Jun 13

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

“On Violence, what do you think of Serial’s second season on Bowe Bergdahl?”

We’ve been asked that question a lot, by friends and family, by people in the military and outside it, and by people we meet online. The whole gamut.

But usually we don’t say anything, and we haven’t written anything about Bergdahl since Serial: Season Two dropped. Which feels unusual because we dubbed Bowe Bergdahl’s release one-half of our most thought provoking event of the half year back in 2014, where we, mainly, debunked some instant criticism heaped on President Obama for securing Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.

So why not address Serial: Season Two sooner? Fear of the rabbit hole. I (Michael C) knew that as soon as I started listening, I’d be flooded with post ideas. And I was right. As I listened to the first episode, I was flooded with ideas, which I’ll now roll out over the next several months.

But before we get there, let’s start simpler. At the beginning. With the theme music. At almost exactly 4 minutes into episode one, the Republican candidate for President says:

“In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERS]”

Usually, this is where I would let out the snark on Donald Trump and lambast this position. Except I have to be honest: I’ve made this argument. At two separate parties, I prefaced my opinion on Bergdahl--really to convey the seriousness of what he did--by saying that, in the olden times, America executed deserters.

Oops.

To be fair, just because someone is odious doesn’t mean their positions are similarly odious by default. We’ve gone at the reverse of this quite a bit in our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series. Just because Einstein said something doesn’t make it witty and just because Hitler said something doesn’t make it inherently evil.

I can admit though, I was wrong on this point. Just a moment of self-reflection reveals this to be a bad argument. And I have three variations on this theme.

1. We don’t do a lot of things in general we used to do.

For instance, slavery. America, Great Britain and all the colonial powers used to take people from their homes in Africa in chains, ship them across the sea, and hold them in bondage. This bondage was enforced through corporal punishment, torture and murder.

Society also used to sacrifice animals, which used to be a common part of religion, including the Abrahamic tradition. I mean, if you go back far enough in time, religions used to sacrifice people.

In almost every way, in every facet of society, the way we do things now is better than the past. That includes not shooting deserters. So yeah, we used to do a lot of things we don’t do any more.

2. We used to shoot people for a lot of crimes.

For instance, shoplifting, cutting down cherry trees, escaping multiple times as a slave, stealing cattle, or sodomy. So yes, we used to shoot deserters, but we used to shoot people for a lot of crimes we no longer use it for. So it isn’t a great argument.

3. We used to do a lot of things in warfare we don’t do anymore.

We’ll go into this in much more detail, but the most striking thing about the Bowe Bergdahl case, for me, is how much effort was expended in rescuing Bergdahl in the initial months after his desertion and capture. Literally, operations ground to a halt across Afghanistan to find a single soldier.

This just didn’t happen in prior wars. When B-29s flew over Germany in WWII, many of them didn’t return. Either because they were shot down, crashed or got lost. The Allies didn’t have the manpower to hunt down each missing plane. This applied to boats lost at sea and soldiers lost on the ground.

But warfare is different with an all volunteer force. We bring every single soldier back including their bodies. We’ll stop the war effort to do so, even if doing so would likely cause us to lose us the war. While the contemporary force refuses to admit this fact, we did not used to fight wars that way.

So Donald Trump is correct. We used to shoot deserters. We don’t anymore. That’s a good thing.

Jun 06

In the last few years, kick-started by the Osama bin Laden killing, Navy SEALs have dominated the military-themed universe. Of course, we were on this way early, starting with our week on Lone Survivor (as part of Eric C’s series on post-9/11 war memoirs). Since then, we’ve catalogued the films, the news stories, the political action committees and the books by and about Navy SEALs. (And listed the political inaccuracies contained therein.)

A new academic paper on this issue lays out the potential costs to the SEAL community. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell, doing graduate work at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written his Master’s thesis called “Navy SEALs Gone Wild” that analyzes the degradation of the Navy SEAL’s ethos when it comes to publicity.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“What would have happened if U.S. Navy SEALs had not killed Osama bin Laden, but rather he had been killed by a drone strike? Would President Obama’s administration have handled the publicity differently? Would the name and location of the drone operator’s unit have been released? Would the man or woman who pulled the trigger to release the missile have been lionized in mainstream American culture? Would Fox News have hired this drone operator to be a Fox News contributor, paid to comment on domestic and foreign policy? Would drone operators have materialized from the shadows to write tell-all books, star in movies, blog about sensitive drone operations, criticize the president, and run for political office on the platform that they were drone operators? (Hint: this is what many former SEALs are doing.)"

