The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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Our adversaries are paying close attention

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I’m a little late on this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Irregular Warfare Podcast sat down with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman to discuss future war and their new book 2034.

What would a conflict with China look like? How will irregular warfare fit into a conflict before and during large-scale combat operations? Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman join this episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast to discuss the theme of escalation to large-scale conflict, which they explore in their New York Times best seller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In answering those questions, they emphasize the nature of human behavior in conflict and how escalation can get out of control.

Irregular Warfare in the Next World War – Modern War Institute

I haven’t read the book yet – but it’s on the list.

We’ve reached a place in time where technology is advancing so quickly that standard analysis isn’t enough to prepare for future war – we have to use our imagination.

There’s a short discussion towards the end of the podcast that caught my attention as prescient. The guests are asked to reflect on our current vulnerabilities and how our adversaries are working towards exploiting them.

“It would seem preposterous for us not to imagine that our adversaries are very much aware of our internal political dynamics and at every corner trying to take advantage and exasperate the divisions that exist within American society, and are paying close attention.”

Elliot Ackerman

It really does feel like we are living through an inflection point in American history. There’s a lot going on internally, but our adversaries are watching very closely – and the enemy always gets a vote.

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Kicking in the cold

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Joe talks with Lawrence Tynes, former kicker for the New York Giants.

“We never know when it’s going to be our time… you just have to do it when your time comes.”

Joe Byerly, S2, E17: Lawrence Tynes- Performing Under Pressure – From the Green Notebook

I’m a lifelong Giants fan, so I really enjoyed this one. The 2007 Giants season was magical. I don’t think there will ever be a season with more intrigue. From the goal line stand in game three against Washington (which Lawrence references), to the end of the season game against the Patriots (where the Giants played their starters out of pride), the frozen game in Green Bay where Lawrence seals the victory with a 47 yarder in OT, to the incredible throw and catch in the last moments of the SuperBowl to defeat the undefeated Patriots.

After that season, I never felt like I needed to watch another football game again.

Lots of good stuff in this episode. I especially like the discussions about “being ready” as referenced in the quote above. I’ve written about this before – you don’t always get to decide when your time will come – but if you are a leader, you have to be ready. Place kickers feel that same pressure.

I am also intrigued by the leadership of Tom Coughlin – who I have a deep admiration for. When he came to New York initially, he took a lot of flak in the media because of his strict rules. His first few seasons weren’t great, and people questioned his approach. Some players bucked against his tough, old-fashioned style.

Slowly, though, the team turned.

I loved Lawrence talking about that game in Green Bay. He missed two earlier field goals – which he admits he should have made. As a fan, I remember thinking “don’t go for the field goal” when they hit that spot in overtime. Lawrence seemed to be “off.” And have no doubt, if he would have missed that field goal, every pundit would be questioning why Tom Coughlin let that happen when it was “clear” that Lawrence wasn’t feeling it that day.

But, despite the two earlier misses, Tom trusted Lawrence. And we all know the result.

Leaders find themselves in this position all the time – going to bat for someone who others may have written off. It takes real guts to do that.

What a great story.

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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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Jump Commands in Farsi

Credit to SOF News Update for finding this gem.

Night has closed in over the Zagreb Mountains of northern Iran. The sound of a plane is heard. Inside the plane Iranian Special Forces paratroopers prepare to jump into a maneuver area. There is a sense of urgency as last minute commands in Farsi are given by the lone American among them, a United State Army officer. How this officer, Captain Paul Wineman, is trained in the military and language skills needed for his urgent task overseas is the subject of this week’s documentary, “Special Forces Advisor.”

Special Forces Advisor – The Big Picture – YouTube

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The Habibis Podcast: Games, Media, and Arabic

The best content is the content that intersects your key interests. This one hits two of them right on the head – video games and Arabic.

From their description:

WHAT IS THE HABIBIS?

The Habibis is three game developers drinking some good Arab Tea for what should be about fourty minutes, inshallah, each week, inshallah. Fawzi Mesmar, Osama Dorias, and Rami Ismail discuss games and media and life as Arabs living all around the big world.

Not sure how I discovered this one, but I’m a new subscriber. I listened to the episode below, titled “A Different Language Than We Speak.

The Habibis talk about games, lots of indie games, and how Arabic is a diverse language.

The Habibis | A Different Language Than We Speak

At about the 40:00 mark they dive into a great conversation on the diversity of Arabic dialects.

Everyone’s in a bubble. It’s good to have content that bursts it from time to time.

Also, I’m encouraged to hear that Nier: Replicant is good – it’s next on my queue.

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A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers’ Wings

That’s the title of an editor’s note from a February 1968 issue of Life Magazine. I heard about it on a recent episode of On The Media (link below).

Before the Vietnam War there was a law that banned women from reporting on the frontlines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. This week, Brooke spoke about this time to reporter Elizabeth Becker, formerly a Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, NPR’s foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times. Becker is the author of a new book: You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.

“You Don’t Belong Here” | On the Media | WNYC Studios

While the profiles of all three women were impressive and fascinating, I was struck by the story of Catherine Leroy. The lines that grabbed my attention are below:

Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.

Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she’s got three cameras around her neck and you’d think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.

There’s also this retrospective from the New York Times: The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.

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The saga of Tom Olsen

A really fascinating thing happened on Twitter over the past month. Long story short, a fan of of Metal Gear created a Twitter account (@TheTomOlsen). “Tom” is just a regular guy who happens to work on “Big Shell,” the ocean platform that is the setting for most of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Over the course of the month, he posted innocuous photos of daily life on the platform.

The official Metal Gear Twitter account retweeted one of these and rumors began to spread rapidly that the “Tom” account might be a guerilla marketing campaign intended to build enthusiasm for an announcement of a new Metal Gear game. Lots of gaming websites picked up on this and spread the same rumor.

In the end, it was all just the work of a dedicated fan.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is credited as being prophetic of our current environment. A key theme is the spread of misinformation, disinformation and how that plays with our expectations. The game itself constantly teased and harrassed the player, breaking the fourth wall over and over again to make the point.

In the video embedded in tweet below, the force behind “Tom” explains this.

In a strange way, it’s been a very fitting way to memorialize MGS2 — by demonstrating how the rapid transmission of information can lead to the suppression of truth.

Lies spread faster than truth. And even when the lie is refuted, there is a percentage of people who will still only remember the lie.

What I find particularly interesting about this saga is the fact that this must have been well planned and thought out in advance. The deluge of posts, photos, and videos that were shared that “chronicled” the attack on Big Shell were done with purpose – it was polished and professional. The screenshots made it look like Tom was walking through Big Shell snapping photos, taking video, and sharing it with the world. These photos needed to be digitally staged. The force behind Tom knew his target audience. He knew what would get people churning.

This all took work and I’d love to know how long it took to get everything prepped.

The account didn’t respond to others, it had its own agenda. But that didn’t stop others from using it to fit their own narratives or desires.

The account hijacked the fans collective desires and weaponized them for fun. People want a new game, so that’s what they believed. “Tom” never said anything about it, but others filled in the gaps.

Just a really fascinating story.

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A Cold War, fought with information and espionage

As we move further and further into this new thing – great power competition – I’m struck by how much more difficult this is going to be than anything we’ve done before.

Counter-insurgency was supposed to be the “graduate level of war.

If that’s the case, then great power competition and political warfare must be the doctorate level of war.

We are going to have to do more planning, more work, and more activity just to slightly move the dial.

And that is what winning looks like.

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