Permissible Arms

Putting the “Marine” in Marine Corps

Posted in japan, united states, us military by Karaka on 25 June 2010

It’s taken me months–I keep getting distracted by other books–but I’m finally almost done with Derek Leebaert’s deeply academic book To Dare and To Conquer, a book of ruminations on the influence of special operations in history’s wars. It’s a compelling book, if quite dense, and part of why it’s taken me so long to read it is that I keep stopping to look things up. I guess that’s the best kind of book, right?

I’ve gotten finally to World War II, and read this:

In their 140 years before World War I, the marines had never fought in such size, nor, as in that war, had their brigades been a segment of a large US Army division. Success jeopardized existence; what was their distinct purpose if they were performing US Army functions? Yet if there was now to be a war for the Pacific, if the navy had to break down modern hardened ground defenses, the corps had to be more than just the navy’s landing force, Caribbean policeman, or adjunct to the Army. Even the visionaries of that generation such as HG Wells, the patron-prophet of tankers, never got around to rethinking the role of marines. Had not Nelson said “never fight a fort” after he had lost his arm at Tenerife in 1797, when his landing force was smashed on the beach by the Spanish? Had not the bloody sinkhole of Gallipoli seemed to show that defending soldiers, given the backup of fortifications, could contain and wear away the highest-quality troops throw against them even when supported by a powerful fleet? But with the United States and Japan glarin at each other across the Pacific, and with China’s future apparently at stake, something had to be done.

Soon after the Armistice, while America was still embroiled in Siberia, a brilliant Lieutenant Colonel of Marines, Earl “Pete” Ellis, wrote an astonishing paper for his commandant, Major General John Lejeune, outlining most every move the United States would gear up to make in countering Japan twenty years later. It explained how heavily fortified islands might be stormed by landing craft and envisioned the likely new roles of aircraft carriers, submarines, and torpedo planes. All had to be preceded by trained demolition specialists using wirecutters and explosives to break up obsctacles on the beac–the most advanced of units, said he, which included “skilled water men and skilled jungle men.”

…With Lejeune’s backing, the forty-one-year-old Ellis booked out in May 1921 on an intelligence mission to discover the extent to which the Japanese were fortifying their Pacific Islands…In May 1923, Japanese representatives let it be known to Washington that, to their deepest sorrow, an American who was apparently a US Marine officer had–it could not be imagined how–been found dead a Palau in the forbidden Carolines…Among Marines, Ellis came to be regarded as a human sacrifice, a name and a face on the forty building up against Japan in the long, teeth-clenching years before December 1941.

Wow. Talk about prescience. I don’t know how well it works as an argument for retaining full-scale amphibious warfare capabilities, but it certainly speaks to the benefit of keeping the Marines their own, crazy service branch.


“A rotating black hole.”

Posted in afghanistan, united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 18 May 2010

That’s what I’m calling my life right now. I seriously do not understand where all the time goes, except being vaguely aware that it is going really, really fast.

In light of that, posting has and may continue to be less frequent; I’m not real keen on that, but such is things.

Over the weekend, I watched a couple programs worth mentioning here. The first, which I brought up on my twitter account on Saturday, was BBC2’s “The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia.” I’d gotten it mostly to refresh my memory about T.E. Lawrence alongside a reading of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and was surprised–but only for a moment–to realize that it was hosted by Rory Stewart.

The two-part special is framed as a walk through Lawrence’s life (with fair attention paid to details of historical accuracy over common misconceptions from the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, drawing parallels of his post-WWI through to post-WWII actions in Arabian lands to entrance of the US and Britain into Iraq (and Afghanistan, which didn’t really do him any favors in his comparison). The thesis of Stewart’s program is essentially that Lawrence himself became disillusioned with Western involvement in the Middle East after the revelation of Sykes–Picot. Lawrence had effectively promised Faisal bin al-Hussein (or Faisal I) an independent pan-Arab state, which Lawrence’s leaders did not deliver. Stewart suggests throughout that the long memory of the people of the Middle East has contributed to the mistrust, unrest, and insurgency in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world of Western nations, which doesn’t seem wrong, exactly, but certainly seems to be a broad claim.

Futhermore, Stewart takes the position that, as Lawrence came to protest European colonization and continued administration of lands in the Middle East, so too should we see parallels in Iraq (and Afghanistan). It’s well understood that Stewart thinks we should scale back our presence and influence in Afghanistan and by extension Iraq (though given the pull-out dates for troops in Iraq it may be less contentious now), and Lawrence is used by Stewart as a vehicle to enhance that argument. “If Lawrence of Arabia did not believe this could be done,” he seems to ask, “what hubris makes us think we can?”

