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The Missed Counter-Insurgency Lessons in Lone Survivor (Film)

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?

As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.

Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.

Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:

1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.

To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.

As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:

The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)

To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.

Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.

Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.

2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.

The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.

This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:

Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.

“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."

Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.

3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.

The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”

Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:

The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)

The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)

This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)

In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.

Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.

Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...

- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.

- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.

- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)

- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.

Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.

4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.

In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.

What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…

“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)

“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.

You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.

And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.

Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.

(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)


This is one of our most important posts on the Lone Survivor film.

We decided to leave this analysis out of the post on the differences between the book, the film and reality because that post was already 4,300 words long. This post, though, in my opinion, absolutely proves why the facts matter.

As Michael C wrote, “the book and movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.”

For example, in our nation’s debate on Afghanistan, many propose using small special forces teams to selectively eliminate the bad guys. In the film, finding the bad guys looks easy. In reality, it isn’t. (Though the film does show the perils of using a special forces-only style strategy.)

“…they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

Mr. Luttrell notices this and mentions it in his recounting, but few people seem to be able to extend the thought to our own practices. If we know that the Taliban/guerrillas know that it’s bad COIN to kick in doors, roust people and piss off the honcho, then why is that still a feature of our tactics and operational art? Why is this disconnect so prevalent among our forces?

Eric Greitens understands these nuances of COIN in his memoir The Heart and the Fist_. He is a SEAL.

I can’t stress enough that this post is really why the changes in Lone Survivor get my goat.

Thoughtful analysis. Thank you. Hollywood has rarely done the military any service, it just gets audiences fired up, even in the name of “realism.”. There are exceptions (Platoon; Full Metal Jacket; Thin Red Line (Malick), but most Hollywood war pictures glorify combat too much and purposefully gloss over the subtleties that make or break operations and campaigns.

From one of your earlier posts:

“Reason 4: Wait for a better story.

The battle of VPB Wanat. The attack at COP Keating. Operation ROCK Avalanche. The Pat Tillman Ambush/Incident. Peter Berg, you could tell countless stories that have more honesty and importance than Lone Survivor, without the political rants or exaggeration.”

Calling former CPT William Swenson. Captain Swenson? Now, I’d love to read that cat’s story about Ganjgal if he ever writes it. Maybe Sebastian Junger or Mark Bowden could help him with it, although somehow I doubt Mr. Swenson is intellectually or editorially challenged.

I agree with Ganjgal. Full disclosure: I lived in Joyce about two years before the battle and had Serkani district as my base of operations.

Michael V asks why we still do the night raid/door kicking if the Afghans hate it more than anything, and tell us that over and over, over years and years.

It is my forever a civilian cynical opinion that the answer is to be found in the social dynamics of a mature bureaucracy, and the military services in Afghanistan are above anything else mature bureaucracies.

Bureaucracies like things that are easy to count. Night raids are easy to count and make lots of stats that lend themselves well to PowerPoint presentations. Everybody feels good about being able to precisely state that SpecOps engaged in 536 nocturnal operations last quarter which resulted in 1315 detentions of which 326 were HVTs and on and on. Those same bureaucracies do not at all like having to say that the headman at village x is on the fence but leaning our way and if things go right and we can get his nephew the national policeman reassigned to that village he may lean further our way…if some super soldier doesn’t kick in his door tomorrow night and piss him off.

So the reason we keep doing these things is because we get great stats the false precision of which makes everybody up the chain feel warm and toasty.

I am interested in what you guys who have been there and done that think of my reasoning on this.


Your theory may be partially right, but is probably overly simplistic. You may recall that there was an ongoing debate about counterinsurgency and counter terrorism. In the end, counter terrorism seemed to win out, and I suspect the emphasis on direct action operations was a result of that decision. CT may not result in lasting changes, but it can get you to “an acceptable level of violence” (which is usually only “acceptable” to people living a continent away) at a fraction of the cost of COIN. Easily quantifiable statistics are a by-product of CT, but as you note, they’re stats that don’t really mean much to the war. On the other hand, they’re great for domestic public consumption, because they give the appearance of “really doing something.”


Thanks. i hadn’t thought of how the CT angle plays into it.

Thank you for displaying your knowledge on all things military. Referring to a Marine as a marine jumps out to service members much like if you called a judge “dude” instead of your honor. Anything beyond that was immediately dismissed regardless if it were actually spot in because I assumed you did not do actual research.

Luke, we’ve heard that comment before, and let me explain ourselves. We long ago made a decision on the blog to lowercase marine, soldier, airmen and sailor. The truth is, the Marine Corp—a proper noun, so something that should be upper cased—decided that all its marines—not proper nouns since they are indistinguishable—should be capitalized too. This grammar mistake spread through out the Corps.

Then in jealousy, the Army, Navy and Air Force said, “Hey, we want to be capitalized too!” so Soldier, Sailor and Airmen became capitalized too! If you check our earlier posts, we actually used this format until we decided, “Enough is enough” and purposefully lower-cased marines.

Then we just waited until people decided to point out that one little mistake instead of address the issues with the post…

In general I think the public looks to Hollywood to tell a story and actually believes it is so. I hear it around the “water cooler” all day. Unless we all make the effort to be informed through other sources (obviously), then it is so. Realizing how silly the end of the movie was, I am appalled at just how ignorant and taken for granted the audience must be. Problem is, after seeing many of ML’s interviews he seems to take the same approach by distilling it down to liberals and ROE. Like your post, I agree, it could have been so much more profound. Its exactly what I was hoping to see. The right up at the end was the ultimate slap in the face of those Marines. Their work should have been mentioned.

While these are all important points, they are rather subtle, so it’s understandable that they are not represented in the movie version. Perhaps the most important lesson that the movie missed, and one that you’ve noted in the past, is the fact that letting the civilians go was undeniably the right call. Instead, the movie, along with the book, tries to build tension with a false dilemma, presenting (if not outright supporting) the idea that if the “compromise” had been terminated, the entire tragedy could have been avoided.

In fact, not only did the movie present this false dilemma, the main argument that it offered in support of letting the civilians go was not that it was against ROE, or that it would wreck relations with locals in the area, but that media outlets would run negative stories about it, implying that the “liberal media” kept them from doing their jobs. This warped interpretation of the event is the most troubling of all of the movie’s inaccuracies because it sends the wrong message to audiences about proper oversight and limits on use of force.

