May 25

During my last visit home the inevitable happened, a fight broke out. From our stools in the corner of our favorite bar, my friends and I watched two young men rage at each other, throw glasses and then punches until a bouncer broke it up. I wondered, who was to blame for this fight?

From what I’ve seen, most post-bar fight scenes are the same. Both sides plead innocence. Whoever swings first accuses the other side of some lesser physical contact, like a shove or they claim that the other guy was “coming at me.” Each side will accuse the other of being overtly aggressive, like he "got up in my face." Both sides will justify themselves by saying their opponent was “talking trash.” Frequently, the classic justification is the “other guy” called their female companion a bitch, or some other derogatory comment.

Each side in a bar fight appeals for innocence through inevitability; be it the other person’s verbal or physical actions, most fighters believe they are justified in their actions. Yes, I am taking fist fighting to legalistic, academic extremes but the point remains: in the vast majority of fights, neither side believes they were in the wrong. At this point, three possibilities could be true:

    1. One side is at fault.
    2. Neither side is at fault.
    3. Both sides are at fault.

Usually only the third option makes sense. People who get in fights tend to get in fights frequently.  Few people are this honest about their intentions. When asked, it is insults and perceived “disrespect” that motivates people to start brawling. The vast majority of people do not get in fights; the difference is when the average person is “slighted” they don’t use it to justify fighting. Therefore, when it comes to bar fights, both sides must have some degree of blame.

Why this meditation on bar fights? Because when soldiers and upper level brass talk about the Global War on Terror, they tell us, "We had this fight thrust upon us." Or as President Bush called the Global War on Terror, "A war we did not start."

I have ignored opportunities to fight before, could America have ignored the terrorists? Could we have treated them as criminals instead of starting a Global War on Terror? If we can metaphorically get in a bar fight, can we metaphorically walk away?

Iraq tells an oddly similar tale to a bar fight. More than misperceived aggression, it was America’s first preemptive strike.  We had dozens of options about how to respond to Iraq that did not involve war. We had no impending threat; we had a justification to fight and we took it.

Often, the police give up on assigning blame on calls about fights and declare them “mutual combat.” Police officers understand a truth about fighting: each side is to blame.

May 22

As happens most times when I talk with my brother and one of his fellow officers, the conversation turns to the army. More specifically, it turns to war. Recently, the spark of the conversation was the first line by Yossarian from perhaps the second most popular passage of Catch 22:

    “They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
    "No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
    "Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
    "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
    "What difference does that make?"

Yossarian’s argument is both rational, and insane; it reads like something Lewis Carroll would have written, had he written poetry about modern warfare. The situation, and modern war, is contradictory, both impersonal and personal. The soldiers are mechanically and spatially separated from the battlefield and yet affected in the most personal and intensely psychological ways possible. No one is trying to kill Yossarian in particular, yet the anti-aircraft gunners firing at yossarian as he flies bombing runs over Germany certainly are.

War, as the passage relates, is absurd.

What affected me were the responses of my brother and his friend. Each related a tale of paranoia in Afghanistan, someone they had seen lose it. One told of a Sergeant who stayed up for watch every night, meticulously, obsessively, double checking the work of others, despite having a non-combat job. The other told of a Private who never took off his body armor, even inside protective bunkers. And I thought of a Vietnam war veteran who told me that a symptom of PTSD is running a perimeter check at night; double checking every lock on every door in the house at two or three in the morning.

How deep does this paranoia penetrate? It is impossible to hear these stories and not both pity and understand these reactions. The essence of this clip of dialogue and these simple stories is that Yossarian and these soldiers are essentially right. They (be they insurgents or Germans) were trying to kill them. And this, if you are human, is a terrifying thought.

We can’t help bringing up the cliche of paranoia: it’s not paranoia if they ARE out to get you. It’s not paranoia; it’s fear.

May 20

During my training to become an Infantry Officer, my instructors taught me the doctrine of overwhelming firepower; Under the shield of fire, we would maneuver around and assault through the enemy. Our firepower at hand included heavy artillery, mortars and the M240B machine gun. These weapons rule the battlefield in high-intensity, conventional warfare. But in counter-insurgency, instead of overwhelming the insurgents we overwhelm the population.

The weapons of the military are area weapons with large kill zones. Even the machine gun is an area weapon capable of spraying huge areas with lead. To prevent casualties during training, we may not fire the M240B machine gun within a forty-degree angle of fellow soldiers. The distance between field artillery practice and actual soldiers is so large it’s measured in kilometers not meters.

Where does this leave us? Assume a soldier in Iraq receives fire from a building. His squad will return fire in the general direction of the enemy. The platoon moves into a line next to the squad and provides further combat power with the M240B machine gun I mentioned earlier. A M240B has the minimum of a 30-degree cone of fire. This means that a single insurgent, armed with only an assault rifle, occupying one room in one building can bring return fire on the entire building he occupies. Every round can wound, maim or kill any other occupants in that building.

