I've been reading a book by an economic historian that made me think of the anti-corruption campaign in Afghanistan in a different way.
The book is Douglas Allen's The Institutional Revolution. I picked it up because I was so taken by his discussion in an academic article about the organization of command and control in the Royal Navy during the age of fighting sail.
In this book, Allen, looking at the roots of the industrial revolution, argues that the more a society is subject to the whims of nature (drought, flood, wind, and such), the more likely it will appear to modern man to be corrupt. The last sentence in the book is, "What on the surface seem to be archaic, inefficient institutions created by people who just did not know any better, turn out to be ingenious solutions to the measurement problems of the day."
What we call "corruption" is basically the way the world worked before 1860, and much of the world still does today. Indeed, he argues that the British empire was built on a complex web of bribes, kickbacks, and what economists call "hostage capital."
"Institutions are chosen and designed to maximize the wealth of those involved, taking into account the subsequent transaction costs," Allen writes. "The institutions that survive are the ones that maximize net wealth over the long haul."
I think Allen focuses a bit too much on standardization and measurement as driving forces in the changes in 19th century institutions, such as public policing. For example, my experience of theft in small towns is that people often know who does it, and handle it quietly and privately, while in big cities, they have no idea who the criminals are. Hence the need for public police forces in 19th century England as there was a massive movement of people from the countryside to the cities.
Allen also changed the way I understand aristocracy. He argues, persuasively, that the role of aristocracy was to provide loyal, competent, honest service to the crown. Thus their wealth had to be in land that could be confiscated. An aristo who invested in industry was no longer hostage to the crown, and so could no longer be trusted entirely. Hence the creation of strong disincentives to pursuing other forms of wealth, one reason that the ruling class in England tended to sit out the Industrial Revolution.
Overall, a really interesting book, full of thought-provoking facts and assertions.
I've been critical in the past of Amb./Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Karl Eikenberry, so it is a pleasure to report that he has a thoughtful article, "Reassessing the All-Volunteer Force," in the Winter 2013 issue of the Washington Quarterly. He argues that oversight of the military by both the Congress and the media has diminished. "Indeed, nearly abject congressional deference to the military has become all too common."
I think he is right. I hope we will see a re-assertion of congressional interest and prerogatives in the coming years.
The more I think about it, it seems to me that the AVF has been a tactical success and a strategic failure, in that it detached the American people from their wars. And so we do not wage them as well as we should.
For a symposium put on recently by FPRI, I drew up a list of questions I have about the Vietnam War. Here they are:
Finally, some other, broader questions:
Arthur Graeme West leads a small night patrol that encounters
...half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three.
Even more horribly, Edgell Rickword grows comfortable with a corpse lying out in front of his position, and reads aloud to him -- until the body rot grows too repulsive:
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.
Thomas Hone has a good article in the new issue of Naval War College Review on how aircraft carriers replaced battleships in World War II. "Today's officers do not really know where the Navy they command came from," he states.
His answer: "What took place during the war was not a simple substitution of carriers for battleships but the creation of a modern, combined-arms fleet, one that included submarines and land-based aviation."
He also makes an interesting observation that has application far beyond the Navy. The newly designed Navy approach during World War II, he writes, "did what doctrine should do, which is give a force tactical cohesion so that it has energy to spare for dealing with the inevitable unexpected challenges," such as the kamikaze.
I've read a lot of E.B. White, but I'd never before come across his interesting definition of democracy, written in June 1943:
Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.
You'd think ARMY magazine would welcome a free piece about Iraq from a best-selling author. Apparently not -- they have declined to run this response I wrote to their two articles about my new book, The Generals. I even said they could run it as a letter to the editor, but no. They didn't say why. I am sorry to see them turn away from what might have developed into a good, vigorous debate about what the Army should learn from its time in Iraq.
Make up your own mind -- below is the letter apparently too hot for them to handle.
Thank you for carrying articles about my new book, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today, in both your January and February issues. I appreciate the attention. However, I think that Brig. Gen. John S. Brown's commentary, "Do We Need an Iraqi Freedom Elevator Speech?", requires a response.
General Brown makes several questionable assumptions in the article.
The first is that in 2003 the Army did in fact understand unconventional warfare in Iraq. Sure, there were isolated instances of individuals, such as the one he cites. I interviewed many of these people and wrote about many of them in my 2006 book Fiasco. But one swallow doesn't make a summer. General Sanchez and other senior leaders did not act upon such instances, and instead focused on large-scale indiscriminate roundups of "military age males." The fact that they did not take advantage of those moves underscores the point of my new book that the troops did not fail in Iraq, but that the Army's leaders at the time did.
Also, throughout General Brown's piece, there runs an assumption that having more troops would have made a major difference during the initial year of occupying Iraq. This is an unproven point. In my opinion, given the poor leadership of Lt. Gen. Sanchez, having twice as many troops on the ground in 2003-04 might well have resulted in having twice as many angry Iraqis driven to support the insurgency. Given the indiscriminate roundups and associated abuses that occurred that year by the units at Abu Ghraib, by the 82nd Airborne and by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Anbar Province, and by the 4th Infantry Division in north-central Iraq, such a result seems more likely than not. In addition, those roundups stuffed thousands of people into the detention system, overwhelming the system and clogging the interrogation of suspected terrorists, as well as helping provoke riots inside the jails.
Did the Army really give a good account of itself in Iraq, as General Brown asserts? If so, I would counter, why did it take the Army until early 2007 to begin operating effectively in that war? The preceding period of maladaptive operations, from 2003 to 2007, lasted longer than the U.S. Army fought in World War II.
