Nov 01

(In honor of, in no particular order, The Rally to Bring Back Fear, Halloween and “War is War”, we’re discussing fear and national security.)

Every American will die. Scared? You should be, we’re in a fight for our lives.

In the Spring issue of the Journal for International Security Affairs, Mary Habeck writes about a threat to our freedom, terrorism. She tells us that “our enemies in Islam view [the current fight] as a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” These evil men are, “intent on carrying out a war of annihilation” against the US. Even worse, American politicians don’t get it, “the contrast between this view [Al Qaeda and total annihilation] and the U.S. desire to fight a limited conflict characterized by legal constraints and law enforcement methods could not be more striking.”

Mary Habeck isn’t the only academic, politician or pundit frightening America. Former Vice President Cheney said it right here. So did his daughter Liz Cheney in this article. William Safire, writing in the New York Times, collected four of these opinions in this piece. In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, New Gingrich calls radical Islam a “threat to our survival”. Right before him, his wife said that we are in “even more danger than [we were] in 2001”. And in the season premiere of Intelligence Squared, an NPR Oxford-style debate show, two debaters claim that we are in a war for survival.

In other words, the threat of terrorism, by radical, extremist, Takfiri Muslims, is a threat to our existence. And this should scare you.

It would terrify me, except for one inconvenient truth: terrorism is not an existential threat.

America can choose to view the struggle with al Qaeda as criminal problem--as opposed to an existential problem--because realistically it is. Al Qaeda might only have a hundred followers, maybe up to a thousand; the US alone fields a military of 2.4 million people. Al Qaeda is trying to get a nuclear weapon; we have thousands. They live in caves; America spans a continent. Al Qaeda struggles to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world; the US has bases on every continent and in dozens of countries. They get meager support from Saudi billionaires; we have the world’s largest economy. Do I need to go on?

So Mary Habeck makes the point that, “our enemies in Islam view it as “a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” So what? They can believe whatever they want to believe, that doesn’t make it true. Mike Singletary can think the Forty-Niners are a playoff team, but I’m not going to pre-order tickets. Say Djibouti declared war on the US, would we even acknowledge them? We can choose to view terrorism as a non-existential problem because we have the power and will to do so.

Fortunately, rational voices do exist to temper the fear. The Cato Institute posted this piece about terrorism. Foreign Policy did an article titled, “Think Again: Homeland Security”. And Foreign Affairs published a cost-benefit analysis on terrorism that went so far as to call terrorism “hardly existential”. Even the state department is getting in on the act. Apparently, Americans traveling abroad are much more likely to die of traffic accidents then they are of terrorism.

I stumbled on the idea of fear and our existential crisis as I researched my “war is war” series. I consider this post a caveat to it. "War-is-war"-iors and anti-ROE critics phrase our current fights as an existential crisis because that would let us use our violent tools more. There are two issues with this. First, more violence won’t stop terrorism. Second, it isn’t true. Strong rhetoric about Al Qaeda and the end of America is designed to do one thing, sow fear. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda wants.

Oct 29

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

So apparently Marines love the the phrase “get some”. On page two of Generation Kill, Evan Wright explains:

"’Get some!’ is the unofficial Marine Corps cheer. It's shouted when a brother Marine is struggling to beat his personal best in a fitness run. It punctuates stories told at night about getting laid in whorehouses in Thailand and Australia. It's the cry of exhilaration after firing a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun. Get some! expresses in two simple words the excitement, fear, feelings of power and the erotic-tinged thrill that come from confronting the extreme physical and emotional challenges posed by death, which is, of course, what war is all about. Nearly every Marine I've met is hoping this war with Iraq will be his chance to get some.”

There’s a problem, though. I’ve read a lot of memoirs by Marines, and Marines don’t say “Get some!”--this includes dialogue heavy memoirs.

The most telling example comes from One Bullet Away. Nathaniel Fick and his platoon hosted Evan Wright--their memoirs essentially cover the same events--but Fick only uses the phrase once in One Bullet Away, as something someone from another platoon says over the radio. “Get some!” fails to make an appearance in either Donovan Campbell’s Joker One or Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots. Even Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead only uses it once, as something, again, said over the radio.

There is a disconnect here. One book claims that “Get some!” is the unofficial Marine Corp motto while four Marine Corps memoirs barely even use the phrase, and certainly none ascribe the world beating importance to it that Wright does.

