Sep 26

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

To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a glowing review of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Since I’ve been following this issue for years now, I want to share some updates on the topic in general. More specifically, I want to respond to the biggest mainstream criticism I have read…

Rosa Brooks Doesn’t Think Sexual Assault is a Problem in the Military

More precisely, she doesn’t think it’s a greater problem than rape in the civilian world. As Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy...

“Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations.”

While we admire Rose Brooks, this article has several significant problems. First, I don’t think the military has made progress addressing sexual assault, unless Rosa Brooks is referring to the last six months or so, which seems odd (and unlikely). As NPR and The Invisible War point out, in 2011, only 96 reported cases of sexual assault went to court-martial. For some anecdotal evidence, it took over a year for the Navy to bring charges against three Naval Academy football players. (Don’t worry, the Academy charged the victim with drunkenness in “no time at all” in the words of The New York Times.) Situations like this just don’t occur in the civilian world--at least the victims don’t get charged with crimes before their attackers.

Mainly, though, I don’t agree with Brooks’ numbers. Check out the numbers in this article, this article and the Wikipedia page on the issue, then compare them to her numbers. Fifteen percent of female veterans who return from war zones have experienced “military sexual trauma”. (More on this phrase later in this post.) That number is way higher than annual civilian sexual assault rates.

My explanation for the difference is that Rosa Brooks mixed lifetime rape statistics with yearly rates in the military. A recent article in The New Yorker on the Steubenville rape case cited the CDC’s estimate that 20% of all women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Based on the numbers I cited above, that’s the about the same rate for women in the military...except military careers don’t last a lifetime.

I would also flip this issue on its head: if civilian sexual assault rates are the same as the military, then America has a rape problem. It still needs to be addressed.

Actually, Read That New Yorker Article

Because it is fantastic. Ariel Levy fairly depicts both sides of the Stuebenville rape case, telling a complex and difficult narrative different than most of the breathless cable coverage of this story.   

A Legitimate Criticism of The Invisible War

One of the best criticisms I found of The Invisible War was that it didn’t focus enough on male-on-male rape in the US military. Though the film featured one victim of male sexual assault, clearly the film focused on women. As James Dao of The New York Times points out, most victims of rape in the military are men.

Amanda Marcotte, at Slate, connects this to society’s beliefs about rape:

“...what this astonishing number demonstrates is the truth of what feminists have been saying about sexual assault all along: It is not caused by an overabundance of sexual desire, but is an act of violence perpetrated by people who want to hurt and humiliate the victim, using sex as a weapon.

“That’s why comments such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s during the Senate hearings on rape in the military are not just offensive, but flat-out wrong. Chambliss acknowledged the gravity of the problem but ended up minimizing it by saying, ‘Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.’ These kinds of comments perpetuate the myth that rape is not that big of a deal, the result of miscommunication, or caused by men being just too damn horny and ladies being just too damn sexy to not rape.”

How We (Don’t) Talk About Rape

First, Katie Halper at Jezebel lambasts an AP article that confuses sex with rape. (They’re not the same thing.)

Next up, Joshua Kors, in his article, “Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'” breaks down how the military’s use of the acronym MST (Military Sexual Trauma) obscures the horror of the actual act. He even interviews On Violence language favorite Geoffrey Nunberg to get his opinion. A must read.

Finally, The New York Times’ “Talking Note” blog explains that the military has had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault for over twenty years now. Since so many soldiers have been reassigned after rape cases, how can they have a zero tolerance policy?

World War II and Rape

Here’s the thing about sexual assault and the military: it didn’t happen in the Greatest Generation’s time. That’s what’s so disappointing about the current crisis. Oh wait...

“In her new book, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France," Roberts writes that while heroism abounded during liberation, for some Allied troops, command of geographical territory meant command of sexual territory, as well. As they entered and occupied the port towns of Le Havre, Reims, Cherbourg and Marseilles, many soldiers took what they wanted - when and where they wanted - from the French female population.”

Sep 24

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

Last month at a small get together during a trip down south to Orange County, I got stuck in the kind of conversation I hate, a conversation about rape.

I hate talking about rape, because 90% of the time the conversations turn to victim blaming, and this one was no different. In this case, we were discussing the military and rape. First, someone pointed out that the military got their statistics via anonymous surveys; that’s why the number of rapes were so shockingly high. Then the conversation turned to female soldiers not wanting to press charges, which must mean that they are lying. Or that they just got drunk--which violates UCMJ--then said they were raped to avoid getting in trouble.

After staying quiet for most of the conversation, I jumped in and explained why women don’t report the vast majority of rapes (listing off embarrassment, victim blaming, shame) but in the future, I know what I’ll do instead:

I’ll tell everyone to watch the documentary The Invisible War.

It is the most powerful, important, impactful and saddest documentary I’ve ever seen. The Invisible War literally brought me to tears numerous times. As a writer, it’s the most infuriating kind of thing to write about, because all I can do is hurl compliments at it. It’s so good, I literally can’t talk it up enough.