General Brown depicts the Army as a surprisingly passive institution. Things just kind of happened to it. For example, in passing he mentions Lt. Gen. Sanchez. But who selected Sanchez to command in Iraq? Who thought that he was the best person for the job? Did that just happen to the Army, or was its leadership simply a group of bystanders? The Army had a responsibility to provide the very best of leadership, talent, resources, and priorities to the fight in Iraq. Did it?
Yes, I understand that the relationship between the defense secretary and the Army's leadership was toxic in the spring of 2003, a crucial period that shaped much of what followed. But this does not excuse the failure to have an adequate Phase IV plan for Iraq, or for Army generals to say that they had all the troops they needed if they indeed believed they did not, or to insist that things were going well when it was clear to anyone on the streets of Baghdad that they were not. All this cannot be blamed on Ambassador Bremer and other civilians. At any rate, I would say that part of the duty of generals is to speak truth to power, even with it makes civilian overseers uncomfortable. It is not clear to me that the Army's generals did this in 2004-06.
The bottom line is that General Brown's commentary could only be written by someone who never actually witnessed our war in Iraq.
The issue here is more important than someone simply misunderstanding my book. I worry that a narrative is emerging in today's Army that holds that the military pretty much did everything right, but that the civilians screwed things up. Certainly, the Bush administration made huge errors in invading and occupying Iraq. I've written more than one book that looked at those.
But the military also made mistakes, and I don't see those being addressed. This should be a time of sober reflection, not of hunkering down and refusing to listen to reasonable criticisms. Why do we not see now reviews akin to the Army War College's 1970 study on the state of the officer corps? Until we see such hard, probing analysis that does not spare the feelings of our generals, the accounts of the Iraq war that capture the attention of the public and the Congress are indeed likely to be written by outsiders.
Thomas E. Ricks
William Noel Hodgson prayed ambivalently in his poem "Before Action":
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
At about the same time, Siegfried Sassoon's thoughts were running colder as he marched past a corps commander:
‘Eyes right!' The corpse-commander was a Mute;
And Death leered round him, taking our salute.
By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense department of war movie reviews
Torture has once again become a matter of noisy public debate. This time (thank goodness!), the reason has nothing to do with new revelations of U.S. servicemembers or CIA employees going amuck on prisoners. Instead, the cause de célèbre is a movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Critics of the movie say that it promotes the use of torture by linking torture to a piece of evidence that proved indispensable in America's search for bin Laden. This, critics like Senators McCain, Feinstein, and Levin say, is a dangerous fiction not rooted in historical reality.
Fans of the movie disagree. They argue that the movie portrays this evidence as far less valuable than that obtained by clearly legal means. What is more, they say, the movie performs a service by leaving no doubt in the audience's mind that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were torture, and also by shocking the conscience of these same viewers, causing them to wonder how the U.S. government could so easily surrender founding national values to such little good effect.
I agree with the movie's apologists. The movie does not depict torture as producing indispensable evidence. It shows morally repugnant torture producing a piece of evidence that the CIA already had but had tucked away in a file and forgot about. Seven years of torture, the movie says, produced little if any intelligence that clearly legal methods could have (and did) provide. The real narrative of the movie: A new sheriff (President Obama) comes to town who outlaws torture; subsequent CIA detective work relies exclusively on more cunning, ethical techniques involving, not just humane interrogations, but other intelligence methods; and -- presto! -- in two short years, bin Laden's hideout is found and, a few months later, he is killed. Even if the movie gets many details wrong, it at least gets the basic story right.
But far more important than the movie's historical accuracy is the deeper debate it has resurrected: Does torture work? And, even if it does work, is torture something Americans ought to be using on "hardened" terrorists (or on anyone else for that matter)?
This debate is sorely needed since most opinion polls show Americans' support for torture steadily climbing. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey reported that 53 percent of Americans believe that torture should often (19 percent) or sometimes (34 percent) be used against terrorism suspects to gain information. That marked a steady 10 percent climb from 2004. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by a Stanford University professor indicated that, over a five-year period, the number of Americans approving of torture climbed 14 percent to 41 percent in 2012.
This trend is something that those against "torture as American policy" should be watching carefully. U.S. legislation, military regulations, and Army doctrine -- most notably the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Collector Operations -- now enshrine prisoner treatment that is in keeping with international standards and the national values expressed by such principled American leaders as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In our republic, though, all laws are subject to change -- even those in the Constitution -- if enough Americans support this change.
There is no question which side of the torture debate I fall on. First and foremost, it is clear to me that torture fails as a tactic within the most important domain of war, the moral one. It is thus something that we Americans simply ought not to do.
When people see images of torture, most empathize with the tortured rather than the torturer. This is especially true for those who identify strongly with the tortured in the first place because of in-group, out-group bias, say, because the tortured is a fellow Muslim or a fellow Iraqi. The moral judgment that this empathy has naturally generated -- the judgment that those torturing are "cruel," "evil," or worse still, "inhuman" -- has inspired legions of America's enemies to fight us. At the same time, shame has decreased the will to fight of some Americans within the ranks and at home and damaged the political ability of coalition allies to support America's military adventures abroad. Choosing torture as policy is thus rightly seen as a kind of slow moral suicide, strengthening the fighting spirit of our enemies while sapping our own fighting spirit and that of our allies.
It is also clear to me that torture is an extremely poor method for collecting reliable intelligence. This clarity derives in part from military doctrine, training, and professional reading. But it is also rooted in personal experience.
During the summer and fall of 2003, my boss and I managed interrogation operations for Task Force 1st Armored Division (TF 1AD) in Baghdad. My boss was Major Nathan Hoepner, who wrote an email in August 2003 that would one day be quoted by Tom Ricks in Fiasco. When told by the highest command in Iraq that "the gloves are coming off" and that our unit must provide a "wish list" of harsh interrogation techniques, Major Hoepner emailed a passionate rebuttal: "We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are...It comes down to standards of right and wrong -- something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient." He concluded: "BOTTOM LINE: We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there."
