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Thread: Culmination Point

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    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Culmination Point

    Retired Major-General Scales wrote a thoughtful piece on the use of the "Culmination Point" to describe AQIZ's current potential of challenging the outcome there. Generally we think about the culmination point as "the point in time and space where a force no longer possesses the capability to continue its current form of operations" - that is out of the latest FM 3-0 DRAG - but general scales gives an explanation that I think is more in line with the AQ ability to foment insurgency vs. our counter-insurgency efforts. I also remember if you go back to some of the older incarnates of FM 101-5-1s you'll find more thoughtful definitions like his vs. the truncated one in the 3-0 DRAG. Doctrinal concepts such as the culmination point help to visualize the battlefield, communicate and determine when and how to make transitions.

    You can pick up the full article in the early bird - however I can't provide a link to the WSJ since it requires a subscription.

    Wall Street Journal
    November 21, 2007
    Pg. 18

    Petraeus's Iraq

    By Robert H. Scales

    BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- I've just returned from a week in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus and his operational commanders. My intent was to look at events from an operational perspective and assess the surge. What I got was a soldier's sense of what's happening on the ground and, although the jury is still out on the surge, I came to the conclusion that we may now be reaching the "culminating point" in this war.

    The culminating point marks the shift in advantage from one side to the other, when the outcome becomes irreversible: The potential loser can inflict casualties, but has lost all chance of victory. The only issue is how much longer the war will last, and what the butcher's bill will be.

    Battles usually define the culminating point. In World War II, Midway was a turning point against the Japanese, El Alamein was a turning point against the Nazis and after Stalingrad, Germany no longer was able to stop the Russians from advancing on their eastern front. Wars usually culminate before either antagonist is aware of the event. Abraham Lincoln didn't realize Gettysburg had turned the tide of the American Civil War. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive proved that culminating points aren't always military victories.

    Culminating points are psychological, not physical, happenings. The commanders I spoke to in Iraq all said that there had been a remarkable change of mood in February when Gen. Petraeus announced that they were taking the fight to the enemy by taking Baghdad from al Qaeda. He pushed soldiers out of the big (and relatively safe) forward operating bases and scattered them among really bad neighborhoods. These joint security stations and combat outposts attracted locals and encouraged them to pass on intelligence about the enemy.
    Best, Rob

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    I respect Bob Scales and consider him a friend. He was very easy to work for in writing Certain Victory--not every general allows a major free voice of his opinions and actually listens to them.

    That said, I think this is classic misapplication of concepts to situations where they do not necessarily apply. I have made my opinions on the ethnic and religious map of "Iraq" known. To say this is a culmination point implies a verge in that the surge has brought the Iraq situation to the verge of success or the precipice of failure. I submit it is neither. It is rather a pause in the ongoing aftermath; what happens next is not clear and Scales is interpreting too much clarity into it by positing that anything as clear as a culmination point has emerged.

    In contrast, he could be correct if he interprets that culmination point as an Americam culmination point. The surge is being interpreted as a success in the run up to elections; who is doing the interpreting determines what that success means.

    best

    Tom

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    It depends what the mission is. AQI needs the support of the population and it looks like they're losing that. I've long thought that the mission should be limited to removing AQI from Iraq, but there are lots of people who believe that the objective should be more ambitious.

    We're a long way from a democratic, stable Iraq.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Odom View Post
    That said, I think this is classic misapplication of concepts to situations where they do not necessarily apply. I have made my opinions on the ethnic and religious map of "Iraq" known. To say this is a culmination point implies a verge in that the surge has brought the Iraq situation to the verge of success or the precipice of failure. I submit it is neither. It is rather a pause in the ongoing aftermath; what happens next is not clear and Scales is interpreting too much clarity into it by positing that anything as clear as a culmination point has emerged.

