9 December 2017

Don’t listen to the calls for more killing in the WOT

Larry Kummer,

As Trump and his general-dominated foreign policy team expand and intensify our wars, the calls for more killing rise again. As in an article in the respected journal of the Navy Institute. We should just say no. “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

No said by Einstein but by Alcoholics Anonymous, people who know everything about dysfunctionality.

In Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, December 2017.

By Lieutenant Colonel David G. Bolgiano — a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who served in Operation Desert Storm and as Command Judge Advocate for Special Operations Command Central in Iraq and Afghanistan, and

Lieutenant Colonel John Taylor — a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who served as Command Judge Advocate for 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta (Delta Force) and Task Force Bowie in Afghanistan.

“Those given the awful task of combat must be able to act with the necessary savagery and purposefulness to destroy those acting as, or in direct support of, Islamic terrorists worldwide. In 2008, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Admiral Michael Mullen said, “We can’t kill our way to victory.” Ever since, many have parroted his words. But what if Admiral Mullen was wrong? The United States has been at war with radical Islamists four times longer than it was with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. And those previous enemies were far more competent and aggressive than the terrorists. It is time to kill a lot more of them. …”

The rest of this continues in the same vein. This song has been sung many times during the war on terror, as it has been in most counter-insurgency operations by foreign armies. It is a song luring us to do evil — and lose. Both history and theory show why we should not listen.

Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

This is wrong in many ways. First, American has never been reluctant in inflict civilian casualties. Since WWII, America has relied on the Trinity of modern warfare, one of which is “massive firepower on civilians.” It has a steady drumbeat of news, usually buried in the upbeat stories planted by DoD (like this one). We bombarded villages in Iraq with artillery (not exactly “winning hearts and minds“). Now we’re bombing Afghanistan with B-52s, part of another cycle of increased killing — producing another round of civilian casualties and protests about them. Because “there’s no such thing as precise air strikes in modern warfare.”

“I think the American people certainly could summon the will to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS, if properly led. …I don’t know if our military leaders have the character, the wherewithal to do what it takes to defeat ISIS. It’s not about winning hearts and minds, it’s about splashing their hearts and brains all over the landscape.”

Even for Fox News, this is an amazingly ignorant statement to hear in the 15th year of our post-9/11 wars. This advocacy for more killing shows that we have learned nothing from our experience, going back to the Vietnam War. It was a policy decided upon in early days of our war there. We killed countless numbers and lost anyway.Available at Amazon.

At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

We tried to “kill enough”. The US dropped 1,613,000 tons of bombs in Europe during WWII — and almost five times that on Southeast Asia ( 7,662,000). That’s almost 500 pounds of explosive per person, not including the massive use of artillery and napalm {for more information see this study) — and the more retail-level killing (as at Mai Lai, a sadly common event). Nick Turse documented the result in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

“Kill them all; let God sort them out.”

— Loose translation of phrase attributed to Papal legate Arnaud Amalric before the Massacre at Béziers, in France at the start of the Albigensian Crusade. Not a bright moment in the Church’s history.Avilable at Amazon.

Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fight insurgencies in foreign lands. Although an ancient form of conflict, the odds shifted when Mao brought insurgency war to maturity after WWII. It took decades for the West to understand. In October 1989, five experts wrote a seminal article in the Marine Corps Gazette explaining about the new era: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. In 1990 Martin van Creveld explained with more detail in The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz. If we paid attention to this we might have won the WOT.

“One would expect forces on which so many resources have been lavished to represent fearsome warfighting machines capable of quickly overcoming any opposition. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. For all the countless billions that have been and are still being expended on them, the plain fact is that conventional military organizations of the principal powers are hardly even relevant to the predominant form of contemporary war. …

“Without a single conventional war being waged, colonial empires that between them used to control approximately one half of the globe were sent down to defeat through LIC’s …In the process, some of the strongest military powers on earth have suffered humiliation…

“…how well have the world’s most important armed forces fared in this type of war? For some two decades after 1945 the principal colonial powers fought very hard to maintain the far-flung empires which they had created for themselves during the past four centuries. They expended tremendous economic resources, both in absolute terms and relative to those of the insurgents who, in many cases, literally went barefoot. They employed the best available troops, from the Foreign Legion to the Special Air Service and from the Green Berets to the Spetznatz and the Israeli Sayarot. They fielded every kind of sophisticated military technology in their arsenals, nuclear weapons only excepted.

“They were also, to put it bluntly, utterly ruthless. Entire populations were driven from their homes, decimated, shut in concentration camps or else turned into refugees. As Ho Chi Minh foresaw when he raised the banner of revolt against France in 1945, in every colonial-type war ever fought the number of casualties on the side of the insurgents exceeded those of the ‘forces of order’ by at least an order of magnitude. This is true even if civilian casualties among the colonists are included, which often is not the case.

“Notwithstanding this ruthlessness and these military advantages, the “counterinsurgency” forces failed in every case.”

Van Creveld gave a briefer version in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006).

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. …Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

“Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

Why we lose: the two kinds of insurgencies

In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation of van Creveld’s conclusion. We can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces.

Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.

Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

Local governments often win conflicts of the first kind, often with valuable foreign assistance — so long as the locals control political strategy, tactics, and the major combat forces. For example, see David Kilcullen’s insightful analysis of the Indonesian government’s defeat of insurgencies in West Java and East Timor. These conflicts are often conflated with those of the second kind, as if victories by the local governments are similar to the defeats by foreign armies.

An intermediate kind of conflict occurs when a colonial power grants independence to the local elites through whom it has ruled, winning by trading away sovereignty for an influence with the newly independent State. Examples are the British wars in Malaysia (1948 – 1960) and Kenya (1952-1960) (of course the British took full credit in the histories they wrote).

Foreign forces almost always lose when they take the lead because the locals have two great advantages. First, they have the home court advantage. Second, as Clausewitz said in Book 1, Chapter 1 of On War

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. …I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”

Others have seen this and warned us

“We could knock off all of ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon, but by the end of the week, those ranks would be filled. Many people, especially those in uniform, have said we can’t kill our way to victory here.”

— General Thomas D. Waldhauser (USMC Commander, U.S. Africa Command) in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March 2017.

Time made this clear to a widening circle of observers. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) expanded this insight in his 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration. In 2008 RAND also came to the similar conclusions in “Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings” by Martin C. Libicki, appendix A of “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“ by David Gompert and John Gordon et al. Here is a summary.

Some with experience on the front lines tried to warn us, as in this from Doug Sanders’ “Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency? Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan” (Globe and Mail, 31 May 2008).

One thing this cloak is hiding is the likelihood that once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost. … The insurmountable problem that the COIN Team faces is that expressed by a senior French commander who told journalist Eric Walberg that: “We do not believe in counterinsurgency” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

In 2010 Andrew Exum referred us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard: “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (17 June 2010; available through Proquest). Her conclusion was expressed in a DoD-sympathetic fashion…

Ultimately, I argue that third parties {foreign armies} win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.


The problem with our foreign wars is not that we don’t kill enough. History decisively shows that more killing will not help. The people urging this are the people who got us into these wars and guided it through 16 years of failure. We feel big and strong by our killing, and ignore the cost we pay in money and blood.

Eventually somebody will strike back at us. Perhaps harder than on 9/11. Let’s get smart soon.

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