Mar 31

Last Fall, Eric C ran across a passage in The Moon is Down that captured his thoughts so well, he just posted it straight up. The conclusions of The Ugly American (you can read Monday's review here) made me feel the exact same way.

In The Ugly American, Ambassador to Sarkhan Gilbert MacWhite lays out six conditions he demands of every foreign service officer traveling to the fictional country of Sarkhan. Change some of the words from Sarkhan to Afghanistan, and you have what I believe would be six fantastic ideas for counter-insurgents abroad:

1. I request that every American (and his dependents) sent to Sarkhan be required to be able to both read and speak Sarkhanese. I am satisfied that if the motivation is high enough, any person can learn enough of the language in twelve weeks so that he can get along. This should be required of both military and civilian personnel.

2. I request that no American employee be allowed to bring his dependents to Sarkhan unless he is willing to serve here for at least two years. If he does bring his family, it should be with the understanding they will not be given luxurious quarters, but will live in housing which is normal to the area; their housing should certainly not be more luxurious than they are able to afford in America. They should also subsist on foods available in local stores--which are wholesome and ample.

3. I request that the American commissary and PX be withdrawn from Sarkhan, and that no American supplies be sold except for toilet articles, baby food, canned milk, coffee, and tobacco.

4. I request that Americans not be allowed to bring their private automobiles to this country. All of our official transportation should be done in official automobiles. Private transportation should be taxi, pedicab, or bicycle.

5. I request that all Americans serving in Sarkhan, regardless of their classification, be required to read books by Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, Chou En-lai, Marx, Engels, and leading Asian Communists. This reading should be done before arrival.
[Editorial note: This is an anachronistic holdover between capitalism and communism, but they totally apply to knowing your enemy.]

6. I request that in our current recruiting program we make all of these conditions clear to any prospective government employee, so that he comes here with no illusions. It has been my experience that superior people are attracted only by challenge. By setting our standards low and making our life soft, we have, quite automatically and unconsciously, assured ourselves of mediocre people.


And now my thoughts:

Now, obviously some of these would only work metaphorically, and some would work literally. The important point is that at the time of printing, in 1958, these ideas were radical. They still are today.

For example, virtually every Soldier spends an hour each day conducting physical fitness. Soldiers are tested twice a year in the Army Physical Fitness Test, and their results are put in evaluation reports, and rewarded with medals in some cases. Yet virtually no unit studies languages regularly, and testing for languages is voluntary, even with units about to deploy.

Points 2, 3, and 4 don't apply directly, (no Soldiers or Marines bring their dependents to Afghanistan or Iraq) but the principle does. We deploy in relative luxury. We have access to DVDs, air conditioning, and some Super-FOBs have Burger King. Compared to the immense poverty of the surrounding countryside of Afghanistan, this is just insulting. If Afghan Soldiers can get away without AC, our Soldiers should. We should live like Afghans, the way insurgents, and good counter-insurgents, do.

Overall, the demand for luxury is a loss of focus on the mission. Much has been made of General Stanley McChrystal’s spartan living habits in Afghanistan. I have a feeling this comes from an understanding that luxury like gourmet coffee, steak and shrimp dinners, basketball tournaments, and salsa night do not contribute to mission success.

Which rule would you like to see America implement for better COIN?

Mar 29

After President John F. Kennedy read the novel The Ugly American, inspiration struck, and he decided to have every senior State Department official, and every single American military officer, read the book.

Unfortunately, he never gave the order, because he didn't believe the officials and officers would actually read the book. (This story is one of legend, otherwise we would link to it.) Fortunately, The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, hasn't gone away.

It is as relevant today as it was when it was first printed, before the Vietnam war (which it predicted). The Ugly American captures the essence of unconventional warfare in fiction. Or, in On Violence terms, it describes political war; it should still be read by all American military officers.

The authors originally set out to write a series of non-fiction accounts of State Department officials in southeast Asia based off their personal experience in the region. As they developed their stories, they realized that only fiction could capture the zany reality they saw. So they created a southeast Asian nation, Sarkhan, and the diplomats, politicians, and military officers stationed there. The Ugly American is a series of interconnected short stories about Americans trying to influence Sarkhan while both communists and capitalists try to consolidate power.

This struggle is not a war between nation states, but the struggle of competing ideas. The book's struggle of ideas--capitalism versus communism-- mirrors today's battle between extreme Islam and Western democracy. Unlike state war, the political war in The Ugly American follows different rules.

As a Philippino diplomat describes it on page 109, “I know that you’re a diplomat and that warfare is not supposed to be your game; but you’ll discover soon enough out here that statesmanship, diplomacy, economics, and warfare just can’t be separated from one another.” The intersection of diplomacy, economics and warfare might as well be ripped from General Petraeus’ Field Manual on counter-insurgency.

And while the book as a whole capture the interconnectedness of warfare, the individual stories themselves shine. They tell the stories of ambassadors--good and bad, American, Russian and Asian-- military leaders, politicians, and most importantly “ugly Americans.” The best part of the novel is that the "ugly American" of the title is the most influential in Sarkhan.

His name is Homer Atkins. He provides only simple engineering insight, but does so in a way that the native Sarkhanese adopt the ideas wholeheartedly. Homer Atkins doesn’t care about living lavishly, he learns the local language, and he genuinely cares about the people of Sarkhan, not just the threats against America.

In another story, we hear about an Air Force Colonel named Hillendale, probably an intelligence officer, who manages to influence massive numbers of Sarkhanese without really trying. He sings songs, reads palms, and eats food with them. (He also knows the language, a point that occurs over and over. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and last summer.) Most importantly, he uses hardly any money while he influences people.

The lessons of Homer Atkins and Colonel Hillendale are just two of many. The most important lesson, and why all current and future military officers should read this novel, is because it persuasively describes political war. (Also, while I have been insanely positive in today's post, on Wednesday I will provide some of the downsides of this thoroughly enjoyable novel.)

And if he hasn't read The Ugly American, I would advise President Barack Obama to read it too. Hopefully he finishes the job President Kennedy started, making all military officers and State Department officials read this novel. (Although, I bet 90% of officers wouldn’t even if the president told them to.)

Mar 26

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

When I first started this “war memoirs project," I wrote a quick litmus test of things that, if the memoirist were being totally honest about war, they would include in the memoir. I want to read war memoirs (and literature as a whole) that include the things that haunt the writer when they go to sleep.

At the top of that list I wrote “killing dogs.” By extension, I meant all animals. Of the many things war destroys, one of the most evocative and symbolically powerful is the deliberate or unintended deaths of dogs.

If you're human, you’ve probably already had a negative reaction. Andy Rooney, in his memoir My War, describes it perfectly: “I knew as I was thinking how sad animals were in war, that it was a misplaced emotion for me to have with human beings dying in every way on every side, but nonetheless I kept feeling bad about unmilked cows, homeless horses, abandoned dogs...most of them got no help from humans concerned mostly with staying alive themselves.”

