Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Military reading lists, take 1,000,000

On Monday, John Arquilla published a critique of the U.S. Military Academy's "top ten military classics"  content and title both sourced to Tom Ricks  in which he proposed a "supplement" to the West Point list covering "the unequal struggles that have seen guerrillas, bandits, and commandos waging 'wars of the knife' against empires and nations." Arquilla's piece ran under the ridiculous and desultory sub-hed "Ten books that are better than The Art of War."

As I mentioned on Twitter* this afternoon, the West Point list is unimpeachable. The books that comprise it are so canonical as to be easily identifiable by just the name of the author: Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, Corbett, Mahan, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Delbrück, du Picq, Douhet. They are the very definition of "military classics," spanning thousands of years of the best thinking on strategic theory, the relationship between war and politics, and human factors in war.

The only inclusions that are even remotely controversial are the two I've listed last: Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies is widely misunderstood and unfairly blamed for the offensive à l'outrance and the horrors of the First World War, while Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air is rather more fairly criticized as the discredited theoretical foundation for strategic bombingthe paradoxically-titled, empirically barren, and almost wholly speculative warfighting doctrine in which bombing civilians produces decisive strategic effect. 

But du Picq was (with Clausewitz) among the first modern military analysts to grapple with the reality that war and battle are fundamentally human endeavors, and to try to develop doctrinal concepts that were based solidly on a consideration of the fighting man's morale, mindset, and natural aversion to danger. (In this way he anticipated the later work of men like S.L.A. Marshall and Dave Grossman.) The real du Picq is almost unrecognizable in Arquilla's caricature:

For a more operationally oriented study of land battles, West Point chose Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies. This is a curious choice. Col. du Picq was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, but his belief that good morale could overcome concentrated firepower animated French strategic thought up to and during World War Iwith near-catastrophic results.
This seems almost certainly to be an example of judging a book by its cover, as Battle Studies is hardly an "operationally oriented study of land battles." (It's instructive to note that a better translation of the title, Etudes sur le combat, would be something more like "studies on fighting" or "studies in combat"; the book is most definitely not a catalog of battles.) While historical cases are obviously included, the volume is far more accurately read as a meditation on the influence of changing technology and the evolving character of warfare on the army's raw materials: the men who fight and die. The very first paragraph of the book reads like this:
Battle is the final objective of armies and man is the fundamental instrument in battle. Nothing can be wisely prescribed in an armyits personnel, organization, discipline and tactics, things which are connected like the fingers of a handwithout exact knowledge of the fundamental instrument, man, and his state of mind, his morale, at the instant of combat.
And what of du Picq's juxtaposition of the ancient combatant's mindset with the soldier of his own era?
But let us look at man himself in ancient combat and in modern. In ancient combat:I am strong, apt, vigorous, trained, full of calmness, presence of mind; I have good offensive and defensive weapons and trustworthy companions of long standing. They do not let me be overwhelmed without aiding me. I with them, they with me, we are invincible, even invulnerable. We have fought twenty battles and not one of us remained on the field. It is necessary to support each other in time; we see it clearly; we are quick to replace ourselves, to put a fresh combatant in front of a fatigued adversary. We are the legions of Marius, fifty thousand who have held out against the furious avalanches of the Cimbri. We have killed one hundred and forty thousand, taken prisoner sixty thousand, while losing but two or three hundred of our inexperienced soldiers. 
To-day, as strong, firm, trained, and courageous as I am, I can never say: I shall return. I have no longer to do with men, whom I do not fear, I have to do with fate in the form of iron and lead. Death is in the air, invisible and blind, whispering, whistling. As brave, good, trustworthy, and devoted as my companions may be, they do not shield me. Only,and this is abstract and less immediately intelligible to all than the material support of ancient combat,only I imagine that the more numerous we are who run a dangerous risk, the greater is the chance for each to escape therefrom.
Does this man sound like one who believed that "good morale could overcome concentrated firepower"this man who argued that "to insure success in the rude test of conflict, it is not sufficient to have a mass composed of valiant men," but that those men must have "good arms" and "methods of fighting suitable to these arms and those of the enemy and which do not overtax the physical and moral forces of man"? Arquilla's evident unfamiliarity with this text underlines its case for inclusion. 

More than anything else, though, du Picq's importance can be best summed up by Michael Howard's poignant observation: 
La solidarité n'à plus la sanction d'une surveillance mutuelle: that has been the problem of morale on the battlefield ever since (MMS, p. 513).
The French is a direct quotation from Etudes: "cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation." Dispersion – necessary for survival in the face of fearsome modern weapons  challenges a man's courage, and cohesion through confidence in mutual support is the only way to bolster it. Howard, writing in 1984, recognized the endurance of this challenge.

