09 December 2009

Regarding Analogies and Metaphors

I need to extend a bit of an apology to Mr. Patrick Porter of Kings of War for some snide mockery this past weekend.

One of the things that I find amusing about the milblog community is that there's usually quite civil debate when it comes to the principles of war and counterinsurgency. But when we come to actually discussing analogies and metaphors, therein lies the fiercest debate.

While most US Army officers agree that modern warfare requires us to have a broad set of skills ranging from conventional warfighting to supporting civil authorities during natural disasters--we're not certain what sports analogy to use to describe the myriad of attributes required of our leaders. Should we call them "pentathletes", "triathletes", or "Judoka Fighters". Similarly, while Jason Sigger and I are pretty much in agreement on the policy set forth in President Obama's latest Afghanistan speech, we can't describe if the policy is more of a "sacrifice fly" or a "double" in terms of baseball analogies.

Patrick Porter brought up the topic of Afghanistan being the oft-mentioned "Graveyard of Empires" in a recent post on Kings of War. Certainly, we've all heard this phrase before, but I think it might mean many things to many people. I always took it to refer to the fact that many empires have tried to conquer, absorb, or pacify the area, with little success. Certainly, the loss of many thousands of troops during Alexander's campaign (Stephen Pressfield claims some 80% of his force), the first British campaign (which left but one survivor), and the Soviet misadventure contribute to this image.

But Patrick looks at the analogy in a slightly different sense. There are many who (incorrectly, as Patrick points out) take the analogy to mean that many empires meet their undoing in Afghanistan. While the Soviet excursion into Afghanistan might have hastened or partially contributed to the fall of the USSR, it's not an accurate description of Alexander's campaign (he did manage to conquer it, albeit with massive casualties, and the victory was short-lived at best). The British, of course, had the two World Wars to contribute to the liquidation of its empire.

This of course is quite sensible, and Patrick Porter discusses the history of the analogy, as well as provides some insights into the difficulties of fighting in Afghanistan. What actually set off the sarcasm alarm in me is rejection of the "graveyard of empires" cliche was unintentionally similar to last week's essay penned by the Foreign Policy Institute, a US-based neocon think-tank, which had this to say about the "graveyard" metaphor:

This refrain [The Graveyard of Empires] belongs, as they say now in the military, in the graveyard of analogies,” writes Tom Cotton in the Weekly Standard. “The Soviets, in particular, teach us how not to win in Afghanistan. A heavily mechanized force, the Red Army was ill-suited for Afghanistan's treacherous terrain, and it was dependent on long, vulnerable supply lines. It also discouraged innovative junior leadership, which is critical against an insurgency. To compensate, the Soviets employed vicious, massively destructive tactics that inflamed the Afghan people and still scar the country with depopulated valleys and adult amputees maimed as children by toy-shaped mines. Our present way of war couldn't be more different. We deploy light and wheeled infantry to Afghanistan, making our tactics more flexible, our supply lines shorter, and our soldiers more engaged with the locals. We also radically decentralize decision-making authority to our junior soldiers and leaders, who increasingly can draw on years of combat experience. In short, America has a counter-insurgency strategy, whereas the Soviet Union had a genocide strategy. Afghans I spoke with always recognized the difference, reviled the Russians, and respected our troops.” -- Weekly Standard

Max Boot makes a similar point in Commentary, “The two most commonly cited examples in support of this proposition are the British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 1980s. This selective history conveniently omits the military success enjoyed by earlier conquerors, from Alexander the Great in the 4th century b.c.e. to Babur (founder of the Mughal Empire) in the 16th century. In any case, neither the British nor the Russians ever employed proper counterinsurgency tactics. The British briefly occupied Kabul on two occasions (1839 and 1879) and then pulled out, turning Afghanistan into a buffer zone between the Russian Empire and their own. In the 1980s, the Russians employed scorched-earth tactics, killing large numbers of civilians and turning much of the country against them. Neither empire had popular support on its side, as foreign forces do today.” --

First off (directed at FPI): you mean to tell me that our junior leaders are empowered to make decisions on their own with absolutely no bureaucratic micromanagement whatsoever from ridiculously high echelons and superfluous staff officers? Clearly, there are some who would disagree.

Secondly, FPI's argument against the "Graveyard of Empires" put forth in this essay is laughably bad. It doesn't even address the "graveyard" metaphor in the first place; rather, it attempts to make Afghanistan seem like a cake walk. Clearly, Alexander succeeded...right?

Lastly, (assuming Steven Pressfield is correct) one of the few reasons Alexander actually succeeded was because the Greeks actually could employ the "scorched earth" method and kill anyone they wanted--men, women, children--with the Greeks attempting to breed the last of the resistance out of what few Afghans remained. I mean, if you're down for counterinsurgency by genocide, that's a method to conduct counterinsurgency, but not necessarily the preferred method...

When I saw Pat Porter's article debating the "Graveyard of Empires" cliche last weekend, I immediately had FPI flashbacks.

I'm shuddering again, thinking about the FPI article...

In sum, I apologize that Patrick wound up as a target for my snide commentary on a hangover-induced Sunday morning. I really love the blog you guys have set up at KOW.


Unknown said...

Uh, I think you meant the Foreign Policy Iniative, not the Foreign Policy Institute.

I also assume that these geniuses don’t think that we are dependent on “long, vulnerable supply lines.” Maybe the next time they’re in Afghanistan they ought to take a drive from Kabul to Karachi so they can do field research on whether this route (really the only major route we have for everything from tanks to toilet paper) is long and vulnerable. They can stop and take photos of all the burned out trucks along the way. Sheesh . . . and these are the guys who would be influencing our policy if “Maverick” was in charge?!!

Also, I know that we’re not driving around in the same types of vehicles (tanks and APCs for the most part) that Ivan was driving around in, but the emphasis here ought to be on the word “mechanized.” When you drive to work, you have to take the roads. When you take the roads, you get IEDed. One could be forgiven for wondering how long it will take for our “innovative leadership” to figure out that if you don’t want to get blown up on the road, don’t take the road. Walk to work or fly to work, but don’t take the road.

Finally, I would take issue with their statement that deploying light and wheeled infantry makes our tactics more flexible, our supply lines shorter, and our soldiers more engaged with the locals. Driving to the fight yields pretty much the same tactical menu whether you drive in BMPs or MRAPs. And you’re not interacting with the locals any more in an MRAP than they did in their BMPs. And what’s this about shortening our supply lines by walking and driving wheeled vehicles? I’d really like to understand how that works. That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve seen penned by an “expert” in a long time.

Maybe the milblogs should set up some kind of a weekly contest for the dumbest thing written by a smart person. Might be fun. Back in Desert Storm, some guys from Soldier of Fortune Magazine went over to Saudi Arabia to cover the war. After attending a few briefings, they started an award called “Dumb A55 of the Day” for the journalist who asked the dumbest question at the daily press briefing. If I remember correctly, the award story made the front page of the Wall Street Journal (which is where I read it).

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/11/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anonymous said...

And we love yours too. It's a love-in...

Patrick Porter said...

Hey Starbucks,

sorry, just saw this now.

hey, no dramas, and I agree fully, that some folk are seriously under-estimating the difficulties of fighting and nationbuilding in Afghanistan.

While the graveyard myth is misleading in some ways, the opposite myth that we will succeed because we are kinder, gentler, more liberal and more popular is also a little innocent. And I am firmly in the skeptical camp on escalating in Afghanistan!

anyway, thanks for the nice words about KOW, and yours is also a great blog.