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Our Communist Military’s Group Punishment

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Yesterday, I told three different stories about bosses--coaches or military commanders--implementing group punishment. (The comments section added even more examples.) In each case, group punishment utterly failed to change behavior.

For “Our Communist Military”, should this be any surprise? Free market advocates absolutely understand why group punishment doesn’t work: it abdicates individual responsibility.

Take the most accountable/responsible system in our economy: sales. Virtually no sales forces uses group bonuses. Sales people are rewarded individually. Know why? ‘Cause it wouldn’t work. Eric C--who supervises a sales floor--has a theory: a great salesperson could show up to work in a bathrobe. If he’s an earner, no one will say nada.

Individual accountability works. For a football team at any level, the one thing every player cares about above all else is playing time, the currency of amateur sports. If a player who committed a personal foul lost his starting spot the next game, he would stop committing personal fouls. So would everyone else on the team.

In my brigade’s case, individual accountability would mean chaptering (expelling/firing) soldiers who got DUIs. In fact, while our brigade commander was implementing harsher and harsher group punishments, he refused to boot any soldiers. His reasoning--we assumed--was because he didn’t want to deploy short-handed. Getting rid of troublesome soldiers--and legitimately discouraging bad behavior--clashes with the need to field a full brigade before deployment.

So how does this relate to violence, foreign affairs and counter-insurgency? Because despite clinging to the value of individual accountability in economics and criminal justice, many military theorists suddenly embrace group punishment when it comes to warfare or military science.

1. Discipline in units. Group punishment wasn’t created in my brigade. Actually, the Army instills the value/vice of group punishment at the very beginning of every soldier’s career. Enlisted soldiers (who become NCOs) meet it head on during boot camp. Plebes, first year students at West Point, learn the “value” of group punishment during their first summer. It therefore becomes the de facto method of punishment for most leaders in the Army.

And since it doesn’t work, that makes the Army (and Marine Corps, which I assume uses group punishment plenty) less effective.

2. Fighting counter-insurgencies. Many commanders deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq wanted to punish villages, cities, and regions which allowed insurgencies in their midsts. This often led to the idea that, “Hey, if we withhold reconstruction money from Sunni villages, maybe they will expel the Al Qaeda insurgents on their own.” When they don’t, commanders safely lump all the people of that region as “terrorists”.

This attitude has been extended to larger international spheres too...

3. Because some countries let terrorists live around them. The most prevalent example of this is The Sovereignty Solution. I haven’t written about this book yet because I have way more thoughts than will fit into one blog post (or several). In fact, I could write an entire paper on it.

To boil its thesis down into an overly simplified sentence, The Sovereignty Solution recommends holding an entire nation’s population responsible for the actions of individuals living within it. If they or their government refuse to punish terrorists, the U.S. will do it for them. While the U.S. government wouldn’t specifically target civilians in their effort to pursue terrorists, according to the “Sovereignty Solution”, it wouldn’t avoid them either. By allowing terrorists in their midst, civilians are just as culpable. This would motivate populations to suddenly expel all the terrorists.

I hate the concept of group punishment, because it doesn’t work. But I really hate when it is used to support or allow the killing of innocents, as if that would change their behavior. According to The Sovereignty Solution, lack of knowledge or malice is trumped by knowing or living by a bad guy. Imagine if America applied that to Bernie Madoff. Or politicians who are corrupt. Or some of our allies around the world.

This last reason is what really worries me about group punishment. It just won’t work on the international stage the way economic sanctions--another form of group punishment--rarely work. And it won’t stop terrorism.

ten comments

I enjoyed this post, namely this paragraph:

I hate the concept of group punishment, because it doesn’t work. But I really hate when it is used to support or allow the killing of innocents, as if that would change their behavior. According to The Sovereignty Solution, lack of knowledge or malice is trumped by knowing or living by a bad guy. Imagine if America applied that to Bernie Madoff. Or politicians who are corrupt. Or some of our allies around the world.

There are many questions: ‘What if you group-punish enemies for supporting one kind of terrorism while supporting another kind yourself? What if you group-punish enemies for killing civilians while killing civilians yourself? What if you group-punish enemies while allowing allies to commit enemies’ crimes?’ Group punishment as foreign policy is a threat not only to peace but also to consistency in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and other words starting with counter-. Michael might know that I had Pakistan in mind for at least one of the above questions.

The problem is generally a lack of moral courage to step up and address the root cause of the problem, whether that be individual behaviour or the existing system or process that allows the behaviour to occur.

Yesterday you mentioned the Bruins’ football coach. How about mentioning a few contrasting examples (dealing with the individual and/or the system, rather than the group) from another Bruins coach: John Wooden?

Austin Bodett: I think it is quite possible to go after the Pak Army/ISI in meaningful ways without affecting the average Pakistani. The average Pakistani in any event has almost no power at all to affect what the feudal/military elites do, and it is the actions of those elites that hurt us.

Michael C: Just to play devil’s advocate, if you should not punish collectively, is it legitimate to reward collectively, giving a D.U.C. for example?

Also, group punishment works extremely well in counter-insurgency, just not the kind of counter-insurgency we should practice. The Russian, SS and Japanese Imperial Army schools of small war fighting made extensive use of it and it works good…if you don’t mind going to hell after you die that is.

That book sounds interesting, though in a good or bad way I don’t know. I’ll have to put on the list.

Carl, I meant ‘Pakistan’ the country, run by the ‘elites’ whom you mentioned. Pakistanis had as little control over the ISI as Afghans did. You are right that ‘it is quite possible to go after the Pak Army/ISI in meaningful ways without affecting the average Pakistani’ and that ‘the average Pakistani in any event has almost no power at all to affect what the feudal/military elites do.’ That you misinterpreted Pakistan as all Pakistanis surprises me. Many say, ‘America invaded Afghanistan.’ Few interpret it as all Americans, even most Americans, supporting the War in Afghanistan.

Your examples of ‘Russian [Red-Army?], [Waffen?] SS and Japanese Imperial Army schools of small war fighting’ are worthy but without basis required by longterm counterinsurgency (COIN)—almost all COIN. The Japanese Imperial Army (IJA) and SS were active in full for only a few years. Neither had time necessary to implement effective, longterm COIN. Many famous guerillas first earned their reputations fighting the IJA. Mao Zedong and Võ Nguyên Giáp were two.

Austin Bodett:

I will concede your point about Pak Army/ISI vs. Pakistan. But I always say Pak Army/ISI instead of Pakistan when referring to who the real enemy is because many Americans have the tendency to confuse the one with the other, as illustrated by Michael C’s point number two.

The IJA managed to easily control guerrilla activity within the area of their control in China. The Communists mostly stayed away from them and the KMT guerrillas got wiped out because they tried to coordinate with KMT main military forces and exposed themselves. The Communist guerrillas were effective enough to make reps for some of their leaders but they were never a threat to the Japanese. The Japanese weren’t interested in making peace with the Chinese under their control, they were interested in making them slaves. And they did. It is a marvel and a testament to the spirit of the Chinese that they kept fighting in spite of the millions killed. I still maintain the kill ‘em all school of small war fighting works, in the short and medium term, with the proviso above. In the very long term, I agree that it does not. The Soviets subjagated (sic) a lot of areas quite effectively but those peoples will hate them forever.

I understand. Style too often comes at sacrifice.

It seems that you know more about the Second Sino–Japanese War than I. However, remember that insurgency takes time to become effective. The National Revolutionary Army (NRA), neither national nor revolutionary, had little experience in COIN. The NRA was ineffective in the Sino–Japanese War—as you said—like the NRA would be ineffective in the Chinese Civil War. My memory tells me that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward the Sino–Japanese War’s end gained momentum against the IJA, which the PLA would use against the NRA. My memory may be wrong.

Strange that you ignored Giáp and the Việt Minh. The Việt Minh contributed little to Indochinese liberation and the Allied war effort. Giáp won in the end though. Insurgency and COIN take time, which the IJA lacked.

Good to hear another speak about Soviet conquest of Eastern and Northern Europe, forgotten as an example of COIN. Sorry that I’m unfamiliar with the details. Could you elaborate? Remember that the Soviets reused old tactics against the Mujahideen and failed for it.

