Monday, May 25, 2009

# Posted 10:17 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JUST MARRIED! In several hours, I'll be on a flight to St. Kitts for my honeymoon. Sue and I were married yesterday. We were honored to have my mother preside, in her capacity as rabbi. These words were read at the ceremony before the traditional Jewish wedding blessings or sheva brachot:
Ultimately there comes a moment when a decision must be made. Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take…It is indeed a fearful gamble…Because it is the nature of love to create, a marriage itself is something which has to be created, so that, together, we become a new creature.

To marry is the biggest risk in human relations that a person can take…If we commit ourselves to one person for life this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation…

It takes a lifetime to learn another person…When love is not possession, but participation, then it is part of that co-creation which is our human calling, and which implies such risk that it is often rejected.

--Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season
Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

# Posted 12:53 PM by Patrick Porter  


Just following on from Ken’s excellent post, a question

The courts of liberal societies might increasingly decide that its armed forces have identical human rights as civilians. Will this not make our ‘way of war’ increasingly brutal?

If the welfare of troops becomes a litigious matter, where risk, accident, injury, or mistakes under pressure that endanger one’s own combatants are now deemed intolerable, militaries under pressure will act to protect themselves. They will do this, possibly, by transferring risk onto the foreign populations they fight amongst.

War is never without risk. It is a question of how that risk is managed and distributed. As Martin Shaw once warned:

‘…in minimising the risk to its own combatants, the West consistently adopts methods of war that effectively transfer risk from its own personnel to civilian non-combatants, so that far more civilians are killed, injured and otherwise harmed than Western military personnel. In any situation where the question of priority rises, the West is likely to put its own soldiers’ lives before those of civilians.’

I don’t therefore say that society should be blind to gross incompetence or neglect. But neither are we entitled to ignore the effect of a risk-averse military living in the shadow of courts. Its not hard to imagine officers on a remote frontier being confronted with the choice of risking their women and men in a dangerous assault on a town, say, or indiscriminately blitzing that town for fear of an inquest.

Given the inherent chaos, confusion and incomplete knowledge that comes with war, and the increasing intolerance of this in our media-political world, who is to say confidently that any mistakes will not be punished?

And this is not just an abstract fear. As Israeli officials have acknowledged, in its recent conflict in Gaza, the IDF was under strict instructions to use overwhelming force in order to minimise its own casualties. This is a dynamic that the judicialisation of warfare can encourage. It is not ultimately a triumph of civilian ethics, but a small prod towards indiscriminate warfighting. War amongst the people, indeed.

Cross-Posted at Kings of War
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Friday, May 15, 2009

# Posted 10:39 AM by Patrick Porter  

AJAX IN IRAQ: Classical Greek tragedies, particularly those about traumatised and mentally wounded war veterans, are resonating for American soldiers returning from Iraq:

To 1st Sgt. Stanton Brown of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, watching a performance of the play last week in a bar on an Army post, the plight of Ajax is a story from his own life: In January, he lost his best friend, a man under his command, to suicide two months after their return from Iraq. It was the dead soldier’s third deployment in five years. Like Ajax, Brown says, “he had been so stressed for so long.”

The ancient drama addresses a most contemporary problem: the psychic damage of war. Amid the military’s stepped-up effort to combat post-traumatic stress and suicide in troops that have been through multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the performance is designed to provoke soldiers into greater awareness of the emotional toll on themselves and their families…

‘We’re calling it PTSD now … but it’s timeless,” Gen. Kevin Mangum tells the audience of brigade commanders and their spouses. “Ajax’s ego drove him to his ‘divine madness.’ … I know a hell of a lot of Ajaxes out there.”

There is a clue to why these tragedies are so appealing:

About three-quarters of soldiers who have post-traumatic stress have not sought help for it, fearing it will hurt their military career, he says. In some ways, seeking help is counter to Army training, he says. “We’re taught self-sacrifice,” Engel says. “It’s a value. Part of self-sacrifice means you learn to ignore your own needs at times.

Ajax’s “divine madness” reminded Capt. Christopher Tramontana of his own: the day he was in the Fort Drum motor pool about two months after returning from Iraq and heard a fleet of Humvees fire up their engines. “They have a very distinct motor sound,” Tramontana says. “That brought back everything.” He was panicky until a sergeant told him he could ride in a different truck if he preferred.In an effort to remove the stigma of needing help, he says, he has told his support maintenance company that he has post-traumatic stress disorder.”The Army’s putting a lot of focus on it now,” Brown says, “but why did it take 2,500 years for us to say this is a real problem?”

