Apr 27

In the past few weeks, we’ve finished or started finishing up a few long-running topics that, unless a new story breaks, we’re done writing about including: debunking Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy and our work on Lone Survivor and American Sniper. (We’re figuring out where we’re placing a final outside piece of writing on this topic and then we’ll have a few last posts on the topic.)

That leaves us room to expand on some of our other favorite bailiwicks. We’ve decided to devote this week to our favorite topic, (the raison d’etre for this blog if you will):

The world is getting safer! And better!

To this end, we’re devoting the next two weeks to this topic (and a number of other posts as well later this month). We’re going to provide two On V updates to “The End of War”, again filling in this “debate” with all the statistical evidence. (With graphs!) Then, we’re going try to explain why, in Michael C’s opinion, liberalism in foreign policy continues to make the world a safer place, but still doesn’t get any credit.

Unlike our recently discarded topics, we’re going to keep writing about the world getting safer, even once we finish this series.

But, why? Why keep harping-on/retreading/re-discussing this topic?

First, the vast majority of people still don’t know this fact.

In terms of the gap between what people believe versus reality, I would argue that "the world is getting safer" tops the list. Anecdotally, I have to explain it to people all the time.

And this isn’t an issue for just uneducated people. Jad Abumrad co-created Radiolab, one of the most popular radio programs/podcasts on science. Yet, he had a crossover episode with On The Media on nihilism, arguing that present day nihilism is a reflection on the sorry state of the world today. He didn’t realize that the media (which he liberally quoted in that piece) emphasizes statistically rare events.

More importantly, he's even interviewed On V fav John Horgan before, which turned us onto this entire topic!

Second, even if you learn this fact, many people don’t want to believe it.

People, it seems, just want to think the world is a terrible place. I recently researched and read the various rebuttals to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature--I’m open-minded, so I wanted to see if I was missing something--and the counter-arguments some thinkers make to rebut Pinker are down right silly. And illogical.

For example, if you debunk Pinker’s the-world-is-getting-safer thesis by citing one example of violence in the world, that’s an anecdotal fallacy. But people also misuse statistics, move the goal posts, or “debunk” one part of Pinker’s thesis but ignore others. Why would otherwise intelligent people deny this reality? They don’t want to believe it, a response more emotional than rational.

Third, we keep finding more evidence.

We keep finding and collecting links on how the world is getting better. Over the next two days, we’ve got two “On V Updates to Old Ideas” sharing links about how the world is getting safer (and better, in general). In some ways, these links prove the case in the simplest, most definitive way possible. (Just look at the graphs!)

Fourth, we need to cover this because most pundits/journalists/media sites don’t.

To paraphrase Steven Pinker, newspapers and websites don’t run news stories on all the countries that aren’t at war. Not unexpectedly, after the GermanWings airliner crashed, it took over the news, but all the car accidents around the U.S. didn’t. Even the coverage on the nuclear deal with Iran focused more on a possible war than the actual deal.

Fifth, we want to focus on good news.

For a website named On Violence, we don’t want to only write about what’s gone disastrously wrong. (Like the people in the previous paragraph.) Yes, we hate drone strikes (coming soon), possible wars with Iran, NSA snooping, police violence, innocent people on death row, overcrowded prisons and so on. So we have a blog to write about these things.

We shouldn’t lose focus: good news comes out all the time. It’s just not sexy.

Besides harping on the statistical rarity of terrorism--you, an American, are more likely to win the lottery than die (or suffer injuries) from a terror attack--our other favorite bit of optimism comes from the decreasing risk of war. Yes, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan have simmering civil wars. Yes, Israel and Palestine have not come to any agreement. Russia still controls Crimea. And yes, Iraq is in a civil war. But the pace of interstate wars is at historic lows. So are internal civil wars. And the rate keeps going down. (One could also argue that if the developed world/rapidly developing world focused more on peacekeeping and preventing dictatorships, this could go down even faster.)

Sixth, this affects our nation’s willingness to go to war.

Many neo-conservatives, and especially those in the military establishment, believe the world is a “dangerous place” and use this argument to go to war. Or expand funding to fight terrorism. The world is, comparatively, not a dangerous place. It weakens that particular argument.

