Sep 26

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

Band of Brothers reaches its emotional peak during the end of “The Breaking Point”. As they emerged from the Ardennes, the 101st had transformed into the “battered bastards of Bastogne”.

This clip, around minute 1:30, shows the emotional toll on the men of Easy Company as they spend the night resting in a church. Listening to a children’s choir, First Sergeant Lipton tries to compile a roster for Easy Company. As he narrates, the soldiers who have died, lost it, or gotten wounded disappear from view.

As First Sergeant Lipton describes, Easy Company entered Belgium with 145 soldiers. After the Battle of the Bulge, they had 63.

That calculation answers a question for World War II that I (Michael C) asked for our 500th post anniversary:

1. If you are a civilian, how many casualties are you willing to risk to win our wars?

2. If you are an officer, how many of your own men are you willing to sacrifice to win our wars?

The commanding officers of Easy Company were willing to sacrifice over eighty soldiers simply to secure Belgium.

If that answer sounds callous, harsh or uncaring, it is. War is, fundamentally. a series of life or death decisions. It means the deaths of foreigners (another post for another time) and the deaths of Americans. Before America starts, joins or goes to any war, as a country, we need to answer the question: how much will we sacrifice?

In World War II, President Roosevelt, Congress and our generals knew that victory would require sacrifice--hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of men. Still, they gave our soldiers those orders. Consider...

- 9,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Allied Invasion of Sicily. Another 5,000 died in the Battle of Salerno.

- In a handful of days, during the invasion of Normandy, the Americans lost another 14 to 19,000 men.

- During Operation Market Garden, the U.S. lost 4,000 more men.

- During the Battle of the Bulge, around 19,000 more Americans died, with thousands more missing and wounded.

In Europe, millions of civilians perished. Recent estimates place the number of Russian dead at 26.6 million. Poland lost anywhere between 5.6 and 5.8 million people as well. The United Kingdom lost nearly half a million people. France lost a little over half a million people too.

Incomprehensibly large numbers can numb us to the pain. Our eyes glaze over. Band of Brothers shows how the American men (and boys) sacrificed.

They die as planes explode in “Day of Days”.

They get shot in the neck in “Carentan”.

They die from sniper fire in “The Replacements”.

They die by friendly fire in “Crossroads”.

They die by artillery in “Bastogne”.

They die by machine gun fire in “The Breaking Point”.

They die by grenade shrapnel in “Points”.

Easy Company wasn’t alone in this sacrifice. Hundreds of other companies throughout the European and Pacific theaters felt the same pain and sacrifice.

This article--and the questions I asked during our 500th anniversary week--emphasize a point neglected about war in our modern discourse: war means people (civilians, enemies and our soldiers) will die. Phrases like “heroes”, “support the troops” and “enforce our will on the enemy” all sanitize warfare. This sanitation hides the cost of war.

War means dead troops. Dead Afghans. Dead Iraqis. Dead Americans. Dead British. Dead French. Dead Italians. Dead Polish. Dead Czech Republicans.

War means sacrifice. Selfless sacrifice. In World War II, America was willing to sacrifice everything to win because the lives of millions of Britons, French and possibly Americans were at stake. During World War II, the generals, colonels, captains and officers of our military knew that thousands of young men would die.

Are we--as Americans--still ready to make that sacrifice in our current wars? I don’t think so, and it says something about the wars we choose to pursue.

Sep 24

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

Towards the middle of the Band of Brothers episode, “Bastogne”, Staff Sergeant Martin leads a reconnaissance patrol through the winter forest of Bastogne. As the platoon approaches a pile of logs, he sends a soldier (whose name I couldn’t catch) to a forward position. While moving, the German lines open fire. A bullet rips through the soldier’s neck.

The Easy company men try multiple times to rescue the dying soldier. They return fire with everything they have, but the withering German fire refuses to abate. After multiple attempts, Staff Sergeant Martin, and the rest of the reconnaissance patrol, reluctantly falls back.

They left one of their own behind.

Later, Sergeant Martin explains what happened to Captain Winters. They tried to rescue the wounded soldier, but just couldn’t get there. They just can’t rescue everyone.

While its founding occurred during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Army (and probably the Navy and Marine Corps, but I am going to stick to one service for this post) is really an army born out of the second World War. Until World War II, after every major war from 1776 to 1914, following the dramatic build up of its ground forces, at the end to hostilities the U.S. Army kicked everyone back out again. Most American Army units were founded in World War II or the build up to it. The Big Red One? The 101st? The 82nd? Two ID? Those are World War II units (Technically, it was after the Korean War that the Army never drew down again, but everyone forgot that war.)

As similar as the soldiers of today are to the soldiers of WWII, I have one question: how would World War II veterans feel about the Soldier’s creed, specifically the “Warrior Ethos”?

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

According to contemporary doctrine, reinforced at virtually every Army school, as recited in early morning PT formations, “warriors”--which all soldiers in the Army should aspire to--will never leave a fallen comrade.

Never leave a fallen comrade.

