Review of “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” by Sebastian Junger

Review of “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” by Sebastian Junger

NOTE: This is my actual book review of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. It’s distinct from the “open letter” I published in July, in which I pondered my personal reaction to the same book. I was unable to find a defense news site to publish the review, so my employer – who’s been invaluable in my own “homecoming” – first published it on their institution’s website.

For a group with such enthusiasm for replicating bronze-age levels of human suffering, ISIS sure produces some slick digital content. About a year ago, the group posted a video celebrating the group who, over the past fifteen years, has killed more American veterans than the most ambitious jihadi: those veterans themselves, having made the decision to end their own lives. The effect is stunning.

The video is effective propaganda because it’s grounded in a well-known and unsettling reality. A few months ago, the United States Department of Veterans’ Affairs released updated statistics on veteran suicide: on an average day, twenty American veterans deliberately end their own lives. As behavioral health became an acceptable topic of public conversation, Americans formed a consensus on the epidemiology of veteran suicide: that it represents the final implosion of a mind scarred by the memory of violence. This understanding is intuitive and compassionate.

It’s also wrong, and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why we hurt and how we heal. In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) Sebastian Junger pitches a radical, unsettling hypothesis on how to help our nation’s disordered veterans: it’s not the veterans who are disordered; it’s the nation. As wars have become less frequent, less violent, and more distant, warriors have become more alienated from their communities. Simultaneously, those communities themselves offer near-perfect isolation and, for the right price, total release from civic obligation. The net result is veterans who will never belong as much as they did downrange. The most lethal threat to their survival isn’t human or natural, but communities civilized to the point of toxicity.

Junger has spent his career describing how we behave when civilization’s guarantee of safety seems to vanish. American readers will probably remember Junger as the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm and, more recently, directed Restrepo. He’s a war journalist in the purest and most reckless sense of the term; rejecting plush, mammoth airbases for the dust and filth where soldiers still fight.

Frequent transitions between battlefields and modern American cities allowed Junger to contrast combat trauma with the psychological isolation of the developed world. Returning to Sarajevo years after that city’s brutal siege, he found veterans who insisted those years were the most worthwhile times of their lives. Anthony Lloyd described much the same phenomenon in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, his dark, personal account of the same war.

Yet Tribe is not a memoir, and it’s not abstract philosophy. Junger cites several instances – mostly wars and natural disasters – in which the immediate imperative of survival actually resulted in more cohesion and sociability. His most stunning example is London’s mental health miracle during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain:

Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis.  …as the Blitz progressed, psychiatriatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down…  …long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.  …even epileptics reported having fewer seizures…  (A doctor) ventured to suggest that some people actually did better during wartime.

                       -Tribe, pg. 45-46

The Blitz – a genuine existential threat – was Britain’s “finest hour” because it demanded the social cohesion that can seem extinct in the modern West. This trend is apparent in the present day, as well: Israelis, who almost certainly experience violence more frequently than any of their wealthy-nation peers, have PTSD rates among world’s lowest. Violence and the threat of violence, Junger explains, is a near-constant, and the obligation of all able-bodied young people to defend against that threat (via universal military conscription) means all strata of Israeli society experience warfare. Moreover, because Israeli soldiers often fight within small-arms range of their birthplaces, wars rarely demand abrupt, long-term alienation from social and family networks.

While case studies from various wars support Junger’s thesis, Tribe is only about national defense in the sense that it asks if we’ve built a nation – a society – worth defending. American veterans forced the discussion of PTSD into the public arena, but Junger describes a trend that transcends profession. When experiences alienate us from our communities, we become vulnerable and reckless.  Those experiences need not be violent; only profound and formative. The symptoms we most commonly associate with combat trauma – depression, social detachment, feelings of isolation and purposelessness – are well-documented among returning Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps attributes it to “reverse culture shock.”

But returned Peace Corps volunteers seem to do well in the long-term, while many veterans continue to struggle years or even decades after combat. Junger suggests that some of our most compassionate efforts – generous disability benefits, the way we celebrate and applaud American veterans – encourage veterans to cultivate an identity of victimhood.  It kills ambition and causes veterans to delay or outright reject what they need most: becoming valued, productive members of their civilian communities.

