Posts Tagged ‘Small Wars Journal’

Over the weekend, I barbecued–somewhat perilously–from inside my garage on a rainy afternoon in Central Florida. I spent the day eating FFA pork with a few close friends and, for the most part, avoiding the topic of war. With the weekend over, I started catching up on blogs to find that Paul Fussell had passed away. Since I first read The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell has been a hero of mine–someone whose keen eye for literature and history has given us all a better understanding of culture made in war. One of the most compelling arguements in The Great War and Modern Memory is that the First World War gave rise–if not birth–to irony in mainstream Western culture. One can see that, at the very least, Fussell earned his irony in war after reading “My war: how I got irony in the war” (HT Small Wars Journal). He begins telling the story of how a boy, “fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind,” chose ROTC and eventually the infantry as a means to avoid undressing in gym. However, now he lays bare everything:

That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

Ultimately, it is through this pouring irony that Fussell comes to understand war–and through him I have come to understand it better. Fussell writes, “Irony describes the emotion, whatever it is, occasioned by perceiving some great gulf, half-comic, half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds. It’s not quite ‘disillusion,’ but it’s adjacent to it.” I meditate on that irony now, remembering how I played with toy soldiers at the feet of my grandfather who, having fought at Pearl Harbor and Tarawa, was proud of his service but told all of his sons not to join the Marines–advice that has, for better and worse, been ignored now for two generations. Was it that he had seen what Marines are asked to do? Was it because he had visited that place “adjacent” to disillusion on some worthless atoll?  I can’t ask him now, but I don’t think his answer would be that different from Fussell’s.  It is, however, an irony that I can never fully understand.

Rest in peace.


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Over at Small Wars Journal, Benjamin Kohlmann wrote an interesting piece “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in “look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget.” Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of “fucking up” (to borrow a Boydian phrase) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the “new” and the “now” as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.

Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don’t know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be “creative,” but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.

Being creative isn’t a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word “hacker”–taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like Steve Kondik who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called CyanogenMod, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.

This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the “new widget” whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to “understand the moment” as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used “obsolete” tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took “old” TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators–to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the “new widget” rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is a great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats.)

The fact that the author is so convinced that today’s digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow’s catastrophes–financial, military, or otherwise–will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.

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Small Wars Journal published a short piece I wrote on selecting texts for a counterinsurgency course and the lessons we draw from them:

In “Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience,” Dr. Robert Farley discussed his experiences teaching a class on counterinsurgency at the Masters level.  His intent is to give would-be instructors “a sense of the promise and possibilities of a Counter-Insurgency course.”  Nearly ten years into the United States’ multiple interventions following 9/11, the promise and possibilities of such a course should be self-evident to those who have devoted themselves to the serious study of counterinsurgency across the diverse practical and philosophical spectrum of its proponents and critics.  What remains are some serious questions that have been left unexplored in regards to the pragmatic and canonical choices in teaching counterinsurgency to practitioner and non-practitioner alike.

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners?  According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.”  With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late.  Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself.  Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some.  Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.”

Read more at the Small Wars Journal blog.

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Not every Small Wars Journal reader is a COIN advocate, but every Small Wars Journal supporter does get a coin.  Challenge coins are a non-official sign of appreciation or acknowledgement within the U. S. military and law enforcement circles.  In this spirit, the Small Wars Foundation would like to acknowledge those who donate $50 or more with an official challenge coin.  For more details, see the Small Wars Journal blog.

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Wading through Twitter this morning, I came across Andrew Exum’s post on Harold Bloom’s dismissal of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which appeared in The New Yorker.  Rolf Potts asked Bloom what he thinks of the novel’s inclusion in military reading lists, and the literary critic is less than impressed.

“I can’t take that seriously, I’m sorry,” he said. “I suppose it’s on the list because that’s the world we’re headed towards.”

The world, I can only assume, Bloom is referring to is a hyper-technological state of exception where franchise is linked to military service.  From orbit, soldiers in armored exoskeletons descend onto alien worlds and exterminate a largely nameless, faceless other who is posited as an existential threat to humanity.  From its Cold War context to the contemporary War on Terrorism, Starship Troopers has struck an alarming chord for many in the academic left for this very reason–the foreclosure of anti-war dissidence and the limitless weaponization of technology.  As much as its vision of the future frightens some, it seduces many more–not the least of which are the military and defense industry.  Space-bound light infantry in exoskeletons would seem to be the an answer to a logistical prayer at a time when Afghanistan–or other far-flung sites of foreign intervention–might as well be an alien planet and the fighting load of warfighters has not only crippled their ability to fight but also, in many cases, their bodies as chronic back injuries haunt them.

