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War is War is No Solutions

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

I’ve said on the blog a couple of times that I hate offering complaints without offering solutions. That, in particular, is why I made three clear suggestions for fixing the problem of combat pay in my Washington Post op-ed, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay”. Complaining, by itself, isn’t productive.

Since this is a “War is War” post, I’ll come right out and say it: "war-is-war"-iors avoid answering the questions “How?” or “So what do I do?”  As I wrote in “War is War is Vague”, "war-is-war"-iors  are, well, vague. In this post, I want to capture one part of that vagueness: the refusal to offer tactical solutions. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why.

In my very first “War is War” post, I cited the Small Wars Journal Council--the SWJ name for their forum--as a major source of “war-is-war”-ior-ism. Just after I returned from Afghanistan--as Eric C and I were preparing to launch On Violence--I discovered the SWJ Council and what I hoped would be a community ready to engage.

So I dived into the tactics section and the deployment sections. After avoiding technical discussions on the various merits and drawbacks of 5.56mm versus 7.62mm caliber ammunition, and the usual complaints about 9mm handguns, I found some posts about counter-insurgency. I immediately read, then asked my question, “Great, if I need to kill more people, how do I do that?” Time and again the answer was, “By killing more bad guys.” Or, “Use better tactics.”

(To be clear, the SWJ itself is not “war-is-war”-ior. They host articles from all viewpoints; that’s why we’ve blog-rolled them and my iPad is filled with their articles. Their forum, though, can go off the rails.)

I found myself--and I have no qualms saying it was mainly with the editor of The Infinity Journal William F. Owen--stuck in a loop. To kill more bad guys, I needed to get better intelligence. Better intelligence came from the enemy fearing you. Fearing you came from killing more bad guys. And so on.

Unlike Boyd’s OODA loop, I have no idea how to break into this “killing bad guys loop”. “Killing bad guys” doesn’t distinguish between offensive and defensive operations. It doesn’t mention, nor value, security. Apparently the population provides no support to the enemy. If they do, then they are enemies too. “Killing the bad guys” doesn’t help distinguish between the two.

To avoid creating a Ray Bolger, (I could find some forum examples, but I just don’t have the time to wade that far back in council history.) I'll share quotes from a prominently released article by William F. Owen that perfectly captures my complaint.

In the British Army Review’s Spring 2011 issue, Owen wrote the aptly named essay “Killing Your Way to Control”. Ignoring the merits of the argument--discussed elsewhere by Spencer Ackerman--I want to emphasize my point: William F. Owen roundly ignores the, “How?” of military operations.

For example he writes, “How proportionately, precisely or discriminately lethal force is applied will be dependant on the tactics employed. Thus Rules of Engagement (ROE) are those limitations on lethal force and military activity that armed forces use to ensure that force does not undermine policy.” Okay, so if really restrictive policies support policy, are they okay? What should good ROE look like?
Or, “if your “kinetic” operations are killing too many civilians, then something is lacking in terms of the skill to conduct operations. Tactics are bad.” Okay, how do we improve those tactics? Where do I read about that?

Then, “As in Malaya, the object of military operations should be to hunt the enemy into extinction. This is not to suggest that this is easy. It is not. Climate and terrain alone make it incredibly demanding, but demanding as it is, the objective is a very simple one. If you are really killing the enemy day on day, with captured weapons supplying the proof of a legitimate and armed threat, then sooner or later the enemy’s will to endure will be broken. No enemy has unlimited manpower. If the enemy is infiltrating into your operational area from a huge population in another country or province, then that has to be stopped. This is obvious, and has to be done. The British Army knows exactly how do it.”

Okay, then why aren’t they doing it better in Afghanistan? Why didn’t they do it better in Iraq? Was it because of those rules of engagement?

In fairness, William F. Owen doesn’t claim to offer tactics, techniques and procedures for prosecuting counter-insurgencies; his paper tries to change a mindset, an operational course. Part of the mission of The Infinity Journal is clearly to change minds towards a strategy of enemy-centric operations. My contention, though, is that the strategy isn’t the problem. If "war-is-war"-iors really want to kill more bad guys, they should have created a journal on tactics, not strategy. Don’t just tell our soldiers why or that they need to kill the bad guy. Trust me they get that. Tell me how.

There is a very simple explanation for why "war-is-war"-iors avoid offering solutions. But you’ll have to tune in tomorrow for that.

two comments

I feel like we’re going to get blow back for this post, but it really is a problem Michael C has been dealing with since we started the blog. I remember him talking about this in early 2009 when he first started going on SWJ council.

Again, this goes hand in hand with the next post.