'87 Sir

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Grognard look at combined arms warfare

Combined arms warfare is nearly as old as war itself. The ability to synchronize various types of combat arms has been a hallmark of a great generals, from Caesar to Napoleon to Erwin Rommel. Prior to the 20th century, combined arms was pretty straight-forward->artillery bombarded the enemy to prepare for the infantry assault, and when the infantry (or what was left of them) broke the enemy line, cavalry would be sent in to pursue and run down the defeated enemy. It was not always that easy, of course, and required that elusive trait Clausewitz called "battlefield genius", but when exhibited by Napoleon, who always seemed to know just how long to use the artillery, just where to commit the infantry attack, and when the right moment to commence the cavalry charge to bring about the complete defeat of the enemy force at Austerlitz or Jena, it was a wonder of military art and science.

Beginning in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, profound changes to weaponry, tactics, and communications made combined arms warfare not only necessary, but much, much more challenging. In an excellent book by a grognard for grognards, Jonathan House, former army officer and contemporary of David Glantz, another of my favorite military historians, takes an in-depth look at how the major militaries of the world tried to adapt to the changing realities of the modern battlefield brought about by the rapid fire rifles, machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and modern communications and sensors. Beginning with World War I and the various attempts by the major combatants to break the stalemate of trench warfare, House looks at the different approaches various European armies and the US took to integrating new weapons into their unit organizations, training, doctrine and tactics.

House focuses primarily on how the various armies tried to organize divisions, brigades, and regiments around the tank as the primary weapon of the 20th century battlefield, and offers some interesting insights into the role of military culture, threat assessments, and battlefield experience drove these changes, focusing in particular on World War II and the profound changes to war wrought by the advent of the combined arms German Panzer division as a tactical maneuver unit that combined tanks, infantry, artillery, reconnaissance, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft units into a single organization trained to fight together. The various methodologies used by the Americans, British, and Russian armies in the war are also critiqued, and House does a good job of showing how the choices made by each army in their definition of "combined arms" combat affected their battlefield performance. The chapter on how the US and Soviets tried to come to terms with the "atomic battlefield" of the 1950s is particularly interesting, as this organizational construct can be seen as the fore bearer of today's attempts to create "modular task oriented" brigade combat teams (BCTs) in both the US and Russian armies of the early 21st century.

House goes further in looking at the integration of airpower, communications, and what we would today call C4ISRT into the battlefield and how ground commanders have a much more challenging job controlling a vast battlespace in three dimensions and hundreds of square miles.

The only nitnoid is the book ends right after the Gulf War and the Russian invasion of Chechnya. A revised version with a chapter on the profound changes to combined arms warfare...which is now virtually JOINT warfare as defined by the US-- as it nearly always involves air power, and today at least, SOF units integrated and sometimes commanding conventional ground units.

However, the overall historical analysis of the book is first rate, and understanding how soldiers have come to grips with changes to battlefield weaponry, tactics, and doctrine make this a worth-while book for anyone interested in the conduct of modern combined arms combat.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Great little manifesto--now to see if anyone has the guts to make it happen.

I have to say, I was a bit surprised by how much I liked this book.  My +1 told me about it, but I don't usually read political books, even conservative political books. 

However, this book, a combination of history, constitutional law (not the kind practiced by progressive liberal statists, as Levin call them), and conservative call to action both enlightened me and made me wonder if we can't still save our Republic from crashing down around our ears.

The crux of the whole book is Article V of the Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress;
I know that actually getting the states together to accomplish this would be a tall order, but maybe, just maybe, enough Americans will get fed up with the overbearing leviathan of an out of control federal bureaucracy to do something about it.

Levin trods some familiar conservative ground with his proposed amendments, including term limits and a balanced budget--things which will no doubt make the professional politicians and Democratic liberal progressive big government types howl with fury...which is, of course, the point.

One additional amendment I would have proposed is that Congress should not get to exempt themselves or their staff from the laws they pass...which is routine..even with Obamacare...that SIGNATURE accomplishment of the Democratic Party.  Included in this is that Congresscritters should NOT get their own gold-plated retirement, but should take Social Security and Medicare like the rest of us poor schlubs.  Just THINK how fast we would get real reform of these Ponzi schemes if Chuckie Schumer and Botox Nancy Pelosi were told they were now on Social Security!  Would kind of make your head swim, no doubt.

