Feb 28

(A note before we begin: The Infinity Journal issue extensively cited and quoted below does have one article by Professor Beatrice Heuser that--in line with an intellectual tradition of B.H. Liddell Hart, John Keegan and Hew Strachan among others--describes how many of Clausewitz’ original ideas are borrowed, incomplete or wrong. Heuser specifically says Clausewitz shouldn’t be considered a prophet, but one voice among many.

Exactly.)

Yesterday, I described self-labeled “Clausewitzians” as an intellectual movement that verges on cultish. When a leader’s work only makes sense when it is “read properly”, well, that sounds more religious than intellectual.

My worries about Clausewitz don’t end there, though. Reading The Infinity Journal special issue dedicated to Clausewitz, I couldn’t help but spot several intellectual “red flags”, giant warning signs that say, “These Clausewitzians aren’t analyzing so much as adhering to Clausewitz at all costs.”

Red Flag 1: Clausewitz Is Never Wrong

Many intellectuals and historians blamed Clausewitz, in part, for World War I. (Specifically, On Violence favorite, John Keegan.) The thinking went, since the belligerents on all sides, especially the Germans, read Clausewitz, would have called themselves Clausewitzians, and tried to apply his ideas, the tremendous waste of life and energy that was World War I rests partly on his shoulders. I mean, if a Chief of Staff of the German Army writes a foreword to the fifth edition of Von Kriege, can he safely be called a Clausewitzian?

Not according to Clausewitzians. One author in the Infinity Journal specifically claims that German officers followed Clausewitz but misunderstood his key points. So again, “read properly” Clausewitz explains why even though avowed Clausewitzians acted as they believed Clausewitz would have advised, it isn’t actually Clausewitz’ fault. This same hindsight allows his followers to assert that every war adheres to his dictums. In the words of William F. Owen, “Clausewitzians are not confused about war, warfare and strategy because they read a book that explained about 90% of what could be usefully explained.”
   
Except for the German leaders who read his book? Time and time again Clausewitzians refuse to accept the limits of On War, and instead blame the readers. If a book tends to mislead it readers, it’s the books fault, not the readers.

Red Flag 2: You Can’t Criticize Clausewitz Unless You Agree with Clausewitz

William F. Owen’s article in the Infinity Journal, “To Be Clausewitzian”, has this delicious counter-intuitive:

“Additionally, and perhaps ironically, you can really only understand where Clausewitz fell short when you understand the real genius in what he got right.”

It isn’t ironic; it’s stifling. It means Clausewitz is impervious to criticism. Clausewitzians love this logic, like J Wolfsberger commenting on the SWJ council:

"I agree, he can't possibly be picking on CvC, since he either never read him, or didn't comprehend what he read."

If only those who agree with Clausewitz can understand Clausewitz, it isn’t an intellectually robust theory.

Red Flag 3: On War in Hindsight Explains Every War Perfectly

In hindsight, On War is 100% accurate. [Emphasis mine]

“Additionally On War more than adequately explains Israel’s lack of success in the 2006 Lebanon War, as does his work for the outcome in any conflict. Various analysts may pontificate, and argue, but Clausewitzians will not be confused.”

Apparently, Clausewitz works perfectly in hindsight. Though, as the German Army in World War I and U.S. Army in the 1980s examples show, it hardly ever works out before the war.

Red Flag 4: If You Don’t Accept Clausewitz, You Are Wrong

“Indeed one can be rightly suspicious of anyone who indulges in military or strategic thought who is not well grounded in On War.

Interpretation: Be suspicious of George C. Marshall, who didn’t read Clausewitz. (He also prepared the U.S. for war in Europe and the Pacific fairly well, without reading Clausewitz.)

Red Flag 5: On War Has Huge Problems

As William F. Owen himself admits this; something better can exist. He describes Clausewitz’ masterpiece as too long, deliberately confusing, and unfinished at the time of his death. This shows the rather obvious counter to Clausewitz worship: a simpler, better work explaining war could exist.

Does that sound like a writer who has “90% of all war” figured out?

Red Flag 6: Clausewitz Might Encourage War

In this long essay which kicked off one of the Small Wars Journal discussion threads I relied on for these posts, William Astore bemoans what might be the biggest problem with Clausewitz:

“Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it. Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories."

This might be the most damning problem of Clausewitz. Try as they might to claim that everyone from current generals to the post-Vietnam generals to John Keegan to the German military before 1914 was simply misreading Clausewitz, Clausewitizians should admit that Carl von Clausewitz lends himself to misinterpretation. Tragically (maybe horrifically), this misinterpretation encourages nations to see war as a simple extension of policy, not a moral or ethical dilemma of the largest measure.