It may be true that Ahmad Shah himself was a cautious leader who would not have committed crimes against civilians, but his character in the movie should be seen as more of a general representation of anti-government insurgents (who are indeed responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan) and not as a biographical one, so the Hollywood style portrayal of Shah is villain is excusable, however inaccurate.

Also, while it is fact that the final battle as shown in the film never occurred, the compelling reason for its existence is to offer an exciting climax to the movie as well as resolution – in the end, the bad guys are punished. It’s an effective ending to the movie, however inaccurate, and it’s a relatively innocuous change in terms of lasting effect on viewers. Instead, it’s the false dilemma that is the worst bit of misinformation because it encourages viewers to think that killing the civilians in spite of the ROE would have been acceptable.


I thought about your points some more and have another theory, though it still builds on CT. The American SOF community is huge (they may not think so, but they are), and is also fairly diverse. That results in lots of competition for resources, like money and prioritisation for procurement. The different elements have different capabilities. To broadly generalise, SF is good at UW and FID. Rangers are good at raids. SEALs are good at coastal reconnaissance, UDT, and raids. Delta and DEVGRU are good at precision DA. But when the focus of the game becomes industrial counterterrorism, everyone shifts to DA, because if they don’t they risk becoming irrelevant. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a need for strategic reconnaissance or various forms of military assistance. It just means that DA becomes the first thing to be discussed around the conference tables in SOCOM, and that carries weight when the generals and admirals draw daggers at budget discussions. So your thoughts on bureaucracy are probably fairly solid.

A SEAL irony is that not too long ago (1989), after a SEAL force got chewed up badly while raiding a Panamanian airfield, they were trying to argue that SEALs should focus more on amphibious ops and leave the raids to the Rangers. I guess opinions change when the wars shift to land-locked countries . . .

Actually, you’re trying to mislead your readers.

“Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.”

The Taliban attacks fellow Afghan villagers all the time.

This is basic knowledge. Anyone familiar with Afghan culture knows that you can never say never regarding what they’ll do. They pay lip service to all sorts of “codes of honor” but violate them constantly.

@ Thomas Wictor – You mean that criticism for us and Luttrell, right? Because we quoted his book.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people…in order to get me…” (page 339)

Apparently, Peter Berg has never heard of, (or thought about), “a guerilla must move amongst the people, as a fish swims in the sea.”

@Windows – With regard to the “false dilemma,” I agree. Further, I think that is at the heart of why the authors of this blog take issue with the book. As far as the movie goes, I disagree with your dismissal of the ending as being innocuous. I expect more from a movie particularly one that supposedly follows a memoir. Not a Ramboish ending that ties things neatly up with getting the bad guys. The story could have been so much more.

_”@ Thomas Wictor – You mean that criticism for us and Luttrell, right? Because we quoted his book.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people…in order to get me…” (page 339).”_

So what? You tore apart Luttrell’s book. Now you’re saying it’s accurate?

The reality—which exists independently of what either you or Luttrell say—is that the Taliban attacks Afghan villages constantly. According to the United Nations, the Taliban is responsible for 77 percent of all civilian deaths to date.

Apparently, Peter Berg has never heard of, (or thought about), “a guerilla must move amongst the people, as a fish swims in the sea.”

The Taliban commit unspeakable atrocities, such as making an Afghan child test an IED. These extremely graphic images show the aftermath.

Whenever someone tells you “The Taliban would never _______” you need to disregard it. The Taliban has no boundaries. It murders, tortures, rapes, profits form hard-core pornography, and extorts. They’re no bound by any code of honor whatsoever.

@ Suzanne – Exactly.

@ Bill Mc – Yeah, jus today, researching some updates, in the book they don’t have rope, but in the movie they did, but they don’t want the goatherders to freeze to death. But they But then in the book they say the goats would stay where the herders are, so the bodies would be found.

@ Thomas – Fairly put. In this case, the Taliba couldn’t—and didn’t attack the village. Can you explain why?

And can you cite that statistic? Where is it from?

@ Thomas Wictor – Now, I’ll agree that you can’t say the “The Taliban would never…” because you can’t say that about anything.

But we’re not going to agree on this issue. Also, where is that statistic from?

Fairly put. In this case, the Taliba couldn’t—and didn’t attack the village. Can you explain why?

Of course. The villagers have a formidable militia.

“In our area we protect ourselves with our own guns and strength,” says [Sabray villager Muhammed] Jan. “There is no government, no Americans and no Taliban because we keep them away.”

In the same article:

“The person Gulab is exiled forever from the day he left his village with the wounded U.S. soldier,” the local Taliban commander, Qari Moued Safi, tells the Daily Beast. “He remains a target and one day soon he will face death.” Safi makes the same threat toward other villagers and warns them never again to help a wounded “infidel” soldier.

Right from the horse’s mouth. That’s the Taliban saying they attack Afghan villages.

The villagers are heavily armed. They say they can repel almost anything. And the Taliban aren’t known for their courage. They prefer murdering helpless civilians or setting off roadside bombs.

And can you cite that statistic? Where is it from?

With all due respect, I’m just a layman, and I’ve known this for years.

Taliban responsible for 77% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, U.N. says.


What is it we’re not going to agree on? Are you still claiming that the Taliban would never attack villages of fellow Afghans? You can’t be serious. They do it constantly.

@ Thomas Wictor – Well, that statistic appears misleading to me, though I don’t believe you intended it that way. The Taliban were responsible for 77. Why didn’t you use the figure 63%, which was what it was in 2010? That was the year it was highest. And didn’t mention the year. (What were the #‘s like in 2001-2003?)

What we’re not going to agree on is the very nature of counter-insurgency, so there’s no point in arguing about it.

(I mean, to prove me wrong, you made the case that the Taliban isn’t strong enough to attack villages because of their local militias…which was our original point. The Taliban can’t go around attacking every village they disagree with, because many of those villages are armed.)

Thomas Wictor – Well, that’s disingenuous. The Taliban were responsible for 77. Why didn’t you use the figure 63%, which was what it was in 2010? You cherry picked the year it was highest. And didn’t mention the year.

Wow. This is how you debate? Okay, we’ll use figures from the first half of 2013. The Taliban were responsible for 74 percent of civilian casualties. According to the UN.


