Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Nate Fick on Fighting an Insurgency in Afghanistan – “Fight Less, Win More”

Nate Fick is a remarkable individual. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book, “One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.”

(See my prior review in The White Rhino Report of this book, linked below)

Nate is currently in the process of finishing dual degrees at Harvard – at the Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. He also has been selected as a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In that role, he recently returned to Afghanistan at the invitation of the U.S. Army to teach at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy. In a piece published in this past Sunday’s Washington Post, Nate recounts his experience of returning to the world of counterinsurgency warfare.

I am proud to call Nate my friend. I have enormous respect for what he has done, and continues to do, in the service of our nation and the cause of world peace. In every conversation I have ever had with Nate, I have learned something of value. By offering this link to his recent article, I am pleased to make his insights available to the readers of The White Rhino Report.

As a follow-up to this article, The Washington Post hosted an online dialogue with Nate on Monday. I found the questions – and Nate’s responses to them – instructive. I think you will find them to be of interest, as well.

It is my hope and prayer that the rich experiences and insights being harvested by young warrior-statesmen like Nate Fick and his ilk will help to inform the decision-makers in Washington, and may eventually lead to more enlightened policies – decision-making that re-acquires lost lessons from past conflicts. Nate speaks eloquently and thoughtfully on this point – taken from the transcript of his online dialogue:

Nathaniel Fick: “One of the more striking aspects of the recent revival in COIN [Counterinsurgency] theory is that none of it's new. These lessons were recorded by T.E. Lawrence after the Arab Revolt of WW1, by the Marines in their Small Wars Manual before WW2, and again throughout the Vietnam era. They were learned at a great price by those who went before us. I was told by an instructor during my earliest days at Quantico to remember the lessons in our manuals, because they were written in the blood of our predecessors. It's true. But the institutions forgot what had been learned. One of our key challenges now is ensure that doesn't happen again. I'm heartened in some respects because influential senior leaders are promoting these lessons, but whether the changes are truly embraced remains to be seen.”

I commend to you the full article and the full transcript of Monday’s conversation.


A Reasoned Discussion about Withdrawing from Iraq – Kevin Benson Writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

My friend, Scott Leishman, is a member of the United States Military Academy Class of 1977. He was kind enough to include me in the distribution of an e-mail that went to his West Point class members, highlighting an Op-Ed piece that appeared on Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The piece, written by recently-retired US Army Colonel Kevin Benson, USMA ’77, strikes me as one of the most concise, balanced and well-reasoned discussions I have seen to date of our options for withdrawing from Iraq in a way that makes sense.

By way of further background, in his e-mail, Scott included these comments from another of their West Point classmates:

“Classmates, please note also the author of the below article is fellow classmate Kevin Benson, a Harvard Grad (after USMA) who wrote the “op-plan” for the sand box wars when he was working in the five sided puzzle palace (Pentagon).”

Shift The Debate On Iraq From 'When' To 'How'

By Kevin Benson, For the Journal-Constitution

Once Gen. David Petraeus delivers his report to Congress in September, the debate will begin in earnest over a new direction for our Iraq strategy. That strategy must be based on the understanding that U.S. and coalition forces are an antibody that the Arab body politic instinctively rejects.

The longer we remain in Iraq, the more we become occupiers in the mind of the Iraqi people. Every act of kindness by U.S. and coalition troops, every effort to win Iraqi hearts and minds, will be buried by terrorist acts of violence, and every U.S. and coalition misstep will be magnified. Handing out candy and toys to Iraqi children cannot compete with vivid images of explosions and violent death. In Iraq's 24/7 news cycle, as in ours, if it bleeds, it leads.

The first step in a new approach is a public commitment to the Iraqi people that on a date mutually agreed to by the coalition and the Iraqi government, foreign troops will leave Iraq. My own suggestion for the date is July 4, 2008. On that date our forces should withdraw from Iraq. A fixed date is required for domestic reasons here at home and in Iraq, and as a spur to international involvement in Iraq.

A fixed date moves the debate from when to leave Iraq to how we will leave Iraq. This is an important shift. To address fears of a widened civil war in Iraq, tensions between Turkey and the Kurds, etc., we must talk seriously about political and economic conditions the coalition and Iraqi government will establish while coalition troops are operating in Iraq.

The spur of a fixed date will move the debate from the theoretical to the practical. Everyone in Iraq has a stake in establishing a consistent level of security for the people and the health of the Iraqi economy. A stable Iraq is in the interests of all the countries of the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fears of a widened war can be mitigated by an international and regional commitment to a stable Iraq.

