Jun 23

Hindsight's always 20/20. Take, for instance, when I first went to Bagram Air Field: I mistook it for a warzone.

I arrived in Afghanistan via C-130; it was me and 25 other 11bs--infantrymen--all secretly nervous about linking up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

As we hit the tarmac, the flight crew pulled out 9mm pistols and scanned the area for enemies. Without weapons or body armor, this unnerved us. Scared, ready, we left the plane and entered Bagram Air Field.

Within a few hours, I realized that BAF wasn’t a war zone. Within a few days, I realized that BAF wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. By the end of my tour, I came to hate everything about it.

BAF is a super-FOB. It is a collection of all the assets that “support” troops in the field. Home to thousands of military contractors and support troops, most soldiers believe this base isn’t a warzone.

When morning dawns on BAF, the units get up and conduct PT. The base shuts down the main road so that units can run. Every so often, BAF hosts long distance running events like 5Ks. At Joyce, if we wanted to run we had to wear full kit--body armor, helmet and weapon. (We had a mobile training team came to the KOP once to refresh us on first aid, and they said we should train every morning after PT on medical drills. We asked when we would hold organized PT.)

After PT, the soldiers will head to one of many super chow halls. These chow halls serve dozens of different types of food; some have freshly grilled steaks, think dining commons at a premier college. If you don’t want the food at the chow hall, you have the option of eating at a Burger King or Pizza Hut (though General McChrystal is trying to boot these establishments from Afghanistan, I have heard so far he is unsuccessful.) At a combat outpost, you are lucky to get hot chow and MREs rule the day.

Walking down the street at BAF (yes, they have full blown streets), you will see the throngs of Soldiers in PTs or ACUs, weapons slung behind their backs. Among the thousands of weapons, though, you won’t find a single magazine. BAF is a base armed to the teeth, without any bullets. At a combat outpost, everyone has a weapon, most times their body armor, and always at least a magazine with them.

BAF is not combat; it barely qualifies as a warzone. Unfortunately, the majority of the media, the preponderance of politicians, the bulk of General officers, and all of the celebrities who visit Afghanistan, will never see past this comparatively luxurious base. Life on BAF is a sanitized version of war presentable to the media, but completely unrealistic to the Soldiers and Marines fighting on the ground everyday.

Jun 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

“Our enemy was brutal, implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life.”

Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor

Critics of the rules of engagement (ROE) love to point out that our enemy doesn't have rules of engagement. Whenever I debate this point, or read an Op-Ed on the subject, this inevitably comes up. Marcus Luttrell, our country's loudest and most vitriolic critic of the rules of engagement, describes the sentiment perfectly. (Yep, we are continuing to pile on to Luttrell. Unfortunately for him, his book contains almost every misnomer about ROE that exists, we almost have to use him as an example. It is also still inspiring debate over ROE.)

Take the above quote. Luttrell describes an enemy with no regard for life, rampaging through villages killing everything in their path.

Except in real life that never happens, because insurgents have rules of engagement too.

They don't follow the Geneva Conventions, insurgent ROE isn't written down, and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan do not have the same control over their fighters that American Generals have over their Soldiers. But they still have rules of engagement. At it's best, Marcus Luttrell's statement--like those of other ROE critics--confuses the rules of engagement with the Geneva Conventions; at its worst, it shows the type of thinking that hamstrings our military when it tries to conduct counter-insurgency.

Luttrell doesn’t understand the concept of rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are simply guidelines that authorize force--for armies, police forces, militias, criminal groups, gangs, or insurgents. Rules of engagement have existed since the dawn of time, even when they were incredibly lax, and even when they weren't written down.

Imagine Genghis Khan charging across Asia. A village wants to avoid the impending rape and pillage, so it bribes Khan to ignore their village by swearing loyalty, sending him a 100 soldiers, and as much gold as they can muster. Now if one of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants ransacked the town, he would have hell to pay. Genghis Khan’s unspoken rules of engagement were essentially: don’t mess with anyone I say not to.