I have no idea why you’re talking about counterinsurgency, since I never mentioned it. My point is that the Taliban attacks Afghan villages all the time. You claimed that the Taliban wouldn’t attack “fellow Afghan villagers.”

You didn’t know that the village of Sabray is heavily armed, which is the reason that the Taliban didn’t attack, but now you’re saying, “Of course the Taliban wouldn’t attack a heavily armed village!”

Someone’s could very well be disingenuous and arguing in total bad faith in this discussion, but it’s not me. Everything I’ve said is factual. I’ve also told you three things that you didn’t know: The Taliban causes most civilian casualties, the Taliban attacks fellow Afghans all the time, and the village of Sabray is heavily armed.

Eric C & Thomas Wictor:

I don’t know why you guys are fussing about this. If that village or some of the people in it weren’t subject to violence it was because local conditions precluded it at that time. If somebody in another village got bumped off or had a night letter delivered it was because it suited somebody and the local conditions allowed it at that time. And at other times somebody get hurt because you have young men who are not to well supervised who are feeling bloody minded

It looks to me as if you both are well aware of what can happen and how and are just bowing up because of an unfortunate turn of phrase here or there.

@ Carl – Agreed. I don’t think we’re going to agree.

My father was a Coastie, my maternal grandfather was an infantryman, my brother-in-law was a combat engineer, and my nephew is in the Chemical Corps. A second nephew is going to join up as soon as he graduates from high school.

Just doing my own research, I’ve seen that the vast majority of commentary on Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom is nonsense. What happened was that during Vietnam, it became fashionable among journalists to always denigrate the motivations, efforts, and results of the US armed forces.

I don’t know why. The US military is the most humane, responsible, and professional armed force in human history. We invented smart bombs to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. We have rules of engagement that put civilian lives ahead of our own troops. We absorb attack after attack before responding.

I read a news story once by a journalist who marveled that when American troops showed an Afghan general around a new intelligence center, they leaped to his feet when he entered, saluted him, called him “sir,” and said things like, “With your permission, sir, I’d like to—”

The journalist apparently thought that the US troops would call the Afghan general “Hamid” and ruffle his hair, or else they’d spit on him. Then the journalist showed what a racist HE was by remarking how kind the Americans were to the Afghan. This idiot knew absolutely nothing about the military ethos.

Too many journalists have chosen to make themselves enemies of the US military. There was no reason for this to happen, but this is what they’ve decided to do. I find it utterly repulsive.

Gents – perhaps this can be summarized by saying that Taliban (or HiG, or Haqqani Group, or AQ, or any other warlord’s faction) attack villages when it is specifically in their interests. Similarly, they refrain from attacking villages when it’s in their interests. Ahmed Shah may well have attacked villages, but only when the benefits outweighed the costs, and a few Americans may not have been worth the cost. Under different circumstances (perhaps if his local authority was challenged, or if supplies were being withheld), he may have found it advantageous to engage in a domestic fight, and may have brought in additional fighters or practiced some kind of subterfuge or carried out a precise assassination if he thought a particular village was too well armed for direct assault.

I’m hoping someone with military intelligence or recon experience can answer this question. How did no one planning the four-man mission not realize there was a high likelihood that goat herders would be in the mountains?

I was in the mountains of Morocco last summer and besides the presence of plenty of tourists and Berbers, there were lots of goats! And where there are goats, you’ve got herders. Was it a realistic assumption the SEALs would be completely, utterly alone in the mountains, looking down into the populated valleys?

Thomas Wictor:

Just a small note. We didn’t invent smart bombs to reduce civilian casualties, though they do have that effect. We invented those so small targets could be hit reliably with a much reduced effort. The efforts to drop the Thanh Hoa bridge in North Vietnam is and example. The US tried for years to drop that bridge losing a number of aircraft in the process. Then in 1972 one mission with laser guided bombs dropped one of the bridge spans. Lots of time and effort saved.

Funny take of Maher on ‘Lone Survivor’:

Just a small note. We didn’t invent smart bombs to reduce civilian casualties[.]

Precision-guided bombs were invented both to increase accuracy and to eliminate the need for area bombing. As early as World War II, attempts were made to create guided bombs so that entire cities wouldn’t have to be leveled.

How did no one planning the four-man mission not realize there was a high likelihood that goat herders would be in the mountains?

I’m sure they did realize that goat herders would be in the mountains, but some missions have to be carried out anyway. It’s how General Tommy Franks described Operation Iraqi Freedom Phase I: a calculated risk.

Every time special operators are sent on a mission, the risks are calculated. What happens if they’re killed? What happens if they fail? What happens if they’re discovered?

Operation Red Wings gets a lot of press because it failed. It’s the same way in American jury trials. When juries let off an obviously guilty defended, everyone says, “The system is broken!” But in the US, there’s a 93 percent conviction rate in criminal cases.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Operation Red Wings failed but that so many other operations succeed. We never hear about those. Afghanistan is known as the Special Operations Olympics because the special operators of almost every nation on the planet are there.

Thank you, Thomas. Well said.

Thomas Wictor:

Perhaps you are right that reduction in civilian casualties was a primary reason for developing precision guided weapons. You will have to find a reference for me though because I have never read that anywhere. Everything I’ve read says they wanted to actually hit the targets they were aiming at without having to send hundreds or thousands of airplanes on repeated missions perhaps losing many of those airplanes with crews in the process. In WWII things like RAF Pathfinder ops were developed to a very fine edge in order to hit targets and save crews. The RAF didn’t seem too terribly concerned with civilian casualties, nor us for that matter.

Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions, by Paul G. Gillespie. That covers the development of guided bombing.

Secondly, the US Army Air Force was violently opposed to area bombing and had a doctrine of precision bombing.


Also, you need to read period newspapers. Area bombing was ALWAYS controversial. However, you’ve misunderstood the intent of area bombing. It was to destroy military targets and military-related industries. The technology of the day didn’t allow for precision. Bombs could fall as much as five miles off target.

What you see as a callous disregard for civilian casualties is actually free nations trying desperately to halt the spread of Nazi expansionism. The western powers went to war with the technology they had.

I’m also betting that you’ve read a lot of agenda-driven nonsense about Dresden. In reality, Dresden was a major transportation hub for the German military, and it had over 110 factories that employed 50,000 workers who supported the German war effort. That’s why we bombed it.

