Aug 31

(Since July, On Violence, inspired by John Horgan and Radiolab, crowd sourced the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” to our readers. Today’s sampling comes from our inbox. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

Brian Van Reet Responds:

If our past is in fact prologue, the human race will fight wars of increasing technical sophistication and destructive force, until one day we annihilate ourselves in a flash of light and heat.

However, if the human heart is any guide, we will--in painfully slow fits and starts--shape ourselves in the image of what Abraham Lincoln called, "the better angels of our nature," abandoning brutish ways of life, including slavery, ritual killings, and hopefully, eventually, war.

Rick Coxen Responds:

No! As long as there are men that seek power and their ability to control others, there will be wars. Man is the only animal on earth that destroys vast numbers of its own species. As far back as one can go in recorded history, there has been wars and so it will continue for what has changed? The only thing that has changed is that we have become more proficient at it.

I inherited my grandfather's World War One journal, and through it I've learned how violent and inhumane that war was.There are so many war books written that focus on battle strategies and who won or lost the battle. Battle casualties are just numbers that measure effectiveness of the armies involved and therefore rise above the horror that created them. So I'm writing a book based on my grandfather's journal that will describe his personal experiences with the horrors of war.

In August of 2014, just three years from now, the world will reflect of the 100 year anniversary of the Great War, World War One. It was said that it was "the war to end all wars", and yet, it took only 25 years for the world to get involved in another world war. I'll be interested to see how the world will handle this event.

Aug 29

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

In no organized order, here are some thoughts about post-9/11 war memoirs inspired by Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, which I reviewed last week:

Memoirs dominate the publishing industry today, the way bad sitcoms dominated TV in the sixties. (I’m looking at you My Mother The Car.)

You want a memoir on how to be a hip dad? There are at least three. A memoir on eating locally? Got that too. Dog memoirs? Oh yeah, we’ve got those. Inspired by the success of Marley & Me, memoirists wrote and published at least ten dog memoirs, followed by sequels to Marley & Me, along with cat memoirs and an owl memoir.

I point this out to answer the question, “Eric, if you hate memoirs, why do you read them?” Because they are all I have. *tear*

Memoirs tend towards the extreme, the profane, or the noteworthy. Which is why war memoirs are so common. There has to be an angle, and nothing is more extreme than going to war.

Except, as I wrote in “Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?”, it isn’t enough to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. You have to fight in the bloodiest, most exciting battles possible.

Novels and literary fiction don’t have this restriction. A novelist can write about a regular guy and still be fascinating, more about style--how Updike presents Rabbit Angstrom--than it is about content--Rabbit Angstrom is a suburban dad.

Memoirs need to be true. Believe it or not, people more subjective than I am will argue with this. What separates The Last Tycoon from A Million Little Pieces? One is an autobiographical novel, the other a novelistic memoir.

But look at the case of Herman Rosenblatt. He wrote a “true” love story that took place during the Holocaust, and it initially garnered rave reviews. When it was revealed as a fake, the publishing company tried to release it as a novel, but it tanked. Why? “His story no longer had allure. To the extent a memoir is shown to be false, it loses its identity, its authority, and its power,” writes Yagoda.

Just ask Greg Mortenson about this phenomenon.

A novel, meanwhile, doesn’t lose its power if it is revealed to be partly autobiographical; if anything, it becomes more interesting.

Writing about yourself is impossible. My boy Rousseau lays out the problem, “[the autobiographer, memoirist] presents himself how he wants to be seen, not at all how he is. The sincerest of people are at best truthful in what they say, but lie by their reticence, and what they suppress changes so much what they pretend to reveal that in telling part of the truth, they tell none of it.”

Agreed. For the war memoir, doubly so. I can’t off the top of my head recall anyone regretting any decisions they made in any memoir I’ve read.

(Except for Lone Survivor. Luttrell explicitly says that voting to spare the lives of the goat herders who compromised his unit was, “the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind.” This is, however, the only thing he regrets.)

Human memory is fallible. Which means every memoir is fallible. Some anecdotes:

- David Carr, when writing his own memoir, re-investigated his life as if he were a reporter investigating someone else. He found out some of his memories were almost completely wrong.

- Andy Rooney opens his memoir with this classic line, "If you're pleased with the way you've been remembering some of the major events of your life, don't set out to write a book about them. The chances are, they weren't that way at all."

- From Neitzsche, “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually--memory yields.”

- Yagoda cites multiple, multiple, multiple psychological experiments have proved that memory is fallible. Researchers can implant false memories, our memories of notable events are later softened or changed.

- Check out this episode of RadioLab. It covers three or four of the studies from Yagoda’s book.

In short, memory is fallible. Stressed memory doubly so. Writing memoirs--war memoirs, again, doubly so--is kind of pointless. So don’t bother with a memoir. Write a novel.

Aug 24

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There?”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”. )

First a confession, when my brother and I first started playing sports at an indoor soccer league at the Boys and Girls Club--aged maybe eight?--we had athletic shorts with pockets on them. Sometimes we put our hands in those pockets when the ball was on the other side of the pitch. A life long athlete and college volleyball coach, my mom explained to my brother and I that putting your hands in your pockets, in athletics, is a no-no. You just don’t do it. You don’t look athletic.

Fast forward to U.S. Army ROTC. Date 2003, aged 20. I am again told, “Don’t ever put anything in your pockets. It projects an unprofessional image.” Why? To keep soldiers from looking like Beetle Bailey.

On Monday, I mentioned shining boots as an activity that, when calculated, cost the Army 570 million man hours in the nineties. I didn’t mention then, but could have, the Army’s crazy emphasis on keeping things out of pockets. This isn’t necessarily a bad use of time; it’s just a tremendous emphasis on developing a skill--looking good--that doesn’t relate to fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

To be clear, I don’t just mean the custom of keeping the two side pockets on every pair of pants empty--though that too is verboten. On the old Battle Dress Uniform, in garrison, the cargo pockets were forbidden from carrying anything in them. The Battle Dress Uniform had an array of pockets, ten total, all of which were only supposed to be used in combat, if even then.

Except for the two front pockets on a set of BDUs. These two pockets had no combat function. Body armor covered them completely. Load Carrying Equipment made them uncomfortable to use. In garrison, the two front pockets were to be ironed ridge-hard flat. Thus, in the same way leaders let an ineffective time-suck waste 570 million dollars in the 1990s, the same leaders let two pockets get sewn on every uniform since the mid-1980s because it looked good. Lord knows how many dollars were wasted on these purely ornamental pockets.

The worst crime of the Battle Dress Uniform, adopted in the mid-1980s, was that when push came to shove, when the bright lights shined on it, when we finally went into combat with it...it proved useless. Or worthless. And Army leaders replaced it in three years time.

The U.S. Army had to completely change the uniform to acknowledge reality: if you won’t let soldiers put anything in the pockets, then save the cloth and don’t put them on. Let soldiers put things in their cargo pockets, that’s why they are there. Put pockets on the shoulders.

The Army Combat Uniform, the Battle Dress Uniform replacement, represented a sea change in Army culture that had to be pushed through by the Secretary of the Army. Still, even with his backing, it took three years to field a new, functional uniform. In other words, in the decade before 9/11 the U.S. Army trained so poorly that its leaders didn’t realize that the primary article of clothing assigned to every member did not work. Or, if the leaders did realize the error, no leader had the intestinal fortitude or will to make the needed change.

(Much like every war, the U.S. Army wasn’t prepared for war. Body armor, the use of tourniquets, the use of Camelbaks, the use of hands-free radios, MRAPs, the list goes on, once again showing that the Pentagon does not plan well for future wars. The Air Force and Navy haven’t been tested in this way; odds are their elite tech will not live up to billing in a shooting war.)

I just finished Moneyball (the book and soon to be released movie) and I can’t get the thoughts of Billy Beane manager of the Oakland As out of my head. His scouts continually scouted guys saying, “They look great in a uniform.” Billy would respond, “We’re not selling jeans.” Uniformity and discipline have roles in the Army--I don’t dispute that. Same with baseball. However, we can put too much of an emphasis on the wrong things, the easy things. Looking good in uniform is an easy thing; learning Arabic--or teaching an entire Brigade Arabic--is tough. The Army cares too much about how it looks in jeans.

At least in one case we made a change for the better. Now if only we could get the color right...

Aug 22

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

I have a theory for why America’s military spent the last ten years embroiled in two counter-insurgencies it was completely unprepared to fight.

Check out those boots.    

Not the current ones. The old, black, shiny ones. Oh, how black those boots shined!

In my post on “That’s Just the Way It Is”, I said most soldiers didn’t know why we shined boots. That was a tad disingenuous. We knew why: it looked grrrrrrrrrrr-reat!

When most senior officers think of finely shined boots, they think of a professional looking army. I think of the time wasted. By my rough calculations, in the decade before 9/11, the U.S. Army spent 570 million hours shining boots.

Here are my back-of-the-napkin calculations:

Size of the U.S. Army in 2001:                                480,000

Number of nights before a workday each year:        240

Hours spent each night shining boots:                     0.5

Multiply those numbers together and you get 57.6 million man hours spent each year shining boots. Multiply by ten, and you get 570 million hours in the decade before. If you increase the size of the military, which was larger prior to 9/11, and raise the amount of time spent shining boots to one hour, one could easily pass a BILLION hours spent shining boots.

This massive emphasis on uniformity and shined boots is a failure of productivity, a word never mentioned in the U.S. Army. While ubiquitous in American business, senior leaders in the Army don’t think in terms of productivity; they’ve never been trained to think like that.

