Mar 22

Hey all,

We just had a guest post published at Tom Rick's must-read blog, The Best Defense, as part of his "War Dog of The Week" series. Our post is titled, "The Weenie of Afghanistan." Please check it out.

Also we have to give thanks to Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic/Daily Dish, for shouting the post out as well.

We plan on writing more about dogs and warzones, with a post coming this friday on the topic.

Mar 19

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

Constantly diplomatic, Officers represent something larger than themselves, trained from the beginning of their careers to salute, toe the line, and not walk on the base's grass.

Nice traits for an officer; bad ones for a memoir writer.

The best writers are undiplomatic writers. They (through writing, reporting, comedy, whatever) shove the real world back in your face, unvarnished and uncensored. The best diplomats massage their messages. They aren't liars, but they certainly don't tell the truth.

The difference between the writer and the diplomat is the difference between Generation Kill and One Bullet Away, two memoirs written by Evan Wright and Nathaniel Fick (previously reviewed here and here). Both men write about the same invasion--Fick led the platoon Wright reported on--and the difference is stark. (Wright's account of the invasion takes up his entire book, Fick's begins about 150 pages in. And as I wrote in my review, the first 100 pages of One Bullet Away are fantastic). Not surprisingly, a lot of my biases (about memoirs) were confirmed by the comparison. Generation Kill feels more honest, and delivers the reader few if any easy to digest morals.

Take the issue of drugs. At the start of One Bullet Away, a few weeks into Officer Candidate School, Fick's Drill Instructor kicks out a recruit named Dunkin, because "hidden in Dunkin's shoeshine kit was a bottle of ephedrine." This incident teaches Fick about what it means to lead, and what it means to obey.

Unfortunately for Fick, his men were ephedra junkies on their drive to Baghdad. In Generation Kill, Fick's Marines use the ephedra-based Ripped Fuel and chew coffee crystals on virtually every other page. Fick, meanwhile, doesn't mention ephedra, ephedrine or Ripped Fuel again, and never discusses his men's drug use. Of course, Fick's men used stimulants during the invasion, and many of them probably used steroids at some point before they deployed--I wouldn't say steroid use in the military is rampant, but it certainly isn't uncommon--but to say so would be undiplomatic. To write so in print, doubly so.

The moral understanding between the two writer is also miles apart. To wit, both writers describe the same incident, the shooting of two Iraqi children, in radically different terms. Death--mainly Iraqi--goes down hard in Wright's book. After Corporal Hasser shoots an unarmed civilian at a check point, Wright asks him how he is, "'Just taking it all in,' he says." After Lance Corporal Trombley shoots two people, he says wryly, "Shooting mother***ckers like it's cool." After he finds out they are children, the platoon nicknames him "baby killer."

These details are absent in One Bullet Away. Fick doesn't name who shot the young boys, doesn't explain his men's reactions, and never mentions the future nickname. Instead he blames the Rules of Engagement and, not openly, his commanders, who refuse to provide medical support to the children. He ends the chapter with an inspiring speech about what it means to be a Marine, and how the Platoon will move forward and get better. Fick searches for easy, digestible morals.

Fick also ignores a lot of the innocent death caused by his Platoon and the rest of the Battalion. Wright describes multiple instances of civilians getting shot, from the truly callous and vile (An unarmed Arab man in a brown suit shot from a convoy window by a Benelli shotgun) to the accidental (Trombley shooting the kids, Charlie company shooting a little girl). On a larger scale, he explains the damage potential of artillery shells, and the insane number of them the Marines shot into dozens of small towns. Wright changed my view of the invasion of Iraq. Fick didn't.

Other details are omitted. Fick only uses the F*** word is 19 times in One Bullet Away, S*** 20 times. I counted the word S*** three times on one page of Generation Kill. Wright litters his prose with multiple epithets for homosexuals and sexual parts that never appear in One Bullet Away.

We all want to present ourselves a certain way, and often that way doesn't jibe with how other people view us. The Marines of Generation Kill are profane, violent, humorous and sad. And at their core well-intentioned heroes. But they curse, say racist things and (accidentally) shoot civilians. But Fick loves them too much to write about them this way, and you can feel it.

I think every memoir would read differently if a reporter also followed the memoirist around. Fick just had the bad luck to have a reporter with him.

Mar 18

Hey all,

Quick heads up: Matty P just had a guest post published at Good To Know titled, "Levity." Check it out, it's a good post, we just oculdn't figure out how to fit it on to On V.

Mar 18

(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.)

It was the biggest comic book event of all time, and it started as a joke. 

According to the writing team and a mini-documentary that accompanied the recent animated release Superman: Doomsday, one of the writers suggested, “Let’s just kill [him].” Of course, no one took this seriously. At least not at first, not until a major decline in sales of Superman titles did the idea move from jest into print, changing the comic industry forever.

