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John T. Reed’s review of Nate Sassaman’s book Warrior King, Part 2

Posted by John Reed on

Sassaman frequently mentions corruption among Iraqis. I have also seen that a number of military officers have been taking bribes from contractors and suppliers over there. For example, Sassaman had to make the local electric utility stop delivering electricity to residents who bribed Baghdad officials instead of to everyone in town fairly. We cannot be a part of that and it is untenable. It is one of the reasons we probably cannot nation build in Iraq. There is an organization called Transparency International which surveys the amount of corruption in all the countries of the world and publishes annual results. In 2008, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand are the least corrupt—tied for first place. The U.S. ranks 20th. Myanmar and Somalia are ranked 179th which is last. Iraq is 178.

Wa cannot nation build in such places. When we did our successful nation building in Europe and Japan after World War II, we were working with cultures that ranked high on honesty and respect for the rule of law. Places like Somalia and Iraq are thug societies. We have the muscle to be the head thug, and the money to be the highest bribe-payer, but that is not what America is about or what our taxpayers want to sped their money and lives on.

Calling families of wounded or killed

Sassaman says one of his duties was to call, from Iraq, the families of soldiers who were wounded or killed. Really!? I never heard of such a thing. Sounds like a bit much for a combat commander. Apparently so because Sassamn reached a point where he was unable to continue to make such calls. He says they were too emotionally draining and that there were too many of them.

I don’t think the Army ever should have gone down that road to begin with. What do you say to such people, some of whom oppose the war? Let George W. Bush call them. It was his idea to send them there, not Sassaman’s. A high percentage of war injuries and deaths are caused by accidents and friendly fire—about 15% to 25%. We never know for sure because the Army is not anxious to report such manifestations of mistakes. But if you call the families, you have to tell them what happened. How many times can you tell a family that their son was killed or injured by someone’s mistake.

‘Playing the game’

Sassaman says repeatedly that he “played the game.” (e.g., pp.154, 5, 8) This is probably a phrase that civilian readers need someone like me to translate. I used it many times when I was in the Army. It was used many times by superiors and peers when they talked to me.

I am going to choose my words carefully here so please pay correspondingly extra attention to them.

When I was in the Army, the phrase “play the game” referred to compromising your integrity and/or dignity. In other words, going along with things that you did not like but that you reluctantly accepted as part of the package because that was just the way it was in the Army.

I was almost always in trouble with my superiors because I refused to play the game throughout my time as an officer. Mysuperiors ordered me to “start playing the game” or else. My peers urged me to start playing the game for my own physical and career safety. “We agree with your stance, Jack, and we admire your guts,” they would say. “But we’re worried about what the lifers are going to do to you if you don’t start playing the game. It’s not worth it.”

Very simply, I decided that it was worth it as a matter of principle. Luckily, I survived and prospered after I got out of the Army. That was neither the expectation nor the desire of my superiors when they were retaliating against me. Fortunately for me, none of them had ever encountered an officer who did not play the game before, or so they told me, so they underestimated how much it took to harm a junior officer physically and/or careerwise. For my part, I greatly underestimated how hard they would try to hurt me and how much protection I would get from the Pentagon. Apparently, Sassaman made the same mistake I did with regard to estimating how much damage his superiors would be willing to inflict upon him and overestimating how much protection he would get from “the Army.” (I did not urge anyone to make a false statement like he did. I did not do anything of that nature because it was wrong. But I was also very conscious that my superiors were eager to court martial me. They repeatedly tried as I was told by JAG officers on a number of occasions. So I always “covered my ass” with documents and/or witnesses to quote another related Army phrase to avoid giving them a clear shot at me. Sassaman assumed, naively that his superiors, or at least enough of them, would protect him if he played the game and did a good job.)

Want examples of what “playing the game” means? See my article on O.V.U.M. That is an acronym I invented. It means things that are Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory. The most common example back then was attending so-called “command performance” parties. Those were social parties hosted by the battalion and/or brigade commander on Friday or Saturday night after duty hours. I refused to do that. If I understand correctly, Sassaman complied with all OVUM he encountered during his 20 years as an officer. Those events force you to compromise your dignity.

