Posts filed under ‘Iraq’

SHAKO: The Art of Flying, Marine Corps-Style

Marine Corps Aviation Centennial

Back in 1985, when I was an Associated Press reporter in New York, my editor asked me to help cover the Vietnam Veterans parade that would march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the city’s brand new Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan.

A park on the Brooklyn side of the bridge was the staging area for the parade. As I was interviewing some veterans of the 1st Marine Division, several UH-1 “Huey” helicopters streaked overhead with their rotor blades making a menacing, “Apocalypse Now” whup, whup, whup sound.

But when the Marine and Amy vets around me looked up, they pumped their fists in the air and let loose with a primal roar that drowned out the choppers and city traffic noise.

“That’s the sound of the cavalry coming,” one Marine vet shouted to me over the din. “When you heard that sound, it meant you were O.K. You were going to get out alive.”

The memory of that moment came back to me last week as I toured an exhibit of Marine Corps combat art, marking 100 years of Leatherneck aviation, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. More than Navy or Air Force fliers, Marine Corps aviators have always had a close relationship with the grunts on the ground. Close air support was a concept pioneered by the Marines in the Central American “Banana Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s — and has been a key part of Marine Corps air doctrine ever since.

Close Air Suport-Korea by Master Sgt. John DeGrasse USMC. Copyright, National Museum of the Marines Corps

There were lots of paintings and drawings of Marines dashing off Hueys into Vietnam rice paddies among the 91 artworks on exhibit — all of them on loan from the National Museum of the Marines Corps in Virginia. The exhibit also included a painting of Marine infantrymen under fire on a snowy Korean hillside while an F4U Corsair fighter plane provides close air support. Another, painted by Alex Raymond, the creator of the Flash Gordon comic strip in the 1930s — who served with the Marines in World War II – shows Marine fighter pilots describing a dog fight during an after action debriefing.

The exhibit, “Fly Marines! The Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation: 1912-2012,” celebrates the 100 years since 1st Lt. Alfred Cunningham signed up as an aviation trainee in May 1912. A few months later he soloed in a Curtis seaplane — after just two hours and 40 minutes of instruction — becoming the first Marine Corps aviator, less than nine years after the Wright brothers’ first flight.

The exhibit, which opened Jan. 14 and runs through Jan. 6, 2013, includes paintings drawings and sculptures of all types of helicopters, jets and piston-driven aircraft — and the Marines who flew them  – from World War I to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also a few artifacts like the pilot’s wings of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the legendary Black Sheep Squadron leader and top Marine Corps ace of World War II.

Aviators Debriefing by Maj. Alex Raymond USMCR. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Copyright, National Museum of the Marine Corps

One unique detail of the exhibit: nearly all of the artwork on display was done by artists who either are, or were, serving Marines. Since 1942, the Marine Corps has had a contingent of combat artists to record what war really was like for the Leathernecks. Once numbering as many as 70 trained artists, they sketched and painted what they saw at sea, in the air and on the ground — often in combat zones around the world. Now there is only one full-time artist, Staff Sgt. Kristopher Battles.

He described to 4GWAR and other reporters attending a press preview of the exhibit how he carried a 9 millimeter sidearm and an M-16 rifle as well as a camera, watercolor paints and a sketchpad when he went out on patrol with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of Battles’ paintings are on display at the Air & Space exhibit, as well as his artist’s kit.

Fly Marines exhibit. Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

You can just make out Battles’ paintings of a V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter on the wall behind and to the left of the flight suit-wearing mannequin in the photo above (click on the photo to enlarge). You can get a better view of both works at his personal website Sketchpad Warrior.

Battles, who served in the Marines and reserves from 1986 to 1996, has a fine arts degree from Northeast Missouri State University. He re-joined the Corps as a combat artist in 2006 at the urging of the then-last remaining combat artist, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Fay. Battles had e-mailed Fay to say he admired his work and when Fay learned he was both a former Marine sergeant and an artist, he and combat art program officials asked him to consider re-upping. In September of 2006 Battles, who was then 38, reported to Marine Base Quantico for training and a month later he was on his way to Iraq.

In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, Battles has been deployed to Haiti — where he once was a missionary — to record the Marines’ humanitarian relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake. Battles, who learned Creole French in his missionary days, also helped as a translator.

