The Officers' Mess, 5th Manchesters, Halluin Art IWMARTLD196

Colonel Panter-Downes: A Messy Business

In this week’s installment of blogs intended to generate professional discussion, we have a bit of fun from our British officer abroad in America.  It is the week of the holidays, so a piece on the Mess is perfectly in the spirit of the times.

This is a subject near and dear to my scholarly heart as I have been researching and writing on military dining for several years now. I have dined in a British Army mess and it is an institution. In fact, until WWII the US Army boasted a mess tradition that, if not so bound to unit as merely to officer ranks, was a close rival to that of the British Army, particularly in expeditionary settings. (1)  The influx of citizens into uniform in the WWII kicked over most of the traces of a custom that had existed since Washington’s family table in the Revolutionary War. Although “O Clubs” remained in the post-WWII Army, their appeal – as places to dine and drink socio-professionally has declined. On the other side of the landpower divide, the Marine Corps as well does not institutionalize socializing. There are, however, the odd turns in both the Army and Marine Corps when Mess Nights are held. Often formal affairs, these can be conducted with and without guests. It is, for example, an institution of the Basic School – Marine Corps finishing school for new lieutenants – to celebrate the conclusion with a Mess Night. And I know that while he was 7th Marines CO, the Colonel Mattis held field mess nights during certain regimental exercises at 29 Palms, though these were anything but formal affairs. However, there is no regular socializing to which officers or enlisted are bound or beckoned. Given the value identified in the bonds forged and renewed at the table, this absence is to be considered.

So, raise an imagined glass of Port in toast to our Colonel and enter the world of the British Army mess. And as it’s the holidays, I would simply ask that our band of merry discussants sip and ruminate on the role of professional socializing in the US armed forces. Where the Colonel identifies the value of the Mess for adding “soul” to the officer, consider where it is that the same is shaped for the American officer shaped. Add your comments to the hashtag, #CCLKOW.


The Colonel enjoys working with the Americans.  I find them professional, courteous and mostly lacking the cynicism that is every British officer’s birthright.  What has fascinated me the most about living and working in the United States are those nuances of culture, both social and organisational that delineate the two countries and armies.  It is very easy for a British officer to think that he understands his US counterparts, such is the relationship built up over the past decade of conflict and the prevalence of US culture in the UK, but the truth is that we are subtly divided and it is often in the small things that large consequences can be seen.  One of these matters is that of Messes.

I live and work in a large US Army base.  I doubt that it is the largest base, but it certainly is not the smallest; by UK standards it would be a super-garrison.  Having lived and worked here for some time it was with a growing sense of disbelief and not a little dismay that I realised that there was no Officers’ Mess on base, in fact there were no Messes at all.  A British Officers’ Mess is analogous to an American Officers’ Club.  If the general staff is the brains and the Senior NCO (SNCO) corps the backbone of an army, then the British mess system is its heart and soul.   There are messes for junior NCOs, SNCOS and officers and they are present in every unit, HQ and garrison.  The best glimpse of what a Mess means to a British officer can be glimpsed in this excerpt from John McMasters’ “Bugles and a Tiger”:

In the mess lived an echo from silver trumpets of the past. There were impressions of light and tone muted and wavering as in a cathedral under the sea.  At dinner the Colours, cased and capped and crossed, stood like huge black rockets against the wall behind the president.  On guest nights they were unfurled and lit the room with the embroidered battle honours of two hundred years.  In their silken richness I saw all that glory, and all of those muskets buried in the mud of forgotten fields, and all those men – my uncle’s generation, Major Tom’s young friends – who had died, broken on barbed wire.

This regiment had a long association with India.  As the 32nd Foot, it held the residency of Luckow through the famous siege of 1857, during the Mutiny.  When the walls crumbled the mess silver, crated, was used to plug the gaps.  At dinner we now ate off some of that silver; the rest, the pieces that had been twisted by enemy fire, hung in glass cases on the walls.  Among them was a soup tureen with a hole in it where a musket ball had entered – and dents where the ball had ricocheted round and round – and the leaden ball itself.  A little farther along hung a long row of bronze medals, each with a short piece of dull crimson ribbon.  These were the Victoria Crosses won by the men of the 32nd at Lucknow. So, in the glow of the Lucknow silver and the self-effacing sheen of the Lucknow Crosses, we laughed and talked and quarreled and felt ourselves lapped in the warm continuity of tradition…(2)

For a British Officer on commissioning, the Mess will be home. (3) He will live in a Mess until such stage as he is either married or of such seniority that his presence is likely to cramp the style of his younger brethren.  I use the term “brethren” deliberately because even without the bonds of shared campaigning the Mess forges a family ethos.  Officers live and socialise together even before they fight together and as a result of these shared social endeavours and not least “in vino veritas” very quickly get to know the whole person and form extraordinarily tight bonds very quickly.  I still count as three of my closest friends the officers I joined my regiment with over twenty year ago.  Only I remain serving but we remain inextricably linked not just by shared bonds of experience but of friendship and family.  As subalterns we ate together and drank together, we became field marshals at the bar in the evening and reverted to subalterns at breakfast in the morning; we saw the best and the worst of each other in the three years we lived together before assignments split us apart.   I was there when they met their girlfriends, present when they married their wives and celebrated the arrival of their children; they are my extended family.

That is not to say that the Americans do not socialise, they do. In fact they are very sociable and generous with their hospitality. I have been on receipt of numerous invites (and I am always open to more, especially if there is red wine or brisket involved), but the socialising is very much individual and not collective, an officer will invite friends and colleagues around for drinks and a barbecue. What I have seen very little evidence for is collective socialising in manner with which the British Army conducts it. The U.S. Military seems to socialise off base (metaphorically), not on base. Whereas the British place the Mess at the centre of base and unit life.