    In contrast, he could be correct if he interprets that culmination point as an Americam culmination point. The surge is being interpreted as a success in the run up to elections; who is doing the interpreting determines what that success means.
    Mr Odom:

    This is a superbly written assessment of MG Scales's piece. It summarizes my thoughts exactly on it and i tried to write a posting for it but couldnt get it right. In my mind you do. Although i am probably not the one to be criticizing writers using historical analogies (because i did just that in my How To Stop IEDs oped) I think his use of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, in how he applies it to Iraq is deeply flawed. He makes it seem as you say a point of clarity that we have turned the corner. But a more nuanced analogy would have acknowledged that after G.Burg there were two more years of Civil War with many, many Americans dead. Is that what we have to look forward to in Iraq. I usually like the pieces that Gen Scales writes, but on this one i have lost my trust in him as an objective observer and consider him to be now on the "victory" bandwagon.

    gentile

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gian P Gentile View Post
    Mr Odom:
    Although i am probably not the one to be criticizing writers using historical analogies (because i did just that in my How To Stop IEDs oped) I think his use of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, in how he applies it to Iraq is deeply flawed. He makes it seem as you say a point of clarity that we have turned the corner.

    I have to jump on this bandwagon too.

    One thing I've hated since first going to Baghdad in 2003 was the number of times major leaders or influencers have stated we're at the "tipping point", "culmination", "last throes", "End of the beginning", "beginning of the end", "decisive point", etc. The problem is that if we really have reached that point no one will believe it because of the "cry Wolf" syndrome.

    It's almost as comical as the stock MNF-I answer to how large the insurgency is (from 2004-2006) - about 20,000. Never mind we detained over 90,000 in that period and killed over 10,000 AIF.

    There is little doubt that we have achieved at least temporary tactical and operational success, which has provided a window for larger strategic success. Strategic success depends on Iraqi political reconciliation, who as of this morning's paper Maliki was accusing the Sunni parliment bloc of being illegitimate. When the surge subsides that window will slowly begin to close if there is no progress on giving the Iraqis a flag/government to rally around, which seems as remote as ever.
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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gian P Gentile View Post
    Mr Odom:

    This is a superbly written assessment of MG Scales's piece. It summarizes my thoughts exactly on it and i tried to write a posting for it but couldnt get it right. In my mind you do. Although i am probably not the one to be criticizing writers using historical analogies (because i did just that in my How To Stop IEDs oped) I think his use of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, in how he applies it to Iraq is deeply flawed. He makes it seem as you say a point of clarity that we have turned the corner. But a more nuanced analogy would have acknowledged that after G.Burg there were two more years of Civil War with many, many Americans dead. Is that what we have to look forward to in Iraq. I usually like the pieces that Gen Scales writes, but on this one i have lost my trust in him as an objective observer and consider him to be now on the "victory" bandwagon.

    gentile
    Gian,

    Thanks for that. But please, Tom, suits just fine. Bob Scales has a tendency to reach for the dramatic sometimes and does so in this one; what is refreshing is that he will admit it, even when he is proved wrong. He said as much in revisiting the opening chapter of Certain Victory when he talked about a new way of war, something that made Terry Johnson and me cringe at the time.

    In this case, I take a longer view because Iraq is a region which seen countless armies come, declare victory, and leave, changing nothing but borders, which have little meaning beyond offering reason for future conflict. Personally I don't mind the victory declarations if the do what Bob Scales said--set the stage for political and diplomatic measures--and allow us to extract ourselves and preserve our precious military forces.

    best

    Tom

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cavguy View Post
    Strategic success depends on Iraqi political reconciliation,
    I know you didn't set the strategy, so I'm sure you won't take this personally.

    I always thought it was dumb to make our strategic success dependent on others. There are lots of ways things could turn out "Not too bad." Stating that three stable countries would be a loss for us, makes it a lot tougher to win.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    I know you didn't set the strategy, so I'm sure you won't take this personally.

    I always thought it was dumb to make our strategic success dependent on others. There are lots of ways things could turn out "Not too bad." Stating that three stable countries would be a loss for us, makes it a lot tougher to win.
    I'm referring to the strategic objective as being our current national objective as stated in Iraq by the national leadership, not what I think it ought to be. We all have our opinion on that one - but my view (held since 2003 when I was in Baghdad), that Iraq really needed - a) a benevolent dictator to oversee the transition to democracy and lay off the nukes - kind of like Turkey or worst case Jordan, or needed to be partitioned into states. Worked as a solution in the Balkans - although it involved massive population displacement..

