May 30

(To commemorate Memorial Day, please read On Violence’s tributes to two fallen friends, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw and Lieutenant Mark Daily.) 

For years now, on Memorial Day, my mother has stood in front of folding tables handing out small red paper flowers. She’s not alone. Every year the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and their auxiliaries do the same all over the country. They’ve done so since 1922 and, according to their estimates, have given out some 14 million buddy poppies.

She’s been doing it for nearly a decade and I still had no idea why. I had to ask. But I couldn’t. She’d been doing it so long and so adamantly, I was afraid if I asked her why she had been passing out little paper poppies I would hurt her feelings. So I asked another veteran: Michael C.

He had no idea. I asked my father and brothers, also veterans. They had no idea. So eventually, I had to ask my mother, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of the VFW. She told me about a tradition.

In 1915, after watching his friend die, Lt. Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field”:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flanders Field” quickly became iconic to the veterans causes and the poppies a symbol of those who sacrificed in the name of God and country. They are given freely on Memorial Day as tribute to soldiers and their families, a solemn reminder of the price paid for liberty. And from the donation received, the VFW raises some 15 million dollars to assist disabled veterans and the families of those killed in combat.

This Memorial Day, just like every Memorial Day since 1922, the VFW and their auxiliaries will be handing out millions of buddy poppies. For more information, to get in contact with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or to support the work they do with veterans and their families; visit their website.

May 27

Last week, Michael C asked me, "Why On Violence isn’t funnier?" It sparked a monologue on a problem I’ve been having recently: we’ve had success writing humorous pieces in the past, and we’ve been selling jokes to comedians here in Los Angeles. So the question stands: why isn’t On Violence funnier?

But to answer this question, I have to answer another question: why is war so damn funny?

A couple months ago, I read a tweet by someone that made the point, “AFGwar. war = no joke.” (Hey, it’s twitter, space is limited.) This question is insane, because war is hilarious.

We’ve been laughing at war since war began. Exhibit A: Falstaff, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry the IV plays, or Fluellen from Henry the V, serious plays about war, but rife with comic characters. We’ve seen good TV show comedies--M.A.S.H.--and bad TV show comedies--Hogan’s Heroes. There have been comic war novels, with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five as the two shining examples. There have been more movies than I can count: M.A.S.H. (the film) Stripes, Duck Soap, To Be or Not To Be (both the Jack Benny and the Mel Brooks versions), etc. (I won’t even get into Jessica Simpson or Pauly Shore “movies” about war.)

Most of all, we should look at Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Herr’s memoir is a sublimely serious work that paints war as the ultimate evil. It is also hilarious. Take these examples:

“...the joke went “What you do is, you load all the friendlies onto ships and take them out to the south Sea. Then you bomb the country flat. Then you sink the ships.” (59)

“What’s the difference between the Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts?” “The Boy Scouts have adult leadership.” (101)

“There was a special Air force outfit that flew defoliation missions. They were called Ranch Hands, and their motto was, “Only We Can Prevent Forests.” (154)

“There was a standard question you could use to open a conversation with troops, and Fouhy tried it. “How long you been in-country?” he asked.

    The kid half lifted his head; that question count not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.
    “All     fuckin’    day,” he said. (179)

“A sucking chest wound is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve been in a firefight.” (226)

Herr also points out that war correspondents collected these anecdotes, stories and jokes, as if they were macabre anthropologists.

But here’s the thing: war isn’t funny. To go to the old cliche, we only laugh to keep ourselves from crying. The jokes are only funny because they are so fatalistic, so depressing. Take this joke, from The Things They Carried:

Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

It’s funny, except for that haunting last line, “the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.”

As O’Brien describes that joke, “That's a true story that never happened.” The reason we can laugh at war is that the jokes reveal a truth: war sucks. It sucks long and hard. And we can’t forget it. That’s why we laugh.

But sometimes we aren’t ready to laugh yet. A few weeks ago, I told someone that I’d just heard about a reporter who died in Libya. He asked, “From what, food poisoning?” It’s macabre, it’s fatalistic, and it speaks to an ugly truth about war. Except it was a joke about Tim Hetherington. And Tim Hetherington is a real person, who actually died. And anyone who knew him, or knew of him--we didn’t personally know him, but the point stands--knows this joke isn’t funny.

So why isn’t On Violence funnier? Because, while war is funny, I’m not ready to laugh yet; not when we have people and friends who are still over there.

May 26

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

My dad used to tell me that a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. In this sense, the tragedies of justice that are the Norfolk Four or the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham will only become more tragic if we don’t learn from them.

Three key mistakes were made by the detectives and prosecutors in both cases. And this all applies to the intelligence/national security arenas, as you’ll see.

1. Human intelligence doesn’t work if it is coerced. Confessions can be forced, with or without torture. Bribes can lead to bad leads (think jail house informants). Unfortunately, downrange, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on both interrogations (which lead to bad confessions) and bribes of informants (which leads to bad tips).

2. The defense was weak. Some of the saddest interviews in both “Death by Fire” and “The Confessions” are when the defense attorneys have to defend themselves. In both stories, the attorneys didn’t believe their clients were actually innocent. In the U.S. military, and at places like the CIA, none of the analysts believe any of their targets are innocent. Just imagine the mistakes that will occur.

3. The prosecutors were over-zealous. On one hand, I don’t blame Army commanders or counter-terrorist professionals for their drive to succeed. I do blame them, though, for valuing quantity over quality. When prosecutors--whether of insurgents, criminals or terrorists--value quantity over quality, like in our two cases this week, mistakes are made. In the case of the Norfolk Four, up to eight different people were charged with a crime only a single person committed. A quality arrest--one person-was trumped by quantity-eight.

And if any of my readers are saying, “Your examples didn’t really show our military or intelligence agencies acting overzealous.” Well, you are right. Next week I’ll tackle those cases.

May 25

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

If anything personifies human tragedy, it is the conviction and execution of Cameron “Todd” Willingham. It also provides the perfect case study for what happens when detectives, district attorneys and even defense attorneys solve a crime with their guts, and not their brains. And that has a lot to say, as well, for my intelligence/evidence comparison.

Our story comes from another FRONTLINE article called, “Death by Fire”. (Why all the FRONTLINE linking? Because the show is amazing.) The facts: On the 23rd of December, 1991, a fire engulfed a house in Corsicana, Texas. Three children died inside while their father, Cameron "Todd" Willingham, escaped outside unharmed. After surveying the damage, and Willingham’s behavior after the fire, the police began a homicide investigation. The evidence came roaring in.

The lead investigator laid out the fundamental truth, “A fire doesn’t lie.” As they begin their investigation, the arson experts find a trove of evidence indicating that Willingham set fire to his house and killed his children. Even worse, the burn patterns on the floor resembled a pentagram, a satanic symbol.

The police then looked into Todd Willingham’s background. As a teen, he used drugs. Later, he had multiple run ins with the law for domestic violence. Worse, prosecutors found out he had a history of satanism, which explained the pentagram pattern of burn marks. At the trial, a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, testified Willingham was a severe sociopath. On top of all that came the most damning fact: Willingham was virtually unharmed by the fire that incinerated his children, and witnesses testified that he wouldn’t go back into his home to try to rescue his children. To top it off, a fellow inmate received a confession from Todd Willingham right before the trial began.

Ultimately, the state of Texas, after a lengthy appeals process, executed Todd Willingham.

Then, the Willingham execution became a case study in overzealous prosecution. As outside groups began looking into the Willingham case, the “hard” evidence used to put a “sociopath” behind bars crumbled like weak sand.

The satanism issue brought up by the prosecution fell first. It turns out Willingham listened to Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin, and as a teen owned their posters. That would make a quarter of the Army satanists. What about the psychiatrist who called Willingham a sociopath? It turns out he was nicknamed “Dr. Death” because he had testified in over a 150 different capital cases about “sociopaths who would murder again.” In this case, he never even interviewed Willingham.

And the jail house witness? He later recanted his story on two different occasions, and now claims he doesn’t remember what happened.

But the truly clinching evidence came from the arson experts. Americans love experts; if an expert claims that burn marks show evidence of arson, we will believe them. The tragedy of Todd Willingham’s case is that modern arson investigators don’t agree with the experts at the time.

In other words, a fire won’t lie, but the experts could. After Todd Willingham was convicted by the state of Texas, scientists radically transformed the field of arson investigation. How did they do this? By using the scientific method to analyze how fires burn. Before the Willingham case, arson investigators used hunches to prove their cases. After actual scientists started testing actual fires, the field transformed and many commonly held beliefs about arson disappeared. In the Willingham case, nine different arson forensic pathologists have analyzed the evidence; not a single one agrees with the original diagnosis of arson.

The people of Corsicana, the detectives investigating and the prosecutor prosecuting wanted to convict Todd Willingham. They believed he was guilty. They found the evidence to convict him. He’s not a sympathetic figure either: he beat his wife, struggled to hold a job, and took drugs. Being a bad person, though, doesn’t mean you should die.

Do we have this problem downrange, in Iraq and Afghanistan? Absolutely.

In our military targeting system, there is no adversary arguing for the accused. Todd Willingham could at least put up his own defense. He could hire an attorney. For a suspect in Iraq accused of making IEDs or a suspected terrorist in the Pakistani tribal region, no one argues his case. When the intelligence community targets insurgents or terrorists, it collects intelligence nee evidence just like the Willingham case. And often, the leaders want results, the way detectives and district attorneys want convictions.

The only good side to this story is that because of the development of modern arson investigations, the number of actual arson fires has plummeted by seventy percent, while the number of structure fires has remained steady. In other words, many fewer people are being wrongfully convicted of arson.

If you want to read more on this case, try The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune or The Innocence Project.

