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Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: war (page 1 of 3)

Quotable: Salvatore Giunta

This respect that people are giving to me? This was one moment. In my battalion, I am mediocre at best. This shows how great the rest of them are.

Medal of Honor winner US Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta.

The perils of endless war

This morning I was talking about English nationalism and the World Cup with a friend, and the discussion shifted to an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post by Andrew Bacevich on the corrosive effect of long wars on the military and on democracy. Here’s how his piece begins:

Long wars are antithetical to democracy. Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government. Not least among those values is a code of military conduct that honors the principle of civilian control while keeping the officer corps free from the taint of politics. Events of the past week — notably the Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s dismissal — hint at the toll that nearly a decade of continuous conflict has exacted on the U.S. armed forces. The fate of any one general qualifies as small beer: Wearing four stars does not signify indispensability. But indications that the military’s professional ethic is eroding, evident in the disrespect for senior civilians expressed by McChrystal and his inner circle, should set off alarms.

My friend sent along the poem The Cuirassiers Of The Frontier that really hits the theme of Bacevich’s piece. The poem, on the subject of soldiers in the Roman army, closes with the following two lines:

We, not the City, are the Empire’s soul:
A rotten tree lives only in its rind.

It’s not hard for me to imagine that’s how General McChrystal’s team in Afghanistan see themselves.

The Gaza blockade

More Palestinians have died this year in generator accidents than died in the assault on the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara on Monday. Gazans are forced to rely on generators for electric power because Israel will not allow them to rebuild their power plant, having attacked it in 2006. Foreign Policy has the details of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Collective punishment is a violation of the Geneva convention.

Update: This post by Jim Henley is the single most insightful thing I’ve read about Israel and Palestine in a long time.

Assassination is ineffective

People are disconcertingly accepting of torture as a means of getting information from people we detain, and it seems to me that assassinations are even more popular than torture. You just don’t see many people protesting the United States blowing up suspected terrorists in countries like Yemen with missiles fired from Predator drones. It’s sad, because there are many principled objections to be made to the use of assassination as a tactic for fighting terror. A recent study makes it clear that there are practical objections as well — a 2009 study suggests that assassinations are counterproductive:

killing leaders of a religious terrorist group seems to increase the group’s chances of survival from 67 percent to 83 percent.

This week’s New Yorker also has an interesting article about the latest social science on the subject of terrorism. The article is chock full of interesting opinions on terrorists, the causes of terrorism, and the most effective approaches to combatting terrorism.

The Wikileaks footage

I was going to write a post about the Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” footage, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. As usual, someone else wrote exactly what I wanted to say. In this case, it’s James Fallows:

There will be lot of those “real questions” to consider, from rules of engagement to the apparent cover up of the footage. But the threshold point I meant to start with is this: The very high likelihood of such “tragedies” occurring is a very strong reason not to get into wars of this sort.

By “of this sort” I mean: twilight-zone urban warfare, not to mention “discretionary” or “preventive” wars, and situations in which a heavily armed-and-amored occupying force of foreigners tries uneasily to mix with a population overwhelmingly of a different race and religion and language. For their own survival, the occupiers need to be hyper-suspicious and ever alert — even though today’s prevalent Counter Insurgency doctrine (“COIN”) warns of the self-defeating consequences of behaving this way. (Indeed, a mounting debate about the COIN approach in Afghanistan is whether the effort not to seem distant from the local population is exposing US soldiers to too much risk.) It is a situation with enormous potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding, and tragedy. And therefore one to avoid if you have any choice at all.

War is an invitation to commit atrocities, by accident or with intent. This is apparent if you study any war. Historian Steve Rabson estimates that during the three month battle of Okinawa, US soldiers committed rape more than 10,000 times. Japanese soldiers raped the women of the island as well.

The time to prevent the sorts of horrible events (whether you consider them justified by the circumstances or not or not) depicted in the video is when politicians are working to convince us that war is necessary.

How many former Gitmo detainees return to terrorism?

The numbers being repeatedly cited over the past week about the number of former Guantanamo detainees who have “returned to the battlefield” are, in all likelihood, total speculation. It’s propaganda. Don’t believe it.

Wargaming Iran

Today I’m reading about a completely fascinating wargame that was set up at Harvard to explore which strategies might work with regard to Iran and its weapons programs. Experienced foreign policy professionals were brought in to play the United States, Israel, the Iranian government, and others. Columbia University professor Gary Sick played Iran, and writes about the game on his blog. The details of the game’s outcome (Iran wins easily) are interesting, but I also love the idea of wargaming to explore possibilities and wonder how it could be incorporated more into business planning.

A few years ago I read Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France by Ernest R May (my review is here) and was impressed at how effectively the Germans employed wargaming. Hitler announced his intention to invade France, and the German generals used wargaming to test various plans until they came up with the one that had the best chance of working. In going back and reading the review, I see that when I wrote it (November, 2004), I was optimistic about the future of Afghanistan. How times change.

Where we are in Afghanistan

Australian reporter Paul McGeogh has been covering the war in Afghanistan since its outset. Last week he gave a talk on the state of things in Afghanistan in Australia, using General McChrystal’s report on the state of things in Afghanistan as a hook for predicting what awaits us in the future. It’s a must-read.

Here’s his preview:

That is what makes the 60-page assessment of the conflict by US General Stanley McChrystal a damning document, more because of who he is than what he actually has to say.

The handling of the crisis by the US-led coalition has its many critics. But seeing so many of its shortcomings articulated with all the authority of a top American general makes startling reading. Since the report was leaked in Washington last month, the debate has been narrow, focusing on the question of sending more troops than on what amounts to his condemnation of the conduct of the venture.

The detail is excruciating.

McGeogh’s outlook is pessimistic, but not without good cause. I think at this point it would be impossible for the US to make the kind of commitment necessary to achieve a positive outcome in Afghanistan. So what should we do? It’s looking like it’s “muddle through” or “cut our losses” and muddling through (and pretending we’re building toward success) looks like the popular choice.

Revisiting Robert McNamara

Back in 2005, I posted my initial reaction to Fog of War:

The film was particularly powerful for me personally because McNamara’s basic approach to life is similar to my own. McNamara is an empiricist whose approach to problem solving is to collect and break down the data to come to a rational decision. The lesson of McNamara’s life is that doing your best to gather the facts and act rationally can’t prevent you from making the most horrible kinds of mistakes.

Links from June 8th

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