What Can We Learn from ISIS?

In this week’s professional discussion I would like to consider the value of unlikely role models. We tend to look to those who resemble us for wisdom, both as individuals and organizations. Furthermore, we tend to want to look to those that are “better” according to seemingly objective criteria. I would submit that this perspective is too limited and for that puts at risk real opportunities to grow in wisdom and capability. Enjoy the read and please join the fray at #CCLKOW.


Last week the Marine Corps announced that it would re-brand its MARSOC units under the historic Raider moniker.

The grand history of the Marine Raiders is generally well known. Less well understood is that the Raider tradition is not a single, coherent thing. Two Raider legacies emerged from the war, as Mike Edson and Evans Carlson were given tremendous leeway in command to create their units as they saw fit. And here is where it gets very interesting, because Carlson’s Raiders were formed with a heavy dose of Chinese/PLA influence.

Evans Carlson was unique for many reasons. Most compelling for me, he was a man who took lessons and wisdom wherever they appeared regardless of source. This was nowhere more true than in his travels with the various Chinese forces confronting the Japanese in 1937. There Carlson had the opportunity to study closely the operations and values of the irregular warfare the PLA had adopted to fight the Japanese. Seeing their generally positive results – on the battlefield, within the units, and among the people in and near the Japanese occupation – impressed him. Many of the concepts he saw validated in China would be adapted and implemented within his Raider unit, to include the iconic battle cry, Gung Ho.

Consider that for a moment. The United States, which by the eve of WWII was already militarily potent, was taking lessons in warfare from what would have been considered at the time as a third rate army. Looking only at their record on Guadalcanal suggests that the PLA practices were indeed valuable to the Raiders. And yet conventional wisdom would never have identified the PLA as a role model for American military capabilities.

From the perspective of military innovation, from tactics to strategies, we find ourselves in very interesting times. In every corner of the globe there are niche military formations which, for their poverty and irregularity, for their freedom from institutional legacies and traditions, have taken what they needed from any sector to cobble together capabilities to relatively good effect. ISIS, for example, has created social media as a potent “arm” of its forces. Jihad by tweet won’t win any conflicts, but it certainly enhances ISIS’ interaction with its own audience and those it is trying to woo. That is but only one small piece of the innovation afoot in warfare. Even a military super-power could benefit from consideration of these advances, no matter that it might mean learning from an unlikely role model.

So, the questions for this week are:

In what areas do Western military capabilities lag behind contemporary weaker or lesser forces? That is, where might they benefit from an unlikely role model?

What or who is your unlikely role model of choice?


Learning to Win, Not Defeat

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


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

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

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

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



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





Finding the virtue in austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Dollar Bill

When Checks Imbalance

Today’s author, Elizabeth B. Oakes, completed her doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London in May of this year. The title of her thesis , “Too Baroque to Fix: The US Army’s Future Combat System.” Her work focuses on strategic planning and defense acquisition by way of a case study of the rise and fall of a major acquisition program. She currently lives and works in London. 

Although the specific subject of concern for today’s professional discussion (#CCLKOW) is the American defense budget, I would certainly encourage our British and other participants to point out how their processes, benefits and challenges compare and contrast with these.  JSR

Negotiating and passing the US Department of Defense budget is a complicated slog that normally lasts nine months each year. The process is shrouded in side deals and unrelated amendments. Its straightforward elements are highly contentious. The defense budget is a political beast: stakeholders fighting over resources in an attempt to retain relative power. It is also a tedious subject to discuss. Words like committee mark-up, sequester, and title usually cause eyes to glaze over. But at nearly $500 billion, the defense budget is big and important. It warrants attention.

Here are some fun and easy details to focus this discussion. At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Armed Services, submitted a defense budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which totaled $495.6 billion. This budget largely reflects the beliefs of the Obama administration, which hold that the budget and size of the military should decline following the end of large overseas operations. In pursuit of this proposed budget, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requested that each Armed Service suggest its own cost-saving measures. Among many on these lists were the retirement of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog aircraft and the end of procuring the Army’s M1A1 Abrams tank. The Army and Marine Corps will begin their size drawdown. Each Service also nominated some lesser-used bases for BRAC decrease or closure, and Secretary Hagel’s office suggested widespread reforms to mitigate drastically rising personnel costs (such as TRICARE co-pays for retirees, reduced pay increases, and commissary closures).  All in all, the Pentagon’s proposed budget stays within bounds of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and loyal to the White House’s overall goals for the DoD.

A quick civics lesson reminds us that the Executive Branch doesn’t pass the defense budget. Congress does. Its power as purse holder is part of the American checks and balances system, which contends that inefficient negotiations yield a more balanced, measured result for the country. In this case, Congress is supposed to check the power of the Pentagon by forcing it make difficult or innovative choices based on limited resources. However you find this process, what matters more is that it isn’t happening. Congress isn’t checking or balancing the FY15 defense budget in any meaningful way. The House version of the defense bill totals $521.3 billion. It declines to retire/discontinue many procurement programs, including the A-10 and the Abrams. It refuses to allow the closing of un- or under-used bases. It delays personnel entitlement reforms, and it aims to slow the drawdown of troops. In short, it defers the hard decisions to a later date in an effort to retain production facilities and base economies in home constituencies.