This is a powerful image, a war-zone filled with bloated horse carcasses eaten by homeless dogs. But like all war, the ugly is balanced (but not overcome) by the beautiful. Soldiers raised in rural areas try to milk the cows when they can, and “every wandering dog was adopted and fed by some GI.” Soldiers love dogs, and as we wrote last week on The Best Defense, many platoons and companies in Afghanistan or Iraq have, at some point, had a company or platoon pet.

So the best writers know to use dogs in their stories. This is why the single best image from the recent war memoirs is of a horse, running wild in the Shahi-kot valley, miraculously surviving bomb blasts for days on end in The War I Always Wanted.

It’s why the best scene in Jarhead involves the pre-war shooting of a Bedouin camel.

It’s why Nathaniel Fick doesn’t mention dogs in his memoir, but in Generation Kill a Sergeant has to tell his Marines they won’t be shooting any dogs.

It’s why the medic Rat Kiley shoots and tortures a baby water buffalo after a land mine kills his friend Curtis Lemon.

It’s why Lone Survivor, The Unforgiving Minute, and One Bullet Away all feel like they are missing something from their accounts of war.

In this post I don’t have room to explain why the death of animals evokes the deepest of emotions. But let it suffice to say it matters, and the best reporters, writers, and memoirists write about the animals in war.

Mar 25

Quick heads up:

Eric C just had two guest posts published this week. The first is over at Chris C's site the Predigested Opinion Spigot titled, "What It Means To Be Anti-War."

Eric C also had a post titled, "8 Way To Guest Post Your Way To Twitter Dominance" over on Twitip.

Check them out.

Mar 24

Every so often a famous foreign policy wonk will declare globalization to be dead. Or claim that the world was more globalized back in the 1900s. We could accept these pronouncements...

Or we could look at the Winter Olympics.

If you don’t believe the world is flat, check out the field in Vancouver. The Cayman Islands, Ghana and Senegal--all countries with no snow or ice--sent athletes to Vancouver to try to win gold. Eighty years ago, when 16 nations all from North America or Europe competed in the Winter Olympics, this could not have happend. Something changed our world; that something is globalization.

In 1988, Jamaica shocked the world by fielding a bobsled team at Calgary. ("We are Jamaica..we are a bobsled team.") The bobsled didn’t compete this year, instead Errol Kerr represented Jamaica in the equally snow-dependent Ski Cross. Jamaica doesn't hold the monopoly on tropical island winter Olympians though. Dow Travers, from the Cayman Islands, competed in the slalom after training in England.

The most famous non-winter Winter Olympian of 2010 was the "Snow Leopard" Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. Raised in Ghana, studying in London, skiing on indoor slopes, raising money on facebook and myspace, and becoming a international media sensation, he went through every stage of globalization. He even accomplished his goal of not placing last in the Super G.

But that wasn’t the only African skier to compete this year. Leyti Seck, a computer studies student living in Austria, decided to compete for Senegal instead of competing for his adopted home Austria. He too earned press all over Europe to help pay his way to the games.

Blame (or thank) this crazy phenomenon on globalization. The ability to fly to London, compete on the slopes, then fly home, compete on indoor ski ranges, raise funds through facebook and myspace, then still get the sponsorship of your home country. Sure all the Winter Olympians spent plenty of time away from their homelands, but in a globalized world, that is what we should expect. Countries can now afford to send someone abroad, publicize their events, and have them compete in a previously geographically static competition.

And remember I didn’t mention Ethiopia, Bermuda, Colombia, or Morocco or the countries that competed four years ago: Costa Rica, Kenya, Madagascar, Thailand, and the Virgin Islands.

(A final note, in Cool Runnings Yul Brynner says, "I see pride..I see power... I see a bad ass mother who don't take no crap from no buddy." It's pretty good description of American foreign policy the last ten years.)

Mar 22

To continue my series on “Guidelines versus Rules,” I am going to deconstruct what I call the "all obstacles must be observed" rule. Simply put, the most effective obstacles--like mine fields, tank ditches or IEDs--have someone somewhere observing them (usually with the ability to call for indirect fire).

Example: imagine a Brigade trying to cross a field with a river on the far side. The bridge crossing the river is destroyed, the field is mined, and tank ditches block the far end. A nightmare scenario. The defending force will rain down fire as the Brigade tries to cross the river, clear the field, and get over the tank ditches. The Soldiers aren't just trying to clear the obstacles; they're trying to avoid getting killed.

Obstacles observed by fire are dramatically more effective, both for and against you. If you place an obstacle, you should observe it. If you come across an obstacle, you should assume the enemy is observing it. This is why it is a good guideline: all obstacles, when possible, should be observed.

This good guideline, unfortunately, became a rule. It is a rule because many officers and planners are under the mistaken assumption that every obstacle must always be observed. During countless training exercises, I have seen planners say that either an obstacle shouldn’t be constructed because it can’t be observed, or that the enemy would not place an obstacle if he couldn’t observe it. I have heard field grade officers say, “If you can’t see the obstacle it might as well not be there."

A lot of the confusion comes from the definition of two terms. In Army doctrine, a simple obstacle is not observed. A complex obstacle is observed by fire. (IEDs are the same way. A simple IED ambush does not have direct fire supporting it. A complex IED does.) I believe the "every obstacle must be observed" rule developed because complex obstacles are more desirable then simple obstacles, so it became a habit to observe every obstacle. The guideline really is "all obstacles should be complex."

To counter the "all obstacles must be observed" crowd, I like to bring up the abatis. In lay man terms, an abatis is two trees blown down so they land obstructing the enemy’s direction of travel. Anyone traveling down the road will have to clear the fallen trees. Especially effective in heavily wooded forests, (think parts of Germany or the forests of Washington state) numerous abatis on an avenue of approach are a nightmare for an advancing force.

The abatis is a low tech solution (it was used to block carriages back in the day too) that still works to counter high tech modern armies. When combined with ambushes, IEDs and other unconventional tactics, the abatis can dramatically slow a conventional force. Most important, abatis don't need to be observed. Only a small number actually have to be watched to accomplish their mission. The abatis wears down the invader; combined with ambushes, they set his nerves on end.

In high intensity warfare, the minefield does not have to observed. Minefields terrify dismounted troops, with or without observation. Again, the best use of mines is when they can be observed. But if you have no choice and scatter a minefield without observation, they will still dramatically stall a units advance. Even if it is unobserved, a minefield will force a unit to clear the obstacle, and use a limited corridor through the minefield. And no matter how confident the engineers are that they cleared the minefield, the infantry guys will still be incredibly nervous.

The enemies of the US military, and Army in particular, will create obstacles in the future they do not cover with observation. These obstacles will still be effective, particularly in unconventional war. Commanders, if they are clever, should be prepared to lay obstacles even if they cannot observe them. We should remember the difference between guidelines and rules; fighting under too many rules erodes a commander's initiative, leadership, and creativity.