It is easy to see how innocent civilians die in extended fire fights. Before the surge, and its consequent change in strategy, hundreds died every month in Iraq, The numbers are hard to determine. (Online sources ranging from around nearly 100,000 Iraqis dead to over a million.) Just how many are the direct result of US soldiers protecting themselves from insurgents, we will never know.

Technology will never solve every problem confronting the U.S. Army. In this case, though, continually stressing the use of accurate targeting is a key to winning counter-insurgency warfare. Our Army has changed, let’s hope it continues to learn the lessons of warfare.

May 18

Imagine sitting in your home. Imagine the street and the city around you. Imagine the look of the cars, some are beat up, some are brand new. Think of the street signs, the look of the street lamps, the plants and the vegetation.

Now imagine you are in a major city in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you think everything is radically different, you are wrong. The street signs look different and the people wear different clothes, but a side from a few inconsequential details, the cities are indistinguishable. Lots of people, lots of cars and lots of buildings.

And Iraq, Afghanistan and America all have insurgencies.

In America, the insurgents blend into society. Some parts of the society house them, aid them and give them money. You and your fellow citizens want your town to be free from the “insurgents.” The government passes legislation against the insurgents and harsh fines for aiding them. In America, insurgents do not actively try to overthrow the government, but they skirt its laws. Of course, I am not referring to terrorist extremists but to criminals, mainly drug dealers.

The drug dealer analogy is eerily accurate. They blend into society. They corrupt police agencies at the local level. The legal system is against them, but many civilians in the population support them. The War on Drugs started well before the Global War on Terror. You could argue that drug dealers and gangs in America are less openly violent than the Iraqi insurgents, but in Mexico they are more violent.

This analogy illustrates that insurgency is a completely different style of warfare, one without uniforms or territory to take and hold. Killing your enemy is the easy part; finding the insurgent is difficult, convincing the population not to support him is near impossible. Some have argued against treating terrorists like criminals, but on the insurgency battlefield this is the perfect analogy.

May 15

One of my dad's first responses to our new website was asking why a website on Violence discusses art. For this week’s art post, I want to explain the images at the top of our website and why art is the perfect springboard to talk about Violence.

From the beginning of art to the present, from the first oral traditions to the modern Hollywood blockbuster, almost all art, especially great art, concerns Violence. Take our first image in the upper left hand corner. To find it, we googled “Cain and Abel.” This image was among the first that came up; an image both terrible and beautiful.

The terror is that Violence has been with us from the beginning. Cain and Abel and their iconic story of the first murder -- historically accurate or not -- is the symbolic beginning of Violence. One of the many meanings you can take from this story is the terrible thesis that murder has been a part of humanity since day one.

But what strikes me most about the above image, and the thing that gives it its particular beauty, is how Abel, even though he is soon to die, still lifts his hand up in the most beautiful way. A symbol of hope. A gesture of forgiveness.

If the left hand image is the alpha of Violence, then it’s omega is the photo to the right, taken during the Iraq-Iran war. It evokes both the global and foreign affairs issues that would ensnare the U.S. in Iraq and the tensions that threaten stability throughout the entire region today. Sunni versus Shia. Iran versus Iraq. One man carries an AK-47 and the other an RPG-7, the weapons of the modern insurgency battlefield.

As modern as this photo is -- the war only occurred less then thirty years ago -- this image presents is an anachronism of warfare: soldiers fighting trench warfare. We chose this image for our website because we believe America, in too many instances, fights the wrong style of warfare on the wrong battlefield. This picture hints at how military paradigms change, or refuse to change.

Cain and Abel photo are well known in symbols in our culture, but the soldiers in the second image are wholly anonymous. Lost in the fog of war, we see the anonymity of all warfare, and feel the terror, pain, and excitement of all soldiers. I am reminded of a line from Donne’s meditation “and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The alpha and the omega of Violence. Where we were and where we are now. And we bring them together, with hopes to change the future.

May 13

In the aftermath of 9/11, the most important questions confronting America -- who was responsible and how do we bring them to justice -- were quickly answered. Al Queda and Osama Bin Laden were responsible and we would capture, kill or destroy them both.

Soon, partisanship replaced unity and one question replaced the others: who could we blame? Of all the candidates offered up by journalists, political pundits, and documentarians, two stood out: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

How you answer the question of blame usually depends on your political leanings. For Republicans, Clinton did not combat the terrorist threat during his administration. They point to the multiple attacks launched against America in the 1990s including the first World Trade Center bombing, the attacks on US embassies and the bombing of the USS Cole, and decry his failure to respond to these attacks. They point to Clinton’s failure to kill Bin Laden or cripple Al Queda when he had the chance.

