Small Wars Journal

COL Gian Gentile Twofer

Mon, 09/16/2013 - 12:16pm

Listen to General Dempsey by Gian Gentile at The American Conservative.

Johns Hopkins University Professor Eliot Cohen recently penned a Washington Post op-ed decrying U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He charges the general with breaching “proper civil-military relations” and tacitly violating our Constitution by publicly expressing misgivings about the likelihood of solving our problems with Syria by meddling in the nation’s civil war.

But the professor is wrong about Dempsey’s unique role in this debate and owes the general an apology…

Read on.

The Army's Learning-and-Adapting Dogma by Gian Gentile, The National Interest.

The idea of “learning and adapting” in war, and in particular how well or poorly this has happened with counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has consumed the American military and especially the U.S. Army.

However, this hyper-focus on learning and adapting has prevented the military from stepping back and objectively assessing the overall strategic and political worth of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…

Read on.


Bill C.

Thu, 09/19/2013 - 10:49pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"The sanctuaries that are killing us are in our MINDS. Bad definitions, bad doctrine, bad strategy, poor framing of the problem that AQ and others emerge from, etc."

This is an intriguing statement.

Currently we would seem to see and, therefore, frame "The Problem" as follows:

The Problem:

Many/most difficulities which plague countries, populations and, increasingly, the world as a whole today (genocide, terrorism, insurgency, poor response to natural disasters, conflict with the so-called "international community") stem from weak, failing, failed and/or rogue states being unwilling -- and/or unable -- to undertake and achieve deep political, economic and social reform along modern western lines.

(Thus an American foreign policy which is largely focused on causing/helping "outlier" states and societies transform along modern western lines; this being the essence of "diplomacy, development and defense.")

How is it that we can make such a "The Problem" statement as I have provided above?

Because we see -- and therefore say -- that states and societies which are organized, oriented, ordered and configured more along modern western lines do not exhibit the difficulties noted above (genocide, terrorism, insurgency, etc.)

We might note that if the former Soviet Union had won the Cold War, it also might have seen and framed "The Problem" in much this same way. The difference being that the former Soviet Union would most likely have suggested that deep political, economic and social reforms required -- re: "outlier" states and societies -- must be achieved along Soviet/communist lines.

Given this thought, might we suggest that the manner in which "The Problem" is viewed and, thus, framed, has (1) less to do with accuracy and (2) more to do with the political objective of the great power concerned?

Herein, the United States -- and the former Soviet Union if it had "won" -- both believing that the security, safety, prosperity and general well-being of their respective states, societies and citizenry would best be served via the transformation and assimilation of outlier states and societies?

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 09/18/2013 - 10:26am

In reply to by Bill M.


Of course we need to capture and record tactical lessons learned. But we equally need to be intellectually honest that in Afghanistan and Iraq those refined tactics are still leading us toward strategic failure. How to do the wrong thing better is worth capturing, but it better have a damn big freaking astrix next to it.

In populace-based conflicts, not only does the sum of tactics not add up to strategy; but equally the the policy/political framing of the problem almost always determines from the outset as to if our (also policy/political) goals are feasible to achieve in a manner that is acceptable and suitable or not. The generals and admirals have not done the nation any favors by simply avoiding the third rail of policy and focusing on working doggedly at infeasible military-based security solutions. That senior rater profile (I got mine, who cares if my buddy fails) bred thinking does not serve our nation well.

We must evolve in how we think about these types of conflicts outside of the paradigm we have grown comfortable with for thinking about state-based conflicts. The sanctuaries that are killing us are not physical sanctuaries in places like the FATA of Pakistan. The sanctuaries that are killing us are in our MINDS. Bad definitions, bad doctrine, bad strategy, poor framing of the problem that AQ and others emerge from, etc. We build mental box within mental box until we have nothing left to work with. Reminds me of my junior officer days of computing safety within an impact area that already had a safety buffer built around it. We've all lobbed rounds into a 1 km box drawn withing a 50 square KM impact area (and then punishing those who "shoot out" of the 1 KM box). That is how we think as well. Very safe, but not very effective.

We need to remove the barriers from our thinking. That is the essence of design. Sure, our ultimate operations will be within the narrow boxes of our authorities as granted by the civil leadership of both the host nation and our own; as well as our military orders. But by applying unconstrained thinking on the front end, we will be far more likely to nudge events toward a strategically sound and sustainable goal that we have been over the past 12 years.

Sorry, feeling a bit frustrated. We're better than this if we let ourselves be.


Bill M.

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 8:59pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Overall agree with your comments and Gian's articles, but I don't dismis the value of also focusing on lessons at the tactical and operational level. While we should advise and shape the strategic discussion at the end of the day we have to operationalize the policy/mission given to us. We ultimately have little control of what happens outside of the M in DIME. Gian's comments would be better directed at the NSS when it comes to strategy. However those 20 somethings are too easily swayed by our idealistic COINdistas and their snake oil on how we can win over the population by imposing our systems and values.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 8:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

. IMO what I am talking about has little to do with modernity, and much to do about equity. Expectations do indeed change over time and must be addressed and balanced across a society. But what is adequately "modern" in one society may seem completely out of touch in another.

Bill C.

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 5:49pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"Governance must actually evolve to either engage the whole of society or to release the rejected population from their control."

An example to illustrate some of the difficulties presented by this theory:

Government/governance, when faced with the all-to-common realization that the state and society must modernize in order to become/remain safe and secure, often feels that it cannot:

a. Evolve to engage the whole of society nor

b. Release the rejected population from its control.


Because accommodating the wants, needs and desires of that portion of the population who are opposed to modernization would cause the subject state and society to become/remain unsafe and insecure.

Same-same if said government/governance released this disagreeing portion of the population from its control.

In such circumstances as these (state and society must modernize in order to survive and become/remain viable), does government/governance have -- not only the right but also the responsibility -- to act in such a way as to provide for the safety and security of the state and society as a whole; this to specifically include, not only the use of carrots, but also sticks?

Thus, government/governance -- when all else fails -- having the right and responsibility to use of force against one's own population? (In our example here, against the die-hard, actively resisting, anti-modern members of the population.)

Strategic failure?

In our example above, might we say that strategic failure occurs if and when government/governance fails to act in such a way as to adequately provide for the safety and security of the country and population? This occurring, in our case here, if and when government/governance fails to take the steps and measures needed to (1) modernize the state and society as is required and (2) to overcome those who would actively resist such a necessary transition/transformation?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 7:11am

Much hard truth in both pieces.

Worth noting is that the second article calling out officials for failing to recognize the strategic failures in the face of "adaptive and learning" COIN tactics and operations, is a parallel situation in regards to CT.

In conventional warfare the sum of even bad tactics and operational design can ultimately add up to strategic success (e.g., WWI & WWII); but in populace-based conflicts (typically not really "war" at all as they are internal to a single system rather than between distinct systems) this is simply not the case. Governance must actually evolve to either engage the whole of society, or to release the rejected population from their control. In war one need "only" to force the other system to submit.

Efforts to help some foreign government created or adopted by us to secure our interests to suppress their own people to that end was obsolete over 100 years ago. Time to adopt a new strategy.