Sep 26

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.

To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a glowing review of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Since I’ve been following this issue for years now, I want to share some updates on the topic in general. More specifically, I want to respond to the biggest mainstream criticism I have read…

Rosa Brooks Doesn’t Think Sexual Assault is a Problem in the Military

More precisely, she doesn’t think it’s a greater problem than rape in the civilian world. As Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy...

“Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations.”

While we admire Rose Brooks, this article has several significant problems. First, I don’t think the military has made progress addressing sexual assault, unless Rosa Brooks is referring to the last six months or so, which seems odd (and unlikely). As NPR and The Invisible War point out, in 2011, only 96 reported cases of sexual assault went to court-martial. For some anecdotal evidence, it took over a year for the Navy to bring charges against three Naval Academy football players. (Don’t worry, the Academy charged the victim with drunkenness in “no time at all” in the words of The New York Times.) Situations like this just don’t occur in the civilian world--at least the victims don’t get charged with crimes before their attackers.

Mainly, though, I don’t agree with Brooks’ numbers. Check out the numbers in this article, this article and the Wikipedia page on the issue, then compare them to her numbers. Fifteen percent of female veterans who return from war zones have experienced “military sexual trauma”. (More on this phrase later in this post.) That number is way higher than annual civilian sexual assault rates.

My explanation for the difference is that Rosa Brooks mixed lifetime rape statistics with yearly rates in the military. A recent article in The New Yorker on the Steubenville rape case cited the CDC’s estimate that 20% of all women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Based on the numbers I cited above, that’s the about the same rate for women in the military...except military careers don’t last a lifetime.

I would also flip this issue on its head: if civilian sexual assault rates are the same as the military, then America has a rape problem. It still needs to be addressed.

Actually, Read That New Yorker Article

Because it is fantastic. Ariel Levy fairly depicts both sides of the Stuebenville rape case, telling a complex and difficult narrative different than most of the breathless cable coverage of this story.   

A Legitimate Criticism of The Invisible War

One of the best criticisms I found of The Invisible War was that it didn’t focus enough on male-on-male rape in the US military. Though the film featured one victim of male sexual assault, clearly the film focused on women. As James Dao of The New York Times points out, most victims of rape in the military are men.

Amanda Marcotte, at Slate, connects this to society’s beliefs about rape:

“...what this astonishing number demonstrates is the truth of what feminists have been saying about sexual assault all along: It is not caused by an overabundance of sexual desire, but is an act of violence perpetrated by people who want to hurt and humiliate the victim, using sex as a weapon.

“That’s why comments such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s during the Senate hearings on rape in the military are not just offensive, but flat-out wrong. Chambliss acknowledged the gravity of the problem but ended up minimizing it by saying, ‘Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.’ These kinds of comments perpetuate the myth that rape is not that big of a deal, the result of miscommunication, or caused by men being just too damn horny and ladies being just too damn sexy to not rape.”

How We (Don’t) Talk About Rape

First, Katie Halper at Jezebel lambasts an AP article that confuses sex with rape. (They’re not the same thing.)

Next up, Joshua Kors, in his article, “Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'” breaks down how the military’s use of the acronym MST (Military Sexual Trauma) obscures the horror of the actual act. He even interviews On Violence language favorite Geoffrey Nunberg to get his opinion. A must read.

Finally, The New York Times’ “Talking Note” blog explains that the military has had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault for over twenty years now. Since so many soldiers have been reassigned after rape cases, how can they have a zero tolerance policy?

World War II and Rape

Here’s the thing about sexual assault and the military: it didn’t happen in the Greatest Generation’s time. That’s what’s so disappointing about the current crisis. Oh wait...

“In her new book, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France," Roberts writes that while heroism abounded during liberation, for some Allied troops, command of geographical territory meant command of sexual territory, as well. As they entered and occupied the port towns of Le Havre, Reims, Cherbourg and Marseilles, many soldiers took what they wanted - when and where they wanted - from the French female population.”

Sep 17

(With our thoughts on Syria published (for now), we return to our 2013 Academy Awards coverage. To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Unlike Argo, whose inaccuracies were treated with a collective media shoulder shrug--the few articles correcting the record were short and off the front page--the inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty created a (relative) media maelstrom.

As soon as filming started, conservatives accused the Obama administration of leaking information to make itself look good. When people started seeing the film, liberals accused the filmmakers of pushing a pro-torture narrative. Senators and CIA chiefs got in on the action, debating what was and wasn’t true.

Not all inaccuracies are made equal. According to the article, “The Shooter” in Esquire, the finals scenes of the raid had some small, technical errors. I have to ask: who really cares if they shouted Osama bin Laden’s name or not? In the long run, that’s bad, but fixable. (All this assumes we can even figure out what happened.)

But that doesn’t mean those little mistakes can’t lead to huge misunderstandings. As Eric C pointed out when he reviewed the inaccuracies of Argo, changing a bunch of minor facts can change how Americans see their role in the world. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, this gives many Americans false views on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty had so many little mistakes that we divided this post into two parts. Tomorrow’s will deal just with torture; today’s with the rest. So what are the biggest myths peddled by Zero Dark Thirty?

Myth 1: The CIA is super effective. Why isn't this true? See this whole post on topic. Remember, we didn't even know the CIA's budget until last month. The CIA doesn't release good records on successful and unsuccessful operations. They do, though, leak tantalizing stories of their successes in operative memoirs and Hollywood films, as we’ve written about before.

Myth 2: The bureaucracy still sucks. Just as Eric C pointed out with Argo, in Zero Dark Thirty, the federal government can’t do anything right, but intel folks come off looking like superstars. Mindless DC bureaucrats--the CIA station chief in Pakistan, then his replacement (he doesn't deny Maya's requests, he just says, "whatever" and shrugs), then the CIA officials in Washington D.C., then Obama's Chief of Staff--all delay finding Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, Bigelow and Boal never even say what changed Obama's mind, it just kind of happens with about 45 minutes left to go in the film. (That’s what we call a deus ex machina in the biz, folks.)

Myth 3: Terrorism is a grave, continuing threat. The film parades a series of terror attacks before the viewer: starting with the sounds of first responders, Flight 93 passengers and news reports on 9/11; then the 7/7 attacks; then showing the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan; and finally a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It leaves the viewers with this conclusion: Osama bin Laden was planning and conducting terror attacks around the world and we needed to kill him.

This version of history is wildly wrong:

- The 7/7 attacks were conducted by homegrown extremists. While Al Qaeda did take credit for the attack, later intelligence discredited their involvement. In other words, they took credit after the fact, without providing logistical or material support.

- The Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing was not linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It may have been politically motivated or conducted by another Islamic group. Frankly, we don’t know. Including it, then, seems odd, considering this was a movie about Osama bin Laden.[ital]

- Finally, displaying terror attacks like this make terrorism seem common, even though it it incredibly rare. For proof, see this post, this post, this post, this video, this post, this article, this article or this article. Films like Zero Dark Thirty leave viewers emotionally scared, but logically misinformed.

Myth 4: Pakistan is dangerous for westerners. Not as dangerous as you think. In one scene, analyst Maya is attacked by gunmen entering the Embassy compound. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone describes, this type of scene has happened in Peshawar, but doesn’t really take place in Islamabad. Pakistan, like many third world nations, isn’t as safe as America. But it also isn’t a war zone where Westerners can’t leave their homes without fear of dying. There are parts which are very violent--you know, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--but not Islamabad.

Myth 5: The CIA analysts approach their targets objectively. Actually, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't show this. They show one agent believing she is right, and doing whatever it takes to prove herself. Guess what? In the run-up to the Iraq War, countless analysts and case officers (and Vice Presidents/Secretaries of Defense) felt the exact same way about the threat of Iraq's WMDs. They desperately tried to make that case. They were wrong.

Throughout the investigation to find Osama bin Laden, plenty of analysts and case officers thought for sure they knew where he was. They were wrong too.

Sadly, the CIA, not the American public, will learn the wrong lesson from this. Instead of relying on data and evidence, they will think, "I will go down in history if I just trust my gut. Isn't that what leaders do?" Of course, they'll be wrong.

So watch Zero Dark Thirty. Enjoy it as a fictional spy story, equivalent to The Bourne Identity, 2 Guns or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But don’t consider it in anyway, "based on true events". It wasn't, not even remotely.

Sep 03

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

The world is a scary place. Every single day, terrorists plot to kill you and everyone you care about. But don’t believe me; believe the national security professionals who we pay large, large sums of money to keep us safe. From Fareed Zakaria's GPS 360 from a few years back:

Fareed Zakaria: It does sound so scary day after day. Most of it goes nowhere, amounts to nothing. Most of the threats don't materialize.

John Miller: It's not an accident. The idea is when you've got that type of collection, you've got that kind of indicators and warning, you're able to influence those events, either by stopping the threat, shutting it down, capturing the people, arresting them or otherwise making it not happen.

