On War #306: A Memo to the President

by William S. Lind
June 2, 2009

The recent fire/counterfire between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney over Guantanamo, the prisoners held there and techniques used in their interrogation revealed a distressing ignorance in the White House. Specifically, it revealed that Obama and his advisors are ignorant of military theory.

Cheney won the debate by drawing the usual Republican distinction, that between doing what is necessary for national security and being nice. If Republicans are allowed to frame the issue that way, they will always win. But in fact, theirs is a false position. We do not have to choose between doing what works in the “war on terrorism” and doing what is morally right. The two are the same.

The military theory that allows us to see this is the work of Colonel John Boyd, USAF. Boyd argued that war is fought on three levels: the moral, the mental and the physical. Of the three, the moral level is the most powerful, the physical level is the least powerful and the mental level lies between the other two.

Cheney argued that we should sacrifice the moral level to the physical. We should engage in torture because it may gain us information that could prevent another attack like 9/11. That could be the case.

But Boyd’s theory would respond that the defeat we suffer on the moral level by adopting a policy of torture will outweigh any benefits torture might bring us on the physical level of war. How so? By pumping up the “terrorists” will, cohesion and ability to cooperate while diminishing our own.

In effect, both our enemies and our allies will come to see us as evil. That enables enemies to recruit, raise money, and generate new operations while we must focus internally on papering over cracks in our coalitions. They gain greater harmony, while we face increased friction, Boyd’s dread “many non-cooperative centers of gravity.” They pull together, we are pulled apart.

For President Obama and other opponents of torture, the important fact here is that, if we understand what Boyd is saying, we no longer face the choice Cheney offered. We need not choose between doing what military necessity commands and acting morally. Military necessity itself demands that we act morally. The real choice is between doing what wins wars and loses wars, with Cheney arguing for the latter. Suddenly, it is the Republicans who are on the wrong side of the “national security” issue.

Let me offer President Obama three pieces of advice, all intended to escape the Republicans’ trap:

First, when this issue comes up again (and it will), go to your NSC director, General Jim Jones, for advice. He is familiar with Boyd’s work. Your political people are not.

Second, apply Boyd’s insight about the three levels of war not only to the question of torture but to everything we do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. At present, we are sacrificing the moral level to the physical in lots of ways, which is to say we are defeating ourselves. A good start would be a Presidential order forbidding air strikes on populated areas and demanding they be restricted elsewhere to situations where our troops would otherwise be overrun.

Three, solve the issue of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere by designating all of them as what they are, namely Prisoners of War. International law specifies how POWs must be cared for. POW camps on American soil are nothing new; we have had them in every war. POWs may be held until the war is over or exchanged. This is what the Bush administration should have done from the outset, a point Democrats can make. The current mess was created by Republicans.

Politicians usually roll their eyes when military theory is mentioned, deeming it too esoteric for “the real world.” As President Obama’s inability to answer Cheney effectively shows, nothing could be further from the truth. The Bush administration led America into two quagmires, in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of its ignorance of the theory of Fourth Generation war. If the Obama White House continues as ignorant as its predecessor, it will set the country up for fresh disasters. A wise President will prefer to learn from theory than from failure.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 11 responses so far

11 Responses to “On War #306: A Memo to the President”

  1. Duncan C Kinderon 02 Jun 2009 at 7:17 pm 1

    “First, when this issue comes up again (and it will), go to your NSC director, General Jim Jones, for advice. He is familiar with Boyd’s work. Your political people are not.”

    The thing to do is to start making an issue out of Boyd now, before the next Cheny/torture debate surfaces.

    If you wait until it surfaces, it’s too late because Cheney, et.al., can rely on sound bytes while Boyd advocates must expend time explaining themselves to a public that doesn’t know the difference between an OODA loop and a hola hoop.

  2. dkenbluon 03 Jun 2009 at 8:35 am 2

    uhhh… President Obama has shown an inability to answer Cheney, huh?

    Here’s excerpt from his speech to the Naval Academy 5/22/09:
    “…Because when America strays from our values, it not only undermines the rule of law, it alienates us from our allies, it energizes our adversaries and it endangers our national security and the lives of our troops. So as Americans, we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both.”

    Here’s from the 100 day press briefing:
    “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals, by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and banning torture without exception.”

    Here’s from the inaugural address, for pete’s sakes:
    “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

    Obama has been making this argument for a year (I didn’t bother pulling up his speeches with a similar line from the campaign trail, but they’re there). This is a familiar complaint of mine: I know he doesn’t have email and won’t read blog comments, but would somebody please at least send Mr. Lind a newspaper from some time in the last year…

    -Dan K

  3. Sgt Oblaton 03 Jun 2009 at 8:36 am 3

    Sure you can always get someone to say you’re right.

