Dec 29

Since one half of On Violence is on his Iraq-deployment-delayed honeymoon and the other half is moving, we'll be off until next Friday, Jan. 7th. But don't worry, we have big things planned for the coming for the year, including a week on Wikileaks, the debate we aren't having about Yemen, quotes behaving badly, "war is war", our 300th post and a whole bunch more.

If you need something to hold you over, we recommend this awesome Year in Review post by Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq.

Dec 28

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

While researching another project, I came across a passage from Andy Rooney’s My War that absolutely took my breath away. Typing the passage into my computer only increased its power, nearly bringing tears to my eyes. I instantly knew it fit into my series of artistic depictions of “War At Its Worst”:

The history books say we allowed 50,000 Germans to escape at Falaise but no historian who saw the killing I saw that day would repeat the phrase I’ve seen in print: “We let the Germans escape.” It was the worst slaughter of the war, a massacre vastly more deadly for the German soldiers than D-Day was for ours.

   

The German soldiers in horse-drawn wagons, trucks, command cars, and a few tanks moved along the road in a straight line like clay ducks on a track in a carnival tent. As the slaughter started, big white flags started flying over their vehicles. Under ordinary circumstances the Germans would have been taken prisoner, but white flags on vehicles meant nothing at the 600 yards between them and the US troops up on the lip of the saucer. The white flags only seemed to make them better targets.

   

Horse-drawn artillery compounded the awfulness of the day. It is easier to get used to dead men than dead or wounded and dying horses. At one point a line of hundreds of horses was strafed by P-47s and they bolted, ran, bucked. Most of them were still hitched to wagons or field-artillery pieces. The live ones, still trapped in the harnesses, dragged the dead ones and dragged their wagons and guns and dragged dead and wounded German soldiers. Some soldiers who had not been hit were crushed or trapped by the actions of the crazed horses. There cannot have been many gorier days in history.

   

At one point as many as a dozen horses had bolted and ended up tangled together bleeding and dying in the Dire River, their blood coloring the water red. The wounded horses were unable to get themselves up the steep bank, and many were drowning in their traces. One US Infantryman, a humanitarian I’d guess you’d say, stood on the bank of the river shooting the wounded horses...

Some thoughts on the passage:

There was no choice. As my dad told me after I showed him the passage, you had to kill those German soldiers. Anyone who escaped would--probably--turn around and start fighting again. This moral justification only makes the passage more tragic.

We originally wanted to post this before Christmas. But it is too bloody and tragic; we didn’t want to put this up at the top of the website for four days before a joyous holiday weekend. My gut instinct was to write something “nice”, like Michael C’s post from last year before Thanksgiving, or something on Belleau Wood. This editorial decision reminds me of the warning from The Things They Carried, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

I’m tired of trite depictions of German soldiers. This passage shows how morally simplistic films like Inglorious Basterds are, a simplified, easy world of heroes versus villains that doesn’t exist in real life. German soldiers were humans, not stock characters for an action movie. If you can read the above passage, and not empathize with the victims of this attack, well, I don’t know what to say.

Dec 22

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

Frequent commenter and general rabble rouser (we appreciate that he keeps us honest) Harrison posted this quote--“If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”--on the last “War is War” post “Fighting, Killing, Death, Destruction!”. I replied the same way I have the half a dozen or so times I heard it before. I wrote, "How specifically do we grab the Taliban by the balls?" What specific techniques, tactics and procedures grabbing the enemy’s private areas entails.

I need specifics. When I was platoon leader, I didn’t need Clausewitz or false John Wayne quotes, I needed details. “War is war” is Clausewitz, but also vagueness, incredible vagueness and ridiculous lack of details.

I understand why. It is much easier to argue against something than it is to argue for something. In elections, we constantly see politicians running against an issue, but rarely presenting in concrete terms, their alternatives. Rules of Engagement critics and "war-is-war"-iors do this all the time. They criticize restrictive rules of engagement and lambaste counter-insurgency policies, but hardly ever offer alternatives, preferring utter vagueness.

Take these examples. In each case the “war-is-war”-ior bemoans the policy, but doesn’t offer an alternative. First, in this article, General Zinni goes to great lengths to decry our Rules of Engagement, but he never says what he would do differently. Bill Osborn in the LA Times said, "our soldiers are forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. They're not allowed to take care of business — and they know it," without describing what “taking care of business” really means. The closest he comes is saying that ROE should “empower” our soldiers, again without defining empower. Finally, in this article the author puts in a quick aside about Rules of Engagement, but again does not explain what he means. He says, “Rules of Engagement (ROE) must change. Using the Tribal Engagement Teams will become a very intense, personal fight. If they need to drop bombs or pursue an enemy, they must be able to do so.” Troops in Afghanistan can drop bombs and pursue the enemy, so what exactly does he want our troops to do differently?

