Reacting with alacrity to Monday night's bo-ring debate, my friend Tim Noah had the gumption to find the last American who led a cavalry charge. It was Lt. Edwin P. Ramsey, in January 1942 in the Philippines. (Unless you wanna count 5th SF Group riding with the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan in 2001, but that was more indirect approach, not conventional U.S. forces.)
Horse cavalrymen must have been pretty tough hombres. Lt. Price is now 95 years old, and hanging out in Los Angeles -- not unlike Wyatt Earp did a century ago, I guess. When the Japanese prevailed (temporarily) in the Philippines, Ramsey went underground and became a guerrilla leader.
Two possibly related questions: How many American WiFi signals can you pick up from the middle of Bagram Air Base? (A: 54.) How many Taliban WiFi signals can you pick up? (A: Zero.)
Finally, a little-known bayonet fact: O.P. Smith, one of our greatest generals and one of our most under-rated, once did a study of the use of the bayonet in World War I and concluded it was over-rated. He even interviewed surgeons about the wounds that they saw and concluded that the bayonet was actually used very little. I write a little about this in my new book, which has a chapter on him. Another little-known fact: Smith, though a Marine, studied under George C. Marshall at Fort Benning.
John Wilkens points out something I hadn't realized: "It's the first time in 80 years that there are no veterans on either major-party ticket for the White House. The last time it happened, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover."
And even then, FDR had served as assistant Navy secretary, leading him to identify with that service even years later. I recall reading somewhere that he used to tease George Marshall by referring to the Navy as "us" and the Army as "them."
A spell of lousy weather recently enabled me to finish putting together bookcases and then unpack the remaining boxes of military-related books I had in the basement. Now I have all books on military affairs in one place, and shelved, except for perhaps 50 volumes at my office at CNAS, and about 16 feet of military reference books I also have in DC.
There were a few surprises to me in shelving the books. First, how many books I now have on the Iraq war. Second, how few I have on the American Civil War -- a surprise in part because I feel like I've read too much about it, compared to the rest of American and global military history.
So I got out a tape measure to begin comparing the sections by size, measured in terms to shelf space occupied.
The big winner was World War II, with 32 feet of books. This is not a surprise because I just finished writing a book that begins with eight chapters on American generals in World War II. I've read almost all of these except a couple of fairly recent books on Churchill. The case is similar for most sections, except as noted.
The second biggest section was the U.S. war in Iraq, with a total of 31 feet. But the Vietnam War was surprisingly close behind, with 27 feet. This surprised me because I went to Iraq 14 times but have only made one, short trip to Vietnam, decades after the war there ended. The Vietnam section likely will grow in the next year and pass the Iraq section, because I am thinking about writing a book on the Vietnam War.
The next biggest section isn't really a section -- it is an overarching "general U.S. military history from all over the place," like Russell Weigley's classic The American Way of War. It came in at 12 feet.
That's also about the size of the section on the American Revolution, but I have read very few of those. I assembled the collection because I thought I might write a book on George Washington's early military career, and how it shaped his approach to the Revolution, but no one seems much interested in having me do such a book.
In sixth place was the Korean War, with 9 feet. I feel like I have read pretty much everything worthwhile on that one.
Just behind that was the "literature of war" section, which is novels, plays, poetry and literary memoirs, which came in at just under 9 feet. (One-third of that was WWII, one-third was stuff from the last 30 years, and one third was other, such as World War I poetry and John Masters' Bugles and a Tiger.)
The intelligence section measured 7 feet, but that overstates my interest. I have only read about half of this section. Also, about 2 feet of it is old congressional reports on intelligence from the 1970s I saved because I once thought I might write about that someday. But with the passage of time the subject seems less compelling
Next was World War I, at 5 feet long. That surprised me because I don't feel I know that much about that war.
At 4 feet
--Terrorism, of which one foot is "getting bin Laden."
--American Civil War. As I say, I thought it would be more.
--"Other '90s section: Haiti, Somalia, etc": 4 feet
--Ancient military history, general military theory/strategy
military history, from Crusades to the present.
--U.S. Navy, general history
--Air Force, ditto
--Special operations. If I included the "getting bin Laden" section here, it would be 3.5 feet-that is, bigger than my collections on the Navy and Air Force. The American public loves reading about Special Operators, and so publishers churn out these books and mail them to me. I haven't read a lot of these books.
--Pakistan/India (haven't read many of them)
--U.S. military personnel issues (manning the force, women in military, gays in military)
--U.S. wars in Balkans in '90s
--Military transformation (no one remembers but this was a hot issue in the '90s)
century British military history, excluding wars with U.S.: 2 feet
--Marine Corps, general history : 1.5 feet. I thought there would be more, but I guess many of the Marine books are in the war sections, especially World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
--Nuclear weapons: 1.5 feet, but haven't read most of them. I always have found the subject kind of boring.
--Military-media relations: 1 foot
By "Tyrtaios" and "Jpwrel"
Best Defense royal office of Royal Navy affairs
Both of us are interested in naval history and have visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, albeit in different ways. As a young Marine officer aboard the USS Trenton, one of us has lunched and drank toasts to Admiral Lord Nelson at CINC NAV Home, Nelson's old headquarters in Portsmouth, England. At this Navy function where a leathery captain of Royal Marines recognized the young Marine as surely as a mustang and made sure he was adequately supplied with jiggers of British Navy rum.
The other one of us culminated a long interest in the Royal Navy's history and its naval architecture by also visiting and intimately inspecting HMS Victory, but in much less rousing form. From the depths of its rarely seen original keelson to its quarterdeck and Nelson's private quarters, he has studied this ship in detail accompanied by the assistant curator of the National Maritime Museum.
The question we want to pose is this: Do we still have commanders that embrace the spirit of "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy," or have we become so reliant on technology and information flow that we allow opportunity to slip away?
"No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." And so it was on October 21, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, near Cadiz, Spain, two fleets engaged each other to decide who would be master of the seas, the British or Bonaparte and his Spanish allies.
Shortly before engaging the enemy, as the British fleet slowly approached the combined French and Spanish line, Admiral Nelson hoisted a flag signal to his fleet that said: "ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY." From the quarterdeck on his flagship HMS Victory, the Royal Navy's most gifted admiral commanded a fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line.
Although outnumbered, by executing some unorthodox tactics that would divide his enemy into three segments, Nelson smashed through the line of battle of the thirty-three French and Spanish vessels. A French officer remarked later, "This manner of engaging was contrary to the most simple prudence . . ." And as John Terraine wrote, "That it did not produce a disaster was due entirely to the immense superiority in seamanship, gunnery and morale of the British fleet . . . All factors Nelson was of course fully aware of."
