books

Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

I think that it is great that military commanders now have reading lists (who doesn’t have one these days?).  Encouraging military professionals to understand their profession in ways other than by dint of their own experience alone is a worthwhile endeavour and should be encouraged.

This sentiment, of course, depends on the assumption that all books so chosen have a contribution to make towards the noble aims of such an enterprise.  But what is one to make of ‘bad books’?

On the Commandant of the US Marine Corps’s Professional Reading List, I found and read this book: The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressman.  It is required reading for every Marine, regardless of rank or role.  And to me, that is a shame.

The book is chock full of bumper-sticker aphorisms, many of which are contradictory, the bulk of which are sexist, some downright misogynist.  The book advocates a turn to ‘subjective control’ of the military, rather than ‘objective control’, on the basis that the distinctions between the military culture and the civilian one are unhealthy.

A confusing–even worrying–choice, therefore, and one that needs defending if it is to be appreciated.

Bring it.

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Learning to Win, Not Defeat

In the continuing series of blog posts to spur professional military discussion, I offer a thought piece arguing for a reorientation of the conceptualization of warfare in the near to mid term — or at the very least in this piece of the spectrum of conflict. For a bit of summer fun, rather than prescriptive questions, in this case you are invited to discuss and challenge my interpretations. Enjoy the read and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

 

The new documentary “Kill Team” narrates the degeneration of one Army unit to a state in which criminal acts were validated and suggests that military training focussed upon killing is to blame. At the tactical level, I cannot agree. Sustaining any specific military training is the foundation in discipline and order. To wit, proficiency in killing does not mean that troops on the front lines are little more than automatons of death. Rather, events such as these rely far more significantly upon the command and leadership climate which shapes the attitudes and activities of the line units than upon the combat training of the soldiery. And so it is necessary to understand what influences and shapes that climate. Taking this approach, I would argue that the real source of the problem is that how warfare is conceptualized is too focussed upon the killing, upon destruction, upon defeat.

Understandably, given the overwhelming model of the 2oth Century’s two World Wars, American armed forces (and those of the West generally to varying degrees) have come to define their activities in two realms, often occurring in sequence from defeat the enemy to win the war. Further to that, the first objective was largely defined in terms of physical destruction. And so the standard template was to first fight and destroy the opposing forces, then to put society back together afterwards. Given the the mass armies of industries in those wars, that prioritization made sense because the enemy force was a real obstacle to the necessary terms of victory and peace. Along the way, however, this priority escaped the bounds of its own context and came to be viewed as an eternal truth – that victory necessarily equals defeat of the enemy force.

However, when one considers these values as the context which informs command and leadership it is questionable that they serve well the needs of contemporary warfare. Whether in the urban jungle or the boondocks, a reasonable model for the contemporary style of conflict is generally irregular and light forces using asymmetric tactics and reliant upon a general level of support from the local population. Unfortunately, in an environment where the defeat of the enemy must necessarily occur within the civilian population, the prevailing wisdom described above does not serve and may in fact harm current efforts because collateral damage becomes losses and casualties for those that cause it. The confluence of political consciousness, mass information and social media make this so. A reasonable interpretation of recent events is that this effect weighs heaviest upon the dominant or foreign actor in a conflict and is the source of strategic equivalence between weak and strong that has been on display in the recent asymmetric conflicts.

And so, the new calculus of collateral damage has allowed the insurgent/irregular forces to contend successfully against wealthier, militarily more proficient forces. (1)  This puts the armed forces on the horns of a dilemma: the focus upon defeating the enemy may be getting in the way of winning the war. In conflicts like OIF/OEF, so long as the physical destruction of the enemy remains the dominant objective of the armed forces, not only will more such sad events occur, but the translation of military activity to political benefit will continue elude the US and the West.

 

Note:

1. Israel you need to learn this lesson. Whatever the other issues, in the cold calculus of war, you own every Palestinian civilian you kill because you are the stronger of the two in the conflict with Hamas. If you were fighting Egypt or Iran, then this would not apply — see, it’s not about unfairly binding you, it’s about making you see the emergent strategic imperatives.

