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To Bomb, or Not to Bomb?

Tue, 01/12/2015 - 16:50

Should the UK bomb IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria? That is, go above and beyond killing our own citizens in “self defence”. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, says yes, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and the opposition, says no. The fact that the lethal component to any aerial campaigns in Syria will border on insignificance is, from the looks of things, inconsequential. I think I’m in the “containment” camp (e.g. something like: prevent ISIS from taking more territory, propping up the Iraqi government, but otherwise not committing to extensive military operations in Iraq and Syria) and here’s why.

Problem One: “Defeat ISIS” is an aspiration, not a strategy

On the whole, I think Corbyn (alongside dissident Conservatives) is right: the articulated plan to “degrade and defeat” ISIS is both woolly and ill-conceived. What, if anything, will an increased tempo of airstrikes achieve? How will the UK’s minimal contribution to this effort change the overall character or pace of the campaign? The problem here is that I don’t think anyone has quite worked out what IS is, and how it relates to the UK. In the words of Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro: “Is it [IS] a tremendously well-resourced terrorist group that controls substantial territory, which it uses to plan attacks, vet operatives and manage a complex financial network? Or is it a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks?” If IS is a fledgling nation-state, then containment works (sortof, in the long run, with the likelihood of international terrorist plots in the meantime), since IS is very bad at actually being a state so there’s good reason to believe it will collapse at some future point in time. Until states can agree on a set of political aims beyond “beat the bad guys” it’s probably best not to tilt headlong into a situation that is already bad, and likely to get worse before it gets better.

More to the point, “defeating” ISIS would require urban warfare, either through proxies (the vaunted 70k non-extreme militia) or through the commitment of western forces (Uh, not gonna happen). We have all the precision-guided munitions in the world, but while that might disrupt and degrade ISIS’s ability to act, that is quite different from defeating or destroying the organisation. The west lacks the political will to commit large scale forces to the defeat of ISIS (for some reason, the public got fed up after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) and it’s probable that ground forces would fan the flames of the Syrian conflict, if anything. One doesn’t have to read far into academic literature on strategy to figure that a divisive conflict, far away, with lofty goals but an unclear aim (and decisive means foreclosed), is unsustainable.

Problem Two: There is no neutral option

I am signed up to the Colin Powell school of thought: you broke it, you own it. I’m also fully signed up to the fact that if the UK contributes ISR assets to a military campaign, then it doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger, we’re still on the hook for whatever happens. From this perspective, the fact that the UK is conducting strikes in Iraq and helping out in Syria means that we are already responsible for acts of violence on both sides of the border. At the same time, there is no violence-free option available to the UK. If we do nothing (as in, pack up our planes and go home) then violence still exists in the region – packing up and going home shunts responsibility for doing something about it to our erstwhile allies, or worse, gives the worst perpetrators of violence in the region license to go about their business of brutally suppressing populations and dissent. I think that it’s at least arguable that nothing we can do now will save us from an unfavourable judgement by generations to come. After all, we stood by and watched while IS erased substantial elements of the common heritage of humankind with high explosives. Whatever happens, therefore, we’re still involved, somehow, even if that means packing up all our kit and taking it home with us. The “act/don’t act” binary (pushed on both sides, I might add) is therefore a sham. Moreover, the UK might be a target of IS, but it’s always going to be a target of IS (and like groups). Free will means that we don’t get to pick who is allowed to dislike us. All the above pushes towards some form of engagement for the UK – we lose more by walking away than staying involved in the US coalition, but this doesn’t necessitate committing ourselves to trying to eradicate ISIS beyond what we’re already doing. The symbolic value of overturning the commons vote against action in Syria would send a message, but the action that follows from it wouldn’t change a thing. Better, in my view, to re-assert our existing commitment with America, and if necessary throw more resources in, rather than committing to a lofty goal that appears impossible with current (or projected) means.

At the end of the day: someone has to pull the trigger

My ultimate unease at widening attacks on IS into Syria relates to my equal unease at British strikes within Iraq. All the high-minded arguments about the ins and outs of international politics and grand strategy boil down to someone, somewhere, being asked to kill human beings, and bear that experience with them for the rest of their life. This doesn’t change if they’re sitting at the controls of a UAV back here in blighty, soaring over the deserts of Iraq, or if they happen to be holding a rifle and face to face with their target. I think that’s a lot to ask of a person. Thankfully, we have an all-volunteer force so some of the moral questions relating to compelling people to kill are at least ameliorated. Still, the political impulse to “do something” in the face of a Gordian knot tends to ignore the fact that service personnel aren’t toys. For all the talk of drones reducing war to a “video game mentality” (which is disproved in most serious takes on the subject), the political reduction of the armed forces to an intercontinental screwdriver is worse. I think there is a clear role for violence in both Iraq and Syria, but the goal of pushing IS out of Iraq, and attempting to prop up and strengthen that state (and perhaps cajole the Iraqi government into rapprochement with its Sunni population) is achievable. Is there a role for expanding strikes in Syria to achieve this? Definitely. But this should be predicated on the political aim of protecting and stabilising Iraq, not on taking us into an indefinite war against a proto-state that we haven’t figured out how to deal with. Articulating this (limited) goal is far more preferable in my mind to lofty goals with total aims.

Anything that looks like a joint campaign with Russia is a really bad idea

The polite way of putting this is that “proportionality” is a subjective concept that has no precise basis in international law, and is therefore an expression of national military cultures and their interpretations of international humanitarian law treaties. The impolite way of putting this is that Russia doesn’t give a toss about killing civilians in the pursuit of military objectives. At the time of writing, Air Wars has tracked just over 8500 US coalition strikes, killing a claimed 20,000 IS fighters, while also killing between 682 and 2057 civilians in the process. At the same time:

Airwars presently assesses 44 Russian incidents as having likely killed civilians in Syria to October 30th – which between them reportedly killed 255 to 375 non-combatants. This is roughly ten times the level of credible allegations against US-led Coalition operations in Syria.

Whatever disagreements campaigners may have with the US or UK government over the conduct of aerial warfare, targeting and precaution, I think both would agree that no-one wants a Russian-style air campaign. The problem is, if the US-led coalition escalates a large scale aerial campaign against IS in Syria, and Russia also strikes IS in Syria, the two campaigns will not only become functionally indistinguishable to those on the ground, but also to audiences worldwide. It really won’t matter if we take every precaution possible under the sun, wait 72 hours for someone to drive a Toyota into an abandoned road before killing them with a bomb, or conduct battlefield assessments to make sure that no-one else got hurt, if at the same time the Russian air force piles in and bombs an urban area without guided munitions. The US (and potentially, the UK) could say “It wasn’t me” until they’re blue in the face, but all the world is really going to care about is the headline civilian casualty count, which isn’t going to distinguish between us and the Russians (or, for that matter, the Syrian government). With this in mind, restricting the use of lethal force to areas that the Russians don’t operate in is a good way of maintaining some sort of distinction between us and them. Even if we part “own” strikes by the US, the UK could still maintain a semblance of narrative distance from Russian attacks.

Conclusion: Whoever wins, the UK loses

This is pretty much a foregone conclusion. We will spend money, effort and time killing people in an attempt to achieve a more-just state of affairs than the one that preceded it, in the midst of a region dominated by religious governments that are completely illiberal and, on the whole, antithetical to the core values of western democracies. Walking away doesn’t work because Russia and China would probably be there to take our place, which leaves long term engagement, which is messy. Note here that I am talking about governments, not people. If we could treat populations as indivisible from those that rule them, then the choices on offer would be a lot simpler. We know, however, that the societies living under theocracy and autocracy contain many people who, like us, just want to get along with their lives, rather than export their own brand of religion across the region. Those people tend to face persecution or execution (hi Saudi Arabia!), calling into question every single element of ongoing engagement. Nonetheless, we must engage, somehow. The extent to which we engage may be a reflection of circumstance, but it always remains a choice. The question is whether we double-down for no apparent reason and nail ourself to a cross of “Defeat ISIS” or whether we continue muddling along, trying to do our best with what is available to us. I’m for the latter, until a better option presents itself.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

CCLKOW: Call out the Militia!

Mon, 30/11/2015 - 18:25

Today in CCLKOW we are reorienting you to the homeland and the problems of interoperability between police and the armed forces. Even without the Paris Attacks earlier this month, the subject of mastering the ‘JIIM’ environment is critical, both in military operations at home and abroad. To discuss this, I am very happy to bring to you a special guest writer, Ian Wiggett, recently retired as an Assistant Chief Constable from Greater Manchester Police. It should be understood, then, that this piece is written from the British perspective, which includes a significant difference with respect to the use of force by the police, particularly as concerns the generally disarmed stance. Nevertheless, the issue of integrating a military response to an attack to the homeland matters even to the US. Although the matter of Posse Comitatus would seem to forestall the use of the regular forces domestically, this matter has never been tested against any significant threat. And in fact, even as it was ultimately tabled, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the military role in homeland defence was put on the table for serious debate. It is also worth noting that the American disdain for soldiers operating in the homeland is a legacy of our British heritage, and so to a similar degree the use of the armed forces in domestic circumstances is discomfiting on this side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, although they come under the control of the Governors, the National Guard formations of the individual states are trained as military, not police, forces. Thus, even in the American setting, how the armed forces will act in support of local, state, or even federal law enforcement remains a challenge. Alternatively, should the terrorist threat upon the European Continent reach sufficient proportions, it is not out of the realm of the possibility for recourse to NATO forces to be contemplated. Finally, as the importance of security and stabilization campaigns rise, the ability to work with civilian authorities will become more important. If the problems have not been hashed out for homeland defence, it is very unlikely they will succeed in foreign contingencies. Thus, the locus of operations of the armed forces has shifted and it is time to give serious thought to the issues. Read the piece, consider the implications and questions posed, and join the conversation on Twitter, at #CCLKOW and, it is hoped, the newly launched hashtag for policing discussion, #WeCops. — Jill S. Russell


First, some history…

Military Assistance to the Civil Powers (MACP) – also known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) – has existed for centuries.  In the days before a regular civilian police force existed, it was only the military that had the numbers, organisation and capability to restore order and maintain control.  That was, indeed, the role of the militia: a body of soldiers that could be raised at short notice to provide homeland defence.  It was the militia in North America that provided the backbone of the Revolutionary Army, and after independence, the United States retained the militia as the National Guard.

The original concept of “MACP” was therefore built around the military, either militia or regulars, being the force of last resort to restore and maintain the Peace.  Use of force (or at least, show of force) was central to that.  Armed soldiers putting down the insurrection – and casualties and collateral damage were expected.


The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, 1819.
Contemporary cartoon, Cruikshank

The folk memory does not easily or quickly forget the intervention of armed forces.  The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is still invoked to inspire radicalism in Manchester, and the impact of that violent suppression is generally acknowledged as leading to further radicalism and ultimately to wider reform.  The Easter Rising in Dublin involved only a relatively small number of republican combatants, but the violence of the military response arguably pushed many towards the cause of independence.  In South Wales mining communities Churchill is known not as a wartime Prime Minister, but as the Home Secretary who had sent troops against striking miners in 1911.


Troops deployed in support of local police to suppress striking miners, Rhondda Valley, 1910-11

History therefore suggests that the relationship between the people and the military has to be managed carefully.  Too much force, applied clumsily, may achieve its immediate objective of quelling a riot – but the lasting impact may be far more damaging to the established order.  The ‘silent majority’ are very grateful that the forces of law and order (whether dressed in blue or green) have made it safe for them to walk the streets and sleep soundly at night.  But if too many skulls are cracked, that ‘silent majority’ can quickly change sides.


How does MACP/MACA work today?

Military Assistance to the Civil Authorities (MACA) falls into three main types.  The first is simply about extra manpower and equipment to help deal with emergencies such as flooding, heavy snow, evacuations, etc.  The military can bring in large numbers people and specialist equipment or skills at short notice.  Filling sandbags to protect critical sites from flooding.  Moving people away from flooded homes.  Helicopters transporting vital supplies.  Building temporary bridges. This is also known as Military Assistance to the Civil Community.   The military also step in when critical services are threatened by industrial action.  Recent examples include fuel deliveries, firefighting, and ambulances.  This is also referred to as Military Assistance to Government Departments.

A second category, closely linked to the first, is the provision of additional or specialist support which may not be available to the civilian authority.  Installing communications equipment in remote areas, deploying radar or aerial photography, for example.  Both the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games used military staff to provide searching and access control.  There are long standing arrangements for handling of explosives and munitions, and until recently the military air sea rescue service worked frequently with local police forces and mountain rescue.

This all has to be paid for, of course.  Whilst the military may be very willing to offer their help, the MoD will want to know which authority to recover their costs from.  This has caused delays in the past, with civilian authorities sometimes being reluctant to call in military because of the costs, and/or arguing over which authority would be responsible for paying. Somewhat of a challenge if the emergency was due to an act of God!

Things have moved on considerably in recent years, with a much wider understanding that protecting life and property is far more important than petty turf wars or arguments over bills.  However, there has a growing tendency over the past decade for political leaders to want to do ‘something’ when faced with a crisis.  This has led to the Army being ‘ordered in’ to ‘sort out’ emergencies such as the foot and mouth outbreak, or the Somerset Levels flooding.  The mission may be loosely defined, and the intervention options may be limited – but it’s ok, the army’s here!   In these situations it’s important that the military recognise local sensitivities.  The civilian authorities will have been working hard for some time, and will feel that military intervention represents a criticism of their efforts.  The Army will also feel uncomfortable about being drawn into incidents that inevitably have political ramifications.

The third category is the use of force – Military Assistance to the Civil Power.  This is the most difficult aspect of MACA.  The military are trained to fight wars, not to be police officers.  It is many decades since the military was deployed to restore order on the streets of the mainland UK, although of course they spend several decades supporting the RUC in Northern Ireland. That deployment still has a painful legacy.

In more recent years, the capability, training and tactics of police and special forces have transformed in response to the changing terrorist threat. For obvious reasons, little of that is seen outside of the counter-terrorist functions.  There is a lot of catching up to be done by politicians, communities and those police and military leaders not directly involved in this specialist area of policing in relation to how the police and military will work together – and what this means for constitutional arrangements, and the longer term impact on the police-military-public relationships.  The maintenance of the Queen’s Peace remains a policing mission, even if it is carried out by the military on the police’s behalf.


How MACA/MACP works

In simple terms, the civil power requests the assistance of the military.  The advice to the civil authority is to ask for the ‘effect’ desired, not to specify the resource required.  The military cannot deploy without the authority of the minister of defence.  This is an important constitutional check which we perhaps fail to recognise the significance of in the UK.  In countries where there have been instances of military coups, civil war, or military government, the deployment of the military into the civil space can be highly politically charged and in some cases even outlawed.

In the UK, the civil authorities are used to operating on their own initiative, without ministerial or political involvement.  Consequently, the MACA/MACP approval can be seen as a bureaucratic process, mainly to allow the costs to be recharged.  For more sensitive deployments, the request to deploy military assets will require approval from both the minister overseeing the requesting civil power, and the minister of defence.  This ministerial approval process still applies in critical, fast moving incidents.  There are arrangements to ensure the decisions are made quickly, but the process of contacting ministers and completing paperwork will inevitably introduce some degree of delay.


Use of military force in support of police

Churchill directing troops at the Sidney Street Siege, 1911.

 The dividing line between police and military used to be clear.  Police forces simply did not have the capability to take on a well armed terrorist cell.  That was the job of Special Forces. Once the civil police could no longer cope, the incident was handed over to the military and special forces neutralised the threat. The most famous example is the Iranian Embassy Siege. Civilian police surrounded the embassy, but at the point when it was decided a forced conclusion was required, a handwritten note on a scrap of paper allowed the police commander to hand the incident over to the military commander. Once concluded, control was handed back to the police.

Planning for a long time since was based on that premise. The incident would be defined and contained.  When the point was reached that an intervention was decided, this would be conducted by special forces. Police handed control to the military until the incident was resolved. The scene would then be handed back to police.  But the world has changed.


So what’s changed?

Alongside the changing nature of terrorism, from 9/11 to lone actors and suicide bombers, the attacks that prompted the most rethinking have been Mumbai and Westgate in Nairobi.  Marauding terrorists, well armed, attacking crowded places pose real challenges for the conventional police armed response.  Police firearms officers are trained to contain the threat and make considered decisions whether to open fire. They should use the minimum force necessary – and indeed, rarely open fire, looking to use less lethal options whenever possible.  Once contained, they negotiate a resolution, again avoiding the use of lethal force as far as possible.  Each decision has to be individually justified and will always be subject to intense scrutiny afterwards, particularly if there has been a fatal discharge.