We’re left with three options. The first is that the other memoirists are crappy writers without an ear for dialogue. This isn’t the case; I loved Generation Kill. At least two of the mentioned writers are very good if not great writers. I mean, Wright doesn’t even really use the phrase much himself in Generation Kill.

So we’re left with two more options, both of which are probably true and both of which indicate common problems in memoirs.

The first is that Wright makes an overly ambitious generalization. This is a problem endemic to the modern, reporting-based memoir, where an authors want to take the reader on a journey through a hidden, mysterious inner-world the reader doesn’t know anything about, and it leads to generalizations, usually overly hyperbolic ones. Authors make grand pronouncements about groups and people. “X group always does Y thing,” because one person they were with did that thing.

The problem is even more pronounced in war memoirs. Soft Spots describes how “In war, no one asks you if you killed anyone.” One Bullet Away describes how, in war, “Every fight is refought afterwards”. Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute describes, “the first rule of Afghanistan: The closer you look, the less you understand.” Sebastian Junger’s War, from the title on down, is one big generalization about the nature of war and combat.

If the problem is pronounced in memoirs, so is the literary fault. According to the narrator of The Things They Carry, “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach.” I agree.

So we come to the second option: “get some!” is kind of embarrassing. It’s too macho, too butch. Most of all, it asks for people to be killed. We can probably blame this scene from Full Metal Jacket. After all, it is the first thing that comes up when you google “get some”.

The catch is that memoir writers don’t want to embarrass the Corps. “Get some!” does. Marines, especially Officers, don’t want to write about, in public, their “get some!” mentality.

Oct 27

Today, we're covering what is probably the saddest topic we've ever covered, rape.

Rape is an international problem, and the following links show a particularly gruesome narrative: 1. Rape is a part of every warzone. It shouldn't be, but it is. 2. Rape is a weapon, used by the most desperate and immoral forces around the world. 3. America’s military doesn’t use rape as a weapon, but rape still occurs in Iraq and Afghanistan, both to our troops and to civilians.

Last year, Michael C called me and asked if I listened to an episode of NPR’s podcast Foreign Dispatch about the massacre in Guinea. I told him I had, and we both agreed it was one of the saddest stories we had ever heard. Last year, during a mass human rights protest, military soldiers under ruling strongman Captain Mousa Camara killed over 157 protesters in the local soccer stadium. During the massacre, soldiers began stripping and raping women in public. (For an audio account of this tragedy, click here.)

Rape and political violence go hand in hand. Rape has been a weapon in Congo for years. And in Haiti, during the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, rape became endemic.

Fortunately, The UN has started to work on this issue, calling rape "no more inevitable than, or acceptable than, mass murder." The UN now classifies mass rape as an equal crime to mass murder.

And America has joined in as well. The financial reform bill contains provisions tracking and prohibiting US corporations from funding or selling conflict minerals, minerals gathered through gang rape, or the threat of gang rape. Rape isn’t about sex but power. In power vacuums, groups can use rape or forced marriage to as a means of political control and domination.

The saddest part of this link drop is that rape has become apart of the experience for America's fighting women. According to Representative Jane Harman in Time magazine, “a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.” The PRI show To The Best Of Our Knowledge provides a provocative story about female soldiers suffering sexual assault in Baghdad in this report too.

There isn’t much of a thesis to this post. But rape is an often under reported problem, and we haven’t posted on it yet, so this fills the gap until we have a full article with our thoughts.

(We found many of these stories on NPR's weekly podcast Foreign Dispatch, a collection "of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR’s corespondents from around the globe.")

Oct 26

Quick heads up: Stand-To!, a daily newsletter for Army leaders, gave our post, "Back From Iraq: What I Learned" a shout out last week. Check it out here.

Oct 25

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

Look at the following four quotes and see if you figure out the common theme:

“Hence we don’t need terms like ‘armed politics’ or ‘armed social science’ to help us understand Coin [sic] which at its essence is still war with its basic elements of fighting, death, and destruction.” Colonel Gian Gentile

“Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war,
right?  If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?” Colonel Gian Gentile

“If you inflict military defeat on the enemy, you remove his ability to use violence as a political instrument...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” William F. Owen

“I think the military gets it,'' Canetta said. “I think they do the best they can do, but within the context of a war...War is about killing, right?” Carl Canetta

Pretty easy to spot isn’t it? The idea that in war, all that matters is killing your enemy, by whatever means necessary. As I have been researching the “war is war” crowd, this theme popped up a couple of times. It’s not the first time I ran across this sentiment; the “anti-Rules of Engagement” crowd thinks this way too.

This branch of the “war is war” crowd--the populist side--isn’t even aware of their argument. They tend to be more realist in their foreign policy, conservative in their politics, and vehemently oppose restrictive Rules of Engagement--which is why I call them the “anti-ROE” crowd. The same ethos inspires them inspires the "war-is-war"-iors.

Take this quote from a Los Angeles Times article on the Rules of Engagement, "Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not what's best for America...We are at war. The rules of engagement must be to empower our soldiers, not to give aid and comfort to the enemy." [Emphasis mine.] Over and over in articles criticizing counter-insurgency strategies, or lambasting the Rules of Engagement, this idea pops up: wars are about fighting, killing, death and destruction, not political reconciliation or humanitarian assistance.

Only they are. The most common definition of war--Clausewitz’ definition--is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War has two parts: the political and the violent. His definition doesn’t specify which should be primary--the politics or the violence--but from what I understand, he views politics, or grand strategy, as the most important factor in war. I definitely have my issues with Clausewitz, but he is right about the balance in warfare between politics and violence.

For example, in the American Revolution, the colonists had to choose between supporting the king or joining the revolution. I say “had to choose” because the violence and culture forced people to take a side, and the king lost. A People Numerous and Armed, a fantastic book on the American Revolution by John Shy, gave me the idea to define our current wars as political wars. In it, Shy argues that, in wars where the population is the key, the biggest event on the battlefield is when people make decisions related to power. Making decisions about power is perhaps the definition of politics. Saying “war is war” is frequently a plea to ignore this reality in the vain hopes that warfare can be simpler, more about killing than decision-making. But it’s not--and that is why politics will constrain warfare until the end of time.

And politics aren’t the only restraint on war. Morals and ethics determine our every move. Laws restrain both soldiers and nations. Culture restricts our thinking and actions in ways we don’t even realize (for this last point read A History of Warfare by John Keegan).

This unsaid idea that pervades debates on ROE and counter-insurgency--that war has no rules except to win--just isn’t true. Any student of war knows that war has legal, ethical, moral, political, cultural and social restrictions. Every war has always had those restrictions, and the war fought without them will be our last.

Oct 22

You can’t understand how America feels about its troops today until you understand how America feels about its Vietnam veterans. The best example of this is, of course, Rambo.

First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III have a pretty obvious surface-level connection to American foreign policy--the first film deals with losing Vietnam, the second with winning it, and the third with beating the Russians in Afghanistan--but, more impressively, they represent the post-Vietnam American psyche.

First, a literary psycho-history of America. As a country, we entered into a war in Vietnam, and lost. Then we emotionally abandoned our troops, and the kids went crazy. President Nixon stole an election and his Vice President pardoned him for violating every tenet of the constitution. America became disillusioned. In the words of one veteran, “I believed in Jesus Christ and John Wayne before I went to Vietnam. After Vietnam, both went down the tubes.” (I should mention, this post owes a great deal to Christian Appy and Alexander Bloom’s essay “Vietnam War Mythology and the Rise of Public Cynicism”. Check it out.)

This betrayal, by America against its Soldiers, is First Blood. John Rambo plays the crazy, stereotyped Vietnam veteran. He’s also one of the greatest heroes of ‘Nam--he has a Medal of Honor. And he’s upset. Rambo was a part of America’s losing effort and now he can’t even hold a job.

Most importantly, Rambo blames the military, and by extension America, for abandoning its troops. They sent him back into the world without any help or resources, and prevented him (via ROEs) from winning the war. This is all stated explicitly in the closing monologue, and shown symbolically in the opening scene where Rambo discovers his friend has died of cancer, brought on by Agent Orange exposure. (This, unfortunately, was true.)

The message is clear: We, America, betrayed our troops. And now we’re losers.

But a superpower can’t be a loser, especially during the 80’s and 90’s boom years. A country as patriotic and great as ours can’t lose wars. Enter Richard Nixon’s book in 1980 arguing we won in Vietnam. Enter “Reagan declar[ing] Vietnam ‘a noble cause’” and rewriting history.

Enter Rambo: First Blood Part II.

This time, Rambo has to go back into Vietnam to both literally rescue American Soldiers from Vietnamese captors, and figuratively rescue America from its failure as a nation. He succeeds. The military, of course, betrays him again. This time, Rambo gets his revenge. He survives, punches the sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo in the face, and leaves the middling bureaucrat from the US government a message: “You know there's more men out there and you know where they are. Find' em. Or I'll find you.”

Like the “protesters spitting on returning veterans” myth that Rambo mentioned in his first monologue, the whole “missing Vietnam POWs” issue never really happened--a Senate commission found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."--but that isn’t the point. The point is that America felt like it had abandoned its Soldiers in Vietnam. Someone (Rambo in this case) needed to get them back. What’s the moral of this whole story? Rambo explains at the end, “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!

Which gets into the crux of my argument: America thinks it lost Vietnam because it just didn’t love its Soldiers enough, and we've resolved not to let it happen again.

The leftover scar from Vietnam is the treatment of our veterans. Whether real or not, we believe as a nation we let out veterans down. We failed them domestically when we left them out on the street when they came home. We let them down militarily when we abandoned Vietnam. In the new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve resolved to care for them and love them. If it goes past lip service and means better VA care and a larger more expansive GI bill, that’s a good thing.

But how is it a bad thing? It leads to a lack of critical introspection. It leads to people conflating anti-war sentiment with anti-troop sentiment. It leads to gung-ho militarism. Most of all, it leads to mistakes in American foreign policy.

This is Rambo III. Rambo, this time, heads to Afghanistan to fight the USSR. The film is even dedicated, in the end credits, to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” who we, of course, left in the lurch less than two years later. In Rambo and America’s desire to defeat the Russians, they set in motion the chain of events that caused 9/11.


Oct 21

(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.)

Rambo (2008) wasn’t terrible. Obviously the action was over the top. His machete maiming and decapitating returns with gusto as does the belt fed machine gunning. It is a Rambo film after all. Despite the over the top action and the limited dialogue, there is a real display of genocide and human rights violations. The situation and locale are real. And the acts of violence against a people called the Karen while dramatized and Hollywoodized, they are based on actual accounts are barbarism committed in Myanmar (what was once Burma).

John Rambo finds himself in Mae Sot, Thailand. As I watched the opening sequences of Rambo (2008) I was excited. I was there. While the locations didn't look familiar, the text that introduced the location struck a chord. Mae Sot, along with a number of other cities along the Myanmar border, is home to a Karen refugee camp. One that I was fortunate enough to see and assist in providing medical aide at while I was in Thailand. 

Karen are likely the decedents of Mongolian nomads that found their home in the mountain jungles of Burma. I met several of them, not in Myanmar, the country in which their home lies, but in the refugee camp in Mae Sot. It is one of many camps that exist in the surrounding countries that they have been displaced. For the most part, Karen are Southern Baptist by religion due to western missionaries. This fact, combined with their desire to live independent of the Myanmar government that makes the vast majority of its capitol on the illegal narcotics trade, have made them subjects of genocide. 

Mae Sot is the staging point, the place where we join an aged John Rambo hiding away from his past when his is interrupted by a Christian group seeking to cross into Burma. A dangerous endeavor considering travel into the country is restricted and those caught within are summarily executed. This is not exaggeration, I have met with a few medical professional, ex-military sympathizers, and Christian evangelicals who have been beyond the border and who take their lives into their hands each time they do. While I thought their act of throwing caution to the wind an act of heroism, they reminded me, the Karen risk their lives every day to simply remain in their homes.

I was able to talk with some of the Karen with the help of our interpreter. We heard stories. Nothing as blatant as the killing in the movie, but more sinister. Rambo portrays the Myanmar military forcing Karen prisoners to run through a field full of land mines and mortar fire reeking havoc on a Karen settlement. The reality is that Karen have become adept at patrolling their homes and leave their settlements upon sighting Burmese military patrols. The military will pass and the Karen return. As the Karen return they must walk upon solid stone because the paths are lined with landmines. Our interpreter noted that Karen children are taught to play only upon the stone. 

Soldiers as young as twelve showed me scars from bullets or shrapnel. Young women told of being beaten. They tell that they are thankful for the growing Burmese sentiment toward Karen women. Where once they may have been raped, now they are seen as less than human by soldiers and disgusting. One woman said it is better to be beaten than beaten and raped only to be left with child. 

Ours was a medical mission. In truth, my primary responsibility was simple to observe and carry equipment. Assist in dental procedures and practical demonstrations. Our response to the hidden war differed greatly from the protagonists of the movie. Rather than taking life, we were attempting teach the Karen how to prolong it through education about sanitary living and basic medical practices. 
I watched this movie Rambo with its over the top action and egocentric focus on White missionaries and mercenaries and grew sad. Partly because the cinematic display is likely based on stories from Karen survivors. More so because the situation is truer than fiction. It hit home for me after meeting the afflicted. But mostly I was saddened because, as ridiculous and this Rambo movie was and as much as it focused on these white characters and whether they lived or died, this uber-macho film has arguably done more to bring actual human rights violations to the attention of a apathetic public than any other attempts at information sharing.

If you would like to read more on that Karen, or find out how you can help, please check out the following links.
- This is a story on the specific plight of the Karens.
Oct 20

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

As I started diving into the precisely vague wording of “war is war”, I found a clear connection: the intellectuals who admonish us to understand that “war is war” love Clausewitz. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side. This isn’t only an issue with the “war-is-war”-ior; military strategists have obsessed over Carl since he first published On War.

You may not know this, but Carl von Clausewitz is God.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clausewitz is God, nor should he dominate American thinking on military strategy and theory the way hideous haircuts dominate the heads of Rangers. He has a place in military philosophy, there is no doubt about that, but the emphasis on Clausewitz today is out-of-control.

To make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting the “war is war” crowd, I asked the folks over at the SWJ discussion board what they thought of my first two posts. Sure enough, about eight comments down someone started using Clausewitz to clarify the definition of war, that’s how popular he is.

But Clausewitzian love goes further than interweb forums; academics use him all the time too. Colin Grey, who declares “war is war” in his Strategic Studies paper, writes “there is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz.” Colonel David Maxwell argrees that all we need to do is study more Clausewitz; he said it in two different papers for The Small Wars Journal.

I have a few issues with Clausewitz’s domination of military thought:

1. Is Clausewitz all there is? To go back to my “politics is politics” analogy, how many political theorists are there? One could argue Machievelli dominates the field, but not more than Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages. But military strategy has, in the terms of Professor Grey, only three: Clausewitz, Thucydides and Sun Tzu. I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker. No other field or discipline is so narrow.

I appreciate his definition of war, but as the overarching father of all military thought, I don’t love reading him the way I loved reading, for example, the foundational thought in the theory of politics. Frankly, Clausewitz’s writing doesn’t sparkle like the writing of Plato, Machiavelli and Locke, not to mention the writing of our founding fathers.

2. Clausewitz is on the wrong end of my philosophical spectrum. Now this doesn’t mean conservative or liberal, realist or idealist, it means complicated and verbose. Long ago, I developed my own personal spectrum of philosophy: on one end are Kant and Derrida competing for the claim of the most incomprehensible philosopher, on the other is Plato’s “Crito” and Jesus’ parables, both examples of philosophy that can be read on several levels, but understood without taking a college class. (A friend of mine took a class on Kant at UCLA, and they were only able to work through forty pages. Forty.)
Clausewitz falls over the complicated German philosopher cliff. I mean, his work encompasses several volumes, was never finished, and was written in the Hegelian style--which means frequently you argue a point just to refute it later (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).

3. The most parroted assumptions are ridiculously vague. From what I can tell, the most significant achievement of Clausewitz was his definition of war--warfare is politics through other means (depending on the translation). Second to that was his classification of the three parts of warfare: 1. Violence, hatred and enmity (really two topics, violence and enmity) 2. chance or probability and 3. each opponent is subordinate to rational policy. It just seems that every human endeavor is the interaction of emotion, chance and rationality, be it diplomacy, economics, politics or war.

This simplification is probably more due to people simplifying philosophy as opposed to the philosopher himself. Philosophy, in general, suffers when it is simplified. Clausewitz equals “war is politics by other means”, Machiavelli is “rule at all costs”, Neitzsche believed in “the super man”. Nuance? Fuhgetaboutit. These quick snap definitions lose the subtlety of hundreds of pages of philosophy--and I think that simplification is magnified in Clausewitz’s case when it comes to “war is war”.

I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker; I think it also does military theory and the philosophy of violence a disservice to assume Clausewitz has war all figured out when Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant treatise, On Violence, that few military officers have read.