Or from David Remnick on The New Yorker’s political scene podcast:

“Well, on the other hand, since September 2001 we have not had a major terror attack. If you talk to anybody--honest people--who are...high up in the national security apparatus they will tell you that the briefings that they get, the chatter that they listen to, the things that are stifled quietly that we don’t always hear about, are frightening. And we want that to happen.”

Whenever a terror event happens--albeit rarely--somewhere in the world, former national security experts, paid by the networks, emerge to reiterate variations on the above theme. They tell you, ‘If only you read what I read, then you would be really fearful. And because we read about it, we can stop it, and we do, but we don’t tell you, but you should trust us we are doing this.”

I am calling this variation on last week’s post, “the Bernie Madoff problem”. In this case, the national security establishment wants us to believe that we owe it our safety. They say, “We keep you safe and stop all sorts of terrorism, but we can’t tell you any specifics. Just trust us.” The director of the NSA, to prove his agency’s efficacy, said that the program Edward Snowden had leaked had prevented 50 specific attacks. Those 50 attacks, however, later turned out to be wildly exaggerated (narrowed down to a handful at most), mostly overseas and not actually prevented by the NSA meta-data collection program.

Madoff asked his investors to trust him in a very similar way; those investors then lost all their savings.

Westerners are safe. Fantastically safe. The safest people in the history of the world. And terrorism is incredibly rare. But we don’t owe the the intelligence community for this safety. We don’t have any evidence that those possible attacks that John Miller or David Remnick’s sources referenced were ever going to actually happen.

Take this story (by way of Graham Allison by way of Andrew Sullivan) about reports of a nuclear bomb threat on NYC. It never materialized, primarily because the intelligence underlying it just wasn’t very good. Phrased differently, it came from tortured suspects who lied. But it still qualifies as very scary chatter that intelligence analysts read day after day.

The most relevant point David Remnick and Fareed Zakaria both made is that the terrorist chatter goes nowhere. It goes nowhere without any CIA involvement or influence, which national security types usually won’t tell you. You may ask, what about our elected officials who provide oversight? Surely they could see through this.

They could, if they had access. When it comes to intelligence, only eight--8--members of Congress have oversight to all intelligence activities. Eight in a body of over 500 people are trusted with “overseeing” our entire intelligence apparatus. By the way, hardly any Americans know this. The rest of the legislative committees on intelligence also have huge ties to intelligence contractors.

(We wrote the above paragraph before the NSA wiretapping revelation. If anything, the revelation underscores our point. Most of the politicians briefed on the program didn’t understand how the meta-data collection program actually worked. They had to rely on a handful of powerpoint slides, and nothing else. Then, Congress demanded a slew of briefings after the program was revealed.)

We spend more on intelligence than most other Western nations spend on their entire military. That spending means jobs, lobbying and influence. If the CIA had to prove its effectiveness--the way most conservatives demand other parts of the government do--it would have an awfully hard time doing so with numbers, facts and results.

But they do hear lots of scary chatter.

Jul 31

Before we started “Intelligence is Evidence” two years ago, I ran a quick series bemoaning some abuses of military language in the press. At the time, I criticized “terrorist”, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (which I just heard the other day on a podcast) and some other terms. Well, I have a new term that I think the press just doesn’t use quite right:

Navy SEALs

What are Navy SEALs? SEALs are assault troops trained by the U.S. Navy to conduct amphibious missions when it can’t rely on the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps. They started with underwater demolition missions to destroy enemy mines, bridges and other amphibious targets. Then they moved to securing vessels as well. Though SEALs still do those things, since 9/11, Navy SEALs have expanded their mission to include counter-terrorism operations. (I’ll get back to that.)

Did Navy SEALs kill Osama bin Laden? This is the complicated question most Americans won’t get right. Yes...and no. Navy SEALs who were members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) killed Osama bin Laden.

What’s the difference? (Warning: jargon, terminology and acronyms ahead.)


Well, the gap between Navy SEALs and DEVGRU is as wide as the gap between the Special Forces and Delta Force (now called the, “Combat Applications Group” [CAG]). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces both fall under their respective branches and under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Both have a rigorous selection process and are about the same size. Special Forces teams focus on waging irregular warfare (though in the last ten years they have deemphasized this skill set) and the Navy SEALs focus on amphibious operations (this skill set too has been deemphasized because of all the desert and mountain stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces are around the same size.

