The View From Olympus: The Pentagon Declares Bankruptcy

According to the December 28 New York Times, the Pentagon has finally made its moral and intellectual bankruptcy official.  With regard to our failed war in Afghanistan, the Times reported that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., said that the Taliban “are not losing.”  The general is correct.  The Taliban are not losing because they have won.  All that remains is working out the details of their assumption of power and our departure.  To his credit, President Trump recognizes that reality.

But merely presiding over our defeat is apparently not enough for General Dunford.  In a truly breathtaking admission of strategic incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy, the general went on to say according to the Times,

“If someone has a better idea than we have right now, which is to support the Afghans and put pressure on the terrorist groups in the region, I’m certainly open to dialogue on that,” General Dunford said at a panel sponsored by The Washington Post earlier this month.

Wow. I doubt Moltke Jr. or even Keitel, whom the Fuehrer described as having the mind of a hotel doorman, sank that low.  Has General Dunford considered asking the chairwoman who cleans his office? Perhaps he could talk to his milkman or egg lady.  Certainly his driver should be consulted; after all he has some idea where he is going, which general Dunford, after sixteen years of war and several thousand American dead, admittedly does not.  In the long annals of military incompetence that’s still one for the history books. Clio should award General Dunford the Golden Trash Can, First Class, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that we are a Prussian officer sent to advise General Dunford on how to turn a lost war around (That’s what happens when you fart at the dinner table on board the Hohenzollern).  Taking the General’s statement quoted above as a description of his strategy, we see that “supporting the Afghans” has no meaning because it is a war of Afghans against Afghans.  As to “putting pressure on the terrorist groups”, “terrorists” simply means “the other side” and “pressure” means tactical pinpricks with no strategic impact.  It is seldom possible to reverse strategic failure at the tactical level, and kleckern, nicht klotzen is a prescription for failure at all levels of war.

So to begin we need to shift our focus to a strategic level. I suspect even General Dunford knows that the Taliban’s strategic center of gravity is its support by Pakistan. Take that away, and the Taliban is walking on air. How might that be done?  Recognize that so long as the current Afghan government is aligned with India, Pakistan has no choice but to support the Taliban.  Pakistan’s threat is India, and Pakistan needs Afghanistan as an ally to offer it some strategic depth. Above all, it cannot have a hostile Afghanistan putting Pakistan in a two-front situation. So our first step is to give the current Afghan government a (secret, not public) ultimatum: cut all ties to India and become a loyal and subservient ally of Pakistan.  If they won’t, our troops and money go home. The money, more than the troops, will concentrate their thinking.

When the Taliban sees this move and realizes the strategic threat it represents, offer them a peace that secures our limited objective while rewarding them.  Our objective going into Afghanistan was to deprive Al Qaeda of a base.  We have no quarrel with the Taliban per se.  So, we offer to recognize a Taliban-led Afghanistan as long as they do not invite back groups that seek to attack the American homeland.  Al Qaeda have worn out its welcome in Afghanistan before 9/11 and it now has more useful bases in other countries.  Plus, the Taliban is already fighting ISIS within Afghanistan. As part of a peace deal, we could offer to support the Taliban in that fight, not with troops but with the all-important ammunition in 4GW, money.

I doubt General Dunford will be willing to heed Prussian advice.  But if he’s asking the whole world for input, he might recall that these services send their best and brightest young officers to serve the members of The Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As Chairman, he is well within his rights to say to those young officers, many who will have served in Afghanistan, what he said on the Post’s panel: if you’ve got better ideas than what we are now doing, please share them with me.  I suspect he would to get some useful feedback, perhaps along the lines I’ve outlined here.

Or he could just ask the chairwoman. Even she is likely to come up with something better than doing more of what has not worked in sixteen years.

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

The Close Combat Lethality Task Force

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has created a “Close Combat Lethality Task Force” to fix problems with U.S. infantry forces.  The vast majority of these forces are found in the Army and Marine Corps.  Many of the task force’s ideas are encapsulated in a book by Major General Bob Scales, U.S. Army (Retired), called Scales on War.  In this book, General Scales calls for a comprehensive program to improve the lethality of U.S. infantry.  