I note above the broad claim, and having finished two hours of this program I concluded that his thought was not merely broad but sweeping. Set against a meandering sort of walk across some truly staggering landscapes–with which Stewart is quite familiar–we, the viewer, are invited to consider the implacability of the peoples by whom we are viewed only as occupiers. Since 1916 Europe (and now the United States) has been viewed as a betrayer of promises, and such are the people we must pacify.

Even acknowledging the troubling impetus for invading Iraq, Stewart’s thesis in this piece takes a deeply narrow gaze and interprets Lawrence’s words as if they are allegorical to the contemporary wars. I do not believe there is any part of the wars of the United States and Britain over the last ten years that is narrow, and they are hardly allegorical.

In Stewart’s piece last year criticizing Obama’s then-sketchy plans for what to Do About Afghanistan, he writes in the London Review of Books of another Lawrence, Sir John the viceroy of India, saying of the British Empire and Russia during the Great Game:

But he undermines the fantasy of an Afghan threat as much through the rhythm of his prose as through his arguments. His synecdoche, ‘the Oxus and the Indus’, emphasizes to a domestic policymaker the unknown and alien nature of the landscape; the archaism ‘wend’ illustrates the circuitous routes; his repetitions enact the repetitive and tiresome journey. He highlights the political and religious energies of the resistance (placing them ‘every mile’) and suggests internal divisions without asserting them (by describing Afghanistan not as a single state but as ‘countries’). His concessive subjunctive ‘let them’ reflects his attitude of uncertainty about the future. It is not an assessment of the likelihood of a Russian march but an enactment of its potential and it reduces the army by the end of the sentence to a decrepit band on the edge of the Indus, which it would be difficult to perceive as a threat.

But there is no “let them” here. There is only “we have,” and if we cannot rewrite the past we also cannot abandon that which we have started–particularly as Afghanistan (if not, exactly, Iraq and its copious oil) is not an exercise in colonialism but one in addressing a long-neglected mess.

Tomorrow, “The Fog of War,” or the curious history of Robert McNamara.

Nihonn go wo renshu suru hitsuyou ga arimasu.

Posted in japan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 5 May 2010

I have to say, there’s some major cognitive dissonance going on for me between watching The Pacific and reading George Packard’s essay, The United States-Japan Security Treaty at 50.

It’s funny–the more I come to learn about World War II, the more I realize how distant it is from me. That is certainly in part due to my age, but also the sheer amount of cultural drift over sixty-five years. I can’t even really conceptualize the Japanese, or the Germans, as a potential enemy. All I think of is nifty gadgets and spending Christmas in Berlin.

I’ve been educating myself about WWII for several years now; you can’t stumble around Britain without hitting a WWI or WWII memorial, and I’ve spent plenty of time stumbling around Britain. But I can understand the political struggles, and have an academic understanding of the conflict, and still can never quite grasp the reality of the past.

Packard tackles the rapidly changing relationship between the United States and Japan. After the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan came into effect in 1952, Japan maintained a stable (if asymmetrical) relationship with the United States; that relationship was renegotiated into a more equitable relationship in 1960 with a newly inked treaty. That treaty has remained in effect to date, and largely the current unevenness–meaning, a reduction of US military presence in Japan–is due to unprecedented political shift from within the Diet.

One of the central themes of the Democratic Party of Japan’s rise to power was a promise to address concerns about American presence in Japan. This is a long-nurtured issue, borne of many things but certainly not helped by the rape incident on Okinawa in 1995. Prime Minister Hatoyama took office in September 2009, and nearly from the first week of the DPJ’s government he began to address the potential displacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

This has been ongoing for the last six months; heck, talk about moving Futenma has been going on since 2005.

PM Hatoyama clearly saw it as a show of power to readdress Japan’s relationship with the US, particularly the part that concerns national security. But the realities of changing the terms of a sixty-year old agreement are legion, both from a foreign policy standpoint with a long-time ally and internally from the now-opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the traditional divides of the Japanese (particularly the charged relationship of Okinawans to the rest of the country). The show of power has devolved somewhat.

The thrust of Packard’s analysis suggests a more reduced influence for the US, and a paternalistic pride in Japan’s thriving democracy.

The U.S. government should respect Japan’s desire to reduce the U.S. military presence on its territory, as it has respected the same desire on the part of Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines. It should be willing to renegotiate the agreement that governs the presence of U.S. troops in Japan, which to some is redolent of nineteenth-century assertions of extraterritoriality. It should be aware that, at the end of the day, Japanese voters will determine the future course of the alliance. Above all, U.S. negotiators should start with the premise that the security treaty with Japan, important as it is, is only part of a larger partnership between two of the world’s greatest democracies and economies. Washington stands to gain far more by working with Tokyo on the environment, health issues, human rights, the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and counterterrorism.

In return for the removal of some U.S. troops and bases from its territory, the Japanese government should make far larger contributions to mutual security and global peace. It should explicitly state that it has the right to engage in operations of collective self-defense. Tokyo would be foolish to establish a community of East Asian nations without U.S. participation. It needs to work with Washington in the six-party talks on how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese government should also stop protecting its uncompetitive agricultural sector and join in a free-trade agreement with the United States, an idea that has been kicking around for two decades and that the DPJ endorsed in its election manifesto.

Now, I think it’s more likely that the Obama administration would take a route similar to what Packard describes, more so than previous administrations, but that cedes a lot of military authority–especially given the nascent, if uncertain, threat of Chinese action. And it seems improbable that the US would actively change current foreign policy when it’s in a clearly more favorable position. But I find intriguing the idea that Japan might take a more active role in denuclearization and regional security measures. (There’s a lot to be said regarding Japan’s economy and market practices as well, but I am not as versed in that topic.)

As of this week, PM Hatoyama has walked back his earlier statements about Futenma, which suggests the larger difficulty of balancing external pressures from the US and the internal demands of his constituency. Packard’s end scenario seems rather further away:

Finally, in a grand symbolic gesture, President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama should visit Hiroshima together after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Japan next fall and should issue a resounding call to end the manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons, a cause close to the hearts of both men. Then, they should visit Pearl Harbor and declare that no such attack should ever be carried out again.

It’s certainly Obama-like in its idealism; but until Japan has more leverage in its own foreign policy and military-related choices, it seems more likely that Japan will stick with 50+ years of political tradition rather than venture forward standing without intimate support.

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.

Clamoring atop the wall

Posted in us military by Karaka on 10 November 2009

More on the subject of women–specifically American women serving in the US military–some recent pieces I’ve cobbled together.

First, Boston University has an interview posted with Marine Gunnery Sergeant Patricia Chapman, BU’s new ROTC instructor.

Are female soldiers finding themselves increasingly on the front lines?

In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is really no front line. Even on base, we weren’t safe, because we’d get incoming mortar rounds. Our motor pool took a couple of rounds when we were prepping for a convoy. The front lines are as soon as you step out the gate.

Women are still limited in what we can do as far as infantry roles. On my second tour, I spent time with an infantry unit that was posted at the entrance to a city known for an al-Qaeda cell and other terror groups. They would use females as smugglers. In Iraqi and Arab culture, no man’s allowed to touch a woman other than her husband, so we searched the women as they went through the checkpoints. Large amounts of cash were one of the biggest things we were looking for. We’d find thousands of dollars, and you knew it was probably going toward IED materials.

And, not unrelatedly, this piece from Reuters, Women Marines want a chance outside the Afghan wire:

But those are trivial considerations when it comes to their sincere desire to join the grunts on the frontline if the Pentagon suddenly changed its rules.

“If somebody came and said, ‘do you want to be a grunt today?’, hell yes, I’d jump at the chance to go,” Birker said.

Jones quickly agreed. “I’ll get my M-203, let’s go,” she said, referring to a grenade launcher which can be attached to a rifle.

From Attrition, Girls With Guns Get It Done:

Still, the casualty rate for women in Iraq is over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam and the 1991 Gulf War. A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involves base security, or guard duty. Female troops have performed well in that. This is a job that requires alertness, attention to detail and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. In convoy operations, women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated, and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields.

I think the most important thread in all these pieces is the notion that women are already experiencing combat, in wars where there are no front lines.

I quite liked this article from All Business, A Woman’s Place Is at the Pentagon:

But there is, too, the less discussed reality that the Pentagon is at heart an institution that is in the business of war, and women are not permitted to be on the front lines of combat. That raises the question of whether women can truly rise to the top echelons of the Department of Defense. “I think in some numbers, the answer is yes. As a class, it will not be until we recognize that women are able to do, by and large, all that their compatriots can do, as long as they are held to the same standard, that you will see a true shift,” Hicks says. “I think the appetite is there.”

Of note, Kate Hoit’s documentary, Women of the Military. Kate Hoit, a female soldier, comes home from Iraq, discovers that America has a distorted view of women in the military, and makes a documentary to tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a woman in today’s military.


I wish I could watch this movie. Second to last, a couple quick notes on female veterans:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And finally, I keep coming back to these images over and over again from Life magazine on women during WWII. Incredible.

A WAVE Takes Target Practice

A WAVE Takes Target Practice

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