Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Soldiers escorting trucks carrying concrete “T-Walls” (Source)

Gertude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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FICINT: Imagining our own destruction

This blog is becoming a shill for great podcasts.

During this episode, Mr. August Cole discusses fictional intelligence (or FICINT) and how it can help leaders understand emerging concepts such as the cognitive warfighting domain. August observes that plausible fictionalized future scenarios which are rooted in academic research communicate to leaders and decision makers better than do white papers and powerpoint slides. He also emphasizes the importance of experimentation and stress testing ideas. One of August’s primary goals with his writing is to use FICINT and narrative to prevent strategic surprise.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #33 Cole on FICINT and the Cognitive Warfighting Domain

When I read Ghost Fleet, it scared me. Future war is terrifying.

But it also motivated me to work, and to keep working to get ahead of some of the challenges it prophesizes.

Ghost Fleet is a work of “FICINT” or “fictional intelligence,” a play on the other “INTs” of the intelligence community (SIGINT, HUMINT, etc.).

One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report is that we suffered from a failure of imagination. FICINT offers a way to imagine future threats, and then, hopefully, prepare for them.

This was a great episode. Things that stuck out below:

On writing about a “Crimea-like” unconventional warfare campaign waged by the US (Underbelly).

“What rules would US and allied forces break in wartime? When you go back in history, it’s quite clear that norms and rules are broken in every single conflict, like unrestricted submarine warfare in the 20th century – so what’s the equivalent of the 21st century? Is it going to be breaking down all the barriers of data access?”

Returning to the idea of “what rules are we going to break,” Cole empahsises the point that we can use FICINT to start thinking through these problems now.

“The more time we can invest in understanding the ethical, legal, operational, and doctrinal implications now, the better chance we have to make those decisions as carefully as a country like ours needs to during a large scale conflict.”

The podcast wraps up with Cole recommending listeners read Agency by William Gibson. Gibson, for the uninitiated is the author of Neuromancer, which is the inspiration for much of the “cyberpunk” genre of fiction.

I haven’t read either (yet), but Cyberpunk 2077 is up next.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

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Sniper-baiting: “The oldest trick in the book”

MGS1-Snake-Sin

This is essentially one of the nightmare scenarios that opponents of women in the infantry use to deflate the argument. In a mixed infantry, the argument goes, (some) men will be unable to control themselves when their female comrades are in harm’s way. Their masculine protective instincts will kick into gear, and they’ll be unable to perform their soldierly duties properly.

Somehow, Solid Snake manages.

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The Soldier-Warrior Dynamic in Metal Gear Solid

I’ve recently been replaying the Metal Gear series after completing MGSV:TPP. I’ve always been a Metal Gear fan, but this was the first in the series I’ve completed since Metal Gear Solid on Playstation. I decided I would go back through the series (by order of release) to completey unpack the smart, complicated, and often absurd story.

Over the past two weekends, I finished the original two Metal Gears for MSX and then moved on to Metal Gear Solid. While reading through the SPECIAL files that recap the events of the first two games, I came across this narrative of the final words exchanged between Solid Snake and Big Boss.

IMG_0154

And the surivivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.

Since I’ve been writing a lot about “warriors” lately, this stuck out in my mind as odd. Plus, I had literally just finished Metal Gear 2 and I was fairly certain Big Boss didn’t use the term “warrior,” but instead opted for “soldier.”

IMG_0160

Here’s the conversation referenced:

And the survivor will live out the rest of his days as a soldier.”

Granted, these are both translations from Japanese, and it would be interesting to know what word was in the original script. I don’t even know if there is a distinction between “warrior” and “soldier” in Japanese, so it might be inconsequential.

Still, I think it is interesting to see how even back in 1998, when Metal Gear Solid was released, there seems to be a shift in terminology, where “soldier” gives way to “warrior.” This is before the Army began using “warrior” in any official or widespread way.

There was another part of this conversation that piqued my interest, though. Big Boss, in explaining the raison d’être for both him and Solid Snake, says the following:

IMG_0157

“It” being a place to fight, a place to be “warriors.”

That quote reminded me of this quote by former Special Forces Major(Ret) Jim Gant:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

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A different take on that “Millennials and War” poll

Millennial Soldier

You likely already saw the poll released last week from the Harvard Institute of Politics regarding millennials and their thoughts on ISIS and military service. To summarize, 60% of young Americans (18-29) now support sending US troops to combat ISIS on the ground, and just about the same percentage (62%) says that they would be unlikely to serve in the event the US needed more troops for that fight.

It sparked a debate online in the military sphere and much of that debate manifested itself with military folk displaying indignation that a bunch of hipsters (that’s how I read millennial) want the military to go fight ISIS, but aren’t willing to go do it themselves.

This idea gets veterans worked up because it fits neatly into the continuing trope that there exists this “warrior class” made up of the “less than 1%” that does the nation’s dirty work while the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd critiques them from the sidelines.

The difference here is that for the first time (as far as I know) the latte-sipping, man-bun crowd actually supports direct ground combat against someone.

At the heart of the discontent is the fact that a generation of Americans could be willing to send American troops to war but not willing to serve themselves in that same war – a concept that feels foreign to American values.

What has been lost in the debate is the fact that this poll, in a strange way, validates the all-volunteer force as a concept. This is the first generation of Americans that grew up outside of the shadow of Vietnam, and instead under the warm blanket of “shock and awe,” Call of Duty, and Zero Dark Thirty. All of the conflicts this generation has seen came completely through electronic screens,  fought by an all-volunteer military with very little asked of them. They’ve seen the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Years upon years of war, fought by someone else.

This is a generation that not only feels comfortable sending the military to fight wars they are not personally interested in fighting, it is the only thing they know – it is the norm.

We have created exactly what we sought to create – a specialized, professional military filled with volunteers who want to serve, and a populace that feels comfortable using it.

Instead of getting upset about it – because really, there’s nothing you can do – shouldn’t we be celebrating it?

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