Feb 28

Maybe reality shows did it for me. Maybe it was Michael Moore (who makes films where I agree with everything he says without believing anything he says). Maybe it was this whole spate of documentaries made by crazy people from the last decade, Loose Change and Zeitgeist: The Movie for example.

Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore. Unfortunately, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo is a documentary. As Michael C wrote on Monday, a lot of people, knowing I write on a blog about war, have asked me about it. I tell them two things: first, that I liked the book, War, better than the movie. Second, that I think Restrepo, because it is a documentary, sacrifices meaningful context for the sake of their premise.

I could launch a whole “war memoirs”-esque series on “war documentaries”. (Like memoirs, documentaries seem to present unbiased truth. That belief usually doesn’t stand the test of reality, especially since most documentaries now have a “point of view”.) But I’ll spare you any more of my hateration. This post will have to suffice, with Restrepo serving as the sacrificial documentary. (Or you could watch Exit Through the Giftshop, a documentary by Banksy. Or is it a hoax?)

Premise

I don’t like Hetherington and Junger’s premise behind Restrepo. “We figured that our viewers were familiar with the discussion about the pros and cons of the war,” Junger told NPR two weeks ago. “And we didn’t want to rehash those. What we wanted to do was be with a platoon and experience what soldiers experience...But their reality--their emotional reality--is not often reported on.”

Except that it is.

Between three 24 hour cable news channels, 5 Pulitzer prizes given to war reporting and an Internet that puts information at our fingertips, the war is getting covered. Frontline, Nightline, 60 Minutes and others have done excellent coverage for years from the point of view of soldiers. The New York Times has two blogs on soldier’s experiences, “At War” and “Home Fires”. PBS had the “Regarding War” blog, Thomas Ricks and FP.com have “The Best Defense”, and Doonesbury started “The Sandbox”. If you need more blogs, milblogging has 2,948 listed. I’ve read fifteen war memoirs written about Iraq or Afghanistan by soldiers or reporters. There are easily 100 more, at least three on the battle for Fallujah, and another three on Operation Red Wings alone. There have been mini-series, TV series and at least 20 fiction films.

Maybe there aren’t enough documentaries. This list has 40 based in Iraq. Six (now seven) war-related documentaries have been nominated for Academy Awards since 9/11. One won.

Soldiers, as I think I just proved, have their story out there.

I think the story of everyday Afghans and Iraqis isn’t out there. There are a handful of (award-winning) documentaries and a few memoirs, but their authors aren’t interviewed on NPR or The Daily Show like war memoir authors. Their books don’t make the best seller lists with the same frequency. I only know of one blog by an Iraqi.

I wish Junger had split his time with soldiers and Afghans. That would be the true story of war.

Omission

My bigger issue is with what Restrepo leaves out, especially after reading War.

In Restrepo, there is no narrator, and a sparing amount of explanation. No narrator means no context; no explanation of how OP Restrepo fits into the history of the war and the valley.

There are no civilians, at least not interviewed. Read the passage on the Korengali people I quoted last Tuesday. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, and it’s needed in a documentary. “Since World War I, it’s been civilians who have most often born the disproportionate brunt of modern warfare...” Nick Turse notes in his Huffington Post piece on Restrepo. (Michael C disagrees with this claim, read his comment below.) “In Restrepo such people...are just supporting characters or extras. ‘[W]e did not interview Afghans,’ Junger and Hetherington write in their directors’ statement. These are, however, precisely the people who know the most about war.”

There is missing information. In the movie, a cow gets caught in concertina wire; in the book, the soldier’s chase it into the concertina wire. In the movie, the films opens with an IED explosion and a firefight; in the book, Junger explains that no one was firing back. In the movie, Airborne the puppy runs around in the background; in the book, the next unit kills him.

Could the difference be more stark? I like context. I like knowing the what, where, when and how. I like to know more. If your goal is to understand the plight of the American soldier, knowing the larger battalion mission matters. Knowing about the people matters. Knowing context matters. The soldier on the ground knows the context; so should you.

And it is in War. It isn’t in Restrepo.

Feb 25

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

      “It wasn’t even fighting season, and the men at Restrepo were having one close call after another. Olsen was on overwatch with the 240 when a round hit a branch above his head and the next one smacked into the dirt next to his cheek...A round splintered wood next to Jones’ head in the south-facing SAW position. O’Byrne was leaning over to help an Afghan soldier who’d just taken a sniper round through the stomach--he died--when a second one came in and missed him by inches. Buno was doing pull-ups when a Dishka round went straight through the hooch he was in. On and on it went, lives measured in inches and seconds and deaths avoided by complete accident. Platoons with a 10 percent casualty rate could just as easily have a 50 percent casualty rate; it was all luck, all God. There was nothing to do about it except skate through on prayers and good timing until the birds came in and took them all home.”
                                                           - War, By Sebastian Junger.

I like Sebastian Junger’s memoir War (the book, not to be confused with the album, band, song, card game or horseman of the apocalypse) because of writing like this. I can easily recommend this solid, but not perfect, book; the good easily outweighs the bad. I wanted to love it, but there are too many mistakes and errors to completely give my literary heart away. (Not to mention that the premise annoys me, as I’ll write about on Monday.)

Why do I like War? First, because I’m a glutton for good writing, and Junger loaded passage after passage of careful detail into War. We had to open with a quote from War today because the post on Wednesday got too long. How many war memoirs have that problem? Not many.

As I’ll explain on Monday, Junger provides context and background information to the events of the documentary Restrepo. This may seem obvious, but it is why I would recommend War over Restrepo. Junger uses the length and depth of a book to describe the history of the Korengal valley, the larger mission, and the soldier’s personal histories.