Counter-intuitively, the things that have made the world safer, at times, make us more likely to go to war. Why does ISIS inspire the world’s rage? Not because they’ve killed thousands of Iraqis, but because they’ve executed a handful of Americans. At this point, the deaths of a few can inspire the world to war.

Seventh, by figuring out why the world is getting safer, we can actually help it become even safer.

Really isn’t that why we do this in the first place?

Apr 20

As we wait for (hopefully) another guest piece to go up somewhere, enjoy this “On V Update to Old Ideas”.

Ebole Updates!

First off, some good news: last year, when we wrote about Ebola--click here and here to read those posts--we repeated a warning from scientists, “Ebola could become more dangerous if it, ironically, becomes less dangerous. If the disease mutates in a way that allows more victims to live and live longer, it could become a pandemic by not burning out too quickly.”

Because the international community took so long to act, we (humanity) increased the risk of making Ebola more dangerous. Turns out, though, we dodged a pathogenic bullet on this one. According to the Los Angeles Times, “...new research published Thursday in the journal Science suggests that the virus is undergoing only limited mutational changes, and is no more virulent than when the outbreak began.”

Just to point it out: we are correcting ourselves. In other words, early reports were too pessimistic. At least the Los Angeles Times corrected the record. Most news outlets, when offered the opportunity to correct the record, don’t. This is also a good warning on general science reporting: early reports are often wrong and inaccurate.

As we mentioned earlier and in our original posts, the international community took way too long to react to Ebola. But the bigger concern is our country’s focus on reactive policies, instead of proactive policies. Julia Belluz at Vox (linking to the New York Times) has great article describing how America’s reaction--impromptu treatment facilities in affected countries--has utterly failed.

Too Many Munich Moments!

The day after we finished writing about Ebola last December, Michael C wrote, “How Do We Stop the Worst Analogy in Foreign Policy?” in which he joined the chorus of pundits asking that the “Munich” analogy be killed. Of course, we failed to convince a few politicians complaining about the new Iran agreement on nuclear weapons, including...

    - Ted Cruz

    - Mark Kirk

    - Tom Cotton

    - John Bolton

    - Victor Davis Hanson (The Washington Times)

    - Michael Markovsky (The Weekly Standard)

    - William Kristol (The Weekly Standard)

    - Roger Simon (PJ Media)

    - Joel Pollak (Breitbart)

    - Thomas Sowell (National Review)

Each of the above pundits and politicians, arguing against a deal with Iran, immediately argued, “This is Munich!” How rhetorically depressing is this? It’s as unsurprising as it is disappointing.

To highlight the good news, some writers pushed back, including Paul Waldmen in The Washington Post, Jim Newell at Salon, Dominic Tierney at The Atlantic, and Amanda Taub at Vox. It’s a point that can’t be remade enough.

Rick Perry Hates Isolationism...and Foreign Aid

Another fun fact, related to rhetoric and foreign policy: as Michael C wrote in “I’m an Isolationist?”, some politicians accuse people who don’t want to invade foreign countries of being isolationists. In July last year, Rick Perry wrote a Washington Post op-ed stating just that, “Isolationist policies make the threat of terrorism even greater”.

But what’s rick Perry’s stance on foreign aid spending?

A quick google search reveals this headline, “Perry: My foreign aid budget starts at zero” from the Republican primary in 2012. So he isn’t an isolationist, but he wants the U.S. to isolate itself from all other countries with zero foreign aid spending. To be fair, Rick Perry’s position was more nuanced than that--after cutting the budget to zero, he wants to re-analyze all foreign aid allocations on a yearly basis, which is beyond impractical--but the overall message is the same: fighting wars abroad is fine, supporting other countries peacefully is not a priority.

Saudi Arabia Sucks Compared to Iran

America does not get along with Iran...because they’re evil. After President Obama wrote a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year, Mitt Romney “...was frankly stunned that the president of the United States would write a letter of that nature and in effect, legitimize a nation and a leadership which is violating international norms and is threatening the world.

