Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"To say 'warfare is changing' is banal, obvious, and thus irrelevant."

So says William F. Owen in his most recent jeremiad against the muddle-headedness of people who are stupider than him. (Or, you know, anyone who tries to come up with anything new.) This one's in the latest Armed Forces Journal -- where the motto ought to be "STILTED PROSE GUARANTEED!" -- and decries the new vocabulary of hybrid, asymmetric, and complex war.

War isn’t just transforming — it’s ushering in a whole new language to describe conflict, and this language is used in a way that pays little attention to logic or military history. Thus the forces we used to call guerrillas are now “hybrid threats.” Insurgencies are now “complex” and require “complex and adaptive” solutions. Jungles and cities are now “complex terrain.” Put simply, the discussion about future conflict is being conducted using buzzwords and bumper stickers.

The evidence that the threats of the 21st century are going to be that much different from the threats of the 20th is lacking. Likewise, there is no evidence that a “new way of war” is evolving or that we somehow had a previously flawed understanding. In fact, the use of the new words strongly indicates that those using them do not wish to be encumbered by a generally useful and coherent set of terms that military history had previously used. As war and warfare are not changing in ways that demand new words, it is odd that people keep inventing them.

Odd indeed. One would have to believe that people are just coming up with stuff to make themselves look good, eh? Oh, wait -- this seems to be precisely what Owen believes.
The only thing that can obscure that obvious truth [that there is nothing new under the sun, that every lesson that must be learned by man has been learned before by someone who precedes you, and that instead of all this original thinking nonsense we should just take a closer look at history -ed.] is the application of new words and altered meanings to bend the problem to fit the writer’s purpose — or to pretend that military history is less useful than the insights of those incapable of expressing themselves in plain English.
While we're on the subject of "plain English," let's talk about the sentence I quoted in the title. It's banal and obvious to say "Antartica is cold," but it's hardly irrelevant to someone writing a book report or going to live there. Irrelevance does not follow from obviousness, dude.

Anyway, the Frank Hoffmans of the world can defend themselves far better than I can, so I won't bother with that here. I just wanted to draw your attention to this piece, if only to underline something that I'm reminded of every time I crack the spine of our military journals: conservatism, in the very most literal sense of the term, hasn't died. Now, as ever, it manifests itself as some old guy saying "these Young Turks with their new ideas haven't actually said anything new at all!"


  1. Aren't you stretching it a bit, dude? I think the same thing, too, sometimes, at least on the language part. All that "COIN" is the graduate level of warfare stuff. I mean, come on, other wars were complicated, no?

    *Also, does this tie in a bit with what Schmedlap has been writing about lately? Dude's on fire, lately.

    **Also, apologize to MK for me; I didn't mean to spam the thread to his India/Pakistan post and I wish someone knowledgeable had piped up (or is, at the very least, e-mailing via back channels because MK asks a very interesting question....)

  2. Are some of these terms opaque and not terribly helpful? Sure. Are there new concepts in the world that add analytical clarity? Yes, undoubtedly. Owen disagrees.

    I'm not sure how connected this is with Schmedlap's recent stuff, but I've got a lot more to say about that later (mostly related to the Ucko book).

  3. Also, Old Blue showed up on one of Tom Ricks posts. Interesting thread (LUN)!

    (That thread, also, tangentially, fits into some of what Schmedlaps is saying - I think, I posit, I hypothesize, but I don't know for sure.

    Later all, this place is a massive time suck. Stop with the interesting posts already.

  4. How did I get in the middle of this?

    I don't understand the problem with either of these pieces by Owen. Granted, he's probably not going to be nominated for any congeniality award. Other than that, the AFJ piece seems to be a basic summary of the SWJ piece in which he asserts some oversights/errors by influential thinkers which could call their conclusions into question and he points out that a lot of the new buzzwords are not useful. Did I overlook something objectionable? I'm not so sure the concluding sentence of the AFJ piece should be interpreted as you suggest. Then again, English Literate did nothing to help my undergrad GPA, so I might not be the best judge of that.

