Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Gaps

Farmers - Food Eaters

Bankers-Investors

Doctors-Patients

Energy Industry-Energy Consumers

Congressmen-Constituents

Retailers-Consumers

Diplomats-Citizens

Hollywood-Movie Goers

The fact of the matter is that many professionals, trade organizations, low-density occupations, etc. are all fairly removed -- geographically, intellectually, or mentally -- from the people they support. I don't understand the nuances of agricultural policies even though they probably affect me in many ways. I don't understand all of the regulations and decisions that bankers make that affect our entire economy. I don't live next door to diplomats, I don't know what they do every day, and they make decisions for our nation. Congressmen aren't usually like the rest of us and we don't have much contact with them either in spite of the major decisions they make for us every day. Frankly, I haven't heard a lot of complaints about this. There are divides between "the people" and nearly every group that ensures our society maintains itself and almost all of us are okay with this. We don't have the energy or time to really wade into the details of these policies to force ourselves and our ideas into these groups.

Which is why I often scoff at the Chicken Littles of the civil-military divide. To describe the gap between the military and the rest of the country as a crisis is just plain silly. No valid arguments have been put forward that show that this gap is worsening or has any worse effects than any of the gaps I listed above. To include the last one in many cases. Thoughts to the contrary, particularly of this form (which I won't waste any time dissecting because it really is that terrible), are exercises in egotistical scare-mongering.  So next time someone warns about our civ-mil crisis, ask them where the food they ate today came from and what was in it. Ask them when was the last time they had the influence to reduce risk in financial markets. Ask them when they last wrote to their representative to get them to vote for what's right instead of the party line. Yes, the military is as world apart. But this country is full of figurative gated communities along with the real ones. Until we expect our citizens to become experts on essentially ever major category of public policy (something that is not only impossible, but also probably unwise), we should stop beating the drum that our category of public policy is what will undo the Nation and then use the those threats to substantiate the abridgment of our fellow citizens' freedoms.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The leadership enigma and sexual assault in the military

Leadership's problem is that it is an enigma. We know it exists, but what it is and how to teach it is as clear as Turner's London. We have a hard time describing what it is but we know when someone has it. It is the reason for an organization's successes, the cure-all to its ills, and the scapegoat for its faults. We prefer to empower people with leadership at the lowest level possible and yet invariably hold the highest levels of leadership accountable when the lower levels screw things up. Likewise, when institutions go awry higher-ups often blame the lower-downs (?) for their lack of leadership.  You have all seen this in the military and civilian worlds, first hand and in the press. What are we supposed to make of leadership from all of this?

Within the military and its circles, including armchair strategists, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prime examples of poor strategic leadership (mostly) and excellent tactical leadership (also mostly). Some of this is undoubtedly true. But many go further. There has been a call for pushing more power to lower leaders: company commanders, platoon leaders, squad leaders. Corporals, the lowest leadership rank in the Army, is now a strategic billet. And yet our generals are glorified tacticians. We need to let these junior guys do what the they think works, in the best traditions of Auftragstaktik, and even let them screw up a bit. The most serious impediment to our Army is that senior leaders -- battalion, brigade, division, corps, and higher commanders -- are standing in the way of the guy on the ground from doing his or her job through the senior leader's micromanagement inspired by his own career interests. You all know the tired, old saying: lead, follow, or get out of the way. We want our NCOs and company grades to lead, the Joes to follow, and everyone else to get the hell out of their way. Or so the argument goes.

But now we have a crisis in the force. Sexual assault, harassment, and rape is entirely too high for an organization that succeeds through its values, such as loyalty, duty, and the oft-maligned honor. No humans should do these things to other humans. Ever. These crimes become even more egregious when they are committed within an institution that demands mutual trust among its people. The stakes of war are too high for this trust not exist. And yet sexual crimes erode that trust in ways that no other offenses do, which is why it doesn't matter that sexual misconduct incidence in the military is lower than it is in the civilian world. The harm is greater in the military. We all know that eradicating sexual misconduct is impossible, but surely we can significantly reduce it through two supporting ways: policy and leadership.

So here we come back to that word: leadership. Leadership, particularly at the highest levels, has been blamed for this rash of crimes. This blame is partially right and partially wrong. Once you leave company command, you really don't get to know your people outside of your commanders two (or three) levels down and your staff. There are just too many people. General Odierno can't personally stop a Sergeant First Class at West Point from filming female cadets in the shower. He doesn't know this E7 and he has hundreds of thousands of people to look after. At the field and general grade levels, leadership is exercised principally in three ways: example, policy, and 'command'. We have a problem when lieutenant colonels, colonels, and generals are harassing, assaulting, and raping. I don't expect SSG Snuffy looks and BG Sinclair and thinks to himself, "General Jeff is doing it so it must be okay." But SSG Snuffy looks at Sinclair, Roberts, or any of the other higher ranking perpetrators -- of which there are too, too many -- and thinks to himself that his Army's leadership is broken and he loses faith in the institution. What sort of system allows predators to climb its ranks? In this way, the few very bad apples are becoming a failure of leadership from the perspective of leadership as exemplar.

Leadership through good policy is a bit harder to grasp. Biannual anti-sexual assault/harassment briefings are good policy in theory, but anyone who has sat through them know how utterly ineffectual they are. As everyone knows this, they question why they are made to sit through them. It reeks of leaders mandating briefings to cover their own fourth points of contact and be seen as doing something. I don't have the answer to the formal education element to the sexual crime problem in the military (I'll leave that to the experts), but the current system is a failure and that does reflect on the leaders who implement it. The other major element of policy has been with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically that generals and admirals have the authority to set aside sentences. This has been done recently in the trial and conviction of field-grade officer in the Air Force and this too smells bad. The perception is that senior leaders are taking care of senior leaders.  With no equivalent in the civilian judicial process, it is curious that this policy remains in military law. Even more curious is that some generals came out in support of the policy in spite of its negative effect on the institution. While many have said they support its removal from the UCMJ, the policy's use and its support has been another senior leader failure.

Command is harder yet to hold accountable. It's having the legal authority (what separates it from the broader category of 'leadership') to tell folks to do things and it's being responsible when they don't do those things. This is where a lot of people, predominantly in my observations those who have not served, place the blame. Generals command the Army. The Army has a problem. Generals are to blame for that problem. This reasoning is not wrong, but it is not the whole story. Yes, Generals Odierno, Dempsey, Casey and Schoomaker bear some responsibility for this crisis because it happened on their watch. That is the burden of command. The question is: what are they supposed to do about it? Frankly, being a good example and instituting effective policy is their primary recourse. Lower commanders, field grades and division commanders, can exert their command influence here by crushing people who violate their unit's and comrades' trust. "Zero defect" is a dirty term in the Army, but it may be time to resurrect it.

Senior leaders do have culpability for the existence of sexual crimes in the force.  There are things, roughly outlined above, that they could do to help improve things. But they alone cannot fix the problem. The only way to get to a Force Zero, if you will, is to exert leadership and responsibility in the two groups that are usually immune from public scrutiny: low-level leaders and individuals. NCOs and company-grade officers clamor for authority and now is their time to really grasp it instead of the typical tongue-wagging about it. I'm amazed that these crimes occur in units and no one seems to know about it. The way to change the culture is for junior leaders to really (I mean really) know their people. To know what makes them tic, what they do off of duty, their opinion of women. They can show true leadership by not permitting misogynistic talk in the office or prohibiting pornography in the platoon area.* A good junior leader has his/her finger on his/her unit's pulse and should know when things are about to go bad or when they already have. The other group is the obvious source of the problem: individuals. Some people are who they are and too many are just bad at being people, that is why Force Zero isn't very realistic. This could crisis could vanish over night if people just acted like people towards each other. To say nothing of people in uniform acting according to the values espoused in that uniform.