As we’ve written before--and discussed in the comments section of our Iran post two weeks ago--these norms are incredibly inconsistent. Take, for example, Saudi Arabia. Did you know they’ve outlawed movie theaters? Did you know saudi Arabia awarded a prize to an Islamic scholar who called 9/11 an inside job? Did you know they still behead people? And they’re beheading people at a faster rate this year than last year.

Speaking of Self-Interest…

In January 2014, Zack Beauchamp had a great article on Henry Kissinger, “The Toxic Cult of Henry Kissinger”. First, Zack breaks down the actual divide in American politics is “not the split between Left and Right, or civil libertarians and security state hawks, or interventionists and non-interventionists. It's between those who buy into the cult of America's national interest and those who don't.”

This is an awesome way to look at American foreign policy, and how to fix it.

More importantly, Zach describes Kissinger’s many war crimes and how that doesn’t seem to affect either his esteem or celebrity. Why? Because the American security establishment supports Kissinger’s actions because they supported America, no matter how shorted or immoral.

Apr 13

(We first published this on the website KillScreen a few years ago, but it’s no longer there. So we’re republishing it here.)

When I first played Oiligarchy, it shocked me.

Ostensibly a resource management game, I managed “one of the biggest Oil companies in the World”[sic]. To win--or finish the game, depending on your point of view--I had to clear cut forests, support right-wing anti-socialist dictators, rig elections and pay for political influence, start multiple wars in the Middle East, hire defense contractors to defend my oil platforms, deplete the world’s oil resources, and finally cover the world’s surface with “human power plants,” converting humans into fuel.

My actions caused the end of the world. “The Last World War started for the control of the remaining oil resources and quickly went out of control...You will spend your last days in the darkness thinking about your role in this mess,” the game explained to me at the end.

The thing that shocked me wasn’t Oiligarchy’s “message” that unbridled greed and resource depletion will cause the end of the world. (I already, to a lesser degree, thought that before I played the game.) No, I was shocked at how easily gameplay could be manipulated to serve an ideology. Basically, Oiligarchy doesn’t rise above the level of propaganda.

In Oiligarchy, you have two choices: play the game, drill for oil and cause the end of the world, or don’t play and get fired. (There is also a rare ending called “retirement” where, if you stop contributing to the political system and stop drilling for oil, you retire peacefully and society evolves into a post-carbon world. But I didn’t get that ending, and the gameplay doesn’t lead you naturally to it. In other words, that's not the point.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily the message of Oiligarchy could have been flipped on its head. What if the Heritage Foundation made a Sim City-style game where taxes destroy the economy? Or the Cato Institute made a game where environmentalists destroy our quality of life? These hypothetical games would be just as hollow as Oiligarchy.

There is this optimistic feeling in the air that video games will change us for the better; that they will save the world. But if the persuasive games genre ever truly takes off, every point of view on the spectrum will jump into the fray, and we will be back where we started, except the games will be worse for it.

The makers of Oiligarchy should remember: propaganda is propaganda, no matter what the message. For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, there is a Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will.

And gameplay shouldn’t be abused to push blatantly political messages.

Apr 08

(This is an op-ed we tried to submit to the New York Times and Washington Post. For the full story, check out yesterday’s post. With the P5+1 agreeing to a deal on Iran’s nuclear program last week, war with Iran seems much less likely, so we are running the opinion piece here.)

Writing in the Washington Post on March 13, foreign policy analyst Joshua Muravchik told America that the only realistic option to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be to bomb Iran. On March 26, former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton repeated this argument in the New York Times, under the straightforward headline, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”.

Neither man mentioned the primary cost America would bear in such a war: dead soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

While the US would very likely win a war with Iran, it could easily claim tens of thousands of American lives. Any advocates of war--from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muravchik to Bolton--shouldn’t just talk about going to war; they should mention the cost, the likely thousands of dead Americans it could take to win. As a veteran who deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq and who knows that over 6,000 Americans died in those two fights, I don’t think this is too much to ask.

