July, 1966 when I was on a one-month internship in my first Army unit in the middle of my cadet days. It seems more likely that Sassaman miscalculated his ability to play the game successfully and discovered his miscalculation when playing the game was applied to situations where his men were being injured or dying as a result of the game. Again, I do not know why that was not obvious to him when he encountered his first Army unit during his cadet days. He seems to have been hoping against hope that somehow the SNAFU military would miraculously rise to the occasion and do the right thing in combat. Nope. Same old same old only with body bags.
Sassaman repeatedly says he was extremely naive about, and had lousy instincts regarding, the Army’s use of the law and when the incident involving the detainees being forced into the pond became a legal matter, he completely failed to figure out how to approach it. Again, my thought was “slow learner.” Most people who work for the government, including military, have what they call a CYA file. CYA stands for Cover Your Ass. The file contains documents pertaining to illegal activity that the person who owns the file was afraid would come back to haunt him. The documents retained are intended to be used as proof of his innocence or mitigating circumstances in case the shit hits the fan on the incident in question. Sassaman seems to have been surprised at the way things went after his boss sicced the cops on the pond incident. When most officers heard of an incident like the pond, they would typically cover their asses with some document. And they would either say the right thing or initiate a conspiracey with a blood oath of silence or agreeing on a joint false story. Sassaman’s instinct was to protect his subordinates, a noble impulse if you disregard the dishonesty required. Sassaman was not implicated in the original act, only in the cover-up which he instigated on his own initiative to protect his men from the consequences of what they did viewed through the new prism of Abu Ghraib.
Bill of sale
I had an experience in Vietnam where my instincts about the U.S. Army’s bullshit legal approach was key. In the U.S., in the spring of 1969, I volunteered to serve in a Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit (D Co. 75th Rangers, II Field Force) and was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot. They gave it to one of my classmates who arrived a day earlier. I also volunteered for Special Forces (green berets) five times and was briefly on orders to 5th Special Forces Group but the orders were rescinded. Had I gotten those assignments I could have found myself sleeping in the jungle on the ground or in an A-Camp in the boondocks. I did spend many a night in Vietnam on cots in tents, on the floor of the Nui Ba Din mountaintop hut, or in underground bunkers in spite of not getting those assignments I volunteered for. Instead, I was assigned to a corps (II Field Force) signal battalion at Plantation Post (near Long Binh, the biggest U.S. base in Vietnam).
There, junior officers lived in windowless, one-man rooms called hooches. Almost all officers there had stateside friends and relatives ship them window air-conditioners. These were then handed down by selling them to new guys. A West Point captain who was finishing his tour sold me his. $100 or some such. As we were completing the deal, I said, “Would you please write up a bill of sale covering this?” “Why?” he asked. “Because I know the way the brass thinks. I can see them in the future accusing everyone with an air-conditioner of having stolen it and confiscating it—unless you have a bill of sale.” He gave me a signed bill of sale.
Sure enough, about eight months later the word went out that the colonels were confiscating all junior officer air-conditioners—unless you had a bill of sale for it. The colonels lived in full-size, air-conditioned, U.S. house trailers like you would find in trailer parks. Although they were married, they often entertained Red Cross girls in their trailers overnight. We company-grade officers lived with a (male) officer roommate in a windowless wooden or metal box hooch. The colonels were confiscating all the company grade officers’ air-conditioners to make their officers club more comfortable.
I had refused to join the officers club there as I did almost everywhere I was stationed in the Army. Joining the O Club is OVUM. So it was ironic when every junior officer in the corps headquarters lost their air-conditioners—all of them members of the O Club—and little old Lieutenant Reed, that’s me, who was the only lieutenant there who should have been promoted to captain months before—was the only one who got to keep his air-conditioner. The other junior officers there were also slow learners. The colonels demanded to see my bill of sale. Notwithstanding the party line that officers are all scrupulously honest, they assume every officer is a liar and routinely demand proof that their fellow officers are not lying. I got out my bill of sale and they stormed off in a huff emptyhanded.
Essentially, by confiscating air-conditioners that the other junior officers truthfully swore they had purchased from departing officers, the colonels were stealing their subordinates’ personal property for their own not-in-line-of-duty use and knowingly, falsely accusing all of those junior officers of being liars to boot.
Lifer scum behaving the way they usually do.
At the time of the air-conditioner incident, I had been an Army officer for a little over two years. When Sassaman got surprised to be run over by the Army’s calling-out-the-law train, he had been in 18 years. Like I said: slow learner.
Criticism of superiors
Sassaman pulls no punches when criticizing his superiors and some fellow officers. That is legitimately useful to those who hope to understand the U.S. military before they join it or re-up. I do not know any of the men he criticizes. All of my West Point classmates were out of the Army by the time Sassaman writes about in Warrior King. But the men he describes sound just like the jerk colonels and generals I did know when I was in the Army. Sassaman shows you the unattractive sorts of men who get promoted and the good guys who don’t because of the way the Army chooses its generals. See my article “The 30-year, marathon suck-up tournament” or “How America chooses its generals.”
Sassaman complains bitterly that the Army gave him a boss who was highly incompatible with him. He names specific other colonel brigade commanders that he felt he would have gotten along greatly with. But he seems oblivious to the fact that out here in civilian land—which he dismissed as mere “suffocating, 9-to-5 cubicles”—we do not work for a boss we don’t like, or at least we don’t have to. You find another job or you become self-employed. Only the real men, action heroes in the military meekly put up with working for whatever jerk they are assigned as bosses and and with commanding whatever subordinates are assigned to them.
He did not critcize Petraeus much, but neither did he praise him.
On page 226, Sassaman says military superiors rarely accept suggestions from subordinates. That’s because they are insecure and fear accepting such a suggestion will make them look weak or less competent than the subordinate in question.
Many football head coaches are the same way, for a similar reason: it’s easy to fire a football coach and easy to render a military officer noncompetitive. Rendering a career officer noncompetitive means that a single superior in a decades long career can end your hopes of ever making full colonel or general by just shading your efficiency report slightly—so slightly that a civilian looking at it would not detect the knife in the subordinate’s back. Unlike football, where they just fire you, in the military they let you stay around to collect your retirement benefits (as they did Sassaman) but you are a “dead career walking.”
On page 246, Sossaman notes that ne has to handle detainees with kid gloves and in perfect compliance with every possible rule of decorum, butthat detainees are often acquired under circumstances where the rules of engagement allowed the Americans to shoot and kill the detainees in question early in the engagement. In other words, the post-Abu Ghraib rules on the handling of detainees are so difficult, and the rules regarding killing before detaining so much simpler, that there would appear to be a huge new motivation to kill suspicious Iraqis rather than detain them.
The Geneva Convention still requires that you accept the surrender of—not kill—a surrendering enemy. The often-heard phrase “take no prisoners” is actually a war crime known as murder. But there are moments in battle when that distinction is not clear cut. How many officers and NCOs are going to see that Sassaman’s career, as well as the careers of a West Point lieutenant and a platoon sergeant were ended, and the latter two individuals sent to jail to live the rest of their lives as convicted felons in an incident that would have been of no consequence if they had simply shot the curfew violators dead on sight?
On page 247, Sassaman says,
I was operating with a take-no-prisoners attitude by then...
I hope he does not mean that literally.
Sassaman complains bitterly about overly restrictive rules of engagement. I agree and said so months ago in my article on ROE. He says he ignored the rules on occasion like firing back at insurgents immediately rather than waiting for brigade approval.
On page 188, Sassaman says the U.S. government is too squeamish about civilian casualties to the extent that it increases U.S. casualties and prevents effectiveness. He says the U.S. was prone to trying to hide mistakes (Pat Tillman anyone?) and to try to buy everyone off with cash when civilians were hurt or their property damaged.
Good before and after the Army
Sassaman is an excellent example of a disturbing phenomenon I have noticed before. Young men who lead exemplary lives before going to West Point and while at West Point, then are treated like bad guys by the Army, then they get out and resume the exemplary lives they led before the Army. It is too early to say for sure that Sassaman will lead an exemplary post-Army life, but I’ll bet that he does.