It gets particularly bad with the critics of current counter-insurgency doctrine. This is my typical conversation about changing our counter-insurgency theory:

"War-is-war"-ior: What we need to do is avoid winning hearts and minds and focus on killing the enemy.”

MC: “Well, don’t we kill the enemy?

"War-is-war"-ior: “Yes, but we need to kill more of them.

MC: How do you do that?

"War-is-war"-ior: “By getting better intelligence.

MC: Well, how do we get that?

"War-is-war"-ior: “By convincing the population to support us.

MC: You mean win their hearts and minds?

"War-is-war"-ior: Well no, not winning their hearts and minds, but having them support us.

End scene.

Advocates for looser rules of engagement are actually advocating using violence with less evidence. Deep down, intelligence is really just evidence; the rules of engagement define how much intelligence--or evidence--you need before you can fire your weapon, though we never use those terms. The critics who argue for different rules of engagement want us to be able to fire indiscriminately--literally, without discriminating if targets are innocent or guilty, armed or unarmed, civilian or insurgent. This is the fundamental difference between strict and loose Rules of Engagement.

Indiscriminate killings don’t work. The Russians carpet bombed Afghanistan and still lost. France tortured the sin out of the Algerians, which became an independent nation a few years later. We dropped more ordinance on Vietnam then we did in Europe circa the 1940s, and we were run out of there. Adolf Hitler indiscriminately arrested and killed millions to pacify nations. In the process, he became the symbol for pure evil in the Western world.

The point is don’t mince your words. If you don’t like the rules of engagement, fine. But give me an alternative.

Dec 20

After we published “Haters Want to Hate”, we felt that we didn’t go far enough debunking a crucial part of the Haters phenomenon, the “Have you been there?” argument. It’s probably best, and most charismatically, expressed by Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessup in his closing monologue in A Few Good Men:

“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg?...I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand post.”

Lest you think this is just a stock movie villain sentiment, ViolentJ expressed the idea at his website, thefreepatriots.com, “By the way, how do you know what most Afghan people think of us, have you been there, have you walked Kabul in your burka taking a survey? Nope... watching too much CNN right? So sit down shut up and LISTEN to those who HAVE been there!” Kyle expressed it in our series on Lone Survivor, “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...” [sic]

And from a more respectable source, Bouhammer wrote, in response to “traitor” Julian Assange and Wikileaks’ first video release of the helicopter shooting in Iraq, “I mean if they hate the US and its military that much, I would be glad to take all the idiots that work at wikileaks to Afghanistan so they can do the fighting. I know a great place to drop them that will guarantee they will see some action and they can fight to their death right there. In fact, I bet they can video that too. I bet the Taliban would even video some of it for them as they cut off the heads of the wikileaks people. Not sure how they will ‘leak’ it since they would all be dead already.”

The thrust of the “Have you been there?” argument is that citizens are sheep who should thank the sheepdog for his protection, and never questions his methods.

So here’s our rather obvious point: you don’t have to have “been there” to comment on military matters. It may help, it may provide expertise and perspective, but in a democracy, any citizen has the right to comment on what America’s military does in our country’s name.

Half of the On Violence writing team (two thirds if you count Matty P), has never deployed to any country. So in case we receive another commenter asking us to “shut the hell up” unless we have “been there”, we want to present the flaws with that specific argument so we can simply ignore them in the future.

Point 1: This argument silences critics, not the uninformed. Even if we could grant that people who have never deployed “don’t get it”, the haters who use this argument never silence conservative commentators who agree with them. Sarah Palin, for just one example, constantly opines on the situation in Afghanistan. Same with Newt Gingrich. They haven’t “been there”, so why don’t the haters tell them to “shut their mouths and pick up a gun”? Because they are on the same side.

An example: The head of the Center for Military Readiness, Elaine Donelly has never deployed, but conservatives who support DADT never tell her to “shut her mouth”. It doesn’t matter if she’s deployed or served or not, it matters what evidence she uses to support her position. Sometimes the best evidence is personal experience; sometimes it’s academic research. The “have you been there?” argument silences dissent and criticism, instead of promoting an actual debate over the policies.

