Jan 11

When I watched The Battle For Algiers, I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?”

Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

The scene is short but poignant, illustrating the truth that war isn't fair--for either side.

It’s one of those phrases that is so universal it almost becomes meaningless: All’s fair in love and war. (First said by John Lyly by the way.) Used more often to describe love than war, the sentiment is more true for war. War's brutality, destruction and unflinching moral calculus are unarguable facts of life. (This is why Eric C argues that war is the opposite of civilization.) The higher the costs, the more laws, traditions and customs lose their value.

It is something I feel I’ve understood since was a kid. There can be no “rules” for war. If life and death are on the line, both sides will do whatever they can to survive. Winston understood this in the novel 1984, when he promised to throw acid in the face of a child. The American revolutionaries understood this when they used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British. The Taliban understand it now in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, many Soldiers don't understand this. In the New Yorker, (in the article "Kill Company" that we discussed in our post, "Operation Judgment Day.") one Soldier describes the "frustration with what an insurgency is--that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms." Calling your enemy a coward ignores the reality of war. An insurgent doesn't wear a uniform for the same reason the US Army wears body armor, it helps each survive. Or win the war.

My men in 4th Platoon frequently said the same thing. They called IEDs unfair after personally experiencing the tragedy they can cause. My men weren't unique: soldiers despise the IED. An unseen enemy just does not sit well with American Soldiers who want a stand up fight. In Westerns, the good guy and the bad guy faced off in a duel, what could be more American? In Afghanistan and Iraq the bad guys are on the second story with a rifle, shooting before the gunslinger can even see them.

Yet how unfair must guided bombs, helicopters, and a limitless supply of training and ammunition seem to the insurgents? We must appear ridiculous in context. Huge armored warriors who can fire nonstop, and who introduce a new vehicle every other year with more gadgets, more weapons, and more intelligence. In fact, Pakistani's consider drone attacks cowardly. (I also doubt that saying "we worked hard to earn our gigantic military budget" would mollify our critics.]

All is fair in war, because when you fight, nothing is fair (especially for the civilians). Because nothing is fair, all is fair.

Jan 08

(Spoiler Warning: This review contains plot details of the book Jarhead. Seriously though, this should not keep you from reading this post.)

When we last left Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, we were discussing the book's promotion of rape and it's degradation of women. Today, I want to discuss what the book does right and, more commonly, what it does wrong. Hopefully by the end, you’ll know whether or not you should read it. (Spoiler Alert: you shouldn’t.)

Jarhead is a "non-fiction" memoir of Swofford’s experience in the first Persian Gulf war. Trained as a bad-ass Marine sniper--thankfully he doesn't dwell on the training sequences--Swofford and his platoon nervously await battle in Kuwait. They spend many boring months in Saudi Arabia until the war finally lurches to a start. When they finally get to the frontlines, the platoon sees little real combat, and in the end a senior officer takes away Swofford’s only chance at a kill.

In between this somewhat limited plot are flashbacks to Swofford’s childhood spent dreaming of becoming a Marine, growing up in Japan, and wandering around aimlessly post-gulf war. Some of these passages--particularly the one with the girlfriend in Japan--are quite good. Others--like Swofford’s petty family dispute between him, his father and his brother--are quite bad.

Ultimately, the book sins twice, by being both inaccurate and biased. This is why it fails.

Accuracy

Martin Amis, in his blurb for the book, praises Jarhead's "reportage." Put bluntly, this book's reportage sucks. A lot of events never could have happened, and his descriptions often seem totally innaccurate.

Many scenes just don't pass the sniff test. Like the story about a wife sending a soldier a sextape; it feels like an urban myth appropriated for the novel. [Update: It was.] When the platoon fake rapes a soldier in front of a reporter, it is unbelievable that an officer would let it happen and that a reporter wouldn't report on it, especially if he has a camera. When Swofford threatens another soldier with a gun, that's court martial material. And when Swofford gets stranded out in the desert, well, I'm not the only one who doesn't think it could happen.

One example is particularly egregious. Specifically when artillery shells start raining down on Swofford and his platoon. “The first few rounds land within fifteen feet of the fighting hole Johnny Rotten and I are digging.” (pg. 189.) Wait. Artillery rounds landed within fifteen feet of you and you didn't get blown to kingdom come? When I first read this, I had to call Michael, it sounded so unbelievable.

Maybe Swofford was grossly exaggerating, maybe he just made it up for excitement. The point is, it isn’t true, like too many scenes in this book.