    The style seems open to criticism, but the substance seems reasonable.

  5. I generally side with the anti-William F. Owen crowd when it comes to defining wars. (I mean I spent a whole series of posts on my blog doing this so its not surprising.)

    I see this Owen piece as a companion to the Colonel Gentile piece that also went up a few months ago. Each basically argues that "war is war" and "changing what you call war doesn't essentially change it". But I don't see concrete advice that helps Soldiers, Marines and warfighters in their every day actions. Saying you disagree with terms like insurgency, hybrid and 4GW is fine, but how do you help me fight the wars I am in now?

    I compare these to the Accidental Guerilla or Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. They changed the ways I look at the Afghanistan war. They changed the way I will act in future deployments. That is what upsets me about Mr. Owen's recent article.

  6. I love the use of "hermaphrodite". Owen should've just called COIN "Liberal homosexual war" and gotten everything over with.

    I'm with Gulliver. I can't see what is wrong wit new knowledge and new ideas. OK, you want to use your maneuver warfare from Warsaw Pact days in Afghanistan? To what ends? You want to look at Colonial theory to construct a state in Afghanistan? Why didn't it work when it was tried in 2001?

    It's like these folks just can't believe they were outsmarted so they think they just missed something in the footnotes. Things are completely different now. In a conversation with a colleague (I'm hesitant to call people I e-mail with "friends") I posited getting rid of the whole Division-brigade-regiment hierarchy that's been around since the Spanish Empire.

    Old ideas have not worked. Sure, they can be reworked, but without fresh thought, Owen is just going to be barking "Get off my lawn" to al-Qaeda forever.

  7. I totally disagree with Owen. War has changed, and radically so. Since nuclear arms became prevalent, America almost only fights irregular war, unless we are invading. So yes, we need to look at warfare differently. Small wars make up the majority of warfare for superpowers.

  8. Michael, usually the point someone would then make is that Owen, Gentile et al are trying to return the conversation back to an established canon of literature on war.

    It discounts the trendy but would retain for discussion a great deal of now canonic texts, such as van Creveld.

    This is a point several of us (distinguished dons like David Betz and mere idiots like me) always mention with COIN: There's very little that's actually new. One can trace a pretty straight line from Callwell/USMC Small Wars Manual to Lawrence to the French and then straight into Kilcullen.

    That's why it's so easy to bring neophytes to COIN theory up to speed -- probably 15 books will get you more than you need to know, and the rest is just stuffing the turkey fatter.

    Much of what is penned today that's jargony and trendy really isn't all that original, and much of what is original often betrays bad history (which is another typical dichotomy, history vs IR).

    Owen is right that notions of "complexity" typically are seized to justify a paradigm in which the newish author has staked some claim to competence (often with little purchase).

    At the same time, I could make a good case -- I think -- for "hybrid" as a useful topic when describing LTTE or HezbAllah (and not much else). If you think Owen sounds peevish, try holding a conversation about "Irregular warfare" as a definition.



  9. I'm with SNLII on this one. You can disagree with Owen's output generally but on this occasion he got something fundamentally right: words can obscure truths. War is still war. He was categorically not arguing that war has not changed - quite the opposite, in fact - but he was suggesting that neologisms do not always reflect the disruptive and total changes that commentators often posit. That, and a sensible assertion that history is actually quite useful.

    He may be conservative but you could read his piece quite happily as a request that a more critical approach to terminology is required. No, this might not help those on the ground but it might help at the (grand) strategic level.

  10. Tim's clarification is important... Gulliver's critique is appropriate... and Owen's points are generally valid. Amazingly, I don't actually follow every pundit on the US COIN/Not-COIN circuit, so I won't engage with every point every one of them has made on this. BUT, here's a small point for Owen to consider: the tendency to obscure meaning with jargon isn't just something that the up-and-coming generation of thinkers does; it's built into military method. No really, it's true.

