Permissible Arms

No Pity: A Strategic Analysis of “Harry Brown”

Posted in united kingdom by Karaka on 8 July 2010

Continuing from a guest post I’m pleased to announce over at On Violence (read “No Remorse” here, and many thanks to Eric and Michael for letting me contribute!), here’s some more analysis of the Michael Caine film, “Harry Brown.” Spoilers ahoy.

One of the things that so fascinated me about “Harry Brown” was that it acts as a potential allegory for small force action. I doubt this was purposeful–the intent seems to be more focused on vigilantism with the twist being the protagonist’s age and past–but nonetheless it serves the idea well.

The terrain is the Elephant and Castle housing estate in South London, whose population have been affected and harmed by the gang of young men who operated from the pedestrian underpass on the estate. The gang are insurgents, largely jobless young men who have engaged in violence and crime, who terrorize the inhabitants of the estate for amusement and to generate fear that offsets their chances of being reported on to the police. The police are conventional force, attempting to intervene on the estate but are held back from action by the laws of the country, including entrapment laws. And Harry Brown is the small force actor, or singular actor, mobilizing against the insurgents with more freedom than his counterparts in the police.

Brown, by being a small mobile force with a less restrictive engagement strategy, can effect change within the structure of the gang itself both by the use of violence and threats but also by manipulating insurgents into compromising themselves. This action allows for the destabilization of the internal structure of the anti-state gang, while also providing an avenue for the conventional force to engage with the overall system and take advantage of the destabilization to uproot the gang’s membership.

Brown starts with the member of the group with the least power–Marky, the young man he snatches–to gather intelligence. Marky, being the newest member of the gang, has less overall loyalty to the gang and can be compromised more quickly. He’s then turned into collateral for the gang itself, though not for any specific exchange and more to draw out higher-ranking members of the gang so Brown can identify and target them.

But Brown is undercut when a crucial piece of intelligence isn’t revealed until after he has already begun to act against members of the gang–there is an exterior force supplying the gang with means, opportunity, and authority. That would be Sid, the pub barkeep, who is gang leader Noel’s uncle. Sid is a foreign supplier of aid and instruction, making the gang more powerful because of his influence. Thus Brown has two targets: Noel, the leader of the gang, and Sid, the supplier of the gang.

At that point Brown is overwhelmed. His capability is disproportionate to the capability of those two actors together. But again, that is where the conventional force of the police comes in, to back up Brown as part of an overall containment operation.

However, Brown’s involvement in the destabilization of the gang itself, which acted on the estate and which the conventional force could not initially counter, is the operator who builds an inroad of which the conventional force can make use. The small force actor pressurized the situation; the conventional force shut it down.

Admittedly this is imperfect–Brown’s actions weren’t really acknowledged by the police force, and were only marginally sanctioned in Hicock’s nod that Brown was doing them a favor. And likely had the police force not been involved in quelling the riots, Brown would not have known about Sid’s influence over the gang through his nephew Noel, thus opening the door for the gang to return with new membership. Furthermore, the film describes state actors on criminal citizens, where those citizens are not bent on an overthrow of the state but merely thwarting its control.

But nonetheless I think this film has merit for its depiction of small actors against unconventional enemies, working in tandem with conventional state actors. “Harry Brown” is a microcosm of this strategy, all the more interesting because it takes place in such a limited setting, with very few characters, stripped from the traditional images of warfare.


Kilcullen Retread, Authors@Google

Posted in counterinsurgency by Karaka on 16 June 2010

Speaking of David Kilcullen, he spoke last year at Google’s visiting author program.

He’s speaking on “The Accidental Guerilla,” and it’s sort of the visual retread of what many of us will already know from his work and from COIN theory in general. The better part of it is the question-and-answer session in the latter half of the video.

I enjoy watching Kilcullen speak–I think when he’s conversational, it reflects well on him both in writing and in speaking. But I also think it’s pretty neat to see all the people Google has hosted at their campus.

