On that day…

As usual, not much to add.

But I do have this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stuff that attracts you. The stuff that gets you in the door.

All that stuff is real. It’s there. You have to work for it, but it’s there.

It’s why you showed up in the first place.

But then there’s this other thing. It’s not written anywhere, it’s just something that you have to discover. And not everyone does.

And it turns out, that’s the real thing.

But, you only discover it in flashes, slowly.

A quizzical moment on the tarmac before an invasion.

A midnight exfil from the outskirts of a town in southern Iraq.

On the top bunk, staring at the ceiling, for the second time, wondering.

In front of a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, writing it out on a whiteborad, with blank expressions coming back at you.

In a classroom in front of future officers, hanging on your every word, without it registering.

In a tired seminar with peers, yawning.

In a video game.

In a book.

It comes slowly over time.

And then you have it.

And once it’s known, it can’t be un-known.

What do you do with that knoweldge?

I think the answer to that question says more about the person than the truth.


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The Professional Soldier

female soldier wearing a pilot's helmet army recruiting ad

A long-standing interest of mine is the concept of the “warrior” and the way it started to permeate military culture at the beginning of the GWOT. Recently, there was a small kerfuffle over the rebranding of some Army dining facilities as “warrior cafes.”

The “warriorization” of the Army is a subject with deep roots. We can trace it back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and specifically, the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah and the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch.

Part of the problem, as the popular thinking went, was that soldiers outside of combat jobs (like infantry) didn’t see themselves as potential combatants. The Army was a job and each soldier had their role – but theirs wasn’t to fight. The early realization that the Iraq war was not going to end quickly and that the “front line was everywhere” led to a re-thinking of the culture that preceded the ambush.

As a result, we became warriors. 

We learned the warrior ethos. Modern Army Combatives, which, until then, was more of a niche hobby inside elite Army units, became ubiquitous with the publication of the Modern Army Combatives Field Manual and later TC 3-25.150. Commanders spoke to their “warriors” at formations and spoke of their “warriors” in official communications. 

It stuck. Until it didn’t.

It’s difficult to put hard dates on it, but this seemed to last from 2003 to about the early 2010s. The warrior craze seemed to just fade away as a priority. It’s still out there, but it’s not getting the attention that it once did.

That’s part of what was strange about the emergence of ‘warrior cafes.’ It seems like a throwback to those COIN years where we were just trying anything. Remember the Defense of Jisr al-Dorrea (better known as ‘those weird COIN dreams’)?

Personally, I never liked the warrior moniker and the campaign around it. It seems disingenuous. If we just call ourselves warriors, the thinking goes, maybe we would foster a more aggressive mindset.  

I always thought ‘soldier’ was a term that captured everything that was needed. And if anything, I’d say professional soldier, to distinguish it from conscription. 

I’m not alone in this thinking. Military ethicists have dug deep on this issue and can better explain why calling ourselves warriors is a bad idea. 

I’ll add something though. I think there is a connection between the warrior campaign of the early 2000s and the growth of “warrior” brands and the “warrior” aesthetic both inside and outside of the military. All of this self-reinforcing narrative has become such a strange identity marker. 

Remember those discussions, articles, and hot-takes on the “warrior-caste?” This is the idea that the US has this cadre of warriors who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to our military activity. It is true that only a tiny percentage of the population serves and this community grows increasingly insular over time. 

But most of the articles I remember reading about the “warrior-caste” were written in a barely-veiled self-congratulatory style, by reluctant warriors.

As a counter, I really liked the “profession of arms” campaign that we saw under General Dempsey. That too seems to be dying from lack of attention.

Warriors, soldiers, conscripts, victims. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with simply being all that you can be.


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Learning the right lessons

george bush jr. looking at vladmir putin

There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.

But the gist is on point.

Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.

Gideon Rose, The Irony of Ukraine: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

If we had invaded Iraq in 2022 instead of 2003, we would be facing a lot of the same problems the Russians are facing today.

Pay attention, sure.

But it’s important to learn the right lessons.


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Shallow Fakes

Surely by now you have heard of “deep fakes.”

In their most insidious form, these are doctored videos that appear real. As technology improves, so does the ability to create convincing and deceptive videos.

The fear is that people will believe these deep fakes which will then lead to some change in attitude or behavior.

While deep fakes are interesting, we have been dealing with instances of this forever. We’ve always had the “shallow fake,” or low-effort deception.