In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, DC Comics editor Mike Carlin recalled the motivation for the killing off an icon, “The world was taking Superman for granted.” And so the writers, with the publisher's blessing, decided to show us all what a world without Superman would be like. 

The decision payed off for DC right away; Superman: Doomsday sold faster than a speeding bullet. Gaining immediate media attention, the incident helped to sell not only the Superman and Justice League comic books, but boosted sales for all of DC's titles. Fans needed to experience the reactions of each DC Comics hero to the death of Superman.

Something else also happened: there were limitless possibilities for comic book writers. The implied message was “Anything goes!” There were no more limitations. If DC could kill off the biggest name in fiction, then nothing was sacred.

The effect would soon be apparent. Soon other heroes became as mortal as the Man of Tomorrow. Hal Jordan, the most popular Green Lantern, would not only meet his own death but embark on a killing spree against his very own Corps and the Guardian who oversaw it. Bane would cripple Batman, prompting a new version updated for the nineties with armor and little moral regard for the welfare of criminals. The comic book universe descended into something much more... real.

Where comics were once a haven for children to dream about adventure and heroic feats, an evolution began where the world in which the heroes and superheroes lived is no long devoid of danger. Where once the Joker was content with kidnapping and practical jokes, he soon became a deranged mass murderer. Spouses and sidekicks could die. Icons were no longer safe. An entirely new universe opened up. 

To be fair, Superman’s death was not the first in the superhero world. In 1973, the Green Goblin killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Batman’s second incarnation of Robin, Jason Todd, died in 1988 at the behest to fans. One of the original X-men, Jean Grey, has died and returned a dozen times as the Phoenix or Madeline Prior or the Goblin Queen or Marvel Girl and so on. Of course, due to the character’s lack of appeal, or the belief that their roles in their respective worlds were becoming redundant, their deaths could not have the same effect as Superman's.

It was inevitable that the comic book industry would change. As the men and women who read the original more innocent incarnations of these heroes who foiled inept bank robbers or saved cats from trees became knowledgeable adults, the genre was bound to change. Using the classic archetypes they grew up with, these adults took their heroes and pressed them with difficult and complex dilemmas yet to be seen and realized. An attempt to make superheroes identifiable and their adventures more visceral. Batman is now a brooding and mentally scarred billionaire, Superman a lonely alien with no true home, and the Green Lantern a former marine now with the duty to protect the galaxy.

The super hero realm now involves death, rape, and massive universal events. The stories are more real, the heroes more human, but lost is the innocent wonder they initially gave us. The story arcs, now riddled with moral ambiguity also contain violent acts no longer appropriate for the same age range to which comics originally appealed, perhaps reflecting a change in the target audience or perhaps reflecting the evolution of medium in general. While as an adult, I enjoy the new and complex story arcs facing my heroes, I long for simpler times.

Mar 17

Our readership loves posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I love supplying them with posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan. They love these posts because they hate contractors.

And I think I know why. We don't trust contractors. A military contractor’s goals only accidentally correspond to our nation's goals; a soldiers are deliberately the same. The public knows this, and despises contractors for the resulting waste, fraud and abuse.

This fundamental difference in motivation is the reason military contractors over-bill the government and the American tax payer.  A contractor’s goal is to earn a profit, as much profit as possible. Earning more means more success. If a contractor can get paid more for the same work, he will try to do that. From the government's perspective, he tries to make waste by wasting their money.

This presents a philosophical question: is waste immoral? By waste, I mean the misuse of resources, be it people, money or time, that keeps our nation’s military forces from accomplishing our strategic objectives.

I could make an argument that waste is illegal. Gross negligence is a legal term; when it comes to the Pentagon, one could argue that gross negligence in preparation, contracting and leadership allowed the waste of contractors. Gross negligence probably exists in every war, and it would be impossible to actually prosecute a case, but the terms exist. A legal argument doesn't go far enough, though, and is too unwieldy for this argument.

If wasting money costs Soldiers their lives, then the waste of military contractors violates our ethical values. Much like the "An On V Global Warming Debate", the problem here is one of scale. A single contractor hoarding money will only rarely cost soldiers their lives. But if the compound effect of thousands of decisions to waste money prolongs our current conflicts, then more Soldiers will die. The decisions of contractors in the early days of the Iraq war directly caused civilian casualties. The decision of contractors in the early years of the Iraq war directly harmed the functioning of the Iraqi government. The decision of contractors even today keep the entire military from fielding equipment as rapidly as possible. Contractors have then basically stolen money from tax payers, caused the death of Iraqis and Americans, and lied to the American people about their intentions.