    There are some things about contemporary conflict that are definitely new. What's probably also not so new is:

    1) lack of historical knowledge about past conflicts;

    2) the drive to find ways to describe and understand what's happening in any given "now", commensurate with the technologies and contexts of the time;

    3) old farts who think their personal experiences constitute "historical understanding."

    Just sayin'...

  11. "War is still war."

    Oh man. I've drawn heat elsewhere for daring to utter that truth.

  12. I looked at this article with some skepticism also. I think part of the problem is that people like Owens believe that we are somehow ignoring Clausewitz in an attempt to recreate or redefine warfare. And that's just not the case. There's nothing in Clausewitz that cannot be applied to irregular warfare or hybrid warfare or 4GW, whatever title you want to pick. The Masters of War are still relevant, especially at the strategic level.

    But as some in this thread have noted, operational and tactical warfare has changed, there are aspects that are different - not just the combatants but technology and culture count also. And to ignore the dialogue and say that these terms are frivolous, well, come to any meeting within the Beltway where decisions have to be made on $600 billion+ annual defense bill. You may not like the sausage-making process, but you have to be a player and to be able to articulate your role in the context of current and future operations. Let the historians argue as to whether we got the terminology right.

  13. Mr. Owen, who often adds some great insight, is not alone in his persistent fuddyduddyness. I honestly think he is a composite character of "old farts that think their personal experiences consitute 'historical understanding'", but he keeps us honest.

    That being said, this post makes me happy. As someone who has often been baffled by Owen's arguments, I was starting to think it was only me...or that certain posts were being blocked on his version of SWJ or something. I keep asking myself, "Did he even read what I/he/it wrote?" I mean, honestly: as I write this we are on SWC actually debating the utility of culture training. The only response I could think of was this: "Ship: Sailed."

    I am starting to think we are in the same place with the COINvsSomeotherstrategy debate. Despite being from a school of thought that insists terminology doesn't matter, all threads seem to devolove into a terminology back and forth whenever certain people are involved.

    Interestingly, the main arguments against any new thoughts are:
    1. There are no new thoughts.
    2. A. What do you mean by that? Define it in terms I will pick apart in a gotcha game, because terminology is very important.
    2. B. Stop using big fayncy words, because terminology is unimportant.
    2. C. All of the above
    3. Write whatever you want, I will ignore your post. I will then restate the same exact things later, then my likeminded friends will all chime in and pat me on the back.

    A dirty little secret I have noticed: as debates evolve, I've also noticed that sometimes old posts change. Hmmm...

  14. "...all threads seem to devolve into a terminology back and forth wheever certain people are involved." - jenniferro10

    LOL. (I never thought so many people would show up in this thread, or I NEVER would have babbled out the first two comments!)

    "How did I get in the middle of this?" - Schmedlap.

    Sorry, that was my doing. Basically, I was referring to your "there are no COIN skills," set of posts. Which are fascinating, btw.

    *Gulliver, let's just take one line from the article as an illustration of why the debate confuses me(hey, I'm just a dummy layperson and all, so I get to be annoying like this!)


    When the author writes, "Thus the forces we used to call guerillas are now hybrid threats."

    1. Is this true?
    2. If true, why the change in that particular terminology and what is the reason for the change?
    3. Does it matter that what was once called guerillas are now called hybrid threats? Does this forward our understanding, or is it a semantic point of no interest?

    I think the above is why you have the online debates. Someone interested in the day to day practical issues doesn't care what you call it, but someone trying to study it - and put the data into proper perspective - does.

    Okay, pile on. What did I get wrong?

  15. Also, I think the debate would be better if someone would show a specific example where changing terminology had a negative impact in Iraq or Afghanistan.

    (I'll give you an example from my 'world'. Sometimes, a rare tumor is renamed after a doc writes a paper and claims to have discovered something new. The tumor is still the same tumor and the new discovery really is just a semantic point. The problem is, doctors and patients become confused and think it's a new process with a potentially different outcome and treatment options. Any examples - specific - from your world?)