In other words, the plays show that the soldier’s psychic distress is not the symptom of an unmanly modern condition, but is an old affliction that happens to warriors across time. For those who worry that naming the problem will hurt their careers, Ajax names it for them. Like the best tragedies, it is not about solving problems but about facing them. The insipid and therapeutic language of our time, of ‘closure’ and ‘moving forward’, doesn’t do the job nearly as well.

So big congratulations to Bryan Doerries and Respect-Mil for helping soldiers so intelligently.

Cross-posted at Kings of War.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

# Posted 5:40 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE COUNTERINSURGENCY READING LIST: Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) has just updated his counterinsurgency reading list. It's a great resource.

The list begins with three items that Andrew identifies as absolute essentials for anyone studying counterinsurgency. Two of them are relatively short (but excellent) articles. The third is David Galula's classic treatise from the 1960s, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.

I recently took a second look at Galula, which I first read before my stint in Iraq. It is an excellent book, but also one with some definite shortcomings. These flaws have little weight compared to the books merits, but I think they are essential to point out nonetheless.

In his book, Galula constantly emphasizes the importance of the insurgents' cause. He argues that counterinsurgents can co-opt the cause, but doesn't seem to believe that the counterinsurgents can offer a truly unique cause of their own that has the potential to galvanize public support. In the French colonial context, this may have been correct. What could the French truly offer Algerians or Vietnamese who truly wanted their own sovereign state more than anything else?

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation is fundamentally different. One of the central premises of our counterinsurgency efforts is that we can offer the population true self-government, whereas the insurgents clearly reject democracy as inherently illegitimate. Of course, there are serious debates about the extent to which promoting democracy in either Afghanistan or Iraq is plausible, but there is a serious debate to be had.

On a different note, Galula argues that the size of the counterinsurgency force should be ten to twenty times larger than its adversary. This is surprising, given Galula's emphasis on securing the population as the essential objective of counterinsurgency. In that regard, the new US Army manual on counterinsurgency emphasizes that the size of the force depends on the size of the population it must protect, not the size of the adversary's force.

Finally, Galula is more fond of centralization than perhaps he should be. If you look at Andrew's excellent list of Galula quotes, you will notice this one:
"Clearly, more than any other kind of warfare, counterinsurgency must respect the principle of a single direction. A single boss must direct the operations from beginning to end."
Galula also writes that:
The insurgent can afford a loose, primitive organization; he can delegate a wide margin of initiative, but his opponent cannot.
In contrast, the Petraeus approach to counterinsurgency is to delegate a tremendous amount of authority to brigade-level commanders. Perhaps this is the right approach in Iraq, but not elsewhere. Yet Galula might not consider it at all.

I think it's right to hold up Galula's work as a classic in its field, perhaps the most important work on the subject in its generation. At the same time, it is worth approaching even the best work with a critical eye, lest we become too enamored.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

# Posted 11:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL, DON'T PREPARE TALKING POINTS: On Sunday morning, national security adviser Jim Jones didn't want to be asked about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". This past week, President Obama sent a handwritten letter to 2nd Lt. Sandy Tsao, who is leaving the Army after disclosing that she is a lesbian. Obama wrote Tsao, "It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I am committed to changing our current policy."

On Sunday, Gen. Jones did his best to avoid saying anything about the administration's policy, even to reiterate the President's own pledge to Lt. Tsao:

JONES: So it's a complicated issue. It will be teed up appropriately and it will be discussed in the way the president does things, which is be very deliberative, very thoughtful, seeking out all sides on the issue and trying to ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if the president is against the policy, why not suspend prosecutions and investigations while that review continues?

JONES: Well, maybe that's an option that eventually we'll get to but we're not there now...


JONES: We will have long discussions about this. It will be thoughtful. It will be deliberative. The president I know will reach out to fully understand both sides or all sides of the issue before he makes a decision.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it will be overturned.

JONES: I don't know. We'll have to - the president has said that he is in favor of that. We'll just wait - we'll have to wait and see - as a result of the deliberations and as a result of the - in the months and weeks ahead. We have a lot on our plate right now. It has to be teed up at the right time so - to do this the right way.
When the President says he is committed to something, the national security adviser isn't supposed to say "I don't know." Was Jones surprised to hear about Obama's letter to Tsao? Did he think the White House had begun to back away from its commitment? Some opponents of Don't Ask Don't Tell have been critical of the White House's efforts to quietly change it's website in order to back away from Obama's commitment.

