December 2016

The Purpose is Stasis

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00December 27th, 2016|Defense, Tech|

Well over a month since the 2016 election and more than two months since a public ODNI assessment of the matter (an organization which represents the combined views of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies), many people seem to be screwing up the Russia hacking story. For obvious reasons, Clinton proxies have hit the airwaves declaring that it was the linchpin upon which the election turned. For equally obvious reasons, the president-elect and his distressing parade of appointees have dismissed it as the work of conspiracy theorists. Adding to the chaos, disenchanted leftists and paid Russian shills have further stirred the pot of unreality, asking (in a baldly false equivalence) why Democrats should trust the same intelligence agencies that once led the United States to invade Iraq. As a consequence, the issue has become muddied. Only 55 percent of Americans are “bothered” by the hacking story, split almost wholly along party lines.

I want to lay down a few points that are, in my mind, abjectly true. Even before the election, I assumed these things were common knowledge. I realize too late they were not. Interspersed here will be my conclusions, based on the facts as I understand them.


January 2016

A Brief History of Too Much Violence

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00January 18th, 2016|Culture, Defense, Tech|

It was the image of a 7-year-old trauma victim, still strapped in his airplane seat after a 30,000 foot fall, which made me quit my work for the night and go outside to gulp breaths of cold, crisp air. I hadn’t gone looking for the picture — I was doing research on the MH17 crash site — but it was one of the top results, and I habitually zoomed in for a better look. You could still make out the look of terror before explosive decompression had robbed him of his consciousness, hopefully the whole way down.

A few years ago, as talking heads fretted about the increasing photorealism of videogame violence, very few people were thinking ahead to how the web might abet the spread photos and videos of real violence. Yet here we are. In the mid-2000s, raw war footage and snuff films lived only in the dark corners of the internet: carefully guarded torrents and unlisted websites, frequented by a tiny minority of very sick people. Now, at the start of 2016, there’s at most two degrees of separation — a hashtag and a video link — between a funny-but-dumb BuzzFeed article and a choreographed ISIS execution. The worlds are gradually converging.


December 2015

Op-Ed Arrogance

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00December 8th, 2015|Defense|

I have always wondered what it felt like in Washington, DC in early 2003, as the U.S. military gathered like a storm on the Iraq-Kuwaiti border and the pro-war drum beat reached a fever pitch. I have also wondered how so many smart people were sold on a campaign plan that literally lacked a conclusion.

Unfortunately, I suspect the opinion polls in 2003 looked much as they do now. It is impossible to follow foreign affairs in the nation’s capital and not begin to hear the same distant rhythm: a drumming of op eds and “informed” analyses that suggest a swift Syrian campaign with five or ten or twenty-thousand U.S. soldiers. “Not that many,” they soothe. “Not that long — over before you know it.”

These 500-word war plans (I will not link to them) often read as if they were written by a Henry Kissinger birthday party impersonator, armed with a map, a paintbrush, and too much Vicodin. There are calls for a “Sykes-Picot II” — proposed divisions of Syria so haphazard that they might as well have been the result of a drinking game. References to “Sunni” and “Shia” (and, invariably, “Second Sunni Awakening”) are sprinkled liberally throughout, as if this is the only divide that matters in all the Arab world. There is typically no thought given to either Syrian political economy or Islamic thought. Remarkably, there is also little interest in understanding the enemy. The Islamic “State” is treated like a cohesive political unit; a Nazi Germany transplanted to the twenty-first century.

The answer to this black-and-white problem is invariably the application of American power. According to all these pundit-generals, Iraq and Syria have essentially become a Gordion Knot, their disentanglement tried and failed by any number of regional and international actors. This isn’t because the situation is intractable — far from it! Rather, with bold leadership (i.e. not Obama) and commitment (i.e. boots on the ground), the U.S. can solve Syria the same way Alexander severed that troublesome knot. Wham, bam, easy. Home in a month.

It’s not true, but it sounds very nice in a newspaper.


May 2015

What Is It Like to Live in a Nation at War?

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00May 25th, 2015|Defense|

Finally having the opportunity to ascend the Washington Monument yesterday, although all the views were beautiful, my eye was drawn to a photograph of the National Mall as it stood in 1942. Many of the parks and memorials were absent — in their place sat rows and rows of squat, ugly office buildings, clearly constructed in a hurry. This was the capital of a nation at war.

Because so much knowledge of World War II has seeped from the realm of fact to founding myth, we tend to forget that the war was total. From 1941 to 1945, civil society abruptly transformed. All of industry reorganized. Professional careers were put on hold — new professions were invented overnight. Consider that the ranks of the U.S. Army swelled from 200,000 in 1939 to 6 million by 1944. The war became a constant companion and steady topic of conversation. There was no avoiding it. As Lee Sandlin writes in “Losing the War:”


September 2014

A Truly Exceptional Nation

2016-12-28T21:37:55+00:00September 29th, 2014|Defense|

I’ve been struck, watching the steady stream of ISIS air strike footage released via U.S. Central Command these past few days, by the precision and global reach of the power on display. I’m sure this is exactly the message the U.S. military is trying to convey – but that doesn’t make it any less true. There really is no analogue to U.S. military capability in modern history. You have to wind the clock back – way back – to find an appropriate comparison.

What makes the current air campaign impressive or unique? Consider that the United States has now launched dozens of orchestrated, simultaneous attacks on ISIS hard targets across Syria, a region 6,754 miles away. It’s done so primarily via the USS George H.W. Bush carrier strike group, an armada of carriers, cruisers, and destroyers that no other military in the world can match.

We maintain eleven such formations. (more…)

Thirteen Years Later, We’re Still Fighting the 9/11 War

2016-12-28T21:37:55+00:00September 11th, 2014|Defense|

I was twelve years old when those two planes flew into the Twin Towers and turned the country upside down. 2,996 people were dead. More attacks seemed imminent. Jon Stewart cried on television. The United States was ready to fight back – but how? And against whom? It was a strange, confusing, and frightening time to be an American.

This  was the world in which my generation began its political education. It was like a switch had flipped, with all the rules suddenly reset and reshuffled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, the adults had little more idea what was going on than we did.

We invaded Afghanistan; we toppled the Taliban. We established a Department of Homeland Security and developed a vast, new intelligence apparatus to fuel it. We overturned some laws and rewrote many more.  In a national paranoia, we glued our eyes to a color-coded terror warning system and – when enough people said it was the right thing to do – we invaded Iraq.

We declared war on a vast, transnational network of extreme jihadi organizations. We launched thousands of drones into the sky and hovered them over isolated hamlets, seeking to kill terror at its source. We passed death sentences on Pakistani villagers from 7,500 miles away.

We did it all – continue to do it – so we can feel safe again.


January 2014

Dark & Doubtful: Movies of the Iraq II & Afghanistan Generation

2016-12-28T21:37:56+00:00January 17th, 2014|Culture, Defense|

I challenge you to find a chest-pounding, upbeat, pro-American movie about conflict released in the last five years. Cross out “pro-American” and I’ll bet you still can’t do it.

This thought occurred to me as I finally got around to watching Iron Man 3. Brash? Sure. Action-packed? Duh. But classic good-guys, bad-guys name-of-justice beat ’em up? Not exactly.

The “bad guy” is a shadowy, ubiquitous terrorist who turns out to be made-up. Our main character suffers from PTSD. The American government, completely in thrall of the military-industrial complex, is inept, indecisive, and vaguely sinister. The one “good guy” who fights under the Stars and Stripes spends the whole movie barging in on innocent Pakistanis. The real bad guys (a defense contractor) are staffed by amputee veterans of “some war in the Middle East.” Could the message be any Starker – or more cynical?


September 2013


2015-01-23T00:41:43+00:00September 11th, 2013|Defense|

Originally published September 11, 2013

In a broadcast following the attacks of 9/11, bin Laden began his statement with the following:

Let the whole world know that we shall never accept that the tragedy of Andalusia would be repeated in Palestine.  We cannot accept that Palestine will become Jewish.

By mentioning the “tragedy of Andalusia,” bin Laden referred to the bloody expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula by the Spanish and Portuguese.  The final Muslim kingdom fell in the year 1492.

Bin Laden believed the same thing was happening today to the displaced Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Since the formation of Israel in 1948, Palestinians had been pushed further and further from the lands they had inhabited for centuries.  Just as Westerners had conquered Spain, bin Laden thought the West was now in the process of conquering Palestine.