May 05

(This week we're celebrating our first full year of blogging. Today we finish our review of Hannah Arendt's "On Violence." (Click here for part 1 of our review) Tomorrow we look back at our best posts from the last year. Finally, on Friday, Eric will blow your mind with ten of the most abused quotes in the blogosphere and the military.)

International terrorism is the gravest threat America has ever faced.


Is it? Is it really? When thousands of nuclear weapons were pointed at us by the Soviet Union, wasn't that significantly more dangerous? What about the German and Japanese armies marching through Europe and Asia? No, terrorism isn't the most dangerous threat we have ever faced, but it is the most dangerous right now. Because terrorism is currently our biggest concern, it feels like it was always our biggest concern.

If you are writing philosophy, the context of your times will shape your opinions. When I read Hannah Arendt's On Violence, I was struck by the fact that, no matter how hard I try, I am constrained by my times.

On Violence (Arendt) obsesses over nuclear weapons and their effect on warfare and human violence; On Violence (the blog) obsesses over counter-insurgency and its effect on warfare and human violence. So when it comes to our philosophy, Arendt and I use two entirely different sets of data: Arendt uses nuclear weapons, WWII and the student riots of the 1960s; I use Afghanistan, Iraq, and 9/11.

The first part of On Violence (book) deals almost exclusively with the historical and contemporary context of nuclear weapons. Referring to nuclear weapons, she states bluntly that, “technical developments of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential.” Arendt understands that the creation of nuclear weapons, and the creation of a “military-industrial-labor complex,” have altered the future of violence.

Her analysis of nuclear weapons makes sense. If violence is a result of politics, then Clausewitz’s famous aphorism about war (violence) as being the continuation of politics by other means would become a “means towards universal suicide.” The invention of thermonuclear weapons allows violence to be divorced from politics and economics--and all other causes--to stand on its own.

I appreciate that Arendt acknowledges how her culture influences her philosophy (and this is my only gripe with her book) but having to slog through a whole chapter of it (especially considering the length of the book) seems like too much. Read from a distance of forty years, a good twenty pages describing the rise of violent revolutionary fervor among students and Marxists comes across as dated. She also almost predicts the rise of insurgency and revolutionary war (she writes, “the more dubious and uncertain an instrument violence has become in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs, specifically in the matter of revolution.” Sounds like political war defined.) but then gets stuck on the actions of student activists, who in hindsight evolved into yuppies instead of toppling the government.

So while Arendt is attempting to create a philosophy behind violence--that ideally should withstand the test of time or events--she is inexorably mired to her historical context. Here at On Violence (the blog) I have the same problem. I see political violence, insurgency and terrorism as the biggest foreign policy issues today. I think this is, partly, because the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq influence my everyday life. I can't divorce my philosophy from my personal experience.

Will Eric and I rise above our culture? We try to acknowledge our culture. That is why my blog is about my personal experience, counter-insurgency and foreign policy, while my true love is the philosophy of violence.

May 03

(This week we're celebrating our first full year of blogging. On Monday and Wednesday, we will review Hannah Arendt's "On Violence." On Thursday we look back at our best posts from the last year. Finally, on Friday, Eric will blow your mind with ten of the most abused quotes in the blogosphere and the military.)

When I first came up for the title of On Violence, the tone I was going for was something crazy philosophical, like Clausewitz’s On War, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Liebnitz’s Discourse On Metaphysics. The day after we launched, of course, I finally got around to googling "on violence" and I found out that I wasn't the first to use the phrase “On Violence.” That honor goes to political philosopher Hannah Arendt.


Fortunately, our predecessor in things “On Violence” was no intellectual slouch. Arendt--philosopher and prolific writer--coined the oft repeated phrase, “the banality of evil” and penned the works Eichmann in Jerusalem and On Revolution. (She was also a student of existentialist-cum-Nazi Martin Heidegger, but that's a different story.) Since Arendt’s work is one of the few to discuss violence philosophically (the other core text is William T. Vollman's seven volume tome Rising Up, Rising Down, philosophically and physically the opposite of Arendt's 90 page tract), I decided, a year after beginning our blogging adventure and stealing her title, that we should review her ideas.

