Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Killing Sheep: The Righteous Insurgent - Mark Blackard

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Leatherneck Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Leatherneck Magazine ( ). Website for the Magazine is:

Title: Killing Sheep: The Righteous Insurgent
Author: Mark Blackard
ISBN: 9781936956005
Pages: 299
Illustrations: 17 Colour
Publisher: Morris Publishing

I will say at the outset that when I received this book to review I did not anticipate enjoying it. My initial thought was one of “another author who knows all of the answers better than everyone else”. After reading Blackard’s book I came away with a very different impression. Certainly he is very critical of the US and its policies/procedures/attitudes within Afghanistan and the book is not a balanced evaluation of how things are accomplished (for example, Blackard is not adverse to making very sweeping generalizations critical of the US command structure without trying to understand why some of these things are in place) but he does make some very interesting points/observations from his perspective working with the Afghans directly.

The author, Mark Blackard, arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 for a one year stint, after a twelve year career as a narcotics police officer and two tours embedded with US marines in Fallujah, Iraq. He was employed as a contractor working as an advisor/operator as part of the JIEDDO (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization). His role in Afghanistan was to act as an advisor to Afghan law enforcement (working in conjunction with, but not for, the US military) to combat the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat in the region of Jalalabad. Blackard’s book recounts his experiences over the course of that year. He outlines his team’s successes and failures, the effect of overlaying a US military bureaucracy over operations in the Afghan region, his relationship and respect for his Afghan teammates and his trust and regard for their competency working issues the ‘Afghan’ way versus the western way. He also recounts to a great extent his frustration with the conduct of the Afghan war by senior US military and government agencies. Specifically, he sees them as out of touch with the realities of the Afghan people and racist/intolerant of those who are not ‘western’.

The book is written from a tactical perspective; that is to say that there is no attempt (or intention) of trying to evaluate the conflict beyond the confines of his and his teams immediate experiences. Blackard’s writing style is very informal in keeping with his overall approach to life and operations. He defines things very much in a black and white fashion. That is to say that there is very little room in his evaluations for actions that are not in keeping with his perception of how things should be conducted. For example he is very harsh in his criticism of the death of Afghan civilians resulting from US operations. He views these all as murder and perceives the US as having little to no regard for these actions. If effect, as far as Blackard is concerned, the US military leadership does not care about these losses (referring to them simply as collateral damage).

While Blackard’s observations and arguments are simplistic, he does touch upon a number of valid issues that will continue to affect the conduct and effectiveness of asymmetric (and symmetric) conflicts in the future.

1.       First and foremost, the growing level of risk aversion amongst military and civilian leadership. Without doubt this is one of the greatest challenges facing the west today as it affects every aspect of how operations are conducted from planning to execution. Blackard came face to face with this on a regular basis and his examples are enlightening and disturbing.

2.       The increasing effect that utilizing technology such as drones has on soldiers. In essence these technologies distance them from the effects of their actions thereby enabling them to disassociate themselves from the results. War becomes more of a video game as opposed to a gritty, hands-on experience. This in turn affects mind sets and paradigms surrounding conduct of war. Friendly casualties are less tolerated and there are greater gulfs/distances created between the Afghan population and the Allied forces. This is in turn leads to a lower level of understanding of the different cultures which in turn affects trust and confidence between the Afghan people and the western forces.

3.       The bureaucracy of a modern military regarding administrative oversight and C2 (command and control). Western militaries are becoming more and more regimented and structured such that decision making and administration are no longer timely and efficient. Blackard sites several examples of his inability to fund/execute operations that he was mandated to perform due to convoluted lines of command.

4.       The ethical conflict relating to the realities on the ground to the expectations of the bureaucracy. Blackard writes of undertaking drug interdiction operations where, in order to ensure the literal survival of the families involved, some drugs had to be left behind to provide them income. These are challenges and realities of life in these locations and is reflective of the types of decisions that personal are forced to face and decide upon.
Overall, Blackard’s book is an interesting and engaging read. As stated, he is somewhat simplistic in his views. There is no question that Blackard has no tolerance or time for those he views as bureaucratic ‘company men’ and he thrives in the ‘wild-west’ atmosphere of Afghanistan where he is constrained minimally by regulation and oversight. In my opinion, his book, despite making some very valid points, loses some credibility with his constant criticism of the US military and government thereby undermining some of the strengths of his own arguments.

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