Feb 17

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, please click here.)

The theme of this week’s posts about the Oscars (well, mostly Chris Kyle and the film based on his memoir American Sniper) is an ongoing apology for not giving American Sniper the Lone Survivor treatment. Based on the title of the post, you’ve realized I (Eric C) didn’t even finish the memoir.

I just couldn’t get through it. Life’s too short to read books like this. Nearly every other page had something offensive or inaccurate in it. For example, Kyle writes, “Southern California is the land of nuts. I wanted to live somewhere with a little more sanity.” I’m from Southern California, so I know that this line’s not only insulting, but also inaccurate: Coronado is a medium-sized commute from Orange County, one of the most conservative counties in the country.

Kyle filled his book with page after page of observations like this. Here’s an incomplete selection of Chris Kyle assertions that we’ve written On V posts debunking:

- His stance on the rules of engagement in Iraq is abysmal. (“Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.”)

- As a kid, he goes around looking for ways to get into fights without getting into trouble. (Because that’s what good sheepdogs do.)

- He wants to go to war “to experience the thrill of battle”.

- He complains about his commander.

- Of course, he refers to Iraqis as savages throughout the book.

- Later in the book, he hints to the reader that he shot innocent Iraqis to up his kill count. (If you think this joke is funny, more power to you. I can’t laugh, because he killed real people.) From Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone:

(The most disturbing passage in the book to me was the one where Kyle talked about being competitive with other snipers, and how when one in particular began to threaten his "legendary" number, Kyle "all of the sudden" seemed to have "every stinkin' bad guy in the city running across my scope." As in, wink wink, my luck suddenly changed when the sniper-race got close, get it? It's super-ugly stuff).

- We could go on and on, but here’s one last example: Kyle believed Saddam had WMDs. (Based on what I’ve read, this scene didn’t make the movie. But I’d love to see the alternate version of history where the film included this tidbit.)

I found most of these examples just thumbing through the book and picking a page at random.

If you want to know if American Sniper is the book for you, let me ask you a question. Do you think the following passage is funny?

A British unit flew in in the morning. By then, the battle was over. of course we couldn’t resist needling them about it.

“‘Come on in. The fight’s over,’ we said. ‘It’s safe for you.’

"I don’t think they thought it was funny, but it was hard to tell. They speak English funny.”

- American Sniper, pg. 88.

Uproarious! What a zinger!

For some reason, this little joke about the British accent symbolizes everything I hate about American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s pretending to be uneducated down-home country boy for comedic effect, as if he can’t even understand British English.

What’s worse is that I can imagine most of the target demographic of American Sniper reading this line and laughing, which is really sad. (I’d guess that demographic consists of older, male, pro-military, conservative Fox News viewers. I’m not just making this up. According to court documents, that’s the demographic HarperCollins targeted.) Not only do conservatives have a sad anti-intellectual provincialism, many actively embrace and celebrate it. (Though, unlike many pundits, I don’t think it’s limited to the South.) Mike Huckabee just wrote a book about it.

After that joke, I stopped reading the book. There’s just no point.

I felt like I was re-reading Lone Survivor, or at least the Iraq war/sniper version of Lone Survivor. A super-Christian, super-conservative Texan Navy SEAL was pushing all of his ideologies--especially his hatred of the rules of engagement--on me. So I’m not going to finish the book, and this is as much of a review as you’ll get from us. (Fortunately, as will share with the reader tomorrow, multiple mainstream critics have criticized Kyle’s ideology.)

I’ll close with this. Kyle, from page two on, delights in killing Iraqis. Just delights in it. Doesn’t regret a single death, doesn’t think he fired a misplaced shot. “I don’t shoot people with Korans--I’d like to, but I don’t.” “I don’t give a flying f*** about the Iraqis.”

It’s just not a world I feel like travelling through. But like the “jokes” throughout this post, I’m sure plenty of Americans will agree with Kyle.

Feb 16

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, check out the articles below:

- A Partial Review of "American Sniper" (the Book) or: Good Luck to Anyone Who Wants to Slog Through It 

- Debunking (Or Not Debunking) “American Sniper”

- On V’s What to Read on "American Sniper" Link Drop)


Since we started blogging, we’ve tried to do a week of posts on the Academy Awards. (Though the series didn’t always line up with the ceremony.)

