"I'm sorry I must leave, but I must do what is asked of me by my God, my Country, and my Corps.. and so, the war blog begins, again." ~B

23 July 2009

Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq

The chosen book of this week has been Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq by Mike Tucker and Charles Faddis.

I have always enjoyed Mike Tucker's books, especially Hell is Over and Among Warriors in Iraq.
This one has an interesting premise, covering the actions of the intelligence community before and during the Iraq War. I found Operation Hotel California to be engaging and well written. Its format basically takes shapes during the author's conversations with clandestine operatives who have returned stateside.

The content of a book like this is inherently unverifiable. I can't confirm through research much of what is said, specifically the harsh line the author takes towards a particular military commander and elements of CIA headquarters. Additionally, the events of any memoir are clouded through the lens of personal experience, which makes me take accounts with a grain of salt.

Part clandestine war memoir, part commentary on the military/ intelligence strategies put in place at the outset of the Iraq War, Tucker leaves you with with plenty to think about. For me, three things stuck out:

1. Finishing the Job
Tucker and Faddis recount moment after moment where, due to bureaucracy, apathy, service/departmental/agency rivalry, or simple incompetence, known terrorists are allowed to escape. They claim that the opportunity to eliminate significant numbers of Ansar al-Islam and Al-Qaeda in Iraq was passed up time and time again, to the dismay of clandestine teams on the ground who spent the time gathering intelligence at great risk to themselves.

They recount another episode at the beginning of the war in 2003, where Kurdish peshmerga with the aid of clandestine teams, were set to destroy a rail line that was vital to the transportation network of the Iraqi Army. Headquarters decided that the Iraqis had to be warned of the impending attack before it took place, putting the covert operatives in great danger.

Personally, one thing I don't understand, is fighting a war while tying the hands of your war fighters. Either you are at war, and the powers that be have the stomach to do what needs to be done, or not. Fighting half-halfheartedly just seems to get a lot of people killed unnecessarily.

Tucker and Faddis are of the opinion: "Dead terrorists build not cells. Dead terrorists open no offshore accounts. And dead terrorists do not kill Americans and our allies."

2. The Kurds
Mike Tucker has written about the Kurds before, and I have great respect for the warrior spirit. I had not realized before this book what a significant role Kurdish peshmerga played in military operations and clandestine operations in Northern Iraq. Reading this account of their actions in Northern Iraq in 2002-2003, that respect only deepens.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has made many promises to the Kurds in the past and failed to live up to them, Tucker and Faddis report that they fought bravely beside us to take down Saddam. They aided the clandestine teams by providing supplies, weapons, ammunition, intelligence, manpower, and networking with important players in Northern Iraq.

Tucker and Faddis also report that many players inside the Beltway took Kurdish support for granted, and continued to make promises to them that they did not keep. They also did not take seriously Kurdish concerns about what the consequences would be for them to support the Americans. The Kurdish generals wanted reassurance that the Americans had a plan to deal with Saddam's surface-to-surface missiles in range of heavily populated Kurdish cities. After all, the Kurds had more than hypothetical experience with Saddam's brutality and use of chemical weapons. According to Tucker and Faddis, they got little more than lipservice, and it was up to the Kurds themselves, with the clandestine operatives and limited number of special operators, to come up with a plan of protection.

Despite this, from the early preparations for war in 2002, to the March-May 2003 period where combat operations officially began, Tucker and Faddis state:
"The Kurds were brilliant and did not fail us."

3. "The Lost Surrender of Mosul"
The final point that stuck with me was the discussion of the possible, ultimately failed, surrender of the Iraqi Army essentially as the war began.

Tucker and Faddis claim that "getting the 5th Corps Iraqi Army to surrender was one of our core objectives, since March 2002, and necessary to the surrender of Saddam's Northern Front--150,000 Iraqi Army soldiers." They claim such a surrender would allow Iraqi Army elements not willing to fight for Saddam in Southern Iraq to fall in line, reassured that the Americans would finish the job this time. This was essential to the whole Iraq war strategy, as it would allow the smaller fighting force Rumsfeld insisted on using to be effective. The Iraqi Army, police force, and other administrative elements hypothetically would be under American control and could be used to keep law and order intact.

Elements of the Kurdish peshmerga, and clandestine operatives operating in northern Iraq had no contact with US military units in the area until the 173rd Airborne dropped in. They had not been notified of the clandestine activity in the area or received any of the intelligence the clandestine teams had spent so much time gathering. After initially working together with these teams in the area, Tucker and Faddis claim that a Lieutenant Colonel with 10 Group Special Forces cut off all communication between the clandestine teams and the military on the ground in the area. They could only communicate with command elements. Faddis claims this was due to a select few individuals with in the military structure and in Washington that "did not want the CIA to get credit for the surrender of the main force of the Iraqi Army."

