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April 06, 2010

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Unwinnable.

On the specific point, what Gen. M is saying is that soldiers at checkpoints think their lives are on the line, but they're wrong. That should be trainable.

I wonder what would happen if we let every shooting (whether it results in a fatality or not) that does not comply fully and precisely with the rules of engagement be prosecuted by Afghan authorities. Seems to me that this would be the kind of respect for the local community that actually wins hearts and minds.

I wonder what would happen if we let every shooting (whether it results in a fatality or not) that does not comply fully and precisely with the rules of engagement be prosecuted by Afghan authorities. Seems to me that this would be the kind of respect for the local community that actually wins hearts and minds.

I think you'd have the uniformed military up in arms, morale would tank, and there would be severe political blowback at home.

As is, there is a constant carping about politically correct rules of engagement, hands tied behind backs, etc. from conservative commentators, even though it is Petraeus, not Obama, preaching COIN. Or at least, it was Petraeus doing so first and foremost.

Though it is mentioned in (some of) the articles you linked, I'd like to stress two very significant points.

1. Initial Department of War press releases on these killing of innocent men, women, and children are always packed with lies.
2. The media always repeats these lies.

I think you'd have the uniformed military up in arms, morale would tank, and there would be severe political blowback at home.

Yeah, that's the problem with COIN. People would rather lose a war than do it right.

In the midst of his paranoid ramblings about cultural Marxism and channeling of dead Emperors, William Lind occasionally tripped over a useful insight, like his observation that cops usually understand COIN better than military personnel because COIN is more a matter of keeping the peace than of warfighting. Watching that Crazyhorse footage, I couldn't help but think of the contrast between it and similar footage on Cops, and what a difference the force protection mindset makes in community relations.

Whatever the ROE, our troops will continue to prioritize threats and act in accordance with their training as warfighters. What the US needs in Iraq and Afghanistan is a brigade trained as peace officers that put community safety above force protection, but I don't think that such a brigade could get past either the entrenched interests in the Pentagon or the US public cultural image of our cowboy military. It's too low-key and British colonial for our tastes.

Nous,

Do you think a brigade would be enough?

I'm thinking that such a brigade(s) would only be effective at a certain point in the conflict. Cops do well and good in terms of keeping the peace, but if they were being shot at and blown up by insurgents, they too might depart from more pacific ROE.

The Martinez piece roughly describes my reaction to the initial firing in that video, but he downplays the second firing incident that occurs (when they shoot at the minivan that is picking up the wounded or dead), which appears to have no possible justification, there is no threat visible and the vehicle is acting as an ambulance.

But I'm not outraged by that video because I assume that this kind of thing has been happening on a regular basis in Iraq & Afghanistan since the beginning. Helicopters with heavy weapons do not make for precise police work. People in the heat of action don't always make the right decisions, and when they're heavily armed making mistakes tends to get a lot of people killed.

It is a mistake to watch the video and think "We can fix this problem by finding and punishing people who do this kind of thing". This kind of incident is inevitable and while there appear to have been serious mistakes, it's not clear that what happened was even unusual let alone banned under the present rules of engagement. What the video should serve to do is show exactly what it is we are talking about when we talk about going to war. Unfortunately our media coverage of the war omits all gore and violence and (as elm says) always downplays any suggestion that US forces might have been involved in murder & mayhem, even though all armies engage in murder & mayhem; it's an inevitable consequence of going to war. We should understand that better and for all the flaws in the presentation of that piece at Wikileaks, the video itself tells a story of what war is like that I wish everyone understood before supporting a push to war.

Mostly, as I have been for years, I'm just looking at this situation and thinking "What the hell are we trying to accomplish?" Why are we in Iraq? Why are we in Afghanistan? Same questions, still no answer. Obama says this is an "essential war". Essential why? Because there is nowhere on the planet except Afghanistan where a few dozen idiots can get together to plan attacks on the US? Plainly not true. Because we need to support a friendly democratic government? Yeah, cause Hamid Karzai is both a democratic champion and our friend, right. Because we broke it and now we have to fix it? Point 1: it was broken when we got there, although we've certainly made it worse; point 2: if you do not have the ability to fix something, it's probably best to stop smashing it into even tinier pieces in your efforts to do so.