This is not "cutting and running" it is merely honoring a public promise to the people of Iraq that the coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein is not interested in occupying their country.

Setting conditions

As we prepare to withdraw, we should also begin to shift the mission of our military in Iraq. Its two main goals must be to build the capability of Iraqi security forces in preparation for giving them the responsibility of protecting the people, and to continue the so-far successful effort to destroy al-Qaida in Iraq. Coalition governments should commit to a maximum political, economic and military effort to establish basic security throughout Iraq, to train and equip Iraqi armed forces, and to ensure that ministries are functioning and the government is secure and acting in the interests of the people. This maximum effort will be sustained to the date of departure, at which time the government and people of Iraq will operate on their own. These are coalition victory conditions.

Accomplishing all these conditions will require the support of the people of the nations that make up the coalition, our country in particular, and the equally vital commitment of the Iraqi people. Our expectations for Iraq must also be realistic; Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy took a long time to flourish in our own country. Ultimately, the future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people.

After the September report to Congress, we will have to adjust the size and purpose of the U.S. force in Iraq. Building on the conditions established by the "surge" of reinforcements, we should reduce the size of the combat forces and focus on the adviser mission. To be successful, the "exit strategy" for Iraq requires a diligent effort by our military to send our very best people as advisers to the Iraqi armed forces. These soldiers must be those best suited for this task: dedicated people with a sense of balance and judgment who can assist Iraqi units in becoming increasingly competent and able to learn from each engagement with a cunning enemy.

Building a viable nation

This force of advisers, 10,000 to 15,000 troops, must be supported by a tcombat element of four to six Army brigade or Marine regimental combat teams -- 20,000 to 30,000 troops -- in key areas around the country. The entire force should be under the command of one headquarters. This headquarters must closely coordinate its actions with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who must ensure that the policy efforts to stabilize Iraq are supported by the military efforts in Iraq.

Ensuring that Iraq becomes a viable nation will not be easy. But we must set the date for the withdrawal of coalition forces and the conditions that will be met by that date. Our people must know the cost, and why it is necessary to pay this cost. The military must invest its very best people in the task of advising, to honor what amounts to a contract with the Iraqi people.

There are people who equate Iraq to Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam. There is no equivalent to the government of North Vietnam and its divisions, waiting until we leave to crush the South Vietnamese army and take Saigon. But in trying to reduce the American presence in Iraq while ensuring the viability of the Iraqi government, civilian policy-makers and military planners must keep in mind those chilling scenes from Saigon's fall, with the remaining Americans escaping with Vietnamese friends and co-workers in a series of frantic air- and sealifts.

That's why we have to set a withdrawal date and manage that withdrawal properly. Without it, we risk a later withdrawal forced by an increasingly disenchanted U.S. populace, managed by a U.S. government paralyzed by a lack of cooperation between branches of government on policy and execution. Those are the circumstances that led to the nightmare of Saigon's fall more than 30 years ago, and we can't repeat that mistake this time.

Look at a map; helicopters cannot make the trip from the Green Zone in Baghdad to ships in the Persian Gulf in one flight.

Kevin Benson retired from the Army as a colonel in July after 30 years. He was the director of plans for coalition ground forces and directed the development of the invasion plan of Iraq in 2003. He also was director of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

A Compendium of Wisdom and Practical Advice – Part I of a Review of “On Combat” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen

With this review of “On Combat,” I am departing from past practices in The White Rhino Report. This is the first review of a book that I will offer as a multi-part discussion of the book. The reason is simple. There is simply so much meat in “On Combat” that I cannot adequately respond to it all within the confines of one Blog posting.

Last week, when I reviewed Lt. Col. Grossman’s first book, “On Killing,” I mentioned my friend, Kevin, who flies helicopters as part of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. In an e-mail conversation I had earlier today with Kevin, he talked about his anticipation of reading my reaction to the book he told me I must read next – “On Combat”:

“It will be interesting to see what you think about ‘On Combat’ (my personal Bible).”

Kevin is a West Point graduate who is the veteran of two deployments to Iraq. He knows a great deal about combat – from a historical, theoretical and experiential perspective. For someone like Kevin to call “On Combat” his “Bible” speaks to the fact that there is a mother lode of gold-plated wisdom and practical guidance for warriors contained within the almost 400 pages of this book. Yet the wisdom offered is practicable - not just for warriors on the battlefield - but for all citizens who fight to make this world a better place.

