Aug 31

(Today we begin a week of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), it is a must watch for all soldiers, diplomats, and any one working on national security or foreign affairs.)

Pontecorvo’s The Battle For Algiers is so packed with lessons about counter-insurgency that the Pentagon has put on regular showings of it for the military. Today, I want to take one scene and explain its clear lesson: racial profiling doesn’t work.

The scene's dispassionate and straight-forward representation of terrorism shocks the viewer. It begins with three women cutting their hair, putting on make-up, and dressing up to look like classy French women. When they are ready, the leader of the FLN enters and gives each a bomb to hide in their purses.

For the Arabs living in the Casbah at the time, leaving required ID cards and searches by armed French soldiers and police officers. As far as the three women--each armed with a bomb--their only interrogation was mild flirtation on behalf of the guards.

The scene ends brutally, of course. Bombs planted in a bar, a dance hall and an airport detonate, killing dozens of civilians. Bloody bodies litter the wreckage. Store fronts collapse.

Racial profiling is wrong because it is morally wrong, first and foremost. But forget about that. Racial profiling is ineffective because it makes you predictable. If a terrorist knows we won’t search an eighty year old woman, a terrorist will find an eighty year old woman. If a terrorist knows our soldiers will flirt with young women instead of searching them, then they will use young women. Most insurgencies receive some positive support from the population. This includes women, children and the elderly; all of whom fought against the French.

And remember the most important lesson of the above scene: it was based on actual events. We’ve written about the flaws in using the category of "military aged males" to distinguish targets in counter-insurgency before. Similarily, racial profiling, or gender profiling, or any profiling, is bad counter-insurgency.

Aug 28

Science fiction stories are fables for the modern era. Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is really about Colonialism, District 9 is really about racism and refugees, and C.S. Lewis' Out of This Silent Planet is really about jingoism. In The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Leguin writes about the great mistake so many soldiers, armies and societies make again and again: making/believing their enemy is inhuman.

Of course, in Leguin's novel the "enemy" literally isn't a human. The novelette, which even Leguin described as moralistic, turns the normal science fiction conventions on their head. Humans are the invaders and the en-slavers of the Athsheans.

We first meet the small, green ape-like Athesheans from the point of view of a military officer Captain Davidson. He and the other colonists don’t believe the aliens--nick-named “Chreechies”--feel pain, sleep or have any intelligence. Most of all, they consider them harmless and dumb, mere animals. “The fact is creechies are a meter tall, they’re covered with green fur, they don’t sleep and they’re not human beings in my frame of reference,” Captain Davidson tells another officer. Introduced as savages, the reader views them as such. I did so on my first reading.

Of course, Le Guin reverses this view a chapter later, and destroys the preconceptions and biases of Captain Davidson and the other officers. A xeno-anthropologist explains how each stereotype is merely a misconception. While the Athsheans lack technology, they have developed a nuanced, complex culture. But only one human is even capable of understanding this; the others merely want to cut down their forests.

The Athshean are not innocent of dehumanizing their enemies either, with most of the Athsheans referring to the Earthlings as crazy--“They are backwards, Selver. They are insane.”--or evil--“If they are men, they are evil men.” This gap between Earthlings and Athshean only grows, and eventually leads to political war, a liberation insurgency on the part of the Athsheans.

By the end of the novel, anatgonism and segregation has replaced possible integration and cooperation.So how does this affect us today? The human instinct to marginalize/dehumanize the enemy has not dissipated. No matter how holy we like to believe ourselves, we persist in stereotypes. Like WWII propaganda depicting the Japanese as rat-like, a nation at war seems destined to dehumanize and hate their enemy. Today is no different. I've met soldiers who told me--in hushed tones or in boisterous drunkenness--that they hate all Iraqi's/Afghanis/Arabs/Muslims, or some variation thereof. Googling the words “Islam barbaric” yields 400,000 hits, and who knows how many hits Western invaders would yield in Arabic.

Aug 26

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Fifteen rounds. That's how many bullets a 9mm Beretta holds. The one I carried was grey. All grey; handle and all. It's heavier than you expect from a hand gun. I didn't know what to do or say when it was handed to me. Ours was a mission of mercy, not a combat mission. Our mission team leader gave it to me for my protection. But it was felt by our team leaders that the location we were heading, to and the people we were helping, could place us in danger. I've used a weapon before, but I’m not a solder; our mission was to deliver medical aide and training.

