Feb 22

Our long time readers at On Violence have probably come away with two impressions about me: first, I criticize the Army a lot; second, that I think highly of myself. So do I make the same mistakes as the Army?

Well, I do, and I like to think that I confront them when I see them. Recently I read the fantastic novel, The Ugly American, and it led me to some deep introspection (trust me, I'll have more posts about this book in the future). The book indicts America’s foreign policy system for it’s lack of American foreign language expertise (among other things). Written in 1958, its criticisms of American foreign policy still apply today.

As The Ugly American describes, the American foreign policy apparatus--from the Defense Department to the State Department to our intelligence agencies--lacks the critical language skills necessary to succeed. So obviously I must take language skills seriously, and I must study them on my own.

Actions speak louder than words, and my actions don’t tell the same story. I have never succeeded in mastering a critical foreign language. I tried to learn Tagalog, (the language of the Philippines) to help my study of insurgencies. Later, I started to learn Arabic in case I deployed to Iraq, but that never happened. In each case, I quit because the need no longer seemed important or relevant, and mastery seemed too difficult.

(I did learn Spanish. I took five years in high school, and I believe with a little bit of study, and total immersion, I could gain close to fluency. I have learned some of one language, it is just a language half of America knows tambien.)

Even worse than the times I started studying languages but quit, is the tremendous opportunities I have been given, but did not embrace. I lived overseas in Italy, and only learned restaurant Italian. ("Un litre de vino de casa rossa, per favore.") When I deployed to Afghanistan I only learned how to introduce myself. And I spoke to Afghans on a daily basis.

It is my major criticism of myself. Depending on my next assignment, hopefully I can change. I need to embrace learning a foreign language in a critical skill so that I can practice what I preach and improve myself. But I run a blog, work for the Army, work out daily, and am planning a wedding, I don't know if it will happen.

Feb 19

In my last post on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, I argued that today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are numerically insignificant compared to World War I. In The War to End All Wars more soldiers died, more civilians died, more people were hurt, diseased or crippled, all in a less populated world.

But this isn't even the worst part about World War I. The worst part is that it was meaningless. Entangling military alliances forced countries to go to war over the assassination of a minor royal figure. No slaves were freed; no genocide averted. An historical background so inane, you almost can't process it. If it's heartbreaking when someone has to give their life for another, what about when they give their life for no reason? This is what makes World War I a tragedy.

Hemingway understood this. He understood the purposelessness of this war, and the aimlessness of his "lost" generation. He expresses it through Lt. Henry, a man whose life mirrors the war he is fighting.

At the start of the A Farewell to Arms, Lt. Henry's life is adrift. Instead of visiting the home of a priest while on leave, he drinks and parties in Milan. When asked why he didn't go like he promised, he has no reason, no explanation. His actions have no purpose. Lt. Henry even fights in the war for no reason. When asked by his lover why he volunteered for the Italian military, he shrugs, “I don’t know...There isn’t always an explanation for everything.” This could have been the same justification for every General and politician of that era.

By the time Lt. Henry finds his purpose, it is too late. He goes AWOL after seeing his friends and soldiers die in a horrific retreat, and flees to Switzerland with his pregnant girlfriend. Of course, A Farwell to Arms is a tragedy, and Lt. Henry ends the novel as adrift as he began it. One could read Lt. Henry's life as an analogy to Europe. He goes to war for no purpose, tries to fight his way out of it, and his story ends only after he has lost everything. His future is as bleak as Europe's.

Hemingway wasn't anti-war--he fought in at least three--but I don't think he supported World War I. Hemingway's personal code demanded meaning, and World War I--death, carnage and all--had none.

His most damning critique is not only wars started without meaning, but continuing without them. On page 184, one of Lt. Henry’s drivers says, “We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”

Lt. Henry, the narrator, responds, “I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain. This is the worst justification of war. We hear it too often spoken today, and indeed all wars, that fighting must continue for the sake’s of the dead."

Feb 18

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Political satire is not new. Comedic dissension for political policy, representatives, or current event is an ever growing medium. Comedy central icons Stephen Colbert and John Stewart make a living mocking politicians and our political system. While some portrayals are intelligent and clever, others are derogatory and borderline militant. Certain attempts at satire push a line that both isn't funny and show a lack respect for our political institutions.