    We lost a lot of leverage to affect their political situation when we abruptly handed power off to an unprepared government in June 2004 when Bremer left. The problem with Iraqi sovereignty is that there is Iraqi sovereignty.....
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    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    I always thought it was dumb to make our strategic success dependent on others. There are lots of ways things could turn out "Not too bad." Stating that three stable countries would be a loss for us, makes it a lot tougher to win.
    Even basic stability, to a large extent, depends on others --- unless the plan becomes to run Iraq as an American colony in perpetuity, a plan which I think all can agree is in itself a failure.

    If referring to early direct elections, one should remember that the original plan was not for elections but rather caucuses of Iraqis picked by CPA officials who would "elect" a new "sovereign" Iraqi government. This plan vanished once word of it hit the Iraqi press and Ayatollah Sistani called out hundreds of thousands of protestors against it.

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    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    I guess its hard to get past the context of Iraq -since in this case its the context he uses to talk about culmination points, and because everything that is written now has political consequences - but what are the thoughts on culmination points with regard to the psychological vs. physical? What about why things happen without recognition of what they are? How do they effect transitions? The paragraph below is what stuck with me.

    Battles usually define the culminating point. In World War II, Midway was a turning point against the Japanese, El Alamein was a turning point against the Nazis and after Stalingrad, Germany no longer was able to stop the Russians from advancing on their eastern front. Wars usually culminate before either antagonist is aware of the event. Abraham Lincoln didn't realize Gettysburg had turned the tide of the American Civil War. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive proved that culminating points aren't always military victories.
    I mean it could go both ways couldn't it - you could culminate and not even know it. If we're talking about physical culmination - being out of Schlitz so to speak - even that could be subject to how you see yourself and the enemy. It just seems allot easier to look backwards and say - there was the culmination point where it was set in stone, then to say "here, is the culmination point". It may have just been the way I read it, and what interested me in the article - but I saw general Scales as pondering the possibilities and raising the questions of how culmination points come into being, how rivals see their selves, what does it mean in the broader perspective, what does that mean to policy, etc. I don't think Lee saw Gettysburg as a culmination point for his army - I'd argue he thought he had a shot right up to the end - he just needed the opportunity to make it happen. I'd argue that Grant did not see Lee as having culminated either until Lee had conceded by correspondence. Part of it has to do with those analogies - duels on larger scales, poker games, extreme sports, wrestlers etc - but with the highest stakes in the outcome.

    I think its worthwhile to think about because it gets to how we make military and political decisions in war. I mean the threads gotta go where the thread goes - but that is what interested me.

    Best regards, Rob
    Last edited by Rob Thornton; 11-21-2007 at 06:04 PM.

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    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Thornton View Post
    It just seems allot easier to look backwards and say - there was the culmination point where it was set in stone, then to say "here, is the culmination point". It may have just been the way I read it, and what interested me in the article - but I saw general Scales as pondering the possibilities and raising the questions of how culmination points come into being, how rivals see their selves, what does it mean in the broader perspective, what does that mean to policy, etc. I don't think Lee saw Gettysburg as a culmination point for his army - I'd argue he thought he had a shot right up to the end - he just needed the opportunity to make it happen. I'd argue that Grant did not see Lee as having culminated either until Lee had conceded by correspondence. Part of it has to do with those analogies - duels on larger scales, poker games, extreme sports, wrestlers etc - but with the highest stakes in the outcome.

    I think its worthwhile to think about because it gets to how we make military and political decisions in war. I mean the threads gotta go where the thread goes - but that is what interested me.
    Rob,

    I'd say it is easier to see a culmination point in hindsight because it is a form of explanatory description rather than a form of predictive description. I should probably explain what I mean here. We use the word "why"
    in two different ways--in one case we are describing what has happened after the fact --this is what happens with the Perry Mason chain of reasoning that justifies our making the assertion, "I now know that Colonel Mustard killed Mr. Body in the Library with the lead pipe." In the second case, we try to extrapolate from a current point into the future--this is the predictive description. Its outcome would be, "I now know that Col Mustard will kill Mr. Body in the Library with the lead pipe."