In 2010, we did posts on Avatar, District 9 and others. In 2011, we wrote about the documentary Restrepo and its sister book, Sebastian Junger’s War. We skipped 2012, because aside from War Horse, we didn’t have anything to write about (and didn’t/weren’t going to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). In 2013, oh man, we had a plethora of riches including Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and The Invisible War. (That series came eight months late.) Last year, aside from Captain Phillips, we were blanked again, but we spent over a month writing about Lone Survivor, which didn’t get nominated for Best Picture.

What about this year? Any war films? As matter of fact, three of the Best Picture nominees are war films, including The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and American Sniper. Two other war films--Unbroken and Fury--earned critical praise, but didn’t get nominated.

Quick question: what war do you think four of those five films take place in? Don’t think too hard...

World War II.

Of course they’re about World War II. Hollywood doesn’t make films about any other war. That’s an exaggeration….they just mostly make films about World War II. This is a huge problem.

My simple take, which I hope to expand elsewhere, is that there are moral implications to this myopic focus on World War II above all other wars. World War II actually has less to teach us about war than most other wars, all based around simplified narrative that America and England needed to go to war to defeat the evil Nazis and stop the Holocaust. (As we’ve written before, World War II wasn’t nearly that simple.)

That’s why we--not just Americans, but most of the West--embrace World War II. In a strange way, it’s comforting. You can enjoy a war film without having to think too hard. No grey areas over here! Even if a World War II movie shows the horrors of war, it actually reinforces the morality of committing them; sometimes you need to do horrible things to stop evil.

This World War II focus has a real world impact. It sanitizes war. It justifies it. It makes our country more likely to go to war. Just look at politicians rhetoric about “Munich moments”. If you’ve just seen a film about World War II--and last year, that’s probably the war film you saw--you might think, “I hope ISIS isn’t Hitler.” instead of, “I hope this isn’t another Vietnam.” (Or Iraq, strangely enough.)

This isn’t the case with other wars. The war in Vietnam and World War I force us to ask moral and ethical questions about war. And about ourselves. Most importantly, they show how pointless war can be.

Speaking of pointless military conflicts...what about American Sniper?

We’ve had people emailing us and tweeting us requests to “debunk” this book since the film was announced. This week we will somewhat fulfill that request with a (partial) review of the book, a post on debunking (or not debunking) the memoir, and a link drop.

Is this as thorough as our work on Lone Survivor? No, and we will explain why over the next two posts. Fortunately for us, many writers and columnists have gone after written about Chris Kyle’s extreme politics and many critics have lambasted the film’s inaccuracies and simplified view of war. (Though the film depicts Chris Kyle as war weary and troubled by killing, his memoir tells a somewhat different story.) Expect those links in the link drop. Except for Chris Kyle’s arguably illegal interpretation of rules of engagement, they basically hit everything.

Based on the success Lone Survivor and American Sniper, movie studios are probably going to greenlight Iraq war films like crazy. But if they follow the mold of their predecessors, that’s not actually a good thing.

Hollywood hasn’t made a film about Vietnam war film in a while. Like Vietnam, Hollywood will eventually stop making films about Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars, too, will fade from public consciousness in the coming generations.

But we’ll probably always have films about World War II.

Sigh.

Feb 12

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

On Monday, we addressed two of the criticisms of our Slate piece, (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”). Today, we want to tackle some more of the rebuttals.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with race!”

Far and away, people--even people who liked the article--objected to us connecting the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy to race more than any other objection. Some felt the connection was not related to the core article, or Chris Kyle.

There’s a number of rebuttals we could issue in response. First, as we wrote in the article, many (most?) Americans use race, consciously or subconsciously. In particular, many police officers use race in their decision making. (By now, most people have seen the Harvard Implicit Bias test. If not, check it out.) The sheepdog analogy, by its very nature, divides people into categories. And most people in America divide their fellow Americans into categories...using race.

Ironically, many of the people objecting to the accusation of racism had an odd response: being racist. For example…

“But black people are wolves!”

I wanted to make this point in the original article, but Michael C made me leave it out. Follow this simple logic train (which we don’t agree with):

- The world is divided into three groups, sheep, sheepdogs and wolves.

