Jun 30

With a wedding this weekend and a cross country drive the next, On Violence will be off until July 11.

See you then!

Jun 29

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Adam Elkus, frequent Small Wars Journal contributor and author of the Red Team Journal. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

I think it's possible that we may evolve to a point where war--or the threat thereof--is no longer an issue. But at that point we may not be "human" anymore. The anthropological evidence is compelling and demonstrates that the "noble savage" never existed and was something of a creation of Rousseau and other fellow travelers. That being said it's hard to make a definitive judgment about the future of humanity--especially since we may change drastically as our technology and environments increasingly change us.

Jun 29

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Mark Grimsley, author of Blog Them Out of the Stone Age and a military history professor at the Ohio State University. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

Warfare has a starting point in history, usually placed at the time of the Agricultural Revolution.  It is then not a trans-historical phenomenon and may therefore have an ending point.

Human slavery was once thought of as being a fundamental, timeless, and normal way of organizing labor.  But it disappeared in the 19th century, although admittedly vestiges still remain (an estimated 27 million people are still in some form of unfree labor).  If an end to slavery can happen, so can an end to war. Indeed, in The Remnants of War, political scientist John Mueller argues that conventional states have already abandoned warfare against one another.  Such warfare as remains is principally against (or between) rogue regimes, non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, as well as drug lords, local warlords, terrorists, and various groups of armed thugs.  Not the end of war, to be sure, but evidence that it may be on its way out.

Jun 28

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Matt Gallagher, author of "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War". (Read Eric C’s review here.) Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

I've given this some thought over the last day or so, and at the risk of sounding flippant, my short answer is "definitely not." If/when the wars end, humanity will have become something else entirely, since warfare has been with our species longer than a flat earth and fire, and will probably outlast the pinky toe. The teenage idealist still left in me hurts at this acknowledgement, but it "'tis what it 'tis." As a fan of the Big Guy upstairs, I believe there is a place that awaits us that is without the evils and ugliness of war, but that's another discussion entirely.

Jun 27

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Michael C. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

When Eric C first asked me if there would ever be an end to war, my immediate gut response was, “All things are possible through the grace of God.” It’s not the most analytical response, but I hadn’t analyzed, researched, discussed and over-analyzed the question yet. My response is rooted in a faith-based idealism based on prophesy and promise.

But logic kicks in: war is entropic. Destructive and chaotic. As Eric C so eloquently put it, war is the opposite of civilization. Since the universe naturally flows toward disorder or chaotic state, it’s natural to assume wars will continue as an agent of entropy. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to assume war would likely continue to mature to a point where it enable our own entropic release in the form of utter annihilation of our species.

Further, an end to war as a practice appears counter to the nature very of competitive evolution. Conflict induces change. It’s not merely the practice of the strongest surviving, but those able to adapt. When two birds fight over the same food source, they can either war for that resource or one bird can give up and find another food supply. War is simply a form of conflict. An extreme form to be sure, but conflict nonetheless.

However, while we are drawn to conflict and competition, we are simultaneously and paradoxically called to combat chaos to create order. We build, we congregate, and we cooperate for a greater good. Cooperation, just like conflict, promotes evolution and change. It is also more beneficial to the group. Rather than competing over a single food source, we cooperate to access various sources of food. Ending war--ending conflict on such a massive scale--would be a triumph for our species; an evolutionary landmark like flight or antibiotics or splitting the atom. It would be among our greatest possible achievements.

Then I consider humanity’s nature. We are greedy, true. Selfish, sure. Fearful, absolutely. But what we are is not embodied in these traits alone. While they are part of our nature, we are more complex than a set of baser emotions. We have many forms of love. We had devised many methods of self expression. We demonstrate altruism. And we long for answers and truth, either through science or faith or both.

As I considered and researched and discussed, I could not escape my original answer. It hung there, not like a challenge, but like a promise. My faith dictates that an end to war is inevitable.

Jun 24

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Eric C. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

In short, yes. Humans will stop fighting wars.

