#CCLKOW – Iraq: Whither the soldiers of ISIS?

Continuing my preference to poke at the sacred in military affairs, #CCLKOW this week presents the conundrum of what should be done with the ISIS rank and file in Iraq. Inspired by an article which tells a simple tale of one Iraqi ISIS fighter, this week’s post is focused on the singular question of how the various parties – local, regional, and global – will move forward when the war machine is defeated. Read the post, consider the issue, and join the discussion on Twitter on the hashtag.


The Nazi enterprise and war machine were unmistakably a blight upon history and the very complexion of European civilization. They fundamentally altered the demographics of a continent and laid bare the basest of human potential. Whether by ruthless war or an even more sinister program of genocide, the death toll for which they were responsible still boggles the mind. At the end of the war, it was very clear that those in positions of authority would have to be held responsible for these acts. Nevertheless, while the leadership was held to account, it was equally recognized that to punish the collective rank and file of the German armed forces would serve no purpose.

In the wake of a very dark night in Paris, the furthest thing from anyone’s minds is the thought of humanity for any ISIS fighter.

But I read today an article, “What I Discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners,” by Lydia Wilson of ARTIS Research, about the profile of the average Iraqi who has joined the fight. I would highly recommend that folks go forth and read the whole thing, both to understand this piece as well as for the general consideration of the conflict in Iraq. However, what matters to this post is what came at the very end, this excerpt which confronts the reader:

These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence….They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.

The purpose of highlighting this point is not to join the chorus of blame, which serves little purpose beyond political point scoring. Rather, it is to shed a small bit of the light of humanity upon the issue of these ISIS fighters.

Returning to the opening, somehow, in the thoughts of leaders at the end of WWII, it was recognized that there was something in the German experience of the period between the end of WWI and the rise of Hitler’s Reich which made the horrors of that regime more palatable than rationality. If you want a visceral understanding of those dark days, I can recommend nothing more highly than the 1925 opera “Wozzeck” by Alban Berg. (Full version here.) The dismal and blighted life of the characters is set against possibly the most chilling and discordant music which combine to reflect the cost of the past war and the sense that something far worse was coming. If the mass of the population fell prey to Hitler’s awful promise, it is not difficult to understand why or how. And contemplating the lives of Iraq’s generation which had no youth, a similar perspective is possible.

Nothing can excuse the decisions and choices of the ISIS leadership. A Nuremberg of their own awaits those who survive to the end. I have a very special place of vengeance in my heart for those who have unleashed this current hell upon the region and now to Europe and very likely beyond. However, whether the same standard applies to all must be in some doubt. At the end of mankind’s last worst moment, some bit of humanity prevailed. After so much death and horror, perhaps it was decided there had been enough. We should consider that the same may be true in this time as well, that this interregnum of violence is not best ended with a further orgy of death.

And so my simple question for this week is, can we imagine any space for humanity for Iraq’s lost generation swept along by the currents of an abhorrent promise?



#CCLKOW: Tending One’s Leaders

Returning to the leadership theme, this week’s CCLKOW blog piece reorients the perspective. Rather the usual, in this piece the reader is urged to consider those who lead him or her. Inspired by a piece of writing outside the military community, the humanity, frailty, and vulnerabilities of one’s leaders are highlighted to ask a critical question: what do we owe them? Beyond the realms of basic human kindness, the ramifications of properly tending one’s leaders has substantive importance. Read the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. 


Overwhelmingly, the majority of words spilled on the subject of leadership focus on the individual’s own, tending to look down the chain of command to examine how it does or should act. To the extent that people contemplate their own leaders, it is often in approval or critique, with the occasional nod to followership and the duties of the led to the person in charge. Moving beyond these well-charted waters, this blog desires to reorient the perspective to consider the subject of how leaders and bosses are treated.

The inspiration for this discussion is from a police blog. In it the author uses her own struggles and perspectives to reflect upon the difficulties of command responsibility. This passage sums the point which influenced my thinking:

I was chatting to [a Chief Constable] several months ago at a mental health event. I had already told him my jokes, I had showed him my double-jointed left elbow and I was getting to the stage where I was wondering what we could now talk about.

So we started talking about his interactions with staff.

He told me he often went to the canteen at lunchtime and would like nothing more than to sit down and join a table of fellow police officers and join in with their banter and chat. He missed being able to do that. He couldn’t do it as he was painfully aware when he entered the canteen, all eyes would be on him. He did not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or awkward by sitting and talking to them. So instead he would just grab a sandwich and quickly exit out of there and go back to his office and eat alone.

I thought that was sad and how lonely he must sometimes feel.

(from “I am a boss in the emergency services, I feel alone and I need help!” 30 October 2015)


I was struck by the humanity of the post, of its self-reflection and the realisation it inspired. Truism though it may be, how often do we contemplate seriously the loneliness at the top? When its condition can be written in such quotidian and heartfelt terms as with whom one can share a quick lunch, how much worse is it in dealing with the hard choices of military command? And struggle in solitude many leaders must given the complexity of conflict in a time of little black and white and much grey. [1]

Of course, one must tend to leaders not merely because it is humane. Rather, it must be taken up as a critical task to minimize the influence of the sycophants and the strivers. If the bulk of the led shy away from the boss, the vacuum is filled by the sorts of people who are the most dangerous, ‘yes men’ who will provide nothing better than an echo-chamber of the leader’s own opinions. Isolated by the structure, this coterie of sycophants serve only to deepen that effect.

And so, although military careers may be highlighted by the points of command, the bulk of the time is spent within the mass of the led. Thus, while it is important to hone one’s thinking and practice for those times when the reins of leadership authority are taken, the practice of service to the leader should equally concern the military officer. Given this, my questions for discussion are:

How do you tend your leaders? How would you rate your performance in that task? 

What have you been taught formally about this, if anything? Informally?

Contemplate the questions and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


1 The recently retired Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police made the near startling announcement that at times he sought counselling to cope with the demands of the position. Has a significant commander within the armed forces of either the US or UK ever admitted anything similar? Certainly the struggles of military leadership are as challenging as those in policing, and it is likely that such assistance could be valuable, but the recourse to psychological help remains a taboo in the armed forces.


Red Tape in the Morning, Staff Officer’s Warning

Greetings CCLKOW readers. Today we bring to you a new guest author, @fightingsailor, an officer of the Royal Navy whose biography you can find below. In this piece he discusses the implications of budgets, efficiency and effectiveness. With the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review eagerly awaited here in the United Kingdom, the matter of managing defence in an era of constrained budgets weighs heavily upon the proceedings. In this piece, our author contends with the conflicts and contradictions of the various means to ‘do more with less.’ Although focussed on issues facing defence in the UK, as the American defence establishment grapples again with the demands of sequestration the piece should resonate with the audience on that side of the pond. So, read the piece, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“My department’s budget may be rising again but there will be no let-up in getting more value for money… Efficiency savings mean we will be able to spend more on cyber, more on unmanned aircraft, more on the latest technology, keeping ahead of our adversaries.”  – Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence [1]


In this short essay I will examine what value for money means in the context of Defence and whether the inevitable SDSR [2] drive for greater ‘efficiency’ is, in fact, counter-productive in achieving the purpose of the Armed Forces.