The three-decker Victory that Nelson commanded from, alongside his friend and Flag Captain Thomas Hardy, displayed more than 100 guns, a few of them the new and devastating 68-pound cannons mounted on the forecastle. With its crew of eight hundred, Victory bore down on the French in light air at 3 knots. Engaging first the French flagship Bucentar to port with a raking broadside through her stern galleries and then the French Redoubtable to starboard, Nelson ordered another signal to his fleet, "ENGAGE THE ENEMY MORE CLOSELY."
Cannon fire, grapeshot, musket balls, and deadly splinters of ship's wood destroyed and maimed all in their path. Victory's steering wheel was smashed to bits. All the while, and against the wishes of Hardy, and wearing his finest uniform making himself a more conspicuous target, Nelson calmly paced up and down in clear view of the enemy.
Shortly into the battle, Nelson's personal secretary John Scott was sliced in two by a cannon ball that blew his body parts over the side leaving just scraps of him on deck. Nelson observed one scrap included a silver buckle torn from Scott's shoe, and the Admiral was heard to exclaim, "This is too warm work Hardy to last long!"
The British pressed further to breach their enemies line of battle engaging them with both port and starboard batteries. Both sides were raked with gunfire at close quarters. Masts and rigging fell. Victory and Redoubtable were so close that their rigging entangled side by side as they exchanged point-blank gunfire.
It would be Nelson's friend Hardy that would turn to see Nelson fall to the deck on the exact spot where Scott was killed earlier. The gold braiding was torn from Nelson's epaulet the Admiral having been shot through his left shoulder. The Admiral's spine was also broken and surely he must have known he would not survive the fight.
During a hot sea battle in those days, it was customary to throw the mortally wounded and the dead over the side. However, Captain Hardy ordered that Nelson be carried below. There he died three hours later, perhaps knowing, but not seeing, he had won a great victory at Trafalgar. Nineteen enemy ships had been sunk or captured versus not a single British ship lost and four more of the escaping French ships would be captured two weeks later by Adm. Collingwood, Nelson's able successor.
After the battle, HMS Victory put into Gibraltar for repairs where legend has it that Nelson's body was placed in a large cask of brandy, although some say rum, to preserve it for the long voyage back to England, whereupon arrival back in England, the cask was opened and Nelson's preserved body removed. And it is here that the legend is further embellished in that the brandy was seen to be almost gone. Had the jack tar sailors, probably under the winking watchful eyes of enlisted Royal Marines drilled a small hole at the base of the cask through which they drained the brandy, and with that drank the blood of their Admiral?
Everyone who knows the Army know that Gen. William DePuy played a huge role in rebuilding the institution after the Vietnam War.
One of the arguments in my new book on American generalship (out at the end of this month) is that DePuy's rebuilding, while magnificent, wound up focusing the Army too much on tactical issues. But last night I was re-reading part of the book (mainly looking for typos, etc.) and noticed a quote from DePuy that made me think he was off target in another way. "Wars are won by draftees and reserve officers," he admonished his subordinates. True in his time, of course. But not reflective of today's military -- at least the part about draftees.
After reading the World War I memoir by Robert Graves for the fourth (and, I expect, final) time, I began to wonder why I had never looked at the autobiographical novel about the war by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. So I did.
I am glad I did -- sort of. I had feared he would be a whiner, but he wasn't. He is a terrific writer, with an unusual feel for turning a great phrase. Almost at random, there is this: "for an infantry subaltern, the huge unhappy mechanism of the Western Front always narrowed down to the company he was in."
Three pages later: "The sky seemed to sag heavily over Flanders; it was an oppressive, soul-clogging country." (I thought the same of Iraq in the late spring, when rain storms mixed with dust storms resulting in pelting mud.)
And then night just behind the front: "the whole region became a dusk of looming slopes with lights of village and bivouac picked out here and there, little sparks in the loneliness of time." On the next page: "the rockets soared beyond the ridge and the machine-guns rattled out their mirthless laughter." There is not just precision of observation here, but also of expression.
"One wet days the trees a mile away were like ash-grey smoke rising from the naked ridges, and it felt very much as if we were at the end of the world." I've had that feeling, both in northern Bosnia and northwestern Ira, but have never been able to capture in it words.
Watching soldiers in the trenches: "It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization for granted." And, "What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims."
And finally: "Last summer the First Battalion had been part of my life; by the middle of September it had been almost obliterated."
I suspect at this point he is descending into a kind of madness, but he keeps a British attitude, deciding that, "getting killed on purpose [would be] an irrelevant gesture for a platoon commander." In its last section the book peters out into diary entries, and then, because he lost part of his diary, into remembered moments. But he still throws out some good aphoristic observations. "The better the soldier, the more limited in his outlook." That's not just for the enlisted ranks: "One cannot be a useful officer and a reader of imaginative literature at the same time." (He is being cute there-a few pages later he actually cites his company executive officer as a terrific help and also a big reader. In fact they are both reading poetry during a bombardment when their dugout suffers a direct hit from a shell that turns out to be a dud-the nose of the shell protrudes into their shelter."
What he liked about patrolling in no-man's-land: "We were beyond all interference by Brigadiers."
One of his final
lines is about his sense that he died, or part of him did, during the war: "I
seem to write these words of someone who never returned from France."
It is an interesting book. But at the end, it was less than the sum of it parts. I guess that the best way to say it is that it doesn't add up to much. He is a better observer and writer than thinker. Despite the fine turns of phrase, at the end I didn't take away much. As much I as admire his eye, and his hand at turning phrases, I don't feel I took away anything larger. I doubt I will read it again, or even recall it much. The odd thing about his pose as a lightweight is that, ultimately, he really is.
By Bob Kozak
Best Defense bureau of Civil War imagery
By the start of the Civil War, portable wet-plate technology made it possible for photographers to follow army campaigns. While long exposure times precluded action photos, the aftermath of battle could be documented. Two days after the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), which to this day is still the single worst day for the American military -- with over 23,000 killed or wounded -- Alexander Gardner began photographing the carnage. By the time he and his assistant James Gibson left, they had taken approximately 100 images on the battlefield. Less than a month later Gardner's boss, Mathew Brady, had twenty of the images, referred to as the "Dead of Antietam" displayed in his New York City Gallery. As the New York Times reported on October 20th 1862:
"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it."
Starting this Friday, October 5th, for the first time since 1862, you will have the chance to see this exhibition. We have reproduced the photos to their original form using high resolution Library of Congress digital files of the negatives and have recreated the display with clues from 1862 accounts. We have five originals in the display. And, since Gardner took most of these photos using stereoscopic cameras, we also have a 3-D theatre to see them in their intended format.
But for us who have organized the show -- a partnership of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Hood College, and the Frederick Maryland Civil War Roundtable -- just having a chance to see these images is not enough. We have also produced commentary on the images for your consideration.
