Sunday, February 26, 2017


Two US Generals are in the news today for very different reasons, but they are both American warriors who we should know a lot more about. They fought in different wars decades apart, in wildly different methods. One took a legendary Cavalry unit into the jungles of Southeast Asia and fought the very first pitched battle of the Vietnam war, and proved that with the right air and artillery support the American grunts could take and hold any piece of ground they wanted, no matter the resistance. The other led an armored brigade in the largest tank battle since the Second World War - a battle so deep in the Iraqi desert that history remembers it only by it's map coordinates - the battle of 73 Easting.

HR McMaster

Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond "H. R." McMaster last week accepted President Donald Trumps appointment as National Security Adviser. McMaster is a well respected leader, thoughtful and intelligent, and has often shown a willingness to innovate that is quite unusual in the US Army.

In late February of 1991, he was a captain commanding E (Eagle) Troop of 2ACR (Second Armored Cavalry Regiment). McMaster had 120 soldiers, a dozen Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and nine M1A1 Abrams tanks under his direct command. The 2nd ACR rolled across the Saudi border late on the night of February 23d and struck out east across the Iraqi desert with McMaster's Eagle in the vanguard. The mission was to cut off the Iraqi retreat north from Kuwait and cover the Marines in Kuwait from the heavy Republican Guard armored forces known to be in Northern Iraq - particularly the feared Tawakalna Division and the Iraqi 50th Armored Brigade.

The next few days VII Corps raced across Iraq behind 2ACR Eagle, Iron, Killer and Ghost troops, facing light and mixed resistance from Saddam Hussein's terrified conscript troops scattered across the desert. The key was the Republican Guard armored divisions, and the American armor had to get there in time.

By the morning of the 26th, 3d Squadron was in contact with the Iraqi 50th Armored to the south, and command had ordered the 2nd ACR and the UK 1st Armored to pivot east to attack the Republican Guards tanks. By 9am a violent sandstorm kicked up, and while the vehicles could maneuver as ordered, they advanced slowly due to a complete lack of air support. By 3 o'clock the 3d Armored Division was in position with 2nd ACR at 50 Easting, and General Franks was frustrated, waiting for the 1st Infantry to get into position. He ordered 2nd ACR to attack out to 70 Easting, and the battle was joined.

McMaster was in the lead tank, with his other 8 Abrams spread out line abreast, with the mounted infantry in Bradleys just behind. By 3:45 they were in close combat with the well organized and professional  Tawakalna Division in prepared defensive positions. It was a knife fight in a phone booth, but the better trained, technologically superior forces under McMaster's viciously aggressive leadership shredded the defensive lines and charged through.

At 4:10 Eagle took fire from a small village, and swept through it destroying gun positions and killing or taking prisoner the dismounted Iraqi infantry. Ten minutes later McMaster led Eagle up and over a sharp ridge and came face to face with an Iraqi tank company on the reverse slope. He fired on the first T-72, destroying it, and his other tanks made short work of the other eight. From that position, he could see Iraqi tanks and defensive positions just 3 kilometers east. Despite having been ordered to limit his advance to 70 Easting, he charged to some high ground at 74 Easting and opened fire. These were by far the best Iraqi troops the men of Eagle had encountered. They held fast, and their tankers tried to maneuver and engage the American Abrams tanks in their T-72s. They were brave and professional, but they were surprised and at a tremendous technological disadvantage, and McMaster wasn't offering any quarter. Eagle destroyed 18 Iraqi tanks in the first minutes of the fight, and McMaster ordered two of his Bradley's north to regain contact with Captain Joe Sartiano's Ghost troop.

From there, the fight moved north from Eagle's position into a wadi with Ghost in overwatch. There followed several hours of fierce fighting as wave after wave of Republican Guards tried to retreat through the Wadi and encountered Ghost Troop's tanks and troops. The fighting along 74 Easting went on until about 10:30 the night of the 26th, when the 1st Infantry Division pushed through the line held by 2nd ACR and let the attack on Objective Norfolk.

HR McMaster was awarded the Silver Star for the battle, and he went on to serve on the CENTCOM staff as Deputy to General John Abizaid. When the US went to war in Iraq again, he took command of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment and was assigned the mission of securing the city of Tal Afar. His unconventional and innovative approach to that mission was noticed by many, particularly because of the favorable coverage in places like PBS Frontline, CBS 60 Minutes and a long-read article in The New Yorker.

In 2008 he was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to Doctrine and Training Command, and in 2012 he was given his second star and assigned command of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. In 2014 he was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Army Capabilities Integration Center under Training and Doctrine Command.

