Dec 21

Because of their shared Pashtun tribal regions, our fight with Islamic extremism in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan. Yet, America takes completely different approaches to these two battlefields.  In Afghanistan, America conducts a holistic counter-insurgency campaign using policing, humanitarian aid and nation building to discredit the Afghanistan Taliban. In Pakistan, America conducts a purely counter-terrorist approach, using only drone strikes to kill the Pakistan Taliban.

Two different approaches to two similar problems: which approach works better?

Apparently, neither. While I have discussed Afghanistan before and our struggles with counter-insurgency there, Pakistan worries me more. We cannot kill our way out of this problem. Trying to do so yields an unsurprising result: Pakistanis hate us. Specifically, they hate drone strikes, which symbolize American cowardice in their eyes.

On Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in October, she learned the extent of Pakistani disdain for America. On many of her stops, she was harshly criticized for American drone strikes. Pakistanis compared the attacks to terrorism; one described them as daily “9/11s.” She defended the strikes as a necessary part of war.

Perhaps they are necessary to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Common wisdom says that drone strikes have been overwhelmingly successful; we have minimal casualties with maximum lethality. Since the US military can't put ground troops into Pakistan, drones provide an effective way to target Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.

But relying on unmanned aerial vehicles means relying on a strategy of pure firepower. This strategy gives no governmental assistance to the affected region, puts no maneuver forces on the ground (except for the occasional Pakistan military operation; I will have a later post on my thoughts on them), and distributes no information to explain our actions. This strategy relies on the barest of information to accomplish the mission--mostly signal intelligence with little human intelligence. Such a limited counter-terrorist approach alienates the local population and actually strengthens the Taliban.

We shouldn't be surprised at the reaction of Pakistanis either. 9/11 radically changed America in the name of safety and freedom. The death of three thousand Americans motivated the US to create a new cabinet position, to start a new cabinet department with hundreds of thousands of employees, to pass the most invasive security billed ever, and launch two wars. Pakistan has been repeatedly plummeted with both drone strikes and Islamic terrorism; of course they will feel angry.

The situation in Pakistan should show America the limits to relying on a pure counter-terrorism, technological approach in Afghanistan. Currently, in Afghanistan we have maneuver forces, ground intelligence, fire power from several sources, civil reconstruction teams, PSYOPs people, special forces groups, information operations personnel, humanitarian organizations, and a whole host of people helping fight a counter-insurgency. Firepower without maneuver or counter-insurgency forces will only breed more terrorism.

Dec 18

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

More a series of short stories than a novel, The Things They Carried chronicles the life of a platoon in Vietnam, detailing their emotions, their dark  humor, and their deaths. Jumping in time from Vietnam to the present like a realistic Slaughterhouse-Five, an old soldier named Tim O’Brien narrates his tales; parts are true and parts are untrue. Parts are depressingly sad, and parts are beautiful. In short, it is the quintessential war memoir.

And unlike other classics--which are too damn long (Moby Dick), impenetrable (Ulysses), or French (Remembrance of Things Past)--I’d recommend this book to anyone. (Most people who write sentences like the previous one usually come off as crazed enthusiasts peddling religious tracts a la Atlas Shrugged, Battlefield Earth or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not a fanatic, at least I hope I'm not.)

What is important is not that the book is excellent, but why it is excellent. Put another way, why is O’Brien’s The Things They Carried so much better than the current crop of post 9/11 war memoirs which I clearly hold in low esteem?

1. Well, it's not really a memoir - The Things They Carried is a memoir, but on the front page O’Brien labels the book, “a work of fiction.” By fictionalizing his experience, O’Brien gains the freedom to describe how he felt instead of what actually happened. He understands the difference between "what happened from what seemed to happen."

In a speech, O'Brien explains why he fictionalized his story of his summer before he went off to war, “If I were to tell you the literal truth of what happened to me in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight, all I could tell you was that I played golf, and I worried about getting drafted. But that's a crappy story. Isn't it? It doesn't - it doesn't open any door to what I was feeling in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight.”

2. He doesn’t hold grudges - Nathaniel Ficks hates the Captain he serves under, Anthony Swofford despises everyone who isn’t a Marine, Clint Van Winkle hates the war protesters he comes home to, and Craig Mullaney fights with his Major. At times, these books read like childish vendettas against people who had wronged the authors.