The full title of this sequel to “On Killing” is: “On Combat – The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.” Collaborating with Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman on the writing of this book is Loren W. Christensen, a veteran of 29 years in law enforcement, including time served as a military police officer in Vietnam. In this book, Grossman has expanded his focus from a study of killing to the broader study of combat. The expansion takes on additional dimensions, because he now addresses a broader audience of warriors. In this book, the term “combat” refers not only to armed conflict on traditional fields of battle, but also to the deadly force situations that police officers often find themselves confronting. As further expansion of the concept of “combat,” the book also offers chilling evidence that hyper-realistic violent video games and certain other violence-filled entertainment vehicles are turning our children into pseudo-warriors – yet without the discipline and restraints that true warriors learn as part of their training and socialization.

In a sense, “On Combat” is really four books in one. It is a handbook for warriors to use on the battlefield and upon their return home. It offers a cornucopia of insights into how best to think about and process in a healthy way the complex experiences and emotions of being in combat. At a second level, it serves as a similar kind of manual for police officers faced with the need to use deadly force, or to respond to assailants who use deadly force. At a third level, the book serves as a briefing tool for those who would aspire to be what Grossman calls “Peace Warriors” – those dedicated to making the world as safe and healthy a place as possible for ourselves and our children. Finally, in its emphasis on the deleterious effects of violent media on the minds of children and teenagers, it serves as a manual for parents and educators who need to understand the depth of the problem and the seriousness of the danger.

What makes Grossman’s writing so compelling for me is the fact that he constructs his arguments and offers his case studies laid upon a solid foundation of experience, education and erudition. He quotes liberally – or, perhaps I should say “judiciously” – from the received wisdom of those who have gone before us. There are dozens of quotations from the Greek classics, from Scripture, from Shakespeare, from traditional hymnody and from a wide variety of wise writers and thinkers from the past. Such attributions add validity and texture to the contemporary examples that the authors offer to tell their stories and make their well-considered points.

Let me offer an excerpt from the fourth “handbook” I mentioned above – the section of the book that serves as a guidebook for parents and educators in addressing issues of children’s exposure to violent media:

“Until children are six or seven years old, they have great difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality. That is why we do not use them as witnesses in court. We do not send people to prison on the word of a five-year-old, since kids at that age are so malleable and suggestible. When children between two and six years of age see someone on television getting shot, stabbed, brutalized, degraded, and murdered, those images are real to them, as real as anything in their young lives.” (Page 230)

In further explaining the impact of violent media upon children, the author invokes Socrates’ words in Plato’s “The Republic.” As I read these words – first penned over 2,000 years ago – I was struck by their immediate relevance to the issues we struggle with today in dealing with violence in our media:

“What is this education to be then? Perhaps we shall hardly invent a system better than the one which long experience has worked out, with its two branches for the cultivation of the mind and the body. And I suppose we shall begin with the mind, before we start physical training.

And the beginning, as you know, is always the most important part, especially in dealing with anything young and tender. That is the time when character is being molded and easily takes any impression one may wish to stamp on it.

Then shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they grow up?

No, certainly not.

It seems, then, our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of molding their souls with these stories . . . Most of the stories now is use must be discarded.

The worst of all faults, especially if the story is ugly and immoral as well as false – misrepresenting the nature of gods and heroes.

A child cannot distinguish between the allegorical sense from the literal, and the ideas he takes in at that age are likely to become indelibly fixed; hence the great importance of seeing that the first stories he hears shall be designed to produce the best possible effect on his character.” (Page 230)

Grossman takes this cogent argument into the 21st century with these follow-up comments:

“Think of the impact of violent media as a boot camp for kids, their own little basic training. As they sit before the tube, hour after hour, they learn that violence is good and violence is needed. They see it, experience it – and they believe it. The are inundated with the violence factor, but they never get the discipline. Now, if it troubles you that young soldiers have to go through a process of traumatization and brutalization, you should be infinitely more troubled that we are doing the same thing indiscriminately to our children without the safeguard of discipline . . . Our job is to protect our children, not rape their innocence when they are six. We can no more share our favorite violent movie (or TV show or video game) with our kids than we can share sex with them” (Pages 231)

The book also offers chilling clinical and neurological data that demonstrate the physiological and cognitive impact of a steady diet of watching violent TV and movies and of playing violent video games.

