PART 2: THE BIG PICTURE
A NEW AGILITY
I bow to no one in my respect for the courage and integrity of the American soldier. From Bunker Hill to Missionary Ridge, from the stinking black sand of Iwo Jima to the jungles of Vietnam, these men have shown a tenacity, decency and valor unmatched in history. My respect and admiration for them all is boundless.
But with that said, there have never been soldiers like the ones we have deployed today. Never.
These men and women have been asked not only to be warriors, but also policemen, judges, marriage counselors, businessmen, administrators, referees, bodyguards, traffic cops, teachers and ambassadors. They deserve the very best that we as a nation can provide. That means not only material and spiritual support. It means they deserve the best leadership this country can possibly deliver.
Agility is not just something that a fighter plane or even an armored column can possess. Agility in this day and age can and should mean many things that may not seem obvious but which are more crucial to victory than any weapon system.
We’ve seen the spectacular success of Boyd’s ideas on major battlefields with massive armies. My point in writing this essay is simply this: these qualities of agility, speed, precision, lethality… “fingertip control,” and “water flowing downhill” can and recently have been applied to the post-war insurgency, where indications are they can also meet with great success. The problem seems not to be whether or not we know how to do this. The problem seems to be whether or not we want to.
Why is it, do you think, that the United States was able to win a war in Afghanistan in five months, with far, far smaller forces than the Soviets used in the nine years leading up to their ultimate failure?
It’s a complex issue, obviously, but I maintain that it is essentially that the Soviets relied on firepower and attrition – the iron mace – while the US focused tremendous force delicately and lightly and with great precision – the rapier. If the Soviet failure was due to entire armored divisions flattening villages wholesale, the US achieved victory with one or two Special Forces men on horseback calling in precision air strikes that with few notable tragic exceptions hit only what they meant to hit.
In those early days in Afghanistan – long before I read or even heard about John Boyd – I recall hearing a story that caused me some concern. I read of a small unit of American Special Forces troops who had gone into a village, lived there, made friends with the tribal leaders, shared local food and traditions with gusto and yet with humility, ate with local families in their own homes, showed respect for their women and gave their men the honor and deference and the means and the money to provide for their own people.
And then, the next day, soldiers from a regular Army unit entered these houses, kicked the doors down looking for weapons, terrified the women and children, and then left all of those hard-won relationships in ruins.
Now, I don’t blame those soldiers one bit. They are warriors and that is what they are trained to do. They are under fire in a strange land and did not have the benefit of time and training that the Special Forces men had. But from where I sit I see many more opportunities for conflicts like our present one, and not as many for those requiring all of our Air Wings and Carrier Battle Groups (although clearly we need these, and at peak readiness, as well).
My motivation is simple: if the US goes to war, I want her to win. I want to win with as few American casualties as possible, and then, second, with as little collateral damage as we can possibly manage. And that, it seems, will require less mace swinging and more Fingerspitzengefuhl.
What do we have to do to achieve this goal? Well, this seems sensible to me:
Bureaucracy should be agile. Yes, yes – I know: An irreconcilable contradiction in terms. Bureaucracies are dinosaurs defined.
I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can much longer afford that luxury. An agile bureaucracy is a Pentagon that actively predicts – within the limits of human ability – what weapons, tactics and countermeasures an insurgency will apply against us as thoroughly as they did with the Soviet Red Army Order of Battle in the past.
During the crisis on Apollo 13 a group of very smart men were given the small assortment of socks, clipboards, tape and plastic bags available aboard the crippled spacecraft and told to fashion a CO2 scrubber. They did it.
It seems to me that we need more of this type of gaming. Some of our Special Forces guys should be given the ramshackle tools available to an insurgency and proceed to make every possible weapon out of them that they can think of. It shouldn’t take too much convincing to put these guys to work finding new and unusual ways to blow things up. They need to do it before the bad guys do so we can observe, orient, decide and act to protect our men and women. I refuse to believe that barely educated, seventh-century murdering fanatics can do this faster and better then the men we field in the SEALS, Delta Force, and so on. We need to get inside the insurgents’ decision loop. We need, whenever possible, to anticipate their weapons and tactics so that we have our best countermeasures in place as quickly as possible. Certainly our troops in the field can cycle, innovate and evolve faster than these insurgents. The Pentagon will have to keep up. This is a tail that is going to have to wag a very large and overweight dog. There’s nothing else for it.
