Oct 17

On Monday, I laid out my template for assigning blame in a historical context. Regarding America’s most recent foreign policy debacle, the Iraq war, I nominated the usual suspects: President Bush, VP Cheney, the entire Secretary of Defense’s office, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. This ThinkProgress article does a pretty good job of summarizing the popular narrative of who to blame for Iraq, politicians.
The military as a whole embraces this thinking too. (That is, if they aren’t defending Iraq as successful in the first place, which Eric C and I stipulated yesterday that it was not. Because it wasn’t.) Military supporters--including former generals, academics and milblogs--love to blame politicians for “Mess O’patamia”. And lots of politicians too. So if it isn’t Cheney and Rumsfeld, it is “the politicians back in Washington who...”

Tie our hands with restrictive ROE!” or...

Force our men and women to do costly state-building which isn’t our mission!” or...
“Don’t know how to do strategy. Strategy is dead!

Notice who escapes blame? The generals.

As Thomas Ricks (who is one of the few pundits and historians who has blamed the generals for iraq, particularly in Fiasco) wrote in his recent Harvard Business Review article, the U.S. used to hold officers, particularly generals, accountable, especially in World War II. Back then, General Eisenhower went from a “regimental executive officer to a five star general in about four years” and “of the 165 men who commanded combat divisions, 16 were relieved” of command. The utter definition of accountability.

That accountability has disappeared.

So when it comes to Iraq, few people blame the flag officers of the uniformed military, who could arguably shoulder the majority of the blame. As a body, they completely failed to understand the lessons of the Vietnam war. They failed to even fathom that urban combat would dominate the contemporary battlefield. They failed to prepare soldiers in language training.

They failed over time too. In the 1990s, they failed to develop and train the Army and Marine Corps to fight irregular wars. They failed to develop a coherent plan to invade Iraq. They failed to properly advise the president of the United States. They then failed to understand the counter-insurgency environment they found themselves in.

Instead, the generals prepared and tried to fight the war they wanted to win.

By blaming politicians for the strategy, generals and admirals have managed to avoid the fact that they failed to prepare the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for the post-Cold War war. It’s like a coach who fails to recruit, practice well and motivate his team, then blames the losses on the athletic director for tough scheduling. The coach still deserves the blame.

Way back, I wrote that the Army needs a “post-9/11 AAR” (so did Andrew Bacevich). Do we really trust the generals with it? They failed to understand that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a detrimental policy, not a beneficial one. They failed to forecast that the Pentagon’s retirement system would bankrupt the services. They have failed on weapon system after weapon system. They failed on understanding the nature of war and warfare after the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

When it comes to assigning accountability and blame for the post-9/11 wars, we must remember the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They deserve some of the blame. (I would argue a lion’s share of it.) Will they ever get it?

I doubt it.

(Final point: Some people have criticized the general's conduct of the war, including Thomas Ricks, as we wrote above, and most notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in an Armed Forces Journal article, "A Failure of Generalship". However, Yingling is notable for being one of the few voices assigning blame to this large group of people.)

Oct 10

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)

As I wrote on Monday, we have terrible brand management in Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? Read “A Gathering Menace” in The American Scholar. Neil Shea describes the military platoon equivalent of “Popcopy” employees. While most platoons are probably better than this one, plenty are probably worse.

We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan because, in marketing terms, killing civilians harms our brand. Killing isn’t the only way to lose the war though. Countless smaller actions--from throwing a pee bottle to burning a Koran--might seem minor, but taken together they tell Afghans, “Don’t trust Americans.”

Now, I’m no marketing expert (I just started business school), but I do have suggestions for improving the US Army’s brand in Afghanistan:


1. Learn the local language.

1a. If you can’t do that, at least hire competent interpreters.

2. Embed troops for longer amounts of time, returning them to the same area of operations.

2a. Actually support the Afghan Hands program. (Which doesn’t currently qualify officers for key developmental time. Allegedly the most important program in Afghanistan actually harmed officers’ careers. Think about that.)

3. If you destroy it, rebuild it. (See point 3a’s corollary.)

3a. Avoid destroying buildings. Strong governments don’t destroy their own buildings.

