Strategy Strikes Back: now in stores!

Hey you! Yeah, you. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict is now in stores! You can get a copy of your very own. I particularly recommend it if you a) like Star Wars and b) like astute commentary on modern military conflict. This book has both!

You can buy it directly from the University of Nebraska Press,, Barnes & Noble, or from your independent bookstore


It's strange to see people who were adamantly against the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars decry the Obama Administration's stance towards the uprisings in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Libya and the violence that's broken out over the last couple of weeks. There's been calls for operations such as a no fly zone to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from attacking rebel forces and civilians in Libya, and while I'm not disputing that some form of intervention is a good idea, US military operations would be a bad idea, setting a further bad precedent for the country already embroiled in two wars across the world.

While the idea of military intervention as a tool to be used by an administration is one that has some merit, what first appears to be a fairly simple idea turns out to be a very difficult one to implement: to do so would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Libya. While the United States (and more importantly, along with United Nations peacekeeping forces) has upheld no-fly zones over countries such as Bosnia and Iraq in recent military history, Libya presents a far more challenging mission. Where Bosnia didn't have an extensive anti-aircraft network, and where Iraq had just been invaded, Libya has invested quite a bit of money in an organized military and defense force, one that would have to be dismantled and neutralized prior to the deployment of regular flights over the country.

This isn't an easy step, because it would require a number of different combat elements to undertake: dedicated support teams for the aircraft, up to date and accurate intelligence on the Libyan defenses, and the forces (air and ground, most likely) to take down their targets. This would have to happen while the United States is committed to two other combat missions, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which take a serious amount of funding, personnel and equipment to keep going. Siphoning off planes and resources from either of those two locations would have an adverse impact on the ongoing operations over there (most likely hitting Afghanistan more heavily), which in turn causes long-term problems for the people on the ground in completing their own objectives.

This happens in an environment where the country has been increasingly war-weary, having seen the impact that war has on the country, to say the least of what's happened overseas. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had sought to reduce the country's role in the world by not utilizing the U.S. armed forces as a sort of policeman for stopping communism, seeking to help prop up governments (for good or bad) in their own footprints. There are some practical lessons to be learned here, particularly the fiscal one, which sought to move the U.S.'s foreign policy to one that avoided costly wars continually after Korea, although there's a bit of a mixed record here. Transplanted into the present day, and pushing for an armed response to the Libyan conflict might bring about some short-term gains, but it could be counter-intuitive in longer strategic goals for the region, and it would represent a costly endeavor.

The U.S. would face reduced effectiveness of countering the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, because of the reduced personnel and air cover that they already enjoy, as forces are redeployed to the North African country, where a continual military engagement would quickly wear down equipment and personnel, if the experiences of Iraq and Bosnia are anything to go by, and that's with some of the major problems already taken care of. Landing ground forces in Libya would essentially be a third invasion of the country, with casualties expected as the U.S. jumps in the middle of a civil war, which can turn problematic when we already have a poor track record of understanding local culture, politics and strategy.

Furthermore, we would need to fully understand the larger strategic aims for the country. If the goal is simply to save lives, there alternatives, and if the goal is full on regime change, there would need to be a fully committed US (and most likely, UN) mission to undertake that, something that most likely won't sit well, not only with the American public (in the long term) or the European Union, which is already pulling away from coalition duties in Afghanistan and Iraq. A no-fly zone would most likely help to accomplish the first goal, but not the second, but it would require a significant military effort to undertake, an effort that will likely outstrip the direct benefit to the U.S. strategic goals for the region.

Ultimately, there is no easy answer to what will happen in Libya, but in all likelihood, military options, while on the table, won't be considered unless there is significant participation from European allies, something that I don't see happening any time in the near future, as they largely have their own internal issues to consider. It's a real shame, because America and its allies have come out of the last nine years with one of the most experienced and well equipped military forces than at any point in recent times. However, if the will and means aren't in place for a long-term military engagement, it's something that probably won't, or shouldn't happen. At the same time, if those calling for action in Libya already don't have the will or desire to support the goals that have been put into place in the Middle East already, it strikes me that there is some real evaluation required of the country and its desire to wage war. We all must live with the consequences of what we reap.

Defending Korea & Continual Conflict

Korea has been at the forefront of the news over the past couple of weeks as violence has begun to escalate between the North and the South following a North Korean shelling of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong in response to a series of planned military exercises. The escalation of violence seems to have been rising, when an attack on a South Korean warship left almost fifty sailors dead. Indeed, the two countries seem to be a rapidly drying powder keg with a new South Korean leader, and with the expected promotion of Kim-Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un at some point in the near future. With almost 30,000 American soldiers just to the south of the 38th parallel, an outbreak of war in the country is something that will heavily impact the United States. With two major conflicts on their way out the door, the prospect of another confrontation abroad is a sobering one.

