Dec 21

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

I prefer any form of narrative--TV show, film, comic book, novel, whatever--that avoids pitting a “good” protagonist against an “evil” antagonist. I can’t relate to the battle of good versus evil.

Which brings me to Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Both series root for the goodly protagonists (the American military, obviously, along with their trusty sidekicks the British and Australians) versus the evil antagonists, the Nazis and Japanese. It’s pretty obvious who Americans root for when they watch each series.

But as I pointed out in “Band of Brothers' "Why We Fight" or: No, That's Not Why We Fought” and “The Myth of the Good War: Band of Brothers “Points”, World War II, like every war that’s ever been fought, wasn’t that simple. For example, Stalin, our loyal WWII ally, was as evil a dictator as Hitler. Russia committed massive war crimes before, during and after World War II. America interned over 100,000 Japanese citizens and refused to take in Jewish refugees from Germany.

War isn’t simple, which leads me to my proposal for HBO’s next World War II era miniseries, should they ever choose to do one:

Eastern Front.

So far we’ve had Band of Brothers, from the perspective of the Army, and The Pacific, from the perspective of the Marines. Both cover Americans. Eastern Front will show the German and Russian soldiers, who did most of the fighting and dying in World War II on the deadliest frontline in world history.

Following a German platoon and a Russian platoon, we see the war take shape: the initial German surprise attack, Operation Barbarossa, which sets the Russians on their heels as local insurgents help the Germans. Midway through the series, we move to Stalingrad, with its starving population and under-supported Russian soldiers. We see the counter-attack, as Germans lose ground. We end with the Russians “raping Berlin”.

What happened on the eastern front intrigues me more, from a thematic perspective, than the traditional WWII narrative. Who do you root for? On one side, you have America’s enemy during World War II, the Germans/Nazis. On the other side you have America’s next enemy, the Russians/Communists that America would spend the next fifty years demonizing. The series would open detailing the cruelty of the Germans towards the Russians. The series would ends with those same Russians enacting cruel, cruel revenge. Both sides commit war crimes against one another, or themselves. (The Russians scorched their own land to prevent the Germans from using it.) Both countries were led by vicious dictators, who killed millions of their own people under corrupt ideologies.

I’m not the first person to propose something like this. Clint Eastwood, while writing Flags of Our Fathers, decided to reverse the lens and depict the Japanese experience on the same island. The resulting film, Letters from Iwo Jima, is the superior movie.

Is there any chance this miniseries could get made? Possibly. David Benioff, who currently co-created and showruns HBO’s hit drama series (and On Violence favorite) Game of Thrones, wrote the excellent novel City of Thieves about the Russian experience in Stalingrad. (Read On Violence’s glowing review here.) If there were ever anyone to work on this show, or at least produce it, it would be him.

On the other hand, I imagine HBO is in the business of making money, and a WWII miniseries from the perspective of the Germans (Nazis) or Russians (Communists) won’t make money.

Not to mention the worst part: the ending. Americans, as I endlessly complain about on this blog, view World War II through a glowing sepia-toned fog of remembrance that edits out all of our misdeeds. One of the things we forget (or ignore) is how messily World War II ended. In the second to last episode of Band of Brothers, the Americans punished the Germans by making the civilians bury the dead bodies from the concentration camps. The Russians, on the other side of the front, raped as many German women as they could, looted cities, and murdered Germans who surrendered. Instead of decrying the Holocaust, our allies, the Russians, murdered Jews as well.

It’s not simple, but its true. The other side of the coin we don’t see nearly enough.

Dec 19

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Yesterday I wrote about how Reagan “hated” our communist military, sarcastically inferring this from the fact that he hated the government. (The military, it turns out, is a part of that government.)

Weeks ago while I was writing yesterday’s post, “superstorm” Sandy happened. (For the record, I hate writing “superstorm” instead of “hurricane”. Let’s just call it a hurricane. Or “storm”.) In probably the most perfect summation of conservative love of the military, we often quote this joint anti-DADT statement by a number of milbloggers, which includes the line, “No other organization has...rescued more people from natural disasters”. Sandy proved that statement right again.