 

 

 

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srbrenica

On Accountability: The Tragedy of Srebrenica

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”  Molière

The massacre of 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men at Srebrenica in July 1995 was genocide, the vilest crime against humanity in the international legal statute book.  Of that there can be no doubt.  Who is accountable for it, however, is slightly less clear.  This week’s landmark Dutch ruling adds another dimension to the issue, one that clouds, not clarifies, the matter.

Individual Responsibility

At the individual level, there have been a number of convictions and prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for the slaughter committed.  Krtić and Blagojević were convicted, while several others, including Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić, have been accused, charged, and/or prosecuted for their involvement.   National courts in Serbia, Bosnia and elsewhere have also carried out trials of those responsible, many for individual acts of murder, rather than genocide. The number of people actually involved and responsible for these obscene crimes is, undoubtedly, much larger than those prosecuted; there is rumoured to be a list held in Banja Luka with over 25,000 names on it, 800 or so kept secret.  This failure of humanity, it seems, had many fathers.  

Collective Responsibility

Above the level of the individual, though, how has accountability been allocated?

In 1999, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan apportioned blame on the ‘international community’ and the senior leadership of the UN for failing to protect the people of Srebrenica.  He re-iterated this in 2005 on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, repeating that the UN was partially to blame.  In 2001, the parliament of France claimed that France had failed in its duties as a member of the Security Council and had not done enough to prevent the tragedy.  The governments of Serbia and Republika Srpska have oscillated, sometimes appearing to take responsibility (by apologizing), but often pointing out that the massacre was the work of individuals, not of the state itself.

Since Nuremberg the idea that an individual can escape responsibility by claiming to have been ‘simply following orders’ has been repeatedly shown to be an insufficient defence.  However, that is not to say that it does not continue to form the basis for attempts to side-step accountability.  Duch, the notorious commandant and torturer-in-chief of the Khmer Rouge’s S21 detention facility, used it vociferously at both his trial and his appeal before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

What is less clear, though, is the opposite relationship: at what threshold do we hold accountable the organisation for the crimes of its members?  The principle of command, or superior, responsibility can hold commanders responsible for not doing enough to prevent or stop war crimes being committed by their subordinates, but applications of the principle are not as straightforward as one might expect, as rulings since 1945 have repeatedly shown.

Even so, the notion of superior responsibility merely moves the level of individual accountability up a notch or two. What about the collective, especially the state?  The admissions and apologies mentioned above are all fine and good, and some of them are probably even genuinely felt, but they are voluntary actions.  They come with no penalties or sanctions.  They are not the judgments or adjudications of others, against legal or normative standards, but, rather, internally determined.  Some of the apologies, such as the one from the Republika Srpska, for instance, do not mention the word ‘genocide’, acknowledging only that 1000s of people were illegally killed.

It is interesting to note that despite several international and national prosecutions (which have led to some convictions) indicating that a genocide did take place and that individuals were responsible,  when Serbia (and Montenegro) was taken to the International Court of Justice by Bosnia for the genocide, the state was not found to be culpable.

The ICJ ruled that states, in principle, can be held responsible for genocide. It also ruled that genocide did occur in at least one instance during the Bosnian war — at Srebrenica, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995, at the hands of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS). The court also found “conclusive evidence” that numerous other killings and massacres of Muslims occurred in other parts of Bosnia.  But crucially, the ICJ found that these atrocities were not enough to prove the “necessary specific intent” to liquidate an entire group that is needed for a genocide conviction. In other words, despite evidence of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, as well as evidence that the Bosnian Serb Army received logistical and military assistance from Belgrade, Bosnia failed to prove that Serbia’s leaders at the time set out to physically liquidate Bosnia’s Muslims and acted to fulfill this plan.  (Source)

Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia itself, has never been taken to the ICJ to account for the actions of the Bosnia Serb Army during the war, including the genocide at Srebrenica, despite several of its military commanders being prosecuted and convicted for war crimes.

This makes an incredible (and somewhat perverse) contrast with the Netherlands.  On the basis that it was their soldiers, working under a UN mandate (but ultimately remaining, inescapably, under Dutch national or full command) that did not prevent, and indeed in some way facilitated, the massacre, the Dutch cabinet resigned on 16 April 2002.  The government felt that it was responsible not only for the battalion’s performance, but for deploying them in the first place and maintaining them there despite problems with the UN mandate.  While this may also be seen as an ‘internal and voluntary’ step, it was one with real consequences and conforms with the highest principles of responsible government, not to mention collective responsibility.

