Friday, June 14, 2013

Modern Day Relevance in Classic Military Literature

This entry is the first in a series of posts that will highlight books on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in an effort to promote the study of military history and other professional subjects. This month’s selection is “The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War”. Next month’s feature is “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.”  This post was co-authored with Brad Fultz.

The world looks at the leading democratic power not as a source of inspiration or with feelings of kinship. Indeed, it seems that most of the world sees a threat-a global power determined to rule as an empire not based on democracy or any other altruistic reasons, but through the application of unchecked power to protect first and foremost its own interests. Anyone who stands in the way will be crushed.

And why not? This is an appropriate role for the dominant power in a loose, unipolar world. After all this country was responsible for the defeat of the “Evil Empire” to the East that ushered in “an end to history” where under its democratic leadership the world would cooperate to ensure the free flow of commerce and ideas. Treaties established trade linkages justifying the most powerful navy in the history of the world to keep open. The year is 433 B.C.-the democracy is Athens and one of the greatest wars in history is about to begin.     

As military professionals we are often at the forefront in the effort to work through a growing list of complex issues such as the nature of the international system, alliance building and maintenance, grand strategy, the operational level of war, and conflict termination.  By studying one of the most enduring works of history, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, we can examine the unchanging nature of human political, economic, and military interactions.

Thucydides’ account is brilliant in its sweep and analysis.  The work is not simply a re-telling of one battle after the other, but offers a holistic view by focusing on the geo-political, economic, and other strategic elements of this civil war that lasted for almost 30 years. While reading this book I was struck by the transformation of a limited war into a total war and the failure of both sides to end hostilities despite numerous treaties. While the Spartans would eventually claim victory, both sides were so devastated that Greek power would never recover.

I also could not help but marvel at the arc of Athenian democracy presented by Thucydides. In Book One he discusses the evolution of Athens from city-state to the dominant force in the Mediterranean after the defeat of the Persians. In the Funeral Oration of Pericles in Book Two, one of the most famous passages in Western history, Thucydides records Pericles’ words at the end of the first year of war in which he eloquently and passionately describes the qualities that make Athens so great. With a modern update the speech could be made in the halls of Congress today.  As the war progresses over the years though the very nature of the Athenian state slowly devolves from Pericles’ ideal city on a hill to an international bully as depicted in the Melian Dialogue in Book Five. The Athenians offer the small and neutral island of Melos a stark choice, submit to Athens or be destroyed. In contrast to the rule of law stressed by Pericles the Melians are presented with an arbitrary decision-they refuse and are crushed.

As with America’s position after World War II, Athens came to dominate not only Greece but also the entire Mediterranean world. It was dependent on its strong navy to secure alliances and the resources needed to sustain its hegemony and evolved from a city-state to an empire. In a classic security dilemma, Athenian power, while saving the Greeks from Persian invasions led to resentment and fear of her unchecked power by other Greeks, particularly Sparta. This sets the stage for several decades of internecine war in which the account of Thucydides covers the most decisive phase. As we consider the nature of our own country, both in our foundational belief in democracy and our rise to power in the world, there is much we can learn today from the Peloponnesian War.

While this book is listed under the “Senior Level: Colonel to General” it would be a mistake to wait that long to tackle this book. If one waits until they are an O-6, too many of our thought leaders, be they on a Division or MARFOR staff, will miss the opportunity to study one of the great works of political-military history. Any O-4 who has completed Command and Staff College or the equivalent professional military education should read this book to reinforce the political and strategic subjects covered during the course.  

Noting that this is perhaps one of the most challenging books on the Professional Reading List we thought it would be helpful if we shared some of our best practices in getting through it as well as a discussion guide which is available on the MCU website (discussion guides for other reading list books are also here). We hope you will endeavor to tackle this exceptional work-it’s worth it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Back to the Future Part 2

This post is part of a series that will continue over the course of the next few months. The series will look at the future of the Marine Corps after the end of Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was inspired by Robert Kosloski’s article in the Naval War College Review, “Marching Towards the Sweet Spot: Options for the Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity,” (Available Here) Mr. Kosloski has also written for this blog. It will include guest posts and posts by Gazette blog authors. This series is being organized by Capt Jonathan Rue, USMCR, who writes at Gunpowder and Lead and the Guardian, and Capt Brett Friedman, USMC, who writes here and at Grand Blog Tarkin.

Even before the Marine Corps began drawing down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) began planning for a post-Afghanistan future. Concerned that a decade of inland ground combat operations left the USMC vulnerable to the charge of being a “second land army,” and thus a redundant and unnecessary Department of Defense asset, HQMC leadership began to seek ways to ensure that such a charge could not stick.

