Strategies of the Artificial: The Machine View of Strategy and its Consequences

(Editor’s note: Adam Elkus is a PhD student at George Mason University working on computation and strategy)

Recently, KCL’s Kenneth Payne published an article on the potential meaning of artificial intelligence for future strategy. Some of the complexities of tackling this science fiction-esque topic lie in the duality of AI itself as a scientific discipline. While many believe that AI is a discipline oriented around the engineering of synthetic intelligence, one should also note that it has also alternatively claimed that doing so will help us understand human (and other forms of) intelligence. For example, Herbert Simon and Alan Newell’s General Problem Solver was an endeavor with relevance for both AI and cognitive science. Simon and Newell derived the idea of means-end reasoning from a view of human problem solving and implemented it programmatically in a way that could be mechanized by a machine. The same holds true for artificial neural networks as well, which are based somewhat on ideas from computational neuroscience and much more so on engineering utility for problems in machine learning.

Payne and his co-author Kareem Ayoub focus in particular on the use of games and microworlds to develop AI systems:

More complex scenarios than Atari games are possible. Microworlds are abstract representations used by the military to assist in strategic decision-making. They have been used to conceptualise the terrain, force deployment, enemy responses and movements. The use of modular AI in this example domain allows users to create their own microworld simulation with its own rules of play and run limitless iterations of possible events. Jason Scholz and his colleagues found that a reinforcement-learning based AI outperformed human counterparts in these microworld wargames. Their ability to do this rested on two factors: (1) the machine could go through rounds much faster than a human counterpart, and (2) the machine could process every possible move simultaneously, providing previously unseen recommendations.  Allowing that many military campaigns can be dimensionally reduced to microworlds – indeed many tabletop staff college exercises do precisely that – such an approach with modular AI proves valuable for rapid iteration of potential options.

A worthy addition to this observation, however, is that microworlds such as strategy games presume a certain view of human problem-solving behavior that is relatively new to strategic theory. [0] Consider the machine representation of chess, the most famous strategic game played by humans and computers. Like game theory, chess is can be visualized via extended-form representation, as seen in images like this:


The minimax algorithm visualizes strategy in terms of how both “min” and “max” players connect the initial moves to the payoff values in the terminal nodes at the bottom of the tree. The goal of min is to force the max player to the lowest payoff. Conversely, max would like to receive the highest payoff value. For a full explanation of minimax, readers are advised to consult the nearest friendly neighborhood game theorist, such as political scientist Phil Arena.  [1] Yet despite the fact that zero-sum games in game theory and chess share the same basic representation and solution concept, they diverge in one peculiar way.

The following image does not build the full game tree; notice that it only partially encompasses it:


This is due to the problem of how chess is represented on a machine; building the full game tree would be intractable due to the sheer size of the game. Moreover, a chess program would not be able to reason about other games that lack chess’ peculiar characteristics. [2] Two methods that have been commonly used to explain how humans and machines deal with chess’ sheer complexity are knowledge representation and search:

Given the relatively slow rate at which moderately skilled players can generate analysis moves, estimated in Charness (1981b) to be about four moves per minute, it is obvious that much of the time that human players spend is not in generating all possible moves (perhaps taking a move per second) but in generating moves selectively and using complex evaluation functions to assess their value. Computer chess programs can achieve high-level play by searching many moves using fast, frugal evaluation processes that involve minimal chess knowledge to evaluate the terminal positions in search. Deep Blue, the chess program that defeated World Champion Garry Kasparov in a short match in 1997, searched hundreds of millions of positions per second. Today’s leading microcomputer chess programs, which have drawn matches with the best human players, have sophisticated search algorithms and attempt to use more chess knowledge but still generate hundreds of thousands or millions of chess moves per second. Generally,   chess programs rely on search more heavily than knowledge; for humans it is the reverse. Yet, each can achieve very high performance levels because knowledge and search can trade off (Berliner & Ebeling, 1989).

Both knowledge and search, however, stem from the same fundamental way that old-school cognitive scientists and computer scientists define the problem of strategy, which is very different how the strategic studies profession views it. First, let us note therepresentation of game states as a hierarchal tree that proceeds from most abstract to most primitive; it takes us the entire time to move from the top of the tree to the end of the game and the actual payoffs. Another example can be found in the way in which hierarchal task network planning algorithm in AI begins with composite tasks and breaks them down until the algorithm reaches simple actions, which vaguely corresponds to distinctions of strategy and tactics known to Kings of War readers:


Computer-literate readers will also notice the similarity to this tree structure and the directory structure on a computer filesystem. [3]


Why does it make sense to view the world as a tree that moves from most general to most specific? This is an interesting topic about which a good deal of intellectual history was been written. Broadly speaking, it is not surprising that Cold War-era efforts to optimize hierarchally organized systems such as military bureaucracies produced a view of the world as a hierarchally decomposed tree. But that in and of itself does not fully explain the choice of representation. Ontologies, taxonomies, and other forms of hierarchal knowledge representation are common in science and philosophy. What computing did was make them dynamic processes. The interaction or composition of components produced behavior.

George Miller, the famous cognitive scientist, produced a book titled Plans and the Structure of Behavior. In contrast to behaviorist conceptions that did not envision much of an intermediary structure between stimulus and behavior, Miller and his counterparts in AI argued that the internal organization of cognition could tell us much about the outward manifestations of complex behaviors. Hence, it makes sense to study chess players in terms of how they organize their knowledge and search processes, as such internal representation could tell us much about how they are capable of producing complex strategies.

While deep neural networks are often viewed as oppositional to this broadly cognitivist view, this is not necessarily the case. [4] After all, one sees hierarchal representations (albeit defined highly differently) frequently in deep learning research. Hierarchal representations are key to recent research in reinforcement learning as well. And hierarchies also appear quite frequently in both AI work on evolving neural networks and neuroscience research on computation in the brain. Finally, one should also note that hierarchy (differing levels of abstraction) and modularity (different functions) appear to be one of the more interesting explanations for what ideas about animal behavior have in common with computing.

The consequences of this view are that the principal problems of strategy, seen computationally, lie in computational limitations.

The main problem for action selection is combinatorial complexity. Since all computation takes both time and space (in memory), agents cannot possibly consider every option available to them at every instant in time. Consequently, they must be biased, and constrain their search in some way. For AI, the question of action selection is: what is the best way to constrain this search? For biology and ethology, the question is: how do various types of animals constrain their search? Do all animals use the same approaches? Why do they use the ones they do?  …. Ideally, action selection itself should also be able to learn and adapt, but there are many problems of combinatorial complexity and computational tractability that may require restricting the search space for learning.

The core problem with a computational view of strategic behavior is that it views strategy in terms of the interface between an “outer environment” and an “inner environment.” If the inner environment of an artifact is well adapted to the outer environment that surrounds it, it will serve its purpose. In other words, if, say, the Department of Defense is able to configure its force structure and military operational concepts to meet the threat of X or Y adversary, its “inner environment” is well-adapted to realize the intended purpose of war and defense. This sort of view of strategy and defense underlies both systems analysis and net assessment, though net assessment is far more qualitative and eclectic. It also underlies the idea of ends, ways, and means held by many strategists – we must find the correct configuration of ways (actions) and means (resources) to meet the desired end. [5]

Let us contrast this to a more classical view of strategy, which would see strategy as the way in which a political community finds a way of fulfilling a desired purpose through the instrumental usage of violence. Here, the problem is not really the combinatorial complexity of searching for a path to the goal or optimizing a utility function, but in the difficult process of using social action to achieve a desired end. First, the end might be contested or ambiguously defined. As KCL PhD candidate Nick Prime and I noted, many strategic ends are essentially compromises and products of fractious politics. Second, what it means to fulfill it is always fairly uncertain during the actual process of strategy formulation.

Mathematically measured criteria are useful for measuring the distance between intention and goal, but metrics of progress depend on highly subjective definitions of not only the goal but also what it means to realize it. Defining the problem in Vietnam, for example, in terms of eradicating enemy infrastructure in South Vietnam presumes that the most important problem lies in Vietcong “shadow governments” that erode power and authority. This is a highly contestable view of the problem, because a combination of targeted killings and the toll of the failed Tet Offensive wiped out enemy infrastructure inside South Vietnam and we still failed to achieve our strategic goals.

Computation is likely a very useful model for thinking about strategy, especially (as Ayoub and Payne do) from a machine’s point of view. But it should also be observed just how alien this view is from the perspective of classical strategy, and recognized that no model is the territory. As a computer modeler, I never assume that any abstractions I build for coursework are anything but reductions of the “real” thing. [6] As computers become more and more present in strategy and command, we should keep these thoughts and the distinctions they suggest in mind. But is there any middle ground?

One meeting ground between the “system” view of strategy and the more humanistic view can be found potentially in the idea of “control” expressed by J.C. Wylie and others.

Control denotes the utility of strategy being found in the way in which an agent is able to manipulate the key features of the environment in a way that advantages the strategist and disadvantages the opponent. The classical view of computation and behavior in AI and cognitive science has been opposed by another set of views that de-emphasizes elaborate internal representation and emphasizes the way in which interaction with the environment produces intelligent behavior. [7]

The environment defines a relation between environmental object and an organism that affords the organism with the capability to perform a certain action. Control of the sea, for example, affords certain strategic capabilities that airpower and landpower does not, and vice versa. The simplest way of designing a mobile robot around its environment, for example, would start with basic behaviors (if X stimulus, perform Y action) and then utilize more complex control structures to inhibit or favor certain behaviors based on the situation. One behavior might be privileged over another even if they both correspond to the same environmental input. Hence, by changing the nature and pattern of the environment to your advantage, you in term exert control over your opponent. If I am playing hide-and-seek with a TurtleBot, for example, I can thwart my Dalek-like adversary if I re-arrange the topology of my apartment as to frustrate it in numerous ways. [8]

Food for thought, certainly. Meanwhile I will continue to dump Golang code into my ParrotAR in the vain hope that I can engineer a taco copter to deliver me tacos while I do research. I at least know that robots can deliver coffee, which is a good start. I can live without tacos but its hard to see how a PhD student can be “intelligent” without any coffee.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a 2015-2016 New America Foundation fellow in NAF’s Cybersecurity Initiative. He writes on strategy, technology, and other subjects while finding time to ponder how a drone can deliver tacos to his domicile.

