Hybrid War (or hypercompetition….)

A while ago – I lose track of when – I wrote about something on KoW which I’d clumsily called hypercompetition. I don’t claim anything particularly original about the notion, but I heard it blaring out of my radio last week under the guise of something now called hybrid war. 

The problem of the conspiracy theory accusations or difficulties with hypercompetition seem to have been politically overcome with the perception of threat provided by Russia in Ukraine. Prior to this a notion that Russian funding of things of influence might be problematic was bracketed under the heading of ‘conspiracy theory’. Money likes to travel.. and in this globalised world money is colour blind.. let it come from wherever it comes. That sort of thing. And it’s not to pick on the Russian money, certainly not in the way I think about this hybridity or hypercompetition. It strikes me that there is rather a large number of states and significant networks of influence leveraging influence.

There are several underpinning follow-on questions:

1) Is this is a paranoid view of the world? Does it too close to conspiracy theory? Two responses: 1) a wise friend of mine noted that all IR theories are merely a myopia or conspiracy built upon the exponent’s preferences. So, this is merely a dissenting voice. As those mainstream conceptions were when they were mooted.

2) Is Western Europe just really bad at this form of warfare or influence? Following media reportage, it would appear that we’re under siege from many external sources. That we’re the timid supplicant… flotsam bounced around by nasty ‘forren’ types. I’m not convinced we’re bad at the prosecution of this kind of activity – afterall, if 500 years of imperialism hasn’t taught us something we should give up and cower at home. However, we seem very bad at countering it at home. Part of this might be the Bronwen Jones line of the coloniser being eventually colonised, but I think our weakness and vulnerability actually stems from the near universal acceptance of a narrative that, for instance, says that third country investment in our core infrastructure is ‘just the market’ rather than representing something political. Afterall, the restrictive rules on FDI in other countries means that we’re not aligned to a brand of universal thought on this. The underfunding of European universities – for example – means that the sector arguably has taken to servicing global elites and seeking out international (non-EU) money (from all sorts of places) that helps to tailor intellectual agendas and allows for foreign-domestic political debates/fights to be had on EU soil, away from the more problematic political environments of those students. This is the sort of political activity that gave European governments the creeps in the 1920s, and whilst the positive externalities of internationalisation are clear to those who work in universities – as anyone engaged in Horizon2020 funding, or in finding research partners in the US will tell you – there is a potential darker side that administrators seem unkeen to think about. Whether these networks pose a risk or not would require the right question, the right data and fine judgments. And of course it might be that we are fine exponents of exporting our own norms…

So, should we be worried about this hybridity as it pertains to Russia. Well, Russian money has traveled, and London’s housing market is partly inflated and propped up by it. Money has traveled into think-tanks and research efforts, and into infrastructure. Leveraging influence is not solely a case of invest and nice things will follow. But it helps. The Economist – which has become increasingly shrill on this issue – plotted Russian connections to European political parties to more than suggest that hybrid war threatened the fabric of the continent and the European project in particular. But most of the scaryness seems to be because of the word Russia, rather than the pattern of behaviour, which is a logic of neoliberal economics and PR/influence. Can we unpick or understand the complex influences on our politics (both organisational and ideological)? No. Should we pay attention to the fine documentary by Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake...? Yes, well worth a watch.

So, I would say this, wouldn’t I… but there is much in the concept of hybrid war. But we are only at the start of really understanding what is meant by it, and a country mile off understanding how to counter it. Particularly when countering it will rely upon a challenge to neoliberal orthodoxies.


Women and children first?

Welcome to this week’s CCLKOW discussion piece. We are looking this time at the complications arising from certain of Isil’s irregular strategic choices. To be brief, contrary to current practice they are weaponising children and women’s domestic functions. Child soldiers are nothing new globally, but they have not figured prominently against the West. And one suspects Isil’s strategic intent is specifically to confound Western forces with this choice. Similarly, the active recruitment of women for the purpose of marrying a fighter and supporting the cause in that manner has overtones of that intent as well. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

There is a looming problem in the fight against Isil. As they include recruitment of women and the military training of children in their operating philosophy, we are fast racing to a point of uncomfortable decision regarding how to treat them on the battlefields and in the long run.

