Mar 31

Today, we’re finishing up last Friday’s debate. Chime in below.

Motion for debate: Progress Is Inherently Violent.

Matty P, arguing for the motion, with his rebuttal:

Life is antagonistic. It’s a violent process. Organic metabolic processes based on catabolism and anabolism. Competition and predation. Adapting to the environment and affecting that environment to better suit the organism. Evolution is referred in the simplest terms as survival of the fittest. So too is innovation a simple expression of that evolution, of the violent existence that is life itself.

Eric isn’t wrong. Humanity is becoming less violent. Previous innovations of technology and thought have progressed us past simple reliance on basic impulse. Further, we also agree that our technology is more advanced, creating greater inter-connectivity. However, these assertions do not negate the simple nature of how life progresses.

Take Eric's example of a man belonging to a nation. The sense of belonging is an ideal. There will always be differences between human beings based upon skin color or wealth or location which will cause division. The reality is that groups within these nations that still are antagonistic toward one another despite the existence of peer groups of various sizes. The most apt example: Crips and Bloods are of one nation and still wish each other harm.

But this is tangent to the original assertion that progression is either propelled or follows violence. The following are simple examples:

  • Life and growth as an organism (individual progress to maturity) requires catabolism and consumption of sources of energy derived from other living organisms.
  • As stated previously, advance in prosthetic limb technology has always followed closely the influx of soldiers wounded by war.
  • Space exploration (i.e. the Hubble telescope and moon landing and innovations of scientific theory tied to these feats) originated as an arms race.
  • Nuclear energy could not exist without the Manhattan Project.
  • Curing disease is nothing more than killing micro-organisms.
  • Sterile surgical and medial techniques were pioneered by combat medics during the civil war to prevent infection to wounded soldiers.
  • Collecting written knowledge requires cutting down trees.
  • Collecting our supply of digital knowledge requires energy and materials produced by natural resources procured by altering the landscape and displacing organisms

Is man capable of progressing without innovation without violence? Sure. I’ll concede that. We can make small advances. But we are not to the point that major innovation is independent of the violent nature of life itself. Maybe someday, but not yet.

Eric C, arguing against the motion, with his rebuttal:

Is humanity violent? Certainly. Humanity was, is and will be violent for thousands of years to come, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading a blog called, On Violence. But the question for debate today is whether progress (or technology) is inherently violent. Put another way, does technology make us more violent? Does it encourage violence?

The answer is no. As I proved last Friday, via Stephen Pinker via long term trends and statistics, society is less violent now because technology continues to improve. Ergo, technology isn’t violent.

Will there still be examples of violence and antagonism? Of course. As I mentioned in my original argument, “The path to perfection will be paved with missteps, errors and violence, but the end result is a net positive.” Modern examples of violence are just anecdotes, not statistics.

Matty P mentions the Crips and Bloods. Los Angeles’ murder rate--314 murders in 2009 in a city of millions--is minuscule compared to almost any other era in the past; the feuding clans in 1800s America make modern day gangs look like Little Leaguers. The most important thing is why: technology. Television news broadcasts, telephone calls to 911, police radios, police cars, and forensics all enable a more secure, modern world.

Has the military, or war, fueled progress and the invention of new technologies? Absolutely. But I’d love to see a comparison between non-military patents and military patents. Most technology (electricity, telephones, lightbulbs, etc) is non-military.

A final thought: Matty P brought up evolution and competition, but I don’t think this picture is as complete as it originally appears.

According to some new theories--courtesy of Radiolab--natural selection didn’t actually apply during the first one billion years of unicellular life. Cell membranes were porous, so unicellular organisms shared everything, depending on what worked. Steve Strogatz, an applied mathematician at Cornell, describes the whole thing as some giant, communistic “a rampant sharing of molecules, it’s an orgy...a commune.” Basically, evolution via natural selection didn’t apply. Cooperation ruled over competition.

Then, one cell stopped sharing. And competition began. Life fought against other life. This went on for 3 billion years. Natural selection.

Then something else happened. Mankind defeated evolution. We’ve gone past it, evolved beyond it. We make our own food. We can kill any animal. And now we can manipulate our own cells, swapping genes at will. Swapping genes means Darwin’s theory no longer applies. We’ve subverted the natural order. Darwin’s laws no longer apply to us. Survival of the Fittest is now survival of humanity, and the survival of the environment through land and species preservation. We’ve moved beyond the animals.

We’re moving towards utopia, eradicating sickness and disease, becoming less violent, preserving the natural world, and ending competition.

How did we do it? Technology. And progress.

Mar 29

Yesterday, we discussed some big issues responding to Michael C’s post, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay”. Today, we take on some quick hits.

From Jim last week, “I have just one observation, a technical one: You’ve never been a pay clerk. The combat pay rules & regulations are admittedly a broad-sweep covering a lot of areas. But trying to apply the pay on a day-by-day, location-by-location, mission-by-mission basis would be Herculean.” True, but we could pro-rate it by the days in country, and only have Iraq and Afghanistan count. Travel vouchers work in much the same way already.

“But there is an underlying problem with the guys reasoning...a bias of who is "really in combat" and who isn't. Those who were in the "shooting war" are somehow better or more deserving than those that weren't, either by assignment, luck, or mere chance.” I am not advocating that any one military occupational specialty (like cook, mechanic, infantrymen, artillerymen, etc) get additional pay simply because of who they are. Our Forward Supply Company saw more combat than a lot of infantry companies. So it isn’t who you are, it’s where you are.

Let’s cut other stuff in the budget first. (For example, here.) Really? Really? Is this the new counter-argument? This waste is okay, because other stuff wastes more? The simple counter-argument is that we need an Army culture that starts minding its spending at all levels, and in all areas.

“If you want to save the budget, cut some contractors whose salaries dwarf soldiers’ pay.” (For example, here.) Similar to the above point, I think we need to relook at combat pay AND the salaries we pay contractors.