Watch it. Now. (It’s on Netflix)

If you have any doubt that rape in the military is a problem, you won’t after you see this film. (We’ll address some critiques tomorrow.) Based on extensive interviews with victims of rape, the film first proves that rape is a constant for women in the military (it backs up those interviews with the government’s own statistics), explains why the problem persists (a culture that refuses to address the issue and a command structure that cannot successfully investigate or prosecute rape charges), and closes by offering a solution to the problem (take rape cases out of the chain of command).

I mentioned above that it was one of the most impactful films I’ve ever seen. It didn’t just affect me; it also affected Capitol Hill. The Invisible War forced the issue of rape and the military onto the front pages, and, thank God, it seems to have stayed there.

I have to mention that this entire review may seem hypocritical. When I reviewed Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop, I wrote, “Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore.” I still feel that way. Most documentaries, whether liberal (Michael Moore), conservative (Dinesh D’Souza) or extremist (Loose Change, Zeitgeist), are incredibly misleading, almost designed to misinform. Even mainstream, issue-based documentaries use dubious statistics and editing tricks.

I don’t feel this way about The Invisible War. For one, all statistics provided in the film come from the U.S. government, which has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to address this issue. And when the government releases politically embarrassing statistics, that makes them more likely to be true. (Plus, the documentary takes the time to explain the methodology behind some of the statistics.)

Second, most of the film is just women--and men--describing their experiences. They put the facts out there, for you to judge.

It’s the best, most honest type of film. See it already.

Sep 19

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

We’re against torture. Eric C and I happen to believe that nations or religions which allow their soldiers, intelligence agents, clergy or police forces to torture violate a core human right. Holding that position, we couldn’t watch Zero Dark Thirty without commenting on its portrayal of torture, because it matters. (And the issue of torture is not “morally ambiguous”; it’s unambiguously immoral.)

As Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have explained, hunting down Osama bin Laden took ten years, involved hundreds of people and required thousands of manhours of work. Some scenes, people and facts had to be left out. Yet their decisions on what to leave out and what to put in created a specific narrative. The filmmakers can't defend themselves by saying they left stuff out because of time; they have to defend why the choices they made tell the most accurate story, especially if they want to say that it’s “based on a true story”.

I pointed out a number of mistakes yesterday in Zero Dark Thirty not related to torture. Today, I lay out the misrepresentations of their representation of torture. Bigelow and Boal really missed the mark.

Myth 1: There are only a handful of torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Before I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I read a lot of the coverage about its portrayal of torture. Based on this, I thought that torture played a small but controversial part in the film, maybe appearing in one or two scenes. I didn't expect the entire first hour to feature repeated torture sessions or interrogations of detainees immediately post-torture. This portrayal alone makes torture look like the primary method U.S. intelligence used to find Osama bin Laden, which isn’t true. (By the way, the movie picked up after the first hour when it became a spy thriller.)

Myth 2: America only tortures bad people. Again, this is a decision Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow made. They only showed the CIA agents torturing known, 100% guilty terrorists. We’ll never know how many innocent people the CIA renditioned to black sites. Considering how many innocent people were taken to Guantanamo, I have a feeling that a fair amount of misidentified or innocent people made it to our black sites as well. Torturing an innocent Pakistani farmer would tell a much different story to the audience, wouldn't it?

Myth 3: "Everyone breaks; it's human nature." I understand why an interrogator torturing a suspect would tell that suspect, “Everyone breaks; it’s human nature”, as one operative did in Zero Dark Thirty. In Army interrogation manual terms, it’s called "pride and ego down". Crush their hopes, make the situation seem dire, then give the tortured man a way out by talking. Still, the actual statement--”everyone breaks”--isn’t true and most of the audience won’t understand that.

To be perfectly clear, torture does not always work. Same with waterboarding. Often, suspects who "break" mislead, lie or deceive their interrogators...especially if they don't know anything. As Matt Taibbi writes:

“The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.”

Myth 4: Torture provided good intelligence. As Steve Coll points out, we just don’t know, because everything is secret:

“The first problem in assessing Zero Dark Thirty’s fealty to the facts about torture is that most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret, including the formally sanctioned use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques between roughly 2002 and 2006. So does the full record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden after September 11. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as well as work by investigative journalists such as Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Mark Danner in this journal, and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, have brought forward some details about the CIA’s interrogation program. Yet the record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions...

...The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.”

But torture does work in Zero Dark Thirty. They choose, intentionally, to show torture working, instead of showing it misleading or delaying the mission.

Myth 5: The U.S. government punished Americans who tortured inmates. President Obama appears exactly once in Zero Dark Thirty, and in that scene he condemns the use of torture in an interview on 60 Minutes. In another scene, one operative tells the main character to be careful, because someone will be left “holding the bag” on torture. It turns out--thanks to one man's willful destruction of evidence--that no one will be held accountable.

