Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Damnit, we're the contemporary Flower Warriors. I knew it.

If you've got a little bit of time on your hands and you feel like punishing yourself, take a look at Zhivan Alach's Strategic Studies Institute monograph "The New Aztecs: Ritual and Restraint in Contemporary Western Military Operations." It's a muddled mess of stereotype, unproven assertion, tertiary-source quotations, conservative social theory, tortured syntax, and staggeringly bad analysis, and it's the leading contender in the always-crowded field for Worst Thing I've Read This Year From a Serious Publisher.

To give you a taste of just exactly how awful this thing is, I present Prosecution Exhibit 1: the paper is just over 38 full pages of text, and it cites Ralph Peters 14 separate times and Victor Davis Hanson eight. There are no references to primary-source historical documents, and Alach's limning of the history of warfare -- sort of important context for a study of "primitive" restraint in warfighting versus the allegedly modern trend towards total war -- is cribbed almost entirely from Hanson and John Keegan.

Now for Prosecution Exhibit 2, which pretty much just speaks for itself:
It pays to consider the Aztecs. At the time of the Flower Wars, the Aztecs were hegemonic in Central America. They could fight in a ritualized way because they had no true rival. When a rival did appear -- a rival named Cortes, who fought in an amoral, instrumental, rational, unrestrained, and nonritualized manner -- the Aztecs were defeated. Cortes fought to kill. He fought to win. 
Is there a Cortes awaiting the West today? Will we, the contemporary Flower Warriors, face a foe who, to be defeated, requires our willingness to kill, be killed, and fight to the bitter end? Is the current style of Western warfare but a mere historical blip, a momentary anomaly that will disappear when the world changes again? History cannot answer that question, but we had better be prepared to answer it ourselves.
To answer it with lead and steel and metal and brawn, because brown people haven't mastered those things yet! If only those flower-fucking Aztecs had taken the gloves off and fought unrestricted, total warfare, they surely could've defeated Cortes' vastly superior tactics and materiel! It was those pathetic, primitive, and obviously homosexual Aztec ROEs that doomed them to defeat!

These freakin' people, man.

Now seriously for a second: how does the U.S. Army War College publish something like this?

13 comments:

  1. "Is there a Cortes waiting...?" Perhaps he means this gent, who might throw a wrench in the way we fight: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/26/Alien_vs._Predator_%282004%29_-_Alien.jpg

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  2. I spoke recently with a young 1st LT who recently returned from a spin with 3/5 in Sangin. He told me his platoon alone dropped over thirty mosques during their pump. Flower warriors, indeed.

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  3. I should make a note here that the use of "limn" and "cribbed" in the same sentence is such an obvious theft from (or subconscious infiltration of my syntax and vocabulary by) one distinguished Mr. Carl Prine, who will think I'm blowing sunshine when I say that he's currently the best defense blogger working -- and it's not even his real job. (I'm not, by the way. Blowing sunshine, I mean.)

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  4. Hi,

    Author here (you can email me via the SSI link if you want).

    1. No, there are no primary source documents. This is a short monograph, not a PhD thesis. 1a) your "cribbed mostly from X and Y" ignores the rather large quantity of sources referenced
    2. Had the Aztecs actually tried to kill Cortes' men, rather than fight in a restrained fashion, then their limitations of technology would have not stopped them winning. Exhibit A: Isandlwana.
    3. Do you disagree with the central thesis of the work - that we fight in a far more restrained fashion now than we did 50-100 years ago? And that this modern restraint is more akin to primitive warfare than it is to the First and Second World Wars?

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  5. Dr. Alach -- Appreciate you stopping by.

    No, there are no primary source documents. This is a short monograph, not a PhD thesis. 1a) your "cribbed mostly from X and Y" ignores the rather large quantity of sources referenced.

    Yes, there are quite a lot of reference documents. That said, a great deal of the scutwork of real historical analysis is left to just a few individuals -- and they're mostly pop-historians. If you're going to make essentialist claims about the nature of conflict in various periods of human history, I'd expect them to be sourced with compelling, convincing research... not the Kaplanesque generalities of Victor Davis Hanson and the lamentable Mr. Peters.

    Had the Aztecs actually tried to kill Cortes' men, rather than fight in a restrained fashion, then their limitations of technology would have not stopped them winning. Exhibit A: Isandlwana.

    Except when it would have. Exhibit A: the suppression of the Ndebele people by a few Britons with a Maxim gun.