Two important points surface at this point. The first is that the House version is probably more generous than the final version will be as the Senate usually negotiates a more moderate approach. Of course, this year experts are divided on how moderate the Senate intends to be. Secondly, the Armed Services not-so-secretly relish these generous budgets. No Service likes to lose personnel or equipment, especially if such losses are greater relative to the other Services. Thus, on the whole, two more upward pressures on this year’s defense budget are likely to emerge this summer.

So where is the problem? Why should the military be concerned by more generous budgets? Isn’t this all a good thing? The answer is mostly no. Flexibility and perhaps innovation are greatly stifled by budgets such as the one proposed by the House of Representatives. Readiness and modernization are most at stake. In a budget-constrained environment with so many required pet programs, bases, and personnel costs, the Services are left with few options for how to train and base their personnel and what equipment to buy. As near-, mid-, and long-term threats emerge, the Services will grow more and more constrained to face them. They will be too occupied executing the demands of the defense budget; too little will be left for new training, new solutions, and new equipment. The military has a right to question such moves. A big defense budget is a prize horse, but it must be looked in the mouth.

Some questions to consider:

How can the Services respond to a budget that contains unwanted elements such as equipment or personnel requirements?

Is it possible for the defense budget to overcome short-term political gains in favor of longer-term strategies?

What can the DoD do to protect its decision-making flexibility?

Further reading options:      






What does a committed strategic relationship look like?

Last week, in preparation for the NATO summit in Wales, London played host to the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff. That the phrase even has a shared and unique meaning, signifying only the collaboration of American and British military chiefs, is itself an historic achievement. If not unprecendented, it is certainly uncommon to find two sovereign nations who can comfortably imagine a shared vision for the operation of their armed forces. We have both come a long way since the Revolutionary War and not drifted too far from the alliance of WWII.

This is good because the special relationship does serve both the US and UK [1] and, going further, the correct approach to the future should be to consider how to expand its terms and practices. Not only is it in their common interests, but it advances wider needs as well. I will review a few key points to establish the foundation for the position and set up the discussion of the questions at the end.

Dealing first with what might seem the most alarming problem, contrary to what might be expected, the value beyond just the two parties is in fact most important with respect to the rest of Europe. While this way forward could be mistaken for an anti-European or threatening stance, in fact I see the development as a means to improve relations amongst the three parties, continental Europe, the US and the UK. Whereas the UK serves as the comfortable half step to the continent for the US, the Atlantic alliance at its back offers the UK something to balance its sense of separation from the rest of Europe. As for the continental EU, this state of things would reassure engagement of both the US and UK with the continent. It is necessary that both the US and the UK [2]remain integral parts of this political establishment. Notwithstanding its weaknesses and costs, it is a far better development for the benefit of the region than rampant state self interest.

Nor can I deny the terms and validity of the special relationship have taken something of a beating lately [3]. However, beneath the skepticism, cynicism and pessimism (and I’m not sure which of these dominates) there is a fundamental and sensible basis for close relations between the two, both in history and going forwar. It is not my intention here to offer the history of the relationship, but it is reasonable to assert its existence within the framework of the post WWII world. Indisputably something particular and unique has existed between the two countries since that war [4], even as examples where friction or suspicion or competition have arisen can be found.  The breach is not reliable to define of a thing, which is arguably the case here remembering that we are dealing with entities – states – for whom it is not at all easy or natural to work with others as allies outside of war. Unblemished and easy will never be the terms to describe such a thing.

Alternatively, some question such a future given a perception that the US and UK stand to substantially diverge in capabilities. I have heard from the British side here in London that the matter of military parity must necessarily critically undermine the relationship. They argue that the value of future British military contributions, either from a technological (are the weapons and systems adequately advanced) or quantitative (is the British force structure adequately sized) standpoint will not keep pace with American capabilities, but it will also render their contributions irrelevant. Such an accounting is far too narrow. The value that the British bring to the table is not reckoned in simple numerical or material terms – certainly its military capacity is not defined by this alone.

Looking only at the strategic component of the relationship, with respect to armed force, standing capability is not a fixed upper limit. In the event of a future war, British force structure and weaponry certainly would not be governed by the contemporary chosen budget constraints. Rather, it is far more sensible to view the services today as a cadre around which much larger forces could be built. With respect to technological development, I categorically disagree with those who argue that the UK is falling behind irretrievably in military technology or that this will somehow define future capabilities. Spending on weaponry in peacetime is a fraught proposal, and it is never certain that the expenditures in those moments will match what will be needed when war does finally return. Thus, heresy though it may be to dismiss force structure and weaponry as indicators of military capacity, my preference is for the intangibles which cannot be developed nearly as quickly or easily as personnel or weapons. The hardened core of the armed forces is difficult to create. Time can do it. In short order a shared cause will inspire its rapid development. But as the record of foreign military training amply demonstrates, those strengths are not easily acquired and instilled. The long term knowledge and experience contained within the British armed forces regarding the profession of arms, practice in warfare, and conduct of war is inestimably valuable. 