Insurgents operate the same way. In Afghanistan many of the tribal leaders are all but immune to the Taliban. If insurgent groups didn’t win the support of local elders, (i.e. if they killed every Afghan civilian they came across), then their ability to operate in rural areas would evaporate.

Lone Survivor actually describes this scenario. Even though Marcus Luttrell claims that Ahmad Wali’s army of 200 Taliban fighters had surrounded the village sheltering him, the Taliban couldn't grab him. The insurgent leader knew that violating the Pashtun-Wali code would disrespect the village elders, and dry up his support in the Korengal.

In effect, the insurgents in Lone Survivor follow strict rules of engagement. Now their code of ROE isn't based on the Geneva Conventions, the Laws of Armed Conflict, or any other Western ethical system. Some of their tactics are governed by extremist Islamic theology (Salafist Jihadism in most cases), but in most cases insurgents follow rules of engagement that offer the best chance at self-preservation. No matter what basis, they always have rules of engagement.

The key word in Luttrell's condemnation is the word "discernible." They have rules of engagement, he just doesn't understand them.

Jun 11

(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Zhang Yimou's Hero

It is also a guest post by Matty P.)

Zhang Yimou's Hero is a feast for the eyes. Jet Li and Maggie Cheung repel thousands upon thousands of arrows as artisans paint the written word in one scene. In another, Cheung battles an outraged Ziyi Zhang amidst the swirl of brilliant autumn leaves. The battles themselves are breathtaking, showcasing the deadly art of combat in poignant beauty. In contrast, the result of combat is revealed to have a cost to all those exposed. Jet Li's Hero portrays the act of violence thematically as a paradox.

Violence in of itself cannot be considered a good thing. Rather, its very existence, very definition is to cause harm. Yet the age old moral question remains, can violence yield a greater good? The ancient Roman adage was: "It you desire peace, you must prepare for war." Orwellian double speak, it flies in the face of my mother's advice when I was a child that violence never solves anything. My mother's intention wasn't to develop in me deep seeded naiveté, rather to instill the wisdom to avoid revenge when others wronged me.

And revenge is the very thing that motivates the character Nameless in Hero. Under the guise of a servant to a growing empire, Jet Li as Nameless, planned to strike at the king responsible for the death of his family and the murder of his people. The King of Qin steamrolled his way across the seven fractured warring nations of modern day China, asserting himself Lord of a new empire, soaking the lands he wished to rule in the blood of those he claimed his lordship over. So hated by the people because of the carnage, the King of Qin locked himself away in his palace for fear of assassination.

But Nameless, standing within killing distance of the kind, hesitated to kill him. Not for fear of failure or squeamishness about taking a life, but because of an idea. An idea summed by three words, "All under heaven."

It had become the belief of Nameless, taught to him by Broken Sword, that only one man's ruthless domination of the once warring states of China could end the bloodshed. Death now, peace later. It's an attempt to justify a means by an end.

Mathematically, it makes sense. Kill a few thousand now in conquest, and the king prevents further warring between city states that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands.

In contrast, the cost of such a plan becomes not just the lives lost in attempts to hold back the King of Qin, but the loss of these once unique cultures that must blend into a unified China. The audience sees this price paid not only through Nameless' search for vengeance, but in the destruction of the Snow and Broken Sword's refuge; a compound for artisans of the written word. Because they will not submit to being ruled and they will not fight, the calligraphers are slaughtered. And with the deaths of so many, including elders, knowledge of the discipline and culture passes with them.

Violence can be both seductive in its simplicity and frightening in its implications. It can result in internment or in liberation. Independence or ethnic cleansing. But we must be careful in how we justify our actions. Enacting violence and claiming a greater good is a dubious process considering intentions can never guarantee an outcome. The success, longevity, and long lasting consequences of violence on the scale of war is far too difficult to predict and far too easy to criticize in hindsight.

Jun 09

Last week, I advocated for the US radically increasing its foreign aid budget, calling for a new, global Marshall Plan. However, aid to Africa definitely falls in the category of "topics that interest me, but I am not an expert in." Gigantic foreign policy initiatives like the one I suggested last week are definitely outside my pay grade, so I pulled together some articles on the issues of foreign aid, development and Marshall Plans.

