Jul 05

Quick heads up:

We took over posting duties for an on vacation Karaka Pend over at her website Permissable Arms. (We love her site, and added her to our blog roll. Check it out.)

Michael wrote about the most interesting sub-plot in the Gen. McChrystal debacle, Rules of Engagement.

And today I wrote about art, fear and becoming the enemy. Somehow I connected it to counter-insurgency and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Check them out.

Jul 02

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

I wrote last week that I'm criticizing war memoirs as pieces of art, comparing them to the great works of war literature like The Things They Carried, All Quiet on The Western Front, or Catch-22. And compared to the great war novels, the modern memoir just doesn't feel as real.

Case in point, most war memoirists looooooooove their men, often to a literary fault. It makes for bad writing. Don't get me wrong, I want every PL and CO to love their men; to do otherwise is probably a crime, or horrible leadership. But if you are writing a memoir, make them human. Every Soldier has flaws just like the rest of us; to write differently is to ignore reality.

War memoirs tend to lie by omission. They highlight the good qualities of their fellow Soldiers and ignore the bad ones, creating one dimensional characters who don’t seem real. If people are defined by anything, we’re defined by our faults. No one remembers Gatsby for his looks, Holden Caulfield for his wit, or Ahab for his boating prowess.

(We can, of course, ignore Jarhead from this discussion, because Swofford tries to make himself, his dad, his brother, his family and the Marine Corps look as bad as possible. This could be called the Augusten Burroughs method.)

One Bullet Away

Fick's memoir, One Bullet Away, started off really well: his characters were realistic and human. His Drill Instructor, Sgt. Olds, felt real to me. A fellow recruit, Dunkin--an over-weight, under-achieving dropout--well, you feel as if you knew him too, and your disappointment at his inevitable failure is palpable.

But Fick loses this clarity when he gets his own platoon. He loves each Marine, and can’t write a negative word about them. By pure numbers alone, someone in Fick's platoon must be lazy, incompetent or an ass. Whether it is pro-athletes, Senators, or Rhodes Scholars, give me any group of 20 people, and one of them is insufferable.

Constant positivity also leads to boring character descriptions. Example: in One Bullet Away, Team One leader Colbert is described as a "blonde, cerebral San Diegan, known as 'the Iceman' for his cool performance." Compare this to Evan Wright's description of Colbert from Generation Kill, "They call Colbert 'The Iceman.' Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a 'Marine Corps killer,' he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be 'configured by plugging it into his PC.'" The first description is boring, the second fascinating.

The Unforgiving Minute

Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute has the second most over-the-top character descriptions of modern war memoirs (see below for the grand prize winner). One soldier looks “like a bulldog,” another has a “chiseled jaw” and arms like Popeye, someone else has the look of a guy who "walked straight out of a John Wayne movie," and another looks like a Humvee. It reads like parody.

This positivity even extends to Mullaney's antagonists. When one of his Soldiers refuses to shower for weeks on end, Mullaney doesn‘t trash on him for stinking and living in filth. “I applaud his dedication.” No, you shouldn’t. And you should write about how the platoon probably ridiculed him for weeks on end.

Joker One

Joker One opens with a list of the "Main Characters," describing each man with details such as, "a feisty personality and can-do attitude" or " a quiet intellectual" or "best -shot" or "inhumanly strong." Only one Soldier is described negatively--as a narcoleptic, which probably couldn't have been omitted. Not only do these descriptions not help--they don't create real characters--but it isn't even that useful as a reference.

Lone Survivor

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

Lone Survivor has the worst character descriptions I've ever read (and I mean this for the entirety of literature, including both finished books, unpublished books, and books authors imagined but never wrote). It opens with eight pages of the most syrupy sweet, straight from a Ludlum thriller, Hallmark Movie of the Week descriptions you'll ever read. Sentences like, “I never met one person with a bad word to say,” or “he was smartest and best trivial pursuit player I ever saw." He even mis-characterizes people, like when he writes "we had a very tough man in the White House.”

Lone Survivor also has the single worst character description I've ever read, which we wrote about here. If anyone ever argues with me about Lone Survivor, that's my trump card I'll point to and say, he wrote that.