[0] It is rather old in the social and behavioral sciences as well as other fields. See Margaret Boden’s Mind as Machine for a good history of the cognitive science view. Lawrence Freedman and Nils Gilman have aptly covered the social science literature.

[1] You can use Manhattan distance or some other metric to compute what is “near” in this statement.

[2] Chess and machines have a very old and interesting history. For more, see this handy overview of computer chess.

[3] This is a representation of the UNIX filesystem structure. See this article for an overview of the distinction between Linux and Windows filesystems. Linux and Mac OSX also differ in their interpretations of the basic UNIX structure. For more, see this and this.

[4] Connectionism (known as the Parallel Distributed Processing research program) in artificial intelligence and cognitive science is a different level of analysis. To see how the classical conception of AI and cogsci perceives mind, consult the physical symbol systems hypothesis.

[5] Indeed, Ends-Ways-Means can be viewed as a kind of organizational programming, as implied by Antulio Echevarria here and stated more bluntly by Christopher Paparone here.

[6] For a dense look at the philosophy of simulation, I recommend Manuel De Landa’s book on “synthetic reason.”

[7] It’s worth noting that the answer to understanding rationality probably lies in a combination of both. See this recent overview of new work in neuroscience and AI.

[8] There are two design strategies in AI, broadly. Make a simple organism that can be effective in a range of environments or build a highly brittle and complicated system for a well-defined environment. See Poole and Mackworth for more.


Britain’s stupidest war*

A great fuss is being made over the speech by Labour shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn in yesterday’s House of Commons debate over bombing in Syria. Watch for yourself, if you like, or I’ll paraphrase:

Islamic State is bad, super bad, Mussolini bad.

We should do something. Not something adequate. But something.

If we don’t then we’ll look stupid and weak and our friends will be sad.

Now face the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station…err, well maybe a dozen or so 30 year old RAF Tornados!

I can’t fathom the acclaim for it.

First, attacking Islamic state in Syria does nothing to prevent attacks here in Europe. This argument has been so comprehensively debunked that I can hardly believe anyone still tries it on.

Second, yes, sure we are at war with a mood in the Islamic world of sullen resentment that we might as well call Islamic fascism, though really I’m not sure that Benn really grasped that this was the phrase he was resurrecting. Next up: it’s a crusade? But you can’t go name check Hitler and Mussolini and wax lyrical about this island’s brave stand against tyranny and then pretend that a few more British  bombers in the Middle East is any sort of proportionate response. People may be somnolent and distracted but they’re not so stupid as to miss the giant gap between rhetoric and action.

Third, going to war against an enemy in this desultory fashion that by design can never lead to victory just puts them under a natural selection pressure that insures that they evolve into something more nasty and resilient. Have we literally learned nothing from the last 15 years? How many times does it have to be said that you can’t fight wars amongst the people without being actually amongst them?

Fourth, why does it not seem to worry everyone who voted for bombing that the countries of the region that have more than enough power to deal with Islamic state actually don’t seem to care all that much about it? They’re more concerned with Houthi militiamen allegedly propped up by Persian bogeymen.

So, let’s take stock of the situation. We have no plausible aim. Therefore there is no meaningful strategy. In any event the means available are inadequate. We have very little knowledge of those whom we’ll be killing. And we have very little knowledge of those upon whose supposed behalf we’ll be doing it. The commitment of our friends to the effort is as guarded and ambiguous as our own while the commitment of our enemies is seemingly quite total. Meanwhile, every country in the region is playing a double or triple game. Basically everybody is lying to everyone else but the biggest dummies are lying to themselves.

I’m sure it will all work out great.

I do suppose though it makes bad war it’s probably good political theatre in a junior school sort of way. Jeremy Corbyn’s forced to sit on a tack. Haha! And when it comes Britain’s turn to suffer a Beslan-Mumbai-Nairobi-Utoya-Paris style attack, as it inevitably will, Westminster will claim it did all it could.

*actually, I don’t know. We’ve had a lot of wars, many quite stupid but this one really ranks up there.

btw, buy my book. It explains everything.


To Bomb, or Not to Bomb?

Should the UK bomb IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria? That is, go above and beyond killing our own citizens in “self defence”. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, says yes, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and the opposition, says no. The fact that the lethal component to any aerial campaigns in Syria will border on insignificance is, from the looks of things, inconsequential. I think I’m in the “containment” camp (e.g. something like: prevent ISIS from taking more territory, propping up the Iraqi government, but otherwise not committing to extensive military operations in Iraq and Syria) and here’s why.

Problem One: “Defeat ISIS” is an aspiration, not a strategy

On the whole, I think Corbyn (alongside dissident Conservatives) is right: the articulated plan to “degrade and defeat” ISIS is both woolly and ill-conceived. What, if anything, will an increased tempo of airstrikes achieve? How will the UK’s minimal contribution to this effort change the overall character or pace of the campaign? The problem here is that I don’t think anyone has quite worked out what IS is, and how it relates to the UK. In the words of Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro: “Is it [IS] a tremendously well-resourced terrorist group that controls substantial territory, which it uses to plan attacks, vet operatives and manage a complex financial network? Or is it a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks?” If IS is a fledgling nation-state, then containment works (sortof, in the long run, with the likelihood of international terrorist plots in the meantime), since IS is very bad at actually being a state so there’s good reason to believe it will collapse at some future point in time. Until states can agree on a set of political aims beyond “beat the bad guys” it’s probably best not to tilt headlong into a situation that is already bad, and likely to get worse before it gets better.

More to the point, “defeating” ISIS would require urban warfare, either through proxies (the vaunted 70k non-extreme militia) or through the commitment of western forces (Uh, not gonna happen). We have all the precision-guided munitions in the world, but while that might disrupt and degrade ISIS’s ability to act, that is quite different from defeating or destroying the organisation. The west lacks the political will to commit large scale forces to the defeat of ISIS (for some reason, the public got fed up after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) and it’s probable that ground forces would fan the flames of the Syrian conflict, if anything. One doesn’t have to read far into academic literature on strategy to figure that a divisive conflict, far away, with lofty goals but an unclear aim (and decisive means foreclosed), is unsustainable.

Problem Two: There is no neutral option

I am signed up to the Colin Powell school of thought: you broke it, you own it. I’m also fully signed up to the fact that if the UK contributes ISR assets to a military campaign, then it doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger, we’re still on the hook for whatever happens. From this perspective, the fact that the UK is conducting strikes in Iraq and helping out in Syria means that we are already responsible for acts of violence on both sides of the border. At the same time, there is no violence-free option available to the UK. If we do nothing (as in, pack up our planes and go home) then violence still exists in the region – packing up and going home shunts responsibility for doing something about it to our erstwhile allies, or worse, gives the worst perpetrators of violence in the region license to go about their business of brutally suppressing populations and dissent. I think that it’s at least arguable that nothing we can do now will save us from an unfavourable judgement by generations to come. After all, we stood by and watched while IS erased substantial elements of the common heritage of humankind with high explosives. Whatever happens, therefore, we’re still involved, somehow, even if that means packing up all our kit and taking it home with us. The “act/don’t act” binary (pushed on both sides, I might add) is therefore a sham. Moreover, the UK might be a target of IS, but it’s always going to be a target of IS (and like groups). Free will means that we don’t get to pick who is allowed to dislike us. All the above pushes towards some form of engagement for the UK – we lose more by walking away than staying involved in the US coalition, but this doesn’t necessitate committing ourselves to trying to eradicate ISIS beyond what we’re already doing. The symbolic value of overturning the commons vote against action in Syria would send a message, but the action that follows from it wouldn’t change a thing. Better, in my view, to re-assert our existing commitment with America, and if necessary throw more resources in, rather than committing to a lofty goal that appears impossible with current (or projected) means.

At the end of the day: someone has to pull the trigger

My ultimate unease at widening attacks on IS into Syria relates to my equal unease at British strikes within Iraq. All the high-minded arguments about the ins and outs of international politics and grand strategy boil down to someone, somewhere, being asked to kill human beings, and bear that experience with them for the rest of their life. This doesn’t change if they’re sitting at the controls of a UAV back here in blighty, soaring over the deserts of Iraq, or if they happen to be holding a rifle and face to face with their target. I think that’s a lot to ask of a person. Thankfully, we have an all-volunteer force so some of the moral questions relating to compelling people to kill are at least ameliorated. Still, the political impulse to “do something” in the face of a Gordian knot tends to ignore the fact that service personnel aren’t toys. For all the talk of drones reducing war to a “video game mentality” (which is disproved in most serious takes on the subject), the political reduction of the armed forces to an intercontinental screwdriver is worse. I think there is a clear role for violence in both Iraq and Syria, but the goal of pushing IS out of Iraq, and attempting to prop up and strengthen that state (and perhaps cajole the Iraqi government into rapprochement with its Sunni population) is achievable. Is there a role for expanding strikes in Syria to achieve this? Definitely. But this should be predicated on the political aim of protecting and stabilising Iraq, not on taking us into an indefinite war against a proto-state that we haven’t figured out how to deal with. Articulating this (limited) goal is far more preferable in my mind to lofty goals with total aims.