Obviously not everyone agrees with my pie in the sky proposal. Moses Naim, of Foreign Policy, argues that wars on social problems, and the "Marshall Plans" to solve them, have never worked. I agree with Naim about the overused rhetoric but, unlike the wars on drugs and crime, America hasn't yet seriously attempted a second Marshall Plan. He mentions plenty of proposals, but no actual money spent on a new Marshall Plan.

This is partly because conservatives ask a more serious question: does aid even work? The conservative anti-handout crowd would say that it doesn't. Welfare is still welfare, even on the international scale. A reader emailed us last week and pointed out that by supplying EMT services for Afghans, we prevent them from developing their own medical industry. We disagree--Afghans wouldn't have medical services with or without the US--but this debate misses the larger point: aid works.

James Surowieki endorses effective, substantial aid in this New Yorker piece. Between 1946 and 1978...South Korea received nearly as much U.S. aid as the whole of Africa," and of course it is a prospering, modern nation. In fact, American allies that receive huge influxes of cash, military aid and access to American markets--Israel, Turkey, and Taiwan--do very, very well.

Aid isn't perfect, but it isn't ineffective either.

Although constantly refining how we use aid isn't a bad thing either. In this article about Rick Warren for Relevant Magazine, Dr. Warren points out that we can't just throw money at the problem of Africa, but then offers a solution of his own based on spending labor and using education. I agree. If we started some sort of massive "Marshall Plan of Labor," that sounds great to me as well. The point is we need to give something away, be it intangibles like labor and energy, or tangibles like money and resources.

This article by Glenn Hubbard, in Foreign Policy's "Think Again" series, agrees that aid hasn't worked in Africa, but only because we haven't invested in the right places. America needs to invest in businesses, then infrastructure, not NGOs and government programs. It makes sense, but again, it would work best on a massive scale, not piecemeal solutions. He also makes a compelling argument that, though micro-finance is an incredible innovation, it doesn't go nearly far enough.

And frankly, when you see what innovative small groups can do in Africa, it amazes you that we don't fund more. Whether is is micro-finance at work in Kenya, Plumpynut in Nigeria, or AIDS vaccines through PEPFAR in Uganda, there are plenty of ideas that could be replicated if we had more energy and effort. Like the Bill Gates model, find what works and invest in it, and don't let the programs get too big.

There are two organizations currently calling for Global Marshall Plans, and I want to clarify that I don't endorse either one specifically. The owners of www.globalmarshallplan.org advocate specific social and political policies in addition to a massive new foreign aid program. A group called The Spiritual Progressives do something similar including requirements that a Global Marshall Plan get its funds from military spending. A new Marshall Plan shouldn’t be bogged down with requirements that are clearly on one side of the political spectrum (liberal/socialist). This dramatically decreases that chances it will actually happen.

As I was researching last week's post, I stumbled onto this blog that has the catchline "just asking that aid help the poor." It goes to the point that not all aid is bad, but some of it is mismanaged. We need to do a better job of finding what works, and what doesn't.

A while back, I wrote that failed states are the biggest threat to America. I still believe this. Kick the terrorists out of Afghanistan and they will just move to Somalia, which they have. And this is why we need a new Marshall Plan.

Jun 07

On Friday, June 4th, UCLA's, College Basketball's--and possibly athletic's--greatest coach, John Wooden, passed away. Not just Southern California, but America felt his passing.

Why do I feel compelled to write about him at On Violence (aside from the fact that I went to UCLA)?

Any Bruin alum can tell you the impact of Wooden's legacy. The line to get his autograph was always full, either at the bookstore signing books or before college Basketball games. His picture adorns program, buildings and memorabilia. He built the athletic tradition at UCLA. Even though I never really met him, I still feel his loss like the entire community of Bruins.

More than anything, Wooden was a leader. I think every sports commentator has said this: on and off the court he embodied character. It doesn't make it less true.

