Dec 22

(Before we begin, as happens every holiday season, On V will be “On-V-cation” until January fifth.)

Welcome to our 700th post. Though we’ve been posting less frequently, we’re still adding to the collection. As we like to do every hundred posts, we’re sharing our best/favorite posts from the last 100.

To read more “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.

By the far the biggest, most popular series we’ve ever done was our “debunking/getting the facts out” about the Lone Survivor film and memoir. First off, find the comprehensive, 4,000-plus word comparison article here. We jumped at the chance to shrink that post down and sent it to Slate. In December, we analyzed Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, where he repeated many of the mistakes in the book, and we discovered a new mistake: that Ahmad Shah “killed 20 Marines the week before”. Finally, we detailed the appalling media coverage of the film’s release.

We also took on the mishandling of COIN in both the book and the movie.

To read all of our Luttrell/Lone Survivor articles, click here.

We finally got around to creating a home page for our “Getting Orwellian” series, now collected here. Our two favorite language posts were “Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech” and  “Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism”.

We also wrote about two wars that never happened in North Korea and Syria. On Syria, our favorite posts were “Syria-sly? or: the Media Coverage on Syria So Far” and “An Open Letter to Our Representatives on Syria”. Finally, Michael C wrote “I'm an Isolationist?”. Expect us to hit this theme hard next year.

On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013” last year was the NSA. Unfortunately, the government’s still fighting terrorism ineffectively and violating our civil liberties, so expect more on this as well.

Other prominent series included our “Our Belated Week (or Month) on the 2013 Oscars”, Eric C’s series on how “COIN is Boring”. And Michael C started, but hasn’t finished, “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security”.

To close, some of our favorite individual posts were “The Non-Traditional On Violence Reading List” and Michael C’s not-nearly-read-enough guest post “The Officer as Manager Reading List” at “The Best Defense”. We also like “(Non-Time Travel) Thoughts on "Looper"”, “America Looks Gross Naked” and “The Moral Argument Against War Validating One's Existence”.

Enjoy, and once again, thank you for everyone’s support.

Dec 17

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.

Dec 10

(Today's guest post is by Francis Conliffe. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

The current US approach to counter-terrorism is based on targeted kill-capture missions. This approach has been described as industrial counter-terrorism in Iraq, and is today associated with drone strikes and shadowy prisons, of which Guantanamo Bay is the best known. While this approach may be productive in terms of body counts, it is counter-productive in terms of image and international legitimacy. But there is an alternative approach.

During the 1990s, Yugoslavia imploded in a horrific civil war fraught with war crimes and atrocities. In 1993 the United Nations called for establishing an international tribunal to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, resulting in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal Yugoslavia.

This court had little actual prosecution to do at first as the General Framework Agreement for Peace, also known as the Dayton Accord was not signed until 1995. The Accord called for a “safe and secure environment,” and compelled the three signatories (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) to “cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Those responsible for violations became known as “Persons Indicted For War Crimes” or PIFWCs. Little traction was gained at first, as the three parties had little incentive to turn in and prosecute their own people, and the United Nations Protection Force was not pursuing war criminals. The NATO Stabilisation Force (SFOR) which came into effect in 1996 had the mandate to “provide a 'safe and secure environment',” and noted that “the presence of PIFWCs is a major obstruction to the peace process.” But there was a problem: American forces were initially reluctant to pursue war criminals, retaining bad memories of man hunts in Somalia, and saw the exercise as counter-productive to the mission.

While a number of PIFWCs actually turned themselves in, it was not until 1997 that SFOR started actively pursuing PIFWCs. This activity was the domain of coalition special forces, who would conduct snatch missions. Prisoners were then handed over to Military Police, received medical examinations, and upon arrival at The Hague, received legal counsel. It is worth noting that this was not some “soft” police-style mission. A number of PIFWCs were killed while resisting capture.

The Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal, Louise Arbour, pushed hard for SFOR to pursue war criminals. She noted that the legal process is “a process whereby if we are successful, we will assist a people in letting go of what it believes to be its war heroes, by exposing them as criminals.” The trials have proved to be an effective way of bringing reconciliation to the war-torn region and bringing justice to those who have committed egregious crimes. As noted above, not all indicted survived to see trial. Further, not all who were tried were convicted. Numerous parties have criticised The Tribunal for expense and bias, but no criminal system is without critics. There would be harsher criticism if all indicted were simply executed.

The US used to approach terrorism as a criminal problem. This approach was criticised as leading to conflict between Defence and Justice, with the DoD excusing itself from the problem and Justice lacking the resources to really pursue terrorists.

That has clearly changed in recent years, and perhaps the DoD has now taken too much of a lead in the process. DoD has demonstrated the capability to pursue individuals. It may be time to marry that capability with a judicial capability, modeled on the ICTY, in order to bring terrorists to legal justice. It is not too late to adjust course on the approach to counter-terrorism, and a more law-based approach would earn back much legitimacy that has been lost in a decade of secret prisons, torture and targeting boards. It would also result in a more transparent way to view those involved in terrorism, bringing clarity to the respective importance of each accused individual. Just as some of the PIFWCs facing trial at The Hague were low level operatives, while others were the “masterminds” and instigators, so too some accused terrorists are simple foot soldiers while others are key leaders. Currently, they are all treated the same way, facing at best a life in limbo in questionable prison, or at worst facing death by RPV strike.

The USA could change the narrative of the war by bringing these people before trial and, as Louise Arbour stated, exposing their supposed heroes as criminals.

Francis Conliffe is an Armour officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Dec 01

(To read the entire "Getting Orwellian” series, please click here.)

To stand out in the crowded field of foreign policy sites, the editors of War on the Rocks, when launching their new website, promised to approach all topics from the perspective of “international relations realism”. I wish them well. Though I tend to come from the other side of the international relations theory spectrum, I find parts of realist theory fantastically useful, particularly the blogging of Stephen Walt.

Part of me also sighed. Seeing the word “realism” reminded me how much I hate that term in national security debates. I wish I had the power to rename that entire branch of international relations theory.

Why? Because “realism” means so much more than just one branch of IR theory. Since I don’t want to take us down an uber-wonky rabbit hole, I want to quickly define realism. Fortunately, War on the Rocks does a good job of that in a post explaining their site:

[realism] is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power. À la Morgenthau, we understand power as “anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man …. from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”

See that definition? It isn’t bad and (according to the wisdom of crowds) it defines the discipline fairly accurately.

Except War on the Rocks then precedes to confuse their IR realism with being realistic:

“Our realism is not merely theoretical, but is rather a perspective earned through experience and reasoning. We are not reasoning backwards from a blind ideological position.”

This is the part of the phrase “realism” I hate: some Realists use the name of their sub-discipline like a club on international relations liberalists (like myself), pacifists (like Eric C), Democrats (by Republicans), people who oppose increasing defense spending (by lobbyists or mouthpieces of lobbyists), or the proponents of the hypothesis that the world is increasingly violent.

International relations realists--or anyone using the term “realist” in a foreign policy debate--benefit from the convenient fact that their sub-discipline of international relations happens to share the same etymology as another word, “realistic”. In debate, international relations realists and neo-conservatives both use the phrase “realism” to mean, “grounded in reality” interchangeably with “analysis using power politics as the base”. They take advantage of a rhetorical quirk: in foreign policy terms, the opposite of realism is liberalism; linguistically, the opposite of realistic is naivete (at best) or unrealistic (at worst).

And honestly, “realism” is better than “idealism” in colloquial English. A realist accepts the world for what it is; an idealist aspires to a different world. Idealists are dreamers; realists are men of action. Foreign policy tends towards the latter; the American voting public favors the latter as well.

But that isn’t what “international relations realism” is. Realist IR theory sees the world and nation states in a balance of power struggle...and generally conduct their analysis through that lens. As smart theorists--like my aforementioned favorite Stephen Walt--have written, neither side has won the intellectual war. If they had, there wouldn’t be a debate. Instead, each side has its own data, arguments and intellectual foundations.

But that won’t stop a pernicious breed of IR theorist--and opportunistic politicians and pundits--from claiming the “realism high ground”. To differentiate them, I call them “real-world-ists”. These pundits and politicians love to insist their viewpoints come from “the real world”, especially as opposed to isolated “ivy tower academics”. Bad “realists” mix up their philosophy of IR theory with phrases like, “realist”, “reality” and “realistic”, while criticizing their opponents as “naive”, “unrealistic”, “idealistic” and “head in the sand types”.

I can’t fix this problem, but I can point it out. Embracing one branch of the ideological spectrum of IR theory doesn’t make your beliefs more accurate or descriptive of the real world. Even if your theory is named, “realism”.

