Sep 20

As usual, here is how our ideas have fared--good or ill--over the last few months:

Update to Last Week’s “Why We Hate ASU’s” Post

Just last Thursday, as part of our Band of Brothers series, Eric C bemoaned the Army Service Uniform, describing it as, “objectively not a good uniform”.

Then, on Monday, the US Army opened up a survey to get feedback on the ASU. So if you want to sound off, head here.

Modeling Emotion in Warfare

Some readers criticized our post, “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, saying that models of human behavior utterly fail when it comes to emotions. As a result, our military tends to treat every person in an insurgency as a rational actor simply pursuing self-optimizing goals. (“Self-optimizing” being the economics term for it, not mine.)

This Economist article says, “Hogwash!” New models for insurgent behavior can factor in different variables from location to religion to Twitter. My favorite section describes the SCARE program, which found that, “Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops.” Yep, self-optimizing with a huge dollop of emotional bias.

Update to “One Nation Under Contract”

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the Pentagon spent “204 billion” with a B on “service contracts” in 2010. That same year, the Pentagon spent 367 billion dollars on contracts, meaning the Pentagon pays more for services than it does for goods, weapons or equipment. Very likely, our military could not fight a contemporary war without these contractors.

(H/T to "Battleland")

Update to Leaks about the Osama bin Laden Raid

Here at On Violence, we don’t “chase the news”--for example, we won’t be discussing last week’s violence in north Africa for a while--because we loathe “premature opinionation”.
For example, last week, a Navy SEAL came out with his account, No Easy Day, of the Osama bin Laden raid. Its details clashed with several prior accounts. “The Atlantic Wire” has a round-up describing many details that have changed since the operation was first revealed. It also shows just how much leaking was going on, from the President to the SEALs themselves. Speaking of which...

By refusing to condemn or even mention the release of No Easy Day on their website, the “Special Operations OSPEC Fund” has shown it is a patently partisan organization. Go to their website now and you will find countless articles on President Obama’s failings, and none calling out their fellow Special Operators.

Just shameful.

The Most Effective Al Qaeda Franchise Strikes Again

Last January, I wrote about how, far and away, most terrorists are at best enticed and at worst entrapped by the FBI. In all, America doesn’t have a terrorism problem, and it might not have a single foreign terrorist on its soil. For an amazing, heartbreaking and eye-opening account into how “Al Qaeda FBI Branch” works, check out this hour of radio by This American Life partnered with documentary filmmaker Sam Black.

Update to “Which Country Do You Prefer?”

As Iran’s nuclear situation dominates the news, accusations of Iran’s intolerable Shia theocratic extremism always seem to pop up. I say, “Good.” We should always take the time to consider the human rights policies of our allies and enemies.

Let’s start with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy that tramples all over human rights to enforce a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam on its people, including subordination of women to men, as this Daily Beast article “Women Rise Up in Saudi Arabia” reminds us. Remember, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
The New Yorker article, “Modern Mecca”, about one reporter’s pilgrimage to Mecca, details yet another form of Wahhabi extremism: destruction of history. Hardliner religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia believe that worshipping (or venerating) holy buildings is a form of blasphemy, so they’ve been systematically destroying and replacing historic buildings in Saudi Arabia and, more specifically, Mecca. One analyst compares this destruction to the destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the Taliban. (Ironically, Shiite Iranians embrace these buildings.)

The Obama Doctrine

Unfortunately for American history, every President it seems will now have a “doctrine” with their last name plopped in front of it. I’m as guilty as other pundits. Last January, in my “Solutions to Intelligence versus Evidence”, I proposed an “Obama Doctrine” that would create a new “International Criminal Court for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals”. In this article from Foreign Policy’s “War Issue”, David Rohde argues that Obama already has a doctrine based around lethal killings via drone strikes. This doctrine inhibits our counter-terrorism strategy, and helps extremists recruit.

