Apr 01 2013
What I Learned Walking Around the Wars
Written by JD Johannes   
Monday, 01 April 2013

From March 2005, when  I quit my job as a special advisor to Kansas’ Attorney General, bought a TV camera and ran off to  Fallujah, Iraq with my old Marine Corps unit to January 2013 my life revolved around the next trip to the wars.  It is now disconcerting to realize I may never set foot in a war zone again. 

Five times to Iraq, five times to Afghanistan dozens of named combat operations, hundreds of daily patrols, the urban canyons and corners of Baghdad, walking across the minefields of Marja, driving through Iraq in a Toyota Camry, traipsing around Afghanistan alone only armed with my wits and a switch blade.  

The memories come to me every day as fleeting, random fragments.   The totality of the experience though has shaped me in ways I may never fully understand because it is impossible to know the alternate me, the JD Johannes who did not go to Iraq but instead followed the ten-year plan he set out in 2003 that was to culminate in marriage, a lobbying & political consulting practice and settled down, responsible adulthood.  It was the standard path for a political campaign manager turned political appointee and my on-going involvement in political campaigns allows me occasional proximity to peers who stayed on the path and became lobbyists, heads of political associations and upper level staff.

I can see reflections of who I might have become and have zero regrets because turning from the well- worn course created opportunities and journeys down side paths that, but for my travels to the wars, I never would have noticed.  What I have learned has changed me.  The irony is that my eight year sojourn through the wars led me almost right back to where I had planned on being but with a new set of perceptions and skills developed from trying to understand what I experienced walking around the wars.  

Clausewitz’ statement that war is an extension of politics is often quoted but rarely understood.  War and a political campaign have the same goal—convince people to adopt a certain policy position and take the actions that flow from the position adopted.  Only the Rules of Engagement are different.  The rules of warfare allow for physical violence which often deludes the civilian and military leaders of industrial nations into putting massive amounts of resources into violence.  But in the past 50 years violence has not convinced many opponents of the US adopt the preferred policy positions. I had been in Iraq less than a month when I saw how a basic political technique could be the most effective tool against an insurgency.  Years later I would read how a French General used the same technique to quash a rebellion.  None of this was new, it just required the ability to learn from history and overcome domain specificity.  Learning from history is, as evidenced by history, nearly impossible and taking one set of knowledge or skills and applying them to totally different domain is equally challenging.

Operation White Feather was a ‘Bait & Kill’ mission.  I was with the bait element that drove up and down a six-lane highway in Humvees with hillbilly armor.  The kill element was a sniper team that would hopefully kill the insurgents before they detonated a road-side bomb.  Occasionally the bait element would stop at buildings and small clusters of houses along the highway and do a cursory security check.  One building was filled with what could be bomb making components or they could have supplies for an electrician.  I asked the Platoon Commander if he had a way to determine who owned the building and what, if any, US military units had previously checked the building.  No such database existed. 

The tech revolution was just hitting campaigns in the 2000 cycle.  By 2004 I had commissioned my first piece of custom political campaign software to manage a very targeted voter registration drive.  Lists though have been at the heart of campaigns for decades, as evidenced by one of Abraham Lincoln’s first strategy memos.

“To divide their county into small districts, and to appoint in each a subcommittee, whose duty it shall be to make a perfect list of all the voters in their respective districts, and to ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote. If they meet with men who are doubtful as to the man they will support, such voters should be designated in separate lines, with the name of the man they will probably support.  

“It will be the duty of said subcommittee to keep a constant watch on the doubtful voters, and from time to time have them talked to by those in whom they have the most confidence, and also to place in their hands such documents as will enlighten and influence them.”

The French General Lazare Hoche used a list to quash the Vendee Rebellion in 1794.  Previous efforts to defeat the insurgents were oriented around violence but Hoche addressed their political and religious concerns and used Church records of births, baptisms and marriage as a list to ascertain who lived where and limit movement of the rebels.  When an insurgent can no longer hide in plain sight, he is quickly killed.

