Aug 30

To read the rest of "Our Communist Military", please click on the following links:

The Inspiration:

The Sobel Problem: Band of Brothers "Currahee"

The Sobel Problem Redux: Band of Brothers "Currahee" Round 2

The Implications:

The Most Greatest Institution in Human History...Our Communist Military!

        Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs

On V in Other Places: “An Afghanistan/Iraq vet says Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”

Our Command Economy Communist Military

Our Pro-Veteran Communist Criminal Justice System

        Is Toys for Tots...Communist?

        Ronald Reagan Hated Our Communist Military

        Our Communist Milblogs Round 2: Blackfive’s Deebow Hates Team Rubicon?

        Our Communist Military’s Group Punishment

        What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Communist Military

        Who Would Casually Accuse Someone of Being a Communist?

Yesterday, in our conclusion to “The Sobel Problem Redux”, we noted that multiple Twitterzens think that officers are roughly equal in skill to enlisted men. (If not equal, than skilled in different ways.) Which sounded to us suspiciously...


I mean, who else argues for a “by each according to his ability, to each according to his need” ethos besides communists? And what is less communist than the red-blooded American military? Yet the political values soldiers espouse--conservative, libertarian, free market--often don’t match the policies instituted by the Department of Defense. Not just don’t match; they directly contradict each other.

Don’t take our word for it, though. Rosa Brooks started a new blog on, “By Other Means”, with this bold first article, “Welfare State: Meet America’s socialist military.” E.J. Dionne, on The Daily Show, told Jon Stewart, “What I can’t understand is that the military itself is, in some ways, one of the most socialist institutions in our country.” (That point starts at minute 4:40):

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How can two (albeit liberal) opinion-makers accuse the military of socialism when it embraces conservativism? As I wrote yesterday, poll after Military Times poll shows that the military, especially its officer corps, doesn’t just lean but falls head over heels towards conservative thought. Only 12% of the military registers Democrat. When it comes to military blogs, they are either distinctly apolitical on domestic politics or rabidly conservative, with little in between.

Yet this conservative military...

- Votes for Republican candidates that hate Obamacare...but has its own universal health care system.

- Votes for politicians with NRA backing...but doesn’t let soldiers openly carry weapons on military bases.

- Venerates the free market...but subsidizes gasoline, housing and even cigarettes on military bases.

- Believes in a libertarian ethos where the government won’t push them around...but works for an organization that can tell them what to wear, how much to drink, and when to go to work (always on call).

Eric C and I don’t just want to call the military socialist or communist. We want to dive deeper into this cognitive dissonance in a new series, “Our Communist Military”, which leads us to the following ideas:

Theme 1: Hypocrisy and the conflict between ideology and life. Or philosophy and action. Or beliefs and practice. Embracing an ideology, but not living it. Political philosophies should be more than something we argue about in the op-eds pages and on blogs. Yet, this discrepancy--believing one thing but acting another--happens from the smallest units in the Army to the entire DoD as a whole...and even during deployment. While military leaders advocate and vote for a party which believes in small-government at every turn, they create a “big government” culture with “big government” solutions, steadfastly protecting the never shrinking Pentagon budget.

Either something is true or it isn’t. If you believe in an idea, but then oppose applying it, one of the following must be true: the action is wrong or the idea is wrong. For example, either the government should sponsor scientific research, which can create technological marvels (and jobs)--as it does in the DoD’s weapons procurement system--or it can’t. If it works for the Pentagon, then the government probably should support scientific research in non-military sectors.

Theme 2: We can’t have a reasonable debate about the military. In several of our posts, we will note that pro-military supporters--from military blogs to armed service associations to politicians--compete for votes by protecting the larger defense establishment from any and all criticism. Just pointing out the inconsistencies in unwavering conservative support for the military--for instance, Tricare isn’t a voucher program; it is a state-run health care system--can get one labeled a traitor, ungrateful, unpatriotic or evil.

As we mentioned yesterday, conservative pundits usually bemoan a “politically correct”, weak, self-esteem-praising American culture that “awards every child a medal.” Either our society has become too soft and politically correct, or citizens should be able to criticize the military without worrying about being labeled a “traitor”. Conservatives can’t believe in both ideals simultaneously.

Theme 3: The defense establishment can learn from libertarians and free-market capitalism, and our country can learn from the Army’s socialist policies. Eric C is an avowed liberal. I am an avowed moderate. In both cases, we agree on some points. We both agree that a properly functioning free market can inspire creativity and efficiencies. We also agree that unchecked capitalism can lead to inequality, unequal opportunities, poorly functioning societies and monopolization. In short, both libertarians and socialists have valid points. Our series will point out a lot of situations where the Army should liberalize (in a classical sense), but will also point out the amazing benefits of some socialist policies that our country should nationalize from the Army.

Because the Army definitely needs more free-market thinking. It needs the “disruptive change” that has caused such a stir on the blogosphere from Starbuck to Abu Muqawama to multiple writers on the Small Wars Journal. The army can learn from libertarians by encouraging individual initiative, rewarding personal achievement, and inspiring innovation/efficiencies from the top to bottom.

At the same time, our nation needs more socialist thinking. The Army has universal health care for all dependents because it makes for a more reliable workforce. The Army encourages education and provides generous benefits to soldiers so it can field a smarter workforce. And the Army’s incentive system (read: pay) doesn’t come close to approaching the excesses of Wall Street, while delivering similar performance.

All this leads to our most political point yet. For libertarianism and free-markets to survive--philosophies based on the idea that the free-market vastly outperforms government--they have to carve out a huge exception for national security. Instead of calmly, rationally comparing when the free-market both fails and succeeds, and when government does the same, small-government libertarians cling to their ideas lock, stock and barrel, while pretending the gigantic military/national security bureaucracy can do no wrong.

Either the Pentagon needs to drastically shrink with the rest of the government, or our society needs a calm debate over what government can and cannot do well--and a cost-benefit analysis of those decisions--but conservatives can’t have it both ways.

Aug 29

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

To date, three of our posts or articles have generated a lot of negative, um, “feedback” online. The first was our “At War” guest post, “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, which ended up with Richard Dawkins calling Michael C “sanctimonious”. Then came, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay” on the Washington Post. We responded to the haterz here and here, and were later vindicated when the latest Quadrennial Review of Pay and Benefits quoted my op-ed and backed it up with tons of research.
Finally, we posted “The Sobel Problem” two months ago. And a lot of readers didn’t like it. According to Brandon Friedman, we ignited a “Twitter war” online.

In the post, Eric C (who wrote the post) asserted two points:

1. Hollywood unfairly characterizes lieutenants as incompetent.

2. Officers--even lieutenants--are usually the most qualified people in their units. Eric C used the deliberately provocative phrase, “Officers aren’t just equal to enlisted men. They’re better.”

We knew it would be controversial, but we didn’t respond to the criticism at the time because Michael C decided to attend a wedding in Italy. Today, we respond. We have divided up the responses into three categories: the praise, the nuance and the criticism.

Many of the rebuttals led us to a really...weird place. And an even odder conclusion. But wait a minute for that.

The Praise

1. Everyone agreed with our first thesis.

Mostly, people ignored the first part of our argument that Hollywood unfairly portrays officers (especially lieutenants) as incompetent morons.

The Nuance

Compared to the critiques on Twitter, the excellent, thoughtful comments on the blog post itself really pleased us. Rather than reprint the comments, go take a look for yourself.

We heard two different explanations for why The Neidermeyer stereotype exists. Andrew offered that a bad lieutenant can do a lot more damage than a bad private. He’s absolutely right. Infantrymedic brought up another, more recent phenomena: the rapid progression of lieutenants through the ranks. Often, this means young LTs can expect to have a platoon for less than a year, including combat. This means different leaders train the platoons than the ones who lead them in combat (like myself). He’s right too. I personally hate the Army’s over-drive promotion system.