Last week, a family member emailed me this political cartoon.

It seemed harmless at first, the usual satirical affair. Yet after I read it, I wondered, “Is this cartoon advocating the death of people supporting Obama?” I felt, and Eric C agreed, that we had to respond to this growing trend of advocating Violence in our modern political discourse.

It’s a single ember in a seemingly growing fire composed of political hostility and outright hatred. Zazzle.com recently received flak for selling the following bumper sticker.

The bumper sticker reads: “Pray for Obama” but cites “Psalm 109:8” as it's inspiration. The passage reads: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership." (NIV) Insulting, but harmless unless you read the verses to follow. Such as "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." The prayer for Obama is not to bestow wisdom or guidance, but for his life to fall into desolation and his family line to die off.

This is a departure for the “Don’t blame me, I voted for ___” bumper stickers that seemed so popular on my block in the early 90’s. There is growing hostility toward our elected officials. Facebook shut down a user initiated poll asking “Should Obama be killed?”  Subsequently, the poll and those who answered are now under investigation by the Secret Service. Currently, President Obama has his own wiki page dedicated to attempts on his life. Recently, Bill O'Reilly suggested Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid need to be kidnapped and waterboarded.

The hatred runs deep along party lines. Consider President Bush’s two rather unsuccessful comedy shows on Comedy Central. That’s My Bush!, whose tagline was “A brilliant man deserves a brilliant sitcom,” only lasted eight episodes. The animated Little Bush managed seventeen episodes. Both portrayed the then President as an idiot and child. While insulting, these shows barely compare to the sentiments conveyed in Death of a President(2006) a docu-drama about George W. Bush's assassination or the novel Checkpoint by Nicholas Baker, about a man planning Bush's assassination. 

At some point Americans made a departure from acceptable and viable methods of protest to advocating acts of Violence against those we disagree with. Dislike for policy has evolved into malice for individuals. A combination of free speech, apathy toward actual political action, and misguided hatred fueled by polarized media outlets have led to an age of political passive aggression. Where outrage once led to rallies, protests, or petitions, the response now is angry blogs, disrespectful artwork, and death threats. 

Differing opinions is not a bad thing nor is disliking an elected official for his policies and public acts. Inspiring violence against those who don’t agree with your opinion is. How we respond to those who disagree with us is pinnacle to solving actual problems. Sadly, not everyone can be Stephen Colbert. Most shouldn’t try.

Feb 17

Every organization has its own culture. Lawyers debate like lawyers, engineers approach problems like engineers, and politicians solve ethical dilemmas like, well, politicians. Culture can influence how you think, how you act, and, in some cases, how you do math.

The military has its own brand of mathematics. Today I am going to talk about subtraction.

I call it Army subtraction: the missing three hours in the work week from 0600 to 0900 to start Physical Training (or PT). The Army can tell you that you only work for eight hours a day, from nine to five, and still have you show up at 0600. How do they subtract those hours?

I call this the “missing” three hours, because apparently I am the only one who misses it. Well, me and every other Soldier below the field grade officer rank (majors and up). They don't seem to notice showing up that early in the morning. Ask any leader in the Army, and they will say the work day starts at 0900 (or 0830 depending on the post).

A full Army work day is from nine to five. At regular units, Soldiers and leaders usually leave work at 1700. When discussing how much people work, the Army counts 0900-1700 as the work day, with an hour and half lunch. When calculating how much a Soldier works, Officers can easily say they put in a forty hour work week.

For me though, from 0600-0900 I feel like I am at work. It feels like work because I am at work doing work related tasks. That, and by law I am required to show up at 0600. (I could write another post on the formation before the formation that many units conduct. Even though first formation is at 0630, units will have Soldiers show up half an hour early for accountability.) This further depletes Soldier's personal time. If the Army understood that Soldiers work an average of 55 hours a week, than they could better understand the strain put on Soldiers.

This post could be dismissed as the gripe of a disgruntled Officer (and it is) but serious issues are at play. In the last year, the Army passed the civilian world in its ratio of suicides. The number of divorces, mental health referrals, and discipline issues by Soldiers continue to climb preciptouisly. And despite assurances otherwise, junior officers continue to flee the Army in droves.

