Skip to content

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, We’ve Moved

February 10, 2012

That’s right. Gunpowder and Lead has gone on to greener, more awesome pastures. You can find us at our new home at gunpowderandlead.org. It is shiny.

On an admin note, please update your RSS feeds, your blogrolls, and your email subscriptions. We’ll keep our archives up over here, but all new material will be on the new site. Obviously.

We hope you’ll come with us. We’d miss you if you didn’t.

On Taking Nonviolence Seriously

February 8, 2012
by

Daniel Serwer has a post at the Atlantic arguing for the use of nonviolent means in the Syrian conflict:

The point is to demonstrate wide participation, mock the authorities, and deprive them of their capacity to generate fear. When I studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I asked an experienced agitator friend about the efficacy of the security forces. She said they were lousy. “What keeps everyone in line?” I asked. “Fear,” she replied. If the oppositions resorts to violence, it helps the authorities: by responding with sometimes random violence, they hope to re-instill fear.

It has stirred up mentions of unicorns and rainbows and that sort of thing from the many who discount this as a pipe dream. I understand the urge to dismiss nonviolence in the face of the brutality of the Syrian regime. I certainly don’t know what is best for the people of Syria in this conflict, and I’m not sure I would have the courage to urge non-violence to people who are being attacked by their own government daily, but I would urge anyone dismissing nonviolent means as completely absurd to read a little Gene Sharp (whose work Mr. Serwer references in his piece) first.

Early in his seminal work From Dictatorship to Democracy (pdf), Sharp makes a key point about the why for nonviolent means, that  “By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.”

It is not a casual use of nonviolence that Sharp encourages; he urges very calculated use of nonviolent tactics as part of a thorough plan. He puts great emphasis on the importance of strategic planning in revolution. He is quite clear that it is not enough to simply to use nonviolent means randomly. Carefully planned use of non-violence has much more potential for effectiveness than any willy-nilly application of various means.

Very careful thought based on a realistic assessment of the situation and the capabilities of the populace is required in order to select effective ways to achieve freedom under such circumstances.

If one wishes to accomplish something, it is wise to plan how to do it. The more important the goal, or the graver the consequences of failure, the more important planning becomes. Strategic planning increases the likelihood that all available resources will be mobilized and employed most effectively. This is especially true for a democratic movement – which has limited material resources and whose supporters will be in danger – that is trying to bring down a powerful dictatorship. In contrast, the dictatorship usually will have access to vast material resources, organizational strength, and ability to perpetrate brutalities.

“To plan a strategy” here means to calculate a course of action that will make it more likely to get from the present to the desired future situation. In terms of this discussion, it means from a dictatorship to a future democratic system. A plan to achieve that objective will usually consist of a phased series of campaigns and  other organized activities designed to strengthen the oppressed population and society and to weaken the dictatorship. Note here that the objective is not simply to destroy the current dictatorship but to emplace a democratic system. A grand strategy that limits its objective to merely destroying the incumbent dictatorship runs a great risk of producing another tyrant.*

Agree with Sharp’s views or not, he has done an enormous amount of work on nonviolent means of revolution, and has been very influential in various movements around the world. (If you have the opportunity to see the recent documentary about him, How to Start a Revolution, I definitely recommend doing so). He frames it in such a way that invites you to consider nonviolence as a serious approach, not a refuge of weakness, and makes a strong case for at least taking it seriously as an option.

———

*

Sharp’s warnings about planning for the aftermath have a great deal of resonance, too, when considering the current situation in Egypt, to name one.

While spontaneity has some positive qualities, it has often had disadvantages. Frequently, the democratic resisters have not anticipated the brutalities of the dictatorship, so that they suffered gravely and the resistance has collapsed. At times the lack of planning by democrats has left crucial decisions to chance, with disastrous results. Even when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship.