Myth 6: All the intel agencies supported torture. They didn’t. The FBI in particular (and parts of the U.S. military) had deep misgivings about the ethics and legality of “enhanced interrogation”. Some people briefed on the in-depth intelligence have even reported that most of the best intelligence had actually been gleaned before the CIA started waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty didn’t include any of this doubt or skepticism. They chose to leave it out. Bigelow in particular has defended her narrative as hewing to the truth. In her words, leaving out torture out of Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t have told the full story. True, but we think Matt Taibbi perfectly rebuts this point:

“Here's my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was "honest," but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was "honest" about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else."

If a film, in search of a better narrative, doesn't tell the most accurate story, then the filmmakers can’t say it is "based on a true story", especially when it comes to a morally complicated issue like torture. They especially shouldn’t refer to it as reportage, and critics shouldn’t praise it for its “honesty” or “accuracy” if it is--as Boal and Bigelow have defended themselves--fictional. In those cases, the film isn’t “based on a true story” but simply a fictional story using real people.

Sep 17

(With our thoughts on Syria published (for now), we return to our 2013 Academy Awards coverage. To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Unlike Argo, whose inaccuracies were treated with a collective media shoulder shrug--the few articles correcting the record were short and off the front page--the inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty created a (relative) media maelstrom.

As soon as filming started, conservatives accused the Obama administration of leaking information to make itself look good. When people started seeing the film, liberals accused the filmmakers of pushing a pro-torture narrative. Senators and CIA chiefs got in on the action, debating what was and wasn’t true.

Not all inaccuracies are made equal. According to the article, “The Shooter” in Esquire, the finals scenes of the raid had some small, technical errors. I have to ask: who really cares if they shouted Osama bin Laden’s name or not? In the long run, that’s bad, but fixable. (All this assumes we can even figure out what happened.)

But that doesn’t mean those little mistakes can’t lead to huge misunderstandings. As Eric C pointed out when he reviewed the inaccuracies of Argo, changing a bunch of minor facts can change how Americans see their role in the world. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, this gives many Americans false views on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty had so many little mistakes that we divided this post into two parts. Tomorrow’s will deal just with torture; today’s with the rest. So what are the biggest myths peddled by Zero Dark Thirty?

Myth 1: The CIA is super effective. Why isn't this true? See this whole post on topic. Remember, we didn't even know the CIA's budget until last month. The CIA doesn't release good records on successful and unsuccessful operations. They do, though, leak tantalizing stories of their successes in operative memoirs and Hollywood films, as we’ve written about before.

Myth 2: The bureaucracy still sucks. Just as Eric C pointed out with Argo, in Zero Dark Thirty, the federal government can’t do anything right, but intel folks come off looking like superstars. Mindless DC bureaucrats--the CIA station chief in Pakistan, then his replacement (he doesn't deny Maya's requests, he just says, "whatever" and shrugs), then the CIA officials in Washington D.C., then Obama's Chief of Staff--all delay finding Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, Bigelow and Boal never even say what changed Obama's mind, it just kind of happens with about 45 minutes left to go in the film. (That’s what we call a deus ex machina in the biz, folks.)

Myth 3: Terrorism is a grave, continuing threat. The film parades a series of terror attacks before the viewer: starting with the sounds of first responders, Flight 93 passengers and news reports on 9/11; then the 7/7 attacks; then showing the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan; and finally a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It leaves the viewers with this conclusion: Osama bin Laden was planning and conducting terror attacks around the world and we needed to kill him.

This version of history is wildly wrong:

- The 7/7 attacks were conducted by homegrown extremists. While Al Qaeda did take credit for the attack, later intelligence discredited their involvement. In other words, they took credit after the fact, without providing logistical or material support.

- The Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing was not linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It may have been politically motivated or conducted by another Islamic group. Frankly, we don’t know. Including it, then, seems odd, considering this was a movie about Osama bin Laden.[ital]

- Finally, displaying terror attacks like this make terrorism seem common, even though it it incredibly rare. For proof, see this post, this post, this post, this video, this post, this article, this article or this article. Films like Zero Dark Thirty leave viewers emotionally scared, but logically misinformed.

Myth 4: Pakistan is dangerous for westerners. Not as dangerous as you think. In one scene, analyst Maya is attacked by gunmen entering the Embassy compound. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone describes, this type of scene has happened in Peshawar, but doesn’t really take place in Islamabad. Pakistan, like many third world nations, isn’t as safe as America. But it also isn’t a war zone where Westerners can’t leave their homes without fear of dying. There are parts which are very violent--you know, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--but not Islamabad.

Myth 5: The CIA analysts approach their targets objectively. Actually, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't show this. They show one agent believing she is right, and doing whatever it takes to prove herself. Guess what? In the run-up to the Iraq War, countless analysts and case officers (and Vice Presidents/Secretaries of Defense) felt the exact same way about the threat of Iraq's WMDs. They desperately tried to make that case. They were wrong.

Throughout the investigation to find Osama bin Laden, plenty of analysts and case officers thought for sure they knew where he was. They were wrong too.

