Sep 06

(Before the Syria situation exploded, we had planned to continue our "Oscar's Month". It will return after next week.)

In college, as a naive, young activist, I used to sit down during the national anthem. Michael C, as a young cadet, freaked out whenever I did this. At the time, I protested the anthem because I believed that excessive patriotism directly inhibits the self-criticism our nation (and all nations) need to be great. At its worst, unthinking lack of self-criticism helps repeatedly send our nation into destructive, violent, poorly-planned wars.

As we’ve written before, people tend to falsely attribute quotes to Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Einstein, Plato, Churchill and others, he’s one of the great men of history people attach to the quotes of less important thinkers to impart relevance. But I’ve been researching some anti-war “Quotes Behaving Badly”, and I found something interesting: virtually every quote by Martin Luther King Jr opposing war is true. Quotes like:

“But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”

Or this short excerpt from a much longer piece:

“War is not the answer.”

Tavis Smiley brought up Dr. King’s pacifism on ABC’s This Week, arguing that talk of war with Syria dishonors his legacy:

“There’s the issue of violence. War, Dr. King would say were he here, is not the answer. We cannot worship at the altar of retaliation. It’s either non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation, Dr. King would say were he here.”

The other panelists ignored him. When media critics criticize the media for not offering context, they’re talking about segments like this. During a week which featured two major news stories--the fiftieth anniversary of “I Have a Dream” and talks about going to war with Syria--very few pundits, reporters or news anchors connected the two. Every network covered the anniversary; few of them described Dr. King as anti-war.

The reason that the quotes of the less famous get attributed to the more famous is that the great thinkers of history become ciphers. We see in them what we want to see in them. Later on This Week, James Carville tried to make the case the Dr. King would have supported intervening in Syria:

“I think that we’ll frame our response this way. We’re not intervening in Syria. We’re punishing Assad. Because Assad is the one that actually did this and this is a horrible thing to gas young people. Let’s just put that right out. I don’t think Dr. King would have approved of that at all.”

He's right: Dr. King wouldn’t ever have dreamed of “approving” of using chemical weapons on civilians. He wouldn’t, though, have turned to cruise missile strikes as a first resort. In Foreign Policy, Elias Groll links Martin Luther King Jr. to intervening in Syria more forcefully (and still incorrectly):

“Still, it is important to remember that King was no outright pacifist. He was an avid student of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that in the face of tyranny and violence an armed response can sometimes be justified. Niebuhr is also one of Obama's favorite philosophers. In 2007, when asked what he had taken away from Niebuhr, Obama offered something of a prescient preview of his often-militarist foreign policy: ‘I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction’; that ‘we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.’

“It's a foreign policy King might have gotten behind.”

I doubt it. Dr. King was non-violent. Militantly non-violent. Pacifists like Dr. King and myself fear war. We only support war as a means of last resort in the most dire of situations. Last resort. Syria does not fit that criteria. At all.

This weekend, I attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by John Williams. The show opened with the national anthem. As the crowd stood, I couldn't help thinking about Syria. I thought about how almost no one in the auditorium knew about the possible intervention with Syria. Hell, I’d barely followed the issue and I co-write a milblog. I thought about how, since Obama became president, America has dropped bombs in four different countries and we were about to launch missiles into a fifth. I wondered if most of the auditorium could even name those countries.

Mostly, I thought about how, in my relatively young life, my country will have gone to war three times, deployed its military eight times--three times since 9/11 not counting Syria or drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. It doesn’t make me proud. It makes me not want to stand and sing the national anthem.

Though I didn’t think about it last Saturday, Dr. King’s word from his speech ‘Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” captured my feelings best:

“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

It’s why, now, I stand during the national anthem.

Apr 02

When Eric C and I played football in high school, our team had a problem. We couldn’t stop breaking the rules...like hitting other players after the whistle. Our team had more late hits than Tupac.

Well, not all of our team. Only a handful of players had the unique ability to draw multiple personal fouls every game. They would knock players onto the ground from behind, nail them after the whistle had long since blown, or get unnecessary roughness calls. (Yeah, unnecessary roughness calls in high school. Who does that?) And these penalties always seemed to come at key times to stop our offense from scoring or to provide the other team a boost of momentum.

To solve the problem, the coaching staff implemented group punishment. At every Monday practice, our coaches made the entire team do ten “up downs” for every personal foul from the previous game. (An “up-down” is when you jog in place, then jump on the ground with your entire body, then jump back up.

One Monday, our team did a hundred, if I remember correctly. The number was supposed to represent the number of penalties, or the yards we lost, or something.

