Oct 25

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

Look at the following four quotes and see if you figure out the common theme:

“Hence we don’t need terms like ‘armed politics’ or ‘armed social science’ to help us understand Coin [sic] which at its essence is still war with its basic elements of fighting, death, and destruction.” Colonel Gian Gentile

“Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war,
right?  If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?” Colonel Gian Gentile

“If you inflict military defeat on the enemy, you remove his ability to use violence as a political instrument...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” William F. Owen

“I think the military gets it,'' Canetta said. “I think they do the best they can do, but within the context of a war...War is about killing, right?” Carl Canetta

Pretty easy to spot isn’t it? The idea that in war, all that matters is killing your enemy, by whatever means necessary. As I have been researching the “war is war” crowd, this theme popped up a couple of times. It’s not the first time I ran across this sentiment; the “anti-Rules of Engagement” crowd thinks this way too.

This branch of the “war is war” crowd--the populist side--isn’t even aware of their argument. They tend to be more realist in their foreign policy, conservative in their politics, and vehemently oppose restrictive Rules of Engagement--which is why I call them the “anti-ROE” crowd. The same ethos inspires them inspires the "war-is-war"-iors.

Take this quote from a Los Angeles Times article on the Rules of Engagement, "Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not what's best for America...We are at war. The rules of engagement must be to empower our soldiers, not to give aid and comfort to the enemy." [Emphasis mine.] Over and over in articles criticizing counter-insurgency strategies, or lambasting the Rules of Engagement, this idea pops up: wars are about fighting, killing, death and destruction, not political reconciliation or humanitarian assistance.

Only they are. The most common definition of war--Clausewitz’ definition--is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War has two parts: the political and the violent. His definition doesn’t specify which should be primary--the politics or the violence--but from what I understand, he views politics, or grand strategy, as the most important factor in war. I definitely have my issues with Clausewitz, but he is right about the balance in warfare between politics and violence.

For example, in the American Revolution, the colonists had to choose between supporting the king or joining the revolution. I say “had to choose” because the violence and culture forced people to take a side, and the king lost. A People Numerous and Armed, a fantastic book on the American Revolution by John Shy, gave me the idea to define our current wars as political wars. In it, Shy argues that, in wars where the population is the key, the biggest event on the battlefield is when people make decisions related to power. Making decisions about power is perhaps the definition of politics. Saying “war is war” is frequently a plea to ignore this reality in the vain hopes that warfare can be simpler, more about killing than decision-making. But it’s not--and that is why politics will constrain warfare until the end of time.

And politics aren’t the only restraint on war. Morals and ethics determine our every move. Laws restrain both soldiers and nations. Culture restricts our thinking and actions in ways we don’t even realize (for this last point read A History of Warfare by John Keegan).

This unsaid idea that pervades debates on ROE and counter-insurgency--that war has no rules except to win--just isn’t true. Any student of war knows that war has legal, ethical, moral, political, cultural and social restrictions. Every war has always had those restrictions, and the war fought without them will be our last.

Oct 22

You can’t understand how America feels about its troops today until you understand how America feels about its Vietnam veterans. The best example of this is, of course, Rambo.

First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III have a pretty obvious surface-level connection to American foreign policy--the first film deals with losing Vietnam, the second with winning it, and the third with beating the Russians in Afghanistan--but, more impressively, they represent the post-Vietnam American psyche.

First, a literary psycho-history of America. As a country, we entered into a war in Vietnam, and lost. Then we emotionally abandoned our troops, and the kids went crazy. President Nixon stole an election and his Vice President pardoned him for violating every tenet of the constitution. America became disillusioned. In the words of one veteran, “I believed in Jesus Christ and John Wayne before I went to Vietnam. After Vietnam, both went down the tubes.” (I should mention, this post owes a great deal to Christian Appy and Alexander Bloom’s essay “Vietnam War Mythology and the Rise of Public Cynicism”. Check it out.)

This betrayal, by America against its Soldiers, is First Blood. John Rambo plays the crazy, stereotyped Vietnam veteran. He’s also one of the greatest heroes of ‘Nam--he has a Medal of Honor. And he’s upset. Rambo was a part of America’s losing effort and now he can’t even hold a job.

