'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Yes, yes, yes...your Grouchy Historian is in military history nirvana.  After meeting and talking with the editor of the Journal of Military History at the recent conference I attended, I offered my services as a book reviewer for the Journal.   And, wonder of wonders, my services were accepted and I received my books to review this week.  TOTALLY AWESOME.  Of course I received FOUR of them, with a request to write not merely a book review, but a review essay on these four titles, all dealing with the recent US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now I must read, read and then write an essay like I have never written one before....

hmmm, hmmm, good.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Military History Nirvana....

Last weekend, I was in military history nirvana....that's right troopers, I was at the 2012 Society of Military History Annual Conference...

And yes, it was totally awesome.  While my +1 ably managed the home front, I was able to spend two blissful days discussing Clausewitz, tactics, doctrine, Civil War, aviation, COIN...sigh...almost too much to take in.

The staff was very friendly, the hotel actually served above average hotel food at the annual awards luncheon, and the conversation was quite stimulating.

I have to say, my favorite moment was the session where four War College students, all mid-field grade officers, presented the findings of their masters' thesis.  The first two presentations were average (at least to this Grouchy Historian), the next presentation was actually very interesting and well thought-out, and the final presentation was....well....awful, in my jaded, snarky opinion.  I must confess I had NO idea what this guy was trying to say, what his point was, or what conclusions he was taking to sell to us.  It was, in my mind, pretty dismal.  BUT, the best part was when the commentator, a weighty and respected historian who runs each session and ties together the presentations before launching into the question and answer session, got up to do his closing remarks.  This particular commentator is a decorated war vet, military history professor, and is very well respected in the community.  ANNNND, he pretty much smacked them all down.  Ok, I was a very bad man to let my schadenfreude get the best of me, but it was truly, truly a beautiful thing to watch.  Anyone who thinks historians are boring should take lessons in how this commentator politely and firmly skewered these guys.  I mean, it was truly one of those "and the horse you rode in on" moments, delivered with gentility and manners.  Ahhhh, truly a moment to savor.  Yes, I am bad..but there was a lesson to be learned in how to politely tell a colleague that he is full of crap.

The other interesting moment was my time in the exhibition hall.  As you well know, your Grouchy Historian has a severe weakness for books and I assumed there would be bargains to plunder.  However, all I proved, yet again, was the definition of assume...yup, I felt a severe let down.  I walked up to one table and asked about a book I was interested.  The gentlemen from this rather high and mighty publishing house said, "Oh, I can give you a 50% discount on that...only $45."  I politely declined, although I felt like saying, "Dude, I can get this on Amazon for $40 with free shipping."  Overall, I must say, none of the sellers seemed to realize that Amazon existed, at least in my opinion. I mean, I ASSUMED there would be some kick-ass discounts..I mean seriously, who else loves history books, right?  BUT, no, the only vendor that came close was the University Press of Kansas, one of my favorite publishers.  They actually beat the Amazon price on their books by about 5%, so BAMMO, instant gratification baby, daddy got the new book on Operation Anaconda.  This looks like it's going to be a truly excellent book, and yes, it's actually becoming a historical event now...10 years after that confused mess that was the first hunt for Osama in 2002.

I also bought an interesting unit history on the 4th ID in Iraq from 2003-2004 by a good ol' boy from Alabama that seems to be the 4th ID informal historian.  I think his little publishing house is so small, it's not even on Amazon.  But hey, it was only $25 and he was very polite, so I gave him my business.  So not a horrible hunting trip, but not a great one.

  Overall, I was very happy at the end of the weekend.  Lots of new things to think about, some new writing ideas, some new motivation to get off my butt and make those writing ideas a reality and BEST OF ALL, I figure I do indeed posses a truly magnificent military history library built up over 35 years...yes 35 years....but I ain't that old. I do, however still own my very first history book The American Heritage Picture History of World War II given to me by my big sis when I was a wee lad of 11...yup, I was toast after that book.  SO, thanks very much to all at the Society of Military History, you throw a great convention.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Alternate History-Useful tool or waste of time?

Alternate history is a rapidly growing genre of science fiction that is finally beginning to gain some respect and commercial success.  But, it remains less than accepted by historians as anything but a fanciful flight of imagination, useless for anything but passing some time.

However, your Grouchy Historian thinks differently.  I believe that well written and thought out alternate history could be a very useful teaching tool.  Now, I'm not talking about dragons in the American Revolution or anything here.  Even I know ridiculous when I see it.  No, what I am talking about is serious historical thought on what could have happened if a single event, person, or action was changed--and how that change could have impacted downstream events.

What do I mean by this?  Well, as a part time tutor and full time curmudgeon, one of my major pet peeves when reading nincompoops talking about historical events is the ol' theory of inevitability--history had to happen as it did because of unstoppable forces, whether economics, social pressures, or bigger armies.