    Do you disagree with the central thesis of the work - that we fight in a far more restrained fashion now than we did 50-100 years ago? And that this modern restraint is more akin to primitive warfare than it is to the First and Second World Wars?

    I think, first of all, that you have a sample-size problem. I think most of the examples that you use as evidence of restraint and ritual in modern warfare are in fact examples of wars with limited policy objectives, not simply artificially-limited brutality. I think our so-called "modern restraint" would be less evident were we to face an existential threat. I think your thesis is based on insulting and inaccurate socio-cultural essentialism, and that you are far too eager to attribute instances of self-restraint to reasons (like "culture") that are far less plausible than calculations of military effectiveness that may seem counterintuitive to you and the good Mr. Peters.

    Just the same, I appreciate you dropping by to engage on the subject.

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  6. After having slept on it, I have no idea why my rejoinder to "Isandlwana" wasn't simply "Rorke's Drift." Less than 150 British troops from 1 BN, 24th Foot defeated much of the same 4,000-5,000 man Zulu force that had overrun their sister battalion at Isandlwana just hours earlier.

    Presumably the Zulus were "actually trying to kill" Bromhead's men just the same as they had Pulleine's, but maybe there's a culturalist explanation for this one, too.

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  7. "The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms - the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Rorke's_Drift

    Cultural explanations work both ways ...

    That said, I don't have the slightest doubt that Western armies could easily let go of the "modern restraint" if they are ordered to do so and the soldiers belief / are made to belief their country was attacked and is fighting for survival.
    Just compare the difference in the way the German army fought on the western and eastern fronts in WW II. Or the question of torture in the Great War on Terror ...

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  8. Cheers for the comments. I think there are several issues here.

    1. Normative vs. descriptive. I have a feeling a few of the people who have read the piece believe I might well be Zhivan von Alach, and be sitting here with a monocle and a glass of beer plotting the return of the Prussian General Staff. Unfortunately, there is no sinister plot to stage an Army-led coup; I come from a very liberal country with a very small military. Yes, I've worked for the Army.

    1a. Ritualised; restrained; and irrational are all different words. I use them specifically and selectively and sometimes I wonder whether people are conflating them in their criticism.

    2. I think we are actually in violent agreement, which is an indictment of my writing skills in that what I thought was a clear point has obviously not come through. You say, and I quote: "I think our so-called "modern restraint" would be less evident were we to face an existential threat".
    Absolutely! You will notice on page 30 - in a section titled “Existential Threats and the Utility of War” - that I note that one of the reasons we are restrained is because we do not face an existential threat - and thus by extension, and exactly as you said, if we did face an existential threat we might be less restrained. I am not sure why this is a criticism of the thesis - I've never said the West couldn't fight in a less restrained fashion, only that it isn't.

    Unfortunately, "limited policy objectives", as I state on page 32, are not enough. One could easily fight a war for limited policy objectives in the cheapest possible fashion - a single nuclear strike. Or, if we wanted a cheap, limited war, we could simply slaughter everybody. It would have been cheaper to do so in 2003 in Iraq than occupy the country.
    The fact we don’t is an indication of the effect that cultural values, such as humanitarianism, have on our methods of war.Indeed, the fact that we have “limited policy objectives” is a cultural artifact itself; Genghis Khan’s policy objectives were cultural at heart; so were Kofi Annan’s

    So you are absolutely right. But that is what my work states - it is a combination of limited military utility (in the absence of an existential threat) and various cultural drivers that results in ritual and restraint.

    That is not "good" or "bad". The problem will arise if we believe we are fighting a foe who has the same cultural values as us - and he doesn't

    In one sentence.. a) in the past war was more restrained; b) over time war became more total (although the path was oscillating); c) in very recent times this trend has reversed; d) the reasons for this change are multiple; and e) there is a potential that if we make the error of assuming we are fighting a foe who holds the same view of war as we do, when he does not, we are likely to lose

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  9. PS re: sample size - what other wars has the West fought since Vietnam, and how would they damage my central thesis?

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  10. Appreciate you taking the time to engage, Dr. Alach, but I’m not so convinced as you that we’re on the same page.
    1. Normative vs. descriptive. I have a feeling a few of the people who have read the piece believe I might well be Zhivan von Alach, and be sitting here with a monocle and a glass of beer plotting the return of the Prussian General Staff. Unfortunately, there is no sinister plot to stage an Army-led coup; I come from a very liberal country with a very small military. Yes, I've worked for the Army.

