Nov 11

Since I began the 9/11 war memoir project last year, I’ve read a lot of books. Some were good, some were bad, and two were very, very good. Those two are Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots and Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted. Both Van Winkle and Friedman released new projects this week, and we wanted to share them with you.

Operation In Their Boots

Soft Spots was the second book I read when I started the post-9/11 war memoirs project. (I reviewed it here.) Having perspective of having read a bunch of war memoirs and war memoir criticism, I can say unequivocally, it’s one of the best I’ve read.

I met Clint last night at the premiere of his new documentary, The Guilt, as part of the series Operation In Their Boots. Take a look at his documentary, and definitely check out the other five. We’ll have more detailed reviews next Friday, and maybe an interview or two.

VAntage Point

Brandon Friedman has done a lot of work in the VA system, and he is now editing a VA sponsored blog, VAntage Point, with another friend of On Violence, Alex Horton of Army of Dude fame. Good luck to them, and check it out.

Nov 10

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

“Woy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

I’m driving the other day, thinking about nothing in particular, when Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” comes on the radio. I do what I do every time the song comes on. I start singing one of the world’s most infectious choruses of all time, “Oy yoy yoy. Oh yo yoy yoy. Oh yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

Then it hits me. This is the Greatest. War song. Ever. And I’m dead serious.

There are a lot of reasons to love Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier”. It has beautiful singing and a wonderful melody; of the five war songs we’ve debated, “Buffalo Soldier” is easily the best from a musical perspective.

But the reason it is a great war song is that it is nuanced, detailed, historic and realistic.

War is an indefinite thing. Michael C’s entire series on “war is war” basically gets at how illusory a unifying theory or description of war can be. There probably is no such thing as “the perfect war song” (or even the perfect song), but if there were, it would try to capture the contradictory nature of war. “Buffalo Soldier” comes closer to this than any other war song.

“Buffalo Soldier” presents this indefinite essence of war to the listener like a painting on display. Neither pro-war or anti-war, happy and joyful (one of my first musical memories is dancing to its deceptively bright and catchy chorus), it is incredibly sad, a tale of men “stolen from Africa, brought to America”. It is also ironically bittersweet. Though it is a song about stolen men, Bob Marley sings with pride at what they’ve accomplished.

If the ultimate war song is going to capture the essence of war through a story, it can’t be a story about one man, platoon or war. It has to capture a people, a people that spans continents and nations. “Buffalo Soldier” tells that story. It is the story of many peoples: Africans, Americans, Rastafarians, Jamaicans. At its heart the song is about identity, “Said he was a Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta”, a story that spans centuries and eras. Man, that is powerful and different.

You could argue that there are problems with “Buffalo Soldier”--the lyrics are vague, the connection between Jamaican Rastafarianism and American Soldiers is tenuous at best--but the impact of the song on so many levels is undeniable. That’s why, right now, it is easily my favorite war song.

Nov 09

(Today, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

Don Hewitt had a simple rule for 60 Minutes, “Tell me a story.” According to the reporters on the show, on every topic, Hewitt asked them to tell a story. And this approach works. Think about the moral lessons of Jesus; his parables are stories. Think about Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa; a tragic, epic story told in two dimensions.

So when it comes to war songs--either anti-war or pro-soldier--the best songs tell stories. The best stories don’t have ulterior motives. They tell their story, and tell it honestly.

In our last debate, I thought I choose the song with the best story--a general struggling with the decision to go to battle--though it was fantastic and impossible. But “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, sung by the Pogues and written by Eric Bogle, takes the great storytelling of “The General” and grounds it in reality. (Read the lyrics here.)

I could argue “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” wins this debate because it tells a story about the neglected casualties of every war--the wounded and the maimed. I could argue that the motif of “waltzing Matilda” floats through the entire song with a different meaning each time. I could argue that Robert Christgau agrees with me. But the reason this song is my favorite war song is because it tells the most honest tale about war in this debate.

Whether or not the original author had been to war--or World War I specifically--it feels like he has. The song doesn’t stop at the end of the war, when the narrator looks down to see he lost both of his legs. It continues to tell the story of aging veterans in society. The cost of war is forgotten as they are forgotten, and the cycle of warfare begins all over again.

