Sep 30

At some point in the last ten years, many corporate, academic and military leaders decided that the people they present to are no smarter than three year olds. Why else would they use PowerPoint the way they do?

When I was little, I sat on my parent's lap and looked at drawings and words as they read to me. Soon, I could read them myself. As I grew older, the books became bigger and the pictures became smaller. Soon, the books had no pictures at all. Over the last three years, and somewhat back into college, this process reversed itself; the majority of my Army training, meetings and briefings I attend consist of a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter projects a slide with writing on it, sometimes a picture, and then reads it to the crowd verbatim.

When did we become kids again?

When I ask presenters about this, the defense is always the same, “Well, I expand upon the slides.” Anyone who has sat through multiple presentations knows that presenters rarely "expand" upon the slides but simply rephrase the sentence or add one more sentence of detail. The best PowerPoint presentations rely on pictures, graphs or knowledge, not text. The spoken word conveys much more than the written PowerPoint.

I am not against PowerPoint. But we often forget PowerPoint's purpose: to assist an oral speech. It is a tool and, when used well, it is a powerful tool. When I think of the best presentations that use PowerPoint, they are always from our Battalion Intelligence officers. They have to use maps and graphics to tell their stories. As a result, they must use the slide to convey visual information and their words to tell the story of the speech. The effect is powerful and one I call the "documentary" style. The "documentary" style uses visuals aids to assist the presentation; in the "storybook" style the slides are the presentation. So, let’s move away from reading slides as if our listeners were little children.

Here are 5 tips to tell if you are giving a "storybook" PowerPoint presentation or a "documentary" presentation.

1. Font size. If you use a font smaller than 18 your audience cannot read it. Thus, you have to read it to them. The more writing on the page the less likely you are to have a documentary presentation.

2. Timing. After you prepare your slides, read through them as if you were presenting. (I would say, time yourself when you rehearse your presentation but I know how little rehearsals are conducted in both the Army and throughout the world.) If for every minute you read the slide you have less than four minutes of extra material, then you are probably giving a "storybook" presentation.

3. Body Position. Do you face your audience or do you face the projection of your slides? In a "documentary" approach, you will face your audience to tell them your speech. In a "storybook" presentation you have to face the slides so you can read them yourself. If your slides are printed off in front of you, then do you spend most of your time looking down or looking out at the audience? A presentation is all about the audience and a presenter should always face them and project to them.

4. Putting too much on one slide. This is a vital corollary to point number 1 and the documentary approach. Cramming tons of numbers and excel spreadsheets on a PowerPoint take away from the presenter. This makes it very likely that you will have to read the numbers to the audience.

5. Borrowed not created. If you didn't make the presentation yourself, you cannot expand upon it enough. The Army, for example, loves to share PowerPoints and have units use them to train. This creates situations destined for the "storybook" approach. If a trainer didn't make the slides, how can he give a speech on them? Instead, he will read the slides to the crowd.

Sep 28

A white supremacist and long time resident of the California prison system, Robert "Blinky" Griffin once set fire to a prison yard to attempt the murder of a black jail guard, led an attack on a close friend that finished with a pencil embedded through his temple, and ordered the murders of people he had never met. Each is an example of raw Violence. Yet, people still defend Robert Griffin's actions. As Griffin's lawyer argued at his defense, "Prison at that time [the 1970’s], there was a lot of violence. It was a dangerous place. You had to survive on your own.”

Our third post began a difficult--probably impossible--journey to define Violence. At the end of that post, in true philosophical vagueness, I established that Violence is an injurious force linked to injustice, and conversely, justice. But, often the determination of what is just or unjust is obscured by context. Circumstance and personal bias cloud an objective view of the world.

Robert Griffin, his wife and his lawyer all defend Robert’s actions as self-defense; they believe he did what he had to do to survive in his situation. Though his crimes were vicious, his supporters believe prison made them necessary and inescapable.

Many people claim their “situation” or “world” as something separate from normal society, and that this “situation” or “world” makes violence necessary and morally justified. In the above case, the “world” of prison life in the 70’s is different than the world of today.

You see this justification for Violence all the time. Take this example from Law and Order. A homeless man goes on trial for manslaughter accused of killing another homeless man. His defense attorney argues that the laws of civilized society do not apply to homeless people, “We've evicted the homeless from our society, we've made them into outcasts.” The attorney justifies any violent act a homeless man can commit.

Obviously, the most difficult choices about when and where to use Violence occur in war. In one of the few war crime convictions of the Iraq War, the defendant justified murder by saying, "They knew it wasn't murder; they knew it was a war." The defendant appeals to the idea that all war is kill or be killed. War is extremely complicated and emotionally intense, but it does not justify any and all murder, torture or other unethical behaviors.

These arguments all silently plead to moral relativism; they say that their situation--be it the criminal underworld, life on the streets, or in a war zone--necessitate or justify Violence. Each situation appeals to the rough idea that, “you don’t know what life is like here so you cannot judge my actions.”

