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Don Vandergriff Reviews American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen']

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson

Over at Fred Leland’s LESC blog, friend of ZP, Major Don Vandergriff has spot-on reviewed the controversial bio-memoir American Spartan:

 Have We Not Learned Anything From History? Don Vandergriff’s Book Review on American Spartan

 

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant  is a MUST read for any military professional on how the United States military, including US Special Operations Command remains a bureaucratic organization hampered by a top down hierarchy filled with people more concerned with their egos, status-quo, than accomplishment of the mission, regardless of who achieves that goal.

The focus of most reviews has been on Jim Gant’s unethical conduct (easily recognized as being caused by PTSD (Jim was in combat longer than most people)), while ignoring the main themes of the book. Most people have referenced Jim Gant going native and assuming the persona of rogue Special Forces COL Walter Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now (based on Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness (1899)). Unfortunately, based off personal experiences with the Army, I firmly believe his violations of breaking General Order #1 (and all the subsets of such which includes alcohol consumption, engaging in sexual activities with the woman who later became his wife, etc) had nothing to do with some Military brass desires in destroying his career—though these actions made it easier (how many of the brass flew into see Jim while these were going on, but as long as his actions were successful, tended not to notice them?).

Instead, I am almost certain it had to do with that fact that Gant was a major, did not plow the traditional lanes prescribed by the personal system. Gant was a proven combat leader (Silver and Bronze Stars as well as well as Purple Hearts), had a great idea, then had the moral courage to write and push it in order to win in Afghanistan. His paper “One Tribe at a Time” was recognized by the highest levels of the government and the military. But, and a big but, he did this as a major and not as a selected member of the club (which is actually more significant). He was so adamant in his belief on how to deliver victory, that he broke from the prescribed career course to accomplish this task. I can speak from personal experience.

Shortly after my book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs was published in May 2002, it was an immediate hit on the media circles (as well as being read at the highest levels of the government and Army). In early August 2002, while recovering from having the first of my two feet rebuilt, I received a call from a journalist. “Don, did you hear what happened at the Secretary of the Army [Tom White] media round table?” “No I did not.” I replied. Well, the journalist went on and told me that “he [the Secretary] held up my book and said it was the future blueprint for the Army.”

Immediately after a two hour briefing to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Jack Keane, in late June 2002, the general told me to brief a long list of people, coupled with guidance from the Secretary of the Army’s staff, I spent two years from June 2002 to June 2004 briefing almost a hundred senior leaders ranging from senior generals, to Congressman, senior civilians as well as staffers and think tanks. All this, like Jim Gant was followed by a vocal order only. There was no written order or directive to my chain of command detailing these important additional duties prescribed by the highest levels of the Army. My wife and I were left to get me to the briefings on our own, with no assistance from anyone (I had one of two feet rebuilt at the time, so my wife Lorraine had to drive me all over D.C. to get to these briefings).

Shortly after Jim Gant’s VTC briefing with Admiral Eric Thor Olson Commander of Special Operations Command, who verbally ordered Jim to begin his mission, the warnings to watch your back began to appear, “But as quickly as Jim had gotten his dream mission, forces within his Army chain of command tried to take it away. Jim was fully aware that he, a lowly major, had unleashed a rash of professional jealousy by winning such high-level praise. What he didn’t realize was that two military hierarchies were about to battle over his fate—one in the United States and the other in Afghanistan.”

Compare the story of Major Jim Gant with how German Captain Willy Rohr changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army is a remarkable story. He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. Captain Rohr changed squad warfare and German Army tactics in two years and seven months. Capt Rohr’s unit did it all – experimented with new weapons and equipment, combat tested new ideas, evaluated new tactics, and trained those which would change an entire army. He completely revolutionized the infantry linear tactics of the preceding hundred years. The German HQ used decentralization to great effect with Captain Rohr. No rules, regulations nor superiors held Captain Rohr from developing the doctrine or training the entire German Army on the Western Front.

Even with the excellent support that Jim Gant received from the Special Forces Chain of Command at Fort Bragg right after his VTC with Admiral Olson, he began to also get emails in contradictions to the intent of the chain of command in the U.S., “One morning just two weeks after he spoke with Adm. Olson, Jim opened his email at his house in Fayetteville to find a terse and defensive message from Col. Mark Swartz, operations director for the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command—Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) in Kabul…There is no intent to put you on a ‘special team’ conducting tribal engagement.”

