Zen Pundit on American Spartan

Mark Safranski has posted his review of American Spartan, Ann Scott Tyson’s story of US Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. Read it.

Here’s my review of Mark’s review.

As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time.

Still, Mark’s point is spot on — why do we always have to be the redcoats and let the other guys hide behind rocks and trees? Why do we keep doing dumb things? We don’t always, and we haven’t always, but somehow, we’ve developed a knack for discarding winning tactics.

Mark points out one clue, that MAJ Gant’s experience is typical of the US military since at least the end of WW II.

One element in our failure may be the historic intolerance of a swollen military bureaucracy for the inherently political demands of unconventional and counterinsurgency missions that require greater flexibility and autonomy of judgement on the part of NCO’s, junior and field grade officers than standard procedures and regulations normally permit.

My solution, as I’ve outlined in all my books, is simple: If something has continued the same pattern of behavior despite both changes in the environment and repeated attempts to fix it, then you should suspect that more attempts to fix it will produce the same results. The only reasonable solution is to break the thing down into component parts, keep those that work — and in the case of the US Army, there are many — and throw away the basic structure and remaining parts.

Mark also identifies another aspect of our problem, that we have a long and sordid history of abandoning our friends:

As a seventy year historical pattern, the USG and military bureaucracy always abandons our real friends to the enemy, denying them visas, money or even ammunition even while continuing to lavish aid dollars on treacherous thieves like Hamid Karzai.  When we leave and the day of reckoning comes for those who helped us, we look away and accept no responsibility.

One cause of this might be the mentality, attributed to Lord Palmerston several years back, that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Glib statements like this are dangerous because they substitute for understanding and help lock orientation. Furthermore, they lead to the sorts of moral failings that Mark has identified. If you stop and think about it, the exact opposite would be a better way to run a foreign policy.

No organism, including a state, has long-term interests outside of survival on its own terms and increasing its capacity for independent action. As Boyd pointed out, these are easier to achieve if you have others who are sympathetic to your aims. In particular we should conduct our grand strategy (for that’s what Mark is talking about) so that we:

  • Support national goal;
  • Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted;
  • End conflict on favorable terms;
  • Ensure that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict. Patterns 139

Or, put another way:

Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are, what we are, and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards that we are expected to uphold.  Strategic Game 49

It’s not that hard. Our long-term friends are those who, like us, support our ideals, which we have made explicit:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To some extent, we do choose allies that share our underlying values, and these alliances can be very “premanent.” If we honored our stated values when dealing with the rest of the world, instead of backing tin-horn dictators who claim to be anti-communist or anti-terrorist or anti-whatever-the-bad-ideology-du-jour is, we could avoid the problem that Mark highlights at the end of his review: “Nor have we done right by those who have helped us. By that I do not mean the corrupt and incompetent Karzai and Maliki regimes, but of the ordinary Iraqis and Afghans who stuck out their necks to fight with Americans against the enemy as interpreters, allied units or tribal irregulars.” Get enough of these folks on your side and you don’t have to worry about Karzai, Maliki, Saddam, bin Laden, Caliph Ibrahim, or the Taliban.

It’s an old idea:

Princes must not complain of the faults committed by the people under their authority, for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example … The best fortress which a prince can hold is the affection of his people. Machiavelli, The Discourses and The Prince.

Here’s one more from Boyd:

Morally adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (i.e. their allies, the uncommitted, etc.) by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold. Strategic Game 47

The problem with not living according to your stated ideals is that soon your potential allies catch on and work with you only so long as they see something in it for them. As time goes on, you become isolated from your real friends and eventually from yourself.

2 thoughts on “Zen Pundit on American Spartan

  1. You know, it’s interesting to note that this is the exact opposite of the effective grand strategy that Boyd once described.

    Be what you say you are at home:
    I fear that one of the defining characteristics of America right now is that it is quite far from what it claims to be right now. The US claims to be THE model that every other nation should aspire to be. There’s a lot to be disagreed with on that one.

    There is a huge culture of mistrust towards Washington from the rest of the US (well deserved by the way), a lot of discord, and a general lack of harmony. Perhaps a nation like Sweden could claim to be closer to what it idealizes.

    Increase resolve of allies:
    At the same time, there’s a huge case to be made that this does not increase the resolve of any allies (from the betrayals described in the review) to other actions, most notably leading up to the Iraq War. There’s also the fact that the US does not treat others like equals, but merely nations that should be grateful that the US is giving them any attention. This is true even for nations close to the US like the Western Europeans or Canada.

    Divert resolve from adversaries:
    Worsening this, the actions of the US appear to be increasing the resolve of the purported adversary – Islamic fundamentalist groups, owing to its actions. Torture, the use of drone strikes, the nightly raids, the various actions committed during the occupations of Iraq/Afghanistan, the falsified reason to invade Iraq, and so on. Many see fundamentalists as the “lesser evil”.

    Attract the uncommitted to you:
    By its actions, the US is doing quite the opposite.

    The US is not demonstrating that it bears neutral parties no harm through both actions and words (most notably the “you are either with us or against us” by the Bush administration.

    It has managed to alienate a substantial proportion of the international community. Even neutral nations that would otherwise have been sympathetic are worried. After 9-11 there was a ton of outpouring of sympathy. That was squandered.

    End combat on favorable terms that does not provoke future wars:
    Well, the Iraqi war ended because the Iraqis wanted the US gone. To some extent so did the Afghan people. Fiscal realities may have prevented the war from going on anyways. So I guess this is not really favorable terms in a sense.

    The fact that ISIS was able to take over Iraq’s Sunni areas seems to show that it too has not ended well for the US. I strongly suspect that the Taliban will regain Afghanistan after the US leaves.

    As far as preventing future conflict, the US has done the opposite. ISIS is a testament to that. Worse, there appear to be factions in the US (the neoconservatives especially) that seem to relish the idea of future war and want to provoke more wars on purpose.

    Globally, I suspect that anti-Americanism will be strong for decades to come, for a number of different reasons. That too may sow the seeds for something we do not expect.

    So in summary, it looks like the US has done the exact opposite of what Boyd would have suggested.

    It’s interesting. At the end of WWII, the US was at its apex, with 50% of the world’s wealth. But WWII also played a key role in creating the military industrial complex. That which has sent the US into decline, along with a multitude of other policy missteps.

    – Chris

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