Of all Trump's cabinet picks, this may very well be the best one. It is telling that McMaster wasn't Trump's first choice, or even second. But he will serve as a strong, independent voice in the White House, and as a man who truly knows war, a soldier who has killed in battle, he will serve to temper a civilian leadership that seems all to ready to send our young men and women in harms way.

Hal Moore

On a sadder note, another Lieutenant General - this one the legendary Hal Moore - died a few weeks ago just three days before his 95th birthday. Moore had a long and distinguished
Army career, but he can never be separated from the Battle of Ia Drang in November of 1965. Before that, the US leadership had struggled to understand the kind of war - and the kind of enemy - they faced in Vietnam. This wasn't the kind of war they understood. They wanted to find a way to engage the enemy in large pitched battles where greater US firepower could annihilate them. The job fell to Lt. Colonel Moore's 7th Cavalry - the same unit led by GA Custer at the Little Big Horn, and recently redesignated 'Airmobile' - to create that kind of battle.

50 kilometers south of Pleiku in Gia Lai province is the Ia Drang valley. 'Ia' is Hmong for river, so it is the valley of the river Drang. Cambodia is only 15 km to the east, and even worse, sits in the shadow of the Chu Pong Massif, a huge mountain complex that at the time of the battle was the home of two regiments of North Vietnamese Army troops. On the morning of November 14th, 1965, 7th Cavalry Hueys began delivering troops of the 1st Battalion. By noon Moore had the 200 troopers of A and B Companies on the ground at LZ Xray. Earlier that morning the first troops on the ground had captured an NVA soldier who was more than happy to inform the that there were three Battalions of North Vietnamese regulars on the mountain above them. The Cavalry troopers set up a perimeter oriented east and south towards the mountain across a dry creek bed, with Moore's HQ detachment in the center of the LZ behind them. The first shots were fired about 12:15. Nobody knew it, but the next 46 hours would be hell unlike anything they had ever known.

For the next 2½ hours A and B Companies fought a desperate close range battle with hundreds of NVA soldiers at the creekbed while Moore desperately worked to get the rest of his Battalion on the LZ and in the fight. At 2:30, C Company was inserted, but many were killed and wounded just trying to get off the helicopter and behind some kind of cover. About that time, the NVA shifted their attack to the south. The newly arrived C Company troopers reinforced the southern perimeter to A Company's left and within minutes was trying to hold against an assault by 200 enemy troops. At this point Moore and his team began directing heavy, effective artillery from Plei Me and air support had begun to arrive. By 4 o'clock the NVA withdrew, leaving behind over a hundred dead.

By then, Moore's final company, D, was on the ground and in the fight. They reinforced A Company on the creek bed just as the NVA attacked again. The American troops had very effectively positioned their M-60 machine guns, and they managed to - just barely - keep the A Company line from being broken and the LZ overrun. By this time, the medevac choppers had refused to fly into LZ Xray to evacuate the wounded due to the intense volume of incoming fire - rifles, machine guns, mortars and rockets - so the crews of the assault choppers kept coming back, time after time, hauling in water and ammunition and hauling out wounded soldiers. Two Huey pilots would win the Medal of Honor that bloody day on LZ Xray.

As the afternoon wore on, Moore was able to reposition his troopers to provide a 360° perimeter and get his mortar teams set up behind A and B Companies to provide additional fire support. As it got dark, the Americans dug in and the NVA began to send small units to probe their lines. Colonel Moore ordered his machine guns to hold fire so as not to give away their positions, and the troopers fought off these attacks with rifles, grenades and mortars.

At 6:30 the next morning, just before sunrise, the NVA launched a heavy attack at C Company's left flank. They closed to within a few dozen meters of the Americans positions, their fire tearing through the LZ and causing casualties around the entire perimeter. C Company was able to hold, although they took a lot of casualties. An hour later they launced a second attack against the southern perimeter, and C Company began to waver. If they broke, the NVA would pour through the break in the line and overrun the entire Battalion. Moore immediately ordered his radioman to call a 'Broken Arrow'. This was a combat infantry commander's last, desperate option. If he's about to be overrun, a Broken Arrow was issued and EVERY American combat aircraft in the entire country was detached from it's mission and sent to the site of the battle.

At 8 o'clock the airstrikes began to arrive, but with the NVA forces just a few meters away, there was no margin of error. One American F-100 dropped napalm inside the LZ Xray perimeter, resulting in a number of friendly fire casualties. But the air support and an endless artillery barrage had turned the battle and the last moment. By 10am the NVA buglers sounded withdraw and the battle was over. Sporadic firefights continued, but by noon the exhausted 7th Cavalry troops were reinforced by soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, and the medevac flights were finally resumed.

