Friday, February 23, 2007

On democratic warfare

In the last 40 years, the United States of America has been involved in two full-scale ground wars. They lost both times. America has the largest, most technologically advanced military in human history, but overwhelming size and fancy gadgetry proved ineffective in both Vietnam and Iraq. The Southeast Asian military escapade ended with a short civil war, an empowered China, and a disillusioned home front. We don’t yet know what the end result of this Middle East move will be, but there will likely be a long civil war, an empowered Iran, and a very disillusioned home front. In both cases, lots of American soldiers were killed and even more innocent (and not-so-innocent) civilians were shot and blown up.

With its superior firepower, troop numbers, training, discipline, and communications, the American military seems undefeatable. So why has it failed so miserably in Iraq? The problem, according to Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington D.C., isn’t that difficult assess. In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, Luttwak argues that America loses because it does not kill enough civilians. (The essay is not available online.)

In Iraq, the U.S. military is dealing with an insurgency; similar in many aspects to the one it faced in Vietnam. The problem for the Americans is not a military one – that country’s armed forces are essentially unbeatable in conventional warfare – it’s a political one. “Unless insurgents confine their operations to thoroughly deserted areas where there is no one to observe them,” Luttwak writes, “they must have at least the passive cooperation of local inhabitants. Whether they fail to report the insurgents to the authorities out of sympathy for their cause or in terror of their vengeance in entirely irrelevant. In either case, the insurgents are in control of the population around them, and not the authorities. That essentially political advantage is enough to allow motivated insurgents to overcome all manner of tactical weaknesses in combat skills and weapons.”

The Iraqi police force and army, considered by many analysts to be the key in seeking out insurgents, is as unreliable as the civilian population, Luttwak argues, for exactly the same reasons as the ones above – they are either sympathetic to the insurgents and their cause, or too afraid for their lives and the lives of their family members to rise against them.

So how is an insurgency defeated? Simple: out-intimidate and out-terrorize the insurgents. Luttwak points to several historical examples to make this point: the Ottomans, Romans, and the Nazis all used terror and intimidation to maintain their vast, occupied empires. Despite some claims by those on the political left, the United States of America is not (yet) a fascist empire. If it were, it could simply raze the occasional Iraqi village known, or suspected, to be harboring insurgents. It is not even necessary to maintain a large ground troop presence to hold the peace. The occasional violent example would convince civilians that siding with the Americans is safer than siding with the insurgents.

It should be obvious why the Americans could never use such tactics. The mere whiff of any such actions would generate tremendous outrage on the home front and in allied nations - as they should. In the end, democracy and warmongering don't mix. The neocons, blinded by ideology, failed (and will probably continue to fail) to consider this elementary strategic concern.

Anyone who has played Sid Meier’s Civilization series knows how difficult it is to win a military campaign while running a democracy. The negative effects leveled onto to your cities when you have military units far from home outweigh the technological and economical advantages associated with an elected government and a free populace. Winning remains a possibility: the diplomatic, cultural and scientific victories are in fact best won through democratic government. But the only governing method guaranteed to earn you a military victory is fundamentalism. And despite the scary rise of the Christian Right, America isn’t there yet.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On pop, pure and simple

The morning after attending a concert featuring Grizzly Bear, I grabbed a copy of The Stranger, one of Seattle's weekly alternative newspapers, and turned to a feature on the band. Describing the band's sound, the author writes, "Peel back all the postmodern bells and whistles and what you'll find is pop music, pure and simple." "What nonsense!" I thought to myself. (What? Oh. Fine. I admit "What nonsense" is an unlikely thought-phrase, but who can really remember the specifics of thought-phrases?)

My problem was not with the "bells and whistles" cliche (glockespiel and whistling (in harmony) were highlights of the previous night's performance), but with the far more problematic "pop, pure and simple" cliche. (The Stanger's web subhead for the piece reads, "Grizzly Bear's Wild, Hard-to-Tag Pop." The writer of the piece, however, seemed to have no problem placing an incorrect tag on it.) His mistake, beyond laziness, is conflating a cultural idea ("pop," apparently in its simplest and purest form) with musical ones (melody and harmony).

Now, I own an 800-page tome called The Faber Book of Pop, which attempts to create a somewhat definitive theory of pop by compiling essays and reporting from the last five decades. So definining "pop" isn't easy. But for our purposes, let's break it down to basics.

"Pop" derives from the word "popular." The meaning has changed somewhat in relation to music. In the early part of the 20th century, popular music meant music that was played on the radio. Eventually, rock music was played on the radio and became popular. Popular music featured simple, memorable melodies, short, repetitive musical phrases, conventional song strucutes (verse-chorus-bridge, for example), and rhythmic patterns with three or four beats per measure. (Yes, Pink Floyd's "Money" is in 7/4, but that's one of those "exceptions that prove the rule.") The Beatles, the most popular group of the last century, and The Beach Boys, the most overrated group of the last century, both incorporated vocal harmonies into their highly successful sounds, forever entrenching that element into the "pop" sound.

In today's music industry, not everything designed according to these principles of pop music makes it onto the radio, even if it's extremely catchy (for some indie-pop bands, radio play would be a hindrance to their credibility, but that is a subject for another time). Nevertheless, if a critic wishes to use the word "pop" to describe a band's sound (even though it is a probably far too general label to convey much meaning), then the music he is describing should contain the above elements.

Grizzly Bear make much use of melody and harmony in their music, along with orchestration from non-traditional rock instruments, which makes post-mustache Beatles and Brian Wilson-in-bed Beach Boys fair comparisons. It does not make them a pop act. Grizzly Bear's songs are often broken up into different sections, or movements, rather than traditional song structures. These movements often take place in unusal time signatures. And while their melodies are strong, they are often long-winded. All of this makes their music much more closely related to classical, or better yet, prog-rock.

Of course, prog-rock isn't very hip these days. On the other hand, music that is unapologetically pop, without actually being popular, is uber-credible. And the writer of The Stranger article obviously had an agenda to make Grizzly Bear appear hip and credible. Why else would he be writing an article promoting their concert?

This type of unthoughtful language usage is a plague in music writing today. It stems from judgements about music that have very little to do with notes and arrangements and everything to do with the cultural values of the young and cool. It's the reason why music being made today still gets labelled as "post-punk." (This makes even less sense than calling Grizzly Bear a pop act. In a sense, all music being made today is "post-punk," since punk arrived in the 1970s and we are now in the 2000s.) We need to get our facts straight, even when we're writing opinion. Pure and simple.

Grizzly Bear - Lullabye

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Go Far, Go Far (Come On)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

On Penn & Teller: Bullshit