Michael's Dispatches

All The King’s Horses (Some notes from a weekend of thought)


image025-1000Six Harriers destroyed, two badly damaged, two Marines killed, after enemy made it by all of our sensors and onto the flight line. (This image from neighboring Kandahar Airfield; the attack was in Helmand.)

In heavy vegetation, IED jammers are not useful because the enemy cannot see far enough to use command-detonated IEDs.  As in Vietnam, IEDs will mostly be victim-operated, and in many places, nearly impossible to search for with anything other than your eyes and tactical experience.

image027-1000High-hot conditions are a problem for UAVs and other aircraft in Afghanistan. These things can survive only in uncontested airspace, and will be of little help in jungle.

UAVs are useless in many circumstances with thick vegetation, and whereas we are blessed with mostly clear skies over Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, jungles are often covered with clouds.  Not that the clouds matter; the optics cannot see through vegetation.

As for helicopters, Kiowa Warriors and Apache gunships that provide so much cover in southern Afghanistan will be largely negated in jungles.  In the mountainous regions, they have little stamina.  They will not see the jungle floor under triple canopy or thick forests.  Our Vietnam veterans can fill in the blanks on this.  They already have in many of the books I have read.

In Afghanistan, we have worn out our less than 100 HH-60G helicopters used by Air Force “Pedro,” which at more than $40m per aircraft are strategic assets.  We wore them out while they took up slack from Army Dustoff MEDEVAC, aircraft that cost about 1/4th the cost of an HH-60G.  I have flown on missions with Pedro that amounted to little more than milk runs for patients who were in no danger, at bases that were secure.  This would be like the Post Office delivering mail using Ferraris.  The closer you look, the less sense it makes.

If the Post Office determined that it wants to raise stamp prices to $10 per letter, we would become suspicious of their spending wisdom because we know it can be done for less.  But when the military does it, we cow down to their omniscience and right to our last drop of gold, and we write the check.

We send the Dustoff helicopters on MEDEVAC missions, often requiring Apache escort, simply because we refuse to remove the Red Crosses and put machine guns on the Dustoff birds.  This causes MEDEVAC delays, and requires more fuel and helicopter support when we are perpetually short of helicopters in Afghanistan.  Fuel can cost literally hundreds of dollars per gallon.  At that price, how much does it cost to even start an Apache?

Our Army lies, claiming that it must wear the Red Crosses in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, when anyone who is tracking on the facts knows this is untrue, and in fact that we perpetually violate the GC in our method of use of the Red Cross.  We are as guilty as the enemy for using ambulances to deliver military resupply.  Don’t let anyone kid you on that.  We go nuts when the enemy uses ground ambulances to deliver supplies during combat, yet we do the same with helicopters.  If we simply remove the Red Crosses and add guns, all tactical, legal, and moral obligations would be met, and we would save lives and money.

image029-1000UAV at Kandahar Airfield

Under jungle canopy, the satellites are not entirely useless: they can help predict the weather, and help with communications.  But you still need a line-of-sight gap in jungle canopy, and it must align with a satellite or relay aircraft.


In jungles, tactical communications will be impaired.  Even during broad daylight, a company commander can have a hard time controlling his platoons, and platoon leaders struggle to control their squads.  The jungle can be so thick that just a short distance away, friendly forces will be invisible even in daylight.

Jungles abhor American gadget warfare, and strongly favor people who live there.

image033-1000UAVs cannot spot or laser-designate targets that are under jungle canopy

In the open spaces of Afghanistan, highly trained snipers with whiz-bang stuff can kill enemy a mile away.  Deep in the jungles, a far shot might be fifty meters.

Personal weapons: the lasers and gadgets stuck to rifle rails are deadweight with batteries.  They get caught in endless wait-a-minute vines.  It can be better to strip off the gadgetry, and to use iron sights, but many of our troops these days are no longer comfortable with iron sights.

In the jungle, many tactical firefights will be at close range, as they were in urban combat of Iraq, and as they were in Vietnam jungles.  It will often be hard to see targets even in broad daylight.  Gun gadgets offer serious advantages in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, but in jungle, surgical accuracy can be less important than reliability and power.

image035-1000Stryker in Kandahar Province, 2010.