(By the way, check out Starbuck's thoughts on last week's post over at Wings Over Iraq. He emphasized the "canned" nature of too many training exercises. I couldn't agree more.)

Mar 22

Hey all,

We just had a guest post published at Tom Rick's must-read blog, The Best Defense, as part of his "War Dog of The Week" series. Our post is titled, "The Weenie of Afghanistan." Please check it out.

Also we have to give thanks to Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic/Daily Dish, for shouting the post out as well.

We plan on writing more about dogs and warzones, with a post coming this friday on the topic.

Mar 19

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Constantly diplomatic, Officers represent something larger than themselves, trained from the beginning of their careers to salute, toe the line, and not walk on the base's grass.

Nice traits for an officer; bad ones for a memoir writer.

The best writers are undiplomatic writers. They (through writing, reporting, comedy, whatever) shove the real world back in your face, unvarnished and uncensored. The best diplomats massage their messages. They aren't liars, but they certainly don't tell the truth.

The difference between the writer and the diplomat is the difference between Generation Kill and One Bullet Away, two memoirs written by Evan Wright and Nathaniel Fick (previously reviewed here and here). Both men write about the same invasion--Fick led the platoon Wright reported on--and the difference is stark. (Wright's account of the invasion takes up his entire book, Fick's begins about 150 pages in. And as I wrote in my review, the first 100 pages of One Bullet Away are fantastic). Not surprisingly, a lot of my biases (about memoirs) were confirmed by the comparison. Generation Kill feels more honest, and delivers the reader few if any easy to digest morals.

Take the issue of drugs. At the start of One Bullet Away, a few weeks into Officer Candidate School, Fick's Drill Instructor kicks out a recruit named Dunkin, because "hidden in Dunkin's shoeshine kit was a bottle of ephedrine." This incident teaches Fick about what it means to lead, and what it means to obey.

Unfortunately for Fick, his men were ephedra junkies on their drive to Baghdad. In Generation Kill, Fick's Marines use the ephedra-based Ripped Fuel and chew coffee crystals on virtually every other page. Fick, meanwhile, doesn't mention ephedra, ephedrine or Ripped Fuel again, and never discusses his men's drug use. Of course, Fick's men used stimulants during the invasion, and many of them probably used steroids at some point before they deployed--I wouldn't say steroid use in the military is rampant, but it certainly isn't uncommon--but to say so would be undiplomatic. To write so in print, doubly so.

The moral understanding between the two writer is also miles apart. To wit, both writers describe the same incident, the shooting of two Iraqi children, in radically different terms. Death--mainly Iraqi--goes down hard in Wright's book. After Corporal Hasser shoots an unarmed civilian at a check point, Wright asks him how he is, "'Just taking it all in,' he says." After Lance Corporal Trombley shoots two people, he says wryly, "Shooting mother***ckers like it's cool." After he finds out they are children, the platoon nicknames him "baby killer."

These details are absent in One Bullet Away. Fick doesn't name who shot the young boys, doesn't explain his men's reactions, and never mentions the future nickname. Instead he blames the Rules of Engagement and, not openly, his commanders, who refuse to provide medical support to the children. He ends the chapter with an inspiring speech about what it means to be a Marine, and how the Platoon will move forward and get better. Fick searches for easy, digestible morals.

Fick also ignores a lot of the innocent death caused by his Platoon and the rest of the Battalion. Wright describes multiple instances of civilians getting shot, from the truly callous and vile (An unarmed Arab man in a brown suit shot from a convoy window by a Benelli shotgun) to the accidental (Trombley shooting the kids, Charlie company shooting a little girl). On a larger scale, he explains the damage potential of artillery shells, and the insane number of them the Marines shot into dozens of small towns. Wright changed my view of the invasion of Iraq. Fick didn't.

Other details are omitted. Fick only uses the F*** word is 19 times in One Bullet Away, S*** 20 times. I counted the word S*** three times on one page of Generation Kill. Wright litters his prose with multiple epithets for homosexuals and sexual parts that never appear in One Bullet Away.

We all want to present ourselves a certain way, and often that way doesn't jibe with how other people view us. The Marines of Generation Kill are profane, violent, humorous and sad. And at their core well-intentioned heroes. But they curse, say racist things and (accidentally) shoot civilians. But Fick loves them too much to write about them this way, and you can feel it.

I think every memoir would read differently if a reporter also followed the memoirist around. Fick just had the bad luck to have a reporter with him.

Mar 18

Hey all,

Quick heads up: Matty P just had a guest post published at Good To Know titled, "Levity." Check it out, it's a good post, we just oculdn't figure out how to fit it on to On V.

Mar 18

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

It was the biggest comic book event of all time, and it started as a joke. 

According to the writing team and a mini-documentary that accompanied the recent animated release Superman: Doomsday, one of the writers suggested, “Let’s just kill [him].” Of course, no one took this seriously. At least not at first, not until a major decline in sales of Superman titles did the idea move from jest into print, changing the comic industry forever.

In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, DC Comics editor Mike Carlin recalled the motivation for the killing off an icon, “The world was taking Superman for granted.” And so the writers, with the publisher's blessing, decided to show us all what a world without Superman would be like. 

The decision payed off for DC right away; Superman: Doomsday sold faster than a speeding bullet. Gaining immediate media attention, the incident helped to sell not only the Superman and Justice League comic books, but boosted sales for all of DC's titles. Fans needed to experience the reactions of each DC Comics hero to the death of Superman.

Something else also happened: there were limitless possibilities for comic book writers. The implied message was “Anything goes!” There were no more limitations. If DC could kill off the biggest name in fiction, then nothing was sacred.

The effect would soon be apparent. Soon other heroes became as mortal as the Man of Tomorrow. Hal Jordan, the most popular Green Lantern, would not only meet his own death but embark on a killing spree against his very own Corps and the Guardian who oversaw it. Bane would cripple Batman, prompting a new version updated for the nineties with armor and little moral regard for the welfare of criminals. The comic book universe descended into something much more... real.

Where comics were once a haven for children to dream about adventure and heroic feats, an evolution began where the world in which the heroes and superheroes lived is no long devoid of danger. Where once the Joker was content with kidnapping and practical jokes, he soon became a deranged mass murderer. Spouses and sidekicks could die. Icons were no longer safe. An entirely new universe opened up. 

To be fair, Superman’s death was not the first in the superhero world. In 1973, the Green Goblin killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Batman’s second incarnation of Robin, Jason Todd, died in 1988 at the behest to fans. One of the original X-men, Jean Grey, has died and returned a dozen times as the Phoenix or Madeline Prior or the Goblin Queen or Marvel Girl and so on. Of course, due to the character’s lack of appeal, or the belief that their roles in their respective worlds were becoming redundant, their deaths could not have the same effect as Superman's.