    But you are expecting that Obama will go against the opinion of the entire military ? They don’t believe in “the moral, the mental and the physical.” they only believe in the physical – just like Cheney and most Americans.

    You cant justify something using concepts that the constituency rejects, and just consider what and how long it would take to convince them. The war will be long lost by then.

  4. CJDon 03 Jun 2009 at 10:05 am 4

    Mr. Lind:

    Unless i am mistaken, I seem to recall Robert Corram writing of Cheney re-shaping his own thinking in matters of conflict in accord with Boyd’s thesis. Any light you can shed upon his evident abandonment of that position would be of interest.

  5. Maxon 03 Jun 2009 at 10:42 am 5

    Good analysis al around.

    “We do not have to choose between doing what works in the “war on terrorism” and doing what is morally right. The two are the same.”

    This is why we listen to Bill Lind.

    He’s been around, knows his stuff and when he’s
    on the mark, he cuts straight to the point.

    That assertion begins with what Andrew Baceavich characterises
    as “looking in the mirror’ and taking an honest apraisal of what
    you see.

    In interaction with the surviving original clique of Boyds
    inner circle, I am always impressed by their modesty, humulity, self introspection, and behond alll the common thread is devotion to truth.

    To come to grips with the myrad problems that are compounding
    inexorably, as a scociety, the USA must face and come to grips
    with the truth.

    Here’s a fine and perfectly timed example of the that continued failure.



  6. loggie20on 03 Jun 2009 at 7:05 pm 6

    Is this the same Jim Jones who pushed the MV 22 ahead after its Dec 2000 crash?

  7. Maxon 04 Jun 2009 at 8:26 am 7

    I’d like to add that if I should live to 120 years of age, with my
    faculties intact, I can’t imagine ever fathoming how Richard Cheney, having the benefit of direct personel and private interaction with John Boyd, could have ended up on tottaily the wrong side of this debate in every single sense, along with the rest of blow hard right wing lunatics of the world. Everyone one who are contributing architects of the USA current most pecarious and ever worstening situation.


  8. senor tomason 05 Jun 2009 at 1:57 am 8

    “The Bush administration led America into two quagmires, in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of its ignorance of the theory of Fourth Generation war.”

    Also because of cultural ignorance – in Iraq – and historical ignorance – in Afghanistan. The Bush administration was caught off-guard by the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. And they didn’t seem to realize the so-called Afghan-Pakistan border is an arbitrary line drawn on a map by the British in 1893, so said border means little or nothing to the people who live near it.

  9. loggie20on 08 Jun 2009 at 6:43 pm 9

    Cheney was a staffer in the Nixon white house, any more explanation?

    Whether he knew or understood Boyd is hard to tell.

    I suspect he is a survivor.

    He did “kill” the A-12, maybe from concern for light weight and something that might work.

    However, he terminated for convenience rather than default so that the assigns of McDonnell Douglas are still litigating.

    Seems they defaulted but somehow Cheney as Sec Def decided they should get paid. After he is safely out of Sec Def job.

    The courts waffle and the attorneys make money.

    Hardly what Boyd or Sun Tzu would suggest.

  10. Maxon 10 Jun 2009 at 7:42 am 10

    dkenbluon 03 Jun 2009 at 8:35 am 2

    “uhhh… President Obama has shown an inability to answer Cheney, huh?”

    2 Cliches instantly pop into mind.

    “Talk is cheap” but, “ACTIONS speak far louder than words.”

    So far, this President is very short on any meaningfull or decisive action, other than when it comes to squandering multiple hundereds of billions
    of tax payers funds on corporate wellfare.

    I can get all the shallow retoric and quotes I want from the mainstream
    press, but in order to gain a sense, and confirm suspicions about what’s
    really going on, it’s why we hang out in places like this.

    God bless you Chet.


    Read on,

    “Congressman Ron Paul:” “I think he is purely political. I think he has backed down on what he said. He was elected for change and it is the same old stuff and he is as much of a neo-con now as Bush was with this issue and other issues. The war has been expanded. He continues with not closing down Guantanamo.”

  11. Maxon 10 Jun 2009 at 8:57 am 11

    Sgt Oblaton 03 Jun 2009 at 8:36 am 3

    “Sure you can always get someone to say you’re right.”But you are “expecting that Obama will go against the opinion of the entire military ? ”

    Excellent point, that strikes at the very heart of the issue.

    If true, and I agree, then why even bother with ‘elected leadership’
    at all, if it’s just a bogus pretense. As evidenced, and now proven
    in the minds of many by the events since the election.

    That’s a layer even closer to the real problem.