Who has the real advantage?  The guys riding elephants, or the guys riding horses?

image037-1000Most IEDs in Afghanistan are made using these ubiquitous yellow jugs.

Despite all our new gadgetry, Americans should be under no illusions about America’s ability to fight in the jungles and swamps of Africa, Asia or anywhere.  If anything, we are less capable now than ever before.


While our young people are playing video games, their young counterparts in jungles and deserts around the globe can navigate using the stars, the sun, or the flight of birds.  They can go for months without comfort and never notice, because they are comfortable.  They look poor, and they may seem uneducated, but these people are part of the terrain.  To underestimate them is to die.

We have heard the lies that we never lost a tactical engagement in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  This goes against all common sense, and simple experience for those who truly fought there.  We lost tactical engagements every week—and in fact probably every day—when IEDs destroy elephant trucks and wound and kill troops and the enemy gets away cold.

We lost nearly an entire Marine squadron of Harriers, just weeks ago.  The idea that we do not lose tactical engagements in Afghanistan is fantasy island.  How did we lose an entire war, as in Vietnam, without losing a single battle?  It’s all a lie.

But Americans in denial will say of Vietnam, “That was just a policing action.”  Vietnam was a war that left about 60,000 Americans dead, along with perhaps a million others, and demonstrated fully that America could be defeated on the battlefield, which contributed to our current war in Afghanistan.

For our part, instead of using our gear to accentuate the use of basic tactics, we use it as a crutch to replace basics, and it is obviously not working.

After thousands of years, terrain remains the single most important factor in combat.  We drifted away from the basics, bought into the wow factor, and are being beaten by farmers using tactics as old as war.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jerry Kendrick · 7 years ago
    Michael, those are insightful observations. Some folks will cry that you're not supporting the troops, but suggesting that the military should use some common sense and simple, reliable weapons instead of gee-whiz gadgets is a positive thing for the country AND the troops. I still don't understand why we don't just copy the RPG and issue them by the truckload. Then, too, the problem may not be so much the military as it is the defense industry and it's incestous relationship with the military. They'd rather get big, fat contracts for fancy stuff that expands R&D budgets instead of just manufacturing low-tech gadgets that actually work.

    And what about our reliance on contractors? About half of the people on the plane I was on to Iraq were contractors, and I'm not sure how much we'll be able to count on contractors in areas where we can't provide security like we do now.
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      Winchester44 · 7 years ago
      I was told by a friend that the USMC were recently ordering more M-72 LAW rockets which had not been issued in years. Not sure of the exact comparison between the LAW and RPG, but LAW would seem to be much cheaper than the AT-4 or certainly the Javelin.
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    Elaine · 7 years ago
    What amazing photographer for the pix of the sky and the huge weapon. I couldn't tell if he was posted on top of a tank or?
    Magnificent shot.
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    in_awe · 7 years ago
    This is a dispatch that needed to be written. Our military hubris is built on a foundation of sand. Our most recent conflicts have been in environments that favor our "strengths" and against foes that is relegated to fighting with weapons from 50 or 75 years ago. But as Michael points out, those strengths become weaknesses in other environments and against other foes.

    Other issues are related to the cultural desire to avoid US military and civilian casualties at all costs. This has led to force emasculation as combat leaders must ask permission from JAG lawyers before being allowed to act. Didn't we have the rear echelon guys directing the war in Vietnam?

    Some daring brass should require a war game be fought where the blue forces have to leave all their battery powered behind and turn off the GPS based weapons and tools. I predict the results would not be pretty, but would be insightful for those willing to see our vulnerabilities. Basic skills have atrophied and must be rebuilt in our force.

    Keep up the good work, Michael!
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    Oscar · 7 years ago

    I wholeheartedly agree with the bulk of your message. We must get back to basics. We waste the vast majority of our training time on bullshit. I've complained about this many times, but superiors (BN and above) simply don't listen.

    However, I must take issue with two statements you made.

    1. The opium trade was smaller under the Taliban, but it continued, and they profited from it.

    2. The Taliban executed others for raping women and boys, but they also executed the women, and raped plenty of women and boys themselves. In fact, a captured letter from Mullah Omar instructed Taliban members to "stop taking boys without beards into your quarters".

