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Old 12-11-2006   #1
120mm
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Marcus, I have an interest in the History of Military Technology as a form of "totemism". I strongly suspect that mil tech development is driven as strongly by cultural reasons as practical reasons, but am having trouble finding traction in actually approaching this from a research standpoint. Are there some "good" overview texts out there that would get me started?

Also, are there some schools with noteworthy PhD producing programs in this subject area? I am well-connected with Iowa State University's History of Technology and Science department, but for reasons of my own, I want to go elsewhere for my "sheepskin" if I can....
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Old 12-11-2006   #2
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Default Totemism and Technology

Hi 120mm,

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Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
Marcus, I have an interest in the History of Military Technology as a form of "totemism". I strongly suspect that mil tech development is driven as strongly by cultural reasons as practical reasons, but am having trouble finding traction in actually approaching this from a research standpoint. Are there some "good" overview texts out there that would get me started?
Good overview texts? That's tricky. Probably the best one is by Claude Levi-Strauss, Totemism (I have the translation by Rodney Needham, 1963 Beacon Press). I think you could get some traction on it by making a somewhat broader argument along the following lines:
  1. military organizations are collections of "lineages" (para kinship networks)
  2. lineages draw their validity from "eponymous ancestors"; this includes foundation myths, tribal "gnosis" (i.e. tribe specific knowledge), and culural patternings for using technology.
  3. lineages have mythic "arrangements" with their founders, stories and, also, have sterotype myths of "proper conduct", both fictive and real (i.e. the "should" and the "would").
  4. in order to sell to a lineage, a product or story must fit that lineages myths, including all of its patternings.

There's probably a couple of lines of logic I've left out, but I think that would ground your argument, especially since military organizations tend to be fairly "conservative".

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Also, are there some schools with noteworthy PhD producing programs in this subject area? I am well-connected with Iowa State University's History of Technology and Science department, but for reasons of my own, I want to go elsewhere for my "sheepskin" if I can....
The best person I could recommend is a friend of mine, Philip Thurtle, at the University of Washington (http://faculty.washington.edu/thurtle/). Phil taught at Carleton for a couple of years and is both brilliant and, at the same time, a really nice guy open to new ideas. He teaches in the Comparative History of Ideas program (http://depts.washington.edu/chid/).

He would certainly be a good person to contact for information on a Ph.D. program (tell him I sent you ).

Marc
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Old 12-11-2006   #3
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If you want to see a good example of the technology totem idea, I'd recommend looking at the Air Force in particular. Their entire history has been centered around a number of technology totems.
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Old 12-12-2006   #4
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My senior thesis as an undergrad covered this exact subject, in the Air Force context, and how the development of the B-2 was an example. I didn't make a connection to totemism though.

I'll be interested in how this comes out for you 120mm.
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Old 12-12-2006   #5
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I copied these from the RFI forum because I think this is a topic that's well worth discussing in the history and education forum. My main personal interest here is the Air Force because of its obvious ties to technology as a totem and its consequent impact on its ability to function in a small wars environment, but there are other examples as well.

Marc's post sets some of the theoretical background for us, but I'd propose some additional ideas for discussion:

1) How do the totems of each specific service help or hinder their Small Wars practice?

2) How can we identify these totems?

3) When a totem has a negative influence here, what are some ways to work around that influence?

These are just some starting points for discussion. I find this area quite interesting.
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Old 12-12-2006   #6
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Default Answering my own questions...

Within the framework of the Air Force, I think their reliance on the technology totem (to the point of cutting people to retain programs...so long as they're "high tech") really cripples them when it comes to Small Wars practice. The AF has always been tied at a very basic level to technology (the airplane, the doctrine of strategic bombing that became their bedrock idea for many years), and this reliance is especially hard to break in their case. It is furthered by the cult of the bomber and high-speed fighter to (in some cases) the exclusion of all else.