We start with the moral and visual context at the start of the Civil War and introduce viewers to 1862 responses to the photos written in light of President Lincoln's release of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Information is presented on the evolution of war image censorship in response to the availability of high quality mass produced photo images throughout the 20th and 21st century. We conclude with the present, where a single image of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan, an image that would not be out of place with Gardner's, causes the Secretary of Defense Gates to say:
"Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right -- but judgment and common decency."
We don't provide answers with this exhibit. But we do hope that visitors will consider some of the questions that voices in the exhibition, including those of fathers and mothers of war fighters ask about the role of war time images and when war is moral.
Bob Kozak is the director of the exhibit, which will be on display at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield from October 5 to December 1, 2012. For more information, click here.
I ask because I was reading a history of the 1932 Bonus March on Washington by disgruntled World War I vets, and was surprised to see that the Army didn't want the Marines at the barracks and 8th and I SW in D.C. called out to help, supposedly out of fear that some of them "would side with the revolutionaries." (p. 143)
You know, typical left-wing jarheads.
As it happened, almost immediately after finishing the Steve Jobs biography, I read Nordhoff and Hall's Men Against the Sea, about Capt. William Bligh's epic voyage across the South Pacific after being ousted by the mutineers who took HMS Bounty from him. He sailed 3,600 miles in an open 23-foot boat that was carrying 19 men, losing only one en route (to hostile locals). Most people couldn't get a boat loaded like that across the swimming pool. He brought it across an Atlantic-wide space.
Like Jobs, Bligh was a toxic leader -- yet clearly the right man to pull off such an extraordinary feat of seamanship.
I'm not a fan of diplomatic history, but still found parts of Hanoi's War fascinating. It changed the way I think about the Vietnam War. For example: "Ho and Giap were sidelined by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho at nearly all key decision-making junctures . . . . It is worth contemplating how Hanoi's war would have been different had Ho and Giap been in charge."
The basic argument of the book is that Ho Chi Minh was a figurehead and that the war was run by "the Comrades Le." In 1967, opposition inside the Communist Party to the planned Tet Offensive was so pronounced that there was a series of purges and arrests, including generals allied with General Giap. "The alleged traitors were imprisoned in central Hanoi at Hoa Lo, known to Americans as the ‘Hanoi Hilton.'" Giap himself was pushed in a kind of temporary self-exile.
The focus of participants to post-American Vietnam began to shift surprisingly early. In 1970, Hanoi already was beginning to fear that China would dominate postwar Indochina. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, not long afterward, Pol Pot began killing off his Hanoi-trained cadres.
Nor did I know that Hanoi was very upset and worried by Nixon's 1972 visit to Beijing. And with good reason: That year, both Beijing and Moscow began cutting their military aid to the North Vietnamese.
All in all, it reminded me of Piers Mackesy's classic The War for America, which shows us the American revolution through the eyes of the British government.
In an essay knocking down the concept of "total war" in the book Arms and the Man, West Point history prof (and rowing coach) Eugenia Kiesling offers this interesting analogy: "If war under the ancien regime was like dining at an elegant restaurant where one paid extravagantly for small, elaborately presented portions, Napoleon took advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet."
Best Defense book reviewer
Fighting for MacArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps' Desperate Defense of the Philippines by John Gordon arrived mysteriously at my post office box in town yesterday
My quick perusal of the book (which I will begin to read next week in more detail), would be disturbing to anyone had the information it contains been researched and made available while General Douglas MacArthur was still alive, to say nothing of the embarrassment to those that allowed MacArthur to continue to command after such a startling defeat, a road early-on toward that defeat which essentially followed the General's flawed plans for the defense of the Philippines, in view of the changing situation confronting him.
I should note that the author in his zeal, delves into a lot of minute details that seem to clutter the story he wants to tell, which is primarily about the Navy and Marines role in support of the Army commanded by MacArthur. However, the Army is not overlooked, and the over use of details aside, for anyone interested in historical backdrop surrounding MacArthur, as well as his performance in the Philippines, I would say the book is an important contribution toward such.
Although most know that MacArthur along with his chief of staff Sutherland should have shouldered much of the blame for losing the. What I found intriguing was MacArthur's early on rosy picture he was painting to Washington, and then later outright lies in message traffic to Marshall who seems to have somewhat taken it all in stride, knowing MacArthur as he did, instead of weighing the evidence provided by a very competent Admiral Thomas Hart who was also sending his candid assessment of the situation to Washington.
Moving along quickly, the author's research notes that as MacArthur finally, too late in the game began to accept the situation, MacArthur started to scapegoat Hart (whom he pretty much forced into retirement), when in actuality, it was MacArthur that should have "faded away." I had heard about Admiral Hart only peripherally and that he had been fired, only accepting the Admiral's firing as the way of things in the naval service for those in command that lose. Perhaps it is about time I find out more about this man who seems to have had his finger on the pulse as events were unfolding in the Asian-South Pacific theater even before being attacked in the Philippines, and the measures the Admiral was wisely taking, while the Army was to some degree under MacArthur, not coming to grips with reality that would contribute to disaster later.
Also of interest to me, as Hart early-on understood the desperate time line all forces in the Philippines were facing, the Admiral directed that tunnel construction be sped-up on Corregidor, and began transferring food stocks there 10-days prior to the Army who only then seem to have began facing the reality the Japanese were tightening their hold around the island of Luzon. This action, and other decisions by Hart, along with quick thinking Navy and Marine leaders, would later see the Navy and Marines better fed than the Army as a result. But, would lead to resentment by Army personnel pointing a finger at the Navy as not supporting the effort, not realizing their command had let them down and the Navy had in fact shared much with them early-on prior to the evacuation to Corregidor, to include salvaged weapons and ammunition.
Additionally, the 4th Marine Regiment which had been evacuated from China a few months earlier, started their men on 2-meals a day early-on, and Hart followed with direction for all naval forces to do so also several days later, while the Army continued to chowed-down, which would also contribute to outright starvation during the siege on Corregidor later . . . All the while, MacArthur stunningly only visited up front with his troops once!
To be fair, the book does point-out there was a lot of bad luck, poor equipment in inventory, along with skill training against a war tested Japanese invading force, as well as that fog of war that contributed to the fall of the Philippines. However, my quick thumb through of the book revealed some very facinating messages back to Washington by MacArthur that hindsight aside, would seem to go to the question of the MacArthur's mental state and his competence as a senior general officer that history really shouldn't overlook because I believe it goes to MacArthur's eventual same early attitude toward the unfolding of the situation in Korea that seems to parallel his understanding of the situation around him in the Philippines earlier.
"Tyrtaios" was a professional private who retired from the Corps at the pleasure of the Commandant as a lieutenant colonel.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on November 2, 2011.