Combat pay vs. imminent danger pay. Some commenters mentioned that combat pay’s techinical name is “imminent danger pay” Let’s not get into semantics. Anyway, the op-ed “I didn’t deserve my imminent danger pay” wouldn’t have gotten published. Let’s ignore the typical, overly-bureaucratic language the Army uses for “communication” (hook and pile tape anyone?).

Homeschool4joy wrote, “...combat pay is not only to compensate you for the risk to your life. It is to compensate the dependents back at home who wait for you in an agony of fear for your safety...There is no dollar amount that could ever adequately compensate a family for the time they lose with their loved one as they deployed to a combat zone, much less any amount that can truly compensate for a lost limb, a lost mind, a lost life. The combat pay system is a woefully inadequate but properly intended acknowledgement of the sacrifice made when the buses pull away as the children cry.” No, that’s not why we have combat pay. That’s why we have family separation pay. And again, as Michael C wrote in the article, sailors in Bahrain can are bring their families.

“Life isn’t fair get over it”[sic] From Eric C: This is awesome. As a liberal, I will use this in every budget debate I have with someone. “The government shouldn’t support NPR.” Life isn’t fair; get over it. “I don’t like Obamacare.” Life isn’t fair; get over it. “The hippies are protesting the war.” Life isn’t fair; get over it. “The Fairness Doctrine is unfair.” Life isn’t fair; get over it.

Mar 28

You can’t title an op-ed, “I didn’t deserve my combat pay” and not get a huge reaction.

Michael C’s article two weeks ago got that huge reaction.

Most of the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Over 700 people recommended the article on Facebook, at least one Pullitzer prize winner sent us congratulations, and dozens of readers emailed us heart touching stories. The article was also picked up by several newspapers around the country, including the Stars and Stripes and Small Wars Journal. All in all, not too shabby.

But judging by the comment sections below the articles, some people weren’t so into it. The great thing about blogging is you always get the last word, so today I’m addressing the five biggest criticisms of our op-ed, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay”.

1. Return the pay or donate it to charity. The typical response came from Dave in VA: “Did you make any effort to return it, and if that option wasn’t available, did you donate it to Wounded Warriors?” Or Vince: “Instead, why don’t you give your combat pay to USO, Wounded Warriors, or some other organization that helps combat veterans. That’s how many of us addressed this issue of conscience or fairness.” This response, or some variation thereof, must have come up at least 20 times. Unfortunately, as soon as I got back from Iraq, I bought a 72 inch big screen, a new shiny red Ford F-550 with spinners, and vacationed in the Maldives for a week, so I can’t afford to return the money.

Actually, regular readers of On Violence should know that I myself gave to, and advocated for giving to, charity as soon as I landed in Iraq. I believe in the mission of PUSH America, the philanthropy of Pi Kappa Phi. It helps people with disabilities all over America--including veterans--improve their lives. Check it out.

2. Don’t take the pay of those who deploy. One person commented, “this is a policy that no one should split hairs on. Deserving is crossing the line by going into a war zone and that alone is worth the additional dollars.” I think this criticism misses the larger point of the article: describing my experience deploying into two different areas, both as a frontline soldier and the second as a FOBbit. That personal experience inspired me to research/investigate/question the idea that a “one-size fits-all” pay system makes sense for the post-9/11 military.

To be clear, I don’t think we should take any soldier’s pay, but many people probably deserve more. That’s a tough point to communicate in 800 words (and I blew past the 750 word limit of the Washington Post, and I’m grateful they let me do that).

3. Virtually no one criticized my three main points or their solutions. This rebuttal article at the Daily Caller almost entirely ignored the three major abuses I pointed out: paying combat pay by month not prorated by day, paying pilots landing in air fields that largely are not under fire, and paying combat pay in the various Middle Eastern deployments--Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain--that aren’t active war zones. I think the Pentagon should look at the distribution of combat pay to reward combat deployments, and not deployments to combat-free zones.

4. One team, one fight, one pay. For example, here. I’ll let Eric C handle this: “If you pay everyone the same, you are saying that this guy:

...deserves the same pay as this guy:

The first is an overweight soldier carrying pizzas boxes; the second is a guy who didn’t have time to put his pants on before a firefight. See what Michael C said above about a one-size-fits-all system. No one--in Iraq or Afghanistan--deserves less; some just deserve more.

5. Soldiers don’t deploy for the pay. Commenter Tim M. at the SWJ proposed this hypothetical:

“Given the following offers...
a) another of those deployments, with ZERO bonus money
b) a deployment in the plush VBC with ALL bonus money
... I would take (a), every time, without hesitation. Combat pay? Who cares”

He then asked which I would take. Easy, I would take the deployment where I could do military intelligence. And if I had a preference, I would be an intelligence analyst at the lowest level possible that could have the greatest influence on the fight, most likely at a maneuver battalion. The deployment money would have nothing to do with it, as he hints.

But this point is also irrelevant. Commenters can pretend deployment money is irrelevant, but that doesn’t explain the people's absolute outrage at the very mention that someone would take some or any of their pay. The Army has deployment pay for a reason, to encourage deployments.

Tomorrow, we will address the quick hits of some other criticisms.

Mar 25

Today, we’ve got something a bit different: an Oxford-style debate between Eric C and Matty P. Look for the conclusion next week.

Motion for debate: Progress Is Inherently Violent.

Arguing for the motion, Matty P:

"What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world." - Dr. Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park.

Humanity's advancements are marked by suffering. We wander through time celebrating the power of our innovations like a child wielding a plastic lightsaber; considering application before consequence. Rather than weighing the moral and practical costs of a new technology, we package, process and market it into a world ready to consume it.

Consider our greatest revelations. The knowledge of how the solar system rotates is met by threat of death and excommunication. The discovery of a new continent leads to centuries of displacement and slavery. The power to harness the atom comes at the cost of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once completed, the father of said creation, Julius Robert Oppenheimer referred to himself as “Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And our feat of landing on the moon was little more than a fear inspired arms race.

