Cliched, I know. Writing a "what are you thankful for" post on Thanksgiving. Yet we're all thankful for something. I am thankful for the bond I formed with my men.
I could be thankful that I brought all my men home. And I am thankful that I did. (A week before I joined my platoon, we had a soldier lose his legs. I later met the soldier, and based on the recollections of his comrades in the platoon and my experience, he is a tremendous individual.) Still, that is not what I am most grateful for.
For me, I am thankful to have known and led as many great guys as I did.
Read any war memoir, novel or history book, and the author inevitably describes the unbreakable bonds formed between men who fight. I first heard about this in a class on the Civil War at UCLA. Then I heard it repeated in every speech I ever heard from an officer. I had heard it so much before I deployed, I almost didn't think it could be true.
But it was.
You see movies like Platoon or Saving Private Ryan--or even action films with sci-fi Marines like Aliens--and you wonder, could a platoon of guys ever really match that? Tim O’Brien (who Eric C posted about here) created an entire cast of characters with intense bonds in both The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone. Could reality ever match fiction?
It can and it does. We had the medic equivalent of Spicoli, we had a Southern Medic with a regrettable tattoo, we had guys from all over America but still everyone from California segregated into one truck, we had a mouthy guy from Vegas, we had a platoon sergeant who could put the fear of God into young soldiers (and platoon leaders), we had guys who were ostracized, guys who trashed on each other, guys playing cards, NCOs who yelled “who the f*** said that?”, NCOs known for the size of their arms and quick tempers. We had it all.
I am thankful to have been there with those guys. It is so cliched, it is beyond cliched. Yet the bonds soldiers make isn't make believe, it is what happens. I still can’t believe it.
Cliched, I know. Writing a "what are you thankful for" post on Thanksgiving. Yet we're all thankful for something. I am thankful for the bond I formed with my men.
(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
I got some push back from our loyal readers (which I love, I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Keep us honest) last week when I revealed my hatred for the memoir.
First, a clarification. When I write about memoirs, I am specifically writing about literary memoirs or the "non-fiction novel." This phrase "non-fiction novel" is a contradiction, an oxymoron, yet the genre has become very popular. As I said last week, it has almost overtaken the novel as the predominant literary form.
The memoir is a sub-class of autobiography. I have nothing against autobiography. In comparison, an autobiography is usually longer, and more expansive. Most importantly, most long form autobiography isn't written like a novel. I have nothing against people (such as politicians, soldiers, and celebrities) sharing their experiences, I just want them to choose the right form.
Three of the memoirs I read--Jarhead, The War I Always Wanted, and Soft Spots--should have been novels. Instead these memoirs, written in the style of a novel but restrained by reality, end up doing silly things. Which brings me to the dialogue problem.
The dialogue problem is this: every war memoir I read recently contains dialogue, and usually a lot of it. Unless the authors recorded their conversations as they had them, they wrote their dialogue from memory. Or they made it up entirely.
The catch is, memoirs are true. They are non-fiction. You aren’t supposed to make things up. Is the dialogue true, or mostly true? Or mostly false? Or thematically true to what war felt like, but factually untrue? If you are going to make things up, why not just write a novel, albeit one mostly based on your life like Hemingway or Mailer?
Let me put forward a comparison. I randomly opened up each of the five memoirs I have read so far:
- On page 84 of Jarhead, the narrator has a conversation that takes up a page and goes back and forth 12 times.
- Next, I opened Soft Spots, page 48 I found the narrator having a conversation with a Sergeant in Iraq on patrol. This was on my second try of randomly opening the book.
- In The War I Always Wanted, page 186, conversation at night after a bruising attack.
- Page 248 of One Bullet Away, conversation in an Iraqi village during what I believe was the invasion.
- Page 82 of The Unforgiving Minute, dialogue from a Ranger instructor.
The point is I found dialogue on almost every other page, almost always in situations where dictation would be impossible. Compare this to Winston Churchill’s five volume autobiography and history of World War II; I’m flipping through it right now and I can't find a page with dialogue. I'd bet each of the above memoirs has more dialogue than Churchill's entire opus.
Something has changed in the world of writing to make this stylistic inaccuracy acceptable. Well, it isn't to me. I'd like my autobiographies written by statesman and historians, and our memories to be written by novelists and poets.
The stories about contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to amaze me. Five months ago, my post on military contractors and their unreliability garnered a lot of feedback. I wrote they were untrustworthy then; apparently not much has changed.
Eric and I aren't fans of military contracting. Eric C thinks it is immoral, I believe it is ineffective. When historians write the histories of our current wars, the inefficiencies of both the military and the contractors will explain why victory was so elusive for so many years.
Partly because of the creation of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, contractors have popped back up in the news. We decided to provide a collection of links to highlight the best of these stories.