Compromising your integrity was what I named O.P.U.M. or actions that were Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory, most commonly, signing false reports. See my article on whether the phrase military integrity is a contradiction in terms.

Did I ever meet Sassaman? Nope

Did I ever see him compromise his integrity? Nope, although he admits doing so with regard to whether the detainees in Iraq were forced into water.

Do I think that was the first time he compromised his integrity thinking it was what his superiors wanted him to do? Again, I never had any first-hand knowledge of him doing that. But my sense is that he is saying it was not the first time when he uses the phrase “playing the game.” In my article on General Petraeus, I discussed the extremely low probability that he could have reached the rank of four-star general without signing a false document or suborning that being done by one of his subordinates.

Reading between the lines

I am reading between the lines here, but my best guess is that when Sassaman uses the phrase “playing the game,” Sassaman is expressing frustration and anger that he put up with all the bullshit in the Army, including signing their damned false documents and going to their damned boring parties, for 18 years, yet his superiors still had no qualms about ignoring all those “playing the game” favors he had done for them and letting his career be destroyed by yet another playing-the-game action on his part, namely, covering up the water aspect of the detainee incident. I also sense that Sassaman intends the phrase “playing the game” as a codemeant to be understood in more detail by West Point grads and other current and former military officers like me than by civilian readers.

Like I said, I cannot be sure that’s what Sassaman intends, but that is what it means to me as a fellow West Point graduate, airborne, ranger, combat zone veteran.

On page 155, Sassaman says, “I admired those who knew how to continue playing [the game] without sacrificing their souls...” I know what he means, but I don’t think that phrase captures it correctly. The feeling one has when an officer in the U.S. military is that you are a prisoner. I felt like a caged tiger who was being poked by my superiors to show me and the other lieutenants who was boss. Prisoners in penitentiaries and prisoner-of-war camps do little things here and there to psychologically show themselves that they have not been totally crushed by their jailers. The American sailors who were captured by the North Koreans in the USS Pueblo incident gave their jailers the finger, telling them it was an American good luck sign. When the Koreans found out what it really meant, they beat the crap out of them.

Sassaman seems to be talking about fellow officers who behaved correctly when their superiors were out of sight in order to prove to themselves that the Army had not totally destroyed the noble impulses that they possessed when they entered the Army. But Sassaman is wrong to say those guys did not sacrifice their souls. They sold part of their souls to the devil of careerism or they would not have been promoted to field grade and general ranks. That’s where the analogy to prisoners comes in. If you are a prisoner, you are not autonomous in general or to the extent that free men are. But you can retain small amounts of autonomy that you know your jailers would not approve of if you make a considerable effort to do so and are willing to risk the retaliation of you get found out. Prisoners and the career officers Sassaman is praising retain a self image that they are still basically good people even though they have to seem otherwise as they “play the game” day after day, year after year.

The way Sassaman says it suggests he admires those who only allowed themselves to get “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or your aren’t. And you don’t get to be a major or lieutenant colonel or higher in the U.S. military by retaining your integrity/dignity virginity.

Slow learner

Sassaman says he played the game until he got to Iraq, then he figured out he was “not cut out for” playing the game. I wrote “slow learner” at the top of page 155. He graduated from West Point in June 1985 and arrived in Iraq in June, 2003—18 years later. I figured that I was not cut to play the game in the first ten days of July, 1966 when I was on a one-month internship in my first Army unit in the middle of my cadet days. It seems more likely that Sassaman miscalculated his ability to play the game successfully and discovered his miscalculation when playing the game was applied to situations where his men were being injured or dying as a result of the game. Again, I do not know why that was not obvious to him when he encountered his first Army unit during his cadet days. He seems to have been hoping against hope that somehow the SNAFU military would miraculously rise to the occasion and do the right thing in combat. Nope. Same old same old only with body bags.