My four sons range in age from 25 to 33. When they were growing up, we tried to be careful and cognizant about these issues, but that was before the dramatic escalation in the level of realistic violence now available in high definition. The challenge for parents today is far more daunting that we faced when raising our sons. As I read Grossman’s words, I found myself saying a silent prayer of thanksgiving that my son and daughter-in-law show great wisdom, vigilance and restraint in monitoring the content of the media that their young daughter and son are exposed to. Reading this book should increase the level of understanding and vigilance of parents who have heretofore been oblivious to the effects of violent games and media on the minds of their children.

In Part II of my review, I will discuss the author’s tripartite depiction of the kinds of people that inhabit our world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.

Stay tuned.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Understanding Those Who Served in Vietnam and Beyond – A Review of “Fields of Fire” by James Webb

You may know Jim Webb as the person whose narrow victory shifted the balance of power in the U.S Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats when he defeated the incumbent from Virginia, George Allen, in last November’s hotly contested election. I know him as the Naval Academy classmate of several friends of mine, and as an outstanding author of groundbreaking novels and thought-provoking works of non-fiction.

Several years ago I read “A Sense of Honor.” For a more complete description of this novel, see my earlier posting from last November:

I have always intended to read Webb’s other novels, but was waiting for the right time to begin. Having been deeply moved by reading Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s seminal work, “On Killing,” I felt that now was as good a time as any to read Webb’s acclaimed Vietnam novel, “Fields of Fire.” The timing of my reading of this masterpiece could not have been better. This work of fiction, based upon Webb’s own experiences as a decorated Marine in Vietnam, powerfully corroborates all that Grossman proclaims in “On Killing” about the price that our warrior’s pay when they go into battle. Tom Wolfe, whose own writing has garnered numerous awards, calls “Fields of Fire”: “The finest of the Vietnam novels.” I agree with Wolfe’s evaluation.

The blurb on the back on the Bantam paperback edition of “Fields of Fire” gives a very fair and concise summation of what this book is about:

“They each had their reasons for being a soldier. They each had their illusions. Goodrich came from Harvard. Snake got the tattoo – Death Before Dishonor – before he got the uniform. And Hodges was haunted by the ghosts of family heroes. They were three young men from different worlds plunged into a white-hot, murderous realm of jungle warfare as it was fought by one Marine platoon in the An Hoa Basin, 1969. They had no way of knowing what awaited them. Nothing could have prepared them for the madness to come. And in the heart and horror of battle they took their new identities, took on each other, and were each reborn in the fields of fire . . .”

After I reviewed “On Killing” in last week’s White Rhino Report posting, the author, Dave Grossman, wrote to me to express his appreciation for what I had written. In my response to him, I wrote about the connections that I see between his treatise on killing and Webb’s novel about the same topic:

“Great to hear from you. I am glad you appreciated what I wrote about "On Killing." I will finish ‘On Combat’ by the end of this weekend, and plan to review it later this week. In between, I have just read Jim Webb's Fields of Fire,’ which I found to be a wonderful fictional companion piece to your writing. I know Jim a bit through some of his Naval Academy classmates. I had read ‘A Sense of Honor’ a few years ago, and had been waiting for the right time to read ‘Fields of Fire.’ The insights I had gleaned from ‘On Killing’ and ‘On Combat’ made my reading of Webb's work all the more meaningful and poignant. In his fictionalized narrative, he describes virtually all of the phenomena that you have described about killing and combat: involuntary loss of sphincter control, reluctance to fire, posturing, fleeing, guilt, PTSD. It was as if the two of you had collaborated.”

Towards the end of “Fields of Fire,” Snake is faced with a decision about whether or not to re-enlist and remain in “the bush” in Vietnam. I will share a prolonged excerpt to give you a good sense of the character of Snake and of Webb’s insightful writing. In this passage, Snake has just made the decision to stay in the Marines for one more tour of duty in Vietnam.

“One hour later the deed was completely done. Snake left the tent, weighted with a ponderous emotion, and strolled along the powdered dirt roads until he found himself at the western edge of the combat base. He found an empty sandbag bunker (it would be occupied at dusk) and climbed onto its roof and sat heavily, moodily peering across the fields of concertina, like a king on a throne, surveying his wide domain.

Far to the west the mountains rose fierce and blue and ominous, above low layers of thick white fog. They seemed peaceful but he knew their secrets, understood their mysteries more completely than he had ever mastered anything before. He was a comprehending denizen, master of a violent world.

He watched the mountains, and the almost quaint repetitions of paddy and treeline that led to them, and acknowledged that he could do this forever. He sensed that, beyond the terror that was today, there was a fullness that no other thing in the remainder of his life would ever equal. That, beyond doubt, the rest of his life would be spent remembering those agonizing months, revering their fullness. That, yes, he was now twenty – well, almost twenty – and what would always have been the greatest, the most important experience of his life, had almost passed. If he were to go back now – when he did go back – there was nothing, not a thing, that would parallel the sense of urgency and authority and – need. Of being a part of something. And of being needed and being good.

