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The Whiz Kid of Warfare

Name: Noah Shachtman Age: 35 Site: defensetech.org Noah Shachtman is where grunt meets geek. As the editor of the hugely popular military blog Defense Tech, he writes daily about the tools and techniques of modern warfare. According to one anonymous … Read More

By / February 8, 2007
Name: Noah Shachtman Age: 35 Site: defensetech.org

Noah Shachtman is where grunt meets geek. As the editor of the hugely popular military blog Defense Tech, he writes daily about the tools and techniques of modern warfare. According to one anonymous testimonial, even Pentagon staffers peruse the site and probably get a better sense of what’s transpiring in Iraq there than they do through in-house analysis.

Defense Tech is more than an ain't-it-cool playground for Rambo wannabes. For me, the summa of its cultural importance came after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in Baquba by a carefully coordinated U.S. air strike. Within hours, the site had posted a readable primer on how the mission that ended the Al Qaeda thug’s earthly presence reflected a “revolution” in F-16 aerial combat. So it was a momentous day on two fronts.

Especially impressive is that the reigning Clausewitz of cyberspace has no formal military or science training. Shachtman began covering battlefield technology as an interested freelancer for Wired, the New York Times and the Village Voice. If there is a fanboy quotient to his reportage, it's only because he revels in the esoterica of tactics, strategy and materiel that Donald Rumsfeld must be saving for his memoirs.

Armchair general? Not quite. Shachtman has traveled to Iraq and Israel and, as this Forward dispatch demonstrates, he's probably the only foreign correspondent ever to witness a Kaddish for American war dead at Camp Victory, just outside of Baghdad.

Two years ago, Military.com—owned by Monster.com—bought out Defense Tech. Shachtman tells Jewcy that he’ll be stepping down as editor next week and moving to an undisclosed location (the only hint he'll allow us to give is that it's big media). Rest easy, though—his days of invigilating the military-industrial complex are far from over.

How'd you become a military tech junkie?

It started slowly. Before 9/11, I was a straight-up tech reporter, covering everything from online drug dealers to Internet porn. A few weeks later, I was writing about Predator drones and how they might be used in the upcoming anti-terror fight. From there, more and more articles on the subject started to trickle in. My friends said that they loved the pieces, and encouraged me to write more. So I did. And a habit started to grow.

I couldn't believe how much cool gear—lasers, robots, supersonic jets, miniature sensors—there was. And how little attention it all received. I mean, this is a $500-billion–dollar-a-year industry. The stakes are life and death. And yet, the state of Brad and Jennifer’s marriage gets more ink. So the field was wide open, more or less. By the middle of 2002, I was pretty much permanently camping out in it.

Where do you get your info? You seem to have a great memory for devices and their uses in warfare.

I get my information any way I can—government websites, face-to-face interviews, anonymous tips. Military technology is a huge field; it doesn't lend itself to quick-hit, in-and-out reporting. Developing relationships and learning where to look all takes time.

I'm learning new stuff, literally every day, especially from my partners-in-blog-crime, like David Axe, Sharon Weinberger, and David Hambling.

Any particularly noteworthy weapons in development right now?

The American soldier. I'll take a kick-ass infantryman, or a sharp-eyed intelligence officer, over any piece of gear. Every time. These guys are the ones that'll make the difference in the dirty wars the U.S. is going to be fighting in the years to come. And that's why it bugs me to no end to see them get short-changed, while gazillion dollar fighter jets and destroyers suck up all of the Pentagon's cash.

You spent some time in Iraq recently. What was the most awe-inspiring display of martial prowess you saw?

I don't know about "awe-inspiring display[s] of martial prowess." But I can tell you about soldiers that are really, really brave. I spent three weeks last summer with an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit—a bomb squad, in other words. These guys, as often as ten times a day, would be out in Baghdad's 138-degree heat, defusing bombs, avoiding insurgent booby-traps, and dodging attacks. And they did it all with a cool professionalism that left me totally relaxed, even when the IEDs were going off. Here's a story I wrote about one of those days. Check out the ending, when Staff Sergeant Mark Palmer is hovering over a smoking mortar, trying to render the thing safe with a garden hose and a bucket of sand, before it explodes and kills us all.

A lot of Jews admire the IDF as the embodiment of Jewish dominance. How true is that conception? How capable is the IDF, and how do they compare to our own forces?

