Jun 17

When I joined the Army, like most impressionable young cadets, I dreamed Special Operations dreams. The Army path to becoming a modern John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando) roughly follows: 1. Branch Infantry. 2. Get my airborne wings. 3. Graduate from Ranger School. 4. Become an Army Ranger. 5. Join the Special Forces. 6. Go to Delta Force. 7. Go to the even more secretive Intelligence Support Activity.

Of course, as a nerd, I dreamed of doing intelligence work for Delta. (Or, as they’re called now, the Combat Applications Group (CAG).) The farthest I got was doing intelligence for 5th Special Forces Group. By the time I left the Army to pursue my MBA, the allure of CAG had worn off.

But it wasn’t just me who didn’t care about CAG/Delta; Americans don’t really carry either. America now loves its SEALs. Kick-started by SEAL Team 6’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the SEAL legend has morphed from puppy love into full-blown stalker obsession. The Navy SEAL’s emphasis on secrecy only fuels this passion. Oh, the Navy SEALs, America’s quiet professionals, they don’t brag, they keep to themselves, they don’t do interviews and they shun media coverage.

Except when they don’t.

Though they are “quiet professionals”, they make quite a bit of noise. (Find examples of SEALs or SEAL supporters boasting about their “quiet professionalism” here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) While the last movie about Delta Force came out in the 80s (Fine, The Unit was probably Delta Force), Navy SEALs have filled American airwaves with their stories, silently and quietly in the news constantly since 2010.

On cable television alone, we have seen...

- The Military Channel cover SEALs 24/7. In a post last year, Eric C looked at the schedule for The Military Channel. That night, their schedule included the TV programs “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. Notice a trend?

- Not to be outdone, the National Geographic channel rushed out a movie on the Osama bin Laden raid last year.

- Oh, and the Discovery Channel also filled us in on the secrets of SEAL Team 6, which again, are not very secret any more.

SEALs are even more prominent on the big screen. Though Hollywood made Navy SEALs in 1990, they hadn’t made a movie featuring these quiet professionals...until the Osama bin Laden raid. (SEALs made guest spots in Tears of the Sun (which no one saw) and Transformers (which also had Rangers).) Now our “quiet professionals” have starred in Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty two years ago, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips last year, and Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor this year. And Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper comes out next year.

All of this reminds us of Marcus Luttrell’s outstanding description of SEALs from the introduction to Service:

In these pages, you’ll get a glimpse of our elite special operations warriors who occasionally make headlines but strongly prefer to remain anonymous, quiet professionals.

Coming from a man who has written two books (and sold one of them to become a film), we couldn’t agree less.

Jun 11

Yeah, we beat up on Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell a lot on this blog. Mainly, it comes from wanting to correct the record on Navy SEALs. For instance, on The Q and A with Jeff Goldsmith, Peter Berg said:

“Navy SEALs are the least political people I’ve ever met...To talk to Navy SEALs about politics is an exercise in pointlessness.”

Berg repeated this claim in dozens of interviews; so did members of the media. In our research on SEALs, though, we’ve come across quite another beast from Berg’s archetype of a SEAL:

The political Navy SEAL.

As a group, SEALs have an incredibly powerful (and positive) public image, and some of them use that image for political purposes. In fairness, the vast majority of SEALs go through their service and post-service lives without using their time in uniform as a platform to express political views. Most SEALs. Some, though, can’t get out of the spotlight. These uber-vocal SEALs give the lie to the myth peddled by Berg and others that SEALs eschew politics to simply do their job, especially since Navy SEALs, when they do go public with a political message, get a lot of press.

We’ve found quite a few Navy SEALs who are very political. A few examples:

- Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund. First up, we have a series of Political Action Committees. There is nothing more political than a political action committee lobbying the government, most of whom have obscure sources of funding. The biggest and most political SEAL of them all is Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, who founded this group. He and his organization briefly made waves in the last Presidential election with political ads against President Obama. Taylor also ran for a Congressional seat in Virginia. (They also have an accuracy problem.)

- Special Operations Speaks. Special Operations Speaks’ website demands “accountability” for President Obama’s response to Benghazi and its masthead features at least one former SEAL demanding action.   

- SEAL Benjamin Smith. Another founder of Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, Ben Smith deserves his own section because of his role in circulating an email in conservative circles that had so many errors that Snopes debunked it. Read about it here.   