    Like most religious fanatics, the Taliban have one set of rules for themselves, and a separate one for everyone else.
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    Scott03 · 7 years ago
    Michael, when you write, do you take into account that you are fighting on a front of the war: the media/propaganda front for influence over public opinion? You state you are writing for posterity, but the enemy will read it too, right now. I wonder what their response will be. Perhaps you are hoping our civilian and military leaders will see it too. I wonder what their response will be. Your intentions are honest, just as those whose poor judgment resulted in all the mistakes you outlined in your article were (mostly) honest and well-intentioned. I hope your good intentions translate into positive results.
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      Michael Yon author · 7 years ago
      I doubt that the current leadership will pay attention; these are the guys still doing all this. Dempsey today is trying to give General Ward a hug instead of a demotion for misappropriation of funds. I have little faith in our current senior military leadership.
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      Denis · 6 years ago
      Scott, I'm from Russia and from the military, that probably makes me "an opfor", enemy. Our country, previously known as USSR, also went through Afghanistan campaign, under very different circumstances though. Soviet experience told that there were not enough precise hi-tech weapons to effectively defeat Mujahedeen weapon caravans, mountain caches and strongholds. So, probably, best approach is to rationalize use of hi-tech and lo-tech but effective weapons, as Michael actually suggests.
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        Scott03 · 6 years ago
        I am from the military too, an old Marine. While I do want us to get our strategy and tactics right, that is not my focus here. My question is how we get the "propaganda front" right, how we can best use the first amendment to our advantage, not to our detriment. You helped make one of my points, that the enemy is listening, for you call yourself "probably" an enemy. No doubt our actual Taliban enemy is listening, too. Do they think our public discussions a form of weakness, or strength? Do they see public opinion as a detriment to their goals, or as an aid in their acheivement? Does it matter what they think? I ask because I don't know the answers. I do think we here at home can cause or prevent casualties, depending upon how we do this, so getting it right is life-and-death important.
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          Denis · 6 years ago
          I might sound arrogant, but guess I know their way of thinking: they knew, from the very beginning of campaign, that the time is on their side. They knew that when war will come out of fashion, with too big costs or too much coffins covered in star-sprangled banners, it will be over. And as time goes by, they feel that their chances to take back country grow, that's what matter for them.
          As for propaganda, many people here expect your next president to play "Iraqi card" once again with A-stan - declare end of mission and leave country in disarray, with all conflicts unsolved, new ones added, leaving PMCs here and there to protect interests. For Russia it would mean new bigger drug caravans from Middle Asia, unrests in republics with Muslim population, etc. Nothing good really.
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            Scott03 · 6 years ago
            You make excellent points, without a trace of arrogance. They make me think of two things: Whose side time is really on, and what They (the enemy) knows vs. what They don't know. Short-term, time does seem to be on their side. Those of us with short-sighted, pragmatic, political goals, and no sense of history, seem to have the upper hand at the moment. This will cost lives, as well as lesser aggravations. What the enemy doesn't understand, however, is just how large a nation we are, especially in spirit. We tend to come late to our resolve, and thus absorb more punishment than we ought before we retaliate. Lately (last 60 years) we also seem to have become mediocre about winning decisively as well as following up, i.e., winning the peace. If this proves to be a trend borne of failure to think as clearly as we used to (I'll put it that way to sum up a lot of details), we have a problem. But I believe optimism is appropriate: We are capable of electing competent civilian leaders, and our military can develop commanders who win in the field and who have the political skills necessary to prevail in the Pentagon. Short term, competence comes and goes, and it costs lives when it goes. Long term, the bad guys don't have a chance, and they haven't a clue as to why.
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    Daniel M. Ward · 7 years ago
    I am reminded of a bunch of relatively "cheap" Christmas lights and ornaments suspended in mid air, with no tree to actually rest on; merely hanging around for their own sakes.
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    Sun Tzu · 7 years ago
    Our war colleges should be handing out the Art of War to every incoming officer and our troops should be drilled in the basics covered in the tome. 8)

    We have history as a learned projector of the truth yet our politicians and commanding officers are locked up in a technology fugue and cannot see the forest for the trees :-?

