Oct 29

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

So apparently Marines love the the phrase “get some”. On page two of Generation Kill, Evan Wright explains:

"’Get some!’ is the unofficial Marine Corps cheer. It's shouted when a brother Marine is struggling to beat his personal best in a fitness run. It punctuates stories told at night about getting laid in whorehouses in Thailand and Australia. It's the cry of exhilaration after firing a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun. Get some! expresses in two simple words the excitement, fear, feelings of power and the erotic-tinged thrill that come from confronting the extreme physical and emotional challenges posed by death, which is, of course, what war is all about. Nearly every Marine I've met is hoping this war with Iraq will be his chance to get some.”

There’s a problem, though. I’ve read a lot of memoirs by Marines, and Marines don’t say “Get some!”--this includes dialogue heavy memoirs.

The most telling example comes from One Bullet Away. Nathaniel Fick and his platoon hosted Evan Wright--their memoirs essentially cover the same events--but Fick only uses the phrase once in One Bullet Away, as something someone from another platoon says over the radio. “Get some!” fails to make an appearance in either Donovan Campbell’s Joker One or Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots. Even Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead only uses it once, as something, again, said over the radio.

There is a disconnect here. One book claims that “Get some!” is the unofficial Marine Corp motto while four Marine Corps memoirs barely even use the phrase, and certainly none ascribe the world beating importance to it that Wright does.

We’re left with three options. The first is that the other memoirists are crappy writers without an ear for dialogue. This isn’t the case; I loved Generation Kill. At least two of the mentioned writers are very good if not great writers. I mean, Wright doesn’t even really use the phrase much himself in Generation Kill.

So we’re left with two more options, both of which are probably true and both of which indicate common problems in memoirs.

The first is that Wright makes an overly ambitious generalization. This is a problem endemic to the modern, reporting-based memoir, where an authors want to take the reader on a journey through a hidden, mysterious inner-world the reader doesn’t know anything about, and it leads to generalizations, usually overly hyperbolic ones. Authors make grand pronouncements about groups and people. “X group always does Y thing,” because one person they were with did that thing.

The problem is even more pronounced in war memoirs. Soft Spots describes how “In war, no one asks you if you killed anyone.” One Bullet Away describes how, in war, “Every fight is refought afterwards”. Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute describes, “the first rule of Afghanistan: The closer you look, the less you understand.” Sebastian Junger’s War, from the title on down, is one big generalization about the nature of war and combat.

If the problem is pronounced in memoirs, so is the literary fault. According to the narrator of The Things They Carry, “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach.” I agree.

So we come to the second option: “get some!” is kind of embarrassing. It’s too macho, too butch. Most of all, it asks for people to be killed. We can probably blame this scene from Full Metal Jacket. After all, it is the first thing that comes up when you google “get some”.

The catch is that memoir writers don’t want to embarrass the Corps. “Get some!” does. Marines, especially Officers, don’t want to write about, in public, their “get some!” mentality.

Oct 27

Today, we're covering what is probably the saddest topic we've ever covered, rape.

Rape is an international problem, and the following links show a particularly gruesome narrative: 1. Rape is a part of every warzone. It shouldn't be, but it is. 2. Rape is a weapon, used by the most desperate and immoral forces around the world. 3. America’s military doesn’t use rape as a weapon, but rape still occurs in Iraq and Afghanistan, both to our troops and to civilians.

Last year, Michael C called me and asked if I listened to an episode of NPR’s podcast Foreign Dispatch about the massacre in Guinea. I told him I had, and we both agreed it was one of the saddest stories we had ever heard. Last year, during a mass human rights protest, military soldiers under ruling strongman Captain Mousa Camara killed over 157 protesters in the local soccer stadium. During the massacre, soldiers began stripping and raping women in public. (For an audio account of this tragedy, click here.)

Rape and political violence go hand in hand. Rape has been a weapon in Congo for years. And in Haiti, during the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, rape became endemic.

Fortunately, The UN has started to work on this issue, calling rape "no more inevitable than, or acceptable than, mass murder." The UN now classifies mass rape as an equal crime to mass murder.

And America has joined in as well. The financial reform bill contains provisions tracking and prohibiting US corporations from funding or selling conflict minerals, minerals gathered through gang rape, or the threat of gang rape. Rape isn’t about sex but power. In power vacuums, groups can use rape or forced marriage to as a means of political control and domination.

The saddest part of this link drop is that rape has become apart of the experience for America's fighting women. According to Representative Jane Harman in Time magazine, “a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.” The PRI show To The Best Of Our Knowledge provides a provocative story about female soldiers suffering sexual assault in Baghdad in this report too.

There isn’t much of a thesis to this post. But rape is an often under reported problem, and we haven’t posted on it yet, so this fills the gap until we have a full article with our thoughts.

(We found many of these stories on NPR's weekly podcast Foreign Dispatch, a collection "of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR’s corespondents from around the globe.")

Oct 26

Quick heads up: Stand-To!, a daily newsletter for Army leaders, gave our post, "Back From Iraq: What I Learned" a shout out last week. Check it out here.

