Jul 15

DC comic's recent mega-event, The Sinestro Corp Wars, caught my attention. This fictional war spawned a massive change in the ethos of the Green Lantern characters and, more importantly, a missed opportunity. 

The Green Lanterns are an intergalactic peace keeping force. It's like NATO, but with power rings that allow the wearer to fly across space and battle enemies. (It's a comic book universe, so go with for a second.) And because it's a comic book there are rules. Actually, it's a law. It's the Green Lantern Corps' primary law and limitation. The Green Lanterns don't kill. In fact, they can't. They incapacitate, disable, or capture but they do not kill; their ring won't allow it.

It's not necessarily a limitation, but a statement of purpose, a differentiation from the rest of the universe and a demonstration of purity. They are an intergalactic peace keeping force, not an army. The laws dictated that a Green Lantern could not take the life of an enemy. The wearer of the ring was called to be higher; to be better than the villain.  The Green Lantern is a keeper of the peace, not a taker of life. 

As is common in the comic universe, a great arch-enemy returns to wreak his vengeance upon the Green Lantern Corps. Sinestro, one of the corps' former best, rallied the worst the universe had to offer, creating his own pseudo-corps in his bid for revenge. And he was winning. The Lanterns were dying.

So those who controlled Green Lanterns (an ancient race called the Oans) changed the laws. Now they could kill. And kill they did. The Green Lantern Corps began to beat back Sinestro and his army. Where once they could only disable, they left bodies in their wake.

I don't have a problem story arc and the return of a familiar villain. Nor do I have a problem with the war or the Corp pushed to the point of losing multiple lanterns. Surprisingly enough, my problem doesn't arise from the authorization for the Green Lanterns to kill. Rather, my protest is with how quickly this new ability is taken for granted. Suddenly heroes are authorized to take life and there is no conflict.

There was an opportunity in this moment; the moment the heroes realize they can do what they dared not before. There was an opportunity for the writers to depict a conflict, a deeper philosophical question, that was missed. That question is whether a hero should kill and when. And the writer's missed it.

Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.

Jul 12

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

Jul 10

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

Also, for a continuation of Karaka Pend's guestpost "No Remorse: A Review of Harry Brown" from yesterday, click here.)

Before I begin, I need to paraphrase Roger Ebert. A reviewer can't review what he wishes the author wrote, he has to review what he read, on its own merits. While he may be right, for Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, I'm going to review what I wish were on the page, not what actually was.

I expected a pretty standard memoir from The Unforgiving Minute, and I felt like I got one. I saw an interview with Mullaney on The Daily Show--there will be a media and memoirs post a few weeks from now--and his account of his experience in Afghanistan was too positive, too bright, too COIN-aware, especially for a guy who served in 2005.

The Unforgiving Minute has the span of an auto-biography but the writing style of a novel. It starts with Mullaney's first day at West Point, covers his experiences in Ranger School, Oxford, and finally Afghanistan, and ends with a post-war addendum. Mullaney's main literary goal is to show the training, education and character necessary to excel when that "unforgiving minute" of combat finally arrives. How the Army "makes a man" and all that. (A confession: I skimmed most of the “student” portion of the book to get to the war part.)

I think the Craig Mulaney in the pages of The Unforgiving Minute is the Craig Mullaney in real life. That's a compliment. Mullaney is a very positive, hard-working Christian, scholar and Soldier. I think he works for US AID, and I'm glad he does; he seems to be earnest, competent and honest. I want those type of people in Washington making decisions. He also sounds like a fun drinking buddy, based on his experience in Oxford and his intellect.

But I don't recommend his memoir. It is too positive, too gee-whiz, and too neat. It isn’t a bad book--a lot of people seem to enjoy it--but I didn’t. The writing is fine, but tries too hard to be exciting. Mullaney clearly knows literature, but this isn’t it. Most importantly, politically, I don’t think the book is honest.

On the writing, like I said, it tries too hard to be exciting; Mullaney tends to exaggerate for effect. This is especially troubling because my brother's military trajectory tends to match Mullaney's, which made for easy verification. On Mullaney's first day of wrestling, his face is “slammed” into the mat, bloodying his nose. It doesn’t match my rather mundane experience with wrestling. Mullaney's Ranger School seems much more exciting than the one from Michael's journals. And in Paris, Mullaney eats, “warmed up with crocks of onion soup, the bubbling Gruyere cheese melting over the fresh croutons.” It feels too ideally "romantic," what I would argue is a more fiction Paris than the tourist-y reality.

