Skip to content
About these ads

The trinity of US tactics – a constant in our small wars but invisible to us. First, use massive firepower.

8 December 2011

Summary:  Awareness of self is as necessary for war as for other aspects of life.  It helps us see what we do, and better understand how others’ see us.  It’s the foundation for a functioning observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop.  Our’s is broken, so we use our great power ineffectively.  Here we look at our use of massive firepower.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
— The Art of War by Sun Tzu (2nd century BC)


  1. The trinity of American Warfare
  2. Using massive firepower on civilians
  3. Inevitable consequences that surprise us
  4. It could get worse

(1)  The Trinity of American Warfare

A constant in our wars since Korea is the US military’s trinity of tactics — massive firepower on civilians, search and destroy sweeps, and popular front armies.  For variety, we give call them by different names in each war.  Many  posts on the FM website discuss this, such as:

A fascinating aspect of this is how some many people in our military remains blind to this continuity — no matter how experienced, brilliant, and well-educated.  Thousands of pages have been written about our use of COIN doctrines (as in FM 3-24); far less on the similarities in our wars.  Tactics repeated, no matter how seldom successful for us or others in counter-insurgency wars.

This post discusses massive firepower, sparked by a line in a comment on the Small Wars Journal.

“the world will require us to fight small wars in the future and small wars by definition are ones in which massive firepower can’t be used.”

Why this blindness?  Massive firepower is, to some extent, dependent on which side of the firepower one stands.  To Americans it suggests our wars from WWI to Vietnam.  Vast areas laid waste, millions killed.  Massive firepower is something we do to others.

What did the people of Iraq think of use of firepower?  How do the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan see our use of firepower?  These nations are not Germany 1944.  Poor, underdeveloped — and defenseless. After all, our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not wars, in the sense of conquering enemy nations.  We fight in support of the local government, with the ultimate aim of helping the people.

(2)  Using massive firepower on civilians

We have used great amounts of firepower in these wars.  We just prefer to close our eyes.  Here’s one, of artillery used for punitive reprisals (of dubious legality): an excerpt from Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, from a transcript of DoD “Bloggers’s Roundtable” 23 May 2008 with Colonel Jon Lehr (Commander of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division):

SHACTMAN: I remember spending some time with you last year and you talked about you believed in the power of artillery to really persuade the local population to not work with insurgents and to work with coalition forces. And so I wonder now, nine months later, if you still hold that view and if you guys are still using artillery to the extent you were last fall?

COL. LEHR: Well, that’s a great question and one I like talking about. Eleven thousand five hundred rounds, I still believe in the carrot and stick, based on the propensity of this culture to — how they deal with power and authority. And it goes back to — it serves a couple purposes, the whole terrain denial piece.

One, we deny terrain to insurgents, (movement ?) routes, IED placement, those types of things. But it also sends a significant message when we start concentrating on a particular area for four or five days at 75 to 100 rounds a day in a given area, it has a profound impact on the population. Just like if I would start shooting artillery around your neighborhood.

Here are two more examples:

Also amazing is how the chatter about COIN in Iraq obscured our use of airpower.  Bombing.  True stealth is large-scale bombing that is invisible to the US news media, military community, and general public. See these articles on TomDispatch for descriptions of our use of air-delivered firepower in Iraq, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Iraq War:

  1. Incident on Haifa Street, 19 September 2004
  2. Dahr Jamail on Life under the Bombs in Iraq, 2 February 2005
  3. Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq, 5 December 2005
  4. Michael Schwartz on Iraq as a Killing Ground, 10 January 2006
  5. Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East, 28 July 2006
  6. Nick Turse on America’s Secret Air War in Iraq, 7 February 2007
  7. Nick Turse: The Air War in Iraq Uncovered, 24 May 2007
  8. Bombs Away Over Iraq, 29 January 2008

(3)  Inevitable consequences that surprise us

‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”
— Attributed to an unnamed US Army Major speaking about the village of Ben Tre in Vietnam.  From “Major describes move” by Peter Arnett, New York Times, 8 February 1968

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) puts great emphasis on the precise applications of force in order to increase the legitimacy of the governments we support.  In practice we use massive firepower on civilians, supposedly in order to help them.  The result is inevitable, and counter-productive.  They (or many of them) hate us.  This negates most of our work.

In Iraq we look to be kicked out, with few gains in exchange for the blood and money spent.  We lost the enduring bases which were one of the war’s major goals, built at vast cost, from which we could project power across the Middle East.  Most of the oil contracts have gone to other nations.

History might repeat itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan (see The love of an ally is sweet to behold).

This use of massive firepower are inconsistent with FM 3-24, sometimes perhaps with the legal authority under which we operate (ie, as the occupying power in Iraq), and not smart.  However, it seems that we just cannot help ourselves.  It’s what we do.