May 23

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

You would confess to a crime you didn’t commit. You would also implicate others in that same crime.

Don’t believe me? Then imagine this: You’re taken into a small room. Confined for hours. A ruthless interrogator badgers you until you confess to something. Anything. He threatens you with your life, unless you confess, unless you implicate your friends. So you do it.

Still sounds impossible doesn’t it? Go listen to the FRONTLINE episode, “The Confessions” then. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

(Or read this summary: In short, four men--Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr. and Eric C. Wilson--were convicted by the state of Virginia for the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997. Despite a dearth of physical evidence, the investigators began interrogating several men. Detective Glenn Ford--according to the four men--coerced them into confessions after intense, nine to twelve hour long interrogations. Eventually, another man, unconnected to the Norfolk Four, Omar Ballard, was convicted of the murder. He claims to have committed the murder by himself, and the rest of the Norfolk Four were later released from prison, though some haven’t been exonerated of all the charges. This is a complicated story a few paragraphs cannot do justice; I highly recommend the FRONTLINE episode.)

You’re probably wondering why, since this is “intelligence is evidence” month here at On Violence, I have just made you listen to a case about a miscarriage of American justice. As I wade into the dark side of intelligence/evidence gone bad, I need to set the scene. I need to prepare you emotionally to understand the consequences of intelligence/evidence gone awry.

(Our readers might be thinking to themselves, “Yeah, but I’m not a weak-willed person like the Norfolk Four.” Maybe. Maybe not. But bad intelligence is still bad intelligence, and justice not served is still justice not served.)

Attempting to capture the downsides of an “intelligence”-based approach to terrorism just doesn’t connect emotionally to most Americans. We are at war; injustices seem to be a natural part of war. Combined with a natural dose of cultural blindness and a dollop of nationalist indignation, most Americans don’t morally connect with travesties of justice abroad.

We can’t kid ourselves either; in the war on terror, travesties of justice happen. As often as we get intelligence right--Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda terrorists with the CIA drone program, and Khalid Sheik Muhammed at Guantanamo--we also get it wrong--the nine and half years it took to find Osama bin Laden’s “cave”, the civilian casualties with drone strikes, and three quarters of the Guantanamo population.

As these examples show, intelligence failures occur when law enforcement pursues their suspects with a single-mindedness that blinds them to the possibility they might be wrong. In the example from “The Confessions”, detectives coerced confessions from their suspects using techniques I know our forces use in Iraq and Afghanistan during interrogations.

While it seems inconceivable that men would confess to crimes they did not commit, the FRONTLINE article makes an extremely convincing case that it can happen. The story of the Norfolk Four is a case of over-zealous police work, plain and simple. Detective Glenn Ford--later convicted for extorting defendants--pursued confessions no matter how ridiculous or forced. One man initially claimed it was two man job, then a three man job, then a four man job, all the way up to seven men. Yet the juries never heard the entire twelve hour long interrogation, only the simple confession at the end--a confession rehearsed and practiced for two hours before recording.

Most relevant for our intelligence analysts in both the terrorism business and the insurgency business is that witnesses will implicate others under pressure. In the Guantanamo files, a handful of inmates made up the bulk of the allegations against the others. Downrange, detained insurgents, or suspected insurgents, are not protected by Miranda rights or the right to an attorney. It is war, after all. The Wikileaked Iraq War documents even allege that some Iraqi units engage in torture. If we know that coerced confessions in America, with all our protections, can be so wrong, imagine how wrong detainee reports in Iraq or Afghanistan could be.

On Wednesday, I will explain another example of American justice not served.

May 20

Since Michael C is spending a month writing about intelligence and evidence, (Which is awesome, because, as a lay person, I’ve learned a ton.) I’ve decided that I’m going to spend a month discussing the seminal Vietnam war memoir, Dispatches.

If you missed my review last week, check it out. Or check out my compilation of “War at its Worst” passages, “Hell Sucks in the Imperial City”. Today, I’m going to share some more great Dispatches’ passages. (Side note: this still doesn’t cover the greatness of Dispatches. For the sake of not reposting the entire book, I had to leave out the brilliant chapters on Khe Sahn, the adventures of Mayhew and Daytripper, and the last chapter’s brilliant biography of Tim Page. And next week I’ll have more humorous passages from later in the book.)

Here are some of my favorite passages from Dispatches, arranged chronologically:

“At the end of my first week in-country, I met an information officer in the headquarters of the 25th Division at Cu Chi who showed me on his map and then from his chopper what they’d done to the Ho Bo woods, the vanished Ho Bo woods, taken off by giant Rome plows and chemicals and long, slow fire, wasting hundreds of acres of cultivated plantation and forest alike, “denying the enemy valuable resources and cover.”

“But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it:
   ‘Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’
   I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, f***ed as if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was.”

