Best Defense

Dragoon Ride (5): Flags up! The life of an Army XO heading east toward Russia

Orchestration implies organization and rehearsal. What an audience expects in theater or art becomes astonishing when encountered outside the confines of public performance.

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By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense office of pulling Putin’s nose

Orchestration implies organization and rehearsal. What an audience expects in theater or art becomes astonishing when encountered outside the confines of public performance.

When engineers from Germany and Britain finished their amphibious bridge across Poland’s mighty Vistula River (teeming with fish along its shore), and proved it with a German tank, an extraordinary thing happened. Someone had decided that the crew of each amphibious bridging vehicle would raise their country’s national flag. I counted four Union Jacks on 30 vehicles, leaving 26 German flags. The flag-raising occurred simultaneously and had clearly been planned and rehearsed.

In previous dispatches, I mentioned the abundance of capital-H-History, the kind that gets millions of people erased, that one encounters in Germany and Poland. Its inescapability. One cannot avoid the last century, with its superabundance of real human trauma in the form of ethnic cleansings, genocides, forced resettlement and appropriation/re-appropriation of land.

Equally (more?) extraordinarily, people were then able to go on with their lives in the face of these horrors — the crimes of the Holocaust, Holodomor, partition of Poland, erasure of German Prussia, and mutual exchanges of populations between Ukraine and Poland — a partial list of tragedy that does little justice to any of the individual stories of loss and hardship (and for the purposes of a story focusing on NATO, necessarily excludes other, equally terrifying lists that came about as the result of colonialism throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and soforth).

No symbol for these preventable catastrophes is more recognizable, more salient, than Nazi Germany’s flag (that of the Soviet Union is a close second). The Nazi anthem (Horst Wessel Leid) recognizes the symbolic and emotional importance of flags, and the Nazi flag’s centrality to their racial-national myth. Contrast Nazi Germany’s status in contemporary popular culture with that of Imperial Japan (the country that attacked U.S. soil in World War II and drew the United States into the fight): Japan’s Imperial flag is known to comparatively few, but one would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t recognize the Nazi flag by sight, or identify the swastika.

And there the Germans were, unfurling their flag over the Vistula with military precision.

Dragoon Ride departed Torun on the 9th of June, from yet another isolated and wild airfield, the flora of which everyone agrees is (bizarrely) reminiscent of Fort Benning, Georgia. The destination is Suwalki, by way of Orzysz, Poland. Originally plotted out as an almost 200-mile drive drive, it became a 330-mile march, accomplished over two days. I’m assigned to the last chalk, riding in the Squadron Executive Officer’s (XO) vehicle with the recovery and mechanical assets. We’re tasked with collecting giant, slow-moving military fuel trucks that have been pre-staged at rest stops along the route.

In what’s becoming a common theme, it turns out that I know the Executive Officer from 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. I first met Major Christopher Rowe in Italy with the 173rd Airborne, where I did my platoon leader and company-level executive officer time, and deployed to Paktika Province with 1-503rd. Rowe deployed as a staff officer with 173rd’s Brigade, then took command of 2-503rd’s Destin Company, on what Sky Soldiers call “the Sebastian Junger Deployment.” Knowing a person’s context, being able to communicate with them about a thing like a bad deployment, that helps bridge the gap between two peoples’ experiences. I’m able to communicate with Rowe and he with me because we have a frame of reference, a basis for honest dialogue.

On a personal level, between seeing the effect Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s coverage had on the soldiers and leaders of 2-503rd, and the effect that Jim Dao, Damon Winter, and Catrin Einhorn’s coverage had on the men and women of 1-87th Infantry Battalion between 2010 and 2011, I developed an interest in non-fiction storytelling. Pulling overwatch on a route clearance movement from atop a compound recently wrested from the Taliban somewhere in Afghanistan, suffering in the heat, it meant something that journalists were there bearing witness. Then, back home, when it was all said and done, being able to pick up a magazine or go online to see the record of one’s actions, the proof — I was there, I did something worthwhile — it’s invaluable. Stories have the potential to contextualize war to the soldiers, sergeants, and officers who may have been acting in an operational or strategic vacuum (more often the case over the last 15 years than not).

So Major Rowe and I have a lot of intellectual and experiential territory in common. Also, in his current role as “Saber 5” — the number five is radio protocol for his job as XO — Major Rowe is fulfilling a series of thankless tasks I remember all too well from the twenty months I spent as an Executive Officer in the 173rd.