The staff sergeant said he considered himself lucky to have come under fire infrequently in combat zones. His predecessor, Fay, was wounded in Iraq, he noted. Battles said it can be difficult looking for subject material with a painter’s eye while on a combat patrol. “You still have to be on guard and watching as a Marine. It’s an interesting juggling act,” he said. Occasionally he ran across a gunnery sergeant or 1st sergeant that didn’t know about combat artists or that “we’re trained Marines,” who balked at taking the artist on patrols. “But most of my experience has been quite positive,” Battles said, adding “Once you start sketching a Marine in the field, they kind of perk up a little bit. It’s a morale builder.”

1920 poster by Howard Chandler Christy Copyright, National Museum of the Marine Corps

To see more of the Fly Marines exhibit click here. The National Air and Space Museum museum is located on the National Mall in Washington, DC at Sixth St. and Independence Ave. S.W.

To see more of the 8,000 artworks in the collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, click here. That museum is located at 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Triangle, Virginia — not far from the Quantico Marine Base.

SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

January 16, 2012 at 10:32 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (December 23, 2011)

Going, Going, Gone

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Lynette Hoke

A line of mine resistant vehicles known as MRAPS forms the last convoy of U.S. service members entering Kuwait from Iraq. The 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Greywolf, was the final unit to leave on Dec. 18.

Nearly 4,500 troops have been killed in Iraq since 2003. More than 30,000 more were wounded.

For the last several months, U.S. troops have worked to reposition what were then 50,000 service members and 2 million pieces of equipment remaining in Iraq, said Army Gen. Loyd J. Austin III, the last commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq.

To see more photos of the last convoy out of Iraq, click here.

December 23, 2011 at 7:06 pm Leave a comment

IRAQ: The (Not So) Long Goodbye

This Way Out

The war in Iraq is over — for now.

U.S. troops held the formal ceremonies today (Dec. 15) ending their presence in Iraq after almost nine years of battle, ambush, raid and roadside bombs.

“This is not the end,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in Baghdad Dec. 15,  “This is truly the beginning,” he added, reminding Iraqi leaders they have a “committed friend and committed partner.”

End of Mission ceremony in Baghdad. Defense Dept. photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

“Over the next few days, a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of Iraq,” said President Barack Obama, who made ending the war a campaign promise.

But there are plenty of critics in Iraq and the U.S. who think civil war could break out after all the U.S. troops leave because of sectarian/political violence.

“It is the end for Americans only,” a Iraqi newspaper columnist said recently, according to the New York Times. “Nobody know if the war will end for Iraqis, too,” he added.

By the numbers: more than 4,500 U.S. service members killed, another 30,000 were wounded. In all, the U.S. spend nearly $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) on the Iraq war.

Coalition forces lost more than 300 troops from countries like Britain, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ukraine and Denmark, . One can only guesstimate how many Iraqis died in the 2003 invasion and the subsequent orgy of sectarian violence and insurgency that swept the country to near-chaos in the mid 2000s. . Most sources place it at 100,000 or more.

The U.S. is packing up the last of its equipment — like the mine-protected vehicles pictured below. Scores of bases have been evacuated and turned over to the Iraqis.

Defense Dept. photo

In this picture, soldiers with the 68th Transportation Company perform maintenance checks on heavy equipment transportation trucks at a motor pool on Contingency Operating Base Adder. The unit loaded the trucks up with military equipment bound for Kuwait.

While some Americans — and certainly plenty of Iraqis — think its taken too long for Obama to unwind the Iraq operation, others like Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) think the total withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of the month is premature. McCain, who ran against Obama for the presidency and lost in 2008, thinks the U.S. departure opens the door for growing Iranian influence — especially among Iraq’s Shia Muslim minority.

December 15, 2011 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (November 11, 2011)

Safe at Home

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessica Kuhn)

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Bernquist holds his arms out for his daughter Evelyn  during a welcome home ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C., Nov. 4, 2011. Bernquist is assigned to the XVIII Airborne Corps and just returned from a 12-month deployment in Iraq.

Note Bernquist wears the maroon beret of the paratrooper. He is also still carrying his M-4 carbine. Wonder what TSA thinks of that? The staff sergeant also sports the dragon patch of the 18th Airborne Corps.

To all our veterans from every service, war and conflict — and to those who kept the peace at home. Many thanks!

