Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can the F-35B Turn Inside its Critics?

As Defense budget debate mounts, look for the Marine Corps' F-35B short-takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to be the wounded duck taken out first.  A leader in The Economist, "Coming Up Short: The Future of the Joint Strike Fighter,"  recommends axing the STOVL variant:  "It has been the main cause of the technical and weight problems that have bedevilled the program.  Having been put on two-year 'probation' by Mr. Gates in January, this version should be put out of its misery."  This spells big trouble for the Marine Corps' vision for itself.  As I will discuss shortly, it need not be a tragedy for the Corps.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Sun Goes Down on Another Home

The boxes are packed and the truck comes tomorrow.  The sun goes down on our home in San Diego for the last time.  Tomorrow, all the things that made it our home will be gone in a truck and the place becomes just a house once again.  The regularity of moves in the military is a blessing and a penance in one as no good deal goes unpunished in this lash-up.

San Diego is particularly hard to leave.  The rolling, rocky hills, the moderate coastal weather, the foliage that alternates between the soft corduroy brown bleached under the summer sun and the lush green of the winter rains all remind me of the Mediterranean.  As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said, "Unfortunately, it was paradise."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday - La Maestranza

Photos linked from

The golden evening light spilling over the top of the ring and scattering across the golden dirt of the ring.  The taunts, the crowd, the trumpets, the bells on the horses.  Then it is all over, and the tightness pent up in the ring bursts slow motion out of the opened doors.  The cars, life going on down the wide boulevard stir the air as you move out, drawn to gaze toward the river and down the tree-lined street.  You drink in the open air, turn left, then are sucked back down the narrow streets, toward the heart of the city.  You walk toward the promise of the night and the hope of the heartfelt flamenco of true gitans.  At the end of the lane, before you disappear from the sight of the open boulevard and the river and the cleanness that comes with it, you stop.  Cinco Jotas is in front of you, warm and inviting, but after seeing the machismo of the corrida, you turn to the right and enter the clean, spartan bar with the open doors and the zinc counter tops and order a caña .  The Cruzcampo so cold that it leaves a metallic hint of the tap.  The men in the bar nod, maybe one smiles, and they do what has been done for years beyond memory.  You look at the pictures covering the wall of the drama that has passed across the street.  Maybe one more as the cloak of night begins to fall.  You nod your goodnight to the bartender, step out, and stop on the busy corner.  You look left once more, past the ring, across the open boulevard, and to the river where the last red light of sunset is chased away by the arc lights.  Then you swiftly pivot right, moving with purpose down the narrow alleys into the night ahead.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Education and Employment - The Gulf Challenge

Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Ghosaibi serves burgers at a Jeddah Fuddruckers to encourage Saudi employment.

As the Gulf kingdoms face down increasing, but still low levels of discontent related to the “Arab Spring,” they are scrambling both to pay off their citizens and to find them decent jobs.  Higher education in the Gulf has been insufficient, as many nationals do not require college education for the public sector jobs they covet.  For those who do attend college, their job skills often do not match employers’ needs.  For example, although a great deal of technical projects are being started in the Gulf, the proportion of science and engineering graduates there lags behind even other Middle Eastern states.[1]  In Saudi Arabia, 82 percent of nationals in the private sector are high school graduates or less.  Forty-six percent have a middle school education or less.  Only 0.76 of the private sector work force (5,774 nationals) holds a masters degree or higher, despite the fact that 19,000 expatriates with such education are currently working in the Kingdom.[2]

Rulers across the Gulf have recently set about improving their educational systems.  Qatar, which had one of the weakest primary and secondary systems in the world, commissioned a RAND study and adopted the experts’ recommendations for overhauling the system in full.  Using the country’s prodigious wealth, the Emir has attracted six top American universities to the new Education City on the outskirts of Doha, moving faculty and staff from the U.S. to ensure the educational experience lives up to the branding.  The Emirates and Saudi Arabia have funded similar grand projects and all the Gulf states have turned toward improving their higher education in some form.[3]

Monday, July 4, 2011

Leo Africanus

When I lived abroad a few years back, a friend sent me Amin Maalouf's fantastic book "Leo Africanus."  I was looking up a citation in the book today for a quote I used in Chapter III of my forthcoming book and flipped to the book's concluding page.  The words there are the perfect closing of a story told by a father to a son.

"When men's minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart.  Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.  For my part, I have reached the end of my wanderings.  Forty years of adventures have made my gait heavy and my breathing burdensome.  I have no longer any desire other than to live long peaceful days in the bosom of my family.  And to be, of all those that I love, the first to depart.  Towards the final Place where no man is a stranger before the face of the Creator."

We Mutually Pledge to Each Other Our Lives

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

I spent a good portion of 2010 in Afghanistan, where I commanded the Marine Corps' detachment of KC-130s.  During my time there, 284 US servicemembers were killed in action, and 110 of their coalition allies.  Ninety-nine US Marines were killed, along with 4 Navy corpsmen, all of whom my detachment flew from the forward operating bases to a main base for their final flight back to America.

