Thursday, April 3, 2014

"War 101," by General H.R. McMaster, guest on Charlie Rose

Sometimes, from the left, we are quite disdainful of the U.S. military. We accuse the "Pentagon" of being overly bureaucratic, filled with sycophants, bowing scrupulously to their superiors, devouring a huge portion of the national budget, and exploding bombs into homes where women and children are innocently murdered, in their massive offensive attacks with their secret drone-borne missiles.
Linking the military to the "national interest" has, for most of my adult years, been but a faint equation, written in pastel chalk on the walls of my mind, easily washed away, with the latest foray into a foreign country and reports of casualties, both foreign and American, that seemed quite antiseptic and detached, and therefore hardly human, in the manner of the reports of their deaths.
While it may be an "instrument of death", there are also signs that, to totally dismiss the military as an instrument of national interest, would be naïve in the extreme and foolish especially in the breach.
Last night, for the first time in my life, I actually spent the better part of an hour listening to General H.R. McMaster, talking to Charlie Rose, on PBS, about his observations, reflections and insights about the nature of future wars.
In the course of the discussion, we were reminded that 'we may not be interested in wars, but wars are interested in you' (from Trotsky). And we were referred to Napoleon, the military strategist who developed the strategy that one does not attack an enemy where he is strong, but rather from behind where he is weakest. We were also treated to a buffet of approaches to the difference between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, words that for most of us have merged into one. As a military scholar who studies war, McMaster reminded us of the danger of the "silver bullet" approach to military initiatives, and sounded a clarion call for a varied and diversified approach to all conflicts, that, regardless of the text-book theories currently extant, those in the field still had to make decisions about how to deploy a range of options, in order to effectively subdue the enemy.
Speaking of the future of warfare, McMaster, while acknowledging the new technologies, including cyberwar, drones, and the clinical aspect of fighting from afar, pointed to the need for ground troops, in order to sustain whatever had been accomplished by these more sophisticated weapons. He also urged his listeners to think not merely of "defence" but also of "offense" in the future where there are clearly both state and non-state actors  intermingled wreaking havoc in order to better establish their aims.
People go to war for three reasons, according to McMaster: fear, honour and interest.
And, throughout history, wars have continually brought out both the  best and the worst of the human species. Those of who us literally hate physical conflict of any kind, and would prefer all disputes to be settled, as most agree do all military engagements eventually, by negotiation, mediation, arbitration and verbal legal arguments.
As an outsider, reflecting on my encounters, through books, magazines, newspapers and radio and television only, never from combat itself, it would seem that while Americans go to war out of what is too often alleged as national interest, there is a good deal of both fear and honour also involved, and while the former may be at the front of the headlines, the latter two are not too far back in the shadows. One quote, from an Iranian, in the discussion about what some perceive as an Iranian attempt to foment conflict in the Middle East for an extended period, in order to better establish increased power and influence in the region, is especially memorable. McMaster referred to an Iranian who spoke to him once using these words: You Americans are like a chicken; you make a lot of noise and a lot of bluster, but you lay only one egg. On the other hand, we Iranians are like a bunch of fish; we move silently and quickly through the water and we lay millions of eggs.
Sometimes, it is important to know more than what weapons are available to an enemy. It is obviously highly important to know how the enemy thinks, operates, speaks and perceives the world, and their enemy. In the next several decades we are likely to be spectators (hopefully not participants) in a drama that sees if and how the Americans "counter" the Iranian schools of fish, while she extricates herself from whatever reality and self-perceptions she has about being a chicken, blustering and making a lot of noise in a world increasingly influenced the various schools of sharks that today would have to include the Iranian ally Putin.

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