What are DEVGRU and CAG, then? After being selected for either SEALs or SF/Rangers, you can then try out to make one of those two organizations. Both DEVGRU and CAG fall under Joint Special Operations Command, which is SOCOM’s secret terror hunting force, which is roughly aligned with the CIA’s Special Activities Division. DEVGRU used to be called Navy SEAL Team Six and CAG, as said above, used to be “Delta Force”. These elite units specialize in counter-terrorism, which has been the cool kid on the block in the special ops world since the 1980s. (You know, before 9/11.)

SOCOM has been described by a friend of the blog as “the fifth branch of the Pentagon”, and that’s not too inaccurate. SOCOM has a huge budget for the number of people it employs and it has the perks to go along with that budget. (For instance, increased secrecy, increased operational tempo and more flexibility in budgeting.)

As I answered above, DEVGRU SEAL operators killed Osama bin Laden and have been responsible for many of the other widely-publicized operations around the world.

Why is this post in our “Getting Orwellian” series? Because most of the credit going to Navy SEALs actually belongs to DEVGRU. Most former SEALs speaking out on political issues are not DEVGRU operators, but plain old, non-DEVGRU SEALs. That’s not to take away credit, but too often I’ve heard people say (including the media), “He’s a former SEAL, like the people who took out Osama bin Laden.” They’re not.

This TIME magazine article shows what I mean. It dives into a photo gallery with this headline, “The elite force that killed Osama bin Laden has been serving as America's special warriors since 1961.” This CBS report is another classic example. I’ve also heard this in conversations with plenty of civilians who think all Navy SEALs could have been on that raid.

They couldn’t; only the best of the SEAL’s best could have and did. That’s how good DEVGRU is, and we should give them the credit they deserve.

Jul 29

While I was attending the Military Intelligence Career Course in 2009, I once badgered a professor about his use of a doctrinal term. We had to read the newest version of Field Manual 2-something “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”. Some of the terms in the new manual didn’t match with slides the MICCC gave us. So I called it out; some of the instructors hadn’t read the new manual. One of them, offhandedly, described my emphasis on doctrinal terms as my “bailiwick”.

That became a running joke in my squad. Since bailiwick is a fairly obscure word (Eric C, though familiar with the word, had no idea how to spell it), my friends in the MICCC claimed I had a new bailiwick everyday. (Other bailiwicks: rebounding in college basketball, rules of engagement, and America’s email addiction.)

Today, I introduce a new bailiwick for this blog. You see, I fell in love last year. Despite the predictions of my quantitative GMAT score, I have fallen head over heels in love with statistics. Specifically, regression analysis. I came to the following conclusion:

Statistics/big data/regression analysis is literally the coolest thing ever.

While falling in love with statistics is still not normal for my generation, it isn’t too unusual either. Want to pwn your friends with sports knowledge? Read Bill Barnwell or Zach Lowe. Want to win election predictions? Read Nate Silver. Want to win elections? Use data to find voters, a la the Obama campaign. Want to win an Academy Awards prediction pool? Eric C has won our family’s Oscar pool for three years now using analytics.

Numbers are your friend.

A few technological innovations--computing power, the internet, Excel, and R--have made numbers relatively easy for any layman to gather and manipulate. And the nerds are using this knowledge to their advantage. But you know who doesn’t have a clue how to leverage advanced statistics, analytics or simulations? No surprise, the U.S. military and national security community. For instance:

Intelligence. How many terrorists do we kill in Pakistan? How accurate are we? Which intelligence methods work best? Sounds like a ready made example for Bayes Theorem. (And not just in the CIA, but in every intelligence organization.)

Human resources. Who gets promoted in the U.S. Army? And why? Sounds like a perfect candidate for regression analysis. (Not just for the Department of the Army, but for every Brigade in the Army.)

Combat. Does any form of regression work from the battalion on down? Most importantly, do senior leaders use data to make decisions, or ignore when it doesn’t fit their “gut feeling”? (Not just for Corps headquarters, but for every battalion S3 section.)

Spreadsheets. Can we teach all analysts how to use a spreadsheet? I mean, not just to sum numbers to but to run simulations, data tables, pivot-tables and the like. Again, 99% of the Army doesn’t know the difference between an “if” formula and “vlookup”. Excel, not PowerPoint, should be the most popular program in the military.