4. Live off the local population whenever possible.

5. Hire locals, not “third party nationals.”

6. Think, “If this would piss off Americans, could it piss off an Afghan too?”

6a. Or, “If a Chinese Colonel did this to my family, would I be happy about it?” 


1. Don’t burn copies of the Koran.

1a. Actually, don’t do anything with Korans without consulting an Islamic scholar.

1b. And whatever you do, don’t use them in interrogations.

2. Don’t torture. At all costs, even if “U.S. soldiers” aren’t doing the torturing.

3. Stop doing night raids on the wrong houses.

3a. Quit doing them period, if possible.

4. Stop supporting corrupt psuedo-dictators.

4a. Or his corrupt brothers.

5. Don’t kill children.

5a. Women too.

5b. Old men who cannot fight would help as well.

5c. Or mentally disabled kids.

5d. People gathering oil from a broken down truck.

5e. Massacres are out too.

6. Don’t throw pee bottles out of your MRAPs.

6a. Don’t litter either.

7. Don’t drive around cities so fast  that you run over little kids.

8. Don’t fire artillery shells into small towns.

9. Don’t pay warlords protection money through incompetent contracting.

9a. This means putting your best officers into difficult contracting jobs, not your worst.

10. And don’t curse out the locals. They’ll know you are cursing at them. And it won’t work.

Oct 08

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)
When I first saw the pile, it jarred me. Pile is the wrong word. Not just a pile, nor a mound, but a mountain of water and Gatorade bottles lying in the bottom of a draw just beneath the Korengal Outpost.

As a still jittery, newly deployed lieutenant, I spent my first few weeks in the ‘Stan furiously staring at the sides of roads. Hidden from view leaving the base, I didn’t notice the pile until we headed back to the KOP after several hours sitting in an over-watch position. When we turned a corner to wind our way up hill, I noticed the pile.

I pointed it out to my driver, “What’s that?” (Gratuitous curse words have been excised for readability.)

“Oh, those are trash bottles.” He pointed at the guard tower a couple hundred feet up the mountain. Bottles covered the hillside, detritus from hundreds of hours of guard duty. They rolled down the hill and collected in the draw.

Infantry Officer Basic Course doesn’t teach you about pee bottles. Neither does ROTC, nor Ranger School. When soldiers go on patrols that last days or sit in a guard shack for hours, they have to take a piss. On a patrol, you just pee on the side of the road. In Ranger school, I took a knee and pissed more times than I can count. In a guard shack, you peed in a used water bottle. At the KOP, you tossed that water bottle down the hill.

As a mounted platoon, our gunners couldn’t just take a knee, so they pissed in water bottles too. No one wants to sit in a turret with one or more bottles filled with urine; most gunners in Afghanistan just threw them on the side of the road.

As did my men. Since we had a killer cook/First Sergeant combo, we used to drink ice cold Gatorades. That’s what my men used to throw out of their vehicles, which is too bad for the local civilians: a Gatorade bottle filled with urine looks awfully like a yellow Gatorade.

I didn’t catch onto this for months. When I finally saw the gunner of our lead truck do this, I freaked out. I made a rule: we don’t throw bottles out of our trucks. This was one of those things you learn as you go as a new platoon leader.

At the time, I felt that covering Afghanistan with our piss-filled bottles wouldn’t endear us to the locals. It wouldn’t lose us the war on its own, but it definitely didn’t help us win it either. Last spring and winter, I wrote several thousand words on emotion, rationality, business school, cultural empathy and “gratitude theory”. I have so far ignored a very relevant question to our counter-insurgency operations since 9/11:

Do we have a very good brand in Afghanistan?


Did we have a good brand in Iraq?

Do we enable, enrich or empower the population? How does the U.S. Army (a lexical stand in for all our troops in Afghanistan) compare to our market competitors--the Taliban, Hezb il-Gulbuddin and the Haqqani Network? What about our sub-companies like the Afghan government? The Afghan National Army? Or any other parts of the Afghan National Security Forces?