Douhet is yet more controversial, largely because he is more well-known. The original airpower theorist is easy to criticize. He wrote at a time when the air weapon was novel, when some believed effective countermeasures in three-dimensional space were an impossibility. We should also remember how his contemporaries had been chastened by the destruction of the Great War, and it was widely held that mass armies, modern weapons, and restricted mobility had rendered landpower incapable of strategic decision. Douhet's theory of war  which made no distinction between combatant and civilian and held that overwhelming firepower concentrated on the sources of the enemy's moral and material power could achieve rapid, decisive effects  seems both more plausible and more moral through the lens of 1921. Indeed, David MacIsaac reminds us that Douhet's significance "resides less in his originality than in his being the first to pull together, in one place and in a structured order, ideas widely shared at the time" (MMS, p. 631).

But efficacy aside, the lasting influence of Douhet's ideas is enough to merit his inclusion among the "classics." The consensus view may hold that strategic bombing is theoretically implausible and empirically fraudulent, but the original airpower theorists have at the very least an extremely prominent thumbprint on the history of Air Force doctrine and concepts. While the U.S. air arm eventually moved away from Douhetian bomber-centric doctrine and toward the "anything that flies" conception of airpower elaborated by Billy Mitchell (MMS, p. 635), strategic bombing shares with modern concepts like rapid decisive operations and "strategic paralysis" an interest in identifying and targeting "critical nodes" on which the enemy's entire war effort rests:
Perhaps because they found it impossible to envisage bomber fleets of the size implied by Douhet, some of the instructors [at the Army Air Corps Tactical School] began to wonder whether it might be possible, through careful, scientific study of a nation's industry, to single out particular targets whose destruction would of itself bring to a halt an entire industry or series of industries. If a number of such 'bottleneck' targets could be identified and destroyed, it might be possible, with a relatively small force, to bring an enemy's war production to a halt with almost surgical precision, thereby rendering the enemy incapable of further resistance (MMS, p. 634).
One need only reference the ideas of Liddell Hart, Fuller, Leonhard, Boyd, Rumsfeld, Naveh, et al to see why such plainly fantastical thinking is still noteworthy in the modern day. Whether Douhet was right or wrong  and I do feel quite certain that he was wrong  the unfortunate lasting influence of his ideas about strategic directness through the indirect application of violence means those ideas simply cannot be willfully ignored. 

Having dutifully defended the inclusion of two "classics" Arquilla did not directly attack, I'll reveal the ultimate irony of his complaint that the USMA list is unduly focused on "the 'horizontal' dynamic of clashes of roughly equal great powers armed with the most advanced weapons" (as if this sounds quite like what Corbett was concerned with, or Sun Tzu or Clausewitz!): he didn't look at the whole list.

That's right, the "Top Ten Military Classics" are the first ten volumes listed... on the Officer's Professional Reading Guide Top 100 (auto-downloading .doc) issued by the West Point history department. Among the remaining 90 we find Asprey on guerillas, Galula on counterinsurgency, Linn on the pacification of the Phillipines, Bowden on Somalia, Bellavia and Fick and Junger on the post-9/11 wars, Herrington on the Vietcong and Moore and Galloway on the NVA, Grimsley on the Union Army and Southern civilians and Royster on Sherman and Sheridan. And Bernard Fall, Alistair Horne, Lester Grau, and Dexter Filkins. And Larteguy. And Marlantes. And O'Brien. 

And some dude named Mao...?

(Oh yeah, and even Anton sodding Myrer.)

*Thanks to Kelsey Atherton for collecting those tweets and creating the Storify page I've linked above.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Afghanistan strategy three-fer

I haven't been writing much on anything other than veterans issues lately and for good reason. This has been the result of my increasing interest in the problems facing veterans and the policies that attempt to address those problems. But this increasing interest also coincides with an interesting turn in dialogue on conflict these past few months where writing has generally dug existing positional trenches deeper instead of progressing the conversation, such as with Syria.

That said, with the official end of the surge in Afghanistan last week, a few interesting pieces about that war were published in the past week that you should be aware of. I'll add some commentary at the end of this post, but these three are interesting in that they all address significant flaws with our strategy in Afghanistan from different perspectives.

Frances Brown: The U.S. Surge and Afghan Local Governance
This USIP report (linked to by Josh Foust) is an excellent and erudite review of our local governance efforts in Afghanistan since 2009. Importantly, this review is analyzed through the context of the strategy put forth by the Obama administration in late 2009 which elucidated as its goal "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Brown, who has extensive experience in-country, goes on to quote the "Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan" which states that to "promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government" is essential to the strategy of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda. More on that later, but even if were to assume that this is the case we screwed up implementation of the governance plan.