The application of bombers and fighters to small wars is limited, although precision close air support is always welcome. What is really needed is a robust capability for airlift, both of personnel and supplies. With its totem bombers and fighters, the AF is weak in transport and has been for the majority of its existence. This limits their ability to participate in the full spectrum of small wars operations. Instead of working to correct this, the AF simply denies the viability of small wars or insists that a fleet of B-2s is more useful for stopping insurgents in the Horn of Africa than C-17s would be for providing logistical lift into those areas.

By supporting its totems through denial, the AF also shortchanges the ability of its people to make a difference in Small Wars. It also hurts their ability to provide good advisors, since true believers in the twin totems would not necessarily be prepared to view each small war as unique and provide the necessary unique advice. Instead they might try to "mirror image" the AF.

And that's my rather half-baked thought for Tuesday....
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Old 12-12-2006   #7
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Default Good Points All

Concise not half-baked, Steve

I have a friend now a senior officer in the Air Force SOF and he would echo what you said. As a user on the ground, airlift not bombs was what I needed most and in the case of Goma got--but it was a tremendous effort and one that stressed airlift assets both military and contract.

In the realm of CAS, the saga of the A-10 speaks volumes in that it is still here. As a 1stLT in the Officer Advanced Course in 1980 I visited Davis Monthan with my class and we talked to the 'Hog squadron there. Plans to phase out the A-10 were already on the table. 26 years later the A-10 is getting a new comms suite.

But we are not alone in this arena. French airlift in the Congo/Zaire could not meet the demands of lifting a 2500 man force and sustaining it; the answer was contract former Soviet airlift, complete with poor maintenance and near suicidal semi-drunk crews. The sight of an AN124 nearly groundlooping at Goma after losing 2 engines was only surpassed by watching the inebriated crew stagger into the airport bar while French ground crew helped the crew chief replace/repair blown tires from the heavy landing. And in running this composite airlift, the French drained much of Africa's airports of fuel because they lacked a refueling capacity to sustain it.

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Old 12-13-2006   #8
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"Totemism" interesting... New one on me...

For PhD in Technology there are only a few places on the planet that aren't in the business school or located in computers or something....

Purdue has a new PhD Technology program if that is what you're interested in.
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Old 12-13-2006   #9
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Right now I am intensely studying Russian tank developments post-Desert Storm.

They have found ways to make armor more and more impenetrable, but still, their tanks are not designed to fight on the modern battlefield. They still lack the ability to depress the main gun, which confines their fighting to exposed positions. The tank is just too compact to allow for the amount of electronic gear required to compete. The autoloader is still inferior to a human loader, but they are convinced they can make it work.

And countries like India are buying their stuff hand over fist.

Israel's armor forces reached "totem" status quite awhile ago, and it appears that they may be rethinking that, post Lebanon 2006.

I first had the kernel of an idea when studying Romania's military last year. They have a very pragmatic military technical development history, mainly because they are poor and cannot afford much more than pragmatism. They have done a very good job of using other nations' cast offs and improving them in order to get a battlefield-worthy weapon system.

Oddly enough, almost universally, the Romanians I meet are incredibly negative on their military's ability to cope with military threats. They see their MBT, the TR85M1 as crap, and desire to have newer, shinier toys, like the Leo II and M1A2. Despite no real demonstrated need for either one in any imaginable defense scenario.
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Old 12-14-2006   #10
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I woke up last night, thinking about this topic. As far as Small Wars are concerned, the "rebel" leaders, since the mid-60s or so, have taken to using the Avtomat Kalashnikov as a "totem". And since the 80s, the Krinkov variation has supplanted the venerable "AK" as the "totem of choice".

The symbolism is quite important. Especially with the Krinkov, as they represented a "captured" weapon, used only by the "elite" soldiers. It lent the person posing with it a derivative manhood. The AK also symbolizes the Mao-style of warfare to a certain degree.