I just held it and stared at it as if I had no idea what it was. Carrying a weapon on a medical mission seemed hypocritical and wrong. But I wore it. I wore it because it was expected of me.

I was part of a mission to Thailand. Our goal was to assist an indigenous people to the country of Burma(now the Myanmar Republic). They are called the Karen and they technically don't exist. By technically, I mean that they're are not recognized by any of the local governments, including the Thai government which allows their refugee camps within the country. We went because these unrecognized people are being ethnically cleansed by the Burmese military for their religious beliefs (they are Southern Baptist if you can believe it) and we were training their brightest to go back into Burma and provide basic medical services to their own people, everything from basic first aid to bullet wounds and amputations from land mines.   

That's the background. I could talk about the ridiculous number of atrocities enacted upon the Karen (as asinine as it sounds, watching the newest Rambo will give you a fairly accurate depiction of the Burmese military's tactics) but instead I want to relate a story I witnessed rather than the stories I have heard. A story about a 9mm Beretta.

We were in between classes at an undisclosed and remote training sight. I was talking with one of the Karen youths about their eating habits, assisted by a translator, outside by a group of folding tables. They eat their food with their hands which can be a health concern when considering they don't wash their hands before meals. A simple problem with a simple solution that could bolster the health of these indigenous people.  

When the RPG sailed across the river, I didn't even hear let alone see it. The only thing I knew was that a ninety pound man tackled me to the ground in attempts to shield me. Though I weighed more than double he did, I hit the ground hard and skidded on my hands and knees. He put his shoulder and all of his weight to the center of my back and it hurt. I heard gun fire; mostly from our side of the river.

I drew my Beretta and fired.

Fifteen rounds. I unloaded the entire clip toward Burma, toward my attackers. In all likelihood the rounds didn't make it across the river. There wasn't enough gunfire to locate a target at which I could aim. The smoke trail from the RPG was little more than a wisp. So I aimed all my shots in the direction I stood up with my weapon drawn.

Now here's my moral quandary: I didn't think. I only acted. Fear compelled me more than anger. But I acted in a violent manner. I acted with the intent to take a life or many lives. Our Karen advisors believe our attackers were aiming for me as the RPG was within twenty yards of my relatively noticeable light skin and larger stature. So logic would dictate I had the right to self defense. Still, I regret drawing my weapon. It was a mission of mercy. We were there to better and save lives not to take them.
So I tell myself my aim was off. The distance was too far. It was only fifteen rounds...

Aug 26

When my platoon returned from downrange, we had a new toy to play with. It was a new simulator at our post to help units train for future combat patrols, specifically mounted convoys. The Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer (VCCT) is an excellent tool to train future units; but unfortunately, the capabilities of digital training remain mired in the same problems as past attempts at using virtual reality to train soldiers.

The VCCT impressed me and is probably near the top of what the Army can offer in virtual training (I have a feeling it is still costs the Army much more than it should). Sitting in two large mobile trailers were four open HWMMV shells. My guys and I donned headsets that covered our eyes with a virtual reality screen for each eye. The driver had a steering wheel and three screens mimicking the front windshield. Each soldier also had a weapon linked to the system to fire at the enemy (attempting to do so, however, would prove futile).

For our training, we used scenarios based realistically on Iraq. For our first movement, we moved forward on a bridge, made a left hand turn and pulled security. Taking a left hand turn may sound simple, but in a convoy in a foreign country on the ground for the first time, it can rapidly become a chore of immense difficulty. On this occasion my platoon aced our movement.

Acing the bad guys, well that was a different story. In our scenario, RPG gunners would pop out windows almost invisibly to annihilate our trucks. They fired quickly and accurately. Returning accurate fire proved difficult.

Quickly in our first engagement, the first truck went down. The fog of war crept in and the true training began. Every unit since the dawn of drilled infantry regiments in the sixteenth century have had two unique experiences when it comes to war: the parade ground and the combat zone; what is easy on the former quickly descends into chaos in the latter. The VCCT, unlike live fire maneuver exercises designed to make us feel good, challenged the communication abilities of the trucks maneuvering under my command.

In that particular scenario, we ended up losing a few trucks, but we learned several lessons about communication and coordination. For those particular lessons--communication under confusing circumstances and the diffiulty of coordinating elements--the VCCT succeeds in its mission. Having said that, the system still needs improvement.