So all that time shining boots disappeared. Was it a good investment? The U.S. Army adopted that ineffective policy for reasons that had little to do with winning our nations wars. Looking good wasn’t the real reason officers enforced a shined boots army, “enforcing discipline” was.

Did we really have a “disciplined” American Army heading into Iraq? Did the boot shining cause that discipline? I would have made troops learn discipline by having mandatory foreign language homework each night. Who would have been the more disciplined soldier, the one shining boots for hours each night, or the one studying foreign languages? Who would have been more useful in a counter-insurgency, the boot shiner or language learner? Early morning physical fitness also creates discipline like boot shining, but also creates teamwork and develops physical attributes.

The emphasis on discipline harkens back to the Revolutionary, Union, and World War II armies that still had legions of draftees who couldn’t read. Our all volunteer force has high school degrees or GEDs. Many enlisted soldiers have college degrees. And our modern army is an all-volunteer army. We got the discipline thing handled. Google succeeds without boot shining. So does Walmart. And police stations. And law firms. Not to mention some of the best Armies in the history of the world have looked quite slovenly--I’m looking at you barbarians.

Alas, the old, ineffective, unproductive attitude is still lurking. The regular Army absorbed it into its DNA through recombination. While thankfully abolishing mandatory wear of the beret, the newest Chief of Staff recently said the Vibram Five Finger-style shoe is verboten on Army bases in Army PTs. The reason, they:

detract from a professional military image.”

Guess we’re already preparing to lose/bog down in a civil war our next war.

Aug 19

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

Today, I (Eric C) am getting to a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while, Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History. “Wait,” you may be asking. “What does this have to do with war? Or violence?”

Well, not much. There are exactly two paragraphs describing war memoirs from World War I and World War II. (In short, there were a ton of World War I memoirs--Storm of Steel, War is War, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, etc--and “a smaller group of noteworthy memoirs” from World War II, with more fiction leading the literary way.)

So why am I reviewing it? Because my “War Memoir” project of the last year and a half or so demands that I know something about memoirs.  Memoirs dominate “fiction” in today’s literary world. If you want to read about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, you must read a memoir. (Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter a few weeks ago why there hasn’t been a “definitive” war novel yet. That’s my main theory as to why.)

With that in mind, I picked up Memoir: A History looking for a guide to the larger world of memoirs and it delivers. Memoir: A History is comprehensive, thorough, and effortlessly readable the whole way through, written in Yagoda’s very casual, very readable prose. (I’m now a pretty big Yagoda fan, because he always seems to write about the topics--The New Yorker, writing, memoirs, grammar--I’m obsessed with. Either way, I’ve now read--and enjoyed--all four of his books.)

So to answer the other question: should you read Memoir: A History? If you have any interest in memoirs, then yes. If not, then no. But any English major, writer, wanna-be memoirist or novelist, or prose reader in general would do well picking this short history up. Memoir: A History entertained me with precise details, clever anecdotes and concise histories for over 250 pages, handling a controversial medium with balance.

Which brings me to the last issue. Memoirs, since memoirists started writing them, have been controversial. First, the controversy was, “Who is vain enough to write an entire book on themselves?” That objection is now quaint and no longer seriously debated. The more serious concern is, “How come none of them are accurate?” Which leads to a larger issue, memoirs: love them, or hate them? (I’m in the hate them category.)

Which side does Ben Yagoda take? He doesn’t. Yagoda points out the good memoirs and the bad ones. He points out their flaws, and their dubious history; he is fair throughout. You might think I’d hate this. I didn’t, it made the book more honest, and feel more true.

But what about those arguments? Come back next week, when I’ll apply what I learned from Yagoda’s Memoir: A History to the modern, post-9/11 war memoir.

Aug 17

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

On Monday, I described the pressures constantly pushing prosecutors to the edge of constitutionality to get convictions.

The pertinent question remains: if we have travesties in justice in our American legal system, which has numerous procedural hurdles and obstacles designed to prevent prosecutorial misconduct, how does this affect the messy world of terrorism and insurgencies?

Greatly. Since the military doesn’t operate in an adversarial justice system, the amount of mistakes--read innocent people killed--are orders of magnitude greater than our justice system.

This makes sense; the U.S. Army and Marine Corps weren’t designed to fight counter-insurgencies. The system is set up for top-down, action-oriented leadership. When prosecuting insurgents, the onus is on quantity, not accuracy. The more “actioned targets” the better. If they turn out to have been wrong, or ineffective, nothing much will result, especially since most commanders only deploy for a year.

I can’t stress this enough: our ground forces were designed to fight World War II, a mechanized, maneuver war with front lines, rear echelons, and face-to-face combat, not to combat insurgents. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, upon invading Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, have adapted to irregular war, adjusting their systems to resemble those of security forces. As a result, the incentives to minimize collateral damage or accuracy is less than the incentives to follow the boss’s orders.

