Feb 02

Hey All,

Two quick things. First, Eric C had a guestpost published on Fuel Your Writing, titled, "Less is More: Aristotle and Four Simple Steps to Better Short Stories." Please check it out.

Second, long time reader Chris C has a new blog, called "Predigested Opinion Spigot." Please check it out. New content is coming on Wednesday.

Feb 01

Since General McChrystal originally posted his counter-insurgency guidance--and classified Rules of Engagement--pundits and bloggers in the right wing media have made quite a few accusations. Some have called Obama's new Rules of Engagement are an outrage. Some call them Rules of Endangerment. Some have said they put our Soldier's at risk. One blogger has even said that our Soldiers wonder who is the bigger enemy, the Taliban or Obama's Rules of EngagementHell, Marcus Lutrell wrote a whole book on 'em.

General McChrystal created a strict ROE for Afghanistan for a specific reason: to win. He modeled the new ROE on policies that have proven successful in Iraq and other counter-insurgencies.

And it is right he did so. Leaders must make the Rules of Engagement. While the Soldiers and NCOs on the ground makes the split second decisions about how to use ROE, leaders must establish the guidance.

This seems backwards to some people. Many Soldiers (and bloggers) think we should always trust the NCO on the ground. The thinking goes, "No politician in Washington, no General in the Pentagon, nor any staff officer at Bagram Air Field can make better decisions than the leaders on the ground." This is a false dilemma. Often, what Soldiers believe keeps them safe actually endangers the mission.

In war we have to do things that put our lives at risk. In a counter-insurgency, that means risking lives to save or limit civilian deaths. In World War II, storming the beaches of Normandy was excessively dangerous to our troops, but we had to do it. In counter-insurgency, a new ROE will make life more dangerous for Soldiers, but it will help us win.

But why do Leaders make the ROE?

COIN is a war of degrees. Traditionalists still expect Generals to move troops around on a big board the way Civil War generals did. Traditionalists still look for ways to attack the enemy, not protect the population. Traditionalists still want big operations. However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not about big maneuver operations; they are the sum total of small patrols repeated consistently over time. Generals no longer tell units how to maneuver, they make small changes in tactics and strategy that are repeated over time.

The rules of engagement are one tool they can use to make those changes.

The FM 3-24, the new counter-insurgency manual, describes the paradoxes of defeating an insurgency. One of those paradoxes is that wildly engaging (and missing) the enemy makes the counter-insurgent look weak. Another is that killing the enemy frequently costs you support and makes the enemy stronger. These two ideas don’t make sense in regular war, but counter-insurgency is counter-intuitive.

Soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers new to counter-insurgency do not fully understand political war. ROE exists to force soldiers to follow good counter-insurgency theory, even though it seems counter-intuitive.

Jan 29

(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.)

In my second to last post on Ender’s Game, I described how Ender Wiggins, the novel's eponymous hero, is the paragon of intelligence--specifically, I described his ability to see beyond accepted paradigms. But it is his second intelligence trait that makes him a superior leader, his empathy. His greatest gift, it is also his curse.   

From the beginning to the end, Ender tries to understand those around him. People are puzzles to him, like the math equations he does in his head. Ender asks himself what motivates Bonzo Madrid to lead so poorly, he questions Colonel Graff on why he leads the way he does, and he wonders why his brother Peter hates him. He knows the most important thing he can understand is people.

Or should I say Ender tries to understand intelligent beings, including Earth's alien enemies, the buggers. When he plays “Buggers and Astronauts” with his brother Peter before leaving for Battle School, Ender imagines himself as a Bugger. He tries to feel what they feel, asking himself what they think, morally reversing himself into their position. At school, he watches every video he can about the Buggers. The first time an adult honestly answers his questions, Ender asks about the Buggers.

This empathy is tragically problematic. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves,” Ender says.

For Ender, this moment always precedes the destruction of the enemy, because by understanding the enemy, you know how to defeat them.

Think about the military and COIN warfare. How much about the Middle East, Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, the history of Iraq and Afghanistan, did we not know prior to the invasions? How wide is the gulf that separates our cultures? To win counter-insurgency warfare, you have to understand your enemy. When you do understand your enemy, killing innocents and torture becomes unacceptable, because in some way you love them. You don't have to condone the actions of insurgents, but you must understand them.

This gulf of misunderstanding applies to the Islamic world as well. Have they tried to understand us? Have they looked at the world through our eyes? Polling shows that Arabs who have been to America, or met Americans, have a much more likely chance of giving us a high approval rating.

This is a beautiful problem, the problem of empathy, because the solution to it is peace. When we must understand the enemy to defeat him this understanding inevitably creates peace. At the end of Ender’s game, when Ender can finally communicate with the Hive Queen, they come to a peace; they finally understand each other.

I have to disagree with Ender on one point. Killing your enemy is tactically easier when you understand him, but emotionally harder. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When your enemy is horribly stereotyped and viewed as inhuman, emotionally it is much easier to kill him.

Jan 29

Hey All,

Quick heads up. Michael C wrote a guestpost for milblogging.com, titled "12 Tips to Keep Milblogging in 2010."

Check it out.

Jan 28

(On Violence has had a string of sobering posts about the costs of our two ongoing conflicts. Today, one of my NCOs from downrange posts his thoughts on SGT Beachnaw. SSG Will and I served together in Afghanistan where he was my Section Sergeant and often my acting Platoon Sergeant. Although SSG Will and I had an interesting relationship downrange, I respect him highly and his words about SGT Beachnaw are memorable.)

Of all the great men who I know that have fallen in these two wars, this man hit me the hardest. Luke was my driver for about three of my ten months spent with 4th platoon in Afghanistan and during that time I came to know one of the greatest men I will ever know. We got to bond while listening to Credence Clearwater Revival and watching helicopters fly through the Korengal Valley from OP Rock. He was a stud of all studs and unfortunately he knew it too. But, he would also do anything you ever asked of him, even despite his bad back that would sometimes obviously bother him. He was a great paratrooper who earned “Top Gun” at Sniper school after he was brought up the Battalion Recon/Sniper Platoon. I used to joke with him that it was because I told Foote and Grabski and the rest of the Wildcat leadership that they needed him and they wouldn’t be disappointed if they snagged him up. However, in reality it was because he was just so damn good and everyone knew it that he was brought to the Wildcat Platoon, which is the best of the best in the best Battalion. He kicked ass at Sniper school and then attended Pathfinder school where I was deeply honored to pin his well earned Pathfinder badge on his chest as he graduated. Fittingly enough, later that night after celebrating, Luke drove my drunk ass home and even left my car for me.

I truly loved that man, still do, and fortunately I was able to go to his memorial service where I stood with 30+ of his fellow Paratroopers from the Rock Battalion as we helped his wonderful family lay him to rest.

The good die young and the best die first. He was able to go out like a true Paratrooper while living his dream of being a sniper. The world is a much worse place without Lucas Beachnaw on it, but at least his watchful, snipers eye will maintain overwatch on us forever.

Jan 27

Eric C and I have decided to stop using the phrase, “The Global War on Terror” in On Violence posts, and we are deleting the category from the sidebar. This is the what, now on to the why.

When we started On Violence last year, we debated whether we should use the phrase "The Global War on Terror." We ultimately decided to use it because it was common parlance. As wikipedia says, it is the "common term for the military, political, legal and ideological conflict against Islamic terrorism, Islamic militants and the regimes and organizations tied to them or that supported them."

It was standard, so we used it. But the label "Global War on Terror" has serious problems. Frankly, it really is a misuse of the word “war.” Like previous wars on metaphysical concepts--poverty, drugs, cancer--it will never end. "Terror" is a tactic, not an ideology.

So we don't feel comfortable using this phrase anymore. President Obama stopped using the phrase GWOT and the Army has as well. If the President and the Army aren't using that term anymore, then we don't need to either.

One of the biggest things I have learned while writing for On Violence is that words mean something. To that end we shouldn’t let words give terrorists credit or stature they don’t deserve.

The result should not be that noticable. Our categories will shift slightly. Between Counter-insurgency, Foreign Affairs, and Military Affairs, our categories will shift slightly, but we can still cover all the same ground. We will avoid using "Global War on Terror" to describe America's ongoing wars abroad.

Jan 25

Last week I wrote about the death of one of my Soldiers, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw. Writing about his passing brought to the surface feelings about another friend I've lost, who I haven't written about.

Three years years ago on Jan. 15--the same day I heard about Beachnaw--I received the sad news that one of my good friends from UCLA ROTC, 2nd Lieutenant Mark Daily, had been killed in Iraq by an IED.

I had just started Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (IBOLC). I was living in a house of four UCLA ROTC graduates all attending the same course. We all knew Mark, but I knew him the best. After a long day in class, my phone rang and I learned about our ROTC program's first casualty in the War on Terror.

I suppose I need to back up. Mark and I clicked as soon as we met in ROTC. He joined the program his junior year as a transfer, I joined the same year as a sophomore. The first of many long conversations occurred on the way to a TV show taping in Hollywood. In the back of the ROTC van we discussed the most dangerous threats facing America. We settled on aliens, followed by ants, and then robots. It wasn’t a serious conversation. Later that spring we were on the same squad for the fall FTX. We both shared a passion for history and politics--discussed frequently over coffee at Kerkhoff hall at UCLA.

Mark's thirst for knowledge was his most defining characteristic. Since we shared an interest in current politics--and the wars--we had a lot to discuss. We also vented about the Army and ROTC in our long conversations. After his thirst for knowledge, his loyalty to to his friends, and devotion to his wife, still stick in my mind when thinking about Mark.

Mark graduated the year before I did. We hadn't kept in great contact but a few weeks before I was to leave to go to Fort Benning he stopped by the ROTC program. I decided to see him on my way out to Fort Benning, only a few weeks before he deployed to Iraq. When Eric C and I finally arrived, we drank margaritas, ate tacos, and talked late into the night. He told me about leading Soldiers, and the differences between ROTC and the real Army.

On 15 January 2007, after a long day of IBOLC training above, Mark's wife called to say that he had been killed in an IED blast. Like last week, I put my training on hold to attend the funeral that weekend.

After he passed, Mark gained minor internet fame. On his Myspace page he explained his decision to join the Army, and his powerful words inspired congress people and civilians all around. It was a strong message from an intelligent Soldier.

So after a tribute to a fallen Soldier last week, why another tribute so soon? We needed to do a post on Mark Daily, and Sergeant Beachnaw's passing reminded me that I had not given Mark the respect he deserves. In the current conflict, I have lost two people who were close to me; it doesn't get any easier.

Jan 22

(Spoiler warning: This post contains plot descriptions for Clint Van Winkle's "Soft Spots".

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

On the surface, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is incredibly similar to Jarhead. (Read our Jarhead review here.)  Both are creative types who went to college after a gulf war to learn creative writing. Both books open with a "going through old gear" scene. Both lose friends after the war. Both are works with literary aspirations--Jarhead more so--and both experiment with narrative.

The primary difference is that Clint Van Winkle wrote a good, but by no means perfect, book.

The title refers, vaguely, to those "soft spots" soldiers feel when returning from a war, particularly veteran's struggles with PTSD and post-war life.  Death haunts Van Winkle, particularly those deaths he caused. Most of the book takes place in Arizona after Van Winkle has come home from the war, though it jumps back in time—for the most part effectively—to cover Van Winkle’s experience manning a turret during the invasion of Iraq. In the present, he takes college courses that bore him, drinks himself into oblivion, and relives his warexperience. Quickly he receives a diagnosis of PTSD, denies it, and then accepts it.

The memoir, because it is based on real life, lacks a satisfying conclusion. At the end, Van Winkle, in a seemingly random decision, moves to Wales and his problems conveniently evaporate. He also has an epilogue on a new treatment of PTSD that feels really out of place, an attempt to bring closure to something that can’t be closed; to a problem that one new cure cannot solve. 

There are other flaws in Soft Spots. The whole thing reads like a confessional; the book is writing-as-therapy exercise in a way. And if I'm being intellectually honest, I kind of hate that type of writing. Van Winkle barely pulls it off. His sheer honesty helps, like when Van Winkle opens with a passage about threatening to kill his wife that is so raw, you can’t help being moved. But at the same time, his immediate analysis of the event is too manufactured; he writes best when he forgets he is writing.

The message of the book, at least one of them, is good. Van Winkle goes to war angry and blood-thirsty, looking to kill but that isn't the came Van Winkle that returns home. He explains the change when talking with his grandfather.

"When I got back from Iraq, and saw my Grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw, and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren't really any different. It didn't matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds, and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn't matter that he'd fought in a "good war" and I'd fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat."

Again, the strength of this chapter is limited by the incomplete narrative. His change from gung-ho warrior into regretful veteran seems incongruous; it happened off the page somewhere. When did he become less violent? When did he connect with his emotions? I don't know, neither will you. Like real life, it probably happened over time but this makes for unsatisfying reading.

Despite all the honesty, you still believe that Van Winkle isn't telling you something. The book feels self-censored, like he looked into his soul but decided to only give you ninety percent. It makes the whole entire exercise feel hollow.

Overall, this is a good book, one of the better war memoirs I've read so far. It is honest, has a good message, and overall there is more to like than dislike in Soft Spots. I still think it would have worked better as a novel—Clint would have been freer to establish a better story structure and write a more honest book—but it works fine right now as memoir.