All this when the essential safeguards against another 9/11-type attack were in place by the end of 2001: armored cockpit doors, uncooperative passengers, baggage scanning, metal detectors, better use of profiling. Talk about your poor cost-benefit ratios, what have we gotten for a trillion dollars in Iraq & Afghanistan compared to the few tens of billions we spent domestically?

Not that I'm telling anyone anything they don't already know (or haven't already proven too reality-immune to ever learn). But.

The Martinez piece roughly describes my reaction to the initial firing in that video, but he downplays the second firing incident that occurs (when they shoot at the minivan that is picking up the wounded or dead), which appears to have no possible justification, there is no threat visible and the vehicle is acting as an ambulance.

JD, this is what Martinez says about that:

The point at which I cannot support the actions of Crazyhorse 18, at all, comes when the van arrives somewhere around 9:45 and is engaged. Unless someone had jumped out with an RPG ready to fire on the aircraft, there was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm from above. Might it have been prudent to follow the vehicle (perhaps with a UAV), or at least put out a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for the vehicle? Absolutely without question. Was this portion of the engagement even remotely understandable, to me? No, it was not.

I'm not sure that is really downplaying it.

Obama says this is an "essential war". Essential why?

The US election in 2012.

Not only the electioneering opportunities available to a "war President", but if Obama were to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, he would lose Bagram Airbase, which is the planned oubliette for the US kidnap victims who have been assessed as impossible to convict in any kind of of public trial, but impossible to release so long as Obama is resolute that the crimes of the Bush administration shall go unacknowledged and unpunished by his administration.

I'd like to think that Obama is simply continuing the war in Afghanistan because he sees ending it as a clear electoral loss, but given that he definitely planned to "close Guantanamo Bay" by expanding Bagram Airbase's prison camp and moving Bush's kidnap victims from Cuba to Afghanistan, that would suggest he sees Bagram Airbase as a nice safe space to keep them until he's out of office and what to do with these victims of the US's crimes has become the next President's problem.

"Downplay" might be too strong a word. I think he's basically pretty reasonable, but his immediate focus and most of the post is on his perceived problem with the Wikileaks presentation of the first shooting incident, specifically that they do not mention the weapons carried by several of the men. But the audio & transcript mention those weapons so I don't think the presentation is deceptive.

But the video itself has more emphasis on the first shooting, so maybe he's just reflecting that. I don't know, it's just when I watch it, I can sort of stomach the first incident, I understand how that happened, but the shooting of the van is something else. Maybe downplay isn't the right word, maybe he just responded to the first section of the video because that's what he saw first or that's where he saw a problem with the presentation, that's fine, I'm just saying when I watched it it was the apparent shooting-up of an unthreatening vehicle acting as an ambulance that was the most shocking.

Eric -- I was thinking brigade in the more general OED 2 usage, not in the very specific US military organizational sense. As far as scale goes I'd guess that it would need to be a separate branch of service altogether and that points to a major reorganization.

Also, I agree that prolonged hostilities make the ROE harder to maintain, but I think that training and self-selection of personnel could mitigate that somewhat. Grossman's 2% would continue to gravitate towards the Army and Marines but another group would likely embrace service with a dedicated peacekeeping force as an alternate sort of elite status and internalize a greater resistance to the use of force. The hardest thing would be having enough of them and keeping them rotated often enough to keep combat stress manageable and minimize the inevitable psychological trauma.

Nous: clarifications make perfect sense all around. At least to me ;)

I don't think that having an entire branch of the US military devoted to counterinsurgency is a very good idea.

Counterinsurgency is a tactic of military occupations, generally of colonial or imperial powers. Since we happen to be military occupiers right now in a couple of places, it's something we should try to do right in those cases at least until we can get the hell out of them. But a separate branch of the military would imply that we were expecting to conduct military occupations on a ongoing and continuous basis.

