Dec 31

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I pointed out the disconnect between what happened in Iran last June, and the three week long media riot that followed it. It's not that the event wasn’t important, there were just too many people talking about too little.

The obvious counter argument is that people have a right to support regime change in Iran. We agree. Anti-semitism aside, the Iranian neoconservative Ahmadinejad is leading his country down a dangerous foreign policy path, and turning his country into a police state with rigged elections. Iran’s half-democratic and half-religious political system flies in the face of the Western understanding of democracy, so I understand why so many people--liberal and conservative--would support a democratic “revolution” in Iran.

But in all of the hype, blog posts and news coverage, we lost sight of a few things:

1. This isn’t a “revolution.” A fifty-fifty divide in a country does not a revolution make, more like a civil war. Remember, a lot of people still love Ahmadinejad. Not in the urban centers, but definitely in the rural areas.

2. If you are hoping for an Invictus-style clean transition of government like South Africa, forget it. This conflict will get uglier before it gets better. The history of revolutions, from America to the present, is one of bloody, chaotic messes.

3. An Iranian revolution will not be a Western revolution. The "Green" politicians in Iran look an awful lot like the current regime. Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-1989. Karroubi was a chairman of the Parliament and a past presidential candidate. Khattami was a former president.

4. The twitter revolution occurred more in the Western world than in Iran. We can safely say this is the first revolution watched by the world with new media, like twitter and facebook. (There was another "Twitter Revolution" in Moldova, but who noticed?) Looking back, Twitter didn’t make much of a difference.

5. Iran's policies will not change, at least not radically. We can expect new, non-Ahmadinejad leaders to open a dialogue with America, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to strive for nuclear weapons. (To be fair, some in the media mentioned this at the time)

Why do people support revolutions? I think it is because people find them sexy, the idea of millions of people joining together to throw out the corrupt ruling powers. I saw it in college when fellow activists yearned for the revolutions and protests of the sixties; I see it now in the tea-partyers who hope to overthrow the liberal agenda in the name of John Galt.

But as we wrote earlier, revolutions are usually violent, ugly things. We can hope for changes in Iran, but we can't forget the cost of that revolution.

Dec 30

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A few weeks after we launched On Violence, Michael C and I were confronted with the Iranian election protests. Immediately we had to answer the question: Should we respond?

We didn’t respond for what we think was a good reason: nothing really happened.

Let me clarify the above statement. A lot happened. People were killed. The foundations of Iran’s electoral system were shaken to their core, and as Michael wrote on Monday, virtually every important foreign policy trend from the last ten years was represented in the revolution. What started on June 13 will impact Iran’s political system for years to come. (Confrontations continue between the protesters and the government.)

But in another way, nothing really happened. In terms of actual events, the whole thing can be covered in a couple paragraphs. On Wikipedia, as of today, that would be exactly eight paragraphs covering a period of six months. And in terms of regime change, well, absolutely nothing changed.

Yet the protests got wall to wall media coverage.

This isn’t the first time so much has been said about so little (see Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson for that in 2009) but this event is right up there. Daily coverage, twitter revolutions, high expectations; we all expected so much and got nothing for it. Bemoaning massive media coverage of events is pretty commonplace, but unlike trite media firestorms (again, Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson) this foreign policy issue affects the lives of millions.

Of course, I expected this at the time. That’s why I don’t regret not posting on it at the time. Not to toot our own horn, but this is why On Violence doesn’t “chase the news.” Our voice would have added to a cacophony that ultimately had nothing, in the end, to say.

Tomorrow, I will explain why this was actually a very bad thing.

Dec 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- "Five Things We Lost in the Hype"

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

Dec 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, I was afraid.

Dec 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 17

We just wanted to give our loyal readers a heads up on where you can find some of our writing outside of On Violence.

Today Write to Done posted our article, "The Golden Rule of Writing."  We'd like to thank Mary for editing and  publishing our post.

Also, a big shout out to Seth Waite and Alex Frasier over at Blogussion for publishing our guest posts at Unique Blog  titled, "Don't Write Misleading Headlines." and "Forget the Micro-niche."

On Violence has some other guest posts in the pipeline and we will let our readers know when we get published elsewhere. Also, we always welcome guest posts, please check out the details. If you host a blog, we are always interested in working together on something.