Anything that looks like a joint campaign with Russia is a really bad idea

The polite way of putting this is that “proportionality” is a subjective concept that has no precise basis in international law, and is therefore an expression of national military cultures and their interpretations of international humanitarian law treaties. The impolite way of putting this is that Russia doesn’t give a toss about killing civilians in the pursuit of military objectives. At the time of writing, Air Wars has tracked just over 8500 US coalition strikes, killing a claimed 20,000 IS fighters, while also killing between 682 and 2057 civilians in the process. At the same time:

Airwars presently assesses 44 Russian incidents as having likely killed civilians in Syria to October 30th – which between them reportedly killed 255 to 375 non-combatants. This is roughly ten times the level of credible allegations against US-led Coalition operations in Syria.

Whatever disagreements campaigners may have with the US or UK government over the conduct of aerial warfare, targeting and precaution, I think both would agree that no-one wants a Russian-style air campaign. The problem is, if the US-led coalition escalates a large scale aerial campaign against IS in Syria, and Russia also strikes IS in Syria, the two campaigns will not only become functionally indistinguishable to those on the ground, but also to audiences worldwide. It really won’t matter if we take every precaution possible under the sun, wait 72 hours for someone to drive a Toyota into an abandoned road before killing them with a bomb, or conduct battlefield assessments to make sure that no-one else got hurt, if at the same time the Russian air force piles in and bombs an urban area without guided munitions. The US (and potentially, the UK) could say “It wasn’t me” until they’re blue in the face, but all the world is really going to care about is the headline civilian casualty count, which isn’t going to distinguish between us and the Russians (or, for that matter, the Syrian government). With this in mind, restricting the use of lethal force to areas that the Russians don’t operate in is a good way of maintaining some sort of distinction between us and them. Even if we part “own” strikes by the US, the UK could still maintain a semblance of narrative distance from Russian attacks.

Conclusion: Whoever wins, the UK loses

This is pretty much a foregone conclusion. We will spend money, effort and time killing people in an attempt to achieve a more-just state of affairs than the one that preceded it, in the midst of a region dominated by religious governments that are completely illiberal and, on the whole, antithetical to the core values of western democracies. Walking away doesn’t work because Russia and China would probably be there to take our place, which leaves long term engagement, which is messy. Note here that I am talking about governments, not people. If we could treat populations as indivisible from those that rule them, then the choices on offer would be a lot simpler. We know, however, that the societies living under theocracy and autocracy contain many people who, like us, just want to get along with their lives, rather than export their own brand of religion across the region. Those people tend to face persecution or execution (hi Saudi Arabia!), calling into question every single element of ongoing engagement. Nonetheless, we must engage, somehow. The extent to which we engage may be a reflection of circumstance, but it always remains a choice. The question is whether we double-down for no apparent reason and nail ourself to a cross of “Defeat ISIS” or whether we continue muddling along, trying to do our best with what is available to us. I’m for the latter, until a better option presents itself.


CCLKOW: Call out the Militia!

Today in CCLKOW we are reorienting you to the homeland and the problems of interoperability between police and the armed forces. Even without the Paris Attacks earlier this month, the subject of mastering the ‘JIIM’ environment is critical, both in military operations at home and abroad. To discuss this, I am very happy to bring to you a special guest writer, Ian Wiggett, recently retired as an Assistant Chief Constable from Greater Manchester Police. It should be understood, then, that this piece is written from the British perspective, which includes a significant difference with respect to the use of force by the police, particularly as concerns the generally disarmed stance. Nevertheless, the issue of integrating a military response to an attack to the homeland matters even to the US. Although the matter of Posse Comitatus would seem to forestall the use of the regular forces domestically, this matter has never been tested against any significant threat. And in fact, even as it was ultimately tabled, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the military role in homeland defence was put on the table for serious debate. It is also worth noting that the American disdain for soldiers operating in the homeland is a legacy of our British heritage, and so to a similar degree the use of the armed forces in domestic circumstances is discomfiting on this side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, although they come under the control of the Governors, the National Guard formations of the individual states are trained as military, not police, forces. Thus, even in the American setting, how the armed forces will act in support of local, state, or even federal law enforcement remains a challenge. Alternatively, should the terrorist threat upon the European Continent reach sufficient proportions, it is not out of the realm of the possibility for recourse to NATO forces to be contemplated. Finally, as the importance of security and stabilization campaigns rise, the ability to work with civilian authorities will become more important. If the problems have not been hashed out for homeland defence, it is very unlikely they will succeed in foreign contingencies. Thus, the locus of operations of the armed forces has shifted and it is time to give serious thought to the issues. Read the piece, consider the implications and questions posed, and join the conversation on Twitter, at #CCLKOW and, it is hoped, the newly launched hashtag for policing discussion, #WeCops. — Jill S. Russell


First, some history…

Military Assistance to the Civil Powers (MACP) – also known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) – has existed for centuries.  In the days before a regular civilian police force existed, it was only the military that had the numbers, organisation and capability to restore order and maintain control.  That was, indeed, the role of the militia: a body of soldiers that could be raised at short notice to provide homeland defence.  It was the militia in North America that provided the backbone of the Revolutionary Army, and after independence, the United States retained the militia as the National Guard.

The original concept of “MACP” was therefore built around the military, either militia or regulars, being the force of last resort to restore and maintain the Peace.  Use of force (or at least, show of force) was central to that.  Armed soldiers putting down the insurrection – and casualties and collateral damage were expected.


The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, 1819. Contemporary cartoon, Cruikshank

The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, 1819.
Contemporary cartoon, Cruikshank

The folk memory does not easily or quickly forget the intervention of armed forces.  The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is still invoked to inspire radicalism in Manchester, and the impact of that violent suppression is generally acknowledged as leading to further radicalism and ultimately to wider reform.  The Easter Rising in Dublin involved only a relatively small number of republican combatants, but the violence of the military response arguably pushed many towards the cause of independence.  In South Wales mining communities Churchill is known not as a wartime Prime Minister, but as the Home Secretary who had sent troops against striking miners in 1911.


Troops deployed in support of local police to suppress striking miners, Rhondda Valley, 1910-11

Troops deployed in support of local police to suppress striking miners, Rhondda Valley, 1910-11

History therefore suggests that the relationship between the people and the military has to be managed carefully.  Too much force, applied clumsily, may achieve its immediate objective of quelling a riot – but the lasting impact may be far more damaging to the established order.  The ‘silent majority’ are very grateful that the forces of law and order (whether dressed in blue or green) have made it safe for them to walk the streets and sleep soundly at night.  But if too many skulls are cracked, that ‘silent majority’ can quickly change sides.


How does MACP/MACA work today?

Military Assistance to the Civil Authorities (MACA) falls into three main types.  The first is simply about extra manpower and equipment to help deal with emergencies such as flooding, heavy snow, evacuations, etc.  The military can bring in large numbers people and specialist equipment or skills at short notice.  Filling sandbags to protect critical sites from flooding.  Moving people away from flooded homes.  Helicopters transporting vital supplies.  Building temporary bridges. This is also known as Military Assistance to the Civil Community.   The military also step in when critical services are threatened by industrial action.  Recent examples include fuel deliveries, firefighting, and ambulances.  This is also referred to as Military Assistance to Government Departments.

A second category, closely linked to the first, is the provision of additional or specialist support which may not be available to the civilian authority.  Installing communications equipment in remote areas, deploying radar or aerial photography, for example.  Both the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games used military staff to provide searching and access control.  There are long standing arrangements for handling of explosives and munitions, and until recently the military air sea rescue service worked frequently with local police forces and mountain rescue.

This all has to be paid for, of course.  Whilst the military may be very willing to offer their help, the MoD will want to know which authority to recover their costs from.  This has caused delays in the past, with civilian authorities sometimes being reluctant to call in military because of the costs, and/or arguing over which authority would be responsible for paying. Somewhat of a challenge if the emergency was due to an act of God!

Things have moved on considerably in recent years, with a much wider understanding that protecting life and property is far more important than petty turf wars or arguments over bills.  However, there has a growing tendency over the past decade for political leaders to want to do ‘something’ when faced with a crisis.  This has led to the Army being ‘ordered in’ to ‘sort out’ emergencies such as the foot and mouth outbreak, or the Somerset Levels flooding.  The mission may be loosely defined, and the intervention options may be limited – but it’s ok, the army’s here!   In these situations it’s important that the military recognise local sensitivities.  The civilian authorities will have been working hard for some time, and will feel that military intervention represents a criticism of their efforts.  The Army will also feel uncomfortable about being drawn into incidents that inevitably have political ramifications.

The third category is the use of force – Military Assistance to the Civil Power.  This is the most difficult aspect of MACA.  The military are trained to fight wars, not to be police officers.  It is many decades since the military was deployed to restore order on the streets of the mainland UK, although of course they spend several decades supporting the RUC in Northern Ireland. That deployment still has a painful legacy.

In more recent years, the capability, training and tactics of police and special forces have transformed in response to the changing terrorist threat. For obvious reasons, little of that is seen outside of the counter-terrorist functions.  There is a lot of catching up to be done by politicians, communities and those police and military leaders not directly involved in this specialist area of policing in relation to how the police and military will work together – and what this means for constitutional arrangements, and the longer term impact on the police-military-public relationships.  The maintenance of the Queen’s Peace remains a policing mission, even if it is carried out by the military on the police’s behalf.


How MACA/MACP works

In simple terms, the civil power requests the assistance of the military.  The advice to the civil authority is to ask for the ‘effect’ desired, not to specify the resource required.  The military cannot deploy without the authority of the minister of defence.  This is an important constitutional check which we perhaps fail to recognise the significance of in the UK.  In countries where there have been instances of military coups, civil war, or military government, the deployment of the military into the civil space can be highly politically charged and in some cases even outlawed.

