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New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.


New Book: The Violent Image by Neville Bolt

Friday, December 14th, 2012

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

Columbia University Press just sent me a review copy of The Violent Image, by Dr. Neville Bolt of King’s College vaunted War Studies Department.  Initially, I was amused by the colorful book jacket, but flipping through, it belies a very weighty, heavily footnoted, academic exploration of the iterative relationship between propagandistic imagery and insurgency. Even a casual perusal indicates that The Violent Image is a book many readers of ZP will  like to  get their hands on.

From the jacket:

….Neville Bolt investigates how today’s revolutionaries have rejuvenated the nineteenth century “ptopaganda of the deed” so that terrorism no longer simply goads states into overreacting, thereby losing legitimacy. Instead the deed has become a tool to highlight the underlying grievances of communities

A small sampling of some of the section titles:

Strategic Communications:the State
Strategic Communications: the Insurgent
Networks in Real and Virtual Worlds
Images as Weapons
POTD as Insurgent Concept of Operations
Anonymity and Leaderless Revolutions
The Arab Uprisings and Liberation Technology
POTD as Metaphor

Endnotes run slightly over 90 pages and the bibliography tips the scales at 50, for those interested in such things.

Looking forward to reading this and seeing how Bolt presents his case.

Pondering Transition Ops with Quesopaper

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the nice things about this blog is that periodically, smart folks will send me their unpublished material for feedback and private commentary. This comes in a wide variety of formats – manuscripts, articles, book chapters, powerpoint, sometimes an entire book or novel! It is flattering and almost always informative, so I try to help where I can or at least point the sender in the direction of someone more appropriate.

Recently, I was given a peek at a very intriguing paper on “Transition Operations” by Dr Rich Ledet, LTC Jeff Stewart and Mr. Pete Turner, who blogs occasionally at quesopaper.  Pete has spent a good chunk of the past ten years in a variety of positions and capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he currently is with American troops in a remote rural district and it was he who passed their draft to me. They have taken a fresh look at the subject.

While I can’t give away their “secret sauce” in detail,  I particularly liked the fact that while the  focus and advice for executing transition operations is aimed at field grade officers and their civilian agency counterparts, their vision is in sync with the ideal of having policy-strategy-operations and tactics as a seamless “whole-of-government” garment. If only we could get our politicians to think in these terms, half the battle would be over.

Their paper is now headed to a professional journal; when it is published ( as I think it will be), I will definitely be linking to it here and hopefully, that will be soon.

My reason for my bringing this up – I have the permission of the authors to do so – is that the trio have put their finger on the major doctrinal problem faced by the United States military in Afghanistan – “transition operations” being a politically charged topic, laden as it is with implied foreign policy decision making by heavyweight policy makers, is treated in very scanty fashion by FM 3-24. Compared to other aspects of COIN, very little guidance is given to the the commander of the battalion or brigade in the effort to coordinate “turnover” of responsibilities and missions to their Afghan Army, police and government allies.

This at a time when the “readiness” of Afghan units and officials to accept these burdens in the midst of a war with the Taliban is questionable, variable, controversial at home and politically extremely sensitive in Afghanistan.

And at a point where, ten years after September 11, the US State Department is no more able in terms of personnel and vision or sufficiently funded by Congress, to step up their game and take the lead role in Afghanistan from the Pentagon than it was on September 10, 2001.  SECSTATEs Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton deserve great praise for making State do more with less, but State needs wholesale reform to fit the needs of the 21st century and the money and budgetary flexibility to split foreign policy tasks more equitably with the Defense Department.

State is not going to be playing a major role on the ground in our transition out of Afghanistan, which makes guidance to our majors and colonels – and in turn to their company and platoon leaders stationed there-  all the more important.

More on Strategy

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Two posts worth your attention:

Gulliver at Inkspots continues the strategy convo between myself and Jason Fritz with a major post of extended commentary:

Let’s just be up front with each other: this is a really long rant about strategy 

….I’m willing to concede that the line between civilian and military reponsibilities in strategy formation and the associated operational planning is a blurry and unstable one, and that what I’ve laid out as the normative standard isn’t always the way things play out in reality. You certainly shouldn’t take anything I’ve written above as an exculpatory argument for our elected officials. But more on this a bit later.

As for our man Carl: Jason’s choice of Clausewitz quote is simultaneously interesting and surprising to me. Committed students of the sage will recognize it from perhaps the most remarked-upon pages of On War: Book Eight, Chapter 6B. (If it were an episode of “Friends,” they’d call it The One With the Politics By Other Means.) The language Jason excerpted is from the 19th-century Graham translation; just for the purpose of clarity, let’s look at the somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version:

In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen. (606)This is a pretty difficult passage (especially as I present it here, mostly out of context) but I take it to mean that governments are little interested in ruminations on war’s escalatory momentum in the direction of its absolute form, but rather in how violence may be used to achieve concrete political goals. But the paradoxical reality is that addition of violence to politics – violence that is fueled in part by hatred and enmity, violence that is fundamental to war’s nature and sets it off as distinct from all other human activity – actually re-shapes the character of the political contest. War’s essential violence pressures the political contest to take on the character of a duel or a sporting event; without the harness of policy, war risks becoming a self-contained competition conducted according to its own rules, one where victory is not the mere accomplishment of political objectives but rather a revision of the relationship between the two competitors such that the victor is free to enact his preferences. 