Most importantly, Rambo blames the military, and by extension America, for abandoning its troops. They sent him back into the world without any help or resources, and prevented him (via ROEs) from winning the war. This is all stated explicitly in the closing monologue, and shown symbolically in the opening scene where Rambo discovers his friend has died of cancer, brought on by Agent Orange exposure. (This, unfortunately, was true.)

The message is clear: We, America, betrayed our troops. And now we’re losers.

But a superpower can’t be a loser, especially during the 80’s and 90’s boom years. A country as patriotic and great as ours can’t lose wars. Enter Richard Nixon’s book in 1980 arguing we won in Vietnam. Enter “Reagan declar[ing] Vietnam ‘a noble cause’” and rewriting history.

Enter Rambo: First Blood Part II.

This time, Rambo has to go back into Vietnam to both literally rescue American Soldiers from Vietnamese captors, and figuratively rescue America from its failure as a nation. He succeeds. The military, of course, betrays him again. This time, Rambo gets his revenge. He survives, punches the sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo in the face, and leaves the middling bureaucrat from the US government a message: “You know there's more men out there and you know where they are. Find' em. Or I'll find you.”

Like the “protesters spitting on returning veterans” myth that Rambo mentioned in his first monologue, the whole “missing Vietnam POWs” issue never really happened--a Senate commission found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."--but that isn’t the point. The point is that America felt like it had abandoned its Soldiers in Vietnam. Someone (Rambo in this case) needed to get them back. What’s the moral of this whole story? Rambo explains at the end, “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!

Which gets into the crux of my argument: America thinks it lost Vietnam because it just didn’t love its Soldiers enough, and we've resolved not to let it happen again.

The leftover scar from Vietnam is the treatment of our veterans. Whether real or not, we believe as a nation we let out veterans down. We failed them domestically when we left them out on the street when they came home. We let them down militarily when we abandoned Vietnam. In the new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve resolved to care for them and love them. If it goes past lip service and means better VA care and a larger more expansive GI bill, that’s a good thing.

But how is it a bad thing? It leads to a lack of critical introspection. It leads to people conflating anti-war sentiment with anti-troop sentiment. It leads to gung-ho militarism. Most of all, it leads to mistakes in American foreign policy.

This is Rambo III. Rambo, this time, heads to Afghanistan to fight the USSR. The film is even dedicated, in the end credits, to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” who we, of course, left in the lurch less than two years later. In Rambo and America’s desire to defeat the Russians, they set in motion the chain of events that caused 9/11.


Oct 21

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Rambo (2008) wasn’t terrible. Obviously the action was over the top. His machete maiming and decapitating returns with gusto as does the belt fed machine gunning. It is a Rambo film after all. Despite the over the top action and the limited dialogue, there is a real display of genocide and human rights violations. The situation and locale are real. And the acts of violence against a people called the Karen while dramatized and Hollywoodized, they are based on actual accounts are barbarism committed in Myanmar (what was once Burma).

John Rambo finds himself in Mae Sot, Thailand. As I watched the opening sequences of Rambo (2008) I was excited. I was there. While the locations didn't look familiar, the text that introduced the location struck a chord. Mae Sot, along with a number of other cities along the Myanmar border, is home to a Karen refugee camp. One that I was fortunate enough to see and assist in providing medical aide at while I was in Thailand. 

Karen are likely the decedents of Mongolian nomads that found their home in the mountain jungles of Burma. I met several of them, not in Myanmar, the country in which their home lies, but in the refugee camp in Mae Sot. It is one of many camps that exist in the surrounding countries that they have been displaced. For the most part, Karen are Southern Baptist by religion due to western missionaries. This fact, combined with their desire to live independent of the Myanmar government that makes the vast majority of its capitol on the illegal narcotics trade, have made them subjects of genocide. 

Mae Sot is the staging point, the place where we join an aged John Rambo hiding away from his past when his is interrupted by a Christian group seeking to cross into Burma. A dangerous endeavor considering travel into the country is restricted and those caught within are summarily executed. This is not exaggeration, I have met with a few medical professional, ex-military sympathizers, and Christian evangelicals who have been beyond the border and who take their lives into their hands each time they do. While I thought their act of throwing caution to the wind an act of heroism, they reminded me, the Karen risk their lives every day to simply remain in their homes.