On those personal histories, Junger describes the soldiers with precision and depth, balancing the noble qualities with the ugly ones. The opening description of O’Byrne is raw, personal and affecting, describing O’Byrne’s rough, violent relationship with his father, and then his turnaround in wood shop with a friendly teacher. Or Junger describes how “a gunner in Weapons Squad claims he made thousands of dollars selling drugs before he joined the Army to avoid getting killed on the streets of Reno.” Sometimes, War just lets the men talk, observing conversations on God, the future and masturbating. (War satisfies most of my war memoir litmus test.)

I love Junger’s approach to research and accuracy. Along with Tim Hetherington, Junger filmed much of the dialogue and action described in the book. This enforces accuracy, at least better than the standard memoir recollected from notes in a journal. In instances without recording, Junger had a reporter’s pen and pad to capture dialogue. “Many scenes in this book were captured on videotape, and wherever possible I have used that tape to check the accuracy of my reporting. Dialogue or statements that appear in double quotation marks (“. . .”) were recorded directly on camera or in my notebook while the person was speaking, or soon thereafter.” Awesome.

But like I wrote earlier, there are problems. As part of his approach, Junger showed “sections with the men to make sure they are comfortable with what I wrote.” I get why he did it, but again, it’s why I think novels can tell us more than non-fiction about the everyday lives of soldiers: a novel can share personal, intimate details behind the guise of fiction. Junger also spends a lot of time writing about battles, but sometimes writes page after page about battles by other platoons and units. If this project was meant to focus on one group, why spend multiple pages dealing with attacks miles away or from years past?

And there are just plain factual mistakes. Junger quotes this quote behaving badly, “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”, and attributes it to both Churchill and Orwell. (We debunked it here.) Despite listing Victory Point as a source, he claims over 200 men attacked Marcus Luttrell. (We debunked that here.) He describes the Korengal valley as unconquerable, but casually mentions that they were forcefully converted to Islam less than 150 years ago. (Again, more here.) And his descriptions of Vicenza, Italy don’t match my experience living there.

Finally, there is the title. In the words of War is Boring, “War is politics and strategy. Combat, by contrast, is a personal experience entirely divorced from the politics driving it. The book should have been called Combat.” I agree. That, and the title is so vague.

These are all mostly minor quibbles. None of them change the fact that I liked War. Maybe it just means more people should read On Violence. But definitely everyone should read War.

Feb 24

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

The following quote--and the page or so explaining the interaction between the military and the press in Afghanistan--from Sebastian Junger’s War could have easily been included in yesterday’s collection of great passages:

“Most journalists wanted to cover combat--as opposed to humanitarian operations--so they got embedded with combat units and wound up painting a picture of a country engulfed in war. In fact, most areas of the country were relatively stable; you had to get pretty lucky to find yourself in anything vaguely resembling a firefight.”
                                                  - Sebastian Junger, War

Given only pictures of combat at its worst, we, the American public, the world, extrapolate that all of Afghanistan (or Iraq) is war at its worst. I’m sure there is a fallacy here, but I don’t know its proper name. (Reverse synecdoche?) The America media diet consists mostly of combat, and ignores the 2.5 people behind every combat soldier.

They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq by Kelly Kennedy goes for the extreme in the title. Amazon describes Black Hearts: One Platoons Descent into Madness in the Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick as, “...the experience of one airborne platoon in Iraq’s deadly ‘Black Triangle,’ where U.S. forces have racked up a larger number of casualties than in any other area of the country.” We Were One by Patrick O'Donnell takes place during the battle of Fallujah, “the Iraq War's fiercest battle". Francis J West covers similar ground in No True Glory, “The most hard-fought campaign since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in April 2003.” Of course, there is Lone Survivor, (click here for much, much more) which details “largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history”. And the winner for most hyperbolic title in a war memoir is Eight Lives Down: The World’s Most Dangerous Job in the World’s Most Dangerous Place by Chris Hunter.

And those are just the memoirs. How many non-fiction books fetishize Marine Snipers, Army Rangers and Navy SEAL culture, technology and history?

This distortion hits all deploying or deployed soldier on a personal level. Every time Michael C or I told someone he was deploying to Iraq, we would get a shocked look of concern. They assumed he was going to battle. In truth, as he wrote about here, he was a Fobbit.

Politically, it corrupts the discourse, poisoning the well of information we all use in political decisions. Debating whether America can win the war in Afghanistan on NPR’s Intelligence Squared, Matthew Hoh states “I would urge you all to see the film Restrepo--it's a documentary done by a journalist--to see what it's like to be an American infantryman in Afghanistan.” What he should have added is, “in one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan.” But he didn’t.

Finally, there is the literary angle: it’s a pity more people don’t look at non-combat stories. This American Life did an entire post-9/11 show on an aircraft carrier. It’s amazing. You’ll Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon is about a military base after the soldiers deploy. Again, amazing. And as I’ve written before, I think Super FOBs, the green zone and mega-bases are the most interesting issue of this whole war. The best stories about war don’t require getting shot at.

(And as I'll write about on Monday, this doesn't even mention the American focus. What about the stories about Afghans and Iraqis?)

But we’re ignoring all of those fascinating literary angles, preferring to read harrowing accounts of combat and valor. Take this passage:   

     “...I ask [Captain Kearney] who is pushed the furthest out into the valley and he doesn't hesitate.
      ‘Second Platoon,’ he says. ‘They're the tip of the spear. They're the main effort for the company, and the company is the main effort for the battalion, and the battalion is the main effort for the brigade. I put them down there against the enemy because I know they're going to get out there and they're not going to be afraid.’
     I tell Kearney that those are the guys I want to be with.”

That, of course, came from War.

Feb 23

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

I have a pet theory about war memoirs: reporters write them better. They have a level of competency in their prose honed from years of practice. This isn’t an accident. I’m sure you could graph out a memoir’s quality compared to a writer’s experience, and they would correlate. (Books with ghost writers tend to disappoint. I don’t know what this means, except that people should avoid generalizations.)

Sebastian Junger’s writing, in his memoir War, captures the insanity, pathos, love and humor of war, often all in the one paragraph. As a journalist, he celebrates the small, fascinating details, which is something, unfortunately, is absent in most war memoirs.

