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How Western experts got the Ukraine war so wrong

More recently, Western experts have talked back military reforms, stating that they have been less successful than previously claimed. As the war in Ukraine has shown, reforms have had limited if any influence on Russian military’s operational effectiveness. In many ways, the Russian army still resembles the former Soviet army in its mentality, hierarchical structure, poor quality officers, poor levels of training, ill-discipline, poor logistics, and corruption.

The war in Ukraine pits a vertically structured Russia with a subject population against a horizontally structured Ukraine composed of citizens. During Vladimir Putin’s 22 years ruling Russia as president and prime minister he has re-Sovietized the country, fanned militarism, promoted a quasi-religious cult of the Great Patriotic War and Joseph Stalin, and destroyed civil society and volunteer groups. In Ukraine the opposite has taken place in each of these areas. Ukraine has undergone de-Sovietization since the late 1980s and decommunization since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, has denigrated Stalin as a tyrant, switched from military celebration of the Great Patriotic War to commemoration of World War II, and built a dynamic civil society and volunteer movement. Ukrainians have organized three popular revolutions since 1990 to demand their rights; Russia’s last revolution was over a hundred years ago.


Another important factor has been the widespread view of the Ukrainian state as weak and badly divided between a ‘pro-Russian’ eastern and ‘pro-Western’ western Ukraine. In the last three decades the greatest number of articles published in the media and by think tanks and academics on Ukraine has been on regional divisions and the country split between a pro-Russian east and nationalist, pro-Western west. In Moscow and among Western experts, Ukraine’s Russian speakers were deemed to be inherently unreliable and likely to swing to supporting Russia if Moscow invaded the country.

A shock-and-awe style Russian invasion of Ukraine would exert tremendous pressure on Ukraine’s regional divisions, leading to the state’s fragmentation and the collapse of the Ukrainian army (as in Afghanistan). This did not take place and the reason why it did not was because Ukraine was never a regionally fractured country; its Russian speakers were Ukrainian patriots, and there was never any possibility the Ukrainian army was going to disintegrate in the same manner as the Afghan army.

Taras Kuzio

31 comments to How Western experts got the Ukraine war so wrong

  • Snorri Godhi

    Ukraine has undergone de-Sovietization since the late 1980s and decommunization since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution

    Not sure I understand the difference between de-sovietization and de-communization. Does the former perhaps mean independence from Moscow, and does the latter mean effective property rights?

  • Steven R

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree that Russia’s last revolution was over a century ago as much as I would say the events from 1989 to 1992 were a bloodless revolution of Russians (and indeed all of Eastern Europe) just collectively telling those in control, “we want something else.”

    If anything, I think those in the Kremlin weren’t sure the Red Army would put down a revolt and didn’t want to end up like their old buddy Ceaușescu.

  • Mr Ed

    Steven R

    I think those in the Kremlin weren’t sure the Red Army would put down a revolt

    Yes indeed, the Red (later ‘Soviet’) Army was always regarded as being relatively lacking in ideological commitment by the Commies, and the internal security of the USSR was generally entrusted to the NKVD/KGB troops and MVD (Interior Ministry) troops, the latter also guarded munition dumps on certain larger Soviet Army bases, and running the GULAGs etc. The Red Army (and other branches) had its Political Officers from the Party and the ‘Special Department’ of the KGB (or whatever it was called) to keep an eye on the ideological state of the troops. The Soviet conscript was ‘graded’ for suitability on the basis of family background and performance in Komsomol etc. and was allocated according to suitability (ideological and intellectual and physical capability) and the more reliable elements picked off their choice. So the KGB Border Guards got some of the best, then the MVD, and then in the Armed Forces the Strategic Rocket Forces would get the smarter remnants, as would the Air Forces and Navy, the Airborne Troops would need some quality and (per Suvorov) the remainder went into the Army, some of whom could even speak Russian. Those that couldn’t (as he put it ‘reindeer herders from beyond the clouds’ would be taught ten commands in Russian, like ‘Up, down, run, stop, back, forward, turn etc.’ and they mixed up the nationalities in the Army units ‘to promote the friendship of the Soviet peoples‘.

    It all fell apart in 1991, probably as no one really believed in it any more and the Soviet Armed Forces failed to support the August coup, the Air Force (one of them, there were two at the time), threatened to shoot down any KGB helicopters sent to deal with Yeltsin in the Russian Parliament and for a few years there were prospects of freedom.

  • Andrew Carey

    The comment of the leader of the Crimea Parliament is telling to me: something like
    ‘in 23 years the UA government gave us nothing, they treat us like schit, at least the Russians built us a bridge’.
    And now we have well-meaning map fanatics endorsing agreements from the 90s insisting that Crimea should be subject to UA laws such as the RU language ban in education post-9, the film production ban in Russian, and the ban on Russian television (which is schit, but if it’s your first language and you’ve just done a shift you might like to relax to a crappy soap). And UA stopping the irrigation to Crimeans while simultaneously claiming Crimeans are their co-nationals is some weird shortbread that ain’t bread.
    Feck ’em – lets have a truce and let RU pay to rebuild the towns they wrecked.

  • Does the former perhaps mean independence from Moscow, and does the latter mean effective property rights?

    That is also how I understood it.

  • Feck ’em – lets have a truce and let RU pay to rebuild the towns they wrecked.

    LOL. Firstly Russia will not pay a penny and secondly a ‘truce’ only benefits Russia.

  • bobby b

    “Feck ’em – lets have a truce and let RU pay to rebuild the towns they wrecked.”