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower became the 34rd President of the United States, where he had campaigned on countering Communism, Korea and Corruption. Despite leading the Allied military against Adolph Hitler and his allies in Europe, Eisenhower sought to bring down the national budget on a platform of fiscal conservatism, bringing about deep cuts in the military budget and recognizing a new philosophy and approach to the United State's presence in the world.

After visiting Korea, Eisenhower sought to bring the United States and its efforts to an end, and with a cease-fire (although no resolution) to the conflict, was able to fill a major campaign goal that aligned with his beliefs: the United States did not, and could not fight in every battle across the world with a massive standing army, able to engage in more conflicts such as the one just waged in Korea. Under his 'New Look' plan, approved in 1953, which allowed the U.S. to utilize technology and America's atomic stockpile as a means to deter open aggression from the Soviet Union from directly attacking the U.S.. The policy was designed to rein in defense budget spending on a massive conventional force, while spending less on a more technologically oriented one that wasn't necessarily required to do anything but exist.

The recent troubles in Korea bring to mind some of the issues that have been ongoing in the political and military scenes recently. As the country begins to move in the direction of less spending (at least the attitude is there, somewhat), reducing the fiscal situation of the United States will require something along the lines of what Eisenhower had envisioned for the country half a century ago: reductions on all fronts, including military spending. The policies that were put into place were engineered with the fear that the country's financial footing had a corresponding impact on the nation's national security standing in the world. America, with a growing economy, population and budget, could face major problems as it was, and potentially, with the added need of continual fighting abroad in conflicts that were similar to Korea, the country’s stability could be at risk.

In a large way, the series of conflicts that followed September 11th fall right into what Eisenhower feared for the country: exceedingly high defense budgets for an expensive war where the United States has gotten its hands dirty in areas perceived to threaten the country’s security. Eisenhower had pushed against full American engagement in Vietnam, and it wasn’t until after his term in office that the conflict escalated for several Administrations, from which point the U.S. was able to stay out of major engagements until 1991, for Operations Desert Shield and Storm. Here, the theory of technological warfare as a superior form of conventional warfare was validated: for the 372 coalition soldiers killed as a result of the conflict, around 30,000 enemy soldiers were killed.

The fight in Afghanistan and Iraq are different: the U.S. has been slow to adapt to the new environment of warfare, plunging in with certain assumptions and coming out with an entirely different experience than was expected. Continual fighting in small conflicts will cause further problems for the country, especially if such conflicts are not properly understood and the ways in which to fight them are imperfectly realized.

The Eisenhower administration’s plans to deter fighting against the country worked, in part. The threat of massive retaliation faced its biggest test in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and demonstrated that the threat of assured destruction of both countries (not to mention everyone else caught in the crossfire and were downwind) was enough to force both players back down. At the same time, it hasn’t been able to prevent warfare outright: Vietnam was a war in which the nuclear issue was largely side-stepped, and would cause problems years down the road, while American involvement in areas such as Haiti, Panama, Somalia and other smaller countries and conflicts have not been decreased, although their significance doesn’t approach the scale of something like the current fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are both abnormal conflicts, and two fights that signal some frightening precedents for the future. Already into its 9th year, the combined conflicts have cost an estimated $1.1 trillion, for a conflict that seems to run counter to the vision that Eisenhower had hoped for and seems to have done precisely what Eisenhower feared such battles would do to the country’s financial status. In the future, what conflicts does the United States have in store, if it can enter into a war-like state whenever it sees reason to do so?

The prospect of renewed war in Korea only adds to the fears of a continued lack of restraint when it comes to spending. Political elements in the United States have called for fiscal restraint, but the exception seems to be the money that pours in for the military. While the front-line soldiers need the financial support in order to accomplish the mission in front of them, the country needs to adopt a mindset of reducing the need for the soldiers to be requiring that money in the first place: avoiding costly confrontation across the world by recognizing which conflicts should be fought. The practice of deterrence will likely not work in this new environment of war: multinational political groups are harder to deter. Deterrence in Eisenhower’s day was the best means to contain spending and effectively protect the country from those who wished harm against the country. In the present day, we need to do much the same: figure out the best way to defend the country without oversight and restraint.

Should the tensions between North and South Korea break, the United States will likely have some hand in the issue, and we could find outselves in a third major conflict at a time when we can't afford to become entangled.

Warfare for the Crowdsourcing Age: Adam Robert’s New Model Army

New Model Army, by Adam Roberts, takes an interesting look at the function of warfare and society with the question: What if a hierarchical military, such as ones set up along the lines of the British or U.S. Armies, and pitted it against an army that was fully democratic in its organization?