Oct 25

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

Look at the following four quotes and see if you figure out the common theme:

“Hence we don’t need terms like ‘armed politics’ or ‘armed social science’ to help us understand Coin [sic] which at its essence is still war with its basic elements of fighting, death, and destruction.” Colonel Gian Gentile

“Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war,
right?  If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?” Colonel Gian Gentile

“If you inflict military defeat on the enemy, you remove his ability to use violence as a political instrument...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” William F. Owen

“I think the military gets it,'' Canetta said. “I think they do the best they can do, but within the context of a war...War is about killing, right?” Carl Canetta

Pretty easy to spot isn’t it? The idea that in war, all that matters is killing your enemy, by whatever means necessary. As I have been researching the “war is war” crowd, this theme popped up a couple of times. It’s not the first time I ran across this sentiment; the “anti-Rules of Engagement” crowd thinks this way too.

This branch of the “war is war” crowd--the populist side--isn’t even aware of their argument. They tend to be more realist in their foreign policy, conservative in their politics, and vehemently oppose restrictive Rules of Engagement--which is why I call them the “anti-ROE” crowd. The same ethos inspires them inspires the "war-is-war"-iors.

Take this quote from a Los Angeles Times article on the Rules of Engagement, "Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not what's best for America...We are at war. The rules of engagement must be to empower our soldiers, not to give aid and comfort to the enemy." [Emphasis mine.] Over and over in articles criticizing counter-insurgency strategies, or lambasting the Rules of Engagement, this idea pops up: wars are about fighting, killing, death and destruction, not political reconciliation or humanitarian assistance.

Only they are. The most common definition of war--Clausewitz’ definition--is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War has two parts: the political and the violent. His definition doesn’t specify which should be primary--the politics or the violence--but from what I understand, he views politics, or grand strategy, as the most important factor in war. I definitely have my issues with Clausewitz, but he is right about the balance in warfare between politics and violence.

For example, in the American Revolution, the colonists had to choose between supporting the king or joining the revolution. I say “had to choose” because the violence and culture forced people to take a side, and the king lost. A People Numerous and Armed, a fantastic book on the American Revolution by John Shy, gave me the idea to define our current wars as political wars. In it, Shy argues that, in wars where the population is the key, the biggest event on the battlefield is when people make decisions related to power. Making decisions about power is perhaps the definition of politics. Saying “war is war” is frequently a plea to ignore this reality in the vain hopes that warfare can be simpler, more about killing than decision-making. But it’s not--and that is why politics will constrain warfare until the end of time.

And politics aren’t the only restraint on war. Morals and ethics determine our every move. Laws restrain both soldiers and nations. Culture restricts our thinking and actions in ways we don’t even realize (for this last point read A History of Warfare by John Keegan).

This unsaid idea that pervades debates on ROE and counter-insurgency--that war has no rules except to win--just isn’t true. Any student of war knows that war has legal, ethical, moral, political, cultural and social restrictions. Every war has always had those restrictions, and the war fought without them will be our last.

Oct 22

You can’t understand how America feels about its troops today until you understand how America feels about its Vietnam veterans. The best example of this is, of course, Rambo.

First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III have a pretty obvious surface-level connection to American foreign policy--the first film deals with losing Vietnam, the second with winning it, and the third with beating the Russians in Afghanistan--but, more impressively, they represent the post-Vietnam American psyche.

First, a literary psycho-history of America. As a country, we entered into a war in Vietnam, and lost. Then we emotionally abandoned our troops, and the kids went crazy. President Nixon stole an election and his Vice President pardoned him for violating every tenet of the constitution. America became disillusioned. In the words of one veteran, “I believed in Jesus Christ and John Wayne before I went to Vietnam. After Vietnam, both went down the tubes.” (I should mention, this post owes a great deal to Christian Appy and Alexander Bloom’s essay “Vietnam War Mythology and the Rise of Public Cynicism”. Check it out.)

This betrayal, by America against its Soldiers, is First Blood. John Rambo plays the crazy, stereotyped Vietnam veteran. He’s also one of the greatest heroes of ‘Nam--he has a Medal of Honor. And he’s upset. Rambo was a part of America’s losing effort and now he can’t even hold a job.

Most importantly, Rambo blames the military, and by extension America, for abandoning its troops. They sent him back into the world without any help or resources, and prevented him (via ROEs) from winning the war. This is all stated explicitly in the closing monologue, and shown symbolically in the opening scene where Rambo discovers his friend has died of cancer, brought on by Agent Orange exposure. (This, unfortunately, was true.)

The message is clear: We, America, betrayed our troops. And now we’re losers.

But a superpower can’t be a loser, especially during the 80’s and 90’s boom years. A country as patriotic and great as ours can’t lose wars. Enter Richard Nixon’s book in 1980 arguing we won in Vietnam. Enter “Reagan declar[ing] Vietnam ‘a noble cause’” and rewriting history.

Enter Rambo: First Blood Part II.

This time, Rambo has to go back into Vietnam to both literally rescue American Soldiers from Vietnamese captors, and figuratively rescue America from its failure as a nation. He succeeds. The military, of course, betrays him again. This time, Rambo gets his revenge. He survives, punches the sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo in the face, and leaves the middling bureaucrat from the US government a message: “You know there's more men out there and you know where they are. Find' em. Or I'll find you.”