Turning first to the children, the greatest issue is at the tactical level. At some point, in the fighting to retake the towns and cities held by Isil, children will be deployed. And let’s be clear. Children are what we make them in large measure. There are no shortage of cautionary tails regarding the potential brutality of children run amok, and we should have all read Lord of the Flies. Now consider what happens when they are trained. At the point of combat, these “young cubs” could well be dangerous. Of course, what children survive those battlefields present the longer term problem of their treatment, whether as victims or prisoners of war.

Giving our attention next to the women, ‎with the story of three young women from East London running off to join Isil’s domestic branch fresh on our minds, the problem is their status in the long term. Much consideration of their intentions, both serious — King’s own Dr. Katherine Brown and Elizabeth Pearson have recently offered their thoughts among many  — and silly (CNN’s “Nutella and Kittens”). While some might try to argue that these young women are being lured on false romanticism which preys on their naivete, please consider that the same must then true for the young men. Furthermore, while taking the step to jihadi bride might not seem like an act of war, they do serve the purpose of holding territory, complicating combat operation as civilians, and providing a next generation of fighter. In a 15 year war scenario, that last is n0t inconsequential. Furthermore, one must also consider their intent in joining, their ideological commitment to the conflict and political culture that Isil wishes to spread. That is, in every respect they have donned the uniform. And it bears remembering that not every male who joins is a trigger puller, neither in Isil nor Western forces – a soldier truck driver is still a prisoner of war. Even assuming these women didn’t pick up a Kalashnikov in the defense, as territory is retaken from Isil, their will not be easy to decide.

So, the question for discussion is simple:

What do you do about women and children in war now? 



Televised Salvation


CCLKOW’s discussion this week offers a different vision, literally and figuratively, to counter the horrors of extremist snuff propaganda and re-imagine the use of modern military capabilities. It challenges our discussants to consider in wholly new ways to approach the public brutality of our opponents, arguing that the best response is its opposite, kindness. Read the post, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Last week the world was justly horrified at the notion of the execution by fire of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lieutenant Moath al-Kasasbeh. I use “notion” particularly because the majority of those who stand opposed to the action eschewed exposure to the images. ‎I did not, because as a historian I must be willing to confront that which I seek to understand: the video was awful, but useful. (1) But even as societies shun the video, embedded within the perverse logic that peddles the horrific exhibition of carnage is the kernel of a counter strategy. The spectacle of relief by way of televised salvation; or rather, the operationalization of Combat HA/RTP.

The truth that must be accepted is that behind the gross displays of the ritualized execution of symbolic and specific targets, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have exacted a ruthless toll upon a disproportionate mass of civilians. Whether displaced or under siege, local populations have borne the brunt of the violence and chaos. Sinjar is famous, but it is not alone.

We are much in the habit these days of discussing the strategic narrative. But military operations are still too often reckoned in tactical tallies of sorties and targets. (2) There is little in any of that which portends victory, neither on the battlefield nor among the many audiences of concern in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. If taking control of the narrative in this fight is an objective, then a better story than the extremists’ grisly tales must be offered. Humanity, pursued with vigor, would offer a compelling narrative in contrast to the death cult fare. It would be a narrative sustained by the substance of real action and, better still, conveyed by the images of hope and deliverance.

The US particularly has every capability to manage the human dimensions such conflict-induced crises. In all respects it depends upon the strength of full-spectrum logistics. American forces dominate this field, to include expeditionary air mobility, housing, feeding and medical services, and as well the ability to provide security is a given. (3) I am imagining scalable, deployable units, tasked to protect and defend from environmental and enemy harm. Initial focus of application would be on the refugee and displaced populations, but there would be room to expand such operations to consider the provision of defense to those peoples whose political voice coalesces to request it.

None of this ignores the fact that defeat of the extremists will require some fighting, killing and dying. However, the more that is done to move opinion against them, the easier that task will be. It bears considering that perhaps the most important victories of the Cold War were humanitarian: the mighty strategic and political effort of the Marshall Plan and the symbolic tactical victory of the Berlin Airlift. Both acts of strategic kindness, the latter made famous by the iconic image of nothing more than a chocolate bar on a makeshift parachute. In this fight as well, while we have every means at our disposal to bring destruction, it may be that the better answer is in what salvation we choose to deliver.


So, for this week’s discussion questions:

What are the terms of a strategic narrative to defeat the extremist movements who trade in barbarity?

