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Not “Can We?” but “Should We?”: The Central Question of Strategy

January 14, 2012 Leave a comment

 

afghanistan

Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Often times the central question of strategy is not whether we are able to do something, i.e. Do we have the means to accomplish the ends, but whether we ought to do something.

Such is the argument made by C. Dale Walton of the University of Reading (UK) in Infinity Journal.  His thesis:  Even if we can succeed in Afghanistan, why should we?  Is is worth it?  Probably not.

One of the most insightful, straightforward articles I’ve come across.

The Futile Decade: The US Failure in Afghanistan and Its Lessons

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I’m Cold….or Warm

October 2, 2011 1 comment

image Ah…..It’s that time of the year again…uniform switchover time.

You see, back in the day the Army had only only two combinations of physical training uniform: T-shirt/shorts and sweatshirt/sweatpants.  Soldiers wore summers until a designated date (usually 1 October), then switched to winters.

It sucked because Mother Nature failed to abide by the Army’s command sergeant major-approved switchover date.

One day, some smart Army guy saw how civilians were dressing at various levels for working out based on the temperature outside.  Aha!  We should do that too!  The Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU) was born.  Soldiers could wear any combination they wanted of shorts/pants/short sleeves/long sleeves/jacket – depending on the temperature outside, of course.  Brilliant.

Of course, the idea never caught on.  AR 670-1 clearly states “There are no restrictions on the combination of IPFU items worn, unless the commander has prescribed a particular combination for formation.”  Yeah right.  We still switch from summers to winters on one magic day each autumn, and from winters to summers on another magic day each spring.  And if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with your switch date….too fucking bad.  Freeze.  Or fry.  Either way, at least we are all wearing the same goddamn thing…and THAT’S the most important thing.

There’s a word for this…stupidity.

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Categories: Rationality

Three Cheers for Nuclear: Why the Japanese Nuclear Crisis Should be a Boon for Nuclear Energy – But Won’t

March 26, 2011 1 comment
Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France

Image via Wikipedia

 

Imagine two nuclear power plant designers chatting at lunch during the construction of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

“This is going to be awesome!  Lots of green, carbon-emission free energy!”

“Yeah, but what about nuclear meltdown, like Chernobyl?”

“First of all, it would take a hugely improbable event, like a huge 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, to damage this place.  And even if that happened, remember that we have a containment structure.  There was no containment structure in Chernobyl.”

Fast forward to today.

Read more…

Book Review – Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

February 9, 2011 14 comments

I only made it through a few chapters of Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick before I was compelled to write a post on the toxic leadership of this story’s battalion commander.  Now, I will finish by telling the rest of the story.

Bottom line up front:  Every single leader in the Army should be required to read this book. It is a study in bad leadership.  If the old adage is true that we learn more in defeat than in victory, then certainly this book has more to teach us than all the war hero books we can buy.

Blackhearts tells the story of 1st Platoon, B Company, 1-502nd Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. In the middle of what can only be described as a horrific tour in the most dangerous area of Iraq (at that time), four members of this unit left their post on March 12, 2006, barged into a local Iraqi house, raped their 14-year-old daughter, then executed the entire family. Read more…

Look at That Jerk – Texting While Shooting Hellfires…

January 17, 2011 2 comments

A Jan 16th article on New York Times.com takes a look at the impacts of the information age battlefield.  Apparently military leaders are figuring out that more information isn’t always better.  The article cites a February, 2010 incident in which 23 Afghan civilians were killed by an airstrike based on faulty information from a Predator UAV (drone).  The Predator team was required to monitor the aircraft’s video feed while simultaneously instant-messaging in tactical chat rooms AND talking on the radio.  An anonymous military officer familiar with the incident commented, “Information overload – an accurate description.”

The real culprit here is multitasking, or more appropriately, the myth of multitasking.  According to Joe Robinson, author of one of my favorite articles of all time, E-mail is Making You Stupid, the brain can only do one thing at a time.  Someone who is multitasking isn’t doing three things at once, rather, he is constantly switching from one to the next to the next and back again.  Read more…

Afghanistan: “A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior and Escalation”???

December 7, 2010 1 comment

Recently, Army Colonel Robert M. Cassidy published an article on Small Wars Journal entitled A Precis on the Logic of the Afghan War.  Below is my response to the article, which can also be found in the comments section on SWJ.  Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Dollar Auction Game for more info.

_______________________

There is a game called “The Dollar Auction.” The rules are simple. The auctioneer puts $1 up for auction, beginning at 1 cent. He will sell to the highest bidder. The catch is that the second highest bidder must also pay his bid – and he doesn’t get anything.

Generally, the game proceeds along, and eventually someone bids $1, leaving someone else with a bid of 95 cents or something similar. Then the fun part starts. The second-highest bidder has an incentive to bid $1.01 because he will only be out 1 cent instead of 95 cents. The original bidder of $1 then has the same incentive to bid, say, $1.10.

The bids continue well beyond $1. Eventually, the game becomes more about winning than profit. Dollar bills have gone for $3-$5 dollars, and sometimes $20. The bidding often becomes heated and emotional.

We’ve been in Afghanistan a while now. COL Cassidy sounds like he is bidding $3 for a $1 bill rather than articulating a viable way ahead for Afghanistan.

A comprehensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan with the aim of transforming that country into a working, non-terrorist democracy is certainly the best outcome we could want. Given enough time, money, and blood, we might be able to achieve it.

The problem is that this strategy will take so long and be so expensive that it won’t be worth the effort. Sure, we’ll end up with a buck, but how much will we have paid for it?

A limited counter-terrorism strategy is certainly not capable of producing the same results as a COIN strategy. However, it is much more efficient. While we may get, say, 75% of the effectiveness, we get it at 10% of the cost. We get more bang for the buck.

The 800lb gorilla in the room is the defense budget. It will shrink, and soon. While COIN is the most effective strategy, it is also the most manpower intensive, ergo, the most expensive. COL Cassidy does not mention this fact.

It is time we opted for a more efficient strategy. While not as effective, a limited counter-terrorism strategy is more sustainable in the long run.

Iconoclastic Observations on Social Science

October 18, 2010 1 comment

A few weeks ago I posted a critique of Human Terrain Teams, or more specifically, the name “Human Terrain.” (see Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology? 3 OCT 10).  I also posted this entry on the Small Wars Journal discussion board, which led to an interesting discussion on Social Science and the failings therein.

The failings of Social Science are related to our methods of inquiry.  We are studying sociocultural systems just like we study physical, chemical, and biological systems.  But socioculutral systems are different and need to be studied differently.

Classical science is essentially the development of theories or models which explain behavior in a system, and thus are able to make predictions about future behavior in that system.  This is accomplished by isolating a few variables and testing cause and effect relationships through experimentation.  For example, if I wanted to find out the optimal speed to drive my car in order to get the best gas mileage, I could set up an experiment in which I measured fuel consumption at different speeds.  The independent variable is the speed of the car, and the dependent variable is the observed gas mileage.  Based on the results of this experiment, I can predict what my gas mileage will be in the future.  Barring a significant change in the system (such as a mechanical problem) my prediction will be somewhat accurate.

Why doesn’t classical science work in sociocultural systems?

1. Prediction is difficult or impossible in sociocultural systems in which the agents have a choice, emotions, subjective rationalities, cultural forces, etc…By way of contrast, in the “hard” sciences atoms (above the quantum level), molecules, etc… obey predictable laws. Therefore, constructing models which predict the behavior of variables in these systems (where the variables themselves must follow predictable laws) is a much more appropriate approach than it is with social systems.

2.  We are asking the wrong questions. Often, the answer you get depends on the question you ask. This is the real difference between education and training.  Training focuses on the transmission of answers, i.e. knowledge, whereas education teaches people how to ask the right questions.  Social scientists are asking the wrong questions, which is to say studying sociocultural systems as if they were physical or chemical systems using reductionist, analytical, linear thinking.

For example, if you are doing any type of research you must state your independent and dependent variables. However, social systems are not composed of independent and dependent variables, and applying such a construct is doomed to fail. The construct asks the wrong question, i.e. “What are the cause and effect relationships?”, when in fact there are few cause and effect relationships in social systems because people have choices.

Social systems are composed of interdependent variables. Therefore, we cannot study one or two in isolation, but we must study the system as a whole to understand the interdependency of the variables and the emergent properties of the system.

3. Context is important in sociocultural systems. Classical science attempts to remove context from the equation in order to isolate the cause and effect relationships between variables. However, context is everything in a social system. To study a social system without context is to invite failure. Results of context-free experimentation will not be useful in the “real world” because context exerts a heavy influence on behavior.

I’m reminded of the “Pepsi Challenge” in which (in classical scientific reductionist analytical style) subjects were given a blind taste test of Coke and Pepsi. The majority of subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi.  Of course, Coke continued to dominate the market. Execs at Pepsi puzzled over how they could be losing market share if their product tasted better. The answer, of course, is that in real life people don’t drink soda without labels; in real life people drink from a bottle with Coke or Pepsi displayed prominently.

Subsequent studies discovered that when the subjects were given taste tests with product labels, i.e. they knew whether they were drinking Coke or Pepsi, they preferred Coke, not Pepsi. Furthermore (and this is the really fun part), researchers monitored the brain activity of these tests, and found that Coke actually produced increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when subjects could see the label, whereas Pepsi produced more when the labels were concealed.

People didn’t just irrationally believe Coke tasted better. Seeing the label actually changed the activity level of the brain. To them, Coke really did taste better.

In short, sociocultural systems can’t be studied like physical or chemical systems, yet this is what we are doing. As long as we continue to do so, we are unlikely to have much success.