Mar 24

Every so often a famous foreign policy wonk will declare globalization to be dead. Or claim that the world was more globalized back in the 1900s. We could accept these pronouncements...

Or we could look at the Winter Olympics.

If you don’t believe the world is flat, check out the field in Vancouver. The Cayman Islands, Ghana and Senegal--all countries with no snow or ice--sent athletes to Vancouver to try to win gold. Eighty years ago, when 16 nations all from North America or Europe competed in the Winter Olympics, this could not have happend. Something changed our world; that something is globalization.

In 1988, Jamaica shocked the world by fielding a bobsled team at Calgary. ("We are Jamaica..we are a bobsled team.") The bobsled didn’t compete this year, instead Errol Kerr represented Jamaica in the equally snow-dependent Ski Cross. Jamaica doesn't hold the monopoly on tropical island winter Olympians though. Dow Travers, from the Cayman Islands, competed in the slalom after training in England.

The most famous non-winter Winter Olympian of 2010 was the "Snow Leopard" Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. Raised in Ghana, studying in London, skiing on indoor slopes, raising money on facebook and myspace, and becoming a international media sensation, he went through every stage of globalization. He even accomplished his goal of not placing last in the Super G.

But that wasn’t the only African skier to compete this year. Leyti Seck, a computer studies student living in Austria, decided to compete for Senegal instead of competing for his adopted home Austria. He too earned press all over Europe to help pay his way to the games.

Blame (or thank) this crazy phenomenon on globalization. The ability to fly to London, compete on the slopes, then fly home, compete on indoor ski ranges, raise funds through facebook and myspace, then still get the sponsorship of your home country. Sure all the Winter Olympians spent plenty of time away from their homelands, but in a globalized world, that is what we should expect. Countries can now afford to send someone abroad, publicize their events, and have them compete in a previously geographically static competition.

And remember I didn’t mention Ethiopia, Bermuda, Colombia, or Morocco or the countries that competed four years ago: Costa Rica, Kenya, Madagascar, Thailand, and the Virgin Islands.

(A final note, in Cool Runnings Yul Brynner says, "I see pride..I see power... I see a bad ass mother who don't take no crap from no buddy." It's pretty good description of American foreign policy the last ten years.)

Mar 22

To continue my series on “Guidelines versus Rules,” I am going to deconstruct what I call the "all obstacles must be observed" rule. Simply put, the most effective obstacles--like mine fields, tank ditches or IEDs--have someone somewhere observing them (usually with the ability to call for indirect fire).

Example: imagine a Brigade trying to cross a field with a river on the far side. The bridge crossing the river is destroyed, the field is mined, and tank ditches block the far end. A nightmare scenario. The defending force will rain down fire as the Brigade tries to cross the river, clear the field, and get over the tank ditches. The Soldiers aren't just trying to clear the obstacles; they're trying to avoid getting killed.

Obstacles observed by fire are dramatically more effective, both for and against you. If you place an obstacle, you should observe it. If you come across an obstacle, you should assume the enemy is observing it. This is why it is a good guideline: all obstacles, when possible, should be observed.

This good guideline, unfortunately, became a rule. It is a rule because many officers and planners are under the mistaken assumption that every obstacle must always be observed. During countless training exercises, I have seen planners say that either an obstacle shouldn’t be constructed because it can’t be observed, or that the enemy would not place an obstacle if he couldn’t observe it. I have heard field grade officers say, “If you can’t see the obstacle it might as well not be there."

A lot of the confusion comes from the definition of two terms. In Army doctrine, a simple obstacle is not observed. A complex obstacle is observed by fire. (IEDs are the same way. A simple IED ambush does not have direct fire supporting it. A complex IED does.) I believe the "every obstacle must be observed" rule developed because complex obstacles are more desirable then simple obstacles, so it became a habit to observe every obstacle. The guideline really is "all obstacles should be complex."

To counter the "all obstacles must be observed" crowd, I like to bring up the abatis. In lay man terms, an abatis is two trees blown down so they land obstructing the enemy’s direction of travel. Anyone traveling down the road will have to clear the fallen trees. Especially effective in heavily wooded forests, (think parts of Germany or the forests of Washington state) numerous abatis on an avenue of approach are a nightmare for an advancing force.

The abatis is a low tech solution (it was used to block carriages back in the day too) that still works to counter high tech modern armies. When combined with ambushes, IEDs and other unconventional tactics, the abatis can dramatically slow a conventional force. Most important, abatis don't need to be observed. Only a small number actually have to be watched to accomplish their mission. The abatis wears down the invader; combined with ambushes, they set his nerves on end.

