The Talking Pictures

So, a little while back, I managed to sit down and interview Noah Shachtman of Danger Room and Brookings fame for that wonderful venue known as Fortnight. Part of the structure of the journal includes “luminary responses,” in which an established figure in the author’s field engages with the author in some sort of dialogue or response piece. I was one of the lucky ones to receive such a response, and my luminary was Noah Shachtman.

My interview has finally gone live. You may have already gotten the official email; if not, my apologies for the omission. In the end, it’s even better than I hoped it would be. Shachtman is awesome. We covered a wide range of topics, from writing while trying to break into the field to America’s need for/lack of an overarching grand strategy to the future of navies. Please, check it out for yourself.

Also, “underemployed” seems to be one of those words that will now be permanently affixed in front of my name, like “Doe-eyed Athena.” I am a much bigger fan of “millennial combat scholar.” One for the business cards, perhaps?


I’ve been remiss in not linking to my most recent Fortnight article (this one dating back to December 15). One of my big influences both politically and intellectually in the last few years has been Christopher Hitchens. Modeled after his Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Letters to Hitch” is my attempt to express the spirit he represents – one that I fear may be emblematic of a dying breed. An excerpt:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

You must be reading far too much correspondence these days from people from whom you have never heard or of whom you have never thought. I imagine a terminal diagnosis is somewhat like being a lottery winner in that respect–a reverse lottery. Pardon the dark humor. I hope I’m not breaching the new etiquette of cancer you’re composing on a daily basis; it is lines like: “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist” that give me confidence in your undiminished wit.

To that end, I won’t even bother asking how you are (your answer, I assume, would continue to be “I seem to have cancer today”).

Forgive my fawning; I have spared nuance to save time. Allow me this moment to express my admiration for the evolution of your writing and political thought. This is not just because your path tracks with my own, but because your work represents a devoted iconoclasm I fear my generation will not reproduce.

You can read the rest here.

Goodbye to All That

Quintessential London: Big Ben, a Georgian-style building, and CCTV.

As what has been a wild nine months draws to a close, I’ve been saying goodbyes and revisiting all my favorite haunts (looking at you, Princess Louise). Disappointing as some aspects of the year have been (the academics, for one), there has been so much good to come out of it. As at other schools, LSE has introduced me to some of the smartest people I’ve worked, studied, and grown close with in my life. I want to thank them and point some out in particular.

  • [NAME REDACTED] writes as the Hybrid Diplomat at Hybrid Diplomacy. He’s easily the closest friend I made this year, us being in the same program and sharing two of three courses. He is a true iconoclast, “not giving a fuck” about telling it exactly like it is. His candor is refreshing. And I will miss him.
  • Shannon runs The Traveling Scholar, a running diary and travelogue of her adventures while based in London. On the one hand, her travels inspire some regrets that I didn’t get outside of the city more. But on the other hand, her writing makes it easy to live vicariously through her.
  • One of the more fascinating blogs I’ve read recently belongs to my friend Jonas F. Gjersø, The Civilizing Mission. He takes a very empirical approach to the history of empire, and the charts he has produced reveal some surprising, but always fascinating, results. He too is embarked on a PhD journey; I wish him the best as well.
  • The Occidental Oriental is another anonymous blog by [NAME REDACTED]. As an Afghan-Texan-Persian-American, he has some rare insights into the Middle East and the rest of the world. Definitely check out his current series of posts from Syria.

And to all the others without blogs – Ross, Jasmine, Mark, Erica, Peter, Michael, Amy, Rebecca, Kita, Jimmy (and yes, even Wen) – you are just as dear. Thanks for brightening my year when the clouds invariably set in.

One more special thanks is also due to those luminaries who have helped and guided me in the wide world of milblogging. Starbuck from Wings Over Iraq, Shlok Vaidya, Mike Slagh at Secure Nation, and Japan Security Watch’s Kyle Mizokami have all been as friendly and welcoming as can be. I owe them too a debt of gratitude.

This year has been eye-opening and a learning experience, one way or another. Thank you all so much for everything. And see you soon, I hope.

More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.

The American Way of War: A Review

After a long while of meaning to, I’ve finished Russell Weigley’s magisterial book The American Way of War. Took longer than it should have, but as a foundational text for understanding not only American strategy, but basic concepts of national strategy itself, this book is unsurpassed. It’s one of the few I can truly call “epic.”

Beginning with George Washington’s “strategy of attrition” during the Revolutionary War, Weigley traces the scope of American strategic thought up to the closing days of the Vietnam War. Structurally, American strategy falls into several phases. Washington eventually gives way to Halleck, who is then replaced by Ulysses Grant. Grant’s approach to war – “a strategy of annihilation” – then serves as the United States’ guiding principle until well into the twentieth century.