I disagree. While different situations create different moral dilemmas, murder is murder. Relying on situational ethics will quickly justify any act no matter how horrendous. In each of the above examples, thousands homeless people don’t murder one another, millions of soldiers refuse to commit war crimes, and only a handful of prisoners rise up the ranks to become the leaders of a ruthless prison gang. These choices may seem justified, but they aren’t.

Unfortunately, after 9/11 Americans said the world changed. As a result, we altered our methods of interrogation, eliminated the rights of foreign POWs and lowered the required justification for war claiming necessity: “we live in a post- 9/11 world.” We do live in a world after 9/11, but that doesn't justify Violence.

Sep 24

(Spoiler warning for Stephen Gaghan’s incomparably wonderful “Syriana")

I wrote earlier this week about Heraclitus’ overly-repeated quote, “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t be there, eighty are are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” (And again, I can’t attest to the quote’s accuracy, only its popularity.) I made the argument that this quote is irrelevant to the modern battlefield, a battlefield made of guided bombs, the global positioning system and unmanned aerial vehicles.

As I wrote that article, I remembered the closing moments of Syriana. The film's numerous plot threads all converge at a convoy in the middle of a Middle Eastern desert. A Prince and an American business man travel to begin a coup against his backward, pro-America father. Former CIA agent Bob attempts to intercept the convoy. Thousands of miles away, in America, CIA agents watch satellite video of the convoy on TV monitors.

When the time is right, CIA agent Fred Franks orders the Prince’s car to be taken out. A technician, sitting in a plush office chair using a computer joystick like a teenager playing a video game, remotely launches a missile, then begins a countdown.

Tension. Waiting. Then an explosion.

On their computer screens, merely a couple hundred white pixel, then some hand shaking by the agents. In the middle of the desert, an explosion that kills dozens, including women and children.

Who is the warrior in this situation? Is it the agent who orders the strike? The technician who pilots the bomb? The former CIA agent blown up in the explosion?

This is modern warfare. This is the modern battlefield. In the past, to kill a ruler dozens, if not hundreds, of men would give their lives in attack and defense. Perhaps one skilled, brave warrior could make the difference in that battle. But that is all gone now, replaced by computer screens, drone planes and satellites. The future will only be more mechanized, more remote, more detached.

I’m sure some people and soldiers hate the fact that the battlefield is changing, that literally the meek will soon take over the Earth. Honor, bravery, and warriors will be replaced by efficiency, statistics and computer nerds. I don’t mourn this change, but I decry its detachment. What happens when we take ourselves away from our victims? Like the above scene, they don’t see body parts or blood. They see white light on a computer screen. The battlefield has changed but the cost hasn’t.

Sep 23

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

I am a hypocrite. On one hand, I oppose violence. To me it is a reminder of how far we still have to come as a species. Yet at the same time, I find it enjoyable. Not that I enjoy hurting others or picking fights in bars, but I do enjoy violent sports, action movies, and even competitive martial arts. Where is the line of that divides when violence is appropriate or acceptable to enjoy? (If there is a line, if it is ever acceptable.)

We use analogies to analyze where we are compared to where we’ve been. The closest and most classic comparison I could muster to our society’s violent entertainment is how the Roman Empire watched slaves battle in arenas; comparing MMA or professional boxing to gladiatorial combat. The only difference seems to be the use of lethal weaponry in combat; one form of entertainment is designed for the kill while the other to test how much of a beating two men can take. Gladiators received the reward of life while our current competitors receive a life riddled with pain resulting from repeated trauma. Consider Muhammad Ali and the results of repeated blows to the head or retired football players who can't bend at the knees.

Now compare the movies we watch. Martial Arts movies demonstrate the subtle beauty and complexity of combat. It entertains us because of it’s intensity and departure from the common concept of fighting depicted by two angry men wrestling each other to the ground and swinging their fist wildly in every direction. The violence portrayed in these films is unrealistic. It’s more art than combat; a choreographed dance between two masters. While there is portrayal of death, blood, and injury; it is depicted with a detachment from the real. In Jet Li's Fearless (2006), the main character uses a single simple strike to kill a man with an impact that resonates through his enemy’s chest resulting in a bulging of the posterior rib cage. It's a feat that defies physics.

