Our Final Afghan Chapter?

I’m still shocked over ISAF’s announcement that its forces will indefinitely suspend training and partnering with all Afghan National Security Forces below the battalion level. As a former embedded combat adviser to the ANSF, I simply could not properly train the ANSF under the new rules of mentoring — I can only imagine how current advisers are taking the news.

Many thanks to the Huffington Post for running my OP-ED on the matter and to Wired for quoting me in their excellent coverage of the US exit strategy for the Afghan War.

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Michael Moore Thinks I’m a Genius

I’ve had the esteemed pleasure to join several Huff Post Live discussions over the past few weeks. Most of these segments focused on Veterans and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

On today’s segment, however, I joined an esteemed panel that included former Congressman Alan Grayson and Academy Award winning film maker Michael Moore to discuss the overwhelming influence of money in modern American politics. Our lively discussion focused on the corrupting influence of money in politics and how the astronomical amount of money one needs to raise (in excess of $2 million per US House seat) keeps the majority of Americans from successfully running for office.

During the discussion, I shared my idea for how we can remove money from American elections. The US television broadcast spectrum is owned by every American tax payer. The FCC licenses out the use of that spectrum to corporations on our behalf. Those same corporations, charge our political candidates an arm and a leg come election time to access that same spectrum. An informed electorate is best for democracy. The problem with our current system is that to inform the electorate, a political candidate must either be personally very wealthy or very very good at fund raising. The problem is that personal wealth and proficient fund raising does not equal good governance, it just equals good at accessing money. Having been a candidate for federal office, I can tell you that too much of our representatives time is spent having to raise money in order to buy campaign ads come election time. Thus, the FCC should make free access to all candidates who have received the requisite number of signatures to get on the ballot a condition of the licensing agreement to air television. This simple change would dramatically lower the monetary bar to run for elected office and thus, increase the likelihood that the people with the best ideas would be elected, rather than the person with the most money. That and a constitutional amendment that states that inalienable rights recognized under the constitution belong to human beings only, not to entities such as corporations.

All in all it was a thrilling experience!

 

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Apply the Lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan to Any Syrian Intervention

Roll Call published my latest OPED advising Congress and US leaders on how to proceed with Syria. Bottom line — if we intervene militarily, we need to apply lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The Forgotten

I recently received the very sad news that a member of my high school alumni community lost her husband to enemy fire in Afghanistan. My best friend serves in the same unit. I’ve served in their area of operations (Wardak and Logar provinces). The area is geographically similar to Flagstaff, Arizona — painted desert that gives way to towering snow capped mountains. The summers find the land arid, stifling hot, and swarming with violence. The winters turn the land into a desolate desert, snow and ice cover everything and make basic driving nearly impossible — the fighting screams to a halt upon the first snowfall.

I had dinner last week with with Dr. John Nagl. I enjoyed our lively discussion of geopolitics and our various experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Towards the end of our dinner, Dr. Nagl pointed to his copy of my book and said “you know, no-one will ever read this, right?” I nodded in agreement — sad to acknowledge that few will ever read the story of my deployment or the heroics of the men with whom I served. And then I said, “that’s because no-one really cares. If I had written about Snooki’s pregnancy I’m sure infinitely more people would read it.” Dr. Nagl chuckled and said he totally agreed.

My best friend’s unit has lost several soldiers since deploying to Afghanistan this past June.  Yet, if our news coverage is any indication of what holds American’s interest, then we clearly care more about Bristol Palin returning to Dancing With The Stars than we do about our war dead in Afghanistan. Not once have I read in national media coverage of our latest war dead — a sobering practice that used to be a routine part of our national news coverage. I cannot imagine a scenario in which Walter Cronkite would be allocated the time to broadcast his famous Vietnam editorial if he had to devote precious broadcast time to covering the latest “news” concerning the celebrities of his day. Moreover, if Brian Williams gave such an editorial today regarding our ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, would Americans notice or care?

We’ve replaced acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice of our fellow citizens with obsessing over “celebrities” who are famous for reasons I fail to comprehend. What makes Bristol Palin so important she commands such attention? She’s the daughter of a failed former vice-Presidential candidate and a poster-child for unplanned teenage pregnancy. What else has she accomplished other than being an example of how not to live one’s life? Why do Americans seem to care more about her than our war dead and injured?

Dr. Nagl is right — no-one will likely ever read my book, which is a shame, because mine isn’t the only one that will never get read. An entire generation is returning home from these wars writing about profound lessons learned. The decision to go to war is the most grave and important a democracy will ever make. And yet, we’d rather concern ourselves with the “life” of a teenage mother than gaining insight and knowledge into how we’re projecting ourselves to the rest of the world. How are we supposed to explain that choice to our children? Sorry, Snooki’s pregnancy seemed way more important than solving our debt crises or fighting the next war better than the last?

