• Review: Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

    June 14, 2017 // 1 Comment »



    W.J. Astore, on Bracing Views, reviewing Hooper’s War. You can read the whole review at his site, but this paragraph sums up much of what I am trying to say in the book:

    Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.


    Buy Hooper’s War today on Amazon!


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    Power is No Substitute for Knowledge

    October 17, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    gigo

    I welcome guest blogger William Astore today, whose own blog, The Contrary Perspective, is always worth your time. Bill?


    Francis Bacon is famous for the aphorism, “Knowledge is power.” Yet the reverse aphorism is not true. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, yet its knowledge base is notably weak in spite of all that power. Of course, many factors contribute to this weakness. Our public educational systems are underfunded and driven by meaningless standardized test results. Our politicians pander to the lowest common denominator. Our mainstream media is corporate-owned and in the business of providing info-tainment when they’re not stoking fear. Our elites are in the business of keeping the American people divided, distracted, and downtrodden, conditions that do not favor critical thinking, which is precisely the point of their efforts.

    All that is true. But even when the U.S. actively seeks knowledge, we get little in return for our investment. U.S. intelligence agencies (the CIA, NSA, DIA, and so on) aggregate an enormous amount of data, then try to convert this to knowledge, which is then used to inform action. But these agencies end up drowning in minutiae. Worse, competing agencies within a tangled bureaucracy (that truly deserves the label of “Byzantine”) end up spinning the data for their own benefit. The result is not “knowledge” but disinformation and self-serving propaganda.

    When our various intelligence agencies are not drowning in minutiae or choking on their own “spin,” they’re getting lost in the process of converting data to knowledge. Indeed, so much attention is put on process, with so many agencies being involved in that process, that the end product – accurate and actionable knowledge – gets lost. Yet, as long as the system keeps running, few involved seem to mind, even when the result is marginal — or disastrous.

    Consider the Vietnam War. Massive amounts of “intelligence” data took the place of knowledge. Data like enemy body counts, truck counts, aircraft sorties, bomb tonnages, acres defoliated, number of villages pacified, and on and on. Amassing this data took an enormous amount of time; attempting to interpret this data took more time; and reaching conclusions from the (often inaccurate and mostly irrelevant) data became an exercise in false optimism and self-delusion. Somehow, all that data suggested to US officialdom that they were winning the war, a war in which US troops were allegedly making measurable and sustained progress. But events proved such “knowledge” to be false.

    Of course, there’s an acronym for this: GIGO, or garbage (data) in, garbage (knowledge) out.

    In this case, real knowledge was represented by the wisdom of Marine Corps General (and Medal of Honor recipient) David M. Shoup, who said in 1966 that:

    I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for. And if, unfortunately, their revolution must be of the violent type…at least what they get will be their own and not the American style, which they don’t want…crammed down their throat.

    But few wanted to hear Shoup and his brand of hard-won knowledge, even if he’d been handpicked by President Kennedy to serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps exactly because Shoup had a reputation for sound and independent thinking.

    Consider as well our rebuilding efforts in Iraq after 2003. As documented by Peter Van Buren in his book “We Meant Well,” those efforts were often inept and counterproductive. Yet the bureaucracy engaged in those efforts was determined to spin them as successes. They may even have come to believe their own spin. When Van Buren had the clarity and audacity to say, We’re fooling no one with our Kabuki dance in Iraq except the American people we’re sworn to serve, he was dismissed and punished by the State Department.

    Why? Because you’re not supposed to share knowledge, real knowledge, with the American people. Instead, you’re supposed to baffle them with BS. But Van Buren was having none of that. His tell-all book (you can read an excerpt here) captured the Potemkin village-like atmosphere of US rebuilding efforts in Iraq. His accurate knowledge had real power, and for sharing it with the American people he was slapped down.

    Tell the truth – share real knowledge with the American people – and you get punished. Massage the data to create false “knowledge,” in these cases narratives of success, and you get a pat on the back and a promotion. Small wonder that so many recent wars have gone so poorly for America.

    What the United States desperately needs is insight. Honesty. A level of knowledge that reflects mastery. But what we’re getting is manufactured information, or disinformation, or BS. Lies, in plainspeak, like the lie that Iraq had in 2002 a large and active program in developing WMD that could be used against the United States. (Remember how we were told we had to invade Iraq quickly before the “smoking gun” became a “mushroom cloud”?)

    If knowledge is power, what is false knowledge? False knowledge is a form of power as well, but a twisted one. For when you mistake the facade you’re constructing as the real deal, when you manufacture your own myths and then forget they’re myths as you consume them, you may find yourself hopelessly confused, even as the very myths you created consume you.

    So, a corollary to Francis Bacon: Knowledge is power, but as the United States has discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, power is no substitute for knowledge.




