36 Black Swans, Gray Swans, and Pink Flamingoes to Watch in 2018

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

While driving along the shore of Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island in September 2011, I saw them for the first time.

Black Swans.

My wife and I pulled over, jumped out, and spent a half hour with the darkly elegant cousins of the waterfowl we were accustomed to in North America. Black swans, of course, were at one time presumed not to exist (so much so there was a Latin phrase coined to cement their perceived non-existence)—until later eras, when travel to Australia and New Zealand (where they are commonly found) revealed their earthly presence.

Since then, a famous book has popularized “black swans” as a commonly used metaphor for the disproportionate effects of previously unobserved, high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events (in Rumsfeldian parlance, “unknown unknowns”). Continue reading “36 Black Swans, Gray Swans, and Pink Flamingoes to Watch in 2018”

Four Moments of Warrior Wisdom from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

It’s here. Unless you’ve been slumming it on Dagobah or hanging around some empty desert planet, you probably noticed Star Wars: The Last Jedi consumed all of Earth’s attention this past weekend. Even the early returns indicate the movie will make a ton of money, and critics already love the show.

But for those responsible for real wars, there’s more to this picture than 153 minutes of eye candy. There are four moments, four lines, four quotations—embedded in the script—that would speak wisdom for those warriors willing to listen. What follows (don’t worry, no spoilers) is a brief recounting of these pockets of profound knowledge. Continue reading “Four Moments of Warrior Wisdom from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi””

From Princesses to Generals: Leia and the Evolution of Women at War

*Note: This essay, co-written with Erica Iverson, was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

“She wasn’t looking for a knight, she was looking for a sword,” wrote the poet Atticus, who might have been thinking of Star Wars’ Leia Organa. Over the forty years of the Star Wars franchise, Leia went from princess to general at the same time American military women were looking to wield their own weapons.

It wasn’t easy, but both found their swords. And they’re not done fighting. Continue reading “From Princesses to Generals: Leia and the Evolution of Women at War”

The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2037

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

The memoir that follows takes us on a “darkly imagined excursion into the future.”

In it, an unknown brigadier general, identity sanitized through encryption, recounts “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2037,” a series of trends that caused the evitable to become inevitable. Our brigadier general traces the start to the years after 2012, with a severe erosion of the nonpartisan ethic within the officer corps, which led to open political party affiliation, and finally a planned incursion into America’s political process to restore domestic civilian control and roll back a foreign military invasion.

This coup is fiction, a respectful twenty-fifth anniversary re-boot of Charles Dunlap’s 1992 essay. Like that work, this essay is a “literary device intended to dramatize my concern over certain contemporary developments facing the armed forces and is emphatically not a prediction.” One book employing such future-fiction-as-history described its value as a way to better understand and avert an undesirable future. Another has written that one of fiction’s great abilities is to help us examine some potential consequences of trends already in motion. Today’s US Army chief of staff has said fiction is “something that we pay close attention to” for its value in understanding the future. It is in the spirit of avoiding such a disturbing and dangerous calamity that this essay is presented to the reader. Continue reading “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2037”

Four Deaths in Niger and the Savage Logic of Military Operations

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site. It can also be found online here

The furor over the recent loss of four Army Special Forces soldiers’ raises the grandest question of them all: Why?

To answer, we have to peek through the fog that often clouds military operations—to reveal an uncomfortable truth.

Two rigid, bloody axioms govern the logic of military operations: time is often more valuable than human life, and the good of the many nearly always matters more than the few. Continue reading “Four Deaths in Niger and the Savage Logic of Military Operations”

The Battle Hymn of the Strategist: Composing the Terrible Swift Sword

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

A couple months ago, The Atlantic magazine signed up jazz musician Jon Batiste to draw ears to their new podcast. Their bonus was a masterclass on military strategy.

It was an inspired choice to draft New Orleans-native Batiste, who currently serves as The Late Show with Steven Colbert’s charismatic band leader, to re-mix “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the podcast’s theme music. The Battle Hymn is America’s quintessential war music, written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, whose lyrics first appeared on The Atlantic’s cover in early 1862. So Batiste’s musical update was a clever way to remind listeners of the magazine’s deep roots, while also holding on to the monthly’s core theme of “the American idea.”

An Army strategist by trade, I was transfixed by the behind-the-scenes video and audio description of Batiste’s creative method while updating this martial song (whatever comes of your having read this essay, agree or disagree, like or dislike—you MUST download or stream Radio Atlantic’s podcast, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, and listen to the process from roughly 5–10 minutes in; the actual song is performed for the last three minutes of the 65-minute episode). Open-eared listeners will hear how making this music jives with military strategy’s artistic development, but it also serves as an introduction to the many other ways the two are in tune. Continue reading “The Battle Hymn of the Strategist: Composing the Terrible Swift Sword”

Wear Pink Underwear Like Churchill, and Nine Other Principles of Defense Entrepreneurship

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Yes, you read that right. The West’s roaring lion, the British Bulldog, he of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill—“customarily wore underwear made of pale pink silk.” We’ll come back to that later.

I was recently asked to speak at a Defense Entrepreneurs Forum panel at the US Air Force Academy, which got me to thinking about what that actually means. Some hold the term, “defense entrepreneur,” in contempt: Why isn’t this just innovation? Why do we have to go and create a new word for the same thing?

Those folks would be wrong. Just as there’s an important distinction between a “driver” and “driving,” there is a useful difference between an entrepreneur and innovation. One is a dynamic process; the other, a human catalyst that propels, advances, and often guides this dynamic process. Related, but not the same. The military spends a lot of time and ink on innovation, but not nearly as much on the individual innovator—the defense entrepreneur. Continue reading “Wear Pink Underwear Like Churchill, and Nine Other Principles of Defense Entrepreneurship”