Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Farmers - Food Eaters



Energy Industry-Energy Consumers




Hollywood-Movie Goers

The fact of the matter is that many professionals, trade organizations, low-density occupations, etc. are all fairly removed -- geographically, intellectually, or mentally -- from the people they support. I don't understand the nuances of agricultural policies even though they probably affect me in many ways. I don't understand all of the regulations and decisions that bankers make that affect our entire economy. I don't live next door to diplomats, I don't know what they do every day, and they make decisions for our nation. Congressmen aren't usually like the rest of us and we don't have much contact with them either in spite of the major decisions they make for us every day. Frankly, I haven't heard a lot of complaints about this. There are divides between "the people" and nearly every group that ensures our society maintains itself and almost all of us are okay with this. We don't have the energy or time to really wade into the details of these policies to force ourselves and our ideas into these groups.

Which is why I often scoff at the Chicken Littles of the civil-military divide. To describe the gap between the military and the rest of the country as a crisis is just plain silly. No valid arguments have been put forward that show that this gap is worsening or has any worse effects than any of the gaps I listed above. To include the last one in many cases. Thoughts to the contrary, particularly of this form (which I won't waste any time dissecting because it really is that terrible), are exercises in egotistical scare-mongering.  So next time someone warns about our civ-mil crisis, ask them where the food they ate today came from and what was in it. Ask them when was the last time they had the influence to reduce risk in financial markets. Ask them when they last wrote to their representative to get them to vote for what's right instead of the party line. Yes, the military is as world apart. But this country is full of figurative gated communities along with the real ones. Until we expect our citizens to become experts on essentially ever major category of public policy (something that is not only impossible, but also probably unwise), we should stop beating the drum that our category of public policy is what will undo the Nation and then use the those threats to substantiate the abridgment of our fellow citizens' freedoms.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The leadership enigma and sexual assault in the military

Leadership's problem is that it is an enigma. We know it exists, but what it is and how to teach it is as clear as Turner's London. We have a hard time describing what it is but we know when someone has it. It is the reason for an organization's successes, the cure-all to its ills, and the scapegoat for its faults. We prefer to empower people with leadership at the lowest level possible and yet invariably hold the highest levels of leadership accountable when the lower levels screw things up. Likewise, when institutions go awry higher-ups often blame the lower-downs (?) for their lack of leadership.  You have all seen this in the military and civilian worlds, first hand and in the press. What are we supposed to make of leadership from all of this?

Within the military and its circles, including armchair strategists, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prime examples of poor strategic leadership (mostly) and excellent tactical leadership (also mostly). Some of this is undoubtedly true. But many go further. There has been a call for pushing more power to lower leaders: company commanders, platoon leaders, squad leaders. Corporals, the lowest leadership rank in the Army, is now a strategic billet. And yet our generals are glorified tacticians. We need to let these junior guys do what the they think works, in the best traditions of Auftragstaktik, and even let them screw up a bit. The most serious impediment to our Army is that senior leaders -- battalion, brigade, division, corps, and higher commanders -- are standing in the way of the guy on the ground from doing his or her job through the senior leader's micromanagement inspired by his own career interests. You all know the tired, old saying: lead, follow, or get out of the way. We want our NCOs and company grades to lead, the Joes to follow, and everyone else to get the hell out of their way. Or so the argument goes.

But now we have a crisis in the force. Sexual assault, harassment, and rape is entirely too high for an organization that succeeds through its values, such as loyalty, duty, and the oft-maligned honor. No humans should do these things to other humans. Ever. These crimes become even more egregious when they are committed within an institution that demands mutual trust among its people. The stakes of war are too high for this trust not exist. And yet sexual crimes erode that trust in ways that no other offenses do, which is why it doesn't matter that sexual misconduct incidence in the military is lower than it is in the civilian world. The harm is greater in the military. We all know that eradicating sexual misconduct is impossible, but surely we can significantly reduce it through two supporting ways: policy and leadership.