I've written before about the importance of assumptions during planning. Brown lays out three assumptions that were, in her words, unrealistic with regard to local governance:

  1. Governance and development timelines would mirror security progress;
  2. Bottom-up progress would be reinforced by top-down progress; and
  3. "Lack of government" as the problem to be addressed.
She picks each of these assumptions apart point by point to the extent that you wonder how it's possible anyone created these assumptions in the first place. The hints of derision throughout the paper also makes it quite readable (I especially recommend the paragraph on Marjah on page 6 as an example). Brown ends the paper with three recommendations:
  • Exert leverage to impact select systemic, rather than tactical-level, problems.
  • In a resource-constrained era, prioritize assistance to a few key efforts.
  • All the usual Afghanistan governance recommendations still apply. 
There are plenty of details beneath the lists. If you're curious as to why our local governance efforts haven't worked in Afghanistan, I highly recommend you read this paper in its entirety. 

Jonathan Rue: Auditing the US surge in Afghanistan
Rue, who hangs his hat at Gunpowder & Lead, had this piece published in The Guardian. Rue is an exceptional military analyst and always worth reading - especially for a Marine (I kid!). After discussing events over the past couple of weeks, of note the attack on Camp Bastion, he states that it's difficult to measure success in Afghanistan. On one hand, U.S. forces have achieved gains at the tactical level. On the other hand, those gains haven't affected our strategic ends. This is the same problem we faced when we left Iraq: superiority on the battlefield was ineffectual towards our goals. As Rue notes towards the end of his piece, this is the same problem we had in Vietnam as well. He doesn't talk much about why this is the case (it is the Guardian after all), but his quoting of SECDEF Panetta is indicative of a government that still does not understand insurgency or counterinsurgency even after 10 years of war:
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta claimed the latest attacks were merely the "last gasp" of a weakend Taliban. If the aforementioned actions are the hallmark of a dying insurgency, I'd hate to think what actions characterize on on the ascendency.
Indeed. Rue is also right that maybe the best news about the surge of troops is that it's over and they're now home. 

COL Gian Gentile: War: Sometimes there is a substitute for victory
In the Jerusalem Post, Gentile picks apart the famous (at least to West Pointers) MacAurthur quote: "There is no substitute for victory." He notes that sometimes "winning" wars isn't worth the cost required to do so. Gentile is well known for his anti-counterinsurgency (of the nation-building sort) writing and he uses this piece to take a swipe at the current strategy. He notes, much as Brown and Rue have, that while trying to defeat a decentralized terrorist organization the United States has set as its goal the building of a nation-state in Afghanistan, an approach that has not worked thus far. He says:
Today in Afghanistan the effect of the American military's embrace of and belief in the efficacy of armed nation building, with its never ending stream of statements of progress, has obscured the vast amount of blood and treasure invested in a military methodology that has not produced results. Yet still we hear the calls to try harder, stay a bit longer, and keep the faith that it will all turn out right, because in war there is, as they say, no substitute for victory.
I think those calls are becoming few and far between at this point in the war. We have a plan of sorts to withdraw from Afghanistan in the coming years and I doubt that anything will derail that plan. Gentile focuses too much on the military ways that our generals have decided. In his oft-repeated attacks on armed nation building, he seems to focus in on this aspect of strategy formulation and not on the political determinations of ends and means. If we were to take the President's statement of ends literally (disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda), we could probably declare the war over and probably could have years ago (Gentile does say this). 

Gentile is right in calling out military leadership for not correctly aligning ends-ways-means, but he gives the political leadership a pass for not controlling the military more effectively and exercising their constitutional and precedential prerogative. Is that not the lesson learned of the famous MacAurthur vs Truman conflict he uses to set his argument? Nits aside, Gentile has valid points that speak loudly on the failure of our strategy. 

Strategy, strategy, strategy
The recurring theme of these three works is that the United States has had a serious strategy problem in Afghanistan. We haven't aligned ends, ways and means and the assumptions we've used for that analysis was off to begin with. This is not how great powers plan for success, which becomes infinitely more difficult if we can't even define what success means. Policy-makers who should define ends and means have not done so. Military strategists and leadership have chosen ways that certainly do not align with the ends that have been stated and have not likely used the means available as effectively as possible. 

Another important theme throughout is the equivalence of tactical and strategic success, a trap the United States has been prone to since at least Vietnam. I've argued here before that all strategies are in part a summation of tactics used to achieve strategic ends. But the "in part" is essential to understanding the connection between strategy and tactics. Tactical gains and successes do not create strategic successes and gains on their own. There are other variables that when added to tactical gains creates strategic success and we haven't yet identified what those are (and logically haven't figured out how to address them). A lesson seemingly lost in Afghanistan. 