The Mess is also where the junior officer will absorb the ethos of the regiment.  Its history will stare down at him from the pictures and trophies on the walls, the silver will tell tales of past campaigns and characters and even the furniture will normally have a story to be tell.  All this the officer will be expected come to know and in time cherish.  The Mess is where guidance is given, standards are elaborated on and very often measured.  An officer who sets poor standards at home, is hardly likely to set good standards elsewhere. As there is no rank in the Mess, at least not in mine, mentoring is both relaxed and pervasive. (4)  Messes are the trustees of both standards and traditions. If Sandhurst makes the officer, the Mess refines him, adding polish and lustre; Sandhurst builds character while Messes add soul. (5)

There is another aspect to messes and mess life that is often overlooked, and that is of networking.  Messes socialise both formally and informally.  Most messes will hold one, if not two balls a year as well as regular Regimental Guest Nights.  At Regimental Guest Nights the unit and its officers are showcased to guests and relationships either established or confirmed.  Guests are normally from the wider military and garrison community and usually chosen on the basis that they have dealings with the unit; the nights are seen as a way of expressing hospitality and building constructive relationships.  Guests are formally dined and then less formally entertained afterwards. (6)  Informal socialising is simply a matter of the mess bar and common courtesy. Your mess, whether at unit, HQ or garrison level is your home and one should always be hospitable towards one’s guests. What this means in practice is that British officers socialise vertically and laterally within the chain of command and where officers socialise and wine flows so networks are established and the “good idea fairy” springs to life.  My previously recounted expedition to the Hindu Kush was the result of a Regimental Guest Night and said good idea fairy settling on the shoulder of the very senior (albeit retired) officer sitting to the (now) Colonel’s right and recounting when he was on the North West Frontier. (7)  It is at such gatherings that the brigade deputy chief of staff (S4 in US parlance) can for example hear the solution to his logistics issue from the infantry platoon commander who unaware of the issue until then, had a sister whose company solved precisely the same issue the previous year.  In these gatherings alliances are made, deals are struck and things get done; juniors speak to senior and both esoteric knowledge and hidden talents can shine brightly.

What does this mean? Well as an intimate observer the non-deployed U.S. Military does rather seem like a nine-to-five organisation in a cultural sense. There is not the degree of social intimacy that is found in the British Army. Partly because of the lack of a Mess, but also it must be understood, partly the result of 13 gruelling years of campaigning during which the focus was on allowing individuals family time in between deployments. The current US military is without doubt a team, forged in the crucible of operations since 2001, but I wonder if it has lost sight of what it means to be a family, and indeed if it was ever thus? For while I am not blind to the weaknesses of the British Army, one of the strengths of our system is that we remain at heart familial in our social ethos.

So I am somewhat nonplussed by the lack of a mess. Pragmatically I wonder just how to Americans socialise laterally and vertically across their profession; where and how are networks formed? Culturally I wonder, if not in the Mess, then just where does the heart and soul of the US military reside?  Both these matters are best pondered with family and friends, a glass of Islay whisky in hand, over the coming weeks as 2014 draws to a close and 2015 stands to. So I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year, whether you are at the spear’s tip or the families that keep us all strong.




1 Although lengthy, this excerpt from a Fort Leavenworth 1917 manual of Customs of Service prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Miller provides a thoughtful and thorough explication of the form in the US Army at that moment:

The main purpose of a regimental mess is to promote cordiality, comradeship, and esprit de corps, especially regimental esprit de corps, and while such a mess is social in its nature, the meals, especially the dinner, are, in a way, semi-official functions. Do not consider it merely a place where the bachelor officers dine, but rather as the regimental hearthstone where at certain intervals it is compulsory on all the regimental officers to dine together. It should be the place where the old regimental colors are displayed, where all the old regimental relics in the shape of books, pictures, plates, etc., are on file to be looked up and referred to. It should be the place where the colonel and the lieutenant meet in the social equality of gentlemen in that camaraderie and good fellowship which teaches the youngster respect and affection for his seniors, and the elders, kindness and consideration for the juniors; it should be the place where are forged the links that bind the regimental front unbroken to the outside world, and where in their own privacy their can deal with questions affecting the honor and tradition so dear to them; it should be the place where dwells the spirit and the soul of the principles that have made the regiment and that have preserved intact its prestige, its honor, its tradition. There is no single means more full of bright and promising good for esprit de corps than your regimental mess on a firm and zeal-inspiring basis. (Lieutenant Colonel Charles Miller, USA, The Customs of the Service; also Some Suggestions and Advice, p. 16, emphasis added.)

2 Reprint Society, London 1957, John Masters “Bugles and a Tiger” p. 26-27.

3 I will focus on the officers’ messes as that is where my experience is, but many sentiments hold true for JNCO and SNCO messes.

4 I will focus on the officers’ messes as that is where my experience is, but many sentiments hold true for JNCO and SNCO messes.

5 The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where all British Army officers undergo training.

6 ‘Bucket Reels” and “Fireball Hockey” were both favoured forms of post-dinner entertainment in my mess, quite probably due to the high likelihood of physical harm being incurred by participants in both.