Indeed, military history is usually the worst offender of this type of analysis...of course the Confederacy had to lose, too many damnyankees to kill, or, of course the Allies won World War II, because we had more tanks, guns, soldiers, and ships than the Axis.  These sorts of assumptions really drive me up the wall.  There is nothing inevitable about history, and we should thank our lucky stars that so often history DID turn out the right way.  AHHH, you want examples....here's a little one that I will expand more later when I talk about my favorite thing.....bacon....no really, books....and bacon...hmmm, eating bacon while reading books...hmmm.

OK, think about the Normandy invasion and the battle of Omaha Beach.  The German defenders, completely missed by Allied intelligence, nearly swept the US troops of the 1st and 29th Divisions back into the sea.  NOW, if there had been just 1 more German battalion in those fortifications...or even if the Germans had been able to muster a single Panzer regiment...thank how the Normandy invasion might have been different with two widely separated Allied beachheads.  Would the Allies still have prevailed?  Or would it have been another Anzio, where Allied troops were penned into a beachhead with nowhere to go?

I think alternate history is an outstanding teaching tool to force students to consider decisions NOT made, in addition to decisions made by people throughout history.  Again, military history is the prime example of this technique as our ol' friend Clausewitz points out--generals must often  make snap decisions in the heat of battle, with incomplete or outright erroneous information and it is often the smallest quirk of fate that leads to decisions made and actions taken.

Alternate history is also an excellent teaching tool to show the nail and horseshoe effect (i.e., for want of a nail, the horse was lost, etc)...and how PEOPLE really do make history.

AHHH, you want more examples....ok....in the Battle of Midway, the American Navy had a completely uncoordinated air attack launched on June 4, 1942.  Torpedo planes, fighters, and dive bombers showed up in a haphazard pattern that allowed the Japanese fighters to face each wave in detail and pretty much annihilate the American torpedo bombers.  IN addition, one of the main group of American dive bombers was more or less lost in the middle of nowhere and almost ready to turn back when they spotted a lone Japanese destroyer on its way back to the carrier task force after chasing an American submarine.  The American commander took a huge risk in following the destroyer, but found the task force with full carrier decks of fueled and armed planes, no fighter cover and the rest, as they now say, is history.  BUT, logically, the right thing to do was turn back as his planes were very low on fuel and had no real clue where the Japanese were.  But because this American pilot took a chance, Midway is now one of the greatest victories in naval history.

So if you want some outstanding, well written, and very thoughtful alternate history, I have just the books and authors for you.

Peter Tsouras is military analyst, military historian and writer (or to be more precise sometimes editor) of some of the best speculative fiction books on military history today.  Disaster at D-Day describes in great detail the scenario I painted above where the Germans turn back the landing at Omaha Beach and are able to divide and conquer the separated Allied beachheads in Normandy.  One of the first alternate history books I read, it really got me hooked on this genre and started me thinking about alternate history as a teaching tool.

Dixie Victorious is the best speculative book (and to be fair the only one I've read) about the Civil War.  In this volume, Tsouras edits a collection of essays by Civil War historians where their imaginations get to run wild, but not too wild...no dragons in this book.  Just some interesting thoughts about how a tourniquet on the leg of Albert Sidney Johnston could have changed the Battle of Vicksburg, or the creation of a real Confederate Navy might have broken the Union blockade.  The fact that all of these essays were written by mainstream historians shows me that speculation is not just for science fiction writers.

Tsouras has many more volumes, some better than others, but all of them thought provoking.

BUT, if you really want to dive into alternate history, there is only one author to turn to--Harry Turtledove.  Mr. Turtledove is a virtual machine when it comes to alternate history timelines and stories, and although I have not read all of his works, I found his Great War trilogy of trilogies to be a fascinating look at how World War I and World War II might have been fought if the South had won the Civil War.

Using one small event--the finding of Lee's Lost Order before the Union private found it--changes history and allows the South to prevail in 1862.  Fast forward to 1914 and Turtledove creates an entire world where the South develops with the ending of slavery, but the creation of a permanent serf class of blacks that have a simmering resentment to their status in the Confederacy.  The power of Turtledove's story telling is weaving in real people, place and events--sometimes with a twist--to create an entirely plausible world where people interact with situations far different than they appear in our timeline.

SO, alternate history is here to stay and I for one think that it could be an excellent teaching tool.

Now, if I can just figure out a way to work it into my tutoring classes......

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Center of Gravity (COG)- What is that?