Reading this book becomes exhausting when you begin to appreciate how much work it will take to repair this dysfunction. Shared adversity and the collective sacrifice creates the sensation of kinship. Homo Sapiens, like all primates, are social species who do poorly in isolation. This isn’t new knowledge, of course; it’s readily apparent to anyone willing to spend an hour watching a high-school football team practice in late August, or who’s attended a graduation at Parris Island. What Junger has shown us, rather, is how unforgivably we’ve failed to apply one of our most wholesome instincts – that we need purpose, and we need communities – to the task of creating a society worthy of the sacrifice of those who build and protect it.

An Open Letter on “Tribe”

An Open Letter on “Tribe”

Note: I wrote this as an email to Sebastian Junger after reading Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016). His website doesn’t list contact information for the author himself, so I decided to post it here as an “open letter” instead of sending it to a publicist or agent. The letter assumes familiarity with the thesis of the book. Both WarIsBoring and WarOnTheRocks have published excellent reviews of the book. In any case, you should read the book.

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Sebastian,

I finished Tribe about a week ago.  It explained more to me about myself than any other nonfiction book I can remember.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan from 2002 – 2004.  I returned and earned an MA in History, thinking I would go into academia or the foreign service.  The insurgency in Iraq was heating up at the time, and I decided it’d be a shame to miss such a perfectly good war.  I applied for the US Army Officer Candidate School, and reported to Fort Benning three days after I defended my thesis.  I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader in 2009 – 2010.  Later, I spent six months at Kandahar Airfield as a brigade staff officer in 2013 – 2014.

Shortly after I returned, the Army notified me that I would be involuntarily separated from active duty in support of the Army’s “force restructuring.”  My wife and I left Germany (where I was stationed at the time) in December 2014 and returned to Colorado, where we’d met.  I’m part of a local Army National Guard battalion, but one-weekend-a-month “drill” builds all the camaraderie of a recurring business trip.

Before reading Tribe, I’d never really “connected” what I experienced as a returning Peace Corps volunteer with returning from deployments and leaving the Army.  When I returned  from my first deployment in 2010, veteran suicide was starting to get a lot of intense attention both from within and outside of the military.  The Army was pouring loads of money and resources into PTSD research and treatment, and it mostly focused on combat trauma.

My first deployment was very “warlike.”  One soldier in our platoon got killed, one was crippled, and we saw multiple other combat fatalities and severe injuries – enemy, friendly, and civilian alike.  Ours was mostly an IED fight, so there was the added mind-fuck of just cruising around, waiting for the ground to blow up, and most often not being able to do much about it.  By “conventional” PTSD theory, I was fucked.

But returning from my first deployment was cake.  Yes, I was more sensitive to a range of “popping” sounds, and I remain intolerant of a certain type of firecracker, but I didn’t experience the depression, the flashbacks, or anything too substantial.  I bought a motorcycle and spent a lot of time hanging out with other lieutenants in my battalion.  I dated a lot and eventually met my wife.  I later got transferred to battalion staff, where a lot of my buds were by that time.

When I returned from my second deployment, I lost my mind.  I suspected I was on my way out of the Army, and it turned out I was right.  Because our Regiment did a “phased redeployment,” I didn’t really leave as part of any unit, but rather just as a random staff officer who showed up back in Germany.  Everybody still had to do all the insufferable psychological screening where you pretend to talk about your feelings to some condescending “therapist,” but it made no difference.  I began drinking heavily and avoided people.  This continued until we returned to the States.  I now work part-time and spend the balance of my days reading, riding my motorcycle, and otherwise trying to escape my own head.

I’d never compared my experience as a returning Peace Corps volunteer with my experience leaving the Army.  I was a disaster when I got back from Kyrgyzstan also. The one time I did well returning from a formative experience was after my first deployment, when I was still with my buds.  That’s the single discriminating factor. It’s a near-perfect model.

Reading Tribe, I was overcome by the sensation of staring down an enormous amount of work.  Our military, our economy, our educational and job-training infrastructure – it’s what you would get if you were to purpose-design a society to break the bonds of group kinship.  We encourage young adults to attend college hundreds or thousands of miles away from home just to achieve a marginal “educational advantage” and to “forge (their) own identity.”  Even in the peacetime military, we still transfer soldiers to new posts every few years, ensuring a trail of awkward social-media “friendships” and families of “military brats” who aren’t really from anywhere.  A neurotic society is a near-certainty.

Anyhow, comparing the experience of returned Peace Corps volunteers with that of veterans struck a chord with me.  I hope I was able to provide some useful perspective on the subject.  Thanks for writing the book.

Listen.

Listen.

President Obama’s Oval Office address this evening (6 December 2015) was redundant, unnecessary, and patronizing to the American people.  Fourteen years since the Twin Towers collapsed, we’re still unable to name our enemy or fully commit to destroying it.  We continue to deny the blindingly obvious reality that ISIS is not a “perversion” of a religion, but rather a perfect interpretation.

ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.

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He sees paradise.

Bullshit, bullshit, and irrelevant.  Why would the religious faith of ISIS’s victims be at all pertinent to this discussion?  Violence necessarily involves a victim and an aggressor.  The victim is passive; he is the recipient of violence.  ISIS is the active participant; they inflict violence.  We need to understand ISIS’s behavior because doing so allows us to break their will to resist, and destroy their means of doing so.

Of course, we do understand what fuels ISIS’s barbarism: perfect, absolute faith in the religious doctrine of Islam.  How do we know this?  Because they’ve been kind enough to explicitly tell us so thousands of times.  In terms of capability, the American intelligence community is unsurpassed, yet we still fail to intercept the most critical piece of intelligence about our enemy: Why they fight.  We will not win this war until we resolve to overcome our reluctance to acknowledge that bad ideas produce bad consequences.

I believe that the worst ideas are those which cause the most human suffering.  Religious belief is a bad idea.  Abrahamic religious belief is an especially bad idea.  Islamic religious belief is one of mankind’s all-time worst ideas.  I came to this conclusion due to my observation that Islam causes an extraordinary amount of human suffering.

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Once again, let me make this clear…

Christians live comfortably and happily in the west because they’ve greed to disregard all but the cheeriest, most humane aspects of their scriptures.  Those who refuse to do so are disinvited from public discourse and, when necessary, criminally prosecuted.

Imagine the following: I have a sweatshirt printed with the words, “No One Cares About Your Stupid God.” I put on this sweatshirt to go for a walk.  A Christian sees this t-shirt and commands me to repent.  I command him to eat shit.  He produces a firearm and shoots me twice in the chest.  As I lay bleeding out onto the street, he stands above me and quotes the Good Book.  He records himself doing so, and uploads the video onto YouTube.  He’s arrested and charged with murder.Do we have any doubt whatsoever that the county prosecutor – himself a Christian – would eagerly characterize the incident as a religiously-motivated crime?  Of course not.

Why?  Because in nearly every context apart from Islamist terrorism, unless we have a truly compelling reason to the contrary, we generally believe killers when they tell us why they kill.  The sooner we can apply that logic to this war, the sooner we can actually begin to fight it.

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Think.

Deviant.

Deviant.

Amanda Marcotte’s byline on Salon describes her as a “politics writer,” though she scarcely addresses the art of compromise.  She’s built a career on absolutist, Girls-era feminism.  The woman is a standard-bearer for the very worst characteristics of American identity politics.

Smiling: You're doing it wrong.
Smiling: You’re doing it wrong.

I’m not a journalist.  I cannot credibly comment on her professional challenges.  However, I can notice patterns, such as this: mass shootings are a windfall for those who pay their rent sewing contempt for select demographic groups.  Ms. Marcotte usually selects men.

It makes sense, of course.  By most measures, men do behave more violently.  Of the various types of violence we engage in – physical assault, domestic abuse, spontaneous homicide, serial murder, even warfare – few are more uniquely masculine than the comparatively recent phenomenon of the mass shooting.  Even the most generous estimates don’t assign women guilt for more than two percent of mass shootings.  The mass shooting is the behavior most characteristic of my demographic.