The fundamental problem is that Scales has misunderstood the changes occurring in modern war.  Scales’ thoughts on past changes in war are muddled.  While he vaguely mentions changes in war as a result of societal changes, he provides a framework broken into “epochs”, each of which is defined by technological changes.  This leads naturally into a solution in which technology plays a central role.

Unfortunately, technology is neither the problem nor the answer.  If it were, the United States would not have difficulty defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan (as just one example).  War has changed and we are now facing Fourth Generation adversaries.  This change in war is based not on technology, but on who fights and what they fight for (as Martin Van Creveld has argued).  The truth is the U.S. military is poorly adapted to fighting Fourth Generation wars, where “lethality” can be disadvantageous.  Nowhere in Scales’ book does he demonstrate any understanding of this.

Scales also confuses tactics with strategy.  Scales believes American military ineffectiveness can be attributed to poorly trained infantry.  The solution is equally simple: provide massive resources to improve training and equipment and victory will be assured.  

This is a serious misunderstanding of what has gone wrong in U. S. military involvements since World War II.  American infantry can certainly benefit from better selection and training, but this will not cure the strategic disease which is crippling the U.S. military establishment.  One can have legions of the most effective and efficient killers the world has ever seen and still lose a war with poor strategy.

The United States has committed troops to poorly defined, poorly understood, and unwinnable conflicts yet demanded victory.  Senior military leaders who are little more than bureaucrats in uniform and lack either military sense or the ability to speak truth to power seem to do little more than nod when asked if the military can accomplish the mission.  The result in Vietnam was a disaster.  Although U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is still ongoing, after nearly 18 years and 16 years respectively, can anyone seriously believe victory is still possible?

In advocating improved infantry, Scales provides a tactical solution to an operational and strategic problem.  He does not understand that in war, results at a higher level trump those at a lower level.  Back in 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized that the United States could not kill or capture its way to victory in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Scales does not understand this.

Scales believes strategic victory can be won by stacking up tactical victories (and enemy bodies).  Unfortunately, war does not always work this way and this method has entirely failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Whether the Close Combat Lethality Task Force ultimately achieves anything other than spending a lot of money remains to be seen.  What is beyond question is that even if the program is wildly successful and the effectiveness of American infantry increases dramatically, until we gain a better understanding of Fourth Generation war, increased body counts will not improve our military’s ability to win wars.  If General Scales is providing a roadmap for our military, we are likely going in the wrong direction.

The View From Olympus: Another Personnel Blunder

On policy matters, President Trump usually does well when he follows his instincts.  But that does not appear to be the case on personnel decisions.  His worst, to date, was choosing John Bolton as his National Security Advisor.  We are already paying for that decision in worsening relations with a number of other countries.

If, on the one hand, you are going to raise the risk of hostilities, on the other hand you should be improving the quality of your military leaders.  But in another poor personnel decision, President Trump has chosen Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  The combination of Bolton and Milley would be like choosing Ribbentrop to run your foreign policy and Graziani to command your army in the resulting wars.

By the low standards we set for our senior military leaders, Milley is not especially awful.  His main sin, which he shares with his colleagues atop the other services, is doing nothing about the fact that the Army is a Second Generation military in a Fourth Generation war.

Actually, in a way, General Milley did do something about that: he made it official.  Not long ago, he ordered the U.S. Army to return to its World War II-era uniforms, the so-called “pinks and greens”.  As costumes, the old/new uniforms will be a great improvement.  The fact that they are costumes recognizes the reality that a Second Generation army is useless for a real war and exists only to stage public entertainments.  All our Second Generation services are like armored knights on horseback in the 16th century.  Their heavy plate armor has reached its highest stage of perfection, but real battlefields are filling up with low-born musketeers and the knights “fight” only in tournaments, where damsels swoon, someone is occasionally unhorsed and nothing is decided.

