A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion)

I have lifted this comment by B Swiger on my article about War porn into its own post because he cogently and from the heart expresses views I have heard dozens of times while writing 38 articles on the war over the past five years.  Thank you, Swiger, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.   Here is what he says; my answer follows.

And how may I ask Fabius is your view of the war in Iraq arrived at?  Are you there?  Were you there?  Are you someone like Ricks who claims to be an expert on the military yet to my knowledge has never humped a ruck and 16 in his life?

You’ll pardon me for taking your “opinions” with a grain of salt.  Moreover, please pardon me for respecting the opinion/s of those on the ground with the grunts as opposed to those of someone half a world away.  What Yon and Totten do to a degree is show the war at the level it should be seen.  Small unit.  That is where it is fought and that is where it is won.  As for the analysis these mil-bloggers add to the mix what is your issue?  They are there.  You are not.  It would seem to me that analysis based on first hand accounts is far more accurate then analysis based on second, third, fourth, etc.

Let me give you a bit of advice Fabius.  As I sit here in my comfortable chair re-learning how to type with seven fingers (the other three were lost during the month of November 2004) I know in my heart that in Iraq there are good guys and bad guys.  Yes in many ways it is that simple.  On what do I base this simplistic opinion?  One month before I left the suck for good I had the distasteful privilege of searching for the right hand of a beautiful 12 year old girl.  It seems that just 20 minutes or so prior to the arrival of my squad and I the little girl had been “relieved” of her hand by an overzealous member of JAM.  Her offense?  From what we could gather from her parents some mid-level muckity muck in Jaish Al Mahdi had seen this little girl take a candybar offered to her by some lowly Marine Lance Corporal just two days prior.

Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.

You see sir…at ground level…at grunt level…we see the good and bad.  And, yes it is simplistic.  Because war at the ground level…grunt level is simplistic.  How simple.  Easy.  How about the war will be over when any man or woman who would cut off the hand of a little girl because she took a candybar from a stranger is either dead, in jail, or to fucking scared to stick his head above the radar. Yeah, it’s simplistic but….it is what it is.

There is much material here, so I will take it in bullet points. Let’s start with where we agree.

What Yon and Totten do to a degree is show the war at the level it should be seen.

Agreed!

 

As I said in this post, “Also, however one-side the reporting, war bloggers provide a valuable first-person account of the war from the perspective of America’s troops.” Also note the section at the end, “Update: another reason the war-bloggers provide a valuable perspective”. In More views of the events at Basra (1) – experts I quote Jonathan Foreman’s “Long-Distance Reporting“ post at National Review Online:

On the other hand there’s something impressive about reporters who may never have never visited Basra – the country’s second city and an hour’s flight away — sounding authoritative about the place and its atmosphere.  This is mainstream reporting on the Iraq war as it has evolved. It’s why the Michaels Totten and Yonare so important, and the milblogs, and the Iraqi blogs like Healing Iraq. 

2.  “Are you someone like Ricks who claims to be an expert on the military” 

The subject here, as it says on the masthead, is geopolitics.  That overlaps somewhat with the military arts, but is a very different thing.  Please notice that my 7 specific concerns all describe mostly non-military aspects of the war.  Who is fighting.  Refugees.  Basic services.  Politics and government.  America’s national interest.

3.  “As for the analysis these mil-bloggers add to the mix what is your issue?  They are there.  You are not.  It would seem to me that analysis based on first hand accounts is far more accurate then analysis based on second, third, fourth, etc…”  

I disagree.  While the opinion of those on the front lines deserve respect, a general stands behind the lines to direct a battle — on the Feldherrnhugel.  Put less grandly, people on the spot are valuable sources of data, but from there one sees only a small piece of the war.  More distance is needed to see the overall course of  a war (General Marshall worked from Washington) or even a “clash of civilizations” (FDR was also in Washington).

Also, personal involvement often results in a lack of perspective and objectivity.  That is why we have players and score-keepers, executives and accountants.  This division of labor is essential, and does not diminish the standing of the people on the front line.  Both viewpoints, the close and the far, have advantages.  The key is melding them to make a greater whole.

