Nov 29

The lesson of the last ten years is clear: failed states breed terrorists. This is a reality I have written about twice before--here and here--that failed states are the biggest threat facing America.

But military intervention alone doesn’t really solve the problem. Thankfully, the Obama administration understands this, repeatedly stressing that its foreign policy will be based on the three D’s: diplomacy, development and defense. The problem with our three pronged approach is that America vastly under funds the most important peg, development. When America finally embraces a true development strategy, I think we should use the Risk strategy to guide our actions.

Just as failed states tend to clump together, successful states clump together too. Take Europe, for example, or South America. As the Economist reported in October, the nations of Latin America are pulling themselves up together. The same factors that drag down bad states will pull up good ones. A successful nation can trade with its neighbors, welcome back refugees, and enforce environmental policies beneficial to its neighbors and itself.

The biggest cluster of failed nations in the world is in Africa. Failed states are all over the world, but future instability and atrocities will most likely occur on this continent. If we want to ensure future US security, we must start in Africa.

To get a foothold on Africa, I think America needs to start with South Africa, the closest thing sub-Saharan Africa has to a success story. We need to put our relationship with South Africa front and center. We should push to get it on an expanded UN Security Council. We need to work with NGOs, USAID, the UN and others to raise the standard of living without causing corruption or undermining the government. A successful South Africa will help with problematic neighbors like Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

With luck, prosperous south African nations will help gain stable footholds into the Congo, Kenya and other  West African nations. We expand from our strongest point, the way a general attacks an enemy’s weakest points. The biggest mistake would be to intervene in a failed state directly, like we did in Afghanistan.

Why is this relevant now? Easy, Somalia.

With the recent detention of another aspiring Somali terrorist, I can safely say terrorism has moved out of the Middle East. I worry that a Somali terrorist--most likely affiliated with Al Shabab and possibly with a deployment to Iraq under his belt--will conduct a high profile terrorist attack against America. Despite the clear displeasure Americans have with going to war, if that happened, America would, in all likelihood, re-deploy troops to Africa. (Probably with a small force similar to what we had in Afghanistan for eight years, but still a force.) We would re-quagmire our already over-worked forces.

Securing Somalia’s neighbors, on the other hand, could provide a feasible way to permanently solve the instability of Africa. And we need to start where the nations are strongest.

Nov 24

(On Violence wil be off for the holidays until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

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

As I continue down the path debunking anti-ROE critics and what I like to call "war-is-war"-iors, I need to make four points very clear:

1. Americans, and the West, must fight wars according to our moral, ethical and legal principles.
2. Terrorists--be they Christian, Muslim or other--twist ethics to justify their immoral behavior.
3. As a result, Americans and the West tend to fight wars more ethically, morally and justly than non-state groups acting out of zealotry.
4. And most importantly, this isn’t a bad thing.

It seems like most people agree with my first two points, and then grudgingly accept point number three (though I have heard anti-war activists argue against this, they are wrong). The issue is with point number four. The main complaint being that our morals put us at a tactical disadvantage in messy, unconventional wars (what I call political wars), like the two counter-insurgencies America waged in the last decade.

When your enemy hides without wearing a uniform, threatens the population with violence, and launches attacks against weak civilian targets, it can seem very hard to fight them ethically, whether it is asymmetrically against trans-national terrorists or irregularly against insurgents.

Who wants us to fight immorally? Well, our old punching bags Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. They wrote in Lone Survivor, “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him.” Eric C wrote an entire guest post about this role reversal on Permissible Arms. Others just bemoan that our values could cost American lives. Politicians after 9/11 repeated this idea saying that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact”, meaning if it comes down to survival or the Constitution, goodbye Constitution. (This is a quote behaving badly, and the second edition is coming soon.) Like this, Dick Cheney advocated for the US Intelligence Community to work on the “sort of on the dark side” to defeat terrorism, the “dark side” clearly meaning illegal and unethical side.

Today’s post is a short one because the point is simple: in war, we should never sacrifice our morals; our morality is everything. That is why the Christian tradition and the American tradition are histories of martyrs, people dying for their causes, faith and freedom respectively. We should embrace the fact that America—on the whole—fights morally just wars in a morally sound way.

And largely, the US has conducted itself in a moral, ethical manner. If we had never conducted “enhanced interrogation” in Abu Ghraib, if we had never abducted people in the rendition program, and if we had actually tried the people held in Guantanamo, critics of the US would have almost nothing to complain about. Yes, civilian casualties are too high in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yes, the Iraq war was a tremendous mistake on a number of levels, including morally. But the point remains: America is a moral nation based on strong principles.

We should strive to keep it that way.

Nov 22

(Today, we’re continuing our series of reviews of the documentaries from Operation In Their Boots. Click here to read Friday’s post here.)

Enduring Erebus

(Watch "Enduring Erebus" here.)

