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.

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Globalisation, even weirder than I thought

Well, uh… hmmm… After reading most of the day about the object lesson in nineteenth century-style realpolitik which Vladimir Putin has been giving the world in Ukraine over the weekend I’m not really sure what to make of this video I just happened across via Harry’s Place. Can this be real? The video purports to show LA gangbangers joining the fight in Syria on the side of Assad’s regime forces. Observe.

The scene brings to mind the postscript of Martin Van Creveld’s Transformation of War:

…the question as to what future societies will go to war for is almost irrelevant. It is simply not true that war is simply a means to an end, nor do people necessarily fight in order to obtain this objective or that. In fact, the opposite is true; people very often take up one objective or another precisely in order that they may fight. While the usefulness of war as a means for gaining practical ends may well be questioned, its ability to entertain, to inspire, and to fascinate has never been in doubt. (p. 226)

What common cause could we have here? For what are these fellows fighting? 



Test alternative

On Strategic Neo-Catastrophism

Welcome back KOW readers. It feels good to be back to blogging. For my part, I find it a bit like exercise–it feels great and it’s good for you but sometimes for various reasons you just seem to get out of the habit. Anyway, as my inaugural post on the newly-fashioned blog I thought that I would share with you a little article that has caused me to lose some sleep (a thing I very rarely do) over the last while. You may be familiar with Professor James Lovelock. He is the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis which, as I understand it, is basically the idea that the Earth itself is one giant living organism:

We now see that the air, the ocean and the soil are much more than a mere environment for life; they are a part of life itself. Thus the air is to life just as is the fur to a cat or the nest for a bird. Not living but something made by living things to protect against an otherwise hostile world. For life on Earth the air is our protection against the cold depths and fierce radiations of space.

There is nothing unusual in the idea of life on Earth interacting with the air, sea and rocks, but it took a view from outside to glimpse the possibility that this combination might consist of a single giant living system and one with the capacity to keep the Earth always at a state most favorable for the life upon it.

There are many possibilities for comfort as there are for dismay in contemplating the consequences of our membership in this great commonwealth of living things. It may be that one role we play is as the senses and nervous system for Gaia. Through our eyes she has for the first time seen her very fair face and in our minds become aware of herself. We do indeed belong here. The earth is more than just a home, it’s a living system and we are part of it.

I find it a potently poetic and compelling metaphor. I can’t speak of its validity as a scientific theory of ecology–not my area of specialisation; it has, however, proved an extremely influential idea amongst proper scientists and also popularly. Lovelock is famously cantankerous as well as brilliant, a free and independent thinker with not the least hesitation of goring the sacred cows of, most noteworthily, the very environmental activists who might otherwise revere him. I like him.

Some years ago now he was interviewed by the Guardian. You’ll get the gist of the piece from the title ‘James Lovelock: ‘Enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan‘ but it’s worth reading the whole thing (if you really want to you can read the book Revenge of Gaia).  In a nutshell, we’re headed into a shitschturm (the technical term) and there’s really very little that can be done to forestall it. This is the part that really got my attention:

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

Nuclear power, he argues, can solve our energy problem – the bigger challenge will be food. “Maybe they’ll synthesise food. I don’t know. Synthesising food is not some mad visionary idea; you can buy it in Tesco’s, in the form of Quorn. It’s not that good, but people buy it. You can live on it.” But he fears we won’t invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects “about 80%” of the world’s population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. “But this is the real thing.”

“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That’s the source of my optimism.”

In other words, it seems to me, that we’re talking about a new form of catastrophism. It’s hardly the first time that the potential of global megadeath has crossed over into strategic studies–that being of course the preoccupation of nuclear strategists for more or less every waking minute of the Cold War. But this time feels different. For one thing, the threat is vastly more insidious. Gaia, says Lovelock, won’t burn up the world’s cities in one spasmodically insensate burst of fury; rather she seems likely to set famine and pestilence to work first, no doubt war and the pale horse will follow. To repeat: 80% of the world’s population wiped out by 2100.

Is this to be taken seriously? You might disagree with Lovelock or think him massively exaggerating. I must admit, personally, I’m not sure. What if he’s only, say, half right? That would be just 40% of the population wiped out. Yay!

That said, policymakers in the UK appear, rhetorically at least, to think the theory has some credence. Both the Future Character of Conflict paper out of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the Ministry of Defence and the latest National Security Strategy A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty mention ‘climate change’ and the environment generally as a factor in the exacerbation of conflict. It does not seem, however, that they’re really seized with conviction.

It seems to me that if the government really was taking seriously the eco-tastrophe warnings of scientists like Lovelock they would be pouring resources into ships, guns, energy and food security, and civil defence in general. I mean, what is the plan for keeping the 60-70 million people on this island fed if food becomes radically scarcer? What is the plan if this sodden North Atlantic green spot remains relatively so while most other places get drier and unliveable? What, in general, is the big idea for seeing through the expected turmoil of century 21? The consequences are awful to contemplate; nonetheless, it seems a good time to contemplate them.