The intent of this post is to ensure we, the American public, aren't having knee-jerk reactions about this very serious problem. Yes, senior leaders have responsibility for it happening and for fixing it in the terms I have outlined here. And yes, individual culprits should get the lion's share of the blame as they're the jerks doing this stuff. But it's time we give our junior leaders the responsibilities commensurate with the authorities they say they deserve (and that I argue they've generally had). You want to run your unit lieutenant or captain without meddlesome superiors? Then do it. These problems are on you. If you couldn't tell you had a problem in your unit after something blew up, then you were part of the problem. Tactics won't win wars, but stemming the tide of sexual crimes in the military starts at the platoon. This is a strategic problem that you can mostly fix merely by being there, understanding your charges, and understanding when you need to take action. When the seniors set a good example and provide good policies while juniors take charge of their units and their people, we'll have a better sense of what leadership should look like in the military instead of the finger pointing and soap-boxing we endure today.


*One of my greatest failures as a platoon leader was allowing my platoon sergeant to post nude pictures on the walls of his tank. Other than the flash fire hazard, it was quite embarrassing when we gave a couple of nice female nurses a tour of a tank and his was the only one not locked at the time. They were rightfully uncomfortable through what should have been something cool for them and I was mortified.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

10 Years After

10 years ago I was in the western desert of Kuwait, a tank platoon leader unsure if I would have to lead my men to war or not. I fully supported going to war at the time. I didn't much care about weapons of mass destruction, beyond their possibly being used against me, and democratization is a lofty goal.  But these weren't the reasons I wanted to go to war. The most important reason I thought we should go to war was because I realized my quickest route home was through Baghdad, which sounded better than more months whiling away in the desert. The second reason I wanted to go to war was because that's what I thought soldiers should do. We had a plan, we had rehearsed it, and my platoon was very, very good. I went to West Point in an era where there were generations of officers, outside of the few who fought in Desert Storm or Panama, were never able to use the skills they trained their entire lives for. I didn't want to be one of those old guys regaling my loved ones with harrowing tales of that time in the Whale Gap at the National Training Center. I wanted to do something. I was 22 and obviously knew nothing about the world beyond how to lead a platoon of tanks.

We should never have gone to war with Iraq. The intelligence that was used to substantiate a massive war was so shoddy that I wouldn't have used it to substantiate a platoon-sized raid. And of course we know now that I was fabricated purely to start the war. As horrifying as that is, I don't believe Iraq was the greatest blunder the U.S. has made since World War II. I think escalating Vietnam still holds that title. The Iraq War may have tilted the political leanings of the United States, but it has not fundamentally changed our social fabric in the way that Vietnam did. For the Iraqis, our invasion was probably the worst thing to have happen to them since World War II. What this war wrought on them is unconscionable. That we lost 3,542 U.S. servicemembers, with another approximately 32,000 wounded, is horrifying. Even more horrifying are the 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis that are estimated to have been killed because of the war, to say nothing of the millions who were displaced from their homes and the rending of the Iraq's social fabric (although some of that was good, such as the enfranchisement of the Shia and Kurds).

These statistics speak not only to the folly of having started the war, but also to the incompetence of those charged with executing it. At least through the end of 2005 and probably longer, the Iraq War was a tidal wave of arrogance and stupidity. In April 2003, when civilians were looting government facilities, the order came down to let them have at it. This criminality was the "exuberance of democracy". The next month when the order came down to disband the security forces and expel the Ba'ath Party from government it took all of about 4 hours for the first attack to occur on a convoy on Airport Road. No one was seriously hurt, but that was all about to change. In June my unit moved to Balad, a hotbed of former regime acolytes, where we patrolled in unarmored HMMWVs, taking the doors off so we could hang our legs out the sides and face our pitiful body armor to any potential blasts. While there we conducted cordons so the 4th Infantry Division could run their sweeping operations, making matters worse by rounding up military-aged males in the interest of security. In 2005, my unit was in eastern Baghdad where we ignored the Sadrists for almost a year. Our predecessors had a hard fight against them in 2004 and our command wanted none of that. By doing nothing we gave the Sadrists 12 months to refit and rearm so that units in 2006 had a harder time than 1st Cavalry Division did in 2004 and further inflamed the civil war. This is just skimming the top of the nonsense I witnessed personally that did nothing but hurt the Iraqis we were trying to "liberate" and the soldiers and marines doing the liberating.

By the time I was stop-lossed for the surge in 2007 I was adamantly against the war. I thought the surge just another foolish move in a long series of foolish moves and that we should have ended the war instead. During my last 13 months in Iraq during this surge, I came around to believing it was the best way to turn around a terrible situation. The Iraqis did most of the hard work with The Awakening and the Sadrist cease-fire, but it took the infusion of more soldiers into the battle space and the increased killing of our most extreme enemies to solidify the gains made by the Iraqis. This is not to say that the surge made up for our past blunders or that it led to our winning the war. It was merely the best option from an assortment of really bad options. As a case in point, before we had Sons of Iraq in our brigade battle space we had 35 to 40 "negative events" - a euphemism for attacks on coalition forces or reports of attacks on civilians - per day. The day after we secured our battle space with an additional battalion and a contingent of Sons of Iraq we averaged 2 negative events per day. The decrease in violence, brought about by many factors including the use of more violence, was remarkable. So while Iraq is still quite violent and nearly none of the major political disputes have been settled, we did some things right in an attempt to correct the mistakes we made. Unfortunately it wasn't quite enough to make up for that biggest mistake and it's possible it could have been for naught.

My feelings about this war are complicated. On the one hand, in spite of my initial and self-centered support for it, this war should never have happened. The people who worked so hard to create it should never have remained in office after the next election and should have been shamed from public life forever. Invading Iraq was certainly one of the worst things this country has done in the past 70 years. On the other hand I was a soldier responsible for and to other soldiers. I was oblivious to political machinations, concerned only with battle drills, gunnery skills, and medical proficiency. I was concerned with the welfare of my men and accomplishing our missions that were such a small part of the whole of our endeavors in Iraq. During nearly 3 years on the ground I witnessed some of the most inspiring acts of heroism, sacrifice, service, and humanity, so lacking in my life now. Of course we should never have been put in the position to commit and witness these acts in the first place. I am embarrassed for our country for having done this to ourselves and the Iraqis. Yet I am not only not ashamed for having taken part in this war, I'm proud of doing so. It has done more than anything else in making me who I am today. In spite of this retrospective I greet this 10th anniversary of the war with some ambivalence and a bit of distance. I'll probably skip all of these "10 lessons" articles that are being passed around and not revisit my papers and videos on the war. Instead I'll raise a glass to the soldiers I fought with and those we lost and leave it at that.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Comments and Reviews

Just a couple of quick notes. First, I want to apologize for the addition of captcha to the comments. We have been inundated with spam lately. I thought that the filters had been getting it, but just now had to go through to delete over 100 published spam comments. Hopefully this fixes the problem and we won't have to turn off comments altogether. If things go well for a while, we'll take a look at turning it off or finding a better solution. Recommendations on this are welcome. So sorry for the pain in having to verify your comments and for dealing with our spam problem. There's a special place in hell for the people that design those programs.

Second, a quick note on posts. As you most likely noticed, Gulliver and I have cut back significantly in recent months. I can't speak for Gully, but I thought you should know that at least through the spring, my posts will probably be exclusively book reviews. Unless, of course, the blogging spirit moves me. I hope to have one on Max Boot's Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present completed in the next couple of weeks. I've had some difficultly in determining how to frame the review for this one, but I think I've finally cracked it. After that I'll review Andrew Polsky's Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. I'm not entirely sure what comes after that. Oxford University Press just released their spring catalog that contained a couple of promising volumes for this venue. Otherwise I am open to recommendations and requests from publishers, authors, and our readers. The point is that posting will be sparse, but that posts are also in the pipeline.