Sassaman repeatedly says he was extremely naive about, and had lousy instincts regarding, the Army’s use of the law and when the incident involving the detainees being forced into the pond became a legal matter, he completely failed to figure out how to approach it. Again, my thought was “slow learner.” Most people who work for the government, including military, have what they call a CYA file. CYA stands for Cover Your Ass. The file contains documents pertaining to illegal activity that the person who owns the file was afraid would come back to haunt him. The documents retained are intended to be used as proof of his innocence or mitigating circumstances in case the shit hits the fan on the incident in question. Sassaman seems to have been surprised at the way things went after his boss sicced the cops on the pond incident. When most officers heard of an incident like the pond, they would typically cover their asses with some document. And they would either say the right thing or initiate a conspiracey with a blood oath of silence or agreeing on a joint false story. Sassaman’s instinct was to protect his subordinates, a noble impulse if you disregard the dishonesty required. Sassaman was not implicated in the original act, only in the cover-up which he instigated on his own initiative to protect his men from the consequences of what they did viewed through the new prism of Abu Ghraib.

Bill of sale

I had an experience in Vietnam where my instincts about the U.S. Army’s bullshit legal approach was key. In the U.S., in the spring of 1969, I volunteered to serve in a Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit (D Co. 75th Rangers, II Field Force) and was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot. They gave it to one of my classmates who arrived a day earlier. I also volunteered for Special Forces (green berets) five times and was briefly on orders to 5th Special Forces Group but the orders were rescinded. Had I gotten those assignments I could have found myself sleeping in the jungle on the ground or in an A-Camp in the boondocks. I did spend many a night in Vietnam on cots in tents, on the floor of the Nui Ba Din mountaintop hut, or in underground bunkers in spite of not getting those assignments I volunteered for. Instead, I was assigned to a corps (II Field Force) signal battalion at Plantation Post (near Long Binh, the biggest U.S. base in Vietnam).

There, junior officers lived in windowless, one-man rooms called hooches. Almost all officers there had stateside friends and relatives ship them window air-conditioners. These were then handed down by selling them to new guys. A West Point captain who was finishing his tour sold me his. $100 or some such. As we were completing the deal, I said, “Would you please write up a bill of sale covering this?” “Why?” he asked. “Because I know the way the brass thinks. I can see them in the future accusing everyone with an air-conditioner of having stolen it and confiscating it—unless you have a bill of sale.” He gave me a signed bill of sale.

Sure enough, about eight months later the word went out that the colonels were confiscating all junior officer air-conditioners—unless you had a bill of sale for it. The colonels lived in full-size, air-conditioned, U.S. house trailers like you would find in trailer parks. Although they were married, they often entertained Red Cross girls in their trailers overnight. We company-grade officers lived with a (male) officer roommate in a windowless wooden or metal box hooch. The colonels were confiscating all the company grade officers’ air-conditioners to make their officers club more comfortable.

I had refused to join the officers club there as I did almost everywhere I was stationed in the Army. Joining the O Club is OVUM. So it was ironic when every junior officer in the corps headquarters lost their air-conditioners—all of them members of the O Club—and little old Lieutenant Reed, that’s me, who was the only lieutenant there who should have been promoted to captain months before—was the only one who got to keep his air-conditioner. The other junior officers there were also slow learners. The colonels demanded to see my bill of sale. Notwithstanding the party line that officers are all scrupulously honest, they assume every officer is a liar and routinely demand proof that their fellow officers are not lying. I got out my bill of sale and they stormed off in a huff emptyhanded.

Essentially, by confiscating air-conditioners that the other junior officers truthfully swore they had purchased from departing officers, the colonels were stealing their subordinates’ personal property for their own not-in-line-of-duty use and knowingly,falsely accusing all of those junior officers of being liars to boot.

Lifer scum behaving the way they usually do.

At the time of the air-conditioner incident, I had been an Army officer for a little over two years. When Sassaman got surprised to be run over by the Army’s calling-out-the-law train, he had been in 18 years. Like I said: slow learner.