Tragically, his impassioned plea fell on deaf ears. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez soon signed a policy memo encouraging the use of EITs on prisoners, tactics employed at U.S. military Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) schools to teach trainees how to survive torture with honor. Sanchez replaced this memo with another in October that ostensibly required interrogators to obtain his approval for non-doctrinal techniques. However, it actually reinforced the belief of some interrogators that they themselves had the authority to order that clothing, food, shelter, light, and warmth be withheld from detainees. Thus it was that degrading, formally promulgated tactics laid the foundation for more serious crimes at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.
At the height of the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib, I regularly communicated with an interrogation chief working at the prison. The reason was to press him to have TF 1AD detainees re-interrogated. Despite his team's conducting numerous interrogations for us, we did not receive ANY useful intelligence whatsoever from Abu Ghraib. Sure, they produced reports on our detainees, but invariably, these reports contained either useless information or different versions of the same stories we had already extracted using humane, rapport-based approaches.
I was not alone in my frustration with Abu Ghraib. For example, Kyle Teamey, the S2X (senior human intelligence officer) for 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, in Ramadi at the time, said: "The folks at Abu Ghraib not only failed to provide any intel of value, they turned the entire Sunni population against us. Meanwhile, we were getting actionable intel by giving detainees Skittles and a cup of coffee."
Despite our nation's and military's gross failures at Abu Ghraib and several other detention facilities, most interrogators at Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan did not choose to torture. Why is this the case? One reason is that many shared the idealism expressed by Major Hoepner, which holds that torture is just something that Americans should not do.
But we should not dismiss professional competence as a reason, either. Those interrogators who had done their professional reading were less likely to engage in torture. In a future guest column, "Top 10 Books on U.S. Interrogation," I will provide a list of some of these books. Interrogators had also learned doctrine and conventional wisdom at the military intelligence schoolhouse that taught that torture is an ineffective intelligence tool. This conventional wisdom included the proverb, "The longest list of lies in the world is that given by the tortured." Many interrogators had taken doctrine and such conventional wisdom to heart, before they deployed.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is a military intelligence officer who has served in various command and staff positions in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, most recently, Afghanistan. He is the author of the Command and General Staff College Foundation Press's inaugural book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 - April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Pretty small to start: Six Irish troops with work with 21 British troops. And less than 100 years after the Easter Rising! (And why six Irishmen -- for the "six counties that live under John Bull's tyranny"?)
I wonder: Has the British Army ever formally recognized and honored the role that Irishmen (not Anglo-Irish aristos) historically played in its enlisted ranks?
In other Anglo-foreign military news, a Canadian reservist who presided over a lethal screw-up with Claymore mines in Afghanistan was demoted from major to lieutenant. I don't remember that sort of two-grade demotion occurring in the U.S. military -- do you?
I'll be doing a book signing at the Barnes & Noble at Seven Corners in Falls Church, northern Virginia, tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 23) at 2 pm. Wear your Best Defense t-shirt for a 10 percent discount.
The bonus is that there are about 10 great Chinese, Persian, and Laotian restaurants within walking distance from there, including my favorite joint for Peking duck. Check it out. Indeed, in just one shopping center across the highway at 6755 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA., there are 12 Vietnamese restaurants, cafes, and bakeries.
It's a real NoVa weekend for me -- the next afternoon, at 3 pm this Sunday, I'll be riding toward the sound of the guns at the George Marshall house in Leesburg, Va.
Finally, I am told that The Generals is now available on Kindle in the U.K. This came in response to reader demand, I am told, so thank you.
That's the title for a study I'd like to write about the future force structure of the U.S. military. The military would be relatively small, and it would be told to focus on having two capabilities: To quickly provide long-term, indirect, small-footprint support in irregular conflicts, but also to have a cadre force that could, given time, expand conventional forces. It would be designed to avoid attempts to fight insurgencies with large deployments of conventional forces.
Now the thing just needs to be written.
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Set Seven -- What lessons can we learn from the way the British administered their empire?
If we accept the idea that the wars we have been fighting recently are less pure counterinsurgencies and more wars of imperial aggression or punitive raids writ large, then what can the ultimate imperial force teach us? The historical record suggests that it is an uncomfortable lesson. For all its veneer of civilization and its ability to co-opt local elites, the British Empire was fundamentally an institution that rested on a contradiction between its stated domestic values and its overseas actions.
The paper that was used to cover this divide was military force, and it was tremendously effective at doing so. Perhaps we need to look at how the British ended the threat of a violent uprising in the Punjab almost overnight in 1919? I suspect that we might find that the use of force as a blunt instrument of repression had something to do with it. Or the way that Jock Burnett-Stuart put down the Moplah revolt in 1921? If we were to do so, we might find a method which contrasts very significantly from our own, and which achieved far greater success than is generally acknowledged.
The standard counter to this is that the British way of empire was the use of very few troops, the use of local recruits and rule through local governance, and co-opting native elites (e.g. the Raj). The question is to what extent is this merely our narrative? And even if this was the British way of empire, shouldn't it interest us that the British felt no compunction at all about choosing a side when occupying a country and backing it to the hilt? Do we do this? Torture doesn't work and is counterproductive; it is certainly, definitively, morally reprehensible. But have we examined in sufficient depth the utility of violence within an imperial construct -- put brutally, does torture help keep people down even if it doesn't provide actionable intelligence? And if so, what does it say for the practicality of our current and future overseas escapades?