A famous author once told me say he didn’t like a fellow writer because she, “didn’t love her characters.” O’Brien loves everyone of his characters, from the crazy medic who loses it to the nervous medic who causes O’Brien's butt to literally start rotting. O’Brien loves every character in the book, including the Vietnamese boy he kills.

3. The book feels honest - Going into this memoir project, I had a litmus test of certain things a writer, if they are being intellectually honest, would include in their books.  O'Brien nailed one of those on the head: killing animals. Specifically, killing puppies. Sure enough, a fellow soldier Azar blows up a puppy strapped to a land mine. O'Brien didn't shy away from the ugly truth. (One war memoir I read, The War I Always Wanted, has a fantastic description of a horse in the middle Operation Anaconda.)

O'Brien's book also feels factually accurate. Save the story "Love Song of Song Tra Bong," everything feels like it could have happened, and nothing is over the top.

4. It isn't political - The Things They Carried doesn't discuss why America went to war, which is shocking compared to how political most discussions of Vietnam, then and now. Most of the war memoirs I've read so far have done a good job of ignoring this as well, but politics seep in from time to time.

The authors feel a need to explain why they went to war (9/11), and why it is ok to kill another person. O'Brien explains why he went to war. He was too scared and ashamed not to.

5. It isn't macho - I get it. Recon marines are amazing. And so are Navy Seals. And Army Rangers. O'Brien doesn't waste time trying to impress us.

In the future, probably to wrap up this series, I'll write a post on what to do and what not to when writing a war memoir.

Dec 17

We just wanted to give our loyal readers a heads up on where you can find some of our writing outside of On Violence.

Today Write to Done posted our article, "The Golden Rule of Writing."  We'd like to thank Mary for editing and  publishing our post.

Also, a big shout out to Seth Waite and Alex Frasier over at Blogussion for publishing our guest posts at Unique Blog  titled, "Don't Write Misleading Headlines." and "Forget the Micro-niche."

On Violence has some other guest posts in the pipeline and we will let our readers know when we get published elsewhere. Also, we always welcome guest posts, please check out the details. If you host a blog, we are always interested in working together on something.

If you are new to On Violence, please check out the Best of On Violence, or our On Violence Christmas List Recommendations.

Dec 16

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast to support a fellow milblogger, Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham. His blog, A Soldiers Perspective, has come under fire:

"In early October, C.J. started using A Soldier's Perspective as a vehicle to protest the decision to switch to uniforms mid-year at his children's school...As a result, C.J. says members of the school board contacted his army commanders to complain about his candid blog, asking him to remove all relating posts. Those very requests drove C.J. to shut down A Soldier's Perspective in early November."

So today, led by the blogs Bouhammer and BlackFive, many milblogs are going silent in support of Grisham, and more importantly, free speech.

This obviously affects us here at On Violence since Michael C is an active duty Army Officer, and some of our most popular posts have been personal experience essays. Ethically, we support free speech. As long as a Soldier doesn't divulge sensitive information, he should have the freedom to say what he wants. Pracitically, we believe a military with open communication with the public will build more support from the general public, not less.

We will resume our regular posting schedule on Friday.

Again, please check out A Soldier's Perspective, Bouhammer, and BlackFive for more on this issue.

Dec 14

It's taken us a long time to publish our blogroll. Why? We didn't want to put out a blogroll we didn't believe in. Too many blogrolls are filled with outdated, broken links, or have too many links to be useful.

The purpose of a blogroll, in our opinion, is to guide readers to the best foreign policy, military affairs, and news blogs on the net, not to receive backlinks from other websites. Our blogroll is for you, not us. Ideally, if our website were the first FP/MA/News blog you've ever read, we can guide you to the best blogs on the net.

We'd also like to say that old media news sources--NPR on radio, NewHour on television, The Economist and the New Yorker for weekly news magazines--still provide some of the best analysis out there.

Having said the above, we consider our blogroll a living document. Expect us to update it every so often and provide a post explaining why.

The On Violence Blog Roll

Abu Muqawama - Andrew Exum recently gave up daily blogging, but we still recommend his blog. Waiting for Abu M's longer form thoughts will always be a treat.

The Best Defense - Tom Rick's wrote two of the definitive accounts of the Iraq War in Fiasco and The Gamble.  He provides some of the best war coverage anywhere.

Blog Them Out of the Stone Age- Professor Mark Grimsley is a professor at the Ohio State University and at the U.S. Army War College. He ably covers both current military affairs and provide a well needed critique to military history.

