Archive for the ‘Doctrine’ Category

Five Monkeys and Fixing the Army

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

A writer going by the name of “Petronius Arbiter” recently posted a series of articles entitled How to fix the Army in 66 easy steps on Tom Ricks’ blog.  Although there’s been much discussion on the blog about many of his recommendations, I feel a few deserve some additional attention.

It’s probably best to being by asking “What is the problem?”  Not that I don’t think the Army has problems that need fixing (as it certainly does), however, the Petronius never defines what problem he is trying to fix.  The closest he comes is when he leads off his series with “A few small things, some annoyances, and some big fixes that could make a good Army better:”

Really?  Better at what?

He follows with his 66 steps, not all of which makes Ricks’ blog.  Some are ok; most are the kind of pointless drivel that essentially boil down to “Let’s go back to the way we used to do it.”  The “way we used to do it” is sacrosanct in the Army.  If it was done at some point in the past it must be good – nevermind that WHY it was done in the past is rarely known.

Among the more stupid:

  • “Since 75th Ranger Regiment is not an Infantry Regiment do not allow Infantry personnel in that organization to declare 75th Infantry as a regimental affiliation.”  Oooooooh.  Now there’s a HUGE problem.  (WTF, over?!)
  • “Re-instill drill and ceremonies so that units can at least have confidence in unit abilities to conduct a pass in review at ceremonies. Oh, and when supervised properly, it is a tremendous discipline builder and junior NCO developer, but most officers don’t know that.”  Really?  With all the time pressures on Army units, to suggest that they should waste time marching around and doing facing movements is, quite frankly, idiotic.  Soldiers are still going to war every 12-15 months.  They need to be training on mission-oriented tasks, not wandering around a parade field.
  • “Restore unit designations that make sense and are understandable. We know what an artillery unit is and does. We don’t understand what a Fires unit is and does.”  Go a mouse in your pocket?  Speak for yourself, bub.  “We” understand what a Fires unit does just fine, thanks.  Perhaps you meant YOU don’t understand.  Here’s a suggestion – pick up an FM and read a bit.
  • “Bring back the bayonet.”  Wow.  Between that and Drill/Ceremonies we could be just like the British in WWI.

Bottom line:  Let’s just go back to the way we used to do it.

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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.

Human Terrain….Again

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

image There is an article in the November-December 2010 edition of Military Review entitled Controlling the Human High Ground: Identifying Cultural Opportunities for Insurgency.  Needless to say, I’m disappointed we continue to dwell on this idea of “Human Terrain.”  As I wrote a few weeks ago, humans are not terrain.  Humans aren’t even like terrain.  Why we use the metaphor of “terrain” to describe human beings is beyond me.

Some might wonder why I am so intent to writing about this subject.  How we model things is important.  Here is an excerpt from a paper entitled On the Mismatch Between Systems and Their Models by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi:

There is a very serious mismatch between most social systems and the models of them that are in
Barry M. Richmond, creator of the Systems Dynamics model and I-think language makes it clear
that systems and the models of them in use are not the same. According to him “the way we think
is outdated.” He goes on to define thinking as:

consisting of two activities: constructing mental models, and then simulating them
in order to draw conclusions and make decisions. The mental model is a “selective
abstraction” of reality that we create and carry around in our head. As big as some
of our heads get, we still can’t fit reality in there. Therefore all mental model are
simplifications. They necessarily omit many aspects of the realities they

To think about anything requires an image or a concept of it, a model. To think about something
as complex as a social system we use models of similar, simpler, and/or more familiar systems.
Unfortunately, as social systems become increasingly more complex, simpler mental models of
them do not reflect their emerging properties.

In short, this is what is happening with human terrain.  We are using a simple model (terrain) to imagine or conceptualize a much more complex system (human social/cultural groups).  As a result, we draw bad conclusions about the nature of the system.  This new article from Military Review is a perfect example.  The model of “terrain” has erroneously led the author to believe that humans, like terrain, can be “controlled.”  Humans are independent beings capable of making choices.  While humans can certainly be influenced, they can never be controlled. 

Carl von Clausewitz: Out of Date, or Needed Now More Than Ever?

November 6, 2010 1 comment

MAJ Grant Martin (USA) has an interesting article on Small Wars Journal about the current relevance of Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of Center of Gravity (CoG).  MAJ Martin contends that, “new scientific concepts, such as complexity theory, offer better insights into unconventional warfare than does CoG analysis.”  Though I agree that complexity theory can inform our understanding of warfare, I do not believe the CoG and complexity theory are incompatible.  Why?  Because Clausewitz embraced complexity theory before it was even a theory.