“...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” also does all this in under four minutes (depending on the version), telling the story of a war most Americans, Europeans and Australians have forgotten. It is moving, memorable, and the best song in this debate.

Nov 08

So it happened again. Eric C was listening to a song and declared, with his usual amount of narcissism, that it was “the greatest war song of all time” (of course, war does not make songs great). When we told Matty P what Eric had said, we all knew what was coming: The Return of the On Violence Song Battle! Executioner's Song Part II (Check out the first installment here.)

Here’s how this works: Each fighter gets 400 words to make their case for their song. On Tuesday, Michael C will come out swinging with The Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. On Wednesday, Eric C will celebrate Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. And on Thursday, Matty P will try for the knock out with Garth Brooks’ “Belleau Wood”.

On Friday we will have the Royal Rumble as each fighter brings out 400 words in rebuttal.

The only rule? That there are no rules--except for the word count restrictions.

I want a good clean fight. No punching below the belt and no cheap shots. With that said, “Let’s get it on!”

(What's your favorite war song? Toss it out the comments below.)

Nov 05

To new visitors from the New York Times, welcome. Please check out Our 50th Post Link Drop, Our 100th Post Link Drop, Our 1 Year Anniversary Link Drop and Our 200th Post Link Drop to read some of our best posts. Probably our best and most debated recent work has been our “War is War” series.

Quick heads up to regular readers, if you thought Michael C’s announcement yesterday about his article in Infantry magazine was cool, wait until you see this.

Michael C just had a piece published on the At War blog, titled, “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?

This is amazing and cool, and big props to Michael C.

Nov 05

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for A Farewell To Arms, but, in the words of Michael C, it’s been out for 75 years now. Get to it already.

To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

Last month, I started a new series that shares passages describing war at its worst--sections of novels I've read, mostly fiction, that most perfectly depict the chaos, anarchy and terrible violence of war. Today, I want to share the sequence that inspired this series, the Italian Army retreat in book three of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I first read A Farewell to Arms in high school--and I loved it--but the impact of the battle scenes didn’t really hit me until I read it again recently. This chapter could be one of the saddest things I've ever read. And it illustrates, as does every post in this “War at its Worst” series, the terrible cost of war.

After a series of disastrous campaigns, the Germans force the Italians to retreat back from the Alps. In this moment of pure anarchy, hierarchy means nothing; survival means everything. We follow Lieutenant Henry as he and his men attempt to join the retreat, desperately avoiding death.

What is war at its worst? It is soldiers fighting other soldiers, civilians fighting civilians, everyone trying to get out before the Germans come. Lieutenant Henry and his troops join the slow-moving, congealed column of Soldiers and civilians. "Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped...In the night, many peasants had joined the column from the roads of the country and in the column there were carts loaded with household goods; there were mirrors projecting up between mattresses, and chickens and ducks tied to carts...they had saved the most valuable things."

It is also about fear, because soon the planes will come. "I was certain that if the rain should stop and planes come over and get to work on that column it would be all over."

The fear turns into paranoia. "The Italians were even more dangerous. They were frightened and firing on anything they saw. Last night on the retreat we had heard that there had been many Germans in Italian uniforms mixing with the of those things you always heard in war. It was one of the things the enemy always did to you...There was no need to confuse our retreat. The size of the army and the fewness of the roads did that."

This fear is best represented by two young girls, virgins, who join Henry and his men. "Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. Her sister, not looking up, took her hand...The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob." As they say later, “A retreat was no place for virgins.” Both are terrified because they know their future. Very likely, they will almost certainly be raped or killed.

When Henry and his men head to the side roads, to avoid the German planes, a hopeless situation somehow gets worse. Order is flipped upside down. Two mechanics try to desert Lieutenant Henry. He must kill them. It is Henry’s first kill, and it is a fellow soldier. An officer killing a soldier.

Then more tragedy, and more upending of social order. Fellow Italians open fire. "Aymo, as he was crossing the tracks, lurched, tripped and fell face down...He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes." Stay in one place, and the invading Army will capture you, and probably kill you. Move forward, and your own army will shoot at you.

The whole thing culminates in the ultimate betrayal of military order. The Carabinieri, Italian military police, make a check point at a bridge, sorting out the officers and spies, and shooting both. They kill the officers for deserting their men and allowing "barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland." Lieutenant Henry watches the Carabinieri question a gray-haired, fat Lieutenant Colonel. Then he hears the gun shots.

