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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Over There misses humor

I finally saw my first episodes of FX's new Iraq series Over There. In all, I give it high marks simply for being gutsy enough to tackle the issue of a war while it continues.

However, I did think that both episodes that I saw were a bit heavy, over dramatic, in dialogue, and severely lacking in the kind of humor that most 20 something's engage in--even in war--that served as a release for an obviously tense and dangerous job. After having been embedded in Iraq with both the Marines and the Army, I am convinced that soldiers are thankfully a bunch of ordinary guys and girls, a few years out of their teens, and prone to just goofing off. In that sense, I think the soldier's humor is more realistic in the documentary Gunner Palace or our own Virgin Soldiers. In one case specifically, I remember some rumor that Jennifer Lopez had been killed, by what or whom no one seemed to know, but the J Lo conversation within the unit the next few days became so funny it eclipsed talk of the war itself.

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy Over There, and in fact, I will be watching this week's program about embedded journalists with great interest. However, I am doubtfull the series will truly capture what young soldiers talk and joke about above and beyond the war in which they find themselves.

Here is the link to Over There if interested. http://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/originals/overthere/main.html


Thursday, August 11, 2005

I often see and hear logistics and supply issues used as proof or ammunition that the war in Iraq is wrong or unjust. The fact is, whether you are pro or anti war, these supply problems and the morality of war have nothing to do with each other.

When I was with 3/7 Marines at one point we ran out of food for three days. Nor did all the night vision systems work. In the squad I was with, nearly half of the night vision systems had problems and were inoperable. Either they wouldn't clip to the helmet or wouldn't focus--a number of the systems fell victim to the rough ride in the AAV. Nor were the first and second generation M-16s in great shape. About half way up to Baghdad many of the take down pins had broken and the weapons were being held together with wire and/or duct tape. Being free to move from unit to unit within the Battalion, I hitched a ride with some MPs to battalion HQ, found the armory, and requested take down pins for as many M-16s as I could get. Unfortunately, they were all out. The unit had to make do as many other units up and down the line.

One could go on an on, but the point is, these are supply and procurement issues and have no bearing on whether or not the war is just, whether or not the U.S. should be in Iraq, whether or not the U.S. should pull out. Those are an entirely different set of questions, far above the average fighting Marine or soldier's pay grade operating in Iraq, and revolve around policy issues much larger than whether or not we ran short of food for a couple of days.

Does that mean it is justifiable that the solder or Marine is short the functioning equipment he or she needs to survive and fight effectively on the battlefield? I don't think so. Personally, I would rather the ground forces were well equiped at the expense of the other branches of service if that is necessary, but this is another whole set of questions that are fought over every budget between the services--that will forever be fought over--and that is only half the problem. There is no doubt that the war in Iraq should serve up some pretty important logistics lessons and a review of the process of getting the fighting men and women the equipment they need to be successful. However, it is unlikely to, and shouldn't have, any bearing on policy decisions related to whether or not the U.S. should be in Iraq. The services need to be prepared to deploy in whatever circumstance in which they are called--that is their role and mission.

Back to our lack of food, as it happened, the platoon I was with was positioned on one of the Main Supply Routes and there were frequent Army supply columns rolling by. Members of 2nd Squad actually took their ruck sack covers and went along the highway picking up discarded meal packets thrown away by Army truckers. We scrounged more than enough food to make up for the shortfall. I can't say that we all got what we wanted. Within the MRE collection, there are those meals that are known to suck and that is invariably what the Army supply columns were getting rid of, but we didn't go hungry.

Monday, August 08, 2005


The IED attack against a U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious assault Vehicle last week in Iraq (see image of an AAV from 3/7 Marines in Iraq OIF1)) was a violent illustration of a lesson I learned many years ago in college--back in Warner Schilling's Military Technology class at Columbia University. Every weapon and weapon system usually leads to the development of a counter weapon, and that counter weapon will in turn lead to a counter-counter weapon system--a continual escalation for battlefield superiority. This broad yet simple axiom seems to have stood the test of time, at least up to nuclear weapons, to which no successful counter technology or doctrine has evolved. (Even the civil defense measures during the Cold War seemed to be geared more towards public consumption rather than strategic practicality.)