7 Which gives some indication of how senior and retired the officer was, the Colonel is not that old.


The Blogshop: Mike Denny’s “Forgetting Hate: A quick lesson on battlefield conduct from the Légion Étrangère”

The flowering of writing within the military community is commendable, but with reservations. Without wishing to spoil the enthusiasm, I do want to offer the caution that simply putting pen to paper (so to speak) is not sufficient, not the end, but rather the beginning of a process which, for the best works, requires seemingly endless and brutal cycles of revisions. Ideas and the frameworks within which they are constructed need to be rigorously challenged, questioned, poked and prodded, and then brought back to the drawing board. A process which I have referred to elsewhere as a good intellectual rogering, a necessity both to keep “bright ideas” from going too far as well as to allow brilliance to justly emerge. And so, in this week’s CCLKOW installment we are introducing the Blogshop, a variation on the academic Workshop, wherein the writing itself is presented for critique. We have a piece provided by one of the regular participants in the weekly dialogue. However, rather than the usual question and discussion upon the substance of the piece, our purpose in this case is critical commentary, which the questions at the end are intended to generate. Additionally, I have recruited colleagues to provide more in-depth responses, which I will post tomorrow in the comments section. So, enjoy the piece, consider the questions, and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Mike Denny’s “Forgetting Hate: A quick lesson on battlefield conduct from the Légion Étrangère”

When I was replacing the outgoing Infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in 2010, an outgoing staff officer and I were casually discussing life, combat, and the year ahead. He said something that stuck with me throughout my second deployment, “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.” This statement to civilians seems spiteful and monstrous, resonates with many Veterans that I have discussed our views on combat, the enemy, and our way of war. Hate viewed as a motivating force, a driving factor to defeat the enemy, overcome internal bureaucracies, and the numerous distracters to mission accomplishment. Often these statements might not come out until after a few beers and heated discussions, often in hushed tones and maybe with a little shame. It’s not an official doctrine, but in historical examples vilification of the enemy to the point of hatred seems to be a part of the American way of war, and maybe any nation’s way of war. Theorists often look at the role of hate towards the resistance for killing, that aversion to killing enemy forces is often driven by several factors proximity to the killing and aversion to the act. A strong training foundation and organizational culture can assist Soldiers in overcoming the aversion to the act of killing throughout the recruit process. When creating a service culture there are several necessary facets: Integrity, Selfless Service, Teamwork, Generating Organizational Loyalty, and in my mind, you have to mention the enemy. The French Foreign Legion does this well, recognizing the inevitability of killing enemy combatants, they engrain in new recruits the important of conduct against the enemy in combat.  In evaluation of creating a service culture in new recruits and developing battlefield ethos, what really matters in creating a Soldier from a civilian?

Why the Legion? I discovered a series of documentaries on YouTube on the modern French Foreign Legion covering troops in combat in Afghanistan and recruits during their basic training. I witnessed the professionalism and capacity of these troops in Afghanistan, and have always held the Legion in high regard. As a small all-volunteer force with incredibly high standards always embroiled in conflicts in undesirable lands they certainly hold some valuable lessons for our all volunteer force. In the American way of war, it seems easier to conduct operations against an enemy you hate. Hate of an enemy combatant allows a Soldier to dehumanize or detach from the involvement with the acts of war. A quintessential tenant of American warfare is to be the combatant in the right protecting the world or allied nation from the evils of the opposing force. Detaching our military from the emotion of killing enemy combatants has been discussed fully in various texts including SLA Marshall’s Men Against Fire and Grossman’s On Killing and On Combat. Grossman wrote in an early article, “If we understand the role of hate in the soldier’s dilemma than we can use it to obtain an understanding of the psychological underpinnings of maneuver warfare.” [1] Many of the battlefield indiscretions of U.S. forces over the years are often blamed on the emotional toll of war. I am not suggesting that the creation of robot like soldiers would make war easier, but simply evaluating how other forces mold their recruits and enforce their battlefield standards. The US Army Soldier’s Creed and the Legionnaire Code of Honor share several key themes on duty, mission, and battlefield conduct. One missing point of the Soldier’s creed is captured very aptly by the Legion.

Au combat, tu agis sans passion et sans haine, tu respectes les ennemis vaincus, tu n’abandonnes jamais ni tes morts, ni tes blessés, ni tes armes.

The seventh stanza of the Legionnaire code d’honneur: In combat, you act without passion and without hate; you respect vanquished enemies….. This emotional detachment from the situation is important. This code brings a complete focus on mission accomplishment, and even when we vanquish an enemy, to hold them in respect as our defeated adversary. This mindset is instilled starting in basic training and carried forward into combat operations. No cheering as CAS hits enemy positions, no joy in the death of an adversary; merely a continuation of a necessary part of the mission. When a target pops up, the legionnaire knocks it down and continues on towards a cold beer at the end of a mission (regardless of the country of operation). The Legionnaire does not hate his enemy; they are two parts of a transactional relationship necessary for survival in war, and in the life of a Legionnaire. This focus on eliminating a major part of the psychological underpinning of combat certainly improves their productivity and strong espirit de corps. Unlike the US Military Soldier’s Creed or Airmen’s creed, the Legion does not mention “I” as an individual in their code of honor. The code is addressed more in a third person, removing the individual identity and contributing to the group identity. The American society particularly in this era, values the individual and the US Army overly focused on this point in the past during the Army of One Campaign (well intentioned as a team ethos, created an overt focus on individualism). If we shed the individual identity in basic training, and create a team or organization ethic, how do we expect Soldiers to display an Army ethic on the battlefield instead of allowing their individual thoughts and ethos to govern their actions? Admitting to the realities of warfare from the beginning is an important first step because it instills respect for the enemy combatant as a means to maintain vigilance from hubris and prevent battlefield indiscretions.


