Dec 07

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

Our larger mission here at On Violence is to answer, what is Violence? We titled our website "On Violence" because we study more than just Afghanistan, Iraq and the Global War on Terror; we discuss Violence at large, as a concept and force in our lives. In that vein, I want to discuss the philosophical implications of one form of Violence, genocide.

In my opinion, you can map all Violence on a continuum. Where you place violent actions on that continuum is not determined by the size, audacity or intentionality of the action, but by the perceived justice or injustice of the violent action. On one end of the continuum are Just violent actions: self-defense, defense of others, and protection of the greater good. On the other end are unjust actions: rape, murder of the elderly, the sick and children (murder of the helpless).

How far can we go on the unjust end? On the continuum of violence, what is the most unjust action possible? Is there any violent action that is always unacceptable?

Towards that end, we have today's topic: genocide. Is genocide ever acceptable?

As with all things, first we must define our terms. First, the dictionary definition: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Wikipedia goes further. They quote the United Nations Commission on Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

These two definitions show that, in a genocide, belonging to the group is the only reason why an individual is killed. Whether that group is defined by ethnicity, culture, or political and religious beliefs, membership in a group is the only justification for murder. Genocide is both deliberate and systematic, focused on the extermination of a particular people.

So we can say that yes, genocide is unjust. It is unjust because the reasons for it are so arbitrary; it is punishment without cause. The only possible reason for a genocide would be that the existence of one group threatens the survival of another. However, history does not bear this out. One group can threaten another, but genocide is a step too far. The majority of genocides occur when a powerful group wants to rid itself of a perceived outside group.

For example, the Nazis in WWII committed a textbook genocide. Though they argued that Jewish people, the disabled and the Romani threatened their existence, history makes this view look silly. In Rwanda, the fighting between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to their genocide again had its basis in irrational fear.

Should genocide always be off the table? Yes. I make this final leap because I fear others in the global affairs and national security world may forget this. America once forgot that torture is always off the table. America will always have the right to defend itself. Self-defense is an inalienable right. But Genocide is never self-defense, and never warranted.

(Philosophy Bites is a great short podcast for anyone interested in philosophy. The cast on genocide defines a broad form of genocide I don’t support. Still it is an interesting discussion.

Also, Dr. Randy Borum highlights some unique attempts to bring Genocide into the realm of criminology, something I generally support.)

Dec 04

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

“We’re carrying on our backs the overseas sins of generations of fighting American GIs--gang rapes in Vietnamese jungles, the same in Seoul and Pusan, pregnant Englishwoman abandoned after World War II, Japanese women raped and impregnated and abandoned during the occupation, thousands of French whores filled with syphilitic cocks while the Great War raged on.”
                    Page 92, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.

I open with this ugly passage because to make something clear from the very beginning: I do not think American soldiers are rapists. Anthony Swofford does.

Multiple passages across the book are written in a language offensive not just to feminists or liberals--I’m both--but to any person who respects women. Other passages openly encourage and endorse rape.

On pg. 7, Swofford writes about getting jacked up on Vietnam era war films to prepare for deployment, “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First F***.” This is not meant ironically or satirically. While the average person gets upset after watching war films, Swofford and his fellow marines, “are excited by them...”

Frustrated on pg. 17, Swofford writes about what he wishes he could tell a reporter, “Rape them all, kill them all, sell their oil, pillage their gold, sell their children into prostitution. I don’t care about the flag and God and Country and Corps. I don’t give a f*** about oil and revenue.” He doesn’t follow this by saying, “I was wrong then,” or “Boy, was I f***ed in the head prior to the war.”

Nope, Swofford lets these sentiments stand. He doesn’t take a stand or offer any analysis of the situation. If there is one benefit to writing a memoir, this is it, offering your opinion.

We’re left with two options at this point. First--and this is the problem with memoirs--this description isn’t true. I’d like to think that is the case. I believe this is true. Just this weekend, while watching a Band of Brothers marathon, I saw a soldier steal watches off dead Germans.

“That’s f***ed up.” I told my dad.

“Raping and pillaging. Armies have been doing it for years.” My dad said.

“Not our military.”

“Oh no, we’re one of the best. The American military is known for not doing that stuff.” my dad assured me, as he has assured me before. (Ironically, in light of my post two week’s ago, I’ll admit that the above exchange is almost entirely made up from memory.)

