Features

December 1, 2009  

Letters

I found the November issue quite stimulating. In particular the opening letter to the editor by Lt. Col. Ken Beebe and short commentary by the usually historically astute William Owens [“The war of new words”] were juxtaposed with interesting effect. The former took Dave Kilcullen and me to task for using approved (but admittedly poor) joint terminology for information operations. The latter criticized both of us for foisting such new terms as “complex irregular warfare” and “hybrid threats” onto the profession of arms. We were certainly bracketed by these two opposing viewpoints.

I wholeheartedly agree with Beebe that “information operations” as currently defined is a poor substitute for something like “influence operations.” After field research in Iraq in 2004, I helped write an influence ops concept. It foundered against the rigid and often impenetrable, if not Byzantine, world of joint and service doctrine. Yet I don’t think that labeling the adversary’s inputs to the battle of narratives as “propaganda” and simply disaggregating our own inappropriate definition to its composite elements (EW, CNO, CND, psyops, etc.) is a positive step forward. I challenge Beebe to pen a substantive article that defines and justifies “influence operations” for the community at large.

In this journal (April 2007) and in a book titled “Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare,” I have argued that “the American security community must reconceptualize its understanding of information operations.” I went on to contend that “the current Information Operations concept and the resulting mix of capabilities are too oriented on computer network attacks and electronic warfare.” However, Beebe would only extend that problem. Our emphasis must increasingly focus not on the technical means of information dissemination (the basis for our current definition), but on the culturally relevant content we are issuing to various audiences. I concluded that to do this “we will need to better integrate, if not totally rethink our strategic communications, public diplomacy, command information, and public affairs capabilities.” In his highly regarded “The Accidental Guerrilla,” Kilcullen makes the same arguments in his concluding chapter, where he calls for an evolution in “Strategic Information Warfare.”

I fully realize that there are those uncomfortable with the messy reality of modern conflict and its implications for their treasured intellectual boxes and predispositions about warfare. Some of my colleagues have moaned about the spate of new terminology being thrown around today. I am not sympathetic since our profession evolves over time, and new lexicon captures the changes better than hanging on to old terms with changed meanings. If we were still fighting in phalanxes or using the tactics of Marcus Aurelius, we could cling to dated definitions and conceptions. However, since we are not and the gladius and pilum have passed us by, the argument is moot to me. Up until very recently, poor doctrinal terms such as “low-intensity conflict” and “military operations other than war” were the best we could do. We eventually dismissed these terms as inadequate, and we all benefited from their expulsion. As the profession evolves, its language and discourse must evolve, too.

I believe, as Owens does, that much about history and warfare is enduring, and that little changes from war to war. I do not overlook the enduring elements, but in the face of change and gaps in our understanding (Iraq 2004-2007 and Lebanon 2006), we should not shirk from coming to grips with the ever-evolving character of warfare or our own failings. I am afraid Owens’ comments reflect the same complacency and intellectual laziness that corrupted American, British and Israeli performance in the last decade. His argument will only ensure that we repeat the sine wave of poor adaptation to irregular adversaries and to the conditions of modern warfare.

As General of the Army Douglas MacArthur once remarked, “New conditions require, for solution — and new weapons require, for maximum application — new and imaginative methods.” I subscribe to the belief that new threats or new and imaginative methods require new terminology and new thinking to gain their maximum effect on our doctrine and educational system. MacArthur rightly added: “Wars are never won in the past,” something my good friend William Owens might want to ponder. In short, new and imaginative thinking and solutions or effective combat capability do not spring forth from a slavish devotion to old case studies or preferred lexicons mislabeled as plain English or perfectly good wine.

Of course I would add that the inability to examine new conditions and adapt solid but imaginative solutions must be grounded in a solid understanding of war. Here the Israel Defense Forces’ poor performance in 2006 comes to mind. They had imaginative thinkers, but were so fascinated with philosophic underpinnings and arcane terminology that they ignored ongoing changes in their theater. A solid grounding in the grim reality of war is more important than new terms, but it’s not a substitute for constantly appraising the changing character of conflict and realizing its implications to the joint fight.

As Sir Michael Howard correctly noted 25 years ago, “The differences brought about between one war and another by social or technological changes are immense, and an unintelligent study of military history which does not take adequate account of these changes may … be more dangerous than no study at all.” I would encourage both authors to take this advice to heart, and to work toward a more historically minded appreciation for context and for the development of military innovation. This was the central thesis behind my October AFJ essay, the need to look forward and backward at the same time. This Janusian approach allows the historically grounded to understand what has occurred previously and to detect the changed conditions in the present. Very few of us can meet that high test.

As Howard again noted, “The soldier has to steer between the danger of repeating the errors of the past because he is ignorant” of what has preceded us and the equally dangerous error of “remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete.” While this may not be plain English for Owens, the insights of Howard put military history squarely in its proper intellectual place.

As always, this international journal remains crucial in the debate between the two extremes that Howard warned about, and I welcome this dialogue as evidence of the need to evolve our thinking and professional language. We must consider present challenges we face informed by the past but without being shackled by it or afraid of change.

Frank G. Hoffman

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the late CBS anchor Walter Cronkite certainly had different takes on the conflict in Vietnam [“Vietnam's distorted legacy,” November], but there are two other key legacies of that war American military leaders and politicians alike must be mindful of.

First, President Lyndon B. Johnson always felt that if he could just get Ho Chi Minh in a room that he’d be able to sway the North Vietnamese president by giving him a dose of his own style of persuasion honed from his years in the Senate and as its majority leader. That didn’t happen, but it’s doubtful that Ho would have succumbed to such vitriol.

This leads to the other legacy — the reminder that the other guy always has a vote. The Vietnamese, both the North and their in-country force of Viet Cong, looked at the war through a different lens that that of the U.S. They were willing to (and did) absorb horrific punishment in the war of attrition the U.S. waged. I don’t think it’s so much that North Vietnam won the war but that it outlasted our ability as a nation to support and ultimately sustain the struggle against it. The only issue I have about Cronkite’s position on the war is that too often television media takes a quick, first-look approach to major stories and comes to a conclusion based on what the pictures are telling. To be sure, the images coming out of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive bespoke despair, chaos and an American military that was simply overwhelmed and surprised. In fact we now know that the U.S. and South Vietnamese response to the Tet Offensive was so rapid and devastating that it virtually eliminated the Viet Cong’s ability to wage a major conflict and that some American military leaders, among them Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyand, who commanded the II Field Force, suspected something was amiss prior to the offensive. Yet the Tet Offensive is still seen by most as a complete and total failure on the part of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. I’m reminded of the late Philip Graham, one-time publisher of The Washington Post, who said that journalism is the “first rough draft of history.” As a first draft, it will indeed go through many revisions and updates before becoming the “final draft of history.”

Cmdr. David L. Teska, Coast Guard Reserve

Lawrence, Kan.