In the UK, the civil authorities are used to operating on their own initiative, without ministerial or political involvement.  Consequently, the MACA/MACP approval can be seen as a bureaucratic process, mainly to allow the costs to be recharged.  For more sensitive deployments, the request to deploy military assets will require approval from both the minister overseeing the requesting civil power, and the minister of defence.  This ministerial approval process still applies in critical, fast moving incidents.  There are arrangements to ensure the decisions are made quickly, but the process of contacting ministers and completing paperwork will inevitably introduce some degree of delay.


Use of military force in support of police

Churchill directing troops at the Sidney Street Siege, 1911.

Churchill directing troops at the Sidney Street Siege, 1911.

 The dividing line between police and military used to be clear.  Police forces simply did not have the capability to take on a well armed terrorist cell.  That was the job of Special Forces. Once the civil police could no longer cope, the incident was handed over to the military and special forces neutralised the threat. The most famous example is the Iranian Embassy Siege. Civilian police surrounded the embassy, but at the point when it was decided a forced conclusion was required, a handwritten note on a scrap of paper allowed the police commander to hand the incident over to the military commander. Once concluded, control was handed back to the police.

SAS London

Planning for a long time since was based on that premise. The incident would be defined and contained.  When the point was reached that an intervention was decided, this would be conducted by special forces. Police handed control to the military until the incident was resolved. The scene would then be handed back to police.  But the world has changed.


So what’s changed?

Alongside the changing nature of terrorism, from 9/11 to lone actors and suicide bombers, the attacks that prompted the most rethinking have been Mumbai and Westgate in Nairobi.  Marauding terrorists, well armed, attacking crowded places pose real challenges for the conventional police armed response.  Police firearms officers are trained to contain the threat and make considered decisions whether to open fire. They should use the minimum force necessary – and indeed, rarely open fire, looking to use less lethal options whenever possible.  Once contained, they negotiate a resolution, again avoiding the use of lethal force as far as possible.  Each decision has to be individually justified and will always be subject to intense scrutiny afterwards, particularly if there has been a fatal discharge.

Terrorists intent on killing as many people as possible require very different concept of operations in response.  Armed officers need to respond quickly and take on the terrorists in order to minimise the loss of life. Negotiation is likely to be pointless (but cannot be discounted, regardless of what has happened).  Police forces will need to bring as many armed officers together as quickly as possible.  They will work as ad hoc teams, put together as they arrive.  This has led to common training, tactics, and weaponry.  The fast response also includes Special Forces, mobilised quickly by air.  As the military component will be arriving alongside the civilian police response, the training includes shared and flexible command models. The priority is to save life, and they will need to get in quickly and resolve the incident, using whatever resources are available.

Depending where and when the incident occurs, command structures and ministerial involvement may be ‘in flux’. MACP/MACA will still be needed.  But the situation on the ground will be developing rapidly and is likely to be confused.  There are a number of possible scenarios, ranging from police dealing with the situation themselves through to a full handover to SF.  The priority will always be saving life.


But the threat continues to change? What about other scenarios?

In the last few years we have seen: the two Paris attacks; a shooter on a train in France; an attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen; incidents in Belgium; the attack by Anders Breivik in Norway; car bombs in Glasgow and London; lone actors attacking Parliament and the military in Canada; the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby; several attacks and plots in Australia; the downing of civilian jets over Egypt and Ukraine; the attack on tourists in Tunisia.  In the meantime, counter terrorist police and the Security Service have continued to disrupt attack plots in the UK.  The threats range from multiple and coordinated attacks with automatic weapons and explosives, unsophisticated attacks by individuals or groups with knives, to bombing plots with homemade explosives.  The targets could be military personnel, police, crowded spaces, sensitive religious locations or communities, high profile individuals, or representatives of particular countries and communities.

The range of possible attack scenarios is endless. The greatest unknown, however, is the number of threats/incidents that have to be confronted at the same time.  One attack is bad enough, but several happening simultaneously and/or lasting over a long period will stretch the available specialist capacity.   The threat level in the UK is already at severe, the second highest level.  If the threat increases, we are entering unprecedented territory for the UK in peacetime.

The recent Paris attacks could have conceivably happened in the UK.  The response in France and Belgium was a massive armed military presence on the streets.  An incident in the UK or overseas could lead to our government deciding to deploy armed soldiers (other than SF) across the UK.  There may or may not be intelligence to inform the specific response required.  Whilst planning has already envisaged this sort of event, the questions remain – what are they going to do?  What is their role? What are they expected to deal with?

An incident (or incidents) in the UK may require extra numbers to be drawn in beyond the current planning assumptions.

For police forces, there have been further changes in planning assumptions and responses brought about by the 7/7 and 15/7 bombings, the riots of 2011, the 2012 Olympics, and Austerity.  In short, even the largest forces cannot deal with major incidents without support from other forces.  If there are multiple major incidents happening simultaneously and/or for extended periods, police forces may struggle to cope without assistance.  The most likely, if not only source of assistance is the military.

The progressive increase in the threat level in the UK has also brought into question whether police in the UK can remain unarmed for much longer.  There are only a few countries in the world where the police are unarmed.  Whilst a lone officer with a handgun may have limited impact against a group of terrorists armed with automatic weapons, routinely armed police have options which are not available in the UK.  There are between 5,000 and 6,000 armed officers available in the UK, many being committed to protection of vulnerable sites or high profile individuals.  Multiple and protracted incidents could require additional armed resources, which could only come from the military.  But the way police operate with firearms is very different to the way soldiers are trained for combat.


What are the likely scenarios?

The various terrorist attacks around the world show the range of possible scenarios.  The unknowns as ever are the where and when.  But the issue for planning are the assumptions about the scale of the attacks and the number of simultaneous attacks (or other incidents).  For the purpose of this paper, the assumption has to be that additional military support has been requested because events are beyond the capability of police and SF capacity.

Without examining each possible scenario, there are are some key considerations that the military need to prepare for:

  • Command and Control. It is likely that the incident will remain under civil police command.  Are these arrangements understood?  Does the military understand the police organisational structure?
  • Can the military operate effectively within civil police communication systems? What if those systems break down?
  • Concept of Operations. Is it clear what the role of the military is? Is this understood by all agencies? Is there a mutual understanding of each other’s roles, constraints, and ‘red lines’?
  • Use of Force. What authority is required? What are the rules of engagement? What options are available, including less lethal? What risks and contingencies are envisaged?  What guidance and instructions have been given to the those deployed?  Is the guidance fit for purpose?  Who carries the responsibility if soldiers end up in a situation where they have to defend themselves?
  • Locality and Community. How does the local context affect decision making and the options available? What information is needed, and how does that get relayed?


Beware of linear assumptions

Planning in the past has been based on a phased, incremental escalation of a single incident.  As the incident escalates, military assistance is engaged.  The mission is relatively clear, and the military resources required are self-selecting.

Planning and preparation are no longer so easy.  It is not inconceivable that the military is deployed for a general security and reassurance presence.  Presumably, though, they will need to react or respond if something happens.

Euro Troops

Euro Troops 2

The support requested may be for a specific purpose or role. Perhaps the civil police need additional explosives officers, or logistics, or certain technical skills to deal with the incident, but the military will not be engaged in tackling the threat directly.

There may be a general emergency which requires additional security presence, perhaps for guarding and searching, or to support and work alongside civil police, or even to replace civil police if they are not available or not able to deal with the threat.

And there may be a need for additional armed resources to be deployed quickly to tackle an armed threat, and the current police armed capability may not be available or sufficient.


National Security Strategy 2015

The new Strategic Defence and Security Review sets out the need to strengthen domestic resilience, and the need to tackle the terrorist threat at home and abroad using the ‘full spectrum of capabilities’.  Ten thousand military personnel will ‘be available on standby to support the civil authorities for significant terrorist incidents at short notice, supported by a wide range of niche military experts’.

MACA is now a central part of domestic security policy and planning.


There is much in the piece to contemplate, and so rather than limiting the discussion to answering a few questions, what I prefer to do is merely set the big issues up as areas of primary concern for debate. To my mind these are very broadly in two categories:

first, the Use of Force and the Rules of Engagement for the armed forces upon the civilian streets; and,

second, the differences between police/law enforcement and the armed forces across the universe of tactics, doctrine, language, etc., for as certainly as ‘secure the house’ means something different between the services (we all know the joke, right?), so too does the same issue apply in this case.

Specifically for the Americans, I would be interested to hear your thoughts as to what level of threat or incident would alter the political calculus on Posse Comitatus.

Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW and #WeCops.



Ian Wiggett is a former police officer who retired in 2015 after 30 years service. Ian served in the Metropolitan Police, Cheshire Constabulary, and Greater Manchester Police, reaching the rank of Assistant Chief Constable. During his service, Ian worked in both detective and uniformed specialist roles, gaining particular expertise in serious crime and counter terrorism investigations, public order, specialist firearms command, and intelligence. He was the chair of the Cheshire Local Resilience Forum and deputy chair of the Greater Manchester Resilience Forum, and has been Gold commander for numerous major operations and events. He was the North West regional lead for counter-terrorism, firearms, and air support. He was the national lead for Casualty Bureau, a member of the national boards for Prevent, and for Protect and Prepare, and a member of the national civil contingencies committee. Ian has led a number of major change programmes and as national lead for systems thinking and continuous thinking helped lead work on demand and new performance measurement approaches nationally.