The uncaring murder-machine of the US military does not exist.

Addendum to the above:

The AMERICANS were opposed to area bombing as a means to destroy civilian morale. The Brits used area bombing both to destroy military targets AND kill civilians. The killing of civilians was the stated goal.

In fact, the British carried out their area bombing in the following way: Send in a wave loaded with high-explosive bombs to blow the roofs off of buildings, and then send in a wave of bombers loaded with incendiaries to set fire to the contents.

Wait an hour, and then send in a third wave of bombers armed with high-explosive bombs to kill the rescue personnel.

That’s how the Brits rolled.

Area bombing was controversial even in Britain, where newspapers editorialized against it. What you apparently don’t know is that in World War II, the Brits did area bombing, while the Americans did tactical or precision bombing.

The whole idea of precision-guided munitions arose from the American opposition to area bombing in World War II. You might also keep in mind that the people we were bombing in World War II and Vietnam were committing wholescale atrocities. Ask the Montagnards and the Hmong—the ones left alive after the Vietnamese attempts to exterminate them.

Some people deserve to be bombed. Pacifists might not accept that, but I have no problem stating the fact baldly.

Would you have ordered the bombing of Hamburg and killing 200,000 German civilians if it meant the saving of 6 million Jews? Simple yes or no answer. Purely hypothetical and not based in reality.

I’d press the button myself and sleep soundly afterward.

First off – it is a movie. The villager was definitely following pashtun-wali – he lost family members (and one would assume they would be killed or family members would be killed for protecting an enemy of taliban). I read another post that Marcus Luttrell was exaggerating facts – which is entirely possibly – however, the insurgence had to be over 20-30 men and likely more like Marcus said – because navy seals kill ratios are high, even from a poor vantage point (low w/enemy on mountain) is high – Additionally, the chances of a helicopter being shot down is so slim for a small insurgence compared to the number of missions flown – that we have to assume the uprising was larger. Marcus was extremely injured – and I think it’s good the movie was created so that americans can realize the risks that navy seals go through. Additionally, the US may have created good relationships w/villages, but i am sure you know; americans’ cannot convince insurgents or funded small militias to put down arms because there are a few kind soldiers visiting their village. Soldiers are often viewed as the enemy plain and simple – from both sides. Additionally, these afghan militias are typically funded – so they can use money to buy food, shelter, etc – and individuals that don’t believe america should be there are willing to accept pay for lodging, etc. It is possible that Ahmed didn’t attack villagers, however; their were killings by insurgents in relation to the marcus luttrells’ harboring. No matter what, this guy deserves some respect if you support america – he fought and served and lost friends to support this nation.

@Thomas Viktor:
Too many ‘inaccuracies’ to escape a rebuttal:

“Wait an hour, and then send in a third wave of bombers armed with high-explosive bombs to kill the rescue personnel.”
This is the first time I read about such a third wave, and I’ve read plenty about that bomb war. The Brits attempted to keep exposure time minimal because losses were a function of exposure time. Thus attacks even of 1,000 bombers were cramped into 30 or less minutes. An additional (and utterly unnecessary and inefficient) third wave would have added an additional about 15 minutes, with subsequently approx. 50% increase in losses to Flak.

“(…)while the Americans did tactical or precision bombing.”
Not quite. They picked industrial, harbour and railway targets over worker residential areas, sure. But they participated in the Dresden attack and some British Oboe-based night attacks were directed against industry targets as well. Their bombing from high altitude was rarely ‘precision bombing’ anyway.

“The whole idea of precision-guided munitions arose from the American opposition to area bombing in World War II.”
Bullocks. PGMs were tried again and again since at least 1917. The first operational PGMs were in German and American service in 1943/1944 and used mostly against ships or bridges.
The Americans revived PGM development for the Korea War because they had trouble with some sturdy bridges. Same story again with LGBs over North Vietnam. The Thanh Hóa Bridge was certainly the most tenacious bridge ever.

“Some people deserve to be bombed.”
The problem with this statement is that the people who ‘deserve’ it are rarely the ones who actually get bombed.
The workers and conscripts in Hanoi weren’t exactly killing anyone around Saigon.

“Would you have ordered the bombing of Hamburg and killing 200,000 German civilians if it meant the saving of 6 million Jews?”
Surely you agree I’m entitled to beat you up if it means you’re a little bit less stupid afterwards?
To bomb Hamburg didn’t save a single Jew, nor is there a plausible way how it could have. It’s actually probably that it killed some hidden Jews.

“I’d press the button myself and sleep soundly afterward.”
This kind of people should be kept from power. And if they get to power and use it this way, they shall be dragged to the ICC and branded as war criminals and scum. Or be killed by a bomb.

Joel M:

Navy Seal kill ratios are very high even from a poor vantage point. Hmm. I think perhaps not. A poor tactical position is bad for anybody, even SEALS. If you want to kill more of them than they kill of you, staying out of a poor tactical position is vital. From what I understand, that little group was fighting from the bottom of a pit more or less and they were fighting people with at least one machine gun. Michael C has mentioned before how bad that was for them. SEAL training doesn’t make bullets bounce off. If those guys had the misfortune for whatever reason to be in a really bad position, all the training in the world wasn’t going to make things much better.

Just because the chances of something happening doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it probably won’t happen this time. If a helo flies over the wrong spot that has one guy who is ready in it, things will be bad. That happened to Bob Hoover in WWII, a 90 degree deflection shot got him. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

Thomas Wictor:

A small addition to what S O stated above. We attempted high altitude precision bombing on Japan. For various reasons it didn’t work. So we switched to low level nocturnal area incendiary bombing. That worked. Nobody thought much about the fate of Japanese civilians. There was a terrible war on and we did what we thought needed to win it as quick as possible.

We attempted high altitude precision bombing on Japan. For various reasons it didn’t work. So we switched to low level nocturnal area incendiary bombing. That worked. Nobody thought much about the fate of Japanese civilians.

The high-altitude bombing didn’t work in Japan for exactly the same reasons it didn’t work in Europe. In fact, the Army Air force studied the failure of the daylight bombing raids in Europe, concluded they were ineffective, and then repeated the same mistakes all over again in the pacific.

It took Curtis LeMay to change the strategy. And we bombed Japanese cities to destroy the thousands of mom-and-pop machine shops that were creating parts for the Japanese war effort.

