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.
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.)
(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.
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.
(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)
“Our enemy was brutal, implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life.”
Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor
Critics of the rules of engagement (ROE) love to point out that our enemy doesn't have rules of engagement. Whenever I debate this point, or read an Op-Ed on the subject, this inevitably comes up. Marcus Luttrell, our country's loudest and most vitriolic critic of the rules of engagement, describes the sentiment perfectly. (Yep, we are continuing to pile on to Luttrell. Unfortunately for him, his book contains almost every misnomer about ROE that exists, we almost have to use him as an example. It is also still inspiring debate over ROE.)
Take the above quote. Luttrell describes an enemy with no regard for life, rampaging through villages killing everything in their path.
Except in real life that never happens, because insurgents have rules of engagement too.
They don't follow the Geneva Conventions, insurgent ROE isn't written down, and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan do not have the same control over their fighters that American Generals have over their Soldiers. But they still have rules of engagement. At it's best, Marcus Luttrell's statement--like those of other ROE critics--confuses the rules of engagement with the Geneva Conventions; at its worst, it shows the type of thinking that hamstrings our military when it tries to conduct counter-insurgency.
Luttrell doesn’t understand the concept of rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are simply guidelines that authorize force--for armies, police forces, militias, criminal groups, gangs, or insurgents. Rules of engagement have existed since the dawn of time, even when they were incredibly lax, and even when they weren't written down.
Imagine Genghis Khan charging across Asia. A village wants to avoid the impending rape and pillage, so it bribes Khan to ignore their village by swearing loyalty, sending him a 100 soldiers, and as much gold as they can muster. Now if one of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants ransacked the town, he would have hell to pay. Genghis Khan’s unspoken rules of engagement were essentially: don’t mess with anyone I say not to.
Insurgents operate the same way. In Afghanistan many of the tribal leaders are all but immune to the Taliban. If insurgent groups didn’t win the support of local elders, (i.e. if they killed every Afghan civilian they came across), then their ability to operate in rural areas would evaporate.
Lone Survivor actually describes this scenario. Even though Marcus Luttrell claims that Ahmad Wali’s army of 200 Taliban fighters had surrounded the village sheltering him, the Taliban couldn't grab him. The insurgent leader knew that violating the Pashtun-Wali code would disrespect the village elders, and dry up his support in the Korengal.
In effect, the insurgents in Lone Survivor follow strict rules of engagement. Now their code of ROE isn't based on the Geneva Conventions, the Laws of Armed Conflict, or any other Western ethical system. Some of their tactics are governed by extremist Islamic theology (Salafist Jihadism in most cases), but in most cases insurgents follow rules of engagement that offer the best chance at self-preservation. No matter what basis, they always have rules of engagement.
The key word in Luttrell's condemnation is the word "discernible." They have rules of engagement, he just doesn't understand them.
(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Zhang Yimou's Hero
It is also a guest post by Matty P.)
Zhang Yimou's Hero is a feast for the eyes. Jet Li and Maggie Cheung repel thousands upon thousands of arrows as artisans paint the written word in one scene. In another, Cheung battles an outraged Ziyi Zhang amidst the swirl of brilliant autumn leaves. The battles themselves are breathtaking, showcasing the deadly art of combat in poignant beauty. In contrast, the result of combat is revealed to have a cost to all those exposed. Jet Li's Hero portrays the act of violence thematically as a paradox.
Violence in of itself cannot be considered a good thing. Rather, its very existence, very definition is to cause harm. Yet the age old moral question remains, can violence yield a greater good? The ancient Roman adage was: "It you desire peace, you must prepare for war." Orwellian double speak, it flies in the face of my mother's advice when I was a child that violence never solves anything. My mother's intention wasn't to develop in me deep seeded naiveté, rather to instill the wisdom to avoid revenge when others wronged me.
And revenge is the very thing that motivates the character Nameless in Hero. Under the guise of a servant to a growing empire, Jet Li as Nameless, planned to strike at the king responsible for the death of his family and the murder of his people. The King of Qin steamrolled his way across the seven fractured warring nations of modern day China, asserting himself Lord of a new empire, soaking the lands he wished to rule in the blood of those he claimed his lordship over. So hated by the people because of the carnage, the King of Qin locked himself away in his palace for fear of assassination.