For all that COIN is probably the best strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan and the only one that might leave them in something like peace when we leave, it's best to keep in mind that only countries that regard other countries as subject to their will need this kind of capability. The US should not regard all other countries as subject to its will.

This argument applies somewhat to the conventional US military forces, but at least those have a fairly well-understood peacetime role as a deterrent. Don't attack the US or US interests or the ready forces of the US will response. But a COIN force would not have such a role - no leader is deterred by counterinsurgency since it only applies after the existing leadership is removed by conventional warfare. The only role of a COIN force would be as a permanent occupation force, and you can be sure they would be kept busy, because, hey, there are a lot of benighted places that could benefit from enlightened US administration, right? And we have this big COIN force just lying around idle...

nous: The hardest thing would be having enough of them and keeping them rotated often enough to keep combat stress manageable and minimize the inevitable psychological trauma.

That's some understatement.

You couldn't - you literally, physically couldn't run an occupation with both these "peace brigades" and ordinary shoot-first combat troops. Not unless the two divisions were wearing distinctly different uniforms and the "peace brigade" were as ready to defend Afghans against the predations of the combat troops as they would be against any other aggressors.

And as the latter idea is unrealistic - you'd really be looking at replacing - or duplicating - the entire US army with peace brigades: have the Pentagon become a Hexagon.

Now it's true you could probably pay for an additional US military force by cutting down on the rest of the industrial-military complex - after all, the US military already costs the US taxpayers more than double the entire military budget of Europe. cite But how many of the big military profiteers would willingly see a reduction in their profits just to ensure the US kills fewer foreigners and wins more wars?

Jacob and Jes - agree with your reasons against and on the cost. I'm arguing doctrine and training here -- not practicality. The political questions are by far the biggest ones to consider here and they all point to the reasons why we should not be engaging in nation building with our military. Fully embracing the demands of these situations remakes the US in morally unacceptable and fiscally unaffordable ways.

FWIW, that's the spirit in which I took nous' comments.

I would like to think that it's obvious that I would not endorse such massive expenditures, or foreign adventurism.

Fair enough.

Jacob, I agreed with pretty much everything you wrote but I'll have to dissent on this part:

It is a mistake to watch the video and think "We can fix this problem by finding and punishing people who do this kind of thing".

I'm pretty sure that our current plan of NOT punishing people is guaranteed to NOT fix the problem. More to the point though, we prosecute criminals even though we have absolutely no expectation of eliminating crime.

And I think we might actually fix the problem if we started aggressively prosecuting soldiers for murder. One way that might work out is that American soldiers would just refuse to (re)enlist because they were afraid of being prosecuted for murdering people. After a certain point, operations in Iraq are no longer sustainable and we pull out altogether. I guess that sucks for the soldiers who had to give up their dream job for a few years, but you know, protecting Iraqis from being brutally murdered seems more important the self-actualization of some soldiers. To me anyway. I imagine many people disagree.

This kind of incident is inevitable and while there appear to have been serious mistakes, it's not clear that what happened was even unusual let alone banned under the present rules of engagement.

Crime is inevitable in general but we still prosecute criminals. And I'm not seeing how shooting up the van is a mistake rather than a war crime. The van posed no threat. I was under the impression that destroying a vehicle full of civilians when it did absolutely nothing to indicate hostile intent is not permissible under the ROE.

It seems odd that no matter what happens, everyone, regardless of their politics rushes to protect American soldiers from responsibility for their actions. There's lots of excuse making (it's really their commander's fault or Bush's fault), which, you know, helps ensure that these incidents keep happening. I mean, as long as the Army requires you to fill out way more paperwork when a US soldier dies than when you annihilate a family, we should expect lots more family annihilations.

Turbulence: I'm pretty sure that our current plan of NOT punishing people is guaranteed to NOT fix the problem.

You're right and I basically agree.