It was inevitable that the comic book industry would change. As the men and women who read the original more innocent incarnations of these heroes who foiled inept bank robbers or saved cats from trees became knowledgeable adults, the genre was bound to change. Using the classic archetypes they grew up with, these adults took their heroes and pressed them with difficult and complex dilemmas yet to be seen and realized. An attempt to make superheroes identifiable and their adventures more visceral. Batman is now a brooding and mentally scarred billionaire, Superman a lonely alien with no true home, and the Green Lantern a former marine now with the duty to protect the galaxy.

The super hero realm now involves death, rape, and massive universal events. The stories are more real, the heroes more human, but lost is the innocent wonder they initially gave us. The story arcs, now riddled with moral ambiguity also contain violent acts no longer appropriate for the same age range to which comics originally appealed, perhaps reflecting a change in the target audience or perhaps reflecting the evolution of medium in general. While as an adult, I enjoy the new and complex story arcs facing my heroes, I long for simpler times.

Mar 17

Our readership loves posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I love supplying them with posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan. They love these posts because they hate contractors.

And I think I know why. We don't trust contractors. A military contractor’s goals only accidentally correspond to our nation's goals; a soldiers are deliberately the same. The public knows this, and despises contractors for the resulting waste, fraud and abuse.

This fundamental difference in motivation is the reason military contractors over-bill the government and the American tax payer.  A contractor’s goal is to earn a profit, as much profit as possible. Earning more means more success. If a contractor can get paid more for the same work, he will try to do that. From the government's perspective, he tries to make waste by wasting their money.

This presents a philosophical question: is waste immoral? By waste, I mean the misuse of resources, be it people, money or time, that keeps our nation’s military forces from accomplishing our strategic objectives.

I could make an argument that waste is illegal. Gross negligence is a legal term; when it comes to the Pentagon, one could argue that gross negligence in preparation, contracting and leadership allowed the waste of contractors. Gross negligence probably exists in every war, and it would be impossible to actually prosecute a case, but the terms exist. A legal argument doesn't go far enough, though, and is too unwieldy for this argument.

If wasting money costs Soldiers their lives, then the waste of military contractors violates our ethical values. Much like the "An On V Global Warming Debate", the problem here is one of scale. A single contractor hoarding money will only rarely cost soldiers their lives. But if the compound effect of thousands of decisions to waste money prolongs our current conflicts, then more Soldiers will die. The decisions of contractors in the early days of the Iraq war directly caused civilian casualties. The decision of contractors in the early years of the Iraq war directly harmed the functioning of the Iraqi government. The decision of contractors even today keep the entire military from fielding equipment as rapidly as possible. Contractors have then basically stolen money from tax payers, caused the death of Iraqis and Americans, and lied to the American people about their intentions.

Corporations exist to earn a profit by maximizing effort and specializing skills. In the vast scheme of America and the world, this is extremely beneficial. When confined to a legal and regulatory structure, violence can be almost completely eradicated from the capitalist system.

For contractors that legal and regulatory structure doesn’t exist. In the vacuum of war, the result can be tragic. The waste endemic in the system costs Soldiers and civilians in the warzone their lives. Corporations, if they were altruistically motivated, could make decisions that would cost money but save lives. They don't.

The actions of military contractors are, therefore, immoral and unethical.

Mar 15

On December 26th, 1776, General George Washington led 2,400 American Soldiers against 1,500 Hessian military contractors, I mean, mercenaries. In total, the Continental Army killed 98 Hessians and captured 500 more. The Battle of Trenton strengthened the position of the continental army and the influence of the continental congress, a key battle in winning the Revolutionary war.

It's a shame that no Army General would have guts or testicular fortitude to do the same today.

Last week, I described the trouble the Army has distinguishing between guidelines and rules. Take the most common guideline-turned-rule: the three-to-one advantage in the attack.

I have participated in countless training exercises, and every time the US plays the offense. And we always have three times as many troops as the enemy. Always. It's a guideline for high-intensity warfare, but now it is law. It doesn't make sense that we will always have three times as many Soldiers as our enemy, but somehow in training, we always do.

This “guideline” is so rigorously embedded in the Army's consciousness, we still use it when we plan counter-insurgency operations. Whenever my battalion conducted Company-sized operations, (or CONOPs, see the post here) during the brief our S2 always briefed the number of enemy he expected on an objective. I would listen in as the S2 briefed his portion, and as I calculated it, we had exactly three times as many troops. Either we could perfectly predict the enemy's size, or we jerryrigged our slides to meet an arbitrary guideline.

The guideline exists to create overwhelming force, and its a good organizing principle. Basically, in the attack you can have a third of your force supporting, a third as an intermediate base of fire, and the final third as an assault force. As a guideline, it works. If a unit can bring to bear the three to one advantage, they usually win.

Unfortunately, this is an example of the science of war trumping the art. The science is a chart of the relative combat power analysis of two forces. Charts with numbers are easy to understand.

What the science of numbers can’t describe, though, is enemy morale. The science has a tough time accounting for surprise. Numbers warfare doesn't do well calculating well-organized raids and ambushes. The science of relative combat power also excludes the factors of speed, mass, surprise, initiative, unity of effort, and countless other principles of warfare. I am convinced the Army would love to replace its company and field grade officers with computers; until then it will use arbitrary guidelines.

There are countless examples of Army officers surprising the enemy with fantastic results. Joshua Chamberlain's counterattack at the battle of Little Big Top is the greatest tactical decision of all time. He didn't have a three to one advantage. The Great Raid at Cabanatuan used speed, surprise and organization to overwhelm a Japanese garrison and rescue over 500 POWs. They didn't have a three to one advantage; in fact, they were at a 127-700 disadvantage (not to count the 8,000 Japanese soldiers patrolling the countryside).

And again, General Washington had more troops than his opponent, a 2,400 - 1,500 man advantage, but he attacked on a garrison in the defense. According to Army logic, he shouldn't have done so with less than 4,500 men. Surprise and audacity won the day. Current Generals should pay heed.

It is a good guideline: try to have three times as many guys as your enemy. Heck, we invaded Iraq without obeying this law, but not because the Army wanted to. Guidelines are good in their place; rules hamstring our Officers. If you are an active-duty officer, I know you have heard this rule. Please remember it isn't a law.

Mar 12

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Are you thinking about writing a war memoir? Then read the following passage:

They call Colbert "The Iceman." Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a "Marine Corps killer," he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be "configured by plugging it into his PC.

Can you write this? Can you write with this level of honesty, detail and talent?

This passage comes from Generation Kill, Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's superb account of the invasion of Iraq while he embedded with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. That Generation Kill is excellent should come as no surprise; it won National Magazine awards, and HBO turned it into a mini-series. And it proves that the best memoirs come from the pros.

The Good


Wright's greatest skill is describing people. Look at that previous passage. Complimentary, disparaging, filled with contradictions, and totally, totally honest, I don't think there's another passage quite like it in another post 9/11 war memoir. And each character gets an introduction like this. No fluffy descriptions, Wright lays it all out.