As Michael has told me, the bond with your men is stronger than civilians can imagine. Even for the people he hated downrange, when he saw them two years later, it was water under the bridge. Together, a platoon faces death. This makes for great relationships and a great army.

But poor art.

Jun 30

Since I was on a mini-honeymoon last week, doing an instant response to the epic Rolling Stone article wasn’t going to happen. However, I swung by a Borders to buy some magazines for my flight back to Fort Campbell, and I was able to pick up a copy of Michael Hasting’s article on General McChrystal. So here is my contribution to the echo chamber: one opinion and 3 additional thoughts.

My Opinion
More than anything, it blows my mind that General McChrystal gave these quotes on-the-record. My gut reaction is shock, followed by regretful acknowledgment that Obama did what he had to do. The fact that we might benefit from bringing in General Petraeus helps to ease the pain. We need to be able to fire ineffective senior officers, and fortunately we had a fantastic General waiting in the wings.

Thought 1: Hastings writes a lot of opinions as if they are fact. Take his last paragraph. The author says that, “the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency,” “the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse,” and then “counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.” Each claim is stated as if academics, military theorists and bloggers don’t debate them on a daily basis.

And those aren’t the only examples. This is probably going to be the most read article on Afghanistan this year, and a lot of military/counter-insurgency novices will be sorely misled by Hasting’s opinions dressed up as “COIN facts.”

Thought 2: Hastings over/mis-uses the term “counter-insurgency.” Now I usually hate quoting articles by whole paragraph, but Hasting’s provides a simply bizarre, crazy-large, definition of COIN:

“COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his "surge" in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed "COINdinistas" for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan.”

I am a COINdinista to the core, have no doubt about that, but I use the term to define a specifc brand of warfare in specialized circumstances. Hastings gets most of counter-insurgency theory right, but he still talks about it as if it were a massive conspiracy designed by the military-industrial complex. Sorry I just don’t see that, and using biblical language overstates the zeal that the Army actually feels for COIN.

Thought 3: This all leads me to the crux of the article: he wants the US out of Afghanistan, what he calls an un-winnable war. His second to last sentence sums it up, “Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.” The author isn’t anti-McChrystal; in fact he kind of likes him. No, Michael Hastings is anti-Afghanistan war and wants to show the war in a bad light. Period.

I applaud his journalistic skill; this article again proves why we need long form journalism. Hasting’s descriptions of General McChystal provide an amazing insight to a fascinating man; too bad the rest of the article is polluted by opinion and bias that are unneeded.

We have other thoughts on Hasting’s take on the rules of engagement too. We’ll publish those later because they will be much more controversial.

(Would you like to know more? We recommend the Starbuck link-drop at Wings Over Iraq. Check it out.)

Jun 28

With great pride, Eric C and I want to announce the 200th post of On Violence (and in the category of interesting factoids, we’ve written over 117,000 words. That’s two and half The Great Gatsby's.)

As with the one year anniversary, we want to especially thank all the commenters and friends on our blog, twitter, facebook and in real life. Seriously, it helps. Without your support and feedback, we couldn’t have the fantastic dialogue, or the motivation, to continue.

The last few weeks have been particularly busy as one half of On Violence walked down the aisle on June 19th. Expect us to get back to regular posting starting last Monday, and the upcoming articles should be accurate again.

We hope to do another 200 posts in the next year again, possibly faster. We also expect our style to change slightly as there is the very, very, very good possibility that part of On Violence will be deployed within the next nine months. But the good news is this will provide a fresh new perspective on current operations.

Instead of linking to the best articles, we are going just link to our three previous compilations: our 50th Post link-drop, our 100th Post link-drop, and last month’s 1 Year Anniversary link-drop.

Since our one year anniversary, we've gotten a lot of response from two things. The first was our series on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's Lone Survivor. We critiqued Luttrell and Robinson for that memoir’s factual innacuracies, their stance on ROE, literary merits (or lack thereof), and ridiculous passages. We also wrote a letter to Paramount and Peter Berg, begging them not to make Lone Survivor into a movie.

