Dec 01

At the fear of generalizing, I’ll say this: men in war zones obsess, get fixated on some really happy thought. I did. My men did. For example, one of my Soldiers--every time we sat down at the computers in the computer room--would show me a picture of the motorcycle he was going to buy when he returned.

About half way through my Afghanistan deployment--after reading a National Geographic travel magazine on places in the sun--I got my obsession: the Banyan Tree Madivaru, a thousand dollar plus a night resort with your own beach and “tent” in the Maldives. I saved the pictures to my desktop and would think, “Man, that place is like a billion times better than Afghanistan.” I obsessed about taking my then girlfriend, soon to be fiance, currently wife, there on our honeymoon (though I knew the whole time it was financially impossible).

Last deployment, I didn’t have the same obsession. I guess too many of Maslow’s needs were satisfied for me to obsess about anything. There was less boredom too. In Afghanistan we spent countless hours bored on radio guard or sitting in trucks waiting for something to happen, a perfect setting for obsession. In Iraq there was boredom, but also the trappings of Western society like the Internet, video games and basketball.

These pictures were the images of my obsession.

Nov 29

The lesson of the last ten years is clear: failed states breed terrorists. This is a reality I have written about twice before--here and here--that failed states are the biggest threat facing America.

But military intervention alone doesn’t really solve the problem. Thankfully, the Obama administration understands this, repeatedly stressing that its foreign policy will be based on the three D’s: diplomacy, development and defense. The problem with our three pronged approach is that America vastly under funds the most important peg, development. When America finally embraces a true development strategy, I think we should use the Risk strategy to guide our actions.

Just as failed states tend to clump together, successful states clump together too. Take Europe, for example, or South America. As the Economist reported in October, the nations of Latin America are pulling themselves up together. The same factors that drag down bad states will pull up good ones. A successful nation can trade with its neighbors, welcome back refugees, and enforce environmental policies beneficial to its neighbors and itself.

The biggest cluster of failed nations in the world is in Africa. Failed states are all over the world, but future instability and atrocities will most likely occur on this continent. If we want to ensure future US security, we must start in Africa.

To get a foothold on Africa, I think America needs to start with South Africa, the closest thing sub-Saharan Africa has to a success story. We need to put our relationship with South Africa front and center. We should push to get it on an expanded UN Security Council. We need to work with NGOs, USAID, the UN and others to raise the standard of living without causing corruption or undermining the government. A successful South Africa will help with problematic neighbors like Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

With luck, prosperous south African nations will help gain stable footholds into the Congo, Kenya and other  West African nations. We expand from our strongest point, the way a general attacks an enemy’s weakest points. The biggest mistake would be to intervene in a failed state directly, like we did in Afghanistan.

Why is this relevant now? Easy, Somalia.

With the recent detention of another aspiring Somali terrorist, I can safely say terrorism has moved out of the Middle East. I worry that a Somali terrorist--most likely affiliated with Al Shabab and possibly with a deployment to Iraq under his belt--will conduct a high profile terrorist attack against America. Despite the clear displeasure Americans have with going to war, if that happened, America would, in all likelihood, re-deploy troops to Africa. (Probably with a small force similar to what we had in Afghanistan for eight years, but still a force.) We would re-quagmire our already over-worked forces.

Securing Somalia’s neighbors, on the other hand, could provide a feasible way to permanently solve the instability of Africa. And we need to start where the nations are strongest.

Nov 24

(On Violence wil be off for the holidays until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

As I continue down the path debunking anti-ROE critics and what I like to call "war-is-war"-iors, I need to make four points very clear:

1. Americans, and the West, must fight wars according to our moral, ethical and legal principles.
2. Terrorists--be they Christian, Muslim or other--twist ethics to justify their immoral behavior.
3. As a result, Americans and the West tend to fight wars more ethically, morally and justly than non-state groups acting out of zealotry.
4. And most importantly, this isn’t a bad thing.

It seems like most people agree with my first two points, and then grudgingly accept point number three (though I have heard anti-war activists argue against this, they are wrong). The issue is with point number four. The main complaint being that our morals put us at a tactical disadvantage in messy, unconventional wars (what I call political wars), like the two counter-insurgencies America waged in the last decade.

When your enemy hides without wearing a uniform, threatens the population with violence, and launches attacks against weak civilian targets, it can seem very hard to fight them ethically, whether it is asymmetrically against trans-national terrorists or irregularly against insurgents.