Extend? Hell, yeah. I’ll extend until this goddam thing is over.

He sensed that it was all here, everything, and there was none of it there. All of life’s compelling throbs, condensed and honed each time a bullet flew, the pain, the brother-love, the sacrifice. Nobility discovered by those who’d never even contemplated sacrifice, never felt an emotion worth their own blood on someone else’s altar. The heart-rending deaths. The successes. All here. None there, back in the bowels of the World. Except for the pain, and even that a numbed, daily pain, steady, like blue funk, not the sharp pain of an agonizing moment, capable of being purged, vindicated, replaced by a beautiful, lilting memory: Baby Cakes was a Number One dude, you know? He’da died for me. And I killed ‘em back for him.” (Pages 365-6)

Webb hints at the universality of the warrior’s experience down through the centuries as Lt. Hodges ruminates in the midst of an attack:

“The sky lit and the mist began to lift and the fields were lush, rain-soaked, and green. Hodges peered along the treeline and could see the other Marines of the company set in at its edge, watching also. They lay in the mist and weeds, faceless in their distance, and it struck him that he was watching a timeless vision: the taut stillness of a hundred men frozen by their individual fears. This part of it, at least, was eternal. They could have been anywhere – in a jungle clearing on Saipan, a quarter-century before. In the sweet spring grass at Shiloh. No matter. These were his people, passed down by time to fill a warrior’s conduit, and this was where he belonged. He dreaded what the rumbling tanks, the sputters of machine guns would bring, but at the same time the very prospect energized him with awe and determination.

Bred to it, like a bird dog.” (Pages 385-6)

In a poignant and prescient passage near the end of the book, Webb describes the character, Goodrich, derisively dubbed “Senator” by those in his platoon, returning to the ivied halls of Harvard as a wounded veteran who does not fit in anywhere.

“It took the school experience to make him realize how much he had changed. He became something of an instant curiosity on campus, a Real Live Wounded Vet, as rare at Harvard as a miner at a tea party. He remained silent in his classes, and was alternately cynical and sardonic when called on to recite. Between classes he was recognizable on the long stone walks, a solitary, limping figure whose head was often down, who worked his artificial leg with effort and seldom looked or spoke to the ones he passed.

He would play a game with himself, walking through the hallways and the crowded cafeterias. Conversations would drift toward him from the groups of people nearby – all the subtleties and nuances of Vietnam: Moral Obligation Dominoes Containment Nuremburg Geneva Intervention Hearts and Minds . . .

And he would wonder if any of them saw him limp. He tried to walk correctly, exerted much effort in his attempts. But it doesn’t matter. They can’t see me, I’m too fucking real.

But it cut him deeply . . . I try, he would mourn. I really do. Not as hard as I could, I guess, but I’m not one-way about this. And I can’t try any harder. I’ve lost respect for these people. They’re so – ethereal. In fact, they’re downright spacy.

He continued to contrast them with the members of his squad in Vietnam, and slowly he came to realize that his deep exposure to each group had spoiled him, detaching him from the other. It had not been in him to accept the primitive viciousness that came naturally to Snake and some of the others. He was equally uncomfortable with the fog-headed intellectualism of his schoolmates. His classmates and professors reminded him of Tocqueville’s descriptions of the stratified, vaporous intellectuals who brought about the French Revolution in the name of unattainable ideals. Someone needs to clue them in, he would muse, about what’s really happening down there where the spears fly.

Then one day the thought knifed through the pillbuzz that he was the only one who could do it. It he could ever gain the energy to confront the stares.” (Pages 443-5)

There you have it! The fictional character, Senator, gives rise to the real life Junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Clearly, Jim Webb found a way to summon the energy to confront the stares. He stood for office that he might be in a position – through his writing and through his serving in the U.S. Senate – “to clue them in . . . about what’s really happening down there where the spears fly.”

This is a book that speaks eloquently from the past to the challenges of the present – and the future.

Enjoy – and learn!


Celebrating 500 White Rhino Posts: A Red Sox Fan's Rant

The folks at tell me that when I post this article, it will represent to 500th Blog posting since I launched The White Rhino Report in December 2004. I am sure that not all 500 articles have been “homeruns,” so I do not feel like A-Rod, the newest member of MLB’s 500-HR Club. But I also do not feel like Barry Bonds, since I wrote every one of these articles without the benefit of any performance-enhancing chemicals in my system. I launched each of these missives under my own power!