(4)  It could get worse

Many of the war’s cheerleaders advocate far greater use of force.  FM 3-24 does not mention shedding rivers of blood as a counter-insurgency tactic.  Other nations have tried it — unsuccessfully — and it has its advocates in the US.  See Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?  Let’s hope their views do not gain an audience as the long war continues without visible end.

About these ads
21 Comments leave one →
  1. aguest permalink
    8 December 2011 2:30 pm

    “massive firepower on civilians, search and destroy sweeps, and popular front armies.”

    In what sense is this different from what the Soviets did in Chechenia and Afghanistan, the Germans in Bielorussia and Ukraine, the French in Cameroon and Indochina, the British in Iraq and Malaysia, the Japanese in China?

    And if it is not fundamentally different, why do the political and military leaders in the USA expect a fundamentally different outcome?


    • Jackdaw permalink
      8 December 2011 4:30 pm

      Because we’re trying to help them….can’t they see that we’re blowing them up FOR THEIR OWN GOOD?

      I think the American sense of exceptionalism is a major contributor to the brokenness of our OODA loop which Fabius notes in this post.


  2. David Jones permalink
    8 December 2011 4:19 pm

    One explanation (from Chomsky ?? quoting Kissinger ??? about Vietnam) is that it is that “winning” an individual war on someone else’s turf is not as important as the example you make out of them – specifically, that if you are dumb enough to pick a fight with the USA, then your land will experience horrendous destruction. Simple logic, easy to understand.

    Also, off-topic: what about the multiple aircraft carriers hitting the water on their way to the middle east? what the heck is going on?.


    • 9 December 2011 2:40 am

      ‘if you are dumb enough to pick a fight with the USA”

      The guys who could even remotely be considered to have picked a fight with us, left the field a long time ago. Now we’re mostly bombing the guys who live there, for having the temerity to be annoyed that we bombed them.


    • 9 December 2011 3:22 am

      “that if you are dumb enough to pick a fight with the USA, then your land will experience horrendous destruction”

      Iraq did not “pick a fight with the USA.” It’s people did not pick a fight with the USA. The war was based on lies.

      I hope you are clear on that. At this point, after all the evidence that’s come out, it is ignorant and despicable to claim that that Iraq picked a fight with the USA.

      So what lesson are we teaching the world? What does all this say about America?


    • guest permalink
      9 December 2011 11:28 am

      “Iraq did not “pick a fight with the USA.”

      How I interpret this statement is that any country which just refuses to play by the rules of the USA and does not submit to its ukases is considered to have “picked a fight” with the USA. If you do not grovel, you are by definition being aggressive.


    • 9 December 2011 2:09 pm

      That’s a bit Orwellian. It’s rational in context, but unless you explain each time it’s likely to be misunderstood.


    • david jones permalink
      10 December 2011 7:25 am

      By ‘pick a fight’, I meant exactly what guest said.

      I.e., orwellian-speak for ‘refuse our suggestions’.

      I guess i’m so cynical I expect everyone to see this. But I do think this is exactly how our policymakers see it.


  3. 9 December 2011 2:38 am

    Just how much artillery DO you have to drop on someone in order to get them to like you? That seems to be the question we are always trying to answer. We put the “HE” in “Hearts and Minds”…

    The Russians used massive (more than we are) artillery in Afghanistan, too. We’ve already seen how well that worked for them. I’m sure ours is somehow expected to be “better” and more effective.


  4. Matt D. permalink
    9 December 2011 4:34 am

    I think it is a mistake to fall into the trap of thinking that brutal tactics lead to defeat. I think it is more accurate to say that brutal tactics are a sign of defeat– that the force employing them has given up on big goals like legitimacy or “hearts and minds” and is just scrambling to keep a tactical edge. Tom Englehart’s article linked above says something similar.

    Of course, applying brutality in a completely random way, like calling in airstrikes in response to urban ambushes, is especially counterproductive and deserves the special mention it receives here.


    • 9 December 2011 4:54 am

      Why do armies rely on massive firepower instead of winning hearts and minds — or building legitimacy? It’s what armies do. I don’t believe more subtle analysis of motives is required.


  5. Grimgrin permalink
    9 December 2011 8:07 am

    “it {artillery} has a profound impact on the population”
    — Colonel Jon Lehr (Commander of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team)

    That is either the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a month, or one of the most deft uses of verbal irony I’ve ever encountered.


    • 9 December 2011 2:26 pm

      My guess: neither. Col Lehr sounds like someone who says what he things, and does not use irony. “Profound” is a weird way to describe the impact of artillary on a village, but accurate.