Who wants us to fight immorally? Well, our old punching bags Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. They wrote in Lone Survivor, “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him.” Eric C wrote an entire guest post about this role reversal on Permissible Arms. Others just bemoan that our values could cost American lives. Politicians after 9/11 repeated this idea saying that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact”, meaning if it comes down to survival or the Constitution, goodbye Constitution. (This is a quote behaving badly, and the second edition is coming soon.) Like this, Dick Cheney advocated for the US Intelligence Community to work on the “sort of on the dark side” to defeat terrorism, the “dark side” clearly meaning illegal and unethical side.

Today’s post is a short one because the point is simple: in war, we should never sacrifice our morals; our morality is everything. That is why the Christian tradition and the American tradition are histories of martyrs, people dying for their causes, faith and freedom respectively. We should embrace the fact that America—on the whole—fights morally just wars in a morally sound way.

And largely, the US has conducted itself in a moral, ethical manner. If we had never conducted “enhanced interrogation” in Abu Ghraib, if we had never abducted people in the rendition program, and if we had actually tried the people held in Guantanamo, critics of the US would have almost nothing to complain about. Yes, civilian casualties are too high in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yes, the Iraq war was a tremendous mistake on a number of levels, including morally. But the point remains: America is a moral nation based on strong principles.

We should strive to keep it that way.

Nov 22

(Today, we’re continuing our series of reviews of the documentaries from Operation In Their Boots. Click here to read Friday’s post here.)

Enduring Erebus

(Watch "Enduring Erebus" here.)

Four of the Operation in Their Boots documentaries address the issue of PTSD. Of the four, Tristan Dyer’s Enduring Erebus most perfectly distills PTSD to its dark essence. Unconventional, experimental, Enduring Erebus takes you on a visual trip you didn’t expect you’d take, almost more experimental art than documentary. (That’s a big compliment.)

The concept and execution is simple: four veterans, each suffering from PTSD, narrate their ugly battle with addiction and post-war life. You never see the speakers, only learning their first names. Visually, Dyer interprets these narratives into stop-motion animation; two symbolic figures travel through a hellscape of machinery and forests. If you can’t picture what I’m writing about, that’s because I’m not sure words could describe it. The best films celebrate the visual in ways words can’t do justice.

For me, as I told Tristan after the screening, Enduring Erebus takes a few minutes to get into the film, to learn the syntax of it, but once you’re in, you’re hooked.

Why does this film work? First, Dyer, by making his narrators anonymous, makes them universal. The same goes with the symbolism of the animation. What does it all mean? There are no easy answers, either for the film or PTSD.

I’m a huge fan of experimentation in art, and also a huge fan of surrealism. By going in an altogether different direction than almost anything I’ve ever seen, Tristan accomplishes something you don’t expect: he boils PTSD down to its essence. Please watch Enduring Erebus.
- Eric C

The Academic Front

(Watch "The Academic Front" here.)

The story of two Iraq war veterans struggling to adjust to academic and college life, The Academic Front shows a different side of coming home. Each veteran has different goals. Daniel Wong goes to college to rejoin the fight against Islamic extremism as a counter-terrorism expert. Aaron Huffman goes to college to become a pastor and help other returning veterans.

Chris Mandia was unable to attend the premiere, but I can say this: The Academic Front got the biggest crowd reaction of the films at the premiere, eliciting big laughs and numerous applause moments from the crowd.
- Eric C

Rudy Reyes, The Way of the Warrior

(Watch "Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior" here.)

Rudy Reyes is an successful actor, an author, a veteran, and a warrior. Rudy Reyes was a part of a Marine Recon platoon. And he is also a deeply haunted man.

Victor Manzano glimpses the life of his fellow Marine from childhood to military training to the present. Fraught with hardships in the forms of neglect, abuse, and separation, Reyes fights to become strong and elite like the heroes he has admired since he was a child. Invigorated by the sensations and experiences of combat as well as revelling in the knowledge that he is one of America’s elite warrior, Reyes must somehow acclimate to life beyond service.

Way of the Warrior is a dark look at the life of a well-respected veteran that seems to have transitioned remarkably well to life on the home front. It reveals a hidden struggle with addiction to not just substances, but to the rush of violence.

It takes a minute to find the context and understand the message that Way of the Warrior. Manzano has the deepest respect for Rudy Reyes and it is more than apparent in his direction. At first, it seems like an entirely different documentary altogether. Still, Manzano is ever so delicately able to reveal the darker moments of Reyes’ life honesty allowing for a glimpse of a man who is the best of the best and still beset by past traumas. It’s brutally honest, dark, but still manages to be inspiring.
- Matty P

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.