Apr 30

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

When we first brought up “Gratitude Theory”, I had a basic question, “Does giving people things change their behavior?”

According to many military theorists, not one bit. Since General Petraeus popularized this theory, a number of officers, academics and bloggers have pushed back. To summarize their thoughts, “We shouldn’t just give things to Afghans or Iraqis, and it certainly won’t win over their respect!” Take this misinterpretation of population-centric counter-insurgency from Slate:

“When people hear about the U.S. military doing development work in Afghanistan, they think about ‘winning hearts and minds’ through humanitarian aid or building schools. The idea is that if Americans do nice things for Afghans, they will be so grateful they will begin to support the counterinsurgency.”

Author Bing West--who regularly opines on this topic in conservative outlets--hates this philosophy because he knows it won’t work. He wrote an article titled, “We Were Too Nice To Win in Afghanistan”. As The New York Times described his book The Wrong War:

“He flatly says that the counterinsurgency strategy behind the war — trying to win over the Afghans by protecting them from the Taliban and building roads, schools and civil institutions — is a failure...In Mr. West’s view, counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its “core competency” — violence.”

An Australian Brigadier General sums it all up much more simply, “more killing, less good deeds”.

As all the above examples make clear, giving things to people doesn’t work. It’s a strategy doomed to fail...unless you’re president, in which case, it works fantastically.

Why did Mitt Romney lose last November?

Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”   

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…”

“It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

“In a conference call with fund-raisers and donors to his campaign, Mr. Romney said Wednesday afternoon that the president had followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups — ‘especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people’.”

To sum up: Iraqis and Afghans don’t care about free things, but dumb American voters? They don’t stand a chance. The irony is many “COINtras” are Republicans who think that “giving people things” didn’t work in Afghanistan, but then argued that they lost the election because the President gave away too much stuff. Can giving things away, from building schools to providing free health care, change public opinion?


FM 23-4, the counter-insurgency manual written by General Petraeus, understood this, and therefore advocated that soldiers should provide security for locals while doing reconstruction. (Reconstruction without security, the manual says, won’t work. It also reiterates the need for both offensive operations and security operations, which are vital to defeating an insurgency.)

Kill-centric advocates don’t just under-value reconstruction, they loathe it. COINtras want a simple war that only involves killing an enemy in a uniform. Counter-insurgencies against the U.S. military don’t have that simplicity. They do feature people, and all things being equal, people do like getting things...which is a pretty good argument for doing reconstruction in war torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Apr 25

This post, the one you’re reading right now, is our 600th post. As we like to do every hundred posts, we’re sharing our best/favorite posts from the last 100. We’ve divided them into our best series and our best individual posts. (To read more “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.)


Four large series dominated our last 100 posts. First, Michael C tried to offer solutions to the situation with Iran (we don’t like the words conflict or war). Our favorites from that series include “Which Country Do You Prefer? Putting Iran's "Evil" In Context”, “My Solution to the Iran Problem” and “The Best Comment On Violence Has Ever Received

Meanwhile, we finally wrote about HBO’s seminal war mini-series, Band of Brothers, where we wrote a post (or two) on each episode of the series. Eric C’s two favorite posts were from the last two episodes, “Band of Brothers' "Why We Fight" or: No, That's Not Why We Fought” and “The Myth of the Good War: Band of Brothers ‘Points’” Michael C wrote the excellent post, “The Feeling You Might Live Through It: Band of Brothers' "The Last Patrol".

We also continued our trend of igniting small “Twitter wars” with Eric C’s post “The Sobel Problem: Band of Brothers "Currahee" where he argued that officers weren’t just equal to enlisted men, but better. We defended the idea here, but noticed that a lot of the arguments (“Everyone is equal, regardless of rank!”) were...


Oh yes, if you want to piss people off, call the military communist, even if you’re just using the phrase rhetorically. Our favorite posts from the “Our Communist Military” series were “The Most Greatest Institution in Human History...Our Communist Military!”, “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs” (which upset the usually imperturbable Jonn Lilyea) and the pro-market “Our Command Economy Communist Military”, “Our Pro-Veteran Communist Criminal Justice System” and asked, “Is Toys for Tots...Communist?

Finally, Eric C finally learned how to spell “Petraeus” when we wrote our 2013 “Most Intriguing Event of the Year” about Benghazi and the General Petraeus sex scandal.


Way back, we wrote two art posts that we especially love, “War is War is Film Part I” and “War is War is Film Part II”, where we found quotes from movie characters that espouse “war is war” philosophy. Eric C’s favorite line:

“I expected to find mostly bad ass action heroes like John Rambo or “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Instead, I mostly found super villains. And comparing “war is war”-iors to Grand Moff Tarkin or General Jack D. Ripper is like comparing them to Hitler...   

“Or it might just be that if super villains espouse your military theory, you may be on the wrong side of history.”

Eric C wrote up an art post, “I’d Buy That Police Station for a Dollar!: RoboCop and America’s Awesomely Privatized Future”, on how one of the greatest action films of all time predicted America’s militarized-police future. Michael C read it and asked, “Is that all you got?”. He wrote, “The Enforcement Droid is Programmed for Urban Pacification!

Of course, our still-too-small stable of guest posters contributed some great work. Matty P wrote one of Eric’s favorite posts of last year, “Guest Post: You Think You Know Pain?” Matthew Bradley absolutely threw down academically with “Guest Post: Opportunistic Scavengers in the Sahel”. And finally, an anonymous author sent us “Guest Post: When Saying, “Thanks for Your Service” Doesn’t Cut It”. Thanks for the great work guys.   

Though it didn’t get as large a response as we wanted, Michael C’s “The Military’s Gay Shower Fiasco...and 5 Other Anti-DADT Predictions that Never Came True” is also one of our favorite posts from last year.

Hey, want to stop insurgencies? Michael C explained what we’re doing wrong in, “Hearts, Minds and Gatorade Bottles Filled With Urine” and then offered solutions in “Don't Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts”.

Eric C wrote two posts that got long standing ideas off his chest, first asking how “The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?” and detailing the “The World War I Problem

Michael C, on the other hand, just wanted to break the internet. With that in mind, he wrote, “A New Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!” to (rightfully) piss off special operators. He followed that up with “Growing Deployment Beards Works! So Do These 8 Ideas”. Oh, and Clausewitz happened.

Finally, Michael C’s favorite post from the last year was “Queer Eye for the Straight Navy: An Argument to Paint Aircraft Carriers Rainbow Colors”, offering a suggestion for how the Navy should paint its ships. Unfortunately, he dashed cold water on himself two days later in “A Flock of Seagoing Easter Eggs: Four Reasons Why It Won't Happen”.

Apr 22

A few months ago, I received the kind of email that makes me drop whatever I’m doing and call Michael C. The email was from Michael E. Douroux, who spent 25 years as “a literary agent representing writers, directors, producers and cinematographers in motion pictures and network prime-time television”. Since Michael C and I have been trying to break into the industry as screenwriters for the last few years, that got our attention.

Normally, I’d immediately email Douroux and ask for a meeting, except his email included a copy of an article he wrote for Business Insider. Titled “Hollywood Violence Tax”, Douroux proposes a value added tax for violent films.

Unfortunately, every screenplay we’ve ever written is incredibly, incredibly violent. And I mean violent:

- The script we just finished now includes at least two dozen people who get shot, blown up, strangled or...wait for it...lobotomized by an ax--it happens to at least two characters. (We’re incredibly proud of this script.)

- Our first script is about torture...so yeah, it’s really violent...’cause it’s about torture. (We also really love this script.)

- Even our spec script for an animated comedy is about a special ops team...and special ops teams kill people. In our script, they kill a lot of people. (This is also the best script for a half-hour animated comedy about a special forces team ever written.)

A dilemma: how do we contact an industry professional who, apparently, abhors violence? (I’m guessing Mr. Douroux won’t be representing us.)

Since Newtown, politicians and pundits on both side of the aisle have been trying to solve America’s gun violence problem. As I see it, five solutions have been proposed: gun control (endorsed by liberals), expanding gun ownership (proposed by conservatives), placing armed guards at school (the NRA), tracking the mentally ill better (both sides), and the issue that piqued the interest of On Violence’s resident art critic, solving Hollywood’s “violence problem”.

Hollywood does have a “violence problem”, but the problem isn’t violence; it’s morality. Like the screenplays that Michael C and I wrote, Hollywood films tend to be violent. Unlike our screenplays, they lack a moral point of view. They fail to the show the cost of violence and its complexity. Violence itself isn’t the problem, but how Hollywood portrays that violence. As Ebert’s dictum goes, it's not what a movie says, but how it says it.

Michael C and I grew up on action movies. All of Arnold’s films (especially the Terminator films and Predator), Rambo, Die Hard, Aliens, and so on. “Guns, guns, guns,” as Clarence Boddiker quips in Robocop. Explosions. Bullets. One liners about killing people. We love ‘em.

And yet, when we grew up, Michael C joined the military and I marched in peace protests. More importantly, we started writing. This summer, we decided to finally write an action film. The conversation went like this:

“Eric, why haven’t we written an action film?”

“I don’t know.”

“We love action movies.”

“Then let’s write an action movie.”


I wrote the first draft in two weeks, but it wasn’t an action film. If you go with The New York Times definition, it has all of the ingredients: a lone wolf hero, an obsession with guns (and axes), and a few explosions. By definition, a shoot-’em-up action film. But it also has something most action films don’t: cost.

Cost. I’ll say it again, cost. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, Hollywood needs to show the audience the problems with violence: the guilt that comes from killing and the lingering effects of PTSD.

Not to mention the complexity of violence. Hollywood needs to show the difficulty of violence: killing the wrong people and the unintended consequences of killing those wrong people. Or even the unforeseen consequences of killing the right people.

Our action movie? The hero kills a lot of people and it nearly destroys his soul. The torture film? Well, it’s anti-torture, if anything. The comedy? It’s a parody. We like to think that we take the cost of violence into account in every word we write.

Hollywood doesn’t.

In short, Hollywood should stop glorifying violence. Stop presenting heroes who can kill dozens without guilt. Show violence as it actually is: complicated, hard and ugly. Present violence the way it actually is, and we may want to be less violent. (But to show the cost of violence, films will still be violent.)

Back to the original proposal, we shouldn’t try to stop violence through taxation. Not all violence is portrayed equally. When it’s done right, it teaches and evolves society. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, we can’t just get rid of violence. We just have to portray it the way it actually is.

Apr 18

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime contributor Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

I am a gun owner. Nothing ostentatious, just a single action .22, a gift from my father. I keep it for recreation, home invasion, and the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

When I was five, I saw my first real gun. My dad knew that with guns in the house, gun safety was a necessity. My education was limited to “stay away” and “find an adult”. As I aged/grew older, so did my education. Always, there was an emphasis on danger and respect. It was more than the simple, “this is not a toy” speech, but an explanation of what a gun can do and why it exists. My father made sure there was no confusion. Exposure was progressive. I’m not sure when, but I was finally allowed to handle a gun under supervision after a professionally licensed safety course at a firing range.

I have no intention of ever using my gun on someone. I have been angry and never considered the gun as an option. I have been severely depressed and still never considered the gun an option. I was at home once when someone tried to break in. At that point, the gun became an option; though it never came to that as the burglar ran off after realizing I was home. The only time my gun leaves the house is if I am taking it to the range, and even then it is unloaded. I keep the ammunition and firearm in separate locked boxes as per state law for transporting firearms. I have never fired my gun anywhere other than at a range and I have no intention doing otherwise.

With all the above mentioned; I consider myself a responsible gun owner. As such, I believe I have demonstrated the right to own a firearm. As have scores of Americans who use them at work, for sport, and for recreation. But dangerous people have challenged this right by doing stupid and terrible things.

I understand the motives propelling those who want to reform or even abolish the second amendment. The simple truth is, without guns, there would be no gun deaths. While I will not speculate on how getting rid of guns would affect the statistics on clubbings or knife inflicted injuries, what I will say is that what we need isn’t to get rid of the second amendment, but to better define it and enforce it. Because too much freedom is no better than removing freedom. At this moment in time we have so much freedom we lead the world in non-war gun deaths, which isn’t a tribute to freedom, but to chaos.

The truth is: I don’t trust you. I trust me because I know I know how to responsibly use a firearm. I trust certain members of my family because they’ve demonstrated proper use of a firearm through years of safe use. Some of my fraternity members I don’t trust... And I don’t trust most of you, because I don’t know you or what training you’ve had. Plus, guns are potentially dangerous to me and those I love. And me having a gun doesn’t make me feel safer about you having a gun.

Eddy Izzard had a set of jokes based on the motto “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” in his show Dressed to Kill. While meant as comedy, there’s some truth ringing through the laughs. I have no real answers to the riddle. Only a suggestion that we make gun legislation an issue again rather than avoiding the fact that firearms are constantly finding themselves in dangerous hands. And while people do kill people, guns help.

Apr 18

(Today's guest post is by Austin Bodetti. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

When my friend asked me, “Austin, there was a shooting in Newtown—did you hear?” I thought that he was joking. It would have been a very strange joke. “No, seriously,” he said. Brian was not joking.

December 14 was a long day, and I would have a long week, but I never stopped checking Wikipedia’s daily updates on the Syrian civil war, which I have done since 2011. On December 14, twenty-eight people died in Newtown. That same day, the Syrian Arab Army executed at least one hundred. The next day, it executed another 131 along with 171 on Christmas. Today, December 29, three hundred more Syrian civilians are dead. Dozens of them are children, including infants.

It is always the same: every day in the Syrian Arab Republic, there is an average of one to two hundred civilian casualties, and none are the result of a down-and-outer with his sporting rifle.

It makes little difference to parents whether their children die from a madman or a mortar. Either way, their daughter is dead, their son is dead, the memories are dead, and they may pray if religious, but their child is dead either way. To these parents and anyone who saw what happened, especially anyone who saw a firefighter carrying a body no bigger than his arms, what happens here matters more than over there, yet Syria is off everyone else’s emotional map: for Americans from the President to my neighbor, dead children suddenly matter when they die on American soil or—in my neighbor’s case—a few miles from your house.

In his televised address given the day of the shooting, the President made an offer: “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” He meant tragedies here, not in Syria, which is somewhere over there, but the President had made two moves toward the Free Syrian Army (FSA) only days before. On the 3rd, he threatened military action if the Syrian Army deployed chemical weapons, which are apparently worse than shelling the Damascus suburbs. On the 11th, he recognized the FSA as the true government of Syria. The Syrian Army has spent the last week assembling its chemical weapons anyway, and awe-inspiring American recognition has accomplished little for the FSA and the three thousand or so civilians who have died since December 11.

The shooting is a tragedy, and I, like the President, hope to prevent more of these tragedies, but not in the United States of America and here only…unless the hundred-casualty-a-day massacres in Syria, not to mention what the Syrian Army did to boys my age, Jack Pinto’s age, and younger in the early days of the civil war, are collateral damage of some internal problem. When I hear stories of sons burying their fathers and more often of fathers burying their sons, when an FSA rebel, now deceased, has just time enough to write me, “My friends are dying faster than I can make them,” and when two dozen children dead is nothing new to a country thousands of miles away, it looks bigger than an internal problem.

Remember Newtown, but never forget that children died not only on the other side of the state but also on the other side of the world, where a debate on gun control and some kind words from the President were too little to save them.

Apr 15

On December 14, 2012 I called Michael C on my drive home from work and told him that we had to change our most intriguing event of the year. We were going to write about Benghazi and Petraeus--and we did--but something felt different that day. Something changed. And I had to write about it. As my dad bluntly asked me a week later, “You’re going to write about Newtown and guns, right?”

I felt that we had to. If one word defines 2012, that word would be “shootings”:

- On February 26 in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin.

- On April 2, seven people died in a university shooting in Oakland, California.

- On July 20, a shooter killed twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

- A few weeks later, a white supremacist killed 6 Sikhs in a temple shooting in Wisconsin. 

- On September 20, a shooter killed six people in Minneapolis, Minnesota after he was fired from his job.

- Finally, in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Michael C and I have quite a few thoughts on guns. We actually pulled a Matty P guest post scheduled to run a week after Newtown called, “I Own a Gun” (coming later this week) because we didn’t want to attract attention at such an inappropriate time. And Newtown asks plenty of tough questions: do guns cause or prevent violence? Do guns protect our freedoms, or inhibit them? What does ‘2nd amendment remedies” actually mean?

And people have been asking us our thoughts, both in person--because friends and family know we write a blog on violence--and in the comments section. Internally, this issue caused a massive debate for a few weeks at the end of December. First, Michael C and I had several discussions about posting on guns. On the way to a wedding at the end of January, Michael C, Matty P and myself again discussed it for hours.

Our conclusion? For a few reasons, we’re not going to be discussing guns or gun control on this blog in the foreseeable future.

First, unfortunately, Eric C and I aren’t experts in this form of violence. Not nearly. And we don’t know what to make about the statistics. We’ve already written about that here. Listen to this Intelligence Squared debate. Can you really say that one side has their facts wrong? On one hand, Americans has a crazy number of gun deaths compared to its population. (America had 9,000 gun deaths in 2011; England had 39.) On the other, mass shootings aren’t actually increasing. Hrrm. Do video games cause violence? Who knows?

Before we dive into a complicated, divisive, controversial, alienating topic, we’d like to be secure in our grasp of the subject matter. Should guns be banned? If guns should be banned, which ones? Why? For what reason?

Finding those answers will take time--and we will get to it eventually--but not now. We just don’t have enough time to dedicate to researching the issue, then writing up a thoughtful response. Michael C is in business school; I work full-time.

There are lots of issues we’ve wanted to write about on the blog, but couldn’t, for lack of time: the Mexican drug war, the gun control debate, the prison issue, Syria, drunk driving. Hell, I have a stack of books three feet high of memoirs I’d like to review for On Violence. Michael C has another stack of books he wants to review.

Frankly, we just don’t see the upside of wading into a topic fraught with partisans on each side that we don’t have the time to devote to...yet. Gun violence is violence at its most personal, and we hope to get to it. Just not now.

Apr 11

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

We haven’t written about post-9/11 war memoirs in a while. The good news is that I should have time to review some more memoirs (and novels!) in the coming months. But first, a few updates.

Iraq War Reading Pledge

I recently received an email from Gina Rodriguez, a NYC-based writer, asking me to get involved with the “Iraq War Reading Pledge”. The project--which is now over, since Iraq’s ten year anniversary happened a month ago--tried to get as many people as possible to commit to reading a memoir about the war in Iraq. (If you’d like to commit to this cause, head over to this link. You can follow Gina’s writing here.)

Gina asked me to recommend a memoir about Iraq. If you’ve read my series on war memoirs, you might know my reaction. Really? I don’t like memoirs. In short, by adhering strictly to the truth, memoirs lose narrative possibilities. (Unless the author fudge the facts, in which case they’re misleading the public.) Oh, and people don’t like telling the truth about their friends, which means characters become one-note and unrealistic. Unless they have an enemy, in which case, memoirists settle grudges.

So I can’t recommend a memoir, but I can suggest two works of recently released fiction...

Fire and Forget

Full disclosure: a few months ago, a publicist offered to send me a copy of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, a new collection of stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I initially declined the offer because I didn’t think I had the time to read it. After I read the table of contents on Amazon, though, I changed my mind and asked for a copy.

As I wrote in my original reply, I was always going to promote this book. For one, its war fiction. More importantly, Matt “Kaboom” Gallagher, friend of the blog and one of the current generation’s best writers about the war, co-edited the book. I trust him and the collection he put together.

When I saw the authors who contributed stories, this thing instantly became a must read. Gallagher has a story in it, of course. So do Brian Turner--whose poetry collection Here, Bullet is flat out my favorite piece of writing inspired by either war--and Siobhan Fallon--who wrote the well-praised and soon to be read collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone.

So go find a copy of Fire and Forget. We’ll have a review soon.


In even more exciting news, a new war novel--yes, novel--by David Abrams, Fobbit, came out. Three reasons I’m going to read this book:

1. It’s a novel.

2. He stole my pitch, which is fine by me. I love, love, love this topic. Super FOBs are insane; the public should know more about them and they make an excellent literary topic.

3. It’s really well reviewed. The Washington Post: "A clever study in anxiety and an unsettling expose of how the military tells its truths." The New York Times Book Review: "I applaud David Abrams for sticking to his vision and writing the satire he wanted to write instead of adding to the crowded shelf of war memoirs. In Fobbit, he has written a very funny book, as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself." Newsweek: "A satire of comfortably numb life during wartime." The Boston Globe: "A delicious, unsettling read." Los Angeles Times: "an impressive debut".

Again, I’ll review this book as soon as I can.

(Actually, if I have to recommend some memoirs about Iraq, off the top of my head, I’d say The War I Always Wanted, Soft Spots and Kaboom.)

Remaking Moby

Friend of the blog Trish Harris recently reached out to me and Michael C asking us to get involved in a project called Remaking Moby, a new multi-media project for the Pea River Journal and Mixing Realities Digital Performance Festival where writers re-examine chapters of Moby Dick. We’ll be involved, but we also wanted to put the call out to our readers.

And finally, what everyone is breathlessly waiting for, Lone Survivor news...

Peter Berg Knows who we are!

So, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Peter Berg this:

“There’s already an open letter on the Web asking you to not make this film [The letter says the book on which the movie draws from is too political, among other things]. Are you concerned about its reception?”

Berg responded dismissively, but at least reporters have started asking questions.

We now have a prediction. Next year, about this time, as Marcus Luttrell begins promoting this film, a reporter for a major newspaper will pick up this story. Like any controversy, it will help Lone Survivor get better box office numbers.

Apr 10

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime contributor Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

I think I saw him first: a man lying face down on a street corner. I hit my partner in the shoulder.

We were dazed on the ride back to station. Working for an ambulance company that only did facility transfers, we were at the extreme edge of the company’s service area, returning from taking an invalid woman back to her Los Angeles home. It was a difficult transport, just toward the end, because the only access to her home was seven flights of stairs. We muscled our patient to her bed, made sure she was comfortable and taken care of, and trudged back to our ambulance.

Our radio barely worked we were so far from the repeater. My paperwork was done so there was nothing for me to do. I remember leaning my head on the window and looking staring down at the moving pavement. I stared so long I was becoming nauseous. So I adjusted and looked forward. That’s when I saw him.

“Yeah, I see him,” he said.

We were both that mix between excited and panicked. This looked like an unconscious person. A true emergency. True emergencies are something we rarely saw.

My partner radioed the location and situation in as he pulled over. The dispatcher sounded excited too. “Really?” I could hear her ask as I grabbed my clipboard and the jump kit with our supplies. I left the sliding door on the side open. My partner had yet to leave driver’s seat when I reached the patient.

As I knelt, I heard what sounded like a zipper followed by metal very quickly hitting the side of our ambulance. Thunk thunk thunk. Three, maybe more. My kneeling went to me falling on my ass and scurrying backwards. I’m not sure how I got into the ambulance but I remember falling backwards as my partner hit the gas and peering out the back to see who shot at us.

My partner radioed it in. He was yelling into the microphone. I remember telling him, “Shit. I left the jump kit.”

We were interviewed by police on what happened, paramedics checked us out, and our supervisor came to pick us up. They weren’t sure if the ambulance would become evidence since it had seven new holes in it. Either way, the company didn’t want us working for the rest of the day. Our supervisor kept asking if we wanted to talk to someone, a counselor to assess us for PTSD. But I didn’t feel traumatized, I felt dumb.

Scene safety is the first thing they teach you as an EMT. As a first responder, you’re no good to anyone if you’re hurt or dead. You, in fact, become another patient and are then risking someone else who has to retrieve and treat you. I knew this. Coupled with the years of situation awareness lessons [link post] from a paranoid (or ironically erudite) father, I shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.

Unfortunately, our patient was dead by the time police secured the area. An officer told me they probably shot at us because our uniforms. No one contacted me as to whether the shooter or shooters were caught.

I didn’t stay with that transport company much longer. Not because of the incident; I wanted to work for a 911 company, not an EMT company transferring the elderly from place to place. One where I could do primarily emergency response. I wanted more experience.

And I checked the scene for safety on every call.

Apr 08

A few months back, the founders of a Facebook page called “RoE.USMilitary”--a page ostensibly dedicated to “exposing” the truth about rules of engagement (which has slowly descended into calls for the military to arrest President Obama on charges of treason. No seriously, they advocate that.)--sent us an email about ROE. Reading their Facebook page, I got dragged back down the ROE rabbit hole. I could write post after post explaining the logic and necessity of strict, well-followed rules of engagement, rebutting the weak arguments presented on that page.

To save myself the time, I want to limit my response to one question they asked me:

“Of course we shouldn't ‘torture’ prisoners but why are we taking so many prisoners? Are you aware that our troops can catch someone planting a BOMB and they cannot engage?”

This sentence is even more dramatic if you shout “bomb” (BOMB!), since it is in all caps. Oh, and it is completely, 100% wrong.

Like most anti-ROE rhetoric, the above flight-of-fancy completely ignores common military sense and exaggerates the harms of the rules of engagement. In only two sentences!

1. This isn’t a true statement. Let’s just get that out of the way. Rules of engagement are classified so that the enemy cannot plan attacks directly around them. The sources of Barbara’s information are probably misreading those same rules of engagement. I know this because drones, planes, snipers, and ground forces can all engage insurgents burying IEDs. However, even if this were the case...

2. Commanders on the ground control the fire of their men. Otherwise combat would be chaos. Are anti-ROE advocates arguing that squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders cannot issue shoot or don’t shoot orders? In a world without ROE, that is exactly what would happen.

The results would be disastrous. If soldiers could--and they would if they could--fire every time they felt threatened, the number of friendly fire incidents would increase dramatically. (I might have to write up a personal experience post where, during a training exercise, I watched this happen.) In short, leaders at every level--up to theater commanders--have the ability to control the fire of their men. This is basic military 101 and it applies to U.S. forces and insurgents.

3. In an intelligence war, capturing insurgents makes more sense than killing them. Pirates of the Caribbean is right, “Dead men tell no tales.” Captured insurgents provide a wealth of intelligence and opportunities. Instead of capturing an insurgent, the military should trail him back to his house, then track the insurgent who pays him. In maneuver warfare, firepower defeats the enemy. In an insurgency, intelligence does.

As our military learned over the last ten years, bomb planters are not the issue. With unemployment in the 30-40% range, finding someone in Iraq or Afghanistan to dig a hole for five dollars is a cinch. The key is finding the bomb makers, insurgent leaders and logistics hubs. Of course, if you kill every single bomb planter, you can’t interrogate them to find out who they work for. Which will help you lose the war.

4. Anyway, we can’t respond to every IED with overwhelming firepower. Using massive firepower to respond to every single IED incident caused the insurgency in Iraq. Far from “inspiring fear” or “enforcing our will on the enemy”, these heavy handed tactics inflamed the local population. (In general, people dislike firefights, especially firefights involving foreigners.) So we can’t engage every bomb planter with every weapon available...that’s a form of ROE.

5. More than anything, though, this story doesn’t even make sense logically. While it seems bad on the surface--”My oh my, we can’t engage people planting bombs.”--who really cares about a buried IED we already know about? The most dangerous--actually the only dangerous IEDs--are the ones the U.S. military doesn’t know about.

In the real world, the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan spotted plenty of people putting in IEDs. It either killed or captured them. Either way, an IED the coalition forces know about is much less dangerous than one we don’t. Dramatically so.

At their core, rules of engagement are orders that leaders give to their subordinates to control their actions in combat. Phrased like that, they don’t seem so bad, do they?

Apr 05

In the fourth grade, I remember looking back at myself as a third grader and thinking, “Man, I was so dumb.” Third grade me didn’t read “adult” novels or draw with pencils.

When I was in sixth grade, I remember reading my journals from fourth grade and reflecting on my fourth grade self thinking, “My handwriting was horrible. I was so naive about girls.” (I probably didn’t think the word “naive” and that thought about girls continues to this day.)

In eighth grade I thought about how innocent I was in sixth grade, when I didn’t know or fear death yet. In high school, I looked at the middle school me and regretted not reading classic literature. In college, I remember thinking about thinking about how immature I was before I drank, dated women, or knew the pain of death.

This feeling--about how ignorant I was when I was younger--came up again when I re-read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles a few years ago. Again, I had to ask myself,  “How jingoistic was I in eighth grade?”

When I first read The Martian Chronicles, it offended me on two levels. First, I was a fan of Arthur C. Clarke and his world of hard science fiction on grounded in scientific reality. In a Ray Bradbury story I’d read years earlier, the characters from Shakespeare all live on Mars. This soft science fiction made no sense.

But more than the fantasy, the politics of The Martian Chronicles really offended me. The short story collection opens with Americans landing on Mars and giving the Martians...chicken pox. And they all die.

To my eighth grade self, this all seemed incredibly unfair. (Develop some antibiotics, you stupid Martians!) The Martian Chronicles was obviously anti-American, or more specifically, very anti-colonialist or anti-Western. At the time, I was naively pro-America, pro-West. Eighth grade me believed America had never lost a war, and the concept of fighting wars unjustly didn’t make sense. All those endless textbooks lecturing us on how many Indians died when the Europeans colonized the Americas, well, it wasn’t my fault! I didn’t do it. And how should we have known so many would die of common diseases? I didn’t want to be blamed for America’s past sins.

But now I’ve grown older. When I re-read The Martian Chronicles a few years ago, I understood it. There is a sadness to the book--and though the analogy is a bit obvious--pitying the Martians is a way of learning to deal with what we did to Native Americans and, hopefully, preventing it from happening again.

Like I said, I’ve grown older and, possibly, wiser. My point of view has changed. I know loss now. I live in an age of war. And more importantly, I respect the sad tragedy of unintended consequences. (Isn’t that the morale of the Global War on Terror?)

More importantly, I now realize that if you love something, you must question it, challenge it and make it better. For me, that means questioning America and its sometimes ugly history. It means learning about slavery, the massacre of the Native Americans, and keeping women from voting until the 20th century. It means learning from our nation’s mistakes...but you can’t learn from those mistakes if you refuse to admit that that past exists.

It means that I now respect books like The Martian Chronicles which do just that.

(Also, The Martian Chronicles is fantastically written. Just read the first chapter. Now that I’m older, I can finally appreciate that.)

Apr 03

(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 military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Yesterday, I told three different stories about bosses--coaches or military commanders--implementing group punishment. (The comments section added even more examples.) In each case, group punishment utterly failed to change behavior.

For “Our Communist Military”, should this be any surprise? Free market advocates absolutely understand why group punishment doesn’t work: it abdicates individual responsibility.

Take the most accountable/responsible system in our economy: sales. Virtually no sales forces uses group bonuses. Sales people are rewarded individually. Know why? ‘Cause it wouldn’t work. Eric C--who supervises a sales floor--has a theory: a great salesperson could show up to work in a bathrobe. If he’s an earner, no one will say nada.

Individual accountability works. For a football team at any level, the one thing every player cares about above all else is playing time, the currency of amateur sports. If a player who committed a personal foul lost his starting spot the next game, he would stop committing personal fouls. So would everyone else on the team.

In my brigade’s case, individual accountability would mean chaptering (expelling/firing) soldiers who got DUIs. In fact, while our brigade commander was implementing harsher and harsher group punishments, he refused to boot any soldiers. His reasoning--we assumed--was because he didn’t want to deploy short-handed. Getting rid of troublesome soldiers--and legitimately discouraging bad behavior--clashes with the need to field a full brigade before deployment.

So how does this relate to violence, foreign affairs and counter-insurgency? Because despite clinging to the value of individual accountability in economics and criminal justice, many military theorists suddenly embrace group punishment when it comes to warfare or military science.

1. Discipline in units. Group punishment wasn’t created in my brigade. Actually, the Army instills the value/vice of group punishment at the very beginning of every soldier’s career. Enlisted soldiers (who become NCOs) meet it head on during boot camp. Plebes, first year students at West Point, learn the “value” of group punishment during their first summer. It therefore becomes the de facto method of punishment for most leaders in the Army.

And since it doesn’t work, that makes the Army (and Marine Corps, which I assume uses group punishment plenty) less effective.

2. Fighting counter-insurgencies. Many commanders deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq wanted to punish villages, cities, and regions which allowed insurgencies in their midsts. This often led to the idea that, “Hey, if we withhold reconstruction money from Sunni villages, maybe they will expel the Al Qaeda insurgents on their own.” When they don’t, commanders safely lump all the people of that region as “terrorists”.

This attitude has been extended to larger international spheres too...

3. Because some countries let terrorists live around them. The most prevalent example of this is The Sovereignty Solution. I haven’t written about this book yet because I have way more thoughts than will fit into one blog post (or several). In fact, I could write an entire paper on it.

To boil its thesis down into an overly simplified sentence, The Sovereignty Solution recommends holding an entire nation’s population responsible for the actions of individuals living within it. If they or their government refuse to punish terrorists, the U.S. will do it for them. While the U.S. government wouldn’t specifically target civilians in their effort to pursue terrorists, according to the “Sovereignty Solution”, it wouldn’t avoid them either. By allowing terrorists in their midst, civilians are just as culpable. This would motivate populations to suddenly expel all the terrorists.

I hate the concept of group punishment, because it doesn’t work. But I really hate when it is used to support or allow the killing of innocents, as if that would change their behavior. According to The Sovereignty Solution, lack of knowledge or malice is trumped by knowing or living by a bad guy. Imagine if America applied that to Bernie Madoff. Or politicians who are corrupt. Or some of our allies around the world.

This last reason is what really worries me about group punishment. It just won’t work on the international stage the way economic sanctions--another form of group punishment--rarely work. And it won’t stop terrorism.

Apr 02

When Eric C and I played football in high school, our team had a problem. We couldn’t stop breaking the rules...like hitting other players after the whistle. Our team had more late hits than Tupac.

Well, not all of our team. Only a handful of players had the unique ability to draw multiple personal fouls every game. They would knock players onto the ground from behind, nail them after the whistle had long since blown, or get unnecessary roughness calls. (Yeah, unnecessary roughness calls in high school. Who does that?) And these penalties always seemed to come at key times to stop our offense from scoring or to provide the other team a boost of momentum.

To solve the problem, the coaching staff implemented group punishment. At every Monday practice, our coaches made the entire team do ten “up downs” for every personal foul from the previous game. (An “up-down” is when you jog in place, then jump on the ground with your entire body, then jump back up.

One Monday, our team did a hundred, if I remember correctly. The number was supposed to represent the number of penalties, or the yards we lost, or something.

So our team started a new ritual: every Monday we did a whole bunch of up-downs. Every Friday, our team went out and continued committing personal fouls. As if we were the high school version of the Oakland Raiders, we continued to lead the league in personal fouls.

When I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, I had another boss implement group punishment. The problem was an epidemic of DUIs. After returning from a lengthy, soul-sucking deployment, the men of the 173rd preceded to release their pent up emotions through a series of DUIs, fights, and general misbehavior.

To solve the problem, our commander ordered that, instead of a single lieutenant running staff duty for the brigade, each battalion had to run a staff duty officer, plus another officer at brigade staff duty. Company commanders had to counsel lieutenants for “failing to lead” when their men got DUIs. Eventually, the commander added another lieutenant to a “DUI watch van” that was supposed to drive to bars and watch for soldiers misbehaving. This made life miserable--and sleep deprived--for the young officers of the battalion.

And the DUIs kept coming.

Many lieutenants--myself included--believed that the root cause of the DUIs wasn’t a failure of leadership at the platoon level. We hypothesized that our new commander’s decision to lower the number of four day weekends had more to do with the rise in DUIs than “a failure to lead”. Oh, and the post stopped offering a free rides for inebriated soldiers to discourage drinking. (It didn’t.)

Last football season another football program instituted group punishment. The head coach of my alma mater UCLA, Jim Mora, implemented a new discipline system based on group punishment. In the original draft of this post from before the season, I wrote, “I’m not optimistic.” I didn’t see how punishing the entire offense for a player showing up late would change that individual’s behavior.

So how did group punishment work out for the UCLA Bruins? Despite having a stellar season by beating USC, UCLA led the nation in penalty yards. This included plenty of dumb personal fouls.

Three different examples of group punishment. In each case, it completely failed to change the group’s behavior. Yet, group punishment is wildly popular within the U.S. Army and the larger national security apparatus. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why this is a problem.