Thank you for your patience on both of these issues.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs? Neville Bolt's The Violent Image


By Neville Bolt
Columbia University Press


In The Violent Image Neville Bolt, a Teaching Fellow at Kings College London and a former BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and CBC Canada producer-director, sets out to redefine the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD) from its 19th Century roots and make it applicable to today's insurgents and terrorists (he uses these terms somewhat interchangeably, arguing that many terrorist groups, such as al Qaida, are global insurgencies). Bolt defines the original POTD as such: 
Initially the deed was an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of goading the state into overreacting and using excessive force, thus losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and securing revolution.  (24)
He contrasts this first concept with today's POTD: 
POTD is an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of creating a media event capable of energising populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation. (24)
Bolt posits that this change in the insurgent's utility of violence has developed from acts that were primarily kinetic and symbolic to acts that are in reality strategic communications tools beyond their physical, tactical utility. There are five reasons for this development: globalization, mass migration and urbanization, the Digital Revolution, virtual social networks mapping onto traditional social networks, and the movement of politics into the media. 

The book is title The Violent Image because Bolt stresses the importance of images, stills over video, as a means to trigger emotions that change collective and collected memories such that are necessary to rewrite social understanding of political history. Pictures, he says, are more emotive than words, are conveniently ambiguous that they allow for different interpretations by different audiences, and cut across language barriers. There exists an 'Archipelago of Memories' (it seems his dissertation adviser was John Mackinlay after all) within societies that links memories and narratives. Actors with political primacy within societies have controlled the means of narrative, primarily through state-owned or -controlled media, and therefore have controlled the collective memory of the society. Insurgents attempt to provide an alternative narrative to create new memories sympathetic to their cause. Attempts that have been significantly facilitated by the digital revolution where media (narratives) are no longer one-to-many and are now many-to-many. Violent images are crucial to breaking down existing memories:
Insurgents connect these acts of violence in the minds of individuals and groups, to carefully crafted memories of grievance. Preparing the population is not simply about reinforcing ideology. It is about fracturing state and media memories - the status quo ante - and rooting violence in freshly constructed narratives, spawning a new revolutionary memory. (54)
To this point, Bolt provides an interesting history of Irish insurgent groups from 1798 until the present day where each new movement, whether nationalist, republican, Catholic, or socialist, has used propaganda to tie their group and cause to the earliest Irish insurgents. By drawing on more than a hundred years (at least for the most recent groups) these organizations created a memory of long-suffered grievance, even if their own objectives had little to anything in common with their predecessors. 

Insurgents, indeed any actor who uses propaganda, have the difficulty of speaking to many different audiences: fighters, local societies, diaspora societies, friendly governments, enemy governments, enemy fighters, etc. While the ambiguity of violent images allows them to use one image to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, it is imperative the that narrative of their values remain unambiguous. This is something Western governments know all too well. There cannot be too big a gap between what you do and what you say. Insurgents use POTD, both minor and spectacular:
Minor events should resonate with each other, while spectaculars provide focal points that act as beacons within the landscape of revolutionary violence. (151)
Spectacular events in particular create fleeting points in time and space that provide the insurgent the capability to leverage their narratives while established media narratives waste the moment attempting to understand the "why" of the attacks through self-reflection. These are precious moments in building societal memories. 

Bolt provides two important lessons from all of this. First is that while the technologies that allow insurgents to propagate their narratives are not in themselves revolutionary, the changes in insurgent behavior of leveraging the technologies to disperse their narratives is, namely by the speed of dissemination (event to propaganda) and through many-to-many engagements. The second important lesson that Bolt draws is that insurgent organizations are increasingly, rightly in his opinion, using this new concept of POTD, leveraging the digital revolution, as a strategic operating concept that not only describes their military operations, but more significantly drives military operations so that tactical activities are determined by narrative and strategies of breaking down and building new memories. 

The Violent Image is a tour de force on the utility of violence for insurgent propaganda. Bolt lays out a coherent and engaging explanation of how and why insurgents and terrorists use violence towards political objectives. His arguments is straightforward and informative, if academically written, and we are better off having this work. Much ink has been spilled on the narrative aspects of insurgency and counterinsurgency, much of it useful, some of it not. Bolt's story is useful as it should help us understand the interaction of war and narrative better, even if it provides little in the way of recommendations to combat insurgent efforts to build new societal memories (which, of course, was not his intent; this is not a knock against the book). 

I certainly agree with Bolt that the POTD is and should be a operating concept that drives insurgent strategies (the term 'strategic operating concept' being an oxymoron in American military parlance).  However, my initial reaction to this book was to question whether this is evolutionary or revolutionary. What Bolt proposes is the story of a Revolution in Military Affairs with regard to insurgent warfare. A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs, a RIMA if you will.  The contrast is important. The study of war and its revolutions have focused almost solely upon great powers and conventional tactics and strategies. Discussions of the role of guerrilla warfare in this context center on how evolutions and revolutions in counterinsurgent forces enable those forces to better fight against insurgencies. The fact of the matter is that we do not have an academic reckoning of insurgencies such as we have for Western militaries. Our understanding of insurgencies has not progressed much past hit and run tactics, blending with the populations, the population is their target, and other such statements. These are not terribly useful in analyzing Bolt's thesis that his new POTD definition is revolutionary. 


To continue this line of analysis, POTD as a RIMA, we should examine what is meant by a Revolution in Military Affairs. A perfectly good definition was provided by Peter Singer in his Wired for War:

RMAs typically involve the introduction of a new technology or organization, which in turn creates a whole new model of fighting and winning wars. A new weapon is introduced that makes obsolete all the previous best weapons, such as what armored, steam-powered warships did to wooden, wind-powered warships. (Singer, 181)
There is no question that the digital revolution brought about new technologies that have affected warfare. Indeed, insurgent groups have even reorganized themselves to better leverage these technologies. But are these actions revolutionary with regard to insurgent warfare? Have they created a "whole new model of fighting and winning wars"? 

Insurgents have use propaganda as long as we have been recording such things. Even Clausewitz himself acknowledges that the insurrectionist's center of gravity is popular support (we'll ignore for the moment that he still then proscribes the destruction of the enemy force as essential). During his lengthy discourse on Irish insurgencies, Bolt writes at length about their leveraging propaganda. The connection of violence to propaganda has been the hallmark of terrorist groups for at least a century, and likely before that, either to generate grievance from heavy-handed governments or to demonstrate their group's military competence.


I believe that an element of skepticism of the revolutionary aspect of Bolt's thesis is his definition of the POTD from a century ago. He links the violent act to government overreaction; a judo throw that causes widespread outrage that creates social transformation. But what are these events other than media events? How were insurgents able to spread public outrage? In the case of Ireland it was through pamphlets and underground newspapers. I would argue that insurgent intents and the mechanisms to bring their objectives to reality have not fundamentally changed since, merely the speed and reach of messaging. Indeed, speed and reach provided by digital means are necessary to counteract global migrations that would in earlier times have been local audiences to insurgent groups. Audiences that had been well within the effective range of a well written and illustrated newsletter. 


There are numerous ways to analyze this excellent book and as a military thinker and writer I chose to approach it as a second track of military affairs. I do not find what Bolt describes as creating a whole new way of fighting and winning wars. Propaganda, rooted in violent imagery to evoke emotions that break down and recreate societal memories of grievance, has benefited from the digital revolution in an evolutionary manner, not revolutionary. It is not a RIMA, even if it may drive more 'traditional' forces towards their own RMAs to combat the POTD. That said, this type of analysis would be well served by more in-depth study of insurgencies over time, such as we have for Western militaries.


The point of evolutionary or revolutionary advancement does not degrade this book in any way. It is exceptionally informative in describing how and why our current and potential adversaries use violence beyond tactical gains and into symbolic strategic gains by way of propaganda. Any student of modern warfare, insurgency, and terrorism would do themselves well by reading and keeping The Violent Image handy and I congratulate Dr Bolt for creating this significant work. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Apropos of nothing...

