Oct 15

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

One of my fears about critiquing war memoirs is that if I criticize famous, powerful or influential authors, it will come back to get me or my blog.

This review pretty much encapsulates that fear.

Andrew Exum started and still runs the blog Abu Muqawama, easily one of the most influential, popular and well written milblogs/foreign policy blogs on the internet. An expert on Afghanistan and the Middle East and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, this guy is influential. Criticizing him is probably stupid.

That said, I didn’t really like his Afghanistan war memoir This Man’s Army. Fortunately, Exum gives me some cover, he self-describes his memoir as “quickly forgotten”. This was Exum’s first book, written before he published hundreds of posts on his blog, opinion pieces for the New York Times, and numerous academic journals. I guarantee his next book will be huge--TV, radio and speaking tour huge--but this memoir, written at the beginning of his career, was not.

Basically, This Man’s Army just doesn’t have much snap. Not much happens--at one point in the first chapter Exum mentions the grades he earned in Latin. Beginning at the very beginning of his life, it takes This Man’s Army eighty three pages to get to Kuwait, another forty to get to Afghanistan, and only eighty more to return home.

This Man’s Army doesn’t include any of the items on my war memoir litmus test, which is interesting, because Exum’s first job in the Army is writing news stories for a local Army paper. He challenges himself to “see just how falsely positive I could be.” In his articles, “Morale problems were nonexistent. So too were racial tensions, adulterous soldiers, professional incompetence, and any of the other problems that often plague the modern military.” These problems are also absent from the rest of This Man’s Army.

So onto my primary problem: the narrative voice. The narrator basically comes off as a macho dick, even though I don’t think Exum is a macho dick, at least based on his Abu Muqawama writings. He spends most of his memoir play-fighting with his men, in some sort of bizarre initiation ceremony. Exum says this is standard in the military, but for his platoon it never stops. When they join an intramural soccer league at Camp Doha, his team “beat[s] the other teams into submission.” All I could think of was playing basketball with guys like that, guys who deliver hard fouls and argue--we never invited them back to the next game. In Kuwait, the platoon moons security cameras. By the time Exum leaves Kuwait he’s “...able to do almost thirty perfect pull-ups.” Later his men “whip out their cocks” in front of a pretty French reporter. Even coming home, his platoon annoys a “flamboyantly effeminate” steward. These hi-jinks feel forced, somehow, and unnatural.

This is all in good fun, until they reach Afghanistan. When Exum’s platoon drops “death cards” onto dead enemies that read “Jihad this, motherf***er” or he describes PTSD sufferers as “F***ing pussies” (though he later recants this position), it isn’t harmless. It’s actually offensive.

And it just mucks up the tone. The memoir’s best literary detail is a side character appropriately named Weeks. He is “an awkward kid who possessed no discernible athletic ability or physical coordination” who sits alone in his bunk reading comic books. Sad, tragic, out-of-place, it’s a literary detail. It feels inevitable that this Soldier will break down, suffering some undiagnosable malady. Exum, instead, describes “the sight of Weeks battling the volleyball to no avail” as “just too comical too bear.” Wow.

This is also an example of a punchline falling flat. This book tried to be funny, but it just wasn’t. (The funniest thing, to me, in This Man’s Army: the whole book I kept thinking, “Exum wrestles, fights and roughhouses with his men so much, I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten hurt.” In the last chapter, Exum shatters his knee playing street hockey, misses a deployment to Afghanistan, and got the time to write This Man’s Army. Now that’s funny.)

The other main awkward incident occurs at Camp Doha, Kuwait. Exum feuds with Navy SEALs who think his platoon is too loud, the “overweight...fun police” Intel officers in the next dorm over, and eventually the entire base. This entire chapter is surreal, and the epitome of a petty grudge unleashed in a memoir. Like a similar incident in Joker One involving discipline, at some point if an entire base hates your platoon, you have to assume your platoon is the problem. (Exum mostly excuses his men’s behavior. They were rude on the plane because they’d “been deployed for seven months”. At Camp Doha, they were rude because they were “away from home for so long.”) Exum, of course, loves his own leadership style. “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I don’t think anyone said that.

So, in closing, Exum is a must read writer, on his blog Abu Muqawama. We wouldn’t have put him on our blog roll otherwise. But this memoir is a pass.

