Sunday, 16 September 2012

Can The Torture of Terrorist Subjects Really Be Justified? -- By Guest Blogger Harry Mill

Guest Blogger Harry Mill explores the question of justifiable torture.

This work seeks to answer the question whether the torture of terrorist subjects can really be justified. It is clear that a number of persuasive arguments present themselves on either side of the debate; however it is the belief of this work that to an extent, the torture of terrorist subjects can be justified but only morally, never legally. In dealing with this question of morality, the work will focus on the deontological argument versus the consequentialist, also known as the utilitarian argument, supporting aspects of the consequentialist argument. This work will seek to analyse the question through three defined areas; the legality of torture, the morality of torture and the results of torture. Finally this work will conclude its evaluation regarding the justification of the torture of terrorist subjects.

The debate regarding the justification of torture is not new, however it has been thrust forward into public consciousness in the last decade due to the ongoing War on Terror, the campaign waged by the United States and its international allies against terrorist groups and non state actors that support terrorist activities and seek to cause harm to those opposed to their cause. It is worth noting that for this essay, it is the role of the US and not its allies that will be analysed, with the actions of post 9/11 America and in particular the actions carried out at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. The War on Terror has been a conflict of selective interest, with key figures amongst the American administration at the centre of this debate on whether the torture of terrorist subjects can really be justified. Dick Cheney left no allusion to this; ‘it’s going to be vital ... to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective [and to] work through...the dark side’ (Evangelista, 2009, p. 59).

In analysing whether the torture of terrorist subjects really can be justified, it is necessary to first define some key terms. For the purpose of this work, ‘torture’ will be defined as ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted upon a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person  has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (United Nations, 1984). This is the definition that is used in the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture. For the purpose of this work, morality will be seen as the principles concerning the distinction between good and bad as well as right and wrong. Finally, when referring to results, it will be taken that this refers to the outcomes and responses taken against actions that have results. With these having been established, it is now necessary to move onto the first part of the argument that supports the statement of this work, that the torture of terrorist subjects can to a certain extent be morally justified but not legally.

The Legality of Torture

Torture in all its forms is illegal. As Duffy clearly states ‘Torture, properly understood, is prohibited absolutely, and states are obliged, inter alia, to prosecute those responsible’ (Duffy, 2005, p. 354). Both domestically and internationally there is no grey area in which torture, whether by state or individual has any legal place. The UN Convention Against Torture bluntly states this (United Nations, 1985). Since the beginning of the War on Terror, in the days governed by fear and dominated by the need to response in any way to the catastrophic attacks, the Bush Administration has welcomed and acted upon a serious of memorandums and sets of legal advice from the Office of Legal Council (OLC) that have flown in the face of this absolute ban on torture, by seeking to circumvent legality by narrowing the definitions of torture.
 The infamous ‘Torture Memo’ (Goldsmith, 2007) put forward by John Yoo of the OLC in 2002 in particular sought to redefine torture. It stated that ‘the threshold for torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions or even death” (Ignatieff, 2006). Indeed anything below this was considered only coercive interrogation although by law this should have been considered torture, rather than the warped idea of ‘torture lite’ (Ignatieff, 2006). Jack Goldsmith, then Assistant Attorney General at the OLC commented that this memo gave those torturing individuals at Guantanamo Bay the idea that ‘violent acts aren’t necessarily torture; if you do torture, you probably have a defense; and if you don’t have a defense, the torture law doesn’t apply to you if you act under colour of presidential authority’ (Goldsmith, 2007). It was crucial that this abuse of the law, from the top down, in trying to justify the torture of terrorist subjects be framed in a certain way to give comfort to those breaking this moral and legal code. Phillipe Sands reminds us however that regardless of your position, Prime Minister or President, no one is above the law (Sands, 2005) no matter the mitigating circumstances. The efforts by the Department of Defense in a 2003 memo stated that President Bush was not bound by any international treaties or federal laws that prohibited torture, and that it was not prevented by constitutional law (Harris, 2004), are indicative of this attempt by the US to oppose this.