So our team started a new ritual: every Monday we did a whole bunch of up-downs. Every Friday, our team went out and continued committing personal fouls. As if we were the high school version of the Oakland Raiders, we continued to lead the league in personal fouls.

When I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, I had another boss implement group punishment. The problem was an epidemic of DUIs. After returning from a lengthy, soul-sucking deployment, the men of the 173rd preceded to release their pent up emotions through a series of DUIs, fights, and general misbehavior.

To solve the problem, our commander ordered that, instead of a single lieutenant running staff duty for the brigade, each battalion had to run a staff duty officer, plus another officer at brigade staff duty. Company commanders had to counsel lieutenants for “failing to lead” when their men got DUIs. Eventually, the commander added another lieutenant to a “DUI watch van” that was supposed to drive to bars and watch for soldiers misbehaving. This made life miserable--and sleep deprived--for the young officers of the battalion.

And the DUIs kept coming.

Many lieutenants--myself included--believed that the root cause of the DUIs wasn’t a failure of leadership at the platoon level. We hypothesized that our new commander’s decision to lower the number of four day weekends had more to do with the rise in DUIs than “a failure to lead”. Oh, and the post stopped offering a free rides for inebriated soldiers to discourage drinking. (It didn’t.)

Last football season another football program instituted group punishment. The head coach of my alma mater UCLA, Jim Mora, implemented a new discipline system based on group punishment. In the original draft of this post from before the season, I wrote, “I’m not optimistic.” I didn’t see how punishing the entire offense for a player showing up late would change that individual’s behavior.

So how did group punishment work out for the UCLA Bruins? Despite having a stellar season by beating USC, UCLA led the nation in penalty yards. This included plenty of dumb personal fouls.

Three different examples of group punishment. In each case, it completely failed to change the group’s behavior. Yet, group punishment is wildly popular within the U.S. Army and the larger national security apparatus. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why this is a problem.

Sep 12

One of the great things about UCSB--aside from the girls, the drinking, the beach, the partying, the freedom, the library and the academic learning, in that order--is the Arts and Lectures program.

Through the A&L program, I saw performances by Herbie Hancock, Etta James and Bobby McFerrin. I listened to readings from Michael Chabon and Peter Matthiessen. I heard lectures by Eric Schlosser (who asked the room how many people had smoked pot, then everyone raised their hands) and Vandana Shiva. I saw my first Hiyao Miyazaki movie at Campbell Hall. In downtown Santa Barbara, I listened Colin Powell shrug off the missing WMDs. (As the Santa Barbara Independent explained, “You might have thought he was explaining how he returned some DVDs to the wrong video shop.”)

And then I saw Derrida.

That’s right, Jacques Derrida, a philosopher so famous, I only need to write his last name...unless you don’t follow post-war philosophy, in which case, Derrida is the king of postmodern continental philosophy--the creator/un-creator of Deconstruction. When Colin Powell came, the two hours line to get tickets stretched hundreds of people long. Knowing Derrida’s popularity and preeminence in his field, I went early to get tickets. I didn’t want to miss out the way so many had with General Powell.

I was the only person in line.

But what my fellow college students didn’t know, the senior faculty at UCSB did. The night of his lecture, Derrida had three introductions (three!), including one from UCSB’s Chancellor Henry Yang. Almost every senior faculty member attended the lecture and Stephen Hawking (Stephen Hawking!) sat in the front row. Jacques Derrida is a big fricking deal.

Most excitingly, Derrida planned to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Could there be a bigger, more important topic for a bigger, more momentous speaker?

I went to the lecture with a friend who was a graduate student in philosophy (analytic philosophy). As luck (cruel, cruel luck) would have it, as soon as my friend and I found seats in the auditorium, the TA from my Environmental Ethics class saw me, and took a seat right next to me. More on this later.

So after the introductions, Derrida took the stage. Old but not frail, he began his lecture in a thick French accent by warning the audience, “We must never forget what it means to vowel. And vowel-ing the unvowel-able.”

Now, I knew going in Derrida would be impenetrable--it’s kind of his thing; when Derrida died, The New York Times obituary described him as “abstruse” in the headline--but this impenetrable? What the hell do vowels have anything to do with Israel and Palestine? Would we have to consonant the un-consonant next?
   
A few minutes later, I realized Derrida was talking about vows, and how we need to vow the un-vow-able. So I stopped paying attention, pleased that I had a good anecdote to share with people later. (To be fair, the “vowing the unvowable” sentiment is as equally meaningless as “voweling the unvowelable”.)

