August 27, 2012

Monday Morning Mini-Rants

If I wrote a blog post each time something I read annoyed me, I would obviously blog more frequently. Two things that I have noticed over the past few days, though, deserve especial mention this morning.

1. If you study conflict and conflicts long enough, you will either gain invaluable perspective over your peers or lose your perspective entirely. By the end of his career, for example, the late John Keegan, who once wrote this masterpiece which forever changed the way military historians write history, was writing silly things like, "Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning." (Step forward, Hew Strachan.)

Robert Fisk has his defenders and his detractors. I have never been accused of being the former, though I re-read a lot of his reporting for The Times in the 1980s as part of my doctoral work and came away impressed by his earlier work. Fisk has been accused by his peers of being a fabulist, and today he writes columns for the Independent. He once bragged to me, after I questioned the veracity of one particular column, that his editors never question what he writes. I'll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing. Of late, meanwhile, Fisk has been the target of some pretty withering satire.

Fisk's column today is the result of what happens when an observer of conflict loses all moral perspective. Fisk does not excuse any atrocities or crimes. No, he does the opposite. For Fisk, all crimes of war are now for all intents and purposes equal, and all armies at war are criminal. This is a valid perspective, I guess, in that one could make a moral argument in its favor. But unlike this, it doesn't tell me anything useful about what is taking place in Syria. If all acts of wars are crimes and they are all equal, I don't need Robert Fisk's first-hand observations, do I? They don't tell me anything of substance. 

Among his peers, Fisk is arguably the least popular journalist covering either conflict or the Middle East today. That's probably because in addition to the alleged fabulism and lack of any useful perspective, in Fisk's narrative of conflict and conflicts, there is only room for one truly good man: and that man's name is always "Robert Fisk."

2. I finished Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War this weekend -- yes, I realize that reads exactly how Robert Fisk might begin one of his columns -- and a few things struck me:

a. The successful Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Gaul took eight years.

b. The enemies against which Rome fought were not a unitary actor, and neither were Rome's allies. 

c. Rome's allies one summer were often Rome's enemies by winter. And visa versa.

But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:

d. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.

e. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.

With Caesar's commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant's lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford -- who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers -- has never served in Afghanistan

The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.

This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.