I am hopeful that General Milley will do as Chairman of the JCS what he has done as Army Chief of Staff and make the theatrical nature of the other services official too.  The Air Force will go back to biplanes that stage dogfights over NFL football games.  Ironically, that might also make it more combat effective in the air, at least in what really counts, supporting the man on the ground.  World War I ground-support aircraft such as the Halberstadt and Hannoveraner CL IIs are better suited by far to the close air support mission than are F-35s.  And Fokker D VIIs are usually ready to fly and fight, which means they can easily defeat F-22s stuck in their hangers by their enormous maintenance requirements. 

The Navy tried to make its irrelevance official in the 1980s by bringing back the battleships, which look very impressive.  That effort, however, failed, because it did not go back far enough.  Chairman Milley, I hope, will direct the Navy to start building some new Constitution-class frigates, which will not only put on splendid shows on Navy Day but will require real sailors to man them, which might in turn compel the Navy to find some.  The new Zumwalt-class destroyers already look like zombie versions of C.S.S. Virginia; why not build some real Monitors and Confederate ironclads and stage naval battles in the Reflecting Pool, as the Romans used to do in the Coliseum (which could be flooded)?  And bringing back airships like Akron and Macon will wow the public while doing what the Ford-class carriers cannot, namely launch and recover airplanes (both of those airships carried Sparrowhawk scout aircraft).

The Marine Corps should not be touched.  Its continued focus on making amphibious landings on heavily defended beaches had already rendered it son et lumiere.

Regrettably, these wonderful follow-ons to the pinks and greens require vision, and general Milley has none.  We can, however, probably count on him to try to push the new Physical Fitness Test he decreed for the Army down the other services’ throats, so they too can witness a mass exodus of their staff NCOs.  Staff NCOs are the backbone of any military in combat, but what does combat have to do with “armed services” full of women?  Our military theater has reversed the roles in kabuki: it has women playing men.

There is an old saying on Capitol Hill that the Air Force is deceptive, the Navy is dishonest, and the Army is dumb.  As Burke noted, stereotypes arise from observation.

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

General McChrystal and General Lee

It is interesting that General Stan McChrystal recently admitted to getting rid of a portrait he had long cherished of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  One would think that McChrystal would have some sympathy for Lee, considering both presided over failed wars.  There is a world of difference between these two men and McChrystal does not benefit from the comparison.

Since his dismissal by President Obama, McChrystal has become an author in an attempt to trade on his celebrity status and high rank.  He has done well, with several popular books to his name.  At a recent book signing, McChrystal admitted his best advice was for the U.S. to continue to “muddle through” in Afghanistan.

Think about this for a moment.  McChrystal held the top command in Afghanistan for a full year (2009–2010) during which he was unable to chart a course to success.  He has had 9 years since he left command to reflect on his experience and the direction of the war.  After all this time, the best he can come up with is to “muddle through”?

No response could better encapsulate the professional failure and moral bankruptcy of our senior military leaders.  For the last 17 years, general after general has told a succession of U.S. presidents, “We can succeed in Afghanistan.”  McChrystal was one of them.  Afraid to be the one tagged with presiding over a defeat, each general believes the U.S. should stay the course, blindly hoping for a change of fortune which is unlikely to occur.  Doubtless no one wishes to signal all the sacrifice in blood and treasure has ultimately proven futile.  Unfortunately, that is the reality.  

McChrystal was a proud graduate of U.S. military schools.  He was carefully groomed for high rank and selected for great responsibility.  And he failed miserably.

It’s ironic McChrystal has decided to publicize his decision to give away a picture of Robert E. Lee.  Lee faced different challenges during the Civil War than did McChrystal in Afghanistan.  Unlike McChrystal, Lee actually had a plan to win the war he fought.  It may not have worked, but at least Lee knew what he was doing.  McChrystal cannot make this claim.  If Lee were alive today, he would likely get rid of McChrystal’s picture – if he were foolish enough to have one in the first place.

The View From Olympus: Hurrah for the President!

Finally, President Trump is doing what he was elected to do, namely ending our involvement in wars halfway around the world in which we have no interests at stake.  President Trump was elected as a peace president.  He promised to bring the boys home.  His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was neo-lib/neo-con interventionist.  He won, she lost.

