The View From Olympus: How to Avoid War with Iran

When President Trump called off an airstrike on Iran with the planes already in the air, he justified the hopes many of us had placed in him in 2016.  No other president would have had the guts to do that.

Unfortunately, while that action avoided war with Iran last week, the danger of war remains high.  The confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is almost certain to continue.  It is strategically disadvantageous for both parties.  But powerful domestic political factions will continue to drive it nonetheless.  In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard Corps needs the American threat to justify its own domestic power and the benefits of corruption that flow from it.  In Washington, the Likud lobby, which includes people highly placed in the White House, desperately wants a war between the U.S. and Iran so Israel’s Likud-led government can seize the West Bank (see my column, “Bait and Switch”, in the latest issue of The American Conservative).  So, the question becomes, how do we continue to confront Iran without war breaking out?  That seems to be the best realistic objective.

Both sides may have offered up the beginnings of an answer.  President Trump called off the airstrike when he was told it would kill around 150 Iranians.  Iran had only shot down an American drone.  No American lives were endangered, and the Pentagon has no shortage of drones.  Similarly, the Iranians said they did not shoot down an American P-8 naval patrol aircraft they claimed had also invaded their airspace because doing so would have killed Americans.  In other words, both sides called a halt at the point where their actions would have caused casualties.

The same has been true of Iranian attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf–if the attacks were in fact actions of the state of Iran, which is by no means clear.  They could have been done by elements of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that do want a war, without authorization.  Those Revolutionary Guards could have been in the pay of another power that wants a war, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel.  The “Iranian sailors” could have been German soldiers dressed up in Polish uniforms.  History has witnessed such things.

The restraint both sides have shown so far could be the basis for a shared rule: no human casualties.  That still leaves both Iran and the U.S. plenty of options for annoying each other.  Embargoes, cyberwar, driving up marine insurance rates, isolating the other’s proxy forces in various theaters, attacking facilities and equipment where there is no risk to people, the list is endless.  But so long as no people are killed, there is no war.

This kind of ritualization of war is historically common.  Ritualized war is in fact far more frequent than total war.  The reason is obvious: the cost is lower.  Each side gets to preen, pump, do its victory dances and so on while their respective societies carry on normal life.  Think of it as the NFL without the big salaries.

After a campaign of mutual annoyance but not war has gone on long enough, both Iran and the U.S. may come to realize a negotiated solution would benefit both.  President Trump has made it clear he is open to that outcome.  So far, Iran’s leadership is not.  But I suspect the Iranian people are, and the Ayatollah cannot ignore them forever.

What everyone needs now, except Likud and its American agents, is no war, i.e., no casualties.  If President Trump continues to insist on that rule and the Iranians do the same, the war fever will eventually break.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

The View From Olympus: Making Maneuver Warfare Real in the Marine Corps

The indications that the new Marine Corps Commandant intends to get serious about maneuver warfare are proliferating.  Serious plans for genuinely free play training are being made.  The latest issue of the Marine Corps Gazette is mostly devoted to the history of the maneuver warfare movement that culminated with the Corps formally adopting the concept as doctrine under Commandant General Al Gray. Training and Education Command at Quantico is talking about maneuver warfare, although I will not believe it is serious until it decrees the T&R manual is optional at the discretion of the battalion commander.

But making maneuver warfare what the Marine Corps does as opposed to just what it says in its field manuals is a major challenge. It means fundamental change in institutional culture, from the Second Generation’s inward focus, centralization, preference for obedience over initiative, and dependence on imposed discipline to the Third Generation’s outward focus, de-centralization of decision making, preference for initiative over obedience, and reliance on self-discipline. Overall, the culture of order must be replaced by a culture of results: at every rank, every Marine must become responsible for getting the result the situation requires. But no Marine should ever be held responsible for method: not for technique, not for process, not even for following orders.  In the old Prussian/German Army, which developed maneuver warfare as we know it, it was routine to give junior officers problems in war games that could only be solved by disobeying orders.