A Respectable Tom: War and the Thanksgiving Holiday

Forget the tropes on “Pilgims and Indians,” the American Thanksgiving you know is written in the military history of the nation. During the War for Independence, with America as yet fully defined, there were several thanksgiving celebrations called by Congress that were ad hoc and not at all related to one another. They were, furthermore, the legacy of the European celebrations, and often based in religion rather than anything particularly American. By the Civil War, the war that was the ultimate test of the political entity’s survival, the moment had arrived to codify the as yet relatively informal celebrations into a national holiday. In the wake of the victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln finally yielded to Sarah Hale’s perennial call for the institutionalization of the Thanksgiving holiday. One negative result of the holiday’s Civil War roots was that into the 20th Century the holiday would chafe the former Confederate States. Nevertheless, as the United States came into its own as a world power in the 20th Century, not only a holiday but an iconic menu and setting was created via Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” painting. Depicting a roast turkey for dinner and the extended family around the table, while this image might not literally replicate the Thanksgiving experience of every American, it represented an ideal that could serve as a touchstone for any American, and as a blueprint for what the military authorities could provide to the troops so as to signify the holiday.


This menu component of the holiday is one of its critical features. According to Priscilla Ferguson’s arguments Thanksgiving has become the most significant symbol of culinary unity in the American melting pot. She argues that the diverse traditions that have combined to create the American menu means that there is no singular American gastronomic culture to which all can relate. While her argument in favor of Thanksgiving notes its importance as an event, and that individual Thanksgiving meals can vary according to region and ethnic background, a persuasive argument can be made that by the 20th Century a singular, iconic menu emerged that is recognized by any American as the Thanksgiving dinner. This may not be the meal that any particular individual may enjoy; however, if on Thanksgiving that meal is served it will be enjoyed as such. And, as mentioned previously, the ability to have recourse to a singular, shared tradition is of great value to the military usage of Thanksgiving. A shared tradition allows for a relative ease in the military’s ability to provide a celebration of this holiday.[1] Interestingly, in the post-Vietnam War period there has been a willingness to diverge from the traditional menu to pay heed to regional tastes.

How did the Revolutionary War create a holiday? Celebratory meals were taken up by the early American military tradition because of the deeper meanings associated with such events. The importance of the feast portion of a holiday celebration is defined in the scholarship on food and dining by the socio-cultural content it conveys. The Clifford Geertz maxim that “men have birthdays, but man does not,” highlights the value of such content which create our lives, both individually and in the groups to which we belong. As Wood explains the phenomenon, “at the macro-social level various forms of feasting serve to link individuals to the wider social fabric through shared understandings of cultural conventions. Thus, [holiday meals and celebrations] to some degree unite peoples and their culinary culture in shared symbolic experiences.”[2] To inspire the martial cohesion necessary to create an army and an entirely new society, holidays played a significant role. Recourse to socio-cultural content had strategic implications as well. The Revolutionary War was the first conflict to rely in equal terms on the relationship between the people, the state and the military which Clausewitz would identify in the Napoleonic Wars. Reflecting this new calculus in warfare, political and military leadership sensibly relied upon standard celebrations to mark the martial calendar.

In part derived from Christian ritual, in part celebrations of the fall harvest, the Colonial thanksgivings which form the popular understanding of the holiday were as likely recognized by fasts as well as feasts. Just a year shy of the Colonies’ declared independence, the new patriot political leaders called for a Thanksgiving fast to inspire sober reflection of the gravity of the mounting tensions with the British in the aftermath of the fighting at Lexington and Concord. Noting that a fast was called by Congress “to implore the Divine Benediction on our country,” Thacher defined the larger importance of the event as a factor in the development of a shared identity for the Colonies: “This is the first general or Continental Fast ever observed since the settlement of the colonies.[3] Called for in the midst of increasing military conflict, it is notable that this was the first such celebration by the Colonies as a unified entity. It can be argued that this event marks the first thanksgiving celebration defined by a unique and integral American identity. In the following year Congress called for another day of thanksgiving. This culturally American tradition was enjoyed again in 1776 by Private Joseph Martin and his fellow soldiers convalescing from small pox inoculation in Connecticut after inoculation against small pox. Martin, a soldier, gave earnest thanks for what was (and remains) of the greatest import to the man in the war, a good meal: “Of the pig and the pies we made an excellent Thanksgiving dinner, the best meal I had eaten since I left my grand sire’s table.”[4]

With yet another thanksgiving celebration in 1777, the Revolution and the War for Independence brought the new country together in its first official national holiday. This one marked the Continental Army’s victory over the British forces at Saratoga in October of that year, which success guaranteed French diplomatic and military support. In recognition of this momentous occasion Samuel Adams led the Continental Congress to declare a national day of celebration and thanks. On 18 December of that year, the first national thanksgiving was celebrated throughout the colonies. Even the soldiers at Valley Forge in 1777 were able to celebrate with a feast. As recorded by a young surgeon, Albigence Waldo, General Washington’s troops dined upon roasted pig.[5]

Of course, not all soldiers dined well on that thanksgiving holiday. Joseph Martin recounts, in sarcastic tones, the slim pickings that comprised the “sumptuous feast” to which his unit was treated: half a gill of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar. Martin’s ire was with his fellow citizens in civilian life, for he knew full well that while the Army endured near starvation, the citizenry at large was enjoying the abundance the country afforded. His scathing sentiment is displayed when he credits the repast provided to the soldiers to a citizenry that had “opened her sympathizing heart so wide.”[6]  The Revolutionary War, with its near-broken logistics system, was the inspiration for the practice of griping over relative injustices. American sensibilities, even then, favored fairness. Shared harshness could be endured for a common purpose, which explains the paradox of the strengthening cohesion of the soldiers within the army. As between the army and society, however, the growing belief that the one side was suffering unduly inspired the soldiers’ indignation. This sentiment was particularly strong, because the soldiers felt poorly done by for being made to starve in a land of plenty while in noble service defending the terms of the revolution. To alleviate these negative emotions, the soldiers griped.

However, Martin’s prospects had improved by the late years of the war. Returning to an area in New Jersey in which he had served earlier in the war, Martin and several of his fellow soldiers, while searching for a deserter, enjoy the late war hospitality of the locals: “We had a good warm room to sit and lodge in, and as the next day was Thanksgiving, we had an excellent supper.” The next morning their host provided them with toast and cider, the latter of which Martin describes “as good and rich as wine,” as a proper beginning to their day. However, the bounty did not end there, as the host would not allow them to leave until they had shared “a genuine New Jersey breakfast” with him, consisting of buckwheat pancakes “flowing with butter and honey,” and washed down with “a capital dish of chocolate.” Their Thanksgiving continued as they lucked into obtaining lodgings with a family that felt kindly towards the Connecticut troops, “as that section of the state was originally settled by Connecticut people.” Finally, at another house they were again provided for by “the remains of [the] Thanksgiving cheer.”[7] In these celebrations, the sharing of the holiday with extended family that will become the standard was already in evidence in embryonic form.

The citizens who provide for Martin and his comrades were happy to be clear of the British Army and loyalists, heartened by the impending victorious close of the war, and likely harbored a degree of gratitude towards the Continental soldiers. This sharing with strangers, of making them like extended family, precedes the traditions that would accrete to the holiday in later years. However, given the notion of a “Thanksgiving” holiday as it existed then, where the objective was to express gratitude for the blessings one enjoyed, it seems reasonable that sharing one’s good fortune would accord with the spirit of the holiday.

The end of the War of 1812 was celebrated with a day of prayer and thanksgiving. At President James Madison’s urging, Congress resolved to celebrate the second victorious confrontation with the British on April 31st of 1815. As that war is often considered the final act in the War for Independence, it is fitting that its successful conclusion should be marked by what was emerging as an American holiday.

The establishment of a permanent national holiday of Thanksgiving resulted from the decades’ long campaign of Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent women’s magazine editor. Beginning in 1827, her efforts finally bore fruit in September 1863, when an editorial on the subject struck a chord with President Lincoln and the public in the North. Again, this moment in the holiday’s history was inspired in part by military events: Hale’s editorial appeared in the wake of the Union victory at Gettysburg. This moment was particularly ripe as the victory had a tremendous effect upon popular sentiment regarding the war. Lincoln’s proclamation of that same October declaring the holiday brought the two pieces together:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that [God’s gifts of prosperity and freedom] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.[8]

Thus the creation, evolution, and designation of the Thanksgiving celebration as a national, culturally American holiday were all intimately connected with the country’s wars.

Despite the growing importance of the holiday, particularly for the Northern forces, 1862 was a dismal Thanksgiving year for Billy Yank. Although the Army of the Potomac fared better than the Army of Northern Virginia in the quality and quantity of rations, Union soldiers on campaign in Fredericksburg were known to suffer for lack of food. Bell Wiley, a historian of the Union and Confederate soldier experience in the war, offers the experience of one Massachusetts volunteer whose Thanksgiving meal offered little for which to be grateful: “Yesterday was Thanksgiving at home, but a dismal day for us. Never since I have been in the Army have I seen supplies so short. Now we see soldiers going round begging hard bread.” Things were so bad that Wiley tells that this and other soldiers reported some were found scavenging in the slaughter pens for what meager scraps were left behind, whether that be head, hoof, or tail.[9] Americans, especially Northerners, had, by this time, developed an expectation of the feast that was meant to exemplify this holiday.

Enshrined as a national holiday, Thanksgiving emerged as an event of “family homecoming,” in response to the societal disruption wrought by the massive economic changes in the 19th Century, reconciling the conflict between “individualism and obligation to family.”[10] According to Elizabeth Pleck, the defining feature of the Thanksgiving celebration in the United States is its function as a “domestic occasion.” This is:

a family gathering held in the home which paid homage to the ideal of the ‘affectionate family.’ Such a family was a privatized nuclear one, with a nurturant mother creating a proper home atmosphere…. Although the ideal of the affectionate family was a nuclear one, the domestic occasion was often a gathering of extended kin, a family homecoming…. The domestic occasion was a culturally dominant form, practiced at first mainly by the upper classes and middle classes, which spread throughout society in the 20th Century.[11]

This concept of the holiday squares with the near manic celebration of the holiday within the American military in the 20th Century. Deprived of the actual ability to return home in most cases, military personnel were provided the opportunity for a symbolic homecoming by partaking of the traditional meal. The menu, the specific foods, became totems of home and family for the troop who could not fulfill this “domestic” obligation. The troops were thus able to pay homage to the rites and customs of the holiday. Furthermore, as Thanksgiving was a particular holiday for the extended family, the members of the unit could substitute for these relations. Finally, the family at home would know of the satellite celebrations, and be relieved that at the very least their deployed loved one was enjoying something of the holiday. For these reasons, Thanksgiving became a very important holiday to the American Armed Forces.