Then I read BlackFive contributor Deebow’s argument against Obama’s reelection:

“Just ask the citizens of New York and New Jersey how more government is working out on getting them back up and running after Sandy (and based upon this, I can't wait for government run health care).”

Apparently, the military isn’t very good at responding to natural disasters as conservative milbloggers--including four writers at Blackfive--had claimed. According to this quote, the response to hurricane Sandy was a disaster.

Wait, did anyone else help out in response to hurricane Sandy?

Oh yeah, veterans groups and local national guard units, which I know, because those links come from BlackFive.

By writing, “Just ask the citizens of New York and New Jersey how more government is working out on getting them back up and running after Sandy”, Deebow called the National Guard, reserves and veterans groups, like Operation Rubicon, incompetent.

Deebow could argue that it was all the non-government people who kept the situation from falling apart. But isn’t the National Guard still a part of the government?

And what about Team Rubicon, a group of veterans who ply their skills in disaster areas? If Team Rubicon was an example of the private sector out-performing the public sector, that begs the question: when, after leaving the government, er, military do veterans become competent?

Of course, Deebow doesn’t actually think the military is a failure. He just hates President Obama and grasped for the most recent example of (perceived) government incompetence he could find. (The highlight of the post where we found this quote is, “In this election, I don't think it is over dramatic to say that never before has America faced such a stark choice of moving toward the light of freedom, or turning toward 1,000 years of darkness...” Nope, that was over dramatic.)

Did he take the time to consider that the military--or veterans, or local National Guards--had responded to Sandy as well? No. But he (unintentionally) called them out as failures anyway, even though the National Guard and veteran’s groups performed exceptionally well in the disaster.

(And oh by the way, it turns out--despite Deebow’s assertions to the contrary--the American system, both public and private, is surprisingly effective at responding to disasters. Listen to the NPR’s Planet Money to get a taste of why.)

Dec 17

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Arguing for the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney argued, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

President Ronald Reagan would have disagreed. As he put it:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

We’re writing “Our Communist Military” to point out contradictions and logical incongruities that don’t make sense under close scrutiny. By uttering the above aphorism, Reagan (unintentionally) made the point that our military shouldn’t invade other countries. It also shouldn’t help people.

The military is, after all, one of the only departments of the government that actually shows up and says, “Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." As conservative milbloggers put it in their joint “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statement, “No other organization has...rescued more people from natural disasters”. I mean, how many other departments in the government can even rescue people from natural disasters? FEMA? (I originally wrote this pre-Hurricane Sandy. More on that disaster tomorrow.)

This incongruity can be represented by the follow logic chain:

A. Conservatives hate the government.

B. The military is part of that government.


C. Conservatives hate the military?

Did Reagan hate the military? No, he campaigned for increased defense spending, and when he was elected, he did just that. Do conservatives hate our military? No, they don’t. I opened my post “The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?” with three over-the-top pieces of praise for the US military; each quote praised the military as the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. Two of those quotes came from conservatives.

The problem is imprecise language. Reagan probably meant to say, “The fourteen most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from a non-military branch of the government, and I'm here to help," but that kind of ruins the punchline.

Milbloggers have the same problem. Not to poke the bear again, but the same day that the writers over at This Ain’t Hell (who are fine people despite our ideological differences) went nuts over our post, “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”, Jonn Lilyea posted an article titled, “I’m shocked to discover that the government is incompetent”. Did he mean to write, “I’m shocked to discover that the (non-military part of the) government is incompetent” or does he really think the military is incompetent?

Because you can’t talk about the federal government without talking about the military. The military represents 20% of the government’s budget, over 50% of its non-discretionary spending, and 36% of its workers. You can’t cut it out of the “government incompetence pie” without taking away a lot of pie.

I could spend all day writing about this inconsistency. Instead, Michael C brought up a point while I was editing this post that made me rethink the whole thing. “Maybe,” he told me, “Some conservatives would say, ‘Yeah, but we don’t want a military that’s effective at helping people. We want other countries to fear us and think we’re going to kill them.’”