The initial descriptions of Afghanistan were really good--"he tossed my rucksack into a cannibalized humvee"--but then veers off into bad character descriptions and generalizations--"Only later would I learn the first rule of Afghanistan: The closer you look, the less you understand." Sigh. From what I remember and noted, The Unforgiving Minute lacks a real discussion of what counter-insurgency warfare is, and how/why we weren't fighting it in Afghanistan in 2005. Certainly more time is spent on a boxing match than political discussion.

All of the standard “war memoir” problems apply. The Unforgiving Minute is so dialogue heavy, especially at the most ridiculous times, like in combat or recollecting conversations from years before. As I mentioned in "Loving Characters", Mullaney's character descriptions are second worst I've read in a war memoir (“looked like a bulldog,” “chiseled granite,” or “a humvee”). Most importantly, he doesn't ever criticize his men. When one of his soldier's refuses to shower, instead of describing him as a bad soldier--which he is putting his fellow soldiers in danger of infection--Mullaney, “applaud[s] his dedication.”

There are the cliches common to war memoirs. The Unforgiving Minute ends with the obligatory packing scene, and a hint that Mullaney has been drinking too much. (I don’t know what it says about me that when I lived with my brother in Italy after he returned from deployment, I was the one who partied.) And he censors interesting details; the pact he makes between himself and his wife concerning their differing marriages remains "between Meena, God, and Me." Few books make a point of telling you exactly what they are censoring.

Where does this memoir lie in the pantheon of war memoirs? For most people, somewhere at the top. For me, probably on the low end. I like a balance of grit, grime and ugliness, balanced out by heroism and humor. The Unforgiving Minute has the latter, but not the former.

Michael C brought up a great point, that you can easily compare Lone Survivor and The Unforgiving Minute--both focus on training, how the military "makes a man" and a tour in Afghanistan in 2005. Both books have a relentlessly pro-military tone. But they're not the same book. Mullaney can write--and can write Patrick Robinson under the table. His version more accurately describes the war in Afghanistan. If The Unforgiving Minute were being made into a film, I'd ask to do a pass on it.

But the main problem, as I wrote above, is the image Mullaney strives to give us of a world without problems and harmony, of virtuous soldiers where everyone is basically good. I think he actually views the world this way, and I can’t fault him for that, or for writing a memoir expressing that.

But I can also say I don’t like the book, and I don’t recommend you read it.

Jul 08

(Today's guest post is by Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms. 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.

Also, for a continuation of Karaka Pend's guestpost, click here.)

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

"No remorse. No pity. It was as easy as stepping on a bug...We are different people now than we were then." --Bill Guarnere, "Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose

For anyone familiar with Batman, the idea that vigilantism is an expression of vengeance is generally understood. The tasks Batman ascribes to himself--to clear the streets of Gotham City of criminals, to defend Gotham from those who would destroy it--come directly from his experience witnessing his parents killed by a violent mugging as a child. The rubric is simplistic: cause (murder) --> effect (the Batman comes to life).

In "Harry Brown," Michael Caine is Batman. His Gotham City is an Elephant and Castle housing estate in South London; his secret identity is his service in the Royal Marines as a veteran of North Ireland. But unlike Batman, "Harry Brown" and its titular character distill the crux of being a vigilante down to its stark and often ugly search for what he or she considers justice.

There are no heroes here.

Harry Brown, a pensioner whose wife lies terminally ill in a nearby hospital, avoids the underpass where the local gang have established their base. The underpass offers a quicker transit between Brown's home and his wife's hospital room, but also acts as a haven for young criminals who terrorize the locals, including a couple attempting to walk through the underpass. Brown attempts to ignore it, and them, in favor of concentrating on being with his wife as she nears her death.

Brown's only companions are the bartender at his local pub, Sid, and his fellow pensioner Leonard, with whom he drinks and plays chess. Brown's retreat from the world is evident: he exists in the flat that bears so many markers of his wife; in a chair by her bedside; in the pub with Leonard; and virtually in no other place. He is a man reduced.

