Nov 30

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

In 2006, a few weeks from graduation, the Bruin Battalion ROTC program held its annual scholarship ceremony. Various fraternal organizations and not-for-profits handed out scholarships to the cadets in amounts ranging from a hundred to several hundred dollars.

One organization, the Association of the 100th of the 442nd, gave their award to a cadet commissioning into the infantry. Unlike many of the other scholarships, the 100th/442nd didn’t just give money. They gave me a book about the history of the 100th/442nd--the most decorated unit in World War II nee the history of the U.S. Army.

I love the 100th of the 442nd. You see, the 100th was made up of Asian Americans who could not join other units. These soldiers fought while many of their parents, grandparents and siblings lived in internment camps. And while their relatives were in internment camps, they received more medals for valor and bravery than any other unit fighting in World War II, including 21 Medals of Honor. In short, the 100th of the 442nd is objectively amazing, but I am subjectively biased towards them.

Because they also gave me a coin with the 100th of the 442nd logo.



Last week, I mentioned the idea of “gratitude theory” which, as David Kilcullen writes it, means that you cannot buy people (read: Afghans or Iraqis) enough stuff to make them love you. His statement is true. However, like population-centric counter-insurgency in general, it has been oversimplified. In this case, to “Afghans and Iraqis don’t like getting gifts.” This is why some theorists despise the entire role of civil affairs in a war-torn nation; they confuse repairing a broken society with trying to bribe a society to support us/counter-insurgents/the host nation.

Today I have a simple point: people like getting gifts. More importantly for our efforts, people like people who give them gifts.

My experience with the 100th of the 442nd proves this point. I still really like the 100th of the 442nd simply because they gave me a coin and a book to read. In fact, I have an affinity for all the people who gave scholarships to the cadets in the Army ROTC program. Often the amounts are small, but considering that an ROTC stipend does not provide enough money to pay rent in west Los Angeles, it goes a long way.

My 100th of the 442nd coin is still one of my most treasured coins, prominently displayed in the front of my coin holder on my desk in my office. In short, getting a gift engendered plenty of positive emotions, not negative ones.

This doesn’t just apply to scholarship organizations. Think about the good that the Make-A-Wish foundation does. Do you think in follow up surveys parents and recipients say they hate the Make-A-Wish foundation for giving their kids that experience?

Here’s an even better, more apt analogy. Do wounded veterans hate organizations, like Home for Heroes and others, that try to help them? They don’t. That is why they are so popular. Giving gifts, time or money or help or aid, is vital to our veterans who come back wounded from combat.

Last week I said people cared if people like them. I also mentioned that, as an added benefit, people who like you tend to be easier to work with and tend to give you things back. Well, giving gifts is a good way to get people to like you. Giving gifts alone cannot win the war, but to dismiss it outright is ludicrous. Especially considering the cultures we have dealt with the last ten years, which I will get to tomorrow.

Nov 29

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Long time On Violence readers know that we have issues with Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, Lone Survivor. First, it gets very basic facts wrong (for example: the title). Second, it advocates killing innocent civilians. Finally, it uses Luttrell’s military service--and the deaths of his fellow servicemen--to promote his political views.

Two of these issues came roaring back this weekend when Rick Perry’s campaign released a video called, “Securing the American Dream”, in which Luttrell endorsed Perry for president. In the video, Luttrell keeps repeating the errors of his memoir. Worse, he has begun campaigning for politicians using his service to support his viewpoints. (Hat tip to @BFriedmanDC, @InTheInfantry and @InkSpotsGulliver for bringing this topic to our attention.)

So let’s breakdown two of our main criticisms of Luttrell, updated since we initially reviewed Lone Survivor.

Issue 1: Marcus Luttrell stands by his story in Lone Survivor.

When we first reviewed Lone Survivor, several emailers and commenters claimed that Marcus Luttrell wasn't responsible for the content of his memoir. According to this New York Times piece, the Navy--or the book publisher--hired Patrick Robinson, a British military fiction writer to interview Luttrell and write the story. This, allegedly, explains the over-exaggerations and mistakes in Lone Survivor.

But Luttrell hasn’t recanted any of the facts in Lone Survivor. In fact, he repeats them in speeches and interviews. In the Perry video, Luttrell still refers to the SEAL’s target as a “high ranking individual in [Osama] bin Laden’s army.” He later claims that a “Taliban Al Qaeda militia” overran his position. As we wrote in “He Got the Title Wrong?”, Ahmad Shah--called Ben Sharmak in Lone Survivor--was allied to Hezb il Gulbuddin. Prior to the events of Operation Red Wings, Shah had likely never met bin Laden. As of Oct 3, 2010, his charity still referred to the mission as Operation Redwing. (It has since been updated to the correct mission name, Operation Red Wings.)

In this clip from The Today Show, Luttrell nods in agreement with one of Lone Survivor's more offensive passages (“I’d turn into a ****ing liberal, a jack-ass.”), continues the narrative about a “vote” taking place on the mountain (this was disputed by Lt. Patrick Murphy’s father), and describes getting attacked by “100 to 120” Taliban fighters.

In Luttrell’s original after-action report, he said he was attacked by 20-35 enemy soldiers. For the Medal of Honor documentation, the number climbs to 35-40. In the book, and the above interview, the number goes all the way up to “eighty to a hundred”. Finally, in this speech, Marcus Luttrell describes getting attacked by 40-50 enemy soldiers above, and 50-60 soldiers on both sides of his position. This puts the number of enemy attackers between 140-170. In Wikipedia and the book SEALs: America’s Elite Fighting Force, the number of enemy fighters jumps to 200.

Issue 2: Luttrell politicizes his story (and the deaths of his fellow sailors).

“I don’t get into politics and all that. I’m a soldier.” At least that’s what Luttrell claimed this week in the video for the Perry campaign. Except Lone Survivor is filled with political opinions, including dozens of ad hominem attacks against the “liberal media”, liberals and the Democrats he blames for the death of his fellow SEALs.

For a man who doesn’t “get into politics and all that”, Marcus Luttrell sure makes a lot of political statements. Luttrell regularly speaks before groups like The Goldwater Institute and the NRA, regularly gives interviews to Fox News, and regularly campaigns for Republican candidates. He even spoke at Glenn Beck’s rally on the mall.

And endorsing candidates for President? It doesn’t get more political than that.

Though I don’t think we have written it before, at On Violence, we don’t agree with using the deaths of soldiers to fill political stump speeches. Cindy Sheehan disgusted us when she used her son’s death to campaign against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Marcus Luttrell disgusts us when he uses his tragedy to promote political causes. Sure, a soldier’s experience will inform their views on certain issues (especially about rules of engagement, like it does with both Luttrell and me); but death and war should be above politics...

Though they rarely are.

(To be clear, we hate the memoir, but we don’t hate the man, as some emailers have accused us of doing. We disagree with using the deaths of our soldiers to promote political viewpoints, and we do not like memoirs with factual errors. For instance, see our week on Greg Mortenson.)

Nov 23

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Today is the busiest flying day of the year. In honor of this (deservedly uncelebrated) holiday, I want to describe a highly scientific experiment I conducted on an airplane.

In the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, we listened to a lecture on counter-insurgency hosted on the Combined Arms Center website. The lieutenant colonel makes this statement, “I don’t care if people [the population in Afghanistan and Iraq] like me, I only want them to like their government.”

His point is nuanced and I agree that a foreign counter-insurgent’s first concern is that the population supports their government. That is 100% on the money. However, the first clause--“I do not care if people like me...”--sticks in my craw.

It just isn’t true.

In fact, I cannot believe I had to write that. I mean, do I really have to tell our readers that they care if people like them? Or that it matters, at least a little, among all the other factors? To test this theory--that it doesn’t matter if people like you--I set up an experiment. Location: a plane flight. Hypothesis: It is better when people like you.

On my flight to California, I acted as nicely as possible. I tend to get angry after TSA screenings--whether it is the shoes getting taken off, the fellow travellers who don’t take off their belts, the scanners that don’t work but everyone has to go through so employees in back can laugh at your junk--whatever it is, I am usually not in a good mood. So when I boarded my flight, I tried to change my attitude. I deliberately smiled at every flight attendant, and asked as authentically as possible, “How are you doing?”

Later, I made small talk while we waited for the flight to board. Once in air, I ordered a drink intending to pay with the voluminous drink coupons Southwest has sent me for frequent-flyer rewards. For some odd reason, the attendants never asked for them. One attendant even asked if I wanted a refill. (For those who might think I looked like a soldier with a short haircut, I didn’t.)

So, having established my control group (acting friendly got me free drinks) I proceeded to test the inverse of the gratitude theory. Instead of giving out kindness, and getting what I wanted, I simply wanted to be respected, not liked. On the flight back to Tennessee--after waiting through a three and a half hour delay--when the flight attendant asked how I was doing, I stared them in the face and said, “None of your goddamn business. I’m a veteran!” When I ordered my drink, I had to spend my drink coupons, and the flight attendant didn’t ask if I wanted a refill.

This vaguely scientific study won’t ever be published, and, in all honesty, I never said, “None of your goddamn business” to a flight attendant. There’s a simple reason: I try not to act like a complete jerk in public.

More importantly, kindness goes a long way on an airplane. I have actually started to act nicer on flights because the TSA gets me in such an uproar, and the number of free drinks has increased. Acting nice to fellow flyers helps expand my network and meet new people. Kindness generally makes life better for everyone.

But this isn’t just about free drinks or airplanes. It is about the idea that people, in America, don’t like jerks. Eric C could find half a dozen examples in the war memoirs he has reviewed, including One Bullet Away and This Man’s Army, of young officers writing about how much they loved their men and their men loved them. This doesn’t mean they didn’t enforce discipline, but it did mean they cared about being liked. Manager Tools mentions this on their casts as well. Acting friendly will benefit you more than acting like a jerk.

Especially in the work place. Teachers want their students to respect, and like them. So do football coaches. So do parents and children. So do husbands and wives. So do pastors and their congregations. So do corporations and their customers, and employees. So do politicians (and how!). Oh gosh do politicians want to be liked. And bosses want to be liked. Not every boss in every company. But the majority of great bosses have employees who love them. Think Steve Jobs. Apple became the world’s biggest company (by market capitalization) after Job’s mellowed his style when he returned.

I think the analogy of a father and son is best. Fathers want, and demand, respect. They also want to be liked and, preferably, loved. The inverse is the father in Dead Poet’s Society. He probably thought, “I don’t give a damn if my son likes me, only that he respects me.” Spoiler alert--Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) ended up shooting himself.

So everywhere in America, people want to be liked. In fact, in psychology a psychopath is defined as someone who does not care what other people think; a person without empathy. I looked this up in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV--and sure enough psychopath now called “Anti-Social Personality Disorder”--is defined by a lack of caring about the emotional state of others. As I mentioned yesterday, and as I will argue in the coming weeks, the American military lacks cultural awareness. Specifically, we lack the ability to understand how our actions emotionally effect others.

Ultimately, we won’t try--or be able--to have everyone like us. But do we need to care about their emotions? Yes, unless we want to become psychopaths.

Nov 21

(The rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'" continues in:

Winning Hearts and Minds on An Airplane 

People Like Gifts...or Why I Like the 100th of the 442nd

Winning the War with Hescos and Red Bulls

The Greatest Ambassadors

Everyone Hates Everyone Else's Soldiers

Who Watches the Watchmen?