The U.S. Army (and probably the rest of the military) needs data. Not even so-called “big data”; the U.S. Army barely has a grasp on regular old “small” data. I say this because I know how much I didn’t know or use statistics/analytics, and I worked in military intelligence, the most data rich field. And it wasn’t that I was lazy or ignored statistics, I was actually ahead of the curve on Excel...and it stuns me how much I didn’t know. I literally couldn’t regress a single variable, and I was swamped in activity data. (Here are some of my recommendations for management books to read to improve data analysis from my recent Thomas Ricks guest post.)

A lot of military leaders have MBAs, so that means they took at least one statistics course. And a lot of officers took statistics in their academies or for their majors in college (I assume). But that doesn’t mean the military has a data culture. Unlike the financial industry, operations research, consultancies, or even parts of the sports world, data doesn’t drive the military. And guess what? It’s not going to drive it in the future, unless officers start rigorously using data to make decisions.

In his controversial op-ed on military leadership in the Washington Post, Bruce Fleming summed up the data problem in one line, “Rather than prioritizing decisions based on justifiable evidence, we’ve been training our high-potential officers to believe their internal compass is king.”

So consider this a bailiwick of mine for the near future. My goal is to convince whatever officers I can that they need to make their organizations data cultures.

Expect more posts in the future.

Jun 24

(Before we start, yes, this is probably the worst reference we have ever tried to pull off in a title.)

Since coming to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, three subjects have made me say, “Goodness gracious, sakes alive, how did I not know this?” The first is advanced statistics (which I will cover in another series). The second is “organizational behavior”. (The military would make a fantastic case study for almost every theory I learned.)

The final field is “operations research” (OR), or its more modern sounding name, “management science”. Wikipedia describes OR as “the application of advanced analytical methods to make better decisions.” (Yes, “OR” is already an acronym; it will fit right in with the rest of the Army’s acronyms.)

Want to know why your paperwork takes so long at the S1 shop? Operations.

Want to know why every single weapon designed by the Pentagon runs over budget? Operations.

Want to know why it takes so long to get a flight to Afghanistan? Operations.

Naturally, before I started business school, I assumed that the Pentagon and the larger U.S. Army didn’t have any experts on operations. In fact, my post, “Hire an Efficiency Expert” basically asks for management scientists to work for the Pentagon, though I didn’t use that language.

So imagine my shock when I discovered this week--while listening to a podcast (“The Science of Better”) on operations research (Yep, that podcast exists.) from the Institute For Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS)--that the Army created operations research. (Well, the British Army, followed closely by the U.S. Army.)

Physicists created OR to improve the use of the new technological tools they were creating. While most scientists were hired to run technology like radar or sonar, Baron Patrick Blackett, who’d already made his physics career and later won a Noble prize, decided that he needed to apply scientific rigour to the defence of Britain. So he started running experiments using mathematics to change tactics--changing anti-aircraft firing patterns, testing depth charges and other experiments.   

Baron Blackett’s commanders credited him with helping save England during the Battle of Britain. (This fantastic blog post on “Survivorship Bias” on describes the role of operations researchers in America during the same time period.)

How does this relate to contemporary times? Because British Army officers never trusted Blackett, especially when they first met him. While Blackett created a whole intellectual field and helped defend Great Britain, he had to continually prove himself to military officers. No matter which organization he joined, they always told him, initially, that he couldn’t help. With all their military expertise and experience, they didn’t need a physicist to tell them how to manage (er, lead?) better. Later, after the data proved Blackett correct, the officers embraced OR.

Which begs the question, “Where were the management scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan?” With hundreds of patrols and millions of data points, couldn’t a few OR researchers have really helped out? That war begged for the use of predictive and prescriptive analytics. (The U.S., at best, uses descriptive analytics.) Maybe a Multi-National Corps HQ had some...or deep in some office in the Pentagon they have them...but we didn’t have it at the brigade, battalion, company and platoon level. So I ask again:

Where have all the Management Scientists gone?

Jun 18

A few weeks ago, at the request of a friend, I made a military reading list. When I finished, it was really long and frankly unusual. (This is On Violence after all.)

So I decided to break my list into three parts. Last Wednesday, I posted a traditional reading list, with books you could expect to find on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s list. Coming soon, as a guest post on another blog (hopefully later this week), I will have a list on the best books for “Officers as Managers”.

The final list is what I am calling my “non-traditional” list, including science fiction, philosophy and non-fiction works that are critical of the military; basically, books that wouldn't make sense on a traditional reading military reading list. Without further ado, the list:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks. This history of mankind’s war with the undead isn’t about zombies; it’s about international relations. Oh, and adapting (successfully) to fighting a new war. (Like Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, but with zombies.)

