Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck (complete with eyewitnesses!)

I'm sure that almost everyone will recognize the name of the author and novelist John Steinbeck, although most of you will not recognize the name of John Steinbeck the war correspondent. Nevertheless, like many others in those years, John Steinbeck went to war but with pad, pencil, and typewriter in North Africa and Italy - and later he would do it again briefly in Vietnam.

Fortunately for those of us who did not have the chance to read his original reports during World War II, a collection of them has been published as "Once There Was A War" by in fact several publishers over the years. I had the great fun over the past year of reading this collection and especially enjoyed Steinbeck's articles when I realized that I had the opportunity to read his 1943 exactly 70 years from the date of their original publication. The collection makes for a great read and I enjoyed them so much that I want to share one of these with you since it seems very appropriate for New Years Eve as we pass from 2013 into 2014. I've in fact found this exact same story already on the internet via several websites including one for a newspaper that carried the original publication.

If he were here with us now, telling this story to us over our beverages of choice, he might begin with those immortal words, 'no shit, this really happened'. Steinbeck comes pretty close to that in this column and I have attempted to further validate for you his list of eyewitnesses (barring the British Consul in Algiers who I can't identify and one journalist whose name apparently has escaped the notice of today's internet). Without further ado, I turn you over to Mr. Steinbeck.

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck

Monday, November 1, 1943

--This story would not be written if there were not witnesses—not vague unknown men, but Quentin Reynolds and H.R. Knickerbocker and Clark Lee and Jack Belden, who was hurt at Salerno, and John Lardner and a number of others who will come clamoring forward if anyone doubts the facts here to be presented.

The thing began when a British consul met Quentin Reynolds in the hall of the Alletti Hotel in Algiers. The consul was a small, innocent, well-mannered man who liked to think of the British and Americans as allies and who was willing to make amicable gestures. In good faith he asked Reynolds where he was staying and in equal good faith Reynolds replied that he had not yet been billeted.

“There’s an extra bed in my room,” the consul said. “You’re welcome to it if you like.”

That was the beginning, and what happened was nobody’s fault. It was just one of those accidents. The consul had a nice room with a balcony that overlooked the harbor and from which you could watch air raids. It wasn’t Reynolds’ fault. He accepted hospitality for himself, not for the nine other war correspondents who moved in with him. Nine is only a working number. Sometimes there were as many as eighteen. They slept on the floor, on the balcony, in the bathroom, and some even slept in the hall outside the door of Room 140, Alletti Hotel, Algiers.

It was generally agreed that the consul should have his own bed, that is, if he kept it. But let him get up to go to the bathroom and he returned to find Knickerbocker or Lee or Belden, or all three, in it. Another thing bothered the consul a little bit. Correspondents don’t sleep much at night. They talked and argued and sang so that the poor consul didn’t get much rest. There was too much going on in his room. He had to work in the daytime, and he got very little sleep at night. Toward the end of the week he took to creeping back in the middle of the afternoon for a nap. He couldn’t get his bed then. Someone always had it. But a three in the afternoon it was usually quiet enough so that he could curl up on the floor and get a little rest.

The foregoing is not the unbelievable part—quite the contrary. It is what follows that will require witnesses. It was during one of the all-night discussions of things in general that someone, perhaps Clark Lee, perhaps Dour Jack Belden, suggested that we were getting very tired of Algerian wine and wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Scotch. From that point on this is our story and we intend to stick to it.

Someone must have rubbed something, a ring or a lamp or perhaps the utterly exhausted British consul. At any rate, there was a puff of blue smoke and standing in the room was a small man with pointed ears and a very jolly stomach. He wore a suit of green leather and his cap and the toes of his shoes ended in sharp points and they were green too.

“Saints of Galway,” said Reynolds. “Do you see what I see?”

“Yes,” said Clark Lee.

“Well, do you believe it?”

“No,” said Lee, who is after all a realist and was at Corregidor.

Jack Belden has lived in China for many years and he knows about such things. “Who are you?” he asked sternly.

“I’m little Charley Lytle,” the elf said.

“Well, what do you want, popping in on us?” Belden cried.

The British consul groaned and turned over and pulled the covers over his head. Knickerbocker has since admitted that his first impulse was to kill the elf and stuff him to go beside the sailfish in his den. In fact, he was creeping up when Charley Lytle held up his hand.

“When war broke out I tried to enlist,” he said. “But I was rejected on political grounds. It isn’t that I have any politics,” he explained. “But the Army’s position is that if I did have, heaven knows what they would be. There hasn’t been a Republican leprechaun since Coolidge. So I was rejected pending the formulation of an Elves-in-Exile Battalion. I decided then that I would just make people happy, soldiers and war correspondents and things like that.”

Reynolds’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He is very loyal. “Are you insinuating that we aren’t happy?” he gritted. “That my friends aren’t happy?”

“I’m not happy,” said the British consul, but no one paid any attention to him.

Little Charley Lytle said, “I heard some mention made of Scotch whisky. Now it just happens that I have----“

“How much?” said Clark Lee, who is a realist.