I want to thank the readers of The White Rhino Report for giving me consistently helpful and gratifying feedback. Just when I begin to wonder if the investment of time and energy to write and post these articles is justifiable – given how busy the rest of my life is – I hear from a reader or group of readers who tell me how much impact a particular piece has had. So, thanks for reading and thanks for offering your reactions to the thoughts that I am compelled to share in this space.

Let me return to the theme of baseball. I am a loyal – and often fanatical – member of Red Sox Nation, having been inoculated early in life with a love for all things Red Sox. Over the many years that I have been following the vicissitudes of the team, they have given me much joy and much sorrow. Most of the time I am a “The glass is half-full” kind of fan. I am not like many Red Sox fans who love to moan and whine over every little misstep by a player, manager or front office executive. A common mantra among many of my fellow Sox fans is “They are ruining my summah!” The 2007 edition of the Red Sox have certainly not ruined my summer. As I write these words, they can still boast the best record in baseball – with 70 victories and a winning percentage of .598. They still hold a 4 game lead in the American League East, and are odds-on favorites to make it to the post season. They have as good a chance as any team to make it to the World Series and to bring another title to Boston.

Having said of all that, I cannot refrain from offering a mini-rant.


The fans of Red Sox Nation made the trek down the New Jersey Turnpike like lemmings – offering a level of support for the home team that is unprecedented in baseball annals. The total attendance for the three game series set an all-time record for Camden Yards. This season, the Orioles have sold out only 8 games – and 6 of those games were against the Red Sox. The seats in Baltimore’s gorgeous stadium were filled with fans wearing Red Sox apparel. Red Sox Nation was an invading army – descending from the north and filling the stadium, hotels, restaurants and bars of Baltimore County, much like General Burgoyne’s troops that overwhelmed Fort Ticonderoga from the north during the Revolutionary War.

The team rewarded their stalwart and peripatetic fans with two squanders of biblical proportion – wasting outstanding pitching efforts by Dice-K on Friday and Curt Schilling on Sunday. The vaunted Sox hitters left runners in scoring position all weekend long. The bullpen – the best in baseball, and recently allegedly reinforced with the addition of Eric Gagne – suffered the worst meltdown since the movie “The China Syndrome”! I blame Terry Francona as much as I blame Gagne, Snyder and Okajima.

Since his arrival from Texas, Gagne has not been able to survive an outing without getting hit hard. The explanations are legion – unfamiliarity with a role other than closer, getting used to a new team, etc. The truth is that he had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is not yet ready to be put on the mound in a Red Sox uniform in a situation in which the game is on the line. Yet, on Friday night, with the Sox having carved out a late 5-1 lead in support of Dice-K’s outstanding performance, he gave up 4 runs, and the lowly Orioles went on to win in walk-off fashion in the 9th inning. Gagne should never have been on the mound in the first place, but he certainly should have been replaced long before he allowed the tying run to reach base.

The icing on the cake is that in yesterday’s game – with Schilling having pitched a gem through 6 innings, and the Sox clinging to a 3-1 lead, Francona again chose to trot Gagne out with the game on the line – only to see “déjà vu all over again”! Gagne coughed up a game-tying HR to Tejada on a 3-2 count in the bottom of the 8th. They went on to lose in 10 innings – to a walk-off HR by our old friend, Kevin Millar. Millar “Cowboyed Up” and the Sox were lassoed, hogtied, branded and saddled with another heart-breaking loss.

The Yankees are breathing down our necks as we round the Clubhouse turn. Red Sox Nation is furious and in full panic mode. Welcome to August in Boston! “God’s in His Heaven and all’s right with the world.”

Thanks for listening and reading. I feel better.

I’ll be at Fenway tonight!

Go Sox.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

An Impromptu Mini-Reunion of West Point Baseball Players

I was pleased to be the catalyst in pulling together an impromptu reunion of a couple of Black Knight baseball players last week. Here is how the scenario played out.