The “high degree of uncertainty” that Clausewitz concedes is introduced “into the whole business” is produced by divergence between the things we do in war and the things they are meant to achieve. In limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy. To put it simply, shit gets crazy in war. [….] 

In a different strategic venue, Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner analyzes  The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012 :

It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement, from 1951, is reflected in Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” It was understood then that words and deeds needed more than just synchronization: public opinion could be leveraged to support and further the execution of foreign policy.

What was true then is more so in a modern communication environment of empowerment. The interconnected systems of Now Media, spanning offline and online mediums, democratizes influence, and undermines traditional models of identity and allegiance as demands on assimilation fade as “hyphens” become commas. What emerges is a new marketplace for loyalty that bypasses traditional barriers of time, geography, authority, hierarchy, culture, and language. Information flows much faster; at times it is instantaneous, decreasing the time allowed to digest and comprehend the information, let alone respond to it. Further, information is now persistent, allowing for time-shifted consumption and reuse, for ill or for good. People too can travel the globe with greater ease and increased speed.

It is in this evolving environment that the President issued an updated “National Framework for Strategic Communication” for 2012 (3.8mb PDF, note: the PDF has been fixed and should be once again visible to all). This report updates the 2010 report issued last March that was little more than a narrative on how the Government was organized for strategic communication. The report is required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

Some highlights from the 2012 Framework: [….]

Perception and Strategy Part I.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Jason Fritz at Inkspots had a thoughtful post about Afghanistan in light of recent events and made some points regarding strategy well worth further consideration. I suggest that you read his post in full, but I will comment on excerpts of his remarks below in a short series of posts. Here’s the first:

Delicate strategic balancing: perception’s role in formulating strategy

…..That all said, incidents in Afghanistan these past few months have caused me to question the validity of strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign audiences*. This is not to negate the fact that foreign perspectives affect nearly every intervention in some way – there has been plenty of writing on this and believe it to be true. I firmly believe that reminding soldiers of this fact was possibly the only redeeming value of the counterinsurgency manual. To say nothing of this excellent work. But strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign populations are another matter altogether. 

I think Jason is correct to be cautious about either making perception the pivot of strategy or throwing it overboard altogether. The value of perception in strategy is likely to be relative to the “Ends” pursued and the geographic scale, situational variables and longitudinal frame with which the strategist must work. The more extreme, narrow and immediate the circumstances the more marginal the concern about perception. Being perceived favorably does not help if you are dead. Being hated for being the victor (survivor) of an existential war is an acceptable price to pay.

Most geopolitical scenarios involving force or coercion though, fall far short of Ludendorf’s total war or cases of apocalyptic genocide. Normally, (a Clausewitzian would say “always”) wars and other violent conflict consist of an actor using force to pursue an aim of policy that is more focused politically and limited than national or group survival; which means that the war or conflict occurs within and is balanced against a greater framework of diverse political and diplomatic concerns of varying importance.  What is a good rule of thumb for incorporating perception into strategy?

According to Dr. Chet Richards, the advice offered by John Boyd:

….Boyd suggested a three part approach:

  • With respect to ourselves, live up to our ideals: eliminate those flaws in our system that create mistrust and discord while emphasizing those cultural traditions, experiences, and unfolding events that build-up harmony and trust.  [That is, war is a time to fix these problems, not to delay or ignore them. As an open, democratic society, the United States should have enormous advantages in this area.]
  • With respect to adversaries, we should publicize their harsh statements and threats to highlight that our survival is always at risk; reveal mismatches between the adversary’s professed ideals and how their government actually acts; and acquaint the adversary’s population with our philosophy and way of life to show that the mismatches of their government do not accord with any social value based on either the value and dignity of the individual or on the security and well being of society as a whole.  [This is not just propaganda, but must be based on evidence that our population as well as those of the uncommitted and real/potential adversaries will find credible.]
  • With respect to the uncommitted and potential adversaries, show that we respect their culture, bear them no harm, and will reward harmony with our cause, yet, demonstrate that we will not tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that work against our culture and fitness to cope. [A “carrot and stick” approach.  The “uncommitted” have the option to remain that way—so long as they do not aid our adversaries or break their isolation—and we hope that we can entice them to join our side. Note that we “demonstrate” the penalties for aiding the enemy, not just threaten them.]

I would observe that in public diplomacy, IO  and demonstrations of force, the United States more often than not in the past decade, pursued actions in Afghanistan and Iraq that are exactly the opposite of what Boyd recommended. We alienated potential allies, regularly ignored enemy depredations of the most hideous character, debased our core values, crippled our analysis and decision-making with political correctness and lavishly rewarded treachery against us while abandoning those who sacrificed at great risk on our behalf . We are still doing these things.

Most of our efforts and expenditures at shaping perception seem to be designed by our officials to fool only themselves.

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