Criticism of superiors

Sassaman pulls no punches when criticizing his superiors and some fellow officers. That is legitimately useful to those who hope to understand the U.S. military before they join it or re-up. I do not know any of the men he criticizes. All of my West Point classmates were out of the Army by the time Sassaman writes about in Warrior King. But the men he describes sound just like the jerk colonels and generals I did know when I was in the Army. Sassaman shows you the unattractive sorts of men who get promoted and the good guys who don’t because of the way the Army chooses its generals. See my article “The 30-year, marathon suck-up tournament” or “How America chooses its generals.

Sassaman complains bitterly that the Army gave him a boss who was highly incompatible with him. He names specific other colonel brigade commanders that he felt he would have gotten along greatly with. But he seems oblivious to the fact that out here in civilian land—which he dismissed as mere “suffocating, 9-to-5 cubicles”—we do not work for a boss we don’t like, or at least we don’t have to. You find another job or you become self-employed. Only the real men, action heroes in the military meekly put up with working for whatever jerk they are assigned as bosses and and with commanding whatever subordinates are assigned to them.

He did not critcize Petraeus much, but neither did he praise him.

On page 226, Sassaman says military superiors rarely accept suggestions from subordinates. That’s because they are insecure and fear accepting such a suggestion will make them look weak or less competent than the subordinate in question.

Many football head coaches are the same way, for a similar reason: it’s easy to fire a football coach and easy to render a military officer noncompetitive. Rendering a career officer noncompetitive means that a single superior in a decades long career can end your hopes of ever making full colonel or general by just shading your efficiency report slightly—so slightly that a civilian looking at it would not detect the knife in the subordinate’s back. Unlike football, where they just fire you, in the military they let you stay around to collect your retirement benefits (as they did Sassaman) but you are a “dead career walking.”

Rules of

On page 246, Sossaman notes that ne has to handle detainees with kid gloves and in perfect compliance with every possible rule of decorum, butthat detainees are often acquired under circumstances where the rules of engagement allowed the Americans to shoot and kill the detainees in question early in the engagement. In other words, the post-Abu Ghraib rules on the handling of detainees are so difficult, and the rules regarding killing before detaining so much simpler, that there would appear to be a huge new motivation to kill suspicious Iraqis rather than detain them.

The Geneva Convention still requires that you accept the surrender of—not kill—a surrendering enemy. The often-heard phrase “take no prisoners” is actually a war crime known as murder. But there are moments in battle when that distinction is not clear cut. How many officers and NCOs are going to see that Sassaman’s career, as well as the careers of a West Point lieutenant and a platoon sergeant were ended, and the latter two individuals sent to jail to live the rest of their lives as convicted felons in an incident that would have been of no consequence if they had simply shot the curfew violators dead on sight?

On page 247, Sassaman says,

I was operating with a take-no-prisoners attitude by then...

I hope he does not mean that literally.

Sassaman complains bitterly about overly restrictive rules of engagement. I agree and said so months ago in my article on ROE. He says he ignored the rules on occasion like firing back at insurgents immediately rather than waiting for brigade approval.

On page 188, Sassaman says the U.S. government is too squeamish about civilian casualties to the extent that it increases U.S. casualties and prevents effectiveness. He says the U.S. was prone to trying to hide mistakes (Pat Tillman anyone?) and to try to buy everyone off with cash when civilians were hurt or their property damaged.

Good before and after the Army

Sassaman is an excellent example of a disturbing phenomenon I have noticed before. Young men who lead exemplary lives before going to West Point and while at West Point, then are treated like bad guys by the Army, then they get out and resume the exemplary lives they led before the Army. It is too early to say for sure that Sassaman will lead an exemplary post-Army life, but I’ll bet that he does.

The most successful Army football coach ever—Red Blaik—was himself a West Point graduate. One of the most noteworthy events of his tenure as coach was a honor scandal that wiped out 37 members of the Army starting team in 1950—including Blaik’s son. In his book You Have To Pay the Price on page 296, Blaik said,

These young men came to West Point as respected honorable youngsters, many of them idols of their communities. It would be considered an indictment of the leadership at West Point, if after two or three years of Academy character building, they are returned branded in the eyes of the public as no better than common criminals.