I really liked this exchange between "Hunter," whom we know to be an Army officer, and Eric Hammel, about Hammel's guest column Monday about his favorite Marine photo of World War II. I don't know who is correct, but both made me think. I suspect Hammel may be right here. I remember a guy who had been an intelligence officer in the Pacific in World War II recounting how he decoded a message and saw that he was going to be involved in the planned invasion of Japan. He thought, Well, that's it, I am going to die this year. Then he vomited.
I wonder if a counterintuitive metric of blog quality is how often the comments are better than the average post. (Speaking of blogs, wouldn't "The Burn Pit" be a good name for a blog about daily life while deployed to a combat zone?)
Anyway, Hunter wrote:
While it's nice to think well of these folks, and they certainly did their job and did it well...but I can't help but think, through my cynical eyes, that the thoughts running through these guys heads were "1) this shit sucks 2) we're all gonna die 3) we're skylining like mofos." In no particular order.
Sorry it's not the prettified version, but it's probably pretty real.
Eric Hammel replied:
I thought about the above comments all day. What I conclude is that you don't think the way American troops in the Pacific thought during the spring of 1945. This takes nothing away from your experience, and it adds nothing to theirs. The times are not the same.
The men in the photo knew that they were nearing the end of a long war. They thought they would die on Okinawa or Kyushu or Honshu, so they felt they had little to lose by rushing across open ground or a skyline. In fact, getting killed or wounded on any day on Okinawa was better than the pain of living in order to be killed or wounded later. My father, who had barely escaped the claws of the Holocaust and had already fought on Leyte, ended eighteen days in the line on Okinawa with a shattered hand. He felt for the rest of his long life as if, by virtue of just the last, he had won the ultimate lottery.
The Japanese on Okinawa had built a hedgehog defense within a hedgehog defense in twisted hill country composed of one skyline after another. They knew what they were about. Once the Americans engaged the outer hedgehog, they were all in a war of attrition. But the Japanese had no recourse to troops--or anything--that wasn't on Okinawa on the first day of battle. The Americans had unlimited resources to bring up and bring in as needed, which they did--two army infantry divisions and a Marine regimental combat team were added to the original Tenth Army OOB. Both sides knew how the cards had been dealt. The four Marines in the photo knew it. So the thing I think the four were going over in their heads were: Can I drop fast enough if the other side opens fire? If not, will it be quick? Because, with me or without me, we are winning.
courtesty of Eric Hammel
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on July 15, 2011.
As I studied the Vietnam war over the last 14 months, I began to think that John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century.
In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.
Looming over it all is the American descent into Vietnam. The assassination of Vietnam's President Diem on Kennedy's watch may have been one of the two biggest mistakes of the war there. (The other was the decision to wage a war of attrition on the unexamined assumption that Hanoi would buckle under the pain.) I don't buy the theory promulgated by Robert McNamara and others that Kennedy would have kept U.S. troops out. Sure, Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam -- just like Lyndon Johnson wanted out a few years later: We'll scale down our presence after victory is secure. And much more than Johnson, Kennedy was influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, who I suspect had been looking for a "small war" mission for the Army for several years. Indochina looked like a peachy place for that -- warmer than Korea, and farther from Russia.
(As a side note, there's another coup that JFK supported earlier in 1963: the Baathist one in Iraq that chucked out a pro-Soviet general. Events in subsequent decades obviously are not Kennedy's fault, but it still is interesting to look at the documents. Here's a State Department sitrep from, of all dates, Nov. 21, 1963: "Initial appraisal cabinet named November 20 is that it contains some moderate Baathis. Of twenty-one ministers, seven are holdovers from previous cabinet, thirteen are civilians, four are from moderate Shabib-Jawad faction of Baath (Defense -- Tikriti; Communications -- Abd al-Latif; Education -- Jawari; Health -- Mustafa) and a number of technician-type civil servants." Did you notice the name of that defense minister? I think this might have been Saddam Hussein's uncle.)
Anyway, I think his track record kind of makes even old Herbert Hoover look good.
Tom Ricks, was born in Massachusetts and is the grandson and great-grandson of Democratic politicians there.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 29, 2011.
For my current book project, I spent part of last weekend going over a list of 13,542 papers and group studies done at the Army War College since 1950. A lot of them were what you might expect, such as two from 1952: "The Soviet Railroad System" and "The Soviet Iron and Steel Industry." Some of them are downright scary, such as 1953's "A United States Program for the Post-World War III Peace."
And there are the hardy perennials, such as "Retention of Junior Officers" (1959), "Kashmir Dispute - Appropriate US Role" (1964), "Haiti: Another Abscess in the Caribbean" (1966) and "The Future of Stability Operations" (1970). With some updates in names and numbers, a clever but unethical student probably could re-submit any of those papers now.
Some of them just make you shake your head. In 1961, one officer studied "The Missile Killer Belt: The Ballistic Missile Defense of the Future." (You wanna talk about government spending? How many multi-billions of dollars has the Pentagon spent on ballistic missile defense over the last 40 years?) And speaking of throwing good billions after bad, there is 1963's hopeful "Pakistan: A United States Investment." Yep, I am sure it will pay off any decade now.
But there were some surprises to me, like how many papers were done on unconventional warfare in the 1950s, which military historians tend to depict as a decade when everyone was focused on nuclear warfare. And even some of that stuff on nuclear warfare looks interesting, such as 1958's "Critique of Kissinger's Strategic Force - Tactical Force Concept."
I also was surprised at how little written about the Korean War. It just seems never to have been foremost in the collective mind of the Army. Indeed, Vietnam seems to get almost as much attention in the mid-'50s, with papers such as Richard Stilwell's "The Indochina Contest," done in 1955, and another paper in 1958, "Military Strategy in Southeast Asia."
And then, 15 years later, this sorrowful topic: "Lesson from My Lai."
There are fads. Lots of papers about energy in the late 1970s. Then, "Contemporary Terrorism," written in 1982, marks the start of a new trend. After a long absence, the Civil War begins showing up again in the '80s, though in small numbers compared to the early years of the 20th century, when it dominated. In the 1970s, computers are an occasional curiosity in some papers. In the late 1980s, they begin showing up in large numbers, as in "The Application of Microprocessor Technology in Enhancing Combat Unit Effectiveness" (1987). In the '90s, the word was "digitization." Over the last decade it was "networks." The late '80s also saw a spate of papers on the military's role in "the war on drugs." The '90s are full of "revolutions" in various areas, such as "military engineering," in 1997.
The papers by future generals don't stand out particularly. One of the more interesting one appears to be Alexander Haig's "Military Intervention: A Case Study of Britain's Use of Force in the 1956 Suez Crisis," written in 1966. More typically, in 1985, there was Tommy R. Franks on "An Alternative Corps Concept for Winning the AirLand Battle."
