Copyright by John T. Reed
I coached 15 football teams. I also wrote eight books on football coaching, read hundreds of similar books by others, attended hundreds of football coaching clinics, and read hundreds of football coaching magazine articles. I have also visited practices at all levels from youth to pro and talked about football coaching one-on-one to many top coaches including Hall of Fame guys like Bill Walsh and Marv Levy. And I have scouted and analyzed in excruciating detail hundreds of videos of opposing teams and my own teams. I wrote an article called “A football coach analyzes U.S. military tactics and strategy.” We coaches are extremely results oriented. See my article on that.
Recently, I have been reading about the Iraq and Afghan wars. One of the books is a first-person account from an embedded reporter in the 2004 Battle for Fallujah. See my review of We Were One (where I also interviewed the author at length on the phone). I have recently seen the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, which is a true story written by another embedded reporter. I am currently reading Warrior King, by Nate Sassaman, a West Point quarterback who commanded a battalion in the Sunni Triangle. I have also read a bunch of other books written by commanders, reporters, and rigorous researchers about other wars. And I did a tour in Vietnam myself after graduating from West Point and Army Ranger and Army Airborne Schools.
As a football coach, I became aware of a huge disconnect between what we coaches saw when reviewing film of our own games and what the fans in the stands saw when they watched the same games. When a play fails, it is because one player did not do his job. When you watch the play on film, you see that Sean did not block the right defender and that defender made the tackle for no gain. Or you see that Jeff forgot to switch responsibilities with Shane when the offense did a crack-back block on Shane.
In other words, the failures actually stem from the specific details of what happened. The causative details vary from play to play in football and from moment to moment in real war battles.
But when I or my wife sits in the stands where we can hear the men fans commenting on the game, they incessantly speak in sweeping generalities about “the other team wants it more” or “we’re not conditioned well enough” or “our kids don’t hit hard enough,” etc.
They have no idea whatsoever what they are talking about, but they are certain they are quite correct. When we coaches watch a game from the stands, we often see tons of stuff that the laymen miss. People jammed in close to my son and me at games often overhear us discussing the game and express amazement at our real-time analysis of what just happened or what is about to happen.
For example, I was sitting next to a father of a receiver at a game once. As our team broke the huddle, I commented that his son was about to have a pass thrown to him. The father laughed and asked, “And how could you possibly know that?” Then the quarterback threw a pass to his son and I explained that his son had exhibited “hot diggety dog” body language when the huddle broke. We coaches call that a tip off and we train our defenders to look constantly for such subtleties.
But notwithstanding the ability of us experienced football coaches to spot some things during a game, we still only see about 5% or 10% of what’s going on at the game. We have to watch and study the game film in great detail to find out the whole story of what happened. We typically watch each play about 14 times when we analyze the game. That’s so we can see what each and every one of our eleven players did and compare it to what he was supposed to do.
I see the same thing in the discussions about the Iraq war, only more so.
Based on the presidential campaign and the pundits, you would think the Iraq war is about three questions:
• Should we have invaded Iraq in the first place?
• Did the surge work?
• Should the Iraqis take over more of the job of pacifying Iraq?
These are the abstract, irrelevant, sweeping generalizations of the “fans” in the extremely distant “stands” 10,000 miles from the actual battles. On the other hand, actually being there with a front-line unit or reading accounts written by those who were give you a football-coach’s-film-session-like view of what’s really going on and why.
For example, Sassaman expressed great anger that the American 1/66 armored battalion appeased the enemy in the town of Samarra during their time there, thereby making the job of Sassaman’s 1/8 infantry battalion much harder and more dangerous when he took over the security of Samarra. He gave many details to prove that. When you finish reading such details of the fighting, you recognize that questions about surges and such are beside the point. If many or most American units are afraid to mix it up with the enemy in Iraq, as Sassaman credibly claims, it doesn’t much matter to the Iraqis whether our 30,000 “surge” soldiers are in Iraq or Fort Hood, Texas.
Generation Kill is the most realistic Hollywood depiction of Americans at war that I have ever seen. I was never in Iraq, but I was in Vietnam and had tons of the best U.S. Army training available. In the past, people have said that movies like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan were extremely realistic. They were in parts.
Soldiers in Platoon had mosquito repellent stuck in their helmet camouflage band. That was real. But they also stayed with the same group of guys the whole movie. In the real Vietnam, there was a constant coming of new guys and departing of guys whose tour was over. See the movie Platoon Leader, not Platoon, for that realism. The landing-on-the-beach scene in Saving Private Ryan was realistic, but the wandering around in a squad- or platoon-size patrol all by yourself looking for a private who is on the day report of a normal U.S. division was not.
Generation Kill seems to me to be extremely realistic in every dimension—people, language, screw-ups, enemy behavior, etc.
By watching Generation Kill, you quickly learn that abstract discussions of generalizations like the surge are silly. (Generation Kill is about the period of the initial invasion of Iraq, not recent action there, but that does not seem especially significant. The problems that grunts on the ground face there have not changed much, only details like whether you call them fedayeen or insurgents.) In Generation Kill, which follows a Marine Recon unit, but depicts an Army unit just as accurately, you see the whole spectrum of problems.
• immature marines too eager to cast themselves in Hollywood combat scenes and too unaware that they are shooting real bullets at real people
• U.S. Army reservists who are so untrained and poorly led that they fire upon the U.S. marines
• U.S. colonels and generals who are ignorant of the details of what’s going on and who commend subordinates who should be condemned and condemn those who should be commended
• constant, obviously wrong orders from people on high who know too little about the current, specific situations of the troops being ordered around
• unreliable equipment and supply chains
• inadequate armor
• well-meaning officers and non-coms who never had training that prepared them for the situations in Iraq
• inadequate coordination between adjacent U.S. units and between the various levels of the U.S. forces
• a psychiatrically defective martinet sergeant who randomly chooses which orders to obsessively enforce and which to ignore
Sassaman’s book provides much the same only with a bigger picture perspective than the embedded Rolling Stone reporter who wrote Generation Kill.
The bottom line in We Were One, Warrior King, and Generation Kill is that the war in Iraq is the accumulation of thousands of details involving individual U.S. and Iraqi personnel. You cannot begin to understand it or succeed at it if you insist on analyzing it in terms of political talking points like “the surge or “Iraqis stepping up to do their part” and all that. Success comes from a good U.S. commander here and a dumb insurgent there and a decent Iraqi police chief here and stopping a treacherous mayor there. Failure comes from trusting the wrong Iraqi or some American making a mistake. Another sweeping generalization often heard since Vietnam and still in Iraq is “winning hearts and minds.”
Sassaman tells of an incident where an artillery unit failed to update its weather data in their computers every twelve hours as they were supposed to. As a result, out-of-date weather data caused an artillery barrage to be 600 to 700 meters off target. Such a mistake could have killed U.S. troops. Instead, it killed much of a family of non-insurgent Iraqis. The U.S. paid the husband of the family $15,000 to try to make it right. He used the money mostly to buy a new, younger, fifth wife and a new car, and neglected the wounded family members and his other older surviving wives.
You want to try to discuss that incident in terms of a sweeping abstraction like hearts and minds? Let’s see. Sassaman’s battalion had been painstakingly and mostly successfully winning over the local populace. Sassaman had no control over or knowledge of the artilleryman who failed to follow the weather SOP. The artillery battalion was a separate unit from Sassaman’s battalion. We did not win the hearts and minds of the females in the family hit by the barrage, or their neighbors, but we did win the heart and mind of the selfish, dirty old man, materialistic husband who preferred the $15,000 to the wives and children who died in the barrage. So if we want to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi husbands, we should encourage slob behavior by our artillerymen. If on the other hand, we want to win the hearts and minds of the non-young-wife-material Iraqi females, we need to be more careful about keeping our counter-battery fire computers up to date. In other words, the competence of U.S. military personnel and the values of Iraqis are more salient variables than any ideas stateside American politicians have about abstractions like winning hearts and minds.
Actually, the lesson I learn is that the quality, training, and supervision of U.S. military personnel is as lousy as you would expect when you read story after story about the trouble the Army is having attracting non-criminal, high school graduate recruits and retaining quality young officers. Lousy recruiting and retention in 2003 leads to errant artillery barrages in Iraq in 2004. It’s also as fouled up now as it was in World War II when GIs coined the acronym SNAFU—Situation Normal: All Fouled Up. SNAFU has been the normal situation in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War. SNAFU is the inevitable result of bureaucratic organization including those in the business of waging war.
In 1966, I was part of a 101st Airborne Division group that almost got hurt by an errant artillery round that exploded within about 40 meters of our forward observation post. As in Sassaman’s incident, it happened because some two-digit IQ, poorly-trained and supervised slob was entrusted with life-and-death responsibilities (placing a red-and-white striped pole called an aiming stake in the ground).
That is the U.S. military way. It is why thousands of U.S. servicemen die annually in accidents unrelated to enemy action around the world including in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. By the standards of U.S. private businesses, the U.S. military is outrageously inept. If you doubt that, read the Warrior King and We Were One books and watch the Generation Kill series. The examples of incompetence by all levels of the U.S. military come rapid fire one after another interspersed only occasionally by successful actions. If that sounds unfair and inaccurate to you, you have not been in the military or read accounts from those who were there.
Socialism, Soviet style central planning, and bureaucracy do not work. Yet the U.S. military still relies entirely on those approaches. The world learned the deficiencies of those approaches, or should have, thousands of years ago. Men are dying in Iraq every day, and hundreds of billions are being squandered, because we refuse to admit that these things do not work.
While there may have been some progress in recent months in Iraq, it may have come primarily as a result of essentially paying protection money or bribes to Iraqi bad guys. Sassaman’s book talks a lot about that. In fact, the American people can neither afford, nor are they willing to tolerate, the amount of money, time, and American lives that would be necessary to “win” in Iraq. It’s not a matter of giving in or surrender or victory or any of those other sweeping generalizations or false choices. It’s just that our government, including our military, does not know how to win the war in the time, and with the lives and dollars budget, that the American people are willing to agree to.
People who have not experienced or researched what the actual front-line troops in Iraq are really dealing with on a daily basis need to shut up about the war. If you want to comment intelligently about the war, research the above three sources or other similar ones. Until then, spare us.