“There was a camp at Soc Trang where the man at the LZ said, “If you come looking for a story this is your lucky day, we got Condition Red here,” and before the sound of the chopper had faded out I knew I  had it too.
   ‘That’s affirmative,’ the camp commander said, ‘we are definitely expecting rain. Glad to see you.’ He was a young captain, he was laughing and taping a bunch of sixteen clips together bottom to bottom for faster reloading, “grease.” Everyone there was busy at it, cracking crates, squirrelling away grenades, checking mortar pieces, piling rounds, clicking banana clips into automatic weapons that I’d never even seen before. They were wired into their listening posts out around the camp, into each other, into themselves, and when it got dark it got worse. Th moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit. It was soft and saffron-misted when you looked at it, but its light over the sandbags and into the jungle was harsh and bright...”No sense us getting too relaxed. Charlie don’t relax. Just when you get good and comfortable is when he comes over and takes a giant shit on you.” That was the level until morning, I smoked a pack an hour all night long, and nothing happened. Ten minutes after daybreak I was down at the LZ asking about choppers.”

“The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We had the air, we could get up in it but not disappear in to it, we could run but we couldn’t hide, and he could do each so well that sometimes it looked like he was doing them both at once, while our finder went limp. All the same, one place or another it was always going on, rock around the clock, we had the days, and he had the nights. You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional, that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or balls, major and lasting disfigurement...could come in on the freakyfluky as easily as in the socalled expected ways...and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisioned birds a hundred times a day. After a while I couldn;t get on one without thinking I must be out of my fucking mind.”

“I only jumped in once, spontaneous as shock, during Tet when I heard a doctor bragging that he’d refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. ‘But Jesus Christ, “ I said. “didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?” but he was ready for me. “Yeah,” he said. “I took it in America.”

“Oh, that terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it! When the hideous Battle of Dak To ended at the top of Hill 875, we announced that 4,000 of them had been killed; it had been the purest slaughter, our losses were bad, but clearly it had been another American victory. But when the top of the hill was reached, the number of NVA found was four. Four.”

May 20

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for a 20 year old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

I admire Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. As utopian fiction set far in the future, the franchise has held the ability to comment on social and political issues of the past and present without direct reference. Gene Roddenberry’s fictional future representatives of mankind address issues of disease, war, racism, and other conflicts as allegory to our present realities. What in Star Trek’s fictional future is no more than a kiss, in our reality is a controversial comment about race relations. The fictional events on a human-like planet of Rutia IV is an evolved look at the concept of terror as an act for political change.

“The High Ground” aired in 1990 and found the crew of the USS Enterprise on a mission of mercy to a small non-aligned world called Rutia IV. The independent planet is plagued by terrorists who claim to be freedom fighters, a small cultural group seeking autonomy from the larger collective government. They spread terror by bombing school buses, attacking military and civilian targets, and assassinating officials. In unique Star Trek fashion, their efforts are bolstered by unique technology, a new type of teleportation that while undetectable, also slowly kills the user.  

During the mission, a medical officer is abducted by a terrorist cell in order to provide medical treatment to the terrorist dying from use of their transport device. In this way, humanity’s representative is entangled in a type of conflict Earth only knows from its history. The narrative explores the various points of view: the peace officer who must bend civil liberties of a few to protect the many, the terrorist leader who murders but who has legitimate grievance, and the outsiders drawn in by a single act.

Like past episodes that addressed delicate persisting issues, “The Higher Ground” did not air without controversy. More precisely, in England the episode did not air at all, at least not initially. (An edited version was aired years after). The decision was most likely due to the in story discussion of fictional historical events in Ireland and Israel with regard to the outcome of terrorist acts. Comments like: "Yet there are numerous examples when it was successful: the independence of the Mexican State from Spain, the Irish Unification of 2024, and the Kenzie Rebellion."

Our saga ends as only Star Trek can with a nick of time discovery leading to a nick of time rescue in which the terrorist leader is killed seconds before he can execute his hostages. Still, there is an interesting moment and subsequent back and forth before resolution. As the terrorist leader lays dead, a young boy picks up a weapon. While he is subsequently talked down, the peace officer remarks, “Already another one to take his place. It never ends.”

The response is key. “He could've killed you,” says Commander Riker. “He didn't. Maybe the end begins with one boy putting down his gun.”

It’s an interesting depiction of the process of terror that reflects struggles in the real world with regard to separatists. Yet the most meaningful moment for me was the of that child at the end. Terror continues because it is taught; because it is preached and dictated to be an answer. Yet empirical evidence indicates that fear is not a lasting motivator for political change. Education reveals this as well as connects children to other cultures through commonalities.

Consider Operation Cyclone: after the US had provided billions dollars to the Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the Soviets, only a fraction of a percentage of those billions was spent on rebuilding damaged infrastructure like schools. The committee refuses to dedicate one million dollars toward education, effectively making it that much more difficult for those boys who need education to put down their guns.