Difficult difficult lemon difficult

Posted in united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 13 June 2010

Over the weekend, on the recommendation of Jason Sigger, I watched In the Loop, a biting political satire of the political relationship between the US and the UK contextualized through the eve of declaration of war. Satire is at its very best when it identifies the very real flaws in the thing it mocks, and In the Loop succeeds on nearly every front–from the miscommunication between departments to the backbiting and sabotage to the framing of information in the best possible light.

Though the film centers around pressing a case for war without having real, solid cause, the realities of war are divorced from nearly every character–they have the power to play with the future with stakes that never take into account the people whose lives those decisions will effect. The one line that cautions is Lt Gen Miller’s: “This is the problem with civilians wanting to go to war. Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go again unless you absolutely fucking have to. It’s like France.” His counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clark, rightly points out that he is removed himself from the realities of war, but it is the only reality check in the otherwise head-spinning politics of it all.

I highly recommend this–the humour was superb, the satire spot-on, and it manages to find the balance between godawfulness and humanity very well.

Left, Right, and Dead Bloody On

Posted in united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 11 June 2010

Shamelessly cribbing from Starbuck (and Ink Spots), the trailer for Restrepo has been released. Restrepo is the film made by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger alongside Junger’s book War (link again to my review at SWJ which has collected some interesting commentary). The film will be showing at the Human Rights Watch film festival, which began yesterday in New York City. The trailer is absolutely arresting; I’ll be keeping my eye out to see if it shows up here on the left coast. Camp Victory, Afghanistan, will also be shown. I encourage you to go if you can.

I still have a few pages of notes from the CNAS conference yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to sort them out yet. More forthcoming. In the meantime, read Michael Cohen’s piece in TNR, and Exum and Spencer’s responses. I like that Exum responds with the theory and Spencer responds with the practical outline.

“Belief and seeing are often both wrong.”

Posted in american media, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 May 2010

So, I went with “Permissible Arms.” You don’t have to change your links or anything if you don’t want to–it’ll all point back to the same place–but, you know. Title of the blog and all.

The week was a little hectic (and full of reading), and I never really sat down and wrote about “The Fog of War,” a 2003 documentary of a conversation and oral history with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Vietnam was my dad’s war, and there’s a fair amount of distance between his perception of it and mine. Any reputable academic will say that knowledge starts with what you don’t know, and there’s a lot about Vietnam I will probably never understand. That being said, it seems safe to say that McNamara was a controversial guy. The escalation of the Vietnam War probably couldn’t have happened to the degree that it did without his direct involvement.

“The Fog of War” relies both on McNamara’s recollection of events and archival material that both contrasts and supports his recollection. McNamara, at this point in his life, comes across mostly as a man who has somehow managed to live with the choices of his life and still maintain his humour; he seems like a grandfatherly man, one of those men who takes great delight in his descendants and what they end up doing. And yet he’s talking about one of the great American clashes of the 20th century.

McNamara’s focus on statistical analysis, data analysis, during World War II and subsequently in both his business endeavors with Ford and his work as the Secretary of Defense, seems pretty widely influential; but the filmmaker, Errol Morris, managed to make that objective analysis seem remarkably sinister. The contrast of bombing statistics in Japan with footage of Japan burning is one of the strongest indications of directorial license in the entire film.

The viewer is meant to walk away with eleven lessons McNamara grasped from his life, taken from the oral history Morris is conducting.

1. Empathize with your enemy
2. Rationality will not save us
3. There’s something beyond one’s self
4. Maximize efficiency
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. Get the data
7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10. Never say never
11. You can’t change human nature

They seem like broadly acceptable lessons, but it seems to be that they truly have meaning within the context of McNamara’s account of his life, and Morris’ editing of that account. You walk away from the film without particularly thinking of McNamara as bad or good (at least, you do if you were born after the Vietnam War), rather as a man faced with hard choices, a man whose president died and was left with a lame duck successor right out of the gate. If Johnson was ever more convinced that more should be done in Vietnam, what could McNamara rightfully do to contradict him? Leave his position, I suppose, but I think it must have been hard to consider leaving a position that JFK requested you take.