We would receive the call, often midday when the fighting was worst, that an "Angel Run," or later in the year a "Hero Run," was coming up.  We knew another Marine had been killed in action.  Some of these Marines were shot or hit by shrapnel from mortars or RPGs in direct combat with the elusive enemy.  More often, their bodies were torn apart quite literally by improvised explosive devices, IEDs.  These hidden, faceless killers were all over Helmand Province, maiming Marines by the handful.  The amazing advances in our body armor and the speed and quality of our medical care meant that double, even triple amputations, wounds that would have surely been fatal in earlier wars, were survivable in some cases.  I go to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego sometimes and am struck by the number of young Marines moving about the place on crutches, in wheelchairs, and with prosthetic legs.  In other cases, the trauma was just too great and we would get the call.  Helicopters flew their mangled bodies from the field to a forward operating base where they would be prepared for movement and placed in metal transfer cases.  This often took hours, so we often picked them up after night fell.

After a day of shuttling cargo and passengers around Helmand Province, the crew would be told what time the Hero Ceremony would go.  We would land at the FOB and shut down.  Other traffic was kept away.  An eerie silence fell over the night, the only time in 24/7 operations that the place was quiet.  We sat in the dark at the back of our empty airplane, waiting.  The loadmasters prepared the cargo compartment and hung a flag, illuminated only by flashlights.  In the dark, we would hear first footsteps in the gravel as Marines began to show up, then the brakes of an MRAP or HMMMWV ambulance.  We took our places at the end of the aircraft, then silently two ranks formed, one on each side of the ramp, stretching out into the night toward the hearse.

Once in place, the formation was called to attention.  The chaplain said a prayer for the departed, then the transfer case was carried between the ranks and into the waiting aircraft.  Once the transfer case had been gingerly placed in the aircraft, the formation was dismissed and Marines were welcomed to pay their last respects.  As aircrew, we stayed in place as these Marines came up in twos to have a last moment with the deceased.  In some cases, these mourners were senior leadership from the unit.  Other nights, it was the Marine's friends that had come in at the end of the patrol or operation.  It was heart-rending to hear their labored breathing in the night.  On occasion, visibly wounded Marines would be there, I imagined they were at the point of injury, perhaps wounded by the same blast.  I can only imagine their thoughts.  Lives changed forever.

As I stood there, I thought about the body, most likely mangled and certainly still warm in the transfer case.  Life left that body under the burning Afghan sun while parents, children, spouses, and friends slept half a world away in America.  They woke that day like they would any other.  Potentially, as this lifeless body was being loaded into the KC-130, they were receiving the dreaded knock, the uniformed silhouettes outside the window, the denial, the reality of lives forever changed.

As the last mourners crunched through the gravel and into the darkness, we brought the aircraft back to life, starting the power unit, bringing the lights back on in the night, closing the ramp and door, and clambering into our seats for the flight home.  Under a new callsign, we departed into the night and flew to the main base in near silence.  Upon arrival to our parking, my detachment would be waiting to repeat the ceremony as the transfer case was carried into a mortuary affairs truck for further processing before the final flight on a massive Air Force aircraft back to the US.

The journey takes all through the National Military Mortuary at Dover AFB, Delaware, then on to hometowns and final resting spots.  Some end up in local cemeteries and others in the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  I have friends in both.  The local cemeteries seem somehow more natural.  Arlington is a grand but haunted place, especially Section 60.  This is the section where the new war dead are buried.  If you have visited Arlington as a tourist, you will have come through the main gate and seen the crowds boarding trams to the historic sites.  Once through the main building, take a left instead and walk on in quiet.  Few are headed this way.  You will pass a parking lot where funeral processions marshall, then a few empty fields, as I remember.  Section 60 is down a few blocks this way, at the edge of the cemetery.  The plot looks across the river to the capital, where the decisions that planted these young men were made.  The ground is still soft and torn where these bodies were interred.  Trinkets and mementos adorn the few trees in the plot, sit on the headstones, or next to them.  The birthdates on the headstones mostly postdate all the other wars to which monuments have been erected in the cemetery and the surrounding city.  The dates of death still echo in the memory.  Casting your eyes about at the harvest, especially if you know some of them, your soul aches.

One night after one of my hero flights landed, I stepped in to help carry the transfer case.  The handle was surprisingly narrow and unadorned.  It transmitted the weight sharply into the palm of my hand as we lifted it into the waiting truck.  This is the weight a Nation should feel when it chooses courses of foreign policy.  This is the weight of the pledge made in our Declaration of Independence.  This anonymous weight, however, cannot compare to the crushing burden shouldered by the family and friends of the young departed heros of our military adventures.