Appearances

The title could sum up the entire book: written for civilians (particularly anti-war liberals) about what they think a "jarhead" is. It is a memoir about appearances, about seeming to be one thing without actually being that thing. Swofford seems determined to portray Marines, the military and Soldiers in general as blood thirsty, horny sex addicts/perverts; a portrayal of the world that is cynical, ugly and brutish, in which war and Soldiers are both our salvation and our sin.

But that's just it, it is all an appearance, or a mirage. As one Marine pointed out, "'jarhead' isn't even a term most Marines use." The book wasn't written for Marines; it was written for critics.

Published in 2003, during the lead-up to Iraq, I think the book was written because of the war. It definitely was published for that reason. The book jacket reads like a who’s who of progressive literary reviewers, with glowing reviews from the SF Chronicle to the NY Review of Books. But Newsweek tips its hand as to why they enjoyed the book, “If you want a clear-eyed sense of what might be going on today in the staging areas surrounding Iraq...read Jarhead.”

Swofford wants to shock you. That's why he writes about rape so much. That's why certain passages are so nihilistic. That's why Swofford would rather focus on the obscene--my favorite example is when he describes sand getting into his “ass crack and piss hole” Really? Piss hole?--than write about war as it actually is.

This second sin of the novel is more unforgivable. It makes the book no better than propaganda (as I’ve written before) and we need to dismiss it.

Jan 07

(Today's post is by 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.)

I studied Tae Kwon Do for six years; I earned a black belt for my time and effort. Though challenging, the time spent gave me confidence, physical endurance, and the ability to defend myself should the need arise.
   
Everyone who trains in martial arts does so for personal reasons. When I began, it was after my final rounds of chemotherapy, which left me with poor posture and an unusual walk. It was my father's hope that physical activity based on form and body movement would counteract my condition. The reasons for others varied. One man wanted to lose weight. Another worked for the sheriff's department. Some of the kids joined because they wanted to have fun. Parents wanted to give their kids a safe environment and outlet for their energy. And still another woman joined because she was sexually assaulted.
   
Tae Kwon Do is violent. I have no illusions about this. Indeed, all martial arts are inherently violent. You kick, you punch, you grab, and you throw people. If it wasn't violent, there would be far fewer bloody noses and broken bones. However, in Tae Kwon Do, as in most other martial arts, you don’t learn to do harm to others, but to protect yourself. Learning martial arts is learning self defense.
   
Specifically, one learns how to “disable” an opponent. To disable is to incapacitate, wound, or injure. In order to disable an opponent, we are taught to act violently. In most situations we are required to do harm to an attacker. This means throwing them to the ground, rendering them unconscious, or in some way wounding them so that they no longer wish to or are able to hurt us. We were learning to hurt someone so that they can’t hurt us.

It’s called self defense. Undoubtedly there are people who learn martial arts not for defense, but for offensive purposes. I call this the “ninja” complex. Basically, some fool learns how to punch and kick properly because he or she wants to be a bad ass or thinks he or she is a ninja. It’s like the Karate Kid. While it’s unlikely there would be an entire dojo dedicate to producing bullies, it must be understood that bullies will result every time power is gained.

Regardless of those who use martial arts to willfully harm others, martial arts exist to promote self defense not persistent violence. It's a paradox. Sometimes in order to maintain personal peace one is required to act violently. Martial arts is the discipline of that violence.

Jan 06

Rule #1- Always know where you are.
Rule #2- Always look good.
Rule #3- If you don’t know where you are, still look good.
    - Special Forces Joke

The US Army is the most fashion conscious organization on the planet. Throughout the ages the armies of the world have cared about style--think khakis, camouflage pants, the blazer, the beret, the peacoat, and the trench coat--but I think the US Army takes it to a new level.

The US Army doesn’t abide by “modern” fashion sense; it definitely adheres to its own code though. Your boots must have the laces tucked in, with the pants bloused. If your boots happen to be black leather, shine them every night for an hour. Berets will be cared for meticulously, shaved and shaped to perfection. Your hair will not touch your ears nor grow over two inches in length; a clean shaved face will lead to victory. Most importantly, everyone should where the same uniform, boots, ruck sack, and equipment, no matter personal preference.

Uniformity (in dress) will yield victory.