Four of the Operation in Their Boots documentaries address the issue of PTSD. Of the four, Tristan Dyer’s Enduring Erebus most perfectly distills PTSD to its dark essence. Unconventional, experimental, Enduring Erebus takes you on a visual trip you didn’t expect you’d take, almost more experimental art than documentary. (That’s a big compliment.)

The concept and execution is simple: four veterans, each suffering from PTSD, narrate their ugly battle with addiction and post-war life. You never see the speakers, only learning their first names. Visually, Dyer interprets these narratives into stop-motion animation; two symbolic figures travel through a hellscape of machinery and forests. If you can’t picture what I’m writing about, that’s because I’m not sure words could describe it. The best films celebrate the visual in ways words can’t do justice.

For me, as I told Tristan after the screening, Enduring Erebus takes a few minutes to get into the film, to learn the syntax of it, but once you’re in, you’re hooked.

Why does this film work? First, Dyer, by making his narrators anonymous, makes them universal. The same goes with the symbolism of the animation. What does it all mean? There are no easy answers, either for the film or PTSD.

I’m a huge fan of experimentation in art, and also a huge fan of surrealism. By going in an altogether different direction than almost anything I’ve ever seen, Tristan accomplishes something you don’t expect: he boils PTSD down to its essence. Please watch Enduring Erebus.
- Eric C

The Academic Front

(Watch "The Academic Front" here.)

The story of two Iraq war veterans struggling to adjust to academic and college life, The Academic Front shows a different side of coming home. Each veteran has different goals. Daniel Wong goes to college to rejoin the fight against Islamic extremism as a counter-terrorism expert. Aaron Huffman goes to college to become a pastor and help other returning veterans.

Chris Mandia was unable to attend the premiere, but I can say this: The Academic Front got the biggest crowd reaction of the films at the premiere, eliciting big laughs and numerous applause moments from the crowd.
- Eric C

Rudy Reyes, The Way of the Warrior

(Watch "Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior" here.)

Rudy Reyes is an successful actor, an author, a veteran, and a warrior. Rudy Reyes was a part of a Marine Recon platoon. And he is also a deeply haunted man.

Victor Manzano glimpses the life of his fellow Marine from childhood to military training to the present. Fraught with hardships in the forms of neglect, abuse, and separation, Reyes fights to become strong and elite like the heroes he has admired since he was a child. Invigorated by the sensations and experiences of combat as well as revelling in the knowledge that he is one of America’s elite warrior, Reyes must somehow acclimate to life beyond service.

Way of the Warrior is a dark look at the life of a well-respected veteran that seems to have transitioned remarkably well to life on the home front. It reveals a hidden struggle with addiction to not just substances, but to the rush of violence.

It takes a minute to find the context and understand the message that Way of the Warrior. Manzano has the deepest respect for Rudy Reyes and it is more than apparent in his direction. At first, it seems like an entirely different documentary altogether. Still, Manzano is ever so delicately able to reveal the darker moments of Reyes’ life honesty allowing for a glimpse of a man who is the best of the best and still beset by past traumas. It’s brutally honest, dark, but still manages to be inspiring.
- Matty P

Nov 19

Last week, On Violence was honored to receive an invitation to the premiere of Operation In Their Boots, a series of five documentaries about the experiences of America’s veterans. Every video is available for viewing, for free, at their website, InTheirBoots.com, and we strongly encourage you to check out these films.

Today regular guest-poster Matty P and Eric C will provide a short review of each documentary.

The Guilt

(Watch "The Guilt" here.)

Clint Van Winkle, in his personal, almost confessional, documentary, The Guilt heads to Philadelphia to convince a good friend, and fellow veteran, to seek treatment for PTSD brought on by survivor’s guilt.

The Guilt, like his memoir Soft Spots, is raw and personal; intimate interviews complement intimate personal interactions--even Van Winkle said afterwards he was surprised one of the participants agreed to be in the film. Van Winkle has a knack for presenting the ugly truth of post-war life for Iraq veterans, putting all of his life out on the table.

My initial reaction to the ending of the film was, “What happens next? Tell me!” I wanted a nice, apropos title card explaining what has happened to all of the participants, as if reality could provide a pat, happy ending. Obviously, The Guilt didn’t give me one.

I had the same complaint with Soft Spots, and I realized something about his film and memoir: reality isn’t neat and tidy. For these three men, the saga continues. As one of them said, they could go on this way forever. W. D. Ehrhart--whose on my reading list now--says at some point in the film, in response to the question how long did it take you to get readjusted to home, “What makes you think I’m readjusted?”

I talked to Clint Van Winkle after the screening about his future plans. He’s working on a new book--non-fiction--and I have to say I’m looking forward to it. Instead of viewing Soft Spots as stand alone book, I should probably look at it as the first chapter in an ongoing project. And every one should needs to see this second part.
- Eric C

No Religious Preference

(Watch "No Relgious Preference here.)