Corporations exist to earn a profit by maximizing effort and specializing skills. In the vast scheme of America and the world, this is extremely beneficial. When confined to a legal and regulatory structure, violence can be almost completely eradicated from the capitalist system.

For contractors that legal and regulatory structure doesn’t exist. In the vacuum of war, the result can be tragic. The waste endemic in the system costs Soldiers and civilians in the warzone their lives. Corporations, if they were altruistically motivated, could make decisions that would cost money but save lives. They don't.

The actions of military contractors are, therefore, immoral and unethical.

Mar 15

On December 26th, 1776, General George Washington led 2,400 American Soldiers against 1,500 Hessian military contractors, I mean, mercenaries. In total, the Continental Army killed 98 Hessians and captured 500 more. The Battle of Trenton strengthened the position of the continental army and the influence of the continental congress, a key battle in winning the Revolutionary war.

It's a shame that no Army General would have guts or testicular fortitude to do the same today.

Last week, I described the trouble the Army has distinguishing between guidelines and rules. Take the most common guideline-turned-rule: the three-to-one advantage in the attack.

I have participated in countless training exercises, and every time the US plays the offense. And we always have three times as many troops as the enemy. Always. It's a guideline for high-intensity warfare, but now it is law. It doesn't make sense that we will always have three times as many Soldiers as our enemy, but somehow in training, we always do.

This “guideline” is so rigorously embedded in the Army's consciousness, we still use it when we plan counter-insurgency operations. Whenever my battalion conducted Company-sized operations, (or CONOPs, see the post here) during the brief our S2 always briefed the number of enemy he expected on an objective. I would listen in as the S2 briefed his portion, and as I calculated it, we had exactly three times as many troops. Either we could perfectly predict the enemy's size, or we jerryrigged our slides to meet an arbitrary guideline.

The guideline exists to create overwhelming force, and its a good organizing principle. Basically, in the attack you can have a third of your force supporting, a third as an intermediate base of fire, and the final third as an assault force. As a guideline, it works. If a unit can bring to bear the three to one advantage, they usually win.

Unfortunately, this is an example of the science of war trumping the art. The science is a chart of the relative combat power analysis of two forces. Charts with numbers are easy to understand.

What the science of numbers can’t describe, though, is enemy morale. The science has a tough time accounting for surprise. Numbers warfare doesn't do well calculating well-organized raids and ambushes. The science of relative combat power also excludes the factors of speed, mass, surprise, initiative, unity of effort, and countless other principles of warfare. I am convinced the Army would love to replace its company and field grade officers with computers; until then it will use arbitrary guidelines.

There are countless examples of Army officers surprising the enemy with fantastic results. Joshua Chamberlain's counterattack at the battle of Little Big Top is the greatest tactical decision of all time. He didn't have a three to one advantage. The Great Raid at Cabanatuan used speed, surprise and organization to overwhelm a Japanese garrison and rescue over 500 POWs. They didn't have a three to one advantage; in fact, they were at a 127-700 disadvantage (not to count the 8,000 Japanese soldiers patrolling the countryside).

And again, General Washington had more troops than his opponent, a 2,400 - 1,500 man advantage, but he attacked on a garrison in the defense. According to Army logic, he shouldn't have done so with less than 4,500 men. Surprise and audacity won the day. Current Generals should pay heed.

It is a good guideline: try to have three times as many guys as your enemy. Heck, we invaded Iraq without obeying this law, but not because the Army wanted to. Guidelines are good in their place; rules hamstring our Officers. If you are an active-duty officer, I know you have heard this rule. Please remember it isn't a law.

Mar 12

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

Are you thinking about writing a war memoir? Then read the following passage:

They call Colbert "The Iceman." Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a "Marine Corps killer," he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be "configured by plugging it into his PC.

Can you write this? Can you write with this level of honesty, detail and talent?

This passage comes from Generation Kill, Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's superb account of the invasion of Iraq while he embedded with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. That Generation Kill is excellent should come as no surprise; it won National Magazine awards, and HBO turned it into a mini-series. And it proves that the best memoirs come from the pros.

The Good

Wright's greatest skill is describing people. Look at that previous passage. Complimentary, disparaging, filled with contradictions, and totally, totally honest, I don't think there's another passage quite like it in another post 9/11 war memoir. And each character gets an introduction like this. No fluffy descriptions, Wright lays it all out.

This honesty permeates Generation Kill. "Embarrassing" details are noted, from the inconsequential (ball scratching, masturbating, profanity) to the world-shaking (killing civilians, killing animals, drug use). This book passes the sniff test. (Importantly, Wright describes the platoon's rampant ephedra use, which we'll get into next week when we compare this book to Nathaniel Fick's account of the same events and people).