Looking at Reagan’s quote this way, it’s much scarier. Even creepy. Reagan didn’t say anything about competence, just the ability to inspire fear. Our military terrifies the civilians of every other nation when they invade. They fear for their lives. And fear inevitably creates insurgencies. And insurgencies kill soldiers.

That means the government can be good at one thing: scaring people. So the government can do something right...but I feel like I am trapped on Mobius strip of let’s end this thing now and sum up with, according to Ronald Reagan’s logic, taken at face value, we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

Dec 13

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

Here’s a question we’ve haven’t received but might as well answer: are you going to do a series of posts on The Pacific?

Ah, The Pacific, Band of Brothers’ sister mini-series. The short answer is no. Why? A few reasons:

1. People may be tired of reading about Band of Brothers. We’ve only got two posts left after this one, but we’ve been writing about Band of Brothers for seven months now. We don’t want to do (at least) 10 more weeks on another mini-series.

2. We want to stop writing about World War II. As I wrote about in my post on “Points”, I dislike America’s hyperfocus on World War II, which celebrates a good versus evil triumphalism that ignores the ugly nature of most wars. Other wars deserve more attention; World War II needs less.

3. The Pacific just isn’t as intriguing. When I first proposed this series to Michael C, I came up with four ideas linked to four episodes of Band of Brothers off the top of my head. He had another three. I’ve got nothing for The Pacific.

4. Michael C hasn’t seen The Pacific and doesn’t have time in business school.

5. Most importantly, I didn’t really like The Pacific. In lieu of a series, I’m going to review The Pacific today, sharing some stray thoughts and opinions on what worked in the series and what didn’t. And if I’m being honest, I didn’t like a lot of it.

The Good:

Leckie. Just a brilliant character. Literary, aware and shell shocked, his journey fascinated me. Then he exits the series five episodes in. I wish the whole series had followed his journey.

The scene from episode five where the boats leave the ship. The best clip I could find is this British trailer:

Just brilliant.

Snafu. Oh my god Snafu. I have no idea if this character is based on real-life or not. Allegedly it was, but Rami Malek’s brilliant portrayal is be based on anything other than great acting. Take, for example, this exchange, as Snafu smokes a cigarette in front of a “No Smoking” sign and watches the new guys clean out barrels:

Snafu: “You assholes are gonna miss cleanin' out oil barrels pretty soon. You gonna be humpin' up some fuckin' hill...or across a beach, Japs pourin' shit for fire, pissin' your pants, cryin' boo-hoo, wishin' you were back here with nothin' asked of you but to scrub oil outta drums.

Bill: Why don't you grab a brush and give us a hand?

Snafu: Fuck that shit, I scrub drums for no man.

Sledge: Can we take a break?

Snafu: Do whatever you want, this ain't my detail. I was supposed to dump y'all off here and report back to the C.P.

Oswalt: Then why're you still here?

Snafu: I like to watch the new guys sweat.


The episode in Australia. I’ve never seen a cinematic depiction of Australia during the war, but I could have watched three more episodes of the marines there. It just worked for me, as a viewer.

So that’s the good. Not a lot of it. Which brings us to...

The Bad

The Pacific suffers from inherent structural issues; the series had no narrative consistency. Band of Brothers had an amazing self-contained story of one company that landed on D-Day, fought in Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and ended up liberating a concentration camp. All with the same characters and a catchy title.

The Pacific is a loose mash-up of three stories that kind of follow each other, all under the banner of The Pacific. As I wrote earlier, my favorite character disappeared midway through the mini-series.

Worse yet, I hated Eugene Sledge, one of the two main characters. He’s whiny and he always seemed to be doing the thing he knew he should be doing as opposed to just doing it. This is an odd criticism to write about a character in a TV series based on a real person, but everything he did was so cliched. He couldn't go to war because he was 4F, so he pouts. Cliche. He finally deploys, and he has no idea what’s going on! Cliche. A pretty girl ladles him soup after he returns from battle, and he looks at her like she has no idea what he just went through! Cliche.

