Jul 25

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Donald Trump definitely made America seem like a dystopian hellscape last week at the convention. (See Seth Myers on Late Night for good coverage.) Trump’s theme was clear: the world is in chaos. With multiple wars in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe, police shootings, and violence at political rallies, everything seems to be falling apart.

Trump wasn’t the only person spreading fear this year. Almost every Republican candidate for president--from mild-mannered Jeb Bush to bombastic Chris Christie--told the electorate during the Republican primaries that we live in truly “dangerous” and “perilous” times. Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention just made it their official theme.

Republican politicians aren’t alone in fear mongering. Democrats like Diane Feinstein believe we live in a “dangerous world”. Even a liberal commentator like Jon Stewart--who just called Trump out for fear-mongering on The Late Show--ended his run on The Daily Show (in the second to last episode) saying, “'The world is demonstrably worse than when I started.”

We need some perspective on how great we really have it.

And for that, we turn to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.

Each week the show offers helpings of war, torture, rape, incest, mass murder, terrorist insurgencies, beheadings and so on, which should just depress us more. But it’s actually refreshing. Contrasting the pessimism of the daily news to this dark but wonderful TV show, we can’t help thinking, “Man, the world is so much safer today.”

Game of Thrones is a fun world to visit, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stay. If modern times are “perilous”, how would you describe the Middle Ages? Despite the anxiety that pervades our culture, when compared to the past, we’re living in a modern golden age.

And Game of Thrones proves it. Unlike past fantasy authors, Martin based his world on actual European history. George R.R. Martin has said numerous times that he places a high premium on accuracy. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history,” he told The New York Times.  Along with accuracy in food (lamprey pie), dress (velvet doublets) and weapons (two-handed greatswords), Martin’s Westeros is an excellent analogue for the ugliness and violence of Europe of hundreds of years ago (specifically, the eras of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses). A trip through that world reveals just how much more dangerous and violent it was compared to contemporary times.

(Wall-sized spoilers abound for the rest of this article.)

Rape

Two seasons ago Jaime raped his sister Cersei and some fans got upset. Last season, Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark, outraging many, many fans, including US senators. Viewed from a modern perspective, Sansa’s rape was disgusting. Show that scene to someone from the 1300s and they’d wonder why people were upset. Arranged marriages among royal families were an unquestioned part of life in the past, along with subsequent marital rape.

Sansa’s rape was far from the only sexual assault in the world of Game of Thrones--214 instances and counting in the books. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane uses war as an excuse to rape as many people as he can. Sansa almost got raped by a mob in season two. And the series opened with Daenerys getting raped by Khal Drogo in the same circumstances as Sansa. (I’m not sure the Dothraki can even have consensual sex.) As Martin has said, in response to criticism both two seasons ago and last season, rape has always been a part of war. To not depict it would artificially sanitize his medieval world.   

Today, governments work to stop sexual violence. For one of the first times in human history, politicians have opened investigations into sexual assault in the military. Husbands can no longer legally rape their wives. This isn’t to say there still isn’t work to end sexual assault--there is--but we have come a long way.

Homicide

One of the scariest parts of Game of Thrones is watching someone travel. Anywhere. As Catelyn Stark found out travelling to the Vale, even armed guards can’t keep you safe. You could be murdered at any point, or in the best case scenario, robbed of your savings, which Sandor Clegane did two seasons ago to a person giving him room and board. Or you could get captured by pirates with an interest in dwarf penises.

Homicide today is not what it was in the past. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today. In the short term, as has been widely reported in Slate and other outlets, the murder rate has declined, in some cases below levels in the 1950s and even early 1900s.

Slavery

In the world of Game of Thrones, slavery is illegal in Westeros, but it’s legal in Essos. And boy howdy is it legal, with an entire region named Slaver’s Bay. The people of Astapor castrate slave warriors and the people of Meereen crucify slaves who rebel.

Until the middle 1800s, slavery was legal in most of the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe. The ugliest and most infamous example was probably the Transatlantic slave trade between 1525 and 1866, when slavers shipped 12.5 million slaves across the Atlantic. (Almost 2 million of them died during the trip.)

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Game of Thrones leans heavily on the Westerosi tradition of “trial by combat”, in which someone accused of a crime can fight their way out of it. This was really only practiced in Germany. Trials by ordeal, on the other hand, were quite common in Europe, forcing people to endure starvation, drowning and fire to prove their innocence. Though many think this only applied to witches, it was actually quite common.

The “justice system” of the medieval world was barbaric and capricious, often catering to the mob. Criminals found guilty weren’t taken to prison, they were paraded through the streets (like Cersei walking naked through the streets of King’s Landing), then ritually tortured (like having their nipples torn off with hot pincers), and then killed in gruesome ways (like being ripped apart by horses). The guillotine was actually invented as a more humane method of capital punishment.

Torture

Remember in the middle of season two of Game of Thrones when Arya, captured by the Lannisters, watches as Lannister henchmen systematically torture dozens (hundreds?) of prisoners? Pretty brutal stuff, plucking one prisoner each day, at random, then torturing them to death.

And pretty realistic to medieval uses of torture. As Pinker told Scientific American about torture five hundred years ago:

“Religious instruction included prurient descriptions of how the saints of both sexes were tortured and mutilated in ingenious ways. Corpses broken on the wheel, hanging from gibbets, or rotting in iron cages where the sinner had been left to die of exposure and starvation were a common part of the landscape.”

The World Is Getting Better

We could go on, listing the multitude of ways the world has become less violent. (We haven’t even mentioned the decline in war, the end to institutionalized racism, and more.)

Over the last few years, a cottage industry has sprouted up among academics trying to prove this academically. Stephen Pinker, John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein, John Mueller and others have tried (vainly) to convince the world that war is decreasing in frequency, terrorism is more hype that danger, and that overall things are getting better. Pinker summed up the argument for Slate a few years ago, “The world is not falling apart”. Charles Kenny titled a piece for The Atlantic in December “2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being”.

But this line of thinking hasn’t broken through. Thanks to the media’s steady stream of daily violence, people believe the world is a scary, dangerous place.

By giving us an accurate, bloody depiction of the ancient world, Game of Thrones may actually give people a sense of how good we have it now. Hopefully, sometime soon, politicians and pundits will stop complaining about the sorry state of the modern world.

Or perhap they’d rather live in Westeros?

Jul 18

(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.)

So....here we are again. For eagle-eyed observers following the news, you may have noticed that Marcus Luttrell is speaking at the Republican National Convention tonight. (Tonight’s theme is “Make America Safe Again”. Remember, these are the safest times in American history.) Honestly, we thought we were about done with Lone Survivor and its author, but Luttrell keeps himself in the news, especially as a Republican spokesperson.

We’ll be watching Marcus’ speech today (and hopefully live-tweeting @onviolence), looking to see if he either A. repeats misinformation (especially misinformation reporters could easily fact check) or B. rebuts his past statements or writing.

In case anyone is googling his name and landing at our website, here’s a quick summary:

- Marcus Luttrell continues to exaggerate or distort the facts about Operation Red Wings. (His website still calls it “Operation Red Wing” as of July 17th, 2016.) For a primer on all the mistakes and inaccuracies, check out our post here. For a mainstream feature article, check out the second half of R.M Schneiderman’s Newsweek cover story from last month, “Marcus Luttrell’s Savior, Mohammad Gulab, Claims ‘Lone Survivor’ Got It Wrong” and our reaction to it here. SOFREP has an in-depth discussion (alas, it’s behind a paywall) here. And finally, this all started with Ed Darack, so read his stuff here.

- Marcus Luttrell is a political figure, which both justifies this level of scrutiny and indicts the media for not providing it. This can’t be said enough.

- Operation Red Wings was an historically important mission for the U.S. military. Getting the facts right about it matters, as Michael C wrote about here. Also, as we’ll discuss later this week, the U.S. military never seriously investigated this failed operation.

- Despite the above two bullet points, the media (hate to say it, but “mainstream media”) has shown almost no interest in covering Luttrell’s persistent distortions. If we had to call one figure out in particular, it’d be Anderson Cooper, who regularly invites Luttrell on as a guest and did the really bizarre, softball 60 Minutes feature (our link here).

In honor of the convention, we’re posting a piece we tried--but failed--to get published last year, after the Brian Williams’ fiasco, comparing the Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly controversies to Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyles’ repeated inaccuracies, along with the media’s response to both.

The Media Shouldn’t Hold Veterans to a Different Standard than Brian Williams

In February of 2015, when Brian Williams admitted he fabricated a war story about his time in Iraq, the news media rightfully excoriated him. Anderson Cooper called it a “blow to the profession.” David Carr on CBS’s This Morning with Charlie Rose called Williams’ actions “dumb”. (Williams was demoted last month to MSNBC.) Also in February, Bill O’Reilly also came under fire for exaggerating his experiences in war zones (O’Reilly’s exaggerations literally filled a book).

Seeing the outrage over Williams and O’Reilly fabricating events in a war zone and the media’s continued obsession with debunking non-fiction memoirs, it made us ask: what about Republican political operatives who happen to be veterans--specifically former Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle? Why aren’t they held to the same exacting standard, especially when they use their stories to push Republican candidates and endorse conservative policies like gun rights?

Take Lone Survivor, the story of Marcus Luttrell and Operation Red Wings. Both the film and memoir of Lone Survivor contained massive inaccuracies on par with the Williams and O’Reilly exaggerations. We’ve spent years debunking the claims of Luttrell in his memoir Lone Survivor on our blog, On Violence. For those not familiar, Marcus Luttrell was part of a four man sniper team whose position was discovered by three goat herders in Afghanistan. After freeing the Afghans, the team was attacked by insurgents, and only Luttrell survived.

Luttrell’s memoir has significant discrepancies from official military reports about the battle. In his memoir and later speeches, Marcus Luttrell claims 200 men attacked his team while the U.S. Navy’s official documents said it was closer to 50. Other reports have cited 20 to 30 attackers (and some even lower). In the memoir and interviews, Luttrell falsely claims that the target of the operation, Ahmad Shah, was a high level Taliban operative with ties to Osama bin laden. Neither claim is true. In both interviews and his memoir, Luttrell claims Shah had killed many, many Marines in the months before the mission, when only five Marines had died in Afghanistan at that point and none were killed by Shah. Luttrell also claims he saw evidence of WMDs and, more shockingly, an al Qaeda training camp in Iraq. (And there are many more mistakes, including getting the title of the operation wrong.)

When Charlie Rose interviewed Marcus Luttrell before the release of Lone Survivor (the film), he let Luttrell repeat many of these exaggerations, including Luttrell saying, “We were sent out to capture/kill a high ranking individual in bin Laden’s army.” Charlie Rose also played a clip from the film repeating the claim that 20 Marines died the week before in Afghanistan, when in reality no Marines had died, a fact easily discovered by using iCausualties.org.

Most egregiously, in his memoir, Luttrell claimed the SEAL team took a vote over whether or not they should kill three goatherders. During Marcus Luttrell’s appearance on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper--in addition to ignoring the other discrepancies and exaggerations in Luttrell’s memoir--Cooper only casually mentions that in, “the past [Luttrell has] been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.” But Cooper didn’t ask Luttrell why he wrote that in his book, why Luttrell told Matt Lauer on the Today Show that they took a vote, or ask Luttrell why he changed his story. In other words, ask the same questions the media asked of Brian Williams.

And on the same night Anderson Cooper described Brian Williams’ actions as a “blow to the profession”, who was his earlier guest? Marcus Luttrell.

Outside of an article we wrote for Slate and a piece by Ed Darack in The Marine Corp Gazette, no major media outlet has asked Luttrell about the discrepancies in his book versus reality, compared to the thousands of new stories about Brian Williams. [Update: As of today, Newsweek is the only exception.] Despite Marcus Luttrell endorsing Rick Perry for President (twice) and regularly appearing as a pundit on Fox News, he has not been held to the same standard as journalists. He also joined other Navy SEALs in founding a company they bill as a “movement” that runs paid speaking tours and sells ammunition.

Perhaps you could explain away Marcus Luttrell’s exaggerations as minor details, but Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame made up at least three stories since he left the military: he claimed he punched Jesse Ventura in the face (Ventura later sued Kyle for defamation and won), he claimed he shot looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas. (Like Luttrell, Kyle also claimed he saw evidence for WMDs in Iraq, something not even the current crop of Republicans running for president think is the case.)

Yet the most important falsehood told by Chris Kyle is this: despite claims on American Sniper’s website that Kyle “donated the proceeds of American Sniper to the families of his fallen friends”, according to court transcripts, less than 2% of the over $3 million in book royalties went to charity.

Promoting American Sniper when it was released in January, outside of a few blog posts, the majority of media coverage ignored Kyle’s tall tales. On February 9th, after covering the Brian Williams scandal, Anderson Cooper closed his show by announcing the CNN special Blockbuster: The Story of American Sniper. This special didn’t debate any of the above fabrications, including Katrina, Jesse Ventura or shooting the carjackers.

Luttrell and Kyle used their bestselling memoirs to promote Republican politics and profit. Both American Sniper and Lone Survivor are filled with political rants against liberals, the media and the military’s rules of engagement. Marcus Luttrell tours the country giving speeches for conservative groups, like the NRA, Glenn Beck’s rally, and Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. He’s also started selling gun ammunition. Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle’s widow, recently gave a speech at an NRA convention. And she has her own memoir coming out in the next couple of months. Tara Kyle also joined Marcus Luttrell in founding their company-styled as a philanthropy Team Never Quit.

And a few weeks ago, both Taya Kyle and Marcus Luttrell endorsed Rick Perry for president and joined him on-stage for the announcement. [Update: And now, of course, Luttrell is supporting Donald Trump for president and speaking at the RNC.]

We criticize veterans from the position of one who served. One half of our writing team deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as an officer in the US Army. We believe we (veterans) should be held to the same standard as the rest of society. The fact that Luttrell and Kyle have profited from exaggerating their stories upsets many veterans, just like Brian Williams’ exaggerations.

In the end, Brian Williams has been replaced with Lester Holt. Last year, Holt did NBC News’ segment on Lone Survivor and this year covered American Sniper. He didn’t cover any of the mistakes or exaggerations of either Luttrell or Kyle, and in fact, allowed deliberately false information to stand.

In other words, veterans continue to get a pass.