Terrorists intent on killing as many people as possible require very different concept of operations in response.  Armed officers need to respond quickly and take on the terrorists in order to minimise the loss of life. Negotiation is likely to be pointless (but cannot be discounted, regardless of what has happened).  Police forces will need to bring as many armed officers together as quickly as possible.  They will work as ad hoc teams, put together as they arrive.  This has led to common training, tactics, and weaponry.  The fast response also includes Special Forces, mobilised quickly by air.  As the military component will be arriving alongside the civilian police response, the training includes shared and flexible command models. The priority is to save life, and they will need to get in quickly and resolve the incident, using whatever resources are available.

Depending where and when the incident occurs, command structures and ministerial involvement may be ‘in flux’. MACP/MACA will still be needed.  But the situation on the ground will be developing rapidly and is likely to be confused.  There are a number of possible scenarios, ranging from police dealing with the situation themselves through to a full handover to SF.  The priority will always be saving life.


But the threat continues to change? What about other scenarios?

In the last few years we have seen: the two Paris attacks; a shooter on a train in France; an attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen; incidents in Belgium; the attack by Anders Breivik in Norway; car bombs in Glasgow and London; lone actors attacking Parliament and the military in Canada; the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby; several attacks and plots in Australia; the downing of civilian jets over Egypt and Ukraine; the attack on tourists in Tunisia.  In the meantime, counter terrorist police and the Security Service have continued to disrupt attack plots in the UK.  The threats range from multiple and coordinated attacks with automatic weapons and explosives, unsophisticated attacks by individuals or groups with knives, to bombing plots with homemade explosives.  The targets could be military personnel, police, crowded spaces, sensitive religious locations or communities, high profile individuals, or representatives of particular countries and communities.

The range of possible attack scenarios is endless. The greatest unknown, however, is the number of threats/incidents that have to be confronted at the same time.  One attack is bad enough, but several happening simultaneously and/or lasting over a long period will stretch the available specialist capacity.   The threat level in the UK is already at severe, the second highest level.  If the threat increases, we are entering unprecedented territory for the UK in peacetime.

The recent Paris attacks could have conceivably happened in the UK.  The response in France and Belgium was a massive armed military presence on the streets.  An incident in the UK or overseas could lead to our government deciding to deploy armed soldiers (other than SF) across the UK.  There may or may not be intelligence to inform the specific response required.  Whilst planning has already envisaged this sort of event, the questions remain – what are they going to do?  What is their role? What are they expected to deal with?

An incident (or incidents) in the UK may require extra numbers to be drawn in beyond the current planning assumptions.

For police forces, there have been further changes in planning assumptions and responses brought about by the 7/7 and 15/7 bombings, the riots of 2011, the 2012 Olympics, and Austerity.  In short, even the largest forces cannot deal with major incidents without support from other forces.  If there are multiple major incidents happening simultaneously and/or for extended periods, police forces may struggle to cope without assistance.  The most likely, if not only source of assistance is the military.

The progressive increase in the threat level in the UK has also brought into question whether police in the UK can remain unarmed for much longer.  There are only a few countries in the world where the police are unarmed.  Whilst a lone officer with a handgun may have limited impact against a group of terrorists armed with automatic weapons, routinely armed police have options which are not available in the UK.  There are between 5,000 and 6,000 armed officers available in the UK, many being committed to protection of vulnerable sites or high profile individuals.  Multiple and protracted incidents could require additional armed resources, which could only come from the military.  But the way police operate with firearms is very different to the way soldiers are trained for combat.


What are the likely scenarios?

The various terrorist attacks around the world show the range of possible scenarios.  The unknowns as ever are the where and when.  But the issue for planning are the assumptions about the scale of the attacks and the number of simultaneous attacks (or other incidents).  For the purpose of this paper, the assumption has to be that additional military support has been requested because events are beyond the capability of police and SF capacity.

Without examining each possible scenario, there are are some key considerations that the military need to prepare for:

  • Command and Control. It is likely that the incident will remain under civil police command.  Are these arrangements understood?  Does the military understand the police organisational structure?
  • Can the military operate effectively within civil police communication systems? What if those systems break down?
  • Concept of Operations. Is it clear what the role of the military is? Is this understood by all agencies? Is there a mutual understanding of each other’s roles, constraints, and ‘red lines’?
  • Use of Force. What authority is required? What are the rules of engagement? What options are available, including less lethal? What risks and contingencies are envisaged?  What guidance and instructions have been given to the those deployed?  Is the guidance fit for purpose?  Who carries the responsibility if soldiers end up in a situation where they have to defend themselves?
  • Locality and Community. How does the local context affect decision making and the options available? What information is needed, and how does that get relayed?


Beware of linear assumptions

Planning in the past has been based on a phased, incremental escalation of a single incident.  As the incident escalates, military assistance is engaged.  The mission is relatively clear, and the military resources required are self-selecting.

Planning and preparation are no longer so easy.  It is not inconceivable that the military is deployed for a general security and reassurance presence.  Presumably, though, they will need to react or respond if something happens.

The support requested may be for a specific purpose or role. Perhaps the civil police need additional explosives officers, or logistics, or certain technical skills to deal with the incident, but the military will not be engaged in tackling the threat directly.

There may be a general emergency which requires additional security presence, perhaps for guarding and searching, or to support and work alongside civil police, or even to replace civil police if they are not available or not able to deal with the threat.

And there may be a need for additional armed resources to be deployed quickly to tackle an armed threat, and the current police armed capability may not be available or sufficient.


National Security Strategy 2015

The new Strategic Defence and Security Review sets out the need to strengthen domestic resilience, and the need to tackle the terrorist threat at home and abroad using the ‘full spectrum of capabilities’.  Ten thousand military personnel will ‘be available on standby to support the civil authorities for significant terrorist incidents at short notice, supported by a wide range of niche military experts’.

MACA is now a central part of domestic security policy and planning.


There is much in the piece to contemplate, and so rather than limiting the discussion to answering a few questions, what I prefer to do is merely set the big issues up as areas of primary concern for debate. To my mind these are very broadly in two categories:

first, the Use of Force and the Rules of Engagement for the armed forces upon the civilian streets; and,

second, the differences between police/law enforcement and the armed forces across the universe of tactics, doctrine, language, etc., for as certainly as ‘secure the house’ means something different between the services (we all know the joke, right?), so too does the same issue apply in this case.

Specifically for the Americans, I would be interested to hear your thoughts as to what level of threat or incident would alter the political calculus on Posse Comitatus.

Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW and #WeCops.



Ian Wiggett is a former police officer who retired in 2015 after 30 years service. Ian served in the Metropolitan Police, Cheshire Constabulary, and Greater Manchester Police, reaching the rank of Assistant Chief Constable. During his service, Ian worked in both detective and uniformed specialist roles, gaining particular expertise in serious crime and counter terrorism investigations, public order, specialist firearms command, and intelligence. He was the chair of the Cheshire Local Resilience Forum and deputy chair of the Greater Manchester Resilience Forum, and has been Gold commander for numerous major operations and events. He was the North West regional lead for counter-terrorism, firearms, and air support. He was the national lead for Casualty Bureau, a member of the national boards for Prevent, and for Protect and Prepare, and a member of the national civil contingencies committee. Ian has led a number of major change programmes and as national lead for systems thinking and continuous thinking helped lead work on demand and new performance measurement approaches nationally.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

A Respectable Tom: War and the Thanksgiving Holiday

Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:53

Forget the tropes on “Pilgims and Indians,” the American Thanksgiving you know is written in the military history of the nation. During the War for Independence, with America as yet fully defined, there were several thanksgiving celebrations called by Congress that were ad hoc and not at all related to one another. They were, furthermore, the legacy of the European celebrations, and often based in religion rather than anything particularly American. By the Civil War, the war that was the ultimate test of the political entity’s survival, the moment had arrived to codify the as yet relatively informal celebrations into a national holiday. In the wake of the victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln finally yielded to Sarah Hale’s perennial call for the institutionalization of the Thanksgiving holiday. One negative result of the holiday’s Civil War roots was that into the 20th Century the holiday would chafe the former Confederate States. Nevertheless, as the United States came into its own as a world power in the 20th Century, not only a holiday but an iconic menu and setting was created via Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” painting. Depicting a roast turkey for dinner and the extended family around the table, while this image might not literally replicate the Thanksgiving experience of every American, it represented an ideal that could serve as a touchstone for any American, and as a blueprint for what the military authorities could provide to the troops so as to signify the holiday.

This menu component of the holiday is one of its critical features. According to Priscilla Ferguson’s arguments Thanksgiving has become the most significant symbol of culinary unity in the American melting pot. She argues that the diverse traditions that have combined to create the American menu means that there is no singular American gastronomic culture to which all can relate. While her argument in favor of Thanksgiving notes its importance as an event, and that individual Thanksgiving meals can vary according to region and ethnic background, a persuasive argument can be made that by the 20th Century a singular, iconic menu emerged that is recognized by any American as the Thanksgiving dinner. This may not be the meal that any particular individual may enjoy; however, if on Thanksgiving that meal is served it will be enjoyed as such. And, as mentioned previously, the ability to have recourse to a singular, shared tradition is of great value to the military usage of Thanksgiving. A shared tradition allows for a relative ease in the military’s ability to provide a celebration of this holiday.[1] Interestingly, in the post-Vietnam War period there has been a willingness to diverge from the traditional menu to pay heed to regional tastes.

How did the Revolutionary War create a holiday? Celebratory meals were taken up by the early American military tradition because of the deeper meanings associated with such events. The importance of the feast portion of a holiday celebration is defined in the scholarship on food and dining by the socio-cultural content it conveys. The Clifford Geertz maxim that “men have birthdays, but man does not,” highlights the value of such content which create our lives, both individually and in the groups to which we belong. As Wood explains the phenomenon, “at the macro-social level various forms of feasting serve to link individuals to the wider social fabric through shared understandings of cultural conventions. Thus, [holiday meals and celebrations] to some degree unite peoples and their culinary culture in shared symbolic experiences.”[2] To inspire the martial cohesion necessary to create an army and an entirely new society, holidays played a significant role. Recourse to socio-cultural content had strategic implications as well. The Revolutionary War was the first conflict to rely in equal terms on the relationship between the people, the state and the military which Clausewitz would identify in the Napoleonic Wars. Reflecting this new calculus in warfare, political and military leadership sensibly relied upon standard celebrations to mark the martial calendar.

In part derived from Christian ritual, in part celebrations of the fall harvest, the Colonial thanksgivings which form the popular understanding of the holiday were as likely recognized by fasts as well as feasts. Just a year shy of the Colonies’ declared independence, the new patriot political leaders called for a Thanksgiving fast to inspire sober reflection of the gravity of the mounting tensions with the British in the aftermath of the fighting at Lexington and Concord. Noting that a fast was called by Congress “to implore the Divine Benediction on our country,” Thacher defined the larger importance of the event as a factor in the development of a shared identity for the Colonies: “This is the first general or Continental Fast ever observed since the settlement of the colonies.[3] Called for in the midst of increasing military conflict, it is notable that this was the first such celebration by the Colonies as a unified entity. It can be argued that this event marks the first thanksgiving celebration defined by a unique and integral American identity. In the following year Congress called for another day of thanksgiving. This culturally American tradition was enjoyed again in 1776 by Private Joseph Martin and his fellow soldiers convalescing from small pox inoculation in Connecticut after inoculation against small pox. Martin, a soldier, gave earnest thanks for what was (and remains) of the greatest import to the man in the war, a good meal: “Of the pig and the pies we made an excellent Thanksgiving dinner, the best meal I had eaten since I left my grand sire’s table.”[4]

With yet another thanksgiving celebration in 1777, the Revolution and the War for Independence brought the new country together in its first official national holiday. This one marked the Continental Army’s victory over the British forces at Saratoga in October of that year, which success guaranteed French diplomatic and military support. In recognition of this momentous occasion Samuel Adams led the Continental Congress to declare a national day of celebration and thanks. On 18 December of that year, the first national thanksgiving was celebrated throughout the colonies. Even the soldiers at Valley Forge in 1777 were able to celebrate with a feast. As recorded by a young surgeon, Albigence Waldo, General Washington’s troops dined upon roasted pig.[5]

Of course, not all soldiers dined well on that thanksgiving holiday. Joseph Martin recounts, in sarcastic tones, the slim pickings that comprised the “sumptuous feast” to which his unit was treated: half a gill of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar. Martin’s ire was with his fellow citizens in civilian life, for he knew full well that while the Army endured near starvation, the citizenry at large was enjoying the abundance the country afforded. His scathing sentiment is displayed when he credits the repast provided to the soldiers to a citizenry that had “opened her sympathizing heart so wide.”[6]  The Revolutionary War, with its near-broken logistics system, was the inspiration for the practice of griping over relative injustices. American sensibilities, even then, favored fairness. Shared harshness could be endured for a common purpose, which explains the paradox of the strengthening cohesion of the soldiers within the army. As between the army and society, however, the growing belief that the one side was suffering unduly inspired the soldiers’ indignation. This sentiment was particularly strong, because the soldiers felt poorly done by for being made to starve in a land of plenty while in noble service defending the terms of the revolution. To alleviate these negative emotions, the soldiers griped.

However, Martin’s prospects had improved by the late years of the war. Returning to an area in New Jersey in which he had served earlier in the war, Martin and several of his fellow soldiers, while searching for a deserter, enjoy the late war hospitality of the locals: “We had a good warm room to sit and lodge in, and as the next day was Thanksgiving, we had an excellent supper.” The next morning their host provided them with toast and cider, the latter of which Martin describes “as good and rich as wine,” as a proper beginning to their day. However, the bounty did not end there, as the host would not allow them to leave until they had shared “a genuine New Jersey breakfast” with him, consisting of buckwheat pancakes “flowing with butter and honey,” and washed down with “a capital dish of chocolate.” Their Thanksgiving continued as they lucked into obtaining lodgings with a family that felt kindly towards the Connecticut troops, “as that section of the state was originally settled by Connecticut people.” Finally, at another house they were again provided for by “the remains of [the] Thanksgiving cheer.”[7] In these celebrations, the sharing of the holiday with extended family that will become the standard was already in evidence in embryonic form.

The citizens who provide for Martin and his comrades were happy to be clear of the British Army and loyalists, heartened by the impending victorious close of the war, and likely harbored a degree of gratitude towards the Continental soldiers. This sharing with strangers, of making them like extended family, precedes the traditions that would accrete to the holiday in later years. However, given the notion of a “Thanksgiving” holiday as it existed then, where the objective was to express gratitude for the blessings one enjoyed, it seems reasonable that sharing one’s good fortune would accord with the spirit of the holiday.

The end of the War of 1812 was celebrated with a day of prayer and thanksgiving. At President James Madison’s urging, Congress resolved to celebrate the second victorious confrontation with the British on April 31st of 1815. As that war is often considered the final act in the War for Independence, it is fitting that its successful conclusion should be marked by what was emerging as an American holiday.

The establishment of a permanent national holiday of Thanksgiving resulted from the decades’ long campaign of Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent women’s magazine editor. Beginning in 1827, her efforts finally bore fruit in September 1863, when an editorial on the subject struck a chord with President Lincoln and the public in the North. Again, this moment in the holiday’s history was inspired in part by military events: Hale’s editorial appeared in the wake of the Union victory at Gettysburg. This moment was particularly ripe as the victory had a tremendous effect upon popular sentiment regarding the war. Lincoln’s proclamation of that same October declaring the holiday brought the two pieces together:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that [God’s gifts of prosperity and freedom] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.[8]

Thus the creation, evolution, and designation of the Thanksgiving celebration as a national, culturally American holiday were all intimately connected with the country’s wars.

Despite the growing importance of the holiday, particularly for the Northern forces, 1862 was a dismal Thanksgiving year for Billy Yank. Although the Army of the Potomac fared better than the Army of Northern Virginia in the quality and quantity of rations, Union soldiers on campaign in Fredericksburg were known to suffer for lack of food. Bell Wiley, a historian of the Union and Confederate soldier experience in the war, offers the experience of one Massachusetts volunteer whose Thanksgiving meal offered little for which to be grateful: “Yesterday was Thanksgiving at home, but a dismal day for us. Never since I have been in the Army have I seen supplies so short. Now we see soldiers going round begging hard bread.” Things were so bad that Wiley tells that this and other soldiers reported some were found scavenging in the slaughter pens for what meager scraps were left behind, whether that be head, hoof, or tail.[9] Americans, especially Northerners, had, by this time, developed an expectation of the feast that was meant to exemplify this holiday.