CCLKOW Blogshop Questions: these are a departure from the usual questions on substance and are instead intended to generate critical discussion of the writing

1. Last week Tom Ricks posted on the quality of the writing in the Army’s institutional publications. Who writes institutional publications? You do. Taking one of the “sins” identified in his work, upon what unexamined assumptions does Denny’s argument rest?

2. Is the comparison between organizations – the US Army or armed forces and the French Foreign Legion – reasonable? If the two are not well matched for comparability, does this fatally weaken the argument? 

3. Does the problem he sets out to address in the piece exist? Is it worth critical attention within the military community? 

My thanks to Mike Denny for being a good sport in allowing me to use his piece this way. He has set a standard here for future and further intrepid warrior scholars. 



1 David Grossman, “Defeating the Enemy’s Will: The Psychological Foundations of Maneuver Warfare,” Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, R.D. Hooker (Ed), Presidio Press, 1994.



Colonel Panter-Downes Introduces the US Armed Forces to British Adventure

Today’s piece is a departure of sorts from that usually provided for the professional discussion. It marks the first in what will be fairly regular pieces from a new author, whom we will be calling Colonel Panter-Downes. This name is taken from a famous London “correspondent” to America in the early years of WWII, Mollie Panter Downes. She wrote regularly for the New Yorker, describing her view of the life of London and the UK at war for an American public. In our contemporary case, we have a British Army field grade officer reporting from the US in a time of different conflict. We can consider these pieces his “American War Notes.”

Obviously it is a delicate thing for a serving officer to report and remark upon life with the armed forces of an important ally. But if done well, a professional observer able to reflect and comment sensibly can offer a novel and valuable perspective of the institution’s many sides. Our author is more than adequately experienced of service in the combat arms, repeated deployments, as well as the rigours of military administration. That is, our author has a trustworthy voice, the fruits of which are what we hope to bring to Kings of War readers.

Today’s piece was commissioned. I had heard about the program from the author and thought it a fascinating thing to put before the American readers. I shall take a small bow now for my prescience in selecting a topic that would resonate so perfectly with the publication of the Army Operating Concept. Many 1s and 0s have already been spilled on the topic over at The Bridge. Here we narrow the focus to a specific idea. 

So, dear #CCLKOW readers, I give you this British idea for your consideration. Read Colonel Panter-Downes’s piece and the accompanying questions and join the discussion on Twitter.


20 years ago as a platoon commander I led the planning and deployment of a small team of British soldiers to the volatile North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. [1]  I was responsible for all elements of the operation, from conception, to execution and then exploitation. I researched and developed the concept of operations, arranged the logistics, selected and trained the team, organized the movement and conducted the follow up briefings. In country I liaised with the Embassy and Pakistani government agencies, recruited the in-country support team, dealt with the unexpected when caught up in an anti-Western riot in Peshawar, practiced the robustness of my contingency plans when we suffered casualties [2] and conducted numerous impromptu shuras and medical clinics in my area of operations. All this was done in the absence of radio or cellular communications to my higher headquarters.  Despite already being operationally experienced from a deployment to Northern Ireland, this was the defining moment of the start of my army career. I learnt more about the art of leadership and the loneliness of command, of logistics and working across cultures in this deployment then I had before or even since in structured training. I was adventurous training.

Adventurous Training (AT) is a singularly British military activity and is a fundamental element of its training ethos and regime. Defined as “Challenging outdoor training for Service personnel in specified adventurous activities that incorporates controlled exposure to risk,”[3] AT is invaluable as “the only way in which the fundamental risk of the unknown can be used to introduce the necessary level of fear to develop adequate fortitude, rigour, robustness, initiative and leadership to deliver the resilience that military personnel require on operations.” [4] There are currently nine core AT activities [5] and all UK Service Personnel are required to undertake this training as part of their basic training as well as post-operational decompression activities. I had my first taste of AT as an officer cadet and have continued active participation ever since, progressing through experience from participant to practitioner in my chosen disciplines. In all this time I have trained in many different countries, developed new skills and learnt hard lessons; I have been a planner as well as a climber, a logistician as well as a skipper and I have placed myself outside of my comfort zone and to confront my fears on more occasions than I care to remember.

The US Army has recently released its Army Operating Concept (AOC), a conceptual doctrine which “determines how we think about what the Army does”. [6] Much of the AOC emphasizes the human aspect of conflict and stresses the requirement to develop its human capability, in particular developing agile and adaptive commanders.  What is the connection between the AOC and AT? If the US Army is serious about developing its human capability, if it wants to develop leaders who “think critically, are comfortable with ambiguity, accept prudent risk, assess the situation continuously, develop innovative solutions to problems, and remain mentally and physically agile to capitalize on opportunities,” [7] then it should consider AT as a means to achieve those goals.

Now not everyone is going to undertake a high altitude trekking trip to the Hindu Kush, attempt Everest or challenge the Antarctic. [8] But year in, year out, U.K. service personnel conduct adventure training exercises in the U.K. and overseas, and in fact most overseas warfighting exercises have an adventure training element incorporated into the deployment. In all circumstances the value is always that this training challenges practical and leadership skills in uncertain environments with real risk. The skills they use are fundamental to soldiering: leadership, planning, and risk management. Conducted out of uniform and in small groups these personnel also often encounter a significantly different dynamic with the locals than when in uniform. Overseas adventure training is by definition expeditionary and physically the conditions are very often austere. Not that the U.S. Army need conduct significant amounts overseas, being blessed with some of the finest adventure training opportunities within its own boundaries, but it can incorporate adventure training into the rising tempo of small scale deployments already envisaged under the AOC.