Operations is responsible for coordinating movement in time and space. Command is responsible for making decisions. Logistics (the XO) makes sure all the equipment is there to keep the soldiers and vehicles operating and capable of fighting. Organizing the logistical health of a company of 100+ paratroopers spread out over nine miles in Afghanistan is difficult — I remember that anxious task quite well. Doing that for a battalion of 600+ cavalrymen spread out over hundreds of miles, hours of distance and in some cases, different countries — in sun and rain, cold and warmth — well, this is no job for the faint of heart. Rowe is the one spinning the logistical dishes that will make or break 4th Squadron’s piece of Dragoon Ride. If Strykers don’t have enough parts, or enough oil for their wheels, or enough of anything, they’ll start breaking. As Russia’s embarrassing Armata tank mishap showed during the 2015 Victory Day parade, demonstrations of military might don’t carry the same weight when the vehicles break. Rowe’s efforts will minimize the possibility of this occurring in Dragoon Ride.

Four soldiers and sergeants crew the XO’s Stryker: Sergeant First Class Don Mays, Sergeant Osburt Richards, Specialist Joseph Caldwell (the driver) and an augmentee from the Minnesota National Guard, who the others call “Minnesota,” Specialist Brenda Hanenberg. They’re all “25-uniforms” — the technical term for a communications soldier, the experts you call to program or fix broken radios. If it seems strange that the XO for a battalion would have a good portion of the Battalion’s communications expertise with him in his truck, consider that after the commander, few places are more critical to the effective operation of a battalion (or company for that matter) than the unit’s logistical hub. On a drive like this, breakdowns and mechanical issues are legion, and the XO has to track and resolve every one of them. As he’s an information hub for mechanical issues, he knows before anyone else when a Stryker is having commo problems, and can often fix those problems before anyone else becomes aware of them. The XO is doing his job when nobody has any complaints — and is therefore by definition one of the most crucial (and least conspicuous) officers in a given unit.

Complicating matters, Major Rowe is the XO of a Stryker unit. The primary vehicle of 2nd Cavalry Regiment, the IAV (Interim Armored Vehicle) Stryker is the Army’s newest mainstream vehicle. Strykers have been in use as an infantry/armor system since 2002, with over 4,000 in service today. The latest variant came out in 2007, and is called the “MGS” or “Mobile Gun System.” It’s a Stryker crewed by three, with a reinforced chassis that mounts a 105 milimeter cannon that can be configured to confront light armored vehicles, infantry, or buildings in an urban landscape.

Why does this complicate things? As a general rule, the newer a vehicle is, the more unanticipated problems one will encounter. Over the life cycle of a vehicle, be it plane, ship, or truck, one will encounter any number of mechanical issues that testing did not identify. One part wearing out could affect other parts in a number of totally unpredictable ways, and the Stryker is a modern system, which is to say, a complicated system. Beyond the strategic implications of a giant NATO exercise, Dragoon Ride constitutes a giant operational systems test for the Stryker. By the time the convoy reaches Suwalki, the Strykers are, overall, doing quite well, but concerns remain, as they will until every vehicles’ safely back in Vilseck, Germany.

Major Rowe is particularly concerned about the MGS — the ones with the big gun up top. They’re heavier than the other Strykers, and more complex as a result of the 105 milimeter gun. Driving them heavily seems likely to produce unanticipated issues, and especially if they participate in any live-fire exercises with NATO partners — some of the older guns will experience issues after firing a single shot. New models are forthcoming soon from the Canadian manufacturer responsible for the Stryker, but for the time being, 4/2 must make do with what they have on hand.

It would be easier if the route weren’t constantly changing. The Polish police adjust the movement from Torun to Suwalki several times, adding miles each time they replot it. It’s like hitting traffic heading into New York City on a weekday after seven a.m. —every available routs seem to magnify the trip by 30 minutes to an hour, except in this case there’s no button to push, no choice to make — we can only follow as the police lead. We take the longest possible route, driving for hours along circuitous back roads with the biggest trucks in the Squadron, metal ships designed to tow or carry the MGS. We spend the night at an ad hoc RON (Remain Over Night) site 93 miles short of Orzysz. The temperature at night drops into the low 40s. I can see my breath.

