Thursday, April 22, 2010

What's Life Without A Little Wisk

I forget the comedian, but he had a bit using various product names, and substituting a laundry product, Wisk, for risk.  I was reminded of it while reading an article in a Slate series this week on Risk.  Today's story focuses on General Mattis, who led the Marines in the invasion of Iraq* and now leads Joint Forces Command, which is responsible for training the US services to work together.
Mattis is an evangelist for risk with two core principles. The first is that intellectual risk-taking will save the military bureaucracy from itself. Only by rewarding nonconformist innovators will the services develop solutions that match the threats conceived by an enemy that always adapts. The second is that technology cannot eliminate, and sometimes can't even reduce, risk. Mattis warns about the limitations of sophisticated weapons and communications. They can be seductive, luring military planners into forgetting war's unpredictable and risky nature, leaving troops vulnerable. 
The fundamental fact: "War will always be messy. You can hope to control it, but in the end it is unmanageable. This means always accepting extremely high levels of risk."

And this speaks to my project on how countries control their forces in distant operations.  One way to manage risk is to fear it and constrain the guys on the ground from getting into harm's way.  Making force protection THE priority is one way to go.  But it is unlikely to move the mission down the road at all.  An alternative, a risky one, is to trust the guys on the ground with significant discretion AND back it up with oversight so that those who take reasonable risks are rewarded and those who take none or too many are punished.  War is not about zero casualties--it is politics by other means. And politics means understanding how the deployment of force affects the situation on the field and back home.  For some kinds of situations, massive force is appropriate, but as this article and most others like it assert--less force is probably better in counter-insurgent situations.

It is striking that Gen. Mattis eliminated the concept of effects-based operations, which focused too much on numbers, he argues.  I learned of this philosophy/doctrine as I was doing my research--and the idea makes a great deal of sense, at least how it was expressed to me by a Canadian general: that the idea is to focus on the effects one has with a particular action--the length of time the effect lasts, the second order consequences (side effects), etc.  But apparently this basic idea, which seems far more sound and commonsensical than alternatives is apparently flawed according to Mattis:
 "...we must recognize that the term "effects-based" is fundamentally flawed, has far too many interpretations and is at odds with the very nature of war to the point it expands confusion and inflates a sense of predictability far beyond that which it can be expected to deliver." (from the wiki)
 The key is: "You need to be able to be comfortable in uncertainty."  True enough, although I still think the idea of planning and seeking to maximize desired effects and minimizing undesired side effects makes a great deal of sense to me, and is not necessarily incompatible with the idea that war can be messy.

The general clearly demonstrated that, often putting himself in harm's way.  This actually made it easier for others to buy into his doctrine of restraint.

But I do like that Mattis encourages his commanders to pay attention to the "oddballs" who question things and make people feel a bit uncomfortable.

Overall, a very interesting read. 

* The article cites the fact that as part of the invasion, this was the longest sustained march by the Marines ever.  Well, that is because Rumsfeld was seeking to make a point to the Army, using the Marines in a role they had never played before. 

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