Jun 22

In The Post 9/11 Action Hero, I discussed the new generation of Hollywood spy, and his ability to act decisively without moral or ethical restraints. Of course, by “act decisively” I mean torturing or killing our enemies.

Unfortunately, many real world politicians argue for giving America the ability to act without oversight, committing acts to keep us safe we will never know. These black operations will be one of two things: murder or torture. This forces me to ask: do we want to give federal agents this much power? Do we really want to relinquish oversight of our nation’s intelligence agencies to make us safer?

What happened in August of 1996 in Atlanta should dissuade anyone from wanting to give the Federal government too much power. Thirteen years ago, a backpack filled with three pipe bombs detonated in Centennial Park, the center of downtown Atlanta and the Olympics festivities. It killed two people and wounded 111. Fortunately, Richard Jewell discovered the backpack before it detonated and began evacuating the park. His quick thinking saved countless lives.
The F.B.I quickly determined that the Richard Jewell, hero of Atlanta, was perfectly placed to benefit from his actions. So perfect, they started investigating him. The F.B.I. leaked his name to news authorities as their primary suspect.
Yet, he did not do it. The Justice Department eventually arrested and charged Eric Robert Rudolph, a serial bomber linked to attacks on numerous abortion clinics and a lesbian night club in the southern states, of the Centennial Park bombing. Rudolph eventually plead guilty to all four bombings. Richard Jewell received an apology and a settlement for several libel suits.
Would the CIA have tortured Richard Jewell to find the locations of more bombs? Would Jewell have confessed if water boarded? Would they have just killed him to stop him from attacking again?

These organizations desire non-legal resolution of terrorism because it requires less evidence. Less evidence means greater chance of mistakes; exactly what happened in Atlanta in 1996.

Our judicial system developed rights for a reason. Police do a fantastic job of keeping us safe; they still need DAs and Internal Affairs to provide checks and balances. The CIA and FBI keep us safe, but they need checks and balances as well. Our national security system needs checks and balances, and Congress, the President and the American people must never forget that.

Jun 20

(Today we present the dramatic conclusion to yesterday's epic song discussion. Also, we'd like to know what your favorite war/anti-war songs are, and any recommendations. Please post below.)

Rebuttal to “The General” by Eric

There are two types of “moral” war stories: pro-war and anti-war, and neither is as compelling as the truth. When Dispatch wrote “The General,” they consciously set out to write an “anti-war” song. Though I sympathize with this message, it is the message that dooms the song.

Listening to the song I have so many questions: Why did the General make this decision? Would the men walk away? If this were a true war story, it would feature what would actually happen: other officers and the soldiers would find the General’s action treasonous. Be it World War II, Vietnam or Iraq today, if a General did what “The General” did, he would be killed on the spot, especially on the “eve of a great battle.” The men would “not step back” and the war would continue. This song does not feel real to me; it feels too moral, pedantic.
One song observes the world, the other writes an essay. Though I, and my brother, agree with the song’s thesis, I prefer my essays in the opinion section (or on blogs) not in my songs.
Addendum: To avoid confusing our readers, I love “the General.” During a certain time in my life, it spoke to me (as it spoke to like a billion other college kids in the lead up to the Iraq war).

Rebuttal to “Daniel” by Michael

The article in support of “Daniel” makes a few trenchant insights and excellent points. I disagree that the idealism of “The General” ruins its effectiveness as storytelling; but, the ability to convey a story is the greatest distance between “Daniel” and “The General.”
“Daniel” is a pastiche of images. A man lost his sight in the war and the description of that man by his brother strikes us as tragic. This war story has no beginning, no end, merely a series of descriptions, no context. While the truth of those descriptions may repulse, it does not necessarily convince us of the true cost of war.

“The General” certainly does.