The video that went around with al Zarqawi struggling to make the M249 SAW work was actually very good IO. His inability to figure out how to make a relatively simple captured weapon work did much to peel away his persona, and since that time, the image that Zarqawi was actually just a wannabe who was never very important in the movement has gained serious traction.

Various form of SOF/SF "kit" have also gained totem status. Children and even adults around the world have taken to purchasing chest rigs, "para" helmets and knee pads, along with legally owned firearms as well as airsoft guns in order to run around in the woods and in abandoned houses, pretending to be various incarnations of the SOF/SF culture in their spare time.

Incidences of posing as genuine "operators" has reached epidemic proportions, even among bona fide members of the US military.

Among the actual "operators", the term "gear queer" is gaining common usage. SOF/SF soldiers are adopting and discarding various arrangements of gear based on looks and fashion/groupthink as much as on utility and practicality.

The ubiquitous M16/CAR15/M4 has morphed beyond recognition, with various mounting systems being filled with a myriad of sights, grips, lights, lasers and stock options. To be sure, a lot of these options increase capability, but many of the capabilities do not match practical reality and all that stuff adds weight and makes the weapon rather cumbersome.

Some tactical methods are highly totemic. The "Airborne" mania sucks up a lot of resources with very little to show in results. My colleagues and I snicker about the 173d Airborne Brigade's "Combat Jump Behind Friendly Lines" in 2003 quite often.

One could go on and on.

Thoughts?
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Old 12-14-2006   #11
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The Italian Red Brigades back in the 1970s and 1980s took on the P-38 (if memory serves) as their totem of sorts, and the IRA was well-known for preferring Armalites (AR-15s and M-16s) during the same time frame.

When totems become most dangerous is when they take on a life of their own (like the AF's addition to high tech or the navy's battleship fixation in the 1920s, although to the navy's credit they shook their totem fetish in - for an institution - pretty quick order) and start interfering with clear thinking and operational practices. Your comments on the "airborne" mantra are a good example of this, 120mm. The 173rd was used in the same way in the early stages of Vietnam, pulling off a "combat drop" of questionable value during the early stages of Operation Junction City in 1966. There was also a push in the same time frame to have an entire brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) airborne-qualified. This died under the pressures of combat and keeping the 82nd jump-ready.

Totems can be useful things (and I would call the USMC "globe and anchor" a totem in this sense), but one needs to be careful just the same.

As an aside, it's been my opinion that one of the reasons (aside from its roots) that the AF has become such a technology totem service is the way it constantly casts aside unit lineages. While preserving unit heritage is an obsession with the Marine Corps (and to a lesser degree the Army - I say this because of the wanton reflagging that goes on from time to time), the AF spins up and decommissions squadrons and entire Air Forces with amazing regularity. Many of the units that gained fame during World War 2 or Vietnam can no longer be found, or if they are it's through some convoluted "heritage" system that really provides no real connection to the historical unit.
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Old 12-14-2006   #12
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Default Strategic Speed as a Totem

In the current mantra/dogma concerning transformational theory, strategic speed is a central totem; the theory that lighter, "higher capacity" forces must be able to get anywhere in a nano-second.

I say this is a "totem" because it is hardly transformational; the idea of strategic mobility has been central to military strategy for centuries. What has changed are our reference points on what constitutes speed.

But in the current mantra, transformational "speed" is very much a bandaid for intellectual sluggishness. The idea that we have to get anywhere fast to confront various crises begs the question about anticipating such crises in the first place. Moreover the assumption that speed is the answer assumes that the same sluggish decisionmaking apparatus will make the correct decision on using such highly deployable forces in the first place. Desert Shield to me remains an excellent example of where adequate strategic mobility delivered the proper forces into theater at a rate consonant with decisionmaking capacities. And for those who still point to the "long build up" for Desert Storm, I merely point to the fact that those same forces were largely home inside 18 months.

There are other historical examples: the debate between the US and the Brits over invading France rapidly versus pursing Churchill's pet theory about a "soft under belly" of fortified Europe is one. Another would be the force mixtures and decisionmaking that sent ultra-light forces into Somalia and then refused to reinforce them when a need for heavier forces was apparent.

And yes the theory and practice of airborne warfare remains a central front in the struggle to define strategic, operational, and tactical speed. It applies not only to those who use parachutes; it applies equally to vertical envelopment with rotary, fixed, or soon to be in use tilt wing aircraft.

The central reality in the debate over speed is often overlooked: getting there quickly or even just getting there are less important than deciding what you are going to do there in the first place.

Best

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Old 12-14-2006   #13
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120MM and Steve Blair,talk about a mantra have you ever heard Ridgeway-Taylor-Gavin being referred to as the "The Airborne Mafia." However I would disagree about the Air Cav. I think the Airborne portion died mostly because they were in Nam and it was hard to maintain an Airborne Brigade and fight the war at the same time.

Tom Odom,very much agree on your concept of what the Airborne should be and was meant to be. "Move like lighting, strike like Thunder"
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Old 12-14-2006   #14
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Default hilarious

Quote:
"Among the actual "operators", the term "gear queer" is gaining common usage. SOF/SF soldiers are adopting and discarding various arrangements of gear based on looks and fashion/groupthink as much as on utility and practicality."
I have to ask. Has this trend reached the point where there are catalogs/advertising dedicated to -err -"fashion" for military professionals?
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Old 12-14-2006   #15
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Actually if you look at Stanton's work on the 1st Cav, the need to keep the 82nd on full jump status, along with elements of the 101st and the 173rd had more to do with the 1st Air Cav losing its airborne brigade than anything else. There just weren't enough paratroopers in the pipeline. The 173rd's casualties alone drained troopers that would have gone to the 1st Cav's brigade. They had enough trouble getting enough jump-qualified people just to deploy to Vietnam.

And Tom, I agree about the whole theory of vertical envelopment. It has a certain mantra all its own. Gavin in particular argued that it was just a continuation of the old cavalry doctrine, which in the European military tradition (at least for light cavalry) focused on speed.
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Old 12-14-2006   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by zenpundit View Post
I have to ask. Has this trend reached the point where there are catalogs/advertising dedicated to -err -"fashion" for military professionals?
Oh, I think so. The US Cavalry catalog in particular has been going in this direction for some time.
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Old 12-14-2006   #17
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Default Totems and lineages

Hi Steve,

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As an aside, it's been my opinion that one of the reasons (aside from its roots) that the AF has become such a technology totem service is the way it constantly casts aside unit lineages. While preserving unit heritage is an obsession with the Marine Corps (and to a lesser degree the Army - I say this because of the wanton reflagging that goes on from time to time), the AF spins up and decommissions squadrons and entire Air Forces with amazing regularity. Many of the units that gained fame during World War 2 or Vietnam can no longer be found, or if they are it's through some convoluted "heritage" system that really provides no real connection to the historical unit.
To my mind, I honestly don't think that's an aside . Totemism appears to have originally been tied directly into kin group lineages as a system of both genetic control and a way of parcelling out the rights to access resources (which were controlled by kin groups, aka lineages).

So, let's look at the Regimental system or "unit heritage" if you will. What does it actually do? Well, for one thing, it places people into an historical timeline that stretches back to well before they were born and will exist after they die. In very important ways, it also allows members of that unit to "commune with" the spirits of the dead and the yet to be born. Okay, that probably sounds nuts, but think about how the traditions of a military unit with a continuous heritage take on certain idiosyncratic reactions. Think about how many people become attached to those traditions and feel an "empathy" (the techincal term is communitas) with those who have gone before them and with past unit actions. It's really a process of intense emotional attachment to the stories and values of that unit.

As an aside, the stories of the unit, it's heroes and villains, are passed down to new members entering the unit. Those stories are the collective "wisdom" or "knowledge" that have been collected and stored by that unit (technically, it's the "tribal gnosis" refering to "experiential knowledge). Sometimes, these stories are marked with specific sigils - medals, sashes, etc., etc. Sometimes they are marked by particular unit-specific events.

Commenting on the AF's lack of unit lineage: I'm more than a touch worried about that, since it doesn't give them any historical depth or sense of continuity. It's very "Protestant", in the extreme, early Calvinist sense - there is nothing between you and "God" (technology). This is unlike regimental traditions, where the regiment is more "Catholic" - it stands between you and "God".

I'm starting to use theological analogies because one of the most important observations, and it was pretty confusing early on to Anthropologists, was the idea that totemsm was a "religion". In actuality, it both is and isn't. depending on how you define religion. Personally, I use a definition developed by Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Culture, 1973, Basic Books, New York). For Geertz, religion is
(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
One of the reasons I like this definition is that it is actually very practical, at least to someone who analyzes "religions". Which brings me to a comment you made earlier, Steve.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Blair View Post
Totems can be useful things (and I would call the USMC "globe and anchor" a totem in this sense), but one needs to be careful just the same.
Yupper . Technically, the Globe and Anchor is a sigil - it stands for the totem, which is the "spirit" of the USMC. Actually, the German term volksgeist would probably be better than "spirit". Anyway, think of it as a sigil that has the power to evoke a sense of, hmmm, "Godhood" maybe? The sense that there is a sacred "being" that is the focal point of all those, living and dead, who have served in the Corps. Sorry, guys, this is hard to explain without being able to use vocal tonality <wry grin>. Maybe I'll just leave it by saying that this "spirit" is the living, emotional link to that which is greater than any individual.

BTW, if anyone wants historical examples, think of the Eagles of the Roman Legions or the Patron Saints of the medieval Guilds.

Marc
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Old 12-14-2006   #18
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Quote:
So, let's look at the Regimental system or "unit heritage" if you will. What does it actually do? Well, for one thing, it places people into an historical timeline that stretches back to well before they were born and will exist after they die. In very important ways, it also allows members of that unit to "commune with" the spirits of the dead and the yet to be born. Okay, that probably sounds nuts, but think about how the traditions of a military unit with a continuous heritage take on certain idiosyncratic reactions. Think about how many people become attached to those traditions and feel an "empathy" (the techincal term is communitas) with those who have gone before them and with past unit actions. It's really a process of intense emotional attachment to the stories and values of that unit.
Spot on here...I've long hoped for a Regimental system in the Marine Corps, to some degree.
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Old 12-14-2006   #19
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Default Regimental systems...

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Spot on here...I've long hoped for a Regimental system in the Marine Corps, to some degree.
"There's no place like home....."

That's really what a regimental system does. On the downside, they can easily be hidebound and resistant to change. Still, in the balance, I think they are more than worth it.

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Old 12-14-2006   #20
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Regimental systems are very solid mechanisms for preserving unit heritage, history, and traditions that might otherwise disappear into the mix of "corporate values" or whatever passes for same within an organization. I've seen the strength of them with some Army cavalry regiments, and the dysfunction that comes from a total lack of same with the Air Force. You can't manufacture the "sense of being" that comes from a good regimental-type system.

Jcustis, I think the Marines have this to a limited extent within some units (notably the components of the First Marine Division, though there is always that overarching "Marine" sense that can eclipse individual unit ties. The Navy tries (with some success) to duplicate this with ship ties and the continuation of squadron and carrier wing histories and traditions.

And Marc, I would agree that division and regimental crests are really no different than the old Imperial Eagles (both Roman and Napoleonic). While the flag may not be flown to the same degree (and often is not), the sense of unit pride that can spring up in a division patch, red and white markings on a vehicle, or the globe and anchor, are direct relatives of that old eagle. This is something that leaders ignore or trivialize at their own peril.
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