Here are some (but not all) of my favorite passages from War, arranged chronologically:

     “Inexperienced soldiers are known as ‘cherries,’ and standing up in a firefight is about as cherry as it gets. So is this: the first night at the KOP, O’Byrne heard a strange yammering in the forest and assumed the base was about to get attacked. He grabbed his gun and waited. Nothing happened. Later he found out it was just monkeys that came down to the wire to shriek at the Americans. It was as if every living thing in the valley, even the wildlife, wanted them gone.” Page 12

     “A couple of months into the deployment Hunter came up with the phrase “Damn the Valley,” which quickly became a kind of unofficial slogan for the company. It seemed to be shorthand not for the men’s feelings about the war--those were way too complicated to be summed up in three words--but for their understanding of what it was doing to them: killing their friends and making them jolt awake of the night...Damn the Valley: you’d see it written on hooch walls and in latrines as far away as the air base at Jalalabad...” Page 38 

     “The Korengalis are originally from Nuristan, an enclave of mostly Persian and Pashai-speaking tribesman who practiced shamanism and believed that the rocks and trees and rivers around them had souls...They terraced the steep slopes of the valley into wheat fields and built stone houses that could withstand earthquakes (and, it turned out, 500-pound bombs) and set about cutting down the cedar forests of the upper ridges. The men dye their beards red and use kohl around their eyes, and the women go unveiled and wear colorful dresses that make them look like tropical birds in the fields. Most Korengalis have never left their village and have almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley. That makes it a perfect place in which to base an insurgency dedicated to fighting outsiders. One old man in the valley thought that American soldiers were actually Russians who had simply stayed after the Soviet Army pulled out in 1989.” Page 47

      “At some point a call came in over the radio that the Scouts were watching a guy crawl around on the mountainside without a leg. They watched until he stopped moving, and then they called in that he’d died. Everyone at Restrepo cheered. That night I couldn’t sleep, and I crept out of my bunk and went and sat on the roof of the ammo hooch. It was a nice place to watch the heat lightning out along the Pech or to lie back on the sandbags and look up at the stars. I couldn’t stop thinking about that cheer; in some ways it was more troubling than all the killing that was going on. Stripped of all politics, the fact of the matter was that the man had died alone on a mountainside trying to find his leg. He must have been crazed with thirst and bewildered by the sheer amount of gunfire stitching back and forth across the ground looking for him. At one point or another every man in the platoon had been pinned down long enough to think they were going to die—bullets hitting around them, bodies braced for impact—and that’s with just one or two guns. Imagine a whole company’s worth of firepower directed at you. I got the necessity for it, but I didn’t get the joy. It seemed like I either had to radically re-understand the men on this hilltop, or I had to acknowledge the power of a place like this to change them.
      “‘You’re thinking that this guy could have murdered your friend,’ Steiner explained to me later. ‘The cheering comes from knowing that that’s someone we’ll never have to fight again. Fighting another human being is not as hard as you think when they’re trying to kill you. People think we were cheering because we just shot someone, but we were cheering because we just stopped someone from killing us. That person will no longer shoot at us anymore. That’s where the fiesta comes in...
      “Nearly fifty American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I’m not saying that’s a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war (for some reason, the closer you are to combat the less inclined you are to question it), but someone must. That evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders.’” Page 153

      “...Later, I point out to Byrne that they actually did kill the cow.
      “Well, it was pretty badly tangled up in the wire,” he says.
       “It was tangled up in the wire because you guys chased it in there.”
      “Okay,” he says. ”It’s a gray area.” Page 202

“The mood eases when Airborne, a puppy that Second Platoon took from the Afghan soldiers, wanders into the courtyard. They named him Airborne because the solders who are going to take over in July...are just regular infantry, and the idea was to remind them of their inferiority every time they called for the dog. (It backfired: I was told someone from Viper just took Airborne out to the burn pit and shot him.)” Page 209

Feb 22

First off, and I don’t know why we’re leading with this, but Ryen Russillo read an email ("What may be the best from all season") from Michael C on ESPN’s NBA Today podcast, so check it out here. (Click to 14:30 to hear the email. The episode is from the 21st.) Basically, Michael and Ryen collectively dog on Ice Cube for counting stats in a pick up game.

Next, Eric had a follow up piece to an earlier one over at Write to Done, titled, “The Second Golden Rule of Writing.”

And both of us co-wrote, “The 8 Most Greatest Tips To Write Unstoppably Killer Headlines Guide Ever” for Problogger. If you read blogs on blogging, you’ll get how ridiculous the titles get. We wrote this in response to that.

Finally, Eric C had an email get answered over at Daily Blog Tips. Again, it is focused on blogging.

Have a good one.

Feb 21

(Heads up: On Violence switched servers this week, and our site is still acting a little buggy, specifically in the comments section. Please be patient with us.)

The most common question On Violence has received in the last six months is, “Why haven’t you guys reviewed the film Restrepo?” Or its sibling question, “What did you think of Restrepo?” Well, we can’t avoid the topic any longer.

Last year we had an astoundingly informative series of posts on the 2010 Academy Awards, discussing the four Best Picture nominees that dealt with war and violence. Though some of the films this year are violent (Winter’s Bone, True Grit) or violent-lite (Black Swan? The Fighter? 127 Hours?), none are about violence per se.

Ah, but there is a documentary about war: Restrepo, the Best-Documentary-nominated film by Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington about one platoon’s deployment in the Korengal valley. We have to write about it, right?

Maybe. The problem is that I, Michael C, was there. Not Afghanistan, but literally at OP Restrepo during the tour featured in Restrepo. I had some pre-viewing reservations. I feared it would dwell too much on the combat, but Restrepo did a pretty good job capturing what it feels like to be deployed for a year. The ratio of combat to boredom was realistic.

