Mar 08

In the late nineties, Korean Airways had an statistically high number of plane crashes. The reason? Because of a strict Asian culture with a low tolerance for failure, co-pilots hesitated to inform their captains when they made critical mistakes. As a result, planes crashed. The culture of Korea, and Korean Airlines, was to blame for the high crash rate.

Two weeks ago, I praised Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success for its insights. In that post, I wrote about how individuals become successful; today, I will expand into what makes cultures successful.

Outliers asks a very basic question: how does culture influence success? The US Army has a distinct culture: technologically-oriented, maneuver-focused, leadership-driven, top-down. And this culture has struggled for eight years to defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Their own plane crashes if you will.) Outliers, of course, never mentions insurgencies or the army, but asserts an idea every Army officer should understand: your culture defines you. Only after understanding your culture can you break out of its confines.

An example: from the end of Vietnam to the Iraq invasion, maneuver commanders trained to lead battalion and brigade sized operations. There is a reason for this, large operations in a high intensity environment are difficult and complex operations. As I have written before, though, counter-insurgencies are no place for large operations. Our Army culture--through doctrine, leadership and practice--wants to continue conducting large scale operations, counter-insurgency be damned.

The US Army needs to ask if it has a culture of success, and I don’t think it is. Gladwell argues that certain cultures breed intellectual curiosity and intense work ethics. Is the Army one of those cultures? Do we care about reading military history? Learning languages? Developing new ideas and tactics?

Or do we care about physical fitness and fantastic PowerPoints?

Another example: Outliers mentions that Southern culture tends to respond violently to personal insults. The upshot is that Southerners believe in honor, and have a willingness to fight for that honor. 23% of the Army is from the South, and its cultural influences run even deeper. How does this affect the Army's culture? Or how we wage insurgencies?

The theory of “power-distance" is another important idea. High power-distance relationships discourage direct confrontation; low-power relationships allow subordinates to challenge their leaders. Is the US Military a low or high power-distance organization? America is a low power-distance nation, but the Military has some distinct high power-distance characteristics (rank, customs and courtesy, and saluting all reinforce high-power relationships). I have a feeling many in CENTCOM and DoD knew invading Iraq would turn out poorly, but high power-distance relationships discouraged honest discussion. Like Korean Airways, staff officers at CENTCOM saw the US Military plane crashing, but could not communicate that to General Franks.

Outliers: The Story of Success has a simple theme: think about what makes people successful. The Army should examine what social science tells us about how success really works, not how it worked in the 1950s. We are an industrial Army fighting information wars. We need to adapt.

Mar 05

There's a debate raging over the The Hurt Locker. In short, critics love it; Soldiers and veterans not so much.

Critics love the film in part for its supposed accuracy. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described the film as "overflowing with crackling verisimilitude." David Denby of the New Yorker claimed that The Hurt Locker "will be studied twenty years from now when people want to understand something of what happened to American soldiers in Iraq."

I sure hope not.

As Brandon Friedman wrote on VetsVoice, "if you know anything about the Army, or about operations or life in Iraq, you'll be so distracted by the nonsensical sequences and plot twists that it will ruin the movie for you." Or as Christian Lowe explains a bit more harshly, ""Some of the scenes are so disconnected with reality to be almost parody."

In short, The Hurt Locker is a tactical, not to mention historical, mess.

Many war movies have unrealistic elements (read: Inglorious Basterds), why does this one touch a nerve? The Hurt Locker is essentially an action film--A.O. Scott and other critics have described it as such--when it didn't need to be. The stories and lives of regular Soldiers could fill countless mini-series worth of drama and comedy without "enhancing" the truth as Kathryn Bigelow does in The Hurt Locker. You don't have to sensationalize the military to make it exciting; it already is.

The Hurt Locker's very premise is misleading. The military doesn't disarm bombs while wearing bomb suits and cutting wires, we place a brick of C4 explosive on top. One push of the button and the IED detonates safely. True, some situations call for disarming an IED up close, but nine times out of ten a robot motors out to it while the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) techs sit in their trucks. Why? Because this is safer, quicker, cheaper and more efficient than disarming it. It isn't as exciting, but it is what happens.

