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Recommended Reading

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Top billing! Adam Elkus Is Failure an Option? (I),  Is Failure an Option? (II),  Is Failure an Option? (III) 

….The idea of implementing a massive and complex venture rapidly and decisively (with little room for error) is essentially just a rephrasing of the familiar the pre-World War I fear of losing a mobilization race. Under some circumstances, a nuclear balance could also degenerate into a “use them or lose them” dilemma in which a state risks the entire annihilation of its strategic forces and decision nodes in one murderous enemy salvo. There also seems to be — from Niccolo Machiavelli to Nathan Bedford Forrest – a general competitive heuristic that if you are to crush your enemies, you must strike as powerfully as you can and as quickly as you can. The heuristic is even repeated in the animal kingdom: queen bees famously kill their rivals upon emergence. But as the Germans discovered after the Schlieffen Plan and The Wire‘s Omar taunted, rapid execution and massive risk only pays off when it pays off. Fail and you run the risk of embroiling yourself in a quagmire that might have been avoided with more gradual and less rigidly planned execution

SWJ El Centro – Sullivan, Bunker & Bunker Film Review: Narco Cultura – A Tale of Three Cities 

Narcocultura is on the ascendency. Narcocorridos are not new.  This genre of music has its roots in folk music and norteño ballads.  Like Pancho Villa, who was venerated in song during the revolution, these ballads extol the virtues of those who rebel against the corrupt state.  The poor and powerless look for symbols of power and rebellion.  Yet the narcocorrido is more than Hip Hop or gangster rap south of the border.  It is not only a form of cross-border musical social commentary; it is a means of cartel information operations and a vehicle of social-environmental modification. In this film, we see bands and singers in the orbit of Sinaloa (El Komander and the BuKnas de Culicán). Their songs are a form of information operations for the Sinaloa Federation. The Movimiento Alterado (altered movement) is the business name of the narcocorrido or corridos alterados movement in Los Angeles.  The movement and songs are sanctioned by the Sinaloa Cartel.  The narcocorridos are banned in parts of Mexico so they are produced in Los Angeles, home to a large immigrant community and numerous gangs.

John Hagel – The Dark side of Technology 

….But here’s the kicker.  This digital technology infrastructure is not stabilizing.  We’ve had plenty of technology disruptions throughout history – the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, just to name some.  But, asCarlotta Perez has shown, all of these disruptions followed a common pattern.  They began with a burst of innovation at the technology level, but then quickly stabilized with only incremental performance improvements afterwards.  That in turn led to a burst of innovation at the infrastructure level, figuring out how to most effectively organize and deliver the value of this technology to business and society. But then that too rapidly stabilized so we could then figure out how to most effectively harness this technology.

Our digital technology infrastructure is unprecedented in human history.  It’s not stabilizing.  The core technology components – computing, storage and bandwidth – are continuing to improve in price/performance at accelerating rates and the best scientists and technologists suggest that this exponential pace will not slow down in the foreseeable future.

RUSI – Afghanistan after 2014: What Roles for China and India? 

The Scholar’s Stage – Things those Chinese Think ( + What we think Back)

War on the Rocks – Japan’s New Defense Strategy

Dan Drezner has left the building

Slightly East of New –Vandergriff: Selfless vs. Selfish Service 

CORRECTION Fred Leland’s LESC blog  ( by Louis Hayes The Doctor in SWAT School (and What His Performance Says About Police Culture)

AeonEndless Fun and Creepypasta 

DemocracyJournalPaine and Burke Now 

That’s it

7 Responses to “Recommended Reading”

  1. Antonio Says:

    Excellent, Thanks.

  2. carl Says:

    Comparing a tactical adage like Forrest’s to the Schlieffen Plan and Germany betting the nation if facile.  No, it’s stupid, even if the Adam Elkus is a brainy guy.  Try a gradually executed ambush and see what happens.

  3. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Which design imperative of the Schlieffen Moltke Plan Strongly Worded Memo can’t be summed up, “I always make it a rule to get there first with the most men” or “I just took the short cut and got there first with the most men”? (both variations on Forrest’s quote are recorded).


