View Full Version : Theory vs. Practice

06-25-2006, 05:44 AM
As this board is full of former and current active duty military personnel, I have a question for you:

As you go about the profession and practice of war you encounter many ideas, some are full-blown theories, that purport to reframe, define or comprehensively explain, the nature of battle.

How, if at all, have these theoretical exercises - NCW, 4GW, EBO, Three -Block War, Global Guerillas, PNM - or classic works like On War, Art of War and so on- impacted what you do ? Do you value these intellectual paradigms relative to your personal experiences, if at all ? How could theorists, historians and other scholars be of more use to the warfighters ?

06-28-2006, 12:25 AM

That's an interesting question. From my perspective as a junior field grade officer, the theories and concepts you outlined help me grasp how and why things may be happening around me, like procurement decisions, but they do little to assist in developing my own art of war. I admit that the "those who do not do...write" statement holds some water, but only so far. For example, the current fight in Iraq, given all its complexities, is better served by AARs and lessons learned, not dissertations by a fellow who has not spent a day (better a month) on the ground and outside the wire.

I've gained more from the 3/5 AAR (subsequently reprinted in the MCG) about urban combat in Fallujah than trying to make sense of a 4GW graph. If it takes someone 50 pages to make and argue their point, they've lost me. As a case in point, I lurked on a 3 month thread about 4GW at another forum, and the posters were commenting basically on how they interpreted matters. If something is subject for interpretation, it's value is diminished for me. I don't want to understand the nature of battle as much as I want to fill my tool box with implements for winning the fight.

Another example of what I mean is this text, written by a Sgt, CPT, and Maj in Nov of 2003: http://www.comw.org/warreport/fulltext/03alexander.pdf. I did not find it during a cursory glance at the SWJ reference library, but that pamphlet continues to serve as my hip pocket reference to things tribal in Iraq. Pre-deployment reading lists when I was at 3d LAR covered a wide range of subjects, but when copies of this showed up (printed at 1 MARDIV?) I was relieved. I also still think that those three soldiers had it right when they wrote this abstract (and it only took 30 or so pages to do it):

Issue: A successful insurgency is preventing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Combined Joint Task Force –7 (CJTF-7) from providing a safe and secure environment in Iraq.

Discussion: The reason that CPA initiatives have not yet caught the imagination or secured the participation of the Iraqi people is due to cultural, not ideological factors. Iraq’s cultural environment represents a challenge not easily mastered by Western ideological models and crisis management
techniques alone. The Tribal Ethos remains the basis for most security, economic, and political discussions in Iraq and must by default be considered in long-term security and stability solutions.

Recommendation: This new Restorationist insurgency movement (against Western occupation) is using a hybrid method that incorporates urban (terrorist) and protracted (popular) insurgency strategies and exploits the tribal ethos to create crisis and instability to isolate CPA / CJTF-7 from the
Iraqi populace. A strong synchronized Tribal Leader engagement policy is a more effective means of achieving CPA / CJTF-7 strategic goals. We must create a committed local population in targeted areas, to include the local and provincial leaders in security, social and economic affairs; concurrently
the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) must be empowered to ensure stable national level governance. Establishing trust and confidence between Coalition and tribal groups will neutralize the insurgents and create the conditions for CPA assisted political, economic, and social programs to shape anew the nation of Iraq.

I would like to think that the coalition is well beyond the learning curve when it comes to understanding tribal matters, or interacting with Iraqi security forces, but I'm a pessimist. A meager 3 1/2 hours dedicated to Iraqi cultural and ISF issues in an 8 day military advisor training program, leads me to believe we still have hurdles.

Before I stray further off topic, I gain more from direct observations/writing from someone who has "been there, done that" under a blazing sun than anyone else.

A historian holds more weight than a theorist, but their scholarly pursuits must be relevant or I won't take the time to read, ponder, and form my own thoughts. It's too tough when there are more important TTP cards, X-files, and MCLL and CALL products to read.

Tom Odom
06-28-2006, 02:22 PM

You just made my day. I intend to take your post and send it to CALL for reflection and affirmation.