When it comes to terrorism, the same rules apply. The CIA makes decisions to launch drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia without consulting a robust adversarial system. The incentive structure is skewed too. Failing to stop a terrorist has huge political ramifications; killing civilians in another country does not.

The CIA has plenty of questions to answer. What safeguards do they have? What system do they use? When were they designed to fight wars? And should they? (The Economist argues they shouldn’t, so does Dennis Blair. I agree.) (Second parenthetical: the CIA really isn’t very good at this. Half of the weapons they sent into Somalia have ended up in Al Shabab’s hands. Doh!)

The worlds of intelligence and evidence have so many similarities, it stuns me more people don’t compare them. One of the biggest similarities is that when intelligence or evidence goes bad, they go horrible. Unfortunately, our intelligence system is designed to make these very mistakes. The main reason Senator Mitch McConnell gets so upset at President Obama trying terrorists in criminal courts is because it is harder, and having a Devil’s Advocate or an adversarial system of justice does make things harder.

(I hate addressing a problem and not providing a solution. I promise I will get to my half-baked solutions...next month--I assume our readers can only want so much detailed discussion on intelligence matters.)

Aug 15

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

Another FRONTLINE episode, another failure of the justice system.

This time, instead of faulty arson investigations or coerced testimony, the fault lies with medical examiners diagnosing “shaken baby syndrome”. It sounds horrible, and dying babies always are, but were they murders?

As the FRONTLINE episode points out, and other investigative reporting as well, forensic pathology is woefully unprepared to diagnose the cause of deaths in infants. As a result, dozens of people are in prison for crimes that likely never happened. As in the case of arson victims in the 1990s or the Norfolk Four, over-zealous prosecutors demanded wrongful convictions, egged on by an over-zealous populous overseen by elected judges beholden to the same over-zealous pressure. Especially in cases of children, our country wants to hold someone responsible. Under this pressure, forensic pathologists used now controversial medical evidence to aid the prosecution.

These three FRONTLINE examples are more than statistical anomalies. Take this case in Virginia. A federal judge overturned the conviction of Justin Wolfe because the state of Virginia violated his due process, by knowingly using false testimony against the defendant.

Then in March, the Supreme Court ruled on Connick v. Thompson. While not a new case, the details are still shocking: prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense and jury that the blood taken from the scene of the crime didn’t match the defendant’s. Literally, the blood evidence proved the defendant’s innocence. The state still prosecuted the case, knowing they had the wrong person, and a man spent 14 years on death row. (In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors could not be sued for deliberately prosecuting the wrong individual. On Violence disagrees.)

If those aren’t enough examples, check out the book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, where Brandon Garrett describes, in detail, 250 wrongful convictions. In these cases, newly developed DNA evidence managed to overturn their convictions. Without that evidence, many of the men on death row would have been put to death. Garrett can’t answer the even more poignant question, “How many more wrongfully convicted men and women sit in jail without DNA to clear their names?”

I asked in last week’s post, “Why does intelligence go bad? Why do we convict people who don’t deserve it?” FRONTLINE’s continuing reportage begs another question about our justice system, “Why wouldn’t it go awry?” In each case, the prosecutors merely expressed the will of an angry, vengeful constituency. District attorneys, and now many judges, are elected by the people. The people want criminals punished. Innocent victims get caught in the crossfire.

The voting public wants prosecutors and judges who are tough on crime. Listen to retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens talking about the system's imbalanced incentives. In a speech after the Connick decision, he specifically lambasted local prosecutors who must stand for reelection: “the pressures to ensure convictions far outweigh the rewards for respecting rights of the accused.” Respecting the Constitutional rights of a suspect is all risk no reward for a prosecutor.

In a way, prosecutors aren’t really to blame, the American public is, especially the branch of law and order Americans who want to stop crime more than they care about vague concepts like justice, freedom and equality under the law. The pressure for convictions pushes prosecutors to their constitutional limits.

With all that said, the American system of justice prevails far, far more often than it errs. The founder’s wrote the Constitution with Blackstone’s formulation in mind--better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man go to prison. The safeguards written into the Constitution help prevent travesties of justice, and, for the most part, the tragedies I outlined above occur when prosecutors and judges ignore these principles.

The real question for On Violence is, do we have these safeguards to prevent innocent people from dying in our quest to stop terrorists and insurgents? I’ll tackle that on Wednesday.

Aug 12

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

I think one of the reasons we don’t understand Afghanistan is that we don’t understand how long it has been at war. Ever since the communists deposed Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978, the country has been at war. Take, for example, this brief history a hotel keeper told Dexter Filkins:

“Then things started to slip, Ahmad said, and his nostalgic air retreated. The coups and reprisals, the Soviet invasion and its retreat. Then the mujahiddin, who had beaten the Soviets, turned on one another...

“By the mid-1990s, Kabul had become a battleground of competing warlords. Each held his own corner of the city: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander; Dostum, the Uzbek butcher; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist fanatic. There was a galaxy of lesser hoods and gangsters, ever ready to switch sides for a bigger bag of cash.

“Every warlord had a fief, and every fief its own checkpoint, where neither a man’s cash nor his daughter were safe. At one point, Kabul was divided by forty-two separate militia checkpoints. Hekmatyar’s missiles rained from the outside. For two years the capital was dark, without electricity...

“For a time, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik professor close to Massoud, took possession of Kabul and proclaimed a government. The United Nations bestowed its recognition. Massoud was the real power, though his fighters were beholden to no one. In neighborhood after neighborhood, they plundered and raped...

“In 1996, after four years of street fighting, and more than forty thousand civilian deaths, Taliban fighters swept into the city.”

Some takeaways:

- The people of Afghanistan aren’t primitive. They are just struggling to survive in a country that’s been at war for over thirty years.

- But this isn’t a country that’s always been in perpetual war. Before the coups, they had peace and stability that lasted for forty years. They are just in a ugly cycle right now.

- Be wary of revolutions. In the case of Afghanistan, a revolution caused a war that persists to this day.

- Reading the passage, you almost wish for the brutal, totalitarian rule of the Taliban. You pray for law and order. I can’t condone what they did, but I can understand how they gained the approval and support of the average Afghan. As Filkins writes, “You’d ask someone about the Talibs and the first thing they would say is they tamed the warlords.” The Talibs gained the emotional support of the people.

- This entire ugly cycle was a by product of another war, the Cold War. Maybe this is what Filkins means by The Forever War.

Aug 11

Yesterday, I compared the Central Asia Institute to the federal government in terms of waste. That’s not really fair is it? I mean we all know the government wastes money. What we really need to do is show how effective and efficient the private sector is when it comes to spending money.

So how does a private organization--say Lockheed Martin--compare to Central Asia Institute in terms of spending the money the U.S. government has donated to it? Take, for example, the Joint Strike Fighter.

The per unit cost of each Joint Strike fighter has gone from an initial bid price of 50 million dollars per unit to 74 million dollars, in 2002 adjusted terms. To put that in perspective, Lockheed Martin said in 2002 they could build Joint Strike Fighters for 50 million dollars per plane, but were off by the annual budget of the CAI. Per plane. Oh, and the initial production date of 2010 was pushed back to 2015. (That’s as if the CAI had wasted millions of dollars, but said they still didn’t plan on wasting the money for five more years.)

In response, former Secretary of Defense Gates withheld 614 million dollars in bonuses from Lockheed Martin; or about 12 times the amount the CAI has ever earned in donations. The Economist’s reporting did a pretty good job illuminating the Joint Strike Fighter’s failures. (Technically, Congressional Quarterly Weekly did the ground breaking, but they're owned by same company.)

All of which begs the question, has it been a wise use of funds? According to Stars and Stripes (which had some pretty good coverage too):

“Meanwhile, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is on Capitol Hill’s radar after a CQ Weekly cover story hit every member of Congress’ office, blasting the program as the most expensive weapons project in history, way over budget and overdue. Get your hands on a copy to read how each administration has passed the blame, and how an unworkable helmet targeting system planned for JSF pilots could scuttle the entire project.”

And the Joint Strike Fighter will keep on costing. Lockheed now predicts that the plane will cost the Pentagon a trillion--with a T, trillion--dollars over the course of its lifetime. As an added bonus, according to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese computer spies might have hacked into terabytes of data about it. Recently, both the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor have been grounded to mechanical problems. In other words, we have spent billions on two new fighter planes, neither of which works.

While milbloggers and security wonks anxiously await the impending cuts to defense that will “ruin our national security” (insert your own link here), the Joint Strike Fighter reminds us that maybe the Pentagon isn’t that good at saving taxpayer money. The Joint Strike Fighter isn’t the only example, just the latest. Remember the Future Combat System?

And ballistic missile defense? And untested body armor?

And the Littoral Combat Ship?

And the Comanche? And the Crusader?

And the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle? And the V-22 Osprey?

And the Coast Guard’s “Deepwater” modernization program? And Homeland Security/the Border Patrol’s fence “Secure Border Initiative Network”?.

We’ll learn. Someday. Maybe. Hopefully.

Aug 10

According to Jon Krakauer, the American Institute of Philanthropy and Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, the Central Asia Institute--Greg Mortenson’s now infamous charity that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan--has severely mismanaged its funds. We just spent a week discussing this fiasco but never answered one key question:

In a global/national/fiscal/foreign affairs/economic/bureaucratic sense, how much does the Central Asia Institute really matter?

First the base line. Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, according to Three Cups of Deceit and charitywatch.org, netted:
       in 2006        1.6 million dollars
       in 2007        3.8 million dollars
       in 2008        13.1 million dollars
       in 2009       14.3 million dollars
       in 2010        more than 20 million dollars

The Central Asia Institute is accused of mismanagement of several million dollars. Even if they mis-spent every dollar ever brought in--which is near impossible--we’re talking about 52 million dollars, as an absolute maximum.

But how does that compare, say, to the cost of a TOW Missile? According to the Federation of American Scientists, whose numbers are copied by other sites, the price of one TOW missile (the missile itself and not the system) is $180,000.00. According to this sketchy website, and soldier mythology, the price of one TOW missile is currently around $60,000.00.

The U.S. military uses plenty of TOW missiles in Afghanistan because of their unique ability to “reach out and touch someone”. One of the platoons in my battalion--1st Platoon, “Dragon Platoon”--fired over a 100 of these missiles during deployment.

In other words, that single platoon, by itself, fired between 6-18 million dollars worth of TOW missiles in the span of one deployment. Just that platoon. At the same time, the CAI had an operating budget of 13 million dollars. In other words, Dragon Platoon fired the budget of the CAI during their deployment.

Staying in Afghanistan, how much does it cost to air condition all the buildings in that theater?

Don’t get me wrong, I loved having an air conditioned hooch to relax in after patrols, especially in the summer. According to NPR, though, the price of that AC is astronomical. The Inspector General of the Army recently released a report that air conditioning costs the U.S. military 20.2 billion dollars a year in Afghanistan, or about 1.68 billion per month.

In other words, the military spends seventy times more than the Central Asia Institute received in 2010 every month on air conditioning.

At least we know how much we spend on AC. In Iraq, we just plain lost huge sums of money. Government officials still can’t account for 6.6 billion dollars in reconstruction funds lost in Iraq. (The BBC claimed in 2008 the number was as high as 23 billion dollars.)

Let’s put that in “CAI dollars”. That is roughly 132 times the amount of money the CAI has ever brought in. The United States reconstruction effort loses money at 132 times the rate that CAI brings it in. Sorry, I have to repeat that a third time:

The U.S. Army can’t account. For. 6.6. BILLION. Dollars. With a B.

Am I trying to pardon Greg Mortenson? No. He and his charity, the Central Asia Institute, became the face of reconstruction and soft power politics. The evidence indicates that he misrepresented the activities of his charity and that will, and should, have ramifications.

That said, where’s the outrage at the military’s horrendous spending habits? Why do we hold a private citizen more accountable than our government? Why do we give national defense a pass on excessive/wasteful federal spending?

Aug 08

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

Last June in my posts on “Intel Gone Bad”, I described what happens when people abuse intelligence, and the tragedies that result. Two questions remain: why does this happen? And, what can we possibly do to stop this?

Today, I’ll try to tackle the first question, “Why does intelligence go bad?” To go with my core idea, that intelligence is evidence, I’ll also wrangle with, “How can some detectives/prosecutors get some cases so wrong?”

Simple. They don’t have a Devil’s Advocate. Sure, everyone has used the phrase “Devil’s Advocate” in conversation, but have you ever googled it? The results are surprisingly relevant.

According to Wikipedia, the “Devil’s Advocate” or promoter of the faith, argued against the canonization of a potential saint. He was opposed by “God’s Advocate” or the promoter of the cause, the lawyer arguing for canonization.

When Pope John Paul II became the pope, he put a renewed emphasis on the process of canonization. In 1983, he eliminated Devil’s Advocates. Up to that point in the 20th century, 98 people had achieved sainthood. Over the course of John Paul II’s term as Pope, over 500 people received the honor with another 1,300 beatifications. (Appropriately, John Paul II’s own canonization proceedings have flown through the Vatican.) To put this in context, Pope John Paul II canonized more people than had been canonized the previous five centuries.

Whether eliminating the Devil’s Advocate position alone accounts for the dramatic rise in sainthood, one can’t argue that it had an effect. In an adversarial system of justice, like the U.S. justice system or the Catholic Church’s old canonization proceedings, rulings come much slower but are more accurate.

Yet, when it comes to prosecuting terrorism or fighting insurgencies, we have nothing resembling the Devil’s Advocate. Take, for example, an Army battalion or brigade. The leaders, at every level, want to kill suspected terrorists. The operations officers want to plan operations that kill insurgents. Subordinate leaders want to lead men on the ground killing terrorists. The Staff Judge Advocates--the lawyers on staff--do provide legal advice, but their job isn’t to argue against an operation, merely to say whether a commander has enough evidence to launch an attack.

The person best suited for the role of a Devil’s Advocate--the intelligence officer--is the one providing the information to kill insurgents. The intel officer is supposed to think like the enemy, predict his movements and actions, and find him on the battlefield. Providing flimsy evidence to a commander is easier than building strong cases.

Why doesn’t the U.S. Army have a Devil’s Advocate in its lowest level units? (Some national level units do have “red teams” but they are far removed from the battlefield.) Mainly because the U.S. Army and Marine Corps (and Navy and Air Force) weren’t designed for counter-insurgency warfare; our military just isn’t designed to fight terrorists.

Does this extend to terrorist killing units, like the special operations folks who hunted down Osama bin Laden? I’ll admit that I haven’t worked with counter-terrorist units as much as regular maneuver units, but according to the Newsweek article, “Inside the Killing Machine” it sure doesn’t seem like it. From what I have seen first hand, special operations troops seem even more inclined to launch a mission on flmsy evidence than regular maneuver folks. (I’ll elaborate in future posts.)

I’m a realist (kind of). I know that having a Devil’s Advocate wouldn’t increase the numbers of terrorists or insurgents the U.S. kills. Instead, it would make the process more accurate. In the long run, that means we would kill more terrorists.

This matters. If you create too many saints, the worst thing that could happen is that the guy who has to keep track of the General Roman Calendar could get confused. If you target the wrong person in a military operation, innocent people will die.

Aug 05

During my sophomore year of college, I discovered Cormac McCarthy.

Assigned to read All The Pretty Horses in a class on “The Western”, it was a revelation, like reading sentences for the first time. McCarthy was one of the only modern authors--Jonathan Franzen and John Updike, off the top of my head--that I could place alongside Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Steinbeck. He turns grammar and language upside down and inside out, like a readable, more violent, less Southern Faulkner.

I jumped on the McCarthy band wagon just in time. Within a few years, the Coen Brothers would turn No Country For Old Men into a Best Picture winner, The Road would win the Pulitzer prize, and Oprah picked McCarthy for her book club. In the mean time, I spent my time reading almost all of McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Eventually, I found his masterpiece, Blood Meridian. Cormac’s magnum opus, it is a violent, ugly book that Harold Bloom ranks as one of the best books of the last fifty years. I’d agree that it is one of the most important. (It isn’t my favorite McCarthy novel. I feel that All The Pretty Horses is equal if not better. I haven’t read Sutree, but I’ve been told by trusted sources--Roger Ebert, McCarthy’s brother--that it belongs in the same company.)

Like All The Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian is on its way to a theater near you. (Eventually. I guess the project has stalled.) This news shouldn’t be surprising: Blood Meridian may be too violent, too Western, too expensive, and too rated-R to get produced.

And I’m not that upset about this. The problem with film adaptions, as I’ve written before, is that great books don’t make great movies. Too much is lost in translation across mediums. For example, a great novel is usually filled with deep character insights, inner-monologues and motivation. Think anything by Henry James, Salinger or Updike. Blood Meridian wouldn’t have this problem, because McCarthy doesn’t spend too much time in his main character’s heads.

But another problem with great-novel-to-film translations is that great novels describe the world, using language and metaphor to create a vision in the reader’s mind. A film shows you something, no mental creation needed. Whereas a book can spend a page describing a chair, a movie just scans past it. Blood Meridian would have this problem. One of the joys in reading a book by McCarthy is the joy in reading the prose of McCarthy.

Finally, many classics are too large or unwieldy to mold into a two hour film. Blood Meridian definitely has this problem.

But I have an idea to solve these problems: use the template given to us by Francis Ford Coppola. He successfully adapted one of the great books, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, into the equally classic Apocalypse Now. How? Because Coppola took a handful of plot, character and theme, discarded the rest, and adapted it to the modern era.

This is what should be done with Blood Meridian. Adapt it to the Iraq war--or the war in Afghanistan, which could work better--turn the Glanton gang into military contractors, focus on the Judge, and keep the plot of a gang run amok. That’s gold, Jerry, gold!

Now will this movie get made? Probably not. It would be less expensive, less violent, and less western, but now it would be about the modern war. Hopefully soon, war films start making money, because this is the film I would want to make.

Aug 03

(For the past few weeks, On Violence and our readers have tried to answer the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Today’s entry comes from the one, the only, the Twitter. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email. Or follow us on Twitter @onviolence.)

Jordan deJongh (@Smile_to_me): they should, but ppl r taught at a young age that war is the only way 2 resolve anything

João Hwang (@JoaoHwang): Depends on whether we fight for material (economics) or it is inherent in our nature (Nietzsche, Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc.) If it's the former wars can end, if it's the latter then we doomed to have them. Until we figure it out, minimizing is the goal.

Mary Matthews (@MWM4444): Humans will stop fighting wars, @OnViolence, when the human race prefers peace to testosterone poisoning. Don't hold your breath.

Kelly Crigger (@kellycrigger): Until we are blended into one homogenous people, no. And even then there will be disagreements.

Will Slack (@wslack) war is institutionalized violence, and we will never rid ourselves of violence

blenCOWe (@blencowe) human nature is shaped by envrnmnt, which is shaped by scarcity (resources). Scarcity leads 2 competition & this brings violence

JK (@shivers44) To quote a popular videogame: "War, war never changes" because humans are incapable of completely relinquishing violence

Aug 03

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

On Monday, I ran out of room for my list of “that’s just the way it is” thinking. Here are a few more examples:

- Countless support organizations, like the Finance or Tax centers, close their doors for lunch and promptly at 1700, making it horribly difficult for soldiers to use them during non-work hours. Why?

- Intelligence units in Iraq and Afghanistan started publishing daily “Intelligence Summaries”. Some of these summaries had readerships of maybe a dozen people, but required hours of work to put together each day. Why?

- Nothing can go in a Soldier’s pockets, including his hands on a cold day. Until 9/11 the pockets on BDUs, all eight of them, were strictly ceremonial. Why?

- The Marines haven’t conducted a beach landing since the Korean war. The Army hasn’t conducted a meaningful airborne operation since 1989. Yet we have a whole branch of the military and an entire Airborne division, with two more brigades and two special operations regiments devoted to those very expensive, ineffective and underused form of insertion. Why?

- Why do we use soooooo many acronyms? (Eric C forced me to stop using acronyms, and we have almost completely excised them from On Violence. Like an addict, I had to admit my problem and go cold turkey.) Why?

- Before brown boots, soldiers spent hours shining and polishing boots to perfection. Despite mastering this skill completely, it had virtually no effect on our warfighting capabilities. Why did we do it?

The answer to all these questions is always the same, “That just the way it is.” I’ve heard the answer to that question enough times to tear my hair out.

I understand I am simplifying a bit. My critics could argue that “that’s the way it is” counters the good idea fairy--though I’m actually a fan of the “good idea fairy”; the U.S. Army is probably the only organization in America that actively resists “good ideas”.

Or “that’s just the way it is” describes a perfectly logical action/plan, but the subordinate doesn’t know the reason why. For example, the Army conducts physical fitness training everyday. Why? Because fighting wars requires the ability to march long distances and conduct small arms combat with the enemy. Why do some old sergeants (major) believe that the ideal fitness program is running five miles five days in a row with some push ups and sit ups thrown in? Because “that’s just the way it is”. The difference between the answer to the first question and the second, is that the former suffers from a lack of institutional communication; the latter is inertia.

Above all, “that’s the way it is” means something. It means, “We do things because of tradition, not logic.” It means, in almost every case, that there is no purpose; most officers continue practices not because they work, but because that is how they first saw it, because of tradition.

As always, I am interested if current or former soldiers agree or disagree, and any other examples I might have missed.

Aug 01

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

Starbuck/Crispin Burke wrote a great post a few weeks back on “Toxic Leadership”, explaining that truly toxic leadership isn’t nearly as pernicious as a lot of subordinates believe. I agree, and would add that subordinates also tend to exaggerate how often they really are “micro-managed”. (I’ve made this mistake too, and Eric C complained about it here.)

In that post, though, Starbuck unconsciously mentioned a different issue. He brought up wearing PT belts, banning Vibram Five Finger, and running in formation as examples of embarrassing Army habits, but not examples of toxic leadership. I agree they aren’t toxic leadership, but they are examples of another significant cultural disease: institutional inertia.

How do you diagnose institutional inertia? Simply find a moronic task, and ask this question, “Why does the Army do this?” If the response is, “That’s just the way it is,” then you have just experienced institutional inertia.

Is the U.S. Army the only bureaucracy in the world that explains itself by saying, “That’s just they way it is”? Obviously not, but the Army, unlike, say, private businesses--think Lehman Brothers, Blockbuster, Circuit City and now Borders--can’t go out of business. No one competes with the U.S. Army, so if they adopt a silly policy, it won’t go bankrupt. The only price could be lost wars or dead soldiers.

So here are a few of my favorite examples of questions that got the response, “That’s just the way it is.”

- When we returned from deployment, I learned that my company had everyone show up at six in the morning. Our first formation didn’t start until six thirty though. We showed up half an hour to stand in the parking lot for the formation before the formation. Why?

- Since 9/11, every planning document in the Army is called a “CONOP”. CONOP, in doctrine, means “Concept of the Operations” but we use the term to mean “Operation” now. In fact, CONOP means both the planning for the operation, and the operation itself. (Check out this post by yours truly to see what I mean.) Why?

- Human Resources Command doesn’t count a Soldier as “off your books” until their leave ends. This means a soldier with 60 days of leave counts as one of your soldiers even though he isn’t present for duty. Even worse, HRC doesn’t start the process to replace the soldier until the end of those sixty days. Why? (I could add, the U.S. Army is allegedly at full strength with several years of strong recruiting numbers behind it, yet it still seems like every combat unit is short men. Why/How?)

- The average Army work day starts at 0600 and goes until 1700. Why? And how is that a nine hour work day?

I had a few too many examples to fit in one post, so I’ll continue my list of “that’s just the way it is” on Wednesday. If any readers have examples, I would love to hear them.