Mike Cooper, US Military Academy '02, was the first cadet I met when I found myself sitting in the midst of the West Point baseball team at Fenway Park in June of '01. Coop and I had a great conversation that day. He asked for my business card, and we have been in pretty constant communication ever since, including during his two deployments to Iraq. I was at his graduation from West Point and his wedding in Jacksonville a couple of years ago.
Mike recently completed his commitment to the Army, and Captain Cooper once again became Mr. Cooper. He just took a job in sales with a company that provides laboratory diagnostic services for veterinarians. His territory is the Orlando area, so Mike and Christie have recently settled in Orlando. A few weeks ago, he was going through some sales training in Portland, Maine - which is not that long a drive from Boston, so I made the trip up - or rather, Down Maine - and Mike and I had dinner together in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
During our visit, I made Mike aware of the fact that I was going to be in Tampa during the week of July 26-31- in part to be with my sister while she went through some orthopedic surgery - and in part to see the Red Sox play the Devil Rays. Mike decided that he and Christie would make the drive from Orlando to St. Petersburg for the Sunday game.
One of Mike's friends and USMA teammates is Josh Holden, '03. Josh is playing Single A ball for the Sarasota Reds. A quick check of their schedule told me that the Reds would be playing in Clearwater during my time in the Tampa Bay area, so I called Josh and told him to expect to see me at his game on Thursday night. He left tickets for me and my sister, and we had great seats near the front row next to the Sarasota dugout.
After the game, as I was visiting with Josh, I mentioned that Mike and Christie Cooper would be joining me on Sunday for the Sox-Devil Rays game. Josh's eyes lit up. "Our team has Sunday off. I think I'll make the drive up from Sarasota and join you!"
So, on Sunday, July 29, we all converged on Tropicana Field, and had a great time, despite the Red Sox loss to the Devil Rays that day. Mike's youngest brother, Tyler, a student at the University of Florida, also joined us. I had e-mailed Tyler to suggest that he go to Orlando to visit his brother and then join Mike and Christie for the trip to St. Petersburg.

FYI - for details on how the Army granted Josh Holden permission to play professional baseball, see this article:

If You Want to Understand: A Review of “On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Because most of the individuals who know me are aware that I love to read, they often recommend books that they think I would enjoy reading. Many of the books that I have reviewed in The White Rhino Report came to my attention through personal recommendations. “On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is no different, except for the fact that at least a half dozen of my friends told me that I needed to read this book. The curious thing about their recommendations was that each individual expressed his feelings about this book in almost identical terms. Each of these warriors, knowing that they were speaking to someone who has not served in the military, used a phrase like: “If you want to understand . . . you need to read ‘On Killing’!”

They did not say, “If you want to understand me,” or “If you want to understand war,” or even “If you want to understand the heart of a warrior.” They left the statement hanging: “If you want to understand . . .” That truncated expression served as an all-encompassing statement that includes all of the above – and so much more.

Having read, and been captivated by, this singular book, I feel that I have begun to understand in a new way. Grossman, a decorated former Army Ranger, paratrooper and member of the faculty at West Point, has placed on the table for discussion what I would call The Warrior’s Secret. The overarching impression that Grossman left me with is that each warrior who has faced combat secretly struggles for the rest of his life with one of three powerful sets of emotions:

1) If he has been called upon to kill in battle, he wrestles with a haunting guilt over having overcome the basic human instinct not to kill our own kind. That wrestling can often lead to severe PTSD.

2) If he was faced with an opportunity to kill an enemy combatant, but chose not to kill, or found himself incapable of killing, he suffers from the secret shame and humiliation of having failed to carry out that which he was trained to do – that which defines a true warrior.

3) If he served in the military in a role that was not combat arms, or if he never had an opportunity to engage an enemy, he wonders how he would have responded if faced with that life-or-death decision. And he secretly feels like he never truly became a warrior.

For much of history, the warrior code made if difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to speak honestly about these struggles. Our military has come a long way in the past several generations in terms of understanding these psychological and emotional dynamics of warfare, and in terms of giving permission for veterans and active duty military personnel to speak openly and honestly about these formerly taboo topics. Grossman has carved out a second career in publicly and privately offering this explicit permission to those who have served in combat and who wrestle with these persistent struggles.

As soon as I finished reading the book, I placed a call to my friend, Kevin. He was one of those who had told me to read the book. He is a veteran of two deployments to Iraq. I wanted to test out on Kevin the validity of what I describe above as “The Warrior’s Secret.” Kevin not only confirmed that I was on the right track and was beginning to “Get it,” but he also added the following comments:

“Now you need to read Grossman’s next book – ‘On Combat.’ It is more comprehensive in scope than ‘On Killing.’ In each unit I have served in, we made sure that there was a copy of each of these books available to us to help us survive. They function as a sort of a psychological survival manual.”

(Based on Kevin’s recommendation, I immediately ordered “On Combat.” I plan to review that book within the next few days. Stay tuned!)