Enshrined as a national holiday, Thanksgiving emerged as an event of “family homecoming,” in response to the societal disruption wrought by the massive economic changes in the 19th Century, reconciling the conflict between “individualism and obligation to family.”[10] According to Elizabeth Pleck, the defining feature of the Thanksgiving celebration in the United States is its function as a “domestic occasion.” This is:

a family gathering held in the home which paid homage to the ideal of the ‘affectionate family.’ Such a family was a privatized nuclear one, with a nurturant mother creating a proper home atmosphere…. Although the ideal of the affectionate family was a nuclear one, the domestic occasion was often a gathering of extended kin, a family homecoming…. The domestic occasion was a culturally dominant form, practiced at first mainly by the upper classes and middle classes, which spread throughout society in the 20th Century.[11]

This concept of the holiday squares with the near manic celebration of the holiday within the American military in the 20th Century. Deprived of the actual ability to return home in most cases, military personnel were provided the opportunity for a symbolic homecoming by partaking of the traditional meal. The menu, the specific foods, became totems of home and family for the troop who could not fulfill this “domestic” obligation. The troops were thus able to pay homage to the rites and customs of the holiday. Furthermore, as Thanksgiving was a particular holiday for the extended family, the members of the unit could substitute for these relations. Finally, the family at home would know of the satellite celebrations, and be relieved that at the very least their deployed loved one was enjoying something of the holiday. For these reasons, Thanksgiving became a very important holiday to the American Armed Forces.

Pleck goes on to argue that Lincoln’s role in the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday rooted the celebration in the by then established values of the country: “By having Lincoln as its midwife, Thanksgiving also celebrated the blessings of American nationhood as well as its domestic ideals. Thanksgiving was – and is – a holiday of belief in the national purposes and destiny.”[12] The holiday’s association with the blessings bestowed meant that the wars, and therefore troops, fought to secure them were included as well.

The Spanish American War brought the first appearance of any significant celebration of the holiday in the south since the end of the Civil War. In the face of war, the North and South united against a common external foe. While they were encamped in Savannah awaiting embarkation for Puerto Rico, the Georgia volunteers were treated to a lavish Thanksgiving banquet in 1898 by the ladies of that city.[13] The citizens of Savannah also treated the massing soldiers from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nebraska to a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving that same year.[14]

During the Progressive Era, Thanksgiving moved into the schools as a means of indoctrinating the children of immigrants into the ways of their new country so that they could go home and be the “Americanizers” of their parents. This is also a time when the Protestant roots of the holiday began to be downplayed. A holiday or celebration started by the nation’s first “immigrants,” it could be shared with the succeeding generations of newcomers.[15] According to Pleck, this linkage to nation, rather than creed, was important to making Thanksgiving America’s holiday:

Yet in the case of Thanksgiving, nationalism was a more significant feature than commerce. In that sense, Hobsbawm and Ranger were correct to draw attention to nationalism as a force in creating new traditions and reinvigorating others. Celebrating the national mission was an important impetus for the invention of Thanksgiving in the early 19th Century and remains a central element in the holiday to this day.[16]

The nationalism angle is confirmed in Etzioni’s formulation of a theory of public rituals. He argues that “holidays serve to socialize members of a society as well as to reaffirm their commitment to values and as such serve to sustain the integration of society.”[17]

Thanksgiving would also mark the end of the first global conflagration of the century. General Pershing celebrated his army in November 1918, declaring ‘victory…was the Thanksgiving gift to the American nation,” and an honorable repayment of the debt owed Lafayette and the French in the Revolutionary War.[18] Another Thanksgiving meal just after the Armistice was uniquely celebrated. William Langer, a soldier in the AEF, recounts the story in the memoir of his unit while his unit was in Verdun, awaiting transport back to the States. Upon agreement with the company cook to delay their meal to 3 or 4 o’clock, the troops were promised a proper turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Just as the men sat down to tuck into the holiday feast, the bugle sounded to call the regiment. All in the company fell out, save Langer: “I was a sergeant and I thought a good soldier. Of course, I should have set a good example in answering the call without complaint. But the war was over and I decided, with the Thanksgiving dinner before me, that for once I would disobey orders.” As time passed and the rest of the company did not return, Langer began to worry, “could the company have entrained to start for home?” His wait was ended at long last when his unit mates returned. And what was the cause of the delay, the explanation for which was difficult to get out of his fellow soldiers? The Regimental Chaplain had chosen that exact moment to deliver a sermon in honor of Thanksgiving and the end of the war in the ruins of the Verdun Cathedral.[19] This turn of events contains the sort of irony particular to military service: the sermon interrupted the meal, one of the few things, besides survival, for which a soldier can be truly grateful.

By WWII, the American holiday, state, and armed forces had reached global maturity. A young lieutenant in Western Europe describes how the Mess Sergeant brought a proper feast to the soldiers on the front lines for Thanksgiving 1944. “A hamburger would have been a treat, but a hot turkey dinner was almost beyond belief.”[20] The commitment to the meal was an institutional requirement. In a government publication meant to explain to the American public the lengths to which the armed forces would go to provide the troops with every comfort of home possible, the declaration of the institution’s commitment to a proper Thanksgiving dinner was its opening salvo. Offering little room for doubt, the publication echoes the essence of the subsistence doctrine: “Thanksgiving turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin… American food for the American soldier in England, Iceland, India, Australia, in Malayan jungle, and African deserts – wherever he is fighting in this global war, the Army endeavors to feed him the food he likes, the food that makes him feel at home.”[21] This commitment was shared across the services, as US Navy Thanksgiving menus from the first half of the century display the familiar gastronomic landmarks of the national meal. Given their druthers, soldiers would assemble a feast of similar fixings on their own as well. Neal Barton records that his unit used their mess fund to put together a traditional feast for Thanksgiving 1941. Reflecting the relaxing nature of the holiday, he writes that “all day long the boys visited the mess hall. Seemed as tho they would eat, go walk it off then start the process all over. Nothing was removed from the tables but dirty or empty dishes.”[22]

The commitment to turkey on Thanksgiving was also codified operationally within the Quartermaster Corps. Per one subsistence publication, “Turkey rations are authorized for all men actually messing with the organization on Thanksgiving….” The exact meaning of this point for the bureaucracy and administration of quartermaster duties is set out in a footnote to the above directive: “The so-called ‘turkey ration’ is merely the garrison ration increased by the excess cost involved when 28 ounces of turkey (undrawn) is substituted for the meat component of the garrison ration. This excess cost is computed by the regional depots on the 15th of October… of each year. A certificate showing the actual number of men present on Thanksgiving… is attached to the ration return.” One hopes the turkey meat was not as dry as the language authorizing it. The recipe for “Turkey, Roast” from the 1941 Manual of Mess Management is equally sparse, but the ingredients and intent give prospects for a decent meal.[23]

In part, these pledges were made to maintain the morale of the American civilian population. There is an almost liturgical quality to them, as if the authors realize they must include certain vital recitations to keep the public happy. World War II was conducted on such a scale that the war could not be fought or won without public support. One very important way to secure this was to make the public feel that the troops were being well cared-for, demonstrating the military’s commitment to them. Although to do so would be a substantial undertaking, no effort or expense would be spared to get it done. Maintaining the link to home, no matter where on the globe the troops might be serving, could be achieved through the Thanksgiving menu, which recalled, at least in general terms, the sense of home. This objective is reflected in the experience of Ann McCaughey, a Red Cross Aide in France, who wrote of her Thanksgiving experience of 1944 that “it was a piece of America that we had transplanted [thousands of] miles across the ocean and set up in the little town of Commercy in France.”[24] For Charles MacDonald, Thanksgiving 1944, was not only a national holiday, but his birthday as well. Escorted to his table in the company mess hall, where he found a plate already prepared for him. As he sat down to eat, the division orchestra broke out into “Happy Birthday.” He writes that “[i]t was only then that I remembered that this was something special; this was my birthday.” As a cake was brought out and his men sang “Happy Birthday” him, he “could not repress a choking sensation,” nor barely “keep back the tears of gratitude.” While the celebration was in itself touching, the event, with its particular emphasis upon the food tokens of a holiday and celebration, was used to signify something of greater meaning; he had earned the respect and admiration of his men.[25]

Blind adherence to this institutional promise to provide a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving could also ruin the promise of this meal, as the grievously put upon Paul Boesch experienced in Germany in the fall of 1944. As was evident from previous experience, he and his fellow soldiers learned again that if Division had set its mind to something, in this case a hot turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day, then that was what was going to happen. It was going to happen even if that meal was more a burden than a blessing. As darkness fell that Thanksgiving evening, with the American units deployed along a hill within range of German artillery, Boesch received unwelcome news from battalion headquarters. The operations officer at the other end was calling to inform him that a hot turkey dinner had been prepared and awaited a carrying party to come pick it up and bring it back to the rest of the unit. Boesch tried to argue against the meal, but was told, “’It’s the General’s orders.’”  The staff officer chided him for failure to follow the faith: “’You want to see the men get a nice hot meal, don’t you?’” This provoked the infantrymen’s sensibilities:

“Well, Jeezus Christ, that’s a fine way of putting it. Of course I want to see them get a hot meal. I want to see them get three hot meals a day and a dry bed every night and a babe to sleep with, but let’s save the turkey until they can pull back where they can enjoy it. Who the hell knows it’s Thanksgiving except some silly bastard in the rear who gets hot meals anyway and just wants a change in diet?”

Attempts to make his case further up the chain of command were fruitless. Poignantly, he argued that the folks back at division headquarters “’have no idea what it means to try to get food to those men, not mention the troubles of trying to eat it.’” Unsuccessful in this particular battle, Boesch was resentful: “What the hell difference did it make when a man ate his Thanksgiving turkey? One day was like any other to us.” His soldiers echoed this sentiment, but orders were orders. The unfortunate but logical consequence of the activity in such close proximity to enemy lines followed. As the meal was being brought to the men the German artillery opened fire. The bulk of the casualties from the barrage were taken by the men bringing the food as they were caught out in the open. For their efforts, “seven men had been wounded and three killed, an awful price to pay for a Thanksgiving dinner that nobody wanted to eat.”[26] While this thesis maintains that, in spirit, the foodways policy chosen for the American armed forces has tremendous potential to positively influence morale and effectiveness, it equally recognizes that even the best doctrines if poorly applied can have disastrous results.

Half a world away from Lt. Boesch’s unit, on a ship operating near the Philippines in the Pacific Theatre, greater command sensibility prevailed. James Fahey’s memoirs tell of how the captain, in his Thanksgiving message to the crew, decided to delay the holiday meal. Operational conditions had been such that the ship’s crew was going to General Quarters with such frequency that to try to cook and serve a Thanksgiving meal would be an effort in futility. He promised them, however, that once the situation changed a turkey dinner would be in the offing. Four days later, just outside of Palau, circumstances had changed: “Today was the first chance we had to have our Thanksgiving Dinner, almost a week late but it was worth waiting for. We really had quite a feed. Turkey, and all the trimmings. It was very good.”[27]

The commitment to Thanksgiving did not wane in the Korean War. By this war, the components of the holiday were firmly established. As it happened, that first Thanksgiving of the Korean War fell during the fateful campaigns into North Korea. In the first example, PFC Herman Nelson’s memories demonstrate that the celebration included a settled menu: “On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, we moved to a new location near Kunu-ri, well north of the North Korean capital of Pyong Yang. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner there with an armored tank company, and it was really good. We had a turkey dinner and all the stuff that goes with it.”[28] Another soldier, writing home, told of his Thanksgiving experience:

Well, here it is Thanksgiving afternoon. We’ve finished eating our turkey dinner and a very fine dinner it was indeed. Every man had all he wanted to it. It’s about time. We had turkey (frozen, shipped from the States) sweet potatoes, corn, stuffing, gravy, olives, pie, and candy. We were very lucky we got all that as we were only relieved from the line yesterday.

Lucky indeed, as he went on to tell that his unit had been treated to hot showers as well. As this was the first such opportunity to shower since late September, these soldiers had much for which to be grateful.[29]

Montross and Canzona’s history of Marine Corps Operations in the Korean War demonstrates that this first celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday in that war included all of the necessary components:

Thanksgiving Day, which fell on the 23d, was celebrated both in Korea and the United States…. It was a tribute to American bounty as well as organizational genius that the troops in Korea were served a dinner which would have done credit to a first-rate Stateside restaurant. The menu, as proposed by X Corps to component units, included… roast young tom turkey with cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes… fruit cake, mince pie and coffee.[30]

Generally speaking, however, the Chosin Thanksgiving experience varied depending on where a unit was in the march north. The campaign presented unique complications to front line food service. As they moved north towards the Yalu River, the units that comprised X Corps had several different experiences of Thanksgiving. In his history of the Marine campaign in North Korea, Edwin Simmons provides photographs to document the celebrations of the units stationed at the bases at Hamhung and Hagaru-ri.[31] One Marine, Lance Corporal Harold Mulhausen, certain that the operation would mean missing the holiday dinner, found otherwise:

On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, the Marines continued to move north toward the Chosin Reservoir….we were pretty upset over the thought of missing our Thanksgiving dinner….To our great joy, next morning the cooks brought the kitchens up to our positions and we had our Thanksgiving dinner after all – turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, and all the goodies. It was delicious and I ate until my belly nearly popped.[32]

Interestingly, there is a contradiction between the official history of the Marine Thanksgiving of 1950 and the experiences of specific units and personnel. In their description of the Thanksgiving for Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Davis’ unit, Montross and Canzona record that “the men of 1/7 belatedly celebrated Thanksgiving on the 24th with a full, hot turkey dinner.”[33] As recounted in Martin Russ’ history of the campaign, according to Davis, the dinner did not go as smoothly as that:

“We were out on the very end of the limb tactically. When the turkeys caught up with us they were frozen solid and the cooks couldn’t figure out how to thaw them. What we finally did was make a mountain of birds around two fired-up field kitchen stoves, then covered the whole affair with two pyramidal tents sealed tight with snow. By morning the birds were thawed enough for the cooks to cut up and cook, which took several hours. We rotated the platoons down from the slopes throughout the day. Lieutenant Lee’s platoon, at the point, didn’t get the word, however; each man had to settle for a cup of reconstituted milk and two slices of fresh bread. I felt bad about that.”[34]

Joseph Owen, a platoon commander in Davis’ battalion, provides an even bleaker picture. Describing the policy initiative that drove the Thanksgiving efforts that year, he suggests in his memoir that the impetus behind it was for public relations purposes, suggesting that “it was especially important” to the military leadership in Tokyo “that the front-line troops be shown enjoying the bounties of Thanksgiving.” As a measure of the hubris he believed had infected General MacArthur’s command, he notes that, despite intense combat with the Chinese forces who had entered the war, they “could afford to give the men not only the traditional meal, but also the day off.” Regarding the meal itself, “we had our dinner in frigid darkness at 2300.” However, even then problems arose:

We sat in the snow and on the big boulders with overflowing trays. We relished the feast before us, but we had not reckoned with the cold. The temperature had sunk far below zero again, and our food began to freeze before we could set a fork into it. The giblet gravy congealed and became an icy coating over the chilled turkey and mashed potatoes. The cranberry sauce became sherbet. The oranges froze as hard as baseballs.

To add insult to injury, Owen and one of his corpsmen were sniped at while they tried to make the best of their dinner.[35]

The celebration of the holiday continued through the conflicts of the late 20th century. And in the first decade of the new century, the tradition did not wane as American troops found themselves abroad again for the holiday. Firmly established, the institutional menu can now take account of changes in tastes, so that troops have enjoyed deep fried and Cajun spiced turkeys alongside the traditional fare. Nevertheless, the iconic meal remains, no better demonstrated in the surprise trip of then President George W. Bush to Baghdad Airport to deliver the main course.

Which event was ultimately rendered thusly:

So, America, when you sit down to eat your turkey dinner today, put aside the myths of your childhood. Your holiday has its roots in the martial traditions and experiences which have formed the identity and ethos of the nation.




[1] Priscilla Ferguson, “A Cultural Field in the Making,” pp. 633-4.

[2] Roy Wood, The Sociology of the Meal, Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press (1995), p. 47, citing Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books (1973).

[3] James Thacher, Military Journal, p. 30, 20 July 1775.

[4] George Scheer, ed.,  Private Yankee Doodle, p. 57.

[5] Hugh Rankin, ed., Narratives of the American Revolution, p. 184. Another important wartime thanksgiving was celebrated by General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, to commemorate the formalization of the alliance with the French in 1778. James Thacher describes this event. In addition to a mass military demonstration by the battalions and brigades with much saluting and many huzzahs, there was a dinner provided by Washington for the senior officers and wives present for the celebration. (Thacher, Military Journal, pp. 126-7)

[6] Scheer, Private Yankee Doodle, p. 100.