Now the challenge I willl throw back at you is to take your own experiences and training and join the community of those who write. You are in everyway the needed counterpoint to two groups:

A. purely academic theorists who model warfare without discomfort. I will say here that academic is probably an inaccurate term. Many are academic; many are the opposite who see warfare as a movie or video game. I have tried to tell people of this ilk that there is no background music on the battleground to key your senses when something is about to happen. It just does. In simliar vein, academic models by their very nature must group people (or ideas) by categories that do not easily replicate themselves in the real world.

B. the second group I would say is those who see the world in black and white. In my experience that just does not happen. That is not to say there are not cases where one has to chose sides; but applying simplistic definitions is to me dangerously naive.

So keep writing (or start). A journal or diary (or an email log) is a wondrous tool when it comes to reconctructing events. I had a legal tablet in a back pack in Goma that I used to work up my reports to the Joint staff every 4 hours or so. I kept it and used it 6 years later when I started writing my memoirs.

Best regards!

PS I will also pass around the PDF on the Insurgency; looks like a good piece that needs a wide audience.

06-28-2006, 07:52 PM
jcustis & Tom,

Very thoughtful and informative replies gentlemen. I've had a sense in reading threads here and there that there is a growing disconnect between those generating concepts and those out in the field. One answer, as Tom suggested, is to get more field people writing when they get that opportunity -which I think would be a good thing.

06-30-2006, 02:27 PM
Oh how I wish I had the time to put pen to paper and do just what Tom recommends. It's a challenge, and I feel like the character in the old Twilight Zone episode who has access to all the books in the world, but just broke his glasses.

I have posted once to the MCLL page regarding ISF training, but beyond that most of my recent experience delves into areas tied into OPSEC, so it is difficult. Right now, remaining focused on company training plans and administration are my primary tasks.

Back onto lessons learned and AARs...I feel strongly that the task of polling the entire Marine Corps for lessons learned is not insurmountable, but it does require resources that are in limited supply. All across the Corps, local initiatives are growing to pass on the lessons that are the hardest won, but they remain localized to staffs, battalions, etc. When I was the S-3A of 3d LAR, bouncing around Iraq with TF Wolfpack (working mostly for 2BCT), we were polled for bi-weekly (IIRC) lessons learned for MCLL inputs. Sadly, I think I was the only one reading them due to SIPR access and computer resources within the TF.

I do not know the modus operandi of current MCLL collection teams, but I believe that smaller teams embedded within a battalion or groups of MiTTs for say, 30 days, could mine a treasure trove of topics that are timely and relevant. 30 days would allow the team to get outside the wire, see things for their own eyes and translate the raw knowledge into true understanding. I've seen collectors come in, pow-wow with staff and commanders for maybe a day at the most, but it always seems to come at the worst time. Without sufficient warning, the folks who have the most to say or write are either task overloaded at that time, or there is unnecessary thrashing about to align operations schedules to face time with a team member. The collectors NEED TO PARTICIPATE IN PATROLS, CORDONS, SWEEPS, etc. to get the whole picture and distill the true lessons out of the hundreds of things going on.

The Operating Forces are already stretched, so where do we get combat arms team members from for these 30 day stints? I don't have the answer, but I believe it is critical that we find one. Although battalion staffs pending a relief-in-place do correspond via SIPR, to get as much updated information as possible before the incoming unit leaves CONUS, that only hits the tip of the chunk of ice. There is always a time lag in sifting through the information, and our most important sensors and shooters (Pfcs and LCpls) may be missing out. How great would it be to have a collection team pull 30 days with a deployed unit, then spend a week or two with a battalion pending deploy, discussing current lessons with a company at a time in a secure setting? The lessons and AARs can remain posted to MCLL, but having a team member available to answer questions and provide context to the topic would be an incredible enabler.

Historians and theorists have little role, if any, in this critical task. Perhaps some of the funding that is used to commission studies from think tanks could be better applied against TAD, logistical, and printing support for guys who have gone "boots on the ground" and seen firsthand what is going on.