  6. 9 December 2011 12:36 pm

    The German Wehrmacht and the SS Regiments in WWII – never famous for their mildness or popularity – never bombed a city to punish insurgents. Sometimes they made cruel and criminal reprisals, killing indiscriminately hundreds of civilians, like in Marzabotto, Italy, or Ouradour, France, but they took the pain to kill them in detail, by machine guns, pistols, etc. In a single case they radically destroyed a village: as a reprisal for the killing of Reinhardt Heydrich by czech soldiers infiltrated in Prague by British SOE; but they executed first the officials (mayor, etc.) and deported the others; then they destroyed the buildings.

    I do not report that fact because I like the Nazis: I do not like them, and I do think that, extermination of Jews and inferior peoples like Slavs aside, they committed enough war crimes to justify their hanging in Nuremberg.

    I simply say it because OTAN forces are serenely, lightheartedly committing a load of war crimes which would be more than enough to justify the hanging of President Obama (and some of Italy’s Premiers, too) in a new Nuremberg process.
    I know, I know: nobody can process Mr. Obama, nor America, nor its allies; or maybe just God, if He cares or exists.
    But don’t forget, please, that when facts go right and words go left, slowly words lose meaning, and meaning loses words.


    • 9 December 2011 2:42 pm

      Buffagni: The NAZI government never “bombed a city to punish insurgents”.

      Your description of the Lidice incident is not accurate. The SS executed 200 people men in the village of Lidice in reprisal to the assassination of Heydrich (See Operation Anthrooid at Wikipedia). I believe there were also other reprisals to insurgent activity in Eastern Europe (but have no details).


    • guest permalink
      9 December 2011 3:24 pm

      Well, no. There were many, many cases where the Germans relied upon full-scale military assaults (including aircraft) against partisans and destroyed entire villages after slaughtering their inhabitants — especially in the East. Even a short look in Wikipedia will turn up such information:

      “Around 1942–1943, the large-scale “cauldron operations” were employed, which involved the use of regular army units, detached from the frontline, against the partisans. Such operations often involving destruction of local settlements (villages) that were seen as potentially supporting the partisans, that meant both the physical destruction of the buildings and the massacre of local inhabitants.”
      — From the Wikipedia entry for Anti-partisan operations in World War II

      Of course, this is not terribly different from what the Germans were doing in East Africa against obdurate natives. Again, from the Wikipedia article about the Maji-Maji rebellion:

      “After the Maji Maji fighters undertook guerrilla tactics as the Germans were using machine guns and cannons to systematically destroy villages and wells, including removal of livestock, and burning of fields and food stores.”

      As you see, those harsh counter-insurgency tactics have a long pedigree.


  7. 10 December 2011 2:01 pm

    to Fabius Maximus: thank you for correcting me on the Lidice episode. I’ll add that the Nazis bombed (heavy artillery shells) the Warsaw Jewish ghetto after its rebellion. German repressions of insurgents all over Europe have been wide and cruel, much more cruel when they took place in countries and against peoples they thought to be inferior and/or politically & racially unacceptable. In USSR, for example, Germany waged a war of extermination, while in France, Nederland, Norway, etc., she waged a traditonal war, committing no more war crimes than the Allied Forces (maybe less, because she did not largely made use of aerial terror bombings of civilians; a courtesy which she reserved to her political or racial foes, communists, jews, slavs: see Guernica).

    I simply remembered the fact that Germany, while repressing insurgents in occupied countries, did not usually resorted to the bombing (artillery or aerial) of cities or towns. They did resort, of course, to hard reprisals on civilians. It has to be remembered, none the less, that international war right did not forbid reprisals on civilians in case of killings of the occupying forces member by partisans. Example: in Rome, 1944, a group of partisans ambushed a German platoon. Hidden in a wastebasket, a bomb exploded and killed 33 German soldiers. German occupying authorities took a reprisal, executing 357 political and common prisoners at the Fosse Ardeatine. About fifteen years ago, the German officer commanding the firing squad, Erich Priebke, was sued in an Italian court and condemned to a life sentence because he executed some more prisoners than the officially legal ratio of ten for any German soldier killed by partisans.

    Nor Hitler’s Germany did OPENLY organized the killing of enemy heads of State, like the USA usually do today.

    Please let me say that I DO NOT mean that the USA are a Nazi State, nor that the Nazis were better than the Americans, etc. I pointed to the fact just because today, we read on the newspapers and watch on TV at fearful war crimes and nobody gives a fig, while we cry warm and abundant tears while watching how bad the Nazi were on History Channel or in any Tv movie. Yes, the Nazis were very bad, but they exist no more, and cannot do no more harm. Maybe it would be better if we worried about OUR war crimes, and if, looking to ourserves, we tried to understand how and why the German people, during the Nazi era, did not give a fig about exterminations, war crimes, loss of political liberties, etc.

    THIS is the historical analogy which could be useful for us, much more than the historical analogy between Saddam en Hitler, MIlosevic and Hitler, Ghaddafi and Hitler, and so forth.