    Perhaps there are readers who impute some sore of sinister motive to you, but I’m not one of them. My criticism isn’t motivated by concern over your political objectives, but rather by what I consider to be significant flaws in both research methodology and analysis.

    1a. Ritualised; restrained; and irrational are all different words. I use them specifically and selectively and sometimes I wonder whether people are conflating them in their criticism.

    Noted. I consider them specifically and selectively and do not conflate them (or at least I don’t intend to, though I can’t rule out my own mistakes).

    [...] I note that one of the reasons we are restrained is because we do not face an existential threat - and thus by extension, and exactly as you said, if we did face an existential threat we might be less restrained. I am not sure why this is a criticism of the thesis - I've never said the West couldn't fight in a less restrained fashion, only that it isn't.

    Well, perhaps I misunderstand the thesis. In my reading, you were trying to draw a conclusion about the evolution of Western warfighting techniques based on a repudiation of maximalist violence. If your contention is that “we could just as easily do away with this restraint if circumstances called for it,” then I simply don’t understand your original point.

    Unfortunately, "limited policy objectives", as I state on page 32, are not enough. One could easily fight a war for limited policy objectives in the cheapest possible fashion - a single nuclear strike. Or, if we wanted a cheap, limited war, we could simply slaughter everybody. It would have been cheaper to do so in 2003 in Iraq than occupy the country.

    Again, this is simple Clausewitz. To use maximalist violence in the service of minimalist ends is not merely unethical, but foolish. It’s a waste of resources and a total mismatch between ways and ends. A great many of our policy objectives cannot be achieved by the simple destruction of the enemy; our desired end state is not dominion but influence (or even hegemony), and these two things are not the same.

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  11. The fact we don’t is an indication of the effect that cultural values, such as humanitarianism, have on our methods of war.Indeed, the fact that we have “limited policy objectives” is a cultural artifact itself; Genghis Khan’s policy objectives were cultural at heart; so were Kofi Annan’s

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at here. Objectives that are “cultural at heart” are to be considered “limited” in your mind? Sure, there are those that depend on cultural influence or moral suasion, but there are also cultural objectives that can be achieved through the destruction or subjugation of the target population or government. Hitler’s objective was a cultural one, too.

    So you are absolutely right. But that is what my work states - it is a combination of limited military utility (in the absence of an existential threat) and various cultural drivers that results in ritual and restraint.

    If your point was to emphasize that the way a civilization uses violence as a policy tool is shaped by various cultural, historical, and circumstantial factors along with simple military utility, then congratulations – you’re right there on the same page as a number of authorities in the fields of military history, anthropology, and constructivist theory. I apologize if I understood your contention to be somewhat more expansive.

    That is not "good" or "bad". The problem will arise if we believe we are fighting a foe who has the same cultural values as us - and he doesn't

    Why exactly will this be a problem? And why should we imagine that such a thing would happen? Aren’t we now well acquainted with what seems to be the manifest reality that most challengers to a global power will levy comparatively fewer restraints on their own behavior than will the hegemon? If we understand our own “cultural values” as uniquely Western but roughly consistent with the sweep of history while acknowledging that we’ve had cause to fight in less rituatlized or restrained fashion when circumstances call for it, wouldn’t we accord similar flexibility to our future foes?

    In one sentence.. a) in the past war was more restrained; b) over time war became more total (although the path was oscillating); c) in very recent times this trend has reversed; d) the reasons for this change are multiple; and e) there is a potential that if we make the error of assuming we are fighting a foe who holds the same view of war as we do, when he does not, we are likely to lose

    It seems to me that you’re basically saying “war has always been restrained, except for the half-century blip of near-total war in the 20th century, and now we’ve fought through the blip and are back to the status quo.” I don’t find this conclusion to be terribly revealing or incisive, and I think there are a great many instances in which “primitive” ritual or restraint gave way to more maximalist forms when circumstances demanded it. Basically, I think your entire paradigm is wrong and dependent on a seriously flawed, overly simplistic, essentialist understanding of the history of war.

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  12. I liked the guy's writing better when he called himself the War Nerd. (/tongueincheek)

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  13. Our favorite take on the black combat boot. Add a military meets rocker edge to your flirty florals for a right-now look.
    combat boot

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