It wasn’t that nobody cared about the fate of Japanese civilians; the only way to destroy the small factories was to level the cities.

Workshops depend on electricity from general powerplants, unlike large industrial complexes which at the time often had their own powerplant.
Workshops also depend on raw materials, and Japan was getting few if any at the time.

The Japanese manufacturing economy was about to collapse by spring ’46, and this could have been hurried to early ’45 with attacks on key nodes. The USAAF did suck at targeting, though (and kind of admitted it in its post-war bombing surveys).

The bombing of Japanese civilians accelerated war’s end, but it was still unnecessary. The Americans had won. By ’45 they could have stripped Japan off all its overseas possessions and forced it into a renewed and fleet limitation treaty banning Japanese carriers.
Instead, they wanted unconditional surrender – and such an extremist demand provokes avoidable resolution among your enemies. They were given good reasons to expect a worse treatment than China’s in the 19th century.

S O:

We didn’t impose unconditional surrender on Imperial Japan. We told them to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration which they did. Those were not unconditional.

One of the prime aims of the war was to destroy Japanese militarism. That militarism had killed millions and millions of people. To negotiate some kind of arms limitation treaty with them would have been to allow the Japanese military to continue to exist in some way, and with it the militarism. The structure of the Japanese government at that time made that certain. The Japanese military had to be totally dismantled which it was. Anything short of that would have completely impossible politically in any of the countries fighting those guys.

The extensive bombing of Japan may not have been needed in a strictly logistical sense, but it was needed in order to convince the Imperial Japanese military that the game was up. The atom bombs were especially useful on that sense. Richard Frank argues that very persuasively in Downfall.

carl; the Potsdam declaration was written as late as July 1945. Until then, unconditional surrender was demanded. Afterwards, there were very little guarantees. The surrender of the armed forces was still called “unconditional”.

Militarism isn’t a military phenomenon, but a society phenomenon. Both army and navy had failed emperor and the people, were horribly embarrassed and their grip on the government (which had existed only for a couple years anyway) was hardly sustainable. A loss of all aircraft carriers would inevitable have prevented all hopes of gaining secure raw materials supply and cheap labour through military force.

Eric/Michael; sorry, all of this is off-topic. But certain false claims should always be countered and Wiktor was simply too far off.

S O:

It doesn’t matter what was before, what they accepted was the Potsdam Declaration, which was quite far from unconditional. The surrender of the armed forces was unconditional but the Declaration said specifically the soldiers would be sent home. Obviously there were no guarantees. They lost the war. And they were not inclined to contemplate surrender period until it was drilled into the shaven skulls of their homicidal military that there was no hope at all of winning and especially of their military surviving.

Your view of Japanese militarism is nonsense. The military had a death grip on the political life and especially the foreign policy of Japan and had had for decades. All that Bushido claptrap was a creation of the military in the 20th century to strengthen their hold on the people. They weren’t embarrassed, they were determined to carry on and probably would have if the atom bombs hadn’t shook them up so. Some factions tried up to the very end to scuttle things. The Japanese people may be honorable but the Imperial military was one of the most scabrous bunch of organized killers that ever walked the face of the earth.

What aircraft carriers? They didn’t have any at the end of the war. They didn’t have a navy. We sank it all. There was nothing to negotiate. You didn’t mention China by the way. There were Japanese armies in China killing hundreds to thousands of Chinese every day. The Chinese probably weren’t inclined to engage in diplomatic minuets.

All the suffering and death in the Pacific can be laid at the feet of Japan, specifically the Japanese military. Those bastards deserve the sympathy of no man.

@ S O – I don’t mind the off topic discussion. You and Carl are capable of having a polite, respectful back and forth.

As far as the discussion goes, I have two takes (and I don’t mind discussing this with you two, but I’m not looking forward to other responses):

- WWII wasn’t as one-sided or simple as it’s commonly portrayed. I just read a fascinating article in the New Yorker that makes the case that America’s delay in entering the Pacific theater led to the Mao’s rise. Why didn’t we get involved? Racism/racist indifference to the plight of Asian people. To defeat Hitler, we allied with Russia/Stalin, who were arguably just as bad. Japanese internment. America didn’t enter the war because of or knew of the Holocaust…etc, etc.

- I’m just not interested in WWII. For all the supposed moral clarity provided by WWII, all of it is undone, in my opinion, by WWI. You know this because of my post “The World War I problem” http://onviolence.com/?e=589

“The Germans invaded Belgium and attempted to conquer France.”

The United States were not guaranteeing the sovereignty of Belgium, unlike the UK. One country attacking another for poor reasons was never a forceful reason for going to war for a country being located on another continent. Any such intervention is a choice, not a necessity.

France was at war with Germany and had attempted to conquer German territory earlier in that war. So attempting to conquer French territory was hardly despicable or something. Germany did not intend to annex any French territories in 1914; there were tycoons demanding an annexation of a small French border area with iron ore mines, and that’s all there was of German annexation plans in WWI: Dreams of a couple capitalists.
Now compare this to Italy, which had joined the Entente in 1915 because the Entente had promised them the annexation of Austrian-Hungarian territory (the highest bidder won this actually expansionist country as brother-in-arms). Why did the U.S. not declare war on Italy in 1915-1917 if aggression and annexation plans were the issue?

“Sinking a nations ships is an act of war.”
Not necessarily, especially not under the rules known at the time. The only legal issue about these sinkings was that the subs did usually not do proper inspections of the cargo as normal cruisers could have done. A ship transporting goods (especially war material) to a warmaking country was and is free game.
Besides, going to war was sure to make the peril of the merchant marine only worse, so how exactly would that be a logical move?

Also, it’s tragic that people in 2014 still believe what the British disinformation campaign from 1915-1917 (that was successful at getting the U.S. into the war) produced. Tragic and somewhat indicative about the believers.

“Imperial Germany was an expansionist, proto-fascist state.”
That sure is why it wasn’t involved in a single European war from 1872-1913 and had only about half a dozen colonial conflicts while the British had about 40 in this period. This quote surely also explains why there are so many credible plans for Second Reich expansion in Europe, sourced by historians from archives. Oh wait, that’s not exactly true.