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    Shhhh… We’re Not Going to Talk About Afghanistan

    October 22, 2012 // 10 Comments »

    As another presidential debate drips into our laps, one thing is for certain: we’re not going to talk, substantively, about Afghanistan. Even though there is plenty to talk about.

    William Astore, in a HuffPo column, nails it:

    Both President Obama and Governor Romney prefer to praise the troops rather than to address the tragic consequences of continuing military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latter, when they’re addressed at all, are reduced to sound bites and homilies about the need to “stay the course” and “support our troops.”


    So what’s to talk about?

    Candidates, we have been at war in Afghanistan for eleven years, three times as long as World War II. What has the U.S. gained? If we have gained anything, have the gains been worth the costs in lives and money?

    Based on Afghanistan, what lessons have you derived that will inform your future decisions to invade/intervene/occupy other countries?

    You talk a lot about supporting the troops. Good for you. Very specifically, what are you planning to do to help veterans find employment, reduce suicide and get out of debt? For Obama, you’ve been president for almost four years. What, very specifically, HAVE you done to do to help veterans find employment, reduce suicide and get out of debt?

    John Nagl, who teaches at the Naval Academy and has been a strong proponent of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, defines “success” in Afghanistan in part as “maintaining our own bases in the region from which to operate drones, manned aircraft and Special Operations forces.” Do you agree with this? If you do, then does Iraq qualify as a “defeat” given that we have no bases there?

    If you accept/desire/support maintaining U.S. drone and special forces in Afghanistan indefinately, explain how this is anything but a prescription for endless war.

    The U.S. stood by as Afghan president Karzai stole the last election and installed a government that can be defined only as a kleptocracy. How has this benefited the U.S.?

    The war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan. The U.S. is engaged in combat there, via drones and special forces. Pakistan sheltered bin Laden for years. Define our relationship with Pakistan and your goals there, without using the word “ally.”


    Or anything else, just please talk about Afghanistan and the 2000 dead Americans there in any way you like other than tired bromides about “the troops.” I dare you.



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    Speaking Truth to Power

    March 22, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    (This article by William Astore originally appeared on Huffington Post)

    When you dare speak truth to power, the reality is that power already knows the truth, doesn’t want you to share it, and will punish you for your trouble.

    That’s the clear lesson from the State Department’s persecution of Peter Van Buren, who dared to tell the American people about the failures of Iraq reconstruction in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011). His “crime” was his unflattering portrayal of misguided and mismanaged U.S. projects in Iraq, from American books translated into Arabic that were never read to a high-tech chicken factory that never worked to sewerage systems that grew worse rather than better despite infusions of machinery and countless millions of dollars.

    Van Buren deserves a commendation for his honesty. A true servant of the American people, his cautionary (and often wryly amusing) tale should teach us that so-called nation-building efforts are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain. Even more: the resource-intensive, high-tech approach of U.S. government officials and private contractors is rarely well-suited for places like Iraq and Afghanistan, whose resource- and knowledge-base is less well developed, at least by American standards. Approaches that work, Van Buren suggests, are those that are better tuned to engaging and empowering the locals within specific cultural settings, an approach rarely followed by American “experts” and corporations, eager as the latter were to make a buck while trying to show quick results.

    My own experience with winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis was limited but illustrative of Van Buren’s conclusions. Back in 2004, an American official in Iraq contacted the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where I then worked, for help in translating a Peter, Paul and Mary song about tolerance. The idea was that Iraqi schoolchildren could be inculcated with a love of diversity, or at least a tolerance of the same, if they were taught the lyrics to this song. We engaged our Arabic translators, who quickly advised us that the lyrics to this touchy-feely American song would likely baffle Iraqi schoolchildren even when translated into Arabic. The American official at the other end of our conference call was very disappointed to hear that her bright idea to promote tolerance in Iraqi schools by translating feel-good anthems to diversity was a cultural non-starter.

    A great strength of Van Buren’s account is to show how we Americans delude ourselves into believing that our approach and our culture can be grafted successfully onto Iraqi and Afghan situations. Intentions may often be good but results are mixed at best because U.S. providers want to show rapid progress even as they’re encouraged to allocate resources as quickly as possible (often a formidable task, given the bureaucratic red tape involved). Can-do spirit is frustrated by the realities of contractor and indigenous greed, cultural differences, and the short-term mentality of American managers who rarely occupy the same position for more than a few months.

    Van Buren explains to us why the dedicated efforts of individuals like himself made so little difference in Iraq. His is a cautionary tale of waste, mismanagement, and hubris, one that should serve to discourage (or at least to inform) current efforts in Afghanistan.

    It’s not that our government doesn’t want to hear that message; the powerful already know how much we’ve bungled these “reconstruction” efforts. It’s that they don’t want you the American people to know how much they’ve bungled these efforts.

    Van Buren shines a light in places that many would prefer to remain dark. And that, sadly, is rarely rewarded, even less so today in an administration that’s determined to silence whistleblowers from all quarters.



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