Like the “protesters spitting on returning veterans” myth that Rambo mentioned in his first monologue, the whole “missing Vietnam POWs” issue never really happened--a Senate commission found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."--but that isn’t the point. The point is that America felt like it had abandoned its Soldiers in Vietnam. Someone (Rambo in this case) needed to get them back. What’s the moral of this whole story? Rambo explains at the end, “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!

Which gets into the crux of my argument: America thinks it lost Vietnam because it just didn’t love its Soldiers enough, and we've resolved not to let it happen again.

The leftover scar from Vietnam is the treatment of our veterans. Whether real or not, we believe as a nation we let out veterans down. We failed them domestically when we left them out on the street when they came home. We let them down militarily when we abandoned Vietnam. In the new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve resolved to care for them and love them. If it goes past lip service and means better VA care and a larger more expansive GI bill, that’s a good thing.

But how is it a bad thing? It leads to a lack of critical introspection. It leads to people conflating anti-war sentiment with anti-troop sentiment. It leads to gung-ho militarism. Most of all, it leads to mistakes in American foreign policy.

This is Rambo III. Rambo, this time, heads to Afghanistan to fight the USSR. The film is even dedicated, in the end credits, to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” who we, of course, left in the lurch less than two years later. In Rambo and America’s desire to defeat the Russians, they set in motion the chain of events that caused 9/11.

Sigh.

Oct 21

(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.)

Rambo (2008) wasn’t terrible. Obviously the action was over the top. His machete maiming and decapitating returns with gusto as does the belt fed machine gunning. It is a Rambo film after all. Despite the over the top action and the limited dialogue, there is a real display of genocide and human rights violations. The situation and locale are real. And the acts of violence against a people called the Karen while dramatized and Hollywoodized, they are based on actual accounts are barbarism committed in Myanmar (what was once Burma).

John Rambo finds himself in Mae Sot, Thailand. As I watched the opening sequences of Rambo (2008) I was excited. I was there. While the locations didn't look familiar, the text that introduced the location struck a chord. Mae Sot, along with a number of other cities along the Myanmar border, is home to a Karen refugee camp. One that I was fortunate enough to see and assist in providing medical aide at while I was in Thailand. 

Karen are likely the decedents of Mongolian nomads that found their home in the mountain jungles of Burma. I met several of them, not in Myanmar, the country in which their home lies, but in the refugee camp in Mae Sot. It is one of many camps that exist in the surrounding countries that they have been displaced. For the most part, Karen are Southern Baptist by religion due to western missionaries. This fact, combined with their desire to live independent of the Myanmar government that makes the vast majority of its capitol on the illegal narcotics trade, have made them subjects of genocide. 

Mae Sot is the staging point, the place where we join an aged John Rambo hiding away from his past when his is interrupted by a Christian group seeking to cross into Burma. A dangerous endeavor considering travel into the country is restricted and those caught within are summarily executed. This is not exaggeration, I have met with a few medical professional, ex-military sympathizers, and Christian evangelicals who have been beyond the border and who take their lives into their hands each time they do. While I thought their act of throwing caution to the wind an act of heroism, they reminded me, the Karen risk their lives every day to simply remain in their homes.

I was able to talk with some of the Karen with the help of our interpreter. We heard stories. Nothing as blatant as the killing in the movie, but more sinister. Rambo portrays the Myanmar military forcing Karen prisoners to run through a field full of land mines and mortar fire reeking havoc on a Karen settlement. The reality is that Karen have become adept at patrolling their homes and leave their settlements upon sighting Burmese military patrols. The military will pass and the Karen return. As the Karen return they must walk upon solid stone because the paths are lined with landmines. Our interpreter noted that Karen children are taught to play only upon the stone. 

Soldiers as young as twelve showed me scars from bullets or shrapnel. Young women told of being beaten. They tell that they are thankful for the growing Burmese sentiment toward Karen women. Where once they may have been raped, now they are seen as less than human by soldiers and disgusting. One woman said it is better to be beaten than beaten and raped only to be left with child. 

Ours was a medical mission. In truth, my primary responsibility was simple to observe and carry equipment. Assist in dental procedures and practical demonstrations. Our response to the hidden war differed greatly from the protagonists of the movie. Rather than taking life, we were attempting teach the Karen how to prolong it through education about sanitary living and basic medical practices. 
 
I watched this movie Rambo with its over the top action and egocentric focus on White missionaries and mercenaries and grew sad. Partly because the cinematic display is likely based on stories from Karen survivors. More so because the situation is truer than fiction. It hit home for me after meeting the afflicted. But mostly I was saddened because, as ridiculous and this Rambo movie was and as much as it focused on these white characters and whether they lived or died, this uber-macho film has arguably done more to bring actual human rights violations to the attention of a apathetic public than any other attempts at information sharing.

If you would like to read more on that Karen, or find out how you can help, please check out the following links.
- This is a story on the specific plight of the Karens.
Oct 20

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

As I started diving into the precisely vague wording of “war is war”, I found a clear connection: the intellectuals who admonish us to understand that “war is war” love Clausewitz. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side. This isn’t only an issue with the “war-is-war”-ior; military strategists have obsessed over Carl since he first published On War.

You may not know this, but Carl von Clausewitz is God.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clausewitz is God, nor should he dominate American thinking on military strategy and theory the way hideous haircuts dominate the heads of Rangers. He has a place in military philosophy, there is no doubt about that, but the emphasis on Clausewitz today is out-of-control.

