Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

We used to have methods to destroy foreign government through red tape. Now we use those against ourselves.

Decision making in the army has been passive aggressive and not direct, bold and for the better.



By Noah Smith

Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted


By Noah Smith
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Decision making in the army has been passive aggressive and not direct, bold and for the better.

My first deployment with my OD-A was to Afghanistan. We were the sole representation of our unit in the country and pioneered a highly austere version of VSO (Village Stability Operations). We peed in tubes and pooped through a hole in a second-story mud section of our compound, into a room that served as a giant toilet, a room of poop.

We kind of loved it. When we first arrived, after an awful trip, we had no defense whatsoever and broke bread with the villagers that owned the building. We were there to train a local militia of sorts and cast out the Taliban’s influence, creating a white space. In turn, we would go on to build a school and help link the locals with the provincial and Afghan federal government. And in the midst of that, our team shrunk by a couple of members, mainly because of bureaucracy, not because of the enemy.

We had to build everything from scratch, and nothing was easy. Our infiltration to the site took over ten hours, during which we traveled just over six miles, because of the snow and the mountainous terrain. But a senior officer briefed General David Petraeus, who had assumed command of the Afghan theatre, that we would be in place before the snow thawed and the Taliban, who were likely living it up on vacation in Pakistan, re-entered. We should not have made that movement; our foreign counterparts destroyed two Humvees, and now that I was driving, I had to tow them up the terrain, in the snow. It was a mess beyond our expectations, which were very low. You couldn’t help but laugh. It was on that convoy that I learned all I needed to know about the region. As we took turns driving up a very muddy and slender pass through the village leading up to where we were headed, we encountered a natural stream. And in it was an elderly woman gathering water, likely for cooking and drinking, and then downstream from her was a young girl, washing her families clothing. And downstream from her was what looked like a man peeing, and then one of our counterparts was vomiting into the stream, downstream from them all. You can’t make it up.

Since our large Oshkosh M-ATV’s, which are amazing, crowded the road, local vehicles couldn’t get around — so an elderly man drove through the stream, from the vomiting man to the elderly women getting water. And that’s rural Afghanistan.

Our team daddy at the time was a total badass and a calming influence on everyone. He was prepared, and we all looked up to him. It was a dangerous mission, especially at first, and an important one, they said as we left. But, halfway through, our command yanked him back to fill a first sergeant slot that needed to be filled. It couldn’t wait, apparently, because that’s just how things are. It had been solidified that the position they needed to fill would be filled, and he was the man for the job. While, in his army arc it made sense, for our deployment at war, it was kind of devastating. The team did not function the same afterward. It’s not that I missed him personally, but I sensed that he was the core of the team.

What’s more, we have a language school to ensure everyone is maintaining the minimum standards at their assigned language, often Arabic in my group, and one member from every OD-A is supposed to be there at all times, with some exceptions. Apparently, this was not an exception to the rule, and so we lost an experienced operator to a language school — because they needed to fill a tracker and created a policy within our unit that they didn’t dare change. That’s like me making an arbitrary rule for myself that does harm and never changing it; you’d call me crazy and stupid. The entire purpose of the language school was to prepare teams, culturally, before a deployment, with the language to be utilized while on deployment.

When I was home from a deployment, my number-one stressor was trackers. Trackers are basically Excel spreadsheets that say when you’re “red,” or due for something that’s stupid and unnecessary. It could be online training you don’t take seriously. There are so many. It could be a number of things.

The CIA and the U.S. Army special forces have a very specific lineage — the O.S.S. The O.S.S. produced a manual, a kind of how-to for sabotage. A method is to bog down and render foreign governments useless via bureaucracy. If you read through the manual, which is available online, you’ll find it virtually identical to what we’ve done to ourselves. We need to look into the mirror with clear eyes if we’re going to remain atop as the world’s de facto leadership for the coming generation.

Noah Smith holds the Special Operations chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.

To get on the waiting list for membership in the Council, contact Tom Ricks by e-mail.

Photo credit: U.S. National Archives at College Park/Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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