This honesty permeates Generation Kill. "Embarrassing" details are noted, from the inconsequential (ball scratching, masturbating, profanity) to the world-shaking (killing civilians, killing animals, drug use). This book passes the sniff test. (Importantly, Wright describes the platoon's rampant ephedra use, which we'll get into next week when we compare this book to Nathaniel Fick's account of the same events and people).

But Generation Kill is crude in the right proportion. He mentions shitting and pissing, without obsessing over it like Swofford does in Jarhead, or ignoring it like virtually every other writer. His prose is profane, but intelligently so. And for the first time in the memoirs I have read, this book pays attention to and accounts for every civilian casualty his battalion committed.

Generation Kill benefits from being written by a reporter. Wright questions events if he can't confirm them, interviews a wide swath of leaders and Commanding Officers, and contextualizes the invasion. He explains why the battalion took such a strange route through Iraq, and what the Colonel was thinking. Wright sets the stage like few other memoirs do. As a writer, he understands pacing. If the scene gets too boring, he'll jump to the action of another platoon.

The Bad

Of course, this book isn't perfect. Like Fick's book, Generation Kill tells a real story, and that story--despite Wright's well paced prose--is monotonous. And the same free flowing vernacular prose I praised a few paragraphs ago does call attention to itself at times, like on page 102 when he writes, "blow the F*** out of a Humvee." or uses the phrase "big-honking."

There are more serious problems though. Some of Wright's characterization are downright vilifying, particularly with the code-named "Captain America," "Encino Man" and "Casey Kasem" characters. After reading multiple war memoirs, I have to conclude: the Marine Corps hates their leadership.

The most glaring mistake is this book's title, "Generation Kill." Wright's central thesis, played out in this title and the opening chapters, is that this generation of Marines is somehow different than the old one. Instead of the "greatest generation," today's Marines are "Generation Kill." They aren't.

It plays into one of Wright's other weaknesses, his tendency to generalize. Generalizing in war memoirs is mostly futile, and Wright generalizes all the time--in an organization of 200,000 it is hard to say something true about all of them. But Wright takes things that feel specific to his platoon--like them treating Charms candies as "infernal talismans"--and applies it to the entire Marine Corps.

In Closing

That's a lot of bad, but you should know Generation Kill was a lot of good. If you had to read one first person account of this war, please read this book. I know what you're thinking, didn't you say your favorite war memoir was The War I Always Wanted? I did. But this book is better, partly because it is written by a reporter and professional writer (I'll be writing on this in two weeks, why professional writers are better). His knowledge of timing, pacing and prose just surpasses that of Soldiers or Marines. So if you want to read a book by a Soldier or Marine, read Friedman. But for the best account of this of the war in Iraq, read Generation Kill.

Mar 11

(Today's post is a guest post by Sarah Sofia Granborg of Living in Scandinavia. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Let’s assume for a moment that man is not just a lump of meat and bones, but a unit of body and mind/spirit. In other words, think of every soldier as a spiritual being. (Depending on whether you're religious or not, you might want to call that "the soul" or perhaps "the psyche".) Whatever the case, the individual/personality of the soldier is not a physical thing that can be touched or even killed. On the battlefield “only” his body can be shot or blown into bits and pieces.

If we take that statement one step further, we realize that whatever experiences a soldier has had before this lifetime will influence his performance in the present time.

This influence usually occurs on an emotional level that we are not aware of--whether it's from this lifetime or before. We're talking about the sub-conscious memories and emotions triggered by certain events or things that remind us of moments gone by.

What is the relevance of this? Well, which kind of soldier would you rather have by your side: one who is fighting a random war because of inexplicable fears, or one who is aware of his background and in control over his responses?

The second one is the guy who signed up for all the right reasons, his motivation solely based on sane and honorable standards, with the intention to do what is for the greatest good.

He is the one you can rely on when the going gets tough!

People who are not aware of this mechanism simply do not survive as well, particularly in action. Like Brandon Friedman in The War I Always Wanted, it's all such a shock for him, and he has no idea how ugly it's going to get. All this makes him feel uneasy, exposed and vulnerable.

If, however, you are aware of the emotional connection, you can get to know yourself so well, that you will be able to predict much better and act accordingly.

The first step is awareness. If you are aware of how you genuinely feel about things, you can ask yourself why, and if you can answer honestly, all the mystery is gone. You're on solid ground. But that requires honesty. The ability to stay on track and remain focused, as well as the courage to be yourself and be true to what you know to be right, no matter what the consequences.

As for past-lives, some techniques to remember them seem to work, whereas others just seem to fall into the category of "dangerous brainwash" (like NLP and hypnosis).

Personally I just went with the flow. I stuck to what I knew was sane and the truth. For example, if you dream the same thing again and again, with heavy emotion and full perceptions, then there is bound to be something there.

And once you've looked at it and seen it the way it really was, then you're free of that influence.

By the way, I'm neither a religious fanatic nor an esoteric freak. I've simply been close to death so many times that I realized that there is more than the body. I realized you can make those emotional connections work for you, rather than against you, by remembering things like past-life-training and other skills.

Mar 10

Over at WriteToDone last week, Eric C argued that before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. Thelonious Monk knew how to play harmonious music, he choose not to. Pablo Picasso knew hot to paint photo-realistically, he choose not to.  James Joyce certainly knew how to use quotation marks, he chose not to.

The last Executive Officer I worked for coined the phrase, “doctrine is not dogma.” Because he was a SAMS (School of Advanced Military Studies, the Army's premier planning course) graduate, he knew Army doctrine. He knew the rules so, like any artist, he knew when he could break them.

I loved this. Returning to the home of Army doctrine--US Army Training and Doctrine Command, the parent organization of the Military Intelligence Career Course--shocked me after my time on staff at the ROCK. Too many Commissioned Officers, NCOs, Warrant Officers, and contractors forget that guidelines are not rules, that doctrine is not dogma, and that the science of war cannot replace the art of war.

Of the above problems, the worst mistake is turning guidelines into rules. In other words, the Army creates well meaning guidelines to help plan and conduct operations, but over time those guidelines become rules. Rules become constraints. Fight under too many constraints, and you will lose.

Here is an example: a Cold Warrior (Cold Warrior means those officers who trained heavily under Cold War force-on-force, US-vs-Russia doctrine) recently told me that you always use your weapons at their maximum effective range. In practice, this means if you are occupying a battle position, you should have a couple hundred meters in front of your position. This is a good guideline. Who doesn't want a few more shots at the enemy that an extra couple hundred meters provide? As a rule, though, it stinks. Ambushes rarely use weapons at their full maximum effective range, but they are devastatingly effective. Machine guns work as well at close range as at long ranges.

As a guideline, the rule above is great. As a rule, it is limiting. Through repeated planning exercises, yearly training rotations and the re-use of old products, guidelines became rules. Because of tradition or lack of creativity, rules became dogma.

Definitions. A guideline is a good rule of thumb. It is something you should follow most of the time, but doesn’t apply in every situation. A rule is something that if you violate it, the results will usually portend disaster. The distinction is subtle, but huge.