This damning feature of American masculinity has been a cornerstone of Ms. Marcotte’s career.  Mass shootings provide a very pure, distilled case study to support nearly any unflattering conclusion about American men.  The roadmap to success is simple:  She’s a gifted writer, and she has the work ethic to produce well-written essays within hours of a massacre.  If I enjoyed either of those qualities, I’d joyfully spend the next quarter century building a career and supporting my family preaching the Good Word of violent, toxic masculinity.  How frustrating must it be when such a reliable business plan fails to produce?  Ask Ms. Marcotte: Insofar as it relates to her tried-and-true narrative, the San Bernardino shooting was a stillbirth.

We won’t admit it, but most Americans have a mass shooting ritual.  Upon hearing the first reports, we struggle – with varying degrees of success – to not speculate as to the demographic of the “shooter.”  While perhaps not ethically justifiable, this anxiety is certainly understandable.  A mass shooting represents high-stakes political intrigue.

What race is he?  Where does he worship, or does he worship at all?  How does he vote?  These are the cornerstones of American identity politics, and they all play second fiddle to the most durable, reliable social division: gender.  Conveniently, there’s rarely much speculation on that topic.

Deviation from the norm is exciting, and a married 27 year-old immigrant mother of a newborn could not possibly deviate further from the American mass shooter “norm.”  Breitbart‘s banner headline read “The Jihadette.” It featured the stoic, veiled image of a young woman who shares nothing in common with James Holmes or Adam Lanza.  What’s a stunned gender critic to do?

imagesWholly ignoring the most sensational aspect of the story is one option.  The journalist who’s scarcely missed an opportunity to opine on the relationship between gender and high-profile violence has yet to discuss the most distinctive, newsworthy characteristic of this mass shooting.

The false equivalence is also useful.  About a week prior, a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO.  Apart from his age (57), he perfectly represented our stereotype of the American mass shooter: white, male, right-wing, neglected mental health problems, etc…

The two attacks could scarcely have been more different.  The Planned Parenthood attack involved a single shooter.  The attacker did not personally know his victims.  He did not seem to have a well-thought out, rehearsed plan.  He was a reclusive person with a history of petty crime.

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A resting bitch face like none other.

The San Bernardino shooters operated as a team.  Their plan was deliberate and coordinated.  They were well-socialized, active members of society.  Neither had criminal history, but nevertheless killed 14 people.  By contrast, the Planned Parenthood attack doesn’t even register as a proper “mass shooting” by some metrics.

A good narrative is impervious in the hands of a talented ideologue.  Two days after the San Bernardino attack, Ms. Marcotte writes,

…this country experienced what appears to be two religiously motivated terrorist attacks in the span of a week: The San Bernardino shooting and the Colorado Springs shooting at Planned Parenthood. But in a demonstration of how bizarre modern American politics really are, these two nearly identical shootings somehow are seen as entirely different in the context of partisan politics.

We see these attacks as entirely different because they are entirely different.  They are different in concept, in execution, in casualties, in nearly every sense we use to differentiate mass shootings, these two incidents were different.  The only sense in which they are similar is that each of the three criminals did, in fact, seem to hold some level of religious belief.  That’s it.  There is little compelling evidence thus far to suggest Robert Lewis Dear’s religious belief was his primary motivator.

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Run to the sound of the guns.

If during the standoff, Mr. Dear had taken the time to write a Facebook post on his Christian faith, or if he’d opened fire to a war cry of “Jesus Loves Me!,” we could reasonably characterize his crime as “Christian terrorism.”  In any case, Mr. Dear was captured alive, so we’re sure to learn more of his motivation in the coming months.  I could be entirely wrong.  We’ll see.  By contrast, our faithful Jihadette and her husband explicitly declared their allegiance to ISIS either immediately before or during their attack, moments before their martyrdom at the hands of disciplined and unhesitating California policemen.

Ms. Marcotte seems disarmed and disoriented when violence does not comport with her preferred themes.  White privilege doesn’t work.  Toxic masculinity doesn’t work.  She can’t even criticize American Christians.  The San Bernandino attack represents a significant deviation from the norm.  For many writers, such a deviation is fresh, fertile ground.  It is an opportunity to tell a new story, one that could be a harbinger of future incidents.