However, these nightmare and fantasy readings of Starship Troopers belie the importance of the novel as social commentary that is particularly relevant now given the sudden enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya.  First, the chasm between civilians who would ask the military to intervene and the military men and women who must bear the cost of such intervention presents an ethical breech within the democratic process.  Secondly, no matter how technology shapes the battlefield, war is fought and won by men (and women) on the ground.*

The first issue addresses the divide between those who have experienced war and those who have not.  In Starship Troopers, much of Heinlein’s social commentary comes through the character Mr. DuBois, a veteran and teacher of a class named “History and Moral Philosophy.”  Through him, Heinlein sets up his most controversial claim about the civilian-military divide–that citizenship should be reserved for those who have served in the military.  Detractors of the novel have linked this to a fascist impulse in which only those who desire violence are given a voice in the political process, but I have a different reading.  In class, DuBois asks what is the “moral difference” between a soldier and a civilian and Rico, the story’s protagonist, answers:

“The difference,” I answered carefully, “lies in the field of civic virtue.  A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life.  The civilian does not.” (Heinlein 24)

For Heinlein, this “personal responsibility” is linked not only to a willingness to assume the physical risks for political decisions but also an understanding of what those risks entail.  Throughout the novel, there is the sentiment that decision makers, participating citizens, and officers–leaders of the society–must understand the meaning of those risks through experience.  Citizens must have been soldiers; officers must first be enlisted.   Before one can send another off to die for whatever cause, one must have been so ordered.  The result is not a citizenry of hawks; rather, a citizenry who understand the inescapable violence of war.

This understanding of war’s violence is more important than ever, given fantasies old and new. With the ascendency of counterinsurgency theory in the popular imagination, there has been a proliferation of the misunderstanding that war has become a string of humanitarian acts like building schools and providing medical care like those described the now-fictional Three Cups of Tea.  Similarly, the technological abstraction of war has given an ignorant populace the idea that no-fly zones, drone strikes, and a host of half-measures can skirt the violence of war–or at least the worst of it–and restore order for those abused and disenfranchised.

These are not the fantasies of those who have fought the twenty-first century’s wars, but those who have seen their simulacra on cable news and Modern Warfare.   In a recent Small Wars Journal op-ed entitled “War by Any Other Name Is War,” Jason Whiteley–an Iraq veteran and author of the forthcoming Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad–describes the disconnect between citizens and the soldiers:

Yet, American civilians are prepared to wave yellow ribbons and project support for soldiers while remaining comfortably ensconced in cozy lifestyles. In this way, American civilians can feel supportive of those who wage war on their behalf without personally experiencing the effects. […]  This disconnect can only create an aura of irresponsibility. As long as the troops are supported, why should we care about what they actually do? Consider that the average American consumes only a few minutes of news per day and that news tends to be sensational or highly anecdotal. Soldiers have missions that are routine and, hopefully, boring. Their day to day activity does not excite America.

Instead, an uninformed and disinterested public continues to live through euphemisms created under the guise of humanitarianism and technological abstraction.  While warfighters may act as humanitarians, they know there is no non-violent war.  They have born the costs.

Here, we return to the question of Libya.  Whether or not we subscribe to Heinlein’s theories on citizenship, his notion of “moral responsibility” does warrant consideration.  The general public, familiar not with the violence of war but the narcissistic media in which they wallow, has seemingly been enticed by the so-called “Twitter and Facebook revolutions.”  War can be fought–so they think–with 140-character dribble rather than soldiers and revolutionaries.

This ignorance is why Starship Troopers is worth reading.  For all his jingoism, Heinlein does not let us forget that the violence of war is inescapable and soldiers on the ground will pay the costs.

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

* – In its day, Heinlein’s was an oddly inclusive view of race and gender.  Women, for example, had faster reflexes, so they would be the fighter pilots of the future; men’s brute strength kept them as exclusive members of the infantry.

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In “COIN Perspectives From On Point: Lessons Learned in Iraq (PDF),” Sergeant Michael Hanson, USMC, writes about technology, the notion of safety, and their capacity to undermine effective counterinsurgency praxis:

Our Marines are overloaded. This weight limits their speed, mobility, range, stamina, agility and all around fighting capability. They can’t go out far and they can’t stay out long with all of this gear. It is simply too much. Combat patrols are typically four hours, and even that short amount of time is exhausting. Our Marines are being consistently outrun and outmaneuvered by an enemy with an AK, an extra magazine and a pair of running shoes.

The ideal of “all the best equipment for our soldiers” is responsible for this. The American people think they are helping their soldiers out by demanding they get as much protective equipment as possible. American civilians do not like seeing young Americans maimed and killed in foreign lands, rightly so. They see it on television, exploited by the news media and they demand “all the best equipment for our soldiers”. And to satisfy Americans at home, the troops get weighed down with more and more gear. The more gear troops wear the “safer” they are, or so the thought goes. But to that Soldier or Marine on patrol staggering along under the weight of all of this unnecessary gear it doesn’t seem to be in his best interests. No matter how new or expensive it is. All that matters to him is how much it weighs.

The connection between technology and safety can be seen across American military discourse, both within the military and among civilians.  What is often ignored is that this connection is the a product of a cultural rather than technological shift.  In the wake of the Vietnam War, American political and military leadership became caught up in what Christine Paretti called “the politics of casualty aversion.”   However, casualties were but one facet of this.  Weary of another disastrous military defeat and attendant political fallouts, military interventions after Vietnam had to be constructed in such a way that eliminated most—if not all—risk.  This contributed to the military’s need for informational dominance as well as the increased reliance on technological proxies rather than human actors on the battlefield.  Over time, the phenomenon came to permeate the military and intelligence communities.  Much in the same way “Vietnam Syndrome” affected the military, the Iran-Contra scandal triggered a growing risk aversion within the Intelligence Community.  As a result, human intelligence was on the decline in favor of sophisticated signals based intelligence systems.

This same shift makes it difficult for military and civilian leaders to adopt changes such as those Hanson recommends. They look advanced armor, organizational structure, and armored war machines not because of operational requirements but rather cultural anxieties.  Here, the strategic solutions need to affect cultural change rather than a simple adoption of counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

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