In the Summer of 2005 I made the acquaintance of Colonel GI Wilson, a true philosopher warrior who gave me a reading list that included the writings of TX Hammes, John Boyd and Richard Clutterbuck.  Everyone acknowledged the political nature of insurgency, and there were many writers who tried to develop frameworks to understand it in a military context but none knew how to operationalize it because none of them had ran an actual political campaign.

All Army and Marine Corps officers going through ROTC, OCS and the Academies are trained first and foremost to be infantry platoon leaders and are steeped in a doctrine based on the writings of Swiss military theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini who was the consummate force-on-force strategist.  From day one, US officers are taught that the answer is maneuver and violence and are schooled that role of the military is to seek out, locate and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.

A few officers may receive specialized training in what is called Military Information Support Operations and there are communications efforts but they are dwarfed by the amount of resources put into violence.  It was absolutely stunning then that in late September 2005 Marine infantry units started going door-to-door and building a basic database just like a political party.  By the Spring of 2007 when the Marines moved into a previously unoccupied area their first operation was a not a kinetic clearing, but a census data collection to build a database of who was who and who lived where with GPS grid coordinates as addresses.

With the perfect list being developed making it harder and harder for insurgents to hide in plain sight, the next step was to, as Lincoln said, “to place in their hands such documents as will enlighten and influence them.”  The difficult part being knowing what will influence a person to adopt the preferred political position and convince them to take the preferred action.  Knowing what will convince a person is what wins elections and if you can know with extreme accuracy, you will rarely lose.  The techniques for knowing what messages will persuade a person came to me while trying to explain to myself how I survived all the things that could have killed me during the 2007 Iraq Troop Surge.

The shockwave of the suicide truck bomb sent me flying backward, then I heard the bone rattling explosion.  March 27th, 2007, Observation Post ‘Omar’ in Kharma, Iraq was under attack.  It was the first day of my 2007 embed expedition, but not my first time in Kharma.  The last time I was in Kharma I came camera-lens-to-detonator with a roadside bomb.  

The truck bomb exploded 300 meters away and was immediately followed by a barrage of machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire.  A few minutes later I had donned my body armor and followed a US Army paratrooper to the roof of OP Omar.  Near the crest of the stairs he gave me a quick explanation of how we were going to run across the roof to a sand-bagged shooting position.

“You ready?” he asked.
“One, two, three, go!”

A hail of machine gunfire met us on the roof, the sonic snaps from the bullets so close the microphone on my camera recorded them perfectly.

That was the first time I slipped past death and injury in 2007.  There were gunfights, bombs and a mortar that should have, at the very least, shredded my left side with shrapnel.  I lived and escaped serious injury but not without the toll of wondering how and why.  Why was I the survivor?

I dug into the Bible and philosophy and eventually read the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes which shifted the way I orient the world around me.  Chapter nine, verse eleven:  “…time and chance happen to them all.”  Chance, luck, randomness, probability.  

The study of randomness led me to Malkeil’s ‘Random Walk Down Wall Street’ which leads to Mlodinow’s ‘Drunkard’s Walk’ and Taleb’s ‘Black Swan.’

I could choose to see the hand of God in my survival, or I could be the beneficiary of randomness.  But they are little different because randomness is really just unpredictability and as the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes 7:14 “…a man cannot discover anything about his future.”  Everything is random, yet nothing is.  I continued to survive successive trips to the wars but could never fully understand why.

In the books on randomness and investing there were always case studies showing how supposed All-Star money managers eventually were beaten by randomness.  Many people mistake luck for skill.  True skill is consistently beating randomness or the average performance in a field.  An even greater skill is harnessing the power of randomness to beat randomness—the randomized trial with control groups and test groups.  Soon I was reading texts on statistics and economics.  Influenced by Taleb I read about the behavioural economists Daniel Khaneman and Amos Tversksy’s experiments on decision making.

By 2010 I was working more as an historian and combat researcher than a reporter or filmmaker.  The five Iraq war documentaries had been licensed to major retail distributor and began appearing on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Walmart.  I still carried a video camera around the war, but it was because video makes such an accurate historical record.  No longer was I telling the stories of the war, I was trying to understand the nature of the war.

