Jul 29

(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.)

I recently re-listened to the song “Believe” by Yellowcard. A friend was with me, and she made an off-hand comment about how heroic firefighter are. The comment bothered me a little. Her sentiment, while a nice gesture to public servants, is ultimately belittling.

Something unfortunate happened after 9/11: the use of the word hero became synonymous with certain job professions. All firefighters are considered heroes. All soldiers are heroes. All police officers are heroes. And so on.

As an EMT, I have had the privilege of working closely with fire and police personnel. What they, and what we, do is often hard work. In most area, fire engines and vans respond to emergency medical calls. If it’s someone with emotional problems or an assault, we’ll see police there too. On a traffic collision, the highway patrol is called to make the area safe while we work and they stay long after we leave with the patient. Not to mention dispatchers, maintenance workers, security personnel, doctors, nurses, techs, etc. Working these jobs can mean exhausting days and sleepless nights. 

However, these things are part of the job description; it's the job they signed up for. A firefighter, an EMT, or a police officer doing his job does not make him or her a hero. It earns him or her the amount which they are paid (granted EMT's and law enforcement personnel are drastically underpaid, but firefighters make excellent money). To be a hero, one must go above and beyond the call of duty. Go beyond what is expected of them. 

We’ve all heard the accounts of survivors of the twin towers. As men and women escaped down the staircases, firefighters ran up them, never to come back down. As Yellowcard says in the song, "Climbing higher through the fire/Time was running out/Never knowing you weren't going to be coming down alive" That is damn heroic. Those firefighters are no fools, they knew with jet fuel burning in those towers, their lives were in constant danger. Soldiers who travel to combat zones, travel along IED filled roadways, remain in spite of minor wounds, and go home with major ones. Those Soldiers are heroes.

Now contrast that with firefighters who work during fire season then go on unemployment for the rest of the year. Soldiers who never see combat tours. Police officers who don’t patrol the streets. Comparatively, these people are not heroes. Yes, they are good and perform necessary public services. But a uniform does not make a person a hero. An occupation does not make a hero. And calling men and women heroes that haven’t earned it belittles the contributions of those who fought, bled, risked their lives, and died to be called such.

(Longtime reader Will M. found this recent Op-ed post by William J. Astore on the same theme. Check it out.)

Jul 26

One of the weirdest things about going overseas for the first time was discovering different architecture. I was so used to American architecture that you almost forget other building style existed.

So this is the flavor of Afghanistan. Gotta love blue trim and faux bricks. These were taken in “downtown” Serkani, next to the district center.

Jul 26

Last week The Washington Post unleashed a two-year investigative report about the rapid, largely unsupervised expansion of the American intelligence community. After spending a few hours browsing the site they created, I decided that I didn’t want to just tweet this article.

I wanted to link to it on our blogroll.

Top Secret America goes beyond just good reporting, it is also a resource--one that can be browsed for hours. In addition to a series of three articles, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have catalogued the scope of America’s Top Secret security clearance community, mapping and listing the companies and agencies that make up our intelligence services.

This interactive website that is more comprehensive then anything the government has. I have a feeling top intelligence officials were learning plenty from reading this article, not to mention the greater public and politicians. This will be the go-to resource for intel officials who want to know about the entire apparatus.

Just think about what this website and series of articles means for our intelligence system. What does it mean that I, a military intelligence professional engaged in intelligence work every day, have spent hours looking at this site? What does it say about our intelligence branch when two reporters probably written a report with more accurate, insightful, comprehensive and effective information then anything by the intelligence community?

And the two reporters did it with mostly publicly available information. All this stuff is already out there, they just compiled it in a meaningful and analytic way; the way intelligence people are supposed to do with their work. (For example, much of their information is in Jeffrey Richelson’s The U.S. Intelligence Community, that covers much of the same ground.)

More than anything else, Top Secret America shows the lack of comprehensive oversight and planning of our national intelligence community. It also shows the unhealthy reliance on contractors at every level. Plain and simple, this is an article people interested in intelligence and national security should read from front to back, and hopefully politicians do too. Hopefully we’ll have more on it in the future, we know we’ll be using it as a resource.