2. Top Secret America by Dana Priest and William Arkin. By joining the Army (or any branch) as an officer, you likely join Top Secret America. Along with 750,000 other people, you have access to information that a majority of Congress and their staffs can’t get, plus the constant threat of going to prison if you leak anything to a reporter (no matter how illegal or unconstitutional). This book tells as much of the story as you can find anywhere in the world. (Even Top Secret America doesn’t know much about itself.) Watch the Frontline documentary too.

3. One Nation Under Contract by Allison Stanger. I wrote an entire recommendation for this book for the New York Times “At War” blog, so check it out. Stanger describes how, over the last twenty years, the U.S. government outsourced possibly a majority of its work to the private sector, with the Pentagon doing the most. 

4. I have been engrossed in the last year by a trio of books--The End of War by John Horgan, Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein and Angels of Our Better Nature by Stephen Pinker--arguing that the world is not more violent, wars aren’t more frequent and we can end war as we know it. Over the summer, I hope to publish more extensive thoughts on those books.

5. The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Another book with sly counter-insurgency recommendations, The Ugly American is ostensibly a condemnation of the State Department in the 1960s. Since our military does as much diplomacy as it does warfare, this book is a must read. (We did two posts on this book two years ago and then used it as the basis for a post on Greg Mortenson.)

6. A People Numerous and Armed by John Shy. I have referenced this series of essays in countless On V posts since we launched (here, here, here, and here for starters). A classic in military history, John Shy analyzes how politics intersected with war in a very irregular conflict. He also created a more expansive view of military history that touched on the cultural and social ramifications as opposed to simply describing how generals moved troops on the battlefield.

Jun 10

If you run a military blog, there is only one requirement: make a reading list.

I kid. But there are more reading lists on milblogs than Navy Commanders fired for misconduct, so I’ve avoided making one. (The closest we came was this On Violence gift recommendations post.)

Nevertheless, a good friend from my ROTC days recently took command of a company, and he asked me for my suggestions on good books for his new lieutenants. He specified that his unit probably won’t deploy soon, so he wanted a more general military reading list than the hyper-COIN focused lists of a few years ago. And though the world has enough reading lists, I loved the idea of spouting off on my ideas for books to read. I decided to divide my list into three parts: Traditional, Non-Traditional and Management.

Today I’ll tackle the traditional military side; the books I fell in love with before I left to expand my mind at B-school. I tried (with great difficulty and much concentration) to limit my books about counter-insurgency,, whereas my management list covers the books every officer should read to learn about leading.

(Also, I ranked these books in order of priority.)

1. The Defense of Duffer’s Drift by Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. A 1904 novella about a British officer holding a drift during the Boer War, this book manages to explain the principles behind patrolling and small unit tactics better than any manual, while providing an unintended lesson on counter-insurgency.

2. The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. Yes, I know this reading list isn’t supposed to be too counter-insurgency heavy, but if you’re going to read one book on irregular warfare/post-9/11 conflict, read this one. David Kilcullen captures the nuances of the motivations behind insurgents, terrorists and globalization.

3. The Art of Maneuver by Robert Leonhard. Shockingly, though this book wasn’t published in the 19th century, it brilliantly captures the principles of war, physics and maneuver warfare. The Art of Maneuver shows how most of the Pentagon’s leaders lacks true strategic and operational creativity. For instance, it describes how the U.S. Army still loves to attack an opponent at his strongest point, instead of his weakest. (That principle applies to regular and irregular warfare too.)

4. A History of Warfare by John Keegan. We should understand the phenomena we practice. A History of Warfare manages to combine a true history of warfare with brilliant asides on the cultural, technological and environmental ramifications of war.

5. Fiasco by Tom Ricks. The best history of the start of the disaster in Mesopotamia and a lesson on leadership in the military.

6. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl. Yes, I know I said I was going light on counter-insurgency. However, Nagl’s text isn’t so much about counter-insurgency, but institutional learning. Specifically how a bureaucratic Army set-up to fight a conventional, maneuver war can learn to fight an irregular, counter-insurgency. I would argue the military never actually learned how to eat soup with a knife during the last ten years, but that’s partly what makes this a compelling read.

7. Once an Eagle by Anton Meyer. A book about an officer who fights in three different wars, it has lessons on bureaucracy, leadership and warfare. A very long, but very good encapsulation of what it means to succeed as an officer. (Oh, and it too has an ironic detour into irregular warfare too.)

Tune in Monday for our non-traditional reading list.