While it may be obvious what the US brings to the table in terms of capability and resources, perhaps the benefit for that side is less clear. If only as a bulwark against the wild swings of isolationism and disengagement such a relationship would serve. Alternatively, taking as the truth that there is not much tangible to be gained for the US, just like man, no state is an island. Even the rich kid with everything needs friends. 

So, rather than challenging our virtual general staff to plan for war or consider how to defeat an enemy, I would like to instead put the issue of imagining a reinterpretation of a bilateral alliance whose intent is the strategic integration of their shared military capacity. The following questions are a broad guide to the issues for discussion (#CCLKOW)


What are the strategic and tactical synergies that can be expected from such a relationship?

What are the comparative advantages each party brings to the combination? (Ricardian economics, appropriate for a discussion related to the UK.)

How might you organize tasks, roles, missions, etc. between the two countries and their respective services? (I have an idea for this, but I will save that for a comment later in the week.)

What are the costs and perils for either or both? Do these outweigh the benefits?



[1] An assessment of the scope of issues and efforts which benefit from the advanced state of relations between the two states is well beyond the capacity of this essay. However, I am not the first person to take this position, nor is it particularly extreme even as it might be contested.

[2] There is much talk in the UK about dissatisfaction with and perhaps departure from the EU. This piece does not intend to argue the case, but it is my position that the UK is better off in the EU – and that the EU cannot afford to lose the UK. At the very least, I think the current global situation would support the notion that disintegration does no-one any good.

[3] The piece linked here is a good example of journalists using historical material badly and for editorial effect. It may be good journalism but it is terribly history and ought not to be read as a serious account of the relationship between two nations. Generally, if it’s a newspaper article it is not history.

[4] Most recently I would cite Blair’s decision to support the Bush Administration’s decision for war in Iraq in 2003. This may seem an odd example, given the unfolding of events in that country (right up to ISIS’s recent offensives in Iraq). In almost every manner possible I think OIF was a terrible choice, but for the British I think something very important was maintained in its alignment with the US. I would have preferred wise counsel from our British friends, but even still this move was political and, in my view, the far better one for both sides.

Doughnut Dollies, 1918 France

Where was your first war doughnut, GI?

Fittingly, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings corresponded with this year’s National Doughnut Day in the United States.

I say fittingly with serious intent.

The inspiration for National Doughnut Day was the Salvation Army. In 1938, to support their fundraising and service efforts during the Great Depression, the organisation pushed for the holiday to recognise the pastry’s role providing comfort to the troops in the previous war. Delightful and little likely to cause offence, the holiday was adopted with little opposition. 

In WWII, providing doughnuts to the American service man and woman was codified and expanded in practice. This time it was the Red Cross and the Donut Dollies who served on the front lines, although the Salvation Army would continue its doughnut service in the US. The machines that were developed to make doughnuts in vast quantities or in constrained circumstances were legion. Here was the rise of the expeditionary doughnut capability.  Describing its role in that war, Red Cross leader Harvey D. Gibson spoke with unexpected eloquence upon this fried delight, contrasting its existence as a “humble brown object of succulent dough” with its stature as not just caloric satisfaction but as “ammunition for the heart and spirit.” It was an epic effort to provide the smallest comfort of home.

In fact, the importance of this comfort was recognised when the US Senate passed a resolution in 2012 in to honour the women who served — as well as those who gave their lives — in support of the doughnut Clubmobile. It also, interesting, called for ”historians of the Second World War to recognize and describe the service of the Clubmobiles, and to not let this important piece of United States history be lost.” Got it and on it, both here and in my wider work.

Today, the doughnut IS American. And there are parts of the country with more doughnut shops than you’d think was reasonable to sustain. (And our neighbours to the north are none too shabby in their love of the sweet ring.) Part of this was, inevitably, the influence of wartime experience, the taste nurtured a post-war demand that a growing service economy was keen to meet.

What happens in war is important. It moves economies, societies, cultures and governments. But these small details also leave lasting impressions for those who experienced them. And they importantly demonstrate the ultimate and enduring importance of the human and individual experience in war. In honour of those WWI women who inspired a holiday, and their daughters of WWII who performed so ably, I would really like to know from veterans about their first or memorable doughnuts of WWII.

Comment here, send an email to jill.russell@kcl.ac.uk or tweet me at @jsargentr.


Photo courtesy of Dr. Huw Davies

Trials and Tribulations Translating Policy into Strategy

Two weeks ago, Kings of War joined the Professional Discussion of military affairs on Twitter. We are quite pleased to continue our participation in this endeavour, sparking and helping to moderate discourse on important topics and issues to defense and national security. We have begun well with participation on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily representing the Anglo-American armies and their interested scholaras. This is a great start, but we do wish to invite and welcome professional officers (active duty or retired but still concerned) and scholars from other services and nations to join the conversation. Finally, as for today’s post, I am very happy to introduce Dr. Huw Davies from KCL Defence Studies to Kings of War, particularly as he is bringing us back to the French and Indian, Peninsular, and Crimean Wars with timely and relevant cases and questions. — JSR

. . .