Do we need to reconsider how we use military forces? Is force their most effective capability?

Are American and Western political audiences willing to sacrifice life and treasure to defend others?



1 The worst of it is not the act, but always the coldness of the enemy in attendance. And, in this case, the bulldozer.

2 The Iraqi announcements are at least about ‎the fight for key strategic terrain, about retaking territory from an invading enemy.

3 In varying degrees the NATO allies share this capacity.


Simulposted at CCL KOW:


The Thin Red Line? Determining the Future of the British Armed Forces


Late last month, General Sir Nicholas Houghton delivered the annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. In his speech, Houghton reviewed the past twelve months of operations and expressed his hopes, concerns and anxieties for the year ahead. 2015 is set to be an exceptionally busy one in British politics with a General Election scheduled for May and a Spending Review. Critically for those in the armed forces, it is also time for another Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). SDSR 2015 will help determine the shape of British defence policy and the budget for the foreseeable future.

Houghton addressed many of the military’s perennial concerns (e.g. budget, allocation of resources, and how best to address emerging threats). However, he was most concerned about the state of civil-military relations. Over the past decade, Houghton believes that, ‘to varying degrees, government, parliament and society have become more cautious, nervous and anxious about the employment of military force.’ [1] Furthermore, ‘as a nation we [Britain] could have started to lose some of our courageous instinct: the instinct to risk and make sacrifices for our own security and the common good.’ [2] Throughout his speech, he stressed the need for the government and by extension, the public to clarify what role they wish the armed forces to play. Are they there to ‘mitigate risks from the narrow perspective of national necessity,’ or to serve a ‘grander ambition’? [3]

In the last SDSR in 2010, the government very clearly stated that, ‘our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions. We have a proud history of standing up for the values we believe in and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come.’[4] Be that as it may, the armed forces have felt the sting of severe cuts to both manpower and the budget over the last few years. Simultaneously, they are asked to meet growing security threats from both state and non-state actors. Consequently, the question as to their role remains open for debate.

The UK has long had global ambitions and defined itself within these terms. At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain was a superpower with an extensive empire. Even after the decline of that empire, the country’s leaders remained determined to maintain a place on the world’s stage. Following WWII, the UK entered a period of severe financial austerity not dissimilar to events since the financial crisis of 2008. Nevertheless, the British government still saw itself as a global power and a pivotal ally for new superpower, the United States. Moreover, the UK still had a vast array of defence commitments around the world. Determined to meet these responsibilities, the country fielded a large army that was principally maintained through conscription (National Service). Today, this is no longer politically viable. Since the end of the Cold War, a more transparent and less deferent society has emerged. The British public is no longer willing to enforce National Service. On the whole, we are also much more sensitive to the risks that military service entails, averse to the casualties that inevitably result from operations.

Having said that, the government’s ambitions remain big. Britain still perceives itself as a major partner to the US and a key country within defensive alliances like NATO. The country also remains the fifth largest spender on defence in the world. However, commentators have predicated that spending will begin to fall below 2 per cent GDP over the next few years. It is likely that further cuts will be made to both the overall defence budget and military manpower, with a greater reliance on the Reserves. [5]

The armed forces are currently in a state of flux. Too often, debates about this process remain largely within Whitehall and fail to engage the wider public effectively. As another election approaches, areas like health and education seem more pressing. In contrast, defence spending only becomes a concern when the need arises. However, the public should take an active interest in determining the direction of the armed forces and considering the issues outlined by Houghton. Whether comfortable with the idea or not, the armed forces play a key role in shaping perceptions of British identity internationally and this in turn shapes the state of UK security. Over the past century, the military has projected British ambitions abroad. From imperialism to humanitarianism, the state of the military says a great deal about Britain’s place in the world. What role should the Army, Navy and Air Force play over the next few decades? This is a question that urgently needs to be asked if the armed forces are to effectively reflect the values of the society, which they represent.




1 General Sir Nicholas Houghton, ‘Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture,’ Royal United Services Institute (17 December 2014).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review,’ HM Government (October 2010), Cm 7948, p. 3.