It’s disturbing what the works of a few men can do to a culture’s psyche. In the post 9/11 environment, paratrooper, veteran of Afghanistan, and filmmaker Kyle Hartnett openly addresses his own, and by extension America’s, seething prejudices toward Muslims and Muslim Americans.

Hartnett describes his inner struggle between paranoia that takes the guise of preparedness and self-loathing for his own irrationality. After the events of Fort Hood, in which a Muslim soldier fired upon fellow soldiers, Hartnett’s misgivings resonate more as outright disdain for Muslims, forcing him to take action.

In a quest for knowledge to battle his own ignorance, Hartnett journeys to Dearborn, Michigan and beyond to come face to face with fellow service members of Arab decent. What he finds is not simply a glimpse of honorable men and women who have served their country, but also a tales of betrayal by the very country they fought to protect.

At times, No Religious Preference is brutal in it’s honesty, creating moments of both awkward discomfort and laughs as the audience relates their own stereotyping to Harnett’s. The stories range from comedic cultural misunderstandings to dark depictions of how fear and unfounded suspicion can justify injustice.

At the story’s end, one man, one soldier is able to face his misgivings with hope. While Hartnett is the first to admit he’s not fixed yet, his journey was an experience that served to alter the way he perceives an entire religion. And it’s my hope that No Religious Preference does the same for others.
- Matty P

(On Monday, On Violence will review Enduring Erebus, The Academic Front and Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior.)

Nov 18

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published at Doonesbury's The Sandbox, titled, "The  PL."

Check it out.

Nov 17

We’re doing something a bit different today. Twitter friend and college professor @Trishlet asked her students to brainstorm questions for Soldiers, and today I’m going to answer some. Out of a whole bunch of war related questions, I selected the seven that inspired the most interesting responses. After I wrote my responses, I realized it would make a great On Violence post, so here we are.

(By the way, we had a reader ask for more personal experience articles in the comments section of Monday’s post. We agree. If you have any specific or general questions about my experience, contact us. Just answering these questions gave us several post ideas.)

1. How do you deal with everyday life and the uncomfortable questions people ask?
Humor mostly, especially with uncomfortable questions. My dad told me long ago that you should never ask a soldier if they have killed. Every parent should teach that to their children.

I would add, as a corollary, that if a veteran boasts about how many people they killed, or brings it up themselves, I would question either how they handled the war or if they are who they say they are. People who never left the wire love to tell war stories; veterans will usually only talk to other veterans or people they trust.

2. What is it like coming home from war for the first time? I imagine there would be a lot of culture shock.
Actually, for me, I was surprised how easy it was to pick up where I left off. I have this mode I go into, and once I leave the combat zone, I leave it behind. Coming back from Ranger School was actually a bigger shock for me than coming home from Afghanistan the first time. Little things will come up, but mostly down range is over there and civilian life is over here.

After a few days back from Afghanistan, it was like nothing had changed. You drive again on civilian roads, you drink again, and you have a level of freedom. At the same time, you sleep, go on the Internet, and work out just like you did downrange. Deployment is just replacing one home for another, and you always make a new home.
  
Of course, going to A*stan and Iraq wasn’t as big a culture shock as going to Europe the first time, but that’s another post altogether.

3. Do people feel a second disillusionment when they return from war?
For me, the disillusionment with war came when I lost two friends. No matter how good the cause, no matter how many good things I did over there, I don’t think anything can make up for that. Not just my lost friends, but the violence that happens everyday. Even if it wasn’t to my platoon, the effect of violence was everywhere.

Eric C is the pacifist who believes that hardly any war can justify its cost. I don’t go that far, but I have seen the cost of war, and that probably counts as disillusionment. It didn’t happen in Afghanistan, it happened before I went.

4. How are dreams useful in remembering things?
I have had very few dreams about Afghanistan after I got back, but I wrote about one I did have here. It wasn’t based on reality, but it says something about the emotions I associate with Afghanistan. The emotion of fear from the dream was incredibly real, just like before I left.

Another thing. Downrange soldiers take an anti-Malarial pill called Mefloquine. It causes you to have vivid dreams, and downrange I remember having very disturbing and very real dreams. Different topic, but interesting.

5. Do you think that reading about and trying to understand what past soldiers have experienced could help future soldiers from having the same problems?
I truly believe that the best way to deal with deployment-caused emotional problems, like PTSD, is by communicating. Reading, writing and talking in groups are all methods of coming to grips with what happened. Soldiers are solitary and individualistic creatures, though, and it prevents that communication.

I definitely think that blogging has helped me channel my frustration, if you will. Though I still complain an awful lot about the military, I think blogging mellows me a bit.

6. How did soldier’s jobs change directly after COIN was established then enacted while troops were already in theater?
I think this is a false dichotomy. There wasn’t ever a point where we decided, “Now counter-insurgency has started” and we changed what we did. Instead, it evolved over time.
  
