Oct 04

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

Trishlet, Karakapend and myself recently had a twitter conversation about war, memoirs and literature, and one tweet in particular grabbed my attention: the best war literature about Iraq or Afghanistan has been Thomas Rick’s Fiasco and it’s sequel The Gamble. I think this is the case.

So when I heard Thomas Rick’s on Talk of the Nation discussing Iraq war memoirs, I knew we had to share it with our readers. I both agree and disagree with Ricks and his reasons behind those picks, so I sketched out my thoughts on the interview.

Some qualifications. First, I don’t think the wars can be separated. Iraq and Afghanistan are two peas in a post-9/11 pod; a number of memoirs--and some of Rick’s choices--take place in both theaters.  

Second, I have a different perspective on war memoirs than Ricks. Jonathan Franzen basically summed it up recently in an interview on Fresh Air, “The great thing about novels, and the reason we still need them...is you’re converting unsay-able things into narratives that have their own dream-like reality.” This is the point I wish Ricks--and every post-9/11 war memoir reviewer--would make. That novels, because of that authorial separation, are superior to memoirs.

So what does Thomas Ricks think?

The best Iraq war history books have already been written. Unlike Vietnam or World War II, modern writers and journalists have access to up-to-date information, email access with participants, and unprecedented research tools. Ricks believes this means the best books, in terms of research and current history, are being written today, and I agree with him.

But only for history books. Check out this conversation with Kayla Williams from last Friday’s review of Love My Rifle More Than You. I agree with Williams, future memoirs and novels will benefit from perspective.

“If I were in the Pulitzer committee, I would give Gary Trudeau a special Pulitzer for his coverage of the war.” I agree. Sandbox--both the blog and the book--are awesome. So are his Doonesbury comic strips dealing with Iraq and losing a limb. But more importantly, what mode does Trudeau write in? Fiction.

“In this war has been [sic] kind of interesting because we've seen the best memoirs come from younger people.” I disagree. In this war, the best memoirs have come from professional writers. Compare Fick’s One Bullet Away to Wright’s Generation Kill, like I did here. They are miles apart, especially if you compare specific passages covering the same event.

Rick’s goes on to say that memoirs by embedded journalists are just “okay”; I think they are on average better. Professional writers have better prose, a better eye for detail, and a knowledge of pacing.

Rick’s Top picks are One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick, House To House by David Bellavia, and Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. Check out my reviews of One Bullet Away and Love My Rifle More Than You. Both had parts that I loved. House to House strikes me as similar to Lone Survivor, contemptuous of ROE, liberals and the media. Sigh. I’ll review it eventually, but I’m not looking forward to it.

Ricks recommends Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Night Draws Near. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City is about the Green Zone, and Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near is about Iraqi civilians. Neither subject has been covered well. I want to read both. (Chandrasekaran's book is as close to my ideal war memoir as anything I’ve heard about.)

Ricks doesn’t like Here, Bullet. Obviously I disagree.

“The generals have produced junk.” I agree with Ricks on this, but if I’m being intellectually honest, this has less to do with writing and more to do with politics. The Iraq war sucks, and the people who got us into to it are to blame. (I mean, does anyone think that if we lost World War II, Churchill would have still won the Nobel Prize for Literature?)  After reading Douglas Feith’s book for five minutes I wanted to poke my eyes out.

“If you want to see where Iraq is going, follow blogs and news articles, not books.” I totally agree. Rick’s blog, The Best Defense, is awesome. So is this one.

Sep 30

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

Last post, I described the “war is war” crowd--a sub-set of the national security community
that wishes we could return to the days when wars were more about fighting, violence and death than about political realities.

Among the host of issues with that phrase, one sticks out more than the rest: the phrase “war is war” is just bad rhetoric.

War is war is really saying all war is similar. Except all wars aren’t the same the same way politics the same. Kim Jung Il’s succession plan has nothing to do with America’s midterm elections. Both are examples of politics. Both require maintaining or changing power. But they’re more different than they are the same; you definitely wouldn’t use the same playbook or tactics to win at either.