It was, if not a film I would immediately recommend everyone see, certainly worth watching. Mostly, it means that I’ve added another dozen or so books about the Vietnam to my never-ending book queue.

Also, I watched “Good Morning Vietnam” shortly after “The Fog of War,” which is a weird mental pairing, let me tell you. “Good Morning Vietnam” was funnier than I recalled it being (I’m sure I understand a lot more of the humor now than I did when I first saw it) but it really contrasts the view from the ground versus the view from Washington.

Military History Carnival #23

Posted in american media, united states, us military by Karaka on 19 April 2010

I had hoped to contribute a piece to H-War and Edge of the American West’s Military History Carnival #23, but alas the Troupes de la Marine in 18th century North America will have to wait until next time. The weekend escaped me, as weekends so often do–cooking, gardening, errands eating up the time between Friday and Monday.

There’s some good stuff in there, though; in particular I liked Bruscino’s piece on media interpretations of World War II, Remaking Memory or Getting It Right? Saving Private Ryan and the World War II Generation. I’m personally fascinated by war recreated in contemporary drama, from Band of Brothers to Generation Kill, Jarhead to the Hurt Locker. I own and routinely watch these films and miniseries, and even watching less realistic entertainment suffers from my critical eye. And Bruscino treats us to a survey of the trends in interpretation of WWII:

Largely ignored in the discussion of the memory of the good war is the American soldier’s memory of the war and his purpose in fighting. The topic is complicated for a number of reasons and the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. Still the general consensus is that soldiers fought for their buddies in a strong spirit of comradeship. In the words of veteran and scholar Paul Fussell, “men will attack only if young, athletic, credulous, and sustained by some equivalent of the buddy system—that is, fear of shame.”[4] The soldiers themselves insisted they were not fighting for the “four freedoms”[5] or democracy or patriotism or any other great cause. Instead they put their efforts in more banal terms—they just wanted to finish the job and come home. General Eisenhower himself acknowledged the prevalence of that view in the spring of 1945, when American units began to overrun German concentration and labor camps: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

Well worth the time to read, though–and I say this perhaps unfairly, as the article is styled academically rather than blogtastically–I wish the author had included some video clips from the films he was referencing, because the thesis would have benefited from the mise en scène illustrated rather than described.

Shame no female writers submitted to this Carnival round, though.

Monday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, american media, iran, united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 19 October 2009

With Peter Bergen popping up everywhere these days (including a couple unexpected and more expected ones), I thought it might be worth collecting together some of those links. Which I just did. Admire my hyperlinking skillz.

Other links of note:

Military Women in the Media 22 from akinoluna; wonderful aggregation of a topic of particular interest to me.

Count Off by Fred Kaplan picks apart the recruitment quota claim released by the US military earlier this month.

According to the Pentagon’s report, the Army’s goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045—amounting to 8 percent more than the target.

But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon’s report doesn’t mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army’s recruitment goal was 80,000—much higher than this year’s. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards—accepting more applicants who’d dropped out of high school or flunked the military’s aptitude test.

This year, the recruiters restored the old standards—a very good thing for troops’ morale and military effectiveness—but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.

That puts a slightly different spin on things.

I have no idea where I got this 2006 Harper’s article from, but wow it was a fascinating read. It’s an account of a discussion between A.J. Bacevich, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., Richard H. Kohn, and Edward N. Luttwak about the US military, democracy, and much else. If you have a little time, I reccommend it.

I wanted to write a post specifically devoted to the PBS Frontline special, but to be honest, everyone else has said all that I though and more. I direct you to Kings of War, whose comments on the subject are something of a microcosm of opinion on the documentary.

Secdef Gates is touring East Asia right now, and will be talking with Japan about Afghanistan. (Did you know new PM Hatoyama is being investigated for fundraising fraud? Guess it’s just getting interesting, in Japan.)

The military in Afghanistan has walked back its decision to ban KIA photographs/videos:

After news organizations protested the amended rule, the Pentagon suggested a rewrite. The new rule released Thursday would allow photography of casualties but said participating news organizations could not use material where there is a recognizable face or other identifiable feature. Journalists could not write about or photograph wounded troops unless those service members give prior permission.

Prior to the AP’s controversial photo in September, news organizations had much more leeway to publish photos of the dead as soon as the next of kin had been notified – even though much less of this material has been shown during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than in past conflicts.

And finally, John McCreary updates me on conflicting things coming out of Iran:

Iran: For the record. Two Iranian news agencies rebutted reports this weekend that Supreme Leader Khamene’i died, while state-run TV ignored the subject. Hunh?

Huh indeed. That would be a rather big deal. I mean, I heard he had a cold…

I might call this “Sharks vs Jets.”

Posted in afghanistan, american media, us military by Karaka on 16 October 2009

You know, Michael Yon may be a controversial figure in embed journalism, but the man sure can take a picture.






These photos were from his dispatch on the Afghan election back in August, still relevant now given that rumours of a runoff have resurfaced. From the Post:

“We’ve got to figure out a way to give legitimacy to whoever wins,” an official said. A second round, “if clean, and if done properly, basically washes away the sins of the first,” he said.

But officials agreed that a new vote would also be fraught with peril. It “definitely cuts both ways,” said J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who hosted Jawad at the think tank Thursday. “On the one hand, holding the runoff could clear away some of the problems and allegations of the first round that have tainted the process and rightly made the administration, if this is truly a work of partnership, want to hold off until they knew who the government was going to be.”

“But at the same time,” Thier said, “there is obviously no guarantee” that a legitimate election could be organized in a few weeks or could avoid another cascade of allegations of abuse.

“There are costs to it, no question,” he added, including the possibility that the Obama administration “would have to go ahead with a [strategy] decision without knowing” who the winner is.

Kate Brooks from Behind the Lens, has some remarkable photographs as well from Abdullah Abdullah’s presidential campaign.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

With the continued fuss about new restrictions on journalist embeds, I think it’s worth the reminder that allowing access for photographers and videographers is the only real counter to the apathy of the general public mentioned frequently by servicemembers.

And speaking personally, photographs are a method of connection, and a method of understanding. I can read all the articles in the world, but a single photograph from this presentation and the Frontline documentary tell me more about the situation on the ground than a dozen articles. Mandating that embeds can or cannot run something has the net effect of further distancing their audience from the war, something I don’t think any of us want.

Wednesday Et Cetera

Posted in american media by Karaka on 7 October 2009

Last month, I posted a criticism of the Columbia Journalism Review‘s criticism of Tom Ricks, because “blog” actually means “responding to things other people are responding to.” And it looks like Jaime McIntyre got into it too:

If you don’t like what a reporter is saying, or if the story does not affirm your previously held belief, it’s all too easy to dismiss it with the assertion that the reporter has lost his independence. In short, it’s a cheap shot.

Challenge me on my facts, question my conclusions, hold me accountable for reporting that falls short, but don’t suggest just because I have spent time talking to people who know more about something than I do, I’ve been snowed; that somehow, despite my years of experience, I have lost my critical faculties, the very skepticism that is the bedrock of any good reporter.

Believe me, Ricks has lost none of his skepticism or independence over the years. Just the opposite. The CJR’s problem seems to be that after some very thorough research and firsthand reporting, Ricks has simply come to some conclusions the article’s author doesn’t agree with.

And he certainly carries more weight than I do! Just came across this today, and figured it was worth mentioning. (He also has a piece out today on DADT and Col. Prakash’s paper.)

Thursday Errata.

Posted in american media by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Speaking of Steve Coll, right now I’m listening to the moderated panel that commemorated the AfPak Channel’s launch today. Worth a listen; there is also an audio download as well. Worth your time, milbloggers.

(Sidenote: occasionally I mistype “milblogger” as “milfblogger” and I have to wonder if occasionally a boolean google search goes awry…)

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