This is an amazing anecdote and really shows the stark differences between special operators and other soldiers. It also sets up the key challenge addressed by the paper: how can an elite unit that needs secrecy to thrive, survive when former members commoditize their experience?

Apparently the article has made the rounds in relatively small Naval Special Warfare community. This New York Times article describes a bit about that.

Take a read.

Jun 01

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As we wrote on Monday, Newsweek has a cover article on Mohammad Gulab’s struggles after saving the life of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the famed author of Lone Survivor. The piece also questions what actually happened on the mission, including some new information we wanted to highlight.

To start, Gulab’s account differs from Luttrell’s story in a number of ways. He starts by telling a different narrative about how the insurgents in the area discovered the SEALs:

“Gulab maintains the SEALs were far from the stealthy, superhuman warriors described in Lone Survivor. ] They didn’t die because they spared civilians, he says; they died because they were easily tracked, quickly outmaneuvered and thoroughly outgunned. The militants, like many others in the area, heard the helicopter drop the Americans on the mountain, Gulab claims. The next morning, they began searching for the SEAL’s distinctive footprints. The way Gulab heard it from fellow villagers, when the militants finally found them, the Americans were deliberating about what to do with the goat herders. The insurgents held back. After Luttrell and company freed the locals, the gunmen waited for the right moment to strike."

This calls into question the central argument of Lone Survivor (book) that restrictive ROE got the SEALs killed.

The next inaccuracy casts doubts on the severity of the firefight, questioning the number of rounds fired by Luttrell.

“More puzzling: While Luttrell wrote that he fired round after round during the battle, Gulab says the former SEAL still had 11 magazines of ammunition when the villagers rescued him—all that he had brought on the mission.”

In addition to those two new potential inaccuracies, the article provides further evidence that Luttrell’s account inflated both the number of enemy fighters and how many of those fighters the SEALs killed:

““[Luttrell’s claims] are exaggerated nonsense,” says Patrick Kinser, a former Marine infantry officer who participated in Operation Red Wings and read the former SEAL’s after action report. “I’ve been at the location where he was ambushed multiple times. I’ve had Marines wounded there. I’ve been in enough firefights to know that when shit hits the fan, it’s hard to know how many people are shooting at you. [But] there weren’t 35 enemy fighters in all of the Korengal Valley [that day].”

And...

“The battle, Gulab claims, was short-lived. He wasn’t on the mountain with Luttrell but says everyone in the village could hear the gunfire. Gulab scoffs at the estimate by Naval Special Warfare Command that 35 Taliban died in the battle. (A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the matter.) But the Afghan claims the villagers and American military personnel who combed the mountain for the bodies of the dead SEALs never found any enemy corpses. (Andrew MacMannis, a former Marine Colonel who helped draw up the mission and was on scene during the search and recovery effort for the dead SEALs and other military personnel, says there were no reports of any enemy casualties.)"

Here are some other thoughts on the article:

First, especially in light of the rest of the article, one shouldn’t take everything Gulab says as gospel. He’s just one source. And he clearly has a bias, as the rest of the article shows. That said, one shouldn’t take everything Luttrell says as absolutely true, which almost every journalist who interviews him does. Schneiderman took a much more nuanced approach which is missing in a lot of quick hit journalism nowadays.

Second, this is a great article by R.M. Schneiderman, but we really wish he hadn’t repeated the inaccurate details of the mission before casting doubt on them later in the article. Schneiderman questions the basic facts of the story, using the amazing work by Ed Darack and links to our posts on Luttrell’s story changes, but only after he retells Luttrell’s original, and inaccurate, story. First, it’s a long article, so a lot of people just won’t finish it. (Thanks, internet.) Even worse, a lot of research has been done by psychologists that shows how difficult it is to change people’s minds when they are presented with inaccurate information. Some readers, even if they read the facts contradicting Luttrell’s story later in the story, will still be inclined to believe him.

Third, Schneiderman includes one possible explanation for some of the inconsistencies in the book Lone Survivor:

“Robinson says he interviewed Gulab extensively, took notes and double-checked details with the interpreter, but as with Lone Survivor ], he didn’t record the interviews.”