Mr. Trump won not because he is a liberal peacenik who appealed to the Left.  His constituency was and remains the Heartland Americans whose sons do the fighting and dying in these wars.  They do not understand why we are involved in the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria, and neither do I.  They know why we went to Afghanistan after 9/11, but not why we are still fighting there seventeen years later.  Again, neither do I, although I understand that military incompetence at the senior levels has something to do with it.  The Washington Establishment has careers and budgets at stake, so of course it wants wars to continue.  That’s not much of an argument in the rest of the country.

The President’s decisions to get out of Syria and Afghanistan are not only wise but necessary.  In Syria, if we stay much longer, we will have to choose sides between the Kurds and the Turks.  Turkey is going to go after the Syrian Kurds militarily, whether we like it or not.  If we side with the Kurds we will find ourselves in the inconvenient situation of going to war with a member of NATO.  We will also lose, simply because of geography: the conflict would be on Turkey’s border with Syria, where our logistics lines can only support a small American force.  If we side with the Turks or try to remain neutral, we would lose our only local ally who can actually fight.  At that point our forces in Syria would be surrounded by lots of enemies with no one to help.  As President Trump would say, “Not good.”  So we need to get out, now. 

In Afghanistan, our position is deteriorating at an ever more rapid clip.  President Trump is trying to negotiate with the Taliban for the only possible outcome that is not a catastrophe, an orderly and safe exit of our forces.  The alternative is a sauve qui peut rout where our losses could be serious.  Just ask the Brits.

The Establishment is running in circles, screaming and shouting.  It’s fun to watch.  Their latest cause for panic is Secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation.  Frankly, there is little reason to regret his departure.

I know General Mattis only slightly.  We had one meeting when he commanded the “Marine Corps University” at Quantico.  (As Universities go, it has more in common with McDonald’s Hamburger U than with Harvard.) No actions resulted from that meeting.

Mattis is unquestionably well-read, and I had great hopes for him as SecDef.  But he proved to be no better than his less well-read predecessors.  He did nothing to reform either the services or the Pentagon itself.  He promoted the strategic idiocy of turning away from preparing for Fourth Generation wars, the wars of the future, and instead making Russia and China our enemies of choice.  Does he not know that both are nuclear powers?  Is he unaware of why both the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided direct engagements with each other’s forces throughout the Cold War, namely that whichever side were losing would feel immense pressure to go nuclear?  The Pentagon likes such a “strategy” because “peer competitors” justify vast budgets and programs, but the Secretary of Defense is supposed to represent the real world.  Mattis failed to do so.

Secretary Mattis began one initiative that deserves to continue after his departure.  Called the “Close Combat Lethality Task Force” (CCLTF), its purpose is to provide more resources and better training for the men who do most of the dying, the infantry.  They get a pittance of the resources devoted to, for example, tac air.  The CCLTF aims to change that, and it would be a pity if it died because its sponsor was gone.  The current concept for the CCLTF has some weakness, which I will address in a future column.  But the need for it is real.

So hurrah for the president!  He is ending stupid wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, trying to mend fences with North Korea and wants a good relationship with Russia.  All those initiatives are very much in America’s interest.  Could that be why the Washington Establishment hates him so bitterly?

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

The Reality Principle

No one was more important than Herbert Marcuse to the effort to inject Frankfurt School’s cultural Marxism into the Boomer generation.  His book Eros and Civilization, which became the Left’s bible in the 1960s, argued for replacing the “reality principle” with the “pleasure principle”.  The result, Marcuse promised, would be a world of all play and no work.

The actual result has been a culture of instant gratification and with it the growing social pathologies now engulfing us.  If we want to reverse America’s decline, we must again enthrone the reality principle.  The reality principle says that to succeed, our actions must be based on reality, on conditions as they are and not as we might like them to be.  This is especially urgent in five areas, where the relativities are:

