Podcast: War is a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

Major Zachary D. Martin, USMC (ret'd.) on the Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 29 –
War is a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

“There is a great tradition of very brilliant, outside-the-box, non-traditional, dynamic thinkers in the Marine Corps. . . . At the same time, our totem animal is the bulldog, not an animal known for its finesse.”

Zach Martin recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 16 years in the service. But 25 years ago, he and your host were hyperliterate misfit high-school pals, trading Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch and Robert Anton Wilson novels. So how did he end up commanding Marine Recon forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as Maj. Zachary D. Martin?

“We greatly misunderstand the young men who go overseas and fight for us. We make them idols. They’re heroes, but we misunderstand what that means.”

We have a wide-ranging conversation about Zach’s career, the military’s risk-averse culture, the rise (and fall) of counterinsurgency strategy, what it’s like to give a kill order, how it felt to lose troops under his command, what it’s like to clear, hold and build a city in Afghanistan (and how it felt to see it all fall apart), how he fought all his best battles in Afghanistan wearing shorts and t-shirt, and more!

“The police we were training [in Afghanistan] were effective. I mean, they were gangsters, but provided you were willing to overlook their criminal activities, they were certainly maintaining order.”

We also discuss Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour and how it reflects the nation’s perception of the military, how he was inspired by Bill Clinton (but didn’t reckon with survivor bias), why he’d like to write a novel about his experiences at war, what books meant the most to him during his years in the service, the difference between motivation and volition, and why war is like a self-licking ice cream cone.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Major Zachary D. Martin (ret.) was most recently a member of Afghan National Police Advisor Team, and previously served as the Commanding Officer, Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. His most recent deployment in that role was to Afghanistan in command of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He keeps a blog about his reading and writing at booksandmovement.net, where you can also find some of the articles he wrote during his career in the Marines.

Credits: This episode’s music is Life During Wartime by Talking Heads. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Maj. Martin on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded at home on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Zach Martin by me.

Podcast: God’s Way of Teaching Americans Geography

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 4 –
Fred Kaplan – God’s Way of Teaching Americans Geography

Every generation, we find ourselves fighting one of these insurgency wars, but the last one — Vietnam — was so awful that the generals threw out all the training manuals and lessons from it, saying, “We’re not doing that ever again.” The problem was, they didn’t have a choice.

Why was the U.S. Army so unprepared for the insurgency in Iraq? Why did it take years after the fall of Baghdad for the military and its civilian command to understand what sort of war we were fighting? What did we achieve in Afghanistan, and what did we hope to achieve? Fred Kaplan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, discusses all this and more in the latest episode of The Virtual Memories Show! (My contribution is a comparison of war analytics to pharmaceutical clinical trials.)


There’s a tendency for people to believe that everybody around the world is pretty much like us, and to the extent that they’re not, it’s because a dictator is stomping his boot on their heads. The thinking goes, when that boot is lifted, they’ll become like us. It’s a very one-dimensional view of conflict.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out our archives for more! (If you dig this one, you’ll probably like the episode with Ron Rosenbaum from January ’13.)

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column at Slate.com and jazz reviews for Stereophile magazine. In addition to The Insurgents, his books include 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, and The Wizards of Armageddon (Stanford Nuclear Age Series). His articles, reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times, The Boston Globe, Time, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The New York Observer, The Forward, Architectural Digest, Home Theater, GQ, and a whole lot of other venues over the years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 while at the Boston GlobeVisit his website for more about his work.

Credits: This episode’s music is Start a War by The National. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Also, I have a yucky headcold, so that’s why the intro/outro sounds so bad this time around. I’ll come up with another reason for next episode’s bad intro/outro.