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.

Jul 02

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

I wrote last week that I'm criticizing war memoirs as pieces of art, comparing them to the great works of war literature like The Things They Carried, All Quiet on The Western Front, or Catch-22. And compared to the great war novels, the modern memoir just doesn't feel as real.

Case in point, most war memoirists looooooooove their men, often to a literary fault. It makes for bad writing. Don't get me wrong, I want every PL and CO to love their men; to do otherwise is probably a crime, or horrible leadership. But if you are writing a memoir, make them human. Every Soldier has flaws just like the rest of us; to write differently is to ignore reality.

War memoirs tend to lie by omission. They highlight the good qualities of their fellow Soldiers and ignore the bad ones, creating one dimensional characters who don’t seem real. If people are defined by anything, we’re defined by our faults. No one remembers Gatsby for his looks, Holden Caulfield for his wit, or Ahab for his boating prowess.

(We can, of course, ignore Jarhead from this discussion, because Swofford tries to make himself, his dad, his brother, his family and the Marine Corps look as bad as possible. This could be called the Augusten Burroughs method.)

One Bullet Away

Fick's memoir, One Bullet Away, started off really well: his characters were realistic and human. His Drill Instructor, Sgt. Olds, felt real to me. A fellow recruit, Dunkin--an over-weight, under-achieving dropout--well, you feel as if you knew him too, and your disappointment at his inevitable failure is palpable.

But Fick loses this clarity when he gets his own platoon. He loves each Marine, and can’t write a negative word about them. By pure numbers alone, someone in Fick's platoon must be lazy, incompetent or an ass. Whether it is pro-athletes, Senators, or Rhodes Scholars, give me any group of 20 people, and one of them is insufferable.

Constant positivity also leads to boring character descriptions. Example: in One Bullet Away, Team One leader Colbert is described as a "blonde, cerebral San Diegan, known as 'the Iceman' for his cool performance." Compare this to Evan Wright's description of Colbert from Generation Kill, "They call Colbert 'The Iceman.' Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a 'Marine Corps killer,' he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be 'configured by plugging it into his PC.'" The first description is boring, the second fascinating.

The Unforgiving Minute

Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute has the second most over-the-top character descriptions of modern war memoirs (see below for the grand prize winner). One soldier looks “like a bulldog,” another has a “chiseled jaw” and arms like Popeye, someone else has the look of a guy who "walked straight out of a John Wayne movie," and another looks like a Humvee. It reads like parody.

This positivity even extends to Mullaney's antagonists. When one of his Soldiers refuses to shower for weeks on end, Mullaney doesn‘t trash on him for stinking and living in filth. “I applaud his dedication.” No, you shouldn’t. And you should write about how the platoon probably ridiculed him for weeks on end.

Joker One

Joker One opens with a list of the "Main Characters," describing each man with details such as, "a feisty personality and can-do attitude" or " a quiet intellectual" or "best -shot" or "inhumanly strong." Only one Soldier is described negatively--as a narcoleptic, which probably couldn't have been omitted. Not only do these descriptions not help--they don't create real characters--but it isn't even that useful as a reference.

Lone Survivor

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

Lone Survivor has the worst character descriptions I've ever read (and I mean this for the entirety of literature, including both finished books, unpublished books, and books authors imagined but never wrote). It opens with eight pages of the most syrupy sweet, straight from a Ludlum thriller, Hallmark Movie of the Week descriptions you'll ever read. Sentences like, “I never met one person with a bad word to say,” or “he was smartest and best trivial pursuit player I ever saw." He even mis-characterizes people, like when he writes "we had a very tough man in the White House.”

Lone Survivor also has the single worst character description I've ever read, which we wrote about here. If anyone ever argues with me about Lone Survivor, that's my trump card I'll point to and say, he wrote that.


As Michael has told me, the bond with your men is stronger than civilians can imagine. Even for the people he hated downrange, when he saw them two years later, it was water under the bridge. Together, a platoon faces death. This makes for great relationships and a great army.

But poor art.

