Fireside Friday: March 6, 2020

Alright folks, grab a seat, get warm. Let’s chat.

Yes, that is me. Yes, that is actually how I look. I’m sorry too.

We’re now looking at the tenth month of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. As with any new project, no plan quite survives contact with the enemy. As I write this, we’ve just crossed 500,000 page views, which is approximately 499,500 or so more than I thought I’d ever reach, much less in the first year. At the same time, as those of you who have been hanging around since the beginning may have noticed, my posts have been trending longer as time has gone on. The average lengths of the Fremen Mirage series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, Interlude, IV) week-for-week is nearly double that of the first series (Siege of Gondor, I, II, III, IV, V, VI). And in a way, that’s good! Y’all seem to be liking the longer formats. But, in a way, that’s bad! I have a day job and it is hard to keep up with writing a 7,500-10,000 word essay every week. I’ve tried to keep that under control by breaking up longer posts – thus the awkward four-and-three-quarters-part Fremen Mirage series structure – but I think those breaks are largely artificial and not a positive change.

So I’ve decided to switch up the format a little, as I hinted at a few weeks back. Here is my new plan: there will still be a post every Friday, but many of those posts will be like this one: fairly short off-the-cuff posts, which I’m going to call Fireside Fridays. In these short posts, I’ll link to some interesting history (ancient, military, economic, whatever) things I’ve read or listened to and update you all on what I’m working on for the blog. I may also muse on what I’ve been teaching, writing or researching on for that week, if I think I have anything interesting and brief to say (but I still intend to avoid anything ‘topical’ – this isn’t a politics blog and I don’t want to let it become one). I think I’ll plan to close every Fireside post out with a book recommendation (always something I have read myself; I’ll try to limit it mostly to the sort of books mortals without a university library can actually get a copy of). These posts will be short and something I can put together in a reasonable amount of time, even in weeks where my research and teaching schedule is heavy. Also, each fireside post will come with a picture of me, next to my fireplace, looking rather silly, ideally in some new and unique way.

Meanwhile, I can be working on the next big post (either a series or a single stand-alone); those will still be labeled Collections so you can pick them out easily. When one of those is done, it’ll replace the Fireside post for that week (or multiple running weeks, if it is a series). That will also give me the advantage of being able to write each series completely before starting the rollout, which should improve my workflow. Each Fireside week, I’ll give an update on what the essays in progress are and how they are proceeding.

Finally, if you don’t want to be always checking in and only want to know when something new is up, remember that you can sign up for email updates by clicking the button:

This week’s musings are two-fold and related. First, I’ve begun working on both a single stand-alone post and charting out the next longer series, but neither is far enough along for my to tip my hand on them. But second, one thing I have been looking for an opportunity to discuss in more depth is the concept of doctrine, which is one of the few really big military history concepts that doesn’t appear somewhere in the Siege of Gondor series. Parshal and Tully give a good definition of doctrine in Shattered Sword, that it is the “body of formal knowledge that tells a fighting force how it is expected to fight” (83). And I want to be clear: that is way more important than it sounds at first – armies are complicated things and you simply cannot try to ‘make it up as you go along.’ For pre-modern forces, that effect is often carried by discourse and cultural expectations around war as much as by official field manuals (which most pre-modern armies largely did not have), but I think we ought to think of all of it – the formal and informal elements – under the heading of doctrine (which is, to be fair, a dramatic widening of the concept in its normal usage).

I find that doctrine is a concept that a lot of folks neglect in their thinking, but it has a tremendous impact on how military forces behave, so I’ve been looking for an opportunity to cover it. The problem is that it’s hard to observe doctrine in something like film or video-games because the error is that it is simply absent. There’s nothing to talk about because it’s simply not there. Commanders make plans without any reference to a standard operating procedure or shared assumptions. Much like Sauron’s orc army (in the films) appears to function without NCOs, it also functions without doctrine (when, to be clear, without a coherent assault doctrine, an army that large should pretty much fall apart). But at the same time, the absence often isn’t conspicuous, because everything just goes to plan as if it was in accordance with doctrine and everyone was on the same page of the field manual, even though there appears to be no field manual or meaningful coordination. It makes it difficult to find a good way to discuss the concept, since in the fiction, everything seems to just work fine without it.

