November 26, 2015

Britain’s latest military and strategic five-year plan

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Back in 2010, the British government published the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which I joked should properly have been called the “Slashing Damage to Strategic Resources” plan. Back then, the strategic picture was fairly undisturbed with no obvious rising threats, but the economy was still in bad shape. That meant that the RN, RAF, and the army had to cut, cut, cut (and cut some more). The next version of that document has just been published and this time it’s been joined to the National Security Strategy in a single document. Patrick Bury looks at how things have changed from SDSR 2010 to the new NSSSDSR 2015:

On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled Britain’s new National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review in the House of Commons. It marked the first time the United Kingdom has undertaken a review of its strategy and security within the new five-year schedule. This edition is also notable in that it combines the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which were previously two separate documents. True to its name, the NSS outlines the perceived threats to Britain and its vision for dealing with them, while the SDSR details how the armed forces are configured to execute this vision.

These developments point to a realization in the United Kingdom that it must be more flexible and responsive in terms of setting strategy and defense priorities. After introducing the NSS in 2010 in the wake of criticism that Britain “couldn’t do strategy,” the Conservative government clearly feels it now makes sense to present both policies in a single document. Similarly, the overarching tone of the document is one of internationality. Britain clearly believes it will be working with the United States and France especially closely in the future. But what is inside, and what does it mean?

The NSS related-chapters outline the usual myriad of threats commonly listed in the post-Cold War era. Based on the security services’ National Security Risk Assessment, these threats are then classed into tiers. Tier One risks are the highest priority based on high likelihood and/or high impact. Reflecting the impact of threats and hazards, and the development of risks since 2010, the latest assessment includes a greater number of Tier One risks than in 2012. These are listed in order as terrorism, cyber, international military conflict (rising since 2010), instability overseas (Tier Two in 2010), public health (a new addition), and natural disasters. Interestingly, the general erosion of international order and resulting chaos also makes a more significant appearance.

Here’s the quick overview of what is promised this time around:

UK SDSR 2015 summary

One area that looks concerning is that the British government appears to be considering replicating the Canadian experiment with merging the military services into a “unified” structure:

Tying all these developments together, this SDSR is notable for its underlying shift towards viewing Britain’s smaller services as a single force, as unveiled in the new Joint Force 2025. Over the next decade, the core of the Joint Force will be based around an expeditionary force of around 50,000 (compared with around 30,000 planned in 2010’s Future Force 2020) and is set to include a new F-35 equipped aircraft carrier, “a land division with three brigades including a new Strike Force; an air group of combat, transport and surveillance aircraft,” and a special forces task group. Of course, the Whole Force concept underpins jointness, but one gets the sense that future SDSRs may well pave the way for the merging of all three services into one force in the name of flexibility and in the search for efficiencies. Another interesting nuance was the primacy of special forces in the document – above that of the Royal Navy which is the senior service – perhaps an indication of why the government is investing an extra £2 billion ($3 billion) in its equipment as well. The number of staff at GCHQ (the signal-intelligence agency), MI5 and MI6 (the domestic and foreign intelligence services) is to also increase by 1,900.

Despite this SDSR unveiling the first major investment, rather than reductions, in the United Kingdom’s security forces for about 25 years, there are a number of noticeable gaps. The first concerns its people. The army remains at its smallest size since the Napoleonic era; recruitment and retention is a problem across British defense; and it remains to be seen if the government’s Spending Review released tomorrow will better the terms and conditions of service. Without the right people in the right place, all the fancy kit in the world is not much use. The message is also clear that rapid-reaction forces are in fashion, and boots on the ground and long-term counter-insurgency operations are out, at least for now. The now bit is important: with a lot of these investments and the Joint Force structure not scheduled for delivery for ten years, there is plenty of scope to adjust or change course entirely between now and then. Which is exactly how the Brits do long-term strategy. Nevertheless, this SDSR is clearly intended to show that Britain wants to remain in the top tier of international powers over the coming decade.