This means, alive or dead, we bring everyone home. Thus, during the war in Afghanistan, when a soldier went MIA, virtually every intelligence asset in country was requisitioned to find him. Same with most of the special operations forces in country. Other combat operations in Afghanistan virtually ceased in an effort to find him. The Taliban didn’t stop fighting or influencing local populations or infiltrating, but NATO turned its entire attention to finding one soldier.

I don’t want to debate the value of the Warrior Ethos in today’s post, but I do want to point out an inconvenient truth:

Our World War II veterans didn’t always fight this way.

And I would never call them anything but warriors. As I wrote above, the modern U.S. Army inherits its warrior tradition from those soldiers. And most World War II veterans could relate to the Warrior Ethos. But they probably wouldn’t have felt the need to constantly say it. The “greatest generation” understood that each of the components of the warrior ethos were constantly in balance.

Staff Sergeant Martin clearly wanted to rescue that fallen soldier during the reconnaissance patrol. The plot of the episode, “Bastogne”, revolves around a medic who does whatever he can to care and heal his fellow soldiers, constantly risking his life. If the situation became too dire, though, from headquarters to fire teams, leaders knew they sometimes had to leave their fallen comrades, and their bodies, behind.

In World War II our soldiers didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t spare the manpower to save every POW, MIA, WIA or KIA. In a maneuver war against an evenly-matched foe, if soldiers went missing, we couldn’t rescue them.

Our contemporary wars are different. In wars of choice, not about survival, the U.S. Army can choose to rescue every lost soldier. It is--strictly speaking--a luxury for our current combat forces.

As I pointed out before, the values of “mission first, people always” are impossible to always follow. Same with “mission first” and “never leave a fallen comrade”. Our core guiding ethos as a U.S. Army is fundamentally contradictory. Most soldiers and leaders and pundits and politicians don’t even realize this.

Sep 20

As usual, here is how our ideas have fared--good or ill--over the last few months:

Update to Last Week’s “Why We Hate ASU’s” Post

Just last Thursday, as part of our Band of Brothers series, Eric C bemoaned the Army Service Uniform, describing it as, “objectively not a good uniform”.

Then, on Monday, the US Army opened up a survey to get feedback on the ASU. So if you want to sound off, head here.

Modeling Emotion in Warfare

Some readers criticized our post, “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, saying that models of human behavior utterly fail when it comes to emotions. As a result, our military tends to treat every person in an insurgency as a rational actor simply pursuing self-optimizing goals. (“Self-optimizing” being the economics term for it, not mine.)

This Economist article says, “Hogwash!” New models for insurgent behavior can factor in different variables from location to religion to Twitter. My favorite section describes the SCARE program, which found that, “Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops.” Yep, self-optimizing with a huge dollop of emotional bias.

Update to “One Nation Under Contract”

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the Pentagon spent “204 billion” with a B on “service contracts” in 2010. That same year, the Pentagon spent 367 billion dollars on contracts, meaning the Pentagon pays more for services than it does for goods, weapons or equipment. Very likely, our military could not fight a contemporary war without these contractors.

(H/T to "Battleland")

Update to Leaks about the Osama bin Laden Raid

Here at On Violence, we don’t “chase the news”--for example, we won’t be discussing last week’s violence in north Africa for a while--because we loathe “premature opinionation”.
For example, last week, a Navy SEAL came out with his account, No Easy Day, of the Osama bin Laden raid. Its details clashed with several prior accounts. “The Atlantic Wire” has a round-up describing many details that have changed since the operation was first revealed. It also shows just how much leaking was going on, from the President to the SEALs themselves. Speaking of which...

By refusing to condemn or even mention the release of No Easy Day on their website, the “Special Operations OSPEC Fund” has shown it is a patently partisan organization. Go to their website now and you will find countless articles on President Obama’s failings, and none calling out their fellow Special Operators.

Just shameful.

The Most Effective Al Qaeda Franchise Strikes Again

Last January, I wrote about how, far and away, most terrorists are at best enticed and at worst entrapped by the FBI. In all, America doesn’t have a terrorism problem, and it might not have a single foreign terrorist on its soil. For an amazing, heartbreaking and eye-opening account into how “Al Qaeda FBI Branch” works, check out this hour of radio by This American Life partnered with documentary filmmaker Sam Black.

Update to “Which Country Do You Prefer?”

As Iran’s nuclear situation dominates the news, accusations of Iran’s intolerable Shia theocratic extremism always seem to pop up. I say, “Good.” We should always take the time to consider the human rights policies of our allies and enemies.

Let’s start with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy that tramples all over human rights to enforce a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam on its people, including subordination of women to men, as this Daily Beast article “Women Rise Up in Saudi Arabia” reminds us. Remember, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
The New Yorker article, “Modern Mecca”, about one reporter’s pilgrimage to Mecca, details yet another form of Wahhabi extremism: destruction of history. Hardliner religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia believe that worshipping (or venerating) holy buildings is a form of blasphemy, so they’ve been systematically destroying and replacing historic buildings in Saudi Arabia and, more specifically, Mecca. One analyst compares this destruction to the destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the Taliban. (Ironically, Shiite Iranians embrace these buildings.)