In high intensity warfare, the minefield does not have to observed. Minefields terrify dismounted troops, with or without observation. Again, the best use of mines is when they can be observed. But if you have no choice and scatter a minefield without observation, they will still dramatically stall a units advance. Even if it is unobserved, a minefield will force a unit to clear the obstacle, and use a limited corridor through the minefield. And no matter how confident the engineers are that they cleared the minefield, the infantry guys will still be incredibly nervous.

The enemies of the US military, and Army in particular, will create obstacles in the future they do not cover with observation. These obstacles will still be effective, particularly in unconventional war. Commanders, if they are clever, should be prepared to lay obstacles even if they cannot observe them. We should remember the difference between guidelines and rules; fighting under too many rules erodes a commander's initiative, leadership, and creativity.

(By the way, check out Starbuck's thoughts on last week's post over at Wings Over Iraq. He emphasized the "canned" nature of too many training exercises. I couldn't agree more.)

Mar 22

Hey all,

We just had a guest post published at Tom Rick's must-read blog, The Best Defense, as part of his "War Dog of The Week" series. Our post is titled, "The Weenie of Afghanistan." Please check it out.

Also we have to give thanks to Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic/Daily Dish, for shouting the post out as well.

We plan on writing more about dogs and warzones, with a post coming this friday on the topic.

Mar 19

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

Constantly diplomatic, Officers represent something larger than themselves, trained from the beginning of their careers to salute, toe the line, and not walk on the base's grass.

Nice traits for an officer; bad ones for a memoir writer.

The best writers are undiplomatic writers. They (through writing, reporting, comedy, whatever) shove the real world back in your face, unvarnished and uncensored. The best diplomats massage their messages. They aren't liars, but they certainly don't tell the truth.

The difference between the writer and the diplomat is the difference between Generation Kill and One Bullet Away, two memoirs written by Evan Wright and Nathaniel Fick (previously reviewed here and here). Both men write about the same invasion--Fick led the platoon Wright reported on--and the difference is stark. (Wright's account of the invasion takes up his entire book, Fick's begins about 150 pages in. And as I wrote in my review, the first 100 pages of One Bullet Away are fantastic). Not surprisingly, a lot of my biases (about memoirs) were confirmed by the comparison. Generation Kill feels more honest, and delivers the reader few if any easy to digest morals.

Take the issue of drugs. At the start of One Bullet Away, a few weeks into Officer Candidate School, Fick's Drill Instructor kicks out a recruit named Dunkin, because "hidden in Dunkin's shoeshine kit was a bottle of ephedrine." This incident teaches Fick about what it means to lead, and what it means to obey.

Unfortunately for Fick, his men were ephedra junkies on their drive to Baghdad. In Generation Kill, Fick's Marines use the ephedra-based Ripped Fuel and chew coffee crystals on virtually every other page. Fick, meanwhile, doesn't mention ephedra, ephedrine or Ripped Fuel again, and never discusses his men's drug use. Of course, Fick's men used stimulants during the invasion, and many of them probably used steroids at some point before they deployed--I wouldn't say steroid use in the military is rampant, but it certainly isn't uncommon--but to say so would be undiplomatic. To write so in print, doubly so.

The moral understanding between the two writer is also miles apart. To wit, both writers describe the same incident, the shooting of two Iraqi children, in radically different terms. Death--mainly Iraqi--goes down hard in Wright's book. After Corporal Hasser shoots an unarmed civilian at a check point, Wright asks him how he is, "'Just taking it all in,' he says." After Lance Corporal Trombley shoots two people, he says wryly, "Shooting mother***ckers like it's cool." After he finds out they are children, the platoon nicknames him "baby killer."

These details are absent in One Bullet Away. Fick doesn't name who shot the young boys, doesn't explain his men's reactions, and never mentions the future nickname. Instead he blames the Rules of Engagement and, not openly, his commanders, who refuse to provide medical support to the children. He ends the chapter with an inspiring speech about what it means to be a Marine, and how the Platoon will move forward and get better. Fick searches for easy, digestible morals.

Fick also ignores a lot of the innocent death caused by his Platoon and the rest of the Battalion. Wright describes multiple instances of civilians getting shot, from the truly callous and vile (An unarmed Arab man in a brown suit shot from a convoy window by a Benelli shotgun) to the accidental (Trombley shooting the kids, Charlie company shooting a little girl). On a larger scale, he explains the damage potential of artillery shells, and the insane number of them the Marines shot into dozens of small towns. Wright changed my view of the invasion of Iraq. Fick didn't.

Other details are omitted. Fick only uses the F*** word is 19 times in One Bullet Away, S*** 20 times. I counted the word S*** three times on one page of Generation Kill. Wright litters his prose with multiple epithets for homosexuals and sexual parts that never appear in One Bullet Away.

We all want to present ourselves a certain way, and often that way doesn't jibe with how other people view us. The Marines of Generation Kill are profane, violent, humorous and sad. And at their core well-intentioned heroes. But they curse, say racist things and (accidentally) shoot civilians. But Fick loves them too much to write about them this way, and you can feel it.

I think every memoir would read differently if a reporter also followed the memoirist around. Fick just had the bad luck to have a reporter with him.

Mar 18

Hey all,

Quick heads up: Matty P just had a guest post published at Good To Know titled, "Levity." Check it out, it's a good post, we just oculdn't figure out how to fit it on to On V.

Mar 18

(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.)

It was the biggest comic book event of all time, and it started as a joke. 

According to the writing team and a mini-documentary that accompanied the recent animated release Superman: Doomsday, one of the writers suggested, “Let’s just kill [him].” Of course, no one took this seriously. At least not at first, not until a major decline in sales of Superman titles did the idea move from jest into print, changing the comic industry forever.

In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, DC Comics editor Mike Carlin recalled the motivation for the killing off an icon, “The world was taking Superman for granted.” And so the writers, with the publisher's blessing, decided to show us all what a world without Superman would be like. 

The decision payed off for DC right away; Superman: Doomsday sold faster than a speeding bullet. Gaining immediate media attention, the incident helped to sell not only the Superman and Justice League comic books, but boosted sales for all of DC's titles. Fans needed to experience the reactions of each DC Comics hero to the death of Superman.

Something else also happened: there were limitless possibilities for comic book writers. The implied message was “Anything goes!” There were no more limitations. If DC could kill off the biggest name in fiction, then nothing was sacred.

The effect would soon be apparent. Soon other heroes became as mortal as the Man of Tomorrow. Hal Jordan, the most popular Green Lantern, would not only meet his own death but embark on a killing spree against his very own Corps and the Guardian who oversaw it. Bane would cripple Batman, prompting a new version updated for the nineties with armor and little moral regard for the welfare of criminals. The comic book universe descended into something much more... real.

Where comics were once a haven for children to dream about adventure and heroic feats, an evolution began where the world in which the heroes and superheroes lived is no long devoid of danger. Where once the Joker was content with kidnapping and practical jokes, he soon became a deranged mass murderer. Spouses and sidekicks could die. Icons were no longer safe. An entirely new universe opened up. 

To be fair, Superman’s death was not the first in the superhero world. In 1973, the Green Goblin killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Batman’s second incarnation of Robin, Jason Todd, died in 1988 at the behest to fans. One of the original X-men, Jean Grey, has died and returned a dozen times as the Phoenix or Madeline Prior or the Goblin Queen or Marvel Girl and so on. Of course, due to the character’s lack of appeal, or the belief that their roles in their respective worlds were becoming redundant, their deaths could not have the same effect as Superman's.

It was inevitable that the comic book industry would change. As the men and women who read the original more innocent incarnations of these heroes who foiled inept bank robbers or saved cats from trees became knowledgeable adults, the genre was bound to change. Using the classic archetypes they grew up with, these adults took their heroes and pressed them with difficult and complex dilemmas yet to be seen and realized. An attempt to make superheroes identifiable and their adventures more visceral. Batman is now a brooding and mentally scarred billionaire, Superman a lonely alien with no true home, and the Green Lantern a former marine now with the duty to protect the galaxy.

The super hero realm now involves death, rape, and massive universal events. The stories are more real, the heroes more human, but lost is the innocent wonder they initially gave us. The story arcs, now riddled with moral ambiguity also contain violent acts no longer appropriate for the same age range to which comics originally appealed, perhaps reflecting a change in the target audience or perhaps reflecting the evolution of medium in general. While as an adult, I enjoy the new and complex story arcs facing my heroes, I long for simpler times.

Mar 17

Our readership loves posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I love supplying them with posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan. They love these posts because they hate contractors.

And I think I know why. We don't trust contractors. A military contractor’s goals only accidentally correspond to our nation's goals; a soldiers are deliberately the same. The public knows this, and despises contractors for the resulting waste, fraud and abuse.

This fundamental difference in motivation is the reason military contractors over-bill the government and the American tax payer.  A contractor’s goal is to earn a profit, as much profit as possible. Earning more means more success. If a contractor can get paid more for the same work, he will try to do that. From the government's perspective, he tries to make waste by wasting their money.

This presents a philosophical question: is waste immoral? By waste, I mean the misuse of resources, be it people, money or time, that keeps our nation’s military forces from accomplishing our strategic objectives.

I could make an argument that waste is illegal. Gross negligence is a legal term; when it comes to the Pentagon, one could argue that gross negligence in preparation, contracting and leadership allowed the waste of contractors. Gross negligence probably exists in every war, and it would be impossible to actually prosecute a case, but the terms exist. A legal argument doesn't go far enough, though, and is too unwieldy for this argument.

If wasting money costs Soldiers their lives, then the waste of military contractors violates our ethical values. Much like the "An On V Global Warming Debate", the problem here is one of scale. A single contractor hoarding money will only rarely cost soldiers their lives. But if the compound effect of thousands of decisions to waste money prolongs our current conflicts, then more Soldiers will die. The decisions of contractors in the early days of the Iraq war directly caused civilian casualties. The decision of contractors in the early years of the Iraq war directly harmed the functioning of the Iraqi government. The decision of contractors even today keep the entire military from fielding equipment as rapidly as possible. Contractors have then basically stolen money from tax payers, caused the death of Iraqis and Americans, and lied to the American people about their intentions.

Corporations exist to earn a profit by maximizing effort and specializing skills. In the vast scheme of America and the world, this is extremely beneficial. When confined to a legal and regulatory structure, violence can be almost completely eradicated from the capitalist system.

For contractors that legal and regulatory structure doesn’t exist. In the vacuum of war, the result can be tragic. The waste endemic in the system costs Soldiers and civilians in the warzone their lives. Corporations, if they were altruistically motivated, could make decisions that would cost money but save lives. They don't.

The actions of military contractors are, therefore, immoral and unethical.

Mar 15

On December 26th, 1776, General George Washington led 2,400 American Soldiers against 1,500 Hessian military contractors, I mean, mercenaries. In total, the Continental Army killed 98 Hessians and captured 500 more. The Battle of Trenton strengthened the position of the continental army and the influence of the continental congress, a key battle in winning the Revolutionary war.

It's a shame that no Army General would have guts or testicular fortitude to do the same today.

Last week, I described the trouble the Army has distinguishing between guidelines and rules. Take the most common guideline-turned-rule: the three-to-one advantage in the attack.

I have participated in countless training exercises, and every time the US plays the offense. And we always have three times as many troops as the enemy. Always. It's a guideline for high-intensity warfare, but now it is law. It doesn't make sense that we will always have three times as many Soldiers as our enemy, but somehow in training, we always do.

This “guideline” is so rigorously embedded in the Army's consciousness, we still use it when we plan counter-insurgency operations. Whenever my battalion conducted Company-sized operations, (or CONOPs, see the post here) during the brief our S2 always briefed the number of enemy he expected on an objective. I would listen in as the S2 briefed his portion, and as I calculated it, we had exactly three times as many troops. Either we could perfectly predict the enemy's size, or we jerryrigged our slides to meet an arbitrary guideline.

The guideline exists to create overwhelming force, and its a good organizing principle. Basically, in the attack you can have a third of your force supporting, a third as an intermediate base of fire, and the final third as an assault force. As a guideline, it works. If a unit can bring to bear the three to one advantage, they usually win.

Unfortunately, this is an example of the science of war trumping the art. The science is a chart of the relative combat power analysis of two forces. Charts with numbers are easy to understand.

What the science of numbers can’t describe, though, is enemy morale. The science has a tough time accounting for surprise. Numbers warfare doesn't do well calculating well-organized raids and ambushes. The science of relative combat power also excludes the factors of speed, mass, surprise, initiative, unity of effort, and countless other principles of warfare. I am convinced the Army would love to replace its company and field grade officers with computers; until then it will use arbitrary guidelines.

There are countless examples of Army officers surprising the enemy with fantastic results. Joshua Chamberlain's counterattack at the battle of Little Big Top is the greatest tactical decision of all time. He didn't have a three to one advantage. The Great Raid at Cabanatuan used speed, surprise and organization to overwhelm a Japanese garrison and rescue over 500 POWs. They didn't have a three to one advantage; in fact, they were at a 127-700 disadvantage (not to count the 8,000 Japanese soldiers patrolling the countryside).

And again, General Washington had more troops than his opponent, a 2,400 - 1,500 man advantage, but he attacked on a garrison in the defense. According to Army logic, he shouldn't have done so with less than 4,500 men. Surprise and audacity won the day. Current Generals should pay heed.

It is a good guideline: try to have three times as many guys as your enemy. Heck, we invaded Iraq without obeying this law, but not because the Army wanted to. Guidelines are good in their place; rules hamstring our Officers. If you are an active-duty officer, I know you have heard this rule. Please remember it isn't a law.