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War is War is Vague

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

Frequent commenter and general rabble rouser (we appreciate that he keeps us honest) Harrison posted this quote--“If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”--on the last “War is War” post “Fighting, Killing, Death, Destruction!”. I replied the same way I have the half a dozen or so times I heard it before. I wrote, "How specifically do we grab the Taliban by the balls?" What specific techniques, tactics and procedures grabbing the enemy’s private areas entails.

I need specifics. When I was platoon leader, I didn’t need Clausewitz or false John Wayne quotes, I needed details. “War is war” is Clausewitz, but also vagueness, incredible vagueness and ridiculous lack of details.

I understand why. It is much easier to argue against something than it is to argue for something. In elections, we constantly see politicians running against an issue, but rarely presenting in concrete terms, their alternatives. Rules of Engagement critics and "war-is-war"-iors do this all the time. They criticize restrictive rules of engagement and lambaste counter-insurgency policies, but hardly ever offer alternatives, preferring utter vagueness.

Take these examples. In each case the “war-is-war”-ior bemoans the policy, but doesn’t offer an alternative. First, in this article, General Zinni goes to great lengths to decry our Rules of Engagement, but he never says what he would do differently. Bill Osborn in the LA Times said, "our soldiers are forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. They're not allowed to take care of business — and they know it," without describing what “taking care of business” really means. The closest he comes is saying that ROE should “empower” our soldiers, again without defining empower. Finally, in this article the author puts in a quick aside about Rules of Engagement, but again does not explain what he means. He says, “Rules of Engagement (ROE) must change. Using the Tribal Engagement Teams will become a very intense, personal fight. If they need to drop bombs or pursue an enemy, they must be able to do so.” Troops in Afghanistan can drop bombs and pursue the enemy, so what exactly does he want our troops to do differently?

It gets particularly bad with the critics of current counter-insurgency doctrine. This is my typical conversation about changing our counter-insurgency theory:

"War-is-war"-ior: What we need to do is avoid winning hearts and minds and focus on killing the enemy.”

MC: “Well, don’t we kill the enemy?

"War-is-war"-ior: “Yes, but we need to kill more of them.

MC: How do you do that?

"War-is-war"-ior: “By getting better intelligence.

MC: Well, how do we get that?

"War-is-war"-ior: “By convincing the population to support us.

MC: You mean win their hearts and minds?

"War-is-war"-ior: Well no, not winning their hearts and minds, but having them support us.

End scene.

Advocates for looser rules of engagement are actually advocating using violence with less evidence. Deep down, intelligence is really just evidence; the rules of engagement define how much intelligence--or evidence--you need before you can fire your weapon, though we never use those terms. The critics who argue for different rules of engagement want us to be able to fire indiscriminately--literally, without discriminating if targets are innocent or guilty, armed or unarmed, civilian or insurgent. This is the fundamental difference between strict and loose Rules of Engagement.

Indiscriminate killings don’t work. The Russians carpet bombed Afghanistan and still lost. France tortured the sin out of the Algerians, which became an independent nation a few years later. We dropped more ordinance on Vietnam then we did in Europe circa the 1940s, and we were run out of there. Adolf Hitler indiscriminately arrested and killed millions to pacify nations. In the process, he became the symbol for pure evil in the Western world.

The point is don’t mince your words. If you don’t like the rules of engagement, fine. But give me an alternative.

twelve comments

Might need to make one of those videos starbuck always makes, with a “War is war”-ior vs. a coindinista.


It is vague because it is hard to define…The self-defense aspect of ROE doesn’t in my mind allow for/excuse/justify the arbitrary killing of civilian people. It is counter productive in the long run to entrench the civilian population against your side. Indiscriminant killing of civilian population should never be justified… Defending yourself from an eminent threat is. I agree that people should present a better solution rather than complain about what you don’t like about ROE.