Excerpted from a Wall Street Journal editorial, 10 January 1963, entitled "War Without Will":
And perhaps we should all realize that there are certain things the U.S., for all its military power, cannot do. One is to reshape the nature of people of radically different traditions and values.
Quoted in David M. Toczek's 2001 book, The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam (p. 122 of the 2007 paperback edition).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I love books

During my third tour in Iraq, as a staff officer, I spent the preponderance of my non-working time reading. It was an ideal situation to read if only because there was not much else to do. In my first tour, where we invaded Iraq and moved around quite a bit, with a deplorable mail delivery system, I read whatever I could get my hands on. My second tour in 2005 was more stable, with regard to location stability, and I read quite a bit. But it was really in this last tour that spanned from early 2007 until mid-2008 that I really became a voracious reader based on opportunity and intellectual growth that yearned for more.

I had been a reader from my earliest days, but school seemed to take up much of my reading time until adulthood. My mother works for the public library in my hometown in eastern Pennsylvania, forcing me to spend much of my time among many and varied volumes. In this last tour of note, she was assigned the task of ensuring I had plenty to read (my father, bless him, was tasked with keeping my humidor stocked). I sent my mother lists before and during deployment and received in return large boxes of books, through our markedly improved post. Initially, my reading interests were varied. Already well steeped in the books of my profession - Clausewitz's On War, Jomini's The Art of War, works by Galula and Tranquier, and a seemingly infinite suite of Army doctrine - I took interest in the books of the war of which I was a participant. Michael Gordon's Cobra II and particularly Tom Ricks' Fiasco became influential in my thinking of the war and how I addressed my small part of it. Possibly because of this mono-topical study or possibly in spite of it, I felt I needed to widen my reading (and beyond my exhaustive collection of Hemingway that dominated my fiction shelves).

In my first major package of books of that deployment (thanks, Mum!), I received the last Harry Potter, Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Kateb, Dickens, Hobbes, Thucydides, Dante, de Tocqueville, Hiaasen, Adam Smith, Arendt, Huxley, Bryson, Isaacson's biography of Einstein, a few non-fiction adventure books (I recommend from these Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy and The Last Expedition by Daniel Liebowitz and Charles Pearson), and most prominently Joyce's Ulysses.  These were the books I felt necessary to begin a study of the human condition beyond war (except the adventure books, which were wisely the purview of my mother, and the Harry Potter, which I merely enjoyed). Except for the Joyce, which I read every day and still took the entire deployment to finish, this was 6 months of reading material.  When this package of knowledge was delivered to me during duty in my brigade's operations center south of Baghdad, another captain on the staff expressed to me, "I love books!" Meanly, I thought, "Of course you do; who doesn't?"  At the time, I thought it a stupid thing to say.

In retrospect, I disagree with my moderately younger self and declare that I, too, love books. It is not obvious. Not everyone does. And while I may love books in a different way than our maligned captain (my agape vice her philia, if you will excuse both the probably unnecessary distinction and probable blasphemy), her sentiment is one which I have come to embrace entirely and tirelessly. I do not just love reading, I love books. I love to hold a book in my hands, to feel the binding and the paper, to smell the ink. I love the plates and pictures. I love the font and the layout of the pages, even if they include irregularities (such as my nth-hand copy of Joyce's Dubliners, where the printing is partially smudged throughout the middle third). I suspect that many of you do as well, the military scholar being a peculiar subset of the bibliophile that tends towards bookishness and book collecting, even if said collecting extends beyond the typical cast of characters that have contributed to the art of war and warfare. My personal interactions indicate that you are a well-read and erudite community that reads compulsively on topics for which we are paid to read and topics for which we enjoy and topics we read because we believe that it makes us a better person.

Which is why I am writing this non-security specific post on books to recommend to you two book I have read this year on the topic of book collecting: Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night. What I love about these books and what I predict you will as well, is that Bonnet and Manguel provide a quasi-philosophy to the condition present in so many of our community that requires us to not just read, but to amass those books we read. To have them on hand. To organize them according to our whims. To thumb through them and scribble in their margins. To place markers in them for quick reference in the future. To display them proudly in the most intimate corners of our homes and offices like the trophies of big game hunters.

Phantoms and The Library provide intellectual rigor to these habits, nay, necessities. Bonnet and Manguel elegantly provide reason to our need to have books and have them just so. Both men are men of letters and consumers of primarily fiction books, but they both show their desire for philosophy and sciences to help them contemplate and understand the world that underpins their fiction. They explore why we collect books, why read: mainly to understand our world. A world in which our existence is so limited and so short that we cannot possibly experience it all. We therefore attempt to experience it through the experiences of others. Books provide this surrogate experience in a very personal and intimate way. Both books explore how our intimate curiosities drive the nature of our own libraries and how the books we collect in our libraries drive the nature of our curiosities. That our libraries are ourselves by other means.

We have written a number of times on these pages on the topic of books, mainly in the vein of reading lists and reviews. Some of these posts have been our most popular posts, indicative of your interest in reading.  Even for a profession that values reading (of course, by Huntington's constructs all professions inherently value reading), this post is a bit off the beaten path. But I suspect that many of you who do read these books, or have, will be as touched by them as I was. If only to help you grasp how and why you habitually buy and love these rectangular cuboids of pulped wood waste upon which the human condition itself is imprinted.

As we move into a new year, Ink Spots may move in a more focused direction. I believe that my interactions here will be dominated by book reviews more so than discussions of the day. This is partially due to time available (these books aren't going to read themselves) and partially to what it is that I wish to gain out of this experience. My next post, in 2013, will most likely be a review of Neville Bolt's The Violent Image, a book that is so far excellent, topical for this audience, and timely. Until and beyond then, I hope that you have wonderful things to read.  I also hope that you have a very Merry Christmas (if that's your thing) and a very Happy New Year. We here at Ink Spots look forward to talking with you in 2013.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Generals

Before getting to the meat of this post I should make two statements. First, is that I neither like nor dislike General Petraeus. I do not think he was as successful and great as many say he was nor do I think he was merely a PR expert who fooled us all into thinking he did something. I think the right answer is somewhere in between. He didn't win the Iraq War, but he did some things that allowed to take advantage of the situation (principally enforcing unity of effort and command that had been sorely lacking under previous commanders). The second caveat is that I have not read Tom Ricks' new book The Generals. While I have read Tom's articles on the book, I have not and will not read the book for the simple reason that I do not think that I could give it a fair review. I did write this after all. So any comments after this that talk about Ricks are made exclusively on his blogging and articles on the topic, not on his book, which I hope contains a lot more detail than its shorter versions.

Now that that is out of the way, let us turn to Dexter Filkins' new New Yorker piece, "General Principles: How good was David Petraeus?"  This is an unserious piece that plants Filkins firmly on Team Petraeus in the way that Stephen Colbert asks "Is he the best or is he the best ever?"  To set up the answer to that question, Filkins spends some time on modern generals:
In wars without front lines, American generals tend to stay inside fortified bases, where they plan missions and brief political leaders via secure video teleconferences. Their credentials are measured as much by their graduate degrees as by the medals on their dress uniforms. They are, for the most part, deeply conventional men, who rose to the top of the military hierarchy by following orders and suppressing subversive thoughts.
Emphasis mine. The first couple of sentences very clearly show that Filkins does not actually understand the general officer corps in any way. Have we had generals who never left their compounds? I am sure there have been a few, but they are the exception not the rule. Filkins portrays them as out of touch by misstating what most generals, and almost all general officer commanders, do: battlefield circulation. This is not the same as living in a patrol base with host nation security forces, but that is not what generals get paid to do. Similarly, general officer credentials are not measured by medals (this is, frankly, stupid - most generals have almost the exact same medals) or graduate degrees. They are measured by the commands they had (and essential staff positions) and how well they did in those commands (the bar for "how well" may be disputed), but certainly not by medals. Graduate degrees are part of the calculus, but like everything else takes a back seat to command performance.

Now let us turn to the sentence I italicized. Filkins state quite clearly that generals become such because they are sheep. I ask: where is your support for this statement? As evidence, Filkins provides the data point that in "recent years, eighty-four per cent of the Army's majors have been promoted to lieutenant colonel -- hardly a fine filter."  I know, you're all wondering what that has to do with general officer accessions. In short: nothing. While it is hard to find accurate numbers, it seems that there are about 20,000 active duty majors and about 10,000 active duty lieutenant colonels in the Army. The Department of Defense requires, by regulation, that at least 70% of majors eligible for promotion are selected for lieutenant colonel. Because the Army needs that many lieutenant colonels. And that has nothing to do with promotion to general officer, of whom the Army has 230 authorized (for reference, active duty combat arms branch promote more officers to lieutenant colonel in one year than the total number of generals). This data point is only useful in order to say that this alleged great purging of talent and brilliance is not happening at the 15-17 year mark of officer careers.

So that is not evidence (obviously). Like Ricks, Filkins trots out General Tommy Franks and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez as examples of the GO corps' mediocrity. (He also hits on General J.D. Thurman for not pronouncing Prime Minister Maliki's name correctly in 2006 - a data point so asinine to not warrant much rebuttal. If we promoted generals based on their linguistic skills we would have a smaller bench than we do now.) The problem with this approach is that neither writer has shown that officers more capable from these two retirees' cohorts were not selected for general in spite of this non-selected officers' superior capabilities. This is quite simple: if you want to say the generals we have (or have had) are mediocre, then you need to show how the not-mediocre officers were passed over for promotion and why. There is not, of course, much data to support that kind of analysis, but it is the logical discussion that needs to be had.

We can lament the fact that Franks and Sanchez were both promoted to general officers. But who were they competing with? Where are all of these brilliant go-getters who were passed over? What Ricks (again, in shorter form) and Filkins fail to address is the dearth of quality officer candidates from the early- to mid-1970s. Matriculation to ROTC and West Point from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s was not the best crop of candidate officers this nation has seen. There were years where West Point nearly did not fill all of its slots. West Point also suffered the worst ethics scandal in its history in 1976. What year groups were Franks and Sanchez? 1971 and 1973 respectively. General George Casey, another favorite beating horse of the general officer corps, was from the 1970 cohort. While there were some very fine officers commissioned in this era, I would suggest that these gentlemen were actually representative of the some of the best officers eligible for general rank. Smart guys did generally did not want to go to Vietnam. Or to an organization as broken as the U.S. Army after Vietnam.

But the most glaring hole in this discussion is Petraeus himself. If he is as good as Ricks and Filkins like to think, how did he become such a high-ranking general? There are two logical answers: 1) Petraeus is a sheep like every other general or 2) Ricks' and Filkins' thesis is incorrect. There is a third possibility that an exception was made for him, but that there might be exceptions runs against the "mediocre generals" meme and cause us to wonder why there are not more exceptions. If we look at Petraeus, we see a man who earned a PhD at Princeton University and who helped codify population-centric counterinsurgency into Army doctrine. But we also see a man who served as an aide to four generals (talk about back-slapping to get ahead...) and who tried to implement his counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan and failed. I suspect if we put our personal biases aside, we would see that Petraeus, while quite smart, is really about as good his cohort (and certainly better than Franks and Sanchez who were unequivocal duds). Which are probably the best the Army could provide based on when these men joined.

Filkins' piece is full of bad history and illogical statements in order to puff up his hero. And while he is wrong about Petraeus, he is also wrong about generals in, well, general. Petraeus made it to the top by being as good as he could while also doing all the networking he could, like anyone with ambition in an organization. But it is false logic and intellectually dishonest to parade Franks and Sanchez as the model general officer before giving us Petraeus as the savior of the Army. The quality of officers should be distributed normally. Petraeus, Franks and Sanchez may very well be in the tails, but I doubt they are so distinct from the bulk of the quality of their cohorts, such as Generals Ray Odierno, Lloyd Austin, and Martin Dempsey (also from this generation of officers). Odierno is an especially applicable example of my point here. In 2003 and 2004 he reflected the Army he served and yet was able to adapt to the changing situation in Iraq as the operational commander during the Surge. Possibly a more impressive feat than what Petraeus', but it remains that the line between "good" and "bad" generals is a very fine line indeed.

Our generals are by no means perfect, but it is a lie to say they got where they are because they purposefully did not rock the boat. Competition to succeed is very intense. And yet we must remember that, particularly at the highest levels, generals are ultimately selected by the civilian leaders of DoD and the White House. Don't like Tommy Franks? Then ask Secretary Rumsfeld why he did not fire him - only he and the President had the power to do so. I also do not worry about the future of the Army generals. I think that the generals we have had and have today are just fine and reflect the Army they have grown up in. And that includes having studs and duds where delineating between the two is often difficult. Like every organization. I also firmly believe that Petraeus' fall is not the death-knell for a quality general officer corps. I think that the generals from cohorts of the 1970s have been below average from other cohorts (even if the individual generals are probably as high of quality compared to the cohorts who were not selected for general), we will see a significant increase in quality from cohorts of the 1980s and 1990s. Officers who served as battalion and brigade commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the officers who understand the nuances and challenges of modern warfare. I assure you that mediocrity is not something that can be attributed to this group of fine officers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Our definition of war is pretty good as it is

Lt Col Jill Long, an Air Force officer and student at the Army War College, wrote "What is War? A New Point of View" that was published at the Small Wars Journal. In this piece, Long attempts to redefine war beyond our current understanding based in dictionaries and Clausewitz. She finds the existing definitions limited and finds an expanded is necessary because of today's "global society" and its resulting "[t]errorism and violent aggression by non-state actors."  Because of this, she posits that war is a spectrum beyond mere violence and rather a spectrum of states between peace and unrestricted armed conflict. She proposes a new definition: "War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation's will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail." This problematic and maximalist view of war and the reasoning behind the need for a change in our understanding of war requires some discussion.

This discussion, like any that attempts to define war, begins with Clausewitz (the dictionary definitions that Long provides are irrelevant here as they are not used by strategists and have limited meaning to us). It would be helpful to read Clausewitz's definition of war in total from Book One, Chapter 1 (from the Howard/Paret translation of On War even though I generally prefer the Graham translation - I seem to be in the minority on this point, so Howard/Paret it is):
I shall not begin by expounding a pedantic, literary definition of war, but go straight to the heart of the matter, to the duel. War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries to through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.
War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.
Force, to counter opposing force, equips itself with the inventions of art and science. Attached to force are certain self-imposed, imperceptible limitations hardly worth mentioning, known as international law and custom, but they scarcely weaken it. Force -- that is, physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law -- is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare. That aim takes the place of the object, discarding it as something not actually part of war itself.
Italics are in the original.  Parenthetical comments aside (to be addressed in a moment), Clausewitz is quite clear on what war is: the use of force (I would probably use the term violence instead) as a means to achieve some political objective (from the discussion later in Chapter 1) that is the coherent statement of a group's will. One can infer that Clausewitz intends that acts of violence by political groups are war and that other non-violent acts by political groups are not war. Naturally for a treatise titled On War, Clausewitz provides almost no discussion of this latter set of actions, but based on comments throughout the rest of the book it seems he intends that political groups are at peace if they are not at war. But he does not expressly define peace as such.

Long says this is too limiting to modern war. War is, rather, "all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation's will." What would normally, but not doctrinally, be conceived as a spectrum from peace (if such a thing truly exists) to competition to conflict (non-violent) to war is, per Long's construct, really spectrum of war. She explicitly states that "world peace" (I am not sure why she included the descriptor "world" here) is an element of war, as are all political interactions up to and including "unrestricted armed conflict" (another phrase I am unsure of, but assume equates to total war). This is an extreme view of the state of human interactions to suggest that even when we are at peace we are at war. More importantly, this worldview is unhelpful in understanding war if war consists of every form of political activity. It is so comprehensive as to require specialization into the study of the many facets of war as to bring us right back to where we are today in understanding war. Further, what becomes of the study of warfare? Is the wielding of economic influence now to be considered an element of warfare? While economics can be corollary or complimentary to the conduct of war, it is by no means warfare itself. Philosophically, this combative worldview, if widely accepted, could only darken man's approach to political interactions - the last thing that should happen to the already stark interactions. For these reasons alone Long's definition should be abandoned.