Continuing the Twitter-based Professional Discussion on military affairs and education, I’m this week suggesting we explore the relationship between the political and military levels, and how this impacts on command and priorities in war.

‘Tactics make the steps from which operational leaps are assembled: strategy points out the path’. Aleksandr Svechin (1878-1938) This is a phrase commonly used to encapsulate the relationship between the different levels of war. But in practice, it rarely appears this simple.

Through my own research, discussions at the UK’s Staff College and on Staff Rides with the British Army, I am constantly reminded that military commanders are frequently presented with vague or (sometimes and) contradictory objectives, that serve different political ends. To explore this in more detail, I will briefly describe three case studies from the century between c.1750 and c.1850. They’re all British (I’m a British military historian), but they all occur in different parts of the world, in somewhat different geo-strategic circumstances, and present commanders with different decision and operational challenges.

1. British Strategy in the French & Indian War (1754-63)

This was in many ways an accidental war. It broke out as mutual fears over British and French expansion in North America spiralled out of control. The initial British war aims focussed on preventing French control of the Ohio Valley, and therefore establishing riverine access between Canada and Louisiana.

Within 3 years, the British war aim had clearly evolved from containing French expansionism, to eliminating the French imperial presence in North America. This was largely a response to the tactical and operational problems the British faced in North America: unable to defeat the French outright because of the logistical difficulties presented by the wilderness terrain in the Virginia and Pennsylvania back-country, they engaged in parallel tactical and strategic transformation.

At the tactical level, the British developed and refined the use of Light Infantry, and logistical depots to counteract the irregular threat posed by France’s Native American allies and the terrain. At the strategic level, the government drastically expanded the war effort to isolate French power and set the conditions for a three-pronged dismantlement of the French position in North America. Operations were launched against French strongholds in the Ohio Valley (1758), the Great Lakes region (1758-9), and the St Lawrence (1758-60).

The British commander on the ground, John Campbell, the Fourth Earl of Loudoun, made tremendous advances in transforming the British Army at the tactical level, but he could not keep-pace with the transforming strategic picture. Sacked in 1757, he was succeeded by his second in command, who was in turn replaced with General Jeffrey Amherst, who went on to achieve great strategic success with the army Loudoun had painstakingly reformed.

2. The Peninsular War (1808-14)

Commonly seen as a sideshow to the main party happening in Central Europe, the Peninsular War was nevertheless a huge strategic commitment for the British. Politically, the deployment of Wellington’s 40,000 British troops to the Iberian Peninsula absolved the government of its common characterisation as ‘Perfidious Albion’. Britain was no longer paying others to do its bidding in Europe, but was shedding her own blood in the fight against Napoleon.

But the deployment carried enormous risk. This was Britain’s only deployable field army, and if it was lost, British participation in the war against Napoleon would end. Therefore, Wellington was presented with four contradictory priorities. The first was the security of the British Army itself; second, the successful defence of Portugal; third, this invasion of Spain; and fourth (and only fourth), the outright defeat of France. Yet for the continued smooth-running of the campaign in political terms, all of these objectives had to be satisfied – a difficult prospect when the French army in Spain numbered in 1810 nearly 300,000, compared to the comparably meagre 80,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops Wellington had under his command.

Wellington adopted a long-term strategy, designed to weaken French strength by attriting his enemy whilst preserving his own force. Such a strategy sacrificed crowd-pleasing battles in favour of prolonged campaigns of attrition, a strategy that did not play well in results-focussed Whitehall. Similar concerns existed in the Spanish and Portuguese governments, whose countries were being laid waste to by occupying French forces. Only after four years (1808-12), was Wellington able to go decisively on the offensive, and brought his enemy to battle at Salamanca in July 1812, commencing a process that would result in the liberation of Spain by the end of 1813, and the defeat of France in 1814.

3. The Crimean War (1854-56)

Ostensibly a European War over the independence of the Ottoman Empire, this was in reality a conflict generated by British politicians with the aim of humiliating Russia, whom Britain had come to regard as a threat to her imperial possessions in South Asia. Central to the war effort, and frequently forgotten, was the destruction of Russian naval power in the Black Sea.

This is an example of a war where the commander was unable to translate strategic objectives into realisable operational and tactical goals. The British were in alliance with France and Austria, and when it came to attacking the Crimean Peninsula, Lord Raglan found it difficult to come to a sensible compromise with his French counterpart, Marshal Saint-Arnaud.

Raglan became bogged down in a lengthy and costly siege at Sebastopol, while the campaign as a whole cost the British 16,000 casualties (including Raglan himself). The French lost 75,000, mostly to disease. In strategic terms, the Crimean War was a success – Russian naval power in the Black Sea, and therefore the Mediterranean, was paralysed. Raglan’s main problem was that he lacked the political and strategic understanding that would have enabled him to explain to his political masters what an army, primarily interested until that point in colonial punitive operations, was capable of achieving.

Some questions for the professional discussion then:

How can military commanders anticipate changing strategic goals?