    The idiocy continues as long as we think we are invincible :eek:
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    Sun Tzu · 7 years ago
    As addendum to my last comment I forgot to add, that I see one the most glaring faults of our military is that the military has become so politicized as be very near it's Communist enemies of the Cold War era, with central planning and execution of combat operations controlled by political sensitivities rather than practical knowledge of warfare and combat operations!

    This awful trend Michael so well lays out, will continue until we purge our military ranks from top to bottom of the politicians and suck-up brown nosing officers and NCO's :-x
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    John-Capt in ANG · 7 years ago
    I read at least a half dozen first hand (single source) reports every day to know that your "day's wait" had to be an exception. Just today, an Afghan unit "reduced in place" IED and drug cache. They normally ask us to do it, EOD shows, blows, and we move on. If you care to share the MGRS, I can probably tell you why in this ONE case you had to wait a day (assuming I can sanitize for OPSEC reasons). Det cord and C4 isn't that difficult to find if you have the right friends.

    The picture of the MRAP clearly goes over a culvert with what looks to be a 5 foot drop. Whether at COPs or HQs, I see those go out the front gate and come back all the time. Can you take it up crazy slopes? No. It has an indicator inside when you're exceeding the allowable slope. Factor in an inexperienced driver and it's obvious. In your example there's no way to know. To imply you'd rather be in a trike than an MRAP....well... right, ok.

    Yes, their drug cultivation has to be higher because we're screwing them to the wall every corner they turn, making $$ hard to get. We bust their couriers, their labs, their money stashes, etc.

    Scott's sorta along the same track I'm thinking. Your post really doesn't help much except the people who always moan and complain, but it does give comfort to the enemy. AQ TB, HiG, whomever, can print this out, say, "Look, this is a former Special Forces infidel who says your trike is better than their tank [they call our MRAPs tanks] and that they are fools. They can not win. Their equipment is worn out... yada yada yada." Now, the 13 yr old who's been watching them get their butt handed to them in a hat suddenly thinks, "Yeah! I will go strap on this IED belt and walk into a wedding party!! Allah willing, we will win"

    Which sorta brings me to the end of my reply, and likely the end of reading the dispatches. Thank you Michael for the insightful postings back in 2004 on Iraq. Thanks for them around 2006-2008 as we needed to adapt COIN and bring Petraeus back.

    It's been really enlightening until about a year ago. Good luck with future trips and maybe I'll start reading again if you start posting about the Mexican drug war (first hand reporting).
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Michael Yon author · 7 years ago
      John --

      I realize this dispatch will hurt the feelings of people who are in denial of what has been happening in Afghanistan. If you think the Taliban are not aware that they are winning, you are tuned into a totally different war.

      A couple of this: You mentioned that the MRAP "clearly goes over a culvert." There was no culvert there. Not sure where you see one in that image because it does not exist.

      The more than day wasted for the GMLRS strike was during this mission.

      You have often mentioned reading reports, and I believe that you were at KAF. I am curious about your experiences in Afghanistan.

      What provinces have you been in, and when and for how long? How much time do you spend off of base out with the Afghans? Am curious if your experiences are based on reports, or on rummaging around in the villages and on the battlefields.

      • This commment is unpublished.
        Michael Yon author · 7 years ago

        It was during this mission: http://www.michaelyon-online.com/red-air-americas-medevac-failure.htm
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Michael Yon author · 7 years ago
      John --

      You mention that Det cord and C4 isn't hard to find. I am starting to doubt that you go on a lot of combat missions. We had EOD out there, and I think if you paid attention to what is written, this clearly was a helicopter mission with 120 people. Combat units don't go on missions like that without EOD. (In my experience.) The EOD guys decided it was smarter to back off and do some other kind of strike. We did have two fatalities in two strikes in the vicinity.
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    Scott03 · 7 years ago
    Michael, that's what I thought. No offense, but the brass has no reason to listen to you, me, or any other stranger with an opinion. Were I a respected, reputable, observer of the Afghan situation, I would look for the best spot to focus my effort to make my opinion felt. I would find the one guy (general, congressman, diplomat, etc.) with whom I could be most effective, and speak to him in private. The alternative - having it out in public - is a judgment call. Can one generate the same influence by ginning up public pressure? Will the bad guys be encouraged by the pessimism, or will they be perplexed by the novelty of free people expressing themselves without fear of reprisal? You stated you are interested in donating to posterity, so I guess I am on the wrong track in bringing this up at all. But I don't understand your motive. You've been "donating" since 2004, mostly focused on the events you witnessed, not yourself as messenger. Now you seem to have given up, like those "good" soldiers you wrote of earlier who got out instead of driving on. Now you seem to just want to be able to say "Historian, we blew it and you heard it from me first" or "Future commander, take heed of my wisdom, don't end up like Gen. X." Frankly, it sounds both arrogant and defeatist.
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      Michael Yon author · 7 years ago

      I am not defeatist, just arrogant. I am still fully engaged in my profession as a writer. The military and the politicians have bungled the war. This war is in the 12th year, and we are doing worse now than ever.

      Lies are expenses. Truths are investments. To pretend this will end well would be an expense I will not bear.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        hippiepooter · 7 years ago
        I'm just throwing this 'out there', because I haven't a clue what the answer is, but is this piece a case of Michael Yon showing its best to have him in the tent peeing out than outside the tent peeing in?
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    Cary Williams · 7 years ago
    I was reading this to my wife and she commented..'in other words we are in trouble when we go to war with China'
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    SecurityPro · 7 years ago
    Michael, well said on several points. But to elaborate on the wiz-bang techno-gear, the same can be said of the Department of Homeland in-Security and other Law Enforcement entities. All this high-tech gear is good when it works, but buying it just to buy it, and relying on it rather than proven and time tested basic training tactics gets people killed.

    The technology mentality our military is following, along with civilian LE organizations is reminiscent of the intelligence lapses during the Carter administration. History is repeating itself.

    When will we learn?
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    robin yates · 7 years ago
    a great article Michael, very interesting and informative.Sadly the people who should read this do not. As I have said before about American Army Generals, "Lions led by donkeys"
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    Tomato Juice · 7 years ago
    Greetings Michael, I have been a fan of your photographs and dispatches. I would like to ask you what you think is a great starter for a beginner like myself. I have been looking at the Lytro camera and mirrorless cameras as well. Anything advice would be great! Thanks and keep safe!
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      Michael Yon author · 7 years ago

      I only deal with professional gear, so I have no recommendations on beginner gear. I would say that some of the best smart phones can be good choices. I only use iPhone and pro gear, while my G11 sits idle.

      On Lytro, I have kept an eye on it. The technology has not reached a point where I am will to try it, but when it gets there, it can be great.
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    Pacific Waters · 7 years ago
    Sounds like you've become tired and jaded. I only spent years in the army in the '60's and based on your comments I don't see many changes. My niece's husband is in for 20 but only because Apache helicopter crew chiefs don't have a bright civilian future. McNamara told us his wiz kids were going win Vietnam for us. Nope. As to winning tactical engagements, I don't even know what the hell that means. When I was in Vietnam we beat the crap out of them in head on engagements but they beat the crap out of us as well. Hueys were a marvelous equalizer whether you like it or not. Personally I don't think ANYONE, actually WON a tactical engagement. If you ever bagged bodies under a flashlight you'd know that. Truth be know we probably did kill a hell of a lot more of them than us. The tactical engagements we for sure lost we're the ones where a IED bike was parked outside mama san's and took a few of us out to stepping on bouncing betty. That'll take the lead out your pencil quick. Talk to us E-5 and below who were in country in 1968 and we'll tell it just sounds like more of he same, a leadership who doesn't have a clue what they're objective is.
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    Michael.Yon · 7 years ago
    Pacific Waters, far from tired. Completely jaded. Not defeated. Just arrogant.
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    Claude · 7 years ago
    Sounds to me like any other American war spectacle. Even the results will be similar. You are in deep trouble when you go to war in Africa. Just saying ...
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    David Jones · 7 years ago
    It is a shame that our commanders and politions refuse to learn from past mistakes. Am I missing some hidden agenda? If you refuse to learn from past mistakes, you are bound to repeat them. Thank you Michael for another fine and well thought out dispatch. Keep your powder dry. Semper Fidelis
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    Eric Verhulst · 7 years ago
    The U.S. has always been gear-happy. That has its pluses and minuses, but we have always been thus. It's why we made fairly effective use of artillery in WW1 and WW2, were much better at coordinating air-to-ground action, and among the most thoroughly mechanized.

    We like our toys, and we do develop an excessive reliance upon them. And at times our toys aren't really all that great - the Sherman tank in WW2 was seriously inferior to German and British tanks of the era. The M1 carbine was good, but there's a reason we copied the German MG43 light machine gun.

    And we've always had folks profiteering on war - my favorite story is the guy who sold a bunch of sickly horses to the Army of the Potomac, then got the contract to get rid of them for the Army, shipped them west and sold them to the Army again. That was in the 1860s.

    We keep having to relearn that wars are won by men, not gear. And we'll have to relearn it again.
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    MichaelB · 7 years ago
    Been reading Michael's work from the beginning. I've noticed, in the last couple of years in particular, that the photojournalist/reporter has become a critic and a muckraker.

    This is the difficult choice laid on every "observer and reporter"...when you see bad sh**, do you just report it along with the other reportable things...or do you become proactive and obsessive.

    I'm all for anything that gets rid of the careerists and professional bureaucrats at the top wasting money and lives. I'm all for exposing the politicization of the armed forces and its costs borne by the sons and daughters of our country.

    Just hope Michael doesn't become only the shrill voice chronic critic, but rather the instigator of change. That requires more than just electornic criticism in cyberspace.
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      Dale Jelinek · 7 years ago
      I can tell you from working with Michael over the last year on the MEDEVAC issue, he spends WAY more time trying to get things changed than in griping. He spent many hours working to educate and motivate members of Congress and others to get the Army & DoD of their arses and make needed changes. He supported many individuals who took up the cause in their efforts as well. Unfortunately, at the end of the day politicians have many divergent forces working on them, so change can be painfully won and slow in happening. Keeping the faith that AMEDD and others will make the changes that are so needed if we keep the pressure on them - on the web and otherwise.
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    Matthew M · 7 years ago
    I'm commenting in context of the first page of this article.
    Over the years of reading your critiques of the military, upon reading this article I can't help but think that, the military being what it is, that if they tried to improve upon their short comings, they would go way overboard in the opposite direction.

    An organization is only as good as it's leadership. And you cannot always get good leaders where needed most. It would seem to me that it is hit and miss.
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    Bill Brent · 7 years ago
    As Mark Steyn has written, "Either you can be politically correct or you can be a great power. Not both." The politically correct idea that has been hamstringing our military efforts for decades is multiculturalism - the idea that all cultures are equal, and none better than another. When we cannot say that a culture that forces its women to live in seclusion, only allows them to go out in public with full body coverings, and stones them to death when they disobey is inferior to ours then we cannot implement the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve victory.

    Ideas matter. And the ideas a culture accepts shape the battlefield as much as the strategies and tactics of its military elite.
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    carl · 7 years ago
    It isn't that our leaders have not learned from history but that some of them have learned and are working to help our enemies bring down our military and country (mostly politicians and media). Some are fools and others are traitors. We do have good people, it is just who is in charge?

    I was in the Air Force/ECM during the tail end of Nam and we had many of the high tech toys you take for granted today. The simple fact we had such toys was classified. We had smart munitions, IR, and other technologies as far back as the mid 1960's which are still classified. They worked and worked well but when you take the field from the enemy and then the politicians and media make your forces give that field back to the enemy and force you to retake it again at great cost, what advantage does the technology provide? I have learned that, if you put the greatest technology in the hands of fools (politicians and lousy officers and soldiers, not the good ones) they will screw it up every time.

    Would we be in trouble if we were to face Russia and China today? It depends on who our leaders and traitors are.

    If properly trained and equiped, our soldiers can beat the best, if the idiots running the war let them. We need to focus on getting rid of the idiots so our troops can win wars.

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