November 11, 2011 at 12:14 am Leave a comment

IRAQ: Untangling 10 Years’ Worth of Warfare

Covering Their Own 6

One thing Army Command Sergent Major Joseph Allen says he never expected to see was a U.S. M1A1 Abrams tank commanded by an Iraqi soldier.

“Scary thought, scary thought,” Allen told a Defense Department Bloggers Roundtable Wednesday (Nov. 9).

Iraqi soldiers assigned to the 9th Iraqi Army Division navigate an M1A1 Abrams tank during training with U.S. soldiers assigned to 69th Armor Regiment at Joint Security Station Al Rashid, Iraq in 2010. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Gary Silverman)

But Allen says he has gotten over his shock and is convinced the Iraqi Army is better off now as U.S. Forces prepare to depart the country by year’s end. He said the Iraqi Army is better equipped and trained “than the army which we destroyed.”

“We have rebuilt the Iraqi Army from the ground up in recruiting, equipping and training,” says Allen, a veteran of 35 years in the Army. During that time he served in Grenada in 1985, Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and in Iraq three times.

Allen, the top U.S. Army non-commissioned officer in Iraq, told bloggers that the U.S. military is working its way through the “monumental task” of shipping 10-years-worth of equipment out of Iraq to Kuwait and eventually home, as well turning over hundreds of military bases and facilities to the Iraqi government. Most of the stuff being left behind — like generators, air conditioners and containerized housing — has been battered by Iraq’s harsh climate for the past decade and isn’t worth the cost of taking home, he says.

At the height of the Iraq War the U.S. had over 500 bases around the country, now U.S. forces are in the process of turning over the last 11 to the Iraqis.

But “Iraq is still a very, very dangerous place, and our soldiers know it” Allen says. As the U.S. military presence shrinks from a high of 160,000 to 30,000 today – and virtually zero by Dec. 15 – there are still combat deaths. The latest fatality on Nov. 4 was a soldier shot by a sniper. Allen says senior Army non-coms are making sure their troops are staying alert “and keeping their heads in the game.”

The greatest security risk is potential kidnapping of U.S. personnel, Allen says. Intelligence briefings indicate “there is a credible threat out there,” he adds. As U.S. convoys carrying equipment out of the country head south to Kuwait, soldiers are instructed to stay in their vehicles and “never, never go any place with anyone … That’s a recipe for ugly things to happen,” he says. There have been no kidnappings, Allen added.

While most Iraqi military units have the capability to back up U.S. forces if they are attacked, the U.S. Army is not relying on them as the main source of security. “We understand that we have to cover our own 6,” Allen says, referring to the pilot’s term for watching your back. Another continuing threat is the roadside bomb or improvised explosive device (IED). But the military is much better at detecting and destroying IEDs than it was a few years ago, he says.

November 9, 2011 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

UNMANNED AIRCRAFT: Turks Want UAV to Watch Kurds

Eye in the Sky

Last week’s attack on Turkish military forces by Kurdish militants and the subsequent incursion by Turkish forces into Kurdish areas of Iraq give new impetus to Turkey’s development of an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to Turkish press reports.

Turkey’s first homegrown UAV, the Anka, has had its first successful two-hour test flight and is ready for use, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported Oct. 25. It is slated to be deployed in 2012.

Turkey (Map from CIA World Factbook)

Anka, which is Turkish for Phoenix, has been in development since 2004 – suffering some setbacks along the way. Zaman said the UAV is important in Turkey’s reignited battle with militant Kurdish separatists – especially because of strained relations with Israel, the previous supplier of Turkey’s UAVs.

After a raid by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party – known by the acronym PKK – into southeastern Turkey left 24 soldiers dead and more than 100 wounded, the Turkish military pounded parts of northern Iraq believed to be hiding PKK fighters with artillery and airstrikes. It was the worst PKK attack in Turkey in nearly two decades.

Turkey previously purchased Israeli Heron UAVs, but maintaining them has been problematic since relations deteriorated between Israel and Turkey. Last year nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of boats trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey demanded an apology and restitution to victims’ families, which Israel refused. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and trade and military ties between the former regional allies all but collapsed.

Israel’s rapid aid response in the wake of Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Turkey near Van (See map), may help heal the rift.