I for one refuse to leave our nation worse off than I found it — we owe at least that to our children. But that means we must start actually caring about solving our problems. We must care as much about the national debt and military conflicts as we do about who dances on TV during prime time.

And yes, I get that as a soldier, I volunteered, and thus I shouldn’t complain if no-one cares about my service or anyone else’s. But,  please know that none of us signed up to achieve fame or glory, we wanted to protect and defend our country. But never did we think that when we took our oath we’d lose the attention of our fellow citizens to the trials of human trash played out on prime time TV. We understood that we’d do the bulk of the heavy lifting, but the least you could do is pay some attention when one of us dies defending the rest of us.

We fight so that our fellow citizens can remain free. We’ve asked nothing in return. But maybe we should ask something — that our fellow citizens pay us and our conflicts as much mind as they do the Snookis, Bristol Palins, and Lindsey Lohans of the world. We’d be infinitely better off if Americans knew as much about its wars as they do about Kim Kardashian. Thus I ask this one thing of my fellow citizens – please please please support us by paying actual attention to us. The brave soldiers who died this and all the weeks past deserve it more than the Bristol Palins of the world ever will.

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Ideamensch and an announcment

My friends and family,

I hope this finds you well. I wanted to share with you my latest interview with Ideamensch.

I hope those of you who have received your copy of the book are finding it enjoyable and insightful. And if you haven’t picked up a copy, now is a perfect time to get one!

Finally, I’m pleased to announce I’ve started writing my second book, tentatively titled It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This: The Demise of Jefferson’s and Madison’s Genius.

The book will cover my 2010 run for Congress and the secret things about American politics that all citizens should know — hint, we don’t elect good legislators, we elect great fundraisers.

I hope to complete this work in the coming weeks — be on the lookout for more announcements coming soon!

And as always, feel free to send me your thoughts.

-Cheers,

Matt

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An Interview with Abu Muqawama Eight Years in the Making

I spent the summer of 2004 in immersion Arabic training at the University of Chicago as part of my David Boren National Security Education Fellowship award. We spent five days in class, full time, signed a pledge to only speak Arabic for the summer, and engaged in six nightly Arabic review sessions. It was intense, to say the least.

I found refuge in two places — the gym near our dorm and the University of Chicago Student Pub. For those in the know, the Pub charges students a $10 membership fee and offers an extremely large and varied selection of beers on tap and in bottle. After our nightly review sessions, I’d take my Arabic homework over to the pub and drink my fill, as I had opted to participate in the 64 Club challenge (drink 64 different beers in one academic quarter and you won the challenge and a free t-shirt that said “Errare Est Humanum, Imbibe Est Divinium” or “To Ere is Human, to Imbibe is Divine.”

When I couldn’t tolerate any more Arabic, I found myself pouring over dispatches from Iraq (then just a year old and starting to spiral into insurgency and civil war) and the very few books authored by veterans of the young “War on Terrorism.” In particular, Andrew Exum’s This Man’s Army stood out as my favorite of those early memoirs. I’d read a few chapters each night and often found myself in heated debate about their content with the pub’s long-time bartender, Victor — who is a character worthy of future blog post.

Continue reading

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Recent media coverage

In the past few days, I’ve had the honor of giving interviews to MSNBC, FOX News, and Enterprise Radio regarding my book. I cannot begin to adequately thank these networks and my publicist, John Cpin for making these happen.

Keep a look out for future events, including my forthcoming fall tour, coming soon to a local bookstore or college near you.

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How To Fix America’s Coming Student Loan Crisis

The cost of higher education has run rampant to the point that Americans are likely to graduate college with a mortgage worth of debt, just without the home. Americans currently owe more in student loan debt than they do in credit card debt, with current figures putting the debt well in excess of $1 trillion.

Unlike all forms of other debt, student loan debt cannot be wiped out in bankruptcy court — it literally follows one to the grave (and sometimes beyond depending on cosigners).

A recent NY Times Article highlighted the growing problems with student loans. The article quotes several state government officials (mostly from Ohio) who maintain that today’s students should simply accept loans as inevitable and deal with it. But, what these officials fail to realize is that while debt is indeed personal, a generation’s collective debt has a broad impact on all members of society.

Case and point — my wife and I. We own our own home (thanks to my veteran’s benefits…no bank would have ever lent to us with out a VA backed mortgage). We’re about to welcome our first child into the world. Indeed, we’re an abnormality when compared to the many in our generation who are forsaking marriage and home ownership to move back in with their parents and work multiple low paying jobs just to be able to maintain minimum payments to a seemingly endless student loan balance. And on top of it all — the economy still hasn’t rebounded to the extent average Americans would deem beneficial (i.e. significant and sustained improvement in employment, wages, etc…).