But safer and more efficient does not equal safe. In Afghanistan, I patrolled a nine kilometer road where an IED had already taken a Soldier's legs. Every day we patrolled that road we felt fear, the fear that at any point an IED could detonate underneath our vehicle. We found multiple IEDs, but one still gets me. As we dismounted to clear the sides of the road, one of my Soldiers stopped me and pointed forward. About ten meters dead in my path was an IED pointing right at me. We waited two hours for EOD to arrive by helicopter. The resulting explosion was spectacular. The entire episode was filled with the tension The Hurt Locker tries to achieve. That find by itself would make a great short film, no extra Hollywood flair needed.

My main worry, though, is that this film will define the Iraq War the way Apocalypse Now defines the Vietnam war. If critics/pundits/whoever tell the public The Hurt Locker is realistic, it will write a false history of the war. It doesn't mean that you can't learn about this war without deploying to it. But most will never study it, and war films will define their images about this war. I don't want this film to define those false images for us.

As David Denby wrote above: soldiers will be watching this film years form now. They need to know what actually happened. So does everyone else.

The Hurt Locker Link Drop:

This isn't a comprehensive link drop, but we hope it covers the major pieces of the debate.

The Huffington Post, on behalf of VetVoice, first launched the debate. Former Soldiers Kate Hoit and, one of our favorites, Brandon Friedman, posted two well aimed critiques at the accuracy of The Hurt Locker.

In response, two retired EOD techs James P. O'Neil and James Clifford disputed the charge that Soldiers are upset with the film. The most interesting point about these two rebuttals is that they only speak for two communities: the retired and EOD. EOD personnel love the film because it made their acronym known for the first time ever. The retired community doesn't know much either way because they haven't deployed. Much like critics, to them this film is as real as it gets.

Before those pieces, and some after, were a few excellent posts on the blogosphere. The general consensus from The Best Defense and Army of Dude is that the film is good overall, but has a few glaring flaws. Bouhammer, on the other hand, devastates the film and comes much closer to my own personal views. Finally, I have never read this blog, but they do a very good critique of the film.

After the blogosphere broke the topic, the main stream media picked it up. USA Today, Newsweek and the PBS Newshour all ran pieces describing the debate without injecting much of their own opinion. 60 Minutes didn't mention it in this piece on Kathryn Bigelow.

It isn't a blog, but the goofs page on IMDB absolutely hammers the film. It doesn't have a view any one way, and some of the criticisms are beyond nit picky, but it is a great resource of the various errors.

Finally, if you want to see all the reviews of this film check out the metacritic page.

Update: Just found this interview by screenwriter John Boal over at Creative Screenwriting magazine. In it, Boal explains that accuracy is one of his main concerns for him as a screenwriter, and bemoans other plot-oriented films he consideres less realitic. This is as much his concern as it is ours.

Mar 04

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards all week. Today everyone trashes on "Inglorious Basterds." Tomorrow we'll close up with a "The Hurt Locker" review and and link drop.)

Eric C's Second Take on Inglorious Basterds

I ended my last post on Inglorious Basterds asking you not to think too hard about the film. Quentin Tarantino disagrees. Not because he makes "important" films--he's never really tried to do that--but because Quentin Tarantino loves sub-textual film criticism, as he mentioned in an interview with Terry Gross. Fortunately, I do too.

So what's Inglorious Basterds about, beneath the surface? Propaganda and the German film industry. Goebbels is a supporting character, and the film's climax revolves around a propaganda film premiere. This propaganda film-within-a-film, which depicts a German sniper shooting hundreds of Americans from a bell tower, is over-the-top, absurd and unstomachingly jingoistic. Of course, that's also a pretty accurate description of Inglorious Basterds.

And that's the rub, isn't it? Despite being critical of propaganda, Inglorious Basterds is itself propaganda. Nazis, as I wrote before, are the easiest villains in the world to caricature. In his introduction to The Moon is Down, Donald V. Coers describes the common stereotypes of Germans in wartime propaganda, "heel clicking Huns...depraved, monocled intellectuals...thundering seig heils" or as Tarantino said, "if you want to see jack-booting Nazis in movies, you've got to watch American movies made at that time."