Yes, a war with Iran could claim thousands of U.S. lives. In August 2012, I published a paper called, “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield,” where I used my experience as a former Army intelligence officer to describe the possible options available to Iran in a war with America. While Iran likely couldn’t “beat” the United States, Iran could kill large numbers of U.S. troops and civilians. It could do so in a matter of weeks. And this is something war-hawks never mention.

How could a war with Iran kill 10,000 US soldiers? After studying the U.S. for the last 30 years, Iran learned its lesson: anyone who fights America traditionally will lose. Iran will use asymmetric tactics, including cheap, light weapons to defeat more expensive, heavier conventional U.S. weapons, waging this war across multiple fronts. For example...

...Iran could sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. It learned during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 that it has little hope of conventionally defeating the U.S. Navy. Instead, it will use shore-launched cruise missiles, fast attack boats, mini-submarines, torpedoes, mines and even suicide boats to cripple, set fire or sink as many American ships as possible. The IRGC Navy can’t beat the U.S. Navy, but it could inflict thousands of casualties in a few hours.

...Iran could fire ballistic missiles at our bases in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq. They could fire ballistic missiles at Israel or even southern Europe. Iran has the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East. Most of these missiles aren’t very accurate, but they could still kill hundreds if they land in population centers or crowded military bases.

...Iran could launch terror attacks. Iran has funded irregular insurgent groups (like Hezbollah) around the world. It could encourage these types of forces to attack the Green Zone in Iraq, which still houses thousands of American diplomats and civilians. It could use proxies to wage a terror campaign across the Middle East. And, though I think it is unlikely, Iran could use proxies to try to attack Americans or Europeans on their home soil.

...and Iran could escalate the conflict. It could temporarily close the Straits of Hormuz, spiking gas prices. It could foment Shia revolts in Sunni dominated countries, like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, causing unrest in oil producing nations.

But one option scares me above all else: if Iran provokes the U.S. to invade. Iran knows that an invasion will likely cause the most U.S. deaths since Vietnam. In both landmass and population, Iran is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Iran has better irregular forces than either of those two countries as well. In short, a ground invasion would quickly become a quagmire.

Anyone advocating for war should have to answer tough questions. I encourage every journalist from every network, from CBS to CNN to Comedy Central to ask the one tough question I implied above: how many lives will this cost? As a voting population, we deserve to know how many lives certain pundits and politicians are willing to sacrifice to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In my analysis, I believe that every pundit advocating war should be prepared to say this statement, “I believe going to war with Iran is worth the cost of 10,000 American lives.” If they can’t say that, then they don’t have the strength of their own convictions.

Apr 06

For the last two weeks, Michael C and I have been trying to publish an op-ed. (Actually, two different pieces, but we’re still waiting to hear back on one of them.)

This particular op-ed was about war with Iran.

As long time readers know, a few years ago we wrote a paper for the Small Wars Journal outlining the risks of a potential war with Iran. (We also wrote a gigantic, 27 post series, "The Drums Beat Again: The Case Against War with Iran".) Back in 2012 when we wrote the paper, America really seemed to be seriously considering going to war again. Michael C (and myself) did a ton of research and wrote up “War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.

At the time, we considered this one of the true pieces of value we could add to the conversation. Plenty of pundits could (and did) speak about going to war; few could (or did) speak about the consequences, especially in terms of lives lost.

But potential war with Iran was replaced by possible wars with Syria, then Russia, and finally Iraq. Again.

Yet the possibility of war with Iran never seems to go away. As anyone following the news knows, many right-wing pundits and neo-conservatives have, in recent weeks, been arguing (once again) that America needs to go to war with Iran. Forty-seven senators wrote an open letter trying to ruin the chances of a nuclear deal, explaining divided government. (Fun tidbit: the Iranian foreign minister has a PhD in International relations from...the University of Denver, so he probably knows how the American government works.) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress urging America to do more to stop Iran. Finally, Joshua Muravchik wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “War with Iran is probably our best option” which bluntly stated what many conservatives had only hinted at:

America needs to bomb Iran.

So we dusted off an op-ed we originally wrote three years ago. Our thesis? That too many pundits advocate for war with Iran without outlining the potential costs. We sent it to the New York Times on March 24th. Two days later, the Times published “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” by John Bolton. No surprise, he didn’t outline the potential costs of war.

