September 4, 2015
Make War, Not Love
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Nick Turse
While America does send mere boys into combat, one hopes the slightly older boys leading them would have already discovered many of these truths. Likely as not, military fans have embraced Kilcullen’s 27-plus-1, because it is a short read in the always-popular checklist format.
More interesting than anything in Kilcullen’s new book is what it says about the topics on the table for the military crowd and what publishers like Oxford University Press, which sent the text into the world, think is important about the Afghan War. Counterinsurgency is in. War-fighting handbooks are in. Gimmick covers designed for the warzone are in. Analysis about whether to fight such wars, investigation of the true costs of war to those most affected, plans to end bloody costly wars: all definitely out.
The Pentagon Printing Press
Kilcullen, now freelancing “in the board room, the battle space, and anywhere in between” (according to his company’s website), represents one militarized segment of this overwhelmingly pro-war, or at least anti-antiwar, publishing trend. Another party responsible for beefing up the numbers when it comes to books on the Afghan War is the military itself.
Over the last year, the Pentagon’s own publishing arms have been printing up a storm. Take Afghanistan Counterinsurgency and the Indirect Approach, released earlier this year by the Joint Special Operations University—a Pentagon professional school designed to meet the “specific educational needs of special operators and non-SOF [special operations forces] national security decision makers.” It is just one of the many monographs pouring off Pentagon presses that investigate various aspects of COIN and related concepts with an eye toward improving U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan. In the book, Thomas Henrikson, former Army officer and now senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, conducts a historical analysis of the “indirect approach” to COIN. (In other words, when Americans partner with, or rely on, local forces to carry out U.S. wars abroad.) And guess what? He thinks it’s exactly the way to go, so long as it’s done with “thoughtfulness,” and so he advocates for more of the same in the years ahead.
Another Joint Special Operations University monograph on COIN concepts published this year, Joseph Celeski’s Hunter-Killer Teams: Attacking Enemy Safe Havens, analyzes past efforts at “hunter-killer operations”—long-term lethal missions conducted in enemy safe havens designed to out-guerrilla enemy guerrillas. Celeski, a retired colonel who spent 30 years in the Army and served two tours commanding special ops units in Afghanistan, offers a hunter-killer survey of history ranging from brutal American colonial efforts against Native Americans to the ruthless anti-partisan warfare of Nazi jagdkommandos during World War II. While he’s at it, he can’t help cataloging a sordid history of soldiers making war on noncombatants in the name of counterinsurgency.
You would think that, given the lineage of hunter-killer operations and where they always seem to lead, Celeski might suggest that they are ineffective in a COIN environment, where “hearts and minds” are key, and a sure road to war crimes and civilian suffering. Not so. Instead, he advocates the creation of new, specialized “hunter-killer” units within the U.S. military. And on the ground he’s in good company, it turns out. At this moment, according to the New York Times, Afghan War commander Petraeus is threatening (more) cross-border ground operations into Pakistan and “greatly expanding Special Operations raids (as many as a dozen commando raids a night).”
War—What Is It Good For?
A marketplace filled with books by former military men devoted to tweaking, enhancing, and improving war-fighting capabilities cries out for some counterbalance. This year’s foremost civilian-authored text on the conflict in Afghanistan is, without a doubt, Sebastian Junger’s War. While nothing like the antiwar texts of the 1960s and 1970s that laid bare the folly and terror of American campaigns in Southeast Asia, War still offers a rare glimpse of the horrors that authors like Celeski, Henrikson, and Kilcullen tend to skip over or discount.
Early in his book, Junger recounts a Navy SEAL’s admission that the only thing that stopped him from executing three unarmed Afghans was concern about the press catching wind of the murders. A page later, he writes of an American attempt to take out a mid-level Taliban leader in Chichal, a village high above Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, that killed 17 civilians instead. The military responsible for training that elite fighter who felt unconstrained by the laws of war and the men who called in the air strike on Chichal is the very one Kilcullen and various Pentagon minds think can carry out kind-COIN.
As a book, War suffers from many of the pitfalls that afflicted its movie companion, the documentary Restrepo. The overly ambitious title belies the fact that it is not about “war,” but one aspect of war, combat, as experienced by U.S. Army troops in Korengal Valley. Moreover, there’s a dismaying amount of combat-friendly hyperbole and celebratory rhetoric in and around the book, from the publisher’s book-jacket prose labeling combat “the ultimate test of character”—a theme that buzzes through the entire book—to a famous chapter-leading quote by George Orwell or Winston Churchill (Junger refuses to decide which) that tells us we all “sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Unfortunately, as the last century showed, too many “rough men” were all too willing to do the bidding of leaders like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Suharto, Brezhnev, Johnson, and Nixon, to name just a few, to the detriment of many millions who ended up dead, wounded, or psychologically scarred. All of this suggests that perhaps if we stopped celebrating “rough men,” we could all sleep easier.
That said, there is much to be learned from Junger’s in-print version of Americans-at-war. His blow-by-blow accounts of small unit combat actions, for instance, drive home the tremendous firepower American troops unleash on enemies often armed with little more than rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Page after page tallies up American technology and firepower: M-4 assault rifles (some with M-203 grenade launchers), Squad Automatic Weapons or SAWs, .50 caliber machine guns, M-240 machine guns, Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers, mortars, 155 mm artillery, surveillance drones, Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 Spectre gunships, A-10 Warthogs, F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers, B-52 and B-1 bombers, all often brought to bear against boys who may be wielding nothing more than Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles—a state of the art weapon when introduced. That, however, was in the 1890s.
The profligacy of relying on such overwhelming firepower is not lost on Junger who offers a useful insight in regard to another high-tech, high-priced piece of U.S. weaponry, “a huge shoulder-fired rocket called a Javelin.” Junger writes: “Each Javelin round costs $80,000, and the idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable.”
But “almost,” as the old adage goes, only counts when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades. And bombs dropped by B-1s, like one unleashed at night near the village of Yaka Chine, are certainly not hand grenades. Junger chronicles the aftermath of that strike when U.S. troops encountered “three children with blackened faces … a woman lying stunned mute on the floor [while f]ive corpses lie on wooden pallets covered by white cloth outside the house, all casualties from the airstrikes the night before.” He continues, “The civilian casualties are a serious matter and will require diplomacy and compensation.”
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