"I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country...So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it."

Nov 04

First off, last month was the biggest month in the history of On Violence. Thanks to all our readers, new and old, for the comments, likes, links and RTs.

Along with that good news came more good news: I recently received in the mail three copies of the May-August 2010 issue of Infantry magazine, which features the boringly titled but fabulously written, “Influencing the Population: Using Interpreters, Conducting KLEs, and Executing IO in Afghanistan” by the captivating and charismatic Captain Michael Cummings.

      (A picture from the article in Infantry Magazine.)

I also wish we could post a link to it on this blog, but right now it looks like Infantry magazine doesn’t have an online edition. If anyone can find one, let me know.

Nov 03

I contemplated calling this article, “Why Generals have no clue what Soldiers on the ground want/need” but I thought that title was too long. That, and Eric C doesn’t like putting a thesis in a title. With this clarification, the point stands: Generals--the people with the final say in military acquisitions--have no clue what Soldiers want or need.

For example, when I joined the military way back in 2003, I assumed the epitome of hydration systems was the canteen. And not some new fangled canteen, the same canteen used by our troops in Vietnam. Roughly a quart of water, made of hard plastic, and carried on the front of your functionally-named “Load Bearing Equipment” (LBE in Army jargon).

I assumed this, because until I started infantry training in October of 2006, I was never issued anything better. Even after 2006, at every equipment draw, at every base I went to, I was given 2 one-quart canteens.

This is ridiculous. As deployed soldiers, hikers, climbers, hippies or anyone else “wilderness-y” knows, when it comes to hydration, canteens suck at life.

Everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan uses a Camelbak. For those who don’t know, the Camelbak is a soft canteen worn on the back like a backpack, with an extended drinking hose. It took several years, but it has mostly replaced canteens because it doesn’t make noise, fits comfortably on body armor, and enables the wearer to drink water hands free. To be clear, the Camelbak isn’t just an improvement on the canteen; it is light years ahead.

So the military saw these advantages, and soon Camelbaks were plentiful in Iraq and Afghanistan...after the Iraq war started. In fact, even in 2006, I heard stories of Sergeants Major and Lieutenant Colonels banning Camelbaks and going to combat with canteens. Basic training dragged their feet too. This isn’t just the Army either, I have heard these stories from Marine veterans as well.

Even worse, Camelbaks had been around for years before the Iraq war, but mass adoption didn’t occur until after they had proved their usefulness in combat. Even Robert Heinlein, in the book Tunnel in the Sky, describes something almost exactly like a camelbak, in the fifties!

The story of the Camelbak is just one example of many technologies or changes that wilted in the military bureaucracy, illustrating several disheartening truths about the Pentagon’s acquisitions process:

- Real change in the military only tends to happen under fire. Thus, for much of the 1990s, when the military should have been testing, adapting, improving, it was stagnating. No one saw a need to change to a better canteen because bullets weren’t flying.

- Generals only adopt programs that kill more bad guys or have a “gee whiz” technical aspect. This is why new vehicles get so much attention and canteens do not; it is also why the Army adamantly refuses to upgrade the M4 to one of the piston-driven versions. Despite its atrocious jamming record, and massive maintenance needs, from Vietnam through to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again, the Army/Department of Defense have steadfastly refused to replace the M4. While they started tests on new models, it will be years before full-scale adoption of a new rifle, and adoption will probably occur after our current wars have ended.

- Uniformity is king, which kills innovation. We’ve written about this before. The boot the Army wore into the two expeditionary wars of the 2000s sucked. It was ill-fitting and hot. Civilian hiking boots hiked circles around it, but no one knew any better because everyone had to wear the exact same footwear. The same with canteens. The problem is many Sergeants Major believe that every soldier should look the same; in their minds, a non-uniform army is an undisciplined army. This uneducated view of uniformity hampers innovation.

Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, the idea to swap canteens for Camelbaks wasn’t sexy, and it wouldn’t make a General’s career. At least, not in the same way getting a ultra-expensive vehicle like the Comanche scout helicopter or the Crusader self-propelled howitzer or the Future Combat System; all systems that cost billions for research and development, to out fight enemies who couldn’t out fight us right now; all systems that have since been cancelled.