Feb 26

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

I'll admit, I was amped to read Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away. Opinion shapers consider it one of the best post-9/11 war memoirs--Thomas Ricks just compared it to Kerouac's On the Road--and Fick is a leader of counter-insurgency movement as CEO for the Center for a New American Security. As the main characters of Evan Wright's popular war-memoir-turned-HBO-mini-series Generation Kill, Fick and his platoon are practically celebrities, at least in the military community.

One Bullet Away exceeded my expectations for the first 100 pages. Its opening is straight-forward and honest, refreshing after too many memoirs that got bogged down trying to be artistic or hyperbolic. Fick depicts his brutal training with little extra flash. Though over all I liked The War I Always Wanted better, the first 100 or so pages of One Bullet Away are the best 100 pages of memoir I've read so far. Which means...

The next 284 aren’t as good, especially since nothing much new seems to happen after they invade their first city. First, One Bullet Away has structural problems it never overcomes. The second problem is one of honesty. I think--out of love for his men and his corps--Fick omitted details that would have made the memoir more readable, and more real.

Structural Problems

Not enough happens to justify the book's 372 pages; the book is about 100 pages too long. Fick and his platoon invade city after city, again and again and it reads like Groundhog Day: each town identical to the one they just left.

The larger problem is that Fick never really builds to anything. The excitement of war gets in the way of anything really happening. It’s like that scene in Adaptation, where McKee tells Charlie Kaufman that screenplays and film are about change. Well, nothing changes in One Bullet Away. These are people, not characters, so they have no character arcs. Cities are razed to the ground, but this happens before or after the narrator reach them. Change happens to the people of Iraq--like the little boys the platoon shoots--but they are EVAC'ed away, out of the memoir.

In the end, Fick and his men leave Iraq as quickly as they entered it, merely an invasion force, not an occupying force. If war changed them, the change occurs after the memoir ends.

Many of these problems are inescapable. Characters--often really interesting ones--are introduced and then forgotten seven pages later. Like Sergeant Olds, his Drill Instructor who only appears at the beginning of the book, or the recruit Dunkin who is booted out for taking performance enhancing drugs. Part of this is natural, people in our lives enter and leave with no regard for the novelistic integrity of our life story. Then again, that’s why our lives are our lives, and novels are novels.

Some other stylistic problems: There is way too much dialogue, an awkward closing epilogue and a bad title. One Bullet Away also dives into some clear, easy to understand morals, like when Fick resolves to train harder after the DIs kick out Dunkin, that just don't feel real.

Honesty

The second, more serious problem is that the book is not honest. Fick doesn't lie, he omits. There is a mental dissonance going on through out One Bullet Away, that Fick loves being a Marine, loves his Marines and loves the Corps. But he hates Marine leadership and the danger they put his Marines in. Fick never says this openly; he has to dance around the criticism.

If I had to pinpoint the place where this book falls apart, it is on pg. 156, when Fick introduces his “genial” all-American football player Marine Captain. Fick hates this Captain, but you have to figure this out by reading between the lines. He introduces him in glowing terms, then bit by bit reveals he nearly killed Fick multiple times. This disconnect, between Fick’s feelings for his command and his voicing that disapproval is palpable. It weighs the book down.

Fick also refuses to criticize the Corps. Take Dunkin, the recruit booted for using performance enhancing drugs. If Fick were being honest, he would tell you that steroids are common in the military. But this would portray Marines negatively, so it never comes up again. (After reading Generation Kill, it is clear Fick's men were on all sorts of substances during the invasion, confirming my suspicions.)

On Pg. 48, Fick writes about how his training prepared him for counter-insurgency battles in the future, in a section that feels forced. If the Marines understood counter-insurgency, why do they fight later in the book so much differently than they train? Why did the Marine Corp need to retake Fallujah multiple times? (I want to make it clear, bad COIN is not specific to Marines, but the entire military.) On pg. 106 Fick writes that we went to war to get the people who attacked us, but the invasion in Iraq wasn’t really about that. And he doesn't explicitly explain his platoon's relationship to the eventual Iraq quagmire, though he hints at it.