To understand Clausewitz, one must first understand the circumstances surrounding the man.  Clausewitz lived at the very end of the Age of Enlightenment.  Sir Isaac Newton had arguably kicked off the Age of Enlightenment with the publication of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, less than 100 years before Clausewitz was born in 1780.  The idea that the universe could be understood through scientific reason and rational thinking, rather than superstition, had swept through the first world.  Clausewitz, like many others, was fascinated with science and he consequently borrowed heavily from Newtonian physics to describe his ideas.

Of course, there is a problem with Newtonian physics.  Although it describes the world reasonably well in everyday life, we know that it breaks down both at the micro level (quantum theory) and the macro level (relativity theory).  More importantly, Newtonian physics is deterministic. Determinism is the idea that if we know enough about the universe, we can predict exactly what will happen in the future.  However, quantum theory tells us that at the sub-atomic level the universe is actually probabilistic. In other words, we can never predict exactly what will happen – we can only express the probability that something will happen.  Likewise, the larger universe is relativistic. Time and space are intertwined, and are relative to each observer.  In short, the universe is much more complex that Newton’s original theories suggested.

The issue with Clausewitz’s use of Newtonian concepts isn’t mathematical; it is philosophical.  In a deterministic universe every event is caused by events that preceded it.  In order to predict outcomes, therefore, we only need to know enough about the previous events or states.  In such a universe, heaps of information, combined with linear, reductionist thinking are they keys to success.  For example, the physical center of gravity of a given object can be mathematically calculated within a high degree of precision.  If I can apply sufficient force to the center of gravity of an object, I can move it any way I like.  This literal interpretation of calculable CoG is understandably attractive from a standpoint of war and strategy.  However, the idea that one can calculate his way to victory is fundamentally flawed.

Clausewitz knew that war was not a deterministic endeavor.  For example, he described a theory of war as a “pendulum” between the three “magnets” of the “paradoxical trinity” (people, nation, and military).  When this experiment is actually done, the path of the pendulum is unpredictable, chaotic, and most certainly non-deterministic.  Yet, the US military has largely chosen to close its collective eyes to this part of Clausewitz.  US military doctrine is riddled with linear, reductionist methodologies that attempt to reduce warfare to a neat and predictable science.

CoG is not the only Clausewitz concept to be misinterpreted as deterministic.  Clausewitz’s “fog of war” has been subject to much misinterpretation, particularly during the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.   Clausewitz wrote, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of grater or lesser certainty.”  The RMA promised to change the battlefield fundamentally by giving information superiority to US forces through computer-based networks.  In 2001, William A. Owens and Edward Offley wrote a book whose title neatly summed up the attitudes of RMA believers entitled Lifting the Fog of War. The back cover predicts that “[The] RMA would transform the way that America wages war, bringing about a smaller, stronger, and more flexible military better able to monitor enemy forces in real time and thereby counter the ‘fog of war’ that has bedeviled commanders throughout history.”

The RMA was predicated on a flawed assumption: that the fog of war is “liftable.”  That the unknowns of war are, at some point, knowable.  However, in the years since 2001 we have found the fog of war is not a problem to be solved; it is a fundamental and enduring characteristic of warfare.  Clausewitz wasn’t talking about unknowns when he coined the term “fog of war”; he was talking about unknowables. Had Clausewitz lived 150 years later, he might very well have chosen to use the language of quantum physics to describe the uncertainty associated with war.  According to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, certain physical properties of particles cannot be simultaneously known with precision.  In fact, John Boyd, like Clausewitz, used scientific concepts to explore uncertainty.  Of course, Boyd had nearly 200 years of additional science to draw from.  He used the Uncertainty Principle, along with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics as the foundation for his OODA loop:

According to Gödel we cannot— in general—determine the consistency, hence the character or nature, of an abstract system within itself. According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder. Taken together, these three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch. Naturally, in this environment, uncertainty and disorder will increase as previously indicated by the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, respectively. Put another way, we can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often. Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.

– Excerpt from Boyd’s presentation Destruction and Creation

We must recognize that Clausewitz used the language and metaphors he did because they were all he had available to him.  No doubt, if Clausewitz had the language of modern science, he would have described his concepts differently.  This doesn’t mean that his concepts were wrong; it simply means we have to work harder to interpret them.  The very idea that Clausewitz saw war as a complex endeavor before anyone was even thinking about complexity theory gives us an indication of just how insightful he really was.    We should not be seduced by the idea that because the CoG of a physical object can be calculated with precision, so too can war be reduced to a series of formulas.  Clausewitz knew better, and so should we.

On Culture and Design

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Retired Army Colonel Chris Paparone has published the fourth in a series of essays on the new Army concept of Design on Small Wars Journal.  The thesis is that in a military context, dialogue is central to the method of design, especially when operating in highly volatile, uncertain, complex and uncertain environments.  Army planners and commanders must ontinuously and collectively make sense of the situation.  Dialogue is the condition that enables such collective “sensemaking.”

I’ve followed this series of monographs with great interest. The author finally hit on what I believe to be the primary obstacle to effective Design in the Army: the culture. One could dedicate an entire monograph to this issue alone.

The author correctly points out that dialogue is key to effective Design. Senge devotes a considerable number of pages in The Fifth Discipline to dialogue and its importance. Senge contends that seeing each other as colleagues is essential to ensure the free flow of ideas. The author of this monograph builds on this concept, stating:

Ideally, participants subscribe to values associated with healthy dialogue. Hierarchical values are detrimental to good dialogue. Participants must somehow leave rank and positional authority at the door and not confuse passionate argument with insubordination or disrespect.

A recently published study of Army War College students showed Army leaders believed the Army culture should emphasize “flexibility, discretion, participation, human resource development, innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and a long-term emphasis on professional growth and the acquisition of new professional knowledge and skills.  However, it also found these same leaders believed Army culture actually emphasizes “an overarching desire for stability, control, formal rules and policies, coordination and efficiency, goal and results oriented, and hard-driving competitiveness.“

Obviously, we know what our culture should be ideally, however, the reality is our culture does not set the conditions for Design. Army culture arguably runs on the very “hierarchical values” the author points out are detrimental to dialogue. Furthermore, the situation is self-perpetuating. Officers know conforming to established norms, unquestioning compliance, and careful avoidance of slaying sacred cows is the way, not only to survive, but to be promoted. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but I think most Officers would agree that making waves is not the way to get ahead.

Until we address the underlying cultural dynamics which inhibit creative thought within the Army, effective Design will be difficult at best.

Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology?

October 3, 2010 3 comments

an·thro·pol·o·gy (ăn’thrə-pŏl’ə-jē) n.

The scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans.

I’ll confess:  This is a rant.  I hate the term “Human Terrain.”  If you are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a U.S. Army program which uses social science and social scientists to help commanders understand the social dynamics of local populations.  This kind of understanding is particularly valuable when conducting counterinsurgency operations because winning the support of the local population is the most important objective.  This is in contrast to more conventional warfare in which seizing (actual) terrain is the more important objective.

I can only assume the Army uses this phrase to help the cognitively challenged segments of the officer corps who might look at you with a blank stare if you used the word Anthropology, or the words Social Science, or similar phrases.  “You see, CPT Schmedlab, we used to seize key terrain, but now the people are the terrain, get it?”

My problem with this term is twofold.  First, it assumes the majority of officers are absolute idiots who can’t understand a concept unless one can relate it to something familiar in existing military jargon.  If this is the case, the Army needs to reassess the quality of the officers it is recruiting.  Second, the term itself is misleading.  Humans are not terrain.  They are not even like terrain.

Terrain is static.  It doesn’t move.  It doesn’t have families or choices or feelings or culture.  Humans, on the other hand, have all these things and more.  Human socio-cultural systems are incredibly complex, which is why we need to increase our institutional knowledge of social sciences.  Comparing social systems to dirt and rocks, to use some jargon, “ain’t gettin’ it.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Army has done this.  I remember “Non-Lethal Fires.”  WHAT?!  The only way fires can be non-lethal is if you miss your target.  Of course, this was intended to convey information operations intended to influence certain actors within the populace.  Actually, the term is still floating around.  I guess we can now fire some non-lethal fires into some human terrain.  Or, we could just say “influence the local populace.”

In short, humans are not rocks.  But whoever came up with the term “Human Terrain” most certainly is…

The Question of Legitimacy

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

An article on strategic legitimacy by retired Marine LTC Robert J. Weimann was posted yesterday on Small Wars Journal.  It addresses the issue of legitimacy, which is included as a new Principle of War in the new JP 3-0.  The author offers the following abbreviated excerpt of the definition of legitimacy:

…Legitimacy … The purpose of legitimacy is to develop and maintain the will necessary to attain the national strategic end state…Legitimacy is based on the legality, morality, and rightness of the actions undertaken. Legitimacy is frequently a decisive element. Interested audiences may include the foreign nations, civil populations in the operational area, and the participating forces.

Here is the big problem with legitimacy; it is a subjective judgement.  It is the domain of the population, not the military or government.  Legitimacy is clearly something we need to be attuned to, however, I think we still don’t get it.  We tend to confuse legitimacy with justification, but these two terms are not interchangeable.  A justifiable action is not necessarily a legitimate one.  Justification is largely a legal issue, whereas legitimacy is a moral issue.

The new definition of legitimacy as a Principle of War uses the terms legality, morality, and rightness – legality is clearly incorrect.  This dynamic was at play during the run up to Iraq.  The administrations push to war was an exercise in building justification, culminating in Colin Powell’s briefing and the UN.

Justification does not equal legitimacy.  Of the two, legitimacy is the most important.  But as long as we think of it as a justification/legal principle, we are doomed to fail.