To dig the dagger deeper, Swartz, echoing the command in Afghanistan, went on, “…instead,’ he said, ‘Jim would be assigned as a ‘staff officer to the J35 Future Operations Directorate,’ putting Jim in the last place on earth he ever wished to be: behind a desk.” Swartz went on to close out his email to Jim, “I understand that you were potentially putting together a select group of NCOs to accompany you to the headquarters. Now that you have a better understanding of the scope of your duties working within the J35, you realize you do not require a team of individuals to accompany you,’ Swartz wrote.” All this occurred in contrast to the support Jim had received from the President, Secretary of Defense, and senior military leaders such as Admiral Olson and General David Petraeus upon reading his paper. They recognized Gant had a solution to the strategic problem called Afghanistan. Jim Gant was one of the few that understood how to successful conduct Counter-Insurgency (COIN). The question would become, how much support would they throw behind this major?

Not much.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. For a time, Major Gant had an unusually large amount of operational  leeway in handling his mission while his “top cover” lasted as well as high-profile “facetime” with the most senior leaders in the Army, including General David Petraeus. This contrasted with a bizarre allocation of personnel and at times, spiteful denial of basic military supplies, by Gant’s chain of command. The combination struck me as bureaucratically schizophrenic and self-defeating.

Vandergriff continues:

….The book also exposes the misuse of the Special Forces from a strategic asset to a tactical tool focused on attrition warfare. The organization is a strategic asset, experts at developing and assisting foreign forces in fighting our enemies, so US forces do not have too. Jim Gant’s push of “One Tribe at a Time” exposed the emphasis on tactical attrition in the use of “direct-action” missions (raids, assaults, the killing and capture of “high-value targets”).

No one questions the bravery and unique skills of the Special Forces soldier (I have many friends in Special Forces and they are some of the finest professionals I have had the honor to know), but transferring them from a strategic to a tactical asset fulfilled the short-term career outlooks of many officers. There was more glory in kicking in doors, seizing objectives in night time raids that satisfied the short-term requirements built into officer performance evaluations than the long term requirement, taking many years, to build up indigent forces.

Also the results from direct action missions brief better statistically on PowerPoint slides showing immediate, time-now progress, versus the time it takes to grow local forces easily emerges into the “show-me now” personnel system. The year-long rotation of individuals and units, a lesson not learned from Vietnam also fits into the former, and not the latter problem—people staying for less than one year, could not grow the relationships built on trust necessary for Jim’s program to succeed. Jim Gant recognized all these issues, but his highlighting them through “One Tribe at a Time” did not sit well with many middle grate and senior officers.

George S. Patton was a Lieutenant when World War I began for the U.S. Army. On May 15, 1917 he was promoted to Captain. Taking command of the new U.S. Army Armor school and recognized for his ability to train and innovate, he was promoted to Major on January 26, 1918. Upon assuming the command of the 1st US Army tank battalion, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on April 3, 1918. And for his heroic actions in leading the 1st US Tank Brigade in Meuse Argonne, he was promoted to Colonel on October 17, 1918 (though by 1920 he was demoted back to major in the peacetime Army—but he was put in a position based on his talents to help the Allies win the War).

Jim Gant recognized the downfall with direct action missions and even admitted that he to had been drawn to the excitement of conducting them. But he realized that it would not win the war in Afghanistan. As he experienced with his replacement in Kunar province in 2010, “…was already concerned about making the handoff in April to the incoming Special Forces team. The team leader, Capt. Randy Fleming, had emailed him asking questions about the gym and chow hall. Clearly Fleming had no concept of living in an Afghan qalat [compound], let alone the overall mission.”

Jim Gant did have allies, even though few stepped forward to do more than to give him vocal support by warning him to stay out of the middle of the bureaucratic battle that was reminiscent of high school power games than a professional army. At one point he was told after receiving high level support and guidance from Special Forces Command, “Your employment will be decided by the in-theater chain of command.”

The military system is unique where we thrive in ridiculous out of date concepts like “up or out” (first employed by the Navy in 1917) or “Never make your leaders look bad” (based on the fact that through most wars, superiors were not prepared competently for the challenges of combat). While in the true test of a military professional, Gant succeeded in his mission and in doing so, he made some military leaders look bad because they were more focused on routine, process and remaining in FOBs (Forwarding Operating Bases) than doing what it took to win. Jim even received an email from his commander prescribing the length of facial hair of Special Forces soldiers while he was in the middle of making his plan work in combat!

That part about an 0-6 wasting valuable time in theater fussing in minute detail about beards on a handful of soldiers who were working in mufti with Pashtun tribesmen struck me also as something straight out of Catch-22. Don has encapsulated many of the frustrations I felt when reading American Spartan all too well.

Read the rest of Don’s review here.