- Wolves commit crimes.

- African-Americans commit crimes more than any other group.

- Therefore, African-Americans are more likely to be wolves. (Again we don’t agree with this at all.)

Think that’s crazy? I do too, but I just wanted to follow the crazy logic of the sheepdog analogy to its logical conclusion. If this analogy is true (it’s not), African Americans are more likely to be wolves. Turns out, some commenters are already leapt to that conclusion, citing crime statistics and saying, “See, African Americans are wolves!”

And people say the gun rights debate doesn’t have anything to do with race. But let’s get more specific...

“Michael Brown was a wolf!”

Many commenters on Twitter and in the comments section objected to us using Michael Brown as an example.

From Twitter: “at the same time, the pieces author mourns a violent criminal like Michael Brown (can't speak to Garner), so…”

From the comments section: “BTW, Mike Brown was a wolf, as shown on the security video in which he assaulted and robbed a much smaller man.” and “Mike Brown was a wolf killed by a sheepdog.”

Or in more racially-loaded terms, Michael Brown was a “thug”. (Yes, someone wrote that.) And less sensitively, some commenters wrote that he deserved to get shot.

This is really where I get upset. In essence, they’re arguing that petty larceny is a crime deserving a death sentence. Yes, I mourn the death of any young man who gets shot, because I don’t see the failing as his, but a society that couldn’t help him. Especially when an overzealous law enforcement community and its supporters see shooting him as a justified action for robbing a liquor store.

Sad.

“Evil exists!”

That’s the gist of this article refuting us. On one hand we can’t refute this. There are definitely horrific, vile acts in the world it is hard to call anything but evil. But, as we wrote in our Slate article and many times since, the number of horrific, vile acts in the world is decreasing. Evil isn’t spreading in the world, it’s receding.

But going from “evil acts” to “evil people” is a different ball game and it begs way more questions than it answers. Does one act forever make someone evil?  What about soldiers or police officers who beat their children or cheat on their wives? Are they evil? What about the torturers?  What about drone strikes of weddings in Yemen? Does that make the operators in Langley sheepdogs or wolves? What about politicians making bad decisions about wars that kill innocents? Are they sheep or sheepdogs? Evil or justified?

Evil is too simplistic a term to judge people with, unfortunately. And so is the “sheep, wolves and sheepdog” analogy.

Feb 09

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, check out the posts below:

- On V in Other Places: Slate's "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”

- Race, Evil, and Black Wolves: Answering the Critics Part 2

- The Most Insulting Part of the Sheepdog Analogy

- Now Who's Being Naive? When Sheepdogs Kill Sheep

- The Internal Inconsistency of Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves Analogy

- Some Closing Thoughts on Wolves, Sheep and Sheepdogs Analogy)

Our Slate piece from two weeks ago (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”), got a lot of responses. And by a lot of responses, we mean approximately 1,300 comments. (An On V record!) Like any good comments section, most of the responses were insane. But we thought we’d debunk a few of the most common rebuttals to our article.

Today, we tackle the responses that attacked our research.

“Grossman didn’t invent the analogy!”

Unfortunately, this was the most popular response about our article, challenging the idea that Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman invented the analogy.

First, we had people pointing out any analogy with a wolf, a sheep or a sheepdog in it and claiming, “See! Someone else said it first!” Most of these analogies only had two of the three animals, which wouldn’t make it quite the same. In particular, a reader filed a correction with Slate, saying it came from The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth. So I found the analogy in the book, forwarded it to Slate, and we all agreed: the analogy in that book was actually the opposite of Grossman’s analogy. (That specific analogy claimed that every member of every military in the world was a wolf preying on the innocent.)

This also happened with Plato and few other analogies. In short, people have been crafting analogies about sheep for years (like the Bible); this analogy is very specific and different.

Closer to the point, a sociology professor pointed out that Grossman may have first used the actual analogy in On Killing. He also pointed out that another sociologist in the 1990s used the same analogy to criticize the media’s perception of police. Based on the follow-up research we’ve done, this seems accurate.

But it’s all besides the point.

Despite the headline “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”, we weren’t writing a history of the analogy. We were debunking it. Oh, and we even wrote in the article that Grossman said he heard it from an old vet.