    Let UKr get a bit closer to Moscow first. Terms will be better. 😉

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Putin has indeed done terrible harm to Russia. After the long Soviet night, such things as dissenting media and many different political and cultural movements were emerging in Russia – such things as real (not fake) trial by jury, and a professional all volunteer military were real possibilities, but Mr Putin ended all that.

    However, it was not the case that everyone in Russia got up one morning and said, “we do not like liberty – we want to go back to tyranny”, Russians are no more racially or culturally predetermined to tyranny than Ukrainians are, what happened was an ECONOMIC COLLAPSE – that is what gave Mr Putin his chance to reimpose tyranny. This economic collapse was caused by terrible economic advice from the Clinton Administration – which pushed Russia down the road of massive inflation (monetary expansion) and Credit Bubble banking – ordinary Russians lost everything, and their desperation was exploited by Mr Putin.

    The West is now going to experience the same thing.

    Yes, there is going to be economic collapse in the West (for the same reasons there was an economic collapse in Russia – massive monetary inflation, and a fundamentally insane financial system) – let us see what political horrors the economic horrors produce in the West.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Via Instapundit, an insightful article by somebody who knows better than most of us.

  • Kirk

    Russia’s main weakness and flaw isn’t what most people think it is.

    The root of it all is on display in Ukraine, but it’s endemic across Russian society. Note all the trash strewn around Russian fighting positions? Note the utter lack of discipline in the troops? See how they cluster together like feckless sheep, under fire, making it easier to kill them? Note how the wounded often get abandoned? Note the obvious lack of daily maintenance on vehicles, their poor state? How messy they are?

    These are all key “tells”, leading indicators. If you’re familiar with Western military forces, you know you can walk into a unit, look around at how they do daily business, and from that form a pretty solid picture of how good that unit is, as well as how prepared they are.

    Nothing I’m seeing in Russia looks at all like a professional army. It’s all a bunch of kids given guns and sent off to make war without proper preparation or supervision–Which is why so many have died, and why they’re committing war crimes left, right, and center.

    No NCO corps. No mid-level management that knows what the hell it’s doing, because it came up from within the ranks and lived the life for twenty years.

    This is the reason why Russian ammo dumps blow up: The feckless children out in the stacks of munitions don’t follow the rules; they smoke, they litter, they ignore safety rules like “don’t stack fuses or initiators next to the charges”. Meanwhile, some school-trained commissioned idiot who doesn’t know these things, either, is sitting in an office somewhere nearby, not knowing he ought to be out in the storage areas observing and making corrections. Like as not, he doesn’t even know the corrections to make, and if he made them, then he’d get in trouble for stepping outside his lane and doing things other than the way “they’ve always been done”…

    Russia’s main weakness is just this: Top-down authoritarianism runs the show, everywhere in the economy and in the military. You don’t have empowered managers, you don’t have empowered NCO leadership out in the forces, and as a result, you get the things we’re seeing in Ukraine right now.

    Ukraine is working on changing that culture, and from observation, I’d say they’re doing it reasonably well. You see NCO leadership; you see mistakes getting corrected; you see lesson’s learned being implemented. You don’t see much of that in the Russian forces–They keep doing the same stupid crap, time after time after time. They don’t have air guards up; the tanks and other vehicles drive around buttoned up, to the point where they drive over obvious land mines laid in the middle of the road. Which is something I never, ever in a million years expected to ever see someone actually do. But, they did it.

    Russia’s problems are endemic to their culture, and until they fix them, there’s not a damn thing they can do to win this war in Ukraine, short of burying Ukraine under the bodies of dead Russians and declaring a victory. Demographically, they can’t pull this off. If they try, it’ll just be another pitstop on the way to self-inflicted genocide, the way they did it under Stalin.

    I’m really not too sure what the hell the proper language would be… Genocide doesn’t cover it. It’s self-inflicted, on the level of what Paraguay did back in the 19th Century. End of the day, Russia is going to be vastly diminished by this. And, for what? So they could call a few thousand square kilometers of soil Russian? Good God, they basically blew up Azovstal, turning it into a wasteland. That was one of Eastern Europe’s largest iron and steel works, once upon a time. What are they planning to do with it? Oh; that’s right, build a park… WTF? How does any of this even begin to make any sense whatsoever?

    As an empire-builder, Putin is a parvenu dolt. Much like the Nazis he’s supposedly driving out of Ukraine…

  • The Wobbly Guy


    With regards to the article, the 90s were a lost opportunity for Russia and the West. IMO, much of the blame should be laid at Clinton’s feet.

  • Chester Draws

    My understanding is that when the Lugansk and Donetsk areas revolted against Kyiv’s move to be less Russian oriented, that they had a lot of popular support.

    But the behaviour of the “Russians”, both Ukrainian Russians and Russian Russians, in the area soured them pretty quickly. Quite apart from the violence of the revolt, both the DPR and LPR turned into crime infested ratholes — run essentially as mafia fiefdoms.

    On top of that, the Russian campaign of de-Ukrainisation made many of them realise that they had more in common with Ukraine than they thought. That actually, they didn’t speak pure Russian, for example.

    So support for annexation to Russia waned.

  • Not really Chester. The Donbas region was ‘more’ pro-Moscow than some other regions but it still overwhelmingly voted for independence from Moscow in 1991 (83%). Was there discontent with Kyiv? Sure. Was it at the level of discontent that the region could rise in mass armed rebellion in 2014 without separatists not just being given tanks, artillery & anti-aircraft missiles but also being backed up with actual Russian troops ‘on holiday’? Not even close. This was an astroturf rebellion & anyone local opposing it either fled to Kyiv or ended up dead in a ditch.