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Sunday surprise 23: a narrative form without conflict

Monday, April 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a friend's blogpost, a taste of still eating oranges -- and the eyes of beautiful women considered as weaponry, in a Zen story, backed up by a verse from a celebrated Indian treatise on advaita ]
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I like to get cross-blog discussions going, so what I’ll post here as this week’s Sunday surprise is my response to two paragraphs my friend Bill Benzon quoted on his New Savanna blog under the title Is conflict necessary to plot? from a longer piece at Still Eating Oranges titled The significance of plot without conflict — followed by a zen tale.

Here’s the Still Eating Oranges intro to the form known as kishotenketsu which so intrigued Bill Benzon:

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general — arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishotenketsu.

Kishotenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc. — are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.

And here, from Paul Reps’ celebrated little book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, is one of the 101 Zen Stories with which Reps’ anthology begins:

How to Write a Chinese Poem:

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

“The usual Chinese poem is four lines,” he explains. “The first line contains the initial phase; the second line, the continuation of that phase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.

Which reminds me irresistibly — in the HipBone-Sembl manner — of a quote from Shankaracharya‘s classic work, Vivekachudamani, or The Crest Jewel of Discrimination:

Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

Wry grin: I am clearly no hero — but even here in Shankara’s aphorism, we are still and ever in the realm of narrative.

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Sunday surprise 22: bring a gun to a steak dinner?

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- variations on a theme in The Untouchables ]
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Duncan Kinder posted a pair of video clips to one of Zen’s FaceBook posts a day or two ago, and since they made a fine DoubleQuote, I thought I’d bring them here.

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The “bringing a knife to a gunfight” idea seems to have spread from its origins in The Untouchables (upper video above) to multitudinous other moves. Movie site Subzin tracked at least some of these movies, and Movies & TV Stack Exchange lists these movies:

The Untouchables (1987)
The Target Shoots First (2000)
Shottas (2002)
Duplex (2003)
The Punisher (2004)
Waist Deep (2006)
Dod vid ankomst (2008)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009)
The Good Guy (2009)
Wonderful World (2009)
Death Hunter (2010)

with variants found in:

The Glimmer Man (1996) 00:16:59 It’s kind of like takin’ a screwdriver to a gunfight.
Black Cat Run (1998) 00:32:40 A crow bar to a gun fight? Drop the fucking crowbar.
BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007) 00:28:09 Ain’t it like an Irishman to bring a bottle to a gunfight.
Urban Justice (2007) 01:27:07 l know you ain’t dumb enough to bring a fist to a gunfight.
G-Force (2009) 01:12:27 [Speckles] Just like humans. Bringing guns to a space junk fight.
Unrivaled (2010) 00:28:46 you brought a knife to a bottle fight.
Cross (2011) 00:08:06 Genius. Brings sticks to a gunfight.

What’s intriguing about the Raiders of the Lost Ark episode (lower video, above) is that the reference is made without words. The Indiana Jones Wiki has the scoop on this… Apparently Harrison Ford had dysentery at the time, and was finding it difficult to act the longish duel scene, whip against sword, that was called for by the script — and finally suggested that Indy should just shoot the guy.

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A couple of thoughts that occur to me:

  • Bringing a slingshot to a giant?
  • Bringing a lance to a windmill fight?
  • bringing a knife to the soup course?
  • It’s my good fortune, once again, that my fascinating with the details of one relatively innocuous matter — the “bringing a knife to a gunfight” meme in this case — leads me to another area of interest.

    — in this case to hastilude, the generic name for forms of mock-martial fighting that include tourneys and jousts along with others I hadn’t even heard of — behourds, tupinaires? — thus providing ample impetus for yet further wanderings across the web…

    But it’s time for me to wind up — let’s get back to Raiders of the Lost Ark

    It’s not every day that one can justifiably attribute the origins of a widespread, hilarious yet serious, and blockbusterish money-making meme — to dysentery.

    Freud, however, would have understood.

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    March 17th: Holi Festival “of colors”

    Monday, March 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- my favorite Indian festival -- and also Modi, the Indian PM candidate whose visitor's visa for the US was revoked by State a decade ago on the grounds of "violating religious freedom" ]
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    It may be the world’s most playful festival — Holi, the Festival of Colors, is celebrated today, March 17, in India and around the world.

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    The equipment required for play is simple enough: colored powders.

    These powders can be thrown at people dry, watered down and tossed at them in balloons, or sprayed from squirt-guns…

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    In each case, the result it the same — brightly-colored people.

    And why?

    The symbolism of the colors of Holi Festival is that the devotees are “drenched in the colors of devotion” to God, in memory of the brother and sister devotees Holika and Prahlad, who refused to worship their father King Hiranyakashipu as God, although ordered to do so on pain of death.

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    And then there’s Narendra Modi.

    Modi is currently running for Lok Sabha on the BJP ticket from Varanasi — the holiest city in India — and will become PM in the event of a BJP win. The elections, in the world’s largest democracy, are scheduled to run for 36 days starting April 5th.