Last but not least; Wilhelm II was stupid and talked too much. You can find quotes for almost anything from him. Anti-semitism was hardly a major factor at the time. WWI was the war in which Jewish soldiers were patriotic and many were highly decorated, including officers.

“S O” posted the following comment:

“It doesn’t matter what was before, what they accepted was the Potsdam Declaration, which was quite far from unconditional.”

I disagree entirely. Japan was defeated to the point where peace negotiations were in order at the latest after the Battle of Leyte in 1944. Without the demand for unconditional surrender till July ’45 a reasonable peace would have been realistic in late ’44. Which happens to mean that the bombing campaign was unnecessary for a reasonable peace. The fanatic defence of the Reich and of Japan proper was motivated in great part by the demand for unconditional surrender. The Americans only gave up this extremist demand when they projected their losses for the invasion of Japan based on the experience on Okinawa.

This matters A LOT because such overambitious, extremist demands and war goals keep haunting Western decisions about war and peace.
“I wrote about this in 2009 already: http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2..

And you carl should read up some more on Japanese history. The military’s control of policy began in 1932. They had a substantial expansion of their democracy in the ’24-‘35 period.

The IJN wasn’t sunk entirely by VJ-day either (They even had BB Nagato, CV Katsuragi and CV Junyo in service, CV Kasagi was at 84 since decades. (related: See my recent post on Spartans and the links therein.)

“This kind of people” isn’t a personal address. It’s your problem if you identify yourself with war criminals and scum.

@ S O – I accidentally deleted your comment, so I reposted it. Just a heads up, they may be out of order.

@Nicole R

At the risk of interrupting this curious strategic bombing tangent, let me take a crack at answering your question. First, before going into that kind of region, any reconnaissance unit (and I was in a reconnaissance unit in Kandahar province a few years ago) would know of the risk of herders, be they of goats, sheep, cattle or whatever. But typically the drill is to abort the mission when a patrol is compromised. Few missions are worth the risk of continuing after compromise, especially in this kind of war (it’s a marathon, not a sprint). BUT – there’s something else to keep in mind. Important missions should never depend on single source reconnaissance. There should be multiple patrols assigned, along with aerial and electronic surveillance. If the mission is critical and one patrol is compromised, then there’s enough redundancy to carry on. A mission that only has one reconnaissance team assigned and no clear plan on compromise is, quite simple, poorly planned.

Eric C:

If you are looking for moral clarity I don’t think any war will fully meet that criterion. WWII may not meet your historical tastes but it was the biggest event in human history.

We did take a great interest in Asia before Dec. 7. The Navy had been planning for a Pacific fight since the 20s and one of the direct causes of the Pearl Harbor attack was the economic sanctions we imposed on Japan. One the reasons we imposed them was sympathy for China. It is a little thing but the Flying Tigers began to get organized in 1940. I think there was a great deal of popular sympathy for China in those days.

You should read, if you have time, The Battle for China by Peattie, Drea and van de Ven. ( http://www.amazon.com/The-Battle-China-S.. ) It is a wonderfully good book about the war between the Chinese and Japan. What we don’t know about that war… It was a titanic fight.

@ Carl – I’m just not as interested in WWII as other wars…I also think it covered/debated far more than any other war and it shouldn’t be. Just my opinion. Totally agree with your last line.

“If you are looking for moral clarity I don’t think any war will fully meet that criterion.”

Defence of Finland 1939/1940

S O:

You’re right I should read more history of Japan, but I have read a little.

First off our “extremist” views about unconditional surrender were mainstream views of the US polity. Normal they were. To try to open negotiations in 1944 would have been politically impossible in the US.

Politically impossible in Japan too. When you tote up the figures, they obviously couldn’t win, but the military disagreed, and it was they thought that counted. These were the guys who came up with the Kamikazes and forced civilians to jump off the cliffs on Saipan. They were quite willing to take the Japanese millions down with them.

Japanese militarism began with the Meiji constitution back in 1889 and grew from there. The fatal flaw in that document was the army and navy ministers had to be approved of by the army and navy or a government couldn’t be formed. If ball wasn’t played with the two services, no government. The army and navy took full advantage of that to the ultimate ruination of their country. The Manchurian incident was in 1931 during that expansion period of democracy you spoke of.

Ok in absolute terms the IJN wasn’t sunk entirely. But in naval terms they didn’t exist. No fuel. The Nagato was a stationary AA platform and neither of the CV were operational. They had no navy.

The war against Japan lasted as long as it did because of the Japanese military’s intransigence. Unconditional surrender may have had a slight effect on extending things but only in that it provided a small fig leaf for desire of Japan’s military to keep going no matter what.

S O:

“Defence of Finland 1939/1940” Which was followed by Finland being allied with Nazi Germany from 1941-1944.

This is fun.

@ Carl – The issue is that WWII is studied more than any other war, and people import more importance to it than any other war. Further, many armchair strategist and academics take almost all their lessons from that one war, ignoring all the other wars which contradict those same lessons.

Further, when ranking events of historical importance, I can think of quite a few, including wars, which were possibly more important historically. At least its debatable. (For instance, the Thirty Years War killed more people by proportion and resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, which some have argued created the modern nation state.)

“(…) they obviously couldn’t win, but the military disagreed (…)”

The Japanese military didn’t expect to win, but it did expect to be able to achieve what I wrote about; a negotiated peace.

Western conceptions of Japanese resolve in late WW2 have been warped badly by propaganda, attempts to justify the bombing and nukes, language barriers and the fact that all the other possible outcomes didn’t come to fruition.
Negotiated peace with rather limited gains even for the winning party have been common in history, but the Western world has become more extremist since Napoleon shattered the old order, expecting more extreme outcomes from warfare.
Look at Afghanistan, where deposing a government and chasing its movements’ members out of the country or into the hiding didn’t suffice. A dozen foreign powers also waged a war for over a decade in order to ensure that said movement never ever returns.
That’s insane. Never before did any alliance interpret ‘collective defence’ this extremely. Usually, occupying Kabul and forcing the TB to agree to some terms would have sufficed perfectly.
Instead, extremism abounds.
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam

“Which was followed by Finland being allied with Nazi Germany from 1941-1944.”

Actually, they were never really “allied”, but merely brothers-in-arms – they happened to wage very limited warfare against the same country, trying to get back their lost territory. The English language is awfully inaccurate with this entire “ally”/“allied” thing, and it leads to many misconceptions, such as a U.S. politician defending the “allied” Israel against Turkey in a dispute when in fact Israel was not allied by treaty, but Turkey is.