How can military commanders operationalize contrary strategic objectives?

Turn this around: how can military commanders successfully influence the strategic priorities of government?


Join the discussion at #CCLKOW

Dining Diplomacy between enemies.

General Francis “Zarqawi” Marion

There’s a motivated group of military officers who have decided to engage in a weekly professional discussion (you’ll find it on Twitter under the hashtag ProDiscussion). Last week it was on “serendipity,” engineered or otherwise. Interesting thoughts, frank commentary. In aid of serendipity, this week I’ll offer this essay to kick things off.

Earlier this year Parameters published my review of Colonel Scott Aiken’s history of Francis Marion’s South Carolina partisan campaign and what can be learned from it in terms of leadership. The book is definitely worth your time. Intense review of the campaign, good professional military content.

He secondarily compares the history against contemporary warfare. This part is a bit weak – I think the obvious conclusions are too haunting to fully develop. Francis Marion did everything which has been used against the US/West to great effect. The campaign against British Army LOCs was crippling, and we have seen the exact same vulnerabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. [1] Don’t be fooled people, operational and tactical logistics are severely challenging in such scenarios, and we don’t have any sort of an edge. This is but one example.

Full consideration of the contemporary (last 50 years) is important for several reasons.

First is that Marion is meant to be viewed as a hero and the American War for Independence a righteous fight. But then, Americans might have to consider others in a similar light from the own perspective of their own side. As I’m sure my British friends will point out, THEY don’t share our view of Marion or the war. Just keep that at the back of your mind – Francis’ partisans resembled just about everyone the US (West) has fought in the last half century.

The second is the effectiveness bit. The British Army of the time was not incompetent – “awesomely brave” in their disciplined execution on the battlefield per Martin and Lender, as I like to keep in my mind. [2] We also must accept that the military leadership was perfectly competent. They further enjoyed expertise across the spectrum of military activities. Finally, they enjoyed the benefits of Royal Navy control of the coasts and in support. Marion’s partisans still undid them.

Let us be clear, we’re all the British Army now.

And so:

-Considering his base of personnel, resource and intelligence support were derived from a sufficiently motivated local population…

-Considering that he relied upon irregular tactics…

-Considering that he benefited from knowing the social and physical terrain of his battleground like the back of his hand and used it to his advantage at every turn…

-Considering the British strategic and operational logistics situation in addition to the tactical vulnerabilities…

There is more, but this is sufficient to set the scene. So, the discussion kicks off with this question:


How do you solve a problem like Francis Marion?


If anyone knows Colonel Aiken, invite him along!

For a brief read on the war in the American Revolution in the South, see Don Higginbotham, “Reflection on the South in the American Revolution,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol 73, No. 3 (August 2007).

Here’s Bing West at Small Wars Journal talking about the new COIN manual. Here’s a CSIS discussion on the issues related to this latest review.

The relevance of logistics in the war, and its relevance to COIN is discussed in an earlier piece I wrote here. If Revolutionary War logistics is your thing, I will be delivering a paper on it in London on 3 June.



[1] The British Army knew this would be a problem, as Braddock’s expedition in the French and Indian War had amply demonstrated. And who decided that naming a road after such a military disaster was a good idea? Did they know that the ritual traffic failures there would be terribly befouled as its namesake’s campaign?

[2] Please, more British military history of the American War for Independence!!

The Carpetright Store, 7 August 2011

From Riots to Vigil: The Community, the Police and Mark Duggan’s Legacy

Yesterday the court ruled that it was “arguable” that the Coroner erred in his instructions to the jury regarding the standards for finding that the shooting had been lawful. The matter of whether this argument holds will be decided after hearings at a later date. This piece, originally written in the wake of the January verdict, is being reposted in light of this event and revisions based on subsequent research.


When the Coroner’s Inquest released its findings in January of this year the verdict that Mark Duggan’s shooting was lawful inspired assembly just as his death did. This time, however, it was promised to be a peaceful though disappointed demonstration in response to the official findings.

I would go, I had to. Being directly related to my riots research my attendance was required. It was a public order event to observe and in support of any work I find this eyes-on style offers more insights, views, knowledge and awareness than can be anticipated. But not knowing how things would turn out on the day, I noted to a friend as I made my way to North London, it was either the best or the worst idea I could have had.

This being the last in the series of thought pieces on my way to an historical treatment of the 2011 London riots, the vigil is the apt moment to open the exploration of the local Haringey and Greater London communities who identified with the personal tragedy of the Duggan family. More than just understanding them as an independent actor in the story, adding the people and the rioters also has the effect of completing, if not perfectly, the picture of the event. Looking upon this whole, if abstracted, landscape one is compelled to consider such issues as the greater meaning of the events. For me, if I step from history to policy, the most satisfying path forward leads to progress on the problems and challenges brought out by the long cycle of these events, and so the final section of this piece dovetails into my thoughts on where one might go from here.