For Democrats, they say it didn’t occur on their watch and that Bush was not focused on protecting the country. The smoking gun is the infamous memo titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” from August 2001. They also blame Bush’s pre-9/11 focus on a missile defense shield and a national security cabinet filled with Cold Warriors.

The debate becomes a back and forth of blame. Republicans can claim Clinton did not go far enough in combating terrorism but then neither did the Republican controlled Congress. The nation did not care about terrorism until 9/11; the date of the first World Trade Center bombing is a footnote in history. Democrats can fault Bush, but he took the reigns of power only nine months prior to 9/11. Can he be blamed for not predicting the attacks no one else predicted?

I bring up this old topic because we again have a new president. As the Bush administration left office, they pointed to one accomplishment more then any other: since 9/11, no foreign groups conducted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Trying to place blame for a tragedy is tricky business, as is trying to take credit for avoiding one. A close look at Bush’s success puts his assertion on shaky ground. Foreign groups attacked our Allies’ in Madrid and London and still unknown American(s) conducted deadly terrorist attacks on US soil by mailing anthrax shortly after 9/11.

And Clinton can make the same claim as Bush. After the first World Trade Center bombing, there were no foreign led terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The caveat is, of course, that the bombing of the USS Cole occurred on Clinton’s watch, but do Republicans want to include Middle East bombings of military targets for President Bush?

These points all beg the question: when does the next terrorist attack become President Obama’s fault? Will conservatives give Obama nine months and then after that say he is responsible for the security situation? Will liberals give him longer? Will conservatives blame the next attack, as Cheney has, on Obama’s decision to end Guantanamo?

The best answer is to move past the 9/11 Blame Game. As a country, let’s focus on solving our problems, and less on assigning blame.

May 11

I spent a long time thinking about what to write for our first true On Violence post. Whether to write something clever on a topic obliquely related to my overall search, or write about the core of my beliefs about violence.

We’ll start at the beginning, with definitions. Search a textbook on philosophy or an anthology of philosophical writings and look for references to Violence. You will see concepts like force or the metaphysics of action, but rarely Violence. In most regards, Western Philosophy has all but ignored Violence since Plato. Violence exists as a variable in philosophical equations, but never as the equation itself.

Since Western Philosophy has not provided a definition of Violence, I proceed to the next logical step: Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Webster’s Dictionary provides this gem:

vi-o-lence n. 1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm. 2. rough or injurious physical force, action,    or treatment: to die by violence. 3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence. 4. a violent act or proceeding.

Even armed with these definitions, I still barely know what violence is or, more importantly, what it means to our society. As I read, re-read and ponder this definition, I see that I am probably trying to write about something between definitions two and three, with definition four simply a restatement. The second definition provides the key word that gets to the heart of violence, “injurious.” Violence causes pain, suffering or injury.

Definition three provides a key detail, but one that makes you slap your head in frustration as another philosophical can of worms is opened. Using “power” in an “unjust” fashion defines all sorts of violence in society, from the most obviously unjust to the grey areas. The unjust examples are clear: a man beating a child; a group of Southerners in the fifties lynching an African-American; the holocaust. But when does Violence become just? The U.S. invading Iraq or Al Qaeda bombing the World Trade Center both have proponents claiming the justice of their actions, depending on their definitions of justice and their differing points of view.

I will define Violence as both the second and third definitions. Violence at its rawest is the second definition; some action/treatment/behavior that causes pain/suffering/injury. This is violence as action. The third definition strikes at the philosophical definition we need though—the reason Violence strikes an emotional chord in humanity. It gives violence larger meaning; as a concept, it has philosophical weight. Because it is unjust, and unfair, violence is detestable.

May 08

Welcome to the end of the first week of our new website, On Violence. We don’t know how you found us, but we thank you for making it. We have a lot of ideas, a few answers, and even more questions. To end our first week we wanted to explain why a blog primarily about military and foreign affairs has a weekly article on art. The answer is simple: Violence is pervasive.

Violence seeps into almost every nook and cranny of every society, and has since the dawn of time. But Violence is also wrong. Even Violence that responds to Violence can still be morally, ethically wrong; it frequently backfires, is rarely selfless, it begets more Violence and those who live by the sword... so on and so on.

Every society explains itself through its art, through its tales and stories; stories that explain the world, stories that teach the young and old, stories that change minds. They always have, they always will. And since the beginning, these stories -- and art -- have dealt with Violence.

Violence. It is one of the great themes. Understanding Violence in art is another way of understanding the violence in the past and the violence of today. Perhaps, even, a way to change the face of it for the days of tomorrow.