We’ve scoured the internet for Luttrell related news, but if any of our readers see him making a splash let us know so we can provide the counter-narrative to his ridiculous story.  (Also, big thanks to Ed Darack who wrote an actual history of the battle that we plan on reviewing in the future.)

Also, our post on war memoirs and “bitching” got a lot of response and link love. Check it out.

Jun 25

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here. I recently updated the list.)

Right before Michael C went down the aisle last week, a couple of the groomsmen and I discussed On Violence and war memoirs. I was complaining. Soldier Authors either A. don't know what interests readers, or B. censor the best/funniest stories because they are often the most insulting.

Instantly, one of the groomsman--an engineer, but don't hold it against him--told a hilarious story about almost killing himself via timed explosives. And he would have kept telling stories like this except we had to go to the ceremony.

Aside from a few instances (mostly written by reporters) these types of stories--the funny, the insulting, the bizarre and obscure--never appear in war memoirs. I only hear them in casual, off-the-cuff conversations with Soldiers and Officers. Between this revelation and an interesting back and forth with Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms, I'd like to re-explain why I'm writing this "war memoirs project" and pitch the war literature I'd like to write. Since I criticize other Soldier's takes, I might as well put my (hypothetical) pitch out there.

Karaka accurately identified a key question I should have addressed earlier in this project: what am I looking for in war memoirs? The simple answer is truth. Of course, every mode and medium gets at the truth of war. One of the best ways to understand the war in Iraq is to read Thomas Rick's Fiasco, or Gamble. But that's political truth, and when it gets to understanding the human condition, reporting can only take us so far. Instead we need memoirs or novels.

And novels, though fictionalized, tease out the truth of war better than memoirs. The events of a novel may not be "true", but the sentiments and themes are. There are a lot of reasons for this--the fallibility of human memory, self-censoring, military censoring, kindness, bitterness, poor artistic technique, limitations of reality, and the memoir as a genre. Dissecting these limitations is the reason I'm writing this series.

An example. It is very unpopular in the military to disparage the men serving under you. So even if you had 35 year-old Sergeant who didn't know how to use email, you wouldn't include that passage in your memoir, because it is insulting. And yet that would make for really good prose, both developing a character and portraying the military the way it is.

Of course this all exists on a continuum. Some memoirs are more honest than others. Lone Survivor contains out and out lies, at the behest of political ideology. Jarhead contained a lot of ugly truth, because it only focused on the negatives. Even Soft Spots, the rawest memoir I've read, felt censored to some degree. Exploring this continuum is the reason for this series of posts.

My thesis is simple: memoirs are inferior to novels, and war memoirs are particularly inferior to war novels. Yet, in the current literary climate, people don't want to read (or write) war novels. People want something "real," they want memoirs. I'd gladly read novels, graphic novels or poetry, but if you want to read literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to read memoirs. I don't really have a choice. (As far as I know, the first post 9/11 war novel comes out in November, I'll be reviewing Brian Turner's Here, Bullet soon (a collection of poetry), and Matty P will be reviewing Brian K. Vaughan's graphic novel Pride of Baghdad in the next few weeks.)

So, what would I write instead?

I know what it wouldn't be: a memoir. A lot of people--friends, family, readers--have asked Michael C and myself if we're going to write about Michael's experience in Afghanistan. Well, we already are. On Violence exists to chronichal and share Michael C's military experience, without writing a long, dull book. We know the limitations of the genre too well.

Instead, I would embed in a super FOB for two or three weeks. Just detail all the basketball and volleyball tournaments, eat the food, and go to Salsa night. It's like a topsy-turvy version of America, and any time you can find that, well, that's some good literature. It seems counter-intuitive to write a war novel/memoir that avoids the front line, but I think the FOBs are fascinating, and under-covered.

Second, while embedded, I'd talk to everyone I could, anonymously. I'd just ask Soldiers, Officers, Grunts and POGs simple questions and collect their stories. I'd ask about drugs, sex, crapping, masturbating, animals, civilians, man-love Thursdays, funny infra-red stories, cultural mis-understandings, political opinions, how stupid/dumb everyone around them, etc, etc. God there are so many topics and I just don't think it is getting out there.