So we face the hard question: how is this transformation to be brought about?  The key is to make certain that institutional rewards and punishments are aligned with the behavior the Corps wants from its Marines.

That means, above all, fundamental changes in the personnel system. At present, the personnel system’s incentives all work against creating the kind of leaders maneuver warfare requires. That means leaders from corporal through Commandant who show strong character. What is strong character? Verantwortungsfreudigkeit: joy in taking responsibility.  Maneuver warfare demands leaders who, whenever they see a situation that is not going right, immediately act to get the necessary result. They do so whether the mess is “in their lane” or not. They do not hesitate to use unorthodox methods. If they have to break the rules, they do so and take responsibility for it. In turn, so long as what they do works, their superiors back them up. In the case of junior leaders, they back them up even if it doesn’t work so long as the mistake arose from initiative rather than passivity. Years ago, a Marine lieutenant told me that the motto of his platoon at The Basic School had been “Death before initiative”, because they knew that if they just did what they were told they would not get in trouble, but if they took initiative they might. In a maneuver warfare military, exactly the opposite is the case.

The Marine Corps can fix some of the problems in the personnel system itself; others will require exemptions from DOPMA, which I suspect Congress would willingly grant.  The basic changes are :

  • End up-or-out, which undermines character, promotes conformism, and rewards careerism, which is a sign of weak character.
  • Vest Marines’ retirement at twelve years of service and drop all-or-nothing at twenty years.
  • Eliminate the informal requirement to follow a cookie-cutter career pattern to obtain promotion.
  • De-centralize promotion and assignment to a low enough level that those making the decisions know the individual they are assigning or considering for promotion.
  • Reduce the vast surplus of officers above the company grades.  Nothing more powerfully drives centralization than an officer surplus, because the surplus officers constantly interfere in their subordinate’s business in search of something to do.
  • Greatly reduce the churn of personnel so units have time to become coherent. A company or battalion command should last three to five years, not eighteen months.

For any institution, pitting rhetoric calling for the behavior maneuver warfare requires against concrete incentives to behave otherwise is hopeless. People behave not as they are told but as they are rewarded or punished for doing. We will know the Marine Corps’ push for maneuver warfare is real when institutional incentives begin to change.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

The View From Olympus: The Costs of Threat Inflation

In the 1980s I used to give the slide-show briefing of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus to each class at the Air Force’s Squadron Officers’ School. After one of the briefs, an Air Force captain, an intelligence officer, came up to me and asked, “Does military reform mean I can stop inflating the threat?”

Threat inflation has been one of Washington’s most successful growth industries for a long time.  The purpose of inflating the threat is to inflate the military budget.  The obvious cost is wasting the taxpayers’ money on capabilities we do not need.  But that is not the only cost. As the current tensions with Iran illustrate, threat inflation can lead to counter-productive military planning and, sometimes, to war.

For weeks, the Defense Department has been warning that Iran is planning to use allied Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. forces in those countries.  It has cited intelligence intercepts of communications between Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the militias as evidence.  I’m sure the intercepts are real.  But the interpretation suggests classic threat inflation.

If the U.S. attacks Iran, the obvious Iranian response will be to seize as many U.S. troops in the region as it can to serve as hostages. The Iranians have stated this response openly, saying, “Last time (in 1979), we had hundreds of American hostages.  This time, we’ll have thousands.”  It is a promising response for the obvious reason that we have no ready countermove. In 1979, we were largely left helpless, especially after we botched a rescue attempt.  One would hope President Trump would ask the Pentagon, “Okay, if they do that, what’s our next move?”  I doubt he will get a reassuring answer.

So what are the communications we have intercepted about?  Preparing that response. We have interpreted them as preparing an attack instead. Why? Because DOD always inflates the threat.

We have also accused Iran of launching small attacks against four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, attacks that damaged the ships but did not sink them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a carefully weasel-worded statement said, “It seems like it’s quite possible that Iran was behind them.” That is true. It’s also quite possible other countries in the region that want a war between the U.S. and Iran, including Israel, were behind them.  Pointing only to Iran inflates the threat.