In the papers written in the wake of 9/11, I had expected to see a torrent of papers on terrorism, Islamic extremism, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and such. There were a few, but in general the papers for 2002 looked pretty much like previous years, featuring studies of "U.S. International Fresh Water Policy," "Vince Lombardi as a Strategic Leader, " and "Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Transformation of the Staff of the Army of the Cumberland: A Case Study." Plus, of course, a naval officer's 2007 contribution, "Algae: America's Pathway to Independence." You certainly can't accuse them of all running to the soccer ball.
There are few illusions reflected in the titles from the post 9/11-era. From 2004, this paper, from an Army Reservist, intrigued me: "Operation Iraqi Freedom - An Unjust War." Two years later, an Army officer discussed, "Iraq: How We May Lose the War We Won."
Overall, the biggest hole, I would say, is a long-term tendency to study foreign strategic problems, but not to examine battles or wars that did not involve American forces. There are a few, and they generally seem to involve Germans, often the battle of Kursk. For example, I was surprised not to see a study of the Iran-Iraq War --though a small percentage of the papers are simply marked "CLASSIFIED," and that may where such papers are hidden.
Also, there are some that I just plan to read for fun on my next research trip, such as, "1953: Creighton W. Abrams, 'Mobility and Firepower.'"
Anyway, this is just one of the gems up available at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Army is mulling eliminating it, probably by putting it under the Army's Center of Military History. I think that is nuts. If anything, the Center of Military History should be made part of the Military History Institute, which has a broader mission, and connects the Army to the American public. Also, for researchers, Carlisle is a much cheaper place to go do a week of research than is the Washington, D.C. area. If you are researching on your own dime, and I think most military historians are, that matters.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on January 12, 2011.
Hey, how come no one ever mentioned to me Thomas Thayer's War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam? What do I pay the frequent friers for, anyway? (You know who you are.) I finished reading it over the weekend, while it snowed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I think it is one of the best books I've ever read on the war, with page after page of good, usable, dispassionate data, much of it counterintuitive.
Here are just some of the things that surprised me:
The book poses a mighty hurdle to those who say that, despite much proof to the contrary, the Army was a learning organization in Vietnam. Here is much evidence that there was good, solid information about how the Army's approach was profoundly counterproductive -- and also that this information largely was available internally at the time. Indeed, the author notes in an afterword that the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice tried to stop dissemination of the internal reports on which the book is based. (P. 259) He suggests that Westmoreland was particularly peeved by these analyses.
U.S. Army Heritage Center Foundation
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on November 4, 2010.
I could never quite figure out what irked me so much about Victor Davis "Carnage 'n' Culture'' Hanson's work until I read John A. Lynn. I liked what I read by Hanson about ancient Greece, but as Lynn shows, the further Hanson wandered from ancient Greece, the less he seemed like a historian and the more he came off like a polemicist with an agenda. Lt. Col. Bob Bateman, who is both an active-duty officer and an academic with terrific credentials in military history, delivered the coup de grace in a series of articles I hadn't seen until recently.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on September 27, 2010.
The most underappreciated general in U.S. history, according to readers who responded by e-mail or in the comments section, is Nathanael Greene, a hero of the Revolutionary War, who got more than twice as many votes as any other candidate.
I like "RPM'"s reasoning in explaining in the comments why he went with Greene: "If you combine the 'unknown/under rated' label with 'most critical to victory in a really important war' then the easy answer is Nathanael Greene. The British had conquered the South and were aggressively moving north. Without Greene's victories in NC the Revolution might have been a bust."
Here are the top 10 most underappreciated generals in American history, according to you all:
1. Nathanael Greene
2. O.P. Smith
3. George Thomas
4. John Buford
5. Winfield Scott
6. Lucian Truscott
7. George Crook
8. George Kenney
9. George Marshall
10. John Reynolds
That's a good spread, with a lot of interesting choices. Clearly Greene had a good strategy here -- as the only candidate from the Revolutionary War, he was able to be the standard bearer for that party, while the more popular wars dissipated their votes, with the Civil War and World War II each posting three finishers. (I hereby dub this "the Ken Burns effect.") Given the competition, I was impressed that Truscott finished so high. I thought Crook and Pete Quesada would have done better, but the Indian Wars are obscure and have a taint to them. And I suspect that in Quesada's case, the readers of this blog tend to be ground-centric, as I am. Also, it apparently helped to be a general named "George," who account for 40 percent of the list.
Thanks to all who voted and discussed. I was impressed by the e-mailers who wrote in to say that they had nominated one general, but on reflection had decided to vote for another. I think we've demonstrated that there are a whole lot of underappreciated generals out there. It makes me think I need to read a good book on the American wars against the Indians/First Peoples. Any recommendations?
Among the most interesting write-ins were Raymond Odierno, Sir John Dill, and Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Rolling Thunder) AKA Chief Joseph, who got two votes despite some questions about his citizenship. And, of course, good old Galusha Pennypacker.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 2, 2010.
That was the discussion I was having yesterday with several friends. Here is my ranking of their nominees:
It was my contest, so I declared MacArthur the No. 1 loser, because of his unique record of being insubordinate to three presidents (Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman) as well as screwing up the Korean War. Plus additional negative points for his role in the gassing and suppression of the Bonus Marchers in 1932. You can't defend a country by undermining it.
It really is extraordinary how the Army has extirpated his memory. The influence of Marshall, Eisenhower and Bradley lives on, while MacArthur has been treated as a historical dead end. Kind of amazing, considering he was a general for 26 years, was the Army chief of staff, received the Medal of Honor, fought in three wars and was a senior commander in two.
By Janine Davidson
Best Defense officer of strategic corrections
Much has been made about the Defense department's January 2012 Strategic Guidance documents, (Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense and Defense Budget Priorities and Choices) and what they do and do not say about stability operations and counterinsurgency (COIN). Critics have misinterpreted DoD's decision not to size the future force for large-scale Iraq or Afghanistan-like stability operations as a rejection of COIN and stability operations as a key mission-type the military must be ready to conduct. Given America's preponderance of power, it is understandable that some may wish to plan for a world in which conventional war is the only type on offer. But military leaders who misinterpret the document's language as some sort of permission to throw out the lessons of the last ten years in order to organize, train, and equip for the types of conventional conflicts everyone would prefer to fight would be abrogating their responsibility to prepare the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines for the types of fights they will surely face.
The fact is, whether we call it "COIN," "stability operations," "peacekeeping," or "irregular warfare," such frustrating, complex, population-centric, and increasingly urban operations against and among savvy and networked non-state actors are simply a modern version of an age-old phenomenon. And they are here to stay. Contrary to what some might wish to believe, DoD's new guidance document recognizes this reality and directs the military to sustain competence and learning in this priority mission area.
Understanding the Guidance
To be fair to the critics, the language on COIN and stability operations in the guidance is a bit tortured, reflecting both the very strong sentiment among military leaders that such messy missions are something to be avoided or prevented if at all possible, as well as the cold hard reality that the military does not get to choose the types of wars it will fight or the enemies it will face.
The language that has people so worried is this:
Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations: In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. [Italics original to document]
Critics zero in on the italicized line at the end of the paragraph referring to sizing the forces and infer the military will be "scaling back" or "shunning" stability operations. Such misinterpretation reads the line out of context, equates size with competence, and fails to appreciate how America raises its army and otherwise organizes, trains, and equips the force.
First of all, this paragraph is in the key section of the document, entitled "Primary Missions of the U.S. Armed Forces." So obviously the president and the secretary of Defense view these as key missions for which the force must be prepared.
Second, not sizing the force for large-scale operations like Iraq and Afghanistan is a responsible and prudent strategic approach. As these two huge wars wind down, of course the force will be down-sized. This is what we do after every war, no matter the type. It would irresponsible, and in fact unconstitutional, to do otherwise. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States clearly indicates the power of the Congress to "raise and support Armies..." but to "provide and maintain a Navy." This language is deliberate, as the founders did not want to maintain large expensive standing ground forces in peacetime. The Congress is empowered to appropriate money to expand the force as needed to fight wars. And that is exactly what happened during the past decade. Our force planning can and should account for our ability to do this again when needed.
For operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the army grew from just over 480,000 soldiers in 2001 to a peak of 570,000 just a couple of years ago. Likewise, the marine corp grew from approximately 170,000 to 210,000. Following redeployment from these wars, the new strategy calls for downsizing back to about 490,000 soldiers and 182,000 marines by 2017, (assuming we manage to disengage in Afghanistan) which is slightly larger than the what President George W. Bush inherited eleven years ago. And still, it is nearly four to five times the size of the ground forces of any of our NATO allies.
Third, let's not confuse size with competency. Not sizing for Iraqs or Afghanistans does not, and should not, mean forgetting how to conduct such missions -- no matter the size. Learning from this experience and sustaining competency is exactly what the guidance calls for the military to do: "U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."
But aside from clear strategic guidance to the military to organize, train, and equip itself with these missions in mind, there is clear historical precedent and emerging trends to suggest that failing to plan accordingly for these missions would be folly.
Avoiding mistakes of the past
Throughout its entire 250-year history, coin, stability operations, and nation building have been far from an "irregular" occurrence. The U.S. has conducted such missions -- on a large scale -- about every 25 years since the Mexican War in the 1840's. U.S. ground troops conducted nation-building, peace-keeping, and a series of counter-guerilla wars against American Indians on the western frontier throughout the 1800's. They conducted a bloody counterinsurgency in the Philippines (1898-1902), a number of "small wars" in the Caribbean (1930's), and occupation duty after the American Civil War and the two World Wars. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has deployed every 18-24 months in response to complex crises of various size, with the average duration of these endeavors becoming increasingly protracted.
From the beginning, these missions have been frustrating and ill-defined, and they have always been controversial. Repeatedly, after each painful episode, the military has sought to avoid having to do them again by forgetting its doctrine and failing to plan, leaving the next generation to re-learn on the fly.
The U.S. army was so fed up with counterinsurgency after its bloody and protracted experience in the Philippines that it eagerly -- with the support of the secretary of War -- managed to turn the whole mission set over to the marines in the early 20th century. While the army focused on "real" war, the marines were sent to the Caribbean for the "Banana Wars," where they had to re-learn all the hard-learned lessons from old U.S. army manuals that were being discarded. The marine corps did allow a small team of officers to capture this Caribbean experience in the 1940 Small Wars Manual; but the mainstream corps had little appetite for these missions and was already trying to reinvent itself as specialists in amphibious operations. Once WW II began, the marines discarded its doctrine, training, and education for small wars in order to focus intensely on amphibious operations. This left the Vietnam generation to re-invent relevant doctrine once again.
Although the U.S. military was just as ill-prepared for its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as it was for Vietnam, the current generation was arguably better able to adapt due to the lessons-learned processes and organizational culture that had evolved in the decades since Vietnam. Still, adaptation is not the same as organizational learning, and the aversion to these missions is a powerful force. Military leaders might be tempted to assume (or hope) that the past will not be prologue this time around; but that would be a mistake, again.
The Future Fight and the Force We Need
Today we face a global environment characterized by transnational criminals, terrorists, insurgents, and myriad illicit and violent bandits and traffickers. Some of these "bad guys" are aligned with nation states, but most operate in the gray space between what we consider crime and war. Importantly, our future enemies have been paying attention to our struggles against low-tech, high-impact fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and have been sharing their own "lessons learned" across global social networks. One lesson is clear: Go asymmetric and "irregular" against the U.S. military, because taking it on head to head conventionally would be just plain stupid. Tactics such as remotely detonated road-side bombs and suicide bombers are only the beginning, given the potential proliferation of new and increasingly less expensive unmanned vehicles, cyber technology, nuclear materials, and the enhanced ability to mobilize populations via social media. Demographic trends such as urbanization, the youth bulge, resource scarcity, and radicalization ensure that future conflicts requiring ground forces will occur in cities and slums and among populations, where differentiating friend from foe, and victim from "combatant," much less just trying to navigate through the crowded urban "battle space" will continue to plague traditionally-minded and conventionally trained ground forces.
Fortunately, preparing for these likely future missions is more about thinking, learning and organizing than about major high-dollar weapons systems. Yes, we should continue to invest in unmanned vehicles, Strykers, MRAPs, and other types of hardware that have proven valuable in these environments. But, just as important is the need to sustain education and training to ensure future military leaders are well versed in the latest doctrine on COIN, stability operations, peacekeeping, and mass atrocity response. Military institutions must continue to study and revise their doctrine in order to ensure that capabilities and innovations that enable ground forces to operate in urban environments among civilian populations and against "irregular" forces are retained. The Marine Corps' Lioness program, which places small, specially trained units of women marines among the population reflects the need to work among diverse populations, while respecting cultural customs regarding women. Likewise, the army's regional alignment of its force structure will enhance its ability to engage with real people on the ground when the time comes. The military should continue to develop special operations and civil affairs capabilities as key components for security force assistance, conflict prevention, and crisis response. Army modularity, which allows ground units to be scaled and tailored for various operations should continue to be developed, and competencies in foreign languages, interagency coordination, and human intelligence collection and analysis should be sustained and enhanced. Nothing in the recent guidance instructs or encourages the services to stop developing these key capabilities or otherwise abandon them. In fact it instructs the military to institutionalize these innovations.