In Closing

One Bullet Away provides a fascinating opportunity for my post-9/11 war memoir project. Since Evan Wright, a reporter, embedded with Fick and his platoon, we have an outsider's account to compare to Fick's memoir. Next week I'll explain why the Wright's reporting is superior to Fick's.

Feb 24

While looking for old Army manuals (a different post altogether) on a shelf in the Military Intelligence Library, I found a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. Apparently some courses at Fort Huachuca use this text, along with Gladwell’s other book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, to educate military intelligence students.

I have a simple criteria for recommending books, does it give me an insight I can use? Outliers doesn’t have much to do with military theory or counter-insurgency. Instead, Gladwell challenges conventional assumptions about why individuals succeed or fail. The US military shares this concern. The Army still employs industrial-age personnel methods instead of information-age strategies; it has much to learn from a forward-looking book like Outliers. On this level, the book is a success.

The book starts with a simple observation: in Canadian hockey, an inordinate number of top players are born between January and March. Canadian professional hockey players tend to be born in January. This seems strange, why are people born in January, February or March better hockey players than those born during the rest of the year? Gladwell explains the simple reason: in Canada, junior leagues cut off entry on January 1st. Individuals born in the early months of the year can start playing hockey earlier than individuals born later in the year. This extra year means bigger kids, which means better play, which means more opportunities, and so on and so on. The advantages accumulate. Canadian hockey unwittingly selects its future professionals too early, because of an arbitrary cut-off date.

In the Army, we use arbitrary selection criteria to weed out excellence as well. The majority of General officers come from the combat arms (infantry, armor, field artillery and aviation). Combat support branches such as the adjutant general corps, the quartermaster corps and the medical service corps simply do not have the same number General grade officers. Being selected for a combat arms branch dramatically improves your chance of both staying in the Army, and staying competitive for General’s rank. The movers and shakers of the Army--Powell, Petraeus, McChrystal, Odierno, Casey, Schoomaker--are all combat arms officers.

Assigning the branches of particular officers, then, is hugely important. Selecting individuals out of the combat arms eliminates them from the pool of potential generals. Instead of waiting until individuals prove themselves, the Army selects branches at the commissioning source. Before an officer even begins his career, he is essentially selected out of the competition for General grade. Commissioning branch is an capricious criteria, and it already starts shrinking the competitive pool for General officers--just like the way the month you are born breeds out potential NHL players in Canada.

Perhaps the biggest take away from Outliers is the popularization of the 10,000 hour rule. According to Gladwell, individuals reach peak performance only after they practice something for 10,000 hours. The Beatles practiced for 10,000 in Hamburg before they made their best albums. Mozart composed for about 10,000 hours before his first masterpieces. Most professional athletes truly peak when they have 10,000 hours of practice.

For the Army, my question is, what do we do to reach 10,000 hours? Should our 10,000 hours be reading history, studying case studies, practicing maneuvers, or planning operations? Should we specialize more or less to train leaders to excel at 10,000 hours?

I have my own ideas. Mainly, 10,000 hours should be time spent for each officer preparing to make tactical decisions. When the rubber hits the road, officers make decisions that win or lose wars. Military leaders should spend time in simulations, planning operations, and conducting wargaming. Soldiers should study terrain and read military history. Officers should practice leading men in combat.

Unfortunately, most officers do not come close to achieving 10,000 hours of experience in tactical decision making--myself included. We waste an inordinate amount of time on email, powerpoint and meetings. We also spend a great amount of their time conducting physical fitness. While the above are vital communication methods, they do not help officers make better decisions.  While physical fitness is an important skill, the Army should never forget that physical fitness is a component of excellence, not the end state.

This book didn't have just two good ideas, it had four. Next week I will describe how Malcolm Gladwell challenges the culture of success.

Feb 23

Quick heads up. Eric C had his guest post, "Post, Entry or Article" published on Daily Writing Tips. Please check it out.

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.