“Why, all you want.”

“I mean how much money?” Lee demanded.

“You don’t understand,” said little Charley. “There is no money involved. It is my contribution to the war—I believe you call it effort.”

“I’m going to kill him,” cried Knickerbocker. “Nobody can sneer at my war and get away with it.”

Reynolds said, “Could we get a case?”

“Surely,” said little Charley.

“Three cases?”


Lee broke in, “Now don’t you strain him. You don’t know what his breaking point is.”
“When can you deliver?” Reynolds asked.

Instead of answering, little Charley Lytle made a dramatic and slightly ribald gesture. There was one puff of smoke and he had disappeared. There followed three small explosions, like a series of tine depth charges, and on the floor of Room 140 of the Alletti hotel in Algiers lay three cases of Haig and Haig Pinch Bottle, ringed with the hot and incredulous eyes of a platoon of thirsty correspondents.

Reynolds breathed heavily the way a man does when he has a stroke. “A miracle!” he whispered. “A miracle straight out of the middle ages or Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Dour Jack Belden has lived a long time in China. On top of a basic pessimism, he has seen everything and is difficult to impress. His eyes now wandered out the arched window to the sweltering streets and the steaming harbor below. “It’s a medium good trick,” he said. “But it’s a cold-weather trick. I’d like to give him a real test.” He ignored the growl of growing rage from his peers. “If this so-called Elf could produce a bottle of say La Batt’s Pale India Ale on a day like this, I’d say he was a comer—“He was interrupted by a slight fall of snow from the hot and fly-specked ceiling. Our eyes followed the lazy white flakes to the floor, where they fell on a box of slim-necked bottles. The snow swirled and spelled out Courtesy of Canada in the air.

I think Jack Belden went too far. He said lazily, “But is it cold?”

Reynolds flung himself forward and touched the neck of a bottle. “Colder than a (two words deleted by censor),” he said.

That night there was an air raid, and even the British consul enjoyed it. And anyone who doesn’t believe this story can ask any of the people involved, even dour Jack Belden.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“I Need the COIN Cart in here, STAT!!” - Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body

A Commentary upon the program presented by General Stanley A. McChrystal (ret.), and Kristina Talbert-Slagle

General McChrystal and Dr. Talbert-Slagle gave an interesting presentation December 19 at The Brookings Institution on “Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body.”  The concept they presented, that the process of fighting an infection like HIV/AIDS in the human body offered parallels and insights into fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in a nation-state, is not new but neither was their presentation a waste of time.  The metaphor imagining a nation or society as a human body or biological organism dates back to the Renaissance.  As recently as the 1950s, officials spoke of fighting off the infection of communism in the USA and abroad.  Nevertheless, it may be that by the power of PowerPoint they presented this notion more effectively and thoughtfully than it has been in the past.

Right at the beginning of their presentation I really appreciated Dr. Talbert-Slagle’s comment that the body is a system of systems, an important concept for understanding both the human body and the body politic.  What the metaphor also offers is a clearer picture of the two-pronged approach that is the basis of counterinsurgency – one line of effort confronts the infection itself while the second line of effort addresses the challenge of maintaining and increasing the body’s strength to better fight off the infection.  This translates into a military effort against the insurgent combat arm and another line of effort to strengthen the current political/social/governmental institutions.

Their presentation included many references to Afghanistan and a lesser degree to Iraq, although I personally saw an even better match with Ireland from 1916 to 1923, a focus of my own recent research.  Ireland in this period is an excellent model which also highlights several additional and useful elements of the infection/insurgency metaphor.

For example, one reason the British authorities were not more alarmed over a possible rising during 1914, 1915, and into early 1916 was the proliferation of armed marching groups in Ireland that had been active over these years.  The British authorities were aware of the Ulster Volunteers, MP John Redmond’s Irish National Volunteers, MacNeil and Pearse’s Irish Volunteers, James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians Rifles.  Of these, the most dangerous were actually the smallest – Pearse’s Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army.  These would actually turn out for the Easter 1916 Rising.  Within the infection metaphor, each of the marching groups represented a separate infection.  This multiplicity of active “infections” served to mask the activities of the others making it harder for the government to make a timely diagnosis of which was the real threat requiring treatment.

Another critically important parallel between COIN and fighting infection is the need for the active participation of the patient.  Both geopolitical and medical experience suggest that it is critically important in counterinsurgency for the population and their leadership (in government and otherwise) to buy in to the COIN effort, just as the medical patient must take an active role alongside his or her doctor in deciding upon an effective course of treatment.

One questioner interjected an interesting issue when he noted that the earliest cases of HIV/AIDS occurred among gay men and that the associated stigma delayed serious action by the medical world, politicians, and society at large for several years.  While this point was acknowledged but not elaborated on during the presentation, I believe that a similar problem of stigma can be identified in connection with a state confronted by an insurgency.  Insurgencies almost always emerge in failing or failed states seriously troubled by corruption and poverty and related increases in violence and criminal activity, among other factors.  These and other signs of the breakdown of the state stigmatize that state and reduce the willingness of other governments and their electorates to be associated with the regime now targeted by an insurgency.  The troubled nation and its population have become “the other” – distinct and separate from the “us” of the US and the Western world.

The association of the metaphor and the already noted situation in Ireland gave rise to another thought as I pondered the implications of the metaphor.  Following the defeat of the Easter 1916 Rising, the British quarantined the infection by executing 16 people they identified as ringleaders and imprisoned almost 1,500 others identified as participants.  Although the situation in Ireland did not then worsen, it also did not return to the pre-Rising “normal”.  About a year later, Britain began releasing its prisoners and allowing them to return to Ireland.

These returning prisoners were in fact even more determined to win Ireland’s independence after their year in prison.  They returned with greater cohesion, unity, and purpose than before. In effect, Britain now faced a super-bug in Ireland, resistant to the treatments used in the past.  Ireland suffered a relapse as a new, more violent, prolonged conflict now broke out.  Finally, in 1922, Britain and Ireland signed a treaty ending British rule in Ireland.  Medically, what had happened over the period 1914-1922 was that the patient and physician had disagreed upon the proper course of treatment and neither really anticipated the dangers of reinfection by a new stronger (more virulent?) form of the ‘virus’.

What the two speakers have presented to us is not a solution to the challenges of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare. They have revived and improved a metaphor that will help many people better understand the issues and challenges of counterinsurgency. The better both patient and physician understand the challenges and each other, the more likely they will successfully treat the disease.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

You Can't Have One Without the Other

December 15’s Sunday Washington Post featured a great review by Gerard DeGroot of the new book “Strategy, A History” by Lawrence Freedman, a British strategic analyst and former foreign policy analyst to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. What made this a great review was not just the reviewer's positive comments about the book (he convinced me that I want to read it), but I especially appreciated his comments illuminating the relationship between plans and strategy – which are far too often confounded by those discussing either or both.

At the conclusion of his review, Professor DeGroot writes, “All this strategizing is, in truth, an attempt to impose individual will upon a recalcitrant world…We convince ourselves that we are, in fact, architects of our own fate…much more palatable than having to admit that we might be mere flotsam in a turbulent sea of circumstance.” The latter reference resonates with me because it calls to mind the reality within which we work and struggle, especially at the level of national security and warfighting.

DeGroot’s statement resonated with some of the lessons I had learned from experience – enlightened at least equally by a number of tenets drawn from the pages of On War, written by the 19th Century Prussian officer Clausewitz (and cited by DeGroot in his review)-“everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”. Strategy is how you intend to conduct your war – plans are how you will make that strategy effective in your campaigns and battles.

During a 30 year career as an American diplomat, I found that of all the Secretaries of State under whom I served only Henry Kissinger thought and worked at the level of strategy, having a clear picture of the nation’s starting point as well as relative current situation while still keeping an eye on the intended eventual end state.  By comparison, it seemed that his immediate predecessor and his successors were for numerous reasons focused intently upon whatever event had washed up into their inbox and there immediately burst into flames.

I suspect that Kissinger, DeGroot, myself, and possibly Clausewitz, share a metaphoric vision of the world in which time moves as a river, pushing us onward as we encounter events that are swallowed up by the forward momentum, are pushed aside by subsequent events or which on occasion force that forward flow from its seemingly intended direction and bursting these banks to move in new and unanticipated directions. A commander who relies upon a precisely executed sequence of actions is doomed to fail against this tide, but one who prepares and anticipates this reality in the knowledge that his plan serves primarily as the basis for whatever adaptation or improvisation will be forced him upon by events and circumstances will have every chance at success.

I have been a player of historically based war games and conflict simulations for more than 50 years, losing and winning innumerable battles, campaigns, and wars played out on a tabletop. I learned the hard way that in games which depended often upon chance (as does war according to Clausewitz), I had to make my plans in the expectation that my plan would not go perfectly or smoothly, but would be repeatedly disrupted either by my bad luck or my opponent's good luck. I had to make plans that were ‘luck-proof’, incorporating provisions against both the anticipated and unforeseen ‘what-ifs’ that might come. Napoleon himself, though an avid planner, also recognized this when he claimed that in battle “first I engage and then I see” – knowing as he did how chance events might derail his plans and how as soldiers say today, “the enemy gets a vote” on how, when, and where a battle will be conducted.

DeGroot’s review did not specifically draw drawn upon Clausewitz’ comments upon the role of chance in warfare, but the Professor does offer his own tale of the unforeseen events that converted his plan to read Freedman’s book in four days, draft his review on the fifth, revise and polish on the sixth, and (inevitably) on the seventh take his ease – into an event-driven reality that required seven days spent on just the reading. The Prussian general von Moltke the Elder famously wrote, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” The mythic iconic soldier, Sergeant Murphy, put it perhaps more succinctly but less elegantly when he reputedly said “shit happens.”