Long fails to adequately describe how the world has changed or how the "Global Era" plays into this. She states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed how we should perceive the world. It seems that the she believes that that day should have awakened Americans to the threat of non-state actors. Long also states that "'interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security' demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others." Both of these points are stated in defiance of history. Globalists enjoy selling the greatness and threats of our "interconnected systems" in the modern day, but that presumes that the world is newly interconnected. We know this is not true. Interconnection in today's world may be faster and easier, but it is not new. States and other political groups have interacted over the elements listed for millennia - look only to the period of global colonization to see how long we as humans have been at this. Long does not describe how today's globalization is unique and why that changes how we define war.

The issue of state versus non-state actors, as pertains to the definition of war, is a silly discussion. The idea that this new "globalization" has resulted in the rise of non-state actors is also historically inaccurate and is prima facie absurd.  Civil wars have raged as long as long as humans have fought wars (indeed, civil war comprise a significant proportion of the wars humans have fought). Who are these wars supposed to have been fought by if not by non-state actors? Insurgencies and terrorism are also not new to the 21st Century (or even the Common Era) and it would take a peculiar interpretation of history to argue otherwise.

It is important to note that in his definition, Clausewitz does not describe war as act of force between states. War is engaged between enemies as the means to achieve political objectives. Of course, political objectives are not the sole purview of states as many non-state groups have exhibited and Mao so logically codified. This is not to say that Clausewitz did not intend his definition and the rest of the book to discuss war between states in the best traditions of the post-Westphalian world. He clearly speaks of states throughout the book, as indicated in the parenthetical comment in his definition of war (I did say I would return to that point). But this does not limit On War solely to war between states as mean scholars have, most prominently historian John Keegan and strategist Martin van Creveld to name a couple. It does not take that large of a leap of thought to read On War and understand that states can be any organized political group, that princes can be any leaders of those political groups, and armies can be the armed elements of those political groups. A literalist reading of Clausewitz would be as unwise as a literalist reading of Plato or Aristotle and saying their writings do not apply to the modern world because we are no longer city-states. A non-literalist exegesis of On War easily provides for the incorporation of non-state war into Clausewitz's thesis. As a last point on non-state actors, Long indicates that these offspring of globalization are driving this need for a new definition of war and yet her new definition specifies that means required are to bring about "sufficient adherence to a nation's will." This suggests that only nations have wills or that the means of war could only be used to achieve national wills. Ergo, only nations can be at war. I suspect that non-state actors would like to know how to label their activities if "war" is closed to them.

The world and the nature of the interactions of its politically organized inhabitants have not changed so much in the past 11 years as to require a new definition and view of war. Lt Col Long's proposal is at the same time both too inclusive and too restrictive and is based on this perceived change in human activity. To call activities beyond the use of force towards political ends threatens to create the view of a Hobbesian international order. The world is bleak enough without calling all state activities "war," nor is it helpful in understanding what war actually is. I assume that Long intended to broaden the focus of state activities to combat terrorism to include activities not traditionally within the purview of war, i.e., the combat. The problem with this intention is that it attributes to war activities that, while possibly conducted in support of war, are intellectually, scholastically, and philosophically outside of war. Activities we engaged in, in support of war and as elements of other means, long before 9/11. As such, Lt Col Long's proposed definition does not help us understand war or how to wage it and that Clausewitz's definition continues to serve us well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Honor, ethics, and the UCMJ

I've been waiting for things to calm down a bit before commenting on GEN Petraeus's resignation. We're not quite there yet, but I think there is an important element of this discussion not being had. I don't necessarily see his affair as the catalyst to review his record as a commander in Iraq and Afghanistan (mixed results), debate the legitimacy and wisdom of counterinsurgency as propagated by him (a very complicated answer), or the demise of the general officer corps in general (we'll be okay). The first will be debated by historians for decade to come, the second is an on-going discussion that has nothing to do with extra-marital affairs, and the latter is yet to be seen once the officers commissioned in the 1970s are retired (I'll save my different-generations-of-generals lecture for another time).

There are a couple of issues directly related to the affair itself.  There have been some who have suggested that GEN Petraeus should not have resigned as the Director of Central Intelligence over his affair. Tom Ricks has been among the most vocal of this group, arguing that GEN Petraeus's actions had nothing to do with competency and that his decisions were about personal ethics. This has been countered in the main with the argument that cleared officials who have affairs are prime targets for blackmail, therefore becoming a risk to national security. There is a lot of merit to this, but it doesn't exact scratch Tom's itch and frankly, I don't find this plausible (in the specific case of GEN Petraeus). Yet, I feel strongly that resigning was exactly what GEN Petraeus should have done and for the reason he said he did: it was the honorable thing to do.

After graduating from West Point in 1974, GEN Petraeus served in the Army for over 37 years. All of those years he was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in which adultery is a crime under Article 134. For many of those years, GEN Petraeus served as a commander, including almost every year as a general from 1999 until his retirement in 2011. As such, GEN Petraeus not only was required to uphold military law, he was an enforcer of those laws as a courts martial convening authority. I wonder how many courts martial he convened, or discharges he signed, that included adultery charges. After 37 years of living by the standards set in UCMJ, continuing to serve in high office after having violated one of the articles himself would be hypocrisy of the first order. He violated the ethics of the institution he spent nearly all of his life serving, ethics which he was a standard-bearer and enforcer. In military service, ethics are a significant part professional competency and you cannot dissociate the two. The only honorable thing left for him to do was to resign.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veteran's Day/Remembrance Day



To all who serve, and all who sacrifice - thank you.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The rank hypocrisy of veterans on OPSEC

I've written on these pages before about questioning the expertise of anyone claiming to have expertise and that arguments should be weighed as they stand. Most recently, I hit on IAVA for talking about civ-mil relations in a way that exceeded their understanding of it. But that sin is much less than those of groups who intentionally mislead the public through their own hypocrisy. Specifically, political veterans from the very right on OPSEC.

I don't think I need to go into a lot of detail - most of you know the background. This past summer the right end of the veteran (and non-veteran) blogosphere blew up with allegations against the President (and his administration) of leaking classified information about the SEAL raid to kill bin Laden for political gain. They didn't just get frothy-mouthed about this issue (of which they had some standing before they lost their reasoning faculties), they got active with at least one Super PAC started by a former Navy SEAL dedicated to OPSEC alone.

Fast forward a few months and the change in their position on OPSEC is so radical that it makes my head spin. Take the milblog This Ain't Hell - a staunchly conservative, veteran group blog that I occasionally visit for their amusing (if too serious) "stolen valor" posts. In primary contributor Jonn Lilyea's 11 June 2012 post, "Sanger defends Administration leaks", Lilyea says:
How about we let our secrets remain that way until whichever war we're fighting ends, so we don't intentionally get mired in the morass that the media made of this last war with their "open debate". ... And how about someone put a muzzle on the leaks out of the Obama Administration and let them debate the issues instead of smokescreening their failures.
Pretty straightforward position: secrets are secrets and should stay that way while the secrets affect current operations. But when it comes to Benghazi the tone changes. Lilyea posits today, in a post that quotes a report drawn from an "uncovered" Secret cable, "Who knows what other information they're sitting on today that will blow up in our faces and cost more American lives later." Again, this classified cable that affects current operations coming to light isn't an OPSEC violation, it's "uncovered". Blatant, reeking hypocrisy.

The previously-mentioned Special Ops OPSEC Super PAC does not even hide their hypocrisy on OPSEC. In a press release from 17 October 2012, the OPSEC president said:
President Obama wanted credit after our military killed bin Laden. Highly classified secrets were leaked, endangering real heroes and their families. But when terrorists killed SEALs and diplomats in Libya, this administration does not tell the truth about what happened.
In summation, this Super PAC was started because the President leaked classified info about something he shouldn't have leaked because it relates to ongoing operations. But the President is at fault because he doesn't leak classified info that relates to ongoing operations. Don't think about it too long or it will hurt your brain.