Consider the field of prosthetics. A noble pursuit (and one I am not attempting to disparage) tied inexorably to war. But with such advancements come moral conundrums. Consider the controversy with the South African runner Oscar Pistorious and the 2008 Olympics. As a double amputee, Oscar wears specialty bladed prosthetics that act to augment his natural ability. Some say his artificial legs are actually an unnatural advantage akin to steroids while others say disallowing him to compete implies his humanity is in question. It’s an example of creation before truly understanding the effect of our innovation. As technology progresses, where do we draw the line? Pneumatic arms for weightlifting or advanced optic implants for archery?

While it may appear that this is an attempt to disparage our attempts to quantify and qualify our universe, it is not. Merely, it is a statement of clarification. In learning to walk a child does much the same thing. Falling repeatedly before standing to take its first steps. In much the same way, Humanity must fall repeatedly to progress and grow and reach it potential.

Arguing against the motion, Eric C:

No, progress isn’t inherently violent.

My first piece of evidence is something we’ve argued a number of times at On Violence (here and here): society is getting less violent. To refresh, Stephen Pinker pretty definitively proves--using statistics and logic--that the world is less violent than it was before, both in the short term--the last few centuries or even decades--and the long term--milleniums of evolution.

My second piece of evidence is that technology is much more advanced than before.

Now, this could be a logical fallacy of false correlation, that technology happened to get better, and people happened to get less violent.

Again, that’s not the case. Pinker’s reasoning for why society is less violent now than before is dependent on interconnection. In short, as society gets more connected, we expand the social circles to which we belong. Where before I would be a guy who belonged to a group of people who lived on a hill--so I wouldn’t kill or attack them--now I am a man living in a nation--so I don’t attack my countrymen. We divide the world less and less according to tribe, family, race and religion.

Why do we do this? Technology. The technological inventions of communications and transportation mainly, and the technologies of urbanization secondarily.

What explains the violent side effects of new technologies? Well, the improvement isn’t linear, and nothing is perfect. The path to perfection will be paved with missteps, errors and violence, but the end result is a net positive.

Take Jurassic Park. In the movie, the dinosaurs escape. In reality, zoos are virtually fail safe. If we ever did clone dinosaurs--and in reality someday soon we will clone wholly mammoth--they won’t run amok; instead, we’ll have years of fruitful, enlightening study, saving a species North Americans hunted into extinction 10,000 years ago.

And those North Americans didn’t have our technology.

Mar 23

In all the to-do about my Washington Post op-ed last week, I think our readers missed two good posts showing three words that most journalists unintentionally misuse, and that many politicians deliberately misuse: military intelligence, interrogation and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Whereas journalists just don’t know the distinction between AQI and Al Qaeda proper, the two terms up discussion today have overt political connotations. Basically, the proper word choice depends on who is speaking.

First up terrorists. Now you might think I am going to roll out the so-common-it’s-trite aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and then bring out examples of communist terrorists in Malaya, or the Irish Republican Army terrorists in Ireland. As I said, that’s trite and boring.

Currently, the US military labels insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as “terrorists”. I could provide dozens of examples, but this press release about the capture of a Haqqani network leader is an example of this phenomena. The State Department annual reports on terrorism--amplified in importance after 9/11--describe violence in Afghanistan and Iraq as terrorism, ignoring the alternating civil wars and raging insurgencies.

Instead, I think we--as a publishing community (journalists, bloggers, politicians and academics)--should just settle on a few prerequisites for terrorism. First, it can’t take place in active warzones. So right now Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mexico don’t have terrorism, they have active insurgencies. For this threshold, I am using Wikipedia and most of academia’s general criteria of 1,000 plus yearly casualties. Second, I think we should exclude military victims in the terrorism calculus. Soldiers, sailors and airmen use violence to pursue a nation’s aims, and thus are not illegitimate targets. This statement is crazy controversial (it would exclude the bombing of the USS Cole and the bombing in Beirut) but it makes a lot more sense.

The last word goes to eminent political theorist-cum-patriotist Stephen Colbert: “It’s only terrorism if you kill American civilians.”

Second up, mercenaries, contractors and private security.

Does the world even still have mercenaries? Since 9/11 they were personas non grata. At least the term was, until Moammar Qaddafi started hiring them. Read these articles in Foreign Policy, the NY Times, or countless others.

On the other hand, the number of “armed security contractors” employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan reached its highest level in the war, near 19,000 individuals. While reported in the media, I discovered it on the “Secrecy News” blog, a good candidate for inclusion on the next On Violence blog roll update.

From what I can tell, the mercenaries in Libya and the armed contractors in Afghanistan are definitionally identical. In each case, they are a combination of foreigners or citizens using violence to pursue the political aims of a government, while not maintaining membership in that country’s armed forces.

Eric C, when reviewing this post, brought up two more details often confused about contractors. First, most Americans assume “contractors” are Americans who travel to Afghanistan or Iraq. This is not the case. A plurality of contractors are local Afghans or Iraqis. Another huge group is third country nationals imported by larger contracting firms to clean dishes or serve food. The majority of “security contractors” are local Iraqis or Afghans; not at all like the commonly understood Xe-turned-BlackWater public perception. For example, this headline from Lez Get Real, “Obama’s Surge: mercenaries Soar to 250,000 in Iraq/Afghanistan” doesn’t make any sense; most of these people aren't fighting.

The difference between armed contractors and unarmed contractors also regularly confuses the public. When I say armed contractors nee private security contractors nee private military contractors are indistinguishable from mercenaries, I mean that. But unarmed contractors--like electricians, MWR maintenance technicians (yep, that’s the real name) or chow hall cooks--don’t qualify as mercenaries. They perform functions that support our troops without directly using violence.

Some words have dirty connotations. Terrorists are worse than insurgents who are worse than rebels. Private security contractor sounds better than mercenary. But we need to call a lightsaber a lightsaber. Otherwise we end up confusing lightsabers with blaster pistols, when one is an elegant weapon from a more civilized age and the other is clumsy and random. (Blasters can’t hit crap anyways.) 

Mar 22

Quick heads up:

Eric C just had a guest post published at Killscreen titled "Review: Oiligarchy." Killscreen is quickly becoming our new favorite website and gaming journal, so we are absolutely thrilled to be writing for them.