    Was Moltke’s intent to get there last with the least men? First with the least man? Last with the most men?


    Does second place with some elderly Pomeranian reservists armed with a Viennese marching band reaching the approaches to Paris in early December 1914 sufficient to finish the Third Republic?


    Schlieffen planned memoed on violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality for the tactical consideration of bypassing French fortifications along the Franco-German frontier. This was the shortcut he took to get to Paris first with the most men. The imperative of the strongly worded memo was invading France first with most of Germany’s men, knocking France out quickly, and then pivoting back east before Russia completed its mobilization and invaded East Prussia or Galicia second with the most men. Every other consideration was subordinated to reaching tactical critical mass in men and timeliness on the French flank somewhere west (or east) of Paris at some vague faith-based point sometime shortly after mobilization.


    Moltke prudently scratched out the violate Dutch neutrality part (he realized Germany needed a neutral port for imports) but kept the violate Belgian neutrality part. Politics was still sacrificed to the German General Staff God of tactical convenience. Perfidious Albion, which would have intervened anyway irrespective of whether the Asquith government fell or the Tories (eventually) came into coalition, had an easy way to justify entering the war: the Hun made me do it by picking on little Belgium’s scrap of paper.


    So truly tactical Hun thinking on a continental scale led to the BEF being there to shore up the French left. So the Entente were there first with the most men at the Marne. So Richard Hentsch developed his fatal headache that doomed Germany to becoming the dominant political and economic power in Europe it is today.


    Forrest would look at the cited comparison and nod. He understood the scale invariance of war (“war means fighting, and fighting means killing.”) better than Schieffen or Moltke even though he was a semi-literate cracker who sold men and women like stacked cordwood. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered, “Follow Forrest to the death if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead.” Perhaps Uncle Billy was being facile, didn’t know how to think strategically (whatever that means), and didn’t realize he was thinking tactically.

  4. carl Says:

    I’ve been thinking on this some and the more I do the more I think I’ve been pretty dopey.  Mr. Elkus’s paragraph isn’t stupid, it’s a confused mess.  I was stupid not to see that.  It mixes up and sort of equates several different things, the decision to use violence, knowing your capabilities and those of your enemies which goes into figuring your chances, application of violence once you decided to use it and rounds the whole thing out with some circular reasoning ‘risk only pays off when it pays off’.  Duh.  “Fail and you run the the risk of embroiling yourself in a quagmire that might have been avoided with more gradual and less rigidly planned execution.”!  Translation, if you don’t win you lose (the strained use of the word quagmire must be one manifestation of the Vietnam haunting the brain), and you might have avoided losing if you didn’t start the fight.  Oh geesh I forgot, he threw in execution dominated by pre-planning rather than the situation as it develops in there to.  What does that have to do with hitting ’em as hard as you can…etc?
    Bill Slim was told by a Sgt. the essence of war fighting-hit ’em as hard as you can, as fast as you can, where it will hurt ’em the most when they ain’t looking.  Which was Forrest and Niccolo and anybody who knows what they are about.  The time for gradual is before you embark on the fight.  You want to gradually get your mind around the idea and work up good plans and study yourself and the enemy, fine.  You want to engage in some brinksmanship or shipbumping, that’s fine too.  Maybe that is the kind of thing Mr. Elkus meant.   But what I saw him suggesting in that paragraph leads to things like Operation Rolling Thunder or spending a decade giving the Pak Army/ISI money while continually hoping they won’t use it to kill us.  If your gonna fight, the by god, fight.  Forrest wasn’t only tactical, he was strategic too.
    What the Germans did was the only thing they could do once they decided to fight.  They should have never made that decision.  They didn’t do their figurin’ very good.

  5. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Agreed. Forrest was many things, many of them dark and sinister things, but he was not a man who was under any illusion about what he was doing: “war means fighting, and fighting means killing”.