    Warfare, like most human activities, is at best multicausal. (I suspect part of it is purely accidental.) It has some regularity, but not sufficient regularity to enable one to predict outcomes with any degree of confidence. We can usualy reconstruct events and provide an explanation after the fact. There are just too many independent variables to afford us the same luxury for accurately predicting outcomes involving creatures who are capable of changing their minds.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tequila View Post
    Even basic stability, to a large extent, depends on others
    True. Which is why things like Nato, the UN etc are important. If you bring them in from the beginning, and things fail, it's not a US defeat, it's a bureaucratic screw up. If the objective had been, remove Saddam, then leave, we'd have won already.

    Quote Originally Posted by He looked better with the cigar
    I saw general Scales as pondering the possibilities and raising the questions of how culmination points come into being, how rivals see their selves, what does it mean in the broader perspective, what does that mean to policy, etc.
    I'd say it's the point where it's inevitable that your strategy will defeat the opponent's strategy. If you assume that our strategy in Nam was to kill all the Communists and the Communist strategy was to convince us that they'd never stop fighting, Tet proved to a lot of people that our strategy wouldn't work and their's would. Inevitable, however, is subjective and the enemy can change strategies.

    In Iraq, I'd say we're approaching the point where it becomes obvious that population control will work and that national reconciliation won't. But I'd say the first is still premature and since not many people agree with me, maybe the second is too. Still, I think we're close enough on the second point that somebody should start thinking about Plan B. (Sounds like Cavguy is perfect for the job.)
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    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    Warfare, like most human activities, is at best multicausal. (I suspect part of it is purely accidental.) It has some regularity, but not sufficient regularity to enable one to predict outcomes with any degree of confidence.
    The outcomes of battles are difficult to predict: wars, not so much. When both sides have a strategy of chewing up the other side's planes, tanks and infantry, (WWII) Hitler's chances of victory became pretty slim once the US fired up its factories.

    Despite Hannibal's tactical brilliance at killing roman soldiers, the fact that both sides had the same strategy - kill the other sides soldiers - and the fact that Italy had so many more people than Carthage made an Italian victory almost inevitable.

    I will agree, however, that inevitable is a word that can only be used in hindsight. Just because Hitler never had an atomic bomb, doesn't mean that in 1943 it was possible to say that he never would. And I'm sure that if Hannibal had gotten his hands on gunpowder he would've figured out how to use it effectively. You can never assume that the playing field won't change.
    Quote Originally Posted by SteveMetz View Post
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    The outcomes of battles are difficult to predict: wars, not so much. When both sides have a strategy of chewing up the other side's planes, tanks and infantry, (WWII) Hitler's chances of victory became pretty slim once the US fired up its factories.
    You've already skewed the analysis. It was not at all clear in 1940 that the US would become the arsenal of democracy. The US might also have changed its plan in 1943 and elected to negotiate with the Germans. (I suspect we were in a fight to the end with the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, but that same level of animosity was not as present WRT Germany--ulike in WWI.)
    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    Despite Hannibal's tactical brilliance at killing roman soldiers, the fact that both sides had the same strategy - kill the other sides soldiers - and the fact that Italy had so many more people than Carthage made an Italian victory almost inevitable.
    Again this only became inevitable after the end of the period of Fabian delay, and the Roman decision to invade Tunisia. After Cannhae or Lake Trasimene, I do not think the outcome was so inevitable.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    I will agree, however, that inevitable is a word that can only be used in hindsight. Just because Hitler never had an atomic bomb, doesn't mean that in 1943 it was possible to say that he never would. And I'm sure that if Hannibal had gotten his hands on gunpowder he would've figured out how to use it effectively. You can never assume that the playing field won't change.
    Nor can you assume that the aims of those on either side of the playing field won't also change, in either a rational or less than rational way. This latter was my main point.

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    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    You've already skewed the analysis. It was not at all clear in 1940 that the US would become the arsenal of democracy.
    No but it was obvious sometime before Adolph married Eva. Therefore, the culmination point was somewhere between those two points in time.


    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    After Cannhae or Lake Trasimene, I do not think the outcome was so inevitable.
    I agree - so the cumulation point hadn't been reached yet - but I still would've bet on the Italians. (There was a reason Hannibal didn't sack Rome, in spite of being urged to.) The Romans still had more resources to execute their strategy and I would've bet that Hannibal wouldn't be able to alter that equation.

