Nov 29

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

In the closing scenes of the Band of Brothers episode, “Why We Fight”, the men of Easy Company liberate Kaufering IV, a subsidiary camp of the crown jewel of the concentration camp system, Dachau. The episode ends with the following inscription:

“During the following months, Allied Forces discovered numerous POW, concentration and death camps.

“These camps were part of the Nazi attempt to effect the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’.

“Between 1942 and 1945 five million ethnic minorities and six millions Jews were murdered -- many of them in the camps.”

Connected to the title, the message of the episode is simple: America goes to war to fight tyranny. We fight to save lives. We fight to stop evil, like Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

But that’s not why we fought.

After years of indecision, America went to war with Japan because they attacked us. We went to war with Germany because Hitler declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbor.

Which isn’t to say America didn’t already pick sides. We had pledged to become the “arsenal of democracy” for the Allies, providing them with supplies and assistance. (Again, nothing in history is ever black and white; many pro-fascist Americans, like Father Coughlin, opposed this effort.)

If America had already picked sides, did we decide to support the Allies because of Germany’s horrific final solution, as revisionist history and the title “Why We Fight” and inscription indicate? Not even close.

Exhibit 1, from the episode itself: none of the soldiers knew about the camp they would free. Or the entire concentration camp system. The entire Holocaust surprises them.

Exhibit 2, from the book Holocaust in American Life:

“Throughout the war few Americans were aware of the scale of the European Jewish catastrophe. By late 1944 three quarters of the American population believed that the Germans had "murdered many people in concentration camps," but of those willing to estimate how many had been killed, most thought it was 100,000 or fewer. By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, most people guessed that about a million (including, it should be noted, both Jews and non-Jews) had been killed in the camps...

...the future playwright Arthur Miller observed ‘the near absence among the men I worked with ... of any comprehension of what Nazism meant — we were fighting Germany essentially because she had allied herself with the Japanese who had attacked us at Pearl Harbor."

America itself was incredibly anti-semitic. Exhibit 3, from Wikipedia:

“In a 1938 poll, approximately 60 percent of the respondents held a low opinion of Jews, labeling them “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “pushy.” 41 percent of respondents agreed that Jews had "too much power in the United States," and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945. In 1939 a Roper poll found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted" and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported. Several surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 found that Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group”

We didn’t go to war to stop Hitler, the Nazis or genocide. We went because we were attacked. At least that’s what the American people who launched and fought WWII thought at the time.

But the title of the episode goes a step farther. It’s “Why We Fight”, not “Why We Fought”, and verb tense matters. The latter talks about American wars in general, the former about World War II.

Frankly, to put the origins of every American war on the level of stopping the Holocaust is absurd. We fought the Mexican American war to gain territory. We fought World War I to...I don’t know why we fought World War I. Northerners fought the Civil War to stop slavery, but southerners fought it to keep it. (Sorry, southerners, I don’t want to debate this point.)

And finally we come to Iraq. One of my ongoing pet peeves is the last remaining justification of the Iraq War, oft repeated by its dwindling supporters: Saddam was a very bad man. But we didn’t invade Iraq to kill a dictator. We went went to find WMDs and Al Qaeda training camps that didn’t exist.

America doesn’t go to war for noble and heroic reasons, unfortunately. The fate of the world, usually, isn’t on the line.

I actually like the episode “Why We Fight”. Liberating concentration camps is a part of the experience of veterans of the European theater. It’s a part of World War II. A few years ago, I wrote a story for a local paper about a group of veterans living in a retirement community in San Clemente. After a group chat, one veteran named Clarence gave me the honor of letting me interview him, and tears came to his eyes as he talked about liberating Dachau. The story needs to be told, and “Why We Fight” actually told it well, containing the sadness, pathos and complexity of the issue. As I wrote earlier, none of the soldiers see it coming.

It’s the title and closing inscription I have an issue with. It’s how the writers and producers of the series from these events. They propose a false American moral superiority that history cannot defend. Fifteen months after this episode aired, America invaded Iraq, under the same banner of righteousness with which we’ve rewritten the history of World War II. We can’t forget that.

Nov 28

President Obama (Maybe?) Listens to On Violence

Unfortunately, congress just can’t seem to pass the comprehensive Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which extends protection to national security and intelligence workers. While On V may not make endorsements of candidates, we enthusiastically endorse that legislation. To fill the gap, President Obama (finally) used a Presidential directive to extend protections to federal whistleblowers working in national security or intelligence, a move praised by the ACLU, the Secrecy News blog, and now us.

Update to Checking the Mental Health Box

Grim news came out of the Army earlier this summer. According to CBS News, “Suicides among active-duty soldiers in July more than doubled from June, accelerating a trend throughout the military this year.” Until the military stops checking the mental health box--we’ve written about it before here and here--these suicides will continue. Worse, the suicide epidemic among veterans is largely ignored because the VA has no chance at accurately figuring out how bad the problem is.

Update to the Statistics Behind Terrorism

Steve Coll, writing about the Sikh Temple Shooting in Oak Creek, Minnesota last August, referred to a new joint project between the New America Foundation and Syracuse University to put all terrorism cases in America in context.