    - Madhu

  16. When the author writes, "Thus the forces we used to call guerillas are now hybrid threats."

    1. Is this true?

    No, it's assuredly not. Not every guerilla force throughout history -- nor even most -- has been a "hybrid threat." It would be more correct to say that what we now call hybrid threats were once called guerillas, rather than what Owen has actually written, but even that is not wholly true.

    2. If true, why the change in that particular terminology and what is the reason for the change?

    The new terminology is designed to reflect the distinction between compound war -- in which one party faces an adversary made up of a collection of both conventional and irregular forces -- and hybrid war, in which the adversary is composed of forces that have mixed capabilities, both conventional and irregular (this is often exemplified by Hizballah's use of conventional tactics -- specifically anti-ship missiles -- during the 2006 Lebanon war). See Frank Hoffman in AFJ (the piece that this Owen dreck seems to be directed at).

    3. Does it matter that what was once called guerillas are now called hybrid threats? Does this forward our understanding, or is it a semantic point of no interest?

    Again, I would say that this isn't exactly true. And I would say that it does advance our understanding; after all, wouldn't you design a force differently to confront compound threats versus hybrid threats? Wouldn't you design different lines of operation? Won't the enemy's center of gravity be different?

  17. Madhu -- As far as specific examples are concerned, I think this is going to be difficult for either side to do. What I would say is that a refusal to acknowledge that there ever even could be such a thing as an un-imagined future threat is to sentence yourself to a life of 20/20 hindsight. After all, if we would've just paid better attention to history, then we would've known that violent insurgency could or would pose a challenge to the accomplishment of U.S. objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Which, ok, sure, fine. But did that get anyone any closer to actually projecting the challenge, understanding it in a way that would allow us to cope with it? No. What instead happened is a bunch of people sitting around and writing things like "Iraq and Afghanistan aren't any different to the small wars we've always fought. This really shouldn't be so difficult!" And how much good is that?

  18. I agree with jenniferro's comments. I think a lot of "coindinistas" initially get very turned off to the SWJ forum because they make a seemingly innocuous comment, and get ambushed by the non-coindinistas. I guess my main problem is the phrase "war is war". Too many people in and out of the military define war as WWII. Very few people define "war" as irregular war, revolutions, liberation conflicts, maneuver war and high-intensity war.

    To answer Madhu's questions:
    1. Yesterday's guerillas are today's insurgents; either of those categories may or may not be hybrid threats.
    2. The change reflects the development of international terrorism, something impossible in the 19th century.
    3. It does help. Hybrid defines groups that can be attacked in many ways and have to be stopped in a variety of more complex ways.

  19. My two cents...

    If you ask ten cav dudes the difference between zone and area reconnaissance, then you'll probably get at least five different answers. At times, our doctrine is confusing and different pubs have different interpretations, and we've had these terms around for a long time. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing :).

    The same holds true for COIN, FID, SFA, and irregular warfare. The terms mean different things to different people. Most notably, the question that must be asked is "what do you want me to do?"

    - Is my unit clearing unilaterally?
    - Are we acting as advisors? Are we the first man in or the fifth as an advisor?
    - Do we stay in our trucks while HN security force conducts operations?
    - Do we stay in rear areas and simply train?

    All four COAs are feasible for certain situation. So, I guess I just try to read as much as I can, and work to incorporate coherent/concise mission orders to my troops.

    One of the biggest learning points is understanding the limitations of our operations in small and big wars. We can help, but ultimately, it's up to the host nation how they're going to live. I think this understanding can allow a commander a better opportunity to define success in his mission.

    Ultimately, I think these debates can be helpful if leaders take the time to read them.

  20. Well I am William F. Owen. Moving on from the pointless ad-hominine insults, I will try and state my case more clearly.

    a.) War does not change. – If you think it does, show me evidence!
    b.) Warfare does, but not in ways we generally cannot comprehend or understand.

    You do not need news words or new expressions for things that already exist, and are well understood. If there is something about war and warfare, you do not understand, it does not make it new, complex or somehow worthy of new description. War is a product of Politics. What drives politics drives war. Anyone heard of any new “politics” recently?

    Now, I didn’t write the AFJ article for fun. This is what I do. Frank Hoffman is a friend of mine. I know and like T. X. Hammes. I knew Dave Kilcullen back when he was an ADF officer – Frank Hoffman introduced us, and I even know David Betz. In fact I know almost all the current “Military Theorists/Historians.” - so I take this seriously.

    I am not calling these folk stupid. I am merely pointing out that the plethora of poor military/strategic theory and wooly thinking is making comprehension and understanding less likely, not more likely. It may be well intentioned, but it’s clearly not working as a substitute for sound military education – which is sorely lacking all round.

    Not prone to reading blogs, so if anyone really wants to talk like adults, head on over the SWC, to seek me out either by PM or e-mail.

  21. Uh oh.

    Blog detention! Blog citation! Blog traffic court! Blog jail!*

    Not to pile on Gulliver, but William F. Owen DOES have a point - as do others on the thread. Good, if a bit rude (I apologize for my poorly worded and written comments), discussion.

    Still, I thought the mini-discussion about insurgents vs. hybrid warfare interesting. Thanks to the others who answered my questions.

    *My students tell me blogs are for oldsters: they tweet, social media, and most especially, text. Text, text, text. Just what ARE they texting each other all the time? Nothing good, I am sure... .

  22. Sorry, one last point:
    "2. The change reflects the development of international terrorism, something impossible in the 19th century."

    Not true! The Gunpowder plot ring any bells? 1605
    The Fenian gang attacks in London and Canada to get the British out of Ireland? Circa 1867-1880.

    Terrorism is just a form or "warfare", and it is not new. Yes, hijacking was impossible before aircraft, but piracy was not, and nor was hostage taking.

  23. This is productive! Well, for me. Likely, the rest of you know this stuff already and have discussed it ad nauseum.

    - Maybe a better way to talk about hybrid war is to say that it is a combination of types of "warfare" - that have always existed in the most general terms - in unique proportions to achieve some goal. And, today, those combinations and goals are, say, X, Y or Z. Essentially, everyone is correct. War hasn't changed but particular types of "warfare" are more prevalent at this particular time, space and place, and must be defended against.

    - Chutzpah = what I am showing as a layperson by scribbling the above! (Or, I am simply an online nut beyond beyond embarrassment. I fear the latter may be more accurate). Cool discussion.

    - As always, I won't cry or anything if you tell me how I got it wrong. It's not my field, so what have I got to lose? Notice I don't haunt the medical blogs, hmm?

  24. William,

    I can't imagine that you would call Betz "stupid" because he actually agrees with you. Nor would Frank (who because of his current government post won't publicly venture here) suggest that you are wrong in spirit.

    I disagree with you on "hybrid" because I see the organization, goals and competency of HezbAllah and LTTE as a bit different from past state and non-state actors. Frank goes too far on it, in my opinion, but it's a useful term to describe what's really devolved into one organization out there, if not all warmakers.

    Your real beef seems to be with CENTCOM's commander, Nagl and CNAS and others like them and not necessarily with thinkers such as Betz, Hoffman, Hammes or Rid who are exploring these issues with a tad more than bumper sticker analysis.

    Which gets us to your AFJ essay. Perhaps it's the nature of the medium, but it's a bit much for you to kvetch about the misuses of history and reason in others when you take a cursory approach to Clio yourself.

    The British isles during the Boer War didn't include merely England, but also Ireland, where treatment of Boer civilians was a major concern and a rallying cry for their own republican goals.

    And I actually agree with much of what you wrote.


  25. Anonymous: I did not call Dave Betz stupid. Read my post.

    A.) Why is Hybrid useful? How are Hezbollah and the LTTE like organisations we have not seen before? - like the Boers or the Hussites for example?
    B.)How am I misusing history? (Klio?)

  26. There is much question-begging occurring in Mr.Owen's article and posts. I would really like to know more about the relationship between war and warfare. What is it about war that makes it changeless? Does it have an eternal nature with corresponding eternal laws? Is warfare the temporal manifestation of war's eternity?

    I guess these questions are applicable to politics as well. Is there an eternal political that expresses itself in the changing forms of politics?

    I'm sorry, but such a metaphysical approach to any social phenomenon is preposterously unempirical. Mr. Owen should tell us to only read 'Vom Kriege' if that is what he wants.


  27. JND expressses my thoughts exactly.

    Business is still business. The principles of Adam Smith still apply. But, and this is huge, computers, planes, cell phones, email, cargo shipping containers, a stronger regulatory body, the strength of the nation state, have all made the practice of business incredibly complex and different from the 19th century, not to say twenty years ago.

    Politics is still politics. The princples of political theory still apply. But computers, the internet, the lessons of popular motivation, cable television, radio commentators, twitter, facebook and voting machines have made the practice of politics incredibly complex and different from the 19th century, not even to say twenty years ago.

    So obviously, war is still war. The principles Thucydides, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli still apply. But all the aforementioned technological changes, not to mention AK-47s, RPGs and inexpensive explosives, have revolutionized its practice. I agree that war is still war; but warfare doesn't look the same from Somalia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Sudan to Bosnia etc and so on.

    To help understand the changes in warfare the thinkers who coin new terms, like Kilcullen, Hammes, Petraues, and Nagl, have developed a new lexicon. For the soldiers on the ground it helps. I don't know what a "sound military education" looks like compared to my own, but reading Nagl, Kilcullen and Petraues seems like the right direction.

  28. I think the gist of it is that reading Nagl and Kilcullen for a military education is kind of like reading Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria for an International Affairs education. They're easier to read and they make good fodder to start a discussion. The discussion might be helpful, depending on who the participants are. But there is no foundation to hold it all together.

  29. I can't see why anyone would read Nagl. His work on Malaya mentioned Chin Peng all of three or four times, and never the insurgent leader's actual memoirs (perhaps because they give a very different version of the pacification of the colony).

    Kilcullen is OK, but his one original notion -- that local guerillas graft onto their grievances an international Islamist bent -- doesn't seem all that new when one reads previous works on international communism and insurgency and blah blah blah.

    His theses for captains is OK, but it's not exactly outrageously original, is it?

    The foundations upon which the works rest most likely are careerism, hubris and neo-colonialism.


  30. Yes, you should read “ON WAR.” I am a Clausewitian. Of course I recommend it.
    War is how human beings apply their beliefs to others using violence. It is enduring and unchanging. Even if Aliens invade earth, it will still apply.
    Warfare is the application of violence for political ends. It is the practice of war.
    99% of the current hand wringing about “insurgencies” comes from not being able to differentiate between War and Warfare. Add in not being able to tell the difference between warfare, strategy, and policy (or policy and plans) and you get to where we are today.

    I did read both books by Nagl and Kilcullen. If you’ve never studied irregular warfare, then you may see some insight. I think Nagl’s work fails to prove his central thesis, and Kilcullens contains nothing new – and I disagree with some points. Moreover I think extrapolations from both books could lead you down the wrong path.

  31. I was out of pocket during the DC Snowpocalypse this weekend, but I'm cheered to see that William F. Owen has dropped in.

    Moving on from the pointless ad-hominine insults

    Are you referring here to the original post? Because I don't see a whole lot of ad-hominems or other insults, just a sort of cheeky tone. (Then again, I wrote it, so I'm not exactly objective, am I?)

    I am not calling these folk stupid. I am merely pointing out that the plethora of poor military/strategic theory and wooly thinking is making comprehension and understanding less likely, not more likely.

    Does it aid our comprehension when you write patently false things like this: "Thus the forces we used to call guerillas are now hybrid threats"? Are you being intentionally obtuse, or do you really fail to understand that the term "guerillas" does not even come close to appropriately describing the same thing as "hybrid threats"?

    Not prone to reading blogs, so if anyone really wants to talk like adults, head on over the SWC, to seek me out either by PM or e-mail.

    I hope you won't think me ingracious when I remark that there's a certain irony in your derision, what with this whole conversation centering around my basic contention that you reject the utility of new things out of what seems like a simple opposition to newness. Blogs are for kids! SWC is for the adults!

    Not true! The Gunpowder plot ring any bells? 1605
    The Fenian gang attacks in London and Canada to get the British out of Ireland? Circa 1867-1880.

    Terrorism is just a form or "warfare", and it is not new. Yes, hijacking was impossible before aircraft, but piracy was not, and nor was hostage taking.

    But you ignored a word in Michael C's post: "international." Here I gather that he means that terrorism with an international constituency was basically impossible before globalization and innovations in communications technology. He's not saying that terrorism is new, only that the form of terrorism that we're currently seeing -- terrorism with a global constituency and a non-political grievance -- could be considered somewhat novel. It's fine to disagree, but you're misunderstanding the point.

    Thus far, Mr. Owen's participation in this thread has mostly served to confirm jenniferro10's past impressions...

  32. Gulliver, actually I think Owen makes a good point about a lack of understanding of globalized revolution.

    How original is Kilcullen's thesis about "accidental guerillas" and their appropriation of an international Islamist revolution if we consider, for a moment, the spectre of communism after 1917?

    As for terror, one might mention the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century, too. They sorta helped to start WWI and caused a great deal of mayhem in the US using horse-drawn VBIEDs.

    In this regard, I'd suggest that Michael C's notion about globalization and terror and insurgency and whatnot is kind of wrong.

    The best means to understand the mind of Owen is to crack it open and discover a moldering 1976 copy of "On War."

    There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I think if you want to attack his notions, you should do so on his own terrain, with a canon that he accepts.

    Ask him if he can compass a non-Trinitarian model for war if the enemies and other players in the stife are non-state forces? If the Clausewitzian model is so universal, then does it account for, say, medieval warfare? Or many peasant revolutions that seem to be conducted without rational motives?

    If we're living a world increasingly devoid of a concert of states, pitted against enemies who don't even conceive fully of the "state," don't appear to act with the motivations of state leaders and, indeed, almost appear to wish to subsist in an endemic, stateless moment of Hobbesian strife, how valid is the trinity?

    Obviously, I'm riffing on van Creveld. Certain aspects of warmaking won't change -- friction or fog, chance, competence at arms, the flux of two thinking commanders at odds with each other.

    But other aspects might have shifted. Is war always a means to an end or, to some actors, is it an end in itself? Do nuclear weapons shift the discussion because "total war" approximates, eventually, the end of the planet, thus removing at least two of the planks of the Trinitarian model (if not all three when the mushroom clouds hurl humanity into the cosmos).

    Does the "will" of nations matter if their wars are conducted by robots far from home? Or ICBMs? What about the feudalistic practice of hiring mercenaries?

    Owen likely will have answers to all of this. But I'm not sure that they will be convincing. I'm also not sure that Frank Hoffman and others will convince me, too, but that's not their task.


  33. Wow…..

    Not saying Blogs are for Kids and SWC for adults. Yes, SWC requires a high standard of behaviour and generally high standards of rigour and evidence. I don’t really have time to chase around every blog that comments on my work, excellent though some maybe. That is all. I only pitched in here because I recognised two of the posters.

    The Fenian gangs attacks were international in nature, as was a lot of pre-20th century political violence and how is today’s “International Terrorism” not political? Religion used to set forth a policy is clearly political. Environmentalists are political are they not?

  34. The Fenian gangs attacks were international in nature, as was a lot of pre-20th century political violence and how is today’s “International Terrorism” not political? Religion used to set forth a policy is clearly political. Environmentalists are political are they not?

    Of course they are. And nihilist terrorism is clearly political, as well. One can legitimately question, though, whether it's based on a political grievance, or whether it has political objectives. People have done some interesting work on this, trying to match up AQ "grand strategy" with tangible political objectives. It's not a settled question.