The Netherlands last week went a step further.  A Dutch court found that the government of the Netherlands is responsible for the deaths of at least 300 of the victims at Srebrenica because its “peacekeeping force should have known that the Muslims were likely to be killed by the Serbs” and, therefore, should not have ‘handed them over’.  Here we have a legal adjudication formally declaring that a state is responsible for a part of the genocide.  Financial compensation to the victims of the families will no doubt follow.  The fact that the judgment didn’t come from an external body, but rather a domestic court, is all the more incredible, proving that the rule of law can and does prevail in some liberal democracies.

Back to Bosnia via Versailles

A great deal of the popular attention paid to international law over the past two decades has been on individual accountability, at the level of soldiers (in the cases of ICTY and ICTR) and of heads of state (in the cases of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the ICC).  While the ICJ ‘Genocide’ ruling in the case of Serbia in 2007 was in important first step in the process that may see states held accountable for the actions of those working in their name, it was largely unsatisfying.  The actions of the Dutch government and judiciary before and after it demonstrate how at odds international law, common sense, politics, and public opinion can be.

Of course, it didn’t used to be this way.  There is plenty of precedent for collective guilt.  It just fell out of fashion.  The First World War ended with the Treaty of Versailles, Article 231 of which unambiguously stated:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

(Along with accepting responsibility for the war, the German state was forced to pay reparations, the final payment of which took place on 3 October 2010.)

From the outset, the notion of war guilt was controversial and Hitler’s objections to it were warmly received in many corners, including by some in the West.  Still, variations on war guilt, in the form of reparations, were imposed on several countries after the Second World War, and on Iraq after the first Gulf War.

Still, we see a contemporary reluctance to look at collective or national accountability.  Indeed the the crime of ‘aggression’ is now an individual matter under the ICC statutes.

How will the circle be squared?  Where is the balance between the individual and the state when it comes to war crimes?  There are no clear answers.  The words of one legal scholar (Beatrice I. Bonafè) sum up the current debate thus:

It is a settled principle that states incur international responsibility when they breach international obligations, and all the more so when these breaches are particularly serious, that is, when they amount to international crimes. On the other hand, today it is undisputed that international law provides for the criminal responsibility of those individuals who commit international crimes. What is much more uncertain is the relationship between these two regimes of international responsibility, that is, the connections between state and individual responsibility when the same or analogous conduct, performed respectively by individuals and by states, gives rise to both individual and state crimes.

In the meantime, the families and survivors of Srebrenica continue to search for justice, and only The Netherlands has meaningfully ‘stepped up’ to accept their part in the tragedy. Sadly, there are likely to be further chapters of this debate, as there is no sign of individual or collective atrocity ending anytime soon, whether in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine, Burma, or elsewhere. 

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Finding the virtue in austerity

Necessity is not only the Mother of Invention, but it is often the case that the creations begot by this inspiration are of the highest quality. Consider an example from the culinary world, duck confit. One of the ancient means to preserve meat, in this case the meat is encased within a barrier of fat nearly impenetrable to bacteria. It was, historically, a humble means for peasants to keep the fruits of their summer and autumn labors. Many today would consider it as belonging to the realm of “high dining,” and in fact it is a product which commands prices a 19th century farmer would find impossible. From austerity and need was created a product of disproportionate value and quality.

Your appetites whetted, I will point out that relative poverty has its application to military organizations and war. For the US, the Interwar period is a good example of such a context. Defense budgets were limited, and the forces were constricted and remained small until the last moments. Nevertheless, the people kept thinking and innovating, and for the organizations it was a time of education and experimentation. During this time the US armed forces:

- wrote strategies which spanned the imagination of possible conflict, much of which was ultimately drawn, in whole or part, into the plans for the campaigns against Germany and Japan;

- pursued professional education in every corner of the modern industrial economy as this period marked the rise of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (lectures on the differences between packing and packaging and the relative merits of various forms of each alone suffice to indicate the seriousness of the work);

- and finally, were sufficiently flexible to allow Evans Carlson to travel as a professional observer throughout the theatres of the Sino-Japanese War, which would lead to his concept for Marine Raiders during the Pacific Campaign five years later.