November 25, 2015

The delaying tactics of Fabius Cunctatus

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

James Holmes suggests a few lessons modern tacticians can learn from the great Roman general, Quintus Fabius Maximus:

Quintus Fabius would nod knowingly at seeing the world turned upside down. Celebrated as Fabius Cunctatus (“the Delayer”), the Roman dictator lent his name to strategies whereby commanders deploy strategically defensive yet tactically offensive methods to forestall a decisive battle — all while marshaling manpower, implements of war, and other resources to right the military imbalance.

Skillfully prosecuted, a Fabian strategy proffers an opportunity to defeat a superior foe in a conventional trial of arms. And indeed, Fabius’s feats of arms earned him the nickname “Maximus” among Romans — signifying rock-star status. Historians of classical antiquity ranging from Polybius to Plutarch to Machiavelli considered him an icon of patient, guileful martial statecraft.

Polybius retells Fabius’s tale expertly. After trekking over the Alps, the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal’s army had rampaged throughout Italy, compiling a virtually unbroken record of battlefield victory. In particular, his triumph over the Roman legions at Cannae won enduring fame in Western military circles. Two millennia later General Dwight Eisenhower recalled in his memoir Crusade in Europe, “Every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation,” maintained Eisenhower; “he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.”

Granted emergency powers, Fabius assumed personal command of the legions and encamped near the Carthaginian host at Aecae. Upon learning that the Roman army was nearby, Hannibal resolved to “terrify the enemy by promptly attacking.” The Roman riposte? Nothing. No one responded to the Carthaginians’ approach. They trudged back to camp. Having acknowledged his army’s “manifest inferiority,” Fabius “made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle.”

He was ornery that way. Better to live to fight another day, and on more favorable terms. Why rush in and risk fresh disaster? Rome was fighting on home turf. Its armies were beneficiaries of an “inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men.” Fabius only needed time to tap that potential, transforming latent into kinetic military power.

November 24, 2015

Soviet military drinking in Afghanistan

Filed under: Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Mark Galeotti on what happened when you combine the legendary appetite for alcohol of soldiers with the ramshackle repression of the Soviet system:

Soldiers love to drink. Russians love to drink. No wonder that Russian soldiers can be amongst the hardest-core boozers around. If anything, this was even more the case in Soviet times when the very difficulties of getting hold of booze acted as a spur to the ingenuity for which Russians are also rightly known. The same guys who could fix a tank engine with sticky tape or make the world’s toughest rifle were formidable and innovative in their quest for a drink.

Being assigned to the ground crew on a MiG-25 interceptor, for example, was a good gig. The supersonic fighter was nicknamed gastronom — delicatessen — because its nose-mounted radar and generator were cooled by more than 200 liters of water/methanol mix, which is a ghastly brew, but as a base not much more ghastly than the murderous samogon homebrew many Soviets turned to, especially during Mikhail Gorbachev’s well-meant but ill-thought-through anti-alcohol campaign. The usual rule of thumb was a single shot a day. Any more, and your chances of going blind were good.

As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.

November 23, 2015

QotD: Bashing the drill square … it’s not actually useless

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In September 1941, William McNeill was drafted in the US Army. He spent several months in basic training, which consisted mostly of marching around the drill field in close formation with a few dozen other men. At first McNeill thought the marching was just a way to pass the time, because his base had no weapons with which to train. But after a few weeks, when his unit began to synchronize well, he began to experience an altered state of consciousness. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” McNeill fought in World War II and later became a distinguished historian. His research led him to the conclusion that the key innovation of Greek, Roman, and later European armies was the sort of synchronous drilling and marching the army had forced him to do years before.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

November 17, 2015

Beyond Wires and Pigeons – Communications in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 16 Nov 2015

If one thing was vital to the the new kind of modern warfare in the First World War, it was communications. The Industrial Revolution had brought wireless transmission of signals with it and the huge armies of World War 1 needed to be in contact constantly to be successful in the field. In this special episode we introduce you to the birth hour of modern military communication and signals.