Oct 13

Back in April, I wrote a post about the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police facing off against each other in front of my convoy. The point of that post was that the success of our military adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether or not the ANP can enforce law and order. Defeating the Taliban will rely on Afghan initiative more than anything else, although the quality of US training and support can go a long way to making them competent.

The following story gives you an idea of how seriously NATO took training the ANP back in 2008:

In my little part of Afghanistan, the job of training the Afghanistan National Police fell to a platoon of Military Police (MP). They had a huge area to cover, an entire province. They may have been reserve or National Guard, I don’t remember. We were supposed to provide security to the police stations, but not training. MPs know police work; my guys knew how to move, shoot and communicate.

When we arrived in Destined Company’s AO, the other PLs and the CO told me about a possible ambush site on the road from FOB Fortress (our home base) to Asadabad (another FOB/city). It was still active for many of the convoys that went through it, but not for us. For the eight months I drove past the spot not once did the enemy shoot at us. We had a specific weapon system we always rolled out with--the TOW missile--and the insurgents didn’t want anything to do with it.

One day--we were about thirty minutes from rolling out--we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. My men hadn’t been in a firefight in a while--they were itching for a fight-- and this sounded like the opportunity.

We hit the trucks, we rolled out, and the company relayed via the radios that the MP platoon was in contact. As we headed to the ambush site, my section sergeant pointed out that he hadn’t heard the unmistakable sounds of a fifty caliber machine gun. Then we saw the MP platoon flying past us. We figured out that they were going to the Fortress, but we headed to the ambush site to try to catch the insurgents.

By the time we got there, the insurgents were long gone. (Ambushes don’t last long unless they are wildly successful.) Even though we got there about 15 minutes after it started, there was nothing to be found.

So we returned to base to fing out what had happened, and to figure out why the MPs had barely shot back. The patrol leader told us that their fifty caliber machine gun had jammed. One of our Soldiers offered to check it out.

He quickly realized they were right, they had a jammed fifty caliber machine gun. But the reason it was jammed was...peculiar. A fifty caliber machine gun can be set up to load on either the left or right side. But if you set it up to fire from the left or right, the ammo can has to be set up on that side as well. The MP platoon had a right fed machine gun loaded from the left. That is a weapon that will never fire.

Why were improperly trained men even on the battlefield? Why were they training the police of Afghanistan? This is a good leadership lesson for all soldiers: like the Marine Corps “every Marine is a rifleman policy”, all Soldiers in the Army are Soldiers first. Basic Soldiering, like the ability to load and maintain a .50 Caliber machine gun, is something no unit should lack.

Oct 11

I make some pretty strange connections when it comes to foreign affairs. A few months back I wrote about globalization as it related to Cool Runnings. And I wrote about curling as it related to counter-insurgency. (Coming soon: Counter-insurgency theory and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.)

My most recent connection came when I was relooking at the failed states issue of Foreign Policy. As soon as I saw the map of the globe, all I could think was, “Man, that looks like a game of Risk.”

Risk? Yep, the game of global domination, one of the pastimes. We play for hours, get in heated alliances, and generally have a blast. (By the way, I’m not the only one looking to Risk for strategic answers.)

Over time, my friends and I have learned different Risk strategies. The most common lesson is that in Risk, like warfare, concentrating your forces makes sense. So the board starts to look something like this map on Foreign Policy. Different armies of different colors occupy the various states, grouped together to concentrate strength.

Except, whereas in Risk armies lump together for strength, on the failed states map, failed nations lump together; nations that have failed states as neighbors tend to fail themselves. This makes sense: if your neighbor falls apart trade will lower, displaced persons will flood into your country, and disastrous environmental policies will pollute/exploit your resources. All of which erodes the standard of living of all the surrounding nations.

This is all logical, but so what? Well when it comes to Risk, players have strategies to conquer the entire globe; in the realm of failed states no one has a plan. I wish the leaders of America or Europe took this same approach to the rest of the globe. What is our global strategy to pull everyone up to a decent standard of living? What is our approach to spread democracy and stop totalitarianism?

The point is we don’t have one. If we had a global strategy following 9/11, it was to protect our security through expeditionary wars. That only plunged two additional nations into chaos, and did nothing for the poverty stricken nations of Africa, where extremist terrorists took refuge and remain to this day, continuing attacks on Europe and threatening America again.

(Check out this speech by Obama on the same topic.)

Oct 08

Our series of articles--and I welcome any suggestions below--of scenes from film and literature that depict war at its worst so far:

War At Its Worst: A Farewell To Arms

War At Its Worst: Present Tense

War At Its Worst: My War and Falaise

War at its Worst: Hell Sucks in the Imperial Citadel

War at its Worst: Atonement

“The Forever War” at its Worst: Iraq

"The Forever War" at its Worst: Afghanistan

War at its Worst: Slaughterhouse-Five and Dresden

War at its Worst: The Ultimate Practitioner

War at its Worst: For Whom the Bell Tolls

War at its Worst: For Esme, with Love and Squalor

War at its Worst: Band of Brothers "Breaking Point"

As I wrote here, I believe war is the opposite of civilization. A lot of people think that the primitive is the opposite of civilization; it is not. The primitive is just a lesser degree of civilization (technically, its negation). War destroys all laws, rules, customs, traditions, ethics, morals and beliefs of a society. It stands in opposition to everything that makes up civilization, with survival left as the only priority. (H/T to the narrator in Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.)

At times, fiction authors depict that awful senselessness, the chaos and anarchy of war at its worst. I'd like to share those passages. (Michael says this is my pacifist side seeping into my writing.)

Our first passage is from the opening chapter of David Benioff’s excellent City of Thieves. (Click here for my review.)

You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten months earlier...eaten with disregard...in June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter...

There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings--all gone and burning in someone’s stove. The pigeons were missing, too...You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we’d laugh and shake our head, not believing it and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt...By January the rumors had become fact...

The rest of the book expands on this anarchy, the sense of people desperately fighting each other for food and warmth. Society’s beliefs have fallen to the wayside; if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat your own dog.

Oct 07

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

In each game of The Call of Duty series, you use various weapons, to kill either computer simulated enemies or player controlled avatars. Successfully doing so rewards the player with either advancement in the story, or experience points, that make upgrades available for your character.

By design you are meant to kill.

While impossible to advance in the main story mode without scoring a kill, it may be possible to advance to the highest echelon of the online multiplayer community without ever firing a single shot. One gamer is attempting to acquire level 70 without killing a single enemy. Player Mr_No_Kills is leveling through non-violent means. In certain game modes, players can receive experience points through accomplishing specified tasks. In one mode, players must attempt to take and hold certain key locations on the map. In another, players can obtain points by disarming an explosive device. Further, for every full match played, experience points are rewarded.

Mr_No_Kills is playing with the rules intention of the game a little bit. While possible to advance without drawing virtual blood, the game is designed so that not pulling the trigger on the enemy team only hurts his attempts to advance. Further it hurts whichever team he’s on (speaking as one with far too many hours invested, I would not want him on my team). Modes like deathmatch modes offer no avenues for experience other than staying in the game until one team wins. This means his only option is to run around and avoid being killed or hiding while unable to actually help his team win. In the previously mentioned game modes, it is possible to earn extra points without killing, but the same tasks are more difficult when a player doesn’t shoot back. Taking and securing a location is near impossible if there are enemy soldiers firing at you. The mode rewarding bomb disarming also requires one to set the very same explosive device or automatically lose the round.

G4 has titled him the "Modern Warfare 2 Pacifist" and proclaimed him a "hero to hippies." Whether his intention is to promote pacifism, protesting war and violence in our culture, or simply to do something that has yet to be done, Mr_No_Kills attempt brings to light a truth about one of the most popular games on the market: in the fictional universe the programmers have created. Gamers are not only encouraged to kill, but in fact rewarded. Think Pavlovian training, except instead of dogs salivating over food you have gamers salivating over the next tier of weaponry.

While the idea is novel and perhaps even a statement, Mr_No_Kills’ potential achievement defeats the purpose of the game in general. The point is kill the other players, sometimes while accomplishing specified tasks and sometimes not. Whether this may denote something about our culture or simply the nature of entertainment is unclear; but practically by not participating he’s hurting whatever team he’s on. The idea seems more gimmick than challenge. Realistically, pacifism is better served by not playing the game at all. There are plenty of non-violent videogames...like Myst...and Pong.

Oct 06

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

Since we demolished Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robison’s “memoir” Lone Survivor a few months ago, a ridiculous new trend started at On Violence: haters and hateration.

Two examples. The first is from Patrick in the comment section of “He Got The Title Wrong? and 6 More Mistakes from Luttrell's "Lone Survivor” “this website is stupid. its nothing but a bunch of computer nerds and paper pushers that have never been in our boots. you guys have no idea what you are talking about...michael, are you even in the military? have you at the very least received a degree in military studies?” [SIC]

The second example--from the same post--is by Kyle, “We trust these men to do the work that 99.9% of you are too [profanity] to do...if you have ever stepped one foot on a battlefield, then you have half a right to comment on this subject. if not, shut your mouth and live your little lives that are being secured by men like this. being an infantryman myself, it absolutely sickens me that this site is even up and running. what you all should do is simply say ‘thank you for everything you did for us, marcus’ and leave it at that.” [SIC]

We’ve since deleted about three other comments along the same vein. Commenter “youguysaremorons” claimed Michael and I “sit on our couch drinking diet cokes” while others do the fighting for us. (We’ve also developed a new policy: no personal attacks. If you want to insult us or another commenter, do it somewhere else.)

Behind these profanity laced quotes is something much worse: the idea that people outside the military are unable/not allowed to comment on it. Michael C made a comment once on a post at Abu Muqawama, and another person dismissed his comment because he wasn’t a soldier. On a number of levels, it's a logical fallacy. Here are five:

1. Lots of people have not been lots of things; they still comment on them. I mean, I don’t know a soldier since Eisenhower who was president, but I know lots of Soldiers who complain about the President. Only a handful of ex-Soldiers have gone on to join our Congress, but I know tons of service members who think Nancy Pelosi is doing a terrible job. Soldiers don’t want anyone to judge their job, but they feel free to judge politicians. To paraphrase Kyle--the scholar-cum-commenter from above--”If you have ever stepped one foot in the White House, then you have half a right to comment on this subject. If not, shut your mouth and live your little lives that are being led by men like Obama and Bush.”

This sentiment is silly, of course, but so is the idea non-soldiers can’t comment on military matters.

2. A speaker’s personality/traits/anything else that defines that person, technically has nothing to do with the accuracy of a statement. Fools can say wise things; wise men can say foolish things. People forget this, which is why so many smart sentiments and quotes said by anonymous people get attributed to smarter, more famous people. It’s why Einstein, Plato, Franklin, and Ghandi have dozens of quotes attributed to them, and George Santanaya does not.

3. If you have valuable, first-hand experience, then provide it. The only benefit an expert has is using personal experience to back-up his position. In the cases of Patrick and Kyle, neither argues about the factual inaccuracies in Lone Survivor, instead they say we don’t know what we’re talking about. We have found this a lot when Lone Survivor comes up. Instead of debating the merits of our arguments, most people simply say, “if you weren’t there then you can’t judge”, as if the only relevant first hand experience, in the case of war, is that of our soldiers and them alone.

3. This is a formal logical fallacy, and a fairly famous one. The Ad Hominem attack. Neither commenter deals with the fact Lone Survivor is inaccurate and poorly written. Instead they come after us with personal attacks.

4. We live in a democracy and the military serves at our behest. Thus, everyone has a right to comment. Let me rephrase that: everyone has an obligation to comment on the military because it is the most important, most violent and most influential organization that represents us. Not trying to make it better is giving up part of one’s civic duty. Historically, the military has been the greatest threat to freedom and democracy; for every revolution by liberals there have been five coup d’etats by a military or general.

5. Oh and even though it doesn’t matter, Michael C is in the military and has been to Afghanistan. Regular On Violence readers probably spotted this very reasonable objection to the haters right off the bat. Michael C is in the military. Michael C deployed to Afghanistan. To answer Patrick’s claim. Yes, Michael C has a minor in military studies, graduated with honors from both Infantry Officer Basic Course and the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, and went to Ranger School.

Not only did neither commenter not check our “About” page to learn that Michael served in Afghanistan, earned the combat infantry badge, and is currently serving in Iraq, neither read the first paragraph of the post they were commenting on. Michael wrote, “I lived in the Korengal valley; I walked the trails on the other side of the Sawtalo Spur.”

Geez.

Oct 04

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

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

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

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

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

So what does Thomas Ricks think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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