Let's not forget the Iraq Army and Interior Ministry types...Is anyone talking to them? If not, how do we know they have nothing relevant to say until we try? It's surprising, once you get past the pleasantries and social graces, just what some of these warriors have to say.

07-02-2006, 10:31 AM
Excellent questions from Zenpundit, and outstanding responses from jcustis and Tom Odom. I’ll try to answer as much as I can within the limited time and space that I have, and from my viewpoint as a company-grade officer (soon to be a field-grader) in the much-maligned (here and in other internet forums) Air Force who has worked most of his career assigned to units outside the Air Force. As a matter of fact I am getting ready to go back to Iraq to train the Iraqis with some of my Army friends. The world is increasingly purple. Time permitting, I might expand some of my thoughts in my own FX-Based blog.

Regarding the theoretical exercises Zenpundit mentions, all of them have been interpreted and misinterpreted by proponents and detractor alike. Some of these discussions are valid, but many of them are unproductive and irrelevant to those out in the field. Here’s my quick take on some of the concepts Zenpudit mentions.

Something like net-centricity (an NCW concept) is essential to function in a dispersed battlespace like the one in which we operate today. Now, the ideas behind NCW and EBO have been misunderstood in all sorts of ways. All these misunderstandings have led to long and some times needless discussions. (The puzzling thing to me is that I’ve discussed some of these theories with people in academia with no military experience, and they seem to know more about them than those of us who have been out in the field…or so they think.) In my experience, the best way to learn for a job comes from being in the job. No amount of book learning and theory can really prepare you like actual practice of the job. Academic education, theories, and what you learn in tech school can give you a foundation, but I also put a lot of weight in “on-the-job-training” (under the watchful eye of a sharp NCO, of course). I believe you learn by doing, not by reading about it.

Some of the misunderstandings between the services are due to differences in perspective depending on how each service views itself and how it conducts warfare. Not all warfighters are created equal and some will see more validity in some concepts than in others based on their job experience. If your job is orchestrating an air campaign, you will probably see more validity and relevance in the concepts behind NCW and EBO than in the ones behind the three-block war and 4GW. Not all of us approach and conduct warfare in the same manner. This is a good thing. Even within the services there is considerable disagreement over what each concept means and how it should be applied. I think disagreement is a good thing as long as it encourages productive discussions and outcomes. I would rather serve in a military where different points of view are encouraged and expressed than in one where everybody thinks alike and there’s very little room for discussion about how we do business.

Some of the disconnect between academia and the military stems from the fact that scholars and warfighters have to operate inside very different worlds with very different sets of demands placed upon them. An academic can discuss any of the concepts mentioned above for days, even weeks, in a classroom environment. He or she can write books and dissertations about these concepts and give lectures and all the things that an academic does, but ultimately, all of this happens in the relatively sterilized world of academia, where you can discuss issues at large and sometimes don’t have to reach a decision on the issues. A warfighter ultimately has to decide and act. Discussions are useful, but many times must be limited to a minimum in the time-sensitive environment of a combat zone. An academic can discuss all day long and ultimately not reach a hard and fast conclusion with his students (that is, sometimes, a good thing in an academic environment); a warfighter has to decide what to do and act based on limited information, many times in life-or-death situations, and in a very chaotic environment. If the warfighter makes a wrong decision the wrong people can die.

On the subject of theories, I think that any theory that does not take properly into account the messiness of the human element and the friction and fog of war is limited in its practical value.

On some job-specific questions the views of a service member that has been on the job are far more relevant to me than whatever a scholar writes based on his or her academic studies or on some quickie visit to the AOR. Communication with the guy or gal you are replacing in the AOR is always crucial. A lot of the preparation for a deployment comes from "non-scholarly", but useful, sources.

That being said, there is a lot that scholars can do to contribute to the warfighters. I will say though that it seems to me that many in academia have no interest at all to contribute to our war efforts. Having their works used as a reference to warfighters is probably not part of what they envisioned when they put pen to paper.