This abuse of the law by executive members of the Bush Administration, carried on by members of the Obama administration indicates the level of contempt the US holds for the international community. Indeed the US used Saddam Hussein’s use of torture as part of its reason to invade Iraq in 2003, exclaiming its duty to protect the human rights of others, while it sanctioned illegal torture itself (Sands, 2008). The attempt to use the War on Terror as some kind of special circumstance, and the efforts by Jay Bybee and John Yoo of the OLC in carefully wording certain memo’s are key to this understanding. The abuses of detainees, at Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib flys in the face of military law, even though there remain those in the US military who carry out such actions. FM 34-52 provides strict parameters through which interrogations can be conducted. The 2002 memo, signed by Secretary for Defense Rumsfled, suddenly granted new levels of interrogation such as the infamous Waterboarding techniques and physical beatings. 
Heather MacDonald offers up a ‘bottom-up’ assessment of crucial and sadistic torture at Abu Ghraib. She claims that it was the inadequacy and frustration of the military prison guards that led to the torture and humiliation of detainees rather than the more widely accepted ‘top-down’ approach of supporting torture through dubious and narrowly defined legal statements from the OLC (Evangelista, 2009).  It has since become apparent that whilst MacDonald’s claim of frustration contributed to the scale of abuse, it is clear that a policy of institutionalised torture was creeping through the US military and intelligence services, at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib. The extent of the involvement of senior executive members of the White House, such as Rumsfeld, was seen through the previously mentioned ‘torture memo’ (Evangelista, 2009). Evidence of this is not only damning but worrying, in the obvious belief by Bush and Rumsefld that the torture of terrorist subjects was not only justified morally, but also legally. As Alfred W. McCoy comments, ‘when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld interjected that there were legal restraints on such action [torture], the President shouted back, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass’ (McCoy, 2006, p. 113). Another clear example was the torture of Abu Zubayah, a detained Al Qaeda member who was believed to have actionable intelligence regarding further attacks against the US. It is worth nothing however that the best information that was extracted from Zubayah came not from the CIA – the main propagators of torture. The FBI, which arguably remained opposed to the policies of torture alongside most of the military, extracted the intelligence through standard FBI interrogation, using tried and tested interrogation techniques as opposed to torture, or coercive interrogation as some might legally try to argue. This is a theme that will be addressed further later on with regards to the results of torture. It is worth nothing that ‘with the military and the FBI, much opposition [to the practices of torture] was based on moral revulsion and reluctance to break the law’ (Evangelista, 2009, p. 81).

Many have questioned the decisions made by the US administrations in detaining and torturing individuals at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib in Cuba and Iraq respectively. The reason for doing so is clear; it removes the individual from US territory and therefore removes the law and rights which apply to those on US soil (Steyn, 2004). The extraordinary rendition and the thinking behind the decision indicates the lengths that the US will go to in trying to avoid international law, and the effort it has put into breaking international law. While torture is one thing, the positioning of individuals in areas where torture has a better chance of avoiding prosecution indicates the level of responsibility(Raustiala, 2009), and once again indicates the top down approach to torture that is central to the US War on Terror.
There remains a key question that these adapted aspects of US law have tried to address; at what point does interrogation stop and torture begins? By wording the 2002 torture memo and the 2003 memo giving powers to use increased methods of ‘coercive interrogation’ (Ignatieff, 2006) specifically, it is clear that the US sees the idea of coercive interrogation (torture to the rest of the world) as legally acceptable. It is of course, still in complete violation of the UN Convention against Torture, and in most cases the Geneva Convention (Roberts, 2007). Britain and Israel were charged with degrading and inhuman treatment of detainees but not of torture indicating that there is a practical difference between the two. Thus there must be a moral acceptance of coercive interrogation that does not cross any legal or moral boundary. It is the fact that torture is so narrowly defined by the US in its delineation of the end of coercive interrogation and the start of torture that is its undoing. It offers such an expansive array of actions in coercive torture that other nations can only see it as torture. Had it perhaps, added further legal safeguards, more than just the agreement of the Secretarty of Defense then there is a remote possibility that the broader definitions of torture, and the narrower definitions of coercive interrogation may have resulted in both a moral and legal acceptance on the international stage. This remains a remote idea. Further issues arise, as Tom Parker states, in that interrogators cannot be trusted to heed the distinction between coercive interrogation and torture (Anonymous, 2010). So far, this work has seen evidence that the torture of terrorist subjects is illegal regardless of the moves made by the Bush Administration with the basis of this answer having been legally addressed. It is now necessary to move onto the morality of torture in continuing the evaluation and support of the statement of this work, that the torture of terrorist subjects can be morally justified to a certain extent, but never legally justified.

The Morality of Torture

The morality of torture is much debated and rightly so. As this work has already accepted in accordance with international law, torture is illegal. There remains a difference between legality and morality, and it is this which is key in assessing whether the torture of terrorist subjects really can be justified. When asked initially, whether torture is right or wrong, the majority of people would say it is wrong, indeed it is for many ‘the deepest and most fundamental liberal taboo’ (Ramsay, 2006, p. 103). But when represented with the most common of arguments, the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ the majority would suddenly accept that, in a specific situation, torture may be morally acceptable. Some have descried this situational ethic as morality by numbers; pain for one, but safety for the majority.

