Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 17 2014: Militarily, Gaza is confusing—but we should pay close attention. We are strong in conventional weaponry, have access to nuclear if needed, have magnificent soldiers—but there is one force we continue to fail to master. It’s called credible communication. Let me emphasize the second last word.

“Half the published articles on Gaza contain a standard reference to its resemblance to a vast open-air prison (and when I last saw it under Israeli occupation it certainly did deserve this metaphor). The problem is that, given its ideology and its allies, Hamas qualifies rather too well in the capacity of guard and warder.”

 Christopher Hitchens

As part of my general interest in matters military—and of my planned military novel in particular—I have been trying to think through both some of the general trends in combat, and how the U.S., in particular, could change to best advantage.

This is too vast a subject to cover adequately in a post—or even a series of posts—but let me make one important point inspired by the Gaza situation.

Militarily, Israel is extremely strong—virtually across the board—and PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions such as bombs and missiles) are so accurate and destructive today, that I have to wonder how Gaza can sustain such a long bombardment without folding—while continuing to fire considerable quantities of rockets into Israel. 

I can only conclude that Israel must be showing quite astonishing restraint—while not getting much credit for it—and that Hamas must be extraordinarily ingenious at concealing their weapons amongst the civilian population. There is no other credible explanation that I can think of as to why so many days of bombardment can result in such minimal casualties while also failing to suppress the Hamas rockets. Here, I don’t wish to minimize the tragedy of some 220 dead and over 1,000 injured—but to emphasize these are very low figures to result from nine days of air, missile, and artillery assault by one of the most effective military organizations in the world.

The situation also makes the point that the public affairs battle is assuming ever greater proportions in a manner which is far from evident in conflicts such as Syria. But soon there won’t be a conflict anywhere where credible communication won’t be fundamental (temporary exceptions might be a few locked-down totalitarian states). 

My point is that Gaza makes no military sense as such—by traditional military standards—but it certainly demonstrates the constraints which seem to be increasingly applied to a modern military force. True, there is nothing new in this, but I think the degree to which information warfare is becoming important is new. Call it an increase in emphasis, if you will.

Is information warfare the same as credible communication? Actually no, but let’s not get technical at this stage.

Given the internet, social media, and a generation which has grown up entirely familiar with such tools, we shouldn’t be surprised at all this—though the rate of growth, penetration—and impact—of  such technologies and practices—is decidedly disconcerting if you have spent most of your career without them.

Is the U.S. prepared for such developments? Let me comment on the Army in particular (because I know it best, and monitor it most closely). Given our extensive experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we certainly should be—but I don’t think we are—and I’m speaking from personal experience as well as general observation.

Why not? It would take a book to explain in the sort of nuanced detail that is required—but here are some initial observations:

  • The U.S. Army is quite astonishingly resistant to change. Put a little crudely, its culture says, “We whipped the bastards in two world wars—so why should we change. Besides, look what we did in the first Gulf War. We are still the greatest.” Yes, I know I’m ignoring Vietnam, and a few other conflicts where we have not exactly excelled—but I’m talking mindset here—not facts.
  • Culturally, the Army not only does not understand the media (let alone social media) but is actively hostile to it. It’s general reaction to any negative story, for instance, is to batten down the hatches and go all defensive. The view is that lying to defend the name of the Army is the right thing to do.
  • The Army hates to fess up. The concept of credibility is just not understood. Where possible, controversial matters are buried as being “under investigation,” and such “investigations” drag on until the heat is off. Just about everything is classified.
  • Fundamentally—culturally (and perhaps literally)—the Army believes the best way to communicate is with firepower.
  • The Army is weak at communicating internally. The branch system is one reason for this—and rank is another. The branch system means that armor types don’t listen to airborne troops—and vice-versa; and, needless to say, no one listens to logisticians. As for rank, higher primarily want lower to obey—and only to proffer advice (in the approved structured manner) if asked. The trouble with discipline, as implemented (and there are other ways), is that it is extremely authoritarian and antithetical to open communication. A consequence of this weak internal communication is that it is harder than it need be to change the culture—even if the proponent of such change is the Chief of Staff.
  • The Army is particularly weak at communicating externally—even to its friends (who it frequently fails to recognize). For instance, there are some outstanding retired Army officers and other constructive critics of the Army who constitute an unofficial brains trust—and which could be tapped into—but which is largely ignored. The core thinking behind Army external communication—leaving the media out of it for the moment—is that if the Army communicates with its senior retired generals, and with the main defense contractors (the deeply corrupt MICC or Military Industrial Congressional Complex Contractors which President Eisenhower rightly warned about in his farewell speech) all is well. But that is not the case. There is virtually no relationship between advanced military thinking and a star.
  • The Army is woefully short of the kind of people who understand, have the ability, and are willing to execute credible communication. This is an issue of critical importance. The trouble is the kind of person the Army needs for communication is the kind of person the Army likes to weed out. As far as the officer corps is concerned, the Army has a bias towards jocks who “go along to get along.” It positively hates original thinkers (and has no system for identifying and promoting them—only an informal, but highly effective one, for kicking them out). This isn’t to say it doesn’t contain some very bright people—though not nearly enough—but, being intelligent, they soon learn that if they want to get promoted, they should keep their mouths shut, and go with the flow. There is a saying that a U.S. Army his officer will lay down his life before he will risk his career—and, sadly, in my experience—it is mostly true.

Here endeth the lesson. It may be the most useful one I’ll ever deliver to the Army. Will anyone listen?

I haven’t given up hope entirely—but I’m not holding my breath. Changing an institution’s culture—let alone a military institution’s—is a formidable task and rarely done. Where it is, the following elements are required: a recognition of the problem; a crisis; quite exceptional leadership; ruthlessness.

Has it even been done? Yes it has—and by the U.S. Army at that. The leader involved was General George Marshall and the crisis is better known as WW II.

A decade or so later, the IDF (Israel Defense Force)—shortly after its formation—had its culture drastically shaken up by Moshe Dayan. The consequences of his reforms—in terms of enhanced military effectiveness—have lasted to this day.


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