What’s in a Name? Syria, History, and Strategic Semantics

Anne Miles is an American doctoral student and teaching fellow in the Defence Studies Department at KCL researching the conceptual history and development of Conventional Warfare.

A battle-tested and professional military commander responds to a familiar call:  enemy troops are attempting to seize the high ground. If they succeed, it will be difficult to defend the contested areas below. The commander rallies his troops and proceeds with all haste to the makeshift base where they await the onslaught. Out on the hill, the defenders can see the attackers streaming towards them, and fire is exchanged. Suddenly, the commander realizes that this is not going to be a simple skirmish: the enemy has far more fighters than anticipated and a tank to back them up. The commander and his men are outnumbered and outgunned, and soon they will be outflanked. The day is lost. It will be a serious setback for his nation’s objectives in the conflict.

While this seems like it could be a scene from Band of Brothers, it in fact comes from official yet officially-denied footage commissioned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and captured by Syrian rebels after this battle. The unfinished documentary, as reported this week by the BBC, shows state-sanctioned Iranian involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Consider a second scene. After an initial display of overwhelming force and subsequent withdrawal of enemy troops, another commander considers the political-military landscape he faces. The local puppet government has collapsed and the local military leaders seem open to switching allegiance to the commander’s side, but there is a question of legal and political legitimacy. The commander must also take into account the network of indigenous tribes that inhabit the desert region, being careful not to accidentally find himself in the middle of ancient familial grievances or fan the flames of popular Zionist conspiracy theories. Finally, the commander must balance his assessment of military requirements on the ground with the complex demands of leading a multinational coalition.

This, of course, was the problem that General Eisenhower faced in North Africa, as he vividly recalls in his war memoirs.

The way we strategists, both academic and real-world, classify war is a serious problem. Now is the time of the year when students in the War Studies BA at KCL are first exposed to Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force, and it is clear from reading their essays that the idea of a paradigm shift in warfare is a seductive one. “Oh, if only we could fight an old-fashioned Industrial [Conventional, Regular, etc.] War! But sadly we live in a time of War Amongst the People [Unconventional, Irregular, Asymmetric, New, Hybrid War] and must dispose of our preconceived notions accordingly.”

Why do we persist with this false dichotomy?

There are, of course, obvious differences between older conflicts like World War II and more recent ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. To ignore these differences would be negligent: nuclear weapons, technological and communications revolutions, the erosion of the state and other factors have undoubtedly altered both strategic and tactical landscapes. But there are also key similarities if you look closely, though in the current intellectual environment, acknowledging these often can be disregarded as a sign of outdated, “conventional” thinking.

It is true that the view presented in this BBC report shows only one aspect of a complex war, which involves some of the hallmarks more closely associated with  “unconventional” conflicts. But this is precisely the point. Eisenhower, in his own words, faced the prospects of terrorism and guerrilla war in a conflict regarded as the archetype of old-school warfare by modern strategists. Categorizing wars within this conventional/unconventional (or old/new) dichotomy may be useful from a parsimonious point of view, but it can be highly problematic when used as the basis of policy.

Casting Syria in the light of quagmire is an easy out for policymakers and academics alike who cannot find a good solution to this horrendously difficult and complex problem. The BBC’s superb report reminds us that the tragedy in Syria involves Assad’s state military apparatus, organized militias, and outside state intervention that play into a larger regional political game. Perhaps we might think seriously and honestly about these more familiar facets of strategy and foreign policy and not simply consign Syria to the dustbin of “unsolvable sectarian violence.”


PTSD and mental health: Forget the media hype – are we prepared for Army 2020?

Ashley Ryan, a student at City & Islington College, intends to enroll in 2014 for War Studies at King’s College London. Joseph Ryan, PhD, is studying for a PsychD in Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology, specialising in trauma, at the University of Surrey.

On Thursday 3 October 2013, the MoD announced that 5,058 military personnel were diagnosed with mental health conditions over the previous year, representing a rate of 27.1 per 1,000 personnel at strength [1].

Recent media attention focused on an ‘upsurge’ in PTSD cases. The MoD, however, said most of the increase in mental disorders was due to an alteration in reporting methods. Without the change, there would have been only a 3% rise [2]. So, the figures don’t show big increases; rather, they demonstrate for the first time the extent of mental health problems faced by the military.

Since 2007, 22,600 personnel experienced mental health issues during or after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan [3]. Adjustment disorder was common, accounting for 61% of all neurotic disorders [1]. Other prevalent conditions included depression and alcohol abuse. Increased drinking – a form of self-medication – is a common and traditionally acceptable response to stress among the armed forces.