Finally, I, Eric C, remain frustrated at the double standard that the media holds for veterans. Last year, we wrote a piece--that we couldn’t get published--after Brian Williams got in trouble for exaggerating his personal experiences in combat zones. Also last year, two different memoirs (Primates of Park Avenue and On the Run) were accused of inaccuracies, and the accusations were widely covered in the mainstream media, including hundreds of blog posts and even taking up segments on cable news and morning news.

No one, it seems, cares about veterans exaggerating their details, at least not as much as liberal professors, nannies or news anchors. I have theories why, but I’m still disappointed.

May 16

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If you haven’t seen it, Newsweek has a cover story by R. M. Schneiderman on Mohammad Gulab, the man who rescued Marcus Luttrell (of Lone Survivor fame). The article focuses on Gulab’s troubles leaving Afghanistan after protecting Luttrell and the ensuing falling out between the two men. Schneiderman also details the discrepancies between Marcus Luttrell’s versions of events--linking to both the research of Ed Darack and yours truly--and he gives Gulab’s account of the battle, which differs from Luttrell’s.

The article is worth a read to understand the plight of civilians who who helped Americans (most often as interpreters) and now need to leave Afghanistan or Iraq. It also includes some new information (and new discrepancies) in the story of Lone Survivor, which we’ll highlight on Wednesday.

May 09

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

When it came time to endorse a Republican for president in the primary--we wanted to endorse candidates on both sides--Michael C and I choose Rand Paul. He supports civil liberties and opposes the burgeoning police state. More importantly, he’s an isolationist and doesn’t support needless military interventions abroad. Though we have major disagreements with his domestic policy, we agree with him on many foreign policy issues, especially compared to other Republicans.

But Michael C found this seemingly non-isolationist op-ed he wrote for Time magazine, titled, “I Am Not An Isolationist”. Did this change our minds about the once-isolationist-now-pro-intervention Rand Paul?

Nope.

Despite the title, Paul doesn’t actually argue against reducing US intervention abroad but for attacking ISIS. His op-ed doesn’t refute his previous opposition to foreign entanglements, but, like us, he is bristling at a label war hawks give anyone who opposes needless military interventions. We also don’t believe him. Lines like, “I still see war as the last resort.” and “There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand” are actually arguments for isolationism, or at least reducing the use of military force. (And stand in stark contradiction to multiple Republicans who endorse “carpet bombing” and other indiscriminate uses of force.)   

But I noticed something else in this op-ed. Rand Paul doesn’t actually offer any solutions to defeat ISIS. Or anything different than what Obama has already done. Instead, he resorts to bland platitudes like, “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS...”

One of the only lines of attack Republicans have against Democrats in this upcoming campaign is the “threat” of ISIS. And you know whose fault it is? Obama’s. We could dig up a bunch of quotes from Republicans saying Obama allowed ISIS to thrive. Do we need to? It’s been a central talking point of Republicans throughout this campaign.

What would Republicans do differently than Obama? Rand Paul’s recommendations--including airstrikes, aiding the Kurds, asking Congress for military approval--are all things Obama did. And have largely worked, both in terms of stopping ISIS’s growth and actually causing them to lose territory.

His only major difference with Obama, policy-wise, is making it harder for Muslims to enter the US, which obviously won’t change the situation is Syria. Since the candidates don’t want to promise to send soldiers into the Middle East again (“boots on the ground”, as the saying goes), they’re stuck without any alternatives than what we’ve already done. (And yes, Rand Paul kept mentioning developing a better strategy. “Strategy” is a vague buzzword, like “leadership”, that politicians and pundits use when convenient.)

Still, haters gonna hate, hate, hate. Republicans don’t offer an alternative, just the fact that they’d do it better. Might as well be called the “Trump strategy”. I don’t know how I’d do it, I’d just do it better.

And that’s not actually a foreign policy.

Apr 27

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

In our coverage of the Republican presidential candidates, we’ve been revisiting far too many topics and issues that should be settled by now, like torture, ROE, the size of the military, and so on and so on. Aside from admitting The Iraq War was a mistake, it seems the country hasn’t gained ground on becoming more tolerant (or intelligent) on foreign policy.

This list would include hate speech.