To make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting the “war is war” crowd, I asked the folks over at the SWJ discussion board what they thought of my first two posts. Sure enough, about eight comments down someone started using Clausewitz to clarify the definition of war, that’s how popular he is.

But Clausewitzian love goes further than interweb forums; academics use him all the time too. Colin Grey, who declares “war is war” in his Strategic Studies paper, writes “there is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz.” Colonel David Maxwell argrees that all we need to do is study more Clausewitz; he said it in two different papers for The Small Wars Journal.

I have a few issues with Clausewitz’s domination of military thought:

1. Is Clausewitz all there is? To go back to my “politics is politics” analogy, how many political theorists are there? One could argue Machievelli dominates the field, but not more than Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages. But military strategy has, in the terms of Professor Grey, only three: Clausewitz, Thucydides and Sun Tzu. I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker. No other field or discipline is so narrow.

I appreciate his definition of war, but as the overarching father of all military thought, I don’t love reading him the way I loved reading, for example, the foundational thought in the theory of politics. Frankly, Clausewitz’s writing doesn’t sparkle like the writing of Plato, Machiavelli and Locke, not to mention the writing of our founding fathers.

2. Clausewitz is on the wrong end of my philosophical spectrum. Now this doesn’t mean conservative or liberal, realist or idealist, it means complicated and verbose. Long ago, I developed my own personal spectrum of philosophy: on one end are Kant and Derrida competing for the claim of the most incomprehensible philosopher, on the other is Plato’s “Crito” and Jesus’ parables, both examples of philosophy that can be read on several levels, but understood without taking a college class. (A friend of mine took a class on Kant at UCLA, and they were only able to work through forty pages. Forty.)
   
Clausewitz falls over the complicated German philosopher cliff. I mean, his work encompasses several volumes, was never finished, and was written in the Hegelian style--which means frequently you argue a point just to refute it later (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).

3. The most parroted assumptions are ridiculously vague. From what I can tell, the most significant achievement of Clausewitz was his definition of war--warfare is politics through other means (depending on the translation). Second to that was his classification of the three parts of warfare: 1. Violence, hatred and enmity (really two topics, violence and enmity) 2. chance or probability and 3. each opponent is subordinate to rational policy. It just seems that every human endeavor is the interaction of emotion, chance and rationality, be it diplomacy, economics, politics or war.

This simplification is probably more due to people simplifying philosophy as opposed to the philosopher himself. Philosophy, in general, suffers when it is simplified. Clausewitz equals “war is politics by other means”, Machiavelli is “rule at all costs”, Neitzsche believed in “the super man”. Nuance? Fuhgetaboutit. These quick snap definitions lose the subtlety of hundreds of pages of philosophy--and I think that simplification is magnified in Clausewitz’s case when it comes to “war is war”.

I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker; I think it also does military theory and the philosophy of violence a disservice to assume Clausewitz has war all figured out when Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant treatise, On Violence, that few military officers have read.

Oct 18

Way back in July, I said it would be a short deployment and it was, I was gone less than four months. I went to Iraq both to learn about my next job in the Army, and my next AO, so it was mission accomplished.

Though it was short, I learned more than I thought I could about Iraq and Baghdad--no matter how much you read in books or in the media--nothing replaces complete immersion in the day-to-day operations of units in Iraq. Below are some of my thoughts:

1A. I might be a Fobbit. Throughout the deployment I never flew on a helicopter, rode in an MRAP, or walked on the roads outside of the base. Frankly, my role as an intelligence analyst just didn’t call for it. The only threats that inconvenienced my life were the mosquitoes invading my room, or the days the Caesar salad bar wasn’t running in the DFAC. Yeah, I was a Fobbit.

Part 1B: I don’t think I deserved all the combat pay I got. I can admit that between getting hostile fire, family separation, hazardous duty, and combat zone tax exemption pay, I got paid too much. Now putting the money I earned to good use is up to me, but if I could be “King of the Army” for a day, I would find a way to equalize combat pay so people who spend their entire deployment behind cement T-walls in air conditioned TOCs don’t get the same pay as the grunts walking the line everyday in Konar, Kandahar, Marjah, Mosul or Baghdad.

2. Intelligence is hard. Predictive analysis--the bread and butter of military intelligence--is pretty darn hard. Reading the tea leaves for the future of an entire nation is near impossible, but that is what intelligence people do (or try to do). Doing it well is extremely hard. It requires patience, motivation and the critical thinking to judge everything your read, see or hear. I am both excited and nervous about my next deployment when I will have to make decisions and be the man when it comes to intelligence.

3. That doesn’t excuse bad intelligence. Yeah intelligence is hard, but how the US Army and the intelligence community (IC) as a whole can be so bad at it boggles my mind. I can--and will--write plenty of more posts on this topic, but the basic point is that good intelligence requires hard work on the right things; the IC is good at working hard, but not on the right things. That leads to a lot of incorrect analysis, poor targeting efforts and bad intel.

4. The future is murky for Iraq. I hope to publish this thought in a larger article, but I think the future of Iraq is very dark and murky. To be blunt, I am not optimistic. From sectarian militias to insurgent Sunni terrorists, from foreign actors from Iran (and possibly Syria and Saudi Arabia after we leave) to international criminal syndicates and the government of Iraq itself, (with its endemic corruption and an inability to form) the threats facing the people of Iraq are numerous and powerful. Whether the government lasts, falls apart, is taken over in a coup d’etat, or becomes a stooge for the Iran, everything is possible and nothing would surprise me. In short, talk of victory in Iraq is misplaced.