To reiterate a final time: those studying strategy, international relations and military history should, nee must, read Carl von Clausewitz. However, Clausewitz is not the alpha and omega, not the be all end all, not the beginning and ending of strategic thought. So-called “Clausewitzians” should not forget that.

Feb 27

Yesterday two words in my quote of Dr. Colin Gray stood out, “read properly”.

“Read improperly”, the writings of Clausewitz are incomprehensible garbage; “Read properly” On War reveals the inexorable truth behind all war and strategy for all of time.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

“Read (or interpreted) properly” is the same refrain mystics, seers, prophets and oracles have used for millennia when their predictions don’t come true. They are what true believers say to defend the indefensible. Which is why, looking at the slavish attachment of some Clausewitz devotees, I think Clausewitzians are true believers.

“Read properly” isn’t the only red flag. Take this quote by William F. Owen writing in an Infinity Journal issue dedicated solely to the greatest German soldier-turned-philosopher:

On War stands tall because no other work of military thought gives such correct and useful guidance. Beyond anything else, ‘Clausewitzians’ do not just study Clausewitz’s On War out of academic interest. They use it as the basis of their thinking.”

Yikes, two more giant intellectual red flags. First, ‘Clausewitzians’ have their own moniker that distinguishes them from other military strategists. Sure, other fields have categories. International relations, for instance, has “realists”, “constructivists”, “neo-cons” and “liberals”. International relations, though, doesn’t depend solely on one thinker who’s been dead for a hundred and fifty years. Even more worrying is the last sentence, the cultish sounding, “They use it as the basis for their thinking.”

Wow.

I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. Clausewitzians don’t just follow Clausewitz,...they adhere to him. They believe he has all the answers...when he doesn’t. They insist he is infallible...except when he isn’t, when they blame it on not “reading him properly”. While cults are normally religious organizations, the same fanaticism can apply to intellectual endeavors.

Take Ayn Rand’s objectivists. The reverent tones which Rand’s followers use to describe her ideas mirror those of the Clausewitzians. The most penetrating analysis comes from Michael Shermer writing in Skeptic magazine about Ayn Rand. He has written about multiple cultish movements--like holocaust denial, scientology, climate change denial and creationism--but this article about Ayn Rand’s followers has a quote that applies equally well to “Clausewitzians”:

“[Objectivism] is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth, when final results of inquiry become more important than the process of inquiry, and especially when reason leads to an absolute certainty about one’s beliefs such that those who are not for the group are against it.”

While Clausewitz’ doesn’t have an organization dedicated solely to his beliefs, “Clausewitzians” practice the worship, veneration and belief in the inerrancy of their intellectual leader that cults demand. Reading the Clausewitzian adherents, its hard not to come away with the feeling that Clausewitz has it all figured out. What do you think, William F. Owen?

“Just because stupid people mis-quote Clausewitz and do not understand him, does not make CvC not incredibly useful - and no one has ever done better!”

As Michael Shermer points out in his article about cults, the search for truth is more about the process, not about the answers. Clausewitzians have all the answers. I advocate reading Clausewitz as a starting point on the road to intellectual discovery, not the end point. Clausewitzians don’t. That’s where we disagree.

Tomorrow I’ll revel in some other quotes that should make you question anyone who calls themselves a “Clausewitzian”.

Feb 26

I’ve been accused by some people of hating Carl von Clausewitz (specifically for “slaying Clausewitzian strawmen”). Let’s go to the tape to see what I originally wrote about CvC:

"I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker..."

I don’t hate CvC; I merely believe that military strategy and the study of war rely much too heavily on one thinker. And have no doubt, American military science/strategic studies relies too much on Clausewitz. Some have called it a “German fetish”, and I can’t disagree. Take Dr. Colin Gray writing about military theory [pdf] in the Strategic Studies Quarterly :

“A true glory of the three preeminent classics of strategic thought—Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War—is that they tell us all that we need to know about war’s unchanging nature. Read properly, they explain the nature of all war in all periods, among all belligerents, employing all weapons, and deploying an endless array of declared motives."

The Infinity Journal dedicated an entire article to Clausewitz, with pretty much the same thesis:   

“When it comes to the study of war and strategy--and despite the vast array of writings penned by brilliant men and women, both historical and contemporary--at the center of it all we still find Clausewitz...The result was success in the formulation of the foundations of a theory of war and strategy that no other theorist has before or since been able to rival...as far as observing, comprehending, and demonstrating via writings the fundamentals of war, Clausewitz is as close to a level of perfection as any theorist of war and strategy has so far been able to reach.”

