Well ... that'll be the day ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Eric A. has a new Think Again column called "FISA and the Founders" here.

Hello, Altercators, Lt. Col. Bob Bateman here again today.

Schofield Barracks, June, 1991: The main buildings on this infantry-dominated post are called "Quads." Massive, squat structures, built by the Work Projects Administration during the Depression, each is large enough to house an entire brigade of men, three full battalions. Beyond that, they also have enough room left over to fit the offices for the company and battalion headquarters of each unit.

That summer I was a newly minted First Lieutenant, promoted up and away from my beloved rifle platoon and onto the battalion staff. My battalion of "Light" (meaning we carried all that we would take to war, on our backs, but required fewer airplanes and ships to get us there) Infantry was about to deploy to the Egyptian-Israeli border as part of the peacekeeping force that had been on site since the Camp David accords. It was a static mission, but tensions remained high in the region in the wake of Desert Storm.

Our role was to "Observe, Report, and Verify" any violations of the accords. The system worked because peace was already in place. Still, the mission required significant retraining from our normal role as assault troops. That training occupied much of the preceding six months, though as is always the case, as the deadline of our deployment approached, there always seemed to be more and more that had to be done. On this afternoon the assembled company commanders (captains), the battalion commander (a lieutenant colonel), and the battalion staff (captains and majors, mostly) were meeting for the weekly "Battalion Training Meeting." These meetings are recurrent rituals played out at every Army post around the world. Here, every week, we laid out the plan for the next week, month, and quarter, so that the actions of 750 men might be coordinated. There is no time to be wasted in these meetings.

Captain Dave T, known among his peers by his nickname "Trash," commanded one of our companies. He was one of the best leaders I have ever known. Direct, intelligent, approachable for even the most junior private, and honest -- Trash did not suffer fools gladly, and we junior officers and men who followed him loved him for it. On this afternoon he sat midway down the length of the conference table. Slouching almost to the point where his eyes were level with the table, as was his norm, Trash soaked it all in. Boredom visibly poured from his soul. The meeting, normally planned for an hour, was approaching its third. Yet still the battalion commander continued.

"Finally, we need to address the critical issue of safety. As you all know, 'Herb's Beach' is right outside the wire of South Camp," Lieutenant Colonel H____ said, "and it represents our primary threat."

Lieutenant Colonel H___ had recently returned from a reconnaissance to the Sinai Desert and his mind was, literally, overflowing. Given that there was nothing actually in that desert at the time but sand, rock, some Bedouin, and some camels, this does not speak well of LTC H___. "South Camp" was, and is, the base for the American battalion on rotation. The beach to which he referred was 40 yards of sand at the edge of the Red Sea, where a dry wadi ran to the water's edge. A decade earlier, another unit cut a notch through the coral, thereby making it possible to swim. (The coral shelf that lines the coast of the Gulf of Aquba has only a few feet of water over the top otherwise.) It was, in the South Sinai, a very small refuge of relaxation for our men. LTC H___, however, saw it through another lens.

"The 82nd lost a lieutenant on that beach last year. It's a threat," LTC H___ said, referring to a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division, which had done a rotation the previous year, yet ignoring the fact that the lieutenant in question had been scuba diving, not snorkeling or swimming on the surface, as our men would be doing, since scuba had now been banned. "We need to have every man in the battalion swim tested at the division pool, and those who do not pass must take remedial lessons until they can."

What he was ordering was, literally, thousands of man-hours of training, let alone the time needed to coordinate it all. It was not possible. We were to start leaving in six weeks. You could take a crowbar, a 10-pound sledge, and a bucketful of grease and you still could not jam that much into the little time we had remaining. But the company commanders were silent. They just took it in. It is a long way from captain to lieutenant colonel. They were quiet, I should say, but for one.

From his nearly subterranean seat, Captain Trash raised two fingers. This, for Trash, was significant motion. The Battalion Commander nodded.

"Sir, you're kidding, right?" Trash began, sitting up and giving LTC H___ at least the nominal benefit of the doubt. Every officer in that room knew we did not have the time remaining to do as the LTC demanded. Every officer also knew, from experience, that it was useless presenting this boss with inconvenient facts. Trash was about to become my hero and my role model. LTC H___ insisted that he was not, in fact, joking, and that this was a critical issue of safety, and that we would just have to make it work for the sake of our men.

That last is a telling call-out. "The safety of the men" really is something we take seriously. Sometimes, however, common sense gets overruled. Trash had common sense, and he knew that he would not convince our numerically challenged leader with an analysis of the time remaining versus the potential threat. He cut to the point.

"Sir, I don't know if you've noticed this," Trash began, sarcasm whispering from his posture, "but right now, I mean today, and pretty much every day for the past two years since I've been here ... we've been surrounded by 2,500 miles of open ocean, thousands of feet deep, with beaches 360 degrees around us that our men visit every weekend, and not a man has drowned from this unit at all, probably since Vietnam."