But Nameless, standing within killing distance of the kind, hesitated to kill him. Not for fear of failure or squeamishness about taking a life, but because of an idea. An idea summed by three words, "All under heaven."
It had become the belief of Nameless, taught to him by Broken Sword, that only one man's ruthless domination of the once warring states of China could end the bloodshed. Death now, peace later. It's an attempt to justify a means by an end.
Mathematically, it makes sense. Kill a few thousand now in conquest, and the king prevents further warring between city states that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands.
In contrast, the cost of such a plan becomes not just the lives lost in attempts to hold back the King of Qin, but the loss of these once unique cultures that must blend into a unified China. The audience sees this price paid not only through Nameless' search for vengeance, but in the destruction of the Snow and Broken Sword's refuge; a compound for artisans of the written word. Because they will not submit to being ruled and they will not fight, the calligraphers are slaughtered. And with the deaths of so many, including elders, knowledge of the discipline and culture passes with them.
Violence can be both seductive in its simplicity and frightening in its implications. It can result in internment or in liberation. Independence or ethnic cleansing. But we must be careful in how we justify our actions. Enacting violence and claiming a greater good is a dubious process considering intentions can never guarantee an outcome. The success, longevity, and long lasting consequences of violence on the scale of war is far too difficult to predict and far too easy to criticize in hindsight.
Last week, I advocated for the US radically increasing its foreign aid budget, calling for a new, global Marshall Plan. However, aid to Africa definitely falls in the category of "topics that interest me, but I am not an expert in." Gigantic foreign policy initiatives like the one I suggested last week are definitely outside my pay grade, so I pulled together some articles on the issues of foreign aid, development and Marshall Plans.
Obviously not everyone agrees with my pie in the sky proposal. Moses Naim, of Foreign Policy, argues that wars on social problems, and the "Marshall Plans" to solve them, have never worked. I agree with Naim about the overused rhetoric but, unlike the wars on drugs and crime, America hasn't yet seriously attempted a second Marshall Plan. He mentions plenty of proposals, but no actual money spent on a new Marshall Plan.
This is partly because conservatives ask a more serious question: does aid even work? The conservative anti-handout crowd would say that it doesn't. Welfare is still welfare, even on the international scale. A reader emailed us last week and pointed out that by supplying EMT services for Afghans, we prevent them from developing their own medical industry. We disagree--Afghans wouldn't have medical services with or without the US--but this debate misses the larger point: aid works.
James Surowieki endorses effective, substantial aid in this New Yorker piece. Between 1946 and 1978...South Korea received nearly as much U.S. aid as the whole of Africa," and of course it is a prospering, modern nation. In fact, American allies that receive huge influxes of cash, military aid and access to American markets--Israel, Turkey, and Taiwan--do very, very well.
Aid isn't perfect, but it isn't ineffective either.
Although constantly refining how we use aid isn't a bad thing either. In this article about Rick Warren for Relevant Magazine, Dr. Warren points out that we can't just throw money at the problem of Africa, but then offers a solution of his own based on spending labor and using education. I agree. If we started some sort of massive "Marshall Plan of Labor," that sounds great to me as well. The point is we need to give something away, be it intangibles like labor and energy, or tangibles like money and resources.
This article by Glenn Hubbard, in Foreign Policy's "Think Again" series, agrees that aid hasn't worked in Africa, but only because we haven't invested in the right places. America needs to invest in businesses, then infrastructure, not NGOs and government programs. It makes sense, but again, it would work best on a massive scale, not piecemeal solutions. He also makes a compelling argument that, though micro-finance is an incredible innovation, it doesn't go nearly far enough.
And frankly, when you see what innovative small groups can do in Africa, it amazes you that we don't fund more. Whether is is micro-finance at work in Kenya, Plumpynut in Nigeria, or AIDS vaccines through PEPFAR in Uganda, there are plenty of ideas that could be replicated if we had more energy and effort. Like the Bill Gates model, find what works and invest in it, and don't let the programs get too big.
There are two organizations currently calling for Global Marshall Plans, and I want to clarify that I don't endorse either one specifically. The owners of www.globalmarshallplan.org advocate specific social and political policies in addition to a massive new foreign aid program. A group called The Spiritual Progressives do something similar including requirements that a Global Marshall Plan get its funds from military spending. A new Marshall Plan shouldn’t be bogged down with requirements that are clearly on one side of the political spectrum (liberal/socialist). This dramatically decreases that chances it will actually happen.
As I was researching last week's post, I stumbled onto this blog that has the catchline "just asking that aid help the poor." It goes to the point that not all aid is bad, but some of it is mismanaged. We need to do a better job of finding what works, and what doesn't.
A while back, I wrote that failed states are the biggest threat to America. I still believe this. Kick the terrorists out of Afghanistan and they will just move to Somalia, which they have. And this is why we need a new Marshall Plan.
On Friday, June 4th, UCLA's, College Basketball's--and possibly athletic's--greatest coach, John Wooden, passed away. Not just Southern California, but America felt his passing.
Why do I feel compelled to write about him at On Violence (aside from the fact that I went to UCLA)?
Any Bruin alum can tell you the impact of Wooden's legacy. The line to get his autograph was always full, either at the bookstore signing books or before college Basketball games. His picture adorns program, buildings and memorabilia. He built the athletic tradition at UCLA. Even though I never really met him, I still feel his loss like the entire community of Bruins.
More than anything, Wooden was a leader. I think every sports commentator has said this: on and off the court he embodied character. It doesn't make it less true.
He won 10 national championships, seven in a row. He won 88 straight games. Despite retiring thirty five years ago, John Wooden kept working. He published books on leadership and basketball. Wooden on Leadership has better stuff in two pages than the entire Army FM on leadership. His "Pyramid of Success" adorns classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms around America, inspiring new generations.
And he was also by every single account a man of character. No one speaks ill of him, no one.
And I bring all this up because despite all the accolades we in America give our servicemembers, I don't think any General or Admiral of the contemporary age comes even close to this. In the World War II generation we had several generals who earned respect on a John Wooden level: Marshall, Bradley, perhaps Patton. General Petraeus is our most famous general, but will he stand out in thirty years the John Wooden has? Our Army loves "values," be they the Warrior Ethos or the Army values. Wooden created leadership through character, do our current Generals and Admirals have that character?
Maybe a comparison between the Army and Men's college basketball is unfair, but leadership is leadership, and sports is probably the closest field to war short of combat. Wooden is important to me because he was first and foremost a leader. A leader we should all emulate.
Post Script: Oh and he was also immensely quotable, so check these quotes out (they are all correctly sourced to John Wooden). And check out his website, pretty good design quality and a wealth of information.
(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
In the comment section of last Friday's post, jumpinjarhead remarked that there is "a good deal of opinion in many of the military related memoirs." I agree. I put the cart before the horse with last week's post because I hadn't told our readers about a major problem endemic to war memoirs:
I really can't think of a better word for it. There is just so much complaining in war memoirs. The military, so unthinkingly bureaucratic and illogical, is ripe for criticism, but criticizing your boss in your memoir is just petty. Finishing personal vendettas on the page, where the other party can't fight back, smacks of bad art.
Four examples of what I'm writing about:
- Nathaniel Fick, in One Bullet Away, introduces his Captain as a "genial...all-American” football player, then spends the rest of the book criticizing him in self-censored terms. The company's men eventually pseudo-mutiny against “a leader they no longer respected,” and the higher ups nickname him "S***man."
- Kayla Williams rages at her Lieutenant, her fellow Soldiers, and even other platoons throughout Love My Rifle More Than You. Mostly she rages at both of her Sergeants, first Sgt. Moss "a small woman who looked confused all the time" whose only redeemable quality is good PT scores, and then Sgt. Simmons, who Williams describes as an air-headed flirt.
- In Joker One, Donovan Campbell introduces Ox as "the most experienced lieutenant in the company" and a "star football player" but describes him sarcastically as a "training extraordinaire" or straight-forwardly as "screwing up" the improvements to their base. This rivalry runs throughout the book.
- Andrew Exum rails on the "overweight...fun police" that try to keep him and his platoon from destroying Camp Doha in This Man's Army.
I could find an example from every memoir I read. That's why I was so impressed with Rooney's My War: even when he's bitching, it doesn't feel like bitching. So what can we learn from these characterizations?
1. Every Commanding Officer in the army is incompetent. Obviously this isn't true, or even close to being true. But almost every memoir describes the officer or NCO one rank higher than the author as an idiot. This leads us to this more accurate realization:
2. S*** flows uphill in the Army. People hate their bosses. This isn't some sort of revelation, but memoir authors don't get it. Soldiers hate their bosses as much as clerical workers hate theirs, but on the battlefield, petty disagreements become matters of life or death. Either way, it makes for mundane plotting.
3. Be clear. Many memoir authors dance around the incompetence of other officers, demonstrating it through conversation or actions. I'm thinking of Campbell and Ox, or Fick and his Captain. Sometimes blunt honesty is needed, something like, "Officer X was a bad officer, and could have gotten men killed."
Why is this the case? First, the Army is bad at criticizing itself. Two, the Military is even worse at criticizing personnel. If you've ever read an Officer Evaluation Report (OER), you know that even terrible Soldiers receive glowing statements.
Also, don't introduce the person in glowing terms if you're going to spend the rest of the book tearing them down. Both Joker One and One Bullet Away describe their antagonists as star football players, misleading the reader about their actual feelings. (Though based on this, I assume being good at football means you're a terrible officer.)
4. I hate anonymous criticism. Fick, in One Bullet Away, refuses to name his disagreeable and incompetent Captain. Evan Wright uses nicknames for his shitty officers, dubbing them Casey Kasem, Captain America and Encino Man. Campbell only uses the nickname Ox when referring to his XO. Friedman, in The War I Always Wanted, introduces his Captain but states that he won't print his name.
If you are going to to hate on someone, hate on them. Don’t hide behind nicknames.
5. No self-reflection. The only authors who criticize themselves are Van Winkle, O'Brien and Rooney. Van Winkle describes his battle with PTSD, and his carelessness on the battlefield. O'Brien, the fictional narrator of The Things They Carried, writes about his cowardice during a mortar attack. Rooney writes openly embarrassing things about himself. Everyone else writes in glowing terms of their leadership, or attempt to justify their decisions. The closest Andrew Exum comes to criticizing himself is writing that “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I doubt anyone has ever been criticized for that, except maybe at VA clinics.
6. In real-life, feelings change. “Casey Kasem” the hapless Operations Chief from Generation Kill, goes on a second tour, leads a team successfully and everyone’s opinion of him changes. It perfectly illustrates something: people in war zones like to bitch. Facts are optional, ditto with cruel stereotyping. It turns out this guy was as much a hero as anyone else in the battalion, but never had the chance to prove it until his second tour.
7. Don't be hypocritical. Kayla Williams writes disparagingly about her fellow translators sleeping around, based on rumors she heard. Of course, a forward operating platoon she worked with claimed she slept around, and her fellow translators called her a slut. I wish she would have presented all of these sexual rumors as just that: baseless sexual rumors.
In a perfect example of hypocrisy, Brent pointed out on our One Bullet Away post, “In his book [Fick] says that he had an epiphany at OCS, and that suddenly the little things like having his belt buckle perfectly in place was connected to keeping Marines alive in combat. Later, though, he chafes at enforcing the grooming standard in the field.” I’m upset I didn’t notice this, because it epitomizes what I'm writing about: petty one-sided criticism.
In closing, this is all a reason why war memoirs should be war novels. Novelists are free, free to criticize the people they love and admire the people they hate. As I wrote in this post, a famous author once told me that you have to love your characters. Memoirs don't have characters, so instead of love they have petty grudges.