No surprise, but fundamentalists are behind most of the attacks. Not Muslim fundamentalists, but right-wing Americans, often motivated by racist attitudes. The research also shows that, unsurprisingly, terrorism is much less of a threat than un-politically motivated violence. As we’ve said before, the statistics behind terrorism don’t match either the public’s understanding or the government’s funding.

Omni-Consumer Products Keeps Supplying Our Police
Eric C and I are always a pinch disappointed when our favorite posts don’t grab the twittersphere by storm. One of our favorite movies growing up was Robocop. (Because eight year olds love robot cops.) As grown ups, we love Robocop because of what it has to say/predicted about the rise of drones and the militarization of police forces across America.

Check out this Wired post from June to see how many police departments across the country have decided to become armies. In August, Blackfive’s Uncle Jimbo used the phrase “taking advantage of military programs to Robocop themselves” about the same idea.

And yeah, based on images taken from the set, we think the new armor looks terrible, though other, newer images give us some hope.

Update to the Lone Survivor Film

Longtime readers know that we called Luttrell and Robinson’s memoir the worst since 9/11. We even wrote a post asking Universal to stop production on it. While Universal did ultimately decide to drop out of financing the Lone Survivor film, it still plans to distribute it. But the film pushes on, having cast Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and others to play the SEALs.

Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Maybe the Military is Just Liberal...

Though she didn’t know it, Rosa Brooks dismantled our entire “Our Communist Military” series, by writing about how the military is actually...liberal?

She makes the case by arguing that the beloved Military Times poll (cited by On Violence here) skews its results by surveying:

“voluntary responses to surveys sent by email to subscribers -- and, as the editors note, a disproportionate number of the respondents are white, male, and older than average. What's more, many polls fail to differentiate between career military personnel and short-timers, or between officers and enlisted personnel.”

And then this:

“Dempsey's most interesting finding, perhaps, is that self-selected political labels are extremely poor predictors of servicemembers' actual views on social, political, and economic issues. Regardless of how they label themselves to pollsters, for instance, officers' views on issues ranging from abortion to government spending on social programs tend, on the whole, to be moderate to liberal, while the views of enlisted soldiers tend to skew liberal.”

Does this change anything for us? Yes and no. Having recently studied random sampling in business school, I can’t argue with her logic. To see the most biased sample ever, read about the 1936 Literary Digest poll of ten million people. She is also right that, taken as a whole, the Army’s enlisted men tend to reflect the country they serve. However, we still believe that the military’s officers skew overwhelmingly conservative. And they tend to be the people who respond to these surveys.

Her main point, though, that “political labels are extremely poor predictor’s of servicemembers’ actual views on social, political and economic issues” could sum up the point of our series. Too many partisans in America hold viewpoints they don’t actually practice.

Nov 27

(Today's guest post is by an anonymous soldier. 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.)

In October the Defense Department’s number two official, Ashton Carter, visited some of the United States’ nearly 15,000 troops in Kuwait and thanked them for their service and sacrifice before--from what can be construed from news reports--totally failing in trying to describe why these soldiers were forced to sit in the Kuwait desert away from their families and undertaking no real mission or purpose. (For the full article.)

From the average citizen, the words “thank you for your service” are the best connection a civilian can often think of to bridge the gap between their own and the military world. But from Ashton Carter, it just doesn’t cut it. Carter totally failed in his explanation of why we are keeping thousands of troops in Kuwait.  And what Carter may not know is that the bulk of those troops are being drawn from Army National Guard units, taken away from civilian jobs and civilian lives to sit in the desert for a year.

The rationale behind this deployment in Kuwait lies in a DoD strategy to keep thousands of troops in certain ‘strategic lily pads’ throughout the Middle East for a presence in those countries even while the U.S. shifts focus to Asia. Kuwait was perhaps the most notable example, as after the withdrawal from Iraq, thousands of troops were stationed in Kuwait and this report sought to keep a baseline of 13,500 troops there. A large number of those are currently Army National Guard soldiers instead of active duty ones.

So what’s with the National Guard?

The military reserve (which includes the Army and Air National Guard, as well as the reserve component of each service) used to be what was termed a “strategic reserve,” meaning, effectively, that if World War III broke out, they would be called upon to augment the active duty forces. In Vietnam the National Guard existed, but was not deployed, because the Army was able to draft people directly to the regular Army and send them to the front lines. With an all-volunteer and extremely expensive military, the reserve became a cheap way to augment active duty troops and was called-up heavily during Desert Storm in 1991. And in the recent years it has been used extensively throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the last decade, the reserve has become an “operational reserve” meaning that they are continually called up to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Considering the size, complexity and intensity of these wars, it is understandable that reservists have been mobilized. But Iraq is over, and there are only 60,000 service members left in Afghanistan. So why are so many reservists populating Kuwait? Why aren’t they being brought home so the deployments be done by active duty soldiers?

Well, the Defense Department sees the National Guard as a cheap way to maintain its strength. They only have to pay reserve soldiers active duty pay when they need to, and otherwise, can force them to fend for themselves in the civilian world, where their unemployment rate far exceeds that of the average citizen. They don’t have to provide nearly the training or equipping budget. Furthermore, with these basic missions the Army can ensure that the National Guard keeps its skill level moderately high and doesn’t return to its joke status of the 1980s when its only operational experience was that of returning Vietnam veterans from active duty.

