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?

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.

Morning Brief: November 14, 2013

What I’m reading/thinking/writing about today. November 14, 2013.

Washington-bound for Defense One Summit, just a few developments I’ll be charting today:

  • Implications of U.S. State Departments classification of Nigeria-based Boko Haram / Ansaru as terrorist organizations. While Defense One reported on the importance of the action, citing increased US policy tools to confront and erode these group’s power, The New York Times’ Eric Schmidt warned that the designation might further legitimize both groups who are allegedly tied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
  • Boko Haram’s latest kidnapping victim might be a French priest taken from northern Cameroon, according to Reuters.
  • Questions re: the future of asymmetrical warfare (by land, air, and sea). Reflections from the summit.

Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the latest New York Times update on the Chevron/Ecuador case. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the impact of Chevron’s investment in Ecuador in a long-form narrative piece (published on this site.) Given the consequences of this case for environmental litigation in the global north and south, the article is worth a read.

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.