Check it out.

Mar 21

(Quick heads up: We've updated the posts "Our Thoughts Go Out To New York Times Journalists" and "Michael C's WaPo Op-ed". Check them out.)

On Wednesday, I went over two words behaving badly, “military intelligence” and “interrogation”. Because of their political connotations, these words tend to get misused by journalists, pundits, politicians and bloggers. Today, I am going to describe a group almost as over-hyped as the Miami Heat: Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Here are three examples of the dreaded Al Qaeda in Iraq popping up news coverage:

- BBC, ”Al-Nasser Lideen Allah Abu Suleiman, also known as Noman Salman, was a leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a branch of al-Qaeda.”

- ABC, “An Interior Ministry spokesman says the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed in an internal fight between insurgents north of Baghdad.”

- L.A. Times, a link to the original Michael Behenna story with references to Al Qaeda.

I imagine a silent critic saying, “Three examples doesn’t seem that bad”. Well, go to the Al Qaeda in Iraq wikipedia page. They have dozens of articles referencing Al Qaeda in Iraq. Some understand the group (most notably the reporters at the L.A. Times); others treat them like Al Qaeda-lite (most notoriously Fox News).

When someone sees Al Qaeda, they think of the World Trade Center. This often gets combined with terrorist to make the dreaded “Al Qaeda terrorist”. Calling someone an “Al Qaeda terrorist” sounds like someone with the wherewithal and inclination to attack Americans on our soil.

And that completely misses the mark with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after the American invasion, the goal of Al Qaeda in Iraq was, initially, to form an Islamic state based on the tenants of Al Qaeda. They saw killing U.S. soldiers as a means to this end. To be clear, they had little intention of ever venturing to American soil as the vast majority of the group consisted of local fighters supported by local groups.

After the surge, Al Qaeda in Iraq mostly gave up the Al Qaeda moniker because of the horrible press. Sunni nationalist fighters didn’t want to be lumped in with foreign fighters who killed Iraqi civilians. They changed their name to the “Islamic State of Iraq” that more accurately described their goals and their scope. Iraqis in the know don’t even call them Al Qaeda anymore, unless they are talking to Americans not in the know, and they want to make a quick buck.

The worst part about Al Qaeda in Iraq? They exist because Americans wanted them to exist. As soon as we invaded, some Al Qaeda-types showed up to kill American soldiers and protect Baghdad, the historic home of the Islamic Caliphate. When commanders learned they could kill “Al Qaeda”, the people responsible for 9/11, they focused all their efforts on AQI. This gave them incredible street cred or wasta. As a result, the group grew in size and influence. Our informants knew they got paid more to report on AQI, so they gave their handlers what they wanted. AQI became a self-fulfilling prophecy while Shia groups completely destabilized the country and caused the civil war of 2006-08.

Check out this Country Report on Terrorism released by the State Department in 2007. It describes the center of Islamic terrorism as Iraq, mentioning Al Qaeda in Iraq specifically. This ignores the reality on the ground, a full-fledged civil war. It also ignores the fact that Shia insurgent groups caused as much if not more U.S. troop, Iraqi Army and civilian deaths than Sunni groups.

When reporting or writing on Iraq and Afghanistan, we should keep in mind the differences between inter-state terrorist groups (like Al Qaeda proper, what most Americans think of when they hear “Al Qaeda”) and insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Jaysh al Mahdi, Al Shabaab, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Tamil Tigers and whatever the Libyan rebels come to call themselves.

Mar 19

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

I’ve read Michael Herr’s Dispatches three times in the last year. I’m convinced it belongs in the pantheon of great war literature.

As happens in a lot of great war books, it was almost impossible to find just one passage of “War at its Worst” i Dispatches. Most of memoir--from the chapter “Khe Sanh” to the later passages on the deaths and dismemberments of fellow war correspondents--contains war at its worst.

Like the best writers, Herr tells you how to feel about Vietnam, ignoring tactics and strategy and focusing on his pinpoint understanding of the emotional reality of the Vietnam war. The passages below come from the chapter “Hell Sucks”, and they embody emotion. The first emotion is fear, debilitating, depression-inducing fear. The second is remorse at the loss of the one beautiful city in Vietnam, the imperial citadel of Hue, a canal-filled monument to history destroyed by American bombs and neglected by communist ideologues.

“During the first weeks of the Tet Offensive the curfew began early in the afternoon and was strictly enforced. By 2:30 each day Saigon looked like the final reel of On the Beach, a desolate city whose long avenues held nothing but refuse, windblown papers, small distinct piles of human excrement and the dead flowers and spent firecracker casings of the Lunar New Year...The trees along the main streets looked like they’d been struck by lightning, and it became unusually, uncomfortably cold, one more piece of freak luck in a place where nothing was in its season. With so much filth growing in so many streets and alleys, an epidemic of plague was feared, and if there ever was a place that suggested plague, demanded it, it was Saigon in the Emergency. American civilians, engineers and construction workers who were making it here like they’d never made it at home began forming into large armed bands, carrying .45′s and grease guns and Swedish K’s, and no mob of hysterical vigilantes ever promised more bad news. You’d see them at ten in the morning on the terrace of the Continental waiting for the bar to open, barely able to light their own cigarettes until it did...After seven in the evening, when the curfew included Americans and became total, nothing but White Mice patrols and MP jeeps moved in the streets, except for a few young children who raced up and down over the rubbish, running newspaper kites up into the chilling wind.” - page 70

“I realized later that, however childish I might remain, actual youth had been pressed out of me in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon. In Saigon, I saw friends flipping out almost completely; a few left, some took to their beds for days with the exhaustion of deep depression...An old-timer who’d covered war since the Thirties heard us pissing and moaning about how terrible it was and he snorted, “Ha, I love you guys...What the fuck did you think it was?” We thought it was already past the cut-off point where every war is just like every other war; if we knew how rough it was going to get, we might have felt better. After a few days the air routes opened again, and we went up to Hue.” - page 72