This is really unfortunate. As I wrote in January about America’s third potential war in Iraq, the media seems awfully pro-war (or pro-intervention) at times, at least before a war begins. And we believe our op-ed really explains a topic that most journalists ignore in the coverage: what would a war with Iran cost in terms of lives, both U.S. and Iranian?

What’s the worst case scenario?

Fortunately for world security--and unfortunately for us as writers--America, Iran and four additional countries agreed to broad outlines of a framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program. With this, our op-ed has been rendered obsolete. That’s fine by us.

So we’ll be publish the whole op-ed this week on our blog. We still consider the core argument valid: as a country we need to discuss the potential costs of future wars in realistic terms. Considering the deal with Iran still requires final agreements to be reached by the end of June, a war with Iran could still be in our future.

And we should know the potential costs.

Mar 26

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

On Monday, I (Eric C) wrote up a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both the film and book. Today, I want to cover some of unique thoughts it inspired.

The Odd Criticism of “Western Decadence”

At the end of the book--massive spoiler warning--Bill Haydon reveals why he became a double agent for the Russians, “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of it’s death by greed and constipation.” From the film, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.”

Oddly enough, I recently heard a similar thing from a reporter on an Economist podcast, explaining the the Hungarian Prime Minister opposition’s to America and the rest of Europe. In the Prime Minister’s mind, “The West is a bit past it, a bit decadent.”

Russian leader Vladmir Putin feels the same way. From The American Interest, “Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided.” According to the Economist, ISIS recruits are inspired by the same thought, “Boastful combatants post well-scripted videos to attract their foreign peers, promising heaven for those who leave their lives of Western decadence to become ‘martyrs’.” Some Westerners believe the same thing.

It’s an odd idea: that being rich and powerful makes a country “decadent”, a synonym for weak.

Not that I should spend time debating communist or extremist ideology, but this argument is absurd. Prosperity tends to defeat poverty. Wealth creates advantages, not weakness. Perhaps some of the super-wealthy become weak and feeble. Poverty almost always guarantees that someone will become weak and feeble. You just don’t have the resources.

In terms of security, the argument is especially absurd. Prosperity, ironically, creates a better military. It’s like poker. If you have a larger stack of money, you can take more risks, take advantage of opportunities. For example, spending resources--time and money--to train your military. You have the freedom to allow people to spend time training in the Special Forces, and after Israel--another wealthy nation--America has the best special forces in the world.

Or you can spend gobs and gobs of the world’s largest fortune on technological advances for your military. Your country can fly unmanned, small planes over any other country and bomb them.

Wealth, instead of causing weakness, actually makes people harder working, more productive members of society. From David Brooks’ op-ed on Charles Murray’s The Great Divide:

“Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses…

They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Murray’s work can be really controversial--especially his work on race--but I agree with this particular argument. To me, the educational opportunities afforded to the rich, well, it clearly gives them a leg up in America. And the world.

Intelligence can be so Pointless       

At some point near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the British discover an operative pretending to be a double agent to a Russian embassy worker who is also pretending to be a double agent to the British. Both sides deliver fake or meaningless information to the other side, pretending that they’re giving them gold. (Meanwhile, one British spy is delivering real intelligence to the Russians.)

It all seems so incredibly pointless.

I didn’t arrive at this conclusion on my own. Doing the aforementioned research on intelligence, I came across two Malcolm Gladwell articles in The New Yorker--both reviewing books on intelligence by Ben Macintyre--that make a very good case for the futility of intelligence. Because both the Germans and the British knew the other side was trying to send them bad intelligence, they ignored good intelligence, then acted on the bad intelligence they wanted to avoid acting on.

It’s a refreshing read. Andy Rooney prepared me for this after reading My War. He has a whole sub-chapter on his distaste for spy craft and its pointlessness. In short, spies spend much of their time looking for other spies. Both sides feed each other disinformation. Even when you get intel, you can’t use it much of the time because it reveals your source.

Sigh.