Or you could just watch Inglorious Basterds today. Hans Landa embodies a depraved intellectual. Goebbels is a pervert. Hitler acts like a moronic child. The heroic Nazi sniper is also a sexual predator.

Unlike propaganda by Germans or Americans in the 30's and 40's, Inglorious Basterds' impact is negligible; the war ended sixty years ago. It's more disturbing when Marcus Luttrell writes the jingoistic soon-to-be-filmed Lone Survivor today, or when Turkish filmmakers make the rabidly anti-American In the Valley of Wolves: Iraq, the most popular film in Turkish cinema history. Current propaganda spreads hate and fear; Inglorious Basterds spreads a nostalgic hate and fear.

Doesn't make it any less ridiculous.

Matty P's Take On Inglorious Basterds

Two soldiers face one another; one a Nazi and one an American. One man obstinately allows himself to be bludgeoned to death rather than betray his allies. With defiant dignity, he kneels awaiting a gruesome death at the hands of his captors, displaying a solemn honor at dying for the sake of his country and his comrades. Yet this man who loses his life is not meant to be a hero. He is the villain because he is a Nazi.

For me, this scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds epitomizes my disconnect with the movie. An action movie about Jewish vengeance against the Nazi regime, the protagonists lack the moral fortitude of the Nazi that they kill. The heroes, the people the audience are meant to be cheering, descend to the very same moral depths as the Nazis they despise. It's been mentioned here at On V and elsewhere that the heroes commit acts of violence which mirror historical atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and guards (namely, carving swastikas in the foreheads of the enemy). They also fire into crowds, beat men to death with baseball bats, and appear to be the worst covert ops insertion team in history as none bothered to learn German.

My problem isn't with using the Nazi party as antagonists. The best Indiana Jones movies pit the archeology professor against the Third Reich. As a large portion of my family is of German Jewish decent, I enjoy watching the staunch monocled Nazi stereotype outwitted by a plucky hero. My outrage stems from portrayals of American soldiers who appear more vicious and morally vapid than their Nazi counterparts.

Michael C on Ambushes and Inglorious Basterds

I have many issues with Inglorious Basterds, but I don't have enough room to cover them all. Instead, I will write about how Quentin Tarantino filmed sucky ambushes.

When we finally catch up with the Basterds in France, they are standing around two survivors of a slaughtered German platoon. The Basterds take their time interrogating the prisoners; they torture both, murder one, and then release the surviving Soldier, all this in the same place where they ambushed the German patrol.

In real life, an ambush is tactical mission that allows a smaller element to disrupt the operations of a larger force. It has two things going for it: surprise and speed. Surprise when you initiate the ambush, and speed as you destroy enemy forces and then exfiltrate. The longer you hang around on the objective (where you conducted the ambush), the sooner you will be discovered and killed.

Tarantino's Basterds break a fundamental rule of warfare in pursuit of his Nazi-violence-porn fantasy.

Is it that important that I tear apart one tactical mistake in Inglorious Basterds? It is. Inglorious Basterds butchered the past to fulfill some dumb fantasy. It doesn't deserve a Best Picture nomination.

(Also, I could barely sit through it and Eric C left in the middle to chase tail. It was that boring.)

Mar 03

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards all week. Today Eric c and Matty P discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Tomorrow we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Eric C's Take:

So here's the thing. A number of conservatives have blasted Avatar for being too liberal. If I had to choose one synecdoche  (sorry, Will) for this backlash, it would be this lazy right-wing hit-job by Orange County Register columnist Brian Calle.  More conservative name calling than actual critique, Calle calls Avatar "progressive indoctrination," "phrenic leftist sustenance," and "preachy, psychedelic satiation of leftist worldviews."