“In the morning we crossed the canal on a two-by-four and started walking in until we came across the first of the hundreds of civilian dead we were to see in the next weeks: an old man arched over his straw hat and a little girl who’d been hit while riding her bicycle.” - page 75

“Civilian dad lay out on the sidewalks only a block from the compound, and the park by the river was littered with dead. It was cold and the sun never came out once, but the rain did things to the corpses that were worse in their way than anything the sun could have done. It was on those days that I realized that the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.” - page 77

“On the worst days, no one expected to get through it alive. A despair set in among members of the battalion that the older ones, the veterans of the two other wars, had never seen before. Once or twice, when the men from Graves Registration took the personal effects from the packs and pockets of dead Marines, they found letters from home that had been delivered days before and were still unopened.” - page 79

“Seventy percent of Vietnam’s one lovely city was destroyed, and if the landscape seemed desolate, imagine how the figures in that landscape looked.” - page 83

Mar 18

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had an op-ed published today at the Washington Post, titled "I Didn't Deserve My Combat Pay."

Check it out.

Thank you to Stars and Stripes, The Lincoln Journal Star, Bangor Daily News, The Delaware Online, The Oregonian and The Charlotte Sun for reprinting the Op-ed.

If we see interesting responses to Michael C's post, we'll probably post them here. Like this one, from the forum on the Military Times.


We got a Small Wars Journal shout out today as well. Check it out here.

Another forum tackles Michael C's op-ed here. A mostly good discussion, I feel we should clarify: Michael C was an infantry officer.

Just found a post by Richard Morris, an author, responding to Michael C's piece with his own memories from Vietnam.

The WaPo ran a letter responding to Michael C's Op-ed.

Check out this comment thread at gatorsports. It supports what Michael C wrote.

The Daily Caller has a response piece, titled "I Deserved My Combat Pay" by Paul Hair. We'll respond on Monday.

And another forum, run by The Baltimore Sun, with some feedback...

Mar 16

Four New York Times journalists have gone missing in Libya, and our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

To read more about them, click here or here.

In particular, Stephen Farrell runs the "At War' blog for the Ny Times, which has long been one of On V's favorite blogs. (You can find it on our blog roll.) The other missing journalists are two-time pulitzer prize winner Anthony Shadid and photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario.

We hope they turn up safely, or are released soon. We'll keep you posted.

UPDATED: The journalists have been found and are set to be freed. More here.

And now they are free. Great news.

Mar 16

According to website dedicated to freeing Michael Behenna, a former U.S. Army lieutenant sentenced to 25 years in prison for premeditated murder--his victim was “a known Al Qaeda operative”. Even worse, Behenna “killed the terrorist in self-defense” during an “interrogation” after “military intelligence” ordered the victim released.

No matter how you feel about his cause, the website’s use of the words “military intelligence”, “terrorist”, “interrogation”, and “Al Qaeda” bothers me. Those words have meaning in a military context; his website uses them in politically charged ways, conjuring fantastical images in the reader’s mind and furthering misperceptions that the Army does little to correct.

When journalists, pundits, politicians and bloggers write the word Al Qaeda, people think of 9/11. When they say terrorist, people think Osama bin Laden. When they describe military intelligence, they think James Bond. In the past On V has debunked bad quotes, bad facts, and bad rhetoric. Today I want to highlight misused words, starting with “military intelligence”, and “Interrogation”.

Intelligence and Military Intelligence

- N.Y. Times, regarding the Battle of Kamdesh, “Intelligence reports of a major attack went unheeded.”

- CNN, “A formal investigation into an attack on a U.S. Army unit by about 200 Taliban insurgents will examine whether the Army had intelligence about a possible assault and whether the troops had access to it.”

- N.Y. Times, “The military’s intelligence network in Afghanistan, designed for identifying and tracking terrorists and insurgents, is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption that is rampant across Afghanistan’s government,”

When readers see military intelligence (MI), they think spies. They think NSA. They think of a monolithic entity that knows all and controls all. In the case of Behenna, “military intelligence” ordered the prisoner released, as if “intelligence” pulled all the strings.

If only. Commanders always make the final decision; intelligence usually tries in vain to tell maneuver people what they should do. MI people across the Army have very little power--they can’t command maneuver battalions or brigades or divisions--so as a branch we tend to get ignored.

Also, newspapers articles like the ones above often cite the elusive “military intelligence reports”. On one hand, these exist. “Military Intelligence” as a branch produces dozens of different types of reports, from human intelligence reports to analysis of the weather. In most articles, the products reporters are referring to are actually staff reports, not intelligence documents. So instead of saying, “intelligence reports indicated...” the better phrase would be, “7th Brigade’s reports indicated...”

This also ignores the level of uncertainty inherent in intelligence operations (and counter-terrorism operations and drug operations and racketeering and organized crime operations...). One human intelligence report in Afghanistan does not prove anything. Ten reports don’t prove anything beyond a trend. One report may say a base is in danger; five might say it is fine. I trust the senior intelligence officer on the ground, and too often they get hammered after the fact.


-, “Lt. Col. Allen West Wears Controversy Over Iraq Interrogation as Badge of Honor”

-, “During this interrogation, Mansur attacked Lt. Behenna” -

Closely tied to the misuse of intelligence is the misuse of “interrogation”. News reports describe Michael Behenna and now Congressman Lieutenant Colonel Allen West as “conducting interrogations”.

If someone besides a trained Army interrogator is doing an interrogation, it is by definition illegal. The illegality of their actions rarely makes the news coverage. The better phrase would be “questioned” not “interrogated”.

Mar 15

A good friend of On Violence recently posted some excellent pictures on his facebook page, and we thought we’d share some.

To read some other On Violence posts about animals in war zones, go here and here.

Shout out to the Hipstamatic camera app

Mar 14

Representative Peter King must read On Violence.

As soon as we posted, “Lies, Damned Lies and Anecdotes”, Rep. King went ahead and held a house committee hearing called, “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response: Using Primarily Anecdotes for Evidence”. Okay, I made the last part up, but that might as well have been the title.

