Narratives and False Narratives

“Kind hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.” -Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

Micah Zenko, a distinguished scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations wrote and tweeted, about the demise of Qaddafi as being an apt conclusion to a false narrative. Considering the nature of today’s conflicts and more importantly the way they have to be marketed to the public it’s hardly a surprise that this double-dealing is becoming the norm. While it’s easy to take the liberal/egalitarian approach to slam the powers that be for this deception (not that I’m accusing Zenko of doing such); is it really that simple? Can society honestly deny that a level of willful ignorance is at play here?

The first Gulf War was, by all accounts a historical anomaly, the sort of event that could only have occurred in those exact circumstances and with those exact objectives. Yet it seems that this highly improbable confluence of events has defined the public’s perception of warfare in the post-Cold War era. In this age of liberal, humanitarian idealism, warfare must be conducted within the context of what educated, morally virtuous societies are prepared to accept. They must be swift, decisive, and the first priority must be to render the opposing armed force incapable of waging war; while actually ending as few lives as possible. Essentially society expects the opposing military be castrated, rather than annihilated. Because after all, to the educated lay person, of sound moral mind but lacking any understanding of the depth of depravity that has throughout history been fundamental to the conduct of warfare; death and destruction should be limited as much as possible. The first Gulf War was a master stroke, society was fed a steady diet of video and photographic evidence that America’s technologically superior military forces hadn’t really killed people so much as they’d destroyed hundreds of cars, trucks, tanks, aircraft, guns, and buildings. Focusing almost entirely on inanimate objects, the tools that made evil acts possible, society believed that by removing the means we could remove the will to kill and destroy. News media showed thousands of clips and photos of destroyed equipment but comparatively little in the way of charred, mutilated corpses, the human element required to make use of such tools for evil purposes. Instead what was shown was droves of surrendering soldiers, surrendering en masse, as though contrite and seeking to repent; a narrative that fit perfectly with the Jewdeo-Christian values of liberal democratic societies in the west.

Politically speaking it was a near perfect war. In all the hubbub about why it was right or wrong, from a strategic/political/social perspective the reason why this conflict was effective and politically expedient lies primarily with the limited aims. By adhering to the Powell Doctrine, America kept her aims limited, she didn’t get lured into all out invasion of Iraq, which would have escalated the conflict from one of limited aims towards one of more total aims. Wars fought for more total objectives have throughout history been far more arduous, costly, bloody, and unseemly. Because the ultimate aim is not just to force a minor concession from ones opponent, but to remove the opponent and his sovereign political regime, said power must be prepared for a potentially long, ugly fight in which tough decisions are made, many lives are lost and the full gruesome nature of war is exposed to the world.

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Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part II

What follows is the second part of my series of posts exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya, the first can be found here. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces (SOF) and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. This second installment looks to asses the way in which air power and SOF achieve strategic effects, the goal of which is to calibrate our understanding of, and expectations for potential future ‘small footprint’ conflicts.

I want to start this piece with a slight preface. In my last, and first, post I discussed the relative value of contributions made by the NATO assets involved in Operation Unified Protector. I discussed the relative values of their contributions in relation to the formation of the NTC. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t upfront about the manner in which I assessed relative contributions. When I rated the contributions of NATO’s combined airpower and the small but effective band of elite special operators on the ground I used the word significant. When seeking to emphasize the importance of the NTC’s establishment I used the word decisive. Both of those word choices were deliberate, in the words of my terrific former academic advisor, when writing academically only one factor can be decisive, everything and anything else can be significant but not equally superlative. Significant is a terrific and also terrible word for this purpose, as it can be both emphatically supportive and somewhat belittling.

While the distinction could be viewed as little more than semantics, it is, in actual fact quite a bit more than simple nuance. The point I was trying to make, is in many ways at the very core of why silver bullet strategic theories often falter when put to the test in actual wars. In particular it’s why wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq failed and its why if Libya succeeds it will have very little to do with the highly important contributions made by the special operations and air forces of NATO’s allied states.

As cliché as it’s become, the Clausewitzian dictum really is at the centre of this, the initial phases of the Iraq and Afghan wars failed for the simple reason that despite the brilliant tactical and operational performances of American (and allied) forces the political situation was not such that an expedited strategic result could be achieved. While nothing is set in stone yet with regards to the Libyan Revolution, it’s within the realm of possibility that an expedient strategic result can be achieved. At little cost of blood and treasure, at least to those who are not holding a Lybian passport. This is why it is important that the vital lesson from this conflict should not be that SOF and air power can win the day. It is however important to explore the way we can better understand the value of these contributors as they are vital. Additionally, both of these aspects are staples of modern conflict and both have often been criticized for a failure to live up to the hype and fanfare both their budgets and their advocates create.

Neither Special Forces, nor airpower alone can singularly win a war, yet both are incredibly valuable tools, both tactically and strategically. While the technical aspects of their contributions vary greatly, from the strategic perspective they can be viewed in a similar vein, certainly with regard to expectations.

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Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part I

What follows is the first in a planned series of posts (the second of which can be found here)exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. The first installment will explore the way operational success can achieve or fail to achieve the desired strategic end state.

A fortnight ago, the Libyan rebels swept into the capital city of Tripoli and have since begun to assert control over territory it seemed only weeks ago they would never lay claim to. The side that spent months teetering on the brink of imminent demise has now become the mortal lock. Now that they’ve reached this position of unrivalled dominance it seems the world is ready to start talking in past tense about the conflict. The clear impression being that the good guys won, the bad guys lost and now it’s time to divvy up the credit. In such a low risk/low reward scenario it’s not hard to find plenty of factions looking for their fair share of congratulations.

Considering that a simple, humble deferral of credit to the Libyan people who fought and died for their own freedom is clearly not in any NATO member’s political best interest, it obviously must have been something we did. Since we only really managed to do two things successfully, providing tactical air support and sending in a small number of special operations troops to train, equip and coordinate, those must have been the two factors that proved strategically significant, right? Before NATO came along it looked like the rebels were going to be flushed into the sea like a dearly departed goldfish, surely it must have been this strategy, understated in its elegance that saved the day.

If such limited contributions of men and resources could achieve such a strategically decisive result here, well this must be the recipe for future conflicts. If so much can be accomplished with so little, well we wouldn’t need large combat brigades, we wouldn’t need to get bogged down in quagmires. Just send in a few A-Teams, a few SEALs, some Combat Air Controllers and the B-52’s, B-1B’s, A-10’s and AC-130’s, shake lightly let sit for 4-6 months and presto! Fledgling democracy made easy….it could work right?

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