So where do I stand on all of this? I've never served, so I don't really know what enlisted troops think about this issue. But I've worked with troops and have always been impressed by their professionalism. My best guess is they won't have a problem working with openly gay colleagues who are equally committed to the mission. As a matter of principle, that is the right way to go.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 10:20 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

McCAIN AND GITMO: WHICH SIDE IS HE ON? John McCain also promised, if he were elected president, to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. So now that Republicans are attacking Barack Obama for closing Gitmo, which side will McCain be on? That was the question Sunday morning

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me also ask you about Guantanamo. You saw that [Gen. Jones] and I talked about that. And you and President Obama share the same goal where you both say that Guantanamo should be closed. You and the president share the same goal on the enhanced interrogation techniques.

Yet, especially on Guantanamo right now, it appears that there has been rising opposition to the Congress -- to this, what appears to be a necessity, that some of these detainees are going to have to come to the United States.

So how do you work with President Obama to meet the goal that you both have set?

MCCAIN: Well, I don't know how you walk it back to the initial announcement. To announce you're going to close Guantanamo within a year, and not have a comprehensive package for how you address these issues that understandably have arisen...

What should have taken place, in my view, was the announcement of the closing and an announcement of exactly how we're going to put these people on trial. The Military Commissions Act that Senator Graham and I originally proposed is clearly what they are returning to...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That key group, the 50-100 [detainees], are probably going to have to come and be detained here in the United States, correct?

MCCAIN: I don't know what they're going to do. Because...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Would you be opposed to that?

MCCAIN: I would certainly be -- would -- well, I don't know if I would be "opposed" to it, because I would probably want to judge them on a case-by-case basis. I understand the local objection. And senators and congressmen objection to saying, here are some people that we're just going to dump onto the community.

But we could have avoided all of this if there had been an announcement of the closure of Guantanamo and the process for resolving the cases of people who are detained there, whether you release them, whether you ask other countries to take them, what the process for trial is, what the process of those that you just discussed who are "enemy combatants" but you can't convict.

That is a terrible mistake. Announce the closure, but don't address the underlying problems that a lot of us have been wrestling with for years...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So relax the deadline, no January deadline?

MCCAIN: I would relax -- I said I wanted to close Guantanamo, but I also said I wanted to address all of the issues. So I never set a deadline. But so, no, I wouldn't set a specific date until I had resolved all of the issues surrounding the detainee question, including a military commission that would be appointed and authorized to address some of these cases.
No question, President Obama generated a lot of goodwill toward the United States by promising to close down Guantanamo. But you do have to wonder, did he have a plan for getting the job done? And if the prison doesn't close down, the goodwill won't last forever.

Cross-posted on Conventional Folly
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Monday, May 11, 2009

# Posted 7:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS PROGRESS EVAPORATING IN IRAQ? Gen. Petraeus explains the situation to Chris Wallace:
WALLACE: There is also growing violence in Iraq, amid signs that the Iraqi government is dropping some of the counterinsurgency tactics that you introduced into Iraq. Jobs programs in Sunni areas are — are being ended. The Sunni "Awakening" — these are Sunni forces that are fighting Sunni insurgents — some of those units have not been paid for most of this year.

Are we giving back — is the Iraqi government giving back some of the gains that we worked so hard to establish on the ground in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, I don't think it's accurate to say that the "Sons of Iraq," these Sunni "Awakening" forces, have not been paid this year. There is drama and emotion with every single payday, but the vast majority of these "Sons of Iraq" have been paid during the pay periods.

There's another one ongoing right now. Inevitably, names are lost, mixed up, or what have you. But over time, we feel quite comfortable with what the Iraqi government has done in taking care of these "Sons of Iraq" and on taking them all now onto their payroll rather than being on ours.

The level of violence, actually, has been roughly about the same for the last five or six months, which is quite significant. It has averaged between 10 and 15 attacks per day for that period, which equates to a level of violence not seen since the late summer of 2003 before the insurgency and well before the militia activities accumulated that led to, at one time, 160 attacks per day in Iraq in June of 2007. What we have seen and what is troubling, certainly, has been the incidence of sensational attacks, if you will, high-casualty-causing attacks. Particularly, we saw these in Baghdad a few weeks ago.

That did prompt a number of attacks with Iraqi conventional and special operations forces, together with our forces, to go after the reemerging networks of Al Qaeda.

We should expect that Al Qaeda will continue to try to reestablish itself in Iraq, even as the focus of Al Qaeda's senior leadership appears to have shifted away somewhat from support of the activities in Iraq.
I think Gen. Petraeus is right to focus on the overall number of attacks the insurgents are able to launch. That is the best indicator of whether the insurgency is gaining strength as a military and political force. And that number has remained stable.

At the same time, high-casualty suicide attacks create a perception of insecurity far out of proportion to the damage they cause. One might say that April was an especially bloody month in Iraq, with twice as many civilian fatalities as in January or February. On the other hand, the remarkably low casualty levels in January and February may just have been just a winter lull, since that's when the insurgents tend to be least active. Compared to any of the last six months of 2008, April was pretty typical in terms of violence.

The insurgents have made America pay attention recently with headline-grabbing attacks. As both sides know, "If it bleeds, it leads." If the insurgents continue to commit atrocities at that pace, it will represent a significant failure in terms of security. But explosions and headlines are at best a lagging indicator of the political changes that really matter. My best guess is that Gen. Petraeus is telling the President the same thing.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:41 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A film that got positive reviews from 95% of the critics hardly needs any help from me. But I thought it was notable that a few prominent critics disliked what they saw.

Now, it's never much of a surprise when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker turns up his nose at popular fare. But I could've told you that Star Trek wasn't the work of Jean-Luc Godard (not to be confused with Jean-Luc Picard).

More surprisingly, Robert Ebert of the Sun-Times also weighed in against the film. His main objection is that there's too much fiction, not enough science. Yes, we all know time travel is impossible. But couldn't the film have tried a little harder to deal with black holes realistically?

Sure, there were moments during the film when I had to work a little harder to suspend disbelief. But that's pretty much par for the course. Mostly, I was enjoying myself tremendously.

Ebert also observes that whereas the Star Trek narratives of the golden age "might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, [these] have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action." This is a more substantive point, and it one that is driven home in much greater detail by John Podhoretz, whose review is the real reason I'm writing this post.

John contrasts the new film unfavorably with one episode from the original Star Trek series of the 1960s, in which Kirk & Co. travel back in time to New York City in the 1930s. Once there,
They encounter a beautiful pacifist social worker. Our hero, Captain Kirk, falls in love with her. They learn that she is supposed to die in a car accident, and that their arrival has spared her. Her survival, they discover, will set in motion a series of events that will keep the United States out of World War II, which will allow Hitler to get the atomic bomb first and take over the world.

Since they saved her, do they now have to kill her? What else can they do to set things right? Setting things right was the secret to the appeal of the original Star Trek...

What was (and is) remarkable about "City on the Edge of Forever"--aside from its implicit assault on the anti-Vietnam-war movement, which would be unthinkable today--is the Hobson's choice it presents its characters. Some things can't be repaired. A seemingly humanitarian act, the saving of a single life, will lead to the deaths of millions.
Unquestionably, time travel is not employed in the new Star Trek film to ponder moral or philosophical questions. Yet without giving away too much about the plot, the film does provide a very interesting take on the relevant question of terrorism. The villain, Nero, is very clearly a terrorist, acting on his own, in order to wreak bloody vengeance in retribution for perceived injuries inflicted by the Federation.

The film is hardly a doctoral dissertation in political psychology, but I'd argue that Nero's motivations take us far beyond either the left-wing or right-wing caricature of terrorist motives. ("It's a natural response to poverty and repression" vs. "They hate us for no reason at all").

So if you haven't seen the film already, go out and buy a ticket. How exciting is it? Put it this way: even my fiancee stayed awake to the end, which is about as surprising as it gets.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Saturday, May 09, 2009

# Posted 2:10 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MEA CULPA -- MORE ON GLADWELL AND GIRLS BASKETBALL: There has been quite a backlash against the story by Malcolm Gladwell that I praised on Thursday.

Perhaps the real lesson is this one: Woe unto him who cites Malcolm Gladwell as an authority on any subject without some serious fact-checking first.

Most of it has focused on Gladwell's profound misunderstanding of basketball and reckless generalization about basketball strategy based on the example of one junior girls team. Rush the Court explains:
Gladwell completely misses the mark on this one - the full court press as a strategy works great when you’re dealing with 12-yr old girls whose teams are generally all at roughly the same skill and confidence levels (i.e., not very good), but as you climb the ladder and start to see the filtration of elite talent develop in the high schools, it actually becomes a weapon that favors the really good teams, the Goliaths, more than that of the underdogs.
This point is similar to my earlier comment (second from the top) that even if Gladwell is seriously wrong about basketball writ large, the success of the 12-year-olds in his story illustrates how underdogs can exploit the unspoken rules of any game -- whether it's basketball or guerrilla warfare -- when the overdogs are trapped by their own assumptions.

For more commentary, check out these posts by Chad Orzel and Steve Sailer. And there's more here and here and here.

But what if Gladwell is completely wrong even about the 12-year-old girls in question? One commenter suggested that the story of Vivek Ranadive's team is simply false, because one of the girls was a actually a ringer who went on to play college ball at Duke. So far, I can't find any validation of that. As Gladwell notes, one of the team's assistant coaches had played at Duke, but that's different than having a ringer. If anyone out can clarify the situation, please help me out with a comment and a link.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Friday, May 08, 2009

# Posted 12:28 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE ART OF WAR AND MIDDLE-SCHOOL GIRLS BASKETBALL: Malcolm Gladwell has unearthed another gem. It is the story of Vivek Ranadive, an immigrant from Mumbai who founded a software company in Silicon Valley. Mr. Ranadive volunteered to coach his 12-year-old daughter's basketball team. The girls on her team were not tall, were not good shooters and were not good at handling the ball. Mr. Ranadive had never played basketball before. He took his team all the way to the national championship tournament.

How did he do it? The same way that Lawrence of Arabia defeated the Turks with a handful of bedouins. Just read the story.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Thursday, May 07, 2009

# Posted 11:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OBAMA, HERALD OF CHANGE: In the words of the certainly-not-conservative Jeffrey Rosen,
Barack Obama is trying to split the difference on torture. He wants to move forward--no messy dwelling on the Bush-Cheney era--except that he'll look backward if forced. There will be no independent commission to hold top-ranking officials politically accountable. But, if Attorney General Eric Holder wants to prosecute the Bush lawyers who defended the legality of waterboarding--John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury--well, the president won't stand in the way.

What does Obama gain by this approach? For starters, he has delegated the hard choice to his subordinate--and has left himself room to maneuver once more if the political winds shift further.
At least he's living up to my expectations.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Monday, May 04, 2009

# Posted 3:33 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

US GOVERNMENT DROPS SPY CASE AGAINST AIPACers: Details here. For a solid look at the case's background, go here. Both pieces are the good work of Eli Lake.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 3:07 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BIDEN FORGETS TO RESTORE SCIENCE TO ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE: On Sunday morning, the White House sent out its swine flu truth squad to hit all the major Sunday talk shows, including Meet the Press, This Week and Fox News Sunday.

The truth squad was clearly desperate to avoid any questions about Joe Biden and his apocalyptic warning this week that no one should travel in trains or planes, lest they catch the swinte flu. On Meet the Press, David Gregory asked one question about Biden, but let Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano off easy, after Napolitano offered a non-apology apology, to the effect that Biden "immediately clarified what he meant to say." Or at least his office issued a clarification.

Chris Wallace was much more determined to force Napolitano & Co. onto the defensive. After getting Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to admit that Biden's warning was nonsense, Wallace finished up with this question:
WALLACE: So why would the vice president tell his family [not to travel]? Are we to believe that the vice president of the United States is a crackpot?

SEBELIUS: I think that each member of our country makes decisions about themselves and their family and about safety and security. What we're telling you is what the science says.
I guess that's a victory for science, although getting the truth squad to speak science to power was as hard as pulling teeth.

Now you might ask, why string up Biden for nothing more than the latest in his series of intemperate outbursts? Was Wallace just scoring points? Well, the Washington Post devoted a whole editorial to repudiating Biden's "misguided public health advice".

The fact is, Biden scared people for no good reason. Over the weekend, a very intelligent friend of mine anxiously asked a mutual friend of ours, a physician, if she should take Biden's advice and avoid travelling by air. The good doctor said no. Hopefully, anyone considering an abrupt cancellation of their travel plans will consult an export instead of Joe Biden.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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