Archives for category: Military Theory

The essential elements of Operational Art, according to Shimon Naveh’s In Pursuit of Military Excellence, consist of two concepts: udar and obkhod. Both terms are Russian and originate in the theoretical innovations of the Red Army leading up the purges of 1937-38. Naveh argues that the Russians were the first to understand that the complexity and increasing depth of modern warfare required thinking systemically about military competition. Operational thus thus exposed the limitations and weaknesses in traditional Clausewitzian military theory, with its emphasis on linear attrition and single battles of annihilation.

Udar embodies the concept of operational shock, an action that disrupts the goal-oriented function of an opposing military system. In terms of conventional war, udar is performed through the use of columnar strikes into the physical depth of the adversary’s rear positions. Doing so permits the fragmentation and isolation of the individual components of adversary’s military system, thereby preventing the system from achieving its operational aim.

Closely related is the concept of obkhod, meaning inversion, or a turning maneuver. Obkhod is the highest form of udar, and exists as an operational pattern that effects the aim of udar (fragmentation, disruption, isolation).

Mechanically, it represented the leverage effect, created by the sudden accumulation of a strike mass on the deep end of the penetration axis. Cognitively, it represented the reverse in the defending commander’s consciousness, that derived from recognizing his inability to control the situation. (212)

As created by the Russians and later put into practice by the United States military (see AirLand Battle), operational theory was conceptually developed for conventional warfare between state military forces. However, Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla is replete with terminology and concepts entirely congruent with Operational Theory. In his case study of US counterinsurgency efforts in Kunar province from 2006 to 2008, Kilcullen repeatedly makes use of the term ‘maneuver’ in describing the political actions that must be taken by counterinsurgents to separate insurgents from the population. If we conceive of the insurgent military system as including both regular Taliban fighters and subversive elements within individual villages, then executing such a maneuver has the effect of disrupting and isolating that system.

In particular, Kilcullen explains how the US military used the process of road construction in Kunar to create political ties to local tribes. These are tactical actions that go well beyond simply the military application of force, but instead consist of a ‘full-spectrum’ of political and development actions that alter the configuration of loyalties and allegiances among Afghans.

[P]rojects like the road provided a source of patronage, employment, and income to the tribes, which traditional leaders, in conjunction with representatives of the Afghan state, were able to disburse to the people, thus cementing their positions of influence, reestablishing tribal cohesion and social norms, and undermining radicals in the tribal power structure and their external extremist sponsors. The road – not the road itself, but the process of constructing it – became for some the means of restoring and reintegrating the tribe’s honor and cohesion, regaining their status, and redressing the erosion of social structure caused by war and extremism.” (82)

The process of road construction thus reconstructs the social and political dynamics of local Afghan politics to the detriment of the Taliban. The emphasis here is not so much on engaging the enemy directly, as per a Clausewitzian approach. Instead, such tactics only inflame the insurgency and create more accidental guerrillas. This is trying to engage in attrition prior to attaining operational shock. Instead, the process of road construction and persistent presence among the people creates the conditions whereby contact with the enemy always put it a disadvantage: the Taliban’s own attacks against counterinsurgents embedded among the people always lead to their attrition. One colonel’s precise explanation:

It may seem on the surface to be less offensively oriented than repetitive raiding, but if you establish persistent presence in the correct places, the enemy has to come fight you…So, persistent presence, correctly done, can force the enemy to come to you on your terms – this is the true initiative.” (96-97)

Thus, embedding with the people – the organizational depth of the insurgency – constitutes the operational maneuver that creates attritional conditions leading to the destruction of the Taliban. Separated from the people, the insurgency cannot attain its organizational goal. Thus, persistent presence is the operational pattern, or obkhod, that inverts the insurgent military system. By stealing the initiative by protecting the people, counterinsurgents attack the cognitive foundations of the insurgent organization by denying it the ability to control the situation. The people are thus literally separated from insurgent consciousness. Political maneuvers in counterinsurgency, as described by Kilcullen, demonstrate the application of operational art in non-state warfare.