Anyway, it's a short and worthwhile book that is all the rage on conservative media and #1 on Amazon...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Timely and topical book on Gettysburg

WOW, WOW, I have to say this book lives up to its billing as "Not just another book on the Battle of Gettysburg."  Allen Guelzo does a magnificent job of bringing the battle to life at both the general's, private's and even bystander's level to bring not only fresh insights to the battle, but a sweeping narrative which places each regimental, brigade and division action in relation to each other to give a true picture of the sweep and intensity of the battle.

YES, I know I should have finished and reviewed this book before the big 150th Anniversary celebration, but believe me it was well worth the wait.

WHAT did I learn about the battle that I didn't know?  Lots, as will anyone who reads this volume, whether a hardy Civil War grognard like myself, or someone who doesn't know Hancock from Armistead, Meade from Longstreet.

First, the politics and personal backbiting, intrigue and feuding among the generals of each army not only makes for magnificent soap opera, they had an actual influence on the battle and its outcome.  This was one of the first significant features of Guelzo's viewpoint and argument--that more than at any time in American military history, personal interactions among senior leaders could decide the day of battle....a la Sickles movement of his 3rd Corps on the 2nd day of the battle as part of a long running dispute between himself and George Meade...a move which nearly spelled disaster for the Union forces.

Second, and this was the most fascinating part for me...the most dangerous day for the Union Army was not the third day and Pickett's Charge, but the attack by Longstreet on the Union left flank and center of the second day, beginning with the charge up Little Round Top, the destruction of Sickles' Corps in the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard and the ending of the day with fighting on Cemetery Ridge, which almost won the battle.  Guelzo is not a proponent of the "Little Round Top" club and takes great effort and some joy in smashing many of the myths and legends of the battle, including Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine.  His chapters on the assault on the Union center on the 2nd day almost read like something out of a Clancy novel-19th century style, and it is clearly Providential that Union commanders and units turn up on the battlefield when they did.  The charge of the 1st Minnesota is a tale that should be told more often...bravery almost to the level of the Charge of the Light Brigade, although with more military effectiveness.  The fact that only nightfall and the utter confusion of the Confederate forces, combined with the timely arrival of a scant few Union regiments at Cemetery Ridge, makes the tale of the 2nd day of Gettysburg truly an American Alamo, Thermopylae, and Omaha Beach all wrapped into one bloody package

Finally, Guelzo lays out a pretty convincing case that Lee and Meade and their subordinates, for all the talk of Gettysburg being an accidental battle that nobody wanted (which was for the most part true), acted with complete military logic for their day both in their overall strategy and tactics.  Most readers, including myself, have a hard time understanding just how badly the Confederates tore up the Army of the Potomac.  But I understand Lee's logic better now.  By the end of the second day, 5 of the 7 infantry corps in the Army of the Potomac were essentially hors de combat, unable to do anything but fight a strictly defense fight, and then just barely.  Although the Confederates were equally mauled, they had the initiative and still had a very large division, George Pickett's to put into the fight.  Lee's plan for the 3rd day was risky, but not as suicidal as it may seem...although James Longstreet would continue to disagree, no doubt.  Even Pickett's charge could have turned out differently if only a couple more Confederate brigades had advanced, since there were literally NO more Union regiments to put into the fight unless Meade committed his last strategic reserve, Sedgwick's VI Corps, which he was very reluctant to do, and Guelzo shows how the desperate balance of victory or defeat at the climax of the finding under the "clump of trees" relied on the actions of a few brave men.

A couple of minor nits...Guelzo is clearly not a fan of George Meade, and I think other historians could make a case that Meade's pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg was not the debacle history has painted it.  As Guelzo points out, both armies suffered astounding casualties, and not only did Meade have thousands of wounded from both sides to take care of, his cavalry horses were tired, his men were tired, and in many cases his troops needed resupply with ammunition, food, and clothing, including the all important shoes.  Could Meade have lunged after Lee?  Probably.  Would he have been able to destroy Lee's army?  Doubtful.  Once the opportunity to counterattack immediately after the repulse of Pickett's Charge (which was really Meade's missed opportunity---the chance to send Sedgwick's big corps crashing into Seminary Ridge on the heels of Pickett's wrecked division) the likelihood of actually catching Lee's army with his own tired and fought out troops was unlikely.  Once Lee's army got dug in at Williamsport, Maryland, only a continuance of the rainy weather could have trapped Lee's army.  HOWEVER, one thing Guelzo does a good job of is using maps.  I wasn't sure I would like his cartography, but it kinda grew on me, and ended up being an excellent  accompaniment to the text.