It’s not an opportunity for Ms. Marcotte because understanding and telling a story isn’t what she’s trying to accomplish.  Her objective is promoting a poisonous and divisive brand of intersectional feminism.  She does so by leveraging high-profile violence to buttress pre-formed “conclusions” that are the foundation of her intellectual identity.

She is desperate to equate the worldwide epidemic of Jihadist violence with extremely infrequent instances of genuine Christian terrorism.  She is forced to stretch and redefine terrorism so that it includes most violence perpetrated by her Usual Suspects.  She defaults to conclusions that present her chosen oppressors – the West, men, and white Americans – in the most unflattering light possible.

Given an act of terrorism without precedent, she nevertheless cannot deviate from her white privilege, male privilege narrative.  When the world around us starkly deviates from what we’re used to, refusing to notice and acknowledge as much is, necessarily, deviant.

Spotlight on our Failure.

Spotlight on our Failure.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy in February 2013, most of the western media politely accepted that the frail Bavarian preacher had become physically unable to look after his shrinking and increasingly unobservant flock.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that the ongoing criminal investigations of the The One True Church didn’t impact his decision.  During Benedict’s papacy and that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church became known as a premier champion and protector of men who fuck children.  Benedict’s decision to remain in the Vatican City after his resignation was at least in part informed by concerns about his legal immunity as a Church leader in regards to national investigations of the clergy sexual abuse.

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He earned that hat.

Those investigations, and the international outrage they represented, can be largely traced back to a series of articles published in 2002 by The Boston Globe.  The first article in the series went to press on January 6, 2002.  It was headlined, “Church allowed abuse by priests for years,” and featured an elderly clerical pedophile the Church had inconspicuously resettled in a working-class Boston neighborhood.  The immediate political and social upheaval culminated with the disgrace and resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, former Archbishop of Boston and a key architect of the conspiracy to protect abusive priests.

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Trust me, I’m a preacher.

The Globe‘s articles marked the first time professional, mainstream journalists investigated how senior Catholic leadership facilitated that abuse.  Spotlight recounts how those stories were penned.  The film is set in Boston, Massachusetts and spans six months between July 2001 – January 2002.  The turn of the century marked the rise of the internet and what many presumed would be the death of print journalism.  At the time, The Globe was a well-established but stagnant publication struggling for both relevance and revenue.  Those qualities, of course, also accurately describe the status of the modern Roman Catholic Church at the same time.  The two institutions weirdly compliment each other in the film.  Think “dueling complacencies.”

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The fifth estate.

Spotlight is masterful if only for the fact that it somehow leverages stagnation and complacency as compelling, even intriguing cinematic themes.  While the film does indulge us some legal trickery and journalistic espionage, far more stunning is that much of the evidence of the Church’s coverup had been easily accessible for years.  The legal community, law enforcement, the judiciary, even the Globe itself, had all allowed the Church’s privileged position in Boston society to dissuade them from pursuing evidence of severe, overt criminal wrongdoing.  As the journalists in Spotlight uncover the Church’s crimes, they each also process their personal culpability, either through outright neglect of obvious evidence, or just by their residual emotional attachment to the Church as “lapsed Catholics.”  It’s in this context that we’re offered a dark and unsettling riff on Hillary Clinton’s favorite African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

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The trenches.

The acting is superb, as is the editing and cinematography.  While it feels condescending to describe a movie set in 2001 as a “period piece,” it’s nevertheless impressive that the producers managed to acquire such an collection of MS-DOS era computers.  The optics also support the film’s themes: Consistent with its title, the sets never seem fully illuminated.  The shadows never entirely disappear.

Separate from the specific issue of clergy sexual abuse, Spotlight reminds us of the absolute necessity of an independent and unafraid press in free societies.  Freedom of the press is not an abstract, 18th-century anachronism.  It is indispensable and non-negotiable.  Predatory institutions like the Church rise and fall with their ability to suppress information.  Indeed, thousands more children were raped – and will suffer lifetimes of trauma – because the press did not earlier assert itself on this issue.  It’s a precedent that deserves our prayerful consideration today as we entertain demands, from sacred and profane corners alike, to make cherished beliefs immune from scrutiny.  Freedom of speech is our right, but speaking freely is our obligation.

