Dulce Et Decorum Est

I spent Memorial Day on holiday with the extended family, touristing around Chania, the old Venetian stronghold on the western side of Crete* — which meant that the holiday mostly passed me by until reading Adam’s post.

As it happens, though, my book for the day was Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first of a trilogy.  The work uses the historical encounter between anthropologist and psychologist William Rivers and the poet-officer Siegfried Sassoon to explore (among much else) the impact of realizing that a war limned in the language and cant of glory or duty or courage is, instead, a meaningless meat grinder.

It’s very good…I’d heard of it for years but it took a stop at the Tank Museum in Dorset, with a discount paperback in the gift shop and a sun-and-sand vacation in prospect to get me to read it. I’m sorry to have waited so long, though given how much the Battle of Crete still comes up in local historical memory, maybe I got to it in just the right time and place.

But all this meandering ambles to this point (I do have one!): I’ve never served. I do not presume to speak for or at those who have.  I try to think and feel like a citizen who must give consent to the government that orders others to fight for the polity as a whole.  My minimum responsibility is to try to understand what war costs before giving even tacit assent to conflicts entered into notionally on my behalf.

So, over the last six decades, my sense of war began as one of XY kid fascination — with my dad’s and my uncles’ service, and with all the minutiae of World War II naval warfare in an obsession that lasted to a couple of years past puberty — and opposition to the Vietnam War picked up as local and family culture growing up in Berkeley.

But then came the books. In my teens I began to read books on war that weren’t straightforward military history or kids’ versions of Jane’s Fighting Ships and its ilk. There were two that had a decisive impact on my thinking about war: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That and Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting ManMemoirs of an Infantry Officer; and Sherston’s Progress.  Graves’s book was memoir; Sassoon fig-leafed with a pseudonym, but his is similarly an account of a pre-war life spent as an unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, transformed by what came after August 1914.  Both, appear in Barker’s novel, where she made  good use of the way Sassoon in particular tried to express the daily intolerable, and, more awfully, the mundane inhumanity of the war in ways even the most complete home-front hero could grasp.

He and Graves failed in that, of course; the war drumming about Iran from men and a political party that won’t for a moment put themselves or their own kids at risk is only the latest case in point. For me, though those books had a profound impact on my 16 or 17 year old brain.  I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist; wars always represent failures to achieve ends by other means, but when such failures occur…

But the message I drew from the “Great War” remembrances, and then later from works like Herr’s Dispatches; and still later, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, read pretty recently to keep company with my son’s high school reading list; and novels like Catch 22, which even at 17 I realized wasn’t actually a comedy, hilarious as it was, and so on…is that asking folks to fight for any reason but the most utterly compelling is the ur-war crime.  That’s how I see it still.

All of which is prelude to the question for all of y’all.  “Favorite” isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps this will do:  what is the book that makes war most real to you?  What work or works of literature or remembrance or history has moved you or altered views or simply made a difference to you? What would you have me read to understand how you think and feel and reason morally around violence and conflict?

And with that: over to the Jackalteriat!

*Dirty job and all that, but someone’s got to do it.°

°Well, in fact, no one has to do it.  But I’m happy enough to volunteer.

Image: John Singer Sergent, Gassed, 1919.

Memorial Day 2019: The United States is 243 Years Old, It Has Been at War in 234 of Those Years

Memorial Day has assumed a strange place within American civic culture. It has become the Federal holiday that signals the start of summer, while at the same time, because of the changes to how Americans respond and relate to the US military, has become a de facto second Veteran’s Day. And, of course, for those that have served, or those related to them, or those who have known them as more than passing acquaintances, and those who have some civic self awareness, the holiday retains its original purpose: to commemorate America’s war dead.

All of this together is a strange civic cultural mashup. Especially because American’s think of ourselves as a peace loving, only going to war as a last resort, society. The truth, however, is that we have so many war dead to remember because the US has been at war in 234 of its 243 years*.

  • The Revolutionary War: 1775-1783
  • The Barbary Wars: 1801-1805 and 1815 (the 1815 war is also known as the Algerian War)
  • The War of 1812: 1812-1814
  • The Mexican American War: 1846-1848
  • The Great Rebellion, now doing business as the American Civil War: 1861-1865
  • The Spanish American War: 1897-1898
  • The Banana Wars: 1898-1934
  • The Philippine Insurrection: 1899-1902
  • The Moro Rebellion: 1899-Present (US Marines and/or Special Operations Forces are still assisting the Filipino military in the 120 year on again, off again dispute with the Moros)
  • The Indian Wars: 1776-1918
  • World War I: 1917-1918
  • World War II: 1941-1945
  • The Cold War: 1947-1991
  • The Korean War: 1950-Present (The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 and produced a a warm peace on the peninsula)
  • The Vietnam War: 1955-1973
  • Operation Urgent Fury (US Invasion of Grenada): 25-29 October, 1983
  • Operation Just Cause (US Invasion of Panama): December 1989-January 1990
  • Operation Desert Storm: 1991-1992
  • Operation Provide Comfort (Iraqi No Fly Zones): 1991-2003
  • Operation United Shield (UN Operations Somalia II/UNOSOM II): January-March 1995
  • Operation Determined Falcon (Kosovo War): 1998-1999
  • Operation Enduring Freedom: 2001-2014
  • Operation Enduring Freedom-Philipines: 2002-2015 (also known as Operation Freedom Eagle)
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom: 2003-2011
  • Operation Odyssey Dawn (Intervention in Libyan Civil War): 19-31 March 2011
  • Operation Inherent Resolve: 2014-Present (ongoing successor operation to Operation Iraqi Freedom and includes US and coalition operations in Syria)
  • Operation Freedom’s Sentinel: 2015-Present (ongoing successor operation to Operation Enduring Freedom)

This tally doesn’t even include all the small localized rebellions – last time I counted there were over 90 of these – from the founding of the US (Carlisle, PA Rebellion, Shays’ Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion, Gilbert’s Rebellion, etc) through to the Bundy standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Nor does it include the Confederate insurgency that arose after the Union defeated the Confederacy on the battlefield. An insurgency against Reconstruction, which led to Jim Crow, and is still being waged today by their neo-Confederate political, social, religious, and economic descendants. An insurgency that has itself warped America’s civic culture, politics, society, economy, and religion. An insurgency that continues to produce casualties in the name of its retrograde ideology, theology, and doctrine.

I spent a lot of time on this Memorial Day thinking about this bizarre aspect of our civic culture, as well as remembering colleagues and/or friends who didn’t make it back. Every year the ghosts seem to be a little more demanding and linger a little bit longer than the previous one.

Rest well Mike, Nicole, Paula, Terry, Gregg, and Charles.

Open thread!

* Someone please check my math!

Iranian Complications: Between 2007 and 2010 We Taught the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force Our Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Counterinsurgency, Irregular, and Asymmetric Warfare

Happy Monday!

Be of good cheer.

Because the US military in Iraq spent most of 2007 through 2010 teaching the Iranians our Tactics, Techniques, and Procedure (TTPs). Specifically, what I’m referring to is that under Maliki’s governing coalition with the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI/the al Hakims) both Maliki’s Dawa Party militia and the much larger ISCI/al Hakim militia, the Badr Brigade, which now is independently led by Hadi al Amiri, significant portions of these militias were absorbed into the reconstituted Iraqi Army, Iraqi security services, and Iraqi intelligence. Unfortunately, the Dawa Party militia and the Badr Brigade had been established by the IRGC and the Quds Force while these Iraqis were in exile in Iran, most of the senior officers in each militia, and therefore in the Shi’a Arab portion of the Iraqi army, security, and intelligence services, are paid a stipend by the IRGC and/or the Quds Force. In the fight against ISIS, Badr Brigade forces, as part of the loyal to the Government of Iraq militias, fought side by side with regular Iraqi Army forces. Here too, we were teaching them how we fight irregular, asymmetric, and unconventional wars. So by teaching these guys our Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, we were basically just teaching them to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force.

Yay us!

Questions To Ask Before Going To War

A hard pushback on the dicey “evidence” the Trump administration didn’t quite present – it’s classified y’know – slowed down John Bolton’s rush to war, but something bit Donald Trump and he has tweeted another implied nuclear threat at Iran. Here are questions that should be considered in going to war.

1. What end state do we hope to achieve through war? This is the basic question of war that Clausewitz has encapsulated in saying that war is the continuation of politics through other means.

It appears that within the top levels of the administration, there is no agreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has listed twelve points for Iran to change, which may be administration policy. The bottom line is that Iran must become a different nation. That isn’t going to happen. As war has looked more likely, Trump said that all he wants is for Iran not to build nuclear weapons. That contradicts the more expansive demands he stated when he withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which keeps Iran from building nuclear weapons. Bolton has wanted a war against Iran for at least a couple of decades. He has never spoken of an end state. Others agitating for war and influential with the administration want Iran to be severely damaged and no longer a power in the region (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their sympathizers) or to bring on the Rapture through a massive war in the Middle East (Christian extremists).

2. Can that end state be achieved in another way? War should always be a last resort. Neither Trump nor Pompeo nor Bolton has put together a program of diplomacy to achieve their objectives. None has stated an objective clearly. The JCPOA was a diplomatic substitute for war, and probably more effective in keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If Iran is attacked and North Korea not, one message will be that nuclear weapons can deter the United States. That will be a motivator for Iran to build nuclear weapons. Increased trade, one of the objectives of the JCPOA, would further the possibility of turning Iran toward some of those twelve points.

3. Is there an immediate evil that can be stopped only by military means? A single rocket attack within Baghdad’s Green Zone does not qualify.

4. If military force is called for, how much is necessary and sufficient? Disproportionate response is a war crime. Underresourced war never ends.

5. Are the resources available? Are they needed elsewhere? The United States is engaged in two wars now. President Trump wants to send the military to the border with Mexico. Ships, airplanes, and munitions will be necessary.

6. Are you willing to pay the cost in money and lives? The American people are tired of war. The costs, along with unwarranted tax cuts, are piling up record deficits.

7. Can you count on allies? Trump has alienated most of America’s traditional allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia are ready to fight to the last American.

8. What response is likely from the opposing side? This is why the military uses war games in planning. All the war games that have been done for an attack on Iran show a very difficult and destructive war.

You can probably think of others, but I think these are the main questions. Reporters should have these questions ready for Trump and others on the now rare occasions when they can ask them.


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

Beating The War Drums

National Security Advisor John Bolton still thinks that the Iraq war was a good idea. He has never met a war he didn’t like or a treaty that he did. Now, as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, he has a great deal of power to make war against Iran. Bolton has given speeches for the MEK, a cultish organization that wants regime change in Iran.

Trump pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, Iran deal) a year ago, under the fiction that his great deal-making skills and “maximum pressure” would force Iran into a deal where they would change their government, stop supporting Hamas, end all nuclear work, and, probably, build a Trump Tower Tehran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has listed twelve points that Iran must meet to become a good world citizen in his eyes. Presumably, as in the case of North Korea, Iran must meet all those points before sanctions will be removed.

The JCPOA covers the possibility of Iran’s making nuclear weapons in full detail. Iran is complying with the agreement. But that’s not enough for a faction in the United States and Israel who opposed the JCPOA from the beginning and have continued to agitate for withdrawal from it. Read more