Sep 28

(Today's post continues a debate we started in July answering the question, "Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?"

Later: It also is now a part of our series on "The World is Getting Safer" There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

For more "Facts Behaving Badly", click below:

- Afghanistan is NOT the Graveyard of Empires

- A Fact Behaving Badly: The WMDs Went to Syria

- Facts Behaving Badly: Economics Edition

- Facts Behaving Badly: "Excellence by Anonymity

- Guest Post: Facts Behaving Badly: The FBI Prevented 148 Mass Shootings Last Year

- Russian Facts Behaving Badly

- Facts Behaving Badly: Soldiers Hate War)

Humans only use 10 percent of their brains. Imagine the potential of humanity if we could tap into that other 90 percent. At least four films (Inception, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dinner For Schmucks and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) came out in 2010 that toyed with this very idea, treating our apparently 90 percent useless brain power as a fact. (Since then, the film Limitless repeated this claim.)

Unfortunately, it’s not true. At all. It’s a crack-pot understanding of human intelligence that we’ve all heard, some of us have repeated, and far too few people have thought, “That doesn’t sound right.” Mythbusters debunked it. So did Snopes. It’s shocking that five films--and countless television shows (*cough* Fringe *cough*) can assert a “scientific” fact that is completely, totally, factually untrue.

Since we aren’t ready (yet) for another “Quotes Behaving Badly”, we’ve decided to move our next round of debunking towards facts.

Since this is On Violence, we don’t want to smash just any old facts; we want to smash the “facts” polluting foreign affairs, military and philosophy debates. For example, many Americans think we spend 25 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. Unfortunately, for pundits and politicians, it isn’t true.

Today we start with our recent favorite topic, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” and three of the facts that behaved badly in that debate.

First, humans HAVEN’T always fought wars.

As Professor Mark Grimsley noted in his response, human warfare had a starting point in history. Anthropological evidence agrees with him; the vast majority of human history has gone on without tribal, inter-state, organized conflict...or war. Humans have always had a capacity for violence, but we haven’t always had war.

John Horgan’s post ”Quitting the Hominid Fight Club” expands this idea, showing that human warfare had a starting point around 10,000 years ago. There is evidence of violence in archeology, but organized warfare has a starting point in the fossil record. This means--since homo sapiens evolved between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago--humans have “always” fought wars for about ten percent of our time on this earth.

Second, humans DIDN’T evolve to fight wars.

John Horgan also debunks the idea that homo-sapiens descended from our ancestors to fight wars. Horgan describes research that shows that in chimpanzee societies coalitionary violence is actually exceptionally rare. And bonobo monkeys, a primate as closely related to humans as chimps, don’t have organized violence.

RadioLab also did an entire episode on this topic to ponder this question, if humans evolved to fight wars, to compete, how do you explain cooperation, benevolence or kindness?  It turns out that human cooperation could be the evolutionary change that helped homo sapiens achieve dominance over nature, not the other way around.

Third, wars are NOT about resource scarcity.
Maybe not. Again, returning to John Horgan’s “Quitting the Hominid Fight Club”, most incidents of chimpanzees participating in coalitionary killing--chimp warfare loosely--occurred after Jane Goodall started feeding the monkeys bananas. Resource density caused the conflict. Same with Robert Sapolski’s research. The chimps became aggressive after a vacation lodge started a massive garbage dump with basically free food for all the chimps. The excess food caused excess population growth, then violence.

This idea also bears out in recent human history. World War II wasn’t about Hitler’s Germany suffering from resource scarcity. Germany went to war after its economy had recovered. Same with Japan in World War II. Same with the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars are about resources, but not necessarily limited resources.

So what?

Philosophically we need to understand why humans fight wars--we can’t rely on platitudes or untested assumptions. Perhaps human ancestors have always fought wars. Perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps, at some point, human societies decided to use organized violence to achieve political ends. The point is right now we don’t have evidence that “humans have always fought wars,” which is a good thing.

Sep 26

(To read the entire “Intelligence is Evidence” series, click here.)

"Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?"”
                        - Rage Against the Machine

Predicting the future is hard work. Ask anyone in my completely non-monetary football prediction pool. Or political pundits. Or anyone.

For this reason, most of the Army dumps on military intelligence folks. It’s pretty clear why too. Intelligence tries to predict the enemy’s movement. The intel guys are wrong. They try again. They’re wrong again. They say something vague and useless and the commander ignores them. Predicting the future is fairly difficult; that’s why we don’t do it very often.

