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.

Dec 28

In 2009, Americans continued to die in Afghanistan, Darfur continued to win the hearts of liberals, Somali pirates--and by extension the country--got some headlines for a week or so, and Iraq became more precarious, but we think the most informative foreign policy event of last year was the almost revolution in Iran over their controversial election. If you needed to study one international event this year, it should be Iran.

Iran's election wasn't the only corrupt election this year, and the revolution that followed it didn't really change anything. But what event combined more forces--globalization, asymmetric warfare, revolution in the classical sense, and the civil war within Islam--into a larger conflict in the last year? More importantly, I consider the almost revolution a subversive example of "political war". The violence of the protesters and the government forces in the end only reinforced the status quo, but it was still a struggle of one group using violence to further its aims.

First, this is a perfect example of revolution in flat world. Other conflicts have occurred since Thomas Friedman first advanced his theory in The World is Flat, but none quite like this. In a state desperately trying to exercise control over the media--kicking out journalists, banning demonstrations--Twitter, Facebook, and cellphones broadcast the revolution to the world. Their revolution failed--we don’t doubt that--but this is the first sign of things to come.

Second, it was an asymmetric fight. Like America's current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the weak struggled against the powerful. In this case, the former were the green protesters and the latter was the state apparatus of Ayatollah Khameini.

Above all, the Green Revolution shows us that Islam is still fighting for its soul and future. Secularism, fundamental Islam, the role of Islam in society, Westernism, the Great Satans (Great Britain and America)--every issue confronting Islamic culture today was present in Iran's almost revolution. The same motivation that pushes Al Qaeda to fight the West pushed Ayatollah Khameini to prematurely declare the election over.

Before I leave, I have to address the two forgotten elephants in the room. The war in Afghanistan made the most news at the end of the year with President Obama’s announcement, but the event wasn't news. Afghanistan was going south when I was there in 2008; 2009 merely continued the trend downward. Iraq is sliding towards sustainable peace, but that occurred after the surge in 2007. Thus, while important conflicts, they are not the story of this year.

More than anything, the Iranian Election saga brought together the things that represent On Violence: the theories of the Accidental Guerrilla (the most important book of the last year), the power of Political War (my most important theory of the last year) and the power of bloggers (something we aspire to here at On Violence).

(The rest of "On V's Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011" continues in:

- "So What Really Happened?: Hype, Foreign Policy and the Media in 2009"

- "Five Things We Lost in the Hype"

- "Fact and Fiction: Writing, Predictions and Neda")

Dec 23

(Happy Holidays! On Violence will leave you with this post until Monday, when we begin our discussion on the most informative foreign policy event of the year. For last minute shopping tips, check out the On Violence Christmas Recommendations.)

Before I deployed to Afghanistan, I feared death. But the first time I truly felt afraid was while watching Black Hawk Down.

I first watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in high school and, like everyone else who was in the movie’s target demographic, I loved it. Filled with violence, heavy weapons and wartime glory, Scott made the perfect war film for young males. True, many young American tragically die throughout the film, but interspersed between the deaths are feats of heroism performed by Rangers and Delta Force, like when William Fichtner throws a grenade through a window like a hundred yards away to blow up a sniper position.

So Black Hawk Down joined my DVD collection. I watched this film all the time in college, sometimes with fraternity brothers, other times with co-eds (Josh Hartnett helped in this regard). Great sound and special effects, based on a terrific book, well directed and shot, what’s not to like?

After my first year at UCLA, I joined the Army ROTC. In the spring, we did our yearly training exercises at a training area near Monterey. I fired my M4 at ranges and participated in squad combat drills with blank rounds. I spent a summer at Cadet Command’s Warrior Forge training for two weeks in squad, section and platoon operations. The sound of an M4 firing became embedded in my head. The sound became real for me.

During my senior year at UCLA,, we received our branch assignments. I would branch into the Infantry, something I both wanted and feared, because I wanted to be a real soldier but I was afraid of dying. I made peace with the fact that I would deploy to Iraq. Deploying became real to me.

A few weeks after receiving our branches, I rewatched Black Hawk Down. All of a sudden, the sounds of an M4 firing were not detached movie sounds. They were real. The deaths of the soldiers were no longer an intellectual fact I simply knew; it was an emotional fact I understood. The soldiers became real; the emotions became my own. I realized I was watching real soldiers who died.

The deaths were real, something that could happen to me.

Suddenly, I was afraid.

Dec 21

Because of their shared Pashtun tribal regions, our fight with Islamic extremism in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan. Yet, America takes completely different approaches to these two battlefields.  In Afghanistan, America conducts a holistic counter-insurgency campaign using policing, humanitarian aid and nation building to discredit the Afghanistan Taliban. In Pakistan, America conducts a purely counter-terrorist approach, using only drone strikes to kill the Pakistan Taliban.

Two different approaches to two similar problems: which approach works better?

Apparently, neither. While I have discussed Afghanistan before and our struggles with counter-insurgency there, Pakistan worries me more. We cannot kill our way out of this problem. Trying to do so yields an unsurprising result: Pakistanis hate us. Specifically, they hate drone strikes, which symbolize American cowardice in their eyes.

On Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in October, she learned the extent of Pakistani disdain for America. On many of her stops, she was harshly criticized for American drone strikes. Pakistanis compared the attacks to terrorism; one described them as daily “9/11s.” She defended the strikes as a necessary part of war.

Perhaps they are necessary to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Common wisdom says that drone strikes have been overwhelmingly successful; we have minimal casualties with maximum lethality. Since the US military can't put ground troops into Pakistan, drones provide an effective way to target Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.

But relying on unmanned aerial vehicles means relying on a strategy of pure firepower. This strategy gives no governmental assistance to the affected region, puts no maneuver forces on the ground (except for the occasional Pakistan military operation; I will have a later post on my thoughts on them), and distributes no information to explain our actions. This strategy relies on the barest of information to accomplish the mission--mostly signal intelligence with little human intelligence. Such a limited counter-terrorist approach alienates the local population and actually strengthens the Taliban.

We shouldn't be surprised at the reaction of Pakistanis either. 9/11 radically changed America in the name of safety and freedom. The death of three thousand Americans motivated the US to create a new cabinet position, to start a new cabinet department with hundreds of thousands of employees, to pass the most invasive security billed ever, and launch two wars. Pakistan has been repeatedly plummeted with both drone strikes and Islamic terrorism; of course they will feel angry.

The situation in Pakistan should show America the limits to relying on a pure counter-terrorism, technological approach in Afghanistan. Currently, in Afghanistan we have maneuver forces, ground intelligence, fire power from several sources, civil reconstruction teams, PSYOPs people, special forces groups, information operations personnel, humanitarian organizations, and a whole host of people helping fight a counter-insurgency. Firepower without maneuver or counter-insurgency forces will only breed more terrorism.

Dec 18

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

More a series of short stories than a novel, The Things They Carried chronicles the life of a platoon in Vietnam, detailing their emotions, their dark  humor, and their deaths. Jumping in time from Vietnam to the present like a realistic Slaughterhouse-Five, an old soldier named Tim O’Brien narrates his tales; parts are true and parts are untrue. Parts are depressingly sad, and parts are beautiful. In short, it is the quintessential war memoir.

And unlike other classics--which are too damn long (Moby Dick), impenetrable (Ulysses), or French (Remembrance of Things Past)--I’d recommend this book to anyone. (Most people who write sentences like the previous one usually come off as crazed enthusiasts peddling religious tracts a la Atlas Shrugged, Battlefield Earth or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not a fanatic, at least I hope I'm not.)

What is important is not that the book is excellent, but why it is excellent. Put another way, why is O’Brien’s The Things They Carried so much better than the current crop of post 9/11 war memoirs which I clearly hold in low esteem?

1. Well, it's not really a memoir - The Things They Carried is a memoir, but on the front page O’Brien labels the book, “a work of fiction.” By fictionalizing his experience, O’Brien gains the freedom to describe how he felt instead of what actually happened. He understands the difference between "what happened from what seemed to happen."

In a speech, O'Brien explains why he fictionalized his story of his summer before he went off to war, “If I were to tell you the literal truth of what happened to me in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight, all I could tell you was that I played golf, and I worried about getting drafted. But that's a crappy story. Isn't it? It doesn't - it doesn't open any door to what I was feeling in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight.”

2. He doesn’t hold grudges - Nathaniel Ficks hates the Captain he serves under, Anthony Swofford despises everyone who isn’t a Marine, Clint Van Winkle hates the war protesters he comes home to, and Craig Mullaney fights with his Major. At times, these books read like childish vendettas against people who had wronged the authors.

A famous author once told me say he didn’t like a fellow writer because she, “didn’t love her characters.” O’Brien loves everyone of his characters, from the crazy medic who loses it to the nervous medic who causes O’Brien's butt to literally start rotting. O’Brien loves every character in the book, including the Vietnamese boy he kills.

3. The book feels honest - Going into this memoir project, I had a litmus test of certain things a writer, if they are being intellectually honest, would include in their books.  O'Brien nailed one of those on the head: killing animals. Specifically, killing puppies. Sure enough, a fellow soldier Azar blows up a puppy strapped to a land mine. O'Brien didn't shy away from the ugly truth. (One war memoir I read, The War I Always Wanted, has a fantastic description of a horse in the middle Operation Anaconda.)

O'Brien's book also feels factually accurate. Save the story "Love Song of Song Tra Bong," everything feels like it could have happened, and nothing is over the top.

4. It isn't political - The Things They Carried doesn't discuss why America went to war, which is shocking compared to how political most discussions of Vietnam, then and now. Most of the war memoirs I've read so far have done a good job of ignoring this as well, but politics seep in from time to time.

The authors feel a need to explain why they went to war (9/11), and why it is ok to kill another person. O'Brien explains why he went to war. He was too scared and ashamed not to.

5. It isn't macho - I get it. Recon marines are amazing. And so are Navy Seals. And Army Rangers. O'Brien doesn't waste time trying to impress us.

In the future, probably to wrap up this series, I'll write a post on what to do and what not to when writing a war memoir.