[7] Scheer, pp. 251-3.

[8] Book of Days, p. 1055.

[9] Bell Wiley, Life of Billy Yank, p. 226. Interesting to consider, Bell Wiley, a Southern historian, does not discuss Thanksgiving much. Given the holiday’s legal blessing by President Lincoln in 1863, it is not surprising that there is no mention of the holiday in The Life of Johnny Reb. However, the holiday is also largely absent from his companion study of Billy Yank.

[10] Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of a Domestic Occasion,” p. 775.

[11] Pleck, p. 773.

[12] Pleck, p. 776.

[13] “Spanish American War in Georgia History,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia,

[14] David Ott, “Remember the Maine! Adam County’s Involvement in the Spanish American War,”

[15] Pleck, pp. 778-9.

[16] Pleck, p. 783.

[17] Amitai Etzioni, ”Toward a Theory of Public Ritual,”  p. 47.

[18] “Proud to pay debt, says General Pershing,” The New York Times, 1 December 1918.

[19] William Langer, Gas and Flame, pp. xxiv-xxv.

[20] William Devitt, Shavetail, p. 146.

[21] Eleanor Hoffman, Feeding Our Armed Forces, New York: Nelson (1943), p. 1.

[22] Donald Vining, ed., Diaries of World War II, Barton’s Diary, p. 20.

[23] Subsistence: Conference Bulletins, The Quartermaster School, (1942) p. 21; Manual of Mess Management, p. 132.

[24] Vining, ed., Diaries of World War II, Diary of Anne McCaughey, p. 98.

[25] Charles MacDonald, Company Commander, pp. 76-7.

[26] Paul Boesch, The Road to Huertgen, pp. 170-3.

[27] James Fahey, Pacific War Diary, pp. 237-8.

[28] Richard Peters and Xiaobing Li, Voices from the Korean War, p. 69.

[29] Donald Knox, The Korean War: An Oral History, p. 464.

[30] Lynn Montross and Nicholas Canzona, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea: Volume III: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, pp. 143-4.

[31] Simmons, Frozen Chosin, p. 41.

[32] Peters and Li, pp. 99-100.

[33] Montross and Canzona, p. 148.

[34] Martin Russ, Breakout, p. 75.

[35] Joseph Owen, Colder Than Hell, pp. 213-5.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

SDSR 2015 – A Balanced Platform, and an Old Vision

Mon, 23/11/2015 - 17:34


So, as predicted, the world really is a more dangerous and complex place. It was ever thus.

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, the Defence Secretary argued that no-one could have predicted the rise of a capable insurgent force, a global jihad or a Russia doing things we didn’t like at the time of SDSR 2010. Other views are definitely available. Indeed, lots of people were expressing just these views in 2010 for the rush-job, Cabinet Office and Treasury-led review that seemed to insulate itself not only from expert voices from outside Whitehall but from those in Main Building too (hence the circular PR firing squad of military voices that boomed out prior to the publication of the review). So, having been pilloried in the press, by military experts and even by academics (including myself in measured tones) you would be a reasonable person if you’d have thought the government would have learnt from the experience. And they may have. This is a balanced programme. It might not require the sort of revisions that most defence reviews are subject to, which would make a distinct change to the past. But Cameron still said ‘full spectrum’, which to me kicks the ‘we just don’t have the money for this’ can further down the road.
The ‘trip-wire’ brigades are an interesting innovation, even if they are not going to be rapidly formed (they’ll be ten years in the making). Whilst 2010 was an insular review, signalling a withdraw from expedition – followed immediately by Libya (oops) – this implies that we’re still in the expeditionary game (be it eyeing up Eastern Europe, or the Middle East). Should these brigades need moving via the oceans then we might have a problem, even with the new announced capacity. But from 2025 onwards, wherever there is a fight with a western coalition of the willing, the UK will be in the middle of it. On one reading of the recent past, this sort of activity then causes the requirement for further investment in counter-terrorism capabilities.

But the big missing element is the coherent strategic vision the Prime Minister promised. Having failed to articulate one in 2010 and now in 2015, I think we have to conclude that despite the hours that have been invested in discussing ‘strategy’, the Parliamentary Committee inquiry led by Bernard Jenkin and so on, that strategy is a lost art. And it’s an expensively lost art. Because it causes us to cover everything badly, rather than build capabilities behind something coherent. These best single line articulation of the strategy the UK ‘ought’ to have is from Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI – ‘a force for stability in the world’, amending the ‘force for good’ that was so widely scoffed at, at the time. Such a strategy would build upon cooperative work with our ‘frenemies’ (relevant today might be Russia and Iran, who will almost certainly need to be the boots on the ground element to sort out the Syria debacle). Prosperity and security as bonded concepts has some traction, but it definitely spending to save, and it’s not clear to me why the UK has to be at the centre of it (the old east of Suez debate writ large). I may be being unfair. If there is a strategy, it’s to return to the post-war UK, of global reach just reframed for today.

The positioning of the nuclear deterrent could have been sorted out with a simple political decision – to underwrite that the money attached to the deterrent could be kept within the defence budget not repurposed away from defence and into something else. I think that the issues around the nuclear question become much more solvable with that in place: pound for pound into conventional forces the nuclear money becomes not just useful, but game-changing. I wrote a few years ago about how and why the defence review had made our nuclear deterrent unsafe. The missing ladder of escalation not only rendered the deterrent useless, but potentially dangerous too. The death and/or retirement of those who really understand nuclear deterrence is a gaping gap in our collective knowledge of defence currently.

One of the most important things to have come between the 2010 and 2015 reviews was the decision to break the tie to our native defence manufacturers. I wrote about what I saw as the significance at the time, but I had subsequently concluded I just was interested by something very dull. The decision to replace Nimrod with Boeing P8s, and the potential (and large) markets for smaller, and alternative defence manufacturers to meet the new threats I think evidences that breaking the tie was significant. I’m not sure it can be justified in terms of off-the-shelf capabilities being cheaper (the shelf is still expensive to fill), and ultimately it will undermine our defence industries, who are already migrating to markets that appreciate them more. The European system of manufacturing – be it collaboratively, or brokered via the European Defence Agency – has merely entrenched competition between European states, rather than broken them down. Consequently, the UK has left itself hostage to its relationship with US defence giants, rather than being part of a European alternative, or an expensive indigenous capability. It is made expensive by the absence of competing supply. When the UK led the way in aircraft, four or more manufacturers competed for aircraft contracts, with the MoD underwriting the losses (they could innovate because failure didn’t result in bankruptcy). What we have now are contractors who have to be cautious and who are forced to underbid – and then overrun. There are half as many officials involved in UK defence procurement as there are in the entire European Commission. Given the scale of their respective challenges, that’s shocking. But losing a third of defence civil servants is equally shocking, in its own way.

The UK can offer something unique to its network of allies in ‘these dangerous times’. And that’s intelligence plus disruption. Because of our genuinely special relationship with the US in the intelligence field we do punch way above our weight in this field. The 1900 extra officers announced last week should be a welcome initiative, and meet some of the need of ‘Security Politics’, although recruitment and training puts extra capability years away. But in this area lies the British USP. Certainly on this budgetary spend.

So, do we have a coherent strategy? Maybe.

Do we have capabilities arriving quickly enough for the challenges? Not really.  

Is the navy still two men and a dinghy? Sadly yes.

Is the nuclear deterrent issue resolved? Yes.

Do we have answers for how we’re going to deal with the challenges presented in the Middle East and Eastern Europe? No…
But we have extra money, albeit coming relatively slowly, and some nice announcements and a balanced platform. Not a bad effort, given the timeline allowed for the review. But if you’re sat in Main Building tonight it’s one cheer and one raspberry apiece.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

ISIS and Irrelevance

Mon, 23/11/2015 - 13:00

It’s SDSR-day in the UK, when we finally get to hear what the government hasn’t leaked over the weekend (more F-35s), overnight (a pair of 5000 person ‘strike brigades’ for overseas use), last week (2000 new spooks), and so on, and so forth. The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, has a lot to make up for, given that the fudges (carrier strike, anyone?) of the last one are already coming home to roost. In fairness, however, the four highest priority risks identified in the 2010 SDSR (terrorism, cyber security, natural hazards, preventing international military crises) all appear to have been on the money, so to speak. Of the four, Libya and the Crimea is perhaps evidence that the UK did worst on the last point. Still, after Paris, and the rise of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh, it’s clear that terrorism is going to remain a clear focus for the 2015 SDSR. Given that the Government appears to be on a full-court press to get Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria (except when they’re an act of self defence versus its own citizens), it’s a fair prediction to make. But what’s the point? What is the end that the UK is seeking?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it’s understandable that the rhetoric against ISIS has been ramped up, both at home and abroad. The UK has been talking about “defeating” ISIS’ ideology for a while now, and witnessing Brussels lock itself down to raid and arrest suspected terrorists lends a sense that European states are starting to take the “Trudeau approach” to jihadists. Still, as a strategy document, I hope that the 2015 SDSR doesn’t have “defeat ISIS” written into it, because, frankly, that’s impossible. Sure, we can bomb Raqqa, send in special forces, arm Kurds, arm Sunnis, arm Syrian rebels, and, in theory at least, pull apart the Islamic State as a functional entity, but that’s not going to make these ideas go away. As Will McCants points out in his excellent new book on ISIS’s ideology, there’s no telling what lessons ISIS (and its adherents) would learn from such a defeat. They might pack up their bags, but equally, they might take it as a lesson that they need to “double down” on apocalyptic violence, bloodletting and fear. That can never be defeated by force, nor, really, can it be “defeated” or “eradicated” in the increasingly illiberal environment at home. British society is, however, littered with the remnants of violent ideologies from the past decades and centuries. The British state never “defeated” or “eradicated” anarchism, Stalinists, Maoists, and so on, and so forth. Nor, for that matter, is there anything that the British state could do to eradicate these ideologies. Although there are plenty of smart people who profess similar beliefs, at the extremes there are always those who are essentially as impervious to reason as the most warped jihadist getting his kicks with a kalashnikov somewhere in between Aleppo and Mosul. Setting out to defeat an ideology is a set-up for a fall. Anarchists once struck fear into the states of Europe, now, they are, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless”. The UK shouldn’t seek the end of ISIS, it should seek to make it irrelevant.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Security Politics

Thu, 19/11/2015 - 22:35

Our contemporary political compact is premised on jobs and growth.

It’s the economy, stupid.. as Clinton so aptly put it.

And to be get elected parties need to be convincing on (and then deliver to get re-elected) economic prosperity, opportunities for future generations to get in on this prosperity, and the sorts of economic safety nets to encourage risk taking entrepreneurialism and yet to disincentivise idleness and work avoidance.

This was a tried and tested model that saw switches in the government of the time dependent largely on how successful they were in delivering jobs and prosperity, selling a vision and maintaining party unity. Such a focus has narrowed the pool of people coming into politics. They no longer needed to be former soldiers, or people with substantial experience in industry, the unions or other areas outside of narrow-band economic politics. It was said of Major, and Blair that they were the first Prime Ministers without direct experience of a war – the inference being that this sort of experience is vital for governing a state. Coupled with this was the European Union that had single-handedly delivered an unprecedented period of peace in Western Europe and relative economic prosperity and successfully sold (and kept selling) a vision of social and economic liberalism that was attractive to a wider set of European nation states. The EU was and is a technocratic set of organisations , geared to the business of developing and deepening a complex single market across many states: a primarily economic activity. So,in that frame the free movement of people makes perfect sense. And that the vast majority of European states soft pedaled their security and intelligence spend looked unproblematic: the capable states would keep their spending up, and the American umbrella would deliver a lot of the rest.

Only the twin problems of a refugee crisis bringing tens of thousands of people from an active war zone into societies focussed only, or mostly on jobs and growth, and the problems of attacks on the West are not economic problems. They are not – in the main – economic problems. Although the economic aspects of these problems are – in turn – security problems, or will quickly become so. So, the Generation X of special advisors and their political masters have a problem that they are ill-equipped to understand let alone deal with. The SDSR, which is now imminent, will be the first major test of this government’s ability to demonstrate that they understand the contemporary security environment. The SDSR rumour mill suggests that the government might have understood enough to increase some elements of the security budget, but the devil will be in the many details. (Another post will be forthcoming when it’s published). But the balance of politics is shifting. It is about the economy. It is also about jobs and growth. But the political class has successfully ballsed that up, over the last 7 or so years. And so for several reasons the politics is shifting to it being mostly about security.

As a instinctive europhile, it is with sadness to say that the European project is not currently fit for purpose following this shift. It is with slightly less surprise that we can currently observe that the political and special advisor class are not fit for purpose either. And as for the Labour Party… well.. if they don’t get with the shift pretty quickly they’ll be electoral toast. The hoohah today about the Shadow Chancellor and ‘that alleged leaflet’ makes the point better than a 1000word essay ever could.

Rapid adaptation is required. Politics has gone Darwinian and the electorate will turn unforgiving very soon.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

#CCLKOW – Iraq: Whither the soldiers of ISIS?

Mon, 16/11/2015 - 18:58

Continuing my preference to poke at the sacred in military affairs, #CCLKOW this week presents the conundrum of what should be done with the ISIS rank and file in Iraq. Inspired by an article which tells a simple tale of one Iraqi ISIS fighter, this week’s post is focused on the singular question of how the various parties – local, regional, and global – will move forward when the war machine is defeated. Read the post, consider the issue, and join the discussion on Twitter on the hashtag.


The Nazi enterprise and war machine were unmistakably a blight upon history and the very complexion of European civilization. They fundamentally altered the demographics of a continent and laid bare the basest of human potential. Whether by ruthless war or an even more sinister program of genocide, the death toll for which they were responsible still boggles the mind. At the end of the war, it was very clear that those in positions of authority would have to be held responsible for these acts. Nevertheless, while the leadership was held to account, it was equally recognized that to punish the collective rank and file of the German armed forces would serve no purpose.

In the wake of a very dark night in Paris, the furthest thing from anyone’s minds is the thought of humanity for any ISIS fighter.

But I read today an article, “What I Discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners,” by Lydia Wilson of ARTIS Research, about the profile of the average Iraqi who has joined the fight. I would highly recommend that folks go forth and read the whole thing, both to understand this piece as well as for the general consideration of the conflict in Iraq. However, what matters to this post is what came at the very end, this excerpt which confronts the reader:

These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence….They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.

The purpose of highlighting this point is not to join the chorus of blame, which serves little purpose beyond political point scoring. Rather, it is to shed a small bit of the light of humanity upon the issue of these ISIS fighters.

Returning to the opening, somehow, in the thoughts of leaders at the end of WWII, it was recognized that there was something in the German experience of the period between the end of WWI and the rise of Hitler’s Reich which made the horrors of that regime more palatable than rationality. If you want a visceral understanding of those dark days, I can recommend nothing more highly than the 1925 opera “Wozzeck” by Alban Berg. (Full version here.) The dismal and blighted life of the characters is set against possibly the most chilling and discordant music which combine to reflect the cost of the past war and the sense that something far worse was coming. If the mass of the population fell prey to Hitler’s awful promise, it is not difficult to understand why or how. And contemplating the lives of Iraq’s generation which had no youth, a similar perspective is possible.

Nothing can excuse the decisions and choices of the ISIS leadership. A Nuremberg of their own awaits those who survive to the end. I have a very special place of vengeance in my heart for those who have unleashed this current hell upon the region and now to Europe and very likely beyond. However, whether the same standard applies to all must be in some doubt. At the end of mankind’s last worst moment, some bit of humanity prevailed. After so much death and horror, perhaps it was decided there had been enough. We should consider that the same may be true in this time as well, that this interregnum of violence is not best ended with a further orgy of death.

And so my simple question for this week is, can we imagine any space for humanity for Iraq’s lost generation swept along by the currents of an abhorrent promise?


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

#CCLKOW: Tending One’s Leaders

Mon, 02/11/2015 - 18:32

Returning to the leadership theme, this week’s CCLKOW blog piece reorients the perspective. Rather the usual, in this piece the reader is urged to consider those who lead him or her. Inspired by a piece of writing outside the military community, the humanity, frailty, and vulnerabilities of one’s leaders are highlighted to ask a critical question: what do we owe them? Beyond the realms of basic human kindness, the ramifications of properly tending one’s leaders has substantive importance. Read the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. 


Overwhelmingly, the majority of words spilled on the subject of leadership focus on the individual’s own, tending to look down the chain of command to examine how it does or should act. To the extent that people contemplate their own leaders, it is often in approval or critique, with the occasional nod to followership and the duties of the led to the person in charge. Moving beyond these well-charted waters, this blog desires to reorient the perspective to consider the subject of how leaders and bosses are treated.