The missing three hours every morning are not the cause of all these problems--the two ongoing wars are--but they contribute. Those three hours every morning are time away from family. By calling an eleven hour work day an eight hour work day, the Army steals three hours every day. And waking up at 0500 in the morning makes it much harder to spend quality time with your family when you get home from work at 1730.

The Army subtracts three hours from every work day. Only Army mathematics could make this work. The result is stressed out soldiers, families and systems. Could the Army find the time to start the work day at 0800, still do PT, and do all its other work? Absolutely, but that is another post.

Feb 16

Quick heads up: Eric C just had a guest post published yesterday at Daily Blog Tips titled, "9 More Ways to Promote Your Blog Online." Check it out.

Feb 15

In my mind, we need two things in Afghanistan. The first is better COIN techniques, and the military is slowly but surely on its way there. The second is troops. If we need thousands upon thousands of additional troops, why don't we ask China for help in Afghanistan? In a long term view, it is in China's interest to create a secure Afghanistan, and by extension Pakistan, a region vital to the stability of central Asia.

There is already a precedence for deploying non-Nato troops to Afghanistan--America’s coalition in Afghanistan includes the Republic of Korea and Poland. Could we bring in the largest military in the world, the People's Liberation Army of China, to occupy some ground?

Before I get into why this won't work, let's think about China's amazing capabilities.

China could easily send as many troops as the US currently has deployed (the US has about 100,000 Soldiers deployed including both combat and support troops). This would be a fraction of China's 1.6 million men in uniform. In comparison, the US Army has around half a million men in uniform.

Imagine the possibilities with that many additional troops. The People's Liberation Army could take over Helmand and Kandahar provinces, basically the whole of Regional Command South. That would free the US to control Regional Command East, that includes the capital of Kabul, Bagram Air Field, and the closest areas to the Pakistan tribal areas. Or the US could take the South and the Chinese could take the East. Or the Chinese could secure the West and North areas while the Germans, Italians, and Canadians help the US double down on the South and East. With the thousands of troops China has, we could execute a true population-centric counter-insurgency in a variety of ways.

Of course, we could just take the additional 100,000 troops and line them up on the border. This would make the Pakistan FATA sanctuary a non-factor. The point is, with another 100,000 troops, the options are almost limitless.

In casual conversation with other Soldiers, this idea always gets massacred, and I can see why. Realistically, it is in China's interest to allow the US to devote thousands of troops and billions of dollars in Afghanistan while they invest soft power in Africa, South America and other parts of Asia. Being intellectually honest, they have more to gain flexing their influence while America remains mired in expensive military quagmires.

Getting China to sign off on this plan, or getting domestic support is a long shot. We could ask, but would risk diplomatic capital if the Chinese refused. Also, too many American leaders view the Chinese as the enemy--or our future enemy--to allow them to come in and save the day.

This is unfortunate, we really could use 100,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.

Feb 12

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted is the best post-9/11 war memoir of the eight I’ve read so far. This is probably because, unlike the other memoirs I've read, it reads like a novel.

Starting with an intriguing set up, the book bounces back and forth between Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq a year later. In both battles, he sets up scenes that made me feel like I was there. He ends his book well, with a tragic bookend you can’t help but see coming, but is still so random that it works. This book held me the whole time; the best word to describe it is vivid.

Like each memoir I've read so far, this book has a neat little thesis. Friedman discovers, near the end, that, “We killed terrorists and insurgents. In the process we killed civilians. We shot kids. It became pretty standard guerilla war. In a way, it became the war I always wanted.” Meaning of course he never wanted this war at all. This moral is a little too simple, and a little too neat, but it feels honest. This is a memoir, you're allowed--nee required--to moralize. It helps that this moral is true. One could view the entire American military adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan as a story of Soldiers/politicians/generals never getting the war they wanted.

The book also has the best awareness of counter-insurgency of any of the war memoirs. Children and civilians die in a sloppy invasion in Iraq; it is no surprise that an insurgency took root post war. Unlike the memoirs by Fick and Mulaney, (which I'll be reviewing next) this book explains why America remains stuck in two foreign wars.