(To learn more, check out these On The Media and Talk of the Nation interviews with the writers.)

Jul 21

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

Thomas Ricks recently brought up a great point: a lot of war memoirs have terrible titles.

Now I love titles. I love coming up with fake titles for hypothetical bands, albums, blogs and novels. So when I started reading post-9/11 war memoirs, their (sub par) titles were one of the first things I noticed. Most are either bland (War, My War, War and Decision), boring (Wiser in Battle, My Year in Iraq, One Man's Army, Good Soldiers), or over-the-top (Warrior King, Lone Survivor, Seal of Honor). And they tend to have really long and really hyperbolic subtitles, like "A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood," or "The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10." 

Since TR brought up this issue, and since I've been thinking about it, this week, and next, I’m covering war memoirs titles. Which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t, and why. To research, I found the forty most popular titles I could, and began blasting them apart. But to show I'm not entirely negative, I'll cover what I liked first. In no particular order, my...

5 Favorite War Memoir Titles

Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher - Now that's how you write a title/subtitle combo. Boom. I'd read this book. (And will when I have time.)

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer - Krakauer uses the always-effective "quote the classics in the title" formula, and uses it perfectly (though I wouldn't describe Tillman's story as an odyssey, that's a minor quibble). This title is philosophical, heroic and tragic, all in 4 short words. Might be the best.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So
by Anthony Lloyd- Haven't read this yet, but this title makes want to. Since that's really a title's only job, it has to be considered a success.

by Michael Herr- Short, evocative, perfect.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq
by John Crawford- At sixteen words, it's a little long, but what can I say? The title and subtitle work well together. The title intrigues, and the sub-title describes without giving away too much. Plus it shows an awareness of the central problem with memoirs: honesty.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - This isn't a memoir, but it's the only book that I know of that has its thesis in the title. And that cracks me up.

...And 4 More Almost Great Ones

Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army
by Kayla Williams - I love the title--it's probably the best I've read--but the subtitle is redundant.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien- Michael says I'm biased because so many books I liked ended up on this list. I'm not. Good follows good. Most classics have classic titles, because good writers know how to write good titles; it's the same skill set. And The Things They Carried is a classic title. (Though it violates one of my personal, esoteric title pet peeves: including the name of a story or song track in the title of an album or short story/essay collection.)

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
by Colby Buzzell - This subtitle should have been the title. And seriously Buzzell, google your title before you send it to the printers. Rooney's book came out years before yours.

The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War
by Brandon Friedman- Again, I love the title but hate the redundant subtitle.

Jul 21

(With Michael C deploying to Iraq, he decided it’s time to show some of the best pics his tour in Afghanistan. This week is our first.)

On my first deployment, I went through Kuwait. They have this concrete barrier in the middle of the camp. I love it because 18th HRC (which I believe stands for Human Resources Company, but I might have to look this up) painted this mural. Where are they air assaulting to? What are they the “reapers” of? Leave forms?

At least they have an inside joke about cowbells.

Update from Kuwait: I just flew through, the mural is still there but I didn’t have a chance to snap a no photo of it.

Jul 19

By the time you read this, I, Michael C, will have arrived in Iraq, a Middle Eastern nation America has apparently been mired in conflict with/for the last seven or so years. (One of my friends from the MICCC assures me I will be greeted as a liberator.)

So how will this change On Violence?

In the long run, it will benefit our little blog by inspiring me with tons of new ideas, and giving me a perspective on a country that I have read about, but have never been to.

More immediately, I’ll be slowing down our posting schedule until I figure out exactly how busy I will be downrange. Eric C and I have posted pretty regularly for our first year, and we want to continue that as much as possible. To ease the burden, I am going to start debuting some photos with captions from my last deployment.

Last deployment, my brother and a good friend set up a website to host updates from my last deployment; this time I will use On Violence. Friends and family can write personal notes in the comment sections of my regular updates.

As for original content, this is probably the least intuitive change we are making. Most milbloggers post about life downrange and their daily goings-on. Unfortunately, the people I will be working with (read: Special) and the field I will be working in (read: Military Intelligence) are the least open to the publicity of milblogging. The Special people call themselves “quiet professionals” for a reason, and Military Intelligence people classify almost every document they read.

But I will be able to provide insight into how Iraq looks like at the end. Also, my deployment won’t be for a full year, so expect me back stateside in not too long.

Again thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for all the support I know I will receive.

Jul 17

During the opening of One Bullet Away, a Captain explains to Nathaniel Fick the nature of Marine combat:

"Your mindset's all wrong! No good tactical plan grows from a timid mindset...Execute every mission with speed, surprise and violence of action.

"He explained that Americans, especially young American men, exhibit posturing behavior. Two guys in a bar bump chests, get up in each other’s faces, and yell. If a fight follows, it’s about honor, saving face. That’s posturing. Marines on the battlefield must exhibit predatory behavior. In that bar, a predator would smile politely at his opponent, wait for him to turn around, and then cave in the back of his skull with a bar stool."
            -- One Bullet Away, pg. 49

Tactically, the original principle makes sense: move quickly, and destroy your opponent as efficiently as possible. But the example doesn’t illustrate that principle, it illustrates another: attack first, deceive, and use disproportionate force. This second principle is morally dubious.

We've explained why disproportionate violence doesn't work, morally or tactically, here at On Violence and on a guest-post for Permissible Arms. But twenty minutes after I first read this story, it hit me on a more visceral level. I remembered the death of a friend.

Two assailants, one an ex-soldier, stabbed my friend, a bouncer, and he bled to death waiting for an ambulance. The story is almost the exact same, but with a knife instead of a bar stool.

Death is real. I’m losing my tolerance for hyperbole like “cave his head in.” That is someone’s head. It seems like a cute euphemism, until you think about it. We take Violence for granted. Take the Marine Captain in the beginning. He was training Fick in the pre-9/11 Marine Corp; most likely he'd never seen combat. For him, Violence is something abstract, not a real world phenomena.

The worst part of this is that pre-9/11 training like is exactly what we didn't need for the complex counter-insurgency wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll never win a counter-insurgency war with this mind-set.

And at least one soldier took his training back with him into the civilian world.

Jul 15

DC comic's recent mega-event, The Sinestro Corp Wars, caught my attention. This fictional war spawned a massive change in the ethos of the Green Lantern characters and, more importantly, a missed opportunity. 

The Green Lanterns are an intergalactic peace keeping force. It's like NATO, but with power rings that allow the wearer to fly across space and battle enemies. (It's a comic book universe, so go with for a second.) And because it's a comic book there are rules. Actually, it's a law. It's the Green Lantern Corps' primary law and limitation. The Green Lanterns don't kill. In fact, they can't. They incapacitate, disable, or capture but they do not kill; their ring won't allow it.

It's not necessarily a limitation, but a statement of purpose, a differentiation from the rest of the universe and a demonstration of purity. They are an intergalactic peace keeping force, not an army. The laws dictated that a Green Lantern could not take the life of an enemy. The wearer of the ring was called to be higher; to be better than the villain.  The Green Lantern is a keeper of the peace, not a taker of life. 

As is common in the comic universe, a great arch-enemy returns to wreak his vengeance upon the Green Lantern Corps. Sinestro, one of the corps' former best, rallied the worst the universe had to offer, creating his own pseudo-corps in his bid for revenge. And he was winning. The Lanterns were dying.

So those who controlled Green Lanterns (an ancient race called the Oans) changed the laws. Now they could kill. And kill they did. The Green Lantern Corps began to beat back Sinestro and his army. Where once they could only disable, they left bodies in their wake.

I don't have a problem story arc and the return of a familiar villain. Nor do I have a problem with the war or the Corp pushed to the point of losing multiple lanterns. Surprisingly enough, my problem doesn't arise from the authorization for the Green Lanterns to kill. Rather, my protest is with how quickly this new ability is taken for granted. Suddenly heroes are authorized to take life and there is no conflict.

There was an opportunity in this moment; the moment the heroes realize they can do what they dared not before. There was an opportunity for the writers to depict a conflict, a deeper philosophical question, that was missed. That question is whether a hero should kill and when. And the writer's missed it.