The great commanders of history all had exceptional knowledge of the art of warfare, the science of warfare, doctrine, and military history. Based on this knowledge, they knew all the guidelines, and used that to their advantage. Think about General Patton. He understood his enemy and his doctrine. When he faced Rommel he threw that doctrine right back in his face. Is the US Army today more like General Patton or General Rommel? If we obey doctrine to the letter, will the enemy use this to his advantage?

As we slowly transition to a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world, the guidelines-turned-rules will return from their ten year hibernation. We must relegate them back to their status as guidelines; good advice but not absolute laws. This post, I acknowledge, is vague on details. Over the next few weeks, I am going to debunk a few of these guidelines that have become rules.

Mar 08

In the late nineties, Korean Airways had an statistically high number of plane crashes. The reason? Because of a strict Asian culture with a low tolerance for failure, co-pilots hesitated to inform their captains when they made critical mistakes. As a result, planes crashed. The culture of Korea, and Korean Airlines, was to blame for the high crash rate.

Two weeks ago, I praised Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success for its insights. In that post, I wrote about how individuals become successful; today, I will expand into what makes cultures successful.

Outliers asks a very basic question: how does culture influence success? The US Army has a distinct culture: technologically-oriented, maneuver-focused, leadership-driven, top-down. And this culture has struggled for eight years to defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Their own plane crashes if you will.) Outliers, of course, never mentions insurgencies or the army, but asserts an idea every Army officer should understand: your culture defines you. Only after understanding your culture can you break out of its confines.

An example: from the end of Vietnam to the Iraq invasion, maneuver commanders trained to lead battalion and brigade sized operations. There is a reason for this, large operations in a high intensity environment are difficult and complex operations. As I have written before, though, counter-insurgencies are no place for large operations. Our Army culture--through doctrine, leadership and practice--wants to continue conducting large scale operations, counter-insurgency be damned.

The US Army needs to ask if it has a culture of success, and I don’t think it is. Gladwell argues that certain cultures breed intellectual curiosity and intense work ethics. Is the Army one of those cultures? Do we care about reading military history? Learning languages? Developing new ideas and tactics?

Or do we care about physical fitness and fantastic PowerPoints?

Another example: Outliers mentions that Southern culture tends to respond violently to personal insults. The upshot is that Southerners believe in honor, and have a willingness to fight for that honor. 23% of the Army is from the South, and its cultural influences run even deeper. How does this affect the Army's culture? Or how we wage insurgencies?

The theory of “power-distance" is another important idea. High power-distance relationships discourage direct confrontation; low-power relationships allow subordinates to challenge their leaders. Is the US Military a low or high power-distance organization? America is a low power-distance nation, but the Military has some distinct high power-distance characteristics (rank, customs and courtesy, and saluting all reinforce high-power relationships). I have a feeling many in CENTCOM and DoD knew invading Iraq would turn out poorly, but high power-distance relationships discouraged honest discussion. Like Korean Airways, staff officers at CENTCOM saw the US Military plane crashing, but could not communicate that to General Franks.

Outliers: The Story of Success has a simple theme: think about what makes people successful. The Army should examine what social science tells us about how success really works, not how it worked in the 1950s. We are an industrial Army fighting information wars. We need to adapt.

Mar 05

There's a debate raging over the The Hurt Locker. In short, critics love it; Soldiers and veterans not so much.

Critics love the film in part for its supposed accuracy. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described the film as "overflowing with crackling verisimilitude." David Denby of the New Yorker claimed that The Hurt Locker "will be studied twenty years from now when people want to understand something of what happened to American soldiers in Iraq."

I sure hope not.

As Brandon Friedman wrote on VetsVoice, "if you know anything about the Army, or about operations or life in Iraq, you'll be so distracted by the nonsensical sequences and plot twists that it will ruin the movie for you." Or as Christian Lowe explains a bit more harshly, ""Some of the scenes are so disconnected with reality to be almost parody."

In short, The Hurt Locker is a tactical, not to mention historical, mess.

Many war movies have unrealistic elements (read: Inglorious Basterds), why does this one touch a nerve? The Hurt Locker is essentially an action film--A.O. Scott and other critics have described it as such--when it didn't need to be. The stories and lives of regular Soldiers could fill countless mini-series worth of drama and comedy without "enhancing" the truth as Kathryn Bigelow does in The Hurt Locker. You don't have to sensationalize the military to make it exciting; it already is.

The Hurt Locker's very premise is misleading. The military doesn't disarm bombs while wearing bomb suits and cutting wires, we place a brick of C4 explosive on top. One push of the button and the IED detonates safely. True, some situations call for disarming an IED up close, but nine times out of ten a robot motors out to it while the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) techs sit in their trucks. Why? Because this is safer, quicker, cheaper and more efficient than disarming it. It isn't as exciting, but it is what happens.

But safer and more efficient does not equal safe. In Afghanistan, I patrolled a nine kilometer road where an IED had already taken a Soldier's legs. Every day we patrolled that road we felt fear, the fear that at any point an IED could detonate underneath our vehicle. We found multiple IEDs, but one still gets me. As we dismounted to clear the sides of the road, one of my Soldiers stopped me and pointed forward. About ten meters dead in my path was an IED pointing right at me. We waited two hours for EOD to arrive by helicopter. The resulting explosion was spectacular. The entire episode was filled with the tension The Hurt Locker tries to achieve. That find by itself would make a great short film, no extra Hollywood flair needed.

My main worry, though, is that this film will define the Iraq War the way Apocalypse Now defines the Vietnam war. If critics/pundits/whoever tell the public The Hurt Locker is realistic, it will write a false history of the war. It doesn't mean that you can't learn about this war without deploying to it. But most will never study it, and war films will define their images about this war. I don't want this film to define those false images for us.

As David Denby wrote above: soldiers will be watching this film years form now. They need to know what actually happened. So does everyone else.

The Hurt Locker Link Drop:

This isn't a comprehensive link drop, but we hope it covers the major pieces of the debate.

The Huffington Post, on behalf of VetVoice, first launched the debate. Former Soldiers Kate Hoit and, one of our favorites, Brandon Friedman, posted two well aimed critiques at the accuracy of The Hurt Locker.

In response, two retired EOD techs James P. O'Neil and James Clifford disputed the charge that Soldiers are upset with the film. The most interesting point about these two rebuttals is that they only speak for two communities: the retired and EOD. EOD personnel love the film because it made their acronym known for the first time ever. The retired community doesn't know much either way because they haven't deployed. Much like critics, to them this film is as real as it gets.

Before those pieces, and some after, were a few excellent posts on the blogosphere. The general consensus from The Best Defense and Army of Dude is that the film is good overall, but has a few glaring flaws. Bouhammer, on the other hand, devastates the film and comes much closer to my own personal views. Finally, I have never read this blog, but they do a very good critique of the film.