As I wrote above, the highlight of the book, for me, is the description of Operation Anaconda, the now infamous battle in the Shahi-Kot Valley, one of the largest in the war in Afghanistan. Friedman captures both the large and small strokes perfectly. Friedman describes the broad strokes of the battle like a practiced historian. But he also includes a visual, of a horse running around a farm half mad, while thousand-pound bombs and artillery shells fall around him, miracously surviving days after he should have died. It is the single best image in any of the memoirs.

There are mistakes unfortunately, including small ones like spelling mistakes and typos. ­­­­Friedman writes that he won't reveal another officer's name, then accidentally reveals it two pages later. It has those damn gray scale photos in the middle of the book. The flashbacks are italicized, which becomes annoying to read after a paragraph. The War I Always Wanted was published by smallish sized publisher, which probably explains a lot of these mistakes. [Update: I've been told the mistakes have been fixed in subsequent printings.]

It's too bad this book hasn't been more popular, because like I said, I really enjoyed it. If I had to recommend a recent war memoir, I’d recommend this book way before the more popular Unforgiving Minute or One Bullet Away. Definitely before the Hollywood-movie-inspiring Lone Survivor or Jarhead.

In the end, The War I Always Wanted is limited because it is a memoir, not a novel. It contains before and after bookends that feel out of place, but a memoir demands these bookends. I guess no matter how good a war memoir is, I still wish it was a novel.

Feb 10

On the outskirts of Vicenza Italy, there is a beautiful hill overlooking the town called Mount Berico. At the top, there is a church, and of course a coffee shop. Most importantly, there is a breath taking view. Though it wasn't the best coffee, it was the best atmosphere in town.

Eric C and I used to relax by making the forty five minute journey to the top of the hill. Whenever we had visitors, we took them there, joining the throngs of Italian tourists who visited this important church andpilgrimage site.

There is also a set of stairs--nearly several dozen going up 700 meters--leading up to Mount Berico. These stairs are part of their religious tradition; the truly pious walk up in devotion, sometimes on their knees.

Unfortunately, a set of steep stairs is an inviting location to run.

Vicenza, Italy is also home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and two of its six battalions. In the morning, the paratroopers of the 173rd would look for the tallest, farthest places to run, and Berico was the nearest hill.

Inevitably, the town and the Soldiers came into conflict.

The local government eventually banned running downtown. Soldiers would run and call cadence, which had to end, because it woke up locals. Even after the cadences stopped, local Italian officials prohibited running downtown because soldiers conducted PT in the middle of the historical square (Soldiers were vomiting on the sidewalks or, again, waking up the locals.).

After banning downtown, the steps leading up to Monte Berico were banned. Again, the same reason: soldiers were vomiting on the steps. Italians described American Soldiers as a nuisance to civilians walking the steps. There were several other routes upBerico, so only the steps were banned.

Last summer, the entire hill was banned because of the continued disturbance and the alleged destruction of park land around downtown Vicenza . According to the local Italian papers, the response of the American soldier’s has been less than stellar. This caused bad press for American soldiers.

How does this relate to counter-insurgency? To the US Army, running at a pilgrimage site every morning for PT exercises was harmless. To the locals, it was anything but. The key is US Soldiers failed to realize how offensive their behavior was.

If US Soldiers can't get along with western Europeans in downtown Vicenza, Italy, how can we expect to do so in diverse cultures like Iraq and Afghanistan? The American Soldier (Officer, NCO and Enlisted) has great difficulty breaking from his own cultural viewpoints. As an Army we must face facts: many Soldiers lack empathy.

Not to toot my own horn, but when I first saw the behavior of soldiers on Mount Berico, and doing PT in general, I guessed that Italians would not be pleased with it. Sure enough, communicating this was difficult.

The only way to convince Soldiers not to run up those steps--to understand the error of their ways--was by a simple analogy. I asked, if French soldiers conducted PT runs around the graves of Normandy, and vomited on the sidewalks, how would you react? Probably beat the crap out of those Soldiers. An easy analogy, but almost the very definition of lacking empathy.

(I would provide some of the links to the original stories, but they are in Italian and most of our readership speaks English.)