No, soldiers aren’t the only ones who serve

*Note: This letter to the editor was published in the Baltimore Sun print edition on June 17, 2017. It can also be found online here.

Last week, U.S. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming described the circumstantial pomp of this year’s graduation day. He “usually love[s] it.”

This year was different. It “wasn’t fun,” because Fleming felt the event’s speeches “portrayed a vision of the Navy as a self-serving, closed entity.” He excoriated the speakers and concluded, “It’s not good for the military to believe itself better than the civilians it defends.” (“Naval Academy graduates no better than the civilians they defend,” June 5.)

Admittedly, as an Army major and West Point graduate, my initial reaction brought out the worst, particularly having just written my own painful reflection on fallen friends this past Memorial Day. How could someone attack the military like that?

My instinctual reaction was wrong. And Mr. Fleming’s essay was (mostly) right. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote a few years ago, “We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between [the military and the rest of society].” Both General Dempsey and Mr. Fleming point out that those in uniform aren’t the only ones in America who serve or sacrifice. Continue reading “No, soldiers aren’t the only ones who serve”

Containing the Pocket-Sized Threat to America’s Military

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

The scary/cool juxtaposition of the recent global ransomware attack with Google’s annual developer’s conference should, if nothing else, prompt us to reevaluate our relationship with the digital world. Google’s event (and the settled consensus) tells us the information age enables better, more productive lives. But this latest attack and mounting evidence suggest that the accompanying costs are serious, even rising to national security concern levels as an ongoing threat to American lives and liberty in the pursuit of false happiness.

As a military officer and strategist, I’m bound by an oath charging defense “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” For several years I’ve noticed the growing impact of the persistent, dependent link between the majority of our soldiers and the internet, often enabled by and embodied in the smartphone. Officers responsible for teaching compass-driven land navigation, a critical ground combat skill, worry they’re fighting an unwinnable battle with recruits unable to see the forest from their screen. Cadets, as with their non-military, college-age contemporaries, can’t concentrate in class when they’re so wired to the web. Social media divides units over inappropriate online sexual behavior in garrison, and while on deployment, as one officer reports, the “band of brothers” is coming apart due to “too much connectivity.” Continue reading “Containing the Pocket-Sized Threat to America’s Military”

Members of Congress serve in the military. They shouldn’t.

*Note: This essay was published at the Washington Post on June 2, 2017.

Congress is in recess, and members have returned to their districts to hold town hall meetings, fundraisers and, in a few cases, don military uniforms to serve in the National Guard or Reserve.

They shouldn’t.

As an Army officer I appreciate and admire their desire to serve. We need more citizens who want to serve in politics or in uniform. But allowing representatives of the legislative branch of government to act as officers in the coequal executive branch impedes their ability to make independent strategic judgments about war, violates the spirit of Defense Department guidelines and flouts the nonpartisan traditions of the military profession.

Read the rest at the Washington Post.

Their Chairs Are Empty, but We Know What Their Sacrifice Was For

*Note: This essay was published in the Wall Street Journal print edition on May 26, 2017.

I didn’t even know I was crying until half my face was wet. It was Memorial Day 2004, and I had just returned from a year of fighting as a cavalry officer in Iraq. I was sitting in a sea of parishioners at my parents’ church for a holiday-themed Sunday, complete with tiny flags and people thanking me for my service. It was all very nice until the minister’s voice trailed off and an enormous screen showed images of American soldiers recently lost.

Then I saw him. No, it wasn’t him, exactly, but the guy on the screen looked enough like one of the soldiers under my command who had been killed that I was overwhelmed by tears. I pushed my way down the pew, ran to a bathroom and stayed there until the storm passed.

Like so many others, my wars have been marked by the distinct cruelty of rapid, random and repeated death of young soldiers. There was the tank driver who drowned in the desert. The experienced leader who accidentally discharged his weapon, killing a nearby squad mate. The lieutenant who had written two years earlier as a cadet that his favorite time of day was when “Taps” played: “One day it will play at my funeral and when it does, I pray that I am deserving enough of that honor.” He was.

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.

What the Long Gray Line is Made Of

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

On Saturday, over 950 cadets will graduate from West Point, receive diplomas, earn their commissions, and officially join the 73,386 members of the Long Gray Line (of which approximately 50,000 are living).

The graduation speaker, Secretary of Defense (and retired General) James Mattis, will likely treat those in attendance to some learned thoughts on our world, wars, and warriors—in so doing, he will almost certainly make mention of the Long Gray Line, echoing other noteworthy speakers there, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, First Lady Michelle Obama, and President Barack Obama, who all recently deployed this honorific for West Point’s graduates.

The Long Gray Line has achieved a sort of mythical status over time. Beyond prominent speeches, journalist and author Rick Atkinson’s bestselling book, The Long Gray Line, was based on his 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on West Point’s Class of 1966. Hollywood advanced the phrase with the 1955 film, The Long Gray Line. And it’s been lionized in American rhetoric through retired Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famed 1962 “Duty, Honor, Country” speech, in which he reminded the cadets that “the Long Gray Line has never failed” the nation and to do so would disappoint “a million ghosts in olive drab.”

But beyond popular culture and pithy catchphrase, what does the Long Gray Line really mean today? In an age when some question the need for military academies, what is its value? Beyond the slogan, what does it represent? Continue reading “What the Long Gray Line is Made Of”

Thinking Through a North Korean “Downfall”

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

He did it. Kim Jong Un defied the world, again. Despite the American warships, despite the Chinese pressure, North Korea’s leader tested another illicit missile. Even if the practice launch “fizzled,” as with gifts, it’s the thought that counts—and in this case, the thoughts are pretty disturbing. And he’s still got a nuke “all primed and ready” to test.

Of course, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on five previous occasions, including twice last year (not to mention 24 provocative missile tests in the same twelve-month stretch)—and US aircraft carrier visits to the region are not rare. But the backdrop of palpably increased tensions against which these developments are taking place gives them a particularly ominous character.

While an outbreak of war remains unlikely, because this recent cycle continues a long, dangerous trend, we have to ask: What would a war to end the North Korean regime look like? What historical example could we reach to? It is critically important for planners to set their scales correctly to understand the scope war might entail. And in this case, the task’s enormity demands accurate forecasting. Continue reading “Thinking Through a North Korean “Downfall””

Ten Takeaways from the Korean Theater of Operations and A Warfighter’s Way Forward

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

You know there’s a national security problem brewing when in the space of seven weeks, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs opines on the widespread challenges North Korea presents, followed closely by visits to South Korea from the secretaries of defense and state.

In a similar effort to come to grips with some of the larger strategic issues at play, I recently concluded an intense, week-long visit to the Korean theater of operations, including the combined warfighting command there (Combined Forces Command/United Nations Command/US Forces Korea; CFC/UNC/USFK). What follows is a list of experience-based takeaways that may be of practical interest and potential use by those well beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula—things to consider as we slide closer to conflict. Continue reading “Ten Takeaways from the Korean Theater of Operations and A Warfighter’s Way Forward”