The next morning, rather than simply driving on to Suwalki (a 112-mile straight-shot from our unexpected RON), we’re instructed to continue along the much longer and somehow even more circuitous route than before. People have averaged three to five hours of sleep per night, catching restless naps along the way when and where possible. That night, everyone sleeps inside the Stryker — all six of us. It’s a tight fit, possible only because 42-year-old SFC Mays takes the floor. He also gives me an extra blanket, as I haven’t prepared for anything this cold.

We leave early the next morning, encountering rain early and often. The Poles have refused to adjust the route in any significant way, but it’s their country, their right to do so. The convoy sets out after them as the police cars’ sirens wail, and we’re on the back roads again, tiptoeing through tight traffic circles, trying to keep up with our swift-driving escorts. It feels like they’re driving us all over Poland. In a chill subarctic squall, it’s difficult to understand why.

Throughout the exercise, I’ve seen tempers grow short between allies unused to working together on such a broad level. A U.S. element left Torun airfield without a Polish police escort, prompting grief and acrimony. Convoys crawl along narrow Polish roadways, creating traffic inconveniences for Polish citizens and stressing roadways designed for lighter cars. Even so, the XO’s Stryker remains good-spirited, cracking jokes about the situation, making light of the discomfort. When the convoy stops to rest, Major Rowe is out talking with the Polish police escort, then over with the mechanics, working it, keeping the plates spinning.

Underlying it all — the mechanical frustrations, the delays, the equipment wrapped in garbage bags to keep dry, the SNAFUs of a normal military operation (all of which are magnified on foreign soil), it’s impossible to forget the why behind Dragoon Ride — the history around Dragoon Ride won’t permit it. With due respect to David Reiff, when the German and British engineers raised their flags over the Vistula (but especially the Germans) it was a declaration: Germany is here, as part of NATO, yes, but more importantly, Germany, with all of its historical baggage, has returned, with the United States, with Britain. Hurtling down roads slick with cold rainfall or in the dark, pushing the Strykers to the edge of their capabilities hundreds of miles away from effective mechanical assistance, hopping from country to country, America, with all of its historical baggage, has returned, alongside European allies. NATO isn’t perfect, but it exists.

For NATO to succeed as a check against external hostility and a model of cooperation for participating nations interested in functioning according to European models, flags needed to come up over the Vistula. They needed to be perceived and acknowledged, within view of a former Prussian church, barely a fifteen minute walk over fields from the Polish city of Chelmno (once called Culm or Kulm), proximate to a notorious concentration camp. NATO’s existence depends on an understanding that without alliance, this region’s history amounts to a series of disastrous human conflicts, each worse than the previous, leading toward nothing, no progress. NATO is a Germany redeemed from itself, a strong Poland, the participation of America and Britain. It’s the latticework on top of which diplomats and economists have built the European Union (which represents the same hope for peace), a gamble that a federal union could flourish where brute force failed. If one forgets history — especially recent history — one cannot hope to understand why the Germans and Americans would be creating irritating traffic jam after traffic jam for the better part of three weeks — why Poland has briefly turned into a series of crisscrossing armored and reconnaissance columns led by truculent Polish policemen. Why in spite of everything, Dragoon Ride continues.

Major Rowe’s Stryker and its occupants haven’t come to Poland for their health or for recreation. Many places in America are beautiful this time of year, and don’t require winter jackets for a comfortable evening. It would be far simpler, far less expensive to stay indoors with one’s family drinking beer or hot coffee than waking inside a metal can at six in the morning to drive hundreds of miles. The United States and German militaries understand why America’s here — one hopes that this comprehension exists at a deeper political level, as well as a popular level. The Polish and Czech militaries understand this too, as does the British military — even while Britain’s less grateful, more foolish citizens debate an exit from the EU.

Every soldier understands the stakes here. If units like 4/2 Cavalry Regiment fail in their attempt to buttress NATO, if countries resort to the type of small-minded military contests that defined life up until the 20th century, the world may not be able to take it. And nobody has any interest in returning to Poland to push back against some aggressive intruder’s time-honored attempt to impose its utopian political vision on European citizens. Let’s hope that this generation won’t have to learn the hard way to treasure agreement and discourse over hostility and bloodshed.

Adrian Bonenberger is the author of Afghan Post.

Photo credit: ADRIAN BONENBERGER

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
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