Oct 15

Before last month’s “On V Update to Old Ideas” post, we hadn’t run one in months, but we’ve been collecting links the whole time. Prepare for a bunch of updates, sorted by theme. Today’s theme? Money.

We Don’t Need a Sequester to Waste Money

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that if the sequester went through, it would force the military to implement blunt budget cuts, which would waste money and (hypothetically) harm our soldiers in the future. (The go-to argument for anyone defending the military.) He neglected to mention that the Pentagon routinely makes terrible financial decisions. For instance...

...the Army is now literally junking the mine resistant vehicles that it spent billions shipping to Afghanistan instead of shipping them home.   

...the Army is constructing a headquarters building in Afghanistan, costing millions per month, which it plans to leave vacant.

...as it prepares to leave Afghanistan, an Inspector General report found billions of dollars in waste in only three months.

...Air Force officer Dan Ward writes that military contracting is so poorly managed, we don’t even know how bad we are at it.

When the military does contracting this bad, no one wins. Oh, except for defense contractors. They make lots of money. To fix the system, one assumes we need strong civilian leadership to rein in Generals and Admirals. Unfortunately, President Obama nominated military industry executive Deborah Lee James as Secretary of the Air Force. The revolving door between government and contractors continues to spin.

It also turns out that defense spending doesn’t provide the economic benefits many claim. Blogger, professor and zombie aficionado Dan Drezner has a new paper that debunks the idea that American military spending provides economic benefits to the world or America.

And that go-to-defense of military spending, “that it will hurt our men and women in uniform”? Friend of the blog Sven Ortmann delivers a marvelous pieces combining economics and military budgeting which debunks that notion completely. He asks, "How much should the U.S. spend to keep its soldiers safe?" and comes up with a number. For all the economists out there (or conservatives who claim to follow economics), you have to read this.

Contracting Money Influences the Debate

Since the NSA debate has triggered a lot of journalist-on-journalist attacks, we have avoided taking sides or commenting. (If our readers want to know our takes, wait until January...) However, we absolutely agree with Glenn Greenwald when he nailed the press--particularly Face the Nation--for not disclosing the financial self-interest of many pro-NSA commentators to its viewers, like General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA under President Bush. From Greenwald:

“But worse than the omission of Hayden's NSA history is his current - and almost always unmentioned - financial stake in the very policies he is being invited to defend. Hayden is a partner in the Chertoff Group, a private entity that makes more and more money by increasing the fear levels of the US public and engineering massive government security contracts for their clients. Founded by former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, it's filled with former national security state officials who exploit their connections in and knowledge of Washington to secure hugely profitable government contracts for their clients."

As we wrote in our coverage of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, many government officials exaggerate the threat of terrorism. While they sincerely believe in their work, they also have financial interests to do so.

An Update to Doing Aid Right

While this article on “The Matador Network” seems like a Reddit link bait scam, it accurately explains why dropping bombs of free t-shirts and shoes (as TOMS does) is terrible aid policy. The best part about the TOMS story is that I swear my entire business school loves TOMS. Literally, business school students take economics in one class, then give a presentation during communications advocating the TOMS model.

I, (Michael C), say this criticism as a solid moderate. I just think we should do aid/government/business efficiently and effectively. While business has built-in mechanisms for that, aid and government don't. The podcast Tiny Spark had done great work critiquing foreign aid, with a recent episode on Jeffrey Sachs’ Millenium Villages. I’ve advocated before for renewed U.S. foreign aid spending. I still want that, but our government must do it right, using controlled experiments, analyzing data and spreading it liberally.   

Why Does the U.S. Keeps Sending Weapons to Egypt?

Because of defense contractors.

Before Syria replaced Egypt in the news, there was a lot of discussion about U.S. aid to that specific country. For a primer and explanation on why that aid doesn’t make a lot of sense--because most of the money spent on Egypt goes to American defense contractors--listen to this excellent Planet Money episode, then shake your head.

Oct 08

For 42% of Americans, Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction when America invaded. They believe this because, after invading Iraq, the U.S. did indeed fail to find weapons of mass destruction. (Another 25% have no idea.)

The other 30% or so? Why do they still think Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction? Mostly, because they watch Fox News. They might, however, also read war memoirs by or about Navy SEALs.

A while back, Michael C found this tidbit in an article on Wired’s “Dangerroom” blog about the politics in Chuck Pfarrer’s non-fiction account of SEAL Team 6.   

“Author Chuck Pfarrer is taking flack over his account of the Osama bin Laden raid in his new revisionist history, SEAL Target Geronimo. But that’s overshadowed another big problem with the book: Pfarrer’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are absolutely bananas.

"To read SEAL Target Geronimo is to get sucked into a vortex of WMD insanity. Pfarrer says that Saddam Hussein had dangerous, active chemical, biological and nuclear programs up until the day of his downfall. Worse, those weapons made it into the hands of Osama himself. Why didn’t you know about it? Because craven politicians and the lying media hid the truth about what U.S. military weapons experts uncovered.”

Unfortunately, I’m not shocked. Why? Because this would only be the second book I’ve read by a Navy SEAL that makes this ridiculous claim. Yeah, I’m talking about Lone Survivor. Here’s what Luttrell and Patrick Robinson actually wrote about WMDs and Iraq:

“You may remember the CIA believed they had uncovered critical evidence from the satellite pictures of those enormous government trucks rolling along Iraq’s highways: four of them, usually in convoy, and all big enough to house two centrifuges. The accepted opinion was that Saddam had a mobile spinning program which could not easily be found, and in fact could be either lost and buried in the desert or alternatively driven across the border into Syria or even Jordan.

“Well, we found those trucks, hidden in the desert, parked together. But the inside of each one had been roughly gutted. There was nothing left. We saw the trucks, and in my opinion someone had removed whatever they had contained, and in a very great hurry.

“I also saw the al Qaeda training camp north of Baghdad. That had been abandoned, but it was stark evidence of the strong links between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden’s would-be warriors. Traces of the camp’s military purpose were all around. Some of the guys who had been in Afghanistan said it was just about a direct replica of the camp the United States destroyed after 9/11.”

When the movie comes out and people ask us, “Well, how bad is Lone Survivor actually?” I’ll respond, “Read this passage.” Luttrell not only argues that Saddam had WMDs, he argues that Iraq harbored Al Qaeda terror camps, which is so insane and so factually wrong words fail me. This is why we find Lone Survivor so distasteful.

So that’s it. Only two SEAL memoirs describe WMDs in Iraq...wait, what another memoir by a Navy SEAL repeats this claim? This example comes from American Sniper by Chris Kyle. (It’s also being turned into film.)

“At another location, we found barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons. Everyone talks about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they seem to be referring to completed nuclear bombs, not the many deadly chemical weapons or precursors that Saddam had stockpiled.

“Maybe the reason is that the writing on the barrels showed that the chemicals came from France and Germany, our supposed Western allies.

“The thing I always wonder about is how much Saddam was able to hide before we actually invaded. We’d given so much warning before we came in, that he surely had time to move and bury tons of material. Where it went, where it will turn up, what it will poison —I think those are pretty good questions that have never been answered."

Here’s another example, not as egregious, but still wrong, also from a book about Navy SEAL Lieutenant Patrick Murphy, SEAL of Honor.

“Saddam Hussein remained a threat for his refusal to allow international weapons inspectors to account for his known inventory of known chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction...”

If you have to repeat the word known twice in one sentence, that thing is probably not known.

Finally, from the book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Behm

“And in Iraq Adam remembered this photo of a Kurdish girl lying dead on the street, eyes open, after Saddam Hussein had gassed her whole town. All this argument about whether or not they had weapons of mass destruction--that was proof enough for Adam that they not only had them but that Saddam Hussein had used them against his own people.”