  6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    What Elkus seems to be drawing on ancient choice between annihilation vs. attrition.  (I say this cognizant of how the Maneuverists have appropriated the word attrition–for the moment divorce yourself from that notion.)
    Annihilationists tend to want to concentrate their forces for use in battle against the enemy with the aim of destroying him.  Clausewitz was certainly one, as was Mahan, as were the Romans under the Republic and up until the arrival of Attila.  Also included are all strategies which include the use of nukes as an MO, as well as generals such as Sherman, Grant, Zhukov, Genghis Khan, the Americans in Iraq during the initial invasion of 2003, and pretty much any military leader who wishes to obtain a “surrender”, or an outright destruction of the enemy; i.e. objectives tend to be maximalist.  The problem with the use of annihilation is that it tends to work really well until it doesn’t, and it tends to not work in security environments where there are several competing power centers.  In such a situation, if A destroys B, A is usually sufficiently weakened that C can fight and win against A.  If an annihilationist is fighting in such an environment, he does so at great peril.
    Attritionists tended to want to fight until an accommodation can be reached, and this tends to involve an attrition of the enemy until he is willing to come to terms.  Objectives tend to be minimalist or limited.  Examples include the Americans in post-invasion Iraq starting at approximately 2007, the Romans after Adrianople (378), the English in colonial India, European armies pre-Napoleon, and strategies where nukes are present but are NOT to be used (i.e. when both sides have them!)  The problem with attritionists is that they tend to win until they don’t–specifically in environments where A, B, and C are all equally powerful, but some bit of genius, luck, technology, or other boon happens upon B, whereupon it is able to fight and in against C, and subsequently A.
    Obviously, the problem is to understand which strategy to use in a given milieu.
    This is a good segue into what strategy should predominate in America–methinks its the attritionist one.

  7. Aelkus Says:

    I plead guilty to my writing being “confused” (I write in haste, and do not revise semantics as much as I revise syntax). Additionally, also note that it took three whole entries comprising between 1000-3000 words per entry to get across the entire gist of what I was discussing. There was not room for more nuance. Thankfully, Lynn Rees gets across the core of what I am saying. The instruction is indeed “scale-invariant.” What I might have done to make it more clear is cited Richard Simpkin’s idea of mass * velocity from Race to the Swift, a maneuverist classic that has since been forgotten. This may have made it more clear why I compared this to, say, the Omar adage from the “The Wire.” Strike fast, strike hard. Obviously, the exact specification will vary by application–what worked for Forrest will not for an entire army. However, as Rees said, it is ultimately a scale-invariant maxim. 
    In regards to planning and annihilation —  the crux of the argument between the dominant German strategic planning culture and individuals like Delbruck was precisely over the problem that Nate Lauterbach so insightfully describes. Nate captures very much the spirit of an article I wrote for SWJ on the subject with his words here:
    “The problem with the use of annihilation is that it tends to work really well until it doesn’t, and it tends to not work in security environments where there are several competing power centers.  In such a situation, if A destroys B, A is usually sufficiently weakened that C can fight and win against A.  If an annihilationist is fighting in such an environment, he does so at great peril.” 
    Because of the underlying assumptions that often go into the conflict (e.g. see Japan in 1941 or Germany in 1914), the weight of planning is placed on crafting the most effective blow possible. What happens afterwards is not completely neglected, but treated as an afterthought. The argument (somewhat cliched) about WWI is that it was “war by railway timetable,” with war planning very rigid and time-table driven. The classic criticism of nuclear strategy is that it was too focused on the mathematical esoterica of game theory and operations research and not enough on Gray’s “strategy bridge.”
    What I am attempting to argue is that in situations when there is much more room for experimentation (NOT Schelling-esque gradualism), many of the problems involved with what I have described are obviated. This was the idea behind Moltke’s conception of strategy as a “system of expedients,” — it is hubris to believe that one’s plan survives contact with the enemy. But one thing scholars of German military doctrine often note is patience for experimentation and failure, something that stands at variance with recent works like Tom Ricks’ “The Generals” that often counsel that failure and punishment should be intricately bound. 
    If you have any other questions about the intended meaning of these three entries, let me know. 

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