Rape Is Not An Inevitability of War

February 8, 2012

Does your Wednesday needs some sobering research on rape as a tool of war? Well! The Women Under Siege Project launched today. I’m proud to have contributed some research on the Libyan conflict to this incredibly important endeavor, and I’d highly recommend you take some time to browse the site. Women Under Siege looks at the use of sexualized violence* in a range of conflicts in order to understand the commonalities and the prevalence – and it is horribly, horribly prevalent.

The employment of sexualized violence in conflict is often a choice and an explicitly or implicitly endorsed policy, not just a random crime. It is used intentionally to punish families and communities, not just individual women. And I mean, nobody’s laboring under some delusion that war’s suddenly going to get safer for women and children because we did some research. I get that bad things happen in war, but the intentionality is what gets me, and why I think this project is so important. Without attention, without outrage, without documentation, decisionmakers in conflict situations will continue to think they can get away with using rape as though it’s a legitimate use of force under the laws of war.

And I’ll be honest – I really struggled with the whole “what’s the point?” of this project. It feels Sisyphean – stopping sexualized violence in war? Really? But Gloria Steinem puts it in context in a Q&A:

LW: Does your work in the women’s movement give you encouragement that we can make headway on sexualized violence in conflict?

GS: Yes, absolutely. In my lifetime, we’ve shown that rape is not sex but violence, and changed the laws that required a virginal victim and a bystander willing to testify. In my high school, boys used to say there was no such thing as rape, that “you can’t thread a needle unless the needle holds still.” They’re not saying that anymore. Actually, I get letters from men in prison who really understand rape because, in the absence of women, they’ve been used as women. Sexualized violence, in and out of conflict, has been named and punishments codified. Now we have to get this off paper and into life.

LW: Do you think it’s ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

GS: Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans—the one that allows our species to survive—is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

So read. Be outraged. Be horrified. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s problem and it doesn’t affect you. Your silence makes it worse.

 

* I feel like I need to get into definitions here, but at minimum, we’re all clear that rape/sexual assault is about violence and control and really has nothing to do with sex, right? I use the term “sexualized violence” because that’s what Gloria Steinem uses. She explains why in the above-referenced Q&A.

Indecent Acts?

February 7, 2012

Over the last two days, I got into a rather extended discussion on the ‘Acts of Valor’ movie which is coming out on 17 Feb.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is the trailer which aired during the Super Bowl.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last two days and though I’m still not 100% sure why, something about this still bothers me.  When I brought this up originally there were a number of people who seemed to agree that something was ‘off’ about this, but there were also a number of people who rushed to the defense of the film. Eventually, this morphed into a much longer discussion which helped me (and hopefully others) to zero in on what aspects of the movie promotion we felt were issues.  Right now I have to confine my critique to the promotional because, like almost everyone commenting, I have not seen the actual film.

As background, the Wall Street Journal has a good piece that covers some of the history and logic that went in to the decision to make this movie.  There is a lot more than I include here, so you should read this piece in its entirety.

For two years the filmmakers had inside access to the Navy’s elite and secretive force for an unusual assignment: to create a feature film that starred real-life SEALs—not actors—in lead roles. The movie, “Act of Valor,” is not a documentary. Instead, it straddles reality and fiction, military messaging and entertainment. It features strike scenes written by the SEALs themselves, jarring live-fire footage and a body count that would rival any ’80s action flick. Yet the movie, to be released in February, was designed to set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film.

In 2008, Navy Special Warfare invited a handful of production companies to submit proposals for a film project, possibly a documentary, that would flesh out the role of the SEALs. The goals: bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as “Navy Seals,” the 1990 shoot-em-up starring Charlie Sheen as a cocky lone wolf. “In the SEAL ethos, the superman myth does not apply. It’s a lifestyle of teamwork, hard work and academic discipline,” said Capt. Duncan Smith, a SEAL who initiated the project and essentially served as producer within the military.

The project offered filmmakers access to SEALs as well as military assets, but no funding. A production company called the Bandito Brothers, which had previously worked with Navy Special Warfare on a series of recruiting videos, got the assignment. Co-founded by Mr. McCoy, a former off-road racing champion and stuntman, and Scott Waugh, who had run a stunt company, the Bandito Brothers specialized in shooting action-driven viral ads for brands such as BMW and Mountain Dew. 