Then we come to war films like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Black Hawk Down. The war film depicts violence that correlates to actual events the audience is familiar with. Do these scenes--this manner of depicting violence--cause the same level or quality of entertainment as the martial arts movies? Arguably, no. Watching Saving Private Ryan or the series Band of Brothers, I swell with intense displeasure at shear magnitude of violence that man inflicts on man. Watching a man cry for his mother as he attempts to shovel his own intestines back into his abdomen is not an image that psyches me up. This types of movie attempts to show how terrible actual violence is. They portray the cost of the devastation not just on a landscape, but to those who enact it and those who endure it.
I would end there with this simple distinction, but there is another type of entertainment. One that treats the act of violence as pure entertainment, made guilt free because it is being justified. The most poignant examples are the movies 300 and Inglorious Bastards. In these movie, acts of violence are made to be entertainment in of themselves. The intense and graphic slaughter of Persians by Spartan soldiers or the slaying of Nazi soldiers is made to serve as heart pounding enjoyment. Arguably for 300, you can compare it to martial arts movies because the level of swordplay and combat no longer exists and the action is exaggerated. Yet so is nobility of one half of the conflict and the villainy of the other half. Regardless, where is the justification for action movies that prey on our bloodthirsty nature?
What Tarentino does in Inglorious Bastards is not new to cinema. We have an entire genre called action movies dedicated to senseless mayhem and carnage. And I love action movies. I enjoy it when a good guy shoots a bad guy and throws out a dry quip. I enjoy watching Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson trade bitter remarks as they scour New York for a terrorist or the Governator battling a predatory alien. The moral question is whether I should.
We can justify it all we want. We can say that the good guy is killing someone evil or is righteous in his slaying because his enemy is a Nazi or an impending conqueror or that our hero has no alternative if he values his own life. We can say it’s not real. The truth is that we are still entertained by a man inflicting violence upon another. We are entertained by the worst part of our nature. As much as I enjoy action movies, there’s something morally questionable about my enjoyment.
Sep 23

The following quote epitomizes the gap between what soldiers wish they were, and the modern battle field today:

“Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t be there, eighty are are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” (Attributed to Heraclitus, I have a sneaking suspicion this quote has been mis-attributed; the same page has a common misquoting of Orwell and Churchill. I've read too many popular "clever" quotes that I later find are inaccurate.)

True or not, the above quote has joined “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm,” as one of the quotes that make up the military psyche, and ethos of the military. Many soldiers point to this and say "This is what a warrior is. This describes war. This describes me." But this quote doesn't describe war or warriors, at least not in the last hundred years. The warrior, if he ever existed, was long ago replaced by machines, mechanization, and the new modern battlefield.

First, the modern battlefield is one of specialization. Only half of the Army is involved directly in combat duties,  many are human resources technicians, electricians or repairmen. This battlefield is a battlefield of naval aircraft carriers; where one person's entire job is changing food and drinks in the vending machines. Is a vending machine operator a warrior? (One could make the argument this is a great thing, that we have isolated our "real fighters," according to the quote, in the combat roles. But of course, there is no "warrior" test.)

Second, modern weapons commit massive violence on a massive scale that is often random and unpreventable. They do not distinguish between warrior and non-warrior, fighter and non-fighter, nor can the warrior defend himself from those weapons the way he could sword and spear. The modern battlefield is a battlefield of cruise missiles, guided bombs and TOW missiles; a battlefield made up of IEDs and mortar shells. When soldiers ran over the trenches in World War I, the machine gun bullets didn’t distinguish between warriors and the rest. There is nothing the warrior could have done to prevent his death. Often, there is nothing he can do today to prevent the IED exploding. (Again, you could argue the soldier could prevent IEDs by winning over the local population with great counter-insurgency, but this also goes against the common view of the "warrior" and certainly isn't what Heraclitus meant.)

Which gets at the point behind this quote. There is a rugged individualism, a sense in which the warrior (and by extension every soldier who reads the quote and sees themselves in it) controls his own destiny. His skill and bravery alone will win the battle. But in the random capriciousness of bombs from the sky, this just isn’t true. One man can't, and won't make the difference.

Third, distance destroys the warrior. How far away can a soldier be from a battlefield and still be considered a soldier? Is the bomber pilot a warrior? Do his remote bombing make the difference in the battle? What about the analyst sighting targets safely in a Super FOB, does he make the difference? What about the Sailor who fires the cruise missile? The pilots flying predator drones in Nevada consider themselves soldiers, but I don't think anyone would call them warriors. At least not on the same level of the soldiers Heraclitus was talking about.

When did the warrior die (or at least stop making a difference)? Certainly he was dead by World War I and II; two wars fought in such numbers, no individual made a difference. Bullets, killing thousands in Antietam, fired at near random did not distinguish warrior and fighter. Once the bullet was invented, the warrior knights were killed; once armor was invented, peasant warriors were slaughtered. The impact of the warrior pales in comparison to the impact of technology. Perhaps, if the quote refers to the inventor of the long bow and the bullet, it would be accurate.

I said in the beginning “if the warrior” ever existed. Michael recently forced me to read a section of John Keegan's A History of Warfare, and his description of the phalanx style warfare of the Greeks--the age in which Heraclitus wrote--is a model of randomness. Two phalanxes crash into one another, then poke and spear at one another to find a gap. Once the phalanx is cracked, they push through, and the phalanx disperses, and everyone runs away. And once again, the warrior doesn’t make a difference, the weakest link does.

Sep 21

We capture the enemy all the time. If the detainee has even remote intelligence value, they go straight to an intelligence collection facility. Thus, the maneuver forces on the ground never have time to ask the questions they want to know. For this reason, I have never seen or conducted an interrogation.