- SOF for America. This is yet another PAC and website using their military experience to lobby and campaign for conservative causes. Founded by a former Navy SEAL, this group explicitly backs Republican politicians to “take back control of the Senate”.

- Former Navy SEAL Christopher Mark Heben. He went on Fox News to denounce critics of Marcus Luttrell’s film Lone Survivor. Along the way he said, “Nobody who wears a trident...is a fan of Obama or Hillary.” That sounds political to us. And, according to Heben, it means that all SEALs are political.

- Former Navy SEAL Don Raso. In this NRA “Patriot Profile” as a part of the NRA’s “Life of Duty” series, former Navy SEALs describe their love of the NRA and how it helped them protect America. In this feature, former Navy SEAL Don Raso uses his personal experience at war to criticize Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

- Books. At least five books about or by Navy SEALs repeat the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, as we wrote about here.

- SEAL Gabriel Gomez. While not involved in the current war on terror, Gomez was a former SEAL who left active duty in 1996, but he ran for John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2014. He has been associated with the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund group described above, which specifically campaigns against President Obama.

- Father of sailor Michael Strange. The father of a sailor who conducted electronic intercept intelligence for the U.S. Navy--and frequently assigned to Navy SEAL teams--he sued the Secretary of Defense and blamed President Obama for killing his son. His son died in the Chinook helicopter crash in 2011 that killed 33 troops, the single largest loss of life in Afghanistan. You probably didn’t hear about this, but it made the rounds through the conservative blogosphere.

(Why didn’t we call Michael Strange a SEAL? Because frankly, we can’t tell if he is. Though his father repeatedly uses the phrase “SEAL” and let reporters/bloggers write that his son was a SEAL, multiple other reports don’t mention that he was a SEAL, and specifically do not classify him as a SEAL. We can’t tell what is the truth.)

- Navy SEALS Against Obama. This now defunct blog has a self-explanatory title.

- “The Shooter” in Esquire. This anonymous former SEAL has lobbied Congress for increased benefits and funding for special operations, using his veteran status to bolster his position.

- Of course, we’ll end with Marcus Luttrell’s memoir Lone Survivor. At its worst, the memoir Lone Survivor actually blames liberals for the deaths of SEALs during Operation Red Wings. If accusing a political party of killing soldiers isn’t politics, we don’t know what is. Marcus Luttrell semi-regularly appears on Glenn Beck’s show, recently attacking Obama for negotiating with the Taliban to free Bowe Bergdahl. (Luttrell also misuses the term “terrorist” which we wrote about here.)   

We don’t want anyone to think we are denying SEALs the right to engage in politics. Navy SEALs--especially retired SEALs no longer bound by decorum or UCMJ--can make their political viewpoints known. However, we don’t want SEALs describes themselves as “apolitical” when many SEALs are as vehemently political as any conservative radio host.

A better description of SEALs is that they engage with politics with the same gusto as most Americans. Some eschew politics; some love to talk it. What we can say, with certainty, is that among those vocal SEALs, they tend towards conservative or very, very conservative.

(Finally, why pick on SEALs and not Green Berets, Rangers or especially Delta Force? Because examples of uberly-vocal political Green Berets and D-boys are much, much harder to find. And they don’t describe themselves as apolitical either.)

May 27

No, the title isn’t a reference to an unwritten Robert Ludlum novel, though, in fairness, every thing in the world would be better if they had Ludlum-esque titles. Instead, I want to talk about why--with the passage of time--the U.S. shouldn’t have attacked Syria last fall.

To do so, I will delve into a topic I briefly mentioned two years ago with Iran: decision trees. As a historian, I was trained to think of the world in a fairly deterministic way. Take X cause, link it to Y effect. Treat it like a forgone conclusion that because X existed, Y would have occurred. The media loves to use this type of logic. (For example, why did crime go down? Abortion. Or stop and frisk. Or fill-in-the-blank-subject-of-news-report.)

One of my primary missions/goals with my series on Iran two years ago was to describe all the various options Iran could use when responding to an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. At business school, I learned to go against my historical training and think probabilistically. Though many of the options at Iran’s disposal had a low probability of success, they were still a probability. Ask anyone who’s played Risk: roll the dice enough times, and you are bound to hit a low probability event.

So when it came to Syria, last fall, I went through the same exercise. In short, while the U.S. likely would have emerged unscathed, in some cases, the war could have spiraled out of control. Those “spiraling out of control” events are why in hindsight we can be glad we didn’t start a war that Americans don’t care about now.