Schofield Barracks, you see, is on the island of Oahu, in the Hawaiian Island chain, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The battalion commander wanted us to force 750 men to take swim training ... in order to go to the desert, from an island.

The room was hushed, and then we could not contain it. We erupted in laughter. It was the only "weapon" with which it was possible to win even a small victory with that particular battalion commander. He ceded Trash's point, and the idea, the very-stupid-but-very-safe-idea, was unceremoniously dropped.

One year later that LTC was selected for the War College. He went on to be promoted to full colonel. Captain Trash, who was evaluated by LTC H____ on a yearly basis, never made it past major. He was "non-selected" and inevitably forced out of the Army.

What I have just described was not an entirely uncommon situation, not in the 1990s or, indeed, ever. There have always been idiots in uniform, and some of them get commissions. This is a fact of life, in war and peace. But during the 1990s it may have reached its peak. "Safety" and risk avoidance are good things. But unlike, say, the factory floor at General Motors, my profession is about taking calculated risk with human life. Training, for combat, is itself inherently dangerous. Sometimes crazily so. But to make it possible for your men to survive when other men are really seriously trying to kill them, you have to train them under conditions as close as you can get to the insanity that is war.

We lost some of that focus in the 1990s. We lost our edge, our willingness to push to the limits, not just physically, but intellectually as well, which is understandable in that rudderless decade. The result was a generation of officers who saw the most risk-averse of those above them advance while those who took the correct risks, or spoke candidly, felt the mallet.

In any sufficiently large organization, especially one paranoid and averse to risk, one route to the top is to avoid being wrong, even if that means also avoiding being right. There are generals I know, some with four stars, who I am personally convinced made it to their great rank because they never, ever, made a decision. This works because if you make a decision, you might be wrong, but if you never make a decision, statistically, you are always going to appear as "better" than those who made 95 percent correct decisions, since the only thing that would stand out would be the wrong one.

We are, in war, now regaining that edge among our officers. Historically this is about the only thing at which the American Army actually excels when compared against all other armies. We do learn. But it is a slow war, and changing a culture is a slow thing, even for us. We are finding officers who speak clearly, who lead candidly, who take the calculated risks that their experience tells them are necessary, and who accept when they are wrong. I believe that there are at least some of my peers who speak truth, regardless, because doing the right thing is more important than looking "right" in front of the boss.

I have no clue what General David Petraeus will say next month when he gives his assessment. I do know that no matter what he says, some significant percentage of the American people will write him off as a stooge, or a fool, while others will hail him a hero. Both groups will cite the same words Petraeus speaks as their "evidence" for their opinion. I suspect General P knows this as well. What I would like to pass to you, today, is my assessment. Take it for what it is worth. General P is smart, and he is savvy, both of which make him come off to some people as "political." He is not. But he is more like Trash than he is like LTC H, and that, Altercators, reassures me.

Yesterday was the 62nd anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific.

Sadly, this is not surprising. Even accounting for the society-wide difference between males and females (and their "success" rates), and the fact that the Army is about 77 percent male, the numbers are sad.

There is something wrong here. This is my media criticism point for the day. Even if you say, "Well, there are language problems between the photographer and the caption writer," that doesn't account for this. Somebody needs remedial training, at a minimum, which is annoying after the essay I wrote in defense of journalism yesterday.

WARNING: When I originally linked to this photo this morning, it was on the Yahoo news site containing image feeds from Agence France-Presse. The image was shot by an AFP stringer. I should note that I generally like AFP -- hell, they took me to the White House Correspondents Dinner last year just after I came back from Iraq, so I got to see Colbert. But they have yanked and apparently changed the label on the image, so now the only place the original can be found is on conservative blogs. This one gets to the point that I was trying to make. So, fair warning: Ignore the rhetoric and focus on the content.

One should understand that in India, being on the political left means demanding the unilateral right to explode nuclear weapons in military tests.

I lived in Ohio when Dennis Kucinich was the "Boy Mayor" of nearby Cleveland. There is a reason he is now in Congress.

Last week, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute said, in an interview with NPR, that a draft is something that "makes sense to certainly consider." First, take the advice of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe: don't panic. That is a political decision, and none of the politicians on either side would seriously touch the idea with a 10-foot pole. But the encouraging point is that LTG Lute, a man at the top of the profession, did not offer a wiggly-wormy non-answer political answer to a direct question. He gave his honest and direct assessment, "it should be considered." He really meant "considered." Not "implemented," not "placed in execution," but "considered." Which, folks, is what Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has been saying all along.

Heinz Barth, grocer and Untersturmführer, dead at 86. May you rot in Hell. Seriously.

Official site (French only, sorry). An unofficial, but clear, site.

Remember Elian Gonzalez? That case has nothing on this one.

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

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