5 Malcolm Chalmers, ‘The Financial Context for the 2015 SDSR: The End of UK Exceptionalism?’ RUSI Briefing Paper (Sept. 2014), pp. 1-9; Ben Jones, ‘UK SDSR 2015: Same Ends, Less Means, New Ways,’ European Geostrategy (5 Nov. 2014); Paul Cornish and Andrew M Dorman, ‘Fifty shades of purple? A risk sharing approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review,’ International Affairs 89, Issue 5 (Sept. 2013), pp. 1183-1202.


The Prophet Chris Kyle and the Gospel of Force Protection


At the heart of the critique and backlash over “American Sniper” lurks an unchallenged assumption that his kills meant American lives were saved.

The controversy over criticism of the movie has achieved a level of temper that is rather quite shocking. Reaching the point of hurling death threats at those who have questioned the dominant narrative of heroism, perhaps the most iconic example is that of Sarah Palin’s appearance in a photograph shared through social media holding a poster which read “Fuc_ You, Michael Moore.” The O’s were rendered as rifle scope markings, as if to target the erstwhile director. (To be clear, I’ve never seen any of his movies and I’m not a particular fan.) This cannot be considered a case where a biased media has hyped an inopportune moment as she crowed about the message in her recent speech in Iowa. As well, the photograph feature as well Dakota Meyer, Medal of Honor recipient. He has since promoted the photograph and the poster as a message to Michael Moore.

Let us stop for a moment to reflect that a former Vice Presidential candidate (and possible future Presidential candidate, per her own recent statements) and a distinguished military hero have cheekily joked at the idea of killing Moore. Why? Because the latter had the temerity to question the heroism of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. No Charlie Hebdo cartoons will be tolerated about the icons and ideals they hold dear. It is a shocking backlash given the outcry for freedom of speech of late and makes clear the standard is “your beliefs, not mine” when it comes to critique. According to the Church of Appropriate American Patriotism, the heroic image of Chris Kyle is made sacred.

It is not my point, however, to attack the politicized deification of Chris Kyle or the seeming hypocrisy of our application of values such as free expression. I think it’s worth stating and understanding that where the rubber meets the road, most people hold others to standards they often fail to meet, it’s human. Rather, I am more concerned with the military content, and so the backlash is important here because of the underlying assumption regarding military utility that it requires. That content is in the foundations of Kyle’s heroism and their application in contemporary American conflict. This is important to getting at the second part of the title, the consuming fixation upon force protection which leads to the valuation of any acts which serve that end. Because we must be clear, the mantra has been that the significant portion of Kyle’s heroism pinned to the idea that he killed people who posed a tactical threat to American troops. Prospectively saving their lives ennobled his endeavours. And the high standards and training in the US Armed Forces meant that Kyle was an expert of significant consequence, making him a very effective hero under those terms.

Which brings us to the essential question of this piece: Did killing individuals in Iraq in such a fashion save American lives?

It is important to note that even as I ask this question, and intend to discuss its answer in the negative, that this is not about Chris Kyle or individual personnel, or their duly authorised actions in American conflicts. To the extent that American warfighting has gone awry, the problems are at the conceptual level. Kyle was a dedicated sailor, and he would have ably applied his skills in any way asked of him. The same can be said of the majority of his peers. Nor do I hold cheaply the lives of American personnel. If I question the wisdom of tactical force protection it is for the strategic implications, for the possibility that this posture in fact lengthens and deepens the conflict thus putting more personnel at risk in the bigger picture.

The matter of the strategic utility of tactical force is clearly on some American military minds. Last Friday Breaking Defense published the fantastic “Killing is not Enough: Special Operators,” by Sydney Freedberg, which looks at the force versus persuasion balance in that community of military practice. It should be taken as no small matter that leaders within TRADOC and US Army Special Operations Command are considering the wisdom of our exquisite tactical capabilities to kill. I am not alone in confronting this issue, nor the paradox that the better we become at killing the less effective we will be strategically. It is the problem of diminishing marginal returns, and it will be perverse and horrific because as technique improves to lesser success will only accelerate the cycle.

If we are not apt at the art of positive persuasion because we favor expertise in killing, we may pay an even higher price in negative persuasion. In his “8 Imperatives of COIN” I don’t think Stanley McChrystal expounds on a particularly revolutionary thought when he opined on the ramifications of body counting in local people’s wars.  One dead bad guy probably does more to recruit amongst the mourning community than the serve the tactical to strategic calculus. Even if it’s only two not ten who join in the wake of a personal loss, the war effort will still see itself in a negative cycle wherein every death prolongs the conflict.