I am not going to excuse the 1950 cadets who violated the honor code, but Blaik has a point. West Point put those cadets under a lot of pressure and offered an unnecessary temptation that has been central to a number of honor scandals at West Point, namely, giving the exact same test on successive days to different cadets. West Point also tells the football players and other athletes that they are privileged characters in many ways so it is not a total surprise that they might conclude that they are above the honor code as well.

One of my classmates was the sort of high school kid Blaik describes. He was literally an Eagle Scout. He could hear other teenagers whisper his name in awe as he was spotted around the region during his senior year in high school. He had no trouble at West Point or the approximately one year of officer training we went through right after West Point (except that he did flunk the final exam in a brief communications course we had to take). At jump school, he was the first student out the door on our first jump. I was right behind him.

After my friend got out of the Army, he graduated from one of the nation’s top MBA programs, worked for many years as an executive of a household name cooperation. He got into real estate investment at my behest, became a multi-millionaire as a result, and retired to world travel while still in his fifties. What about when he was in the Army? He was somewhat resistant to some of the Army’s bullshit. He got RIFFED at his own request (for the severance pay), although the Army initially refused to RIF him. RIF means Reduction in Force and it refers to a devil-take-the-hindmost firing of personnel because the size of the Army is being dramatically reduced. He got an honorable discharge and severance pay like a civilian layoff.

I had a similar experience: unblemished record in high school, at West Point, and in my first year in the Army which was all attendance at Army schools. Then I hit the Army units where I absolutely refused to “play the game.” After escalating pressure on me for several years, the Army gave me an honorable discharge and severance pay. I then went on to such success as you would expect of someone who could get admitted to and graduate from West Point as a Harvard MBA, financial success as an entrepreneur, 33-year marriage, career success as an author-publisher. On average, my classmates who were severenced-paid out of the Army probably were more successful than the average member of our class. I did not study them systematically, but I know some others who became successful doctors and lawyers.

Someone should do a study of the many guys who were successes in high school, at West Point, in Army training, and after they got out of the Army, but not while in the Army. What causes that? The Army is inept and corrupt and punishes those who refuse to conform to, or at least help cover up, those group norms. Also, as in Sassaman’s case, the Army sometimes punishes those who doconform to the group norms—if the public becomes aware of the ineptitude or dishonesty in question.

In other words, the path to Army success is to conform to or cover up the group norms of ineptitude and dishonesty, but don’t get caught doing so. If you refuse to conform, as I did, or get caught conforming, as Sassaman did, you’re dead, and your superiors will dishonestly claim to be “shocked, shocked” by your behavior as they sacrifice you to limit damage that might otherwise reach them.

‘All other’

How often does this happen? I was astonished to learn that about 10% to 20% of West Point classes between 1970 and 1988 left the Army for “All Other” reasons in the statistics published by the United States Military Academy’s Office of Policy, Planning & Analysis for the month ending May 2007. They also have stats for classes after 1988, but those are not yet eligible for retirement so the total of “All other” is too preliminary. Although the trend is the same: for the class of 1989, for example, 165 have already been discharged under “All other” out of 1079 who graduated.

“All other” includes “court martial, misconduct, early release program, reduction in force, weight control, disability, non-selection permanent promotion, substandard performance, miscellaneous/general reasons.”

In the incident that got Sassaman run out of the Army for his role in the cover-up, the two guys who actually ordered the Iraqis into the pond were a platoon sergeant and a West Point lieutenant. They both were court martialed and sent to jail.

Am I saying no West Pointers should ever be discharged under “all other” categories? No. But I will say that the percentage whodeserve to go out that way is about 1%, not 10% to 20%. If you’re overweight, you’re overweight. If you have a legitimatedisability, your disabled. But one of my classmates deserted to Sweden during the Vietnam war, then came home, turned himself in, pled guilty, and was court martialed. Hard to argue that he did not deserve that. Another hard-to-argue career end was of a classmate who had an extramarital affair with his enlisted driver. Such clearcut misbehavior is rare among West Pointers.