Pleck goes on to argue that Lincoln’s role in the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday rooted the celebration in the by then established values of the country: “By having Lincoln as its midwife, Thanksgiving also celebrated the blessings of American nationhood as well as its domestic ideals. Thanksgiving was – and is – a holiday of belief in the national purposes and destiny.”[12] The holiday’s association with the blessings bestowed meant that the wars, and therefore troops, fought to secure them were included as well.

The Spanish American War brought the first appearance of any significant celebration of the holiday in the south since the end of the Civil War. In the face of war, the North and South united against a common external foe. While they were encamped in Savannah awaiting embarkation for Puerto Rico, the Georgia volunteers were treated to a lavish Thanksgiving banquet in 1898 by the ladies of that city.[13] The citizens of Savannah also treated the massing soldiers from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nebraska to a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving that same year.[14]

During the Progressive Era, Thanksgiving moved into the schools as a means of indoctrinating the children of immigrants into the ways of their new country so that they could go home and be the “Americanizers” of their parents. This is also a time when the Protestant roots of the holiday began to be downplayed. A holiday or celebration started by the nation’s first “immigrants,” it could be shared with the succeeding generations of newcomers.[15] According to Pleck, this linkage to nation, rather than creed, was important to making Thanksgiving America’s holiday:

Yet in the case of Thanksgiving, nationalism was a more significant feature than commerce. In that sense, Hobsbawm and Ranger were correct to draw attention to nationalism as a force in creating new traditions and reinvigorating others. Celebrating the national mission was an important impetus for the invention of Thanksgiving in the early 19th Century and remains a central element in the holiday to this day.[16]

The nationalism angle is confirmed in Etzioni’s formulation of a theory of public rituals. He argues that “holidays serve to socialize members of a society as well as to reaffirm their commitment to values and as such serve to sustain the integration of society.”[17]

Thanksgiving would also mark the end of the first global conflagration of the century. General Pershing celebrated his army in November 1918, declaring ‘victory…was the Thanksgiving gift to the American nation,” and an honorable repayment of the debt owed Lafayette and the French in the Revolutionary War.[18] Another Thanksgiving meal just after the Armistice was uniquely celebrated. William Langer, a soldier in the AEF, recounts the story in the memoir of his unit while his unit was in Verdun, awaiting transport back to the States. Upon agreement with the company cook to delay their meal to 3 or 4 o’clock, the troops were promised a proper turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Just as the men sat down to tuck into the holiday feast, the bugle sounded to call the regiment. All in the company fell out, save Langer: “I was a sergeant and I thought a good soldier. Of course, I should have set a good example in answering the call without complaint. But the war was over and I decided, with the Thanksgiving dinner before me, that for once I would disobey orders.” As time passed and the rest of the company did not return, Langer began to worry, “could the company have entrained to start for home?” His wait was ended at long last when his unit mates returned. And what was the cause of the delay, the explanation for which was difficult to get out of his fellow soldiers? The Regimental Chaplain had chosen that exact moment to deliver a sermon in honor of Thanksgiving and the end of the war in the ruins of the Verdun Cathedral.[19] This turn of events contains the sort of irony particular to military service: the sermon interrupted the meal, one of the few things, besides survival, for which a soldier can be truly grateful.

By WWII, the American holiday, state, and armed forces had reached global maturity. A young lieutenant in Western Europe describes how the Mess Sergeant brought a proper feast to the soldiers on the front lines for Thanksgiving 1944. “A hamburger would have been a treat, but a hot turkey dinner was almost beyond belief.”[20] The commitment to the meal was an institutional requirement. In a government publication meant to explain to the American public the lengths to which the armed forces would go to provide the troops with every comfort of home possible, the declaration of the institution’s commitment to a proper Thanksgiving dinner was its opening salvo. Offering little room for doubt, the publication echoes the essence of the subsistence doctrine: “Thanksgiving turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin… American food for the American soldier in England, Iceland, India, Australia, in Malayan jungle, and African deserts – wherever he is fighting in this global war, the Army endeavors to feed him the food he likes, the food that makes him feel at home.”[21] This commitment was shared across the services, as US Navy Thanksgiving menus from the first half of the century display the familiar gastronomic landmarks of the national meal. Given their druthers, soldiers would assemble a feast of similar fixings on their own as well. Neal Barton records that his unit used their mess fund to put together a traditional feast for Thanksgiving 1941. Reflecting the relaxing nature of the holiday, he writes that “all day long the boys visited the mess hall. Seemed as tho they would eat, go walk it off then start the process all over. Nothing was removed from the tables but dirty or empty dishes.”[22]

The commitment to turkey on Thanksgiving was also codified operationally within the Quartermaster Corps. Per one subsistence publication, “Turkey rations are authorized for all men actually messing with the organization on Thanksgiving….” The exact meaning of this point for the bureaucracy and administration of quartermaster duties is set out in a footnote to the above directive: “The so-called ‘turkey ration’ is merely the garrison ration increased by the excess cost involved when 28 ounces of turkey (undrawn) is substituted for the meat component of the garrison ration. This excess cost is computed by the regional depots on the 15th of October… of each year. A certificate showing the actual number of men present on Thanksgiving… is attached to the ration return.” One hopes the turkey meat was not as dry as the language authorizing it. The recipe for “Turkey, Roast” from the 1941 Manual of Mess Management is equally sparse, but the ingredients and intent give prospects for a decent meal.[23]

In part, these pledges were made to maintain the morale of the American civilian population. There is an almost liturgical quality to them, as if the authors realize they must include certain vital recitations to keep the public happy. World War II was conducted on such a scale that the war could not be fought or won without public support. One very important way to secure this was to make the public feel that the troops were being well cared-for, demonstrating the military’s commitment to them. Although to do so would be a substantial undertaking, no effort or expense would be spared to get it done. Maintaining the link to home, no matter where on the globe the troops might be serving, could be achieved through the Thanksgiving menu, which recalled, at least in general terms, the sense of home. This objective is reflected in the experience of Ann McCaughey, a Red Cross Aide in France, who wrote of her Thanksgiving experience of 1944 that “it was a piece of America that we had transplanted [thousands of] miles across the ocean and set up in the little town of Commercy in France.”[24] For Charles MacDonald, Thanksgiving 1944, was not only a national holiday, but his birthday as well. Escorted to his table in the company mess hall, where he found a plate already prepared for him. As he sat down to eat, the division orchestra broke out into “Happy Birthday.” He writes that “[i]t was only then that I remembered that this was something special; this was my birthday.” As a cake was brought out and his men sang “Happy Birthday” him, he “could not repress a choking sensation,” nor barely “keep back the tears of gratitude.” While the celebration was in itself touching, the event, with its particular emphasis upon the food tokens of a holiday and celebration, was used to signify something of greater meaning; he had earned the respect and admiration of his men.[25]

Blind adherence to this institutional promise to provide a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving could also ruin the promise of this meal, as the grievously put upon Paul Boesch experienced in Germany in the fall of 1944. As was evident from previous experience, he and his fellow soldiers learned again that if Division had set its mind to something, in this case a hot turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day, then that was what was going to happen. It was going to happen even if that meal was more a burden than a blessing. As darkness fell that Thanksgiving evening, with the American units deployed along a hill within range of German artillery, Boesch received unwelcome news from battalion headquarters. The operations officer at the other end was calling to inform him that a hot turkey dinner had been prepared and awaited a carrying party to come pick it up and bring it back to the rest of the unit. Boesch tried to argue against the meal, but was told, “’It’s the General’s orders.’”  The staff officer chided him for failure to follow the faith: “’You want to see the men get a nice hot meal, don’t you?’” This provoked the infantrymen’s sensibilities:

“Well, Jeezus Christ, that’s a fine way of putting it. Of course I want to see them get a hot meal. I want to see them get three hot meals a day and a dry bed every night and a babe to sleep with, but let’s save the turkey until they can pull back where they can enjoy it. Who the hell knows it’s Thanksgiving except some silly bastard in the rear who gets hot meals anyway and just wants a change in diet?”

Attempts to make his case further up the chain of command were fruitless. Poignantly, he argued that the folks back at division headquarters “’have no idea what it means to try to get food to those men, not mention the troubles of trying to eat it.’” Unsuccessful in this particular battle, Boesch was resentful: “What the hell difference did it make when a man ate his Thanksgiving turkey? One day was like any other to us.” His soldiers echoed this sentiment, but orders were orders. The unfortunate but logical consequence of the activity in such close proximity to enemy lines followed. As the meal was being brought to the men the German artillery opened fire. The bulk of the casualties from the barrage were taken by the men bringing the food as they were caught out in the open. For their efforts, “seven men had been wounded and three killed, an awful price to pay for a Thanksgiving dinner that nobody wanted to eat.”[26] While this thesis maintains that, in spirit, the foodways policy chosen for the American armed forces has tremendous potential to positively influence morale and effectiveness, it equally recognizes that even the best doctrines if poorly applied can have disastrous results.