    1991 Independence Referendum

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had the same unifying impact on Ukraine, and its sense of itself, as Bonaparte’s various invasions of the German jurisdictions and Austria/Hungary and even Italy did in the early 19th century. He helped fuel Germany’s sense of statehood, ditto Italy, to some degree.

  • Chester Draws

    True, but in later elections the Donbas voted for pro-Russian parties and candidates. In far greater proportion than the independence votes. They did not vote for Zenensky, unlike the bulk of the rest of the country.

    They originally went pro-Ukraine, assuming it would be Russian in orientation. Then didn’t like it when it went the other way. Only to meet the realities of being a Russian satellite, and swing back.

    The Independence vote does not reflect where they were 10 years later. Nor where they are now.

  • Kirk (October 18, 2022 at 12:50 am), it reminds me of things occasionally noticed about the Falklands war. When I came across

    British soldiers have repeatedly expressed amazement to me that the Argentines they capture have no cleaning kits for their rifles. (throwaway line in contemporary Daily Telegraph column)

    it suggested a modern skit on the mad-hatter’s tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland:

    Sergeant Dormouse: “Take ammo from the argies you kill; it’s the same calibre as ours. But don’t try restocking your cleaning kits from ’em – they ain’t got none.”

    Private Alice: “That can’t be, Sarge; their guns would jam.”

    Sergeant Dormouse: “So they do, Alice. They jam loads.”

    Just as a whole culture of absolutist governesses lay behind Alice’ claim in the original book that a family “couldn’t” live solely on treacle because “they’d be ill”, and her bafflement when assured that “they were ill – very ill”, so my skit (of whose comic qualities I make no boast) was thrust into my head from memory of days of coming off OP longing to walk away from myself, but no, first the lorries have to be pressure-washed of all that Salisbury Plan mud, and my rifle has to be cleaned, and when I show my effort to the colour sergeant, he gestures at something I’d need a magnifying glass to see on a tiny inner ledge and sneers, “I could grow potatoes in that, Kilmartin – take it away and do it properly”.

    I was also reminded of Orwell’s remark (in ‘Homage to Catalonia’) that the Spanish troops he at first fought alongside in 1937 were astonished when he constructed a pull-through. He also heard them praise a foreign contingent as “brave – braver than us” and remarked that an Englishman of his day “would cut his hand off” before he said those last three words.

    Culture matters. The communists spent decades dragging Russia far further down from its flawed Tsarist state and Putin’s power relied on the result not the cure. As Hannah Arendt said, “The price of Stalinism was so high it has yet to be paid in full.”

    [All quotes from memory]

  • Yes but no Chester. As Kisin constantly points out, the pro-Russian vote did not mean anti-Ukrainian independence or pro-rule from Moscow even indirectly, it just meant in favour of good relation & trade with Russia.

    So projecting wide support for armed insurrection against Kyiv based on the “pro-Russian vote” is like suggesting SNP support in Scotland indicates wide support for a non-figurative armed insurrection against London if only someone would supply the artillery & tanks.

  • Kirk

    You can tell an awful lot about a country and its culture by the way it fights its wars. The military produced by a nation is very much a product of the underlying cultural features, and it’s damned hard to overcome the innate nature of the people if they’re fundamentally not compatible with the things you’re trying to do with them.

    Which is why the US has so signally failed in places like Afghanistan, when it came to building their military into an effective force-in-being. Some things have to be taken into account; Afghanis are not going to do the things you need to do in a modern military, unless they’re somehow motivated to do them. And, the only way to really motivate them, historically speaking, is either loot, rape, pillage, and burn or religion. Those are just the cultural terrain you have to deal with, and the US could never acknowledge those things to itself. US ideology is that everyone is just the same, everywhere… And, if you question that, suggesting that what motivates a young man in the US won’t motivate a young man from the Hindu Kush, well… You’re pretty much going to be a candidate for early career truncation. Likewise, if you so much as suggest that Our Little Brown Brothers might have a few issues with things like Bachi-Bazi boy rape, which they did. If you ever thought that the West had a bit of a problem with pedophilia and child rape, allow me to introduce you to Afghanistan, where it’s pretty much endemic.

    You probably could build an effective Afghan army. It will not look anything like a Western one, and it would probably be a rather nasty organization doing things that sensitive Westerners could not possibly countenance, but there you are: It’s not your culture, it’s theirs, and they do things differently there. Failure to grasp these things is why so many efforts on the part of Western nations fail outside their own narrow conception of the world. You want to fix Africa? You have to do it in African terms. You want an effective Afghan Army? You have to do it Afghan-style, and if you don’t, it won’t work. You can’t graft a Western-style military onto something like the Afghan rootstock. It won’t work.

    Likewise, the idjits trying to go in after the Soviet Union collapsed, trying to graft a Western-style market economy and “democracy” onto the mess left behind by the Communists? It is to laugh. Same with the efforts to reform the Russian Army, after the Soviet Union went bye-bye. You simply cannot wave a magic wand and somehow conjure into existence the entire cultural package beneath a professional NCO corps, or somehow inculcate the sort of self-discipline and attention to detail that you get out of a Western volunteer soldier.

    Saying which really leaves me a bit shell-shocked, having spent most of my adult life riding herd on those knuckleheads. But, the raw fact is, the average Western volunteer soldier is, even at his worst, light-years ahead of the former Soviet sort of abusive and apathetic creature. I don’t think we ever had a millionth of the problems that occur in the former Soviet system, termed Dedovschina.
    I mean, yeah… We had our moments, with the troops, but most of the time? Instead of dog-eat-dog, they looked out for each other. To a degree that makes them look like saints, compared to the Russians we’re seeing via the reports out of Ukraine.

