OVTH - The ”Over There” podcast

This show is hosted by Terry Brennan and Matt Martin.

This is a podcast about military history and activism in the age of Trump. Terry is an actor and circus teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Matt is a retried drone pilot and defense thinker in the Dallas, Texas area. Neither of them had ever done a podcast before this one. In the beginning of Part 2 they talk shortly about the recent elections in Texas and Pennsylvania.

There have been news about terrible events in the country of Niger in West Africa where some US Special Forces troops were killed. The US has a very large presence in that part of the world and Matt had spent 6 months in Niger. As part of that he hosted an USO tour that was attended by his good friend John Roderick as well as Jonathan Coulton and David Rees (see Shows and Events) They decided to get together and talk about their experience on that trip and their time in Niger, which resulted in this episode of the podcast.

John is the lead singer of The Long Winters of Seattle, Washington. He also played for a few other fairly famous bands around that time and they opened for The Decemberists at one point. Now he is a podcast personality, he is the star of the Roderick on the Line podcast with Merlin Mann and the Road Work podcast (Matt said Back to Work, but that is Merlin’s other show) and he is starting a new one called Omnibus with the big star of Jeopardy! Ken Jennings. John introduces himself as a musician. Over the last 10 years he has increasingly become a podcaster and a person on the Internet as both a pundit and comedian-adjacent, one of them public intellectuals.

How Matt and John met (OVTH)

Matt discovered John when John Hodgman had called attention to John’s Not Moving to Portland fundraising video. He bought John’s albums, enjoyed them, and he somehow stumbled upon a guest appearance John was doing on another podcast that was very interesting, so he subscribed to John’s regular podcast with Merlin. Matt was in the Air Force and when it was time to take another trip overseas he was lamenting all of the great shows that he was going to miss while he would be in the middle of the Sahara desert.

Then he remembered that there is a mechanism in the military that allows them to bring their favorite artists who are often happy to do it. Matt was going to be the deputy commander of a base in Niger, he called the USO people to set up some shows, and 3-4 months later the guys showed up, which was a wonderful way of streamlining an incredible procurement process where they had to fill out an awful lot of forms.

The first time John became aware of Matt was when Matt sent him an email where he was challenging some of the things John had said publicly about drone warfare and its moral and global implications (see RW76 in Internet and Social Media, section ”Disagreeing on the Internet”). Matt said ”Dear sir, I really love your shows, but I would like to correct a few misconceptions you have!” John gets a lot of email like that from listeners and was like ”Thanks a lot for your contribution!”, but Matt said ”Why don’t I send you the book I wrote about drone warfare?” John read the book and realized that he was dealing with a serious customer and they have been friends since then.

The US Air Force base in Niamey, Niger (OVTH)

John jumped at the chance to go to Niger and dragged a couple of friends along. He tried to get John Hodgman to come, but Hodgman was timid about going to Central North Africa because it was a on the heal of the big Ebola crisis that wasn’t too far from where they were and things in Nigeria hadn’t been very stable for a while. The politics of Africa are daunting to bite off for a lot of people because it is very difficult to keep abreast of every latest development. John wanted to fill in some of those pieces and if you are in any way concerned about the political situation in Africa, visiting a US Air Force base is probably a good first step as a jumping-off point to discover the continent with minimal risk.

John didn’t know at the time that there was any US military presence in Africa beyond people at embassies and Matt had to explain that this was a fairly new program. Matt had gotten there in the fall of 2014 and stayed for about 6 months. Niger has a very strategic location although they are the 8th poorest country on Earth with a per-capita income of $800 a year. It is not much of a strategic ally and they don’t bring a lot of capabilities to the table, but their location is key.

Niger has a lot of problems with Al-Qaeda to the West, ISIS to the North, Boko Haram to the South-East and they are the island of stability in the middle of that sea of turmoil. When trying to go after these groups it is a key location and they were flying a reconnaissance mission out of there as well as supporting some Special Operations activity inside the country.

Matt’s focus was primarily on overseeing the team that made it all happen from a small postage stamp on a Nigerian airbase in the middle of the desert. He had his own security troops, civil engineers, communications troops, cooks and support folks as well as aircrew and maintainers to fly these reconnaissance missions. That is the environment John walked into.

John was struck by what a complete universe Matt had created in a very small footprint, including a fully-functioning hospital with a full MASH unit of surgeons and orthopedists. John calls it a hospital, but it was two tents connected through a flap. The medical team was extremely capable and could handle almost any sort of combat injury, but they were literally sitting and pitching playing cards into a hat across the room.

John said ”Do you guys get a lot of traffic through here?” - ”We get zero traffic, but if you sustained a significant injury in Africa anywhere as an employee of the US government or even as a citizen, this would be the only trauma center in an area as large as the United States” Niamey is a big city with 3 million people and has a couple of hospitals that were fine and not unsophisticated, but they were not set up to handle the type of injuries that they needed to be prepared for.

John was trying to be inconspicuous and would conspicuously see a lot of Special Forces looking people, but none of whom would fully acknowledge being any kind of Special Forces. They had more facial hair than what you are used to seeing on an army person and it was unclear who they were. They were wearing backwards baseball hats and although this was an Air Force base there were Army people and it even seemed like some Marines, which was also very difficult to tell because they didn’t have any insignia.

It also seemed like there were some French Foreign Legion style people. Matt confirms that there were a lot of French persons in general. The US had a pretty small operation with about 100 folks operating this very small base, but the French had about 800 people stationed in Niamey and another 4000 troops in the area, using Niamey as a main logistics hub.

To John it looked like the Nigerian Air Force was two Super Comanches, a Lear Jet, a 707 that hadn’t flown in half a dozen years and a Piper Cub. Matt confirms that it is a very small Air Force and a very small military in a super-poor country and who don’t have a lot of sophisticated capabilities. The US were trying to run an assist mission to help the Nigerians build their own counter-terrorist capacity, not hunt down terrorists themselves.

Operations led from Niger, Special Ops on the plane (OVTH)

The base John visited was the main logistics hub, but they have since built up a second place in Agadez in the Northern part of the country which was supposed to become the main part of operations for reconnaissances missions and flying unmanned aircraft. They were just getting started on that project when Matt was there and he imagines it is a proper base at this point that is likely the main logistics hub.

Matt wouldn’t be surprised if the operation that went so awry originated at that base. The soldiers who were injured probably ended up in the trauma center on Matt’s former base as a first stop while they were prepped to be medevaced to probably Germany. Matt can only imagine that this very basic trauma center is now a more established location and they were better able to handle those types of injuries.

John was flying commercial airlines from Paris to Naimey and then from Naimey to Addis Ababa. On both flights there were a handful very young American males who were very fit, also wearing very worn baseball hats, several of them chewing tobacco. John found them conspicuous because they didn't seem like the type of backpackers who are going to be staying in youth hostels. They were sitting apart from one another on the flights, but they stood out like sore thumbs.

On the flight to Ethiopia John actually approached a couple of them and asked ”Hey fellows! So, what brings you to Africa?” and they were very reticent to explain whether or not they even knew each other. John found it charming that the US Special Forces at the time were so humble that these fellows were just flying in the back of a plane twiddling their thumbs. It appeared that they had never been to Africa either. John is picturing that these guys were the same type of people who ended up on this operation.

Starting with the invasion of Iraq, the US military decided that the primary way to defeating Al-Qaeda was not going to be a conventional military campaign, but a Special Operations approach. They identified the key leaders of the different insertion- and terrorist-groups and hunted them down, which somehow was going to lop the head off these organizations and they would fall apart.

They poured a tremendous amount of resources into this effort, in Iraq in particular, and it didn’t really work. Matt spent tons of time supporting these operations in Iraq trying to hunt down Al-Zarqawi and other Al-Qaeda leaders and although they got some of these guys Iraq kept getting more and more violent. Only 2007 did they realized they needed to totally change their approach to a more classic counter-insurgency mission with General Petraeus. The tide started to turn, but it was never resolved well.

They very quickly grew their Special Operations community from this very small niche group of forces into a huge enterprise. SOCOM is now one of the largest combatant commands. They have young guys who are mainly going to support special operations rather than actually participate in the front end of it and they are very keen on this culture of blending in and being super-capable. John has seen young guys on their first deployment, growing their beard, wearing civilian clothes, but it was obvious that they were young Americans in the military. You are probably not going to know who the more seasoned Special Ops guys were on the plane.

Changing strategy from Vietnam via Dessert Storm until today (OVTH)

The strategy Matt was describing had almost no Hearts and Minds aspect to it and there wan't any State Department side to it, but it was exclusively a military operation. The larger picture seemed to be this idea that if you decapitated the organizers everybody else was so loosely affiliated that they would just get disheartened and fade back into the woodwork. There was no attempt to address the insurgence on an ideological or economic basis or any kind of Hearts and Minds way to get inside the community.

The original Green Beret or Special Forces mandate was to get in and become allies with the locals and figure out a way. It was marginally or not at all effective in Vietnam, and it certainly was the doctrine in Central America. Along the way we lost any idea of diplomacy being involved and our whole interaction with not only countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the whole Muslim world was going to be this tip-of-the-spear interaction rather than a holistic one.

The modern era goes back to Vietnam. We discovered pretty late in the game that counter-insurgency is effective and we have to rue out these types of insurgencies. The strategic asset in those campaigns is the population itself and you have to not just remove the thread, but also make them see that their lives are going to be better if they are on your side. This is pretty well documented, for example in the Ken Burns documentary, and it is effective, but also really hard. You have to learn Vietnamese, understand what is going on inside their culture, and deal with a corrupt government. It is much easier to bomb people and we are really good at it.

After Vietnam we decided that this was hard and we were never going to do this again. All the lessons learned during Vietnam were dismissed, eventually purged from all the Army doctrine, and forgotten, relegated to the ash heap of history. The US military decided to focus on fighting big wars instead, which was ultimately expressed during Dessert Storm. They completely dismantled the enormous Iraqi military which at the time was the 3rd or 4th largest in the world. On paper it looked terrifying, but they dismantled it in a month by developing the ability to find everything and then blow everything up. They also blew up a lot of stuff that wasn’t the things they were trying to blow up.

After that they said that this was how you do things: You go in, you blow everything up and you go home! Of course they ended up staying in Iraq ever since and Matt spent thousands of hours flying missions over the Southern and Northern no-fly-zones years after Dessert Storm and prior to the invasion of Iraq. By the time 2001 rolled around they had grown so sophisticated in these targeting capabilities that Donald Rumsfeld thought that was all they needed to do.

They would send in a handful of Special Forces troops with radios and binoculars, they would quickly point lasers to identify what they needed to blow up and the enemy would fall apart. It was the attitude for the Invasion of Iraq and it took 4 years to realize that it was not working until they returned to the counter-insurgency strategy under Petraeus, but they had to re-learn all these lessons which they now have forgotten again.

Not integrating cultural knowledge in the strategy in Iraq (OVTH)

The Curtis LeMay doctrine in Vietnam was bombing them back to the stone age with millions of tons. At the height of Operation Linebacker II they dropped more bombs on North Vietnam in terms of tonnage per month than they dropped on all of Germany and Japan in all of World War II. There was no amount of bombs that would ”pacify” the country and it took them a long time to learn that.