Half a world away from Lt. Boesch’s unit, on a ship operating near the Philippines in the Pacific Theatre, greater command sensibility prevailed. James Fahey’s memoirs tell of how the captain, in his Thanksgiving message to the crew, decided to delay the holiday meal. Operational conditions had been such that the ship’s crew was going to General Quarters with such frequency that to try to cook and serve a Thanksgiving meal would be an effort in futility. He promised them, however, that once the situation changed a turkey dinner would be in the offing. Four days later, just outside of Palau, circumstances had changed: “Today was the first chance we had to have our Thanksgiving Dinner, almost a week late but it was worth waiting for. We really had quite a feed. Turkey, and all the trimmings. It was very good.”[27]

The commitment to Thanksgiving did not wane in the Korean War. By this war, the components of the holiday were firmly established. As it happened, that first Thanksgiving of the Korean War fell during the fateful campaigns into North Korea. In the first example, PFC Herman Nelson’s memories demonstrate that the celebration included a settled menu: “On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, we moved to a new location near Kunu-ri, well north of the North Korean capital of Pyong Yang. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner there with an armored tank company, and it was really good. We had a turkey dinner and all the stuff that goes with it.”[28] Another soldier, writing home, told of his Thanksgiving experience:

Well, here it is Thanksgiving afternoon. We’ve finished eating our turkey dinner and a very fine dinner it was indeed. Every man had all he wanted to it. It’s about time. We had turkey (frozen, shipped from the States) sweet potatoes, corn, stuffing, gravy, olives, pie, and candy. We were very lucky we got all that as we were only relieved from the line yesterday.

Lucky indeed, as he went on to tell that his unit had been treated to hot showers as well. As this was the first such opportunity to shower since late September, these soldiers had much for which to be grateful.[29]

Montross and Canzona’s history of Marine Corps Operations in the Korean War demonstrates that this first celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday in that war included all of the necessary components:

Thanksgiving Day, which fell on the 23d, was celebrated both in Korea and the United States…. It was a tribute to American bounty as well as organizational genius that the troops in Korea were served a dinner which would have done credit to a first-rate Stateside restaurant. The menu, as proposed by X Corps to component units, included… roast young tom turkey with cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes… fruit cake, mince pie and coffee.[30]

Generally speaking, however, the Chosin Thanksgiving experience varied depending on where a unit was in the march north. The campaign presented unique complications to front line food service. As they moved north towards the Yalu River, the units that comprised X Corps had several different experiences of Thanksgiving. In his history of the Marine campaign in North Korea, Edwin Simmons provides photographs to document the celebrations of the units stationed at the bases at Hamhung and Hagaru-ri.[31] One Marine, Lance Corporal Harold Mulhausen, certain that the operation would mean missing the holiday dinner, found otherwise:

On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, the Marines continued to move north toward the Chosin Reservoir….we were pretty upset over the thought of missing our Thanksgiving dinner….To our great joy, next morning the cooks brought the kitchens up to our positions and we had our Thanksgiving dinner after all – turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, and all the goodies. It was delicious and I ate until my belly nearly popped.[32]

Interestingly, there is a contradiction between the official history of the Marine Thanksgiving of 1950 and the experiences of specific units and personnel. In their description of the Thanksgiving for Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Davis’ unit, Montross and Canzona record that “the men of 1/7 belatedly celebrated Thanksgiving on the 24th with a full, hot turkey dinner.”[33] As recounted in Martin Russ’ history of the campaign, according to Davis, the dinner did not go as smoothly as that:

“We were out on the very end of the limb tactically. When the turkeys caught up with us they were frozen solid and the cooks couldn’t figure out how to thaw them. What we finally did was make a mountain of birds around two fired-up field kitchen stoves, then covered the whole affair with two pyramidal tents sealed tight with snow. By morning the birds were thawed enough for the cooks to cut up and cook, which took several hours. We rotated the platoons down from the slopes throughout the day. Lieutenant Lee’s platoon, at the point, didn’t get the word, however; each man had to settle for a cup of reconstituted milk and two slices of fresh bread. I felt bad about that.”[34]

Joseph Owen, a platoon commander in Davis’ battalion, provides an even bleaker picture. Describing the policy initiative that drove the Thanksgiving efforts that year, he suggests in his memoir that the impetus behind it was for public relations purposes, suggesting that “it was especially important” to the military leadership in Tokyo “that the front-line troops be shown enjoying the bounties of Thanksgiving.” As a measure of the hubris he believed had infected General MacArthur’s command, he notes that, despite intense combat with the Chinese forces who had entered the war, they “could afford to give the men not only the traditional meal, but also the day off.” Regarding the meal itself, “we had our dinner in frigid darkness at 2300.” However, even then problems arose:

We sat in the snow and on the big boulders with overflowing trays. We relished the feast before us, but we had not reckoned with the cold. The temperature had sunk far below zero again, and our food began to freeze before we could set a fork into it. The giblet gravy congealed and became an icy coating over the chilled turkey and mashed potatoes. The cranberry sauce became sherbet. The oranges froze as hard as baseballs.

To add insult to injury, Owen and one of his corpsmen were sniped at while they tried to make the best of their dinner.[35]

The celebration of the holiday continued through the conflicts of the late 20th century. And in the first decade of the new century, the tradition did not wane as American troops found themselves abroad again for the holiday. Firmly established, the institutional menu can now take account of changes in tastes, so that troops have enjoyed deep fried and Cajun spiced turkeys alongside the traditional fare. Nevertheless, the iconic meal remains, no better demonstrated in the surprise trip of then President George W. Bush to Baghdad Airport to deliver the main course.

Turkey George

Which event was ultimately rendered thusly:

Turkey Dinner Bush Doll

So, America, when you sit down to eat your turkey dinner today, put aside the myths of your childhood. Your holiday has its roots in the martial traditions and experiences which have formed the identity and ethos of the nation.




[1] Priscilla Ferguson, “A Cultural Field in the Making,” pp. 633-4.

[2] Roy Wood, The Sociology of the Meal, Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press (1995), p. 47, citing Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books (1973).

[3] James Thacher, Military Journal, p. 30, 20 July 1775.

[4] George Scheer, ed.,  Private Yankee Doodle, p. 57.

[5] Hugh Rankin, ed., Narratives of the American Revolution, p. 184. Another important wartime thanksgiving was celebrated by General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, to commemorate the formalization of the alliance with the French in 1778. James Thacher describes this event. In addition to a mass military demonstration by the battalions and brigades with much saluting and many huzzahs, there was a dinner provided by Washington for the senior officers and wives present for the celebration. (Thacher, Military Journal, pp. 126-7)

[6] Scheer, Private Yankee Doodle, p. 100.

[7] Scheer, pp. 251-3.

[8] Book of Days, p. 1055.

[9] Bell Wiley, Life of Billy Yank, p. 226. Interesting to consider, Bell Wiley, a Southern historian, does not discuss Thanksgiving much. Given the holiday’s legal blessing by President Lincoln in 1863, it is not surprising that there is no mention of the holiday in The Life of Johnny Reb. However, the holiday is also largely absent from his companion study of Billy Yank.

[10] Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of a Domestic Occasion,” p. 775.

[11] Pleck, p. 773.

[12] Pleck, p. 776.

[13] “Spanish American War in Georgia History,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia,

[14] David Ott, “Remember the Maine! Adam County’s Involvement in the Spanish American War,”

[15] Pleck, pp. 778-9.

[16] Pleck, p. 783.

[17] Amitai Etzioni, ”Toward a Theory of Public Ritual,”  p. 47.

[18] “Proud to pay debt, says General Pershing,” The New York Times, 1 December 1918.

[19] William Langer, Gas and Flame, pp. xxiv-xxv.

[20] William Devitt, Shavetail, p. 146.

[21] Eleanor Hoffman, Feeding Our Armed Forces, New York: Nelson (1943), p. 1.

[22] Donald Vining, ed., Diaries of World War II, Barton’s Diary, p. 20.

[23] Subsistence: Conference Bulletins, The Quartermaster School, (1942) p. 21; Manual of Mess Management, p. 132.

[24] Vining, ed., Diaries of World War II, Diary of Anne McCaughey, p. 98.

[25] Charles MacDonald, Company Commander, pp. 76-7.

[26] Paul Boesch, The Road to Huertgen, pp. 170-3.

[27] James Fahey, Pacific War Diary, pp. 237-8.

[28] Richard Peters and Xiaobing Li, Voices from the Korean War, p. 69.

[29] Donald Knox, The Korean War: An Oral History, p. 464.

[30] Lynn Montross and Nicholas Canzona, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea: Volume III: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, pp. 143-4.

[31] Simmons, Frozen Chosin, p. 41.

[32] Peters and Li, pp. 99-100.

[33] Montross and Canzona, p. 148.

[34] Martin Russ, Breakout, p. 75.

[35] Joseph Owen, Colder Than Hell, pp. 213-5.


SDSR 2015 – A Balanced Platform, and an Old Vision


So, as predicted, the world really is a more dangerous and complex place. It was ever thus.

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, the Defence Secretary argued that no-one could have predicted the rise of a capable insurgent force, a global jihad or a Russia doing things we didn’t like at the time of SDSR 2010. Other views are definitely available. Indeed, lots of people were expressing just these views in 2010 for the rush-job, Cabinet Office and Treasury-led review that seemed to insulate itself not only from expert voices from outside Whitehall but from those in Main Building too (hence the circular PR firing squad of military voices that boomed out prior to the publication of the review). So, having been pilloried in the press, by military experts and even by academics (including myself in measured tones) you would be a reasonable person if you’d have thought the government would have learnt from the experience. And they may have. This is a balanced programme. It might not require the sort of revisions that most defence reviews are subject to, which would make a distinct change to the past. But Cameron still said ‘full spectrum’, which to me kicks the ‘we just don’t have the money for this’ can further down the road.
The ‘trip-wire’ brigades are an interesting innovation, even if they are not going to be rapidly formed (they’ll be ten years in the making). Whilst 2010 was an insular review, signalling a withdraw from expedition – followed immediately by Libya (oops) – this implies that we’re still in the expeditionary game (be it eyeing up Eastern Europe, or the Middle East). Should these brigades need moving via the oceans then we might have a problem, even with the new announced capacity. But from 2025 onwards, wherever there is a fight with a western coalition of the willing, the UK will be in the middle of it. On one reading of the recent past, this sort of activity then causes the requirement for further investment in counter-terrorism capabilities.