After the blogosphere broke the topic, the main stream media picked it up. USA Today, Newsweek and the PBS Newshour all ran pieces describing the debate without injecting much of their own opinion. 60 Minutes didn't mention it in this piece on Kathryn Bigelow.

It isn't a blog, but the goofs page on IMDB absolutely hammers the film. It doesn't have a view any one way, and some of the criticisms are beyond nit picky, but it is a great resource of the various errors.

Finally, if you want to see all the reviews of this film check out the metacritic page.

Update: Just found this interview by screenwriter John Boal over at Creative Screenwriting magazine. In it, Boal explains that accuracy is one of his main concerns for him as a screenwriter, and bemoans other plot-oriented films he consideres less realitic. This is as much his concern as it is ours.

Mar 04

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards all week. Today everyone trashes on "Inglorious Basterds." Tomorrow we'll close up with a "The Hurt Locker" review and and link drop.)

Eric C's Second Take on Inglorious Basterds

I ended my last post on Inglorious Basterds asking you not to think too hard about the film. Quentin Tarantino disagrees. Not because he makes "important" films--he's never really tried to do that--but because Quentin Tarantino loves sub-textual film criticism, as he mentioned in an interview with Terry Gross. Fortunately, I do too.

So what's Inglorious Basterds about, beneath the surface? Propaganda and the German film industry. Goebbels is a supporting character, and the film's climax revolves around a propaganda film premiere. This propaganda film-within-a-film, which depicts a German sniper shooting hundreds of Americans from a bell tower, is over-the-top, absurd and unstomachingly jingoistic. Of course, that's also a pretty accurate description of Inglorious Basterds.

And that's the rub, isn't it? Despite being critical of propaganda, Inglorious Basterds is itself propaganda. Nazis, as I wrote before, are the easiest villains in the world to caricature. In his introduction to The Moon is Down, Donald V. Coers describes the common stereotypes of Germans in wartime propaganda, "heel clicking Huns...depraved, monocled intellectuals...thundering seig heils" or as Tarantino said, "if you want to see jack-booting Nazis in movies, you've got to watch American movies made at that time."

Or you could just watch Inglorious Basterds today. Hans Landa embodies a depraved intellectual. Goebbels is a pervert. Hitler acts like a moronic child. The heroic Nazi sniper is also a sexual predator.

Unlike propaganda by Germans or Americans in the 30's and 40's, Inglorious Basterds' impact is negligible; the war ended sixty years ago. It's more disturbing when Marcus Luttrell writes the jingoistic soon-to-be-filmed Lone Survivor today, or when Turkish filmmakers make the rabidly anti-American In the Valley of Wolves: Iraq, the most popular film in Turkish cinema history. Current propaganda spreads hate and fear; Inglorious Basterds spreads a nostalgic hate and fear.

Doesn't make it any less ridiculous.

Matty P's Take On Inglorious Basterds

Two soldiers face one another; one a Nazi and one an American. One man obstinately allows himself to be bludgeoned to death rather than betray his allies. With defiant dignity, he kneels awaiting a gruesome death at the hands of his captors, displaying a solemn honor at dying for the sake of his country and his comrades. Yet this man who loses his life is not meant to be a hero. He is the villain because he is a Nazi.

For me, this scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds epitomizes my disconnect with the movie. An action movie about Jewish vengeance against the Nazi regime, the protagonists lack the moral fortitude of the Nazi that they kill. The heroes, the people the audience are meant to be cheering, descend to the very same moral depths as the Nazis they despise. It's been mentioned here at On V and elsewhere that the heroes commit acts of violence which mirror historical atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and guards (namely, carving swastikas in the foreheads of the enemy). They also fire into crowds, beat men to death with baseball bats, and appear to be the worst covert ops insertion team in history as none bothered to learn German.

My problem isn't with using the Nazi party as antagonists. The best Indiana Jones movies pit the archeology professor against the Third Reich. As a large portion of my family is of German Jewish decent, I enjoy watching the staunch monocled Nazi stereotype outwitted by a plucky hero. My outrage stems from portrayals of American soldiers who appear more vicious and morally vapid than their Nazi counterparts.

Michael C on Ambushes and Inglorious Basterds


I have many issues with Inglorious Basterds, but I don't have enough room to cover them all. Instead, I will write about how Quentin Tarantino filmed sucky ambushes.

When we finally catch up with the Basterds in France, they are standing around two survivors of a slaughtered German platoon. The Basterds take their time interrogating the prisoners; they torture both, murder one, and then release the surviving Soldier, all this in the same place where they ambushed the German patrol.

In real life, an ambush is tactical mission that allows a smaller element to disrupt the operations of a larger force. It has two things going for it: surprise and speed. Surprise when you initiate the ambush, and speed as you destroy enemy forces and then exfiltrate. The longer you hang around on the objective (where you conducted the ambush), the sooner you will be discovered and killed.

Tarantino's Basterds break a fundamental rule of warfare in pursuit of his Nazi-violence-porn fantasy.

Is it that important that I tear apart one tactical mistake in Inglorious Basterds? It is. Inglorious Basterds butchered the past to fulfill some dumb fantasy. It doesn't deserve a Best Picture nomination.

(Also, I could barely sit through it and Eric C left in the middle to chase tail. It was that boring.)

Mar 03

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards all week. Today Eric c and Matty P discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Tomorrow we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Eric C's Take:

So here's the thing. A number of conservatives have blasted Avatar for being too liberal. If I had to choose one synecdoche  (sorry, Will) for this backlash, it would be this lazy right-wing hit-job by Orange County Register columnist Brian Calle.  More conservative name calling than actual critique, Calle calls Avatar "progressive indoctrination," "phrenic leftist sustenance," and "preachy, psychedelic satiation of leftist worldviews."

More substantive commentators have complained that the film is too pro-environment, too anti-military, and too filled with white guilt. This blows my mind. I don't think Avatar could more accurately describe what humans are going to do when we have the technoglogy that enables to us colonize other planets. In the same way that District 9  accurately depicts what would happen if alien refugees came to Earth, I'm pretty sure we will dismiss aliens as expendable animals. It will be way easier than when white people dismissed blacks, Indians or Muslims as such.

This is one of those times when conservatives--who are fond of calling liberals idealistic and niaive--are being idealistic and naive. Slavery was legal in America less than 150 years ago. The last grizzly bear was shot in California less than 90 years ago. England left India 60 years ago. Hopefully we've evolved past some elements of our ugly nature, but we probably haven't.

So don't be naive. We have an ugly past, and it is exactly why we need films like Avatar.

Matty P's Take:

Recently, Avatar brought to light a new scenario. Perhaps not new, but definitely something I hadn't previously considered: humans as the antagonists for a sci-fi film. Not just humans as individuals since most movies have a "bad guy" who is human, but humans as a species. In Avatar, the human race is portrayed as the bully and evil entity while an alien race acts as righteous defender.