On Violence (Arendt) makes two bold claims. First, that violence is understudied in the social sciences. Second, that because of the lack of study, we do not understand violence. When I read On Violence (Arendt), I felt a kindred spirit at work. I believe that she is the starting point--in tone, language and analysis--for a conversation On Violence (the blog) is continuing forty years later.

Violence Has Not Been Studied

To start her work, Arendt explains why violence gets the shaft by academic circles, “violence and its arbitrariness were taken for granted and therefore neglected.” This holds today. We study the process of war, or the historical context of war, but never the philosophical issues (or importance) behind such a complicated study.

This was true for Arendt; it is true now. The few social scientists who do explore violence do so as the exceptions to the rule; for example Lieutenant Colonel Rex Grossman in On Killing, or John Keegan in A History of Warfare. The former is read throughout the military for its brilliant insights into the psychology of violence; the latter is an underrated tour de force by one of the premier war historians of our age. Each dives deeper then their field usually goes when discussing violence.

But while Grossman and Keegan analyze violence through social science, they avoid the metaphysics. They discuss the empirical evidence psychologically, historically and sociologically, but never philosophically. Thank God for Arendt, or we would have no basis to study at all.

(Arendt also discounts the work of scientists who try and explain violence through the study of the natural sciences. There are too many leaps to apply animal behavior to human behavior when the whole concept of reason makes man incomparably different to animals.)

Overturning the Definition of Violence

When Arendt moves to her philosophy, she overturns the basic notions about violence that most of us take for granted. Arendt refutes the idea that, “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power.” In other words, the idea that violence is synonymous with “the power of man over man.”

Because violence is so understudied, most thinkers (think Clausewitz or Engels) who reference violence are doing so en route to another political point; Arendt is dissecting violence philosophically for its own sake. This leads her to a critical idea: in the present state of political science, “our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence.’” I couldn’t agree more. It is one part why we created this blog.

She then redefines “power” by stating that it actually describes the “human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Power is not the ability to dominate, but the ability to influence; a powerful person has many followers, not just a few.

Because of that unique definition of “power,” Arendt can then redefine violence. She states that not only is power different from violence, it is the opposite. On Violence (Arendt) concludes that “violence can always destroy power” but can never give power, only destruction. In the last paragraph of her second part she sums up clearly that “power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” This probably shocks most readers, but it makes sense.

Bringing the Philosophy to the Present

When I thought about the difference between violence and power, I couldn't stop thinking about Afghanistan. As a platoon leader, I felt powerful, primarily because I had the means of violence--machine guns, trucks, 18 men and the ability to call for heavier fire power--but how powerful was I? I couldn’t stop IEDs from being placed. Clearly much of the population supported the insurgency. The government struggled with violence throughout my time in Afghanistan. Violence throughout the region was a sign that no one had power in Konar Province, exactly as Arendt says.

On Violence (Arendt) specifically uses examples of insurgencies to prove her point. The revolutionaries or insurgents, using power, square off against governments or counter-insurgents, using violence. And here is the point: Arendt provides the philosophical basis for population-centric counter-insurgency. Our military relies on violence not power. The difference between maneuver warfare and counter-insurgency is the difference between violence and power.

May 02

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

Every time I write a negative review of a war memoir, I have one of two reactions. The first is fear. Some of the authors I've reviewed are famous, acclaimed or successful; others are opinion makers or high up in government. Criticizing these authors could come back to to get us.

But the second reaction hits me deeper: I feel guilty.

I feel guilty criticizing works by other writers because I respect anyone who has not only finished a book, but gotten it published as well. Even if it isn't very good, they've accomplished something I haven't yet. I admire that.

This doesn't apply to every negative review. If you’ve read my Jarhead posts, you know I detest it. Nihlistic, ugly, war porn--it portrays the worst side of the military possible. Equally bad, in the exact opposite way, is the almost fascist, sloppy ghost-written Lone Survivor, (which we plan on tearing a new, um, orifice in a few weeks. Look for it.) a paean to President Bush and the "War on Terror". One impossibly pro-soldier, the other impossibly negative; both unrealistic pieces of propaganda.

Both books are so deliberate in their approaches, I feel free to trash on them. Luttrell didn’t even write his book, and his political asides are both so needless and so innaccurate, that he desrves to be criticized. Swofford, on the other hand, is clearly a good writer. I don’t feel bad criticizing him for choosing to focus on such ugliness, and releasing his book at the most politically convenient time possible.

