Nov 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric C: The Foreign Affairs Movies You Need to Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 25

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

Nov 23

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

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

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

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

But it was.

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

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

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

Nov 20

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

I got some push back from our loyal readers (which I love, I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Keep us honest) last week when I revealed my hatred for the memoir.

First, a clarification. When I write about memoirs, I am specifically writing about literary memoirs or the "non-fiction novel." This phrase "non-fiction novel" is a contradiction, an oxymoron, yet the genre has become very popular. As I said last week, it has almost overtaken the novel as the predominant literary form.

The memoir is a sub-class of autobiography. I have nothing against autobiography. In comparison, an autobiography is usually longer, and more expansive. Most importantly, most long form autobiography isn't written like a novel. I have nothing against people (such as politicians, soldiers, and celebrities) sharing their experiences, I just want them to choose the right form.

Three of the memoirs I read--Jarhead, The War I Always Wanted, and Soft Spots--should have been novels. Instead these memoirs, written in the style of a novel but restrained by reality, end up doing silly things. Which brings me to the dialogue problem.

The dialogue problem is this: every war memoir I read recently contains dialogue, and usually a lot of it. Unless the authors recorded their conversations as they had them, they wrote their dialogue from memory. Or they made it up entirely.

The catch is, memoirs are true. They are non-fiction. You aren’t supposed to make things up. Is the dialogue true, or mostly true? Or mostly false? Or thematically true to what war felt like, but factually untrue? If you are going to make things up, why not just write a novel, albeit one mostly based on your life like Hemingway or Mailer?

Let me put forward a comparison. I randomly opened up each of the five memoirs I have read so far:
- On page 84 of Jarhead, the narrator has a conversation that takes up a page and goes back and forth 12 times.
- Next, I opened Soft Spots, page 48 I found the narrator having a conversation with a Sergeant in Iraq on patrol. This was on my second try of randomly opening the book.
- In The War I Always Wanted, page 186, conversation at night after a bruising attack.
- Page 248 of One Bullet Away, conversation in an Iraqi village during what I believe was the invasion.
- Page 82 of The Unforgiving Minute, dialogue from a Ranger instructor.

The point is I found dialogue on almost every other page, almost always in situations where dictation would be impossible. Compare this to Winston Churchill’s five volume autobiography and history of World War II; I’m flipping through it right now and I can't find a page with dialogue. I'd bet each of the above memoirs has more dialogue than Churchill's entire opus.

Something has changed in the world of writing to make this stylistic inaccuracy acceptable. Well, it isn't to me. I'd like my autobiographies written by statesman and historians, and our memories to be written by novelists and poets.

Nov 19

The stories about contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to amaze me. Five months ago, my post on military contractors and their unreliability garnered a lot of feedback. I wrote they were untrustworthy then; apparently not much has changed.

Eric and I aren't fans of military contracting. Eric C thinks it is immoral, I believe it is ineffective. When historians write the histories of our current wars, the inefficiencies of both the military and the contractors will explain why victory was so elusive for so many years.

Partly because of the creation of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, contractors have popped back up in the news. We decided to provide a collection of links to highlight the best of these stories.

KBR hampers pull out of Iraq - Turns out, getting out of Iraq will not be hampered by violence or domestic political issues, but by negotiations by KBR to increase their profits.

In fact, KBR is sending more people to Iraq. Even with work to do pulling out of Iraq, it defies logic that KBR continues to send in new employees.

CENTCOM unsure exactly how many contractors it employs. This gem from Reuters describes how the military has only a guess of how many contractors we actually employ in Afghanistan.

KBR bribes the Iraqi government. Iraqis government officials took bribes by KBR and dropped murder charges.

A new book on military contracting: One Nation Under Contract Allison Stranger's new book comes down pretty harshly on military contracting (among other forms of contracting).

But don't worry, Iraqi contracting is even worse than American contracting.

And on the lighter side: The Daily Show says Republicans want rape to be legal for military contractors.

Nov 18

Last Monday, I woke up knowing I had a rough day ahead of me; I had to deal with government contractors. First, I had to go to both the California DMV to renew my registration, and then to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center (VPC) to pick up my car from Italy.

I'm no fan of the DMV. I believe it is a model of government inefficiency. It's only redeeming feature is that my local DMV shares a parking place with my favorite breakfast place. Combine this with the fact that wait times are up across California, and I dreaded the day ahead of me.

I arrived at 7:45. I waited in line for 15 minutes before they opened, got a call number, and within twenty minutes I was at a window registering my car. Beginning to end, the whole experience took about forty minutes, and the DMV helped almost fifty people in that time, if not more. Three employees helped me: two were very friendly, and the other was quick and efficient, handling almost all the vehicle registrations by himself.

After eating my eggs benedict, I went to the Los Angeles Vehicle Processing Center. For Soldiers deployed overseas--in places like Italy or Germany--the government ships their cars over to them. The Vehicle Processing Center is where soldiers pick up or drop off their cars.

Despite having ample personnel--I counted at least half a dozen within eye sight--and despite only four customers to serve--only one of whom was in front of me--I waited over an hour to talk to someone. And I had even called them to let them know I was on my way. Once they called my name, it took fifteen more minutes to process my car. Throughout my wait, I watched the workers walk to the front, shuffle papers, and then return to who knows where.

The employees who had processed the car didn't clean the windshield where their stickers left residue. They also somehow lost the screws for my license plates. (In fairness, Juan, the employee who finally helped me, was amazingly friendly and clearly the hardest worker in the joint. Without him I would have lost it.)

What can we learn from this? In all honesty, not much. These are two isolated incidents, and I consider anecdotes the worst way to prove a point. I could easily have walked in at slightly different times and had reverse experiences. But I want to provide a moral anyways.

Government employees, contractors, and investment banks are all inefficient for the same reason: lack of competition. Conservative economists (Bernanke, Paulson, Greenspan, etc.) uphold the free market as the ideal form to foster competition. I agree. Take the DMV. Who else can provide your registration or licensing? No one. They have a market of one, and no pressure to perform.

When government contracts out their job, though, you now have a market of one contracting to another market of one. In the case of the VPC, they don't have to worry about customer service because they have a long term contract with the government. It's customers, the military, have no alternatives. Contractors, like the VPC, Kellogg Brown and Roote, and Booz Allen Hamilton, thrive off these long term contracts and the lack of a market place.

The DMV is terrible. And contractors are somehow worse.

Tomorrow, we plan on recapping the recent spate of military contractor news, including KBR's Iraqi draw-up, and how, in the world of military contracting, rape is now legal.

Nov 16

This is my first attempt to provide an analysis of a foreign affairs or counter-insurgency book. Or put simply, this is a review. More often than not when I read a book or article it sparks one particular idea, I simply write up particular idea and cite the source. (This happens almost every time I read Foreign Affairs, for example.) But the entirety of David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerilla left me nodding my head, silently saying, "Yes, yes, yes." With regards to both counter-insurgency and the threat of terrorism, David Kilcullen hits the mark on what the US, our NATO allies, and the UN must do to face Islamic extremism. If you care about counter-insurgency or terrorism, read this book.

David Kilcullen is uniquely placed to comment on both of these subjects. As an Australian Army Captain, he learned the basics of counter-insurgency when he deployed to Indonesia. As a counter-terrorism official, he worked in the US State Department after 9/11. As an adviser, he helped craft both Generals Petraeus and General McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most importantly, he writes perceptive analysis of political war (our word not his) that provides actionable tips as well as theory. His piece “28 Articles on Counter-insurgency”  (originally published in the Military Review) is probably the most widely distributed guidance in the US military today.

I was probably predisposed to liking The Accidental Guerilla from the beginning. His acknowledgements section reads like a who's-who of the people I respect in foreign affairs. From Andrew Exum (who runs an amazing blog Abu Muquwama) to T.X. Hammes (who brought the phrase 4th Generation War into serious intellectual discussion) to Kalev Sepp (who wrote probably the second best piece on good counter-insurgency after David Kilcullen himself) to John Nagl, Tom Friedman and Tom Ricks, these are people who, in my opinion, are doing the most exciting work in international relations theory.