PTSD remains relatively uncommon, accounting for only 10% of neurotic disorders reported since April 2007 [1]. The impact of the condition, however, sometimes gets lost in the statistics … PTSD is debilitating and, if untreated, worsens progressively, sometimes to the point of suicide. It also has a negative effect on family, friends and colleagues.

Army 2020 plans will increase risk factors associated with PTSD. Since 2001, both regulars and reservists have experienced greater exposure to combat and trauma, due to the scale of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although operations are scaling down, our military presence isn’t due to end anytime soon – and for troops it remains to be seen whether the end of these conflicts will bring a lull in engagements or merely a change of scenery.

The change to lengthier deployments (of 8-9 months) means extended immersion in theatre, compounding the chances of multiple traumatic events occurring. This may partly explain the higher rates of PTSD in the US military, which sees deployments of 12-15 months.

The planned increase in reserve forces (from 15,000 to 30,000) suggests that reservists will be rotated from deployment to civilian life more regularly. Research indicates they have an elevated risk of mental health problems; indeed, the chief executive of Combat Stress stated that rates of PTSD among veterans are 50% higher in reservists.

Reservists may have lower morale and unit cohesion, and greater perception of exposure to trauma. On homecoming, they feel less supported by the military than regulars, experiencing increased marital discord, employment issues and lack of social support. Rapid reintegration into society also causes a sudden loss of the deep bond and camaraderie between members of a unit that they experienced in theatre; whereas for regulars this continues between deployments and, indeed, on their next tour.

The armed forces face severe budget cuts and more than 11,000 personnel have been made redundant since 2011, with further reductions planned. The psychological impact of risking one’s life on operations, combined with disillusionment and loss of morale caused by redundancies, disbandment or merging of regiments, and lack of support from the general public for military action in recent years, has yet to be fully felt.

In summary, the problem isn’t that mental health issues (including PTSD) are common or spiking, because they aren’t – yet. But changes to army structure and deployment length will intensify risk factors as we move towards Army 2020, placing additional pressure on the mental resilience of our men and women in the field. As such, many more personnel are likely to experience PTSD, with even greater numbers suffering common mental health and alcohol problems (which can lead to other social concerns – unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment, etc).

It is time to recognise this and plan accordingly, making provisions for effective mental health treatment for serving personnel (whether regulars or reservists) and veterans alike.


[1] Ministry of Defence, ‘UK Armed Forces mental health: Annual Summary & Trends Over Time, 2007/08 – 2012/13’ (3 October 2013). ()

[2] Ministry of Defence, Defence News, Official News Blog of the UK Ministry of Defence, ‘Defence in the Media: 4 October 2013: Mental health support for Service personnel’ (4 October 2013). ()


[3] Tom Whitehead, ‘Mental disorders among Afghan veterans rise,’ Telegraph (3 October 2013).





Russia’s sub par submarines- Trouble under the surface of military reform

Tom Barton is a British journalist and War Studies Alumnus who’s been reporting from Moscow for the past five years. He covers Russia, the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East. See his blog at- or follow him on twitter- @TomBartonJourno

Things are not looking good for the nuclear and conventional military arsenal Russian generals love to use in their sabre rattling threats.

In the past few weeks there have been three separate worrying indications (two submarine accidents and a missile test failure) that the $650 billion being snatched away from Russian schools and hospitals and thrown at the military budget may be money down the plughole, and that’s even without the corruption to take into account.

The Russian nuclear powered submarine Tomsk was undergoing repairs near Russia’s far eastern port of Vladivostok on Monday 16th September when it burst into flames and burnt for five hours. The Defence ministry eventuallychanged its story and admitted that fifteen sailors had been wounded in the fire, contradicting its earlier certainty that everything was totally fine. It was the second fire of this kind on board a Russian submarine in less than two years.

The first was the submarine Yekaterinburg which also burst into flames in its shipyard in north western Russia in December 2011. Officials said at the time that there had been no nuclear missiles on board. That was a lie said one respected magazine afterwards, citing its own sources. This caused an international furore with Norway’s Foreign Minister among those demanding the truth. A terrifying thought.

Staying on the subject of submarines, in August this year an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak was rocked by two huge explosions and fire ripped through the vessel as it sat in dock in Mumbai. Eighteen sailors on board were killed by the blasts and the boat sank in the port. It is one of India’s worst ever naval accidents. That submarine was bought from Russia in 1997. In 2010 it had been sent to Russia and refitted with Russian cruse missiles. Investigators say it may have been the weapons on board, possibly those missiles, that exploded causing the disaster. There are nine more ‘Kilo-class’ submarines like that one which India bought from Russia. The Indian government has now been forced to review its safety systems on board all of them.

