Sex, Art, Doctrine: Great Film, Gay Sparta, and Genocide

EDITORS: Once a month Kenneth Payne, a Lecturer at King's College London, surveys the intellectual currents fermenting at Kings of War, the faculty and student blog of the Dept of War Studies at KCL. 


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Welcome to the first Green Zone column - the home from home at Current Intelligence of the blogging collective from Kings of War (or KoW, for short). We spend our time thinking and writing about strategy, both on the blog and in our day jobs as academics. Here, we want to give you a flavour of the sort of things we've tossed about on the blog in the last month, in the posts and in the comments.

As usual, there was a fair bit of counterinsurgency related discussion. Far the most popular viewing this month was Thomas Rid's shortlist of 'Great Films on Small Wars', which is going into his next book on counterinsurgency, alongside a list of great fiction about small wars - both compiled with the help of blog readers. How many have you seen? Waltz with Bashir was my pick of the bunch, but at only 6 out of 20, I'm laying in some Easter DVD viewing.  Elsewhere on the blog, we've had a discussion about accuracy in films, focused in particular on The Hurt Locker, and whether it's important to be faithful to the details. My own view was that the films are important as art in and of themselves, and, secondly, important as a snapshot of how societies reflect on the wars they're in. In his last book, Peter Paret draws on German paintings and music in his discussion of how Prussian society responded to the calamity at Jena: the art was not an accurate portrayal of battle, but no less insightful for that.

What's the point of doctrine, Rob Dover wanted to know. Modern doctrine, he wrote, 'tries to write for every scenario and every situation, branching off into areas that should be immune from doctrinal attention – and it renders itself obsolete in doing so'. The British military, latecomers to the party, have turned into doctrine fiends - producing great reams of the stuff, some useful, some even readable. But alas not all. In the mammoth new guide to Stabilization, JDP-3-40, we spotted plenty of mind numbing business-speak. While the dread word 'stakeholder' rated nine mentions, Clausewitz got only one - banging the drum, as ever, for the political essence of war.  Also appearing, as Patrick Porter noted, were 'skill sets, synergy, benchmarks, outputs, enablers', and some twenty-odd 'drivers'. I counted four mentions of 'best practice'  and three 'deliverables'. The English language, it seems, is the first casualty of war.

'The peaceful rise of the first gay superpower since Sparta' is my blog-post headline of the month. Step forward China, according to David Betz, reflecting on an Economist article about the large gender imbalance in China's population. Unless there's a mighty rise in homosexualty, and tolerance thereof, there may be trouble ahead. Large numbers of rootless young males, searching desperately for a date, spells trouble. 'In general,' David wrote, 'it seems to me that the strategic studies community pays insufficient attention to sex'. Speak for yourself, David. If you're interested, take a look at the comments on the post for some interesting thoughts on the relationship between sex and war.

The love that dare not speak its name spoke up again on KoW a few days later, with some pretty robust exchanges on Don't Ask Don't Tell, as our anonymous blogger, the 'Faceless Bureaucrat' took aim at an 'archaic, childish policy'. The commenters piled in, on both sides of the argument. Patrick Porter again won the day with this: 'I confess to being simplistic, and not caring whether someone who is competent to serve in the military has sex with willing adult folk of the same gender, as long as its with music and cigars'. And then the discussion morphed, as these things do, into an exchange on the level of shrill vitriol in modern political discourse.

As usual, psychology wasn't too far from my blogging thoughts. In particular, I wrote about Clausewitz's understanding of psychology, writing about the great weight he placed on agency in warfare, and, moreover, on the psychology of decision makers. At root, Clausewitz knew that psychology was key to understanding the two elemental forces at play in war, which he made central themes in his writing: friction and genius. Now that I think about it, much the same can be said of Machiavelli, and his recourse to virtu and fortune: both are concerned with the limits of free will. How much agency is there in strategy, and why do people exercise it the way they do? Prisoners of their times, neither man could advance much beyond philosophical speculation on the nature of man - much of which, though by no means all, is of enduring value. A frustrated Clausewitz lamented  ‘our slight scientific knowledge’ of what he called ‘this obscure field’. Later scholars have had more luck, not least Stephen Rosen, in his excellent War and Human Nature, and even Bernard Brodie, doyen of nuclear strategists, whose pronounced psychological bent is in contrast to the cool rigour of his mathematically minded colleagues at RAND. Both scholars featured in my writing this month, and will again next.

Lastly - is your girlfriend worried about being fat? Did you seek help via google? If so, you'll be the disappointed punter who arrived at David Betz's post on the special relationship and the latest Falklands spat. If you thought his China headline was good, you'll have enjoyed this: 'Dear Abby: My girlfriend is a circus fat lady and she’s hankering after Argentine beef. What’s a skinny boy to do?' Quite. After all we've done in Iraq and Afghanistan, what was the US Secretary of State doing, offering to help in the dispute? There is, as David noted, little to help with. Here's his appraisal of Britain's strategic dilemma: 'Our best girl is the circus fat lady. She takes up a lot of bed and she needs a lot of blanket. Even when the loving’s good it can kind of hurt and it’s more or less always on her terms. And she’s interested in other boys too from time to time'.  Who says strategic studies scholars don't think about sex. Oh, that's right - it was David.