And then I had a vision: I beheld a pale horse, and on that horse was Tom Hanks, and he was giving me a gift (seriously though, I am hyped for this movie). For a film about convoy escort, convoy raiding and anti-submarine operations, doctrine should be everywhere and obvious. Communications, signalling, navigation, formations, attack patterns, command organization, targeting, target tracking, air-cover, how technology is used, wolf-pack tactics, all of it is in doctrine. Sailors on those ships – the convoy and the escorts – are either going to react with respect to doctrine (if the film is good – and it’s based on a C.S. Forester novel, so it should be) or with complete disregard to it, and either way that’s going to show up in the film. While doctrine is very important in all types of modern warfare, naval warfare often brings that importance out far more clearly, in my experience. So if I can’t find a good example between us and June, then we’re going to talk about doctrine in June.

So, onward to the recommendations, since it would be uncharitable of me to leave you all with nothing to munch on!

First off, here’s an excellent podcast by friend and colleague Mary Elizabeth Walters (Assistant Professor of History at Kansas State University), talking about humanitarian operations in conflict zones. This sort of thing is often overlooked in military history, but it is a kind of mission that often matters a great deal to actually achieve policy aims or secure gains. The podcast is fairly short (about a half an hour) but covers a wide range of the sort of complications created for these kinds of operations in active conflict zones. It’s a great primer for a sort of mission that armies have been engaged in for a long time – in many cases, an army or a navy is simply the only organization with the logistics and scope needed to carry out such jobs (though these days, NGOs play a role too) – but is rarely discussed. Check it out!

Next up, an excellent blog post at Thinking Historically on why the film 1917 could have used more context. I saw this post generate some controversy on Mil-Hist Twitter between those who agreed with it and those who felt the movie stood well on its own. For my part, I think films like this could do to offer some broader context, even if that means a boring text-crawl for the credits. Also, the recommendation for They Shall Not Grow Old is fully shared by me. It’s on streaming services now, so there’s no excuse not to experience it.

Finally, I think I’ll make a habit of trying to end up with a book recommendation (aiming for things which are affordable for mortals like us). This time, I’m going to go with Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017). Schadlow’s focus here is in consolidating gains: the messy, often political work of turning a battlefield victory into completed strategic aims, which might mean consolidating territorial control, or turning the territory over to a new government. Consolidating gains is often under-discussed (and as Schadlow gets into, often neglected in doctrine), but it is a crucial part of war winning rather than simply war fighting. And that matters a lot – Roman success, for instance, was as much in their ability to effectively consolidate gains (compare Alexander’s empire, which turned out to be far more ephemeral). The book looks at the US Army’s efforts in this regard from the Mexican-American war to the present, in a wide range of situations and conditions – learning and then relearning the lessons of these processes and navigating the sticky situations where generals have no choice but to administer local politics. My impression is that this book has become something of a instant classic in military history, and its well worth a read.

25 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: March 6, 2020

  1. Hi Bret

    I want to thank you for all the effort you put in this blog, I have been following you for almost 8 months, and I can only say you are amazing.
    I like how the new format, especially the pictures in front of the fireplace jaja. Also the insigths of your teaching and researching activities are of great value, I am a biologist and is always interesting to learn how research is done in different fields.

    Thank you very much for every thing and I hope you continue doing great.

    1. Since we already have one scientist checking, here’s another, though a chemist this time. I’ve really enjoyed this blog as well, as it both scratches the itch to apply my brain to big ideas far from my native field (perhaps one of the only things I miss from high school, where I could study it all) as well as giving me food for thought as an amateur author. Thanks for your hard work!

  2. Hi Bret,

    Question about pre-modern doctrine. As I understand it, one of the few societies we know had written doctrinal manuals that are available to us to read is the body of Byzantine military writing. I was wondering if much is known about whether the techniques and tactics described were actually followed in the field?

    1. Ah, complicated question.

      So the Greek world, beginning really with Xenophon in the late fifth-early-fourth centuries BCE developed a genre of what we might almost call ‘Military Philosophy.’ Some of it, like Xenophon, was decidedly practical. Much of it was functionally academic in nature – a philosophical exercise. You see, of course, a very similar genre emerge in China at almost exactly the same time (Sun Tzu, Shang Yang, etc). It was also not generally rooted – at least in the beginning – in a specific military institution. Xenophon is not writing guidelines for a specific army, but a general handbook for any old army. Doctrine, by definition, is generally organization-specific.