These are just a few iconic examples of a period rich in innovation and learning for the US. I suspect the same could be said of the British experience in this time. More recently, since WWII one cannot deny the rise of “poverty ingenuity.” Weak actors have ritually and regularly proven their ability to successfully confront the armed forces of the rich and strong.

Despite this record, news of budget cuts are being met with unbroken choruses of gloom and doom. While I accept that there are indeed ways in which austerity can lead to a great fall, I am also certain that these are not the only paths forward from such a point, because at the very least I recall the Marine Corps of the 1990s – limited budgets, unlimited skill and preparation. This might not be a period of large standing forces, high acquisition budgets, or generous training allotments, but it need not be a moment of stagnation.

So, for this week’s Professional Discussion (#CCLKOW) I would put to you the following questions which rely upon the virtues of austerity and ingenuity to answer.

- As leaders of units, how can you make up for the resource constraints which will limit the available fuel and bullets to provide valuable experience to personnel?

- As members of your services, how can such a period serve the constituent and integrated capabilities of the services, whether strategically, doctrinally, or tactically?

- As an individual, what opportunities might this period provide that one of high op-tempo (either training or fighting) would not?

In sum, tell me how you will make lemonade of the budgetary lemons you are being served.

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Britain’s naval moment

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on British strategy and defence policy for a while now but have lacked the certain sense of urgency required for blogging to supersede the normal end-of-academic-year-and-holiday-is-looming desk clearing obligations. Not that it matters much, it would seem, as the British government has already been on vacation from reality for months. The news last week that Sangin, Nowzad, Musa Qala, and Kajaki in the Army’s old stomping grounds in Helmandshire have all been under siege passed largely without comment in the press. I gather that a British chinook was also shot down, thankfully without casualties and the wreck was recovered–but, still, the sort of thing which might have been remarked upon in earlier times. The British Army remaining in the area, by dint of not leaving its bases, has not suffered any casualties; though by my reckoning, rough I must admit, the US Marine Corps which still has some appetite for the fight has lost eight dead over the last couple of weeks. At any rate, for Britain, it’s clear that no one’s particularly interested in the war–the whole enterprise is a write off and best dropped down the memory hole. It’s hard to be wholly unsympathetic to this line of reasoning. That said, the time, it would seem to me, for taking stock of things strategic is nigh, indeed ’tis now.

We should probably start with the observation that our current strategic condition is noteworthily FUBAR, to use the technical term. 2010′s Strategic Defence and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty was an avowedly short-termist and budget-driven exercise further constricted by the May 2010 election and political-military dysfunction in general. On the latter point see James De Waal’s Depending on the Right People Chatham House report (also this Oxford University Changing Character of War programme’s podcast Generals, Politicians, and Mandarins: The Malfunctioning Military-Political Relationship in Britain). For that matter, the Royal United Service Institute’s director Michael Clarke’s characterisation of the UK’s ‘strategic moment’ from A Question of Security: The British Defence Review in an Age of Austerity is more burningly pertinent now than it was when he said it in 2011:

The fact is that even if the assumptions underlying the 1998 SDR had not been exceeded; even if the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had been unambiguous triumphs; even if the current defence programme was not unaffordable; even if the savage economic crisis had not materialised; even then, the United Kingdom would still face some strategic choices unprecedented in modern times. More than most other Wstern countries, the UK finds itself at what might be termed a ‘strategic moment’, driven by developments over which it has very little real influence. Not since the 1930s has the country faced so wide a range of global developments generating as much political uncertainty. It is more than seventy five years since British politicians have had to confront a world that offered so little indication of what is best for the country, and with far less power to wield than was habitually available to their predecessors. (p. 9)

In short, the situation is bad–has been bad for a good while–and, in my view, is uncomfortably plausibly likely to get even worse over the coming decade. In broad brush there are four things that are worrisome:

1. As Sir Richard Dearlove, formerly head of the Secret Intelligence Service, recently remarked in a speech at RUSI on Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion? our current prioritisation of counter-terrorism over all other threats is distinctly out of whack with the degree of actual danger. As he put it,

