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Sling and the Stone: Personnel (Pt. II)

This is Part II of an N part series on The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, by Col. Thomas X. Hammes.
Read Part I here.

The problems of communication, coordination, and cooperation in the American intelligence community are well-documented, and they are shared by the US Armed Forces. For information to be move across channels, it must travel vertically all the way up the chain-of-command, gaining “approval” at each step, and then passed down once again. Hammes advocates freeing personnel to share information laterally, from Marine Colonels to Army privates to State Department employees.

Hammes wants to free soldiers from bureaucratic constraints, reward soldiers for creativity, leading amidst chaos, empowering subordinates and peers, and developing relevant skills. For this to occur, not only the vertical, approval-based hierarchy needs to change, but the personnel system needs an overhaul.

The personnel system mirrors the vertical nature of the organization as a whole (it was last updated at the turn of the 20th century by Secretary of War Elihu Root … a Roosevelt boy). Top-down evaluation hurts risk-takers, and should be altered to incorporate a 360-degree assessment of the individual, taking into account the perceptions of not only superiors, but peers and subordinates.

This is a bit of a tricky issue. I’ve talked with a lot of people with a great deal of military experience who hate being assessed by their peers (I can only imagine their subordinates.)

Their argument is that the only thing that matters at the end of the day is you doing your job to your superior’s satisfaction. There is something to be said for that. What this perspective misses, however, is that both peers and subordinates offer useful nuggets of information on a leader, even if they are buried under pissy pettiness. An example I quite like is professor evaluation, which works quite well and suggests that subordinate assessment actually can work quite well. 360-degree assessment makes it clear to a soldier that his job is not only performing all the tasks his superior can measure, but getting the most out of subordinates and working with peers to maximize development and performance.

Beyond assessment, the Armed Forces must change the way it educates and trains soldiers. In education, a greater premium must be placed on history and sciences, as well as chaos/complexity and network theories. The latter especially lends itself to Hammes’ fourth-generation framework, as soldiers must not seek certainty, but understand the underlying patterns of chaos, while also understanding the enemy not as individual elements, but as complex networks.

With regards to training, the Armed Forces must move away from set-pieces with clear objectives, clear friends and foes. In my training I participated in OPFOR training, which Hammes critiques in particular. The OPFOR training amounted to one group of soldiers playing the role of enemy (OPFOR), defending a bunker, performing an ambush, etc., while the other soldiers are given an assignment, such as search-and-destroy enemies in this sector. In Officer Candidate School (OCS), candidates are assessed based on their ability to make decisions and effectively communicate as leaders in these scenarios.

While these scenarios were fine for weeding out the brutally incompetent at OCS, I agree with Hammes that OPFOR training fails to reproduce the dynamic, chaotic environment of fourth-generation warfare. Hammes advocates “free-play exercises,” such as providing security in a real town, in an attempt to mirror the chaos of the reality of fourth-generation warfare. Some of these exercises would be more resource-intensive (e.g., the above example), but not all; in fact, Hammes raises the idea of using online role-playing games, possibly opening it up to the public to test soldiers’ abilities to respond to the chaos.

I find this idea fascinating. Simulators have transformed training in other areas, such as flight, but have yet to be utilized to their full effect. I believe there are steps being taken in this direction, and I am anxious to see how we can make the Playstation generation pay off.

I’ll conclude this installment by raising an important point. Given Hammes’ emphasis on the evolution of warfare – and his criticism of states insistent on fighting the last war (e.g., the French in World War II) – it would be prudent to question whether Hammes’ reforms would only set the US up for failure when confronted by fifth-generation warfare.

Hammes insists though that whether the next generation of warfare is cyberwar, nuclear-powered individuals or small-groups, or something else, a more decentralized, flat organization would be better prepared to not only engage enemies in fourth-generation warfare, but also to respond changes in warfare itself, just as Google is better able to recognize and take advantage of changing market dynamics than its more hierarchical competition.

Filed under: World

More Election Stuff: A little perspective

One of the reasons I love reading Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution is Tyler’s rare ability to get beyond politics and provide a greater context to a multitude of issues. In a recent New York Times article entitled “It’s an Election, Not a Revolution,” Tyler examines the 2008 election in light of American democracy.

Rather than being cynics, we should be realists. Democracy is reasonably good at some things: pushing scoundrels out of office, checking their worst excesses by requiring openness, and simply giving large numbers of people the feeling of having a voice. Democracy is not nearly as good at others: holding politicians accountable for their economic promises or translating the preferences of intellectuals into public policy.

THAT might sound pessimistic, but it’s not. Many Americans will be living longer, finding new sources of learning and recreation, creating more rewarding jobs, striking up new loves and friendships, and, yes, earning more money. Just don’t expect most of these gains to come out of the voting booth or, for that matter, Washington. And if you’re still worrying about how to vote, I have two pieces of advice. First, spend your time studying foreign policy, where the president has more direct power, and the choice of a candidate makes a much bigger difference.

On a related note, I’d recommend looking into the writings of Bryan Caplan. First, a solid piece on how democracy can go wrong. Second, an Economist article (“Vote for me, dimwit”) on his book, Myth of the Rational Voter:

Many political scientists think this does not matter because of a phenomenon called the “miracle of aggregation” or, more poetically, the “wisdom of crowds”. If ignorant voters vote randomly, the candidate who wins a majority of well-informed voters will win. The principle yields good results in other fields. On “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, another quiz show, the answer most popular with the studio audience is correct 91% of the time. Financial markets, too, show how a huge number of guesses, aggregated, can value a stock or bond more accurately than any individual expert could.

But Mr Caplan says that politics is different because ignorant voters do not vote randomly. Instead, he identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off. First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias. Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias. Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the “make-work bias”. Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.

And now, back to the circus.

Filed under: Misc

What would Obama’s military look like?

Along with economics, one of my major considerations in the upcoming election will be each candidate’s foreign policy approach, which, by extension, includes the military.

Military fears ‘unknown quantity’
Members of Washington’s military and defense establishment are expressing trepidation about Sen. Barack Obama, as the Illinois senator comes closer to winning the Democratic presidential nomination and leads in national polls to become commander in chief. But his backers, including a former Air Force chief of staff, say the rookie senator believes in a strong military, and with it, a larger Army and Marine Corps.

Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress and one of a dozen or so national security advisers to the Obama campaign, rebutted the lack-of-experience complaint, saying neither President Bush nor John F. Kennedy could claim an extensive national security background before entering the White House.

But Loren Thompson, who runs the Lexington Institute and stays in touch with defense industry executives, said Mr. Obama is difficult to categorize.

“His views are all over the map depending on whether its nuclear proliferation, energy independence or the global war on terror,” he said. “How many liberals say they are going to bomb al Qaeda in Pakistan no matter whether the Pakistanis like it or not? He’s much harder to pin down.”

The Kennedy comparison doesn’t quite inspire confidence in me, given his early blunders (though it’s better than a Carter comparison, which haunts me). But I think the final selection reveals the real mystery of what Obama would do. He is indeed hard to pin down.

Filed under: World

Men Behind the Man: Obamanauts

The Audacity of Data explores the wonks Obama has brought on board. With election pandering in full effect, I’m reminded to focus on what truly defined the Presidency of George W. — the men behind the man. (Hat tip to


“Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama’s campaign boasts a cadre of credentialed achievers. Intellectually, however, the Obamanauts couldn’t be more different. Clinton delighted in surrounding himself with big-think public intellectuals–like economics commentator Robert Reich and political philosopher Bill Galston. You’d be hard-pressed to find a political philosopher in Obama’s inner wonk-dom. His is dominated by a group of first-rate economists, beginning with Goolsbee, one of the profession’s most respected tax experts. A Harvard economist named Jeff Liebman has been influential in helping Obama think through budget and retirement issues; another, David Cutler, helped shape his views on health care. Goolsbee, in particular, is an almost unprecedented figure in Democratic politics: an academic economist with a top campaign position and the candidate’s ear.”

Bill Clinton favored what you might call a “deductive” approach–an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. In a series of speeches in 1991, he unveiled the product of all his late-night bull-sessions with people like Reich and Galston, which he called “The New Covenant.” The old model held that government had certain unconditional obligations to its citizens. Under Clinton’s reimagining, many of these obligations would disappear. The government would help only those who fulfilled their responsibilities as parents, workers, and taxpayers. For instance, the government would no longer provide unlimited welfare benefits. It would instead require recipients to work after two years of assistance.

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive–working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical Goolsbee brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back. Goolsbee estimates this small innovation could save hundreds of millions of man-hours spent filling out tax forms, and billions of dollars in tax-preparation fees.”

Here’s a separate piece on Goolsbee, which has some interesting insights, though I am not completely convinced it was written by an impartial, undecided journalist.

Finally, I am already tired of hearing Ralph Nader talk. Regardless of his politics, I am convinced that every step he takes into the political ring is powered by his megalomania. I only wish Pat Buchanan was campaigning so we could have crazy people on both sides to balance each other out. Bloomberg made a good decision to stand on the sideline, given the quality of the presumptive candidates; Nader — not so much.

Filed under: Misc

Book to Own: The Sling and the Stone (Pt. 1)

(Part 1 of an N Part series)

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, Col. Thomas X. Hammes (Link to Amazon)

Col. Thomas Hammes (retired) is a former Marine who you may (or may not) recall was one of the officers who called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign in 2006. He is also one of the US’ foremost experts on counterinsurgency, arguing that we must “study our enemies as they have studied us and build a networked, flexible, and, here’s the kicker, less hierarchical military structure that employs humans to fight the humans fighting us.”

In The Sling and the Stone, Hammes details the evolution of warfare from the Battle at Agincourt through present-day Iraq. According to Hammes, we are now experiencing fourth-generation warfare, evident in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but having its root in Mao’s unconventional rise to power in China. The book is worth a read for the history alone, but I spent most of my time pondering Hammes’ treatment of the US armed forces as an organization.

Hammes disparages the organization as a remnant of early 20th century industrialism, built for churning out massive forces for conventional warfare just as Ford build it’s empire on cranking out Model T’s. Just like the Model T, time has passed by the conventional army.

The US’ quick and total conventional victories in Iraq (both times) and elsewhere have proven the futility of challenging the US in the realm of conventional warfare.

The enemy has responded to our technological dominance with unconventional tactics, retreating from direct conflict, decentralizing decision-making and responsibility, gaining flexibility, limiting their visibility, and thereby minimizing the impact of our technological dominance. With these new challenges of fourth-generation warfare, the US Armed Forces must transform itself – it must be less Ford, more Google.

This brief series of blog posts will explore the specific recommendations on how the military should change everything from the makeup of it’s forces to it’s personnel evaluation system.

Filed under: World

Helping Africa be less bad (one day at a time)

I was recently talking to a friend who just got back from the bowels of Africa after six months attempting to push a community closer to that magic buzzword(s) of “sustainable development.” His thoughts married neatly with mine; en sum, Africa is being infantilized (should be a word) by foreign aid. In the simplest example, no one is going to grow food to sell in the local market if the locally produced food is going to have to compete with FREE food.

The Bottom Billion delves into this subject at great depth, and I agree with it’s conclusions that it’s not that foreign aid needs to be abolished, just radically reshaped in a way that stimulates local enterprise, be it through creating common markets, lowering cost of information, shrinking distances between markets — in general, increasing (and securing) the returns on legitimate enterprise by improving the functioning of the market economy and with it, state governance.

For what it’s worth, I am optimistic about the changing economic climate in Africa, which is shifting away from American farmers sending free food to Rwanda to more decentralized, creative approaches to augmenting the local human capital. I am less optimistic about the free world’s ability and willingness to prevent yet another genocide. Those on the right will need to see that the future of these failed states is intertwined with the security of the United States, while those on the left will need to admit that the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives trumps stepping on the sovereignty of a self-appointed dictator. Hopefully, our next President sees the failure of the intervention in Somalia in the early ’90s as a failure to properly assess the threat and a failure to adequately address the problem, rather than insisting we should not mettle in failed states.

The new military challenge is that of the failed state, which must first be avoided by economic and political assistance, but at times will demand an outside actor to monopolize (and thereby limit) violence; only when the warring parties are convinced that their plans of violence will not be successful in wresting political control to extinguish their enemies will they realize that political dialogue remains the best recourse. In a country like Iraq, this is an extremely tall task, however, in many less developed, smaller countries, like Sudan, it is well within the capacity of a small, well-armed, well-trained coalition, with quick-response capabilities. We should not discredit the idea of nation-building because one endeavor was not well thought-out. The African Union is taking steps forward, but they will need our support.


  • In Praise of Somaliland, A Beacon of Hope in the Thorn of Africa: Against all odds, and with little international recognition or aid, the three million people of Somaliland have – largely by their own efforts – begun to establish a secure, functioning democratic state and a fair degree of economic stability and growth.
  • Can Greed Save Africa? Fearless investing is succeeding where aid often hasn’t: Thanks to the global commodities boom of the past few years, sub-Saharan Africa’s economies, after decades of stagnation, are expanding by an average of 6% annually—twice the U.S. pace. And like bees to honey, investors are swarming into the region in search of the enormous returns that ultra-early-stage investments can bring.
  • Economics in many lessons: A better brew for Rwanda: Rwandan coffee now routinely places at or near the top of international coffee competitions and, just a few weeks ago, a lot of Rwandan coffee sold for approximately $25 per pound at a specialty-coffee auction. Imagine what this kind of change means for people who live in country with a per capita GDP of less than $300. More than 50,000 Rwandan families have seen their incomes double over the past six to seven years.
  • African peacekeeping: The doves of war: The United Nations will juggle nine separate peacekeeping operations across Africa in 2008, including the continent’s two largest countries by area, Sudan and Congo. This sounds impressive. But the UN and the AU are both, in fact, struggling.

Filed under: World

Good TV: Simon Reeve’s travel documentaries

Recently, I got on a Central Asia kick, and snooped around the internet looking for books, video … anything I could find on the barbarians. First, I came across Colin Thubron’s new book, Shadow of the Silk Road, which looks like a good read, but would have fallen to the bottom of a very large pile.

Soon after, I came across a four-part BBC series entitled Meet the Stans (2003), wherein host Simon Reeve (wiki) journeyed “from the far north-west of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border, east to the Chinese border, south through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the edge of Afghanistan, and west to Uzbekistan and the legendary Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.” Reeve attempted to go to Turkmenistan, but the local crazy-in-charge would have none of it. Regardless, the series does an excellent job bringing the ‘stans to light, making a compelling argument for the significance and fragility of Central Asia. The series is also entertaining, thanks to the dry wit of Reeve and interesting locals.

I’ve now followed Reeve on several other adventures, including Equator, which sees Reeve follow the Equator around the world, including stops in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.

I’d be remiss not to mention Places that Don’t Exist — “Reeve’s 2005 award-winning five-part series on breakaway states and unrecognised nations, broadcast on BBC2 and broadcasters internationally. Among the countries Reeve visited for this series were Somaliland, Transniestria (where Reeve was detained for ‘spying’ by the KGB), Nagorno-Karabakh, Ajaria, South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Somalia, Moldova, Taiwan, and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.”

Finding Reeve’s material may be tricky, but some can be found online, and is certainly worth the effort. Reeve also wrote a book in 1998 entitled The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, warning “of a new age of apocalyptic terrorism,” so he’s no Mr. Bean. Peruse his homepage for more information on his many projects.

Filed under: Misc

Foreign Policy’s 2007 Failed States Index

Not exactly “current,” but an ambitious index with all sorts of goodies, like which failed nation-states took a turn for the better (or worse). An excerpt:

World leaders and the heads of multilateral institutions routinely take to lecterns to reiterate their commitment to pulling vulnerable states back from the brink, but it can be difficult to translate damage control into viable, long-term solutions that correct state weaknesses. Aid is often misspent. Reforms are too many or too few. Security needs overwhelm international peacekeepers, or chaos reigns in their absence. The complex phenomenon of state failure may be much discussed, but it remains little understood. The problems that plague failing states are generally all too similar: rampant corruption, predatory elites who have long monopolized power, an absence of the rule of law, and severe ethnic or religious divisions. But that does not mean that the responses to their problems should be cut from the same cloth. Failing states are a diverse lot. (Read on)

Filed under: Misc

Map: US States Renamed for Countries with Similar GDPs

Which state is the Uzbekistan of America? Find out here .

Filed under: Misc

Book to Own: The Bottom Billion

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, ” Paul Collier (Link to Amazon)

For the first post I thought I would cement in the cyberworld a recommendation for one of the most important books in the fix-the-po’-all-over-the-world genre. I have yet to fully digest this short and very readable book, which teams with both impressive (and useful) factoids (e.g., 38% of private wealth in Africa is held outside the country) and “big picture” insights on how global actors like the IMF need to change their framework for assessing and positively impacting the diverse group of states that find themselves stuck in the poverty cycle.

He begins by isolating his study on the states who are not only among the worst off in the world, but have also not seen any meaningful growth in the past 50 or so years. He then details the different traps (e.g., natural resources trap, conflict trap) that are keeping these states in the poverty cycle, while also explaining the role of geography, history, etc. Very enlightening.

Excellent piece by the Economist on the book entitled “Springing the Traps,” which concludes: In the past two years, two famously opposing clarion calls, one from the aid-loving left, the other from the aid-is-always-wasted sceptical right, have been trumpeted. The one, Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”, exaggerates the value of aid, especially in the massive dollops he proposes. The other, William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden”, rightly mocks the delusions of the aid lobby but exaggerates the negative aspect. Mr Collier, though tending towards the second view, steers a masterly course between the two.

Filed under: Misc