Infantrymedic also chimed in with this point:

“ should find a more nuanced way to express your argument than simply saying officers are “better than” or “superior” to enlisted and NCOs. This sort of language seems to imply moral superiority rather than simply acknowledging higher performance.”

And he’s right. It is nearly impossible to quantify moral behavior.

The Criticism

1. Officers and enlisted bring different things to the metaphorical table.

The most frequent critique--leveled by @JeffreyStapler, @wjrue, @JasonFritz, and “mucker” (on the post itself)--isn’t a point we entirely disagree with. However, we hold that in a majority of categories--from physical fitness to leadership--officers would do better than the average enlisted soldier. In fact, our capitalist economic system is based on the principle that the best rise to the top of an organization...but wait a moment on that thought.

Some argued that enlisted men excel more at the so-called “soldiers skills”, while officers excel at leadership and management skills. Then again, in the EIB testing anecdote from last week’s post, officers demolished enlisted men in an infantry skills test.

2. @TyrellMayfield and @Forbesmm pointed out that we only used anecdotes.

We have two thoughts on this. First, yes, we’d have loved to have pored through the Pentagon’s files and analyzed them. They don’t let outsiders do that. And the Army doesn’t do a good job releasing the quantitative analysis they choose to conduct.

More importantly, do either of these guys think that if we ran the results, officers wouldn’t come out better? Choose a category--education, performance in schools, discipline issues, PT scores, etc--and we hold that on average officers and lieutenants would rank higher.

For example, Mike Forbes, referencing a typo we made, snarkily tweeted, “...’Better by every measure’ ... except subject-verb agreement.” to which we would respond, “Do you really think that enlisted men--most of whom haven’t gone to college--are better writers/grammarians than officers who did go to college?

Obviously not.

3. This is classist. So why say it?

We heard two different versions of this argument. Friend of the blog Alex Horton said on Twitter, “I’m of the persuasion of saying, if it’s true, why even say it? It’s classism that provokes said hatred.” And @JasonFritz1 said, “That sort of bulls*** elitism is exactly why officers get a bad rap in the ranks and in movies.” I think that for the most part our soldiers--who have deployed to war zones and back--can handle a frank and honest discussion about the merits of officers, enlisted soldiers and NCOs. In fact, as the U.S. Army shrinks after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it needs to have these conversations.

What is wrong with a frank and open discussion about the abilities of various ranks in the Army? It seems like American pundits (mainly conservative) complain about how: 1. Political correctness runs rampant in society and 2. We raise our children to believe they are all winners when some aren’t. The old “Why do we give every child a trophy?” complaint. Then we compare enlisted soldiers and officers, and suddenly everyone worries about hurting enlisted men/women’s feelings. (Hold on to this thought for a moment as well.)

Which leads into a much more pernicious problem which was another critique of our article...

4. Every soldier is just as good as every other soldier.

We could make a ton of counter-arguments to the above statement, but James Joyner (@drjjoyner) rebutted it in 140 characters:

So, your counter is that there's no real difference between officers and junior enlisted along the lines argued? If there isn't, the entire rank structure should be scrapped.

Our Conclusion?

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict or know the political persuasion of most of our commenters. Same with most of the Twitterzens we don’t read regularly. But if I were to guess, most veterans or current soldiers in the Army are conservative and registered Republican. Poll after Army Times poll confirm this suspicion.

But the response to this article seems...downright liberal. I mean, don’t conservatives usually complain that the current generation of kids, teenagers and college kids are spoiled brats who were told since they were little they would always be winners? Don’t conservatives complain about political correctness? Yet we can’t say that one group in the Army is better than another lest we hurt someone’s feelings? And don’t conservatives value individual achievement over an ethos of “everyone is equal”?

There is no better description for it than the new series we plan to start tomorrow:

Our Communist Military

Aug 27

While we don’t normally “chase the news”, we just can’t ignore the dark-money “public interest” group, “Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund”, which entered the 2012 presidential news cycle under breathless headlines like, “Former SEALs, Intel Officers, Form Group Assailing White House for Leaks”.

In one fell swoop, this group combines OPSEC, over-classification, leaks and intelligence, with heaps of counter-terrorism, into one story. (Though we’ll discuss the story, we won’t dive into the presidential politics.)

Like the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund (Okay, that name is too long. SOOEF from here on out.), we have called out the Obama administration for leaking too much classified information. Unlike SOOEF, we’ve also criticized the Obama administration for prosecuting whistleblowers, and we believe the Senate should finally pass a “Whistleblower Protection Act”.

But we also think SOOEF’s criticism shouldn’t stop with the President Obama. If SOOEF really wants to stop classified information from being leaked, it needs to target the biggest source of leaks to journalists:

Special Operations folks.

That’s right. The biggest hole in the national security boat comes from the “quiet professionals” who love to get their moment in the spotlight. Like in print. Amazon has over 3,600 books on Navy SEALs, over 3,000 on Delta Force, over 3,800 on Army Rangers and another couple hundred on the uber secret Intelligence Support Activity. The term “special forces” has almost 20,000 hits in the history section alone. Obviously, some of these searches return the same books, but when Amazon has three times as many books on Navy SEALs than seals (the animals), you lose the rights to the term, “quiet professional”.

And if they aren’t writing books (or telling their stories to people writing books) Special Operations soldiers from SEALs to JSOC to the CIA to the Rangers to Delta Force are talking to journalists. From Dana Priest to Jeremy Scahill to Seymour Hersh to Marc Ambinder to David Ignatius to Nicholas Schmidle to Spencer Ackerman to Michael Hastings to Tara McElvey, multiple journalists have gotten the “inside” scoop on the elite world of special operations. Especially after the Osama bin Laden raid, almost every American heard about “DevGru”, which means Special Warfare Development Group, the home to SEAL Team 6, the Navy SEAL version of Delta Force, which is allegedly a secret.

These scoops always cast special operations men and women in amazingly good light. As we wrote in our "On V Update to Old Ideas", Ignatius called JSOC a “a highly effective killing machine”. Ambinder has called JSOC, “one of the most formidable and least-understood elements in America’s military arsenal”. Spencer Ackerman describes their reputation in America as “uber elite”. Scahill has the highest praise for Navy SEALs, saying many consider them, “the most elite warriors in the US national security apparatus”.

One Navy SEAL even told Dana Priest, “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen”.

But how far can books and magazines really reach? Only Hollywood can truly turn sailors into superheros. Nowadays, Hollywood doesn’t just make up stories about special operators like they did in the 1980s. (Remember Delta Force? Navy SEALs?) Last spring, Act of Valor starred real life Navy SEALs. Zero Dark Thirty will tell the story of the Osama bin Laden raid, based allegedly on the leaks that kicked this whole thing off. And, eventually, Mark Wahlberg, Eric Bana, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch will portray Navy SEALs in Lone Survivor.

Can you see the through line? SEALs pride themselves on being “quiet professionals”, but the SEALs just can’t stop talking...about themselves. From books to magazines to movies, SEALs and secret commandos in JSOC keep telling the world what a great job they are doing and how they’re doing it. The Osama bin Laden raid just cemented the reputation. Sure, President Obama and his administration leaked information to make themselves look good, but so does JSOC, SEAL Team Six and the larger Special Operations community.
Will SOOEF tell other special operators to pipe down? Like Marcus Luttrell? Or pseudonymous “Mark Owen”, whose book describing the Osama bin Laden raid, No Easy Day, comes out on 9/11? Probably not.
Recently, Admiral McRaven and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have both chided special operators, especially SEALs, for their leaks. I doubt SOOEF will listen. SOOEF is a partisan political group, not a public interest group. And they don’t really care about OPSEC.