I feel deeply uncomfortable to see our national media making national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from our Muslim communities who frankly, I think, cut rather pathetic figures… Thanks to the media coverage they achieve celebrity status beyond their wildest dreams and are probably actually encouraged by the attention towards fulfilment of some of their more extreme radical fantasies… Surely better to ignore them and assume the means to control them, if and when they do come home, are sufficient to meet the threat that they pose… It is time to move away from the distortion that 9/11 understandably created in our national security stance… Counter-terrorism activity will remain an important requirement but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning, rather a problem we have learned to live with and that should seldom be given, either by the Government or the media, the oxygen of publicity… We must continue to cover the Middle East as a political requirement but without putting the incipient terrorist threat to ourselves at the centre of the picture…

I find this hard to gainsay and David Cameron’s recent declaration that ‘No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today’ to be rather unjustifiable hyperbole. There are bigger things to worry about.

2. For instance, the European Project–not to put too fine a point on it–is toast. I personally consider this a good thing and the cessation of Britain’s participation in the whole economy-destroying, sovereignty-eroding, democracy-traducing, and empire-building-on-the-sly cannot come soon enough. That said, its demise represents a profound alteration of long-standing assumptions concerning Britain’s foreign relations and place in the world generally.

3. The United States is also screwed. Don’t get me wrong–America is enormously powerful and it has also very large powers of regeneration. However, again, that said, its economic difficulties are extremely formidable. Moreover, I’m surely not alone in marvelling at the degree and speed at which its position in the world has gone from one of respect, if not admiration, amongst its allies to suspicion and rancour. The recent contretemps vis-a-vis Germany over CIA spying on German officialdom is but one of a fleet of examples. This is to say nothing of the attitude of existing and potential enemies who clearly apprehend America’s strategic lassitude and are behaving accordingly. At the very least it seems very likely that the United States is likely to turn inward–this is, after all, one of its distinct historic proclivities–and something it is able to do as a gigantic continental power with a large, if currently ailing, domestic economy and increasing energy independence. As America’s appetite for foreign adventure and, it must be said, for subsidising the security of well-being of its allies through massively disproportionate defence spending diminishes, yet another prop for Britain’s strategic dilly-dallying will fall away.

4. The above would be bad enough if Britain’s economy was in comparatively robust good health. Unfortunately, Blighty also faces serious economic and social headwinds notwithstanding this recent relatively positive outlook. Moreover, as opposed to the United States, Britain really needs to seek its fortune abroad for as an island nation with relatively few of its own resources and a relatively small population it cannot afford to look in. For what its worth I thought this part of the National Security Strategy actually hit the right notes both rhetorically and realistically:

…Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant. We are an open, outward-facing nation that depends on trade and has people living all over the world. In fact one in ten British citizens now lives permanently overseas. We are a country whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size… In order to protect our interests at home, we must project our influence abroad. As the global balance of power shifts, it will become harder for us to do so. But we should be under no illusion that our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs.

Where I would differ with the government is how they seem to be imagining that they can achieve this ‘active engagement’ and the desired strategic effect. We’re now barely managing to achieve defence spending of 2% of GDP–and honestly it cannot be said that even that 2% is spent wisely–which really is not enough, as ex-Chief of Defence Staff Sir David Richards lost no time in pointing out (after his retirement). The government, if it believes its own strategy, needs to put its money where its mouth is. Instead, though, we get the ludicrous idea that we should enshrine in law that henceforth Britain should devote 0.7% of GDP per annum to foreign aid despite their being precious evidence that this does anything much to generate security (actually much to the contrary) or economic growth–our own or that of the recipients of this (borrowed) largesse. For three hundred years, on the other hand, a cornerstone of British policy has been the maintenance of a very good, at times world preeminent, navy–even through the 20th century during which its relative power progressively diminished (on which point have a listen to Admiral Lord West’s Britain at Sea). On current trajectory, presently we shall have a not very good navy at all with serious gaps in capability and depth. The surface fleet is being reduced significantly (for the nth time). Two new large aircraft carriers are being built–one’s just been christened but the other is due to be mothballed when it is eventually finished. Moreover there aren’t any airplanes to fly off them until the F35 comes along, which it may not do since the version that we’re buying still doesn’t work. The country no longer has a maritime patrol aircraft–a lack which became embarrassingly apparent a couple of months ago when Britain’s contribution to the search for a lost British yacht in the Atlantic consisted of a C130 Hercules and the US Coast Guard had to be cajoled into continuing the search with their much greater assets. Our anti-submarine capability is weak; for that matter is our submarine capability full stop. I could go on… This is not the way that a country which declares itself to be at the ‘heart of many global networks… [have] an outward-looking disposition and is [to be] both a geographical and virtual centre of global activity’ ought to comport itself.

The next Strategic Defence and Security Review is due in 2015, though who will be in government then is anyone’s guess. It has been argued that the review must not be distracted by ‘fruitless discussion of grand strategy’ and struggle amongst the services over who gets the ‘largest slice of a diminishing cake’ (see Fifty Shades of Purple? A Risk Sharing Approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review). I disagree. I think it’s high time for a discussion of grand strategy. Why not? And balance be damed when it comes to whether or not someone’s ox gets speared because it seems to me the key imperative for this country, in peace and in war, is having a navy that is in line with its maritime dependence and global aspiration. If it were up to me every damned penny currently earmarked for overseas aid would be redirected to the Royal Navy permanently. There’s nothing better for lifting poverty than trade.

Photo by Mark Empson from planespotters.net.

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On Chimp War, Vol. Something or Other

A while ago our own Kenny Payne waxed philosophically about Chimp War.  ’Is war a uniquely human phenomenon?’, Ken asked. ‘I think not. Chimpanzees also wage war.’ Now Ken’s a theorist but I’m an empiricist. So I give you evidence:

Scientists, top men, have studied this clip and translated the chimp’s triumphal grunting. ‘Come on! Come on! Come and get it, baby! Come on! I don’t got all day! Come on! Come on! Come on you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you!’

Truth!

 

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U2-Duxford

Mitrokhin & lessons learned

Two thousand pages of Mitrokhin’s notebooks have been cleared by the vetters and released into Churchill College for all to see.

The FBI described Mitrokhin’s files as the most complete set of intelligence ever gifted to them from a single source, and there was much that was compelling within them. There were particular revelations that shook the various institutions they touched. But I was asked by a journalist-friend to provide a comment about what these files taught us about ‘the Russian playbook’, and how to deal with Russia now. And I provided an answer that partly skirted the issue, because I think it’s a misreading of the utility of the files and how we should understand intelligence agencies in general.

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception’s understanding. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role. That’s partly because of the transaction costs (in terms of time, opportunity and risk) of recruiting high-value targets (and presumably the low success rate) and partly because the role of an intelligence agency is as a norm entrepreneur, not just a collector and assessor of raw information. A wider net is more useful for these purposes, and just as in business is likely to throw up unexpected bonuses.

I also think that a lesson from the files is that the European security system has changed. If we take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions recently – and to allow what could uncharitably be called influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like.* Most European governments have focused their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions whilst simultaneously trying to make financial savings or efficiency gains.

So, I think it’s a mistake to think of this as only a Russia issue or a Russia problem. The logic of security competition means that all states with active intelligence capabilities enthusiastically engage in these activities. The lesson to be learned is not a country specific one… it’s to embrace the notion that hyper-competition involves influence and the constraining of autonomy across intellectual, financial and infrastructural lines. Mitrokhin provides a rich, but limited case study of one nation’s efforts in this regard. The pattern of behaviour is somewhat more ubiquitous though. 

 

*Be cautious, also, of over-reading the impact of these target groups: it was well-known in Russian security circles that over-reading these groups cheered up the Politburo, but little else.

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ferdinand

The Books of August: A Reader’s Guide to the Centenary of the start of the First World War

Unless you are completely illiterate (in which case, unless your friend or Siri is kind enough to read this post aloud, you will be missing out on some very witty stuff, Dear Read…I mean Dear Non-Reader), you will not have failed to notice the literal deluge of books out and about on the First World War.  Scholars may not be very well socialised (sorry, but it is true.  Some of my best friends are academics) but they figured out about recycling yonks before the rest of us.

There are ‘new’ books, there are re-written ‘special editions’, there are ‘popularised revised editions’, there are ‘re-issued classics’…the list goes on.  Some focus on the causes of the war, others concentrate on the combat, or a particular ‘under-appreciated’ theatre, or the homefront, or the legacy.  Buy them, read them, go on, I dare you.

Why have all these books been written?  A good question, and I am glad you asked.  The short answer, to paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, is this:

To turn around the publication of a million books at the very moment of commemoration would have taken a more iron nerve than most publishers disposed of.

Much of the output this year is re-hashed, or recast, work from research conducted long ago.  Very little ‘new’ evidence, say from a recently unlocked archive, is contained within these works.  It is not to say that they are poorly written; they are not.  The prose is as good as there is to be found.  But, really, honestly, many of the books did not need to be written.  They are cash cows many of them, publishing houses’ attempts to take advantage of the time.  It is a shame.  And so it goes.

Moving on from my pitiful attempt to stand, Canute-like, against the tide of wanton commercialism, I would say that the First World War was terrible and terribly important.  It deserves our study and our scrutiny.  But in doing so, I put forward, Dear Readers, two key pieces of guidance, two words of wisdom, perhaps.  

1.  Do not make corny, irrelevant attempts to tie together the situations of 1914 and 2014.  The South China Sea is not the ‘powderkeg of Asia’; Iraq is not the ‘sick man of the Arab World’. Putin is not the Tsar.  ’Why not?’, I hear you shout.  Because.  That was then and this is now.  Our own day’s troubles (and they are legion) are rooted in history, to be sure.  But they are rooted in their own, contingent history.  They cannot be crammed into a tidy template and made to fit an existing script.  That’s why not.

2.  Upon reading a book, ask yourself if it can pass the acid test: can it explain why it all happened?  Many will try.  It was because of alliances, some say.  It was not because of alliances, others will intone; the alliances actually prevented it from happening earlier.  It was the Kaiser!  It was the Serbs! It was the aristocracy!  Even books that do not have as their primary aim the explanation of the origins of the war will have, embedded somewhere in their narrative, a short-form for why it all came about.  But do any of those explanations actually work?  Do they increase our understanding of how it all began and for what purpose?  Most of the time they turn on points of historiography, or even ideology, rather than actual insight into the events.

After having read perhaps more than my share of these books over the past 30 years or so, I still wonder if any of us can really give an answer to the key question, set by Baldric in Blackadder Goes Forth:

The thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right?    So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along.   So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

How indeed.

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Academia’s ‘Crypto Moment’

Like many, I am saddened to hear that Tajikistan is charging a researcher from Exeter University with treason. I am saddened, but not shocked. Authoritarian regimes are prone to detaining people that they perceive as threats, or, in the case of Egypt, jailing journalists on pathetic charges. In the specific instance of Tajikistan, the outcome is uncertain, though like (I imagine) most people, I hope for Alexander Sodiqov’s release. Even if Sodiqov is released tomorrow, the incident is likely to have a chilling effect on academic research involving field work in authoritarian states. Research Ethics Committees are, by and large, considered to be risk-averse entities, and they are likely to become even more averse to approving research where an academic is at risk of detainment by an authoritarian government. This is a problem, not least because to understand political violence and separatist disputes, the best data comes from the people involved, who invariably live in places where Big Brother tends to throw its weight around. If we want to know more about the world, that means academics going to dangerous places. The alternative is that we let ethics committees decide for us that the world is too dangerous, and the field of inquiry closes to political violence close at hand, such as homegrown radicalisation and Northern Ireland. Both of these are important areas of inquiry, but in a globalised world, its necessary to go outside and talk, otherwise the horizons become awfully limited, awfully fast. Continue reading

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War Pilgrims

As a thought experiment: consider the position of a British Shia muslim contemplating Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to arms to defend Iraq and Shia holy sites. Sistani’s call was directed at Iraqi citizens to defend the country against ISIS‘s recent military advances, who threaten places such as Samarra, a holy place for Shia, and one with a recent history of desecration by Sunni muslims. In such a thought experiment, we might conclude that, yes, on the balance of available evidence, that sacred religious sites were in danger of being desecrated. Furthermore, we might consider that given their relative significance, a reasonably devout Shiite might feel quite upset at the prospect of this occurring. On what basis, therefore, should our imagined British citizen be prevented from travelling to Iraq to join a state-sanctioned militia whose express purpose is the defeat of a reviled group of terrorists/insurgents?