The inspiration for this discussion is from a police blog. In it the author uses her own struggles and perspectives to reflect upon the difficulties of command responsibility. This passage sums the point which influenced my thinking:

I was chatting to [a Chief Constable] several months ago at a mental health event. I had already told him my jokes, I had showed him my double-jointed left elbow and I was getting to the stage where I was wondering what we could now talk about.

So we started talking about his interactions with staff.

He told me he often went to the canteen at lunchtime and would like nothing more than to sit down and join a table of fellow police officers and join in with their banter and chat. He missed being able to do that. He couldn’t do it as he was painfully aware when he entered the canteen, all eyes would be on him. He did not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or awkward by sitting and talking to them. So instead he would just grab a sandwich and quickly exit out of there and go back to his office and eat alone.

I thought that was sad and how lonely he must sometimes feel.

(from “I am a boss in the emergency services, I feel alone and I need help!” 30 October 2015)


I was struck by the humanity of the post, of its self-reflection and the realisation it inspired. Truism though it may be, how often do we contemplate seriously the loneliness at the top? When its condition can be written in such quotidian and heartfelt terms as with whom one can share a quick lunch, how much worse is it in dealing with the hard choices of military command? And struggle in solitude many leaders must given the complexity of conflict in a time of little black and white and much grey. [1]

Of course, one must tend to leaders not merely because it is humane. Rather, it must be taken up as a critical task to minimize the influence of the sycophants and the strivers. If the bulk of the led shy away from the boss, the vacuum is filled by the sorts of people who are the most dangerous, ‘yes men’ who will provide nothing better than an echo-chamber of the leader’s own opinions. Isolated by the structure, this coterie of sycophants serve only to deepen that effect.

And so, although military careers may be highlighted by the points of command, the bulk of the time is spent within the mass of the led. Thus, while it is important to hone one’s thinking and practice for those times when the reins of leadership authority are taken, the practice of service to the leader should equally concern the military officer. Given this, my questions for discussion are:

How do you tend your leaders? How would you rate your performance in that task? 

What have you been taught formally about this, if anything? Informally?

Contemplate the questions and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


1 The recently retired Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police made the near startling announcement that at times he sought counselling to cope with the demands of the position. Has a significant commander within the armed forces of either the US or UK ever admitted anything similar? Certainly the struggles of military leadership are as challenging as those in policing, and it is likely that such assistance could be valuable, but the recourse to psychological help remains a taboo in the armed forces.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Red Tape in the Morning, Staff Officer’s Warning

Mon, 19/10/2015 - 11:40

Greetings CCLKOW readers. Today we bring to you a new guest author, @fightingsailor, an officer of the Royal Navy whose biography you can find below. In this piece he discusses the implications of budgets, efficiency and effectiveness. With the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review eagerly awaited here in the United Kingdom, the matter of managing defence in an era of constrained budgets weighs heavily upon the proceedings. In this piece, our author contends with the conflicts and contradictions of the various means to ‘do more with less.’ Although focussed on issues facing defence in the UK, as the American defence establishment grapples again with the demands of sequestration the piece should resonate with the audience on that side of the pond. So, read the piece, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“My department’s budget may be rising again but there will be no let-up in getting more value for money… Efficiency savings mean we will be able to spend more on cyber, more on unmanned aircraft, more on the latest technology, keeping ahead of our adversaries.”  – Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence [1]


In this short essay I will examine what value for money means in the context of Defence and whether the inevitable SDSR [2] drive for greater ‘efficiency’ is, in fact, counter-productive in achieving the purpose of the Armed Forces.

As the Secretary of State alludes, the drive for ‘Value for Money’ in Defence  is usually shorthand for efficiency.  Efficiency is the ratio of output to input.  In other words, the drive for greater efficiency means attempting to do more with less or, at least, doing the same with less or more with the same.  There are a couple of issues here for defence strategists.  First, there is an inherent assumption that we understand what our outputs are. We go to great lengths to define these and set up business agreements between the different parts of Defence to ensure that everybody plays their agreed part in delivering them.  This implies, generally, that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to output Forces ready to be used for operations. In part this is true, especially if one applies the POSIWID principle [3], but surely the purpose of the military is to deliver successful Government policy outcomes.  Many of the outputs of Defence may not be relevant to achieving such outcomes in any given crisis.  Take the recent Operation GRITROCK, the UK Military’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in West Africa.  This wasn’t part of any Force Design or Force Testing scenario that I am aware of, and was delivered using Forces whose justification for existence (and thus attribution of input resources such as funding) was for other Military Tasks [4], yet a positive policy outcome was achieved for Her Majesty’s Government. The point here is that where Military Forces exist, they are rarely used for the specific purpose for which their requirements were set, but rather they have broader utility as instruments for Government policy; providing that they exist in the first place.  This is particularly true of units such as warships where the variety of missions that, say, a Type 23 frigate is able to undertake is far in excess of the predominantly anti-submarine mission for which she was originally designed.  So, the Value for Money is generated by buying as much capability as you can afford that is useable in the broadest range of scenarios.

Except; this logic forces you down a route of planning for the most likely scenario.  In risk management terms this is planning for the expected outcome.  This approach works if you’re an insurer and can aggregate your risks across many thousands of policy holders; or a health service whose usage rates by a population can, on average, be meaningfully planned for.  But the Military instrument is not like that.  We have been seduced into thinking that military campaigns have a steady drumbeat of 6 monthly roulements through theatres: whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or one of the many routine operational deployments of the Royal Navy.  If we gear our entire establishment around this model we will achieve efficiency (of sorts) but we will fail strategically.  I say this because what really defines successful use of the military is its response to crisis, and the sort of crisis that becomes generationally defining.  The Falkands in 1982 is the obvious post-WW2 example but Sierra Leone, Iraq in 1991and the Kosovo intervention are other examples where it went well.  Operational failure in warfighting, especially when vital national interests are stake, changes the international balance of power and can redefine a nation’s place in the world order – the outcome is of strategic significance. It’s the stuff that brings down Governments.  To be ready to respond to crises which are, by their nature, largely unexpected takes systemic agility.  This agility comes from diligent contingency planning and meticulous preparation but necessitates a substantial degree of spare capacity in the system that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs.  Spare capacity is, self-evidently, not a feature of an efficient system. This is not, therefore about the management of risks to outputs but, rather, about the uncertainty of outcome.  The difference between risk and uncertainty?  In the former the probability distribution of possible outcomes is known, in the latter it is not.  It means you need a different set of management techniques.  That’s why stockpiles and reserves must be maintained, even though they may not have been drawn upon for years, because if they are needed they will be needed in a hurry; and once the button gets pushed it will be too late if they do not exist.  A push for efficiency at the expense of all else risks confusing activity with effect.  So in all that we do we should prepare for the most extreme outcome: high-end warfighting against a world-class adversary.  This should drive our requirements, training and manpower but importantly it should drive our intellectual preparation.  Concepts and doctrine must drive the other lines of development towards dealing with the evolving character of warfare and novel technologies must drive, and be driven by, the need to retain operational edge.  Of course, this will be constrained by the available resource but we need the moral courage to balance the activity of today with setting the conditions for successful effect tomorrow.  Within a system incentivised by annual appraisal this is especially challenging.  Ironically, and perhaps even paradoxically, the better we prepare to win wars, the less likely it is that we will have to fight them and thus our Forces can be used more readily for lower intensity operations.  If you want peace, prepare for war!

But however we define our capabilities and capacities, surely within the Force Development and Generation cycles there are efficiencies to be had? Why don’t we just cut the ‘red tape’ and stop spending money on bureaucrats and pen pushers?  This is an attractive battle-cry when it comes to seeking ways to save money on the generation of military capability and, indeed, in the spending of public money in the round.  The problem, however, is that every bureaucrat, no matter how inefficiently they work, is there to service a process which fulfils a function.  To get rid of the bureaucrat you need to establish that their function is no longer required (at least in the same quantity). But most of these processes are conducted to give a degree of management control and/or assurance over different aspects of the organisation: financial management and probity; contractual propriety; safety and environmental management; commodities management; human resource; etc, etc.  So what functions can we do without? Well, none of them actually.  We can reduce the amount of each that we conduct but, here’s the crunch, we must then be prepared to delegate and empower individuals to do make decisions and commit resources without the levels of assurance and managerial control that have been previously demanded.  In short, we must take risk against these processes and this means that mistakes will occur more frequently; and we must accept that this is not failure, but the system working as it was now designed.  And if we want individuals to hold such increased risk personally, then we may find that they need greater recognition and/or remuneration as part of the deal for doing so.  Process and bureaucracy are like a kelp forest for a scuba diver – it is no one strand that substantially impedes your passage, but the overall effect means a disproportionate effort is required to make progress.

So, beware the inevitable ‘efficiency drive’ after the coming SDSR.  Without a properly reformed system that removes management and assurance processes and delivers a commensurate increases in delegation, it will simply be code for reducing the number of people available to complete a similar amount of process.  The strands of kelp get packed closer together and progress becomes harder than it was before.  There is a real risk of not only achieving a less efficient system as a result, but also one less effective at delivering its real purpose, achieving desirable government policy outcomes using the military instrument. And during the SDSR process the arguments must be made to retain as much high-end warfighting capability as we can possibly afford in order to give the agility to deliver such outcomes, including novel ones like cyber and unmanned systems.  And finally, having sufficient warfighting capability makes it less likely that you will have to use it for this purpose.  If you think peacetime Armed Forces are expensive, try having a war!

. . .

Following this review of the issues of defence management and budgets, the following questions are put forward for consideration and discussion:

1. Have western defence bureaucracies gone too far in adopting modern business practices and values? That is, do the terms of prudence in the private sector apply well to requirements of defence?

2. What should drive peacetime budgets and military plans? Should the aim be to spend the least and hope for the best until war arrives? 

3. Can armed forces and defence bureaucracies afford to reduce their processes and accept less control during peacetime?

4. What would you cut, and why?

. . .

@fightingsailor is a Royal Navy Weapon Engineer Officer with substantial operational and staff experience. At sea he has undertaken operational deployments to the Mediterranean (Libya), Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean (whilst participating in Operations DEFERENCE, ELLAMY, TELIC and KIPION); as well as to Arctic Russia, the Baltic region and the East Coast of the USA. Ashore he served in Afghanistan as the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) Liaison Officer to Task Force Helmand. Staff appointments have predominantly focussed on capability planning, management and strategy. They have included: the Ministry of Defence, PJHQ J6 and the Maritime Capability Division of Navy Command HQ. A graduate of the UK Defence Academy’s Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) he has a keen interest in developing ‘good thinking’ in Defence.




[1] Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 4 Oct 15, accessed 10 Oct 15.

[2] Strategic Defence and Security Review. The UK Government’s quinquennial review of Defence and Security Strategy.

[3] The Purpose of a System is What it Does. Brilliantly explained on the thinkpurpose website:, accessed 11 Oct 15.

[4] accessed 11 Oct 15.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

#CCLKOW: The Security Implications of Disorder Tactics

Tue, 06/10/2015 - 16:51

This week’s post is focused on security and crisis decision-making, on the murky distinction between a bit of domestic disorder which, albeit a nuisance, poses no threat to society, and disorder as a simple use of force in an event which approaches conflict. Specifically, it is concerned to unpick the issues of tactics meant to turn protest to disorder, and that disorder to strategic mayhem. The practice, under the heading of ‘Black Bloc Tactics,’ has yet to be used to any greater objective than momentary chaos which it is hoped will give heft to the political point of the protest. However, as the events of the Arab Spring amply demonstrate, protest is not necessarily far from conflict of the worst sort. So, read the post, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

This weekend I travelled to Manchester to observe the policing of the protest and the Conservative Party Conference. Rather than run about on the streets following the public order officers, [1] this time I was a guest of the force and was allowed to observe the policing from the central command by way of CCTV and helicopter footage. It was utterly fascinating.

The anti-austerity protest planned for Sunday involved a march and rally of significant numbers. And as I am very interested in urban mayhem, watching the events I calculated the many opportunities, moments and locations in which a dedicated operative could act to bring chaos out of the calm. In fact, this has been a tactic of varying use and utility adopted by different groups within a protest in the last couple of decades. Often associated with Anarchists, Black Bloc tactics are not necessarily limited to that group. Briefly, these tactics encompass small cells of anonymised actors who have traditionally used token violence to punctuate the political statement of the protest.

To date, they have not been used in any real capacity beyond the general aim of the protest. And to be perfectly clear, this thought piece does not direct its consideration to protest as protest, even when it might include violence and disorder. Free expression and democratic principles do not always play out in the neatest possible fashion, but that is by far to be preferred over other forms of governance. I have argued elsewhere and I do not step back from that position here that the state and police forces must live by the rule that ‘you can’t shoot rioters.’ [2] In fact, as we have witnessed in the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring, strong arm responses to even violent protest can turn political action to conflict too easily.

So, what are we concerned with here if not protest run amok of its own volition? I have argued in another article that the strategic actor – either terrorist or state affiliated – could use mayhem in lieu of battle. It’s worth jogging over to give that piece a read as it describes the concept in detail, but in brief, it envisions the intentional use of such tactics as would turn the mob in the urban setting into a cheap but effective army to be wielded against the society. That is, such an approach, which to date has only been used to create token or short term violence, could be adapted as a type of warfare.

This is where it all becomes difficult. A competent actor will be able to camouflage the strategic intent of the disorder, at least in the short term. Done very well, a society could slowly be bled white with exhaustion coping with disorder. Or, in frustration, the security forces could escalate the situation to the point of conflict. Thus, with very few resources, a state could be defeated.

Whereas my very first post in this series put to you the problem of the local, rural partisan, in this case you are forced to confront a modern urban warrior, whether at home or abroad on COIN or other stabilisation operations. And so the questions are:

1. How will you identify that protest is not protest but an act of war?

2. How will you act without doing undue additional harm or damage?

3. Is this a strategy you might consider?

4. At what point does this amount to an act of war?


Give your answers some thought and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.



1. The police are rarely troubled by my close presence to their activities as I look nothing short of harmless. Seriously, I won’t ever be mistaken for anarchist or terrorist, and as yet ‘rogue professional woman’ is not yet a style adopted by any combatants.

2. Despite a heavy ethos against the use of force generally, and in public order policing specifically, there has been an uproar in the British press today regarding the deployment of a sniper on a rooftop which overlooked the protest route. It also overlooked the conference venue site. Given the heightened threat level with respect to terrorism and the high-profile nature of the event, such precautions are to be expected. However, with the highly constrained model for the use of lethal force, the idea that the police would even consider using snipers against protesters when it is their job to facilitate protest is beyond silly. And given the control on the police use of firearms, the thought is even more far-fetched. Read the IPCC investigation report on the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 if you want to understand how it works, at pages 96 ff – the officers were questioned repeatedly regarding what happened. The material directly related to the officer who fired the fatal shot is at pages 118-164.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Humpty Dumpty, Not Pottery Barn: Some Thoughts on Regime Change

Mon, 21/09/2015 - 13:15


In this week’s #CCLKOW we consider what principles ought to shape our strategic thinking with respect to regime change. Please note, this is not an endorsement of the act as sensible policy. I am relatively certain that it should be a policy of last resort, and even then its wisdom ought to be held in serious doubt. Nevertheless, we live in a world where sometimes the only policy choices are bad ones. Thus, it is necessary to consider under what strategy this could be accomplished with the least risk of spectacular failure. Or, more simply, it is not enough that we must think carefully about regime change as a policy, we must also be similarly careful about strategy and tactics if this choice is taken. Enjoy the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“You break it, you buy it.” Colin Powell’s application of the rules of shopping in Pottery Barn to regime change was hailed as quite brilliant for reminding his political masters of the dangers of such a policy choice. I would suggest, however, that within this construction there is a terrific peril for the West, as our wealth might make us think we can afford to buy it once broken. Thus, whereas Powell cautioned against regime change that was not fully cognizant of the costs it would entail, this admonition is incorrectly aimed. It is not the cost of rebuilding which is the problem. Rather, it is the nearly insurmountable challenge of re-creating something better than that which has been broken.

Here I would like to argue that rather than Pottery Barn, Humpty Dumpty is the better cautionary tale for regime change. Where the policy is even contemplated, the further taboo must be upon undue damage to the essential structures of governance and society.


…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men 

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It was a sharp realisation that perhaps a quaint children’s nursery rhyme wasn’t just a bit of fun but in fact could be an old military parable, a cautionary tale against the hubris of military might. [1] Conceiving Humpty as a state that, once fallen, could not be put back together again despite every effort of the King’s horses and men, his army, make more sense than it ought to.