Still, I hesitate to write about Restrepo because criticizing it feels like criticizing myself, if that makes sense. My men who saw Restrepo loved it. If I didn’t, would something be wrong with me? Also, even if I did enjoy it, could I put out an honest review? Could I let Eric C put out an honest review? Eric C’s critique of war memoir criticism (you have to criticize real people) is tripled when they are people you know and served with.

As a result, we held off on publishing much about the film.

In full disclosure, I also personally avoided the film. I didn’t want to go back to OP Restrepo. In another way, I didn’t want my memories polluted by Restrepo. (If that seems like a cop out, it isn't the first time. I have the book Victory Point by Ed Darack that I very much want to review. Even the fact that Victory Point takes place in Konar province, and around the Korengal valley, makes it feel too close for comfort. If that doesn't make sense, I agree.)

Eric C will handle the rest of this week, so I will provide my one comment about the film: I wanted more “The Hell Divers” Fourth Platoon, Destined Company, possibly the greatest, most competent Army unit ever to serve in the US Army, nee military, nee armies around the world and for all of time. Restrepo mentions our trucks once; I don’t think our vehicles ever made it on camera. You can, though, hear our machine guns firing in several scenes. OP Restrepo could not have been built except for the heroic efforts of Fourth Platoon. In another example, the IED event that opens the film, our trucks towed that truck to the KOP. I understand why the directors left it out, that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree.

So what’s up for the rest of the week?

On Wednesday, Eric C shares some fantastic passages from Sebastian Junger’s War.
On Thursday, he wonders why war memoirs rock so hard.
On Friday, Eric C recommends War.
Finally, a week from today, Eric C tackles Restrepo, documentaries and context.

Feb 18

One foreign policy issue neatly divides all people into this side or that. One issue that unites Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans in disagreement. One issue that transcends race and religion to upset us all.

I’m talking about whether you should butter your bread butter side up, or butter side down.

In The Butter Battle Book--a collection of Dr. Seuss’ fantastic frontline reporting from the border between the Yookland and Zookland--this conflict divides two countries. There are Yooks. There are Zooks. The Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down; the Yooks eat their bread butter side up. Because of (or in spite of) this trivial difference, the two sides go to war, entering into an always escalating arms race. They continually redesign their weaponry, rearming from deadly weapon to deadly weapon, inescapably, until one Yook and one Zook approach each other on the wall that separates their countries, each ready to drop the ultimate weapon...

If you haven’t read it, buy it.

There’s a tendency by some commentators to simplify The Butter Battle Book’s message into a simple anti-war, anti-arms race Cold War analogy. “It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War,” writes John Miller in the National Review. “It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread — as if Communism weren't a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.” The Butter Battle Book is similarly dismissed here and here as merely a “disarmament book” or “peacenik’s morally equivalent take on the Cold War”.

But The Butter Battle Book isn’t about the Cold War. It isn’t about nuclear war or Mutually Assured Destruction. True, all of these things are in there, but the book is much deeper, much more universal. The Butter Battle Book is about escalating conflict and cycles of retaliatory violence. It is as much about ancient Greek blood fueds, or the Darfur region of Sudan, or the Hatfileds vs. the McCoy’s, or the Tamils vs. the Sinhalese, or Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir as it is about America versus the USSR. It is as much terrorism and drone strikes as it is about cold wars and nuclear weapons.

The wall that separates the Zooks and Yooks is the Berlin Wall, but it also the peace lines in Northern Ireland, the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, or the West Bank barrier in Israel. More broadly, the symbolic wall of misunderstanding is the same wall that prevents Muslims from understanding Christians, and Americans from understanding Arabs.

The Butter Battle Book is about never turning the other cheek, never forgiving, and never forgetting. It is about the suicide that comes with these actions. In prepping for this post, Michael C told me, “You know, the Yooks do butter their bread wrong.” That may be true, but it’s no reason to go to war with them. It’s certainly no reason to destroy the entire world. The cost of violence, of near suicidal endstate of warfare was never clearer than in the Cold War. The Butter Battle Book illustrates this truth.

Take this video of a fight between a mentally ill Vietnam veteran and 50-year-old black man. A lot of people took sides. (Go veterans!) The truth of the video is that either party could have stopped the conflict at any time by simply disengaging.

It’s why, in retrospect, so many wars, American and not, seem so pointless and tragic in retrospect. Only history can show us that the wall we thought separated us was never there at all.

Feb 17

In preparing yesterday’s post, “Lies, Damned Lies and Anomalies”, we found a few great links that didn’t quite fit with the flow of the article. Here are a few random terrorism factoids:

1. The CIA Does Their Homework. Newsweek interviewed one of the top lawyers in the CIA about drone strikes against terrorism. The exacting process requires lawyers to “write a cable asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages.” Five entire pages? Yep, that’s what I call due process.

2. Across the world, it seems like violence from war and terrorism is lowering. Check out this report by the Human Security Research Group. We shouldn’t stop working to lower violence, but I think it means we need to be less concerned with fighting terrorism. Improving quality of life, spreading democracy and preventing failed states will stop terrorism, and lower violence around the world.

3. We’ve made this point before. We linked to Stephen Pinker in this speech at the TED lecture series, writing about this lecture in our review of the introduction to William Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down. The takeaway of that post? Vollman uses anecdotes about violence to show it increasing; Pinker uses statistics to show it lowering.

4. Terrorist hordes won’t invade the US and the Western world. A few months back, Glenn Beck theorized that maybe ten percent of the world’s Muslim population were terrorists. Fareed Zakaria demolished--utterly demolished--this assertion. (On a side note, labeling Afghan or Iraqi insurgents as terrorists does nothing to help the debate. More to follow on this topic.)

5. When we wrote our article “What You Should(n’t) Be Afraid Of” we missed a few additions. This article by a pilot shows how prevalent terrorism was in a four year span in the 1980s. (H/T to Armchair Generalist.) Also Gene Healy, president of the Cato Institute, makes the "not an existential threat" point in an opinion piece.

