A Warzone – Not an Amusement Park

General Stanley McChrystal deserves a huge round of applause this week for shutting down fast food outlets on US bases in Afghanistan.  According to a blog by McChrystal’s Command Sergeant Major, closing such non-essential amenities will free up storage and transport capacity for the 30,000 additional US troops and 7,000 ISAF soldiers deploying over the coming months.  Some British newspapers have suggested that obesity among the rear echelon may also have factored into the decision.

Closing down the likes of Burger King, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen may help with the battle of the bulge and most certainly will help accommodate the troop surge.  Still, I suspect there is a deeper agenda at play here.  In his blog, McChrystal’s CSM put the troops on notice. ‘This is a warzone – not an amusement park,’ he wrote.  I couldn’t agree more.  As a security advisor to media and other clients in Afghanistan, I’ve been going to Bagram Airbase and Kandahar Airfield since 2004.   I have always found it unnerving to see what I regard as miniature Disneylands inside military bases, especially in hostile environments.  When soldiers arrive in theatre they need to ‘tune in’ to their surroundings – not lose themselves in a bubble of home-style luxury. As soon as they step off the plane, they are on operations. Rest and recuperation should compliment this mindset, not destroy it.  During my twenty-three years in the British military, R&R at a rear echelon base meant eating fresh rations from a large, well-stocked food hall, going to the gym, getting a decent shower and having good laundry facilities; comforts that refresh but don’t cause a soldier to ‘tune out’ completely.  Do you think the Taliban tune-out during R&R – if indeed they ever take it?

I’ve seen rear echelon troops in Bagram and Kandahar so relaxed that their weapons had no round in the spout.  Some of them didn’t even have magazines. These are bad habits to get into.  Any soldier can be sent to the sharp end at a moment’s notice and they need to be physically and mentally prepared.

General McChrystal’s actions this week are all the more admirable because he is not asking anything of his troops that he doesn’t expect of himself.  McChrystal is known to be a workaholic whose daily routine includes running eight miles, sleeping just four hours and eating only one meal.    This has earned him the nickname ‘warrior monk’.  Frankly, I think this is how all soldiers should behave whilst operational.  The only way to succeed in a hostile environment is to live a monastic life.  General McChrystal is leading from the front.  Good on him.  It’s a shame more mid-ranking NATO officers don’t follow his example.

Now that McChrystal has given US forces a reality check, I hope he’ll expand his crackdown on non-essential luxuries to all troops under his command. Banning alcohol and fast food on NATO bases throughout Afghanistan would be an excellent next step.  I’d like to see all of McChrystal’s forces playing by the same rules.  Then they can tune in together and really take on the Taliban.

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