Threat inflation in a crisis can easily transmute itself into an escalatory ladder. That may be happening here.  Iran signaled de-escalation by removing some “missiles” (probably just rockets) from some small fast boats used by the Revolutionary Guard. The Pentagon did not reciprocate by dialing back our actions. On the contrary, it asked President Trump to send 20,000 more U.S. troops to the region. Wisely, the president chopped that number back to 900.

Here we see how threat inflation can lead to actions that are militarily just plain dumb.  Iran threatens to take U.S. troops in the region hostage. How do we counter that? By sending more U.S. troops to the region, giving Iran more chances to take hostages. Who in the Pentagon is coming up with this, General Braxton Bragg or General Ben Butler?

Most of the Washington threat inflation industry is focused on inflating the Russian and Chinese “threats”–puffing the dragon is especially fashionable these days–which in turn feeds the bad strategy of turning two countries that should be allies into opponents. That is a failure on the grand strategic level, which is a high price indeed for threat inflation. But threat inflation is so deeply built into our whole system that it warps everything we do. Does military reform mean we can stop inflating the threat? Yes. But until the money runs out, the chance of reform is small.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

The View From Olympus: War With Iran?

On the surface, war with Iran appears unlikely.  President Trump has made it clear, including to the warhawks in his administration, that he does not want war.  He was elected as the anti-war candidate.  Hillary was a wild-eyed interventionist, who under President Obama launched the war on Libya that destroyed that state and created another stateless region.  Pat Buchanan has warned President Trump that the war may be John Bolton’s, but it will be the Trump Presidency that is destroyed by it.

The same desire not to go to war is apparent on the other side.  The May 15 New York Times reported that:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in comments carried on state television, that “no war is going to happen,” The Associated Press reported.

“Neither we, nor they, are seeking war,” he said.  “They know that is not to their benefit.”

And in a visit to Russia on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”

Of course, there are other players.  The neo-cons, led by the court fool John Bolton, are doing their utmost to sabotage President Trump’s peace policy and bring about the war they want, which seems to be any war, everywhere.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may well want a fight, although it is unlikely to defy Ayatollah Khamenei.  There is a certain irony in the fact that peace appears to depend on Donald Trump and a crazy Ayatollah, but God does have a sense of humor.

However, the U.S. and Iran are not the only players.  Two other countries in the region do want war and are doing their utmost to bring it about.  Both are highly influential in Washington, including in the Trump White House.  Those two countries are Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party have wanted a war with Iran for at least a decade.  They see Iran as the greatest threat facing Israel.  They are wrong about that–the greatest threat is spreading state failure in the region and the rise of more and more non-state entities that fight Fourth Generation war–but Tel Aviv, like Washington and almost every other capital, does not grasp the 4GW challenge.  In fact, given Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the only threat Israel faces from Iran comes by way of Iranian support for Shiite 4GW entities.  But those entities, and Iran itself, are focused more on fighting Sunnis in Islam’s Sunni-Shiite civil war than they are on attacking Israel.

That is why Sunni Saudi Arabia wants a war with Iran.  Iranian support for non-Sunnis who are fighting Sunnis, such as the Houthis in Yemen, is a major block to Saudi ambitions to spread its violent, harsh Wahhabi version of Islam throughout the Muslim world.  But unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia dare not face Iran in a conventional war.  While the Saudi’s spend incredible sums of on their military, that military exists primarily to maintain the throne at home.  Its competence at real war, as we have seen in Yemen, is small. I suspect the Iranians would kick the Saudi’s butts easily and quickly, and I also suspect the Saudis know that.

So what’s the answer for both countries?  Get the U.S. to fight a war with Iran on their behalf.  Both are working frantically behind the scenes in Washington to bring such war about.  Both influence or control a great deal of money that can be channeled to politicians who do their bidding.  Both have massive Washington lobbies.  It’s as they say of a swan:  above the waterline all is serene, but down below some furious paddling is going on.