Nowhere is the wisdom of the Humpty Dumpty Principle in regime change more clear than in Iraq. The speedy resolution of its first act in the summer of 2003, with relatively little damage, was tragically followed by the dismantling of key structures of the state. Perhaps it was hubris borne of the great military success achieved in driving Saddam Hussein from power which led to the orgy of societal destruction. The inability to recognise that ‘support’ for the regime was not the result of great fealty to Saddam but rather the dictates of pragmatism and survival led the coalition down the garden path to chaos and new tensions. De-Baathification may have seemed a Saint’s work, but in fact it was the beginning of the end, the first step in the slow failure that was the largely American led strategy in the country. Once broken, Iraqi politics and society suffered for the struggle to re-create a delicate balance of fragile connections. And while the old system had been clearly flawed itself, fixing that was the far easier option than refashioning the whole anew.

In sum, the coalition ought to have rejoiced in its ability to unseat Hussein without much damage and sallied forth from there. The path from 2003’s military victory ought to have looked a little something like this:

‘Here Tariq, take the keys. Don’t screw this up. We’re happy to provide some funding to help get things back on track. Send us a plan.’


The errors of Iraq should be forefront in the minds of anyone thinking about Syria. As utterly reprehensible (!) as the reign of terror perpetrated by Assad has been, do not imagine for a moment that the destruction of the state which sustained it will result in an outbreak of rainbows and happiness. The jackals and the jackasses are chomping at the bit to take advantage of the vacuum and chaos that would follow the dissolution of the state. Thus, although it is quite clear that he will have to go, how that will happen must be considered with the utmost care not to break that which we cannot fix. Moving even further into the harshest grey areas, how to deal with the areas under the control of the state apparatus created by ISIS should also be filling us with a bit of conflicted thought.

And so, as grist for this week’s discussion, I put to you the following questions intended to flesh out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the principle I have offered:

1. The successes in Germany and Japan seem to refute the Humpty Dumpty Principle. What were the terms and conditions of those efforts, and do they exist in the targets of regime change we consider today?

2. Is it too easy to assume that no evil structure can be surpassed? With respect to Afghanistan, did we err in thinking that any regime created in the aftermath of the Taliban would be an improvement? Quick to break that which all were too happy to label as evil, with stories such as that published today on the creeping institutionalisation of the sorts practices which had led to the popularity of the Taliban in the first place, one has to wonder at that wisdom.

3. Is there a better strategic framework to conduct successful regime change?




[1] I am not arguing that this is the origin of the story. But it ought to be, because it’s rather quite perfect.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Britain’s al-Awlaki moment, sortof

Tue, 08/09/2015 - 11:34

Yesterday David Cameron played a political blinder: “We’re here to talk about refugees, but enough of criticising my terrible response on that, I had a British citizen killed two weeks ago.” Understandably, this blindsided most, and the fact that the UK government has committed to sheltering a paltry 4000 Syrian refugees per year, as opposed to larger numbers in Germany and elsewhere has fallen quickly off the front pages. These numbers are an abdication of moral responsibility towards refugees. Nonetheless, the use of a targeted killing against a UK citizen (by the UK government, not our American friends after we revoke their passport) is the topic du jour. Understandably, this has been called our ‘Anwar al-Awlaki moment’ – the first time the government crosses the proverbial rubicon of intentionally and openly killing a citizen that has run off to a foreign country to (supposedly) organise terrorist campaigns against their home state. The UK, of course, has much more recent experience of the moral and legal quandaries of using force against our own citizens due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over at Lawfare, Robert Chesney pointed out that this is actually a test of a particular scenario and legal interpretation – the American interpretation of the concept of self defence as it applies to terrorists that has developed since 9/11.

The legal justification, as presented was that this was an act of self defence, broadly in line with American interpretations of self defence versus individuals and terrorist organisations:

As part of this counter-terrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to the British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, then as Prime Minister, I will always be prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else….

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria…

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action…

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.

And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.

There are, however, significant differences between the UK and the US in both legal opinion and the jurisdiction of international courts.

  • Armed conflict: The US claims to be in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, the UK doesn’t. Therefore while the UK talks about IHL and military rules of engagement, this is ‘icing on the cake’ so-to-speak – we’re not at war (proverbially) or engaged in an armed conflict (legally). This aspect of Cameron’s statement is effectively saying that when UK armed forces kill outside an armed conflict, they still consider themselves constrained by the rules developed within it.
  • The extraterritorial applicability of human rights treaties: A bit of a mouthful for non-lawyers. Unlike America, the UK considers its obligations as extending beyond the territory of the UK, which means that outside armed conflict human rights law definitely applies, and furthermore UK cases have applied human rights standards to matters in the context of armed conflict (much to the chagrin of many people, but that doesn’t matter so much here).
  • The European Convention on Human Rights: Unlike the US, we have the ECHR, and we are also subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, meaning that judges beyond our immediate political system can pass judgement on the actions of the state (like, err, Article 2, protecting the right to life – expect to see arguments about 2.a. where “Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: a. in defence of any person from unlawful violence”). This is a key difference from the al-Awlaki case as there is no international court with jurisdiction that America accepts that can pass judgement on the American state for his death.
  • No constitution: Unlike America, we don’t have a written constitution. This means that whereas the American debate on the domestic legality of killing citizens has plenty of plain text hooks and principles to work from, as well as the separation of powers, the UK debate will likely be more nebulous, involving the royal prerogative, and so on. I’d expect some British anti-monarchists to come out of the woodwork at some point to state that it’s a bit bloody odd that the Queen is technically the one in charge of all of this, and David Cameron ordered a citizen dead based on inherited authority. For American readers worried about the ‘Imperial Presidents’ of Bush and Obama, at least you have the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to complain about, as well as requirements for intelligence oversight, Presidential findings etc etc.

My last thoughts on this (for now) is that this appears to be the way things are going: that the ‘Caroline test‘ will apply to individuals and small scale groups, and that the American “unwilling/unable” test, discussed by Robert Cheney, will propagate. The use of straight up self defence as a justification for targeted killing (as opposed to self defence that leads to/in context of armed conflict) is discussed in a pretty accessible way by Kenneth Anderson in a 2009 paper here. What strikes me about Cameron’s decision is that the US has hewed towards the armed conflict model for justifying targeted killings and explaining their legal rationale, whereas the UK decision appears to be straight self defence. From everything I’ve read about targeted killings, the armed conflict model is better, as it is at least more explicit and requires political declarations of war. The US Congress can always call off its war with al-Qaeda, and hem in the President’s authority. The British political system has markedly fewer constraints on the exercise of power by the Prime Minister.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

The 2015 SDSR consultation

Wed, 26/08/2015 - 15:38

The MoD have very kindly given the public 1500characters with which to insert their thoughts into the review process. That equates to just under 300words. I managed to underspend my contribution by 80 characters…

Do not start the report with ‘the world is an increasingly dangerous place’. It isn’t. The threat picture is just more complex and we are adapting too slowly. We face two predominant types of threat, with an overarching and underspecified element: 1) traditional military, 2) asymmetric and ‘glocalised’. The overarching element is ‘hybridity’. To think of defence and security as expressed exclusively by equipment and personnel capacity and capabilities is a mistake. Hybrid conflict requires the UK to understand influence ops, money, health, education as components of our security. It also requires us to better understand who are opponents are and what they are doing: this requires a plethora of approaches. Countering these threats requires upfront investment to meet them before they develop (spend to save). It also requires a far wider range of institutions and actors – inside and outside of government – to pull together in countering hybrid threats (a smarter, holistic approach). This mix is likely to cause some discomfort, but currently we are mismatching assets and approach to the threats we are facing.

Better match the full-spectrum positioning and rhetoric with capabilities. So, resource better to match current rhetoric or better position the UK to match resourcing restraints. Don’t try and meet the 2%GDP figure by including non-defence items. Either scrap the target, or invest the full amount.  ”


The brevity does clarify the mind.

If you wish to add your thoughts please find the page at (

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Autonomous Weapons: A Thought Experiment

Thu, 30/07/2015 - 11:45

Human Rights Watch is one of the driving forces behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, who make headlines from time to time in their current quest to get “lethal autonomous weapon systems” banned under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. I have no particular beef with HRW, it’s an admirable organisation, but since the newspapers are in full-on “reprint the press release” mode after the publication of an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons signed by a lot of scientists, it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that HRW has choices to make. Like: choosing between a world where states can make (usually imperfect) interventions to prevent mass atrocity, and a world where they can’t. The TL;DR version of this blog post is: if you ban autonomous weapons then aircraft carriers become floating junk, next time someone starts massacring people don’t expect anyone to ride to the rescue. That’s not to say the “the West” has a particularly admirable track record in atrocity prevention, but most of the arguments that now happen usually pre-suppose that if Western political elites could be coerced or persuaded, then they would have the technical means to deliver military forces to some point on the planet where very bad things are happening to civilians.

“Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention.”

The problem with the autonomous weapons debate as it currently stands is that, for the most part, it ignores the current bits and pieces of automatic and autonomous systems that are part and parcel of everyday military life. Like the Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (CIWS) and other bits of gear that are designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Because shooting down missiles is something that humans are physically incapable of doing, outside of Hollywood. If one would like the capability to shoot down a missile, then you need a largely autonomous system to do the heavy lifting of identifying, tracking and targeting that missile, and the human being “in the loop” is largely reduced to something to whom a weapon system says: “Hey, meatbag, press the button so that I can save your life.”

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

In theory, you don’t even need the human. Phalanx, and like systems, are tied to command and control systems such as AEGIS, which can be set to an automatic mode with user-defined “If… then…” routines doing the work. Like “If a missile is heading towards this ship, then please shoot it down as soon as possible.” The reason this is necessary is that one doesn’t want to entrust the ability to protect a ship to a person who is, well, liable to die when the anti-ship missiles start flying. Having a system the keeps working despite casualties is a sensible design for a military system. “But wait,” cry the detractors, “We’re not talking about missiles, we’re talking about machines that can make the decision to select and kill human beings (insert lengthy disclaimer about drones being controlled by human beings here).” That may be true, but from a machine’s point of view (and this is perhaps the core of the problem) the means of identifying an object as a missile is not too different from identifying a human being. If someone does conjure up a weapon system to run around killing human beings, then the difference is likely to be most evident in the sensors designed to detect human beings (over, say, a supersonic missile) and the code that interprets the information derived from those sensors, than in the actual process of going from detection to destruction. The difference between “automatic” and “autonomous” is merely the capability of the system to sense different objects, and what to do with them once it senses them. A system designed to identify humans and avoid them is one rule-change away from a system designed to identify humans and kill them. Program an autonomous weapon system to shoot down missiles and it’ll carry that out to the best of its technical limits, just as if you programmed it to shoot readers of young adult fiction over the age of 29, which, I think, is why the ethicists (and adult Harry Potter fans) are correct when they point out that autonomous weapon systems are disturbing. So why not ban them? The problem, returning to the Phalanx CIWS, is that they’re here to help, and in certain situations, autonomous systems are impossible to replace.

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The problem with aircraft carriers is that they are quite expensive, relatively rare, and vulnerable to missiles designed to kill them. America has ten Nimitz class aircraft carriers. They are the cornerstone of American power projection worldwide. By way of comparison, Russia has one, and China has one. I’ll leave it to my colleagues in KCL’s Naval History Mafia (err, “Laughton Naval History Unit“)  to debate how good any of these actually are. America’s carriers are so expensive that it takes over half a billion dollars to de-commission one. Of course the alternate route to decommissioning an aircraft carrier is to hit one with enough missiles to sink it. Logically enough, this is China’s approach to America’s 10:1 advantage in aircraft carriers. For this reason, anyone seeking to deter America needs some kind of long range anti-ship missile capability. For America (or anyone else using an aircraft carrier) you need defensive capabilities mounted on your aircraft carrier and support ships that stand a chance of shooting down said missiles, otherwise they become a bit useless in contested areas.

Contested areas are important, partly because the kind of regimes that carry out massacres usually have powerful friends. Consider Syria. Way back when in 2013, when meaningful international intervention was still a possibility, Russia transferred advanced anti-aircraft missile systems and anti-ship missile systems to the Syrian government in order to effectively forestall said intervention. In effect, Russia escalated the likely cost of international intervention by providing Assad with an asymmetric capability. Perceived costs are important because: politics matters. To return to HRW and autonomous weapons: there is a big difference between persuading America to intervene in a situation, and persuading America to intervene in a situation which puts one of its aircraft carriers at risk.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

So here’s the issue as I see it: if you want to ban the military use of autonomous weapon systems, then you’re going to need to ban the kind of autonomous systems that are currently in service, and any that are being developed to combat anti-ship missiles in future. If you ban those kind of point defence systems, then any kind of power projection becomes very, very risky and costly for the country involved, so even though America has a poor track record, don’t expect them to help in future if a brutal regime is killing its citizens. This ushers in a world where states like China and Russia can effectively prop up any regime that they like, and, given the studied neglect-to-care about human rights in either country, this reduces the capability of states that purportedly care about human rights to intervene in the world at large. This lack of capability to intervene will reduce the incentive for would-be human rights abusers to adhere to the vaguest interpretation of compliance with human rights standards. This is a legal, political and technical issue – given the makeup of the UN Security Council – but at the moment Western states still have a technical means to intervene (if not the legal authority to do so, or the political will), forcing them to abandon the autonomous systems that they use to defend their prime military assets would deprive them of that. As disturbing as autonomous weapons are, is a world where dictators can massacre their populations without fear of reprisal better or worse?

Oh, and just to muddy the waters a bit: they already figured out how to point Phalanx at small surface ships that would probably contain human beings.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Leadership Beyond Your Control

Mon, 27/07/2015 - 18:57

This week’s CCLKOW discussion looks at leadership. In this case, however, we remove the individual as the arbiter of its quality. Instead, our piece today argues for a perspective that takes account of external factors which define the limits of leadership. Using the contrasting narratives of two officers from the Chosin Campaign, the role of influences beyond the control of the individual emerges. Read, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


In the cold — wickedly cold, really — days at the end of November 1950, the epic drama of the Chosin Campaign played out in North Korea near the Manchurian border with China. Within the larger story, two sub narratives of triumph and disaster, redemption and destruction, life and death were also unfolding. These are the individual travails of two Lieutenant Colonels awarded the Medal of Honor in the campaign, Raymond G. Davis and Donald C. Faith. Davis led his unit to the successful completion of an overland, nighttime march to relieve Fox Co. and secure key terrain in the evacuation route south to Hagaru-ri for 5th and 7th Marines. By contrast, Faith gained at best an operational Pyrrhic victory for X Corps: his Task Force slowed the PLA advance towards the 1st Marine Division as it was defeated in its attempt to withdraw from the reservoir to Hagaru-ri.

How can we reconcile the entirely disparate outcomes of the units led by Faith and Davis at Chosin? Leadership provides a unifying theme by which to explain events, although in this case we must understand leadership to go beyond the standard definitions and transcend the individual as either agent or arbiter of quality. The differences in leadership, and hence outcomes, can be attributed only to fortune or fatal ambition if the assessment is limited to the individuals, as these details provide too little information to make sense of the full scope of events. For their actions at Chosin, each man would be reckoned a hero of the highest order, although that heroism must be described as triumphant and tragic in turn. As field grade officers with previous combat and/or command experience, at campaign’s start they would have been considered equals in anticipated capabilities. In sum, these were two officers similarly qualified as leaders to meet the challenges of command on the battlefield. And yet, not only were the outcomes different for each – success for Davis and failure for Faith – but the narrative clearly points to different qualities of leadership as well. Thus, factors well beyond the individuals, beyond their heroism or competence, determined the quality of leadership each man brought to bear in his respective battle.

The Faith/Davis narratives suggest that leadership’s manifestation in combat is determined by the individual in situ by the influence of external factors. Absent obvious incompetence or particular genius, the environment within which an officer must act will define the quality or effectiveness of his leadership, and therefore, ability to command. Taking consideration of their environments fully explains the leadership outcome for each officer, success and failure, notwithstanding the heroism displayed by either. These conclusions can be made without undue attack upon Faith, for as this analysis suggests, others determined his failed leadership. The paradox of Faith’s simultaneous heroism and failure is reconciled because, while the bulk of the former is derived from within the individual, leadership in action is largely determined from without. This point is true as well in Davis’ case, for if it is to have more than mythical importance it, too, is best understood within its proper context.