6. Want to save Americans? Lower the speed limit. According to the guys at the Freakonomics blog, studies show that traffic fatalities rose after Congress raised the federal speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph. While some traffic-ologists disagree with this assertion, the point is we spend trillions fighting terrorism, and much less on the National Transportation Safety Board (76 million versus 700 billion for the Department of Defense; Less than four hundred employees at the NTSB, more than 5.2 million in DoD contractors).

7. Top Secret America and Frontline. An On V blogroll favorite, Top Secret America, had an initial Frontline documentary released in January. It makes the case that not only do we waste billions on fighting terrorism, but that good ol’ fashioned police work stops most terrorism. (Ol’ fashioned police work is called Human Intelligence in the Army.)

Finally, I want to clarify a point I made on my article “The Debate We Aren’t Having About Yemen”. I wrote, “We have more terrorists than we did in 2001”. I believe this is true because several of our foreign policy decisions have encouraged radical takfiri terrorists since 9/11. The failure in Afghanistan, the disaster of Iraq, the prolonged war in Pakistan, and the drone strikes in Yemen promote radicalization. Further, Somalia and Yemen have not demonstrably improved their governments or standards of living since 9/11.

That said, even though we have more countries harboring terrorists, that doesn’t mean terrorism is as big a crisis facing our country as say, exploding health care costs or the national debt. We don’t spend our money in the right places, and chasing the terrorism statistical anomaly is part of the reason why.

Feb 16

September 11th was a statistical anomaly.

I’ll elaborate. First, I don’t mean to disrespect the victims of that horrible attack. They have my deepest sympathies. But when our country makes policy, particularly security policies that will spend trillions of dollars, we have to make those decisions based on facts, numbers, science and evidence. We can’t make them based on a statistical anomaly charged with emotions.

We’ve written before that terrorism isn’t an existential crisis. September 11th was so large and so lethal that we can’t see terrorism for what it actually is: a relatively minor threat to the average person’s life. Today, I want to put the 9/11 anecdote into context with the relevant statistics.

Wikipedia’s page listing deaths by human violence shows that, even for terrorist attacks, 9/11 was an anomaly. It killed four times as many people as the next attack on the list. When compared to the loss of life by natural disasters, terrorism doesn’t hold a candle. One hundred and five times as many people died because of the earthquake in Haiti than on 9/11. Seventy six times as many people died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Staggering.

It is remarkable that we spend so much on terrorism considering how seldom it occurs. The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism each year show a stunning lack of American deaths from terrorism. Except for 9/11, less than thirty American civilians have been killed by terrorism every year since 2000. How many Americans died because of terrorism in 2002? Twenty six people. 2009? Nine people. 2007? Nineteen people, but all nineteen occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The State Department includes Iraq and Afghanistan in their totals of terrorist activity when both areas are really war zones. (What about before 9/11? Again, except for Timothy McVeigh, not much. 1999? Six people. 1998? Twelve people. 1997? Six people.)

2010’s numbers will be released by April, they shouldn’t be much higher. Again, 9/11 was a statistical anomaly.

What are bigger threats to the lives of Americans? Well, heart disease (stroke, diabetes and heart attacks) and cancer. Together, they killed over 1.2 million Americans. (All this data comes from the Center for Disease Control, using the most recent data I could find which is from 2007.) The usual comeback is that those are diseases of old age. Compare 9/11 to the list of yearly deaths from preventable causes of death in America.

Every year over 16,000 teenagers die. Over half of those are from automobile accidents, meaning that more than two and a half 9/11s kill our teenagers every year. Accidents in general kill 123,000 people every year. Influenza claims roughly seventeen 9/11s every year.

Homicides dramatically outpace terrorism-related death too. In 2009, the most current year of data compiled by the FBI, over 13,000 people died because of homicides. That is roughly four 9/11s. While the number of homicides has gone up and down, 13,000 is a number that roughly holds steady. This means that every year we face a threat four times worse than 9/11, but with nowhere near the federal funding that comes in for terrorism.

Terrorism is a threat, but just a tiny one. But as a society we hate statistics and love anecdotes. Statistics make us rational; anecdotes make us emotional. And the most common political emotion is fear. Or, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Feb 14

A lot of people--like this guy--think that Mark Twain has more to say about policy discussions then David Hume, mainly because he was able to coin witty aphorisms like, “There are only three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (Quote behaving badly? Kind of. Twain popularized the phrase in Chapters From My Autobiography, but didn’t coin it. He attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli--On Violence’s fourth favorite British Prime Minister--but the phrase never appeared in Disraeli’s writings. More here.)

How true, and how wrong.

Eric C and I like to consider ourselves as skeptics, towards both sides of the political spectrum. We also love debunking bad quotes, wrongs facts and common wisdom. That is why we think that the quote should read, “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and anecdotes.”

Sure statistics can be misleading. Take the gun control issue, for example. On this episode of Intelligence Squared, “Do Guns Make Us Safer?”, both sides come to the debate armed with statistics; neither has absolute proof. Rachel Maddow summed the situation after the shooting in Tucson last month, “In 2004, a national blue ribbon panel of statistics and criminology experts looked into whether or not ‘right to carry’ laws reduced crime in states that have them. Their conclusion famously was, they don‘t know. They were completely unable to come to any statistical conclusion about it at all.”

Statistics cloud the gun control debate, but anecdotes ruin it. Maddow opened that segment above with an anecdote, responding to a congressman’s anecdote. Or consider this portion of a letter written to the Army Times called, “Let Soldiers Carry Arms”:

       The concealed carry of firearms is against the law on all military bases. Why are those sworn to protect our nation against all enemies prohibited from carrying firearms by shortsighted and risk-averse policies of the past? Our families, units and friends sit defenseless on post. I thought this policy would have changed following the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre, but it has not. Does someone think soldiers are going to shoot at the military police? Are we going to road rage and shoot fellow servicemen and families on post? Are we disarming the whole military to bring the risk of accidental discharge down from .003 percent to zero?