5. Combat operations are not over. When President Obama declared combat operations had ended, all he really did was just re-label the situation. Combat brigades are still operating in Iraq, just not in “strictly” combat roles, though they still conduct missions. Most importantly, the violence hasn’t stopped. It isn’t like it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but every day something explodes in Iraq. It is the kidnapping capital of the world. Two million refugees still refuse to return from other countries.

Oct 15

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

One of my fears about critiquing war memoirs is that if I criticize famous, powerful or influential authors, it will come back to get me or my blog.

This review pretty much encapsulates that fear.

Andrew Exum started and still runs the blog Abu Muqawama, easily one of the most influential, popular and well written milblogs/foreign policy blogs on the internet. An expert on Afghanistan and the Middle East and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, this guy is influential. Criticizing him is probably stupid.

That said, I didn’t really like his Afghanistan war memoir This Man’s Army. Fortunately, Exum gives me some cover, he self-describes his memoir as “quickly forgotten”. This was Exum’s first book, written before he published hundreds of posts on his blog, opinion pieces for the New York Times, and numerous academic journals. I guarantee his next book will be huge--TV, radio and speaking tour huge--but this memoir, written at the beginning of his career, was not.

Basically, This Man’s Army just doesn’t have much snap. Not much happens--at one point in the first chapter Exum mentions the grades he earned in Latin. Beginning at the very beginning of his life, it takes This Man’s Army eighty three pages to get to Kuwait, another forty to get to Afghanistan, and only eighty more to return home.

This Man’s Army doesn’t include any of the items on my war memoir litmus test, which is interesting, because Exum’s first job in the Army is writing news stories for a local Army paper. He challenges himself to “see just how falsely positive I could be.” In his articles, “Morale problems were nonexistent. So too were racial tensions, adulterous soldiers, professional incompetence, and any of the other problems that often plague the modern military.” These problems are also absent from the rest of This Man’s Army.

So onto my primary problem: the narrative voice. The narrator basically comes off as a macho dick, even though I don’t think Exum is a macho dick, at least based on his Abu Muqawama writings. He spends most of his memoir play-fighting with his men, in some sort of bizarre initiation ceremony. Exum says this is standard in the military, but for his platoon it never stops. When they join an intramural soccer league at Camp Doha, his team “beat[s] the other teams into submission.” All I could think of was playing basketball with guys like that, guys who deliver hard fouls and argue--we never invited them back to the next game. In Kuwait, the platoon moons security cameras. By the time Exum leaves Kuwait he’s “...able to do almost thirty perfect pull-ups.” Later his men “whip out their cocks” in front of a pretty French reporter. Even coming home, his platoon annoys a “flamboyantly effeminate” steward. These hi-jinks feel forced, somehow, and unnatural.

This is all in good fun, until they reach Afghanistan. When Exum’s platoon drops “death cards” onto dead enemies that read “Jihad this, motherf***er” or he describes PTSD sufferers as “F***ing pussies” (though he later recants this position), it isn’t harmless. It’s actually offensive.

And it just mucks up the tone. The memoir’s best literary detail is a side character appropriately named Weeks. He is “an awkward kid who possessed no discernible athletic ability or physical coordination” who sits alone in his bunk reading comic books. Sad, tragic, out-of-place, it’s a literary detail. It feels inevitable that this Soldier will break down, suffering some undiagnosable malady. Exum, instead, describes “the sight of Weeks battling the volleyball to no avail” as “just too comical too bear.” Wow.

This is also an example of a punchline falling flat. This book tried to be funny, but it just wasn’t. (The funniest thing, to me, in This Man’s Army: the whole book I kept thinking, “Exum wrestles, fights and roughhouses with his men so much, I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten hurt.” In the last chapter, Exum shatters his knee playing street hockey, misses a deployment to Afghanistan, and got the time to write This Man’s Army. Now that’s funny.)

The other main awkward incident occurs at Camp Doha, Kuwait. Exum feuds with Navy SEALs who think his platoon is too loud, the “overweight...fun police” Intel officers in the next dorm over, and eventually the entire base. This entire chapter is surreal, and the epitome of a petty grudge unleashed in a memoir. Like a similar incident in Joker One involving discipline, at some point if an entire base hates your platoon, you have to assume your platoon is the problem. (Exum mostly excuses his men’s behavior. They were rude on the plane because they’d “been deployed for seven months”. At Camp Doha, they were rude because they were “away from home for so long.”) Exum, of course, loves his own leadership style. “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I don’t think anyone said that.

So, in closing, Exum is a must read writer, on his blog Abu Muqawama. We wouldn’t have put him on our blog roll otherwise. But this memoir is a pass.

Oct 13

Back in April, I wrote a post about the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police facing off against each other in front of my convoy. The point of that post was that the success of our military adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether or not the ANP can enforce law and order. Defeating the Taliban will rely on Afghan initiative more than anything else, although the quality of US training and support can go a long way to making them competent.