Important to the training and the value it would offer the needs of the AOC, less specific highly qualified experts, AT tends to be a junior officer and senior NCO dominated activity. This allows these two elements to operate with normally significantly more autonomy than they get in conventional training; it fosters trust up and down the chain of command, that vital and often lacking ingredient in inculcating Mission Command. Significantly AT is also cheap compared to conventional military training. Infrastructure costs are minimal and the expertise can be brought in from a thriving civilian sector. Lastly AT is recruitment and retention positive. Soldiers enjoy adventure training and most activities undoubtedly have an element of glamour to them. [9]

If the U.S. Army is serious about developing its next generation of leaders to win in a complex world, then perhaps it should consider AT within the AOC framework.  If so, perhaps the ‘Ascent of Rum Doodle’ [10] will in future become as well read in the U.S. Army as ‘The Defence of Duffer’s Drift’ currently is.


Questions: Today’s questions are brought to you by the Editor.

First, and simply, what do the Americans think of Adventurous Training as a form of military training?

Second, do the US armed forces have the manpower flexibility to allow the pursuit of such activities? Consider personnel policies and routinized progress of billets and promotions.

Third, do the US armed forces have the institutional flexibility to allow and foster the initiative necessary for such a program? Does it trust junior leaders sufficiently?

Finally, how many of the Americans briefly wondered whether there was an exchange program to get on one of these expeditions?


Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW and keep an eye out for the Colonel’s next posts.



1 The expedition staged through Peshawar before undertaking high altitude trekking towards Gilgit.

2 Two casualties total; one was bounced over a car in Peshawar and one suffered from altitude sickness.

Joint Services Pamphlet 419 ‘Joint Service Adventurous Training Scheme’ 3-1, para 7.

4 Ibid, p 1-1, para 1.

5 Offshore Sailing, Sub-Aqua Diving, Canoeing and Kayaking, Caving, Mountaineering, Skiing, Gliding, Mountain Biking, Parachuting and Paragliding.

6 Army Times, Interview with TRADOC Commander General David Perkins, Oct 13, 2014.

7 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1 ‘The U.S. Army Operating Concept’ page 19, para 3-4 a. (4).

8 Everest and the Antarctic have been recent significant U.K. military AT expeditions.

9 Less caving, in my opinion a strange sport for strange people!

10 A comic novel on how not to run a mountaineering expedition.


Putin the ‘Strong Man’ has not protected his people

Despite his publicly cultivated image as a strong leader protecting his people, Vladimir Putin’s Russia still sees terrorist attacks with depressing frequency.

It is the twelfth anniversary of Moscow’s Nord-Ost theatre siege in which 130 people were killed, partly by terrorists and partly by Russia’s botched storming. Here is the story.

In 1999 Prime Minister/soon to be President Vladimir Putin raged about terrorists who blew up Moscow apartment buildings that, “we will waste them on the toilet…. the issue has been resolved once and for all.” More than one respected journalist has since cited what they say is evidence that Putin and the Russian state may have blown up the apartment buildings themselves in order to create popular support.

It was in September ten years ago that North Caucasus terrorists took hundreds of children and teachers hostage in a school in Beslan. Again the terrorists, and again what some say was a botched storming lead to more than 330 deaths, 186 of which were children. 447 Russians have gone the European Court of Human Rights to argue that Russia breached the victims’ right to life over Beslan.

These are a few examples which should prove that that Russia’s large, military and regular ‘anti-terror’ operations don’t work. In its turbulent North Caucasus, the home of Chechnya, Dagestan and countless terror attacks over the past 15 years, a suicide bomber recently blew himself up in Chechnya’s capital Grozny, which Moscow had previously thought pacified. Elections there have regularly returned near 100% of votes for Putin. But don’t mistake toleration, under the barrels of Russian guns, as support for Putin and Moscow. The security forces are about the only ethnic Russians left in the North Caucasus.

Putin may make a macho show of things. But the words of a Russian government spokesman at the European Court hearing into Beslan are more telling: “It is no secret that terrorist attacks, particularly hostage-takings, are very difficult to predict. The sad experience has shown that even the strongest states, with a high level of public security, are not guaranteed against such cases and very often have nothing in the face of the terrorist threat.”

Before and since Beslan, huge expenditures of Russian money and the heavy handed use of force have failed for ignoring the root causes of terrorism in Russia. Kicking in people’s doors all over the North Caucasus, killing people there, and moves like trying to make the families of terrorists pay for their acts do nothing to endear the Russian government to locals. And it is that continued antipathy and fear on the part of non ethnic Russian populations which fuels the continued recourse to terrorism.

Russians shouldn’t believe in Putin’s strong man image. He promised to protect them. But he hasn’t.


These boots are not meant for fighting…yet?

Continuing the weekly professional discussion of military affairs upon Twitter, today’s piece dovetails off of a piece by our Defense Studies Department, “Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis.”  It is a very good summary of the issues, and leads the reader to the unexpected conclusion that the thing which had seemed to be the answer to the current conflicts may, in fact, not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. This piece, for the purposes of discussion, will argue that tactical prowess notwithstanding, at this point Western land power cannot win this war. Read Dr. Tuck’s piece and this one, then join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW. 


“In the end, then, the dilemma facing policy-makers in the fight to stop Islamic State lies is the fact that land power might have the intrinsic power of decision in war; but there is nothing intrinsic to land power that guarantees a decision in our favour.”

