Monday, May 19, 2008

The Captain's bars

A Marine infantry officer recently returned from Iraq responds to the post about the Ray Ban theory of history.

I read with interest your bit about the Ray-Bans and the relationship between fashion and consciousness.

We always had similar experiences in my city in Iraq with regard to the Iraqi Police wanting Marine paraphernalia for their uniforms, whether out of utility or just fashion.

One incident sticks out. I worked very closely with an IP Captain who didn't actually work for the city's police force. Instead, he was on the payroll of the central government and very well-trusted by it due to his history. During 2005 and 2006, there had only been 7 police officers in the entire tri-city district where I worked. This Captain was one of them. Al Qaeda ruled the area then, and even went so far as to declare that its treatment of the locals then was how it would treat everyone in the country once it had taken over. As you can imagine, being a police officer for the government in Baghdad didn't mean you were arresting people or making traffic stops. It meant spying on and subverting the terrorists.

Of the 7 police, 6 were captured and beheaded. The one who survived that period was the Captain I worked with this spring. One of his more interesting qualities was that he never wore the same outfit twice. He would rotate between jumpsuits, shemaghs, IP uniforms, camouflage uniforms, rank, no rank, beret, helmet, ballcap, etc. It was a vestigial habit of survival

Well, one day in January, the district police chief sent a memorandum around to the stations. "Who is this Captain X who keeps running around pretending to be a police officer?".

The district chief was not well-respected on my side of the river and we chalked this up to yet another crazy thing he was up to. But the Captain in question, the one I worked with, was very upset. He was one of the founders of the police! He had been fighting Al Qaeda for years, before the chief was even in charge, and while most everyone else had acquiesced or run away to hide in the desert! He was really pissed off. "I guess I'm just a civilian!"

While he wasn't looking, I took off one of my Captain's bars. When he turned around, still all-fired up, I pinned them on his chest and said, "Now you're a Captain again." This made him happy and we all laughed.

I was happy to see over the next few weeks that my captain's bars had entered into his wardrobe rotation. And, every now and then, one of the other captains that I worked closely with would wear them too.

The story has a happy ending. In February, the Captain in question went to Ramadi for a routine meeting. He returned with a car that had been awarded him by the government for his service: a slightly used Ford Crown Victoria. I met him when he brought it back. He said in broken English, "Not all IP get car. I'm good policeman." He was very proud.

Use if you'd like. Semper Fi.

Six out of seven. And the last Iraqi policeman was proud of his Captain's bars. One of Napoleon's famous aphorisms was that "a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon." What Napoleon forgot to mention was that it depended on who was giving out the bit of ribbon, because what tokens really signify -- like the Captain's bars -- are respect, trust and acceptance.

When a man is willing to risk his life for a bit of ribbon it says almost as much about the bestower as the recipient. My father, now relocated to Australia, retains almost nothing from his early youth. But he keeps one thing which he shows me every now and again. It's a small package of Lucky Strikes, now yellowed with age, with the words "I shall return" printed on it, airdropped on Manila in late 1944. It was worth a man's life under the Japanese occupation to be caught with it. Why did Dad keep it?

One of Napoleon's less famous dicta is that "courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment". And the heart of the Ray Ban theory of history is that while men can be ordered into a uniform for money or ordered to advance in it from fear; they will only carry it forward into the teeth of danger for love. And it's a safe bet that sixty years from today, long after the last tank, rifle and airplane given to the Iraqi armed forces has rusted into ruin, that all that will be left, stored in tissue and worn on special occasions, will be bits of clothing and the memories they bring.

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Blogger Dave said...

Someday remind me to tell you the story about being the only doggie in a compound with up to 11 jarheads. And being the one whose KBs kept getting read to the CG at 3rd MAF.

In three tours spread out between 1965 and 1970, I saw a transformation of Vietnamese society into something that was an asset to these United States. Then came heartbreak when I spent several months playing interpreter in a refugee camp.

Nowadays I see the same kind of good news coming out of Iraq. Then comes the bad news from the homefront.

One group of naysayers are in denial about the possibilities and even probabilities of cultural transformation. They say it is impossible for others to act in a more ethical fashion and thereby be like Americans.