Point 2: Some of the best thinkers “haven’t been there”. I absolutely love the historian John Keegan, but he has never “been there”. (Keegan had a medical condition that specifically kept him out of the service.) But his books get it. He knows more than most soldiers will ever forget. And, ironically, conservative soldiers quote Keegan frequently, despite his never having been there.

Point 3: Our world would be a different place if you had to have “been there” to comment.
We mentioned this last time, but we’ll say it again: obviously, you can comment on issues without first hand experience, we do it all the time (especially on Monday mornings in the fall). The military shouldn’t get a special pass.

Point 4: Finally, we live in a democracy. Period. One of the more perplexing developments of the last decade has been the cognitive dissonance of/by soldiers who fight to defend freedom, but hate the freedoms they defend. These soldiers hate funeral protesters (freedom of speech), Mosques in America (freedom of religion), liberals (suffrage), the current President (Article II), privacy (unlawful search and seizure), Speaker Pelosi (Article I) and any criticism of the military (freedom of speech again).

In a democracy citizens have the right, nee the responsibility, to comment on the actions of the government. Everyone in our country has the right to comment on the actions taken in their name--whether by soldiers, police or our politicians, whether they have served in uniform or not.

Dec 17

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

After I shared the outline for my series of posts about “war at its worst”, Michael C asked me a poignant question, “Where are the excerpts from post-9/11 war memoirs?”

It’s a good question. There really aren’t any. Some scenes and images from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq get close--particularly in Generation Kill, One Bullet Away, Soft Spots and The War I Always Wanted--but on the whole, nothing nails it on the head. This has more to do with the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the limitations of memoirs. Two trends stand out:

1. Our Soldiers are like scuba divers. Our current wars isolate and protect American Soldiers, via friendly supply lines and segregated bases. Michael C told me once that our soldiers are like scuba divers, with a breathing line attached back to America, supplying them with food, water and video games.

2. Our Soldiers are safe. Thank God for that. Comparatively, these wars have not been as dangerous or as chaotic as past wars, specifically World War I and World War II. That’s why scenes from A Farewell to Arms and Atonement strike so hard; those wars were just shockingly ugly and brutal, epic in a terrible way.

War, at its worst, is chaos. Complete death and violence and ugliness. The American military hasn’t seen that in these wars yet, thank God.

This is why novels trump memoirs, in my opinion. They don’t show what is, but what could be. And with war, that is what is more important. Take, for example, Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad, as Matty P wrote about last week, is about a group of lions in the Baghdad Zoo, freed by a stray bomb during the American invasion. Chaos ensues; these lions don’t know what to do. They are free, and caged animals aren’t used to being free. As the lions walk away from the zoo, Ali asks, “But who’s gonna bring Safa her breakfast and stuff?”

War at its worst is chaos, about everyone against everyone in a civilization-less free-for-all. Monkeys fight lions, lions fight lions, lions fight a bear, and humans kill the animals. The battles are punctuated by the violence: a giraffe’s head explodes, turtles drown in oil. War is hell.

Baghdad, post-invasion, was war at its worst. A city over turned in chaos, looting, crime, invasion, death and explosions. I haven’t read that story in memoir, yet. It takes a trained novelist--in this case a graphic novelist team--to depict this chaos.

Could it be represented in memoir? Absolutely. If it were a memoir written by an Iraqi. Sadly, there are far too few of these.

(If you have any recommendations of modern war novels that feature “War at its Worst” or a memoir written from the Iraqi perspective, pass it along.)

Dec 16

As we have written about twice before, our blog roll is a living document (Suck it, Originalists!). If we find something great, we add it. I discovered the Musings on Iraq blog through the Small Wars Journal, and I kept coming back to it. After I used it for intelligence research in Iraq, I knew it belonged on our blog roll.

Written by Joel Wing, a high school history teacher with a "BA and MA in International Relations", Musings on Iraq uses open source information but usually combines several news reports or papers into one solid conclusion. He frequently highlights missed news stories or makes connections not seen in the larger media. Wing also shows the power of “untrained” bloggers to provide original opinion and make connections the mainstream media doesn’t.

The sheer amount of intelligence on Musings on Iraq is staggering. None of it is clandestinely or covertly collected; it is all out there on the interwebs. But Wing shows the skills good military intelligence analyst needs: patience, focus and tenacity along with a clear and precise writing style. His conclusions are insightful, exactly what a division or corps commander needs in Iraq.

If the intelligence community were smart, someone would have read his blog, seen that it has been posting for years, and hire Wing on the spot with a six figure salary. Instead, if he joined the Army, for example, Wing would have to enlist in a job with no responsibility or freedom for years. Even then he would have to contend with the PowerPoint and email and inanities of everyday military life. In all likelihood, he couldn’t do intelligence work like he does every week on his blog.

Alas. In the meantime, read Musings on Iraq to stay current on Iraq.

Dec 15

Eric C and I love the NPR show Foreign Dispatch--“a collection of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR’s corespondents from around the globe"--but their latest episode trotted out an old cliche that we wish would die: Afghanistan has never been conquered! (I put that in italics, because I feel like that phrase is always spoken or written in exasperation.) This little factoid sums up thousands of years of history in five words, forcing the conclusion that America, like all past conquerors, is doomed to fail, so get out of Afghanistan or die trying. (With an evil doctor "Boo ha ha!" following.)

One tiny, little inconvenient truth stands in the way of this delightful saying: Afghanistan has been conquered. A lot. Many times. Over and over.

I don’t blame the average person for parroting this myth. It’s ubiquitous. I’ve read it in books, including Sebastian Junger’s War, which describes Afghanistan as “too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” Luttrell--of course--writes it on page forty two of Lone Survivor,It’s probably worth remembering that no nation, not the Turks, the Tatars, the Persians, the Arabs, the Hindus or the Brits has ever completely conquered Baluchistan. Those tribesman even held off Genghis Khan.” And if you think those examples are specific to the tribal areas, Seth G. Jones titled his book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.

Jones isn’t the only person to use that phrase as a title. Milton Beardon titled his Foreign Policy article “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires.” And Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter titled their Cato Institute paper “Escaping the "Graveyard of Empires": A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan”. Andrew Exum plays on the phrase here and here.

The most famous example came from Michael Steele. He said, “Everyone who has tried, over 1,000 years of history, has failed and there are reasons for that. There are other ways you could engage in Afghanistan.” And other people have said it here, here and here. And here. And here. And here. And here.

And The Daily Show said it really clearly here.

There are two problems with this sentiment. The first is that it is way too simplistic and factually inaccurate. As historian Thomas Barfield tells FP.com, “Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires’...For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."

Even Sebastian Junger, whom I quoted above, goes on later in War to contradict himself. He writes that the inhabitants of the Korengal were forcibly converted to Islam only 100 years ago. I mean, if a foreign ruler can change an entire valley’s religion just a hundred years ago, surely it isn’t as unconquerable as Junger described?

The argument is, at its core, too simplistic. Afghanistan has only been unified as a country for barely 200 years. Up until then it was the center of empires, part of empires and a well-worn path of conquerors and armies. History is too long and convoluted to make some grand pronouncement that one region has “never been conquered”. A quick trip to wikipedia solves this problem.

Which brings me to my second point, how come no one else has thought, “Hey, this doesn’t sound right. I should check on this”? Why don’t we question our assumptions, quotations and references more frequently?

There are two lessons to be learned. The first is that Afghanistan is not the “graveyard of empires”. The second is that everyone needs to questions simple platitudes, especially on the interwebs.

Dec 14

We wanted to give you a heads up about two fellow bloggers who gave On Violence a shout out this week.

First off, Josh Mull mentioned our post, “War as the Opposite of Civilization”, in his post, “Journalism is not an Attack, Wikileaks is not Warfare” over at Firedoglake and the Huffington Post. Big ups to Josh for the shout out, but more importantly, I (Eric C) love that he has promoted the idea that, instead of viewing war as politics, we should view it as the opposite of civilization. I love that this idea is getting out there, and I’m thinking about expanding the concept into a longer form article.

On a more disagreeing note, Gaijinass, over at his blog, took issue with Michael's ethical outline in our post “We are Holier than Thou”. I will say this--and wrote this in the comment’s section over there--Michael’s post was an attempt to rebut critics who say America should act immorally in war. Still, an interesting rebuttal. Check it out.

Finally, if you have a blog and mention On Violence on it, please shoot us an email or tweet so we can keep the discussion going.

Dec 13

If I had all the time in the world, I would track the predictions of sports analysts and political pundits to see how often they are flat wrong. I love Pardon The Interruption, but man, those guys hardly ever get their predictions right. (Apparently, experts are wrong all the time.)

Having learned my lesson from a disastrous/ingenious prediction in high school, Eric C and I decided when we started On Violence that we wouldn’t be in the predicting business. That said, after you’ve blogged for over a year and a half, it’s hard to keep a few predictions from slipping in. Thus the latest attempted terrorist attacks stemming from Yemen made us look both pretty smart and pretty dumb at the same time.

