the complete failure of colin powell

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One of the very first posts I ever wrote for orgtheory is an analysis of the Powell doctrine, which says, roughly, that you should only engage in war if you have over whelming political support and firepower. I thought the Powell doctrine was a mess from an organizational perspective:

For an organizational theorist, there’s a broader lesson about group learning – things go bad when managers prepare for situations where it is easy to prepare, rather than prepare for situations they are likely to face.

The reason that the US armed forces relied on the Powell doctrine of overwhelming numbers and superiority of force was that they allowed political concerns to drive the kinds of situations they analyze and train for. Specifically, the Powell doctrine was a response to the post-Vietnam desire to avoid ill defined, long term conflicts with guerillas…


This is like corporate managers preparing for competitors that are easy to understand and that they have experienced already, instead of preparing for competitors they are likely to encounter. The Powell doctrine essentially says: “We only become involved in cases where we can decisively win and thus our preparations will be geared towards these situations.” Instead, the doctrine should probably be “we’ll cultivate tools for the situations we’ll likely encounter and develop capacities for improvisation and learning in vague and ill defined environments.”

Eight years later, I feel justified. The US armed forces have been asked to do all kinds of crazy things that only fit Powell doctrine on occasion. For example, the 2006 Surge doesn’t quite fit, or the “muddling through” that we’re doing in Iraq right now. In other words, the Powell doctrine was a reactionary response to the mismatch between Cold War forces and the reality of Vietnam. Good doctrine doesn’t emerge from one encounter. Instead, you have to be honest and admit that Presidents will ask the armed services to do all kinds of things that aren’t well thought out.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

August 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

soviet deep battle doctrine: policy so bad it’s good

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A while back, I got into reading about Soviet “Deep Battle” doctrine. Here’s the Wiki summary:

Deep battle encompassed manoeuvre by multiple Soviet Army front-size formations simultaneously. It was not meant to deliver a victory in a single operation; instead, multiple operations, which might be conducted in parallel or successively, would induce a catastrophic failure in the enemy’s defensive system. Each operation served to divert enemy attention and keep the defender guessing about where the main effort, and main objective, lay. In doing so, it prevented the enemy from dispatching powerful mobile reserves to this area. The Army could then overrun vast regions before the defender could recover. The diversion operations also frustrated an opponent trying to conduct an elastic defence. The supporting operations had significant strategic objectives themselves and supporting units were to continue their offensive actions until they were unable to progress any further. However, they were still subordinated to the main/decisive strategic objective determined by the Stavka.

In other words, if you’re big, sit on the enemy.

Now, this is interesting for a number of reasons. First, most modern armies, starting after WWI, have not relied much on raw size. Instead, most Western states field armies that have strived for mobility. The German blitzkrieg is an example. Today, the US armed forces are striving toward smaller groups that have multiple capabilities (air support combined with infantry). Second, the Soviet military sector was not known for its innovative theory. In fact, Soviet deep battle theory is so odd that it has inspired its own cottage industry of commentators.

The most interesting take on Soviet deep battle is by Earl Ziemke, in a 1983 issue of Parameters, a journal of the War College. Ziemke makes the following arguments:

  • SDB was not really implemented since its creators were killed in the purges of the 1930s.
  • The USSR’s biggest victory, the battle of Stalingrad, was actually a case of modern maneuver warfare. The Red Army won by encircling the Nazi army and essentially starving it to death.
  • SDB was only implemented (barely) in late WW2 when a massive Red Army was steamrolling through Eastern Europe.
  • After WW2, SDB was dropped as the Red Army retooled for nuclear war.

So here’s my take on deep battle. At first, you have a theory that is shaped by contingency. You have a big massive army, so you build a theory about drowning the enemy. Then, the the theory fails early in WW2. It’s proponents are murdered and what’s left is useless. Then, by chance, a situation arises where SDB makes sense. Once that passes, SDB is praised in order to make the victory homegrown and logical rather than accidental. Once history moves on, the theory is quietly dropped and SDB becomes the province of military historians in needs of something to say about the cryptic Soviet military. Bottom line: Zombie policies keep historians employed.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

August 28, 2014 at 12:00 am

the islamic state’s leadership style

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The Small Wars Journal has an article on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Written by Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, it should be of interest to any scholar interested in leadership. The basic question is how the Islamic State suddenly defeated two states on their home turf. Anderson lays out the basics:

  1. Unlike most Arab armies, there is a great deal of trust among the leaders and soldiers. Fighters are sorted into units based on language and nationality. al-Baghdadi does not micro-manage and instead trusts commanders to achieve well specified goals.
  2. Social media: He uses the Genghis Khan technique – kill a few folks and show the bodies to the public via Twitter. Surrender ensues.
  3. Self-financing: Focuses on goals that well help finance the next round. Banks, oils fields, utilities. It’s the “live off the land model” updated. The Islamic state is also good at selecting which captured resources will be useful. Tanks are bad (slow, susceptible to air power). Bulldozers are good (they tear down weak Iraqi fortifications).
  4. A return to maneuver warfare: Since Arabic armies don’t have cohesion or trust, they can’t move well. They sit and shoot. In contrast, IS forces move well, aim at weak points, and retreat when they encounter a “surface” (military term for a well supported force).

Except for terror, IS is simply employing the tactics that Western forces are good at but Arab forces can’t use.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

August 27, 2014 at 12:00 am

book announcement: party in the street – the antiwar movement and the democratic party after 9/11

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blue clip2

It is my pleasure to announce the forthcoming publication of a book by Michael Heaney and myself. It is called Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. It will be available from Cambridge University Press starting in early 2015.

