Category Archives: army

urination distraction

i wrote a piece for the sunday guardian on the controversy about us marines urinating on the taliban. see the piece here. here is a post on duckofminerva that continues in a similar vein.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.
Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.


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video games, army recruitment, and urinating on the taliban

A video of four US marines urinating  on corpses in Afghanistan, allegedly members of the Taliban, caused much out-cry last week.  (see video, if you must )The marines were  apparently aware that they were on camera. The act has been described as “outrageous”, “sick”, “utterly deplorable” and “inhuman”; some have argued that it is a violation of human rights and the marines should be punished.  The marines have been questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, though are not in custody.

The mass emotional mobilization effects of video footage notwithstanding, why are we so outraged by this act?

In 2005, for the first time since 1973, the American military met all if its recruitment goals.  The success, at least in part, can be attributed to the release of a new video game, America’s Army,  and two graphic novels, Bravo Zulu and Knowledge is Power aimed at America’s youth. Knowledge is Power depicts a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows that it is wrong to be “worried about bein’ here.” The release of America’s Army was accompanied by the setting up of a 14,500 sq.-ft arcade or ‘Army Experience Center’ in a Philadelphia mall, filled with simulators and shooter video games.  According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

Prospective recruits were sold the idea of joining the military by likening real life armed combat to a video game simulation. The strategy is particularly successful, intentionally so, with younger people, who are lured in by the video game imagery.  Colonel Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army’s office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea of using America’s Army;  he argues that “It’s designed to give them an inside view on the very fundamentals of being a soldier, and it’s also designed to give them a sense of self-efficacy, that they can do it…  You don’t have to think what it would look like — you can see what it looks like.”

( see 2009 article in Christian Science Monitor; see also An article in The Washington Post from 2005)

But,  surely real life battlefields are surely different from the ones in America’s Army.

The video game imagery helps prevent thinking about the nature of the ‘enemy’ – that they are people, with desires, hopes, grievances, family, history –  a story. Rather, in the video game there is just the nameless, faceless, ‘bad guy’ representing evil, and the sole objective of the gamers  is to destroy the enemy; no gamer  would ever question the video game programmer about why the ‘bad’ guy deserves to be destroyed. The video game imagery also highlights the camaraderie between the good guys, the importance of sticking together and cooperating with one another. It encourages aggressiveness  and a trigger-happy mentality. It conveys a sense of  bravado and machoism derived from seeking and destroying the enemy. The use of video games is critical for the military – it enables them to recruit teenagers and young adults, psyche them up about waging war, de-personalizing their acts in the battle field, and removing questions ethical questions about the legitimacy of the war itself, the specific mission aims, or the means employed to achieve those aims.

The Wikileaks video which shows US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians in 2007 perhaps exemplifies  the video game mentality. When the lead helicopter opens fire, “Hahah, I hit’em” shouts one of the American crew; the other crew member responds, “ oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”. When one of the men on ground is wounded and starts crawling, a crew member is heard wishing for the man to reach for a gun so there would be pre-text to open fire – “ all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” (remember the wikileaks video of american soldiers opening fire in iraq)

Why then is it so surprising that the marines urinated on the Taliban corpses? The idea of the army has been to sold to them as a video game, precisely to remove any nagging ethical or moral doubt these fighters might have when on the battle field. In America’s Armies or the popular Gears of War, it would surely would not be objectionable if the good guys urinated on the animated figure of the enemy.

To those who argue that the marines should be punished, it is worth considering whether  individual culpability or responsibility applies in such a situation. Can individuals be held personally responsible when their actions are an extension – even if an extreme one – of the manner in which they have been trained? They have been recruited, if not trained,   to think about the ‘enemy’ as nothing more than an object that should be destroyed; this facilitates the aggressiveness and one-track mentality that helps win wars.

It is also worth noting that last week was the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, despite all Obama’s promises. As long as Guantanamo exists, the American soldier is part of a larger culture that permits or turns a blind eye to the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of suspected, but not proven, terrorists. Guantanamo violates international law every day that it continues to exist; what began as as emergency measure under Bush, has now become a permanent fixture of indefinite detention, abuse and torture under Obama How is it that we are outraged by the manner in which a corpse is treated, but say little about how the living are treated?

( see this piece from Slate – The Great Gitmo blackout)

Finally, consider the number of comments that accompany the you tube video, applauding the soldiers. Steven Clemons is right – ‘Whether many want to admit it or not, what those soldiers allegedly did represents “us” today — and that’s yet another part of the malignant manifestation of these current conflicts.’

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aimless spending…

It has been three weeks since my last blog entry, ooops. Holiday season.