The next morning, November 16th, LZ Xray was secured and the 7th Cavalry survivors extracted. Through it all, Colonel Hal Moore was a calm, professional leader. He was everywhere on Xray, keeping his troops in the fight, moving men and supplies, positioning weapons, and calling fire support. We know so much about this fight because through it all, from the very first lift into LZ Xray, noted journalist and writer Joe Galloway was at Col. Moore's side. In 1998, Galloway was awarded the Bronze Star with V (for valor) Device, the highest military award won by a civilian in the Vietnam war.

Hal Moore was the epitome of what a military commander should be. A polite Kentuckian, he cared for his men but he understood that he had to accomplish the mission. He carried the weight of all those young men he lost for the rest of his life, and he never broke faith with them. He was amongst the best of us, and he is missed.

** Pedantic note**

An 'Easting' (along with a 'Northing') is a Cartesian coordinate used to designate distances on an x/y basis. It's part of a mapping protocol called the Universal Transverse Mercator system (UTM). It is useful for designating locations that otherwise have little in the way of landmarks, particularly if you happen to actually BE in that trackless place. It gave the tankers in their fast moving vehicles a way to figure out where to go and where to stop that was more effective than latitude and longitude at that scale.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Kinds of Fake News

But hey, you can go ahead and read it if you want
Fake news. It first came up in the campaign as a term to describe the articles Eastern European trolls would post on social media. They were designed to look like regular online news outlets, but they had outrageous headlines and utterly false stories designed to accumulate clicks and go viral across the social media ecosystem. A large portion of the American electorate, having become accustomed to dishonest outlets like Fox, Drudge and Limbaugh, were more than happy to accept any story that reinforced the beliefs they already held. This time around, however, that process was accelerated and deepened by a large number of Bernie Sanders deadenders who were more than happy to click, share and forward anything they perceived as damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign - no matter how tendentious and nonsensical it might be.

Now you had these fake news stories being blasted around the internet by both the far-left and the far-right, and as a result no matter which faction you identified with, you could find people you wanted to trust telling you things you wanted to hear. It was clumsy, and often stupid, but over time it had an effect - not only convincing individuals but keeping various narratives alive in the more traditional media outlets due to endless, heavy daily interest.

Now, after the election, it's not a big factor anymore. Except that with the entrance of the term 'fake news' into the common vernacular, it has become synonymous with 'any news I don't want to believe'. The Trump administration in particular has embraced the concept. They've been questioning the reliability and credibility of major news outlets for months, so it's now easy for them to label stories they couldn't otherwise deny or avoid as 'fake news' and claim that it is actually THEY that have the credibility.

All this happened, and it was a problem. But we all know that if we WANT to, we can easily identify genuine fake news by using the available sources to confirm what we're being told. Of course, there are still a LOT of Americans who don't want to check the veracity of a story they like - they'd rather just believe it and forward it to all their friends,. But there's another kind of fake news - and it's a much bigger problem for the professional news media themselves.

We have a President and and administration that lies constantly, and glaringly. They don't obfuscate, they don't dissemble, they LIE. They make up facts to support any policy goal or ideological contention, whether they need to or not. They don't care about being fact-checked, they don't care about being directly called out on live television. They get their chosen narrative out there, and they know that there is a constituency that will believe it. They use this method to discredit institutions like voting and the courts. They use it to spread fear of crime and terrorism. They use it to constantly fluff the ego of our sociopath in chief.

Now it's true that political leaders have lied since time immemorial. But this time is truly different - it's so relentless, so unapologetic, so easily debunked that it can't be whitewashed or shrugged off. Now we have all our major media outlets routinely pointing out one blatant lie after another coming directly from the president and then repeated by his cabinet and communications staff. From millions of 'illegal' votes to the worst murder rate in 47 years, this is simultaneously embarrassing and toxic. And it raises an important question.

What should journalists and news outlets do? Should they allow these people to come on their air and look into the camera and lie repeatedly and outrageously to their audience? They haven't developed a methodology for pushing back on the lies - nothing works, they just keep repeating the lies and doubling down, claiming to have 'evidence' to support them. Evidence we never see. Or should they adopt some kind of 'three strikes and you're out' rule? Perhaps they should announce that anyone who comes on their shows and tells a cumulative total of three clear, easily established lies will not be invited back.

Or is there some other approach new outlets could take? Print journalism is easy - they can include the quotes and the fact checking in the story together. It's really the television and the radio where these lies get out into the wild and can never be truly called back. But in the Trump era, journalists and media outlets are going to have to figure this out. Because the rules have changed, and they can no longer do their jobs if they don't find a way to adapt.