More substantive commentators have complained that the film is too pro-environment, too anti-military, and too filled with white guilt. This blows my mind. I don't think Avatar could more accurately describe what humans are going to do when we have the technoglogy that enables to us colonize other planets. In the same way that District 9  accurately depicts what would happen if alien refugees came to Earth, I'm pretty sure we will dismiss aliens as expendable animals. It will be way easier than when white people dismissed blacks, Indians or Muslims as such.

This is one of those times when conservatives--who are fond of calling liberals idealistic and niaive--are being idealistic and naive. Slavery was legal in America less than 150 years ago. The last grizzly bear was shot in California less than 90 years ago. England left India 60 years ago. Hopefully we've evolved past some elements of our ugly nature, but we probably haven't.

So don't be naive. We have an ugly past, and it is exactly why we need films like Avatar.

Matty P's Take:

Recently, Avatar brought to light a new scenario. Perhaps not new, but definitely something I hadn't previously considered: humans as the antagonists for a sci-fi film. Not just humans as individuals since most movies have a "bad guy" who is human, but humans as a species. In Avatar, the human race is portrayed as the bully and evil entity while an alien race acts as righteous defender.

What is typical of the science fiction genre is that a malevolent species tries to conquer or destroy humanity. Consider the plethora of movies: Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe FacultyIndependence Day, Mars Attacks!, War of the Worlds, Predator, Aliens, The Thing, Species, Signs, Killer Clowns From Space, V, Space Jam, It Came From Outerspace and Monsters vs Aliens to name a few. Even Andromeda Strain is about an extraterrestrial virus that threatens humanity. Fewer are the movies like ET: The Extraterrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind that portray benevolent otherworldly creatures.

Rarer still is humanity the conqueror.

As one watches Avatar, we are encouraged to side with a blue alien species while human beings are vilified for their various lusts. When they clash, the viewer is forced to take sides. Do we defend our own kind and our own needs at the expense of an alien world and its inhabitants or do we side with strangers who wish nothing more than to protect their homes? The clash does come at a point where the human’s seem to lack moral grounds and the Navi are justified in their protests. The viewer naturally sides with the aliens.

There’s something strange in this: to side against one’s own species; to desire human beings to be defeated or to be strangely indifferent or even glad when one human character is slain. It is fiction, but fiction mirrors reality. Perhaps it's simply an example of following our moral compass regardless of race or species. Or perhaps what we should take from it is that our enemies are never truly as evil as we make them appear to be, nor are we as good. 

The question remains: is there anything wrong with siding against humanity or in hoping that we lose?
Mar 02

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards for the next four days. Today Michael C tackles "District 9." Tomorrow we'll discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Thursday we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Oscar has war on the mind. Avatar, District 9, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker are all vying for best picture, and unlike the last time the Academy voted for war films--in 1998 when Saving Private Ryan took on The Thin Red Line and Life is Beautiful--these films cover more than World War II. As a Soldier, I've made it a point to see each one.

One film rose above the rest to capture the emotions of deploying to a foreign country. From the frustration of Soldiers dealing with unruly inhabitants to the sound of the weapons, this film depicted what I felt and heard on my tour in Afghanistan better than the rest.

That film wasn't The Hurt Locker. It was District 9.

Now, don't call me racist, I don't think Afghans are space aliens. The Hurt Locker may have earned a higher metacritic score because of its realism, but District 9 captures the nature of political war better.

In a tour de force first thirty minutes, the protagonist Wikus Van de Merwe, an official working for Multi-National United, has to convince the alien settlers of District 9 to sign contracts acknowledging their impending evictions. To do so, he embarks out in a convoy, riding in MRAPs almost identical to the ones I used in Afghanistan with a personal security detail and helicopters buzzing overhead. Van de Merwe encounters sympathetic aliens, hostile aliens, crime, weapons caches, and violence. He speaks in the loud, dismissive tone used by English speakers to foreigners, gives out humanitarian assistance, calls for a MEDEVAC, and has to call in a QRF. He might as well join a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

What else does District 9 get right?

The Media: Yep the film starts as a mockumentary, and then intercuts clips from 24 hours news networks. In real time. Just like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cultural misunderstandings: Inter-species misunderstanding in District 9 is a metaphor for cultural misunderstanding. The prawns don't understand ownership of property, and Americans don't understand Pashtun-Wali code.