Before I highlight the more egregious examples, I want to make the same caveat as I did for the gun debate: this isn’t about the issue of the hearings; we’re discussing the rhetoric used at the hearings. Both sides use anecdotes to prove their points, not statistics or evidence.

Without further ado, the four worst anecdotes from the hearing:

1. Representative King’s list of domestic terrorists. Rep. King started the hearing by listing Muslim Americans who have been radicalized. This list includes: New York City Subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, Fort Hood Terrorist U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, Colleen LaRose, known as “Jihad Jane”, Times Square Bomber Faisal Shahzad and Mumbai Plotter David Headley. So five individuals out of a community of three million, what percentage is that?

Even better, Rep. King let’s us know what his witnesses will show, “Their courage and spirit will put a human face on the horror which Islamist radicalization has inflicted and will continue to inflict on good families, especially those in the Muslim community, unless we put aside political correctness and define who our enemy truly is.” Although, he never goes on to define who “the enemy truly is”, unless it is young Muslim men.

2. Representative Ellison responds with Mohammed Salman Hamdani. To rebut, the Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security called Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota’s Fifth District. His testimony centered around the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a first responder who died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center. I don’t for a minute doubt his heroism or his courage.

I do wonder, though, what it this to do with the radicalization hearing. I mean, if we can find more examples of good Muslim-Americans, and I have no doubt that we can, does that mean radicalization is no longer an issue?

3. Radicalized Somali youths. The third worst anecdote came from Abdirizak Bihi, Uncle of Burhan Hassan a radicalized Somali-American who went to Somalia and died fighting for Al Shabaab. Despite this fact, Mr. Bihi claims that the vast majority of Muslim-Americans decry extremism. So what exactly does he prove, especially since he doesn’t even estimate how many Somali-American youths have traveled to Somalia to fight for Al Shabaab.

4. A radicalized youth in Nashville. The final anecdote came from Melvin Bledsoe, whose son Carlos Leon Bledsoe (aka) Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, shot a U.S. recruit at an Army recruiting station. He went to Yemen to join a terrorist training camp. Again, this testimony doesn’t come close to detailing the scope of the problem, how many youths are radicalized in America every year?

Some statistics did sneak their way in though.

Representative King cited a Pew Poll that 15% of young Muslim-Americans support suicide bombing. He also said that the Department of Justice hasn’t investigated a single terrorism incident related to neo-Nazis, environmental extremism or any other fringe American group. (But, according to Rueters on the same day, "Five Fairbanks-area residents involved in a loose-knit militia group have been arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap or kill Alaska state troopers and a local judge, federal and state authorities said on Friday." More here.)

Representative Ellison rebutted with statistics from the RAND corporation. He said that “given the low rate of would-be violent extremists [only 100 amongst an estimated 3 million American Muslims]…suggest[s] an American-Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.” Representative Ellison also pointed out the dramatic rise in extremist groups labeled as such by the Department of Justice.

Unfortunately, the statistics and facts of this debate went largely unheard. Coverage by major news organizations from the left, right and middle focused on the anecdotes by the witnesses. Multiple news articles reporting on Representative Ellison’s testimony mentioned Hamdani (here and here, for example), none mentioned the facts about extremism.

And the only number of note that occurs again and again is that 99.999% of all Muslim Americans love America, support law enforcement and decry violence.

Mar 11

On July 31, 1997 the NYPD averted a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists that could have killed hundreds of people. Never heard of it? Neither had I.

Enter Seven Shots: An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Call and Its Aftermath, a non-fiction account of this event written by longtime On Violence reader “Jaylo” (actual name Jennifer Hunt). Jaylo blogs about police, TV, the NYPD and the military, in addition to other subjects at

Instead of my summary, I’ll let Hunt’s introduction take it away. “A six-man Emergency Service Unit (ESU) team raided the apartment of two Middle Eastern terrorists who were in possession of bombs that they planned to detonate in the New York subway that morning,” Hunt writes at the opening of Seven Shots. “In less than seven hours, one Muslim informant, six New York Police Department (NYPD) Emergency Service officers, two Bomb Squad detectives, supporting units, teams and commanders narrowly averted the nation’s first suicide bombing.” Hunt tells this story, and continues on to the contentious aftermath of the raid as the police officers deal with fame, awards, anger and NYPD politics.

Seven Shots opens with a very academic twenty page history of Hunt’s background with the NYPD, and then a thirty page introduction detailing NYPD cultural norms and history. Hunt is a sociologist and college professor, so this makes sense. That said, as I wrote in my notes, “for an academic book, it is crazy novelistic”, especially during the first 100 pages or so. This is a big compliment. Some of the character descriptions, like police officer Keith  Ryan’s bird racing hobby, are just fascinating.

The academic slant makes for an ironclad approach though. Hunt includes a nine page explanation of her method which--if you’ve read my series on memoirs--you’ll know I appreciated. She explains who she interviewed and how; every book should.

Some takeaways from Seven Shots:

Terrorism has always been with us. This may seem obvious. I mean, since the 1800’s, some group or another, from nihilists and anarchists to Muslim or right-wing extremists have used terrorism as a means of intimidating larger society. But the conventional--and accepted--narrative is that something changed on 9/11. But Seven Shots is basically a long, convincing anecdote proving the opposite.

I wonder what would have happened if 9/11 had been averted. Who doesn’t? But Seven Shots forces the realization. The threat of international terrorism lurked around America and abroad throughout the 90’s, but America didn’t change the way it lived. It took a successful attack to change the way we live.

Seven Shots could be considered one long argument for human intelligence. The NYPD stopped the attacks because Mohammad Chindluri alerted them to the attack. This is a classic example of “good ol’ fashioned police work”--read Human Intelligence--saving the day. Watch or read “Top Secret America”, and realize that we waste billions on fancy tech, when all we need is good detectives/human intelligence.

Anti-Muslim bigotry and racism actively endangers Americans. Watch this video from last week. Think about the Muslim community center protests from last August. Think about people who mistakenly describe Islam as not a religion but a political system. These anti-Muslim actions endanger American lives, by discouraging Islamic informants (Read my above point). Racism isn’t just offensive; it is actually dangerous.