ForeignPolicy.com Blogs - The bloggers on Foreign Policy's site--Daniel DreznerAbu Aardvark (Marc Lynch), Stephen Walt, and David Rothkopf--write about zombies, Jay-Z, sports, films and novels. Occasionally they write about foreign affairs too.

FP Watch - More focused on, surprise, foreign policy, FP Watch provides a less militarized view of the foreign policy world aong with good insight.

Informed Comment - Juan Cole is the king of the anti-war blogosphere. Check him out.

Inkspots - A group of foreign policy and military consultants who provide daily updates on the world. They have a good dialogue in their comments section as well.

Kings of War - A group of respected academics from the Department of War Studies at King's College London, they provide a forum for some well-learned perspectives from across the pond.

Michael Yon - Michael Yon writes his award winning reporting from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Milblogging - The ultimate resource for military blogging on the internet. Period.

The New Yorker - The New Yorker is the greatest media creation in any language since the dawn of man (Eric C's opinion). We particularly enjoy Hendrick Hertzberg on politics, Think Tank (Steve Coll) on Public Policy and Interesting Times (George Packer) on whatever topic he feels like opining upon.

The Rebel Reports - Jeremy Scahill reports for the Nation on military contracting and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Small Wars Journal - The Small Wars Journal has created a vital new source of dialogue for the modern warfighter. Read their blog and peruse their forum.

Wings over Iraq - A fellow military blogger who just returned from Iraq, Starbuck wrote a tremendous piece for the Small Wars Journal linking military theory to science fiction. Also one of the first bloggers to add us to his blogroll, so he must have good taste.

If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments below.

Dec 11

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

War, when taken as a subject, gives a writer many headaches. The worst headache comes from dealing with morality. As I wrote in “No Villains,” great art doesn’t have a message. Great writers know that a thesis belongs in an essay and a moral belongs in a fable; neither belongs in a novel. War multiplies this problem.

The narrator of The Things They Carried agrees:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a rule of thumb you can tell a true war story be its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil...

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth...”
                                                                        The Things They Carried (pg. 68.)

This passage is beautiful, sad and true.

O'Brien doesn't just tell us about the futility of extracting meaning from war, he shows it to us. Throughout the novel, soldiers ironically extract “morals” from the events around them. Standing over a dead boy, cutting his thumb from his hand, Mitchell Sanders explains why the boy died, “It’s like that old TV show--Paladin. Have gun, will travel.”

Or smoking a dead boy's reefer waiting for his helicopter EVAC, “The moral’s pretty obvious...Stay away from drugs. No joke, they’ll ruin your day every time.” 

Or, simply, “Death sucks.” In other words, there are no morals, or they are ironic, or meaningless, or trite. The soldier's exercise in moralizing is ultimately futile; there is nothing for them to learn.

The problem is, I attacked Jarhead last week for not taking a moral stand. Isn't this a double standard? What does O'Brien do that Swofford does not?

I found the solution in a story on NPR’s On The Media. War correspondent Chris Hedges describes Vasily Grossman's semi-fictional novel about World War II, Life and Fate, as superior to Curzio Malaparte's very similar novel Kaputt because, “Malaparte veers in that long tradition of war pornography. It’s voyeurism. He doesn't have the moral voice that Grossman has. He seeks the extreme, the outrageous...” If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was describing Swofford’s Jarhead.

O’Brien writes a story where the main character cries over killing--or maybe participating in the killing of--a man, about men who come home from war and kill themselves over the guilt. He writes about a father explaining war to a daughter. He writes morally about immorality. O'Brien writes in that moral voice Hedges describes.

Swofford only writes about ugliness and immorality. He writes about rape and perversion, crapping in holes and killing innocent Bedouins, but nothing else. He read about an allegiance to evil and obscenity, and stopped there. O'Brien, on the other hand, knows he and his characters won't find any morals in war, but at least they keep looking.

To close, I want to make a distinction about war, morals and art. Moral art, or propaganda, can be either pro-war or anti-war; neither tells the full truth. Both are moral points of view. As I'll get to in a few weeks, Swofford's book is, I think, an anti-war statement.

Dec 10

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Chris C. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. This post was written before the recent Ft. Hood incident.

If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

I myself have never had a traumatic experience in Iraq that would lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but over the course of working in a notable, anti-war veterans organization (IVAW), I've worked with several people who have. I've seen the worst possible emotional breakdowns one can possibly imagine in police stations and hosiptals, homes and bars, and even just on the street.

Regardless of your views or stance on one particular war or another it is an inevitable result that some people return traumatized. In 21st century warfare the survivabilty of the average soldier is much higher than in the past. This means that a combat soldier today often survives injuries that would have meant certain death on a battlefield 50 years ago, and comes out of it supposedly "unscathed," meaning there is no noticeable physical wound or lasting physical handicap.

In Iraq and Afghanistan there is a blurry often indeterminable line between a civilian and an enemy combatant, often creating a feeling of paranoia, constant vigilance, and various circumstances where civilians do get killed after being mistaken for enemy combatants.

US soldiers are exposed to danger for a prolonged period of time, up to 15 months as it currently stands, as opposed to say someone in a car accident whose traumatic experience takes place within one day and their mental recovery process may start the next day.

One of the best works on PTSD is LTC Dave Grossmann's book On Killing. On Killing identifies the US military as using operant conditioning to train its soldiers to help overcome their natural reluctance to kill, and he interprets PTSD as a byproduct of what can come about when the military uses this operant conditioning. Soldiers and veterans have to adjust and come to terms with the fact that they have committed what is in most religions and societies considered to be the ultimate sin: to take the life of another human being. Sympathy with the motivations of the enemy combatants, acknowledgement of the humanity of the enemy combatants, and the uncertainty of the combatant status of the person they have come into conflict with can compound these results.

Dec 09

(For foreign policy buffs, remember to check out On V's Christmas Gift Recommendations. )

In my two recent posts on The Accidental Guerrilla, I described the book's importance, and then I summarized it's core theory. Yet, if I only explained the book's main point, I would be doing you, my readers, a disservice. Dr. Kilcullen's doesn't simply present a thesis, he applies it to the varied conflicts underway in the world today. He synthesizes history, politics, culture and military theory to prove his point, and its an elegant thing.

If you want a primer on why modern wars look the way they do, then you need to read the first chapter of The Accidental Guerrilla. First, Kilcullen describes his word for war: hybrid warfare. As we mentioned in our defining war posts, this definition cleverly delineates the difference between trans-national terrorism and the Islamic insurgencies plaguing countries as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan, the Phillipines, Thailand and Somalia. Hybrid warfare is the symptom of a globalized insurgency that uses political tools along with conventional attacks against nation states. He then describes four different ways to look at the conflict between Islam and the West. He identifies a backlash against globalization, a globalized insurgency, an Islamic civil war, and the asymmetry of US power as the four factors causing the international conflicts in the world today.

A powerful and succinct summary.

After his introduction, Dr. Kilcullen busts out his convincing case studies. First, he tackles Afghanistan. He visited the country twice, and he uses a case study to explain the progress that can be made there. His case study is a road construction project in Konar Province, Afghanistan, a place near to my heart. I generally agree with his conclusion about the intertwined power battles between religion, government and tribe in Afghanistan. Students of the region or soon to be deployers need to read this chapter.

After Afghanistan, Dr. Kilcullen delves into Iraq--a country he deployed to in support of the Surge. First he describes the forces at conflict in Iraq, and then deconstructs the Sunni Awakening. The image that stuck with me the most, surprisingly enough, is the disconnect between American and Iraqi forces characterized by bad meetings and PowerPoint. Apparently, Dr. Kilcullen and I have the same enemies and one of them is PowerPoint.

Finally, he concludes by analyzing the political situations in Thailand, Timor, Pakistan and Europe. These chapters demonstrate his understanding of ongoing insurgencies, his cultural literacy of the Middle East and Asia and the West, and the nature of the terrorist threat. Well traveled in addition to being well learned, Dr. Kilcullen has been to every country he describes, and it shows. For example, he deployed to Timor as a Captain in the Australian Army and he traveled to Pakistan with the State Department. If American had payed more attention to the Australian experience, perhaps we would have avoided so many COIN mistakes in the beginning of the Iraq adventure.

After reading The Accidental Guerilla, one can't help but worry about the course of our counter-terrorist campaign. Thankfully, Dr. Kilcullen lays out plenty of advice at the end of his book on both counter-insurgency and the war on terror. But better than all his advice is the idea that we should change our perceptions and assumptions to fight terrorism.