As the Secretary of State alludes, the drive for ‘Value for Money’ in Defence  is usually shorthand for efficiency.  Efficiency is the ratio of output to input.  In other words, the drive for greater efficiency means attempting to do more with less or, at least, doing the same with less or more with the same.  There are a couple of issues here for defence strategists.  First, there is an inherent assumption that we understand what our outputs are. We go to great lengths to define these and set up business agreements between the different parts of Defence to ensure that everybody plays their agreed part in delivering them.  This implies, generally, that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to output Forces ready to be used for operations. In part this is true, especially if one applies the POSIWID principle [3], but surely the purpose of the military is to deliver successful Government policy outcomes.  Many of the outputs of Defence may not be relevant to achieving such outcomes in any given crisis.  Take the recent Operation GRITROCK, the UK Military’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in West Africa.  This wasn’t part of any Force Design or Force Testing scenario that I am aware of, and was delivered using Forces whose justification for existence (and thus attribution of input resources such as funding) was for other Military Tasks [4], yet a positive policy outcome was achieved for Her Majesty’s Government. The point here is that where Military Forces exist, they are rarely used for the specific purpose for which their requirements were set, but rather they have broader utility as instruments for Government policy; providing that they exist in the first place.  This is particularly true of units such as warships where the variety of missions that, say, a Type 23 frigate is able to undertake is far in excess of the predominantly anti-submarine mission for which she was originally designed.  So, the Value for Money is generated by buying as much capability as you can afford that is useable in the broadest range of scenarios.

Except; this logic forces you down a route of planning for the most likely scenario.  In risk management terms this is planning for the expected outcome.  This approach works if you’re an insurer and can aggregate your risks across many thousands of policy holders; or a health service whose usage rates by a population can, on average, be meaningfully planned for.  But the Military instrument is not like that.  We have been seduced into thinking that military campaigns have a steady drumbeat of 6 monthly roulements through theatres: whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or one of the many routine operational deployments of the Royal Navy.  If we gear our entire establishment around this model we will achieve efficiency (of sorts) but we will fail strategically.  I say this because what really defines successful use of the military is its response to crisis, and the sort of crisis that becomes generationally defining.  The Falkands in 1982 is the obvious post-WW2 example but Sierra Leone, Iraq in 1991and the Kosovo intervention are other examples where it went well.  Operational failure in warfighting, especially when vital national interests are stake, changes the international balance of power and can redefine a nation’s place in the world order – the outcome is of strategic significance. It’s the stuff that brings down Governments.  To be ready to respond to crises which are, by their nature, largely unexpected takes systemic agility.  This agility comes from diligent contingency planning and meticulous preparation but necessitates a substantial degree of spare capacity in the system that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs.  Spare capacity is, self-evidently, not a feature of an efficient system. This is not, therefore about the management of risks to outputs but, rather, about the uncertainty of outcome.  The difference between risk and uncertainty?  In the former the probability distribution of possible outcomes is known, in the latter it is not.  It means you need a different set of management techniques.  That’s why stockpiles and reserves must be maintained, even though they may not have been drawn upon for years, because if they are needed they will be needed in a hurry; and once the button gets pushed it will be too late if they do not exist.  A push for efficiency at the expense of all else risks confusing activity with effect.  So in all that we do we should prepare for the most extreme outcome: high-end warfighting against a world-class adversary.  This should drive our requirements, training and manpower but importantly it should drive our intellectual preparation.  Concepts and doctrine must drive the other lines of development towards dealing with the evolving character of warfare and novel technologies must drive, and be driven by, the need to retain operational edge.  Of course, this will be constrained by the available resource but we need the moral courage to balance the activity of today with setting the conditions for successful effect tomorrow.  Within a system incentivised by annual appraisal this is especially challenging.  Ironically, and perhaps even paradoxically, the better we prepare to win wars, the less likely it is that we will have to fight them and thus our Forces can be used more readily for lower intensity operations.  If you want peace, prepare for war!

But however we define our capabilities and capacities, surely within the Force Development and Generation cycles there are efficiencies to be had? Why don’t we just cut the ‘red tape’ and stop spending money on bureaucrats and pen pushers?  This is an attractive battle-cry when it comes to seeking ways to save money on the generation of military capability and, indeed, in the spending of public money in the round.  The problem, however, is that every bureaucrat, no matter how inefficiently they work, is there to service a process which fulfils a function.  To get rid of the bureaucrat you need to establish that their function is no longer required (at least in the same quantity). But most of these processes are conducted to give a degree of management control and/or assurance over different aspects of the organisation: financial management and probity; contractual propriety; safety and environmental management; commodities management; human resource; etc, etc.  So what functions can we do without? Well, none of them actually.  We can reduce the amount of each that we conduct but, here’s the crunch, we must then be prepared to delegate and empower individuals to do make decisions and commit resources without the levels of assurance and managerial control that have been previously demanded.  In short, we must take risk against these processes and this means that mistakes will occur more frequently; and we must accept that this is not failure, but the system working as it was now designed.  And if we want individuals to hold such increased risk personally, then we may find that they need greater recognition and/or remuneration as part of the deal for doing so.  Process and bureaucracy are like a kelp forest for a scuba diver – it is no one strand that substantially impedes your passage, but the overall effect means a disproportionate effort is required to make progress.

So, beware the inevitable ‘efficiency drive’ after the coming SDSR.  Without a properly reformed system that removes management and assurance processes and delivers a commensurate increases in delegation, it will simply be code for reducing the number of people available to complete a similar amount of process.  The strands of kelp get packed closer together and progress becomes harder than it was before.  There is a real risk of not only achieving a less efficient system as a result, but also one less effective at delivering its real purpose, achieving desirable government policy outcomes using the military instrument. And during the SDSR process the arguments must be made to retain as much high-end warfighting capability as we can possibly afford in order to give the agility to deliver such outcomes, including novel ones like cyber and unmanned systems.  And finally, having sufficient warfighting capability makes it less likely that you will have to use it for this purpose.  If you think peacetime Armed Forces are expensive, try having a war!

. . .

Following this review of the issues of defence management and budgets, the following questions are put forward for consideration and discussion:

1. Have western defence bureaucracies gone too far in adopting modern business practices and values? That is, do the terms of prudence in the private sector apply well to requirements of defence?

2. What should drive peacetime budgets and military plans? Should the aim be to spend the least and hope for the best until war arrives? 

3. Can armed forces and defence bureaucracies afford to reduce their processes and accept less control during peacetime?

4. What would you cut, and why?

. . .

