Conventional Counterinsurgency

It is interesting at how much an education can change your viewpoints on something. When I was in late high school, I picked up a book called Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden, which recounted the Battle of Mogadishu, waged by U.S. Special Forces and local militia forces as the U.S. military attempted to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. In the seventeen years since that initial battle, the firefight that occurred during that day which essentially provides a preview of what is to come.

Interestingly, the film adaptation of the book (and real life events) was released in December of 2001, just a couple of months after the attacks on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Shortly after said attacks, U.S. Special Forces entered Afghanistan, and began was has been known as the Global War on Terror. Hindsight is a dangerous thing to use, especially when connecting major events, but looking back to the 1993 firefight in Somalia, it's clear that the U.S. simply wasn't geared towards fighting the type of warfare that presented itself in the Middle East and nearby hotspots. Throughout much of the recent history, the military had been positioned towards combating a major enemy, the Soviet Union, and subsequent international actions, such as the Gulf War of 1991, just a couple of years prior to the Somalia fight, seemed to affirm that warfare would remain as a style of centralized, organized warfare, against a static enemy who followed all of the rules. Somalia, a small action, seemed to be an abnormality, something that would be unlikely to happen again.

In his book, The Sling and the Stone, retired Colonel Thomas Hammes, of the United States Marine Corps, notes that this change in warfare was nothing new. The conventional nature of what is generally termed 3rd Generation Warfare, is a style of fighting that the United States had worked and became very good at, but historical evidence points to the emergence of a 4th Generation of warfare, which Hammes describes as a style of warfare that "uses all available networks - political, economic, social, and military- to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit." (Hammes, The Sling and the Stone. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006, 2). While he goes on to note that this style of warfare is an evolved method of insurgency, I believe that it is in fact the other way around - insurgency is a natural progression of warfare in this instance, and in a large way, 4th Generation warfare falls well within the general constraints of warfare as described by Carl Von Clausewitz in his book, On War:  "War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale....War is therefore an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." (Clausewitz, On War, New York: Penguin Putnam, 1968, 101). Insurgencies, in this instance, seem to be made up of a new understanding of networks, combined with technology in unexpected methods to achieve a formidable resistance to an organized force.

The events that occurred in Black Hawk Down prove to be a good example of this style of warfare in action, but also the root causes that provide a valuable context for the conflicts that are ongoing. In the film adaptation of the book, a boy is seen to have alerted militia forces by holding up a cellular telephone to the sky as the Task Force Ranger helicopters flew overhead. Whether this happened or not, I'm not sure (paging through the book, I wasn't able to find mention of it), but the scene made me recall the November 2008 coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India, when several teams of insurgents, armed with guns and explosives, used mobile phones to help kill 173 and wound 308. The use of technology has become integrated with insurgency warfare, allowing for a low-key method for coordinating attacks and personnel without having the benefit of a major organized military. The fighting against Islamic fundamentalist forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan are generally not at the hands of an organized military force acting on the behalf of a recognized government, but are representative of smaller political factions and warlords within established boundaries.

Despite this early evidence that there were changes in the ways that wars had been fought (Hammes cites Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia as examples of where this style of warfare had been seen), this ran counter to the then-nature of how the military conducted itself. "The essence of the American army, in the eyes of its career officers, is ground combat by organized, regular divisional nuts. Although the American army tolerates the existence of subcultures that do not directly contribute to the essence of the organization, these peripheral organizations do not receive the support accorder to the army core constituencies of armor, infantry, and artillery." (Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 6) The current War on Terror and ongoing conflicts is a demonstration of this, as the U.S. entered into major hostilities with Iraq and Afghanistan with one style and mindset of conducting the war, and discovering that entirely new methods were necessary when it came to countering insurgency forces.

Looking over the events of Black Hawk Down, there are elements of current counter-insurgency doctrine, or at least several best practices that highlight the differences between counterinsurgency warfare and organized maneuver warfare. Hammes notes that prior to the United Nations taking over the peacekeeping operations, U.S. Marines aggressively patrolled the streets of Mogadishu, talking with the local inhabitants, and recognizing when someone from outside that neighborhood entered. As the war in Iraq and Afghanistan have progressed, this has become a focus of the new Counterinsurgency doctrine, with soldiers encouraged to work closely with local inhabitants of neighborhoods and streets in an effort to remove insurgency forces from the local population, depriving them of population support. While watching and reading Black Hawk Down, I see a battle that was the result of a failure in vision and peacekeeping leadership. As Hammes notes, the decision to draw back into major bases, while leaving the population in the hands of militia forces was a drastic one that spelled out dire consequences for U.S. forces. At the same time, the leaders tasked with peacekeeping were unable to prevent insurgent and militia forces from operating and controlling the areas that they needed to protect. Similar actions would later occur in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the United States pulled out of the cities of Iraq in favor of major bases, only to find that violence levels dropped with the implementation of smaller bases amongst the populations. The so-called surge in Iraq was not simply more soldiers deployed to the country, but it was the change in tactics, with the manpower to carry out these changes.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, "The New Rules of War" March/April 2010), John Arquilla notes that the differences between conventional and unconventional warfare require entirely new methods of approaching warfare. Insurgency warfare (commonly referred to as 4G), allows for a far more decentralized style of fighting: Where prior approaches to countering insurgent forces had been to apply more force, "Nothing could be further from the truth, as the results in Iraq and Afghanistan so painfully demonstrate...the evidence of the last 10 years shows clearly that massive application of force have done little more than kill the innocent and enrage their survivors. Networked organizations like al Qaeda have proven how easy it is to dodge such heavy punches and persist to land sharp counterblows." (Arquilla, "The New Rules of War", Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2010)

The end result is that fighting a war the wrong way causes more problems, and ultimately fulfills the mantra of decentralized, networked insurgency groups: cause an invading power more problems than is worth it in order to convince their parent governments, and by extension, the population that supports it, that the efforts overseas are simply not worth it. The U.S. experience in Vietnam demonstrated that a massive conventional force had a lot of trouble fighting in ways that it was not prepared for. As a result, the U.S. military eliminated counterinsurgency planning and training in the aftermath, vowing to never again fight in a style of war that it was not prepared to fight. While a noble goal, it seems to have been a short sighted decision, even in light of continued successes of conventional military victories since then, such as with the British military against the Argentineans in the 1980s, and with United States forces against Iraqi forces in 1991's Gulf War. However, militaries do not get to pick how their opponents fight, and must be aware to all types of influences on warfare in areas that they are fighting: the methods of terrorist and militia style forces had existed for years, and examples such as Somalia demonstrated that these styles of fighting existed, and that adequate planning for such fighting had not been implemented. The result in Somalia was the death of 18 soldiers.

The results coming from Iraq and Afghanistan are much more dire, and I can't help but wonder what changes might have been made had the full context and lessons from Somalia had truly been learned by policy-makers and military thinkers at the time. As hindsight is much cleared now, it's easy to make such declarations, and even at this point, the future of warfare is still something that is very unclear. As such, the real lesson that the United States should learn is from the aftermath of Vietnam with the destruction of the planning and training for counterinsurgency fighting: planning and realization of conflicts is a key element in the military, as well as the ability to adapt far more quickly to actions and differences in fighting styles based on the long history that the United States has had with combat.

Veteran's Day

Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one's country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.

Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.

When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein's masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn't the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn't come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier's experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.

Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and related books that take place during and after. Card's character, Andrew 'Ender' Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare - and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity's successes over the Buggers at the end of the book - a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender's Game is brilliant in its use of characters - Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger's homeworld, only to find that there was no tests - his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender's story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines - rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions - a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I've been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here - bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they're not volunteers, and they aren't expected to live beyond the war - something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.

While thinking of Traviss's Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess'Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess'Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles - the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess'Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line - there's a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one's society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.

When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life's experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life - the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren't necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of 'humanity', as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare - soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man's War.

Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements - better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards - these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.

Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes - all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military - have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight - wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.