Back to the Question of Size
So how then, do we size this new more enlightened and capable force to ensure success in future coin or stability operations missions? With 490,000 soldiers and 182,000 marines on active duty, plus the forces in the selected ready reserve (560,000 in the army and 39,000 in the marine corps), America's ground forces will arguably be large enough for stability operations of significant size even without needing to add to the force once a crisis hits. Still, there is no crystal ball to predict the exact scenario our military might face. Moreover, despite much debate, there is still no consensus over the question of how many ground troops are required to bring stability to a country of a given population. Clearly neither sizing the peacetime force for the largest imaginable stability operation, nor down-sizing and hoping we won't face another large-scale mission of this sort, is no way to plan. Because we have the demonstrated ability to grow the force and adapt once a war begins, the trick is to find the right size that allows us to conduct smaller and medium scale operations and to initiate an operation while scaling up for something larger if and when needed.
The Budget Priorities document makes this approach pretty clear:
While the U.S. does not anticipate engaging in prolonged, large-scale stability operations requiring a large rotation force in the near-to mid-term, we cannot rule out the possibility. If such a campaign were to occur, we would respond by mobilizing the Reserve Component and, overtime, regenerating Active Component end strength. Additionally, even as troop strength draws down, the Army, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command will preserve expertise in security force assistance and counterinsurgency training.
But to do this, we need to be confident that we can access the capable and ready forces we need, when we need them. Being able to grow the force for large-scale missions if required means having a reserve component that is ready for mobilization and an active duty-training cadre that can deliver the expertise on demand. The DoD's plan to, "... leverage the operational experience and institute a progressive readiness model in the National Guard and Reserves in order to sustain increased readiness prior to mobilization," is aiming in the right direction. On the active duty side, the army and marine corps are both planning to retain a greater percentage of mid-grade NCO's and officers even as they downsize, reflecting their understanding that a slightly more senior force is not only required in the conduct of these complex missions, but is also the seed corn needed to train and grow a force if required.
Far from rejecting stab ops and coin or throwing out the lessons of the past ten years, the secretary's new strategic guidance and budget priorities clearly reflect the understanding that these missions are not likely to be avoided. Together, the documents present clear direction to the uniformed military not to repeat the mistakes of the past by planning for only the fights some might prefer to face. Such willful misinterpretation of the secretary's guidance would only be planning to fail.
Janine Davidson is assistant professor at George Mason University's Graduate School of Pubic Policy. From 2009-2012, she served as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Plans, where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans and the review and assessment of plans. Before all that she was a pilot in the air force.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on July 8, 2010.
I was reading a 1986 paper from the School of Advanced Military Studies about generalship and was interested by this quotation from Hermann Balck, a senior German general of World War II:
Even my largest and most important operations orders were verbal [oral]. After all there wasn't any need for written orders. As division commander, I forbade the use of written orders within my division."
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on July 2, 2010.
I was reading George Wilson's Mud Soldiers the other day, and this exchange, at the end of a hard fight in Vietnam in March 1966, struck me.
Kroah heard a shout from First Lieutenant Steinberg, commander of the 4th Platoon. 'I need some help over here!'
'George, I can't help you,' Kroah shouted back. ‘I've been hit five times.'
I've been hit seven,' Steinberg replied.
'Always the bullshitter, huh, George?'
'No bullshit, man.'
And it wasn't. Steinberg died with those words."
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 16, 2010.
Patton's diary, July 5, 1944: "Why an American Army has to go with Montgomery, I do not see, except to save the face of the little monkey."
December 27, 1944: "I wish Ike were more of a gambler, but he is certainly a lion compared to Montgomery ... Monty is a tired little fart. War requires the taking of risks and he won't take them."
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 1, 2010.
If Warren Buffett were the chief of staff of the Army, we likely would be better off, with a military that is more effective in combat, and also with a better selection of leaders. That's the thought that occurred to me while reading his latest annual report. You can learn a lot about how to run a large organization from a guy like Buffett.
First of all, Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., didn't follow a "zero defects" philosophy during the course of investing his way to becoming one of the richest people in the country. Unlike some Army leaders, he knows that if you aren't making some mistakes, then you aren't trying hard enough. Punishing all errors simply will deter subordinate leaders from taking necessary risks, or even making timely decisions. You want prudent risk taking and you want it done as fast as possible. Time is the great variable in both investing and war, but that isn't acknowledged often enough in the military strategic discussions. Buffett writes that,
We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly -- or not at all -- because of a stifling bureaucracy."
That said, he is quick to go on to describe what he sees as his role in risk taking and other leadership tasks: He and his deputy, he writes, "limit ourselves to allocating capital, controlling enterprise risk, choosing managers, and setting their compensation." In military terms, I think that would mean allocating resources and people, deciding where to take strategic risks, and selecting subordinate commanders. Everything else? That stuff "we delegate almost to the point of abdication," he states in his management principles, printed later in the same annual report. Buffett is so serious about limiting himself that in a company with 257,000 employees, his headquarters office numbers just 21. (This is an approach that reminds me of William Slim, the greatest British general of World War II, who insisted that his corps headquarters be able to travel in just a few trucks and jeeps.) Of course, as Buffett notes, he has to be more careful than most to keep his subordinates happy, because they tend to be wealthy people who can walk if they feel micro-managed or mistreated.
A significant part of discouraging a "zero defects" mentality is leading the way in confessing your own mistakes, which Buffett is quick to do. He notes that the chiefs of GEICO (yeah, he owns that too) opposed his idea of issuing credit cards to the insurance company's customers, a project that ultimately lost about $50 million.
GEICO's managers ... were never enthusiastic about my idea. They warned me that instead of getting the cream of GEICO's customers we would get the -- well, let's call it the non-cream. I subtly indicated that I was older and wiser.
I was just older."
Despite his willingness to see mistakes made, Buffett, whose company is bigger than the Marine Corps, is a big believer in accountability. I believe we need more of this in our military, which used to relieve senior commanders quickly (such as 17 division commanders in World War II), but no longer does. In all walks of life, if you screw up big time, you should suffer the consequences. For what it is worth, I agree with him -- too often we have privatized profit and socialized risk, letting the taxpayer pick up the tab when Wall Street's bets go wrong.
This is how he puts it:
If Berkshire ever gets in trouble, it will be my fault. It will not be because of misjudgments made by a Risk Committee or a Chief Risk Officer.
In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control. If he's incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment. And if he fails at it -- with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees -- the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe. ...
The CEOs and directors of the failed companies, however, have largely gone unscathed. Their fortunes may have been diminished by the disasters they oversaw, but they still live in grand style."
Unlike many in the military, Buffett also writes clearly and simply, and as George Orwell teaches us, clear writing reflects clear thinking.
Finally, lots of people talk nowadays about how military officers need to thrive on chaos or be comfortable with ambiguity. If you can do that, you can seize on opportunities when they arise. Buffett thrives on turmoil. Listen to the master discuss how he did that during the financial crisis of a couple of years ago, when many people ran for the hills:
We've put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. It's been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend."
He isn't kidding. He explains that:
When the financial system went into cardiac arrest in September 2008, Berkshire was a supplier of liquidity and capital to the system, not a supplicant. At the very peak of the crisis, we poured $15.5 billion into a business world that could otherwise look only to the federal government for help."