Compared to Leckie, who never does the cliched thing, Sledge always did the obvious thing, which means that half of the series just didn’t work for me.

Worse yet, I didn’t get any ideas form the series, mainly because it didn’t ask the same big questions that Band of Brothers asked.

In the end, that’s The Pacific’s worst failing.

Dec 12

Update to Drone Strikes

In our series, “Intelligence is Evidence” we expressed plenty of skepticism about America’s ability to accurately and justly target suspected terrorists with drones. Fortunately, President Obama--probably in reaction to the chance he could have lost the election; probably not due to continuing skeptical press coverage like here, or here, or here, or here--has decided to roll out a new “rulebook” for its so-called “kill list”.

Better late than never, though it still isn’t enough.

Update to the World is Less Dangerous

Inspired by John Horgan and Stephen Pinker, Eric C and I track the statistic of global violence. Whether on terrorism or deaths by war, we have concluded--based on the mountains of data supporting our position--that the world is getting less dangerous. The last few months have provided more supporting evidence. The numbers--again quantitative data not emotional arguments--also indicate that the biggest threat to Americans is gun violence, not terrorism.

- This National Journal article shows how little money the U.S. spends on preventing gun violence compared to terrorism (though gun violence kills far more people). Similarly, this article in New York Magazine lays out the shocking frequency of shooting sprees as opposed to terror attacks.   

- The National Counter Terrorism Center found that only 17 Americans died of terrorism [pdf] in 2011.

- The State Department released a similar report. It found similar low double digit deaths of Americans by terrorism.

- On the anniversary of 9/11, John Horgan reviewed the exaggeration of the terrorist threat.

- Stephen Walt--who we have relied on before in this field--again muses that we have inflated the risks of terrorism for funding purposes.

- And finally, in a shocking moment for Eric C, On Violence agrees with George Will. On ABC’s This Week a while back, he said that, “The world's always dangerous and all that, but the chance of dying on this planet from organized state violence is lower than it has been since the 1920s.” As he notes, there are protests all over the Middle East, but protests “beat the heck out of war.”

Update to Iraq War Repercussions

Though the national debate remains focused on Afghanistan, violence continues to plague Iraq. One of our favorite blogs, Musings on Iraq, hasn’t forgotten about that conflict. Check out the posts, “Iraq’s Insurgents Have Grown Deadlier Since U.S. Withdrawal” and “Iraq Remains A Deadlier Place Than Afghanistan” to read about continued violence.

Update to Both the Green Revolution’s Neda and the Whistleblower Protection Act

If you haven’t had a chance, check out last week’s On The Media episode, which covers both the woman who the media mistakenly thought was Neda Soltan and the new Whistleblower Protection Act. Expect more on the issue of “chasing the news” during next month’s “On V’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affair Event of 2012”.

The Feds Just Can’t Do Anything Right...Except Overseas!

As we’re exploring in “Our Communist Military”, conservatives cannot decide whether or not government is effective. For instance, during the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the Arab spring (lump this into the both-sides-of-the-aisle-use-foreign-affairs-to-score-cheap-political-points category). He then campaigned on a small government platform, claiming that the federal government can’t do anything right. As Andrew Sullivan wrote:

“It's more evidence of Republican incoherence: the government can't be trusted to intervene in Texas because it is too far away and the feds are incompetent. But Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? Why don't we control them directly from Washington?”

Or from Greg Scolete:

“But this leads to the absurd assumption implicit in the criticism of the administration: that the U.S. federal government can deftly finesse the direction of Middle East politics in the 21st century. Particularly for those who profess a love of "limited government" it seems rather farcical to claim that the same incompetent government that can't be trusted to balance the budget can reach across the ocean and create a Middle East more to its liking.”

Update to Hypocrisy of SEALs Continued

Since we first wrote about how special operators have run rampant with self-publicity and the corresponding OPSEC violations, the Navy SEALs as a group have decided to 100% avoid needless self-promotion. Oh, except for this video game.