And World War II is like the war in Afghanistan, but is also different in just as many ways if not more. Both are wars, neither closely relates to one another. Some lessons can be drawn, but if you’re foolish enough to use the same play book, you’ve gone off track.

This is the biggest issue with the "war-is-war"-iors. More than anything else, the “war is war” statement doesn’t say anything; it doesn’t actually define war in any way. It recalls when the Supreme Court tried to decide what is pornography.  As Justice Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” The “war is war” crowd, it seems, would like to apply the same rigorously vague standards--which have since been replaced by the Supreme Court--to wars. And as the Supreme Court learned, relying on undefined terms as a long term strategy very rarely works out.

This problem seems to be unique to the study of war. I just don’t see a political theorists bogging down with the definition of politics when they are in the middle of an election campaign. Imagine a busy campaign staff conducting detailed electoral polling, developing campaign ads and arguing for the merits of a political position. Then imagine in back there was was an intellectual theorist who constantly complained about the current election strategy, because “politics is politics” and if they only read more Machiavelli we wouldn’t be in this position.

No other subject on the planet uses a self-referring definition to prove a point. Would a coach say “sports is sports” when preparing for a football (American) game? Would a CEO say “business is business” when rolling out a new product launch? Would a director say “entertainment is entertainment” when making a movie? Would a doctor say “medicine is medicine” even though he is a family care physician and the patient requires open heart surgery? Would a scientist say “science is science” then opine on evolutionary biology when they study astronomy?

Of course this would get us no where, fast. I’m not an expert in logical fallacies, but it seems like the “war is war” crowd is using a “begging the question” fallacy. They assume “war is war”--hence violent, destructive and conducted by massive armies--then proceed with their proof that was in the preface. I don’t like the phrase “war is war” for plenty of reasons, but this one gets me the most. It is sloppy thinking.

Sep 27

Posts in the "War is War" series so far:

- Who Thinks War is War?

- Why “War is War” Is Bad Rhetoric  

- War is War is Clausewitz

- Fighting! Killing! Death! Destruction! War is War, isn't it?

- What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of

- We Are Holier Than Thou

- War is War is Vague

- Bill Simmons, "The Secret" and War is War

- War is War is Heinlein?

- "War is War" and Violence

- War is War is No Solutions

- War is War is Politically Unfeasible

- War is War is More Stimulating Talk Radio

- War is War is Starship Troopers

- War is War is Film Part I

- War is War is Film Part II

Since I first started thinking about Violence--way back in the ROTC program at UCLA--I encountered an intellectual crowd that was vehement and irreconcilable, armed with a resolve like that of religious fanatics and Ayn Rand Objectivists. Their thinking, despite the research into counter-insurgency over the last few years, still dominates the philosophical thinking of the Army and most national security fields. Last year when I started writing posts for On Violence, I encountered the same crowd again, sounding off in the echo chamber that is the internet, via blogs, in forums and on comment threads (Particularly a small but vocal minority on the Small Wars Journal’s forum--the main reason I don’t visit forums anymore.).  If you are a casual reader of our blog, you might not know who this crowd is, but they sometimes attack our posts on Marcus Luttrell or the Rules of Engagement.

This small but loud cabal is what I call the “war is war” crowd, or "war-is-war"-iors. "War-is-war"-iors uses the phrase “war is war” to emphasize that war is about fighting and killing. By emphasizing the violent nature of war, proponents usually then complain about either population-centric counter-insurgency or limited rules of engagement.

Because my co-blogger Eric C frequently reminds me to not create straw men in the pursuit of an intellectual point, today I am going to show how pervasive the “war is war” comment is in military strategy discussions before I take it apart. In later posts, I am going to provide a more accurate definition of war, show the fallacy of the “war is war” argument, and argue that being more ethical than your enemy is not a bad thing.

So who or what is the “war is war” crowd?