Finally, it is also important to take account of how the message that heroism is defined by the value of American lives is taken by any given audience. Yes, innately, we all value our own above all. But is that a strategically useful message? Is it a message we want to shout and highlight at every opportunity? Who can be persuaded to our side if we trumpet the cheapness with which we hold their lives?

The history of people’s wars seems to bear out this calculus, with particular perniciousness at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. It is a peculiar consequence and an area that deserves more concerted study. It is certainly undeniable, however, that the US has not benefitted in the outcomes of its conflicts from the fantastic improvement in its tactical abilities since WWII. We kill bad guys and win battles with great facility, but we don’t seem to win the wars. Force, it seems, is generally become less effective, especially for the strong.

Which brings us back to Kyle’s heroism and why it would be useful to have an honest conversation around these issues. But if that question cannot even be asked because it risks offending and enraging a significant portion of the population then we have a real problem.


Colonel Panter-Downes: Not a Warrior Army?


Greetings readers. Welcome to another discussion piece provided by our British Army officer corresponding from America. Today’s piece challenges the rhetoric of warrior self-identification within the US Army particularly and its armed forces more broadly and questions its effects. I think there is something very poignant to questioning whether those ideals which are meant to describe the positive qualities of these institutions and their people may not in fact do more harm than good. And it further bears considering whether such an identity is necessary to serve military needs. Remember that when assembling the army which would go on to contend successfully against the British Army, as well as defeat at critical junctures, George Washington did not set exquisite ideals as his object, merely the utterly reasonable Respectable, in their discipline, skills, and behaviour.  And it is arguable that even accepting the improvements to military technique by the ranks, officers and units, the American military establishment retained that quality of performance until well into the 20th century. So, read the Colonel’s piece, check out the links to the Strategy Bridge conversation and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


The colonel looks left, he looks right, he checks his “six” and confirms, no warriors seem present. There are a lot of very hard-working staff officers masquerading as cubicle gophers, but apparently no warriors.

To be honest when I arrived here to be ensconced in the warm embrace of the US Army one of the bigger differences that I was expecting was that of the US Army’s Warrior Ethos.  As an outsider looking in from afar it is pervasive, but from the inside looking out the effect seems less certain. Indeed the recent CCLKOW and Strategy Bridge Twitter discussion on the military profession elicited but two tangential references to Warriors that I could find.

From the service publication, Army Leadership: “The Warrior Ethos refers to the professional attitudes and beliefs that characterize the American Soldier. It reflects a Soldier’s selfless commitment to the nation, mission, unit, and fellow Soldiers.” (ADRP 6-22, 3-21) While the Service Ethos is comprised of the entire list, those attributes pertaining on to the warrior are highlighted in bold below:

I am an American Soldier.

I am a Warrior and a member of a Team.

I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.                      

I will never accept defeat.                                       

I will never quit.                                                        

I will never leave a fallen comrade.            

 I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.

I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American soldier.

(ADRP 6-22 Fig 3-1)

The US military often refers to its personnel as “Warriors”, the recruiting brochures for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines I browsed last week all referred to their personnel in such terms. Many of the motivational posters that I see on the walls adorning my camp reference this warrior identity and LTG McMaster’s erudite 2014 Veterans Day address to Georgetown University explicitly referenced both a warrior identity and the warrior ethos. Yet in my day to day dealings I work with a fine bunch of professional men and women who are more like than not, to the men and women I serve with in the UK, and in the UK we certainly do not see ourselves as warriors.

We are divided in many ways both by the Atlantic and by a not so common language and culture where the differences can be slight but can lead to misunderstandings large. On arriving here in the United States it took me a while to realise that one cannot hire a car (but renting is permissible) and that while we both refer to ‘tea’ as a beverage one is hot, can be drunk with milk and sugar, and the other is cold and comes with ice-cubes and a life changing amount of fructose corn syrup. Perhaps this reference to ‘Warriors’ is of the same ilk? A different way of expressing a concept we have in the British Army; except the British Army does not have anything that corresponds to either the Soldier’s Creed or the Warrior’s Ethos. This is partly a reflection on the more tribal nature of the British Army where the identities and ethos are bound much more closely with the Regiment than with the organisation as a whole and partly cultural in that as a society we tend to prefer the implicit to explicit (we are the Nation that lacks a written constitution). I think however that it is also of form and function. We have toyed with the idea of a Soldier’s Creed before in discussions, but it jarred with who we are and there did not seem to be a need for it. The British Army does articulate Values and Standards (Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment), but not a creed per se and it does not explicitly inculcate a Warrior Ethos or identity.

