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.

Feb 24

While looking for old Army manuals (a different post altogether) on a shelf in the Military Intelligence Library, I found a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. Apparently some courses at Fort Huachuca use this text, along with Gladwell’s other book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, to educate military intelligence students.

I have a simple criteria for recommending books, does it give me an insight I can use? Outliers doesn’t have much to do with military theory or counter-insurgency. Instead, Gladwell challenges conventional assumptions about why individuals succeed or fail. The US military shares this concern. The Army still employs industrial-age personnel methods instead of information-age strategies; it has much to learn from a forward-looking book like Outliers. On this level, the book is a success.

The book starts with a simple observation: in Canadian hockey, an inordinate number of top players are born between January and March. Canadian professional hockey players tend to be born in January. This seems strange, why are people born in January, February or March better hockey players than those born during the rest of the year? Gladwell explains the simple reason: in Canada, junior leagues cut off entry on January 1st. Individuals born in the early months of the year can start playing hockey earlier than individuals born later in the year. This extra year means bigger kids, which means better play, which means more opportunities, and so on and so on. The advantages accumulate. Canadian hockey unwittingly selects its future professionals too early, because of an arbitrary cut-off date.

In the Army, we use arbitrary selection criteria to weed out excellence as well. The majority of General officers come from the combat arms (infantry, armor, field artillery and aviation). Combat support branches such as the adjutant general corps, the quartermaster corps and the medical service corps simply do not have the same number General grade officers. Being selected for a combat arms branch dramatically improves your chance of both staying in the Army, and staying competitive for General’s rank. The movers and shakers of the Army--Powell, Petraeus, McChrystal, Odierno, Casey, Schoomaker--are all combat arms officers.

Assigning the branches of particular officers, then, is hugely important. Selecting individuals out of the combat arms eliminates them from the pool of potential generals. Instead of waiting until individuals prove themselves, the Army selects branches at the commissioning source. Before an officer even begins his career, he is essentially selected out of the competition for General grade. Commissioning branch is an capricious criteria, and it already starts shrinking the competitive pool for General officers--just like the way the month you are born breeds out potential NHL players in Canada.

Perhaps the biggest take away from Outliers is the popularization of the 10,000 hour rule. According to Gladwell, individuals reach peak performance only after they practice something for 10,000 hours. The Beatles practiced for 10,000 in Hamburg before they made their best albums. Mozart composed for about 10,000 hours before his first masterpieces. Most professional athletes truly peak when they have 10,000 hours of practice.

For the Army, my question is, what do we do to reach 10,000 hours? Should our 10,000 hours be reading history, studying case studies, practicing maneuvers, or planning operations? Should we specialize more or less to train leaders to excel at 10,000 hours?

I have my own ideas. Mainly, 10,000 hours should be time spent for each officer preparing to make tactical decisions. When the rubber hits the road, officers make decisions that win or lose wars. Military leaders should spend time in simulations, planning operations, and conducting wargaming. Soldiers should study terrain and read military history. Officers should practice leading men in combat.

Unfortunately, most officers do not come close to achieving 10,000 hours of experience in tactical decision making--myself included. We waste an inordinate amount of time on email, powerpoint and meetings. We also spend a great amount of their time conducting physical fitness. While the above are vital communication methods, they do not help officers make better decisions.  While physical fitness is an important skill, the Army should never forget that physical fitness is a component of excellence, not the end state.

This book didn't have just two good ideas, it had four. Next week I will describe how Malcolm Gladwell challenges the culture of success.

Feb 23

Quick heads up. Eric C had his guest post, "Post, Entry or Article" published on Daily Writing Tips. Please check it out.

Feb 22

Our long time readers at On Violence have probably come away with two impressions about me: first, I criticize the Army a lot; second, that I think highly of myself. So do I make the same mistakes as the Army?

Well, I do, and I like to think that I confront them when I see them. Recently I read the fantastic novel, The Ugly American, and it led me to some deep introspection (trust me, I'll have more posts about this book in the future). The book indicts America’s foreign policy system for it’s lack of American foreign language expertise (among other things). Written in 1958, its criticisms of American foreign policy still apply today.

As The Ugly American describes, the American foreign policy apparatus--from the Defense Department to the State Department to our intelligence agencies--lacks the critical language skills necessary to succeed. So obviously I must take language skills seriously, and I must study them on my own.

Actions speak louder than words, and my actions don’t tell the same story. I have never succeeded in mastering a critical foreign language. I tried to learn Tagalog, (the language of the Philippines) to help my study of insurgencies. Later, I started to learn Arabic in case I deployed to Iraq, but that never happened. In each case, I quit because the need no longer seemed important or relevant, and mastery seemed too difficult.

(I did learn Spanish. I took five years in high school, and I believe with a little bit of study, and total immersion, I could gain close to fluency. I have learned some of one language, it is just a language half of America knows tambien.)

Even worse than the times I started studying languages but quit, is the tremendous opportunities I have been given, but did not embrace. I lived overseas in Italy, and only learned restaurant Italian. ("Un litre de vino de casa rossa, per favore.") When I deployed to Afghanistan I only learned how to introduce myself. And I spoke to Afghans on a daily basis.

It is my major criticism of myself. Depending on my next assignment, hopefully I can change. I need to embrace learning a foreign language in a critical skill so that I can practice what I preach and improve myself. But I run a blog, work for the Army, work out daily, and am planning a wedding, I don't know if it will happen.

Feb 19

In my last post on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, I argued that today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are numerically insignificant compared to World War I. In The War to End All Wars more soldiers died, more civilians died, more people were hurt, diseased or crippled, all in a less populated world.

But this isn't even the worst part about World War I. The worst part is that it was meaningless. Entangling military alliances forced countries to go to war over the assassination of a minor royal figure. No slaves were freed; no genocide averted. An historical background so inane, you almost can't process it. If it's heartbreaking when someone has to give their life for another, what about when they give their life for no reason? This is what makes World War I a tragedy.

Hemingway understood this. He understood the purposelessness of this war, and the aimlessness of his "lost" generation. He expresses it through Lt. Henry, a man whose life mirrors the war he is fighting.

At the start of the A Farewell to Arms, Lt. Henry's life is adrift. Instead of visiting the home of a priest while on leave, he drinks and parties in Milan. When asked why he didn't go like he promised, he has no reason, no explanation. His actions have no purpose. Lt. Henry even fights in the war for no reason. When asked by his lover why he volunteered for the Italian military, he shrugs, “I don’t know...There isn’t always an explanation for everything.” This could have been the same justification for every General and politician of that era.

By the time Lt. Henry finds his purpose, it is too late. He goes AWOL after seeing his friends and soldiers die in a horrific retreat, and flees to Switzerland with his pregnant girlfriend. Of course, A Farwell to Arms is a tragedy, and Lt. Henry ends the novel as adrift as he began it. One could read Lt. Henry's life as an analogy to Europe. He goes to war for no purpose, tries to fight his way out of it, and his story ends only after he has lost everything. His future is as bleak as Europe's.

Hemingway wasn't anti-war--he fought in at least three--but I don't think he supported World War I. Hemingway's personal code demanded meaning, and World War I--death, carnage and all--had none.

His most damning critique is not only wars started without meaning, but continuing without them. On page 184, one of Lt. Henry’s drivers says, “We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”

Lt. Henry, the narrator, responds, “I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain. This is the worst justification of war. We hear it too often spoken today, and indeed all wars, that fighting must continue for the sake’s of the dead."