While standing on the shoulders of these giants, Dr. Kilcullen reveals his greatest strength: the ability to synthesize the competing forces of insurgency, terrorism, Islam, asymmetric war, globalization, the fourth generation of war, and the Western world into one cogent theory. He coins a new term to combine these forces, hybrid warfare. When I took time to define the terms of political war, I mentioned hybrid warfare as a term that "gets" it. His explanation of hybrid warfare then flows directly into his theory on accidental guerillas. Frankly, this theory should define America's approach to the problems in Afghanistan of terrorists, insurgents, Al Qaeda and the Taliban--mainly it shows the flaws in attempting a pure counter-terrorist approach.

The Accidental Guerrilla came out earlier this year, and I read it a few months ago. I hesitated to start posting on it because I feared it would open the floodgates. Hopefully, my review will explain my obsession with this book and encourage our readers to read the one book that will explain national security better than any other on the market. Today I addressed the background that gives this book its strength; next time, I will address the ideas in the book.

(A personal note: In March 2008, David Kilcullen was in Konar Province, Afghanistan where I was deployed. The photo he took of the Asadabad Provincial Reconstruction Team in Asadabad is a place I went about twice a week. Dr. Kilcullen even uses our area of operations as a case study, though he focuses on Lt. Col. Cavoli, whose unit we replaced. I plan to write a post comparing Dr. Kilcullen's thoughts on counter-insurgency and my battalion's operations.)

Nov 13

The "post 9/11 war memoirs" series so far:

- What Did You Say? - The Dialogue Problem and Memoirs

- Rape, the Marines and Anthony Swofford's Jarhead

- Of Memoirs and Morals

- 5 Lessons Learned From The Things They Carried

- Anthony Swofford's Jarhead: A Review

- Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots: A Review

- Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted: A Review

- Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away: A Review

- Evan Wright's Generation Kill: A Review

- Generation Kill vs. One Bullet Away

- Unleash The Dogs Of War

- The Litmus Test: 9 Things Every Memoir Should Include (But Don't)

- The Litmus Test Continued: War Memoirs and American Failure

- Why I Feel So Bad: Reviews and Guilt

- A Literary Review of Lone Survivor

- Andy Rooney's My War: A Review

- Petty Grudges: War Memoirs and Vendettas

- What I'd Write

- The Flip Side: When Authors Love Their Characters Too Much

- Craig Mullaney's Unforgiving Minute: A Review

- The Good Titles

- The Bad Titles

- War Memoirs and the Media: Two Examples

- Donovan Campbell's Joker One: A Review

- Kayla William’s Love My Rifle More Than You: A Review

- Rick's Picks: My Take

- Andrew Exum's This Man's Army: A Review

- The "Get Some!" Problem

- The Best of Junger's "War"

- Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?

- Uhh! What Is It Good For? A Review of Junger's War

- Matt Gallagher's Kaboom: A Review

- Michael Herr's Dispatches: A Review

- You Broke My Heart, Mortenson

- Is Lying Getting Tougher?

- FlashForward: War Memoirs and the Jump Cut Introduction

- An On V Literary Update

I plan on critiquing/discussing the following memoirs:

I've already reviewed Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (which I’ve written about before here), Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots,  Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, Evan Wright's Generation Kill, Andy Rooney's My War, Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's Lone Survivor, Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, Donovan Campbell's Joker One, Andrew Exum's This Man's Army, Kayla William's Love My Rifle More Than You, Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory, Sebastian Junger's War, Matt Gallagher's Kaboom and Michael Herr's Dispatches. (Find the reviews and essay links above.) .

Still to be read--and this should finish off the memoirs series--are Shannon Meehan's Beyond Duty, Anthony Shadid Night Draws Near, Doonesbury's Sandbox, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Darrell Griffin Sr.'s Last Journey, Dave Eggers What is the What, Michale Hastings' I Lost My Love in Baghdad and e.e. cumming's The Enormous Room.

I may yet read Anthony Loyd's My War Gone By I Miss It So, Colby Buzzell's My War, John Crawford's The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell,  or Patrick Hennessy's The Junior Officer's Reading Club, but I don't know. I'm ready to move onto post-9/11 war films, which feels quicker and less time consuming.

The Original Post:

We've been asked from time to time, why does our website write about art? Michael's reason is different than mine. I write about posts about art and Violence because I enjoy writing about art.

The literature I have read for this website has mainly been war novels about the military and soldiers, armies and officers. This is because it directly relates to our larger topic--modern American wars and the military that fights them--and at the same time it gives me the opportunity to critique art as a whole. In other words, the things that define a great war novel are the same things that define a great novel. Their subject just happens to be more specific.

I say this because today I am beginning a series on war memoirs written by soldiers and officers. My ulterior motive is that I want to point out the limitations of the memoir. Or put more bluntly, I hate memoirs. It is an impotent medium and bad form. I hope to destroy it, or at least wound it. The memoir is inferior to the novel, and yet it is slowly taking its place in modern literature. I vainly hope to reverse this trend.

Michael asked me if memoirs are even art. Yes, memoirs are literature, and literature is art. But this question gets at the my first critique of memoirs: they purport to be non-fiction, instead of fiction. The word “non-fiction” implies truth. It implies accuracy. It implies that the events contained within the pages actually happened to the actual people. Thus, Craig Mullaney is not a character, he is a real person. His wife Meena and his Sergeant and his men are real people, not characters. The events of Jarhead aren’t plot, they are real events.

This is a problem for two reasons:

First, to critique a memoir would mean insulting real people. I wrote a note to myself while I was reading Jarhead, “If this were a novel, I could critique this character.” Where I can describe Hamlet as a vacillating weenie, or MacBeth as a heartless usurper, to describe the Marines of Jarhead as perverts is to insult the Marine Corps, not fictional characters. To describe each narrator as a drunk would insult each writer and I don't want to do that.

Of course, each writer is aware of this problem, that they are presenting themselves and their fellow soldiers on the page. How they deal with it, I’ll cover later.

Second, it prevents literary or political analysis. If I want to debate the war, journalism is a better medium. If I want to debate art, novels are better. Instead of debating artistic choices, I’m left debating the veracity of a work--which is the only thing left to discuss--as Nathaniel Fick does in his review of Jarhead. This is boring, and not actually literary criticism.

I'll close with this: I plan on critiquing memoirs, sometimes criticizing and sometimes praising them. I won't be critiquing the Soldiers, I am critiquing their works of art. The fact I even have to write the previous sentence is why I am writing this series.

Nov 11

An ongoing topic on the World’s Affair Board (one of the better forums out there) is the problem of Pakistan. Many of the users have surprisingly negative opinions of Pakistan, some advocating severing all diplomatic ties or letting the Taliban overthrow the Pakistan government. The most surprising assertion, to me, was that some on the website viewed Pakistan as the heart of our Islamic problem. Is Pakistan the newest, most important front in the war on terror?

One can't discuss the problem of Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan, specifically Pakistan's’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), where the Taliban train, rest between missions, and plot future actions against the Afghan government. Thus, one cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan without solving them in Pakistan as well.

So what do we do about Pakistan?

Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar have their own plan. They authored a bill promising 7.5 billion in aid over the next five years to support Pakistan’s efforts against the Taliban in their country. Militarily, we will continue to use drone strikes to target top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Even further, the Pentagon has established the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell to better coordinate efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I applaud the Kerry-Lugar bill. As my failed states post hopefully made clear, a successful Afghanistan with a failed Pakistan is just as bad (if not worse) for the US than a failed Afghanistan and successful Pakistan. The solution is continued doses of preventive medicine.

If Pakistan fails, the US, NATO or the UN will have to get involved. Nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, and the country would become a haven for Islamic extremism.This would cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, US and foreign. While still functioning now, Pakistan has several clear warning signs of state failure. They have a higher infant mortality rate than Iraq and hundreds of radical madrassas.

Senators Lugar and Kerry are on the right track. They sent aid to the government of Pakistan to keep it from failing but I say we double down. As a society, we should match the 7.5 billion our government will invest. Not governmental aid, but aid from people and foundations. We have already sent aid to a Pakistani government that wavers in it’s support of the US. Now we need to send aid to a Pakistani people that at best are tolerant of the US and at worse openly despise us. By lending a hand to help fight the problems of ignorance, economic stagnation, and chronic illness, we will gain an ally in the region and prevent their state from failing.

Remember, if the US doesn’t help Pakistan, radical Arabs will. In fact, Saudi oil money already has. Islamic extremists spend millions educating Pakistani children in radical madrassas throughout Pakistan. We need more people like Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. He uses a budget of only a few million dollars to build hundreds of school. Imagine if the US could send hundreds of Greg Mortensens armed with tens of millions of dollars.

If, as a people, we reach out to Pakistan, as a people they will reject extremism. Its not impossible. The world’s largest Islamic nation--Indonesia--supports America, Pakistan could too.

Nov 09

(Considering that no analysis of the rebuilding of Afghanistan would be complete without a critique of the officer in charge of rebuilding Afghanistan (or defeating the Taliban, depending on your point of view), Eric C. would like to provide his thoughts.)

My apologies for quoting The Matrix in the title, but there is something apt about the sentiment that there is a huge difference between knowing what is the right to do and then doing that thing.

I thought of this when I listened to The NewsHour’s recap of Gen. McChrystal’s congressional interview on June 2nd. One of the reasons I began On Violence was to promote the proper way to fight counter-insurgency warfare. One could say the Army, through leaders like General David Patraeus, has already adopted good counter-insurgency tactics. One of the key questions still facing McChrystal is, does he know good counter-insurgency?
General McChrystal certainly talks like he knows counter-insurgency. In his interview before Congress, Gen. McChrystal says that in Afghanistan, “We must conduct a holistic counter-insurgency campaign, and we must do it well. Success will not be quick or easy. Casualties will likely increase. We will make mistakes.” True, true and unfortunately true. Gen. McChrystal, it appears, has joined Patraeus and others in knowing the way we must fight to win on the modern battlefield.

But can he execute the new strategy?

There is a difference between knowing the path and walking it, a knowing/doing gap if you will. When General McChrystal first commanded troops in Iraq, he detained Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But to do so, his troops “rounded up and held Iraqis by the dozens. Some of those detentions have come under scrutiny.” as the NewsHour reports.  Journalists, like David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, condemn his leadership of Cam Nama detention facility, citing human rights violations. He also supervised the Ranger Regiment when they awarded a Silver Star to Pat Tillman, a black eye as black as it comes on a military career.

Thus far, though, General McChrystal seems genuinely repulsed by civilian casualties. Based on what he has said in interviews with 60 Minutes and Dexter Filkins, he knows that civilian perception of the government of Afghanistan is the only metric that matters. He knows that civilian casualties destroy our progress and our respect. It seems like he is executing good counter-insurgency, but it is still early.

We truly hope General McChystal has learned the lessons of failed counter-insurgency tactics and policies. Initial reports are optimistic, let’s hope he fulfills the promises.

To learn more about General McChrystal we recommend the following pieces about McChrystal: 60 Minutes' Podcast, the Newshour, and Dexter Filkin’s McChrystal’s Long War.

Nov 06

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Will. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

What has every school shooting from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Virginia Tech and beyond had in common? The shooters all played violent video games.

I recently went to a talk on school violence given by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman and this is an issue he felt very strongly about and so do I. Lt. Col. Grossman has devoted his life to the study of violence in society and when someone so knowledgeable in one area comes down so firmly on one issue, we should take note. Games like Grand Theft Auto in recent history, and Doom and Quake from a few years ago, numb the mind when it comes to violence and killing, especially in children.

Grand Theft Auto has to be one of the worst perpetrators. Players can kill anyone and everyone they see, from cops to little old ladies crossing the street.  And there is no shortage of methods for carrying out these brutal assaults. When children see this, the line is blurred between reality and game.

So what makes video games different from violent movies or violent music, as Matty P talked about in his post "Violence and Entertainment"? The answer is the interaction. In movies and music the watcher/listener doesn’t have any say in what happens--it has already been decided by the creator. In video games, the player can make a conscious decision that they are going to “kill” a cop or innocent bystander on the street. The player can decide how they want to do it--with their bare hands, with a baseball bat, or with a gun. They can literally stomp someone’s face into the pavement until they stop moving. In the Nintendo Wii game Manhunt 2, users actually simulate the movements of cutting their victims throat with a piece of glass or suffocating them with a plastic bag. Think about that for a minute…

One could argue whether games like this even need to be made, but if they are, tighter restrictions should be put in place to keep them out of the hands of children. These games have come under attack in the past but the game makers claim that they are being censored if vendors don’t want to sell their games. So sell them they do – to anyone who wants to buy it, regardless of age. Stores enforce age laws on things like tobacco, alcohol, firearms, and pornography. Why don’t they do it for video games?

Some critics say these games teach children how to shoot and kill.  I would disagree that one can learn how to accurately shoot a gun from playing a video game, but studies have shown that children who play these games become less sensitive to violence and lose touch with what is real and what isn’t. 

In conclusion, I want to draw a distinction between games like Grand Theft Auto and games like Call of Duty and other “war” games. Being a soldier or a cop is an honorable and noble profession. Being a criminal is not. There is a difference between games that reward senseless, immoral, wanton violence and games that simulate being a soldier or a cop where killing is sometimes a necessary part of the job.

Nov 05

(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.)

It may have something to do with our Viking heritage. The Vikings sought combat for reasons as simple as honor and glory. According to Norse mythology, a man could only earn the honor of an afterlife filled with drunken feasting and bloodless battles through death in combat. But more likely, as much as my father champions our heritage, his warrior mentality is due to his experiences as a soldier.

It’s not that he enjoys taking life. In fact, he is as much a healer as he is a warrior. His role in his unit was as a combat medic in operations of engagement. Later, he worked in civil affairs to coordinate medical efforts in military occupied areas. He was, however, made for combat. He enjoys the excitement, the adrenaline, and the camaraderie that is only fostered from life and death situations.

“Son,” he told me once, “I never wanted to be shot at, but it felt damn good walking away rather than being carried.”

Using the term warrior on a posting dedicated to an intellectual discourse on violence would seem to demonize a man, but allow me to be clear. I do not define a warriors by the desire to end life or to die in vain glory in a manner befitting Viking berserkers. Rather, I epitomize them by their passion and their willingness to fight for a cause.

He volunteered for Vietnam. His aptitude for combat operations and medicine allowed for his assignment to special forces operations. The unit in which he served was elite. Many of his missions were in enemy controlled territory, small squads, with minimal support. Some missions remain classified. Multiple Bronze Stars and combat ribbons adorn his dress uniform. But even more impressive than metals, men have actually sworn that they live today because of my father’s presence by their side. This knowledge is humbling.

Whether because of luck or skill or divine grace, he survived every mission, every assignment, and eventually retired. But what does a warrior do when he is no longer a soldier?

I began to notice his unrest towards the end of his military career. When he was too old to be considered for combat operations, no longer considered elite for his ability in combat, he was considered elite for his experience and knowledge of operations. Rather than fighting wars, he fought to build peace in foreign lands through civil affairs and foreign services.

Once he retired, there were still battles to be fought. He had already begun to channel energy toward another cause, another war. He began humanitarian work, but not the type of aid work that consists of rebuilding houses destroyed by hurricanes or building wells for people without water sources (though both are noble pursuits). As a warrior, there must be risk associated with the cause for which he would fight. He placed himself where there was both danger and a need. He went active conflict areas to assist in medical education, organization, and facilitation. This meant everything from providing supplies to building facilities to training locals in the basics of emergency medicine. And he purposefully faces danger to do this.

It’s about passion. He joined the military because he believed in patriotism and value of citizen government. He continued to serve because he believed that our country needs amiable relations with other foreign powers. And he provides humanitarian aide because he believe third world communities deserve access to basic medical care. As a warrior, it was never about the enemies he fought but the cause for which he fought.

