Yesterday I went for a bike ride, approximately 18 miles total. I rode my mountain bike out Fort Drum’s gate, had lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings, a coffee at Starbucks in downtown Watertown, then rode back. I approached the gate guard with my ID card in hand. I was wearing civilian clothes because it was a day off for me. The guard stared at me for longer than I expected before asking, in an extremely foreboding tone: “Where is your reflective belt?” The Army reflective belt is part of the physical training uniform and is also worn during some outdoor activity, even in broad day light. Given that the Army’s current digital camo pattern couldn’t hide a Soldier in a 50 foot well, the idea that a green or yellow belt prevents many accidents during the day seems absurd. Joe makes fun of the belt all the time, asking if it deflects bullets.
I told the gate guard that I didn’t have my belt with me. Usually I wear by belt on bike rides, but to be honest I wasn’t sure if I needed to wear it when I was out of uniform during the day. Apparently I do, because the guard made if very clear that if I ever rode my bike to the gate again without a belt, the guards wouldn’t let me in. The base is the size of a small town, so this green belt is valuable indeed and grants one elite status by actually allowing Soldiers to get to their homes. I guess I would have been sleeping in the woods outside the gate without my belt.
The guard gave me a pass for my beltless sin. As I rode my bike away, I grew increasingly pissed at the situation. Here I was a guy who joined the Army out of a sense of duty, a married adult, with kids, a former cop who arrested people for real crimes–never because American citizens weren’t wearing reflective material–being told by some retired military fellow longing for his glory days that I couldn’t get back to the place where I lay my head because I didn’t have a green belt on. Yeah, I know. He was just doing his job. Which is why I nodded my head and rode off without arguing with him. Then it occurred to me that a general officer probably made the dumb reflective belt rule. Someone responsible for an entire division in the most deployed unit in US military history actually made a rule this inane. All the same time, General McChrystal was issuing rules of engagement in Afghanistan that said we couldn’t fire illumination rounds during firefights at night if we thought there was the smallest chance an empty illumination canister could fall on a farmer’s hut. Never mind that we can’t see the enemy that’s shooting at us.
And so as I see it, this is a symptom of why America can’t finish off its modern day wars. Its military is incredibly small minded. We have the brightest, shiniest toys any Soldier could hope for. We just have no idea what we’re doing strategically. As I once said to an analyst buddy of mine in Afghanistan: “Stupid people place equal importance on all things.”
Don’t get me wrong. The Army has some very smart people within its ranks. But it is an utterly broken culture, devoid of the agility, creativity and openness needed to fight today’s wars. We’re forced to rely on drone strikes in Pakistan and hope for the best. The only units in the Army that possess the needed qualities to fight are special operations forces, and they know how ponderously dumb Big Army can be. Many times, the special operators avoid working with regular military folk while deployed because they consider them amateurs.
As long as Soldiers know more about the regulations covering the proper wear of the reflective belt than they do Sun Tzu, expect America to continue making itself look foolish.