Failure to adhere to these standards will be noticed. I"m pretty sure a Sergeant Major's only job is enforcing these standards. Rolled up sleeves? He’ll catch that. Missing badges on an ACU? He’ll spot that. Non-standard boots? Oh yeah, you’ll catch hell for that. I've joked before that to graduate the Sergeant Major's Academy, the students have to do an inspection of a lieutenant with nine uniform mistakes and spot them all in thirty seconds or less. It's like a JMPI but for uniforms.

The reason for this is that a combat unit needs discipline. Forcing soldiers to meticulously care for their uniforms--shining boots, shaving berets--teaches them the discipline to do what they are told. I agree with enforcing discipline: war is chaos, discipline is the only way to overcome that chaos.

Unfortunately, uniformity (in dress) is not discipline.

The Armies that deployed to both Afghanistan in 2002 and that deployed to Iraq in 2003 were the most uniformed service we have ever had. Yet we still struggle in Afghanistan and it took until 2007 to learn the right way to win in Iraq.

Our enemies don’t have uniformity. But they have discipline. A discipline forged in the fire of constant threat of death.They need unrelenting discipline to stay alive.

I am not the first to gripe about uniforms in the US Army, nor will I be the last. But if we can learn a lesson from the last nine or so years of war, it is that uniformity in dress teaches uniformity in thought. The US Army took years to adapt to the situations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our uniforms didn't cause this, but our uniformity in thought probably kept change from occurring much earlier.

Jan 04

As the year 2010 begins (let's be honest, the year doesn't really start until you go back to work), we wanted to give our readership a glimpse into the future, along with two big announcements.

First, starting this Thursday our friend Matty P will contribute a post every other week. He shares our interest in art and violence plus he brings a different set of experiences than our own. He has already provided some great guest posts for us--such as "15 Bullets", "Violence and Entertainment" and "My Father is a Warrior"--and we look forward to working with him.

But Matty P is not the only voice we want to hear at On Violence. Everyone has some connection to violence. We've all seen, witnessed or caused violence in some form, and we want to hear from you about what you've experienced. We welcome you to share your experiences with us, anonymously or in public.

In 2010, you can also expect to see On Violence out in the larger media world, following on Eric C's very successful post at WritetoDone.com and uniqueblog.net. We have several projects planned for the larger milblogging, blogging and old media worlds. Whatever we get published, we will let you know.

For the upcoming year, Michael C will continue to tell his experiences from Afghanistan, comment on the draw down in Iraq and build up in Afghanistan, and complain about the continuing lack of great counter-insurgency in the military. Eric C will finish his series on war memoirs with his biting sarcasm intact. Finally, we will start a series of debates between Michael C, Eric C and Matty P with the first on the lessons of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.

Most importantly, the team at On Violence will be launching a new web project this year. We are still finalizing details and working on the specifics, but trust us, we will let you know as soon as it goes up.

We also have some sad news. Apparently the 2009 Weblog Awards have been canceled. Thanks to everyone who voted for us. The 2010 Bloggies have just begun taking nominations and if you feel like we do now, you probably don't care.

Finally, thanks of course go out to all our loyal readers. The biggest surprise for us since starting the blog has been the amazing contacts we have made with people we would not have met otherwise. Follow us on facebook, twitter or via RSS feed. Tell your friends, family or complete strangers.

Jan 01

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Fiction is like a lamp. It shines a light illuminating truths about the world. Most commonly, fiction describes the nature of the human condition. Moby Dick deals with obsession, The Corrections deals with family dysfunction, and Catch-22 deals with paranoia.

More uncommonly, fiction illuminates the nature of abstract ideas and principles. Like how Einstein's Dreams describes time, Gravity's Rainbow describes entropy, and Syriana describes international relations. (It should be noted these stories still deal with human emotions as well as abstract concepts. This isn't an accident.)

I tried to do something similar about a year ago, when I wrote a story about the internet and how it spreads information. Titled “Revolution at my Fingertips” or “Echo Chamber,” (I hadn't decided which) I probably won't ever try to publish it, for reasons I will soon explain.

The story has two plots. The first is of Mehta, an unemployed liberal looking for work in the city, but really spending all day on the internet supporting a revolution against an oppressive government.

Now the second plot is where things get interesting. In it, a young woman dies at a protest. The story describes how her image, name and face spread virally around the internet and how she becomes the symbol of the revolutionary movement.