Faith-Based.

The progressive response to the Paris Massacre was equal parts depressing and unsurprising. Much of the political left reflexively assigns any motive to Islamist terrorism except that which the terrorists expressly articulate.  This cowardice has already been highlighted and condemned by our most eloquent champions of liberal values. We should amplify this message and celebrate those communicating it.

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Dave Rubin is one of those dudes.

Those critiques are urgent, but incomplete. Criticism of these apologists has mostly taken place within secular social and intellectual circles. To borrow a term from an unlikely source, the argument between classical liberals and regressive leftists on the nature of Islamist terrorism is a struggle for the “soul” of the secular movement. Each camp wants to establish their stance as the default position of the broader secular movement.

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“Glenn Greenwald is a regressive leftist. He is also an asshole.”

We fail to appreciate how petty and irrelevant our internecine conflict is to anyone else. Particularly in United States, we live in communities in which most of our neighbors still believe in gods.  Even if we only consider Christians, those neighbors represent a broad spectrum of political opinion.

For “movement” atheists like myself concerned about political Islamism, it can be awkward and demoralizing to find ourselves allied with conservative Christians. Opposing people like Pat Robertson and Ted Cruz galvanized us. Our unifying contempt for Bush-era Christian conservatives fueled a new brand of secular politics. Conversely, we have become comfortable allying with progressive Christians on issues ranging from LGBT equality to prison reform. Their political agendas closely resemble ours, and they politely ignore or “reinterpret” the more noxious passages (i.e. >95%) in their Good Book.

Nevermind that.
Nevermind that.

This pragmatism is useful, but also hazardous. The most politically influential apologists for radical Islam are not secular leftists, but rather progressive Christians. As acolytes of a more palatable cult of human sacrifice, they are eager to dispel any notion that simple religious belief can be the root cause of human misery. We often associate these voices with the “interfaith” movement, but the most influential among them are squarely rooted in progressive Christianity and Judaism.  In a recent essay on Sojourners (“Faith in Action for Social Justice”), Jim Wallis sketches out what he argues is a workable plan for defeating ISIS:

The best way to defeat bad religion is with good religion, and the better way to defeat religious fundamentalism is from within rather than trying to smash it from without. That means we also need a global religious coalition of Christians, Muslims, and Jews to unite together to undermine and defeat ISIS with our own religious public proclamations, demonstrations, and authority, especially with the younger generation. ISIS is not only a distortion of Islam, it is a blasphemy. And a unified and courageous assertion of our sacred scriptures, which all condemn their irreligious atrocities, would be the best spiritual weapon against ISIS.

Not a syllable of this passage should go unchallenged.  ISIS is a real-world threat that has produced human suffering on a scale unrivaled since the fall of the Khymer Rouge. Its ranks are filed with young men ready to fight, kill and die in order to secure an eternal heavenly fuck-fest.

They actually do believe this.  No amount of “religious public proclamations, demonstrations, and authority” will defeat the resolve of a young man who believes these claims.  The best antidote to “bad religion” is reality; certainly not with a rebranded, impotent version of the same mythology.

The suggestion that Abrahamic “sacred scriptures” condemn violence may be handily disproven by nearly any passage in said scriptures; namely, the >95% Mr. Wallis and his brethren seem to ignore.  Indeed, Christianity’s core belief is that an act of first-degree murder was, the most moral act of all time.  Islam has trumped Christianity in terms of ability to inspire real-world violence, but we certainly cannot accuse Muslims of celebrating the torture and murder of Mohammad. Christians?  That’s the whole point.

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Don’t martyr me, bro.

We should, however, pay careful attention to his charge of “blasphemy:” To insult a religious belief system that justifies massive human suffering in our present, he levels a charge that has historically been brought against those brave enough to ridicule religious belief in our past.

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Faith-based initiative.