Three main camps lie in this moral discussion between the deontological and consequentialist arguments. First there is the absolutist, or deontological, position – that under no circumstances can torture ever be committed, and it is both legally and morally wrong, in all aspects. A supporter of this camp is Dr. Mary Strauss (Galipeau, 2005). Her argument is founded on four key understandings; ‘the inefficacy of torture, alternative investigative techniques, the negative impact of torture use on society, and the likelihood of increased resort to torture’ (Galipeau, 2005, p. 5). Another keen supporter of this is Maureen Ramsay, who comments that ‘this absolute ban reflects the Kantian idea that there are acts which are wrong in themselves regardless of any good consequences’ (Ramsay, 2011, p. 627). For many, this seems morally untenable, as it offers no exceptional circumstances under which torture may be conducted, such as the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. It also seems less realistic and more of a liberal ideal. There is no doubting that torture, although illegal exists in the world. While rather blunt, there is the argument that as several nations use it, it must be effective on some occasions, if not effective on all, however morally dubious it is.
Secondly, introducing the consequentialist arguments, there is the concept of ‘Torture Warrants’ as put forward by Alan Derschowitz (Dershowitz, 2002).  Dershowitz advocates the idea that while torture remains illegal and morally questionable, there is a greater moral duty to those who might be saved through information gained under torture. In making this acceptable, and in pursuit of minimising the amount of torture used, he suggests that ‘Torture Warrants’ may be obtained by legal consent in extreme circumstances. These are supposed to bring a certain level of not only justification to torture, but to also add a level of transparency and accountability to these proceedings. He claims that ‘it is better to control and regulate torture with accountability, record keeping, standards and limits, than to denounce torture but to tolerate extra-legal actions’ (Ramsay, 2006, p.108) Judge Richard Posner is a supporter of this idea, citing the idea of a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square as the scenario when it is almost an individual’s responsibility to torture someone if there is the hope of stopping the device (Anonymous, 2010). All that happens however is that the decision to cross the moral and legal boundaries is taken out of the hands of the torturer and placed in the hands of a judge, which morally distances the torturer from the act. The concept of a priori approval is worrying as it creates a climate of moral acceptance in the case of torture (Ramsay, 2006). This is the start of a slide towards institutionalised and politically and legally ratified torture, and as David Cole states, the torture of the few leads to the torture of the many and in doing this, ‘you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general’ (McCoy, 2006, p.195).

Finally, there is the concept of Walzer’s ‘Dirty Hands’ (Walzer, 1973). Based on Machiavellian ethics, it is the idea that the lesser moral evil can be put aside to combat a greater moral evil (De Wijze, 2006). Key to this concept is that at no point is torture legalised or sanctioned in any way. It is up to an individual, Walzer’s Tragic Hero, to take it upon them to go above and beyond the call of moral duty. Oren Gross, a key supporter of this concept refers to this as pragmatic absolutism and official disobedience (Galipeau, 2005). Gross argues, a view supported by this work, that unlike Dershowitz’s concept of a conditional ban, there must be absolute ban on torture legally, and it is the only correct moral and legal course (Galipeau, 2005). He supports the idea that in some cases the final resort may be defensible, the concept of pragmatic absolutism, and this as a result of this government officials may find it necessary to break the law, the concept of official disobedience (Galipeau, 2005). This is done so in the knowledge that this is unlawful, but in the hope that a level of acceptance may follow, and the Tragic Hero may find some reprieve. This concept recognises the illegality of torture, recognises the moral dilemma of torture, and indeed supports the view that torture is morally wrong, yet it also keeps open a loophole of moral values that there may be a greater moral evil than torture – the mass murder of innocents. By relying on ex post justification, there is no passing of the moral responsibility onto a legal figure such as a judge – it remains on the conscience of the individual who conducted the official disobedience and became Walzer’s Tragic Hero with ‘dirty hands’. Gross states that ‘the public official is required to balance the absolute ban on torture against the perceived need to take extralegal action in order to prevent the catastrophic event (Galipeau, 2005, p.11).
Ramsay, in the discussion of Walzer, argues that while the ends may justify the means in that it has achieved some good, in this case a level of information that prevents a future deadly terrorist attack, it is still morally wrong (Ramsay, 2006). Ramsay then goes on to discuss Walzer’s Machiavellian and Weberian types of individual, noting that the colder Machiavellian ‘simply throws away morality for the good results that will be achieved’ (Ramsey, 2006, p.111), whereas the Weberian political actor is ‘a tragic hero, who is horribly aware that he is doing bad in order to achieve good and that in doing so he surrenders his soul’ (Ramsay, 2006, p.111). It is this moral calculation, deciding whether one accepts the moral consequences or ignore them, that separates the two and is critical in understanding whether there is any justification in the torture of terrorist subjects. It seems that once you have passed a boundary, whether it is legal or moral, there is no turning back,. It falls to an individual to provide the ends, which justify the means, and then it is up to this individual, Walzer’s Tragic Hero (Ramsay, 2006) to shoulder the moral weight of their own actions. There is a real risk that in turning from legal limits and relying on moral ones, that torture may become institutionalised. The reliance upon one political actor to cross the line and to act illegally, immorally but for a greater good is an excellent way for an institution to use torture but wash its hands of the act itself; to remain in support of torture as an illegal activity, but to turn a blind eye in bringing those amongst its ranks to justice in perpetrating the actual act of torturing someone (Ramsay, 2006).