Jun 19

Though by no means music experts, Eric and I frequently engage in musical debates of epic proportion. Recently, with war on the mind, a new debate arose: which song speaks more powerfully about the emotions associated with war, "The General" by college rock band Dispatch or Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s "Daniel"? As nerds, we’ve formalized the proceedings to share with our On Violence audience: each side gets four hundred words to make their case, then a two hundred word rebuttal.

In Support of “The General” by Michael
Great songs tell their stories with scant time and utmost brevity. Every word must count absolutely. “The General” captures the emotions of warfare in only three minutes with only a few hundreds words. This fantastic song (in both topic and quality) captures the hope of every soldier, that during war both sides could agree to quit.
The song begins with a description of the grunts on the line, they stand in a line believing in their invincibility “fire in their stare” no man wants to look weak in front of his comrades in arms. When facing war alone most men will give it up; death on the battlefield is not preferable to death in one’s bed. The only motivation for these men are their comrades to their left and right.

The General symbolizes the difficulty of leadership. He represents the ideal to which every soldier aspires. Yet, he also knows that many of his men will die, and at his level he will most likely survive. He sleeps poorly at night and probably not for the first time. In the end, in his final battle, he makes the ultimate sacrifice, himself for all of his men.

The tragedy of the General echoes the tragedy of warfare at large. “The General” describes a truth I wish every real General, every war hawk and every person on earth could understand. The General sees the “others” and understands they must no longer fight. He understands his enemy, and sees they are him. Not just a common humanity, but the oneness of all mankind. He has “seen their mothers” and sees that motherhood is the same. No mother should cry because of war. He does not want to sacrifice “young men” simply to fight the other when they have long lives ahead.

Unfortunately, common humanity doesn’t end war, only sacrifice. The General makes this sacrifice at the end of the song.

Very rarely, war will stop a barbarian like Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler from perpetrating genocide or mass violence on the battlefield. In these cases, war on the battlefield saves civilization. These instances are rare. More often, we must hope that the war fighters and war hawks realize Violence will not solve our problems, as the General himself realized.

In Support of “Daniel” by the Eric C
First, a caveat. This competition partially strikes me as absurd. The further apart two works of art are from each other, the more absurd it is to compare them, especially in the grudge-match-winner-take-all style competition we have designed. And though both are low tempo, 4 minute rock songs about war, they really couldn’t be farther apart in subject and style.

All of this being said, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Daniel” is clearly superior to Dispatch’s “The General.”

I recently re-read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Perhaps the central message of the book is that war stories have no moral. “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct nor encourage virtue ...If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted ... then you have been the victim of an old and terrible lie.” This difference between the “moral” war story and the “true” war story is the difference between the moral “The General” and the true “Daniel.”

“Daniel” is not about war. It is about Daniel, and the damage he suffered. It is about a young man blinded in war and the country and life he is now alienated from. The beautiful melody and singing betray the sadness and irony of the lyrics. “They say Spain is pretty but I’ve never been- Well Daniel says it’s the best place that he’s ever seen” The irony being Daniel will never see Spain again for his “eyes have died.”
You could argue the song is an anti-war song because it is about the wounds of war. In a way it is, but I would argue it is honest: war is ugly and brutal. Dispatch, even though their song is anti-war, fails to mention the costs of war, the ugliness and the brutality of it. They fail to mention that soldiers and Generals rarely leave the battlefield out of nobility.
Dispatch wrote a song about the way they wish the world could be; John and Taupin wrote a song about the way it is.

Addendum -- I’m aware of the major weakness of “Daniel” is its insane vagueness. I initially thought it was about one lover leaving another.

Jun 17

Overwhelming firepower. No other phrase describes U.S. Army tactics, operations and strategy better. And while it sums up perfectly how the U.S. military can destroy any challenger in the world on a high intensity battlefield, it is also why America struggles with counter-insurgency.