Given the above points, and that Swiger’s remaining points are procedural (no mention of my 7 specific objections), could this is be just a misunderstanding?  The remainder of this post is basic material, which someone of Swiger’s experience surely knows.

4.   “I know in my heart that in Iraq there are good guys and bad guys.”

Does anybody doubt this?

5.  “Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.”

What is the point of this vignette?  Does Swiger act on his moral certainty when in the States?  Will he expect sympathy from the police, DA, and Judge when caught?  Let’s rewind to the preceeding paragraph.

On what do I base this simplistic opinion?  One month before I left the suck for good I had the distasteful privilege of searching for the right hand of a beautiful 12 year old girl.  It seems that just 20 minutes or so prior to the arrival of my squad and I the little girl had been “relieved” of her hand by an overzealous member of JAM.  Her offense?  From what we could gather from her parents some mid-level muckity muck in Jaish Al Mahdi had seen this little girl take a candybar offered to her by some lowly Marine Lance Corporal just two days prior.

Does Swiger believes this experience gives him the wisdom and knowledge to sort the splinters of Iraq’s peoples into good guys and bad guys?  When he learns of the similar acts done by other militias, how will he rank their relative moral weight?  Considering the blood that has been shed by all sides, that seems a task best left to the Iraq people (or God). 

I know in my heart that in Iraq there are good guys and bad guys.

Perhaps.  Putting this feeling into action on a large scale – determining the fate of thousands or millions of people — is more problematic than shooting an individual.

Moral certainty appears in both sides of the debate about the Iraq War.  Maureen Dowd said that Cindy Sheehan’s loss of her son gives her “absolute moral authority.”  (I have talked with Gold Star mothers, and their stories are heart-rending.)  Swiger served in Iraq and paid a high price.  These sacrifices deserve respect, but do not grant insight about the fate of peoples (geopolitics).

Strategy is a cold business.  The passion desirable in a mother and necessary in combat is a dire handicap in geopolitics.

6.  “You’ll pardon me for taking your “opinions” with a grain of salt.”

No pardon needed.  These are difficult matters about which opinions inevitably will differ, and nobody has a corner on the truth.  All we can do is respect those with different views, discuss these issues, and hope to together find a course for America that leads to a good future.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Update:  “mil-bloggers” or “war bloggers?”

Note that Swiger refers to “mil-bloggers” while I refer to “war bloggers.”  This phenomenon is too new for agree-upon definitions.  I use the definition of “milblogs” given by Major Elizabeth Robbins (US Army) in “Muddy Boots 10:  the rise of Soldier blogs“, Military Review (September-October 2007):

Military web logs, known as blogs or milblogs, are small websites that Soldiers maintain as informal journals for personal comments, images, and links to other websites.

Milblogs are a subset of the larger category of “war blogs”.  War blogs are written by a range of authors (serving, veterans, others), and often focus on the wider war — not just what Swiger aptly describes as a “grunt level” view.  I recommend reading Major Robbins article, which shows the new and unique contribution of milblogs in explaining modern wars to the people back home.

Update:  I corrected the title, which referred to the post under discussion as “War Bloggers” — instead of “War Porn.”

For more information on this topic

6 thoughts on “A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion)

  1. “Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.”

    Funny, I keep hearing everybody on every side of every conflict claiming to be the good guys.

    “The British are greasing the cartridges with cow and pig fat. We’ll kill them. That makes us the good guys.”

    “The savages threw live children into the well at Cawnpore and suffocated them under a heap of corpses. We killed those Godless animals. That makes us the good guys.”

    “Just as soon as Chancellor Hitler gets power, he’ll invade Perfidious Albion. That makes us the good guys.”

    “We’re saving lives by nuking Nagasaki. That makes us the good guys.”

  2. Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.

    Of course. We all feel the same way, and Mr. Swiger’s comment should drive home to all of us that this is not some academic exercise, that Iraq is a serious situation with life-or-death consequences for lots of people.

    How about the war will be over when any man or woman who would cut off the hand of a little girl because she took a candybar from a stranger is either dead, in jail, or to fucking scared to stick his head above the radar. Yeah, it’s simplistic but….it is what it is.

    Eloquently put, and I totally agree. But five years after our occupation, and more than three years after Mr. Swiger’s injury, there is still no Iraqi government capable of ending the atrocities of the various militias. The Iraqi police forces are not able to or are not willing to investigate and prosecute crimes like the one Mr. Swiger describes. Given this, should America continue with our current policies — which come at some cost, as Mr. Swiger notes?

    These are the questions that Fabius addresses, and they are political questions that concern every American.

  3. I think Fabius addressed this quite well. There is the forest, and there are the trees. Being able to tell them apart – but also being able to positively identify them – is important. Annoying as their slant may be, I have no doubt that Totten and Yon honestly report what they see. That is to say, I don’t assign them any mendacity. But when Totten, for example, reports on “victory” from Fallujah, and all his pictures are of dirty, desperately poor people in piles of rubble, and half his stories are about how the Marines don’t much like the police and the police don’t much like the people, it’s tough to see that generalized into the victory conditions so many on the Right see just over the horizon.

    But that’s one example. Totten is surely the least of these, and his reporting contains (I’ve noticed) the most honesty about the limits of his observations. He doesn’t strike a high moral note, and he doesn’t gratuitously bash people for reading his dispatches and coming to different conclusions — quite unlike some other warbloggers I won’t name here.

    Anyway, the main point here is perspective. I’ve noticed in dispatches coming from within military circles, one gets a highly distorted view of what operations mean: a predator strike might seem like a high-tech wonderland of futuristic warfare from the JOC, but at the blast site some kids just lost daddy to the American farangi, and their social code demands justice in some way. Like it or not, warfare today is far more complicated than simply killing bad guys, and remembering that is deeply important. Death cannot be the only answer, because in many of these conflicts death has not been the only (or last) answer — and we can’t make it so through more killing.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Here is an example of what Foust describes: “The Final Mission, Part II“, Michael J. Totten (3 Feburary 2008):

    “FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now,..”

    Note the photograph that leads the story. Rubble. To paraphrase what Tacitus said of Rome: “They made a desert, and called it victory.”

  4. Update added to this post:

    Note that Swiger refers to “mil-bloggers” while I refer to “war bloggers.” This phenomenon is too new for agree-upon definitions. I use the definition of “milblogs” given by Major Elizabeth Robbins (US Army) in “Muddy Boots 10: the rise of Soldier blogs“, Military Review (September-October 2007):

    “Military web logs, known as blogs or milblogs, are small websites that Soldiers maintain as informal journals for personal comments, images, and links to other websites.”

    Milblogs are a subset of the larger category of “war blogs”. War blogs are written by a range of authors (serving, veterans, others), and often focus on the wider war — not just what Swiger aptly describes as a “grunt level” view. I recommend reading Major Robbins article, which shows the new and unique contribution of milblogs in explaining modern wars to the people back home.

  5. Just because Swiger lost some fingers in a futile military operation doesn’t mean he has any a more important opinions than anyone else. If a foreign army were occupying my neighborhood, anyone I saw fraternizing with them would get at least their hand cut off.

  6. Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.

    Of course. We all feel the same way, and Mr. Swiger’s comment should drive home to all of us that this is not some academic exercise, that Iraq is a serious situation with life-or-death consequences for lots of people.

    How about the war will be over when any man or woman who would cut off the hand of a little girl because she took a candybar from a stranger is either dead, in jail, or to fucking scared to stick his head above the radar. Yeah, it’s simplistic but….it is what it is.

    Eloquently put, and I totally agree. But five years after our occupation, and more than three years after Mr. Swiger’s injury, there is still no Iraqi government capable of ending the atrocities of the various militias. The Iraqi police forces are not able to or are not willing to investigate and prosecute crimes like the one Mr. Swiger describes. Given this, should America continue with our current policies — which come at some cost, as Mr. Swiger notes?

    These are the questions that Fabius addresses, and they are political questions that concern every American.

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