Thursday, June 19, 2003

A letter from the front.
My friend Chuck McLaughlin just left Baghdad and is currently serving in Tashkent. He sent me (and some other people) this letter, which included a bunch of great pictures that I have (so far) been unable to post to this weblog. But the text alone is definitely worth something. If you have any suggestions please toss them in the comments, or e-mail them to me directly. I include it below. There are a few typos - I have left it unedited. Before anyone complains, Chuck has approved my posting this letter.

A brief bio on Chuck. He graduated from West Point and spent 10 years in the Army. He started out as an armor officer before switching to Special Forces - he graduated from Airborne school and Ranger school, became a Green Beret, and served as a Special Forces Alpha Team leader. While still on active duty he served in (among other places) Africa and the former Yugoslavia. After leaving the army he got a Master's Degree from Harvard in Russia studies and an MBA from Sloane before joining McKinsey, the management consulting company. After September 11th he joined the reserves and was, naturally, called up immediately.

Every American should feel incredibly proud that we have people like him defending us. Chuck is modest enough to talk about having served with heroes. I worked for him for several months and I can honestly say that he was, and is, a hero to me.

[Note 6/20/03 - After seeing the letter on the blog, Chuck made some changes, which are incorporated into the text below.]

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 18 June 2003, Tashkent

I have just passed the four month mark in my current stint of military service, and it seems like a good point to fill you in on how I have been spending my time. Some of you may be asking, "What the heck has he been doing over there?" Others are probably asking, "Chuck? Didn't I see him leading a band of looters on CNN?" Still others are saying, "Who the heck is that guy?" Well, this letter will try and answer all of these questions.

As most of you know, I returned to military service by reporting in February to Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), which is part of the US Central Command, in Tampa, Florida. My wife, Liz, came to sunny Florida with me to make sure I didn't screw anything up during my in-processing period, and we had a great time together for about four days. She left, and I was left cold and alone. However, the Army took pity on me and sent me to the desert sands of Qatar to warm me up, and put me in a tent with 8 other guys to cure the loneliness. We had a great time in that tent, we'd giggle all night, do each other's hair, and have wonderful pillow fights. OK, not really. In fact it was a lot like M*A*S*H, except we didn't have an illegal still, nurses, Koreans, casualties, Radar, or zany situations. All right, it was nothing like M*A*S*H.

I spent two and a half months in Qatar, where I worked as a Ground Planning Officer at CFSOCC (the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command (the coalition version of SOCCENT). That means that I helped plan and coordinate the Special Operations (i.e., Army Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and British, Aussie, and Polish Spec Ops) activities in Operation Iraqi Freedom. My daily activities were similar to what I do at McKinsey: analysis, problem solving, developing plans, preparing presentations, giving presentations, etc. Granted, I haven't toppled any regimes at McKinsey (yet); even so, there is quite a bit of overlap.

I'd like to seriously say that the experience in OIF was inspiring. My fellow officers at CFSOCC (pronounced sif-sock) were true professionals, and their performance was only surpassed by that of the troops on the ground. The war reporting (which was generally very good, except for the three days that the press thought we were caught in a hopeless quagmire) did not show the Special Ops side of the conflict, but I hope that the story comes out eventually. Some basic stats give the overview:

· OIF was the largest Special Operations campaign in history, involving about 10,000 operators from all services and
several countries
· Special Operations Forces (SOF) were responsible for about 2/3 of Iraq's area during the invasion
· SOF completed all of their missions successfully, allowing the conventional forces to achieve their objectives
· SOF forces destroyed several terrorist elements, including one major group closely associated with al Qaeda
· Thankfully, there were zero Special Operators killed in action

I'm sure that many of you have mixed feelings about the war (we'd be an unhealthy society if you didn't), but everyone can take pride in the fact that the Special Operations Forces of the US and our partners are the best that have ever existed, period. To borrow from Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, I have served in the company of heroes.

I also ran across several West Point classmates and friends from my Regular Army days, and even some guys that I knew during grad school. It was great to renew old friendships and see that many of the same people that I sweated alongside during Plebe Year and Ranger School exerted real influence in this war. One guy commanded the first tank battalion to enter Baghdad, another coordinated all of CENTCOM's plans, a third led the SOF planning effort, a fourth is collecting all the war's lessons learned, a fifth developed the technology that lets us track the locations of friendly units on a computer screen, and the list goes on. Well done.

In early March, I had the opportunity to go to Baghdad and see the situation there for myself. I saw Iraqis interacting in a friendly way with US patrols, no chaos, no demon-strations, no real danger, and general calm. (Unfortunately, I didn't see any WMD.) On the other hand, the plumbing and electricity were not yet working, lack of effective police was a real problem, and I heard a distant firefight (between Iraqi gangs) one night. In my view, some US planners definitely made some mistakes in their assumptions regarding the post-invasion environment. However, nothing detracts from the facts that OIF was among the most successful military operations in history, the looting was done by Iraqis and not by foreigners (contrary to historical precedent, cf. Hammurabi's Code in Paris, Trojan artifacts in Moscow, the Pergaman Museum in Berlin, Belgian wealth in general, and Iraqi looting of Kuwait), fewer civilians died as a result of the invasion than died annually as a result of UN sanctions, and Iraq now has a chance to take its rightful place as a leading, wealthy, free society. And let us also remember the over 50 Americans who died (so far) since the end of US offensive operations; they gave their lives while trying to restore civil order for the benefit of Iraqis.

When I returned to Qatar to pack up and redeploy to Tampa, I received what the military calls a change of mission. I was sent to Uzbekistan (where I am now) to work with the Uzbek military for purposes associated with the War on Terror. I was excited at the opportunity for both professional and personal reasons. Professionally, the job is important because Uzbekistan's main home-grown terrorist group is allied with al Qaeda and targets Americans; military engagement is a US tool to lead Uzbekistan to a better human rights record; and I have regular contact with the highest officials in the Uzbek defense establishment. The job allows me to apply almost every aspect of my education and experience, both civilian and military.

Personally, I have long wanted to visit this part of the world, especially the legendary cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva on the ancient Silk Road. I just returned from a trip to see the first two, where I alternately imagined myself as 1) an intrepid 19th century British captain scouting the frontier of the empire during the Great Game or 2) the ruler of a Silk Road emirate, casting spying British captains into my dungeon before lunching on figs and tea.

The entire area inspires the imagination. Alexander swept through Samarkand and Bukhara, as did the Mongols and Arabs. Samarkand was once the capital of Tamerlane's empire, which stretched from Europe to India. Some architectural decoration looks like Venetian Murano glass, probably because Marco Polo was here. The Arabs made Samarkand a center of learning and established the most advanced universities in the world. Uzbek food (like somsas and non, which are similar to somosas and naan) and architecture show strong similarities to those of India. Other influences, like the national dish plov (a kind of rice pilaf), recall the nomadic heritage. In short, the place is deeply interesting and fascinating to explore.

My time is coming to a close here and I expect to return to Tampa shortly. Very little in my military future is clear, so I can't tell you what is in store for me. Of course, I hope to be able to spend some time with Liz, Ian, and Michael. By the end of July, I expect to have a good idea of my immediate future and timeline for return to Boston. For now, I'll just continue to contribute as best I can for as long as Uncle Sam needs me.

I hope this letter finds you well, and, with luck, I'll see you soon.

Chuck McLaughlin

If any readers want to say something to Chuck you can leave them in the comments or send them to me and I will be happy to forward them to him.

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