He learns that his wife is dying, and the criminals prevent him from reaching her bedside in time to say goodbye by blocking the underpass; Brown weighs the possibility of getting through the underpass with his clear need to be near his wife, and ultimately he chooses to take the longer path. His anger is only mitigated by his grief, and for a brief moment it seems as though his grief will overtake him. That is, until Leonard, who has been a victim of the cruel pranks and provocations of the underpass gang, comes to Brown. Brown puts him off, suggesting Leonard should go to the police (who have dismissed Leonard's concerns). A moment before, when Len had asked Brown about his time in the Royal Marines, Brown says, "When I met my Cath, I knew that all that stuff had to be locked away. I made that decision all those years ago, and I stuck to it." It's clear he's unwilling to open whatever violence is in his past, out of habit, out of respect for his late wife.

The gang kills Len that night after he goes to the underpass with an old bayonet following enflamed feces shoved through his letterbox. Suddenly Brown is thoroughly unmoored--his wife is dead, his best mate is dead, and all that is left is an anger and helplessness without a clear focus. That is, until he is mugged at knifepoint by one of the members of the gang.

As an attacker thrusts a weapon in his face, his long-dormant training kicks in, and in one swift move Brown turns the knife on his attacker, stabbing him in the heart and leaving him to his death. Brown hurries home, mechanically stripping any evidence of his involvement from his clothes and body.

All these experiences, and Brown's symbolic divorce from the world through the deaths of those two people who seem to have defined him, combine to galvanize Brown to action, a path of revenge and violence.

This is a complicated movie, for all that the motivations are simple. Brown, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Caine, is a man whose past was marked by engagement with paramilitary forces during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. He set aside that capability when he married, and it would never had resurfaced had the deaths of his wife and friend not happened in such close proximity. Brown becomes a vigilante because it is clear to him that the police are ineffective in ending the threat of these gang members (and to a larger extent the drug traffickers he also kills). Hicock, one of the two detectives, says that if it is Brown doing these things, "then he's doing us a favor." The Inspector General doesn't believe Frampton when she suggests it the killer is Brown. Brown, thus, is in the perfect position to target and eradicate his enemy with little repercussion, which also contributes to his motives and choices.

There's a remarkable--and purposeful--dichotomy between Brown as a frail older man, a pensioner, and the seasoned Royal Marine that seems to reside inside of him. It raises some fascinating questions: is training ever forgettable? Can you ever forget the things you have done, the lives you have taken? Brown, for whom life has little charm without his wife and friend, is willing to trade his own for a piece of vengeance, and more than succeeds in his goal.

The film also forces the question: can violence only be matched with violence, one more powerful than the other? Brown manages to achieve what he does with an exacting series of actions, each one ending in death or injury to his enemy, where the police's attempt to charge on evidence fails. The riots initially push back at the intervening police force until the police bring in more officers and subdue the population of the estate.

"Harry Brown" doesn't indicate that Brown is correct for exacting violent revenge on the gang, apart from Frampton's concern; but neither does it suggest he is in the wrong. Brown's violence has a target that the police have difficulty reaching, and in one sense he does indeed "do them a favor." He provides an opportunity for intervention without revealing his involvement. He operates in the shadows, setting up a scenario that does, eventually, end in justice. And he walks away from it all without ever being named. Perhaps this is what the best vigilante achieves--and what Batman cannot have: justice without acknowledgement.

Jul 07

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Back in college, a grad student from my co-op pointed out an interesting problem in mathematics and academia: some math proofs were so big now some professors could spend entire careers solving only one or two problems. Math is getting so large and complicated the human life span is limiting its growth.

Last month, on our one year anniversary, Michael C reviewed Hannah Arendt's On Violence, and he mentioned that she was one of two major thinkers to deal philosophically with the topic of violence. The other is William T. Vollman, author of Rising Up and Rising Down. As he mentioned at the time, the tome is the spiritual and physical opposite of Arendt's. Seven thick volumes long, we feel like a math professor deciding which proof he will spend his career researching. It is just too damn long and, practically speaking, unreviewable.