The following story gives you an idea of how seriously NATO took training the ANP back in 2008:

In my little part of Afghanistan, the job of training the Afghanistan National Police fell to a platoon of Military Police (MP). They had a huge area to cover, an entire province. They may have been reserve or National Guard, I don’t remember. We were supposed to provide security to the police stations, but not training. MPs know police work; my guys knew how to move, shoot and communicate.

When we arrived in Destined Company’s AO, the other PLs and the CO told me about a possible ambush site on the road from FOB Fortress (our home base) to Asadabad (another FOB/city). It was still active for many of the convoys that went through it, but not for us. For the eight months I drove past the spot not once did the enemy shoot at us. We had a specific weapon system we always rolled out with--the TOW missile--and the insurgents didn’t want anything to do with it.

One day--we were about thirty minutes from rolling out--we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. My men hadn’t been in a firefight in a while--they were itching for a fight-- and this sounded like the opportunity.

We hit the trucks, we rolled out, and the company relayed via the radios that the MP platoon was in contact. As we headed to the ambush site, my section sergeant pointed out that he hadn’t heard the unmistakable sounds of a fifty caliber machine gun. Then we saw the MP platoon flying past us. We figured out that they were going to the Fortress, but we headed to the ambush site to try to catch the insurgents.

By the time we got there, the insurgents were long gone. (Ambushes don’t last long unless they are wildly successful.) Even though we got there about 15 minutes after it started, there was nothing to be found.

So we returned to base to fing out what had happened, and to figure out why the MPs had barely shot back. The patrol leader told us that their fifty caliber machine gun had jammed. One of our Soldiers offered to check it out.

He quickly realized they were right, they had a jammed fifty caliber machine gun. But the reason it was jammed was...peculiar. A fifty caliber machine gun can be set up to load on either the left or right side. But if you set it up to fire from the left or right, the ammo can has to be set up on that side as well. The MP platoon had a right fed machine gun loaded from the left. That is a weapon that will never fire.

Why were improperly trained men even on the battlefield? Why were they training the police of Afghanistan? This is a good leadership lesson for all soldiers: like the Marine Corps “every Marine is a rifleman policy”, all Soldiers in the Army are Soldiers first. Basic Soldiering, like the ability to load and maintain a .50 Caliber machine gun, is something no unit should lack.

Oct 11

I make some pretty strange connections when it comes to foreign affairs. A few months back I wrote about globalization as it related to Cool Runnings. And I wrote about curling as it related to counter-insurgency. (Coming soon: Counter-insurgency theory and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.)

My most recent connection came when I was relooking at the failed states issue of Foreign Policy. As soon as I saw the map of the globe, all I could think was, “Man, that looks like a game of Risk.”

Risk? Yep, the game of global domination, one of the pastimes. We play for hours, get in heated alliances, and generally have a blast. (By the way, I’m not the only one looking to Risk for strategic answers.)

Over time, my friends and I have learned different Risk strategies. The most common lesson is that in Risk, like warfare, concentrating your forces makes sense. So the board starts to look something like this map on Foreign Policy. Different armies of different colors occupy the various states, grouped together to concentrate strength.

Except, whereas in Risk armies lump together for strength, on the failed states map, failed nations lump together; nations that have failed states as neighbors tend to fail themselves. This makes sense: if your neighbor falls apart trade will lower, displaced persons will flood into your country, and disastrous environmental policies will pollute/exploit your resources. All of which erodes the standard of living of all the surrounding nations.

This is all logical, but so what? Well when it comes to Risk, players have strategies to conquer the entire globe; in the realm of failed states no one has a plan. I wish the leaders of America or Europe took this same approach to the rest of the globe. What is our global strategy to pull everyone up to a decent standard of living? What is our approach to spread democracy and stop totalitarianism?

The point is we don’t have one. If we had a global strategy following 9/11, it was to protect our security through expeditionary wars. That only plunged two additional nations into chaos, and did nothing for the poverty stricken nations of Africa, where extremist terrorists took refuge and remain to this day, continuing attacks on Europe and threatening America again.

(Check out this speech by Obama on the same topic.)

Oct 08

Our series of articles--and I welcome any suggestions below--of scenes from film and literature that depict war at its worst so far:

War At Its Worst: A Farewell To Arms

War At Its Worst: Present Tense

War At Its Worst: My War and Falaise

War at its Worst: Hell Sucks in the Imperial Citadel

War at its Worst: Atonement

“The Forever War” at its Worst: Iraq

"The Forever War" at its Worst: Afghanistan

War at its Worst: Slaughterhouse-Five and Dresden

War at its Worst: The Ultimate Practitioner

War at its Worst: For Whom the Bell Tolls

War at its Worst: For Esme, with Love and Squalor

War at its Worst: Band of Brothers "Breaking Point"

As I wrote here, I believe war is the opposite of civilization. A lot of people think that the primitive is the opposite of civilization; it is not. The primitive is just a lesser degree of civilization (technically, its negation). War destroys all laws, rules, customs, traditions, ethics, morals and beliefs of a society. It stands in opposition to everything that makes up civilization, with survival left as the only priority. (H/T to the narrator in Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.)

At times, fiction authors depict that awful senselessness, the chaos and anarchy of war at its worst. I'd like to share those passages. (Michael says this is my pacifist side seeping into my writing.)