Naturally, the first response was to seek ways of returning to our amphibious roots as the USMC has primary responsibility for amphibious operations as stated in Title 10. Then Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) Gen James Conway released a message to all Marines in Summer 2008 calling on Marines to reestablish their traditional role as fighters from the sea. The current CMC Gen James Amos has continued the emphasis on amphibious operations, most recently penning an article with the Chief of Naval Operations continuing the theme and backing up words with actions like reconstituting the Bold Alligator amphibious exercise series.

But amphibious operations aren’t an end unto itself; it’s simply the vehicle (no pun intended) through which the USMC traditionally deploys assets. The end state for the Marine Corps, and what has always set us apart from the Army and other services, is our higher “proportionate emphasis on rapid mobility.” In Marine speak, this means the Marine Corps is “America’s expeditionary force-in-readiness; in civilian speak, it means being the nation’s 9-1-1 force.

Although many commentators and analysts see this as a new role for the USMC, it’s actually one that the Marine Corps has fulfilled for 15o years. Since the end of the Civil War, the USMC has been the go-to force when U.S. embassies around the world are threatened. Between 1865 and 1900, the Marine Corps participated in over 30 foreign interventions, including expeditions to secure embassies in Korea and Japan, and anti-slavery operations off the coast of Western Africa. This first era of Marine response force missions culminated in the relief of the foreign embassies in Beijing, China during the Boxer Rebellion.

The Navy-Marine Corps team might be the most well-known, but equally as important is the Marine Corps partnership with the U.S. Department of State. Part of being the nation’s 9-1-1 force means rapidly deploying to locations where DoD has no major presence. In such places, it’s a safe bet that State Department Foreign Service Officers are serving alongside Marine Embassy Security Guards. Acting as the State Department’s Army is also not a new mission for the Marine Corps.

Although we suspect this shift back to the future is more a response to stimuli like the attack on the Benghazi consulate and threats to various other embassies than it was a pre-planned strategy on the part of HQMC, the results remain the same. The Marine Corps isexpanding its capability to deploy Embassy guards and there is even a new proto-MAGTF that maximizes responsiveness at the expense of firepower. The concept, tailor made for AFRICOM, has only recently been announced but there is already talk that SOUTHCOM will be the next to get one and PACOM is interested too.

Part of being a 9-1-1 force, however, means a robust forward deployed presence in order to conduct Phase 0 and steady state operations. Deployments will not end with OEF; in fact, they will increase above what was typical for the pre-2001 Marine Corps. In addition to normal MEU commitments, the Marine Corps will have to source units for Australia, the new MAGTF-CR units, and more robust theater security cooperation plans for the combatant commands. HQMC will need to take a look at the end strength requirements needed to sustain the new deployment cycle with an appropriate dwell time and a minimal supporting establishment focused solely on training and education.
Still, in order to seamlessly capitalize on this back to the future moment, the Marine Corps will need to retool training and education of Marine officers and recruits. The officer and NCO corps possesses a totality of combat experience not seen in a generation, but some skills, like amphibious operations, atrophied, while others, working alongside civilians, was developed ad hoc and not institutionalized.

HQMC must refocus training and education on the naval aspects of amphibious operations. Certain aspects, such as the aforementioned Bold Alligator exercise, are necessary, but not sufficient in and of themselves to refocus Marine culture. Marine Corps schools are still largely focused on land warfare. Except for the Expeditionary Warfare School, they are ignoring the naval aspects of amphibious operations. This clashes with the Single Naval Battle concept espoused by the Ellis Group. The naval “blindspot” in the current Marine Corps culture will have to be illuminated as an essential aspect of a renewed focus on amphibious operations.

Meanwhile, a decade of counterinsurgency operations gave Marines an unprecedented level of exposure to working alongside civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines worked alongside and supported civilians from the State Department, US Agency for International Development, the intelligence community, and non-governmental organizations. But such experience wasn’t taught nor institutionalized at the training and education level. HQMC should rethink joint operations[1] to include our civilian partners.

In conclusion, the trends visible during OEF and OIF will not end in a post-OEF world, they will continue. The threat of terrorism, the ability to work better with civilian partners, and the "small wars" skills gained will remain. Meanwhile two traditional Marine Corps strengths will see renewed focus: amphibious operations and crisis response. A future filled with irregular enemies, heavy State Department involvement, and rapid response to far flung corners of the globe is a lot like our past, hence the name of this series. We've been here before.

[1] Eric Chase, “Rethinking Joint,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2013.