That is the money quote from our Defense Studies colleague, Dr. Christopher Tuck. So many have been shouting for Western “boots on the ground” over the past weeks, but there is vastly less real consideration of what that would mean at any level of concern to military affairs, from tactics to policy. Despite absolute tactical proficiency to do so, to enter the conflict on the ground to fight and defeat ISIS is not currently in American interests or, more importantly, those whose lives and fates are so intimately tied to whether and where the ISIS flag continues to fly.

It must be very clear that casualties caused by Western and American armed forces, whether civilians or even the enemy, have a pernicious negative effect. In the former, it increases the moral and human distance between us and those on the ground we mean to support. While it is entirely possible to successfully prosecute a military campaign where local casualties are high and local support is maintained – the campaign in Western Europe to overthrow the German occupation in WWII, for example – this requires a significant foundation of trust and strong shared objectives. Neither currently exists in the region, although it may be possible that Iraq is beginning to manifest the necessary will and interest. Recent calls for increased American assistance from the Government (which is enjoying some greater amount of legitimacy than Maliki’s), from local civilian leaders, and from Iraqi Kurdistan suggest that such support might be growing. Cultivating this sentiment will take smart and sensible diplomacy, both from US/Western actors as well as regional partners. But that will take work, and does not change the contemporary problems.

With respect to the latter, you will likely pause to question why I believe that enemy losses to our military action are detrimental to our strategic purposes. However, as it must be clear at this point, ISIS’s strengths are not wholly or even in the majority on the battlefield. They are, in that domain, adequately sufficient, making good use of their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. There are certain aspects of their campaigns that have been relatively sophisticated – the reconnaissance and battlefield preparation for the campaign in Anbar [1] should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, we should also note that their military success has been built more significantly upon their abilities to parlay the sentiments of local populations to their tactical and strategic benefit than upon their abilities to fight. But at the end of the day, ISIS’s strength is in its communications and propaganda. And it is in this realm that every fighter killed by Western action becomes nightmarish for us, as each becomes a martyred hero capable of encouraging the recruitment of future fighters. Simply put, the blood we spill is like fuel to the fire.

“We are your sons. We are your brothers. We came to protect your religion and your honour.” This, more than anything else, is ISIS’ selling point on the ground, why they have not yet been pushed out by the locals in whose name they are fighting and attempting to govern. That is where the fight is. And as it stands, on their own Western boots have neither the strategies nor the tactics to sell or make that promise.


So, simple questions for this week’s discussion.

1. In the short term you cannot change the context. So, what do you do? Contrary to the hype, “boots” are not the limit of Western military power – and for that matter, neither is airpower. So, what are the remaining elements of our military capabilities that could be used to strategic advantage against ISIS?

2. In the medium to longer term, the context is malleable. What military and political efforts would help to shape the context and increase the effectiveness of Western military activity, to include the option to use ground troops if that is deemed necessary and of potential utility?




[1] In “Clanging of the Swords, IV” the Raafidah hunters which targeted Iraqi military personnel were brutal, but that should not belie the sophistication of the preparation and execution of the mission to utterly dislocate the Iraqi Army forces. The video is awful, but does offer good military insights.


The Acme Co. Army?


This week’s CCLKOW piece is brought to us by another colleague in War Studies. In this one we confront the seemingly never-ending debate: Do we need a private army to do our dirty work? As domestic politics further complicate the use of own troops in defense of interests but not threat and conflicts seem to demand rapid response, the appeal of the privatization of force grows again. Although of less importance in this latest age of state war, armies for hire are not new to the battlefield. Whether this is wisdom or wishful thinking is another matter. Enjoy the post and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW


It seems to be the debate that never dies: Last week saw the airing of yet another proposal to establish an army of private contractors, armed and ready to go into combat. One US news host thought it would be a good idea to establish such an army to fight ISIS. Now the idea of a private army is of course neither new nor practicable and has rightfully not attracted much serious discussion. However, a closer consideration of the issues attached to this proposal – such as political control, military effectiveness, and lawfulness – should revive discussion about the role of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in contemporary warfare.

First, we should remember that the idea to employ a private force in lieu of state forces has been made previously not only by those trying to sell such an army but also by leading figures in the international community. In 1997, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed to use PMSCs for peacekeeping and the running of refugee camps. This idea did not find much support, but it is worth noting that the proposal was made after the international community failed to respond adequately to the genocide in Rwanda during a period that saw much soul-searching about which reasons could provide legitimacy to an infringement of state sovereignty.

As other commentators have pointed out there are many armed contractors operating around the world at this moment [1], working not only for governments but also private clients such as oil and gas and shipping companies. Also, not all PMSC employees are armed – unarmed guarding, security risk analysis, intelligence gathering and technical support are among the functions frequently contracted out. For all these tasks it is challenging enough to maintain adequate oversight, control and coordination. So intuitively the establishment of a private army is a bad idea. Or is it?

To answer that question, it is worth revisiting some of the classic arguments for and against PMSC usage in armed conflict. The most common arguments for contracting are as follows. PMSCs are cheaper than the military. They are more flexible. They free up military capability. They have specialist knowledge. The public cares less about contractor deaths than about military deaths. Now none of these is actually proven across the board – as with most other things it depends on the specific situation. [2] For example, short-term savings might be eaten up in the long term when a contractor acquires specialist knowledge on a contract, meaning the company is in a prime position to bid on a follow-on contract and charge more than before.