    Russia is a mess, and I don’t know that it is even fixable. There’s a deeply-rooted cultural rot in a lot of senses, and I don’t know how you even begin to address that. The sheer corruption and casual theft of collective resources is something I find unfathomable; how could you, as a commissioned officer, sell off your soldier’s food? Their body armor? And, then send them off to war, ill-fed and unprotected? How do these creatures look in the mirror every morning, without wanting to shoot themselves for the shame of it all?

    Answer? They’re culturally incapable of recognizing that which they should be ashamed of, by our lights. By theirs, they are doing exactly what a moral man should do–Look out for Number One. Always.

  • You can tell an awful lot about a country and its culture by the way it fights its wars. The military produced by a nation is very much a product of the underlying cultural features, and it’s damned hard to overcome the innate nature of the people if they’re fundamentally not compatible with the things you’re trying to do with them.

    The late Trevor Dupuy made that point & quantified it in his predictive models as a “Combat Effectiveness Variable” (CEV): the bit that explains the result of a battle once everything else (terrain, surprise, supply state, equipment, stance, force size) of the two forces is taken into account. A CEV could only be calculated in retrospect as a result, but what Dupuy observed was this approximation was observative quite consistently not just during a given war but over a multigenerational timeframe. It is the cultural factor. It is why Ariel Sharon said (words to the effect of. I am doing this from memory)”If the Arab armies had our western equipment & we had their Soviet equipment, the end result of these wars would not have been very different”.

    Again I am doing this from memory so treat the actual numbers I am spewing with caution. Israel had a CEV advantage over the Arab armies it faced of approx between about 1.6 (vs. Jordanians) and 2.5 (vs. Syrians). Worst Arab CEVs were against the Iraqis sent against Israel (with Israeli CEV 3.5 if memory serves). That didn’t mean that an individual Israeli soldier was 2.5 times as brave, smart and effective as a Syrian soldier, but it did mean that when you put an Israeli brigade against a Syrian brigade & total up the relative equipment levels, stance, terrain, logistic state etc… you really do then need to multiply the Israeli units combat power by 2.5 to guestimate the likely outcome of that battle. Startling! Read his book if you find that interesting

    These are surprisingly long lasting factors, which is to say not (very) situational but rather cultural. Dupuy wisely never tried to explain specifically *why* these CEVs between nations (cultures really) exist, all he did was point out that they sure as hell did and could actually be quantified if the conflict database was complete enough. It is very clear the Ukrainians have a significant CEV advantage over the Russians, but how much we will only know in retrospect.

  • Kirk

    I think that there’s a lot to Dupuy’s work, and I agree with most of what he had to say. Brilliant, brilliant man.

    However… I suspect that while he had a handle on things, he did not fully grasp the nettle when it came to the question of military culture.

    I think, based on experience and a whole lot of reading/research, that the actual reality is the Dupuy was right. In the narrowly defined sense that the various Arab armies were inferior to the Israelis when they fought according to Soviet rules and doctrine.

    Grafting those rules and that doctrine onto Arab culture didn’t take; the cultural features that that “way of war” required simply do not exist in Arab culture, and in fact, they reinforce a lot of flaws in the Arab cultural spaces. So long as the Arabs were trying to be mini-me Soviets, they were doomed to inferiority to the Israelis, and defeat.

    Which is not to say that they were doomed to failure. They chose that, by choosing to emulate the Soviets and their “way of war”. The reality is that there are paths to victory that run right up the Arab cultural pathways, and they could have chosen those, but did not, because “Soviet advisors”.

    I would submit that there are reasons why the Arabs produce really effective terrorist cells and movements, and lousy Western-style military units and armies. Mostly, because that whole “way of war” is entirely alien to their cultural system.

    I’ve no idea what a successful Arab armed force would look like; I do know that they’re capable of producing them, elsewise they’d never have conquered the territories they did. Of course, the fact that they were, in those days, facing an ennervated West hit hard by disease and economic hard times, not to mention religious/ideological conflicts within the Christian churches, but… They still managed to conquer a huge swath of Northern Africa and Central Asia. Nearly did for most of Europe, as well…

    Those forces that they did that with looked nothing like a Soviet tank army. Just saying…

  • Paul from Canada

    As Kirk points out, culture matters.

    Re: Arab armies, they can be successful when they organize around their strengths. As Kirk points out, they make excellent guerillas and terrorists.

    Also, (and this applies in Africa as well), when equipped and using tactics and doctrine that speak to their strengths, c.v. the “Toyota Wars” in Chad/Libya.

  • I think, based on experience and a whole lot of reading/research, that the actual reality is the Dupuy was right. In the narrowly defined sense that the various Arab armies were inferior to the Israelis when they fought according to Soviet rules and doctrine.

    I put almost exactly that point to a former US colonel many years ago & his ‘take’ was ‘not really’. His personal view was that US trained Iraqi units were not much more combat effective than ones who trained under Saddam. They were just deployed in a more rational manner & had some utility when supported by US air power or indirect weapons. And when they weren’t, they were often very ineffective.

    He was much less scathing of the Peshmerga but said their internal political problem (i.e. the fact the two party based Peshmergas utterly distrusted each other) sometimes made them very unreliable, but that was a different kind of issue.

  • Paul from Canada

    Ironically, the most successful creators of foreign and units of other ethnicities are the major colonial powers.

    Britain managed to create some very effective units from other cultures, for example in India. Part of the reason I think, is that the Officers understood, or at least tried to understand the local culture and adapt to it. Officers had to learn the local language and culture. They participated in many of the local cultural and religious rituals of the local population. They also, despite believing themselves racially superior, genuinely liked and respected their men.