By the way, feel free to call me ‘Austin.’ No need for old formality among new friends.


What I know about that war comes mostly from this book. It’s great.


The KMT army fought very hard but ineffectively, mainly because, as one of the essayists in the book says, you had a 19th century army of uncertain unity fighting a very good 20th century army. The Reds mostly stayed out of the way, ironically given the common American belief, because they wanted to conserve their strength for the battle after the Japanese left.

I figured Giap was in the class of Red leaders who won mainly a rep against the IJA.

What I meant is recently illustrated by the Russian experience in Chechnya. They sort of won but not really because the Chechens will hate them, really hate them, forever. In fact except for the Bulgarians, I read that basically everybody hates the Russkis.

But even then with the Russ it wasn’t that simple. I read that when they were conquering parts of central Asia after WWI, they made use of local elites, just like everybody.

They Soviet tactics didn’t work in Afghanistan because of external support of powerful outsiders for the Muj and most importantly, because of the sanctuary in Pakistan. People never value a sanctuary enough.

I’ll take your advice and order The Battle for China.

The NRA was valiant yet ineffective in part, not ‘mainly,’ ‘because […] you had a 19th century army of uncertain unity fighting a very good 20th century army.’ The NRA ‘fought very hard but ineffectively, mainly because’ hardheaded ineffectiveness was the style of Chiang Kai-shek. Nineteenth-century and twentieth-century are relative adjectives here. The NRA seemed ‘a 19th century army’ compared to the IJA. The IJA seemed ‘a 19th century army’ compared to the US Army. Such comparisons are shaky—why I avoid making them in the first place. When writing ‘Reds,’ did you mean Chinese communists or Soviets? What did you mean by ‘ironically given the common American belief’? The sentence structure confused me.

Hồ Chí Minh earned a reputation fighting the IJA even though he was a political commander, not a military one. Giáp earned his reputation fighting the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps.

I agree with you on the Second Chechen War. The Belorusans and Serbs might be upset that you forgot them.

Outside support was critical to the Soviet loss in Afghanistan. However, incompetence haunted the Soviet Armed Forces on every level. I disagree with, ‘People never value sanctuary enough.’ Every insurgent knows the importance of ‘sanctuary.’ Most counterinsurgents know the importance of ‘sanctuary.’ Ask David Galula or Roger Trinquier, personal favorites.

@ Carl – Again, the think about a DUC is that it could encourage an entire organization to work together. In that case, most soldiers can positively influence the behavior of their subordinates through communication. However, individual rewards inspire soldiers much more than a DUC. I don’t know anyone who really cared about a PUC or DUC than higher up leadership.

@ F – Obviously, I am a huge John Wooden admirer. I think the key is the word you mentioned, the system. He instilled an ethically demanding system from the top down and rewarded and punished players individually all the time through playing time. In the cases of group punishment I have mentioned, mostly it is applied on top of a poor organizational system.


One of the things you get from the book is a very much greater respect for Chiang. He didn’t have a lot to work with. Another you get is a rather lessened respect for Stillwell.

19th century army vs. 20th century army is a good way to convey the relative levels of fighting power of the respective armies. It may not be a perfect characterization but it gets the point across pretty good. The Chinese materially and organizationally couldn’t begin to compete with Japan. Chiang could have been Alexander, Scipio, Slim, Grant and Genghis Khan all rolled into one and there wouldn’t have been much he could have done against that.

By “Reds” I meant the Red Chinese. And “ironic’ applied because American, at least throughout the time I was growing up, were always led to believe that it was the Red Chinese who fought Japan and the KMT armies avoided combat to preserve strength for the post war fight. It was just the opposite. Back in those days of my youth, people remembered that China-Japan war and it was discussed by historians some. It after all was what got us into WWII.

Insurgents of course value sanctuary enough. They have an big incentive in that living beats dying. And some small wars authors, the good ones, know the value of sanctuary. If you study the subject just a little it clubs you over the head whether you like it or not. But an awful lot of modern decision makers deny it. How else can you explain our policy toward the Pak Army/ISI for all these years, or the refusal to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Laotian and Cambodian sanctuaries?