Sunday, April 2, 2017

One-Page Books - The American Way of Warfare (Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams)

One of the joys of getting a job that's a subway ride away is that I'm getting a lot more reading in, so more OPB posts should be coming henceforth. This one is on Law, Science, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare - The Quest For Humanity in Conflict by Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams.

The United States has always considered itself a moral force as well as a traditional nation, and as such they feel that war should only take place rarely and for moral reasons. This means wars are crusades, and as such annihilation of the enemy is the only legitimate conclusion, but that they also need to be fought morally and legally. The tension between annihilation and restraint has dictated much of American strategy historically, and has led to using technology for quick victory as a common compromise. 

The first real challenge to the technological approach was poison gas in WW1 - deciding between effectiveness and perceived barbarism caused tension. It also illustrated an odd literalism in the American approach to laws of war - they never signed anti-gas treaties, despite being anti-gas, for fear that it may be construed as banning tear gas for police use, and instead called on "the general opinion of mankind" as cause to avoid it. 

The next great challenge was the atomic era. When total war is suicide, fighting without annihilation becomes necessary. Adjusting to this never sat right, but the best effort was heavy computerization, in ways that show a striking faith in Big Data even by today's standards. The biggest pitfall here was trying to make deterrence mathematical and simply assuming that the enemy would be deterred by the same things they were, which led to mistakes like refusing to bomb North Vietnam too much for fear of having nothing left to deter with. 

Vietnam illustrated that the only way to fight overwhelming technology is to fight a guerilla war. Americans regard this as barbaric, and they lash out and do silly things because they feel that an opponent who doesn't respect the law deserves no protection from law. This is a mistake that causes huge problems. The military's legal arm learned this and tried to enhance soldier's understanding of military law post-Vietnam, with moderate success. However, the brass wanted to pretend Vietnam didn't exist and plan for a conventional European war instead, with none of the difficulties of guerilla fighting. 

This worked for a time - the Gulf War in particular - but in most recent American campaigns, it's missed the mark. Iraq in particular was a victim of excessive optimism, where far too little thought was given to the state of the country post-war, and where the military was thus led into a series of problems technology couldn't solve. Law could, somewhat - troops acting better brings the locals onside, which is what wins guerilla wars - but the brass forgetting Vietnam meant that those lessons were applied weakly and too late, and legal training intended for high-intensity war falls apart in guerilla campaigns which leads to things like Abu Ghraib. 

Drones are the latest attempt to use technology to address competing priorities in war, particularly to lower the human cost to Americans, and while time will tell how they work out, the authors are not optimistic. War will never be "easy". 

This is a somewhat more academically-inclined piece of writing than I usually go for, but given that one of the authors is my cousin, and that it's a topic I'm interested in, I figured I'd give it a try. It's still quite readable, and I did enjoy it. I think it's a pretty comprehensive study of the topic, and a lot of the stories that came up really did illustrate things pretty well(e.g., efforts to turn strategic bombing as deterrence into a single mathematical equation, or a 2000s-era general being told about tactics that worked well for pacifying guerrillas in Vietnam exclaiming "This isn't Vietnam, this is Iraq!"). 

The overall thesis of Americans wanting to fight in the way that they consider decent and getting annoyed and lashing out when their opponents play by different rules does ring true(and while it's not just an American thing - the Japanese in WW2 did a lot of that as well, for example - they're the ones whose actions matter most today), and their sometimes-excessive reliance on technology leading them into mistakes. Acting decently towards foes, even when foes don't do the same, really is an important tool for improving the effectiveness of the military, as is keeping soldiers competent and controlled(which is one lesson the brass very much did learn from Vietnam). And sadly, wars will never be easy, and a crusading spirit will sometimes lead you astray. 

A few minor quibbles. One, the thesis seems a bit buried at times. I got the message the authors were trying to convey, and I understood roughly where it was going from the beginning, but it didn't quite become clear until later. I expected the broad idea to come up more strongly in the intro, while I felt that big parts of it didn't get mentioned until the appropriate chapter. For a book that is in large part a historical review, it seemed like a stronger effort to tie it all together would have helped.

Two, the title just seems really unwieldy. I suspect there was good reason, but my first thought is that it should be called simply The American Way of Warfare, with Law, Science, and Liberalism as a subtitle.

Three, I feel that too many books get footnotes and endnotes mixed up. IMO, citations should go in endnotes, while things that people will actually want to read while going through the main text should be in footnotes. Use footnotes like Terry Pratchett did, for digressions of interest, and stash the citations at the back of the book where they don't break up the flow. Almost no book does it this way, and I think it annoyed me in part because a few books I've read recently have gotten this wrong in just about every possible direction, but I do feel that the distinction is important - mixing them up either leads to pulling yourself out of the flow too often to check the notes, or to glossing over the content-containing notes because you get used to them all being citations.

Still, if this is a topic that interests you, I do think it's worth a read. It's not too heavy, and it covers a lot of ground pretty well. 

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