This is just some historical discussion and doesn't detract from the overall excellence of this book.  Although I still like Stephen Sears volume immensely, I would have to say that Guelzo has done a superb job and taken over the "If you only read one book about Gettysburg" championship.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Man on a mission-- Stop the scourge of COIN.

Col Gian Gentile is a man on a mission—to save the US military from the scourge of counter-insurgency or COIN operations.

Freeing the Army from the Counterinsurgency Straightjacket

A (Slightly) Better War: A Narrative and Its Defects

His new book Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, is a short, but intense tome where he rails against COIN, “savior generals,” and the US Field Manual 3-24, the official US doctrine manual on COIN. COL Gentile has no doubts of the righteousness of his cause, and he has been a curmudgeonly critic of the so-called “COINDINISTAS” of the Washington think-tank circuit. Now the question is—Does he have a point? Is he right? Or, has he just mangled history to push his viewpoint and be contrarian? So, let’s look at the good, bad, and the UGLY of his arguments and then look at what he DIDN’T talk about…which, as any good historian will tell you, is almost as important as what he DID say.

1) The Good: Col Gentile takes a long time to get to his real point—armed nation-building in a country of backwards, tribal, Muslim sheep herders from the 7th century rarely works. Yup, this seems to be his entire point, although he meanders around in terms of strategy, tactics, etc. I have to say, I don’t disagree with him. I have become a real proponent of the concept of the “punitive expedition” mode of foreign policy, whereby you inform the Afghan, Pakistan, or Yemen village elders that we don’t really care what they do with their sheep or women, but if Al Qaeda shows up, we will make the rubble dance. Col Gentile, uses Malaya and Vietnam as allegories for Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes a key point that Vietnam was not Malaya, and Afghanistan is not Iraq. Here I also agree with him, as I mentioned in my review essay on books discussing both campaigns--the US military’s efforts to “cut and paste” the Iraq Surge into the Af-Pak border was strategically dangerous and foolish.

2) The Bad: Col Gentile spends a lot of time wailing against the “savior generals” such as Creighton Abrams, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal. In a more snarky moment, one could see an angry permanent O-6 peeking through, but I will defer that line of reasoning without evidence. What I will note is that throughout history, savior generals are a proven fact. Whether they are actual saviors, like U.S. Grant or Matthew Ridgeway, or public relations saviors like Douglas MacArthur after Bataan, the psychology can be just as important as the reality. In all wars, political will is needed to win, or at least to successfully conclude wars. Sometimes this means putting a fresh face on the military command. In Iraq, the public face of David Petraeus, combined with the courage of President Bush allowed the Surge, which Col Gentile basically dismisses as a major factor in allowing President “Duck and Run” Obama to pull out our troops and declare “Middle East peace in our times” and “Osama is dead and GM is alive” The whole topic of the surge is a huge sore spot of the author. Personally, I think the evidence shows that the Sunni Awakening and the Shia standdown, which Gentile credits for the drop in violence through 2007-2008 would not have occurred without the additional US troops AND a change in willingness to engage with the Sunni tribes and schwack Mooki Al Sadr and get Maliki to do it as well.  I think the good Col doth protest too much in poo-pooing the Surge.

3) The Ugly: While Col Gentile spends a lot of time discussing (pillorying) FM 3-24, he doesn’t mention any other Army doctrine or strategy pubs, which I think is a significant shortfall if he wants to change the outlook, strategy, and policy of the US Army. Unfortunately, just like the US Army tried to institutionally forget COIN after Vietnam and concentrate on the Fulda Gap, the US Army, whether it wants to or not, is not likely to be able to forget Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrate on ?????.

This, of course is the $10,0000 question…WHAT are the most likely threats and missions the US Army will face in the next 20 years? Will it be a major conventional conflict on the Korea Peninsula? Or will the major security issues the US faces continue to be failed states, criminal and terrorist organizations…or some combination of all of these in Mexico, somewhere in the Middle East or Africa? This is the question the US Army must grapple with, because it will affect everything from equipment procurement, training and doctrine, and strategic options available to US policy makers. Should the Army keep heavy tank and mechanized infantry brigades, or should more brigades be made “lighter” and more mobile? What is the role of Special Operations units? These are important questions…and Col Gentile strangely, offers no insight or opinions on what he thinks the Army should do, although from other articles he has written, he clearly favors a heavier, more conventional force.