He won 10 national championships, seven in a row. He won 88 straight games. Despite retiring thirty five years ago, John Wooden kept working. He published books on leadership and basketball. Wooden on Leadership has better stuff in two pages than the entire Army FM on leadership. His "Pyramid of Success" adorns classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms around America, inspiring new generations.

And he was also by every single account a man of character. No one speaks ill of him, no one.

And I bring all this up because despite all the accolades we in America give our servicemembers, I don't think any General or Admiral of the contemporary age comes even close to this. In the World War II generation we had several generals who earned respect on a John Wooden level: Marshall, Bradley, perhaps Patton. General Petraeus is our most famous general, but will he stand out in thirty years the John Wooden has? Our Army loves "values," be they the Warrior Ethos or the Army values. Wooden created leadership through character, do our current Generals and Admirals have that character?

Maybe a comparison between the Army and Men's college basketball is unfair, but leadership is leadership, and sports is probably the closest field to war short of combat. Wooden is important to me because he was first and foremost a leader. A leader we should all emulate.

Post Script: Oh and he was also immensely quotable, so check these quotes out (they are all correctly sourced to John Wooden). And check out his website, pretty good design quality and a wealth of information.

Jun 04

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

In the comment section of last Friday's post, jumpinjarhead remarked that there is "a good deal of opinion in many of the military related memoirs." I agree. I put the cart before the horse with last week's post because I hadn't told our readers about a major problem endemic to war memoirs:

Bitching.

I really can't think of a better word for it. There is just so much complaining in war memoirs. The military, so unthinkingly bureaucratic and illogical, is ripe for criticism, but criticizing your boss in your memoir is just petty. Finishing personal vendettas on the page, where the other party can't fight back, smacks of bad art.

Four examples of what I'm writing about:

- Nathaniel Fick, in One Bullet Away, introduces his Captain as a "genial...all-American” football player, then spends the rest of the book criticizing him in self-censored terms. The company's men eventually pseudo-mutiny against “a leader they no longer respected,” and the higher ups nickname him "S***man."

- Kayla Williams rages at her Lieutenant, her fellow Soldiers, and even other platoons throughout Love My Rifle More Than You. Mostly she rages at both of her Sergeants, first Sgt. Moss "a small woman who looked confused all the time" whose only redeemable quality is good PT scores, and then Sgt. Simmons, who Williams describes as an air-headed flirt.

- In Joker One, Donovan Campbell introduces Ox as "the most experienced lieutenant in the company" and a "star football player" but describes him sarcastically as a "training extraordinaire" or straight-forwardly as "screwing up" the improvements to their base. This rivalry runs throughout the book.

- Andrew Exum rails on the "overweight...fun police" that try to keep him and his platoon from destroying Camp Doha in This Man's Army.

I could find an example from every memoir I read. That's why I was so impressed with Rooney's My War: even when he's bitching, it doesn't feel like bitching. So what can we learn from these characterizations?

1. Every Commanding Officer in the army is incompetent. Obviously this isn't true, or even close to being true. But almost every memoir describes the officer or NCO one rank higher than the author as an idiot. This leads us to this more accurate realization:

2. S*** flows uphill in the Army. People hate their bosses. This isn't some sort of revelation, but memoir authors don't get it. Soldiers hate their bosses as much as clerical workers hate theirs, but on the battlefield, petty disagreements become matters of life or death. Either way, it makes for mundane plotting.

3. Be clear. Many memoir authors dance around the incompetence of other officers, demonstrating it through conversation or actions. I'm thinking of Campbell and Ox, or Fick and his Captain. Sometimes blunt honesty is needed, something like, "Officer X was a bad officer, and could have gotten men killed."

Why is this the case? First, the Army is bad at criticizing itself. Two, the Military is even worse at criticizing personnel. If you've ever read an Officer Evaluation Report (OER), you know that even terrible Soldiers receive glowing statements.