In long, I’m a utopian. As I argued in the “Is Progress Violent?” debate, [link] I believe mankind is actively and effectively becoming better. While there are no magic cures or technologies that will instantly make us better, and though the process isn’t smooth, over time, technology and human culture are becoming more peaceful. Though the media doesn’t make it look this way, we humans murder each other way less than we used to.

But will wars stop? Yes. As we interconnect, as we form larger and larger circles, as we barrel towards a one world government (Sorry far right conspiracy theorists, it’s a good idea.) we will become more peaceful. Though Thomas Friedman’s original "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention"--no two countries with a McDonald’s restaurant will ever go to war--has since been disproved, the central thesis was fair: as the world’s supply lines and economies interconnect, as more people cross more borders, as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, war will occur less frequently.

Similarly, we could look at the democratic peace theory. (If you’re a stickler academic, the inter-democracy nonaggression hypothesis.) In short, democracies don’t go to war with one another because the desire for negotiation and diplomacy outweighs the desire to go to war. I don’t totally buy into this theory--the data set is too small--but it seems to a be a reasonable guide for the future of this world.

And human culture is changing. People used to believe in war. People used to think it was noble and grand. We used to not have peace protesters. But we do now. And as the last remaining, crusty old breed clings to the notion that “war is war, and it’s awesome” others will take their place and push this world forward.

Will it be a smooth process? Heck no. Will we stop wars tomorrow? Even bigger hell no. People are dumb, greedy, and fearful. But in spite of that, we’re still getting better.

Jun 23

(This week, and next, On Violence and our readers will try to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from Michael C. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

My gut is to go with the crowd and say, nope we won’t, but I feel like that’s the easy answer. If you say no, you don’t really have to explain yourself. Sure, the Radiolab people and Jon Horgan ask the naysayers “Why?” but they just have to say, “Humanity has always fought wars and always will; it’s human nature.”

But if you dissent, like I want to, then I feel like I must explain what mechanism will prevent mankind from waging war in the future. The onus is all on the affirmative response. The burden of proof falls on the optimist.

In philosophical conundrums like this, I love to find the right analogy to solve the problem, fix the glitch. But finding the perfect analogy--that thing that humans have eradicated but still resembles war--is hard, nee impossible.

Slavery? Nope still doing that in parts of the world.

Financial disasters? I remember in high school believing that the government had put in such effective counter-measures such that another Great Depression couldn’t happen because of proper regulation. Ha!

And wars, while not as widespread or as violent as in the past, still definitely affect large portions of the globe.

What about the growth of technology? I mean, in the 1800s if you had said, “Will man ever eradicate disease?” the response would be “Goodness gracious, sakes alive, no.” Then we developed antibiotics that extended the lifespan of every human on the planet. So while disease hasn’t been eradicated, we’ve pummeled it right good.

Same with flying. Did medieval man think humans would ever fly? They couldn’t comprehend automobiles, let alone flying machines.

Still, conquering nature seems different than conquering human nature, which we haven’t really done. So analogies fail us.

Instead, I’ll go with my gut: we must believe that wars will end, because without that faith, it will never happen. Like runners around the world who couldn’t crack the four minute mile until Bannister did it, humans expand our abilities when we decide that “Yes, we can do this.”

That’s why I say, “Yes, some day humans will stop fighting wars.” Because if I don’t, we never will.

Jun 21

We have a simple, thought-provoking question we’d like to ask our readers today, and for the rest of the week:

Will humans ever stop fighting wars? Why?

Stop for a moment. Go with your gut. What do you think? Write it down if you want.

Then go to this episode of Radiolab. Stop listening at the 4:00 minute mark. (Well, go on and listen to the entire show, and series, if you want, they are wonderful )

For those who didn’t listen, (Shame on you, unless an Army computer system is blocking you, in which case, we understand.) here is a quick synopsis: Radiolab, inspired by science journalist and teacher John Horgan, asked a slew of people in New Jersey, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” According to Horgan, who has been asking people this question for over ten years, Americans have become wildly pessimistic about the chance that we will ever stop fighting wars.

This might be the most important question we have ever asked on this blog. It isn’t the answer that matters so much as why you believe humanity will or will not keep fighting wars.

On Thursday and Friday, we will both provide our answers to this question. Next week we hope to post any and all responses we get, including Matty P’s response. Part of our mission at On V is to attack the philosophical questions about war and violence, and this is our latest salvo, building off the success of our last debate about whether progress is inherently violent.

So, if you’d like, answer the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” and please expand with why or why not. Feel free to write anything from 1 to 500 words, and send it to us at info (at) onviolence (dot) (com). Or write your response on your own blog, and send us a link.

We look forward to the responses.

The first attempt at an answer came from Michael C.

Eric C followed up with a different take.

Then came regular contributer Matty P.

Followed by a guest post from Matt Gallagher.

And Professor Mark Grimsley.

And Adam Elkus.

And "More 'Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?'".

And Dennis Erwin of Pulieu.

And then our Twitter responses.

Facts Behaving Badly: Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?

And we covered this topic obliquely before in Why I Believe Things Are Getting Better: A Review of Rising Up and Rising Down's Premise and Statistics, Damned Statistics and Terrorism Link Drop.

Jun 20

The Kobayashi Maru is--in the fictional Star Trek universe--the ultimate test for students at the Starfleet academy, testing their ability, character and poise in a no-win, certain death situation. The Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha describes the test:

“In the scenario, a cadet was placed in command of a starship on patrol near the Klingon Neutral Zone. The starship would receive a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian freighter that had been disabled in the zone after having struck a gravitic mine. If the cadet chose to enter the neutral zone in violation of treaties, the starship would be confronted by three Klingon K't'inga-class battle cruisers. The test was considered a no-win scenario because it was impossible for the cadet to simultaneously save the Kobayashi Maru, avoid a fight with the Klingons and escape from the neutral zone with the starship intact.“

Captain Kirk, as any Trekkie knows (we’re not Trekkies, but contributor Matty P is) cheated on the test, reprogramming the computer to allow him to win. This pisses me off, on a number of levels.

The first is the logical one: it’s a test you can’t beat. If you beat it, by dint of that accomplishment, clearly you cheated. So why would the Starfleet Academy, in the new Star Trek reboot, bother to hold a trial? Res ipsa loquitor, the guy cheated.

My larger point is bigger. As I wrote in “We Can’t Handle the Truth,” modern American cinema can’t handle bad endings. If it isn’t a happy ending, that movie isn’t made. As the producer asks at the end of Robert Altman’s The Player, “Can you guarantee me a happy ending?” ‘Cause if you can’t, the film won’t get made.

Hollywood, America, and the general public are so obsessed with happy endings that the heroes of our movies cheat on tests to avoid sad endings. Captain Kirk is literally incapable of failing, even in a test that you can’t win. It’s like Hollywood has reached some sort of happy ending singularity, the nexus point at which falsely optimistic cinema has taken over the world. We can’t fail on tests designed for failure.

Which is ironic, because, from another point of view, Kirk is ultimately a loser, because he failed to learn how to lose.

This brings me to a short clip from To The Best of our Knowledge. Scientists are working on games that simulate, using real data and examples, how to perform surgery on someone with cancer. The interviewer asks the obvious question, about whether you can win or lose the game. But this game is based on real life; in some cancer cases, you can’t win.

This is a good thing, as the game designer explains, “It can have a really strong emotional impact on the player, particularly if they are really trying to save this [patient]. Sometimes they realize no matter what they do there is nothing they can do to save them...We’ve worried...is this going to be too emotional? We think that’s a good thing. We think having people emotionally invested in their learning and caring...is a good thing.”

In real life, students flunk out. Soldiers die in IED explosions. Companies fail. Patients die. And for teachers, officers, CEOs and doctors, learning how to fail gracefully is a lesson we all need to learn. You can’t always win. In the game of life, there are good endings and tragic endings. Kirk never learned that lesson, neither will the general public.

Jun 15

On Friday, I (Eric C) am writing about video games, failure, and the Western world’s demand for a happy ending, but in researching that post, I came up with two, quick side-thoughts I have to get out.