Still, Michael and I feel that On Violence needs to at least address some part of it, in lieu of reviewing the whole thing, and the part we've chosen is the premise. Put simply in the introduction's sub-heading, Vollman feels that "the world is not getting better."

I disagree. Violence, if anything, is going down.

First a clarification. Saying the world is not getting better is not saying the world is getting worse. As his clever title indicates, the world is going in both directions. (Which is another way of saying it isn't going any direction at all.) Nevertheless, the onus of proof is on Vollman to definitively show that Violence has remained at the same level, and I don't think he does.

But don't take my word that the world is getting better (or at least less violent), take Steven Pinker's. In a TED lecture on the subject, Pinker argues  that "In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time of our species existence."

First, Pinker proves it with statistics. He shows that over millennium, centuries, decades and years, the rate of Violence has decreased. Vollman--at least in the introduction where he issues this premise--uses anecdotes over statistics to prove his premise.

I dislike many of these anecdotes. His goal is to point out that Violence maintains or changes, but is always present, the way "victories over the Confederacy, bring into being the Ku Klux Klan." This seems unfair. The institutionalized slavery of millions--and the wartime deaths of 600,000 Soldiers--pales in comparison to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. I'd say Violence went down. Another example of Vollman's is that Robespierre's biographer in the mid-1800s brags that the French have stopped using torture, but of course a century later, they used torture in Algeria.

So why has Violence gone down? To inadequately paraphrase Stephen Pinker, mankind has become more (inter)connected. As we expand the circles to which we believe others belong, we become less violent. Pinker points out that from family to tribe to ethnicity to nation, mankind has slowly expanded the circles they belong to. This explains why the French tortured Algerians; they didn't consider them to be a part of their circle of white French. The French had stopped using torture, only against other Frenchmen.

Let me make something clear. This is just a critique of Vollman's premise and his motivation; it does not mean that his thesis is wrong. I haven't read his entire book--it will take a long time, which I don't have right now--but I felt we needed to address it in some way. The point is, statistics show that society is getting better. It may not feel like it at times, but it's true.

Jul 06

Two weeks ago, I took apart Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for claiming that insurgents don’t have rules of engagement (ROE). Insurgents have rules of engagement; they just don’t follow the Geneva Conventions. What Luttrell--and other critics of the ROE--really mean is that insurgents don’t have our rules of engagement, a statement that should shock no one.

Why don't insurgents have our ROE? A few reasons...

First, an insurgent leader can't control his fighters like an industrial military, and thus can't enforce their ROE with the discipline of the West. While a US Soldier could face court martial for disobeying ROE, an insurgent leader must use influence, intimidation and violence to control his men. Insurgent ROE reflects the reality of their situation, and is much more flexible.

Insurgent leaders don't write down their rules of engagement because they don't have the ability to distribute it. It's not like insurgents have the vast bureaucracies the Western armies maintain do. They have to use shuras or messengers, or even video tapes made in the hills of Pakistan. The point is they can't distribute an email or memo through a super-bureaucracy like the US. This is why their ROE will never be as strict or as documented as ours.

Second, insurgents also have a fundamentally different viewpoint of counter-insurgency/insurgency warfare than the Western armies. An insurgent is never on safe ground. He lives off the people, so for him the population is an active participant in the war. They also have drastically better intelligence, so they know who is really fighting in the insurgency and who isn't. Oh, and we wear uniforms.

But one reason above all explains why insurgent ROE doesn't look like American or Western ROE: an insurgent army doesn’t have the capabilities or firepower of a Western military.

Take this exchange from Ben M’Hidi in Battle for Algiers. When asked, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?” Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

I’m not advocating for insurgents. Just War Theory, on which rules of engagement are based, is the reason I joined the military. It explains why good Armies need to exist. I hate the insurgent's rules of engagement because it doesn't limit civilian casualties.

But none of this shocks me. Their tactics and weapons don’t look familiar either, so why would their ROE?

Jul 05

Quick heads up:

We took over posting duties for an on vacation Karaka Pend over at her website Permissable Arms. (We love her site, and added her to our blog roll. Check it out.)

Michael wrote about the most interesting sub-plot in the Gen. McChrystal debacle, Rules of Engagement.

And today I wrote about art, fear and becoming the enemy. Somehow I connected it to counter-insurgency and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Check them out.