    • guest permalink
      11 December 2011 4:23 am

      “she waged a traditional war, committing no more war crimes than the Allied Forces (maybe less, because she did not largely made use of aerial terror bombings of civilians; a courtesy which she reserved to her political or racial foes, communists, jews, slavs: see Guernica).”

      Well, where do you put the indiscriminate aerial bombings by V1 and V2 against British and Belgian cities in 1944-1945? And what about the area bombing of cities such as Rotterdam and Belgrade in 1940?

      Besides, the German air force and artillery were extremely busy bombarding Allied armies East, South and West and had basically no spare capacity to devote to internal “pacification” operations. Conversely, the USAF and artillery corps an turn their attention to counterinsurgency because they are not desperately trying to stem the advance of entire mechanized Taleban army groups.


  8. 11 December 2011 9:34 am

    Guest writes: “Well, where do you put the indiscriminate aerial bombings by V1 and V2 against British and Belgian cities in 1944-1945? And what about the area bombing of cities such as Rotterdam and Belgrade in 1940?”

    If I were trying to polemize, I’d reply to you “And where do you put Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki?”
    But as I specified in my previous comment, I do NOT say that the Germans were good boys. For example, when the “Phony War” ended, with Hitler’s hopes of a deal with the British Empire which could allow him to wage war undisturbed on the Eastern Front, Germany began to play the game of aerial bombings on civilians on the Western front, a game at which very soon the Allied forces showed to be much better prepared and proficient.
    And of course you’re basically right – perfectly right if you talk about 1944-45 – when you’re saying that “Besides, the German air force and artillery were extremely busy bombarding Allied armies East, South and West and had basically no spare capacity to devote to internal “pacification” operations”. I’d add just the detail that even when the German had that capacity (let’s say until 1943) they followed a centralized policy: on the Eastern Front everything goes & populations are free game (USSR suffered 20 MILLION deaths), while on the Western Front you have to win hearts and minds, so that you cannot go too far.
    Example: when the Germans arrived in Ukraine, they were met by the local authorities with bread and salt. Ukrainians had suffered ten fearful years under Stalin, and they thought that Germany, homecountry of Beethoven, Kant, Holderlin, were going to save them. In a short time, they understood that their fate might be better under Stalin than under Hitler. (You can find a moving account of this historical episode in Solzenitizin’s “Gulag Archipel”).
    In Western Europe, not so small a number of people from countries occupied by Germany or friendly with Germany actively believed in the Nazi’s European unification project; see the SS Division “Charlemagne”, formed by young chosen men from all over Europe, and which was the last defender of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin 1945.
    But when you say “the USAF and artillery corps can turn their attention to counterinsurgency because they are not desperately trying to stem the advance of entire mechanized Taleban army groups” I begin to be afraid that we do not understand each other.
    Yes, of course US military, political and economic superiority on their enemies (Iraq, Afghanistan, Jugoslavia, etc.) is so vast and overwhelming that if so they choose, they can “bomb them into Stone Age”, according to the diplomatic phrasing of a US ambassador.
    But maybe, if I do not misremember, political will is still an option in this world, and strategy, and consideration of possible effects & backlashes of political decisions expressing themselves in tonnage of artillery shells aimed on civilians. If the use of massive firepower on civilians by the US military depends only by their industrial capacity to provide it, maybe the USA and the world have a serious problem.
    When I was in Beirut with the Italian military contingent, in the Eighties, I did see with my eyes what a few mortar shells can do, if aimed on a building full of civilians, so that I can easily imagine what happens when a much heavier firepower is aimed on similar targets.
    In Beirut, I never had the occasion of meeting someone whose heart and mind were won by mortar shells. If the US government and/or Army thinks that air-land missiles or artillery shells can do a better job in Afghanistan or Iraq or everywhere, maybe they’re right, but if they’re right human nature has experienced a deep restructuring, since the Eighties.
    If such is the policy of the US military (“We do all what we can do”), then there’s three possibilities: 1) US military is a blind dinosaur or an automated device 2) US government thinks that its main foreign policy instrument is terror (at least in faraway countries, inhabited by strange and lesser forms of human beings) 3) both.


    • guest permalink
      11 December 2011 12:08 pm

      I believe that your 3 points have already been answered by FM:

      “Why do armies rely on massive firepower instead of winning hearts and minds — or building legitimacy? It’s what armies do.”


  9. 11 December 2011 7:17 pm

    The Perfumed Pimps on the Potomac do have a strategy, it is: ‘Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it’. The only whore they care about winning is the budget war with congress.

    Massive firepower on civilians is the perfect tactic to expend an infinite amount of resources to achieve nothing and thus the tactic is in alignment with the strategy of: ‘Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it’.

    “the world will require us to fight small wars in the future and small wars by definition are ones in which massive firepower can’t be used.”

    Why will the world force the US to fight small wars in the future?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,613 other followers

%d bloggers like this: