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””

Enough with Political Endorsements from Retired Military Officers

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on November 27, 2017. It can also be found online here.

Recently, Dan Helmer, a West Point graduate running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, released a list of eight retired generals and admirals he calls his “National Security Advisory Committee.” At the top is retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who formerly served as superintendent at West Point (akin to a college president) while I was a cadet. I looked up to him then.

But I’m not so sure about that now.

Christman’s and other public endorsements from retired military officers are legal, but are nonetheless inappropriate and harm both the military and country. Most Americans are naturally prone to see these retired officers — especially retired admirals and generals — as representing the entire military. As such, one person’s individual endorsement necessarily trades on the military’s reputation in service of a party, ideology, or candidate. This pulls the military into partisan politics.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

Wanted: A marathon for the masses, to help Americans lose weight

*Note: This essay was published in the New York Daily News print edition on November 5, 2017. It can also be found online here.

Sunday, 50,000 physical elites will line up to run the New York City Marathon. Watch and you’ll see the best of the endurance world: lean, lithe and little in the way of body fat. At a start line a few miles from the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests, another enviable 1% will congregate.

Most runners will be fairly uniform; spectators won’t see many, if any, overweight competitors. Slower movers don’t make the cut: The “sweep bus” pulls anyone out of the race taking over 15 minutes per mile. Police support and precious volunteer hours drive down the time the course is open. This deters the obese, the overweight and aged. Continue reading “Wanted: A marathon for the masses, to help Americans lose weight”

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”

Abundant Vulnerability: Why Military Millennials Might Be America’s Achilles’ Heel

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

“Be strong enough to know when you are weak,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once advised. But what matters more is to know how and where you’re vulnerable.

During the Cold War, the director of the US Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall, found America had a “distinct and meaningful advantage” in that the “bulk of the Soviet forces were composed of conscripts” who were “poorly trained and lacking technical know-how.” Marshall’s insight was to use the Soviet soldiers’ relative deprivation against them. In a military based on a thoroughly mechanized, road-mobile doctrine, the fact that the average Soviet recruit didn’t grow up with cars provided a weakness to be exploited.

Today, America’s military suffers the inverse vulnerability—abundance. The average American recruit, typically of the millennial generation, has always had access to an overflow of information and resources; ubiquitous smartphones, plentiful cars and computers. In the age of information warfare, when the enemy threatens to hit the kill switch, this is America’s Achilles’ heel. Continue reading “Abundant Vulnerability: Why Military Millennials Might Be America’s Achilles’ Heel”

It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means

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

A few years ago, I showed a senior officer a draft strategy. He looked at it, and then looked at me with a Christmas orphan’s unsatisfied disappointment: “We need to more clearly explain our ends, ways, means analysis,” he said, leaving silent the implied threat—or it’s not a real strategy. Underwhelmed but outranked, I grudgingly included the formula.

American strategists know the formula well. It’s Col. Arthur Lykke’s, published in Military Review in 1989, and since then widely taught and promulgated by the US Army War College: “Strategy equals ends (objectives toward which one strives) plus ways (courses of action) plus means (instruments by which some end can be achieved).” It is convenient and concise, short enough to fit cleanly onto a PowerPoint slide and clear enough to be expressed as an actual mathematical equation: ends + ways + means = strategy (less residual risk). This simplicity has driven universal adoption; nearly every single strategic document the American military generates is directly or indirectly influenced by Lykke’s formula.

But what if this dominant view is bad for American strategy, as Jeffrey Meiser points out in a recent essay? While he acknowledges “some value” to this method, Meiser also alleges the formula “has become a crutch undermining creative and effective strategic thinking” because it channels practitioners toward “viewing strategy as a problem of ends-means congruence” (e.g., do we have enough troops to do the job?). Is Meiser right? Is Lykke’s model a tyrannical mental straightjacket, constraining American strategists?

I think so. Lykke’s model is flawed on four counts: (1) it’s too formulaic, (2) “ends” don’t really end, (3) it minimizes the adversary, and (4) our strategic performance since widespread adoption has been unremarkable at best. Continue reading “It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means”