Dec 22

(Twice a year, On V takes an OnV-cation to recharge and connect with our families. We shall return after the New Year with "On V's Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2011". Hint: it probably has to do with Arabs and Spring.)

A long time ago a visitor to the website asked us, “I saw your critique of The Unforgiving Minute and am wondering, what books coming out of the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars you'd recommend for a feature film?”

As struggling screenwriters who have read a ton of post-9/11 war memoirs, we definitely have suggestions. But first some qualifications:

First, Hollywood hasn’t made a good Iraq/Afghanistan war film. Yet. One is out there, it just hasn’t been made. You may be saying, “Whoa, what about the Hurt Locker?” One, read our review--and others--that felt it violated our maxim, “Tell a true war story.” Two, it left out one thing (hint: battles) that sort of define war films. More on this later.

Second, the current crop of Iraq war films is way too political. Way too many Iraq war films were anti-war films. This, understandably, turned off viewers. Blatant politicization goes both ways, including anti-war films like De Palma’s Redacted, where soldiers raped an Iraqi teenager, and pro-war films, like Peter Berg and Paramount’s upcoming Lone Survivor, which we’ve written about here.

Third, modern Iraq war films eschew tradition. There have been films on missing soldiers, stop-loss, Casualty Notification Officers, cover-ups, and rape. We haven’t actually seen a classic war film, a straight-up, traditional war film. A successful movie will do something deceptively simple: just present war as it is. No more, no less.

Of the two current wars, the one that lends itself best to making a classic war film is Afghanistan. The great film of that war won’t capture an entire tour, or even a campaign. It will be about a battle. Not the entire war, or an entire tour, but a single battle.

Our suggestion is the Battle of Wanat.

A turning point in the war in Afghanistan, for both the Army and America, the Battle of Wanat was the deadliest battle in Afghanistan until the helicopter crash last summer. Hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked a base that wasn’t even two days old, eventually breaching the perimeter. Over the next two hours, nine American soldiers lost their lives.

This conflict would make a perfect film. A group of soldiers fighting against overwhelming odds; it just screams cinematic. One Soldier holds his own against waves of attackers, whispering into his radio because the enemy were so close they could hear him. Another Soldier is hit by an RPG, and keeps fighting. Most of all, it is the turning point of the war in Afghanistan, the time when the rest of the country began to pay attention to a forgotten war.

On memoirs specifically, a few could make make good films:

Brandon Friedman’s The War I Always Wanted, spans the initial invasion of Afghanistan to the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Friedman learns that the war he always wanted isn’t the war he wanted at all. It has deep character development and great set-pieces, including the haunting image of a horse, stranded, running around a bombed out valley.

For a non-traditional route, which I don’t recommend, we would look at Kayla William’s Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in The US Army, about women on the modern battlefield. Again this violates our rules above, but it could work as a film.

Finally, we think Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute could make a good war film, with changes. It depends on whether the film starts at West Point, or when he goes to Afghanistan. We would also change the tone--make it grittier--but it probably has the best starting point of any memoir.

My choices may seem odd. I had issues with Love My Rifle More Than You and The Unforgiving Minute. But there is an adage in Hollywood: bad books make great films, and great books make dull movies. So take these recommendations for what you will.

Dec 20

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Since the 1980s, Arlington Williams, an economist at Indiana University, has been trying to create stock market bubbles. He can. Every single time. His students sit down at a virtual stock market that consists of one stock to trade. Sure enough a bubble grows, then pops, leaving some of his students short by tens of dollars.

More amazing is that this bubble forms as he gives a class on economic bubbles. He explains to the students exactly what is happening, how they are creating a bubble. The students agree with him. Still, the bubble continues to grow, then pops. (Listen to the full story on NPR’s "Planet Money" podcast.) In short, the basis of “neo-classical macro-economics”, as popularized by the Chicago School of Economics, doesn’t work very well. The Chicago School believes that humans always act rationally when it comes to money.

Turns out they don’t. And guess what? Humans don’t act rationally when it comes to war either.

Yet, when it comes to counter-insurgency, military theorists continue to ignore humanity’s underlying irrationality. Consider Andrew Exum’s article in the Daily Beast:

“Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.”

I dub this the “Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, the idea that in warfare--with death and subjugation on the line--mankind’s rationality trumps his unconscious thoughts and emotions.

Fortunately, plenty of journalists have written about the lack of human rationality. Like our greatest living conservative commentator, David Brooks, who wrote an entire book on unconscious thought and emotions. In a column a few weeks back he doubled down on this assertion: we don’t have rational explanations for many of our actions.

"Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment."

Brooks’ heroes, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, conducted psychological experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old, rational models, revealing flaws in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. And, like Brooks, they know that emotions, even subtle emotions, interfere with rational thought. (A Philosophy Bites episode in this vein also reveals the fallibility of rationality.)

Combine irrational actions with boatloads of money, and you have the financial system, which pretty much describes all of investment-banker-turned-sports-writer Michael Lewis’ writings. In Lewis’ Panic!, rational investors frequently make irrational decisions, believing they are rational. As a result the stock market crashes, again and again. Lewis also reveals how stock market investors frequently trade on attributes not highly correlated with value, like the height of a CEO or his good looks. This happened in Lewis’ Moneyball too; scouts valued a good-looking body more than On Base Percentage. Only one measurement actually affected a player’s baseball ability. (Another book on subconscious thought, and how it limits "rational" thought, is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)

When it comes to warfare, we shouldn’t suddenly expect humans to drop their irrationality. In fact, we should expect a mixture of rational thought and irrational behavior.

Rationally, populations try to pick winners. They also resist making choices in a civil war, as Exum noted above. As John Shy wrote in A People Numerous and Armed, irregular warfare forces people to make political choices. They also try to side with the faction they think will win the conflict.

That said, people aren’t rational when it comes to killing and death. In warfare, cold blood is impossible to find. When you go to war, emotions dominate thinking. They cloud fine judgement, they muddy the water. Irrational, sub-conscious motivations influence actions. Some emotions will cause some individuals to never consider joining the winning side.

Consider the insidious suicide bomber. For the suicide bomber, this could be a rational act in that insurgents will provide for his family. In actuality, foreign occupation triggers suicide attacks. And the more foreign the invading army, the more suicide attacks. But there is nothing “rational” about a foreign actors “foreign-ness”. This is just another unconscious trigger.

This applies to both sides of the conflict. Heroism and valor are actually defined by their irrationality. I will always remember my deployment to Afghanistan for its wild swings of emotions--the highest highs and lowest lows, often in quick succession. Most of the incidents of war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq stem from the emotional toll of warfare.

In short, we cannot fall into the trap of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency. We cannot pretend that killing people won’t cause emotional reactions. We cannot pretend that in a war zone people always act rationally, because people don’t. As a counter-insurgent, we must balance our views of insurgents and the population as both rational and emotional actors.

Dec 16

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

I really like Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots. But, as Clint reminded me when I met him last year, that didn’t come across in my review. I described Soft Spots as “a good, but by no means perfect, book” and I stand by that line.

My review had a confluence of problems. First, I focused on the negatives in the book, as opposed to the positives--something I’ve consciously tried to change in my more recent war memoir reviews. Second, Soft Spots got caught in my attack on a literary genre. You see, I’m aiming at memoirs--specifically war memoirs--and Soft Spots got caught in the metaphorical crossfire. Finally, I read Soft Spots too early. It was the second war memoir I reviewed in the series, and I didn’t realize at the time how good it was in comparison to the books I would be reading.

To make up for it, and to offer an awesome Christmas gift alternative, I present my favorite scene from Soft Spots. After all the writing we’ve done on Lone Survivor recently, I’d like our readers to know that better exists.

This section comes from chapter eight, my favorite chapter, while Clint reflects on war and answers the question, asked to him by a naive college students, “Did you kill anybody?”

     “My grandpa never talked about World War II to anyone. The family knew he had served in the Army but not much else. After I became a Marine, he started to tell stories about his war to me. It was a “good war”--the other “war to end all wars” that didn’t end any wars I found out he served overseas for three years, dug fighting holes in occupied Berlin, got in bar fights in France, spent time in Wales. He talked about going and coming, his Army buddies and training, but never got into the stuff I really wanted to know. Had he ever killed anybody? Had he been granted the “privilege” of taking the life of another in combat? To me, killing was the important part, the part that mattered. That was war, right? Finally I asked him.

     “His reply confused me. It was cryptic and unsatisfying. I’d expected to hear about him bayoneting a Nazi or kicking somebody’s teeth in. More than that, I expected to hear a gleeful recollection of it all. Instead, I got an account of how he shot at a German sniper.

     “His engineer unit was doing what engineers of when rifle rounds started to impact around their bivouac area. Not many rounds, just a few. My grandpa found concealment and returned fire with his M1 Garand rifle. Up to that point in the story, I was with him and extremely happy to hear that a Van Winkle had “gotten one.” But that wasn’t the part I found confusing; it was how he ended the story. After shooting at the German, who eventually fell out of a tree, he walked over to where the sniper lay. The German, sprawled out and riddled with bullet holes, was dead. Here’s the kicker, though: Instead of being happy, Grandpa was relieved to see that the German soldier had more holes in him than he had fired. That was the end of the story. Maybe he killed the guy, maybe he didn’t. Grandpa didn’t want to know either way, and, at the time, I couldn’t understand why.

    “When I got back from Iraq, and saw my grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren't really any different. It didn't matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn't matter that he'd fought in a "good war" and I fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat.

     “I understood the silent portions of our conversation, what was said when nothing was said at all. The true stories hid in the silence. Instead of being grandson and grandpa, we were just two combat vets who understood what war does and the importance of being around others who don’t have to ask questions.

      “In war, no one asks you if you killed anyone.”

Dec 15

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Eric C had an interesting thesis on Monday (people hate foreign soldiers in their countries) but I wasn’t quite sold when I first read it. So I took it upon myself to do a bit more research. I went to Google Future, where you can search up to fifty years in the future for articles not yet written. There, on our own blog, On Violence, a blog on foreign affairs, military affairs and counter-insurgency, written by two brothers, one a Nobel laureate, the other a former President, I found this gem.

Titled “America Capitulates: Why America Should NOT Let The New Persian Republic Station a Garrison in Wyoming” and written nearly 38 years in the future--apparently one of many possible futures--America began letting The New Persian Empire--sorry, Iran in modern parlance (they became a republic after they took over Iraq “Tom-Clancy-style”)--station troops on its domestic soil. Unsurprisingly, future Michael C was outraged by this injustice:

“Nothing shows the true downfall of America better than President [Jenna] Bush allowing The New Persian Republic to station a garrison in America. Sure the Brazilians--who excel at Olympics and World Cup soccer [editor: soccer and curling, in the future, are America’s favorite sports]--provided plenty of economic growth with their garrison in Daytona Beach, but we should not trust the New Persian Empire.

“This spits on the Constitution. And yes, I know giving Herman Cain four terms in the White House already wiped away much of the Constitution, but still I think we all pine for the Golden era of Cain-otopia from 2016 to 2032. Cain would never have let this happen.

“As always, money is the primary reason. Already the LA Times, on its Twitter brain feed, is claiming that the New Persian Republic will bring a host of new jobs to Wyoming. Iran’s leaders claim that this new cooperation gives them unprecedented reach into North America and vital commercial interests.

“As I wrote years ago, we shouldn’t station troops overseas in each other’s countries. If only we hadn’t dissolved the UN under Cain’s third term, then maybe we could organize against this...”

I cannot argue with future Michael C’s feelings. I mean, imagine if the China, Russia, or Iran said they wanted to put a base on American soil, in say, Seattle or North Dakota. Can you picture Bill O’Reilly reporting this, or would his head explode instead? I can’t even imagine letting Germany or France doing this. Maybe England or Australia, but they speak versions of American. (Joking.)

I guess I agree with future Michael C and current Eric C: people don’t want foreign soldiers in their country. America primarily stations troops in countries with much lower economic wealth than us because we are essentially buying our way in. Even now, our military is looking to move troops out of expensive Germany and towards old Warsaw Pact countries where the dollar buys more.

And I bet Swiss Francs to Afghanis that most Americans would vehemently oppose garrisons of foreign troops on American soil. We--America--fail to understand this basic fact because we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the people we occupy. Now, imagine if any country, for any reason, invaded America. We would fight back until our dying breaths, screaming, “Live free or die.”

This issue--and the post from the future tried to get at this--is one of cultural empathy. Too many Americans in the military love America so much they literally cannot imagine why people in foreign countries wouldn’t love it too. (The same ones who would--ironically--fight the hardest against any foreign invader.) They couldn’t understand why Iraqis, especially young Iraqis, started an insurgency. They don’t get that Al Qaeda gets its motivation and support because America stations troops in Saudi Arabia. They don’t have the cultural awareness to understand that all humans are similar, and no one likes foreigners invading their country.

Sure, the American military is the most just, most humane military to ever walk the earth. (It doesn’t have much competition.) We have more restrictive ROE and adhere to Just War better than almost any military ever. That doesn’t mean we don’t still kill and destroy people and things. And foreigners hate that (being killed).

Are there solutions for this problem? The usual. Learn foreign languages. Travel to foreign countries and meet the people. Most of all, know that most cultures are more similar than different.

Dec 13

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I wrote about a simple truth: people hate armies occupying their country. I used real world examples and analogies to prove my assertion, but I think literature demonstrates this simple truth better. As my proof, I offer three examples from art.

First up, we have J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. In an unnamed city in an unnamed empire, the military has gone off to attack the “barbarians”, leaving behind a garrison to “protect” the city. But the town turns into a military police state. With the main battalion gone to fight the barbarians, the remaining soldiers terrorize the town:

“Among the small garrison that has been left behind there is more drunkenness than I have ever known before, more arrogance towards the townspeople. There have been incidents in which soldiers have gone into shops, taken what they wanted, and left without paying. Of what use is it for the shopkeeper to raise the alarm when the criminals and the civil guard are the same people? The shopkeepers complain to Mandel, who is in charge under the emergency powers while Joll is away with the army. Mandel makes promises but does not act. Why should he? All that matters to him is that he should remain popular with his men. Despite the parade of vigilance on the ramparts and the weekly sweep along the lakeshore (for lurking barbarians, though none has ever been caught), discipline is lax...

“The soldiery tyrannizes the town. They have held a torch-light meeting on the square to denounce 'cowards and traitors' and to affirm collective allegiance to the Empire. WE STAY has become the slogan of the faithful: the words are to be seen daubed on walls everywhere. I stood in the dark on the edge of the huge crowd that night (no one was brave enough to stay at home) listening to these words chanted ponderously, menacingly from thousands of throats. A shiver ran down my back. After the meeting the soldiers led a procession through the streets. Doors were kicked in, windows broken, a house set on fire. Till late at night there was drinking and carousing on the square. I looked out for Mandel but did not see him. It may be that he has lost control of the garrison, if indeed the soldiers were ever prepared to take orders from a policeman.

"When they were first quartered on the town these soldiers, strangers to our ways, conscripts from all over the Empire, were welcomed coolly. 'We don't need them here,' people said, 'the sooner they go out and fight the barbarians the better.' They were denied credit in the shops, mothers locked their daughters away from them. But after the barbarians made their appearance on our doorstep that attitude changed. Now that they seem to be all that stands between us and destruction, these foreign soldiers are anxiously courted. A committee of citizens makes a weekly levy to hold a feast for them, roasting whole sheep on spits, laying out gallons of ram. The girls of the town are theirs for the taking. They are welcome to whatever they want as long as they will stay and guard our lives. And the more they are fawned on, the more their arrogance grows. We know we cannot rely on them. With the granary nearly empty and the main force vanished like smoke, what is there to hold them once the feasting stops? All we can hope for is that they will be deterred from deserting us by the rigours of winter travel.”

In an almost uncanny parallel, Kafka’s “An Old Manuscript”, describes the same situation. Written from the perspective of a shopkeeper in the square of a medieval town, he opens the windows one morning to discover that a band of barbarians have taken up in the square, hired by the king to defend the kingdom:

“As is their nature, they camp under the open sky, for they abominate dwelling houses. They busy themselves sharpening swords, whittling arrows and practicing horsemanship. This peaceful square, which was always kept so scrupulously clean, they have made literally into a stable. We do try every now and then to run out of our shops and clear away at least the worst of the filth, but this happens less and less often, for the labor is in vain and brings us besides into danger of falling under the hoofs of the wild horses or of being crippled with lashes from the whips.

"Speech with the nomads is impossible. They do not know our language...Whatever they need, they take. You cannot call it taking by force. They grab at something and you simply stand aside and leave them to it.

“From my stock, too, they have taken many good articles. But I cannot complain when I see how the butcher, for instance, suffers across the street. As soon as he brings in any meat the nomads snatch it all from him and gobble it up. Even their horses devour flesh; often enough a horseman and his horse are lying side by side, both of them gnawing at the same joint, one at either end. The butcher is nervous and does not dare to stop his deliveries of meat. We understand that, however, and subscribe money to keep him going. If the nomads got no meat, who knows what they might think of doing; who knows anyhow what they may think of, even though they get meat every day...

“‘What is going to happen?’ we all ask ourselves. ‘How long can we endure this burden and torment?' The Emperor’s palace has drawn the nomads here but does not know how to drive them away again. The gate stays shut; the guards, who used to be always marching out and in with ceremony, keep close behind barred windows. It is left to us artisans and tradesmen to save our country; but we are not equal to such a task; nor have we ever claimed to be capable of it. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.’”

“Who Watches the Watchmen?” Juvenal’s old refrain is answered in both of these passages: no one does. You can’t. A feeling of helplessness pervades these passages.

Perhaps my final example explains it the best. In the Simpsons episode “Homer the Vigilante”, Lisa asks Homer, "If you're the police, who will police the police?" Homer tells her, "I don't know. The Coast Guard?”


Dec 12

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

This isn’t part of our “Facts Behaving Badly” series, but I’ll open with a very common, very inaccurate understanding of Europeans: They hate Americans.

This “fact” isn’t true. Some Europeans dislike Americans, but they actually dislike our government’s response to 9/11. (Then again, so do Michael C and I.) And even if they do hate Americans, they actually hate each other much more. When I lived in Europe for a year, I loved asking English-speaking Europeans, “Hey, which other countries do you dislike?” They always had an answer.

The French hate the Germans and Italians. The Germans beef with the French and Italians. Croatians loathe Serbians. Most countries dislike the British, the Swedish have a rivalry with the Finnish, Italians hate most everyone, and so it goes. But “hate” isn’t the right word. These countries just prefer their own languages, cultures and foods (It’s why the British love marmite.), and they’ve been arguing over obscure border disputes for centuries. Rivalry, something akin to sports rivalries, probably makes more sense.

I bring this up to mention a group that Europeans, at least the ones I met, do hate:

American soldiers.

I didn’t just spend a year in Europe; I spent a year in Vicenza, Italy, home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with Michael C, an active-duty American Army officer. An incurable distance separated us from any Italian man or woman we met. Michael C was a soldier who didn’t speak Italian, and the Army had stationed him in their country.

One memory: in a hostel in Munich, a young soldier, on the fourth of July--which, from the continental perspective, is a meaningless date--draped himself in the American flag, got rowdy drunk at the bar, and shouted at anyone--mostly Americans and British civilians, ironically--who complained, “Hey, we saved your asses in World War II.”

Which brings me to the point of this post: during the entire debate on how America should win prolonged insurgencies in two different countries, no one has made the following point:

People hate foreign soldiers stationed in their country.

Hate them. Civilians absolutely and unequivocally hate the soldiers who occupy their territory. It is an innate hatred, borne out of survival instinct and fear. It doesn’t matter if that foreign army saved the people from a dictator, or if the government invited the foreign army into the country, or that army saved the people from near certain death, or the army pays rent to the locals, the people will still despise that army. It doesn’t matter if your army is the most greatest, “highest trained, most professional, best military in history", you will still be hated.

Just ask the founding fathers; they didn’t even like our own soldiers. They wrote an entire constitutional amendment (the much forgotten third) against the quartering of our own troops, that’s how much they despised the presence of soldiers.

Take the British population during World War II. Many British, during World War II--I repeat--during World War II, disliked the American soldiers carousing their bars and sleeping with their women. The late Andy Rooney explains:

“The British Isles were overrun with American soldiers by the end of 1943. It doesn’t matter whether an occupying army is friend or enemy, it’s still uncomfortable for the country being occupied. For all that and all the problems, the British and the Americans got along well...  

“Elsie Armitage, the woman who rented the room to Dick Koenig and me...would often see us in the hall door...and call out to us to come and have a spot of tea and some cake she had made. She was puzzled and embarrassed that her fifteen-year-old nephew...detested Americans. We would occasionally meet him in the hall and his wordless attitude was obvious.”

In the entire history of troops occupying a foreign country, this has to have been the single best case scenario. One country invited another country--which shares the same language, religion, culture and has an unbreakable “historic bond”--to help it fight evil personified, and still, still, young Brits hated our soldiers. Even though our presence helped save England and continental Europe from Nazi rule, young British men--not all, but at least some--irrationally despised our soldiers.

Now imagine the worst case scenario: an army has invaded. That army and its soldiers have killed thousands of civilians. They don’t speak the language, hole up in bases they rarely leave, and have a foreign religion and culture that many consider evil.

Think an insurgent group would have trouble recruiting a young man in those circumstances?

I wrote this post to put into perspective the massive burden weighing down our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We want to believe America’s soldiers are the “greatest ambassadors of freedom” the world has ever known. And many reading this post will say, “Sure that applies to other armies, but not the American army.” Sorry, that just isn’t true. We have to realize from the outset that the populations in American occupied countries will be inclined to hate us, and we need to do everything we can to fight this hate.

Dec 08

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

When critics attack “gratitude theory”--the idea that you cannot simply buy enough things for Afghans or Iraqis so that they feel so grateful they stop fighting, a theory not advocated by any military academic--they often explain why: if you build a school, but at night the Taliban come in and threaten the population, then you have gained nothing.

I completely agree.

However, this doesn’t imply anything about the effects of reconstruction on irregular conflict. If anything, it reflects on the inability of a counter-insurgent to provide security. The same argument could be made for a counter-insurgent killing innocent locals. If you kill a man’s wife, sister or mother, then no amount of goodwill will convince him to lay down his arms. (We will have a post next month on how some theorists criticize reconstruction for not accomplishing things it was never supposed to or could accomplish.)

Counter-insurgency is complicated like that. However, just because it is complicated, or difficult, does not mean reconstruction is completely worthless. Today, I want to provide another example of a gift that helps a counter-insurgent win his war. I call that gift, “The Greatest Ambassador.”

(American politicians frequently refer to our soldiers as the greatest ambassadors of freedom. Most recently, Rick Perry said this in the Marcus Luttrell video. We will argue next week that soldiers are, inherently, the worst possible ambassadors in another country. Stay tuned.)

Of all gifts, one gift remains the most valuable and precious above all others, the gift of life.

I wrote about this almost two hundred posts ago in, “A Classic Counter-Insurgency Case Study”. Last May, 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley--probably my new favorite 60 Minutes anchor--covered this is in “Global Medical Relief’s Mission”. Each story is roughly the same: through the efforts of American medics, volunteers, doctors and non-profits, doctors save or heal an Afghan or Iraqi child from some horrific injury (preventing a child from being crippled doesn’t save a life per se, but the effect is the same).

These are great acts. Further, they help us win the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They help win hearts and minds. These actions alone cannot win the war. Far from it. Instead, these actions--saving a little girl in Kabul, saving a little boy in Iraq, giving out free Medical Aid in Kunar province--create ambassadors for America. The greatest ambassadors for America. Because half of any battle is ideological, and it is hard to demonize someone who saved your child’s life, or cured them from a crippling disability.

I saw this first hand in Afghanistan. When I interview for MBA programs in the next few months, running a Medical Engagement Civil Action Patrol--MEDCAP--in Pashad will be one of my favorite stories to tell. Fourth Platoon--partnered with a host of other Americans and Afghans, went to a town with no access to doctors and provided free medical services. It made the District Governor look responsive to the people of Pashad. That single event paved the way for a host of future meetings to solve security and reconstruction problems.

That MEDCAP alone wasn’t going to win the war, but it won a bunch of battles. As I said when I first started this series, we cannot win the war with good actions. (The same way winning one battle does not win the war.) However, good actions combined with security can win the war. The parents of surviving children are less likely to harbor insurgents at night. Sure, with enough persuasion, the Taliban can force themselves on innocent people. Counter-insurgency isn’t about one action, but the accumulation of many acts. Building up a responsive government is the entire goal--being kind and giving gifts, like medical aid, can help those ends.

In the complicated calculus of warfare, good actions can be nullified by other, more emotionally negative events. If the counter-insurgent--foreign forces and host nation--cannot secure the population during the night, then good actions will come to naught. If U.S. forces help ten children, but kill another ten, then the good actions are washed away by the deaths.

If, on the other hand, hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of Afghans had stories of American generosity, would that hurt our effort? Of course not. The more lives we can save--especially if could help rebuild their own health care system--the more Afghans will support the American side. If we combine smart reconstruction with effective security, and well-trained government and security forces, then we will win. As I said in the introduction, counter-insurgency requires multiple lines of effort.

Creating good will ambassadors by giving the greatest gift--medical aid or life--is a key line of effort

Dec 07

About once a year, in December, we--the On Violence duo--like to update our blogroll to reflect the great finds we have come across, and to highlight the blogs we read (our primary consideration is that blogs update regularly).

We’ll start with an omission. Almost a hundred posts ago, we added the Secrecy News blog to our blog roll. Except someone forgot to add it. (**cough** Eric C **cough** **cough**). So we’re amending that mistake today as we post the article. Read the reasoning for its original selection here.

Second, while we were updating this list, we realized we’ve left off several good friends of the blog including VAntage Point--by the Veteran’s Affairs department with our two faves Brandon Friedman and Alex Horton (check out this post asking, "Who is a veteran?")--and Kerplunk, Kaboom author’s Matt Gallagher’s personal blog. (That guy sure loves onomatopoeia.) Kerplunk mainly collects Gallagher’s outside writings, and since we think everyone should follow Gallagher’s outside writings, you should follow this blog. So, again, we fix that mistake today.

Next up, we’re adding friend of the blog and general “violence optimist” John Horgan’s blog at Scientific American--”Cross-Check”--to our blog roll. He posts more on science than violence, but just enough on violence to qualify. Plus, he inspired our posts answering, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?”, so we are in debt to him. His “What I am thankful for post” is a very positive explanation about human progress.

And finally, on a more mainstream media side of things, we are adding’s "DangerRoom” and’s “BattleLand” blogs. Simply put, they are the best daily catalogues of the goings round in the Pentagon. (You’ll remember them from the “Defense Spending” section of yesterday’s update.) Between them, “The Best Defense” and the’s “At War” blog, these are the four best blogs for keeping up on military affairs knowledge.

Dec 06

With another month down, here is another On Violence update, where we highlight other blog posts and news stories that agree or disagree with our previous ideas. (Again, we’ll be honest: we mainly select articles that agree with us.)

Without further ado, the update:

More From Lone Survivor

Our post on Lone Survivor from last Tuesday (“Marcus Luttrell Stands By His Mistakes”) got a fairly good response on Twitter. Well, that post left out the most recent exaggeration of enemy numbers. Interviewed by Deadline Hollywood in May, Peter Berg increased the number of “Al Qaeda” (actually loosely allied wtih Hezb il Gulbuddin, but in reality mainly farmers in the Korengal just fighting against outsiders without real knowledge of the larger conflict) to 250 fighters, the highest total short of Glenn Beck’s ridiculously high 2,500. Berg also claimed there were four goat herders and and misstated the number of SEALs killed in action.

A quick note to all concerned military bloggers. If you thought The Hurt Locker mis-portrayed soldiers, just wait. This film could take the cake and then some.

Being Nice, and Management

I have a simple belief about management that I learned from Manager Tools: being nice is generally the best policy. Kindness has also popped up on our blog as it relates to “gratitude theory” in counter-insurgency. Unfortunately for On Violence, one of the biggest counters to this idea, Steve Jobs, just died, and had a widely read biography published. He was a notorious task master who was brutally honest with his employees. He has been called a jerk in many quarters.

This Atlantic article, though, does a fantastic job explaining why Steve Jobs was an exception to that rule. A great read for kindness.

Who says the world is dangerous?
Eric C keeps me on my toes, always asking during editing, “Is this a Ray Bolger?” (Ray Bolger being the actor who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, the definitional strawman.) So with our big push last month of links about people writing books that the world is safer than it ever has been, did we create a strawman? Which politicians or columnists deny this idea?

Many. The key word to look for is “dangerous.” Those who reject deep defense cuts commonly call our world, “dangerous.” They often call it “more dangerous”, but don’t say what it is more dangerous than. (Presumably the past.) The latest candidates using “dangerous” with regards to the world (some say defense cuts are dangerous, but these four individuals specifically said the world is more dangerous for Americans than the past): Representative Buck McKeon, Representative J. Randy Forbes, The Washington Times Frank Gaffney and BlackFive writer “MCJ”.

Some quick points. None of the above columnists or politicians provided a shred of evidence that the world is more dangerous. They assert “the world is dangerous” and let it stand on its own. They don’t provide evidence the world is more dangerous because there isn’t any.

Further, check out the donations to the two honorable congress-people’s campaigns. See any correlations? (Hint: high defense industry donations equal a belief in a need for more defense spending. As InkSpots pointed out, it is a myth that the defense community has no domestic constituency. In fact, it might have the most powerful lobby in congress.)

Defense Spending

And now our regular update where we argue that we spend too much on defense, and we waste a lot of what we spend. First, the contrary opinion from J. Randy Forbes. He has said that decreasing defense spending will cost 1.5 million jobs. Politicfact has rated this as “mostly true”, so we acknowledge that defense cuts will include some financial pain. (See not every link agrees with us.)

On to the counters. This Best Defense post by Richard Kohn argues that much of our spending is wasted confronting Cold War threats. I couldn’t agree more. This article argues that defense spending has actually largely been spared any cuts, and most of the public cuts are exaggerated. This DangerRoom article presciently predicted that sequestration defense cuts won’t happen, and that looks to be happening.

Meanwhile the F22, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the SBInet “Virtual Border Fence” continue to be over-budget, inadequate or unsafe. How many times do military contractors have to deliver over-budget projects before Congress or the DoD says enough is enough?

Humanitarian Interventions

A long time back, I argued that the US should start participating (for free) in UN humanitarian interventions to help train Army brigades in irregular warfare. This would double the amount of troops involved in peacekeeping, help the US reputation around the world, and provide us training. However, humanitarian interventions are always tricky, and often backfire. Joshua Goldstein--who we cited for his new book Winning the War on War last month--released an excellent Foreign Affairs article with Jon Western arguing that humanitarian interventions have become increasingly capable and successful.

This just proves my point: the US should assist in humanitarian interventions more often (though politically that will become less likely).

Criminals and Counter-Insurgents

This isn’t one of our ideas, but Mike Few brought to a lot of people’s attention the involvement of the city of Salinas and students at the Naval Post Graduate School discussing the comparisons between counter-insurgency and fighting crime. I couldn’t help think about this when it came to Fresh Air’s interview with David Kennedy called, “Don’t Shoot” about solving crime with a technique opposite to the “Broken Windows” theory. I feel like preventing crime and fighting counter-insurgencies are almost more similar than maneuver wars and counter-insurgencies.

Of course, that would mean that not all war is war with the same underlying principles...

Dec 02

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I argued that people like gifts, and the people who give those gifts. I forgot one obvious counter: what if Afghan and Iraqi people do not like gifts? Perhaps only Americans/Europeans/Westerners like getting gifts. Perhaps it isn’t a universal human trait, but an American or Western cultural value.

(Eric C is afraid I may be creating a strawman here. As has happened before, the best example of this quote comes from comments from fellow soldiers in the field. Fortunately, Bing West also espouses this idea. From the Huffington Post: And most nation building involved U.S.-financed projects bestowed as gifts on Afghans who became accustomed to receiving something for nothing, and giving nothing in return.)

I’m not going to dive deep into my (lack of) knowledge of Pashtun-Wali culture. The best description of my experience in Afghanistan is as a glorified tourist. I interacted with my interpreters daily, with police chiefs every other day and the district governor at least every third day. But these were brief meetings and I did not become an expert in Afghan culture. I read the training pamphlets from the Combined Arms Center and articles in Infantry Magazine, but that does not make me an expert in Southeast Asian culture.

That said, on my first day with my new interpreters, I asked them a bunch of questions about Pashtun culture. I had read, and my interpreters verified, that it is polite in Pashtun-Wali culture to bring gifts to meetings, just as a host is required or obligated to serve tea--which I continually drank--it is expected to bring something as a visitor.

It isn’t that Pashtun Wali--the cultural and ethical system of Afghanistan’s Pashtun people--mandates that visitors bring gifts with them to other people’s houses. It’s a nice gesture, but not required--just like in America. Again, I am not expert in Afghanistan or southern Asia; I relied on the expertise and awareness of my interpreters, who said “bring something if you can”.

More importantly, hospitality--roughly the first of the nine principles of Pashtun-Wali, melmastia--extends from hosts to their guests.A great example of this comes from the Kite Runner, when a family feeds a visitor, even though they have little food to spare. In short, the Afghan people understand and appreciate the value of gifts.

At first, I didn’t do a good job giving or receiving gifts. I didn’t know what to bring. I know that you should bring a bottle of wine or a potted plant to an American social event. What do you bring to an Afghan meeting?

Eventually, I asked the various police check point commanders what they wanted. The first answer was ammunition. I couldn’t legally provide that. I did ask how the various policeman cleaned their weapons, though. They didn’t.

Now, the AK-47 is a durable weapon, but it works even better if it is clean. Fortunately, I could give the policemen cleaning fluid. I asked what else they needed. Well, the Afghan police had trouble staying awake all night. So did my men. We used energy drinks. After a few weeks, I started bringing energy drinks with me to meetings, same with extra energy bars I was getting from back home.

It turns out that Afghans (and Iraqis from what I understand) respond kindly to getting gifts. As far as I can tell, it seems like most cultures, if not everyone, around the world requires bringing or giving of gifts at social functions. Many holiday traditions around the world involve giving gifts to children (presumably because the kids like receiving gifts). Most wedding traditions involve giving the newlyweds gifts--again around the world.

In Afghanistan, my most trusted relationships involved an equal trade of gifts, beyond what our duty mandated. At our best, most reliable checkpoint in Serkani, I brought energy drinks and Hesco barriers. One check point had a mortar tube they would fire at random. By teaching them how to fire it, we also conveniently arranged so they wouldn’t fire it unless we gave them the okay. In exchange, they frequently gave me chai, oranges, and watermelon. These gifts weren’t needed in the course of our work, they just happened.

So here is a simple equation: People like gifts. Afghans are people. Ergo proctor hoc, Afghans like gifts.

As I said yesterday, Afghans hate being shot, seeing their family wrongly detained, and hate threats of violence by the Taliban. But those are different issues than the one I am talking about today. Same with an unequal giving of gifts, where one side showers the other with presents, like Bing West mentioned. But this doesn’t refute the idea that, as people, Afghans like gifts. Personal relationships in Afghanistan matter, including whether people like you. Bringing gifts won’t hurt in this regard.