From the On V Future Archives: When Persia Put a Garrison in Wyoming (in 2048)

Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency

“The Economist” Likes Behavioural Research: Of iPods, Gratitude Theory and Modeling

From B Schools to COIN: Improving the U.S. Army's Brand Management

Wargaming or: Men Are Not Blocks of Wood

        Hearts, Minds and Gatorade Bottles Filled With Urine

Don't Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

Is Toys for Tots...Communist?

The Republican Argument for Population-Centric COIN

In 2006, George Packer interviewed David Kilcullen in The New Yorker and wrote a very persuasive (persuasive because it went “academic viral”) paragraph about counter-insurgency:

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

I’ve seen this quote in at least one Small Wars Journal article, in Thomas Rid’s’ Understanding Counterinsurgency Warfare: Origins, Operations, Challenges, and in an article by Andrew Exum for The Daily Beast. It neatly summarized the reaction against the phrase “winning hearts and minds.” (In the coming weeks, I will unveil some more uses of the term.)

Like everything in the counter-insurgency debate, I believe we--the punditocracy, if you will--have (again) completely over-reacted. Instead of acknowledging what Kilcullen said--in an armed war you can’t simply buy off the population--many have over-reacted to say, “Exactly, you shouldn’t buy the population anything.” I have heard officers and soldiers say, ”I don’t care if they like me, so long as they do what I say.” I have heard soldiers repeat variations on this theme: we need to be feared and obeyed, not liked. Bing West has accused our military of becoming an “armed Peace Corps”.

So the “Act-Like-a-Jerk Theory of Counter-Insurgency” developed in response to the (never actually implemented) “Gratitude Theory of Counter-Insurgency”. Some pundits say that Afghans don’t like receiving gifts. A commenter on our blog once said that Afghans don’t care if you take care of their sick and wounded.

I understand the backlash. Some theorists and practitioners never liked moving out of their comfort zone of fighting, killing, death, destruction and “war is war”. Population-centric counter-insurgency requires a good deal of restraint on the part of the soldier; restraint is inherently risky.

Further, the Army is slow to adapt and then prone to over-adapt. In the pendulum of counter-insurgency, we often swing way too far in one direction. Some high profile officers did make it sound like counter-insurgency could be a bloodless form of warfare (it isn't).

Most importantly, the Army fails at cultural empathy, plagued by an inability to place oneself in another’s shoes. Many soldiers grew up in isolated conditions without a lot of contact with foreigners beyond Hispanic immigrants. As a result, I have heard soldiers legitimately say that they don’t understand how killing someone’s mother would turn them into an insurgent if the U.S. didn’t mean to. Sure, Afghans and Iraqis have different cultures, but they still have human emotions. They still believe in vengeance, rational or irrational.

Giving gifts alone cannot win the war in Afghanistan. The original counter-insurgency manual spells this out: to defeat an insurgency you need several lines of operation working concurrently. Fighting and security are one. Information operations is another. And reconstruction and governance are another pillar. We need to kill Taliban and Haqqani irreconcilables, but we cannot kill our way to victory. Supporting the government and rebuilding parts of the country--we destroyed--are necessary to winning a counter-insurgency. But some reconstruction and rebuilding aide does not make our military a giant peace corps attempting to buy gratitude in Afghanistan.

In the next few weeks, Eric C and I will be slinging some doses of reality back on the counter-insurgency debate. We’ll try to illuminate some really nonsensical positions on Iraqi and Afghan culture. We’ll talk about angry World War II British youths, barbarians at the gate, winning hearts and minds on an airplane, the most honored unit in U.S. military history and more.

We have three points:

1. We over-reacted against the fictional “Gratitude Theory.”

2. People are people with human emotions, even in occupied countries. A counter-insurgent must plan for those emotions.

3. Of human emotions, it is better for the population in a counter-insurgency to love the counter-insurgent than it is to hate the counter-insurgent.

“Winning Hearts and Minds” does not only mean a “coldly-calculated, emotionless, rational decision to support one side.” Humans--despite what the Chicago School of Economics says--have never acted 100% rationally. Ever. In a counter-insurgency, forgetting this fact, and underestimating the emotional power of violence, is silly.

Nov 18

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

When I first began the “War at its Worst” series, I knew I had to include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. One of the most violent novels of all time, McCarthy tells the anarchic tale of a rebel gang rampaging through Mexico killing Native Americans and Mexicans. Almost every other page contains a murder, stabbing, rape or molestation. The Glanton gang fights in battles, takes over towns, and tyrannizes an entire region of the country.

But no passage stood out as an example as “War at its Worst”.

Perhaps it was the complex prose. Perhaps it was because the whole thing is so violent, no one passage could stand above the rest. Perhaps it is because a tree decorated with the bodies of infants isn’t war at its worst, it’s just pathological. Whatever it was, I couldn’t find a passage.

Then it hit me. The Judge, himself, is war at its worst.

The Judge. Judge Holden, one of the great villains of modern literature, a giant sketch-pad-wielding albino who may be the devil, or the embodiment of Death or Violence. Or a gnostic demi-urge (essentially an imperfect lower God who created the universe. Harold Bloom debunks this idea here).

War at its worst is absolute war, with no regard for morals, ethics, customs or traditions. It destroys society and civilization, favoring a survivalist, winner-takes-all anarchy over everything humans value. It means you have to become the Judge.

The Judge explains:

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way

“...it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.

“The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.”

“War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

War, to The Judge, is amoral, fought only for the sake of fighting, with the ultimate prize on the line.

If I’m being intellectually honest, I’ll admit that a quote isn’t true or false based upon the speaker alone. Idiots say wise things, and intellectuals say stupid things. Not everything Einstein said was brilliant. Not everything Marx wrote was wrong.