While there is general acceptance that torture is morally repugnant, it is also clear that moral choices involving the lives of others, innocents, are able to balance out the morality of the torturers actions. As this work has previously stated, there is no legal justification for the torture of terrorist subjects. There is however an excellent case as presented by Walzer for the moral acceptance of torture as justification of terrorist subjects, if it prevents greater evil. The arguments denouncement of torture, support of its illegality, and notion of official disobedience is what separates it from the other consequentialist argument put forward by Dershowitz and which debunks the out dated moral absolutism put forward by Strauss and Ramsay.  It is this argument that provides the basis of the answer and the weight behind the statement of this work, that the torture of terrorist subject can be to an extent morally justified, but never legally. This work must now look at the final aspect of deciding whether the torture of terrorist subjects can really be justified; the results that torture, or the lack of, presents.

The Results of Torture
Having previously looked at both the legality and morality that surrounds the debate regarding torture, and in particular whether the torture of terrorist subject can really be justified, it is now necessary to look at the results of torture. Rather than providing the US with a wealth of actionable intelligence, there have been little clear gains or major plots averted thanks to the use of illegal torture, and the sacrifice of moral values (Anonymous, 2010). Other than this however, there are other negative results of torture. There are two main areas of this within the confines of torture results; the intelligence gained through torture and its use, and the international and strategic consequence of torture that the US then has to cope with.
Investigating the intelligence procured under torture, there are a number of worrying results that indicate that there is little justification in torturing terrorist subjects. It is this lack of information obtained and the criticism of many regarding the use of torture that signals most of all the unnecessary use of torture. FM 34-52, the US Army’s interrogation manual is blunt in its evaluation of torture or coercive interrogation; ‘the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear’ (Sands, 2005, p.209).
There is evidence which strongly supports the belief that torture brings about little in the way of actionable intelligence and material and which therefore undermines the argument that there is a justification in torturing terrorist subjects. A former high level CIA operator stated that ‘ninety percent of the information was unreliable’ (Evangelista, 2009, p. 83) when asked about the information extracted under torture. US journalist Ron Susskind reported that ‘the best information that came out of the captive may have resulted from nonviolent methods of interrogation’ (Evangelista, 2009, p. 85) a position that was supported by a 325 page report by the US Intelligence Science Board in 2006 (Evangelista, 2009). This is also supported by the findings of the US military with regard to the information gathered from detainees. Chris Miller, whose operated during the initial days of Operation Enduring Freedom stated that ‘one of our biggest successes in Afghanistan…came when a valuable prisoner decided to cooperate not because he had been abused…but precisely because he realized he would not be tortured’ (Galipeau, 2005, p. 5). 

Worryingly, it is not certain that each time the US tortures someone they are torturing a terrorist. This level of uncertainty should not be left to one side. Instead it should be a critical factor in the evaluation of torture as unjust. The torture of an innocent individual who happens to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, by a state that is hell bend on seeing results and extracting a level of revenge on its enemies  is a huge miscarriage of justice. General Richard B. Myers, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated with regard to the initial detainees that were sent to Guantanamo Bay, that ‘these are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines at the back of a C-17 (aircraft) to bring it down’ (Chatterjee, 2011), however it has been proved that this is not always the case. Indeed Chatterjee goes on to state that ‘almost one in five’ (Chatterjee, 2011) at Guantanamo Bay had no connection to terrorism.

This ever present fear of mistaken identity, that an innocent man may be tortured simply as he has the same name as a target should be more central to policy decisions. the decision to pay for supposed members of the Taliban and al Qaeda led to many local men being old to the US for cash (Ramsay, 2006). Likewise there is the issue that evidence obtained under duress, such as torture, is not permissible in Civilian Courts. This has led to a worrying rise in the US of using Military Tribunals to try and commit detainees.
Secondly, is it necessary to take into account how far reaching the acts of torture have upon the US. By committing morally repugnant acts such as torture, regardless of the situation, it is almost guaranteed that the US will polarise its support, domestically and internationally. For each nation that supports the actions, another will oppose them. This weakens the international standing of the US, undermining alliances, partnerships and willingness to aid the US. It is also seen as a rally call to those who would combat the US such as foreign fighters supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan – it aids the propaganda machine of those it wishes to fight in the War on Terror (Roberts, 2007). As Ramsay states, revelations of torture and systematic ill-treatment of prisoners have intensified the crisis in American relations with the Muslim world and acted as a rallying cry to a new generation of terrorist (Ramsay, 2006, p.113). It also goes a way to strengthen the resolve of the extremists. While initially, it may seem that through torture, the US can gain the upper hand, in the long run it may ultimately be its undoing (Ramsay, 2006). Domestic support for the Bush Administration plummeted, and support for the Obama Administration has taken a hit regarding the continued illegal torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. Ultimately, with failing support, and the growing resolve of extremists against the acts perpetrated by the US, there is a risk that consequentially, these prove to be counterproductive acts.
Put bluntly, there is little that favours torture as a campaign winning pro-security move. It benefits the opposition too much, radicalising nations and groups arrayed against the US (Anonymous, 2010), risks repayment in kind against US forces and civilians, has proved ineffective against the resolve of extremists, and has tainted or provided falsehoods in any information extracted (Anonymous, 2010). Time and again, traditional interrogation, and ultimately empty threats of torture, have, as previously shown, given the US the information it needs without crossing any legal or moral boundary.

