The Outsider’s Lot

The Outsider’s Lot

The Outsider’s Lot is a difficult place to be. It’s all too easy to see how things should be done. All the books you’ve read tell you that this is the way to do something. All the news you read suggests that the theory, which seems sound, is being ignored. What’s to be done?

Crows Aren't Seagulls
Pic – “Outsider” from Tom’s Gallery

It’s difficult, in those circumstances, being an educated, informed, empowered but inexperienced individual, to draw a line between what you know and how that plays out in the real world. It’s just part of being human I suppose. The only thing to do is to learn from it, and try not to make the same mistakes again. I’ll offer you an example from my own past, so that you can understand what I am talking about, when I say that, sometimes, inexperience shouts itself from the rooftops.

Sign on the Line

In my early days on the Internet, I made the mistake of openly criticizing a soldier in a blog that I wrote. I have no experience of soldiering. The only thing that I really understand about it is that it is definitely something one can only fully appreciate when one has it experienced first-hand. So my criticism was unjust. At the time, a friend counseled me: “You have to be very careful criticizing soldiers. They’re willing to lay down their lives for you. And at the moment, I’m not prepared to sign on that dotted line.”

Throughout school, I wanted to join the army. I still think about it sometimes. I think it would be very helpful for me, in terms of understanding what is going on in a lot of situations. However, there were a lot of reasons why I didn’t join up, most of them took the form of my mother. I remained interested in military matters and that is what drove me toward my choice of War and Society as an undergraduate degree. While I do still think about it, for me, it’s too much of a commitment. I will just have to remember that sage advice: “I’m not prepared to sign on the dotted line.”

The Ivory Tower

One thing that I have always sought, is to remove myself as far as possible from the Ivory Tower. For now, my place is here, in my Ivory Tower. I want to interact ‘on the ground’ with the things I am interested in; I hope that the research for my PhD will take me to Afghanistan. Someday I will engage in fieldwork, someday I will know what it’s like to be out there, amongst it. But for now, I think that it’s important to start this dialogue with the rest of the world, and to ensure that other Outsiders know how important it is that we continue to support the mission in Afghanistan, but that this should only be done under the strictest of parameters.

Inspiration and Learning from Others

I don’t know that there’s an answer here. Something to muse on, I think. The “civil-military” relations thing is fascinating. People like David Kilcullen and John Nagl are great inspirations to me. While it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever experience combat, it is very useful to read people like these who have the military training to see them through battle, and the intellect and academic training to allow them to coherently, fluently and prosaically discuss their experiences. As an under-studied follower of the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, I am aware of the power of role models and the examples they set. Throughout the writing of this blog, I will rely on reports from the field. News reports, while coloured by so much adherence to house guidelines, blogs (similarly censored, I’m sure), freelance reportage, and other primary sources and first-hand accounts will be very valuable to me.

In many ways, and like most of life, it’s a situation where one can never know the true feelings, intentions, story, of another individual. This situation crops up in all areas. The debate within the air force at the moment, about the position of drone pilots within the ranks, alongside fighter pilots. From my studied view, it seems that drones have their place in all branches of the military. The army can, and does, use them for local reconnaissance. The navy, ditto. The air force needn’t control the whole fleet of drones.

Ringing the Changes

This stubbornness in the face of what seems an inevitable shift to unmanned recon is indicative of the nature of large, strictly hierarchical institutions, such as armies. They are inherently inflexible. John Nagl’s treatise on the British and American armies as ‘learning institutions’ during their respective experiences dealing with insurgencies during the Cold War clearly demonstrates this. He suggests that it is “essential that the army leadership be willing to accept, or at least consider, even what at first appear to be heretical ideas.”[1] I used this exact quote in my dissertation, (which I will post in PDF format here, as soon as it’s back from the markers). This is what the British army had to do in the First World War. Great shifts in strategic and tactical thinking took place in those bitter four years. But the army changed, adjusted itself, from a rigid, hierarchical system, based on one-way communications traffic, to a flexible, adaptive force, with commanders willing to learn the lessons demonstrated to them by the soldiers on the ground.

Afghanistan is exactly this sort of situation. It is vitally important for the commanders to allow their officers to take control of situations and, within the confines of an overall mission structure, to adapt as they see fit the tactics used to achieve that end. As long as the ends justify the means (the soldiers must, if only for the sake of good COIN, obey certain standards of ethics and morality) and they are always seeking to improve relations with the locals, and encourage the locals away from the Taliban.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

However, as I said at the start, from the outside, it’s all too easy to see the way things should be done. When it comes to actually doing it, things tend to change a little more slowly. What’s most frustrating about this, from a counterinsurgency point of view, is that COIN itself takes a long time. In this age of faster, sooner, now, the West would do well to take a step back, let things happen and see what occurs, rather than frequently pressing the issue, always seeking innovation and new ideas. They may do better to look at what is working and try to replicate it across the country. This could lead to more effective methods being employed.


[1] John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2005), 10. Frustratingly, many of Nagl’s “Lessons” were learnt in similar manner and applied effectively during the First World War. However, his study of armies as “Learning Institutions” demonstrates why this happened.

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)


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