@fightingsailor is a Royal Navy Weapon Engineer Officer with substantial operational and staff experience. At sea he has undertaken operational deployments to the Mediterranean (Libya), Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean (whilst participating in Operations DEFERENCE, ELLAMY, TELIC and KIPION); as well as to Arctic Russia, the Baltic region and the East Coast of the USA. Ashore he served in Afghanistan as the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) Liaison Officer to Task Force Helmand. Staff appointments have predominantly focussed on capability planning, management and strategy. They have included: the Ministry of Defence, PJHQ J6 and the Maritime Capability Division of Navy Command HQ. A graduate of the UK Defence Academy’s Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) he has a keen interest in developing ‘good thinking’ in Defence.




[1] Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 4 Oct 15, https://www.politicshome.com/foreign-and-defence/articles/news/michael-fallons-speech-conservative-conference accessed 10 Oct 15.

[2] Strategic Defence and Security Review. The UK Government’s quinquennial review of Defence and Security Strategy.

[3] The Purpose of a System is What it Does. Brilliantly explained on the thinkpurpose website: http://thinkpurpose.com/2012/11/07/3-brilliant-systems-ideas-that-will-explode-in-your-face-2/, accessed 11 Oct 15.

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-defence/about accessed 11 Oct 15.


#CCLKOW: The Security Implications of Disorder Tactics

This week’s post is focused on security and crisis decision-making, on the murky distinction between a bit of domestic disorder which, albeit a nuisance, poses no threat to society, and disorder as a simple use of force in an event which approaches conflict. Specifically, it is concerned to unpick the issues of tactics meant to turn protest to disorder, and that disorder to strategic mayhem. The practice, under the heading of ‘Black Bloc Tactics,’ has yet to be used to any greater objective than momentary chaos which it is hoped will give heft to the political point of the protest. However, as the events of the Arab Spring amply demonstrate, protest is not necessarily far from conflict of the worst sort. So, read the post, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

This weekend I travelled to Manchester to observe the policing of the protest and the Conservative Party Conference. Rather than run about on the streets following the public order officers, [1] this time I was a guest of the force and was allowed to observe the policing from the central command by way of CCTV and helicopter footage. It was utterly fascinating.

The anti-austerity protest planned for Sunday involved a march and rally of significant numbers. And as I am very interested in urban mayhem, watching the events I calculated the many opportunities, moments and locations in which a dedicated operative could act to bring chaos out of the calm. In fact, this has been a tactic of varying use and utility adopted by different groups within a protest in the last couple of decades. Often associated with Anarchists, Black Bloc tactics are not necessarily limited to that group. Briefly, these tactics encompass small cells of anonymised actors who have traditionally used token violence to punctuate the political statement of the protest.

To date, they have not been used in any real capacity beyond the general aim of the protest. And to be perfectly clear, this thought piece does not direct its consideration to protest as protest, even when it might include violence and disorder. Free expression and democratic principles do not always play out in the neatest possible fashion, but that is by far to be preferred over other forms of governance. I have argued elsewhere and I do not step back from that position here that the state and police forces must live by the rule that ‘you can’t shoot rioters.’ [2] In fact, as we have witnessed in the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring, strong arm responses to even violent protest can turn political action to conflict too easily.

So, what are we concerned with here if not protest run amok of its own volition? I have argued in another article that the strategic actor – either terrorist or state affiliated – could use mayhem in lieu of battle. It’s worth jogging over to give that piece a read as it describes the concept in detail, but in brief, it envisions the intentional use of such tactics as would turn the mob in the urban setting into a cheap but effective army to be wielded against the society. That is, such an approach, which to date has only been used to create token or short term violence, could be adapted as a type of warfare.

This is where it all becomes difficult. A competent actor will be able to camouflage the strategic intent of the disorder, at least in the short term. Done very well, a society could slowly be bled white with exhaustion coping with disorder. Or, in frustration, the security forces could escalate the situation to the point of conflict. Thus, with very few resources, a state could be defeated.

Whereas my very first post in this series put to you the problem of the local, rural partisan, in this case you are forced to confront a modern urban warrior, whether at home or abroad on COIN or other stabilisation operations. And so the questions are:

1. How will you identify that protest is not protest but an act of war?

2. How will you act without doing undue additional harm or damage?

3. Is this a strategy you might consider?

4. At what point does this amount to an act of war?


Give your answers some thought and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.



1. The police are rarely troubled by my close presence to their activities as I look nothing short of harmless. Seriously, I won’t ever be mistaken for anarchist or terrorist, and as yet ‘rogue professional woman’ is not yet a style adopted by any combatants.

2. Despite a heavy ethos against the use of force generally, and in public order policing specifically, there has been an uproar in the British press today regarding the deployment of a sniper on a rooftop which overlooked the protest route. It also overlooked the conference venue site. Given the heightened threat level with respect to terrorism and the high-profile nature of the event, such precautions are to be expected. However, with the highly constrained model for the use of lethal force, the idea that the police would even consider using snipers against protesters when it is their job to facilitate protest is beyond silly. And given the control on the police use of firearms, the thought is even more far-fetched. Read the IPCC investigation report on the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 if you want to understand how it works, at pages 96 ff – the officers were questioned repeatedly regarding what happened. The material directly related to the officer who fired the fatal shot is at pages 118-164.


Humpty Dumpty, Not Pottery Barn: Some Thoughts on Regime Change


In this week’s #CCLKOW we consider what principles ought to shape our strategic thinking with respect to regime change. Please note, this is not an endorsement of the act as sensible policy. I am relatively certain that it should be a policy of last resort, and even then its wisdom ought to be held in serious doubt. Nevertheless, we live in a world where sometimes the only policy choices are bad ones. Thus, it is necessary to consider under what strategy this could be accomplished with the least risk of spectacular failure. Or, more simply, it is not enough that we must think carefully about regime change as a policy, we must also be similarly careful about strategy and tactics if this choice is taken. Enjoy the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“You break it, you buy it.” Colin Powell’s application of the rules of shopping in Pottery Barn to regime change was hailed as quite brilliant for reminding his political masters of the dangers of such a policy choice. I would suggest, however, that within this construction there is a terrific peril for the West, as our wealth might make us think we can afford to buy it once broken. Thus, whereas Powell cautioned against regime change that was not fully cognizant of the costs it would entail, this admonition is incorrectly aimed. It is not the cost of rebuilding which is the problem. Rather, it is the nearly insurmountable challenge of re-creating something better than that which has been broken.

Here I would like to argue that rather than Pottery Barn, Humpty Dumpty is the better cautionary tale for regime change. Where the policy is even contemplated, the further taboo must be upon undue damage to the essential structures of governance and society.


…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men 

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It was a sharp realisation that perhaps a quaint children’s nursery rhyme wasn’t just a bit of fun but in fact could be an old military parable, a cautionary tale against the hubris of military might. [1] Conceiving Humpty as a state that, once fallen, could not be put back together again despite every effort of the King’s horses and men, his army, make more sense than it ought to.