Here are four points--and one new idea--that predict or relate to the attempted cargo plane bombings:

Prediction: All roads lead to Iraq. (Right and Wrong) We said in our post “The Obama Blame Game Part 2” that “all terrorists roads lead through Iraq”. We predicted that, if the US gets attacked again, Iraq will have something to do with it. In a strict sense, we were wrong. The failed underwear bomber was from Somalia. The failed Times Square attacker was from Nigeria. And the latest cargo bombings originated from Yemen.

While we can’t blame Iraq directly, the motivation for this attack goes back to Iraq. Besides the transfer of knowledge on how to make bombs, perfected by years in Iraq, the terrorists in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula repeatedly refer to Iraq as a rallying cry in their propaganda. The war in Iraq did more to inspire, motivate, train and instruct future terrorists than anything else the US has done.

Prediction: Failed States are the issue. (Right) We have written about failed states many times before here, here and here. Each time, we said that terrorists live and thrive in failed states. And guess what? Yemen is a failed state. So is Somalia. Nigeria flirts with the designation. Until we crack the failed states nut, extremism and terrorism will be an security issue.

Prediction: Terrorism isn’t an existential threat. (Right) Even if the cargo planes had exploded--and that would have been a tragedy--probably more Americans died in car accidents that day. Or shootings. Or hospital-borne infections. Or ladder accidents. Or surgery complications. The point is terrorism is a statistical anomaly, not an existential threat. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have one goal: to bankrupt the West by destroying our way of life. Don’t believe me? Well, that is exactly what the terrorists say in their poorly written version of a news magazine.

Prediction: Our Intelligence Community needs serious reform. (Right) When we added “Top Secret America” to our blog roll, it was for one reason: the article explained perfectly why our intelligence community doesn’t work. A technological and bureaucratic mess, the only reason we stopped the latest attacks was luck and good Saudi intelligence. Our intelligence community needs serious reform, but hides behind 9/11. That needs to stop.

And one new idea: We can’t let door kickers lead our foreign policy. As a culture, and in our government, we glorify “door kickers”, special operations troops who conduct direct action missions (kill or capture raids). Our video games and movies glorify these men--think Delta Force, Call of Duty or Navy SEALs.

Special Operations Command, through JSOC, along with the direct action arm of the CIA the Special Activities Division, keeps getting more money and more responsibility to fight terrorism. The door kickers took the lead for operations in Pakistan, Yemen, the early days of Afghanistan and other places around the world, all covert and clandestine. But it hasn’t worked. We value operations over intelligence, to our detriment.

We can’t kill our way out of this fight. We have enough hindsight from the last ten years to verify that. Until we remove the door kickers and replace them with intelligence and diplomacy people, we will continue to make more terrorists than we stop.

Dec 10

(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.

Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Pride of Baghdad.)

Zill, leader of his pride, lounges in his captivity in the hot Baghdad son, enclosed in a prison he no longer seems to mind, the Baghdad Zoo. A bird catches his attention, spouting nonsense. "The sky is falling," the stupid little creature cries. Zill dismisses the bird until two F-18 Falcons roar overhead, dropping ordinance into the city and accidentally destroying the walls and cages of the Baghdad Zoo.

Zill and his lion companions, for the first time, face terrifying freedom.

Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon's Pride of Baghdad is the story of four lions caught in the turmoil of the 2003 US Military invasion of Iraq, freed from captivity by a stray American bomb. Based on a true story and presented as a graphic novel, the creators tell an allegory that poignantly comments on the price and the effects of freedom thrust upon those who aren't ready for it. He seamlessly weaves a narrative about four inhabitants of the Baghdad zoo while simultaneously glimpsing the larger turmoil of the events of 2003.

Each lion acts as an allegorical representation of a particular segment of the Iraqi culture prior to American liberation, representing a different generation and reflects the spirit and events they have experienced. The elder Safa portrays a perspective of one who has lived under two types of oppression--lawlessness and captivity--while the slightly younger Zill contrasts this with memories of freedom and the male instinct for combat. Younger still is Noor, the adolescent lioness discontented with the walls that confine her and active in her pursuit of freedom. To complete the quartet is Ali, the innocent, a child representing the future of the pride.

Using these four distinct characters, we follow the lions as they gain freedom, roam the wreckage, attempt to avoid many dangers and interact with other natives to Baghdad. Without giving too much away, the interactions between the cast of four with other creatures loose in the streets of Baghdad is where really Pride of Baghdad shines. These creatures echo distinct characteristics of the culture of a city and a people who have lived under an oppressive regime and twice in recent history seen the effects war. The personalities and perspectives of these ancillary characters, combined with the pride they radiate, gives more gravity to the war in Iraq than even recent Oscar winning movies of the same subject.

Vaughn and Henrichon tell a complete story with vivid artistry. Smoldering ruins of the abandoned zoo and the city proper add weight to the events. Every location is distinct propelling the story forward. As is every character in spite only slight variation visually. The artist and writer manage to form a tale that is not only visually compelling, but compelling intellectually. 

There is more here than the story of lions presented with their freedom. It's a story about the people and the culture of Iraq and it's a story about the effects of war, oppression, and freedom. I will not spoil the summation at the novel's conclusion, but the words written are haunting and true. As a graphic novel and as a individual narrative, Pride of Baghdad is an excellent read.

Dec 09

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published over at Tom Ricks’ FP.com blog, The Best Defense, titled, “Iraq, the Unraveling: Here's a nasty killer most Americans know nothing about”. Check it out of course.

And you may remember Michael C had an article published in Infantry Magazine last month. Well, we have the PDF of the article loaded on our website now, so feel free to download it here.

Dec 08

As I wrote in Monday’s post, most citizens, politicians and diplomats in America think that Iraq is destined for victory. It isn’t; Iraq is far from a sure thing and today I am going to lay out five very real possibilities for Iraq’s future using my “S2 perspective". (Check out Monday’s post to understand this one. We originally wrote it as a single article and this post makes almost no sense by itself.)

Iraq’s five worst case scenarios:

1. A Strongman Rises (Most likely) - First, the Iraqi election was delayed two months. Then it took their government eight months to kind of/not really form. Now the Iraqi national census has been delayed for who knows how long. The Iraqi military is arguably the most competent organization in the country. If a military general decided he should rule Iraq, many would support him. This wouldn’t be unusual for Iraqis: Saddam did it and he ruled for almost 24 years.

Thing to watch for: articles where Iraqis talk about how they want a better Saddam back, like this New York Times piece or this 60 Minutes piece by Lesley Stahl.

2. A Renewed Sunni Insurgency (Longest Term Threat to Iraq) - As Shia politicians consolidate power in Baghdad, and Moqtada al-Sadr gains unprecedented political and military power, the Sunnis could easily feel disenfranchised. Polling regularly shows that Sunnis do not trust the Iraqi Security Forces, and if the government of Iraq finally shuts down the Sons of Iraq (Sahwa) movement, the Sunnis could return to the (formerly Al Qaeda) Islamic State of Iraq movement. Sunni insurgents learned the same lessons the US Army did about winning over the population. If the Sunni population decides the Iraqi Government is not the answer, they may very well take up arms again.

Thing to watch for: the disenfranchisement of Sunni politicians and news that the Islamic State of Iraq is making inroads in Sunni communities.

3. A Shia Theocracy (Best for Iran) - Instead of a violent takeover, the Shias of Iraq could just decide to continue consolidating power in the security forces, the key ministries and the government, and slowly box out the Sunnis and Kurds. Over time, they could convert the current government to a Shia government and, for all intents and purposes, become an Iranian puppet. This could happen in conjunction with several other options.

Thing to watch for: the Iraqi relationship with Saudi Arabia. Check out this article to understand how worried Saudi Arabia is about the Iranian influence.

4. The Balkanisation of Iraq (Worse Outcome for the Stability of the Region) - Kurdistan, Basrah-stan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-Stan. In this possible future, if violence flares up again, the Kurds will likely move from autonomy to separation, taking a huge number of very talented generals with them. Their Peshmerga brigades will provide defense and their oil reserves will provide money. This will encourage further separation, and cause hotly contested wars over the oil rich lands of Kirkuk and Mosul. No matter who wins, the violence will last for years.

Thing to watch for: continued violence and the involvement of Iraq’s neighbors. If Iraq’s neighbors continue to wage proxy wars in Iraq, the possibility of a split raises exponentially.

5. A Second Civil War (Most Violent Outcome) - If the last twenty years have taught us anything about civil wars, it is that once they start they are hard to stop. Iraq’s violence also influences its neighbors and beyond, from Turkey to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even the US. None of Iraq’s neighbors want to see one group gain a foothold--Sunni, Shia or Kurdish. So everyone will throw money and weapons at Iraq to keep its side in the fight. The losers will be the Iraqi people.

Thing to watch for: the migration of people (Sunnis) out of Iraq, and the migration of fighters into Iraq.

Any of the above scenarios could happen, maybe none of them will, maybe it will be a mix. If the Iraqi politicians don’t construct meaningful change and reconciliation, expect a repeat of 2006-2008: sectarian violence, possible genocides, millions of refugees and a descent into chaos.

Dec 06

Tom Ricks, through his series of blog posts titled “Iraq: The Unraveling”, argues that while the US has moved on from Iraq, the situation there remains precarious.

Having just returned from a deployment to Iraq, I agree.

Too often, it seems like Ricks has been the only voice of dissension when it comes to Iraq. Former congressmen Duncan Hunter just released a book called Victory in Iraq: How America Won. Other than that horribly misleading book and title, no one is talking about Iraq.

I will concede that Iraq is less violent today than it was in 2007, which makes it just violent as opposed to being fantastically violent. Two months ago a failed hostage rescue resulted in dozens of deaths and hundred wounded. Last month a series of car bombs killed over a hundred people in Baghdad alone and then another series of car. And two days ago at least a dozen people (maybe more) were killed in the latest spate of bombings, this time aimed at Shiite pilgrims.

In addition to the violence, Iraq’s political situation remains as murky as the bottom of a Dagobah swamp. Iraqi President Talabani recently authorized Prime Minister Maliki to form a government, but he still delayed a month because it is doubtful Maliki can apportion the cabinet positions throughout the government in a way that will please the whole government..

To provide a unique perspective, I am going to give On Violence readers my “military intelligence” perspective. Intel analysts use a process called “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” (IPB) to predict the enemy’s behavior. IPB takes all the information available, organizes it, and then determines the enemy’s possible courses of action.

Normally, intelligence sections go through the IPB process for an opposing force, like an enemy battalion or brigade (especially when we faced the Soviets). But we can do the same thing for Iraq as a whole--not just looking at the big five threat groups (Al Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State in Iraq, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa Naqshbandi, Promised Day Brigade, Jaysh Al Mahdi, and Asaib Ahl Al Haqq). When you look at all the available information--political, economic, social, tribal, regional, criminal, legal and the insurgent violence--Iraq is not on an automatic path towards peace and democracy.

Instead, Iraq has a range of outcomes for where it could end up. I call it the “Iraqi Spectrum”. It goes from utter chaos to complete order. I don’t want to predict where Iraq is headed--making predictions is incredibly hard, and in Iraq doubly so--but I do want to point out that the future of Iraq is not certain. On Wednesday’s post, I will provide the five worst case scenarios for the future of Iraq. These scenarios aren’t guaranteed to happen, but they all could.

Unfortunately, most politicians, pundits and diplomats are ignoring these very real possibilities.

Dec 03

As Michael C and I aren’t the authorities on all things memoir, we like to check out other opinions of the books we review. The reviews of The Farther Shore, for the most part, deal with the central issue I’ve pondered on our blog: memoir or novel? (The answer is novel.). So we thought we’d share them with you.

I originally found The Farther Shore at the now defunct lit blog co-op. The idea was that prominent litbloggers would read unacknowledged new books and give them press. It was a great idea, and you can read the obituary for the site here.

Anyways, here’s a collection of mostly positive reviews of The Farther Shore from major media outlets, including the New York Times Book Review and Salon. Here is the original review of The Farther Shore from the lit blog co-op.

Here is a dissenting view, about The Farther Shore. “It tells us nothing new about war--although of course there may be nothing new to say--but ultimately tells us even less about what fiction might be made to do.” I actually agree with both points, but not every novel or piece of art needs to break new ground stylistically, especially when the book breaks new ground topically.

Another reviewer, “I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences?”

Here’s a guess: maybe nothing significant happened to him. I fear soldier/authors--to sell books--will inevitably have to Frey their own experiences to make them more exciting. It’s what leads journalists to the most dangerous units, distorting the reality of the war. More on this soon.

Here is one final thought that captures the essence of The Farther Shore: “There is this lack of moralizing throughout Eck's writing. Stantz and his men really aren't portrayed as heroes, and, in fact, at times one might even lean in the other direction.”

Dec 02

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for Matthew Eck’s “The Farther Shore”.)

I liked a lot of things in Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore--the at-times great writing, the fleshed out characters and haunting images--but the thing I liked best is that it is a novel, a novel about American Soldiers at war, written after 9/11. Finally.

But The Farther Shore does takes some missteps along the way. Eck makes technical choices and narrative decisions I disagree with. Because The Farther Shore is a novel, though, we can analyze and debate these missteps. What do they mean? Why did Eck choose to go this way instead of that way? Unlike the war memoirs I’ve been reviewing for the last year or so, The Farther Shore is liberated from the burden of reality and “what-actually-happened”. So is the reader.

I serendipitously discovered The Farther Shore after reading about it over at the now defunct the litblog co-op, a blog dedicated to “drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction...struggling to be noticed in a crowded marketplace”. The mission statement worked: I discovered the first mainstream post-9/11 war novel, and I’m stoked. (It pre-dated David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox, Thomas W. Young’s The Mullah’s Storm and Luke S. Larson’s Senator’s Son as the only major Iraq/Afghanistan novels. By the way, I can’t find Senator’s Son anywhere, so review pending until I find a copy.)

The plot: six American Soldiers--on a recon mission in a foreign, warlord controlled city in an unnamed foreign country--guide bombs and missile strikes from the roof of the city’s tallest building. In the novel’s inciting incident, they shoot and kill two kids. From that point on, they are on the run in a foreign city, alone and abandoned by the military.

There are two really good things in The Farther Shore. The first is the writing, which at times just sings. “We smoked the fuck out of those little kids,” Cooper said, staring at the field./”Yeah, I said. He said smoke as if meaning to invoke the spirit world, as if it were an offering...It made it sound like a light show, a matter of smoke and mirrors. Almost as if it could be undone.” Beautiful. Another example, about a dying soldier, “He had a satisfied look on his face, as if someone he loved was whispering to him.” A piece of dialogue from a CIA spook, “Ruin travels fast” should have been the title. The darkest most memorable scene is the beating of a young adulterous couple; it’s one of those dark ugly scenes that stick in your head long after you put the book away, the perfect emblem of a city controlled by warlords and violent tradition.

The second thing I liked were the biting character descriptions, which had more realism than most memoirs. Take Zeller, a star football player. “Serving in the military was an obligation to [Zeller’s] family. In fact, he needed an honorable discharge...to stay in his grandfather’s will.” Haven’t read that anywhere else. Also, so hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, Zeller smokes them in his sleep. By describing the good and the bad of each soldier, they become more human than the unfailingly positive character descriptions in most memoirs.

There are some odd literary touches that I’m not sure how I feel about. The city the soldiers occupy is never named, but it is clearly Mogadishu. I have no idea why Eck choose to do it this way, and why the novel isn’t set in Baghdad. The author is white, but the Soldiers are black. Again, odd.

My main problem is with The Farther Shore’s plot: it just doesn’t feel true. The US Army abandons a scout team in the middle of a foreign country. This may seem like an odd complaint based on my critique of memoirs and their fealty to reality, but I couldn’t help thinking the entire time, “This would never happen.” Soldiers died in Mogadishu--my guess for this novel’s location--and we did everything we could to get them back. When soldier’s bodies go missing, entire battalions are enlisted to get them back--Sgt. Giunta won his Medal of Honor for doing just this. If a lost Soldier approached a team out in the field, they would basically stop whatever they are doing to rescue him, even if it meant letting Osama Bin Laden escape. At the very least they would give him one of the good MREs, water and medical attention, unlike the soldiers in The Farther Shore.

This theme of abandonment feels out of place in the new century. The abandonment of soldiers by a nation and military is emotional baggage from a previous era. Soldiers, in the modern era, are isolated from the people they are protecting, not from each other or the homeland. I think Eck really missed something here.

All of this does beg the question, what is Eck trying to say? This is why I enjoy novels so much more than memoirs. I get to ask--and answer--this question. Do I recommend The Farther Shore? Yes, with the qualification that the plot never could have happened. But then again, it’s a novel. You knew that anyway.

Dec 01

At the fear of generalizing, I’ll say this: men in war zones obsess, get fixated on some really happy thought. I did. My men did. For example, one of my Soldiers--every time we sat down at the computers in the computer room--would show me a picture of the motorcycle he was going to buy when he returned.

About half way through my Afghanistan deployment--after reading a National Geographic travel magazine on places in the sun--I got my obsession: the Banyan Tree Madivaru, a thousand dollar plus a night resort with your own beach and “tent” in the Maldives. I saved the pictures to my desktop and would think, “Man, that place is like a billion times better than Afghanistan.” I obsessed about taking my then girlfriend, soon to be fiance, currently wife, there on our honeymoon (though I knew the whole time it was financially impossible).

Last deployment, I didn’t have the same obsession. I guess too many of Maslow’s needs were satisfied for me to obsess about anything. There was less boredom too. In Afghanistan we spent countless hours bored on radio guard or sitting in trucks waiting for something to happen, a perfect setting for obsession. In Iraq there was boredom, but also the trappings of Western society like the Internet, video games and basketball.

These pictures were the images of my obsession.