So here we come back to that word: leadership. Leadership, particularly at the highest levels, has been blamed for this rash of crimes. This blame is partially right and partially wrong. Once you leave company command, you really don't get to know your people outside of your commanders two (or three) levels down and your staff. There are just too many people. General Odierno can't personally stop a Sergeant First Class at West Point from filming female cadets in the shower. He doesn't know this E7 and he has hundreds of thousands of people to look after. At the field and general grade levels, leadership is exercised principally in three ways: example, policy, and 'command'. We have a problem when lieutenant colonels, colonels, and generals are harassing, assaulting, and raping. I don't expect SSG Snuffy looks and BG Sinclair and thinks to himself, "General Jeff is doing it so it must be okay." But SSG Snuffy looks at Sinclair, Roberts, or any of the other higher ranking perpetrators -- of which there are too, too many -- and thinks to himself that his Army's leadership is broken and he loses faith in the institution. What sort of system allows predators to climb its ranks? In this way, the few very bad apples are becoming a failure of leadership from the perspective of leadership as exemplar.

Leadership through good policy is a bit harder to grasp. Biannual anti-sexual assault/harassment briefings are good policy in theory, but anyone who has sat through them know how utterly ineffectual they are. As everyone knows this, they question why they are made to sit through them. It reeks of leaders mandating briefings to cover their own fourth points of contact and be seen as doing something. I don't have the answer to the formal education element to the sexual crime problem in the military (I'll leave that to the experts), but the current system is a failure and that does reflect on the leaders who implement it. The other major element of policy has been with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically that generals and admirals have the authority to set aside sentences. This has been done recently in the trial and conviction of field-grade officer in the Air Force and this too smells bad. The perception is that senior leaders are taking care of senior leaders.  With no equivalent in the civilian judicial process, it is curious that this policy remains in military law. Even more curious is that some generals came out in support of the policy in spite of its negative effect on the institution. While many have said they support its removal from the UCMJ, the policy's use and its support has been another senior leader failure.

Command is harder yet to hold accountable. It's having the legal authority (what separates it from the broader category of 'leadership') to tell folks to do things and it's being responsible when they don't do those things. This is where a lot of people, predominantly in my observations those who have not served, place the blame. Generals command the Army. The Army has a problem. Generals are to blame for that problem. This reasoning is not wrong, but it is not the whole story. Yes, Generals Odierno, Dempsey, Casey and Schoomaker bear some responsibility for this crisis because it happened on their watch. That is the burden of command. The question is: what are they supposed to do about it? Frankly, being a good example and instituting effective policy is their primary recourse. Lower commanders, field grades and division commanders, can exert their command influence here by crushing people who violate their unit's and comrades' trust. "Zero defect" is a dirty term in the Army, but it may be time to resurrect it.

Senior leaders do have culpability for the existence of sexual crimes in the force.  There are things, roughly outlined above, that they could do to help improve things. But they alone cannot fix the problem. The only way to get to a Force Zero, if you will, is to exert leadership and responsibility in the two groups that are usually immune from public scrutiny: low-level leaders and individuals. NCOs and company-grade officers clamor for authority and now is their time to really grasp it instead of the typical tongue-wagging about it. I'm amazed that these crimes occur in units and no one seems to know about it. The way to change the culture is for junior leaders to really (I mean really) know their people. To know what makes them tic, what they do off of duty, their opinion of women. They can show true leadership by not permitting misogynistic talk in the office or prohibiting pornography in the platoon area.* A good junior leader has his/her finger on his/her unit's pulse and should know when things are about to go bad or when they already have. The other group is the obvious source of the problem: individuals. Some people are who they are and too many are just bad at being people, that is why Force Zero isn't very realistic. This could crisis could vanish over night if people just acted like people towards each other. To say nothing of people in uniform acting according to the values espoused in that uniform.

The intent of this post is to ensure we, the American public, aren't having knee-jerk reactions about this very serious problem. Yes, senior leaders have responsibility for it happening and for fixing it in the terms I have outlined here. And yes, individual culprits should get the lion's share of the blame as they're the jerks doing this stuff. But it's time we give our junior leaders the responsibilities commensurate with the authorities they say they deserve (and that I argue they've generally had). You want to run your unit lieutenant or captain without meddlesome superiors? Then do it. These problems are on you. If you couldn't tell you had a problem in your unit after something blew up, then you were part of the problem. Tactics won't win wars, but stemming the tide of sexual crimes in the military starts at the platoon. This is a strategic problem that you can mostly fix merely by being there, understanding your charges, and understanding when you need to take action. When the seniors set a good example and provide good policies while juniors take charge of their units and their people, we'll have a better sense of what leadership should look like in the military instead of the finger pointing and soap-boxing we endure today.

*One of my greatest failures as a platoon leader was allowing my platoon sergeant to post nude pictures on the walls of his tank. Other than the flash fire hazard, it was quite embarrassing when we gave a couple of nice female nurses a tour of a tank and his was the only one not locked at the time. They were rightfully uncomfortable through what should have been something cool for them and I was mortified.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

10 Years After

10 years ago I was in the western desert of Kuwait, a tank platoon leader unsure if I would have to lead my men to war or not. I fully supported going to war at the time. I didn't much care about weapons of mass destruction, beyond their possibly being used against me, and democratization is a lofty goal.  But these weren't the reasons I wanted to go to war. The most important reason I thought we should go to war was because I realized my quickest route home was through Baghdad, which sounded better than more months whiling away in the desert. The second reason I wanted to go to war was because that's what I thought soldiers should do. We had a plan, we had rehearsed it, and my platoon was very, very good. I went to West Point in an era where there were generations of officers, outside of the few who fought in Desert Storm or Panama, were never able to use the skills they trained their entire lives for. I didn't want to be one of those old guys regaling my loved ones with harrowing tales of that time in the Whale Gap at the National Training Center. I wanted to do something. I was 22 and obviously knew nothing about the world beyond how to lead a platoon of tanks.

We should never have gone to war with Iraq. The intelligence that was used to substantiate a massive war was so shoddy that I wouldn't have used it to substantiate a platoon-sized raid. And of course we know now that I was fabricated purely to start the war. As horrifying as that is, I don't believe Iraq was the greatest blunder the U.S. has made since World War II. I think escalating Vietnam still holds that title. The Iraq War may have tilted the political leanings of the United States, but it has not fundamentally changed our social fabric in the way that Vietnam did. For the Iraqis, our invasion was probably the worst thing to have happen to them since World War II. What this war wrought on them is unconscionable. That we lost 3,542 U.S. servicemembers, with another approximately 32,000 wounded, is horrifying. Even more horrifying are the 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis that are estimated to have been killed because of the war, to say nothing of the millions who were displaced from their homes and the rending of the Iraq's social fabric (although some of that was good, such as the enfranchisement of the Shia and Kurds).

These statistics speak not only to the folly of having started the war, but also to the incompetence of those charged with executing it. At least through the end of 2005 and probably longer, the Iraq War was a tidal wave of arrogance and stupidity. In April 2003, when civilians were looting government facilities, the order came down to let them have at it. This criminality was the "exuberance of democracy". The next month when the order came down to disband the security forces and expel the Ba'ath Party from government it took all of about 4 hours for the first attack to occur on a convoy on Airport Road. No one was seriously hurt, but that was all about to change. In June my unit moved to Balad, a hotbed of former regime acolytes, where we patrolled in unarmored HMMWVs, taking the doors off so we could hang our legs out the sides and face our pitiful body armor to any potential blasts. While there we conducted cordons so the 4th Infantry Division could run their sweeping operations, making matters worse by rounding up military-aged males in the interest of security. In 2005, my unit was in eastern Baghdad where we ignored the Sadrists for almost a year. Our predecessors had a hard fight against them in 2004 and our command wanted none of that. By doing nothing we gave the Sadrists 12 months to refit and rearm so that units in 2006 had a harder time than 1st Cavalry Division did in 2004 and further inflamed the civil war. This is just skimming the top of the nonsense I witnessed personally that did nothing but hurt the Iraqis we were trying to "liberate" and the soldiers and marines doing the liberating.