I have noticed that a simple, cheap, metal mesh has been welded to the outside of Stryker vehicles:
I assume this is used to pre-detonate incoming RPG rounds that would otherwise penetrate the actual armor. Did we find this out the hard way? I don’t know. But I for one would rather see a few of our own guys shooting RPG’s at empty Strykers out on some test range all day and all night than learn this lesson with real people. When Pierre Sprey and others demanded real-world testing on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, what they got were tests on vehicles whose gas tanks were filled with water. It was only after almost Herculean efforts that defects were corrected and niceties such as anti-spalling Kevlar inner linings were installed. How many lives has Pierre Sprey and others saved? These are not anti-war imbeciles trying to kill a weapons program. These are brilliant engineers and American patriots who want American soldiers to survive their battles.
Blocking or falsifying these kinds of tests should be a court-martial offense. Further, an agile Pentagon should have the power to streamline the delivery of what we need when we need it without delay, infighting or red tape.
The most shocking thing about Boyd’s battles with the Pentagon was that it revealed a general officer class that more often seemed more concerned with seniority and protection of one’s own posterior than with winning battles or protecting the lives of our soldiers. I do not want to be mistaken on this: these officers are, I believe to a man, patriots who love their country and cannot conceive of willfully doing her harm. But all isolated cultures suffer from a lack of perspective, from a lack of flexibility and from a self-reinforcing groupthink that protects the status quo at the expense of the pain of innovation. In the name of the country and the soldiers under their command, this needs to change.
It can be changed. To give only the one example I am most familiar with:
There was a time when being a Jet Airline Captain was about as close as a mortal could come to being God. All flight crews were taught – and most sincerely believed – that this absolute authority in the hands of great experience provided the greatest safety.
And then a jet crashed, and many people were killed. And the jet crashed because it ran out of fuel. And it ran out of fuel because the Captain thought he could make it, and the First Officer was too cowed to tell him he was wrong. That young pilot was, sadly in the most literal sense of the word, scared to death to tell the truth.
Since then, a new idea – Cockpit Resource Management – has made decision-making much more shared. The Captain still has the final say, and that is appropriate. But now First Officers are encouraged – required even – to disagree vocally and forcefully with actions they feel to be unsafe. The Captain is now required to brief the First Officer on the instrument approach he plans to fly. This has dramatically reduced minor errors that can cascade into catastrophes. At all flight critical phases a “sterile cockpit” is strictly enforced, which means that all conversation will be limited to the task at hand and no one gets distracted over who is eating what where after they land.
CRM has been hugely successful. In fact, a pilot/surgeon was so impressed with the results that he has taken many of aviation’s best ideas – written checklists, sterile conversation and actively-shared decision-making and briefing – into the operating room where many shockingly preventable mistakes continue to be made. Here too Gods have to be challenged. But the results speak for themselves… and even the most arrogant Captain would rather learn some new tricks than take two hundred people, himself included, into the ground.
I do not know for certain, but I’d be willing to bet that today’s Pentagon is considerably less rigid than the one Boyd faced in the sixties and seventies. But it took three years of observing a steadily deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq before a new orientation-decision-action was initiated. That’s way too much observation and way too slow a response. Obviously the political leadership bears a great deal of this responsibility as well. We can do better. These are our men and women out there. I do not think there is a serving officer alive who fully and consciously would let their troops die to save their stars. But it is often very, very hard to get this signal across in a way it will be heard. CRM-like techniques can and should be made mandatory so that top decision makers get accurate and honest information from the people at the tip of the spear, and those who give it should be able to do so without fear of jeopardizing their careers. The faster we can do that – the faster we get and act on information and re-stock the train with what we need now and not two years ago – the more successful we will be.
Oh. And parenthetically, I would give a significant pay raise to every man and woman in the armed services. We need the best people we can get and we need more of them. They have been underpaid for far too long, and it’s a disgrace.
The Political Leadership should be agile. I know, it’s nice to dream, huh? But surely, approaching the five year mark in Iraq, we must realize that the only hope these insurgents have or ever did have is to sow enough despair and hopelessness among the American people that we walk away.
Why is it that the fielded military can adopt Boyd’s concept of agility and maneuverability, but the political leadership remains absolutely blind to the fact that this battle may or may not be won on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah and Ramadi, but it absolutely can be lost on the CBS Evening News? One would think the insurgents would need a multi-billion dollar, worldwide high-tech satellite network to spread their propaganda. But, being the generous people that we are, we have gallantly lent them ours.
This is an example of Swordlessness: using the enemy’s weapon against him. Two can play at that game, as we will see in a moment. But let’s just take it as read that the Main Stream Media no longer even seriously pretends to report facts. They have made an editorial decision that this conflict is a mistake and we should have stopped looking to them for fairness or balance a long time ago.
This is the battleground. Why – why – is the administration unable or unwilling to commit resources to this theater of operations?