Some authors don't need my praise, including Hemingway, Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, and Tim O’Brien. They’ve won literary awards and sold millions of books. They don't need or care if I praise or criticize them.

But then comes the other books. I really respect Fick, Van Winkle, Friedman, and Mullaney for doing what they’ve done. But even the memoirs I liked, like The War I Always Wanted, Soft Spots and One Bullet Away, I criticized. These authors wrote memoirs, which means they put themselves out there. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. They put themselves out there, but in doing so, they open themselves up to criticism.

And critique. Their memoirs aren't bad, but they weren’t good either. Even though this is true, I feel bad writing this and I feel the need to get this off my chest. I want everyone to know I don't write negative reviews lightly.

At the same time, I want (and need) to be honest. That is what really matters.

Apr 29

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Since I was twelve, I've trained in sparring. In Tae Kwon Do, two men face one another on a square mat and attempt to strike one another to draw points. Two points are awarded for a strike to the head and one point is awarded for a strike to the torso. For the less experienced; the lower degree belts, this meant that quite a bit of your round was spent rapidly shooting out roundhouse kicks to the opponent’s flank with your favored leg while the opponent fired back the same. As the degree of experience progresses and the belt level becomes more elite, the flailing and constant motion give way to tactical strikes, an increase in blocking, and lateral movement. While it may be apparent that two competitors are "fighting," they are in fact not.

During my third sparring competition, I defeated one opponent (just barely) and prepared to spar a second opponent of comparable skill level and weight. Prior to the match we shook hands and bowed. When the referee said fight, we began. My focus was on quickly striking the other guy's side with sliding round houses (which were fairly new to me at the time) and then quickly retreating. Some connected drawing points, but most missed or were blocked. Midway through the match, I threw the same type of kick but this time, decided not to retreat. I attempted a back kick right to his stomach. As I connected with his torso, his kick landed square on my face breaking my nose.

The referee stopped the match. My nose dripped blood and began to swell. As with any sport, in Tae Kwon Do there are risks of injury due to the contact involved. We wore pads to prevent skeletal or soft tissue damage. Striking of the face and groin is prohibited. But mistakes happen. Strong kicks lead to falls which lead to the occasional broken bone. Quick spins and a moving target lead to unintentional contact to the groin or face. I gave and received my share, a fact visibly evident as my face showcases a broken nose that never set correctly. 

Sparring is not fighting. I've fought people since I the first grade. There are similarities of course. There may be spectators, just as there are if you spar. And usually in a fight, there is a great deal of flailing by someone inexperienced. Still, there is no ref, which means there are no rules, which means it's not a competition. When you fight, someone your mindset is different. You're not considering points and strategy, you're considering how (and how much) you want to hurt this other person. 

Fighting is chaotic. Real fighting isn’t like movies or television. A fighter never just throws a straight punch to be easily blocked resulting in a counter punch. An angry and aggressive person, regardless of gender and age is unpredictable. They can do anything from bullrush you to throw heavy objects to wielding improvised weapons. This results in a response fueled most likely by instinct rather than training.

In college, I stood up to a guy hassling a female friend of mine. Outside after he called her a "whore" I attempted to defend her honor while pleasantly buzzed. I remember twisting on the ground with a guy pressing his head hard into my stomach while simultaneously swing both arms toward my ribs. I tucked in and jammed my elbows down on his collar bone to force him off. I left the conflicted bruised and with a torn collared shirt. 

Sparring is competition. Fighting is chaos. While sparring resembles a chess match of moves with counters, strategy and skill, a fight is propelled by anger and a lack of logic where two combatants clash with unpredictable and detrimental results.

Apr 28

Whenever I hear a critic claim that Rules of Engagement (ROE) gets our Soldiers killed, I always want to scream, "Well, what's your [expletive] alternative? (If you want to know who the ROE critics are, check out my post “Why Leaders Make the ROE.”) Since ROE opponents rarely provide specific alternatives to the ROE, I am going to take their anti-ROE position to its (il)logical extreme.

Our current rules of engagement specify, in broad terms, that our Soldiers and Marines must positively identify targets as exhibiting hostile intent. That intent could be firing a weapon, or preparing to fire a weapon (including an IED), but hostile intent must be present; our Soldiers always have the right to self-defense.