While definitions of leadership abound, their focus traditionally has been limited to the individual. From one compilation of essays on the subject of leadership we find this characterization: “Effective leaders create an environment in which people motivate themselves.” [1] In another similar compilation, published in large part for the benefit of teaching leadership to future Army officers at West Point, we find this explanation: “Leadership is the art of inspiring the spirit and the act of following. The following must be voluntary. The individual and the group of individuals must want to be guided by that person for the latter to be called a leader…. Leadership is about trust….”[2] If most discussions of leadership – and for this sake of this analysis I will stick with Kolenda’ Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, as a solid example of the literature – are limited to the narrow scope of what the individual as leader must do,  then they operate from the assumption that the individual is the arbiter or agent of leadership. The problem is that such a formulation ignores the long, arduous, and mundane process required to get the leader to the point where he can lift his head and eyes to the horizon, to function as a leader and exercise effective command. He must, in effect, be able to do nothing but think sometimes. So, yes, a young officer, according to one essay in Kolenda, needs to know what to do with the opportunity and responsibility to lead. [3] He should also learn those factors external to his control that can shape the experience. He should know that no matter how well prepared, it is very hard to run a race if your legs are broken at the start. Even if Kolenda et al. are correct and leadership is the warrior’s art, the individual can only work with what he is given; he is defined by his context, good or bad. Thus, individuals may manifest leadership, and are certainly responsible for its quality, but a multitude of other individuals and circumstances determine that quality. In battle, the individual is not in control of his own leadership. He may do everything right, or may know, especially in retrospect, what he should have done right, he may be imbued with every talent, and still his attempts at leadership can be undone by factors beyond his control. As with all other matters military, the individual is bound up in the group, the organization, and the events.

Given this situation, I propose this revised set of standards that take account of the external factors that influence: chain of command leadership (superior and subordinate), followership, and circumstances. These criteria provide the most comprehensive and comprehensible explanation for the leadership outcomes in the Chosin campaign, and may offer a perspective that is useful to contemporary considerations of leadership. To understand their role in these events, here is a very brief sketch of the contrasting external circumstances faced by each man:


What was the quality of the superior leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

The view from the top offer the first significant distinction between the two. Davis enjoyed an operational situation that saw him ensconced within the warm embrace of two levels of leadership directly above him. His regimental and divisional commanders, Colonel Litzenberg and General Smith, were close at hand, available to provide guidance, strength, and a general sense of operational security. Alternatively, neither of his two commanders was the sort to meddle overmuch, thus allowing Davis to exercise his discretion in the planning and execution of his mission. By contrast, Faith came to command at Chosin when the 31st RCT commander, Colonel MacLean, was killed in early and confusing contact with PLA forces. This meant that on the ground at Chosin Faith enjoyed no superior leadership. At further remove, the divisional and corps leadership did not seem to grasp the enormity of what was facing the task force. Appleman’s point in East of Chosin that Generals Barr (7th ID CG) and Almond (X Corps CG) could have sent General Hodes, 7th ID ADC, to take command of the task force, is ironically sustained by the extension of that criticism in other literature to General Smith, who could have spared one of his senior colonels to the cause. Finally, by comparison Davis’ direct chain of command served him better than Faith’s because Smith’s proximity to the fight gave him a clearer picture of the threat posed by the PLA’s offensive, whereas it would take the Army commanders (7th ID, X Corps) critical hours to come to understand the changed circumstances. The relevance of this distinction bears out in the movements of X Corps towards the Yalu River, where Smith had taken a relatively conservative approach to the attack which maintained the integrity of the division as a whole, in contrast with the almost head-long rush 7th ID took to get to the reservoir. Whereas the Marine division would retain its ability to act as a coherent and supporting whole when the mass of the Chinese attack opened, 7th ID was dispersed to the point that the sum of the parts were weaker than the measure of the whole.

What was the quality of the subordinate leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

Moving to the supporting network below, the disparities remain. Davis enjoyed a strong subordinate command presence. Many of his NCOs had prior service in WWII, and his junior officers were capable if untested. Furthermore, throughout the campaign he did not suffer significant losses within these ranks, thus maintaining a sound subordinate chain of command. The strength of Davis’ leadership would be transmitted through this web to the Marines. At the start of the campaign, the units that would comprise Faith’s task force did have their fair share of good subordinate leaders. However, the task force suffered throughout the battle a steady hemorrhage of these leader. Their loss would weaken the leadership web supporting Faith degraded the unit’s combat cohesion at every level and critically handicapped his ability to maintain the integrity of the withdrawal.

What was the quality of “followership” shown to Faith and Davis?

How the troops responded to their leadership would vary significantly as well. There is no greater affirmation of the Marines’ followership than the constant refrain from the overland march that the strength of Davis’ example motivated and inspired the already strong extant “Marine spirit.” [4] Alternatively, the fragility of the task force’s followership is made manifest with the rapid disintegration of unit coherence with every challenge and setback to the withdrawal. Where once Faith was able to rally the troops via threats of severe punishment, the second attempt at the same tactic reaped insignificant results, primarily because the troops could no longer sustain their “faith” in his leadership to change the circumstance. Furthermore, there is some indication that Faith’s lack of combat experience worked to the detriment of establishing good followership from the start. Contrast this with the sense of security Davis’ experience must have given his troops.

What were the circumstances facing each?

Although they diverged in degree, both men faced essentially the same situation. The Chinese offensive made their current positions untenable and necessitated withdrawal. And, as aptly framed by General Smith, this would be no administrative march to the rear, they really would be “fighting in the other direction.” [5] The grand plan of the Marine division’s attack to the south planned for the constant defense of the column in its progress, by control of flanking terrain and key feature with all units in mutual and coordinated support. [6] Necessary to secure a key junction in the route, Davis’ mission to relieve Fox Co. and reinforce the position they held atop Turkey Hill was by no means going to be a walk in the park, was not guaranteed to succeed. It demanded of the Marines two efforts not a part of the campaign or standard practice: cross-country and by night. However, as part of a larger campaign, whose objective was entirely achievable by the division, Davis was given a manageable piece of a larger plan whose rationality he could appreciate. Other intangible effects of the mission context was the difference made in the Marine mentality of the aggressive, offensive nature of the mission – rather than waiting for the enemy to bring the battle to them in the withdrawal, they were moving pro-actively to gain the upper hand against the enemy. This they would achieve, successfully making their way south to Colonel Puller’s position further south to reform the division as a whole for its continued exfiltration to the port at Hungnam. Task Force Faith, on the other hand, was destroyed as a unit and nearly in detail attempting the very same. Lacking the support to generate a plan of any consequence, as well as the subordinate officers to execute it, Faith was left to collect his men, wounded, and vehicles and hope that they could fight their way south directly. Little would be done to secure the flanks or the way ahead, and these omissions would allow the Chinese soldiers to defeat the column. Harrying the vehicles and men from the high ground surrounding the road throughout, which slowly weakened Faith’s collected force, the Chinese were also able move ahead roadblock the progress of the march at regular intervals. Blooded throughout, there were only so many obstacles the task force could overcome and regroup from before it was simply too weakened by casualties to continue as a whole. In the final hours of December 1, only 5 miles from where the march had begun, both Faith and his task force died.


Considering the terms of this leadership framework, the discussion for this week is driven by a single request:

Obviously there is little that can be done when one faces the worst of circumstances across every factor. However, singly these deficits can be mitigated, if not overcome. Looking at each of Faith’s challenges, imagine yourself as his only and capable staff officer, what would you recommend to him? How would you improve the quality of the factors or counteract the negative effect of their weakness?




[I am happy to provide a bibliography of the campaign to those interested.]



1. Military Leadership, Taylor and Rosenbach, eds., p. 2.

2.  Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, Kolenda, ed., p. xix.

3. Dardis and Brower, “Teaching Combat Leadership.”

4. I had the opportunity to meet many of those Marines, to include General Davis, at the 1/7 1999 reunion of the Chosin Marines. I will write more about them in November at the anniversary of the campaign. As well as the pathos of battle, there will be consideration of such subjects as frozen turkey bombs, life-saving Tootsie Rolls, a silver service, cooks with rifles, and a reminder of the provenance of the Rule of 4/6ths.

5. The misinterpretation of this quote is one of the greater sins of history. It was always a simple explanation of the martial terms of the withdrawal.

6. I will reissue my perennial call: Colonel Alpha Bowser’s quickly designed plan was a thing to behold, and more should be written on it.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

For whom the Channel referral tolls…

Fri, 24/07/2015 - 14:35

It appears that things are picking up in the wonderful world of radicalisation. Following hot on the heels of David Cameron’s speech on extremism, the Evening Standard reports that a primary school has referred one of its pupils to the Government’s multi-agency Channel programme because a child that can’t be older than 11 was “deemed at risk of Islamic radicalisation.” Yes, folks, you heard that right, because “the behaviour of the child’s parents caused concern among staff” a kid is now the subject of government study. That’s because non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism, even in the case of primary school children. Except it doesn’t, or at least doesn’t work like a conveyor belt.

Here’s the resulting paradox in a nutshell: we live in a country that retains global power pretensions (even though we fudge on paying for it) and are committed to retaining a nuclear deterrent to bolster that self-image. At the same time, in a supposedly free and democratic society, we are referring under twelves to a counter-extremism programme because otherwise… bad things might happen?

Channel operates in “pre-criminal space”, which is a nice way of saying that a Channel referral doesn’t require an actual criminal offence. The Channel vulnerability assessment framework is particularly worth reading in full:

1. Engagement with a group, cause or ideology Engagement factors are sometimes referred to as “psychological hooks”. They include needs, susceptibilities, motivations and contextual influences and together map the individual pathway into terrorism. They can include:
• Feelings of grievance and injustice
• Feeling under threat
• A need for identity, meaning and belonging
• A desire for status
• A desire for excitement and adventure
• A need to dominate and control others
• Susceptibility to indoctrination
• A desire for political or moral change
• Opportunistic involvement
• Family or friends involvement in extremism
• Being at a transitional time of life
• Being influenced or controlled by a group
• Relevant mental health issues

2. Intent to cause harm Not all those who become engaged by a group, cause or ideology go on to develop an intention to cause harm, so this dimension is considered separately. Intent factors describe the mindset that is associated with a readiness to use violence and address what the individual would do and to what end. They can include:
• Over-identification with a group or ideology
• Them and Us’ thinking
• Dehumanisation of the enemy
• Attitudes that justify offending
• Harmful means to an end
• Harmful objectives

3. Capability to cause harm Not all those who have a wish to cause harm on behalf of a group, cause or ideology are capable of doing so, and plots to cause widespread damage take a high level of personal capability, resources and networking to be successful. What the individual is capable of is therefore a key consideration when assessing risk of harm to the public. Factors can include:
• Individual knowledge, skills and competencies
• Access to networks, funding or equipment
• Criminal Capability

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure that any 10 year old fulfils: “A need for identity, meaning and belonging/A desire for status/A desire for excitement and adventure/Susceptibility to indoctrination/Being at a transitional time of life”. Cynicism aside, the basic problem with this vulnerability assessment framework is that it contains very ambiguous criteria that effectively makes being pissed off at the current state of things a red flag for authorities. This wouldn’t matter so much except that the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Act put it on a statutory footing. From a not-quite-half-arsed grab bag of indicators that someone might (and could) commit a terrorist offence, to a statutory duty for Councils everywhere to assess people in this way. I have no idea whether a ten year old can develop the intent to cause harm, but I somewhat doubt that they have the capability to cause harm. The question for the rest of us is how well we’d fare if put under the microscope by someone who may, or may not, have any of the training necessary to differentiate between, say, a lonely person and a lone wolf nutcase. Just remember not to express “extreme” opinions to anyone official in future, just in case, like.

Identity? Status? Dehumanisation? That’s got Kafka written all over it.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Bridging the Gap and the Art of Record Keeping

Mon, 13/07/2015 - 16:13

In this week’s CCLKOW blog, we welcome back our Colonel Panter-Downes with this piece on learning between the services. While few argue against the value of experience to inform contemporary wisdom, knowledge sharing across the domains and individual services is too often blocked by service culture myopias. Wisdom must necessarily be stunted, lessons foresaken, where such siloing of knowledge is imposed. The last 75 years of military history have seen a rise of institutional jointness in strategy, doctrine and operations, and capabilities have improved from the synergies that have emerged. It seems then, we find ourselves at the last frontier of resistance, where the jointness must be encouraged at the level of individual development and thought. Providing examples of the valuable lessons found within the pages of naval and air experience, Colonel Panter-Downes offers an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on past learning and future opportunities. Read his piece and join us on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


I first went to sea at the same age as my father, aged 16. The difference between us however was that while he went to sea for 18 months (and returned home to the right house to find a different family in residence, my grandparents having moved house some 12 months after he went to sea), I went to sea for only two weeks, albeit on a “Tall Ship”. Before I left however, my mentor at school (a decorated RAF Bomber Command veteran) gave me two things, a camera and a journal to record my experiences. While I remain an indifferent photographer, the habit of keeping a (professional) journal has remained.

It seems apposite that an RAF veteran started me on the path of journal keeping. I have been very lucky in my service in that parts have been with the Royal Navy (including sea time) and in an Air Component HQ. The chance to serve so closely with (as opposed to alongside) sister services is relatively rare in both the UK and the US. My experiences with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have highlighted both mutual and exclusive strengths and weaknesses in much the same way that my current exchange to the US Army has. And yet, when it comes to inter-service learning, it seems to me we all tend to focus on our relative strengths and pay considerably less attention to learning from each other than we do to disparaging each other (and in this regard I have seen no difference in ethos between the US and UK armies). Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the realm of leadership practice. In the British Army we proudly extol that we “equip the man” (to fight) while the other Services “Man the equipment”. There is an element of truth in this but also a gross oversimplification as all Services are a system of systems and it also gives to those of us ‘in green’ a perhaps arrogant sense of moral superiority. It is in this vein of wisdom sharing and learning across Services that I want to look at the art of journal keeping.

At the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst officer cadets are also required to keep a journal, with a prize awarded for the best journal overall. I enjoyed keeping my journal at Sandhurst but what I do not recollect is any clear direction on what should be contained in the journal. Recently, while reading an autobiographical account of a midshipman in World War 2, I came across the following guide:

Journal for the use of Midshipmen

1. The journal is to be kept during the whole of a midshipman’ sea time. A second volume may be issued if required.

2. The Officer detailed to supervise instruction of Midshipmen will see that the Journals are kept in accordance with the instructions here under. He will initial the Journals at least once a month, and will see that they are written up from time to time during the month, not only immediately before they are called for inspection.

3. The Captain will have the Journals produced for his inspection from time to time and on a Midshipman leaving the ship, and will initial them at each inspection.

4. The following remarks indicate the main lines to be followed in keeping the Journal:-

(i) The objects of keeping the Journal are to train Midshipmen in

(a) The power of observation.

(b) The power of expression.

(c) The habit of orderliness.

(ii) Midshipmen are to record in their own language their observations about all matters of interest or importance in the work that is carried on, on their stations, in their Fleet, or in their Ship.

(iii) They may insert descriptions of places visited and of the people with whom they come into contact, and of harbours, anchorages and fortifications.

(iv) They may write notes on fuelling facilities, landing places, abnormal weather, prevailing winds and currents, salvage operations, foreign ships encountered and the manner in which foreign fleets are handled, gunnery and other practices, action in manoeuvres, remarks on tactical exercises. On the ship making a passage of sufficient interest they should note weather and noon positions.

(v) Separate entries need not necessarily be made for each day, full accounts should be given of any event of interest.

(vi) The letterpress should be illustrated with plans and sketches pasted into the pages of the Journal.

5. The Journal is to be produced at the examination in Seamanship for the rank of Lieutenant, when marks to a maximum of 50 will be awarded for it. [1]

Despite even this faltering initiation, the British Army officer corps seems pretty antipathetic to keeping journals which is cause for regret and concern. Journals are both an effective tool for professional development, but also a rich source for analysts and historians of the future. I never made my subalterns keep journals when I was in command, and with hindsight I wish I had. Time in command is short but fiercely formative, none more so than perhaps one’s first tour of command. Maintaining a record of time in command that includes professional analysis and acts as a vehicle for mentoring seems to me to be useful tool for both leaders and subordinates and one best learnt early. It is a lesson that the Royal Navy learnt but that the British Army appears to have remembered but dimly.

Looking broader afield there are also lessons aplenty to be had by looking at the experiences of other Services, and reading outside of one’s Service or component domain is inevitably rewarding.

One of the best books that I have read on organisational culture and (Mission) Command is “Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command”, an incisive critique on how to (mis)prepare an organisation in peacetime for war and the tensions inherent between what is needed in peacetime and what is needed in war. if you want to understand the development of systems and integration of new technology can be decisive then Stephen Bungay’s “The Most Dangerous Enemy” is a must read. Bungay’s book clearly illustrates how the development of an effective system can trump isolated flashes of superiority (whether technical or tactical) and how the development of such a system requires not just vision, but humility as well as technical competence. Neither of these two books are about the land domain, but they are profoundly illuminating to the common military endeavour and I gained many pertinent insights into how the army does, could and should operate from them.