After at least 14 months of work, the Kurds and counterterrorist teams set up a meeting between the "Iraqi Army 5th Corps Commander, the mayor of Mosul, key tribal sheiks, and former senior Baathists to offer the keys to the city to the United States and the Coalition....verbal surrender was already agreed on." The Lieutenant Colonel with 10th Group Special Forces was to come and accept the surrender because back in Washinton, SecDef Rumsfeld had decided the CIA could not accept the surrender of any Iraqi Army elements.

Tucker and Faddis claim that on April 11, 2003, the LtCol went into this meeting with a belligerent attitude and with little to no understanding of Iraqi/Arab/Near East culture. He then set forth a series of bureaucratic conditions to accept the surrender and issued demands to the mayor and commanders, without consulting those who had been working with these individuals. Tucker and Faddis claim that no consideration was made for cultural norms and this caused to the meeting to break down, and ultimately, the surrender of the city of Mosul and over 50,000 Iraqis and their accompanying military apparatus to be lost.

Faddis states: "They went from happy to surrender to us, to very unhappy to be in our presence, at the drop of a hat." Tucker and Faddis claim that this type of action, along with the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by Paul Bremer, as well as a general lack of cultural knowledge, contributed to the roots of the insurgency in Iraq.

For Tucker and Faddis, the lost surrender of Mosul was key to the failed Iraq strategy and the development of the insurgency. It symbolized how ego, lack of cultural knowledge, petty rivalry, and a power structure back stateside which was divorced from reality on the ground got a lot of good people killed. They claim because of this event, the U.S. lost years and billions of dollars, as well as a lot of good men.

If this happened as they claim, it really makes you stop and consider "what if." How could this one event have changed the whole course of the war? How many men killed in Mosul and northern Iraq could still be alive? Once again, it forces you to consider how the actions of those in control effect those that have to execute those orders. People who do not have their lives on the line, who are not on the ground, so often get lost petty rivalry and personal concerns. These things often have catastrophic consequences, whether it be the intelligence communications breakdown that contributed to 9/11 or the loss of a potential surrender of significant numbers of enemy forces in a shooting war.

Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq is an engaging look at what was going on in the shadows in the early days of the Iraq war. Had me wincing at several points with the "what ifs" and "no ways." Worth the read.

22 July 2009

"How Could I Know

Hat Tip to Mudville Gazette:
How Could I Know?

From Robert Stokely:

Eight years ago I took a ride out I-20 from Atlanta headed to Augusta GA and along the way stopped to pick up Mike as he had first been to our house to visit while home on leave and then back to his mom's for a few days. Mike was given a four day pass to come home from AIT at Ft. Gordon where he had been for a few months after his graduation from high school. Mike was a member of the Georgia Army National Guard, having joined in March of 2000 as junior in high school on the split entry program, doing his basic training at Ft. Benning that summer and then finishing his senior year of high school.

I had never been to Ft. Gordon although I had ridden by it a number of times. I wanted to take Mike back because it would be an unknown time before he might get another pass and the several hours it would take us to drive there would be valuable time together. It was strange to go through the gates and drop him off at his barracks - although I have to admit they weren't the type barracks you might imagine compared to basic training. They were more like apartments. Mike greeted some fellow AIT buddies as we got there. He showed me around and then it was time for formation and I had to leave. I remember the hug goodbye, the "I love you dad" and straining to see him as long as I could in my rear view mirror. Funny how the ride home was a lot longer than the ride there.

Today (Tuesday) I made the ride out I-20 again and while I didn't go to Ft. Gordon I was headed to Augusta to take a Soldier's Angels supplied computer to a wounded soldier from the local National Guard Unit / Newnan GA where I live. SPC Charles Benson was wounded in Afghanistan in a fierce firefight taking a bullet to the lower body and suffering serious hand wounds from an RPG that hit his battle buddy CPL Jonathan Morita in the hand and wounding him seriously. Both survived and their wounds are non-life threatening with SPC Benson going to Eisenhower Medical at Ft. Gordon and recently being transferred to more long term care and rehabilitation at the VA Hospital in nearby Augusta (GA). CPL Morita is at Walter Reed and I hope to go see him soon, maybe even next week, and stop and check in on the seriously injured SFC Mark Allen who was shot in the head in the same firefight. SFC Allen is at Bethesda.