    Can you be more specific on how you understand the Fenians to have been "international in nature"? Obviously there were participants from more than one state (indeed, the movement was American in its genesis), but I don't think that makes the movement "international" in character -- its grievance and animating spirit were clearly related to one specific geographic space. (Maybe I should be using the term "internationalist" instead of "international.")

  35. No, you're about right in that, Gulliver. I really thought that his better option would be to discuss the Anarchist movement(s) in the 19th and 20th centuries, not the Fenian diaspora (it was significant in Australia, Canada and industrial England, too, which is where they got their guns).

    The aspirational nature of the Fenians actually fits into the 19th century worldview about states, armies and whatnot. It's quite different from a revolutionary sense of theology that would posit a retributive or escatological goal beyond the formation of a government or a military and, instead, a mixed intentionally state-less entity.

    Once Owen is reduced to thinking of some feudal or amillennial peasant movement, his Clausewitzian model probably doesn't hold, so why should we believe that it works all that well for events and movements we see in the early 21st century?

    Clausewitz neglected medieval history for the very reason that the violence was so chaotic and articulated by strange (and shifting) combinations of stateless forces. It wasn't relevant to a commander looking at a concert of great and lesser powers in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    But perhaps it is today. There are certain aspects of Clausewitz which are timeless (I mentioned them above), but other pieces of his work might have lost their currency, as van Creveld and others of some stature have noted.

    The irony is that the thinker most noted today for challenging the supremacy of Clausewitzian thought is van Creveld, who lives in the same tiny nation as I believe "Wilf" resides.

    Perhaps they could share a half-decent discussion about why Clausewitz (or Jomini or Foch or whomever) doesn't so well address the protean nature of warfare, that perhaps there are cultural variations on the concept of "rational choice," and that stateless entities might not be operating today in a Maoist methodology against occupiers.


  36. Considering the credential pissing contests, question-begging and talmudic term-parsing going on above, I think my original points stand. Those of ya'll in diapers, find me on twitter at TCCfeed (Technology, Culture, and Conflict), where I'll be having a temper-tantrum.

  37. I wonder if descriptions about the threats obscure the bigger issues.
    - We are more likely to go to war for less existential reasons.
    - Our populace is far more sensitive to casualties - both friendly and civilian.
    - Our military is all-volunteer.
    - Recent wars have been coalition efforts (though we supply the bulk of forces, making it almost a de facto US effort, the coalition brings with it significant challenges for unity of effort).

    I think that makes war more complicated and I did not make one mention of actual or potential adversaries. As regards warfare, on the other hand, I see little significant difference. Whether I am getting ambushed by uniformed lawful combatants, paramilitary, plain-clothed insurgents, or angry tribesmen, I execute the same battle drill.

  38. jenniferro10 - that's hilarious. I will have to check out your Twitter feed....

    Schmedlap - Yeah, the all volunteer nature of the military, combined with changing societal attitudes, does change things. It can't be the same, I suppose, because we are not the same.

  39. Uh, duh, "changing attitudes changes us." Never mind.

    I continue to make a plea for some specifics, because, well, then, as jenniferro10 states it does all become Talmudic parsing - FROM BOTH SIDES of this debate. Which may be going on elsewhere and I don't know about, so apologies if it is (which it likely is).

    Eh, language is to play with, after all....

  40. As usual, Schmedlap is the voice of reason.

    I had that exact same conversation with someone the other day and our list of the "real" issues was nearly the same. COIN vs. counteterrorism was not on the list. I added our refusal to accept the reality of females in combat to the list, but most other differences between our list and yours were semantics, so I think you are dead on.

  41. Yeah, because the reality is that women aren't in combat, except under the rarest of circumstances.

    Don't worry, more than 80 percent of the men aren't in combat, too.


  42. "As usual, Schmedlap is the voice of reason."

    I nearly spit beer on the keyboard.