Aug 27

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Browsing the interwebs for our series on Benghazi, I came across this paragraph on the blog “The XX Committee”:

“And let it be said that the IC has lots of smart, dedicated people, who protect you, dear citizens, while you sleep, and prevent Bad Things from going down, more often than not. As they unfailing point out, the public usually hears only about the ball-droppings, when something gets screwed up like Benghazi, while a dozen big successes that same season stay secret for decades.”

The above statement is repeated so often it has become axiomatic in political discourse. In short, you--the public--never hear about most of the good things the CIA does. You only hear about the bad things. As David Brooks said once about the CIA, “They’re all doing it in secret, and no one will ever know what they do.” As Eric C wrote about last week, O’Donnell tells Mendez in Argo, “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”

I call it the CIA’s “excellence in anonymity” argument, which even the CIA itself believes. In the DCI’s annual report from 1999 they wrote,

"During FY 1999, the IC made critical and important contributions to advance our national security strategy...This report includes only those achievements that can be described without risk to sensitive sources and methods."

I am officially calling this out as a “Fact Behaving Badly”. If anything, the opposite is true: the CIA loves to hype itself to Hollywood; it also buries its worst screw ups behind a giant wall of federally-enforced secrecy.

Let’s start with the first part, “you never hear about all the good things the CIA does.” Sure we do. And who do we hear it from? The CIA’s PR machine. On The Media covered this a few months back with Ted Gup. The CIA really cares about its image:

“I saw a significant shift beginning in the nineties, where the agency's concern for its public image here at home became increasingly expressed and its campaign to win over the American public increasingly sophisticated. And that's when you saw this profusion of memoirs written by former operatives.

“I saw a tremendous amount of leaking, and I know that my colleagues in the press have as well. They have their own liaison in Hollywood who works with filmmakers when the films are deemed not to be overtly hostile to the agency. Over the last 20 years, the agency that once simply invoked “neither confirm nor deny” has become something of a spigot for stories that continually flow to the press.”

Ted Gup described in a New York Times op-ed just how many memoirs are out there all approved by the CIA:

“What message did it send when George J. Tenet, its former director, refused to explain the intelligence debacle involving nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but later got a seven-figure book contract and became a highly paid speaker? How is it that Milton Bearden, a former covert operative, got agency permission to write a book (“The Main Enemy”) with a New York Times reporter? What of the many memoirs written by ex-spooks like Robert Baer (“See No Evil,” and, with his wife, another former C.I.A. operative, “The Company We Keep”), Tony Mendez (“The Master of Disguise”), Lindsay Moran (“Blowing My Cover”), Melissa Boyle Mahle (“Denial and Deception”) and Floyd L. Paseman (“A Spy’s Journey”)?”

The CIA always advertises its successes. Most notably, everyone on the planet knew within hours Osama bin Laden was dead. But it doesn’t stop there. The CIA, ironically, publishes press releases about dead terrorists in Pakistan, while denying its own drone program which killed the terrorist. Hell, not one but two (two!) of this year’s Best Picture nominees were about the CIA’s successes.

Surely, though, we hear about all the bad things the CIA does, like the Bay of Pigs disaster. Man, we all heard about that.

If only.

The CIA, for instance, detained about 70% of the wrong people in Guantanamo. As we wrote two years ago, Guantanamo had the lowest recidivism rate of all time, meaning...Guantanamo either scared all the potential terrorists straight...or it had rounded up the biggest group of innocent people on the planet. It also extraordinarily renditioned Khalid El-Masri, who had to go to 60 Minutes to tell his story. The CIA hasn’t officially acknowledged this. Nor would it openly, willingly or tranparently reveal this fact...until it had to.

There was also that whole “Iraq WMDs intelligence” thing, where German intelligence out-analyzed the CIA. If it were up to the CIA, we never would have heard about that. Only due to a congressional investigation did the colossal intelligence failure come to light. This begs the question, was that intelligence failure unique or does the CIA (and larger intelligence community) manage to hide or obscure most of its screw-ups, especially when they aren’t of national consequence? I would bet the latter.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know when the Intelligence Community keeps you safe. You do; they’ll make a movie about it. And don’t believe them when you only hear the bad things; most of those things are so far classified you won’t ever probably hear about it.

But the CIA, NSA, JSOC and other intelligence agencies have fantastic pull with the press and (established over the few decades) excellent PR machines. So this fact won’t die. Unfortunately.

Aug 22

At the end of Argo, after the embassy workers have been saved, amidst an American media victory dance and the cheers of thankful Americans, Jack O’Donnell (played by Bryan Cranston) speaks with Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck). O’Donnell gives Mendez the greatest news an intelligence agent could receive; he’s been awarded an “Intelligence Star”.

But there’s a caveat: it all has to be secret.

As O’Donnell explains:

O’DONNELL: He wants to give you the Intelligence Star. You’re getting the highest award of merit of the Clandestine Services of these United States. Ceremony’s two weeks from today.

MENDEZ: If they push it a week, I can bring Ian. That’s his winter break.

O’DONNELL: The op was classified so the ceremony’s classified. He can’t know about it. Nobody can know about it.

MENDEZ: They’re gonna hand me an award, then they’re gonna take it back?

O’DONNELL: If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.

And that’s what’s so unfortunate about this story. The CIA--as Michael C will go into much greater detail next week--never celebrates its successes. The public never hears about the hundreds of thousands of millions of success stories conducted by CIA operatives and analysts every year to keep us safe.

They keep it all secret.

Take this awesome, amazing, heroic story of a lone American heading into Iran and rescuing his fellow citizens. Wired will never run a feature article about it. Tony Mendez? He’ll never be able to write an autobiography and use this story as the basis for chapter nine.

Because this story is secret, Hollywood will never find out about it, so a film version will never get made. Because the film won’t get made, hundreds of media outlets won’t write thousands of articles about it during that very successful film’s Oscar run. And Lord knows, because this operation is a secret, it’ll never win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Because the CIA does its work in the dark. We never hear the success stories.

(Remember, if they wanted applause, they’d join the circus.)

Aug 20

Shocking confession alert: I just started watching Homeland. (In related news, my wife and I just decided to stop watching Homeland.) I get it, I’m a year late to the “Homeland is (or was) awesome” party.

When I bring Homeland up in conversation, I get one question over and over, “ it accurate?” People know that I worked in intelligence and that I write a blog on national security, so I must have some insight. I mean, Sergeant Brody was snatched out of the Korengal valley. I’ve been there!

As Eric C and I launch into a week(s) of Oscar-movie talk, it seems necessary to discuss the larger relationship of Hollywood and national security. People ask me about Homeland, for example, because they want to know the difference between reality and fiction. On one hand, everyone watching Homeland (or any other television show) inherently knows it isn’t real. On the other, do they?

Take crime shows and the “Perry Mason syndrome”. In the sixties, juries stopped convicting defendants because they didn’t crack on the stand and confess their guilt...the way Mason could always make them.

In the modern era, we’ve seen “the CSI effect”. Most crime labs are pretty boring, technologically wanting, and drastically underfunded affairs. Lots of forensic pathology is downright inept. (Do yourself a favor and watch this entire Frontline episode.) But shows like CSI: Miami, CSI: New York and CSI: Bakersfield treat forensics with a reverence that makes Jesus look flawed. As a result, juries either convict people based on flawed forensic data, or refuse to convict unless they have overwhelming forensic evidence.

Medical shows get in on the act too. In real life, CPR works less than 10% of the time. On television, it works 95% of the time. As a result, most Americans think CPR always works. In reality, it rarely does.

For most Americans, their “national security education” comes from Homeland, the Call of Duty franchise, 24 and now Zero Dark Thirty. What does contemporary national security media teach us? Well...

Myth 1: Intelligence works all the time. Nope. Intelligence is an inexact science. By inexact, I mean vague and filled with complexity, fog and mystery.

Even the most damning evidence--which comes rarely--is often wrong or misinterpreted. Sure, plenty of dedicated professionals have devoted their lives to intelligence, and do yeoman’s work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong more often than they are right.

In the 24’s and Zero Dark Thirty’s of the world, though, intelligence always wins. Isn’t that the moral of the story in Zero Dark Thirty? One intelligence analyst finding the “magic bullet” of a courier who led us directly to bin Laden. In reality, for ten years prior,  intelligence analysts often thought they had found that one true lead, only to chase down another rabbit hole to nowhere. The real bin Laden story would be the HBO version of How I Met Your Mother meets intelligence; the analysts wouldn’t get the real lead until the last season.

(This is confessional as well as accusatory; I made tons of mistakes in my time as an analyst.)

Myth 2: Torture works. In Homeland, stab someone in the hand and you get your result. In 24, well, let’s just say Jack Bauer always gets the answer. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 uses a car battery to find out where to go next. In Zero Dark Thirty, well, apparently that box they shoved the guy in did the trick. In other words, torture always works...on television.

On Violence’s official opinion on torture upsets both sides of the debate. Sometimes, torture works. More often, it doesn’t. When it does work, knowing whether you’ve received good or bad intel is nearly impossible without corroborating evidence (er intelligence). Torture is always morally abhorrent. Since torture is morally reprehensible, as a society, we shouldn’t even discuss it. However, like CPR in hospital shows and confessing murderers on legal shows, most terror-hunting TV shows and films only show the upside. (It worked successfully twice in Homeland; more if you count Sergeants Brody and Walker’s captivity. In Zero Dark Thirty they never tortured the wrong people.)

Myth 3: “Kill teams” are running around the globe killing people. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Act of Valor and Homeland have a seemingly limitless supply of uber-badass SEALs (They’re all SEALs now. Sorry D-boys.) to capture and kill suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, 99% of JSOCs missions over the last ten years have taken place in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. JSOC does partner with countries around the globe, but they aren’t running kill teams. They also don’t do nearly as many missions as movies imply.

The worst offenders in this category were the training-film-turned-publicity-piece Act of Valor that spanned the globe in unrealistic fashion and the Call of Duty franchise, which turns half the world into a warzone that SEALs wade through in pursuit of Russian “terrorists”.

All this begs the question, why are they doing it?

Myth 4: To keep you safe. Terrorists hunters on Homeland have a very clear purpose: people want to kill you and your family right now. 24 stopped a terrorist every season. In Call of Duty, Russia invaded America, with a general in husky voice telling us, “The world has changed and it needs people to keep you safe.”

According to these shows, we must remain ever vigilant, running torture programs and extraordinarily renditioning of innocent people to keep frightened Americans safe. Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland repeats this refrain in nearly half the episodes. Call of Duty’s bizarro quotes advocate a realist foreign policy premised on a scary and dangerous world.

As a result, most Americans overestimate the risk of terrorism. We don’t need a super-empowered CIA/JSOC to keep us safe. We could save a lot of money trimming their budgets. By watching television, though, most Americans will never understand that. (The secrecy doesn’t help either.)

Aug 19

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, check out the articles below:

The Intelligence-Hollywood-Industrial Complex

Argo (Bleep) the CIA's Secrecy

Facts Behaving Badly: "Excellence by Anonymity"

The CIA's Bernie Madoff Problem

The Real Problem with Argo's Inaccuracies

Not Based on a True Story: Zero Dark Thirty

Not Telling the Whole Story: ZDT and Torture

The Invisible War: Just Go See It

On V Update to Old Ideas: Sexual Assault Edition)

Every few years, the Academy award nominees line up perfectly with the subject of the blog: violence, and more specifically, the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, we discussed Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds (and again here) and District 9. In 2011, we mostly skipped the big awards (what was there to say about Toy Story 3 and Inception?) but debated the documentaries. We “got off our asses” and reviewed Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop. In 2012, we again had nothing to say about The Artist or Hugo. We probably could have reviewed War Horse but didn’t. (At least it was about World War I instead of World War II.)   

But this year, what’s our excuse? Argo combines Iran and the CIA, and we just spent the last year writing extensively about both. Zero Dark Thirty was about the CIA and Osama bin Laden killing, which we also wrote about extensively. And then there’s Django Unchained. If one director represents gratuitous violence with little to no moral repercussions, it’s Tarantino.

So yeah, we’re writing about the Oscars this year, six months late. But what we lack in timeliness, we’ll make up for in post quantity. We’ll be discussing the CIA, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and one of the most important, and effective, documentaries of the 21st century, The Invisible War.

Stay tuned.

Aug 15

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.) 

A few weeks ago, I made the not-so-original observation that there were (almost) no video games about counterinsurgency, or at least any video games that took counterinsurgencies seriously. But before games went digital, the world gamed analogue-style.

Oh yeah, I’m talking about board games, with wooden blocks, plastic soldiers, card decks and dice.

If you love strategy, you probably love board games. I’d guess that 95% of ROTC cadets and national security PhD’s love the board game Risk, the game of global domination. Michael C and I are no exceptions. We’ve written about Risk before, mainly because we love it. Just love it.

Risk is all traditional warfare, almost a parody of the general idea of how war works. Your troops are here. Enemy troops are there. Get a bigger army and kill them. Oh, and take Australia or South America first. (Somehow, Australia is a strategic stronghold.) Worried about the locals rebelling? You shouldn’t be. The more land you hold, the more troops you get. Conscription!

Virtually every strategy board game--from Chess, Checkers, Abalone--follows this basic pattern. Find the enemy, then kill them. Or surround them, in the case of Go or Hasami Shogi. Stratego introduces the fog of war...but you’re still trying to destroy your enemy’s forces before they destroy yours. (Morale is never an issue.)

Then we come to wargames, modern board games that simulate real war. Risk is the king of the wargaming genre, considered to be the first mainstream wargame. Other mainstream games like Axis and Allies and Diplomacy still focus on taking territory and winning. As the genre aged, the subject matter and gameplay matured as well, but the focus didn’t stray from traditional war. In Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the players simulate fantasy battles between fictional races. In Gettysburg, players recreate the historic battle (this trend has been repeated ad nauseum for almost every important battle/war.) In Panzer Leader and Squad Leader, you literally command ground troops.

Virtually every popular strategy board game depicts traditional warfare, which begs the question: what about counterinsurgencies? Are there COIN board games? If there are COIN board games, are they popular? As I wrote in my post on videogames, I don’t know how you would even make a game about counterinsurgency without inspiring outrage. Could you design a game that wouldn’t incite debate? Could you make it simple?

To find the answer, I turned to three friends who are self-described board game junkies--two of which attend gaming cons--and they hadn’t heard of any COIN board games. But a quick Google search later, I found it, the COIN board game:

Andean Abyss.

As one reviewer describes it, Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is “the first title in the newly planned COIN (Counter-insurgency) Series focusing on historic internal war scenarios in which insurgency and the interaction of multiple sides played a major role.” (To check out other games in the rest of the COIN series, which are based of the game mechanics developed in Andean Abyss, click here.)

Awesome. Just what I was looking for. So how do you play?

“Andean Abyss takes 1 to 4 players into this multifaceted campaign for control of Colombia: guerrillas and police, kidnapping and drug war, military sweeps and terror. Each of four factions deploys distinct capabilities and tactics to influence Colombian affairs and achieve differing goals...Andean Abyss also provides an engrossing model of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia—smoothly accounting for population control, lines of communication, terrain, intelligence, foreign aid, sanctuaries, and a host of other political, military, and economic factors.”

Wow. Sounds fascinating. (And I do mean that, although hardcore board gaming falls into a similar territory as Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft for me. I’m aware that if I start playing games like that, I’ll fall in love and become a nerd. (Er, more of a nerd.)) This game has inspired conversation and debate (check out this review, this review and this podcast) and the game designer, who has spoken at military universities about his game, writes essays describing the modeling and explaining the choices he made.

But I’m not writing this series to discuss the accuracy of counter insurgency gaming. (My first thought when found Andean Abyss was, “I want to play this game and review it on the blog.” Hopefully I’ll write about that in a future post.) No, I want to discuss the aesthetics of counterinsurgency media.

What’s the problem with Andean Abyss? Take this paragraph from a review of the game:

“Upon cracking open the box we find two booklets, one for the rules (16 pages) and another playbook (44 pages) which includes a detailed tutorial, designer notes, card descriptions, and many other sections to help ease play. I’ll point out it’s imperative to give the playbook a solid read through as this is essential to understanding all of the elements of play in this extremely interesting, possibly initially confusing, simulation of the volatile political situation of Colombia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

So a counterinsurgency board game does exist...and its rulebook is 44 pages long. And you have to read it first. And even this game isn’t popular among hardcore gamers. None of my friends had heard of it, though one guy did have Labyrinth, a post-9/11 board game about America versus the terrorists also created by Volko Ruhnke. Among the hardcore gamer community, which is already small, Andean Abyss doesn’t rate as highly as other as traditional war sims. I doubt a counter-insurgency board game will ever be accessible to anyone but the most hardcore hardcore board-gaming fans.

I don’t blame gamers or game designers; it’s not their fault that COIN is boring. So until the junior version of Andean Abyss gets made, I’ll be camping out in Australia trying to take over Asia.

Aug 14

A few week’s back on Carrying the Gun, Michael C rebutted the idea that, if women join the infantry, it somehow prevents young soldiers from validating themselves as men. He responded to this specific quote:

“The question looming, hidden and afraid in masculine hearts, as this discussion rages, is nearly impossible to ask: Where now does a man go to prove his manhood in society?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d read something like this. Donovan Campbell, in his war memoir Joker One, wrote:

"I also knew in the infantry I’d be in a place where I could no longer hide behind potential, a place where academic achievements and family connections were irrelevant."

(Before I go on, I do have to point out that Campbell’s assertion is absurd. Family connections absolutely make a difference in the military. Unfortunately, I will agree with him that academic accomplishments are meaningless.)

Andrew Exum, in his memoir This Man’s Army, wrote:

"I began to believe that war might be the only answer to all my doubts. That war might validate my existence as a soldier and a man."

In my time living with Michael C in Italy, I met more than one soldier who justified their experience in the Army with this explanation. In short, if you want to prove yourself, go to war and see some action.

Michael C, in his guest post, addressed gender issues. To me, the real issue is a moral one: why should one have to validate their existence by killing people?

The above quotes don’t talk about joining the military, but going to war. Exum specifically writes, war is “the only answer” while Campbell advocates joining the infantry, not say, logistics or the Signal Corps.

The vague, indefinable self-worth one gets from going to war comes at a cost. That cost is human life. Whatever self-worth a soldier gains from his combat experience, the cost in human lives will always outweigh it.

Want a good reason to join the military? Do it to protect our country. Or to help other people around the world. Or to pay for college. (I just happen to think that should be free regardless.) Do it to learn leadership or gain life skills. My favorite reason comes from my dad when he justified Michael C’s decision to join the military: the military needs smart, ethical soldiers. It needs soldiers who will question authority, who will strive to improve the organization and, most importantly, who will maintain the moral high ground.

Those are all good reasons to join the military.

But no one should have to prove their self worth by killing someone else.

Aug 12
(Check out our past post, "Quotes Behaving Badly" here and here.) - See more at:

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

A couple of months ago, Michael C was sitting in a meeting with UCLA Anderson’s veteran club discussing their new t-shirts. Someone had the great idea to put a quote on the back. They even pitched a quote by Churchill:

“A society which confuses its soldiers and scholars will find its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.”

He began to think, “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before...”

After a quick google search to debunk the quote, he found a link Sure enough, we‘d already debunked that quote in our third edition of “Quotes Behaving Badly”.

During the first year of On Violence, we kept finding quotes that were wrong, misattributed or inaccurate. So we kept a list and then wrote “Quotes Behaving Badly”. About a year later, we unleashed two more editions of “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Then the well ran dry. Not by lack of effort, believe us. If we come across a quote, we investigate it. Turns out, the military community and anti-war activists only have a limited number of go-to quotes to repeat ad nauseum.

But good news, after two years of collection, we’ve found some more. Without further ado, more quotes behaving badly (Again, we quote them as they appear, not by who actually said them.):

“A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools.” - Thucydides

When we first debunked this quote, we only wrote a sentence, but it deserves way more criticism than that. First, as we wrote before, it is falsely attributed to Thucydides when it actually comes from Sir William Francis Butler.

Second, it is still a misquote! The actual quote reads, "The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards." Most “quotes behaving badly” distill complicated thoughts into simplistic drivel. For instance, the above quote presents the definite future tense “will have” versus the real quote’s conditional tense “is liable to find”.

Third, as an intellectual point, is this true? The skills and attributes which define scholars often conflict with great warriors, and vice versa. Beyond just simplifying complex quotes, most quotes simplify complex issues. For instance, would this quote still work? “A nation that makes a great distinction between its professional athletes and its warriors will have its games played by cowards and its wars fought by the unathletic.”

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” - Ghandi

Lucky for us, after we started debunking “Quotes Behaving Badly”, so did Garson O’Toole on his website Quote Investigator. He debunks this oft repeated quote here. In short:

“ important biographer of Gandhi, Louis Fischer, used a version of the expression when he wrote about Gandhi’s approach to conflict. However, Fischer did not attribute the saying to Gandhi in his description of the leader’s life. Instead, Fischer used the expression himself as part of his explanation of Gandhi’s philosophy.”

"The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away." - Ronald Reagan

Three problems with this one. First, good luck finding attribution for this. We looked and couldn’t find a citation for where and when Reagan said it. This doesn’t mean that Reagan didn’t actually say this neat little quip; it just means that we--and the editors at Wikipedia--can’t find him saying it. (It’s not like Reagan lived in an era when reporters wrote down everything he said.)

Second, not only does Reagan think our military is incompetent, as I showed in “Ronald Reagan Hated Our Communist Military”, he also thinks they’re dumb. Quick logic: the military is part of the government. The best minds are not in government. Ergo, the best minds are not in the military. Way to support the troops, President Reagan. (But again, Reagan most likely didn’t say this.)

Finally, we originally found this quote when conservative moderate pundit David Brooks, on the PBS Newshour, debunked it:

“Ronald Reagan said a lot of things, some of which were wise. And one of the really dumb things have said is that the best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away. Well, David Petraeus and a lot of other people in civilian and military really great minds and great public servants.”   

Well put, David Brooks.

"He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice...Heroism at command, senseless brutality, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is...It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder." - Einstein

Actually, Einstein did say this. But that doesn’t make it true. To quote us from “Haters Want to Hate or...If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets!”:

“Fools can say wise things; wise men can say foolish things. People forget this, which is why so many smart sentiments...get attributed to smarter, more famous people. It’s why Einstein, Plato, Franklin, and Ghandi have dozens of quotes attributed to them, and George Santanaya does not.”

Look at it this way: if we changed the speaker, would that affect how you feel about the quote? Absolutely. Now, most pro-military types will, understandably, reject the above quote regardless of the speaker. But moderates, pacifists, far-leftists will see it and be like, “Well, Einstein was a genius. He knows what he’s talking about.”

So let’s run the new On Violence patented, “George Santanaya-quote test”. Santanaya was the victim of probably the most famous war quote theft when people ascribed his quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” to Plato. So ask yourself, if instead of quoting Einstein, Plato or Napoleon, you replace the speaker with “George Santanaya”, would you still use the quote?

If not, don’t use it. By the way, this quote absolutely fails this test.

Aug 08

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

My dad is a history teacher. More than a few times, I’ve heard a stranger tell him, “Oh, you teach history? I love history! Hated it in high school, but I love it now, especially the History Channel.”

Let me state unequivocally: just because you love the History Channel (now just “History”) doesn’t mean you love history. The History Channel is to history as Cliff Notes are to literature. Even that comparison doesn’t work, because at least you learn something when you read Cliff Notes. (If the hypothetical stranger had said, “I love PBS’ American Experience or History Detectives.”, I’d give them props.)

Which isn’t to say that the History Channel (again, now just History, but man that would make the rest of this post confusing) isn’t entertaining, it just has nothing to do with history. Between reality shows like Top Gear (really?) and Top Shot (Double really?) and fictional mini-series (The Bible and Vikings), the History Channel stopped covering the past. Though I like Pawn Stars (Chumlee, you’re such a goof.) and American Pickers, I don’t learn anything about actual history...or learn much of anything. I haven’t even mentioned Ice Road Truckers, but I doubt future college classes will discuss transportation in arctic biomes.

In a way, though, no history is better than bad history. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the History Channel solely dedicated its line-up to covering history...if “history” meant UFOs, Hitler and World War II. Or combining two of the subjects...if possible. (For example, “Hitler and the Occult”.)

What would the History Channel be without World War II? World War II start, stop and finish. When Band of Brothers came to cable, they snapped it up like nobody’s business. As Cracked notes, “the abundance of WWII film footage made it easy for them to fill out their lineup with documentaries on dogfights, D-Day, and legendary officers like George Patton and Tom Hanks.”

The Military Channel isn’t much better. Along with a hyper focus on World War II--often spending entire days only broadcasting shows on that war---the channel focuses on technology and weapons...and special operations. Writing this post, I looked up The Military Channel’s schedule. It included shows like “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. (Quiet professionals: how secret are your secrets if a cable channel found them?)

Which brings me to the crux of this post, the point of the whole thing: what about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Fifty years on, will there be a channel dedicated to documentaries about the War on Terror?


Today’s wars make for terrible cable television. Imagine the narrator, “And then they constructed a bridge in Pashad”. Snore. Or another narrator, “After weeks of preparation, the young lieutenant set out on a Medical Civil Action Patrol.” Or, “On the 19th, the squad again encountered an IED. On the 20th, the same thing happened again.”

We’ve already seen this happen. Despite being the most televised war of all time--probably more than Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly--the History Channel seems to have forgotten about the Vietnam war. Same with the Military Channel, National Geographic or any psuedo-science/history channel allegedly working to educate the public (other than PBS).

If you hope that cable channels in the future will be filled with documentaries of the nation’s current wars, educating future generations about the perils and lessons of insurgencies, they won’t.

Why? Because COIN is boring.

Aug 07

(Today's guest post is by Don Gomez of the blog Carrying the Gun. He is an old enlisted infantryman and a new infantry officer. He tweets @dongomezjr. 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.)

Although I have written extensively and passionately on the subject of the infantry in regards to gender integration, I’ve stayed away from getting sucked into tit-for-tat exchanges with so-and-so over the arguments for and against the whole thing. I’ve found that the main arguments have been, for the most part, exhausted. I’ve met no one who has argued that training standards should be lowered in order to allow women to serve in combat arms.

And then yesterday I saw this article by Rowan Scarborough pop up with fiery rage on social media and beyond: “Double Standard: Pentagon hints at changes to allow more women in ground combat.”

Whoa, I said to myself, what happened?

And then I read the article and realized nothing happened. The article is a lay-analysis of comments from key military leaders on the topic and interviews with folks who hold the strong belief that women do not belong in combat arms.

The article suggests that something has been discovered or something has changed. Nothing has changed. And I intend to show that right here.

A review of news conferences and congressional testimony shows that the top brass repeatedly use the word “validate” — not necessarily “retain” — when talking about ongoing studies of tasks to qualify for infantry, armored and special operations jobs.

In other words, some physical standards would be lowered for men and women on the argument that certain tasks are outdated or irrelevant.

Who did this review? And okay, the word ‘validate’ is used instead of ‘retain.’ So what? How does that necessarily lead to the conclusion that “in other words, some physical standards would be lowered for men and women on the arrangement that certain tasks are outdated or irrelevant?”

Standards need to be validated precisely because they have never been validated before because there was never a reason to validate them in the first place. How long does it take an average squad of infantrymen to fill 100 sandbags? We don’t know, because we never really had to test it. Men signed up for the infantry, learned some skills, passed some gates, drank the grog, and earned their crossed rifles.

Senior officers for the first time also are stressing the mental aspect of ground combat, not just physical strength and endurance. Analysts say that is another sign that the military is looking at different ways to ensure that women qualify.

For the first time? That’s wrong. When the services released their plans for integrating women into combat arms almost two months ago, they stated directly in their publicly released memos what they would be looking for. The Army, for example, writes:

1. TRADOC Analysis Center (TRAC) is conducting a study of institutional and cultural factors associated with integration of women into previously closed Military Occupational Specialties and units. The gender integration study draws upon literature reviews, surveys, focus groups, interviews, and process mapping to identify potential factors affecting integration. TRAC is also engaging Soldiers and leaders throughout the Army to ensure that their perspectives are evaluated. This study was initiated in January 2013 and is projected to close by January 2015.

The article then goes on to quote Robert Maginnis, a former artillery officer who is fervently against women in combat units. He just wrote a book titled “Deadly Consequences: How Cowards Are Pushing Women Into Combat.” He says:

“It will begin as an ‘experiment,’ and meanwhile there will be a whittling away of standards — gender-norming — regarding what is required to graduate from certain schools, such as Army Rangers,” Mr. Maginnis said. “The administration and its ideological radical feminist soul mates are willing to accept less effectiveness at the point of the spear in order to put women into every last military occupational specialty.”

Nice. Mr. Maginnis states the future eroding of standards as fact. It is to be because he has predicted it. There is no use in arguing with someone with that kind of an opinion because it is absolutist. He has a firm belief and he has staked himself on it.

Scarborough then goes on to quote some key leaders and ends with what has now become an infamous quote from GEN Dempsey. Scarborough punches up the quote by making it seem like General Dempsey was slamming his fist on the table to the service branches, writing that they “had better have a good argument for keeping it [the standard.]“

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in January that if a standard keeps women out of a combat job, the military branch had better have a good argument for keeping it.

“If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, ‘Why is it that high?’” Gen. Dempsey said. “Does it really have to be that high? With the direct combat exclusion provision in place, we never had to have that conversation.”

Folks jumped on that line the moment it left the General’s lips. A few days later, aware of the negative backlash it was generating, General Dempsey penned a blog post clarifying what he meant:

I want to address some misperceptions about the decision to rescind the direct combat rule for women. Some fear that this decision will lower standards in our military. That is simply not the case. The services will carefully examine current standards to ensure we have them right, taking into consideration lessons learned from a decade of war and changes in equipment, tactics and technology. We will study each closed occupational field or unit to determine where women are able to serve.

Let me be clear: The standards will be gender-neutral — the same for men and women. This assessment will take time, and the Joint Chiefs and I are committed to making sure that this is done correctly.

Of course, opponents of women in combat arms would argue that the whole idea of “carefully examining current standards” is code for lowering standards to allow women in. And if that’s what you believe, there is nothing I can do for you. If you can’t take the CJCS at his word, than you are far beyond the wall.

This quote is perhaps my favorite in the article.

Aug 05

Don’t blame me, David Brooks said it first!

Eric C and I consider the weekly commentary of Shields and Brooks, New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields, each week on the PBS Newshour a must listen. (Partisans beware, they spend a lot of time agreeing and complimenting each other.)

But I have to respond to what David Brooks said on the 26th. Discussing the defeat of the NSA meta-data collection House amendment, Mark Shields brought up the American government’s addiction to secrecy. Brooks defended NSA employees, saying they mostly try to do good, and they are a bunch of bright people to boot. He defended the NSA program by quoting Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution on why America keeps secrets.    

“...the government should have some secrecy for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.You don't want to see all that stuff.”

Brooks has actually made this exact point on the show before, and he’s absolutely right: nobody wants to see middle aged people naked. Middle-aged bodies are wrinkly, overweight and gross.

You know what isn’t gross? Hot, healthy, tanned, young bodies. Everybody the world over, from time immemorial, wants to see hot, young people naked. It’s why Playboy, Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition exist. It’s why Venus de Milo and David don’t have any clothes on. It’s why celebrities do nude scenes in movies. It’s why strip clubs exist.

Flipping Brooks’ analogy on its head, he isn’t arguing for government secrecy; he’s making an argument for more transparency. If Americans don’t like what they see when America (at least America’s national security apparatus) does a strip show, they should change what they see, not add more clothes.

Of course, Brooks could defend the age argument. He could say, “Well, America isn’t young anymore, and people don’t like looking at old people naked.” Not hot old people! Jennifer Aniston graced the covers of GQ nude at the age of 40.

This analogy only works because Brooks is skeptical of government transparency. He believes that over the last forty years, as journalists have dug deeper into the workings of government and transparency activists have won little battles, America’s trust in government has eroded. As he said on the show, “I think, as we pass more transparency legislation, trust in government has gotten worse.”

I completely agree. Americans would have much more trust in government if the government kept more and more secrets. This would mean, though, that government malfeasance, abuse, negligence and criminality would go on unreported, but Americans could keep their trust strong (and their heads buried in the sand). The biggest breach of trust by a politician in the last fifty years--and probably American history--was President Nixon stealing elections, literally using the power of the presidency to take an election. Obviously, Americans lost some faith in government.

But it isn’t their fault; it’s Nixon’s and every other corrupt or incompetent politician’s fault. Americans rightfully want more transparency and more anti-corruption efforts to ensure politicians work for the people, and not the other way around.

Honestly, Brooks couldn’t have chosen a worse week to make this argument. America saw more of the NSA’s naughty bits than the NSA ever wanted...and lots of Americans concluded the NSA should go on a diet. It also showed that, yes, transparency weakens trust in government...but only after the director of the NSA and the NSA public affairs office lied to the public. When asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”, the director of the NSA told America and Congress, “No sir…not wittingly.” He then legally escaped perjury charges because the NSA defines “collection” and “surveillance” in ways that defy common decency. (Read this Slate article for more.)

To double down on the lies, the NSA then says the programs averted 50 terror attacks. On deeper probing, journalists and Congress narrowed this number down to 1, a single attack. The NSA also says its analysts never investigate Americans inappropriately, yet last summer a rogue FBI agent took down the director of the CIA because a friend asked him to investigate a person she didn't like.

The problem isn’t that America doesn’t want transparency. Americans want to trust politicians when they say, “Trust us”. When you pull away the clothes to find out you can’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t trust them, well, that damages the relationship. The solution is less secrecy and more transparency, not the other way around.

Aug 05

Head over to the excellent blog, Carrying the Gun to read a new guest post titled, "What Does It Actually Mean to Prove Your Manhood?" responding to the insanely controversial topic of letting women serve in the infantry.

Check it out.

Also, we’ll be adding Carrying the Gun to our blogroll. Frankly, we don’t know how this hasn’t happened yet.

Aug 01

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

The trailer for Lone Survivor came out yesterday, and we’re going to write about it. (H/T Alex Horton) Though we don’t like obsessing about one memoir, since we’ve been writing about Lone Survivor for years, we want to update our readers.

For any new readers who may stumble across this post, our feelings on Lone Survivor summarized in three sentences: 1. This memoir has numerous inaccuracies at worse (or several heavily disputed problems at best). 2. Luttrell pushes his conservative politics, using the deaths of his fellow SEALs to push this viewpoint. 3. Luttrell misinforms the public about rules of engagement, again using the deaths of his fellow SEALs to push this viewpoint.

Without further ado, our thoughts on the trailer:

The Good

The Location/Scenery - The Korengal Valley really does look like that. That said, the Korengal valley looks unlike any other place in Afghanistan. This Dietz painting for the 2-503rd from our time in the Korengal captures the sense of the trees pretty well.

In all, great job, location scout.

The Facts - It appears that the film has moderated some of the more glaring errors from the memoir. For instance, the mission has become “Red Wings” like the hockey team, and not “Operation Redwing”, as it appears on the cover of the Lone Survivor memoir.

The vote disappeared? - I told Eric C when we started writing this post that I didn’t want to do the comic-book fanboy meme of disparaging a movie before I had seen it simply based on the trailer. That, however, applies to the good and the bad. Based off a couple of snippets of dialogue in the trailer, it appears that in this version Lieutenant Mike Murphy makes the decision to release the goat herders on his own, after taking input from the team. This would be nearly perfect leadership, and matches the story his family tells.

This is not how the story goes in the memoir. In the memoir, Luttrell casts the deciding vote, and blames his vote in part on liberals and the media.

The Bad

The central problem remains - Rules of engagement are not simple. In fact, no use of ROE can be boiled down to a simple yes or no decision. Very, very few ethical conundrums have only two options. Yet this movie will likely boil down the situation with the goat herders on the top of that hill to, “Release the goat herders or kill them” and that debate will influence more Americans than any other thing about ROE. I hate that a complicated and effective tool will be so simplistically critiqued. (As it was in the book.) From this limited information--again I hate only using a trailer--I am not optimistic.

The Unknown

The Size of Enemy Forces - In this trailer, someone says, “That’s not ten guys. That’s an Army.” Later in the trailer, the enemy forces don’t appear to be that large. Elsewhere in the trailer, the movie mentions the number “200” as to the size of a possible enemy force. For more on the size of the opposing force, read this post or this Marine Corps Gazette article.

What parts will the movie cover? - Obviously, the entirety of the Lone Survivor memoir won’t make it into the film. This has more to do with the limitations of cinema than anything else. The choices Peter Berg makes could create an Oscar contender or an action film. How much of the movie happens before versus after the central attack? Local Afghans saved and sheltered Luttrell and it will be interesting how much of that makes it in the film. (And we are waiting with baited breath to see if Luttrell includes the Iraq scenes from Lone Survivor.)

Will the politics make it into the film? The trailer doesn’t use the words, “mainstream media”, “liberal”, “rules of engagement” and other conservative talking points that litter the memoir. Will the movie use those words or did Peter Berg censor Marcus Luttrell?