A friend of mine has two brothers serving both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together, they have been deployed seven times to these war zones. Jake Rademacher is a documentary filmmaker of real talent who had the guts to go to Iraq and live with his brothers outside the Green Zone for several weeks. His film, Brothers at War, is an actual documentary: that is to say, he did not script it and he does not push a viewpoint. What he does do is show his two brothers living in a country that is by turns violent and gentle, with people good and bad, brave and cowardly, and through it all you get to see why his two brothers chose to go back there and risk their lives again and again.
If this film were shown to the American people, support for the war would go up thirty points; not because it has a point to make but simply because it doesn’t. You just see what goes on and you make your own decision.
Brothers at War, and the writings of Michael Yon, Michel Totten and precious few others, are worth entire divisions. They have allowed us a perspective of what is really going on over there. They have lived there for years, long enough to know the people and what makes good news or bad. They have earned my trust and deepest respect for unblinking and courageous reporting that has put the MSM to shame. I suspect Michael Yon has spent more time within the sound of gunfire than any other MSM reporter has total time in country. And he and Mike Totten and a few others have allowed that signal – that small, pure signal – to escape into the ether. Or rather, into the Ethernet.
We have held this line – barely – with the efforts of men like that and a few private citizens writing in their pajamas. The political leadership needs to get in this fight. Now.
And now, finally, to the Surge, and a new warrior-scholar.
We’ve spent a lot of time with John Boyd, because I and others believe his theories not only won the war, but if properly applied they might do the nearly impossible and win the peace as well.
If I understand this enigmatic and complex man correctly, he came to the conclusion that there was something beyond the Perfect Sword; something beyond even the Perfect Swordsman. Because as Sun Tzu pointed out, there is a level of warrior satori beyond even that. Beyond them both lay Swordlessness.
Swordlessness is not peace and it is certainly not surrender. Swordlessness uses nothing but the enemy’s sword against him. Perfect Swordlessness is a sublime victory so complete that there is no fight at all. It is over before it begins.
General Petraeus – just perhaps – is in the process of winning such a victory in Iraq. By brilliant diplomacy, deep understanding of the culture and the judicious use of gunpowder and money, it appears he has severed most of the Sunni tribes from al Qaeda and used them as “Awakening” peacekeeping militias against their former allies. General Petraeus is not fighting the last war; he is fighting the next one. He did not arrive there and just hope for the best. He observed. He oriented. He decided. And he acted. And then he observed again to see what effect he had. And again. And again.
This is not firepower. This is not attrition. This is, rather, an intelligent, delicate, sophisticated, maneuver-based strategy. A light, but sometimes deadly touch. Fingertip control. Water flowing downhill, into the cracks which our enemy cannot fill.
And while you can criticize the President for not taking a relatively unknown, low-ranking general and giving him the whole ball of wax sooner, you might also note that Gen. Creighton Abrams’ radical change of strategy in Vietnam was implemented only after it was well and truly too late.
If this continues, Gen. Petraeus will have walked into the camp of the enemy and used his own sword against him. That is a profound species of victory.
You can not put a value on the power an idea such as the one that drives Gen. Petraeus’ “Awakening” strategy. A man’s ultimate motivation is to provide for his family. A man, when all is said and done, is powered by nothing more or less then the desire to make his family safe and proud of him.
If Americans pay such a man to walk the streets of his own neighborhood, keeping the peace by cooperating with a foreign army, will he take a coin so offered? I suppose it depends on whether or not he can do so with honor. No one wants foreign troops in their towns or streets. But we have been there long enough for the essential American decency and sincerity to be revealed, and spare me please any mention of Abu Graib or Haditha which were atrocities that were investigated and punished by an army that had no force to compel it to do so short of its own decency. These people are not blind. They know what is in a few diseased hearts and what is policy. The United States Army did something they have not ever seen in that country. Power policed itself.
“Awakening” is working because most Iraqis now have come to the conclusion that we are not there to steal their oil or their land and that the average man may cooperate with us without compromising his honor or the respect of his family. As our side of the scale rises, they are confronted with an ever more desperate al Qaeda whose decision loop lags further behind us every day. Desperate, they become more cruel. For American infidels to sail halfway across the world and win the hearts and minds of Muslims when they themselves cannot, is a tremendous shock to them. Why, I suppose someone like Katie Couric might even call it a Grim Milestone.
We have lost some of our best people in Iraq, and they are irreplaceable. But morale is a two-edged sword. We have lost a very small percentage of the force we deployed. They have lost almost all of all they had to send. These are people too. They get tired of fighting just like we do. I suppose the only difference is that if one of them urges surrender on their own people they are taken out and beheaded, while if some of our own people do so to us, they are given an Academy Award and big sack of cash.