At first, this seems reasonable. One thinker (Clausewitz), or three (Thucydides and Sun Tzu as well), have completely understood, defined and explained military strategy to their readers. But stop for a moment to really ponder this sentiment. Has one person ever dominated a field as thoroughly as Carl von Clausewitz? The Infinity Journal’s A.E. Stahl says they have:

“When we reflect on other areas of complex interests and activities, we can confidently...point to a number of intellectual giants that have conquered a wide array of vital subjects. They have graced posterity with considerable understanding and guidance that we rarely question.”

Except that’s entirely not true.

Take this list of the founders or kings of various academic disciplines:

Evolutionary biology                  Darwin

Genetics                                  Mendel

Psychology                               Freud

Behavioral Psychology               Pavlov

Realist Political Philosophy        Machiavelli

Liberal Political Philosophy        Locke

Economics                                Adam Smith

Physics                                     Copernicus then Newton then Einstein

Chemistry                                 Lavosier and Dalton

Philosophy                                Socrates and Plato

Each of the founders of these fields--I could call them the “one namers”--while still read, glorified and occasionally worshipped, no longer dominates their field, having been replaced by other theories, schools of thought and thinkers. Many of their original ideas have since been debunked or completely reworked.

Let’s start with the best example, Darwin. He literally created the theory of evolution, found evidence proving it, and popularized it. But biologists are not Darwinists. I’ll let John Rennie, editor in chief at Scientific American, rebuking the documentary No Intelligence Allowed, explain:

“The term [Darwinism] is a curious throwback, because in modern biology almost no one relies solely on Darwin's original ideas—most researchers would call themselves neo-Darwinian if they bothered to make the historical connection at all because evolutionary science now encompasses concepts as diverse as symbiosis, kin selection and developmental genetics."

Darwin didn’t know about or describe bottleneck evolution, gene flow, punctuated equilibrium, and so on. You won’t find On The Origin of Species assigned in a biology class as a textbook. And all of this ignores Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed a theory of natural selection contemporaneously to Darwin.

Or take Freud, who Wikipedia calls “the father of psychoanalysis”, and who most Americans call the founder of modern psychology. Many, if not most, of his ideas have been completely disavowed.

Think about non-science fields. Contemporary textbooks explain every topic from anthropology to sociology. You don’t read writing manuals from the 15th century, you read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (And now modern writing teachers disavow that text.) So far, in my economics course at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, I haven’t seen a copy of The Wealth of Nations. However will I learn modern economics?

This applies to the humanities as well. One couldn’t overturn, say, the work of Herodotus, the first historian. His history still stands. Agreed, except that the study of history has evolved dramatically since the time of ancient Greece. Few history professors would recommend their students emulate his work habits or cite his history as fact; he’s been surpassed. So science, social science and the humanities have all evolved beyond what their preeminent founders believed.

Except the study of strategy. Doesn’t that seem...wrong? Did one 18th century philosopher really get it all completely right, and everyone else just pales in comparison?

Probably not. Clausewitz wrote important things about strategy that modern officers could use. But self-proclaimed “Clausewitzians” hold up Carl von Clausewitz to a level of religious zealotry that I will address tomorrow.

Feb 20

(Today's guest post is by Austin Bodetti, who attends the Hopkins school in New Haven and has an avid interest in military history. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

From the Vietnam War to the Wars on Drugs and Terror, the United States of America has never stopped searching for pitched battles (i.e. guaranteed victories), yet even the most decisive of these battles mean nothing in terms of counterinsurgency. After the Tết Offensive, the Việt Cộng (vc) ceased to be a problem for the United States Army, but the US Army ceased to have popular support. Today is no different: the Battle of Baghdad and Fall of Kabul yielded similar results to Tết in the long term. Among all the lessons that the Vietnam War, Iraq War, and War in Afghanistan offer, nowhere in American history is there an example of the opposite, a case where guerillas had the means to defeat the counterinsurgent in pitched battle. Exceptions in warfare fall, as always, to the French.

Before the us Army fought the VC, the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO), led by Henri Eugène Navarre 1953–4, fought the Việt Minh. Navarre lacked the tactical genius of opponent Võ Nguyên Giáp; unlike the previous commander in chief Raoul Albin Louis Salan, Navarre had little experience in leadership. He was an intelligence officer thrown the job of leading four hundred thousand Frenchmen, Indochinese, and North Africans, and he blamed his problems on communists in Paris, who blamed the First Indochina War on him. It was this unremarkable man whom the French Fourth Republic and its American ally expected to succeed where six of France’s best generals had failed. It was he who would fail most remarkably of all.

The French high command proposed to Navarre a project that Salan had begun. In 1953’s Operation Castor, Salan had captured a large piece of Việt-Minh territory, where he established a sixteen-square-mile stronghold in a ravine outside the city Điện Biên Phủ. This base had two airstrips, enough artillery to flatten Vietnam, and a 10,800-man garrison, largely legionnaires and paratroopers.Para commander Marcel ‘Bruno’ Bigeard declared, ‘Dien Bien Phu est imprenable!’ and each of Navarre’s American advisors agreed. When Giáp attacked Điện Biên Phủ—he would have to attack since it was the honorable, French thing to do—the cefeo would be so ready that all Giáp’s men might die on the spot. The Americans liked this idea.