November 16, 2015

Who Laid The Barbed Wire In No Man’s Land? I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 14 Nov 2015

Indy sits in the chair of wisdom again to answer your questions. This time we tell you how the barbed wire was laid in No Man’s Land and what fate Luxembourg had in World War 1.

November 11, 2015

In memoriam

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

A simple recognition of some of our family members who served in the First and Second World Wars:

The Great War

  • A Poppy is to RememberPrivate William Penman, Scots Guards, died 1915 at Le Touret, age 25
    (Elizabeth’s great uncle)
  • Private David Buller, Highland Light Infantry, died 1915 at Loos, age 35
    (Elizabeth’s great grandfather)
  • Private Walter Porteous, Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917 at Passchendaele, age 18
    (my great uncle)
  • Corporal John Mulholland, Royal Tank Corps, died 1918 at Harbonnieres, age 24
    (Elizabeth’s great uncle)

The Second World War

  • Flying Officer Richard Porteous, RAF, survived the defeat in Malaya and lived through the war
    (my great uncle)
  • Able Seaman John Penman, RN, served in the Defensively Equipped Merchant fleet on the Murmansk Run (and other convoy routes), lived through the war
    (Elizabeth’s father)
  • Private Archie Black (commissioned after the war and retired as a Major), Gordon Highlanders, captured at Singapore (aged 15) and survived a Japanese POW camp
    (Elizabeth’s uncle)
  • Elizabeth Buller, “Lumberjill” in the Women’s Land Army in Scotland through the war.
    (Elizabeth’s mother)
  • Trooper Leslie Taplan Russon, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, died at Tobruk, 19 December, 1942 (aged 23).
    A recently discovered relative. Leslie was my father’s first cousin, once removed (and therefore my first cousin, twice removed).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army Medical Corps (1872-1918)

November 6, 2015

Canada’s new Minister of National Defence

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the National Post, Adrian Humphreys provides a look at the new defence minister in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet:

Defence minister Harjit Sajjan

Many defence ministers pose for photos with military hardware, but few pull off the true badass combat stance as well as Harjit Singh Sajjan — draped in flak jacket and camouflage, gripping an assault rifle on an actual battlefield.

Sajjan was, until recently, a decorated Lieutenant-Colonel in the Armed Forces, the first Sikh Canadian to command an army regiment.

“Command breaks down barriers because no one looks at what you look like when the bullets are flying,” he said in 2011. “Having to carry your, you know, wounded soldiers off the battlefield, not just wounded, but the ones that have been killed and place them into a helicopter, nothing prepares you for that.”

Sajjan, sworn in Wednesday as Canada’s new Minister of National Defence, was, in military lingo, “a trigger puller.”

He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina and three times to Afghanistan, for which he was awarded one of the military’s highest recognitions, the Order of Military Merit, for reducing the Taliban’s influence in Kandahar Province.

“He has a taste for the reality of war and that’s very, very important,” said David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

“He will have seen the aftermath of the effect of war on some of our men and women, which is a major issue with veteran’s affairs,” said Bercuson.


He served as a reservist, and was deployed with the Canadian peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1996.

In 2006 he served in Afghanistan, playing a key intelligence advisory role to Brig.-Gen David Fraser in the successful Operation Medusa offensive against the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011.

Rising to the rank of reserve lieutenant-colonel, he was named commander of the B.C. Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), in 2012.

I’m pleased that Trudeau managed to find someone to fill this cabinet post who has actual military experience in the field (as opposed to a former general or admiral). I hope he can fight his political corner to get the Canadian Forces the updated equipment they so desperately need, even if the F-35 is not going to be part of the package (Trudeau explicitly promised to drop the F-35 purchase during the election).