In short — my generation cannot find meaningful work, are not buying homes, and are not having babies — all of which will negatively impact the health of the economy, social security, medicare, and the mortgage market for many years (if not decades). Indeed, if my generation doesn’t start buying homes or having babies real-estate will continue to stagnate and America could suffer a significant labor shortage in the mid 21st century, respectively.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

During my run for Congress in 2010 (NY-29), I made fixing the Student Loan Debt problem a hallmark of my campaign, and advocated the following fix to our current system:

I propose we abandon our current system of public and private student loans as a means of financing higher education and replace it with an idea first advocated by Milton Friedman — the Income Contingent Repayment Plan.

Here’s how it works.

You pick where you want to go to school. If you can self fund, earn enough scholarships, or use the military to finance the cost of your education, then great!

But, if in the end, you don’t have the means to fully fund your education after exploring all these other options, rather than seek out a bank or government loan to fund the cost of your college education, the federal government will pay what you can’t in full.

When you graduate or leave school you will enter the labor force at a special higher federal income tax rate. The incentive is simple and resoundingly American: work hard, move up in the ranks, make more money, and pay off your debt to the government as quickly as possible. Once your debt has been paid (with the initial expense tied to the inflation rate) you’ll move back down to the regular federal income tax rate given your level of income.

Right now, if you lose your job, the bank holding/servicing your loan debt does not care if you cannot pay your loan. You miss payments, they add penalties — with interest. Your credit score drops. And though you may have that million dollar idea that only needs a small business loan to get going — and thus help you pay off your student loan debt, grow jobs, and return as a productive member of society — you cannot get the loan because your inability to pay back your student loans has destroyed your credit.

Under my plan, none of that happens. If you lose your job, you aren’t making money, and thus, you aren’t paying income taxes — thus, your credit score is fine. You are still free to get that small business loan, start your own company, and run with that million dollar idea. You get the loan, you re-enter the labor force, you begin repaying your debt to the government at the special tax rate until no debt remains.

Read more about my idea here.

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Thoughts on this coming Memorial Day

Four years after my Afghanistan service, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my time over there. Prior to my deployment, Memorial Day meant a parade, a family barbecue, and a long holiday weekend. But now I know it will forever embody more than I’ll ever be able to adequately express. It represents friends lost, lives changed, and memories of tremendous importance. It is a day of profound reflection, when we remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice — allowing them to live on in our hearts and prayers — and those who continue to protect us.

Each Memorial Day I no longer think on parades or barbecues, but of the men and women still in harms way, fighting on our behalf. This Memorial Day, especially, my thoughts are with my cousin Brian, a Marine, deployed to Southern Afghanistan; my old unit, the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New York Army National Guard, which redeployed this past month to Afghanistan; and my best friend Craig, who will return to Afghanistan later this month for another year’s tour. I pray for their safe return and for their families — that in the near future they will reunite on many Memorial Day’s to come and celebrate with quiet reflection and a joyous barbeque.

Thus, this Memorial Day, I ask that you take a moment during your celebrations to remember the men and women who gave us and continue to give us cause to reflect each end of May. And, if you happen to encounter a veteran, a simple look in the eye and a “welcome home and thank you” will mean more to them than you’ll ever know. Finally, though my mood will be somber, please enjoy your weekend — knowing you’re safe and happy is the greatest peace you can give to those who serve.

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About ‘Watches Without Time’

Advance copies of Matt’s fabulous book can now be purchased at the Just World books webstore. We plan to have copies to ship at the end of April. Thanks for your patience!

For eight months in 2008, U.S. Army Capt. Matt Zeller served as an embedded combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Watches Without Time is a compilation of the emails and letters he sent home to family and friends during that period– so that, as he writes in the Preface, “should anything have ever happened to me, they would know what I went through.”

Watches Without Time gives a granular and gripping account of the tough challenges that Zeller and his men encountered in Ghazni, and of the very complex missions they accomplished there. Written in clear and searingly intimate prose, it also highlights the many trials and emotion-laden experiences he underwent throughout his tour and after returning to the United States.

Zeller takes his readers with him on an emotional journey that will lead many to share the anger he felt at the many ways in which he saw the war being mismanaged, while stirring increased admiration for the soldiers tasked with conducting that war on the very difficult terrain of Afghanistan.

Watches Without Time has a Foreword by former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Amb. Edward S. (‘Ned’) Walker. It gives the reader a realistic, heartwarming, and terrifying look at the the challenges the U.S. military faced in Afghanistan, and the strain the war has placed on many U.S. soldiers.

In his Preface, Zeller also wrote:

The next time you hear that the United States is sending soldiers to war, chances are those soldiers will go through similar experiences, and I hope after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of what it means to send our countrymen off to fight.

 

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