Also, don't introduce the person in glowing terms if you're going to spend the rest of the book tearing them down. Both Joker One and One Bullet Away describe their antagonists as star football players, misleading the reader about their actual feelings. (Though based on this, I assume being good at football means you're a terrible officer.)

4. I hate anonymous criticism. Fick, in One Bullet Away, refuses to name his disagreeable and incompetent Captain. Evan Wright uses nicknames for his shitty officers, dubbing them Casey Kasem, Captain America and Encino Man. Campbell only uses the nickname Ox when referring to his XO. Friedman, in The War I Always Wanted, introduces his Captain but states that he won't print his name.

If you are going to to hate on someone, hate on them. Don’t hide behind nicknames.

5. No self-reflection. The only authors who criticize themselves are Van Winkle, O'Brien and Rooney. Van Winkle describes his battle with PTSD, and his carelessness on the battlefield. O'Brien, the fictional narrator of The Things They Carried, writes about his cowardice during a mortar attack. Rooney writes openly embarrassing things about himself. Everyone else writes in glowing terms of their leadership, or attempt to justify their decisions. The closest Andrew Exum comes to criticizing himself is writing that “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I doubt anyone has ever been criticized for that, except maybe at VA clinics.

6. In real-life, feelings change. “Casey Kasem” the hapless Operations Chief from Generation Kill, goes on a second tour, leads a team successfully and everyone’s opinion of him changes. It perfectly illustrates something: people in war zones like to bitch. Facts are optional, ditto with cruel stereotyping. It turns out this guy was as much a hero as anyone else in the battalion, but never had the chance to prove it until his second tour.

7. Don't be hypocritical. Kayla Williams writes disparagingly about her fellow translators sleeping around, based on rumors she heard. Of course, a forward operating platoon she worked with claimed she slept around, and her fellow translators called her a slut. I wish she would have presented all of these sexual rumors as just that: baseless sexual rumors.

In a perfect example of hypocrisy, Brent pointed out on our One Bullet Away post, “In his book [Fick] says that he had an epiphany at OCS, and that suddenly the little things like having his belt buckle perfectly in place was connected to keeping Marines alive in combat. Later, though, he chafes at enforcing the grooming standard in the field.” I’m upset I didn’t notice this, because it epitomizes what I'm writing about: petty one-sided criticism.

In closing, this is all a reason why war memoirs should be war novels. Novelists are free, free to criticize the people they love and admire the people they hate. As I wrote in this post, a famous author once told me that you have to love your characters. Memoirs don't have characters, so instead of love they have petty grudges.

Jun 02

After 9/11, as a naive high school student, I didn’t get it. How would invading Afghanistan stop terrorism? How would a military invasion change the fact that Muslims across the world hated America? I disagreed with classmates who argued that you can't spend money and expect the world to love you. I was stumped. I didn’t know how we could get the rest of the world to love us, or at least stop hating us.

Two weeks ago, I started looking back to the days after 9/11, playing "Monday morning quarterback" with the decisions of President Bush and Congress. I compared Bush with Eisenhower, a president who choose to invest in our long-term future domestically to solve a national security crisis abroad. To beat terrorism we don't need new weapons, we need to invest in foreign language training, an edge that will carry over to the globalized economy.

The Eisenhower analogy only goes so far. To stop terrorism, or the political violence that wracks the third world, we need a solution that isn't counter-insurgency. The proper analogy is the Marshall Plan. To prevent future wars in Europe, America invested in the Marshall Plan; to stop terrorism, America needs to invest in a new Global Marshall Plan. At the very least, we need to dramatically increase our foreign aid budget.

Like investing in education, this is an idea President Bush almost had. In 2003, he launched the most audacious health care initiative, ever. PEPFAR--President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief--spent 15 billion dollars on fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa and lowered the AIDS deaths on that continent by ten percent. Hate President Bush and republicans if you will, but this program delivered results on a serious world issue, while improving the good name of the US.

Like No Child Left Behind, the issue is one of scale. We spend the equivalent of our yearly foreign aid every month in Iraq. Factor in Afghanistan and regular defense spending, and there is no doubt we spend way more on war than peace. We often mention carrots and sticks, but our budget only buys large, expensive sticks. And sticks don't help development.