Anka in flight ( courtesy of Turkish Aerospace Industries)

In the meantime, the Anka’s developers say their UAV, with a wingspan of 56 feet, can fly at a speed of 75 knots, reach an altitude of 30,000 feet and remain in the air for up to 24 hours at a time.

October 26, 2011 at 9:53 pm Leave a comment

SHAKO: Medal of Honor Controversy

Congressman Asks ‘Why So Few?’

A California congressman has written the Defense Department questioning why so few Medals of Honor have been awarded U.S. troops for heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an Oct. 4 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, blames “onerous and intimidating” procedures for the sparse number of service members who have received the nation’s highest military award for bravery, POLITICO reports.

Since the decoration was created during the Civil War, there have been 3,458 recipients. During World War II (1941-1945) 467 medals of honor were awarded. There were 136 recipients during the Korean War (1950-1953) and 248 individuals were decorated for actions between the years 1963 and 1973 during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). But only 10 individuals serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded the Medal of Honor – all but three of them posthumously, POLITICO noted.

Army, Navy/Marine Corps, Air Force versions of the Medal of Honor (Wikipedia)

Hunter, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer, wants the Defense Department to conduct a comprehensive review of hundreds of cases where, he says, the Medal of Honor appeared to be well-deserved but a different medal was awarded.

SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

October 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm Leave a comment

OPINION: The Cost of War

Food for Thought

U.S. Navy photo

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks draws near, we thought we’d run this opinion piece by veteran budget watcher Winslow Wheeler as a guest posting. Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at Washington’s Center for Defense Information, has been a longtime critic of the Pentagon’s spending practices.

A former Senate staffer for both Democrats and Republicans, Wheeler doesn’t mince words about what he thinks is wrong, but unlike so many others who rail against government spending policy, he knows what he’s talking about.

From 1971 to 2002, Wheeler worked on national security issues for members of the U.S. Senate and for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — the auditing branch of Congress. Wheeler advised Sens. Jacob Javits (New York), Nancy Kassebaum (Kansas) and Pete Domenici (New Mexico) — all Republicans — as well as Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat.

At GAO, he directed comprehensive studies on the 1991 Gulf War air campaign, Pentagon weapons testing and the U.S. strategic nuclear triad (maintaining of arsenal of nuclear armed missiles, bombers and submarines). Each of the studies, Wheeler says, found prevailing conventional wisdom about weapons “to be badly misinformed.” The author of two books on military spending and acquisition programs, Wheeler recently edited The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

Please let us know in the comments box below or via email ( what you think about Wheeler’s piece and whether we should run other opinion pieces — clearly labled as such — in the future.

***            ***

What Has Been the Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars?

This week, as the media runs its displays on America ten years after the 9/11 attacks, there will be references to the dollar costs. A figure some will use is the one trillion dollars President Obama cited as for the war in Iraq.

That figure is a gross underestimate.

The war in Iraq and its costs are inseparable from the wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and elsewhere. Indeed, when the Defense Department seeks appropriations for them, it does not distinguish the costs by location; nor does Congress in appropriations bills.

Moreover, the DoD costs are hardly the whole story: add costs in the State Department budget for aid to the governments (such as they are) of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Add also the costs to care for the U.S. veterans of these wars. That would include the care already extended and the care now obligated for the duration of these men’s and women’s lives.

Add to that the expanded costs of domestic security against terrorism.

Add also the interest we annually pay for the deficit spending that has financed the wars.

In short, if all the wars were to end today without a single penny appropriated for military operations, etc. for the upcoming fiscal year (2012), the federal costs already incurred would be from $3.2 to $3.9 trillion. If the wars were to run their course — as currently (and optimistically) estimate by the Congressional Budget Office — the costs (together with additional interest payments for the required deficit spending out to the year 2020) would come to an additional $1.45 trillion.

All that would make a total cost from $4.7 to $5.4 trillion — assuming everything in the future goes according to plan.See a breakout of these costs in the summary table of Brown University’s Costs of War study. Find that table at and find there links to the detailed analyses.