I was able to talk with some of the Karen with the help of our interpreter. We heard stories. Nothing as blatant as the killing in the movie, but more sinister. Rambo portrays the Myanmar military forcing Karen prisoners to run through a field full of land mines and mortar fire reeking havoc on a Karen settlement. The reality is that Karen have become adept at patrolling their homes and leave their settlements upon sighting Burmese military patrols. The military will pass and the Karen return. As the Karen return they must walk upon solid stone because the paths are lined with landmines. Our interpreter noted that Karen children are taught to play only upon the stone. 

Soldiers as young as twelve showed me scars from bullets or shrapnel. Young women told of being beaten. They tell that they are thankful for the growing Burmese sentiment toward Karen women. Where once they may have been raped, now they are seen as less than human by soldiers and disgusting. One woman said it is better to be beaten than beaten and raped only to be left with child. 

Ours was a medical mission. In truth, my primary responsibility was simple to observe and carry equipment. Assist in dental procedures and practical demonstrations. Our response to the hidden war differed greatly from the protagonists of the movie. Rather than taking life, we were attempting teach the Karen how to prolong it through education about sanitary living and basic medical practices. 
I watched this movie Rambo with its over the top action and egocentric focus on White missionaries and mercenaries and grew sad. Partly because the cinematic display is likely based on stories from Karen survivors. More so because the situation is truer than fiction. It hit home for me after meeting the afflicted. But mostly I was saddened because, as ridiculous and this Rambo movie was and as much as it focused on these white characters and whether they lived or died, this uber-macho film has arguably done more to bring actual human rights violations to the attention of a apathetic public than any other attempts at information sharing.

If you would like to read more on that Karen, or find out how you can help, please check out the following links.
- This is a story on the specific plight of the Karens.
Oct 20

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

As I started diving into the precisely vague wording of “war is war”, I found a clear connection: the intellectuals who admonish us to understand that “war is war” love Clausewitz. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side. This isn’t only an issue with the “war-is-war”-ior; military strategists have obsessed over Carl since he first published On War.

You may not know this, but Carl von Clausewitz is God.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clausewitz is God, nor should he dominate American thinking on military strategy and theory the way hideous haircuts dominate the heads of Rangers. He has a place in military philosophy, there is no doubt about that, but the emphasis on Clausewitz today is out-of-control.

To make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting the “war is war” crowd, I asked the folks over at the SWJ discussion board what they thought of my first two posts. Sure enough, about eight comments down someone started using Clausewitz to clarify the definition of war, that’s how popular he is.

But Clausewitzian love goes further than interweb forums; academics use him all the time too. Colin Grey, who declares “war is war” in his Strategic Studies paper, writes “there is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz.” Colonel David Maxwell argrees that all we need to do is study more Clausewitz; he said it in two different papers for The Small Wars Journal.

I have a few issues with Clausewitz’s domination of military thought:

1. Is Clausewitz all there is? To go back to my “politics is politics” analogy, how many political theorists are there? One could argue Machievelli dominates the field, but not more than Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages. But military strategy has, in the terms of Professor Grey, only three: Clausewitz, Thucydides and Sun Tzu. I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker. No other field or discipline is so narrow.

I appreciate his definition of war, but as the overarching father of all military thought, I don’t love reading him the way I loved reading, for example, the foundational thought in the theory of politics. Frankly, Clausewitz’s writing doesn’t sparkle like the writing of Plato, Machiavelli and Locke, not to mention the writing of our founding fathers.

2. Clausewitz is on the wrong end of my philosophical spectrum. Now this doesn’t mean conservative or liberal, realist or idealist, it means complicated and verbose. Long ago, I developed my own personal spectrum of philosophy: on one end are Kant and Derrida competing for the claim of the most incomprehensible philosopher, on the other is Plato’s “Crito” and Jesus’ parables, both examples of philosophy that can be read on several levels, but understood without taking a college class. (A friend of mine took a class on Kant at UCLA, and they were only able to work through forty pages. Forty.)
Clausewitz falls over the complicated German philosopher cliff. I mean, his work encompasses several volumes, was never finished, and was written in the Hegelian style--which means frequently you argue a point just to refute it later (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).