It’s interesting how you seem incapable of considering the war of 39/40 separately from the war of 41-44. You do remember the context, right? It was merely two lines above what you quoted, after all.

Michael C:

I’ll agree with or can’t argue strongly against any of that. But while WWII may not have been the most important historically, it for sure was the biggest event in human history in absolute terms. Besides, I just find it interesting.

S O:

I don’t think perceptions of Japanese resolve were at all distorted by what was seen during the war. Their resolve and cruelty shocked the hell out of everybody, and scared us to. When you look at the actions of their armies during battle and toward occupied peoples and prisoners of war, there was no need to exaggerate. It is all very well and good to be clinical about negotiated settlements and limited gains in the here and now, but if you had said the same thing in 1942 or 44 or 45, you would have been talking mostly to yourself.

You’re right I think, the Japanese military did hope for a negotiated settlement which they eventually got after having had their faces rubbed into the fact that they weren’t going to get what they really wanted. What they were holding out for was a settlement that would have preserved the Imperial system, they got part of that because we was feeling generous. And they also wanted no occupation and preservation of their own selves. They weren’t going to get that, so they fought on until even they saw it wasn’t gonna happen.

Well, the Finns fought side by side with the Nazis. I figure that is about as fine an example of moral turbidity as you can find. And since the original question was one about moral clarity in war…

Besides, you got to look at it from the side of the godless commies too. The Finns were on the wrong side of history at best and dance partners with the devil at worst, hardly moral clarity. And I am familiar with the course of those conflicts.

I always find it naive of people to talk seriously about negotiating with Taliban & Co. You of course could come up with a piece of peace paper but it wouldn’t be a serious thing. Negotiating seriously means, you give a little, I give a little, we’re all happy. Mullah Omar wrapped himself in the cloak of the prophet for pete’s sake, literally. A guy like that with Allah on his side is goinn to give a little? I am skeptical.


Have you read this article from SWJ?


The author came up with the most perfect description of the type of small war fighting we do: career centric coin. The needs of each individual bureaucracy trump the needs of the nation. Each bureaucracy is so strong it can’t be turned.

As an example he mentioned that Kalev Sepp’s coin good practices were incorporated into the FM-3-24 almost unchanged, except for one, the need for one boss and a unified chain of command. What the Army put into the manual instead was “Encourage strong political and military cooperation and information sharing.” The author points out that even in manual writing the bureaucratic imperative is so strong it can’t be broken.

In the comments section of the SWJ article the author wrote this “As our planning for the campaign in Afghanistan has evolved, it seems we looked at our tools of national power several times, recognized that we could not reorganize them to suit the mission for which we were engaged and so we just drove on. Yet, in essence, we drove on to fix and reorganize the governments of an entire complex state and whole society of tribes, ethnicities, and identities. Somehow we thought it easier to do that, then to fix our own institutions.”

What do yo think of that? I fear it goes beyond small wars. The iron bureaucracies may lose us the big wars too.

“Well, the Finns fought side by side with the Nazis. I figure that is about as fine an example of moral turbidity as you can find. And since the original question was one about moral clarity in war…”

Thanks for proving that you lack the ability to think clearly about war.
The war proposed as an example of moral clarity was the war of 39/40, but you are unable to keep it mentally separated from the continuation war of 41-44.
You need to think more clearly and focused, or else you’ll only come up with confused thoughts about war again.

Such as mistaking Japanese cruelties as relevant for the U.S. war effort in more ways than merely feeding U.S. propaganda (which was a choice by the U.S. government, not an exogenous factor).
Besides, the U.S.supported Stalin, period. Any suggestion that Japanese cruelties made an earlier peace seriously difficult is laughable in face of the fact that the Americans learned of wartime cruelties only through their then de facto government-controlled media while Stalin’s cruelties of the entire 30’s were well-known.
Besides, the Americans were helping the British; the people who had been cruel to countless Africans, Indians, Chinese and Aborigines as a matter of routine. The biggest empire of the world with the most oppressed people was the dearest friend of the U.S..
To be appalled or not was obviously a choice, not exogenous as you imply.


I had not read that article. At first I thought you were making reference to domestic bureaucratic structures, but I see now that the reference is more to the organizational structure of expeditionary whole of government operations.

The document is heavily influenced by Frank Kitson, who had some interesting things to say about COIN. I hesitate, though, to lean too heavily on the Malaya experience. Malaya is a terrible example to turn to when looking at current campaigns, because the Malaya experience involved an ethnically distinct militant minority that was despised by the majority and had no cross-border sanctuary. And it STILL took decades to resolve that fight. But some of the organizational issues are valid.

Here are some organizational challenges:

1. In Afghanistan we eased our way into that conflict. Organizations therefore grew without any real unifying purpose. No one at any point said “stop” and did a complete organizational re-write. That’s pretty common with most third-party conflicts, especially when coalition leadership go home after 6 months to a year.

2. Coalitions are made up of nations with distinct interests. Each troop contributor to Afghanistan had a different goal in mind, and so their force structure, rules of engagement and caveats were tailored accordingly. NATO as an organization had a different set of goals (which really had nothing at all to do with NATO’s mandate), and some countries (the US in particular) had multiple conflicting goals (at least as far as employment of Army, SOF and USMC went). Not a single one of those national interests perfectly aligned with Afghan national interests.

3. The best central leadership is civilian political leadership (unless you’re trying to build a military dictatorship). But few governments have foreign offices built to support expeditionary operations, so it’s difficult to get the necessary mass of civilian and police advisors in place quickly. By the time they’re there, the sheer mass of military forces has taken over, crippling the concept of unity of effort.

4. Process is as important as organization, but is viewed very differently by different nations and organs. Some cultures (be they national or organizational) are held in thrall by authority and lots of official looking stamps (each requiring lengthy application forms submitted in triplicate, with weeks of review). Other cultures have flatter bureaucracies. Just as it is easy for a soldier to make a cultural faux pas at a low level meeting or checkpoint, so too can the campaign make a faux pas when trying to impose processes that clash with cultural norms.

5. Bureaucracies exist to propagate themselves. Imposing change can be tough, but it can be done. However, change doesn’t automatically equal success.

None of this is simple, and it’s all a whole lot less sexy than special operations, but that’s the nature of strategy. It requires thought, deliberation, and time. But it’s also more important than discussing how many troops to surge. Ultimately, organization is a key part of strategy. If you screw that up then all the memoirs and movies made of individual engagements might as well share the title of a Gran Chaco War memoir: “Heroic Chronicles of a Stupid War.”

Keep it civil, guys.

S O:

The more I think about it, the more I think the the Finland wars are quite good examples wars that lack moral clarity.

Finland fought the Winter War and lost. In doing so they had to give up more territory that the Russians asked them to cede during the original negotiations. And the Russians originally offered Finland twice as much territory in exchange. The Finns didn’t get that either. The reason the USSR wanted the territory they originally asked for was because they knew the Germans were coming and they felt they needed it for defensive purposes.

So Finland fought that war instead of giving what the Russians said they needed for defensive purposes and getting twice as much territory in return. The result was Finland lost more territory than they would have if they hadn’t fought plus all those Finnish men that died and were wounded. And they made this decision to fight knowing that it was tiny Finland vs a giant determined USSR. Given all that I think you could argue that the Finnish stance was a bit of chest puffing self-indulgence that felt good for a moment but resulted in a very bad outcome. That seems a bit morally uncertain to me.

That is only looking at it from the Finnish side of course. If you look at it from the Russian side, the Finns rejected a reasonable offer and got a whole lot of people killed because of mule headed stubbornness. And they ended up in a worse position to boot.

Then came the Continuation War. The Finns, I read, called it that because they viewed it as just a second round of the Winter War. In this one they fought side by side with the Nazis. So it can be viewed that the decision by the Finns to fight the Winter War led to a situation whereby they fought with the Nazis. Then they ended up losing that war and all that territory anyway, with many thousands more dead. The Finnish town of Viipuri would have stayed Viipuri if the Finns had accepted the original Soviet demands. They didn’t and the town is now the Russian town of Vyborg and has been since 1944.

So, my view is that it isn’t so definite.

No, I think it quite clear that Japanese cruelties had a major effect upon the mood of the American people, not only those done during after Dec 7, but all those done to the Chinese before then. None of this was a mystery and it made people mad. When people get mad if affects how the war is fought and how it is ended. People were mad at the Japanese, in my view with good reason, and were not inclined to play striped pants diplomatic games with them.

This comment of yours “Such as mistaking Japanese cruelties as relevant for the U.S. war effort in more ways than merely feeding U.S. propaganda (which was a choice by the U.S. government, not an exogenous factor).” puzzles me. I think that you are suggesting that the US gov had choice in highlighting the barbarity of the Japanese military during the war. There was no choice because it was impossible to hide. It was plain for all those who fought the Japanese to see and those guys wrote letters and came home and talked about what they saw. The Chinese weren’t about to keep quite about their dead millions either. Japanese cruelty was too plain to be hidden. Besides, we were fighting the Japanese. The only purpose in not talking about their behavior would have been to make the American people better disposed toward them while fighting them. Boy talk about confusing the people.

I am not so sure we knew all about Stalin’s mass murders. Walter Duranty got a Pulitzer for covering them up. And there were other like him. The pro-Soviet propaganda was so successful in the 30s that many Americans went there to help out in the great effort. The came to a bad end.

The Fins had gained their independence less than a generation earlier. Their sovereignty wasn’t a matter for debate or bargaining. Stalin questioned their borders, and giving in could have proved fatal.
Keep in mind the environment they were living in, what happened to the Czechs a few months earlier. Also look at how Stalin treated the Baltic countries at the time (the Estonians are to Fins what Austrians are to Germans).

Let’s not forget that Finland was attacked without having attacked anyone. It wasn’t holding Russian-populated territory either.

Land swap agreement or war as not the choice. The choice was between agreeing into whatever treaty or not. War was illegitimate, illegal and plain aggression against Finnish sovereignty, period.

You may believe the paperwork, but I think it was a clear-cut case of defending sovereignty as much as possible. Whatever diplomacy happened before that aggression doesn’t matter, for the Finns had not accumulated any guilt that would have justified an attack.

Once again, you fail to keep two separate things separate and conflate them, clouding your judgement of one of the things.

The point of the article was to expose the missed opportunity to show that it was COIN that saved ML as much as Pashtun-wali as I read it. In addition it was noted that the movie missed opportunities to humanize the situation and pull back on the degree of good guy/bad guy in regards to definitions and expose the shades of gray.

The real problem is looking to a Hollywood based “movie” as a source of information. If you want to watch a “movie” to gain knowledge then you need to start with a documentary not something that is meant to generate $30-$40 million in a weekend revenue from people looking for a release from the real world. They want to be entertained and made to forget about the world of gray. Documentaries, as I know them, aren’t able to do that because they’re meant to be informative not entertaining.

You also have to ask yourself the question of whether Peter Berg/Hollywood had a responsibility to make money on the movie using sensationalism and dramatic license or if they’re supposed to create a source of information via entertainment based story telling with the hope of providing an excellent source to be used in arguments about geopolitics and military policy.

If you base your core beliefs on something you see in a medium meant to merely entertain you then you may want to take a hard look at what you believe and why.

Regarding Lone Survivor, I just saw the movie. The SEAL team was ambushed because they let the herders go?

In any case, letting them go was a big risk—immediate, tactical risk, at least?

If so, wouldn’t it have been prudent and within Rules of Engagement to slow the herders’ hike back to the village — take off their shoes and some clothing — whatever. I’m assuming that time would have helped the SEAL team.

Michael , Eric;
this is what I found as search criterion which led to my blog (in blogger stats):
“lone survivor chest rigs”

I suspect the visitor was directed to me only because your headlines appear in my left frame, but what’s more interesting is the search itself.
My feeling is that this is quite representative of what people take away from such movies: Interest in superficialities, more admiration for door kicker tough guys.
I’ve seen comments elsewhere which took the movie as if it was a documentation; even trying to draw real-world lessons from it.

@ S O – I don’t know what to say, except that is so add.

And I agree with your thesis.

OMG, again:
“what chest rigs were won in lone survivor”

No kidding. This was a keyword from the last hour:

It’s no wonder that the “Soldier Systems” tacticool product advertisement blog runs well.