Nowhere is the wisdom of the Humpty Dumpty Principle in regime change more clear than in Iraq. The speedy resolution of its first act in the summer of 2003, with relatively little damage, was tragically followed by the dismantling of key structures of the state. Perhaps it was hubris borne of the great military success achieved in driving Saddam Hussein from power which led to the orgy of societal destruction. The inability to recognise that ‘support’ for the regime was not the result of great fealty to Saddam but rather the dictates of pragmatism and survival led the coalition down the garden path to chaos and new tensions. De-Baathification may have seemed a Saint’s work, but in fact it was the beginning of the end, the first step in the slow failure that was the largely American led strategy in the country. Once broken, Iraqi politics and society suffered for the struggle to re-create a delicate balance of fragile connections. And while the old system had been clearly flawed itself, fixing that was the far easier option than refashioning the whole anew.

In sum, the coalition ought to have rejoiced in its ability to unseat Hussein without much damage and sallied forth from there. The path from 2003’s military victory ought to have looked a little something like this:

‘Here Tariq, take the keys. Don’t screw this up. We’re happy to provide some funding to help get things back on track. Send us a plan.’


The errors of Iraq should be forefront in the minds of anyone thinking about Syria. As utterly reprehensible (!) as the reign of terror perpetrated by Assad has been, do not imagine for a moment that the destruction of the state which sustained it will result in an outbreak of rainbows and happiness. The jackals and the jackasses are chomping at the bit to take advantage of the vacuum and chaos that would follow the dissolution of the state. Thus, although it is quite clear that he will have to go, how that will happen must be considered with the utmost care not to break that which we cannot fix. Moving even further into the harshest grey areas, how to deal with the areas under the control of the state apparatus created by ISIS should also be filling us with a bit of conflicted thought.

And so, as grist for this week’s discussion, I put to you the following questions intended to flesh out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the principle I have offered:

1. The successes in Germany and Japan seem to refute the Humpty Dumpty Principle. What were the terms and conditions of those efforts, and do they exist in the targets of regime change we consider today?

2. Is it too easy to assume that no evil structure can be surpassed? With respect to Afghanistan, did we err in thinking that any regime created in the aftermath of the Taliban would be an improvement? Quick to break that which all were too happy to label as evil, with stories such as that published today on the creeping institutionalisation of the sorts practices which had led to the popularity of the Taliban in the first place, one has to wonder at that wisdom.

3. Is there a better strategic framework to conduct successful regime change?




[1] I am not arguing that this is the origin of the story. But it ought to be, because it’s rather quite perfect.


Leadership Beyond Your Control

This week’s CCLKOW discussion looks at leadership. In this case, however, we remove the individual as the arbiter of its quality. Instead, our piece today argues for a perspective that takes account of external factors which define the limits of leadership. Using the contrasting narratives of two officers from the Chosin Campaign, the role of influences beyond the control of the individual emerges. Read, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


In the cold — wickedly cold, really — days at the end of November 1950, the epic drama of the Chosin Campaign played out in North Korea near the Manchurian border with China. Within the larger story, two sub narratives of triumph and disaster, redemption and destruction, life and death were also unfolding. These are the individual travails of two Lieutenant Colonels awarded the Medal of Honor in the campaign, Raymond G. Davis and Donald C. Faith. Davis led his unit to the successful completion of an overland, nighttime march to relieve Fox Co. and secure key terrain in the evacuation route south to Hagaru-ri for 5th and 7th Marines. By contrast, Faith gained at best an operational Pyrrhic victory for X Corps: his Task Force slowed the PLA advance towards the 1st Marine Division as it was defeated in its attempt to withdraw from the reservoir to Hagaru-ri.

How can we reconcile the entirely disparate outcomes of the units led by Faith and Davis at Chosin? Leadership provides a unifying theme by which to explain events, although in this case we must understand leadership to go beyond the standard definitions and transcend the individual as either agent or arbiter of quality. The differences in leadership, and hence outcomes, can be attributed only to fortune or fatal ambition if the assessment is limited to the individuals, as these details provide too little information to make sense of the full scope of events. For their actions at Chosin, each man would be reckoned a hero of the highest order, although that heroism must be described as triumphant and tragic in turn. As field grade officers with previous combat and/or command experience, at campaign’s start they would have been considered equals in anticipated capabilities. In sum, these were two officers similarly qualified as leaders to meet the challenges of command on the battlefield. And yet, not only were the outcomes different for each – success for Davis and failure for Faith – but the narrative clearly points to different qualities of leadership as well. Thus, factors well beyond the individuals, beyond their heroism or competence, determined the quality of leadership each man brought to bear in his respective battle.

The Faith/Davis narratives suggest that leadership’s manifestation in combat is determined by the individual in situ by the influence of external factors. Absent obvious incompetence or particular genius, the environment within which an officer must act will define the quality or effectiveness of his leadership, and therefore, ability to command. Taking consideration of their environments fully explains the leadership outcome for each officer, success and failure, notwithstanding the heroism displayed by either. These conclusions can be made without undue attack upon Faith, for as this analysis suggests, others determined his failed leadership. The paradox of Faith’s simultaneous heroism and failure is reconciled because, while the bulk of the former is derived from within the individual, leadership in action is largely determined from without. This point is true as well in Davis’ case, for if it is to have more than mythical importance it, too, is best understood within its proper context.

While definitions of leadership abound, their focus traditionally has been limited to the individual. From one compilation of essays on the subject of leadership we find this characterization: “Effective leaders create an environment in which people motivate themselves.” [1] In another similar compilation, published in large part for the benefit of teaching leadership to future Army officers at West Point, we find this explanation: “Leadership is the art of inspiring the spirit and the act of following. The following must be voluntary. The individual and the group of individuals must want to be guided by that person for the latter to be called a leader…. Leadership is about trust….”[2] If most discussions of leadership – and for this sake of this analysis I will stick with Kolenda’ Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, as a solid example of the literature – are limited to the narrow scope of what the individual as leader must do,  then they operate from the assumption that the individual is the arbiter or agent of leadership. The problem is that such a formulation ignores the long, arduous, and mundane process required to get the leader to the point where he can lift his head and eyes to the horizon, to function as a leader and exercise effective command. He must, in effect, be able to do nothing but think sometimes. So, yes, a young officer, according to one essay in Kolenda, needs to know what to do with the opportunity and responsibility to lead. [3] He should also learn those factors external to his control that can shape the experience. He should know that no matter how well prepared, it is very hard to run a race if your legs are broken at the start. Even if Kolenda et al. are correct and leadership is the warrior’s art, the individual can only work with what he is given; he is defined by his context, good or bad. Thus, individuals may manifest leadership, and are certainly responsible for its quality, but a multitude of other individuals and circumstances determine that quality. In battle, the individual is not in control of his own leadership. He may do everything right, or may know, especially in retrospect, what he should have done right, he may be imbued with every talent, and still his attempts at leadership can be undone by factors beyond his control. As with all other matters military, the individual is bound up in the group, the organization, and the events.

Given this situation, I propose this revised set of standards that take account of the external factors that influence: chain of command leadership (superior and subordinate), followership, and circumstances. These criteria provide the most comprehensive and comprehensible explanation for the leadership outcomes in the Chosin campaign, and may offer a perspective that is useful to contemporary considerations of leadership. To understand their role in these events, here is a very brief sketch of the contrasting external circumstances faced by each man:


What was the quality of the superior leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

The view from the top offer the first significant distinction between the two. Davis enjoyed an operational situation that saw him ensconced within the warm embrace of two levels of leadership directly above him. His regimental and divisional commanders, Colonel Litzenberg and General Smith, were close at hand, available to provide guidance, strength, and a general sense of operational security. Alternatively, neither of his two commanders was the sort to meddle overmuch, thus allowing Davis to exercise his discretion in the planning and execution of his mission. By contrast, Faith came to command at Chosin when the 31st RCT commander, Colonel MacLean, was killed in early and confusing contact with PLA forces. This meant that on the ground at Chosin Faith enjoyed no superior leadership. At further remove, the divisional and corps leadership did not seem to grasp the enormity of what was facing the task force. Appleman’s point in East of Chosin that Generals Barr (7th ID CG) and Almond (X Corps CG) could have sent General Hodes, 7th ID ADC, to take command of the task force, is ironically sustained by the extension of that criticism in other literature to General Smith, who could have spared one of his senior colonels to the cause. Finally, by comparison Davis’ direct chain of command served him better than Faith’s because Smith’s proximity to the fight gave him a clearer picture of the threat posed by the PLA’s offensive, whereas it would take the Army commanders (7th ID, X Corps) critical hours to come to understand the changed circumstances. The relevance of this distinction bears out in the movements of X Corps towards the Yalu River, where Smith had taken a relatively conservative approach to the attack which maintained the integrity of the division as a whole, in contrast with the almost head-long rush 7th ID took to get to the reservoir. Whereas the Marine division would retain its ability to act as a coherent and supporting whole when the mass of the Chinese attack opened, 7th ID was dispersed to the point that the sum of the parts were weaker than the measure of the whole.

What was the quality of the subordinate leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

Moving to the supporting network below, the disparities remain. Davis enjoyed a strong subordinate command presence. Many of his NCOs had prior service in WWII, and his junior officers were capable if untested. Furthermore, throughout the campaign he did not suffer significant losses within these ranks, thus maintaining a sound subordinate chain of command. The strength of Davis’ leadership would be transmitted through this web to the Marines. At the start of the campaign, the units that would comprise Faith’s task force did have their fair share of good subordinate leaders. However, the task force suffered throughout the battle a steady hemorrhage of these leader. Their loss would weaken the leadership web supporting Faith degraded the unit’s combat cohesion at every level and critically handicapped his ability to maintain the integrity of the withdrawal.

What was the quality of “followership” shown to Faith and Davis?

How the troops responded to their leadership would vary significantly as well. There is no greater affirmation of the Marines’ followership than the constant refrain from the overland march that the strength of Davis’ example motivated and inspired the already strong extant “Marine spirit.” [4] Alternatively, the fragility of the task force’s followership is made manifest with the rapid disintegration of unit coherence with every challenge and setback to the withdrawal. Where once Faith was able to rally the troops via threats of severe punishment, the second attempt at the same tactic reaped insignificant results, primarily because the troops could no longer sustain their “faith” in his leadership to change the circumstance. Furthermore, there is some indication that Faith’s lack of combat experience worked to the detriment of establishing good followership from the start. Contrast this with the sense of security Davis’ experience must have given his troops.

What were the circumstances facing each?

Although they diverged in degree, both men faced essentially the same situation. The Chinese offensive made their current positions untenable and necessitated withdrawal. And, as aptly framed by General Smith, this would be no administrative march to the rear, they really would be “fighting in the other direction.” [5] The grand plan of the Marine division’s attack to the south planned for the constant defense of the column in its progress, by control of flanking terrain and key feature with all units in mutual and coordinated support. [6] Necessary to secure a key junction in the route, Davis’ mission to relieve Fox Co. and reinforce the position they held atop Turkey Hill was by no means going to be a walk in the park, was not guaranteed to succeed. It demanded of the Marines two efforts not a part of the campaign or standard practice: cross-country and by night. However, as part of a larger campaign, whose objective was entirely achievable by the division, Davis was given a manageable piece of a larger plan whose rationality he could appreciate. Other intangible effects of the mission context was the difference made in the Marine mentality of the aggressive, offensive nature of the mission – rather than waiting for the enemy to bring the battle to them in the withdrawal, they were moving pro-actively to gain the upper hand against the enemy. This they would achieve, successfully making their way south to Colonel Puller’s position further south to reform the division as a whole for its continued exfiltration to the port at Hungnam. Task Force Faith, on the other hand, was destroyed as a unit and nearly in detail attempting the very same. Lacking the support to generate a plan of any consequence, as well as the subordinate officers to execute it, Faith was left to collect his men, wounded, and vehicles and hope that they could fight their way south directly. Little would be done to secure the flanks or the way ahead, and these omissions would allow the Chinese soldiers to defeat the column. Harrying the vehicles and men from the high ground surrounding the road throughout, which slowly weakened Faith’s collected force, the Chinese were also able move ahead roadblock the progress of the march at regular intervals. Blooded throughout, there were only so many obstacles the task force could overcome and regroup from before it was simply too weakened by casualties to continue as a whole. In the final hours of December 1, only 5 miles from where the march had begun, both Faith and his task force died.


Considering the terms of this leadership framework, the discussion for this week is driven by a single request:

Obviously there is little that can be done when one faces the worst of circumstances across every factor. However, singly these deficits can be mitigated, if not overcome. Looking at each of Faith’s challenges, imagine yourself as his only and capable staff officer, what would you recommend to him? How would you improve the quality of the factors or counteract the negative effect of their weakness?




[I am happy to provide a bibliography of the campaign to those interested.]



1. Military Leadership, Taylor and Rosenbach, eds., p. 2.

2.  Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, Kolenda, ed., p. xix.

3. Dardis and Brower, “Teaching Combat Leadership.”

4. I had the opportunity to meet many of those Marines, to include General Davis, at the 1/7 1999 reunion of the Chosin Marines. I will write more about them in November at the anniversary of the campaign. As well as the pathos of battle, there will be consideration of such subjects as frozen turkey bombs, life-saving Tootsie Rolls, a silver service, cooks with rifles, and a reminder of the provenance of the Rule of 4/6ths.

5. The misinterpretation of this quote is one of the greater sins of history. It was always a simple explanation of the martial terms of the withdrawal.

6. I will reissue my perennial call: Colonel Alpha Bowser’s quickly designed plan was a thing to behold, and more should be written on it.


It AINT COIN, but this is

#CCLKOW this week turns to the matter of confronting insurgency. Seemingly beaten to death, I would submit that the subject is in fact in need of some rigorous thought, especially as there are clearly two defined schools of strategic approach, broadly characterized by their different focuses. Where one is concerned to fight the insurgency as manifest, the other seeks to undermine the terms of its strength to vastly reduce the intensity of the conflict, or anti-insurgency and counter-insurgencyUnderstanding the difference between the terms and consequences of different strategic approaches is important given that with the geo-strategic landscape and the role of rapid communications we may find ourselves in a time when might, as expressed in destruction, no longer sufficiently or reliably translates to right. Rather, might applied to the resolution of root causes is an alternative path to right that deserves better and more serious attention against the changing landscape of conflict. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.   


The subject of confronting an insurgency being less in favor these days seems to me to present the best opportunity to examine it with a bit more dispassion, and hence more rigor. In particular, here I would like to consider how we use COIN. As it stands, COIN is used broadly to describe all approaches to warfare against an insurgency. However, I find this unsatisfying as there is significant divergence in what people mean by this term. To rectify this problem, I propose new terminology to distinguish  between strategies which make the use of force against the rebellion the primary effort versus those that seek to undermine and eliminate the sources of support to the rebellion first thus reducing the scope of direct confrontation. Both envision scenarios which seek attrition, it is simply the means in each which differ. However, I believe there is an importance to this difference, and I think terminology which recognizes it is thus necessary. To describe these distinct approaches I use anti-insurgency and counter-insurgency accordingly, or AINT and COIN.

For clarification, a few points of terminology must be settled. (1) To begin, when I speak of insurgency, I mean a conflict within governed space against the standing order. Those in opposition are characterized by a committed cadre at center, are generally weaker than the forces of the prevailing order, and often resort to asymmetry and other alternative and low cost/low training means. While they may enjoy popular support, it is enough that the population simply be neutral to apathetic. With respect to the pivotal terms of this essay, I will offer that my understanding of this distinction between anti- and counter- goes back to an old lecture on terrorism in my early academic days that has stuck with me for its clarity and utility. In brief, it sorted the approaches to dealing with terrorism into the two categories depending on the focus of effort, whether at dealing with acts and actors directly by fighting terrorists in the act and seeking them when not, or at undermining their ability to organize and act to reduce frequency, efficacy and numbers of attacks.

If you were wondering about the title, this is where the odd construction becomes relevant. The “it” and “this” refer to two pieces written by others which illustrate the two models. They are important here because the first, on AINT, inspired the conceptualization, and the second motivated the writing in this moment. Very interestingly, they are both by British authors, representing two ends of the security spectrum and long traditions of service. The AINT article is a theoretical description of the model by William F. Owen, formerly of the British Army and currently active in the field of military affairs. (2) The second is a blog piece on neighborhood policing by an anonymous but currently serving British police officer of significant experience, Nathan Constable. (3) While it may seem unorthodox to use a policing example to describe a strategic approach insurgent conflict, the principle, parties and activities are similar enough for these purposes. Where the absolute scale of force and violence may differ, I believe that plotted relatively they are sufficiently comparable. Thus, as a good enough comparative, I will go further to add that in this case the conceptual box is safely, and I hope fruitfully, exceeded.

Turning to the first piece, in Owen’s “Seek and Destroy,” the AINT model is clearly explicated. As a counter-insurgency strategy, I cannot disagree with it more. However, under the AINT construct, while I may not agree with its utility, I must similarly recommend that it is an entirely correct construction. The opening sentence is unambiguous: “The purpose of this article is to argue that the destruction of the enemy’s forces lies at the heart of countering both terrorism and insurgency.” (p. 12) If the end is compliance with the status quo, this will be achieved by attrition, and more specifically by fighting the insurgent force in order to kill or capture its members. Elimination of the rebellion in arms will eliminate the rebellion. That is iconic AINT.

For COIN, the Nathan Constable blog on neighborhood policing includes a vignette fully describing the contours of the countering model. His piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but for our purposes here a brief synopsis of the relevant portion will suffice. The circumstances of the case were a local police force dealing with significant and recurrent problems of anti-social behavior (the “insurgency”) that demanded police resources without improving by their interventions. Watching this approach fail to do more than “stick a plaster on” the ritual disturbances (the “insurgent activity”), he shifted course.

This adaptation meant considering the problem in other terms. Using intelligence gathering to understand the nature of the disorder and its causes, who might be the ringleaders, and what motivated the presence of the larger numbers of participants, the author describes how he and his police force changed their approach to the problem. Learning that many of the participants in the trouble were at a loss for anything better to do on a Friday evening, the police reached out other agencies and organizations to create sport and other entertainments for local youth so that they had safe spaces to spend an evening. As well, to reduce the influence and draw of alcohol, they worked with local businesses to eliminate or reduce sales to those under 21. Although the cadre of troublemakers remained (the “committed cadre” who drive the insurgency), without the broader participation of other youths (the rank and file who give the movement its force) these numbers were more easily dealt with by traditional policing methods. More importantly, the broader results of this combined effort away from the point of conflict was a reduction in the number of calls to police for that area and an overall improvement in the quality of life for the community as previously unpleasant to unsafe spaces were reclaimed and the youth had positive attractions for their energies. That is, by countering the problem rather than continuing to fight the obvious manifestation it was more enduringly solved.

It should be clear these two approaches vary significantly in principle and in practice. As played out at the level of conflict and war when considering insurgencies these differences are important and manifest at every level, from political to tactical. While it is certainly not necessary in practical strategic terms to choose one at the complete absence of aspects of the other, representing as they do very different philosophical perspectives on the conflict and its proper resolution, the likelihood is that one or the other will dominate. That is, if presented with the same situation, Owen and Nathan Constable would, according to their models, design very different strategies to achieve the ends of peace and order. These differences matter in costs and consequences, and must be considered in detail in deciding which should be chosen, because despite Owen’s claim, the efficacy of one over the other, is not an “obvious and enduring fact.” Where force of arms has come to dominate Western conceptualizations of warfare, this preference is not necessary in war.

Given this, the question for this week’s discussion is broad, intended to drive consideration of the terms of each approach and debate their relative merits against historical or hypothetical cases. Simply, it is:


When and where is each the more practicable approach and why?


Add your thoughts on Twitter at #CCLKOW.





(1) These are the product of a wide reading across history and military affairs. They are attributable to many and none. I can offer no real credit, but neither is there anyone else to blame. These are, simply put, my definitions.

(2) Owen’s piece was published in Infinity Journal, Issue 2, Spring 2011, “Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion,” pp 12-15. It is freely available to those willing to sign up with the journal.

(3) Due to my unorthodox interpretation and application of the case, I chatted with Nathan Constable regarding my use of the blog. He was curious to see the alternative application, and forwarded supporting public documentation of the events — news articles which provide detail on the circumstances and the steps taken by local police and naming the officers involved. I have no need or intention to identify him, but for the purposes of this essay the verification of the events only added weight to my thinking on it.


Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

Tikrit: An Iraqi Saratoga?


In this week’s #CCLKOW piece I tread warily into analogy to offer a framework to consider policy and strategy of intervention. There is no wisdom in asserting Situation A is just like Historical Event B. Analogies in policy are impossibly tricky, and the most we can do is to understand well the terms of the past as we consider what may be possible in the present or the future. In this case, “the Saratoga turning point” and the subsequent French participation in the American War for Independence offer some insights into an effective intervention. Why Saratoga enabled a shift in French policy to full diplomatic support of the Colonies in Rebellion and how the assistance was managed were key factors in the objective to assist the American cause. Keeping these in mind as the western nations contemplate whether and how best to assist Iraq against IS offers a compelling alternative perspective to the narrative of intervention which has framed much of American military policy and doctrine since the end of WWII. Read the piece, give a thought to the questions at the end, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. Enjoy!


Last July IS opened its overt campaign within Iraq. In rapid fashion they took and held key points which they added to their holdings in Syria to form their Franken-state. Contemplating the gains from Jihadi Blitzkrieg, many did not give the remaining territory or the political entity of the republic much of a chance to survive. As a military historian of the American tradition, I have come to view with scepticism the decisiveness of opening campaigns, so I did not count the contest as over. And in the face of the dominant theme of imminent collapse, through summer’s end and into fall and winter the Iraqi state managed a remarkable political and strategic makeover and turnaround. The clear manifestation of the local will in this fight was the recent ejection of IS from Tikrit. Site of one of IS forces’ more irredeemably abominable acts at Camp Speicher, this victory demonstrated the Iraqi state’s ability to fight and win for themselves.

In much the same way victory at Saratoga manifested American devotion to their cause in the fight for Independence – and the feasibility of their efforts – sufficient to gain allied support from France, retaking Tikrit offers a potential moment and basis to act in the current conflict. As well, this example offers a framework to better understand how to act effectively in the wars of others. War is political, but the terms of those politics are decided by where one sits in the conflict. Thus, from the perspective of a party considering intervention, Saratoga and the French intervention offer some useful markers. There is first the utterly necessary manifested political will of the party seeking assistance, as well as their ability to lobby support for their cause effectively. Second, the policy and strategy of intervention must serve own needs, but is best written in the client state’s terms. Whether the Iraqis are the Americans in Rebellion, the thornier, less considered question may we be whether US could ever match the French policy and strategy.

First, to deal with the initial resistance to this comparison. It is not my intention to directly relate the two conflicts or the parties, but rather to utilize the key diplomatic and policy and strategy issues arising from the outcome of that battle to consider alternative terms of assistance to the Iraqis in this fight. Furthermore, it is to remind that significant though this battle was in the course of the American War for Independence, this advance did not preclude a future rocky course nor the constant refrain of tactical and seeming strategic setbacks. To argue that Tikrit might portend a significant political shift is not negated by critical weaknesses in the ISF or battlefield setbacks. Ando, even as the naysayers have been shouting “But Ramadi!” since the start of this piece, it is worth remembering that after Saratoga the Americans went on to struggle through Valley Forge and a trail of defeats on its way to winning the war. And while I certainly do not need to, I want to make it abundantly clear that IS is not Great Britain, nor do its forces offer anything like the clear superiority of the British Army or Royal Navy facing the Americans. As well, to be fair to France, the United States and the west have more capabilities than Louis’ 18th century France. Finally, it should never be forgotten that France had clear political interests to serve in assisting the Americans. Very often lately this is seen as some bit of seemy double dealing, but it would be best not to be naïve about why states aid others – there must always be some benefit to sustain the intervention. Thus, while I maintain caution as to the analogy, it is necessarily adequate to the current context, especially as it offers a different perspective on policy and strategy options.

Turning to the critical political outcome of the battle, French participation in the war. In the military terms of the alliance, from my perspective, the very compelling aspect of the French intervention was its strategy. Most fundamental to this, France did not assume it was their war. Important points of their participation in the American cause must be remembered. That the needs of the Americans and their military strategy were not France’s primary concern. In alliance they agreed to provide the support the Americans requested as they could. Second, they brought a significant augmentation to the naval war, which degraded British dominance and culminated at the Battle of Chesapeake. Increasing the cost and difficulty of British transport and logistics in the war would reverberate across the entire effort through to Yorktown. When it came to the French Army’s direct participation the style was distinctive. In sum, they subordinated their activity to American needs, their commands to American leadership. Rochambeau’s Army arrived with political and military respect for their allies, and the French commander in chief put himself and his forces at Washington’s discretion. Deficient though the American military forces may have been in comparison to European armies, the role of French advisors was relatively minimal with respect to their total effort. It should also be noted that the French deployed to the American colonies as friends and were hosted warmly by the locals of Newport in their first winter.

The obvious problem here is that the US is not in the habit of subordinating itself politically or militarily. Whether other western powers would be willing to do so may be irrelevant given that American resources would likely dominate any significant intervention. Thus, while the politics in Iraq have a clear chance, how the US and the west respond will determine whether their action aids the cause.

And so, for discussion I would like to consider the issues which confront and confound the strategic latitude the French enjoyed in their intervention:


Can the US military ever effectively work as the subordinate force? Is the refusal to a weakness of the American system? What is the view of other western forces on this issue? Do you even agree that it is necessary or wise in this case or ever? 

Does the west have the patience to weather a campaign of difficulties and setbacks on the way to the eventual defeat of IS in Iraq? 

French officers served in American forces. Should western militaries allow professional sabbaticals so that their own might serve abroad in certain causes?


@BritishPolice: Research, Policy and Community on the Frontiers of Social Media

On Sunday I had the opportunity to chat, via direct message on Twitter, with a Chief Inspector from West Midlands Police. He had tweeted pictures and comments from his course on Public Order Policing, and I had some follow up questions for him. Over several exchanges he happily discussed with me official tactics and approaches, as well as a bit of his experience. For a variety of reasons I value this sort of first hand, practitioner based material in my research. This was not the first time I have used Twitter to further my understanding or sustain my interpretations, but the fact that I can do so speaks to something much more important.

Policing in the United Kingdom is in the midst of a quiet but revolutionary experiment to make itself proactively available to the public by way of social media, and particularly Twitter, in unprecedented numbers and across the chain of command, to include senior leadership. The prospects for this, for its influence on society and policing, are momentous. While its ramifications cannot yet be known, there are three areas in which this phenomenon highlight important opportunities across research, policy and community relations: the human element which emerges, the self-narrative or portrait of the institution and its character, and the engagement philosophy.

First, to the human element. Many of the police accounts, corporate and informal, are associated with an individual. Not just a role, but a particular character and human emerges from the communications. I am a memoir, experiential based military historian by training, and within that as well I value the quotidian and the little things that are said and done for the wisdom it conveys. Happiness, Limeade on Guadalcanal… was written in earnest, as it must be accepted that while seemingly irrelevant on the surface, from these details of the personal experience often emerge profound insights. [1] And the material in public and on social media is just the tip of the iceberg. The human element has a practical story to tell about the work, in general and in detail, and deserves more attention in the course of police research.

Turning to a more meta perspective, taken together this messaging creates the self-image of British policing. From both its personal and corporate accounts, in words and images, the characters of the forces and their constituent parts, as well as the broader national service, are created. Assessing this, in its grand vista and detail deserves attention as well for its influence in policy, practice or communications. At the practical level, for example, to understand that how the police conceive themselves in a particular situation or issue differs from how they are viewed by the public will help to identify areas for redress.

Finally, the matter of engagement and Police-Community Relations (PCR) has particular resonance in this discussion. Timely to do so, as BBC’s “The Met” has people talking. Having seen it, I would say the work is very interesting, definitely worth a watch. [2] Throughout, the participants confronted a host of hard issues about community relations, particularly those relating to race and policing. And they are discussing it today. Many of the individuals mentioned above are on Twitter answering questions and comments regarding the documentary. And as individuals it is clear that many of them are compassionately engaged with their work. On a purely social media front, thinking back to the disorders, it is a long way since the Met was overwhelmed by mass BBM’s, and one wonders how the police would use their new presence in similar circumstances today. More importantly, the documentary identifies the clear rift still to mend. Improving identification between police and disaffected members of the community will require effort across many fronts and over time. Nevertheless, what the Twitter activity of policing suggests, both online and in the metropolis (and the UK at large), is that the police themselves are open to, if not actively interested in, expanding and improving their conversation with the public they serve. It will be interesting to track how this philosophy of engagement will be taken up in and by the challenged communities.

Perhaps the recourse to social media is natural. Gregarious by nature, the British Bobby has simply taken up a new beat. What has changed is that this activity is now visible to a greater percentage and cross section of society. Subtly, 140 characters at a time, over the course of thousands of tweets, this will affect the shape of policing and consent, as well as the understanding of both.





1 Funny to discuss that blog in this one on social media and Twitter as its title was too long to tweet in its entirety. Sigh.

2 One point I would make, as it focused on the Duggan shooting, the riots, and the influence of the Inquest verdict, it was strange not to include something on the vigil the following Saturday. Its peaceful terms deserved highlighting.


Why chess is not the right metaphor for human conflict

Author: Giorgio Bertolin is a doctoral candidate in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.


On the cover of books and journals, or as the logo of consultancy firms and think tanks, chess is omnipresent when the topic concerns international security. A set of chiselled wooden pieces is indeed much more elegant than exploding IEDs or wounded fighters. After all, the game of chess seems to represent a battle between two medieval armies, as the presence of knights and siege towers (the rooks) suggests. But can chess really represent a good metaphor for human conflict? I contend that it does not, and that the use of chess to allude to the realities of war is little more than an insult to Caissa. Comparing chess to armed conflict is overly simplistic, and can lead us to inadvertently attribute wrong connotations to the latter.

In chess, the two sides enjoy the same amount of force. They can be said to be equal, even though white’s privilege to move first gives them the edge in the initial phase of the opening. On the other hand, perfect symmetry is virtually non-existent in the reality of warfare. There are just too many variables influencing the magnitude of the forces in the field both qualitatively and quantitatively. Therefore, archives of military history would be scanned in vain searching for such an unlikely event as a battle between two perfectly equal armies. So-called asymmetrical conflicts evidence this tendency even more starkly, in sharp contrast to the clash represented on the chessboard. Moreover, in chess just two players are involved in the fight. While this can be a realistic scenario, contemporary conflicts are often more complex. This is the reason why the US Marine Corps, for example, has added a “neutral cell” (green) to the planning of combat operations, an activity that previously used to contemplate just friendly forces (blue) versus hostile entities (red).

Deliberately giving the enemy more time is an option endorsed by doctrine in certain types of operations. This option is not available to the chess player, who can lose tempo but cannot avoid the obligation to move. This is particularly important in the endgame, when a seemingly winning position can result in a draw because of this rule. The possibility to hold back fire is particularly important in the contemporary landscape, where carefully conducted information operations can leverage the combatants’ actions to produce considerable psychological effects.

Chess is a zero-sum game. Many theorists, in particular those belonging to the school of classical realism, argue that international confrontations are a zero-sum game as well. While this is debatable at the political level, at the strategic level this statement is unconvincing. The influence of non-rational, cultural factors can be massive. Rationality limits choices in chess as much as cultural factors limit choices in warfare. There are no ruses of war in chess, whereas thinking outside of the box has enabled more than one commander to overturn a seemingly stronger enemy.

A flat battlefield, two armies lined up and tidily facing each other, each one waiting for its turn to strike. This situation can be applied to chess and to the skirmishes of the Seven Years’ War – and a very restricted number of other cases. Geography in chess is so abstract that it bears little resemblance to the geographies in which contemporary conflicts take place. Yet, geography is one of the most important variables in warfare. Urban operations, rural insurgencies, and space warfare evidence a broadening of the battlefield, and a crucial role for the peculiar features of the landscape in terms of physical and human geography.

In chess, decapitation strikes work by definition, since the ultimate goal of the game is to checkmate the king. It is moot whether this can be applied to the reality of warfare. Decapitation strikes came to the spotlight with the recent deployment of lethal UAVs – such as the Predator and, especially, the Reaper – in the fight against organised terrorism. In many ways the fight against terrorist networks is a fight against a Lernean Hydra, and decapitation strikes, while generally useful, are not decisive. In other conflicts they can be more relevant, but the situation is still distant from the mathematical clarity of chess. The main obstacle is the availability of viable substitutes to guide an organisation, individuals that sometimes prove to be more talented and innovative than their predecessors. The king is dead, long live the king.

It must be admitted that there are some interesting similarities between chess and human conflict. To begin with, pattern recognition has advantages and disadvantages in both activities. This process is useful to capitalise lessons learned, but at the same time patterns risk crystallisation into dogmatic assumptions that limit strategic thinking. Secondly, in both chess and war tactical actions can have strategic consequences. Mission command and the strategic corporal concept are expressions of this trend in contemporary warfare. Then, it must be noted how the value of chess pieces is subordinated to other factors, such as tempo and position. Again, this is mirrored in the dynamic reality of armed conflicts, where details make the difference, and material capabilities alone are not sufficient to guarantee victory. The presence of these correspondences, however interesting, does not justify the extensive use of chess as the signifier for a human phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a symbol.


The use of chess as a metaphor for war can be misleading. Both chess and war are far more complex than this analogy suggests. And, in other respects, they are simpler. They are qualitatively different, and not as correlated as it may seem on the surface. It would be useless to look for alternative icons. Liberating chess from war, and war from chess, is a sign of respect for activities that are otherwise being trivialised.