Yes, classically, intelligence embraced this role. Intel folks tried to predict the enemy’s movement. Or it answered questions like “Where will the Soviets will place their war heads?”, “Will China get involved in Korea?”, “What will happen if North Vietnam takes over South Vietnam?” (It should be noted, most of this “predicting” didn’t happen in actual combat.)

The answers to those questions are the goal. Intelligence aspires towards the future. But intelligence doesn’t just guess at the future. We don’t have crystal balls, and fortune tellers aren’t very accurate. Even at the height of the Cold War, the evidence for predictions came from...analysis of the past.

To riff off the 1984/Rage Against the Machine quote from above, you use the past to predict the future, you use the present to understand the past. A lot of analysts understand it only as a one-way street. It isn’t. So while some commenters noted that the difference between intelligence and evidence is that intelligence predicts the future, they are only getting it half-right. And when those same commenters say that evidence punishes for the past, well they are shortchanging evidence.

Look at the fight against Al Qaeda er..the Global War on Terror. The George W. Bush administration rolled out a color coded chart, the terror alert level. It never dropped below the third level; still terrorism never happened. All those predictions were wrong. In fact, the chart only rose after prominent arrests of individuals for conducting criminal acts. In other words, past actions.

In a way, the chart wasn’t about the future at all, it only changed based on past events.

The idea that “intelligence predicts” and “evidence punishes” disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or they appear to be exactly the same. The U.S. Army’s military intelligence branch--after years of fighting the same fictional Russian battles over and over--quickly realized it couldn’t gaze through the fog of the future during real wars. When it came to fighting insurgencies, intelligence staffs primarily made law enforcement cases against insurgent fighters. Take the case of any insurgent arrested by the military, like an IED bomb maker. True, the U.S. Army took him off the streets because they wanted to stop the IEDs he was building, but he was locked up for the IEDs he had already built. Evidence and intelligence are one.

Flip the idea around and look at law enforcement in America. We don’t arrest drug dealers to punish them; we arrest them to prevent future criminal activity. Law enforcement isn’t always about punishing, or prevention, but both. We punish gang leaders, and prevent them from committing future crimes. We arrest serial killers because of the murders they committed, but also to stop them from killing again.

This culminated in Osama bin Laden’s death. Did we kill him to stop a second 9/11 or as punishment for the first? Was the intelligence aspect predictive or punishing? Or both?

Instead of lumping intelligence and evidence into separate boxes, we should view them as dabbling in both. Intelligence helps explain events after the fact, and can offer vague predictions of the future. Intelligence can also assist in making cases against criminals, rogue states and human rights violators. Intelligence is evidence, evidence about the world beyond our shores, nothing less and nothing more.

Sep 22

Management matters, as I explained yesterday. But--the good reader might ask--this is a blog about violence, the military and foreign policy. What does that have to do with management?

Simple. Bad management can literally get people killed.

Read the passages about General Tommy Franks in Thomas Rick’s Fiasco. Ricks doesn’t really describe an inept leader, he describes an inept manager. This inept management led to a poorly planned post-invasion Iraq. (As an interesting side note, Franks now runs a Leadership Academy in Oklahoma. I don’t know if they cover management.) 

Most people in the Army seem to know that it doesn’t run well. Every memoir Eric C read has a section on incompetent leadership. The Atlantic claims younger officers are fleeing by the boatload, and mentions management. Clearly, I’m not pleased by Army management. A Colonel lambasted ISAF’s PowerPoint culture, got fired, and all the comments on articles about it said, “Yep, I know what he is talking about.” Frankly, if the U.S. Army were a corporation, it would have run out of business (or be bailed out by the federal government) a long time ago.

I don’t think people feel that way because of leadership, though. I think they feel the effects of bad management.

So I’ve decided to start a series of posts on management. These posts won’t just harbor my petty complaints, though. I want these posts to advise, assist and help, to share what I have learned managing soldiers, and to make the military run better by managing its people better.

If the U.S. Army can’t manage itself well enough to win wars--and win them quickly--the side effect is more death, of both soldiers and civilians, often needlessly. I’ve written before about whether waste in contracting was immoral; I could write a similar post about how horrible mismanagement of people, time and resources gets even more people killed. In simple terms, an effective, efficient and well-managed American Army will keep violence to a minimum. An ineffective, inefficient and poorly-managed American Army can drag two different countries into protracted civil wars.

Management isn’t completely new to On Violence either. A long time back, I wrote about management training and PowerPoint. In fact, a particularly painful Command and Staff meeting originally inspired On Violence. While I was sitting in a doner kebab shop in Milan sipping forties (the smallest size of beer the shop served, amazingly enough) venting my frustrations to Eric C about the military, he told me I needed to start writing about this.