Returning to the vigil, as it turned out, although contending with emotion and  contentious and difficult issues the event was mild, almost pleasant. Of course, as the MPS and Haringey Police must have scrambled to prepare given the short notice, to complicate matters there was also a home football match scheduled for the day. Between both events, the surrounding area was awash in hi-viz yellow. At the vigil site outside the police station I would dare say that it felt as if there were as many if not more workers, observers, police, clergy and pastors, and members of the media than demonstrators. Above all, the commitment by all present to maintain as much geniality as was possible given the context was palpable.

Being a vigil, of course, the religious component was obvious. But with respect to this as a public order event, this involvement had deeper significance. Those identified as the street pastors stood out as an intellectually inspiring and engaging image. Present not with a position on the vigil, they provided a caring and sympathetic voice and ear to attendees who might be distressed. Their sweet countenances were an unexpected though much appreciated sight. And in addition to other members of the clergy participating in the event itself, the senior chaplain to the MPS was in attendance and by my observation his presence was for the benefit of the officers on duty for the event. [1] In all, the pastoral and spiritual component had a positive influence upon the atmosphere.

The even more important image was that of the demeanour of the police. Against the chants of “No Justice, No Peace,” and others calling for an end to violence and injustice, the officers tasked with the public order function stood back and maintained a low-key and even pleasant presence. They strove quietly for the objective of facilitative, even in the face of anger towards them, and they succeeded.

In all, more than time had passed since last these groups met outside the Tottenham police station.

Thus, this event, without the sturm und drang of violent chaos but nevertheless full with the pathos and problems expressed on those turbulent August nights, provides the right vantage point from which to highlight what I have found to be important to consider about the people, lives and circumstances which fuelled the riots.

At the outset I should highlight the limitations to sourcing for this side of the story. I have sought out what there is by way of published material, and hounded as well as many of those individuals willing to talk with me. Lacking hubris, I do not claim to fully know their story. But there are impressions which have emerged from the research.

Complicating any understanding, one must accept that there is no single identification or entity which represents the affected community or all of the rioters, even as my purview is limited to London. For example, while there are shared broad or meta motivations – anger with the police, despair over dismal future prospects, an overwhelming sense of unfairness in society, the hypocrisy within the economic landscape – the proximate initiative to act on those nights was nearly uniformly independent, hyper-local, and individuated to personal experience. [2] Such heterogeneity characterizes the actors at the granular level.

With that disclaimer aside, what does become apparent is that emerging from this mix was – and remains – a shared understanding of Mark Duggan’s shooting, the immediate aftermath, the riots and the official and popular responses. The direct anger with the police and the next layer of political authority is palpable. Said one rioter on one of the Guardian/LSE’s “Reading the Riots” videos, “It was a war, and for the first time we was in control…we had the police scared.” (@9:55m) And more that remains beneath, either because it is as yet unacknowledged or is simply unspoken, is dissatisfaction with society at large for having forsaken them as well. Not just the riots, but the looting and attacks upon the city itself were seen by the participants as an act of revenge, whether for poor treatment at the hands of police or society.

Whereas the Guardian/LSE’s effort was of dispassionate outsiders looking in, Fahim Alam’s “Riots Reframed” documentary is the voice of the riot participant as creator of the narrative. Although much about the film and its contents is difficult to contend with – there is so much anger, disappointment and alienation – the fact of its creation is the embodiment of optimism. “Riots Reframed” is a work of thoughtful art and discussion, including not only voices from the community, but respected scholars and leaders (to include KCL’s own Professor Paul Gilroy.) It is in fact an opening for dialogue, as its contents and existence must signal a fundamental hope that things can improve. At the very least, what becomes quite clear is that these were not mindless, thoughtless, merely criminal events. [3] How do you do counter-radicalisation? You start by listening to and promoting efforts such as this one.

Thus, whether we can understand that side fully it still must be accepted that there was more meaning in the actions of the rioters and looters than mainstream commentary has been willing to admit. Even the “common looting.”

Moving from the nature of the group to the events themselves there are points I have consistently found compelling throughout my research. One in particular concerns the diplomatic brinksmanship which set the stage for that fateful Saturday night in front of the Tottenham Police Station. Looking back at that first night, when anger and disorder erupted out of the frustrated demonstration, one must wonder what might have been spared had the family and the police representatives been able to find sufficient common ground to retire to the station for a cup of tea while they awaited the arrival of officers of sufficient rank for the family’s peace of mind. [4] I attach the greater responsibility for this to those in positions of community leadership. They did not serve the family or community well in their recommendations for a rigid stand not to engage that evening. I am not suggesting or asserting malice in this act. Rather, my point is to highlight the risks of such brinksmanship, as this case more than demonstrates the ramifications of failure.

From this perspective it seems only reasonable to expect that community leaders should follow the ethos set out for the police in protest and public order, approaching their interactions in such events from the starting point of being a positive and productive force, of being facilitative. And in that many of them have extant relationships with the police it becomes almost a duty for them to use their “good offices” in such situations to help maintain dialogue and relations. It was the break in communications, in the relations between the police and the community that night, which was the final breaking point. And it was quite possibly unnecessary.