The concept is an interesting one, and the book as a whole is a perfect example of something that I've wanted to see in the subgenre: a world in which the military itself is examined, not only in the tactical side of things, but also in its ideology. Roberts puts forth an interesting idea that blends together the changing states of technology and warfare: militaries have adopted a new organizational structure: rather than the strict chain of command that defines the military lifestyle, they have brought together a large group of people, connected them through secure wikis and use the power of the crowd to fight. Tactical decisions are voted upon, and each soldier updates the battlefield map with the needed information: where they are, where the enemy is, and so forth.

The concept is one that is already in the earliest stages of implementation in the real-world battlefield, on a couple of levels. With the advances in technology, military leaders have been able to reduce the 'fog of war', the so-called elements of the battlefield, where commanders can't see what's happening, and are forced to rely on planning extensively. As the abilities of the military to watch the battlefield increases, from cameras mounted on soldiers to drones flying overhead, major changes have been seen, both in the leadership and organizational structure of the military, but also in how tactics are put forth.

Indeed, the connection between the ability to wage war and the relative ease to which technology is available has already begun some major changes. In 2008, insurgents entered the city of Mumbai, armed with cell phones and the internet, and were able to coordinate their attacks, using Google Earth to help plan the attack. Other examples of similar uses have been used across the various conflicts around the world. As the world becomes more connected, it's far easier to coordinate attacks with individuals across country borders and continents.

New Model Army, while it puts forward an interesting story on the military, there's a number of things that make the story a bit more implausible, technology advances aside. Currently, the United States and her allies are into their ninth year of waging a counter-insurgency battle in the Middle East, one that will likely leave lasting impressions on the organizations of all involved, and are lessons that would not be easily forgotten. As such, the New Model Armies (NMAs) are essentially a form of insurgency warfare that seem to plague the regular British military wherever they confront them, inflicting heavy losses and forcing surrenders at several battles. For a nation that's largely been involved with counterinsurgency warfare for longer than the US (if one can consider the problems in Ireland), it seems strange that they would be unable to counter said forces, not to mention not adopting some of the methods in and of themselves. The successes of the NMAs seem to come from the ineptitude of the British military. Political motivations or opinions notwithstanding, it are a situation that annoyed me as I read the book.

The British NMA, soldiers were instilled with a sense that a pure form of democracy, and carried such an air of superiority amongst them that I can't help but thing that their role was satirical, at least at points. It's not until into around two thirds of the book that the main character is confronted with any sort of counter-point to his philosophy that democracies are inherently better than any other form of self governance.

When it comes to military powers, democracy is something that really doesn't exist, and for good reason: the style of warfare that has evolved over the course of human history ultimately relies on a large presence of soldiers, acting in concert, to achieve a goal that's determined by someone higher up in the chain of command. The ability to work together as a unit is a key element for the battlefield, and discipline is drilled into soldiers early on. The evolution of uniforms and mass-produced weapons helped to support this. The outsider viewpoint of a the military as a close-knit group of people follow orders, are yelled at and depersonalized (The term G.I. means General Infantry), is somewhat accurate, but the full meaning and reasons behind this type of training needs to be taken into consideration. The role of the soldier is to fulfill national priorities: in this case, by force, and essentially, they are willing tools of what is determined needed to be done.

Looking at a group such as a New Model Army, it's hard to imagine that a force composed of individuals, with a bottom-up organizational method would be as successful in the real world: individuals might be disciplined, but military actions require the coordinated efforts of a group to accomplish their goals: hence the depersonalizing training to get people to not run away from being shot at. Similarly, in the NMA, people hold no rank, nor do they carry any sort of specialization, which in and of itself causes issues. Militaries are groups of specialists, whether it be in a certain weapons system, as medics or as leaders, and I don't believe that the simple availability of information through the cloud can replace an individual trained and specializing in something as important as lifesaving. (I know I wouldn't want a surgeon trained from Wikipedia in heart surgery). Militaries are likewise structured (when they work properly) with individuals skilled in leadership and planning are promoted, and are able to recognize, carry out and accomplish their goals.

Furthermore, military actions recruit more than just tactical (on the battlefield) planning to accomplish their goals: there is far more long term planning when it comes to carrying out national goals, which in turn, inform the tactical requirements of a battlefield. Once again, in a crowd sourcing environment, I don't see that this would be an effective style of fighting. People in a large group might have their own goals, methods of fighting that run counter to national goals. In the book, the NMA uses a nuclear 'bullet', a sized down nuclear warhead that surprises everyone. Similar actions exist in real life: groups such as Freedom Watch or the Minuteman Project, which advocates or utilize force outside of national interests and policy. Undoubtedly, said crowd groups would utilize similar behavior in their actions, especially in a war zone. A U.S. Officer who captures the story's main character makes such a point, noting that while his British NMA is a good example of where this sort of thing works, there's other groups that are essentially mobs.

Insurgencies around the world utilize social networking and crowd sourcing elements right now, and in all likelihood, there will be moves towards this future that Roberts has predicted. However, as they do so, their opponents will do what the militaries in this book haven't done: adapt to the new styles of fighting, and find ways to counter them, but also understand how and why such measures are being put into place.

While there are real issues with the style of fighting in the book, Roberts has done what I've really yet to see another Military Science Fiction writer do with the genre: look at how people fight, and how things might work. This is a military science fiction book that goes beyond the action; it goes straight to the heart of how militaries function, speculative in and of itself. I see the fighting that occurs in the book as an afterthought, used to support the real character elements that go into the story, and as such, New Model Army is an interesting, fascinating book that annoyed me thought out, but it frequently made me stop and think about how such a thing might actually work in reality. Because of this, this book stands out from a lot of other miltiary science fiction stories.

One thing is for sure though, if there is a rise in this sort of style of fighting, it will be a very bad thing for all of us.

MilSF & Society

Earlier today, I had a post go up onto io9 titled 'What Is Military Science Fiction?', with the intent of looking at what defines books that are generally classified as such. The end result? While there's a lot of books that look towards the military for their stories exclusively (Think Baen Books), there's a second grouping of books that utilizes the military to an extent, some of which are somewhat surprising, like Dune and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which generally aren't thought of as such.

The general problem that I see with military science fiction is that they're not about the military: it's about the people in the military, and their (or society's) experiences with warfare. This seems to be a large gap in understanding, given how much warfare generally impacts fighting in American lives: if you go back through U.S. history over the past century, you would have to go to the 1980s before you found a year that the country wasn't engaged in military operations, publicly. Including classified and forgotten operations, you'd be hard pressed to find a time when we haven't been shooting at someone. Thus, it's essential for an understanding of why people go to war, especially in the speculative fields, because it's such a major impact.

One of the more enlightening quotes that I pulled comes from William Gibson: "Every fictive, imagined future can only be understood historically within the moment it was written." This is huge, and it explains everything that art tries to do in every field: it explains the present by looking at how we comprehend our surroundings. Looking at a lot of the military SF field, it's no wonder that the Second World War plays such an impact in the speculative military fields; it plays a huge role in our lives now.

Beyond that, however, it's no wonder that we look to futuristic warfare to understand the present. Science Fiction helps to take the present out of context, so the reader understands things from another perspective. Joe Halderman's The Forever War looks at experiences that are closely linked to coming home from Vietnam, with a sort of culture shock from returning soldiers.

Other authors have realized, through other works, the roles that politics and radicalism play in the greater picture, and this is why, I think, some books aren't thought of as being military-centric: the actions that surround warfare, such as the political motivations and societal issues, aren't directly linked to war and fighting, but help to give it some context, something that is badly needed in a lot of stories.

The ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq are two wars that require a lot of context. In Iraq's case, one has to look closely to American foreign policy and political circles to best understand the motivations for going to war (agree with them or not, there are some deep seeded reasons, not all of them bad, for going in). There is likewise a necessary examination required to look at Osama Bin Laden's motivations for forming Al Qaeda, which in turn links to other things. War is not a clear-cut and dried action or series of actions, and unfortunately, it is often presented as such.

This is why, I think, Military Science Fiction isn't all that great at being able to predict where warfare will go: there is already a lot of disagreement amongst historians and theorists as it is, over elements that lie in the background of the fighting, while speculative elements look towards the technology for inspiration, while they should instead be looking more at how people think about, and actually conduct warfare.

The ongoing battles going on right now across the world are way more science fictional than any sort of story that we've been able to come up with. Insurgents operate in ways that are vastly different than anticipated. A terrorist armed with a mobile phone, the internet and all the resources of the planet, guided by radical ideas fed to him by someone he's never met can go and become part of a fight and push forth a political message. If there's ever a scary, speculative story that keeps someone up at night, that should be it.

The Afghanistan Push

This afternoon, on the way home from work, I listened to a report from Afghanistan, and the current ongoing push on the part of coalition forces to begin removing the Taliban and other militant forces from power. As I've studied military history, I've read much when it comes to the analysis, and firsthand accounts from other wars: other Afghanistan wars, The Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, the Falklands, and others, but I don't know if anything that I've read struck me as much as what the reporter on National Public Radio revealed earlier today. Nothing from our first entry into the country, and the entire invasion of Iraq seemed to go over so smoothly, it barely registered as war for me. It wasn't until after that the situation began to sink in. This report struck me, hard, as to the nature of the fighting over there, on all aspects. The war has always been extremely real throughout my recollection of it, but for the first time, I realized just how those long lost wittnesses to events since past felt as they watched.

It's a startling revelation, and I have to wonder if the continual coverage of the fighting, from the news on the Internet to the television to the newspaper is really such a good thing. I feel jaded, cynical to world events, where I was far more optimistic.