I wasn’t alone; about thirty minutes into the lecture, the students relegated to the back of Campbell Hall headed for the doors. I’d have joined them, too, but like I wrote earlier, my TA was sitting right next me. I didn’t want him to be grading one of my papers thinking, “This ass walked out on Derrida. What does he know about environmental ethics?”

On the walk home four hours later--it may have been less; it felt like four hours--my friend summed up the lecture neatly, “I was really hoping Derrida would have something insightful to say. He didn’t.” And my friend, a graduate student in real philosophy, paid attention to the lecture.

To bring this back around to On Violence, Derrida didn’t say anything meaningful. I get that he’s a got a post-structuralist philosophy to uphold and years of intentionally vague and contradictory writing to push, but Derrida wasted everyone’s time in that building. Eight years on, people are still dying on the Gaza Strip, and one of Western civilization’s “greatest” philosophers couldn’t say anything remotely coherent or useful on the topic.

Listen to this Philosophy Bites episode on the importance of philosophers in everyday life and political debates; I couldn’t agree more. Philosophers have a place in the world, not just writing obscure philosophical tomes or debating each other at lonely philosophy conferences. They don’t just have the opportunity but the obligation to make the world a better place, especially when people are dying. Philosophers should try, to the best of their ability, to inspire non-professionals to read their ideas and spread those ideas to the larger world. Again, especially if people are dying.
   
Derrida wasted his chance. Instead of offering a solution, he offered aphorisms. Instead of ideas, he pointed out contradictions. Instead of thinking of something new and useful, Derrida offered philosophical insights like, “...although Israelis and Palestinians are not living together peacefully, they are still living together.”

And thoughts like these don’t help at all.

Aug 23

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

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon.”

- Napoleon (Warning: possibly a “Quote Behaving Badly”)

I don’t know if soldiers actually fight for ribbons, but I do know that many soldiers will attend meaningless Army schools, at an alarmingly high rate, simply for the opportunity to wear shiny badges on their uniform. As a result, airborne wings adorn most officer’s chests, while Recon Surveillance Leaders Course badges don’t.

By the time I returned to Italy from Afghanistan, I had blinged myself out with airborne wings, a Ranger tab and a Combat Infantrymen’s Badge. To kick off training for our next deployment, after a roughly 90 day reset period, our Brigade gave its young soldiers the opportunity to test for another badge: the Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB), the ultimate skills test for any infantryman, from shooting to running to rucking to operating a radio.

Tired after a long deployment, I approached the EIB training like a child refusing to go to school. “But I don’t want to!” As if to prove my point, our Brigade sent us out to an overnight land nav course covered in snow. Between huddles around impromptu fires, we marched out to get points and marched back.

At first, I was miserable. Then, practicing my favorite infantry skill, land navigation, I caught the EIB bug.

I didn’t just want another badge to pad my ORB; I needed to pass the EIB; higher officers in my battalion expected me, and every other infantry officer, to get one. As a result, every officer in my company (and I believe the battalion) passed the preliminary events: marksmanship qualification, PT test, road march and land navigation.

Then came the skills competition. Far and away, most soldiers fail to earn an EIB during this portion of the test. Spread over three days, soldiers must complete over two dozen basic infantry tasks to perfection. Three failures total, or two at the same event, and you don’t get your EIB. (And yes, they have since radically changed the EIB testing process.) I expected to pass the ruck march, PT test and land navigation; the skills competition worried me.

As soon as we started the skills competition testing, soldiers started failing.

Our little squad went from event to event with a very specific plan. We didn’t let anyone test who couldn’t do it perfectly, absolutely perfectly. My platoon had spent hours in our maintenance bay training every skill until we could do it blindfolded.

We made it through the first day. I passed the grenade toss; three of my fellow lieutenants didn’t. My grenade actually spun in place on the lip of the bunker, then turned on its side and rolled in. (I didn’t know this, because, obviously, I was staring at the ground in cover. My CO told me about it later.) The next stressful moment occurred in our last event: the M4. Our company ran the event, so they told everyone in our group that we had failed, even when we had passed.

Terrifying? Yes, until we passed.

In one of my proudest--and last--moments as a platoon leader, my platoon had the most number of people pass in the company. I also passed without failing an event. So did one of my soldiers. So did my company commander. In our company, the officers had a 40% pass rate. Across the battalion, Officers had around a 40% pass rate too.

But the pass rate for all enlisted soldiers, including the ones who failed PT or road march events, was much lower. (Granted, many senior NCOs had passed the test before and ran the EIB testing stations.)

