Mar 16

We should have a number of updates coming over the next month, starting with today...

Update to Gratitude Theory

In our post, “Don’t Burn Korans, Kill Children or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy”, I failed to mention another key “don’t” in a counter-insurgency:

“Don’t pee on the dead bodies of your enemy, take pictures of it and post them on Youtube.”

Marine Sergeant Joseph Chamberlain who did those actions--and got fellow marines and soldiers killed because of it--says he has no regrets. Marines with his attitude have helped lose the war in Afghanistan, and they doesn’t even realize it. Yes, this is a very old update (though we never commented on the “urinating on dead bodies scandal” at the time), so this is that comment: bad marines/soldiers pee on the bodies of their enemies. Their defenders are defending actions that kill Americans.

Also, do these action count as barbaric or savage?

More “Isolationism” Bashing

The National Journal had an excellent article on the specter of “isolationism”. “Phantom Menace: The myth of American isolationism”, by Peter Beinart, just nails the problems with modern politician’s use of “isolationism”. (Check out our take on the term here.) Among a number of great points--from rebutting the idea that America was isolationist in the 20s and 30s to breaking down Rand Paul’s “isolationism”--he closes with this:

“Hawks worried that Barack Obama, or Rand Paul, or the American people have not defended American interests forcefully enough in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, or Iran can make plenty of legitimate arguments. Calling their opponents “isolationists” isn’t one of them. It’s time journalists greet that slur with the same derision they currently reserve for epithets like “socialist,” “fascist,” and “totalitarian.” Then, perhaps, we can have the foreign policy debate America deserves."

Well put.

Remember, China and Russia have spies too…

The New York Review of Books reminds us that--despite the gads of news coverage the media showered on them--Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden had nowhere near the reach, support, and logistics of good old fashioned espionage. Anne Applebaum’s review of Deception should remind Americans clearly of this threat.

Everyday, Russian and Chinese spies attempt to flip U.S. government and business workers to spill secrets and access to U.S. information systems. As we’ve written before, unlike Manning and Snowden and Wikileaks, Russian and Chinese spies don’t publicly release the information they’ve stolen. They’re also much more effective because they’re professionals.

On V Update to PowerPoint

Man, I hate PowerPoint. At this point, it is more irrational than rational. And Jeff Bezos agrees with me. (From Wonkblog, h/t War on the Rocks):

“Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past two weeks. When Jeff holds meetings at Amazon he asks people not to use Powerpoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a Powerpoint together.”

An interesting side note: Michael C now works for Amazon Studios, the original content production arm of Amazon. Michael C don’t miss PowerPoint at all.

Another Call to Purge the Generals

I’ve written before that we don’t hold our bureaucrats in Washington accountable. Most small government Republicans would agree with me on that point. Unlike them, though, I also list the generals and admirals in our military as Washington bureaucrats. Daniel Davis, writing in both the Armed Forces Journal and The Guardian, agrees with me. (He also proposes a novel change in military organization and theory, which I need to research further.)

Mar 02

More updates, this time on the state of America’s security state.

Militarization of Police Forces

According to Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker, before 1990, law enforcement conducted at most, “several hundred paramilitary-style drug” raids each year. Now, across America, police forces routinely conduct tens of thousands of such raids. (H/T to the now retired Andrew Sullivan.) We’ve been following this trend since our posts a couple of years ago comparing this to Robocop’s prediction of militarized future to the present.

And now the police have military-style equipment. Partly in response to the events of Ferguson, the Obama administration researched and released a report on police militarization that came in the beginning of December last year. Some critics pointed out that only 4% of the gear is actual combat equipment. Reason debates that point:

“But the report does also show how big that four percent is in real numbers:

“‘To date, approximately 460,000 pieces of controlled property are currently in the possession of LEAs. Examples of controlled property provided include: 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 5,235 high mobility, multi-purpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), 617 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles and 616 aircraft.’”

“Mine resistant vehicles?” you ask. Yeah, like this one. I mean, listen, I don’t like Ohio State, but I’m sure their fans aren’t planting IEDs around their own stadium. (Maybe the Michigan fans are terrorists?)

Violent Crime is Down, But...

Unfortunately, our police forces don’t need military equipment. The job is safer than it has been since the 1960s (and the increase in heavy weaponry and equipment had little to do with it). It turns out that assaults on police officers have just plummeted overall. Articles in the Huffington Post and The Atlantic both push back a narrative of a “war on cops” that some media outlets have pushed.

As multiple, multiple media outlets have covered post-Ferguson, violent crime is at its lowest level in decades. Ironically--and the records are incomplete, because the government doesn’t track all police shootings--civilian deaths by police are on the rise.

Sigh.

Our Awesomely Privatized Prison System

Why does America have such a large prison population compared to the rest of the world? One reason is that we’ve privatized prisons. Fareed Zakaria, in his “What in the World?” segment, explains the problem:

“Believe it or not, many of our prisons are run by private companies that then lobby state legislatures massively for bigger prisons, larger budgets, and of course more prisoners.

“According to the non-profit Justice Policy Institute, the two largest private prison companies in America together generate revenues of $3 billion a year – paid by taxpayers, of course. These private prison companies also happen to be major donors to a number of state campaigns, lobbying for more resources.”

We’ve haven’t touched on the deplorable state of our prisons before. (Consider it one of many issues like gun violence, war films, and COIN board games, which we’d write about more if we had more time.) But we have written about privatizing law enforcement, which we absolutely oppose.

Also, Leon Neyfakh, over at Slate, offers a new theory for the America’s developed-country-leading incarceration rate: overly aggressive prosecutors. Stay tuned for more on this.

A Good Plan for the Department of Homeland Security: Shut it Down!

We’ve read two persuasive articles on this in the last two years. This article in Bloomberg Business, by Charles Kenny of the New America Foundation, advocates for shutting down the entire Department of Homeland Security as an over-reaction to 9/11 and the terrorism threat. This week, with Republicans threatening DHS funding, we agree with Dara Lind at Vox to just let it go. We still hold the hope that libertarian-minded Republicans will one day consider national security spending as wasteful as other government spending.

Al Qaeda FBI Continues to Lead All Al Qaeda Branches in Planned Attacks

Journalist Trevor Aaronson (we’ve written about his work here) has an entire book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism, on how the FBI plans, launches and captures suspected terrorists. While these stings bring us no closer to stopping actual Al Qaeda terrorists, they do waste the FBI’s time convincing people to launch “terror attacks”. The last supposed domestic terrorist was an exemplar of FBI agents encouraging, motivating, funding and training an otherwise harmless person.

Jan 05

If you read our post on “The Most Thought Provoking Events of the Year So Far: Bowe Bergdahl and Boko Haram”, then you read this:

“Then Iraq fell apart. (Spoiler alert: that’s our most thought-provoking event of the year. Unless some absolutely devastating catastrophe occurs between now and then.)”

And then we found out--or more accurately, Congress confirmed--that our country tortured detainees during the war on terror, including rectal feeding, the killing of prisoners, the capture and detention of innocent men, and many other war crimes and human rights abuses.

We both consider the torture report an “absolutely devastating catastrophe”. Not in terms of a foreign policy crisis, but a catastrophe of constitutional proportions; a revelation that America had, in response to 9/11, violated its core principles in a way that ranks with the worst sins in American history, like internment, the Sedition Act and Watergate.

For Michael C, the torture report was bad, but not bad enough to displace Iraq as the most thought provoking event of the year. For Eric C, it was all he could think, read or write about for a week. Frankly, we still don’t agree. To quote Intelligence Squared, “Well, that sounds like the makings of a debate, so let’s have it”: what mattered more in 2014: Iraq Redux or the Torture Report?

Eric C’s Argument:

I’ll concede one point early on: I certainly think both events are thought-provoking. (Though on a technical, behind-the-scenes level, I don’t feel as confident as Michael C writing about Iraq as I do writing about torture.) But the torture report matters more than America intervening again in Iraq, because of what it represents symbolically.

With Iraq, America just ended up making the same mistakes, again. With the torture report, at least we’re trying to learn from our mistakes. In short, Iraq represents more of the same; the torture report represents a country trying to move forward. At least there was a debate.

And that, to me, is what truly matters. After 9/11, our country made mistakes, and if we write about the torture report, I feel that On Violence can add to the chorus of people, pundits and writers trying to make our country better; with Iraq, I don’t feel like the lessons will be learned.

Michael C’s Argument:

Each year Eric C and I pick the most “thought-provoking” event of the year--the event that inspires the most unique thoughts or ideas--then we write about that for a week (or two). On that front, Iraq Redux just inspires more unique, On-V-esque ideas than the torture report.

Iraq Redux had poor media coverage (the constant threat of invading Baghdad; over-hyping of the threat of ISIS), fearmongering on terrorism (the beheadings of Western journalists), discussion of counter-insurgency theory (the debate on airstrikes or more troops in Baghdad), the ramifications of international relations theory (including the duty to protect innocents versus realism versus liberalism) to start.

This isn’t to say the release of the Senate’s report on torture isn’t thought-provoking. It pretty soundly took over the media for a cycle. It also unites certain conservatives and liberals. And it shows the uniqueness of democracies: how often in history have rulers of a country willingly admitted they committed war crimes?

But most of our post ideas aren’t unique, but more filled with outrage that it happened in the first place. That isn’t unique or thought provoking per se, just morally outraging.

Eric C’s Conclusion:

I’ve decided to concede this argument, for two reasons. The first is practical, but intellectually not admirable: we’re mostly done with a whole bunch of posts on Iraq and we (the Cummings Bros) have a very busy month ahead of us.

But on a thematic, what-this-blog-is-working-towards level, in discussing torture (the release of the torture report), Iraq (the rise of ISIS and America “needing” to engage Iraq militarily for the fourth time in four decades), and the NSA (the release of Citizen 4 and more revelations of citizen snooping), a new theme emerged:

America has begun pushing back on our collective over-reaction to 9/11.

Altogether, the outlines of a new series and an essay or two emerged, which we plan/hope to finish in the next few months, after we write about Iraq and a bunch of other random topics. A number of themes of the blog--the dehumanization of our enemies, the world is getting safer, an unquestioning faith in the national security establishment--help explain America’s overreaction to 9/11, and we want to explore it.

So enjoy our series on Iraq Redux, which begins tomorrow. But expect much, much more in the year ahead.

Dec 22

(Before we begin, as happens every holiday season, On V will be “On-V-cation” until January fifth.)

Welcome to our 700th post. Though we’ve been posting less frequently, we’re still adding to the collection. As we like to do every hundred posts, we’re sharing our best/favorite posts from the last 100.

To read more “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.

By the far the biggest, most popular series we’ve ever done was our “debunking/getting the facts out” about the Lone Survivor film and memoir. First off, find the comprehensive, 4,000-plus word comparison article here. We jumped at the chance to shrink that post down and sent it to Slate. In December, we analyzed Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, where he repeated many of the mistakes in the book, and we discovered a new mistake: that Ahmad Shah “killed 20 Marines the week before”. Finally, we detailed the appalling media coverage of the film’s release.

We also took on the mishandling of COIN in both the book and the movie.

To read all of our Luttrell/Lone Survivor articles, click here.

We finally got around to creating a home page for our “Getting Orwellian” series, now collected here. Our two favorite language posts were “Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech” and  “Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism”.

We also wrote about two wars that never happened in North Korea and Syria. On Syria, our favorite posts were “Syria-sly? or: the Media Coverage on Syria So Far” and “An Open Letter to Our Representatives on Syria”. Finally, Michael C wrote “I'm an Isolationist?”. Expect us to hit this theme hard next year.

On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013” last year was the NSA. Unfortunately, the government’s still fighting terrorism ineffectively and violating our civil liberties, so expect more on this as well.

Other prominent series included our “Our Belated Week (or Month) on the 2013 Oscars”, Eric C’s series on how “COIN is Boring”. And Michael C started, but hasn’t finished, “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security”.

To close, some of our favorite individual posts were “The Non-Traditional On Violence Reading List” and Michael C’s not-nearly-read-enough guest post “The Officer as Manager Reading List” at “The Best Defense”. We also like “(Non-Time Travel) Thoughts on "Looper"”, “America Looks Gross Naked” and “The Moral Argument Against War Validating One's Existence”.

Enjoy, and once again, thank you for everyone’s support.

Dec 01

We continue our quest to clear out stored up links to old ideas. (Expect a lot more next year.) Enjoy!

Muslims are Speaking Out

Last month, John Mikolajczyk wrote a guest post for us, “Good Muslims vs. Bad Muslims”, pushing back against the idea that there is a “lack of push-back against Islamic extremism worldwide” from the Islamic community. Recently, NPR’s On the Media explored two different ways that Muslim communities in America and England have also pushed back against violent extremism. OTM confirms what Mikolajczyk wrote for us: Muslims are speaking out against violence in their name.

The Video Game-Military-Industrial Complex

Last year, Eric C wrote about how the lack of COIN-centric video games. (The sub-title isn’t serious.) The article, "Four Times the Army has Tried to Turn War into a Game", by David Axe of War is Boring (now on Medium.com) describes the Army’s four attempts at making a video game. Each time, a budget-conscious voter could ask, “Why does the Army need to make a video game for the general public?”

To Eric C's point, none of these games seriously take on or address counter-insurgencies, only tactics and squad maneuvers. Man, the military really isn’t going to embrace COIN.

War with Iran

Two years ago, reviewing the case against starting a war with Iran, we pointed out the threat to huge U.S. capital ships--the biggest and most numerous in the world--from anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. The article, "Mystery Weapon Terrifies Armials", in War is Boring describes how China has spent considerable amounts of cash and time perfecting these missiles. While the article doesn’t mention Iran by name, when it comes to irregular seafare, Iran is always involved.

Since we last wrote about Iran, the country has continued to not attack its neighbors, continued to not have a nuclear weapon, and continued to negotiate with the U.S. Worse, instead of Americans celebrating these achievements, and embracing the possibility of renewing relationships permanently with Iran, war hawks continue to over-hype the threat and threaten to derail these talks.

Discrediting the Neo-Cons

Iraq didn’t have nuclear, biological or chemical weapons capable of attacking America. (We debunked the Syria myth here and elaborated on political ignorance here.) Because of this, and the fact that we deposed a secular dictator, replaced him with a religious dictator aligned with Iran and now the country is mired in a civil war, most people think the Iraq War was a failure. But this hasn’t affected the foreign policy debate, as Peter Beinart points out in this amazing paragraph:

Had a Martian descended to earth in January 2003, spent a few days listening to Washington Republicans talk foreign policy, and then returned in January 2013, she would likely conclude that the Iraq War had been a fabulous success. She would conclude that because, as far as I can tell, not a single Republican-aligned Beltway foreign-policy politician or pundit enjoys less prominence than he did a decade ago because he supported the Iraq War, and not a single one enjoys more prominence because he opposed it. From Bill Kristol to Charles Krauthammer to John McCain to John Bolton to Dan Senor, the same people who dominated Republican foreign-policy discourse a decade ago still dominate it today, and they espouse exactly the same view of the world. As for those conservatives who opposed Iraq—people at places like the Cato Institute and The National Interest who believe that there are clear limits to American military power—our Fox News–watching, Wall Street Journal–reading Martian would have been largely unaware of their existence in 2003 and would remain largely unaware today.

He wrote that last January about Secretary Hagel. After a near war with Syria and the current war in Iraq, it is even more shocking no one has been held to account.

Michael C Isn’t Not the Only Clausewitz “Hater”

The Small Wars Journal hosted an article, “The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz”, asking if he was still relevant, though the article makes a much more nuanced argument than that title suggests. (Again, only bring up Clausewitz at your own risk.) Still, Wm. J. Olson‘s argument echoes many of my feelings on Clausewitz’s near infallibility in some circles:

What shortcomings it is reputed to have as an overall theory--for an older generation like Martin van Creveld or John Keegan, to a newer crop of critics like Mary Kaldor and the 'new war' crowd--are generally dismissed as the result of the fact that Clausewitz died before he could complete an in-depth revision of his masterwork based on his evolving thinking, which a close enough reading of the existing text reveals at various points his true vision to put to rest any doubts about the seminal nature of his work. Thus his obscurity on certain points is a defense against doubt on any point.

War on the Rocks’ David Maxwell responded by clarifying some of Olson’s points (that Clausewitz is a useful starting point, but not an end of the discussion; a point we agree on) but we particularly like that Maxwell used the phrase “Clausewitzians”!

May 07

Today marks the five year anniversary of On Violence. We feel like, on an occasion like this, it’s a moment for self-reflection, but we’re, oddly, not in a self-reflective mood. Despite how good this year has been for us in terms of traffic and exposure, we don’t feel like looking back.

We’re always charging away on a number of projects, always busy, always looking for more time. So instead of looking back, we’re looking forward.

All that said, this last year has been a huge for us, mainly off the residual energy of Lone Survivor, including an article in Slate. We’re really proud of the work we did, as one of a few resources compiling the facts on the most popular war film and memoir since 9/11. We’re also proud of the other posts we did, on COIN media, on Syria, on quotes, on everything.

So look forward to another year of writing. We’re going to keep charging away until we run out of ideas. We haven’t run out of them yet. They keep multiplying like rabbits.

Stay tuned.

Oct 15

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

Before last month’s “On V Update to Old Ideas” post, we hadn’t run one in months, but we’ve been collecting links the whole time. Prepare for a bunch of updates, sorted by theme. Today’s theme? Money.

We Don’t Need a Sequester to Waste Money

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that if the sequester went through, it would force the military to implement blunt budget cuts, which would waste money and (hypothetically) harm our soldiers in the future. (The go-to argument for anyone defending the military.) He neglected to mention that the Pentagon routinely makes terrible financial decisions. For instance...

...the Army is now literally junking the mine resistant vehicles that it spent billions shipping to Afghanistan instead of shipping them home.   

...the Army is constructing a headquarters building in Afghanistan, costing millions per month, which it plans to leave vacant.

...as it prepares to leave Afghanistan, an Inspector General report found billions of dollars in waste in only three months.

...Air Force officer Dan Ward writes that military contracting is so poorly managed, we don’t even know how bad we are at it.

When the military does contracting this bad, no one wins. Oh, except for defense contractors. They make lots of money. To fix the system, one assumes we need strong civilian leadership to rein in Generals and Admirals. Unfortunately, President Obama nominated military industry executive Deborah Lee James as Secretary of the Air Force. The revolving door between government and contractors continues to spin.

It also turns out that defense spending doesn’t provide the economic benefits many claim. Blogger, professor and zombie aficionado Dan Drezner has a new paper that debunks the idea that American military spending provides economic benefits to the world or America.

And that go-to-defense of military spending, “that it will hurt our men and women in uniform”? Friend of the blog Sven Ortmann delivers a marvelous pieces combining economics and military budgeting which debunks that notion completely. He asks, "How much should the U.S. spend to keep its soldiers safe?" and comes up with a number. For all the economists out there (or conservatives who claim to follow economics), you have to read this.

Contracting Money Influences the Debate

Since the NSA debate has triggered a lot of journalist-on-journalist attacks, we have avoided taking sides or commenting. (If our readers want to know our takes, wait until January...) However, we absolutely agree with Glenn Greenwald when he nailed the press--particularly Face the Nation--for not disclosing the financial self-interest of many pro-NSA commentators to its viewers, like General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA under President Bush. From Greenwald:

“But worse than the omission of Hayden's NSA history is his current - and almost always unmentioned - financial stake in the very policies he is being invited to defend. Hayden is a partner in the Chertoff Group, a private entity that makes more and more money by increasing the fear levels of the US public and engineering massive government security contracts for their clients. Founded by former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, it's filled with former national security state officials who exploit their connections in and knowledge of Washington to secure hugely profitable government contracts for their clients."

As we wrote in our coverage of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, many government officials exaggerate the threat of terrorism. While they sincerely believe in their work, they also have financial interests to do so.

An Update to Doing Aid Right

While this article on “The Matador Network” seems like a Reddit link bait scam, it accurately explains why dropping bombs of free t-shirts and shoes (as TOMS does) is terrible aid policy. The best part about the TOMS story is that I swear my entire business school loves TOMS. Literally, business school students take economics in one class, then give a presentation during communications advocating the TOMS model.

I, (Michael C), say this criticism as a solid moderate. I just think we should do aid/government/business efficiently and effectively. While business has built-in mechanisms for that, aid and government don't. The podcast Tiny Spark had done great work critiquing foreign aid, with a recent episode on Jeffrey Sachs’ Millenium Villages. I’ve advocated before for renewed U.S. foreign aid spending. I still want that, but our government must do it right, using controlled experiments, analyzing data and spreading it liberally.   

Why Does the U.S. Keeps Sending Weapons to Egypt?

Because of defense contractors.

Before Syria replaced Egypt in the news, there was a lot of discussion about U.S. aid to that specific country. For a primer and explanation on why that aid doesn’t make a lot of sense--because most of the money spent on Egypt goes to American defense contractors--listen to this excellent Planet Money episode, then shake your head.

Jul 02

As we do twice a year, Eric C and I will be taking a break from posting for the next two weeks. (It's summer; we're busy.)

Expect new posts on the July 15th.