The self-promotion is so rampant the Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman wrote an entire article about Hollywood’s allure for special operators and how this might damage the force in the long run.

Update to How The Ain’t Hell responds to Criticism

First off, check out this great post, “The Rank Hypocrisy of Veterans on OPSEC”, by Jason Fritz at Ink Spots. It echoes our thoughts on SEALs criticizing the Obama administration’s leaks but ignoring their own OPSEC violation.

But what’s more interesting is how John Lilyea of This Ain’t Hell fame responded.

When we wrote the post, “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”, Lilyea didn’t like what we had to say. “Obviously with a title like “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs” the author was just trolling for us to link to him. It’s a great tactic, since apparently no one reads the thing anyway, and he’s achieved his goal. Bravo!” At some point, Lilyea complained that he only found out about our post because someone emailed it to him.

When Jason Fritz criticized This Ain’t Hell in “The Rank Hypocrisy of Veterans on OPSEC”, Lilyea again took offense. “Do you want to discuss this with me? Or is it better that you just take shots at me behind my back? You send the link to other milbloggers, but not me? Welcome to obscurity.”

He followed that with, “Well, I never heard of your little blog before someone sent me a link today, so how would I know you were writing about me? You took the time to send a link to another milblogger, but you neglected to include me in the discussion. This is a blatant attempt to garner traffic and it failed...You took the whole post out of context so you could call me names hoping that I would send my hordes.”

So if you disagree with This Ain’t Hell’s John Lilyea: 1. You’re doing it to get traffic. 2. You should really email Jonn Lilyea. 3. John Lilyea doesn’t read your blog anyways and neither does anyone else.

Dec 11

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Like TV shows, people in real life can jump the shark. General Petraeus jumped the shark when he took over command of Afghanistan. Brett Favre jumped the shark when he joined the Vikings. Today, we have to ask ourselves, are we jumping the shark? Because we’re about to argue that the universally beloved Toys for Tots charity is...


Last year, we were knee deep debating what Michael C dubbed “gratitude theory”--the idea that if you just give people things they will start to love you--when we realized that one of the best examples of “gratitude theory” in action is the Marine Corps Reserve’s charity Toys for Tots. Luckily for us, by waiting a year, we can also connect it to “Our Communist Military”.

Unfortunately, this probably-not-actually-evil charity drastically conflicts with the conservative military ethos. If troops don’t believe giving gifts does any good in Afghanistan, why give kids presents in America? What good will it do? And is there anything more liberal than a government organization redistributing toys from the rich to the poor? We’ll answer those questions, then conclude with the real problem behind Toys for Tots.

Gratitude Theory

The basic irony of Toys for Tots is that it something to someone. This isn’t altogether insightful, unless you’ve been following the debate over counter-insurgency. In short, opponents of population-centric COIN argue that simply giving people things--reconstructing infrastructure, giving medicine and aid, for example--won’t win the loyalty of foreign civilians. In a civil war, the thinking goes, only violence can make people fear you; they will never love you. (If you want specific examples, check out this series.)

Critics--like former Marine officer Bing West--have said it best, “counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its ‘core competency’ — violence.”

Unless we’re in America, in which case, the Marines Corps Reserves runs one of the largest, most visible charities in the country. Either giving people things is good or it isn’t, but you can’t hate on the Peace Corp in Afghanistan then give away toys for free when you return to America.

This contradiction exposes what marines and soldiers really dislike: irregular warfare. Soldiers and marines long for a simpler time when each side wore uniforms; when wars were won by maneuver. Those wars are long gone, but Cointras don’t realize that yet.

Our Communist Military

Of course, conservatives don’t hate charity. In fact, they give to charity more than liberals! (Actually, they don’t.)

But they do think that giving "stuff" away makes people lazy. Here’s the Republican standard bearer for 2012, Mitt Romney, describing his distaste for “takers”:

“Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”   

Well, what the hell is giving away free toys?

There’s an inherent contradiction here that I don’t think the conservative movement--as opaque, unwieldy and uncontained by one word as it can be--has addressed: how does a belief that government handouts makes people lazy square with charitable giving?

You can’t say 47% of the country just wants free stuff, you can’t call half of the country moochers and takers, and then support a charity that just gives away “stuff” (in this case, toys). You can’t write one blog post bemoaning the state of unemployment insurance, and then in later blog post write about Toys for Tots without criticizing it.
Giving free toys to poor people is definitionally redistributionist. And if you’re counter-argument is, “Well, Toys for Tots is a charity, not some corrupt government program,” you’d be wrong. It’s a non-profit run by the United Marines Corps Reserves. Technically, it’s a part of the federal government redistributing toys to “moochers and takers”.

Tell those kids who are getting all those handouts, er, toys, to tell their mooching parents to go get a job.

Symptom, Not the Disease

We do have an original critique for Toys for Tots, and any charity giving out toys to needy children: it addresses a symptom, not the disease. It doesn’t solve the problem.

To (ab)use an over-wrought parable, it gives a fish (toy) instead of teaching one how to fish (addressing that child’s parent’s poverty). As a result, giving away toys makes people feel good about giving, but it doesn’t address the actual issue. I have always wondered about the reaction of the kids getting free toys. “Oh sweet, I live in a car with my parents in the Walmart parking lot, but I got a Rubik’s cube. Thank you, Marine Corps!”

We’re not against giving children toys per se. And since one of our family friends throws a party every year where we have to bring a toy, we’ll end up doing it again this year. It’s just not the most effective form of charity.

We think conservatives would agree.

Dec 06

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

When I sat down to re-watch the final episode of Band of Brothers--when I went through the season this time, I re-watched this episode first--I already knew what I was going to write about:


More specifically, I wanted to connect the men of Easy Company to this age old tradition of war. In my mind, I had already connected this episode to a picture my dad had emailed to me and Michael C during the summer of 2003 of a soldier leaning back in a giant chair--allegedly in one of Saddam’s offices in one of his many palaces--his feet up on a giant dark-wood desk, smoking a cigar.

The photo offended me.

We invaded Iraq to find WMDs, depose a dictator, and bring democracy to a region ruled by a tyrant, not occupy palaces and light cigars. I can understand a soldier’s desire to celebrate, especially after nearly getting killed in an invasion--I just don’t want to see it. Images like those made the American military look like an invading army. They made us look like tyrants, not liberators.

But when I watched the final episode of Band of Brothers, “Points”, I couldn’t make the connection. First, I couldn’t find the photo my dad originally emailed me. Throughout the entire hour long episode, I googled various terms trying to find the image, but nothing came up. In fact, I couldn’t really find anything about excessive celebration in Iraq, save for a few news stories about General Tommy Franks smoking a cigar in one of Saddam’s palace.

And in “Points”, almost none of the Easy Company soldiers “plunder”. They celebrate, and my favorite character from the series, Captain Nixon, gets access to one of the greatest collections of wine in the world. A few champagne bottles popped here and there, but who can blame them? They’re drinking the very booze the Nazis plundered from the rest of Europe.

(Turns out I wrote the above paragraph too early. In the penultimate Band of Brothers episode, “Why We Fight”, Captain Speirs and other soldiers loot everything they can, Nixon throws a trash can through a store window, Americans quarter troops in the nicest houses in town, and so on. It’s ugly, but not horrifying; our soldiers don’t kill German men and don’t rape German women. Contrasted with the images of a concentration camp, the plundering barely registers on the viewer’s moral radar.)

Now, this could be an unrealistic depiction of Ally-controlled Germany--I doubt the surviving members of Easy company would brag about raping or looting--but for the most part, I think this episode presents the past accurately. German officers graciously surrendered to American officers, American soldiers acted politely, and we kept absolute chaos to a minimum. Hell, in the episode, the only people American soldiers kill are other American soldiers.

If I had to describe the closing chapter of Band of Brothers, the word would be “serene”. Absolutely, transcendently serene. Which brings me to my issue with this episode, this series and American cinema: focus.

American soldiers ended the war peacefully, swimming in rivers and drinking wine. But a few hundred miles up north, that wasn’t the case. The Soviets had just taken the majority of the casualties in World War II and they were out for revenge. That’s why German soldiers desperately wanted to surrender to Americans. For instance...

- The Soviets committed the worst mass rape in history, raping at least 100,000 German women, but more likely twice that amount.

- The Soviets killed over 600,000 German civilians, according to one study.

- In Demmin, 900 civilians committed suicide to avoid the war crimes of the Soviet Army.

- In some cities, the Soviets rounded up civilians and killed them by the hundreds, as happened at Treuenbrietzen.

As I wrote about last week, war is not simple. Most Americans want to define World War II as a battle of good versus evil, but America sided with a totalitarian, atrocity-committing, mass-murdering communist regime to defeat a totalitarian, atrocity-committing, mass-murdering fascist regime.

Since Band of Brothers only follows one company in one battalion in one division in the entire American Army--and since that company didn’t see the atrocities committed by the Soviet Army--the viewer doesn’t see the atrocities either. The episodes “Why We Fight” and “Points” perpetuate the myth of the “good war”. And this “good war” is used and has been used to justify every other American war since.

Except the atrocities of the Russians--who pillaged, raped and plundered to their hearts content--give lie to the good war.

Dec 05

(Today's guest post is by Matthew Timothy Bradley, a graduate student. Matthew does not claim to be an expert on the Sahel, military matters, or diplomacy, but he did once spend an afternoon in the custody of the Burkinabé military and he reads a lot. Follow Matthew on Twitter, Facebook or GooglePlus.

If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Any native of the Sahel is by definition a tough creature, but the honey badger is the toughest of them all. In addition to raiding bee hives, the honey badger's hobbies include eating cobras and attacking Cape buffaloes. But as tough as he might be, the honey badger still can't manage to stop the jackal from feeding on his kills when the jackal puts his mind to it.

On November 16th in Ouagadougou the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, hosted tripartite talks with leadership from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine, the two insurgent groups responsible for the ejection of government military and security forces from northern Mali early this spring.

Ansar Dine is the jackal to the MNLA's honey badger. Iyad Ag Ghaly founded the Ansar Dine after being denied a seat at the MNLA leadership table, and this spring Ansar Dine waited for the MNLA to do the hard work of evicting the inhabitants of Malian army garrisons before following on their heels to raise their black flag and impose sharia.

But Ansar Dine has nothing on Compaore, former friend and confidant of the most inspiring world leader you have never heard of, Thomas Sankara. The reason you have never heard of him is because his life and legacy were curtailed by an assassination organized by Compaore. When I visited Burkina Faso in the summer of 2010, I was told by a number of Burkinabé that Sankara and Compaore had been family friends and that Compaore's education had been subsidized by the Sankaras. I have yet to find documentation confirming that this was in fact the case, but I believe it fair to say that the circulation of the tale speaks a great truth regarding Compaore's reputation and integrity (such as they are).

A military confrontation in northern Mali seems imminent regardless of the outcome of the talks in Ouagadougou. But a military solution to the problem seems far less likely. To be sure, the in-the-works ECOWAS force should be able to wrest control of the Niger River basin from the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and the MUJAO. Running the three to ground in the arid region north of there is another matter, though admittedly one of lesser importance in the big picture. Larger concerns to my mind include the very real possibility of retaliatory attacks by Ansar Dine and the MUJAO in Bamako and other ECOWAS-member capitals (à la al-Shabab's attacks in Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya's role in AMISOM) and the adoption of a Global War on Terror paradigm in the region in the wake of the return of government control in northern Mali.