When Osama bin Laden launched the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, he explained in a video to his own followers that it was because America was a paper tiger too afraid to take casualties, and that defeating The Great Satan would be even easier than defeating the Soviets. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse,” he said.
I wonder if our illegal, immoral, unilateral cowboy adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq may have tempered this view somewhat. This Great Saladin is now reduced to living in a cave, calling for the end of Global Warming and begging for recruits to fight in Iraq. In doing so he is admitting that it is he, not us, who is the weak horse to a people with ears very, very finely tuned to such frequencies.
Look at this picture of the aftermath of an IED explosion. Who do you think this Iraqi child considers the ‘strong horse?’ Can you fake this kind of reaction, this instantaneous bolt to safety in the middle of fire and death?
I don’t think you can. I don’t think you can fake this either:
And as for the Surge, I am struck by one thought, and that is this: It seems clear now that we needed more troops in theater from Day One. But I think the spectacular success of the Surge is due less to the number of boots on the ground than it is to something far more important.
Looking back on the rise of the insurgency, it seems as if the average Iraqi did not know what to make of America. I suspect that many would have been far more supportive a long time ago, if it were not for the image of a helicopter atop a building in 1975 and a line of desperate people running for their lives. To work with Americans may have been what many wanted to do much, much sooner.
When Michael Moore makes a hugely successful film praising Saddam’s paradise and calling these people who bomb women and children in marketplaces “freedom fighters,” and when an election turns and places into Congressional power a political party dedicated to reproducing that helicopter tableau as soon as possible… what would you do? Because if you guess wrong and the Americans leave, you will be taken out into the street in front of your family and have your head sawed off.
I think the Surge has had spectacular success not because of the additional troops so much as for the fact that when the media and the Democrats demanded we cut and run… we did not cut and run. We doubled down. When the calls for defeat and dishonor were at their loudest – sad to say a not unwarranted street rep we had made for ourselves – somehow, somehow we simply just hung on and gave them not a retreat but a charge.
Jesus Christ, but that must have gotten someone’s attention. Yes, the Surge is working. But I believe it is not a surge of boots that is doing the work so much as it is a surge of hope.
And hope… well, hope is a dangerous thing. For every day that Iraq returns not only to normal but to free normal is a day remembered. It is a day to which other, darker days may be compared.
Every day of success, every newly opened shop, every school and soccer game free of secret police and each and every night devoid of the terror of arbitrary arrest and execution is something to lose. It is something the murdering bastards of al Qaeda cannot give but can only take away. We have taken their sword from them. They wield it now only against themselves. They will do it, too: more pain and more death are coming, for that is all they know how to do. But hope walks the streets of Baghdad now, hope in the form of decent and brave young men and women who have held a line against all odds and perhaps bought with their courage and their blood the time we need for that hope to spread.
Hope can spread here, too. A few weeks ago, a remarkable story may have passed under your radar: in an extremely unusual move, General Petraeus was asked to briefly return to “the Building” (the five-sided one) from his command in Iraq to help select the next 40 or so Brigadier General candidates from a pool of about 1,000 colonels. These forty officers are the new Golden Boys: fast-tracked rising stars who will be determining how, if not when or where or why we will fight in the new century.
This is a very unusual move, and it appears to be universally recognized as a major shift on the part of the Pentagon to make sure that talent, rather than seniority, will be the benchmark for promotion. To call back from Iraq the General with the PhD in International Relations, the man whose light, agile, fingertip control of the situation on the ground has yielded such remarkable success, is a strong indication that the High Priests with the stars on their shoulders are determined to see us succeed with new tactics and new doctrine for the new challenges we face.
It’s a good sign. A hopeful sign.
And if hope catches hold and finds a way to grow in that arid and distant land, then I would like to live long enough to see David Petraeus, Michael Yon and Michael Totten standing on a podium in the Rose Garden under an administration I could then afford not to care too much about, and watch as they lower their heads and the President of the United States – whoever that may be – puts the Medal of Freedom around their necks.
For win or lose, they have earned it.
(Everything I learned about John Boyd I discovered through BOYD: THE FIGHTER PILOT WHO CHANGED THE ART OF WAR by Robert Coram, available here.
And if you missed it earlier and can spare seven minutes to improve your life, I think you will be as deeply impressed as I was when I saw the trailer for my friend Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War located here.
Finally, if you’d like to support these essays, you can purchase a copy of SILENT AMERICA: ESSAYS FROM A DEMOCRACY AT WAR by clicking here.)