The frank language of the 2013 DOD budget makes it clear, “Today’s Citizen Warriors have made a conscious decision to serve, with full knowledge that their decisions mean periodic recalls to active duty under arduous and hazardous conditions.” (2013 DOD budget summary)

Bottom line: They plan to keep deploying reservists as long as they want to. Their basic argument boils down to, “We will, because we can. You signed up for it, we will use you however we please.”

This, I would argue, is not a sustainable model and is one of the most callous pieces of bureaucratic crap I have ever read, even from the Defense Department. Nor is it a just use of our nation’s most precious resource. The Army is at least trying to think this one through, as reported in August in the Army Times. According to the article, the Army is “working hard to reach a balance in training that allows units to achieve their required readiness while remaining acceptable to families and employers.” Great idea, however, I do not believe the Army is capable of coming up with a solution that benefits anyone other than the Army.

Reservists signed up to serve, and are uniformly proud of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, bogus, involuntary activations to serve on useless deployments will drive them away. At least, it will drive away the good ones worth having.

It also does not account for civilian employers. Let me be honest about what I have seen: the Pentagon is staffed by careerist officers, political appointees and civilians who think war is a chess game to be played from a desk. They think soldiers are an input, a commodity resource. They are disconnected from reality. In their mind, USERRA rights, which prevent discrimination in hiring, promotion and firing against reservists, actually prevent discrimination against reservists and allow them to create elaborate training schedules that encompass weekdays and extra training in the summertime.

Reality check: soldiers have to have real jobs (or should), and in a rough economy, these Pentagon policy makers are totally blind to the job discrimination that reservists face. If you run a company, and you know a reservist will be deployed every five years, and you look on his resume and he hasn’t been deployed in the last 3, would you hire him?  If you have five candidates for a job, and one is in the National Guard, this means you know he will, at a minimum, be gone for two weeks every year, and probably want to take a vacation at some point too. Would you hire him?

The military will keep deploying our military reservists as long as we let them. They will hold ceremonies and say, “Thank you for your service” and keep shipping soldiers over to sit in Kuwait or Africa and then cutting off their benefits as soon as they get back home so they can get their “cost effective returns on significant DOD investment.” (This gem of a phrase was also included in the 2013 budget referring to the reservists.)

But does that make it just?

Nov 26

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the justice system is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you. In this case “soft on crime”.)

Recently, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about veteran’s courts. While On V avoids endorsing individual politicians, we enthusiastically endorse veteran’s courts.   

Veteran’s courts specialize in sentencing veterans who have returned home from war. As 60 Minutes explains, “Around Houston, in Harris County, Texas, 400 veterans are locked up every month.” Seeing this problem, a veteran and Texas State District Judge Marc Carter came up with a solution:

“In 2009, Carter and other volunteers opened a court just for vets who've committed first time felonies, things like assault, robbery, drunk driving, spousal abuse. After arrest, vets have a choice, go through the regular system or come to this court with its mandatory two years of treatment and supervision.”

Why this program? Judge Carter explains:

“You have to put [veterans] in a program that's going to help them, that's going to make them be successful. If you just put them out there on probation they are going to fail. If you put them on probation that is tailored to deal with their problems, PTSD and drug use, then they'll be successful. They won't have to go to prison.”

As effective as this system sounds, something about it didn’t sit right with me (Eric C). Something felt wrong about it. Unjust.

First, it doesn’t feel fair to create a Starship Troopers-esque two-tier justice system where veterans get special treatment over civilians.

But that’s silly. The system is fair, for a not-so-obvious reason. Many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress, sustained from going to war. People with PTSD are more likely to engage in destructive or illegal activity. Ispo facto, some of the crimes committed by veterans are mitigated by the fact that they got PTSD as a direct result of serving our country.

But thinking about PTSD made me think about something else: a This American Life episode from a few months back on education.

One of the big problems for troubled youth guessed it, PTSD. From neighborhoods racked with gun violence or homes suffering from domestic abuse, many kids develop defense mechanisms that hamper them from living normal, everyday lives. This American Life explains the problem:

“What this new science seems to indicate is that what is holding these children back is not poverty. It's not the lack of money or resources in their homes. It's stress. If you grew up in a poor household, it is more likely to be a household the just stresses you out in ways that kids in better-off homes are not stressed out. And that stress prevents you from developing these non-cognitive skills.”

And then I figured out why veteran’s courts didn’t sit right with me: everyone should have access to it, not just veterans. If society--broken homes, domestic abuse, and so on--cause children to grow up more likely to cause crimes, our criminal justice system should try to fix the underlying psychological issues, just like they do for veterans. The always insightful Dahlia Lithwick explains it better than I can:

“Perhaps the inevitable conclusion here is the one nobody wants to say out loud: We have known for years that treatment works better than incarceration when it comes to criminal defendants with drug and mental-health problems. Close supervision and monitoring work better than casting our most vulnerable citizens adrift or tossing them into overcrowded jails with inadequate resources...But the fact that veterans courts seem to work as well as they do suggests a more fundamental lesson about correcting what's broken in the criminal justice system...You don't have to oppose veterans' court to want that type of justice for all.”

