Apr 30

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

When we first brought up “Gratitude Theory”, I had a basic question, “Does giving people things change their behavior?”

According to many military theorists, not one bit. Since General Petraeus popularized this theory, a number of officers, academics and bloggers have pushed back. To summarize their thoughts, “We shouldn’t just give things to Afghans or Iraqis, and it certainly won’t win over their respect!” Take this misinterpretation of population-centric counter-insurgency from Slate:

“When people hear about the U.S. military doing development work in Afghanistan, they think about ‘winning hearts and minds’ through humanitarian aid or building schools. The idea is that if Americans do nice things for Afghans, they will be so grateful they will begin to support the counterinsurgency.”

Author Bing West--who regularly opines on this topic in conservative outlets--hates this philosophy because he knows it won’t work. He wrote an article titled, “We Were Too Nice To Win in Afghanistan”. As The New York Times described his book The Wrong War:

“He flatly says that the counterinsurgency strategy behind the war — trying to win over the Afghans by protecting them from the Taliban and building roads, schools and civil institutions — is a failure...In Mr. West’s view, 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.”

An Australian Brigadier General sums it all up much more simply, “more killing, less good deeds”.

As all the above examples make clear, giving things to people doesn’t work. It’s a strategy doomed to fail...unless you’re president, in which case, it works fantastically.

Why did Mitt Romney lose last November?

Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”   

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…”

“It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

“In a conference call with fund-raisers and donors to his campaign, Mr. Romney said Wednesday afternoon that the president had followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups — ‘especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people’.”

To sum up: Iraqis and Afghans don’t care about free things, but dumb American voters? They don’t stand a chance. The irony is many “COINtras” are Republicans who think that “giving people things” didn’t work in Afghanistan, but then argued that they lost the election because the President gave away too much stuff. Can giving things away, from building schools to providing free health care, change public opinion?


FM 23-4, the counter-insurgency manual written by General Petraeus, understood this, and therefore advocated that soldiers should provide security for locals while doing reconstruction. (Reconstruction without security, the manual says, won’t work. It also reiterates the need for both offensive operations and security operations, which are vital to defeating an insurgency.)

Kill-centric advocates don’t just under-value reconstruction, they loathe it. COINtras want a simple war that only involves killing an enemy in a uniform. Counter-insurgencies against the U.S. military don’t have that simplicity. They do feature people, and all things being equal, people do like getting things...which is a pretty good argument for doing reconstruction in war torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Apr 08

A few months back, the founders of a Facebook page called “RoE.USMilitary”--a page ostensibly dedicated to “exposing” the truth about rules of engagement (which has slowly descended into calls for the military to arrest President Obama on charges of treason. No seriously, they advocate that.)--sent us an email about ROE. Reading their Facebook page, I got dragged back down the ROE rabbit hole. I could write post after post explaining the logic and necessity of strict, well-followed rules of engagement, rebutting the weak arguments presented on that page.

To save myself the time, I want to limit my response to one question they asked me:

“Of course we shouldn't ‘torture’ prisoners but why are we taking so many prisoners? Are you aware that our troops can catch someone planting a BOMB and they cannot engage?”

This sentence is even more dramatic if you shout “bomb” (BOMB!), since it is in all caps. Oh, and it is completely, 100% wrong.

Like most anti-ROE rhetoric, the above flight-of-fancy completely ignores common military sense and exaggerates the harms of the rules of engagement. In only two sentences!

1. This isn’t a true statement. Let’s just get that out of the way. Rules of engagement are classified so that the enemy cannot plan attacks directly around them. The sources of Barbara’s information are probably misreading those same rules of engagement. I know this because drones, planes, snipers, and ground forces can all engage insurgents burying IEDs. However, even if this were the case...

2. Commanders on the ground control the fire of their men. Otherwise combat would be chaos. Are anti-ROE advocates arguing that squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders cannot issue shoot or don’t shoot orders? In a world without ROE, that is exactly what would happen.

The results would be disastrous. If soldiers could--and they would if they could--fire every time they felt threatened, the number of friendly fire incidents would increase dramatically. (I might have to write up a personal experience post where, during a training exercise, I watched this happen.) In short, leaders at every level--up to theater commanders--have the ability to control the fire of their men. This is basic military 101 and it applies to U.S. forces and insurgents.