Based on the intelligence that I have reviewed over the years, I don't like the way we conduct interrogations. I have a feeling we interrogate about people, places and possible attacks (Questions like: Who do you work for? Who works for you? Where are caches?) but not the important issues. We don't ask--and thus don't know--why they attack one place not another?  Why are they allied with this group instead of that group? How do they influence the population? Why or how do they intimidate the population? We guess the answers but we don't know. More importantly, the leaders on the ground don't know the answers to these questions.

I have two possible solutions to get the information I want to know. The first would be to embed with Taliban or insurgent units and collect information on more than just operations, but tactics and strategy. Second, we could conduct the interrogation I wish I could perform.

To address the first option, we would get great situational awareness if we could just embed our soldiers in insurgent groups. Since we obviously can't, a for profit organization called the Terrorism Resource Center (partnered with Xe/Blackwater) developed "The Mirror Image Training Course" to provide that view for our soldiers. The only down part of this training, (in full disclosure, I have not attended the course but have been told good things by soldiers who have gone) is that the US Army wasn't smart enough or quick enough to develop this itself.

So, short of embedding with Taliban units, how can we get the whys and hows behind terrorist or insurgent tactics?

The answer is long and extensive interrogation. The type of interrogation in which an interrogator develops and strengthens his relationship with the source. He builds a trust relationship. Then, most importantly, he asks the questions soldiers on the ground want and need to know. The first step is that the intelligence community should develop pathways for commanders on the ground to ask for specific information. If intelligence stovepipes so that it remains stuck in the intelligence shops of the world, then we risk never developing actionable information. After the intelligence is collected, the hard work begins: distributing the information. Again, we need to push sensitive operation not just to brigades and battalion headquarters, but to the companies and platoons patrolling on a daily basis.

Another option, apart from interrogating captured suspects, is to partner with former insurgents. Virtually every successful counter-insurgency, from the Philippines to Algiers to Malaya to the brief bright spots in Vietnam, included amnesty programs. After successful repatriation, the former insurgents joined the government to spread knowledge and act as scouts. Frequently, they partnered with platoons and companies. If we could pull this off in Afghanistan the intelligence opportunities at the small unit level would be huge.

So yes, I would love to build a relationship with an insurgent. I would ask him all the "whys" and “hows” I want to know. Ask him to walk me through their operations. I would just love to know. Our military forces in Afghanistan don't know much more than they don't know; we need to remedy this sooner rather than later.

[An addendum: The doctrinal term for what I am looking for is called "Doctrinal Templates." Shortened as DOCTEMPS, they are diagrams describing how the enemy conducts attacks like IED attacks or sniper fire. My same criticism with DOCTEMPS holds though. DOCTEMPS rarely describe how the enemy hides in the population, merely how he conducts the specifics of his attacks.]

Sep 18

It is possible for photographs to lie. Anyone who has seen the picture of the shark eating a person out of a helicopter knows this is obvious. But the phenomenon isn't new. Since its inception photography, and by extension photographers, have used their pictures to mislead, misrepresent and lie. Especially when depicting war. Even in the Civil War--the first war to be photographed--war photographers rearranged the dead to make their photographs more exciting.

Then there is this image.

The photograph originally ran with this caption, "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon." In this case, the photographer Eddie Adams didn’t intend to misrepresent anything, but the image, alone and without context, had an effect he couldn’t imagine. As he told the New York Times:

“The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths...What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?...The photograph also doesn't say that the General devoted much of his time trying to get hospitals built in Vietnam for war casualties.”

It is a matter of context. People reacted because of the horror of this act, the horror of murdering someone who is unarmed. It could be Jeffrey Dalmer, a child molester in this photo or Pol Pot, and I think most people would feel a pang of shock and horror. Humans, save psychopaths and the insane, have a gut reaction to abhor violence. Even against our enemies.

But all photography inherently lacks context explaining the who, what, and why. This is the lie of photography, something we must all understand.

According to the NY Times, a close examination of the photo reveals the bullet leaving the prisoner’s head. It's an unsettling thought. It is an unsettling image, hard to look at, regardless of who you are. Is it justice that the general shot this man. Maybe. Was this guy a murderer and terrorist? Probably. Did he deserve a trial? Maybe.

Can I still feel sad watching a man get shot? Definitely.

Sep 16

On about a biweekly basis, my Battalion conducts a “Leader Professional Development” session. An Officer or NCO prepares a power-point presentation and then reads his slides to the assembled officers and senior NCOs of the unit. The topics vary. We have covered various evaluation reports (NCOERs and OERs in Army terminology), maintenance programs, accountability of equipment, and airborne operations.

Yet, we have never covered how to write emails effectively, how to present powerpoint properly, or how to manage time efficiently. In other words, we train on the big picture items and ignore the daily management tasks and habits that dominate our working lives. Frankly, our professional development ignores the daily reality of life in the Army. Like a football team practicing the statue of liberty play before learning how to tackle, the Army has decided that its junior and senior leaders implicitly know good management behavior.

The Army is wrong.

In the modern Army, these skills are combat skills, used everyday by leadership in a deployed unit. During deployment our company commanders spent hour after hour reading emails. Our missions and briefings came in powerpoint--often unclear and never well briefed. Every night our leadership spent at least an hour or more in meetings. Battalion and brigade staffs spent the majority of their time in poorly planned meetings. The result of bad time management and work behaviors is the loss of countless man hours. And more importantly, it makes us a worse fighting force in the field.

Of course, once a unit gets home the problem multiples. For example, in Afghanistan only company leadership and battalion staff had email access. In garrison, platoon leaders and platoon sergeants must use email to communicate. While our effectiveness is a concern upon redeployment, more worrying is the balance of work and home lives that often suffer when email and meetings eat up soldiers and leader's days.

The main reason the Army doesn't train on management is that the highest ranking leaders have never trained on management. If they didn't get taught management, how would they know how to teach management? Our leaders conduct professional development on topics like platoon attack and defense, and Airborne operations. So, when they must train their subordinates, they train them on what they know: platoon attack and defense and Airborne operations. Further, because our highest ranking leadership never trained on management, they are usually quite bad at managing their time and habits.

Training on management is about degrees. Improvements in email will help today, tomorrow and every day after. The potential gains in time saved are tremendous. In a battalion of fifty officers, if each saved ten minutes a day in doing email our battalion would gain 500 man-minutes, or 8.2 man-hours. Proper time management would essentially add an additional officer to our staff. Proper time management is the core skill all officers need to master in the Army, the blocking and tackling drills of the twenty-first century. The sooner we start the sooner we will see the improvement.

Sep 14

As I read General McChrystal's recently released "ISAF Commander's Counterinsurgency Guidance," one metaphor stuck in my head as particularly relevant on how the US and our allies should fight the war in Afghanistan:

PLAYING INTO THEIR HANDS. A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks, is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador's cape -- only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent. This is predictable -- the bull does what comes naturally. While a conventional approach is instinctive, that behavior is self-defeating.

I love analogies like this one. It perfectly captures the paradox of counter-insurgency in a few short words. The US military wins every battle it fights; but in insurgency winning battles can lose the war. We truly are the bull rushing through the cape. Here are a few examples of the US slowly losing the war.

1. Killing the enemy. "What?" you ask "isn't that how you win in a war?" Yes, it is how you win in a conventional war fought between conventional armies. Killing insurgents merely makes recruiting easier for Al Qaida and the Taliban. The death of a loved one makes it easier for more of the population in question to assist the insurgents in intelligence, logistics or even direct action operations.

Our method of killing the enemy exacerbates our problems. By using artillery, aircraft and UAVs, we rely on faulty intelligence and frequently kill the wrong people. We also risk killing civilians. By using firepower to kill the enemy, and not maneuver, we never truly positively identify targets.

Solution: Our forces should not try to kill the enemy but convince them to surrender or switch sides. In Iraq, the Sunni Awakening is an example of this process in work. Instead of killing our way out, as we tried before the surge, we convinced tribes and groups to switch sides. By taking converts we both add to our security forces, and take away from the insurgency. The math is much better than attrition math where killing the enemy only creates a larger insurgency.

2. Demanding retribution. Vengeance doesn't exist in well-run counter-insurgencies. Offering amnesty to former insurgents is the easiest way to break the will of a fragile group. The British offered this way out in Malaya and the result was that entire bands were rushing to surrender so as not to be the last one left out. In current operations, though, if you get labeled as an insurgent in Afghanistan you can never erase that label; your name will remain stuck in our intelligence databases for years. The result is that former insurgents see no reason to support the government and will remain active.

More importantly, US commanders and soldiers abhor the idea of reconciliation in general. The majority of the military are fighters, type A personalities who don't like losing. They take the loss of their comrades seriously. I don't begrudge them this. I do know, however, that following World War II, the US exacted no vengeance on the Germans or Japanese. In fact, we rebuilt their countries for them through the Marshall Plan. This created peace with those nations for the next sixty years and counting. Just saying.

Solution: We develop amnesty programs. We send our own night letters to Taliban and HiG commanders and offer them jobs in the government. We talk to our troops who don't want to ally with former insurgents and explain that political war often creates strange bedfellows.

3. Changing from the top. As a military, we still believe that change comes from the top. The structure of conventional forces collects assets, manpower and resources at the top. Thus, ISAF controls the best intelligence resources, brigades run staffs of dozens of experienced field grade officers and higher headquarters live on super FOBs in relative luxury. Meanwhile, companies and platoon fight to analyze intelligence, get resources and build outposts and patrol bases in extreme conditions. Because resources and power accrue gather at the top, change can only come from the top. In counter-insurgency, though, the best ideas come from the bottom.

Solution: We need to push resources down to the lowest level. While the simplest idea I present here, it will be the hardest to execute. Our military loves the customs of rank at the highest level. Convincing colonels and generals to get rid of their staffs will not happen until the majors and captains--who fought in the trenches of our two political wars--become battalion and brigade commanders.