I was in a discussion the other day of the Obama administration's foreign policy. The more I listened, the more President Obama began to remind me of President Eisenhower.
There is indeed a long list of foreign crises pending right now:
But as I listened to the discussion, I thought of President Eisenhower, who took office and set to getting us out of the Korean War, as Obama did with Iraq. He also worked hard to keep us out of the French war in Vietnam, overriding the Joint Chiefs' desire to use nukes to help the French. He also rejected pleas of many to intervene in the Hungarian Revolution. And he had the Suez Crisis, with the French and British. Then there were issues of Stalin's successors in the Soviet Union, which was rapidly building its nuclear arsenal.
I suspect that Obama's dominant impulse is to keep us out of the problems he sees overseas, just as Ike sought to keep us out of Vietnam and Hungary. Many people disagreed with his decisions. But he was a successful president.
National Archives/SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Today (Monday, for those of you still waking up) I'm on a Baltimore NPR station, WYPR, at noon.
Tuesday evening I'm speaking about my book at Palantir Corp. in northern Virginia -- if you work there I bet you can get in.
Saturday will find me at 2 pm at the Barnes & Noble at Seven Corners in northern Virginia.
And on Sunday at 3 pm I will be speaking and signing at the George Marshall House in Leesburg, Va.
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Set Six -- Do the historical case studies that we do use stand up to scrutiny? Again, one question leads us onto a series of further questions. Those case studies (assuming that they are relevant, and that we should not in fact be looking to Omdurman instead) -- are they based on the accepted narrative or on the historical record? Did the British really rely on the principles of minimum force, winning popular support, and an adherence to the law? Or did they in fact use torture, exemplary force, and laws which in essence placed themselves above the law? The emerging archival evidence on the British approach, particularly in Kenya, is beginning to show that this might in fact be the case. This is an area which requires more work because the answer to it may well hold the key to answering Clausewitz's question -- what is the nature of the struggle in which we are involved?
Words for our time?
I have felt that the military departments of the Government did not devote sufficient time, investigation and effort to the evolution or development of a system which would provide the necessary security with the minimum of financial output. We were forced into stringent economies by drastic cuts in appropriations, but there is a decided difference between effecting economies by cuts, particularly under pressure, and deliberately concentrating on the search for a system that permits a more economical set up and operation of an adequate military force.
I think we have erred at times on the side of a too dogmatic statement of requirements without regard to whether or not there was a reasonably practical possibility of obtaining the necessary funds through the years.
--George Marshall to the graduates of the National War College, June 20, 1947
(P. 157, The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, Vol. 6: ‘The Whole World Hangs in the Balance.' Edited by Larry Bland, Mark Stoler, Sharon Stevens, and Daniel Holt. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.)
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Set Five -- Historical case studies suggest that minimum force, civil primacy, and acting within the law are vital. But those historical case studies -- are we sure about them? Now I know all about the wide and varied research that could be used to back up the principles articulated in FM 3-24; I have read Christopher Paul's and Colin Clarke's skillful deconstruction of Gentile's argument that FM 3-24 is "evidence free". The supplementary questions that underpin this question relate to how many of these campaigns were actually used by the authors of FM 3-24? Was the insurgency in Tajikistan really at the forefront of the authors' minds? Or were they in fact relying more on a narrow spectrum of British and French experiences? I suspect they probably were. Are Malaya, Kenya and Algeria ringing any bells?
So we are in fact drawing some pretty big conclusions from a pretty narrow sample size. And as the next question will suggest, some of those historical case studies might not actually stand up to scrutiny.
(To be continued)
By Jason Dempsey
Best Defense office of the literature of combat
As we approach the end of our time in Afghanistan it would serve us well to reflect on the poets of World War I, not only for their messages but for what we have lost with the absence of an art form that was so well-suited to provide a window into war. On the question of who writes of war and how is it portrayed, World War I was unique for two main reasons: 1) almost everyone fought, including those who saw themselves as artists first and soldiers second, and 2) poetry was a widespread vehicle for artistic outlet and social commentary, not yet pushed aside by radio, movies, and television. The result of that ubiquity of poetry as an artistic medium, along with the ease with which one could write it, even in a combat zone, is that we are inundated with art from the Great War that was created by those who experienced it. From Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, we get a tactile feel for the war paired with examinations of what it means for life writ large -- the purpose of art, as it were.
Today, unfortunately, those conditions don't hold. Artists and soldiers are, by and large, two separate communities, and poetry is essentially dead as a medium for mass-communication, supplanted by movies and music which are beyond the technical capacity of soldiers in the field to create. The result is that artistic interpretations of modern wars lag well behind their occurrence and are, for the most part, derivative. Since the end of mass wars and the dissolution of the draft, the record of "art" on war has been fairly dismal. From the medium that most touches mass audiences we are presented with Top Gun, Navy SEALs, and The Hurt Locker. Interpreting armed conflict in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, respectively, each follows the same tired tropes, merely placing old stereotypes in new settings. The gadgets, sets, and cinematography evolve but the story remains the same. Even Saving Private Ryan, for all its brilliance, could not, in its final moments, avoid the cinematic safety blanket provided by a valiant last stand and a noble speech delivered in a dying breath.
I've often wondered what we would have learned if Owen had lived, or if T.S. Eliot had gone to war. Owen, able to distill the horror of World War I and place it in the mundane context of its execution, made a dramatic statement about the failures of nation-states to achieve the patriotic ideals for which soldiers ostensibly fight, and die. Had he lived through the war and had more time to contemplate what had happened, one can only imagine the journey he might have taken us on. And Eliot, of course, represents opportunity lost. Eliot could turn the experience of a mere "house-agent's clerk" into blinding statements on love and faith, and his musings on the aftermath of the Great War inform "The Waste Land," one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. One can only imagine what he might have done with direct experience.
While many other poets survived and made great contributions to our understanding of war, both during and after the conflict, the gap left by Owen's death and Eliot's lack of experience has only grown wider in the intervening century. Today, art on war is stuck in a proverbial no-man's land. On one side are the soldiers, a self-selected class with a corresponding lack of interest in questioning the assumptions upon which we build our rationale for fighting, and often without the tools to readily contribute on the rare chance they do. On the other side of the trenches are the professional artists. Relying on field phones and distant observation, their resulting interpretations of war are best understood as personal introspection, or navel-gazing through the barrel of a gun.
Art has a role to play in addressing fundamental questions, and few questions are more fundamental than the choice of states to kill. On that question the poets of World War I stood like lightning rods in attracting attention to the horrors and stupidity of that conflict, and mankind is better for it. But in the years since, as the soldier and artist have diverged, our understanding of organized violence has become much more shallow. For today's artists war, if they go out of their way to address it, merely presents an opportunity to recast old narratives and put new faces on tired clichés. The result is a nearly static discussion and an understanding of war that lags decades behind execution.
We entered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan awash in nostalgia for World War II and devoid of the ability to move beyond a superficial understanding of modern conflict, and we have paid for it. Good books and memoirs have begun to emerge from these recent conflicts but their release meets waning interest and a public that has already moved on. One can't help but think of the opportunities missed with the disappearance of poetry as a tool with which the soldier-poets of World War I could immediately engage the public. Reading through those old poems, one feels a sense of great loss, both for their disappearance and for the larger absence of art from our conversations about war.
Jason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is serving as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.
I am a fan of Robert Graves' autobiography, but his poetry leaves me cold. For example, these lines just strike me as awkward:
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
That said, I did like these other lines of his:
It's hard to know if you're alive or dead
When steel and fire go roaring through your head.
By "58 Scout"
Best Defense guest columnist
The more we draw down from our current conflicts the more of a push from the top I am seeing to become a more disciplined force. Got it -- "always be better" -- but a lot of the comments that myself and many of my peers keep hearing are quite disturbing and, to be honest, generally insulting.
During my redeployment briefings we received a video message from the U.S. Army Pacific Commander. In it was the typical "good job, you are the country's finest, etc. etc.," but what really burned me, and most of the men and women who watched the video, was one of the CG's comments. I am paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that "this is the best Army I have seen in 30 years of service...but we need to take it back to pre-war Army." Really?
The final straw for me was this piece I found in the Army Times about SMA Chandler and his changes for the force. That article is about sending CSMs to legal courses to do their jobs better, but again, the intent is the same and getting louder.
Chandler told the senior enlisted leaders to institute programs at their posts, camps, and stations to apply lessons learned to the Profession of Arms Campaign. The Profession of Arms has become a lost art, especially among junior officers and NCOs. The deployment cycle of the past decade eroded everything from common military courtesies to fitness standards. Of great concern is the lack of counseling, leadership, and decision-making skills needed by midgrade NCOs and junior officers.
I am deeply concerned about just what he is trying to address. Yes, the garrison Army will have more saluting, parade rest, clean uniforms, haircuts, etc., but he has cut deeper. I'm confused -- what decision-making skills should the combat proven SSG need to work on? And let's be honest: I don't think that the SMA and most of the senior officers and NCOs have ever really walked in those shoes. During these wars the decisions made by junior officers and NCOs, at the company and platoon level, have been some of the most important. It makes me angry because I know what I have done and what so many others like me have done and more. The entire intent of being a professional soldier is going to war and destroying the enemy. What most of us in the military have trained for -- and done -- several times. Yes, there were a lot of growing pains over the last decade, especially learning what was most important to accomplish this task. We learned: Shooting, first aid, cultural lessons -- important! Haircuts, hands in pockets, pressing uniforms? Not that important.
The senior leaders of today's Army want to go back to the Army that they grew up in -- the Army of the 80s and 90s, with the spit-polished boots, starched uniforms, skin-tight haircuts. To them, these are the signs of a disciplined force. To the senior leaders of the Army I say this: Bring back the tough and realistic training standards that made us a focused and disciplined force. Those are the things that will prepare the force for challenges that lie ahead in the decades to come. Incorporate this training with the volumes of lessons learned in leadership and decision-making, while under fire, by our junior officers and NCOs. The success and failures of the next decade will be based on your leadership and decision-making skills and how we cultivate our junior officers and NCOs.
I'm not sure where this Army is going but I am deeply concerned. Maybe I'm missing something that can only be seen from the top. Or maybe the SMA thinks doing circles around the parade field will draw attention away from the fact that we don't have any money for real combat training.
"58 Scout" is an active-duty soldier.
By Peter Maass
Best Defense guest columnist
Ten years ago, I rolled into Baghdad's Firdos Square with photographer Gary Knight and the Marine battalion that famously draped a flag atop a statue of Saddam Hussein before tearing it down in front of the world's television cameras. As we all know, this moment of promise was followed by a lot of pain. The last American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, and our attention has turned away, but the invasion's 10th anniversary falls next month, offering a chance to remember and explore the still-painful aftermath.
How can we best do this?
A few years ago, I began working on a story that reconstructed the statue's toppling; it was published by the New Yorker in 2011 but the most important thing is that while reporting it I met Lt. Tim McLaughlin, whose flag was placed on the statue. Tim had left the Marines, gone to law school and was a lawyer in Boston. He shared his war diaries with me, and I realized, when I thumbed through the first pages and sand fell from them (Tim had not touched them since Iraq) that I was holding an amazing document. I had been a foreign correspondent for many years, and had seen lots of documentation about war, but this was the most original and emotional -- war as seen by the combatant, in the combatant's handwriting, written in his downtime between battles. It wasn't filtered by the media, by politicians or generals, and it didn't even suffer the visual flattening of a computer font.