In 1952, there was an unsuccessful attempt to convince General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme United Nations Commander himself, to run for President. He declined saying, “Old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away.” That’s the answer to the question of what becomes a warrior who does not die in combat. They continue to fight, but in a different way. For me that is a true warrior; one who seeks a new peril to their fellow man and faces it like a dragon to be slain. And that is how they go, as warriors still fighting for that which they have passion.

Fighting till they fade.

Nov 04

If America pulls out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will takeover. This opinion is taken as one of inevitability in almost every argument supporting General McChrystal's plan to add troops to Afghanistan. But I disagree.

Now, I generally support sending more troops to Afghanistan, whether US or coalition. Any soldier on the ground knows that for a country of Afghanistan's size, we do not have enough troops. For example, the area my platoon patrolled in Afghanistan is now patrolled by a company, and even they could use more troops. While I support an expanded US presence, it is not because I believe the Taliban will take over Afghanistan if America withdraws.

To be clear, I am not saying that a rapid US pullout would leave a stable government in its wake. All I am saying is that a Taliban takeover is not guaranteed. Our withdrawal will create a power vacuum in Afghanistan. In this vacuum, there will be violence and civil war; the various tribal groups will fight for control. But declaring a winner to a hypothetical future civil war is definitely premature.

In that fight, the current government in Afghanistan will no longer be constrained by US and NATO rules of engagement. Even further, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hezaras will remember persecution they suffered under a dominant Pashtun Taliban in the nineties. They will remember--as most Americans have forgot--that the Taliban rose to power almost spontaneously in a very short time period. While the Taliban is currently powerful, who knows what other group may lurk in the shadows?

Further, the current Afghan government has quite a bit of fire power. They have commandos and special forces trained well by our American special forces. They will have plenty of ammunition, weapons and training for their regular soldiers. Many of the most peaceful parts of the country, the North and West, are home to minorities that will want to remain in power. Some groups, like the Hezaras, have been stockpiling weapons since America invaded, either stolen from the Army or via the black market. What will stop these relatively unaffected groups from unleashing hell on the Pashtun areas? Also, while the North and West are peaceful, the young men still get the experience of war by joining the Afghanistan National Army (then deserting).

As I have said before, I don’t make predictions. I want to caution my fellow pundits from assuming a prediction they cannot back up. If America pulls out of Afghanistan, violence will probably spike, but the fate of the Karzai government is not yet a forgone conclusion.

Nov 02

Following an extended war, Islamic extremists in Afghanistan defeat a superpower and expel them from their country. Afghanistan then falls into civil war, and those same Islamic extremists wrest control of Kabul. As the country plummets into poverty and abuse, they use Afghanistan as a base to launch terror attacks around the globe. Even worse, terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Jemaat Islamiyah and others use the victory to recruit men, gather funds, and gain power.

Of course, I refer not to the future of America in Afghanistan, but to the result of the USSR's ill fated venture in the 1980s.

President Obama--and the Democrats encouraging a smaller military footprint in Afghanistan--should take heed of the Russia’s example. Any pull out of American forces, even leaving a robust contingent of special forces operators, intelligence analysts, and unmanned drones, will radically motivate the global mujhadeen and their Islamic jihad. It is hard to deny that if we pull out of Afghanistan, Islamic extremism will benefit.

I first read an abbreviated description of this idea on the blog Abu Muqawama, and I can’t get the logic of it out of my head. A dramatic draw down of US forces will enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban, along with associated groups around Pakistan and Afghanistan, to declare victory over the Western powers. They can say they have defied two different superpowers.

This propaganda victory for Islamic extremism will aid Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in recruiting, financing and launching future operations. Money from around the Muslim world will fill their coffers and new recruits will swell their ranks. Even if our counter-terrorism efforts keep Al Qaeda off balance in Waziristan and the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will radically motivate Al Qaeda in other parts of the world such as Yemen, Somalia, Indonesia, or Thailand.

Like all things, even our failure to create a stable, non-extremist government in Afghanistan can be mitigated. Our counter-terrorism strategy throughout the world has been very effective at destroying Al Qaeda operatives thus far.

But we cannot deny that failure in Afghanistan will lead directly to a strengthened Mujhadeen.