Rules of Engagement: Van de Merwe calls out an armed contractor for carrying too many rounds. We've written about ROEs here.

Information operations: The speaker inside the MRAP reminds its passengers that a "smile is cheaper than a bullet..when dealing with the prawns be tough but firm." Before we left the wire, I always admonished my guys to be nice but firm with Afghans around our vehicles.

Dehumanizing the Enemy: They call the aliens prawns. We call Arabs and Afghans "haji" or "hajj."

Military Contractors: In this case, they call them Multi-National United. We call them KBR, or Blackwater.

I don't think anyone doubts that this is what would happen if aliens from another planet parked an spaceship over Johannesburg. With refugees comes crime, unemployment, humanitarian disasters, and racially charged emotions. This film isn't about aliens; it's about humans. It isn't about spaceships, science fiction and special effects; it's about real world issues.

Mainly, District 9 gets the emotions of war right. The unjustness, the arbitrariness, the anger, the anxiety. District 9 pulls the right chords; it is the movie I wished The Hurt Locker was. It also somehow gets the details right too. For instance, in the middle of a shootout, I closed my eyes. I felt the sound of the bullets. It reminded me of both my training and my deployment to Afghanistan. I wrote about this in December in relation to Black Hawk Down, that the sounds of war are often more evocative than the images. (I am sure the smells would bring me back but we don't have Smell-o-Vision. Yet.)

Most Soldiers will see The Hurt Locker and Avatar, and many will miss District 9. This is too bad.

Mar 02

Quick heads up:

Eric just had a guest post published over at Write to Done titled, "10 Writing Rules You Can't Break...And How to Break Them."

Check it out.

Mar 01

On July 12th, in valley called Wanat, little more than a platoon of Soldiers fought a tenacious battle against over a hundred insurgents, a battle so close and personal that both insurgents and Soldiers lobbed grenades at each other from less than ten meters. Hundreds of miles away, watching helplessly on 42 inch plasma screens, Battalion, Brigade and Division commanders tried to control the fight.

The modern battlefield is a schizophrenic place. Just like curling.

Yep, curling. Eric, Matt P, my fiance, and I (along with a good chunk of trendy Americans) have been obsessed with the slowest team sport ever. Shuffleboard on ice is more addictive than heroin.

So how does this slow paced winter sport relate to Afghanistan? After watching a few ends of curling everyone becomes an expert. I started making comments like, “Why don’t they go for a double take out?” Or “I would draw towards the center.” Or as Eric C said, “The US is getting took right now.”

My comments are pretty ignorant though. It doesn’t matter how much I read on wikipedia, or how many hours I consume of CNBC’s curling coverage, I will have a severe gap in my curling knowledge. I have never curled before and though I want to, I might never actually throw a rock towards the house.

This is a perfect example of an important truism: years of study are useful, but nothing compares to experience on the ground. Just throwing one rock on the ice, or playing one match, will give the curling addict a much greater understanding for curling than any amount of off the ice research.

For Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, remember curling. Study Afghanistan as much as you want, drink in the culture, read the Kite Runner, learn bits ofPashtun, and study maps of your area of operations (AO). Until you hit the ground in your AO , you won't have a true appreciation for the terrain. Watching combat from a video screen gives you images, but not the knowledge of being on the ground.

Understanding this will help staff officers and senior leaders on deployment. Staff officers should go on as many patrols as they can when deployed. It sounds incredible, but many Soldiers on Battalion and Brigade staffs never leave the Tactical Operations Center. Many leaders and staff officers don't see the need to go on regular patrols. Obviously they are wrong. (Ranger School is a good substitute for those who can attend, but it can't fully replace patrols in actual combat zones.)

Can you even imagine a curling coach giving advice to his guys if he had never thrown a rock before? How much would you trust color commentators who had never even played curling before?

The point is you wouldn’t. So, senior leaders and staff officers, when you deploy, remember curling.

Feb 26

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

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

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

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

Structural Problems

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

In Closing

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