The first comes from the episode on gaming from To The Best of Our Knowledge, one of my favorite weekend public radio shows. In the last segment, Douglas Rushkoff makes a rather bold claim: America is running out of programmers. His proof? “I went down to Shreveport, Louisiana to meet with the general who was then in charge of the Air Force Cyber Command, and he said he was getting a ton of recruits joining the Air Force who are more than happy to fly drones and operate tanks from 6,000 miles away...but finding very, very few if any kids enlisting who understood how to program any of these things. He had plenty of operators...but he didn’t have anyone who could go in and program how these drones actually work.”

Right. First, this is an anecdote. I haven’t read Rushkoff’s book, so I sincerely hope he uses statistics to prove this assertion. This is a classic logical fallacy, assuming that a study group represents the larger whole. Enlisted Air Force troops do not represent America as a whole. Further, since when did the Air Force have programmers joining in droves?

This also points to a larger problem with the Air Force (and Army and Navy). What problem? Attracting top flight technical and professional talent.

Look at the statistics. Computer scientists and computer programmers make a starting salary of $61,000 out of college.

The starting salary of the Air Force? $14,400 with housing and medical.

That’s why the Air Force, not America, isn’t attracting top-flight programmers. This is a problem, but a different one than the one Rushkoff asserts.

Eric C’s second thought:

People are really optimistic about how video games will improve the world. I’m not.

I could quote a lot of people on this notion--Ian Bogost and persuasive games, for example--but I’ll go with Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World. In this TED speech, she makes the case that if we can convince gamers to solve the world’s problems, we can save the world.

I’d hate to consider myself jaded, but I just don’t see it. People won’t use gaming to make the world better. They’ll use games to entertain themselves. About the best we can hope for is that they’ll use games to push ideology, or distract themselves. In other words, they’ll continue being human. Take Twitter for example. A lot of people are convinced Twitter will “save the world”. But this conversation from an On The Media segment on Twitter makes my case:

Lee Ferreira: Millions of people are dying from a disease that I think 20 dollars could save their lives. So, why do people care more and tweet more about Justin Bieber than malaria? I don't know.

(Bob Garfield asks her what her most recent tweet was about.)

“We were just at lunch. We went for sushi, so I just tweeted that out.”

Gaming won’t save the world, and neither will Twitter.

Jun 13

Partly because of technology, partly because of a tradition of a free media, and partly because of the general progress of liberal values, the American military adventures of the 21st century are the most well covered wars of all time. (Eric C mentioned this in his final review of Restrepo a few months back.)

The first draft of history is being written right now. Tom Ricks made this argument last fall on Talk of the Nation: we don’t need to wait for the history books. (We disagree slightly with that last point. If Wikileaks taught us anything, it’s that “war on terror” has a lot of secrets.)

I fully agree. From bloggers to tweeters to embedded reporters to public affairs officers, no Army in history has had this much scrutiny. Can you imagine the Roman Legion having to explain itself to MSNBC or CNN?

I didn’t think so. But I believe one part stands out for its value to the soldier: investigative journalism. Today I will highlight some--but not nearly all--of my favorite pieces from the last decade of war, emphasizing the articles that meant the most for the soldier on the ground, improving his lot in life:

Anne Hull and Dana Priest’s piece in The Washington Post on Walter Reed--”Soldier’s Face Neglect, Frustration at Army’s Top Medical Facility”--probably caused the most actual change in the Army by revealing the extent that Walter Reed was suffering from mismanagement and lack of funding.

Following up on that excellent piece was this amazing article by Carl Prine from earlier this year. In it, he and the staff of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analyze the effectiveness of the widely implemented “Warrior Transition Units” that have sprouted up at the major Army bases across America. I love this particular piece because it shows that even mid-major papers can--and need to--do hard hitting investigative journalism.

Another mid-major that got in on the act was the Seattle Times with “Weight of War: Gear that protects troops also injures them.” As a former infantrymen, I have heard this topic discussed for years, with no change. But this article definitely made the rounds. Hopefully the Army and Marine Corps will someday make the changes needed to protect our troops’ knees.

Another topic has been the rise of prescription drug use by our nation’s soldiers and marines in combat zones. These two articles, one by friend of the blog Mark Thompson, and one by New York Magazine, explore the extent of America’s medicated Army. 

Finally, I couldn’t do an investigative journalism link drop without mentioning the king daddy of televised investigative journalism, FRONTLINE. Their show “Wounded Platoon” details the toll multiple deployments to intense combat zones exacts on our troops.

(An aside. I realize I’ve excluded some great hard hitting pieces, from organizations like 60 Minutes and Stars and Stripes. As I cautioned, this isn’t an exhaustive list.)

Jun 09

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

As I was writing one of the first “Intelligence is Evidence” posts--”The Five Page Death Warrant”-- I quoted a Newsweek article called, “Inside the Killing Machine”. As I describe what happens when intelligence goes bad, I think two paragraphs from that article prove my point:

“As administration critics have pointed out, government officials have to go through a more extensive process in order to obtain permission to wiretap someone in this country than to make someone the target of a lethal operation overseas.

“And for all the bureaucratic review, it’s not always precise in the real world. In December people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a strike in 2009 and has filed a lawsuit against the U.S., charging a CIA official for their deaths.”

When it comes to terrorism, the one percent doctrine governs all (and this includes the post-Cheney era of the war on “terror”). The line above about wiretaps shows the yawning chasm between reasonable doubt--that we use to execute criminals--and one percent suspicion--that we use to launch drone strikes.

Lethal operations against terrorists bear this out. On one hand, the U.S. military took out the leader of Al Qaeda. On the other, of the over 600 people released from Guantanamo, only 25% have gone back to fighting as terrorists. While some might have turned away from the terrorist life style, according to The New York Times and The Guardian, the more reasonable explanation is that they were never terrorists to begin with.

This 60 Minutes piece dives into the story of one of those detainees. U.S. intelligence agents suspected Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish descent, of a connection to terrorism. As Scott Pelley put it, though, the American intelligence system requires no “evidence” to continue to hold suspects. In this case, as in others, intelligence never matches the quality of evidence. As a result, Murat Kurnaz spent five years behind bars without being charged with a crime. This is the finest example of the one percent doctrine: better be wrong than sorry.

With this post, it is probably time to move past the topic of intelligence...for a few weeks. Then, as I always try to do, I will provide my solutions for how we can keep America safer, wrongfully detain fewer people, and use intelligence/evidence better.

Jun 07

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

In American war zones, two different groups use intelligence/evidence to stop insurgents. First, there are the maneuver brigades, battalions and companies attacking insurgent networks through both security and offensive operations.

When it comes to high value targeting, the top leaders and the really bad guys (allegedly), Joint Special Operations Command takes the cake. In Iraq--in addition to the Surge and the Awakening--the increased emphasis on lethal operations by JSOC, led by General McChrystal, contributed to the quelling of violence.

When the American military turned from Iraq and towards Afghanistan, it brought this well-oiled machine with it.  

This machine relies on “intelligence as evidence” to show 1. that insurgent leaders are insurgent leaders and 2. where they are. This machine also wholeheartedly believes in the one percent doctrine. While targeted operations of insurgent leaders are often very successful (U.S. leaders in Afghanistan claim that only 1% of missions involve civilian casualties), when they go bad they go terrible. Here are three examples:

1. "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy". This Los Angeles Times article went, as far as I can tell, unnoticed by the larger milblogging community. The article recreated an attack by a military drone on a convoy of three trucks of civilians. As a case study, it shows what happens when simple suspicion meets the threshold for offensive action.

In short, a Special Forces team conducted a mission in a village in southern Afghanistan. Since SF troops have access to a wealth of support, they had an AC-130 gunship, predator drone and helicopters all in their near vicinity. After spotting two vehicles acting suspiciously--flashing lights at one another in the dark--the team manning the Predator drone determined “hostile intent”. The next few hours were spent following the convoy, then eventually engaging it with Hellfire missiles. Very quickly after the attack, the overhead surveillance realized that the vehicle did not have only “military age males” (a term I wrote about at length before), but many women and children.

"Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy" shows what happens when “intelligence” means “less evidence”. In this case, the pilots suspected hostile intent--”intelligence” in the loosest sense--then found the evidence to support their assumption. Reasonable doubt never came up; the pilots simply needed to establish “hostile intent” to their own satisfaction. Could this have ever passed muster in court of law? No way, but this is warfare. Even though the suspect vehicles started driving away from the SF team, the pilots overhead always suspected them of malice. In the end, that is all that mattered.

2. The Case of Zabet Amanullah. I highly recommend the recent FRONTLINE program “Kill/Capture”. It explores the shadowy world of JSOC and its lethal targeting program. It describes the two primary lethal methods of the JSOC: air strikes and night raids. In the case of an air strike on prominent Afghan elder Zabet Amanullah, FRONTLINE and the Afghan Analysts Networks believe U.S. forces killed the wrong person.

Why the JSOC folks hit the wrong person is directly related to intelligence/evidence. Instead of tailing the suspect, for logistical reasons, they relied on “sophisticated overhead sensors”. In this case, the other evidence informing the decision was “precise intelligence” which is as far as the military will admit. Underlying these two narrow intelligence disciplines is the fact that U.S. analysts--who don’t speak Pashtun or Dari and weren’t born in Afghanistan--make these decisions. In short, when JSOC uses less intelligence to prove their case, the odds of an innocent civilian dying rapidly increase.

3. The Detention of an Afghan Elder. So far, I have focused on incidents where U.S. and N.A.T.O. forces kill the wrong people. Sometimes, though, the U.S. military just the detains of the wrong people. A perfect example of this is also in FRONTLINE’s “Kill/Capture” program.

A company of 3rd Brigade 101st Airborne (the Rakkasans, who you might remember from one of our first posts...) received intelligence about a suspected high value target. They go on the mission, but happen to raid the wrong house. Not knowing what to do, and suspecting the village elder of bad intentions (after finding an AK-47 and some magazines), they detain him. On the way, the elder pretty much threatens to never again support the government.

This scene is almost the raison d’etre for this series. It shows the mindset of maneuver commanders on the ground. It is always better to be safe than sorry. I’ll admit this, though: I understand the pressure bearing down on that commander. I have had to make that call before: detain or don’t. In a war zone like Afghanistan the wrong decision can ruin lives. In the long run, it could also ruin our efforts in Afghanistan.

Eric C asked me a pointed question when he read this post, are these anecdotes statistically meaningful? I mean, how do we know that I just didn’t pick and choose anecdotes to prove my point. In fairness, the FRONTLINE folks try to answer this question as well, with evidence both for and against its effectiveness.

In another sense, though, these aren’t isolated incidents. Two incidents in the last few weeks repeated past intelligence mistakes. Like before, civilians were victims of NATO air strikes or night raids, and it caused outrage in Afghanistan. If I wanted to, I could find incidents of collateral damage every month in Afghanistan. Incidents like the third example, where the suspect is wrongfully detained, don’t make the news. How often these incidents happen we’ll probably never know.

I can say, though, that we use “intelligence” to lower the threshold needed for action in a warzone. Partly, this is because we are in a war, not in a criminal problem. Is that the right solution? Next month, I will argue that more certainty is always better, and that our maneuver commanders in Afghanistan could benefit from exercising greater tactical patience.

Jun 03

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

Insurgencies--which tread on that messy line between war and law enforcement--are good friends to miscarriages of justice. So, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, it should come as no surprise that the American military made mistakes.

Friend of On Violence and Small Wars Journal editor Mike Few recently released part one of a three-part paper about how his company pacified a village called Zaganiyah in Diyala River Valley in Iraq. I recommend his paper to company grade soldiers, or readers who want a feel for how a company should approach the “clear” phase of a counter-insurgency operation. Mike F provides a text-book example of leading a company and planning a complex operation. However, actions by other soldiers in his Brigade provide a textbook example of intelligence gone bad.

From Page 13:

“The interpreter is your guide through both the physical and human terrain, and they control the conversation. We had to be cautious and aware to the interpreter‘s internal motivations and external feuds. Moreover, in Diyala Province, many interpreters were Kurdish and spoke only broken Arabic. After exhausting six interpreters, I found Mufasa ―Moose‖ Fahmi al Zaharie. Long considered the best interpreter in the province. Moose hailed from Zaganiyah, and his rolodex included every major sheik and power player in the province. Furthermore, Moose personally saved my own life on three separate occasions by having his friends call us when insurgents would place an IED on our path. This prestige led to privileged status on American Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Moose was my right-hand man. He lived and dined with us, characteristics unheard of on FOB Warhorse where interpreters were segregated. This status provoked much jealousy amongst the other interpreters outside of our squadron, and they concocted a plan to undermine and spite him.

“The civil war raging in Iraq was not isolated within the American FOBs, and the same Sunni-Shia divide affected the interpreters. In mid-March, I received a call from MAJ Sylvia after returning from a reconnaissance patrol. The Brigade S2, intelligence officer, wanted to arrest Moose on suspicion of working with al Qaeda. I laughed and deemed it impossible. Not only had Moose provided us with a house by house description of Zaganiyah to include exactly who the power players were and how they had gained control, but his house had been destroyed by AQI in December 2006 in retribution for working with the Americans. However, I soon found that this arrest was deadly serious. When I asked for the source, it was two Shia interpreters who were simply jealous of Moose. Without context, the evidence appeared staggering. Moose was in the Zaharie tribe related to both Sheik Septar and Ali Latif. On some black and white link diagram, it seemed like a perfect connection that Moose was operating as an al Qaeda spy—that is, until you consider that he was informing on the same folks that he supposedly working for. I pleaded my case through the brigade command and lost. When it was time for Moose to go to jail, I personally escorted him, hugged him, and apologized. We lost Moose prior to intervention, and with his absence, we lost our best guide into the valley.

“Footnote 31: For the past four years, I followed Moose‘s case leading to his ultimate release from detention. For his assistance helping the United States Government, Moose faces daily assassination attempts. Currently, we are working through the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to garner him a United States citizenship. If he gets approved, I plan to sponsor his transition in the US. For his sacrifice, it is the least that I can do. “

The story of Moose and his detention shows several of the problems with intelligence/evidence in a counter-insurgency. First, Moose couldn’t plead his case in front of a judge and jury to get released quickly. Second, even if he was wrongly detained, he has little to no recourse to achieve monetary compensation like in America. Third, the evidence to detain him was minuscule. Two informants--two!--whose motives were clearly dubious, is all it takes.

The fourth problem stems from the two informants. The people making the decision to arrest Moose--operations officers backed up by all-source intelligence analysts--couldn’t directly interview the human intelligence sources, only the human intelligence collectors could. This isn’t quite stovepiping, but it does limit our intelligence analysts in ways that law enforcement detectives or investigators are not.

In the end, the result of Moose’s case was not the worst case scenario; he survived. Monday’s article, on the other hand, will describe cases in Afghanistan which end tragically.

Jun 01

(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 there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis...It’s about our response.”
                                                    - Former Vice President Dick Cheney

In the American justice system, miscarriages of justice like the two I described last week are outliers. Anomalies. Statistical rarities. Yet, the policy described above--the centerpiece of Ron Suskind’s fascinating book The One Percent Doctrine--pollutes the entire American intelligence apparatus, and it undergirds our next series of articles. Vice President Cheney’s response to 9/11 freed our intelligence system to make as many mistakes as it could in the pursuit of that elusive 1%.

Before 9/11, Americans believed it was better to free 99 guilty men than to imprison one innocent man. When it came to the death penalty, even more so--better for 999 to go free than one man/woman give his life for a crime he/she did not commit. After 9/11, as President Cheney said, suspicion became the new threshold. As one reviewer of The One Percent Doctrine, Michiko Kakutani, put it, “this conviction effectively sidelines the traditional policy making process of analysis and debate, making suspicion, not evidence, the new threshold for action.”

The military and intelligence communities have embraced the one percent doctrine. Behind every accidental killing, war crime or case of mistaken identity lies a belief in this doctrine. Better safe than sorry. Better judged by twelve than carried by six. Better him than me. In war, you make mistakes.

This has real world ramifications Americans can’t ignore. I will present three exhibits to make my case that confusing intelligence for evidence leads to horrendous mistakes: Exhibit Afghanistan, Exhibit Iraq and Exhibit Terrorism. In the three biggest fronts in the now defunct war on terror, tragedies happen/happened when intelligence replaces/replaced evidence.