  • State capitalism is failing.  State capitalism is capitalism where cozy relationships between business and government change the basis for a company’s success from building a better product at a lower price to getting special deals from government.  Also known as “rent seeking”, state capitalism leads to ever-larger and more powerful corporate entities because the bigger a company is, the more money it has to give to politicians, and the more money it gives to politicians the less appetite the government has to rein in bad corporate behavior.  State capitalism leads to a society with a tiny, super-wealthy elite and an even-poorer middle class.  This is what the “yellow vests” in France are protesting, in what I think is only the beginning of a powerful political movement.  There is an alternative to state capitalism: not socialism, which impoverishes everyone, but a regulated market that has strict limits on scale.  Most finance, production, and consumption should be local.
  • America’s grasp for world hegemony has already failed.  After the end of the Cold War, instead of bringing our troops home and minding our own business, the foreign policy elite and the Military-Industrial-Congressional complex (the MIC) attempted to make America the only superpower, “the universal monarchy” as it used to be known when Hapsburg Spain tried the same thing.  The result for both countries was mountains of debt, military failure, and economic decline.  (The best book on Spain’s experience is J.H. Elliott’s The Count-Duke of Olivares; the parallels are striking).  We have ended up force-feeding the flames of Fourth Generation war, war our military does not know how to fight, putting the whole state system at risk, and spurring massive invasions of Europe and North America by barbarians from the global south.  There is a plausible alternative:  America First, which means bringing our legions home and using them to man the limes, as President Trump is trying to do while the MIC works to block him.
  • The civil rights movement has proven to be a false road for America’s blacks.  While it has allowed some blacks to integrate into the middle class, it has left a large residue in urban ghettos where they have essentially been written off.  Overrun by crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and welfare dependence, America’s urban black neighborhoods, too many of them, are factories of disorder, something no state can tolerate indefinitely without risking its own legitimacy.  In the hands of America’s current black “leaders”, civil rights has come to mean little more than endless demands for more handouts.  The promising alternative is the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who argued that instead of saying “We’re victims, do something for us,” blacks should show by their own efforts that they can perform at the same level as whites.  I’m willing to bet they can.  If not, well, then they are not equal, and future policy will have to be based on that reality.
  • Feminism has been a disaster for most women.  While it has benefitted a small elite in business and politics, feminism, with its demand for no-fault divorce, destroyed what most women depend on for lifetime security, marriage.  Men do better on their own than women, and the Boomer generation’s women find themselves, too often, alone, poor, and without a future as they get older.  Feminism’s pretense that men and women are interchangeable has led to growing dysfunction in more and more areas, as women are soldiers, cops, firemen, etc.  Can’t do the job but also can’t be let go.  The #MeToo movement is leaving young men afraid to approach women, which is building enormous anger in men cut off from sex.  When women get angry, they squawk.  When men get angry, they kill.  For both sexes, the alternative we know works is the Victorian doctrine of “separate spheres”, where women’s sphere, which Victorians considered the higher one, is home and family while the man brings home the bacon and both can look forward to a comfortable old age in each other’s arms.
  • Cultural Marxism has proven greater failure than the old economic Marxism of the Soviet Union.  Both lead to the loss of freedom of thought and expression, but economic Marxism’s shared poverty was more bearable than the isolation and anomie cultural Marxism creates as every natural relationship is perverted and every difference is rubbed raw.  Cultural Marxism makes life in society impossible, which is just what its founders, Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno, and Marcuse, wanted it to do.  Their goal was “negation” or “negative dialectics”, more commonly known as nihilism: simply bringing everything down.  Unless we want to live amid the ruins of our civilization, we need to turn to an alternative: retroculture.  Retroculture dismisses all ideologies and says, “We’re going to return to the old ways of doing things in our own lives and the lives of our families.”  As Gertrude Himmelfarb, the preeminent historian of the Victorians, has written, through the Victorian period the incidence of social problems steadily went down, while since the 1960s the incidence of social problems in our society has steadily risen.  There’s a lesson in that.

There are other areas where we need to restore the reality principle; indeed, we need it everywhere if we expect our actions to yield the results we intend.  Acting on any basis other than reality leads to randomness of results, disorder, entropy, and collapse.  It is John Boyd’s “false orientation”.  We’ve been doing it on a massive scale since the 1960s.  In each case, there are reality-based alternatives that could work.  Maybe it’s time for middle class Americans to start putting on those French yellow vests.

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