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.