Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Film Review - Fury



I went to see Fury today and I can highly recommend it, especially for the lovers of tanks and World War II movies.  My personal MOS when I attended the Fort Knox School for Boys was Armored Scout Observer, though being National Guard oh those many years ago, I never served in that role in anger.  I enjoyed the film very much and it held my interest so well that I hardly noticed the film’s over two hour length. 

It is a fantastic thing to watch a movie about World War II in which I am not asked to pretend that an M-48 Patton tank is a German Tiger tank or that an M-24 Chaffee is a Sherman.  The last movies that come to mind to do that were “A Bridge Too Far” and before that “Kelly’s Heroes” (courtesy of the Yugoslav army and Tiger mock ups built out of Soviet MT-LBs) or some of the various Soviet era movies about their “Great Patriotic War.”  Of course, Soviet filmmakers had an advantage because the Red Army never threw away any of their T-34s, etc (they gave away a lot of them and one could get nit-picky about what year different model T-34s entered service, but hey they were still T-34s!).

The depiction of the weaknesses and strengths of the Sherman tank and the tactics that had to be used to overcome or take advantage of those are also reasonably well portrayed (as are the tricks and habits of living and fighting in the same place – your tank).  This was especially true of the battle by 4 Shermans against a lone Tiger tank firing from ambush.  Obviously, it helps when you are able to draw upon the resources of The Tank Museum at Bovington in the UK which has the only running model of the Tiger tank in the world plus the staff who know how to fight those two model tanks against each other.  (The Tank Museum at Bovington ranks as one of the top armored fighting vehicle museums in the world.  Two others are the Central Museum of Armored Fighting Vehicles at Kubinka, Russia and the Tank Museum at Saumur, France.  Much of the collection at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky has been moved to Fort Benning, Georgia and is not yet on display there.  I've had the happy opportunity to visit all of these museums personally, though there are others still on my bucket list.)

The story told in the movie takes place in April, 1945 though perhaps they don’t make that sufficiently clear, especially how every combat arms soldier in the American (and British) armies by that time is  desperately trying to not be the war’s last casualty.  The characterizations are all pretty well presented within the world view framed by the film though a couple of moments might be considered rather overdrawn and exaggerated, especially by those accustomed to the more classic Hollywood portrayals of American GIs.   Just about every incident depicted in the film can probably be demonstrated to have actually happened during the war – but the filmmakers exercise fully their capability to concentrate them all within a roughly two hour film rather than burden the viewer with the long hours and even days of military routine and boredom that were also a part of the reality of World War II.  The film also makes every effort to expose the viewer to the mud, blood, gore, and noise of the war, though the movie cannot share any of the myriad smells of war and a battlefield nor the blinding feel of the smoke from fires and explosions.

SPOILER ALERT:  The climactic battle of the movie brings to mind a Soviet tankisti epigram learned from the film “The Beast” (aka “The Beast of War”) about a Soviet tank crew (including a World War II veteran) fighting in Afghanistan, “Out of commission, become a pillbox. Out of ammo, become a bunker. Out of time, become heroes.”  With complete recognition that “it’s only a movie” I would suggest that it also shows why a cannon-armed armored vehicle will remain an important battlefield weapon for some time to come as five men in a tank engage several hundred lightly armed infantry supported by man-portable anti-tank rockets, crew-served weapons, and thin skinned vehicles.  (Personally, I might have dismounted the two turret mounted machine guns and positioned them to either flank of the tank and the road it sat on – but that’s perhaps just me and we never learn whether or not they have the mounts to use.)  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wanted: A Unified Field Theory for a Third World War



The ongoing conflict with ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State (hereafter called Daesh) has attracted attention and interest around the world.  Pope Francis has weighed in and it is perhaps surprising that he may have come closest to identifying this conflict as the Third World War.  Henry Kissinger reportedly agrees with him.  However, there have been few signs that the US government recognizes this as a single global conflict much less any signs of a coherent coordinated strategy that addresses each local conflict and its links to every other local conflict.

This is a war that is very like wars of the past while yet being something different from what we are accustomed to.  It is the 21st Century under attack by the 15th Century.  It is a war between dogmatic conformity draped in religious trappings claiming for itself the right to impose its beliefs through deadly violence on a modern world that emphasizes diversity, technology, progress, and individual choice.  Like the Seven Years War it is taking place on a global scale in terms of reach with a relatively small and localized geographic context.  It is and will be fought by complex local alliances, marked by competing interests between politics and faith, and religious differences that result in alliance relationships or are overcome in the interests of the nation states participating – a geopolitical stew worthy of The Thirty Years War.

In Nigeria, the enemy calls itself Boko Haram.  Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is active to varying degrees in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, and Tunisia.  Al-Shabaab in Somalia was reportedly responsible for the attack on the Nairobi shopping center.  Al Qaeda in Yemen is losing fighters to Daesh as are the Taliban in Afghanistan and other groups in Pakistan.  The Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines is now also reportedly aligning itself with Daesh.  We are confronted simultaneously with disparate enemies at locations spanning half the globe but we appear to be addressing each fight in isolation from the others.

It features full spectrum warfare with combat taking place on open ground, city streets, deep jungles, high mountains, the airspace above all of these places and between them, and in cyberspace.  Do not be fooled into thinking that Daesh’s use of our own technology against us makes them modern thinkers.  Remember, Marx and Lenin promised that they would hang the last capitalist with the rope he sold them.  They doubtless consider it fitting that they will attack us with our own technologies.  As to being professional and sophisticated fighters, if you spend enough time on a battlefield and survive, you get good at it.  This sophistication and professionalism will not necessarily carry over into other parts of their lives, especially where it might clash with their dogma.

This coalition for the 15th Century shares fighters, resources, and know-how in addition to their shared enemy.  They crave for us to identify them as our enemy because it enhances their stature and facilitates their recruiting and fundraising.  Whether of allies or enemies, neither coalition will be in unanimous agreement on many of a whole range of issues relating to why we fight, what we are fighting for, what achievements might cap our respective final victories.  They don’t need to be in agreement on anything other than who is “we” and who is “them”.   As in The Thirty Years War our enemies have in common a number of points of ideological/theological agreement and they agree that we are the enemy, an enemy that must be destroyed even though that is beyond their actual capabilities at the present time.  History shows that we ignore this determined threat at our own risk.

All of that said, we need to understand a number of key things about this Third World War.


We are fighting an idea.  We can kill its adherents but the idea will survive.

We must adapt our approach, our strategy, to each conflict/theater/locality appropriately while not undermining our efforts in other theaters.

We, not just the US but all of our partners, must recognize that it is all one war and we must cooperatively frame a common strategy accordingly.

The US does not need to put its troops, aircraft, etc. into every single one of these fights.

It does, however, need to make sure that one or more of its local allies are in each and every one of these fights with the fullest possible US support.

We also need to understand that whichever of our partners does put boots on the ground, those troops will eventually come to resent taking all of the risks of ground combat while we take none.

If the only tools in our tool box are hammers, all of our problems begin to look like nails.  We need to use resources and take actions beyond the battlefield that will help our local allies shape that battlefield into a desired state.

We need to be able to peel away their supporters by a number of means including seeing that local grievances are addressed.

We need to eliminate (realistically minimize) actions by our own or coalition forces that discourage or drive away our supporters among the populations. 
 
We need to understand and to remember that the war will not end in a way that we can control nor can we dictate the full shape of what comes afterwards.

ADDENDUM:  I wanted to add a short comment after attending two more sessions at The Brookings Institution this week that touched on this conflict.  I've said for sometime that the US is a status quo power, which in part answers the complaint that we have no national strategy, we are defending the status quo and thus reacting to threats against it.  However, while the US sees itself as defending an established international order, there are many nations who see the democratic free market capitalist USA as a revolutionary expansionist power and a threat.  And, the international order which the US is defending is not simply a matter of nation states, international organizations, and international institutions, it is a process for how all of these interact with each other.  Within this process, a referendum in Scotland - however regrettable it might be - is acceptable.  Sending uniformed armed men (and women) onto the territory of an independent sovereign nation in order to overturn the government of that nation or to steal its territory is not acceptable.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Which of these things is not like the other? America’s Future, The Thirty Years War, and today’s Islamic World



“History is a cruel step-mother, and when it retaliates, it stops at nothing.” Lenin

History is huge, given that by definition it encompasses the story of the human race going back to before the existence of written records.  We grapple with the challenge of history by parsing it into digestible lumps on the basis of time periods, geographic location, linguistic communities, etc.  In order to understand it as something more involved than the simple accretion of facts in sedimentary layers, we use metaphors, such as the turning of a wheel or the flowing of water in a river, my own preferred image.  The message in the metaphor is that change is the singular constant across history even as it may slow down or speed up.

“History is written for schoolmasters and armchair strategists.  Statesmen and warriors pick their war through the dark.” Lord Esher Journal, 15 March 1915

Given the time spanned by human history, it is not surprising that people have long debated, and still do, whether or not history repeats itself.  The English historian G M Trevelyan summed up the debate this way:  ‘History repeats itself!’ and ‘History never repeats itself’ are about equally true… We never know enough about the infinitely complex circumstances of any past event to prophesy the future by analogy.”  However, George Bernard Shaw offered an interesting observation when he pointed out that “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!”  For me personally, the debate is moot because whether or not history repeats itself, it is more than evident from history that people clearly do.  Nations are often seen to behave like people, which might be at least in part attributed to the reality that they are made up of people and are governed or led by people.  Thus nations, like individuals, can be perceived to be engaging in bad behavior which others then try to adjust through punishments and/or rewards.

 “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”  GWF Hegel

The violence engulfing the Islamic world over the past decade or more, with growing conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis, long ago brought to mind the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when the emerging  Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church confronted each other across the courts, cathedrals, and battlefields of Europe.  General Sir John Hackett, in “The Profession of Arms”, described the Thirty Years War as “A period in which fervent Christians were prepared to hang, burn, torture, shoot or poison other fervent Christians with whom they happened to disagree upon the correct approach to eternal life.”  To me the parallel of a religiously fueled, politically complex expanding conflict is self-evident.

As Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus observed of Europe’s version, “all the wars that are on foot in Europe have been fused together and have become a single war.”  A parallel conflict in the Islamic world today might reach from the Atlantic Coast of West Africa to the islands of Indonesia or the Philippines, and from Central Asia to the deep Indian Ocean.

Much has been made of the failure of the United States to show evidence of national strategy in recent decades, and I have been among those critics.  A speaker at the Army War College earlier this year rightly corrected us by pointing out that the US today is a status quo power – and preserving that status quo has been our strategy.  Unfortunately, such an approach places the US in the position of King Canute telling the tide to go out when it’s coming in – both are doomed to failure.

I bought a copy of Peter H. Wilson’s “The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy” to refresh my knowledge of that conflict.  Wilson offers a thorough examination of the Thirty Years War, with excellent elaboration of its background and preliminaries.  He promises to tell the whole story of the war right down to its ending (often only summarized).  With some 850 pages of text plus some 75 pages of notes, I believe he will fulfill that promise.

Whatever happens today need not be an Islamic reenactment of the Thirty Years War, but the complexities of that past conflict resonate in the one potentially confronting us.  They both reflect a complex interaction of religious and geo-political motivations for conflict.  They are contests between both state and non-state actors. Individuals from around the world choose to join the conflict in service of one side or the other, often in contradiction of their own nation’s stance on the war.  Co-religionists end up in conflict with each other for political and geo-political reasons even as they also fight others because they were not of the same faith.

The principal players in Europe’s war were Spain, Holland, France, the German principalities, the Holy Roman Empire and its Electors (both Protestants and Catholics), and Sweden – with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics all pitted against each other in various and changing combinations.  Many soldiers became mercenaries and fought for pay over religion or country.   How might we look for lessons from their experience to determine which nations might possibly play which original roles?  Is the USA in the role of France or Spain?  Is Russia or China the Ottoman Empire?  There is no papal style structure in the Islamic world, but perhaps Saudi control of the holy places of Mecca and Medina brings them close to such a role.

Reading Wilson’s chapter Pax Hispanica, it quickly becomes evident that Spain was then, as the United States is today, the principal status quo power – and almost the sole superpower by wealth and military capabilities, attempting to keep things the way they are.  The challenges facing Spain then echo those facing us today.  Both countries are the economic top dogs because of global reach and, for Spain, the influx of silver from the mines in its American colonies.  But this wealth led Spain to neglect development of a balanced economy that promoted both manufacturing and agriculture, and it contributed to inflation.

The US is struggling to deal with economic challenges intertwined with philosophical battles over its social, economic, and even political future.  These ongoing contests are preventing it from effectively applying almost any remedies at the present time.  Both Spain and the US were also spending massive amounts on defense, fighting extended foreign wars, and debates over perceived threats and responses dominated each nation’s strategic thinking.  And both countries were suspected by other nations of ambitious and expansionist intentions as they sought to shape the world into the desired form.  However, the mere hypothesis that the US now is playing a role similar to Spain during the Thirty Years War must be tested against events in the real world and measured against the events of some 600 years ago played out for Spain.  Spain began its decline as it failed to maintain the world order which it had come to dominate and failed to adapt to the new emerging world order.

The hard reality is that the American people have one choice to make (among many decisions facing them):
Will the United States remain the sole superpower and by definition the world’s policeman in pursuit of this imperial role as it seeks to shape the world in its own image?

Or, will the US concede sufficient authority and capability and autonomy to a supranational body that could act around the world without the US or US forces and with the inevitable result of shaping a world to some greater or lesser degree different from what the US might prefer?

“The future is hidden even from the men who made it.”  Anatole France