- As with all things over-quoted, General William Tecumseh Sherma said it first. It was linked to on this blog, and can be found on wikiquotes. “If [Georgians] raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war." Gen. William T. Sherman (1864)

- Amongst the living, Colonel Gian Gentile, a professor of military history at West Point and former battalion commander in Iraq has used this phrase. In this forum post at the Small Wars Journal, he perfectly captures the thoughts of the “war is war” crowd.

- Of course, Colonel Gentile quoted an article by Colin Gray on irregular warfare in the Strategic Studies Quarterly (an article I will review in depth in a later post).

- Colonel Gentile isn’t the only Small Wars Journal forum participant who believes that “war is war”. Perhaps the most prominent is William F. Owen, who has said, “War is war. There are varying types of warfare, but defeating an irregular enemy is rooted in some fairly well understood methods of applying military force...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” This quote from a post perfectly captures the position of the “war is war” proponents while showing the logically fallacies of their position.

- In this blog post on the Small Wars Journal, General Paul Van Riper embraces the “war is war” concept as well.

- But the "war is war" topic isn’t relegated to those embracing it as an intellectual position. Sometimes authors or bloggers will just throw it out casually because it is so ubiquitous. In this interview on Abu Muqawama, author Greg Jaffe does just that in answering one of Andrew Exum’s questions.

- "War-is-war"-iors dominates comment threads too. Check out the third comment down on this article.

- The second to last paragraph in this article gives a perfect statement of this sentiment of the “war is war” crowd.

On Wednesday, I will elaborate on the intellectual problems of the “war is war” crowd, and why the phrase “war is war” is intellectually vapid and ethically bankrupt.

Sep 24

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

Kayla William's Love My Rifle More Than You opens with a bang: “Sometimes, even now, I wake up before dawn and forget I am not a slut.”

Now that’’s a first sentence.

And the first two chapters are--aside from a few language issues--about as perfect as two first chapters can be. It is a collage-style meditation on being “young and female in the US Army”, a series of anecdotes, joke, scenes and clips of dialogue thrown into a big old pot, making a delicious literary stew. It reminded me of Herr’s Dispatches or O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. When I reached page eighteen, I wrote in my notes, "Man, I love this book. I hope the whole thing is a series of non-chronological stories like this one."

You probably know where this is going. After a brilliant title, opening sentence, and first two chapters, Love My Rifle More Than You goes seriously down hill. Part of the problem, like Exum’s This Man’s Army (review pending), is the book doesn’t have anywhere to go. It takes Williams eighty pages to get to Iraq, and there isn’t much to do once she gets there, except complain about everyone else. This is an argument for fiction writing; you can make the plot up if real life gets too boring.

I liked some sections, like when Williams comes across a field of unexploded ordnance and struggles to explain it to the locals, or when her team encounters locals waving dead white chickens at her passing convoy. Her prose is mostly uncensored--completely passing the litmus test--writing about eating, shitting, sex, political context, dead animals, and political context. In the second to last chapter, she knowledgeably writes about interrogation and prisoner abuses.

In between the bright spots, there is way too much down time, which leads to petty disagreements. Williams fueds with Staff Sergeant Moss, the sergeant who replaces her, Staff Sergeant Simmons, her Lieutenant, Quinn, her Battalion Commander, her ex-boyfriend, and most of the guys from the COLT (Combat Observation and Lasing Team) unit she hangs out with. You get the idea. (This isn't all bad. Williams has a level of self-reflection not found in other memoirs. Read the comment thread below for more.)

And then we come to the hypocrisy. At the beginning, Williams describes a girl, “No rumor. Truth” who gave oral sex to every guy in her unit. At the end of the book, Williams describes the gossip that goes around, that girls on the Prophet team--part of a signal intelligence unit--”give it up”. The problem is that midway through the book Williams becomes a victim of this type of rumor mongering. Why doesn’t she give the same benefit of doubt to her fellow Soldiers that the COLT team should have given to her?

Other annoying language issues and basic punctuation mistakes scattered throughout Love My Rifle More Than You mar the prose. Also, on the title page, Michael Staub’s name appears. Apparently this poor guy was the memoir’s ghostwriter, or co-writer, or who knows what. His name is absent from the cover, the inside covers, and the back cover, like a ghostly human typo. As a writer, I feel bad for the guy.