I make the point about this because, amidst the discourse on powerlessness in the community, on that night the Duggan family held the strongest position with respect to the police and other authorities. In that moment their satisfaction was vested with the collected interests (and hence power) of the entire community.  Power can be used to crush your opponent or raise both him and yourself. Inadvertently the former occurred, but who would not have chosen the latter? Furthermore, by correctly framing the relationships in this case the police can understand better the (potential) nature of such situations.

Another key point relates to the depths of cynicism that taint perceptions of the police on that first night. The rumour that the police had beaten a young woman was believed and spread as the rallying cry for disorder and violence. It remains an important part of the narrative in the community today. Making the entire matter very compelling, there seemed to be direct proof, a video which captured the event. However, the “girl in the video” as the spark of events must be questioned and examined with a critical eye. All evidence seems to suggest that this was not appropriately a casus belli for the outbreak of violence; in that matter it was more Gulf of Tonkin than Pearl Harbour. To begin, it is nearly impossible to see what is happening in the video – the viewer is moved more by the shouting female narrator than what is actually visible. As well, the timing is wrong: it is dark and the police are in full public order kit.[5] The disorder has thus already begun. I understand that a young female suffering police brutality has terrific cachet as a framework to justify the anger, but it is far better to render events accurately.

What should be of concern is the extent to which this story affected subsequent action. Did knowledge of this event inspire future violence? If so, if this rumour turned anger into action over the coming days, then you have the very serious problem with the public profile and reputation of policing.

Finally and most importantly the influence of community sentiment must shape understanding of the events beyond tabloid hysteria now, and should have shaped responses then. The grievances of the immediate and greater London communities of concern here cannot be dismissed. The socio-economic issues within the community, the added burdens of budget reductions and cuts to services, the brewing antipathy to how stop and search was conducted, were known to Boris Johnson and David Cameron. A strong judicial response may have been the obvious answer, but the better one was for these leaders to recognize that party affiliation notwithstanding all members of society must be able to rely upon their government. Reasonable and fair are neither signs of weakness nor do they promote future bad action. [6]

What could the political leadership have done differently at the time? I think an approach along the lines of an amnesty was in order. This path, not harsh justice was the choice of greatest benefit to all. The repercussions of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graibh are the lessons that matter here – don’t sully your own character, don’t create disaffected citizens. Boris could have pulled it off with a charming nod to the police effort – by containing the riots in the least confrontational, least aggressive manner (supported by the overall casualty statistics), the former served their public order function while setting the stage for healing and reconciliation in the aftermath. The physical damage to the city, although costly and individually heart-breaking to the victims, was the far better loss.

I take the position that this was the best policy because the unavoidable truth made clear with “Reframed” and other similar efforts is that the emotion and desires of the riots did not deserve incarceration.[7] In fact, too many of them need release from the prisons of poverty, maleducation, and un(der)-employment. Responding to the riots offered a powerful moment to act with generosity and graciousness (and no small amount of gratitude for one’s own good fortune), so contrary to expectations that it would have had the capacity to achieve much progress against these issues. Great leaders seize such moments because they recognize this potential.

If we have dealt with the past and the present, what should be considered for the future? Returning to the opening scene and last Saturday’s vigil, for its public order efforts the MPS should take note of the result. A careful reckoning of what was done will serve future public order efforts well. By my initial cursory review it is clear that their approach to the event and their demeanour went a long way to maintaining as positive an atmosphere as possible.

The Street Pastors are a fantastic idea for public order and their future use should be considered. Not just for events with a religious facet, such as a vigil, a role for them could be defined to serve profitably across the spectrum of public order activities. Protest is inspired by varying levels and forms of distress, and it seems to me that this pastoral function has much to offer. More than that, the presence of the police senior chaplain argues for the broader consideration of this resource in public order policing. Certainly, when it is your function to stand amidst crowds at various moments of anger and emotion, at times directed at you specifically, a pastoral voice could serve as an influence of equanimity. And it bears considering whether such a presence, by humanizing the police might reduce tensions in public order events. Where NATO helmets and shields are seen as elements which can put negative distance between the police and protestors, it must be equally plausible that other visual cues can have beneficial effect. Finally, it must be admitted that a Chaplain, more than anyone else, could have been the one to calm the mood and coax the Duggan family in that fateful night in August. His seniority and core function would have been difficult to reject. Especially in cases where the source of friction is PoCo relations, recourse to his “good offices” should be reviewed.

On the broader issues of social justice, how does anything move forward from this moment, how will progress be pursued? Where the Coroner’s Inquest judged the shooting to have been lawful, that the officers “honestly held belief” stood, community dismay, especially at the local level, is understandable. Nevertheless, as difficult as it clearly must be, they will have to move to the more productive stance that even when things are done correctly tragedy and the wrong outcome can still occur. From there, progress becomes possible, which is how to improve where that “honestly held belief” lands with respect to members of the public (eg, being able to know with reliability that Duggan was not the sort to resist in such a moment). What can the community do? What can the police do?