Anyway, who first crafted the analogy doesn’t matter. Grossman popularized the analogy. Grossman did more than any other person to make this analogy a cornerstone of the conservative, gun rights movement, by writing articles and giving hundreds of talks around the country. Grossman may not have invented the analogy, but he made it famous.

“You’re taking these quotes out of context!”

A lot of people objected to how we used quotes from both Chris Kyle and Lt. Col. Grossman, saying we took the quotes out of context. You can probably say this about anyone quoting anything anytime. Since you can’t (and wouldn’t) quote entire texts, someone can always claim that the next sentence, paragraph or chapter clarifies a quote that makes someone look bad. (*cough* Clausewitz *cough*)

That’s not the case with the quotes we used.

On Chris Kyle, he’s an extremist. In his book American Sniper, he hates like few people have the power to hate. More importantly to the critics of what we wrote, I re-read the passage we quoted in the article. Nothing before or after it contradicts what he said.

Some people claim that Kyle only referred to the bad guys as “savages”, not all Iraqis just the people he was fighting. And yes, at one point in the book Kyle makes that distinction. Of course, in the first chapter alone, he uses “savages” without making that distinction. And here are some more quotes about Iraqis from American Sniper:

“I never once fought for the Iraqis. I couldn’t give a flying f*** about them.”

“I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

So yeah, our quotes stand.

Did we take Grossman out of context? Some people complained that Grossman didn’t view his groupings as definite. To be fair, Grossman does make that point [emphasis mine]:

“This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between.”

And this point…

“In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.”

But then he contradicts himself later:

“If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. No one can be “on” 24/7 for a lifetime. Everyone needs down time. But if you are authorized to carry a weapon, and you walk outside without it, just take a deep breath, and say this to yourself... “Baa.”

Sounds like an all-or-nothing choice. And in his earlier work, On Killing, he classified the emphatic psychopath as the ultimate warrior, dividing humans into groups based on genetics. So yeah, it’s pretty much a dichotomy.

Of course, Grossman doesn’t write anything about wolves becoming sheep or sheepdogs, but we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Feb 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And a disclaimer: I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

On Monday, I pointed out that media’s coverage of possible military interventions--in real talk, going to war--is incredibly pro-war. Quantitatively, the media invites on pro-war guests, up to and including people whose past advice has been utterly disastrous, ie, supporting and endorsing the original war in Iraq without ever admitting they were wrong. (Hell, Arizona and South Carolina voters keep re-electing these people to the Senate.)

But as had long been the On V style, we don’t want to just complain about something. We want to offer solutions. So here they are: four solutions to the media’s pro-war stance.

1. Invite on a War Skeptic

Military insiders, reporters who’ve been to war zones, and politicians allt tend to be reflexively pro-war (pro-intervention). More political talk shows need to invite on war skeptics to push back against the rush to war. Frankly, even I don’t really know who these voices would be. (I’d guess that there are dozens of liberal college professors who would do the trick.) Find these voices, and add them to the chorus.

2. Someone Needs to Create a Responsible Anti-war Media Organization

As you can tell by the tagline, yes, I’m a pacifist. And that’s not in name only. I really believe war is not the answer. (To defend myself against knee-jerk criticism, I’m more worried about World War I scenarios than World War II scenarios.)

But you may have noticed, in the tag to this sub-section, I wrote “responsible”. Too many anti-war groups are far too extreme for the American public. They’re either far-right libertarians or far-left socialists, with few voices in between. They don’t connect to the general populace. (If anyone has any suggestions of groups or blogs I could be following, let me know. I’ve looked.)

If we had the resources of time, energy and people--Michael C and I don’t--we would create an organization dedicated to creating balance on war coverage. We’d call it the “July Crisis” organization, dedicated to putting war skeptics onto every Sunday talk show to actually balance out the point of views. (In addition to, I’m guessing, writing reports and studies about the risks of future military interventions, like Michael C and myself did here on Iran.) These experts would question the push to war, ask the tough questions, and explain the risks of intervention.

But what information and viewpoints would these guests share? Well...

3. Debate the Worst Case Scenario

The media, by its nature, tends to frame military interventions over the cost of “doing nothing”. What will happen to innocent civilians in Syria or Iraq if we don’t protect them?