To give you a direct sense of how insightful and revolutionary Grossman’s writing is, I will share with you several excerpts. Grossman lays on the table the idea that historically in combat, many warriors have shied away from making a kill when they were given an opportunity to do so.

“The simple fact appears to be that, like S.L.A. Marshall’s riflemen of World War II, the vast majority of rifle- and musket-armed soldiers of previous wars were consistent and persistent in their psychological inability to kill their fellow human beings. Their weapons were technologically capable , and they were physically quite able to kill, but at the decisive moment each man became, in his heart, a conscientious objector who could not bring himself to kill the man standing before him” (Page 27)

“There is ample indication of the existence of the resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black powder era. This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man. The application and understanding of this force can lend new insight to military history, the nature of war, and the nature of man.” (Page 28)

“That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and sociological pressures of the battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal and potentially traumatic occurrence of war. If we understand this, then we understand the magnitude of the horror of killing in combat. . . Why is this not often discussed? If Johnny can’t kill, if the average soldier will not kill unless coerced and conditioned and provided with mechanical and mental leverage, then why has it not been understood before?” (Pages 30-31)

Grossman makes a compelling case that the poor rate at which soldiers in World Wars I and II fired their weapons when called upon to do so led to a revolution in the way in which subsequent generations of soldiers were trained – using operant conditioning techniques introduced by Skinner. As a consequence, firing rates in Korea climbed, and soared even higher in Vietnam. The result was an alarming increase in the incidence of PTSD among returning soldiers and Marines. Grossman argues that we learned to do a better job of turning men into killing machines, but we did not learn how to help them cope with the aftermath of what we had trained them to do.

“In both the Berkun and Shalit studies we see indications that fear of death and injury is not the primary cause of psychiatric casualties on the battlefield. Indeed, Shalit found that even in the face of a society and culture that tells soldiers that selfish fear of death and injury should be their primary concern, it is instead the fear of not being able to meet the terrible obligations of combat that weighs most heavily on the minds of combat soldiers. . . Research in this field has been that of blind men groping at the elephant – one grasps what he thinks is a tree, another finds a wall, and still another discovers a snake. All have a piece of the puzzle, but none is completely correct.” (Page 53)

Grossman offers a fascinating look into the theory and practice of inoculating recruits and military cadets against hatred and other psychological factors.

“Combining an understanding of (a) those factors that cause combat trauma with (b) an understanding of the inoculation process permits us to understand that in most of these military schools the inoculation is specifically oriented toward hate.

The drill sergeant who screams into the face of a recruit is manifesting overt interpersonal hostility. Another effective means of inoculating a trainee against the Wind of Hate can be seen in U.S. Army and USMC pugil-stick training during boot camp or at the U.S. Military Academy and the British Airborne Brigade, where boxing matches are a traditional part of the training and initiation process. When in the face of all of this manufactured contempt and overt physical hostility the recruit overcomes the situation to graduate with honor and pride, he realizes at both a conscious and unconscious levels that he can overcome such overt interpersonal hostility. He has become partially inoculated against hate.” (Page 82)

In the chapter entitled “The Burden of Killing,” Grossman articulates what I see as his primary premise – and thereby offers his primary gift to the warrior community: opening up for discussion – both public and private – the secret burden that each warrior carries within his heart.

“The soldier in combat is trapped within this tragic Catch-22. If he overcomes his resistance to killing and kills an enemy soldier in close combat, he will forever be burdened with blood guilt, and if he elects not to kill, then the blood guilt of his fallen comrades and the shame of his profession, nation, and cause lie upon him. He is damned if he does, and damned it he doesn’t.” (Page 87)

The feedback I received from my friend, Kevin, reinforced my sense that Grossman’s pioneering work has been enormously helpful to those called to serve in fields of fire in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere where our troops are deployed. The book provided me with a glimpse into the mind and heart of those who have been faced with the decision to kill or not to kill – a level of understanding I may not have been able to attain in any other way. Kevin’s comment about the book’s effectiveness in combat speaks loudly as a recommendation for all warriors to add this book to their arsenal of tools and weapons.

Speaking as one who has not been in combat, but who numbers among my friends many warriors, I recommend this book to anyone who desires to understand and to engage in meaningful conversation those friends and family members who have been called upon to make the awful choice to take a human life. One of the ways that we can show our gratitude to the warriors who bear these burdens that are almost unthinkable is to take a step towards them and make the effort to understand.

“If you want to understand” . . . read this book!