Our first passage is from the opening chapter of David Benioff’s excellent City of Thieves. (Click here for my review.)

You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten months earlier...eaten with disregard...in June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter...

There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings--all gone and burning in someone’s stove. The pigeons were missing, too...You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we’d laugh and shake our head, not believing it and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt...By January the rumors had become fact...

The rest of the book expands on this anarchy, the sense of people desperately fighting each other for food and warmth. Society’s beliefs have fallen to the wayside; if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat your own dog.

Oct 07

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

In each game of The Call of Duty series, you use various weapons, to kill either computer simulated enemies or player controlled avatars. Successfully doing so rewards the player with either advancement in the story, or experience points, that make upgrades available for your character.

By design you are meant to kill.

While impossible to advance in the main story mode without scoring a kill, it may be possible to advance to the highest echelon of the online multiplayer community without ever firing a single shot. One gamer is attempting to acquire level 70 without killing a single enemy. Player Mr_No_Kills is leveling through non-violent means. In certain game modes, players can receive experience points through accomplishing specified tasks. In one mode, players must attempt to take and hold certain key locations on the map. In another, players can obtain points by disarming an explosive device. Further, for every full match played, experience points are rewarded.

Mr_No_Kills is playing with the rules intention of the game a little bit. While possible to advance without drawing virtual blood, the game is designed so that not pulling the trigger on the enemy team only hurts his attempts to advance. Further it hurts whichever team he’s on (speaking as one with far too many hours invested, I would not want him on my team). Modes like deathmatch modes offer no avenues for experience other than staying in the game until one team wins. This means his only option is to run around and avoid being killed or hiding while unable to actually help his team win. In the previously mentioned game modes, it is possible to earn extra points without killing, but the same tasks are more difficult when a player doesn’t shoot back. Taking and securing a location is near impossible if there are enemy soldiers firing at you. The mode rewarding bomb disarming also requires one to set the very same explosive device or automatically lose the round.

G4 has titled him the "Modern Warfare 2 Pacifist" and proclaimed him a "hero to hippies." Whether his intention is to promote pacifism, protesting war and violence in our culture, or simply to do something that has yet to be done, Mr_No_Kills attempt brings to light a truth about one of the most popular games on the market: in the fictional universe the programmers have created. Gamers are not only encouraged to kill, but in fact rewarded. Think Pavlovian training, except instead of dogs salivating over food you have gamers salivating over the next tier of weaponry.

While the idea is novel and perhaps even a statement, Mr_No_Kills’ potential achievement defeats the purpose of the game in general. The point is kill the other players, sometimes while accomplishing specified tasks and sometimes not. Whether this may denote something about our culture or simply the nature of entertainment is unclear; but practically by not participating he’s hurting whatever team he’s on. The idea seems more gimmick than challenge. Realistically, pacifism is better served by not playing the game at all. There are plenty of non-violent videogames...like Myst...and Pong.

Oct 06

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

Since we demolished Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robison’s “memoir” Lone Survivor a few months ago, a ridiculous new trend started at On Violence: haters and hateration.

Two examples. The first is from Patrick in the comment section of “He Got The Title Wrong? and 6 More Mistakes from Luttrell's "Lone Survivor” “this website is stupid. its nothing but a bunch of computer nerds and paper pushers that have never been in our boots. you guys have no idea what you are talking about...michael, are you even in the military? have you at the very least received a degree in military studies?” [SIC]

The second example--from the same post--is by Kyle, “We trust these men to do the work that 99.9% of you are too [profanity] to do...if you have ever stepped one foot on a battlefield, then you have half a right to comment on this subject. if not, shut your mouth and live your little lives that are being secured by men like this. being an infantryman myself, it absolutely sickens me that this site is even up and running. what you all should do is simply say ‘thank you for everything you did for us, marcus’ and leave it at that.” [SIC]

We’ve since deleted about three other comments along the same vein. Commenter “youguysaremorons” claimed Michael and I “sit on our couch drinking diet cokes” while others do the fighting for us. (We’ve also developed a new policy: no personal attacks. If you want to insult us or another commenter, do it somewhere else.)

Behind these profanity laced quotes is something much worse: the idea that people outside the military are unable/not allowed to comment on it. Michael C made a comment once on a post at Abu Muqawama, and another person dismissed his comment because he wasn’t a soldier. On a number of levels, it's a logical fallacy. Here are five:

1. Lots of people have not been lots of things; they still comment on them. I mean, I don’t know a soldier since Eisenhower who was president, but I know lots of Soldiers who complain about the President. Only a handful of ex-Soldiers have gone on to join our Congress, but I know tons of service members who think Nancy Pelosi is doing a terrible job. Soldiers don’t want anyone to judge their job, but they feel free to judge politicians. To paraphrase Kyle--the scholar-cum-commenter from above--”If you have ever stepped one foot in the White House, then you have half a right to comment on this subject. If not, shut your mouth and live your little lives that are being led by men like Obama and Bush.”

This sentiment is silly, of course, but so is the idea non-soldiers can’t comment on military matters.

2. A speaker’s personality/traits/anything else that defines that person, technically has nothing to do with the accuracy of a statement. Fools can say wise things; wise men can say foolish things. People forget this, which is why so many smart sentiments and quotes said by anonymous people get attributed to smarter, more famous people. It’s why Einstein, Plato, Franklin, and Ghandi have dozens of quotes attributed to them, and George Santanaya does not.