The third criticism, and one of the more enduring debates within the U.S. military, is the understanding of Clausewitz’ concept of the 'Schwerpunkt' or Center of Gravity (COG).  The implications of this particular debate are vitally important to the U.S. strategic and operational thinking, as the notion of finding an opponents’ COG has become pervasive in U.S. military doctrine to facilitate strategic, operational, and tactical planning.[1]  Clausewitz gives a very clear definition of COG, without attempting to define one for every particular situation-

    “What the theorist has to say here is this:  one must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind.  Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.”[2] 

What’s more important than even this oft-quoted paragraph is the rest of this section, where Clausewitz clearly states that the center of gravity will vary depending upon the circumstances of that particular conflict-

    “Destruction of his army…Seizure of his capital…delivery of an effective blow against his principle ally…Blow after blow must be aimed in the same direction:  the victor, in other words, must strike with all his strength and not just against a fraction of the enemy’s.”[3] 

Many critics miss this concept when complaining that Clausewitz espoused only that a commander should be focused on destroying the enemy army, even though that was certainly the overriding objective of Napoleonic warfare.

Modern critics of Clausewitz complain in particular how the U.S. military has integrated center of gravity thinking into doctrine.  The difficulty in understanding and applying COG to American military planning and strategy is a real issue.  The ability to determine what the focal point of an enemy’s military power and how to focus our military forces on it, has been a daunting problem in the Iraq campaign, particularly as those ‘focal points’ of U.S. military effort changed during the seven years of combat in Iraq.  U.S. forces initially expected to fight a conventional battle against Iraqi ground forces, and the COG was assumed to be the Republican and Special Republican Guard units, the best trained and equipped Iraqi forces in 2003.[4]

These early battles also show the difficulty the American military has with a rapidly changing military/political situation and the incongruities in how COG thinking is applied across the different armed services.  Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that COG theory, like most of On War, is subject to interpretation and requires understanding and context.  In particular, German and American commanders have historically interpreted COG very differently.  The Germans viewed the Schwerpunkt as the point of an opponent’s vulnerability where an attacker’s forces and efforts should be concentrated, even at the risk of weakening other forces on the battlefield.  American commanders, conversely, viewed the COG as the source of an enemy’s strength or capability that should receive particular attention by available forces to weaken or destroy this particular capability or force.  The historical German Schwerpunkt concept that evolved further than even Clausewitz’ original thinking and was much richer than American conceptualization.  The German effort was described as the weight of effort that not only looked at the relative perceived strength or weakness of an opponent, but weighed such factors as terrain, the best unit to conduct the attack and even the execution of the attack via surprise and follow-on forces. [5]

Modern critics are partially correct in arguing that the application of COG theory in American service and joint doctrine is somewhat disjointed, but it would be unwise to consider abandoning COG altogether without offering a suitable alternative.  COG doctrine, in the modern context, is really about allocating available and likely limited military resources to achieve maximum effect—a form of ends, ways, and means balancing that should be examined within overall campaign and strategic planning.  Just as Clausewitz understood that a commander must maximize his forces at some decisive point on the battlefield, modern COG attempts to develop a systematic means of deciding how to apply military power to the best result.  The problem occurs in modern warfare when our enemies are decentralized and do not exhibit the sort of ‘mass’ or ‘critical point’ to apply our overwhelming conventional firepower capability. 

Counterinsurgency warfare in particular has vexed American military planners, as combat and destruction of the enemy may not be the decisive ‘center of gravity’ needed to achieve a political victory.  This was the painful conclusion American forces in Iraq finally discerned in the fall of 2006 as the planning for the eventual 'Surge' began to shape American strategic and operational thinking.  The early COIN efforts by American forces focused on tracking and killing insurgents while completing the hasty rebuilding of Iraqi military and police forces to allow American forces to withdraw as soon as possible.  When sectarian violence increased through 2005 and 2006, U.S. strategy floundered as competing priorities of reducing casualties and presence in major urban areas led to the disengagement and fortification of American forces in large, isolated bases.  When a realistic and comprehensive strategy review was conducted in the fall of 2006, a new COG was determined for American forces- protecting the Iraqi population and continuing support for the growing rejection of Al Qaeda extremists by the Sunni tribes.  Militarily, the sharpening and focusing of the new COG allowed a Schwerpunkt of placing small groups of American troops in neighborhoods and villages, denying sanctuary to insurgents and gaining the support of the population.[6]

The modern debate is likely to continue, and even accelerate as the US military begins to withdraw from a decade of land combat and reorient forces and attention to the Pacific Rim, where naval and air power will once again become the predominant factor in American war planning.  Fighting a sea and air battle with China will be far different than chasing Taliban across the mountains of Afghanistan, yet the debate on the proper Schwerpunkt to defeat hordes of Chinese aircraft will be no less intense...............