Instead, as Michael C has led the charge on, let’s ask the tough questions: how could this military intervention go disastrously wrong? What’s the worst case scenario? Who could we alienate? For the first Iraq war, we should’ve asked, “What happens if we get trapped in a prolonged, decade long insurgency? What’s the cost?” “Could we end up creating another terrorist group?” “Are we creating a battlefield that will train terrorists?” “Are we going to ignore Afghanistan for half a decade?”

You know, important questions people either didn’t ask or didn’t care if they got answered.

4. Let’s Debate the Past

In my opinion, the entire debate about further intervention in Iraq should be framed around America’s past mistakes in Iraq. (Remember Santayana’s not-a-quote-behaving-badly admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) We invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t have and set up the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive. For a primer on how the media should handle this, watch Frontline’s episodes on “Losing Iraq” or “The Rise of ISIS”. (Though even these episode overstate the ISIS threat.)

Moving into the more recent past, the media is oblivious to the fact that they spent the fall of 2013 debating “arming the rebels” in Syria, without realizing that those rebels would, less than a year later, become the Islamic radicals we feared. Instead of framing the debate around “Would America have sent arms and financing to support terrorists?”, we basically moved onto the question, “What threat does ISIS pose?” And to stop ISIS requires allying with Iran (which Congressional Republicans adamantly oppose).

Whenever we go to war, we pick and choose allies. Since World War II, when we allied with Russia to defeat Hitler, we’ve picked poor bedfellows. To defeat Russia in Afghanistan, we allied with Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam, we angered Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam a second time, we propped up Maliki. Maliki angered the Sunnis, and now we’re at war with ISIS.

This never seems to come up in media debates about war. By addressing the ISIS threat, are we creating another threat? Who is that threat? The media should be instrumental in teaching America this. And reinforcing the lesson that war has unforeseen, often disastrous consequences.

Maybe the political talk show hosts can invite someone on their shows to give this opinion.

Feb 02

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

Back in the fall of 2013, writing about America possible military intervention in Syria’s civil, I noticed something:

The media is incredibly pro-war.

More accurately, the media--particularly the political talk shows--tend to favor action (read: military intervention). Two weeks of Sunday talk shows about Bashar al Assad violating human rights/using chemical weapons were dominated by pro-war voices. (I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

Of course, last September, when ISIS continued to take territory in Iraq and beheaded two journalists, the whole chorus began again. Three distressing problems stood out...

1. Quantitatively, pro-war guests dominate the debate.

SInce the debate over war in Syria two years ago, I’ve wanted to track the Sunday talk shows and quantify--look at the baseline numbers, instead of using my gut--how biased the media actually is.

Fortunately for me, when the country debated intervening in Iraq last year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) did the work for me. Their key finding? “The study of key TV news discussion programs from September 7 through 21 reveals that guests who opposed war [in Iraq] were scarce.”

Analyzing three weeks worth of programs during the debate over another war in Iraq, “205 sources appeared on the programs discussing military options in Syria and Iraq. Just six of these guests, or 3 percent, voiced opposition to US military intervention. There were 125 guests (61 percent) who spoke in favor of US war.” Only one guest could be counted as anti-war.

To be fair--pun not intended--FAIR is a left-wing organization. But I doubt anyone who watches the Sunday talk shows regularly could disagree with their conclusions.

Frankly, it’s shocking how little debate there is. It’s almost like the inverse of how the media handles global warming. For years, newspaper articles and talk shows invited global warming skeptics and global warming scientists at a near fifty-fifty rate.

When it comes to war, almost no skeptical viewpoints are allowed...until the war turns into a quagmire.

2. The media is too dependent on official sources.

Not only are the guests on political talk shows supportive of war, they’re government officials who are supportive of war. Again, from FAIR:

“The guest lists for all the programs leaned heavily on politicians and military insiders. Current and former US government officials—politicians and White House officials—made up 37 percent of the guestlists. Current and former military officials accounted for 7 percent of sources.”