But the big missing element is the coherent strategic vision the Prime Minister promised. Having failed to articulate one in 2010 and now in 2015, I think we have to conclude that despite the hours that have been invested in discussing ‘strategy’, the Parliamentary Committee inquiry led by Bernard Jenkin and so on, that strategy is a lost art. And it’s an expensively lost art. Because it causes us to cover everything badly, rather than build capabilities behind something coherent. These best single line articulation of the strategy the UK ‘ought’ to have is from Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI – ‘a force for stability in the world’, amending the ‘force for good’ that was so widely scoffed at, at the time. Such a strategy would build upon cooperative work with our ‘frenemies’ (relevant today might be Russia and Iran, who will almost certainly need to be the boots on the ground element to sort out the Syria debacle). Prosperity and security as bonded concepts has some traction, but it definitely spending to save, and it’s not clear to me why the UK has to be at the centre of it (the old east of Suez debate writ large). I may be being unfair. If there is a strategy, it’s to return to the post-war UK, of global reach just reframed for today.

The positioning of the nuclear deterrent could have been sorted out with a simple political decision – to underwrite that the money attached to the deterrent could be kept within the defence budget not repurposed away from defence and into something else. I think that the issues around the nuclear question become much more solvable with that in place: pound for pound into conventional forces the nuclear money becomes not just useful, but game-changing. I wrote a few years ago about how and why the defence review had made our nuclear deterrent unsafe. The missing ladder of escalation not only rendered the deterrent useless, but potentially dangerous too. The death and/or retirement of those who really understand nuclear deterrence is a gaping gap in our collective knowledge of defence currently.

One of the most important things to have come between the 2010 and 2015 reviews was the decision to break the tie to our native defence manufacturers. I wrote about what I saw as the significance at the time, but I had subsequently concluded I just was interested by something very dull. The decision to replace Nimrod with Boeing P8s, and the potential (and large) markets for smaller, and alternative defence manufacturers to meet the new threats I think evidences that breaking the tie was significant. I’m not sure it can be justified in terms of off-the-shelf capabilities being cheaper (the shelf is still expensive to fill), and ultimately it will undermine our defence industries, who are already migrating to markets that appreciate them more. The European system of manufacturing – be it collaboratively, or brokered via the European Defence Agency – has merely entrenched competition between European states, rather than broken them down. Consequently, the UK has left itself hostage to its relationship with US defence giants, rather than being part of a European alternative, or an expensive indigenous capability. It is made expensive by the absence of competing supply. When the UK led the way in aircraft, four or more manufacturers competed for aircraft contracts, with the MoD underwriting the losses (they could innovate because failure didn’t result in bankruptcy). What we have now are contractors who have to be cautious and who are forced to underbid – and then overrun. There are half as many officials involved in UK defence procurement as there are in the entire European Commission. Given the scale of their respective challenges, that’s shocking. But losing a third of defence civil servants is equally shocking, in its own way.

The UK can offer something unique to its network of allies in ‘these dangerous times’. And that’s intelligence plus disruption. Because of our genuinely special relationship with the US in the intelligence field we do punch way above our weight in this field. The 1900 extra officers announced last week should be a welcome initiative, and meet some of the need of ‘Security Politics’, although recruitment and training puts extra capability years away. But in this area lies the British USP. Certainly on this budgetary spend.

So, do we have a coherent strategy? Maybe.

Do we have capabilities arriving quickly enough for the challenges? Not really.  

Is the navy still two men and a dinghy? Sadly yes.

Is the nuclear deterrent issue resolved? Yes.

Do we have answers for how we’re going to deal with the challenges presented in the Middle East and Eastern Europe? No…
But we have extra money, albeit coming relatively slowly, and some nice announcements and a balanced platform. Not a bad effort, given the timeline allowed for the review. But if you’re sat in Main Building tonight it’s one cheer and one raspberry apiece.


ISIS and Irrelevance

It’s SDSR-day in the UK, when we finally get to hear what the government hasn’t leaked over the weekend (more F-35s), overnight (a pair of 5000 person ‘strike brigades’ for overseas use), last week (2000 new spooks), and so on, and so forth. The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, has a lot to make up for, given that the fudges (carrier strike, anyone?) of the last one are already coming home to roost. In fairness, however, the four highest priority risks identified in the 2010 SDSR (terrorism, cyber security, natural hazards, preventing international military crises) all appear to have been on the money, so to speak. Of the four, Libya and the Crimea is perhaps evidence that the UK did worst on the last point. Still, after Paris, and the rise of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh, it’s clear that terrorism is going to remain a clear focus for the 2015 SDSR. Given that the Government appears to be on a full-court press to get Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria (except when they’re an act of self defence versus its own citizens), it’s a fair prediction to make. But what’s the point? What is the end that the UK is seeking?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it’s understandable that the rhetoric against ISIS has been ramped up, both at home and abroad. The UK has been talking about “defeating” ISIS’ ideology for a while now, and witnessing Brussels lock itself down to raid and arrest suspected terrorists lends a sense that European states are starting to take the “Trudeau approach” to jihadists. Still, as a strategy document, I hope that the 2015 SDSR doesn’t have “defeat ISIS” written into it, because, frankly, that’s impossible. Sure, we can bomb Raqqa, send in special forces, arm Kurds, arm Sunnis, arm Syrian rebels, and, in theory at least, pull apart the Islamic State as a functional entity, but that’s not going to make these ideas go away. As Will McCants points out in his excellent new book on ISIS’s ideology, there’s no telling what lessons ISIS (and its adherents) would learn from such a defeat. They might pack up their bags, but equally, they might take it as a lesson that they need to “double down” on apocalyptic violence, bloodletting and fear. That can never be defeated by force, nor, really, can it be “defeated” or “eradicated” in the increasingly illiberal environment at home. British society is, however, littered with the remnants of violent ideologies from the past decades and centuries. The British state never “defeated” or “eradicated” anarchism, Stalinists, Maoists, and so on, and so forth. Nor, for that matter, is there anything that the British state could do to eradicate these ideologies. Although there are plenty of smart people who profess similar beliefs, at the extremes there are always those who are essentially as impervious to reason as the most warped jihadist getting his kicks with a kalashnikov somewhere in between Aleppo and Mosul. Setting out to defeat an ideology is a set-up for a fall. Anarchists once struck fear into the states of Europe, now, they are, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless”. The UK shouldn’t seek the end of ISIS, it should seek to make it irrelevant.

jobs 11943293716_c56a366775_o

Security Politics

Our contemporary political compact is premised on jobs and growth.

It’s the economy, stupid.. as Clinton so aptly put it.

And to be get elected parties need to be convincing on (and then deliver to get re-elected) economic prosperity, opportunities for future generations to get in on this prosperity, and the sorts of economic safety nets to encourage risk taking entrepreneurialism and yet to disincentivise idleness and work avoidance.

This was a tried and tested model that saw switches in the government of the time dependent largely on how successful they were in delivering jobs and prosperity, selling a vision and maintaining party unity. Such a focus has narrowed the pool of people coming into politics. They no longer needed to be former soldiers, or people with substantial experience in industry, the unions or other areas outside of narrow-band economic politics. It was said of Major, and Blair that they were the first Prime Ministers without direct experience of a war – the inference being that this sort of experience is vital for governing a state. Coupled with this was the European Union that had single-handedly delivered an unprecedented period of peace in Western Europe and relative economic prosperity and successfully sold (and kept selling) a vision of social and economic liberalism that was attractive to a wider set of European nation states. The EU was and is a technocratic set of organisations , geared to the business of developing and deepening a complex single market across many states: a primarily economic activity. So,in that frame the free movement of people makes perfect sense. And that the vast majority of European states soft pedaled their security and intelligence spend looked unproblematic: the capable states would keep their spending up, and the American umbrella would deliver a lot of the rest.

Only the twin problems of a refugee crisis bringing tens of thousands of people from an active war zone into societies focussed only, or mostly on jobs and growth, and the problems of attacks on the West are not economic problems. They are not – in the main – economic problems. Although the economic aspects of these problems are – in turn – security problems, or will quickly become so. So, the Generation X of special advisors and their political masters have a problem that they are ill-equipped to understand let alone deal with. The SDSR, which is now imminent, will be the first major test of this government’s ability to demonstrate that they understand the contemporary security environment. The SDSR rumour mill suggests that the government might have understood enough to increase some elements of the security budget, but the devil will be in the many details. (Another post will be forthcoming when it’s published). But the balance of politics is shifting. It is about the economy. It is also about jobs and growth. But the political class has successfully ballsed that up, over the last 7 or so years. And so for several reasons the politics is shifting to it being mostly about security.

As a instinctive europhile, it is with sadness to say that the European project is not currently fit for purpose following this shift. It is with slightly less surprise that we can currently observe that the political and special advisor class are not fit for purpose either. And as for the Labour Party… well.. if they don’t get with the shift pretty quickly they’ll be electoral toast. The hoohah today about the Shadow Chancellor and ‘that alleged leaflet’ makes the point better than a 1000word essay ever could.

Rapid adaptation is required. Politics has gone Darwinian and the electorate will turn unforgiving very soon.


#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.