Arguments against employing PMSCs are just a varied as those in favour of it. The most common ones are: It is unethical to use PMSCs. They are too expansive. They are unpredictable and have a vested interest in a conflict to continue. They are not accountable to the public in the way the military is. Oversight is insufficient. Each of those of course has a counter-argument. For example, PMSC oversight and regulation have improved significantly in the past few years, not least through the establishment of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. It is also not clear why PMSCs or their employees should be more interested in the continuation of a conflict than military personnel.

Why then does the private army idea keep coming up? Because it seems to be an easy option, a ‘quick fix’ instead of developing a strategy to counter what caused a crisis in the first place. It also might seem politically more appealing to present a one-stop solution rather than spending months or years reforming outdated protocols and structures. While I am by no means in favour of it there are a few questions I would like to put up for discussion. I would especially welcome input from those with field experience with security contractors. 

With all this in mind, the questions for this week’s discussions are:


In an age of wars of choice, do ‘private armies’ offer states a better option for armed intervention than traditional armed forces?

Can PMSCs be of use in the fight against ISIL, and in which capacities?

What are the most significant challenges to their use from a military practitioner’s perspective?

 How can PMSC-military cooperation be improved?


Join the discussion on Twitter, #CCLKOW.



1. See the Washington Post blog post by Ishaan Tharoor See also Erik Wemple’s earlier  post

2. In fact Avant and Sigelman found that the US population cares almost as much about contractor deaths as it does about military deaths, but was less informed about the former. Avant, Deborah D./ Sigelman, Lee (2010): Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies 19(2), 230-265.


‎Is blowing up social media an act of war?

We find ourselves on the cusp of another significant military intervention in Iraq. When last we met here in 2003 it was over the question of the threat posed by the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. Today it is in response to the use of a social media as a weapon of mass effect. If the calculus for war was incorrect at that time, to varying degrees of negative consequence depending on the party, then we should take the time to consider whether the threat against which we propose to act is correctly framed and understood. Read, reply here and join the discussion at #CCLKOW.


At the very heart of what the military professional does is the moral authority of the sober calculus between war and peace. Taking life being the first and most basic restriction we commonly acknowledge, the justifications to do so must be serious. We should not be in the business of asking fellow citizens to do such things lightly. Hence such ideals and guides as just war. Rather, however, than consider our moral correctness in responding to the Group Formerly Known as — and Now Referred to as — [1],  I would prefer to examine the claims that THEIR actions of late demand a response which makes use of, as one pundit put it, “every force at our disposal.” Does THIS GROUP’s actions rise to the level of an act of war?

The execution of lone citizens, bereft of any consolation of camaraderie or deed in defence, in desolate surroundings, is just one type of the extreme perceived brutality THAT GROUP seeks to impose upon its enemy audience. Even as many eschew the actual images, just knowing about the event now is enough to feel the agony that situation must have evoked and inspire justified anger. And right we should feel that way, for the sake of our humanity – if you do not, I should like to weep for you and maybe also put you in a cage.

Certainly these images shock, offend, anger and infuse with righteousness. As individuals.

As individuals is not, however, the way in which the state is meant to think and behave. The state represents the whole, and for good reason. The whole has an entirely different set of needs and qualities. The whole is greater than the sum of our fears and grievance; it is also the sum (and more) of our strengths.

Let’s be clear. Lone Americans or Britons or Japanese, et al, will always be vulnerable to THEY WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED. Their respective countries? I am going to be bold and say no. [2]

I have in the past discussed the use of traditionally non-threatening acts such as auto accidents as acts of war. As well, I have examined the role of sub rosa conflict. I am perfectly happy to grant the asymmetrical actor his due in pursuing war according to the means he finds handy and effective. [3]

However, whether such ‎acts are a reasonable threat to the target societies – and thus demand a use of force in keeping with such a challenge – has not been at the forefront of the discussion. Because the actions are so brazen and awful they have assumed a weight and authority which seems unassailable. That is a dangerous path to the use of force and the recourse to war.

Worse, while THEY pose little risk to the West, THEY (and some others) do seem to be causing a problem for the region. THEY (and other factions) are killing their own in a heart-breaking fashion, in numbers we mostly dare not consider. And it is for this that the misconstruction of their threat is really problematic. There is a role to be played in support of local action. But that sensible action will be steamrolled by rationalised vengeance without a proper accounting of the threat. If we do not correctly apprehend the issues then our policies, strategies, and tactics will be flawed and unlikely to achieve much beyond continued chaos.

I suspect this is less a piece about a specific set of questions and more taking a moment to question the consensus. However, in honour of my place, I’ll frame the essential question in these terms:


Are we over-egging the threat pudding? And in the process, might we be forgetting the roast?



1. The article linked above is an interesting analysis of the legitimacy of THAT GROUP’s political claims regarding statehood by Lieutenant Colonel Tyrell Mayfield, a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist, There is much concern about how to name THEM and why.

2. Well, qualified no – we could certainly flail ourselves into submission.

3. And let’s be clear, the strong have every reason to use low spectrum hybrid options – the asymmetry of their obvious power superiority is at times a hindrance to action. Putin could not INVADE Ukraine, the mismatch alone would be the outrage, no matter the provocation. But he can do so in the gray zone of plausible deniability. Whether HE poses a larger threat hangs on whether Ukraine is part of a revanchist march (yes) or a means to distract domestic criticism (no, but pay attention).)


No Sacred Cows


Continuing the series of posts to drive professional military and scholarly discussion, this piece challenges your thinking to exceed its normal bounds and question that which you hold to be eternally true. No problems! Comment here and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Battery Park City and the Port of Newark are separated by a mere five miles. However, between this short distance one spans more than three centuries of military history.