Mar 25

(Today's guest post is by long-time friend of the blog, Sven Ortmann of Defence and Freedom. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

It's simple to start a war, common to win battles, but difficult and rare to complete a war with one's objectives achieved.

This crucial final step ought to be about as simple as the second according to Clausewitzian military theory: All you need to do is win big enough or many enough battles to 'disarm' your opponent (to deny your opponent the ability to resist). A disarmed power yields to your will--that's what the theory implies.

There are several exceptions to this rule which turned all-too many conflicts even messier than anticipated. One such exception has gained a lot of attention in the last about ten years: The opponent could devolve into a lesser state of organization and persist (as a guerilla force, for example). The opposing power might even avoid disarmament by becoming elusive and by keeping the intensity of warfare at a level which doesn't exceed its ability to regenerate its potential for violence: A conflict cooled down just enough to sustain the refusal of offered conditions.

There's a different and historically very powerful case; some wars are fought over a distance which doesn't allow the initially-superior power to force a decision. The despair of non-nomadic invaders of Russia comes to mind. Imperial Japan faced a similar difficulty in its war planning. It did defeat Russia in 1905, but probably only because Russia was politically unstable and at the brink of a thorough revolution. This kept Russia from continuing the land war with a hastened completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Later on, Imperial Japan faced the dilemma that it couldn't possibly bring the US, UK or France to their knees. Even the loss of Singapore was but a small scratch inflicted on the British Empire, and even the British shipyards in isolation would have been able to compensate for a lost “decisive” battle within three to four years. The French could have ignored the loss of Indochina and French Polynesia for decades without agreeing to peace. The US could have ignored the loss of the Philippines and rebuild its fleet in three-year intervals completely.

A Mahanian focus on decisive naval battles, reinforced by the memory of the Battle in the Tsushima Strait, was the Japanese' mental escape from this Sword of Damocles. The Clausewitzian view treats a major victory in a battle of great army concentration (and by theoretical extension, its naval equivalent) as disarming and war-winning because this was true for the relatively small and neighboring powers in Europe. The stubbornness of the people of Spain under the Napoleonic occupation and the ability of the Russians to sacrifice vast areas of land including their biggest city without yielding should have signaled the very limited validity of this view from the very beginning.

The difficulty in reaching a satisfactory completion of war by defeating the enemy's military might coined the 20th century: The British Empire refused to accept defeat because, though inferior on land and in the air, it was able to avert an invasion of England. The asymmetry between a land-centric power and a naval-centric power precluded the Clausewitzian decisive clash of Schwerpunkt forces vs. Schwerpunkt forces and thus a Clausewitzian completion of the war.

Guerillas all over the world followed the Spanish example of averting final defeat and survived as political movements even if temporarily disarmed, rarely ceasing resistance entirely.

And then there's another completion of war, without a decisive battle (though some scholars will stretch the meaning of Schwerpunkt beyond recognition to cover this case): The strategic coup de main, which often precluded a major war with its fait accompli: Often times it's simply not worth or promising enough to wage war when the other power has already grabbed what it wanted.

The Shiites and Sunni of Iraq dealt the real decision of the recent Iraq war by the fait accompli of ethnic cleansing and majority rule, while Americans were being fed stories about harassing attacks with mines that had no real bearing on the outcome:

Such a demographic change will likely last for centuries, whereas the question whether the harassment of convoys with the mine campaign was defeated or not is inconsequential in Iraq today already.

The completion of war after a fait accompli is typically found once some face-saving exit is being left open by the "winner" or created by the loser through sheer narrative manipulation. The recent conflict about the Crimea shows the power of the coup de main and its achievement of a fait accompli: The Ukrainian military wasn't disarmed or incapable of continued resistance; it hadn't even completed gearing up by the time the Ukraine de facto accepted the loss of the Crimea to Russia since reconquest or intervention of the UNSC was out of question.

It is notable that much of the (largely unsuccessful) Western interventionism, such as cruise missile diplomacy, bombings, assassination drone campaigns, military assistance programs and no-fly zones was devoid of a decisive battle, fait accompli or offering the enemy a face-saving exit.

