The Best Defense

Thoughts on the similarities between bird-watching and counterinsurgency

The fun I had helping a neighbor at Christmastime with the Audubon annual census of birds on our island inspired me to read Sibley's Birding Basics. As I did, I was struck by how you could read some of his instructions as a supplement to David Kilcullen's recommendations on observing insurgents.

--"Watch the edges of the flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; they may be a different species."

--"Consider the time of day."

--"Anticipate the birds' needs."

--"Follow the birds. If you find a number of birds in an area, consider why they might be there. Is there a concentration of food? Is it a warm or cool spot?"

--"Another important point for beginners to understand is that bird identification is not an exact science and often does not involve absolute certainty."

--"Looking at a bird with prejudice, having already determined that it is likely to be one species and leading only to confirm that identification, will lead you into error.… Guard against forming an opinion until all of the evidence is in."

Also, be ready for the unexpected: I was surprised that Sibley lists Central Park, smack in middle of the concrete canyons of New York City, as great bird-watching spot. The reason, he writes, is that migrating birds gravitate toward it, as "the largest patch of natural habitat in the area"-- not unlike, he writes, a desert oasis.

Of course, both bird-watching and dealing with insurgents began by hunting them down and killing them, until those doing the shooting realized there often might be a better approach. With knowledge comes the understanding that hawks act differently from shrikes, and a strong tribe differently from a marginalized one.  

Speaking of growing understanding, I finished reading Senator's Son, which takes that as its theme. I enjoyed it enormously. More next week about that.

dreamsjung/ Flickr

The Best Defense

Ike Skelton on the war colleges, the defense budget, Egypt, and more

The well-read Ike Skelton, who recently retired as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, dropped by CNAS earlier this week for a chicken salad and a talk about what was on his mind. During his 34 years in Congress, the Trumanesque Democrat paid a lot of attention to professional military education, so I was struck by his criticism -- unsolicited -- of the armed services' senior colleges. 

"I have a concern that the war colleges need to sharpen their pencils in education, as opposed to training," he said. He especially worries, he added, about whether the military's strategic thinkers were being detected, groomed, and protected. "My question to the commandants of the war colleges is this: How many students that you are graduating this year could sit down and have a serious discussion with George C. Marshall? The last time I asked that question, the answer was 'three or four.' The challenge is recognizing who they are." He also said he thought the war colleges should be more rigorous, "just as difficult as any law school in the nation." Anyone who lately has dropped by the golf course at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, knows that that would raise the bar considerably.

Some of his other thoughts:

--"You may see a real donnybrook" in the Congress over the defense budget, especially, he said, especially as the inclinations of the House and Senate seem to be diverging.

--The fallout from Egypt?: "The big winner in all this is going to be Iran." (I didn't get a chance to ask him to say more about that prediction.)

--He is deeply concerned by a lack of understanding between the military and American society. "Those who protect us are psychologically divorced from those who are being protected."

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images