“The young girls photograph became a rallying call.” And later. “She had become symbol of everything you were fighting for. And people needed her, needed her to exist and be concrete. Details emerged, then unemerged [sic], then were shaded. She went to college, she didn’t go to college...she wrote this, this matters, she matters, we matter." (This was a rough draft.)

Of course, all of this actually happened. Neda Agha-Soltan died last June after being shot at a protest in Tehran, and she then became a symbol both in her home country and around the world of the "Green Revolution" in Iran. I didn’t predict the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in the Iranian election protests, but I predicted how the deaths of people like Neda would matter in the Internet age.

Unfortunately I can't write the story now because it would seem like a parody, or too clearly an allegory.

The question is, does this make her death more or less meaningless? Does this match up with my larger theory of how trite all of this Iran media coverage became?



I stand by the original story; people desire images to rally behind. Neda became that symbol for her revolution. Symbols like these can be used for ill (the Swastika, the burning cross) or it can be used for good (the V-sign, the red cross). But they are still only symbols.

Dec 31

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I pointed out the disconnect between what happened in Iran last June, and the three week long media riot that followed it. It's not that the event wasn’t important, there were just too many people talking about too little.

The obvious counter argument is that people have a right to support regime change in Iran. We agree. Anti-semitism aside, the Iranian neoconservative Ahmadinejad is leading his country down a dangerous foreign policy path, and turning his country into a police state with rigged elections. Iran’s half-democratic and half-religious political system flies in the face of the Western understanding of democracy, so I understand why so many people--liberal and conservative--would support a democratic “revolution” in Iran.

But in all of the hype, blog posts and news coverage, we lost sight of a few things:

1. This isn’t a “revolution.” A fifty-fifty divide in a country does not a revolution make, more like a civil war. Remember, a lot of people still love Ahmadinejad. Not in the urban centers, but definitely in the rural areas.

2. If you are hoping for an Invictus-style clean transition of government like South Africa, forget it. This conflict will get uglier before it gets better. The history of revolutions, from America to the present, is one of bloody, chaotic messes.

3. An Iranian revolution will not be a Western revolution. The "Green" politicians in Iran look an awful lot like the current regime. Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-1989. Karroubi was a chairman of the Parliament and a past presidential candidate. Khattami was a former president.

4. The twitter revolution occurred more in the Western world than in Iran. We can safely say this is the first revolution watched by the world with new media, like twitter and facebook. (There was another "Twitter Revolution" in Moldova, but who noticed?) Looking back, Twitter didn’t make much of a difference.

5. Iran's policies will not change, at least not radically. We can expect new, non-Ahmadinejad leaders to open a dialogue with America, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to strive for nuclear weapons. (To be fair, some in the media mentioned this at the time)

Why do people support revolutions? I think it is because people find them sexy, the idea of millions of people joining together to throw out the corrupt ruling powers. I saw it in college when fellow activists yearned for the revolutions and protests of the sixties; I see it now in the tea-partyers who hope to overthrow the liberal agenda in the name of John Galt.

But as we wrote earlier, revolutions are usually violent, ugly things. We can hope for changes in Iran, but we can't forget the cost of that revolution.

Dec 30

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A few weeks after we launched On Violence, Michael C and I were confronted with the Iranian election protests. Immediately we had to answer the question: Should we respond?

We didn’t respond for what we think was a good reason: nothing really happened.

Let me clarify the above statement. A lot happened. People were killed. The foundations of Iran’s electoral system were shaken to their core, and as Michael wrote on Monday, virtually every important foreign policy trend from the last ten years was represented in the revolution. What started on June 13 will impact Iran’s political system for years to come. (Confrontations continue between the protesters and the government.)

But in another way, nothing really happened. In terms of actual events, the whole thing can be covered in a couple paragraphs. On Wikipedia, as of today, that would be exactly eight paragraphs covering a period of six months. And in terms of regime change, well, absolutely nothing changed.

Yet the protests got wall to wall media coverage.

This isn’t the first time so much has been said about so little (see Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson for that in 2009) but this event is right up there. Daily coverage, twitter revolutions, high expectations; we all expected so much and got nothing for it. Bemoaning massive media coverage of events is pretty commonplace, but unlike trite media firestorms (again, Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson) this foreign policy issue affects the lives of millions.

Of course, I expected this at the time. That’s why I don’t regret not posting on it at the time. Not to toot our own horn, but this is why On Violence doesn’t “chase the news.” Our voice would have added to a cacophony that ultimately had nothing, in the end, to say.

Tomorrow, I will explain why this was actually a very bad thing.