For instance, I was in Afghanistan right when the surge was starting in Iraq. It hadn’t been proven effective yet, but the manual had been published. So we did plenty of engagement with local leaders and tried to fund local reconstruction projects. But my battalion also fought the Battle of Wanat, which was one of the most violent, traditional battles of the war yet.
  
And units in Iraq were conducting leader engagements since the beginning of the war, they just weren’t trained or prepared to do so. Rebuilding a society was mainly something unplanned, that troops figured out on the fly. I am a huge proponent of population-centric counter-insurgency, so I hope our military doesn’t forget the lessons of these wars next time.

7. What kind of war memorial do you think best honors soldiers?
This question provoked an altogether too complex response, that we will have to think about and write up in the future.

Nov 16

A big, big, big shout-out is in order for Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, “the first living American service member from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be honored with the U.S. military's highest decoration,” the Medal of Honor. We think two videos showcase his accomplishments best:

- The first is from the PBS Newshour, which has two interviews and footage from today’s ceremony.

- The second is from this weekend’s 60 Minutes, which has a good description of what happened.

Sgt. Giunta is a member of my former unit, 2-503rd “The ROCK,” part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the best battalion and best brigade in the military.

Nov 15

In a continuing quest to show pictures from my Afghanistan deployment, today we have two pictures of the Korengal OutPost, a hell-hole I have written about before.

This first photo was taken out of a Chinook helicopter as I was desperately trying to get back to Camp Joyce. I went all over the battlefield before I got there, and I realized as we landed here I was at the KOP. My camera came after we left so this is the only photo I have.

But this second photo I got from SGT Crivello, one of my guys from the platoon. It pretty much captures the mood of the valley, and a brand new platoon leader.

Nov 12

In a string of good luck, we have been published in several different venues over the last week, including the nytimes.com and Infantry Magazine.

To top it off, Eric C just got an rebuttal piece published in our hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times in their “Blowback” feature. Called “War Destroys”, Eric C writes about how atrocities define war in general. This is another huge day for Eric C and On Violence, so check it out.

Nov 12

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.

Remember, vote for your favorite in the comments section below.)

Eric C’s Rebuttal:

Buffalo Soldier” is, in one very distinct way, miles above both "Belleau Wood" and “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”: it is the most playable. And I mean playable in the sense that when you want to put something on, you’ll play “Buffalo Soldier” ten times more than the other songs.

Great art is accessible. For music, this means pleasant, on key, beautiful. You could play “Buffalo Soldier” and people can dance to it. Or lie on the beach and listen to it. Or listen to it in the car. On this musical level, it is amazing.

But what about the other songs? “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a great song, no doubt, but practically unlistenable--the singer doesn’t sing so much as cough out consonants like a Pertussis victim. This guy wishes he could sing like Bob Dylan.

What about "Belleau Wood"? I’m not going to be one of those ignorant people who says all country is crap. But I don’t like twang, and "Belleau Wood" has a lot of twang.

On to content. “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” has numerous factual errors in it, which isn’t a deal breaker, but it kind of is. And there is something about the Christmas Truce that strikes me wrong. All of World War I was a big deadly mess, and the Christmas Truce illustrates the absurdity of the war. But the song, for me, doesn’t.

Matty P's Rebuttal:

It’s a privilege to participate in the second On Violence war song debate. Choosing "Belleau Wood" was absurdly difficult considering the wealth of musical inspiration on the subject matter. The 1960’s and 1970’s teem with war protest and condemnation. While these songs, songs like “No Shelter” by the Rolling Stones or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, highlight the evils of war, they lack the ability to truly capture the cost to our humanity or convey a hope for, as Garth Brooks says, we “live to see a better way.”

As for “Buffalo Soldier” I cannot dispute the popularity of the song. However, this debate isn’t about popularity. Eric admits the lyrics are vague. Further, the connection to war is weak. While an excellent depiction of racial tensions, culture clash, and triumph over oppression, “Buffalo Soldier is clearly inferior when depicting and commenting on the nature of war.

While passionate, Eric’s hyperbolic argument seems limited to what is popular or, as he put it, “accessible”. Great art is not necessarily accessible, great art is evocative. Further, in stating “Buffalo Soldier” is the superior musically, he fails to state a qualifier. This statement is dubious at best, it may be popular, but not necessarily better.

Admittedly, I had not heard “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda prior to prepping for the debate. After listening to two versions, I was more than sufficiently depressed. It’s a dark tale of a wanderer turned soldier. The story itself is one of woe questioning the value of war and celebrating victory. While dancing on the edge of powerful emotions, the lyrics lack eloquence in telling the tale. Rather than descriptive, its straight forward. While it makes a good tale, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is compromised by it’s bluntness.