Here are the viable options I foresaw. For “viable”, I mean any situation with above a 1% possibility of occurring.

1. The most likely outcome. Playing the odds, if the U.S. had launched cruise missiles at Syria, it most likely wouldn’t have lost any soldiers. In most cases, the U.S. and its allies would emerge unscathed from military action. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry went to Congress and testified that this wasn’t war. He meant that the U.S. wouldn’t experience significant casualties. In most cases, he would be right. I’m honest about that.

What are the odds that this strategy would have disarmed or dethroned Bashad? We don’t know. But we do know that the strategy America did take--not intervening--achieved the same goals, without American involvement.

2. Syria attacks Israel in retaliation. Simply put, Syria has the ability to attack Israel. If the U.S. military campaign threatened the regime too much, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad could easily find it in his interest to attempt to deter the U.S. by firing missiles or using terrorist proxies to target Israel. Israel, then, could find itself beset by terrorist enemies.

3. Israel attacks Iran. I saw two ways this could’ve happened. In the above case, where Syria attacks Israel, in the fog of war—in this case an accurate description of the events—Israeli intelligence could rightfully or mistakenly believe that Iran had prompted the terror attacks on its territory.

Or--and this doesn’t require too huge a leap--Israel could decide to adopt the oft repeated maxim to “never let a good war go to waste”. (I won’t cite a source because that quote is in most cases a quote behaving badly.) Israel’s primary foreign policy aim for the last twenty years has been to maintain its position as sole nuclear power in the Middle East, which means preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Thus, as the U.S. started firing missiles at Syria, Israel could suddenly launch attacks at Iran to bomb their nuclear facilities. They could also do this if they accused Iran of sponsoring terror attacks against it.

Then, President Obama would have a legitimate problem as Iran could attack U.S. warships in the Persian/Arab gulf in response. Or they could not, but the U.S. could have to finish off Iranian nuclear facilities if Israeli war planes failed to complete the job.

4. The U.S. has to put troops on the ground. This is the least likely possibility, but still more realistic than 1%. If the U.S. lost a warplane, as it did during the war in Libya, it would have to send in ground troops. Those troops could be attacked, or worse. Or it could have to send in U.S. troops to secure chemical weapons. Either way, the U.S. could quickly see its commitment escalating.

Add up the probabilities and an “escalation scenario” is unlikely. It requires Syria attacking Israel in response to U.S. attacks, or Israel blaming Iran and counter-attacking (or simply deciding to attack Iran anyways) and Iran attacking the U.S. in response. In total, that’s an unlikely chain of events, in that more times than not, it doesn’t occur.

But there is that chance. I pegged it at about 2% at the time. If 2% doesn’t seem high, try to remember the first World War. Adding up all the factors required for that war to spin out of control, it was probably about a 2% chance that World War I started. But boy oh boy did that 2% have a huge impact on Europe.

And that 2% is why I opposed the war in Syria and will oppose most wars of choice in the future.

May 20

Here’s a rough outline of my foreign policy beliefs:

- The U.S. spends too much on defense. (I’d link to an On V post, but I couldn’t choose just one; we’ve written dozens on this topic.)

- Conversely, it spends way too little on diplomacy. The U.S. should increase the number of diplomats--and their overall quality--around the globe, focusing on better language skills.

- The U.S. government should also sign on to a host of international treaties to date it has not yet agreed to, including the International Criminal Court, the ban on cluster munitions, and the ban on land-mines (and support the efforts to classify white phosphorous as a chemical munition), along with too many environmental treaties to name.

That’s just for starters and it’s an incredible expansion of the U.S. position globally. I will take this internationalism even further:

- I believe the U.S. should begin donating (for free) U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations. That’s right. Take the current missions staffed by Brazil, Pakistan and other countries, and bolster them with U.S. brigades on two year deployments. The U.S. military would get peacekeeping training; the U.N. missions would get increased visibility, technology and support.

- I believe America--as soon as we emerge from the current financial crisis--should spearhead an effort for a “Global Marshall Plan” to support the U.N. Millenium Development goals to eradicate global poverty. This would significantly increase U.S. spending on foreign aid by tens of billions.

- I also think the U.S. government should encourage private individuals to donate even more of their wealth to charities working outside our borders.

To cap off these extraordinarily international and involved efforts:

- I believe the U.S. government should try to renew diplomatic relationships with Iran to decrease the likelihood of war. At the same time, the U.S. should signal to the world that it will slowly stop supporting vicious dictatorships, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf states.

Despite believing all of these things, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and Sebastian Junger, I’m an isolationist...because I didn’t want the U.S. to start a war with Syria.   

As you probably read last year, I opposed U.S. missile strikes in Syria. I opposed them because I didn’t think they were about the use of chemical weapons, but instead about the ongoing civil war in Syria. This, according to Sebastian Junger in his op-ed, “When the Best Chance for Peace means War” in The Washington Post, makes me an “isolationist” (emphasis mine):

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

I understand Sebastian Junger’s larger point, but, like most fruitless debates, each side on the Syria issue talked past each other. I didn’t and don’t deny the slaughter of innocents in Syria. Then, as now, though, I don’t want the U.S. embroiled in a civil war when I simply don’t trust our military to actually slow or ebb the bloodshed. I also want to know why this civil war--as opposed to the one in Sri Lanka that went through 2008, the ongoing violence in and around the Central African Republic, or the burgeoning conflict in South Sudan--requires our intervention, and most importantly moral outrage, when those did not. (And I could have listed a dozen or more additional conflicts for which Sebastian Junger lacks similar moral indignation.)

But what outraged me most was both John Kerry and Sebastian Junger’s casual use of “isolationism” during the attempted run up to war in Syria. They weren’t alone. Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post used the label. So did Bill Keller in the New York Times. So did countless others.     

Isolationism is a real term. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a genuine political movement supported by Republican politicians. Now it has been bastardized to label anyone who doesn’t want to start another war in the Middle East. Like myself.

Most learned people on foreign policy hold complicated views and simple reductionism don’t do them any justice. For example, I don’t want a militarily-interventionist foreign policy, but I do want a robustly democracy-promoting, free-trade-encouraging, internationally-focused interventionist foreign policy. The difference is I want to intervene before conflicts erupt, not after.

When pro-Syrian interventionists like Junger, Rubin and others label Americans who oppose the strikes in Syria as abject isolationists or naive pacifists, they are abusing those terms and smearing their opponents. If the anti-isolationists really want more peace in the world, they should find the policies that encourage peace in the long run. Unfortunately, military power doesn’t create peace; economic growth, international institutions, international laws, international norms, the spread of democracy, the spread of trade and other parts of foreign policy liberalism create peace.

And to support those policies requires more involvement in the world, not less. Which is why I’m not an isolationist; just someone who rejects unnecessary wars.

May 15

Last fall, Eric C and I were so worried about a possible new war with Syria--specifically, an authorization of force vote by Congress--that we violated one of our core rules and “chased the news”. We posted a few articles opposing the war and analyzing the media coverage, and wrote an open letter to our representatives in Congress recommending that they didn’t start a new war in the Middle East.

And the U.S. didn’t go to war. Media coverage moved past Syria and on to better, newer, brighter news stories, like a Malaysian airplane crash, the government shutdown of 2013 (Glad we weren’t fighting a war during that!), Obamacare’s failure (then not failure), and another foreign policy crisis in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria continues on...and Syria has actually destroyed some of their chemical weapon stockpiles.

Sigh.

Syria, another war that wasn’t.

At the time, President Obama’s failure to intervene symbolized his lack of leadership, the ascendence of Russia, the failure of Americans to protect the innocent, and the decline of American power and global leadership...all in one small crisis. If you had turned on Fox News, CNN or even The Daily Show, you would have seen coverage bemoaning President Obama deciding not to start another war. You would have heard countless pundits warning that America’s security had never been more at risk than the present.

Does any of that seem weird, in hindsight? I mean, eight months on and Syria hasn’t made the news for weeks. (Unless you watch PBS or read The Economist cover to cover.) At the time--and for the record, the conflict in Syria hasn’t stopped--Syria seemed like the most important news story ever. I mean, thousands died in a chemical gas attack.

Americans have a billionaire racist to obsess over now.

There is an important takeaway in this episode: The media hyper-charges foreign policy crises with its 24/7 coverage. In the weeks during a crisis, the U.S. over-analyzes and tears apart the President’s every decision. In hindsight, it’s hard to remember why every crisis seemed so dire.

This wasn’t the first time--or second time--we got duped into opposing a war that never happened. Two years ago, we wrote a whole series on war with Iran--we’re still proud of that work, by the way--that never happened. Last year, we wrote a series on “The War that Wasn’t”, about North Korea and that war that never happened. At various points this year and last, war with Iran seemed inevitable, and now we have talk of intervening in the Ukraine. (Maybe Nigeria?) But all of these “wars” eventually fall by the wayside.

This week and next we plan to run some posts we wrote last year related to Syria. With the Ukraine figuratively “blowing up” in the mean time, we plan to lump in the whole host of avoided wars during the Obama presidency into one chunk. In hindsight, we hope to offer what most of the media fails to in a bid to grab page counts: thoughtful, reflective analysis on a series of crises.

May 13

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Our readers could (somewhat fairly) accuse us of picking on conservatives on this blog. Many people--looking at our tagline of a veteran and a pacifist--assume we’re a conservative and a liberal, when we’re actually a moderate and socialist-liberal. We try not to espouse knee jerk liberal politics, but if we do talk politics, usually we debunk conservative rhetoric as it relates to the military.

But today we’re taking on the left wing of the political spectrum. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on misusing quotes; liberals may abuse quotes more. While I was researching a Bertrand Russell misquote last week, I found Antiwar.com’s “Quote Page

And it’s a big ‘ol mess, the ultimate example of “Quotes Behaving Badly”.

If you know of any knee jerk anti-war quotes, they’re probably there. Want some examples?

Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” - Ecclesiastes 9:18.

The actual quote is “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner can destroy much that is good.” They literally cut off half of the quote. And the quote comes from a passage about a poor, wise man failing to save a city from an attacking conquerer. Very disingenuous use of a quote. It literally means the opposite of what they quoted. Another example:

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” - Albert Einstein.

Three problems with this one. First, it is a paraphrase of this actual quote, “the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it." Second, Einstein said it referencing the thoughts of Pablo Casal, from whom he got the idea. The entire quote reads “He [Cassal] perceives very clearly that the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” Finally, we’ve debunked this sentiment before.

Nothing good ever comes of violence.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Google says Martin Luther said it (You know the ex-Catholic priest who founded Lutheranism. Don’t feel bad; they get confused all the time.) instead of Martin Luther King Jr. Wikiquote has neither saying it.

After victory, you have more enemies.” - Cicero.

We couldn’t find a source for it anywhere...which makes us think it doesn’t exist.

Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.” - Davy Crockett

Actually, Gerald Ford said this, though according to Wikiquote, similar things were said by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. And if Davy Crockett has said this, at the time, he’d probably be opposing a standing (permanent) military, not business regulations.

When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

War settles nothing.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both of these quotes are a bastardization of a much longer, nuanced response Eisenhower made at a news conference, simplified to the point of absurdity. This also personally offends Michael C because he idolizes General/President Eisenhower’s nuanced and persuasive view of national security.

I could do this all day. But I’ll close with these two:

In war, truth is the first casualty.” - Aeschylus

The first casualty when war comes is the truth.” - Sen. Hiram Johnson

As we wrote here, this quote is all wrong. “The actual award goes to Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page in The Abolition of War (1924). Second place goes to Samuel Johnson, who wrote “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” This phrasing is not very quotable; neither is Samuel Johnson.

But more amazingly, they misquoted and misattributed the same quote on the same page twice. Twice! Twice! How is that even possible? And it’s a quote about truth! They literally misquoted a quote about truth twice on the same page. Gathering hundreds of anti-war quotes together on one page created a critical mass of inaccuracy.

This site illustrates the problem with collecting quotes as “proof” of something. They confirm knee jerk opinions that we already maintain. I read a few years ago about a study that said, answering the question of whether the internet is making people smarter or dumber, is that the answer is both. Some people are getting smarter, by researching, fact checking and visiting a variety of websites. Others are getting dumber, only looking for views that confirm what they already believe. Ideologists won’t fact check something they agree with.

Especially quotes.

May 09

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

So we go nearly two years without a “Quotes Behaving Badly” post because we couldn’t find enough quotes. Then, we find enough for three, so expect more quote debunking in the next few weeks. Without further ado, more “Quotes Behaving Badly”:

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

How has On Violence not tackled this mother of all quotes? I mean, we even used it way back in the day (while cautioning that we thought it was a “Quote Behaving Badly”). So has the Economist, The Marines Corps Gazette and countless other quote generators. Unfortunately, the closest we have seen to a reference is one book which places Napoleon on the H.M.S. Bellerophon on his way to exile. (Though, it doesn’t have a source for any of that. Wikiquote currently has it as unsourced.)

Most likely, Napoleon didn’t say this quote, but it would require a lot more research to find the first instance in popular language. It also captures why we dislike “Quotes Behaving Badly” so much. Sure, soldiers love to get ribbons and recognition. I don’t know an infantryman who doesn’t want a CIB. At the same time, soldiers fight even harder and longer for the men and women on their left and right.        

(We also want to give props to our favorite source for management thinking, Manager-Tools.com, for identifying a “quote behaving badly”. Mark Horstman has spent years quoting Napoleon saying, “Never prohibit that which you cannot prevent.” (This comes from his “Things I Think I Think” newsletter.) However, he rightly pointed out that, “Upon searching, I have discovered that the only [places] Google cites to this quote being from Napoleon relate back to...me. So I might be wrong.”)

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.” - Talleyrand

More precisely, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the foreign minister of France who survived from the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, allegedly said this. I recently heard this in a class where a professor (rightfully) sang Talleyrand’s praises. However, the professor also included this quote, and as I do now whenever I hear any quote, I looked it up. Turns out, the quote comes from another diplomat, Clemenceau from after World War I. And the actual translation should be “to the military” instead of “military men”.

Remember the old Napoleon saying, “Don’t quote that which you can’t verify.” (Not a quote.)   

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” - Adolph Hitler

The above quote also goes by the variants “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. Especially if it is repeated again and again.” and “The bigger/more blatant a lie, the more people will believe it.” Variously attributed to Hitler or Goebbels, this quote is wrong on a number of levels.

First, both sides of the aisle regularly accuse the other party of using the big lie. For example, Glenn Beck, responding to Democrat accusations that Republicans were using the “big lie”, responded by saying that political tactics used by progressives were taken from the Nazi playbook. Awesome.

Second, it’s a misquote, a bastardization of what Hitler actually wrote. Like most quotes behaving badly, the mis-quote simplifies a much more complex thought. Read this full paragraph to understand Hitler’s true meaning:

“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice. All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

To clarify, Hitler is not endorsing the “Big Lie”, as I think most people assume when they read or repeat the quote above. He doesn’t believe that the big lie works; he thinks that the Jews fed Germans a big lie, but he (Hitler) saw through it. He’s not offering a blueprint for dictatorship; he’s justifying his anti-semitism. He’s justifying the mass extermination of the Jews.

Finally, I’m not sure whether this quote reflects reality or not. I mean, we once ran a post on how 40% of Americans believe Saddam didn’t have WMDs, another 30% believe he did and 25% don’t know. 9/11 conspiracy theorists still dominate corners of the internet. Maybe if you repeat something long enough, some people will believe it.

“War does not determine who is right--only who is left.” - Bertrand Russell

At some point, researching an On Violence post, I came across this perfect candidate for a “Quote Behaving Badly”. Instinctively, I knew Russell didn’t say this. He might have, but it just seems too simple a thought for one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. No war actually kills every single person in a country, at least not since the Middle Ages.

According to Wikiquote--and some light On Violence research-- the accuracy of this quote is in dispute. As Wikiquote writes, “This has often been published as a quotation of Russell, when an author is given (e.g. in Quote Unquote — A HandBook of Quotation, 2005, p. 291), but without any sourced citations, and seems to have circulated as an anonymous proverb as early as 1932.”

Remember, if you can’t cite where or when the author said something, they probably didn’t say it. More importantly, journalism and academia only succeed if we can cite who said what (along with where and when they said it). Using quotations by citing some robo-site that says, “Einstein said it this,” is terrible reportage/scholarship.

What’s more interesting is where I found it, on Anti-war.com’s list of quotes.

This led to a whole rabbit hole we’ll go down next week...

May 07

Today marks the five year anniversary of On Violence. We feel like, on an occasion like this, it’s a moment for self-reflection, but we’re, oddly, not in a self-reflective mood. Despite how good this year has been for us in terms of traffic and exposure, we don’t feel like looking back.

We’re always charging away on a number of projects, always busy, always looking for more time. So instead of looking back, we’re looking forward.

All that said, this last year has been a huge for us, mainly off the residual energy of Lone Survivor, including an article in Slate. We’re really proud of the work we did, as one of a few resources compiling the facts on the most popular war film and memoir since 9/11. We’re also proud of the other posts we did, on COIN media, on Syria, on quotes, on everything.

So look forward to another year of writing. We’re going to keep charging away until we run out of ideas. We haven’t run out of them yet. They keep multiplying like rabbits.

Stay tuned.