The Obama Doctrine

Unfortunately for American history, every President it seems will now have a “doctrine” with their last name plopped in front of it. I’m as guilty as other pundits. Last January, in my “Solutions to Intelligence versus Evidence”, I proposed an “Obama Doctrine” that would create a new “International Criminal Court for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals”. In this article from Foreign Policy’s “War Issue”, David Rohde argues that Obama already has a doctrine based around lethal killings via drone strikes. This doctrine inhibits our counter-terrorism strategy, and helps extremists recruit.

Sadly, I agree.
Update to "My Solution to the Iran Problem"

Stephen Walt argues that,

“...instead of spending all our time trying to scare the bejeezus out of countries like Iran (which merely reinforces their interest in getting some sort of deterrent), we ought to be reminding them over and over that we have a lot to offer and are open to better relations...If nothing else, adopting a less confrontational posture is bound to complicate their own calculations.”

Good words to leave off with.

Sep 18

As I wrote in my Washington Post op-ed “I didn’t deserve my combat pay”, I rather enjoyed the plush living conditions in Iraq in 2011, especially the showers.

You see, when I deployed to the Korengal valley in Afghanistan (as seen in the documentary Restrepo) in 2008, showers were a luxury and showers with hot water non-existent. When we moved bases, we eventually got showers, but not always hot water.

When I served on a special operations compound at Victory Base Complex in Iraq, the buildings had heat or AC as needed, and plenty of hot water. And the showers worked like a charm. (They had, though, years before, electrocuted a Green Beret. KBR fought a civil court case for years, instead of admitting its own negligence.)
Except for one big problem: these were the only showers in the complex. Since our base employed a large number of contractors--indeed most special operations do--they used the same showers as the soldiers. Even worse, the military cannot legally stop contractors from hiring homosexuals. This led to a horrifying situation where...I showered with a gay person! Me, a red-blooded heterosexual male, showering next to godless homosexual man, just itching to stare me up and down and imagine who knows what.

Terrifying. Except that, in college (at godless, liberal UCLA), our dorms didn’t differentiate by sexual orientation. Same with the godless gyms I have joined over the years; they didn’t exclude homosexuals either. Most gyms don’t even ask!

If my tone doesn’t convey it, I spent all of about two minutes thinking about showering with gay people in my entire life. I went to UCLA, and within about two weeks, I had increased the number of open homosexuals I knew from zero to a dozen, if not more. It hasn’t been an issue since. It took less than a split second to think, “Oh man, this is a complete non-issue.”

Which is why, since I joined ROTC and the U.S. Army, I have considered “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” one of the silliest, nonsense laws ever passed by Congress.

Last year, as Congress dithered over repealing one of the most regressive policies in the land, Eric C and I wanted to write an op-ed on DADT, telling my story about showering with gay contractors. Fortunately, we didn’t have to, because Congress repealed the law. With the first anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” coming up this Thursday, Eric C and I wanted to look back on the excuses for not repealing DADT, and the non-arrival of those predictions:

Prediction: Gay soldiers will shower with straight soldiers. (Links here, here and here) A complete non-issue, as I wrote above. Soldiers have been showering with homosexuals for years.

Prediction: Gay soldiers will sexualize the battlefield. (Link here.) We can “desexualize” the battlefield when we “desexualize” life. Only America’s puritanical Army vainly tries to enforce General Order Number 1--a standing order that forbids sexual relations downrange. Soldiers regularly break that rule, and it has since been rescinded.

Despite this ruling, PXs in Afghanistan and Iraq still sold condoms. Other more enlightened militaries encourage their female soldiers to bring condoms. (Oh, and one of the fiercest fighting forces in history had sex with each other. They left that out of 300 though. Sorry Army Companies and Battalions that unironically adopt the “Spartan” moniker.)

Prediction: Large numbers of homophobic soldiers will flee the military. With a downsizing army, a bad economy and the disinterest of the vast majority of soldiers in homosexual politics, this exodus never happened. It turns out for the vast majority of people under 30 don’t care about homosexuality, and they make up the vast bulk of the Army.

Either way, the Army’s recruiting numbers are just fine.

Prediction: This is social engineering. Eric C wants me to clarify what this means, but I can’t do it; I didn’t create the term. Trying to ban sex seems like social engineering. Choosing who can and can’t serve in the military seems like social engineering.

Again, the federal government cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Neither can most private businesses or academic institutions. If this is social engineering, the results have been in for a long time: it doesn’t matter.

Prediction: Gay soldiers will suffer harassment and physical violence. Again, this didn’t happen. Protected by sexual harassment laws, openly homosexual soldiers can now report harassment without fear of being discharged for their sexual orientation, where previously homosexuals couldn’t report abuse or violence. I worried that a major hate crime would occur after implementation. Thankfully, that never happened. Like all things, this excuse didn’t hold water. Fortunately, the repeal of DADT provides soldiers and sailors with more protection than ever, and the military must remain vigilant.