Nearly half of all guests were official sources. Most of the rest were reporters depend on official sources for their coverage. Why is this a problem? The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

“Lee Artz, who teaches communications at Purdue University, and the author of Public Media and Public Interest and Cultural Hegemony in the United States, said he sees these findings reflected in the constantly shifting narrative about the Islamic State. “The mainstream media in the US tends to accept uncritically whatever the US administration releases,” he says.”

Again, unlike virtually any other issue the mainstream media covers, when it comes to security and the military, they trust the military. Trusting the military is not their job. And it denies the government and military’s dodgy (at best) track record with the truth.

3. The televised media invited back the original Iraq war architects to discuss another war in Iraq.

Obviously, many media critics have made this point. The same neo-conservatives who pushed America into the original Iraq war are still being invited onto the Sunday talk shows as guests to discuss intervening in Iraq a second time. I could provide dozens of links to people making this point; I’ll just point you to The Colbert Report and what Jon Stewart calls “America’s tragedy herpe”.

Not only does the media invite John McCain and Lindsey Graham on to their shows to push military interventions--they favor intervention so much, I don’t even have to clarify which war--they invite them on more than any other politician or guest. Period.

Inviting Iraq war proponents on as guests proves that the media’s coverage is pro-war. Or at least, in an effort to avoid perceptions of bias, ends up biasing itself in pro-war/pro-intervention ways. This failure to provide even coverage also fails to educate the country about our military or foreign policy.

In closing, I haven’t suggested any solutions to the above problems. Good news: they’re coming on Wednesday.

Jan 28

At the end of the August 22nd episode of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, former journalist and Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Friedland pissed me off.

She was describing how America had hoped for a “peace dividend” following the fall of the USSR, and then after the drawdown in Iraq. However, she used this history to caution that America “can’t withdraw from the world” (min 15:30), and (therefore) must be prepared to go to war with countries like Russia, Syria and Iraq.   

“Withdrawing from the world” is a familiar criticism of President Obama/Democrats when they don’t want to start another war. In June, Congressman Paul Ryan accused President Obama of “withdrawing from the world” by refusing to bomb ISIS or send troops back to Iraq. John McCain has said this too, in regards to Syria.

It seems every time the Washington war-hawk establishment gets spun up about another war--by our count, since President Obama’s reelection, it has happened with Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq and Nigeria--they first trot out the lines about “Munich Moments”, then they try to portray advocates against another war as “isolationists”, and finish by admonishing that the U.S. cannot “withdraw from the world”.

We find these lines of attack, particularly when they come from hardcore conservatives or conservative think tanks, incredibly hypocritical. Take the Heritage Foundation. They host the text of a speech on their website from Walter Lohman, a director on their staff, called “Honoring America’s Superpower Responsibilities”, where Lohman repeatedly admonishes that America must not “withdraw from the world”. Lohman claims he is not just talking about military power, but other forms of engagement as well.

Fair enough. So let’s go to the Heritage Foundation’s website, and see its official stances on a host of international issues: Does it support more foreign aid spending? Nope. Does it support the UN Council on Human Rights? Nope. Should the U.S. honor the Geneva convention when it comes to terrorists? Nope. Should the U.S. pull back funding from the U.N.? Yep. Should it call for less peacekeeping missions to stop on-going wars? Yep.

Most importantly, does the Heritage foundation recommend rejecting almost every treaty placed in front of America? Hell yes.

See conservatives love to “engage” the world, when it means fighting there. Anyone who backs down from a fight is “withdrawing” from America’s superpower responsibilities. Yet when it comes to low cost, simple ways to spread the rule of law--and international norms, which seemed so important to uphold in both Ukraine and Syria--Republicans and conservatives balk. As Kevin Drum pointed out, conservatives in particular hate treaties.

This applies to Senate Republicans particularly. In the last decade or so they have…

- Promised to kill the the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. (President Clinton signed on to the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate, because he knew it wouldn’t pass. President Bush withdrew from it. (We’ve written before how an ICC for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals would solve about a dozen international issues in one fell swoop.)

- Filibustered or stalled the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1994. (The U.S. does follow its provisions anyways.)

- Failed to sign onto treaties banning cluster munitions, land mines and white phosphorous.

- Rejected an international treaty on Human Rights for the Disabled. The U.S. most recently rejected the UN treaty on protecting disabilities, a treaty styled on US disability law!

- And more!