We should have increased our foreign aid and international presence immediately after 9/11. Fortunately it isn’t too late. Our government should immediately double our foreign aid budget, and we should take it from the defense budget. Seeing as one aircraft carrier is about 4.5 billion dollars, and doesn't do squat to fight terrorists, the money is there.

Basically we need US billionaires to take the lead. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have done their part. Unfortunately, after those three, the push for philanthropy ground to a halt. We need our billionaires to do more frankly. I don't know how we convince the billionaires, short of using crazy taxation policies I don't agree with. I admit this is a pipe dream, but it would help our world stature.

Finally, we need to reinstate the Peace Corps or USAID in a meaningful way. It should be funded at least as well as one of our military branches. And it should strive to get away from government contracting as much as possible. One of the great failures of foreign aid is the addition of multi-national corporations as an extra-layer of bureaucracy between our government and the people we are trying to help.

I said investing in the world would improve the US’s long term future, but I haven’t explained how. The way I see it, huge swaths of the world live on a dollar a day. In other words, they have to buy food, and necessities, and nothing else. That means no IPADs, no Fords, and no Coca-Cola. If the rest of the world could buy more goods, then they will need the services the US can provide. We funneled what will eventually be trillions into the war in Iraq, money that didn’t end up returning to American shores.

May 31

Reader Joel forwarded me this article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times. In short, a pit viper bit an Afghan boy on the face in Helmand province. The boy’s father brought him to the nearest Marine COP hoping the US could save his life. After fighting with higher headquarters, a helicopter picked up the boy and moved him to Kandahar, where it looks like he will survive.

Joel then asked this question: “To what extent does this actually, ‘win hearts and minds?’ Can anyone confirm whether or not the village this boy is from has become more accepting of US forces?”

Counter-insurgency is a war of inches and degrees. This individual incident won't win the war, the survival of this one boy will only change how his father feels about the US. Then again, maybe it won’t. It probably won't even affect his entire village. The bigger question is whether the policy of evacuating seriously wounded Afghans will eventually win over the population.

Because in the short term the effects of one single mission are hard to identify. I wrote about this when I described two Medical Civil Action Patrols (MEDCAP) my company conducted in Konar province. One succeeded wildly; the other failed miserably. Trying to figure out why was a next to impossible task. Again, victories in counter-insurgency show up over time, not single moments. It's like some sort of militaristic Chinese proverb: to fell the counter-insurgency tree, one must use many swings. By swings we mean MEDCAPs.

This isn't to say we have no way of knowing if we are winning. Our Human Intelligence Collection Teams can determine the “atmospherics” of local populations through polling. Most maneuver commanders tend not to employ them in this capacity, instead they try to target the bad guys. Modern polling can accomplish wonders. Determining if villages love us or hate us isn't as hard as we make it out to be.

Even though the Army screws up metrics all the time, there are ways of measuring progress. Having the level of violence plummet in Iraq showed progress. Having elections in Iraq showed progress. Training more Afghan police will show progress. Measuring success is possible--even seeing how many hearts and minds we have won--if we use the right metrics.

The core of Joel's question is whether we can win Afghan's hearts. Frankly, I don't see how this action couldn't help but convince one father, and possible mother, to support the US. Do drowning victims hate life guards? Do students hate organizations that gave them scholarships? Do cancer survivors hate their doctors?

The answer is no. Saving a boy's life will buy the US at least some goodwill. No one hates the person who saved their life, whereas denying the ability to save a life will almost certainly engender hatred. They see our money, wealth and health care, the natural reaction is to be upset if we don't share it. This goes for curing someone's club foot, or saving a little girl's eye sight. In the long term, building a sustainable Afghan medical capacity will bring us generations of good will; in the mean time, we should do what we can.

One MEDEDVAC won't win the war in Afghanistan, but thousands might. Some Afghans might still hate Americans despite billions in aid, but in the long term I believe they will come around.