But Generation Kill is crude in the right proportion. He mentions shitting and pissing, without obsessing over it like Swofford does in Jarhead, or ignoring it like virtually every other writer. His prose is profane, but intelligently so. And for the first time in the memoirs I have read, this book pays attention to and accounts for every civilian casualty his battalion committed.

Generation Kill benefits from being written by a reporter. Wright questions events if he can't confirm them, interviews a wide swath of leaders and Commanding Officers, and contextualizes the invasion. He explains why the battalion took such a strange route through Iraq, and what the Colonel was thinking. Wright sets the stage like few other memoirs do. As a writer, he understands pacing. If the scene gets too boring, he'll jump to the action of another platoon.

The Bad

Of course, this book isn't perfect. Like Fick's book, Generation Kill tells a real story, and that story--despite Wright's well paced prose--is monotonous. And the same free flowing vernacular prose I praised a few paragraphs ago does call attention to itself at times, like on page 102 when he writes, "blow the F*** out of a Humvee." or uses the phrase "big-honking."

There are more serious problems though. Some of Wright's characterization are downright vilifying, particularly with the code-named "Captain America," "Encino Man" and "Casey Kasem" characters. After reading multiple war memoirs, I have to conclude: the Marine Corps hates their leadership.

The most glaring mistake is this book's title, "Generation Kill." Wright's central thesis, played out in this title and the opening chapters, is that this generation of Marines is somehow different than the old one. Instead of the "greatest generation," today's Marines are "Generation Kill." They aren't.

It plays into one of Wright's other weaknesses, his tendency to generalize. Generalizing in war memoirs is mostly futile, and Wright generalizes all the time--in an organization of 200,000 it is hard to say something true about all of them. But Wright takes things that feel specific to his platoon--like them treating Charms candies as "infernal talismans"--and applies it to the entire Marine Corps.

In Closing

That's a lot of bad, but you should know Generation Kill was a lot of good. If you had to read one first person account of this war, please read this book. I know what you're thinking, didn't you say your favorite war memoir was The War I Always Wanted? I did. But this book is better, partly because it is written by a reporter and professional writer (I'll be writing on this in two weeks, why professional writers are better). His knowledge of timing, pacing and prose just surpasses that of Soldiers or Marines. So if you want to read a book by a Soldier or Marine, read Friedman. But for the best account of this of the war in Iraq, read Generation Kill.

Mar 11

(Today's post is a guest post by Sarah Sofia Granborg of Living in Scandinavia. 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.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Let’s assume for a moment that man is not just a lump of meat and bones, but a unit of body and mind/spirit. In other words, think of every soldier as a spiritual being. (Depending on whether you're religious or not, you might want to call that "the soul" or perhaps "the psyche".) Whatever the case, the individual/personality of the soldier is not a physical thing that can be touched or even killed. On the battlefield “only” his body can be shot or blown into bits and pieces.

If we take that statement one step further, we realize that whatever experiences a soldier has had before this lifetime will influence his performance in the present time.

This influence usually occurs on an emotional level that we are not aware of--whether it's from this lifetime or before. We're talking about the sub-conscious memories and emotions triggered by certain events or things that remind us of moments gone by.

What is the relevance of this? Well, which kind of soldier would you rather have by your side: one who is fighting a random war because of inexplicable fears, or one who is aware of his background and in control over his responses?

The second one is the guy who signed up for all the right reasons, his motivation solely based on sane and honorable standards, with the intention to do what is for the greatest good.

He is the one you can rely on when the going gets tough!

People who are not aware of this mechanism simply do not survive as well, particularly in action. Like Brandon Friedman in The War I Always Wanted, it's all such a shock for him, and he has no idea how ugly it's going to get. All this makes him feel uneasy, exposed and vulnerable.

If, however, you are aware of the emotional connection, you can get to know yourself so well, that you will be able to predict much better and act accordingly.

The first step is awareness. If you are aware of how you genuinely feel about things, you can ask yourself why, and if you can answer honestly, all the mystery is gone. You're on solid ground. But that requires honesty. The ability to stay on track and remain focused, as well as the courage to be yourself and be true to what you know to be right, no matter what the consequences.

As for past-lives, some techniques to remember them seem to work, whereas others just seem to fall into the category of "dangerous brainwash" (like NLP and hypnosis).

Personally I just went with the flow. I stuck to what I knew was sane and the truth. For example, if you dream the same thing again and again, with heavy emotion and full perceptions, then there is bound to be something there.

And once you've looked at it and seen it the way it really was, then you're free of that influence.

By the way, I'm neither a religious fanatic nor an esoteric freak. I've simply been close to death so many times that I realized that there is more than the body. I realized you can make those emotional connections work for you, rather than against you, by remembering things like past-life-training and other skills.