Some extended thinking on the original post was inspired by Adam and Ortho, who both provided articles about the IDF and its attempt to appropriate Leftist critical theory in developing an ‘operational art’ to combat Palestinian and/or Lebanese insurgents. The articles (one from Frieze Magazine and the other from Haaretz) discuss the theory of Brig. Gen. Shimon Naveh and Brig. Gen, Aviv Kokhavi, who invoke postmodern interpretivism to reconceptualize Israeli military operations in urban environments. This use of theory evolved out of Israeli military operations in Nablus (2002) and Lebanon (2006). Insurgents moved not through streets and doorways but through walls and ceilings, a form of movement called ‘infestation’ that reconceptualizes the physical space seen by military forces.
According to Kokhavi,

“This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it…The question is how do you interpret the alley?…We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapona awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us bind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win…This is why that we opted for the methodology of moving through walls.”

The idea of emanicipating oneself from the imposed structure of reality is a key theme of critical theory/constructivism. The above use of these ideas thus inverts (or perverts, depending on who you ask) their original purpose. Ortho pointed this out awhile ago and I only came upon this insight recently.

However, it becomes apparent that for all the Frankfurt School philosophy the IDF may convert to operational practice, they will still have a hard time defeating their insurgencies. For example, in promoting the ‘walk through walls’ tactic, Naveh appropriates Deleuze and Gauttari’s distinction between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space, between spatial territory that is boundless and has no restrictions on movement (imagine an open field) and spatial territory is divided by boundaries which prevent free movement (a city, which buildings, walls, fences). Naveh says “In Nablus the IDF understood urban fighting as a spatial problem…Travelling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice.”

And this is precisely why the IDF has never defeated the Palestinian intifadas, nor Hizbollah in Lebanon: Naveh and Kokhavi are using postmodernism only to improve upon their original objective, to kill or capture insurgents. They apply Deleuze and Guattari to access the physical space of the insurgency, yet they completely ignore its social space, and the networks of social relations that comprise it. In fact, they never penetrate the social boundaries that separate and divide ‘Israeli’ social space from ‘Palestinian’ social space. While they may be more effective in their physical operations against insurgents, these actions will only serve to reinforce the boundary between the two social spaces. They may capture or kill more insurgents, but these operations only perpetuate anti-Israeli insurgencies and reinforce the sense of enmity felt between these two collective identities.

“Civilians in Palestine, as in Iraq, have experienced the unexpected penetration of war into the private domain of the home as the most profound form of trauma and humiliation. A Palestinian woman identified only as Aisha…described the experience: ‘Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living-room, which you know so well, ; this is the room where the family watches television together after the evening meal, and suddenly that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else.'”

This has the entirely opposite effect of what social military constructivism would strive for (if the Israeli version might be termed physical or material military constructivism). Specifically, the social variant would strive to erase the boundary between the social space of the insurgent and counterinsurgent through interaction, communication, and mutual recognition of each Other’s existential autonomy. In doing so, the counterinsurgent would be socially constructing a new community that includes his former enemies in a shared identity. With the establishment and maintenance of this community through communication and joint decision making, counterinsurgents would be able to provide security on behalf of civilians and ex-insurgents and thus legitimate their acts of violence against. In this way, the goal of social military constructivism is to build a community in whose name war (or violence legitimated as law enforcement, in the case of counterinsurgency) is to be waged.

Physical military constructivism cannot do this, as it does not contest the social space of the insurgent. This might be more of a Marxist hangover, as Marxism considered all ideas to be rooted in a material mode of production, and hence privileged physical or material objects over social objects like ideas. (see Wendt 1999, Chap. 1)

The IDF is manipulating the perception of physical space to communicate the following message: “You will never even understand that which kills you.” If nothing else, this is a waste of communication. It reinforces the previously held notions held by each side that the Other is coming to kill them, and resistance is necessary. A better message (entirely consistent with 5GW/SecretWar) would be “I understand you, I am not trying to kill you, and I am not your enemy.”