3. The most parroted assumptions are ridiculously vague. From what I can tell, the most significant achievement of Clausewitz was his definition of war--warfare is politics through other means (depending on the translation). Second to that was his classification of the three parts of warfare: 1. Violence, hatred and enmity (really two topics, violence and enmity) 2. chance or probability and 3. each opponent is subordinate to rational policy. It just seems that every human endeavor is the interaction of emotion, chance and rationality, be it diplomacy, economics, politics or war.

This simplification is probably more due to people simplifying philosophy as opposed to the philosopher himself. Philosophy, in general, suffers when it is simplified. Clausewitz equals “war is politics by other means”, Machiavelli is “rule at all costs”, Neitzsche believed in “the super man”. Nuance? Fuhgetaboutit. These quick snap definitions lose the subtlety of hundreds of pages of philosophy--and I think that simplification is magnified in Clausewitz’s case when it comes to “war is war”.

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 think it also does military theory and the philosophy of violence a disservice to assume Clausewitz has war all figured out when Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant treatise, On Violence, that few military officers have read.

Oct 18

Way back in July, I said it would be a short deployment and it was, I was gone less than four months. I went to Iraq both to learn about my next job in the Army, and my next AO, so it was mission accomplished.

Though it was short, I learned more than I thought I could about Iraq and Baghdad--no matter how much you read in books or in the media--nothing replaces complete immersion in the day-to-day operations of units in Iraq. Below are some of my thoughts:

1A. I might be a Fobbit. Throughout the deployment I never flew on a helicopter, rode in an MRAP, or walked on the roads outside of the base. Frankly, my role as an intelligence analyst just didn’t call for it. The only threats that inconvenienced my life were the mosquitoes invading my room, or the days the Caesar salad bar wasn’t running in the DFAC. Yeah, I was a Fobbit.

Part 1B: I don’t think I deserved all the combat pay I got. I can admit that between getting hostile fire, family separation, hazardous duty, and combat zone tax exemption pay, I got paid too much. Now putting the money I earned to good use is up to me, but if I could be “King of the Army” for a day, I would find a way to equalize combat pay so people who spend their entire deployment behind cement T-walls in air conditioned TOCs don’t get the same pay as the grunts walking the line everyday in Konar, Kandahar, Marjah, Mosul or Baghdad.

2. Intelligence is hard. Predictive analysis--the bread and butter of military intelligence--is pretty darn hard. Reading the tea leaves for the future of an entire nation is near impossible, but that is what intelligence people do (or try to do). Doing it well is extremely hard. It requires patience, motivation and the critical thinking to judge everything your read, see or hear. I am both excited and nervous about my next deployment when I will have to make decisions and be the man when it comes to intelligence.

3. That doesn’t excuse bad intelligence. Yeah intelligence is hard, but how the US Army and the intelligence community (IC) as a whole can be so bad at it boggles my mind. I can--and will--write plenty of more posts on this topic, but the basic point is that good intelligence requires hard work on the right things; the IC is good at working hard, but not on the right things. That leads to a lot of incorrect analysis, poor targeting efforts and bad intel.

4. The future is murky for Iraq. I hope to publish this thought in a larger article, but I think the future of Iraq is very dark and murky. To be blunt, I am not optimistic. From sectarian militias to insurgent Sunni terrorists, from foreign actors from Iran (and possibly Syria and Saudi Arabia after we leave) to international criminal syndicates and the government of Iraq itself, (with its endemic corruption and an inability to form) the threats facing the people of Iraq are numerous and powerful. Whether the government lasts, falls apart, is taken over in a coup d’etat, or becomes a stooge for the Iran, everything is possible and nothing would surprise me. In short, talk of victory in Iraq is misplaced.

5. Combat operations are not over. When President Obama declared combat operations had ended, all he really did was just re-label the situation. Combat brigades are still operating in Iraq, just not in “strictly” combat roles, though they still conduct missions. Most importantly, the violence hasn’t stopped. It isn’t like it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but every day something explodes in Iraq. It is the kidnapping capital of the world. Two million refugees still refuse to return from other countries.

Oct 15

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

One of my fears about critiquing war memoirs is that if I criticize famous, powerful or influential authors, it will come back to get me or my blog.

This review pretty much encapsulates that fear.