My visit today with SPC Benson at the VA in Augusta GA was a good one. He looked well for a young man who came closer to death than any parent would want their child to come. More striking is how good his spirits were. Laid back and take it as it comes is how I would describe it. Honestly though, he looked younger than even the young man he is and has served a year deployment in Iraq four years ago and came home to go to the University of Alabama where he was but 14 credit hours away from graduating when he was called up. I thought to myself how such a mild mannered young looking man could be such a rugged soldier fighting for America, and a medic on top of that. I guess it is true, looks can be deceiving. We talked and laughed in a way that few might have understood or dared go "there". He described how they had been on foot patrol all night about 12 miles from their base. I kidded him that they didn't even get one of the junker HumVees like they had in Iraq and he said no. Guess they didn't have it so bad in Iraq after all I said. He laughed. He kidded he might just not wait to get a pass and I said "so what could they do to you if you left - send you to Afghanistan..." And we talked about the battle and how he got hit and he was so down to earth matter of fact "I took a bullet and then the RPG came in and got me and Morita...." like it was no big deal. He has the bullet, thanks to a fellow soldier "digging it out" for him.

Then we talked about a mutual friend - one I didn't know four years ago and one he came to know two weeks ago. MaryAnn Phillips, Soldier's Angels Germany. Need I say more. But, yes I will. Just let it suffice to say that SPC Charles Benson and his family love MaryAnn because she was there at Landstuhl and checked on him constantly and saw him off on the flight to Andrews AFB. MaryAnn made a real difference in his life, such a difference in two days that it will last a lifetime, just as she has done for me and so many others. Thanks MaryAnn for looking after our soldiers when they come into Landstuhl and providing their families a measure of comfort to hear your compassionate voice right by their wounded loved one's bedside.

As I drove home today I thought how I was making this trip to begin with, how I have met and come to have so many new friends these last four years and how they give so much to our soldiers like SPC Charles Benson. It traces back to Mike, for if Mike had not been killed in Iraq, I would not know the many wonderful people like MaryAnn Phillps, Patti Patton-Bader, Mr. and Mrs. G, the Blackfive bloggers, David Marron at Thunderrun, like how many Soldier's Angels across the world, and so many others. I wouldn't have been riding to Augusta today and I wouldn't have been taking the computer sent by Soldier's Angels for CPL Benson. And, on my way back, I wouldn't have been stopping by to check on Mike's grave.... I wish Mike had not been killed by a roadside bomb, but was a choice I didn't get to make and I will just be thankful for the many good things that have come out of his death - blessings I call Romans 8:28 blessings.

As I stood at Mike's grave late this afternoon, I asked myself this question - "How could I have ever known that day eight years ago..."


Robert Stokely
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah Iraq
p.s. - thanks Mrs. G for going to see CPL Benson last week
and Co-chair Bravo 2 / 121 INF 48th BCT GAARNG Family Readiness Group

20 July 2009

Captured Soldier

This weekend the Pentagon ID'd the soldier who was captured in Afghanistan. I am praying for his family and his safe return. I am also praying for those undertaking the difficult tasks involved in looking for him.

Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, was serving with an Alaska-based infantry regiment earlier this month when he vanished, just five months after arriving in Afghanistan. He was serving at a base near the border with Pakistan in an area known to be a Taliban stronghold.


16 July 2009

Things I cannot get out of my head

When my grandpa finished talkingWe went walking, he and I
I was thinking of the future and how scared I was to die
Now my best friend’s overseas in the desert where it’s dry
Fighting for our country and I need a reason why
I Remember When he was a younger man
Now he’s a soliderFighting in a foreign land
Now we’re older
God bring him home again

I had a friend send me this song recently and I cannot get it out of my head.

War and music are so intimately tied together and this song really hits home for me. It is haunting. The lyrics capture the uncertainty, doubt, and worry that go hand in hand with conflict. It is told in the form of a story by a WWII vet, who has shared it with his grandson, who now sees his own grandson go off to fight a war.

With the best friend headed off to scary places soon, it really hit me in the gut. Hearing it created this moment where the world just stopped. It was one of those moments where you are fully conscious of the fact that it is a moment and take stock of the details.

