On Thinking Smartly About War

W.J. Astore

I prefer peace to war, diplomacy to armed confrontation, but sometimes war can be unavoidable. At least the U.S. military sure seems to think so, given the number of wars it fights and the humungous sums of money it spends. Yet spending trillions on weaponry and destruction is no substitute for keen thinking about war. Sadly, the U.S. military isn’t exactly known for outthinking its rivals and enemies.

An analytical and quantifying mania marks U.S. military efforts in war.  The enemy can be defeated by identifying and attacking his centers of gravity, as the U.S. Air Force likes to say, as if the enemy is an industrial factory or an engineering problem rather than a human organism of unquantifiable complexity.  Societies aren’t machines, nor are they rational actors, necessarily. They are more like ecological systems, unpredictable, adaptable, variegated, and complex.

The “Type A,” “Can-do” warriors in the U.S. military are good at bludgeoning various evil doers but not at discerning how societies and war are interconnected and interdependent.  Hence the flailing witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the U.S. military tried one interventionist technique after another, with little understanding of the complex ecology of the situation.  The U.S. military hammered away without producing favorable and persistent political results.  The result in both cases were ignominious defeats disguised as withdrawals.

The U.S. military still refuses to face, understand, and absorb the humanistic complexity of war.  It still speaks of “surgical” strikes, which are routinely touted and applauded as decisive in the U.S. media.  Yet the overall effect in terms of meaningful political results is much like doing brain surgery with a chain saw.  The operation is predictably messy, the surgeons are greatly bloodied, and the patients – well, just look at the enormity of the damage the U.S. military/government inflicted on Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries that have enjoyed the “surgical precision” of American weaponry and power over the last sixty years.

Strangely, in Iraq and Afghanistan, generals tended to focus on tactics as corporals were expected to exercise the most subtle forms of political persuasion while carrying guns. (It was known as the strategic corporal concept.) When a military expects its twenty-year-old two-stripers to be savvier than its star-studded and medal-bedecked senior leaders, something is seriously wrong.

If corporals are truly “strategic,” maybe they should be put in charge and the generals demoted to the ranks, where they can focus on tactics. Given the U.S. military’s recent record of repetitive defeats, turning the rank structure upside down couldn’t hurt. It might even alleviate America’s glut of generals and admirals.

Let’s put this corporal in charge. I bet she’d do better than General Milley.

31 thoughts on “On Thinking Smartly About War

  1. While, as You say, Bill, “the U.S. military hammered away without producing favorable and persistent political results” in Iraq and Afghanistan, can You name anybody in Washington or anyplace else in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex who views those escapades as “ignominious defeats disguised as withdrawals”?

    How much money was spent on those Goat Ropes? And into whose pockets did virtually all of that money go? And how much MORE money are those same folks clamoring for and getting as they prep us for the beginnings of a new Cold War that can and will only get hotter and hotter?

    And, heh: Wasn’t the last “strategic corporal” on the world scene a guy named Adolph?


    1. Ah, yes. Adolf Hitler. He reached the American rank of PFC, Jeff, not corporal. His fellow troops thought him eccentric and his chain of command didn’t think he exhibited much by way of leadership potential, which is why his rank stalled at PFC (private first class for those not familiar with military acronyms).

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, he had lots of help destroying Germany and lots of other things from that chain of command, from Germany’s bankers and industrialists, and, above all, from the German people.

            And as long as their side was winning, i’m sure that everybody in Germany whose opinion mattered thought that Hitler was exactly the leader that Germany needed at that moment. And they proved it by their dutiful, totally committed ~ and of course, “patriotic” ~ followership.


              1. thank you for this youtube alert, rj. i have already forwarded the site’s interviews to the multitudes.


  2. “DISTRACTIONS, SCAPEGOATS, AND ROT” by Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation begins as follows:

    < Out-of-control federal spending. Decades-long monetary debasement. A never-ending violent and corrupt drug war. A perpetual deadly and destructive war on terrorism. A mind-destroying educational system. Bankrupt socialist welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare. A highly regulated and controlled society. Vicious trade wars. A decades-old immigration crisis. Invasions and occupations. Coups. Torture. Indefinite detention. Fomentation of foreign crises and wars. Deadly sanctions and embargoes against foreigners. Irrational mass killings within the United States.

    < It’s just all part of the rot at the center of the U.S. government that is slowly but surely taking our country down, from within. The problem, however, is that all too many Americans do not want to face this. It’s much too painful and even scary for them to do so.

    < What is the response of U.S. officials to this rot? Distractions and scapegoats.

    < The distractions include Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many others. Americans are exhorted to keep focusing on things “over there,” so that they will not confront the rot from within that is slowly but surely destroying their freedom and well-being here at home. >

    And it concludes as follows…….

    < The biggest problem we have in America is the unbounded faith that all too many Americans have in their federal government, especially the Pentagon and the CIA. The Pentagon is like a god to so many Americans. Who wants to question or challenge god? Oh sure, lots of Americans go to church every Sunday to worship their other God. But the rest of the week, it’s the Pentagon — and to a larger extent the entire federal government — that is their political god.

    < After all, it’s their federal god that gives them Social Security, Medicare, education grants, farm subsidies, and other welfare. Their Sunday God certainly doesn’t do that. He expects them to work to sustain their lives and to depend on Him for their sustenance. When their federal god is taking care of them with a dole, what are the chances that they are going to look inward and confront the rot at their center of their Empire? No chance at all because everyone knows that what their federal god gives, their federal god can take away. Who wants to antagonize the federal god?

    < Also, don’t forget that the Pentagon protects us and keeps us safe from the communists, the Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Cubans, the Venezuelans, the illegal immigrants, the drug dealers, and all the other scary creatures in the world. Who wants to antagonize the Pentagon by examining and confronting the rot at the center of the Empire? What if the national-security establishment gets upset and decides not to protect us and keep us safe, including from the threats that it itself produces to keep itself in business?

    < Meanwhile, while Americans remain focused on the distractions and the scapegoats, the rot at the center of the Empire keeps eating away at the fabric of American society, just like cancer does.

    Full article at https://www.fff.org/2022/09/20/distractions-scapegoats-and-rot/


  3. I suspect that another fundamental problem the military has is that there is no real clarity about overall objective for the wars. Possibly, because they can not be honest about the geopolitical ends sought?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The objective of US Wars is to enrich American Oligarchs and the Military-Industrial Congressional Complex and to create high paying American jobs.
      How many people die and the destruction is irrelevant when so much money is involved on the US Homefront.


  4. Either that, or they did not want to admit that the whole purpose was not to “win” any of these wars, so much as to just HAVE them and keep the Gravy Train rolling, the Monkey fed, and create more new opportunities for more new conflicts requiring our intervention in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with your premise, but we have a semi-senile president who has a 50 year record of lying to the people of America, and he wants the current war in Ukraine to go on and on. I would hope there is at least one or maybe two admirals or generals at the Pentagon who understand that the current track we are on with Russia and China has no positive outcome. Are they too craven to say that to Biden (or to anyone)? You know how things work there and I don’t. Is there any chance that anyone at the Pentagon will lay out an honest accounting of what we are doing before it becomes the armageddon we are headed for?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t volunteer, Ranney, to hold Your breath while waiting for somebody in the Pentagon to speak out against our current track with Russia and China.

      Just like back in the good old days of Bush I, Clinton, Cheney/Bush II, and Obama when “Everybody wants to go to Baghdad; REAL MEN want to go to Tehran” was the operating mantra, pretty soon we’ll be hearing about going to Moscow and/or Beijing.


      1. I’m not holding my breath, I’m asking Bill, who has a long experience with the military, if he thinks there are any generals or admirals at the Pentagon courageous enough to speak the truth to the public.


        1. It’s so hard to say. Generals and admirals are selected because of their reliability, predictability, and not purely for their ability, if that makes sense.

          In reaching flag rank, they become accustomed to a system where “truth” is a very fuzzy category. Needlessly so, in my view. They tend to think that what’s best for their particular service is what’s best for the country. They forget, or disregard, their oath to the Constitution.

          I guess the sad thing is that their “truth” is not the same as the truth the people need from their public servants. This is precisely why real truth-tellers are so often punished, e.g. Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale. They “broke ranks” to tell the real truth, and that can’t be countenanced.

          What’s happening behind the scenes in private discussions at the Pentagon — I don’t know.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Isn’t loyalty the supremely valued trait, even when, especially when the prevailing concept may be a bad one? Doesn’t loyalty maintain bad behavior anywhere there is hierarchy, such as in a police force, a corporate chain of command or the executive branch of our government? It got Colin Powell to wreck his legacy even when he was highly suspicious of what he was going to testify was fact regarding Iraq. His colleagues in the administration knew of his reluctance to speak and amped up pressure on loyalty to the max. If we as a people truly value individualism as much as we say we do, the ease with which loyalty trumps it is remarkable. For me, Snowden is the man.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Yes, misbegotten or misplaced loyalty is a huge problem. By coincidence, my next article for TomDispatch.com addresses loyalty (in part). Military members tell themselves they must remain loyal to commanders, or subordinates, or their service, and so on, when your loyalty should be focused on the Constitution, and, by extension, the nation, “we the people.”

              But so many people have done so many bad things, or have refused to speak up and stop bad things, out of “loyalty.”

              We see this in the Catholic Church, for example, when priests remain silent about abuses, remaining “loyal” to the hierarchy and the clergy when they should be loyal to God and the Gospel.

              It is very hard to break ranks and tell the truth when there’s so much pressure to conform or at least to remain silent out of “loyalty.”

              Liked by 3 people

          2. Thank you Bill for your honest answer – I know that must have been difficult. As you point out, truth tellers are usually punished, and I note that Col. Wilkerson who was General Powell’s aide and is quite truthfully outspoken is now becoming another of the many “disappeared” that we no longer see on net work TV. He hasn’t quite reached the stage that MattTaibi,, William Binney, Chelsea Manning, Ray MCGovern, John Pilger and many others have risen to – total disappearance – but he’s getting there. I wouldn’t wish that on you, because we need your voice and others like you.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Taibbi is active on Substack where he is free to speak out. It requires a subscription though. Glenn Greenwald is there, too.


        2. Based on my career ~ including close to six years as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer assigned to the Office of the Inspector General of the US Army, with numerous opportunities to interact and communicate with General Officers~ i believe that Bill, retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel that he is, knows exactly of which he speaks.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. And there is even less of a chance that anybody in Congress or the MSM is going to point out the collision course with Reality that America is on.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ‘The road to war in Ukraine: fact vs fiction’
    While it’s fine to condemn Putin’s invasion, it is disingenuous to play down the role of Western provocations

    [It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that the reporting and analysis about the war on offer from the most widely seen and read news outlets in the United States are about as diverse as those on offer in, say, North Korea.]


    Liked by 1 person

  8. ‘Ukraine: US Launches a Fascist Government, and World War Three?’
    It all started on March 5, 2014: a US sponsored fascist coalition government under the disguise of democracy was installed in Ukraine.

    With historical foresight this article by Felicity Arbuthnot was first published on March 15, 2014 in the immediate wake of the US sponsored EuroMaidan Coup d’état.

    On March 5, Ukraine’s Putsch “Prime Minister” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, arbitrarily sacked three senior Defence Ministry politicians, Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Oleynik, with Deputy Defense Ministers Vladimir Mozharovskiy and Arturo Francisco Babenko.

    According to Itar-Tass (6th March 2014) they had drawn Yatsenyuk’s ire by expressing:
    “sharp criticism over giving the Right Sector militants the status of regular military units.”
    A contact of the publication stated that one of the three had also:
    .“told Yatsenyuk that actions of today’s Kiev authorities in overtures with radical nationalist organizations would destroy national unity” and that it was simply: “harmful to involve the state military agency in such dangerous games.” Their stand resulted in “management reshuffles” – in the country in which Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has stated that the US has invested $5 Billion: “in the development of democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society and a good form of government.”

    WE all know Victoria Nuland was caught on tape saying she wanted Yatsenyuk to head the changed government of Ukraine before it was even changed.

    No matter how often US War propaganda calls this Putin’s War, it’s the US War against Russia.
    Russia knows it if Americans remain dumb.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Happy Last Day of Summer 2022, Everybody; the day before the Autumnal Equinox and the beginning of Fall.

    It’s been quite a Summer, eh? And shaping up to be quite a Fall, as well, what with:

    Biden’s vowing to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China;
    Putin’s upping the ante in Ukraine;
    the Fed’s cranking up interest rates and the increasing likelihood of a substantial economic downturn;
    the Atlantic Hurricane Season kicking into full gear;
    the possibility of a Trump indictment and the “big problems” he promised would be unleashed;
    and America’s Midterm elections scheduled for November 8.

    It will be interesting to see what the state of the world is in October, the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those of us old enough to have understood what was going on back in those days will never, ever forget them.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Writing about last week’s meetings in Uzbekistan between Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, and India’s Modi, Patrick Lawrence concluded his piece on the MSM as Propaganda Machine as follows:

    One, never in my long decades in the Great Craft have I seen such brazen editorial corruption as we have here. The reports we read in The Times and all the publications that follow The Times’ lead like pilot fish alongside a whale are 180° UPSIDE DOWN FROM THE READILY AVAILABLE TRUTH. LIES, OBFUSCATIONS, OMISSIONS, AND THE LIKE ARE NOTHING NEW IN TRADITIONAL MEDIA. THIS SEEMS A NEW LOW.

    Two, the reporting on the Samarkand conference — as against from it — brings us face to face with THE EXTENT TO WHICH AMERICANS ARE CONFINED IN A STATE OF IGNORANCE IN MATTERS OF GLOBAL IMPORTANCE. WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO SEE THE WORLD TURNING.

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is dedicated to Eurasian unity and is of a piece with the famous “World Island” thesis of Halford MacKinder, who POSTULATED IN 1904 THAT THE EURASIAN LANDMASS WAS DESTINED TO EMERGE AS “THE GEOGRAPHICAL PIVOT OF HISTORY.” The Eurasian Economic Union, the Belt and Road Initiative, the SCO: These are the organizational hardware as this turn of history’s wheel comes to be.

    Of this we read next to nothing last week — passing remarks and no more, and certainly no substantive analysis. The Putin–Xi and Putin–Modi talks could not be ignored in this fashion, so they had to be distorted quite literally beyond recognition.

    Both of those bilaterals were, in fact, key setbacks for Washington — and hence, of course, the distortion. The Biden regime has long fantasized that it can disrupt the waxing partnership between Moscow and Beijing. The U.S. has deluded itself even longer that New Delhi, which honors Nehru’s principle of nonalignment as if it is a sacrament, can be turned against Beijing and Moscow alike.

    What we’ve just watched is the extent of these delusions. Let us, then, simply extend these delusions further, for THOSE PURPORTING TO LEAD OUR REPUBLIC SIMPLY CANNOT HANDLE THE 21ST CENTURY AS IT UNFOLDS BEFORE US, AND WE MUST NOT SEE WHAT THEY REFUSE TO ACCEPT.

    Full article at https://consortiumnews.com/2022/09/21/patrick-lawrence-appointment-in-samarkand/ . [EMPHASES added.]

    A companion piece ~ “Defensive West Smears Samarkand Summit: No Western reporting on the summit focused on an emerging world order that is leaving the U.S. on the outside looking in” by Joe Lauria is at https://consortiumnews.com/2022/09/21/defensive-west-smears-samarkand-summit/ .

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “Auckland University physicist Dr David Krofcheck reckons about one-third of radioactive fallout could be transferred between hemispheres. Thankfully, he does not think enough fallout would reach New Zealand to pose a significant public health risk.

    Professor Brian Toon, who has studied and modelled the impacts of nuclear war, also tells me it’s unlikely radioactivity would be an issue for New Zealand after a global war.”


    Liked by 1 person

  12. Text of Putin’s Speech on Ukraine
    Reading it, he’s basically telling it like it is as Western Propaganda spins it into something it isn’t.

    Putin is demonized for being KGB, but Bush Senior and pompous Pompeo were both Directors of the CIA.
    Putin’s formal training is as an Economist and he knew the significance of the 2014 US Coup/regime change of the Russian friendly government, installing a puppet anti-Russian government.

    He prepared Russia to survive the US Economic War he knew the West was preparing.


    Liked by 2 people

  13. “Streams of people – some with guns and openly hostile – may flee the “appalling conditions” in their home countries and attempt to find solace in New Zealand.

    But it’s not weapons that would pose the biggest threat. No, it’s possible the poor souls fleeing the collapse of civilization could arrive carrying a plethora of now absent diseases: plague, cholera, typhoid and even leprosy.

    To protect its population, New Zealand would need well-organized quarantine facilities, but even then we’d struggle to cope as society fractures.”


    1. I would think New Zealand would be the perfect place to stage the re-re-return of Planet of the Apes. Isn’t that where they filmed “Xena – Warrior Princess”? Such lush vegetation. Just be sure to save some horses.


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