The most successful Army football coach ever—Red Blaik—was himself a West Point graduate. One of the most noteworthy events of his tenure as coach was a honor scandal that wiped out 37 members of the Army starting team in 1950—including Blaik’s son. In his book You Have To Pay the Price on page 296, Blaik said,
These young men came to West Point as respected honorable youngsters, many of them idols of their communities. It would be considered an indictment of the leadership at West Point, if after two or three years of Academy character building, they are returned branded in the eyes of the public as no better than common criminals.
I am not going to excuse the 1950 cadets who violated the honor code, but Blaik has a point. West Point put those cadets under a lot of pressure and offered an unnecessary temptation that has been central to a number of honor scandals at West Point, namely, giving the exact same test on successive days to different cadets. West Point also tells the football players and other athletes that they are privileged characters in many ways so it is not a total surprise that they might conclude that they are above the honor code as well.
One of my classmates was the sort of high school kid Blaik describes. He was literally an Eagle Scout. He could hear other teenagers whisper his name in awe as he was spotted around the region during his senior year in high school. He had no trouble at West Point or the approximately one year of officer training we went through right after West Point (except that he did flunk the final exam in a brief communications course we had to take). At jump school, he was the first student out the door on our first jump. I was right behind him.
After my friend got out of the Army, he graduated from one of the nation’s top MBA programs, worked for many years as an executive of a household name cooperation. He got into real estate investment at my behest, became a multi-millionaire as a result, and retired to world travel while still in his fifties. What about when he was in the Army? He was somewhat resistant to some of the Army’s bullshit. He got RIFFED at his own request (for the severance pay), although the Army initially refused to RIF him. RIF means Reduction in Force and it refers to a devil-take-the-hindmost firing of personnel because the size of the Army is being dramatically reduced. He got an honorable discharge and severance pay like a civilian layoff.
I had a similar experience: unblemished record in high school, at West Point, and in my first year in the Army which was all attendance at Army schools. Then I hit the Army units where I absolutely refused to “play the game.” After escalating pressure on me for several years, the Army gave me an honorable discharge and severance pay. I then went on to such success as you would expect of someone who could get admitted to and graduate from West Point as a Harvard MBA, financial success as an entrepreneur, 33-year marriage, career success as an author-publisher. On average, my classmates who were severenced-paid out of the Army probably were more successful than the average member of our class. I did not study them systematically, but I know some others who became successful doctors and lawyers.
Someone should do a study of the many guys who were successes in high school, at West Point, in Army training, and after they got out of the Army, but not while in the Army. What causes that? The Army is inept and corrupt and punishes those who refuse to conform to, or at least help cover up, those group norms. Also, as in Sassaman’s case, the Army sometimes punishes those who do conform to the group norms—if the public becomes aware of the ineptitude or dishonesty in question.
In other words, the path to Army success is to conform to or cover up the group norms of ineptitude and dishonesty, but don’t get caught doing so. If you refuse to conform, as I did, or get caught conforming, as Sassaman did, you’re dead, and your superiors will dishonestly claim to be “shocked, shocked” by your behavior as they sacrifice you to limit damage that might otherwise reach them.
How often does this happen? I was astonished to learn that about 10% to 20% of West Point classes between 1970 and 1988 left the Army for “All Other” reasons in the statistics published by the United States Military Academy’s Office of Policy, Planning & Analysis for the month ending May 2007. They also have stats for classes after 1988, but those are not yet eligible for retirement so the total of “All other” is too preliminary. Although the trend is the same: for the class of 1989, for example, 165 have already been discharged under “All other” out of 1079 who graduated.
“All other” includes “court martial, misconduct, early release program, reduction in force, weight control, disability, non-selection permanent promotion, substandard performance, miscellaneous/general reasons.”
In the incident that got Sassaman run out of the Army for his role in the cover-up, the two guys who actually ordered the Iraqis into the pond were a platoon sergeant and a West Point lieutenant. They both were court martialed and sent to jail.