There are any number of tactical, doctrinal, strategic and policy recommendations I could make on the policing side of the issue of police and community relations. But if I understand the context, the environment, the tone of the situation correctly, no first move from the authorities will overcome the prevailing scepticism, the community’s “honestly held belief” Yes, to any community initiated overtures it will be imperative for the police will have to respond well and with timeliness. But the first and critical barrier will only fall to action and intention from within the community. Contrary to all that might seem fair or just, healing and progress on this will only come at the end of the community’s outstretched hand. Nobody can say that they want no policing, so improving the relationship between the police and those whom they serve is necessary. The community and its consent are critical elements in British policing generally, and in this instance specifically, and so any progress will come in large measure from that quarter. By their positive and constructive actions the members of the community can lead the way to the greatest change.

Why it should be their burden to go first? In my mind I am chastised by one young Londoner in the documentaries who commented that the “police are not for us.” To that I will say that it is for you to make them yours. It is time to overturn the “culture of distrust.” Mentioned above, as on that Saturday night in August, it is a matter of which side holds the power. Here too, it is the community which has the greater power in this matter. But furthermore, if this tragedy can have any meaning, its best could be to serve as a bridge to better relations between police and community so as to avoid such tragic errors in the future? More importantly, I return your attention to the vigil. The reasonable discourse on the issues between police and community opened on Tottenham High Road that day in January is an opportunity. This is a moment to act.

When you are shouting about undue police violence while standing amidst a smiling constables giving directions you have to ask whether it isn’t time to give at your own end as well.



[1] Commentators should stop using the “softly, softly” description – it is ignorantly snarky and derogatory for political points not substance. The calm facilitative stance is not only necessary but often proven effective.

[2] Do I really need to acknowledge that there might have been a purely criminal element? But they were not the leaders, nor the inspiration, nor even likely the majority of those present on London’s streets those nights. It is obfuscation to lay the blame for these events upon criminality – comfortable, perhaps, but not at all useful.

[3] Another documentary that I found interesting was “Perfect Storm,” at http://wideshut.co.uk/perfect-storm-the-england-riots-documentary/ There are very many more independent documentaries about the riots, some quite compelling others less so, some searching for a truth others attempting to build a narrative. What is clear is that these events have inspired very real urges to create something by which to understand or explain events. This is an important phenomenon.

[4] MPS, Four Days in August: Strategic Review into the Disorder of August 2011 – Final Report, p. 32 discusses the events surrounding Chief Inspector Adelekan’s efforts to engage the demonstrators.

[5] MPS, Four Days in August, p. 42, “By 2045hrs all the officers were deployed in full protective kit….”

[6] Before he made his fame as the father of modern British policing, Robert Peel was responsible for the rationalisation of the criminal law which, though aimed at its muddling nature, had the effect of making it more fair and defensible. Douglas Hurd, Robert Peel: A Biography, pp. 74 ff.

[7] There were clear dividing lines, thresholds below which it could be profitably argued that emotion, not criminality, was at work.


View from Tsar's Path, Yalta

Chess on the Crimean Riviera: What if Europe and the United States had been smart in the Ukraine?

It is very likely too late now, events are falling to sustain Putin’s actions in the Crimea. But what if we had been really quite smart about it? Made Putin an offer he could not refuse. Instead of trying to force him to capitulate, hold him to his word. He supported minority rights of the Ukrainian Russians in the Crimea? Then the US and Europe ought to have gotten on side and declared their agreement with him. Why wouldn’t we? My goodness, it is the right thing to do. The sad spectre of Yugoslavia is the analogy, not Munich. And that would have made for some great speech making material.

Follow quickly with a resolution in the UN, properly worded to describe the mission as one of a protective detail. Throw Putin a bone and let the Russians take the military lead, we are just happy to be there to help. Then you would have had a coalition of international forces in the country, there to protect the ethnic Russians.

In recognition of the favourability of self-determination, you can also recommend a delegation of Scots to discuss responsible plans to decide whether to dissolve political ties between the Crimea and Ukraine and establish those with Russia. This is not a decision to be taken or implemented at short notice. 

Simultaneously, you get the Ukrainians to awaken to the fact that lest they dissolve to pieces they need to get on the side of righteousness and light with respect to its ethnic minorities. The great lesson of the US and the UK is that immigrants and minorities are happy to support the home team if you only just let them feel at home. It really is that simple.

To those who will want to quickly dismiss the idea because Putin would block any action by the UN Security Council, please do consider how he would manage to explain his rejection of international support. And even if he did object, did resist, that decision would put Putin in a terrible diplomatic position in the world.  No, you must accept that he would have found himself on the horns of a dilemma. The only smart move would have been to smile and play ball, that being the lesser bad of the options.

I am weary of the same stale formulas to deal with crises. Too much is about seeming strong according to some hyped up highly kinetic standard. I, for one, would prefer smart. Forcing the territorial integrity side was the club. The issue of minority rights was the lever. We all know which choice is the better, for being strong by being smart. 

It is time for people to remember that strategy does not necessarily mean breaking things. And if we want to be historical about it, the reliance upon attrition as the strategic theme since WWI is to blame and needs to be dropped. Armed forces are too expensive, capabilities too destructive, and people too critical for this approach to be effective any longer. We need more Bismarck, less Moltke.