       How absolutely ridiculous do these reasons sound after one looks at the carnage and sorrow caused by just one villainous traitor at Fort Hood? Would 13 have died at Fort Hood if even 5 percent of the soldiers in that room had been armed? Would the shooter even have carried out his crime if he knew that his victims would not be defenseless? Maybe not.


Would the alleged Fort Hood shooter Nadal Hassan have been stopped if soldiers could carry guns on post? Who knows? Again, anecdotes muck up both sides of the debate. For every mass casualty event like Virginia Tech or the Fort Hood Shootings, there is an example of a family member shooting another because they owned a gun. Complex issues like gun control can’t be solved by anecdotes.

Gun violence is an incredibly tricky issue, for both sides. Statistics can help us solve it; anecdotes can’t. Of course, lies, damned lies and anecdotes have crept into the foreign affairs and national security arena too. On Wednesday I’ll tackle that subject.

Feb 11

Let me get something out of the way: I really like A Few Good Men. It’s a great movie made by a good director, Rob Reiner, from a great script by a great writer, Aaron Sorkin, with an all-star cast (Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Jack Bauer). If it’s on the movie channels, I’ll watch it.

But the more I watch it, the more I have a problem with one small thing: the ending.

Let me explain. I have a theory that all great movies have a flaw, some little thing that sticks out more and more each time you watch it. The scene where Sonny beats up Connie’s husband in The Godfather. The French flashbacks in Casablanca. The line, “How often do you look at a man’s shoes?” in The Shawshank Redemption. (All the time. You look at a man’s shoes all the time, Red.). Since no movie--aside from a handful of Kubrick films, of course--is perfect, each has a little flaw in it.

In a A Few Good Men, the court room confession of Col. Jessup mars the film. Because we’ve been writing about this scene recently, and because we love it, Michael and I have been watching it a lot. It takes one of the best monologues in the history of film, turning into words the ugly mindset of a lot of soldiers have. Unfortunately, it couples this fantastic monologue with one of the worst, most unrealistic cliches in movie or film--the courtroom confession.

It annoys me on a number of levels:

1. It isn’t realistic. And that’s obvious. Courtroom confessions just don’t happen, especially with intelligent, powerful people like Colonel Jessup. If someone is going to break, it’s going to be during interrogation or investigation, not on the stand. If someone calls you to a trial, the person tells themselves, “All I have to do is not incriminate myself.” Why would they confess?

2. You’d think people would be smart enough to recognize these as cliches. They’re not.

3. This has real world consequences. Seriously. Read about it. In the 60’s and 70’s, guilty criminals went free because juries expected confessions. Compare this to the CSI effect. (CSI certainly isn’t on the level of A Few Good Men.)

4. It provides a happy ending. Why do we require happy endings? Why are so many films endowed with false, nearly Deus Ex Machina happy endings like this one? What is it about reality we aren’t able to face?

5. The ending implies the military serves up justice. By inserting a false, unrealistic happy ending, A Few Good Men subverts the public’s perception of how the military actually works. Its happy ending and character divergent confession hide the insidious nature of military justice.

Our military punishes enlisted soldiers, and excuses officers. The higher up an officer, the less likely he/she is to get punished. No officers stood trial for Abu Ghraib. Mostly the convicted were Sergeants and Specialists, a situation almost exactly mirroring A Few Good Men. Consider how the Army treats DUIs. If a lower enlisted soldier gets a DUI, they lose their rank, money and could face restriction to base for sixty days. Officers will usually get a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, which in today’s Army still won’t even hurt for promotion.

What would I write (if I were Aaron Sorkin)? Right after the speech, Tom Cruise asks, “Did you order the code red?” Jessup calmly, serenely, wisely smiles and says, “No, I would never issue an unlawful order.” Court is adjourned, and the guilty party goes free. Then I would add in a scene right afterwards where he whispers to Tom Cruise’s character, “You’re Goddamn right I did.”

It wouldn’t feel good. It would hurt. But it would be realistic, and it would mean something. I’d like to think we live in a world where the guilty always go punished, but I don’t.

Who can’t handle the truth? We can’t.

Feb 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.)

It seems odd that On Violence, a blog based on the discussion of war and violence, has managed to avoid a discussion of such an acclaimed piece of media as the videogame series God of War. As the resident On V gaming guru, it feel to me to address one of the bloodiest and well received games of 2010.

God of War stars Spartan warrior and Spike TV proclaimed bad-ass of the year Kratos. He’s an anti-hero with a single mind for vengeance that wages a war against the gods over three installments. A demigod stained with the ashes of his own family, he hacks and slashes his way through innumerable hordes of creatures, Greek gods, titans, classic heroes, and even innocents, to confront whatever entity he’s convinced has wronged him. (In the player’s first encounter with Kratos, he leaves the boat captain with whom he traveled to die without acknowledgement.) Initially, he seeks vengeance against Ares for making him a slave and killing machine. After killing his original master, Kratos spends the second and third installmentsattempting to destroy Zeus (and by extent the entirety of Olympus) for removing Kratos from his achieved role as the new God of War. But his blood lust is sated only by the next kill; the next battle. There’s no break, no relief, just the continuation of rage filled murder after murder.

The God of War series is extensively violent and bloody, probably excessively so, which warrants discussion here. Eric C recently addressed the question of who it is acceptable to kill in video game simulation and the God of War trilogy would seem to extend the question to how graphic those acts of violence can/should be. From repeated rapid button pressing to trigger the rapid slamming of a man’s skull against marble to gouging the eyes of Poseidon, the player enacts Kratos’ brutal wrath.

While I could discuss the extent of the exaggerated acts of violent and copious amounts of blood, they are not the aspects that I found more disturbing. Ultimately, the portrayal of violence is an artistic choice. My real protest stems with the series’ culmination with Kratos sacrificing himself to save mankind.