But I guess what I was also getting at is that there is a practical problem in punishing people for this kind of thing, which is that the military, like all institutions, will attempt to cover up mistakes wherever possible. That's been demonstrated over and over again. And unlike other organizations, the military has no higher authority to answer to in the field of operations. It also maintains extreme secrecy, on top of which the chaos of the battlefield provides enormous opportunity to conceal mistakes or crimes. So there is a hard limit to exactly how accountable the military is ever going to be for things like this.

You're certainly right that if no punishment occurs for those few incidents that come to light, there will probably be more of them. But for everything we see, there are no doubt hundreds or thousands of similar cases that we don't see and never will.

But I'm not all that confident that the US military can be culturally changed to be less cavalier about loss of innocent life. From what I have read they have a reputation for being substantially less careful than other Western militaries. I don't know enough to say if that's true although it doesn't seem unlikely.

On top of that, they are incredibly heavily armed compared to all past armies, especially considering air support. I mean, these guys walking down the street were hit by a 30mm autocannon, a weapon designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles, not to be used for police work in an urban setting. As long as that's considered an acceptable level of force against combatants in an urban area, a lot of innocent people are going to get killed, no matter what controls you institute.

Jacob, good points all around. This does leave us with a conundrum though: the US military is institutionally incapable of following orders when it comes to not killing civilians (and prosecuting murderers). That would seem to suggest that deploying the US military is morally problematic. So can someone remind my why we entrust an organization that is institutionally incapable of following orders with so much power? Doesn't this seem...insane?

To put it another way, if everyone agrees that the military can't be trusted to investigate itself, why do they have nuclear weapons? Shouldn't you be capable of basic trust before you're entrusted with the ability to end civilization?

What the video should serve to do is show exactly what it is we are talking about when we talk about going to war.

My first reaction to this was "Exactly right".

Then, I remembered Gulf I, the first war to be broadcast on cable TV in real time. And I remembered all of the water cooler talk at the time -- all of the talk about the cool video of rocket hits, and Iraqis being vaporized live on TV. The ratings were freaking through the roof, Gulf I made CNN as a cable news channel.

Hell, Gulf I made cable news as an industry.

I also remembered a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago about some videos that a friend had circulated of more recent rocket assaults in Iraq. "Did you see the Iraqi guy's body go spinning away from the truck?"

The fact is that a lot of folks dig this sh*t. They think it's the coolest thing they ever saw.

If this is what war is, they're absolutely fine with it. They think it's splendid.

I also see a lot of online chatter about this particular video along the lines of "yes, it's brutal and it sucks, but that's what war is".

No sh*t Sherlock.

I've also seen a generous helping of "if you hang out with bad guys, that's what you get". Or, "The guy who is to blame for the kids getting hurt was their father, why the hell did he bring them into a battlezone".

It wasn't a "battle zone", it was his f**king neighborhood. He wasn't "hanging out with bad guys, he was trying to get a dying man to a hospital. Now his kids are shot up, he's dead, and his kids got to watch it happen.

What would make for a difference in attitude would be if this was their neighborhood, and not downtown Baghdad.

Even then, I doubt it would sink in.

We had 9/11, and we lost our freaking minds. People were given the option of jumping to their deaths from the tallest building in NYC, or being incinerated in a jet fuel inferno, and we got to watch them make that choice, live on the damned TV.

The one thing it did *not* make us, collectively as a nation, think is "Jesus, how horrible, let's never do that to anyone else". Not for one nanosecond.

We wanted revenge, and blood. We wanted somebody to pay.

The sick sad truth of the matter is that a lot of people think war is the bees knees.

Regarding the soldiers in the Crazyhorse video, I figure they're just doing their job and trying to get home alive. If you make the extra effort to find out if what they guy is carrying is a rocket launcher or a camera, or if the guy with an AK-47 is an insurgent or just one of 10,000,000 guys in the Middle East who happen to have an automatic rifle, you'll probably end up dead.

Just ask freaking Andy Olmsted.

War freaking sucks. People who see war as anything other than an utter calamity, to be engaged in only when you have no other choice, are pathological insane freaks.

And there are a lot of them.

The most insolent thing about the military's line on the Apache video is that the people on the ground are supposed to have just been engaged in an attack on Americans. They could hardly have been unaware of the Apache hovering in plain sight, what, a couple of hundred yards away? And yet they're standing around on the corner chatting.

What's wrong with this picture?

Russell, there are things that could be said one way or another about your comment, but - having quelled my FIRST reaction to it with some difficulty - the essential thing I need to say is:

Andy Olmsted asked us specifically not to invoke his death either for or against the war in Iraq.

I'd be happy to get into an argument with you about how the conduct of the Iraq war is killing US soldiers as well as Iraqis. But I can't do it if we're going to get specific about Andy, because (1) Andy asked us not to (2) It is actually still bloody painful to think of.

To summarize (and without reference to my previous comment): You're not allowed to kill civilians.

What's wrong with this picture?

SqueakyRat, I don't think the Apaches were that close. If you look at the scenes were the Apache cameras zoom out, they seem to be much farther away. Also, some commenter at Balloon Juice measured the time delay between when the gunners started firing and when the targets were hit. If you combine that with the 30 mm shell's velocity, you can estimate range. He estimated 1 - 1.3 miles. If the Apaches were that far out, that would explain the casual relaxed manner with which we see the journalists walking; these guys clearly had absolutely no clue they were on gun candid camera.

The one thing it did *not* make us, collectively as a nation, think is "Jesus, how horrible, let's never do that to anyone else". Not for one nanosecond.

Shoot, I couldn't even watch a violent movie/tv show for a few weeks/months. But then that WAS my neighborhood - I lived just a few blocks away.

Andy Olmsted asked us specifically not to invoke his death either for or against the war in Iraq.

You are, of course, correct. I had forgotten that, and I should not have.

To all, please accept my apologies.

I'd be happy to get into an argument with you about how the conduct of the Iraq war is killing US soldiers as well as Iraqis.

That's not an argument we'd need to have.

Much, much shorter me: I'd like to think that viewing videos like this would result in Americans having a greater appreciation for the real costs of war. Unfortunately, I don't think that's likely.

Again, my apologies to Andy and to all who knew him and care for his memory. I did not intend him disrespect, but I did forget his own explicitly stated wishes, and I offer my regrets.

Won't happen again.

First, I'd like to support Jesurgislac's comments regarding Andy, without bashing on russell. I still don't have the words for how Andy's death affected me, so I'm going to leave it at that.

To all, please accept my apologies.

Almost unnecessary, russell, but thank you.

Also, Turbulence's 10:08 comments regarding range seem to be about right. I thought that perhaps slant range would be displayed, and there's a number there that seems time-varying like slant range might be, but a mile seems to be about the right distance to account for the 2+ second time between gun fire sound and round impact. Probably that number that's hovering around 1000 the first time the gun fires is altitude, not slant range.

This is a system I've worked on from time to time, but I'm completely unfamiliar with the user interface.

Russell's primary point is depressingly correct: people think war is great stuff. Perhaps because most of us have never been anywhere near a warzone. Perhaps because of something primal. Perhaps it's cultural. All of the above.

But the truth is that a large % of people can watch a video like the Apache strike (I haven't) and think it's really cool.

I was in highschool during GW1. I thought it was cool. I've grown up since then, but lots of folks don't.

Much, much shorter me: I'd like to think that viewing videos like this would result in Americans having a greater appreciation for the real costs of war. Unfortunately, I don't think that's likely.

I agree, and I think the problem is (judging by comments about CNN news during the Gulf War) that people are reacting to the news like it was a video game.

I found the TV news intolerable during the Gulf War, and switched to radio, precisely because I could not take the war-as-video-game news.

For many people, though, it evidently just made it easier to think of war as a fun game.

PS Seconded Slart's comments - I figured that was what had happened, but.

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