KBR hampers pull out of Iraq - Turns out, getting out of Iraq will not be hampered by violence or domestic political issues, but by negotiations by KBR to increase their profits.
In fact, KBR is sending more people to Iraq. Even with work to do pulling out of Iraq, it defies logic that KBR continues to send in new employees.
CENTCOM unsure exactly how many contractors it employs. This gem from Reuters describes how the military has only a guess of how many contractors we actually employ in Afghanistan.
KBR bribes the Iraqi government. Iraqis government officials took bribes by KBR and dropped murder charges.
A new book on military contracting: One Nation Under Contract Allison Stranger's new book comes down pretty harshly on military contracting (among other forms of contracting).
But don't worry, Iraqi contracting is even worse than American contracting.
And on the lighter side: The Daily Show says Republicans want rape to be legal for military contractors.
Last Monday, I woke up knowing I had a rough day ahead of me; I had to deal with government contractors. First, I had to go to both the California DMV to renew my registration, and then to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center (VPC) to pick up my car from Italy.
I'm no fan of the DMV. I believe it is a model of government inefficiency. It's only redeeming feature is that my local DMV shares a parking place with my favorite breakfast place. Combine this with the fact that wait times are up across California, and I dreaded the day ahead of me.
I arrived at 7:45. I waited in line for 15 minutes before they opened, got a call number, and within twenty minutes I was at a window registering my car. Beginning to end, the whole experience took about forty minutes, and the DMV helped almost fifty people in that time, if not more. Three employees helped me: two were very friendly, and the other was quick and efficient, handling almost all the vehicle registrations by himself.
After eating my eggs benedict, I went to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center. For Soldiers deployed overseas--in places like Italy or Germany--the government ships their cars over to them. The Vehicle Processing Center is where soldiers pick up or drop off their cars.
Despite having ample personnel--I counted at least half a dozen within eye sight--and despite only four customers to serve--only one of whom was in front of me--I waited over an hour to talk to someone. And I had even called them to let them know I was on my way. Once they called my name, it took fifteen more minutes to process my car. Throughout my wait, I watched the workers walk to the front, shuffle papers, and then return to who knows where.
The employees who had processed the car didn't clean the windshield where their stickers left residue. They also somehow lost the screws for my license plates. (In fairness, Juan, the employee who finally helped me, was amazingly friendly and clearly the hardest worker in the joint. Without him I would have lost it.)
What can we learn from this? In all honesty, not much. These are two isolated incidents, and I consider anecdotes the worst way to prove a point. I could easily have walked in at slightly different times and had reverse experiences. But I want to provide a moral anyways.
Government employees, contractors, and investment banks are all inefficient for the same reason: lack of competition. Conservative economists (Bernanke, Paulson, Greenspan, etc.) uphold the free market as the ideal form to foster competition. I agree. Take the DMV. Who else can provide your registration or licensing? No one. They have a market of one, and no pressure to perform.
When government contracts out their job, though, you now have a market of one contracting to another market of one. In the case of the VPC, they don't have to worry about customer service because they have a long term contract with the government. It's customers, the military, have no alternatives. Contractors, like the VPC, Kellogg Brown and Roote, and Booz Allen Hamilton, thrive off these long term contracts and the lack of a market place.
The DMV is terrible. And contractors are somehow worse.
Tomorrow, we plan on recapping the recent spate of military contractor news, including KBR's Iraqi draw-up, and how, in the world of military contracting, rape is now legal.
This is my first attempt to provide an analysis of a foreign affairs or counter-insurgency book. Or put simply, this is a review. More often than not when I read a book or article it sparks one particular idea, I simply write up particular idea and cite the source. (This happens almost every time I read Foreign Affairs, for example.) But the entirety of David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerilla left me nodding my head, silently saying, "Yes, yes, yes." With regards to both counter-insurgency and the threat of terrorism, David Kilcullen hits the mark on what the US, our NATO allies, and the UN must do to face Islamic extremism. If you care about counter-insurgency or terrorism, read this book.
David Kilcullen is uniquely placed to comment on both of these subjects. As an Australian Army Captain, he learned the basics of counter-insurgency when he deployed to Indonesia. As a counter-terrorism official, he worked in the US State Department after 9/11. As an adviser, he helped craft both Generals Petraeus and General McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most importantly, he writes perceptive analysis of political war (our word not his) that provides actionable tips as well as theory. His piece “28 Articles on Counter-insurgency” (originally published in the Military Review) is probably the most widely distributed guidance in the US military today.
I was probably predisposed to liking The Accidental Guerilla from the beginning. His acknowledgements section reads like a who's-who of the people I respect in foreign affairs. From Andrew Exum (who runs an amazing blog Abu Muquwama) to T.X. Hammes (who brought the phrase 4th Generation War into serious intellectual discussion) to Kalev Sepp (who wrote probably the second best piece on good counter-insurgency after David Kilcullen himself) to John Nagl, Tom Friedman and Tom Ricks, these are people who, in my opinion, are doing the most exciting work in international relations theory.