Anyway, go read these three excellent pieces by three very smart people about a ridiculously hard problem. It's definitely worth your time. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Senators who voted against the Veterans Jobs Corps Act

Last week I wrote about a handful of Senators attempting to block the Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012 - a bill that would have put a lot of veterans to work and would also make it easier for future generations of veterans to transition to civilian life. When it came time to move this bill forward on the floor of the Senate 40 Republican Senators voted against doing so and have all but killed the bill. This bill isn't perfect, but with 9/11-era veterans experiencing unemployment 3 percentage points higher than the general population, mainly due to their service, this bill would have put a lot of them to work to help close that gap. It also contained measures to pay for the program. The Republicans have presented no reasoning why they don't support this bill beyond misunderstanding/representing the budgeting measure or complaining that the House won't pass it anyway so why bother. Way to take leadership. Of these 40 heroes, only 4 are up for reelection in November. Here's the whole list of Senators who voted against it (since it's not all that easy to get a permanent link at the Thomas Library):

Alexander (TN)
Ayotte (NH)
Barrasso (WY) - up for reelection
Blunt (MO)
Boozman (AR)
Burr (NC)
Chambliss (GA)
Coats (IN)
Cochran (MS)
Corker (TN) - up for reelection
Cornyn (TX)
Crapo (ID)
DeMint (SC)
Enzi (WY)
Graham (SC)
Grassley (IA)
Hatch (UT) - up for reelection
Hoeven (ND)
Hutchinson (TX)
Isakson (GA)
Johanns (NE)
Johnson (WI)
Kyl (AZ)
Lee (UT)
Lugar (IN)
McCain (AZ)
McConnell (KY)
Moran (KS)
Paul (KY)
Portman (OH)
Risch (ID)
Roberts (KS)
Rubio (FL)
Sessions (AL)
Shelby (AL)
Thune (SD)
Toomey (PA)
Vitter (LA)
Wicker (MS) - up for reelection

How many of these Senators say they're serious about jobs and they're serious about veterans issues? At least now we know how they really feel about it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Veterans Jobs Corps Act and the Senate Republicans against it

The Department of Labor released August employment data late last week. Yet again, 9/11-era veterans have significantly higher rates of unemployment than the population at large - nearly 3 percentage point higher. Lauren Bailey at the VA has some good analysis at VAntage Point on how the overall trend is positive, but employment prospects remain quite bleak for those recently separated from active duty. Congress has been mulling legislation to help the situation for some time now and is getting closer to passing a bill.

Enter Senate Bill 3457 (Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012). This bill, introduced by Senator Bill Nelson, would establish a job corps for veterans that allows the VA to provide grants and contracts specifically for post-9/11 veterans in areas such as first responders and public land conservation. The bill would provide $1 billion over 5 years for this and includes taxes to pay for it (because of that whole Budget Control Act thing). This would obviously help chip away at the current and outrageous unemployment levels of this population. This bill contains a couple of other provisions to help veterans find jobs, but most importantly is that it will begin laying the groundwork to ease state certifications and licensing for veterans based on training and work experience from active duty service. This is an enormous problem where combat medics cannot be certified as EMTs because of onerous training and certification requirements that could be eased if the states and the Department of Defense just talked about it to make transition easier. Section 4 of this bill requires the states to provide information about this to the DoD if they want any veterans job money from the VA. This is a great step forward.

This bill should be a slam dunk. It helps veterans in need and it pays for the program. Now enter a couple of Senate Republicans, specifically Senators Jeff Sessions and Rand Paul, who are trying to hold this bill up. Sessions took to the Senate floor yesterday to gripe about how this bill violates the Budget Control Act. He mentions that it's important legislation, but by God we can't afford it and that the additional revenue the bill purports to raise is really just funny math. We simply can't afford this $1 billion in additional expenditures. Unfortunately for Senator Sessions, the Congressional Budget Office disagrees about it being funny math and estimates that over 10 years this bill will actually reduce the national deficit by roughly $200 million. Some people have a hard time with facts and numbers.

Senator Paul seems to have a different problem altogether: that the U.S. is doling out cash to our enemies. He tried to add two amendments to the Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012 that would have cut U.S. aid to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan. I very much understand that amendments like this happen all the time and that Franken-bills are how lots of laws are passed. Paul is willing to hold up aid to unemployed veterans because of a foreign policy issue that belongs somewhere else and is most likely more about scoring political points than making actual policy. This is unconscionable.

In all, 8 Senate Republicans voted against moving forward with this bill: Senators Blunt, Coburn, DeMint, Inhofe, Johnson (Wisconsin variety), Lee, Paul, and Sessions. They all say they care about veterans and that they care about jobs, but their actions today have proven otherwise.  Of course there is some skepticism that the House would not pass this bill. But put simply: this bill should be passed. We have a specific American population that is hurting more than others and that hurt is originating from the fact that they were in their Nation's service. This bill helps compensate for some of that and sets the framework to help future veterans transition more easily than this generation.