Am I saying no West Pointers should ever be discharged under “all other” categories? No. But I will say that the percentage who deserve to go out that way is about 1%, not 10% to 20%. If you’re overweight, you’re overweight. If you have a legitimate disability, your disabled. But one of my classmates deserted to Sweden during the Vietnam war, then came home, turned himself in, pled guilty, and was court martialed. Hard to argue that he did not deserve that. Another hard-to-argue career end was of a classmate who had an extramarital affair with his enlisted driver. Such clearcut misbehavior is rare among West Pointers.
RIFfing a West Point graduate, however, is ridiculous. The standards to become a West Point graduate are orders of magnitude higher than the standards to become an officer by other means and the standards of even those other commissioning schools are too high in most respects compared to what Army officers actually do on a day-to-day basis. Add to that the fact that West Point grads are usually also airborne rangers and the majority of Army officers, including those who do not get RIFFED, are not.
A West Point graduate would have to become a substance abuser or turn into a paranoid schizophrenic or some such to warrant being classed as one of the hindmost of 52,000, active-duty Army officers. If not, why are we spending so much money to recruit and train West Pointers? How can West Point not see that the guy is not up to snuff in four years of almost 24-7 observation under countless challenges? I’m not calling for special treatment for West Pointers or giving them a pass. I’m just making the obvious point that leopards do not change their spots and that saying that men and women who were adimittted to West Point and successfully completed the extremely demanding course there are not as qualified to be officers as a graduate of a four-month OCS course or two ROTC classes a week at Podunk State is ridiculous.
The two West Pointers and the sergeant in the Sassaman incident probably should have received a verbal admonition to refrain from ordering detainees to jump in a pond—especially in the post-Abu Ghraib era. They probably should not have been punished in any way, let alone court martialed or forced out of the Army.
Live in the city
Sassaman says the U.S. military needs to live in the Iraq cities and respond to any defiance of U.S. authority. I suspect he’s right, but I also think the American people lack the patience or funds to do that endlessly. And why? What happens if we leave? They kill each other? And we are dying and spending billions to prevent that why? I don’t want to see anyone die unnecessarily, including Iraqis, but I don’t think we owe any country a police force—especially a country whose people generally refuse to cooperate with our efforts to catch the bad guys.
My tour in Vietnam was mostly during so-called Vietnamization. We wanted out, so our politicians ordered us to turn it all over to the South Vietnamese. We said they were not ready. The Politicians said they were, not because it was true, but because the American public wanted out. We turned it over, and the North Vietnamese wiped out the South Vietnamese Army in short order. Sassaman says the same thing is now happening in Iraq. Politicians say turn it over to the Iraqis. We say they are not ready. Turn it over anyway. Oh, well.
Bringing every soldier home
I keep reading and hearing that West Point officers are trying to bring every soldier home. Sassaman says it on page 182.
I do not get this. First, your priorities are: 1 accomplish the mission and 2 the welfare of your men, in that order. Perhaps the mission in Iraq is so vague that all the officers have thrown up their hands and moved their second priority to first. It did not sound like Sassaman did that. But he does express the “bringing everyone home safe” goal.
Secondly, since when do wars allow troop commanders to make such promises or accomplish such goals? One of Sassaman’s officers died when he was bent over at the moment a mortar round went off and a piece of shrapnel penetrated his heart by flying in at an angle where his bulletproof vest was not protecting him because of being bent over.
Another young West Point grad bragged to me that he had brought all his men home safely from Iraq. I immediately wondered how did he prevent them from being hurt by mortars, which fall into your position from a high angle and explode. In fact, no commander can prevent mortar deaths—except by building and never leaving bunkers with very thick roofs, but you cannot fight the enemy from such places.
And you cannot prevent bullet deaths much either. As Sassaman says, the people who die when the enemy attacks typically die in the first few seconds. They have no warning. They are in the sights of an enemy who could be shooting from a hundred different hiding places—unseen. Once the fight is underway, you can often see the muzzle flashes of the enemy guns and return fire. But in our recent wars, the attacks are typically hit-and-run and the enemy flees after a brief burst of fire.