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    Again this only became inevitable after the end of the period of Fabian delay, and the Roman decision to invade Tunisia
    Careful, it almost sounds like you're saying there is a point before the end of a war where victory becomes inevitable.

    I agree with you that the concept is most useful in hindsight, but I agree with Rob that it has some strategic relevance. (I think it would've been useful if a few people had realized that toppling Saddam's statue was a photo op, not a culmination point.) I also agree with Tom. The article over states things, but preparing the world for "Things are better, so we don't need as many troops now" is a good thing.
    Last edited by Rank amateur; 11-21-2007 at 09:15 PM.
    Quote Originally Posted by SteveMetz View Post
    Sometimes it takes someone without deep experience to think creatively.

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    Council Member RTK's Avatar
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    Rob,

    Which do you really think he meant?


    From FM 1-02:

    decisive point (DOD) A geographic place, specific key event, critical system or function that allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an enemy and greatly influence the outcome of an attack

    culminating point (DOD) The point at which a force no longer has the capability to continue its form of operations, offensive or defense. a. In the offense, the point at which continuing the attack is no longer possible and the force must consider reverting to a defensive posture or attempting an operational pause. b. In the defense, the point at which counteroffensive action is no longer possible.
    Example is better than precept.

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    Good post Ryan and to the point.

    I would sayhe using DP and calling it CP=or blending without explanation.

    Tom

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Good post Ryan and to the point.

    I would say he using DP and calling it CP=or blending without explanation.

    Tom

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    I agree - so the cumulation point hadn't been reached yet - but I still would've bet on the Italians. (There was a reason Hannibal didn't sack Rome, in spite of being urged to.) The Romans still had more resources to execute their strategy and I would've bet that Hannibal wouldn't be able to alter that equation.
    THe reason Hannibal did not sack Rome was becaue he did not have the wherewithal to do so. He chose instead to try to detach the Socii by showing them that Rome could not protect them--probably a strategic blunder on his part (sort of like what Al Qaida in Iraq did to lose popular support), but I imagine Hanniball thought it seemed like a good idea at the time (reminds me of that story Steve McQueen tells in The Great Escape about the guy jumping into the cactus).

    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    Careful, it almost sounds like you're saying there is a point before the end of a war where victory becomes inevitable.
    I thought you might pick up on that.
    I would say that a complete Roman victory became more likely after the legions landed safely in Tunisia. However the issue of battling elephant-equipped armies still made the outcome highly suspect. If it became inevitable, that inevitability appeared as the Carthaginian army fled in disarray from the field at Zama.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    I agree with you that the concept is most useful in hindsight, but I agree with Rob that it has some strategic relevance. (I think it would've been useful if a few people had realized that toppling Saddam's statue was a photo op, not a culmination point.) I also agree with Tom. The article over states things, but preparing the world for "Things are better, so we don't need as many troops now" is a good thing.
    As the subsequent posts from RTK and Tom indicate, a culminating point does have a useful meaning, just not in the way that Scales seems to be using it in his essay. It has operational and tactical relelvance and maybe strategic relevance in a conventional, symmetrical war. I see Scales' usage as being akin to a "turning point" or a crisis, as defined in literature.

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    Default Precision in Language

    Precise doctrinal definitions are useful at the lower levels because they allow the rapid transmission of meaning through fewer words. The common understanding is needed for unity of action.
    As we move up the scale to the strategic level, I beleive that precision in language is less relevant. Rather than trying to sum something complex up into a neat phrase or term, its takes somewhat more skill to explain what is meant--succinct doctrinal concepts fall short of the mark (as do sound bites).
    I think that this is revealed in all of the postings so far, where the richness of the situation in Iraq requires more explanation than that contained in the definition of "culminating point." I will agree, however, that Scales' choice of the the term reveals his own summation of all of the information. The danger is that now becomes a lens that colors the analysis of further information: "If this is the culminating point, then we expect X to happen, or if Y happens, it means this or that." If that assumption (culmination) is not continually re-evaluated, it will then lead to further misreading of the situation.

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