Aug 23

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon.”

- Napoleon (Warning: possibly a “Quote Behaving Badly”)

I don’t know if soldiers actually fight for ribbons, but I do know that many soldiers will attend meaningless Army schools, at an alarmingly high rate, simply for the opportunity to wear shiny badges on their uniform. As a result, airborne wings adorn most officer’s chests, while Recon Surveillance Leaders Course badges don’t.

By the time I returned to Italy from Afghanistan, I had blinged myself out with airborne wings, a Ranger tab and a Combat Infantrymen’s Badge. To kick off training for our next deployment, after a roughly 90 day reset period, our Brigade gave its young soldiers the opportunity to test for another badge: the Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB), the ultimate skills test for any infantryman, from shooting to running to rucking to operating a radio.

Tired after a long deployment, I approached the EIB training like a child refusing to go to school. “But I don’t want to!” As if to prove my point, our Brigade sent us out to an overnight land nav course covered in snow. Between huddles around impromptu fires, we marched out to get points and marched back.

At first, I was miserable. Then, practicing my favorite infantry skill, land navigation, I caught the EIB bug.

I didn’t just want another badge to pad my ORB; I needed to pass the EIB; higher officers in my battalion expected me, and every other infantry officer, to get one. As a result, every officer in my company (and I believe the battalion) passed the preliminary events: marksmanship qualification, PT test, road march and land navigation.

Then came the skills competition. Far and away, most soldiers fail to earn an EIB during this portion of the test. Spread over three days, soldiers must complete over two dozen basic infantry tasks to perfection. Three failures total, or two at the same event, and you don’t get your EIB. (And yes, they have since radically changed the EIB testing process.) I expected to pass the ruck march, PT test and land navigation; the skills competition worried me.

As soon as we started the skills competition testing, soldiers started failing.

Our little squad went from event to event with a very specific plan. We didn’t let anyone test who couldn’t do it perfectly, absolutely perfectly. My platoon had spent hours in our maintenance bay training every skill until we could do it blindfolded.

We made it through the first day. I passed the grenade toss; three of my fellow lieutenants didn’t. My grenade actually spun in place on the lip of the bunker, then turned on its side and rolled in. (I didn’t know this, because, obviously, I was staring at the ground in cover. My CO told me about it later.) The next stressful moment occurred in our last event: the M4. Our company ran the event, so they told everyone in our group that we had failed, even when we had passed.

Terrifying? Yes, until we passed.

In one of my proudest--and last--moments as a platoon leader, my platoon had the most number of people pass in the company. I also passed without failing an event. So did one of my soldiers. So did my company commander. In our company, the officers had a 40% pass rate. Across the battalion, Officers had around a 40% pass rate too.

But the pass rate for all enlisted soldiers, including the ones who failed PT or road march events, was much lower. (Granted, many senior NCOs had passed the test before and ran the EIB testing stations.)

Why all the bragging about a badge tons of soldiers have earned throughout the Army? This self glorifying story provides the perfect anecdote to “The Sobel Problem” Eric C wrote about two months back. After that post went live, we got tweets like this one from @JasonFritz1:

“My NCOs and Joes were better than me at many, many things. And they're integral to how the American Army fights. Guy missed leadship [sic] class.”

I don’t know Fritz’s background, so maybe he didn’t attend the same “leadership classes” I did. I went to Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School, the latter being the premier leadership school in the Army. In both those schools, and in my first unit, I was taught a crucial lesson in leadership: lead from the front, both physically and symbolically. My first battalion commander laid this out for all the lieutenants shortly after deployment:

“This means physically, mentally and emotionally you have to lead your men. You have to know more. You have to run faster and do more push ups. You have to shoot more accurately. You have to constantly strive to improve. You must lead from the front.”

Officers aren’t just better than their men; they have to be. They need to achieve an ideal their men can strive for. Otherwise, the leaders aren’t leading, they are following. Think about it this way: if Sobel could have competently navigated the British countryside, Colonel Sink wouldn’t have replaced him. His men mutinied because he was incompetent, not because he was an asshole. If he had been one, but not the other, he’d have led the men into D-Day.

When I trained for the EIB, I strove to live by my battalion commander’s words. It wasn’t just about earning the badge; it was about setting the standard for my men. When it came to the ruck march and PT tests, if any officers had failed, they would have failed in the eyes of the Battalion Commander...and their men. Why should a soldier care about PT or ruck marches if his leader doesn’t? And what soldier will want to follow an officer they don’t respect?

Officers have to lead from the front. And set the standard. Or as my brother put it, be better than their men.

On Monday, we’ll answer other objections to out post, “The Sobel Problem”.

Aug 22

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

Today, we continue yesterday’s discussion of one of the most thought-provoking scenes in Band of Brothers: Lt. Spiers (allegedly) executing German POWs in the second episode of the series.

Michael C

In some ways, I’m not in love with this debate. I worry that--especially with the crew we have lined up to debate the issue--we will all come out on the same side. Killing a calm group of captured German POWs seems inherently I don’t know how to argue that it’s not. Shouldn’t everyone say that?

A similar scene from Saving Private Ryan, though, makes a much more compelling case for murdering prisoners. In the scene, Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath (played by Tom Sizemore), having climbed up the bluffs of Normandy, runs across two German soldiers as they stumble out of a German bunker, putting up their hands to surrender. Horvath pretends like he can’t understand them, then shoots them.

At the time--when I was still in middle school in 1997--I didn’t understand why he did this, especially mocking the men he was about to shoot, as Matty P wrote about yesterday. My dad, playing devil’s advocate, explained the logic: in the hectic beach invasion, the Allies didn’t have time to take prisoners. This was war after all.

Though he didn’t say it then, I feel like the hypothetical is, “What would the Allies have done if the entire German force on Normandy had just surrendered? What would we have done with them all?” To which I have to say...

“Yeah, exactly.”

I don’t care about the morality or the ethics or the legality of the two scenes. Forget those. Sergeant Horvath and Lieutenant Spiers’ actions piss me off from a purely rational and tactical perspective.

We want our enemies to surrender.

We want to let them surrender, and protect them when they do. We want our opponents to know that, if they stop fighting, no harm will come to them. We want them to know we won’t torture them if they surrender either. If our enemies trust us to do them no harm, they will end up surrendering in droves as soon as they know the fight is lost. As Sun Tzu said or King Leonidas knew, when the choice is fight or die, you’ll fight like hell. If the entire German Army at Normandy had surrendered, then we would have taken them all prisoner.

During the Persian Gulf war, whole divisions gave up rather than face U.S. annihilation. In the Iraq war invasion twelve years later, whole units gave up instead of fighting. Because these units rose their white flags, American lives were saved. Lots of lives. Soldiers in WWII sacrificed then so that whole Iraqi units would surrender now, saving U.S. lives. The characters in films who shot prisoners put their fellow and future soldiers’ lives at risk. Maybe not immediately, maybe not even in their own unit, but someday. If our opponents believe they can’t surrender, then future Americans will have to fight them to the death.

In World War II, the Japanese warrior ethos inspired their troops to refuse to surrender. Russian atrocities proved that, in future wars, no one should surrender to Russian soldiers. The American experience in World War II, and since, has been to place the ultimate protection to surrendering POWs, so all our enemies know: give up and you won’t have to die; you can trust us.

Our military still practices this ideal. As a cadet planning squad missions, we started planning for the presence of POWs on the battlefield. American and NATO rules of engagement keep surrendering units safe as well. The leaders of our military (and most of our allies) understand the value of letting the opponent give up.

Some of our civilian leaders don’t understand the importance of this. CIA agents (or their contractors) who tortured prisoners violated this ethos, and encouraged future jihadis to fight, not surrender. Kill/capture missions that mostly end in “kill” don’t understand this ethos.

What Lieutenant Spiers didn’t understand--but what Lieutenant Winters did--is that sacrifice means risking your own life so the lives of your children, grandchildren and so on will improve. By violating the laws of war--executing POWs, torturing detainees, unlawfully detaining people indefinitely--we risk the lives of our descendants.

Aug 21

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the second episode of Band of Brothers, “Day of Days”. Pvt. Malarkey walks by a group of captured German prisoners. While he’s making fun of the POWs, he discovers that one of the prisoners hails from Eugene, Oregon, his home state. They chat, then Malarkey leaves.

Lieutenant Spiers--in an apocryphal story that may or may not have happened; the series stays intentionally vague on the details--gives the German POWs cigarettes, then executes them with his sub-machine gun.

We’re writing about Band of Brothers because the series asks big questions, and this moment asks one of the biggest questions: when should we kill prisoners? When is it ethical?

Shooting prisoners--or surrendering Germans in the case of another memorable scene in Saving Private Ryan--strides perfectly across the line between right and wrong. On one hand, this is war and sometimes advancing armies don’t have time to take prisoners. On the other, it means killing people who have given up the will to fight.

So I’ve asked Matty P, Michael C and myself to share thoughts about the morality of taking prisoners, and this scene itself.

Eric C

I have three thoughts on this incident.

First, I have to open with a caveat: I don’t know what I would have done in war. I don’t know if I’d shoot straight or run and hide. I’ve never been to war; I can’t say either way.

That said, we (civilians) can make moral judgements about war and soldiers in war, because that’s our right, as citizens. (More on this here and here.)

So I get to my second, more crucial point: on a gut level, killing surrendered prisoners doesn’t make sense to me. Something doesn’t sit right. It violates universal values.

But not always. This Band of Brothers episode shows why. German soldiers actually surrender three times in “Day of Days”. In the first case, Lt. Winters leads an ambush on a German convoy. One man raises his hands in surrender, and the ambushers still shoot him. Next, Lt. Spiers executes surrendered, safely captured German soldiers that one soldier alone could guard. Finally, during the attack on the German artillery battery, in the middle of a battle, a German soldier tries to surrender. Winters knocks him out with the butt of his rifle.

In the first and last example, taking prisoners makes no sense. Situations reversed, even ten seconds earlier, the Germans would have killed the Americans. You can’t take prisoners in the middle of a firefight.

But the Spiers example is unethical. The American advance would arrive shortly. Even if the landing and invasion at Normandy wouldn’t have worked, the prisoners could have been killed later.

Morally, this killing haunts the soldiers. It still haunts Dick Winters. According to Mark Brando, “Winters emphasized to me [Brando] that he took a very dim view of prisoner shooting, that it was not a common mode of behavior in the 506th and that he felt ashamed of any such incidents which might have happened.”

It should.

Finally, as I wrote earlier, we don’t know whether this event actually occurred. According to Brando, there were no eyewitnesses to the event. Then again, would soldiers want to admit to executing prisoners?

Probably not.
Matty P

“Look, I washed for supper!” yelled one American soldier to another, mocking the surrendering German soldier he’d just gunned down.

It’s a dark moment from the movie Saving Private Ryan. An American soldier summarily executing a prisoner is evil. But what got to me, the thorn in my craw so to speak, is that it was a joke. That a man’s life--Nazi or not--was a joke.

The rules that govern our societies dictates the preciousness of life. We should never treat the taking life lightly. We punish murderers. In some places, we put them to death. But this is not done lightly. We have trials; trials that can last months.

In that vein, life should be treated with no less respect when at war. Enemy combatants deserve no less than murders in our society, due process. This may not be simple on the battlefield, admittedly. The taking and transport of prisoners cannot endanger those taking the prisoners, but nor should the taking of prisoners be frowned upon because it’s hard or cumbersome. Prisoners are alive, and life deserves consideration.

Eric wrote that war is the opposite of civilization. War does not have the same rules as society, but there are still rules. We are mandated as moral creatures to abide by these rules or doom ourselves to chaos. We take prisoners not because it’s convenient, but because it’s right.

Aug 17

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

When Michael C and I began writing screenplays, one of our projects didn’t work. The opening bored the hell out of us. In screenwriting, the first ten pages are the most important ten pages. If they bore a reader, your screenplay will never get read, and, thus, never get made. So we cheated. We included a flash-forward (The literary technique, also called a “prolepsis”, not the cancelled TV show. Damn you, ABC.), showing events from the middle of the screenplay, hopefully enticing a reader to want to know what happened next.

It didn’t work.

Why? Because we cheated. We artificially manipulated the structure and plot to try to make a boring screenplay exciting. We didn’t advance the plot or characters, just superficially covered up larger structural issues. If you’re familiar with On Violence, you may see where this is going...

War memoirs lean on this crutch all the time.

Life isn’t exciting enough on its own. So post-9/11 war memoirs, to address this problem, open up in the middle of a battle, as if to tell the reader, “Go with me here. There will be battles, but first I want to tell you how I became a soldier.” Over half of the post-9/11 war memoirs I’ve reviewed for this memoir project open this way. It happens in memoirs I loved (Kaboom, War, The Forever War, Generation Kill) and the ones I didn’t (This Man’s Army, Joker One, Lone Survivor). Of all these books, only one did it well.

The “flash forward intro” usually occurs mid-battle. The Forever War opens in the battle of Fallujah, but the first chapter cuts all the way back to Afghanistan under pre-9/11 Taliban rule. Joker One begins, literally, with a bang, as Donovan Campbell and his men lie on the floor following an explosion; the second chapter takes the reader back to the beginning, before he deployed. Evan Wright opens Generation Kill getting shot at in a humvee in “another Iraqi town, nameless”; the memoir then opens in Kuwait before Wright even found a platoon to embed with.

Like the false start on our screenplay, these flash-forward introductions don’t move the story forward; they have no narrative or thematic function. In every case, the author never mentions the event again. It made me wonder: were these memoirs written this way, or did an editor just lop off a section in the middle and put it in the front?

(Ironically--for longtime readers of On Violence--Lone Survivor actually uses this technique well, at least better than the other memoirs I’ve read. The plot, if you will, is the most contained. Instead of covering the entirety of Luttrell’s military experience, it covers one specific mission. The opening doesn’t take place mid-battle, but in preparation for the climatic battle at the center of the memoir.)

Some readers may be thinking, “You wanker, time jumping works. What about modern cinema, like Pulp Fiction? Or every film by Christopher Nolan?” To which I respond, “You’re absolutely correct.” I’m not against time jumping in memoirs. In fact, I love it. As avid media consumers, many modern readers/viewers are more sophisticated, which means modern stories are more thematically and narratively sophisticated than ever before.

This applies to war memoirs. Look at both Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The former bounces around in time with anecdotes and memories, focusing its chapters on topics (war reporters), themes (loss, depression), or specific locations (Hue City or Khe Sahn). The latter is a short story collection arranged non-chronologically. Both work. Both promote character above story. Both commit to the emotional truth of war, not real life chronology.

Except for the opening time jump, most memoirs never change time again. Commit one way or the other. The Forever War would have worked better non-chronologically, following the example of Herr’s Dispatches. The same goes for Junger’s War, whose chapter titles were organized by theme, but its content by chronology. For Generation Kill, This Man’s Army, and Joker One, I wish each memoir just began at the beginning. Kaboom, which has a great first chapter, could have been written either chronologically or non-chronologically.

Two of my favorite post-9/11 war memoirs did commit to fractured narratives, and the commitment pays off. Brandon Friedman contrasts his war in Afghanistan with his war in Iraq in The War I Always Wanted, to elevate each chapter through the contrast. In Soft Spots, Clint Van Winkle relives his time in Iraq from his post-war viewpoint in America--and there really was no better way to write that story. Both were organized around theme--the loss of innocence and the struggle with PTSD, respectively--and both authors wrote their memoirs with these themes leading the way, not true-to-life chronology.

More memoirists should follow their lead.

Aug 15

Just like yesterday, we’re clearing our inbox of updates. Enjoy!

Update to Marketing and Afghanistan

At the height of the surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009, men from Colonel Henry Tunnell’s 5th Stryker Brigade (as described in an excerpt on Slate from Rajiv Candrasekaran’s new book) drove through an insurgent’s funeral in Afghanistan with loudspeakers declaring, “This is what happens when you fight us.

As we wrote a few months back, the Army can learn plenty from business marketing about what will and won’t change people’s mind. Quick hypothetical: if Osama bin Laden sent trucks driving around New York after 9/11 blaring this message, “America, this is what happens when you defy us,” would that have sent Americans cowering? Would it have discouraged any Americans from fighting back?


Update to Management versus Leadership

Tom Ricks quotes James McDonough’s memoir about his time in Vietnam, Platoon Leader:

For us, violence was killing; there was no management involved. People were either dead, or they     were not. I could not 'manage' my platoon up a hill. I had to lead them up there.

I wonder if this was the beginning of the idea within the Army that management need not apply in the Pentagon. Probably not, but the “leadership trumps management” meme is now widespread.

Update to the Ethics of Leadership

While I disagree with the start to the McDonough quote above, I love its conclusion that emphasizes the importance of officers as the moral compass of their units:

I had to do more than keep them alive. I had to preserve their human dignity. I was making them     kill, forcing them to commit the most uncivilized of acts, but at the same time I had to keep them civilized. That was my duty as their leader. . . War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but men must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed.    

. . . War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very easily     to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place.   

Unfortunately, few battalion, brigade and division commanders have been held truly responsible for the conduct of their men. In most cases, the men of the highest rank get the lightest punishment when it comes to the moral or legal transgressions of their units.

Update to Intelligence is Evidence

60 Minutes steps into Frontline’s shoes to tell another shocking tale of prosecutors stacking the deck against innocent men. This time, an innocent man named Michael Morton was exonerated 25 years after detectives and prosecutors immediately assumed he had brutally beaten his wife to death. Most shockingly, prosecutors withheld the testimony of their son who witnessed the murder...which completely exonerated Morton.

Yesterday, I quoted David Ignatius praising JSOC’s effectiveness on the international battlefield. I would love to ask him this: if the U.S. judicial system can repeatedly come close to executing innocent people (and possibly has), and if that system has ten times the safeguards of the military/CIA targeting program, how can he or the government really believe that system is always accurate? Or even mostly accurate?

Why My Solution to Intelligence is Evidence Won’t Happen

I tend to be proud of my simple solutions to drastically complex problems. Iran? Let’s just become friends with them. Afghanistan? Population-centric counter-insurgency. Global instability? More foreign aid from wealthy nations applied well. (Of course, effective diplomacy, population-centric counter-insurgency, and effective foreign aid/democracy movements aren’t really that simple or easy to do, but you get my point.)

And terrorism? Let’s just create a International Criminal Court for Pirates, Terrorists and Trans-national Criminals. This article, in the New York Review of Books, about international law captures the internal contradictions of America’s support for such laws, but our refusal to let international laws apply to us. Which is why my simple solution won’t happen.

Update to A Conundrum: Shaken Baby Syndrome Edition

A year ago, we wrote about a tragedy unfolding across the nation in the form of overzealous prosecutions of “shaken baby syndrome”. In one of the key cases, California convicted grandmother Shirley Ree Smith of killing her grandson with less than compelling medical evidence. Last Good Friday, Jerry Brown officially pardoned her for the crime.

The Economist Keeps the Behavioral Research Coming

Actually, The Economist and Charles Duhigg writing about the subconscious power of habits keep the behavioral research coming. This article--along with this excellent podcast on the HBR Ideacast podcast from a few years ago--just say to me that in a counter-insurgency, our Army cannot rely on a model of human behavior that treats the enemy or population as strictly-rational-cost-benefit-calculating automatons. And we can’t use “fear” as our primary motivator either.

Oh, We Weren’t Done with Thomas Drake Yesterday

In anticipation of our “On V Update to Old Ideas, Round Nine”, The Daily Show’s Jason Jones unveiled a hilarious segment pointing out the inanities behind the Thomas Drake affair in “License to Spill”:

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Aug 14

With two new series dominating our attention--our series against war with Iran and Band of Brothers--we’ve neglected what has slowly become one of our favorite new traditions, the “On V Update to Old Ideas”. Without further ado, round nine:

The Road to War, Iran Edition

After I started working on my solution to the Iran nuclear problem, I found two articles that more or less argued for my same solution. I plan to use these articles in future posts on my Iran solution, but they’re still good reads on their own.

The Nixon Option for Iran” by William H. Leurs and Thomas R. Pickering for Project Syndicate.

Why Can’t We Just Get Along with the Iranians?” by Dan Simpson for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Update to the World is Not More Dangerous

Apparently, some politicians really want to believe this. Last April, John McCain wrote in a letter to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that:

“…more people have the ability to harm us or restrict our freedom to act today than at any point in our lives.”

We’ve written before that few professors (read: not politicians) actually argue that the world is indeed more dangerous than before. Well, Paul Miller on Foreign Policy’s “Shadow Government” blog must have deliberately set out to prove me wrong. He argues that America now has two deadly foes--China and Russia--along with the always dangerous and scary triumvirate of North Korea, Venezuela and Iran...not to mention terrorism, piracy and other global ills.

Not so fast Paul Miller. As with all pro-defense-spending-terrified-of-the-rest-of-the-world pundits, Miller doesn’t actually use numbers or statistics to back up his claims, especially not the statistic that America spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on security already.

Supporting our side of the argument, when Mitt Romney reiterated the Gingrichian claim that, “the world is dangerous, destructive and chaotic” before the Veterans of Foreign Wars a few weeks back, both Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt rightly criticized his position.

Update to the Terrorists at Guantanamo

We’ve written before that Guantanamo Bay might have the lowest recidivism rate of any U.S. prison. Well, updated figures say it might be even lower than everyone thought. Good news? Terrorists aren’t going back to terrorizing. Bad news? The best explanation for the lack of returning to terrorism is that most of the Afghan goat herders were probably never terrorists in the first place.


Hypocrisy Alert 2012

In our week on Wikileaks as the “Most Intriguing Foreign Policy Event of 2010”, and in an update a year later, I bemoaned the hypocrisy of the Obama administration when it comes to leaks. The Obama administration continues to try to prosecute, using the Espionage Act, whistleblowers who expose massive corruption. Yet no senior Obama officials have been prosecuted for leaking similarly classified information.

Take, for instance David Ignatius. In his March 18th Washington Post column, “Osama bin Laden, a lion in winter”, he describes reading the letters and papers of Osama bin Laden, classified documents. (Some of which you can now read online at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.) Combined with Ignatius’ other articles about the bin Laden raid, it’s clear that the White House has leakers doing just as much if not more damage than Thomas Drake ever did by revealing massive government waste in the NSA.

Worse, to me, is how the leaks to David Ignatius blatantly skew the story in the government’s favor. They selected a handful or maybe a dozen documents out of the entire bin Laden treasure trove. They told Ignatius tales about the bin Laden raid that proved that JSOC is an “highly-effective killing machine.” How does he determine that by one raid in one country without viewing all the information?

In this case, I agree with Republicans on Capitol Hill who think President Obama has gone too far. And Glenn Greenwald. If the uber-liberal and uber-conservative alike can agree on something, then maybe we should listen. President Obama either needs to stop the leaks in the White House or stop prosecuting whistleblowers. He shouldn’t do both.
Update to Renaming the Global War on Terror

Eric C and I have never liked the use of the words “global war on terrorism” or “Islam/Islamists/jihadists” or any of a host of other words that put 9/11 firmly at the feet of all Muslims. This excellent William Saletan article on Slate describes how the current administration re-labeled the “war on terror” to a fight against “al Qaeda and its affiliates”, and how this devastated al Qaeda’s image among Muslims. (And even George W. Bush refused to blame Islam for 9/11.)

A Joke about Wars as Bar Fights

In one of our earliest posts, we compared “Bar Fighting and War Making”. For a new post echoing that theme, we stumbled upon this Economist blog post describing World War I as a bar fight. Enjoy.

Aug 13

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Admittedly, last week’s post “We Can’t Be Alllies with Iran...Iran Hates Us!” was light on details. I dismissed the “they hate us” excuse for starting a war because hatred isn’t a reason to go to war.

Reading it, Eric C challenged me, “Do we know whether Iranians hate Americans?” Hmm. I didn’t know, so I looked up the answer. Consider today’s post the research edition of last week’s post.

First up, do American leaders hate Iran? Most American politicians won’t openly admit this. However, if you accuse someone of the most vile accusations imaginable--being a terrorist, using child soldiers, hating freedom, believing in death above life--then even if you don’t say, “I hate Iran”, you still said, “I hate Iran”.

American elected officials have said such things about Iran. Case in point: President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union, when he unveiled the “Axis of Evil”. Pay particular attention to the last paragraph:

Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice -- made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

Second, do the American people hate Iran? I couldn’t find a poll that explicitly asked this question. Gallup, though, regularly polls Americans on the question, “Who is our greatest enemy?” This year Iran took home the gold. Gallup says 32% of Americans call Iran our “greatest enemy”, a higher percentage than for any other country. (68% of Americans also didn’t choose Iran.)

Third, according to polling, do Iranians hate Americans? Historically, Iranians have loved America more than any other Middle Eastern nation...a strange position for a nation which allegedly hates us. Since Iranians live in a police state--something I don’t support or deny--most Iranians avoid criticizing their own government, in public or private. So when an outside pollster tries to gauge Iranian attitudes about America via telephone, many Iranians will simply hide their true feelings.

Which means that the best study on Iranian feelings--from the Rand Corporation--has some difficult obstacles to surmount. According to Rand’s survey, a plurality of Iranians do not favor re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with America. Of the polled Iranians, the ones most uncomfortable with the survey were more likely to oppose re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran.

In fact, the Rand study, while appearing to show that Iranians hate Americans, actually shows their desire to renew a strong relationship with America. Thirty nine percent of Iranians do favor or somewhat favor re-establishing diplomatic relationships with the U.S. Iranians, though, still haven’t forgiven America for the two dramatic interventions into their sovereignty: the installation of the Shah in 1959 and America cutting all ties during the 1979 revolution.

Can we really say Iranians hate us? Not based on any polling.

Fourth, what do journalists who have visited Iran think about “Iranians hating Americans”? Every time a journalist travels to Iran, they return with the same story: the leaders may hate America, but the people do not. First up, Nicholas Kristof speaking to Fareed Zakaria on GPS 360:

“ZAKARIA: So what was your dominant impression, given this access? Because you have been to Tehran, but what felt different about being outside Tehran?

“KRISTOF: Well, as you know, one of the extraordinary things about Iran is how pro-American everybody seems at the grassroots. You go to Pakistan, you go to Egypt, and we pour billions into these places and everybody seems to hate us.

“We go to Iran and everywhere you go, people want to buy you tea or invite you into their homes. It is -- I mean, it's just stunning, the pro-American quality of the country. I think more broadly politically, I was reminded, absolutely, there is still support for the regime, for the government in rural areas, among less educated people, people who don't have access to satellite television.

“But all of the larger social forces seem to me to be working against the government. More educated people, more urbanized people, people who do have international connections just are more and more fed up with the system. They're upset by the economic downturn and they don't really blame the West for sanctions. They blame their own government.”

Nicholas Kristof goes to even further lengths in his column on The New York Times website, but this one quote probably captures the mood best, “this may be the most pro-American nation in the Middle East.” He also doubles down on the fear pervading the society; a fear which makes it seem like normal Iranians “hate” America.

The trend of journalists visiting Iran and discovering--surprise! they don’t hate us--isn’t a recent phenomenon. I just found this article by Tim Cahill for Outdoor magazine through Byliner (via Byliner’s inappropriately titled “Why Iran Hates America”) which--though nine years old--comes to the exact same conclusion as Kristof.

Of course, some comedians have visited the land of ancient Persia as well. And guess what? The Daily Show finds that Iranians generally love America too:

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Aug 10

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

When I first pitched a Band of Brothers series to Michael C a few years ago, he rejected it. At the time, I proposed a recap/review of every episode of the series; Michael C thought it sounded kind of boring. (He was right; it kind of did.) Then I pitched a different series to him again last January, framing different On V ideas and thoughts around specific episodes. Obviously, since you are reading this, he agreed.

When we started, I expected Band of Brothers to inspire a whole new set of ideas and posts; I didn’t expect it to connect so perfectly to the ideas we’ve been writing about at On Violence for so many years now. We’ve got a post on the rules of engagement (of course) along with a “War at its Worst” next to a debate over the ethics of killing prisoners. Which only leaves one major On V topic to address...


As anyone who has read the blog knows, I really dislike war memoirs; Band of Brothers is essentially a collective memoir for the men of Easy Company. Or at least as close as one can get on television.

And like all memoirs, Band of Brothers makes a lot of factual mistakes. It’s a mini-series based on a history book based on interviews conducted decades later after WWII. Stephen Ambrose compiled the fallible memories of aging soldiers into a book, then Spielberg, Hanks and other writers and producers translated that book into an entirely different medium. Second, getting all of the facts right would be virtually impossible, especially fifty years after the fact. Finding the correct props alone must have been a logistical nightmare.

Most of the mistakes are pretty minor. As Mark Brando (who also wrote a book on Easy Company) explains, in the second episode alone the mini-series incorrectly showed the planes taking off at dusk, Lt. Winters not wearing a reserve parachute, and Lt. Nixon sitting in the wrong plane. (The website goes on to list many more errors.)

Little things. Minor details. But the minor mistakes don’t bother me. Who cares if the helmets are the right color? As Brando points out, these details shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the series.

What bothers me are the huge mistakes. The massive, reputation destroying mistakes. The mistakes which harm the reputations of individuals and their families, all for the sake of the dramatic narrative. The mistakes that even the most basic fact checking could correct.

In the case of the episode “Carentan”, the series (almost) destroyed the reputation of Private Albert Blythe.

In “Carentan”, Blythe is a coward. He sleeps through the night after he parachuted into France instead of trying to find his patrol and suffers from “hysterical blindness”. He overcomes his fears, rejoins Easy, then dies of a neck wound from a sniper shot after courageously offering to lead a reconnaissance mission at the end of the episode.

Except he didn’t. According to Mark Brando, “In real life, Albert Blythe survived his WWII wound, fought in Korea, and died while still on active duty, in 1968.” (Wikipedia has more on this.)

On one level, it’s shocking how totally and completely wrong the veterans of Easy Company were on incredibly important details, like whether or not someone died. This mistake casts doubt on the historical accuracy of everything they told every historian. It’s not like Blythe wasn’t around; he jumped into Holland with Easy Company a few months later.

More importantly, it makes me question the entire portrayal of Blythe as the worst soldier who served in Easy Company. In real life, Blythe went on to become an incredibly decorated career soldier. He reenlisted in the military two times, eventually reaching the rank of Master Sergeant. He earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star (3 times), Purple Heart, and “the 82nd Airborne Division's 1958 Trooper of the Year” award. He died overseas while still serving for the military (in Germany, not in combat), and was buried in Arlington, Virginia.

Cowards don’t earn awards like that. Cowards don’t re-enlist.

In all, Blythe had a stellar military career. Band of Brothers ruins that, portraying the man as a coward, then killing him, all because the fallible memories of septuagenarians couldn’t get the facts right.

I doubt Blythe really was the coward Band of Brothers makes him out to be, which makes me doubt the portrayals of every other soldier in the episode. Was Sobel really that evil of a boss? Was Winters really that good? Did the series skew towards the perspectives of those who survived? Did an aging veteran hold a grudge? As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

Or more likely, did a some writer or producer think this version would make a better story?

Consider this example  just another reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction; nonfiction narratives just can’t seem to get the facts right.

Aug 08

(Today's guest post is by frequent commenter, Asher Kohn. Asher is a law student studying the intersection of Islamic Law and Natural Resource Law, along with lots of other things. He tweets at @ajkhn and recently started The Tuqay, a blog on West/Central/South Asian topics.  If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Who wouldn’t want to conquer the world? Many people, including (but not limited to) Alexander the Great, James Cagney, and Kate Winslet have expressed their interest in becoming “King of the World.” The neat thing about video games is that you can fight and buy your way to domination in one (likely quite lonely) weekend, and do it without making enemies.

Total War lets me do just that. You take control of a historic great power and lead it to world domination. I got into it from Civilization, a game where you take a great power and…lead it to world domination.

There are differences between the two games. In Civilization the world map is randomized and you can win through science, culture, diplomacy, or war; Total War is more visceral. The map is historical and bloodshed is the whole point.  Although Civilization is by far the deeper game, I find myself preferring Total War sometimes precisely because it is limiting. If I have a constricted palette, I can get a bit more creative.

The problem is, I don’t like bloodshed. I rarely fight to the death in Civilization; it’s too expensive and too risky. The game does a good job demonstrating that warfare is fraught with the unexpected. Even though Total War has gorgeously-rendered battle scenes, I find myself working around them. My alternative? Siege warfare. It’s simple, I just build up an imposing army and then park it in front of an enemy city for a few turns. I lose nothing and they lose a city.

Total War does a terrible job demonstrating the terror of siege warfare.

I do not intend to use my time as a guest to talk about the digitization of war and our estrangement from it, as interesting as that is. Because I would rather talk about economic sanctions like the ones recently imposed on Iran. Yep, boring, boardroom-based, economic sanctions, like the ones enacted on Iraq in the past and on Iran in the present. Sanctions are the siege warfare of the 21st century and it simply doesn’t bother us because we can afford to park in front and wait for them to move inexorably forward.

The problem is, siege warfare is of a terror incomprehensible to those that have not experienced it. Siege warfare is a prime example of “War at its Worst.” Historical sources will tell you of claustrophobic tunnels under castle walls, chemical warfare, dagger fights as mines collapsed on each other, and the Sam Raimi doom of hearing a tunnel nearing your walls, about to turn your defensive redoubt into a chicken coop for the wolves outside.

And that’s just the warfare. Those same histories tell of starving children and skeletal women. They tell of blight and disease, of the very worst of human desperation. And when the walls finally do break, a flood of rapine and looting was near-guaranteed. We are fortunate that in our day and age, the mining and catapults are gone. The mental image of a CIA Predator Drone dropping a botulism-infested cow onto Tehran is humorous, not visionary. But even though the soldiers have been protected from this particular flavor of “War at its Worst,” non-combatants have not.

Many Americans around my age can vividly remember the opening scenes of Black Hawk Down that show the starving Somalis that Mohamed Farrah Aidid is holding hostage. It may be Ridley Scott less plucking heartstrings like a harp and more slapping at them like an electronic bass, but it is effective in stirring our sympathy for the Army Rangers to come in and save the day.

The situation in Iran, of course, is nowhere as terrible as Somalia in the 90’s. Iran is an enormous country and has plenty of agriculture, though starvation is not unheard of. But the siege mentality is there all the same. The film No One Knows About Persian Cats tells the story of young Iranian musicians trying to find their sound and escape the country. The scenes of youthful anger, mistrust, drug use and backstabbing are familiar to an American audience. The stakes, however, are incomprehensible: electricity cuts, smugglers, and secret conclaves make for tripwires in every scene. Persian Cats takes place in a country at war, there is no doubt about it.

Sanctions – that is, modern siege warfare – destroy lives. This is never argued, but the hope is that eventually, the lives that will be destroyed will be the ones in power, the ones making decisions that the sanctioner does not like. Starvation, impoverishment, martial law, and the wholesale destruction of public space are the tools. The questions asked by think-tank critics of economic sanctions is rarely phrased as “How many?” but “When?” The implication, not lost on the sanctionee, is that the economic sanctions are a form of asymmetric warfare perpetrated with the most plentiful implement available: money. This is perhaps not easily admitted by those demanding the starvation, impoverishment, martial law, and the wholesale destruction of public space. Sanctions are vicious, they are the slow strangulation of a country and a way of life, the better to make way for whatever’s next.

In Total War, the city under siege will always give a last-ditch attack in the turn before it is swallowed up. They usually won’t win, but they can usually put a dent in my better-trained and healthier force. Of course, in Total War I don’t have to deal with the media. I also don’t have to see what my simulated army did to that simulated city both during and after the siege. I can just point my horsemen towards the next task. I would say war is at its worst when it is purely mathematical and when it treats civilians the same way it treats the armed forces. I would have a tough time finding a worse method of war than siege warfare or its modern-day equivalents.

Aug 07

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

It stuns me the similarities between the language used by kids fighting on a playground and American politicians describing Iran. As I wrote yesterday, in both cases it boils down to, “But they’re so mean...and they hate us too!”

Yesterday, I tackled the first argument. Today, I want to show how silly it is to assume an entire other country “hates” us.

And I don’t have to go far to find someone. When I told my dad my solution to the Iran crisis, he actually brought up the point that Iranians hate us (Americans). My dad lives in southern California, home to the largest Iranian ex-pat population in America, so maybe he has experience with specific people. He doesn’t. My dad has one Iranian-American friend, who doesn’t hate him. My dad has never travelled to the Middle East, and hasn’t talked to an actual Iranian in Iran about the looming crisis.
Should we go to war with Iran because of a belief that Iranians hate Americans? Of course not. More importantly, how do we even know this is true? Does anyone have polling evidence that says, ‘Iranians hate Americans?’ And how many Iranians hate Americans? Is it 100%? Greater than 50%? Is it a very vocal minority? Where is your evidence?

Let’s be specific. Do Iranians hate Americans or do Iranian leaders hate Americans? My dad and most pundits, of course, mean Iran’s leaders. And Iran’s leaders have called America the Great Satan and plenty of other terrible things. Does every single Iranian politician hate America? Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has said before that “all Muslims hate America”, but does he speak for all Muslims? All Muslim politicians? Could his viewpoint change if America changed some of their policies?

More importantly, couldn’t Iranians say the same thing about our leaders? As Stephen Walt has written before, if Martians came to Earth and examined the evidence impartially, the bellicose war-like nation isn’t Iran, it’s America. (Read our earlier coverage to get a sampling.) I mean, one of America’s two presidential candidates keeps hinting that if elected he will take military action against Iran unless it agrees to several untenable negotiating positions.

So Iran and America could go to war because the war hawks of each country--who may not represent the majority--say idiotic and dangerous things?

That doesn’t make sense.

Instead, let’s make this argument reasonable. Since the fall of the Shah in 1979, both America and Iran have harmed each other’s citizens and violated each other’s sovereignty, as I wrote about yesterday. As a result, some citizens of each country “hate” citizens of the other. Let’s admit it, some Americans hate Iran. And definitely some Iranians hate America. When politicians--in each country--talk in extreme war-like terms, they cater to this minority.

This hatred, born out of ignorance and maintained because some people just want enemies to hate, exists in both America and Iran.

Acknowledging this fact has huge ramifications. Once we admit that some Americans hate Iran--a phrase few politicians will ever admit themselves--it empowers us. The best way to describe the situation with Iran isn’t, “because they hate us”, it’s “because we hate them.” And suddenly, by switching the subject and the object, the onus switches from Iran’s nuclear program to our own feelings about Iran. We have the power to change the relationship.

And once we realize that we control our own emotions--whether our country truly “hates” another country, which seems silly when you think about it--we can change our actions. As the schoolyard analogy showed, hatred can turn to friendship very easily. And this process has repeated itself throughout the 20th century as historical animosity turned into cooperation. Just look at Europe: France and Germany; France and England; Italy and Germany; Germany and everyone else; even now, Russia is closer to the E.U. and N.A.T.O. than at any time in its history. One of Mitt Romney’s big gaffes this year was referring to Russia as America’s “number one geo-political foe”. They’re not anymore.

Past hatred doesn’t necessitate future hatred. It doesn’t even rule out future friendship. So let’s get rid of the idea that Iran “hates us”, and start figuring out how to improve the relationship between our two countries.

Aug 06

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Last week I unveiled my solution to the Iran problem. In short, most people think that America and Iran can never become allies. I think we can. I think America could make Iran one of our greatest allies in the Middle East if we wanted to.

My critics don’t really have a compelling reason for why this can’t happen. If pressed, their arguments boil down to what a child said in my post last week, “Iran is so mean, and they hate us.” Today, I want to look at that first point, “Iran is so mean”.

Of course, academics and pundits don’t just call Iran mean; they dress it up with complicators (hostile intentions, duplicitous actions, most severe security threat) or exaggerations (greatest threat to the free world), but the grade school retort of “Iran is so mean to America,” basically sums up their position.

And in one sense, the critics have a point. Look at the following Iranian actions over the last thirty five years:

- In 1979, Iranians took over a hundred Americans hostage, and held them for two years.

- In 1988, Iranian ships attacked American ships, kicking off a mini-war.

- From 2003 to 2010, Iran funded Shia extremists in Iraq with explosively formed penetrators, one of which likely killed one of my best friends from college.

- Iranians constantly threatens Israel with annihilation, and Iran funds Hezbollah which conducts terror attacks on Israel.

- Iran says it wants to eradicate Israel.

Looking at that list, it is easy to label Iran hostile or duplicitous (though evil is still a stretch).

But let’s look at a different series of events, American involvement in Iran. Do these events qualify as “mean” or hostile?

- In the 1950s, America overthrew the Iranian parliament to install an American friendly dictator, the Shah.

- In 1979, after the Shah fell, America instituted trade embargos against Iran.

- During the 1980s, America backed Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, even as Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in attacks on Iranians.

- In 1988, America sunk multiple Iranian ships during Operation Praying Mantis, killing thousands of Iranians.

- Most recently, America may have supported the terrorist group MEK and may have launched a cyber-attack dubbed “Olympic Games” using the Stuxnet worm.

This arguments comes courtesy of a lecture we attended a few months back by General Stanley McChrystal. He hoped the audience would come to the same conclusion as he did: Iran has plenty of reasons to distrust Americans.

Arguably, we started the fight.

Historical amnesia causes both sides to label the other hostile, and ignore their own hostility. Most Americans don’t remember or even care that America overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected government in the fifties. (How would Americans feel if China installed a dictator in Washington D.C.?) Most Iranians don’t believe their government supports terrorists as America alleges. (Do any Americans believe the CIA supports terrorists as Iran alleges?)

What will solve this crisis is a move past simplistic language, and the humility to admit America’s own mistakes when dealing with Iran. A few weeks back, an On V guest post used the phrase, “the blame America first crowd”. The other side of the coin is the “never blame America” crowd who, like a delusional sports fan who believes their franchise can do no wrong, pretends America is the first perfect nation. Admitting America has wronged Iran isn’t “apologizing for America”; it’s acknowledging our human fallibility. No person, and indeed no nation, is without sin.

Iran is mean. So is America. So are plenty of countries. Let’s stop hyping and exaggerating the threat Iran poses, and solve this problem once and for all.

Aug 01

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime contributor 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.)

Just the other night, I sat in a casino bar far from the Las Vegas strip waiting for a friend. The friend was in town for a job interview and he chose this particular casino and this particular bar to meet. I managed to beat him there from class. As I sat there, beer foaming from the tap and five dollars draining away to video blackjack, a young man and his friends approached my position at the bar.

“Bud Light,” he called out to the bartender who wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and slapped a twenty down on the bar.

I looked over to my left and said, “How’s it going?”

With a few words, this young man’s world opened up to me. From a combination of alcohol and excitement, I suddenly became this guy’s best friend. He slapped a hand around my shoulder, which startled me before I realized his state. After collecting myself I asked him what he was doing in the great city of Las Vegas.

My new best friend Jason is a soldier. Our country’s finest. As my father always taught me, I immediately thanked him for his service. “You’re a good man,” I said. “I thank you for all you do.”

There was a pause.

“You military?” he asked.

“No,” I shrugged. “My father was. My brothers are. But not me.”

Without pause came the response I’ve heard more than once. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Too good or too scared?”

He laughed. It was only a slight variation on a classic. He then turned to another man with him with tattoos up his right arm and said, “Look as this pussy. Daddy did all the fighting for him!”

They laughed some more. A few others joined in. I could feel my face flush. But humiliation wasn’t enough. He leaned in, an arm tight on my shoulder and said, “Do you have any idea how many buddies have taken IED’s so you can sit here and drink a beer?” More mocking ensued.

It was in this moment between a question and an answer that I became stuck. Admittedly, I probably stared directly ahead for a full minute before my response. As a man, I was just called a coward, all that I am insulted. Part of me wanted to compare scars and deeds.

“You think you know pain, bitch?” I wanted to say it. I wanted to measure experiences and compare who’s seen and done more. Which of us experienced more?  

Along that vein, part of me drifted to a hospital bed over a decade ago. My bed. If I’m being completely honest, it was part of me still trying to justify that I’ve suffer more than that jerk ever has. But the memory wasn’t about me, but of a child dying. Not from war wounds but of bone cancer. They couldn’t operate because it was everywhere. If you know nothing of bone cancer, understand that agony doesn’t do the experience justice. The God damned thing is so painful, these poor kids suffering from it are are in so much pain that morphine does nothing. It’s such agony that a child dying from it will scream, night and day. They scream till they’re hoarse. They screams till they pass out from exhaustion.

I can still hear him. A choking cough between waking and exhaustion, down the hall. Staring up at the ceiling. Thinking I could be him. Thanking a merciful God (and yes I see the irony in that statement) that I wasn’t.

Back in the casino bar, I took a twenty from my wallet. It’s all I had. I smiled at my new friend. “The next round’s on me.” I slid it over and got up. I hadn’t suffered. I’m not sure my new friend had either. But something other than that kid down the hall stuck in my head. For every day that he was there, so was his mother, watching. Listening. Helpless.

That’s pain.