Andrew Exum started and still runs the blog Abu Muqawama, easily one of the most influential, popular and well written milblogs/foreign policy blogs on the internet. An expert on Afghanistan and the Middle East and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, this guy is influential. Criticizing him is probably stupid.

That said, I didn’t really like his Afghanistan war memoir This Man’s Army. Fortunately, Exum gives me some cover, he self-describes his memoir as “quickly forgotten”. This was Exum’s first book, written before he published hundreds of posts on his blog, opinion pieces for the New York Times, and numerous academic journals. I guarantee his next book will be huge--TV, radio and speaking tour huge--but this memoir, written at the beginning of his career, was not.

Basically, This Man’s Army just doesn’t have much snap. Not much happens--at one point in the first chapter Exum mentions the grades he earned in Latin. Beginning at the very beginning of his life, it takes This Man’s Army eighty three pages to get to Kuwait, another forty to get to Afghanistan, and only eighty more to return home.

This Man’s Army doesn’t include any of the items on my war memoir litmus test, which is interesting, because Exum’s first job in the Army is writing news stories for a local Army paper. He challenges himself to “see just how falsely positive I could be.” In his articles, “Morale problems were nonexistent. So too were racial tensions, adulterous soldiers, professional incompetence, and any of the other problems that often plague the modern military.” These problems are also absent from the rest of This Man’s Army.

So onto my primary problem: the narrative voice. The narrator basically comes off as a macho dick, even though I don’t think Exum is a macho dick, at least based on his Abu Muqawama writings. He spends most of his memoir play-fighting with his men, in some sort of bizarre initiation ceremony. Exum says this is standard in the military, but for his platoon it never stops. When they join an intramural soccer league at Camp Doha, his team “beat[s] the other teams into submission.” All I could think of was playing basketball with guys like that, guys who deliver hard fouls and argue--we never invited them back to the next game. In Kuwait, the platoon moons security cameras. By the time Exum leaves Kuwait he’s “...able to do almost thirty perfect pull-ups.” Later his men “whip out their cocks” in front of a pretty French reporter. Even coming home, his platoon annoys a “flamboyantly effeminate” steward. These hi-jinks feel forced, somehow, and unnatural.

This is all in good fun, until they reach Afghanistan. When Exum’s platoon drops “death cards” onto dead enemies that read “Jihad this, motherf***er” or he describes PTSD sufferers as “F***ing pussies” (though he later recants this position), it isn’t harmless. It’s actually offensive.

And it just mucks up the tone. The memoir’s best literary detail is a side character appropriately named Weeks. He is “an awkward kid who possessed no discernible athletic ability or physical coordination” who sits alone in his bunk reading comic books. Sad, tragic, out-of-place, it’s a literary detail. It feels inevitable that this Soldier will break down, suffering some undiagnosable malady. Exum, instead, describes “the sight of Weeks battling the volleyball to no avail” as “just too comical too bear.” Wow.

This is also an example of a punchline falling flat. This book tried to be funny, but it just wasn’t. (The funniest thing, to me, in This Man’s Army: the whole book I kept thinking, “Exum wrestles, fights and roughhouses with his men so much, I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten hurt.” In the last chapter, Exum shatters his knee playing street hockey, misses a deployment to Afghanistan, and got the time to write This Man’s Army. Now that’s funny.)

The other main awkward incident occurs at Camp Doha, Kuwait. Exum feuds with Navy SEALs who think his platoon is too loud, the “overweight...fun police” Intel officers in the next dorm over, and eventually the entire base. This entire chapter is surreal, and the epitome of a petty grudge unleashed in a memoir. Like a similar incident in Joker One involving discipline, at some point if an entire base hates your platoon, you have to assume your platoon is the problem. (Exum mostly excuses his men’s behavior. They were rude on the plane because they’d “been deployed for seven months”. At Camp Doha, they were rude because they were “away from home for so long.”) Exum, of course, loves his own leadership style. “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I don’t think anyone said that.

So, in closing, Exum is a must read writer, on his blog Abu Muqawama. We wouldn’t have put him on our blog roll otherwise. But this memoir is a pass.

Oct 13

Back in April, I wrote a post about the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police facing off against each other in front of my convoy. The point of that post was that the success of our military adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether or not the ANP can enforce law and order. Defeating the Taliban will rely on Afghan initiative more than anything else, although the quality of US training and support can go a long way to making them competent.