Consider this yet another exhibit in the theory-not-practice point of “Our Communist Military”. Conservatives are, in general, tough on crime. According to the Wikipedia page on US incarceration rates, Republican controlled states lead the country in per capita prisoners. Like Texas. Texas has the nation’s fourth highest incarceration rate. Texas has executed more people than any other state since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty (11th overall, per capita).

Yet deep in the heart of Texas, something odd has popped up: a court system designed to rehabilitate criminals, er, veterans. Conservatives want to be tough on crime. But they love veterans. And those veterans are committing a whole bunch of they become “soft on crime”?

We’re writing this series to look at what our country can learn from the military. In this case, the system does right by offering mental health services and rehabilitation to its criminals, er, veterans. It’s more effective and more just.

It’s a shame it takes service to our country to make conservatives realize that rehabilitation makes more sense than punishment.

Nov 23

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

In the second section of Dan Simmons’ wonderful science fiction novel Hyperion, a soldier tells his story. During his military training on the planet Mars--this is a science fiction novel after all--Fedmahn Kassad enters a virtual reality machine that recreates historical battles from Agincourt to the Somme to Gettysburg. The recreations feel real; everything looks, sounds and tastes right, perfect.

I think about this hypothetical machine when I rewatch Band of Brothers. I wonder--as many viewers probably do--what it would be like to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Or to parachute into Normandy. World War II seems to me like a particularly ideal war to fight in (if you’re in a virtual reality machine). Unlike wars before 1900, the doctors use antibiotics. Unlike World War I, the fighting isn’t dull and senseless trench warfare. And unlike most wars after 1950, this one isn’t a boring insurgency.

Of course, I would only like to fight these wars if I had a virtual reality machine. Because over all other thoughts and reactions, the same worry pops up everytime I re-watch Band of Brothers: what would I have done?

In the forests of Bastogne, watching artillery shells explode, shattering trees and killing men, what the hell would anyone do? (My guess for 99% of the population: mentally break down.) Would I jump out of an airplane into a combat zone? (Hell no.) What about storming a beach or a fortified position? What about invading the German lines at night? Could I have done what that medic did in Bastogne, repeatedly running to wounded comrades to vainly try to save their lives? How many people have that strength?

I’d like to think, rather conceitedly, that I’d shoot straight and confidently, dodging sniper fire to rescue my fellow soldiers and earning silver stars like trophies at a little league game. But I’m realistic enough to know that I might just piss myself instead.

Two episodes of Band of Brothers, in particular, beg these questions. The first is “The Breaking Point”. I watch “The Breaking Point” with awe, admiring and fearing a war so ugly, so raw, I don’t know how those soldiers did it or how they survived. I can’t help but put myself in those men’s shoes and wish I could do what those soldiers did.

Then, there’s “The Last Patrol”.

Last month, Michael C wrote about his connection to the episode. How it spoke to him. Though Michael C and I are twin brothers who weren’t separated at birth, this episode doesn’t speak to me.

You see, unlike Michael C, I’ve never been to war. I haven’t been to Afghanistan or Iraq. In many irreconcilable and important ways, I’ll never understand what he went through. I’ll never understand what it’s like to go to war. I’ve never seen the elephant, to borrow a Civil War phrase.

I admit this with the awareness that these words will probably always be held against me by conservative milbloggers. It’s been happening for as long as we’ve been blogging. Someone will find the blog, disagree with what we have to say, and say that, since we’re non-soldiers, we shouldn’t be allowed to write. (Of course, Michael C was a soldier, but that’s not really the point.)

Oddly, the veteran soldiers of Easy Company do the same thing in “The Last Patrol”. When they meet a new guy, they make fun of him. Or they alienate them. (Leibgott, in particular, comes off poorly.) It offends me, to my core. Take the new lieutenant for instance. He's a victim of timing--being born too early--more than anything else. Why trash on him?

But I understand why they feel and act that way. Like me and my brother, a distance exists we may never be able to fully bridge...even if I had I virtual reality machine.

Nov 19

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify before these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist/liberal/progressive/what have you.)

When I finally looked through my things after I returned to Italy from Afghanistan, I found that my PT jacket had disappeared. I had to bring it to Afghanistan, I never had to wear it, and I had to bring it home. Somewhere in the middle of central Asia, though, it disappeared, probably stolen by the Afghan version of “The Borrowers”.

As a wealthy First Lieutenant, I knew the problem had an easy solution: I’d go to my local Military Clothing and Sales store to buy a new one. As soon as temperatures plummeted (relatively for a Californian) in Vicenza, Italy, I headed to the store.

I walked into Vicenza’s smallish Military Clothing and Sales, I saw the long rack of PT jackets...mostly empty. Apparently I wasn’t the only soldier who wanted to buy a new PT jacket. They had extra smalls or double X-Ls, but nothing in between.

So I asked the worker at the counter, “Do you guys have any large or medium jackets left?”

“Nope,” she replied, “We ran out of them about two days ago.”

“Why didn’t you buy more?”

“We didn’t know it was going to get cold, and we only order new ones when we run out of something.”

“You didn’t know that it was going to get cold in October?”

The same thing happened to me when I was in Fort Huachuca. Between loading and unpacking my household goods, from Italy to Arizona, my PT pants disappeared. So I again headed to the Military Clothing and Sales. This time, the MCS didn’t even have XX-Ls. (If you have been to the home of Military Intelligence, you will know that they are not a base of soldiers who wear size small.)

In each case, when I was at a generally smaller post, the only option for soldiers to buy clothes--the Military Clothing and Sales store, a local monopoly--utterly failed in ways most other stores don’t. Can you imagine walking into Target or Walmart in October and not finding a single jacket or sweatshirt?

Of course not. But there is a simple reason that Walmart and Target don’t fail: competition. Decades of competition have made those stores more responsive to consumers, able to offer lower prices and keep their logistics chains short yet cost efficient.

Without competition forcing Military Clothing and Sales (and the Commissary system, and countless other support functions) to modernize, everything happens at a snails pace. This all makes sense according to the principles of the free-market and capitalism. The Military Clothing and Sales represents everything conservatives hate about big government. It is basically a command economy, a government controlled economy. And it doesn’t work as well as the free-market.

Many conservative readers have been put off by this series, because they think we’re arguing for big government. We’ve been called “liberals” as if that should offend us. (Eric C wears that label as a point of pride. Hillary 2016!) Reread the paragraph above. Does that sound like the writings of a socialist?

Of course not. But the moment someone recommends cutting even the smallest benefit for soldiers (like Commissary funding), pro-military types pounce on them as hurting the troops. Anyone who voted to increase Tricare co-pays for the first time in 20 years was labeled as “anti-troop”. So military supporters who love the free-market consistently support monopolistic government ventures.

This series wants to take a middle ground and point out what the government does well, but also where it doesn’t. This article is an example of the military not working well.

In the end, I bought a PT jacket online and just had it shipped to Italy.

Nov 15

The “Have You Been There Argument” Hits Rosa Brooks

After writing a thoughtful article questioning who the military recruits, Rosa Brooks received quite a bit of a blowback. So she responded. The first point she rebutted is fairly familiar to us at On V, “You’ve never been in combat so you have no right to comment.” Yep, the “have you been there argument”. As we said then, every voting age American has the right, nee obligation, to comment on the military that fights in their name, whether or not they have served.

Fortunately, we don’t live in a Heinlein-esque dystopia where only the military votes quite yet.

Update to Quotes Behaving Badly

Through this post on Inkspots, we found this amazing website for researching “quotes behaving badly”, called Quote Investigator. He has one entry on the often misquoted Napoleon. We have sent a couple of quotes to him, so hopefully he can help debunk some of the more egregious military “quotes behaving badly”.

Someone Else Says, “Not the Greatest Fighting Force in History”

As Eric C wrote in “The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?” our military may not live up to all its hype. Winslow Wheeler makes a similar case in his article for Foreign Policy, “Not All That It Can Be”. We’d put particular emphasis on how much America spends, and how little it gets back--in terms of superiority--for all that cash.
Orwellian Language Update

Since On Violence loves dissecting language (in this post, this post, or this post), we have to give a shout out to this Columbia Journalism Review article, “Fighting Words” by Judith Matloff. Militaries the world over have perfected the art of obfuscating the costs of war. It’s a shame journalists let them. Money quote:

“To soldiers and conflict-zone residents, war is bloody and devastating, and it’s hard for news consumers to realize this when the stories they read are stuffed with bloodless clichés.”

And no word obscures meaning like the word “hero”. A few weeks back, in a very controversial post, we described how “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs” label every soldier a hero no matter what. We didn’t have space in that post, but we wanted to mention that regular On V guest post-er Matty P wrote on a related topic, “Every Firefighter a Hero” a few years back. Also, we couldn’t fit in this very logical/analytical take on the entire debate, “Different Norms for Valorizing Soldiers”.

Update to Memoirs Behaving Badly

Apparently, deceptions in memoir writing (like Greg Mortenson, who we devoted an entire week to a year ago) are nothing new. This Economist profile of Ryszard Kapuscinski reveal a famous man who told fantastic stories, many of which might not be true.
Update to Senior Officers Avoiding Responsibility

In “We Can’t Handle the Truth”, Eric C wrote that “Our military punishes enlisted soldiers, and excuses officers.”

He’s absolutely right. To continue to prove him right, the military did not strip Colonel Johnson, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, of all his rank and privileges and send him to prison. Johnson was “convicted of fraud, bigamy, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” after he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Army didn’t even expel him. Instead, he has to pay a $300,000 fine and receive a reprimand.
The Navy did the same thing with Holly Graf, who was relieved of duty for abusing subordinates. The Navy let her retire with full rank and benefits and an honorable discharge. Both are reminiscent of Allen West’s retirement with full benefits after (allegedly?) torturing an Iraqi prisoner.

There might be some other generals in the news for misbehavior, but we haven’t really been following that story. Our favorite general in trouble is General Kip Ward, who lost a star but is still retiring with an honorable discharge.

Nov 14

Last Thursday we published a list of Army-isms I hate, then on Monday we made a list of “Army Words for Regular Things”. Today we want to highlight the best reader suggestions for Army Language Behaving Badly.

Starbuck nails a good one

“Today’s worst offender? The word “Decisive”, and its cousin, “Decisive Action”.

Army PAOs have tried to explain this to me on Twitter, but I still don’t get it.”

And he tells a good story about “Centers of Excellence”

“Oh yeah, my “Center of Excellence” story:

The COG (Commander of Ops Group) of JMRC decided he would refer to JMRC as the UAV Center of Excellence for Europe. Keep in mind that there was nothing that really started to make it a “Center of Excellence”…they only had two O/Cs dedicated to UAVs, and we were just aviators pulling double duty.   

So we started to refer to ourselves as the “Commandant” and the “Minion” (only one minion) of the UAS Center of Excellence. We put it on our PowerPoint slides and everything. I tried to get an OER bullet out of it too, but that never went through.”

MT Bradley on the origin of “Assault Packs”:

“It is off-topic from the real reason for your post, but as a gear geek I wanted to comment on your mention of assault pack. An online acquaintance of mine in the Marine Corps pointed out to me that there is a logic to the naming of a three day assault pack—the longest (planned!) duration of a single airborne operation—but that the form and function of most so-called three day assault packs would not really fulfill that role. I guess a true "assault pack" would be a pack for your second line gear and nothing else, but most packs carrying that name are larger than that.”

Duck calls out a word from all walks of life

“My personal pet peeve, and this goes far beyond the military, is “innovation.” The attempt to not only institutionalize the ineffable, but render an important concept utterly banal, is self-defeating. We seem to have taken two concepts, competence and flexibility, and wrapped them in a buzzword that merely feeds the bad idea fairy.”

Mateo disagrees with “Subject Matter Expert”

“When used as an anaphora (referencing something previously referenced) SME works just fine. And sometimes ‘expert’ alone doesn’t collocate very well. It’s not like there are many generic Galileo, Gaius Baltar-type experts running around out there to come running. You typically want an expert in something specific.”

He also provided an excellent link on the origin of “jargon”

“Jargon is a great way to build a sense of in-group.”

From Facebook:

Jared Stewart: No Later Than -- Before

Chris Capps-Schubert: Kevlar - helmet, IBA- vest, battle rattle- gear

From Twitter:

Dave Opsecname (@ftngleprechaun): "Enduring" for "long-term" or semi-permanent.

João Hwang ‏(@JoaoHwang) had a whole bunch of nominations. Our favorites include:




PT for exercise

Nov 12

Having just started business school, I’ve already been inundated with complicated terms for normal things. “Synergy”, means “coordination.” A “cross-functional team” is usually just “a team”. Heck, I’ve seen the word “change agent” tossed about.

But business school has nothing on the U.S. Army. I found this list jotted down in my Ranger School notebook a few months back sandwiched between a cookbook for MRE recipes, hypothetical shopping lists and squad Op Orders. I still love it.

As the title says, what follows is “An (Incomplete) List of Army Words for Regular Things”:

1. Hook and Pile Tape = Velcro

2. Army Blouse = Army Jacket

3. Patrol Cap = Hat

4. Cover = Hat

5. Assault Pack = Backpack

6. Hero = Soldier

7. Green-suiter = Soldier

9. Warriors = Soldier

10. Warfighter = Soldier

11. Fusion = Communication

12. At this time = Now

13. Hooah = Yes, No, Maybe, Good

14. Innovation = Undefined

15. Nut Sack = SAW Ammo Pouch

16. FOB = Base

17. COP = Base

18. JSS = Base

19. Camp = Base

20. VPB = Base

21. Outpost = Base

And the list of terms for “base” could go on.

Nov 07

Researching sticky bombs on my last deployment in Iraq, I went to the Counter-IED Operations Integration Center (COIC) website. Here is the old description of what they think they do (which has since been changed):

“The COIC was established in August 2006 and directly serves warfighters’ efforts to focus attacks on enemy networks employing IEDs. A vital Attack the Network initiative, the COIC is a disruptive change agent to energize the warfighter’s ability to gain access to seemingly disparate information and data sources to create vital, common operating pictures. The COIC also provides an avenue for strategic reachback to collaborative, fused, multi-source analysis and innovation across critical DoD, government, industry, and academic organizations and agencies.”

One question: what the hell were they talking about?

Between “vital Attack the Network initiatives” (great use of capitalization) and “common operating pictures”, these guys stopped writing English. My favorite phrase is “disruptive change agent”; I don’t even know what that means. Later, I read this description of the Virtual Battlespace 2 (an Army simulator), “The first of a new class of 3D collective tactical level knowledge transfer tools”. Knowledge transfer tool? I think they mean “video game.”

I’m not the first person to complain that the Army uses incomprehensible jargon. Or that the Pentagon speaks its own language. But really, can we have too many blog posts mocking the Army’s bureaucratic jargonese? I didn’t think so. Without further ado I present some of my least favorite Army buzzwords:
1. Counter-terrorism: How do you counter terrorism? Countering terror? And when did it become the opposite of counter-insurgency? Because of Vice President Biden?

We use “counter-terrorism” as a lexical stand in for “direct action”, a specific military term. Unfortunately, counter-terrorism will soon become our plan in Afghanistan, the way it did in Iraq, even though the military definition is so vague as to be useless.

(The old Army “dictionary”, called the inane “Operational Terms and Graphics” was very specific on what counter-terrorism means: offensive measures taken to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism. So what is terrorism? “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Yep that barely helps.)

In the Army, counter-terrorism means, “fighting wars”.

2. Subject Matter Expert: I just want to point out that this term is directly synonymous with the word “expert”. There is no sentence that uses “subject matter expert,” or its abbreviation SME, that can’t use the word “expert”.

3. Network-Based Targeting: Ideally, the Army would have been attacking networks since day one in Iraq. Unfortunately, we never really attacked a network. We targeted individuals, and claimed to be wiping out networks. We have since started calling every organization in the Army a network to counter-terrorist networks.

In the Army, network means “organization”.

4. Take Back the Initiative: A reader might say, “Hey Michael C you used that yourself in this post title.” I can only apologize. Have sympathy for my co-blogger, who routinely edits my posts and says, “Michael, I don’t know what these words mean.”

I told him, “In the Army, take back the initiative means “start winning.”

5. Center of Excellence: If every organization in the Army is a “center of excellence,” then, by definition, none are excellent. Somewhere between the Joint Culinary Center for Excellence and the Contracting Center for Excellence, we lost sight of true excellence. Sorry, the law of averages wins this round.

(Eric C pointed out a few weeks back that West Point--thankfully--doesn’t have a “Counter-Terrorism Center of Excellence”, but the West Point Counter-Terrorism Center. I mean, it’s still “countering terror” but at least its not a center of excellence.)

In the Army, “center of excellence” means “school”.

6. Full Spectrum: Very rarely do military operations cover the “full-spectrum” of warfare. Full spectrum warfare encompasses humanitarian aid missions and nuclear war. Yep, we haven’t had that in our current wars. We fought counter-insurgencies that can seem very political and very violent at the same time, but they aren’t truly “full-spectrum”. And calling a platoon live fire exercise a “full-spectrum” operation is just abusing the term.

In the Army, “full spectrum” means “operation”.

7. Operation New Dawn: Not really that bad, but downrange we couldn’t stop saying it fast so it sounded like “Nude On”. So as soon as September 1st hit in 2010, we got our “Nude On” with a whole day of naked briefings.

(Not really. DADT hadn’t been repealed yet. [Kidding!])

8. Too Easy: This is a common Army phrase, but when I hear it, it means “I have no idea what I am doing.” I have heard too many officers or NCOs say, “Don’t worry, sir. I got this. Too easy.” And then they go ask someone what the hell is going on.

Nov 05

Once again, we troll through the interwebs to find updates to On V ideas. (Some of these are particularly old, (like May) but we still want to highlight them.) Without further ado...

Update to the Pentagon Wasting Taxpayers Dollars

As long as we’re complaining about “Our Communist Military”--which hates government spending, but never mentions defense spending--we might as well keep updating you on massive military waste. (Again, some of these examples are a few months old, but consider all of them exhibits in this ongoing argument.)

- The F-22 may never work right. 60 Minutes had a story last spring about how it makes its pilots sick. Even though the Air Force has resumed flying them, concerns linger on, as the Air Force admits.

- While China may or may not be preparing to field two stealth jets...

...the Air Force is behind schedule on the F-35.

- Last May, Mark Thompson, for Time's "Battleland", listed a series of examples where House budget committees protect money flowing into their districts for Pentagon programs, whether or not they believe in fiscal discipline, or whether or not the programs work.

- The Army finally deploys a communication network...after the wars are mostly over.

So DADT Wasn’t a Problem...

As we covered in our post, “The Military’s Gay Shower Fiasco...and 5 Other Anti-DADT Predictions that Never Came True” many conservative’s breathless predictions about DADT never came true. But don’t take our word for it. A study from UCLA concluded that “ending the policy ‘has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.’”

Read an article by the study’s author on Slate for more.

More on OPSEC Leaks and Obama

To avoid cluttering our post, “The Loudest “Quiet Professionals”: Why We Disagree with the “Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund”, we left out a key point about OPSEC: most violations don’t result in dead U.S. soldiers. They don’t even result in failed missions. When comparing OPSEC leaks versus the massive over-classification of U.S. intelligence and military information, the far bigger problem is the over-classification which hides corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, illegality, and intelligence failures.

And somehow, in our last update on this topic, we failed to mention this article by Glenn Greenwald in Salon going over all the evidence showing that the Obama administration leaked classified information. To be clear, we oppose the leaking of classified information; we just think the government should classify much, much less, and release much, much more in a coherent, legal process that doesn’t just shield the government from oversight when it crosses the line.

Since we don’t have that rational system in place, we support protections for whistleblowers.

Update to Intelligence is Evidence: CSI Edition

Michael C based much of his series “Intelligence is Evidence” directly on Frontline’s reporting into two specific topics: the U.S. war on terror/counter-insurgencies and travesties of the U.S. judicial system. When justice goes wrong, either in a war zone or in a courtroom, it feels the same to us. Well, Frontline has kept up the great reporting with an investigation into the “science” behind crime scene forensic analysis.

In short, prosecutors, detectives and forensic analysts hoping to score convictions sent innocent people to prison, and murderers remained on the loose.

On Leslie Stahl’s Softball Interview: Torture and 60 Minutes

Sorry for the tardiness of this response, but last spring, 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl interviewed one of the CIA masterminds behind their torture program, Jose Rodriguez. Despite numerous accounts challenging the effectiveness of torture, Rodriguez stuck by his claims and Stahl barely challenged him. Worse, Rodriguez destroyed any and all evidence of interrogations, not only ruining the legal process but preventing historians and journalists from ever knowing what the CIA did.

(On Violence is against torture.)

Update to Time Travel

Way back in time, Jessica Scott wrote an amazing post called, “Welcome Back 90s Army” bemoaning the coming uniform crack downs. As we’ve written about before, plenty of officers want to return to the standards of the 90s army, including increased reliance on physical fitness, uniform standards and “garrison leadership”. As Jessica mentions, the OEF/OIF Army didn’t need the silly garrison standards of the 90s Army to excel in combat, so why bring them back?

Nov 01

(To read all of our election coverage, click here.)

Somewhere between hope, change and the 2008 inauguration, President Obama developed a well-honed sense of snark. Exhibit A is the quickly-internet-famous exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney in the “foreign policy (avoiding)” debate:

Romney: Our Navy is smaller now than anytime since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy...”

President Obama: “...I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

“And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's — it's what are our capabilities.”

Too many pundits dismissed President Obama’s criticism as a well-timed sarcastic quip, ignoring the larger question: what type of navy does our country need? The entire national security apparatus, from the Pentagon to Congress, fails to understand that strategy means making tough decisions. We can’t have it all.

Take the future of naval warfare. Read our quick, overly-broad history of naval warfare during the twentieth century in our post “Fighting the Last War: Disruptive Change, Iran and Millennium Challenge 2002”, then re-read the exchange above. Obama basically said what we said, just quicker and more sarcastically. The most pertinent quote:

“If one single invention, manned flight, transformed warfare at sea, what has the digital age done? Since World War II, the world went through its most creative and innovative technological period ever, inventing computers, missiles, guided missiles, the transistor, nuclear power, satellites and countless smaller innoventions, and drastically perfecting everything (radios and wireless communication especially) from before. (Yes, rockets existed in World War II, but the post-war arms race transformed them into something entirely different, like the difference between monkeys and humans.)

Can/Have those inventions transformed war at sea and the U.S. Navy doesn’t even know about it?...

Has the guided missile--whether sea launched, land launched, or torpedo--replaced aircraft carriers, battleships and missile frigates? Is smaller and more maneuverable better? Will swarms beat giants?”

The U.S. Navy can’t have it all at sea. They, like our military as a whole, must choose between priorities; choosing weapon systems that we are most likely to use in the future against the foes we are most likely to face.

In that new calculus, Mitt Romney’s desire to drastically expand the number of ships in the U.S. Navy doesn’t make a lot of sense. Does he mean battleships, or aircraft carriers? Or what about missile frigates that have as much firepower as our entire Navy in 1916? Or what about cruise missiles which can range out thousands of miles? Why will ships matter more than planes in future wars? Or what about ships, planes and drones?

Worse, does he even realize that more big ships wouldn’t even help in most of our current wars?

Take for example, a war with Iran. The U.S. doesn’t need another battleship, or two, or a dozen more, if a war kicked off in the Persian Gulf. In fact, as I wrote about extensively in these two posts, Due to its extraordinarily small width and depth, most U.S. big ships would have little room to maneuver. Iran would still lose, but they could make it really ugly.

The Iranians know this. They know we designed aircraft carriers and battleships to steam around the world and fight in the middle of giant oceans, not trade fire/mines/suicide boats/anti-ship ballistic missiles, in a tiny lake with a preponderance of oil in the land around it.

The U.S. Navy knows this too. They have tried for the last ten or so years to build a ship which could fight in the Gulf. The resulting monstrosity--the Littoral Combat Ship--doesn’t actually accomplish the missions it need to, is much larger than it was supposed to be and has been riven with cost overruns. In short, the U.S. Navy doesn’t need any more battleships, it needs more Littoral Combat Ships, but thanks to the waste and inefficiencies in weapon acquisitions, it doesn’t have them. As I wrote before...

“Of course, this same Navy designed the Littoral Combat Ship almost specifically for the Persian Gulf, and, well, instead of the dozens we should have, the U.S. Navy has two. Even though U.S. naval forces have patrolled the gulf since the Shah fell, multiple intelligence estimates have declared Iran one of the major U.S. threats, and President Bush put Iran and Iraq into the “axis of evil”, instead of getting lighter and smaller, the U.S. Navy has gotten bigger and heavier, unprepared for sea war in the Persian Gulf. That doesn’t sound like a navy prepared for “asymmetric naval guerrilla warfare”.

As we wrote last week, that last part is the problem. The Pentagon cannot quickly and cheaply build weapon systems to fight our probable future wars. Both candidates need to realize that this is a problem.

(It also doesn’t help that Romney is advised by someone with ties to naval procurement. At least Foreign Policy's John Arquilla agreed with him that war is like battleship.)