Fortunes of war
Men dying in combat is often, or mostly, caused by something long called the fortunes of war. In combat, pieces of metal fly around at lethally high speeds. Most are launched at you by the enemy, but some of that metal is friendly. Metal is metal. If you get hit, you can die. Doesn’t matter which side fired it. Being a good guy commander does not change much with regard to the fortunes of war.
I commented elsewhere at this Web site that none of the men who were under my command when I was in Vietnam died in combat. But I also added that it was not because I was a great military leader at age 23. It was because the enemy chose not to fire at us when they could have hurt or killed us. It had nothing to do with me. And if any of my men had died there, that also would probably have had nothing to do with me. If, for example, an enemy rocket had killed one of my men, I would have felt bad as one of his co-workers, but not because I was his boss. Rockets land where they land and no U.S. platoon leader could do anything about where an enemy rocket landed in Vietnam. They were fired from something like 15 miles away.
Officers need to stop promising to bring everyone home safe and they need to stop even privately setting such a goal for themselves. Accomplish the mission. Don’t be stupid. Take care of the welfare of your men as best you can without neglecting the mission. But otherwise, que sera que sera. C’est la guerre. War is hell. Shit happens. Don’t beat yourself up over something you never had any control over.
‘Outside the wire’ and ‘away from the flag’
I learned two phrases I wish I had known when I was in the Army from Sassaman and David Hackworth. Sassaman’s phrase is “outside the wire.” The wire refers to the barbed wire around the perimeter of the U.S. bases in enemy countries. What he means is that he loved being outside the wire and did extremely well when he was. Why? Because they are no superiors out there. When he was away from his military bureaucrat superiors, Sassaman thrived. Me, too. That’s why I have been self-employed partly or completely since I was 22. Self-employed in the civilian equivalent of “outside the wire.” But since Sassaman is convinced that all civilian life is a “suffocating, 9-to-5, cubicle” situation, he would not know that.
Hackworth’s phrase “away from the flag” means about the same. There is generally a flag pole in front of the battalion commander or higher’s office. Away from the flag really means away from the battalion commander or higher commander.
When I was in Vietnam, I had a blissful interlude of being away from the flag. I was assistant high frequency radio platoon leader in a corp signal battalion. We were located at Plantation Post not far from Long Binh, the biggest U.S. Army base in Vietnam and hope of the USARV (U.S. Army in the Republic of Vietnam) equivalent of the Pentagon. There were “flags” all around me.
Assistant platoon leader
I was assistant platoon leader to a two-year draftee, OCS officer who was neither a ranger nor a paratrooper nor a West Pointer nor maybe even a radio officer. This was supposed to humiliate me to punish me for my “attitude.” Whatever. One of my fellow West Point classmates who was also an airborne ranger was also an assistant platoon leader to another OCS draftee in the same battalion. None of our superiors in the battalion were West Pointers. My “boss” had almost nothing to do. I had less to do and tried to find stuff like getting all of the parts we had requisitioned delivered—an episode I described elsewhere in my military Web pages.
One day my platoon got a real mission. We had to take an A/N GRC 26D radio teletype (called an “angry 25 delta” by the troops) to a Special Forces operation at Bunard. We were to prepare the radio teletype, which was a huge box the size of a deuce-and-a-half truck bed. Sort of like a one-room recreational vehicle only it contained the radioteletype equipment and places for the operators to work instead of sleeping or bathing/toilet/cooking facilities. They gave the job to me as assistant platoon leader because the platoon leader still had more men to command back at Plantation Post.
Green beret camp
There was a Special Forces A camp (A-341 and A-344) there and a bunch of indigenous tribesmen and their families, and an air strip (seach for Bunard air strip on the pgae that link takes you to). The tribe were essentially mercenaries employed by the 12-man green beret team. In addition, there was also going to be a battalion or so of South Vietnamese Rangers assigned there temporarily for an operation lasting several months. The RVNs and my guys were camped at the end of the air strip. Every time a C-130 would take off, he would rev his engines up to full speed before releasing the brake, coating us repeatedly all day with red dust.
My platoon’s group of guys was five enlisted men. When we installed the teletype and began operating it, I was sent out to supervise. This meant leaving my air-conditioned hooch and the base where we had an air-conditioned officers mess, ping pong tables, TV, a swimming pool (made of some black rubber above-ground contraption), etc. At Bunard, I slept on the air strip in a tent on a folding Army cot. No air-conditioning. We were at the bottom of a sort of bowl in the mountains. In the days when we arrived, the special forces guys said they saw North Vietnamese Army patrols on the hills around us watching us. Lovely.
I give it thumbs down
One night, we had the movie Bullitt which was then in the theaters. We were watching it outdoors at a little theater made of a sheet for a screen and a bunch of rows of sand bags for seats. As I looked around me I saw a hundred or so armed South Vietnamese soldiers. Or at least I thought they were South Vietnamese. Probably some were enemy spies. Plus, we were lighting up the whole valley. I figured the North Vietnamese up in the hills around us were watching the movie with me. Unfortunately, I could not stop thinking what a prime target we were for a mortar or grenade attack, so I decided to excuse myself and catch Steve McQueen’s great chase scene when I got back to the states—if I got back to the states. I spent the rest of the evening at the part of our camp as far away from the theater as possible.
National Geographic, not Playboy
We ate outdoors at picnic tables with a tent top above us. Our shower was a 55-gallon drum of water heated by the sun and put up on a timber tower. You pulled a chain to get water. Since we were all men, there was no privacy screen. Great opportunity for an enemy sniper to kill an American officer.
When I say we, I mean the American and South Vietnamese soldiers. The tribe had their whole families there. The women were topless and there I was naked in the open taking a shower as the topless tribeswomen walked by balancing stuff on their heads. It was a scene from National Geographic, not Playboy, though. Nothing to get excited about.
Bunard was so remote and the enemy so close that we did mad minutes from time to time. That is, we blasted away at the jungle for 15 or 20 minutes just before sundown. Actually, I did not. I thought it was a dangerous waste of ammo. But I let my men have fun. Supposedly we were stopping an enemy attack that might take place just after sundown. In fact, the guys were just having fun making a lot of noise.
Uncomfortable, dangerous, and far more fun
My point is that although I had virtually none of the creature comforts we had at Plantation Post, and enormously increased danger from the enemy, I loved being there. I preferred being there. I stayed there so long making sure everything was going perfectly that my superiors finally sent a teletype message ordering me back to air-conditioning land—back to the flag.
Technically, I was not “outside the wire‚ at Bunard. The problem was there was literally nothing but a single roll of concertina wire between our tents and the jungle a few feet away. The enemy would have hurdled the single roll of wire without a moment’s pause if they had attacked. The phrase “the wire” in Iraq refers to a more substantial perimeter like what I was inside when I spent nights at an artillery firebase near Loc Ninh—barbed wire, clear mined flat area all around, Claymore mines, earthen berm, pillbox observation and fighting posts on the corners, not to mention self-propelled 8-inch and 175-milimeter howitzers that could fire anti-personnel canister rounds at attacking enemy.
A lot of enlisted men in Vietnam extended their tours again and again back to back because they loved the lack of Army bullshit outside the wire and far from the flag, and the cheap whores and drugs, in Vietnam.
Had I ever heard of the phrases “outside the wire” and “away from the flag” when I was in the Army, I would have recognized that was where I needed to spend my time in the Army as much as possible and battled for such assignments. Not to be a combat hero. That can get you and your subordinates killed. Just to get away from the bullshit and ass-kissing requirements, or, in my case, the retaliation for not kissing ass. The classic “outside the wire,” “away from the flag” assignment was the fictional and totally improbable one Kevin Costner depicted in the movie Dances With Wolves.
I suspect Sassaman would agree with me when I say that “the real Army,” the one you wanted to join when you were a teenager and a cadet, is the one “outside the wire” and “away from the flag” and only the one in those locations.
Finally, Sassaman repeatedly uses the phrase “selfless service” and the word “warrior” to describe himself. Nowadays, all career military people seem to do that. I find that sort of phraseology unbecomingly melodramatic and self-aggrandizing. I wrote a separate article about it.
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