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


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.

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. 

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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The G.I. Bill and the veteran gap in CMR studies

A few weeks ago I wrote a post disdainful of a new reality show that I felt was taking advantage of America's current love affair with its veterans. That same week, friend-of-the-blog Andrew Exum wrote his weekly column at World Politics Review on the unhealthy and dysfunctional relationship  between the American people and its military. The crux of the problem, as Exum sees it, is that too many Americans engage in hero-worship with regard to its military instead of dispassionately examining the society's transactional responsibilities to an all-volunteer force. This is an important issue that should be addressed, but I think the answer should be different than the one Exum comes to.

Exum compares the war zone risks and compensation of soldiers to diplomats, aid workers, and civilian contractors (his conclusion is that all of these have the same risks, but the military enjoys much better compensation) before posing the following option on the nature of the military: is it a public service or is it a profession? The former would limit military compensation to that of similar public services such as police officers. The latter would limit compensation to a contractual situation more similar to the private sector, which by my interpretation means that benefits afforded the military but do not have a private sector equivalent are probably in excess of what the contract should entail. Obviously, the U.S. has come to a hybrid solution to this problem since the advent of the all-volunteer force. The question then is how to compensate the military under this solution. This is where I think there are some flaws in Exum's analysis of civil-military relations.

Fundamentally, military service is not like other public services in one significant way. Yes, other forms of public service entail risk to individuals' lives, limbs, and eyesight. However, the functional imperative of military service is to inflict violence upon our enemies and this is unique to the military (the functional utility of the military, i.e., SFA, HA/DR, etc, is not the same as its functional imperative). This is true of military service whether you're a cook or an infantryman - the latter may use force much more often but the cook is trained and expected to at times as well (in other words, I don't buy this load of nonsense on two societies within the military). Police forces may be authorized to use force in the execution of their functional imperative (maintain law and order), but it is not their primary or most desired tool. USAID workers are exposed to the same (or at least similar) risks and traumas as soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, but society not only does not expect them to inflict risks and traumas upon others, society forbids them from doing so by law.  This is not an insignificant difference in service as anyone who has had his enemy in his weapon's sights can tell you. So how do we compensate for this?

Before we begin to answer that question, we need to examine two more aspects of military service and civil-military relations. The first is the issue of professionalism and the two societies that do indeed bifurcate the military: officers and enlisted. For this, Samuel Huntington, in "The Solider and the State", a work that Exum himself called the canonical text on civil-military relations (and he's right), uses the term "professional" in a sociological sense (not in the "I do this well for a paycheck" sense): a vocation that requires expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. In Huntington's construct officers are professionals and enlisted are not according to the definitions he provides (which are much more involved than standard dictionary definitions - please read this section of the book before berating me for being an officer snob). Enlisted personnel are more like skilled craftsmen. There is a lot of merit to this argument, particularly around UCMJ authorities and the different education systems for officers and NCOs (although NCOs have made a lot ground in the past couple of decades in this regard). This important distinction is manifest in combat duties: officers are responsible for the management of violence and enlisted personnel are responsible for the acts of violence. Of course officers often pull triggers and enlisted NCOs independently manage violence, but these acts are borne of necessity on the battlefield and not their inherent responsibilities within the organization. The point of this discussion is that while military service is different public service because of the responsibility to commit acts of violence, society only expects enlisted personnel to commit those acts of violence. This must be a factor in calculating compensation for this unique public service.

The final issue we need to examine here is civil-military relations as it relates to veterans. Frankly, there is no "The Veteran and the State" (although I'd love to take a stab at it - hint, hint publishers...) to guide how society interacts with its veterans because of their previous military service. "The Solider and the State" deals almost exclusively with the interactions of the civilian government (and in a couple of places civilian society) and the military's officer corps. It was also written before our modern, all-volunteer force. Yet as it remains the capstone doctrine of civil-military relations, Huntington is our only guide.  We must infer civil-veteran relations based on our understanding of the nature of military service and how the military interacts with society. But that extrapolation can be difficult.

We have already established that the functional imperative of military forces is to exact violence on the country's behalf. We have an understanding of how civilian control, military expertise, and transactions between the two parties work in order to optimize military effectiveness for society. But we have no idea who owes what once these skilled craftsmen of violence are no longer in the military. Their very unique individual functional imperative for society no longer exists for them individually and their skills can translate very poorly to civilian society. Should society not be responsible for helping these men and women to essentially reprogram their functional imperative into an function that aids society in new ways? To reintroduce them into society where risks may exist, but the need to commit violent acts is not? Yes, they volunteered for this unique service, but military personnel cannot stay in service indefinitely (up or out!) or even until a natural retirement age in their 60s. Society does owe these men and women something to retrain them to again be useful to society.

The G.I. Bill is the most obvious example of reintroduction benefits for veterans.  Alex Horton of the Department of Veterans affairs wrote an excellent article this week in The Atlantic about the challenges of going to college after being in an Army at war. Horton focuses his article on the differences between war veterans and the "traditional" students who comprise the majority of the university body. But when I read his piece I was struck by how similar these two seemingly disparate groups are. They are starting from different points in life with different challenges, but they are all forging their minds and identities in ways that will define (in part) who they are and what they will do with the rest of their lives. In other words, how they will be useful to society for the remainder of their professional, productive lives. College is a moderately safe environment to acclimate to American society, for both 18 year-old kids and 32 year-old combat veterans. After what we've asked these service men and women to do - to commit acts of violence on our behalf - providing the opportunity to reintegrate into society in this way is a small price to pay to erase their previous utility (which obviously has no place in civilian society - and we should note that erasing utility is not the same as not recognizing their previous service) and create new utility, even if these types of benefits should not be unlimited. I'd rather it happen on the taxpayer's dime in a university setting than on the streets of some city.

And yet the G.I. Bill is a benefit that Exum seems to think should not be given to military veterans because no other public servants have the same benefit. As discussed, different service merits different benefits. Should the G.I. Bill be more limited than it is now? Probably, but not based on whether the veteran is a general's kid or not. Instead it should be freely given to our enlisted veterans - those whose purpose to society was violence - in order to reintegrate them into society. Former officers probably do not need it as their societal function was not committing acts of violence. They also probably do not need the G.I. Bill because they all already have a bachelor's degree, have more tangible civilian skills, and are at a social level that often negates the need for this type of societal reintegration.  The distinction is a bit academic of course, but we have little else from which to base our sense of fairness when determining the terms of compensation transactions.

With looming austerity all military benefits and compensation should be under scrutiny. Some benefits may decrease for future service members and veterans, remembering that our society has a contract with current members and veterans. When the public and our government examine these benefits in this understudied area of civil-military relations, they need to remember that military service is an unique form of public service that has no place in society after soldiers and Marines depart military service. They need to remember that the transactional costs and benefits are not just about fairness to the veteran, but the effects on society as a whole. Alex Horton and those he discusses in his article will most likely benefit personally from a G.I. Bill-funded degree. But society also benefits from paying for that degree because Alex Horton and his cohorts will probably be better integrated into society because of it. This is not about hero worship or praetorian guards. Veterans benefits are about taking care of individuals who fulfill a unique role in society and ensuring that they are able to provide new, useful roles to society.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Stars Earn Stripes: bad TV, worse morality UPDATED

This is your fault America. When television producers were looking to cut costs and introduced low-budget fare to the public in the form of reality television, you gobbled it up. It did not matter how asinine or offensive the show was: Operation Repo, Jersey Shore, Undercover Boss, Toddlers and Tiaras. The dumber the better. Continuing this streak of crapulence, NBC is now subjecting us to Stars Earn Stripes, where eight celebrities, of varying quality, conduct dramatized military and law enforcement activities under the tutelage of former special operators and SWAT officers as well as today's least-liked graduate of Hudson High School for Boys (my alma mater), retired General Wes Clark.

I will not critique the show in the usual sense (the L.A. Times and Washington Post have already done so), mainly because I refuse to watch this nonsense. There has been, however, push back against the show because many feel that it glamorizes war and treats it as sport instead of the serious, deadly business that it really is. From a petition making its rounds on Twitter today, the leftist activist group RootsAction wrote the following to NBC:
Your entertainment show "Stars Earn Stripes" treats war as sport. This does us all a disservice. We ask that you air an in-depth segment showing the reality of civilian victims of recent U.S. wars, on any program, any time in the coming months. 
Their assertion is not incorrect - Stars does treat war as sport which is the greater of two disservices to the public (the other being the quality of the entertainment they provide). As a veteran who has seen war as closely as one can, I think that Todd Palin jumping from a helicopter is a far cry from earning stripes and can only be interpreted as the fetishization of war. (Aside: Where are all of you non-commissioned officers? I'm sure you did more than this nonsense to earn your stripes.)  In spite of this, Stars Earn Stripes seems comparatively benign to other forms of war glorification. These eight has-beens may shoot weapons at static targets, but compared to modern video games where war is literally a sport, albeit digital, this show seems delightfully archaic.

This is not to give Stars or NBC pass. They are using war and America's current trust, nay, love of veterans and the military to make profit for themselves and their shareholders. I find this morally offensive.  Yes, the winner of the show's competition gets $100,000 to donate to their veterans/law enforcement charity of choice. But how many dollars were spent producing this show? How much will ad revenue bring in? I suspect the profits of a prime-time show on NBC will exceed $100,000. Good on them for doing something for charity, but I think they could and should do a lot more.  If NBC were to contribute all of their profits to veterans charity, and I strongly suggest that they do, this show would cease to be a morally reprehensible source of entertainment. It would merely be a reprehensible source of entertainment, which is exactly what you all seem to clamor for anyway.

Update: As I think about why this form of profit-making from war is so offensive to me, vice other forms such as video games or war movies, I think it has to do with the fact that this show is purely profit-driven. Realistic video games show war as it is: bloody and cruel. Whether gamers choose to acknowledge this lesson potentially learned is not the fault (or even design) of the games' makers. But the lesson is there. Likewise, movies involving war generally have some sort of political message: to support the troops or protest a particular war or war in general. Stars Earn Stripes has no political message, it has provides no lens through which to learn more about the horrors of war. It is about the military and what they do being totally awesome and profiting from providing that viewpoint. In other words, it provides no utility to society except for those few making a buck off of the worst experiences mankind must endure. That is what makes this show so morally reprehensible.