Tag Archives: war

Wanted: Experts on War

From the Archives, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2002

The head of studies at a prestigious Washington think tank quipped during a recent conversation that not one liberal foundation is interested in supporting non-governmental work on conventional war—“unless of course,” he said, “you mean gender studies [or] air power.”

The United States is fighting its third major conventional conflict in little more than a decade, but there are few independent civilian experts who can talk knowledgeably about this type of warfare. There are a handful of academics,most of whom are primarily concerned with theory; some defense industry and think tank experts beholden to corporate sponsors; and a division of retired military officers.

The public loses almost every time some bloviating retired general is interviewed on television. During a recent TV news program, one general was asked how long the anti-terrorism war might take. “As long as it takes to get the job done,” he replied. Viewers would have been better served if a military public affairs officer had been interviewed; at least then they would have known they were getting the official line, not something masquerading as analysis.

Policy-makers and military decision-makers would also benefit from outside expertise—from analysis based on public interest and an awareness of what is and isn’t politically possible. Instead of the interminable prattle from biased experts who support weapon system A over weapon system B, the military needs a citizenry that clearly understands the reality of the use of force in the twenty-first century.

The conduct of war is too important to be left only to the generals. What the public needs is a new cadre of experts who understand the causes and consequences of conventional warfare, who—despite being civilians—are able to approach the topic from a position of military expertise.

Are the foundation to blame for this lack of civilian expertise? As one foundation executive says: “There are conventional wars going on all over the place all the time and many of us can name at least some of them.”

Although foundations have minimally supported a number of campaigns related to conventional warfare—small arms, land mines, ethnic conflict, and the arms trade—they have not developed a coherent, overarching approach to the issue. As one non-governmental expert told me: “The 1990s were chaotic, and no single vision emerged as to how to deal with the post–Cold War era.” With no overarching security threat to focus on, he says, foundations began supporting work on “soft” topics, but never in a consistent or concerted way. He fears that in the wake of September 11, issues that the foundations “had the luxury to take on in the 1990s” may be abandoned in favor of international terrorism.

Part of the Reason September 11 happened was that U.S. policy-makers and think tank experts were too busy worrying about dubious threats of weapons of mass destruction to assess the obvious and more likely threat of unconventional terrorism.

The terrorist attacks were also the product of an unresolved war in Iraq, the growing U.S. military presence in the Gulf region, and the widespread perception of American impunity in an age of air power.

Don’t get me wrong—I am not arguing that the U.S. military should fight conflicts in the same way as its adversaries. But it might be wise to ask ourselves about the long-term implications of this new American style of war. Undertaking that appraisal, however, requires a savvy, thoughtful, educated, and knowledgeable group of independent experts.

“I suspect the issue isn’t so much that foundations don’t understand the devastation caused by conventional war,” the head of one large NGO told me, “as that they view it as inevitable or at least very difficult to avoid.” But this is no excuse,he says, for not paying more attention and devoting more resources to the issue.

A good start might be knowing what and where the wars are.

Brats are the new Heroes, Salute the Dogs; That’s an Order.

My twitter feed is clogged with various military commands and bases reminding me to celebrate the Month of the Military Child this April.  “Take Time to Honor Military Kids’ Service,” says the National Guard in a typical posting.

“Heroes for the Future” is the theme of today’s Army public affairs STAND-TO! Edition.  “Approximately two million children have experienced deployment of one or both parents, since 2010. These children bravely endured the effects of over ten years of conflict,” it says.

I guess no one wants to call them military brats anymore.

I’m torn though, because the Defense Video Imagery and Distribution System is also telling me to recognize the sacrifices of the dogs of war.

“In a combat environment largely devoid of the safety and comforts of home, the energetic Labrador retrievers are neither pets nor expendable objects.  They’re faithful friends and saviors of Marines,” DVIDS writes, in a profile of Marines and their dogs in combat.

“The Four-Legged Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan,” tweets Fast Company, in its military working dog pin-up spread.  “Ideal for the battlefield,” says Maria Goodavage, author of the new book Soldier Dogs.

Ideal yes, and revered, and enlisted.  In 2008, the Defense Department opened the $13 million Holland Military Working Dog Hospital in Texas to deal with the growth of the canine population.  The hospital cares for the 900 dogs that are at  Lackland AFB, where handlers are trained.

I know that the convention of blogging is cleverness and even meanness, but that is not my intent here.  And certainly combining kids, dogs, and military families and service in one blog posting will undoubtedly rile someone.

But I have some serious unresolved questions and thoughts:

– Is there some relationship between dogs and drones?  Unmanned everything rule the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, hunting for bad guys, even delivering supplies to those very Marines marooned on their remote island.   Where are we really going in warfare?

– In a week where the head of the General Services Administration is made to resign for wasting taxpayer dollars ($800,000) at a lavish Las Vegas conference, what about the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent/wasted on military social media, outreach that really serves no purpose other than public mobilization?  Isn’t there something bizarre about the taxpayer paying for propaganda to keep it paying taxes?

– Is the military public affairs apparatus tugging a little too hard on public heartstrings, so much so that it’s more like a leash being pulled?  After all, we are at war and people are dying and being injured.   What does it all say about humanity and the prospects for creating peace?

It’s Official: CENTCOM has started preparing for war with Iran

The U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East is augmenting its Iran war-planning and intelligence analysis staff at a time when navy minesweepers are going to the Persian Gulf and there is an increase in other naval defenses.  The U.S. has also quietly deployed Patriot missile batteries to the Gulf for possible conflict with Iran.

So while all eyes in this stand-off might be focused on Iran’s nuclear pursuits and Iranian actions, there are American defensive measures as well, some open and some not so open, that also provide stimuli.  Each move and counter-move can intrinsically escalate tensions; so much so that that the nation’s top military officer is speaking openly about Iranian misjudgments of either American intentions or the purpose of American defensive preparations.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that Iran could suffer the consequences of misjudgment.  “There are some things that we know they will respond to,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey was mostly warning that Iraq “could get it wrong and suffer the consequences,” as he said, describing U.S. (and Israeli) will to act if it defies the international community.  But rationality is obviously on Dempsey’s mind.

I’ve been writing for at least five years about U.S. war preparations for Iran, and in 2006, I wrote that “on the surface, Iran controls the two basic triggers that could set off U.S. military action.”  Those then were acquisition of nuclear capability in defiance of the international community and lashing out militarily at the United States or its allies, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to international oil traffic.  Not much has changed in five years and it’s always useful to remind ourselves that Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear capability has been imminent for too long to qualify any longer as imminent.

But five years ago, the United States was overwhelmed by a war in Iraq and most of the writing about an Iran war focused on the Bush administration and its irrationality.  Five years later, Bush is gone and Iraq is no longer a resource-sucking military albatross for the United States.

Does that mean then that war is more likely today – this week, this month, in the next six months – than before?  Well one thing is clear: Iran still holds most of the cards.

So when I hear that CENTCOM’s Joint Intelligence Center has stood up an Iran Integrative Assessments Team, and that the planning staff in Florida is redoubling efforts to assess Iranian strategy and military capabilities, I’ve got to ask myself if there’s something I’m missing, something that’s going on behind the scenes that makes this time anything other than contingency planning as usual.

Though both the United States and Israel have the ability, with conventional, nuclear, or cyber weapons to mount a tactical surprise attack upon Iran – and that’s why it’s easy for so many to endlessly speculate about attacking that (or any other) country — at least for the United States, there is a certain cycle of preparations, a certain time scale of preparations, that are really necessary.   It even took the United States almost a month to attack the Taliban and al Qaeda after 9/11 and a lot of the reasons had nothing to do with Afghanistan’s geographic isolation or the absence of a plan.  The reality of war was the need to get everything prepared.

Thus the United States would accompany any strike with the mobilization of requisite strike, air and missile defense, naval forces, and even force protection elements to prepare for a counterstrike and protect the U.S.   Some of these moves are taking place, but they sort of still follow a cyclical pattern and next month, those same minesweepers could leave the Persian Gulf,

But when the responsible command CENTCOM starts to work on “conceptualizing, directing and executing long-term research and all-source analytic production on Iranian strategy, calculus and military operational capabilities,” which is what the Defense Intelligence Agency personnel stationed at the Florida headquarters are now doing, it seems more methodical and serious than deployments here and there.  The Integrative Assessments Team, according to DIA papers, is supporting CENTCOM’s “analytic activities on Iran’s strategic calculus, operational art and military resource decision-making” in support of war planning.

The ducks are indeed being prepared, even if they are not being put in order yet.

The Crisis of Our Military

What ruins it for me in Bob Scales’ eloquent op-ed – “Too many wars, too few U.S. soldiers” — in The Washington Post about the Afghanistan shooting and the state of our Army (and armed forces) is that retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales also makes an unsatisfying argument on behalf of his institution and a military solution.

“A succession of national leaders,” Scales says, “fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out.”  Then it’s the media to blame for “trying to make some association between the terrible crime of this sergeant and the Army’s inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.”

Then, the conclusion: “the real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Scales, who I count as friend and colleague, that the young soldiers shoulder an “enormously disproportionate share of emotional stress.”  And I believe something is very wrong.

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap also has something to say about the Afghan shootings.  I received this press release from Duke University, where the former deputy judge advocate general hangs his hat these days, offering up Dunlap for interviews:

The “news tip” extensively quotes Dunlap making an argument for a “major revamping of Afghan policy” and promoting his hobby-horse of what he calls the scourge of “lawfare.”  Dunlap concludes:

“… given that it is virtually impossible to root out every potential rogue from the millions who serve in uniform, military planners may want to rethink the manpower-intensive strategies that have come to dominate American military policy, and especially counterinsurgency doctrine in which winning hearts and minds is said to be essential.”

I imagine that retired Air Force major general Dunlap, whom I always enjoy, isn’t suggesting a rethink in the same way Scales is.  To the airmen, manpower-intensive means boots on the ground, in other words, an argument for more airpower.

So:  More Army?  More Air Force?  A new, new counterinsurgency doctrine to fight forever wars?  Those are our choices?

I come away hungry for a non-institutional, non-Washington oriented societal argument.  Dunlap calls for “military planners” to rethink, which in the inferiority complex of the air force institution is code for the dominant ground service officers, the Army; Scales seems to only be able to name “national leaders” and “the media” for what he calls “exploitation and cynical overuse.”

One area where Dunlap is inadvertently wrong and Scales is right though is that there are not “millions who serve in uniform.”  Well, not in the way Dunlap means that there are millions.

There are technically just over two million in the active duty and reserves; but the military is nowhere like it was during the draft days of Vietnam or the true mobilization of millions in World War II or the Korean War.  And within that two million who serve are a far smaller number of deployable military personnel.  And within that few hundred thousand who deploy into Afghanistan (or did into Iraq) are a far smaller number who leave the (relative) safety fortresses to fight.  I know out there somewhere are some facts to back me up – that only a scandalously small percentage of all people in uniform have even ever deployed once to those actual countries; in other words, most do in fact shoulder the majority of the burden.

No one has cynically created this circumstance, but the military institution is well aware of this now ten-year old reality.  Firepower has become so concentrated and networks have become so large and ubiquitous that only tiny numbers of soldiers are ‘needed’ on the front lines compared to Scales’ days.  But as Scales and Dunlap both know, firepower isn’t what is going to win these wars, any more than a larger military or an air force/special operations dominated head-hunting campaign would.

We all share the blame for this ethical quagmire.  We cede war-making to an increasingly isolated professional caste, we cede to them the design and makeup of  the military, we facilitate and tolerate what Scales calls “exploitation” of a few as long as the dangers are kept away from us, and we don’t pay attention until our well-oiled and distant machine has a breakdown or an industrial accident.  And once the breakdown occurs – the rogue soldier, the errant bomb, the Abu Ghraib – we expect the floor managers and professionals to fix the machine.  To paraphrase someone: We are the machine.