The catch-22 of the VCCT is that it’s success in training soldiers in convoy operations was not designed into the system: the problems with communication and confusion on the battlefield are more due to poor graphics than design. Intentionally or not, the VCCT drastically limits your field of view, has malfunctioning communication equipment and an unwieldy .50 caliber machine gun that can barely hit targets. Fortunately, these are all good things and make training much more realistic. Radios malfunction all the time, weapons miss and inside a HWMMV you can barely see outside of the armor, let alone move. The fog of war, whether from poor programming or designers intention, lives in the VCCT and that breeds excellent training.

The most glaring flaw in the VCCT is the poor Artificial Intelligence of its enemy. The simulated bad guys move slowly and deliberately in straight lines; no matter how frequently you fire at the people in the simulation, including the civilians, they continue on their pre-designated track. Simply put, this trains soldiers in expecting to face mindless enemies on the battlefield. It trains us to think about enemies as if they were ducks on a carnival style shooting game: targets to simply plink down and move on. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, in 4th Generation war, and in political war, the enemy will think, move cautiously, attack with speed and vanish. For our scenarios and virtual reality, we need to face this new enemy, not a computer on a track.

Aug 24

(The article concludes our four part series on "Defining Contemporary War." For new readers, please read part 1, part 2, and part 3)

Clausewitz called war, “politics by other means” and generally I agree with him... with a few caveats.

All war is political. Violence executed on massive levels requires the organization of mass numbers of people. To tie them together they must have a reason, and that reason--even if cultural or religious--is ultimately political.

I go further than Clausewitz. Clausewitz wrote his theory for nation-states and standing armies. To him, warfare was the extension of politics because it began after diplomacy ended. In current military conflicts raging around the globe, diplomacy, fighting, and reconstruction all go on simultaneously. Clearly, warfare is now between groups, not states, and our terminology defining warfare must reflect this. 

And the groups waging violence are political. Frankly, in contemporary warfare violent groups can no longer stay apolitical. Politics and warfare go hand and hand. Whether it is a standing army or a transnational terrorist group, each has to use politics--either persuasion or coercion--to coordinate and organize limited resources to achieve a political result. We need to bring Clausewitz into the fourth generation.

The difference between modern, 4th generation war (as characterized the wars in Somailia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Mexican drug wars) and the previous generations of war (epitomized by the Civil War, World War I, and World War II) is that large standing armies no longer meet in a decisive battle. Large armies may meet on the field of battle, but that rarely solves the conflict. Warfare continues long after major combat operations conclude. Without the decisive battle, the solution to violent conflict is political.

War has gone from nation states fighting each other to nation-states fighting political groups, ethnic factions, religious affiliations, economic classes, or even individuals fighting each other. Of course, war has always included sub-national actors, but until the Cold War they could never dominate the fight. As America has learned repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, non-government actors can hurt you as easily as another nation can. Though smaller, they will fight for longer and harder. Their motivation is always the same: political ends through violent means. War is political; and once the warfighter understands that, then the key to unlocking the dilemma of contemporary warfare presents itself.

We fight political war.

For Clausewitz, warfare was the extension of politics into a new realm, a transformation of diplomacy into something else. For the insurgent, the counter-insurgent, the revolutionary, or the fourth generation soldier, politics is warfare. Warfare is political.

Calling conflicts political war aids the warfighter at every level. Strategically, leaders must set clear political goals. Wavering on the goals will cost the commander support, or create a politically tenuous situation at home. Operationally, in political war the greatest gains on a battlefield come from securing the support of key leaders and the support of the population. This political support goes much farther than killing or capturing the enemy. Tactically, allowing needless civilian casualties (whether or not your army caused them) is bad politics, and thus ineffective warfare.

Political war.

The contemporary operating environment can be called all sorts of things, but we prefer political war. Using terms like low intensity, irregular or unconventional cloud the kernel of truth about warfare. Political war describes the root causes of every insurgency, civil war, revolution, or guerilla struggle waged on our planet today better than any other term.

Aug 21

War is horrible; but to misappropriate Orwell, some wars are more horrible than others. Not everyone agrees with this--certainly not those fighting, authorizing, or covering our current war.

I recently reread Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t help but compare World War I--the "War to End All Wars", "the Great War"--to America’s expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both pale in comparison to the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.

Take the last paragraph of the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms. “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.” Simple disease takes more lives in one winter in one small area than America has lost in two wars over eight years. Talk about a difference between then and now.

Quantitatively, The Great War was more horrible than the Global War on Terror. Including military and civilian losses for both sides, over 16 million people lost their lives, and an additional 21 million were wounded. Even with the most forgiving statistics, and including every possible incident of terror and every incidental civilian death, the last 8 years have maybe claimed a million lives in a world three times as large.

And the fear in World War I crippled men. Lt. Henry, A Farewell to Arm’s main character, talks with his drivers about how the Italians have, because of desertion, killed every tenth man in a platoon. The Italians even punish the families of deserters, locking them up and taking their property. The war is so horrible, the Italian Army must kill their own men, and ostracize families. Today, the US Army doesn’t actively look for soldiers who go AWOL.

The novel's fourth book finely illustrates the chaos of this war. The Italians, in retreat, turn on each other. Lt. Henry and his soldiers kill fellow Italians, confused Italians kill Anyo, one of Lt. Henry’s men, and finally, Italian Carbanari kill Italian officers for disloyalty. The retreat is chaos; a chaos mired in blood. Since 9/11, the American Army has controlled every battlefield it has fought on, and never retreated.

Why does this matter? Perspective. We want to think we live in a special age. We don’t. Thinking we live in a special age can lead to harmless excess, like HBO’s hyperbolically titled miniseries Generation Kill. (If we’re in “Generation Kill” what the hell was the World War I Generation? Generation Massacre?) Or, more dangerously, it can be the justification for getting rid of civil liberties and human rights, if you claim we live in "extraordinary times." We don't.

One final caveat. Qualitatively, all of this doesn’t matter. War is still war. Death is still death. Anyone who has lost someone in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Michael and I have, feels the same pain as those did in past wars. One death or a thousand, war is still war.

Aug 19

To celebrate our 50th post, Michael and I are posting the top ten -- or so -- posts we think represent the very best of On Violence. We’ve come a long way in a little over three months -- last week was our biggest yet -- and we wanted to both celebrate and give a quick run down of the best of On V.

We want to thank everyone who has read our posts, and especially those of you who have tweeted, shared, linked to, or commented on them. Special thanks goes out to long time readers Matty P (who will be guest posting next Thursday) and Will, who have been commenting, reading, and giving us feedback the whole way. Also, especially big thanks go to our web designer Jeff, whose design work has been invaluable.

We don’t like to do self promotion in the articles, but since this is an anniversary, if you would like to follow us on twitter, RSS feed, or facebook, please click on the links in the sidebar. If you'd like, please share any On V articles with your friends.

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

1. Defining Violence - Our first real post, and a definition of Violence. At its core, this is a philosophy website, but one about a real world issue.

2. 9/11 Blame Game - On Violence is non-partisan because foreign affairs should be non-partisan (though often isn't). The 9/11 Blame Game, one of our earliest posts, perfectly illustrates our feelings on this. (Also read Part 2 and Part 3)

3. Why Blackwater? and Machievelli and Blackwater -  Our first two articles to receive attention and comments. In the future, we will write more on the complex, and often hazardous, relationship between the military and private security contractors. (See also The REAL Problem with Non-military Contractors.)

4. Executioner’s Song - When On V disagrees - Song Battle Parts 1 and 2 - Our most popular art post yet. If you have any recommendations for good songs about war for the next song battle, please include them in the comments.

5. Why Do I Fight? and Were You Scared? - These two essays about Michael’s personal experiences in Afghanistan hit a chord with our readership.

6. Language Skill vs. Fighting Skill - Fighting counter-insurgency in the Global War on Terror will require more than strength and weapons, the thesis of this article.

7. Operation Judgement Day - An article about poorly planned, executed, and led counter-insurgency mission in Iraq. It also describes how far the Army must go to truly understand counter-insurgency. (Recommended by loyal commenters and readers Matty P and Will)

8. No Villains and The Best Kind of Propaganda - These two articles on John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down describe the unexpected appeal of good propaganda (which is not an oxymoron).

9. 5 Tips for Better IO - The first, but not the last, article with tips for small unit leaders in the US Army and Marine Corp. Also recommended by Will.

10. War as the Opposite of Civilization - One of Matty P’s favorite art articles, this is Eric C’s thesis on war (as written by Ursula K Leguin).

If you have a favorite On V article, we would love to hear it in the comments. And again, thanks!

Aug 17

(Over the last few weeks, I have written a series of blog posts attempting to define the terms used to describe contemporary war. In the first week, I described the issues. Last week, I described the terms I do not particularly like. For the third installment, I write about the terms that I feel accurately describe modern war.)

The major difference between the terms I like and terms I dislike is accuracy. Terms like irregular, unconventional or low-intensity are all misleading descriptions of contemporary warfare. On the other hand, I like the following terms because they either describe a sub-set of contemporary warfare--like guerilla warfare, revolutionary war, insurgency/counter-insurgency, and civil wars--or because they describe they current world in accurate terms.

The first phrase that comes to mind is guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare adequately describes the tactics of many groups in insurgencies or small civil wars. Not so much a description of the larger conflict, but an excellent term to describe a set of tactics. Essentially, small bands live off the population (through persuasion, coercion or force) either in an urban, suburban, or rural settings, and attack a larger force’s weak points. They understand the limitations of a conventional force--better than any general--and use this knowledge to insert, attack the weak point, and escape.

Revolution is the violent overthrow of political governments by disposed minorities or classes whether it be the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution or the Chinese governments. It might seem odd to put revolution in with terms on warfare, but that fails to recognize how incredibly violent past revolutions have been. In the Makers of Modern Strategy, John Shy and Thomas Collier describe the Maoist revolution in the phrase revolutionary war. I don’t use revolution that broadly, but when discussing contemporary war the political motivation, in some cases extreme motivation, need to be mentioned. In this sense, revolutionary war is very helpful when describing the contemporary operating environment. For example, while to the US replacing a Sunni dictator with a Shia government might not seem momentous, to the Middle East it is revolutionary.

What about attempts to overthrow the government but lacking a spontaneous, overwhelming uprising? For that we have the term insurgencies. The most common in the post-colonial world, roughly post-WWII until the fall of the Soviet Union, were liberation insurgencies of former colonies. That being said, one could argue that the Muslim populations in Thailland and the Philippines still fight for their liberation. However, some insurgencies have no separatist aspect and merely seek to redistribute power as in the Taliban overthrow of the Afghan government after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union.

The final class of conflicts are civil wars. While the American Civil War was quite evenly matched, much more often the fight is asymmetric and fought with guerilla tactics. In contemporary civil war, we have seen different size groups vie for power in nations in bloody contests. Even more distinct from the American Civil War, the line between the fighting armies and civilian and soldier blur in contemporary civil wars.

The above terms all describe types of contemporary war. Obviously they all share a common trait, but that trait is not their irregularity, their unconventionality, their smallness, nor their intensity. Therefore, I will use all the terms above to define particular conflicts, but I still feel like I need one term that truly defines contemporary war.

The next two terms attempt to do just that. First, the phrase 4th Generation of Warfare (4GW) describes the evolution of warfare since the invention of gunpowder and the creation of the nation-state. Basically, insurgencies, civil wars, and all fights with guerilla tactics fall into the category of 4GW. According to the theory laid out by Marine Corps Colonel Thomas Hammes in the The Sling and the Stone, as information technology expanded, globalization spread, and cheap weapons flourished, a new style of warfare was born beyond the maneuver warfare of WWII. This theory helps capture the rise of transnational groups and the reasons a conventional force like the US Army is bogged down in two overseas wars.

Recently, I finished The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen. He describes a new theory of warfare combining transnational terrorism and insurgency he calls, Hybrid War. He asserts that groups like Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah fuel conflicts by using terrorist tactics on a global level and insurgent tactics at a local level. I like this term to describe how specific groups in our globalized world operate. Kilcullen also encourages looking at contemporary war not as an aberration for specialized troops (using terms like irregular when that style of war happens much more frequently then regular war), but as an ongoing phenomenon with unique challenges.

Notable in my two lists of terms I like and dislike is the absence of terrorism. I feel that this term, which I like as a tactic but not as a description of contemporary war, deserves much more than a paragraph to truly capture.

Having described all the terms I like, I still feel like none capture the true essence of contemporary warfare. The struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing hostilities in Israel and Palestine, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the failed state in Somalia, what phrase can tie all these terms together? Next week I will present my proposed answer.

Aug 14

As soon as we started rolling on my second convoy in Afghanistan, the sergeant in the front seat turned around and told me that though they weren’t supposed to, they listened to music in their truck. As he put Aerosmith through iPod speakers, I thought, “Not bad music to be listening to if we get into contact.”    

Soldiers listen to music. Soldiers are people, people listen to music; a war zone doesn’t change that. It is the life blood of our emotions. From hip-hop to heavy metal to any sort of rock, music makes sense in the war zone, to prepare your mind and steel your nerve. And with technology such as it is, the modern American soldier has more music at his finger tips and in the little white ear buds of his iPod than ever before. Yes, it isn’t standard operating procedure (SOP) but it is a core of the daily soldier’s life.

There is something about this, though, some gut impulse that listening to music in war feels wrong, impolite, or obscene. It violates some vague notion of justice for soldiers to simultaneously jam to tunes while executing violence, often on a personal level. The music trivializes the battle. The most mainstream example of this condemnation is a scene from Farenheit 9/11 as soldiers shoot Iraqis, while pump rock music plays. Or the videos soldiers create of blowing things up or combat, set to heavy metal soundtracks. Or Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore storming a beach to Wagner. Society, it seems, wishes our soldiers took to combat with solemnity, and less like a video game.

Ironically, soldiers express similar dismay about war music when it comes from the opposite side. The Taliban listens to music over the radio right before they launch an attack and now many units monitor different frequencies on ICOM radios to know if attacks are imminent. What I remark on here, though is that U.S. soldiers take offense to the music, as if it personally offends them that they would listen to music during or before an attack. Perhaps it is a conditioned response, or perhaps it is because they hate everything about their enemies.

The irony is, it is all the same. Music and war have been together from the dawn of time. Caesar used drums before a battle, civil war draftees marched to flutes. Music causes punk kids to mosh, suicide bombers to attack, and it keeps the guy in the turret sane while he goes on another patrol.

Perhaps, if the music promotes wanton violence, it has gone too far. More likely music isn’t a value opinion either way; it is just another fact of war, and life.

Aug 12

Flipping through the Foreign Affairs for March/April 2009, I couldn’t help noticing that the articles, on the whole, reflect the globalization/interconnectedness of our modern world. In addition to the standard articles on the military, diplomacy and politics, there were articles on climatology, religion and culture, and technology.

Two trends have combined to create this new study of foreign affairs. First, academia has expanded its approach to cover more topics using a more sophisticated analysis. The rise of computers have given researchers access to more numbers, statistics and data than ever before, and the increase in computing power and technology allows researchers to manipulate this data in new, unexpected ways. Take this (possibly inaccurate) example of data analysis of casualties form the Iraq war.

This computing power enables researchers to look beyond the traditional position papers, memoirs, and memorandum that defined foreign affairs in the past but the rise of the internet has also expanded researchers access to these materials, thousands of files and papers available at your finger tips. Just look at the recent Twitter revolutions.

Complimenting the digital revolution of accademia was the social revolution in academia in the 1960s, which changed the focus off the single individual (White Men) to societal issues. By the eighties, they looked at the identity, or the group (Black studies, chicano studies or women’s studies). Now we have holistic approaches, (Environmental studies or global studies). As universities have expanded their scope foreign affairs and political science academics and theoreticians have more resources and fellow disciplines with whom to share ideas, finding new solutions to new problems.

Globalization, like it or lump it, is no longer a theory but a reality. The changes in technology, intermeshing of financial markets, and movement of people and goods now influence the policies of every nation. American or Chinese car emissions effect the Island nations of the pacific, East African hackers scam American seniors. This new academic focus is the only way to address these changes.

The only thing left to conclude is whether or not I see this change as good or bad. As far as globalization goes, I haven’t made a decision. As for a more expansive study of foreign affairs, I am clearly a huge fan; it moved from studying the Great White Men to the cultural and social forces affecting humanity. If we are to understand the forces affecting change in our world, contemporary students of foreign affairs must study the interrelated fields of economics, military affairs, globalization, social science and culture.

Aug 10

(Today, I continue my study in defining contemporary war.- I caution that my approach is in no way exhaustive; I will likely leave out many terms and give all the terms much too short of a discussion. Without putting too much thought into it, I have divided up the terms into three parts: terms I dislike, terms I like, and the one phrase that I believe captures the feeling of contemporary war.)