Jun 30

Since I was on a mini-honeymoon last week, doing an instant response to the epic Rolling Stone article wasn’t going to happen. However, I swung by a Borders to buy some magazines for my flight back to Fort Campbell, and I was able to pick up a copy of Michael Hasting’s article on General McChrystal. So here is my contribution to the echo chamber: one opinion and 3 additional thoughts.

My Opinion
More than anything, it blows my mind that General McChrystal gave these quotes on-the-record. My gut reaction is shock, followed by regretful acknowledgment that Obama did what he had to do. The fact that we might benefit from bringing in General Petraeus helps to ease the pain. We need to be able to fire ineffective senior officers, and fortunately we had a fantastic General waiting in the wings.

Thought 1: Hastings writes a lot of opinions as if they are fact. Take his last paragraph. The author says that, “the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency,” “the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse,” and then “counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.” Each claim is stated as if academics, military theorists and bloggers don’t debate them on a daily basis.

And those aren’t the only examples. This is probably going to be the most read article on Afghanistan this year, and a lot of military/counter-insurgency novices will be sorely misled by Hasting’s opinions dressed up as “COIN facts.”

Thought 2: Hastings over/mis-uses the term “counter-insurgency.” Now I usually hate quoting articles by whole paragraph, but Hasting’s provides a simply bizarre, crazy-large, definition of COIN:

“COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his "surge" in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed "COINdinistas" for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan.”

I am a COINdinista to the core, have no doubt about that, but I use the term to define a specifc brand of warfare in specialized circumstances. Hastings gets most of counter-insurgency theory right, but he still talks about it as if it were a massive conspiracy designed by the military-industrial complex. Sorry I just don’t see that, and using biblical language overstates the zeal that the Army actually feels for COIN.

Thought 3: This all leads me to the crux of the article: he wants the US out of Afghanistan, what he calls an un-winnable war. His second to last sentence sums it up, “Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.” The author isn’t anti-McChrystal; in fact he kind of likes him. No, Michael Hastings is anti-Afghanistan war and wants to show the war in a bad light. Period.

I applaud his journalistic skill; this article again proves why we need long form journalism. Hasting’s descriptions of General McChystal provide an amazing insight to a fascinating man; too bad the rest of the article is polluted by opinion and bias that are unneeded.

We have other thoughts on Hasting’s take on the rules of engagement too. We’ll publish those later because they will be much more controversial.

(Would you like to know more? We recommend the Starbuck link-drop at Wings Over Iraq. Check it out.)

Jun 28

With great pride, Eric C and I want to announce the 200th post of On Violence (and in the category of interesting factoids, we’ve written over 117,000 words. That’s two and half The Great Gatsby's.)

As with the one year anniversary, we want to especially thank all the commenters and friends on our blog, twitter, facebook and in real life. Seriously, it helps. Without your support and feedback, we couldn’t have the fantastic dialogue, or the motivation, to continue.

The last few weeks have been particularly busy as one half of On Violence walked down the aisle on June 19th. Expect us to get back to regular posting starting last Monday, and the upcoming articles should be accurate again.

We hope to do another 200 posts in the next year again, possibly faster. We also expect our style to change slightly as there is the very, very, very good possibility that part of On Violence will be deployed within the next nine months. But the good news is this will provide a fresh new perspective on current operations.

Instead of linking to the best articles, we are going just link to our three previous compilations: our 50th Post link-drop, our 100th Post link-drop, and last month’s 1 Year Anniversary link-drop.

Since our one year anniversary, we've gotten a lot of response from two things. The first was our series on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's Lone Survivor. We critiqued Luttrell and Robinson for that memoir’s factual innacuracies, their stance on ROE, literary merits (or lack thereof), and ridiculous passages. We also wrote a letter to Paramount and Peter Berg, begging them not to make Lone Survivor into a movie.

We’ve scoured the internet for Luttrell related news, but if any of our readers see him making a splash let us know so we can provide the counter-narrative to his ridiculous story.  (Also, big thanks to Ed Darack who wrote an actual history of the battle that we plan on reviewing in the future.)

Also, our post on war memoirs and “bitching” got a lot of response and link love. Check it out.

Jun 25

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here. I recently updated the list.)

Right before Michael C went down the aisle last week, a couple of the groomsmen and I discussed On Violence and war memoirs. I was complaining. Soldier Authors either A. don't know what interests readers, or B. censor the best/funniest stories because they are often the most insulting.

Instantly, one of the groomsman--an engineer, but don't hold it against him--told a hilarious story about almost killing himself via timed explosives. And he would have kept telling stories like this except we had to go to the ceremony.

Aside from a few instances (mostly written by reporters) these types of stories--the funny, the insulting, the bizarre and obscure--never appear in war memoirs. I only hear them in casual, off-the-cuff conversations with Soldiers and Officers. Between this revelation and an interesting back and forth with Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms, I'd like to re-explain why I'm writing this "war memoirs project" and pitch the war literature I'd like to write. Since I criticize other Soldier's takes, I might as well put my (hypothetical) pitch out there.

Karaka accurately identified a key question I should have addressed earlier in this project: what am I looking for in war memoirs? The simple answer is truth. Of course, every mode and medium gets at the truth of war. One of the best ways to understand the war in Iraq is to read Thomas Rick's Fiasco, or Gamble. But that's political truth, and when it gets to understanding the human condition, reporting can only take us so far. Instead we need memoirs or novels.

And novels, though fictionalized, tease out the truth of war better than memoirs. The events of a novel may not be "true", but the sentiments and themes are. There are a lot of reasons for this--the fallibility of human memory, self-censoring, military censoring, kindness, bitterness, poor artistic technique, limitations of reality, and the memoir as a genre. Dissecting these limitations is the reason I'm writing this series.

An example. It is very unpopular in the military to disparage the men serving under you. So even if you had 35 year-old Sergeant who didn't know how to use email, you wouldn't include that passage in your memoir, because it is insulting. And yet that would make for really good prose, both developing a character and portraying the military the way it is.

Of course this all exists on a continuum. Some memoirs are more honest than others. Lone Survivor contains out and out lies, at the behest of political ideology. Jarhead contained a lot of ugly truth, because it only focused on the negatives. Even Soft Spots, the rawest memoir I've read, felt censored to some degree. Exploring this continuum is the reason for this series of posts.

My thesis is simple: memoirs are inferior to novels, and war memoirs are particularly inferior to war novels. Yet, in the current literary climate, people don't want to read (or write) war novels. People want something "real," they want memoirs. I'd gladly read novels, graphic novels or poetry, but if you want to read literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to read memoirs. I don't really have a choice. (As far as I know, the first post 9/11 war novel comes out in November, I'll be reviewing Brian Turner's Here, Bullet soon (a collection of poetry), and Matty P will be reviewing Brian K. Vaughan's graphic novel Pride of Baghdad in the next few weeks.)

So, what would I write instead?

I know what it wouldn't be: a memoir. A lot of people--friends, family, readers--have asked Michael C and myself if we're going to write about Michael's experience in Afghanistan. Well, we already are. On Violence exists to chronichal and share Michael C's military experience, without writing a long, dull book. We know the limitations of the genre too well.

Instead, I would embed in a super FOB for two or three weeks. Just detail all the basketball and volleyball tournaments, eat the food, and go to Salsa night. It's like a topsy-turvy version of America, and any time you can find that, well, that's some good literature. It seems counter-intuitive to write a war novel/memoir that avoids the front line, but I think the FOBs are fascinating, and under-covered.

Second, while embedded, I'd talk to everyone I could, anonymously. I'd just ask Soldiers, Officers, Grunts and POGs simple questions and collect their stories. I'd ask about drugs, sex, crapping, masturbating, animals, civilians, man-love Thursdays, funny infra-red stories, cultural mis-understandings, political opinions, how stupid/dumb everyone around them, etc, etc. God there are so many topics and I just don't think it is getting out there.

The themes I would cover? Isolation, bureaucracy, COIN, counter-intuitive warfare, warfare with email. Yeah, there'd be heroism and valor, but there'd be more boredom and sadness. Cheating wives and girlfriends, families that love their Soldiers, Modern Warfare--the video game. No narrative needed. Mix all of the above into a big  half-true/half-fiction collage. The best war novels are "fever dreams," like Dispatches, The Things They Carried, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and All Quiet on The Western Front. 

That's what I like to read, and it's about time somebody wrote it.

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.