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Reliving the Past

As Herbert Butterfield warns us and as I’ve mentioned here before, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  I was then pleased to read Patrick Porter’s latest column, “The Shadow of the Fathers.” He writes about invocations of the Founding Fathers as justification for all manner of… anything, really. To him, American policymakers have “the tricky job of acknowledging the powerful ideas and heritage that shaped American statecraft, while also resisting it.”

Perhaps my favorite line in the piece, though, belonged to Nicholas Spykman:

Not conformity with the past but workability in the present is the criterion of a sound policy.

Words for today.

The End of COIN?

Maj. General Rick Nash tries his hand at camel riding during a visit to the Sa’adoun tribe confederation land.

Last month, the zenpundit (Mark Safranski) came up with a startling idea: “The Post-COIN Era is Here.” The idea, while revelatory, is definitely worth consideration. The modern timescale for adopting and conceiving new doctrine has shrunk from the decades it used to take to only a few short years – both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side is the ability to shift rapidly from a failed strategy to one which stands a chance of succeeding, saving time and lives that would otherwise be wasted. At the same time, an untested new idea runs the risk of failing, in perhaps even more spectacular fashion.

It was fairly clear, then, that something would have to give way after the abyss into which Iraq plunged the first few years after invasion. Safranski lays down three main reasons for the initial adoption of COIN:

1) The  ”Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its’ own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.

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Outside the Box

Foreign Policy just ran an article on “The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats.” A collection of five ‘wacky’, ‘zany’ (note: those are not actual quotes), potential terrorist threats, they’re pretty roundly dismissed by Kayvan Farzaneh. Unfortunately, a quick ruling-out of these threat vectors is not something to be taken lightly. It was said that 9/11 was “unimaginable” and that the use of commercial airliners to strike American landmarks was an inconceivable event.

Yet, Tom Clancy described such a scenario in the Jack Ryan novel Debt of Honor – which he wrote in 1994. It must have seemed pretty crazy at the time. After the conclusion of a shooting war between Japan and the United States, a disgruntled JAL pilot – whose brothers were killed during the war – crashes his 747 into the Capitol Building during a full joint session of Congress, decapitating the federal government in one fell swoop.

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Clausewitz Lives?

For all the debate surrounding the applicability of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to modern war, it’s fairly well-established that much of Clausewitz’s On War is the product of his age. Sun Tzu is perhaps better read, even by Western armies, if not for the sole purpose that it often serves as the guide for their enemies (not to oversimplify or state a categorical, but this is at least the assumption). At a strategic level, there is certainly some utility to be found, but the image one gets of Clausewitz’s writing is that of a relentless forward-only-advancing army, with no guile or subtlety to deploy.

It was for all these reasons that I was dismayed to hear Brigadier General Larry Nicholson of the 2nd MEB refer to Marjah, Afghanistan as the “enemy center of gravity” (about 1:20 in the clip). Marja is a “stronghold” of sorts, where insurgents stockpile weapons and have built defenses. Granted, General Nicholson was paraphrasing Afghans (whose most frequent asked question is, “when are the Marines leaving?”), but the fact remains that he’s employing Clausewitzian terminology to describe a decidedly un-Clausewitzian conflict.

You don’t hit the enemy where’s he strongest; nor do you hit him where he’s weakest. You attack where the enemy does not defend; you defend where the enemy does not attack. You avoid cities at all cost (this is not entirely applicable to Afghanistan, but it’s a strong general principle). If the Imperial German Army was wise enough to bypass Liège and Namur, you’d think the 2nd MEB could do the same. Obviously the parallels aren’t exact, but they’re there. If Marjah is what they’re defending, Marjah is what we don’t attack.

John Boyd and the OODA Loop

I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion on this lately, and I was fortunate enough to stumble on Bill Whittle’s “Forty Second Boyd and the Big Picture.” The OODA Loop is something getting talked about quite a bit, and Whittle’s summary simultaneously shows off the simplicity and mind-blowingness of Boyd’s achievement.

If OODA is as universally applicable as Whittle claims, though – to business, to a love life, et cetera – then is deliberation never the right choice? It remains to be seen whether the new Obama surge in Afghanistan will have the desired effect, but judging from the fairly widespread approval of the new strategy, it was well worth the wait.

Of course, the delay was between orientation and decision, which as Vinay Gupta points out, is the same place corporate change sputters out. The difference between thinkers/doers and senior/junior personnel is no less real at the White House. But can it be overcome?