An inside the beast account of the US’ governing and reconstruction efforts in Iraq by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
December 29, 2011

Hadn’t written anything in a while, computer problems combined with lethargy caused by working outdoors in the 100+ degree heat. Heat lethargy, and heat induced stupidity is real–if your body core temperature goes up your brain and body both shift into lizard mode. And part was not being struck and inspired by anything I’d seen, heard, or read lately–until now, when I picked up My Nuclear Family: A Coming-of-Age In America’s 21st Century Military, by Christopher Brownfield. Book is a good read, has some decent yarns in it of his Navy days, but what is important in it is that it is an astoundingly good inside the beast account of the US’ governing and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, written by the right person, with the right qualifications, for the job at hand.

The first important, and essential, qualification Mr. Brownfield has is his youth. He was 26 years old when posted to Iraq to work in the Baghdad headquarters of the US/allied civil-military operations, the folks in uniform whose job is to try and make things in Iraq work again in that country, like, in his case, the electricity. The signal virtue of youth isn’t energy or enthusiasm or fresh new ideas. Instead, it’s one that they never get credit for, mostly because it makes the rest of us nervous–it’s the ability to see through adult facades and pretensions. Women and dogs also do this well, but fortunately for us all, dogs don’t write books yet. Lt. Brownfield was, at age 26, 30 years younger than the average age of his uniformed military all co-workers in his office in Iraq. Everyone in his unit was more than twice his age, more than a generation older than him.

Working there under those circumstances must almost have been like working in some foreign country or alien planet, which in a way to him it was. Brownfield is a valuable tourguide to the far bizarre land or wacky distant planet of white American baby boomer professionals on the cusp of retirement. Worth paying close attention to his observations, because these folks are the ones running the country nowadays.

Other essential qualifications Mr. Brownfield has are his forthright professionalism and his old-fashioned patriotism, combined with a willingness to put shoulder to the wheel and do hard work. Mr. Brownfield got out of Annapolis with an English degree, yet through dint of simple hard work he honestly passed through the basic and advanced Navy Nuclear Engineer programs. Not half bad for a liberal arts major to make it through graduate engineering programs like that. He did this without using the circulating library of cheat sheets, use of which was, and no doubt remains, endemic in the program nowadays. Professionalism, and patriotism, kept him from taking the now-customary shortcut of cheating on the tests. He managed to do this without being a sanctimonious dick about being honest and professional when nobody else was, and thereby uselessly pissing off everyone else around him. Not an easy thing to pull off, that. This discovery of endemic cheating started Brownfield to start seeing, and wondering about, the difference between the reality of the Navy versus what he’d been led to believe it was. The growing dissonance between his ideals and the reality, his realizing the difference between what he’d been led to believe the military was and what it actually turned out being probably was the driving factor that had him ready to leave the navy and go off to Yale B-school just as soon as his service obligation was completed. I doubt this was his intention when he graduated from the Academy; I’m sure he started out figuring on being a Navy lifer. For reasons many and varied, some involving duty and country, and some what must had to have been simply for the hell of it, he extended his service commitment and put in for a year’s duty in Iraq.

Once in Iraq, Brownfield went to work in an office that must have possessed every single institutional vice that a bureaucracy can have. The office appears to have been staffed almost entirely with Colonels, most from the Reserves.* Not only were they all high ranked, they were all unqualified for the tasks at hand, and, judging from their actions overall, unqualified for any serious task. Only one other employee in that office appears to have had any useful background in electrical generation and electric grid construction and management, or in a related useful background, like construction general contracting. In my estimation, Brownfield’s own credentials from Nuke Academy were not really up to the task at hand of reconstructing the Iraqi electric distribution grid, but they still placed him leagues ahead of his superiors’, like his boss the plumber. But Brownfield at least was willing to work, hard as necessary, on the tasks at hand, and that can’t be said for his coworkers, most all of whom seem to have been bone-lazy on the job. Worse, most none of them had any real tasks at hand. Mostly they just marked time at their desks, as they hadn’t been assigned any useful work and they themselves lacked the motivation to go out and find something useful to do.