November 5, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – I: Keep Beating the Drum – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 26 Sep 2015

Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea began his legendary career with a series of disasters. Fate (and corrupt officials) conspired against him to have him repeatedly knocked down from the success he had earned, often because his insistence on strict military codes and refusal to ignore corruption made enemies of his fellow officers. Even when his superior had him tortured and blamed after a loss to the Jurchen raiders from the north, Yi persevered. Stripped of his rank and now reduced to a common enlisted man, Yi nevertheless served Korea with distinction. Meanwhile his childhood friend, Ryu Seong-ryong, had risen to become the prime minister of Korea. Ryu recognized the threat of war from Japan looming on the horizon, so when Yi asked to retire in 1588, Ryu convinced him to stay.

November 4, 2015

The XM-25 “Punisher” isn’t dead yet

Filed under: Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Five years back, there were interesting reports about a prototype weapon that seemed to have an inside edge for getting into the hands of front-line troops in Afghanistan for specific bunker-busting and similar missions. Then it went silent. Recently, Strategy Page says it may be back in the running:

Two years after having its budget sharply cut in 2013 the U.S. Army XM25 grenade launcher is back on track and is now expected to enter service by 2017. It’s been a long road from concept to acceptance and mass production. The army began working on this type of weapon back in the 1990s as the OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) and that mutated into the XM25 (the “X” in XM25 designates a system that is still in development). Since then the similar South Korean K11 and Chinese ZH05 have appeared. The XM25 is the only one of three to have been tested extensively in combat but because of a misfire during a demonstration, budget cuts and some troops finding there were not really that many situations calling for the XM25, the system was thought to be cancelled (development funding was eliminated) in 2013. But the army managed to keep the project on life support. That was mainly because a lot of troops who got to use it in combat liked it a lot and even gave it a nickname; “punisher.”

The initial spectacular success and popularity of the XM25 grenade launchers in Afghanistan led the army to request that the weapon enter regular service as the M25 in 2014. But Congress, looking for ways to reduce military spending in 2013 cut all money for the M25. The army never gave up and managed to scrounge enough cash to build 1,100 of them. Currently the XM25 cost $35,000 each with the 25mm ammo going for $55 per round. Initially SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had some XM25s and some enthusiastic users but in 2013, with few American troops in combat there is not a lot of demand for a weapon like this. The resumption of counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan changed that led to more support for reviving the project.

When the first evaluation models of the XM25 arrived in Afghanistan in 2011 the weapon soon became much sought after by infantry troops. There were never more than a few dozen XM25s in Afghanistan and limited supplies of ammunition. Despite that the weapon quickly developed a formidable reputation. The Special Forces had priority on the weapon because it is very useful for special operations missions. The army planned to buy enough so that they could issue one per infantry squad. There are 27 squads in an infantry battalion.

November 2, 2015

QotD: The Imperial Roman army

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Such were the arts of war, by which the Roman emperors defended their extensive conquests, and preserved a military spirit, at a time when every other virtue was oppressed by luxury and despotism. If, in the consideration of their armies, we pass from their discipline to their numbers, we shall not find it easy to define them with any tolerable accuracy. We may compute, however, that the legion, which was itself a body of six thousand eight hundred and thirty-one Romans, might, with its attendant auxiliaries, amount to about twelve thousand five hundred men. The peace establishment of Hadrian and his successors was composed of no less than thirty of these formidable brigades; and most probably formed a standing force of three hundred and seventy-five thousand men. Instead of being confined within the walls of fortified cities, which the Romans considered as the refuge of weakness or pusillanimity, the legions were encamped on the banks of the great rivers, and along the frontiers of the barbarians. As their stations, for the most part, remained fixed and permanent, we may venture to describe the distribution of the troops. Three legions were sufficient for Britain. The principal strength lay upon the Rhine and Danube, and consisted of sixteen legions, in the following proportions: two in the Lower, and three in the Upper Germany; one in Rhaetia, one in Noricum, four in Pannonia, three in Maesia, and two in Dacia. The defence of the Euphrates was intrusted to eight legions, six of whom were planted in Syria, and the other two in Cappadocia. With regard to Egypt, Africa, and Spain, as they were far removed from any important scene of war, a single legion maintained the domestic tranquillity of each of those great provinces. Even Italy was not left destitute of a military force. Above twenty thousand chosen soldiers, distinguished by the titles of City Cohorts and Praetorian Guards, watched over the safety of the monarch and the capital. As the authors of almost every revolution that distracted the empire, the Praetorians will, very soon, and very loudly, demand our attention; but, in their arms and institutions, we cannot find any circumstance which discriminated them from the legions, unless it were a more splendid appearance, and a less rigid discipline.

Edward Gibbon, “Chapter I: The Extent Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antonines — Part III”, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1782.

October 20, 2015

The French Uniforms of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR – Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 19 Oct 2015

We are starting a new irregular series about the various uniforms of the warring nations of World War 1. Starting with the French uniforms we are exploring everything from helmets to boots. The French were the first army to adapt a real military helmet with the M15. In the beginning of the war they were still wearing the traditional Kepi from Franco-Prussian War, however. Find out all about the French equipment in the trenches with Indy.

QotD: A Roman army encampment

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The camp of a Roman legion presented the appearance of a fortified city. As soon as the space was marked out, the pioneers carefully levelled the ground, and removed every impediment that might interrupt its perfect regularity. Its form was an exact quadrangle; and we may calculate, that a square of about seven hundred yards was sufficient for the encampment of twenty thousand Romans; though a similar number of our own troops would expose to the enemy a front of more than treble that extent. In the midst of the camp, the praetorium, or general’s quarters, rose above the others; the cavalry, the infantry, and the auxiliaries occupied their respective stations; the streets were broad and perfectly straight, and a vacant space of two hundred feet was left on all sides between the tents and the rampart. The rampart itself was usually twelve feet high, armed with a line of strong and intricate palisades, and defended by a ditch of twelve feet in depth as well as in breadth. This important labor was performed by the hands of the legionaries themselves; to whom the use of the spade and the pickaxe was no less familiar than that of the sword or pilum. Active valor may often be the present of nature; but such patient diligence can be the fruit only of habit and discipline.

Whenever the trumpet gave the signal of departure, the camp was almost instantly broke up, and the troops fell into their ranks without delay or confusion. Besides their arms, which the legionaries scarcely considered as an encumbrance, they were laden with their kitchen furniture, the instruments of fortification, and the provision of many days. Under this weight, which would oppress the delicacy of a modern soldier, they were trained by a regular step to advance, in about six hours, near twenty miles. On the appearance of an enemy, they threw aside their baggage, and by easy and rapid evolutions converted the column of march into an order of battle. The slingers and archers skirmished in the front; the auxiliaries formed the first line, and were seconded or sustained by the strength of the legions; the cavalry covered the flanks, and the military engines were placed in the rear.

Edward Gibbon, “Chapter I: The Extent Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antonines — Part III”, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1782.

October 16, 2015

The rules of war, US edition

Filed under: Law, Media, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tom Kratman read through the latest edition of the US government’s Law of War Manual, so you (probably) won’t have to:

I thought I was free of one thousand plus page books of the driest prose imaginable when I finished law school. Sadly, no such luck; the Department of Defense released, back in mid-June, its Law of War Manual, which is eleven hundred and seventy-six pages of painfully sere verbiage. Go ahead and divide the number of pages by the number of days since about 15 June, 2015. Yeah, that dry.

But, dry or not, it’s not that bad. Nothing that induces the legal LibLePRs (Liberals, Leftists, Progressives, and Reds) of ICOTESCAS (the International Community Of The Ever So Caring And Sensitive) to denounce it as something that “reads like it was written by Hitler’s Ministry of War,” could be all that bad.


The left’s grasp of law of war is tenuous at best, often mistaken and frequently fraudulent. For example, one of their usual charges, also much heard during the campaign in Iraq and especially at Fallujah, was that incendiary weapons are banned, per the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III). The fraud there is that incendiary weapons are not banned there or anywhere. Their use under some circumstances is restricted or banned, but the weapons themselves, and their use for other purposes or other circumstances is perfectly legal.

That’s just one example of the fraud the left has perpetrated with regard to the manual. There are numerous others, too numerous to list here. I will limit my comment, therefore, to the observation that attacking a legitimate military target in proximity to a civilian or civilians is not quite the same thing as carte blanche to attacks civilians, qua civilians, generally. ICOTESCAS seems to harbor some confusion about this or to pretend to confusion to cover their fraud.

One aspect, in particular, that has the left up in arms about the manual is in its treatment of journalists. I suppose in their ideal world, camera teams from Al Jazeera should be able to do reconnaissance for groups of guerillas and terrorists, scot free. Too, one suspects, in the ideal lefty world, the presence of a journalist, even if he happens to be carrying ammunition for the other side, should protect all combatants around the “journalist,” lest the journalist’s expensive coif be mussed.

Sadly, for that set of values and outlooks, in the real world, once the soldiers realize that some “journalists” are helping the enemy, those journalists are going to be killed as quickly and conveniently as possible, as they should be. Aim true, boys, aim true.

The rules, as outlined in the manual, for journalists are actually pretty reasonable. To paraphrase:

  1. If you are a journalist and among the enemy, your presence will not protect them. Their presence will endanger you and the closer you are to them the more you will be in danger. We will neither aim expressly for you if we know where and who you are, nor avoid targeting places you might be, if we don’t know who and where you are, nor avoid targeting places where you are, if we know or suspect the enemy is there, too. You knew it was a risk when you undertook the profession.
  2. If you take part in hostilities, to include by providing reconnaissance or by spying, you will have lost your immunities as a civilian, but not gained the privilege of a combatant. We can kill you.
  3. If you act as a spy and we catch you, we can try you as a spy, give you a judge and jury who may not much care for you or your profession, then stand you against a wall and shoot you.

October 15, 2015

S.L.A. Marshall, Dave Grossman, and the “man is naturally peaceful” meme

Filed under: Books, Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The American military historian S.L.A. Marshall was perhaps best known for his book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, where he argued that American military training was insufficient to overcome most men’s natural hesitation to take another human life, even in intense combat situations. Dave Grossman is a modern military author who draws much of his conclusions from the initial work of Marshall. Grossman’s case is presented in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which was reviewed by Robert Engen in an older issue of the Canadian Military Journal:

As a military historian, I am instinctively skeptical of any work or theory that claims to overturn all existing scholarship – indeed, overturn an entire academic discipline – in one fell swoop. In academic history, the field normally expands and evolves incrementally, based upon new research, rather than being completely overthrown periodically. While it is not impossible for such a revolution to take place and become accepted, extraordinary new research and evidence would need to be presented to back up these claims. Simply put, Grossman’s On Killing and its succeeding “killology” literature represent a potential revolution for military history, if his claims can stand up to scrutiny – especially the claim that throughout human history, most soldiers and people have been unable to kill one another.

I will be the first to acknowledge that Grossman has made positive contributions to the discipline. On Combat, in particular, contains wonderful insights on the physiology of combat that bear further study and incorporation within the discipline. However, Grossman’s current “killology” literature contains some serious problems, and there are some worrying flaws in the theories that are being preached as truth to the men and women of the Canadian Forces. Although much of Grossman’s work is credible, his proposed theories on the inability of human beings to kill one another, while optimistic, are not sufficiently reinforced to warrant uncritical acceptance. A reassessment of the value that this material holds for the Canadian military is necessary.

The evidence seems to indicate that, contrary to Grossman’s ideas, killing is a natural, if difficult, part of human behaviour, and that killology’s belief that soldiers and the population at large are only being able to kill as part of programmed behaviour (or as a symptom of mental illness) hinders our understanding of the actualities of warfare. A flawed understanding of how and why soldiers can kill is no more helpful to the study of military history than it is to practitioners of the military profession. More research in this area is required, and On Killing and On Combat should be treated as the starting points, rather than the culmination, of this process.


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