Saturday, July 5, 2008

Them's Just The Rules, Aren't They?

I first became acquainted with Jason Van Steenwyk's blog when he was deployed to Iraq as a member of the Florida National Guard's contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. For the record, I have consistently found his writing on matters military-related to be fair-minded and informative, if occasionally (more than a little deliberately, I suspect) somewhat provocative.

It's the man's personal blog, you expected anything else?

He has two posts up today commenting on Megan McCardle's recent coverage of a presentation by Stephen Carter, see
here and here.

I suspect that the disagreement detailed in the foregoing is the result of two disparate - and I think inherently structurally divergent - contextual objectives. Professor Carter wants an elegant theory. Captain (now Major?) Van Steenwyk wants victorious (and still alive to celebrate) American soldiers. While the two are not necessarily exclusive concepts, the later does impose restrictions upon the applicability of the former. As one who also once upon a time wore an American military uniform I stipulate my visceral inclination to strongly associate myself with the Van Steenwyk position.

That said, I should also point out that I was an enlisted man in the Navy a lot longer ago than is comfortable to consider now. In other words, I'm no one's example of an authority on Just War Theory or the Law's of Land Warfare, although I can and do read so am at least somewhat familiar with the generalities addressed by the two.

I believe the inherent dichotomy between both men's position is well illustrated with this quote from Jason's first post:

If any "theorist" doesn't understand the importance of focusing my combat power against WEAKNESS, not strength, and the importance of attacking my enemy's command and control nodes and lines of logistics and communication, rather than on his fighters, this is a theorist who needs to find a new line of work.

Since the theorist in question is advancing that most catholic of Papal arguments, that warfare itself is evil and undesirable (except as decreed by said Papal authority, of course), I think it unlikely the two gentlemen will ever come to a fundamental agreement as to how such an activity should be prosecuted. In any sense of that word.

My own opinion is that the US finds itself in need of additional legal framework within which to formalise it's own doctrine regarding non-state military actors. The historical practice of treating such as violators of legal codes (whether criminal or civil) hasn't proven very successful - or rather, the few examples of "success" seem greatly out-weighed by the failures to me.

As well, since the United States is the only nation to presently possess the non-nuclear means to inflict overwhelming military force upon any other nation on the planet (with the arguable exception of the PRC, the Russian Federation and - possibly - India, largely as a result of the extensive land area entailed by those countries), a unilateral American action would legitimately provide both the previously stated framework for US forces present needs and a basis for treaty negotiations between the US and other states in future.

My sneaking suspicion is that US policy makers shy away from doing such a thing, at least in part, because they don't want to risk being drawn by treaty obligation further into that other - and much more complex - theater of the present war: Israel.

As long as this "grey area" exists in US military/diplomatic doctrine, the enemies of the US will continue to take advantage of the opportunity it presents them to engage us in ways we are less-well prepared to combat them. And, US armed forces will continue to be held accountable to the differing standards of acceptability variably promoted by the competing political forces within the nation.

I am curious though, how ought such a unilateral doctrine address the actions of members of al Qaeda, Hamas or Hizb 'Allah, to name only three examples? Do we consider the "cooks" and "clerks" they operate amongst in similar fashion to those performing the same function while wearing a national uniform? Where is the doctrinal line drawn between shooting out of hand anyone that appears to offer threat in a room clearing operation and executing those caught operating (in some military context) "out of uniform"? As regards uniforms, should the burqa or hijab (or some other example of national or ideological style of apparel) be considered tantamount to a "uniform" in the current war context? What are the differences in determining adherence to the accepted behavior between infantry and aviation forces, never mind the strategic environmental demands separating Army and Naval forces?

I do have some idea of the complexity of the issues involved and have some little sympathy for the good professor, however self-inflicted his "wounds" might be (he did volunteer to attempt a consistent whole from a profoundly flawed collection of precepts, one supposes). I also find the concerns advanced on Jason's page to be compelling, though I also question the ease of his direct prescription (we shot those German soldiers as spies, their conduct being the exception; we can't very well convene a court every time we catch anyone with a gun or gas can in hand anywhere in a military theater of operations and I seriously doubt Jason is suggesting summary executions).

I will make this prediction; if we don't take some compelling action in the near future (I will suggest one year from now), then we seem almost certain to surrender whatever gains we've made at such pain and expense to all involved, willingly or otherwise. The enemy has his own set of rules and laws governing warfare; if we don't succeed in imposing ours on him, he absolutely will continue to impose his on us. At it's most basic, strategy is about positional advancement. The Islamist enemy's position is fundamentally untenable (he can't just stand pat and let us come to his prepared positions), he advances relative to us in some fashion or dies.

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