You can, however, judge a person’s philosophy if following it would lead to abhorrent action. We condemn Hitler’s philosophy because that sick ideology led to moral catastrophe; the two are inexorably linked. The Judge doesn’t espouse a quote so much as a philosophy: all existence is a competition, and the greatest competition is war. The Judge embodies this philosophy.

The Judge isn’t just a murderer, but also a child rapist and murderer. Throughout the course of the book, at least half a dozen children go missing. The book ends with the Judge, naked, pulling the Kid into an outhouse, presumably to rape him. This is a man who, at the town Jesus Maria, buys two puppies just to throw them into a river. (This is the second worst thing he did that chapter. A child went missing a few pages before, and the Judge presumably attacks the child he bought the puppies from--Blood Meridian is vague on the point.) This is a man who scouts the desert, with the Glanton gang, searching for Indians to kill at a price. When they can’t find any, they kill Mexicans, scalp them, and sell those scalps back to the Mexican government. This is a man who opens the novel by convincing a crowd to kill an innocent priest, just for kicks.

Which begs the question: in addition to embodying “war at its worst”, is the Judge a “war is war”-ior? Yes and no. If you define a “war is war”-ior as an win-at-all-costs, ends-justify-the-means philosophy, the Judge only makes it halfway. Though he believes in win-at-all-costs, he has no ends to fight for.

For the Judge, there is no morality; why you go to war doesn’t matter. For “war is war”-iors, this isn’t the case. Those who promote or defend war--the Just Theorists and the patriots and the “war is war”-iors--do so because they use morality as an explanation. War isn’t moral, but its end state could be morally justifiable, the argument goes. They go to war for noble pursuits.

Once you get there, though, the gloves come off. The Judge embodies the gloves coming off. If you believe morality ends when war begins, you’ve given yourself permission to become the Judge. You’ve become war at its worst.

Ask yourself, is this place you want to be?

Nov 17

(Matty P had two guests posts related to the firebombing of Dresden. To read all our posts on A Week of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden, please click here.)

The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Rules of Engagement” opens with Commander Worf wandering the halls of the USS Defiant. The corridors are littered with his fallen comrades. The enemy raises their weapons in triumph. Forcing his way to the bridge, he doesn’t find fallen comrades or fallen enemies there, but slain children. Worf wakes up from the dream, awaiting trial for the murder of civilians. (For those who are worried, Worf didn’t kill the civilians, it was a ruse to break him.)

But his inner struggle hits a chord with our discussion on Dresden and civilian bombings. After On Violence’s week on Dresden, I realized something still bothered me. Not something that was said, but what I let go unsaid. There was more to the moral issue than simply citing the Geneva convention. We left untouched the issue of honor in warfare.

For the unfamiliar, the Klingons are an archetypal race based on war and conflict from the Star Trek universe. Klingons adhere to warrior codes and honor, in much the same way the ancient samurai balance war and tranquility, the ultimate “war is war”-iors. But they do not see war as hell; it is glorious. War is the ultimate test of character, personal strength, and most of all; honor. In much the same way many young American see joining the military as a rite of passage, battle and service is the right of passage for a Klingon.

In “Rules of Engagement,” Worf believes he had done the unthinkable in his or any culture. He has murdered civilians. It was an accident: they’re ship wandered onto a battle field. While, by their religion they had died gloriously, by all accounts, his actions are dishonorable. Worf faces the same punishment we should expect here and now: imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge from service.

Honor is not a term I use lightly. Honor is more than a social conditioning or personal code. It is it a distinguishing between right and wrong. Between the ethical and unethical. As the son of a soldier and warrior; of combat veterans, the concept of honor was ingrained. Seemingly small things. You don’t kick someone when they’re down (figuratively or literally). Be gracious in victory and defeat. Commend personal sacrifice. Protect and don’t bully the weak. They’re the same basic tenants that any parent teachers their child, we just had a word for it.

It is also a basis for military conduct. We respect and honor our service members for their willingness to sacrifice their safety for others. The ribbons on a soldier’s chest are not for decoration, they are to distinguish honorable service. The men who guard and handle our nation’s banner are the Honor Guard. And the Medal of Honor is this nation’s highest honor. Honor is the military’s highest tradition.

When I think of Dresden and the civilians that died, I’m am saddened. I think, for a both a Klingon and a member of our United States military: there is no honor in this...

Nov 15

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.)

When I deployed to Afghanistan, I couldn’t speak Pashtun. I went to meetings and drank chai as my interpreter translated...everything. When I deployed to Iraq, I couldn’t speak Arabic, and I was an intelligence analyst. (As I’ve written before, this was a personal failure.)

As Major Douglas Pryer wrote for The Best Defense a few weeks back, the Army needs to train its soldiers better in language skills and cultural empathy. (I would add Major Pryer to my “Blogging Commission to Assess the Long Wars”.) The capability of our people will always mean more than the capabilities of our trucks, tanks and guns. In the messy, irregular, counter-insurgical wars of recent times, language training gives our forces a greater tactical advantage than any sensor, drone or bomb. (I have been writing this since our first posts, like this one comparing to hypothetial battalions.)

But I don’t want to rehash my usual points about language training. Today, I’m targeting why we don’t emphasize language training: it’s the culture. When I started “Why I Got Out”, I specifically said the Army’s culture influences its priorities. Simply put, the U.S. Army emphasizes physical fitness over intelligence. (Intelligence broadly defined as innovative ideas, academic learning, critical thinking and the ability to write well.)

When I started On Violence, I didn’t tell anyone else in my brigade, especially my raters; I just don’t think it would have helped. When I published an article in Infantry Magazine, I told my rater, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the battalion. No one really cared. So when it came to evaluations, being seen as “a writer” just didn’t seem like it would help.