In sum, the costs to be incurred are very roughly five times the $1 trillion President Obama has articulated. Breaking down some of these costs is also instructive.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has assiduously tracked appropriations for DoD (and State Department) expenses for the wars. For the period up to the end of this month (after ten years of wars), CRS records the DoD appropriations for the wars to be $1.2 trillion. (Find the latest CRS study on this at However, this amount does not include an additional $600+ billion that was added to DoD’s “base” (non-war) budget as a result of the wars and the politics surrounding them. In short, the direct and indirect DoD costs for the wars up to the end of this month are $1.9 trillion (in 2011 dollars), not $1.2 trillion. I performed this analysis of the DoD budget for Brown’s Costs of War study; find my analysis — and an explanation of the $1.9 trillion total — at If you think that the DoD spending for the wars has been prudently spent, or even accurately calibrated, I urge you to read this paper.

Linda Bilmes of Harvard University performed an analysis of the up to $1.4 trillion cost for veterans and their families; find her analysis at

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not one of Brown University’s Costs of War analysts, but he has written incisively about both the federal and the broader economic costs of the wars. Find a summary of his analysis (and links to other useful broader economic analysis of the wars) a

There are, of course, other human and moral costs that the Costs of War Study addresses and that others have addressed as well. As the American media cranks it out for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it will eagerly prompt the emotions of the original event. Thinking and reacting that way is precisely how we ended up spending something in excess of $5 trillion and achieved a result that is the solid basis for only an argument — and very little more.

 – Winslow T. Wheeler

September 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (July 29, 2011)

Sky Soldier’s View

(Defense Dept. photo by Staff Sgt. Travis Surber, U.S. Army)

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Surber, a paratrooper with the 173rd Brigade Combat Team parachutes out of a C-130 Hercules heavy lift cargo plane in Ukraine. The airdrop was the first time for the 173rd Airborne BCT — nicknamed Sky Soldiers — Ukraine. They participated in a series of multinational exercises as part of Rapid Trident 2011.

Rapid Trident is an annual joint combined exercise involving the U.S. and Partnership for Peace member nations.

This year, Rapid Trident involves approximately 1,600 personnel. Besides the U.S. Army and Ukraine, participants are from Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Slovenia, Canada, Poland, Serbia, Britain, Lithuania, Estonia, California. The Utah National Guard and U.S. Air Force Europe also took part.

The 173rd BCT participated in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unit has also served two tours in Afghanistan. Surber, who took this eye-catching photo, is a member of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. He and other Sky Soldiers of the 173rd jumped into Ukraine with British, Polish, Canadian, Moldovan and Ukrainian troops. To see a video of his jump — from his point of view – click here.

July 29, 2011 at 3:39 pm Leave a comment


Quoth the Raven Operator

When it comes to hand-launched surveillance drones, it doesn’t matter how big or strong you are, says a veteran operator of Army small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS).

Raven launch, Iraq 2006. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. First Class Michael Guillory

Sergeant First Class Jose Blanco, who has led soldiers operating the RQ-11 Raven SUAS during three deployments in Iraq, says he has trained men and women both short and tall to launch the 4.5-pound drone, which can be carried disassembled in a soldier’s backpack.

The Raven has been used by the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The yard-long (38-inch) Raven, which has a 55-inch wingspan, is launched by throwing it into the air like a model airplane. But unlike a major league pitcher, Blanco says there are no advantages if the soldier launching the Raven is tall or has a strong arm.

“It’s very light. It’s all in the technique. We’ve had male and female soldiers graduate the course,” Blanco told a bloggers roundtable via telephone from a recent Army Aviation Association meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

In fact, says Blanco, he has even trained a war-injured soldier to launch and operate the Raven, the second-smallest drone (after the Wasp) in the Army’s unmanned aircraft inventory.

“We had a recent graduate of the course who was an amputee. There’s no restrictions on that, believe it or not,” said Blanco, a combat infantry veteran with more than 20 years in the military.

The Raven, manufactured by AeroVironment, is a low-level reconnaissance and surveillance drone with an electric motor powered by rechargeable lithium batteries. It can stay aloft for 60-90 minutes. It carries electro-optical and infrared (night vision) cameras that can transmit images from beyond a ground unit’s line-of-sight via a ground station operator to both troops on the ground and attack helicopter pilots in flight. It can show small units what’s over the next hill or around the next corner in urban areas.

Blanco said his “passion for this job” stems from his combat infantry experiences. “I lost a lot of friends, saw a lot of guys step on IEDs (improvised explosive devices), get blown up. If I can prevent that from happening to another ground troop, then this is the best job to do,” he said.

U.S. Army photo Sgt. First Class Michael Guillory

April 25, 2011 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

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