On the flight from Seoul to Seattle last Sunday, I sat next to a person who seemed a little different from the usual people I find myself next to on these flights. It’s usually a fellow Microsoft employee on the trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific business-class flights. But when I asked this guy what he did for a living, he said “oh, I’m basically a tent salesman.”
After a while it became clear that was a self-deprecating way of avoiding the kind of pestering questions that people would ask if they knew what he really did for a living. He works for a major supplier of hi-tech equipment to military markets, after a 20-year career as a sergeant in the Army paratrooper ranks. (The 82nd Airborne division.) I won’t say his name or the company name — let’s call him “Joe” — but he was gracious enough to talk to me at length about many aspects of the military and his view of events in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Joe’s view of Iraq and Afghanistan was different from that of other people I’ve talked to, because he has been there, several times in each place, as a soldier. So when we talked about the Green Zone, which is just an abstract concept to me, to him we were talking about a specific place with specific buildings and entrances and so on. When we talked about the caves of Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden slipped away from US forces, Joe showed me photos he had taken of caves in that area. When we talked about Gunatanamo, he showed me pictures of him guarding captured and handcuffed Afghanis who are now in Guantanamo. To Joe, all of these things were tangible and real, not just stuff you read about in the paper.
He is also a pretty well-connected person. As one of several examples, when I asked him what he thought of General Petraeus, who is now in charge in Iraq, Joe said “I’ve known Dave a long time, and he’s a great guy, but there’s no one person who can clean that up.”
Here are a few of the things he talked about that I found most interesting …
How the US will get out of Iraq. He said he feels there’s no way to avoid a disgraceful withdrawal that looks like a defeat, other than staying there for decades to build the kinds of relationships it would take to “win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.” But that’s not a politically viable option, so the only question now is when we leave. His theory: Bush will succeed in avoiding dealing with it, but the next president will withdraw remaining US forces as soon as he or she is in office, because they will have been elected in part on their promise to do so.
Why we don’t have Osama Bin Laden. When Osama and his buddies were trapped in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, he felt there should have been a low-tech operation involving large numbers of troops to scour that valley and find him. Instead, a reliance on high-tech options (“and Rumsfeld’s general disdain for the army”) led to a needlessly clever strategy that didn’t get the job done.
What went wrong in Iraq. I was very pleased to hear a military guy talk about the tragedy of the looting of the museums right after the occupation, since I’ve read things that make it clear some in the military didn’t think that was any big deal. Joe thought there were two big mistakes: not enough boots on the ground right after the occupation, and disbanding the Iraqi army. Of the two, he said the former is the worst mistake, because it could easily have been avoided “if somebody other than Rumsfeld were calling the shots — he was always trying to replace soldiers with technology, and that’s more about theory than reality.” Disbanding the Iraqi army, he said, was a mistake in hindsight but it made sense at the time. “We did that because of bad intel — same reason we went to Iraq in the first place.”
Why he carries a 50-year old rifle. In all the pictures Joe showed me, he’s carrying an M14 from the 1950’s, instead of the newer M16 models. The older rifle has a much larger and slower bullet, “which is much more effective against those guys who are all hopped up on kat over there, the smaller slug doesn’t really stop them unless you get a well-centered hit.” When Joe was in Afghanistan, he managed to get approval for an M14 to be included in each unit, and he felt those guns saved lives. “That’s a detail I’m pretty proud of, getting those older rifles deployed.”
The most important technology in the military today: GPS. “Friendly fire has always been a huge issue, and these days you can realistically know the relative positions of yourself and all your buddies. That saves a lot of lives.”
Another exciting mission: Panama. Joe was a jump leader on one of the first planes into Panama’s airport when Operation Just Cause was launched to take out Noriega. He told of the ping-ping-ping of bullets hitting the fuselage, and sticking his head out the door to check their position before telling his crew to jump. “The pilot puts on the green light, of course, but when you’re taking fire the younger pilots sometimes just hit the light because they’re freaking out, so you gotta look out and make sure we’re really over the drop zone, make sure there’s no planes behind and below us, stuff like that, before telling your guys to jump. Basic common-sense stuff, really.”
Blackwater and contractors. Joe told me that the story of what happened to those four Blackwater employees in Fallujah wasn’t publicized and the public story leaves out the most important fact: that some uppity young Marines had disarmed them shortly before they were ambushed. I told him I’d read Scahill’s “Blackwater” book, and it sounded like corporate profit motives had led to bad decisions there. “No way,” Joe said, “Blackwater doesn’t cut corners like that, or guys like me wouldn’t go to work for them.” He said Blackwater and others have offered him jobs many times.
Who do you respect? I asked Joe which countries have military that he respected the most. He said every country has winners and losers, “but in general the paratrooper units and special forces are top-notch pros in every country. Those guys are always good, no exceptions.”
The future of the US military. Joe was bummed about what Iraq will do to the military long-term. “Colin Powell was right about one thing, the army is broken. We have a whole generation of NCOs who are going to leave and not come back, and they’ll tell their sons not to sign up too. So we now have 19% non-high-school grads coming in, the highest since Vietnam, and those less capable guys will be the leaders in 10 years. So after we get out of this mess, and it’s time to rebuild and remotivate the army, we’ll have the weakest leaders we’ve ever had, so I can’t get real optimistic about how they’ll handle all the tough decisions that will need to be made.”
A heart-warming CIA story. Joe showed me a picture of himself next to a box full of bundles of opium that they had found in a sweep of a village. “We found that stuff, and they said that the guy who owned it is gone to Pakistan — they always say that when we find drugs or weapons, the owner is always gone to Pakistan.” The CIA told Joe and his team that they had to give the opium back to the village, because it would be a financial disaster for the whole village if they took it away, and that would just make more enemies in the area. Now, Joe was disappointed in that decision, but I really liked hearing about it. It’s nice to know we have people there who are thinking that way, in my opinion.
Getting married on the run. Joe got married a few years ago, in a country I won’t mention. “I had been whacking a lot of Muslim bad boys from their country, so I was a bit worried about whether anyone would recognize me. So we just stayed at a different place every night. Most people won’t actually track you down if you do that — they see you, think maybe they should do something, but if you’re not there the next day they forget about it.” I told Joe that the week of my wedding had a different tone to it.
After a few hours of these sorts of conversations, we fired up Office 2007 and Joe asked me some questions about it. We swapped business cards, and agreed to stay in touch. It’s nice to have a friend like Joe — I don’t run into many guys like that.
As we arrived at Sea-Tac, we were among the first few passengers to walk off the plane. At the end of the offramp, there were two uniformed security guards yelling “passports out, be ready to show your passport photo” and they were quickly checking every passport that went past. I commented that I’ve never seen that before, and Joe said matter-of-factly “they’re looking for somebody specific, somebody they have reason to believe will arrive at Sea-Tac today.”