If you are new to On Violence, please check out the Best of On Violence, or our On Violence Christmas List Recommendations.

Dec 16

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast to support a fellow milblogger, Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham. His blog, A Soldiers Perspective, has come under fire:

"In early October, C.J. started using A Soldier's Perspective as a vehicle to protest the decision to switch to uniforms mid-year at his children's school...As a result, C.J. says members of the school board contacted his army commanders to complain about his candid blog, asking him to remove all relating posts. Those very requests drove C.J. to shut down A Soldier's Perspective in early November."

So today, led by the blogs Bouhammer and BlackFive, many milblogs are going silent in support of Grisham, and more importantly, free speech.

This obviously affects us here at On Violence since Michael C is an active duty Army Officer, and some of our most popular posts have been personal experience essays. Ethically, we support free speech. As long as a Soldier doesn't divulge sensitive information, he should have the freedom to say what he wants. Pracitically, we believe a military with open communication with the public will build more support from the general public, not less.

We will resume our regular posting schedule on Friday.

Again, please check out A Soldier's Perspective, Bouhammer, and BlackFive for more on this issue.

Dec 14

It's taken us a long time to publish our blogroll. Why? We didn't want to put out a blogroll we didn't believe in. Too many blogrolls are filled with outdated, broken links, or have too many links to be useful.

The purpose of a blogroll, in our opinion, is to guide readers to the best foreign policy, military affairs, and news blogs on the net, not to receive backlinks from other websites. Our blogroll is for you, not us. Ideally, if our website were the first FP/MA/News blog you've ever read, we can guide you to the best blogs on the net.

We'd also like to say that old media news sources--NPR on radio, NewHour on television, The Economist and the New Yorker for weekly news magazines--still provide some of the best analysis out there.

Having said the above, we consider our blogroll a living document. Expect us to update it every so often and provide a post explaining why.

The On Violence Blog Roll

Abu Muqawama - Andrew Exum recently gave up daily blogging, but we still recommend his blog. Waiting for Abu M's longer form thoughts will always be a treat.

The Best Defense - Tom Rick's wrote two of the definitive accounts of the Iraq War in Fiasco and The Gamble.  He provides some of the best war coverage anywhere.

Blog Them Out of the Stone Age- Professor Mark Grimsley is a professor at the Ohio State University and at the U.S. Army War College. He ably covers both current military affairs and provide a well needed critique to military history. Blogs - The bloggers on Foreign Policy's site--Daniel DreznerAbu Aardvark (Marc Lynch), Stephen Walt, and David Rothkopf--write about zombies, Jay-Z, sports, films and novels. Occasionally they write about foreign affairs too.

FP Watch - More focused on, surprise, foreign policy, FP Watch provides a less militarized view of the foreign policy world aong with good insight.

Informed Comment - Juan Cole is the king of the anti-war blogosphere. Check him out.

Inkspots - A group of foreign policy and military consultants who provide daily updates on the world. They have a good dialogue in their comments section as well.

Kings of War - A group of respected academics from the Department of War Studies at King's College London, they provide a forum for some well-learned perspectives from across the pond.

Michael Yon - Michael Yon writes his award winning reporting from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Milblogging - The ultimate resource for military blogging on the internet. Period.

The New Yorker - The New Yorker is the greatest media creation in any language since the dawn of man (Eric C's opinion). We particularly enjoy Hendrick Hertzberg on politics, Think Tank (Steve Coll) on Public Policy and Interesting Times (George Packer) on whatever topic he feels like opining upon.

The Rebel Reports - Jeremy Scahill reports for the Nation on military contracting and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Small Wars Journal - The Small Wars Journal has created a vital new source of dialogue for the modern warfighter. Read their blog and peruse their forum.

Wings over Iraq - A fellow military blogger who just returned from Iraq, Starbuck wrote a tremendous piece for the Small Wars Journal linking military theory to science fiction. Also one of the first bloggers to add us to his blogroll, so he must have good taste.

If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments below.

Dec 11

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

War, when taken as a subject, gives a writer many headaches. The worst headache comes from dealing with morality. As I wrote in “No Villains,” great art doesn’t have a message. Great writers know that a thesis belongs in an essay and a moral belongs in a fable; neither belongs in a novel. War multiplies this problem.

The narrator of The Things They Carried agrees:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a rule of thumb you can tell a true war story be its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil...