Dec 01

We continue our quest to clear out stored up links to old ideas. (Expect a lot more next year.) Enjoy!

Muslims are Speaking Out

Last month, John Mikolajczyk wrote a guest post for us, “Good Muslims vs. Bad Muslims”, pushing back against the idea that there is a “lack of push-back against Islamic extremism worldwide” from the Islamic community. Recently, NPR’s On the Media explored two different ways that Muslim communities in America and England have also pushed back against violent extremism. OTM confirms what Mikolajczyk wrote for us: Muslims are speaking out against violence in their name.

The Video Game-Military-Industrial Complex

Last year, Eric C wrote about how the lack of COIN-centric video games. (The sub-title isn’t serious.) The article, "Four Times the Army has Tried to Turn War into a Game", by David Axe of War is Boring (now on Medium.com) describes the Army’s four attempts at making a video game. Each time, a budget-conscious voter could ask, “Why does the Army need to make a video game for the general public?”

To Eric C's point, none of these games seriously take on or address counter-insurgencies, only tactics and squad maneuvers. Man, the military really isn’t going to embrace COIN.

War with Iran

Two years ago, reviewing the case against starting a war with Iran, we pointed out the threat to huge U.S. capital ships--the biggest and most numerous in the world--from anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. The article, "Mystery Weapon Terrifies Armials", in War is Boring describes how China has spent considerable amounts of cash and time perfecting these missiles. While the article doesn’t mention Iran by name, when it comes to irregular seafare, Iran is always involved.

Since we last wrote about Iran, the country has continued to not attack its neighbors, continued to not have a nuclear weapon, and continued to negotiate with the U.S. Worse, instead of Americans celebrating these achievements, and embracing the possibility of renewing relationships permanently with Iran, war hawks continue to over-hype the threat and threaten to derail these talks.

Discrediting the Neo-Cons

Iraq didn’t have nuclear, biological or chemical weapons capable of attacking America. (We debunked the Syria myth here and elaborated on political ignorance here.) Because of this, and the fact that we deposed a secular dictator, replaced him with a religious dictator aligned with Iran and now the country is mired in a civil war, most people think the Iraq War was a failure. But this hasn’t affected the foreign policy debate, as Peter Beinart points out in this amazing paragraph:

Had a Martian descended to earth in January 2003, spent a few days listening to Washington Republicans talk foreign policy, and then returned in January 2013, she would likely conclude that the Iraq War had been a fabulous success. She would conclude that because, as far as I can tell, not a single Republican-aligned Beltway foreign-policy politician or pundit enjoys less prominence than he did a decade ago because he supported the Iraq War, and not a single one enjoys more prominence because he opposed it. From Bill Kristol to Charles Krauthammer to John McCain to John Bolton to Dan Senor, the same people who dominated Republican foreign-policy discourse a decade ago still dominate it today, and they espouse exactly the same view of the world. As for those conservatives who opposed Iraq—people at places like the Cato Institute and The National Interest who believe that there are clear limits to American military power—our Fox News–watching, Wall Street Journal–reading Martian would have been largely unaware of their existence in 2003 and would remain largely unaware today.

He wrote that last January about Secretary Hagel. After a near war with Syria and the current war in Iraq, it is even more shocking no one has been held to account.

Michael C Isn’t Not the Only Clausewitz “Hater”

The Small Wars Journal hosted an article, “The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz”, asking if he was still relevant, though the article makes a much more nuanced argument than that title suggests. (Again, only bring up Clausewitz at your own risk.) Still, Wm. J. Olson‘s argument echoes many of my feelings on Clausewitz’s near infallibility in some circles:

What shortcomings it is reputed to have as an overall theory--for an older generation like Martin van Creveld or John Keegan, to a newer crop of critics like Mary Kaldor and the 'new war' crowd--are generally dismissed as the result of the fact that Clausewitz died before he could complete an in-depth revision of his masterwork based on his evolving thinking, which a close enough reading of the existing text reveals at various points his true vision to put to rest any doubts about the seminal nature of his work. Thus his obscurity on certain points is a defense against doubt on any point.

War on the Rocks’ David Maxwell responded by clarifying some of Olson’s points (that Clausewitz is a useful starting point, but not an end of the discussion; a point we agree on) but we particularly like that Maxwell used the phrase “Clausewitzians”!