General Flynn Swims Upstream

The U.S. Army says that its purpose it to “fight and win the nation’s wars.”  Though the phrase has no official standing in the other services it applies to them equally well.  Unfortunately, the Army et al have interpreted this phrase to mean “win the nations wars by fighting.”  This is not because our military officers are stupid, not by a long shot.  However, it’s what is in the air.  It’s what is positively reinforced in the military.  It’s what stories are told about.  It’s what the best medals get awarded for.  Fighting is what young impressionable lieutenants are taught to do.  It’s what the fun war movies are about.  It’s what happens in those thrilling non-fiction books about World War II, Vietnam, etc.  (You know those books: the ones with no footnotes.)

There is something else reinforcing this emphasis on physical fighting.  Fighting tends to involve things that can be readily measured and counted.  As a commenter on Tom Ricks’ blog observed, the United States military is an engineering society.  I’d go farther.  I think the U.S. is a nation of engineers.  This has made us uncomfortable with the sort of squishy topics that Major General Flynn wants his intelligence people to be able to address.  Just to illustrate the point: I recall a few years ago, I was speaking to a class of extremely bright students at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the question arose of “metrics” in “Global War on Terrorism”.  One student proposed that we should only consider to “metrics” that could be numerically quantified.  This argument found substantial support around the seminar table.

We need a new ethos of winning.  Winning comes in many flavors.  Of course, among them is sweeping the enemy forces right off the battlefield by force of arms.  But there are other kinds: 

  • The kind of satisfaction in winning that a Cold War-era CIA officer working non-lethal covert action against the Communists might have felt. 
  • The kind of satisfaction that Lee Atwater probably felt after a successful political campaign. 
  • The kind of satisfaction that the evil genius who convinced people to buy bottled water at wine prices must feel. 

None of these endeavors involves killing people.

I am not arguing for a non-lethal military.  Far from it.  I want the U.S. military to be the baddest one around.  I am arguing, however, that the military—and the national security community behind them—ought to be willing to and able to pursue victory however it can be most feasibly obtained.  If it comes in part or even primarily from dirty tricks or pressing the flesh or empowering women, then that’s fine with me.  I just want to win.  We need to teach our military how to do this sort of thing.  Either that or we need to recruit and reward meat-eaters at the State Department.

Viscerally understanding that victory doesn’t always come primarily through force is particularly an issue when we are involved in a counterinsurgency.  It is axiomatic that a successful counterinsurgency focuses on the people, not the enemy.  However, this feels unnatural.  When the U.S. military has been forced to learn about such things (e.g. the Philippines War and Vietnam) it has tended purposely to forget them as soon as it can afterwards.  In short, Major General Flynn’s recent piece on military intelligence in Afghanistan has caused such an uproar because he is asking the military to perform an unnatural act, to worry about the minutes of a shura and crop yields and what’s going on in the female half of Afghanistan, and a thousand other similar things. 

It is highly unusual for such a piece to be released publicly especially through a think-tank like the Center for Naval Analyses.  I think that General Flynn realizes that this will be an uphill fight and he thinks that defense intellectuals in and out of government can help him.  Fortunately, it also appears that he may have Secretary Gates behind him as well.  As powerful and impressive as Gates is, however, he will be gone relatively soon.  The community of defense intellectuals is here to stay, however.  We may be the key to victory for General Flynn and his like-minded successors.

[Oh, and I can only wish General Flynn success in another of his crusades (or jihads if you prefer): Death to PowerPoint!  For those of you who have not read T.X. Hammes on this issue, do so!]

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