The more I studied randomness, decision making and cognitive biases the more frustrated I became with the wars, especially the war in Afghanistan.  At the same time, I was applying all of what I learned to political campaigns—randomized trials were the way to discover the best messages that, to quote Lincoln, “will enlighten and influence” the voters.  I was using scientific techniques to determine what would win a campaign.  If something didn’t work, I quit doing it.  The military officers I watched were using doctrine and never subjected the doctrine to a test, despite it becoming very obvious that the tactics were not working.  The Colonels and Generals were failing to learn not just from history, but from recent experience.  In walking around the wars I learned how people fail to learn.

Wall Street, politics and the military all have one thing in common—-someone must win.  In a Wall Street trade someone is going to make money and someone is going to lose money.  In politics someone is going to win the election, someone is going to be Governor or Mayor or Dog Catcher.  In the military someone is going to be promoted to Colonel, someone is going to be the Brigade Commander or Division Commander or Chief of Staff.  In situations where someone is going to win, even if by accident or default, it is easy to begin to mistake good fortune for skill.

In fields where there does not have to a winner, there is an achievement bias that magnifies perceived skills in correlation to the odds against success.  Even if there is skill involved, it is easy to misunderstand the nature of the skill.  A truly skilled Wall Street bond trader may not understand long-term investing in lumber.  A politician with the skills to win legislative races may not be suited for holding executive office.  A military officer who rises up through the ranks in peace time may not know how to win a war.  Past peformance is not a guarantee of future returns, especially when the domain changes.

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance is a door stop of book with nearly 800 pages of scholarly research into what makes expertise.  The recurring theme is it takes ten years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve true expertise.  At most, a US military officer commanding troops in Afghanistan will have had three command tours.  Not nearly enough to be an expert at fighting wars.  The Colonels and Generals are experts at being military officers, but they are not experts in warfare, especially considering that some Taliban commanders have been fighting for 30 years straight.

K. Anders Ericsson, the editor of the Handbook of Expertise and author of many of the book’s peer reviewed research articles says the key to developing expertise is deliberate practice in which mistakes are immediately corrected.  People learn from mistakes, but only when promptly shown the right answer or right procedure.
“The US Army doesn’t have lessons learned,” the disillusioned Battalion Commander told me, “the Army has lessons observed.”

Privately most military leaders will acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster since 2004.  The US somehow made nearly all the mistakes the Soviet Union made two decades before.  They know mistakes have been made, but they have no immediate correction of tactics or strategy.  They do not know the right way to defeat an insurgency in Afghanistan.  No one knows the right way to defeat an insurgency in Afghanistan, but there was a way to discover it—scientifically testing tactics against controls.

In a political campaign, like a war, a post-mortem after the election is too late.  The time to learn the lessons of what works is during the campaign, during the war, not after.  In a fluid campaign it may be impossible to be immediately corrected, to know the right message, tactic or procedure but through randomization trials conducted through the campaigns, I could see what didn’t work and what worked better.

But other than a brief flash of brilliance by one Army Brigade near Khandahar, I never saw any improvement in the Afghanistan strategy.

For the last eight years I went with US Soldiers and Marines on missions that were mostly useless.  The young warriors always accomplished the mission, but the missions rarely had a lasting effect on defeating the insurgency or getting them to adopt an acceptable political position.

Thomas Ricks recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “The tactical excellence of enlisted soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may have enabled and amplified the strategic incompetence of the generals in those wars, allowing long-running problems in the military’s leadership culture to reach their full expression. The Army’s combat effectiveness let its generals dither for much longer than they could have if the Army had been suffering clear tactical setbacks."

The most frustrating part of the last few years of the war was watching how missions were planned.  More deliberate, rigorous mathematical analysis was put into the Kansas Legislative races I ran than Brigade level operations in Afghanistan.  Legislative races in Kansas had algorithmic modeling of voters, randomized trials of voter contact and messaging and the same applied social sciences the Obama campaign used.