May 18

A few months after my platoon transferred AOs to the Serkani district in Afghanistan, I brought the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team--with the local District Governor--to Pashad for the first time in five years. At that meeting, the villagers asked for a bridge. This bridge would help them avoid traveling quite a distance, through Taliban-contested terrain, to get medical help. I doubted it would ever happen, hence the moniker “my bridge to nowhere”.

Long story short: the Kunar team got a grant to build the bridge and, just this week, finished it. Big ups to Big Sarge Will for finding the link.

Pashad is near and dear to my heart. To get a feel for my obsession with this small village, check out my past posts:

- IO...Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Propaganda

- A Tale of Two MEDCAPs: Part I and II

- Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?

- The Dumbest Thing I Saw in Afghanistan

- How to Win an American Heart and Mind

- A Tale of Two MEDCAPs, Now in Technicolor!

- On V in Other Places: Infantry Magazine

May 16

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

If only Osama bin Laden was named Richard Kimball. Because then, instead of treating Osama as a terrorist, we could had treated him as a fugitive. And then we could have sent US Marshall Samuel Gerard after him. He wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few months. (Or Special Agent Luke Hobbs.)

Alas, in America, intelligence is not evidence. Since I’m spending the month explaining how “intelligence is evidence”, I’d be remiss to not include the most celebrated example of intelligence in action: the capture of Osama Bin Laden. In the same way that I used prisoners at Guantanamo and CIA drone strikes as case studies, the “hunt” for Osama bin Laden can best be understood as a investigation.

Specifically, a criminal investigation.

(Before you read further, drop the terms “terrorism”, “intelligence” and “Osama bin Laden” from your brain. The issue of terrorism has been so polluted with politicization and emotion that it is hard to approach this issue rationally.)

Let’s start with the evidence. According to Mike Allen, two organizations provided a good chunk of the evidence to take down Osama bin Laden. The first organization is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It “specializes in imagery and maps”, just like police detectives and federal agents tail suspects or use cameras to watch them. The second organization, the National Security Agency can “covertly watch and listen to conversations around the world”, in the same way that law enforcement in the U.S. can place wire taps on communication devices.

Like most investigations, though, the biggest clue came not from technology but good old fashioned police work. That’s a code word for talking to humans. Investigators identified a courier who multiple sources confirmed Osama bin Laden still trusted. Tailing him led to a suspicious compound.

Since bin Laden lived in Pakistan, far from where federal agents could reach him, elite commandos took the mission. To be clear, this isn’t much different than how a major crimes unit would approach the take down of a major drug dealer. A major crimes unit would combine multiple types of evidence--confidential informants, wire taps and observation of the suspects--into a compelling case, convince it’s boss it has enough evidence, and then plan the take down. Taking down a major drug dealer or mafia boss would require a huge amount of planning to succeed, just like the bin Laden raid.

Finally, after taking down Osama bin Laden, the agents confiscated loads of paper, electronics and other evidence to use to build future leads.

While the investigation or “man-hunt” was basic police work, it has been described in several forums as a vindication of the intelligence community’s approach. Sure apprehending Osama bin Laden presented agents with an incredibly difficult challenge, but when the bulk of the evidence is finally presented, it is clear: this was police work.

(All information in this article about intelligence comes from declassified or unclassified reporting.)

May 13

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

I’m (probably) overly critical of the war memoirs I’ve reviewed here at On Violence. If I am, it is only because I want to read a classic. I’m not looking for a good read; I’m not looking for something I like; I’m looking for a book that understands the nature of war and treats that subject with all the gravitas and pathos it deserves.

In other words, I’m looking for greatness. I won’t stop writing or critiquing until I find the next The Things They Carried or Dispatches.

So it’s probably pretty obvious that--since this is a review of Dispatches--that I love it. The worst thing I can say about Michael Herr is that he has maddeningly entered Harper Lee I’m-still-living-but-goodness-gracious-sakes-alive-I’m-never-going-to-publish-again territory, writing only four books in his entire career. But Dispatches alone makes Herr one of the greatest writers/essayists/reporters in the last half century.

Dispatches consists of a series of dream-like images, a collage of details, memories and fact; quotes, jokes and anecdotes. This schizophrenic fabric turns Dispatches into something beautiful: a collection of details. “Everywhere you went people said, ‘I hope you get a story,’ and everywhere you went you did.” All the details and experiences add up into one meta-story that is the war in Vietnam. It doesn’t tell you what happened, exactly, but it does tell you how you should feel about it.

In many ways, it’s harder to write a review of a book you love. It’s more fun, and easier, to write critically, tossing off devastating bon mots like a camper blasting away others players from the tallest point on a map in Halo: Reach, and safely hiding behind the internet’s anonymity while real writers who’ve written real books wonder, “Who the hell is Eric C to criticize me?”

So instead of just praising Dispatches, I want to share why all memoirists, or aspiring memoirists, should read this book. Take notes on Herr’s approach, since Dispatches might as well be a primer on how to write a war memoir:

- There’s no introduction, no “here-is-how-I-got-here” scene. Dispatches opens in the suck and stays there.

- Herr doesn’t include an unwieldy character introduction scene. He only really introduces some characters in two chapters. He never mentions that his best friend, Sean Flynn, died in that war.

- Dispatches’ style is very stream-of-consciousness, all action and sense and memory and literary detail, the crazed fever dream of war in all its ugliness, particularly the first chapter, “Breathing In”.

- Dispatches has no larger story or plot. No beginning, middle or end. Just all war. There is no larger thematic arc, of a boy becoming a man, or a Lieutenant learning to lead men.

- War is ugly. Herr lives the O’Brien axiom that if you come away from a war story feeling uplifted, you’ve been lied to.

- Dispatches is filled with pop culture references and 60’s slang. Modern memoirs fail, on the whole, to do this.

- Herr didn’t stick with one group, platoon or AO. He jumped around the country, in and out on helicopters, returning occasionally to Saigon to write and party and do drugs. It’s why reporters have an advantage as writers.

- Herr writes about his own shortcomings. Like the time he thought he got hit but wasn’t, or how some of the soldiers look down on him.

- Herr combines the sharp specific details with broad strokes that symbolize the whole war. Take this passage:

In the months after I got back, the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they formed a collective meta-chopper...Sometimes they were so plentiful and loose you could touch down at five or six places in one day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out. There were installations as big as cities with 30,000 citizens, once we dropped into feed supply one man. God knows what type of Lord Jim Pheonix numbers he was doing in there, all he said to me was, ‘You didn’t see a thing, right chief? You weren’t even here.”

- Dispatches is very funny, as I’ll explain in a future post.

I’ve read Dispatches twice in the last year. In some ways, I felt I learned more about war--even today’s wars--from it than the post-9/11 war memoirs I’ve read. Maybe I’m still just waiting to read a classic.

May 11

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

According to Newsweek, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center decides which insurgents to target via drone strikes based on cables that, “...are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages.”

Later this month I will get into the moral and legal issues of lethal operations against terrorist suspects, especially in a five page world. Today, though, I just want to bolster the case I made last Monday and Wednesday that, call it what you will, intelligence is evidence. And I can’t make my argument without mentioning America’s foremost intelligence agency, the CIA.

“Inside the Killing Machine”, the Newsweek article I quoted above, reveals how deeply the CIA has embraced evidence without realizing it. The terrorist is always a “suspect”. Like detectives, the intelligence analysts aren’t planning for battles, they are handling “cases”. The article even describes the case files as “death warrants”. So the CIA has a “suspect”, whose “case” they handle, until they can get a “warrant” approved by a higher authority. For an intelligence agency, they sure have embraced the language of detectives.

The CIA also works in much the same way a major crimes unit or organized crime task force would operate. Through past convictions or previous evidence, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center develops a list of individuals of interest. (One source in the article calls this a “hit list”.) This list is then compiled into a rough network diagram of who is connected to whom.

CIA analysts then use all the tools at their disposal to gather intelligence, erm, evidence on the suspects. This runs the gamut from human intelligence to communications intelligence, with overhead imagery filling the gaps; detectives call human intelligence “informants”, signals intelligence “wiretaps” and overhead imagery “stakeouts”. When the analysts think they have a case, or enough evidence to warrant killing the suspect, they take it to the CIA’s general counsel, and--the article doesn’t mention this specifically--the boss of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center. If this sounds suspiciously like police work, that’s because it is. The CIA has embraced the tactics and techniques of criminal investigators, without their meddlesome burdens of reasonable doubt and probable cause.

But the CIA embraced new methods and a new mindset without ever really acknowledging it. Our intelligence system used to care about one primary actor, Russia. Our counter-intelligence people intercepted Russian spies; our agents tried to avoid Russia’s counter-intelligence folks. Military intelligence prepared for future battles against Russia in Germany. The biggest concern for the Army’s military intelligence was, “Where is the opposing Soviet Union armor or infantry division?”

On 9/11, those models of intelligence became obsolete.

Well, maybe not obsolete, but just less important relative to other disciplines. We still need the ability to spy on other countries and to detect their spies. We still need the ability to fight large maneuver wars, and the intelligence that supports battlefield commanders. And of course, there is China. But to fight asymmetric groups, like Al Qaeda, we need detectives piecing together evidence to take down enemy networks.

The CIA examples shows the shortcomings of this system. The paperwork to target suspects can run “up to five pages”. I wonder if any court case in America has ever come in under five pages of total documentation. The CIA analysts making these decisions can’t interview witnesses, and they especially can’t interview the suspect at hand. Also, because we can’t directly arrest someone, the only other means is bombing via drone strikes, which risks collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Those bombings are, to be clear, death sentences, both for the suspected terrorists and for the people around them. I think those victims would hope that their death warrants contained more than a five page summary. (According to the article, some in the CIA wished they could use even less evidence.) And they might also hope the CIA acknowledges that intelligence is evidence.

May 09

Something really important happened last week: On Violence had its two year anniversary.

We would have posted on our proper two year anniversary on Friday, but Michael C was personally invited to listen to the President speak. And by personally invited, we mean he was invited along with everyone else at Fort Campbell. Watch the video here; he’s one of the guys on the top row with the long hair.

First, we want to say something we haven’t said in a while: thank you. Thank you to all the loyal readers, argumentative commenters, retweeters and facebook-likers. Thanks to everyone who helped us get our thoughts out there, and to everyone who nominated or voted for On Violence over at the milbloggies (with a particular shout out for Starbuck over at Wings Over Iraq.)

Second, instead of compiling a “Best of On V” link drop, we’ll link to what we consider our biggest accomplishment in the last year: getting published in the Washington Post with Michael C’s controversial op-ed, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay”. Nothing compares to seeing your name in print in a major newspaper.

Third, we’d like to address a question some of you may have been thinking, one we’ve been asking ourselves. With the death of Osama bin Laden, the impending draw down in Iraq in 2011, and the probably soon to rapidly increasing draw down in Afghanistan, and Michael C leaving the military in July, what’s going to happen to On Violence?

Well, we’re not going to stop. Violence isn’t going anywhere, and we still have years before both wars are fully over. We also will focus more on international conflicts, the meaning of war and violence, and of course, reviewing art and books about war.

Finally, some bigger news/updates. Michael C is getting out of the Army. We mention this for two reasons. First, posting may, counter-intuitively, go down. We try to publish 3 to 4 times a week, but in the next few months it will go down to three times a week. Second, we’re looking for writing jobs in the Los Angeles area. So if you have a job, know of a job, or know anyone involved in the writing industry (film, print or interwebs), we’d really appreciate it if you dropped us a line.

If you are looking for a team of amazing writers, please contact our sales office. Or just email us.

May 04

(On Monday, I said that intelligence and evidence were two sides of the same coin. Today, I provide a case study to back that up.)

In my post about Brazil (the film), I made an analogy between a connect-the-dots puzzle and intelligence work. Do we, as intelligence analysts, connect the dots, or do we make up figures out of meaningless dots?

Take the case of Abdullah Mehsud. Taken to Guantanamo in 2001, he claimed to be a Taliban conscript who was there against his will. Due to his cooperative nature, he was promptly released. He went back to Pakistan and killed 31 people in a bombing.

Or take the converse, Murat Kurnaz. Despite assessments calling him a “high-risk” detainee, the U.S. authorities released him. He hasn’t gone on to become a terrorist, but a highly vocal critic of America.

The recently Wikileaked Guantanamo files bring this question into sharp focus. Throughout the reporting by The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, The McClatchy Papers and others, the common theme emerges that intelligence analysts on that island had very little idea if they were connecting dots or just making them up. But more than anything else, the Guantanamo papers show that intelligence and evidence might as well be synonymous.

The Similarities Between Intelligence and Evidence

In Guantanamo, intelligence analysts tried to answer this question, “What do we do with these people?” At first, as the reports show, this meant gathering “actionable” intelligence. With detainees completely isolated on Guantanamo, this eventually dried up. (President Obama’s decision to use more drone strikes contributed to the lack of candidates for Guantanamo as well.)

The question then became, “Well, who can we release that won’t cause America harm?” Or, as the various news organizations report, “Who can we prosecute?” The difference between intelligence and criminal investigation disappeared. The analysts--many of whom had very little personal experience with detective or legal work--did their best to determine the answers to these questions.

Partly because Guantanamo is primarily a military/intelligence operation, the evidence for criminal prosecution never passed muster, for American courts or consequent military tribunals. In fact, while many of the detainees passed the intelligence requirements to be detained--a very low standard--analysts couldn’t actually link them to terrorist activities.

This whole process, from detention to exploitation to determination of guilt, is criminal justice in a international sense. When an intelligence analyst gathers information and writes a report to make a determination of guilt or innocence, they might as well call themselves a detective. Whether that report goes to a senior military or intelligence official, as opposed to a district attorney or judge, the result is the same.

The Problems of Guantanamo

The biggest hindrance, as this New York Times article points out, is that unlike, say, the FBI working on American soil, the analysts and interrogators had few opportunities to gather additional evidence to confirm or deny the detainees’ guilt or innocence. They couldn’t question additional witnesses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The only physical evidence was the personal belongings of the captured individuals. So the primary form of evidence (read: intelligence) was the testimony and confessions of fellow inmates.

Does this sound like a situation where analysts could connect the dots out of random data points? Consider these pieces of evidence that led to suspicions of guilt:

- If a suspected terrorist had flight itineraries, he probably planned to conduct a terrorist attack after that flight. If a suspected terrorist didn’t have flight itineraries, it meant that he had destroyed his personal documents to conceal his travel plans.

- If a suspected terrorist said he was a farmer or merchant, he was using a common terrorist persona. If he claimed to be a terrorist, then he was a terrorist. No matter what the subject claims to be, it could be evidence he is a terrorist.

- If a suspect has a Casio watch, he could be a terrorist. This is the most popular watch in south Asia.

- Finally, if a suspect repeatedly denied being in Al Qaeda, he could either be: a. well versed in Al Qaeda deception techniques, or b. completely innocent.

Combine the facts that a handful of “witnesses” provided the bulk of the “intelligence/evidence” against fellow detainees and that much of their “testimony” was later completely discredited, doing proper intelligence work was practically impossible.

More than proving my thesis that intelligence is evidence, the Guantanamo files reveal that the United States intelligence community still hasn’t realized its role in counter-terrorism. Intelligence--typified by the CIA--and evidence--typified by the FBI--should work together, hand in hand. If anything, intelligence folks need to embrace the techniques, tactics, procedures, methods, strategies and practices of criminal investigation, not the other way around. American criminal investigations garner confidence in the outcomes, something we sorely need in the intelligence community.

“All the pieces matter,” says a prescient detective on The Wire. But they don’t matter if they don’t actually matter.

May 02

Previous posts in the groundbreaking series "Intelligence and Evidence":

- One Reason It Took So Long To Find Osama bin Laden

- All The Piece’s Matter...Unless They Don’t: Guantanamo, America’s Best Recidivism Rate

- The Five Page Death Warrant

- The INVESTIGATION to Find Osama (bin Laden)

- A Conundrum: The Confessions

- Another Conundrum: Death By Fire

- Three Takeaways from Two Tragedies   

- Intel Gone Bad: The One Percent Doctrine

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Iraq

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Afghanistan

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Terrorism

- Why Intel Goes Bad: The Devil's Advocate

- Why Intel Goes Bad: We Want Bad Intel

- Answering My Critics Part 1: Intelligence Isn't Counter-Terrorism

- Answering My Critics Part 2: Intelligence is Slightly Better Than A Ouija Board

- Answering My Critics Part III: The New Oracle at Delphi

- My Solutions to "Intelligence is Evidence"

Here is a little fact that got lost in all of today’s celebration: it took it nine and a half years for American special operators to track down and kill Osama bin Laden. Despite spending 80 billion dollars annually on intelligence, it still America took yet nine years to find him.

And I think I know why.

Most intelligence analysts don’t understand intelligence. Sure most intel folks can define it--in doctrinal terms, “intelligence” is knowledge or information about the enemy that enables the commander to make a decision to accomplish his mission--but they don’t understand it.

Since my arrogance knows no limits, I think I’ve figured it out: intelligence is evidence, especially when it comes to irregular, small, low-intensity, asymmetric, political wars and insurgencies. Both intelligence and evidence start with the same thing: information. Both then use that information to solve crimes--murders in our neighborhoods, IED explosions in the combat zone, or terrorist attacks on America shores, for example. Instead of solving past crimes, though, intelligence predicts (or fails to predict) the future.

(I've been planning this series on intelligence and evidence for a while--and this post has been on the calendar for a week--but Osama bin Laden’s capture provides the perfect jumping off point. Until some intelligence analysts embraced an evidence-focused view of intelligence, we wouldn’t have caught Osama bin Laden.)

Despite the similarities, intelligence analysts receive very little training in forensics or criminology. The Army doesn’t call it “crime scene investigation” either, we call it “sensitive site exploitation” and we don’t train many analysts in that task. Further, while detectives are the superstars of their field, intelligence folks are not. And even though the similarities are eerily close, intelligence and criminal professionals don’t work well together. Take, for example, the FBI abandoning Guantanamo early in its existence.

To explain this theory, I am going to use well publicized news stories that reveal how similar the job of an intelligence analyst is to a criminal detective. The first post describes Guantanamo, which straddles the line between the worlds of intelligence and criminal justice. The second post describes the inside world of the CIA drone program, a world firmly in the intelligence sphere, but suspiciously like a non-judicial criminal proceeding. Finally, I will go over the news about the Osama bin Laden operation, and how one group embraced evidence to find him. When the final story comes out, it will sound much more like a detective thriller than an espionage case.

This gap between the intelligence community and the criminal world is a huge problem. A huge chasm separates intelligence and evidence, though. Since 9/11, the national security world has believed that both our two counter-insurgencies and the fight with Al Qaeda use a fundamentally different philosophy of justice than that of the American legal system. The military doesn’t contend with “reasonable doubt” or even a “preponderance of the evidence”. Nope, deployed soldiers or intelligence operatives have mostly embraced the “one percent doctrine” of Vice President Cheney fame. Whereas police officers must build a case that passes judicial and constitutional muster, the military and national intelligence agencies care primarily about averting disaster before it strikes.

The result of those policies can be success--averting a terrorist attack--or they can be disaster--the torture of innocent people. So for the rest of this month--an entire month--I will explore the links between intelligence and evidence; the eerie similarities between them, the unfortunate tragedies of both branches, and the moral implications of sub-standard work. Stay tuned.