Why all the bragging about a badge tons of soldiers have earned throughout the Army? This self glorifying story provides the perfect anecdote to “The Sobel Problem” Eric C wrote about two months back. After that post went live, we got tweets like this one from @JasonFritz1:

“My NCOs and Joes were better than me at many, many things. And they're integral to how the American Army fights. Guy missed leadship [sic] class.”

I don’t know Fritz’s background, so maybe he didn’t attend the same “leadership classes” I did. I went to Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School, the latter being the premier leadership school in the Army. In both those schools, and in my first unit, I was taught a crucial lesson in leadership: lead from the front, both physically and symbolically. My first battalion commander laid this out for all the lieutenants shortly after deployment:

“This means physically, mentally and emotionally you have to lead your men. You have to know more. You have to run faster and do more push ups. You have to shoot more accurately. You have to constantly strive to improve. You must lead from the front.”

Officers aren’t just better than their men; they have to be. They need to achieve an ideal their men can strive for. Otherwise, the leaders aren’t leading, they are following. Think about it this way: if Sobel could have competently navigated the British countryside, Colonel Sink wouldn’t have replaced him. His men mutinied because he was incompetent, not because he was an asshole. If he had been one, but not the other, he’d have led the men into D-Day.

When I trained for the EIB, I strove to live by my battalion commander’s words. It wasn’t just about earning the badge; it was about setting the standard for my men. When it came to the ruck march and PT tests, if any officers had failed, they would have failed in the eyes of the Battalion Commander...and their men. Why should a soldier care about PT or ruck marches if his leader doesn’t? And what soldier will want to follow an officer they don’t respect?

Officers have to lead from the front. And set the standard. Or as my brother put it, be better than their men.

On Monday, we’ll answer other objections to out post, “The Sobel Problem”.

Feb 07

(Every year, Eric and I like to run a sports-themed post either before or after the Super Bowl. Last year, we wrote about Bill Simmon’s theory on “The Secret" (we’re sure he is a huge follower of OnV and theories of counter-insurgency), relating it to “War is War”. The year before we wrote “The Sports Team from My Area is Superior to the Sports Team from Your Area”. Check them out.)

The last time I went to the doctor to get my blood drawn, something downright bizarre happened. The nurse tied off my arm, made me pump the squishy ball, then inserted the needle into my arm.

She looked up astonished. Instead of red blood, out came blue and gold. Worried, the nurse went to call a doctor, but I stopped her.

“I’m a UCLA Bruin, I f***ing bleed blue and gold.”

Why do I relate my die hard allegiance to UCLA on a blog that ostensibly discusses/debates war and warfare (with some other violence thrown in for good measure)? Because right now I am in the midst of a personal crisis. And that crisis happens to relate to our widely-read/commented-on/fisked post called, “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency.”

I spent the last few months applying to business schools in my native southern California. When it comes to top schools in Los Angeles, there are two: the Anderson school at UCLA and the Marshall school at USC.

As I said in my introduction, I bleed UCLA blue and gold. I love my alma mater. I read everything I can on UCLA athletics, especially basketball. Normally, this isn’t a problem. Except that every good Bruin also hates our crosstown rivals, the USC Trojans, and like I said, USC has one of the best MBA programs in southern California. So when it came time to apply to schools, I applied to USC along with UCLA.

Last week, both schools offered me a spot in their 2014 classes.

This is where rational choice theory, behavioral economics and our post, “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency” come smashing together. I have a tough decision to make, and I’d like to say I will make it purely rationally, guided by metrics and facts alone. But I won’t. I bleed bruin blue and gold.

On the rational side, I will weigh the rankings in magazines, the opinions of experts, the opinions of people in the entertainment industry, and the costs of each school. I will compare each school’s curriculum, and each school’s access to career opportunities. I will make a spreadsheet with pros and cons.

At the same time, I know emotion will play a role. While I was waiting to interview with UCLA, the lobby had a TV that projected, “Welcome Michael Cummings to Anderson!” That was really cool. When I visited USC film school, they had two buildings named “Spielberg Hall” and “Zemekis Hall”. I mean, that’s pretty cool too, isn’t it?

But the biggest factor has nothing to do with rankings, education or cost. It has to do with my desire to remain a dedicated sports fan, the type of sports fan who does “8 claps” with his wife in their living room and knows the words to the UCLA fight song. On some emotional level, I don’t want to give that up.

As we tried to convey in the previous article, the issue is about balance. Human decisions rely on rational explanations and emotional responses. I have an emotional connection to UCLA forged through watching countless games in person and on television, not to mention my memories from four great years at UCLA. To make my decision to attend a graduate school, though, I will try to put that aside, though I never really will.