Sadly, I agree.
Update to "My Solution to the Iran Problem"

Stephen Walt argues that,

“...instead of spending all our time trying to scare the bejeezus out of countries like Iran (which merely reinforces their interest in getting some sort of deterrent), we ought to be reminding them over and over that we have a lot to offer and are open to better relations...If nothing else, adopting a less confrontational posture is bound to complicate their own calculations.”

Good words to leave off with.

Aug 15

Just like yesterday, we’re clearing our inbox of updates. Enjoy!

Update to Marketing and Afghanistan

At the height of the surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009, men from Colonel Henry Tunnell’s 5th Stryker Brigade (as described in an excerpt on Slate from Rajiv Candrasekaran’s new book) drove through an insurgent’s funeral in Afghanistan with loudspeakers declaring, “This is what happens when you fight us.

As we wrote a few months back, the Army can learn plenty from business marketing about what will and won’t change people’s mind. Quick hypothetical: if Osama bin Laden sent trucks driving around New York after 9/11 blaring this message, “America, this is what happens when you defy us,” would that have sent Americans cowering? Would it have discouraged any Americans from fighting back?


Update to Management versus Leadership

Tom Ricks quotes James McDonough’s memoir about his time in Vietnam, Platoon Leader:

For us, violence was killing; there was no management involved. People were either dead, or they     were not. I could not 'manage' my platoon up a hill. I had to lead them up there.

I wonder if this was the beginning of the idea within the Army that management need not apply in the Pentagon. Probably not, but the “leadership trumps management” meme is now widespread.

Update to the Ethics of Leadership

While I disagree with the start to the McDonough quote above, I love its conclusion that emphasizes the importance of officers as the moral compass of their units:

I had to do more than keep them alive. I had to preserve their human dignity. I was making them     kill, forcing them to commit the most uncivilized of acts, but at the same time I had to keep them civilized. That was my duty as their leader. . . War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but men must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed.    

. . . War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very easily     to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place.   

Unfortunately, few battalion, brigade and division commanders have been held truly responsible for the conduct of their men. In most cases, the men of the highest rank get the lightest punishment when it comes to the moral or legal transgressions of their units.

Update to Intelligence is Evidence

60 Minutes steps into Frontline’s shoes to tell another shocking tale of prosecutors stacking the deck against innocent men. This time, an innocent man named Michael Morton was exonerated 25 years after detectives and prosecutors immediately assumed he had brutally beaten his wife to death. Most shockingly, prosecutors withheld the testimony of their son who witnessed the murder...which completely exonerated Morton.

Yesterday, I quoted David Ignatius praising JSOC’s effectiveness on the international battlefield. I would love to ask him this: if the U.S. judicial system can repeatedly come close to executing innocent people (and possibly has), and if that system has ten times the safeguards of the military/CIA targeting program, how can he or the government really believe that system is always accurate? Or even mostly accurate?

Why My Solution to Intelligence is Evidence Won’t Happen

I tend to be proud of my simple solutions to drastically complex problems. Iran? Let’s just become friends with them. Afghanistan? Population-centric counter-insurgency. Global instability? More foreign aid from wealthy nations applied well. (Of course, effective diplomacy, population-centric counter-insurgency, and effective foreign aid/democracy movements aren’t really that simple or easy to do, but you get my point.)

And terrorism? Let’s just create a International Criminal Court for Pirates, Terrorists and Trans-national Criminals. This article, in the New York Review of Books, about international law captures the internal contradictions of America’s support for such laws, but our refusal to let international laws apply to us. Which is why my simple solution won’t happen.

Update to A Conundrum: Shaken Baby Syndrome Edition

A year ago, we wrote about a tragedy unfolding across the nation in the form of overzealous prosecutions of “shaken baby syndrome”. In one of the key cases, California convicted grandmother Shirley Ree Smith of killing her grandson with less than compelling medical evidence. Last Good Friday, Jerry Brown officially pardoned her for the crime.

The Economist Keeps the Behavioral Research Coming

Actually, The Economist and Charles Duhigg writing about the subconscious power of habits keep the behavioral research coming. This article--along with this excellent podcast on the HBR Ideacast podcast from a few years ago--just say to me that in a counter-insurgency, our Army cannot rely on a model of human behavior that treats the enemy or population as strictly-rational-cost-benefit-calculating automatons. And we can’t use “fear” as our primary motivator either.

Oh, We Weren’t Done with Thomas Drake Yesterday

In anticipation of our “On V Update to Old Ideas, Round Nine”, The Daily Show’s Jason Jones unveiled a hilarious segment pointing out the inanities behind the Thomas Drake affair in “License to Spill”:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
A Leak of Their Own - License to Spill
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook


Aug 14

With two new series dominating our attention--our series against war with Iran and Band of Brothers--we’ve neglected what has slowly become one of our favorite new traditions, the “On V Update to Old Ideas”. Without further ado, round nine:

The Road to War, Iran Edition

After I started working on my solution to the Iran nuclear problem, I found two articles that more or less argued for my same solution. I plan to use these articles in future posts on my Iran solution, but they’re still good reads on their own.

The Nixon Option for Iran” by William H. Leurs and Thomas R. Pickering for Project Syndicate.

Why Can’t We Just Get Along with the Iranians?” by Dan Simpson for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Update to the World is Not More Dangerous

Apparently, some politicians really want to believe this. Last April, John McCain wrote in a letter to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that:

“…more people have the ability to harm us or restrict our freedom to act today than at any point in our lives.”

We’ve written before that few professors (read: not politicians) actually argue that the world is indeed more dangerous than before. Well, Paul Miller on Foreign Policy’s “Shadow Government” blog must have deliberately set out to prove me wrong. He argues that America now has two deadly foes--China and Russia--along with the always dangerous and scary triumvirate of North Korea, Venezuela and Iran...not to mention terrorism, piracy and other global ills.

Not so fast Paul Miller. As with all pro-defense-spending-terrified-of-the-rest-of-the-world pundits, Miller doesn’t actually use numbers or statistics to back up his claims, especially not the statistic that America spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on security already.

Supporting our side of the argument, when Mitt Romney reiterated the Gingrichian claim that, “the world is dangerous, destructive and chaotic” before the Veterans of Foreign Wars a few weeks back, both Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt rightly criticized his position.

Update to the Terrorists at Guantanamo

We’ve written before that Guantanamo Bay might have the lowest recidivism rate of any U.S. prison. Well, updated figures say it might be even lower than everyone thought. Good news? Terrorists aren’t going back to terrorizing. Bad news? The best explanation for the lack of returning to terrorism is that most of the Afghan goat herders were probably never terrorists in the first place.


Hypocrisy Alert 2012

In our week on Wikileaks as the “Most Intriguing Foreign Policy Event of 2010”, and in an update a year later, I bemoaned the hypocrisy of the Obama administration when it comes to leaks. The Obama administration continues to try to prosecute, using the Espionage Act, whistleblowers who expose massive corruption. Yet no senior Obama officials have been prosecuted for leaking similarly classified information.

Take, for instance David Ignatius. In his March 18th Washington Post column, “Osama bin Laden, a lion in winter”, he describes reading the letters and papers of Osama bin Laden, classified documents. (Some of which you can now read online at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.) Combined with Ignatius’ other articles about the bin Laden raid, it’s clear that the White House has leakers doing just as much if not more damage than Thomas Drake ever did by revealing massive government waste in the NSA.

Worse, to me, is how the leaks to David Ignatius blatantly skew the story in the government’s favor. They selected a handful or maybe a dozen documents out of the entire bin Laden treasure trove. They told Ignatius tales about the bin Laden raid that proved that JSOC is an “highly-effective killing machine.” How does he determine that by one raid in one country without viewing all the information?

In this case, I agree with Republicans on Capitol Hill who think President Obama has gone too far. And Glenn Greenwald. If the uber-liberal and uber-conservative alike can agree on something, then maybe we should listen. President Obama either needs to stop the leaks in the White House or stop prosecuting whistleblowers. He shouldn’t do both.
Update to Renaming the Global War on Terror

Eric C and I have never liked the use of the words “global war on terrorism” or “Islam/Islamists/jihadists” or any of a host of other words that put 9/11 firmly at the feet of all Muslims. This excellent William Saletan article on Slate describes how the current administration re-labeled the “war on terror” to a fight against “al Qaeda and its affiliates”, and how this devastated al Qaeda’s image among Muslims. (And even George W. Bush refused to blame Islam for 9/11.)

A Joke about Wars as Bar Fights

In one of our earliest posts, we compared “Bar Fighting and War Making”. For a new post echoing that theme, we stumbled upon this Economist blog post describing World War I as a bar fight. Enjoy.

Jul 02

As we do twice a year, Eric C and I will be taking a break from posting for the next two weeks. We have a series of weddings, bachelor parties, birthday celebrations in the meantime, so we need a quick recharge of our batteris.

When we come back we will continue  our series against the war with Iran and on Band of Brothers, plus a bunch of other great new ideas. So enjoy the break--we certainly will--and we'll see you in a couple of weeks.

May 11

As you may have read on Monday, this week On Violence is celebrating our three year anniversary and our 500th post. As we’ve done before, we’re going to compile a “best of” our last 100 posts. We’ve divided them into our best series and our best individual posts. (To read past “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.)


The biggest stylistic change for On Violence over the last year is our move towards long-form series on a single idea. Probably the most important thing we wrote in the last 100 posts, if not the entire history of the blog, is our series arguing against war with Iran. In addition to a larger paper and an op-ed, expect more posts on Iran coming up in the next few weeks and months.

Next up, we finally wrote about a topic Eric C wanted us to write about since we started the blog, the firebombing of Dresden. Michael C discussed the ethics of civilian bombing campaigns, while Eric C discussed the things we lost in the fires and Matty P looked at Dresden not so analytically.

For our most thought provoking event of 2011, we selected the Arab Spring, looking at revolutions, things getting better, Twitter, American foreign policy and predictions.
Michael C continued harping on the “War is War” philosophy, with posts on “War is War is No Solutions”, “War is War is Heinlein” and “War is War is Politically Unfeasible”.

We also started a personal favorite series arguing for the role of emotion and cultural empathy in counter-insurgencies. While our most popular post in this series was “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, our favorite posts were “Everyone Hates Everyone Else’s Soldiers”, “Who Watches the Watchmen?”, and “From the On V Future Archives: When Persia Put a Garrison in Wyoming (in 2048)”.

Finally, and probably least interestingly, we started looking back at our old ideas in a new feature called, “An On V Update to Old Ideas”. We hope to keep this feature going every month or so.


Michael C had three favorite posts. First, he described the Army’s over-emphasis on physical skills over mental. Second, he wrote about the most dangerous branch of al Qaeda, and that it’s run by the U.S. government. Third, he solved the war on terror by proposing a new International Criminal Court, though he doubts it will ever happen.

Eric C’s favorite art posts discussed Kafka, analyzing “In the Penal Colony” and sharing some stray thoughts on Kafka.

The standout memoir of the last 100 posts was Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War. Eric C reviewed it here, and compiled a “The Best of The Forever War” and two “War at its Worsts” collections, here and here.

Matty P killed it with “There’s No Honor in this” and “A Savior Named Barrabas”.

Our dad’s favorite posts were on language. We debunked the pronunciation of Iraq here, and proposed broad societal changes here.

May 07

Please put up with a little self-indulgence from the On Violence crew today. Yesterday, May 6, was our third anniversary--the leather anniversary!--and coincidentally, on Friday, we publish our 500th post. So we want to celebrate.

Our plan for the week? The regular writers--Michael C, Eric C and regular guest poster Matty P--plan to write about topics that encapsulate our thoughts and writings over the last three years. On Friday, our 500th post will, asbe a "best of" the last 500 posts.

But before that, we want to look back. First, the numbers alone are kind of breathtaking, if we do say so ourselves:

- Number of years:      3
- Number of posts:      500
- Number of words.     Over 300,000.
- Total Visitors:           Quarter of a million.

And we just had our most popular week ever last week.

Most importantly, we feel we have added to the discourse. Looking back on these last three years, we asked ourselves: what have we given the world? We named the phenomenon of “war-is-war”-iors, Michael C shared some excellent personal experiences of war, we explored “intelligence is evidence” and published an op-ed on,“I didn’t deserve my combat pay”. Eric C reviewed countless post-9/11 war memoirs, we debunked “quotes behaving badly” and “facts behaving badly”, we exposed Lone Survivor, had On V song battles, and some pithy thoughts on war films.
We’ve also moved towards larger and longer series. We echoed John Horgan by asking, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?”, argued for cultural empathy, and, most recently, started making the case against going to war with Iran. We’ve had some misfires--defining political war, not nearly enough posts on the military budget--but feel our successes far outweigh our mistakes.
Since one half of our team got a degree in English, we also cannot help but conduct a meta-literary analysis of the progress of our own blog over the last three years. The quality of our writing has improved...dramatically. We hit our stride about eight months in, but we’ve kept improving over the years. We’ve also improved our blogging by adding in photos--we’ve slacked on this of late--and, recently, videos.

Finally, we want to thank all of our supporters, friends and families. Blogging has taken way longer than we ever expected and we’ve devoted thousands of hours to this site, and I hope it comes across. So this thank you goes out to anyone who has commented, told their friends, liked or retweeted or favorited anything we have written, or supported us in this endeavor.

Those people are too countless to name, but sincerely, thank you.

Apr 30

One quick note before today’s update. Next week, On Violence will celebrate its simultaneous third anniversary and 500th post, so yay us! On to the update:

Update to Drone Strikes

While the US continues to conduct drone in Pakistan--which we believe exacerbates the problem of extremism--the Wall Street Journal reports that new rules from the Obama administration restrict the CIA’s unilateral ability to launch strikes. Another AP story claims that the Taliban routinely exaggerates civilian casualties. This CNN article backs up that claim, while also arguing that the CIA might just be running out of targets. While I hope that is the case, when it comes to investigating or researching a topic shrouded in “Top Secrecy”, I have my doubts we will ever know the truth.

And as we were editing this post today, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, talked at length about drone strikes, officially acknowledging their existence. We have a lot more to say on his speech, Attorney General Holder’s speech and drone strikes in general in the coming year.

On the academic side of things, this article on Kings of War makes an excellent case that “signature strikes”--drone strikes conducted because a target acts like an militant--flies in the face of Just War theory. A great read, along with excellent insight into under-reported “signature targeting”. The key question we must ask is, if we conduct drone strikes of targets whose names we don’t even know, how can we really be sure they are terrorists? How is that “just war theory”?

Another article on the Small Wars Journal, “Why COIN Principles Don’t Fly With Drones”, explains the drawbacks of drone strikes in Pakistan. It got flack for using the acronym “COIN” in the title, but I enjoyed it.

As an added benefit, a commenter on “Why COIN Principles Don’t Fly With Drones” perfectly exemplified the old “war is war”-ior shoulder shrug when it comes to civilian casualties, writing:

“Civilian casualties will always be a part of war. A terrible part? Yes. A completely preventable part? No. Especially when we run into a conflict with a non-conventional enemy that uses civilians as camouflage.”

Updates on Iran

Overall the odds for war have dropped...slightly. According to the betting market Intrade, the odds of war with Iran have lowered to 5.5%, a drop of 2.5% since we started writing on Iran. On the Atlantic’s more academic (and renamed) Iran War Dial, the odds of war with Iran have dropped to 42%, primarily because of renewed diplomatic talks and the promise to hold more talks. Also, former Senator and current Nebraskan Democratic candidate for Senate Bob Kerrey (Medal of Honor winner as well) has come out vigorously against war with Iran, the most prominent candidate for elected office to oppose war with Iran (I believe).
The best article I have seen since our Iran articles is the Foreign Affairs article “Botching the Bomb” that says that Iran probably won’t ever be able to make a bomb or a whole set of bombs because... it’s Iran. To prove the article’s point, autocratic North Korea failed to launch another rocket. In short, democratic-capitalist states with well-developed political systems have a built in advantage when it comes to innovation. This clashes a bit with my perspective of the IRGC as an innovative force which embraces asymmetric and unconventional warfare, but it explains another reason why we don’t need a war with Iran.
Thomas J. Bounomo’s Small Wars Journal article “Changing Iran’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of its Nuclear Program” provides a unique solution to the crisis. He says the U.S. should offer Iran reduced-cost green technology. This would provide Iran with an alternative energy source instead of nuclear power and a sign of goodwill.

An Update to On V’s Lexicography

A long time back, I wrote a post encouraging myself and others to use the phrase “foreign policy” as opposed to “national security”. While debates over nomenclature can get tedious--especially when it comes to defining war--the terms do matter. International relations refers to states. Foreign policy differs from foreign affairs because one refers to policies/laws/regulations/decisions and the other to everything. Most importantly, not everything that occurs overseas falls in the category of “security”, especially when it comes to government agencies. The overuse of “security” has led to a Department of Defense budget of around 750 billion dollars, and a State Department budget of 50 billion. That’s unbalanced.

We haven’t been doing this, as we re-discovered recently. We’ll rededicate ourselves to using foreign policy and foreign affairs as much as possible, and avoiding national security when possible.

An Attack on Cultural Sensitivity

If our posts on Gratitude Theory and Cultural Sensitivity haven’t made the point clear enough, we believe too many of our soldiers still don’t get the need for cultural empathy and respect. To prove our point, two soldiers, both enraged by the Afghan response to the burning of Korans by American soldiers, spoke out on two blogs we regularly read. In the first, “Medium Rare: Some Thoughts From an Afghan War Vet on the Koran Burning Riots” the author argues for shooting into crowds of unarmed civilians. I cannot think of a better way to gain support. (Sarcasm.)

In the second, “The Downside of Cultural Sensitivity”, Tony Barrett claims that cultural sensitivity training denigrated the U.S. culture. I totally disagree, and this article testifies to a way of thinking most soldiers hold, “our way or the highway.”

From Russia with Love: Counter-Terrorism Blinds the U.S. in Intelligence

We’ve written before about the intelligence/espionage threat we face from China, but we neglected another global competitor. This conversation on The Economist’s website shows that we should worry about Russia just as much. Like China, Russia didn’t completely over-react to 9/11. And it could have. (Remember, Chechnya.) Instead, as it has since the 1950s, it continues to train spies and deploy them to the U.S. to steal state secrets. Man, counter-terrorism is such a waste of money.

President Obama Won’t Start an ICC for Terrorists

Plenty of ink was spilled over Attorney General Eric Holder’s (non) statement about the U.S. government targeting American civilians abroad. Our takeaway? Obama doesn’t plan to start a new ICC anytime soon.

Updates to the Hideous Monster I Call the Pentagon Budget
Around the business world last year, you couldn’t swing a dead wampa rat without hitting someone reading, reviewing or commenting on Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacs. Having left the military, I, Michael C, don’t know if the biography made the same impact on the Pentagon. I mean, if the Pentagon ran Apple, the iPad 1’s release date would be next year, would run around 2,000 dollars a unit, and probably would have every input cable imaginable--something Jobs specifically abhorred.

Yet the pearl of government efficiency, the largest section of the discretionary budget, is again begging for more money and more expensive weapons to win wars that aren’t/weren’t named Afghanistan or Iraq.

Here’s a rundown on the good articles:

The Supper House” from “Battleland” describes the Senate’s enabling of the Pentagon.

The F-35 Budget Disaster” updates us on the ongoing woes of the Air Forces’ premiere fighter.
The circle graph we showed on “What Do I Think of Iran’s Military?” was part of this graph released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Will the 55 Billion Bomber Program Fly?” we mentioned a few weeks back describes the impending train wreck which will become the Air Force’s next long range bomber.

Finally, this F-22 update shows how we have to throw more money at this program. By our records, the Air Force has failed on three consecutive manned aircraft. 0 for 3 baby.

Mar 13

Finally, after three “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, we’ve finally gotten to current events and recent-ish articles. Enjoy.

Update to War: It’s Still Unfair

After an Afghan soldier killed two Air Force officers in a secure building in Kabul, General John Allen labeled the perpetrator a “coward”. It reminded us of an excerpt from The Battle for Algiers we posted in “All’s Fair in War: Guerrillas, Justice and Counter-Insurgency”,

"When I watched 'The Battle For Algiers', I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, 'Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?'

"Ben M’hidi responds, 'Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.'"

If the Eric C/Left Hand of Darkness definition of war--”War is the opposite of civilization”--is true, than civilized norms like honor, valor and cowardice don’t exist in war. “All’s fair in love and war” is another way of saying that nothing in war is.

Update to Cultural (Un)Awarness

Michael C has long written that the U.S. military should improve its cultural awareness. Say what you will about the U.S. burning Korans in Afghanistan, it demonstrates a massive lack of cultural awareness; a blind spot so big we could drive an AT-AT through it. This quote by Nancy Youssef on Washington Week sums up my thoughts:

"You know, Yochi, I was talking to some of my Afghan friends this week and one of the things they said was they couldn’t believe that 11 years into the war, that the United States through all its training and exposure to Muslims, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, were making these basic mistakes of not respecting the Islamic holy book, which is a basic tenet of Islam. What are you hearing in the Pentagon about this? How are they explaining this kind of mistake this late into the war?"

Afghans are not over-reacting. Cultural awareness is putting oneself in another’s shoes. So the Americans who say they don’t get what the big deal is should just imagine a situation where Barack Obama lit an American flag on fire, which was surrounding a bible and pocket Constitution. Would Sean Hannity’s head would explode?

In seriousness, many Americans so value the flag they want to pass a Constitutional amendment forbidding flag burning. The same motivation that inspires Americans to want that amendment motivates Afghans to protest against a burned Koran.

The Debate about Social Media and Revolutions
Consider this another “discovery” where we link to articles that aren’t new temporally, but just a series of good links we have never shared here at On V. In “On Violence's Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009”, Eric C and I discounted the role Twitter and other social media played in fomenting revolution. Since that post in 2009, the debate around new social media and revolutions has only gotten more complicated:

- First, Malcolm Gladwell in September of 2010 wrote a skeptical New Yorker article about the use of social media in future revolutions.

- Then, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote an article which disagreed with a few of Gladwell’s core points.

- In February of last year, Gladwell responded in two paragraphs on the Arab Spring, again saying he doesn’t believe social media inherently caused the revolutions.

- Finally, he and Fareed Zakaria debated this point on GPS 360, with Zakaria arguing that social media had some impact while Gladwell points out that a million people got together in East Germany to overthrow the Soviet Union, and they didn’t need Facebook.

- Finally, in December, The Economist wrote that social media helped cause the reformation in the 16th century, well before the Arab Spring.

In the end, we’ll have to wait, probably years from now, to see if studies--subtracting other factors--prove that social media helped cause the Arab Spring, more than they have from time immemorial.

On Killing the Right People...

A recent Small Wars Journal article--“We Own the Night” by Jonathan Smith--debunks a lot of the perceived effectiveness of kill/capture missions, especially when they kill civilians. “Carl”, commenting on my post “Fixing Intelligence is Evidence in Counter-Insurgencies”, argued that instead of saying “don’t kill civilians”, I should write, “Kill the Right People.” I think this article shows how even “killing the right people” can counter-intuitively hurt the long term mission.

More Bad News for Pessimists

But more good news for those few of us who believe the world is, indeed, getting better. Two academics, Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen, argue that the U.S. national security establishment has severely inflated the dangers facing America in an article called, “Clear and Present Safety” in Foreign Affairs. I still haven’t read a a coherent debunking of “the world is getting better” theories.

Update to Whistleblowing

David Carr excellently points out the gulf between the Obama administration praising reporters who seek to uncover wrong doing overseas, and die in the process like Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid, while harshly prosecuting legitimate whistle-blowers uncovering legitimate waste, fraud, abuse and illegal actions under the espionage act.