Finally Mr. Wallis’s proposed “spiritual weapon” could scarcely have been better crafted to invite my contempt. Was this the weapon used by the French soldiers and policemen who secured Paris on 14 November, or did they bear arms that were more tangible?

I’m not obfuscating Mr. Wallis’s point: The notion of a “spiritual weapon” really is nonsense.  Is this weapon based in the air, land, sea, space or cyber domains?  What’s the caliber?  How does a soldier employ and maintain a such a weapon?  What effects does it produce?  What is the maximum effective range of a spiritual weapon?

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Run to the sound of the guns.

I would also be curious to learn what Mr. Wallis cites as historical precedent for his claim that a “global religious coalition” can reduce human suffering. Indeed, ISIS is undoubtedly the strongest such “coalition” on the planet today: It is a community of the faithful united by their commitment to execute the Will of God. In the strictest sense of the term, ISIS is a “faith-based organization.”

True believers.
True believers.

Mr. Wallis is well-versed in faith-based organizations.  He served on the White House Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, and remains one of President Obama’s five “spiritual advisors.”  He has direct access to the President of the United States.  The Commander-in-Chief of mankind’s capable formations and fleets is advised by a man who declares that, “the hardest thing about confronting evil is the painful human tendency to only see it in others.”

He looks down the barrel of your gun and sees paradise.
He looks down the barrel of your gun and sees paradise.

These are the declarations of a person who has not personally confronted the pure, distilled evil characteristic of the organizations he’s discussing.  I do not know about Mr. Wallis’s personal history with violence.  However, I do know how violence shaped my friends and family.  I also know how it shaped me.  Given this admittedly anecdotal context, I find it difficult to believe Mr. Wallis fully grasps either the nature of armed conflict or the consequences of defeat.  “The hardest thing about confronting evil” is summoning the courage to do so in the first place.

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I don’t get it.

Mr. Wallis’s characterization of the problem and his proposed solutions are absurd. His access to the halls of power make them dangerous, yet he does not represent the views of any specific Christian denomination. A recent opinion piece in the Huffington Post absolutely does. In “They Will Know We Are Christian by… Our Fear,” Rev. Adam J. Copeland reminds us how,

(We’re) called to imagine, welcome, and embrace the kingdom of God. In the reality of God’s reign it is the poor, the merciful, the hungry, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the mourners who God blesses.

Reverend Copeland is a professor at Luther Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  He is by all accounts a bright and compassionate human being.  He is also promoting policies rooted far more in the Christian martyr fetish than in reasoned concern for the well-being of the American people.  Each of the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths emphasizes suffering as a means of achieving communion with God.

Progressive Christians usually support compassionate public policy. They oppose the death penalty, draconian criminal penalties, and military adventurism. They support social welfare programs, universal healthcare, and atonement for historical injustices. However, this compassion is informed by a belief that any suffering they may experience as a result of those positions will only serve to bring themselves closer to God.

Do not follow St. Sebastian's lead.
Do not follow St. Sebastian’s lead.

As you may have deduced, I believe this god is imaginary. I also believe human suffering carries no intrinsic moral value. Secular progressives should maintain our political alliance with progressive Christians, but we must not allow their spiritual masochism to obstruct our campaign against an existential threat. We do not lose moral credibility when we forge alliances with those against whom we usually fight, nor when we speak out against the flawed and reckless ideas of those whose support we typically welcome.

My foundational moral assumption is that suffering is bad. I believe we can quantify suffering precisely enough to guide our moral decision-making, and that we should select courses of action which produce less suffering than they cause.

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This doesn’t mean we’re “together.”

Given those assumptions and ISIS’s sadistic enthusiasm, I believe we are morally obligated to destroy ISIS and discredit their uniquely toxic mythology.  We need all the help we can get.

Win THIS War

Win THIS War

A cursory survey of the American defense policy blogosphere reveals a community that’s intellectually vigorous, politically diverse… and hopelessly obsessed with China.   The consensus is that China is a rising threat to American influence, and that the Pacific Ocean – specifically, the South China Sea – will be where this threat is realized.

The concern isn’t absurd.  While the West has been busy losing Silly Foreign Wars, China has been building and modernizing its military.  China’s new potency in cyberspace is well-known, even outside of defense circles.  China’s rapid militarization of space is at least as concerning.  Most troubling, however, is the Chinese military’s expansion of its expeditionary capacity – the ability to project combat power beyond its borders.  As the relevance of nuclear weapons declines, this capability will determine which nations have deciding “votes” in international security affairs.  It’s a small club.

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Reach.

So China’s working hard to be taken seriously as a military power.  It certainly needs to: A high-profile, well publicized buildup is absolutely necessary if you’re an aspiring superpower whose military last conducted deliberate combat operations when VHS and MS-DOS were emerging technologies.  The American military does have much rebuilding to do after fighting seemingly endless, land-locked wars of attrition.  It suffers from worn-out equipment, exhausted formations, and dwindling budgets.  Still, at least a quarter-century will pass before American servicemen are led by general officers who have not pulled triggers in combat.  Chinese civilian senior leaders understand this, and it likely figures heavily into their risk analysis regarding the wisdom of actually employing their fanciful new arsenal against USPACOM assets.

The fact that a South China Sea “hot” war would be an objectively bad idea is not, of course, a good reason not to worry about it. Indeed, many of the United States’s best and brightest lose sleep worrying about unlikely, but potentially catastrophic threats.  That’s their job.

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The last American officer to be right about the Pacific…

That said, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US defense community has developed a peculiar bad habit: We begin fretting over the Next War before winning the war we’re actually fighting.  We have a War Attention Deficit.  Could anything be more American?

We were “out” of Iraq two years before it became clear the nation would collapse without renewed military assistance.  It may do so regardless.  Our withdrawal from Afghanistan has neatly correlated with the continued resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The nations of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa are hardly doing any better in their fight against Boko Haram, even with vigorous American and French military assistance.  Most troubling, of course, is that ISIS has conclusively demonstrated the ability to plan, coordinate, and resource effective combined-arms attacks in one of the world’s ostensibly safest cities.

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In Memoriam.

Bullet-riddled Parisian concert halls and editorial offices must be irritating to the visionaries of American defense.  The US Department of Defense (DoD) and its industry patrons consider these incidents mainly in the sense that they threaten the celebrated “rebalance” of American military strength from Eurasia to the Pacific.

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Worthless.

Rebalancing will be expensive.  It will require significant, long-term expansion of maritime and aerospace acquisition programs.  Persistent warnings of any-time-now Chinese aggression in the Pacific has provided critical life support to the laughably ineffective F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.  In the meantime, the US Army has chosen to cancel the Armed Scout Helicopter– effectively opting to not replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, an inexpensive, combat-proven aircraft whose armament famously includes the grenades pilots toss from sub-treetop altitudes.  The nominal replacement for the Kiowa is a drone which will apparently be flown remotely from an Apache.

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…and the last American officer to be right about airpower.

We’ll see. Perhaps the “Helicopter Pilot Flying a Drone to Support the Soldiers S/He Would’ve Otherwise Just, You Know, Flown a Helicopter to Support” concept will work.  Regardless, the broader de-prioritization of weapon systems optimized for direct support of trigger-pulling Soldiers and Marines is a direct result of our ill-advised “rebalance.”  The DoD is eagerly building for a type of war that has thusfar only been fought in white papers and panel discussions.

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Not Worthless.

China may be our Next War, but it is not this war.  Uncorrected, an obsession with China will cost hard-won gains against a determined and adaptable enemy.  The defense industry perceives the “rebalance” as a lucrative business plan, and they are deeply invested in preserving it as national policy.

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The Department of the Navy assesses that all navigation subsystems have exceeded program requirements.

Less cynical but equally harmful are the defense policy dilettantes more concerned with credit for the Next Big Idea than with reminding policymakers of the boring, frustrating, but very real threats that continue to threaten American interests and those of our allies.

 

We need to engage in the Pacific.  We need to contain China.  But first and foremost, we need to win this war.  Senior American policymakers need to understand this and embrace it.  Their national security legacies must not be starting the next war, but rather winning the one we’re fighting.

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Sentinel.