This week, I start with terms I dislike. The terms I dislike fall into two categories: those that I feel mischaracterize current conflict and those that are synonymous but negative in origin.

In the eighties and nineties, the military differentiated war into two categories: Low Intensity Conflict and High Intensity Conflict. These provide two easy acronyms (HIC and LIC) and the ability for maneuver forces to ignore LIC as being for Special Forces, CA, and other military branches. Unfortunately, as the example of Iraq, Vietnam or Somalia can attest, war is very rarely delineated into HIC or LIC. Usually, the stages merge together as fighting in LIC conflicts can feel extremely intense. Particularly, if one gauges the intensity from the point of view of the local population, it is hard to call an insurgency “low intensity.” Therefore, I do not prefer that term.

In addition to their intensity, the military community also tends to refer to contemporary wars by their perceived size or length. The term Small Wars has been around since the late nineteenth century, and has been used extensively by the British and is the name of a Marine Corps manual from the 1930s. One of the most popular military blogs and online forums uses this term and it basically refers to the small brushfire wars the Colonial powers waged since the late nineteenth century (think the Philippines, the Malayan Conflict, and the French in Algieria).  Again, I think calling the insurgencies in Afghanistan or Iraq small horribly miscalculates their impact on American foreign policy or their cost to our economy. Also, no war feels small for the country on whose soil it is being waged.

I am not sure how long the term has been around, but some contemporary blogs refer to our current fight as the Long War. The problem with defining current warfare as either long or short is that it gets confused with the struggle against extremist terrorist groups and our counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. I agree with other theorists who caution against lumping Al Qaida extremists and all other terrorists together in the term "terrorism." Also, by labeling terrorism a war we risk limiting ourselves to only a single solution, the military.

Asymmetric war gained cogency in the early days of the Iraq conflict as a way to define the tactics of the enemy compared to our overwhelming technological advantage. Basically, asymmetric warfare is the acknowledgement of the huge technological advantage of the US military and the adoption of guerilla or terrorist methods to fight against the US. This terminology gives a very big power versus small power view of contemporary warfare. This view of warfare ignores states where the ruling party has only a minimal technological or political advantage over its opponents. Asymmetric warfare also emphasizes the technological nature of warfare, a bias all to evident in the American way of warfare. While I don't have enough room to prove on this post, in the long run, I would argue that when America's wartime leaders emphasize technology over people we lose.

The final two terms are probably the most common when discussing guerilla warfare, insurgencies and their ilk. They are unconventional, which describes conventional as major units lining up to fight and unconventional as everything else, and irregular, which describes regular as state on state warfare and irregular as everything else. One term primarily discuss the means of fighting and the other who decides to wage it. In fact, the American military waged irregular conflict in its origin during the American revolution and continued to do so until modern times. The British fought unconventionally throughout their history, possibly more than they fought conventionally. Since 1960, the American army has fought irregularly and unconventionally in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only conventional fights were during Panama and the first Gulf War. Therefore, using negative terms (unconventional and irregular) to describe contemporary warfare would seem to ignore the surprising frequency in warfare and because of this these are terms I do not like.

Even though I disagree with these terms in principle, I cannot say that they won't pop up on our blog from time to time. However, in the long run all the terms I discussed today limit our military in terms of viewpoint and creativity in fighting future wars.

Aug 07

In the last week, I’ve read four books on war and dozens of articles from the New Yorker, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. Since starting this blog, I’ve spent hours reading both pro-war and anti-war blogs, FP and IR and Military Affairs websites while listening to NPR and the PBS’ NewsHour. Since I moved to Italy, I’ve talked to Soldiers and Officers, some liberal, some conservative, some pro-war, some anti-war.
Despite this research, this week a friend told me I couldn’t understand war because I’ve never been there. He was half correct; I don’t understand war. Despite all this reading, watching, listening, and talking, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what war is, and what violence means. I don’t think I ever will understand it.

But he was also half wrong. He made the assumption that you can understand war. I don’t think you can. Soldier, officer, war reporter, civilian, politician, academic; none of us has a clue what war is actually about. We all have bits and pieces of the same jig saw puzzle, but none of us can see the full picture.

This isn’t unique to war. In the film Waking Life, a character describes the difficulty in describing anything. Think about a “tiger” and you picture a tiger. But is your tiger, the picture in your head, anything like the tiger in my head? What about concepts like love, truth or beauty? The gap only grows larger when our ideas/concepts become more complicated. War is both concept and thing, is life and reality multiplied. It is immense, almost past our conception.

I recently re-read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This is a book by someone who has been to war (Vietnam), a war about as ugly as any war can get. And, he doesn’t understand it himself.

“It’s difficult,” O’Brien writes, “to separate what happened from what seemed to happen...there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue but which represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

In his way, O’Brien attempts to recreate his feelings and experiences in Vietnam, as best and as feebly as he can. The main theme of The Things They Carried is how hard it is to understand war, or to describe it. “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.”

In one interview, O’Brien explains how the mundane details were made up, but the incredible details were based in fact. “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”
Why does this matter? Ultimately, it is because of the subject matter. War, and the decision to go to war, is not some small, trivial thing. It matters, it's literally a matter of life and death.

No, I’ve never been to war, and I never will go to war. Still, I'm trying to understand it even though I probably never will.

Aug 05

It’s hard to watch or read the news and not be reminded of the struggling economy. Mentioned almost as often as the troubled economy is the massive and rising deficit. Next year, America’s debt will continue its meteoric rise and top billions. I do not know economics, so I don’t claim to be able to cure all our budget ills. Instead, I humbly submit one solution to simply lower our tremendous deficit: eliminate overseas military bases in Europe and Japan. These holdovers from a previous military era do not keep us safe or help our economy.
The military could trim their budget in many ways, but none as easy as bringing our troops home from European bases. Sure the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are exorbitantly expensive, but it will take years to extricate from those countries. Sure we waste millions on defense procurement, but, as the battle for the F-22 shows, the spending culture of the Pentagon will not be fixed over night.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars support our troops to live overseas. Stationing thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen overseas is expensive. The Army has three brigades forward deployed to Europe, each manned with several thousand soldiers with thousands more in support. The government pays to shipping American food to Europe, pays to subsidize gas to American prices, pays to ship Soldier’s cars and furniture, and pays thousands of landlords rent every month. Instead of giving welfare to Italy, England and Germany, we should invest this money in America.
National security aficionados need not worry about US security either. Thousands of forward deployed troops did not prevent 9/11 nor did they stop the attacks in Madrid or London. They did not even contribute significantly to the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq. True, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team jumped into Iraq, but airborne operations can originate from across the planet, say a base in North Carolina instead. (C-130 combat aircraft can fly non-stop around the world with mid-air refueling) Further, if we are willing to deploy our soldiers from Germany and Italy to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, then clearly the security situation does not require their presence.

Forward deployed troops do not make America safer nor significantly advance our national security agenda; we should save the money and bring them home.

Aug 03

Nothing is new under the sun. As a military, we forget that truism after every war. Perhaps, it’s because whenever the old resurfaces, the US Army calls it the new. Thus, Iraq and Afghanistan are not guerilla wars, or irregular conflicts, or terrorism, or low-intensity conflict, they are insurgencies, or fourth generation war or hybrid wars.

One could persuasively argue that the current fights, while they feel new in our American military, are not unique at all in the scheme of things. The Spanish fought a guerilla war during the Napoleonic Age, and gave that style of war a name. America fought an insurgency in the Philippines. The Marine corps gave it the name, “small wars.” The British fought countless small wars and called them “irregular war,” as if regular war was something between nations.

Yet our trend of naming the old the new continued. Thus, we now have revolutionary war, asymmetric war, insurgency, counter insurgency, civil wars, foreign internal defense, terrorism, irregular or low intensity conflict, long wars, asymmetric wars and unconventional.

Currently, the military, journalists and politicians settle for insurgency.

Lack of clarity in terms destroys debates and only complicates issues. Thus, before we venture much further into posting on this website I want to define the terms I will use, clarifying how and why I use them, explaining which ones I prefer and do not prefer and finally, offer my description of modern war and how I view it. I will not reference official Army doctrine, these are my opinions on these terms and why I use them.

But, do any of these terms truly capture why these wars occur? Do they confuse the issue by having so many terms? As a community, we counter-insurgenistas need a term that captures our current conflict, and can last into the future. That is what the next few week's posts hope to provide. (A bold, impossible goal but blogs allow us to dream.)

For the rest of this month, I plan to roll out my definitions on war in the contemporary world. I ask all readers, what terms do you think adequately capture modern war? What terms fail to do so?