Mar 29

After President John F. Kennedy read the novel The Ugly American, inspiration struck, and he decided to have every senior State Department official, and every single American military officer, read the book.

Unfortunately, he never gave the order, because he didn't believe the officials and officers would actually read the book. (This story is one of legend, otherwise we would link to it.) Fortunately, The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, hasn't gone away.

It is as relevant today as it was when it was first printed, before the Vietnam war (which it predicted). The Ugly American captures the essence of unconventional warfare in fiction. Or, in On Violence terms, it describes political war; it should still be read by all American military officers.

The authors originally set out to write a series of non-fiction accounts of State Department officials in southeast Asia based off their personal experience in the region. As they developed their stories, they realized that only fiction could capture the zany reality they saw. So they created a southeast Asian nation, Sarkhan, and the diplomats, politicians, and military officers stationed there. The Ugly American is a series of interconnected short stories about Americans trying to influence Sarkhan while both communists and capitalists try to consolidate power.

This struggle is not a war between nation states, but the struggle of competing ideas. The book's struggle of ideas--capitalism versus communism-- mirrors today's battle between extreme Islam and Western democracy. Unlike state war, the political war in The Ugly American follows different rules.

As a Philippino diplomat describes it on page 109, “I know that you’re a diplomat and that warfare is not supposed to be your game; but you’ll discover soon enough out here that statesmanship, diplomacy, economics, and warfare just can’t be separated from one another.” The intersection of diplomacy, economics and warfare might as well be ripped from General Petraeus’ Field Manual on counter-insurgency.

And while the book as a whole capture the interconnectedness of warfare, the individual stories themselves shine. They tell the stories of ambassadors--good and bad, American, Russian and Asian-- military leaders, politicians, and most importantly “ugly Americans.” The best part of the novel is that the "ugly American" of the title is the most influential in Sarkhan.

His name is Homer Atkins. He provides only simple engineering insight, but does so in a way that the native Sarkhanese adopt the ideas wholeheartedly. Homer Atkins doesn’t care about living lavishly, he learns the local language, and he genuinely cares about the people of Sarkhan, not just the threats against America.

In another story, we hear about an Air Force Colonel named Hillendale, probably an intelligence officer, who manages to influence massive numbers of Sarkhanese without really trying. He sings songs, reads palms, and eats food with them. (He also knows the language, a point that occurs over and over. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and last summer.) Most importantly, he uses hardly any money while he influences people.

The lessons of Homer Atkins and Colonel Hillendale are just two of many. The most important lesson, and why all current and future military officers should read this novel, is because it persuasively describes political war. (Also, while I have been insanely positive in today's post, on Wednesday I will provide some of the downsides of this thoroughly enjoyable novel.)

And if he hasn't read The Ugly American, I would advise President Barack Obama to read it too. Hopefully he finishes the job President Kennedy started, making all military officers and State Department officials read this novel. (Although, I bet 90% of officers wouldn’t even if the president told them to.)

Mar 26

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

When I first started this “war memoirs project," I wrote a quick litmus test of things that, if the memoirist were being totally honest about war, they would include in the memoir. I want to read war memoirs (and literature as a whole) that include the things that haunt the writer when they go to sleep.

At the top of that list I wrote “killing dogs.” By extension, I meant all animals. Of the many things war destroys, one of the most evocative and symbolically powerful is the deliberate or unintended deaths of dogs.

If you're human, you’ve probably already had a negative reaction. Andy Rooney, in his memoir My War, describes it perfectly: “I knew as I was thinking how sad animals were in war, that it was a misplaced emotion for me to have with human beings dying in every way on every side, but nonetheless I kept feeling bad about unmilked cows, homeless horses, abandoned dogs...most of them got no help from humans concerned mostly with staying alive themselves.”

This is a powerful image, a war-zone filled with bloated horse carcasses eaten by homeless dogs. But like all war, the ugly is balanced (but not overcome) by the beautiful. Soldiers raised in rural areas try to milk the cows when they can, and “every wandering dog was adopted and fed by some GI.” Soldiers love dogs, and as we wrote last week on The Best Defense, many platoons and companies in Afghanistan or Iraq have, at some point, had a company or platoon pet.

So the best writers know to use dogs in their stories. This is why the single best image from the recent war memoirs is of a horse, running wild in the Shahi-kot valley, miraculously surviving bomb blasts for days on end in The War I Always Wanted.

It’s why the best scene in Jarhead involves the pre-war shooting of a Bedouin camel.

It’s why Nathaniel Fick doesn’t mention dogs in his memoir, but in Generation Kill a Sergeant has to tell his Marines they won’t be shooting any dogs.

It’s why the medic Rat Kiley shoots and tortures a baby water buffalo after a land mine kills his friend Curtis Lemon.

It’s why Lone Survivor, The Unforgiving Minute, and One Bullet Away all feel like they are missing something from their accounts of war.

In this post I don’t have room to explain why the death of animals evokes the deepest of emotions. But let it suffice to say it matters, and the best reporters, writers, and memoirists write about the animals in war.

Mar 25

Quick heads up:

Eric C just had two guest posts published this week. The first is over at Chris C's site the Predigested Opinion Spigot titled, "What It Means To Be Anti-War."

Eric C also had a post titled, "8 Way To Guest Post Your Way To Twitter Dominance" over on Twitip.

Check them out.

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.