[1] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0 Operations (Washington , DC: U.S. Army, 2008), 6-8.
[2] Clausewitz, 595-596.
[3]  Ibid., 596.
[4] Fontenot, Col Gregory, et. al. , On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004), 90-96.
[5]  Milan Vego, "Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt-Mistranslated from German, Misunderstood in English," Military Review (U.S. Army), January-February 2007: 101-109.
[6] Jason Wood, "Clausewitz in the Caliphate: Center of Gravity in the Post-9/11 Security Environment," Comparative Strategy (Taylor & Francis Group, LLC) 27 (2008): 44-56; Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008 (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2009), 119-124.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Clausewitz and the unchanging nature of war

As I pointed out in our little introduction post, I am continuing to read and try to understand Clausewitz and his applicability in the modern world.  Now we turn to the first major issue raised by modern critics.

The first issue raised by these ‘new war’ strategists is the changing nature of warfare itself.  Given the recent experiences of conflict in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East a school of thought has emerged where the era of large-scale conventional nation-state warfare has ended, raising not only the issue of war’s utility in the international environment, but also what groups or entities can wage war.  

The conflicts cited by many proponents of this new war theory have two significant surface characteristics that set them apart from war in Clausewitz’ era-- they are often driven on the surface not by traditional politics but religion, race, ethnic or tribal rivalries and are waged by a convoluted amalgam of conventional militaries, militias, local gangs, criminal organizations and even modern day mercenaries.  These new methods of warfare create a great deal of skepticism of Clausewitz’ theories as applicable only to nation-state war and no longer useful in the age of counter-insurgency (COIN), counter-terrorism (CT) and non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.1  

These new conflicts also bring into question Clausewitz’ views on the relationship between war and politics and the issue of ‘limitless’ warfare where violence escalates beyond the ability of an established government to control.  Part of this confusion stems from the word ‘politik’ and how it is applied by Clausewitz.  In his thinking, politics and policy are intertwined--war not only affects the policy of international relations, but is affected by domestic politics, with all the attendant limitations on how wars are waged.2  

Several critics point to the notion of gangs and militias waging war not for the sake of political gain, but to maintain instability or conflict to further some economic or ethnic grievance or to maintain some level of autonomy without actual political control, for example, Al Qaeda in Yemen and Iraq.  In addition, these critics point out that ethnic conflicts often become mindless killing efforts, where activities such as ethnic cleansing occur independent of a greater political goal.3

While several authors point out Clausewitz’ seeming contradictions on the issue of limited and unlimited warfare, at its core, the theory of war as violence for some political purpose still offers the best framework for understanding conflict, even between ethnic or religious groups.  As several analysts point out, any organization that controls territory, population or resources and has some means of inflicting violence on their neighbors can be considered an entity waging war, whether an insurgent group, drug cartel, or a more organized international group like Al Qaeda.

This point will also be applicable to the later discussion of Clausewitz’ trinity and its continued utility. 

Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are more amorphous in this concept since they do not occupy territory or control populations per se, although they do use violence for political objectives.  Clausewitz does offer a more ethereal description of limited versus unlimited warfare by explaining that all warfare ultimately has its limits on what the population and military will accept in terms of death and destruction, no matter how much passions are raised, therefore all warfare has some limits imposed by the realities of human and societal endurance. 

 Iraq offers several examples where sectarian warfare was waged on the surface between Sunnis and Shias or between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds for ethnic or religious motivations, but underneath the conflict was ultimately about political and economic dominance over the country’s vast oil and water resources.  Iraq also offers an excellent example of the limits of warfare, even highly emotional sectarian warfare where the Sunni tribes eventually turned to the Americans against fellow Muslims in Al Qaeda when their traditional political power is was threatened.4  

So has warfare really changed?  Hmmm, not so much.  Organizations or countries still use violence or the threat of violence to further some end, usually power or financial gain, and even the bloodiest of tribal wars aim to have something standing for the winners to rule, even if it is a burnt out pile of rubble.

   1 Colin Fleming, "New or Old Wars? Debating a Clausewitzian Future," The Journal of Strategic Studies (Routledge), April 2009: 213-241;  Colin Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (New York, NY: Phoenix Press, 2007), 30-31.

  2 Hugh Smith, On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas (New York, NY: Palgrace MacMillan, 2004), 98-99.

  3 Andreas Herberg-Rothe, "Primacy of 'Politics' or 'Culture' Over War in a Modern World: Clausewitz Needs a Sophisticated Interpretation," Defense Analysis (Taylor & Francis Journals) 17, no. 2 (2001): 175-186.

  4  Clausewitz, 77-78; Bing West, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (New York, NY: Random House, 2008), 24, 28-29, 64-69; Bart Schuurman, "Clausewitz and the "New War" Scholars," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Spring 2010: 89-100.