While standing on the shoulders of these giants, Dr. Kilcullen reveals his greatest strength: the ability to synthesize the competing forces of insurgency, terrorism, Islam, asymmetric war, globalization, the fourth generation of war, and the Western world into one cogent theory. He coins a new term to combine these forces, hybrid warfare. When I took time to define the terms of political war, I mentioned hybrid warfare as a term that "gets" it. His explanation of hybrid warfare then flows directly into his theory on accidental guerillas. Frankly, this theory should define America's approach to the problems in Afghanistan of terrorists, insurgents, Al Qaeda and the Taliban--mainly it shows the flaws in attempting a pure counter-terrorist approach.
The Accidental Guerrilla came out earlier this year, and I read it a few months ago. I hesitated to start posting on it because I feared it would open the floodgates. Hopefully, my review will explain my obsession with this book and encourage our readers to read the one book that will explain national security better than any other on the market. Today I addressed the background that gives this book its strength; next time, I will address the ideas in the book.
(A personal note: In March 2008, David Kilcullen was in Konar Province, Afghanistan where I was deployed. The photo he took of the Asadabad Provincial Reconstruction Team in Asadabad is a place I went about twice a week. Dr. Kilcullen even uses our area of operations as a case study, though he focuses on Lt. Col. Cavoli, whose unit we replaced. I plan to write a post comparing Dr. Kilcullen's thoughts on counter-insurgency and my battalion's operations.)
The "post 9/11 war memoirs" series so far:
I plan on critiquing/discussing the following memoirs:
I've already reviewed Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (which I’ve written about before here), Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots, Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, Evan Wright's Generation Kill, Andy Rooney's My War, Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's Lone Survivor, Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, Donovan Campbell's Joker One, Andrew Exum's This Man's Army, Kayla William's Love My Rifle More Than You, Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory, Sebastian Junger's War, Matt Gallagher's Kaboom and Michael Herr's Dispatches. (Find the reviews and essay links above.) .
Still to be read--and this should finish off the memoirs series--are Shannon Meehan's Beyond Duty, Anthony Shadid Night Draws Near, Doonesbury's Sandbox, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Darrell Griffin Sr.'s Last Journey, Dave Eggers What is the What, Michale Hastings' I Lost My Love in Baghdad and e.e. cumming's The Enormous Room.
I may yet read Anthony Loyd's My War Gone By I Miss It So, Colby Buzzell's My War, John Crawford's The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, or Patrick Hennessy's The Junior Officer's Reading Club, but I don't know. I'm ready to move onto post-9/11 war films, which feels quicker and less time consuming.
The Original Post:
We've been asked from time to time, why does our website write about art? Michael's reason is different than mine. I write about posts about art and Violence because I enjoy writing about art.
The literature I have read for this website has mainly been war novels about the military and soldiers, armies and officers. This is because it directly relates to our larger topic--modern American wars and the military that fights them--and at the same time it gives me the opportunity to critique art as a whole. In other words, the things that define a great war novel are the same things that define a great novel. Their subject just happens to be more specific.
I say this because today I am beginning a series on war memoirs written by soldiers and officers. My ulterior motive is that I want to point out the limitations of the memoir. Or put more bluntly, I hate memoirs. It is an impotent medium and bad form. I hope to destroy it, or at least wound it. The memoir is inferior to the novel, and yet it is slowly taking its place in modern literature. I vainly hope to reverse this trend.
Michael asked me if memoirs are even art. Yes, memoirs are literature, and literature is art. But this question gets at the my first critique of memoirs: they purport to be non-fiction, instead of fiction. The word “non-fiction” implies truth. It implies accuracy. It implies that the events contained within the pages actually happened to the actual people. Thus, Craig Mullaney is not a character, he is a real person. His wife Meena and his Sergeant and his men are real people, not characters. The events of Jarhead aren’t plot, they are real events.
This is a problem for two reasons:
First, to critique a memoir would mean insulting real people. I wrote a note to myself while I was reading Jarhead, “If this were a novel, I could critique this character.” Where I can describe Hamlet as a vacillating weenie, or MacBeth as a heartless usurper, to describe the Marines of Jarhead as perverts is to insult the Marine Corps, not fictional characters. To describe each narrator as a drunk would insult each writer and I don't want to do that.
Of course, each writer is aware of this problem, that they are presenting themselves and their fellow soldiers on the page. How they deal with it, I’ll cover later.
Second, it prevents literary or political analysis. If I want to debate the war, journalism is a better medium. If I want to debate art, novels are better. Instead of debating artistic choices, I’m left debating the veracity of a work--which is the only thing left to discuss--as Nathaniel Fick does in his review of Jarhead. This is boring, and not actually literary criticism.
I'll close with this: I plan on critiquing memoirs, sometimes criticizing and sometimes praising them. I won't be critiquing the Soldiers, I am critiquing their works of art. The fact I even have to write the previous sentence is why I am writing this series.
An ongoing topic on the World’s Affair Board (one of the better forums out there) is the problem of Pakistan. Many of the users have surprisingly negative opinions of Pakistan, some advocating severing all diplomatic ties or letting the Taliban overthrow the Pakistan government. The most surprising assertion, to me, was that some on the website viewed Pakistan as the heart of our Islamic problem. Is Pakistan the newest, most important front in the war on terror?
One can't discuss the problem of Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan, specifically Pakistan's’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), where the Taliban train, rest between missions, and plot future actions against the Afghan government. Thus, one cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan without solving them in Pakistan as well.
So what do we do about Pakistan?
Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar have their own plan. They authored a bill promising 7.5 billion in aid over the next five years to support Pakistan’s efforts against the Taliban in their country. Militarily, we will continue to use drone strikes to target top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Even further, the Pentagon has established the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell to better coordinate efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I applaud the Kerry-Lugar bill. As my failed states post hopefully made clear, a successful Afghanistan with a failed Pakistan is just as bad (if not worse) for the US than a failed Afghanistan and successful Pakistan. The solution is continued doses of preventive medicine.
If Pakistan fails, the US, NATO or the UN will have to get involved. Nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, and the country would become a haven for Islamic extremism.This would cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, US and foreign. While still functioning now, Pakistan has several clear warning signs of state failure. They have a higher infant mortality rate than Iraq and hundreds of radical madrassas.
Senators Lugar and Kerry are on the right track. They sent aid to the government of Pakistan to keep it from failing but I say we double down. As a society, we should match the 7.5 billion our government will invest. Not governmental aid, but aid from people and foundations. We have already sent aid to a Pakistani government that wavers in it’s support of the US. Now we need to send aid to a Pakistani people that at best are tolerant of the US and at worse openly despise us. By lending a hand to help fight the problems of ignorance, economic stagnation, and chronic illness, we will gain an ally in the region and prevent their state from failing.
Remember, if the US doesn’t help Pakistan, radical Arabs will. In fact, Saudi oil money already has. Islamic extremists spend millions educating Pakistani children in radical madrassas throughout Pakistan. We need more people like Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. He uses a budget of only a few million dollars to build hundreds of school. Imagine if the US could send hundreds of Greg Mortensens armed with tens of millions of dollars.
If, as a people, we reach out to Pakistan, as a people they will reject extremism. Its not impossible. The world’s largest Islamic nation--Indonesia--supports America, Pakistan could too.
(Considering that no analysis of the rebuilding of Afghanistan would be complete without a critique of the officer in charge of rebuilding Afghanistan (or defeating the Taliban, depending on your point of view), Eric C. would like to provide his thoughts.)
My apologies for quoting The Matrix in the title, but there is something apt about the sentiment that there is a huge difference between knowing what is the right to do and then doing that thing.
I thought of this when I listened to The NewsHour’s recap of Gen. McChrystal’s congressional interview on June 2nd. One of the reasons I began On Violence was to promote the proper way to fight counter-insurgency warfare. One could say the Army, through leaders like General David Patraeus, has already adopted good counter-insurgency tactics. One of the key questions still facing McChrystal is, does he know good counter-insurgency?
General McChrystal certainly talks like he knows counter-insurgency. In his interview before Congress, Gen. McChrystal says that in Afghanistan, “We must conduct a holistic counter-insurgency campaign, and we must do it well. Success will not be quick or easy. Casualties will likely increase. We will make mistakes.” True, true and unfortunately true. Gen. McChrystal, it appears, has joined Patraeus and others in knowing the way we must fight to win on the modern battlefield.
But can he execute the new strategy?
There is a difference between knowing the path and walking it, a knowing/doing gap if you will. When General McChrystal first commanded troops in Iraq, he detained Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But to do so, his troops “rounded up and held Iraqis by the dozens. Some of those detentions have come under scrutiny.” as the NewsHour reports. Journalists, like David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, condemn his leadership of Cam Nama detention facility, citing human rights violations. He also supervised the Ranger Regiment when they awarded a Silver Star to Pat Tillman, a black eye as black as it comes on a military career.
Thus far, though, General McChrystal seems genuinely repulsed by civilian casualties. Based on what he has said in interviews with 60 Minutes and Dexter Filkins, he knows that civilian perception of the government of Afghanistan is the only metric that matters. He knows that civilian casualties destroy our progress and our respect. It seems like he is executing good counter-insurgency, but it is still early.
We truly hope General McChystal has learned the lessons of failed counter-insurgency tactics and policies. Initial reports are optimistic, let’s hope he fulfills the promises.