Obama last week announced changes to the US defence strategy. Among other things, the new defence review mentioned a cut in conventional military forces, and a focus on the Asia Pacific – read, China. The announcement led to much editorial/op-ed activity in India. Many noted that India is right to increase defence expenditure and others  that Delhi has been caught sleeping, and must wake up to the new strategic reality in its neighbourhood. ( see article by C. Rajamohan). Will India strengthen relations with the US, to become a key economic and security ally – as Washington hopes? Or, will it remain aloof under the name of non-alignment? ( see Harsh V Pant piece) How will it accomodate the rise of China, with its sea of pearl strategy? And, as few relations are purely  bi-lateral, India’s response to these questions will also shape its relationship with  the Middle Eastern states. If India becomes the strategic ally that Washington hopes for, to what extent will it tow the washington line in its relations with Iran? All these questions suddenly seemed to have received  much attention since Obama’s new defence review.

And, the answer to all these questions, it would seem, is yes, lets keep increasing military budgets.

Foreign Policy’s top story to watch out for 2012 was Indian military spending.A study released by the Deloitte consulting firm last summer noted that “India’s defense spending is growing significantly and at an unprecedented rate…. India is becoming one of the largest military spenders in the world, with the third-largest defense procurement budget in Asia.”  The study highlighted that the country is “expected to spend nearly US$100 billion on military procurement during the current five-year plan (2007-2012) and US$120 billion in the following five-year plan period (2012-2017).”

A few points.

The US defence strategy, at least as it stands, is not that new. The strategy speaks in general terms – ‘rise of china’ ‘american dominance’ ‘Iran threat’ ‘strategic ally’ etc. But, it does nothing to specify – who is the enemy/ why are they the enemy… More than anything else, it seems to suggest a  change in tactics – counter terrorism, not nation building, drones, not boots on the ground, rather than a grand ‘strategy’. The idea seems to be that America should be prepared ( over prepared, even), in the event of any and all strikes. ( see al jazeera video report)

India seems to suffer from a similar problem. A lack of strategy, and no  clear articulation of threats. ‘Threat from China’ ‘Regional Balance of Power’ etc.  are phrases that are thrown around all the time. But, these are just ideas – in themselves they will not cause armed conflict. We need to specify the exact pathways through which any of these are a potential threat. Only through such specification can we devise strategy. And, as Chinese military theorist, Sun Tzu noted,  tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

China,with its so called string of pearls, had a plan, and the expanded military helped execute the plan. But the strategy came first. We are going about it the opposite way. Just military, not strategy. Military capabilities have to be converted to strength,  and conversion requires strategy (and leadership).

Such increase in spending seems pointless as long as we continue to be plagued by a lack of strategic thought.Yet,we surge ahead.

India has been noted, and criticized, for its lack of political leadership on defence, derived from its doctrine of strategic restraint. The lack of political leadership in defence matters persists even today.

Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue
‘ India has been one of the biggest importers of advanced conventional weapons in the last thirty years, but this sustained rearmament has not altered India’s strategic position. The armed forces push for modernization, but do not have the authority to mount the national campaign necessary for transforming the security condition of the country. Budget increases delivered by a rapidly expanding economy and access to western technology previously denied to India have led to optimism about Indian military power, but the dysfunction in India’s civil-military relations reduces the impact of rearmament. Arming without aiming has some purpose in persuading other great powers of India’s benign rise, but it cannot be the basis of military planning.’ ( read more here)

So, we are once again at the same spot – we decide to increase military spending, everyone jumps on to the band wagon, but none of this will mean anything without clear problem identification, identification of path ways and scenarios, and then a strategy on how to meet the expected challenged.

But, to define these, we should not fall back on realist vaccous terms such as ‘power’, ‘security’, ‘interest’ – these need specification. And the specification and answers to these questions is not just about capability – but about identity – about the kind of global power India seeks to be and what that means for how it orients its foreign policy. Without a clearly articulated idea of the role India sees itself playing on the world stage, it is difficult to even know when we have won or lost particular global policy battles.

Finally, given the dismal year it has been for governance in India,  countering the China ‘ threat/rise’ needs a multi-hatted strategy, key to which is surely governance and economy. Thats where we really need to catch up. Not military spending per se.

Cohen and Dasgupta also argues that the restraint is deliberate and reflects india’s belief in a benign international environment/ prioritizing development spending over defence/ commitment to non-violence in wake of colonial legacy. India has, they argue,  ‘ a remarkable preference for strategic restraint. Indian leaders simply have not seen the use of force as a useful instrument of politics.But, surely it is worth asking – why is this restraint a bad idea? Three neighbouring nuclear power states seems like reason enough for restraint. Moreover, India’s strength is its soft power, not hard power, something that we would be wise to capitalize on. (We should in fact try and sell the idea that force is not a useful instrument) But the past year has been marked by poor governance by UPA-II, petty coalition politics, with important policy debates amounting to little more than opportunistic opponent bashing by  our political leaders.

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india’s military buildup


…the number one story of 2011 on Foreign Policy.

India is now the world’s largest weapons importer, according to a 2011 report by arms watchdog SIPRI, accounting for 9 percent of the world’s international arms transfers — most from Russia — between 2006 and 2010. India will spend an estimated $80 billion on military modernization programs by 2015

But, how real/large is the China threat?


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November 29, 2011 · 10:39 pm