Russia’s submarine woes don’t end there. In November 2008 the fire extinguishing system on the Russian submarine Nerpa went off as it was doing sea trials. Compartments on board were flooded with deadly gas, killing twenty. Despite the catastrophe that submarine has since been leased and then commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra.

But the greatest tragedy of them all since the collapse of the Soviet Union was on the Russian submarine Kursk. In August 2000 explosions on board sank the Kursk in the Barent’s sea. Those of the 118 crew not killed by the explosions had time to write notes before the oxygen ran out. All the while the Russian government of then new President Vladimir Putin refused help from other countries which might have saved them. The criticism of Putin, who stayed on holiday in the south of Russia and said nothing to a distraught Russian people for five days as the horror of the Kursk catastrophe unfolded, was vociferous and remains to this day.

All of these accidents have occurred since the year 2000 making Russia’s public record on submarine technical safety far worse than that of any other country.

Lets go back to those nuclear weapons and missiles, the one’s Russia prides itself on above all. Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov loves threatening people with them. In November 2011 he announced that,”I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons.” For him it seems the cold never ended and as analysts pointed out that violent sabre rattling was directed straight at Europe, the US and NATO.


Why Obama will Shoot the Elephant: The Chronicles of Irony, Chapter One ‘Syria Days’

Many KOW readers will no doubt be familiar with the brilliant writings of the English writer George Orwell. The Snowden Affair has, of course, ignited much interest in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four recently. My personal favourite, however, has long been his short essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, which is an account of an incident in his time as an imperial policeman in Burma in the 1930s. I always ask my insurgency class to read it–not that Orwell mentions ‘counterinsurgency’ directly but it tells us much about that subject. As Orwell puts it, ‘One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.’

Nowadays, of course, the world is asking will Obama attack Syria or not. Nobody’s sure–at any rate it’s apparent he has an uphill battle to obtain the support of Congress, whether or not that is the clincher we shall see. Most of the people I know are stuck on why. After all, the public is fed up with protracted, thankless, and invertebrate wars that cannot be won. Why launch another one? There’s no good strategic logic in a limited show of disapproval. Moreover, the more politicians couch it in terms of moral necessity the more, at least to me, they reek of moral bankruptcy. I understand why occasionally the media leads the clamouring that ‘something [pointless and low cost] must be done’. It’s been an impediment to strategic sagacity for decades. What I don’t get is why governments are now clamouring all on their own. It is also bears mentioning that the likely interveners are all broke.  As the Treasury Secretary of the last Labour government in the UK put it so charmingly in a note to his successor: ‘there is no money, sorry.’

In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago Eliot Cohen penned a very good piece on The Stakes on the Syria Vote. It’s behind a paywall but well worth a read if you have access. The gist of Cohen’s argument is here in this extract:

Despite Mr. Obama’s statements about narrowly defined goals, precise uses of force and limited duration, it is entirely reasonable to expect that such a strange voyage [i.e., totally unpredictable and likely to have many serious second and third order effects] may lie ahead once operations begin, and that he is singularly ill-fitted to navigate it.

Finally, as a practical matter, critics can ask why the U.S. should intervene after a massacre, however hideous, of some 1,400 Syrians, when America has refused to act over the slaughter of 100,000 in the preceding two years. And, even if the U.S. strikes at Assad and helps bring about his downfall, the danger is real that having administered a defeat to the regime and its sponsor, Iran, America will hand a victory to al Qaeda.

These are all serious arguments. But weightier are the counterarguments. For better or for worse, the credibility not only of this president, but of America as a global power and a guarantor of international order, is on the line. If the U.S.—after its president said two years ago that Assad must go and then, a year later, drew a red line at Syria’s use of chemical weapons—now does nothing, profound conclusions will be drawn by a China ready to bully its neighbors, by a North Korea whose scruples are already minimal, and by an Iran that has already killed many Americans in a covert war waged against us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America’s friends will realize that its word means nothing. As a result, they will either abandon us, or arm themselves with nuclear weapons. And these countries will be increasingly willing to wield them in a world in which they have no great ally who may be counted upon to stand by them in an hour of need.

Normally, I would be swayed by Professor Cohen whose books and articles have had a big influence on my thinking. In this case, however, no, no, and no. I am not at all in agreement. I think that he makes too much of the effect upon America’s allies should it fail to show resolve. I believe it is truer to say that the President rather stupidly has put himself, and the country thereby, in a position where it will look the fool whatever it does. For what it’s worth, I think attacking Syria is compound foolishness. You’ve got to admit it’s pretty alarming when Vladimir Putin sounds like the voice of reason on the world stage. That really ought to be a big warning sign that you’ve headed really far down the wrong path.

[UPDATE: Our local allies in action.]

Well, I think Orwell explains it better. Read the essay. Consider it an allegory. Here it is below.


In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

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