The “Getting Rid of Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency” post had a simple point, humans act rationally and emotionally. Sports and rooting for sports teams reveals this; so does any study economics or warfare. I have chosen a lifelong allegiance to UCLA, and making a choice about graduate schools has shown me how rational, irrational, emotional, self-interested and unconscious/subconscious that decision was.

May 30

(To commemorate Memorial Day, please read On Violence’s tributes to two fallen friends, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw and Lieutenant Mark Daily.) 

For years now, on Memorial Day, my mother has stood in front of folding tables handing out small red paper flowers. She’s not alone. Every year the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and their auxiliaries do the same all over the country. They’ve done so since 1922 and, according to their estimates, have given out some 14 million buddy poppies.

She’s been doing it for nearly a decade and I still had no idea why. I had to ask. But I couldn’t. She’d been doing it so long and so adamantly, I was afraid if I asked her why she had been passing out little paper poppies I would hurt her feelings. So I asked another veteran: Michael C.

He had no idea. I asked my father and brothers, also veterans. They had no idea. So eventually, I had to ask my mother, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of the VFW. She told me about a tradition.

In 1915, after watching his friend die, Lt. Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field”:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flanders Field” quickly became iconic to the veterans causes and the poppies a symbol of those who sacrificed in the name of God and country. They are given freely on Memorial Day as tribute to soldiers and their families, a solemn reminder of the price paid for liberty. And from the donation received, the VFW raises some 15 million dollars to assist disabled veterans and the families of those killed in combat.

This Memorial Day, just like every Memorial Day since 1922, the VFW and their auxiliaries will be handing out millions of buddy poppies. For more information, to get in contact with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or to support the work they do with veterans and their families; visit their website.

May 18

A few months after my platoon transferred AOs to the Serkani district in Afghanistan, I brought the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team--with the local District Governor--to Pashad for the first time in five years. At that meeting, the villagers asked for a bridge. This bridge would help them avoid traveling quite a distance, through Taliban-contested terrain, to get medical help. I doubted it would ever happen, hence the moniker “my bridge to nowhere”.

Long story short: the Kunar team got a grant to build the bridge and, just this week, finished it. Big ups to Big Sarge Will for finding the link.

Pashad is near and dear to my heart. To get a feel for my obsession with this small village, check out my past posts:

- IO...Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Propaganda

- A Tale of Two MEDCAPs: Part I and II

- Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?

- The Dumbest Thing I Saw in Afghanistan

- How to Win an American Heart and Mind

- A Tale of Two MEDCAPs, Now in Technicolor!

- On V in Other Places: Infantry Magazine

Apr 22

Eric C finished Wednesday’s post with the obviously provocative question: why do soldiers fight? I thought I’d answer that question today, at least as best I can

In some ways, I’ve answered the question, “why do I serve?” before (here and here), so I could just point to those posts and say, “Well, that’s why I joined.” Like Eric C, I had altruistic motivations; I wanted to literally serve my country.

In spring of 2003, I watched our country embark on a war that at the time I considered ill advised. Combined with my skepticism that Afghanistan would be a short war (something I was proven wrong about, then later proven right) it seemed clear to a young, naive college student that if ever our nation needed smart people serving in its military, 2003 was the time. So I joined for selfless reasons, to serve my country.

That’s not really the whole story though.

Eric C isn’t really just asking about my opinion, he’s asking about the opinion of all soldiers in general. What Eric C is also asking, circumscribally, is, we all know the selfless reasons to serve, what are the selfish reasons to serve?

Back to my personal experience. As soon as I sat down in the ROTC recruiter’s chair, weeks after I first thought about joining, I was pitched several things. The good Major pitched me about serving my country, yes, but also about the tremendous leadership experiences of young officers and the pay and benefits. I also learned that ROTC could help pay for my college.

Did those things influence my decision? Absolutely, especially the parts about leadership.

If I am being totally honest, the idea of serving as an officer in the military went back to grade school. Back then, I desperately wanted to someday be President of the United States. To do that, I determined that I needed to serve in the military, because it looked good for Presidential candidates. So even the idea of serving my country has selfish gains; I would look like a good person.

Does my experience apply to all Soldiers? I think it does. The reasons for why a soldier serves aren’t simple. Some need the money, some have no other options, and some want the experience. Selfless service to country is only one part of the equation.

Now to Eric C’s thesis: some soldiers serve to fight. They are fighters and the Army is the place many go to fight the enemy (since 9/11, the enemy is “terrorists”). Yes, I think this describes plenty of soldiers very well. When faced with danger, some citizens feel duty bound to personally sacrifice themselves to face it. Others feel obligated to shoot that danger in the face, right or wrong. That describes fighters.