    Many took local women, and especially early on, as wives, not just as mistresses. In many cases, half breed sons followed their fathers into the regiment. The British tradition of “The Regiment” (Capitalized), and “the regimental family also helped.

    A lot of that ended in the Victorian Era, when the white families came out and the officers retreated into the white cantons and a cultural gulf grew up, ultimately leading to a loss of the mutual understanding and respect, and the great mutiny. Even after that, the system still managed to keep going, and to this day, the British still employ those superb soldiers, the Gurkhas.

    For insights into the subject, I recommend the books White Mughals by William Dalrymple, Soldier Sahibs by Charles Allen, and any of The Flashman Papers that touch on campaigns in India. Also worth a look is Letters From the Horn of Africa 1923-1942 by Sandy Curle, which are a collection of letters from a colonial administrator of the time, who ended up with the assignment of raising an irregular force of Ethiopians.

    The other group that comes to mind for effective raising of local units are , ironically, the Rhodesians and South Africans. Both produced very effective Aboriginal units. There were also several Portuguese raised black units particularly in Mozambique, which, being local, massively outperformed poorly trained European Portuguese conscripts.

    Like the British in India, the officers that produced these units were, pretty much to a man, racists who believed in their own racial superiority, but nevertheless, spoke the local language, understood a lot of the culture, and genuinely liked and respected their men.

    The white officers of 32 Battalion, for example, had to speak Portuguese. The unit came into being after the South African intervention in Angola. South African SF and Para officers and NCOs were given command of some abandoned MPLA cadres, and trained and led them during the conflict. When FAPLA won with Cuban and Russian help, the South Africans pulled out, they were supposed to abandon their men, but had bonded with them, shared combat with them, and lobbied hard to have them admitted to South Africa as refugees, and eventually succeeded by suggesting that a “foreign legion” would allow deniable ops and could take casualties politically unacceptable for white army units.

    Having said all that, these units were mostly light infantry in a COIN environment, so there are limitations, and allowances had to be made for drastically increased training time. For example, it would take several months to teach a soldier who was not just illiterate, but possibly pre-literate, to read a map, and use a radio. On the other hand, 32 Battalion ended up semi-mechanized and doing combined ops.

    The point is that to make a local unit effective, you need to speak the language, understand or at least make a good effort to understand the local culture. You must develop a genuine connection and mutual respect for your client soldiers, and adapt your techniques and doctrine and possibly their equipment to their culture.

    Sometimes even this will not work if the culture is too alien or too backward in development (Afghanistan for example). The US did very well at the beginning, simply providing bribes and money to local warlords, embedding a ridiculously small cadre of CIA and SF to give advice and control air support and provide intel, and let the locals get on with doing the fighting in the local way. They failed when they tried to make a modern state with a modern army out of the place.

  • Kirk

    @Perry de Havilland,

    That colonel’s disparagement of the Iraqis that he was supposed to be working with is typical of the breed. Can’t get them to cohere into an American-style military force with American sensibilities and attributes… Why, it must be the Iraqis that are wrong, not our expectations or techniques!!!

    Tell you a little story. I worked with a bunch of those idiots while I was assigned from my brigade to the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters in Tikrit from ’05 to ’06. What I observed was sheer lunacy, top to bottom, side to side. The idjit class of US Army officer kept acting as though this were some WWII-esque conflict, with clearly demarcated lines and enemy forces. Was not that, at all.

    The lunacy was all over the place. We had, co-located with us, the element of the US Army and State Department that was supposed to be creating an Iraqi National Police Force of a professional nature. Those guys were getting slaughtered by IED and other attacks, mostly because they were driving around in unarmored vehicles we provided them. Any sort of armor or MRAP was literally years away, because “reasons”.

    Now, I’m a fairly well-read person. I’ve studied war all my life, and I am more than familiar with the whole IED/mine/route clearance issue. I railed for years about that inside the US Army Engineer branch, to no avail. One of the things I knew about was that way that Rhodesia and South Africa had gone about building their MRAP capability, how it had begun as uparmored improvisations on civilian chassis put together in railway workshops.

    At the time, I also knew that we were trying to put together work programs to employ Iraqis and keep them out of trouble. There were metal-working shops where they were building IEDs, paid by outsiders. My thoughts were “Hey, why don’t we at least build some interim IED-proof vehicles like the Rhodesians did, and get those to the Iraqi police… You’d kill a couple of birds with the same stone…”

    So, I talked to officers involved, and their senior NCOs. None of them were aware of the history; nearly all of them were certain that the MRAP appeared as though it were Athena, sprung from the forehead of General Dynamics. Didn’t get a lot of interest, so I went to a hell of a lot of trouble to find a copy of Peter Stiff’s Taming the Land Mine, and got it sent to me. Whereupon I spent a day highlighting all the pertinent bits, and handed it around to the rocket scientists engaged in training up the Iraqi police…

    I could have saved myself the time, money, and effort. Not a single one of them ever looked at that and had a lightbulb go on over their head: “Hey, WE could do this, here!!!”

    Swear to God, I managed to get a sit-down with a couple of them, and laid it all out: We could employ a bunch of people, protect the police, and make some headway on several issues. Nope. Not a bit of it; they didn’t have the imagination or the initiative to even try it or explore how to do it. The “options” were to buy in cheap MRAP-type vehicles for the police, several years off, and that was it. Period.

    You can’t possibly build a really working indigenous force with a mentality like that. The odds of the US ever throwing up a Meinertzhagen are slim to none; the system simply would not tolerate anyone with his mindset getting above the grade of corporal, let alone officer rankings.