Slavoj Zizek: What is the question? (hat tip to Ortho)

Zizek argues we need a new theory of everything, including war and the military. The film 300 has lessons for us all, and especially the Left.

300, I think, is a progressive film. I totally reject reading 300’s Spartans, you know, as a kind of support for American intervention, quite the contrary. I think the Left should recapture back this fighting spirit. Why should we leave to the right-wingers notions like solidarity, community spirit, sacrifice, discipline – we should take it over. I’m for a militarized Left, I’m for a disciplinary Left. Sounds crazy but that’s me. Something might call me a Leftist Fascist, but why not?

Zizek is onto something here, especially if we consider two ways in which military theory has come to turn traditional Leftist themes on its head.

Take John Boyd, whose A Discourse on Winning and Losing is the first postmodern military theory, and Boyd the first postmodern military theorist. In his interpretation of Boyd, Frans Osinga provides the intellectual underpinnings of his theory. Of particular interest here is Boyd’s knowledge of deconstructionism, and the work of Derrida and Lyotard, who argue that all observed reality is a social construction that can be broken down into its constituent elements and ideas. This constructed notion of reality is related to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which treats society as imposing and enslaving individuals to certain power relations through ideas, from which these must be emancipated. In political science, these scholars are known as critical constructivists who also reject the positivist and objectivist assumptions of conventional constructivists, like Wendt and Hopf.

How would critical theorists interpret Boyd’s work, which essentially takes the constructed assumptions of reality made by constructivists but uses them in military theory? A good friend (and student of critical theory) once remarked to me that critical theorists might find Boyd as ‘abhorrent’, as he uses the same assumptions for the complete opposite purpose. Instead of emancipating an individual, Boyd is in fact in competition with that individual-adversary, and for Boyd, the constructedness of reality must be manipulated to defeat that
adversary. We have the same ontological and epistemological assumptions in both critical theory and Boyd, yet the purposes for which they are employed are polar opposites.

A second Leftist theme has also been inverted by military theory. Marxism itself was developed as a theory of revolution, one that could overthrow and remake societies. Counterposed to Marx would be conservatives like Edmund Burke, who saw great wrenching social change as counterproductive and ultimately destructive (Burke took the French Revolution as prima facie evidence of this). Fast forward to the 20th Century, when Marxist revolutionaries develop People’s War, or a revolutionary strategy of insurgency which was counterposed by Western or British counterinsurgency, which sought to prop up existing regimes and ensure their stability. Leftist-revolutionaries are insurgents for progress while rightist-counterrevolutionaries are counterinsurgents protecting the status-quo.

Well the tables have turned. Kilcullen[1] notes that in 21st Century low-intensity conflicts, counterinsurgents are the revolutionaries, seeking to overthrow a ‘backward’ regime and progress towards a liberal democratic one. It is the insurgents who are resisting this revolutionary change, often with ideologies that are reactionary in their historical (religious) basis.

Thus, these two conceptual shifts – Boyd’s appropriation of critical theory and the rise of revolutionary counterinsurgency – point to the militarized Leftism described by Zizek. This isn’t something that will happen in the future – it’s happening now, and today’s Leftist revolutionaries are those who wear the uniform.

The Leftist Progressive Revolutionary tradition did not die with the Cold War, it was merely transferred to the states of the international system.  Thus, Boyd and Petreaus follow in the tradition of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.  Leftist theory has also followed in this tradition, and it points to a new school of constructivism.  If conventional constructivism is oriented towards science, and critical theory is oriented towards emancipation, then military constructivism is oriented towards control and discipline, meant in the Foucauldian sense.  

Postscript: I wrote this quickly so its very off-the-cuff, so feel free to rip this apart, the idea of a military constructivism is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile and want to assess its conceptual validity.

[1]Kilcullen, David. “Counterinsurgency Redux.” Survival. 48(4) Dec 2006, 111-130.


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