ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn

There have been calls for the U.S. to exercise “leadership”, originating on partisan political lines.  A bias towards passivity , described in part by the phrase “leading from behind”, went badly wrong in Syria, seeding the ground for ISIS. A misdirection of priority for  the political integrity of Iraq further compounded the problem.

It would be a shame if  the idea of leading from behind, which, according to the New Yorker, originated with Nelson Mandela, were a casualty of these recent events. Foreign policy tends to be described by single buzzwords, and here we have a whole phrase of three words, a welcome addition to the sparse palette of buzz-choices.

In Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre, the argument is made that the problem of ISIS defies the conventional notion of a plan, which tends to have an algorithmic expectation for attainment of the goal.

So ingrained is this in the human psyche that we habitually call our politicians liars when they put forth plans that call for military pacification of millions of people followed by reconstruction of the local civilization (or lack) and erection of a democratic polity — and the plan fails to come off as expected.

If, thinking the better of the above,  politicians propose a plan without the algorithmic element, meaning that no promise of a specific, endpoint-goal is made, the politicians are called indecisive.

Military plans once had a rigidity caused by the difficulties of communication and awareness (the fog of war), and the process of “mobilization.” Driven by the rigid scheduling of railways, this reached a peak with World War I. Each country had an intricate plan to move  military assets to the border in minimum time. Once started, the plan could not be interrupted or modified, because trains run on tracks, and the rest of the transportation was by horses or foot. Perhaps diplomats unconsciously copied this pattern in the rigid framework of interlocking alliances that made the assassination of an obscure archduke a compulsion to war.

In certain fields, humans have been forced, by compelling need, to abandon the legacy of a mental framework. In the Fifth Solvay Conference, in 1927, the physicists received the first intimation that the concepts of truth, as examined by philosophy, are widely invalid in the real world. In physics, compelling need has caused the concept of truth to evolve, diversify, and, in some cases, become non sequitur. And although Ludwig Wittgenstein provides a kind of a gap-filler for anxious liberal arts students, physics continues to outpace. At best, we can claim Wittgenstein is relevant to us, and we are limited.

With those eminently respectable examples in front of us, consider the evolution of warfare, which has been info-centric for a long time. The colorful costumes of Napoleonic and earlier were required to know where the troops were. Orders were originally shouted, then written,  then sent by telegraph key, then typed, then teletyped, then sent by encrypted burst radio; now by micro-cellular radio with heads-up display. This is reflected in the evolution of U.S. battle doctrines. The first evolved doctrine, the product of Vietnam’s junior officers, was AirLand Battle, superseded by Full Spectrum Operations” (  American Army Doctrine for the Post-Cold War). And it keeps going. While political debate tends to have a cyclic, repetitive character, the U.S. Army learns from their mistakes. Experiencing the death of soldiers under one’s command seems to provide collective inspiration, which is why, some have said, war brings out the best in men, though making the kind of history that should have been avoided.

The thinking implied by the article, “Post 9/11 Stability Operations; How U.S. Army Doctrine is Shaping National Security Operations”, could help avoid the painful mistakes of past counter-insurgencies. But part of the avoidance is not getting in the situation in the first place. And a risk of not getting involved is the kind of global malignancy not seen in past Cold-War situations. There is no doctrinal replacement for fluid intellect in calling the shots.

DoD is at the service of public policy, not the originator. DoD doctrines are shaped by the need to connect the dots, in detail, all the way to training the soldier. The need to be absolutely nuts-and-bolts practical and implementable results in great detail at the bottom, and less at the top. There is no DoD manual on when to engage. That’s left to the politicians. The cited document provides methods, but the judgment to apply is left to Wise Men, who are often not that wise.

The nature of partisan politics tends to promote one-word solutions. Phrases of three words are better, though, as recently seen, three might not be enough. Homeowners in the suburbs who are trying to grow nice lawns are acquainted with reading little articles on the side of grass seed bags. You start with red fescue, just to get something down, mulch, aerate, weed, mow, and fertilize, and seed with Kentucky Bluegrass to replace the coarse fescue. Then, after some years, you’re supposed to have a nice lawn. Although I hate yard work, and I have never actually seen this happen, millions of homeowners seem to obtain life  fulfillment in their quests.

That was about 50 words. You don’t exercise leadership to grow a lawn, and you don’t follow it. Sometimes you let it sit, and sometimes you mow and weed like crazy, according to the weather, not some grand plan. Single words and simple phrases don’t suffice. Perhaps we should grow a vocabulary.