RIFfing a West Point graduate, however, is ridiculous. The standards to become a West Point graduate are orders of magnitude higher than the standards to become an officer by other means and the standards of even those other commissioning schools are too high in most respects compared to what Army officers actually do on a day-to-day basis. Add to that the fact that West Point grads are usually also airborne rangers and the majority of Army officers, including those who do not get RIFFED, are not.

A West Point graduate would have to become a substance abuser or turn into a paranoid schizophrenic or some such to warrant being classed as one of the hindmost of 52,000, active-duty Army officers. If not, why are we spending so much money to recruit and train West Pointers? How can West Point not see that the guy is not up to snuff in four years of almost 24-7 observation under countless challenges? I’m not calling for special treatment for West Pointers or giving them a pass. I’m just making the obvious point that leopards do not change their spots and that saying that men and women who were adimittted to West Point and successfully completed the extremely demanding course there are not as qualified to be officers as a graduate of a four-month OCS course or two ROTC classes a week at Podunk State is ridiculous.

The two West Pointers and the sergeant in the Sassaman incident probably should have received a verbal admonition to refrain from ordering detainees to jump in a pond—especially in the post-Abu Ghraib era. They probably should not have been punished in any way, let alone court martialed or forced out of the Army.

Live in the city

Sassaman says the U.S. military needs to live in the Iraq cities and respond to any defiance of U.S. authority. I suspect he’s right, but I also think the American people lack the patience or funds to do that endlessly. And why? What happens if we leave? They kill each other? And we are dying and spending billions to prevent that why? I don’t want to see anyone die unnecessarily, including Iraqis, but I don’t think we owe any country a police force—especially a country whose people generally refuse to cooperate with our efforts to catch the bad guys.


My tour in Vietnam was mostly during so-called Vietnamization. We wanted out, so our politicians ordered us to turn it all over to the South Vietnamese. We said they were not ready. The Politicians said they were, not because it was true, but because the American public wanted out. We turned it over, and the North Vietnamese wiped out the South Vietnamese Army in short order. Sassaman says the same thing is now happening in Iraq. Politicians say turn it over to the Iraqis. We say they are not ready. Turn it over anyway. Oh, well.

Bringing every soldier home

I keep reading and hearing that West Point officers are trying to bring every soldier home. Sassaman says it on page 182.

I do not get this. First, your priorities are: 1 accomplish the mission and 2 the welfare of your men, in that order. Perhaps the mission in Iraq is so vague that all the officers have thrown up their hands and moved their second priority to first. It did not sound like Sassaman did that. But he does express the “bringing everyone home safe” goal.


Secondly, since when do wars allow troop commanders to make such promises or accomplish such goals? One of Sassaman’s officers died when he was bent over at the moment a mortar round went off and a piece of shrapnel penetrated his heart by flying in at an angle where his bulletproof vest was not protecting him because of being bent over.

Another young West Point grad bragged to me that he had brought all his men home safely from Iraq. I immediately wondered how did he prevent them from being hurt by mortars, which fall into your position from a high angle and explode. In fact, no commander can prevent mortar deaths—except by building and never leaving bunkers with very thick roofs, but you cannot fight the enemy from such places.

And you cannot prevent bullet deaths much either. As Sassaman says, the people who die when the enemy attacks typically die in the first few seconds. They have no warning. They are in the sights of an enemy who could be shooting from a hundred different hiding places—unseen. Once the fight is underway, you can often see the muzzle flashes of the enemy guns and return fire. But in our recent wars, the attacks are typically hit-and-run and the enemy flees after a brief burst of fire.

Fortunes of war

Men dying in combat is often, or mostly, caused by something long called the fortunes of war. In combat, pieces of metal fly around at lethally high speeds. Most are launched at you by the enemy, but some of that metal is friendly. Metal is metal. If you get hit, you can die. Doesn’t matter which side fired it. Being a good guy commander does not change much with regard to the fortunes of war.

I commented elsewhere at this Web site that none of the men who were under my command when I was in Vietnam died in combat. But I also added that it was not because I was a great military leader at age 23. It was because the enemy chose not to fire at us when they could have hurt or killed us. It had nothing to do with me. And if any of my men had died there, that also would probably have had nothing to do with me. If, for example, an enemy rocket had killed one of my men, I would have felt bad as one of his co-workers, but not because I was his boss. Rockets land where they land and no U.S. platoon leader could do anything about where an enemy rocket landed in Vietnam. They were fired from something like 15 miles away.

Officers need to stop promising to bring everyone home safe and they need to stop even privately setting such a goal for themselves. Accomplish the mission. Don’t be stupid. Take care of the welfare of your men as best you can without neglecting the mission. But otherwise, que sera que sera. C’est la guerre. War is hell. Shit happens. Don’t beat yourself up over something you never had any control over.

‘Outside the wire’ and ‘away from the flag’

I learned two phrases I wish I had known when I was in the Army from Sassaman and David Hackworth. Sassaman’s phrase is “outside the wire.” The wire refers to the barbed wire around the perimeter of the U.S. bases in enemy countries. What he means is that he loved being outside the wire and did extremely well when he was. Why? Because they are no superiors out there. When he was away from his military bureaucrat superiors, Sassaman thrived. Me, too. That’s why I have been self-employed partly or completely since I was 22. Self-employed in the civilian equivalent of “outside the wire.” But since Sassaman is convinced that all civilian life is a “suffocating, 9-to-5, cubicle” situation, he would not know that.

Hackworth’s phrase “away from the flag” means about the same. There is generally a flag pole in front of the battalion commander or higher’s office. Away from the flag really means away from the battalion commander or higher commander.


When I was in Vietnam, I had a blissful interlude of being away from the flag. I was assistant high frequency radio platoon leader in a corp signal battalion. We were located at Plantation Post not far from Long Binh, the biggest U.S. Army base in Vietnam and hope of the USARV (U.S. Army in the Republic of Vietnam) equivalent of the Pentagon. There were “flags” all around me.

Assistant platoon leader

I was assistant platoon leader to a two-year draftee, OCS officer who was neither a ranger nor a paratrooper nor a West Pointer nor maybe even a radio officer. This was supposed to humiliate me to punish me for my “attitude.” Whatever. One of my fellow West Point classmates who was also an airborne ranger was also an assistant platoon leader to another OCS draftee in the same battalion. None of our superiors in the battalion were West Pointers. My “boss” had almost nothing to do. I had less to do and tried to find stuff like getting all of the parts we had requisitioned delivered—an episode I described elsewhere in my military Web pages.

One day my platoon got a real mission. We had to take an A/N GRC 26D radio teletype (called an “angry 25 delta” by the troops) to a Special Forces operation at Bunard. We were to prepare the radio teletype, which was a huge box the size of a deuce-and-a-half truck bed. Sort of like a one-room recreational vehicle only it contained the radioteletype equipment and places for the operators to work instead of sleeping or bathing/toilet/cooking facilities. They gave the job to me as assistant platoon leader because the platoon leader still had more men to command back at Plantation Post.

Green beret camp

There was a Special Forces A camp (A-341 and A-344) there and a bunch of indigenous tribesmen and their families, and an air strip (seach for Bunard air strip on the pgae that link takes you to). The tribe were essentially mercenaries employed by the 12-man green beret team. In addition, there was also going to be a battalion or so of South Vietnamese Rangers assigned there temporarily for an operation lasting several months. The RVNs and my guys were camped at the end of the air strip. Every time a C-130 would take off, he would rev his engines up to full speed before releasing the brake, coating us repeatedly all day with red dust.

My platoon’s group of guys was five enlisted men. When we installed the teletype and began operating it, I was sent out to supervise. This meant leaving my air-conditioned hooch and the base where we had an air-conditioned officers mess, ping pong tables, TV, a swimming pool (made of some black rubber above-ground contraption), etc. At Bunard, I slept on the air strip in a tent on a folding Army cot. No air-conditioning. We were at the bottom of a sort of bowl in the mountains. In the days when we arrived, the special forces guys said they saw North Vietnamese Army patrols on the hills around us watching us. Lovely.

I give it thumbs down

One night, we had the movie Bullitt which was then in the theaters. We were watching it outdoors at a little theater made of a sheet for a screen and a bunch of rows of sand bags for seats. As I looked around me I saw a hundred or so armed South Vietnamese soldiers. Or at least I thought they were South Vietnamese. Probably some were enemy spies. Plus, we were lighting up the whole valley. I figured the North Vietnamese up in the hills around us were watching the movie with me. Unfortunately, I could not stop thinking what a prime target we were for a mortar or grenade attack, so I decided to excuse myself and catch Steve McQueen’s great chase scene when I got back to the states—if I got back to the states. I spent the rest of the evening at the part of our camp as far away from the theater as possible.

National Geographic, not Playboy

We ate outdoors at picnic tables with a tent top above us. Our shower was a 55-gallon drum of water heated by the sun and put up on a timber tower. You pulled a chain to get water. Since we were all men, there was no privacy screen. Great opportunity for an enemy sniper to kill an American officer.

When I say we, I mean the American and South Vietnamese soldiers. The tribe had their whole families there. The women were topless and there I was naked in the open taking a shower as the topless tribeswomen walked by balancing stuff on their heads. It was a scene from National Geographic, not Playboy, though. Nothing to get excited about.

Bunard was so remote and the enemy so close that we did mad minutes from time to time. That is, we blasted away at the jungle for 15 or 20 minutes just before sundown. Actually, I did not. I thought it was a dangerous waste of ammo. But I let my men have fun. Supposedly we were stopping an enemy attack that might take place just after sundown. In fact, the guys were just having fun making a lot of noise.

Uncomfortable, dangerous, and far more fun

My point is that although I had virtually none of the creature comforts we had at Plantation Post, and enormously increased danger from the enemy, I loved being there. I preferred being there. I stayed there so long making sure everything was going perfectly that my superiors finally sent a teletype message ordering me back to air-conditioning land—back to the flag.

Technically, I was not “outside the wire‚ at Bunard. The problem was there was literally nothing but a single roll of concertina wire between our tents and the jungle a few feet away. The enemy would have hurdled the single roll of wire without a moment’s pause if they had attacked. The phrase “the wire” in Iraq refers to a more substantial perimeter like what I was inside when I spent nights at an artillery firebase near Loc Ninh—barbed wire, clear mined flat area all around, Claymore mines, earthen berm, pillbox observation and fighting posts on the corners, not to mention self-propelled 8-inch and 175-milimeter howitzers that could fire anti-personnel canister rounds at attacking enemy.

A lot of enlisted men in Vietnam extended their tours again and again back to back because they loved the lack of Army bullshit outside the wire and far from the flag, and the cheap whores and drugs, in Vietnam.

Had I ever heard of the phrases “outside the wire” and “away from the flag” when I was in the Army, I would have recognized that was where I needed to spend my time in the Army as much as possible and battled for such assignments. Not to be a combat hero. That can get you and your subordinates killed. Just to get away from the bullshit and ass-kissing requirements, or, in my case, the retaliation for not kissing ass. The classic “outside the wire,” “away from the flag” assignment was the fictional and totally improbable one Kevin Costner depicted in the movie Dances With Wolves.

I suspect Sassaman would agree with me when I say that “the real Army,” the one you wanted to join when you were a teenager and a cadet, is the one “outside the wire” and “away from the flag” and only the one in those locations.

Finally, Sassaman repeatedly uses the phrase “selfless service” and the word “warrior” to describe himself. Nowadays, all career military people seem to do that. I find that sort of phraseology unbecomingly melodramatic and self-aggrandizing. I wrote aseparate article about it.

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