The content stunned me. Tim was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and was a tank platoon commander in his tip-of-the-spear battalion in 2003. His diaries contain raw descriptions of everything from the smoke-filled corridors of the Pentagon on that tragic September day to the violence of the Iraq invasion and the craziness of the toppling of the iconic statue. The agony of firing too soon and shooting civilians, and firing too late and losing a fellow Marine to enemy bullets, as well as the boredom and humor and exhaustion of the invasion--these searing things are in the diaries, in addition to Tim's evocative maps and pictures. While the diaries are remarkably personal, they reflect multiple facets of the combatant experience of war.
To cut a long story short, Gary and I discussed the idea of an exhibit centering around the diaries, and Tim readily agreed. The exhibit is called "Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq," and it will open in New York City at the Bronx Documentary Center on March 15, just a few days before the invasion's 10th anniversary. The exhibit will feature large-format reprints of pages from Tim's diary, and on some days it will display his American flag, which has not been on public view since its Baghdad cameo. The exhibit will also feature invasion photographs by Gary, who like me was a "unilateral" journalist driving from Kuwait into Iraq in a rented SUV (mine came from Hertz). There will be a few texts by me, as well as videos that feature Tim and news footage from the time. Tim, who is president of a non-profit that provides free legal advice to veterans and the homeless, has received a 50 percent disability rating from the VA for his PTSD diagnosis, and that will be in the exhibit, too.
It's an innovative exhibit that, we hope, will get people thinking about the war and its legacy -- things that are slipping into a collective memory hole. We launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign earlier this month and we're nearing our goal but we're not yet there. If we can reach it and go further, we will start working on stage two of our project -- to assemble and publish war diaries from other combatants and civilians. Yes, this post is a bit of a fundraising pitch, though we also want people to just know about the exhibit and not let the anniversary pass without remembrance. In mid-March, Foreign Policy plans to publish an online series of photos and stories about Tim's diaries.
For Tim, Gary, and me, it has been an uphill battle. Part of the backstory involves being turned down by a number of galleries and museums before the non-profit Bronx Documentary Center agreed, enthusiastically, to host our exhibit. The fancy places were not interested in Iraq -- old news, time to move on, tired of war, there's no money to be made in war diaries, etc. We have been working on this as a labor of love, because we think it's a unique and provocative way to fight the tide of forgetting.
Please come visit the exhibit when it opens on March 15, and if you can help our fundraising, we would be delighted, too. Also, if you are affiliated with an organization that would be interested in hosting the exhibit after it closes in New York, please give us a shout.
Peter Maass, author of Love Thy Neighbor and Crude World, has written about Iraq and Afghanistan for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Gary Knight is a founder of the VII Photo Agency and director of the Tufts University Program for Narrative & Documentary Practice. Tim McLaughlin is a lawyer in Boston and president of Shelter Legal Services, which provides free legal advice to veterans and the homeless.
Peter Maass/Tim McLaughlin
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Set Four -- What makes us think that schools and hospitals are going to help us alter the behavior patterns of others and win people over to our way of thinking? In the magnificent remake of the classic film Red Dawn, there is an excellent scene in which the North Korean occupiers offer medical facilities and electrical power in return for cooperation with their regime. The bargain is not successful. Americans, it seems, prefer freedom to electricity. At the risk of drawing theory from the scriptwriters of Red Dawn, this seems to me to be a reasonable reaction -- it is certainly in line with the reactions I experienced to development projects in Iraq. People want electricity, yes, and they will accept development projects if they are offered -- just as the Indian people accepted and (perhaps) benefitted from railways, the telegraph, and the legal system imposed by the British during the Raj. They still wanted the British to leave, though. Why would this have changed? This does not mean that ignoring the material needs of the population is helpful nor that it cannot work if you select an endstate they do want (e.g. their independence) and couple it with development. It does follow that development is not enough and cannot be detached from politics: we must remember that politics is the art of the possible.
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Set Three -- If we aren't fighting a series of counterinsurgency campaigns, then what are we doing? There are (at least) two possible answers to this question, both of which raise further questions.
The first is that we are fighting a series of punitive campaigns, designed to show to the world the effect of our wrath and the results of crossing us. In which case, why are we concerned with cultural sensitivities and the like -- given that it is presumably their culture (or some part of it) that has led them to displease us in the first place? This may be simplistic (it is) but it is still a question that requires an answer.
The second possible answer is that we are fighting old-fashioned wars of imperial aggression, designed to alter the behavior of other countries so that they better fit into the global system at the head of which sits us; in short, we are compelling our opponent to do our will. This raises a further intriguing question -- if this is the case, why do we look to historical case studies of decolonization for guidance, rather than case studies of colonization? Is it simply so we can feel better about ourselves? There is a third option: We are compelled to invade a country to change its government because it is sheltering terrorist networks that are attacking us. What then?
Or another option, we are compelled to invade a country because of its foreign or nuclear policy that is hostile to our interests but have no interest in reshaping the society and culture in our image at all. What then?
By Charles Krohn
Best Defense department of second thoughts
Is it an honor or a cruel joke to read "Operation Iraqi Freedom" on the headstone of a fallen soldier?
Given the irony of OIF in a historic context, the question is not irreverent, but it is relevant. This wouldn't be true, of course, if our invasion had yielded results intended and predicted, however imperfectly.
As an old soldier who has carried one too many body bags out of the battlefield, I feel a great kinship with the next of kin of the fallen. Few memories hold greater pain.
I wouldn't even ask this question if I didn't wonder if some in the Gold Star community weren't also asking it, even to themselves. And if any read this, please accept my reverence for you and the deceased. I know your loved one answered the call of the nation, understanding great risk was necessary to protect our country and help spread freedom among the oppressed. What could be more noble?
Is it not just as honorable now to recognize the prospect of freedom in Iraq as originally postulated is remote? As others have written, there is still great confusion about who will lead Iraq. The only thing most agree upon is that Iran, once held in check by Iraq, is now spreading its virulent reach deeper into the region, with a nuclear threat just around the corner.
Simply stated, the inspiration for Operation Iraqi Freedom was a dream. Does it honor or dishonor those who fell to perpetuate this myth on their headstones?
Should the matter be swept under the rug as an incidental slip of history or should next-of-kin have the option of a new headstone, marking sacrifice without promoting an idea whose time has passed?
Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now chilling in Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission.
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen's Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest columnist
Question Group Two -- Can you fight an expeditionary counterinsurgency campaign? Isn't it really something you only do on home turf? Like the Turks, or the Sri Lankans, or even the British? It strikes me as a strange type of war to fight on someone else's home turf. Isn't that more -- well -- imperial? Is it really classic pacification? And if so, what does that mean? Does it mean that we might need to acknowledge that this changes the context of the war? Does it mean that we might have to accept at the start that we can only achieve very limited objectives?
(To be continued)
Recently I was at a foreign policy discussion in which a participant said that everybody agrees that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, despite everything else that went wrong with the boneheaded invasion of Iraq.
I didn't question that assertion at the time, but found myself mulling it. Recently I had a chance to have a beer with Toby Dodge, one of the best strategic thinkers about Iraq. He said something like this: Well, you used to have an oppressive dictator who at least was a bulwark against Iranian power expanding westward. Now you have an increasingly authoritarian and abusive leader of Iraq who appears to be enabling Iranian arms transfers to Syria.
And remember: We still don't know how this ends yet. Hence rumors in the Middle East along the lines that all along we planned to create a "Sunnistan" out of western Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
Meanwhile, the Iraq war, which we left just over a year ago, continues. Someone bombed police headquarters in Kirkuk over the weekend, killing 33. And about 60 Awakening fighters getting their paychecks were blown up in Taji. As my friend Anthony Shadid used to say, "The mud is getting wetter."
By Billy Birdzell
Best Defense guest respondent
I believe Max has missed Das Boot.
1. If COIN is 80 percent political, then the political construct is most important. French and British in Algeria and Malaya were conquerors with political and military control over the place for 124 years (ironic) before their insurgencies began. Please talk about expeditionary COIN. Russia in Afghanistan, U.S. Afghanistan, U.S. Vietnam, U.S. Iraq. Where else? The United States in the Philippines 1898-1913 was the Malaya example because we owned the place. Mixing up political contexts = fail.
2. No matter how good our tactics, cultural training, language ability, etc., we will never get out of the dilemma that the harder we try, the worse it gets. More money for AID and development = more corruption. More troops = accidental guerrillas and al Qaeda in Iraq type organizations. Joe Meyers and UBL call it defensive jihad, but whatever. Our very presence delegitimizes the government we are trying to prop up. It's a failed model and one that Galula said was the worst of all possible worlds. FM 3-24 is a manual for the worst case scenario -- that in which the military gets stuck with an insurgency that it didn't see coming. It can, at best, direct military force to get a slightly better political situation than running away. It is not a doctrine around which to structure the military.
3. I disagree that language, culture, etc. materially impact success. Using the military instead of the State Department for diplomacy is inherently flawed. The military's main contribution is destroying armed groups who challenge the government's monopoly on force and I'd like to see what percentage of intelligence was developed by native speakers/culture experts.
4. Tanks are fabulous for killing guerrillas in urban areas. Artillery is your friend and outbound rounds still make the sound of freedom. Flying machines are cool. Max fundamentally does not understand that COIN involves high intensity combat and our technology/firepower, USED APPROPRIATELY, gives us an edge.
5. I agree with Nagl that advisors a la Landsdale during Huk (20 PAX, later increased to 56), El Sal (55 PAX), JSOTF-P, and Columbia are great. However, like all other uses of military force, what is the strategy? What is the United States trying to achieve? What are we going to give up to do more/longer/better engagements with which partner nation forces? We can have the best advisors in the world, if the partner nations do not have real governments and a military with the will to fight, we're pissing in the wind.
6. The most important factors for success against irregulars -- partner nation governance and the local military's will -- are out of our hands. Those two issues are not discussed by people who want to rearrange the military and create all kinds of nonsense. If eliminating safe havens and supporting stable governments is our policy, then what kind of military deployments maximize the host nation's ability to create legitimacy and find their will to win? I argue that Max's concepts minimize them.
Billy Birdzell served eight years in the Marine Corps, was a platoon commander during OIF I and II and a team leader in MARSOC. He is now doing that Security Studies thing at Georgetown University.
I was reading Robert Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins, and was struck that in March 1943, President Roosevelt made a prescient observation about the future of Yugoslavia. Harry Hopkins, his close aide, quotes him as saying in a meeting with Anthony Eden that, "the Croats and Serbs had nothing in common and that it is ridiculous to try to force two such antagonistic people to live together under one government."
By Jeff Williams
Age of fighting sail bureau
"C. S. Forester" (AKA Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) was a delightful writer of fiction but a less successful writer of naval history. His Age of Fighting Sail has long received mixed reviews among modern naval historians interested in that period. Forester had a tendency towards "received wisdom" and was careful not to contradict technical details he had already incorporated into his marvelously successful "Hornblower" series novels.