So what is the direct opposite of our current ROE, the other end of the spectrum? It would be that any Soldier or Marine could target anyone they want, regardless of identification or hostility (short of intentionally shooting their own men). This ROE would not hold Soldiers as legally responsible for anyone they kill regardless of the circumstances.

Just pause and imagine this scenario.

Soldiers could drop as many 2,000 pound bombs on as many villages as they want. A Soldier could line up villagers and shoot them one by one to get answers. During a fire fight, any person moving, fleeing or running is a viable target, any person regardless of age, intent, or hostility. There would be no consequnces for our Soldiers actions.

Obviously, the “Free Fire ROE” is impossible. No one could support it. At a minimum, there have to be some rules to prevent needless civilian casualties, genocide and torture. ROE opponents must acknowledge at least some form of ROE. So while you can criticize the specifics of our current ROE, you can’t condemn the concept wholesale.

(The other obvious problem with the “Free Fire ROE” is that it removes all ability of commanders to control the fire of their men. Commanders need to control the the fight; ROE allows that.)

Is there a way to take a pro-ROE position to its extreme? There is. If Soldiers couldn't ever shoot anyone, that would hamstring an Army into paralysis. It would, but that is why you don't take things to extremes, and you have a reasonable ROE that keeps Soldiers and civilians alive.

The problem isn't ROE, it is bad ROE.

Apr 27

(Click here for our review of "Where Men Win Glory")

I can usually guess if I will enjoy a book before I read it. For instance, I loved Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven (which I read months ago, but held off on publishing my thoughts because the book is so controversial). So when I heard Jon Krakauer was tackling the life of Pat Tillman, I was all for it.

That is, until I read the reviews. Two individuals whose work I greatly admire--Dexter Filkins and Abu Muqawama (nee Andrew Exum)--massacred Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, so I didn't know what to expect.

Andrew Exum writes a mostly critical review, with several good points. For instance, he explains in simple terms that, "blaming the Bush administration for all that has befallen the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan unfairly excuses the military itself for the many errors it made." I couldn't agree more. He also charges Krakauer with borrowing a little too heavily from Steve Coll and Lawrence Wright for his background information.

I think Exum, probably without realizing it, takes too much of Krakauer's criticism to heart, and this colors his review. Where Men Win Glory isn’t really about the whole US Army; it is much more about the elite Army Rangers--Exum's former unit. When the Rangers show up in Where Men Win Glory, they read like power-crazed frat boys. Army Rangers belittle new recruits, follow senseless time schedules, and ultimately covered up and lied about Pat Tillman’s death. The elite US Army Rangers look like amateurish jerks, far from their reputation.

And I wish Abu Muqawama would have responded to this. Pat Tillman is the best of the best, so why did he desperately want to leave this vaunted organization? Exum does agree that the officers in charge of the Tillman situation made gigantic errors, but I don't think he addresses the subtle condemnation of the Rangers as an outfit.

Andrew Exum's review ended up raising plenty of controversy. Because of his close relationship with both the Army Rangers and General Stanley McChrystal--Krakauer criticizes both in Where Men Win Glory--Jon Krakauer took issue with Exum's percieved bias. I agree that Exum probably had some bias, but no more than any officer or former officer trying to rationalize the actions of the larger military.

Dexter Filkins also took issue with Where Men Win Glory for mostly stylistic choices, not the content as Abu Muqawama did. It seems like his main point is that he wanted more Afghanistan scenes, and less background into Pat Tillman's life. I disagree though. Pat Tillman's life is inseparable from the background that led to his death. Afghanistan, the Rangers, the cover up, and even the Jessica Lynch rescue provide the context for why he gave his life in Afghanistan.

Finally, I recommend this article by Charles McGrath because it has this killer quote by Krakauer: "There are a lot of officers who will risk their lives for their country, but damn few who will risk their careers." I couldn't agree more.

Apr 26

I call it the “Michael Crichton/Tom Clancy Character Syndrome.” When every character is not just good, but the best, ever. In Jurassic Park, for example, there's the best geneticist, the best computer programmer, and the best big game hunter. Tom Clancy's John Clark is the ultimate spy and Jack Ryan is the ultimate analyst. In Crichton/Clancy novels, no one is just "the guy who's ok at stuff."