3. If you have valuable, first-hand experience, then provide it. The only benefit an expert has is using personal experience to back-up his position. In the cases of Patrick and Kyle, neither argues about the factual inaccuracies in Lone Survivor, instead they say we don’t know what we’re talking about. We have found this a lot when Lone Survivor comes up. Instead of debating the merits of our arguments, most people simply say, “if you weren’t there then you can’t judge”, as if the only relevant first hand experience, in the case of war, is that of our soldiers and them alone.

3. This is a formal logical fallacy, and a fairly famous one. The Ad Hominem attack. Neither commenter deals with the fact Lone Survivor is inaccurate and poorly written. Instead they come after us with personal attacks.

4. We live in a democracy and the military serves at our behest. Thus, everyone has a right to comment. Let me rephrase that: everyone has an obligation to comment on the military because it is the most important, most violent and most influential organization that represents us. Not trying to make it better is giving up part of one’s civic duty. Historically, the military has been the greatest threat to freedom and democracy; for every revolution by liberals there have been five coup d’etats by a military or general.

5. Oh and even though it doesn’t matter, Michael C is in the military and has been to Afghanistan. Regular On Violence readers probably spotted this very reasonable objection to the haters right off the bat. Michael C is in the military. Michael C deployed to Afghanistan. To answer Patrick’s claim. Yes, Michael C has a minor in military studies, graduated with honors from both Infantry Officer Basic Course and the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, and went to Ranger School.

Not only did neither commenter not check our “About” page to learn that Michael served in Afghanistan, earned the combat infantry badge, and is currently serving in Iraq, neither read the first paragraph of the post they were commenting on. Michael wrote, “I lived in the Korengal valley; I walked the trails on the other side of the Sawtalo Spur.”

Geez.

Oct 04

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

Trishlet, Karakapend and myself recently had a twitter conversation about war, memoirs and literature, and one tweet in particular grabbed my attention: the best war literature about Iraq or Afghanistan has been Thomas Rick’s Fiasco and it’s sequel The Gamble. I think this is the case.

So when I heard Thomas Rick’s on Talk of the Nation discussing Iraq war memoirs, I knew we had to share it with our readers. I both agree and disagree with Ricks and his reasons behind those picks, so I sketched out my thoughts on the interview.

Some qualifications. First, I don’t think the wars can be separated. Iraq and Afghanistan are two peas in a post-9/11 pod; a number of memoirs--and some of Rick’s choices--take place in both theaters.  

Second, I have a different perspective on war memoirs than Ricks. Jonathan Franzen basically summed it up recently in an interview on Fresh Air, “The great thing about novels, and the reason we still need them...is you’re converting unsay-able things into narratives that have their own dream-like reality.” This is the point I wish Ricks--and every post-9/11 war memoir reviewer--would make. That novels, because of that authorial separation, are superior to memoirs.

So what does Thomas Ricks think?

The best Iraq war history books have already been written. Unlike Vietnam or World War II, modern writers and journalists have access to up-to-date information, email access with participants, and unprecedented research tools. Ricks believes this means the best books, in terms of research and current history, are being written today, and I agree with him.

But only for history books. Check out this conversation with Kayla Williams from last Friday’s review of Love My Rifle More Than You. I agree with Williams, future memoirs and novels will benefit from perspective.

“If I were in the Pulitzer committee, I would give Gary Trudeau a special Pulitzer for his coverage of the war.” I agree. Sandbox--both the blog and the book--are awesome. So are his Doonesbury comic strips dealing with Iraq and losing a limb. But more importantly, what mode does Trudeau write in? Fiction.

“In this war has been [sic] kind of interesting because we've seen the best memoirs come from younger people.” I disagree. In this war, the best memoirs have come from professional writers. Compare Fick’s One Bullet Away to Wright’s Generation Kill, like I did here. They are miles apart, especially if you compare specific passages covering the same event.

Rick’s goes on to say that memoirs by embedded journalists are just “okay”; I think they are on average better. Professional writers have better prose, a better eye for detail, and a knowledge of pacing.

Rick’s Top picks are One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick, House To House by David Bellavia, and Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. Check out my reviews of One Bullet Away and Love My Rifle More Than You. Both had parts that I loved. House to House strikes me as similar to Lone Survivor, contemptuous of ROE, liberals and the media. Sigh. I’ll review it eventually, but I’m not looking forward to it.

Ricks recommends Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Night Draws Near. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City is about the Green Zone, and Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near is about Iraqi civilians. Neither subject has been covered well. I want to read both. (Chandrasekaran's book is as close to my ideal war memoir as anything I’ve heard about.)

Ricks doesn’t like Here, Bullet. Obviously I disagree.

“The generals have produced junk.” I agree with Ricks on this, but if I’m being intellectually honest, this has less to do with writing and more to do with politics. The Iraq war sucks, and the people who got us into to it are to blame. (I mean, does anyone think that if we lost World War II, Churchill would have still won the Nobel Prize for Literature?)  After reading Douglas Feith’s book for five minutes I wanted to poke my eyes out.

“If you want to see where Iraq is going, follow blogs and news articles, not books.” I totally agree. Rick’s blog, The Best Defense, is awesome. So is this one.