The book is an in-depth examination of the relationship between the major social movement of the early 2000s and the Democratic Party. We begin with a puzzle. In 2006, the antiwar movement began to decline, a time when the US government escalated the war and at least five years before US combat troops completely left Iraq. Normally, one would expect that an escalation of war and favorable public opinion would lead to heightened  activism. Instead, we see the reverse.

We answer this question with a theory of movement-party intersections – the “Party in the Street.” Inspired by modern intersectionality scholarship, we argue that people embody multiple identities that can reinforce, or undermine, each other. In American politics, people can approach a policy issue as an activist or a partisan. We argue that the antiwar movement demobilized not because of an abrupt change in policy, but because partisan identities trumped movement identities. The demobilization of the antiwar movement was triggered, and concurrent with, Democratic victories in Congress and the White House. When push comes to shove, party politics trumps movement activism.

The book is the culmination of ten years of field work, starting with a survey of antiwar protesters at the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The book examines street protest, public opinion, antiwar legislation, and Iraq war policy to makes its case. If you are interested in American politics, political parties, peace studies, political organizations, or social movements, please check this book out. During the fall, I’ll write a series of posts that will explain the argument in some more detail.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

the lighter side of the russia-ukraine conflict, or steven pinker wins again

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This week, I’ll focus my attention on war and conflict. Today’s post will be on the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Then we’ll talk about ISIS’ leadership, Soviet Deep Battle doctrine, and then wrap up with a revisiting of the Powell doctrine.

I used to teach a book called The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin Van Creveld, one of the leading military and political historians. It’s an old style magisterial survey of the state. I used to teach it to explore the reasons for why the state exists and to help students see that strong nation-states are a very specific historical phenomena. Usually, students would get depressed because they realized that state building and warfare go hand in hand.

Then, one of my students offered this rather insightful analysis of war in the historical perspective. It went something like this:

Look, war is horrible but this book actually can be viewed in a positive light. Early on, wars happened all the time and for insanely long periods of time. Rome was perpetually at war; medieval states would fight decades long wars; and so forth. But something important has happened in the last two hundred years. People started regulating war. Treaties were invented. Then, rules of war were introduced.  Then, war prevention organizations like NATO and the UN. Then, wars that minimized civilian casualties. In other words, the nation state system has been, slowly, developing a number of successful mechanisms for preventing wars.

To this correct and insightful analysis, I add a new development: making wars (relatively) invisible. Think about it. Inter-state conflict is so discouraged, compared to the past, that Putin had to pay people to pretend that they were actually Ukrainian. Instead of just invading, as Peter the Great or Stalin might have done, he had to be invited. The international environment so discourages wars that you have to pretend to not to invade a country when you are invading a country.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

August 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

reader poll august 2014

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

August 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

what do 1st-year grad students need to know?

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I’m back from ASA and engaging in a little just-in-time production of syllabi. (For anyone who’s wondering, I did take notes on the “future of orgs” panel and will write those up, but want to run them by the presenters before I post them.)

As grad director, I get to run the proseminar for first-year graduate students. Ours is one hour a week, both semesters. In the past, about half of it has been faculty introducing students to their research areas — e.g. urban week, work & orgs week, demography week, etc.

But grad students have expressed dissatisfaction with this format, and I don’t think faculty are overly thrilled with it, either. So I’m trying to mix things up a bit and make it more immediately useful.

One challenge is that while we want students to get the message about the need to publish, etc., in the past they’ve found such messages a bit overwhelming in the first year, when they’re still trying to figure out how to get through Durkheim. So I’ve tried to approach this from the perspective of, “What do you need to know your first year of grad school?”

Here’s what I’m thinking in terms of weekly topics. This is by substantive area, not chronological. Most weeks will involve guest speakers; I’ll lead perhaps 1/3 of them.

  • How to get around the university
    • Intro to the grad curriculum (DGS)
    • Introduction to the department (department chair)
    • How to get things done in the department (graduate secretary)
    • Guide to library resources  (librarian)
  • How to get through the first year of grad school
    • How to “read” 1000 pages a week (DGS)
    • What I wish I knew my first semester (2nd and 3rd year students)
    • Mid-semester check-in (open discussion)
    • Surviving stats (stats faculty, 2nd-year grad student)
    • The “hidden curriculum” (including race, gender, class issues; DGS and possibly grad students)
    • Successful TAing (one faculty, one student)
    • Making the most of your RA experience (ditto)
    • Time management (DGS? Or someone better with time management skills…)
    • The personal side of grad school (social life, psychological challenges) (not sure…)
  • Thinking about the next year
    • What do I do in the summer? (2nd and 3rd year students)
    • Reverse CV exercise—find people whose jobs you want—what did they have to do to get there? (DGS)
    • Planning years 2, 3 and 4 (DGS)
    • Looking back—how’d the first year go? (open discussion)
  • Thinking about finances
    • Fellowships and grants (DGS)
    • Financial aid & personal finance (financial aid office rep, advanced students)
  • Learning about the profession
    • An overview of the profession (DGS)
    • Developing a publishable research project (one student who collaborated with faculty, one who published from MA?)
    • Developing mentors (advanced grad students)

Then there are a few topics that seem important, but that are not primarily first-year topics. I may include some of these, but open the meetings up to advanced grad students as well:

  • My first article (advanced grad student)
  • Publishing in AJS/ASR (faculty)
  • Will your dissertation be a book? (book faculty)
  • Types of jobs (guest panel—research, teaching, non-academic)
  • Presenting at conferences (advanced students)
  • Choosing a dissertation topic (advanced student + faculty)
  • Finding postdocs (???)
  • The transition to becoming faculty (new junior faculty)

What do you think? Additions? Omissions? Things to skip?

Written by epopp

August 22, 2014 at 1:35 am

Posted in academia, sociology


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