    The only real successes you find with Americans doing good work with foreign indigenous forces are either outsiders to our military structure who’ve been mistakenly snaffled up to work in it (think the guys who ran the guerillas in the Philippines during WWII) or they’re civilians like Frederick Townshend Ward back during the Taiping Rebellion in China. The regular military structure in the US simply does not do foreign cultures very well. Either we have the time and effort available to clone ourselves in our own image (see: South Korea), or we blow it on a massive scale.

    You have to have a certain flexibility of mind, and an innate understanding that other people think differently than you do. Americans of the officer-producing classes, by and large, possess neither in this benighted age.

    @Paul von Canada,

    The essential thing there that you highlight without really noticing it is that those successful “colonial” units were not really in or of the colonizers or the natives: They were a separate thing, all on their own. The Regiment was all and everything to its members. You joined it, whether you were native or an Englishman, and that was your identity, your culture, your life. Much like the French Foreign Legion, to be quite honest.

    Being as that was the case, these forces were usually a lot more effective than anything else they faced. Until the native components felt betrayed by the rising rate of segregation from the British officers, and the supposed attempt at damaging their religious standing via pork fat or tallow, the locals felt more a part of the Regiment than they did their own cultures. Which the new sort of British officer just didn’t “get”, to their eventual downfall in the Mutiny.

    I think the British learned a lot from that experience, and were careful to foster better relations with the locally-raised forces. You can see the outlines in their superior approach to it all with the Arab Legion in Jordan, which is a poster-child for grafting a Western-style military ethos onto a totally alien rootstock.

    This is something that the American military lacks, to a large degree. If we don’t somehow manage to clone ourselves the way we did with South Korea, well… We suck at foreigners. We really do.

  • I think the British learned a lot from that experience, and were careful to foster better relations with the locally-raised forces. You can see the outlines in their superior approach to it all with the Arab Legion in Jordan, which is a poster-child for grafting a Western-style military ethos onto a totally alien rootstock.

    I knew an Israeli officer who said more or less the same thing. He attributed Jordan’s relatively functional military culture to British influence. He was broadly flattering about the US military in general but also said “they really don’t understand anyone who isn’t from the First World at all.”

    I replied with my quip about the difference between British arrogance & American arrogance: he nodded and laughed.

    (The difference between British arrogance & American arrogance is the British think they influence the world, Americans think they are the world)

  • Steven R

    Kirk wrote: You have to have a certain flexibility of mind, and an innate understanding that other people think differently than you do. Americans of the officer-producing classes, by and large, possess neither in this benighted age.

    Based on the limited time I spent around officers, I think it comes down to three things:

    1) The Army, and I presume the other branches, is built around large scale maneuver warfare and the officers think in that way. When they are presented with missions that don’t involve the typical Objective A, Phase Line B, etc., they freeze up. SF might be better trained and equipped to deal with locals and differing cultural objectives and the like, but Big Army simply isn’t. You tell your run of the mill MG to secure a city and use all the assets he has at hand, no-holds barred, and he will do so. You tell your same division commander to “secure a city, but be mindful of local traditions, religions, cultural assets, and when you take out the opposition three different groups are going to try to fill the vacuum and kill each other but you can’t pick sides; good luck” and he’s not going to know how to deal with that situation even if he wanted to.

    And the people in charge at SecArmy level and above don’t want to hear it. They only want to hear the success stories.

    2) The military as a whole has morphed into a corporation and it is all about corporate thinking. It’s all about rules and regulations and going along to get along and checking the right boxes and saying the right things. I realize there has always been a streak of that as evidence by Billy Mitchell’s court-martial, but since the end of WWII that mindset has been constantly marching forward, and really went into overtime when McNamara became SecDef and brought his brain trust with him from Ford to the Pentagon. Then we started putting women on ships and in support units and the ability of crews to do their jobs became less important than being able to stand in front of the press and blather on about buzzwords. It really ramped up after Tailhook and Pat Schroeder just put the end to the Old Military. Obama may have purged the upper ranks, but those Admirals and Generals he replaced them with were Ensigns and Lieutenants at the time and grew up in a new and improved kinder, gentler military.

    3) Part of that corporatization is the demand for a No Risk mindset. You can’t screw up or it ends up as a bad mark on your OER. So it becomes easier (and safer) to just say “no” to ideas. We want to put MRAPs on the streets for Iraqi police and know they work? No. We want to train the Afghan Army but we need to understand their cultural sensibilities and build around that? No.

    During the Normandy Breakout, when troops started fighting the Germans in bocage country they took terrible casualties until someone figured out to weld the front end of a bulldozer on the front of a tank and just plow through the hedge walls. That kind of thinking would never be approved today.

  • Kirk

    As a former insider, it’s my opinion that American military culture has been broken for a long, long time. Not broken enough to lose us wars, as of yet, but broken nonetheless.

    Consider the micro-phenomenon of our small arms procurements since freakin’ forever: The Springfield M1903, which was basically a heavily sporterized Mauser, won out over the weapon that was actually the most-used WWI rifle for the US, the M1917, derived from the British Pattern 14. The M1917 was actually the better rifle, but because the Springfield was “invented here”, we went with that. Then, the Garand, the M14, and all the rest of the litany of horror that is and was US small arms procurement.

    Nobody in the US military had the wit or wisdom to actually examine what lessons there were from WWI. Had they done so, then it would have been apparent that the way to move forward wasn’t some uber-waffe individual weapon, but a better, more portable machine gun. Which manifestly wasn’t the BAR, because that was totally unsuited for anything other than an Automatic Machine Rifle role.

    What did they do? Oh, yeah; they plumped their money down on the Garand, which I hate to tell you, wasn’t much more than a side-note to the actual conduct of detailed infantry combat. The Germans went with a bolt-action for most of their infantry, and wrought massive havoc with their GPMG concept. The British kept the Lee-Enfield, and spent money on a better support weapon, the BREN.

    Reality-distortion fields set on eleven, the US went onwards into even more delusional idiocy with the whole 7.62 NATO debacle, when the Brits handed them the ideal solution for individual weapons in the form of the .280 British. Within a decade and a half, they wound up going for the 5.56X45 M-16, after the M-14 failed miserably in Vietnam.

    At no time during all of this did anyone actually sit down and pay attention to the actual lessons of combat, the ones that were there for anyone to observe, had they bothered? Indeed, if you look at the folks running small arms procurement after WWII, all of them were Army Establishment types who’d been kept out of combat deliberately… The combat-experienced types were all let go, released from duty back into civilian life. Few remained to provide influence, and those were ignored by the establishment, anyway.

    Back in the 1990s, I was railing in a small way, trying to get someone to pay attention to the wars in southern Africa, and how the various mine-protected vehicles were crucial to fighting them. Couldn’t get any attention; I was told, incessantly, that the US Army did not need that sort of equipment because we’d never be so foolish as to get into a war where we’d need it…

    During that period, I was at the Engineer School, and interacted with the Royal Engineer exchange NCO we had at the time. We were discussing some issues, and he said, in frustration, something to the effect of “You know… You lot really shouldn’t call it the Center for Army Lessons Learnt (a vaunted Army institution that everyone is inordinately proud of…) when nobody actually demonstrates learning… You ought to call it the Army Center for Lessons Observed and then Blood Well Ignored…”

    He was more right than I like admitting. The American military is a lot of things, but the one thing it is not is a “learning organization”. Not until you beat it bloody about the head and upper body with dimensional lumber, that is…

  • the US went onwards into even more delusional idiocy with the whole 7.62 NATO debacle, when the Brits handed them the ideal solution for individual weapons in the form of the .280 British.

    All true but…

    American procurement: “We’re the worst, the absolute pits!”

    British procurement: “Hold my beer…”

  • Paul from Canada


    I had planned to include the FFL in my previous post, but felt it was getting too long as it was…… The FFL is a particularly good example in that unlike the others I cited, it is multi-cultural/multi-racial. So the “new identity” has to be particularly strong, imposed initially by ferocious discipline, and unique cultural artifacts (the singing, Camerone Day, unique uniform items and so on).

    The British concept of “The Regiment” is something the US Army is pretty poor at. Outside of “The Old Guard” and elite formations like Rangers etc. there isn’t nearly as much unit identity as there aught to be. Many attempts to improve morale and retention miss the boat, as they tend to be Army wide failures (the whole beret thing for example). The best units in my experience, tend to have their own nicknames, mottoes, unofficial identities (custom t-shirts commemorating a particular and infamous incident on an exercise for example.).

  • Steven R

    Breaking up the regiments as a cohesive unit and scattering the battalions into various brigades, divisions, and corps killed whatever esprit de corps might have in a regiment off. Anything beyond battalion might as well be on the far side of the moon.

    I’ve long been convinced the once one gets to be an E-9 or O-6 and higher that common sense dies and the appearance of the Army becomes more important than the effectiveness of it. Shinseki’s stupid beret obsession and his demand for the Stryker being an example, SMA and their constant tinkering with uniforms and their quest to cover everything in safety equipment like PT belts being another. The Army’s demand for more Powerpoint and SHARP briefings look like they are doing something important to someone when all it is doing is wasting time. Being a mentor to the first [INSERT DEMOGRAPHIC HERE] to be a [INSERT RANK AND BILLET HERE] despite the fact that he/she/it is completely incompetent? Not a problem so long as the diversity boxes were checked and if troops die from it? They are just offerings to the PC gods and martyrs to the cause of [WHATEVER] Justice. It doesn’t matter if it works or not, only that it is a sweet bullet point on an OER when looking to get another promotion or stripe on the shoulder.

    It’s one of the reasons generals and admirals look like Soviet field marshals with all the ribbons, badges, awards, skill bling, etc. when most of them have never heard a shot fired in anger. Just play the game, don’t rock the boat, here’s a Bronze Star for not screwing up or a Silver Star for being a field grade officer nominally attached to a HQ unit that was involved in a battle, and you too can join the O-7 or E-9 club someday. Went a career without actually deploying is not an obstacle.

  • Kirk

    @Paul + Steven R,

    Goes to my contention that the people running the military really have no idea at all about what they are doing, or how things really work. Particularly in the US Army.

    The Shinseki initiative giving everyone the Ranger’s black beret perfectly encapsulates the entire problem. The people running the show a.) don’t understand the institution or the people in it, and b.) suffer from an incredible amount of “magical thinking” when it comes to dealing with either.

    I completely get that Shinseki’s viewpoint was that the black beret wasn’t that big a deal to the Rangers. When he was a young officer, they’d tried out berets for the various branches, earmarking the black ones for Armor, and then abandoned the effort because the Army (at that time…) had a decidedly egalitarian anti-elite units mentality.

    The issue was, in the intervening 20 years since Shinseki developed that casual impression about berets, the Rangers had taken the fuzzy things over and made them their own. And, about everyone else did, as well: The black beret was an acknowledged “perk” of being a Ranger, along with the high divorce rate and abundant training munitions accounts. So, taking that and then giving it to the rest of the Army, unearned? Not a consequence-free act. In either direction. All of us line dogs suddenly forced into wearing that foolish thing felt like we were imposters, and none of us liked it. The cachet of the beret always struck me as more “Yeah, we’re badass enough that we can carry this stupidity off…”, because you hardly ever run into American troops wearing the damn things when they don’t have to. It’s an essentially foolish piece of headgear: It does nothing to keep your head warm, it’s a moisture sponge, and doesn’t keep the sun out of your eyes, either. Sheer stupidity made felt.

    The real deal with things like the beret is that it’s not the uniform item that makes the man, but the man who makes the uniform item. I guarantee you that I could make frilly pink panties worn over their uniform trousers the honored mark of an elite, given the time and budget for training the men wearing them. Look at all the ridiculous things that have become such markers: The Janissaries, ferchrissakes, marched behind soup pots and friggin’ spoons. And, scared the hell out of people with them… The VDV Telnyanka, anyone? The beret? That is, hands-down, the single most useless affectation-made-felt that I’ve ever encountered. But, try telling that to a Green Beret, a Ranger, or any of the Airborne units. They’ll slit your throat, and then go right back to sticking the damn things in their pockets whenever they can, away from garrison.

    But… Shinseki and his little coterie of advisors thought that it would “enhance morale”, giving it all unearned to the rest of the Army, rather than subtract from it. Which is what it actually did.

    This was about the time I began to realize that none of these people running things in the Army really know how any of it works. They’re like monkeys flailing away at the controls of some vast bit of earthmoving equipment, completely incomprehending of what the levers actually do.

    The majority of them are officers, growing up in the ranks in a state of anomie; no officer really has ties to his unit, even as a commander. They see them as these great big toys they’ve been handed to play with, to prove themselves upon. They have zero sense of community with the men whose homes are in those units, who identify with the unit because that’s what they were looking for: A place to be a part of, a family in substitute for the one they never felt a part of. The guys who wind up making a career out of the military in the enlisted ranks are all nearly the same: They’re seeking community, a place to belong. Most career enlisted military are damaged goods, in one way or another; the service allows them to find that which they didn’t get from their families or home communities.

    And, the officer class is mostly oblivious to this, which is why they don’t get what a big deal it is to deactivate a unit. That’s not some entry on a goddamn spreadsheet, you sorry-ass pigf*cking POS staff weenie, that’s my home, my family, the thing I’ve invested years of my life in, what I identify with. I grew up there, I live there. I would gladly die for that sense of community, that camaraderie.

    It still enrages me, decades after the fact, that these miserable c*nts just went and deactivated the best unit I ever served in, simply because it was convenient to do that. These are the same idiots that think it appropriate to “re-flag” a unit with an existing flag and identity here in the US with some guidon and set of knick-knacks FedEx-shipped back from Europe, where they belonged to another unit with another identity and another whole set of traditions, values, and mores. They don’t even send a corporal’s guard of an escort with the tatty crap they think makes the unit what it is.

    Then, they wonder why guys don’t re-enlist and won’t identify with their made-up unit designations they pulled out of their ass at some staff meeting.

    Fundamentally, none of the assholes in charge understand anything at all about how it all works. They can’t; the majority of them aren’t really human. They’re selected, trained, and educated as high-functioning autistic savants, who look at the rest of the human race as though they were aliens. And, we are. To them.

    I could have been one of them. I do really well on the tests, you see. The difference is, I’ve known since early childhood that I’m strange, weird, uncanny to the rest of the monkeys, so I’ve tried to understand them and work out why they do what they do. After reaching middle age, I think I sort of have a handle on it, and I find that a lot of what the monkeys do around me really does resonate and have meaning. In studying them, I’ve become one of them. I think…

    Most of the professional military brass (and, the civilian managerial classes) do not have the slightest clue about what makes other people tick. That’s because they’re really not human, themselves: All that would make them human has been carefully selected out and then what remained was deliberately trained out of them, in the name of making them better technocrats. Which would be fine, if they were meant to be dealing with robots, but they aren’t.

    This is why the idjits of the World Economic Forum are doomed to failure, along with the same leftoid numbskulls that follow their little half-ass “-ologies” off into the air past the cliff-edge. They have their theories; on the other hand, there are people who do not and who will not cooperate by conforming to them.

    Ya wonder at the low enlistment rates for the US military? Look no further than the leadership. Ain’t none of us who served who would have joined today’s forces, with all their emphasis on race and gender BS rather than the mission. The kids aren’t joining because they sense the essential falsity of the entire enterprise, and they don’t believe in defending the system any more. Why should they? They’re the baddies, the whites and the white-acting blacks. Who would want to defend a system that automatically terms them the villians?

    And, the massive felching moron of a Secretary of Defense thinks he’s doing the right thing by setting that regime in, from the top. Who would want to enlist, to work for some creature like that? I’d rather starve under a bridge, TBH.

    The root problem of all this stems from the late 19th Century impulse to academize the world. When did the college diploma become a modern-day proxy for virtue? We treat it today quite as the Middle Ages treated a writ of nobility, but the raw fact then and the raw fact now is that neither noble birth or a college education confers any particular virtue upon the recipient of said discriminator. The idiot class is rapidly demonstrating that there’s little value in the credentials they hold, and they’re not going to like the resultant world that comes after everyone else notices that they’re the Emperor, wandering naked through the streets and waving their wing-wangs in our faces.

    The real trouble with wanting to be a meritocrat is that you have to, at least occasionally, demonstrate actual merit. That’s something that these bright lights who we’ve let run things for these last many generations never knew, never learned, and are going to have forcibly inserted up their rectal cavities before this is all over.

    Rather the same way that the former nobility had it rammed up their fundaments by this set of poseurs, when they first took over…