3. In an intelligence war, capturing insurgents makes more sense than killing them. Pirates of the Caribbean is right, “Dead men tell no tales.” Captured insurgents provide a wealth of intelligence and opportunities. Instead of capturing an insurgent, the military should trail him back to his house, then track the insurgent who pays him. In maneuver warfare, firepower defeats the enemy. In an insurgency, intelligence does.

As our military learned over the last ten years, bomb planters are not the issue. With unemployment in the 30-40% range, finding someone in Iraq or Afghanistan to dig a hole for five dollars is a cinch. The key is finding the bomb makers, insurgent leaders and logistics hubs. Of course, if you kill every single bomb planter, you can’t interrogate them to find out who they work for. Which will help you lose the war.

4. Anyway, we can’t respond to every IED with overwhelming firepower. Using massive firepower to respond to every single IED incident caused the insurgency in Iraq. Far from “inspiring fear” or “enforcing our will on the enemy”, these heavy handed tactics inflamed the local population. (In general, people dislike firefights, especially firefights involving foreigners.) So we can’t engage every bomb planter with every weapon available...that’s a form of ROE.

5. More than anything, though, this story doesn’t even make sense logically. While it seems bad on the surface--”My oh my, we can’t engage people planting bombs.”--who really cares about a buried IED we already know about? The most dangerous--actually the only dangerous IEDs--are the ones the U.S. military doesn’t know about.

In the real world, the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan spotted plenty of people putting in IEDs. It either killed or captured them. Either way, an IED the coalition forces know about is much less dangerous than one we don’t. Dramatically so.

At their core, rules of engagement are orders that leaders give to their subordinates to control their actions in combat. Phrased like that, they don’t seem so bad, do they?

Mar 25

Before Eric C and I started blogging, we didn’t realize how often we would be misread. I’m not talking about disagreements on points of debate; we expected those. No, I’m amazed how often people extrapolate wild positions based on one or two lines. In our N.Y. Times guest post “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, some readers assumed I wanted the U.S. Army to force its soldiers to follow Christianity. (I definitely don’t.) The greatest example ever came from our (hopefully ironically-titled) post, “Join the Taliban...the Americans Will Kill You Anyways” when one reader assumed we were recruiting for the Taliban. (We weren’t.)

It happened again in “A New On V Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!”. I had a bit of fun at Marcus Luttrell’s expense for thinking growing a beard--in Army parlance “relaxed grooming standards”--would help him blend in with the locals. (In his exact words, “look like an Afghan fighter”.) The primary point of the post was to show how patently false this argument is.   

What I didn’t mean to argue was that soldiers shouldn’t let their hair fall down to their backs. As many commenters pointed out, beards help build rapport with local populations that, like in Afghanistan, that respect facial hair. Since I’ve never been much for uniformity in dress code in the first place, I’m not opposed to relaxing grooming standards; I just don’t think operators should grow beards under the mistaken belief they help them “blend in”.

If you want to build rapport go ahead. But do it right. While growing a beard may help build rapport, it’s one of the least effective ways to do it. A beard on someone who doesn’t speak the language is worth less than someone with a clean-shaven face who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Arabic or Farsi. (Also, the rapport reason is definitely abused by the special operations community. Most special operations units have relaxed grooming standards even if they don’t partner with local units or work with the local population.)

Here are a few even more effective ways to build rapport:

1. Learn the language. I deployed with a Special Forces battalion to Iraq. They used more interpreters than a regular Army battalion. The SF teams also spoke virtually no Arabic. Despite the widespread myth that Special Forces soldiers are fluent in multiple languages, most Special Forces Groups have not maintained even base proficiency in their assigned languages. (This applies even more for Special Forces Groups not aligned with the CENTCOM AOR.)

2. Live with your embedded troops. Even before the spate of “Blue on Green” attacks, most deployed military units lived in separate compounds. When I was deployed, this meant that U.S. troops shared a base with Afghan troops, but we lived in separate, walled off areas. How can you really build rapport if you don’t sleep and live together? You can’t. A beard won’t bridge the gap.

3. Invite Afghans to lift weights with you. Most Special Forces troops pride themselves on their huge muscles. If you don’t believe me, well, google “Special Forces workout”. (Or worse, “Navy SEAL workout”.) Yet I never saw Afghan or Iraqi soldier in a U.S. gym. If you want to build rapport, train and live together. (I also advocated in the last post that U.S. forces should work on slimming down. Sure you might have a beard, but giant muscles say to Afghans, “Remember, we’re different.”)

