Jun 28, 2011
Last week I returned from Afghanistan after spending five weeks with the U.S. Marines in Helmand Province. It was my sixth visit since April 2007; I embed with and write on Marine-Army-National Guard operations. And unlike most journalists (and 99% of America) my son serves; he's a U.S. Marine, and last year I was able to spend a few days with him in Afghanistan when he was out on his most recent deployment. So, I look at President Barack Obama's troop-withdrawal decision from both a personal and professional basis.
Let me begin with the caveat that my comments cover Marine Corps operations and efforts in RC Southwest (Helmand and Nimroz provinces), in which they've been in charge since last year. The Marines took over from the British forces, who now fight (as Task Force Helmand) under Marine control.
In short, it's going very well, so well that Marine Col. Norman Cooling (2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd) Operations Officer) told me last week, "We're winning."
By every metric, he's correct. Firefights are few, job creation is up, and schools that had two students in March now have 50. Farmers are growing wheat instead of poppy, and in the few areas where there is still fighting (Musa Qala and Sangin), the Taliban is using IEDs instead of trying to combat the Marines in firefights.
In the Garmsir area, the locals contacted the local Afghan army and helped them seize 350 pounds of explosives and IED-making equipment when I was there. Further, as opposed to the several-a-day firefights we had last year in Marja, in my recent five weeks, I only heard three (just three!) rounds fired. In short, the locals like the security, jobs, and governance we bring, and co-operate by turning in Taliban at every opportunity. I've been there. I've seen it.
So why do I feel President Obama is making a mistake?
It's because the Marines are spread too thin, and to pull any of them out now will disrupt their training the Afghan Army. It will also embolden the Taliban to attack again.
A major part of U.S. policy is training the Afghan army and Afghan police to fight, and while Afghan army training and recruiting is going well, they need another year or two of intensive training before they can operate independently. They can fight (and fight well), but we're teaching literacy, leadership, logistics, and other important concepts as they fight, and that takes time. If we pull out and leave an un-prepared Afghan National Army, then the people lose heart as the Taliban surges (as they did in 2002 when Bush pulled the troops out for his war in Iraq), and then we need to return -- again -- and do the job correctly.
Taking 33,000 troops out in the next year is purely a domestic political decision; I was on little patrol bases where seven Marines and four Afghan soldiers were responsible for a several-mile area; for the U.S. to withdraw fully 35 percent of current forces in Afghanistan will lead to yet another Taliban resurgence, and subsequent Pakistani-ISI meddling.
And on a personal level, I've proudly watched my son leave for war five times since 2003 -- but a major part of my ability to not worry (much) is because of the intensive training and preparation all Marine receive before they deploy, as well as the thorough thought and planning the Marine generals, colonels, and senior leaders give each mission. For once, I'd like to see the same preparation, effort and attention to detail from our Congress and president in planning a war -- as much as our young men and women give in fighting it. Clearly Pres Obama made a political decision, and not a military one, and I can only hope he's correct.
May 5, 2011
Claude Stanley Choules, the last known combat veteran of World War I, died Thursday at a nursing home in the Western Australia city of Perth, his family said. He was 110
Beloved for his wry sense of humor and humble nature, the British-born Choules — nicknamed "Chuckles" by his comrades in the Australian Navy — never liked to fuss over his achievements, which included a 41-year military career and the publication of his first book at the age of 108.
"We all loved him," his 84-year-old daughter Daphne Edinger told The Associated Press. "It's going to be sad to think of him not being here any longer, but that's the way things go."
He usually told the curious that the secret to a long life was simply to "keep breathing." Sometimes, he chalked up his longevity to cod liver oil. But his children say in his heart, he believed it was the love of his family that kept him going for so many years.
"His family was the most important thing in his life," his other daughter, Anne Pow, told the AP in a March 2010 interview. "It was a good way to grow up, you know. Very reassuring."
Choules was born March 3, 1901, in the small British town of Pershore, Worcestershire, one of seven children. As a child, he was told his mother had died — a lie meant to cover a more painful truth: She left when he was 5 to pursue an acting career. The abandonment affected him profoundly, Pow said, and he grew up determined to create a happy home for his own children.
In his autobiography, "The Last of the Last," he remembered the day the first motor car drove through town, an event that brought all the villagers outside to watch. He remembered when a packet of cigarettes cost a penny. He remembered learning to surf off the coast of South Africa, and how strange he found it that black locals were forced to use a separate beach from whites.
World War I was raging when Choules began training with the British Royal Navy, just one month after he turned 14. In 1917, he joined the battleship HMS Revenge, from which he watched the 1918 surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, the main battle fleet of the German Navy during the war.
"There was no sign of fight left in the Germans as they came out of the mist at about 10 a.m.," Choules wrote in his autobiography. The German flag, he recalled, was hauled down at sunset. "So ended the most momentous day in the annals of naval warfare," he wrote. "A fleet of ships surrendered without firing a shot."
Choules and another Briton, Florence Green, became the war's last known surviving service members after the death of American Frank Buckles in February, according to the Order of the First World War, a U.S.-based group that tracks veterans.
Choules was the last known surviving combatant of the war. Green, who turned 110 in February, served as a waitress in the Women's Royal Air Force.
Despite the fame he achieved because of his military service, Choules grew to become a pacifist who was uncomfortable with anything that glorified war. He disagreed with the celebration of Anzac Day, Australia's most important war memorial holiday, and refused to march in parades held each year to commemorate the holiday.
"He always said that the old men make the decisions that send the young men into war," said his son Adrian Choules."He used to say, if it was the other way around, and the old ... were off fighting, then there would never be any wars," Choules told local media.
During World War II, he was the acting torpedo officer in Fremantle, Western Australia, and chief demolition officer for the western side of the Australian continent. Choules disposed of the first mine to wash ashore in Australia during the war.
He later transferred to the Naval Dockyard Police and remained in the service until his retirement in 1956.
In his 80s, he took a creative writing course at the urging of his children and decided to record his memoirs for his family. The memoirs formed the basis of his autobiography, which was finally published three decades later in 2009. He would cite the book as one of his greatest achievements.
Still, the aging process took its toll, and in recent years, he grew blind and nearly deaf. Despite that, his children say he retained his cheerful spirit and positive outlook on life. "I had a pretty poor start," he told the ABC in November 2009. "But I had a good finish."