The sad fact is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be fought with smaller division and corps staffs. If General Lee and General Grant could direct battles involving hundreds of thousands of men with only a handful of staff officers, then we can.

Sep 11

(Spoiler Warning: This post describes important plot details of Ender’s Game written by Orson Scott Card.)

Ender Wiggin, the eponymous hero of Ender’s Game, has many characteristics, but his most important characteristic is his intelligence. Ender is the smartest boy in any room he is in, or ever could be in. But it isn’t memorizing facts or excelling in class that make him the best. No, his intelligence breaks down into two primary skills. The first is his ability to see through, break, and replace paradigms (We'll cover the second skill in a future post).  Ender does not become bogged down with staid thinking, thinking like everyone else. He is innovative. If there is a better way to do something, Ender develops it.

When my co-blogger and I were kids, our dad on multiple occasions told us that Generals always fight the last war. Thus, the French built the Maginot Line, knights were killed by long bows, and America designed the F-22 fighter jet--a jet that hasn’t yet flown a combat mission in the Global War on Terror. Ender, on the other hand, never fights the last war. He forces the enemy to fight his war.

How does Ender beat paradigms? How can you?

First, change your perception. When Ender boards a space shuttle, Ender teaches himself the different points of view of space. This way, he can see better than the other boys. When in the battle room--the zero gravity training room for the cadets at Ender's school--he sees the "gate as down." He views the room three dimensionally, and his tactics improve because of it. (To connect to counter-insurgency, I don't believe the US Military gets that the "gate is down" yet.)

Orson Scott Card writes about this in his introduction, saying he had “come to an understanding of history” (pg. xiii) when he saw that great Generals won wars by forcing their enemies to bend to their will, or their strategy. His key example is the difficulty fighter pilots in WWI had look up and down, thinking two dimensionally rather then three dimensionally. The pilot who changes his viewpoint, literally, wins the war.

Second, constantly think of new tactics. Ender uses others to force him to adapt to new modes of battle. In private practice sessions, Ender specifically tasks on his soldiers to develop new ideas for battle. These ideas challenge Ender to in turn develop new ideas.

Third, force the enemy to adapt to something he has never seen. Paradigms are just systems, patterns of thinking. If you disrupt that pattern, you can win. Ender does this when he first enters the video game room. He finds a game about digging tunnels and planting bombs. After watching for few minutes, Ender learns the patterns of the game and challenges a boy to play. The key line comes in the second game, “This time Ender was deft enough to pull off a few maneuvers the other boy had never seen before. His patterns couldn’t cope with them.” The other boy was unable to cope with the new patterns of strategy and loses because of it.

Fourth, ignore "conventional wisdom." It is conventional for a reason. The paradigm breaker ignores convention and beats it. This is also the primary reason that the book portrays someone so young. Ender must be a blank slate, uncorrupted by poor strategy and paradigms, if he is to win. His trainers isolate Ender, explaining, “Isolate him[Ender] enough that he remains creative- otherwise he’ll adopt to the system here and we’ll lose him.”

Fifth, change the value system. Twice in the novel, Ender forces himself to reevaluate his values. In the battle room, Ender performs an unthinkable strategy and wins because of it. For the buggers, he destroys their home world, something unthinkable to them. Each time, Ender changes the value system, and wins because of it.

Sep 09

When President Obama appointed Secretary of State Clinton and re-appointed Secretary of Defense Gates, he dubbed them members of his “national security” team. I find it troubling that we have moved towards “national security” and away from international relations or foreign policy. Specifically, when the Secretary of State’s position is included on the “national security” team, it implies her only function is in preventing attacks on American soil. It’s not.

National security only focuses on threats. Foreign policy describes all our policies related to the global community including threats but also opportunities for our nation to exploit. Obama should label his team as such.

Words matter and labels dictate how a person or department will act. If the Secretary of State runs the foreign policy team, then she can influence our policies for the entire world--all of our relations with foreign entities. If, as was the case with the last administration, the Secretary of State gets lumped in with the national security team, she will only focus on crisis and threats against our nation. This drastically limits her possibilities and effectiveness in improving the world as a whole, and America specifically. So, for example, when Secretary Clinton visits Africa she is not stopping specific threats to our homeland, she is improving our relations in the world and helping to build a more successful and vibrant Africa. Is this national security? No, it is foreign affairs.
Intelligence agencies should call themselves agents of foreign policy as well. Gathering intelligence is one part of the job, the rest is analysis. Only looking for specific threats on our homeland is not just missing the forest for the trees, it is missing the trees while looking for wolverines. If they analyze economic and cultural developments, identify patterns of change and predict future hot spots and trouble areas, then they are improving the entire foreign policy apparatus. Thus, our leaders can make improved decisions at the legislative and executive levels.
The foreign policy label should not apply to everyone. Clearly the National Security Adviser deserves to be a member of the national security team and the Secretary of Defense belongs as well. We will always need agencies focused on protecting Americans; just not everyone who deals with the people, places and things outside of our borders. But for the Secretary of State, who manages embassies, US AID, and our national policy, her focus is on building good will, and improving America’s relationship with the entire world, not just combating possible enemies and threats.

