Wednesday, March 28, 2007

“One Staff Officer jumped right over the other staff officer’s back, and another staff officer jumped right over the other staff officer’s back,…..“+

There is a rather old jibe about the Congress that I confess comes back to me over and over again through the years. At its most succinct it is a description of Congress as a circus consisting of 535 clowns and no animal act. While some observers may be tempted to insist that certain animals are in fact represented based upon the behavior of selected members, I am more concerned at the suggestion that the members of our two legislative houses wish to become 535 generals (of whatever rank they may choose). Unfortunately, the attempt by the Congress to control military operations in Iraq strongly suggests that they are collectively reaching their Peter Point*, because in the attempt they have clearly forgotten one of the most important of the principles of war – Unity of Command, sometimes also expressed as Unity of Purpose.

Military forces function best when there is a clear chain of command that places operational military decisions in the hands of a single individual – who carries equal burdens of authority and responsibility. History is replete with the examples of the importance of this principle. It also works best if that individual is rather close to the scene of military operations rather than half a world away. While the technology of today is incredibly fast by comparison, one example that unavoidably comes to mind is of those senior officers during the First World War who attempted to direct military operations in the trenches and across the “no-man’s land” of the Western Front from the comfort of their headquarters housed safely (and comfortably) in the rear. When the Allies tried to run the war this same way in 1940, the end result was the rapid fall of France and the risky evacuation of the virtually disarmed British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.

I recognize that the Democratic leadership on the Hill is trying to demonstrate responsiveness to what it sees as the sense of the American electorate expresses in last November’s elections. But inserting Congress into the chain of command will not achieve the result they are looking for.

+The soldiers of the British Army on the Western Front made up any number of songs that matched their lyrics commenting on their predicament with various well-known melodies. A personal favorite is “They Were Only Playing Leapfrog” which depicts the staff officers safe at headquarters in the rear area more interested in personal advancement (leaping over other staff officers) than they were in the reality in the front-line trenches.

*Peter Point – from the work of Dr. Laurence J. Peter who identified the Peter Point as being that position of responsibility in which the occupant’s poor performance demonstrates that he/she has risen above his/her level of competence.

"The British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office." General Burgoyne, in George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Social Contracts and Contract Law

I was in New York City over the past weekend to participate in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. I was part of the contingent of reenactors from the Maryland-DC-Virginia area who fell in with the New York-based 69th New York, portraying the original unit that made up part of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. It is always a fun occasion but in the face of a number of controversies in both Washington and New York over who is fit to march in parades and who is fit to wear the country’s uniforms, it was also thought provoking.

During the years before American Civil War – and even after it – Irish immigrants faced great prejudice in this country expressed by such groups as the anti-immigrant/anti-Roman Catholic “Know-Nothing Party” of the 1850s and others. Even if the appearance of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs has been exaggerated, they represent a real attitude of the times. My own paternal grandfather held a prejudice against the Irish right up to his death in the 1970s. In spite or perhaps because of this, the Irish were the second largest ethnic group represented in the Union Army during that war, with some 200,000 men enrolled. [The Germans were the largest foreign-born contingent at an estimated 216,000 men and there were a reported 210,000 African-Americans enlisted by war’s end.] For the Irish in 1861, such service was a step forward in their struggle for the fullest exercise of their new citizenship and its recognition by American society at large, just as it would be during the much longer struggle by African-Americans and later women.

The idea that service in a nation’s armed forces will win one a stronger claim to an equal place in that nation’s socio-political-economic system was not a new idea in 1861. Even today, honorable military service is a pathway to U.S. citizenship for many immigrants. During the American War for Independence, African-Americans fought both for the British and for the American colonies seeking to win a place for themselves and their community within whatever victorious entity emerged from that conflict. They would be disappointed, as the newly independent American colonists would push them aside in establishing their new country while the British took many of their African-American veterans and sold them on the slave marts of the West Indies.

This idea is a reflection of something I learned in my study of military history and military theory. Most nations, but especially democratic societies such as the United States, have an unwritten social contract between the society at large and those individuals that makes up the armed elements that defend that society. The contract terms vary from country to country and often alter with the passage of time and changes in that society. This contract authorizes these individuals to take up arms and exercise lethal force against the identified enemies of the society. The contract thus empowers these individuals to do things in the name of that society that if done under other circumstances would result in their arrest and punishment at the hands of society. In return for their willingness to fulfill this role, society agrees to honor and reward them, support them and their families, and within bounds protect them from any consequences of their actions on its behalf.

The relationship thus defined by this contract is not without its bumps, faults, and errors. African-Americans fought in the American Civil War, in the post-Civil War conflicts with Native Americans, in the Spanish-American War (all too many people remember Teddy Roosevelt but ignore who else charged up San Juan Hill), served in the First World War (only a few were actually allowed to serve in combat), fought in the Second World War, and only during the Korean War were the Armed Forces officially integrated (society took longer). The presence of women in our Armed Forces can be said to be older than the country, but it has only been recently that our Armed Forces and society at large has been forced to face the reality that no one wearing a uniform can be protected from or is immune to the risks of combat.

Now we are confronted (again) with the issue of the presence of Gays in the Armed Forces. Despite the veil often drawn over such things by both contemporaries and succeeding generations, there are examples throughout history of homosexuals engaged in war and combat with generally the same degrees of success and failure as heterosexuals. There is no inherent reason to believe that Gays cannot serve ably in our Armed Forces and based upon reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is in fact every reason to believe the contrary.

What has to be understood about the social contract is that it is a two-way street. Society has the right under this contract to require that its Armed Forces reflect that society in their makeup and society’s values in the way in which the Armed Forces fulfill their duties. When society came to believe it was the thing to do, the Irish, the African-Americans, and women (though still reportedly confronted by issues of harassment and assault) were all given the opportunity for military service. When the day comes that America concludes Gays deserve that same right of serving in the Armed Forces without fear of prejudice it will become a reality. It appears that this point has not yet been reached – but it appears to be coming closer – and based upon history it will probably come before many people are ready for it and will have taken longer than it should have.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Unplanned Non-obsolescence

In today’s world, the Internet can turn up all sorts of interesting information. I found an item reporting Marines’ views on various U.S. weapons and equipment in the Washington Post (February 4, 2007). Washington Post Military Correspondent Tom Ricks cited as the source via friends in that website’s community. is quoted in the Post article as acknowledging that the information came to them without attribution but they having been persuaded by the item’s insights into the experience of U.S. Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, they chose to use it.

The article as presented in the Post offers a succinct assessment of 13 items of weaponry and current equipment being used by the Marines:

Thumbs down M-16 rifle (chronic jamming due to dust, problems which also plague the more popular M-4 carbine; the 5.56mm (.223) round is
considered underpowered for their situation)

Thumbs down M243 SAW (squad assault weapon)(chronic jamming problems, often requiring partial disassembly)

Thumbs neutral M9 Beretta 9mm pistol (good gun but an old complaint about the underpowered 9mm round has resurfaced)

Thumbs up Mossberg 12ga military shotgun
Thumbs up M240 Machine Gun (7.62mm/.308 calibre)
Thumbs up, way up M2 .50 calibre heavy machine gun
Thumbs up .45 calibre automatic pistol
Thumbs up M-14 7.62mm rifle
Thumbs way up Barrett .50 calibre sniper rifle
Thumbs up M24 sniper rifle
Thumbs up Newer body armor
Thumbs way up Night vision and Infrared equipment
Thumbs up Lights

The interesting thing to me is the number of weapons on the ‘thumbs up’ portion of the list can be traced back the First and Second World Wars.

By the time of U.S. entry into World War II, the M2 ‘Ma Deuce’ Heavy Machine Gun was already a veteran weapon. I personally became acquainted with ‘Ma Deuce’ in the early 1970s, when she was already a grand old lady of more than 50 years service. The M2 has long been recognized has a powerful weapon with remarkable long-range accuracy. The Barret .50 calibre sniper rifle is in fact a close relative of the .50 machine gun, reflecting that well-recorded long-range accuracy. Before the development of today’s tank main gun fire control systems, many tanks were equipped with a .50 calibre weapon strapped to the main gun to be used to fire single round ‘aiming shots’ at selected targets, allowing the gunner to quickly and accurately fix the range to the target before firing the main gun. In the heat of armored combat, the single .50 calibre round was often not even noticed by the target vehicle’s crew.

U.S. forces have long used shotguns, sometimes civilian models and more often weapons modified for military use. A highpoint for military shotguns were the pump-action ‘trench broom’ shotguns of the First World War. Such weapons were as useful in the close combat of the trenches as they apparently are now in clearing buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The M240 Machine Gun is described as being based upon the operating system of the veteran Browning Automatic Rifle (or BAR) and the ammo belt feed system of the World War II German MG 42 (the gun that also inspired the older U.S. M-60 7.62mm machine gun). The BAR was introduced to U.S. forces during World War I as a squad level automatic weapon. The MG 42 was recognized during World War II as an outstanding weapon and was the bases for the U.S.’s 7.62mm M60 machine gun of Vietnam War fame.

The M-14 rifle, the first standard issue U.S. weapon capable of full automatic fire, was introduced in 1957. Basically an improved M-1 Garand rifle (the standard U.S. infantry weapon of World War II), the M-14 was replaced by the M-16. For some years, the U.S. Marines used the M21 model of the M14 as a sniper rifle.

The ‘great-granddaddy’ from this list of rediscovered weapons is the .45 calibre Browning automatic pistol first adopted by the U.S. in 1911 – more than 90 years ago. Undergoing various modifications and changes, the .45 Browning served U.S. forces until replaced by the 9mm Beretta in the 1980s – a decision criticized even then. Bringing this weapon out of retirement even on a small scale echoes the reported reasons for its original adoption. American troops in the Philippines were faced by strong resistance to the imposition of U.S. rule after the defeat of Spain in 1898. These soldiers reportedly complained that their Army Colt revolvers lacked the power needed to stop a charging Islamic Moro guerrilla warrior with his large machete like ‘bolo.’

A hallmark of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s tenure was his drive for transformation of the American military. Militaries do need to evolve, to adapt to new technologies, new opponents, new geography, etc. Meeting this need to evolve has almost always been accompanied by extended debate as different individuals claim to have the latest, best new idea, to have identified the true Revolution in Military Affairs whether it be the tank, the airplane, or network centric warfare. But the above list shows an interesting aspect to military evolutions and even military revolutions – not every idea or technology or weapon is obsolete just because it has been around awhile. Ask the B-52 flight crews who are flying airframes older than their parents. Achieving a better, more capable military force does not always require throwing away everything that went before. Keeping some of those capabilities and the related tools around can prove useful.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Repitition is the Mother of Learning - even in History?

It is widely said that there is an ancient Chinese proverb to the effect that “a fool learns from experience, a wise man learns from the experience of others.” Whether or not this is correctly quoted, President Bush appears to have learned one way or the other about the uncertainties of war given his statement a while ago that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” This phrase refers to a military aphorism attributed to the 19th Century Prussian Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke (the elder). While von Moltke may not have said it in exactly those words, the idea is reflected in several places in his writings and the wisdom therein is thus on offer to the wise man who wishes to learn from the experience of others.

This brings us to the possibility of learning useful and even important lessons from the study of history, something long advocated for students of military affairs by figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and our friend von Moltke. Many people, especially politicians, are demonstrably fond of citing various lessons from history to support whatever action – or inaction – they are advocating. But as most historians (and some politicians) know, history can be a slippery instructor and it is often hard to be certain that the right lesson has been learned.

For those interested in knowing more about the possible uses and abuses of history and its lessons, there are two books in particular that should be looked for:

“Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought” by David Hackett Fischer, (1970, New York, Harper & Row, LoC 69-15583), and,

“Thinking in Time, The Uses of History of Decision Makers” by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, (1986, New York, The Free Press/Macmillan, ISBN 0-02-922790-9).

In the first book, historian David Fischer attempts to set out a disciplined and logical approach to the study of history and the analysis of historical events – and in the process examines the myriad ways in which historians and others can get it wrong. He hangs this attempt upon a list of fallacies that he has found committed by historians and the users of history, grouping this list into 12 categories each with some 10 to 12 member fallacies: Fallacies of Question-framing; Fallacies of Factual Verification; Fallacies of Factual Significance; Fallacies of Generalization; Fallacies of Narration; Fallacies of Causation; Fallacies of Motivation; Fallacies of Composition; Fallacies of False Analogy; Fallacies of Semantical Distortion; and Fallacies of Substantive Distraction. Personally, I find it difficult to find any of the listed fallacies that cannot be used in connection with much of the debate in recent years over the war on terror, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the debate on who demonstrates the greatest support for the troops. Nevertheless, I would draw the special attention of the reader to the Fallacies of False Analogy, Fallacies of Question-framing, Fallacies of Verification, and Fallacies of Causation.

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May based their 1986 work, “Thinking in Time,” on their experience teaching an innovative course at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in which they sought to instruct high-level public officials and their aides on how to use history in their decision-making. The book discusses some 30 historical case studies used in their classes to reflect upon the misuses of historical analogy and on proper ways to draw upon historical examples in addressing contemporary issues. The selected case studies range from the secession crisis leading up the outbreak of the American Civil War, the creation of Social Security in 1935 and separately its reform in 1983, the question of defending South Korea in 1950, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the subsequent 1979 issue of the presence in Cuba of a Soviet military brigade, and a number of cases relating to different aspects of the conflict in Indochina that became the United States’ Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. The book includes appendixes providing additional detailed information regarding the catalog of case studies, the analytical methods presented in the course of instruction, and discussion of the different courses that the authors have prepared and taught drawing upon these ideas.

A central argument almost inevitably raised in any discussion of the use of history in decision-making or the making of historical comparisons in discussing contemporary issues is the idea that history does (or does not) repeat itself. Personally, I am not in complete disagreement with either side of this debate. On the one side, I have to agree that history does not appear to have ever repeated itself exactly, despite the fact that people confronting the same or similar problem or challenge will often respond in the same or similar ways. But it is this very observation that leads me to counter-argue that “No, history does not repeat itself, but people do.”