We’ve written about this before, defending ourselves--and fellow advocates for restraint in military adventures around the world--from charges of isolationism. But it seems important to bring it up again, especially when in Ukraine, the value of “international norms” was brought up again and again as the raison d’etre for intervention. In the words of Fareed Zakaria:

“But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

We agree. International norms trump national self-interest, especially in the long run. But the true value of international norms isn’t created on the eve of war, it’s created in the years before conflict. The Senate, which has allowed its minority group to deny any new treaties since 1997, has done more to hurt international norms than not bombing Russia or the Islamic State.

The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.

And that forces the U.S. to go to unnecessary wars.

Now that’s withdrawing from the world.

Jan 26

Back in 2008, Eric C and I used to use the phrase “Munich Moment” fondly. For us, a Munich moment was when Eric C managed to make out with two different girls on the same night.

Ah, Munich.

Unfortunately, our use of “Munich Moment” has been bastardized by our great country’s politicians. John Kerry, in a desperate bid to attempt every single rhetorical flourish possible in pursuit of a war with Syria, described America’s need to launch cruise missiles at Syria as America’s “Munich Moment”.

Obviously, comparing every single foreign policy crisis to Munich in 1938 doesn’t make sense. And don’t kid yourself: every single foreign policy crisis in my adult lifetime--stretching from Iraq to Egypt to Iran (here, here and here) to Ukraine (here and here) and to Syria--has had some political leader invoking this terrible analogy.

We aren’t the first writers to bemoan this overused phrase. Tom Schactman in Foreign Policy wrote an article asking to retire the phrase here. Elias Groll piled on here. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic argued against it here. And others said it here, here and here.

In Syria’s case, the analogy--especially in hindsight--was particularly egregious. Unlike Hitler, Bashar al Assad hadn’t invaded a single one of his neighbors. Supporting the rebels would have probably (and ironically) strengthened ISIS. (As Fareed Zakaria pointed out--citing Marc Lynch--in civil wars, extremists tend to thrive, not moderates.) Since ISIS later expanded to Iraq, who they kind of invaded, in a way, fighting Bashar al Assad actually would have been like the U.S. siding with Germany in 1938.

So the question for today, and one we don’t have a great answer for, is how do we stop this analogy? Like HYDRA in a Captain America movie, every time we kill one head, two grow back. Here are some ideas:

1. Public shaming. It’s been tried.

2. One of those White House petitions saying President Obama should issue an executive order forbidding this analogy in his cabinet. That would be funny, but either unconstitutional or unproductive.

3. More data analysis on this term. I don’t need to repeat the arguments for why this comparison/analogy is beyond ludicrous. So instead we want to provide something new to the debate. What is the “Munich Moment’s” batting average? In other words, how often have critics who used this phrase been correct? (Probably once, with the original use of the term.)

4. Crush opponents with logic. Especially the growth of international institutions. The Munich conference existed in a world before the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the EU, the G-Anything and countless other international institutions. The world frankly uses diplomacy a lot more than it used to. What is particularly remarkable about all the accusations of “Munich Moments” is they don’t even occur during diplomatic meetings. These are countries with internal troubles, not great powers invading neighbors.

5. Call them real-life trolls? In the future, when anyone says, “Munich Moment” can we immediately say they just violated Godwin’s law, turn off their microphone (if they are on cable television), and move on?

6. Replace “Munich Moment” with “July Crisis” or “Gulf of Tonkin”. There are two other analogies out there. The first--”July Crisis”--is an analogy no one ever uses, but should. One hundred years ago last August, the leaders of Europe had a “July Crisis”, in which every diplomat utterly failed to prevent a senseless world war. The minor assassination of an archduke led to tens of millions of deaths. Instead of worrying about Munich Moments, we should be worried about a July Crisis. Gideon Rachman of FT made this argument pretty persuasively, when also pondering the centennial of World War I.

The second is more familiar in the U.S., but hasn’t been evoked since we invaded Iraq. In hindsight, the Johnson administration used faulty intelligence to escalate in Vietnam, and the quagmire cost 60,000 Americans their lives. Initial data points are often the worst excuses to go to war, not the best.

In short, we should worry about July Crises and Gulf of Tonkins, not fret about Munich moments.