    Blog-friend Patricia Lee Sharpe offers some background on Whirledview:

    Raze Mosques, Ban Books, Exile Artists

    Although some of Modi’s predecessors have played down the religious angle and stressed free market economics to broaden the party’s appeal, the B.J.P. nevertheless adheres to a militantly nationalist ideology based on a (this part is almost funny) Victorian re-interpretation of Hinduism known as Hindutva, and the party belongs to the same political family (aka parivar) as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.). As the Hindustan Times says, “Few are convinced that the R.S.S. has no role in B.J.P. politics.”

    In its early days R.S.S. members donned khaki, marched around and provided intimidation services for the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu nationalists in the manner of coeval Brown and Black Shirts in pre-World War II Europe. It was banned in 1948, after an over-zealous member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too tolerant of Muslims and too reformist visà-vis Hinduism, as in treating “untouchables” like fellow human beings. Reactivated as a “cultural” organization, with a leadership overlapping that of the superficially benign B.J.P., the R.S.S. in 1992 recruited a mob to raze the centuries-old Babri mosque in Ayodya, alleging it had been built over the ruins of a temple to the Hindu man-god Rama. Eventually, the courts intervened, dispatching teams of archaeologists to excavate for evidence of Ram’s temple. In the end, with the mosque destroyed and lacking the least sign of a temple, the judges split the difference: Hindus and Muslims get to use court-allocated portions of the disputed site. Naturally, neither side is happy.

    Moving forward to 2013, Hindutva sympathizers have been responsible for the Indian High Court’s decision to ban a book by an eminent American Sanskrit scholar on the grounds that its erudite version of a polycentric Hinduism shaped by a multitude of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions might hurt the feelings of some Hindus. As a result, naturally, sales of the ebook version have soared, but fears of violence, if not a justification for the decision, were also not totally unfounded. There were angry demonstrations over attempts to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was banned to spare Muslim sensibilities.

    And here’s a truly sad case of triumphal, puritanical Hindu communalism: death threats forced M.H. Hussein, India’s most acclaimed modern painter—if you want a Hussein, think in terms of seven figures in U.S. dollars at Sotheby’s—to spend his last days in exile. His “crime”? He, a secular, perhaps even heretical Muslim, had dared to paint some Hindu goddesses veiled (at best) diaphanously. Anyone familiar with the buxom, bare-bosomed devis on Indian temples would have to ask: how else would anyone paint a Hindu goddess? But no one has ever accused religious fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, of sophisticated cultural criticism.

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    Modi himself invites you to send e-greetings for Holi Festival on his website:

    The joyful occasion of Holi can also be celebrated by sending an egreeting to your near and dear ones. You may do this by visiting the official website of Shri Narendra Modi and sending a personalized e-greeting, along with an audio message by Shri Narendra Modi.

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    Super Buds

    Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- you can't even watch the Super Bowl without the Antichrist slipping deftly into your subconscious -- or can you? ]
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    Thank God I don’t watch the Super Bowl. If I did, and unless I’d been taking a break during the commercials to go on a scavenger hunt in the kitchen, I might have been exposed to this:

    Horrific, no? And yet so smoothly and sweetly done!

    As you might imagine, this cute commercial was “the Most Successful Commercial of the Super Bowl” according to TIME, and “racked up more than 37 million views”.

    On the other hand, this video commentary has only managed 13,495 views as of the time my writing this post:

    It seems the forces of advertising Antichrist are beating out the voices of false prophecy about 2472 to 1.

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    Or perhaps not.

    I have an alternative theory. Perhaps the Budweiser Clydesdale horses are just Clydesdales, the puppies just puppies — and for the record, it was “17 Clydesdale horses and eight golden Labrador puppies” I missed, thank God, fingers crossed, just in case — and the ad just an ad, the beer just a beer, with nary an Antichrist in sight.

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    Scholar that I am, I believe you might like further resources with which to deepen your understanding of this matter of commercial appeal or (fingers crossed) theological interpretation.

    Our “co-prophet” skipped his usual introduction in this particular “cute puppy” video, but he posts extensively, and I was happy to find his commentary on the Vatican Doves, which I discussed recently [ here and here ]:

    So that’s how our co-prophet sees himself — the “third eagle” of the Apocalypse.

    And then there’s the ad itself, which I must finally admit I prefer to its alleged millennial meaning.

    Two looks behind the scenes:

    and:

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    And that’s it, folks.

    Sigmund Freud, or was it Groucho Marx, said it first: sometimes a Clydesdale is just a Clydesdale.

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    Hat-tip: blog-friend Bryan Alexander of the ever-ghastly Infocult.

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