Neither the Americans nor Navarre expected Giáp to be an admirer of Napoléon Bonaparte, who first earned fame dragging artillery a few miles across the Alps. Giáp dragged his artillery all the way from Beijing. He shelled the French March through May 1954, when they surrendered…legionnaires, paras, and all. Giáp’s artillery, what ensured his victory, did not cross the Sino–Vietnamese border on his back. Thousands of peasants, communist and nationalist alike, offered to carry ammunition and food hundreds of miles by truck, by bicycle, and most often by foot. Plus, Giáp had forty-eight thousand soldiers, all volunteers, to the cefeo’s 10,800 professionals.

The French had better soldiers. They had better weapons. They even had Bigeard, called the greatest para in history. Decades later, Giáp would write the book People’s War, People’s Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries, where he described how guerillas could defeat a Western country as long as they had popular support. This support the French lacked, and five thousand reinforcements airdropped by Central-Intelligence-Agency pilots were never going to get it. The situation became so dire that the CIA proposed Operation Vulture: the US Air Force would nuke Việt-Minh positions around Điện Biên Phủ with British and French support. The French agreed. The British, who have long understood the nuances of counterinsurgency, did not. They saw that the First Indochina War was no Malayan Emergency, which the British had quelled by promising the Malays independence. The French had refused independence to the Khmers, the Laos, and the Vietnamese for the Indochina War’s eight years, and turning Điện Biên Phủ into Hiroshima would change nothing.

Like Giáp, Navarre wrote a book about his experience, where he blamed the defeat not on his own errors and those of the French in general but on communists in Paris, who continued to haunt him till his death in 1983. Bigeard, on the other hand, applied the lessons from the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in French Algeria, where he earned the love of civilians (Arab as well as French) and the respect of his enemy. Somehow, America has spent the last sixty years studying Điện Biên Phủ without learning to do the same.

Feb 18

Benghazi didn’t really register on the media terrorism richter scale. Blame the fact that the attack took place a continent away, blame the fact that Libya had been at war a year earlier, blame the media-consuming 2012 election, or blame the fact that only four people died as opposed to nearly 3,000; for whatever reason, Americans just didn’t have the same visceral reaction that they had been attacked as they felt on 9/11.

The lack of interest by the American public didn’t stop a few Republicans and one conservative news channel from blaming President Obama for the attack.

We’ve been dreading this for years. After a future terrorist attack, instead of rallying together as a nation, one side of the political spectrum will stand up and say, “If we were in power, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Presidents (rightfully) don’t get blamed for hurricanes or earthquakes. In many ways, terror attacks--or mass shootings or assassinations--are like natural disasters: very rare and essentially random. Most Americans avoided blaming President Bush and his administration for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks, though some (wrongly) tried to make this case years later.

This makes sense. 9/11 was a black swan event. Sure, some intelligence pointed to an attack, but tons of intelligence pointed to tons of other attacks too. Our national security establishment couldn’t read the signal through the noise. That isn’t that surprising; none of us saw it coming. (Outside of Tom Clancy, but if his books count as predictions, he’s been much more wrong than right.) As Bush said in 2004, “The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.”

After 9/11, though, politicians have essentially “been warned”. Most politicians believe that if the next attack occurs on their watch, then they will pay at the polls. If anyone relaxes their guard, the public will blame them for the resulting terror attacks, even though most national security spending is more theater than effective.
   
The only way to avoid impending geometric increases in security spending is if both sides promise to not blame the other for terrorism. Both sides have to agree not to cross this line; both sides must agree not to make terrorism a political wedge issue.

Yet...it happened after Benghazi. Republicans, disappointingly including Senator John McCain just yesterday, on Meet the Press, have argued that the Obama administration is somehow responsible for the deaths on that day, as if President Obama had condoned it, or knew about it, or could have prevented it. Republican lawmakers blamed Secretary Clinton for the attack at her congressional hearings as well.

The problem isn’t just hypocrisy (You can’t blame a terrorist attack on the Secretary of State but not blame President Bush for 9/11; You can’t blame Susan Rice without judging Condoleezza Rice, as The Daily Show smacks down right here.) as much as it’s a big, large step in the wrong direction for the nation. As long as Presidents dread another attack more than anything else, then national security spending will keep growing. Wars and interventions around the globe will continue. Presidents will focus on the short term as opposed to the long. And Attorneys General will erode civil liberties in a quest to “prevent the next 9/11”.

All of this will happen, unless we stop terrorism from becoming a political issue.

Feb 13

In Monday’s post, I argued that America should paint our warships headed to the Persian Gulf in rainbow patterns, à la Easter eggs. In short, disruptive camouflage would make Iranian asymmetric naval attacks harder to pull off. (Listen to this 99% Invisible podcast to understand the historical origins of “razzle dazzle” paint jobs.)

Of course, this will never happen. Not because it won’t work. No, innovative--neé disruptive?--ideas, like rainbow camouflage, die quick deaths in our risk-averse U.S. military establishment. In fact, the failure of innovative ideas like “razzle dazzle” combines several On Violence themes over the last few years.

Like...

1. The Pentagon/Military is inherently conservative.

Not in a political sense (though it is), but in a bureaucratic, traditionalist sense. I started my last post remarking that most armies prepare for the last war. In the U.S. Navy’s case, none of its current officers were even alive during the last true naval war. As I wrote here, I worry that our navy--filled with large, cumbersome but deadly aircraft carriers, battleships and frigates--might lose ships to Iranian small boats because warfare at sea evolved but our navy’s doctrine hasn’t. Even though small little changes like razzle dazzle camouflage could help, a conservative military won’t see the need for it until after the shooting starts.
   
As the 99% Invisible podcast described dazzle camouflage’s reception in World War I, “plenty of people who hated dazzle camouflage...traditional navy men mostly”. Not much has changed.

2. In the military, looks matter.

Consider this the triumph of style over substance. I’ve written about this explicitly here (about uniforms and “looking good”) and here (the obsession with shined boots).

So even if dazzle paint jobs saved lives, some Navy officers would ape their predecessors and object on the grounds that it would make their ships look silly.
       
3. Even if a bold admiral found the courage to adopt “razzle dazzle” it would pay [fill in over-priced defense contractor here] way too much to do it.

Wouldn’t Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics or Northrop-Grumman compete to earn the contract, but conveniently find ways to keep the minimum paint job price over a 100 million dollars? And then wouldn’t the price keep inflating as they failed to meet the time requirements, which they already charged extra for? And wouldn’t the Pentagon insist on testing every possible variety of paint in every condition, then demand more tests?

In the end, the Pentagon can’t afford to be entrepreneurial.

4. All of the entrepreneurial officers have already left the Pentagon.

I wrote about this in “Why I Got Out: That’s Just the Way It Is”. But I am just one officer who got out expressing his displeasure. An outgoing Marine lieutenant on Thomas Ricks’ blog summed it up, “I’m leaving the corps because it doesn’t much value ideas”. This other Rick’s post has a great summation of all the articles bemoaning the intellectual state of our officer corps. And Tim Kane has an entire book on the topic that just came out.

It’s not hard to see how the Pentagon sucks the entrepreneurial spirit from its commanders. Imagine how many hurdles a Navy admiral would have to clear to paint his ships in razzle dazzle, even if he knew it would save lives. How many officers in the Pentagon would have to sign off on this? How much of his career would be on the line? And would he be considered a rabble rouser who didn’t just toe the line?

The answers: Dozens (and congress), his entire career is at risk, and absolutely. So, yep entrepreneurship is dead in the military.

In the end, winning wars is about making better decisions more often than your opponents.

This might be the new theme of On Violence for 2013. Here is a Robert Rubin quote from his book In an Uncertain World that perfectly sums up this thinking:

“An important corollary to recognizing that decisions are about probabilities is that decisions should not be judged by outcomes but by the quality of the decision-making...Any individual decision can be badly thought through, but be successful, or exceedingly well thought through, but be unsuccessful, because the recognized possibility of failure in fact occurs. But over time, more thoughtful decision-making will lead to better overall results, and more thoughtful decision-making can be encouraged by evaluating decisions on how well they were made rather than on outcome.”

In other words, processes should trump results. It seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. Especially in warfare, the side with better processes that makes better decisions more often will win more...on average.

Razzle dazzle represents the failure to embrace better decisions. On its own, razzle dazzle won’t win the war with Iran. But it could lead Iranian small boats into making poor decisions. Combined with our Navy making better decisions--on average--and razzle dazzle could save U.S. lives.

And I frankly can’t see how “razzle dazzle” could hurt the U.S. war effort. Painting ships colors which make them hard to identify at sea has almost all upside, besides the financial cost. Being harder to spot at sea helps no matter what type of war you are fighting, and that includes conventional wars with radar guided missiles.

Considering the enormous Pentagon budget, I can’t see why we can’t spend a few million dollars making ships harder to target at sea. I mean, besides the lack of willingness to embrace innovation within the Pentagon.