It may be naive, but I’d like to think this is true. I’d like to think Americans have a moral character that goes above and beyond, or at least we have a democratic culture that keeps these violent impulses in check. I’d like to believe that American soldiers don’t rape or, at the very least, rape less than other militaries. Even if our Military has had soldiers lapse in the past into moral ugliness and evil, it has never been on the scale of Rwanda or the congo.

Which brings us to the second option, that what Swofford describes is true, that our military is filled with rapists. Even if this is the case, as I said earlier, Swofford’s refusal to take a moral stand is offensive.

Nathaniel Fick (who we’ll get to in a couple weeks) neatly sums up the film and the book Jarhead in five words, “Not in my Marine Corps.” As an American, I have to agree.

Not in America’s Marine Corps.

Dec 03

Michael C here. Eric and I don't normally like to respond to news events as they happen. Other bloggers with more time and resources cover breaking news better than us. That said, President Obama's speech on Tuesday night defined the direction of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This strategy will effect our global standing, our military readiness, and the elections in 2010 and 2012.

With a speech this important, we must comment.

What did I think? I got the feeling that I was listening to a Presidential Operations Order (the Army term for the document commanders give to their subordinates to tell them what to do). This is both a good and bad thing. Like an OP Order, he covered all the necessary bases. But, like most OP Orders, his goals, methods and plan were vague. Saying we will repel the Taliban and Al Qaeda with more troops sounds good, but it doesn't say how we will accomplish the mission. Even worse, his solution to Afghanistan's corrupt government was almost non-existent. Fortunately, McChrystal has given clear guidance to the troops. Hopefully, the Afghanistan surge will execute this policy.

In the end, we must do something about Afghanistan. The president laid out a plan that seems like the only available option. We need to try to win, which we haven't for nearly eight years, and we need to stabilize the region. For now, this seems like the best plan available.

A few more things struck me about the speech:

First, I don't think Obama used the word "Bush" once, but it was the hole in the floor above the Rancor pit [this is a Star Wars reference]. Obama mentioned the events of 9/11, the start of the Afghanistan war, America's Iraq distraction, and finally the success of the surge--all without mentioning his predecessor. I understand why; it looks un-presidential to bash the man who came before you. However, the decisions of the Bush administration continue to haunt our foreign policy decisions more than many give him credit.

Second, he addressed the decision making process and the time it took. He said, correctly, that the earliest option to deploy troops was in 2010. I believe this because the fighting season starts in Afghanistan in March to April. He had time to ponder options and he took it. Rightfully so. It doesn't matter how soon troops get there between now and March so long as they get there by the fighting season.

Third, his rebuttals to the Vietnam criticisms, the counter-terrorist option, and setting a date for withdrawal were timely and persuasive. He won't convince everyone, but he gave himself enough room to act.

And finally, I saw several cadets nodding off during the speech. The corps of cadets at West Point almost never receives criticism, so here is some from me. When the President addresses your student body in a historic speech, don't fall asleep.

Eric C now. My main comment is that Afghanistan has become "Obama's War" even though he took it over eight years into it. Has this ever happened? Vietnam was always Johnson's war. President Obama is committing an additional 32,000 troops to Afghanistan to bring the total number to around 100,000, still smaller than Iraq before the surge.

That was Michael C, then Eric C, now here is the whole interweb (at least the global affairs portion) on Obama's Speech:

Dec 02

(The following post continues Michael C's review of David Kilcullen's "The Accidental Guerrilla." For those interested in our commentary on president's Obama's speech on Afghanistan, we will post our response on the troop surge tomorrow.)

I've always wondered why terrorists never attacked Rodeo Drive, the Mall of America or Saks Fifth Avenue. We're told terrorists hate our life style and our gaudy, unholy Western consumerism. But if that's the case, why haven't they blown up a Lexus dealership or a Tiffany's?

David Kilcullen answers this quandary in The Accidental Guerrilla. The majority of insurgents aren't terrorists, he argues, they are "accidental guerrillas." While there is a radical core of Islamic extremists around the world who hate America, the West, and Western culture, the majority of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan fight and kill Americans not out of rabid hatred of America but as a reaction to our presence in their country.

David Kilcullen doesn't doubt that Al Qaeda wants to destroy America. He doubts that every Muslim who fights American forces supports Al Qaeda. Then why do they fight us? They fight against the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia because they are accidental guerrillas; they seek to expel the forces they believe are foreign invaders. Al Qaeda infiltrates these local communities and radicalizes them.