The people of Burkina Faso have a tough row to hoe as is. Their country is the kind of place many Americans would never live, but as someone who has visited both Burkina Faso and Ohio I would much rather live in Ouagadougou than in Columbus, but I digress. Despite the fact that the majority of Burkinabé are better global citizens than squeaky-clean Middle Americans—their consumer choices amount to fonio vs. rice rather than new flat screen versus vacation abroad, so their carbon footprint is helping offset ours, and their political duties don't include paying the taxes which underwrite a nuclear arsenal which has helped keep the world under constant threat of annihilation for going on seven decades now—they have received very little in the way of acknowledgment from the U.S. or any other nation over the course of their country's half century existence, not to mention material support. So seeing War on Terror money being spent there in a manner which might end up turning Burkinabé into the targets of reprisal attacks by Islamists is a tough pill to swallow.

There is no good reason to believe that the security situation in northern Mali is going to improve in the absence of military leverage. But hard power doesn't have to mean dumb power. At this point it is still possible for the Malian government to accept that the MNLA may have legitimate political grievances and to cease rhetoric which paints the secular MNLA as a jihadi movement and for foreign governments to be at pains that foreign internal defense not turn into the creation of a future military dictatorship.

The jackals are waiting in the wings regardless.

Dec 03

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

In Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (and technically Patrick Robinson) describe the Navy SEAL’s strategy for blending in with the locals in Afghanistan, “Each of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters."

Marcus Luttrell isn’t alone. Many special operators, intelligence spooks and soldiers (American, British and Canadian) deployed to Afghanistan think they can pull off this subtle camouflage technique. By simply growing a beard and wearing a scarf, a clean cut American instantly transforms into an Afghan, indistinguishable in a crowd.

Don’t believe me? To prove the point, we’ve created a game. In the following photos, see if you can pick out the special operators (both Special Forces and SEALs) hidden among the local Afghans:




Okay, you are probably tossing your hands up in the air right now, cursing my name, “Michael, how on earth am I supposed to pick out the special operators in those photos? They all look such like Afghans!”

I know, it’s tough. I mean, a six foot five white guy with gigantic arms and chest, desert patterned BDUs, an American M4 with a high tech scope, brand new American boots, Oakley glasses and body armor who grows a beard and wraps a scarf around his neck looks exactly like an Afghan. Invisible!

In defense of Marcus Luttrell, he didn’t invent this nonsensical form of “blending in”. Most of our special operators, the elite of the elite, believe that growing a beard helps you blend in with the population. It turns out that wearing the local clothes (not cool), learning the local language (really hard), using a foreign weapon (controversial, possibly illegal) or not weight lifting for a few months (heresy!) are the best ways to help an American blend in.

That and recruiting people of ethnic backgrounds. (Take a look at our special operations community to see how well that effort is going.)

So what if special operators grew beards? Even if it didn’t help the war effort, it’s not like it hurt it either. Well, maybe not. I worked with a contractor in Iraq who knew his intelligence shit. He did real good intel. (A bunch of us were watchin The Wire at the time. So The Wire people called each other “real police” as a compliment. He was real intel.)

He spoke Arabic. He had previously been a human intelligence collector with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him jokingly one day if he had grown out his beard to “blend in”. He laughed. He said that he’d asked his contacts (read: local Afghans) what they thought about beards. It turns out in Afghanistan, they don’t expect Americans to wear beards. They also don’t expect most white people to wear beards. In Afghanistan, they believed white people who grew beards were “Jewish”. So to “blend in”, American special operators made themselves look more Jewish to local Afghans.

I don’t know if this is 100% true, or even a widespread belief across Afghanistan, but it really makes you think about growing a beard in Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Do Muslims love Jewish people and Israel? Well, if the special operators of the world don’t know the answer to that...then we are in trouble.

If we lose in Afghanistan--and I now believe we will--the military should look at itself for the reasons why. That includes the “special” people too. Unfortunately, I don’t think the special operators will blame themselves. But I do. I mean, these guys ran around Islamic countries for years looking like this, and honestly believed a beard and a scarf helped them “blend in” when any American (and every Afghan) knew exactly who they were.

So why did they do it? The answer or non-answer to that question is why we lost in Afghanistan.