In other words, he spent billions on his belief that it was a good time to buy, and so picked up big parts of major companies for a relative pittance. Or, as he summarizes his thinking about that crisis, "When it's raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble."
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on March 11, 2010.
The British learned early on the price of underestimating their foe, who rarely allowed a tactical error to go unpunished, writes Andrew Roe in his very useful book, Waging War in Waziristan.
In one major triumph, in 1901, tribesman took over a British outpost. "The success of this attack," Roe states, "was in part due to a number of tribesmen disguised as shepherds who for a number of weeks prior to the attack observed carefully the habits and weaknesses of the garrison."
Think that IEDs are new somehow? In April 1938, "50 home-made bombs were laid on roads and railway lines," and even on military parade grounds.
Another interesting fact: Historically, Waziri villages have been located near cave complexes, in part because in winter the caves are warmer than their houses. (Tom: I remember being in a cave in Germany Valley, West Virginia, where American Indian tribes had done the same -- 55 degrees inside with a fire for light and warmth sure beat zero and windy in the mountains outside.) I also didn't know that the area was far more forested in the 19th century, but that a lot of trees were cut down, leading to erosion, loss of topsoil, and a drier climate -- not unlike today's Haiti.
I was also intrigued by an observation Roe mined about the personality difference between the two major tribes in Waziristan: "The Wazirs had been compared to a leopard, a loner, cunning and dangerous; the Mahsud to a wolf, most to be feared in a pack, with a pack mentality, single-mindedness, and persistence." (One of the benefits of this book is that he quotes memoirs and studies liberally.)
The best way to reach out to the tribes was through medical aid, especially to reach the fencesitters in the middle. When one tribe requested a female doctor, they remarked that she didn't need to bring instruments or drugs, as they still had the ones they had stolen in 1919.
But generally I found the book more illuminating about the British than about the tribes.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on December 4, 2009.
Last weekend my wife and I watched Katyn, by the great Polish filmmaker Andrezj Wajda. It is about the 1940 massacre of about 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviets, and also about how the subsequent Communist cover-up corrupted postwar Polish society. It isn't Saving Private Ryan, but this should be on anyone's list of must-see World War II movies.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on September 2, 2009.
I'll read anything by Andrew Krepinevich, the fine strategic thinker who bears a strong resemblance to Dwight Eisenhower circa 1939. Right now my subway reading is a new essay he has done with Barry Watts titled "Regaining Strategic Competence."
I was especially intrigued by the list of 10 common strategic blunders they attribute to business strategy expert Richard Rumelt:
1. Failure to recognize or take seriously the scarcity of resources.
2. Mistaking strategic goals for strategy.
3. Failure to recognize or state the strategic problem.
4. Choosing poor or unattainable strategic goals.
5. Not defining the strategic challenge competitively.
6. Making false presumptions about one's own competence or the likely causal linkages between one's strategy and one's goals.
7. Insufficient focus on strategy due to such things as trying to satisfy too many different stakeholders or bureaucratic processes.
8. Inaccurately determining one's areas of comparative advantage relative to the opposition.
9. Failure to realize that few individuals possess the cognitive skills and mindset to be competent strategists.
10. Failure to understand the adversary.
There is a whole book of military history to be written just finding good illustrations of each of those mistakes. I think the United States was guilty of No. 2 and No. 10 in Iraq from 2003 through 2006. I'd say the British tripped on No. 3 during the American Revolution. I think Hitler committed No. 4 when he tackled Russia. No. 10 is probably the most common error.
I'd be interested in other examples that you see.
"What does that have to do with me and the world we're living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations.
Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren't alive during the Vietnam War doesn't mean you won't go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences -- that was LBJ's recipe. It didn't work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That's a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.
In our system, White House officials have the upper hand in the civilian-military relationship, so it is their responsibility to be steward of it. That's the price of "the unequal dialogue." If the relationship is persistently poor, it is the fault of the civilians, because they are in the best position to fix it. The first step is to demand candor from the generals, and to protect those who provide it. Remove those who don't.
Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that's when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.
Remember my ruminating a couple of weeks ago about whether our strategic culture was shaped in part by the Old Testament?
Turns out someone who actually knows what he is talking about when he discusses the Bible is thinking about the strategic implications of the situation of Israel described in that book. In the new issue of The American Interest, former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim finds parallels between Israel's current strategic situation and that described in the Bible. He predicts that:
"Israel could indeed find itself in a general situation paralleling that of its Biblical predecessors: without a geographically remote ally, and in a region no longer tightly tethered to and constrained by an extrinsic great power rivalry. Like its Biblical predecessors, Israel may be forced to confront its place in shifting local power balances among states that might be at times friendly and at other times hostile. It may also have to weigh alliances with and against powers more geographically proximate: Turkey, Iran, India, perhaps Pakistan (if it survives as a state) and even China."
Zakheim also is interesting in his discussion of the politics of the prophets: "The Prophets were consummate realists: Isaiah preached independent neutrality when it was appropriate; Jeremiah preached submission to the superpower when the external ‘correlation of forces' had changed."
The lesson for Israel he finds in the words of the prophets is this: "Realism in foreign policy, moderation in religious policy, openness in economic policy and equality in social policy may be the best path for the Jewish state as it confronts its uncertain future."
I just finished reading Robert Graves' autobiography of World War I service for the fourth time. I read it first as a teenager in Kabul in 1970. (I have no idea how I happened to come across it there in Afghanistan, or why picked it up.) I think it was the first book of military history that ever really grabbed me, for which I remain grateful. I can't think of any other book that I have read four times, except perhaps for some of Shakespeare's tragedies.
I read Graves' memoir again in my 20s, at Yale, and then in my 30s, in Washington, D.C.. It was different book each time for me. I realized recently I hadn't looked at it in about 20 years, so picked it up to see how it felt now. I also wanted to see what had captured me so much in the previous readings.
I have to say I was less impressed this time. The first and second times I read it, it seemed kind of shocking. This time it felt a bit tame. That might be because I have read so many other memoirs, some stronger, and also seen some war myself in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and, Afghanistan.
Some passages that struck me this time:
--On how to pick platoon leaders: "Our final selection was made by watching the candidates play games, principally Rugger and soccer. Those who played rough but not dirty, and had quick reactions, were the sort needed."
--At the front, "I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whiskey a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since."
--His friend Siegfried Sassoon on leave in London: "very ill, he wrote that often when he went for a walk he saw corpses lying about on the pavements."
--After the war, "It has taken some ten years for my blood to recover." Also, "strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed."
It made me wonder the extent to which for Europe, World War I, with its industrialization of killing, was the event that set the tone for the entire 20th century. I think that maybe for the U.S., World War II was more significant, but maybe not for Europe, and especially for the British.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.