The million dollar question: should you read Love My Rifle More Then You? Maybe. Find the first two chapters and inhale them. They belong in the anthology of post-9/11 war writing. But outside of that, I would say skip it.

Sep 22

These pictures don’t need much explanation. One of my guys is in it, and sharing a copy of People magazine with two Afghan National Army guys. I am 90% certain this was taken at the former Korengal OutPost, which was closed. (We wrote about here.)

Sep 20

Back in June I wrote a post about how terrorists have rules of engagement. Though they come from a completely different culture, Islamic terrorists still have an extremist ideology that governs their ability to fight war.

In other words, they have rules of engagement.

As if to prove my point, in the Spring issue of The Journal of International and Security Affairs, Mary R. Habeck penned an article called the “Jihadist Laws of War”. Ms. Habeck doesn’t use the same terminology, but she describes the various fatwas that al Qaeda created to regulate its fight against America, detailing how al Qaeda views the issues of combatants versus non-combatants, prisoners of war, and the spoils of war. Not surprisingly, they all radically diverge from the Western Laws of War, but terrorist ROE does exist.

Of course, al Qaeda’s rules of engagement lack any restraint when it comes to Westerners or non-Sunni Muslims. Osama Bin Laden and his followers “established that citizens of the United States were combatants” regardless of whether they wield weapons or not. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi would later twist rulings on combatants versus non-combatants “to declare all Shi’a--men, women and children--worthy of death.”

All of which I find interesting because al Qaeda is concerned with perceived legitimacy from the larger Islamic world. They feel the need to justify their actions in an Islamic context. Even though they twist Islamic law to endorse the murder of innocents, they desire religious approval--probably because deep down al Qaeda knows they are flying in the face of accepted Islamic law.

Mary Habeck makes this point very well, that terrorist (or takfiri or extremist) ideology does not meet the standards imposed by mainstream Islam. She admits that “salafi jihadis number...a tiny minority within the Muslim-majority world.” She also notes that Osama bin Laden specifically “uses violence to undo the interpretations of modern Islam.”  In sum, al Qaeda has rejected “both international legal norms and modern Islamic law.” If all US decision-makers mentioned this discrepancy more--and supposed “Ground Zero Mosques” less--we might actually have a shot at stopping extremists.

Mary Habeck’s article provides amazing insight on how al Qaeda views this conflict, a view many more US diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers need. It also proves a point I have had about ROE for years: insurgents and terrorists have rules of engagement, they just don’t look like ours.

But they have rules of engagement.

Sep 17

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for David Benioff’s "City of Thieves.")

I read David Benioff’s City of Thieves in a day. That’s all you really need to know, review finished.

But I’ll continue. I randomly found this book at a party, sitting on a coffee table with three other books. Its setting (World War II Russia, St. Petersberg/Leningrad) and its author (David Benioff, who wrote the screenplays of The 25th Hour, X-men Origins: Wolverine, and The Kite Runner) instantly grabbed my attention. Then I spent way too much time reading it. Having read the entire thing in a day or so, I immediately wanted to review it, and explain what post-9/11 war writers can learn from it.

The plot is simple, but classic: a young Jew, Lev Beniov, is unjustly arrested for treason and awaits his execution. Instead of a death sentence, Lev and another prisoner--the charismatic ladies man/writer Kolya--receive a mission: find a dozen eggs for a Colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. Find the 12 eggs in four days, or die.

Yet this is besieged Leningrad in 1941. The German army surrounds the city, and the people--out of food and starving--resort to eating glue or each other. This is the first remarkable thing about City of Thieves, the omnipresent sense of anarchy, hunger and suffering. The entire city, except for some military officers, is starving, literally to death. Early on, Kolya and Lev encounter brutal cannibals; it makes them wonder where all the meat they’ve been eating comes from...

City of Thieves is a study in wartime chaos. Benioff has a beautiful understanding of war at its worst, gleaned through what must have been meticulous research. The German einsatzkommandos carve off a pretty peasant girl’s ankles for trying to escape forced prostitution. Passage after passage describes the constant hunger, people eating dogs, pigeons, people and books. A good friend dies after getting shot in the ass by Russian soldiers. Kolya sleeps with a preternaturally skinny girl. The heroes find a field of dead dogs in the middle of a forest, each strapped with an anti-tank mine.

Though a few books came close, I haven’t yet read anything this epic, detailed and compelling in a single post-9/11 war memoir.

(Major spoiler follows. Sorry Michael.) This probably has to do with the book’s characters. The core of the book isn’t about war, but the relationship between the two main characters, Lev--the small, big-nosed Jew, son of a famous poet who dreams of making love to a woman--and Kolya, the talkative soldier and braggart. Their conversations are usually pretty brilliant and always readable, with Kolya teaching Lev about Russian literature, war, politics and of course, women. If I’m being honest, the Kolya’s character eventually annoyed me. I get tired of flawless “superman” characters; his only real character flaw is that he annoys the narrator. It’s never a good sign that when a character gets shot, you mutter “Finally.” Still, he is real enough, and like I wrote above, his dialogue is always readable.

I should clarify, I’m not sure City of Thieves will end up as “classic literature” as much as it is just a really good read, written expertly and maturely. Then again, it contains a story within a story, and another character fake narrating his own Russian “classic,” so it has at least a few post modern touches. Despite the horror inside, I wouldn’t describe the book as enlightening, just very, very good story expertly told, and isn’t that enough?

Which brings me to the most interesting part of this book. It is a memoir. Technically, this book is a story within a story, told by Benioff’s grandfather to his grandson. I don’t know if this is true--I have to assume it isn’t. Even the grandfather tells Benioff “You’re a writer. Make it up.”--but this blurring of fact and fiction gives the book more power. Taken with The Things They Carried’s pretense of reality, I’d have to say that the best war literature is fiction pretending to be a memoir; this satisfies the readers lust for “authenticity”, but allows the artist freedom to abandon the facts for the truth.

Sep 15

As Operation New Dawn spread it’s bright light of freedom across Iraq, everything changed: people stopped fighting in the streets, a government formed as the contentious political parties put aside their differences, and the economy of Iraq boomed as unemployment ended.

Well, none of that happened, but we changed the name. That has to count for something, right?

The only real thing I’ve learned in the last two weeks is that the media and politicians don’t understand our current wars. Why President Obama declared the end to major combat operations or, even worse, said that all combat troops have left the country, is beyond me--especially when his predecessor made the exact same mistake.

I continue to do what I have since I got here: military intelligenc-ize. In layman’s terms, that is a lot of reading and plenty of writing. Good military intelligence people (cue age old joke about oxymorons) aren’t just analysts, they are detectives, historians, and academics.

Since it looks like I will be coming back sometime next year, a lot of my work is studying up on Iraqi culture, politics and the threat groups threatening stability here, trying to combine the different skills of MI analysts. That, and dodging the ridiculous monster-bugs that scurry around this place. The camel spiders aren’t the half of it; they have these gigantic beetle things that could carry away a small child.

One final note: a few people have asked about how they can still support the troops over here. To be honest, we don’t need much--our chow hall has prime rib and steaks and shrimp and lobster and a Caesar salad bar--but plenty of other people do need help. So instead of sending me anything, please donate to a charity of your choice. I recommend my personal favorite PUSH America--Pi Kappa Phi’s charity that helps disabled people live full lives. Recently, some chapters have started helping disabled veterans. Follow this link to give through the UCLA chapter.

And since an update isn’t good enough, here is a picture from my last Afghanistan deployment:

I wish I had a better caption of what makes this interesting, but look at me--all small looking--against the evil looking Apache AH-64. This was one of the primary refueling points for helicopters along the Konar River valley. The AH-64’s primarily escorted Chinooks transporting supplies and men, but we loved if we could pull them off to help us out.