By the time I was stop-lossed for the surge in 2007 I was adamantly against the war. I thought the surge just another foolish move in a long series of foolish moves and that we should have ended the war instead. During my last 13 months in Iraq during this surge, I came around to believing it was the best way to turn around a terrible situation. The Iraqis did most of the hard work with The Awakening and the Sadrist cease-fire, but it took the infusion of more soldiers into the battle space and the increased killing of our most extreme enemies to solidify the gains made by the Iraqis. This is not to say that the surge made up for our past blunders or that it led to our winning the war. It was merely the best option from an assortment of really bad options. As a case in point, before we had Sons of Iraq in our brigade battle space we had 35 to 40 "negative events" - a euphemism for attacks on coalition forces or reports of attacks on civilians - per day. The day after we secured our battle space with an additional battalion and a contingent of Sons of Iraq we averaged 2 negative events per day. The decrease in violence, brought about by many factors including the use of more violence, was remarkable. So while Iraq is still quite violent and nearly none of the major political disputes have been settled, we did some things right in an attempt to correct the mistakes we made. Unfortunately it wasn't quite enough to make up for that biggest mistake and it's possible it could have been for naught.

My feelings about this war are complicated. On the one hand, in spite of my initial and self-centered support for it, this war should never have happened. The people who worked so hard to create it should never have remained in office after the next election and should have been shamed from public life forever. Invading Iraq was certainly one of the worst things this country has done in the past 70 years. On the other hand I was a soldier responsible for and to other soldiers. I was oblivious to political machinations, concerned only with battle drills, gunnery skills, and medical proficiency. I was concerned with the welfare of my men and accomplishing our missions that were such a small part of the whole of our endeavors in Iraq. During nearly 3 years on the ground I witnessed some of the most inspiring acts of heroism, sacrifice, service, and humanity, so lacking in my life now. Of course we should never have been put in the position to commit and witness these acts in the first place. I am embarrassed for our country for having done this to ourselves and the Iraqis. Yet I am not only not ashamed for having taken part in this war, I'm proud of doing so. It has done more than anything else in making me who I am today. In spite of this retrospective I greet this 10th anniversary of the war with some ambivalence and a bit of distance. I'll probably skip all of these "10 lessons" articles that are being passed around and not revisit my papers and videos on the war. Instead I'll raise a glass to the soldiers I fought with and those we lost and leave it at that.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Comments and Reviews

Just a couple of quick notes. First, I want to apologize for the addition of captcha to the comments. We have been inundated with spam lately. I thought that the filters had been getting it, but just now had to go through to delete over 100 published spam comments. Hopefully this fixes the problem and we won't have to turn off comments altogether. If things go well for a while, we'll take a look at turning it off or finding a better solution. Recommendations on this are welcome. So sorry for the pain in having to verify your comments and for dealing with our spam problem. There's a special place in hell for the people that design those programs.

Second, a quick note on posts. As you most likely noticed, Gulliver and I have cut back significantly in recent months. I can't speak for Gully, but I thought you should know that at least through the spring, my posts will probably be exclusively book reviews. Unless, of course, the blogging spirit moves me. I hope to have one on Max Boot's Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present completed in the next couple of weeks. I've had some difficultly in determining how to frame the review for this one, but I think I've finally cracked it. After that I'll review Andrew Polsky's Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. I'm not entirely sure what comes after that. Oxford University Press just released their spring catalog that contained a couple of promising volumes for this venue. Otherwise I am open to recommendations and requests from publishers, authors, and our readers. The point is that posting will be sparse, but that posts are also in the pipeline.

Thank you for your patience on both of these issues.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs? Neville Bolt's The Violent Image

By Neville Bolt
Columbia University Press

In The Violent Image Neville Bolt, a Teaching Fellow at Kings College London and a former BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and CBC Canada producer-director, sets out to redefine the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD) from its 19th Century roots and make it applicable to today's insurgents and terrorists (he uses these terms somewhat interchangeably, arguing that many terrorist groups, such as al Qaida, are global insurgencies). Bolt defines the original POTD as such: 
Initially the deed was an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of goading the state into overreacting and using excessive force, thus losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and securing revolution.  (24)
He contrasts this first concept with today's POTD: 
POTD is an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of creating a media event capable of energising populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation. (24)
Bolt posits that this change in the insurgent's utility of violence has developed from acts that were primarily kinetic and symbolic to acts that are in reality strategic communications tools beyond their physical, tactical utility. There are five reasons for this development: globalization, mass migration and urbanization, the Digital Revolution, virtual social networks mapping onto traditional social networks, and the movement of politics into the media. 

The book is title The Violent Image because Bolt stresses the importance of images, stills over video, as a means to trigger emotions that change collective and collected memories such that are necessary to rewrite social understanding of political history. Pictures, he says, are more emotive than words, are conveniently ambiguous that they allow for different interpretations by different audiences, and cut across language barriers. There exists an 'Archipelago of Memories' (it seems his dissertation adviser was John Mackinlay after all) within societies that links memories and narratives. Actors with political primacy within societies have controlled the means of narrative, primarily through state-owned or -controlled media, and therefore have controlled the collective memory of the society. Insurgents attempt to provide an alternative narrative to create new memories sympathetic to their cause. Attempts that have been significantly facilitated by the digital revolution where media (narratives) are no longer one-to-many and are now many-to-many. Violent images are crucial to breaking down existing memories:
Insurgents connect these acts of violence in the minds of individuals and groups, to carefully crafted memories of grievance. Preparing the population is not simply about reinforcing ideology. It is about fracturing state and media memories - the status quo ante - and rooting violence in freshly constructed narratives, spawning a new revolutionary memory. (54)
To this point, Bolt provides an interesting history of Irish insurgent groups from 1798 until the present day where each new movement, whether nationalist, republican, Catholic, or socialist, has used propaganda to tie their group and cause to the earliest Irish insurgents. By drawing on more than a hundred years (at least for the most recent groups) these organizations created a memory of long-suffered grievance, even if their own objectives had little to anything in common with their predecessors. 

Insurgents, indeed any actor who uses propaganda, have the difficulty of speaking to many different audiences: fighters, local societies, diaspora societies, friendly governments, enemy governments, enemy fighters, etc. While the ambiguity of violent images allows them to use one image to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, it is imperative the that narrative of their values remain unambiguous. This is something Western governments know all too well. There cannot be too big a gap between what you do and what you say. Insurgents use POTD, both minor and spectacular:
Minor events should resonate with each other, while spectaculars provide focal points that act as beacons within the landscape of revolutionary violence. (151)
Spectacular events in particular create fleeting points in time and space that provide the insurgent the capability to leverage their narratives while established media narratives waste the moment attempting to understand the "why" of the attacks through self-reflection. These are precious moments in building societal memories. 

Bolt provides two important lessons from all of this. First is that while the technologies that allow insurgents to propagate their narratives are not in themselves revolutionary, the changes in insurgent behavior of leveraging the technologies to disperse their narratives is, namely by the speed of dissemination (event to propaganda) and through many-to-many engagements. The second important lesson that Bolt draws is that insurgent organizations are increasingly, rightly in his opinion, using this new concept of POTD, leveraging the digital revolution, as a strategic operating concept that not only describes their military operations, but more significantly drives military operations so that tactical activities are determined by narrative and strategies of breaking down and building new memories. 

The Violent Image is a tour de force on the utility of violence for insurgent propaganda. Bolt lays out a coherent and engaging explanation of how and why insurgents and terrorists use violence towards political objectives. His arguments is straightforward and informative, if academically written, and we are better off having this work. Much ink has been spilled on the narrative aspects of insurgency and counterinsurgency, much of it useful, some of it not. Bolt's story is useful as it should help us understand the interaction of war and narrative better, even if it provides little in the way of recommendations to combat insurgent efforts to build new societal memories (which, of course, was not his intent; this is not a knock against the book). 