      That tradition continued during the Roman Empire, in both Greek and Latin and thus into the Byzantine Empire. But I’d stress that it is, first and foremost, a literary tradition. It’s not quite the same as a US Army Field Manual in terms of how it is intended to be used – a lot of the value it provides is often in rolling over military ideas in your head and thinking about them (or, in many cases, in displaying the military acumen of the author, often in moralizing terms).

      I am not an expert in the Byzantine army in any period save perhaps the very earliest, but in terms of ‘did this influence fighting’ the answer seems to me to be yes. But I’d stress that this is more what I put under the heading there of ‘discourse and cultural expectations’ than the traditional narrow understanding of ‘doctrine.’ I’m quite comfortable blurring the line, obviously – but many military thinkers are not, so it is worth noting the difference.

  3. You don’t look silly – you look melancholic.

    I have an idea for a post. Your posts might be a bit negative at times – you analyze some famous ancient people or a popular movie which you think is overrated or inaccurate. Perhaps you could do the opposite? Show us an ancient state, ruler or people which was remarkably successful in some aspect and deserves more attention.

  4. I’m curious about the relationship between the concepts Doctrine, Military Tradition (seen both in Civ and EU 4), and military institutional knowledge, which clearly aren’t the same thing but also have some relationship to each other.

  5. Doctrine is something that also comes into play in the R&D world. I work for the Army doing R&D for next gen weapons. We proposed a new gun system for the Abrams that would have required the gun outside the turret and replace the loader position with an auto loader. This ran into doctrine issues as many operations are based on having a four man crew – everything from maintenance to security patrols. Then there was the issue that if we removed one person from each tank crew would there be enough soldiers for the general to retain his star?

    1. Yeah, in my MilHist survey, I use WW2 armor doctrine (and later PGMs) as a way to talk about ‘Does doctrine drive tech? Does tech drive doctrine? Which way *should* it work?’

      1. Doctrine interacts with tech push vs tech pull. It can accelerate tech pull but it interferes with tech push. Tech push is more likely to be a disruptive technology and doctrine has a hard time adjusting to radical changes. In the case I mentioned above we have a technology that would allow Abrams level lethality on a deuce and a half but it is too much of a change to be adopted

        1. So is the teaching method! I like to pose my students big questions like this, not because they’ll get to a ‘right’ answer or a scholar’s interpretation, but because the exercise itself is useful.

          I recall once reading a story about a composer who wrote an extremely technical piece for the violin. He presented it to his first violinist to practice, and the violinist came back later, complaining that he simply could not perfect the piece. “That’s fine,” said the composer, “I didn’t so much want the sound of you playing it perfectly as the sound of you trying it.”

          I assign students questions for the sound of them trying to perfect them, because that leads to deeper, more meaningful learning. After all, there are examples of doctrine driving tech that were very effective (the Panzer III, the Apache, the M1 Abrams) and examples where the tech drove doctrine (literally anything related to PGMs, also MAD/Nuclear deterrence). ‘Which is better’ is intended as an impossible question, a koan where the real value is in the attempt.

      2. As a guy on the inside of the tech vs doctrine issue I see two effects.

        Doctrine will pull tech towards it but usually that tech is incremental improvements not leap ahead. Doctrine issues tend to want near term solutions. Things that can get to the field in three years or less. There isn’t time in such a program to take big risks or really develop a brand new tech. Look at the Abrams, a lot of the stuff originally proposed was dropped to get it fielded. Since then it has had many incremental upgrades.

        Mortars are a weapon where current doctrine is hurting change. Take the 81mm, it is required to fire 30 rounds per minute for two minutes followed by 15 rounds per minute indefinitely, possibly until it reaches its life of 10000 rounds. This of course makes the tube very hot. There is a desire to put a round counter on mortars (currently paper gun cards are used) and to lightweight them. We developed a self powering round counter based on piezoelectrics but it can’t survive the high rate of fire test. Same with lightweighting, the high rate of fire test makes the available materials very expensive and not as durable as steel. The high rate of fire scenario only happens in training. Against a modern adversary by the tome you have 4 rounds fire they have one coming back at you. So in reality there is a lot of shoot and scoot going on. However it did happen in WWII once or twice (UK unit at an ammo dump in Sicily is one instance) so it has stayed as a requirement

      3. I can think of one recent case where enemy tech caused a change in doctrine.

        Prior to the Abrams, troops used to follow behind tanks and there were phones on the back of tanks. That went away use of the turbine in the Abrams. That has now changed and the phones are back on the Abrams. The reason being the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Russian backed troops were using UAVs to block transmissions. The Ukrainians would shoot down the drones but the Russians would just send another and eventually there would be a drone with a missile on it. The Ukrainians final solution was to use hardline communications and to put the phones back on their tanks. We are now doing the same to our Abrams

    2. The Swedish S-tank could really do perfectly well with a crew of two, but it was decided to use three for psychological reasons. 🙂 (Also, you could put the third crewman to reasonable use as rearwards driver and radio operator – he’s just not necessary.)