I do believe, though, being seen as an athlete would have helped. On every OER, the rater must check whether or not the rated officer passed the APFT. Most raters usually include the score too. If you ran marathons or competed on the combatives team, the rater would probably mention it. I always felt that raters valued physical fitness over any other skill. Sure, they evaluated leadership, but it all felt a lot like Moneyball: battalion and brigade commanders looked for people who looked good in a uniform, and could run--the two skills over-valued in baseball too.

The selection of officers had this same bias. In ROTC, fifty percent of the evaluation criteria is grade point average, but physical fitness still affects something like 25% of the rest. Besides GPA, ROTC doesn’t test its students on any other academic standards. At advanced camp in the summer--where cadets are tested on physical fitness, leadership, land navigation, and marksmanship--Cadet Command doesn’t test them on military history, writing, doctrine or any other intellectual skill.

And the Army writ large doesn’t test academic learning. Only one badge (worn on the uniform) really tests its students on mental thinking, the Pathfinder badge. All the other “hooah schools” have elaborate physical fitness hurdles, not mental. (I will admit, Jumpmaster school has a strong academic component, but it is also about just getting in the jumps.) Think Ranger, Airborne or Air Assault schools. Ranger School (accurately) bills itself as a leadership academy, but it gets press for the physical challenges. Meanwhile, graduating in the top ten percent of one’s Basic or Advanced class doesn’t get much as much praise.

This translates into hobbies. Most of my peers ran marathons or trained in mixed martial arts. Too few wrote papers for academic journals; even the ones that are published often seem like mandated tasks from battalion commanders, or the paper written for ILE, not a desire to share. (Eric C’s favorite example: we were turned away when Frost/Nixon came to our base at Vicenza, because there weren’t enough people to show the film. We used our free tickets on Fast and Furious, which was a packed house.)

(Starbuck is the fantastic exception to this. Same with Mike Few and Douglas Pryer. But how rare are those dual bloggers/officers?)

In the end, the military needs balance. Officers need physical and mental fitness. The Army needs physical and mental fitness. But the pendulum has swung too far--in my opinion--in one direction.

As a result, the Army still cannot crack the foreign language training nut. Every year or two the Army releases a report describing our failure. Yet, ten years into these wars, two wars in nations speaking foreign tongues, we still don’t field enough language trained soldiers. (I wrote about this before. So has the SWJ, multiple times) As a result, we have to rely on contractors to fill the gap, a huge fiscal and counter-intelligence weakness. At some point, the Army should acknowledge that the problem isn’t a lack of funding, or bad planning, but a flaw in the culture.

So let’s bring it back to myself, and why I got out. I am better with my mind than I am with my body. At Infantry Basic course I got pretty swoll. I took down Ranger School. I ran a 12 minute two mile. (Once.) I ran a sub-seven minute five mile. But I probably won’t ever get back there. If I am great at anything, it is writing. I excel at that, and analyzing problems. I probably won’t ever excel at physical fitness. If I wanted to make even Battalion Commander in the Army, I feel like I would need to excel at physical fitness, and my writing wouldn’t really help--if anything it could hurt.

I’ll always stay in shape. (I love playing competitive basketball for example.) But I can’t devote time to excelling at physical fitness. Nor do I want to. Instead, I need to find a culture where physical fitness isn’t one of or the top priority. I won’t find it in the military.

Nov 10

Since I’ve recently done a lot of Kafka re-reading--and, let’s be honest, one post on Kafka is just not enough--I threw together a post with some of my stray thoughts on Kafka and violence.

1. Read these Kafka stories about violence:

As I wrote last week, everyone knows about “The Metamorphosis”, but few people know about Kafka’s other works. These are my Kafka must read short stories about violence:

- First, of course, is “In The Penal Colony”. So, if you missed it, read my discussion of that story from last week.

- Second is the very surreal, very haunting short story “A Country Doctor”.

- Next, we have “An Old Manuscript” a short, haunting story about what happens when you invite the barbarians into the gates. More on this soon. Find a PDF here.

- Finally, “Jackals and Arabs” a story about Jackals, Arabs and violence. Which brings me to...

2. 9/11 ruined meaning.

Meaning changes, which is obvious. As society advances, changes, adapts, modernizes, the meaning behind old works of art changes. The modern viewer’s relationship to Renaissance art, which is mostly non-secular, is entirely different from the probably religious viewer in the 1500s.

Looking at art in the 21st century, 9/11 changed everything. I can’t think of another artist’s work whose meaning changed so dramatically following 9/11 as I can with Kafka’s "Jackals and Arabs". (Actually I can. Off the top of my head, Camus’ The Stranger is a great candidate. Any piece of work from Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. That crappy Denzel Washington terrorism film or Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. Or anything mentioning Muslims in a pre-9/11 context. Or anything written by any Muslim writer anywhere, at any time.)

Which is the point: 9/11 changed everything, including the Western world’s understanding of Muslims, Arab and Islam. Any latent meaning those groups held as symbols changed radically when the planes hit the towers. (Yes, an argument could be made that it wasn’t 9/11, but the Western world’s reaction to 9/11 that changed this meaning--i.e. blaming Islam, not radical Islamists--but that’s another post entirely.)

In the case of “Jackals and Arabs” (It’s very short. Read it here.) the meaning of “Arabs” has obviously changed. In short, Jackals approach a European during his visit to Arabia, and ask him to kill the Arabs with an ancient pair of scissors. Before 9/11, everyone would fear and despise the Jackals. Now, some Americans would root for them.

Another change. It’s possible to read the story as an analogy between the Jews and Muslims, but Kafka wrote “Jackals and Arabs” twenty years before Israel was created, and, as most people don’t know, Muslims didn’t hate Jews before the creation of the modern state of Israel. Most major Islamic cities had Jewish suburbs in them. Even though some Muslims probably disliked the Jews--I’m sure there was tons of anti-Semitism--Christians were a bigger threat to the Jews than Muslims. Hitler proved that pretty definitively.