And these can be surprisingly effective.

My favorite example is from 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was intensifying and becoming more dangerous. A militant group claimed to have captured US soldier “John Adam.” I remember seeing this photo making its way around the internet.

Of course, it looks fake now.

But in 2005, when the internet was still a pretty new thing, it gave pause. I remember scrutinizing the picture myself, thinking it must be fake, but still wondering.

Deception doesn’t always have to change minds or win the war. It can just cause angst and bureaucratic churn.


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Administrative Warfare: Deception + third person effect

iran f-14 winnie the pooh posing

The use of deception and the third-person effect to exploit an administrative process for military advantage.

He knew that they were paranoid.

He knew that the Iranians guarded their oil facilities with their F-14s, and his Air Force [the Iraqi’s] was terrified of dog-fighting the F-14s because at the time the F-14 was pretty much unmatched as a fighter aircraft.

So he figured the best way to get our aircraft to strike the oil refinery is to get the F-14s out of the air and the only way to get them out of the air is to ground them.

We don’t have the means to strike their airfield, so he called one of the Gulf leaders, I’m not sure if it was the Saudi king or somebody else, and he essentially told them, “Hey, we have received intelligence that an Iranian F-14 wants to defect in a couple of nights and they are going to come to your country, so just keep an eye out – there’s an F-14 coming.”

[Saddam] knowing full-well that that Gulf leader was going to leak that information to the Iranians – they did.

The Iranians heard ‘one of your F-14s is going to defect.

They panicked and put all of the F-14 pilots in jail, and while all the F-14 pilots were in jail being investigated for a possible treason plot, Saddam struck the oil refinery.

Aram Shabanian, How the Iran-Iraq War Shaped the Modern World, Angry Planet

Photo source.


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Western YouTubers and Influencers touring Iraq

a picture of baghdad at night along the river

Not something I ever thought I’d see.

“A lot of YouTubers and influencers from the West started coming,” Haroun, a native of the ancient city of Babylon, told Middle East Eye.

Iraq: Western YouTubers and influencers a new ‘phenomenon’ for tourism, Middle East Eye

And apparently this has been going on for a while now. The security situation has gotten better, for sure, but it seems that the proximate cause is the easing of entry requirements.

But the Iraqi government also took a big step in March 2021 when it decided to allow citizens from countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union countries to obtain a visa on arrival at airports or land and sea borders. 

Before, the cumbersome process to get a tourist visa could take months and cost thousands of dollars. Even more enticing for some, Iraq did away with the requirement that tourists have a government-approved guide with them.

Agreed. Getting a visa in advance coupled with a government-sponsored minder would be a major hindrance to visiting.

I’ve watched a couple of the videos, and they’re a bit mind-boggling to watch.

This is a good development. I hope it continues.

Could you even imagine?


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“Nicotine and bullets bring the world together”

soldiers in the film mosul

Finally got around to watching Mosul, which I felt shamed into watching after reading this article that declared it “the best Iraq War film ever made.”

It was good. I enjoyed it.

It’s a different kind of Iraq War movie, though. It felt like the ruins of something that came before. It felt like an alternate reality of what would happen if it all went wrong.

Except it’s true.

I’m not sure that the world recognizes the incredible sacrifice shouldered by young Iraqi men and women in their battle against ISIS. Especially in Mosul. It all kind of happened in the back of the newspaper while we were otherwise distracted.

I especially appreciated the scene below, which captures the absurdity of the whole thing, in a blown-out dark room. The Mosul SWAT team meets with an Iranian Colonel who is in Mosul supporting the ha’shd al-sha’abi – the “Popular Mobilization Forces.”

They’re trading cigarettes for bullets.

This is what “strategic competition” looks like on the ground.


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Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

a crowded market in the middle east

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.


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We Want a Nation

iraqi women protesting

A great talk with former Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman.

The complicated relationship between Iraq and the United States is once again approaching a crossroads. Parliamentary elections held in Iraq last month promise a new government featuring a new cast of political forces with their own difficult histories with the United States. The United States, meanwhile, is approaching the self-imposed deadline by which it has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the country, even as its diplomatic and military presences in the country have continued to come under attack by Iran-backed militias. To discuss these developments, Scott R. Anderson sat down on Lawfare Live with Ambassador Doug Silliman, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019 and was previously the deputy chief of mission and political counselor there. They talked about the Sadrist block that appears to have won the recent elections, what other challenges are facing the Iraqi state and what they all mean for the future of our bilateral relationship.

The Lawfare Podcast: Ambassador Doug Silliman on What’s Next in U.S.-Iraq Relations

I enjoy listening to Doug Silliman. He understands the region and he certainly understands Iraq.

And he also understands US interests in the region and in Iraq.

Better yet, he can communicate it.

A few things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Slogans – نريد الوطن – We want a nation! Simple, but so important.
  • ISIS Propaganda – Ambassador Silliman talks about how the desertions in the Iraqi Army were partly due to ISIS propaganda. Iraqi soldiers believed that if they were captured by ISIS they would be beheaded and displayed, potentially to an international audience. Propaganda works.
  • The Counter Terrorism Service – A good chunk of this interview is Ambassador Silliman extolling the benefit of having a robust mil-to-mil arrangement in Iraq. The State Department, and foreign service officers specifially often get a bad wrap as being ‘anti-military’ in some regard. That is (mostly) unfounded. And in this interview we hear it, where Ambassador Silliman is talking about how important the mil-to-mil partnerships were in Iraq. Fostering military cooperation is a diplomatic win.

Interviews like this give me hope.

Want to quickly build clout? Shout out into the void about how if we want to compete more effectively we need to invest further into our diplomatic corps.

But what is often missing is our diplomatic corps saying how much of a useful tool our military partnerships can be to further diplomatic aims.

That is interagency cooperation right there.


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On Foreign Fighters

holy knight and dark knight

Good episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

In this fascinating discussion, our guests discuss what political, social, and economic circumstances create the conditions that enable the mass recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters. Their research on this topic represents a startling departure from conventional wisdom and, as such, offers opportunities to preempt this destructive process before it begins. There doesn’t have to be another wave of diaspora-fueled jihad, they argue, but prevention will require Western governments to take comprehensive and determined action now.

ON THE ROAD TO JIHAD: THE ROLE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN IRREGULAR WARFARE

A few things struck me as I listened to this one.

Foreign Fighters and Information Warfare. Early in the episode, the guests brought up the concept of foreign fighters supporting a cause remotely through information warfare. While the focus of the episode was primarily on foreign fighters who actually pick up and travel to a foreign land, there is so much more to know about what actively supporting the same movements looks like when done digitally. Propaganda support (creating/sharing memes), harassment, actual hacking – there’s a lot to be explored there. We saw a lot of this in the mid-2010s during the rise of ISIS. I’d love to learn more.

It’s our fault. Jasmine El-Gamal plants the flag on the things we’re not allowed to talk about – chiefly, that there are policy decisions that the US has made which may be the proximate causes for motivating foreign fighters in the first place. As she rightly indicates, having those conversations were (and are) rare – and it leads to us coming up with new strategies and magic to try to solve the problem. It’s what led to the GWOT effect.

Stanford Prison Experiment. There was a brief mention of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which despite all of its flaws and the continuing information that comes out on it which calls into question the validity of the results, it is still popularly understood to hold water. It is true, of course, for an experiment to be flawed but the results still valid.

Human Rights as Counter-Terror. I like this concept. We don’t really talk about human rights anymore. It used to be a driving force of policy. It has the benefit of allowing you to stand on the moral high ground, as well. It seems we’ve moved very deeply into the realm of states’ interests above all else.

Measures of effectiveness. There’s a conversation at the end discussing possible solutions to the problem of foreign fighters – dissuasion and de-radicalization. This led to the fact that many of these solutions appear to be ineffective because of how difficult they are to measure. If you’ve been reading my newsletters lately, you’ll know that I have an against the grain take on “MoEs” – that is, we don’t always need them. Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

We have an obsession with “showing” results – that’s how you get more money, get promoted, get more resources. Thus, we tend to enact policies and programs that are easy to measure instead of actually effective. If we truly want to win, we have to extend some trust. I don’t need to know how you did the magic trick – I just want to be amazed.

The episode ends with a short story of a stunning encounter between one of the guests and a soldier deployed to Iraq. It’s sad, and it captures the absurdity of war and violence neatly. You can do all the planning and training you want, but when war requires men and women to enact violence on behalf of some cause, it will always be nasty and brutish. There will always be trauma. There will always be psychological scarring.

There is no clinical war.

Lastly, as an exercise in self-awareness it’s helpful to ask yourself (or others) in a given country, where do the majority of foreign fighters come from?

The answer will indicate how close they are paying attention.


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