It’s a paradox: Dominic Tierney’s political platitudes

One can almost picture Tierney offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But by whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?

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Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 6.06.20 PMI can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.

His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:

1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.

2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”* 

3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.

4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”

In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.

But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.

One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.

America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.

Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.

As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.”  And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”

I just wish he had tried.

*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.

The war tried to kill us… The majesty of The Yellow Birds

What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.

From the first line: “The war tried to kill us in the spring” to the final stanza, The Yellow Birds is an astounding work of literary fiction. Authored by soldier-turned-poet Kevin Powers, the novel traces the relationship between two men in arms (one of whom dies while serving in Iraq, the reader quickly learns) in life and death, into war, out of childhood, and throughout the troubling spaces in-between.

The novel’s prose, at once heartbreaking and captivating, allows The Yellow Birds to surprise the reader with the sharp beauty of a soldier’s fear, of their pretend fearlessness, and of the Middle Eastern terrain upon which the nightmare’s of our generation (and many others) have been borne. Where the book succeeds is not in its idolization of conflict, but its honest look at how violence defines the lives of those it courts.

“I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed,” Private Bartle, the book’s main character, says in an early passage after watching the platoon’s translator fall victim to a mortar strike. “I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

These moments, told with the earnestness of youth so exposed to the elements, is what gives Powers’ short novel such gravity —a force that pulls the audience in, towards, and dangerously close, to a conflict rarely spoken of in American households. Yet family, or the struggle to sustain family through wartime, is exactly where this book’s tension emanates.

For instance, a brief encounter between Bartle and Murphy’s mother leaves the reader to ponder how significant some passing words and sentiments can be. A promise to keep a friend safe spawns a sense of responsibility that only grows throughout the course of the novel. For Powers, though, building up and out of this promise (largely impossible to keep) gives the story legs —legs that limp towards the inevitable conclusion.

In an interview about the book, Powers discusses the power of fiction in the context of war. While straining to assert the book’s neutrality (it isn’t to be read as indictment or endorsement of the war in Iraq, simply a testament to the existence of that war), he said that fiction does have a unique ability to relate the details of conflict in a unconventional way.

“It is perfectly understandable that people become inured to the violence when it is presented to them in the same way for ten years or more,” Powers said. “Art will sometimes allow you to see the same thing in a new way.”

However, Powers’ deftest touch is saved for the inner monologues of Private Bartle. The intermittent reflections are presented as if to suggest some eternal convergence with the grand soliloquy of war.

“Maybe if things happened a little differently…” Private Bartle reflects. “But things happened the way they happened without regard for our desire for them to have happened another way.”

What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.

This admission of powerlessness is what military leaders cover up with badges and stripes, it’s the sense they physically shake loose when smacking their soldiers awake before each firefight. None of this takes away from the soldiers bravery, though. In fact, Powers’ words only strengthen that: to be courageous is to be afraid and commit yourself to duty in spite of that fear.

As the details of the Private Murphy’s death arise —late in the novel— the narrative twists, keeping the viewer enraptured as war forces its way into life at home. When Murphy’s death is deemed criminally curious to military investigators, Private Bartle is trapped under the final consequence of that small, passing promise made to Murphy’s mother.

The reader follows Bartle as he bears this punishment with steady control and calmness —as if the routine of prison pleasantly reminds him of combat boots and body armor, when his minutes and meals, miles and memories weren’t truly his own, either.

But the impact on the reader (or at least me) was profound: that justice (in some principled, practiced, way) doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, exist when war is involved. It wasn’t judicious that Bartle’s and Murphy’s translator was murdered (or that helping the US troops required the translator to wear a mask to obscure his identity and protect his family). It wasn’t judicious when the soldiers fired their bullets into the body of an old woman who drove a car down the wrong street at the wrong moment. It wasn’t judicious that, in seeking to protect the feelings of a friend’s mother, Private Bartle surely damaged the feelings and relations with his own. Powers show us that there is little, if anything, judicious about war and the places it touches.

But as the book pulls to a close, Powers leaves the reader with the final image: A body, now lost to time, being swept into the vast expanse of a Middle Eastern waterway. It is the return to the elemental, in the same way that the book’s title embraces the natural world, that strikes as most profound.

War, like the systems that it corrupts, seems a natural and composite element of our world. What it takes away, it never fully replaces. War shows no remorse, utters no apology, and strives only to satisfy itself. For in taking the lives of men (and women), it proves to be the ultimate predator.

Video: Seamus Murphy’s A Darkness Visible

In a part of the world few understand, and even fewer have thought to try, Seamus Murphy’s profile of Afghanistan is hauntingly beautiful, informative and well-worth the time.

In a part of the world few understand, and even fewer have thought to try, Seamus Murphy’s profile of Afghanistan is hauntingly beautiful, informative and well-worth the time.

War from the Front Row

In a world awash with images, even the most powerful can fail to draw attention. Even if that image is iconic, even if that image means or meant something more than pixels, more than a mere captured frame and a simple moment snapped in time.

No, an image that can be replaced may not be memorable, and it will neither raise the ire of society, nor silence the drone of apathy that threatens to lay waste to the emotions that photographs were once thought to retain.

But what about a string of images, knit together in time, captured in high definition from the middle of herculean feats of resilience (on both sides) in a bloody war with no end in sight and no peace in hand?

It is the power of the moving image – saved for our, and future, generation’s eyes on the memory cards of a Danfung Dennis’s Canon 5D – on display in Dennis’s Hell and Back Again.

This documentary, similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, places the viewer in the way of bullets, palpably close to anxious armed forces, and deep within enemy territory in a documentary merited – rightly – for its portrayal of life, focusing on one US Marine, Nathan Harris, in and out of the war in Afghanistan.

Hell and Back Again accomplishes two important tasks. First, it casts off the protective lens often fastened between subject matter and viewer – particularly the bulletproof layer that separates the public from the sharp edges of war. Second, it demonstrates the human costs – not merely in lost limbs or lives (though it shows those, too) – that come with the soldier’s culture of conditioning; a conditioning which makes life without the threat of sudden death unbearably complex – where trips to collect groceries or ordering fast food can inspire fury without reservation.

No, Hell and Back Again won’t solve America’s war problem. That problem is as much political as it is strategic, and ideology is not part of this film, according to Danfung Dennis. Instead, Hell and Back Again contributes to a truth project destined to preserve for past, present and future veterans a document of battle, sacrifice and experience.

In Afghanistan in particular, where the war has drained the blood of too many groups, and where the effects – in final body count, wounded and long-term mental illness – won’t fully be appreciated for years to come, the fact that this project shows the stark realities of war makes it even more powerful.

“Taking the death and the injury out of war, is to take that emotional part out of the conversation.” said Ashley Gilbertson, an award winning photojournalist, about the policies that limit today’s war photojournalists.

Without historical documents to capture war as it is, Gilbertson, who was embedded with the marines in Iraq, believes that today’s veterans will feel robbed in 10 to 15 years.

“What they experienced in war, what they complained about experiencing at war, and what is so hard for them to manage,” he said, is that the public at home “can’t understand. It’s because we can never see how bad it actually gets.”

Yet, the rawness of experience, so wickedly conveyed through the short lens of the DSLR, shows us the depth of war, the reach of its trauma, and the human reaction to coping – and helping someone cope – with the damage war exerts on its subjects. This elevates Hell and Back Again to a plane far higher and more honest than projects of similar type.

It also captures an important universal truth.

“The act of combat is something which takes place between two defined moments,” said Gilbertson, “but war lives with families for generations.”

Thus, it is hard not to be shocked by the artistic beauty and careful attention to the crafts of photography and cinematography on display in Hell and Back Again. Yet it is the film’s careful translation of war’s lived experience that will leave most viewers wide-eyed.

Watch it:

A Night Talking Terrorists

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

Eric Schmitt’s signature graces the inside cover of Counterstrike, a 2011 publication with New York Times colleague Thom Shanker.

“We need to be lucky and good everyday,” said Thom Shanker, a reporter for the New York Times. Even though the United States hasn’t had a terrorist attack in 10 years, doesn’t mean we’ll be safe forever.

Mr. Shanker and co-author Eric Schmitt, also from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, discussed their book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Midtown Manhattan on Monday September 12, 2011 – one day removed from the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the Sept. 11 attack.

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

While the book contains insider notes on the workings and workers of the American intelligence and security community, it also paints a stark picture of U.S. preparedness on September 11.

“There were people in the Pentagon who were asking ‘al Who’?” said Mr. Shanker, who was shocked that state officials were unaware of  Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. This fact is made worse given that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker also discussed the propensity for President George Bush’s “capture of kill” anti-terrorism strategy to feed Al Qaeda recruiting networks, citing concerns expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US approach was increasing, not reducing, the ranks in terrorist organizations.

In response, the authors argued that a new deterrence strategy took form in 2003-2004 which focused on attacking what terrorists hold dear – issues of reputation, financial restitution and the security of terrorist networks.

To deter terrorists Shanker and Schmitt said that the new strategy demanded spreading responsibility across the government more broadly, while simultaneously stressing inter-operabililty between intelligence (and I.T.) frameworks, transparency amongst government branches and cooperation between sectors of the national security apparatus – most noticeably the CIA and the FBI.

The night’s more animated conversation and debate surrounded warrantless wire-tapping which prompted questions on liberty and security. However, this line of questioning led the Timesmen to recite persuasive evasions, instead of measured answers.

However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker did highlight technology as both a progenitor and salve of modern terrorism.

“The Internet is the ultimate safe haven for terrorism,” said Mr. Schmitt, as websites or forums provide the space for extremists to indoctrinate others, while the Internet’s online gaming communities, replete with its anonymous and atomized user experience,  are penetrated by terrorists transmitting coded information without detection.

The Internet also provides an opportunity for law enforcement to lay in wait for extremists to expose themselves, leading to identification and potential capture.

In writing this book, Mr. Shanker and Mr. Schmitt said they intended bring the challenges of anti-terrorism policy and practice into relief. It isn’t easy to quell the fires of extremism, but Mr. Schmitt admits that it is possible over time.

One method is attacking the narrative used by terrorist organizations.

As terrorism derives its strength from others sympathetic to their cause, this support is a function of controlling the narrative, (i.e. the way actors’ roles are understood in the world),

“The United States struggles with the ‘say-do’ gap,” said Mr. Shanker. By this, Mr. Shanker means that regardless of national security concerns which necessitate the presence of American troops abroad, their deployment – almost exclusively – in regions like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya makes them vulnerable to Al Qaeda’s argument: the West has waged war against Islam.

“The American narrative is hard to defend,” said Mr. Shanker.

Finally, as the discussion opened up to audience questions, Mr. Shanker’s expertise on the Washingston/Pentagon beat was put to use in the discussion of new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Shanker reminded the audience that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was selected to deal with Iraq, and stayed on to handle Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta, however, will have to wage war with the budget, said Mr. Shanker.

As economic trends have the potential to erode U.S. capacity fight terrorism, the question becomes, “how much security do you want to pay for?” said Mr. Shanker

In the night’s final response, the Times’ reporters took delicate jabs at the state of  U.S. politics.

“Washington can’t take two big ideas at the same time,” said Mr. Schmitt.

Unfortunately, and as Counterstrike demonstrates, the ‘big ideas’ do not have simple solutions. Particularly when national security is the subject of debate.