Two Tweets, Two Podcasts, and the Man Behind the Curtain

Dropping the man behind the curtain
Dropping the man behind the curtain

Cyber warrior Samuel Liles tweets:

Some guy named Andy Marshall keeps coming up in my life. I’m still not sure why.

Followed by:

Every time I hit a new concept scratched on the bottom is “Andy Marshall was here”

The Pritzker Military Library recently recorded two podcasts, one with Karl Marlantes on What it’s Like to go to War, the other with Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb on Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.

The Kalbs cover how American defeat in Vietnam shaped presidential decisions about war and peace. During their presentation, the elder Kalb, a thirty year veteran of the Washington media-political complex, commented that policymaking, especially in diplomacy and defense, changes very little from president to president. Obama, age three at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and age thirteen when the last helicopter took off from Saigon, is as wound up in Vietnam as Obama appointees like the late Richard Holbrooke, a Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam from 1962-1969. Obama’s foreign policy, to the chagrin of the naifs that voted him in, is the continuation of his predecessor’s second term with an admixture of the rhetoric of love and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Marlantes discusses war and its spiritual impact on those that fight it in the light of his own experience as a young Marine officer serving in Vietnam and the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered decades afterward. At the end of his presentation, Marlantes decries the all-volunteer military with two anecdotes from his book tours:

In the first, a young mother, babe in arms, bursts into tears while speaking to Marlantes. Her husband, also present, was departing for his seventh tour overseas. For Marlantes, this represents the tragedy of placing a disproportionate fighting burden on what Marlantes ominously calls “a Praetorian guard” while the rest of America goes shopping. Tragedy is followed by farce in his second anecdote: at another book signing, Marlantes is approached by woman his age, an upscale Boomer who protested against the war. She tells Marlantes that she is somewhat abashed about her actions back then. She confessed that she’d never known that soldiers had “slept outside” while fighting in Vietnam.

Professor Liles’ tweets refer to Andrew Marshall, Director of the Office of Net Assessment. Many American foreign policy and defense commentators decry a lack of continuity in American foreign and defense policy. Convinced that American “democratic” unruliness and partisan divides lead to incoherence at home and disaster abroad, they yearn for the steady grip on the rudder, a pilot with icy realpolitik flowing through their veins like Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, and stereotypical nineteenth century European chancellaries. Yet, in Marshall, you have ninety year old strategist who’s held on to his job since 1973. That’s thirty-eight years, nineteen congresses, twelve secretaries of state, eleven secretaries of defense,  eight presidents, seven John Travolta comebacks, six Star Wars movies, five Star Trek reboots, three boy band waves, two sixties nostalgia flashbacks waves, and one Mr. T ago.

No wonder Marshall is called Yoda.

Brother Mycroft
Brother Mycroft

Of Mycroft Holmes, brother Sherlock said:

The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.

Sometimes, said the more prominent Holmes brother,  Mycroft Holmes “is the British government…the most indispensable man in the country”. Marshall’s probably no Mycroft Holmes. He may not be the indispensible ingredient for the yearned for Nineteenth Century Chancellery in a Box that naïve realists want. He may not be the George Frost Kennan in a Box that foreign policy/defense academics want (or yearn to be). He may not even be the Paul Nitze in a Box that foreign policy pragmatists would settle for (Kennan to Nitze: YOU STOLE MY FOREIGN POLICY!!! Nitze to Kennan: I MADE IT WORK!!!). Yet, even without boxed solutions, as Kalb pointed out, recent American foreign and defense policy has remained fairly consistent from administration to administration and congress to congress. This continuity is obscured by fleeting fashions of the moment. Fashions come:

  • 2000: We’re all End of Historians now!
  • 2001: We’re all Transformation, JDAMs, and No Doubters now!
  • 2002: We’re all We’re Number 1! We’re Number 1!, We’re Number 1! now!
  • 2003: We’re all Muscular Interventionist Hyperpowers now!
  • 2004: We’re all Deeply, Deeply Skeptical of this War now!
  • 2005: We’re all Imperial Overstrechers now!
  • 2006: We’re all Come Home, Come What May, now!
  • 2007: We’re all Grudging SURGErs!!! now!
  • 2008: We’re all  Clear, Hold, and Builders Now!
  • 2009: We’re all It’s The Time For Smart Power now!
  • 2010: We’re all Peeing on CNAS now!
  • 2011: We’re all Realists Balanced Austerely Offshore now!

Fashions go.

But the continuity of foreign and defense policy since the mid-seventies has been striking. This Dr. Marshall in a Box may be a key reason. How much of this continuity results from the influence ofMarshall and Marshall protegés in and out of government is obscure. Marshall himself rarely gives interviews. This interview with Wired from February 2003 may be the only Marshall interview readily available on the Web. It quotes Marshall saying, among other things:

What is the next radical change the US will reveal on the battlefield?

One that’s still under way is the emergence of a variety of precision weapons,and also coupling them with sensors. Another is the ability to coordinate the activities of separate elements of the forces to a level that has never been possible before. That’s promising, but less far along than precision weapons. A third is robotic devices: unmanned vehicles, of which the UAVs are the furthest along, but also similar kinds of devices undersea, and smaller devices that might change urban warfare by being able to crawl through buildings…

In an era of terrorism and peacekeeping, are Cold War ideas based on striking a big enemy from afar and defending against missile attack still relevant?

Yes, if we want to stay in the business of long-range power projection. And if we play the role of intervening in messy disputes, some of this weaponry is still useful, as it was in Afghanistan. However, we need ground forces to go in and keep the peace.

Does new technology ultimately make us more or less vulnerable?

A friend of mine, Yale economist Martin Shubik, says an important way to think about the world is to draw a curve of the number of people 10 determined men can kill before they are put down themselves, and how that has varied over time. His claim is that it wasn’t very many for a long time, and now it’s going up. In that sense, it’s not just the US. All the world is getting less safe.

This sums up the dominant strain in American foreign and defense (and domestic) policy since the mid-seventies, coincident or not with the start of the Marshall Era: replacing manpower intensive violence with technology intensive violence. This replacement could be seen as the logical continuation of Bingham and Souza’s notion that human evolution is driven by “death from a distance“, the ever extending reach of the unique human ability to compel from afar, whether from thrown rock or launched missile.

Or it could signal a fundamental shift in the form of human societies. The efficient violence hypothesis posits:

  1. The division of power within a political marketplace favors those that most effectively mobilize coercive power.
  2. Organization of human society converges on those social forms that best support the use of coercive power.

Since the battle of Stirling Bridge proved that cross-dressing Irish Army reservists on foot, led by Mel Gibson, could defeat English armored cavalry, human organization has converged on those forms that best support coercion through mass infantry. These forms include rational bureaucracy to manage mass, contractual government with a mass electorate unseen since the onset of cavalry dominance, mass production, mass markets, broadcasting to the masses, mass education, and the welfare state among others. Since the mid-1970s, social organization has shifted away from these forms. In their place, the division of power increasingly favors social forms that effectively support technology that automates or augments the few’s capacity to coerce the many. Instead of policy that supports the “greatest good for the greatest number” (a euphemism for the “greatest firepower for the greatest army”), policy now emphasizes the need to let the few have room to “innovate”.

In the mindless mumbling of the Mustache of Understanding, “innovation” is the naïve faith that technological Hail Marys are predestined to sustain broad-based prosperity of the mid-twentieth century West. In Marshall’s formulation, innovation means incremental cultivation of power asymmetries to gain timely advantage in a world political order of disorder. Marshall’s vision is more modest than expansively blind faith in the redemptive power of technology, technocracy, and the journalists that love them:

Is there a precedent for one country staying on top through a series of military revolutions? Or does one country always leapfrog another?

Through most of the 19th century, the British Navy exhibited that kind of thing. But it was quite interesting the way they did it. They tended to let other countries, mainly France, do the early experiments and come out with new kinds of ships. If something looked like a good idea, they could come in and quickly overtake the innovator. They seemed to do that as a way of capitalizing on their advantage and saving resources.

Isn’t the United States in a similar position now?

That’s probably the case. But some of the countries that would be candidates to make innovations aren’t doing it. The Japanese and West Europeans aren’t really making big changes. The Swedes are an interesting case. For 200 years their basic problem was the possibility of a large-scale land invasion by the Russians. They’ve decided that that has gone away. If anything could happen, it would happen across the Baltic. So they’re rethinking, given modern technology, how to create a defense largely on sea frontiers. It’s possible that they will make some innovations that we’ll pick up and capitalize on.

For instance?

They’ve designed three new naval vessels. One is an air-independent submarine [running on fuel cells rather than nuclear power, which allows it to travel almost silently and remain submerged for extended periods]. They have a surface ship that’s a bit more conventional. And then a radically new naval vessel called the Visby, which has practically no metal in it other than the engine. It’s constructed to be very stealthy.

Marshall hints that he might even support “innovating from behind”, letting the Terror of the North explore the future while the United States leads the new Vikings from behind. This is a practical streak in Marshall-think that could be summed up in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ emphasis on “winning the wars we’re in”. In his landmark 1976 study “Strategy for Competing with the Soviets in the Military Sector of the Continuing Political-Military Competition“, Marshall emphasized focusing on the enemy you have:

A. Short term initiatives. An organization will respond to the perspective of the top manager. If the perspective is judged sound and effective, then in time it maypermeate throughout top management. With this in mind, the Secretary could:


    1. Continue, both inside and outside the building, to stress the points that we have little choice but to deal effectively with the Soviets for decades, that we intend to focus on the Soviets as the potential “opponent,” and that we intend to contend with them with that same “Yankee know-how” which has historically characterized our people.
    2. The SecDef should set an up-beat tone — yes, the challenge is tough, but who else could take up the challenge if we fail to do so?
    3. Follow through on this spirit by initiating a series of focused requirements within the building to set major themes, interest the bureaucracy and test for areas of support. For instance, call upon the Services to develop areas where we could exploit Soviet tactical weaknesses.
    4. Ask the Services to reexamine their major training programs (such as ship refresher training) to ensure that they are conducted with the Soviets, not some abstract enemy, in mind. Encourage the Services to conduct major exercises against a realistic “Soviet-simulated enemy” in order to focus the troops and explore/test clever tactics.
    5. Call in certain senior military officers responsible for training and doctrine development, and query them on what their “strategy” is and how it is designed to cope with and prevail over Soviet doctrine and tactics.
    6. Redirect the training of the Reserves so that they know clearly that they are being trained to fight Russians.

B. Long tern initiatives. In time, we should be able to better develop and refine our strategy for competing with the Soviets over the long haul. Some first cutsare provided in the appendices; there are, however, some initiatives which could greatly contribute to this effort.

1. Have a select group of defense thinkers formed to provide you with a series of think pieces about such subjects as:


    • What is the nature of the competition, the competitive environment, and what are U.S. distinctive competences?
    • What are the Soviet strategies in each of the key balance areas?
    • Where do we have competitive advantage, and what are some potential competitive advantages?
    • What should our overall strategy be? What should be our strategies for achieving our goals in the key balances?

2. Establish a center or institute to study the Soviets. They have an “Institute of the USA and Canada” — if we are going to compete cleverly, we might well do something similar.

The United States no longer has the luxury of a single obvious enemy to focus on. It has no anchor for its clever competing. It may be stuck in a world where the struggle for power makes the social forms of the Age of Massed Infantry an unaffordable luxury. Even in cases where you can lead from behind as the current administration claimed in Libya or innovate from behind as Marshall describes, these social may buckle under the pressure of external competition. Today’s elites may not even have to fear the prospect of massed hippies with dinner forks storming their offices and conducting “consultations” on them in the nearest cubicle. Today’s elites might be able to call on Marlantes’ “Praetorian Guard” of skilled volunteer specialists to use automation and augmentation technologies like Marshall’s beloved precision weaponry and robotics to decimate any popular mass uprising. Power is no longer worth the mass.

The future of popular resistance is probably closer to John Robb’s “global guerrillas” than OccupyInsert Place Here. Dispersed pinprick attacks seem a better bet than massing to form a big target for the latest coercive technology. Even this kind of resistance may not save the mass Western middle classes, their wealth, or their contractual privileges, perhaps an anachronism from the mass infantry age.

Today’s elites may not last either, supplanted by the Praetorians they over deploy. He who commands the power of coercion will push aside those who don’t (or won’t). The man (or robot) on the scene with the rifle (or laser gun) will see today’s “innovative” élite with their Friedmanesque hangers-on and realize that, with little effort, he or it can get their own Tom Friedman. Today’s innovators will survive, subsisting on the thin gruel spooned out to them by the faint hope that they’ll become Greeks to the new Romans. But the true innovations will remain the innovations that have dominated human history: innovations that compel, innovations that hurt, and innovations that kill.

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About Joseph Fouche

L. C. Rees carefully selected the nom de guerre "Joseph Fouche" to profoundly irritate unnaturally rampant pro-Buonopartist sentiment at Skyline High School, Millcreek, Salt Lake, Utah, United States. The Corsican Ogre once claimed that he would have remained "Emperor of the French" if he'd had two men shot: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Joseph Fouche. SInce Rees bears no resemblance to a club-footed defrocked bishop, Joseph Fouche it was.

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