Michael C’s Rebuttal:

First, a clarification: I love all of these songs, including the songs from our first debate too. (I hadn’t heard "Belleau Wood" before it was recommended last time, but it grew on me too.) I have taken the five songs from our two debates and made a mini-playlist called “On V Debates” for my IPod.

This debate isn’t about good versus bad, it is about greatness at varying degrees. And by many degrees, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is better than its competitors.

I agree with Eric C that, musically, “Buffalo Soldier”'s kicks behind. It easily is the best song of the bunch aesthetically. But great music combines raw sonic pleasure with narrative energy. In that latter category, I just don’t think “Buffalo Soldier” tells a strong enough story to really capture the essence of war or warfare. And when you have to steal your chorus from a television show, well that just seems wrong.

"Belleau Wood", on the other hand, tells a great story. It sticks with you. The PBS documentary on World War I, The Great War, had a part on the story retold in Belleau Wood. I remember watching that section and still not believing it happened. In the field between the lines--a hell-torn warzone, with the remnants of mustard gas, artillery shells and bodies still littering the battlefield, where poking your head above a trench line meant a sniper bullet to the dome, with the stench of death permeating nostrils, clothes and minds--in the midst of all that, soldiers from two different nations, speaking two different languages, came together to celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t sound true, but it is, and it captures the height of human triumph.

Then the next day the men went back to the depths of human tragedy. "Belleau Wood" may capture the indomitable fortitude of the human condition, but it doesn’t capture the essence of war, the ugly side of war--the fighting, killing, death and destruction--that I talked about in a recent post. Because of that, it can’t be the best.

(Vote for your favorite below.)

Nov 11

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here. Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

Christmas Eve in the winter of 1914, Allied soldiers, clutching rifles, sit huddled in the snow laden trenches far away from their families. Across a scorched stretch of earth, German soldiers sit in similar trenches, just as cold, just as lonely. Amidst brief silence, a tune rises from the German trenches. A Christmas melody familiar to the Allied lines. Soon, though the language is different, both sides lend their voices.

"Belleau Wood" performed by Garth Brooks and co-written by Joe Henry, poetically depicts actual events on the front lines during Christmas in World War I. It is a powerful song, slow and somber, highlighting the brilliance of the human spirit in the darkest of times while glimpses the harrowing cost of war on the human soul.

We revel in true stories. We need them for perspective and inspiration. This is an advantage that "Belleau Wood" has over the competition. "Belleau Wood" is based on true events; men from warring nations peered from the safety of their trenches to share goodwill during a holiday.

In solemn country fashion, Garth Brooks evokes the complex mixture of hope and fear engaging soldiers during the truce. Brooks describes a sobering glimpse at the struggle to find humanity in depths of hell. Upon a frozen and battered ground, surrounded by tools of destruction and man-made divisions, hope overshadow even the most justified of fears. Unspoken words share the sentiment: “Here's hoping we both live / To see us find a better way.”

It is both a mix of triumph and tragedy. Despite the temporary truce, Brooks sings to us of the inevitable return of violence with perhaps the most poignant lyrics of the song.

"Then the devil's clock struck midnight,
And the skies lit up again,
And the battlefield where heaven stood,
Was blown to hell again."

"Belleau Wood" is a portrait painted in three short minutes of soldiers grasping for humanity in the worst circumstances human beings can invent. It’s the story of heaven and hell existing in the same place. Within the lyrics and tone is the sad revelation of the cost of warfare on our own humanity, pitting men with similar hearts to take each other’s lives. It’s a harrowing tail of loss and an inspiration for hope.

Nov 11

Since I began the 9/11 war memoir project last year, I’ve read a lot of books. Some were good, some were bad, and two were very, very good. Those two are Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots and Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted. Both Van Winkle and Friedman released new projects this week, and we wanted to share them with you.

Operation In Their Boots

Soft Spots was the second book I read when I started the post-9/11 war memoirs project. (I reviewed it here.) Having perspective of having read a bunch of war memoirs and war memoir criticism, I can say unequivocally, it’s one of the best I’ve read.

I met Clint last night at the premiere of his new documentary, The Guilt, as part of the series Operation In Their Boots. Take a look at his documentary, and definitely check out the other five. We’ll have more detailed reviews next Friday, and maybe an interview or two.

VAntage Point

Brandon Friedman has done a lot of work in the VA system, and he is now editing a VA sponsored blog, VAntage Point, with another friend of On Violence, Alex Horton of Army of Dude fame. Good luck to them, and check it out.

Nov 10

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

“Woy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

I’m driving the other day, thinking about nothing in particular, when Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” comes on the radio. I do what I do every time the song comes on. I start singing one of the world’s most infectious choruses of all time, “Oy yoy yoy. Oh yo yoy yoy. Oh yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

Then it hits me. This is the Greatest. War song. Ever. And I’m dead serious.