The themes I would cover? Isolation, bureaucracy, COIN, counter-intuitive warfare, warfare with email. Yeah, there'd be heroism and valor, but there'd be more boredom and sadness. Cheating wives and girlfriends, families that love their Soldiers, Modern Warfare--the video game. No narrative needed. Mix all of the above into a big  half-true/half-fiction collage. The best war novels are "fever dreams," like Dispatches, The Things They Carried, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and All Quiet on The Western Front. 

That's what I like to read, and it's about time somebody wrote it.

Jun 23

Hindsight's always 20/20. Take, for instance, when I first went to Bagram Air Field: I mistook it for a warzone.

I arrived in Afghanistan via C-130; it was me and 25 other 11bs--infantrymen--all secretly nervous about linking up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

As we hit the tarmac, the flight crew pulled out 9mm pistols and scanned the area for enemies. Without weapons or body armor, this unnerved us. Scared, ready, we left the plane and entered Bagram Air Field.

Within a few hours, I realized that BAF wasn’t a war zone. Within a few days, I realized that BAF wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. By the end of my tour, I came to hate everything about it.

BAF is a super-FOB. It is a collection of all the assets that “support” troops in the field. Home to thousands of military contractors and support troops, most soldiers believe this base isn’t a warzone.

When morning dawns on BAF, the units get up and conduct PT. The base shuts down the main road so that units can run. Every so often, BAF hosts long distance running events like 5Ks. At Joyce, if we wanted to run we had to wear full kit--body armor, helmet and weapon. (We had a mobile training team came to the KOP once to refresh us on first aid, and they said we should train every morning after PT on medical drills. We asked when we would hold organized PT.)

After PT, the soldiers will head to one of many super chow halls. These chow halls serve dozens of different types of food; some have freshly grilled steaks, think dining commons at a premier college. If you don’t want the food at the chow hall, you have the option of eating at a Burger King or Pizza Hut (though General McChrystal is trying to boot these establishments from Afghanistan, I have heard so far he is unsuccessful.) At a combat outpost, you are lucky to get hot chow and MREs rule the day.

Walking down the street at BAF (yes, they have full blown streets), you will see the throngs of Soldiers in PTs or ACUs, weapons slung behind their backs. Among the thousands of weapons, though, you won’t find a single magazine. BAF is a base armed to the teeth, without any bullets. At a combat outpost, everyone has a weapon, most times their body armor, and always at least a magazine with them.

BAF is not combat; it barely qualifies as a warzone. Unfortunately, the majority of the media, the preponderance of politicians, the bulk of General officers, and all of the celebrities who visit Afghanistan, will never see past this comparatively luxurious base. Life on BAF is a sanitized version of war presentable to the media, but completely unrealistic to the Soldiers and Marines fighting on the ground everyday.

Jun 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

“Our enemy was brutal, implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life.”

Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor

Critics of the rules of engagement (ROE) love to point out that our enemy doesn't have rules of engagement. Whenever I debate this point, or read an Op-Ed on the subject, this inevitably comes up. Marcus Luttrell, our country's loudest and most vitriolic critic of the rules of engagement, describes the sentiment perfectly. (Yep, we are continuing to pile on to Luttrell. Unfortunately for him, his book contains almost every misnomer about ROE that exists, we almost have to use him as an example. It is also still inspiring debate over ROE.)

Take the above quote. Luttrell describes an enemy with no regard for life, rampaging through villages killing everything in their path.

Except in real life that never happens, because insurgents have rules of engagement too.

They don't follow the Geneva Conventions, insurgent ROE isn't written down, and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan do not have the same control over their fighters that American Generals have over their Soldiers. But they still have rules of engagement. At it's best, Marcus Luttrell's statement--like those of other ROE critics--confuses the rules of engagement with the Geneva Conventions; at its worst, it shows the type of thinking that hamstrings our military when it tries to conduct counter-insurgency.

Luttrell doesn’t understand the concept of rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are simply guidelines that authorize force--for armies, police forces, militias, criminal groups, gangs, or insurgents. Rules of engagement have existed since the dawn of time, even when they were incredibly lax, and even when they weren't written down.