Kratos, a self-serving butcher with little regard for any life other than his own, ends his life in a peculiar attempt at redemption. At the end of this journey, with all his foes slain and his vengeance achieved, Kratos who has all but destroyed existence by slaughtering gods and titans, suddenly decides to sacrifice himself to help restore some semblance of order to the world. It makes no sense.

It’s bad writing for two reasons:

1. That sh*t just doesn’t happen! A man does not slaughter on the magnitude of thousands in a bid for retribution and then suddenly care about the rest of humanity. That’s not a logical progression. He’s been consumed by rage his entire life allowing him to kill without a second thought and suddenly his conscience tells him to save the earth. The action genre equivalent is something like Ripley from Aliens suddenly caring about the well being of the alien species after loosing a platoon of colonial marines and blowing up half a planet to stop their spread. Thematically, it doesn’t make sense.

2. It’s a cop-out. Kratos is a popular character in the gaming world because he’s such a bad-ass, so the game has to end with him doing something nice for humanity so the player can feel at peace with the fact that he spent three solid hours torturing and rending Greek Gods that are already beaten defenseless. Self sacrifice is not in the character’s nature. It’s an end of the ride fake out saying, “See, it’s okay to like the mass murderer because he’s leaving his money to cancer research.”

Eric C and I have a running debate about the importance of plot in video games. Eric C believes gameplay--or ludology--matters more than a coherent and enjoyable storyline. God of War III seems to champion his point of view. It’s vicious and visually stunning and easy yet enjoyable to play. There were plenty thoughtful and compelling plot options missed; an actual path to redemption, Kratos assuming the role of Zeus and needing to be overthrown himself, or a maybe even just a portrayal of the horrific consequences of all his actions. Any would have been better than the anti-hero awkwardly stabbing himself to let out the wisps of glowing blue hope lingering deep (really, really deep) within him to help humanity survive the chaos he wrought them.

Feb 09

When I guestposted on Thomas Ricks’ blog my piece, “K2, the weenie of Afghanistan,” I mentioned the dogs of Afghanistan, and even hinted about the untimely demise of many of our denizens, including when the original K2--named Khan--met the big bitch in the sky by drinking some anti-freeze left out in the motor pool.

I didn’t mention it at the time, but Khan wasn’t the only casualty. We had a veritable “puppy holocaust” as we called it, on our hands. Puppies just a few weeks old weren’t smart enough to not drink the anti-freeze that dripped into drip pans beneath our Humvees. The mechanics realized what was happening too late. Today I wanted to share a pic of one of the puppies.



War really is hell.

Feb 08

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published over at VAntage Point, the VA's blog, run by two of On Violence's favorite bloggers/writers, Brandon Friedman and Alex Horton. Titled "Checking the Mental Health Block", here's an excerpt:

“Next,” said the voice from a tiny cubicle.

A sign facing the door labeled it “Office #5.” It was just one tiny office among six others, with only a thin partitions separating them. I walked in. Behind the desk sat a kind looking lady–imagine a standard issue government employee and you got it–who motioned me to sit in the chair next to her desk.

A few minutes before, I’d received my redeployment paperwork, a glorified checklist. Once I filled it out, it meant I was home, safe and sound. I handed it to the mental health worker.

If you’ve spent more than a minute in or working with the Army, then you know what “checking the block” means...

(Click here to read the whole thing.)

Feb 07

I love this quote from Allison Stanger’s One Nation Under Contract:

“The United States has contracted logistical support for indigenous African forces in Somalia, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, and for our own presence (typically as trainers of African forces) in Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana. All of these ventures went forward quickly, with little, if any, public debate or congressional oversight...”

If the title didn’t clue you where this is going, it’s going to Yemen. If I had to list the countries that pose the biggest threat to the US because they harbor terrorists or nuclear weapons, it would be Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan then Nigeria. (An aside, looking back ten years after 9/11, is this the evidence that a defense-first foreign policy doesn’t work? We have more terrorists than we did in 2001.)

With our troops stretched thin in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. government doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to Yemen and Pakistan. It, therefore, launched two wars (micro-wars maybe) against suspected terrorists without an American policy debate and without ever evaluating if the Department of Defense was the right branch to execute our policy in the first place.

Yemen fits into a bigger picture of supposedly successful covert direct action missions against terrorists in countries the U.S. isn’t officially in. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute praised covert and clandestine operations as “the only tool of foreign policy where we can see immediate, positive results”. Max Boot had a similarly positive appraisal in The Wall Street Journal. This narrative of “wildly successful counter-terrorism” operations started about the time General McChrystal was appointed head of Afghanistan operations, because of his time in charge of JSOC.

I bring this up, because it looks like the role of direct action missions in killing terrorists is only increasing. Joint Special Operations Command just built a new headquarters in D.C., with an expanded budget to play with. (from the Associated Press via DoD press releases, no Wikileaks here!). And since 2009, President Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan.

The United States has transitioned this strategy to Yemen. As reported by Dana Priest--On Violence could be the president of her fan club--we have dramatically increased support to the Yemeni military, with support from both covert intelligence and clandestine drone strikes.

My questions: Does this work? Aren’t drone strikes an easier way to achieve the accidental guerrilla effect without even deploying ground troops? Why does it seem like the CIA is in charge? And where is our Congress to approve, monitor and oversee all this?

I go first to Pakistan. We’ve been bombing Pakistan for a few years now, but we aren’t any closer to stopping terrorism. In fact, if the recent assassination of Salman Taseer is any metric, the country is further radicalizing. Using drone strikes and air power to replace boots on the ground just doesn’t work.

To quote an earlier post, we attack the symptom and promote the growth of the disease. Especially in countries where the US doesn’t have a large troop presence--Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia--direct action missions like drones missile strikes have not broken the enemy’s will.