Anti-Muslim bigotry also includes falsely detaining people based on race or religion. Which happens in Seven Shots. On page 87, Hunt describes how the police detained five Pakistani people from the apartment building where the raid took place.

Is the NYPD the most crazy political organization in the world? After reading Seven Shots, I’d say yes. The department needs severe fixing. This problem, though, seems to exist in the Army as well.

This story is really cinematic. And it’s odd it hasn’t been made into a movie yet, or incorporated into a larger film.

(Full disclosure: On Violence received a copy of “Seven Shots” from The University of Chicago Press. We thank them for the book and the opportunity to review it.)

Mar 10

A good friend of On Violence recently started posting some excellent pictures on facebook, and we thought we’d share some with our readers.

Shout out to the Hipstamatic camera app

Mar 09

Last Wednesday, I said I would provide a solution to the “killing more bad guys” problem, and I explained the difference between security operations and counter-force operations. On Monday, I explained why the U.S. military fails at offensive operations. Today, I provide the solution.

What is that solution? In three short words: tiny unit patrolling. Or as it used to be called, long range surveillance (in the world of military theory, you have to coin new words to stay relevant). In the special operations world, this is called special reconnaissance. Whatever the terminology--in addition to conducting local security patrols, training the Afghan security forces and developing economic capacity--America needs to send out very small teams of skilled, light infantrymen to recon enemy positions, and kill insurgents using air and fire support.

What’s keeping us from doing this right now? Force protection, maybe the biggest buzz word developed during the war on terror. In terms of patrolling, this usually means mandating that all patrols have a minimum number of people, vehicles or specific weapon systems, as I mentioned on Monday.

Most force protection requirements ruin or eliminate the element of surprise. I can’t get into specific numbers. Just know that mandating a specific (usually large) size, precludes effective offensive operations. Size does not equal surprise.

Thus, the most effective form of offensive operations Afghanistan is lost. When we sat at the KOP wargaming the war in Konar province, we always came back wishing we could use tiny unit patrolling. In my conception (and I made up the word to describe a technique we wished we could use), four to six man teams, without body armor or helmets, in full ghillie suits and camouflage only armed with M4s would move out deep into enemy held countryside.

These units would ambush the Taliban insurgents that have freedom of movement around our US COPs and FOBs. For me, this is the untold story of Afghanistan. Right outside U.S. COPs and FOBs the enemy can maneuver as much as he wants. In Konar province, abutting Pakistan, the enemy moves between sanctuary and the battlefield with regularity, and we don’t have an effective method to stop him.

These teams would avoid ambushing units themselves--they would call in field artillery and air support--and would use concealment for force protection. These missions would be more dangerous than twenty man patrols in the short term, but would save lives in the long term.

Of course, a four-man patrol would have to have other ways to protect itself. A quick reaction force would be on standby. Ideally these patrols would have close air support, field artillery, and maybe even AC-130 on standby. (Yes, this means that the regular/conventional Army needs more AC-130s.)

Two possible counters. First, didn’t tiny unit patrolling cause the disaster of Lone Survivor nee Operation Red Wings? It did, and that is probably part of the reason why minimum patrol sizes started. And that will happen long range surveillance missions. However, the SEAL Team probably should have inserted by foot as opposed to helicopter, and they needed working radios. Second, don’t Special Operations guys do this anyways? Yes and no. What I really want to see is regular, conventional units return to this method of offensive operations. With Ranger School, Recon Surveillance Leaders Course and Snipe School, our regular infantrymen (especially scout platoons) are more than capable.

With tiny unit patrols nee long range surveillance patrols, we could finally start ambushing Taliban logistics elements moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. We could, with limited manpower, start killing the enemy the way Bing West and “war-is-war”iors want, without risking the local population or eliminating Rules of Engagement. It’s a win-win.

Except for the Taliban, they would lose.

Mar 07

Last Wednesday, I used an analogy about “swords and shields” to describe the the two types of violence in a counter-insurgency. A lot of “war-is-war”iors want us to use the sword more in Afghanistan. They don’t realize that we already use the sword plenty.

We just aren’t very good at it.

Counter-force operations are primarily the domain of special operations troops, mainly Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Delta Force/CAG, Army Rangers and other units who fall under the Joint Special Operations Command. Conventional troops try to get in on the counter-force missions too. Whoever is doing it, we aren’t killing nearly enough Taliban/insurgents to win the war outright.

Here are a few problems with our counter-force/offensive operations in Afghanistan.

1. Lack of intelligence. Our “special” troops don’t have access to the same level of intelligence as our maneuver forces. A special forces team usually works in the same size area as a conventional battalion. That battalion has over thirteen platoons--with attachments--constantly patrolling and collecting human intelligence. Yet special operations troops don’t mix well with conventional troops, particularly when they come from outside a province to conduct an operation. Conventional forces usually don’t share information with the special operations folks. This means bad intelligence. Bad intelligence means dead civilians.

Look back through all the allegations of atrocities or major civilian casualties in the last few years. They almost always involve special operations troops. Conventional units live and patrol where they conduct operations; they almost always know where the civilians live or don’t live.

Even conventional troops suffer from bad intelligence. Our dearth of trained and experienced human intelligence collectors--especially non-contractors willing to leave the wire--hampers operations on a daily basis. Further, none of our human intelligence folks speak Dari or Pashtun (or so small a minority as to be insignificant).

2. We’re too heavy. Think heavy as in mechanized. Whenever the “special” guys go anywhere, they go with helicopters, AC-130 gun ships, and often a hundred Afghan special operators (who aren’t that bad really). U.S. conventional forces do the same thing, usually without an AC-130, and with regular Afghanistan National Army folks.

While the exact details are classified, ISAF sets minimum patrol sizes--either number of vehicles or number of men who have to go on the patrol. While the actual details are subject to operational security, understand that this drastically hampers the ability of U.S. forces to surprise the enemy. Helicopters make noise. Vehicles make noise. Any number of ground troops over six makes a bunch of noise. Heavy equipment, like body armor, makes noise.

Noise does not equal surprise.

3. It is tough terrain to kill the enemy. The terrain in Afghanistan provides the enemy with excellent stand off. They can see us from a long way off, and respond accordingly, especially if we are rolling heavy. If the Afghan insurgents used Russian built tanks, no problem. As irregular fighters, it is devastating.

In Konar province, the enemy hid out on mountaintops. We knew this. Trying to get there was the hard part. Even for special operations, getting to these areas with hundreds of people usually yields no bad guys. The helicopters flying in give everything away.

I have a solution to these dilemmas on Wednesday. It’s risky. It’s not terribly original. It would violate ISAF minimum patrol requirements, but it would work.

Mar 03

(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.)

Leaving the emergency room with an empty gurney in tow, I noticed a middle aged man hurriedly walking toward the Emergency Services entrance. He looked like a taller version of Kevin Pollock.

If you don’t work in a hospital or as an EMT, the Emergency Services entrance is reserved for police, fire, and emergency medical personnel because it grants direct access to patient rooms, the emergency room nursing station, and the rest of the hospital. Normally, it’s accessed via security code. Patients and family or other visitor have a dedicated entrance with a waiting room and access to a triage area.

So I stopped the guy. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Excuse me, sir. If you’re looking for the entrance to the emergency room, it’s behind you around the corner.
Man: It’s okay, the paramedics just brought in my dad through here.
Me: Yes, sir. But this entrance is dedicated for emergency personnel only. If you’ll go through the main entrance, the admissions people can take your name and get you a pass.
Man: What’s the problem?
Me: Sir, it’s really just a security issue. This entrance is for people who are cleared to use it. You really need to check in at the front desk.
Man: Security? What, do I look like a terrorist to you?
Me: Sir, what exactly does a terrorist look like?

I want to stress how polite I was trying to be. I did use “sir” every time.

By this time, the door had shut behind me and the man, foiled in his attempt at breezing into the emergency room, returned to the front entrance, leaving me to dress the gurney and clean my rig to prep for the next call. But the whole exchange got me thinking: what does a terrorist look like?

There’s no clear definition. The man’s implication was that there should be some discernible difference between him and a terrorist at first glance. Is there expectation for appearance? Should all terrorists mirror Islamic extremists? The notion would discount domestic terrorists like Jared Lougher, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray.

My rather-obvious-but-never-repeated-enough point is that there is no defining “look” of a terrorist, aside from the desire to inflict chaos and violence on a particular population. Appearance has nothing to do with it.

Mar 02

(To read the entire "war is war” series, please click here.)

Bing West made an appearance on The Colbert Report last week, and his thoughts are illustrative:

“You are dealing with honest to goodness stone killers who believe in this Islamist version of history and the only way you can deal with them is to put them down in the earth. And as long as we try to win hearts and minds, we’re diverting ourselves.”

“American soldiers, handcuffed by strict rules of engagement, have surrendered the initiative to their enemies.”

“We’re winning hearts and minds. We’ve been doing it for ten years. And at some point we have to say, why would they still be allowing people to do this if they were on our side. And the answer is you have to win the war first.”

“The third thing we should do is just take our troops and get them back to warfighting.”

Yep, illustrative of the “war is war” position. Mr. West, welcome to the club.

Bing West gets to the heart of my criticism with “war-is-war”-iors, whose philosophy I’ve been debunking over this series of posts. They want to kill more bad guys, but don’t care to offer an alternative. I do, however, have an outlandish idea for how to kill more bad guys. To get there, I first have to explain a couple of things. Today, I am going to describe the two uses of violence in a counter-insurgency: security and counter-force.

All violence isn’t created equal, in warfare. Said more clearly, all violence doesn’t have the same purpose. By violence, I mean the confluence of maneuver and fires to kill the enemy. Some violence is offensive and deliberate in nature; other times it is reactive and defensive. Both are necessary, and a counter-insurgent most be versed in both.

Most of the time a counter-insurgent is defensive, focused on the security of the local population. Think of this like a shield. The counter-insurgent patrols roads to fend off IEDs. The counter-insurgent walks down the street to prevent crimes. The counter-insurgent places themselves between the insurgents and the population. Security patrols don’t set out to cause violence, but deny the insurgent the ability to operate easily.

Security isn’t just the realm of foreign counter-insurgents or even the government. In Iraq, the best example of security patrolling were the Awakening groups that rose up. Afghanistan has failed to create a similar movement, and its primary security force, the Afghan National Police, are inordinately corrupt.

When “war-is-war”iors preach their gospel about getting “back to warfighting”, what they mean is conducting more “counter-force” operations. This is the other branch of counter-insurgency, the sword (sometimes called the stick, though On Violence doesn’t compare other people to animals).

Counter-force missions attempt to kill or capture the insurgency. This means raids, counter-sniper missions and specialized reconnaissance designed to fight the enemy, the insurgent and other destabilizing forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army tries to do this all the time. Tries. We call it “targeting”. Usually, because of a lack of intelligence (that comes from good security operations), the missions don’t yield dead bad guys, and the threat networks can easily rebuild.

“War-is-war”-iors often don’t understand this nuanced role of violence in warfare. When they say they want us to “win the war first”, “war-is-war”-iors really mean they want a different ratio of offensive to defensive operations. That doesn't sound nearly as hardcore. Sometimes they advocate softening our Rules of Engagement. All this does is risk more civilians during security operations. That harms our strategy in the long run.

I’ll admit, you can’t win a battle with only a shield. “War-is-war”-iors love to compare us COINdinistas to care bears more concerned with “winning hearts and minds” than killing.

I’m not. I know that we need to have a sword and a shield. Whether that sword should be precise like an Epee or unwieldy like a broad sword, that is what we’ll discuss on Monday, when I'll explain why the military--especially Special Operations troops--fails to kill bad guys in Afghanistan.

(I first came across the term “counter-force” in this manuscript called the “Tao of Counter-Insurgency”.)