Over the weekend, I barbecued–somewhat perilously–from inside my garage on a rainy afternoon in Central Florida. I spent the day eating FFA pork with a few close friends and, for the most part, avoiding the topic of war. With the weekend over, I started catching up on blogs to find that Paul Fussell had passed away. Since I first read The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell has been a hero of mine–someone whose keen eye for literature and history has given us all a better understanding of culture made in war. One of the most compelling arguements in The Great War and Modern Memory is that the First World War gave rise–if not birth–to irony in mainstream Western culture. One can see that, at the very least, Fussell earned his irony in war after reading “My war: how I got irony in the war” (HT Small Wars Journal). He begins telling the story of how a boy, “fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind,” chose ROTC and eventually the infantry as a means to avoid undressing in gym. However, now he lays bare everything:

That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

Ultimately, it is through this pouring irony that Fussell comes to understand war–and through him I have come to understand it better. Fussell writes, “Irony describes the emotion, whatever it is, occasioned by perceiving some great gulf, half-comic, half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds. It’s not quite ‘disillusion,’ but it’s adjacent to it.” I meditate on that irony now, remembering how I played with toy soldiers at the feet of my grandfather who, having fought at Pearl Harbor and Tarawa, was proud of his service but told all of his sons not to join the Marines–advice that has, for better and worse, been ignored now for two generations. Was it that he had seen what Marines are asked to do? Was it because he had visited that place “adjacent” to disillusion on some worthless atoll?  I can’t ask him now, but I don’t think his answer would be that different from Fussell’s.  It is, however, an irony that I can never fully understand.

Rest in peace.


On Twitter today, I came across Amalie Flynn’s poetry, which you can read on her blog Wife and War. In many ways, Flynn reminds me of a homefront Yusef Komunyakaa; her narrator gives a voice to mediations on the same dark register. There is an unfiltered honesty–approaching, but then veering away from, the confessional–that must be so evocative for veterans and their spouses. Poems such as these are the kind I most enjoy teaching.

Her most recent poem, “Scope,” attracted attention for its mediation on the night raids in Afghanistan, but what strikes me most about it is the horror in wanting-to-but-not-knowing:

When I talk about the night raids,
My husband’s face closes like a door,
Because I am asking how, how it works,
But I should know better,
Because this is war,
And there are things he cannot say.

There is a tragic tension there between the wife’s dark thoughts and the husband who cannot address them. Perhaps, it is a matter of OPSEC that he does not speak; perhaps, it is that he does not want to have those events visit him in his sanctuary away from the war. However, his inability to speak triggers this cascade of darker and darker images that inescapably visits their home:

What I know is this,
There are lists,
How there are names on them,
Names of men,
That other men turn in,
And how they say, they turned,
Or they’re with them now, the Taliban,
And they become the targets, that soldiers hit,
Clearing their houses, in the pitch black, searching,
For something, or how, sometimes, people get killed,
The soldiers searching,
Or the men,
Their wives, and their children, and
It is night, now, in my kitchen,
And my husband is, here, now,
Standing in front of me,
Saying words that are safe,
Like good and night,

The narrator’s preoccupation grows ever more “tactical” in her desire to know the “how.” The narrator begins with the “known”–the existence of these “high-value target” lists. At that point, everything becomes uncertain. The faceless, nameless sources give up names, but they cannot be trusted.  Too much, she must think, is unknown. Are these men–and their families–legitimate targets?  This, too, is ambiguous, because all we know is that “The soldiers searching, / Or the men, / Their wives, and their children” are killed. Was there a cache of weapons or an IED factory? We do not know. This uncertainty destabilizes all words–even those “safe” ones like “good” and “night.” Their link–like the link between those nameless Afghan men and the Taliban–becomes questionable at best.

Later, my husband is in bed,
And I am awake,
Standing at a window, in my kitchen, over
A sink, thinking about it,
The scope of this war,
Ten years, now, or him,
My husband, how I still do not know, everything,
Or about targets,
The human body,
And how it looks through the scope of an M4,
A head, the collection of limbs,
Torso, this chest, surrounding
The heart as if it mattered.

Ultimately, the poem asks but cannot know the answer to the question: “How are targets identified?” The inability to know leads the narrator through a train of thought until she imagines the most tactical of targeting–what the human body looks “through the scope of an M4.” At its most “tactical,” the horror reaches its height. Notably, she stands at a sink with her own body framed in a kitchen window not unlike a body framed within the reticle of a scope, targeted not by a weapon but this horror of not knowing.

There is much more that could be written about this poem and others, but you would better be served reading them yourself at Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. It is well worth the look.

Over at Small Wars Journal, Benjamin Kohlmann wrote an interesting piece “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in “look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget.” Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of “fucking up” (to borrow a Boydian phrase) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the “new” and the “now” as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.

Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don’t know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be “creative,” but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.

Being creative isn’t a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word “hacker”–taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like Steve Kondik who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called CyanogenMod, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.

This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the “new widget” whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to “understand the moment” as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used “obsolete” tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took “old” TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators–to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the “new widget” rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is a great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats.)

The fact that the author is so convinced that today’s digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow’s catastrophes–financial, military, or otherwise–will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.

As I bury myself in writing chapters and looking for jobs, I have not had much time to keep up with the blog circuit. However, I finally got around to this interview with LTG Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.), on Midrats–and it is awesome. There is a good amount of time devoted to John Boyd, media-military relations, and the learning culture of the military, but the most fascinating bit for me was a discussion of training infantry in the same way combat aviators are trained a la “Top Gun” and the like. Small arms training has been an interest of mine for a long time, and the feedback I have gotten from those who know much more about the topic than I do is that the military needs to spend more time training the basics and training them in line with current best practices. This is much more important than worrying about the latest, whiz-bang SALW system whether we are talking the faux-revolutionary XM25 or the endless string of M16/M4 replacements that get proposed every year.  At any rate, go listen to that interview.  There is something for everyone.

It does indeed seem like the COIN bubble has burst.  Here, it is important to make the distinction between “COIN” and “counterinsurgency.”  As Sebastian L. v. Gorka and David Kilcullen have argued, “COIN” is the selective, distinctly American reading of conflicts that produced one distorted model of population-centric counterinsurgency and “counterinsurgency” is something else altogether. If this “COIN” had authorized historian, it would be Thomas Ricks and his Fiasco and The Gamble the history; this is the story, the narrative. Except not everyone bought it. Carl Prine, for example, has been poking holes in this ‘story’ for a long time (see “Peaches for Dessert” and “Twinkle, Twinkle“). Well, it turns out Ricks is not so sure any more either:

I admit it: When I was writing The Gamble I thought for a while that such a residual force was the way to go. But with the passage of the years since then I increasingly have come to believe that the Iraqis were simply sitting around keeping their powder dry and waiting for Uncle Sam to get out of the way, so they could sort themselves out. Remember, the surge was half a war ago — it began five years ago, in January 2007. Iraq was given a lot of time. I do not see what keeping 15,000 troops there for another year or two would do that it did not do in 2009 or 2010. Plus, President Obama was not elected to keep us in Iraq; he was elected, in part, to get us out. So it would be pretty hard to keep troops there without a clear indication that it would do any good. Especially since Iraqis seemed to want us out.

The time to get this right was five years ago.  The story Ricks told promoted a narrative that perpetuated a policy that was very likely wrong, and now he glibly retracts his argument with the benefit of hindsight.  There is nothing smart or courageous in being right in retrospect. Recanting the narrative of The Gamble now strikes me more as scrambling to continue “being right” than “getting it right.”

Back in August, I wrote a piece entitled “On Teaching the COIN Canon and Speaking Truth through Fiction” that makes a number of claims regarding how and, more importantly, why we teach counterinsurgency to non-practitioners.  Among them was the coming shift in how counterinsurgency is valued relative to the broader idea of irregular warfare:

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners? According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.” With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late. Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself. Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some. Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.”

I was hardly sticking my neck out with that prediction, but President Obama, Secretary Panetta, and General Dempsey’s comments today addressing the Defense Strategic Review would seem to bear that out.  In the Defense Strategic Guidance (PDF), “Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare” get top billing in the list of capabilities that DoD will make a priority including “selective additional investments.”  Counterinsurgency is still there, but it appears second-to-last and gone are the “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” that have embodied the American brand of “COIN.”  In short:  Down with stability operations!  Long live Security Force Assistance!  (However, in what may be described as a strategic Freudian slip, the word “counterinsurgency” appears one more time in the document than does “irregular warfare.”)

What does this mean in practical terms?  First, non-interventionalists on the Left and Right will be dismayed to know that America still intends to project power globally and a ground war in Iran–yikes–is not off the table.  Secondly, the buzz among the NatSec twitter nerds (you know who you are) was that the speech heralded a RMA 2.0 or constituted this odd echo of the Rumsfeld Pentagon.  That sentiment resonated less with me.

My primary concern was there were no hard choices were made except for the stability operations, but really who is calling for a generational commitment to a country American’s can’t find on a map these days?  Besides, the Defense Strategic Guidances does leave the door open for “short-term” operations (queue the Friedman Unit).  There is greater geographical specificity (Asia and the Middle East)–but not by much.  Another red flag is the way that technology is posited as a cure-all.

Is this the end of COIN’s narrative of warrior-intellectuals and foreign intervention?  At least for COIN’s heyday (2006-2010ish), the representation of contemporary “Lawrence[s]” has been a powerful driver of policy and public sentiment.  However, it remains to be seen whether or not that narrative will persist.

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I have posted.  Well, I am still alive–and writing.  The dissertation is going slowly albeit less painfully.  Before long, I should have a chapter for my director.  That is when the real pain begins.  (In all seriousness, I feel like I am on the cusp of a really cool piece of scholarship.)

Otherwise, I haven’t felt particularly inspired to write.  Nothing has been lighting my world ablaze in that “confluence of war, technology, and culture.”  A few side projects have been keeping me busy, which I’ll promote here once they get a little further along.  If I have a flurry of ideas, I’ll be sure check in on the blog.