As the article you linked to earlier (which now unfortunately can’t be accessed) about Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires pointed out, the Soviets weren’t doing that badly militarily until the rocket launchers from America showed up. Putting bombs in Teddy Bears certainly didn’t earn the USSR any USO credits – but was it “hearts and minds” which caused them to withdraw?

And, to be fair, I never advocated a policy of grabbing the enemy by the short and curlies.

I would argue that instead of worrying about the Taliban as much we should turn our concern to countries like Iran which is sending munitions across the border – as they have been doing in Iraq – in order to prolong the situation.

Escalating the situation militarily is a bit like playing Chinese Finger Puzzle and unless you’re willing to pull until someone’s finger pops out it’s best not to go down that road, though it was an effective strategy in ancient Greece.


The US military has already managed to make the middle eastern world hate us. At this point all that can honestly be hoped to accomplish is some sort of shabby damage control and winning hearts and minds is the only way to do that.

Attacking Iran.
I suspect that sadly, it will happen and I also suspect this will be the final blow. The final act of aggressive imperialism that will tear America to pieces.
The blowback will be incredibly extensive. If we have thought that fighting a war in Iraq and another in Afghanistan has been costly both in lives and finances we have seen nothing yet.
Iran will be awful.
It would hasten the death of our already eroding economy and would cement middle eastern and Islamic hatred for the US. The repercussions of our actions abroad would reach us at our most vulnerable: A near collapsing economy unable to support its military expenditures abroad or maintain its already sad security network at home.

ROE are a good thing, particularly if America hopes to maintain any of its Camelot-esque “gleaming city on a hill” fantasies.


Barnes, I would be curious to know when you think the US military managed to make the middle eastern world hate us.

Perhaps the Iranians hate us because, in 2009, so many of them went to the streets in an attempt to overthrow their oppressive regime but the U.S. did nothing to support them in contrast to Ronald Reagan supporting anti-Soviet protesters in Poland.

Maybe the 70% of Iranians under 30 resent the fact that a U.S. president helped an oppressed public overthrown a repressive regime but another U.S. president ignored those same desires? That could cause hatred.

Between 2003 and 2010 the U.S. spent $87 billion more on “education” than the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan (and $107 billion more was spent on the “stimulus” than on those wars) and yet I never hear anybody say either of those two things “has been costly.”

Wonder why?

And I would hardly write off the U.S. economy. It is far stronger than any economy in Europe or Japan and China, for all of its bluster, is virtually dependent on U.S. consumers buying Chinese-made goods and were our market to “collapse” so would China’s – in very short order.

One has to ask one’s self which regimes “hate” America. Do open, democratic, free peoples hate America or is it those who live under Kleptocracies?

Last I checked Turkey and Israel (and Iraq) don’t hate us. They are also the most free of all the middle eastern nations, btw.

Just sayin’.


@Harrison- To be clear, I know you were just throwing out the quote earlier. But in many real conversations I have heard this quote, you were just one of the first examples that popped into my head of that specific quote. And as the LATimes article shows, the vagueness is rampant.

Your comment too about why the Middle East “hates” us is a terrific thought argument. I am going to wait to post further on it. I think the analogy for why the Middle East isn’t the biggest fans of the US is the tea kettle. It might have simmered before, ergo some terrorist attacks. But Iraq put the burner on hot, that is a good way to think about it.


Dog bites man isn’t a story, is it? Few articles will be written about Arabs who like America and want to move here. Clearly there is a problem with some Muslims wanting the worst for America. Is this 5? Are these people genuine in their hatred of America or are they simply looking for an outlet for the anger they feel living under totalitarian regimes? Do we peel the Koran from the average Muslim or do we “blame” the Imans or is it all intertwined? Is the hated against America or is America simply the biggest target on which to pick? Remember, there have been bombings in many Western countries, not just America.

Regarding Iraq, detractors point out Muslim terrorists view it as the Superbowl of Jihads but American deaths there have been on a steep decline. We must also bear in mind that Saddam Hussein was viewed very poorly by devout Muslims and by Arabs in general. Also, as I pointed out in a previous post, there were plenty of terrorist attacks against America before we went into Iraq so I don’t buy the fanning the flames argument so much.

In the end, haters gonna hate.

That being said, not sure our ROE should change.


@ Barnes – Our military certainly isn’t the reason the Middle Eastern world “hates” us. It may be the effector in the rise in animosity in the Arab world that came out of the invasion of Iraq, but it certainly wasn’t the primary instigator. That instigator was the President, a willing Congress, and ultimately an American public that was convinced by the evidence presented.

The animosity towards the United States we see in the Middle East has many more causes than just the invasion of Iraq. Many hate us for our support of Israel and thus our shared responsibility for the repression of Palestine. Much of fundamentalist Islam and its’ ripple effects are, IMO, a consequence of resistance to Western influences. Wahabism emerged from a desire for reform and resistance to the modernizing influences of the West already in the 18th century.

And while I think a US military strike on Iran would be a mistake and have a variety of unpleasant consequences, I doubt it would be the end for us.

@ Harrison – Always nice to see a cogent argument, even when I disagree. :)

I doubt young Iranians hate us for not invading their country. While I agree President Obama could have done more, a significantly more overt show of support would have played into the hands of Iran’s rulers. The Green Revolution of 2009 was certainly one of the largest demonstrations of discontent Iran has seen in a long time, it wasn’t nearly as close to succeeding as it was portrayed to be. If it had gone farther and had become a question of supporting a new and precarious democratic regime, I’m sure we would have been all over it.

An invasion of Iran or a military strike would be disastrous to the hope of the Iranian people welcoming a democracy. It is the one thing that would unite Iran against the US. If we hope to see change in Iran, the bulk must come from the Iranian people. A sizable minority actively seeks democratic rule, but enough support Tehran or are sitting on the fence that any direct outside influence could unite the country under its current regime.

And why are we so fixated on Iran as a threat to Afghanistan? Iran is certainly a huge threat to Iraq and played a sizable role in its continued state of fragility, but the biggest threat to Afghanistan is undoubtedly Pakistan. As the Wikileaks documents have helped clarify further, Pakistan has little interest in a strong, democratically ruled Afghanistan. A volatile Afghanistan is the best bulwark against Chinese and Indian interests in the country. And the Pakistanis have a far superior military and intelligence service to the Iranians. If we want to achieve our aims in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to want the same. The thorniest problem Afghanistan faces now and in the future is Pakistan.


Nick,
I was being sarcastic regarding the Iranians but I tried my best to sound plausible. But all Obama had to do was to choke off Iran’s gasoline imports and that country’s regime would fold up like a cheap card table.

Iran is a threat because they will soon have nukes and have missiles on which to put them on. They are also installing missiles in Venezuela manned by Republican Guard troops. This is called encirclement. Right now the Lilliputians are going after Gulliver.

Maybe the Liberals will be more for Afghanistan now that we discovered the rare earth metals used in hybrid cars?


Ah yes, sarcasm on the internet, progenitor of so much confusion and pointless argument. I doubt choking off Iran’s oil imports would be a diplomatic triviality though, considering we certainly don’t control the majority of international oil sources.

I certainly agree Iran is an enormous threat, but it’s not the largest threat in Afghanistan. And yes, rare earth metals are going to screw us all soon enough.


Nick,
Gasoline imports, not oil imports. The U.S. sanctions have hurt – gasoline imports down 70 of its gas to meet domestic needs.

Pakistan is, as you say, the biggest threat but maybe not the country itself but the people who go there to fight. I fear we are pushing Pakistan into unfriendly hands with Obama’s penchant for Predator Drone strikes.


Hi,
ROE explicitly rules out a war for a warrior.
ROE do not exist in a real war.
I propose an alternative to roe- get out of the phony wars and foreign domination business.
jim