Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Those that do not remember history are... How'd that go again?

This entry addresses a fairly sensitive topic in the military- the loads soldiers carry, specifically the armor they wear. It's an unwritten rule that no one in authority talks about this, because the logical approach to it does not mesh with what mothers think is best for their sons. Everything I say below is my opinion alone, and does not represent the views or policies of the US Army.

Today, five hundred and and eighty-nine years ago, the English army under King Henry broke the back of the French at a small town named Agincourt. Widely credited with securing the victory for the outnumbered English were the longbowmen,who fought nearly unarmored against heavily armored knights on a muddy field. The pricks of the arrows were nearly useless on plate armor, but they could kill the horses, and thus the mobility of the knights, leaving them open to attack by skirmishers. The archers did just that: breaking through the lines swinging hatchets and other light weapons, they killed hundreds of French men-at-arms and dismounted knights.

Contrast this scene to the present day: American soldiers patrol in heavy and restrictive body armor, trusting their safety to heavily armored vehicles. The pricks of an AK or RPG are easily turned, but IEDs have defeated even the holy grail of American armor: the M1 Abrams tank. Once a vehicle is hit, the occupants have no choice but to move from the vehicle (and often need assistance in doing so). Movement, of course, is easier spoken of than accomplished. The average soldier's load weighs some 60 pounds just in armor, ammunition, and essential equipment. The typical medieval knight wore a suit of armor that weighed in at 60-70 pounds, and had the added advantages of a more even weight distribution and more flexibility in the shoulder (somewhat important for carrying people or equipment, or firing a weapon).

Don't get me wrong- I have no problem with the Interceptor Body Armor that we wear. The kevlar vest and the armor plates it holds have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, including the lives of at least two of my friends. The problem is that the military takes the basic vest and adds little bits and peices of kevlar everywhere, covering the lower neck, throat, upper arm, under arm, and groin. Each of these pieces adds a little weight and restricts movement a little more. Outside of a vehicle, removing these components is a calculated risk, where a leader must weight maneuverability against extra protection. Inside a vehicle, all the extra material offers little more than another surface to hang up on safety belts, hatches, weapons and any other protruding objects. The sensible thing to do is allow individual leaders to analyze the threat facing them in their environment and make a decision on the most sensible combination of protection versus freedom. The problem is that no one wants to be the one who has a soldier die under his or her command, while wearing less than the maximum amount of armor. That situation has the potential to ignite an outcry blaming the military for not doing enough to make sure America's little boys don't get hurt. It's a war, for crying out loud! I feel that some civilian activists think they are helping troops by their posturing, but in reality they are doing us a disservice. I'm sure you've heard the saying that the best defense is a good offense. I worry that we soldiers are being restricted too much by our equipment to mount an active offense, and that the only route left to us will be a passive defense.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fanaticism in the Desert

Today was the transfer of authority from the unit we replaced here. Our Task Force is now completely responsible for our own little slice of western Iraq. It's not quite as violent here as Baghdad right now, but it's still no joke. The violence seems to have increased during Ramadan, and even more so over the last few days. Part of the Muslim religious practice is to seek Laylat al-Qadr , "The Night of Power (or Destiny)" which falls somewhere in the last ten days of Ramadan. To a Muslim, Laylat al-Qadr is the holiest night of their faith- the night on which Mohammad recieved the Qur'an. There is disagreement between various sects and areas over which night is the right one, and true believers are expected to seek it out by virtue. Any deeds of the faithful performed on Laylat al-Qadr will be rewarded a thousandfold in paradise, and should a Muslim die that night, he will instantly be transported to paradise.

For most Muslims across the world, this means a day or period of days of intense devotion, fasting, and praying. Unfortunately, there are enough radical Muslims who see jihad and matyrdom as the ultimate expression of devotion to make the last few days of Ramadan intersting, to say the least. What exactly are you expected to do to control a fanatic who believes that it is his destiny to die, and that one particular night of the year gives him the best reward for his sacrifice?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A religious view of science

I looked up at the moon the other night and saw it was just a touch past full.
Ramadan is half over. Ramadan is a 40-day period of fasting and religious devotion observed to celebrate the time when Muhhamad is believed to have recieved the Koran. It occurs once a year, beginning with the new moon at the start of the 9th month on the Muslim (lunar) calender. Curiously, the Koran specifies that Ramadan begins when the new moon "is sighted". Each Muslim country has a religious leader that is charged with, among other duties, declaring the beginning of Ramadan. Some Islamic countries use astronomy and scientific calculations to determine the beginning of the holiday, such as Turkey, Kuwait (I believe), and Muslims in the US and Canada. The rest of the Islamic world believes that a strict interpretation of the Koran requires an actual visual sighting of the new moon, leading to different starting days for Ramadan, depending on country, and all the confusion such an approach ensures.

It seems incredibly strange to me that a culture that once lead the world in the sciences would distrust scientific methods in favor of more subjective means of measuring time.

The real world interrupted my thoughts, as I heard the high-pitched whine of an Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship overhead, followed by its minigun opening up on some unseen target with a sound like heavy cloth tearing. Circling like some vindictive spirit, it unloaded a stream of flares and another blast from the minigun, and was gone. In the distance, there was the sound of rotor blades, and I imagined the faceless medics preparing to help broken men brought in by the choppers. Sometimes they go to other nearby bases, sometimes they come here; sometimes they are American, sometimes Iraqi. All were fighting for the future of Iraq.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Welcome to Iraq

After a sauna-like flight out on a C-130, a brief stop at a staging base, and a wild chopper ride, we're home. That is, we can finally unpack our gear for the first time in months and be assured we aren't packing it again for a few months.
The barracks are cinderbrick and tin; the stucco covering sand brown split with a spiderweb of cracks running across its smooth surface. The guys we replaced built a deck out back from spare lumber, with a small pool off to the side- no bigger than a hot tub, really, made from a large plastic tub. It's a little bit surreal, honestly. You step out the back door, and you're in the middle of a sandstorm. The sky is orange, with oily gravel underfoot, but there in the midst of it all is a pool hung with tiki christmas lights.
Oh yes... the ground. Back some time ago, someone decided it was a good idea to spray the dust/gravel mix with oil to keep the dust down. Now, the dust stays out of your face, but you can never get all of it off of your boots. It clings like brown tar, and gets everywhere. When it rains, it's even worse. The dust turns to clay and mixes with the oil. Nothing will take it off your boots. In fact, you're lucky if the ground doesn't claim one of your boots as its own.
Our quarters remind me of low income housing in some of the southwest US. The cement walls, the orange-tan tint to everything, and the graveled paths make it feel a little like some of the places I've been through back home. In between the buildings, however, it's a different matter. Near most porches is a burn barrel, used for burning documents, envelopes with return addresses; anything that the insurgency here can conceivably gain information from. At night, the burn barrels are often the only light. It lends a creepy, back-alley aspect to the scene. Another feature here that you won't see stateside are the sandbagged bunkers, provided in case of mortar or rocket attack. In our area, they double as stands for the abundance of satellite dishes. Thank God for Arab entrepreneurs! Without them, it would be a lot harder to get TV and internet here.
Inside, our quarters are better than anything I would have expected here on the wrong side of nowhere. The building is partitioned off with plywood into two and three man rooms. Mine is approximently 12x14', with a bunk and homemade furniture. That's really not much worse than what I had back in college. The AC works, the power is limited but usable, and we have limited cable tv and internet hookups. It's really pretty nice.

Well, that's all I have time for today. Next time I'm on, I'll try to paint a little bit of a picture of our area, and maybe get a couple pictures up.