      1. Under Future Combat Systems we were planning on a tank with a 2 man crew. However they operated in teams of two tanks so again it was a four man squad.

        With the Abrams there was a suggestion to make the fourth man run a drone or a remote weapons platform.

  6. Schadlow looks interesting. One question it brings up to me is research on when not to fight a war – when to look at some situation and decide that there is no reasonable prospect of success. I think that’s the key to survival in the long run. It’s one that leaders get wrong at least half the time (more if you count not just wars lost but wars that were more expensive, longer, gained little or nothing).

    1. In my country people recently discovered geopolitics. According to geopolitics, any war is a failure in judgement on someone’s part. If leaders had accurate information, the weaker state would just submit, because you end up losing anyway and it costs you more. A war supposedly occurs only if both sides think they’re stronger. It reminds me of the statistic where most men (people) think they’re above average drivers.

      1. There are two very good books exploring that angle: that wars result from conflicting perceptions of relative power: the anthropologist Jacob Black-Micheaud’s Feuding Societies and Geoffrey Blainey’s Causes of War.

      2. @Peter T
        I think it’s an interesting perspective, but it’s unrealistic to expect leaders on both sides will ever have perfect knowledge. If only because deception and intimidation is a thing. We can feel smart about it decades later, but there’s a saying the first casualty in every war is truth.

        Sun Tzu (Art of War) was famous for his advice of avoid war if you are at a disadvantage, waiting for a better opportunity. His favored solution was building alliances. If the war is already on and you’re the weaker one, he said to avoid enemy forces until you can spot a weakness (terrain advantage, morale, overextending supply lines, wrong formation and more). But he was still very cautious about it and said you need a strong numerical advantage to be certain of victory.

        You’d think this advice (don’t fight if the situation looks grim except when fight is unavoidable) would be obvious, but I live in a country which glorifies fighting for the noble cause, moral victories, heroic sacrifice and resistance against all odds. Sometimes you don’t have much choice, for instance when you live in a so-called “crash zone”, but what bothers me is not drawing insight from history and instead treating it like some kind of second state religion. Over here the default reaction to constructive criticism is denial… deluding yourself is the worst kind of delusion.

  7. I greatly enjoy your blog and applaud your changing whatever you need to change to make it sustainable for you. I originally came here for the Tolkien posts and with no particular interest in military history, but your writing is so engaging that I ended up reading the whole blog from the beginning.

    Best wishes for the job market cage match lottery.

  8. Thank you so much for your blog!

    I have been reading for ~3 months now after your writing immediately sucked me in. I love that you’re unabashed in bridging SF/Fantasy stories with real history. This is exactly what I’m interested in — I love SF/Fantasy, but I love to also know the author’s motivations and thoughts behind their stories. You pick through the pieces well, even for the stories I’m less familiar with (e.g. GoT). I would encourage you to not shy away from literary works. I read far more than I watch, and find the written stories far more engrossing and complex. Maybe one day I will write a story of my own.

    But ultimately I am in support of whatever decision you need to make to make this blog work for you! The photo of yourself was a fun (and unexpected) touch. Behold! You are a real person!

    Cheers from California!

  9. I think it might be useful to mention wargaming as part of the development of doctrine. In both the US and British Forces, wargaming is getting increasing traction as part of the toolbox. This is really a vital part of this development, as it provides a safe space for trial and error, for training, and for seeing what *might* work. And, I would emphasise the relatively cheap analogue version, not electronic! You really don’t need computers for this!

      1. Indeed.

        From the UK perspective, this is a good read:
        Published by The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), which is a strong hint on the approach.
        For a more in-depth look at contemporary professional wargaming and its influence on doctrine in the broadest sense, I suggest a look at
        Personally, I’m more interested in WW2 doctrines (again, in the broadest sense) and how these influenced outcomes. There are lots and lots of popular myths there!

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