The Bandito Brothers commissioned a script from Kurt Johnstad, who had co-written “300,” a comic-book-style depiction of ancient Spartan warriors that has many fans among U.S. troops, but that many critics dismissed as heavy-handed and excessively violent. His “Act of Valor” screenplay revolved around a SEAL team’s mission to stop a Chechen jihadist cooperating with a smuggler to send suicide bombers across the Mexican border toward U.S. targets. (A villain from Eastern Europe was a less obvious and potentially sensitive choice than an Arab, the filmmakers say.) (emphasis mine)

These passages highlight my concerns with the film.  While propaganda seems like too strong a word, what do you call it when the military commissions a movie specifically to designed to alter perception amongst the population it is pledged to defend?  This isn’t some comically over-the-top recruiting commercial with a lava monster or a transforming C-17.  This is a feature length movie that utilizes active duty SEALS, with actual equipment and tactics, and explicitly promotes itself on its ‘realness.’

Just to be clear, I don’t have an issue with the military providing Hollywood with technical support and access to equipment, but historically the process has been initiated by the movie industry, not the military. I believe that this relationship has been a net good and can allow for accurate portrayal of the military in movies (though anyone who watched Stealth knows I’m using “accurate” in the loosest sense of the word). For example, apart from destroying every fond childhood memory I possess, Transformers was fine.  I also had no issue with Iron Man featuring F-22s (on the contrary, I’m glad someone was able to get some use out of them before they were grounded).  These are clearly ‘action flicks’ and even though the military provides a backdrop for the narrative, no serious person looks at these and thinks they really reflect what military life is like.

Because obviously, USAF Security Forces could push through an ambush better than this

Conversely, I don’t have any issue with Hollywood creating films that tell dramatizations of actual events, such as Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill.  Even knowing that there will be sacrifices to historic accuracy in the interest of a tightly spun narrative, I still believe that general population recognizes that the primary goal of these films is entertainment, not education.  While I think that the usage of professional actors in these roles largely contributes to the recognition that they are vehicles for entertainment, I didn’t have any issue with Generation Kill allowing certain Marines to portray themselves in the film.

So, why do I still have reservations about this?  I think that my primary concern is that the concept originated within the corporate NSW community, which means that it was started specifically to promote their agenda.  At this point (again, having not seen the movie), I have to extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone involved with this.  Their motivation may truly have been only to more accurately convey what it is like to be a SEAL and to demonstrate what kind of a toll this life can take on a person and his family.  Those are noble goals and I don’t take any issue with them.  However, if the purpose of engaging in this kind of activity was to “set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film,” then the SEALS really need to get in line.  Over the years, pretty much every group in the military has been misrepresented in media.  Granted, SEALS have one more reason than the rest of society to distance themselves from Charlie Sheen, but having your (very serious work) sensationalized in pop culture isn’t exactly being slandered.

I’m also concerned about the precedent that this sets within the military.  There are many examples where the greater military has followed on a path laid out by the various Special Forces communities with regards to equipment, procedures, tactics, etc.  My concern is that this has the potential to be another of those areas.  As the defense budget constricts (kinda) the resource wars between the components of the DoD will likely become more aggressive and the strategic messaging to the American people and Congress will become even more important.  Right now, Navy SEALS are (rightly) in the forefront of the American consciousness.  They and the rest of Special Operations are in no real risk of having their budget cut anytime soon.  However, I wonder how different the sentiment would be if the US Air Force solicited and fully supported and staffed the creation of a “fictional” feature film that showed how a rising Chinese threat could only be countered by a tailored mix of F-22s and F-35s.

Is this really a good precedent to set?

Also, Ravens aren’t nearly as cool as they look in the trailer.

___________

The good news (and maybe the real story) in all of this is that there was an almost entirely positive set of discussions with folks over twitter, even those whom I disagreed with.  For example, you need to go read Jeff Emanuel’s post over at Red State.  He and I disagreed on aspects of this, but his post lays out some of the counter arguments that you should consider.  Plus he goes through the a large part of the discussion that occurred in much more detail than I did here.

Strength in Numbers

February 6, 2012
by

Update: Don’t bother reading what I wrote below. Go read what Gulliver wrote almost a year ago instead.

All of the DoD budget talk and the vociferous debate over whether or not to preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has highlighted what I think is a troubling trend in military analysis.

Too often, analysts point to total military expenditures as a means to compare relative military strength. For instance, proponents of forthcoming DoD budget cuts like to cite the fact that the U.S. spends more on national defense than every other country in the world combined as evidence that DoD can afford to tighten the purse strings. This evidence also appears when analysts and pundits are making the argument that Iran does not pose a military threat to the United States.

This argument is not limited to appearances in pithy op-eds and blogs either. It’s prevalent in scholarly journals and other academic texts as well. The following is from a 1997 article in International Security:

Each of the Eurasian great powers (with the exception of Russia) spends about the same amount on its military as the others, which suggests that none could easily overpower the rest.

Now, the authors moderate their claim by using the word ‘suggests’, but the point is clear – they believe similar levels of military spending equate to similar levels of military power.

Is this really the best way to measure the relative military strength of two or more countries? I submit that the answer is no. Military power is far too complex to measure with a simple fact like military expenditures. Concepts like doctrine and readiness are hard to quantify, but play a huge role in military power.

Let’s take the following hypothetical.

Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?

Military spending is an easy way to measure military strength, insofar as it can provide an initial estimate for assessing the comparative military strength of two or more countries and/or be included in an introduction to set the stage for the main argument. But it’s hardly appropriate to cite such data as your sole evidence while making an argument in favor of budget cuts or whether a hostile power represents a military threat.

And if that’s not convincing, just look at the Pentagon. Not exactly the model for spending money efficiently or wisely, huh?

R2P, Military Intervention, and Civil-Military Balance

February 4, 2012
by

This morning’s UNSC vote on Syria kicked up a new round of sometimes contentious discussions in the ongoing debate on what a US intervention in Syria would or should look like and, more basically, whether the US should get involved in the Syrian crisis at all.

In the midst of some of this conversation on Twitter, Peter J. Munson fliply asked when all the R2P proponents would be heading down to a military recruiting office, which set off a flurry of responses calling him out (rightly) for the problematic civil-military implications inherent in any statement implying that only those who are serving/have served should have a right to commit our forces to a military intervention. I agree with his critics that this idea is dead wrong.

However, Mr. Munson is justified and absolutely correct in calling out policymakers and supporters of R2P, and military action in general, for failures to consider the second and third order effects or the inevitably-spiraling financial and, most importantly, human costs of any military action.

In the midst of the Twitter debates, Munson fired off one tweet that I think encapsulates both what bothered me about his arguments and what I sympathized with:

Also problematic that so few policy elites have military experience but are so willing to turn to force

I would say that it is not by definition problematic that policy elites don’t have military experience, but it is certainly problematic when they are quick to turn to force.

I don’t think Mr. Munson was really trying to say that only military and veterans should be allowed to shape defense policy, but I think it’s important to address the idea seriously, because civilian control of the military is an important element in the survival of a democracy. The idea that only those with military experience should be allowed to make defense policy/weigh in on the country’s use of military force is a dangerous one. It’s taking the point to extremes, but that way lies military dictatorship.

However, the other crucial thing to remember is that the civil-military relationship goes both ways. There are serious and important responsibilities on both sides.  Civilian policymakers are not holding up their end of the bargain if they do not very seriously consider the costs and consequences – the intended consequences and as many potential unintended ones as can be conceived – before committing our military to any actions or interventions. And Mr. Munson is quite justified in getting upset about this side of things.

An intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is in intention, could spiral very, very rapidly out of control, spreading conflict across the region and making good of all the glib buzz phrases people have come up with since 9/11.

In sum, I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria.  However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the “limited” intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine.

As I see it and as I have said before, the single most important responsibility our civilian government holds toward our military is not to risk or spend their lives lightly, without good reason, without dedicated efforts at alternative solutions, and without serious forethought. I think that in recent years, our policymakers have been notably lax in upholding this duty, and it’s no mystery to me why I have heard Mr. Munson and a number of others who have served questioning whether pundits and policymakers who have not can really understand the costs and risks of committing to the use of force.

I am sympathetic to expressions that policymakers do not consider all of the potential consequences, but I do not believe assertions that they cannot. I think that the privileges and the responsibilities of the civil-military relationship are too often taken for granted, but that if policymakers take the time and care to consider them, to listen to the input of their advisers military and civilian, and to think strategically (e.g., to conceive the desired end, then consider the various means at their disposal to reach that end, along with each means’ costs and benefits), then there is no reason a civilian government dominated by those who have never worn a uniform cannot effectively and responsibly wield the power to employ the use of force as an option.

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think the fact that we can all participate in these debates in the public sphere is at least some reason to hope that our criticisms and questions can influence the larger discourse and help to hold our policymakers accountable in both their exercise of their rights and their fulfillment of their responsibilities.

A Public Apology to Joshua Foust, and a Note on Collegiality

February 1, 2012

Joshua Foust feels that I went over the top in my recent debate against him. The purpose of this post is to explain the course of our debate, offer him an apology publicly, and to make a broader point about collegiality in the public sphere.

With respect to our debate, there are two modes that I fall into when having a disagreement with someone whom I like and respect: collegial disagreement, and argument for sport. (There are other modes for people I don’t like or don’t respect, but Foust is someone whom I both like and respect.) Argument for sport is something I did for six years during my time in competitive policy debate in both high school and college, and I was good at it. Foust is also good at the art of argument, something that is evident from C.J. Chivers’s review of Foust’s book, or Foust’s utter demolition of the Afghanistan Study Group’s 2010 report. Foust’s skill at argument and intellectual acumen are why I traditionally enjoy our debates. One thing I tried to make clear in my first post in this debate is that it seemed that Foust and I were self-consciously operating in the realm of arguing with each other for sport. To quote a portion that outlines the course of our Twitter interactions that ultimately produced this debate (note that I shortened this from the original for the sake of brevity):

Over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust – my friend and frequent sparring partner – about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov. Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing…. When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for.

The first post was full of theatrics, written in the style of a pro wrestler sitting at a keyboard and weighing in on national security issues. Though my second entry in this debate featured less bombast, it was — as Foust correctly points out — written in an adversarial tone. That was because, as stated above, to me we were arguing for sport: though this is an awfully lame analogy for two thirty-somethings arguing with each other from behind computer screens, we were gladiators in an arena. But, in fact, it would have been far preferable if I dealt with him in a collegial manner rather than in the adversarial/argument-for-sport mode that I was locked into. The simple fact is that I misread the nature of the interaction. I don’t apologize for the arguments I made, which I stand behind, but this is a determined example of how one’s tone can, to a debating “adversary,” utterly overwhelm the legitimate arguments made. So let me conclude this apology by saying again that I respect Foust’s intellect and domain expertise; and indeed, would not have chosen to enter into this debate with him if I didn’t feel that way.

For me, the overarching lesson is that it’s best to deal with people whom I have a positive opinion of an entirely collegial manner, rather than in the manner of arguing for sport — because it is too easy for “argument for sport” to descend into the appearance of the personal, even if that’s not what I intended. (The one exception moving forward will be chap hop twitterfights.)

I have made it a point to argue in favor of collegiality in the past, such as in this Q&A I did with Andrew Exum back in September that got a bit of attention. Moving beyond the context of this spat with Foust, and the way in which I was arguing for sport when I should have just been dialoguing with him as a colleague, we tend to be a public sphere full of people who argue for sport — or, worse, people who rabidly insult those they disagree with, as though it were a sport. This is not a healthy thing; and I should not have contributed to that dynamic, even if it was not my intention to do so.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers

%d bloggers like this: