Friday, December 08, 2006

Combat Mimeographer

[More memories of Vietnam 35 years after the fact. Mostly accurate.]

As company clerk, one of my more frustrating and tedious jobs was reproducing documents. My most regular reproduction task was preparing and distributing company rosters to battalion headquarters. The roster was the official information source on Alpha Company, the primary record for tracking personnel and related actions. The roster ran about 10 to 12 pages and distribution required about 10 copies. Reproduction capabilities for an infantry battalion in 1971 Vietnam were primitive, even by contemporary standards. Automated equipment housed in olive drab semi-trailers churned out reams of official documents at brigade and higher headquarters–you could hear the machine-gun rhythm of typing machines when you walked by the trailers–but in my part of the world, printing for distribution meant manual typing and mimeographing.

Every two weeks I revised, re-typed and mimeographed the company roster which listed each member of the company by name, Social Security number, rank, date of rank, date to return from Vietnam and date when current enlistment expires. The “print medium” was a thin plastic-like stencil (waxed mulberry paper with a stiff card backing, according to Wikipedia). Typewriter keys cut through the stencil to create a printing template. Typing stencils was tedious and slow in a busy orderly room where interruptions were common. The roster data was lots of numbers, which I never learned to type well (still can’t). Errors could be corrected with a fluid that filled in the cut-out but the corrected version might turn out unclear, especially if I made another mistake in the same place or even nearby.

Once I had my stencil, actually running the mimeograph was another tedious process. My battalion had one mimeograph machine (no doubt it had some military equipment nomenclature like M-A13-410, Machine, Duplicator, Stencil and cost five times the civilian version) that served headquarters as well as the five line companies. Ours was a typical mimeograph with auto paper feed and a print drum that was also a reservoir for the mimeograph ink. Hand cranked. Except that our drum leaked and could not be filled. Instead, I poured ink into a small can, coated the drum surface with ink using a shaving brush, attached the stencil, ran a few copies, lifted the stencil, applied more ink and printed until the ink ran out. I think I got about four or five copies per application, so a complete run would take about 20 applications. Messy. Slow. Very slow.

Less frequently I mimeographed company orders. These were orders issued by the company commander as required by military policies. Company orders designated individual responsibilities, such the company drug control officer, the company enlisted representative to the battalion drug control council (this was the era of the first war on drugs which began in Vietnam in 1971; we lost that one, too), paymaster or mail clerk. Each change of command required an entirely new set of orders signed by the new commander. I prepared orders for two command changes. A change in key personnel–a new mail clerk, for example–required a new order. A new first sergeant usually meant about five or six new orders.

Company orders were even more tedious than the roster. They required much more typing–lots of standard language, headings and authority citations (again, more numbers). No one really cared about the orders except the inspectors. The only requirement was that they be in place and current for inspection. I was pretty much on my own, especially under one particularly dysfunctional first sergeant, in preparing the orders. I designated a known heroin user as our drug control council representative and even signed the commander’s name when he was off in the field. I guess we could have sent the orders to the firebase when the company came in but no one ever seemed to think they were worth the effort.

I printed company orders on the same mimeograph machine. The only difference was that orders were on legal size paper printed front and back, head to toe so that they could be read in a file without removing the binder. The larger size reduced the number of copies per inking and aligning front and back properly required care. I hated company orders more than the roster. What I remember most is standing at the machine, painting ink, cranking the drum, over and over and over.

Working with a mimeograph machine, like Proust tasting his madeleine, conjured memories of things past. The smell of that ink recalled grade school and high school tests that had only been printed not long before. (Now I could appreciate the effort that went into producing tests and syllabi in pre-photocopy days.) Those were days of innocence and peace unless, of course, you count the possibility of nuclear annihilation, compared to the past five months when annihilation seemed far less abstract. No doubt that smell would bring back memories of Vietnam, just like the sound of a Huey flying overhead, but I’ve seen neither mimeograph nor its product since Vietnam.

Tedious it may have been but it was still Good Time: one more day past in Vietnam another day closer to home. No one was shooting at me, nor was that even likely. I had a bed at night, regular showers and hot food. I didn't have to squat over a hole to take a shit. The living environment at Bien Hoa Army Base was frontier rugged compared to my previous American middle class life but sheer luxury compared to life in the field.

Tedium. Safety. Comfort. Words forever associated in my memory.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Cupboard is Bare

During the ISG deliberations:
Robb was especially interested in sending more U.S. forces, according to one participant, and the panel considered proposals to deploy 100,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Ultimately, though, the panel discovered that there might be only 20,000 available, prompting vigorous discussion that led members to conclude that a substantial surge was unworkable.

Remember when BushCheney complained of the "hollow Army" under Clinton? It was a distortion, just like so much he says. That "hollow Army" performed very well after September 11, 2001 and most likely would have continued to effectively fight terrorists had it not been siphoned into Iraq.

Six years later, Bill Clinton's Army looks good and he does not have 21,500 casualties and a wrecked country on his Permanent Record. These days the Army struggles to keep itself operating. Maybe not broken but badly bent, to be sure.

A Message to the Decider

Okay, Mr. BushCheney. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has reported. You are about to receive reviews from the Defense and State Departments. A lot of expertise and information are cascading into your office. You are the Decider (remember?) so it's decision time on Iraq. But there's more to a decision than simply announcing it. You need to provide compelling reasons and support for your decision. Here's what I would consider compelling.

A clear, realistic statement of the national security issues facing this nation in Iraq and the broader region of which it is a part. I don't want some hyperbole about how they're coming to kill us all or they hate us for our freedoms. I want to know what the analysts tell you about Iraq and the Middle East. I want to know where analysts and experts agree, where they disagree and how you frame America's national security interests in that context.

Now tell me what you will do to address those security interests and how your strategy will change the situation in our favor. Exactly what will it accomplish and how will you know that it's working? There's been much talk of benchmarks in Iraq but these are usually six months to a year in scope. You need feedback much, much sooner so I want to know what changes and indicators you expect in the first few weeks. Think of it like a battle, where the results are real time and the need to react instantaneous.

Finally, what will you do if the strategy does not meet America's national security goals? Will you honestly re-think the strategy?

Now is the time for honest answers and realistic policies, not something that I associate with your administration, Mr. BushCheney. You have gone through the motions in Iraq: assessing threats, developing strategy and taking action but it's all been false, premised on lies, distortions and rampant fearmongering. All too predictably, you have created a major clusterfuck, destablizing one of the few secular Arab countries, unleashing sectarian violence and creating a destination for jihadis. So this time, I want more than words. I want to see the details. I sure as hell have no reason to trust you.

And you need to act quickly. Every day at least two Americans and scores of Iraqis die.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Human Being Joins BushCheney Administration

Secretary Defense designate Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing:

Gates, unlike some predecessors at the Pentagon, knew the war's total tally: 2,889 dead as of Monday morning. "Twelve graduates of Texas A&M have been killed in Iraq," said the nominee, who is A&M's president. "I would run in the morning with some of those kids. . . . I'd hand them their degrees, I'd attend their commissioning, and then I would get word of their death. So this all comes down to being very personal for all of us."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ahead of the Curve?

Military commanders in Iraq are planning to re-assign American combat troops to serve as advisors and trainers to the Iraqi Army. It's a step toward what many see as the "kinder, gentler" Iraq policy: train them to restrain the forces of civil war so we can get the hell out. The plans aren't a new administration policy; commanders on the ground are trying to come up with something that works. That's what commanders are supposed to do.

The new policy takeks US troops out of direct combat but leaves them in that same environment. Only now they must depend on the skill and fortitude of Iraqi soldiers. Most GI's would be reluctant, I think, to put their lives at risk with the Iraqi sArmy. I would not wanted to have served with the South Vietnamese Army which a) actually existed and b) could fight creditably at times. The Iraqi Army seems only minimally capable at this point.

But GI's, being GI's, will take those risks. Time will tell if it works.

Which brings me to THE big question about America in Iraq: Time. Every scenario I hear about Iraq involves more time, at least 18 months and up to a decade. The only short time period I've heard lately is the six months General Abizaid says is the critical window for stabilzing Iraq.
Time and effort is the conversation America needs to have. How much are we going to put into Iraq and, most important, why. BushCheney denied us that opportunity before launching this war--his pro-war propaganda and fearmongering shut that door before we had a chance to look through it. Once the troops were in the field, most Americans just kept quiet.

But now after more than 23,000 American casualties, Americans are finallyasking "Why?" In response they get ever changing rationales and never attained promises. If BushCheney had come to America and promised a $500 billion war with tens of thousands of American and hundreds of thousand Iraqi casualties, he would never have convince Congress to abdicate its war making authority to him.

Now that America seems to be awake and asking questions, it is time to ask: How long? At what cost? To what end? And this time, America, don't just accept sound bites and nice platitudes. Make him explain.

In the meantime, American GI's will be out with the Iraqi Army trying to build a national institution where nationhood is still optional.