In one of my favorite series for the blog, we “Got Orwellian” on the use of hate speech towards Islamic people generally. To summarize our series:

“Muslims (even the so called “islamofascists”) aren’t animals. They aren’t less than human. They aren’t barbarians, primitives or savages. They’re people. We may hate them and what they do. They’re still human.

“We’ve been writing about language and hate speech for these last few months not because we’re grammar and usage mavens (though I am). We’re writing about language and war because words matter especially when those words sustain conflicts instead of ending them. Words actively change points of view and perceptions. Words actively shape worldviews. Language affects whether the American military ever tries to adopt population-centric counterinsurgency, or whether it decides that the enemy is an sub-human that must (and can only) be killed.”

Hate speech dehumanizes your enemy, turning your opponent into an other that exists outside of “civilized” society. Thus they become “savages”, “barbarians” or “primitive”. Trump, wanting to make the dehumanization clear, just refers to the terrorists and ISIS, as “animals”. Terrorists may commit acts of evil, but they’re still human.

Like torture, hate speech is both morally wrong and ineffective. It alienates many young Muslim men, aiding terrorists groups that rely on recruiting alienated young Muslim men to bolster their ranks. In broader terms, hate speech/racism limits America, Europe and the world’s ability to stop radical terrorists. Far too many people never bother to understand al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other groups because they don’t even consider them human. And if you can’t accurately diagnose the disease, you can’t treat it properly.

This is a huge tactical mistake in the war on terror. But it doesn’t really matter, because as we wrote before:

“But I hate writing about tactics. Just like the debate about torture, it doesn’t matter if hate speech is ineffective; morally, it’s wrong. That’s all that matters.”

Apr 25

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

When we started preparing our series on the Republican primaries, I was excited to dust off an idea I had about a particularly destructive Secretary of State, inspired by this excellent Zack Beauchamp piece. It would perfectly fit in a season of Republican primaries that have seen legitimate presidential candidates call for war crimes and torture.

Then the Democrats beat me to it.

At the seventh Republican debate, responding to charges about who is advising his foreign policy, Bernie Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton’s support of Henry Kissinger. This sparked a round of internet commentary reviewing the legacy of America’s favorite international relations realist.

My (Michael C) thoughts on Henry Kissinger are too long to fit into our presidential election series, because you can’t really discuss Kissinger without discussing his philosophy on international relations. And I don’t just mean realism as a foreign policy, but his philosophy on when you can use violence to help your country at the expense of others. Or put another way, when to use violence on foreigners to help your fellow citizens.

Suffice it to say, On Violence thinks the good of Henry Kissinger (SALT treaties with Russia; rapprochement with China) is outweighed by the bad (the support of war crimes and genocide).

The current candidates for President disagree with me, except for (arguably) Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton kicked off this whole brouhaha by praising Kissinger in a debate and in one of her books. (She defended this decision by saying she listens to a wide range of opinions, and values Kissinger’s experience with and knowledge of China.)

Republicans also crave his approval, without feeling the need to justify it. Politico wrote a whole article on it:

“You’re a Republican thinking of running for president. It’s a dangerous world, and your foreign policy credentials are a little thin. Time to see Henry Kissinger. Scott Walker did it. So did Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Rick Perry paid a visit in September — he even tweeted a photo to prove it. Rubio ‘met with Kissinger a couple of times in the past, and always appreciates his insights’”

Ted Cruz posted a picture of himself on Facebook with Henry Kissinger saying he is, “honored to share a few moments with Dr. Kissinger.”

Zack Beauchamp (again, the inspiration for a series of posts I will write on the national interest versus morality) had the best summary of Kissinger’s positions and actions that would probably brand him a war criminal if charges were brought by the International Criminal Court. For the longer take, go to Christopher Hitchen’s foundational text, the aptly named, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. By their count, Kissinger could be charged with supporting mass murder in Pakistan, Argentina, Cambodia, East Timor and many African nations. Despite this, somehow Kissinger is not a pariah, but a fixture of the international relations world in Washington.

We just can’t condone that level of murder and support for dictatorships, and therefore don’t condone candidates who ignore that record.

Apr 12

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

Back in May of 2015, Republicans decided the Iraq War was a mistake.

Wha?