It pops up occasionally in non-fiction writing too, especially if you deal with people who live at the extremes of life as Jon Krakauer does in his books. He brings real--and exceptional--people to life. He does a better job than most biographers in probing mankind's limits, physically and mentally.

Krakauer has written about men climbing the world's the tallest mountain, a person who dropped out of society, and the extremes of religious fanaticism. Do the extremes of violence--war--fit into his world? Absolutely. In Where Men Win Glory, he takes on one of our nation's most exceptional contradictions: Pat Tillman, the intelligent football player who dropped a lucrative NFL contract to join the Army Rangers. Overall, he tells Pat Tillman's story well, with perhaps a bit too much applause. In the last quarter of the book, when he takes on the military's handling of his death, he excels at revealing the US Army leadership as one more concerned with PR than mission accomplishment.

Krakauer loves his characters. In Into the Wild, the main character is a recluse, but sounds like the smartest, most gifted, most charismatic recluse who ever walked the earth. Even the violent extremists in Under the Banner of Heaven come across as the most violent, most charismatic extremists you will ever meet. He might not love them, but he certainly admires them.

And Pat Tillman is equally impressive. A professional football player with an extremely high GPA from the University of Arizona is nothing to laugh at. But it seems like he has no faults in Where Men Win Glory. His being an obnoxious American to French people is downplayed as just a guy having some fun. His assault on an innocent student during high school comes across as nothing more than an accident.

After you get past Krakauer's near-worship of Tillman, the work takes off. When I was finished, I understood why Tillman joined the military, and why, until the end, he was conflicted about going to combat. Krakauer captures the bizarre duality of wanting to excel in your job--fighting wars--but detesting the slaughter and devastation that come with it. He also captures the crucial moments of fear Tillman felt, and Tillman's growing frustration with the US Army and the US Army Rangers; all emotions I understand.

But Where Men Win Glory has one central theme bigger than Pat Tillman's tale, and Krakauer argues it very well: the military is a CYA place. When mistakes are made, the military does what it can to avoid punishing those responsible, and then obscures the truth if needed. This happens three times in Where Men Win Glory: the Jessica Lynch rescue, a Marine Corps friendly fire debacle in Nasiriyah, and the death of Pat Tillman. In each case, dramatic mistakes were made; in each case, the military never blamed its subordinate commanders. And in each case, the initial press releases deliberately misled the media.

Maybe the Jessica Lynch rescue, or the history of Afghanistan, or countless other asides take us too far from the Tillman tale. Or they help weave a tapestry that was Pat Tillman's life, and death. And when writing about Pat Tillman's death, you can't ignore the military's impulses to cover up every mistake they make.

Apr 21

I was laying prone on the rocky ground, something I hardly ever did in Afghanistan.

My heart pounded so loudly I thought it would break through my chest. I had never been more nervous. I feared for my life.

I was sitting at the rocky outcrop on the southern part of the Korengal Outpost, the KOP. Taliban swarmed up the hillside, surrounding me. The men who were with me fell back; I couldn't stem the retreat. I knew at that moment I would die on that hill.

And then I woke up, alone in my apartment in Vicenza, Italy. It was the worst nightmare I'd ever had. In my dream, I had returned to the Korengal Valley, later nicknamed the "Valley of Death." I only spent a couple months in the Korengal, but it felt much longer. The place haunted me before I arrived in Afghanistan; it still haunts me.

All these memories came back when I saw the photos of the Korengal Valley last week. Instead of US forces fighting for the population, it is now controlled by the insurgents I fought against.

The US Army, under General McChrystal, decided to move all troops out of the Korengal last week. If I am being intellectually honest, it makes sense from a counter-insurgency perspective. But while I can understand the move rationally, emotionally it just feels wrong.

So here is a collection of links about the Korengal Valley and the recent decision to pull out of the valley:

I first heard about the Korengal Valley through this Nightline piece by Sebastian Junger. I watched it in Vicenza, Italy a few days before I left for Afghanistan. This footage made the war very real, and very sudden.

Sebastian Junger's recent New York Times OpEd is probably the most thoughtful of the accounts about our retreat/retrograde/draw-down in the Korengal.

For the best images, this photo gallery by Time captures the essence of the valley very well. It was taken after Battle Company and the ROCK had left Afghanistan, but the people are still the same.

Finally, Jeff Schneider captures the fundamental conundrum of the Korengal in this piece for the Huffington Post.