It's no wonder Western scholars of military affairs are bemoaning the difficulty of “successfully” completing a war: The West is thoroughly incompetent at it, while others aren't.

This is something even gold-plated combat aircraft, multi-billion dollar warships, nuclear weapons, UNSC veto powers and the heaviest infantry of the world cannot change.

Sven Ortmann is a German blogger. Since 2007, his blog, “Defence and Freedom,” has covered a range of military, defence policy and economic topics, with more than a million page views. His personal military background is his service in the Luftwaffe. He has guest-blogged at the Small Wars Journal Blog and other blogs on military topics.

Mar 23

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then again, it is over 40 years old)

When we started On Violence, Michael C and I had an odd writing arrangement. He would write two posts a week on the military and violence; I would write one post a week on art and violence. (And not just limited to contemporary art, as this post proves.)

At the time, this worked out quite well. I was living in Italy with Michael C, so I had plenty of time to power through books and movies on war, and write up reviews. (It also helped to inspire us on other projects we’re working on…) As time passed, we focused less on art--plus we wrote about everything we needed to write about war memoirs--and I began writing up more military and foreign affairs posts.

Recently, I’ve been able to catch up on some books I’ve been meaning to read (for years now). Researching the intelligence community for a new screenplay we’re writing, I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Excited by the book, I re-watched the film for the third time.

Here’s my review: they’re both wonderful. Review over.

What matters more than the what is why: why do the book and the film work so well?

On the surface, the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, ostensibly, a spy thriller about a retired spy investigating a mole--oddly enough, according to my copy’s introduction, a word invented by John Le Carre--at the top of the British intelligence services. And yes, that is the plot.

But the subplot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy matters even more. The wife of the main character, George Smiley, has left him and, more importantly, cheated on him with a former friend and colleague. In basically every chapter, Smiley recollects events and puts together puzzle pieces about the main plot, then, at some point, he thinks about his wife Ann and her betrayal. In terms of mental energy, George Smiley spends almost as much time thinking about his wife’s affair as he does the larger mission to find the mole.

(In the same vein, the chapters about Jim Prideaux--a retired spy who was captured by the Russians--spend zero time discussing spy craft, focusing on Prideaux’s relationship with a lonely boy at a boarding school.)

In other words, this spy novel is actually about personal relationships. The two plots work together perfectly, thematically: spies can’t trust anyone; neither can husbands. (For Prideaux, he’s been retired and forgotten, and is both figuratively and literally broken.)

It’s why critics love Le Carre (and other “genre” writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Elmore Leonard). They write literature even when they write in a “genre”. In my mind, when I view and analyze fiction, I make a distinction between fiction and literature. Fiction describes all writing. Literature, for me, rises above the rest, an esteemed category for the best books, usually defined by the quality of the writing, the characters, and whether or not the book has anything to say about the world we live in. (And like pornography, it’s that thing: I know it when I see it.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is literature.

On to the film: why does it work so well? First, the wonderful acting, including almost every important British actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, and, of course, Gary Oldman.

More importantly, the film is paced so well. In short, the film moves slowly and doesn’t explain everything on the first go. It takes a second viewing to understand the subtext and meaning in each distinct scene. I love this. I love this style of filmmaking. I want more complicated films, with lots of details packed into every crevice that you can’t catch on the first viewing.

Great literature often fails on the screen for two reasons. First, great writing often doesn’t translate. Think about the problems filming great stylists like Hemingway.

Second, and more importantly to this film, you lose inner-monologues. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the novel) bubbles over with plot. It can’t all fit in the film so the director and screenwriter didn’t didn’t even try to force it all in. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film), we also lose most of the subplot featuring Ann. Yes, one scene hints that Bill has slept with Ann, and other characters ask Smiley about Ann, but we don’t have an inner-monologue running throughout the film. Basically, we can’t hear what Smiley is thinking.

To compensate for this loss of the personal, the film turns one of the characters into a gay man (a nice, subtle touch that humanizes the character as concisely as possible) and adds a flashback--not included in the book--to a New Year’s Eve party that partly fleshes the personal relationships out between the characters. It works, maybe not as well as the book, but then again, they’re different mediums.

But check out both.