This happened once before the first deployment. He had just received the firm date and it was earlier than expected. He had just had a short leave, and we thought he would get another one before he left. All I could think about was that I had not given him a proper hug before he left. I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to former Congressman Lee Hamilton speak. He talked about his philosophy on foreign policy, how important he thought diplomacy was, and how politicians always have to be cognizant that when diplomacy fails, it will be boys from Indiana doing the fighting and doing the dying. I felt sucker punched, because it was the moment where reality set in for me. The best friend was going to fight. in a war.

With the final verse, this song did that for me again.

I know we have some time yet, but I'm praying for you already.


13 July 2009

Haim Watzman's "Company C"

I just finished Haim Watzman's book Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel. Watzman is a journalist, translator, and editor who also spends a couple of decades in a combat reserve unit. The book spans the two decades he spent in the reserves, as well as his relationship with his family, friends, and brothers in arms. He wrestles with religious, moral, and ideological questions regarding the occupation of the territories. He thoughtfully recounts his time recalled to active duty and provides a good background on the political situation in Israel in each period. Watzman's book is a good primer on the precarious position Israel often finds itself in. He discusses political actions, peace accords, operations, and elections from the perspective of a fighting man who must react to or implement their outcome.

I have found myself increasingly interested in the Israeli military, not only for its general proficiency, but also because it has been dealing with terrorism a lot longer than the United States has. I think there are a lot of lessons the US can learn from the Israelis.

Watzman fleshes out and wrestles with the moral and ideological dilemmas that counter-terror actions and even warfare generally evoke. He leans left politically and is committed to peace, but is also a pragmatist who believes one must deal with the realities of the day.

This reminded me of conversations I have had with a peace activist recently. I often find myself frustrated when friends of mine want to debate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and it devolves into a split along party lines. Both the peace activist and the politically minded friends who paint the military and all military action with a broad brush refuse to deal with the realities of the day.

Watzman writes about a discussion he has with a young woman at a peace demonstration at the end of the book and how his views have evolved since his twenties. He says:
Facing such dilemmas is not morally execrable. What is wrong is to refuse to face up to the choices your life in your country requires. It's wrong to decide to keep yourself pure while letting others get sullied in the muck of moral uncertainty. A man who refuses to enter a morally ambiguous situation out of fear that he might make the wrong decision is not pure. He is cowardly.

In the Epilogue, he reflects on his time as a soldier, now that his oldest daughter has begun her stint in the army and his son is soon to follow.
As a father must be, I will be frightened. I'll fear for their physical safety, and I'll fear for their moral compass, because I know that when you're a soldier it's all too easy for that compass to go awry. I'll also be proud of them, because I know they will face challenges and problems and dilemmas and overcome them, and be better people for having done so.
My cousin is at Parris Island earning the title of Marine. I think of his mom, stepmom, and dad who struggle with these complex emotions. It is like this for all military families I think- the worry and pride intermingling. Watzman closes with some words of advice for his children that I think my aunt and uncle would pass on:
Be loyal to your friends, determined but cognizant of your actions. Do your duty toward God, if for no other reason than it gives you the right to argue with Him and with those who claim to know exactly what He wants. Consider the moral implications of everything you do, for God expects that of us. But don't let your moral concerns paralyze you, for a person who makes no choice cannot make the right choice.
Watzman's book is not only a soldier's memoirs; it is an intellectual exercise. As he wrestles with his faith, his duty, his political views, and his actions, he makes you wrestle with your own as well.

07 July 2009

Career Direction

So the past year hasn't gone as planned. What I thought I had lined up got torpedoed by a bad economy and shrinking budgets. I admit, that was a blow. I have struggled since with a string of odd jobs and one steady PT effort that I really do love.

The one good think about the depressing and frustrating cycle of job hunting and applying is that it has forced me to consider what I really want to do. For me, that answer has been slow coming. After a lot of thought, a lot of prayer, and extensive conversations with the important people in my life, I do believe I have found a road sign.

I am going to pursue the Masters in Social Work program, with the aim of working with veterans in a more professional setting.

I am now in the middle of doing a massive amount of research on the types of programs available, the cost, the requirements, and really the nuts and blots of the thing, as it is not a field of study especially familiar to me.

I have concerns about the burnout rate and the emotional ramifications of such work. This is something I have personally experienced as simply a volunteer. But I feel like I could make a difference doing this. I have a lot of experiences that seem to be pointing me in this direction. Nudges, here and there that maybe I didn't take seriously enough.

God promises he won't give us more than we can handle, and I am trusting in that.

Wish me luck. Now I just have to convince a program to take me.

05 July 2009

Independence Day

Honoring those who have done as the founders of our nation did:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection
of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes
and our sacred Honor." --Declaration of Independence