We should also move away from international relations and towards foreign policy as well. This is simply for the implications of “national” in the international. This change simply acknowledges the power of both supra-national and sub-national organizations. In some ways, the superpowers wield more power now than the Empires of old, and at the same time, single individuals, companies and NGOs can change the course of world events. We live in a flat world.
Perhaps, this whole debate is mere semantics, or political correctness. Those arguments have some merits, but let's be realistic. If you call an executive the Chief Financial Officer, he won’t deal with sales on a day to day basis. The offensive coordinator doesn’t plan kickoffs. If we say that Obama assembled a national security team, he assembled a team to guard from threats. If he assembles a foreign policy team, he is making a team of experts who will improve our relations with everyone outside of our borders.

Names matter.

(A final note on using the terms foreign affairs, foreign policy, global affairs and international relations. Besides little differences--such as international relations referring to states relations specifically and affairs encompassing more than policy--they all generally refer to a broader set of policy guidelines. National security on the other hand, only refers to threats against our homeland. It is a small but important distinction.)

Sep 07

(This is the last post in a week of posts on The Battle for Algiers and we felt we should end the series with an article on how the war ended. Note: we have used quotes from the translation of the Criterion Collection DVD.)

A recent article in Newsweek epitomized the counter-movement against population-centric counter-insurgency. “Can insurgencies be crushed by purely military means? Many counterinsurgency-theorists doubt it, arguing that guerrilla wars are won or lost primarily on the political front. It will be interesting, then to see what conclusions they draw from the dramatic end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers.” An article in the Atlantic points out that the Sri Lankans employed, "...techniques...which the United States could and should never employ."

I have to disagree with a basic assumption of both the Newsweek and Atlantic articles: that the Sri Lankan Civil War is over. Michael and I had watched Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers right before the Sri Lankans' final military push to defeat the Tamils. This naturally led us to connect the two different political wars. However, instead of admiring the efficacy of brutality, we both drew the lesson that the situation in Sri Lanka was over.

About an hour into The Battle for Algiers, Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu explains the two most important parts of war to his men, “First, the adversary, and second, the means to destroy him.”

He goes on to detail the problem with Algeria, “There are 400,000 Arabs in Algeria. Are they all our enemies? We know they’re not. But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it. It’s a dangerous enemy that works in the open and underground, using tried and true revolutionary methods as well as original tactics. It’s a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others. It is everywhere.”

Later, Lt. Col. Mathieu defines the specifics of his strategy: kill the four leaders of the FLN’s executive board and the resistance will fall apart. He compares them to a tapeworm. With the head cut off, the creature dies; otherwise, it will keep growing. But how to find them? Matthieu explains his tactics: To find the enemy, they must use intelligence. To get intelligence, they must use interrogation. And the interrogations must be, “Conducted in such ways as to ensure we always get an answer. In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion.”

The French Army waits for a chance to implement its strategy. When the FLN (National Liberation Front) coordinates a general strike among the Arabs, the French use it as their excuse to ferret out the leaders of the FLN. The French soldiers force the men from their homes, choose them at random for either interrogation or forced labor, and rip off the doors of their shops to "open" them for business. Women randomly search the streets for their loved ones, children cry, men are beaten. At the end, in a delayed attempt to win the hearts and minds, the French soldiers attempt to hand out bread and cheese. No one will take it.

And then there is the torture. Brutal, ugly torture. A man getting his head dunked in water as smoking French soldiers watch. A man getting burned by a blow torch. A Man getting hung and crucified, blood dripping down his face. Others get electric shocks.

For the last half hour of the film, the fruits of Matthieu’s labors are shown: all four leaders of the FLN are killed or captured. A General congratulates Lt. Col. Mathieu, “The tapeworm’s headless now...The FLN is decapitated in Algiers.”
Mathieu, “We’ll hear no more of least for the time being.”
General, “Forever, let’s hope.”

And if the movie had ended there, then we would have no disagreement trying to learn from Sri Lanka and Tamil’s "finished" civil war But the movie has an addendum. Two years later, a narrator reads: “For some unknown reason, due to some obscure motive, after two years of relative quiet, with the war contained mostly in the mountains, disturbances broke out again without warning, and nobody knows why or how...Two more years of struggle lay ahead. Then, Algeria became its own nation.”

Perhaps, at the time, the French didn't know why the revolution spontaneously revived itself. But to the viewer, the motive is crystal clear: the cruelty of the French Army drove the people to the streets. Because of the torture, the beatings, and the suspension of civil rights, the French sowed the seeds of their own destruction and lit a fire in the Algerians that could not be quenched.