The following story gives you an idea of how seriously NATO took training the ANP back in 2008:

In my little part of Afghanistan, the job of training the Afghanistan National Police fell to a platoon of Military Police (MP). They had a huge area to cover, an entire province. They may have been reserve or National Guard, I don’t remember. We were supposed to provide security to the police stations, but not training. MPs know police work; my guys knew how to move, shoot and communicate.

When we arrived in Destined Company’s AO, the other PLs and the CO told me about a possible ambush site on the road from FOB Fortress (our home base) to Asadabad (another FOB/city). It was still active for many of the convoys that went through it, but not for us. For the eight months I drove past the spot not once did the enemy shoot at us. We had a specific weapon system we always rolled out with--the TOW missile--and the insurgents didn’t want anything to do with it.

One day--we were about thirty minutes from rolling out--we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. My men hadn’t been in a firefight in a while--they were itching for a fight-- and this sounded like the opportunity.

We hit the trucks, we rolled out, and the company relayed via the radios that the MP platoon was in contact. As we headed to the ambush site, my section sergeant pointed out that he hadn’t heard the unmistakable sounds of a fifty caliber machine gun. Then we saw the MP platoon flying past us. We figured out that they were going to the Fortress, but we headed to the ambush site to try to catch the insurgents.

By the time we got there, the insurgents were long gone. (Ambushes don’t last long unless they are wildly successful.) Even though we got there about 15 minutes after it started, there was nothing to be found.

So we returned to base to fing out what had happened, and to figure out why the MPs had barely shot back. The patrol leader told us that their fifty caliber machine gun had jammed. One of our Soldiers offered to check it out.

He quickly realized they were right, they had a jammed fifty caliber machine gun. But the reason it was jammed was...peculiar. A fifty caliber machine gun can be set up to load on either the left or right side. But if you set it up to fire from the left or right, the ammo can has to be set up on that side as well. The MP platoon had a right fed machine gun loaded from the left. That is a weapon that will never fire.

Why were improperly trained men even on the battlefield? Why were they training the police of Afghanistan? This is a good leadership lesson for all soldiers: like the Marine Corps “every Marine is a rifleman policy”, all Soldiers in the Army are Soldiers first. Basic Soldiering, like the ability to load and maintain a .50 Caliber machine gun, is something no unit should lack.

Oct 11

I make some pretty strange connections when it comes to foreign affairs. A few months back I wrote about globalization as it related to Cool Runnings. And I wrote about curling as it related to counter-insurgency. (Coming soon: Counter-insurgency theory and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.)

My most recent connection came when I was relooking at the failed states issue of Foreign Policy. As soon as I saw the map of the globe, all I could think was, “Man, that looks like a game of Risk.”

Risk? Yep, the game of global domination, one of the pastimes. We play for hours, get in heated alliances, and generally have a blast. (By the way, I’m not the only one looking to Risk for strategic answers.)

Over time, my friends and I have learned different Risk strategies. The most common lesson is that in Risk, like warfare, concentrating your forces makes sense. So the board starts to look something like this map on Foreign Policy. Different armies of different colors occupy the various states, grouped together to concentrate strength.

Except, whereas in Risk armies lump together for strength, on the failed states map, failed nations lump together; nations that have failed states as neighbors tend to fail themselves. This makes sense: if your neighbor falls apart trade will lower, displaced persons will flood into your country, and disastrous environmental policies will pollute/exploit your resources. All of which erodes the standard of living of all the surrounding nations.

This is all logical, but so what? Well when it comes to Risk, players have strategies to conquer the entire globe; in the realm of failed states no one has a plan. I wish the leaders of America or Europe took this same approach to the rest of the globe. What is our global strategy to pull everyone up to a decent standard of living? What is our approach to spread democracy and stop totalitarianism?

The point is we don’t have one. If we had a global strategy following 9/11, it was to protect our security through expeditionary wars. That only plunged two additional nations into chaos, and did nothing for the poverty stricken nations of Africa, where extremist terrorists took refuge and remain to this day, continuing attacks on Europe and threatening America again.

(Check out this speech by Obama on the same topic.)