Sadly, the CIA, not the American public, will learn the wrong lesson from this. Instead of relying on data and evidence, they will think, "I will go down in history if I just trust my gut. Isn't that what leaders do?" Of course, they'll be wrong.

So watch Zero Dark Thirty. Enjoy it as a fictional spy story, equivalent to The Bourne Identity, 2 Guns or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But don’t consider it in anyway, "based on true events". It wasn't, not even remotely.

Sep 12

To keep last week’s media post short and readable, we cut a lot of the concrete examples of the media focusing on politics instead of policy, using the WSJ example as a synecdoche of the coverage. We also decided to run our examples of the good coverage today, because good options do exist, and we never want to complain without offering alternatives.

We start with the bad examples...

- The Sunday talk shows. For two successive weekends, the major network’s Sunday talk shows debated Obama’s legacy, not the Syrian civil war. Two Sundays ago, David Gregory on Meet the Press previewed two different segments by describing Syria as “...what may be the biggest challenge yet for the presidency of President Obama.” George Stephanopoulos on This Week asked, “Can his presidency survive a defeat?” Yes. Now, give us some policy implications, not politics.

- Politico. Obviously Politico covers politics, but like this? One article was titled, “United States of Weakness”. They also said a failure to go to war would “cripple his presidency.” Then Politico followed up its coverage by labeling the Obama administration’s secret briefing on Syria a “flop”. The Syria briefing honestly laid out the ways attacking Syria could go wrong, and presented the unvarnished intelligence, instead of hyping it. If it sounds like we are making an Iraq comparison, we are. Politico shouldn’t label President Obama as soft or weak or incompetent for delivering honest briefings to Congress which lay out the complexities, uncertainties and difficulties of military action.

- Political pundits. CNN, in particular, got blasted when it invited Van Jones and SE Cupp to debate Syria. As Andrew Exum tweeted, “@jaketapper You know I am a huge fan of yours, but Syria as analyzed by @secupp & @VanJones68 is why I don't watch @CNN.”

- The push for war even as Syria vowed to give up its weapons. Even as Syria volunteered to give up its weapons, media outlets started reporting that Obama was losing support for an intervention in Congress, then hyperventilated that this could end his presidency. Later in the week, some pundits--especially conservatives--praised Putin’s leadership to criticize Obama. Really?

- On The Media. Though we love this show, we feel their coverage two weeks ago really missed the mark, defending the media’s Syria debate. As their summary put it on the website, “Coverage of the proposed military intervention in Syria is attracting inevitable comparisons to the run-up to the Iraq war, which began 10 years ago. But this time around, with Iraq still fresh in the country's collective memory, the media seem to be more careful.” Nope.

Not everything was terrible. Here’s what we liked:

- The Economist had two pieces arguing for an intervention that focused primarily on the actual conflict, not politics, along with suggestions for what to read online to follow the conflict, a detailed outline of the current war, and then Immanuel Kant’s take. That’s how you cover a possible intervention, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

- The Atlantic’s Conor Friederdorf brilliantly showed how the news coverage of most major media outlets skewed pro-war. In one piece, he describes how inside-the-beltway pundits/experts make this possible; in the other, he writes the news article he wants to read.

- All In with Chris Hayes invited anti-war guests on his show, which helped to balance out the parade of generals on most of the other networks. He also called out the pro-Iraq War pundits who are still “experts” on the Middle East, despite missing the mark in Iraq.

- Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, appropriately slammed the media on his first week back, as we linked to last week.

- Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan. We also weren’t the only people who wrote an open letter to their congressman. Stephen Walt wrote one here. And Andrew Sullivan kind of wrote one here.

- Fareed Zakaria, GPS. Finally, though Fareed invited Paul Wolfowitz on his show as an expert on the Middle East, we agree with his take here, analyzing the policy missteps that got the Obama administration embroiled in Syria.

Sep 12

We don’t like chasing the news. We don’t like just offering gut reactions. We don’t want this to be a reactive blog, regurgitating other people’s content as so many media pundits accuse bloggers of doing.

But I have to write something about the media coverage of Syria. I spent four hours on September 1st catching up on all things Syria by watching the Sunday political talk shows, and I (Eric C) got this nagging feeling that the coverage, for lack of a more eloquent word, sucked.

The media would rather debate domestic politics (Is President Obama a lame duck president? How will Syria affect Obama’s legacy?) than, say, the question of whether or not we should go to war. Take, for example, this fairly typical passage from a Wall Street Journal article on the debate over the intervention:

“President Barack Obama is gambling his presidency on the proposition that he can achieve the very goal that has proved most elusive to him for more than four years: a bipartisan consensus in a bitterly divided Congress…

...The cost of failure would be high, nothing less than a blow to the proposition that a war-weary and economically strained U.S. is still capable of, or even interested in, leading the world.”

Re-read that excerpt. First, Obama’s legacy doesn’t hang on this military intervention. It just doesn’t. When Obama’s term ends, he’ll have led the country through an economic recovery, one of the most active periods of legislation (2008 to 2010) since Lyndon Johnson, and, as of now, a relatively scandal-free presidency. As far as foreign policy goes, Syria would be just one of four military conflicts in Obama’s presidency. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Libya intervention will have just as much an impact as a Syrian intervention, if not more.

Oh yeah, he also killed Osama bin Laden.

Addressing America’s international reputation, does anyone seriously think that by not invading Syria America will no longer be “capable of...leading the world”? We’re on our fourth military intervention in twelve years. We still have the world’s largest military by a mile. A mile. If one thing defines America’s foreign policy this century, it is a willingness to use that military. (This was written before Assad offered to turn over his chemical weapons, which, arguably, was prompted by his fear of an American military strike.) And Obama did very little to create the conditions for a “war-weary” or “economically strained U.S.”. His predecessor laid the groundwork for that.

The above excerpt exemplifies the national debate our country has (or hasn’t) been having about Syria. Too much of the Sunday talk show discussion revolved around whether or not Obama (or America) looked weak going to Congress for approval as opposed to whether or not we should go to war. As Jon Stewart pointed out, we’re conducting diplomacy on the level of eighth graders.

Before we debate legacies and lame-duck-ness, the media needs to answer very important questions about the Syrian civil war. Questions like...

- How do we know Assad used chemical weapons? Do we know that Assad ordered them to be used? We’ve been burned on this exact issue before, less than ten years ago.

- Who will take power if Assad loses? As Dexter Filkins pointed out, the al Qaeda branch in the region changed their name from “al Qeada in Iraq” to “al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria”. (Though we know how inaccurate that label is anyway.)

- What will happen if we leave a power vacuum in the region?

- Doesn’t Egypt show us the perils of taking sides in these conflicts? We don’t really know who’s going to gain power and what they’re going to do with it.

- Don’t foreign interventions usually prolong civil wars?

- Finally, what is our long term strategy? When, where and how will we use cruise missiles and bombings? Will they even be effective?

I’d like to hear the answers to all these questions before we even begin debating Obama’s legacy or America’s international reputation.

There are some good options out there in the media at large, and we’ll share some of them on Monday. But I have one last feeling that I just have to put out there. In the end, the coverage of Syria felt very pro-war to me. The media doesn’t invite anti-war activists onto their shows at nearly the same rate that they invite former generals and national security pundits, though I’d argue that former generals are just as biased.

Even if the coverage isn’t pro-war, it isn’t very critical either, which is tantamount to the same thing. Over 60% of the country opposes a war in Syria, but instead of asking if Obama will lose popularity by leading the country into a war it doesn’t support, the media asks if he will look weak. Seems odd, doesn’t it, to frame the criticism that way?

America would get into less wars if its populace and media maintained default skepticism over military interventions, not the opposite view. In the end, our country should ask itself why it has fought so many wars when so many other countries haven’t, and we should look to this media coverage to find out why.

Sep 10

If we had to retitle On V, I would probably call it, "The Skeptical Soldier". If you gather all of our posts, from Clausewitz to memoirs to intel is evidence to Iran to, most recently, data, constant skepticism about the conventional wisdom of the U.S. military ties them all together.

This applies to the media coverage of America's wars and its military. For example, the media--prompted by interest groups--loves big, impressive, round numbers. As the Syrian death toll slowly crept up, so did my guard. When I first heard that the civil war in Syria had killed 100,000 people, I threw my BS flag. (If you are curious, I always keep it in my back pocket.) I even tweeted @OnTheMedia asking, “Any chance the "100,000 dead in Syria #" doesn't hold up a la sex drugs and body counts?”.

To understand why, listen to this On The Media story on the uber-excellent, Sex, Drugs and Body Counts, a collection of essays analyzing the conventional wisdom behind widely cited numbers in various criminal and war-related international stories. In short, bigger and rounder is better:   

"We're not only more likely to remember the first number that we've heard, but we're likely to remember a big round number. So, for example, when the United Nations announces, as it did several decades ago, that the global drug trade was worth 500 billion dollars, that’s a memorable number. They later lowered that estimate to 400 billion, and an economist within the UN started questioning why that number. And apparently they rounded it up from 365 because it would, well, play better in the media and be more memorable.”

The biggest "debunking" in terms of war casualties comes from the number of dead cited by the media during the conflict in Bosnia. Initial reports from the U.N. placed the number of dead at over 250,000. Later, social scientists and historians dropped the number down to half that, 100,000. However, the first number remains lodged in the collective conscious. Eric C used to tell people that five million people died in the generally ignored Congolese Civil War. Researching the civil war in Congo, he found out that the real number was probably two million, if not much, much lower.  

Combining my skepticism with the knowledge that the media exaggerates death counts, naturally, I had my guard up when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the world that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights had determined that over 100,000 Syrians had died since fighting started. The press later repeated this figure without citation or reference, only referring to the U.N. Secretary General, not the scientists, data analysts, journalists or officials who created the number.

That number just didn’t sit right with me.

I decided to find if anyone could verify that 100,000 number. The shocking, good news: We can trust this number. Most bad statistics come from poorly informed or unplanned estimates or the high end of a range of estimates. Not this number.

This number comes from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, who relied on research from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). This group actually enumerated the number of dead, meaning each person has a name and as much other information as possible. If anything, 100,000 is probably too low, since it doesn’t capture missing or nameless bodies. Though the exact number of dead will clearly fluctuate over time, on first blush, this number is not wildly inaccurate.

I don’t want to undersell HRDAG’s efforts. They are spending a significant amount of time in a rigorous process to identify duplicates, mistakes and fraudulent entries. The researchers also explain their methodology, along with its flaws, limitations and weaknesses. As they write in The Pacific Standard, they strive to be apolitical, guided only by good social science practices. Or read the report itself. 

Unfortunately, not all the numbers from this conflict are created equal. I am still skeptical of the number of dead Syrians by the chemical gas attacks. From The Economist:

“Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity, said three clinics it supports in the area treated 3,600 patients in a matter of hours, 355 of whom died. The Violations Documentation Centre, a Syrian organisation meticulous in its compilation of reports of death and injury, now puts the death toll at 457 or more. Other credible estimates range as high as 1,300. Harrowing videos—a man begging his two dead children to get up and walk; a girl repeating in wonder “I’m alive, I’m alive”—brought the atrocity home to the world.”

Which number do you think proponents of war will cite? Secretary of State John Kerry put the number as high as 1,400, which has since been endlessly repeated. If it eventually turns out to be much, much lower, few Americans will learn or remember that.

I am also skeptical on the numbers on Syrian refugees. The previously cited Sex, Drugs and Body Counts cites multiple examples of U.N. agencies using exaggerated numbers to gain political support. The U.N. Commission on Refugees itself tends to rely on huge, round numbers. Thus the Syrian conflict has created 2 million refugees, which seems too high. Apparently, the numbers come from individually registered Syrians, but I have a feeling that isn’t the case, and some estimation is in play. They also cite that 5 million Syrians have been “displaced” within Syria, which is very high and round too. Also, their use of the term “7 million refugees” is designed to mislead potential donors into thinking all 7 million Syrian refugees have left Syria, which isn’t the case.

As with all intelligence, trust but verify. In this case, we can rely on estimates that at least 100,000 Syrians (from both sides) having died, because they come from science and meticulous work. Great job, Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

Sep 09

(On Violence believes that one of the things which makes America great is the ability to hold elective representatives accountable. With an impending vote in Congress on President Obama’s desire to use military force in Syria--which we both oppose--we emailed our elected representatives to voice our opposition.)

To Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Brad Sherman and Representative Karen Bass,

We are writing to urge you to vote against the use of military force in Syria or the surrounding countries because of the ongoing civil war and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons.

Before we explain why, we would like to commend both the Congress and President Obama for seeking legislative approval of this action. Though we wish this discussion had started sooner, we appreciate that the legislative branch is debating the issue.

That said, you should adamantly oppose U.S. military action in Syria. First, the U.S. cannot hold up international norms--the ostensible reason for war--without gaining broad international support. Ideally, this means getting the United Nations, NATO or the Arab League on board, as President George H.W. Bush did before the Persian Gulf War. To maintain America’s leadership in the world means not just having the military power to attack other countries, but building, maintaining and then using our diplomatic power to build coalitions.

Second, the U.S. has not exhausted all other options. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should initiate talks between all interested parties, including Turkey, Russia, China and Iran, before the U.S. goes to war. If the U.S. truly cares about protecting the people and children of Syria, then it should let in Syrian refugees, increase funding to aid groups in Syria and pledge to financially and logistically support any peacekeeping forces the U.N. might send if a cease fire can be reached. It should not launch cruise missiles before taking these actions. Dropping bombs and firing missiles could kill many more people than Bashar al Assad killed with chemical weapons.

Third, a war in Syria has a small but not statistically insignificant chance of spiralling out of control. With multiple parties involved, including Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, starting an air war could easily escalate.

Finally, the use of cruise missile strikes has very little chance of succeeding at any of its goals. Academic research shows that the intervention of outside nations--except under terms of a ceasefire or peace keeping arrangement--tend to prolong civil wars.  It won’t signal anything to Iran or North Korea. And it will do little to ease the suffering in Syria.

Taken together, we urge you to vote no on authorizing military force in Syria.


Michael Cummings

Former Captain in the US Army and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan

Eric Cummings

Sep 06

(Before the Syria situation exploded, we had planned to continue our "Oscar's Month". It will return after next week.)

In college, as a naive, young activist, I used to sit down during the national anthem. Michael C, as a young cadet, freaked out whenever I did this. At the time, I protested the anthem because I believed that excessive patriotism directly inhibits the self-criticism our nation (and all nations) need to be great. At its worst, unthinking lack of self-criticism helps repeatedly send our nation into destructive, violent, poorly-planned wars.

As we’ve written before, people tend to falsely attribute quotes to Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Einstein, Plato, Churchill and others, he’s one of the great men of history people attach to the quotes of less important thinkers to impart relevance. But I’ve been researching some anti-war “Quotes Behaving Badly”, and I found something interesting: virtually every quote by Martin Luther King Jr opposing war is true. Quotes like:

“But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”

Or this short excerpt from a much longer piece:

“War is not the answer.”

Tavis Smiley brought up Dr. King’s pacifism on ABC’s This Week, arguing that talk of war with Syria dishonors his legacy:

“There’s the issue of violence. War, Dr. King would say were he here, is not the answer. We cannot worship at the altar of retaliation. It’s either non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation, Dr. King would say were he here.”

The other panelists ignored him. When media critics criticize the media for not offering context, they’re talking about segments like this. During a week which featured two major news stories--the fiftieth anniversary of “I Have a Dream” and talks about going to war with Syria--very few pundits, reporters or news anchors connected the two. Every network covered the anniversary; few of them described Dr. King as anti-war.

The reason that the quotes of the less famous get attributed to the more famous is that the great thinkers of history become ciphers. We see in them what we want to see in them. Later on This Week, James Carville tried to make the case the Dr. King would have supported intervening in Syria:

“I think that we’ll frame our response this way. We’re not intervening in Syria. We’re punishing Assad. Because Assad is the one that actually did this and this is a horrible thing to gas young people. Let’s just put that right out. I don’t think Dr. King would have approved of that at all.”

He's right: Dr. King wouldn’t ever have dreamed of “approving” of using chemical weapons on civilians. He wouldn’t, though, have turned to cruise missile strikes as a first resort. In Foreign Policy, Elias Groll links Martin Luther King Jr. to intervening in Syria more forcefully (and still incorrectly):

“Still, it is important to remember that King was no outright pacifist. He was an avid student of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that in the face of tyranny and violence an armed response can sometimes be justified. Niebuhr is also one of Obama's favorite philosophers. In 2007, when asked what he had taken away from Niebuhr, Obama offered something of a prescient preview of his often-militarist foreign policy: ‘I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction’; that ‘we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.’

“It's a foreign policy King might have gotten behind.”

I doubt it. Dr. King was non-violent. Militantly non-violent. Pacifists like Dr. King and myself fear war. We only support war as a means of last resort in the most dire of situations. Last resort. Syria does not fit that criteria. At all.

This weekend, I attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by John Williams. The show opened with the national anthem. As the crowd stood, I couldn't help thinking about Syria. I thought about how almost no one in the auditorium knew about the possible intervention with Syria. Hell, I’d barely followed the issue and I co-write a milblog. I thought about how, since Obama became president, America has dropped bombs in four different countries and we were about to launch missiles into a fifth. I wondered if most of the auditorium could even name those countries.

Mostly, I thought about how, in my relatively young life, my country will have gone to war three times, deployed its military eight times--three times since 9/11 not counting Syria or drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. It doesn’t make me proud. It makes me not want to stand and sing the national anthem.

Though I didn’t think about it last Saturday, Dr. King’s word from his speech ‘Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” captured my feelings best:

“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

It’s why, now, I stand during the national anthem.

Sep 04

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

While I write about a lot things as On Violence’s resident arts commentator, I write most about inaccuracies. Distorting the truth. Changing the facts. Mostly, this has meant writing about war memoirs and films which alter the facts to improve the narrative.

Ben Affleck’s Argo changed a lot of facts.

Aesthetically, some of the changes are beneficial, like making the last act more nail-biting by increasing the sense of danger. Some of the changes are detrimental, like making Tony Mendez estranged from his wife. (In real life, this never happened.) To me, this took reality (”devoted husband and spy”) and changed it to a cliched character we’ve seen a hundred times before, “the troubled spy”.

On the most basic level, changing the facts fundamentally distorts what actually happened. Since most Americans don’t have Ph.Ds in international relations, factual errors will chronically and irreparably misinform everyone who sees Argo, the only time most Americans will read or learn about this mission.

But let’s move past facts. Art is about truth (with a capital “T”), “Truths” that explain to us the way the world works. In the same way that historians don’t memorize dates but study how and why things change, artists don’t tell stories; they reveal larger truths about the world. The real problem with changing the facts is that it can fundamentally distort the viewer’s understanding of the world. Argo changed the facts to make a better story, and lost grasp of truth in very serious and important ways.

Frankly, this is a criticism I haven’t read anywhere else. Here are three specific distortions, and the problems with them:

Other countries don’t get the credit they deserve (or: America is the bestest!) In particular, Canada and the Canadian ambassador get the shaft. From former President Jimmy Carter:

“The other thing that I would say was that 90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA...And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”

I have no idea why Affleck did this, except that he played the main character. This change gives American viewers the impression that we can go it alone on most things in international relations. Oh, and the CIA is incredibly, incredibly competent.

Those “mean” British and New Zealand embassies never turned away the American diplomats. The British actually briefly housed the diplomats. They moved the embassy workers to the Canadian Ambassador’s house when they felt the situation got too dangerous.

Why make the above changes? Ben Affleck wanted to make the plight of the embassy workers seem more hopeless.

Aesthetically, I guess you could defend that change. Thematically, it’s propagandistic. Affleck, probably unintentionally, makes America the hero. We view the rest of the world as cowardly and ineffective.

Michael C, editing this post, offered another equally valid interpretation: this film makes Americans feel alone in the world. We can't rely on other nations; we just need ourselves. Ironically, this seems to be what’s happening with Syria right now.

The White House didn’t delay the mission. Of all the changes in Argo, this one is the most troubling.

Americans, led by Milton Friedman, then William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, and now Limbaugh, Hannity and the conservative media, have pushed a narrative that all government is incompetent. It can’t do anything right...except for the military and national security establishment.

Affleck plays right into this stereotype. He actively changed the reality--the Carter administration helped the CIA--to make the White House, and by extension, federal government look inept and downright harmful. In Argo, a slow-moving, behemoth bureaucracy nearly gets the six embassy workers killed. In reality, the White House approved the mission before Mendez even landed in Iran and the Canadians bought the plane tickets. In Argo, the intelligence community succeeds where the government fails. In reality, this never happened.

Americans, seeing this film, will trust the CIA and intelligence community more than they should while distrusting the government more than they should.

And that’s just not real.

Sep 03

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

The world is a scary place. Every single day, terrorists plot to kill you and everyone you care about. But don’t believe me; believe the national security professionals who we pay large, large sums of money to keep us safe. From Fareed Zakaria's GPS 360 from a few years back:

Fareed Zakaria: It does sound so scary day after day. Most of it goes nowhere, amounts to nothing. Most of the threats don't materialize.

John Miller: It's not an accident. The idea is when you've got that type of collection, you've got that kind of indicators and warning, you're able to influence those events, either by stopping the threat, shutting it down, capturing the people, arresting them or otherwise making it not happen.

Or from David Remnick on The New Yorker’s political scene podcast:

“Well, on the other hand, since September 2001 we have not had a major terror attack. If you talk to anybody--honest people--who are...high up in the national security apparatus they will tell you that the briefings that they get, the chatter that they listen to, the things that are stifled quietly that we don’t always hear about, are frightening. And we want that to happen.”

Whenever a terror event happens--albeit rarely--somewhere in the world, former national security experts, paid by the networks, emerge to reiterate variations on the above theme. They tell you, ‘If only you read what I read, then you would be really fearful. And because we read about it, we can stop it, and we do, but we don’t tell you, but you should trust us we are doing this.”

I am calling this variation on last week’s post, “the Bernie Madoff problem”. In this case, the national security establishment wants us to believe that we owe it our safety. They say, “We keep you safe and stop all sorts of terrorism, but we can’t tell you any specifics. Just trust us.” The director of the NSA, to prove his agency’s efficacy, said that the program Edward Snowden had leaked had prevented 50 specific attacks. Those 50 attacks, however, later turned out to be wildly exaggerated (narrowed down to a handful at most), mostly overseas and not actually prevented by the NSA meta-data collection program.

Madoff asked his investors to trust him in a very similar way; those investors then lost all their savings.

Westerners are safe. Fantastically safe. The safest people in the history of the world. And terrorism is incredibly rare. But we don’t owe the the intelligence community for this safety. We don’t have any evidence that those possible attacks that John Miller or David Remnick’s sources referenced were ever going to actually happen.

Take this story (by way of Graham Allison by way of Andrew Sullivan) about reports of a nuclear bomb threat on NYC. It never materialized, primarily because the intelligence underlying it just wasn’t very good. Phrased differently, it came from tortured suspects who lied. But it still qualifies as very scary chatter that intelligence analysts read day after day.

The most relevant point David Remnick and Fareed Zakaria both made is that the terrorist chatter goes nowhere. It goes nowhere without any CIA involvement or influence, which national security types usually won’t tell you. You may ask, what about our elected officials who provide oversight? Surely they could see through this.

They could, if they had access. When it comes to intelligence, only eight--8--members of Congress have oversight to all intelligence activities. Eight in a body of over 500 people are trusted with “overseeing” our entire intelligence apparatus. By the way, hardly any Americans know this. The rest of the legislative committees on intelligence also have huge ties to intelligence contractors.

(We wrote the above paragraph before the NSA wiretapping revelation. If anything, the revelation underscores our point. Most of the politicians briefed on the program didn’t understand how the meta-data collection program actually worked. They had to rely on a handful of powerpoint slides, and nothing else. Then, Congress demanded a slew of briefings after the program was revealed.)

We spend more on intelligence than most other Western nations spend on their entire military. That spending means jobs, lobbying and influence. If the CIA had to prove its effectiveness--the way most conservatives demand other parts of the government do--it would have an awfully hard time doing so with numbers, facts and results.

But they do hear lots of scary chatter.