Prediction: Most importantly, military readiness, combat effectiveness and unit cohesion will collapse. As alleged by Rick Santorum, the Center for Military Readiness and others, this supposed “collapse” never came about. I welcome any Republican who supported DADT to come out and say that our military isn’t the greatest in the world now that DADT was repealed. (I can see the Democratic response ads already.)

Of course, Republicans won’t say that because it didn’t happen. Unit cohesion has more to do with the quality of its leaders and members than sexual orientation. I still believe the recruitment of soldiers with felonies (repeat, felonies) did more to harm military readiness than DADT.

So one year on, will conservatives who fought the DADT repeal stand up and admit the error of their ways?

In today’s culture wars, I doubt it.

Sep 17

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

By 1983, the year I entered this world, every Civil War veteran had died. When my dad was young he remembers watching a news program on the death of the last Civil War veteran. With their passing, the Civil War receded from our collective memory into the historic.

Like all wars. Mostly unremarked by the media, in February, the last living World War I veteran died in Britain at the age of 110. In the next generation, every World War II veteran will die. Then, like the Civil War, the “Good War” will recede into our historical memory.

How will our children, and their children, think about those European wars? After centuries of state on state war--averaging about one a decade--the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the other nations of Europe (and America) have avoided a major war for nearly 65 years. Will the children who never spoke to World War I or World War II veterans understand their tremendous good fortune?

A few weeks ago, two very good friends vehemently disagreed with my solution to the Iran crisis. They both said, “We just can’t be friends with everyone.” One repeated the often used Republican talking point about how the world is just dangerous. The other called my thinking “pollyanna-ish”. In each discussion, they relied on history to say, “Wars have always happened, and always will.”

But that’s not the same history I studied at UCLA. The history of Europe during the last sixty five years--marked by a long and extensive peace--says that former enemies can become fantastic allies. In Europe, international cooperation created the longest lasting peace in that continent's history.

More importantly, when America decides it wants peace, it can turn former enemies into fantastic allies. For instance...

Germany: After saddling Germany with intolerable debt that led to hyper-inflation (or failing to prevent the “victorious” nations from doing so) which caused the rise of fascism following World War I, America went back to war with Germany twenty years later. After World War II, having learned its lesson, America rebuilt Germany with the Marshall plan. Today, German chancellors welcome American presidents with open arms.

Italy: Pretty much the same story as Germany, with Italy switching sides in the middle of World War II. Italy, like Germany, joined NATO and the U.N., and hasn’t fought a war on the continent since.

Japan: Following World War II, few Americans and fewer Japanese would have predicted that 65 years later America would be Japan’s largest economic trading partner. Japan had attacked the U.S. first. America annihilated two cities in atomic fire and many more in fire bombings. Like Germany, America provided aid to rebuild destroyed societies while maintaining an economic relationship with Japan. Today, Japan is one of America’s strongest allies in the Pacific.

Russia: Following World War II, America and Russia started a Cold War, competing in arms races, espionage battles that raged across continents, and multiple proxy wars across the globe. Yet America and Russia avoided an apocalyptic nuclear war. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., America has strengthened its ties to the Russian Federation.

China: In “the forgotten war” in Korea, Chinese armies pushed the U.S. Army back to the 38th parallel, killing thousands of Americans in the process. As described in “The Nixon Option”, until the late 1960s it seemed inconceivable that a U.S. President would travel to China. But that happened. The opening of China helped spur both globalization, and has provided the U.S. with an invaluable trading partner.

Vietnam: America also resumed diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, where over 60,000 U.S. soldiers died. When America left Vietnam in 1975, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that, within a generation, America would renew diplomatic relations and allow unfettered trade with our former foe in south-East Asia.

At this time in our lives, America has more, stronger allies than at anytime in its past. The outliers--Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba and Ecuador (with their move to grant Julian Assange asylum)--are drastically poor and militarily wanting. In each case, if America really worked hard to change the relationship, it probably could turn these enemies into allies. The history of America’s diplomatic relationships over the last 65 plus years support my solution to the Iran crisis.

If America wants to avoid another disastrous war, America should make Iran one of its allies.

Sep 13

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

Luckily for Michael C, his two weeks of mid-tour leave during his deployment to Afghanistan coincided with a banquet in honor of our dad winning his high school’s “Teacher of the Year” award. Our dad asked him to wear his uniform.

Michael C wore his ACUs to the ceremony. (Though it seemed a little informal to me, civilians didn’t think so. A young six year old asked Michael C to take a picture with him.) Later, when I asked Michael C why he didn’t wear his dress uniform, he told me he didn’t want to be mistaken for the waiting staff.

He's not alone. Generals prefer ACUs as well.

Most of the posts in our Band of Brothers’ series deal with serious issues. Executing prisoners. War at its worst. Rules of engagement. Life or death issues. Take, for example, the very emotional episode “Crossroads”: Framed around the writing of an after-action report, Lt. Winters shoots a young German soldier, leads an attack, captures Germans, and gets promoted.

I’m going to ignore all that, because all I could think watching the episode was, “Damn, World War II era dress uniforms sure looked good.”

Is this complaint inconsequential? Maybe. But it’s equally infuriating. To me, and Michael C (though he didn’t want to write this post, he agrees with me), the current military service uniform is terrible. It’s ugly. It’s objectively not a good uniform (though I don’t have scientific evidence to prove this).

For those who don’t know what the current uniform looks like, here it is:

This just looks bad, wrong. As I wrote above, and as Michael C has told me, it looks like something a waiter would wear. My biggest criticism is that it doesn’t look like an Army uniform. The blues and blacks--in lieu of traditional Army browns and greens--make it look like something from the Navy.

Now, compare that to Lt. Winters and Lt. Nixon:

The World War II era uniform just looks better.

“Sure, those guys look good.” you may be saying, “But those are attractive, well-lit movie stars. They could make the Air Force’s uniforms look good. It’s not a fair comparison.”

Okay, how about this guy:

Unlike Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game, Eisenhower won’t be winning any beauty contests anytime soon, and he still makes the old uniform look good. That’s how good that uniform was.

I hate complaining about something without providing an alternative. In this situation, the alternative is obvious: go back to a uniform inspired by World War II era uniforms. The uniforms that the officers and sergeants wear in Band of Brothers look terrific. They look noble. Better.

Just a thought.

Sep 12

One of the great things about UCSB--aside from the girls, the drinking, the beach, the partying, the freedom, the library and the academic learning, in that order--is the Arts and Lectures program.

Through the A&L program, I saw performances by Herbie Hancock, Etta James and Bobby McFerrin. I listened to readings from Michael Chabon and Peter Matthiessen. I heard lectures by Eric Schlosser (who asked the room how many people had smoked pot, then everyone raised their hands) and Vandana Shiva. I saw my first Hiyao Miyazaki movie at Campbell Hall. In downtown Santa Barbara, I listened Colin Powell shrug off the missing WMDs. (As the Santa Barbara Independent explained, “You might have thought he was explaining how he returned some DVDs to the wrong video shop.”)

And then I saw Derrida.

That’s right, Jacques Derrida, a philosopher so famous, I only need to write his last name...unless you don’t follow post-war philosophy, in which case, Derrida is the king of postmodern continental philosophy--the creator/un-creator of Deconstruction. When Colin Powell came, the two hours line to get tickets stretched hundreds of people long. Knowing Derrida’s popularity and preeminence in his field, I went early to get tickets. I didn’t want to miss out the way so many had with General Powell.

I was the only person in line.

But what my fellow college students didn’t know, the senior faculty at UCSB did. The night of his lecture, Derrida had three introductions (three!), including one from UCSB’s Chancellor Henry Yang. Almost every senior faculty member attended the lecture and Stephen Hawking (Stephen Hawking!) sat in the front row. Jacques Derrida is a big fricking deal.

Most excitingly, Derrida planned to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Could there be a bigger, more important topic for a bigger, more momentous speaker?

I went to the lecture with a friend who was a graduate student in philosophy (analytic philosophy). As luck (cruel, cruel luck) would have it, as soon as my friend and I found seats in the auditorium, the TA from my Environmental Ethics class saw me, and took a seat right next to me. More on this later.

So after the introductions, Derrida took the stage. Old but not frail, he began his lecture in a thick French accent by warning the audience, “We must never forget what it means to vowel. And vowel-ing the unvowel-able.”

Now, I knew going in Derrida would be impenetrable--it’s kind of his thing; when Derrida died, The New York Times obituary described him as “abstruse” in the headline--but this impenetrable? What the hell do vowels have anything to do with Israel and Palestine? Would we have to consonant the un-consonant next?
A few minutes later, I realized Derrida was talking about vows, and how we need to vow the un-vow-able. So I stopped paying attention, pleased that I had a good anecdote to share with people later. (To be fair, the “vowing the unvowable” sentiment is as equally meaningless as “voweling the unvowelable”.)

I wasn’t alone; about thirty minutes into the lecture, the students relegated to the back of Campbell Hall headed for the doors. I’d have joined them, too, but like I wrote earlier, my TA was sitting right next me. I didn’t want him to be grading one of my papers thinking, “This ass walked out on Derrida. What does he know about environmental ethics?”

On the walk home four hours later--it may have been less; it felt like four hours--my friend summed up the lecture neatly, “I was really hoping Derrida would have something insightful to say. He didn’t.” And my friend, a graduate student in real philosophy, paid attention to the lecture.

To bring this back around to On Violence, Derrida didn’t say anything meaningful. I get that he’s a got a post-structuralist philosophy to uphold and years of intentionally vague and contradictory writing to push, but Derrida wasted everyone’s time in that building. Eight years on, people are still dying on the Gaza Strip, and one of Western civilization’s “greatest” philosophers couldn’t say anything remotely coherent or useful on the topic.

Listen to this Philosophy Bites episode on the importance of philosophers in everyday life and political debates; I couldn’t agree more. Philosophers have a place in the world, not just writing obscure philosophical tomes or debating each other at lonely philosophy conferences. They don’t just have the opportunity but the obligation to make the world a better place, especially when people are dying. Philosophers should try, to the best of their ability, to inspire non-professionals to read their ideas and spread those ideas to the larger world. Again, especially if people are dying.
Derrida wasted his chance. Instead of offering a solution, he offered aphorisms. Instead of ideas, he pointed out contradictions. Instead of thinking of something new and useful, Derrida offered philosophical insights like, “...although Israelis and Palestinians are not living together peacefully, they are still living together.”

And thoughts like these don’t help at all.

Sep 10

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

Eric C ended up working on the post “The Original Name of Violence” for over three years before he felt he had it perfect. It was worth the wait, because in it, commenter “Martin” might have made the most insightful comment we have ever received on the blog.

At the time, we had just launched “The Case Against War with Iran” series, and this comment struck me as completely applicable. To build peace, America needs the traits of all great leaders: wisdom, magnanimity and forgiveness.

Here is that comment:

Many years ago I was a teacher. As part of my teacher training I elected to do an optional course called something like “Dealing with difficult children”. The course involved quite a bit of role play of teacher pupil confrontations. The thing I learnt on that course, and the thing the instructor wanted us to take away was this: it is the job of the teacher to lower the level of confrontation, because the pupil sure won’t. If the pupil shouts and the teacher shouts louder, then things escalate. The teacher must work to lower the level of confrontation. That doesn’t mean being weak, or capitulating; it is rather the intelligent exercise of power to achieve the teacher’s goals.

The lesson generalises: in a conflict, it is the duty of the more powerful to lower the level of confrontation(1).

There are two ways to stop a conflict: for the weak party to surrender, or for the powerful party to be magnanimous(2). But when the weak surrenders, it is armistice rather than peace. (Think Treaty of Versailles after WWI c.f. Marshall Plan after WWII). The only way to lasting peace is for the more powerful party (or the victor) to be magnanimous.

All is not futile: the cycle of violence can be ended, but it can only be ended by the more powerful.

(1) This is actually one of the most important life lessons I have learnt.

(2) There is a third way: mutual destruction, but I’ll avoid that as it is a distraction to my main point.

As the drums continue to beat for war with Iran, more Americans and Israelis would do well to remember this sound advice. Peace, deescalation, forgiveness and magnanimity aren’t just options for powerful people, they’re requirements.

Sep 06

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

In the Band of Brothers episode “Replacements”, Easy Company cautiously approaches the town of Nuenen, having already lost a lieutenant to sniper fire. An old man leans out a window and shouts at them, “Get away, get away,” in French, giving away Easy Company’s position. Why didn’t the U.S. soldiers shoot him?

The Rules of Engagement.

At the end of the episode, the Allies bomb Einhoven. Why could they?

The Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly, for today’s post, starting at minute 31:00, the central character of “Replacements”, Big Sarge Denver “Bull” Randleman motions to Sergeant Martin to tell a British tank to fire a few shells at a civilian house. This could collapse the house on a hidden German Tiger tank waiting in ambush.

The British soldier demurs, “I can’t. My orders are no unnecessary destruction of property...if I can’t see the bugger I can’t very well shoot him, can I?”

Why didn’t the British tank fire?

The Rules of Engagement.

While Easy Company watched the bombing of Einhoven from a distance and the old man didn’t alert the Germans to the company’s position, the last incident hurt. The German soldiers, and especially their tanks, wreaked utter havoc on the British-American force. They destroyed two British tanks, killed multiple Americans, and eventually forced the company into full retreat. Easy Company lost the skirmish.

In other words, what a fantastic argument for the inanity of ROE. Isn’t this a perfect example of ROE in action, getting our soldiers killed unnecessarily and preventing us from winning wars? Some uptight sergeant can’t see a lurking Tiger tank in his looking glasses so he dooms the entire operation?

Hardly. Easy Company failed to take the town of Nuenen because they didn’t have enough men or tanks. The Germans held reinforced positions in a strong defense with armor for reinforcements. But forget all that: they had more men and the element of surprise.

I just re-watched this particular scene to make sure I understood it right. And based solely on this episode--not the actual history of this company-sized action--no one should draw the conclusion that ROE cost any soldiers their lives. Even if the British had started firing at the vague position of the Tiger tank, they probably still would have missed. (The British sergeant is right in one regard: it is exceptionally hard to shoot what you cannot see.) Even if the British tank had hit the building next to the Tiger tank, this wouldn’t have trapped or destroyed the Tiger tank, it simply would have bought the British a few extra second to try to shoot the Tiger first, which likely still would have survived the encounter. (And the editing is unclear, so I cannot tell if the Germans had additional tanks in reserve, at which point the entire situation is moot.)

Why debate the tactics of one specific battle in one episode of World War II? Because opponents of restrictive ROE use tactical situations like the one above to argue that ROE, not bad leadership, planning or even enemy action, gets our soldiers killed. Luttrell argued this in Lone Survivor. A dad in this Los Angeles Times article claims ROE killed his son. A congressmen says ROE kills our troops in Afghanistan. This Facebook page has article after article allegedly showing ROE killing our troops.

And just last week two parents at a rally at the Republican National Convention blamed President Obama’s ROE for their Navy SEAL son’s death.

Opponents of strict ROE look at this scene in Band of Brothers and say, “Look, it got our soldiers killed!” They hear a rumor from a friend whose son knew a guy who heard that soldiers in Afghanistan can’t shoot terrorists because of ROE. Frequently, the contemporary opponents of any and all rules of engagements--who treat it like a monolithic object it is not--claim that in, “Dubya Dubya two, we didn’t tie our soldiers hands behind their backs!

By watching this episode carefully, though, we see the fallacy of all those arguments. First, our soldiers in World War II fought under rules of engagement. And yes, it was less stringent than our current wars, but those wars were much more violent. ROE wasn’t the most dangerous thing in combat, moving was. Artillery was. Sniper fire was.

But go back to that German civilian who tried to wave the Americans away. Opponents of ROE would let American soldiers shoot the old man for trying to talk to them if they felt threatened. Not only would that have done nothing, it would have eroded the popular support for the Americans and the British. Losing popular support could have ruined the peace that has since lasted seventy years. Rules of engagement might not have helped win the war, but it helped create a lasting peace.

Finally, the sergeant in the British tank misinterpreted the rules of engagement. Destroying the house isn’t “unnecessary” if American scouts have spotted a German target. That’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation of his orders. So under the rules of engagement, the British tank should have fired. If we have to condemn all sound plans because someone misunderstands them, well, we have to get rid of all plans.

I blame Hollywood, partly, for ROE’s bad reputation. Just today, Eric C and I watched The Expendables II. (Which, in all other respects, may be the greatest film in film history.) In a throwaway monologue, Liam Hemsworth’s character retells a (completely unrealistic) story where all his buddies die in Afghanistan because they can’t get air support. Tight rules of engagement make the perfect villain: a bureaucratic rule that gets soldiers killed. Since it is such an easy villain, it pops up all the time.

As I have written before, tight rules of engagement help win wars, and Hollywood’s simplistic portrayal in movies doesn’t help that argument.

(Over the years, I've (Michael C) written about the rules of engagement plenty of times, including some of our first posts. I wanted to collect them all in one place. To read other posts about ROE, please look below:

Arcs of Fire

Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities

Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires

Operation Judgement Day

Why Leaders Make the ROE

ROE - Reducto Ad Absurdum

A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

BTW, Insurgents Have Rules of Engagement As Well

If They Don't Fight Like Us, Why Do They Use Our Rules of Engagement?

Another ROE False Dilemma

Terrorist Rules of Engagement Pt. 2

 My Answer to Monday's Hypothetical

The Rules of Engagement Are Democratic, and Thank God for That

ROE Link Drop

Getting Around the Rules of Engagement: Observer Training

Guest Post: Rules of En"game"ment

Sep 05

“Government at all levels is too large, too expensive, woefully inefficient, arrogant, intrusive, and downright dangerous.”

The above quote comes from the Libertarian Party website. For the purposes of our series “Our Communist Military” that single line sums up the thinking of “small government conservatives”, libertarians, “free market capitalists” and the Republican party.
Summarized, the government equals terrible.

Which is fine for a political philosophy, if you want to embrace that thinking. But you can’t think that the government equals terrible, then sign your name to a document that says the opposite. In two weeks, we plan to celebrate the one year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. During our research, we came across an amazing statement signed by a host of military bloggers published on May 12, 2010. Here’s the first paragraph:

“We consider the US military the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. No other organization has freed more people from oppression, done more humanitarian work or rescued more from natural disasters. We want that to continue.”

Greatest institution.

For good.

That has ever.

Existed. (Our bolding.)

This statement was signed by fifteen military bloggers, including four authors from and Mark Seavey from This Aint Hell. Yet many conservative milbloggers hate the government, specifically, anything that smacks of “socialism”:

- Uncle Jimbo calls himself a “libertarian” in this post. He also calls President Obama’s policies “Obamunism” in this post.

- This post by “Deebow” talks about how, if he were President, he would, “get government out of the way” of Americans. It also advocates for several more small government approaches to governance.   

- The spokesman for Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund called President Obama, “Communist in Chief Hussein Mao Obama”.

- Writing on A Soldier’s Perspective (a blog which didn’t sign the above statement, but believes in the military as one of our greatest institutions) Wes writes that he doesn’t want America “teetering off the abyss into socialism”.   

- And This Aint Hell really hates the scary spectre of socialism. In this post, the authors admonish us to “remember the basic tenet of socialism: it is a leveling of all things, including nations.” This other post calls President Obama’s political team a “thoroughly liberal/socialist/communist movement”.

Milbloggers aren’t the only conservatives holding two incompatible ideas in their head at the same time. Politicians from Senator John McCain to Mitt Romney to Congressman Paul Ryan argue that we need to shrink the federal government but increase defense spending.

Something doesn’t make sense here. How can the greatest organization in the history of the a product of the government, which allegedly causes only inefficiencies, waste, and tyranny? How does that jibe with the idea that a big government program--the biggest government program in discretionary spending--is the single greatest institution in, not just the history of the U.S., but the history of the world?

Most small government conservatives don’t bother reconciling these arguments. Like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney’s budget plans, they simply say, “Shrink the federal government to nothing, except for national security and defense.” Small government supporters love espousing libertarian ideals until they run into the consequences, like a drastically smaller Department of Defense. This shows the gap between ideology and action; conservatives have constituencies, and those constituencies don’t like cuts.

Libertarians also won’t admit that the military suffers from the same problems that the rest of the government does. As we will keep showing that blind support for the military prevents the Pentagon from implementing cost cutting measures and efficiencies needed to bring it into the 21st century. Pro-military milbloggers call any and every one who even thinks about criticizing the military unpatriotic. (More on this later.)

If the military is the greatest institution ever created by man, then it can probably take a little criticism. And if it is the greatest institution ever created, can government create another?

Sep 04

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

Luckily, since we started this series on Iran, most of the comments have stayed positive or offered polite disagreement. If America, Israel or Iran actually do begin to drift towards war, I worry that will change. I worry people will challenge us, “Do you guys want America to lose? Do you hate America?”

This quote from a 2003 David Carr article on the aftermath of the initial invasion of Iraq captures our worries:

“This has been a tough war for commentators on the American left. To hope for defeat meant cheering for Saddam Hussein. To hope for victory meant cheering for President Bush.

"The toppling of Mr. Hussein, or at least a statue of him, has made their arguments even harder to defend. Liberal writers for ideologically driven magazines like The Nation and for less overtly political ones like The New Yorker did not predict a defeat, but the terrible consequences many warned of have not happened."

(Please read more about the toppling of Saddam’s statue in this The New Yorker article debunking it. And yes, we’re aware how ironic this quote is in retrospect.)

Both paragraphs of David Carr’s comment could apply to both Eric C and me. For the first paragraph, Eric C and I deal with an inversion of Carr’s issue. We will advocate against military action in Iran, no matter which party occupies the White House. We base our decision on whether or not to support a war on the wisdom of the decision, not the man in office. If President Obama loses and President Romney wins, it won’t change how we feel about Iran.

The second paragraph in the Carr quote really causes me to worry. I have tried to clearly lay out the options for a possible war with Iran. Since I can’t predict the future, I have to couch my analysis in probabilities. I believe a war with Iran will probably cost thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines their lives. But I could be wrong. Again, I can’t predict the future.
Carr rightfully points out that many liberal writers predicted that the Iraq war would go badly from the start. The Iraq war did go terribly, but it was a slow burn, a slow rot that took thousands of lives over many years. The Iran war could have the same slow pain. Or it could be bad immediately. Or U.S. commanders could effectively bomb Iran without any severe consequences. In virtually no cases could military action against Iran end their nuclear program.

Eric C and I have a post coming up about “blaming America first”. Americans need to stop questioning each other’s love of country. Predicting disaster, or the possibility of disaster, does not mean either of us wants the U.S. to lose a war. Or that we want U.S. troops to die in combat. Or that we want Iran to have nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world where every decision can only work out well. I mean, that would make leadership and strategy much easier, wouldn’t it? Instead, our political leaders need as much information as possible to make wise and effective decisions. Some of that information won’t be pleasant to hear. That doesn’t make it not true.

When it comes to Iran, America needs a more realistic portrayal of Iran’s military capabilities and the consequences of fighting them. America needs a more robust debate over the perils of another war in another Middle Eastern nation. This honesty might encourage more elected officials and military leaders to stop beating the war drums about Iran.

That doesn’t mean I am rooting for Iran. We’re rooting for America. We love America, and we want us to make the right decision, which is a diplomatic and peaceful solution to this conflict.

Sep 03

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

Over the last few months, Eric C and I have spent countless hours turning the IPB section of our series, “The Case Against the War in Iran”, into an paper titled, “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”. After three months of work, that paper was just published on The Small Wars Journal on Friday. We’ve rewritten and updated almost every section, so check out our new takes.

I’ll repeat the point that concludes the article because the first comment on the post reflected my worry. More than anything, I want this paper (and hopefully a follow up op-ed) to inspire this discussion: Americans, what are you willing to sacrifice in a war with Iran? And I want politicians to answer this question: What do you think it will cost to go to war with Iran?

Also, thanks to Doctrine Man for linking to our most recent (and controversial) article, “Our Communist Military”.

To everyone who has Facebook’ed, Tweeted or commented on the recent posts, again thanks.