Brownfield’s main job in Iraq at first was to compile a daily powerpoint presentation to the CG, Casey, and read it, in best Hollywood newscaster style, every morning in the web-based newfangled version of a commander’s staff meeting. So much for his electrical engineering knowledge being put to task. Brownfield claims that once he got the software working he could do the briefing prepwork in half an hour, leaving him free, once he finished his am drivetime broadcaster gig, to fuck off and mark time the rest of the working day to his heart’s content. In his lazy co-worker’s defense, it must be pointed out that had they gone looking for something useful to do, that sort of initiative would likely have got them in trouble for rocking the bureaucratic boat, which is what happened, more than once, to Lt. Brownfield there in Iraq.

The worst disease of bureaucracies there is is institutional theft/criminality, which, in defense of Brownfield’s office, was not happening there. I think. That’s a relief, as there certainly was no shortage of it being practiced elsewhere in similar offices throughout the theater. Perhaps it didn’t occur in Brownfield’s office because there was nothing to steal there, or perhaps the institutional laziness made the staff there just too lazy to steal. But it wasn’t just Brownfield’s coworkers who were happily sailing the seas of underemployment. From his account, all his superiors seem to have been equally underemployed, and from accounts here spent their time awol off the job, attempting to figure out how to use various tech gizmos the Army had given them for no visible purpose, or angling for a private contractor job paying triple what they were then making in uniform. Or perhaps they were the ones busy stealing. Brownfield, for all his admirable boy scout virtues, lacked what it takes–a certain amount of the “it takes a thief”–to suss out things like stealing on the job.

In regards to fixing the Iraqi electric grid, and what his office was and could be doing to fix it, there was an immense amount of data available in the office on the Iraqi electrical system, and it was greatly and regularly churned in his office there into an endless series of written reports. But to no purpose, as there never was any developed plan, in 2006-2007, or points earlier, for restoring the electrical grid to 24/7/365 operation. All the reports generated went nowhere and accomplished nothing because of a staggering, repeated, uncorrected, command failure here–failure to issue the appropriate orders–at the highest level, to fix a problem of the utmost criticality to the war effort and to Iraqi society. As well as to fulfilling our legal obligations to the occupied Iraqis under the Geneva Conventions. The single most important modern utility, after drinking water, had collapsed, and not only had we had done nothing useful to fix it four years on but we still had no idea of how to do so either.**

But that high-level command incompetence is present at the smallest issues as well as the biggest. Every single account I’ve read of the staff offices in the US military nowadays tells of offices with TV’s in them, always on, tuned to Fox and CNN, 24/7. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why anyone in any sort of position of executive authority allows TV’s in a workplace. TV is a dead-certain guarantee of distraction and timewasting, and there is no conceivable professional job-related call for rear echelon military staff to spend any time listening to the TV news on the job. Why this condition is nowadays endemic to the present US military demands answering.***

Brownfield tells one excellent story of attempting to get more electrical generation power to Iraq while he was there. On the sly, without his CO’s permission, he was enlisted by a young colleague in an adjoining unit to see if he could solve a problem that had vexed the CPA for the preceeding two years. It seems as the CPA had, early on in the (post)war, contracted for a dozen or so very large marine diesel engines from their Finnish manufacturer, at a cost of a half billion dollars or so. These engines alone, installed, would have increased Iraq’s total electrical generation capacity by something like 10%. These engines had been shipped to Aqaba, Jordan, where they sat in storage in a port warehouse while the various CPA agencies responsible (I use the term very loosely) booted around the problems in moving something that large and heavy to the sites in central Iraq where they were required. Moving them by road would have required special oversized vehicles moving very slowly–5 or 10 mph or so–over a very restricted route. Two years into the problem, someone finally had the bright idea of shipping them by airplane, specifically the AN-225 6-engined monster cargo hauler. Brownfield got tasked to see about whether or not the AN would work.

Brownfield, a 26 year old Lieutenant who has no experience in the shipping industry, or in aviation, transportation, or marine diesel engines, looks into things and discovers eventually over the course of a chapter or three that the AN is capable of moving the partially dismantled engines to the airfield in question, but the AN’s leasing company in the end balks because the flight would require the aircraft to have a less than adequate fuel reserve to fly to some backup airfield if the destination airfield was snowed in or something. Brownfield admits defeat, and the engines eventually are disposed of, at great loss, in Jordan, some years later. Basically a half-billion dollars wasted in this episode.