When a unit gets attacked, it responds with all available weaponry. For a platoon, this means two machine guns and then the full firepower of any squads in contact: M-4 rifles, M230 grenade launchers, and squad automatic weapons. If it is a mounted platoon, they will fire hundreds of 5.56, 7.62, 40mm explosive grenades and .50 caliber machine gun rounds at the enemy.

But the most dangerous weapon of all is the platoon leader’s hand set connected to his radio. On the other end of that radio are three different sources of firepower. First,  the artillery of the U.S. Army: mortars, tube artillery, or rocket propelled artillery. Second, Close Combat support helicopters armed with 20mm rockets and 30mm cannons. Third, Close Air Support, the Air Force, armed with guided bombs, aerial artillery from AC-130 Gunships or gun runs from A-10 Warthogs. In rare cases the Army can even use naval bombardment or cruise missiles.

In counter-insurgency warfare, only one characteristic of these weapons matters: no weapon, no matter how “intelligent,” avoids killing women and children. (I use women and children to impart the gut impact of the death of noncombatants on local populations.) No weapon can distinguish between noncombatants and insurgents. In asymmetrical warfare, the enemy lives, operates and fights amongst civilians; his camouflage is blending into the society.

Even with technological advancements and their best intentions, U.S. soldiers on the ground cannot control the explosive fire power of those rockets, bombs and shells. An artillery shell could land within three meters of where we intend it, the explosion still casts shrapnel around a 100 meter area. Everyone within 50 meters of the blast will get, quite literally, obliterated. People within 100 meters will get severely wounded. Buildings next to the target will fall down, crushing whom ever is inside. Even helicopter gunships can have trouble scaling back the destructiveness of their 20mm rockets and Hellfire missiles; once a helicopter begins strafing along a line, it can only do so much to distinguish between civilians and legitimate targets.
When we created the most lethal fighting force on the planet, we created one that cannot effectively fight counter-insurgencies. At the lowest level, tactically, having the best offense in the world achieves nothing. The U.S. Army has made huge strides in restricting its fires into civilian populations, learning counter-insurgency and adapting new weapon systems. Unfortunately, when all your weapon systems were designed for a different style of war, there is only so much change you can make.

Jun 15

A shocking statistic recently made its way around the anti-war blogosphere. The number of contractors employed by America in Afghanistan and Iraq had increased by 30% to 250,000. Initial reports, like this one by Jeremy Scahill, make it sound like these 250,000 contractors are armed mercenaries, like BlackWater or Triple Canopy. They are not. According to the official CENTCOM report, the majority of contractors are non-military, foreign contractors.

Which begs the question, where do I stand on non-combat military contractors? In past posts, I’ve condemned mercenaries -- euphemistically, private security forces.

In theory, non-combat military contracting works. It allows the military to spend more time, money and resources on actually waging a counter-insurgency. (In reality, military contracting is a cesspool of corruption, waste, and fraud.) But, the key sin of non-combat military contracting is that it separates our forces from the population and inhibits a true counter-insurgency campaign.

Mao said it best, “A guerrilla is like a fish in the sea” and the sea is the support of the population. Nurture that support and your insurgency will thrive. Instead of a fish in the sea, the US military is a 19th century scuba diver with a logistical hose connecting back to the states, deprived of the opportunity to swim like fish in the support of the people.

Very little of the support the U.S. receives in Iraq comes from Iraq itself. Cargo containers and shipping companies bring literally thousands of tons of food, gasoline and hard supplies to Iraq every month. Every military dollar spent goes directly into contracts with American companies who supply our soldiers overseas. These companies hire their own workers and import them into Iraq from either America but mostly from third world countries like India. These contract workers provide services on American FOBs, act as construction workers on bases, or transport goods across Iraq or Afghanistan. (Frequently, these convoys hire their own armed contractors, namely mercenaries.)

Only a tiny percentage of the money allocated to fight our overseas wars enters the Iraqi and Afghan economies. We avoid directly supporting ourselves off the local economies. Determining the true number verges on impossible. Programs do exist to buy goods off the Iraqi or Afghan economies -- for example, using Field Ordering Officer funds to buy locally. But, these are peanuts compared to the economies of scale offered to military contracting firms such as Kellogg, Brown and Roote (KBR) and the reality that FOBs and COPs import all their food, water and gasoline.

An example of the absurdity of military contracting: KBR imports workers into an economy with 18-30% percent unemployment (at times spiking to fifty percent). Many of the studies of unemployment can't even access the areas of the greatest fighting and so the extremely high numbers in those regions cannot be accurately estimated. Why then, do U.S. contractors need to import thousands of workers into a country literally dying for work?
The main reason is operational security (spying). We import workers to drive trucks in Iraq paying them as high as $80,000 a year to ensure this security. Realistically, any Iraqi who earned $100,000 a year would never support the insurgency; he would need that job much more. His paycheck, as opposed to an imported American or foreign national, would go directly back into the local economy. And, his family and friends would have another reason not to attack convoys. Driving a truck is a simple task that we should have handed over to Iraqis several years ago.

In the initial invasion, the chaos of the war prevented us from surviving off the local economies. But the goal should have been to eventually support ourselves from it. The metrics of how many locals we employ and how much we survive off the economy are critical factors to judge our success.

Criticizing private security contractors is easy. They are mercenaries and every Iraqi civilian they kill is a tragedy. It is also easy to criticize the waste and fraud rampant in military contracting. Those criticisms ignore the deeper flaw of military contracting: they prevent us from winning, and helping the Iraqi people.

Jun 12

(Spoiler Alert: This post reveals plot details about Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel "Ender’s Game". I cover “Swordfish” too, but no one saw that.)

In June 2001, the film Swordfish developed a strategy to deal with the issues that America would confront three months later. (At the time, terrorism was just another plot; three months later it would become verboten.) The film’s antagonist Gabriel explains his strategy:

“Someone must bring the war to them. They bomb a church, we bomb ten. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourists, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.”

And the hypothetical result of this strategy?

What countries will harbor terrorists when they realize the consequences of what I’ll do?”

By page six of Ender’s Game, the eponymous main character implements the above strategy in his own situation. When confronted by bullies, Ender outwits the lead bully and proceeds to viciously maul him as he lays helpless on the ground. Ender tells the other bullies as he slams his foot on the six year olds crotch, “Remember what I do to people who hurt me.” Later, Ender explains his logic, “Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone.” When an enemy cadet named Bonzo again forces Ender to fight, he repeats the strategy. “The only way to end things completely was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was greater then his hate.”

The strategy of these two characters posits that fear--overwhelming, crippling fear--can defeat an enemy. The enemy will surrender when faced with insurmountable odds, and certain death. The enemy will submit when forced.

Putting it simply, this strategy is neither effective nor morally justifiable.

Pragmatically, overwhelming force or the fear it generates, does not ensure enemies will submit. The Palestinians show the true counter to overwhelming force. In virtually every fight with Israel, they suffer innumerably more casualties. Yet they continue to launch missiles in Israel, undeterred. Certain death didn’t stop wave after wave of World War I soldiers, or Kamikaze pilots, or countless over-matched rebels. It didn’t stop the 9/11 high jackers. Pragmatically, death and fear of death will not stop terrorism.

Pragmatism aside, a disproportionate response in war is repulsive to any worthy ethical system. Using the ends to justify the means will always pervert those means.

Gabriel becomes a terrorist and Swordfish ends with a strategic strike on Osama Bin Laden’s yacht. A yacht with at least some innocents on board.  But what if that yacht were a city, filled with hundreds of innocents? What if Gabriel closed the film killing innocents as he said he would?

Perhaps the sadder example is Ender. Ender, an eternally guilt ridden protagonist, usually garners a reader’s sympathy. During my last reading of his book, though, I began to dislike him. He claims to desire peace, but he doesn’t seek it. To stop bullying, Ender kills the bully. Bullying is wrong and immoral, but does it warrant a death sentence? Is crippling or killing the bully worth it to stop the violence? Is overwhelming force justified?

The answer is no.

Jun 10

With the economy reeling, a broken health care system and a widening budget deficit, President Obama inherited domestic challenges rare for any modern American president. On top of this, political commentators and pundits noted he also faced unprecedented foreign policy challenges. Entire books -- like David Sanger’s The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power -- have been written on the subject.

Challenging? Yes. Unprecedented? No. Compared to the majority of American history, our international position is quite unremarkable and relatively tame.

At the dawn of our nation, the question confronting America was whether or not it could survive. The old nations of Europe still wielded massive armies and territorial ambitions. We went to war with Britain a few short years after ratifying our constitution--and our capital burnt to the ground for the first and last time. America was wilderness, the vast majority of our continent had not been explored, much less tamed.

Sixty years later, our position had hardly improved. An unpopular President, Abraham Lincoln, confronted the gravest crisis in our nation’s history. Arguably a domestic issue, the Civil War was primarily a military engagement. When he took office, the country was already splitting at the seams and war was unavoidable. In less than five years, over 600,000 Americans would die, 300 times the amount of people who died on 9/11.

During the first half of the twentieth century, America faced consecutive World Wars, a Global Depression and the creation of nuclear weapons. Included in this time was one of the few attacks on American soil by a foreign power, to say nothing of the millions of military dead.

Since World War II, the succeeding presidents dealt with a situation far more dangerous than any previous international situation: nuclear extinction. When Richard Nixon took over in 1968, the country fought in the midst of a war that would kill 60,000 American young and threaten the stability of Indochina. At the same time, thousands of missiles with the capacity to destroy the entire world sat in bunkers armed ready to destroy the entire world at the press of a button. The world literally stood on a precipice until the fall of the Soviet Union.

We stood through those times and survived to now.

If America believes in one thing, it is in its own exceptionalism, a feeling that our time, national character or era is somehow special. Post 9/11, we justified extraordinary methods and actions because of our perilous national security situation. In a long view of our nation's history our current times do not seem so perilous.

Jun 08

Some people -- primarily commentators on the left -- have described the Bush administration’s polices as "Machiavellian," a synonym for heartlessly realpolitick, but a reading of Machiavelli's The Prince condemns many aspects of current American military strategy.  In particular, the chapter titled, “How Many Kinds Of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries” is surprisingly critical of the Department of Defense’s conduct of our two expeditionary wars, most prominently the use of paid contractors acting as mercenaries.

We can safely say that President Bush and his administration ignored the line that says, "Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous" and they are "disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies."  Machiavelli’s thesis is clear: mercenaries are ineffective as soldiers.

Just as Machiavelli predicts, paid contractors in Iraq have been grossly ineffective, especially in building political bridges between our forces and the Iraqi people. Unburdened by the laws of land warfare, laws that struggle to even contain the U.S. Army, contractors operate on a shoot first, ask questions later agenda. They lack the bravery to follow standard military rules of engagement and have embarrassed America.

Machiavelli levels many criticisms at mercenaries but one rings especially true in our contemporary world. He says that in the face of a danger mercenaries have no "reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you." A soldier who fights for money wants to live to spend; his money is useless to him dead. When four contractors were killed and had their bodies burned in Fallujah, armed contractors in Iraq like Triple Canopy, Black Water and Brown and Roote tightened their policies about leaving FOBs. When faced with danger, they fled.

In 4th Generation Warfare, winning the political and cultural battles are as important as winning the military battles. Allowing mercenaries to fight our wars introduces an element that we cannot control. Contractors will not accept political restraints, exist in a legal vacuum and weaken our efforts on the political and cultural battlefields.

In an attempt to avoid political fallout, the paid soldier of today is called a “contractor.” By any name, they are mercenaries, and America should not employ mercenaries.