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth...”
                                                                        The Things They Carried (pg. 68.)

This passage is beautiful, sad and true.

O'Brien doesn't just tell us about the futility of extracting meaning from war, he shows it to us. Throughout the novel, soldiers ironically extract “morals” from the events around them. Standing over a dead boy, cutting his thumb from his hand, Mitchell Sanders explains why the boy died, “It’s like that old TV show--Paladin. Have gun, will travel.”

Or smoking a dead boy's reefer waiting for his helicopter EVAC, “The moral’s pretty obvious...Stay away from drugs. No joke, they’ll ruin your day every time.” 

Or, simply, “Death sucks.” In other words, there are no morals, or they are ironic, or meaningless, or trite. The soldier's exercise in moralizing is ultimately futile; there is nothing for them to learn.

The problem is, I attacked Jarhead last week for not taking a moral stand. Isn't this a double standard? What does O'Brien do that Swofford does not?

I found the solution in a story on NPR’s On The Media. War correspondent Chris Hedges describes Vasily Grossman's semi-fictional novel about World War II, Life and Fate, as superior to Curzio Malaparte's very similar novel Kaputt because, “Malaparte veers in that long tradition of war pornography. It’s voyeurism. He doesn't have the moral voice that Grossman has. He seeks the extreme, the outrageous...” If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was describing Swofford’s Jarhead.

O’Brien writes a story where the main character cries over killing--or maybe participating in the killing of--a man, about men who come home from war and kill themselves over the guilt. He writes about a father explaining war to a daughter. He writes morally about immorality. O'Brien writes in that moral voice Hedges describes.

Swofford only writes about ugliness and immorality. He writes about rape and perversion, crapping in holes and killing innocent Bedouins, but nothing else. He read about an allegiance to evil and obscenity, and stopped there. O'Brien, on the other hand, knows he and his characters won't find any morals in war, but at least they keep looking.

To close, I want to make a distinction about war, morals and art. Moral art, or propaganda, can be either pro-war or anti-war; neither tells the full truth. Both are moral points of view. As I'll get to in a few weeks, Swofford's book is, I think, an anti-war statement.

Dec 10

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Chris C. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. This post was written before the recent Ft. Hood incident.

If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

I myself have never had a traumatic experience in Iraq that would lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but over the course of working in a notable, anti-war veterans organization (IVAW), I've worked with several people who have. I've seen the worst possible emotional breakdowns one can possibly imagine in police stations and hosiptals, homes and bars, and even just on the street.

Regardless of your views or stance on one particular war or another it is an inevitable result that some people return traumatized. In 21st century warfare the survivabilty of the average soldier is much higher than in the past. This means that a combat soldier today often survives injuries that would have meant certain death on a battlefield 50 years ago, and comes out of it supposedly "unscathed," meaning there is no noticeable physical wound or lasting physical handicap.

In Iraq and Afghanistan there is a blurry often indeterminable line between a civilian and an enemy combatant, often creating a feeling of paranoia, constant vigilance, and various circumstances where civilians do get killed after being mistaken for enemy combatants.

US soldiers are exposed to danger for a prolonged period of time, up to 15 months as it currently stands, as opposed to say someone in a car accident whose traumatic experience takes place within one day and their mental recovery process may start the next day.

One of the best works on PTSD is LTC Dave Grossmann's book On Killing. On Killing identifies the US military as using operant conditioning to train its soldiers to help overcome their natural reluctance to kill, and he interprets PTSD as a byproduct of what can come about when the military uses this operant conditioning. Soldiers and veterans have to adjust and come to terms with the fact that they have committed what is in most religions and societies considered to be the ultimate sin: to take the life of another human being. Sympathy with the motivations of the enemy combatants, acknowledgement of the humanity of the enemy combatants, and the uncertainty of the combatant status of the person they have come into conflict with can compound these results.

Dec 09

(For foreign policy buffs, remember to check out On V's Christmas Gift Recommendations. )

In my two recent posts on The Accidental Guerrilla, I described the book's importance, and then I summarized it's core theory. Yet, if I only explained the book's main point, I would be doing you, my readers, a disservice. Dr. Kilcullen's doesn't simply present a thesis, he applies it to the varied conflicts underway in the world today. He synthesizes history, politics, culture and military theory to prove his point, and its an elegant thing.

If you want a primer on why modern wars look the way they do, then you need to read the first chapter of The Accidental Guerrilla. First, Kilcullen describes his word for war: hybrid warfare. As we mentioned in our defining war posts, this definition cleverly delineates the difference between trans-national terrorism and the Islamic insurgencies plaguing countries as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan, the Phillipines, Thailand and Somalia. Hybrid warfare is the symptom of a globalized insurgency that uses political tools along with conventional attacks against nation states. He then describes four different ways to look at the conflict between Islam and the West. He identifies a backlash against globalization, a globalized insurgency, an Islamic civil war, and the asymmetry of US power as the four factors causing the international conflicts in the world today.

A powerful and succinct summary.

After his introduction, Dr. Kilcullen busts out his convincing case studies. First, he tackles Afghanistan. He visited the country twice, and he uses a case study to explain the progress that can be made there. His case study is a road construction project in Konar Province, Afghanistan, a place near to my heart. I generally agree with his conclusion about the intertwined power battles between religion, government and tribe in Afghanistan. Students of the region or soon to be deployers need to read this chapter.

After Afghanistan, Dr. Kilcullen delves into Iraq--a country he deployed to in support of the Surge. First he describes the forces at conflict in Iraq, and then deconstructs the Sunni Awakening. The image that stuck with me the most, surprisingly enough, is the disconnect between American and Iraqi forces characterized by bad meetings and PowerPoint. Apparently, Dr. Kilcullen and I have the same enemies and one of them is PowerPoint.

Finally, he concludes by analyzing the political situations in Thailand, Timor, Pakistan and Europe. These chapters demonstrate his understanding of ongoing insurgencies, his cultural literacy of the Middle East and Asia and the West, and the nature of the terrorist threat. Well traveled in addition to being well learned, Dr. Kilcullen has been to every country he describes, and it shows. For example, he deployed to Timor as a Captain in the Australian Army and he traveled to Pakistan with the State Department. If American had payed more attention to the Australian experience, perhaps we would have avoided so many COIN mistakes in the beginning of the Iraq adventure.

After reading The Accidental Guerilla, one can't help but worry about the course of our counter-terrorist campaign. Thankfully, Dr. Kilcullen lays out plenty of advice at the end of his book on both counter-insurgency and the war on terror. But better than all his advice is the idea that we should change our perceptions and assumptions to fight terrorism.

Dec 07

(For foreign policy buffs, remember to check out On V's Christmas Gift Recommendations.)

Our larger mission here at On Violence is to answer, what is Violence? We titled our website "On Violence" because we study more than just Afghanistan, Iraq and the Global War on Terror; we discuss Violence at large, as a concept and force in our lives. In that vein, I want to discuss the philosophical implications of one form of Violence, genocide.

In my opinion, you can map all Violence on a continuum. Where you place violent actions on that continuum is not determined by the size, audacity or intentionality of the action, but by the perceived justice or injustice of the violent action. On one end of the continuum are Just violent actions: self-defense, defense of others, and protection of the greater good. On the other end are unjust actions: rape, murder of the elderly, the sick and children (murder of the helpless).

How far can we go on the unjust end? On the continuum of violence, what is the most unjust action possible? Is there any violent action that is always unacceptable?

Towards that end, we have today's topic: genocide. Is genocide ever acceptable?

As with all things, first we must define our terms. First, the dictionary definition: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Wikipedia goes further. They quote the United Nations Commission on Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

These two definitions show that, in a genocide, belonging to the group is the only reason why an individual is killed. Whether that group is defined by ethnicity, culture, or political and religious beliefs, membership in a group is the only justification for murder. Genocide is both deliberate and systematic, focused on the extermination of a particular people.

So we can say that yes, genocide is unjust. It is unjust because the reasons for it are so arbitrary; it is punishment without cause. The only possible reason for a genocide would be that the existence of one group threatens the survival of another. However, history does not bear this out. One group can threaten another, but genocide is a step too far. The majority of genocides occur when a powerful group wants to rid itself of a perceived outside group.

For example, the Nazis in WWII committed a textbook genocide. Though they argued that Jewish people, the disabled and the Romani threatened their existence, history makes this view look silly. In Rwanda, the fighting between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to their genocide again had its basis in irrational fear.

Should genocide always be off the table? Yes. I make this final leap because I fear others in the global affairs and national security world may forget this. America once forgot that torture is always off the table. America will always have the right to defend itself. Self-defense is an inalienable right. But Genocide is never self-defense, and never warranted.

(Philosophy Bites is a great short podcast for anyone interested in philosophy. The cast on genocide defines a broad form of genocide I don’t support. Still it is an interesting discussion.

Also, Dr. Randy Borum highlights some unique attempts to bring Genocide into the realm of criminology, something I generally support.)

Dec 04

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

“We’re carrying on our backs the overseas sins of generations of fighting American GIs--gang rapes in Vietnamese jungles, the same in Seoul and Pusan, pregnant Englishwoman abandoned after World War II, Japanese women raped and impregnated and abandoned during the occupation, thousands of French whores filled with syphilitic cocks while the Great War raged on.”
                    Page 92, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.

I open with this ugly passage because to make something clear from the very beginning: I do not think American soldiers are rapists. Anthony Swofford does.

Multiple passages across the book are written in a language offensive not just to feminists or liberals--I’m both--but to any person who respects women. Other passages openly encourage and endorse rape.

On pg. 7, Swofford writes about getting jacked up on Vietnam era war films to prepare for deployment, “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First F***.” This is not meant ironically or satirically. While the average person gets upset after watching war films, Swofford and his fellow marines, “are excited by them...”

Frustrated on pg. 17, Swofford writes about what he wishes he could tell a reporter, “Rape them all, kill them all, sell their oil, pillage their gold, sell their children into prostitution. I don’t care about the flag and God and Country and Corps. I don’t give a f*** about oil and revenue.” He doesn’t follow this by saying, “I was wrong then,” or “Boy, was I f***ed in the head prior to the war.”

Nope, Swofford lets these sentiments stand. He doesn’t take a stand or offer any analysis of the situation. If there is one benefit to writing a memoir, this is it, offering your opinion.

We’re left with two options at this point. First--and this is the problem with memoirs--this description isn’t true. I’d like to think that is the case. I believe this is true. Just this weekend, while watching a Band of Brothers marathon, I saw a soldier steal watches off dead Germans.

“That’s f***ed up.” I told my dad.

“Raping and pillaging. Armies have been doing it for years.” My dad said.

“Not our military.”

“Oh no, we’re one of the best. The American military is known for not doing that stuff.” my dad assured me, as he has assured me before. (Ironically, in light of my post two week’s ago, I’ll admit that the above exchange is almost entirely made up from memory.)

It may be naive, but I’d like to think this is true. I’d like to think Americans have a moral character that goes above and beyond, or at least we have a democratic culture that keeps these violent impulses in check. I’d like to believe that American soldiers don’t rape or, at the very least, rape less than other militaries. Even if our Military has had soldiers lapse in the past into moral ugliness and evil, it has never been on the scale of Rwanda or the congo.

Which brings us to the second option, that what Swofford describes is true, that our military is filled with rapists. Even if this is the case, as I said earlier, Swofford’s refusal to take a moral stand is offensive.

Nathaniel Fick (who we’ll get to in a couple weeks) neatly sums up the film and the book Jarhead in five words, “Not in my Marine Corps.” As an American, I have to agree.

Not in America’s Marine Corps.

Dec 03

Michael C here. Eric and I don't normally like to respond to news events as they happen. Other bloggers with more time and resources cover breaking news better than us. That said, President Obama's speech on Tuesday night defined the direction of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This strategy will effect our global standing, our military readiness, and the elections in 2010 and 2012.

With a speech this important, we must comment.

What did I think? I got the feeling that I was listening to a Presidential Operations Order (the Army term for the document commanders give to their subordinates to tell them what to do). This is both a good and bad thing. Like an OP Order, he covered all the necessary bases. But, like most OP Orders, his goals, methods and plan were vague. Saying we will repel the Taliban and Al Qaeda with more troops sounds good, but it doesn't say how we will accomplish the mission. Even worse, his solution to Afghanistan's corrupt government was almost non-existent. Fortunately, McChrystal has given clear guidance to the troops. Hopefully, the Afghanistan surge will execute this policy.

In the end, we must do something about Afghanistan. The president laid out a plan that seems like the only available option. We need to try to win, which we haven't for nearly eight years, and we need to stabilize the region. For now, this seems like the best plan available.

A few more things struck me about the speech:

First, I don't think Obama used the word "Bush" once, but it was the hole in the floor above the Rancor pit [this is a Star Wars reference]. Obama mentioned the events of 9/11, the start of the Afghanistan war, America's Iraq distraction, and finally the success of the surge--all without mentioning his predecessor. I understand why; it looks un-presidential to bash the man who came before you. However, the decisions of the Bush administration continue to haunt our foreign policy decisions more than many give him credit.

Second, he addressed the decision making process and the time it took. He said, correctly, that the earliest option to deploy troops was in 2010. I believe this because the fighting season starts in Afghanistan in March to April. He had time to ponder options and he took it. Rightfully so. It doesn't matter how soon troops get there between now and March so long as they get there by the fighting season.

Third, his rebuttals to the Vietnam criticisms, the counter-terrorist option, and setting a date for withdrawal were timely and persuasive. He won't convince everyone, but he gave himself enough room to act.

And finally, I saw several cadets nodding off during the speech. The corps of cadets at West Point almost never receives criticism, so here is some from me. When the President addresses your student body in a historic speech, don't fall asleep.

Eric C now. My main comment is that Afghanistan has become "Obama's War" even though he took it over eight years into it. Has this ever happened? Vietnam was always Johnson's war. President Obama is committing an additional 32,000 troops to Afghanistan to bring the total number to around 100,000, still smaller than Iraq before the surge.

That was Michael C, then Eric C, now here is the whole interweb (at least the global affairs portion) on Obama's Speech:

Dec 02

(The following post continues Michael C's review of David Kilcullen's "The Accidental Guerrilla." For those interested in our commentary on president's Obama's speech on Afghanistan, we will post our response on the troop surge tomorrow.)

I've always wondered why terrorists never attacked Rodeo Drive, the Mall of America or Saks Fifth Avenue. We're told terrorists hate our life style and our gaudy, unholy Western consumerism. But if that's the case, why haven't they blown up a Lexus dealership or a Tiffany's?

David Kilcullen answers this quandary in The Accidental Guerrilla. The majority of insurgents aren't terrorists, he argues, they are "accidental guerrillas." While there is a radical core of Islamic extremists around the world who hate America, the West, and Western culture, the majority of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan fight and kill Americans not out of rabid hatred of America but as a reaction to our presence in their country.

David Kilcullen doesn't doubt that Al Qaeda wants to destroy America. He doubts that every Muslim who fights American forces supports Al Qaeda. Then why do they fight us? They fight against the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia because they are accidental guerrillas; they seek to expel the forces they believe are foreign invaders. Al Qaeda infiltrates these local communities and radicalizes them.

This simple idea has radical consequences. For example, this theory unlocks the key to winning in our current counter-insurgency wars. We don’t need to kill hordes of terrorists, because hordes of terrorists don't exist. Labeling the enemy as a terrorist inhibits our operations because we misunderstand the threat. Instead, in actual insurgencies, we need to distinguish between ideologically opposed enemies and those whom we can influence. We did this in Iraq during the surge. It turned enemies into allies and those allies turned the tide.

The accidental guerrilla theory also shows the key difference between a target-centric approach to counter-insurgency and a population-centric approach. Killing more targets sounds easier than convincing a population to support their government. Indeed, labeling our enemies terrorists makes it easier to kill them. Calling someone an accidental guerrilla changes how we perceive them. Now they are a person to be persuaded, not a terrorist to be eliminated. True terrorists exist, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and need to be exterminated; but not every military age male is a terrorist.

It also makes our label the "Global War on Terror" irrelevant. Calling our struggle “the Global War on Terror” both defines a war against a method (foolish) and against an enemy who largely doesn’t exist. Thus, after 9/11 the many who signed up wanting to “kill terrorists” have a fundamentally flawed viewpoint and a futile road ahead of them. Dr. Killcullen recommends we develop a new lexicon to define our struggle; something I obviously agree with as evidenced by my multiple attempts to define this war.

Like all great global affairs theories, the "Accidental Guerrilla" theory changes how we perceive our world. Even better, it changes how we fight and win our wars. Let's hope it works in Afghanistan.

(Next week, we will have our conclusion to Michael C's review of "The Accidental Guerrilla.")