There are a lot of reasons to love Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier”. It has beautiful singing and a wonderful melody; of the five war songs we’ve debated, “Buffalo Soldier” is easily the best from a musical perspective.

But the reason it is a great war song is that it is nuanced, detailed, historic and realistic.

War is an indefinite thing. Michael C’s entire series on “war is war” basically gets at how illusory a unifying theory or description of war can be. There probably is no such thing as “the perfect war song” (or even the perfect song), but if there were, it would try to capture the contradictory nature of war. “Buffalo Soldier” comes closer to this than any other war song.

“Buffalo Soldier” presents this indefinite essence of war to the listener like a painting on display. Neither pro-war or anti-war, happy and joyful (one of my first musical memories is dancing to its deceptively bright and catchy chorus), it is incredibly sad, a tale of men “stolen from Africa, brought to America”. It is also ironically bittersweet. Though it is a song about stolen men, Bob Marley sings with pride at what they’ve accomplished.

If the ultimate war song is going to capture the essence of war through a story, it can’t be a story about one man, platoon or war. It has to capture a people, a people that spans continents and nations. “Buffalo Soldier” tells that story. It is the story of many peoples: Africans, Americans, Rastafarians, Jamaicans. At its heart the song is about identity, “Said he was a Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta”, a story that spans centuries and eras. Man, that is powerful and different.

You could argue that there are problems with “Buffalo Soldier”--the lyrics are vague, the connection between Jamaican Rastafarianism and American Soldiers is tenuous at best--but the impact of the song on so many levels is undeniable. That’s why, right now, it is easily my favorite war song.

Nov 09

(Today, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

Don Hewitt had a simple rule for 60 Minutes, “Tell me a story.” According to the reporters on the show, on every topic, Hewitt asked them to tell a story. And this approach works. Think about the moral lessons of Jesus; his parables are stories. Think about Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa; a tragic, epic story told in two dimensions.



So when it comes to war songs--either anti-war or pro-soldier--the best songs tell stories. The best stories don’t have ulterior motives. They tell their story, and tell it honestly.

In our last debate, I thought I choose the song with the best story--a general struggling with the decision to go to battle--though it was fantastic and impossible. But “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, sung by the Pogues and written by Eric Bogle, takes the great storytelling of “The General” and grounds it in reality. (Read the lyrics here.)

I could argue “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” wins this debate because it tells a story about the neglected casualties of every war--the wounded and the maimed. I could argue that the motif of “waltzing Matilda” floats through the entire song with a different meaning each time. I could argue that Robert Christgau agrees with me. But the reason this song is my favorite war song is because it tells the most honest tale about war in this debate.

Whether or not the original author had been to war--or World War I specifically--it feels like he has. The song doesn’t stop at the end of the war, when the narrator looks down to see he lost both of his legs. It continues to tell the story of aging veterans in society. The cost of war is forgotten as they are forgotten, and the cycle of warfare begins all over again.

“...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” also does all this in under four minutes (depending on the version), telling the story of a war most Americans, Europeans and Australians have forgotten. It is moving, memorable, and the best song in this debate.

Nov 08

So it happened again. Eric C was listening to a song and declared, with his usual amount of narcissism, that it was “the greatest war song of all time” (of course, war does not make songs great). When we told Matty P what Eric had said, we all knew what was coming: The Return of the On Violence Song Battle! Executioner's Song Part II (Check out the first installment here.)

Here’s how this works: Each fighter gets 400 words to make their case for their song. On Tuesday, Michael C will come out swinging with The Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. On Wednesday, Eric C will celebrate Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. And on Thursday, Matty P will try for the knock out with Garth Brooks’ “Belleau Wood”.

On Friday we will have the Royal Rumble as each fighter brings out 400 words in rebuttal.

The only rule? That there are no rules--except for the word count restrictions.

I want a good clean fight. No punching below the belt and no cheap shots. With that said, “Let’s get it on!”

(What's your favorite war song? Toss it out the comments below.)

Nov 05

To new visitors from the New York Times, welcome. Please check out Our 50th Post Link Drop, Our 100th Post Link Drop, Our 1 Year Anniversary Link Drop and Our 200th Post Link Drop to read some of our best posts. Probably our best and most debated recent work has been our “War is War” series.

Quick heads up to regular readers, if you thought Michael C’s announcement yesterday about his article in Infantry magazine was cool, wait until you see this.

Michael C just had a piece published on the newyorktimes.com At War blog, titled, “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?

This is amazing and cool, and big props to Michael C.

Nov 05

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for A Farewell To Arms, but, in the words of Michael C, it’s been out for 75 years now. Get to it already.