In conclusion, that’s five memoirs or non-fiction books--all about SEALs--by five different authors who all repeat the same, patently wrong information. I searched about 11 books or memoirs from Navy SEALs to research this post. About half of them repeated this patently false claim. Wow.

Don’t think that this has an effect? In an old post from My Pet Jawa (we'd link to it, but the site now redirects to an ad), the author writes, about Luttrell’s claims, “Maybe the libs should just try calling him a delusional chickenhawk warmonger who had no idea what he saw with his own two eyes.”

That’s my fear. When Lone Survivor and American Sniper open in box offices around the country, people will go out and buy these books. They’ll read passages like the ones above and say, “Huh. Saddam did have WMDs.”

And that’s how society remains misinformed.

Oct 01

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

As I writer, I think about mediums. Not psychics, but art mediums, wondering which ones will survive into the future. I ask myself, “If someone wants to write something that will affect the most people, what should they write?” In the 1300s, great writers wrote epic poetry. In the 1600s, plays. In the 1800s through the middle of the 2000s, novels.

In the 1950s, film became the most important art medium in the modern world. More people see films than read novels. More importantly, more people respect films than respect novels. I could discuss The Godfather or Pulp Fiction with almost anyone; good luck finding someone who’s actually read DeLillo’s Underworld. Few novels change the world these days. A few films do just that every year. (As far as other modern mediums go, TV came into its own in the early 2000s and video games are far, far too immature in content to even consider them.)

Which brings me to the series we’ve been writing for four weeks now: how do films handle counter-insurgency?

Not terribly well.

How do I know? Because we’ve already written about how Hollywood ignores counter insurgencies. In “The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood”, we describe Hollywood’s focus on the “decisive battle”, using Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Alice in Wonderland remake as examples:

“Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.”

Most insurgencies last decades; most films--chronologically--last a couple of days. Insurgencies rise and fall on the success of dozens of groups and actors; a film can only follow a few individuals. Counter-insurgencies most often end with a whimper (for example, the Iraq War); Hollywood films end with a bang. It’s why Return of the Jedi chronicled the final climactic destruction of the Empire while ignoring the Ewok insurgency that raged for years on the forest moon of Endor.

Which doesn’t mean there are no films about counter-insurgency. The guys at Kings of War made a fine list a few years ago, but take another look at their selections. Those films aren’t popular. And some of the movies--Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket--are technically about insurgencies, but not really about coalition building or coercing populations. And yes, The Battle for Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia depicted counter-insurgency masterfully, but how many Americans have actually seen those movies?

You could argue that Hollywood made a whole bunch of cinematically great, popular films about the Vietnam War--which was an insurgency--like Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and arguably Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

But those Vietnam war films perfectly illustrate what I’m talking about. First, most of those films depicted the experiences of soldiers, not the Vietnamese. Second, America stopped making Vietnam War films.

That’s right. Hollywood no longer cares about Vietnam. The last two major films about Vietnam were We Were Soldiers, released in 2002, and Rescue Dawn, released in 2006. World War II has so many films still being made about it, Wikipedia divides the article up by decade. George Clooney and Matt Damon have another WWII movie coming out this winter.

The absolute failure of most post-9/11 war movies proves the case. After wave and wave of failure, even the most successful film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker (net box office gross: less than $50 million) suffered at the box office...and it didn’t really cover counterinsurgency. Sure, filmmakers will someday make films--good, successful, accurate films--about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; I doubt they’ll cover counterinsurgency. They won’t have the time. (Lone Survivor touches on some of those issues, but I think you know how we feel about that.)

And like the Vietnam war, we won’t be making films about either war in forty years.

I wouldn’t make a film about an insurgency either. If Michael C and I had the opportunity, we’d make a film about Afghanistan, but it would depict a battle. Films can depict battles, not wars. The complexity of counter insurgency--virtually every insurgency--just can’t be covered in a two hour film. I’m not blaming Hollywood; I’m blaming the medium.