So, we can say the Sri Lankans have defeated the Tamil Tigers. True, they paraded the bodies of the Tamil leadership on television. But the French did these things as well in Algeria. There are two lessons to be taken here. First, the battle in Algeria wasn’t over until meaningful political change was adopted. Second, we cannot say that using brutality will defeat an insurgency in the long term because we haven't seen it happen yet.

Sep 04

(This article is the third post in a series of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), we highly recommend it to all our readers.)

A strange thing happened to me when I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle for Algiers for the first time, I felt bad for the terrorists. I pitied the insurgent rebels of the National Liberation Front (FLN), even as I watched them murder innocents with cowardly terrorist attacks.

This isn't because the films portrays the French negatively. As Roger Ebert writes in his review, aside from a mournful score for the dead Algerians, the film “shows the French leadership in a relatively objective light.” It doesn't sympathize with the FLN, or vilify the French. Both sides engage in terrorism, planting bombs intended to kill civilians. Both sides intimidate, bully and harass. Both sides justify their actions, to themselves and others. 

Why, then, do I feel bad for the nationalists? Why am I rooting for them?

Because nothing in this world is simple, least of all violence. I root for the the FLN nationalists because, as it is said, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. It depends on the point of view. Most of all, I root for them because I am an American. And because I am an American, I root against the bully and pull for the underdog. I root for justice.

And while the film dwells on counter-insurgency, it is really about a country fighting for liberation--liberation from a French takeover. Because I am American, I support the country fighting for its freedom, its inalienable, God-given right to freedom. The French play the role of the bully: the richer, meaner, more technologically-advanced country exploiting the weaker, poorer country. America and Americans started out as under dogs, a scrappy kid fighting for freedom from bullies. America or Algerians, we are cut from the same cloth in different centuries.

This dynamic plays out on every level of the film. In the opening scenes, when the protagonist runs from a cop down the street, a posh French teenager trips him. Later, a young Algerian couple is forced to marry in secret. After the start of the Algerian rebellion, the French lock down the Islamic quarters--the Casbah--and establish check points. When the Algerians go on a national strike, the French Army beats the Algerians, arrests them at random, and begins to use torture. They institute a police state. The powerful hurting the powerless. Oppressors torturing the oppressed. As a 20th century American taught since childhood to hate totalitarians, be they Nazis or Communists, all of this offends me.

Yes, the FLN are terrorists but they are also an occupied nation. America would act the exact same, if we too were invaded. We already have. We poured boiling tar over our enemies during the birth of our nation. We practically invented unconventional warfare at the start of our Revolutionary war. We started colonial rebellion. Do I agree with their methods? Absolutely not. Do I support their cause? Totally.

One last thought. Something came to me my second time watching the film. An ex-girlfriend of mine grew up in Morocco, and she told me once how it annoyed her that a family friend referred to Morocco as “French Morocco.” Hearing a French man refer to Algeria as “French Algeria” I realized how ridiculous it is. It isn’t France's Algeria, it is Algeria’s Algeria. And it is something some people will fight, or die, for.

Sep 02

(This article is the second post in a series of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), we highly recommend it to all our readers.)

Torture, what is it good for?

We haven't written much on torture at On Violence. We have danced around the subject before, discussing the danger in giving our security forces too much power. Our silence on torture could not last forever. The debate over torture has become our nation's great ethical debate in the early 21st century. We must address this issue, because our nation has tortured.

And as much as it pains us to say it, sometimes torture works. Or to put it another way, it can be effective at extracting information in certain circumstances. A prominent portion of the debate over torture has focused on the efficacy of torture: Can reliable information be gleaned? Will people talk? Does it work? Did torture save lives?

The Battle for Algiers helps answer this question. Through systematic detainment and torture, the French military finds, captures and kills every leader of the Algerian group the FLN. The film opens with the image of a beaten, broken Algerian beggar sitting in a tiled room. Fresh from an "enhanced interrogation," he has revealed the location of the remaining leader of the FLN. The French Colonel asks the man to take him there. When the beggar's will wavers for a split moment, the Colonel asks him simply, “Do you want the torture to continue?” The broken man obeys and leads them to the rebel leader. The point is simple: Torture will force men to do things they don’t want to do, and reveal things they don’t want to reveal.

So yes, torture works. Or can work. This is one lesson students of the film, the people who see it at pentagon showings, or counter-insurgents can take from it. But there are three more lessons we all should take from the film, on why torture doesn't work:

1. Torture doesn't work if you have no information to give. Many innocents, swept up at random, are beaten, drowned, and electrocuted all in the hopes of making them talk. The French took the "shotgun approach" if you will. From a coldly rational perspective, this is a waste of resources. From the perspective of a human, this is morally offensive and unjustifiable.

2. Torture doesn't work because it breed ill will. As will discuss later in the week, the French won the battle but lost the war. Though they killed the leaders of the FLN, their methods turned the population against them. Their extreme methods lost the population, as did our early tactics in Iraq.

3. Torture doesn't work because it is morally unjustifiable. A French reporter asks Colonel Matthieu if they torture, and Matthieu says he must to win the war. We say if you have to torture to win, it is a battle not worth winning.