4. Use local weapons. Wear local clothes and Afghan military uniforms. Again, train as you fight. So why don’t our Special Forces use AK-47s, RPGs and the other weapons used by the Afghanistan National Army? Or wear the exact same uniform? It's about rapport, right?

5. Don’t wear your fancy Oakley sunglasses. If you want to build rapport, why not look the locals in the eyes without your glasses? Not making eye contact is disrespectful. And it lessens the perceived financial gap between our soldiers and Afghans. (This goes for your backwards baseball cap too.)

6. Recruit older Americans to meet with older Afghans. One of the completely offensive ways Americans interact with village elders is by having 20 to 30 year-olds fresh out of college leading meetings/shuras/jirgas. This is a personal bit of hypocrisy, because I led these meetings as a 20-year-old fresh out of UCLA. Of course, this means completely overhauling the U.S. military recruitment system--as Rosa Brooks recommended here--but it might have helped the U.S. win our last two wars.

7. Recruit more ethnic soldiers. Specifically, Pakistani, Iranian and Indian immigrants. This would cause a security clearance nightmare, but that probably says more about our security system process (developed during the Cold War) than reality.

8. Most importantly, don’t do anything that antagonizes the locals. I mean, will a beard help our troops one iota if the Afghans can see your “infidel” patch at the same time? Also, don’t talk about how uncivilized Afghans are. Don’t call all the locals terrorists. Hell, follow all the guidance in this post too.

Interestingly, when our last post went up, numerous special forces soldiers endorsed growing a beard, but not one advocated the entire military adopting relaxed grooming standards. If anything, most special operators who chimed in claimed I was jealous. I’m not jealous; I want our military to adopt effective fighting methods to win its wars. If growing a beard is so effective, every soldier in Afghanistan--not just Special Forces troops--should grow one.

Since every American unit in Afghanistan partners with Afghan units, every unit should reap the benefits of relaxed grooming standards, not just the special forces. And they should all follow this guidance before they start growing those beads.

Mar 12

Eric C and I are NPR junkies. (He started it.) And one of my favorite shows is Intelligence Squared US. Host John Donvan throws down an Oxfordian challenge to two sets of debaters to argue topics ranging from banning college football to genetically engineered babies. I love it--especially compared to cable news coverage--because the panelists go very deep into topics I often don’t know much about.

That was not the case for their topic last fall, “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to the above episode and actually care about who wins and loses, don’t keep reading.)

When it comes to the Arab Spring, I have pretty strong feelings. That’s why we spent weeks discussing this topic in January. To be clear, I am wildly for the proposition; elected Islamists are better than dictators. Always. I believe that everyone around the world is entitled to democracy, not just America.

As I listened to the debate, I started to get worried. My side let the other side set the terms. The opponents then leveraged the politics of fear to their advantage. I kept yelling at the podcast, “No, you should have said this! Don’t concede that! Say that’s a lie!” Since they didn’t...

My side lost.

But my side didn’t just lose, they got trounced. They started off with more supporters (38% of the audience), but only ended up with 44%. The opponents went from 31% of the audience to a whopping 47% supporting their side. For Intelligence Squared, that’s a walloping.

Which really hurts because this topic is probably the neatest summation of the entire “Arab Spring” issue. I mean, you could say, “Arab Spring, good or bad?”, but phrased this way, it really captures the nuance of the various positions. Considered among other foreign policy topics--the rise of China, Russia’s ongoing stuff--- this is far and away the most important change going on in the world.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I hate losing political arguments. (If I haven’t said that before, well I do.) So today and Wednesday, I want to set the record straight. On Wednesday, I will critique the arguments my side made during the debate. But first, four key points explaining why elected Islamists are better than dictators that my side left out:

1. This is about the long game. As long as the U.S. pursues short-term interests (which means installing dictators) over the long term (advancing democratic ideals), it will always have fractured relationships. This was true in the Cold War, and it has been true since 9/11. Pursuing a short term strategy will always keep America in danger.

The best example is the CIA’s involvement in Iran. The elected Iranian government in the 1940s started nationalizing oil, so, with Western help, the Shah took over. Ever since, the Iranians have resented American meddling in their country (including Western support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war). In each case, the US favored actions that benefited us in the short term, but have kept the problems with Iran continuing.

2. Let’s drop the “isms” argument. The opponents, as I’ll describe on Wednesday, managed to connect Islamism to fascism and Hitler. Well played, though totally inaccurate. On its face, this motion scares Americans with the dangerous sounding, “Islamism” and its connection to terrorism. This is on its face absurd, and I would make that point much more clearly.

3. Elections trump dictators absolutely. If I were debating on Intelligence Squared, I would have told a story that personifies this for the audience. I would have emphasized what it was really like to live under a dictator, asking the audience to imagine themselves with relatives disappearing to secret prisons and living under the crushing hand of dictatorship. If the other side wants to use fear, then pound them back with tragedy and horror.

4. Emphasize the hypocrisy. The problem with American foreign policy is that, to pursue American interests--variously either pro-American business policies or protecting American lives--American foreign policy often asks other people to sacrifice their liberty. In essence, to keep Americans free, we ask that others live in tyranny. Otherwise, how could any American argue that dictators are good for the people of those countries? This hypocrisy is the primary criticism of American foreign policy around the globe, and the primary driver of hostility towards Americans.

More than anything else, supporting the “Arab Spring” is a moral issue. Any American who believes in freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all mankind as the Declaration of Independence clarifies--must support the Arab Spring. You cannot rail against tyranny in America while supporting tyranny abroad. Doing so is either the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, ignorance or all three.

Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Point 1: America needs to repair its image in the Islamic world.
It’s not exactly enlightening to say that many--but not all--people in the Islamic world really, really hate America. They seem to burn our flags at the slightest provocation. One protester in Pakistan died from inhaling burning American flag smoke during the protests; how many flags does that even take?

The problem is that many Americans don’t care. Some Americans hate Muslims as much as some Muslims hate Americans, regularly referring to them as primitives, barbarians or savages (post coming on that). They put infidel stickers on their F-150’s and think that rebuilding relationships with nations we’ve alienated constitutes “apologizing” for America. And too many moderate Americans, hit hard by the financial crisis, feel like our country has bigger issues to deal with before we get to the business of fixing how the rest of the world feels about us.

We can’t control how other nations feel about America. But we can care how they feel about us and try to repair the relationship. I'd suggest that if one small, inconsequential internet video can spark protests in dozens of countries, we have a serious image problem around the world.

Point 2: For example, foreigners hate American support for dictatorships.

In December, This American Life ran a show titled “This Week”, covering stories that happened just that week. One of those stories was how Egyptian President Morsi faced protests after firing all of the country’s judges. What caught me was that the reporter talked to an author who opposed religious rule. Who did he blame for the power grab?

“In my view, the biggest betrayal that has taken place against the Egyptian people is the absolute support that the American administration has given to the Muslim Brotherhood. America is ignoring the violence that is conducted against the Egyptian people. America is completely silent and has voiced that its relationship with Egypt is strategic.”

Then she spoke with a “a religious man, young, 28 years old”. A young man from the completely opposite side of the political spectrum. Who did he blame?

“This is what the US wants; this is what Israel wants-- a regime which appears to be democratic to the people, but actually it is this defense national council which will be doing all the work...For sure President Morsi wants the interests of Egypt. However, he sees the implementation of this interest, or finding the interest, from a very narrow perspective that the United States has set for him. We do not want him to see that perspective through the United States' perspective.”

In short, don’t dictatorships, because it alienates people of all political persuasions, not just the religious fanatics.

Point 3: But not everyone hates us.

Among all the bad news, the good news was that, after Benghazi, counter-protests formed to support peace and oppose violence. This is a good sign. As I wrote above, many, but not all, people hate us in the Middle East. We should focus on building support from the people who don’t hate us.

And you know what? Some liberal Muslims support free speech too.

Point 4:  What happened in Benghazi? We don’t know!    

When we wrote our review of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, the comment thread had an interesting reaction, coming down to a debate over what Obama knew, and when, and how he reacted to the attack on the consulate. My reaction at the time was simple:

“In general, I like to wait a few months for the larger, longer reports to come out. With the Osama raid, for example, a lot of the early information was dead wrong. We’ve written about this before, somewhere. It’s why we avoid breaking news stories on the blog.”

How long do you wait to discuss sensitive issues and current events?

On Violence is firmly in the wait and see camp. Hell, we write “the most intriguing event of the year” to discuss big issues we didn’t discuss before. We prefer to wait for the longer responses like the long form documentaries on PBS’s Frontline or articles in the New Yorker. The Obama administration’s main problem, in the beginning, was sending people out to talk about it; when Susan Rice did, she lost the entire forward momentum of her political career, because she spoke too soon.

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 logic...so 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 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 involves...giving 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 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.