To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

Last month, I started a new series that shares passages describing war at its worst--sections of novels I've read, mostly fiction, that most perfectly depict the chaos, anarchy and terrible violence of war. Today, I want to share the sequence that inspired this series, the Italian Army retreat in book three of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I first read A Farewell to Arms in high school--and I loved it--but the impact of the battle scenes didn’t really hit me until I read it again recently. This chapter could be one of the saddest things I've ever read. And it illustrates, as does every post in this “War at its Worst” series, the terrible cost of war.

After a series of disastrous campaigns, the Germans force the Italians to retreat back from the Alps. In this moment of pure anarchy, hierarchy means nothing; survival means everything. We follow Lieutenant Henry as he and his men attempt to join the retreat, desperately avoiding death.

What is war at its worst? It is soldiers fighting other soldiers, civilians fighting civilians, everyone trying to get out before the Germans come. Lieutenant Henry and his troops join the slow-moving, congealed column of Soldiers and civilians. "Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped...In the night, many peasants had joined the column from the roads of the country and in the column there were carts loaded with household goods; there were mirrors projecting up between mattresses, and chickens and ducks tied to carts...they had saved the most valuable things."

It is also about fear, because soon the planes will come. "I was certain that if the rain should stop and planes come over and get to work on that column it would be all over."

The fear turns into paranoia. "The Italians were even more dangerous. They were frightened and firing on anything they saw. Last night on the retreat we had heard that there had been many Germans in Italian uniforms mixing with the retreat...one of those things you always heard in war. It was one of the things the enemy always did to you...There was no need to confuse our retreat. The size of the army and the fewness of the roads did that."

This fear is best represented by two young girls, virgins, who join Henry and his men. "Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. Her sister, not looking up, took her hand...The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob." As they say later, “A retreat was no place for virgins.” Both are terrified because they know their future. Very likely, they will almost certainly be raped or killed.

When Henry and his men head to the side roads, to avoid the German planes, a hopeless situation somehow gets worse. Order is flipped upside down. Two mechanics try to desert Lieutenant Henry. He must kill them. It is Henry’s first kill, and it is a fellow soldier. An officer killing a soldier.

Then more tragedy, and more upending of social order. Fellow Italians open fire. "Aymo, as he was crossing the tracks, lurched, tripped and fell face down...He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes." Stay in one place, and the invading Army will capture you, and probably kill you. Move forward, and your own army will shoot at you.

The whole thing culminates in the ultimate betrayal of military order. The Carabinieri, Italian military police, make a check point at a bridge, sorting out the officers and spies, and shooting both. They kill the officers for deserting their men and allowing "barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland." Lieutenant Henry watches the Carabinieri question a gray-haired, fat Lieutenant Colonel. Then he hears the gun shots.

"I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country...So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it."

Nov 04

First off, last month was the biggest month in the history of On Violence. Thanks to all our readers, new and old, for the comments, likes, links and RTs.

Along with that good news came more good news: I recently received in the mail three copies of the May-August 2010 issue of Infantry magazine, which features the boringly titled but fabulously written, “Influencing the Population: Using Interpreters, Conducting KLEs, and Executing IO in Afghanistan” by the captivating and charismatic Captain Michael Cummings.

      (A picture from the article in Infantry Magazine.)

I also wish we could post a link to it on this blog, but right now it looks like Infantry magazine doesn’t have an online edition. If anyone can find one, let me know.

Nov 03

I contemplated calling this article, “Why Generals have no clue what Soldiers on the ground want/need” but I thought that title was too long. That, and Eric C doesn’t like putting a thesis in a title. With this clarification, the point stands: Generals--the people with the final say in military acquisitions--have no clue what Soldiers want or need.

For example, when I joined the military way back in 2003, I assumed the epitome of hydration systems was the canteen. And not some new fangled canteen, the same canteen used by our troops in Vietnam. Roughly a quart of water, made of hard plastic, and carried on the front of your functionally-named “Load Bearing Equipment” (LBE in Army jargon).

I assumed this, because until I started infantry training in October of 2006, I was never issued anything better. Even after 2006, at every equipment draw, at every base I went to, I was given 2 one-quart canteens.

This is ridiculous. As deployed soldiers, hikers, climbers, hippies or anyone else “wilderness-y” knows, when it comes to hydration, canteens suck at life.

Everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan uses a Camelbak. For those who don’t know, the Camelbak is a soft canteen worn on the back like a backpack, with an extended drinking hose. It took several years, but it has mostly replaced canteens because it doesn’t make noise, fits comfortably on body armor, and enables the wearer to drink water hands free. To be clear, the Camelbak isn’t just an improvement on the canteen; it is light years ahead.

So the military saw these advantages, and soon Camelbaks were plentiful in Iraq and Afghanistan...after the Iraq war started. In fact, even in 2006, I heard stories of Sergeants Major and Lieutenant Colonels banning Camelbaks and going to combat with canteens. Basic training dragged their feet too. This isn’t just the Army either, I have heard these stories from Marine veterans as well.

Even worse, Camelbaks had been around for years before the Iraq war, but mass adoption didn’t occur until after they had proved their usefulness in combat. Even Robert Heinlein, in the book Tunnel in the Sky, describes something almost exactly like a camelbak, in the fifties!

The story of the Camelbak is just one example of many technologies or changes that wilted in the military bureaucracy, illustrating several disheartening truths about the Pentagon’s acquisitions process:

- Real change in the military only tends to happen under fire. Thus, for much of the 1990s, when the military should have been testing, adapting, improving, it was stagnating. No one saw a need to change to a better canteen because bullets weren’t flying.

- Generals only adopt programs that kill more bad guys or have a “gee whiz” technical aspect. This is why new vehicles get so much attention and canteens do not; it is also why the Army adamantly refuses to upgrade the M4 to one of the piston-driven versions. Despite its atrocious jamming record, and massive maintenance needs, from Vietnam through to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again, the Army/Department of Defense have steadfastly refused to replace the M4. While they started tests on new models, it will be years before full-scale adoption of a new rifle, and adoption will probably occur after our current wars have ended.

- Uniformity is king, which kills innovation. We’ve written about this before. The boot the Army wore into the two expeditionary wars of the 2000s sucked. It was ill-fitting and hot. Civilian hiking boots hiked circles around it, but no one knew any better because everyone had to wear the exact same footwear. The same with canteens. The problem is many Sergeants Major believe that every soldier should look the same; in their minds, a non-uniform army is an undisciplined army. This uneducated view of uniformity hampers innovation.

Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, the idea to swap canteens for Camelbaks wasn’t sexy, and it wouldn’t make a General’s career. At least, not in the same way getting a ultra-expensive vehicle like the Comanche scout helicopter or the Crusader self-propelled howitzer or the Future Combat System; all systems that cost billions for research and development, to out fight enemies who couldn’t out fight us right now; all systems that have since been cancelled.

Nov 01

(In honor of, in no particular order, The Rally to Bring Back Fear, Halloween and “War is War”, we’re discussing fear and national security.)

Every American will die. Scared? You should be, we’re in a fight for our lives.

In the Spring issue of the Journal for International Security Affairs, Mary Habeck writes about a threat to our freedom, terrorism. She tells us that “our enemies in Islam view [the current fight] as a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” These evil men are, “intent on carrying out a war of annihilation” against the US. Even worse, American politicians don’t get it, “the contrast between this view [Al Qaeda and total annihilation] and the U.S. desire to fight a limited conflict characterized by legal constraints and law enforcement methods could not be more striking.”

Mary Habeck isn’t the only academic, politician or pundit frightening America. Former Vice President Cheney said it right here. So did his daughter Liz Cheney in this article. William Safire, writing in the New York Times, collected four of these opinions in this piece. In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, New Gingrich calls radical Islam a “threat to our survival”. Right before him, his wife said that we are in “even more danger than [we were] in 2001”. And in the season premiere of Intelligence Squared, an NPR Oxford-style debate show, two debaters claim that we are in a war for survival.

In other words, the threat of terrorism, by radical, extremist, Takfiri Muslims, is a threat to our existence. And this should scare you.

It would terrify me, except for one inconvenient truth: terrorism is not an existential threat.

America can choose to view the struggle with al Qaeda as criminal problem--as opposed to an existential problem--because realistically it is. Al Qaeda might only have a hundred followers, maybe up to a thousand; the US alone fields a military of 2.4 million people. Al Qaeda is trying to get a nuclear weapon; we have thousands. They live in caves; America spans a continent. Al Qaeda struggles to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world; the US has bases on every continent and in dozens of countries. They get meager support from Saudi billionaires; we have the world’s largest economy. Do I need to go on?

So Mary Habeck makes the point that, “our enemies in Islam view it as “a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” So what? They can believe whatever they want to believe, that doesn’t make it true. Mike Singletary can think the Forty-Niners are a playoff team, but I’m not going to pre-order tickets. Say Djibouti declared war on the US, would we even acknowledge them? We can choose to view terrorism as a non-existential problem because we have the power and will to do so.

Fortunately, rational voices do exist to temper the fear. The Cato Institute posted this piece about terrorism. Foreign Policy did an article titled, “Think Again: Homeland Security”. And Foreign Affairs published a cost-benefit analysis on terrorism that went so far as to call terrorism “hardly existential”. Even the state department is getting in on the act. Apparently, Americans traveling abroad are much more likely to die of traffic accidents then they are of terrorism.

I stumbled on the idea of fear and our existential crisis as I researched my “war is war” series. I consider this post a caveat to it. "War-is-war"-iors and anti-ROE critics phrase our current fights as an existential crisis because that would let us use our violent tools more. There are two issues with this. First, more violence won’t stop terrorism. Second, it isn’t true. Strong rhetoric about Al Qaeda and the end of America is designed to do one thing, sow fear. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda wants.