When I talk with military officers about how to use data to drive operations, they look at me like I am speaking Pashto.  Until last Summer, the political operatives looked at me the same way.  But a few forward thinking Professors at the Naval Post Graduate School invite me to give lectures and the rest of the political world is catching up.

What I brought to the recent elections, in which I had 19 wins, 7 losses with only one candidate who was an incumbent, is what I learned walking around the wars and I brought to the study of modern war what I learned in politics. 

I was in a position to leverage my 2012 electoral success into fulfilling the original ten-year plan of developing a full-time lobbying and political consulting practice.  It seemed an almost predestined arc that would tie everything up in a nice, memoir worthy conclusion.  All I had to do was survive one last trip to Afghanistan.  

Two months later I leaned on the fourth-floor rail the State House rotunda watching the scene and saw that in ten years, nothing had changed.  Some of the characters--lobbyist, legislator, staffer and political activist-- were filled with new actors, but the roles had not changed.  Just a week earlier though, I had walked through Kabul in the dead of night alone and only armed with my wits and my switchblade.

The wars are over for me, yet are with me in everything I do.  The memories are triggered at random.  Some produce a smile, others a twist in my stomach.  The totality of the experience has forged a different person.

As I stood in the rotunda I learned there is no resuming a normal life where I left off eight years ago.  

Jan 23 2013
Elite Infantry: As the military gets smaller, it needs to be more elite
Written by JD Johannes   
Thursday, 24 January 2013

Rather then revise the physical standards for combat troops down for women, the standards for service in infantry and combat arms should become more strenuous and with the goal of a smaller, more elite military.

The recent administrative action by the Secretary of Defense directing the chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps to develop standards for women serving in the combat arms branches should be used by the service chiefs to raise the standards for anyone--male or female--who wants to serve in direct action combat roles.
With the advances in drones, satellites, sensors allowing the detection of large formations of troops and equipment and the precision of advanced munitions, the modern battle field is unlikely to see clashes of thousands of troops engaging each other will rifles and medium machine guns.

The era of throwing humans at each other as a way of war is over for now.  In the event of a return, it will be in a popular enough war that recruits will be plentiful.

The battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and emerging threat zones show that small groups of elite soldiers--Rangers, Special Forces, Marine Recon--are more effective than large formations of grunts.  Small units that can survive for long periods with minimal resupply, cover terrian quickly, interact with the local populace and execute complex operations require soldiers who are mature, intelligent and physically resilient.

To have a more mature combat arms less likely to cause international incidents by doing stupid things on video, the age of enlistment for the military should be raised to 21.  Soldiers, after completing boot camp and a non-combat MOS could then try out for a combat arms position.  This ensures that infantrymen really want to be in the infantry, and by making it more difficult to get into through a selection process, there will be even more pride in being in the combat arms leading to more dedicated and motivated infantrymen.

The IQ requirement for soldiers should be raised to 110.  Yes, this reduces the pool of potentials, but also reduces the number of personnel required as more intelligent service members will be more productive and require less supervision.

These two requirements are obviously gender neutral, but the third, physical resilience, will eliminate most women from consideration.

During my time with Army and Marine Infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan I have seen women carry their full load on big, multi-day missions.  But then they go back to the large FOB while the guys continue to go out on the daily missions.

Marine Officer Katie Petronio wrote abut the struggle of physical reslience during her deployment to Afghanistan commanding a Combat Engineering platoon in Afghanistan.

"By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines..."

Her rate of deterioration was faster because she only produced a fraction of the muscle repairing testosterone of the male Marines.  Petronio, who was a varsity athlete in college and "benching 145 pounds when I graduated [college] in 2007" was falling apart at the fifth month of her deployment.  Army units deployed for 12 months until recently.

Many elite female athletes can outperform male soldiers when the women have adequate rest, recovery time and nutrition--but rest, recovery and proper nutrition are in short supply at Combat Outpost Zerok.  Combat is not like sports season where you only have one or two games a week for three months, or training for one or two big events a year.  It is every day for 365 days, then a period of recovery before resuming pre-deployment training and then another 365 days.  (330 days with leave and R&R).

Many who support opening up combat arms to women so that they have equal career opportunities do not understand that to reach the top of the infantry ranks rquires incredible physical reslience.  On the enlisted side, Company First Sergeants are in their late thirties and still going after years of deployments.  On the officer side battalion and Brigade Commanders must maintain their prime physical conditioning into their forties--after years of deployments.

The number of women who at the age of 40 are capable of keeping up with young men in a combat environment is very small.  

The Marine Corps, in a study about the factors that contribute to boot camp attrition found that, "As training has become more similar for male and female recruits, female attrition rose and--in many years--female bootcamp attrition was about double that of males."  Females still have less strenuous physical requirements than males in the Marine Corps. In 2009 female attrition was 15%.  Male attrition was 7%.  When I went through Marine Corps boot camp the attrition rate was much higher for males and females.

To ensure the physical resilience needed, the schools of infantry need to become longer, more arduous and the initial screening more rigerous in ways that mimic actual combat.  The actual size, weight or physical appearance of the applicant should not matter.  I have seen some very chubby mortarmen hump a base plate up and down mountains all day then drop rounds with sniper like accruacy.

I would go so far as to making the Army's Ranger School the base level standard for all light infantry.

With the downsizing of the military and the increasing assymetry of the threat environment, the service chiefs should not be lowering the standards of the combat arms.  The standards should be increased to ensure the maximum quality for the defense dollar spent.  If women can meet these standards and have the desire and physical resilience to survive a  30 year career in the infantry, then maybe one day there will be a female of commander of CENTCOM and she will be one tough, bad ass officer  who even the most salty of Marines will follow into combat.

Dec 24 2012
A Very Zerok Christmas
Written by JD Johannes   
Monday, 24 December 2012

 JD Johannes--Paktika Province Afghanistan

More than 7,000 feet up in the Sulaiman mountain ridge is Combat Outpost Zerok.

Established in 2007, COP Zerok one of the last distant, high elevation outposts still performing full spectrum combat operations in Paktika province, Afghanistan.

Soldiers of Attack Company, 1-28 Infantry, 1st Infantry Division--The Big Red One--currently patrol the mountains around Zerok and will be the last US soldiers to spend Christmas in Zerok.

The elevation in the Zerok Bowl is 7,000+ feet.  The mountain ridges are 9,000+ feet.

 An Afghan Police Officer on patrol with US Soldiers.  Eastern Afghans, heavily influenced by Pakistanki and Indian culture, descorate their AK-47s.


Outside the Zerok Dining Facility


Soldiers coming off duty have Christmas breakfast


Kris Kringle, decorations and gifts.


Zerok is one of the few places in the Army where coffee is scarce.  Fluor, a major logistics/engineering contractor gave the Soldiers a very thoughtful Christmas gift.


And the stockings were hung in the DFAC with care, in hopes that the Taliban rockets would land nowhere near.

Mar 13 2012
I am Optimistic About Afghanistan
Written by JD Johannes   
Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Just back from Afghanistan, that’s the 9th trip to the wars for those of you keeping score, and am far more optimistic than the average pundit.

Don’t get me wrong, my projected outcome is still for a mess, but it is less of a mess than most talking heads predict and a different type of mess than they are contemplating.  Maybe I’m just less pessimistic than them.

My view is based on two points:

1.  Pundits are usually wrong.  The structure of modern punditry, especially in cable news, almost requires that someone be wrong.  Either the guy from Brookings is right or the guy from American Enterprise is right.  Although in the quantum of politics, they could simultaneously be wrong, and that seems to happen a lot, so much so that studies of pundit accuracy show they are wrong more than 60% of the time.  Betting the base rate odds is a sound strategy, so I’m betting the pundits are wrong.
2.  I am using a different measuring stick.  Humans need a metaphor, we need a comparison, and most pundits, journalists, analysts, politicians and even military officers are comparing Afghanistan to some amorphous ideal of how things should be or could be instead of historical benchmarks.

The watershed moment of my optimism came during an extended thread on facebook when I half joked that “success in Afghanistan would be Karzai’s regime lasting longer than Najibullah’s.”  The Communist leader of Afghanistan held out for three years and two months after the Soviets left.

I was politely made fun for setting the bar low.  But that made me think most pundits are setting the bar unrealistically high.  The gap between where Afghanistan is now, and where they think it should be, causes increased pessimism.  

That I know exactly how long Najibullah’s regime lasted after the Soviets withdrew gives a glimpse into how I developed the benchmark comparisons that make me more optimistic than the pundits.

There will be more, but these two links are a start.

The Russian Job

 National Review article by JD Johannes  The Road to Charikar

Jan 02 2012
From Blogger to Brick and Mortar Retail
Written by JD Johannes   
Monday, 02 January 2012


Today was a first for me.  I saw my own DVD collection on the shelf at Barnes & Noble .



It is a bargain box set, all five of my Iraq War documentaries on one disc .

Also available at Target and of course, Amazon .

In 2005 when I quit my job in the Kansas Attorney General's office, bought a TV camera and ran off to Fallujah, Iraq with my old Marine Corps unit, I never thought it would turn out like this.

I knew there was more to the story than was being told in the Mainstream Media.  If I didn't tell that story, I doubted anyone else would.  I also spotted a gap in the market.  Local TV affiliates didn't have coverage of local service members fighting the war.  My first trip to Iraq was as a one-man TV news syndicator and blogger.

At the time I thought it was probably a one shot deal.  I produced my first documentary, Outside The Wire:  Call Sign Vengeance, from those months with the Marines operating around Fallujah.

Then in 2007 I got an offer to go shoot video for CBS Productions for TV shows it was producing.  When their exclusivity window on the video license expired, I released a trilogy of documentaries.  Danger Close, about Al Qaida's attempt to overrun a small outpost of paratroopers; Anbar Awakens, the story of how the tribes of Anbar joined the Marines to rout Al Qaida; and Baghdad Surge which follows an Army infantry company commander through a non-stop day on the streets.

In 2008 I released Baghdad Happens, the story of a wild, crazy and successful daytime raid to capture a Jaish al Mahdi cell leader.

With the success of the Surge and interest in Iraq waning, I shifted focus to Afghanistan.  My focus also shifted from making movies to doing in-depth studies and observation work for the McCormick Foundation and the Cantigny Museum, reporting for TIME and National Review and lower profile work for other clients.

The Iraq War was winding down and the movies seemed to have run their course until I got an email from a company that stocks DVD collections in big box stores.  The retailers were looking for straight down the middle documentaries.  I was the only person with five, straight, a-political enough Iraq documentaries available for licensing.  Early on my business partner and co-producer David Chavarria and I decided that the movies would be pro-soldier, but show the war exactly as I saw it through a camera lens.  We didn't know it at the time, but this would be what retailers and documentary DVD buyers would be looking for at the end of the war.

Andrew Breitbart frequently says, be the media.  I set out to be the media, but would not have amounted to much without all the bloggers who linked to me and everyone who who bought DVDs over the years.  Thank you to everyone who over the years bought a DVD, hit the tip jar or posted a link.

With the end of the US presence in Iraq, I hope these documentaries show viewers what it was like to be a Marine in Anbar province in 2005, a Soldier in Baghdad during the Surge, a paratrooper just rocked by a thousand pound suicide truck bomb.

I also anticipate they will stand the test of time.  The understanding of the Iraq War's place in History is years, if not decades away, but these documentaries capture the reality of what it was like for Soldiers and Marines on the ground as it happened, preserving their stories forever.

What comes next?  I've teamed up with a Russian production company to produce a documentary on Afghanistan with the most unique point of view, I have a library of footage and probably 300 pages worth of stories to tell.

In a few days I will be taking off for Afghanistan again, my ninth trip to the wars.  A tenth trip is already scheduled on the calendar.  As a production team we now operate under a simple motto:  History.  Capture the History while it is happening.

That is what I will do for as long as I can.

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