As we all know, there is a tendency for nations to inflate their victories and diminish their defeats. Consequently, it had become customary in re-telling the extraordinary saga of the British Navy in the age of sail to emphasize the superiority of French-built ships versus those of the Royal Navy. It made the long period of English naval victories even more amazing and intrepid. Even still, like most myths, the lore of superior French and Spanish ship design did in fact contain an element of truth for a period.
In the past thirty to forty years a great deal of intense academic research has been performed concerning the ship building and construction practices of the French, Dutch, Spanish, and American sailing navies, but most particularly into the British Navy of the sailing era. Much legend (knee deep when it comes to naval affairs) has been stripped away by contemporary naval historians such as Brian Lavery, Robert Gardiner, and others.
Brian Lavery is undoubtedly the world's leading authority on the sailing ships of the line, having spent decades researching the subject to its smallest detail. He has a number of volumes to his credit but the ones that directly address the subject of this article would be:
In Building The Wooden Walls -- The Design and Building of the 74-Gun Ship Valiant, Lavery uses his first two chapters to describe how the Royal Navy entered the 18th century undefeated but with ships that were generally poorly designed. Their design patterns had become rigidly conservative with little scope for experimentation. This was partly due to a complacency derived from long success in battle. Why fix what's not broken?
The French on the other hand, understanding that they could not defeat the British Navy because of the need to finance large standing armies and a shortage of ports and seamen, decided on a policy of building speedier and more powerful ships. Later in the century, the new American Navy facing the same problems as the French adopted a similar policy in lieu of a battle fleet.
For the British the end of that complacency came in 1755 with a new surveyor of the Navy, the redoubtable Sir Thomas Slade, and his partner William Bately. The creative logjam in the hidebound surveyors office, that controlled the design protocols for the Navy, was removed and British shipbuilding moved into a new era.
At the time of the Seven Years War, the Royal Navy as a result of the through defeat of both the French and Spanish in battle had captured many of the latest French and Spanish ships. As standard practice, the Navy took the lines off those ships, repaired them if possible and incorporated them into its own fleet. With the practical experience of having these captured ships now as part of the British fleet it became apparent that they contained many advantageous qualities. Slade merged many of those French ideas with his own into a new British building practice.
As an example, it was customary in that era for French battleships to be more "weatherly" (meaning how close they can sail to the wind) by being able to sail 6 points (on the 32 point compass rose) to the wind, while the average British battleship could usually manage only 7 points. That weatherliness was usually largely a function of the relationship between the length and breadth of a vessel. That feature was very important for ships trying to achieve the "weather gauge" (upwind) on an enemy vessel -- rather like a Spitfire fighter trying to gain an altitude advantage on a ME 109.
Slade's new renaissance in British naval construction is usually considered to have been initiated with the building of HMS Valiant. This ship's lines were actually taken from the captured French Invincible. Valiant, along with her sister Triumph, were the lead ships in a new 74-gun class that began to standardize the British battle line for the next 70 years. British ships were lengthened, their armament re-ordered to be more formidable, and the ships became nearly as fast and weatherly as their French peers but more robustly built.
It should be noted that while French ships were fast and Weatherly, there was a price to pay for those features. One of the costs was "hogging," a circumstance where the bow and stern of the ship actually droops down from a lack longitudinal strength, thus destroying its sailing qualities over time. Generally, British shipwrights tried to keep the scantlings and timbers stouter than French practice and also maintained narrower room and space (the space between frames) than the French in order to minimize the hogging of the keel. Later, British dockyards used the Sepping's method that allowed a greater length to be built into their ships by using a very strong diagonal framing process. Also, in the new class of ships, the British lower main gun decks were designed to be a little higher above the waterline in order to make them less wet and more available when the ship heeled in the wind. Often the lower gun decks of French ships were so low to the water that even in a moderate breeze the gun ports were unusable.
Importantly, I might add that the British were the first to completely copper the bottoms of their entire fleet beginning around the time of the American War for Independence. This factor had a radical impact upon hull durability and speed, comparable with almost any changes in actual ship design. It was hugely expensive but kept ships out of dry-dock and improved their weatherliness and speed and helped assist uniform the speed characteristics of the whole battle fleet when in formation. This crucial change in itself was comparable in impact to the 20th century's incorporation of the microprocessor into modern naval electronics.
In consequence of these changes, the battles fought by the British Navy from the period of the American Revolution, French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic wars were generally fought with ships of equal or superior design characteristics to those of their assorted opponents. This was particularly true of British frigate designs that evolved even faster and were the blue water cruisers of their era.
As most people who have an interest in naval history know, ship design was only one factor -- important as it was in the development of naval superiority. Unlike armies, navies cannot be improvised. They required factors such as the availability of trained and experienced seamen, gunnery science, navigation skills (advanced mathematics), seamanship, signaling (an area of complete British superiority), and a developed and practiced doctrine of aggressive leadership. These were all crucial in achieving and maintaining superiority at sea. As the superlative American Admiral Nimitz said, "better good men on a bad ship than bad men on a good ship."
As a final note, Spanish ships (many British considered Spanish captures superior to those of the French) and Dutch ships to a lesser extent were also very interesting in their own right and deserve coverage. The Dutch naval tradition is outstanding though their ships had a tendency to be rather small and shallow of draft to allow them to clear the mud flats off the Dutch coast. The American contribution to naval design in the age of sail was both unique and of generally very high quality and is a full story in itself.
Incidentally, Robert Gardiner, a superb historian of naval architecture, has a number of books out on the specific design elements of various classes of ships such as frigates, brigs, ships of the line, etc., of this period. His work is excellent and spares no detail.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.