Thus, my first run of posts consisted of complaining and whining, and Eric C threw those away. In that mess, though, were a couple good management ideas, which I plan to share for as long as the blog exists. Here are two free ideas for today:

1. Read Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Time management isn’t taught in ROTC. Or in the Infantry Basic Officer Course. Or any Basic course. Or in any meaningful way by TRADOC. Somewhere, at some school, TRADOC probably does have a course on time management, but way more officers go to Ranger School than receive any training on time management. Way more people go to Airborne school than go any time management class.

Time is the one resource even the Army can’t get more of. Once it is gone, it disappears. And no book does time management (or task management/priority management) better than Getting Things Done.

2. Go to Especially listen to their podcast on Email, Meetings and PowerPoint.

I discovered when I got a new iPod in 2006, right before I started active-duty. Thank the Maker. I used its advice in every job I had. Particularly, Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne’s management trinity has use in every management job. Period. Don’t take my word for it: their podcast routinely tops the most downloads on iTunes and wins the Podcast Awards.

(And believe us, we aren’t making a dime on these endorsements. On Violence doesn’t have a financial relationship with or Getting Things Done, and we no longer have an Amazon Affiliation. They are simply the two best pieces of management advice on/in the Internet/world. We want to get them out there.)

Sep 21

Before you can start down the road to recovery, the addict must admit his problem. If you are a senior NCO or officer, say this with me:

“My name is [your name here] and I am a manager.”

For whatever reason, the Army, the business community, and the entire professional world have decided that “management” and “managers” are dirty words. Managers push paper. Managers create PowerPoint presentations. Managers micro-manage. Managers are...

Bill Lumberg

But we all want to be Leaders. Leaders inspire. Think Patton driving the third Army. Think Vince Lombardi winning the Superbowl. Think Churchill speaking in front solemn crowds during WWII. Think Leonidas leading his Spartans.

Managers go to meetings everyday. Managers spend hours doing email. Managers assemble, or more often, order others to assemble 100 slide PowerPoint presentations. Managers manage numbers, paper and supplies. (Just so you don’t think I’m presenting a straw man, check out this web page that perfectly captures the stereotypical “differences” between leadership and management.)

So here is my question: if you are in the Army, are you the inspirational leader, or the bogged down manager? Everyone wants to be the former, but we spend our time on the latter. We think we lead, but we spend our days doing email, going to meetings and making PowerPoints.

We can’t become better leaders until we figure out that we are managers. Yes, management is a dirty word, but we ignored it and now most officers/senior NCOs/warrant officers can’t manage their time or communications--at the least, few do it nearly as well as they should.

The relationship between leadership and management is symbiotic, like clown fish and sea anenomes. Clown fish fend off other fish that would otherwise eat the sea anemones. Sea anemones protect clown fish from predators. Everyone--post-Finding Nemo--loves and notices clown fish. But without sea anemones literally enveloping and protecting them, they couldn’t exist. Management and leadership go hand in hand in the same way.

We can’t improve until we admit who we are. Most of us aren’t Spartans. But...




When the Army embraces management--by embrace I mean acknowledge at the highest level that its officers and NCOs spend more time managing than leading; by embrace I mean the Army decides to train its leaders on management tasks like time management, communication and subordinate development--the productivity gains will be extraordinary. By avoiding management training--on email, meetings, powerpoint, presenting, organizing, filing, mentoring, coaching--we avoid the easiest/biggest target of opportunity to improve the Army.

We don’t need new vehicles, a new rifle or a new helicopter; the biggest target of opportunity is training our leaders to manage better.

We could have the most inspirational set of leaders in the Army’s history right now. But if we can’t figure out the management, no one will ever know. Tomorrow I will explain how I will try to solve this problem.

Sep 19

I’ve read a lot of modern war memoirs. Most of them are about heroism, leadership or the glory of battle; optimistic tales of team work, triumph and camaraderie.

The Forever War isn’t about any of those things. Instead, Dexter Filkins rummages through the dark side of war, almost 350 pages of pure “War at its Worst”. (And it has, indeed, inspired two “War at its Worst” posts already.)

I’ve been on a bit of a post-9/11 war memoir winning streak recently. Between Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom and Sebastian Junger’s War, I’ve read some of the best war memoir writing since I began trudging through this tiring literary sub-genre. And I’m glad to say the streak continues today with Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War, an impossibly bleak memoir of his experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Forever War describes war at its ugliest, most fatalistic and hopeless. If I had to put my opinion on it, I’d say it is anti-war; it is also a must read.  