I don’t think the Taliban (our market competitors) fills bottles with urine and throws them around the countryside. In fact, the Taliban probably avoids tons of insults the U.S. Army doesn’t. They don’t burn Korans. They speak the same language. In other words, the Taliban has a better brand reputation than the U.S. Army, even though we have more money and will send Afghan women to school. NATO and US forces make simple, easily avoidable mistakes that hurt our brand’s reputation.

Wednesday, I’ll share my ideas to improve the U.S. Army’s brand in Afghanistan.

Sep 06

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the Band of Brothers episode “Replacements”, Easy Company cautiously approaches the town of Nuenen, having already lost a lieutenant to sniper fire. An old man leans out a window and shouts at them, “Get away, get away,” in French, giving away Easy Company’s position. Why didn’t the U.S. soldiers shoot him?

The Rules of Engagement.

At the end of the episode, the Allies bomb Einhoven. Why could they?

The Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly, for today’s post, starting at minute 31:00, the central character of “Replacements”, Big Sarge Denver “Bull” Randleman motions to Sergeant Martin to tell a British tank to fire a few shells at a civilian house. This could collapse the house on a hidden German Tiger tank waiting in ambush.

The British soldier demurs, “I can’t. My orders are no unnecessary destruction of property...if I can’t see the bugger I can’t very well shoot him, can I?”

Why didn’t the British tank fire?

The Rules of Engagement.

While Easy Company watched the bombing of Einhoven from a distance and the old man didn’t alert the Germans to the company’s position, the last incident hurt. The German soldiers, and especially their tanks, wreaked utter havoc on the British-American force. They destroyed two British tanks, killed multiple Americans, and eventually forced the company into full retreat. Easy Company lost the skirmish.

In other words, what a fantastic argument for the inanity of ROE. Isn’t this a perfect example of ROE in action, getting our soldiers killed unnecessarily and preventing us from winning wars? Some uptight sergeant can’t see a lurking Tiger tank in his looking glasses so he dooms the entire operation?

Hardly. Easy Company failed to take the town of Nuenen because they didn’t have enough men or tanks. The Germans held reinforced positions in a strong defense with armor for reinforcements. But forget all that: they had more men and the element of surprise.

I just re-watched this particular scene to make sure I understood it right. And based solely on this episode--not the actual history of this company-sized action--no one should draw the conclusion that ROE cost any soldiers their lives. Even if the British had started firing at the vague position of the Tiger tank, they probably still would have missed. (The British sergeant is right in one regard: it is exceptionally hard to shoot what you cannot see.) Even if the British tank had hit the building next to the Tiger tank, this wouldn’t have trapped or destroyed the Tiger tank, it simply would have bought the British a few extra second to try to shoot the Tiger first, which likely still would have survived the encounter. (And the editing is unclear, so I cannot tell if the Germans had additional tanks in reserve, at which point the entire situation is moot.)

Why debate the tactics of one specific battle in one episode of World War II? Because opponents of restrictive ROE use tactical situations like the one above to argue that ROE, not bad leadership, planning or even enemy action, gets our soldiers killed. Luttrell argued this in Lone Survivor. A dad in this Los Angeles Times article claims ROE killed his son. A congressmen says ROE kills our troops in Afghanistan. This Facebook page has article after article allegedly showing ROE killing our troops.

And just last week two parents at a rally at the Republican National Convention blamed President Obama’s ROE for their Navy SEAL son’s death.

Opponents of strict ROE look at this scene in Band of Brothers and say, “Look, it got our soldiers killed!” They hear a rumor from a friend whose son knew a guy who heard that soldiers in Afghanistan can’t shoot terrorists because of ROE. Frequently, the contemporary opponents of any and all rules of engagements--who treat it like a monolithic object it is not--claim that in, “Dubya Dubya two, we didn’t tie our soldiers hands behind their backs!

By watching this episode carefully, though, we see the fallacy of all those arguments. First, our soldiers in World War II fought under rules of engagement. And yes, it was less stringent than our current wars, but those wars were much more violent. ROE wasn’t the most dangerous thing in combat, moving was. Artillery was. Sniper fire was.