It started when Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly that he would have invaded Iraq even, “knowing what we know now”. It was a bad answer, or as Seth Meyers framed it on his late night show, “I have to say, Jeb, you’re making a real Iraq out of this. And just so you know, Iraq is slang for mess, because that’s what everyone agrees it was.”

Shockingly, other Republicans agreed with Seth Meyers. Zack Beauchamp tallied up the responses for Vox: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich all said that, if Iraq didn’t have WMDs, they would NOT have invaded Iraq. Slate added Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina to the list of Republicans who said, knowing what we know now about WMDs, they wouldn’t have invaded. Eventually, even Jeb Bush reversed himself.

Donald Trump perhaps said it best in the ninth debate:

“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right?...The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.”

On the one hand, “hurray” for the country finally deciding that the Iraq war was a mess. But it also shows that the media still struggles to properly discuss war and American foreign policy. Some thoughts...

1. The Iraq War is no longer debatable. That’s insanely awesome.

The Iraq War--at least America’s justification for that war--is nearing “no-longer-debatable” territory. It was a failure. No serious thinker, pundit or politician questions the non-existence of WMDs. Despite the polling numbers below, Republican presidential candidates know they can’t come out in favor of the war in Iraq or challenge the non-existence of WMDs without the majority of Americans not taking them seriously.

In the context of the truly objectionable positions many Republicans have taken on foreign policy, at least we’ve made progress, as a country, on this issue. And frankly, I’m stunned. Delighted, but stunned.

2. Rank and file Republicans--in general--still don’t believe this.

In late 2014, we wrote up one of my personal favorite posts, “Weapons of Mass Dis-information: 5 Different Books By or About Navy SEALs That Repeat the Same Misinformation”. As we wrote then, according to a YouGov poll, only 42% of Americans think Iraq didn’t have WMDs. 25% have no idea. More importantly, 62% of Republicans believe Saddam Hussein did.

Perhaps that 2012 poll is too old for you. Here’s one from early 2015: half of Republicans think Iraq had WMDs. For Republican presidential candidates to come out against the existence of WMDs, that’s both a good thing and totally mind-blowing. I’d have thought, like Obama’s “birth certificate”, they would have addressed this issue with code words. But they didn’t. That’s progress.

3. This is still the wrong question to ask.

I got so caught up with Republicans admitting that Iraq didn’t have WMDs that I completely missed the silliness of this question and the ensuing media spat. On its face, the question is misleading, or as Michael C put it, it’s like asking someone “Why do you beat your wife?”

We knew then that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, as James Fallows, Greg Sergeant, Jonathan Chait, Paul Krugman, and Peter Beinart pointed out. By framing the question as, “knowing what we know now” pretends that we didn’t “know what we knew” then. It absolves the Bush administration for cooking the intelligence books and misleading the American public. Reporters should ask, “How would you ensure you get accurate intelligence?”

4. What happened to the “Saddam was a bad guy” argument?

Marco Rubio, defending his position, pointed out that even George W. Bush wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Except that’s not really true, at least not according to Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points (H/T to the Washington Post fact checker). As the justifications for war in Iraq fell away--there were no links to al Qaeda; we didn’t find any WMDs; the country didn’t become a democracy--George W. Bush, other administration officials, and their defenders still had one last justification: Saddam Hussein was a bad guy.

Here’s what Bush wrote in his memoir:

“But inaction would have had consequences, too. Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq. He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror and piling bodies into mass graves.”

The better question for today is, would a Saddam Hussein regime be better than ISIS?

I should be generous: Bush’s defenders didn’t really have any arguments left after all the other ones fell away. The irony of the Saddam was a bad guy argument is what has taken Saddam’s place: a region mired in civil war and not one but two destabilized regimes, fostering Islamic extremists and terrorism. Oh, and tons of mass graves.

5. What about the veterans?

Jeb Bush had the strangest dodge of all, trying to avoid answering anything about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. He brought up the real victims of the debate: soldiers and veterans (with their invincibly strong approval ratings).

“I admired the men and women -- mostly men -- that made the ultimate sacrifice. So, going back in time and talking about hypotheticals -- what would have happened what could have happened, I think, does a disservice for them."

So because soldiers died in a war, we can’t discuss the decisions that led to them dying in that war? We can’t analyze a bad decision to prevent future bad decisions?

Nothing in this whole debate is more illogical than that.