Apr 22

Eric C finished Wednesday’s post with the obviously provocative question: why do soldiers fight? I thought I’d answer that question today, at least as best I can

In some ways, I’ve answered the question, “why do I serve?” before (here and here), so I could just point to those posts and say, “Well, that’s why I joined.” Like Eric C, I had altruistic motivations; I wanted to literally serve my country.

In spring of 2003, I watched our country embark on a war that at the time I considered ill advised. Combined with my skepticism that Afghanistan would be a short war (something I was proven wrong about, then later proven right) it seemed clear to a young, naive college student that if ever our nation needed smart people serving in its military, 2003 was the time. So I joined for selfless reasons, to serve my country.

That’s not really the whole story though.

Eric C isn’t really just asking about my opinion, he’s asking about the opinion of all soldiers in general. What Eric C is also asking, circumscribally, is, we all know the selfless reasons to serve, what are the selfish reasons to serve?

Back to my personal experience. As soon as I sat down in the ROTC recruiter’s chair, weeks after I first thought about joining, I was pitched several things. The good Major pitched me about serving my country, yes, but also about the tremendous leadership experiences of young officers and the pay and benefits. I also learned that ROTC could help pay for my college.

Did those things influence my decision? Absolutely, especially the parts about leadership.

If I am being totally honest, the idea of serving as an officer in the military went back to grade school. Back then, I desperately wanted to someday be President of the United States. To do that, I determined that I needed to serve in the military, because it looked good for Presidential candidates. So even the idea of serving my country has selfish gains; I would look like a good person.

Does my experience apply to all Soldiers? I think it does. The reasons for why a soldier serves aren’t simple. Some need the money, some have no other options, and some want the experience. Selfless service to country is only one part of the equation.

Now to Eric C’s thesis: some soldiers serve to fight. They are fighters and the Army is the place many go to fight the enemy (since 9/11, the enemy is “terrorists”). Yes, I think this describes plenty of soldiers very well. When faced with danger, some citizens feel duty bound to personally sacrifice themselves to face it. Others feel obligated to shoot that danger in the face, right or wrong. That describes fighters.

Apr 20

If you’ve read my bio on the about page, than you know that in college, while Michael C was in ROTC, I co-chaired an environmentalist group. I also marched in anti-war protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Listening to the This American Life episode about Brandon Darby for Monday’s post, I thought again about my activism in college. I asked myself why I did it.

It’s actually a pretty good question, especially at a college like UCSB. With beaches, mountains, beautiful women and partying everywhere, why would you voluntarily spend weeknights, weekdays and, most oddly, weekends getting politically involved?

A lot of people view activism--or any sort of altruism--negatively. (For example, any episode of House MD where anyone is being nice to anyone else.) The idea is that we only do good things because of the tertiary benefits we get from them. Everyone benefits in some way from doing good for others. I’ll tackle that one first.

What benefits could you get from activism? Fame, at least getting your face in the paper (I made the cover of UCSB’s Daily Nexus five times, but who’s counting?). Or very helpful recommendations (the Chancellor at UCSB offered to write me a recommendation). Or you do it to get chicks. I recently listened to an excerpt from a book that said, in short, men are activists to get laid. (Yes, as well.)

Or power. The most dangerous type of activist was the one who wanted power. I met a number of activists who were into meeting powerful people and attending important meetings. They never seemed to really care about changing anything, just as long as they were seen as saviors and change makers. We always used to joke that people like that would end up as publicists for Exxon Mobil or BP.

In my environmental group, some people who joined just wanted to be part of a community that ate vegan food and liked drum circles. Other people did it to party. (Again me, but then again, at UCSB did anyone not party?) Some people just wanted to fight, as I wrote about on Monday.

All of those reasons above are hollow. So hollow. If you’re an activist or politically involved because of any of the above reasons, then you really don’t care about what you’re doing. You’ll end up bouncing from crazy campaign to crazy campaign. You’ll end up like the people I wrote about on Monday.

So what’s the positive reason to do activism? What’s the good reason to hand out fliers, ask people to sign petitions, to lobby your local government and write editorials? To change the world. Yeah, it may be pretentious, grandiose and naive, but that’s why I did it. I look back at my experience in college and I can say, I saved a park, I ran an environmental group, and I passed a green energy initiative.

Ultimately, that’s why I was an activist, to leave UCSB better than I found it.

What’s the point of all this? Purpose, or lack of purpose, affects all of us. But it matters more to people in power and everyone who affects the lives of others. It applies to activists and it applies to politicians. So I wonder, does it apply to soldiers? Every soldier has their own reason for joining the Army or Marines. A lot of the reasons above probably apply, (and one I didn't mention, money) but the point is this: it matters.

So I pose this question to Michael, why did you join?

Apr 04

Last week I received bittersweet news: Human Resources Command approved my “Request for Unqualified Resignation from Active Duty”. What do all those words mean in English? That, on the 22nd of July, 2011, I will no longer be an active-duty member of our armed forces.

A civilian I will be.

This brings up several questions. First, why? Most immediately, my wife is finishing graduate school in California, and we didn’t feel like waiting another year to live together.

The next question, so why not make the Army a career? The simple answer is that the Army was never a career for me. It was a way to serve my country during a time of need. In return for my service, I gained valuable leadership experience and a pretty healthy pay check. In July, On Violence will also host an entire month of posts about why, after serving in the Army, I still don’t want to make it a career. In addition, expect some more guests posts around the interwebs explaining my issues with the Army’s culture.

What will you do? At this point, I haven’t solidified a plan. The long term plan is to attend graduate school a year from this fall. In the interim, the possibilities are varied, from writing a book to joining the reserves. I do know I want to keep serving the country, hopefully by helping our veterans--either disabled or homeless.

So how does this affect On Violence? Hopefully, it shouldn’t. If anything, it will free up one of the writers to express himself more. For the foreseeable future, Eric C and I want to keep publishing at On Violence.

The final question, will I miss it? I will. You can’t devote five years of your adult life to an organization without good memories slowly crowding out the bad. The memories of smoking cigars with a group of guys in Afghanistan, talking about nothing and everything has replaced the memory that one person in that group will never join in another BS session. Regular emails and facebook updates remind me of the good times, but can’t erase the image of a girlfriend/fiance/wife in tears every time I had to leave again.

Come July, though, the next stage begins. Stay tuned.

Mar 15

A good friend of On Violence recently posted some excellent pictures on his facebook page, and we thought we’d share some.

To read some other On Violence posts about animals in war zones, go here and here.

Shout out to the Hipstamatic camera app http://hipstamaticapp.com/.

Feb 21

(Heads up: On Violence switched servers this week, and our site is still acting a little buggy, specifically in the comments section. Please be patient with us.)

The most common question On Violence has received in the last six months is, “Why haven’t you guys reviewed the film Restrepo?” Or its sibling question, “What did you think of Restrepo?” Well, we can’t avoid the topic any longer.

Last year we had an astoundingly informative series of posts on the 2010 Academy Awards, discussing the four Best Picture nominees that dealt with war and violence. Though some of the films this year are violent (Winter’s Bone, True Grit) or violent-lite (Black Swan? The Fighter? 127 Hours?), none are about violence per se.

Ah, but there is a documentary about war: Restrepo, the Best-Documentary-nominated film by Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington about one platoon’s deployment in the Korengal valley. We have to write about it, right?

Maybe. The problem is that I, Michael C, was there. Not Afghanistan, but literally at OP Restrepo during the tour featured in Restrepo. I had some pre-viewing reservations. I feared it would dwell too much on the combat, but Restrepo did a pretty good job capturing what it feels like to be deployed for a year. The ratio of combat to boredom was realistic.

Still, I hesitate to write about Restrepo because criticizing it feels like criticizing myself, if that makes sense. My men who saw Restrepo loved it. If I didn’t, would something be wrong with me? Also, even if I did enjoy it, could I put out an honest review? Could I let Eric C put out an honest review? Eric C’s critique of war memoir criticism (you have to criticize real people) is tripled when they are people you know and served with.

As a result, we held off on publishing much about the film.

In full disclosure, I also personally avoided the film. I didn’t want to go back to OP Restrepo. In another way, I didn’t want my memories polluted by Restrepo. (If that seems like a cop out, it isn't the first time. I have the book Victory Point by Ed Darack that I very much want to review. Even the fact that Victory Point takes place in Konar province, and around the Korengal valley, makes it feel too close for comfort. If that doesn't make sense, I agree.)

Eric C will handle the rest of this week, so I will provide my one comment about the film: I wanted more “The Hell Divers” Fourth Platoon, Destined Company, possibly the greatest, most competent Army unit ever to serve in the US Army, nee military, nee armies around the world and for all of time. Restrepo mentions our trucks once; I don’t think our vehicles ever made it on camera. You can, though, hear our machine guns firing in several scenes. OP Restrepo could not have been built except for the heroic efforts of Fourth Platoon. In another example, the IED event that opens the film, our trucks towed that truck to the KOP. I understand why the directors left it out, that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree.

So what’s up for the rest of the week?

On Wednesday, Eric C shares some fantastic passages from Sebastian Junger’s War.
On Thursday, he wonders why war memoirs rock so hard.
On Friday, Eric C recommends War.
Finally, a week from today, Eric C tackles Restrepo, documentaries and context.

Feb 09

When I guestposted on Thomas Ricks’ blog my piece, “K2, the weenie of Afghanistan,” I mentioned the dogs of Afghanistan, and even hinted about the untimely demise of many of our denizens, including when the original K2--named Khan--met the big bitch in the sky by drinking some anti-freeze left out in the motor pool.

I didn’t mention it at the time, but Khan wasn’t the only casualty. We had a veritable “puppy holocaust” as we called it, on our hands. Puppies just a few weeks old weren’t smart enough to not drink the anti-freeze that dripped into drip pans beneath our Humvees. The mechanics realized what was happening too late. Today I wanted to share a pic of one of the puppies.

War really is hell.

Jan 07

I had a lot of bad days in Afghanistan. The following day was one of them. It isn’t my worst memory of Afghanistan, but it easily makes my top five.

My platoon was in the last month of our deployment, maybe even in the last three weeks, and we had to go on an “A and L” patrol, short for Admin and Logistics. Most of the time, an “A and L” patrol meant driving the fifteen minutes to a base called A-bad (Asadabad) and picking up the mail. Sometimes it meant picking up PAX who had come in off leave. Sometimes it meant taking trucks to get repaired. It always meant a stop at their chow hall’s ice cream bar.

We went to A-bad every week for something. Usually we left around lunch time, give or take three hours. On the “A and L” patrol from hell, though, we left at 0600. We escorted a mail truck down to FOB Fortress to collect the outgoing mail. It was the first and last time we went on a patrol to send out mail. Most of the guys were shipping boxes home so they didn’t have to pack it out with them. No one told FOB Fortress when we were coming, though. And no one told the mail guys how much stuff we had to ship.

Long story short, to collect all the outgoing mail of Destined Company required multiple trips to A-bad and FOB Fortress and Camp Joyce and back. It kept us busy from 0600 until way past dark that night. By the end of the patrol, after countless trips, everyone’s nerves were on edge.

In our MRAPs, everyone had a headset they wore while we drove. The headset was hooked into our radios, and everyone could talk through a vehicle internal channel. All you had to do was key a mike to talk. Or, if you have an IPod ear bud, you could slide it next to the microphone and everyone in the truck could hear the music.

My truck didn’t get to listen to music often; I had a rule against it. We needed to stay alert on patrols.

But after something like 16 hours of the “A and L” patrol from hell without a break, I took it upon myself to change the mood. So I put on a song we could all relate to: “Hotel California” by the Eagles. Everyone in the truck was from California, so the song worked perfectly.

And that was actually one of my favorite moments in Afghanistan. A sucky day, but nothing beats the Eagle’s “Hotel California” to remind you of something supremely better.

Dec 03

As Michael C and I aren’t the authorities on all things memoir, we like to check out other opinions of the books we review. The reviews of The Farther Shore, for the most part, deal with the central issue I’ve pondered on our blog: memoir or novel? (The answer is novel.). So we thought we’d share them with you.

I originally found The Farther Shore at the now defunct lit blog co-op. The idea was that prominent litbloggers would read unacknowledged new books and give them press. It was a great idea, and you can read the obituary for the site here.

Anyways, here’s a collection of mostly positive reviews of The Farther Shore from major media outlets, including the New York Times Book Review and Salon. Here is the original review of The Farther Shore from the lit blog co-op.

Here is a dissenting view, about The Farther Shore. “It tells us nothing new about war--although of course there may be nothing new to say--but ultimately tells us even less about what fiction might be made to do.” I actually agree with both points, but not every novel or piece of art needs to break new ground stylistically, especially when the book breaks new ground topically.

Another reviewer, “I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences?”

Here’s a guess: maybe nothing significant happened to him. I fear soldier/authors--to sell books--will inevitably have to Frey their own experiences to make them more exciting. It’s what leads journalists to the most dangerous units, distorting the reality of the war. More on this soon.

Here is one final thought that captures the essence of The Farther Shore: “There is this lack of moralizing throughout Eck's writing. Stantz and his men really aren't portrayed as heroes, and, in fact, at times one might even lean in the other direction.”