‎The former – now a forest of high rise residences – earned its name as the site of the battery of guns protecting the island of Manhattan from its earliest settlement through the first decades of the 19th century. In that period, coastal defense focused upon direct maritime threats to critical harbors and nodes. The latter represents a current front line defending the homelands. Today’s volume of transoceanic shipping has allowed people and weapons to become the deadly needle in a haystack of anonymous containers.

Within the centuries bracketed by these two points defense of the homeland at the coast has evolved through several other phases as well. Mapping the point of critical threat and necessary defense over time would make for an interesting exercise, but this shifting ‎locus of effort has deeper significance as a symbol of the relentless and ceaseless march of change across warfare. Yes, warfare is marked by many important constants, but its greater character is entirely mutable. What worked yesterday may seem quaint today and novel tomorrow.

So, to today’s questions, which are intended to drag you in entirely two different directions:

1. That thing which you hold to be sacrosanct in warfare – from strategy to tactics, doctrine to weapons, soup to nuts – is now irrelevant. You don’t defend the homeland with local artillery any longer, right? What might replace it? Why?

2. Alternatively‎, give a thought to those local batteries. The examples of Mumbai and Benghazi point to the rise of local, lightly armed threats to urban centres, with rivers/harbours providing infiltration points. Such developments would make battery parks relevant to the defense of the urban landscape again. What other “relics” of past warfare might be on the rise?



The Troubled Past of Foreign Relations with the Kurds

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Twitter @EugenioLilli

A few weeks ago, fighters of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, seized control of significant swaths of territory in northern Iraq. Ostensibly to stop the IS offensive toward the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil and to provide indispensable humanitarian relief to thousands of displaced civilians, the international community soon mobilized.

US President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes against IS forces and humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq. The US administration also began to send hundreds of military advisors and weapons to help the Kurdish peshmerga in their effort to fight the Islamists back.

French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said their countries were also ready to supply arms and other forms of aid to Iraq’s Kurds. Similarly, in a meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministries of  EU countries agreed to arm the Kurdish forces.

There have been speculations that the current international support for Iraqi Kurds could translate in the near future into international support for a Kurdish breakaway from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

What does the 20th century history of  Kurdish relations with foreign powers tell us about such a possibility?

After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied powers met to dismember the vast territories of a defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed the creation of an autonomous homeland for the Kurdish people. Noticeably, this proposed Kurdistan would not include the Kurdish communities of Iran, French-controlled Syria, and British-controlled Iraq but would grant the Kurds control of an area on what is now Turkish territory. The Allies also made quite clear that they would not provide military or financial assistance to the fledging Kurdish state. As a consequence, it did not take long before Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist forces, who strongly opposed the recognition of autonomy to ethnic or cultural minorities within Turkey, violently dashed Kurdish hopes for an autonomous homeland.

In 1946, when Soviet troops were still occupying northern Iran, the Soviet Union encouraged Iran’s Kurds to form an autonomous state entity. In doing so, Soviet leaders were reaffirming the longstanding Czarist Russia’s objective of exerting influence on Iranian territory. The resulting Kurdish Mahabad Republic was short-lived though. Under increasing US and British pressure, in fact, the Soviet Union was eventually compelled to withdraw its troops from Iran. Abandoned by their foreign patron, the Kurds were left defenseless against the subsequent offensive mounted by Iranian government forces.

During 1974-75, Iran, with US and Israeli blessing, supported a Kurdish uprising against Iraq’s central government. Iranian leaders were only too willing to seize any opportunity of weakening their rivals in Baghdad. However, in a sudden about-face, Iran concluded a treaty with Iraq, known as the Algiers Agreement, where Teheran pledged to cease assisting the Kurds’ rebellion in Iraq. The agreement resulted in the quick end of the uprising and the forced relocation of more than 250,000 Kurds from northern Iraq to other areas of the country. 

In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union played Iran and Iraq against each other as part of their cold-war struggle for global dominance. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in a renewed effort to gain independence. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein responded by using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels. In one particularly infamous case, the use of poison gas by Iraqi armed forces led to the death of at least 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Confronted with such a blatant violation of international law, the international community stayed silent.

Again, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States instigated Iraqi Kurds to take arms against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, by the end of February of that year, US President George H.W. Bush abruptly halted Operation Desert Storm thus providing the opportunity to the Iraqi military to regroup and crash the Kurdish upheaval in the north. Fearing a repetition of the terrible events of the 1980s, two million Kurds escaped toward the Turkish and Iranian borders; at least 20,000 of them died in trying to do so.

Even today, while the international community has declared its willingness to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, important international actors, including the United States, are contributing to a problem that is weakening the Kurds at their most vulnerable moment: the Kurds, in fact, are running out of money. The Iraqi central government is required to share oil revenues with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, but Kurdish authorities have stated that authorities in Baghdad have failed to do so recently. At the same time, the US administration and others have stopped Kurds’ attempts to sell oil of their own. Tellingly, a tanker carrying about $100 million worth of Kurdish oil is currently sitting off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico unable to unload its valuable cargo. For the Kurds, reaching economic self-sufficiency would undoubtedly represent an essential step toward achieving political independence.

This all but complete historical overview clearly shows that the relations between the Kurds and foreign powers have been characterized by a pattern of cynical exploitation and cold abandonment. If I were a Kurd, I would be extremely skeptical about the possibility that the current international mobilization will translate into genuine future support for the creation of an independent Kurdish homeland.


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?