Dexter Filkins captures his memories of time spent in Afghanistan in the late 90’s, in the midst of Taliban rule, then covers the American invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11, and ends with his experience as a reporter for The New York Times in Baghdad after the American invasion. Filkins’ memoir is more of a collage than a chronological narrative, a collection of short stories, anecdotes and impressions. If you remember my review of Dispatches, you know I think this is the ideal form for a war memoir. Reality doesn’t conform to a nice, neat war narrative. (As Michael C discussed with me, though, it isn’t an overview of the war. If you come in expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.)

Dozen of war memoirs into this project, Filkins still found ways to surprise me; nothing about the book is expected. He opens with a quote from Melville and a non-Blood Meridian quote from Cormac McCarthy, which I love. Compared with the quotes in Junger’s War--which felt rote and incorrect--Filkins challenged the reader with quotes that aren’t a part of the modern military lexicon.

Filkins shows both sides of war, painting a hideous portrait of war’s backward moral boundaries and alliances. With his security guards in Iraq, Filkins watches videos of Saddam’s guards torturing prisoners. But Filkins juxtaposes those stories with images of Iraqis killed by stray American bombs, mortars or artillery shells. “‘I saw how the Americans bombed our civilians with my own eyes,’ Ali said, and he held up a bloody sleeve. ‘I dragged them to the ambulance myself.’” (89) Complicating the picture further, Filkins talks with Iraqis who, despite all the violence, welcome Americans. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Filkins describes a battlefield with shifting alliances and moral quandaries.

Nothing, it seems, in war is simple.

These complications extend to the emotional understanding of soldiers, whom Filkins portrays in the same honest light, letting their words do the talking. After killing six members of a ten person family in Iraq, one marine says to another, “Better them than us.” Then one of the marines starts crying.

Or a marine, describing war “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait to see the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again.” (93) Most memoirists love their subjects, usually by and about Americans soldiers, and describe these soldiers in a consistently positive light. But reality, especially in war, is never that simple.

This nuance extends to the enemies as well, like when Filkins tells the story of a dying insurgent from Saudi Arabia named Nasir. The youthful Nasir comes to Afghanistan, joins the resistance, his side surrenders, he gets shot and wishes he had never joined the jihad. “Nasir said he had given up his dreams of jihad. He said he did not care for bin Laden. More than anything, Nasir said, he wished he were the naive young man he had been only a few months earlier.” Filkins never hears of him again.

Filkins has no qualms about injecting his opinion into the story. “The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient--and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.” (138) You don’t read commentary like this in other memoirs. The great war memoirists--Rooney, Herr, O’Brien--understand that every memoir should try to figure out what war is. All of Filkins’ questions and analysis serves this purpose.

Amid all this good, there are two things about The Forever War I didn’t like. The first I really, really hated: its title. Just three years after its first printing, it feels like both wars are winding down. To make the case, in the title, that the wars will last forever speaks to a book that is a history, or an analysis, not a series of anecdotes.

As good as The Forever War is, I would also point out that it is just a little too long, especially for a memoir this depressing and ugly and violent. It’s an ugly war in the forever war, and I’m not sure I wanted to read 350 pages of it. I put the book down emotionally exhausted.

Then again, that may have been the point.

Sep 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.)

“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.”
    - Clausewitz

Yesterday, I said that intelligence is not counter-terrorism or law enforcement. Intelligence helps make judgements in the international relations realms, which sometimes bleeds into counter-terrorism and international law enforcement, but they aren’t synonymous. At all.

Today, I will tackle the idea that intelligence is evidence, just with a much lower threshold of proof required for action. For example, Steve Connors made this point in his comment:

Intelligence is a far lower bar in terms of actually providing proof and, at best, serves only to provide decision makers with possible courses of action based on a balance of probabilities. Evidence on the other hand, seeks to establish an absolute.

Dion left a link in his comment to a Rand article called “The Big Difference Between Intelligence and Evidence”. The key line:

“Usually intelligence does not offer crystal-clear answers, and we should not hang decisions to go to war or do anything else on its ability to do so.”

On one level, I agree with the distinction here; intelligence usually requires less facts to support its conclusions. This has developed because for years intelligence dealt in an incredibly murky realm, a realm of espionage, counter-espionage, and dirty dealers no one wants to get in bed with. Especially during the Cold War, establishing certainty virtually never happened.

But pause. Intelligence deals with issues like...declaring war. Like nuclear disarmament. Like punishing human rights violators. Why should decisions that have trillion dollar impacts and could cost millions of lives have a lower thresholds for action than evidence, that deals with the life and death of a single individual?

Intelligence now deals with a range of threats, from foreign states to tiny terrorist groups. When it comes to counter-terrorism or trans-national criminal threats, analysts can often get very, very accurate in their final opinions. The point is we don’t have to assume intelligence is always faulty, or always vague. Often it is, but it doesn’t have to be.

This is a sincere problem with intelligence from the tactical to the strategic: too many people give intelligence too big of a pass. Instead of demanding better analysis, better evidence and stronger thresholds for action, decision makers throw their hands up and say, “Oh well, it’s just intelligence.”

In the end, the actions taken by officials or law enforcement or military officers, because of intelligence, shouldn’t be justified simply because we don’t know more. “Don’t know” isn’t the same as “can’t know”. We shouldn’t excuse inexcusable actions--bombing a civilian convoy, invading Cuba, funding the Contras, or invading Iraq--simply because intelligence can only do so much, and the threats we imagine scare us so.

As I introduced on Monday, this is a relic of the Cold War, a particularly entrenched relic. Intelligence can produce varying levels of accurate analysis, just because it couldn’t in the Cold War against the Soviet Union doesn’t mean it can’t against terrorists, insurgents or other trans-national actors. The Rand article provides the telling detail. Written before the Iraq invasion, it subtly says (in my paraphrasing), “Don’t worry that we don’t have enough evidence, intelligence makes a ton of mistakes. Go with your guts, it seems like Saddam has weapons of mass destruction right?”

Sep 14

(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.)

After my month on "Intelligence is Evidence", I received several well-written emails questioning my core thesis. One of my goals for this series--rolling out essentially a long form article in pieces--was to get immediate reaction, to adjust on the fly and modify my thesis. Today I attempt to do that.

As I shifted through the comments, I realized that we--bloggers, journalists, soldiers, politicians, pundits, and academics--use “intelligence” vaguely. I say “Intelligence is Evidence” to properly define intelligence: information collected--usually clandestinely or covertly--about foreign actors who will/can influence America. Evidence is a collection of facts and opinions about a topic, either in law enforcement or academia; intelligence is a specific brand of evidence.

Nevertheless, the intelligence community has developed its own mythology around intelligence, developed its own set of assumptions and biases that pollute our understanding. Intelligence--the IC believes--is anything happening overseas and anyone operating in secret. Intelligence is always faulty, and always predicting the future.

But intelligence isn’t any of those things; those are relics of the Cold War applied to a globalized world.

Just like the quest to define “war”, (I tried to define war here. I’m not the only one; trying to make an exhaustive list of even just Small Wars Journal articles on this theme would take days.) intelligence means different things to different people. My next few articles will address three specific misunderstandings:

1. Intelligence is counter-terrorism.

2. Intelligence is uncertainty; evidence is surety.

3. Intelligence is predictions; evidence describes the past.

I'll start with the myth that intelligence is counter-terrorism. An email from a family friend made this point clear: intelligence isn’t evidence, it is a process like law enforcement. I see this point regularly confused in print and in blogs too. On one hand, I am sympathetic to this viewpoint because I understand how it developed. The CIA, which was/is supposed to lead all intelligence collection, began doing things surreptitiously back during the Cold War; doing operational things that felt like warfare, but weren’t, technically. When 9/11 changed the entire focus of national security to solely terrorism, the CIA thus took the mantle of pseudo-law enforcement officer.
But that doesn’t make intelligence law enforcement. Instead, that means that an intelligence agency is conducting warfare or law enforcement, depending on the situation. Worse, it conflates “counter-terrorism” with “intelligence”, assuming the two are equal and synonymous. Counter-terrorism is an entire process, and intelligence is about the collection and analysis of information. Evidence isn’t synonymous with law enforcement, nor should it be. Same with intelligence.

Law enforcement does increasingly deal with trans-national threats. That doesn’t mean that crime became something intelligence agencies/professionals had to handle operationally. To study? Yes. To action? No.

This couldn’t be clearer in the very misleadingly titled, “How the Arab Spring Weakened Intelligence” in Newsweek. The author quotes several intelligence experts bemoaning the fact that their primo sources in Arab dictatorships had evaporated, almost overnight. This hamstrings counter-terrorism. Meanwhile, the author missed the fact that all our intelligence agents acting as counter-terrorists missed the signs for the Arab Spring. They also missed that supporting brutal dictatorships who use torture on their own citizens did a lot to create the terrorists they chased. Intelligence-professionals-turned-counter-terrorists focused so much on one branch of intelligence--that related to terrorism--that they missed all the other areas that would have monumental consequences for U.S. international relations.

This has been again brought up in the newest “Top Secret America” article released by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin.  The article ostensibly describes intelligence agencies doing “intelligence”. Again, though, properly defined, intelligence is a supporting activity to the counter-terrorism mission. Yes, a nebulous conflagration of intelligence and special operations troops are deployed around the world fighting terrorists. Just because they are secret/clandestine/covert, though, doesn’t make them “intelligence”.

Tomorrow, I’ll tackle whether intelligence by definition requires a lower threshold of proof.

Sep 12

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Tuesdays.)

Because he could find no fault with the man many were calling the Christ, Pontius Pilate decided to offer the growing mob a choice. It was Pilate’s custom and right to offer the people one prisoner sentenced to death clemency, as a demonstration of Rome’s benevolence. He gave the rabble a choice between two men sharing the same name. One was Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist. The other was Jesus of Nazareth who was purported to heal the sick. Pilate offered freedom for one and death for the other. The people shouted. The people chose freedom for the one that inspired them, the one that could lead them; Christ went to his death.

This is the story of Barabbas paraphrased from the Gospel of Matthew. Over the Lenten season, I came across these events in Bible study. Traditionally, anti-semites have used this the tale has been used to propagate their hatred using the crowd’s choice of a criminal over Christ. But the story isn’t meant to convey blame, it’s meant to indicate our nature. The telling is about a choice, but not a choice between individuals, rather a choice between peace and violence; and mankind choose an insurrectionist over a healer.

Barabbas was a criminal whose crime against Rome and men warranted death. The manner with which the two Gospels refer to him indicate he was arrested for either inciting or being part of a riot against Roman authority. Biblical scholar Robert Eisenman noted that the manner to which Barabbas was referred to was reserved for revolutionaries. His name also tells us he was a Jew: Jesus meaning “salvation” and Barabbas meaning “son of the father.” So it begins to emerge that there is not just one potential savior in this story but two.

Christian tradition has demonized Pilate to the same level as Judas. Ironic considering the portrayal of Pilate’s attempt to avoid the weight of judging someone he considered blameless. Either because his wife’s warning or because speaking with Christ made clear that the accused was no threat to Rome, Pilate attempted two times to defer judgement. When the Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus before Pilate the first time, Pilate looked him over and sent him to Herod to be dealt with. When Jesus returned, he realized he would have to deal with this situation seeing a threat of violent protest in his courtyard. His strategy: maintain order by sating the crowd with a gift.

Author and Pastor Adam Hamilton called it “a choice between two saviors.” It must have seemed like an easy decision in Pilate’s mind as to who they would choose. Between the two, the crowd would surely cry for the freedom of the man they cheered for as a king as he entered the city just days before, throwing palm fronds at his feet. The choice between a criminal and a religious teacher.

Some say the Sanhedrin stacked the deck, that the crowd that day was organized. That the Pharisees rounded up their followers and those who had grievance against Christ to fill that courtyard. Men like the money changers that were driven from the temple or those with means who were told the meek would inherit the earth. But that’s too convenient an explanation and attempts to deflect the message. It ignores the nature of a mob which grows of it’s own accord and tends toward violence.

The story of Barabbas is an indictment of mankind’s nature. It shows that we are not just foolish, but violent by desire. More than just a telling of events, the story is a parable in itself. When faced with two potential saviors we chose not the man of peace, but the man of violence.

Sep 11

In honor of the tenth year anniversary of September 11th, we want to pause On Violence for a weekend of remembrance.

We’ll be back on Monday.

- On Violence

Sep 07

Five times before this--on our 50th, 100th, 1 Year, 200th, and 300th anniversaries--On Violence took time to look back at our best posts. In honor of our 400th post, we present another fantastic link drop.

Before we come at you fast and furious, we want to thank all our readers and supporters, especially Michael C’s young wife who doesn’t get nearly enough credit on this blog for her sacrifices. (Mainly having to listen to us edit posts together.) We also want to thank which has started sponsoring the site, as you’ve probably seen on the side bar. Check them out.

The big trend in our last 100 posts was the big, ongoing series. First up, we had “Intelligence is Evidence”, probably our most academic series to date. Check out the Introduction to see how terrorism in Iraq relates to arson investigations in Texas and to Devil’s Advocates in the Vatican.

Then we addressed a philosophical issue close to our hearts, asking the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” Thanks to all those who provided answers and contributions.

In July, we anointed our first, “On V’s Most Intriguing Event of the Last Six Months” to make room for the Greg Mortenson/Central Asia Institute fiasco. (We followed up a few weeks back on this by comparing Greg Mortenson’s spending to the waste in U.S. national security.)

Our last series, which is by no means over, was “Why I Got Out” by Michael C, in an ongoing quest to explain himself--whether he needs to or not.

The winner for best title in the last 100 posts must be Eric C’s immensely clever, “Exit Through the Graft Shop” part of a week on the Oscar films, particularly the documentary Restrepo.

One of Michael C’s favorite posts is his contribution to the continuing “War is War” series, “War is War is Heinlein”. Be on the look out for a sequel to this next month. Second to that has to be a rare time-warp guest post from Michael C in 2040, “The On V Archives from 2040”.

Our best use of a picture was probably “One of the Inevitable Casualties” showing an emotionally stirring (possibly cliched) picture of one of the puppies who didn’t make it through a deployment.

Eric C also continued his analysis of war memoirs. Despite loathing memoirs as a genre, he ended up loving a few: War, Kaboom and Dispatches. Eric C also asked, “Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?” and “Why Is War So Damn Funny?

His art posts also tackled themes of war and the military from works as far afield as The Butter Battle Book in ”The Zook Lobby and American Foreign Policy“ to A Few Good Men in “We Can't Handle The Truth”.

Finally, Matty P continues his great regular guest posting by asking this poignant question, “What Does a Terrorist Look Like?

The biggest event of the last 100 posts was our wildly successful and eminently controversial, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay” published in The Washington Post’s opinion section and picked up by Stars and Stripes and The Small Wars Journal among other publications. It was controversial--though we haven’t met anyone who disagreed with my final three recommendations--and we responded a week later. (Stars and Stripes probably had the most entertaining comments section, but SWJ was right behind.)

One final note: with Michael C out of the military, we plan to have a very public next 100 posts. Hopefully by the time we reach 500 posts, On Violence will have had many more guest posts and some exciting new things to write about. We also plan to move to a Monday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule, with guest posts on Tuesdays.

Stay tuned, and as always please “tweet”, “plus” or “like” this post to spread the On Violence word.

Sep 06

(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 “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 know how the next massive intelligence leak will happen to the U.S. Army, and I can’t stop it.

It’s not like I know some malign actor actively stealing data. Instead, I believe, based on my knowledge of the U.S. Army’s information management, that the Army has a gaping weakness in its information architecture that a malign actor could easily exploit. So if I see the Army as a runaway train barreling towards another Wikileaks disaster, why don’t I try to stop it?

Because I can’t. In the U.S. Army, pointing out a huge problem is disastrous for one’s career. Look at the options open to me. I could have told my boss. If he doesn’t pass it up the chain of command, then the issue dies. What about the Inspector General, at any level? Well again, if my boss said no--or my boss’s boss said no--then I would essentially have torpedoed my career to prevent a disaster.

To really affect massive change or to expose massive wrongdoing, fraud, waste, or abuse--in essence to become a “whistle-blower”--a soldier has two nuclear options: go to Congress or go to the newspapers. These two methods do force the U.S. Army to change, by forcing it from without. Doing so, though, means destroying your career. Which leads to my next installment of “Why I Got Out”:

The U.S. Army--symptomatic of the larger national security/Pentagon culture--has a culture that hates the whistle-blowing and investigative journalism that could make it stronger.

Thomas Drake went to the Baltimore Sun to try to expose massive corruption at the opaque National Security Agency. After four years of investigation and a ruined career, a judge during sentencing called the government’s case against him “unconscionable”.

What about the 15,000 potentially mis-marked graves at Arlington National Cemetery? How did leaders in the U.S. Army handle a public affairs officer trying to expose the mismanagement? She was fired. As a result, she had to go to the newspapers.  
Same story with MRAPs in Iraq. The vehicles the U.S. brought to fight the war simply weren’t good enough. Unlike World War II, when the military could rapidly field new equipment, the modern Pentagon fights the next war, not the current one. One science advisor in the Pentagon, Franz Gayl, saw the problem and tried to convince his superiors to get new vehicles to save the lives of Marines. He had to go public; once he did, the military adopted the MRAP rapidly.

His career, like the others, was ruined.

Next up? Warrior Transition Units. What the Army has allowed to happen to Warrior Transition Units verges on criminal, yet many senior officers still tried to prevent the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Carl Prine from seeing internal investigations. It also protected officers from scrutiny so as not to “ruin” their careers. As a result, many Warrior Transition Units remain broken.

Check out my “Investigative Journalism Link Drop” for more examples. Go to any example’s Wikipedia page and you’ll see the Pentagon’s stonewalling at its finest.

All of which boggles my mind. If someone can prove that your organization, your subordinates or your people are failing, why not embrace that to become better? No one likes to be told they are wrong, but the U.S. Army needs investigative journalists and whistle-blowers to point out when it totally messes up. Instead of embracing the whistle-blowers--the soldiers practicing the Warrior Ethos--the Army usually protects the careers of (usually higher ranking) sub-standard leaders.

Reading this, some people (who probably stopped reading our blog along time ago anyways) will say we are anti-troop. Unquestioning loyalty allows corrupt officers and practices to remain; I question the military because I love it. I challenge the U.S. Army because I want her to be the best she can be. 

I wish more officers felt and acted the same way.

Whistle-blowing shouldn’t end careers, it should propel them upward.

Sep 01

I received a lot of flack for my last post on Bing West because I claimed he was a “war is war”-ior. Some commenters accused me of an ad hominem attack. Others accused me of over-simplifying his position.

In full disclosure, I haven’t read West’s last book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. In some sense, though, it doesn’t matter, most Americans haven’t read The Wrong War either. Instead, they and I have read the reviews of his book in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, and they and I have seen or read him on Fox News, The Colbert Report and The Small Wars Journal.

So I pulled a selection of quotes from Bing West. See if you can find the common sound bite (bolding mine) :

“...the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine holds that if the Americans sacrifice on behalf of the Afghan government, then the Afghan people will risk their lives for that same government in return.

What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them...Most important, the Afghan people, though almost certainly opposed to a Taliban redux, are equally wary of both the Americans and their Afghan “leaders.” They will happily take the riches lavished on them by the Americans, but they will not risk their lives for either the Americans or their own government. The Afghans are waiting to see who prevails, but prevailing is impossible without their help. ”

                                - Dexter Filkins, The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times summarizes West’s book this way:

“While prosecuting this 10-year conflict, West argues, the U.S. has created a culture of dependency and entitlement among the Afghan civilians as the risk-averse Afghan military prefers to let the U.S. Marines and soldiers do the fighting — and the dying.”

The Small Wars Journal’s Mike Few did an interview with Bing West, and he said this:

“Mike Few: What do you propose for a new strategy?

Bing West: Push the Afghans to fight their own war. Stop fighting for them...”

I agree with Bing West that the key to “winning” in Afghanistan--if that is possible--is to train competent Afghan security forces (police, border patrol and army) to defend the country. A corruption free government that executes the will of the people would help too.

I vehemently disagree, though, with the idea that Afghans aren’t fighting and dying like their American allies. (He made this point on The Colbert Report interview we linked to in our last post as well.) That isn’t true.

Look at this graph culled from the Wikileaks Afghan War Logs release (h/t and thanks to Visualising Data).

The orange line represents NATO forces. The red and blue lines? Those are Afghan soldiers and civilians.

Since the war began, 24,000 Afghans have died. In comparison, over a thousand Americans have died. Sure, the information only goes until 2009, but the trend lines are clear.

If statistics are known for anything, it’s for being misleading. So one could ask, what about proportionality? Well, proportionality cuts both ways. A lot fewer Americans live and fight in Afghanistan than Afghans who live in Afghanistan--about 100 thousand to 29 million. If we compare the populations of both of our countries, the disparity in “bearing the burden” widens.

However, if one compares the Afghan soldiers to each other, than it is a different story. One category in the data is “Afghan soldiers”. And while America surged a 100,000 troops into Afghanistan, it’s unclear exactly how many real soldiers the Afghanistan National Army has. Wikipedia claims 160,000, but I doubt that factors in the horrific desertion rates endemic to that institution. Strictly comparing the casualty rates of the armed forces, they are almost directly comparable.

This logic also ignores the fact that U.S. civilians aren’t threatened in the fighting. Afghan civilians, on the other hand, experience war as an everyday phenomena. While the U.S. government knows almost exactly how many U.S. troops we have lost in combat, the number of dead Afghans is a minimum, with likely many more killed than were recorded.

It isn’t fair to accuse Afghans of not bearing the burden of this war. Afghans have borne the brunt of war almost continually since 1977. Since 2001, U.S. soldiers and marines have joined in bearing this burden. Americans and Afghans are fighting this war together, that's all that needs to be said, nothing more, nothing less. And if numbers don’t do it for you, watch this video that makes the exact same claim with brutal imagery.

I believe West’s The Wrong War is more nuanced than I have portrayed. That said, Bing West has clearly made the issue of Afghans not bearing the burden one of his key talking points. Even if his book doesn’t make this point, most Americans will think it does. And it just isn’t true.