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New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

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Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

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Two from the Comments Section on Wylie

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

 

Grip, the post by Lynn Rees generated comments linking to two further posts on the topic of Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell  (J.C.) Wylie, Jr. and his  Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control which I suspect are of interest to many readers here:

Seydlitz89 – Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie’s “Military Strategy” 

….I will introduce and discuss six specific areas of Wylie’s book. The first regards the nature of strategy itself including his view of what strategy should be able to accomplish and the nature of strategic theory. Second is his actual definition of strategy and some of the assumptions behind it. Third is the methods of studying strategy including his comments on cumulative and sequential strategies. The fourth is one aspect of his commentary in regards to Mao, and the fifth pertains to his second assumption in regards to “control over the enemy” and the final point regards his overall view of a general theory of strategy which ties all the points together. 

One of Wylie’s most valid points is that military and naval officers who command and plan our military operations use certain patterns of thought which are essentially strategic without even them being aware of it:

An idea is a very powerful thing, and political ideas or religious ideas or economic ideas have always affected and often controlled the courses of man’s destinies. That we understand and accept. So also have strategic ideas influenced or controlled man’s destinies, but too few men, including the men who had them, have recognized the controlling strategic concepts and theories hidden behind the glamor or the stench or the vivid, active drama of the war itself.(page 9)
Not only that, but a soldier, a sailor and an airman look at the same operation in very different ways, the airman especially “stands apart in basic principle from them both”. For this reason Wylie sees a general theory of strategy necessary in order to bring these different perspectives together in a way that makes sense of the whole: “what is necessary is that the whole of the thing, all of war, be studied” (p 12). The project he takes on is daunting in that “the intellectual framework is not clearly defined, and its vocabulary is almost non-existent” (p 11).

NerveAgent – J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz? 

….To formulate his own theory, Wylie starts from four guiding assumptions:

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.

2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie’s most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.

3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves.Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.

4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

From these assumptions, he develops the statement that is the core of his work:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

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Zen at War on the Rocks on China and Avoiding War

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
Chinese Navy

Chinese Navy

[by Mark Safranski, a.k. a. “zen“]

The editors of the excellent War of the Rocks invited me to post a short rebuttal to the op-ed “How Not to Go to War With China”, by Scott Cheney-Peters, which appears in their “Hasty Ambush” section:

UNDERSTANDING CHINA: THE REAL KEY TO AVOIDING WAR

….A place to begin our efforts in avoiding war with China might be avoiding engagement in some of the same incorrect mirror-imaging assumptions we once made about the Soviet Union, not least of which was MAD.  As a doctrine, Soviet leaders never accepted MAD and the Red Army general staff ignored it in drafting war plans to fight and prevail in any nuclear war. While the Soviets had no choice but to tackle the logic of deterrence as we did, the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus, a different force structure and above all, different policy goals from their American counterparts.  A dangerous gap between American assumptions of Soviet intentions and the reality of these intentions came to light when in 1983 the Reagan administrationdiscovered to their alarm that Soviet leaders had interpreted the NATO exercise Abel Archer 83 as preparations for a real, imminent nuclear first strike on the USSR and ordered Soviet nuclear forces on high alert.

The military-to-military confidence-building initiatives outlined by Cheney-Peters intended to construct “habits of cooperation” are not entirely useless. There is some value in ensuring that high-ranking American military officers have personal and limited operational familiarity with their Chinese counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but as potential game-changers, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Such a policy misses the essential strategic and political centers of gravity in the Sino-American relationship.  Namely that for the first time in 600 years, China is building a blue water Navy that will foster power projection as far away as the Indian ocean and Australia.  Secondly, this naval expansion, coupled with a new Chinese foreign policy, aggressively presses grandiose territorial demands on nearly all of its neighbors, including India and Japan.  These are fundamental conflicts with American interests that cannot be explained away or papered over by banquet toasts with visiting delegations of Chinese admirals. […]

Read the rest here.

Also read another WotR  China piece “99 Red Balloons: How War with China would Start” by Matthew Hipple

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The Vietnam War at Fifty

Monday, November 11th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Today is Veteran’s Day. It is a day when Americans remember all of those who served, in peace or war.

Originally, this day was called Armistice Day in honor of the cease fire that came in ” the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” and brought the horrific slaughter of  World War I to an end. This was fitting.  The First World War loomed large in the memories of our great grandparents and grandparents the way the Civil War did for earlier generations. It was an ominous touchstone of the nadir of which Mankind was capable until it was thoroughly eclipsed by the subsequent horrors of Nazi barbarism in a Second World War – a conflict that seemed a maturation of the first. In the postwar era, Armistice Day became a national tribute to the sacrifices of all veterans.

This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of American entry into the Vietnam War.

Historians may quibble with this, as American involvement in Vietnam went back to WWII and OSS agents giving advice to Ho Chi Minh in the jungle war against Imperial Japan and Vichy French puppet colonialists, but 1963 is when “American boys” first went to South Vietnam in real numbers.  And many of them were indeed little more than boys. Fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and eighty six of them did not come home.

Those that did are now grown grey with the passage of time.

The Vietnam War caused deeper divisions in the American psyche than any other war except the one that began at Fort Sumter. The wounds have never really healed and they rest inflamed and sore just beneath the scabrous surface of American politics to this day. America has an unenviable historical track record of not treating its veterans very well and those who served in that unpopular war that ended in defeat received on their return home far more than their share of  disdain and abuse.

Even the attempt to build a memorial – the now famously cathartic Wall – roiled at the time in a controversy of unimaginable bitterness. The site eventually became a place of pilgrimage, alive with memory of the dead and compassion for the living. This was a good thing but in truth as a nation we could have done far, far better for the men who served in Vietnam than we did.

The best tribute to these veterans of Vietnam that we can make as a people would be to see that the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan do not repeat the sad experience of their fathers.

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