This hypocrisy isn't limited to fringe blogs (admittedly with more hits than this humble blog, but I'd rather be thoughtful than popular) or fringe political groups. A fringe blogger at a mainstream newspaper, Jennifer Rubin, supports hitting the President on the bin Laden leaks in a July post, positively quoting Governor Romney at the VFW, before accusing the President of "stonewalling" yesterday for not disclosing information that is rightly classified. I'm less concerned about Rubin as she's a pure political hack, but the point is that pure political hacks are taking their cues from veterans-cum-hacks because of the latters' perceived expertise.

These veterans and their hypocrisy is irritating at the least and dangerous at the worst. Because our veteran population is so small and our national defense so complicated, the general public looks to those few veterans who speak up to help explain how varied aspects of our national defense work. But the most vocal veterans on the issue of OPSEC, at least in volume, has been those who bathe in the fetid waters of hypocrisy. Their domestic political concerns are skewing how they present defense issues to the public, causing them to mislead the American public into believing the President is wrong for both leaking classified information and for not leaking classified information. And the American people don't know to juxtapose these two issues and see the hypocrisy of it all, even if there was some substance to the crux of their original position (minus the whole "Obama is a traitor" nonsense).

Obviously free-thinking people should always examine any argument for fallacies or validity, but too often we allow related experience to substitute for expertise. As my IAVA post made clear, being a veteran in and of itself does not make a veteran an expert on anything beyond his or her own experiences. Keep that in mind as you read through political discourse in the waning days of the presidential campaign.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The failure of light-footprint intervention to provide long-term stability

Today the RAND Corporation released Libya's Post-Qaddafi Transition: The Nation-Building Challenge co-written by a team of researchers. The paper is pretty good on discussing the current security, economic, and political situation and challenges in Libya. However, the paper's discourse on the security situation, specifically through a "light-footprint strategy", has helped me get my brain around an issue I've been struggling to wrap my grey matter around because I don't think it addresses the nature of the conflict that lead to today's situation. To be exact (and with caveats not discussed here):

Light- to no-footprint intervention in support of rebel forces is not a long-term solution for stability.

The U.S. and other NATO involvement in Libya was essentially the provision of air support (with notable exceptions of on-the-ground SOF teams). There are a number of reasons for this approach, much of which is centered around domestic Western politics. But the provision of close and strategic air support to a motley crew of disparate and competitive armed groups is only asking for a disaster. Yes, this method helped bring about the end of the much despised Qaddafi regime, but it is certainly not helping bring about a lasting peace and stability. Much like our initial efforts in Afghanistan, failing to provide the forces necessary in the aftermath of the destruction of a regime creates an environment conducive to warlord-ism and the promise of many years of conflict.

Since the 1990s at least, conflict studies have proven time and again the value of well executed DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) and SSR (security sector reform) programs. Our failure to begin this in earnest in 2002 (or really up to at least 2005!) in Afghanistan and our failure to do it now in Libya is exacerbating the security situation where the internationally-recognized government has very limited control over its own territory. Did we expect that these militias, that we supported with weapons (in some cases) and effective air support, to simply integrate themselves into the state or to return to their peaceful lives in the interest of democracy and human rights? Our planning for both Libya and Afghanistan suggest that we did expect that even if it sounds profoundly stupid when stated this directly. But without adequate intervention forces (military, police, civil) on the ground to provide security and to direct and lead DDR and SSR efforts, your only other option is to hope that DDR and SSR happen on their own. Which, as near as I can tell, has never happened.

The purpose of this short post is not to lobby for boots on the ground in Libya, but on the contrary to caution those out there who think that we can simply help these rebel groups with air power. For example: here. If our actions in Libya did create a gratitude account with the Libyan people, great. But that does not translate to those warlords that wield power through their militias as often their fight will be with other militias as they strive for greater influence. Without boots on the ground, we are unlikely to be able to stop these violent struggles for power if we can't be there to broker the peace and help move it along.

As much as military analysts bemoan the general public's lack of understanding of the effort and violence of a no-fly zone, the longer peace is much harder to accomplish without large numbers of troops on the ground to provide stability after the regime falls. If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.  That is where I have issue with the RAND paper: it discusses the light-footprint as a problem in developing long-term stability, but it does not discuss the real nature of our initial intervention and how we have not yet succeeded in using it to accomplish long-term foreign policy objectives. Instead of looking merely at Libya today, we need to understand that this has not worked yet in accomplishing anything other than short-term objectives: removing the guys we don't like. We need to understand that this approach is the minimal-interventionist version of the Bush administration's failure to provide a Phase IV plan for Iraq. It has the exact same consequences and is based on the same weak planning assumptions. Just keep that in mind as debate about intervening in Syria continues and we consider possible courses of action.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stay in your lane: IAVA and CMR edition

I'm a big fan of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and veteran service organizations (VSO) in general. I haven't always agreed with IAVA, such as their push a while back to have a ticker-tape parade for Iraq vets and their obsession with getting face time with Secretary Shinseki, but they are passionate advocates for my generation of veterans. During this election season, they have been vocal about both candidates' failure to address the war in Afghanistan or veterans issues in anything beyond platitudes. But when it comes to policy prescription or analysis of war itself vice veterans issues, VSOs have proven woefully inadequate.

Case in point is from an Atlantic article from earlier this week where author Heather Maher laments the candidates avoiding Afghanistan in speeches and debates and provides some explanation for why this is happening (h/t to Josh Foust for linking to it on Twitter). I'm going to skip past the bits that quote Michael O'Hanlon (who thinks this lack of discussion is good because silence prolongs the war - seriously) and get to the last section that deals with veterans and votes. Here Maher quotes IAVA policy guru Tom Tarantino who is correct on the lack of specifics on how each candidate would address veterans issues. Tarantino then proceeds to step in it when he talks about the war.
Tarantino says veterans don't care that Obama and Romney aren't talking about war policy. That's better left to military commanders, he believes. 
His belief couldn't be more wrong. While military commanders should have most of the say on the conduct of the war at the operational and tactical levels, the issues left to be decided over the coming years in Afghanistan should never be left to military commanders: what are our goals, when do we stop conducting offensive operations, when does everyone come home. These are presidential concerns, not issues to be left to our uniformed leadership and I imagine that is obvious to most of our readers here. Tarantino continues with the erroneous statement that we could "send everyone home tomorrow -- we could do that", a statement that is also incorrect. With significant effort we might be able to redeploy two brigades (approximately up to 5000 personnel each) a month, but that would be an optimistic guess. It would take a good year to pull our troops and their equipment out if the President said to start movement now. But this is small potatoes compared to the "left to military commanders" remark.

Tarantino isn't alone in this view and I do not expect IAVA or other VSOs to be more than cursorily conversant in civil-military relations or the conduct of war and warfare. Yet they are often asked and quoted on these issues because the public isn't aware that they can't actually address these issues. The effects can, however, be detrimental if de facto spokesmen for veterans provide and shape opinions that are contrary and unhealthy to CMR norms.  So no, Tom, this veteran does care that Obama and Romney aren't discussing war policy, because that is their job and it's not best left to military leadership.

A veteran is not by default an expert on war or warfare. Any time they as an individual or as spokesperson for VSOs swim out of their veterans-issues lane, take a hard look at what they say and take it with a grain of salt.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Antony Beevor's "The Second World War": Strategic analysis and myth-busting


In the acknowledgements to his latest history, TheSecond World War, Antony Beevor says that he wrote this comprehensive tome on one of the biggest events in human history because he wanted to fill in the gaps to his own knowledge of the topic. But, he says, “above all it is an attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.” In this, Beevor succeeds where no other historian I have read has. Weighing in at 833 pages (with notes), Beevor deftly describes and analyzes the political and military strategic events, people, and decisions that started, fought, and ended World War II. Potentially more importantly, he debunks one myth after another surrounding this war.

Geographically and politically, the European and Pacific Theaters were fairly cordoned off from each other, outside of the involvement of the United States and the British, but not entirely. Beevor pulls the thread to examine how the Soviet victory at Khalkhin Gol in eastern Mongolia in the summer of 1939 ensured that the Soviets stayed out of the eastern war (Beevor is not, of course, the only historian to make this important point) and how that affected both theaters. As he pulls the thread further, the interactions of east and west, Axis and Allies, become more acute. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have almost no strategic interaction (there are a handful of exceptions), but their actions on three or four fronts each create a strategic graph theory problem of biblical proportions for the Allies. As a big-picture example, the United States did not just face a Pacific versus Europe resource competition. The United States faced resource competition between Stillwell’s command supporting the Chinese Nationalists, MacArthur’s forces, Halsey’s forces, the preparation for an invasion of western France, operations in North Africa and then Italy, strategic bombing campaigns on both sides, and Lend-Lease to many a slew of locations. To compound this, American leaders needed to maintain support for the war at home and keep the Alliance together while trying to shape the post-war world through a political minefield of communists, socialists, fascists, colonialists, revolutionaries, and democratists. All while trying to actually win the war. If you consider the number of facets and decisions required in this complex world, multiply these considerations by the same problems with which all of the other Allies (and enemies) were forced to contend. The result is an exponentially large equation to determine the outcomes of a world in flux moving at the speed of a tank. Beevor is at his best in this work when he examines these interdependencies of these fronts, the Allies’ force structure to address them, and the inter- and intra-national political considerations.  For students of strategy, this alone makes The Second World War worth reading.

Beevor is equally as good at myth-busting the saintliness of the war’s heroes, the competence of its tragic warriors, and the general sense that it was, in fact, a “good war.” Almost none of the major players of the war get a pass (more on an exception below). Montgomery was “egotistic, ambitious and ruthless, possessing a boundless self-confidence which occasionally bordered on the fatuous.” MacArthur receives even harsher treatment that includes accusations of gross corruption. Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, Brooke, Bradley, Stalin, Zhukov, Clark, Stillwell, Halsey, et al, are all described by their weaknesses and mistakes as much as they are by their strengths and failures. The sheer volume of egomania among these great captains significantly exceeded their capabilities, as Beevor explicitly demonstrates. That is not to suggest that these were not extraordinary men in extraordinary times - on the contrary. But none of these men were as idyllically competent as many histories would have us believe. The Axis powers are given the same treatment, if not more with rightful criticism focused on their general inhumanity. As a young Armor officer undergoing basic maneuver traing, a number of German officers were still considered gods of mechanized warfare: Rommel, Peiper, Guderian, von Rundstedt, etc. Further analysis, as done in this book, shows that these men were not nearly as good as I was taught. And those that were actually tactically or operationally superior, such as Peiper, were so ruthless with their own men and civilians that their tactics should hardly be extolled, never mind exemplified, by modern Western armies. It is well past time to end this infatuation with German maneuver exceptionalism as it never really existed. (As an aside, my experience has been that those who believe in this exceptionalism also believe, incorrectly in my opinion, in Israeli maneuver exceptionalism. The sooner we end these fantasies, the better for the education of the coming generations of maneuver leaders.)

Before I return to the myth-busting of the “good war” trope, I would be remiss if did not discuss this book’s shortcomings, of which I found two. Anyone who has read extensively on World War II, a population I consider myself a part of despite my just now revisiting the topic after many years, has a pet rock about this war: some issue or topic, preferably obscure and contrarian, which is used by its holder to judge all writing and analysis of World War II.  I have one of these and his name was Major General Philippe Leclerc who commanded the French 2d Armored Division.  Although Leclerc was a competent and brave commander, he had absolutely no regard for the Allied chain of command or unity of effort. He had a reputation for ignoring his orders and doing whatever he pleased for the glory of France and/or himself. There was an obscure incident that occurred in August 1944 towards the very end of Operation OVERLORD during the attempt to trap hundreds of thousands of Germans in the Falaise Pocket. The battle to close the gap and encircle the German forces inside the pocket was hard fought and in the end a victory for the Allies. But at least one Panzer corps (and most likely more) escaped. There were three reasons: Montgomery’s inability to drive his forces south fast or hard enough, Bradley’s indecision, and Leclerc disobeying orders. The really long-story-short is that Leclerc was so excited to end the battle so that he could turn south and spearhead the liberation of Paris that he exceeded his divisional boundary in the Foret d’Ecouves. This caused a massive traffic jam with the U.S. 5th Armored Division and provided the German Army defenders time and space to establish a defensive line that allowed more German forces to escape encirclement (see page 416 at this link). I find Leclerc’s actions unconscionable. In a book that aims to break down the many cults of personality surrounding the key characters of this conflict, Beevor misses this opportunity and gives Leclerc a pass. I will grant the author some forgiveness in that if he picked on the foibles of every division commander in the war (even if this particular one was a prominent player) then this book would expand to be many volumes.  But this is my pet rock and I am miffed that Leclerc’s egomania likely led to the deaths of many soldiers and Beevor did not take a written hammer to him for it.

Some readers will complain that the Pacific Theater receives short shrift in this book. Many of the battles are not detailed, but that is true of most battles in both theaters. This book was not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the fighting, but rather of the strategic decisions and actions that comprised the whole of the war.  Tactics are rarely discussed anywhere unless they are needed for the larger analysis, such as in Stalingrad where the type of fighting played a role in the Red Army’s ferocity in the outbreak that in turn had a number of strategic implications through the end of the war. So yes, Midway gets all of two pages, but that is all that particular battle warrants when not examining the tactical situation of the battle that was irrelevant to strategy in the Pacific. Rest assured that the major strategic concerns of the Pacific are addressed in detail as well as relevant tactical analysis.

No, the second major issue with this book, besides some redundancies, is sloppiness in editing. There are too many sentences that do not make sense because of various errors. Thankfully the errors do not create ambiguity and thus confusion, but they are irritating and interrupt the flow of the book. They also increase in number near the end. It is a rather large book so some errors are expected, but the publisher would do well to give it another scrub before a second printing. Related to this is the index, which is a mess. For example, there you will find in order: Cholitz, Chungking, Chou, Ciano. There is the obvious problem that Chou should precede Chungking, but more importantly is that “Churchill” is not to be found between “Chungking” and “Ciano”.  Winston Churchill is not in the index. That is a major mistake if I have ever seen one.

These problems are overwhelmed by this book’s positive contribution to the study of World War II and military history and strategy in general. Beevor attacks the “good war” campaign and stops it dead in its tracks. The incomprehensible costs of this war should cause anyone about to describe it as “good” to pause. Indeed, fascist and imperialist aggressors and mass murderers were defeated and there is no denying that was a good thing. However, the Western Allies were hardly angels themselves if potentially lesser devils. Atrocities on the ground in the Pacific and western European fronts are detailed and are comparatively benign. But the strategic bombing campaign conducted against civilians on both sides of the war with no tangible military objectives should be viewed through a realist lens. If the Allies had lost the war, its leaders would have been tried for war crimes. And these crimes pale in comparison not only with Nazi and Japanese atrocities, but also with Soviet atrocities and later Chinese crimes. Beevor is also quite harsh on the Western leaders for acquiescing to Stalin on Eastern Europe, saying that they sold out half of Europe to save the other half. He is not wrong in this. It is important to note that Beevor does not suggest that World War II was an unjust war, he in fact says that is (from the Allied perspective, naturally), but rather that we should remove our rosy glasses on the West’s activities during the war and understand analysis of the war and its events for what they are and why “good” is not a descriptor of this war. He describes the war as “so rich a source for the study of dilemmas, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the egomania of commanders, betrayal, perversity, self-sacrifice, unbelievable sadism and unpredictable compassion.” Indeed this is true. Beevor’s account of it sets a high bar of scholarship and unprejudiced perspective for such study.