There is no doubting that the War on Terror is different to any previous conflict. This however does not ultimately pardon the US Administration which have perpetrated illegal torture and detainment of individuals, guilty or not. This work has stated throughout, in response to the question of whether the torture of terrorist subjects can be justified, that while the torture of terrorist subjects can be morally justified to an extent, there is no legal justification. This work has used evaluations of legal, moral and resulting arguments in order to provide a basis for this answer. Evaluation of the results and resulting actions that have affected the US also support the argument against justification of torture. Indeed, this work does not support the torture of terrorist subjects, but it must be made clear that a position of moral absolutism is not the way forward. It is necessary in this contemporary climate to be prepared to commit official disobedience (Galipeau, 2005), to carry out the unpalatable acts of torture in order to support a greater moral standing and duty to the cause. There may be no long term gains, and as always, torture remains illegal, but there must be an acceptance that rarely, an individual must perform the unacceptable, in order to support the greater good.

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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Lessons Learned? - Introduction

On viewing the brilliant BBC documentary; Afghanistan: The Great Game - A Personal View by Rory Stewart I  was compelled to think deeper about the nature of learning from previous military conflicts.

This has lead to me sharing several observations that I have investigated academically over the last 2 years, firstly an overall examination into the nature of military lessons (Lessons Learned) and secondly a more specific investigation into learning from previous counterinsurgencies in support of contemporary strategies (How Counterinsurgents Learn). Finally I offer an historical perspective and conclusion.

It is an often quoted adage that we ignore previous lessons, experiences and history at our peril. Certainly the view presented by Rory Stewart in the Afghanistan context points to this; British, Soviet Union, US and coalition forces making similar mistakes over the course of 170 years of warfare. A counter argument suggests we can draw conclusions to quickly in discovering similarities, an even more critical approach could suggest that previous failures drive military and government to attempts to overcome problems which themselves, allies and enemies have previously failed.

Does this mean that governments and military planners will continually make mistakes which historical evidence could of helped avoid, or are conflicts separate entities to be viewed as individual events separate from previous and future similarities. I hope the following essays will shed some light, both theoretically and in direct reference to contemporary events.

Monday, 20 August 2012

No One Really Learns ‘Lessons Learned’

“In every new set of engagements post-World War II – Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq – we have discovered, after the fact, things we should have known because they’d been learned previously. What this suggests is that, though the military publishes and even distributes them, no one really learns ‘lessons learned’” [Simons A: IN Mc Ivor AD [ed]: Rethinking the Principles of War, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2005, page 336]

George Santayana warns ‘Those that do not learn from the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them.’[1] This view is often held by many as a fundamental approach to history, nowhere is it perceived more applicable than with in military planning and application. Yet this ignores the largely held and debated view that the military does not take heed of ‘lessons learned.’ The idea that military lessons are ignored is the centre of wide reaching debate for and against this view, but more critically is the subject of both scholarly and militarily review as to why this occurs and to what extent  do lessons learned have in a new generation of warfare. Analysts and Historians provide deep arguments either way; William Fuller acknowledges the importance of military lessons but warns of their shelf life. Anthony Cordesman concludes that though it is useful to try ‘understanding the whole nature of modern conflict is impossible.’[2] In contrast Schandler speaks of the extent lessons from Vietnam have affected the contemporary military policies. To this extent I aim to establish what lessons learned are, to what extent they are ignored and crucially that the lessons of previous wars have changing relevance in today’s warfare. The US involvement in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq will be the main conflicts examined in the establishment of to what extent lessons are remembered, this in its self will provide insight on where lessons can be learned from.

The idea of a military lesson can roughly be summarised into several different aspects; historical lessons, operational lessons, methods and wrong methods. Historical lessons are the by product of thousands of years of warfare, some are enshrined in the works of famous military theorists such as Sun Tzu or Clausewitz whilst other historical lessons are simpler and have evolved due to mankind’s growth being interlinked with warfare. Operational lessons are the result of a certain military experience and can be seen on many levels from the functionality of equipment in the operational environment, to operational performance of units and command structure. Yet it is with methods and wrong methods that the most examined lessons learned emerge; it is here military analysts find out how every aspect from planning, execution and aftermath has affected the overall outcome. It is from these guidelines we can gain an overall sense of military lessons, it is important to view them as working in conjunction, where historical lessons and operational experience are often hidden away in military commentaries, methods employed and even more often methods that fail are at the forefront of military studies. A wrong method by its very nature is likely to cause problems and therefore be more prevalent; the failure in Vietnam will always overshadow any successful methods that were employed and completely obscure the operational efficiency of a piece of equipment. Body bags will always count for more than new tactics and that lack of tolerance for casualties is echoed in all critics and does lend a certain bias to an engrained sense of failure. Yet it is from all these aspects that lessons are learnt.