But go back to that German civilian who tried to wave the Americans away. Opponents of ROE would let American soldiers shoot the old man for trying to talk to them if they felt threatened. Not only would that have done nothing, it would have eroded the popular support for the Americans and the British. Losing popular support could have ruined the peace that has since lasted seventy years. Rules of engagement might not have helped win the war, but it helped create a lasting peace.

Finally, the sergeant in the British tank misinterpreted the rules of engagement. Destroying the house isn’t “unnecessary” if American scouts have spotted a German target. That’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation of his orders. So under the rules of engagement, the British tank should have fired. If we have to condemn all sound plans because someone misunderstands them, well, we have to get rid of all plans.

I blame Hollywood, partly, for ROE’s bad reputation. Just today, Eric C and I watched The Expendables II. (Which, in all other respects, may be the greatest film in film history.) In a throwaway monologue, Liam Hemsworth’s character retells a (completely unrealistic) story where all his buddies die in Afghanistan because they can’t get air support. Tight rules of engagement make the perfect villain: a bureaucratic rule that gets soldiers killed. Since it is such an easy villain, it pops up all the time.

As I have written before, tight rules of engagement help win wars, and Hollywood’s simplistic portrayal in movies doesn’t help that argument.

(Over the years, I've (Michael C) written about the rules of engagement plenty of times, including some of our first posts. I wanted to collect them all in one place. To read other posts about ROE, please look below:

Arcs of Fire

Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities

Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires

Operation Judgement Day

Why Leaders Make the ROE

ROE - Reducto Ad Absurdum

A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

BTW, Insurgents Have Rules of Engagement As Well

If They Don't Fight Like Us, Why Do They Use Our Rules of Engagement?

Another ROE False Dilemma

Terrorist Rules of Engagement Pt. 2

 My Answer to Monday's Hypothetical

The Rules of Engagement Are Democratic, and Thank God for That

ROE Link Drop

Getting Around the Rules of Engagement: Observer Training

Guest Post: Rules of En"game"ment

Jun 21

I’ll repeat this post’s title:

Killing civilians pisses people off.

And I don’t mean it pisses off Americans. For the most part, Americans never realized how many civilians died during the invasion of Iraq, or died in Iraq since, or die in Afghanistan now. For some of those deaths, the U.S. deserves the blame. (It’s true.) And for the rest, insurgents, terrorists, criminals and others deserve the blame. (That’s true too.)

No, I mean that killing civilians (or innocents) pisses off the people (or “population” in military jargon) during counter-insurgencies. In “Join the Taliban...The Americans Will Kill You Anyways”, I described how rationally, the counter-insurgent should avoid killing innocent people. Kill enough of the wrong people, and everyone will join the insurgency. Why not? The Americans will probably come kill you soon enough. In that post, I deliberately argued why killing the wrong people will rationally persuade the unallied middle to join the insurgency. But what about all those pesky emotions and irrational motivations that I have harped on for the last few months?

Emotionally, killing the wrong people will convince a population to join an insurgency too.

I think the apt word in this case is “pisses off”. When a population gets “pissed”, it will react. Killing innocent people tends to do this.

Look at the American response to 9/11. Outrage. Hatred. Fear. To be clear, Americans justifiably felt outraged, the natural reaction humans feel when attacked.

The American armed forces should understand their emotions match the emotions of other people too. Kill/capture units need to understand how their actions could cause Afghans to hate Americans. Blowing up a house with one terrorist in it, but also ten children, will engender hatred. As one Pakistani student shouted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we experience a 9/11 everyday. That is the emotional response of mainstream Pakistanis. Dispute that Pakistani’s rhetoric all you want, that is how he feels, and how he feels will motivate his actions.

There is also the corollary, what if you kill the right person, and the people believe him to be innocent? The insurgents will benefit. True, but that is why eventually a government must create a strong, and just, legal system.

While those who hate ROE say it hamstrings out troops, it actually does the opposite. As General McChrystal stressed in his counter-insurgency guidance, "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do...If you encounter 10 Taliban members and kill two, he says, you don't have eight remaining enemies. You have more like 20: the friends and relatives of the two you killed...If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot them, we still failed to protect them from harm.”