This simple idea has radical consequences. For example, this theory unlocks the key to winning in our current counter-insurgency wars. We don’t need to kill hordes of terrorists, because hordes of terrorists don't exist. Labeling the enemy as a terrorist inhibits our operations because we misunderstand the threat. Instead, in actual insurgencies, we need to distinguish between ideologically opposed enemies and those whom we can influence. We did this in Iraq during the surge. It turned enemies into allies and those allies turned the tide.

The accidental guerrilla theory also shows the key difference between a target-centric approach to counter-insurgency and a population-centric approach. Killing more targets sounds easier than convincing a population to support their government. Indeed, labeling our enemies terrorists makes it easier to kill them. Calling someone an accidental guerrilla changes how we perceive them. Now they are a person to be persuaded, not a terrorist to be eliminated. True terrorists exist, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and need to be exterminated; but not every military age male is a terrorist.

It also makes our label the "Global War on Terror" irrelevant. Calling our struggle “the Global War on Terror” both defines a war against a method (foolish) and against an enemy who largely doesn’t exist. Thus, after 9/11 the many who signed up wanting to “kill terrorists” have a fundamentally flawed viewpoint and a futile road ahead of them. Dr. Killcullen recommends we develop a new lexicon to define our struggle; something I obviously agree with as evidenced by my multiple attempts to define this war.

Like all great global affairs theories, the "Accidental Guerrilla" theory changes how we perceive our world. Even better, it changes how we fight and win our wars. Let's hope it works in Afghanistan.

(Next week, we will have our conclusion to Michael C's review of "The Accidental Guerrilla.")

Nov 30

Eric and I are celebrating On Violence's 100th post today and, as we did in our fiftieth post, we are highlighting our best posts from the last four months. But before we get to that...

Thanks to everyone who voted for us for the 2009 Weblog Awards. We won't know if we get nominated until late December, so stay tuned...

Also, we want your feedback. We thrive on it. Email us, leave a comment, or tweet us. Tell us what articles you like, dislike, or what topics you enjoy most. (Leave comments below if you'd like.)

If you would like to follow us on twitter, RSS feed, or facebook, please click on the links in the sidebar. And please share On Violence articles with your friends via facebook, twitter, digg, or any other crazy social network. Most importantly, invite your friends to become fans of On Violence on facebook; this has been our most successful method of getting new readers.

So without further ado, the Top Ten On V Posts (chosen unscientifically and arranged chronologically):

1. Defining Contemporary War- The terms to describe our current conflicts are legion. Michael C cuts through it all to say what terms he likes, what terms he dislikes, and the term he think shall rule them all, political war.

2. The Fog of War - The first, but not last, post on Tim O'Brien's The Thing They Carried about trying to sort out the truth of war.

3. Degrees of War - A different take on today's Global War on Terror--comparing today's wars to the war to end all wars.

4. 15 Bullets by Matty P - Our first guest post, a brutal description of a different type of war.

5. Battle For Algiers - One film, Pontecorvo's The Battle for Algiers, is so good we had to write four posts on it. Read about racial profiling, torture, sympathy for the devil, and counter-insurgency warfare.

6. (Photo) Graphic Truths - Our post on perhaps the most famous war photo of all time, and what it says about photography.

7. Violence in Context - Our most commented post of all time, the beginning of our analysis of Violence as a concept.

8. Powerpoint is not a Children's Storybook - The first of many posts on management, a skill the Army sorely lacks.

9. A Tale of Two MEDCAPs Parts 1 and 2 - These two posts describe the most meaningful thing we can do in Afghanistan, and how to do it right.

10. What did you do out there? Did you accomplish anything out there? - Two personal experience essays that connected with our audience.

11. Finally, On Violence's thoughts on Afghanistan - Though we don't like to chase the news, we wanted to comment on the war in Afghanistan. We posted on why we don't make predictions, the problem with failed states, adding fuel to the mujhadeen fire, Karzai and Pakistan.

Nov 27

Today is Black Friday, and that means the beginning of the holiday shopping bonanza. Since you probably need gift ideas for loved ones interested in military affairs, foreign policy, counter-insurgency and art, we present the On Violence Gift Recommendations:

Michael C: Recommendations for books on terrorism, Islamic thought and warfare.

The Accidental Guerrilla - This should come as no surprise if you have read my review on how much I love this book.

The Crisis of Islam - A little gem recommended by my last Battalion Commander, this book puts almost all of Islam into context. It also does a great job showing how takfiri jihadism developed in Islam; and how much of a heresy that philosophy is to their faith.

The Sling and the Stone - As I wrote when I defined contemporary warfare, the Fourth Generation of Warfare is upon us. This book defines that term superbly.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree - Thomas Friedman's first book reads a little dated, but it had more international relations and defined the forces of globalization better than his follow up, The World is Flat, in my opinion. Either book should be required reading in global affairs though.

The Art of Maneuver Warfare - The oldest and probably least familiar book on my list, I read this gem in college and found it amazingly applicable. Robert Leonhard's grasp of maneuver warfare and his ability to explain its concepts are unmatched. Not just applicable to our current fights, but to warfare in general.

The Economist - Not a book, but the best weekly reporting in news journalism.

Michael C's Christmas List (the books I haven't read but hope to get from Santa):

Where Men Win Glory, the new book by Jon Krakauer, took it on the chin from both Dexter Filkins and Andrew Exum, but I loved Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, so I am compelled to read it. Dexter Filkens does some of the best reporting on Afghanistan and The Forever War (not to be confused with the fantastic military sci-fi novel) is his take on the current conflict. Finally, One Nation Under Contract takes on a topic near and dear to the hearts of On Violence and it seems to be the most level-headed approach to wartime and government contracting to date.

Eric C: The Foreign Affairs Movies You Need to Own

Movies on foreign affairs are unfortunately few and far between--it's no ones fault, but portraying the interplay of nation-states is, well, tough. Fortunately after trolling through three lists of films on foreign affairs, I've come up with the five movies you must see about the world of international relations.

The Battle for Algiers - If our posts here, here, here and here didn't convince you, nothing will. The Battle for Algiers is the single greatest film on counter-insurgency--or political warfare.

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - One of my top three films of all time, a classic on nuclear arms, the cold war and foreign policy.

Casablanca - Seriously, one of the greatest films of all time.

Syriana - So good. So good. Please watch this film twice. If you think it is confusing, email me and I'll explain the subtext of each scene.

Lawrence of Arabia - Another classic film that has more to say on war, leadership, counter-insurgency, the Middle East and colonialism than perhaps any other work of art.

Eric C's Christmas list (the films I haven't seen but want to): The Quiet American (2002) (I also need to read the novel by Graham Greene), Charlie Wilson's War, and Waltz with Bashir (MC's seen it and loved it. Technically a war film, but I still included it.)

Nov 25

No post today because of the Holidays. Happy Thanksgiving to all On Violence followers! Check back in on Black Friday for On Violence's recommendations for Christmas and Holiday presents.

Nov 23

Cliched, I know. Writing a "what are you thankful for" post on Thanksgiving. Yet we're all thankful for something.  I am thankful for the bond I formed with my men.

I could be thankful that I brought all my men home. And I am thankful that I did. (A week before I joined my platoon, we had a soldier lose his legs. I later met the soldier, and based on the recollections of his comrades in the platoon and my experience, he is a tremendous individual.) Still, that is not what I am most grateful for.

For me, I am thankful to have known and led as many great guys as I did.

Read any war memoir, novel or history book, and the author inevitably describes the unbreakable bonds formed between men who fight. I first heard about this in a class on the Civil War at UCLA. Then I heard it repeated in every speech I ever heard from an officer. I had heard it so much before I deployed, I almost didn't think it could be true.

But it was.

You see movies like Platoon or Saving Private Ryan--or even action films with sci-fi Marines like Aliens--and you wonder, could a platoon of guys ever really match that? Tim O’Brien (who Eric C posted about here) created an entire cast of characters with intense bonds in both The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone. Could reality ever match fiction?

It can and it does. We had the medic equivalent of Spicoli, we had a Southern Medic with a regrettable tattoo, we had guys from all over America but still everyone from California segregated into one truck, we had a mouthy guy from Vegas, we had a platoon sergeant who could put the fear of God into young soldiers (and platoon leaders), we had guys who were ostracized, guys who trashed on each other, guys playing cards, NCOs who yelled “who the f*** said that?”, NCOs known for the size of their arms and quick tempers. We had it all.

I am thankful to have been there with those guys. It is so cliched, it is beyond cliched. Yet the bonds soldiers make isn't make believe, it is what happens. I still can’t believe it.