Publisher’s Note: Several readers have asked me to expand on my post I made at WRSA on 5 January 2016 regarding the absolute inability for the US (and Western countries) to conduct savvy analysis and do any intellectual heavy lifting in the prosecution of conflict planet-wide. The simplest answer is to stop the violent meddling but even that is too intellectually taxing. My post that kindled the interest:
“Indeed, the SLAVFOR successes in urban areas in the Middle East, SE Asia and Yugoslavia are a sparkling testament to McNamara-like technocratic success. It’s one thing to identify all the components and quite another to operationalize a sustainable DIME strategy for success.
Please keep in mind that if these manuals taught the users to think through second and third order effects they would be dangerous to FREEFOR. There is zero analytical framework viable to them. It all ends the same: a panicked call for fire.
The Pentagram has proven itself intellectually incapable of such modest feats in the short and long term.”
The Battle of Cannae as illustrated above may have wiped Rome from the history books. Hubris, operational malpractice and military blundering were all critical factors. Fast forward 2200 years.
Isaac Asimov avers: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” This cult of ignorance and refusal to entertain what the military was fond of calling “branches and sequels” (the components of a FRAGPLAN) is much the same with so much of the buzzwords and new paradigms that come out of the Department of Defense (DoD).
Much of this is because of the lock-step centralization and the sclerotic Sovietization of the entire DoD apparatus.
The military industrial complex has taken this as a point of pride and run with it. There is no doubt no one can touch the US (yet) in technology (a linear process in production although application can be different) but non-linear processes and states of antifragility seem beyond the capacity of the US military to adapt to.
We can’t do the notion justice without taking a tour through history and determining just what caused this to be the case. My colleague, Don Vandergriff, has done some very interesting work in the realm of military decision making processes in the West and has concentrated on the German means of staffing and fielding an Army as the optimal way to bring the most combat power.
Don sums up his findings nicely in this essay: Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness.
The degree of trust and “joy of taking responsibility” not to to mention the Prussian incentives to disobey orders helped to shape the finest tactical and operational fighting forces since the Roman Legions with far more adaptation and flexibility in the German forces from 1806-1945.
No matter where you look in contemporary American arms, the culture gives lip service to Auftragstaktik or Mission Type Orders but in practice is nothing more than Soviet Central Planning 2.0.
There is a broad panoply of vectors to choose from that explain this and Colin Gray is one of the keenest strategic observers out there and does a splendid job parsing it out here.
We will also take a look at Peak Guerrilla from 1916-1922 in the West.
In the interest of being perfectly clear and making a comprehensive case for the ineffective if not anti-intellectual penchant of American arms in the conduct of combat operations, we will concentrate on the notions of irregular warfare (IW) and how they are served by the Western model after the conclusion of the War to Save Josef Stalin. The American Army started its decline immediately afterward. Don has done a splendid job describing the inadequacies of the system in conventional operations and I will expand more on the impact in IW. -BB
“I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.”
– Jean Lartéguy
What is a Small War?
Major S.M. Harrington of the USMC provided the formative basis for The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars in 1921. The term had been employed by the British Empire for nearly a half century. Even then, it tended to be a manifestation of a conflict large or small of a Western nation against a non-member of that exclusive club. It may have been Western hubris or conceit that would rationalize a smaller size for a conflict description if peer armed forces were not involved.
Over time, it tended to conflate with asymmetrical warfare and counter insurgency no matter the scale. If one looks at the 2006 Lebanon incursion by Israel against Hezbollah, most Western observers would suggest it was a small war due to a compressed time line of engagement yet the same narrow temporal window certainly would not permit one to suppose that the Allied invasion of Iraq in 1990-91 was a small war.
In the common parlance today, the lexicon would invariably look at Afghanistan as a classical small war because rarely are there toe-to-toe military engagements that last more than 72 hours and battalion strength elements in the Afghan resistance are an exception to the rule. Non-state soldiers with no evident physical infrastructure or “recognized” political representation tend to be the foe one characterizes as a small war.
Of course, from the perspective of the combatants and mass base, no war is ever small as the reverberations and cultural ripples dominate the embattled society. Again, the Western cultural meme tends to exercise a gross confirmation bias on the impact of the hostilities from both sides.
For the sake of argument, the small war is the natural evolution of aggrieved parties who take to the gun to seek political solutions; they are no less Clausewitzian than GEN Patton, GEN MacArthur or the stable of contemporary flag officer stewards fumbling and stumbling in Afghanistan and the wider planetary neo-imperialist hot-spots today.
There are some real epistemological challenges for American forces in the Middle East as the technological and military (not martial) dominance of the conflict in Afghanistan demonstrates. On the one hand they acknowledge it is not a conventional fight yet the COIN/UW efforts are not harnessed to a strategic end-state but appear to be an ad hoc reaction to the domestic political verities and a complete ignorance of second- and third-order effects of occupation over the long term.
One is compelled to assign this to gross military malpractice or simply the military culture that informs American arms abroad. In either case, the analytical framework for extrapolating the cause and effect of military conduct at the operational level is severely lacking. The negligence is so deep that the Combined Arms Center at Leavenworth thought that they had invented campaign planning in the oughts when they were merely resurrecting a lost art to the American land forces that had been long neglected and never practiced well. America excels at a technocratic approach using Second Generation Warfare in linear operations and is an abject failure in everything else.
Most military observers suggest that an unconventional fight tends to be a small war. Politics is the handmaiden of all wars and conflicts but the critical long-term importance of that consideration for prosecution of small wars appears to be lost on the defense intellectuals and Pentagon apparatchiks.
If anything, small wars are here to stay and the West no matter its wealth and technological edge seems to stumble from one military disaster to another in the prosecution of these conflicts.
La Mort Ne Change Jamais: Same as It Ever Was
High technology can range from small arms systems to electronics communications to any application in both weapons and peaceful means. Both General Purpose Forces (GPF) and the Special Operations Forces (SOF) have capitalized on these capabilities. This does not mean that they have leveraged them effectively simply because they can employ.
The US is the world leader with no peer competitor in the delivery of content, electronic delivery and marketing in all media to include television, movies, internet, radio and other means of mass communication yet it has consistently been off-target and outwitted in the information operations efforts in America’s present conflicts in the Middle East.
For kinetic operations for both GPF and SOF, weapon accuracy and precision harnessed to timely and actionable intelligence has been the hallmark of the technological advance in the irregular warfare operations that have been the common-place of operations in the Middle East. The drone has made exponential leaps and bounds to advance far beyond what anyone thought was possible even ten years ago.
In the larger context of the strategic long-term picture, the kinetic operations are merely an arrow in a complex quiver to ensure that the mass base is kept within tolerances during the occupation and conduct of COIN operations. So technology continues to support these efforts through a massive web of computer communications at all clearance levels and rapid fielding efforts try to capitalize on new advances to get the developments to the field soonest. The vast labyrinth of research and development in the military industrial complex cranks out a constant stream of new devices and means to capitalize on the latest advances.
But, much like the German wonder weapons of WWII, production of top-drawer technology is no substitute for operational strategic planning that extrapolates the myriad possibilities and impacts of present actions.
So is modern asymmetric warfare a “revolution in military affairs” or a revolution in the nature of conflict?
Modern asymmetric warfare is not a revolution in military affairs and the practice is as ancient as the first time combatants sought to leverage advantage from surprise or technological devices. If the lines of communication of an invading army were harried by partisans or irregulars such as Napoleon in Spain or the Romans during Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the term asymmetric can mean something as conventional as the repulse of the Zulu host at Rourke’s Drift near Isandlwanda in 1879 or the extraordinary lop-sided victories and resilience of Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa during WWI or the Son Tay raid in Vietnam. While all of these have unique dimensions, the two most common elements are resolve and adaptation to changing circumstances. One of the storied signature strengths of SOF organizations is these very traits which tend to be less common in the GPF.
That is legend with no basis in reality.
But American and Western SOF has so imbalanced itself in pursuit of kinetic operations it has been outclassed and out-maneuvered consistently wherever the American imperial project has landed in the last 75 years. Most of these fit young men simply want to rotate into theater, get their war-face on and kick in doors and shoot people in the face.
When examined through the lens of the Generations of Warfare, one sees not so much a linear progression as a mix or bundle of conflict traits appropriate to the fight. When one examines the American conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the foes had no naval or air assets to establish even naval or air parity yet either won complete victories or established a consequential draw in the conflict. History is replete with examples of this and it may be more appropriate to enjoin the term special operations to describe the operative elements of leveraging irregular warfare which is separate and distinct from asymmetrical warfare. Even the term “full spectrum operations” has been replaced with unified land operations in the new Army lexicon.
I would suggest that the irregular warfare rubric captures the essence of this type of conflict better than asymmetric as a term of art.
The future hold tremendous potential for hybrids threats that may indeed spawn RMAs:
“Hybrid threat organizations will play an increasingly prominent role in international security issues in the coming years. Operating in highly complex terrain and combining many of the strengths of an irregular fighting force with various capabilities of an advanced state military, these hybrid threat organizations could confront the United States military in the near future.”
This future surprised and humiliated the Israelis in 2006 when they tangled with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Winograd Commission analysis is devastating.And the myriad resistance organizations in Afghanistan continue to stymie and stalemate the largest hyper-power the planet has ever seen.
Western analytical malpractice and proscriptive vision that embraces group-think seems to be a leading cause of the anti-intellectual miasma that strangles the Department of Offense in DC. Tenth Man extrapolation (or Red Teaming) and contrarian notions are hard to come by in the beltway and the satellite manifestations elsewhere due to a lockstep marriage to a Second Generation Warfare model that sponsors stalemates and defeats so long and so deep it boggles the senses.
Micheal Shermer makes two important points about this in The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths:
“The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly. Thus it is that we should reward skepticism and disbelief, and champion those willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence. Instead, most social institutions—most notably those in religion, politics, and economics—reward belief in the doctrines of the faith or party or ideology, punish those who challenge the authority of the leaders, and discourage uncertainty and especially skepticism.”
Most people is very uncomfortable challenging their own beliefs but even more so ti the clan or relationship groupings they claim allegiance to:
“The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.”
The DoD and military organizations are no stranger to these proclivities to continue bad or false dogmas out of habit if not blindered ineptitude.
As Michael Shermer points out, the human brain is a “belief engine.”
And a belief in false Gods in this mortal coil or the next; well, that’s the totality of human history.
Notes in the Margin: In the next few installments, we’ll try to peel the onion and discover why analytical methodologies are ignored and what this portends for those who anticipate tumultuous festivities in the future.
If you haven’t watched Making a Murderer on Netflix, you will not be disappointed. Much like the scales being removed on the very real Murder Inc that American policing has become, the documentary series is a searing indictment of the legal system and the shoddy and simply evil practices of the government employees within it. None of this is new and the advent of atomistic video recording means has simply brought police abuse of Helots into the daylight. It has always been this way.