This story bothers me from two different angles. The first is why the CPA was so goddamned frightened of the insurgency shooting up convoys carrying the diesels. It would seem to me that if in fact the United States’ forces wished to engage the insurgents and fight it out with them and kill bunches of them then battles along a predictable route with well armed convoys with reinforcements and unlimited tac air on tap is just the ticket. The USAAF bomber offensive in Germany in WWII was successful not for the bombs dropped and damages done thereby, but instead because flotillas of bombers cruising over Germany in daylight forced the Luftwaffe up to fight where it got destroyed by superior USAAF fighter power. Shipping the diesels to Iraq by road is the same thing–a chance to force the insurgents out and make them fight, on your terms, and give them a terrible beating along the way. Or alternatively, make them not fight and take a propaganda beating because of it. Or alternatively still an opportunity to establish a modus vivendi and potentially useful lines of communication with the insurgents. In a convoy shootout there would have been of course US casualties, and some considerable difficulties with salvaging any battle-wrecked convoy vehicles loaded with the diesels, but that is war.

The US Army’s unwillingness to do this shows a disgraceful lack, in the higher echelons, of willingness to close with the enemy and fight, which is about the worst sin there is in the profession of arms.

So unwittingly, without intending to I’m sure, Brownfield has let the cat out of the bag on big secrets we aren’t supposed to talk about. Another gift of the young, that. The US and its Army is shown by evidence irrefutable as uninterested in restoring electricity as law, military necessity, and human decency demands, and/or our military leadership is simply not up to the task, from a substantial lack of talent. Not just that, but senior US military leadership shies away from battle****, and are thereby unfit for not just their commands but for the uniform as well. Alternatively, or additionally, they are just uninterested in fighting this war and are either shirking duties and orders, or are in collusion in foully perpetrating an odious demi-war for domestic political advantage/consumption.

The other bothersome part of the marine diesels story is that it seems to me that Brownfield and company gave up too easily with the Antonov. The fuel problem was solvable with the installation of the appropriate aerial refueling equipment on the aircraft, some sort of drogue and probe system. Mid-air refueling solves any aircraft’s range problems, thereby solving the backup airfield in range problem. Additionally, I can’t see why the problem wasn’t solvable by purchasing additional risk insurance. I’d have thought a squid like Brownfield would have known that one of the key reasons the British won the Battle of the Atlantic in both world wars was because of cheap ship insurance made available by the British Admiralty to private shipowners. Same with that AN flying into a war zone–so sorry your airplane crashed, here’s the check, have a nice day. Another alternative was the flat out purchase of the aircraft, which involves fairly big bucks in the low hundred millions, but seems like a worthwhile gamble to me to salvage out a half billion dollars of otherwise wasted expenditures on a critically necessary run of equipment. None of this apparently occurred to Lieutenant Brownfield, or perhaps the ideas did occur to him, but he failed in obtaining the very high level–two star general or better–support that these expenditures would have (rightly) entailed. Sadly, Brownfield failed, and he might not have had he been older and more experienced and worldly. The drawbacks of youth, there.*****

But one area that Brownfield succeeded in was in actually going out and meeting with Iraqis, both professionally and privately, while he was in Iraq. Brownfield went to credible efforts to work with his Iraqi counterparts in the electrical generation field, more efforts than most any of his co-workers, near as I can see. Furthermore, he went out and became friends with a group of Iraqi artists, and helped them in Iraq by getting them art supplies and art books–art books hadn’t been imported to Iraq for decades under Saddam–and then, back in the civilian world, he set up successful art shows and gallery placements in New York for these artists. Another virtue of youth shown here–the greater willingness of theirs to interact with the new edges of the world around them.

Basically none of the near retirement-aged baby boomers in his office did any, with the exception of one who latched onto a cute new young Iraqi wife, and, interestingly enough, converted to Islam along the way in order to snag her, giving us his wonderful statement of: “Well, I figure I can be a bad Moslem as easily as I’ve been a bad Christian”. That fellow was one of the few besides Brownfield who had any real interactions with the Iraqis–mostly he just sat in his office and listened to his numerous Iraqi visitors complain. He didn’t, couldn’t mostly, do anything much to fix their problems, but there is a lot to be said for just listening sometimes. Worked for him, at any rate.