One of the scholars that comes to mind is Kenneth Pollack. I remember he came to our base and talked extensively to the troops about Iraq before OIF kicked off. I am currently reading his book on Iran titled The Persian Puzzle. I use works like those of Pollack and others to get background on some of the issues that we might be facing in the future. I recommend not stopping at reading one single book by a single author on any particular issue. An amalgamation of views is always best for understanding some of the complex issues we are likely to face. I try to stay away from authors with political agendas that might provide overly-biased assessments on the issues. I don’t think war and partisan politics mix very well when you are in a combat situation. I try to instill in my people that we don’t fight as Democrats or Republicans, we fight as Americans.

I believe that the work of scholars is very useful in helping us understand situations in countries where we don’t have a significant military presence (or no presence at all), e.g. Iran, Sudan, North Korea, etc. A historian can also give us a window on how warfighters of the past handled certain situations and how situations came to be what they are today. I am an avid reader of military biographies to get insights on the decision-making processes of these leaders from the past. I also value our military heritage and one of the ways to preserve this heritage is by learning about those who fought before you.

For current ops, I rely a lot on my peers and my direct predecessors to get relevant information. Continuity books, AARs and lessons-learned are extremely important in this regard. Even if you end up doing “your own thing” (like many of us do), they provide a foundation from which you can build your approach. Innovation is good, reinventing the wheel is not.

The work of the theorist Zenpudit mentions, particularly Barnett’s PNM are more suited to get an understanding of certain grand strategic situations, but are not geared towards an operational, let alone tactical, view of specific situations. That’s okay, because as warfighters in an increasingly complex world, sometimes we have to look at the big picture before we drill down to our very specific missions. In today’s environment the actions of a single squad, platoon or flight element on the battlefield can have serious strategic implications. As warfighters we need to have this global perspective on issues and think about the consequences of our actions beyond the present time and place.

I’ve passed a lot of my experience through writing AAR’s and lessons learned after each significant action. The vast majority of this work is classified and very specific to my specialty and to a time and place in our conduct of operations. One of the reasons why you might not see a lot of this work is due to security considerations. That being said, a lot of the lessons-learned from our current operations are not classified and reside in the realm of what I call “forgotten common sense” and should be widely disseminated throughout the community. Information is crucial in our current fight and we should ensure that the right information gets to the people who need it most, not just the general and field grade officers, but also to our CGO’s, NCOs and junior enlisted who operate where the rubber meets the road. The Small Wars Journal is an example of an outstanding forum to do this.

Somehow echoing what Tom said, I do recommend to all service members to start writing about their experiences either in a web log or in more private forms if you don’t want the exposure. I know that writing, in my blog and in my personal and professional logs, has helped me immensely, not only from an operational perspective, but also from a psychological standpoint. I wish I had started earlier, but it’s never too late. You learn how to shoot by shooting and you learn how to write by writing. And we have a lot to stories to tell.

My advice for the any aspiring or up and coming milblogger is to use your blog for something more than the expression of your political views, but also use it as a learning tool for yourself and others.

One more thing before I finish this caffeine-fueled post.

When I was a cadet in ROTC our Commandant of Cadets used to say that he wanted all of us to think of ourselves as athletes and work to improve our physical condition as the “other athletes” on campus worked on theirs. To that I would add that not only do I want warrior-athletes but I also want warrior-thinkers. Our current situation demands warriors-thinkers who can thrive in complex environments where, to paraphrase Tom, there are no black and white solutions.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Sir William Francis Butler:

“The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”

Bill Moore
07-03-2006, 01:16 AM
Zenpundit, like the other gentlemen who have replied to your interesting question I agree you present an interesting question.

I imagine there are many parallels in the various sciences on how theory affects practice. Theory provides a model and supporting vocabulary to define a situation, and from there we develop a strategy to address it. On the same hand those models and their associated vocabulary are frequently flawed, or more accurately, they limit our ability to accurately define the problem set we're dealing with. Clausewitz, OODA loops, EBO, 4GW, etc. all have their application, but the fact that they are known equates to biased perceptions. What set of glasses are you looking through?

When you use theory you define the problem to fit your theory. I think most of us who visit this site regularly enjoy debating military theory to see if we can identify truly enduring principles of war. I tend to be the camp that is very cautious of using theory, but obviously apply it unwittingly since it is engrained in my subconscious. I wonder what theory, if any, our asymmetrical opponents adhere to.

Larry Dunbar
07-03-2006, 08:45 PM
“I wonder what theory, if any, our asymmetrical opponents adhere to.”

So far I think the strategy of Gamers (http://www.gotgamebook.com/Get%20Ready%20For%20The%20Gamer%20Generation.pdf) Seem to be the most relevant theory.
§ “Games and gamers are known for nothing if not their exceedingly quick evolution.”
§ “…games teach that being the hero is important – people are counting on you to save the day and defeat that evil “level boss” waiting for you at the end of the maze.”
§ “Gamers correspondingly believe that they are “considered deep experts” in their companies….” “if something needs to be done right, they had better do it themselves”

Thanks, to Zenpundit for PDF.

This is not to say that I think this kind of behavior should be discourage, the opposite is true. I would hand out computers and internet access to any one and everyone. You see Gamers understand other Gamers. Kind of brakes down all that tribal stuff.

07-03-2006, 08:57 PM
Where to start if speaking of AQ and Islamists-
1. Abu Bakr Naji - Management of Barabarism or Savagery
2. Mustafa Setmarian Nasar (aka - Abu Musab al Suri)
3. Abdul Kader Abdul Azziz
4. Ayman al-Zawahiri
5. Sayyid Qutb

Steve Blair
07-07-2006, 03:47 PM
I currently work with AFROTC, and I have to say that I'm concerned that so much emphasis is put on physical fitness to the exclusion of the warrior/thinker side of things. We do have a single course now that covers USAF weapons systems and very limited doctrine, and I just finished redesigning and (hopefully) improving the exercise portion of that course. I'm also trying to gather enough momentum to create a course that will bring Army and Air Force ROTC cadets into the same classroom to conduct a semester-long exercise that will give them some insight into joint operations, the basics of campaign planning, and even (gasp) some of the concerns that spring from limited war and small wars. Our exercise setting is currently a rather Balkan region, so there's the possibility for ethnic unrest within each notional country. It's not much by professional gaming standards, I suppose, but it's a start and certainly more than they do now by way of professional education at the ROTC level.

Tom Odom
07-07-2006, 04:14 PM
One of the scholars that comes to mind is Kenneth Pollack. I remember he came to our base and talked extensively to the troops about Iraq before OIF kicked off. I am currently reading his book on Iran titled The Persian Puzzle. I use works like those of Pollack and others to get background on some of the issues that we might be facing in the future. I recommend not stopping at reading one single book by a single author on any particular issue. An amalgamation of views is always best for understanding some of the complex issues we are likely to face. I try to stay away from authors with political agendas that might provide overly-biased assessments on the issues. I don’t think war and partisan politics mix very well when you are in a combat situation. I try to instill in my people that we don’t fight as Democrats or Republicans, we fight as Americans.

Ken was one of the CIA Analysts who worked the 1990-1991 Gulf War and one of the few I really listened to.

Absolutely on the mark on amalgamation of views in studying history, Sonny! I forced my students at CGSC to do that when I taught military hsitory of the Middle East to US, Arab, and Israeli students. Life is not simple and neither is history because it deals with life's complexities.


07-31-2006, 08:13 PM
War is war.
There are many new concepts out there and many are inter related (4GW, OODA) and there are some that seem to be new ways of saying the same old thing (Distributed Ops) and then there are some that are just ridiculous given the current conflict (EBO).
What works on the battefield should be reflected in doctrine otherwise the doctrine must change. Problem is someone on the battlefield (having been there myself) can develop a myopic view of it. In Iraq there is a tendency to think that what works in Najaf will work in Mosul, not so. There is a difference between doctrine and techniques. Understanding the difference is where effective doctrine comes from. When all this intellectual effort reflects the difference between doctrine and techniques, that is when it will be worth it.