The other group of naysayers knows full well that such transformation is not only possible but probably underway. This latter group will spare no effort to stop the transformation as it threatens every fiber of their (incoherent) beliefs in environmental destruction, zero-sum games, a permanently flawed America, etc.

While it is the left that dominates
the sabotage, do not underestimate the catalyst provided by right-wing Wahabis who will spare no effort to keep J McCain out of the White House because of his determination to avoid defeat and disgrace.

FEllows, we got our work cut out for us.

5/19/2008 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


I agree we are watching history repeat itself, with the American left trying desperately to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq - just as they did in SE Asia almost 40 years ago.

Also, to be too hard on the "Right Wing Wahabis" as you called them. John McCain has gone out of his way to insult and demean them for years now. Taking their support for granted is a very dangerous move for him, and I hope he does not tread there. While the stakes in Iraq are very large indeed, they are only a part of the political landscape covered by the US Presidency, and so only part of the consideration to be given a momentous decision made only once every four years.

5/19/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Ibn Khaldun would not have been surprised at Iraqi imitation of American soldiers. He also would not have been surprised at an urban-rural split in American voting patterns, and how this is affecting our will to fight.

America's manliness is at stake.

5/19/2008 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

You know, I think perhaps we do not take advantage of the “Ray Ban Effect” – in fact, we seem to go out of our way to avoid it.

A friend of mine spent some time in Japan in the 1950’s. He says that the Japanese recalled MacArthur fondly. The General would head for his office each morning in a big staff car, flags flying from the fenders, escorted by policemen on motorcycles with their sirens howling. And the Japanese loved the display, lined up to watch him go buy. Apparently they wanted their viceroy, or leader of the occupying forces, or emperor surrogate to look the part. Or maybe they just wanted to feel that they had been beat by someone more impressive than they could devise themselves.

Similarly, the Germans were impressed as hell with Gen. George Patton. I heard where some years ago an American businessman was stricken with appendicitis while on a visit to West Germany. He received the best of care and was astonished to hear that he owed nothing. He demanded to know why, since he had no need of charity. After a little investigation the hospital administrator explained that German records showed that the man’s father had been General Patton’s driver in WWII. And they were so impressed with Patton that even his driver’s son’s money was no good.

But today, with celebrity elevated to an art form, we don’t begin to take advantage of the fact that we can be pretty dammed impressive when we want to be. I can imagine what the comments from the chattering classes if our leadership in Iraq had strutted around with half the spectacle of a MacArthur or the self-assurance of a Patton.

5/19/2008 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I wonder if the District Chief of Police is lobbying for General's bars to trump the Captain's. I wonder if he'll get them.

5/19/2008 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

West Point was somewhat of a Shinto shrine to Japanese of a certain age. After all, the American kami must have been very strong to have defeated the Japanese kami. At some level, I believe the West Point was the only way a lot of Japanese could make sense of it. The rest of the U.S. was so undisciplined. Only the service academies and their alumni seemed to fit the cultural meme of what someone who defeated Japan for the first time must look/act/be like.

5/19/2008 04:28:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

America's manliness is at stake.

All who attempt to confront American manliness directly suffer a rather swift and certain end. It is not American manliness that is the problem or at issue. It's the application of American manliness by the American governmental minions. What is being revealed, again, is the lack of manliness of the American governmental minions.

5/19/2008 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger pst314 said...

"'a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.' What Napoleon forgot to mention was that it depended on who was giving out the bit of ribbon, because what tokens really signify -- like the Captain's bars -- are respect, trust and acceptance."

I suspect that in Napoleon's time such things went without saying. In the decadent present, however, there are endless journalists and intellectuals standing ready to sneer at those "bits of colored ribbon" and those who value them.

5/20/2008 06:54:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 05/20/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

5/20/2008 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In re journalists and leftists and others sneering at the manly virtues of courage and honor, I'm reminded of this Patton quote:

"Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack."
- General George Patton Jr

5/20/2008 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Mil-Tech Bard said...


Consider for a moment this evolution of the "American Military Fashion" from scoffed at "Ninja Turtles" in Aug 2001, for not being able to deal with locals, to "Badass Americans" who need to dress down to deal with locals.