Feb 11

Eric C and I love the free market. Economics, historical experience and classically-liberal political thought all demonstrate that the free market, through competition, weeds out weaker competitors in favor of better, more efficient, more effective rivals.

War weeds out weaker competition too. Unfortunately, only war weeds out weaker competition; peacetime militaries mostly have to guess whether or not they’ve prepared adequately/properly for the next war. Doubly unfortunately, most armies hate change. Conservatism and tradition, embodied by bureaucracy, rule the day.

Today, I want to describe an innovation (admittedly, a 100 year old innovation) in naval camouflage that I think could save lives--possibly hundreds of American’s lives--that will never, ever in a million years happen:

The Navy should paint its warships rainbow colors.

Okay, okay, okay. You probably expect me to make a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke right about now, and I’m not going to give it to you, because I am 100% serious. In addition to multi-colored hues, I believe the U.S. Navy should paint all its ships in zig-zags, stripes and swirls.

It’s called disruptive camouflage. Instead of blending with the background, you confuse your enemy. Think zebras. At first, its like, “Man, zebras suck at camouflage. They blend into nothing. That’s the worst camouflage ever.” Unless they’re not trying to blend into the background, but each other...that might actually trick lions.

Disruptive camouflage works in naval warfare. In World War I, when German U-boats surfaced to fire torpedoes at enemy ships and cargo vessels, they only had a few seconds to determine the distance and direction of these ships. They would then dive again to avoid being spotted, resurface, locate the enemy ship and fire. Since torpedoes traveled slowly, U-boats had to lead their targets by several nautical miles, trying to predict where their prey would end up in a few minutes time.

Seems tricky, right?

Well, British and American warships knew that U-boats needed to predict within eight degrees the direction of their victims, so they developed some counter-measures. Since blending in with the ocean is pretty much impossible, they tried to confuse their opponents instead.

By painting zigzags of different colors all over their battleships, when the U-boats surfaced, they could spot the American and British vessels; they just didn’t know where they were going. Or how far away they were. The different colors, swirls, zigzags and shapes made vessels appear to be traveling forward or backwards, slower or faster. When the U-boats resurfaced, they would often be aiming in the complete wrong direction, and would have to start the entire aiming process over.

Eric C’s favorite model of disruptive camouflage is the “fake wake”. On the back of a boat, the painters would paint a large white wake as if the boat was steaming full speed in the opposite direction. Instead, it sailed off going forward.

The Navy called this camouflage, “razzle dazzle”. Since every second counted, the longer it took a U-boat to aim and fire, the more chances the allied ship had of discovering the U-boat and radioing for help. This 99% Invisible podcast keyed me into this entire phenomenon, and how, as host Roman Mars narrates, the US Navy looked like “a flock of sea-going Easter eggs” or “a cubist nightmare”.
   
I can hear the skeptics. The clever Navy officer has an easy counter to Michael C, faux naval surface warfare expert. “Yeah, Michael C, razzle dazzle worked when the enemy manually fired torpedoes. Our missiles and torpedoes rely on sonar and radar. Razzle dazzle won’t help a damn bit.”

The hypothetical Navy officer would be right...if all America cared about was fighting high-intensity warfare against the Chinese or Russians. In that case, naval warfare would happen at distances of hundreds of miles, and each side would use advanced imagery and surveillance to find naval flotillas. However, I think a war with either of those two counties is incredibly unlikely, despite how much the defense establishment prepares for that scenario.

But the single most likely nation the U.S. might fight a war against, especially a naval war, in the next year--or next five years--is Iran. As this post from last year lays out, Iran plans to prey on the U.S. Navy’s geographical limitations with low-tech weaponry. They will use mini-subs, speed boats and anti-ship cruise missiles to swarm our ships in very shallow and narrow waterways.

While razzle dazzle won’t help in a high intensity naval war, it could help in an asymmetric war like this. A suicide boat is essentially a surface torpedo. In the effort to swarm larger U.S. ships, timing is everything. Every second Iran’s small boats remain undetected is another second likelier they are to sink a U.S. ship. Imagine entire flotillas of Iranian vessels setting out in the wrong direction, finding themselves further away from their targets rather than closer because of American razzle dazzle camouflage. This could mean the difference between the U.S. Navy sinking a couple dozen Iranian small boats or an American aircraft carrier (with 6,000 sailors) sinking.

I’m a realist (not in foreign policy terms) though. I know I will never see razzle dazzle paint jobs on U.S. Navy vessels. I’ll address why on Wednesday.

Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Point 1: America needs to repair its image in the Islamic world.
   
It’s not exactly enlightening to say that many--but not all--people in the Islamic world really, really hate America. They seem to burn our flags at the slightest provocation. One protester in Pakistan died from inhaling burning American flag smoke during the protests; how many flags does that even take?

The problem is that many Americans don’t care. Some Americans hate Muslims as much as some Muslims hate Americans, regularly referring to them as primitives, barbarians or savages (post coming on that). They put infidel stickers on their F-150’s and think that rebuilding relationships with nations we’ve alienated constitutes “apologizing” for America. And too many moderate Americans, hit hard by the financial crisis, feel like our country has bigger issues to deal with before we get to the business of fixing how the rest of the world feels about us.

We can’t control how other nations feel about America. But we can care how they feel about us and try to repair the relationship. I'd suggest that if one small, inconsequential internet video can spark protests in dozens of countries, we have a serious image problem around the world.

Point 2: For example, foreigners hate American support for dictatorships.

In December, This American Life ran a show titled “This Week”, covering stories that happened just that week. One of those stories was how Egyptian President Morsi faced protests after firing all of the country’s judges. What caught me was that the reporter talked to an author who opposed religious rule. Who did he blame for the power grab?

“In my view, the biggest betrayal that has taken place against the Egyptian people is the absolute support that the American administration has given to the Muslim Brotherhood. America is ignoring the violence that is conducted against the Egyptian people. America is completely silent and has voiced that its relationship with Egypt is strategic.”

Then she spoke with a “a religious man, young, 28 years old”. A young man from the completely opposite side of the political spectrum. Who did he blame?

“This is what the US wants; this is what Israel wants-- a regime which appears to be democratic to the people, but actually it is this defense national council which will be doing all the work...For sure President Morsi wants the interests of Egypt. However, he sees the implementation of this interest, or finding the interest, from a very narrow perspective that the United States has set for him. We do not want him to see that perspective through the United States' perspective.”

In short, don’t dictatorships, because it alienates people of all political persuasions, not just the religious fanatics.

Point 3: But not everyone hates us.

Among all the bad news, the good news was that, after Benghazi, counter-protests formed to support peace and oppose violence. This is a good sign. As I wrote above, many, but not all, people hate us in the Middle East. We should focus on building support from the people who don’t hate us.

And you know what? Some liberal Muslims support free speech too.

Point 4:  What happened in Benghazi? We don’t know!    

When we wrote our review of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, the comment thread had an interesting reaction, coming down to a debate over what Obama knew, and when, and how he reacted to the attack on the consulate. My reaction at the time was simple:

“In general, I like to wait a few months for the larger, longer reports to come out. With the Osama raid, for example, a lot of the early information was dead wrong. We’ve written about this before, somewhere. It’s why we avoid breaking news stories on the blog.”

How long do you wait to discuss sensitive issues and current events?

On Violence is firmly in the wait and see camp. Hell, we write “the most intriguing event of the year” to discuss big issues we didn’t discuss before. We prefer to wait for the longer responses like the long form documentaries on PBS’s Frontline or articles in the New Yorker. The Obama administration’s main problem, in the beginning, was sending people out to talk about it; when Susan Rice did, she lost the entire forward momentum of her political career, because she spoke too soon.

Feb 06

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

On Violence is pro-democracy. Shockingly, not just here in America, but around the world too. As a result, we believe the U.S. should encourage pro-democracy movements. And this doesn’t just apply to the countries we hate (the way Republicans are pro-democracy in Iran), but countries we are allied with too. (The way those same Republicans avoid mentioning that Saudi Arabia has a king. A king! What is this, the Middle Ages?)

So we feel like we have to deal with the “fallout” of the Arab Spring, the poorly-named “Arab Winter” (or, as Wikipedia dubs it, “Reactions to Innocence of Muslims”). Today, we have a few random thoughts. Tomorrow, we’ll have even more.

Point 1: How is it possible that people still don’t get what free speech is?

Prohibiting speech is not the same as condemning speech. During the election, the Romney campaign lambasted the Obama administration for opposing free speech when the Egyptian embassy condemned the anti-Islamic video that touched off anti-America protests in Egypt and Libya. Unfortunately, this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach. If President Obama hadn’t condemned the video, the Romney administration would have said President Obama let hate speech slide.

Remember, people--even government employees--are allowed to say people shouldn’t say things. It only inhibits free speech if they prosecute them, or threaten to prosecute them. Conservatives and liberals both confuse this point, and embrace it, depending on the political winds.

Point 2: Many foreigners (in dictatorships) really don’t get what free speech is.

One of the most fascinating angles to the whole poorly-named Arab Winter was that people living in dictatorships assume that every piece of media is cleared by the government. From their point of view, America, by allowing Innocence of Muslims to exist, agreed with the content of the film.

Point 3: This is the ugly side of revolutions

We hate predictions so we try to not make too many of them. Last year, Michael C tried to do a “prediction audit” on the blog, and we didn’t have a lot to write about.
   
Except, in this case, we kind of called it. Discussing the Arab Spring, we pointed out that most revolutions are violent, yet most people advocating revolutions don’t realize this. The Arab Winter fits that trend. This shouldn’t shock anyone who has ever studied the history of revolutions; the American Revolution arguably wasn’t complete until our nation slaughtered 600,000 of its own people in a civil war.

Freedom has a price. In addition to America’s Revolutionary War and Civil War, the U.S. had to launch an entire Civil Rights movement. England had Cromwell take over as a dictator...with mass persecutions. France created the guillotine during its revolution...then had revolutions every dozen and a half years for a century. Germany had Hitler take over during the Great Depression.

Democracy isn’t always pleasant, but it is more pleasant than any other form of government. As the Arab Spring evolves, partisans on both sides should take deep breaths; international relations liberals should temper their expectations; realists should withhold their judgement. In either case, having strong democratic partners in the Middle East will provide more freedom, security and prosperity than dictators, but it will take time.
   
Point 4: Oh, and we mean ugly.

How ugly was the response to Innocence of Muslims?

Protesters stormed and wrecked numerous American embassies. Many people died. From Wikipedia:

“On September 13, protests occurred at the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, resulting in the deaths of four protesters and injuries to thirty-five protesters and guards. On September 14, the U.S. consulate in Chennai was attacked, resulting in injuries to twenty-five protesters. Protesters in Tunis, Tunisia, climbed the U.S. embassy walls and set trees on fire. At least four people were killed and forty-six injured during protests in Tunis on September 15. Further protests were held at U.S. diplomatic missions and other locations in the days following the initial attacks. Related protests and attacks resulted in numerous deaths and injuries across the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

So sad. So ugly.

Feb 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Thought 1: Top Secret America Ensnares Its Own

The FBI ended up confiscating some 20,000-30,000 documents related to the whole Petraeus investigation. Simply staggering. But why did they have to collect so many?

Because the FBI hoped to catch General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in the most over-prosecuted crimes in Top Secret America: storing classified information on unclassified computer systems. The horror!

Our national security system grossly over-classifies any and every document it produces. And it produces too many of those documents in the first place. As a result, completely innocuous documents end up on unclassified systems. Most of the time, the military only prosecutes whistleblowers who anger the current administration; not spies, terrorists or respected generals.

Worse, the media (and prosecutors) fail to distinguish between Top Secret and Secret documents, when really only the former are “secret”. Everyone in the military has a security clearance. I firmly believe that any “Foreign Intelligence Service” worth its salt (China, Russia and Israel) has hacked into our “secret” SIPR computer network.

Thought 2: Hagiography...the Most Popular Word of the Year

I feel like the media went tripping over itself to immediately label Paula Broadwell’s book, All In, a “hagiography”--which I’m guessing most people can’t actually define. Hagiography is the technical term for a biography of a saint (Wikipedia tells me).

The earliest use of “hagiography” after the Petraeus scandal came on the 9th of November, as far as I can tell, in Slate. It was then repeated on the 10th, 11th, 13th, and 16th in places from Foreign Policy to The Guardian to Commentary to Business Insider. This is far from an exhaustive list.
   
Why weren’t more critics this critical when it was first published? To his credit, Spencer Ackerman actually labeled the biography a hagiography when it was first released due to a critical AP review. (Kind of incredible considering this later article.) Still most commentators waited for a sex scandal to dismiss the book.

Thought 3: The Petraeus Scandal and the Patriot Act

Fortunately for America, this sex scandal will have a good side effect: we might start dismantling America’s crazy post-9/11 laws.

As this Slate post makes clear, this scandal has raised some disturbing questions: Why did the FBI investigate Petraeus? Did they obtain warrants? If no crimes were committed, how did the scandal break?

The FBI has so much power, and so little terrorism to catch, they investigate regular citizens, not just scary looking foreigners. As Glenn Greenwald notes, “...it appears that the FBI not only devoted substantial resources, but also engaged in highly invasive surveillance, for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of one of its agents, to find out who was very mildly harassing her by email.” As Joan Walsh writes, “Once people get over the latest pageant of human frailty on display in the Petraeus story, maybe they’ll realize how much privacy we’ve all given up in the last decade, under both political parties.”

Which will (hopefully) lead to real world consequences. As On the Media explains, the revelation that the FBI can investigate anyone on little to no suspicioun may prompt politicians to act, since they might see themselves in Petraeus’ place.
   
Thought 4: The Military Will Learn The Wrong Lesson From the Media

Tom Rick’s blog has a great prediction about the lessons the military will learn:

“Talking to reporters always will cost you down the road. So hold the media at arm's length. Or more. Don't engage unless ordered to do so.”