We do need to kill the right people in an insurgency. But the emphasis in the U.S. military is on the wrong word, “kill”. We need to focus on the “right”. And we need to elevate the role of emotions, of both the enemy and the population. Our military cannot aford to take the wrong lessons away from the last ten years of war. Emotions matter, and we shouldn’t piss off the people of an invaded country.

Jun 19

Since we haven’t had an “An On V Update to Old Ideas” in a bit, we wanted to link to one photo that captures the role of emotion in warfare.

We found this photo on TIME.com after the (alleged) massacre of innocent civilians in Panwej province. It puts a face, and an ironic twist on what we’ve been writing about these last few months, the terrible harm when our civilians die in warfare.

May 30

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

I want to describe two scenarios in Afghanistan.

In the first, we have two brothers. Both drive “jingle trucks” to support their family. One spends his nights working for the Taliban; the other doesn’t. One fateful evening, while smuggling illegal weapons, a U.S. missile kills the Taliban brother. The family asks why; the government says, “He was Taliban.”

(A picture of a jingle truck)

The surviving brother has a choice: support the government or join the insurgency.

In the second case, we again have two brothers. Both drive jingle trucks to support their family. Neither has joined the insurgency. One fateful evening, a U.S. missile kills one of the brothers in a missile attack, unwittingly executing a tribal vendetta (after receiving bad intel from an unvetted source). The family asks why; the government says, “He was Taliban.”

The surviving brother has a choice: support the government or join the insurgency.

From the U.S. perspective, each situation played out the same way--intelligence led to an operation and a dead Taliban soldier. From the Afghan perspective, though, they couldn’t be more different. In the first case, the brother should rightfully fear for his safety. Unless he turns himself in, he will probably end up in a crater like his brother. In successful counter-insurgencies, fear of impending death sweeps through the insurgency, and it collapses in on itself like a dying star going supernova.

But consider the thoughts of the brother in the second scenario. He knows that U.S. forces will soon come for him too; they just killed his brother because of a spurious intelligence report. Wouldn’t they think he was Taliban as well? So if the Americans plan to kill you--even if you aren’t Taliban and even if your brother wasn’t--why not join the insurgency? You’ll die either way.

The arguments for a “combat focused” or “target-centric” approach to counter-insurgency--or against the idea of providing security to the population as the utmost priority--rely on the first scenario. Proponents of looser rules of engagement use the first scenario to buttress their arguments. They point to it--for example, its uses in Malaya--and say, “See violence wins wars!”

But, as a commenter said a few weeks back, we must “kill the right people”. I totally agree. I just emphasize the word “right” and most of the Army emphasizes the word “kill”. Too many thinkers emphasize the “kinetic” or “target-centric” or “killing”--whatever euphemism works--approach without explaining the drawbacks. While they sing the praises of killing more people, they avoid the consequences of killing the wrong people.

The logic for killing more insurgents makes sense. Kill an insurgent, then another, then another and soon word will spread that someday the the counter-insurgents will kill all the insurgents. Rationally, if you want to survive the war, you should stop being an insurgent.

But this same logic applies to the population. Kill an insurgent, then an innocent family, then capture another innocent guy and his brother. Soon word will spread among the population that someday the counter-insurgents will kill you too. Rationally, if you want to survive the war, you need to stop the counter-insurgents.

Remember that killing (or violence) has political ramifications. We wrote a few weeks back about humanity’s innate desire to avoid making decisions; killing the wrong people helps them make a decision...against the government and counter-insurgents. If killing the right people will help end an irregular war, killing the wrong people prolongs it. Pro-killing/target/kinetic-centric advocates--when pitching their wares in talks, blog posts, or op-eds--should always bring up the huge downside to killing the wrong people; it can lose the war.

This is why, as I have said before, accuracy is the most important value in an insurgency, not body counts or quantities or totals or anything else that sounds good leaked to reporters. And if people want more offensive operations--like kill/capture raids--fine. But stress accuracy over any other value. And warn door kickers that kicking down the wrong doors prolongs the war. (And costs U.S. soldiers their lives too.)

May 29

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

I mentioned in our first round on “gratitude theory” that I absolutely despise the phrase, “I don’t care if they like me as long as they respect me”. Plenty of people disagree with me though. Take, for example, this comment:

“Essentially, they're [On Violence] working to show that the "I don't care if the population likes me, as long as they do what I require" attitude is flawed. (It's not, at least not when it's a third-party counterinsurgent who holds it.)”

That’s just one example. This unsourced article on West Point’s website writes that “popularity or likeability among the population is NOT a consideration [in an insurgency]”. It then advises that, “being ‘liked’ is insignificant.”


Saying “likeability” is insignificant ignores the basic role of emotion in warfare, which I discussed back in December. Saying, “I don’t care if they like me” does not mean, “I don’t care if they hate me”. It is wildly significant if the population hates you. While you can lose an insurgency even if the population likes you, you can’t win an insurgency if the population hates you.

Think of the Russians in Afghanistan. By all regards, they tried to cow the Afghan rural populations into submission through carpet bombings and excessive force. The Russian Army did not care if the rural population liked or hated them, only if they feared them. As a result, they lost Afghanistan. (And I know, U.S. provided Stinger missiles and generally poor strategy also helped.) Conducting operations simply to inspire fear--another emotion ever present in war--also engenders hatred.

Hatred motivates insurgents and terrorists the world over. Hatred of the U.S. and Shia Islam drives Al Qaeda as much as their own love of Sunni Islam. Insurgents, from Iraq to Somalia to Afghanistan, absolutely hate foreign invaders, as we wrote about in “Everyone Hates Everyone Else’s Soldiers”. This has been true since the dawn of time. Hatred can motivate a household to store weapons. Or motivate a child to spy on U.S. forces. Or motivate a teenager to blow himself up in a suicide vest.

So while a counter-insurgent “doesn’t care if people like him”, he still must acknowledge the emotions of the population. It matters if the population loves, hates or fears the government...or the insurgents. Saying you “don’t care” is admitting you don’t care about a significant form of intelligence about the battlefield; you might as well say, “I don’t care if we win or lose here.”

Since we should use emotion to our own advantage in warfare, here are my tips to improve the use of emotion in counter-insurgencies:

1. Think about the emotional response of the population during planning. Specifically, I’m writing about kill/capture raids. Rationally, they could discourage an insurgent from fighting. Raids that detain the wrong person, or kill women and children, emotionally turn the population against the government. (Same with drone strikes.)

2. Security defeats fear, and creates confidence. Most criticisms of the fictional “gratitude theory” say, “It doesn’t matter if you buy people things if the Taliban comes at night to threaten the population.” In other words, a fearful population won’t support the government. The best solution isn’t reconstruction, it is more security. (Which means more troops, but that is a different issue.)

3. Care about your personal relationships. It is so much easier to do business with someone who likes you as opposed to hates you. So maybe I don’t care if the “population” (most of whom I never interacted with) “like” me, but I better have a good relationship with my interpreters, my government counterparts, and my Afghan Army partners. Those good relationships can filter down to the population at large.

4. Collect emotional intelligence. To be honest, eventually the Army’s human intelligence folks got good at conducting “atmospherics”. Unfortunately, the units with the most human intelligence collectors lived the furthest from the battlefield (isolated at Division and Corps headquarters). Battalion and Company commanders should work with their human intelligence and line platoons to measure the emotions of the population they work with. And the Army in general should push as many human intelligence folks to the lowest levels possible.

The big P, General Petraeus, lived these ideas. I don’t recall a lot of articles about General Petraeus in Iraq describing him as brow-beating people into working with him. In fact, he was/is famous for getting people to like and respect him, then getting work done. At the CIA, he reinvigorated the Open Source center to focus on global atmospherics.

I showed before Thanksgiving that people really do care if they are liked. They do, at least, among their countrymen. Every insurgency ever attempted started with two twin pillars: ideology and leadership. Leaders and ideologies rely on emotions to influence their followers. Love, hatred, respect, fear and gratitude are all emotions that can influence the population. We forget this at our own peril.