Imagine Genghis Khan charging across Asia. A village wants to avoid the impending rape and pillage, so it bribes Khan to ignore their village by swearing loyalty, sending him a 100 soldiers, and as much gold as they can muster. Now if one of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants ransacked the town, he would have hell to pay. Genghis Khan’s unspoken rules of engagement were essentially: don’t mess with anyone I say not to.

Insurgents operate the same way. In Afghanistan many of the tribal leaders are all but immune to the Taliban. If insurgent groups didn’t win the support of local elders, (i.e. if they killed every Afghan civilian they came across), then their ability to operate in rural areas would evaporate.

Lone Survivor actually describes this scenario. Even though Marcus Luttrell claims that Ahmad Wali’s army of 200 Taliban fighters had surrounded the village sheltering him, the Taliban couldn't grab him. The insurgent leader knew that violating the Pashtun-Wali code would disrespect the village elders, and dry up his support in the Korengal.

In effect, the insurgents in Lone Survivor follow strict rules of engagement. Now their code of ROE isn't based on the Geneva Conventions, the Laws of Armed Conflict, or any other Western ethical system. Some of their tactics are governed by extremist Islamic theology (Salafist Jihadism in most cases), but in most cases insurgents follow rules of engagement that offer the best chance at self-preservation. No matter what basis, they always have rules of engagement.

The key word in Luttrell's condemnation is the word "discernible." They have rules of engagement, he just doesn't understand them.

Jun 11

(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Zhang Yimou's Hero

It is also a guest post by Matty P.)

Zhang Yimou's Hero is a feast for the eyes. Jet Li and Maggie Cheung repel thousands upon thousands of arrows as artisans paint the written word in one scene. In another, Cheung battles an outraged Ziyi Zhang amidst the swirl of brilliant autumn leaves. The battles themselves are breathtaking, showcasing the deadly art of combat in poignant beauty. In contrast, the result of combat is revealed to have a cost to all those exposed. Jet Li's Hero portrays the act of violence thematically as a paradox.

Violence in of itself cannot be considered a good thing. Rather, its very existence, very definition is to cause harm. Yet the age old moral question remains, can violence yield a greater good? The ancient Roman adage was: "It you desire peace, you must prepare for war." Orwellian double speak, it flies in the face of my mother's advice when I was a child that violence never solves anything. My mother's intention wasn't to develop in me deep seeded naiveté, rather to instill the wisdom to avoid revenge when others wronged me.

And revenge is the very thing that motivates the character Nameless in Hero. Under the guise of a servant to a growing empire, Jet Li as Nameless, planned to strike at the king responsible for the death of his family and the murder of his people. The King of Qin steamrolled his way across the seven fractured warring nations of modern day China, asserting himself Lord of a new empire, soaking the lands he wished to rule in the blood of those he claimed his lordship over. So hated by the people because of the carnage, the King of Qin locked himself away in his palace for fear of assassination.

But Nameless, standing within killing distance of the kind, hesitated to kill him. Not for fear of failure or squeamishness about taking a life, but because of an idea. An idea summed by three words, "All under heaven."

It had become the belief of Nameless, taught to him by Broken Sword, that only one man's ruthless domination of the once warring states of China could end the bloodshed. Death now, peace later. It's an attempt to justify a means by an end.

Mathematically, it makes sense. Kill a few thousand now in conquest, and the king prevents further warring between city states that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands.

In contrast, the cost of such a plan becomes not just the lives lost in attempts to hold back the King of Qin, but the loss of these once unique cultures that must blend into a unified China. The audience sees this price paid not only through Nameless' search for vengeance, but in the destruction of the Snow and Broken Sword's refuge; a compound for artisans of the written word. Because they will not submit to being ruled and they will not fight, the calligraphers are slaughtered. And with the deaths of so many, including elders, knowledge of the discipline and culture passes with them.

Violence can be both seductive in its simplicity and frightening in its implications. It can result in internment or in liberation. Independence or ethnic cleansing. But we must be careful in how we justify our actions. Enacting violence and claiming a greater good is a dubious process considering intentions can never guarantee an outcome. The success, longevity, and long lasting consequences of violence on the scale of war is far too difficult to predict and far too easy to criticize in hindsight.