Reading “Jackals and Arabs” today, I’m not sure I can even understand it. Still fascinating, its original meaning has been totally lost.

3. Is “Jackals and Arabs” racist?

I had a friend read the story recently, and he thought it was really racist. I disagree. For one, the Jackals, the racists in the story, are just characters. For two, both sides--the Jackals and the Arabs--hate each other, and are unjustifiably cruel to one another: The Arabs whip the Jackals for fun; the Jackals vainly try to murder the entire Arab race.

I’d offer a more complex reading of the story. This story isn’t about culture, but rivalry. it’s about cycles of violence. At least, that’s what I think. The glory of Kafka is that there isn’t one meaning. So like last week, read the stories and enjoy. Good luck in figuring them out. They call it Kafka-esque for a reason.

Nov 09

(On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

In Ranger School, the students being evaluated during the day dread the time after the platoon tucked in for the night. While everyone else started sleeping/pretending to pull security, they desperately wondered, “Did I pass or fail?”

The Ranger Instructors (RI) couldn’t tell you that so they used code words. (I realize I just launched into a “when I was in Ranger School” story. So our readers know, while most people went to Ranger School when it was “still hard”, I went to the first “easy” class.)

The next day, the RI and the student would wander into the woods and he would preceed to evaluate your performance. (It’s not as sexual as it sounds.) If he complemented your leadership, like “you clearly controlled the situation”, you probably passed. Same if he praised your briefing skills and said your plan was “tactically sound”.

If, on the other hand, he praised your ability to “instill morale”, watch out. You probably failed. Pack your bags. I mean, no one wants bad morale, but if morale was the best you did, well buddy, I feel sorry for you. No one can judge morale. Leaders--and this applied to ROTC evaluations too--only have so much control over morale. Especially when they take over for a period of a few hours.

Like in sports. Teams with “great locker rooms” always win a bunch of games. But teams that win a bunch of games “have great locker rooms”. It feels like a “chicken or egg” conundrum: what came first, the locker room or the winning? Same with morale. Did your patrol go well because of great morale, or do you have great morale because the patrol went well?

As a result, most management advice avoids morale-type issues. Sure, books and articles will say, “improve morale”, but they don’t tell you how. Turns out, being a good leader who values inter-personal communication with their team, will improve your morale. (This kind of reminds me of Michael Scott buying his office ice cream to boost morale. Michael Scott buying his office ice cream is a palliative for the larger sickness that is his terrible management.)

That said, I have one piece of advice to improve morale. (Besides improving your management and inter-personal communication.) If you are on a team or leading it, give your team a nickname. Yep, I just said,

“Give your team a nickname.”

At every school I attended, I tried to give my squad a nickname. ROTC was DEFL. (The meaning of which is secret.) At IBOLC, we were “the fire team of excellence.” (At Ranger School, we were too beaten down to care.) At the MICCC, we were “Awesome Squad.”

Does this sound silly? Sure, but espirit de corps goes a long way. I mean, brigades, battalions, companies and some platoons have nick-names, slogans, flags, logos and mottos for a reason. The Army already does this really well. That’s why I can list team names right next to my unit names. Fourth Platoon. Destined Company. Battle Company. Blacksheep Company. The ROCK (there are no others). Sky Soldiers. The Legion.

Except that too many leaders stop at that level. Take this concept, and bring it to your platoon, squad, staff section or group of people. Try these steps:

1. If you go to a school of any type (Army or academic) and you break down into teams, bring up giving your team a nickname. I am serious, this will improve morale, or at least be the source of a bunch of jokes, which means happy people, which means better morale.

2. If your platoon doesn’t have a nickname, get it one. Don’t do this by yourself. (I am really talking to that eager, young lieutenant here) Take nominations and vote on it. Get your platoon sergeant’s input. I inherited a nickname--The Helldivers, diving into Hell to rescue lost souls--but that was straight from the platoon daddy. And it worked.

3. Get the platoon to buy in. Put it on a t-shirt. Put it on top of emails. Refer to it in conversation. It will catch on. Let everyone know that “BLANK Platoon” is the best platoon. Like in political dialogue, repeat something enough times and it will catch on.

4. Don’t forget your staff sections. The “S1 shop” sounds boring. And when I ran the S1, I hadn’t yet realized the strength of nicknames. I wish I had given us one. A section that believes in itself, will perform like it believes in itself.

5. Use a name you can tell your mother. In the Starbucks on Fort Campbell, I saw a shirt for a Battalion Personal Security Detachment that used the f-word on it. There were kids behind the soldier wearing it, reading the f-word. That will bring discredit on your unit. (This battalion was in the Rakkasans...so yeah.)

Everywhere I employed the nickname technique worked. Even the haters would eventually start emails to the group titled, “Awesome Squad” or “Fire Team of Excellence.” Instructors often called our unit by its nickname. Other squads or team would make rival nicknames.

Positive morale spreading like a virus.

Nov 08

(On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

Imagine two fighting positions--trenches, foxholes, et cetera--in the defense. In the first position, the soldiers sit around waiting for the enemy while their position looks like a teenage bedroom. The soldiers only put up one roll of loosely staked-in concertina wire, dug two foot trenches and barely worked on their fox hole. Trash litters the area.

The other fighting position has triple stacked concertina wire with stakes every three meters (My sapper friend will probably chime in with the exact specifications in the comments.), fox holes dug to chest height, and organized, clean trenches. The second position also has natural camouflage the soldiers put up and they are currently digging alternate fighting positions.

How would you judge the soldiers in each of those positions? How would you judge their NCOs? How would you judge their officers?

The first fails at life; the second might get impact AAMs (an award in the Army). Ranger Instructors evaluating patrol bases would fail the first pair and pass the second. So would commanders visiting COPs, FOBs and VPBs in Afghanistan. We evaluate fighting positions on their cleanliness, defensive strengths, and whether soldiers are actively improving them.

Now pause and imagine the desk in your office (or workspace). Does it resemble the good fighting position or the bad one?

In ROTC, one of the NCOs, a grizzled Master Sergeant, who had jumped into Panama, explained to me four words that differentiate good defense from bad defense:

“Improve the fighting position.”

It applies to squads, platoons, companies, battalions and brigades in the defense. First, get local security. Second, dig a small trench. Third, dig a deeper foxhole. Fourth, emplace obstacles and build alternate fighting positions. Fifth, dig a trench connecting the fighting positions. Constantly improve your fighting position. In a defensive battle, preparation replaces movement, so you can surprise the enemy.

Too few officers apply this sound infantry principle to their offices and work places.

When Eric C first showed up in Italy, I told him that we would execute a plan called, “Improving the fighting position”. No, the Germans weren’t invading; we were improving our apartment. It could always look better, or be better organized. It meant never saying, “Good enough”. My wife and I have a folder for our apartment labeled, “Improve the fighting position”. Make every work space or living area a fighting position (figuratively) and improve it.

While this could be taken metaphorically (constantly improve yourself, constantly improve your team), I mean literally improve the fighting position you occupy on a daily basis. A lot of this is based on “Getting Things Done” principles: the less clutter surrounding you, the less clutter clouding your mind. (In Eric C hippy-feel-good-terms: mental clutter actively saps will power.)

As a benefit, you will look more professional. Imagine a high power CEO. Gordon Gecko. Bruce Wayne’s desk in Wayne Enterprises. The CEO pretending to be Jeff Bewkes on Entourage. Their desks are pristine. They projected control and power over their work, and their companies. Do the same for your office. The vast majority of officers and staffs run offices, not fighting positions but they don’t take the care they would out in the field that they should in their S3, S2 or S1 offices.

Improve your fighting position today with these steps (which apply to all business people and manager and knowledge workers, not just military folks):

1. As I mentioned before, read Getting Things Done first chapter. Download the Manager Tools podcast called, “Decorating Your Desk”. And check out this blog post by MT.

2. If you are moving into a new office, take the weekend before to clean it out. During this weekend, don’t do anything related to work. Simply go through everything in the office to determine what you need and don’t. I don’t recommend having the previous officeholder help you; in many cases he is clinging to junk you don’t need. (More on that in a bit.)

3. If you are already moved in--or you already have an office--schedule a weekend on the calendar and go back to step 2.

4. Make a pile of every paper in the office out of every drawer, and off your desk. Preferably, make this pile outside your office. Actually, make it everything in your office short of furniture.

5. Go through everything and ask yourself, do I need this in my office? Compared to corporate America, the Army has more than enough space. If you don’t need/want it, it can probably go somewhere else. Ask yourself, how do I want to arrange my furniture? What do I want to hang on the walls?

6. Throw away the junk. The goals are getting rid of waste and detritus probably accumulated over years of hoarding. Here are examples I have found in my first S1 office, my second S1 office and as a  intelligence officer job:

- Awards dated before 9/11.
- Training videos on...VHS.
- Over a dozen inoperable printers.
- Four versions of the same manual, with the newest one on top.
- So many classified hard drives that they filled up an entire drawer.

That includes finding junk in lands as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq.

7. The most important step: schedule time to clean and maintain your office every week, and every month. Keeping a clean and organized workplace is exactly like maintaining a defensive fighting position. Do it right, then keep it that way. It doesn’t take a lot, some time on Friday to clean it up and have it good for the next week.

8. Brainstorm ways to improve your office on regular basis. Outside of tossing out the junk littering your office, this is the most important piece of advice. Constantly improve. Ask yourself, “Could this move here? Should I put this there? Should your desk be on a wall so that when you counsel soldiers you aren’t distracted by emails? (Yes.) Can you simplify a file system? Can you find a new bookshelf for the books sitting on a chair?”

The most successful people constantly self-critique and self-improve. Do this for your office too. Then judge your own office and staff section’s office. Is it a good fighting position? If not, start at step 1...

Nov 04

(To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, click here.)
   
Last month, Eric C and I wrote a post that had a bunch of links that either refuted, proved or updated ideas we have argued for and against on this blog. (To be fair, though, there’s a bit of self-confirmation bias going for most of the links.) Well, here we go again; we’ve decided to make it a monthly feature.

Update to An Army Level AAR

I followed a ”Best Defense” link to this Atlantic article where some smart defense thinkers propose a new commission to study the military and national security establishment’s response/conduct of the post-9/11 wars. They call it “The Commission to Assess the Long Wars”. I totally agree, and wrote as much in a post I called, “The Army Level AAR.” With long overdue cuts looming over the budget, the Department of Defense should prioritize its missions for the next generation. (We’ll have a post way in the future about how irregular/small/uncoventional/political/asymmetric wars are probably the wars of the future too.)

I do have one additional recommendation. I think that the commission should also host a group of thinkers who are under 40, specifically the junior officers/NCOs (and ex-officers and ex-NCOs) who blog and write about these problems. I would call this this "The Blogging Commission to Assess the Long Wars". Starbuck should chair, with Kaboom as co-chair, Mike F of SWJ definitely on board, some of the gents from Ink Spots, and the boyz at VAntage Point. That’s not an exhaustive list, but I would follow their recommendations.

The Continuing Decrease of Violence and “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?”

A long time back, Eric C discovered this brilliant TED lecture by Stephen Pinker about the decline of violence in the world. It, and John Horgan’s writing, prompted us to ask the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” We both tend to take the “optimist” viewpoint.

Well, in the last month or so, the optimists have gotten a lot of intellectual heft from several books. Stephen Pinker published The Angels of Our Better Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a book expanding the thesis of his lecture that violence has steadily decreased over the last millennium. (We plan to read, review, and then review the reviews of this controversial work.) Joshua Goldstein has a new book called Winning the War on War. He accompanied this with a “Think Again” piece in Foreign Policy on the decline of war. In both works, Goldstein argues that the frequency and severity of war has decreased. John Horgan is releasing a book called, The End of War in November, and we’ll try to review that as well.

Most importantly, after trolling around the YouTubes, we found video proof that humanity does have a starting point for warfare. Check it out.

Update to Terrorism and Iraq

A few months after we launched, Eric C and I wrote that the next terrorist attack would have ties to Iraq. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. We’ve seen a Nigerian, some Somalis and Yemenis acting up instead. However, this Danger Room article links to research claiming that the next terror attack will likely come from Iraq. I tend to agree. The war in Iraq radicalized a generation of young Iraqis. It would not stun me if one of them ends up attacking America.

Update to Military Whistle Blowers

In my series, “Why I Got Out”, I mentioned that the U.S. military hates whistle blowers, despite the obvious benefits for exposing fraud and corruption. This Battle Land post, “Why Military Whistleblowers Fear Reprisal”, cross posted at the Project for Government Oversight, describes exactly what I meant. Read the story carefully. Senior officers, under investigation for “vast corruption and malfeasance”, ended the cooperating soldier’s career--the person adhering to military values. That is a tragedy.

Department of Defense Waste

If Eric and I continue posting monthly update on our articles, we will just as often include a paragraph on Department of Defense spending. It seems like every day in Defense News or The Washington Post or The New York Times, some senior advisor for the Pentagon or some policy wonk from the Heritage Foundation bemoans how defense cuts will kill every baby in America.

On the other hand, there seems to be a weekly post in Battle Land or Danger Room about another fantastic weapons program failure. This month we saw an investigation into the safety record of the Osprey, the regrounding of the F-22, some senators calling out the Pentagon for terrible funding practices, and some other senators revealing that the Pentagon spent a trillion dollars with contractors charged or convicted of fraud.

Meanwhile, reconstruction from Iraq to Afghanistan continues to be marred by corruption. “Cross-Check” has this post on the money wasted rebuilding Afghanistan’s electricity, and Fresh Air interviewed Peter Van Buren about his new book called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

Update to Facts Behaving Badly

Finally, the awesome blog Polite Dissent--which weekly reviews the science behind House--verifies a fact behaving badly is truly behaving badly. We don’t only use ten percent of our brains.

Nov 03

Most people, when they hear the name “Kafka”, think of The Metamorphosis. Instead, they should think about “In The Penal Colony”. This is, understandably, an odd thing to argue; who really cares which story is better?

Except that The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s (in)famous story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has transformed into a cockroach, is infinitely more famous. Using the understandably odd metric of Wikipedia’s word count, The Metamorphosis rates 3,600 words. “In The Penal Colony” rates less than a thousand. Artists have created multiple films, stories and stage versions of The Metamorphosis; “In The Penal Colony” rates a song by Joy Division.

Sigh. This is a shame. “In The Penal Colony” isn’t just as good as The Metamorphosis; it’s better.

Why is The Metamorphosis more beloved? Theme, probably. As an allegory of modern life and alienation, all of us feel, at some point, that we are Gregor Samsa, alienated from our bosses and family and urban life. Modern readers can effortlessly relate to Kafka’s spare novella.

“In The Penal Colony” is something else entirely. It’s an allegory, but of what I’m not exactly sure. Pride, vengeance, punishment, violence, God’s relationship to man; it’s all in there to some degree.

For those who haven’t read it, a quick synopsis: The Officer takes an Explorer, a Guard, and a condemned Prisoner to see a demonstration of a punishment device, an intensely elaborate machine designed to punish prisoners with a marvelous (and horrific) torture: cutting the description of a “crime” into the backs of criminals. However, since a new Commander has taken over the penal colony, the machine has gone into dis-use, breaking down as the years go by, unrepaired and forgotten. After the explanation, the Officer reveals that he doesn’t intend to use the machine on the condemned Prisoner, but on himself. He enters the machine, and dies a brutal death.

The Explorer returns to the main city in the penal colony. He finds the old Commander’s grave, and reads an inscription about how, someday, the old Commander will return from death to the penal colony. The Explorer makes his way to a boat leaving the island. (Do yourself a favor and read the story here. It’s not too long.)

It’s a brutal story, haunting in its simplicity and terror. I love it because I can’t figure it out. (Which is another reason this story isn’t popular. People can figure out The Metamorphisis; No one can figure out “In The Penal Colony”.)

Some critics think it is an allegory of religion, that the Old Commander is God and the machine is man’s corruption of God’s word through religion. As a religious allegory, I think a better comparison is the battle between the God of the Old Testament--a God of vengeance and punishment, represented by the Old Commander and the punishment machine--and the God of the New Testament, represented by the New Commander, who refuses to use the machine--forgive your enemies of their trespasses.

But it can be read any way you want. You could look at it as a fable about pride. The self-righteous Officer, realizing his vanity (in the Ecclesiastian sense), throws himself into the machine because he failed to “Be Just”.

Or it’s a prescient fable about violence, my favorite theory and the reason I’m sharing it with On Violence readers today. The old morals and virtues--survival of the fittest, meted out through violence--are dying out. As society replaces prisons with correctional facilities and total war with population-centric counter-insurgency, as violence decreases over time, as civilization steadily replaces barbarism, the violent have no choice but to throw themselves into the machine. The Explorer, a European dignitary, despises the machine and its horrid philosophy, as most people view violence now. As Michael C wrote a few weeks ago, “war is war” is politically unfeasible.

Again, this is how I choose to read the story. Since it was written during World War I, I doubt this is what Kafka intended, but that’s not really the point. The point is: go read this story, come back, let’s debate.