During the first Gulf War and again catastrophically during the Second Gulf War they dismantled the military without any thought to the fact that the military was the only force that held the country together and there was no effective police force. They dismantled them and fired all of the surviving high brass and and sent them home. There was no longer any Iraqi military.

They built a big wall around the seat of the Iraqi government in Baghdad with big sandbags called Hesco Barriers, giant steel-framed canvas bags, each containing a ton of dirt. You stack them all up, they surrounded the central government sectors of Baghdad with these barriers, they moved in, they set up shop, they called it the Green Zone, and there were no Iraqi government officials at all in the seat of this new Iraqi government.

It also seemed that there were very few American government people and they were not prepared to police the country. They had eliminated the Iraqi police and there didn’t appear to be an understanding or willingness to use their soldiers as crime-solving or crime-preventing police. They created a terrible situation and it took a long time and a lot of blood-shed to get to a point where they were able to forget all these lessons again in Afghanistan.

The US has an enormous State Department and an enormous arm of their globally focused government that is dedicated to understanding the local culture in a place. You wouldn’t send an ambassador to Iraq without having a whole dossier on how you shake hands with people, who the locals are, what the rivalries are, and how to know their local peculiarities. They have people working on this stuff, they have the information, it is part of the diplomatic protocol. If they decide to intervene in a global hotspot they have the capacity to go in there with a more encompassing idea of how to interact, but that isn’t part of their operational philosophy at all.

Instead they charge their military both with waging these operations and also then with knowing how to talk to the locals, knowing how to resolve tribal conflicts, and a lot of this is falling on the backs of a Major in the US Army who is 38 years old and has spent the majority of his career learning the logistics of moving palettes around the globe. All of a sudden this guy over here says that "That guy stole 30 goats from him, what are you going to do about it?" and the Major is like ”D’oh!” What is broken? Obviously the State Department doesn’t get 1/100th of the budget of the military, but why are they so bad at integrating what they already know?

The US Air Force once sent Matt on a course called the Joint Advanced Warfighting Course in Norfolk, Virginia, a 10-week course where you learn how to plan joint operations. It is all academics with a little bit of table-top type exercises, and most of the approach for the first 5-6 weeks is what they call the Whole-of-Government Approach. They even had an acronym called DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economic).

You are supposed to take this approach when thinking about operations, planning operations and you are supposed to start from these very lofty strategic goals that are outlined for you by the President of the United States in the National Security Strategy, which says ”In this part of the world these are our big goals, this is what we are trying to accomplish” It goes through the whole globe, outlining the strategic objectives.

You are supposed to work with the rest of the instruments of government power, not just military, but diplomatic, information and economic, the State Department, the USAID organization that does International Aid, non-governmental agencies etc, to craft your strategy to identify your strategic objectives and your operational links to accomplish that. Then you actually focus on the tactical elements that will link your operations to your strategy. Matt was a brand-new Lieutenant Colonel when he went on this course that was to prepare him to go off to a joint staff where you were actually planning these engagements. To become a General you have to achieve a Joint Qualification, which requires you to attend this course and have a certain amount of experience in joint staff assignments.

They had brought in guest speakers from the State Department and other organizations and they sat around and thought about this stuff. It was a good course. You were with a group of your peers, you were sharing your experiences from your careers and you were having good conversations about it, doing research and writing papers. In the graduation exercise at the end they planned a campaign and they immediately forgot all of the other elements of DIME besides the military and figured out how to blow up everything they could find and then have this computer-rated table-top exercise whereby they were graded on how much stuff they blew up.

Briefing with General Stanley McChrystal, operational analysis? (OVTH)

There is an arm of the joint staff that does operational analysis, the Joint Center for Operational Analysis (JCOA). They are tasked by different combatant commanders to do studies and to analyse different operations and then come back and tell the Generals what is working, what is not working, and what they need to fix. In the 2007 timeframe when General Petraeus was taking over, switching the approach in Iraq, he wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t working.

Stanley McChrystal was the Special Operations commander in Iraq and he was busy trying to hunt down Al-Qaeda. Matt was on the team of experts that was supposed to go out and find all this information. They were sent to General McChrystal’s headquarter at Balad airbase to find out what was going on there and what was working. General McChrystal was a 2-star General and he and his staff were telling them everything they were doing.

He started the briefing with what they call a squeeze-play slide, outlining the different groups in Iraq. In the center of this slide was a circle labeled ”population”, the ordinary people in Iraq that they had to win over. It was intended to represent a group of folks who were already supportive of an Iraqi central government and the American efforts to bolster that central government. That was the strategy of their operations.

Around the internal group there was a layer called the Fence Sitters, which are ordinary citizens of Iraq who are not necessarily supportive of the Iraqi government, but also not necessarily supportive of the insurgency either. They were the ones they had to win over. The outer layer were the hard-core insurgents who were supporting Al-Qaeda or the Shia militias. They were the ones who were planting IDs and trying to blow things up and they were the military thread.

General McChrystal explained that if we went after that outer layer and removed them as a source of chaos in the country, the middle group would naturally gravitate to the center and that was what they were trying to do. He spent the next hour explaining the tactics they were using to hunt down the bad guys in great detail.

John would have put the bad guys at the center and the larger population out because the outer rim has the potential to be infinitely large and the center is the small group of people you are trying to target. Where did this idea come from? Did it have any supporting evidence in the larger community of political scientists? Or was this just something they came up with that sounded good? Probably more of the latter!