Brownfield’s book is a good read, and it is important, and it deserves an audience that to date it hasn’t gotten. Such critical attention as it has gotten has mostly taken him to task for smart-aleck. This is wrong; throughout the book Brownfield is entirely professional towards his superiors no matter how stupid and wrong and lazy they are. This professional attitude extends towards his discussions of larger issues, such as how on earth the Navy really expects nuclear attack submarines to play a key role in the war on terror. The fact that critics in mainstream publications have tried to take Brownfield down a peg or several for smart-aleck is in fact an indication of their own deep and profound servility, their own professional courtier attitudes towards the powerful that they expect the rest of us to have as well. Brownfield has written a most honest book from the inside of things in the CPA, and the US Navy, at the most important level where we can see and judge for ourselves if and how things are going, the working level out in the field. A most useful and valuable book. And unfortunately, a very rare one these days. My congratulations, and my best wishes to him for his civilian career.

*A note for all you civilians out there. In the Army, a colonel commands a brigade, a unit of 4000 or so soldiers. There aint that many companies out there in the private sector that even have 4000 employees, so it was in some ways like working in an office staffed entirely by giant multinational’s CEO’s. There is also great neverending conflict between regular service members and reservists and national guards–the regulars all think the reservists and NG’s are hacks and second-rates. I mostly thought that conflict was just a teapot tempest until I worked for the Oregon Army National Guard as a civilian employee. I now think the regulars’ complaints are probably right a whole lot more often than not.

**And now that I think of it, damned if I have heard how well the Iraqi electrical system is doing these days, damnere a decade later. Our lazy and cowardly newsmedia hasn’t bothered to provide any statistics on how many hours a day the lights work in Baghdad for several years now, but it certainly isn’t back to 24/7. Except, of course, for us in the Green Zone.

***Why? REMF’s {Rear-Echelon MF‘s} don’t need to be fucking off on the job watching TV while front line troops sweat and bleed. Nobody learns anything useful from watching the goddamned idiot box ever, least of all when it is tuned to the brain-dead reactionary yakking idiots on Fox or CNN. Every second a GI watches Fox or CNN on the job is a second stolen from the work there at hand that he should be doing and isn’t because he’s watching the fucking television instead. Every cent spent buying those (made in China) TV’s is money wasted, every cent spent on shipping them there is wasted, every cent spent generating the electricity to drive them is wasted, and every cent spent on air conditioning the heated air they generate is wasted.

Matt Ridgeway, when he took over 8th Army in Korea in ’51, made it one of his first orders to get rid of all the various factory and fabbed up heaters and cab covers stuck on any jeep in the theater. Ridgeway said that infantry’s job was to fight, and they weren’t going to be able to if they were fucking off trying to stay warm in the cabs of their idling jeeps like they’d been doing up till then. Nobody in the US military can in wartime pull a Ridgeway about the fucking TV’s stealing time and money everywhere in the military nowadays? Kiss my ass, U.S. military senior officer corps, every last one of you. My sneaking suspicion is that the TV’s are there for some sort of combination of operant conditioning and cheerleading and because the fundamentally insecure squat-to-pees in positions of command authority in the US military require the reassurance and reinforcement provided by the nonstop uncritical shilling and blather of Fox and CNN.

****Anybody remember Tora Bora, and how the US Army was unwilling to commit a battallion or two to a tough fight in the mountains to capture/kill Bin Laden?

*****I attempted to get the Antonov Aircraft Works to answer questions about what happened from their side of the story, via contacting the Ukranian Air Attache in DC. They never bothered to respond, which leads me to think that part of the problem was that the Antonov corporation are fundamentally a bunch of wankers. I also attempted to ask some more detailed questions about this to Mr. Brownfield, via his publisher, but I never heard back. This sort of evasion makes the needle start to move on my bullshitometer. Particularly since the published range numbers for the Antonov are at variance with what Brownfield said was the task requirement.


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