The US and British Approaches to Force Projection

TWO ALLIED military forces operating in the Balkans in adjacent zones are similarly equipped, trained and led. The communities, factions and problems they face are the same. They speak the same language and come from a common military cultural heritage. They have been allies in war and peace and are members of NATO where they champion the same military positions; they support the same NATO doctrine for peace support operations. Their national written force-protection doctrines are nearly the same, and despite disagreements, they are staunch political allies.1 Yet, when patrolling Balkan streets, US and British soldiers present radically different public images.

US troops wear helmets and body armor—hence their nickname, “ninja turtles.” They travel in convoys with guns manned and ready. When they stop, they disperse to overwatch positions, ready to apply defensive force. At night most retire to fortified camps or outposts as Romans did on campaigns, cutoff from the people they came to protect.

British troops wear berets and walk and talk with the locals. They travel in small groups, armed but with weapons slung. Some wear ammunition pouches; some do not; none wears body armor unless there is an imminent threat. Off duty they eat and relax in town; many live there. Single vehicles often travel the roads, identifiable only by their painted military patterns.

Each nation participating in the implementation force (IFOR), stabilization force (SFOR) and Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR) has adopted force-protection policies based on national doctrine. The British posture represents most nations’ approach; the US posture is the exception.2 Although popular attitudes and political direction influence policymakers, force-protection policy for an operation is based on rational calculations of interest, efficacy and acceptable cost.

Neither British nor US doctrine implies zero-casualty tolerance or places force protection above mission accomplishment. Both restate the traditional military responsibility to win with minimal casualties. Commanders have historically planned, adjusted, retreated, regrouped and advanced with new strategies to win at the lowest cost. Both US and British generals are concerned about casualties, and they adjust strategy to minimize them but not at the expense of the mission. Why do these generals with very similar doctrine differ in their policies?

Badass Americans Dress Down

May 22, 2008: Commanders who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are questioning the uniforms policy currently in force. Put simply, if there is any risk of combat in an area, troops are not to leave base unless in full "battle rattle". That means body armor, helmet, weapon and ready to rock. This is meant to protect the troops in case there's trouble, as well as to intimidate any hostile locals. But it also intimidates friendly locals. For that reason, Special Forces troops often dress in civilian clothes, usually the same stuff the locals are wearing. This has frequently irked senior U.S. officers, who sometimes make enough noise to get the Special Forces operators back into uniform (but that's another debate.)

Thanks to the Internet, the word has gotten around that, no matter how U.S. troops are dressed, they are very badass. Even pro-terrorist propagandists no longer try to peddle the "cowardly American soldier" line. It just doesn't play, because too many Iraqis and Afghans have gotten online and described personal experiences fighting alongside, or even against, U.S. troops, or just witnessing it. The general message is, you do not want to mess with the Americans in full battle-rattle.

Because of this enhanced reputation, more commanders now agree with the Special Forces, that it would be preferable to dress down, and work on exploiting the friendly relations with the locals you depend on for information, and other assistance. But, at the same time, commanders are still under tremendous pressure to keep U.S. casualties down. That will probably keep lots of people dressed for combat, no matter how friendly the natives are.

The media portrayed the American military as "cowardly" for not mixing with the locals in the late 1990's and now they are being criticized as "too formidable" to mix with the locals.

Yet the Ninja Turtles are taken far more seriously by Americans enemies.

The Bosnian Serbs never challenged the 1st Armored Division in Bosnia in the 1990s and the Iraqis want to be like Americans after five years of busting their heads against "turtle shell."

This says a great deal about both the Media and American military.

5/23/2008 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

British troops wear berets and walk and talk with the locals. They travel in small groups, armed but with weapons slung. Some wear ammunition pouches; some do not; none wears body armor unless there is an imminent threat.

I've also seen this description of Brit tactics when they first went into Basra -- before they were handed their berets on a plate by the local terrorists and told to get out of Dodge or die. It was referred to as the "softly softly" approach which meant, essentially, that they softly softly retreated to the local airport and Basra was lost until American soldiers came in and killed those same terrorists for their rudeness.

I believe part of the difference is also that England simply can't afford to gear their soldiers in the same upscale fashion as American soldiers routinely wear. So that in taunting us with their "softly softly" rhetoric, the Brits were simply attempting to make fashionable lemonade out of their busted budget lemons.

5/23/2008 03:24:00 PM  

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