The US has a long history of attempting to wage moral war, going all the way back to Billy Mitchell. Actually defeating a military enemy is hard and especially in the early days of air power, flying around in fabric-winged biplanes, trying to hit something on the ground was super-hard. Billy Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, all these air power strategists came up with the idea that maybe you didn’t have to do that and just go and bomb cities.

By doing so you would make the population so unhappy that they would force their government to surrender. They spent a lot of time and energy in World War II trying to prove that and killed millions of people in Germany and Japan, burning cities to the ground, trying to demonstrate the principal of moral defeat of the enemy with pretty mixed results.

Matt’s guess is that it was really a way to provide a rationale for what they really wanted to do, which was hunt down these bad guys or just shoot their guns. Matt doesn’t want to be too cavalier about this, he has great respect and admiration for General McChrystal, he is one of the pioneers of Special Operations and the folks who worked for him were serious and dedicated professionals. As they were doing this they were also thinking very hard how to avoid civilian casualties and not blowing up the whole country as they conducted these operations, but they did want to use a military solution to solve this political problem.

Matt sat through this briefing and took notes. At the beginning of the briefing General McChrystal had said that he was here to answer the tough questions and they should not be afraid to just ask him whatever they got and he would tell it to them like it is. Matt took him at his word and at the end he stood up and asked ”General, this is a very interesting briefing about your tactics, but I’m very interested in this initial squeeze-play slide that you showed. I am wondering if you have done any operational analysis to determine if that approach is working. Are we getting any closer to achieving that strategic objective?” At the time the Special Operations task force was part of the coalition corps of Iraq, called the Multinational Corps of Iraq (MNCI). He paused for second and then he said ”We leave operational analysis up to the guys at the corps level and you should ask them that question”, so Matt made a note of that.

About a week later Matt was in Baghdad, speaking to the corps intel officer, another 2-star General who was giving a briefing about the military intelligence operations in Iraq and how they were using all of their intelligence and reconnaissance assets to wage the campaign. At the end of the briefing, Matt asked him the same question ”Are your operations advancing us to our strategic goals and what is the criteria you are using to evaluate that?” He also paused for a second and said ”We leave that question to the task force!” It turned out it was no-ones job to determine if any of this was making any difference.

McChrystal is the Army. He is out there shooting guns and he shouldn’t be expected to have a big picture of the operation because they are the ones being ordered into battle by people higher up the chain. Generals are supposed to operate at the strategic level, that is why you have Generals. A Captain is not going to know the answer to that question because his business is to get his guys on the line to shoot at the right things, but a 2-star General ought to be able to answer those questions.

As you go further up the chain you will in theory arrive at a place where you are under civilian command. The Army / Navy / Air Force / Marines should be diplomatic and aware of diplomacy within their own operations, but they can’t be the ultimate deciders of the larger picture of pacifying a nation and rebuilding a government. They are not supposed be the ones who identify what these strategic objectives are, but they are supposed to be figuring out how to achieve them.

Military force as the primary tool in the tool chest (OVTH)

John’s experience as a civilian who is observing the global ambitions of the United States, to the layperson the US military often seems like an overwhelmingly large operation. He wants to think in the parlance of the Kennedy administration: "Our best minds are on the case! Relax, fellow citizens, because we have a plan!” It is certainly the general sense among Americans that the military knows what it is doing, that they have Generals who are really smart, and they spend a lot of money sending mid-level and senior officers to different schools to figure that stuff out. They leave it to the military and primarily their actual job is to fight.

The major advantage of the US military is logistical. They are capable of delivering not just their soldiers, but all of the fresh water, the Hershey bars, and the decaffeinated coffee to their troops to continue to sustain them with their enormous military air lift command, submarines and aircraft carriers so they can fight sustained wars around the globe. It is their primary strength in addition to their great, big weapons, and a lot of the brass succeeded within the military because they were really good in moving stuff around. About 90% of the military is support and logistics and only 1 in 10 folks in uniforms actually aim a weapon and pull a trigger.

Now we are asking this organization, certainly the higher-ranking people, to also be participating in a global diplomatic perspective which would effectively make their primary job both less exciting and also obsolete. Every single diplomatic solution means that you don’t get to use any Bradley Fighting Vehicles. When your job is to move things around the world, then you have a very clear way to measure your success. Whether or not you are turning the tide of the civilian population in a country is very hard to measure and people tend to get distracted with the things where they can demonstrate success.

It seems like a no-brainer that if you go through all this trouble and great expense to move a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or a Striker Task Force to a place that you are going to want to use it. You don’t move it all there and set it up and set up the communications and give everybody a Hershey bar and then say ”Stand down, men, while this Lieutenant Colonel who has been to a diplomatic college course is going to go in here and talk to these people and resolve this problem!”, particularly if that is the background where you came from.

Matt has seen military commanders at the joint level who we have spent a lot of time and energy trying to train to be joint leaders, but because they grew up as fighter pilots or as artillery officers or whatever their technical background is, it is the first tool in their tool chest they want to reach for.


Setting priorities higher up in the chain (OVTH)

Matt has spent thousands of hours piloting predator drones over combat zones, both in an observer role but also armed drones in a combat role. He was given a picture of what he was doing, he had a certain scope and he was not really asked to be performing that job conscious of a larger scope. It would even cause you trouble if you started asking a lot of questions about the priorities. Matt was supporting intelligence objectives in Iraq and many times there would be some guys on the ground being shot at nearby. They were under attack and were calling for help, but Matt was not allowed to shift his mission from the intelligence objective to help these guys.

He was carrying Hellfire missiles and if he could find who was shooting at these guys he could have taken them out and he could maybe have saved these guys. There were many times when Matt was not allowed to do that because somebody somewhere had made a priority decision and the intelligence objective Matt was prosecuting was more important. Matt did it a couple of times anyway and got into some trouble for it.

John touring Air Force bases (OVTH)

John had a very interesting experience in Africa where Matt took him around. He was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time and introduced John to a handful Lieutenant Colonels in addition to meeting a lot of Navy Master Chiefs and top-NCOs (non-commissioned officer). They had interesting conversations around the campfire, sitting around their musty smelling tents, where Matt an his peers were speaking candidly about their jobs and the limitations on those jobs.

John toured bases in East Africa and one of them in particular seemed to literally have been carved out of the jungle at the corner of an underused local airport. By looking at the position of this base they were trying to imagine its strategic significance, but the Lieutenant Colonel of that base was very vague and answered John’s questions by saying: Look at where we are on a map, at what is adjacent to us and at the circle you could fly!

The MK-9 drone can fly out for 12 hours and back for 12 hours, which encompasses an awful lot of East Africa and the Arabian peninsula, including Somalia and Sudan. There was a lot happening in those places!John did everything he could to get that information and everybody had that same Cheshire grin that these guys give one another. John assumes that if he was in the Air Force he would know what the hell they were smiling about.

Meeting admirals as King Neptune (OVTH)

Earlier this year John was appointed to a ceremonial post in Seattle called King Neptune. He presided as King Neptune over Seattle’s fleet week, this somewhat comedic local personality, and he was invited to all of the fleet week events in an ostensibly VIP capacity. At most of these events there were local dignitaries, the city council, business people, boosters of the Navy and the military in general, and here was John who had been given this pride of place.

John exploited that and it put him in very close proximity to flag officers. During those three weeks John met a dozen Navy Admirals and Air Force Generals, including 3-star Admiral Nora Tyson and her boss, the 4-star Admiral who was in charge of the Pacific Ocean. He met the Admiral who ran the Nuclear Missile submarine base at Bangor (Naval Base Kitsap), and over at Bremerton it seems like there are dormitories just full of Admirals.

During fleet week they were somewhat at their leisure because these are events where they are being celebrated with cocktails and hotdogs on tooth picks and they were able to be casual. John struck up a friendship with several of these people that felt like a general friendship. Every time Nora Tyson saw him she called out and brought him up on stage with her. She had her arm around him in a very congenial way and they were on a first name basis. Getting to know them and talking to them John had the very same experience he had with Matt and the office corps he met in Africa: John is almost 50 years old and on the Lieutenant Colonel level everybody was a couple of years younger than John.

This means that John is about the age of a full-bird Colonel. The Generals and Admirals were only a few years older than John and into their 60s. Culturally they shared a lot and these guys all watched Scooby Doo when they were kids, just like John did. They are all Americans at more or less about the same age.

John's lifelong awe for military people, particularly with a star on the collar, evaporated when realizing that these were just regular Joes, but not only that: In order to become an Admiral you have to be a little bit of a dope. They are pretty square, they are all happily married and their sense of humor tends to be a little bit fratty. They are fun people within the context of being fairly square and their idea of a good time is a backyard barbecue.

They made not very dangerously ribald jokes about one another. In most cases you could tell that if the admiral was a man his wife was running the show. John met all their wives and they were pretty powerful ladies. They would be largely helpless without their wives and their staff and given his experience in Africa with Matt, John’s takeaway in each of these instances was that he didn't want this person to make global political decisions because they were just a dingeling from the University of Maryland.

It was a rare occasion for Matt to meet a Colonel or a General of whom he thought ”Holy Toledo! I totally get why you are an Admiral! This guy is brilliant! He has read all the books! He thought deeply about this stuff! He has charisma! He knows how to lead!” It was almost always a ”he”, but there were some very senior women who met this description and we are getting more of them. Those individuals are very rare! Especially as Matt became Lieutenant Colonel and was thinking about how he would make rank, he was meeting all the Colonels and Generals and often he would have to say ”This is the guy we have chosen to do this? Okay, I guess?”

John finds Matt to have a very wide-ranging scope within the military context. He is obviously very intelligent and self-educated in addition to being actually educated. That was true of a lot of the characters he met at Seafair too, but John would see Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels come up to these Admirals and although there was a friendly, convivial relationship there was also a lot of saluting and standing uncomfortably. They were not sure exactly how much standing-at-attention were supposed to be doing. They were in that state of ”I’m not at attention, but I am also standing next to a 3-star admiral, so I am more at attention than I would normally be” At any time this guy could turn around to them and ask a question and they would have to know something or do something.

Admirals are Regular People, too (OVTH)

John was standing there with his sash and with several medals that he had bought at thrift stores, and the Admiral would turn to John and say ”Oh boy, my wife told me to get more hot dogs”, a Yakov Smirnoff level of ”My wife” jokes, because John could be their peer. These admirals typically don’t have a lot of peers who aren’t other admirals, they don’t get out into town really. Whenever they actually get to talk to somebody, a lot of them find out that it is fun. John struck some pretty unusually close friendships.

A 4-star Admiral was leaning in at a cocktail party, saying ”You know, I’m an introvert, and it is very difficult for me to be a 4-star Admiral and also be an introvert. These parties really take away from me!” and John said ”You know Admiral, I am also an introvert, but I get up on stage just like you and do these things for a few hours, but then I have to go back and take a bath” - ”I take a bath, too!” He is a 4-star Admiral who has a circle of 1-stars around him who don’t know whether to be at attention or not and he is like ”Leave me alone! I’m talking about being an introvert with this weird guy with these medals that he made himself!” He was desperate for a little bit of male friendship, even just briefly.

It all solidified to John that from the civilian perspective we look at these people and the jobs they accomplish as somewhat superhuman. They do have the ability to order people to their deaths and you know that they don’t want to send soldiers to their death and that this hurts them to do, but at the same time it is the number one thing in their job description. It is the tremendous power that we imbue them with and they think about it all the time and it is the thing that keeps them up at night. But they are just Regular people with a capital ”R”.

John asked a lot of penetrating questions about where they felt that their purview ended. Particularly the commander of a base with multiple nuclear Trident submarines was very excited to talk about questions like ”How long can your submarine stay under water?” John knew that he got a submarine that can send Seals in a little mini-submarine out a bottom hatch and he was like ”Hihihi! I can’t talk about that!” He was loving it!

But as soon as John started to ask things like ”At what level are you able to make independent decisions about your submarines and how they project American power?”, then those little hot dogs on the toothpicks sort of wilt and it got tricky, but not because they couldn't talk about it, but because they didn't know. Most Americans think that it is more than it is, but for those individuals it is probably more than they are comfortable with.

Civilian oversight over the military (OVTH)

John’s question to Matt is: What is the missing layer of accountability and civilian authority? What would it do and how would we accomplish creating and empowering that layer? The US government does not lack for layers and there has to be a layer capable of a larger geopolitical understanding, exerting civilian authority over this Gordon or Cthulhu of our unleashed American military power. What is that and why do they not actually have the authority that they ought to have?

According to the US Military doctrine documents, the joint publications, that enterprise would be the State Department, the National Security Council, and the National Security Agency. The way that influence is supposed to express itself in each country is the teaming together of the military, the embassy, USAID, non-governmental agencies and all of these other players that are supposed to be part of this team. They are supposed to work together in a very formal process that is outlined in these thousands of pages to carry out this national security strategy.

They send their officers to fancy schools and give them staff assignments, they certainly don’t lack exposure to those elements of governments, but they still don’t do it, and who is to say why? America is drawn to the military aspect of expressing national power and we spend all of our money on it. Even though it is not the thing that mostly defines our interactions with the world, it is the first thing we think of and the thing we first turn to whenever we have real problems.

When John was in Niger, Matt took them to the American embassy and to the ambassador’s residence to meet the American ambassador to Niger and to perform at the embassy. She was very gracious and had invited hundreds of people: all the embassy staff as well as all the key individuals from the Nigerian government and tribal leaders. It was a big party and John was presented with ceremonial gifts and local handicrafts. John’s favorite was a thing to set hot pots down in your kitchen, made out of bottle caps from local beer and pop brands. John still has it!

This paperwork suggests a coordinated effort, but would that American ambassador have authority over the American military in the territory of the country where she was the chief American representative? With a couple of very specific exceptions: No way, absolutely not! The embassy is a space that American has located in a foreign capital, saying ”Here is the square acre of the United States of America that we are installing in your nation to represent our government, but over here on this neighboring Air Force base there are a dozens of square acres bristling with weapons. The ambassador has not only no authority, but has no role in the expression of that power within the country where she presides”

Matt wouldn’t go that far. There is a military staff in every embassy called the defense attaché. That person is usually a Lieutenant Colonel in a small country, a Colonel in a larger country, in a key ally like Germany or England it is going to be a multi-star General. The job of the defense attaché is to liaise between the embassy, the ambassador, and all the elements of the military in the country, typically starting at the top, working its way down. Matt got to know the defense attaché in Niger quite well and they worked together on a lot of things that had to do with security concerns, like how they would protect the embassy staff if they had problems, intelligence sharing, and things like that.

In theory the ambassador or the defense attaché can go to the very top of the combat & command structure and if the ambassador to Niger had a real issue that she didn’t think she could handle at the local level, there was nothing stopping her from picking up the phone and calling the 4-star AFRICOM commander, whose headquarters is in Germany, and saying ”Hey General, I need this thing! What are you doing?”

Whatever her concern was it would be taken very seriously and result in that 4-star General or one his delegates coming down to the country and sorting things out. Under normal operations the defense attaché and their staff works with the key military leaders in the country to continue to work on whatever the US team’s approach is supposed to be in that country, but it is not a direct line of influence. The ambassador cannot order anybody in the US military to do anything. All they can do is ask nicely.

That exchange does not flow the other direction. The 4-star General of AFRICOM is not looking at the situation where Al-Qaeda and Boka Haram are intruding into Niger and call the ambassador to ask ”What do you know about these areas? How do we go into this? Give me your local expertise!” Conversations like this would happen from time to time, but typically they happen on a lower level when the staffs are talking to each other. That is how it is effectively, but written in to the ideal situation we obviously don’t want politically appointed ambassadors of countries having authority to order the US military around, running the country like a little fiefdom, but there doesn’t seem to be any accountability.

As an egghead himself, John often mistakenly believes that all eggheads are noble and that all these people at American Universities who spent all their time studying the culture of a place and understand how difficult it is, primarily how difficult it is to nation-build, would look at a situation in Iraq and say ”Well, on the Arabian peninsula there is not a really long tradition of Democracy, let’s say: None!”

There are cultural obstacles to establishing democratic government in a place where there is no cultural history of democratic government, there doesn’t appear to be any advantage to democratic government to them, and the corruption that we think of as endemic corruption does in a lot of cases not even qualify as corruption because where corruption trends into just the culture of authority is a real blended line. You would have to know an awful lot about each one of these countries to really understand that.

From a global UN perspective there are people who are able to say, just as Matt was describing at the end of Vietnam, that counter-insurgency does work, but it is really hard, so we don’t like it and we are going to ignore it. Those people say that if you will come here, you will be better prepared to do all of these things, you will better understand exactly what it is going to cost, it is going to be a lot and if you are not ready to bear that cost, you should really re-think your strategy.

Those are not the people who are planning these operations. We are caught in a vicious cycle of repeatedly pursuing a course we know doesn't work because it is easier than the thing we suspect would work. John can't divorce himself from thinking that it is both easier and more fun! It is certainly more profitable and it is way more cowboy to send the Super-Cobras in than to send somebody in a seersucker suit and three people with clipboards in, let alone somebody who speaks the local language.

Matt wouldn’t describe any of those military operations as cowboy. He certainly didn’t feel that way when he was employing deadly force from the air in Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t find it to be fun either. To a certain extend it was satisfying, especially if you are covering a convoy and the convoy is taking fire, the guys on the ground are getting shot up and you are able to help and get them out of that situation, that is super-satisfying.

(John adds:) … by firing Hellfire missiles and watching a whole section of the dessert turn into fire for a moment, killing multiple individuals who are shooting at your guys. We shouldn’t be euphemistic about this! The larger point is that the people who are making these decisions and planning these operations have a background and experience which informs them as to what they think will work and what won’t work. The things they think will work are the things they spent their whole adult lives training to do.

The war in the Middle East (OVTH)

It isn’t effective, except in creating what we have now, the longest war in American history, with not only no end in sight, but no plan to end it, no idea what the ending of it would look like, and no understanding of what they would have to achieve in oder for them not to have to do that stuff anymore. Early on in the war it seemed like the conventional wisdom was that the end of the war would look like the elimination of dictatorship in the Middle East, the establishment of peaceful democracy and the economic development of those countries.

They were supposed to become flourishing garden states and there would be a global new world order where love of American-style democracy and trickle-down economics created a century of prosperity that everyone called the American century. These nations which had been laboring under these oppressive dictatorships would be liberated and flourish in the arts. It was a notion that motivated neoconservatism, but now that seems to be 100% gone from the conversation that has turned entirely to eliminating the bad guys.

Back in the monkey brain of our national idea of this global intervention is the idea that if we can eliminate the bad guys all of this garden flourishing can take place, but until we eliminate these 10.000 guys driving around in Toyota Hilux pickups, this massive Gaia bomb of culture that we intend to drop on these poor countries has to take a back seat. Right now we have to eliminate this overwhelming threat and none of this other stuff can happen, so much so that we have forgotten about it and don’t talk about it.

Matt says that at a certain level the people in the US military understand that this is hogwash. The president of the United States is not the one deciding to build a large aircraft base in Northern Niger or any other base that they are spending millions of dollars on, building runways, installing sewer lines and communications lines in order to establish a capacity to conduct military operations. These are not temporary structures! Although people are mostly sleeping in tents they are building these things to last. At the middle level of leadership the US military understands that we are not going anywhere and as long as we are not going anywhere we need to be able to do these things and make it possible to do these things and have showers and Internet and food that is not going to make them sick.

At the political level and in the wider population there is the anticipation that we are going to win somehow and be done with this stuff. John adds that we are going to win over an entire population’s religions, we are going to defeat the tenants of their religion, and we are going to replace their 1000-year old culture with our infinitely superior culture and presumably in many cases infinitely superior religion. If we can just get rid of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, the Shiit militias and whoever else, then they will like us and want to be like us and everything is going to be great.

Neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, everybody who went to Penn State and who is driving this, recognizes that, just like within Christianity, within Islam the vast majority of people are moderate. They sit down to dinner with their families and everybody tells jokes about the uncle that wasn’t able to make it to dinner, they are just regular people and their religion is no threat to us because it is practiced one day a week. Maybe everybody prays before they go to bed, but it isn’t fanatical.

The neo-liberal idea is that we can create these garden-economies where each one of these families has a new television set, but the fact that they are Muslims is really no different. The fundamentalism is more of a threat to the potential that these local communities would develop a suburban American culture. ISIS is more of a threat to them than it is to America, and that is our justification for intervening. There is no recognition that young people joining Al-Qaeda are propelled into these organizations for reasons that are incomprehensible to us and certainly not under our influence.

Drone warfare (OVTH)

In John and Matt’s initial exchange John was talking about drone warfare on his podcast and Matt was speaking as someone who spent thousands of hours flying over countries engaged in war, saying that John’s idea was wrong. John was saying that as we increased our warfighting technology, one of the main motivations of the military is to limit American casualties while continuing to project power and increase our ability to wage war overseas whilst simultaneously eliminating the spilling of American blood.

Formerly war had a tremendous cost in both blood and treasure, which was an inhibiting factor. Public opinion could turn against you and was another pressure on the military and the civilian leadership to limit those conflicts. But this technology now has converted war into something that requires very little blood and just requires more and more treasure. Matt adds that a very commonly held view is that drone technology in particular makes war so easy that our leaders will not hesitate to engage in it.

John says that American civilian population no longer has a clear picture of what is happening, but they are just imagining these drones flying over the Afghan kush eliminating bad guys. Every once in a while a Hellfire missile hits a wedding party or maybe not, maybe they are lying, but either way they are very remote from the blood. Matt took issue with that and he still does, but to an extend.

Reducing the risk to US troops is not the primary reason they use this technology although it is a very significant consideration. In addition this technology brings global distribution of video and data from the airplanes to various intelligence centers, headquarters and command centers so that they could understand what is going on and make better decisions.

Senior leaders are now watching these combat operations in real time, seeing exactly what is going on and what the result of their decision was. We are all familiar with the famous photo of Obama and the rest of the cabinet and key national security staff during the Bin Laden operation. Two key things on that is the dour look on Obama’s face and the sight of Hilary Clinton holding her mouth gasping shocked at what she is seeing.

Matt’s guess is that they were looking at multiple video feeds during that operation, some of them body cams of SEAL guys going in, and some sort of full motion video feed from some type of aircraft overhead that was also monitoring it. You are seeing muzzle flashes and explosions in addition to the thermal images of people moving around.

John says that there is a major difference between watching that happens from infrared cameras from an orbiting Predator and actually watching body cams of guys going up the stairs. Matt thinks they were watching that operation in real-time, the president of the United States and the Secretary of State, seeing probably half a dozen different video feeds.

Matt’s experience flying unmanned aircraft is not that it removes him from that action, but that it brought him a lot closer to it. Even if the thing you are looking at is a grey infrared image of some kids playing in a courtyard, some woman hanging out the laundry or some insurgent fighters moving around, your human instinct instantly identifies with that, you instantly have an emotional connection to the thing that you are watching and you immediately understand what the impact of what you are doing is.

If you watch it for a long time you get emotionally invested in these people. When you watch a movie you see fictional characters on a screen and yet we have these deep emotional relationships with them. If the hypothesis that drone warfare leads to more war was true, we would be seeing more war or more avert war or something like that, but Obama was trying to get out of Iraq and everybody wants to reduce America’s role in the world. Special Operations allows them to maintain strict secrecy about these operations and when it comes out we are all horrified and wonder what the hell we are doing there.

On one hand there does seem to be a desire to limit the scope of the American involvement and to back out, but there also seems to be never-ending engagement and constant strange additional proliferation. It was shocking to John that we had tent bases in Africa 3-4 years ago and now we are building concrete bases. The Navy base in Djibouti is extraordinary! Talk about guys with beards walking around! There were also fighter pilots and Japanese Air Force there, John didn’t even realize that there was a Japanese Air Force, let alone that it was in Africa!

Matt says that after 9/11 all this stuff was still in its infancy. Launching a major operation in Afghanistan and Iraq required a huge operation and at one point they had 200.000 Americans in Iraq and 150.000 Americans in Afghanistan and thousands of casualties and billions of dollars spent on a daily basis. They were horrified and went from that to 4000 Americans on the whole continent of Africa, 8000 Americans in Afghanistan, 5000-6000 in Iraq, all spread out among small outposts forever. Matt attributes some of that to the immediacy of war drone surveillance has given the upper brass. They are very reluctant to launch large military operations now and they are using these tools to conduct the smallest operation that they can to still be working towards their strategy.

Developing relationships with the troops on the ground (OVTH)

When Matt was flying these missions on a daily basis in a war zone, was he being tactically applied by commanders on the ground? Would a Captain call him up and say ”We need fire support” and have the ability to laser-point him to a target, or was he always being strategically employed by someone in a trailer in Nevada? It was almost always the former. He was going to support the Special Operations, in which case ”Go to this location and check in with this forward air controller who is sitting in a trailer not in Nevada but in Iraq somewhere, and point your camera where this person says and do whatever this person says!” This person is probably a staff sergeant, a mid-level NCO.

Sometimes it was ”Go where this convoy is moving and protect them!” and you check in with the convoy commander who is a Captain or lower and provide them direct support. The Majors and Lieutenant Colonels back at the headquarters were deciding which airplanes were supporting which ground teams, but to actually carry out the mission you would check in with those guys, talk to them on the radio and support them directly.

Over the course of months and years Matt absolutely developed familiarity with individual soldiers and commanders. He developed relationship with them over the radio as he was working these operations, but he never got to know who they were personally, what their names were and where they lived or anything about them beyond what they were doing. He knew them by their call sign and their location and what units they were attached to. He could use a chat system like Instant Messaging and he spent hours with them every day. Matt was effectively texting with a soldier on the ground, but via a chat system, not on his phone, but he got a laptop with the video stream from the aircraft and he got a little chat window opened up and they were chatting each other back and forth because that is a quicker and easier means of communication than talking on the radio.

He was like ”Red Leader! This is Bravo Six!” and Matt recognized Bravo Six and was like ”Hey, what’s up, Bravo Six!” They were like World of Warcraft players who meet up in a chat room every day. It was certainly no game. This is called habitual association and they would work for the same unit every day and talk to the same individuals. Matt was in a position where he was actually looking at them through a camera and if it was quiet in the middle of nowhere with no background noise they could probably hear the airplane and catch a glimpse of it if it reflected off the sunlight, but it is at 20.000 feet (6000 m), so they almost never see the airplane.

Matt could look at the infrared signature of a man on the ground and recognize individual people that he saw all the time by their body English. He could definitely tell the difference between US troops and everybody else. In Infrared somebody wearing body armor and carrying a lot of gear looks different, they have a different heat signature, they move differently, and you could very easily tell that. You would recognize the lead vehicle in convoy where your guy was and from time to time you would actually see the person you were talking to.

John finds that extraordinary! It is a different level of engagement from flying an A4 over the jungle and hearing a guy go ”Red Leader! This is Bravo Six! Put Napalm down on the tree line!” and you come in and lay it down and hope it worked. Then Bravo Six goes ”Thanks, Red Leader!” In the old days in Vietnam those B52s were just dropping 55 dumb bombs from 35.000 feet (10500 m) and hoped they landed in the right zip code.

Outro (OVTH)

They have come a little far afield from talking about what they actually saw and heard in Niger and maybe they can come back to that. Hopefully the situation doesn’t escalate into a full-blown conflict, but it almost certainly will. If an American General hears that a bunch of his guys just got killed, his response is not ”I need to get my guys out of there!”, but ”I need to get more guys in there and get control of this situation!” Right… Right…

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