If you're going to complain about something, my old CO used to say, then you'd better have an alternative solution. Col Gentile does not come up with one at the end of this book, something I was looking forward too. It just kind of ends, without offering alternatives for discussion. This was a major disappointment. However, the book does raise some excellent points that will be addressed in some forthcoming blog posts.....

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Just can't get away from Clausewitz....

One of the many reasons I enjoy the blog Small Wars Journal is the provocative and at times really maddening articles they have.  All thoughtful of course, and no more than an article posted this week on one of my favorite topics, Carl von Clausewitz.

Clausewitz has evoked some REALLY strong responses lately from military, strategy, and political pundits, some of which have been covered and commented on by yours truly.  From polemics about Clausewitz and the US Army in Iraq to discussions about the famous "trinity" and the "center of gravity" to the applicability of Clausewitz to fighting terrorism, there is always someone with an opinion about the use, misuse and continued relevance of Clausewitz to the 21st century security environment.

However, these week's article goes beyond the mere arguments about this point or that to say that On War as a whole is as useless as turkey bacon or veggie burgers.  The title minces no words, and let's you know what kinda ride you're in for...

The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz 

So, if that doesn't get a Clausewitzian fired up, never fear, the author spends almost 12 pages commenting on why On War is best suited as a door stop. Now, to be fair, I have to agree with the author that studying On War as a cook book or a doctrine manual is a fool's errand, but I certainly wouldn't consider Clausewitz irrelevant to the study of war and strategy any more than studying Plato or Socrates is irrelevant to the study of philosophy.

I would consider On War to be part memoir, part history, and part philosophy, all wrapped up in what the author rightly considers is Clausewitz' attempt to come to terms with the huge disruption to European society, and especially Prussia wrought by Napoleon. Clearly the Napoleonic era of total, revolutionary war had a profound effect on all the soldiers involved and Clausewitz was taking a stab at trying to understand these changes and how they affected his beloved Prussia.

Rather than conduct a pointless argument over the fine points of the author's overwrought desire to consign Clausewitz to the dustbin of history, I would like to quote the man himself, who describe why he wrote this magnum opus...the bold and italic passages are mine.

At this point our historical survey can end. Our purpose was not to assign, in passing, a handful of principles of warfare to each period. We wanted to show how every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war, even if the urge had always and universally existed to work things out on scientific principles. It follows that the events of every age must judged in the light of its own peculiarities. One cannot, therefore, understand and appreciate the commanders of the past until one has placed oneself in the situation of their times, not so much by a painstaking study of all its details as by an accurate appreciation of its major determining features…. 
But war, though conditioned by the particular characteristics of states and their armed forces, must contain some more general—indeed, a universal—element with which every theorist ought above all to be concerned.

The age in which this postulate, this universally valid element, was at its strongest was the most recent one, when war attained the absolute in violence. But it is no more likely that war will always be so monumental in character than that ample scope it has come to enjoy will again be severely restricted. A theory, then, that dealt exclusively with absolute war would either have to ignore any case in which the nature of war had been deformed by outside influence, or else it would have to dismiss them all as misconstrued. (On War, pg. 592-594)

So it would appear that Carl was very aware that the methods of waging war had changed and would like to continue to change dramatically, however, he asked if there weren't some factors about war, politics, and the state that were unchanging and would allow leaders, especially battlefield leaders a framework to consider their particular situation in light of history.

THIS is not an inconsequential process or desire! Think about the last 10 years...the US, Israel, our NATO allies and other conventional forces have bought into the argument that drones, sensors, and precision guided missiles are the end all, be all, do all for 21st century warfare. 

But what Clausewitz and numerous other big thinkers about war continue to state is that war is a HUMAN endeavor and humans are infinitely clever, adaptable, and often willing to WIN at war no matter what the cost. Human psychology can not be reduced to the cold equations, no matter how hard we want to try. A military truism that we often over look in our "net-centric" enthusiasm is that the enemy gets a vote in how conflict turns out. I think this is the bottom link think of Clausewitz, which will make his tome relevant for a long time to come. 

So I will continue to grapple with the infinite understandings and multiple interpretations of On War and will be happy to continue using it as a benchmark, along with my other pals Sun Tzu, Jomini, Frederick the Great, Vegetius, and even Xenophon to the writings of today.  After all, we still read Plato and Homer, yes?