Nov 19

Last week, On Violence was honored to receive an invitation to the premiere of Operation In Their Boots, a series of five documentaries about the experiences of America’s veterans. Every video is available for viewing, for free, at their website,, and we strongly encourage you to check out these films.

Today regular guest-poster Matty P and Eric C will provide a short review of each documentary.

The Guilt

(Watch "The Guilt" here.)

Clint Van Winkle, in his personal, almost confessional, documentary, The Guilt heads to Philadelphia to convince a good friend, and fellow veteran, to seek treatment for PTSD brought on by survivor’s guilt.

The Guilt, like his memoir Soft Spots, is raw and personal; intimate interviews complement intimate personal interactions--even Van Winkle said afterwards he was surprised one of the participants agreed to be in the film. Van Winkle has a knack for presenting the ugly truth of post-war life for Iraq veterans, putting all of his life out on the table.

My initial reaction to the ending of the film was, “What happens next? Tell me!” I wanted a nice, apropos title card explaining what has happened to all of the participants, as if reality could provide a pat, happy ending. Obviously, The Guilt didn’t give me one.

I had the same complaint with Soft Spots, and I realized something about his film and memoir: reality isn’t neat and tidy. For these three men, the saga continues. As one of them said, they could go on this way forever. W. D. Ehrhart--whose on my reading list now--says at some point in the film, in response to the question how long did it take you to get readjusted to home, “What makes you think I’m readjusted?”

I talked to Clint Van Winkle after the screening about his future plans. He’s working on a new book--non-fiction--and I have to say I’m looking forward to it. Instead of viewing Soft Spots as stand alone book, I should probably look at it as the first chapter in an ongoing project. And every one should needs to see this second part.
- Eric C

No Religious Preference

(Watch "No Relgious Preference here.)

It’s disturbing what the works of a few men can do to a culture’s psyche. In the post 9/11 environment, paratrooper, veteran of Afghanistan, and filmmaker Kyle Hartnett openly addresses his own, and by extension America’s, seething prejudices toward Muslims and Muslim Americans.

Hartnett describes his inner struggle between paranoia that takes the guise of preparedness and self-loathing for his own irrationality. After the events of Fort Hood, in which a Muslim soldier fired upon fellow soldiers, Hartnett’s misgivings resonate more as outright disdain for Muslims, forcing him to take action.

In a quest for knowledge to battle his own ignorance, Hartnett journeys to Dearborn, Michigan and beyond to come face to face with fellow service members of Arab decent. What he finds is not simply a glimpse of honorable men and women who have served their country, but also a tales of betrayal by the very country they fought to protect.

At times, No Religious Preference is brutal in it’s honesty, creating moments of both awkward discomfort and laughs as the audience relates their own stereotyping to Harnett’s. The stories range from comedic cultural misunderstandings to dark depictions of how fear and unfounded suspicion can justify injustice.

At the story’s end, one man, one soldier is able to face his misgivings with hope. While Hartnett is the first to admit he’s not fixed yet, his journey was an experience that served to alter the way he perceives an entire religion. And it’s my hope that No Religious Preference does the same for others.
- Matty P

(On Monday, On Violence will review Enduring Erebus, The Academic Front and Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior.)

Nov 18

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published at Doonesbury's The Sandbox, titled, "The  PL."

Check it out.

Nov 17

We’re doing something a bit different today. Twitter friend and college professor @Trishlet asked her students to brainstorm questions for Soldiers, and today I’m going to answer some. Out of a whole bunch of war related questions, I selected the seven that inspired the most interesting responses. After I wrote my responses, I realized it would make a great On Violence post, so here we are.

(By the way, we had a reader ask for more personal experience articles in the comments section of Monday’s post. We agree. If you have any specific or general questions about my experience, contact us. Just answering these questions gave us several post ideas.)

1. How do you deal with everyday life and the uncomfortable questions people ask?
Humor mostly, especially with uncomfortable questions. My dad told me long ago that you should never ask a soldier if they have killed. Every parent should teach that to their children.

I would add, as a corollary, that if a veteran boasts about how many people they killed, or brings it up themselves, I would question either how they handled the war or if they are who they say they are. People who never left the wire love to tell war stories; veterans will usually only talk to other veterans or people they trust.

2. What is it like coming home from war for the first time? I imagine there would be a lot of culture shock.
Actually, for me, I was surprised how easy it was to pick up where I left off. I have this mode I go into, and once I leave the combat zone, I leave it behind. Coming back from Ranger School was actually a bigger shock for me than coming home from Afghanistan the first time. Little things will come up, but mostly down range is over there and civilian life is over here.

After a few days back from Afghanistan, it was like nothing had changed. You drive again on civilian roads, you drink again, and you have a level of freedom. At the same time, you sleep, go on the Internet, and work out just like you did downrange. Deployment is just replacing one home for another, and you always make a new home.
Of course, going to A*stan and Iraq wasn’t as big a culture shock as going to Europe the first time, but that’s another post altogether.

3. Do people feel a second disillusionment when they return from war?
For me, the disillusionment with war came when I lost two friends. No matter how good the cause, no matter how many good things I did over there, I don’t think anything can make up for that. Not just my lost friends, but the violence that happens everyday. Even if it wasn’t to my platoon, the effect of violence was everywhere.

Eric C is the pacifist who believes that hardly any war can justify its cost. I don’t go that far, but I have seen the cost of war, and that probably counts as disillusionment. It didn’t happen in Afghanistan, it happened before I went.

4. How are dreams useful in remembering things?
I have had very few dreams about Afghanistan after I got back, but I wrote about one I did have here. It wasn’t based on reality, but it says something about the emotions I associate with Afghanistan. The emotion of fear from the dream was incredibly real, just like before I left.

Another thing. Downrange soldiers take an anti-Malarial pill called Mefloquine. It causes you to have vivid dreams, and downrange I remember having very disturbing and very real dreams. Different topic, but interesting.

5. Do you think that reading about and trying to understand what past soldiers have experienced could help future soldiers from having the same problems?
I truly believe that the best way to deal with deployment-caused emotional problems, like PTSD, is by communicating. Reading, writing and talking in groups are all methods of coming to grips with what happened. Soldiers are solitary and individualistic creatures, though, and it prevents that communication.

I definitely think that blogging has helped me channel my frustration, if you will. Though I still complain an awful lot about the military, I think blogging mellows me a bit.

6. How did soldier’s jobs change directly after COIN was established then enacted while troops were already in theater?
I think this is a false dichotomy. There wasn’t ever a point where we decided, “Now counter-insurgency has started” and we changed what we did. Instead, it evolved over time.
For instance, I was in Afghanistan right when the surge was starting in Iraq. It hadn’t been proven effective yet, but the manual had been published. So we did plenty of engagement with local leaders and tried to fund local reconstruction projects. But my battalion also fought the Battle of Wanat, which was one of the most violent, traditional battles of the war yet.
And units in Iraq were conducting leader engagements since the beginning of the war, they just weren’t trained or prepared to do so. Rebuilding a society was mainly something unplanned, that troops figured out on the fly. I am a huge proponent of population-centric counter-insurgency, so I hope our military doesn’t forget the lessons of these wars next time.

7. What kind of war memorial do you think best honors soldiers?
This question provoked an altogether too complex response, that we will have to think about and write up in the future.

Nov 16

A big, big, big shout-out is in order for Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, “the first living American service member from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be honored with the U.S. military's highest decoration,” the Medal of Honor. We think two videos showcase his accomplishments best:

- The first is from the PBS Newshour, which has two interviews and footage from today’s ceremony.

- The second is from this weekend’s 60 Minutes, which has a good description of what happened.

Sgt. Giunta is a member of my former unit, 2-503rd “The ROCK,” part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the best battalion and best brigade in the military.

Nov 15

In a continuing quest to show pictures from my Afghanistan deployment, today we have two pictures of the Korengal OutPost, a hell-hole I have written about before.

This first photo was taken out of a Chinook helicopter as I was desperately trying to get back to Camp Joyce. I went all over the battlefield before I got there, and I realized as we landed here I was at the KOP. My camera came after we left so this is the only photo I have.

But this second photo I got from SGT Crivello, one of my guys from the platoon. It pretty much captures the mood of the valley, and a brand new platoon leader.

Nov 12

In a string of good luck, we have been published in several different venues over the last week, including the and Infantry Magazine.

To top it off, Eric C just got an rebuttal piece published in our hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times in their “Blowback” feature. Called “War Destroys”, Eric C writes about how atrocities define war in general. This is another huge day for Eric C and On Violence, so check it out.

Nov 12

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.

Remember, vote for your favorite in the comments section below.)

Eric C’s Rebuttal:

Buffalo Soldier” is, in one very distinct way, miles above both "Belleau Wood" and “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”: it is the most playable. And I mean playable in the sense that when you want to put something on, you’ll play “Buffalo Soldier” ten times more than the other songs.

Great art is accessible. For music, this means pleasant, on key, beautiful. You could play “Buffalo Soldier” and people can dance to it. Or lie on the beach and listen to it. Or listen to it in the car. On this musical level, it is amazing.

But what about the other songs? “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a great song, no doubt, but practically unlistenable--the singer doesn’t sing so much as cough out consonants like a Pertussis victim. This guy wishes he could sing like Bob Dylan.

What about "Belleau Wood"? I’m not going to be one of those ignorant people who says all country is crap. But I don’t like twang, and "Belleau Wood" has a lot of twang.

On to content. “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” has numerous factual errors in it, which isn’t a deal breaker, but it kind of is. And there is something about the Christmas Truce that strikes me wrong. All of World War I was a big deadly mess, and the Christmas Truce illustrates the absurdity of the war. But the song, for me, doesn’t.

Matty P's Rebuttal:

It’s a privilege to participate in the second On Violence war song debate. Choosing "Belleau Wood" was absurdly difficult considering the wealth of musical inspiration on the subject matter. The 1960’s and 1970’s teem with war protest and condemnation. While these songs, songs like “No Shelter” by the Rolling Stones or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, highlight the evils of war, they lack the ability to truly capture the cost to our humanity or convey a hope for, as Garth Brooks says, we “live to see a better way.”

As for “Buffalo Soldier” I cannot dispute the popularity of the song. However, this debate isn’t about popularity. Eric admits the lyrics are vague. Further, the connection to war is weak. While an excellent depiction of racial tensions, culture clash, and triumph over oppression, “Buffalo Soldier is clearly inferior when depicting and commenting on the nature of war.

While passionate, Eric’s hyperbolic argument seems limited to what is popular or, as he put it, “accessible”. Great art is not necessarily accessible, great art is evocative. Further, in stating “Buffalo Soldier” is the superior musically, he fails to state a qualifier. This statement is dubious at best, it may be popular, but not necessarily better.

Admittedly, I had not heard “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda prior to prepping for the debate. After listening to two versions, I was more than sufficiently depressed. It’s a dark tale of a wanderer turned soldier. The story itself is one of woe questioning the value of war and celebrating victory. While dancing on the edge of powerful emotions, the lyrics lack eloquence in telling the tale. Rather than descriptive, its straight forward. While it makes a good tale, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is compromised by it’s bluntness.

Michael C’s Rebuttal:

First, a clarification: I love all of these songs, including the songs from our first debate too. (I hadn’t heard "Belleau Wood" before it was recommended last time, but it grew on me too.) I have taken the five songs from our two debates and made a mini-playlist called “On V Debates” for my IPod.

This debate isn’t about good versus bad, it is about greatness at varying degrees. And by many degrees, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is better than its competitors.

I agree with Eric C that, musically, “Buffalo Soldier”'s kicks behind. It easily is the best song of the bunch aesthetically. But great music combines raw sonic pleasure with narrative energy. In that latter category, I just don’t think “Buffalo Soldier” tells a strong enough story to really capture the essence of war or warfare. And when you have to steal your chorus from a television show, well that just seems wrong.

"Belleau Wood", on the other hand, tells a great story. It sticks with you. The PBS documentary on World War I, The Great War, had a part on the story retold in Belleau Wood. I remember watching that section and still not believing it happened. In the field between the lines--a hell-torn warzone, with the remnants of mustard gas, artillery shells and bodies still littering the battlefield, where poking your head above a trench line meant a sniper bullet to the dome, with the stench of death permeating nostrils, clothes and minds--in the midst of all that, soldiers from two different nations, speaking two different languages, came together to celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t sound true, but it is, and it captures the height of human triumph.

Then the next day the men went back to the depths of human tragedy. "Belleau Wood" may capture the indomitable fortitude of the human condition, but it doesn’t capture the essence of war, the ugly side of war--the fighting, killing, death and destruction--that I talked about in a recent post. Because of that, it can’t be the best.

(Vote for your favorite below.)

Nov 11

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here. Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

Christmas Eve in the winter of 1914, Allied soldiers, clutching rifles, sit huddled in the snow laden trenches far away from their families. Across a scorched stretch of earth, German soldiers sit in similar trenches, just as cold, just as lonely. Amidst brief silence, a tune rises from the German trenches. A Christmas melody familiar to the Allied lines. Soon, though the language is different, both sides lend their voices.

"Belleau Wood" performed by Garth Brooks and co-written by Joe Henry, poetically depicts actual events on the front lines during Christmas in World War I. It is a powerful song, slow and somber, highlighting the brilliance of the human spirit in the darkest of times while glimpses the harrowing cost of war on the human soul.

We revel in true stories. We need them for perspective and inspiration. This is an advantage that "Belleau Wood" has over the competition. "Belleau Wood" is based on true events; men from warring nations peered from the safety of their trenches to share goodwill during a holiday.

In solemn country fashion, Garth Brooks evokes the complex mixture of hope and fear engaging soldiers during the truce. Brooks describes a sobering glimpse at the struggle to find humanity in depths of hell. Upon a frozen and battered ground, surrounded by tools of destruction and man-made divisions, hope overshadow even the most justified of fears. Unspoken words share the sentiment: “Here's hoping we both live / To see us find a better way.”

It is both a mix of triumph and tragedy. Despite the temporary truce, Brooks sings to us of the inevitable return of violence with perhaps the most poignant lyrics of the song.

"Then the devil's clock struck midnight,
And the skies lit up again,
And the battlefield where heaven stood,
Was blown to hell again."

"Belleau Wood" is a portrait painted in three short minutes of soldiers grasping for humanity in the worst circumstances human beings can invent. It’s the story of heaven and hell existing in the same place. Within the lyrics and tone is the sad revelation of the cost of warfare on our own humanity, pitting men with similar hearts to take each other’s lives. It’s a harrowing tail of loss and an inspiration for hope.