I certainly agree with Bolt that the POTD is and should be a operating concept that drives insurgent strategies (the term 'strategic operating concept' being an oxymoron in American military parlance).  However, my initial reaction to this book was to question whether this is evolutionary or revolutionary. What Bolt proposes is the story of a Revolution in Military Affairs with regard to insurgent warfare. A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs, a RIMA if you will.  The contrast is important. The study of war and its revolutions have focused almost solely upon great powers and conventional tactics and strategies. Discussions of the role of guerrilla warfare in this context center on how evolutions and revolutions in counterinsurgent forces enable those forces to better fight against insurgencies. The fact of the matter is that we do not have an academic reckoning of insurgencies such as we have for Western militaries. Our understanding of insurgencies has not progressed much past hit and run tactics, blending with the populations, the population is their target, and other such statements. These are not terribly useful in analyzing Bolt's thesis that his new POTD definition is revolutionary. 

To continue this line of analysis, POTD as a RIMA, we should examine what is meant by a Revolution in Military Affairs. A perfectly good definition was provided by Peter Singer in his Wired for War:

RMAs typically involve the introduction of a new technology or organization, which in turn creates a whole new model of fighting and winning wars. A new weapon is introduced that makes obsolete all the previous best weapons, such as what armored, steam-powered warships did to wooden, wind-powered warships. (Singer, 181)
There is no question that the digital revolution brought about new technologies that have affected warfare. Indeed, insurgent groups have even reorganized themselves to better leverage these technologies. But are these actions revolutionary with regard to insurgent warfare? Have they created a "whole new model of fighting and winning wars"? 

Insurgents have use propaganda as long as we have been recording such things. Even Clausewitz himself acknowledges that the insurrectionist's center of gravity is popular support (we'll ignore for the moment that he still then proscribes the destruction of the enemy force as essential). During his lengthy discourse on Irish insurgencies, Bolt writes at length about their leveraging propaganda. The connection of violence to propaganda has been the hallmark of terrorist groups for at least a century, and likely before that, either to generate grievance from heavy-handed governments or to demonstrate their group's military competence.

I believe that an element of skepticism of the revolutionary aspect of Bolt's thesis is his definition of the POTD from a century ago. He links the violent act to government overreaction; a judo throw that causes widespread outrage that creates social transformation. But what are these events other than media events? How were insurgents able to spread public outrage? In the case of Ireland it was through pamphlets and underground newspapers. I would argue that insurgent intents and the mechanisms to bring their objectives to reality have not fundamentally changed since, merely the speed and reach of messaging. Indeed, speed and reach provided by digital means are necessary to counteract global migrations that would in earlier times have been local audiences to insurgent groups. Audiences that had been well within the effective range of a well written and illustrated newsletter. 

There are numerous ways to analyze this excellent book and as a military thinker and writer I chose to approach it as a second track of military affairs. I do not find what Bolt describes as creating a whole new way of fighting and winning wars. Propaganda, rooted in violent imagery to evoke emotions that break down and recreate societal memories of grievance, has benefited from the digital revolution in an evolutionary manner, not revolutionary. It is not a RIMA, even if it may drive more 'traditional' forces towards their own RMAs to combat the POTD. That said, this type of analysis would be well served by more in-depth study of insurgencies over time, such as we have for Western militaries.

The point of evolutionary or revolutionary advancement does not degrade this book in any way. It is exceptionally informative in describing how and why our current and potential adversaries use violence beyond tactical gains and into symbolic strategic gains by way of propaganda. Any student of modern warfare, insurgency, and terrorism would do themselves well by reading and keeping The Violent Image handy and I congratulate Dr Bolt for creating this significant work. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Apropos of nothing...

Excerpted from a Wall Street Journal editorial, 10 January 1963, entitled "War Without Will":
And perhaps we should all realize that there are certain things the U.S., for all its military power, cannot do. One is to reshape the nature of people of radically different traditions and values.
Quoted in David M. Toczek's 2001 book, The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam (p. 122 of the 2007 paperback edition).