It is from these different levels that a problem of assessing the attention to lessons learned emerges; at what level do these lessons get incorporated? This can be seen in the way they are presented. As stated the army publishes and distributes them; the Joint Commands host ‘lessons learned’ databases and there are ‘516 volumes in the Naval war colleges archives that contain lesson in the title.’[3] It does not stop at just archiving lessons, a long list of distributed works are manuals which directly convey lessons learnt, to all ranks of the military forces. For example between 1963 and 1973 ‘FM 31-15 Operations Against Irregular Forces, FM 31-16 Counterguerilla Operations and PAM 550-104 Human Factors of Underground Insurgencies[4] were all being widely distributed in a time which both contemporary and modern critics have criticised for a lack of reaction to the new threats of warfare. Therefore it is crucial to consider that the working documents of the military do incorporate lessons that may simply be overlooked based on what level they are acted upon. A key rule proposed in 1967 field manual warns of ‘the dangers of separating ourselves from the people.’[5] This plays right into the argument of lessons are learnt, but then ignored, when considering the subsequent wars in which the US managed to alienate the very people they went to help. However another option must be proposed that this and other key lessons were acted upon operationally and on the ground but failed to reach into the overall incorporation required for such tactics to take hold; the adoption into overall policy and grand strategy controlled not by the soldiers operationally or the writers of military manuals but the Overall Military Commanders and Senior politicians.

Far from being just a defence of soldiers actions, the assessment on where ‘lessons learned’ are incorporated has much deeper contexts. For example in Somalia, one of the overlooked sides of the conflict was the increased political role of officers on the ground and their interactions with locals in both negotiation and hostile situations, whilst this was performed well and incorporated as part of the operational functions of field commanders, it was swiftly forgotten by senior officers and planners with the withdrawal from the country. This can be coupled with the aforementioned operational lessons in terms of incorporating lessons learned into strategy; operational experiences which lead to new methods, often only become apparent after a certain period in conflicts as accounts and different experiences are pooled together. The experiences of a unit on the ground in Baghdad being different from those faced by a unit operating in the desert based oil fields. It is to this extent therefore that to establish the full extent of how much attention is paid to these lessons their adoption must be analysed on both the ground and at the Command level. Furthermore this affects how lessons learnt are put through the military system some come from experience on the ground and filter up where others have been adopted into grand strategy and are indoctrinated into military operations from above.

It would be hard to argue that the military does not ignore previous lessons, there are too many examples to the contrary, Iraq and Afghanistan both represent examples of this, military planners ignored previous lessons on counterinsurgency such as the tactics used by Vietnamese, or the urban lessons of Somalia. The crux of the matter therefore is to how deep does this lesson learned ignorance run, Simons mentions the fact that things that had been previously learnt are ignored yet this is fundamentally tied to the way military planners want to perceive war as conventional. The last 65 years of warfare has been dominated by an unprecedented change in how wars are fought, but the Military has seemed to ignore this in its Operational functions. Where the opportunity has existed for constant updating and revision of its practises it has reverted to type in sticking to forcing conventional solutions on unconventional situations. No finer example exists than in Cordesman’s review of lessons learnt after 8 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq; insure valid reasons for war, fully understand host country and overall ‘do not commit to conventional conflict if unready for unconventional follow up.’[6] These lessons are not new and appear in some form in major reviews and histories of the Vietnam conflict. The main and most far reaching element of the ignorance toward lessons learnt is the fact unconventional warfare is not the most prominent element of military planning. Documents such as the Air force doctrine prove that the continued planning is within the frameworks of conventional warfare. Nearly every commentary from Afghanistan and Iraq continue to mention the unprepared state the army found itself in when the combat shifted from conventional to unconventional operations. If such doctrines are to be drawn from experience, the Vietnam and Somalia examples are there, but lessons can also be drawn from history, any post imperial colonial uprising provides a history of the growing reliance of irregular warfare and US backed groups such as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan brings it even closer to home. As referred to in over half the texts Clausewitz states it clearly, the ‘most important rule for the statesman is to know what kind of war on which they are embarking.’[7]

To move away from the doctrinal problems; further examples of the far reaching ignorance of lessons learned and their implications lie within the various Arms of the military. The need for a clearer doctrine based on past lessons can easily be seen in the use of air power. Vietnam showed the original limitations; its limited ability in the combat against the Vietcong, not only was air power restricted under President Johnson, even when used to full effect it was estimated ‘$6.00 was spent to do $1.00 of damage.’[8] Where adaptations have been made supremacy is still only felt in the conventional stages of Iraq and Afghanistan, it has had further reduced effect in the prolonged war against insurgency. The US Air force doctrine mentions the ‘power to control the enemy’s military, economic and political power at risk.’[9] This is completely ignoring the lessons learned and overlooks an enemy that operates outside conventional military boundaries and has little economic and political goals other than humiliation of the US. The use of Armour has also been the source of oversight in its role in unconventional warfare, the slow progress in narrow conditions during the battle of Mogadishu, the vulnerability to roadside bombs and the limitations of  urban use; ‘insurgents hidden in buildings or rubble are little more vulnerable to a 2001 M1A2 than to a 1918 Mark IV.’[10] While this view may overlook certain aspects of amours psychological effects on both enemy and friendly forces it does present two key points that have been learned but not necessarily instigated to the full. That technology cannot provide victory in unconventional war. Technology should not be overlooked, drones for example provide excellent intelligence resources, but should never be a replacement for human intelligence. Furthermore the very technology that is used to fight these wars is what has driven the enemy to use ‘unconventional warfare as the only way to challenge post industrial states.’[11] Secondly the overall importance that warfare still needs men on the ground.

The need for men on the ground however not only brings us back to the lesson of the need for a clear strategic aim but it also begins to highlight the counterargument, that lessons learned do not hold all the answers. Firstly though the reliance of men on the ground is a lesson from the very beginnings of warfare, to win you need men to put forward control; yet the experiences of the USA’s modern wars have presented a much harder concept, the nation building aspect, where frontline troops become the very symbol of not a regime of outside control but the supposed reconstruction of a political system. In every example it has failed Vietnam had too weak a government to defend, Iraq has been unleashed into religious and political violence due to the lack of a strong leader and Afghanistan is so fractured that it is considered by ‘to be no longer a nation.’[12] Once again the planners overlooked previous experiences FMFRP 12-14 from Vietnam speaks of the importance of civil skills, World War II a wealth of German and Japanese fluent officers were created to deal with occupation and interaction. the Somalia experience of frontline interactions; yet still in Afghanistan in 2004 Brigadier General Blackledge was warning of ‘a shortage of civil officer experts’[13] However it is with this, that lessons learned can be turned on their head the very fact they are not incorporated goes to highlight the lack of options that face a military power that cannot fathom the idea that their system will not work elsewhere. The very idea that a western political system will not be embraced can in fact be alien to US military planners, all commentaries continue to outline the need of increased nation building by the military but ignore the most important ideas that ‘war will not have an outcome where a desirable government, economy society and alliance will magically occur at the end of the fighting.’[14] Countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have no cultural basis for western democracy and therefore will not embrace it. Afghanistan is an even stronger example due to the resistance of another political imposition attempted by the USSR. This therefore means that if the military is going to ignore lessons in both military application on the ground, in its various planning and doctrinal elements; but most crucially in the way it feels it can justify the very wars it fights there is a large lack of a learning curve.

This is not a turn to a liberal attitude of the view of contemporary wars; though the growing media attitude surrounding deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan does provide a voice to those views. Yet ironically the way to find how the military does learn, harks back to the liberalism felt in the US during the Vietnam war; that is it learns the hard way through defeat. Vietnam was so ingrained into the American memory through veterans, films and the death toll that it went beyond enforcing lessons it took them too far. Somalia was a prime example of this the fear of an death toll combined with the loss of two of its technological symbols in black hawk helicopters forced a feeling of what Baumann calls ‘Vietmalia’[15] and the subsequent approach to warfare that involves minimum risk and maximum protection. This can be seen in the planning for the Gulf war which had the casualty estimation much higher than anticipated and relied heavily on conventional air force supremacy. Yet if this is an example of how the military learns it is also twinned with another flawed attitude to lessons that is ‘US lesson learning is only one deep,’[16] i.e. the last war. This view may go to show why the Operations went ahead in both Iraq and Afghanistan; following the overall tactical success of the first Gulf war. Yet that victory, as well as all the contemporary conventional stage victories, play in to the counter arguments of both that lessons are not ignored, or that they are not always applicable.

Victory in conventional warfare stages of contemporary conflicts do take on lessons from previous wars, the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom used General Tommy Franks knowledge and research on the First Gulf War, and Central Command managed to ‘execute an operation that took out Iraq’s military forces, removed Saddam and seized the oil infrastructure in 21 days.’[17] Yet it was the same Command that refused to recognize the insurgency problem for 11 months before openly admitting it was no longer the death throes of the old regime. Other elements of each modern war has had its tactical moments or skillful operations; In Vietnam the army never lost a battle to the North Vietnamese Army, yet these are overshadowed by the supposed lessons against the Viet Cong. Statistical based arguments favour in the ignorance of some lessons learned they count as too many variables in a already hard to predict business, predictions for victories based on statistical models are less accurate than tossing a coin’[18]Yet while the argument exists for both the ignorance of lessons learned and the counter that they are used; another option is present in that it is these very lessons which present the biggest problem to the planning and operations of the military. For a start the very idea of military lessons are argued so much there is no clear agreement within the historiography of certain areas, what may be taken as established by one is dismissed by another. Wolhstetter of the RAND cooperation warned ‘of all the disasters of Vietnam, the worst may be the lessons that we’ll draw from it.’[19] Whilst others such as Summers draw conclusions from such lessons. This is just part of the problem however as one massive effect must be taken into consideration; the fact that doctrinal planning, adoption of lessons learned and all military planning at one stage or another involves some form of history, which is therefore open to interpretation.

History remains the key aspect of doctrinal development, whilst experience is important ‘the army does not make strategy,’[20] that a role lies with politicians, and they therefore have the role in interpreting the history of conflicts in search of a strategic framework. The problem of interpretation is that it is unique to an individual’s perception. The historical context of war also has deep roots that influence the overall reliance on conventional war. Fuller points out that three styles exist in interpretation. The antique; a reliance on the unchanging nature of war. The positivist view; war as progressive, changing with industry and development. Finally the pragmatic view; war has no set precedent and is ever changing. The fact that warfare encounters the problems of ignoring lessons learned can be traced back to the reliance on set parameters of war. The Clausewitzian view of knowing what war one is facing does not take into account the war may not have any precedent at all. The idea can be developed in two ways. Firstly, a new interpretation of old wars or secondly, the idea that modern wars are unprecedented. The later idea has implications of fourth Generation warfare, an enemy unrestrained by western boundaries, it is becoming part of military thought FM 3-24 warns ‘you cannot fight an Islamic extremist the way you have fought the Viet Cong.’[21]However this view ignores that you do not have to fight them the same way but you should be aware of similarities. Far more credible is the former idea which put forward by Jonathan Gomez which does not link insurgency warfare purely to the present and suggests lessons from throughout history which have been held back by the ideas of conventional warfare embodied by chivalry and religious context. It is further suggested that the very embodiment of insurgency warfare was present in every major war and therefore lessons should not be grouped into the old frameworks such as modern and middle age warfare.

To Conclude it is important to remember warfare is a human enterprise and as such has many variables that cannot be simply be seen as clear cut as the experiences of the last war. The enemy learns lessons and adapts; as such this review has place in the larger context of the global lessons by both side in changing warfare. Lessons learned take on different styles and locations and to establish whether they are being ignored it is first important to establish at what level do certain lessons fit in, Grand Strategy or operational tactics. The idea of what extent they are being ignored again is not a straight answer as shown it requires the need to establish what kind of framework it fits into, conventional lessons are still being applied, but it is there use in conventional warfare that is blocking the experience of other lessons picked up which fit into more unconventional parameters. The last war should be as relevant as much earlier historical basis. The most important factor though is are these lessons learned relevant, yes they have relevance but must not be viewed two dimensionally, they should interact outside of traditional frameworks, and influence a wider range of military thought, one not constrained by the harsh reality of if things going wrong. If new conflicts are the exporting of democracy, lessons will need to be different and fit in far more with adaptable policy than strict operational procedures, FM 3-24 does hint this may be happening through a lesson that cannot be ignored ‘war is a game of wits and you have to adapt to survive.’[22]


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[1] William C. Fuller, ‘What is a Military Lesson?’, in Strategic Studies, A Reader, ed. by Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), pp.34-50 (p.34).
[2]Fuller, p.48.
[3]Ibid, p.36.
[4] James Kiras, ‘Irregular Warfare’ Understanding Modern Warfare ed. David Jordan and others, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008),pp. 222-266 (p.262).
[5]United States Marine Corps, FMFRP 12-41 Professional Knowledge Gained from Operational Experience in Vietnam 1967 (Washington D.C: Department of the Navy. 1989), p.438.

[6]Anthony  H. Cordesman, ‘Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build: "The Uncertain Lessons of the Afghan & Iraq Wars’, Centre for Strategic Studies and International Studies (2009) (accessed 11 January 2010) ( p.4).
[7] Fuller, p.34.
[8] Mark Clodfelter, The limits of Air Power: the American bombing of North Vietnam (London: Collier Macmillan, 1989), p.134.
[9] United States Air Force, Air Force basic doctrine (Washington D.C: U.S. Air Force, 2003), p.16.
[10] Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p.53.
[11] Kiras, p.229.
[12] Anthony  H. Cordesman, ‘The Ongoing lessons of Afghanistan: War fighting, Intelligence, Force Transformation and Nation Building’, Centre for Strategic Studies and International Studies (2004) The-Ongoing-lessons-of-Afghanistan: War fighting-Intelligence- Force-Transformation-and-Nation-Building.html (accsesd 11 January 2010) (p.29).
[13] Anthony  H. Cordesman, ‘The Ongoing lessons of Afghanistan’,p.81.
[14] Ibid, p.150.
[15] Robert Baumann and LawrenceYates, My clan against the world : US and coalition forces in Somalia, 1992-1994 (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004) (accessed 11 January 2010) (p.169).
[16] Baumann,and Yates, p.191.
[17] Kiras,p.227.
[18] Biddle,p.21.
[19] Austin Long, On ‘Other War’ Lessons From Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research (Santa Monica: RAND, 2006), p.14.
[20] Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (New York: Dell 1984), p.2.

[21] United States Marine Corps, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, (Washington D.C: Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 2006), p.1.
[22] United States Marine Corps, FM 3—24, p.1.