If anything, anti-US sentiment and the budding insurgencies in those countries have grown their capabilities and expanded their recruiting efforts. Drone strikes, in particular, more often wound innocent civilians. We mistake killing “terrorists” for positive action, when in reality it is a zero-sum game.

Our foreign policy in places like Yemen and Pakistan is now controlled by the CIA and JSOC. Beyond the fact that it unbalances President Obama’s policy of development, diplomacy and defense, it seems uneducated. The CIA doesn’t have the expertise in executing military policy across the spectrum of operations. If anything, CIA covert missions are known for horrendous failures, from the Bay of Pigs through to modern day extraordinary renditions.

Which leads to the worst problem, the fact that Congress doesn’t declare war anymore. Sure our bombs aren’t directed towards the Yemeni government, but Congress still has oversight to determine if we should be dropping bombs in the first place. With their decision comes public debate, something we aren’t having about Yemen, Pakistan or countless other places.

So before we ramp up drone strikes in Yemen further, I hope the President and Congress debate the merits of that course of action, the CIA shouldn’t get to decide.

Feb 04

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

“Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that, ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.”
   - Colonel DuBois, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

And from his perch on high, the blogger looked down and said, “It is time.”

In high school, I read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and thought, "This book is amazing." Then, in college, I was like, “Well, some of the political theory is a bit...extreme for my tastes.” Now that I have actual experience with real warfare, and a few more years of study, I can say this, "Colonel DuBois’ quote is vile." (See our post “Quotes Behaving Badly” for why we don’t attribute this to Robert Heinlein.)

Here are the two major problems with the above quote, no matter who says it:

Problem 1: Equating Violence and Naked Force. Towards the end of the quote, Colonel DuBois compares “violence” and “naked force” as if they were synonyms. They aren’t. Violence is a specific set of acts designed to inflict injurious pain on someone unjustly. Force is pressure, and it comes in a variety for forms. Violence doesn’t have to be “naked” or “raw”.

Now, it doesn’t quite say this above, but to be clear, violence is not power either. Read Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, and she persuasively argues that where violence reigns, power does not. The threat of violence is a form of force, and a way to manifest power, but power and violence are not synonymous.

Take the insurgents roaming Iraq. They are very violent, but none of them have true national power. They are weak. If they had power, they wouldn’t need to use Violence. If the government in Iraq had power, they wouldn’t have so many exploding cars.

Problem 2: Violence causes more issues than it settles. Now we move onto the more controversial and accepted proposition: “Violence... has settled more issues than has any other factor.” As a logical philosophical proposition, DuBois is not creating an absolute statement (violence is the only force that settles conflicts) but merely states that violence settles more conflicts than say diplomacy, love or good will. That seems like a ridiculously hard statement to prove either way, but that’s the assertion.

My issue isn’t that overwhelming violence--typified by the use of nuclear weapons in World War II--sometimes solves conflicts. The problem is that violence causes conflicts. And prolongs conflicts. Violence does those two things way more than it solves the world’s problems. You could say, “I would advise you to conjure the ghosts of the Hatfields and McCoys and they can debate it. The judge will be Osama bin Laden and the jury might well be the Israelis and Palestinians.” Would any of them agree that violence has settled their disputes?

The first Godfather film provides a telling example. The Godfather rejects an offer from another mafioso to fund drug distribution in New York. Solozzo the Turk wants a loan and protection; the Godfather refuses. To get his way, the Turk commits an act of violence: he attempts to assassinate Don Corleone. Michael Corleone, in turn, kills Solozzo and a corrupt police chief. Another mafia family then kills his brother Sonny. The war only ends when the heads of the five families sat down and broker a peace.

Violence caused, promoted and then didn’t settle the conflict in The Godfather. Even the brutal murder of Don Corleone’s son didn’t settle the conflict. The peace talk did.

A telling scene later in the movie: Michael Corleone, hiding from U.S. police in Sicily, walks through a village with his two bodyguards. Michael asks, "Where are all the men?" The bodyguard replies, "They're all dead from vendettas." The violence settled nothing, unless the goal was killing all the young men.

What about the real world? Well, the most violent act of Iraq was the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. And far from settling anything, it caused the sectarian war to explode. Violence erupted throughout the country. That violence didn’t bring either side any closer to “winning” anything.

So the fundamental principle of “war is war”--that we need more fighting, killing, death and destruction to win--is wrong on its face. Wars are more often settled through politics, not bloodletting--Heinlein quotes be damned.

Feb 02

The Battle of Wanat has slowly come to epitomize America’s decade-and-more-long adventure in Afghanistan. The final report, released last month, garnered significant media coverage. Even though the Battle of Kamdesh occurred a year later with roughly the same results, it still doesn’t seem to get the same respect.  

I was in 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, The ROCK, the unit responsible for Wanat. Thus far, I have avoided voicing my opinion. Not that my opinion doesn’t matter--I just know too many people in too many places that I could offend with my blogging.

I do believe, though, I can provide at least one perspective that I haven’t seen in any of the coverage: a visceral explanation of why our battalion moved to Wanat.

Before Wanat, Chosen Company controlled two Combat Out Posts in the Waygal valley: COP Ranch House and COP Bella. In August of the 2007, Ranch House was nearly overrun in a Wanat-style attack. (Actually, Wanat was a Ranch House-style attack.) Through amazing fortune, no one was killed, though several soldiers were wounded.

After the attack, our battalion pulled back to COP Bella. But COP Bella, which supported Ranch House, wasn’t much better. It had high ground on every side, and was in probably more danger than Ranch House or Wanat. I never set foot on Bella, but I was in a helicopter that landed there to drop off some PAX on my way back to Camp Joyce.



Look at the rocks that surrounded Bella. Look at the size of the hills. Yeah COP Kahler/Wanat had high ground around it, but nothing like Bella. That is why the decision to go to Wanat started. We can second guess the decisions related to building the base and supporting the operation until we are blue in the face,  but the point remains: in the Waygal valley, there were no good options and no easy answers, which in war there rarely are.