What is typical of the science fiction genre is that a malevolent species tries to conquer or destroy humanity. Consider the plethora of movies: Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe FacultyIndependence Day, Mars Attacks!, War of the Worlds, Predator, Aliens, The Thing, Species, Signs, Killer Clowns From Space, V, Space Jam, It Came From Outerspace and Monsters vs Aliens to name a few. Even Andromeda Strain is about an extraterrestrial virus that threatens humanity. Fewer are the movies like ET: The Extraterrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind that portray benevolent otherworldly creatures.

Rarer still is humanity the conqueror.

As one watches Avatar, we are encouraged to side with a blue alien species while human beings are vilified for their various lusts. When they clash, the viewer is forced to take sides. Do we defend our own kind and our own needs at the expense of an alien world and its inhabitants or do we side with strangers who wish nothing more than to protect their homes? The clash does come at a point where the human’s seem to lack moral grounds and the Navi are justified in their protests. The viewer naturally sides with the aliens.

There’s something strange in this: to side against one’s own species; to desire human beings to be defeated or to be strangely indifferent or even glad when one human character is slain. It is fiction, but fiction mirrors reality. Perhaps it's simply an example of following our moral compass regardless of race or species. Or perhaps what we should take from it is that our enemies are never truly as evil as we make them appear to be, nor are we as good. 

The question remains: is there anything wrong with siding against humanity or in hoping that we lose?
Mar 02

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards for the next four days. Today Michael C tackles "District 9." Tomorrow we'll discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Thursday we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Oscar has war on the mind. Avatar, District 9, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker are all vying for best picture, and unlike the last time the Academy voted for war films--in 1998 when Saving Private Ryan took on The Thin Red Line and Life is Beautiful--these films cover more than World War II. As a Soldier, I've made it a point to see each one.

One film rose above the rest to capture the emotions of deploying to a foreign country. From the frustration of Soldiers dealing with unruly inhabitants to the sound of the weapons, this film depicted what I felt and heard on my tour in Afghanistan better than the rest.

That film wasn't The Hurt Locker. It was District 9.

Now, don't call me racist, I don't think Afghans are space aliens. The Hurt Locker may have earned a higher metacritic score because of its realism, but District 9 captures the nature of political war better.

In a tour de force first thirty minutes, the protagonist Wikus Van de Merwe, an official working for Multi-National United, has to convince the alien settlers of District 9 to sign contracts acknowledging their impending evictions. To do so, he embarks out in a convoy, riding in MRAPs almost identical to the ones I used in Afghanistan with a personal security detail and helicopters buzzing overhead. Van de Merwe encounters sympathetic aliens, hostile aliens, crime, weapons caches, and violence. He speaks in the loud, dismissive tone used by English speakers to foreigners, gives out humanitarian assistance, calls for a MEDEVAC, and has to call in a QRF. He might as well join a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

What else does District 9 get right?

The Media: Yep the film starts as a mockumentary, and then intercuts clips from 24 hours news networks. In real time. Just like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cultural misunderstandings: Inter-species misunderstanding in District 9 is a metaphor for cultural misunderstanding. The prawns don't understand ownership of property, and Americans don't understand Pashtun-Wali code.

Rules of Engagement: Van de Merwe calls out an armed contractor for carrying too many rounds. We've written about ROEs here.

Information operations: The speaker inside the MRAP reminds its passengers that a "smile is cheaper than a bullet..when dealing with the prawns be tough but firm." Before we left the wire, I always admonished my guys to be nice but firm with Afghans around our vehicles.

Dehumanizing the Enemy: They call the aliens prawns. We call Arabs and Afghans "haji" or "hajj."

Military Contractors: In this case, they call them Multi-National United. We call them KBR, or Blackwater.

I don't think anyone doubts that this is what would happen if aliens from another planet parked an spaceship over Johannesburg. With refugees comes crime, unemployment, humanitarian disasters, and racially charged emotions. This film isn't about aliens; it's about humans. It isn't about spaceships, science fiction and special effects; it's about real world issues.

Mainly, District 9 gets the emotions of war right. The unjustness, the arbitrariness, the anger, the anxiety. District 9 pulls the right chords; it is the movie I wished The Hurt Locker was. It also somehow gets the details right too. For instance, in the middle of a shootout, I closed my eyes. I felt the sound of the bullets. It reminded me of both my training and my deployment to Afghanistan. I wrote about this in December in relation to Black Hawk Down, that the sounds of war are often more evocative than the images. (I am sure the smells would bring me back but we don't have Smell-o-Vision. Yet.)

Most Soldiers will see The Hurt Locker and Avatar, and many will miss District 9. This is too bad.

Mar 02

Quick heads up:

Eric just had a guest post published over at Write to Done titled, "10 Writing Rules You Can't Break...And How to Break Them."

Check it out.

Mar 01

On July 12th, in valley called Wanat, little more than a platoon of Soldiers fought a tenacious battle against over a hundred insurgents, a battle so close and personal that both insurgents and Soldiers lobbed grenades at each other from less than ten meters. Hundreds of miles away, watching helplessly on 42 inch plasma screens, Battalion, Brigade and Division commanders tried to control the fight.

The modern battlefield is a schizophrenic place. Just like curling.

Yep, curling. Eric, Matt P, my fiance, and I (along with a good chunk of trendy Americans) have been obsessed with the slowest team sport ever. Shuffleboard on ice is more addictive than heroin.

So how does this slow paced winter sport relate to Afghanistan? After watching a few ends of curling everyone becomes an expert. I started making comments like, “Why don’t they go for a double take out?” Or “I would draw towards the center.” Or as Eric C said, “The US is getting took right now.”

My comments are pretty ignorant though. It doesn’t matter how much I read on wikipedia, or how many hours I consume of CNBC’s curling coverage, I will have a severe gap in my curling knowledge. I have never curled before and though I want to, I might never actually throw a rock towards the house.

This is a perfect example of an important truism: years of study are useful, but nothing compares to experience on the ground. Just throwing one rock on the ice, or playing one match, will give the curling addict a much greater understanding for curling than any amount of off the ice research.

For Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, remember curling. Study Afghanistan as much as you want, drink in the culture, read the Kite Runner, learn bits ofPashtun, and study maps of your area of operations (AO). Until you hit the ground in your AO , you won't have a true appreciation for the terrain. Watching combat from a video screen gives you images, but not the knowledge of being on the ground.

Understanding this will help staff officers and senior leaders on deployment. Staff officers should go on as many patrols as they can when deployed. It sounds incredible, but many Soldiers on Battalion and Brigade staffs never leave the Tactical Operations Center. Many leaders and staff officers don't see the need to go on regular patrols. Obviously they are wrong. (Ranger School is a good substitute for those who can attend, but it can't fully replace patrols in actual combat zones.)

Can you even imagine a curling coach giving advice to his guys if he had never thrown a rock before? How much would you trust color commentators who had never even played curling before?

The point is you wouldn’t. So, senior leaders and staff officers, when you deploy, remember curling.