I haven't seen the IDF up close—at least, not since I got on this defense beat. (My last time in Israel was in 2000. I was supposed to go to the Golan for my honeymoon. But that trip was called off by Hezbollah.) I do know that the IDF is pretty much world-renowned for their abilities to handle everything from counterinsurgency to tank warfare, that they've spent years developing informants within the Arab community, and that they pioneered many of the high-tech war-fighting strategies that the rest of the world now uses—surveillance drones, for instance. All that said, the IDF seems to be running into many of the same problems in Lebanon that U.S. forces have found in Iraq. Putting a stop to a guerrilla army is tough.

You're quoted by both conservative and liberal bloggers. Yet judging by your blogroll, you tilt left. Is it wrong to associate war and military advances with the right?

I think the right in the U.S. is way, way more comfortable discussing military strategy and hardware than the left is. A lot of American liberals instinctually flinch from military matters. And that's a shame. Because, they're automatically taking themselves out of the debate over some of the country's (and the world's) most important debates.

Maybe that's what accounts for the inverse political correctness you regularly see in military circles. Everyone assumes that everyone else is to the right of Dick Cheneythat he or she is the only free-thinker in the bunch. Often times, the whole group turns out to be politically independent. But, publicly, they'll mouth conservative talking points, because they think it's one way to get ahead.

In a sense, you've made war your life. This means trafficking in death and destruction all day long. Ever have moments of doubt about this line of work? Is it depressing, or are you inured to the grimness by now?

Do I have moments of doubt? All the time. That whole 90's peace-and-prosperity thing was a lot cooler than what we have now.

What are your thoughts on the surge?

I'm skeptical. But I hope to hell it works. For more than three years, I've had soldiers complaining to me about the lack of boots on the ground. About how winnable this war might be, if only there were more of them patrolling Iraq.

But these guys didn't want a 10 or 15 percent increase in manpower, like the 21,5000 extra troops that the President publicly called for. The soldiers I've spoken to want their numbers dramatically boosted—by 50 percent, 100 percent, more. They want enough troops to completely blanket the country, or at least to pull off the classic counterinsurgency move of clearing out neighborhoods of guerrillas, and holding the areas for the good guys.

The problem is, there aren't enough people to send, these days. So American commanders are stuck making this incremental increase. Maybe, if they're positioned smartly, it'll be enough. Maybe. But I doubt it.

Counterinsurgency seems more akin to colonial civil service than combat. It's all about establishing trust and getting a local population to convert its loyalty to a foreign army based on that army's ability to lay the foundations of a new society. This gives our troops the added responsibility of acting like policemen and bureaucrats, doesn't it? Do you think they've got the chops, not to mention the necessary patience, to conduct "war at the graduate level," as counterinsurgency is often called?

Well, you've basically got all the guys teaching those graduate classes heading to Iraq for this push. And some of their announced moves—like stationing American troops

in downtown Baghdad, instead of holed up in U.S. mega-bases—sound smart. But again, I'm not sure even the most brilliant officers can turn Iraq around, at this point.

One of the suggested plans for concluding the war in Iraq has been to withdraw from Baghdad and establish semi-permanent garrisons in Kuridstan and "Shiastan." How viable do you think this option is? Can the Iraqi military secure the capital—and keep it secure—all on its own?

Not from what I've been told, no. Or at least, not without turning Iraq into El Salvador, circa 1983.

Harper's carries a cover story this month about America's "coming robot army." I wonder how much this reflects tech-savvy futurism, or the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" of risk-averse warfare, taken to a fetishistic extreme. Do you think ground wars will ever be fought without human soldiers and the inevitability of human casualties?

I haven't seen the article. But if by “robot army” Harper's means an “all-robot army,” that isn't coming for a long, long, long time. Decades, at least. Ground robots are just too dumb, and don't see well enough. Hell, it's considered a major achievement if they can pick their way across uninhabited terrain, at slow speed. And then there are the safety concerns. We've all had our PC freak out for no reason. Now imagine your laptop had a machine gun. That's why armed ground robots that were supposed to ship out to Iraq years ago are still stateside.

Yes, there will be more and more robots in the military. But they will work in tandem with flesh-and-blood soldiers—and operate mostly at those human troops' commands.

Cool cover Harper's has got, though.

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