Last year while in Mosul, I recall seeing photos of a suicide bomber's attempt to blow up a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle during OIF1. The insurgent's body was everywhere and the only damage to the Bradley was a large red stain of blood. Those types of zealous but ineffective bombings are more and more a thing of the past in Iraq. No doubt attacks like those demonstrated to the insurgents that they would have to come up with alternatives to penetrate the armor that the coalition possessed. For awhile at least most of the insurgent IEDs targeted the supply column--vehicles that were not armored or lightly armored and were more likely to be damaged, destroyed, and inflict casualties.

The IED that flipped the Marine AAV, may have diminished the importance of the race to up-armor all the soft skin vehicles operating in Iraq, Humvees and trucks. The Iraqi insurgent's IED capability has escalated to diminish the importance that up-armor may have afforded a humvee or truck eighteen months ago. This isn't to say that up-armor will not help against the casual, crude or misplaced IED, but against the more sophisticated and powerful kinds of bombs increasingly used by insurgents, it will not stave off occasional disaster. The Marine AAV is not the first Infantry Fighting Vehicle to be destroyed by an IED. At least one U.S. Army Bradley infantry fighting vehicle was struck by a "lollipop" IED, with enough force to split it from underneath.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

To know one's enemy

CNN reported today that ABC is being punished by the Russian government for last week’s interview with Chechen Warlord Shamil Basayev. This does not surprise me as we too have taken flak for our films on Chechnya and Shamil Basayev. Many people feel that even showing the enemy, giving him a voice, is a bad thing. However, only by understanding the position of all parties, can one make more informed decisions relating to that enemy.

For those dedicated to destroying the enemy, the more one knows about his enemy the easier it should be to defeat him. Knowing how a particular leader thinks, plans his actions, who is under his command, knowledge of the territory, and anything else one can think of, can pay off dramatically on the battlefield—hence every military’s emphasis on accurate and timely intelligence.

But knowing one’s enemy can also lead to multiple options beyond conflict. A true understanding might lead to the conclusion that there may be some common ground with which to build a framework for a relationship short of war. For example, on-going relations with North Korea, punctuated by last week’s six-party talks in Beijing, make it obvious that not enough is known about the workings of the senior leadership of North Korea and the country’s strategic capabilities (although I am sure it is among the most spied on countries in the world—at least from above). A greater understanding of any aspect of the leadership, chain of command, military ethos, anything, would pay off as the west continues to negotiate with this tightly controlled and closed regime over its nuclear program.

Back to Chechnya, I remember talking to a Russian academic about Chechnya and he said it was pure arrogance that the Russian military didn’t really try to understand the Chechen defenders of Grozny in the winter of 1994-1995. Among other tactical oversights, there were no Chechen linguists in the Russian columns that penetrated Grozny in the disastrous New Years Eve assault. But plenty of Chechens spoke Russian and utilized this language skill over the radio to redirect, misdirect and confuse Russian units.

Of course there are countless factors that weigh on every decision made, and too much blood has been spilt in Chechnya and surrounding Russian territories, on both sides, for any likely reproach from war. However, you can be sure that Russian defense officials watched the Shamil interview on ABC with great interest. After all, it is difficult to get that many up close and personal looks at one’s enemy.

Return from China

I apologize for my absence. I just returned from a two week trip to China where I traveled to Yan'an with BYU professor Eric Hyer to talk to local artists about their experience and work during the Cultural Revolution. It is one of our extracurricular activities here at Combat Films and Research to collect political, military and revolutionary related original pieces of art. We are in the midst of putting together an exhibit on a group of Chinese artists thrown together by Mao's policies in the 1960s and 1970s. I promise to post more on this in the near future, but in the meantime if anyone is interested, the collection will be shown at the Springville Art Museum in Springville Utah September 11th through October 16th.

The Springville Museum, under the direction of Vern Swanson maintains a large permanent collection of Soviet Socialist Realism art work. It is a natural to exhibit the Chinese collection here.