So we are back to our ironic fact: peace appears to depend on President Trump and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.  Both are under severe pressure, President Trump from the Likudniks who surround him in the White House and the Ayatollah from the Shiite 4GW forces that find their funding dropping fast.  We must all hope that both dams hold.

The View From Olympus: It Works!

Some time ago, I wrote a column proposing a solution to the mass shooter problem.  I suggested we form a national militia made up of men who pledged that, if they encountered an active shooter, they would attack him.  I noted that some of the attackers would probably die.  But they would almost certainly reduce the overall death toll, and they would reverse the moral calculus.  The focus, instead of being on the shooter, would be on those who acted to stop him.  That, in turn, over time might well reduce the appeal of becoming a shooter and begin to put an end to the mass shooter epidemic.

Well, it works.  We’ve seen it work in two recent situations.  A shooter opened fire in a classroom of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30.  The May 7 New York Times reported that:

He kept charging.  A bullet to the torso did not stop Riley Howell.  A second bullet to the body did not prevent him from reaching his goal and hurling himself into the gunman, who fired at point blank range into his head. . . 

He tackled the gunman so forcefully that the suspect complained to first responders of internal injuries. . . 

That final shot marked the end of what could have been a far worse massacre, the police told his parents.

 “The chief said no one was shot after Riley body slammed him,” said his mother, Natalie Henry-Howell.

On Tuesday, May 7, at the STEM High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a similar story played out.  When a shooter walked into a classroom, three male students went for him.  The May 10 New York Times wrote that:

(Brendan) Bialy, the STEM School student, described the takedown of the gunman as an effort among (Kendrick) Castillo, himself and a third boy he declined to name, citing the boy’s wishes.  Mr. Castillo was closest to the shooter suspect, about a foot away, when the suspect walked into their English class.

Once Mr. Castillo got up, so did Mr. Bialy and the other boy.  They slammed the gunman against the wall.  He fired his pistol once or twice in the skirmish, hitting Mr. Castillo.  Students tried to tend to him, but he was unresponsive, Mr. Bialy said.

“Kendrick refused to be a victim,” Mr. Bialy said.

Again, the death toll was kept down because unarmed men attacked the shooter.  Interestingly, the Times added:

Even younger children were prepared to take action.  Nate Holley, a sixth-grader at the school, recounted to CNN how his teacher moved the class into a closet during the shooting.  Standing in the corner, Nate got ready.

“I had my hand on a metal baseball bat, just in case,” said Nate, 12. “Cause I was going to go down fighting if I was going to go down.”

In both incidents, the shooters have received virtually no publicity.  The focus of attention has been entirely on the guys who stopped them, especially the two who died doing so.  Again, at the mental and moral levels, this is of central importance to de-motivating potential shooters.

As I said in my earlier column, the attempts to professionalize response to active shooters by leaving the problem to the police have usually failed, for a reason the police can do nothing about.  By the time they get there, even responding as fast as they can, it’s too late.  We have another mass casualty event.  Only men immediately present can act in time to limit the casualties.  In both of these cases, the fact that they were not armed did not prevent them from stopping the shooter.

It would fit President Trump’s approach to problems well if he took the lead to do what needs to be done.  The militia we require has no uniforms or weapons and costs no money.  It is simply a register of men and boys who have taken a pledge to attack any active shooter they encounter.  We need women and girls to do the opposite, to run and hide.  Why?  Because otherwise the men will drop the mission to protect the women.  It’s simply human nature.

The President could also direct the armed forces to provide military funerals for anyone who dies stopping a shooter–deservedly, Riley Howell was given one–and awarding a military medal would also be appropriate.  Casualties in 4GW here at home deserve no less honor than casualties in overseas wars.

A republic requires courageous citizens, not an administered people.  The two young men who died in these incidents were exactly that.  They set an example of how to stop a phenomenon that, by undermining the public’s sense of safety, undermines the legitimacy of the state.  The rest of us now need to build on the foundation they have laid.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.