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.


Monday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, kyrgyzstan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 14 June 2010

If you haven’t yet read it, zen’s interview with Steven Pressfield is a worthy read. It’s also nice to see Mark talk a little about himself, which we don’t see much in his blog! For good reason, of course, but it’s also nice to know the person behind the mind.

Thunder Run has an interview up with Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger on Restrepo.

The film is very balanced and doesn’t lead you, but rather just shows you how it is. Could you describe whether you had any guiding principles about how/what you shot as well as how you edited, how you shaped the film ultimately?

Sebastian: We were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well… and prevented us from using an outside narrator.

Tim: It was a conscious choice. We are journalists, and as such, we are not supposed to “lead” people to a certain opinion. That is called “advocacy,” and it certainly has its special place in the media world, but as journalists, it’s not something we wanted to engage in.

Also, here’s a counter review on War that speaks very negatively of the book–I called it “delightfully scathing” in the comments to my review at SWJ (hey, give them money, won’t you?), which I still think is true on the re-read. I mean, I think the author of the review, Lewis Manalo, is generally barking up the wrong tree, but he makes some strong points. Points I disagree with, but strong nonetheless.

I’m following Registan’s thorough coverage of the situation in Kyrgyzstan; it remains one of the best english-language sites for updated information. If only I read Cyrillic. The Post this morning picks up the story, noting:

Kyrgyzstan’s own security forces have failed to contain a rising tide of ethnic violence in the south, where more than 100 people have been killed since fighting began Thursday night, according to the country’s health ministry. The officials say the death toll could be considerably higher, as the current count includes only the dead at hospitals and morgues.

Around 75,000 people have now fled fighting into neighboring Uzbekistan, Russia’s official news agency said, citing the Uzbek government.

Kyrgyzstan has contacted Russia, asking for military assistance, but so far Russia has only provided minimal aid. As Christian and Michael at Registan note, what we know is what we don’t know, and conspiracy theories are worming their way outward at a rapid pace.

More pictures of FETs in action (h/t Akinoluna as per usual).

Must read article I haven’t had time to read yet: Dexter Filkin’s portrait of a wavering Karzai.

And–this one is just for you, Chris Albon–the New York Times suddenly discovers there are lucrative minerals in Afghanistan! Which have been a known property for at least thirty years! Shocking. Film at eight.

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.

“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.

And also, that thing about the non-regulation goatee.

Posted in admin, american media by Karaka on 8 November 2009

I’m pretty sure I lost several braincells watching GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra with my roommate last night. I tried really, really hard to suspend my disbelief–pulse cannons! nanomites! Evil Joseph Gordon-Levitt!–but there was one little niggling fact I just couldn’t let go.

While NATO has had a co-operation programme with Egypt since 2000, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t include MASSIVE STAGING PLATFORMS IN THEIR DESERT.



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