So from rediscovering the art of journal keeping from the Royal Navy, to realising that for all our differences we share more similarities than we often acknowledge with our Sister Services, the challenge for #CCLKOW is (apart from keeping a journal) to identify what good practice in terms of ethos, training or leadership that you can take from a sister service.

I wish you all “A willing Foe and Sea-Room”. (Or, for the Americans, Fair Winds and Following Seas.)



1 “A Home On The Rolling Main” by AGF Ditchman

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

It AINT COIN, but this is

Mon, 29/06/2015 - 20:27

#CCLKOW this week turns to the matter of confronting insurgency. Seemingly beaten to death, I would submit that the subject is in fact in need of some rigorous thought, especially as there are clearly two defined schools of strategic approach, broadly characterized by their different focuses. Where one is concerned to fight the insurgency as manifest, the other seeks to undermine the terms of its strength to vastly reduce the intensity of the conflict, or anti-insurgency and counter-insurgencyUnderstanding the difference between the terms and consequences of different strategic approaches is important given that with the geo-strategic landscape and the role of rapid communications we may find ourselves in a time when might, as expressed in destruction, no longer sufficiently or reliably translates to right. Rather, might applied to the resolution of root causes is an alternative path to right that deserves better and more serious attention against the changing landscape of conflict. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.   


The subject of confronting an insurgency being less in favor these days seems to me to present the best opportunity to examine it with a bit more dispassion, and hence more rigor. In particular, here I would like to consider how we use COIN. As it stands, COIN is used broadly to describe all approaches to warfare against an insurgency. However, I find this unsatisfying as there is significant divergence in what people mean by this term. To rectify this problem, I propose new terminology to distinguish  between strategies which make the use of force against the rebellion the primary effort versus those that seek to undermine and eliminate the sources of support to the rebellion first thus reducing the scope of direct confrontation. Both envision scenarios which seek attrition, it is simply the means in each which differ. However, I believe there is an importance to this difference, and I think terminology which recognizes it is thus necessary. To describe these distinct approaches I use anti-insurgency and counter-insurgency accordingly, or AINT and COIN.

For clarification, a few points of terminology must be settled. (1) To begin, when I speak of insurgency, I mean a conflict within governed space against the standing order. Those in opposition are characterized by a committed cadre at center, are generally weaker than the forces of the prevailing order, and often resort to asymmetry and other alternative and low cost/low training means. While they may enjoy popular support, it is enough that the population simply be neutral to apathetic. With respect to the pivotal terms of this essay, I will offer that my understanding of this distinction between anti- and counter- goes back to an old lecture on terrorism in my early academic days that has stuck with me for its clarity and utility. In brief, it sorted the approaches to dealing with terrorism into the two categories depending on the focus of effort, whether at dealing with acts and actors directly by fighting terrorists in the act and seeking them when not, or at undermining their ability to organize and act to reduce frequency, efficacy and numbers of attacks.

If you were wondering about the title, this is where the odd construction becomes relevant. The “it” and “this” refer to two pieces written by others which illustrate the two models. They are important here because the first, on AINT, inspired the conceptualization, and the second motivated the writing in this moment. Very interestingly, they are both by British authors, representing two ends of the security spectrum and long traditions of service. The AINT article is a theoretical description of the model by William F. Owen, formerly of the British Army and currently active in the field of military affairs. (2) The second is a blog piece on neighborhood policing by an anonymous but currently serving British police officer of significant experience, Nathan Constable. (3) While it may seem unorthodox to use a policing example to describe a strategic approach insurgent conflict, the principle, parties and activities are similar enough for these purposes. Where the absolute scale of force and violence may differ, I believe that plotted relatively they are sufficiently comparable. Thus, as a good enough comparative, I will go further to add that in this case the conceptual box is safely, and I hope fruitfully, exceeded.

Turning to the first piece, in Owen’s “Seek and Destroy,” the AINT model is clearly explicated. As a counter-insurgency strategy, I cannot disagree with it more. However, under the AINT construct, while I may not agree with its utility, I must similarly recommend that it is an entirely correct construction. The opening sentence is unambiguous: “The purpose of this article is to argue that the destruction of the enemy’s forces lies at the heart of countering both terrorism and insurgency.” (p. 12) If the end is compliance with the status quo, this will be achieved by attrition, and more specifically by fighting the insurgent force in order to kill or capture its members. Elimination of the rebellion in arms will eliminate the rebellion. That is iconic AINT.

For COIN, the Nathan Constable blog on neighborhood policing includes a vignette fully describing the contours of the countering model. His piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but for our purposes here a brief synopsis of the relevant portion will suffice. The circumstances of the case were a local police force dealing with significant and recurrent problems of anti-social behavior (the “insurgency”) that demanded police resources without improving by their interventions. Watching this approach fail to do more than “stick a plaster on” the ritual disturbances (the “insurgent activity”), he shifted course.

This adaptation meant considering the problem in other terms. Using intelligence gathering to understand the nature of the disorder and its causes, who might be the ringleaders, and what motivated the presence of the larger numbers of participants, the author describes how he and his police force changed their approach to the problem. Learning that many of the participants in the trouble were at a loss for anything better to do on a Friday evening, the police reached out other agencies and organizations to create sport and other entertainments for local youth so that they had safe spaces to spend an evening. As well, to reduce the influence and draw of alcohol, they worked with local businesses to eliminate or reduce sales to those under 21. Although the cadre of troublemakers remained (the “committed cadre” who drive the insurgency), without the broader participation of other youths (the rank and file who give the movement its force) these numbers were more easily dealt with by traditional policing methods. More importantly, the broader results of this combined effort away from the point of conflict was a reduction in the number of calls to police for that area and an overall improvement in the quality of life for the community as previously unpleasant to unsafe spaces were reclaimed and the youth had positive attractions for their energies. That is, by countering the problem rather than continuing to fight the obvious manifestation it was more enduringly solved.

It should be clear these two approaches vary significantly in principle and in practice. As played out at the level of conflict and war when considering insurgencies these differences are important and manifest at every level, from political to tactical. While it is certainly not necessary in practical strategic terms to choose one at the complete absence of aspects of the other, representing as they do very different philosophical perspectives on the conflict and its proper resolution, the likelihood is that one or the other will dominate. That is, if presented with the same situation, Owen and Nathan Constable would, according to their models, design very different strategies to achieve the ends of peace and order. These differences matter in costs and consequences, and must be considered in detail in deciding which should be chosen, because despite Owen’s claim, the efficacy of one over the other, is not an “obvious and enduring fact.” Where force of arms has come to dominate Western conceptualizations of warfare, this preference is not necessary in war.

Given this, the question for this week’s discussion is broad, intended to drive consideration of the terms of each approach and debate their relative merits against historical or hypothetical cases. Simply, it is:


When and where is each the more practicable approach and why?


Add your thoughts on Twitter at #CCLKOW.





(1) These are the product of a wide reading across history and military affairs. They are attributable to many and none. I can offer no real credit, but neither is there anyone else to blame. These are, simply put, my definitions.

(2) Owen’s piece was published in Infinity Journal, Issue 2, Spring 2011, “Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion,” pp 12-15. It is freely available to those willing to sign up with the journal.

(3) Due to my unorthodox interpretation and application of the case, I chatted with Nathan Constable regarding my use of the blog. He was curious to see the alternative application, and forwarded supporting public documentation of the events — news articles which provide detail on the circumstances and the steps taken by local police and naming the officers involved. I have no need or intention to identify him, but for the purposes of this essay the verification of the events only added weight to my thinking on it.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Tikrit: An Iraqi Saratoga?

Mon, 15/06/2015 - 13:57


In this week’s #CCLKOW piece I tread warily into analogy to offer a framework to consider policy and strategy of intervention. There is no wisdom in asserting Situation A is just like Historical Event B. Analogies in policy are impossibly tricky, and the most we can do is to understand well the terms of the past as we consider what may be possible in the present or the future. In this case, “the Saratoga turning point” and the subsequent French participation in the American War for Independence offer some insights into an effective intervention. Why Saratoga enabled a shift in French policy to full diplomatic support of the Colonies in Rebellion and how the assistance was managed were key factors in the objective to assist the American cause. Keeping these in mind as the western nations contemplate whether and how best to assist Iraq against IS offers a compelling alternative perspective to the narrative of intervention which has framed much of American military policy and doctrine since the end of WWII. Read the piece, give a thought to the questions at the end, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. Enjoy!


Last July IS opened its overt campaign within Iraq. In rapid fashion they took and held key points which they added to their holdings in Syria to form their Franken-state. Contemplating the gains from Jihadi Blitzkrieg, many did not give the remaining territory or the political entity of the republic much of a chance to survive. As a military historian of the American tradition, I have come to view with scepticism the decisiveness of opening campaigns, so I did not count the contest as over. And in the face of the dominant theme of imminent collapse, through summer’s end and into fall and winter the Iraqi state managed a remarkable political and strategic makeover and turnaround. The clear manifestation of the local will in this fight was the recent ejection of IS from Tikrit. Site of one of IS forces’ more irredeemably abominable acts at Camp Speicher, this victory demonstrated the Iraqi state’s ability to fight and win for themselves.

In much the same way victory at Saratoga manifested American devotion to their cause in the fight for Independence – and the feasibility of their efforts – sufficient to gain allied support from France, retaking Tikrit offers a potential moment and basis to act in the current conflict. As well, this example offers a framework to better understand how to act effectively in the wars of others. War is political, but the terms of those politics are decided by where one sits in the conflict. Thus, from the perspective of a party considering intervention, Saratoga and the French intervention offer some useful markers. There is first the utterly necessary manifested political will of the party seeking assistance, as well as their ability to lobby support for their cause effectively. Second, the policy and strategy of intervention must serve own needs, but is best written in the client state’s terms. Whether the Iraqis are the Americans in Rebellion, the thornier, less considered question may we be whether US could ever match the French policy and strategy.

First, to deal with the initial resistance to this comparison. It is not my intention to directly relate the two conflicts or the parties, but rather to utilize the key diplomatic and policy and strategy issues arising from the outcome of that battle to consider alternative terms of assistance to the Iraqis in this fight. Furthermore, it is to remind that significant though this battle was in the course of the American War for Independence, this advance did not preclude a future rocky course nor the constant refrain of tactical and seeming strategic setbacks. To argue that Tikrit might portend a significant political shift is not negated by critical weaknesses in the ISF or battlefield setbacks. Ando, even as the naysayers have been shouting “But Ramadi!” since the start of this piece, it is worth remembering that after Saratoga the Americans went on to struggle through Valley Forge and a trail of defeats on its way to winning the war. And while I certainly do not need to, I want to make it abundantly clear that IS is not Great Britain, nor do its forces offer anything like the clear superiority of the British Army or Royal Navy facing the Americans. As well, to be fair to France, the United States and the west have more capabilities than Louis’ 18th century France. Finally, it should never be forgotten that France had clear political interests to serve in assisting the Americans. Very often lately this is seen as some bit of seemy double dealing, but it would be best not to be naïve about why states aid others – there must always be some benefit to sustain the intervention. Thus, while I maintain caution as to the analogy, it is necessarily adequate to the current context, especially as it offers a different perspective on policy and strategy options.

Turning to the critical political outcome of the battle, French participation in the war. In the military terms of the alliance, from my perspective, the very compelling aspect of the French intervention was its strategy. Most fundamental to this, France did not assume it was their war. Important points of their participation in the American cause must be remembered. That the needs of the Americans and their military strategy were not France’s primary concern. In alliance they agreed to provide the support the Americans requested as they could. Second, they brought a significant augmentation to the naval war, which degraded British dominance and culminated at the Battle of Chesapeake. Increasing the cost and difficulty of British transport and logistics in the war would reverberate across the entire effort through to Yorktown. When it came to the French Army’s direct participation the style was distinctive. In sum, they subordinated their activity to American needs, their commands to American leadership. Rochambeau’s Army arrived with political and military respect for their allies, and the French commander in chief put himself and his forces at Washington’s discretion. Deficient though the American military forces may have been in comparison to European armies, the role of French advisors was relatively minimal with respect to their total effort. It should also be noted that the French deployed to the American colonies as friends and were hosted warmly by the locals of Newport in their first winter.

The obvious problem here is that the US is not in the habit of subordinating itself politically or militarily. Whether other western powers would be willing to do so may be irrelevant given that American resources would likely dominate any significant intervention. Thus, while the politics in Iraq have a clear chance, how the US and the west respond will determine whether their action aids the cause.

And so, for discussion I would like to consider the issues which confront and confound the strategic latitude the French enjoyed in their intervention:


Can the US military ever effectively work as the subordinate force? Is the refusal to a weakness of the American system? What is the view of other western forces on this issue? Do you even agree that it is necessary or wise in this case or ever? 

Does the west have the patience to weather a campaign of difficulties and setbacks on the way to the eventual defeat of IS in Iraq? 

French officers served in American forces. Should western militaries allow professional sabbaticals so that their own might serve abroad in certain causes?

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Brexit and The City: A Security Question?

Thu, 11/06/2015 - 12:51

The 2017 referendum concerning the UK’s membership of the EU will turn on many factors, even if most sage observers think that the vote to remain will be won. Those factors splay across nationality and identity politics, the Scottish question, the cohesion of the Conservative and Labour parties, contested economic analyses and the various mystery x-factors such as the far more likely ‘Grexit’.

So, despite the received wisdom being that the vote to remain will be won (and Open Europe declared on the 5th June – with its methodological workings – that the chance of Brexit sits currently at 19% and the chance of the vote being lost as 28%) the City of London has begun to speak with a louder voice about why it sees its core interests being best served with a UK that sits in the EU. That the City feels moved to speak is both interesting and important: it is interesting because it implies that they feel that there is a chance of Brexit beyond that which they can reasonably sit back and ignore. It is important because 1) there are political and economic impacts to be endured by The City (and thus the wider economy) in a time of political uncertainty prior to December 2017, and thus potentially after that date too and 2) because there are other important sub-questions around Brexit too that deal with the type of economy the UK will continue to enjoy, and to whose benefit these sorts of political issues are settled.

The economic impacts to be endured are most likely to be felt as investment decisions. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment: the UK will already be being priced with a risk premium, and this will only get worse as we get nearer to 2017. As the pre-eminent financial centre in the EU (for mostly historical reasons initially, but now in terms of sheer weight of activity), the City carries great sway over the conduct of financial services in the Union. The proposed banking union (which the City and the UK government opposes) might be developed as a rival bloc to the City which would impact upon the UK’s global competitiveness, whilst the move to encourage EU level business activity away from bank-led finance to alternative forms of financial instrument would likely be led by the UK – who is the largest player in this field currently and who has the best developed understanding of the regulatory frameworks required for it in the post-2008 climate. Simple politics would dictate that European rivals will be quick to question why the UK should have an influential say over this area if it looks to be disengaging from the European project altogether.

The City and financial services amount to 9% of the UK’s GDP. Damage to this area of activity (particularly to a host of investment decisions) has a whole-economy impact. My question – as a security studies academic – is does the potential impact, and thus the roll out across the entire economy, amount to a security impact? Strapping on various different lenses – that of economic performance and the money to invest in key attributes to maintaining fighting fitness (and not necessarily military fitness) is one holistic way to assess an economic impact. Such an analysis fits closely to the far reaches of ‘hybrid warfare’, and looks at the maintenance of education and health as elements of holistic effect. The other is to look at the maintenance of the integrity of social fabric. We can draw simplistic correlations around a time of economic contraction and the emergence of complex threats generated by the disaffected.

In terms of ‘the business dimension’ to Brexit. The City wants to remain in. Small businesses, who are doing less and less trade with continental Europe, might reasonably want to leave. Large manufacturing concerns have welcomed the prospect of having more flexible regulatory conditions outside of the EU – and so divide reasonably equally. Looking at the question from a UK Plc perspective, where is our influence best felt? Where do we exercise most ‘power’? In an era that has seen and will continue to see us effectively winding down our military power (SDSR 2015 will need to do something radical to stop this rot), activities that we do that our globally important should be retained. Even in the context of the disaster of 2008, the City remains a vastly overpaid wealth generator for the nation, and a lever of power on the international stage. Looking from the outside the UK, if one was to do an assessment of what to try and undermine in the UK as part of a hybrid war, the City would be a large target. Where are the successor sources of wealth generation outside of The City?

The fate of the City in the question around Brexit is fundamental to whether the UK remains a mid-range power, or a small power with an expansive history. More particularly, it is a security question.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds