Britain’s strategy in Syria: Gunga galunga… gunga, gunga-lagunga. No, really.

A month ago I remarked on the non-sensical decision by Britain’s parliament to authorise bombing by the RAF in Syria–see Britain’s Stupidest War. My point then, the clincher at any rate, was that I thought we would come to regret how as a society we’d allowed our wars to be so totally hijacked by domestic politics that they now served essentially little more than as props in political theatre. This piece then in today’s Telegraph caught my eye for the obvious reasons: RAF bomb raids in Syria dismissed as ‘non-event’. It turns out that not only are we not really doing much in the way of bombing (we may be doing a bit more on reconnaissance, but we were doing that before the momentous vote too), but actually the target that got all the attention was actually one that had been serviced by the USAF over a month before.

So, what’s up KOW readers? What’s the point of it? Obviously, Shakespeare came to mind first–Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5:

And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But, honestly, very shortly thereafter I realised the more appropriate metaphor was from the genius pen of Harold Ramis–Caddyshack, scene something or other:

But what does it mean? I hear you say. What’s the strategy? How does action X contribute to the realisation of policy Y? Wrong question, Grasshopper! What’s important is how it makes you feel. Blessedly, we made it through the new year celebrations without a major terror attack on revellers enjoying the peaceful fireworks shows that just lit the skylines of the world’s major cities. There’s going to be one, though, for sure, and another one after that, and another one after that, and so on and so forth, and so far not much sign of a plausible concept of avoiding them either. At which point the government can say ‘we’re doing our best!’ It’s down to you to forget that doing their best consisted of driving the occasional ball 10,000 feet down a crevasse.

Anyway, happy 2016!



Thinking about war underground

No one has done better than the great British comic illustrator Heath Robinson to illustrate the intrinsically reciprocal dynamic of military engineering in general and mining and countermining in particular. This cartoon is from a collection Heath Robinson at War I found in a rummage sale years ago–no doubt there are abundant reprints.

Mine and counter mine



I  would guess, though, that for many KOW readers the dominant mental image of war underground is more akin to that in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong, later adapted for television. The harrowing scenes of tunnel warfare beneath the trenches of the First World War are extraordinarily vivid. In his introduction Faulks described it as ‘a hell within a hell‘. For a lot of people, it seems to me on the sound scientific basis of a dozen or so conversations (some of them drunken), that’s where tunnel warfare resides–at a safe historic distance from today, a claustrophobic nightmare of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Of course this is completely wrong. Tunnel warfare has been a constant in human history for as long as there have been humans making war. In recent memory it was a major preoccupation of the American military. Consider the poem below written in praise of the massive tunnelling efforts of Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War. I love it. (Can anyone tell me if the words ‘your entrails, Mother, are unfathomable’ rhyme in Vietnamese?) I found it in the front matter of the classic book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate.

The Mother–The Native Land

by Duong Huong Ly

When she dug the tunnels, her hair was still brown.
Today her head is white as snow.
Under the reach of the guns she digs and digs.
At night the cries of the partridge record the past.
Twenty years, always the land is at war.
The partridge in the night cries out the love of the native land.
The mother, she digs her galleries, defenses,
Protecting each step of her children.
Immeasurable is our native land.
The enemy must drive his probes in everywhere.
Your unfathomable entrails, Mother,
Hide whole divisions under this land.
The dark tunnels make their own light.
The Yankees have captured her.
Under the vengeful blows she says not a word.
They open their eyes wide but are blind.
Cruelly beaten, the mother collapses.
Her body is no more than injuries and wounds.
Her white hair is like snow.
Night after night
The noise of picks shakes the bosom of the earth.
Columns, divisions, rise up from it.
The enemy, seized by panic, sees only
Hostile positions around him.
Immeasurable is our native land.
Your entrails, Mother, are unfathomable.

And even more recently tunnel warfare has begun to concern Israel in a major way since the 2006 capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Hamas commandos who attacked his army outpost near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom via an infiltration tunnel originating in Rafah. Locating similar tunnel entrances and destroying them was the primary objective of the 2014 IDF incursion into Gaza (Operation Protective Edge). I cannot recommend highly enough this report on Hamas’ tunnelling efforts in and out of Gaza by Dr Eado Hecht given as testimony to the UN. There are dozens and dozens of journalistic accounts but none so far as I’m aware approaches Hecht’s in detail and sheer good judgment.

In other words, the underground battlespace has always been an aspect of warfare but in contemporary times it’s vitality has become much more apparent. That being the case it merits more serious attention than it has gotten of late. I’ve been doing some of that lately in the form of quite a lot of library time (my forte) as well as some fieldwork in Israel and in the sewers of a major city, which I can’t talk too much about yet because technically I wasn’t supposed to be there. I thought I might share a few observations for the amusement of the handful of other claustrophile war studies types who must exist out there.

Why is tunnelling and counter-tunnelling the new hotness?

I think the reasons that the underground is an increasingly active component of the warfare are possibly pretty obvious. Firstly, consider the scene below–no doubt you’ve seen dozens like it, this one’s from some marketing bumf of the Lockheed Martin company ‘Staying ahead of the curve‘, which purports to show the post-2030 battlespace. Everybody loves these clean scenes, right out of a George Lucas film. Yay blue! Get those reds!




‘ ‘Damn’, says the half of the world that can’t afford the high tech accoutrements of the system of systems, ‘since I can’t hope to challenge “next generation air dominance” I guess I’ll just give up.’ Well, no, not actually. In the real world, clever people who are determined in their cause find other ways of bringing/avoiding the pain. In the case of Hamas attacking the IDF from infiltration tunnels is in fashion because every other means of advancing to contact with them is pointlessly suicidal. Similarly never operating without top cover–or at any rate scurrying like mad whenever you’re in the open is simply what you do in an era of ubiquitous surveillance and sensor-to-shooter gaps measured in minutes or seconds. I suspect we all know now that the post-2030 battlespace will look a lot like this 2015 one from Damascus–apparently shot from a Russian operated commercial drone with a go-pro camera. Yay gray! Get those grays!

Another reason for the proliferation of tunnels is the parallel proliferation of walls in our world today–the two basically always seem to go together, always the ying to the others yang, where you have walls you will soon have tunnels. This is less directly related to warfare than it is primarily to the efforts of governments to curtail migration and smuggling (and somewhat plausibly terrorism). See for instance this CNN report on a drug ‘super tunnel‘ running under the US-Mexico border. Pretty crappy, eh? Here, have some more Heath Robinson.

Beer stealer



A final reason is simply the much discussed and completely self-evident urbanisation of the surfaces of  the planet where most people now live. If you’re fighting in cities you are either fighting in and from tunnels or you are dead.

Anyway, you get the point. Tunnelling is a time honoured asymmetric tactic. Also if you put a wall between someone and the potential of great profit that they can’t around then they will put a lot of energy into going under.

The science of tunnelling and counter-tunnelling is surprisingly slow moving*

In this day and age of rapid innovation and scientific progress it is sometimes oddly disorientating to come across fields of endeavour where the number of really fundamental ‘game changing’ innovations are so few. Remember this famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? It’s not in a cave but that’s what the war was about–the winning tribe got to keep the cozy cave by the water, the losers got to carry on roaming the desert being preyed on by leopards.

That’s stage 1. People lived underground in the comparative comfort of natural caves and undoubtedly had to defend them against the attentions of others who craved those same natural security and comforts.

Stage 2 differed only in that people started to dig their own caves and tunnels where they wanted them, for defence or for hiding, instead of waiting for Mother Nature to do it for them. Accounts of such activity are found in the The Bible, Judges, Chapter 6, Verse 2: ‘And the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel: and because of the Midianites the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strong holds.’ And actual remnants, some very extensive and well preserved, such as the cave cities in Cappadocia, Turkey built initially as defence against the Hittites in 1000 BC and inhabited up until just a few centuries ago, can be found in many places.


Stage 3 began in the late Middle-Ages with the invention of gun-powder. Then as now heroism alone was no real challenge to a fortress that was minimally competently defended; you had to go underground. The miner was the most feared of all attackers:

The skill of the miner was reflected in the number of sites which, otherwise vulnerable, were immune through water to the slow but deadly process of undermining. Considerable subtlety was employed in the underground approach. The entrance would be distant and well-concealed. Diversionary attacks would be staged to distract the defenders’ attention. As nothing could be achieved from the surface the castle holders would dig out countermines, and on several occasions would break into the besiegers’ galleries and engage them in hand-to-hand combat. There are numerous accounts of desperate battles underground, and the skill, science, and courage of the attacker was often matched by similar qualities in the counter-miner.

Philip Warner, Sieges of the Middle Ages (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1968), pp. 23-26.

(If you haven’t already read the report on Gaza tunnels by Hecht that I mentioned above then do that now and reflect on what, if anything, has changed in this basic dynamic).

Pre-gun powder the basic technique of attack was this: choose a vulnerable section of the fortress, a turret, say, then slyly dig a tunnel beneath it. Once you are beneath the foundation then expand your tunnel–very quietly–into a large cavity shored up with stout timbers so it does not collapse on you as you work. Now stuff the place with inflammables and set it alight. In the ensuing fire the supports will be consumed and the structure above will come crashing down beneath its own weight. Undoubtedly effective, the technique also required great skill in quiet mining and accurate navigation–and was intrinsically perilous. After all if the defenders detected your efforts they could dig a tunnel to intercept yours. There is a terrific example of this at St Andrews Castle, Scotland where you can still see the mine dug during a siege in 1546 and the counter-mine, which after some initial difficulty locating its target ultimately allowed the defenders to ambush and slaughter their attackers. Here’s an illustration:

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 10.38.20

Gun powder made the job of the attacker simpler and easier. Its explosive power meant that you didn’t have to dig such a large cavity, meaning also that you didn’t have to make as much noise or take so much time and were therefore less likely to be intercepted. Also if your underground navigation was off a bit there was still a good chance that you could ruin a fair chunk of the wall you were attacking. Over a few centuries the arms race of mine and counter-mine came to the point where by the early modern era a really properly defended fortress would, in theory, have a system of counter-mines already dug long before the besiegers arrived–in fact, actually at the first stage of the fortification’s construction.

A system of permanent countermines was one of the most expensive but effective systems of fortification, enabling the governor to offer a foot-by-foot three-dimensional defence of the ground from the tail of the glacis all the way back to the counterscarp… From the main  gallery, a number of galleries or half galleries (four and a half feet by three) radiated underneath the glacis along the imaginary prolongations of the capital (central) lines of the bastions and ravelins. From these again there was a further proliferation in the form of major branches (rameaux, three by two and a half) and simple branches or listeners (ecoutes, two and a half by two) which sprouted off at right angles. These stuffy masonry tubes gave the counterminers the means of detecting the approach of the enemy, and offered a variety of sites where they could plant their charges of gunpowder. The branches and listeners were built of such small dimensions not for the sake of economy (in fact it was very awkward to excavate them), but because small tunnels were easy to tamp (stop up) when a charge was about to be exploded.

Christopher Duffy, Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare, 1660-1860 (London: Greenhill Books, 1996). pp. 83-84.

(If this all sounds quaintly ancient to you then read go read Hecht’s piece, particularly para. 36 where he remarks on the extreme difficulty of locating tunnels. In the old days ‘listeners’ would use barrels of water into which they would plunge their heads to enhance the sound of distant tunnelling–think of how things sound when you submerge your ears in the bath–or basic microphones, such as a brass cymbal placed against a wall of a mine, in the hope of triangulating on their attackers. That’s still fundamentally how it’s done today.) Again, Heath Robinson’s imagination is fanciful but not entirely inaccurate.

File 17-12-2015, 10 42 29

Stage 4 came along in the late 19th century with the invention of excavating machines that could bore tunnels faster and more accurately than men could with shovels and pick axes. At first glance, you might think this a terrifically consequential development allowing the rapid excavation of lots of large tunnels. In actuality, the extra noise made by mechanical digging greatly compromises their offensive utility because it makes them more easily detectable to anyone listening. It has long been known that North Korea has dug several very large,  deep, and long ‘invasion’ tunnels suitable for the use of large units into South Korean territory but there is a good deal of dispute over how many there may be.

Stage 5 is where we are now and it involves the development of really effective detection equipment. It bears emphasising how difficult this is technically. The ground underneath you is naturally a jumble of layers of differing density and full of cracks and fissures so mapping it with ground penetrating radar, say, even if useful depth could be achieved would still present big problems of analysis. Infiltration tunnels, moreover, can run deep and do not need to be large–a space sufficient for a man’s shoulders or perhaps the width of a bicycle’s handlebars is perfectly sufficient for commandos to transit even with heavy weapons–and they can be dug quietly. Finding a tunnel is a bit like finding a spaghetti noodle in a plate of spaghetti.

Siege warfare is never anyone’s first choice. It’s extremely expensive. It’s exhausting and challenging on many levels. But when every other option is locked down it works. In fact, it’s never really gone completely out of use. It’s probably that our belief in the salience of mobile warfare practically since Napoleon ran roughshod over Europe two centuries ago has just blinded us a bit to it’s new fashionableness. Anyway, it’s back.

So, what next?

Well, this post is already quite long so I’ll keep this bit short. Let’s recap. For a variety of reasons the ground beneath us is now a vital part of the battlespace. Historically, this is nothing new–perhaps what we’re seeing is a reversion to the norm. That being the case it is worth spending some time reacquainting ourselves with the strategic and tactical wisdom of the past, much of which now lies forgotten on dusty shelves. But we should also be exploring more and be more attentive to the infrastructure of the places we live. On which point I must admit that I have something of a man crush on this fellow, urban historian and photographer Steve Duncan. I don’t think I could get away this as a research methodology–pretty sure my university would disown me. Have a watch:


But, really, if we’re going to make some progress in this field we need to be scrambling around these places more and learning from the people who work and live in these environments a lot more. Also, goddamn that looks fun.


Britain’s stupidest war*

A great fuss is being made over the speech by Labour shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn in yesterday’s House of Commons debate over bombing in Syria. Watch for yourself, if you like, or I’ll paraphrase:

Islamic State is bad, super bad, Mussolini bad.

We should do something. Not something adequate. But something.

If we don’t then we’ll look stupid and weak and our friends will be sad.

Now face the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station…err, well maybe a dozen or so 30 year old RAF Tornados!

I can’t fathom the acclaim for it.

First, attacking Islamic state in Syria does nothing to prevent attacks here in Europe. This argument has been so comprehensively debunked that I can hardly believe anyone still tries it on.

Second, yes, sure we are at war with a mood in the Islamic world of sullen resentment that we might as well call Islamic fascism, though really I’m not sure that Benn really grasped that this was the phrase he was resurrecting. Next up: it’s a crusade? But you can’t go name check Hitler and Mussolini and wax lyrical about this island’s brave stand against tyranny and then pretend that a few more British  bombers in the Middle East is any sort of proportionate response. People may be somnolent and distracted but they’re not so stupid as to miss the giant gap between rhetoric and action.

Third, going to war against an enemy in this desultory fashion that by design can never lead to victory just puts them under a natural selection pressure that insures that they evolve into something more nasty and resilient. Have we literally learned nothing from the last 15 years? How many times does it have to be said that you can’t fight wars amongst the people without being actually amongst them?

Fourth, why does it not seem to worry everyone who voted for bombing that the countries of the region that have more than enough power to deal with Islamic state actually don’t seem to care all that much about it? They’re more concerned with Houthi militiamen allegedly propped up by Persian bogeymen.

So, let’s take stock of the situation. We have no plausible aim. Therefore there is no meaningful strategy. In any event the means available are inadequate. We have very little knowledge of those whom we’ll be killing. And we have very little knowledge of those upon whose supposed behalf we’ll be doing it. The commitment of our friends to the effort is as guarded and ambiguous as our own while the commitment of our enemies is seemingly quite total. Meanwhile, every country in the region is playing a double or triple game. Basically everybody is lying to everyone else but the biggest dummies are lying to themselves.

I’m sure it will all work out great.

I do suppose though it makes bad war it’s probably good political theatre in a junior school sort of way. Jeremy Corbyn’s forced to sit on a tack. Haha! And when it comes Britain’s turn to suffer a Beslan-Mumbai-Nairobi-Utoya-Paris style attack, as it inevitably will, Westminster will claim it did all it could.

*actually, I don’t know. We’ve had a lot of wars, many quite stupid but this one really ranks up there.

btw, buy my book. It explains everything.


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


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!’




ISIS, The Slow Insurgency — KOWcast, Vol. 1

What to make of the recent explosion/implosion of Iraq over the last week? First Fallujah, then Mosul, Tikrit, and now Tal Afar have fallen to the forces of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Sham which has thus far blown away the better armed and more numerous Iraqi military forces in what looks, superficially at any rate, to be a sort of jihadist blitzkrieg. On current trajectory, the next sacking of Baghdad may not be far off. The interwebs are already afire with talk of who lost Iraq?, why the Iraqi army collapsed, and the degree to which this is a game changer or not a game changer at all. FWIW, I have found this backgrounder on ISIS by Alex Berger of the Institute for the Study of War ISIS Reports Reveal a Metrics -Driven Military Command (pdf), just about everything by Aaron Zellin, for e.g., The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office, and this International Crisis Group report Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain  (pdf), to be extremely helpful. Ultimately, though, it is profoundly difficult (for me at any rate) to get a ground and sound sense of what is going on. That’s why I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to speak in our first Kings of War posdcast (KOWcast) with Dr Victoria Fontan, currently Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Duhok University in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Victoria, as you will hear, has been kicking around Iraq in one capacity or another for over a decade now and is currently working on her second PhD with us in the War Studies Department (having turned to the dark side) researching ‘slow insurgency in Iraq’. She has been studying ISIS since 2010 and has done more and more intimate interviews with them than any other researcher I know.  Some key points which emerged from or struck me in the conversation:

1. The  connection between the social movements that have been present and building in Sunni parts of Iraq for a long time and the popular support that has generated for ISIS. The sense of abandonment by the international community and of  victimisation by the government is such that they have resorted to the lesser evil, which is ISIS.  

2. If one misses this point then it is rather easy to talk about a ‘jihadist spring’ (something I have done and am glad to be corrected) and to resort to seeing ISIS as an al-Qaeda/ISI offshoot–which, as Victoria suggests is plain wrong at this point. Al-Qaeda’s beef is with the West, and ISIS’s is with Shi’ites. There are paradigmatic differences between ISIS and AQ. In my view, in today’s Telegraph David Blair makes this mistake as well as the one above: ISIS moved too Far, too Fast: Al Qaeda’s Folloers have Made this Mistake Before. Isn’t it more sensible to credit ISIS’s success to Iraq’s Sunnis being totally alienated from their own government and Iraq’s Shi’ite army being unwilling to fight outside of its own regions and neighbourhoods? 

3. ISIS has not emerged from nowhere.  They were not ‘fading away’ before the onset of the Syrian civil war; rather, they were regrouping, cleaning up their house (imagine the rooftop discussion between Ali La Pointe and Ben M’Hidi in The Battle of Algiers when he declares that before they take the fight to the French they’re first going to sweep up the pipes and dope dealers in the Casbah). Up to July 2013, at least in Salaheddin province, ISIS’s attacks were paid for by the Turkish government, not private donors from the Gulf as is commonly mistaken. ISIS’s presence in Syria did not ‘just happen’; rather, it was orchestrated by Turkey, which then decided to back up the wrong horse–Nusra, in the Spring of 2013. This last aspect of Victoria’s strategic diagnosis is, in my view, the most worrisome.

What we are seeing is not ‘just’ a civil war but an incipient schismatic war with thick tentacles linking it abroad in a patently ominous manner–Iran manipulating one (on which Dexter Filkins’ New Yorker pieces on The Shadow Commander (Qassem Suleimani) and, more recently, The Crisis in Iraq are important reads), Turkey another, the Gulf States another one still, while the West having dropped the slimy thing a few years ago wrings its hands at the prospect of needs grasping it again. While speaking with Victoria the first thought of the near future of the Middle East which sprang to mind was one akin to the Balkan tragedy of the 1990s–only on a larger scale, with more money for weapons and willing suppliers, and with even less scope for external mitigation. But then it occurred the situation is probably worse than that, with a little perspective. I was reminded of this passage from Philip Windsor’s Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell which comes towards the end of a chapter the just war tradition where he ruminates on the import of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War:

It is perhaps permissible in a book of this kind (which does not purport to be a book of history) to select certain historical ‘moments’ as representative of a more complex historical process. The reformation was one such moment. It was not the cause of the Christian challenge to the authority of the universal church, but the outcome of developments within the church itself and of many years of social as well as intellectual change. It was not an event, but a complex and long, drawn-out process. Yet one might say that the Reformation epitomised the collapse of the ecumen and led to a new kind of conflict in which Christianity was at war with itself. That conflict came to a head in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was one of the most brutal and horrifying in European history. It brought together many forms of power struggle, both economic and political, but it was also a war of religion, of Protestant against Catholic. It represented the politicisation of religion, which was nothing particularly new (the Protestant Henry of Navarre had already declared that Paris was well worth a mass), but it also represented a religious definition of politics. In those terms, it was a war about everything, which is no doubt why it was so difficult to conclude. And it was also a moral war. A war that is fought about the nature of God and of belief, about the eternal destination of one’s immortal soul, is obviously difficult to conclude in a compromise peace. The combatants cannot simply sign an agreement that God shall be a Catholic on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Protestant on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The war must be fought to an end or else terminated by sheer exhaustion–as ultimately it was. It is also a moral war in the sense that the moral nature of the cause is invoked to justify even the most brutal and ruthless means of destruction.

You can read more of Victoria’s perspectives on her own blog–in particular ‘ISIS, The Slow Insurgency‘. But for now have a listen.

intimate war

An Intimate War–and Academic Freedom

[This is a guest post by Mike Martin author of An Intimate War which tells the story of the last thirty-five years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. The book has been the subject of a good deal of interest in the press lately on account of the Ministry of Defence’s disapproval of it. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses—the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power. The book—based on both military and research experience in Helmand and 150 interviews in Pushtu—offers a very different view of Helmand from those in the mainstream. It demonstrates how outsiders have most often misunderstood the ongoing struggle in Helmand and how, in doing so, they have exacerbated the conflict, perpetuated it and made it more violent—precisely the opposite of what was intended when their interventions were launched. Mike Martin is a Pushtu speaker who spent almost two years in Helmand as a British army officer (covering Operation HERRICKs 9-16). During that time, he pioneered and developed the British military’s Human Terrain and Cultural Capability—a means to understanding the Helmandi population and influencing it. He also worked as an advisor to several British commanders of Task Force Helmand. His previous publications include A Brief History of Helmand, required reading for British commanders and intelligence staff deploying to the province. He holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London where he studied under the supervision of Professor Theo Farrell.]
It is hardly controversial to say that the Afghan campaign has been a complete disaster. Of course, the question is why it has been a disaster. Which particular element of the multinational, multi-billion dollar effort failed? I think the answer lies in the prose of the great master Clausewitz:
The supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that a statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
What is the old Prussian saying here? He is saying you have to understand the conflict you are fighting, and in Afghanistan, with an internal, ‘low-intensity’ war, that meant understanding the population. After all, almost all of the ‘enemy’ were drawn from this population. He is also saying that we must avoid imposing our own narratives on the war. The war is what they think it is, rather than what we think it is. So….it is a question of perspective, theirs versus ours.
Now that is a problem. How do you understand another people’s perspective, when you yourself are stuck in a highly institutionalised organisation (i.e. a Western military)? I mean, the army found it hard to understand DFID and the FCO (and vice versa). This is even more amazing when you consider that most army officers, diplomats and development officers have similar educational and class backgrounds, speak the same language and work along-side each other for years. How do you understand a bunch of people who have never left their own village, can’t read and have been told since birth that the Angrez (the British) are the greatest enemy? It is hard. But I can suggest a good place to start: language. Edward Said said it best in 1978:
…the most current transformation overtaking Orientalism: its conversion from a fundamentally philological discipline and a vaguely general apprehension of the Orient into a social science speciality. No longer does the Orientalist try first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and “applies” his science to the Orient, or anywhere else.
I could easily replace the word orientalist with development worker, army officer, diplomat, spy, journalist etc etc.
Why do we assume that we can execute counterinsurgency, or development programs, or governance initiatives—nothing less than social engineering, although that term is slightly out-of-fashion—if we do not understand the societies that we are trying to change? How do you understand other societies if you don’t speak the language? Anything else, at least to me, seems like lunacy. (By extension, the issue of language learning is tied to the issue of actually spending long periods of time in the societies that you are trying to engineer—something more than the six months that the British military spent on each rotation in Afghanistan and Iraq).
The publication of An Intimate War has raised another key issue: namely that of MOD censorship. The hacks (mostly Defence Correspondents for serious UK newspapers) at my book launch at RUSI on Wednesday were incensed by the recent increase in MOD control over what they could, and could not, publish. They felt that it was stopping them from exercising their democratic function: that of holding power to account. Now, hacks have complained of this since the beginning of time, and the ongoing Levenson (SP?) issue illustrates that this is an extant issue. But their feeling was, and I whole heartedly agree with this, is that the MoD is desperate to avoid criticism of their efforts in Afghanistan. What else can we make of their attempts to block my book under spurious claims of contravening the Official Secrets Act, when they ordered the study themselves in the first place as part of their own lessons learned process?
Of course, there is a linked issue here that is highly pertinent to King’s students and academics, many of whom receive funding from the MoD to work on specific research projects. Indeed, the fact that they do so exposes the parlous state of central government (i.e. blind funding, not tied to a specific department’s retail agenda) funding for social science research—this then opens the door for MoD funding to enter the research funding market.
I will conclude with a question: how many academics in the UK are watching what they say and write for fear of not receiving further funding from the MoD? Is this something that should continue?

Facing the crisis: from global change to insurgency

[Guest post by Clement Roy. Clement is interested in both geosciences and socio-political issues. He got a BSC. in applied physics and a MSc. in Environment at University of Geneva. He then worked in the field of energy, agriculture,and mining, and carried out a year of research around the world in geodynamics and paleoceanography (at Geotop of Montreal and University of Tokyo), before serving as an officier in the Navy French. He is now affiliated to the Institut de Physique du Globe of Paris as well as the French Institute of Geopolitics where he works respectively in the field of natural hazard and Asian piracy.]

Dear Kings of War readers. This is my first post here, and I would like first to thank David Betz for giving me the opportunity to contribute. As a guest- french scientist in the field of natural science, and former military- I am here to answer his ‘On strategic neo-catastrophism’ which put us in touch.

Earth cannot be only an object to be exploited. It is not either a living being, although it has some of its attributes (i.g. homeostasis), but can be treated as such because it makes us live, and because it has the power to destroy us. The next century appears to provide many threats and challenges: energy and mineral shortages, demographic and agricultural crisis, climate and ice sheets change, ocean acidification, deforestation, threats to ecosystems and fish stocks, all with a great economic cost. It thus appears that our situation is similar in many ways to that of ancient lost civilizations, reaching a population too large to thrive in their environment, and facing potential conflicts to seize the latest resources.

Interdisciplinary studies, crossing natural sciences, anthropology, and archeology, provide examples of ancient societies subject to environmental challenges. The Maya civilization, after reaching its demographic peak, collapsed between 750 and 900. In less than a century, the regional population shifted from three million to about four hundred thousand. Different assumptions about the collapse have been advanced: internal (or social) causes, or climate, as an external cause. Climate change could be the primary driver, affecting all the others, leading to a chain reaction, causing vegetation shift, and difficulties in the supply and management of water. In this context, conflicts between cities, so wars for ultimate resources were favored.

We can therefore make a link between environmental stress and political disorders. We learn through the example of the Maya, that the maximum exploitation of the natural environment, resource dependence, and natural environmental variability led their civilization to a very vulnerable position. Using the example of the Maya, and those, among others, of the Anasazi, Polynesian societies and Easter Island, at which we could add, more recently, Nauru and Kiribati, Jared Diamond (in “Collapse”) give us examples of societies coping with troubles, successful or not, with adaptive mechanisms according to their cultural values.

We also learn that if an environmental crisis occurs, it becomes quickly systemic and leads to economic and social aspects. According Joseph Tainter, anthropologist and historian, complexity is a natural way in the evolution of societies. Every adaptation, after problem-solving, complicates the society. But this complexity comes along with structural rigidity and therefore vulnerability when an unforeseen event occurs. The French system, very centralized, leaving little autonomy to local communities, although it may react quickly, is indeed particularly vulnerable to long-term crisis.

Humanity’s wealth depends on the diversity of culture it contains. But they cannot be thought apart from their growth substrate and environment. ‘Humanity is a piece of the world’, wrote  Friedrich Ratzel in his ‘Anthropogeography’. He knew that well, as he was a disciple of Ernst Haeckel, one of the founders of ecology. Ecosystems are not discrete spaces; they are continuum. A continuum that species, including humans, can ionize, thus modifying more or less strongly. Indeed, any organization tends to change its environment in order to increase comfort, therefore its existence. But ultimately, this pressure creates a general level of stress to the ecosystem, which changes by a threshold effect.

Yet if environmental changes are continuous phenomena, our coping strategies crystallize on a discrete spectrum of solutions, often extreme. Ecologists become more radical; while governments want certainty before moving. We may observe this in the discourse on climate change: media bias, and positions cluster around on a favourite side. People expect a ‘solution’, while the necessary adaptation to this phenomenon is rather a way for us to redefine ourselves. But the truth is that we are adaptable only when our identity is strong enough, that is to say when our representation of our place in Nature is as strong as possible. This means quasi-static change in our mental universe. If a motion appears, from societies or Nature, people will either migrate elsewhere to find their former comfort, or struggle to re-establish the world they use to know in their physical environment.

Let’s propose here a draft concept. In a structural environment, the pioneer species is still subject to the environment and adaptation. The strength of the hazard is still structuring in a society, because of their inability to raise capital to erect a protection. This species may still be dominant, but it does not yet change the substance of the ecosystem. To conquer is not to submit. After a certain degree of control, the substrate of growth becomes obedient, i.e., it is the species that become structural for it. They then put pressure on the environment allowing it to create such a barrier, placing them ‘outside Nature’ in an artificial environment which maximizes comfort. The ‘Anthropocene’ is such an environment for humans: it buffers the potentially adverse and unexpected natural variations. And its ecosystem of accomplishment, which enabled the development of civilizations, is the City.

We therefore propose a two-axis analytical grid: (i) the importance of structuring, and (ii) kinetics of change. That means four types of situations, or four types of representations of Human position in Nature. But only one, the first, corresponds to a maximum comfort for us.

1-     Obedient and stable Nature, as in the City, which allows the development of our species while avoiding the most uncomfortable situation.

2-     Structuring and stable natural environment, as in the countryside.

3-     But when the environment is dynamic, harmony disappears; the Man-Nature balance of power appears. By a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, if Nature has the initiative.

4-     Or when population tries to re-appropriate their environment in a fluid context of insurgency and irregular warfare. In this case, it is an attempt to regain control against change in the substance of their ecosystem.

We should pay particular attention to current developments of Human-environment interactions and strategies in a global change. Because there is a level beyond which cohesion, sense of responsibility, and finally democracy are no longer favored. And when we all share the same plate, spit inside becomes a way of appropriating it: thus begins the race and wars for the last resources, to lose nothing of our competitiveness and inaction when it comes to cope with pollution.


So, here I would like to answer David Betz’s post ‘On strategic neo-Catastrophism’.  It is not only conflict between nations that are to be expected. Conflicts inside the Nations may also be favoured. In 1979, Hans Jonas released its ‘responsibility principle’. What has become today? A rather vague principle, which leaves great flexibility in industrial activities, without making citizens more proactive. If governments become as inert as civil society, it is normal that a response emerges from non-governmental organizations and local communities.

Remember the great Frank Herbert science fiction novel ‘Dune’, adapted by David Lynch as a film in 1984: ‘who can destroy a thing, controls that thing.’ And maybe, like the burning of oil wells during the 1990 Gulf War, local population, in their struggle to re-appropriate their environment, would prefer to rather destroy it than abdicate to what they deem to be an external, imperialist, and dehumanized interference

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Film screening: The Unknown Known

London-based KOW readers may enjoy this new documentary film by Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known.

In The Unknown Known, Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris offers a mesmerizing portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, the larger-than-life figure who served as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense and as the principal architect of the Iraq War. Rather than conducting a conventional interview, Morris has Rumsfeld perform and explain his “snowflakes” — the enormous archive of memos he wrote across almost fifty years in Congress, the White House, in business, and twice at the Pentagon. The memos provide a window into history — not as it actually happened, but as Rumsfeld wants us to see it. By focusing on the “snowflakes,” with their conundrums and their contradictions, Morris takes us where few have ever been — beyond the web of words into the unfamiliar terrain of Rumsfeld’s mind. The Unknown Known presents history from the inside out. It shows how the ideas, the fears, and the certainties of one man, written out on paper, transformed America, changed the course of history — and led to war.

Screening times followed by Q&A with the filmmaker and venues may be found at the link above. Prof Theo Farrell, head of department here, who has seen the film (I have not) describes it as ‘very clever and compelling…riveting to watch’.



As the World Turns, Vol. whatever, No. something or other

This morning while in a state of procrastinatory idling I was leafing through my copy of Joseph Lehmann’s The First Boer War. I’ve had it for ages and confess had not yet read it–a thing which I will rectify just as soon as I have finished the other thing I’m procrastinating on. Early on in it you find this passage (p. 14) which I found thought-provoking:

In 1815 a Boer named Bezuidenhout was charged with maltreating a Hottentot servant. When he resisted arrest, he was shot dead by soldiers attempting to seize him. Bezuidenhout’s friends and neighbours took up their weapons and resolved to sweep the British into the sea that had brought them. The effort failed. Five rebel leaders were condemned, though none of them had actually shed blood, and hanged at Slager’s Nek. The beam broke under the combined weight before they were dead. Despite the tearful entreaties of relatives and friends, the bean was repaired and the sentence carried out. The futility of further resistance was clearly demonstrated. Outwardly the farmers were loyal, but the rancorous memory of Slagter’s Nek ate into their hearts. A proud people can forgive the death of men in battle, but not their execution on the scaffold.*

*Eighty years later, after the Jameson raid, the same beam was brought to Pretoria with threats that it might be used a third time on British raiders who sought to destroy the Boer Republic.

There are a few things I like about this quote. The first is simple: I’m just fascinated by the story of the Boers and the British from the early 19th through the 20th century–and so should you be if you’re interested in contemporary strategic affairs. It helps to get a perspective on things. Take, for starters, the image of the global mega-power of the day locking horns with a tiny, rather backward and unsavoury, tribe and, frankly, getting a pretty fine shellacking. There’s little to say for the Boers at that time who were so rigidly religiously doctrinaire, inward-looking, and xenophobic that they make the Taliban seem a bit metrosexual by comparison. Their key redeeming feature, it seems to me, was a ferocious desire to be left alone and a readiness to do suicidally futilely brave things to get their way. As for the British, they seemed to be in another sort of trap that I find more than a little resonant with today. To be sure they wanted the gold and diamonds that lay in abundance beneath the feet of the Boers. But one senses too the need of the hegemon to impose order on an ‘ungoverned space’ and to enforce norms and sanction bad behaviour, in this event Boer enslavement of the indigenous people and generally wanton cruelty. These were rationalisations, of course, just not completely self-serving ones.

The second thing which occurred relates to the discussion had a few days ago here on KOW between Ken Payne and The Faceless Bureaucrat about the Prisoner’s Choice Dilemma and Rational Actors in general. How rational is it to hold a grudge so long and so hard that you preserve a hunk of wood against the possibility that someday you might hang the great-grandsons of your great-grandfather’s victimiser? It isn’t really, is it? But that’s how the world works much of the time, particularly when it comes to war. It’s hardly just the story of the Boers and the British. It’s also the story of: Irish nationalism (800 years old), Chechen resistance to Russia (200 years old), Israel and the Palestinians (a comparative newcomer if you date the start of that to Israel’s founding in 1948 but you might as well start earlier), and no doubt a thousand other such instances. This is what browns me off about security studies so often these days. I don’t really want to make a big argument here. Just a simple one: you can go a lot of good as a strategic thinker with a good grounding in political philosophy and a shedload of history.

Third, I think that last line is as good an encapsulation as any of the long-term problem of the confront and conceal approach to our current strategic dilemma. Our drones provide the role of scaffold, eminently well, it could be said–an effective and economical means of policing the worst recalcitrants. But how much rancorous memory eating at the heart are we laying down at the same time? Is my son’s grandson going to be schwacking some other fellow’s distant progeny with a plasma rifle somewhere on the Asteroid Belt because of things that are happening today? Probably, I think. The world turns round and round.