In articulating its Values and Standards the British Army states: “It is operational effectiveness that requires the Army to have Values and Standards that are different from society – ‘need to be different’ not right to be ‘different’.” Herein is the heart of the matter. How different from society is its military? My perception prior to arriving here was that the US Army’s Warrior Ethos would be a marked departure from the British Army’s ethos, but its effect is much more understated than that, certainly where I work. But if my perception is that the US Army was very different, how far does that perception go? Is it widespread? At a time of growing debate on both sides of the Atlantic on the seeming growing rift between society and its military, as much a matter of scale as anything else, does the self-identification of the military as Warriors help or hinder in binding the military to society?

Warrior to me is more than being a soldier. A warrior to me lives to fight, a soldier fights for a living. The language of being a warrior is closely linked to the language of caste and status within societies (one thinks of Spartan warriors and Roman soldiers) and it seems to me that in self-identifying as warriors the US Army may be fostering a perception of itself as a breed apart from society as a whole that is entirely unintended, but very real.


So the questions for this week are:

Are we Warriors or are we military professionals?

Does the language and identification of Warriors separate us from wider society? If so, are the benefits of the identity worth that cost?



[Simultaneously posted at CCLKOW on Medium.]




“If You Tolerate This…”

“…then your children will be next” – the chorus of The Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 ode to (Welsh) foreign fighters going abroad (to Spain) to kill people (Fascists) because of their beliefs. It also happens to be the kind of sentiment that is currently driving anti-Islamic/immigrant demonstrations across Europe, most notably in Germany this week, many of whom were quick to jump on the killing of 12 people by Islamic terrorists in Paris 2 days ago. If you happen to be non-French and would like to get up to speed on French counter-terrorism, check out War Studies’ own Frank Foley, and his book “Countering Terrorism in Britain and France”.

Last night Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, gave a speech highlighting the attacks (full text) that displayed a degree of caution (“It is too early for us to come to judgements about the precise details or origin of the attack…”) as well as a call for, well, the sustainment of communications intercept powers granted in emergency legislation last year (“we need the capability to shine a light into the activities of the worst individuals who pose the gravest threats”). It is, in my mind, a decent speech – one that we should expect from a person in Parker’s role – and highlighted MI5’s commitment to oversight and accountability. It is also, I think, a speech that will persuade no-one who isn’t already a believer in this institutional commitment.

The bit I liked in Parker’s speech was a turn of phrase – “crude but potentially deadly plots” – to describe a number of recent attacks. You know, the ones defined as “lone wolf” attacks, or as the metaphor of the lone terrorist is now being stretched, “wolf pack” terrorism. Lone individuals can do a lot of damage – see Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski – but the spate of individuals committing murder in the name of Islam (much to the horror of many Muslims) is seen as a growing threat to the ordinary way of life in the West. Something must be done.

The reason I liked Parker’s turn of phrase is that he somewhat unintentionally put his finger on the limits of his service (and all security forces in democratic states). Almost every single adult is capable of carrying out a “crude but potentially deadly” terrorist attack. It doesn’t take much training to stab someone, like Roshanara Choudhry, who stabbed the MP Stephen Timms. If you ask any A&E doctor or nurse, they’ll probably give you a sober description of quite how fragile the human body is when it encounters sharp objects. Any society where humans possess some degree of agency will be full to the brim of people capable of “crude but potentially deadly” attacks on one another. Guns help, of course, as do explosives, and training. Restricting access to these is the right and proper function of a government. But nothing can save us, 100%, from our fellow citizens. The kind of society in which individuals could not replicate Kaczynski, Choudhry, et al would be a prison. As Rebecca Solnit wrote (on a different topic): “the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Unless a person cuts themself off from all human contact – like a hermit or sociopathic executive in an ad for premium London property – then they have to put up with imperfect safety from others.

There is little doubt in my mind that in the coming days and months politicians, analysts and securo-crats will offer up any number of “solutions” to lone wolf terrorism. Preventing general access to guns, explosives and training is good, but that will never stop the truly driven: nothing will. More to the point, there’s nothing that can prevent said lone individuals from taking cheap hits at society. Regardless of the motives of all involved, your average muslim waking up to find the internet flooded with offensive images of the prophet Mohammed is likely to be offended, just as if Christians were to wake up to a billion re-tweets of mocking death metal depictions of Jesus, or if atheists wake up to find the world’s papers full of images celebrating executions for blasphemy around the world. All that offence and division from a single attack, conducted by a handful of people. That said, such offence isn’t a knock out blow, and for the life of me, I can’t see how lone individuals ever could land one.

The point, I think, is that democracy survives on the tensions that states with blasphemy laws seek to eradicate. Most average people can reconcile the right to free speech and the general principle of “don’t be an offensive idiot” (Ross Douthat has a great piece on Blasphemy re Paris here). Democratic states are all the better for that, even if it does mean that, from time to time, cowards will murder people in cold blood. We tolerate the latent threat of our fellow citizens to our own lives, and those of our children, because there is no way to eradicate it without changing the fundamental principles of freedom that underpin our society.


‘If you can keep your head': Some intriguing reading for a new year

Hello, Dear Reader. Have you noticed just how swell 2015 is so far? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and all that, I suppose.

Today I want to share three pieces of writing that have come out recently. They are all worthy of your reading, albeit for different reasons.

1. James Fallows’s “The Tragedy of the American Military” in The Atlantic.  This is a compelling piece of long-form journalism.  It goes beyond the usual platitudes and begins to get at the underlying challenges facing not only civil-military relations in the US, but also with American foreign and defence policy and practice in general.  Fallows’s characterisation of America as a ‘Chickenhawk Nation’ is powerful, and to my mind, largely justified.  That is not to say that Fallows gets it all correct; I, for one, am not a fan of the idea of a return to compulsory military service.  However, Fallows does include, in his blog, a number of the comments and critiques shared by a number of his readers.  The article and the responses are well worth your attention.

As this is an academic blog (how could we forget that, Dear Reader?), I would say that what Fallows says is not new.  Andrew Bacevich, for instance, has covered, in scholarly detail, the issue of American militarism in a number of books.  I would recommend his (originally published in 2005) aptly titled The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced By War.  Christopher Coker’s Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict treats the various roles that the military has played, across times and cultures in more detail than Fallows can in the beginning of his article .

2.   Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton’s “The Calm Before the Storm” in Foreign Affairs.   I found this article, like most of Taleb’s writing, to be simultaneously intriguing, thought provoking, and incredibly annoying.  The idea that stability, in and of itself, should not be seen as the ‘be all and end all’, as it often masks (what Taleb calls elsewhere) ‘silent risks’, is both wise and timely.  Perhaps even more important is Taleb’s reminder that prediction (based on an assumption of predictability) is not as important (or possible) as flexibility.  Amen.  However, the application of this idea to ‘everything’ from teacups, to bodybuilders, to firms, to economies, to ecologies, to geopolitics cannot be assumed to hold true, at least not without serious empirical proof (and not just endless ‘thought experiment’ and mathematical QED ad infinitum).  This article is a follow on to Taleb’s previous Foreign Affairs article of 2011, and an extension of his longer, most recent book Antifragile.  While the shorter length of the article means that some of the key concepts are glossed over, at least we are spared the unbearable snark that almost drowns out the strong thinking in the fuller, book-length treatments.

3.  Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s “The World is Not Falling Apart” in Salon.  If we are to follow Kipling’s suggestion and not panic in the face of seemingly dismal and disintegrating circumstances, then perhaps reading Pinker and Mack’s piece is just the thing.  According to the authors, the world is not coming to an end.  Indeed, across any number of indices, we have never had it so good.  I can not help but agree with the conclusion, “an evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits”, but at the same time, it is somehow hard to be convinced.  The ‘data’ don’t fit the worldview, and vice versa.  I am sure this an indication of a deep-seated shortcoming on my part.  The read was instructive, though, for it highlights that emotions, first impressions, and the ‘facts’ are not always in alignment (as my astrologer reminds me on a daily basis).  Take a look and I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to make up your own mind.

Here’s to another 356 days of 2015, whatever they bring.


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.


‘O four-foot brother': Onolatry at Christmas Time

Well hello there, Dear Reader.  Yes, it has been a long time.   Technical problems (which, you won’t be surprised, baffled all of us historians and social scientists here at KOW) have kept us from our (self) appointed rounds.  That ends today.

I wanted to post something timely, something that combined both the Yuletide and subject matter near and dear to the Kings of War readership.    I’ve done it before, and some of those posts, upon my re-reading them–with a smallish sherry in my hand–seem worthy of re-posting.  Consider this one the Post of Christmas Past.  Just as good today as it was when it was first written, I dare say.

In that vein, you almost got a story about the effect of surveillance on the thorny problem of pecan theft, but I thought better of it.  What with North Korea and all the rest, I reckoned you would have had enough about nuts this year.

I could have done a bit on the fable-ulous WWI Christmas truce footie match, but everybody’s doing that just now.  Besides, you can see original footage below. Don’t those men look old, Dear Reader?  There is an interesting story behind this film, about how an alliance of four unlikely companions was put asunder by the actions of one reckless outsider.  The result was, simply put, terrible; the implications would plague the world for decades to come.  The horror.  Beyond describing, really.  Wings.  The Travelling Wilburys.  It makes me shudder just to think about it, so much so that I need another small(ish) sherry to just to screw up enough courage to carry on.

So, no Dear Reader, neither nuts nor football for you today, I am afraid.  So what, I hear you cry, what instead?  By way of answer to that I have but two words: Donkeys.

[Yes, donkeys.  Donkey would be one word–more than one is donkeys.  ‘Are’ donkeys.]

Donkeys are very much tied up with the Christmas story. (Although one would rather not comment on this particular specimen, if you don’t mind terribly.)  Some versions have it that Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey and that a donkey was present in the manger when the ‘Reason for the Day Off’ was born.  As a matter of fact, donkeys are implicated in the stories of both the beginning and the end of Jesus’s life: he rode to Jerusalem on a donkey on what would be known as Palm Sunday.  Donkey here stands for humble and lowly.  All good things to keep in mind at Christmas.

Donkeys, too, are immensely involved in military affairs, not as mounts, but as beasts of burden.  Used from Antiquity (the Egyptians and Roman armies were famous for their use of these hardy animals), they are still in use today, in areas such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.  There are legendary tales of those attending Quetta staff college needing to master the mathematics of donkey to ammunition to fodder ratios as the logistics component of their final exercise.  There are even plans to create robotic pack-‘animals’, modeled on…can you guess?  [Seriously?!  What have I been prattling on about for the last four hundred words, Dear Reader.  Yes, very good: donkeys.]  Donkey here stands for reliable and robust.  Both very good attributes for things martial.

Military donkeys are not restricted to utilitarian purposes, though: thanks to my subscription to Modern Farmer, I read recently a touching story of rendition, whereby US Marines kidnapped a donkey from Fallujah and took it home to Iowa in 2008, where it died four years later.  The Australian army has its own myth, that of Simpson and his donkey, who together rescued wounded soldiers at Gallipoli.  Donkey here stands for friendly and faithful.

Of course, there are more pejorative connotations for donkeys, too.  Old King Midas had his ears turned into those of a donkey by the god Apollo and Pinocchio suffers the same fate in Disney’s 1940 film.  Apocryphal or not, no one can (thanks in part to books like this one) think of the British Army of the First World War without conjuring up an image of ‘lions led by donkeys’. Donkey here stands for stubborn and stupid.

But for all its association with simplicity and plodding, there is a sinister side to donkeys, too.  They have been used as delivery systems for IEDs in Lebanon (1985), in the West Bank and Gaza (1995-2014), in Iraq (2004), and in Afghanistan (2009, 2013).  Interestingly, one of the earliest uses of exploding donkeys is attributed to the Union Army in the New Mexico campaign in 1862.

So, Dear Reader, do not  think badly of our friend Equus asinus this Christmas.  Bear in mind, perhaps, G.K. Chesterton’s donkey, who rises above the usual humble portrayal, to say

Fools! For I also had my hour

And from hour, we move to years, which also has a donkey connection via a process of hemiteleia, which allows me to wish you, one and all, in my own right and on behalf of my fellow contributors here at Kings of War, the very best for the rest of 2014 and a safe and rewarding 2015.