The reason for this thought experiment is that the UK government has now kicked into high gear about preventing British passport holders from travelling to Syria and Iraq to participate in the wars there. The constant refrain is that returning jihadis will pose a threat to British national security ‘for years to come.’ I am inclined to both agree and disagree to this notion. On one hand, I think that some people will come back from Syria intending to kill people in Britain, and I think that it’s quite probable that some of them will succeed. On the other hand, like Simon Jenkins, I don’t think that this threatens the state itself. The government’s policy response is to prevent people from travelling to Syria, and to delete material that might ‘brainwash’ them from the internet. Both of these are profoundly illiberal policies, and, I think, unwittingly place a secular/Christian state on one side of a religious civil war as a by-product. Returning to our thought experiment, a British Shia could, quite rightly, claim that they had no intention of joining a terrorist group, but helping a state which is confronted by very well armed and trained terrorists. Furthermore, fighting to defend religious sites from desecration is quite different from fighting to establish a Caliphate.

I have long held to a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign fighters. That is, if a British citizen wishes to go to Syria to step on landmines, then let them. At the same time, I can see that the movement of foreign fighters no doubt causes issues for states facing them. ISIS, I think, is the best example of why my attitude might be wrong. Does the British state have a responsibility to entomb its angry ‘radicalised’ youth within our borders? The government appears to think so. Football fans who (unlike me) follow football when the World Cup isn’t on will see echoes of this policy in Football Banning Orders, except in the case of Syria/Iraq, the test appears much less stringent. The problem, I think, is that the British government is afraid to grasp the twin nettles of public post-conflict monitoring, and in-conflict abandonment. We’re all too happy to reduce civil liberties, restrict travel and freedom of speech, but don’t, for heaven’s sakes, mention watch lists, surveillance and other measures that the security service could implement to track these people afterwards.

Here’s a second iteration of a laissez-faire policy towards ISIS devotees, and anyone else who might want to run off to war in a foreign country: The UK Government declares that participation in an armed conflict (of whatever kind) halfway around the world which the UK does not involve itself in means that any British passport holder who willingly involves themselves in it has to accept the consequences. No crocodile tears or exceptional diplomatic efforts if you wind up captured by the Syrians, ISIS, or the Iraqi government. This should, I think, be an open declaration or standing policy. It is also better, I think, than unilaterally stripping a citizen of their passport prior to the Americans dropping a bomb on their head, or other Janus-faced hijinx to stay within the limit of the law.

Combined with this, there should be an open-source watch-list, with emphasis on openness. The government should collate a public list of citizens who are identified as having participated in a given armed conflict of concern to the British security services. If someone wishes to contest their participation, for example, they merely wanted to take a battlefield tour, or happen to be a journalist or NGO worker, then they can do so, in some public manner (requiring the submission of a statement/evidence). There are plenty of journalists and academics identifying people in an ad-hoc fashion, but let’s make it official. The key point is that if you have no ‘good reason’ to be in a warzone (helping people, reporting, etc), then, I think, it’s reasonable for the government to state that you were there. I suspect some might disagree with this. But such surveillance should be as public as possible, the reasons for it transparent to all prior to people taking decisions that might place them at risk of being placed on such a list, and to the greatest extent possible, a person should be able to challenge their position on a given watch list. Otherwise we end up like the Americans with a kafka-esque ‘no fly list’.

I can think of problems with the above. For example, the point that publishing a watch list would allow people to see who has slipped through the net. But the point is that a public list of people known to have travelled to an armed conflict is different from the kind of watch lists that the security services use (and need to use) in secret. Someone on the public list would not know whether they are being investigated, nor would someone not on the public list be able to verify whether they haven’t been detected in secret. More to the point, someone who finds themselves on the public list and doesn’t care wouldn’t have to take any action at all. Returning to the thought experiment, the British Shiite considering going to holy war in a foreign land might think twice, which, I think, is the point of the government’s bluster. After all, if someone believes in a cause enough to die for it, this fact places a limit on what any government can do to prevent their death. If someone goes to war and gets themselves killed, then that’s their own fault. If the British government wants to prevent death and destruction in the middle east, then it needs to pursue diplomatic solutions that end wars. Stopping a couple of people at the UK’s border is, in the context of Syria/Iraq, of less use than a band-aid at the Somme.

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