DSD Summer Reading #2

In this series members of the Defence Studies Department share the books they are reading this summer. This instalment is from a recent addition to the Department, Dr Aimée Fox-Godden. You can read more posts from Aimée here and here

While the redrafting and reading of my own forthcoming monograph has dominated my summer vacation, I have managed to carve out much needed time to revisit old favourites, catch up with recent purchases, and begin essential reading for my next project. So, without further ado, here are my three summer reads:

  1. Jean Bou (ed.), The AIF in Battle: How the Australian Imperial Force Fought 1914-1918 (Carlton VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2016)

Australia’s commemoration of the First World War centenary has proved somewhat contentious. Costing over $500m, the majority of this taxpayer’s money, it has resulted in a number of raised eyebrows. 2015 saw the hundredth anniversary of the failed Gallipoli campaign, while 2016 marked one hundred years since Fromelles. These two engagements, particularly the former, have shaped popular perceptions of Australia’s role in the conflict where ‘diggers’ were willingly slaughtered by their incompetent imperial overlords. The AIF in Battle offers a necessary corrective. Edited by Jean Bou, an authority on the Australian contribution in the Palestine theatre, this excellent edited collection examines the AIF’s stature as a fighting force. It includes chapters from the next generation of Australian military historians largely clustered in and around Canberra, which really is marking itself out as a hub for outstanding military history. While still working my way through this volume, stand out chapters thus far include Michael Molkentin’s examination of air power and the AIF, Aaron Pegram’s discussion of trench raiding, and Meleah Hampton’s incisive discussion of the AIF’s initial engagements on the Western Front in 1916-17.

  1. Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

I first encountered Amy Milne-Smith’s work during my doctoral research. Her excellent article dealing with male gossip, social control and masculinity had me hooked. I finally got hold of her book, London Clubland, earlier this year, and I finished it in a single sitting. Milne-Smith uses clubland to explore the shifting boundaries of class, contested urban spaces, and interrogates our understanding of the ‘gentleman’ in Victorian England. Drawing on an extensive range of source material, notably the archives and records of numerous London clubs, the product is a beautifully written analysis, packed to the rafters with amusing anecdotes that will make you smirk and cringe in equal measure. A must read.

  1. Claire Langhamer, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

As an intrigued newcomer, furtively dipping her toes into the burgeoning history of emotions, I must confess to feeling rather comforted by the front cover of Langhamer’s The English in Love: a photograph of a serviceman presumably saying farewell to his wife or lover. Considering the period between 1920 and 1970, Langhamer focuses on how the English made sense of love and marriage, using the voices of ordinary people to analyse shifting understandings of love, sexual desire, and commitment. While only a quarter of the way through this book (which I am enjoying immensely), it has challenged me as a historian, opening my eyes to new possibilities in terms of methodologies and source material.

Image via flickr.


DSD Summer Reading #1

In this series members of the Defence Studies Department share the books they are reading this summer. First off is Dr Chris Tripodi. You can read more posts from Chris here, here and here.

I intended to get some reading done over the summer break and set an objective of five particular books – John Buckley’s ‘Monty’s Men: the British Army and the liberation of Europe, Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, David French’s Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army and the British People 1878-2000 , Orlando FigesA People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. A progress report as of mid-August only gives me a solid B however, having scorched through the fist three titles but then abandoning Figes’ effort partway through in favour of John Bew’s ‘Relpolitik’, which itself is suffering my stuttering attention. The reason is that, having simultaneously got my teeth into Gat’s monumental work I’m unwilling to let go of that particular masterpiece just yet.

Monty’s Men is straightforward military history, and seeks to redress a prevailing narrative that has infected our appreciation of the British Army’s tactical performance during the NW Europe campaign 1944-5, namely the hoary old trope of a tired, unimaginative and inflexible fighting organisation whose reputation stands in unflattering contrast both to its German opponents and its US Army ally. The reason for reading it was to see if there was anything within that might add to my understanding of the NW Europe campaign from the British perspective, so as to better aid me in the delivery of the numerous staff rides that I conduct there for the College and other units. The results were mixed. There were certainly some tactical level doctrinal matters raised by Buckley which, when delved into, made more sense of the British Army’s behaviour and overall he made a thoroughly convincing case for the appropriateness of its tactical and indeed operational methods during the campaign. The problem in my eyes however was that those points could have been condensed into a sizeable article. Instead we have a lengthy and largely orthodox narrative description of the NW Europe campaign which focuses so heavily upon events in Normandy that it sacrifices better understanding of the immensely tough operations that took place over the winter of 1944-5 in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. A bit of a missed opportunity in that respect, I felt.

Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is her account of her service as a POLAD (Political Advisor) to US forces in Iraq 2003-2010, firstly with the 173rd Airborne Brigade around Kirkuk, and then subsequently as an integral part of General Ray Odierno’s team in Baghdad as they sought to shape a functioning politico-military entity out of the rubble of post-Saddam Iraq. I first read parts of the book a few months ago in order to lend weight to some of the arguments I made in a recently published research article, but always wanted to go back and complete my reading of her account. Perhaps the most revealing sentence in the book comes in the opening paragraph where she states that ‘nothing which happened in Iraq after 2003 was inevitable’ – a blindingly simple yet utterly necessary corrective to those who believe that there is some sort of thoroughly unambiguous line linking the events of April 2003 with, for example, the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’. In contrast, Sky leads the reader through the multiple decision points that occurred over the course of her decade in-country, identifying how Iraq’s various alternative futures may have been secured but for the intransigence of certain key figures at certain key points. And for those who blame G .W. Bush (somewhat understandably) for the farrago that has subsequently unfolded, they might wish to take a much closer look at the Obama administration’s handling of the Maliki question – in fact of the entire Iraq question – from 2010. If anyone can be held responsible for the rise of ISIS, it’s a dead heat between Maliki and his sponsors in the Democratic administration in Washington DC who exhibited an absolutely unforgivable keenness to wash their hands of Iraq at an absolutely critical juncture. So I recommend Sky’s book as a reminder that historical trajectories which we perceive as ‘fixed’ were never so.

Where to begin with David French’s Military Identities? He’s the sort of military historian who defines the subject, treating war as a social and cultural as well as political, diplomatic, economic and strategic phenomenon. He covers every inch of every base to such an extent that once he’s tackled a subject then it’s game over for the rest of us poor saps who may have entertained ambitions to write on it ourselves. So be it where Military Identities is concerned. If anyone ever wanted to understand why the British army looks, thinks, fights and behaves in the way that it does need look no further. This book paints such a vivid portrait of the late Victorian, Edwardian, wartime and, ultimately, modern British Army’s social, cultural, doctrinal and war-fighting DNA that it’s difficult to comprehend why this isn’t compulsory reading for every British Army officer, and the rest of us who might be curious as to why it’s such a peculiar organisation.

Lastly, I’m about halfway through Azar Gat’s epic War in Human Civilization. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, this book leads us though the emergence and entrenchment of warfare as a phenomenon in human society. An unbelievably ambitious project, it commences with broader philosophical enquiries as to the nature of the human condition in terms of our supposedly warlike nature, debates the evolutionary and genetic explanations for the utility of conflict, and tracks its shifting forms through early hunter gatherer and farming communities, the emergence of Empires and of the state, machine age warfare and the eventual dominance (as of 2006, when it was published) of liberal democracies and their ‘ultimate’ weapons. So far I’m beginning to consider it to be one of those works that any individual interested in or professionally concerned with the business of war should read at some point, sooner rather than later (Later in my case, unfortunately). Prone to veering off at apparent although always hugely interesting tangents, this is nonetheless a genuinely fascinating piece of work that showcases a polymathic grasp of the subject across a multitude of its fascinating aspects. Highly recommended.

Image via wikimedia commons.



Two M-60A3 main battle tanks move along a road during Central Guardian, a phase of Exercise Reforger '85.

General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today


In the vast majority of cases, scenarios of future war have rarely come to pass as originally envisioned. At least two inter-related reasons can account for this. First, due to the incredibly large number of variables to consider – geopolitical, technical, human, etc. – it is simply impossible to calculate how they will interact with each other, especially if projecting forward by months, years or decades. The second reason has to do with distinguishing between ‘future war’ and the ‘future battlefield’. Regrettably, far too many scenarios and models, whether developed by military organizations, political scientists, or fiction writers, tend to focus their attention on the battlefield and the clash of armies, navies, air forces, and especially their weapons systems.  By contrast, the broader context of the war – the reasons why hostilities erupted, the political and military objectives, the limits placed on military action, and so on – are given much less serious attention, often because they are viewed by the script-writers as a distraction from the main activity that occurs on the battlefield.

During the Cold War, thinking about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional clash in Europe required more attention to be placed on the political context because of the risks of nuclear escalation. More recently, scenarios of a possible NATO (or to be more precise – ‘coalition of willing NATO members’) clash with Russia over the Baltic States have similarly been required to account for the nuclear issue. Regrettably, a number of key weaknesses are observable in many of the assumptions underpinning such scenarios.  This blog post will examine a selection of these weaknesses, focusing on General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 book The Third World War, comparing it with several other texts from the Cold War, and then bringing the problem up-to-date with a discussion of some recent scenarios dealing with the Baltic States.

Hackett’s work has been selected because it is often considered the benchmark text by which other fictional accounts of a future war are assessed in relation to, such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia. The book was an unexpected publishing triumph, with some 3 million copies sold and translated into 10 languages.  Prime Minister James Callaghan presented President Jimmy Carter with a copy in 1979, and President Ronald Reagan named it as one of his top three books in 1983. Fortunately, the early manuscripts and correspondence related to The Third World War are available at King’s College London’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and can be examined to identify how and why the scenario evolved during the more than year-long drafting process, which it did in significant ways.

Although the book is often referred to as being authored by Hackett, in actual fact, he only wrote a small portion.  Instead, his main role was providing the general concept for the scenario, as well as organizing and editing the more detailed chapters that were written by a group of former British senior officers from each of the services, a deputy editor of the Economist, a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Directing Staff (DS) at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

The published version describes a war lasting from 4-22 August 1985 that begins with a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO utilizing conventional and chemical weapons, evolves into a barely successful defence and counterattack by NATO, is then followed by a limited nuclear exchange that wipes out Birmingham and Minsk, and concludes with the dissolution of the Soviet ‘empire’. It is important to note that the scenario is a global one – across the continents, on the ground, in the sea, in the air, and in space – although the main action takes place in Europe. Hackett deliberately chose this version of the scenario to demonstrate that a successful defence against the Warsaw Pact could be mounted by NATO – provided of course the Alliance invested heavily in new military equipment and increased its frontline manpower.

However, Hackett’s earlier attempt at writing a scenario had the Warsaw Pact advancing to the French border in as little as 4 days leading to the occupation of West Germany, a D-day style NATO counterattack two years later, followed by a Soviet collapse. After distributing drafts of this early version, he was told by several retired US and West German generals that if it was published it would undermine public confidence in NATO. A year earlier, in 1976, Belgian Brigadier General Robert Close published a controversial book, Europe Without Defense? 48 hours That Could Change the Face of the World, involving a scenario in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack and advances to the Rhine in two days. Fearing the prospect of undermining NATO, Hackett developed more optimistic scenarios, including the one that was eventually published.  Interestingly, the end state of a Soviet collapse remained consistent throughout all of the versions, even ones in which no nuclear weapons were used.

In terms of the realism of Hackett’s scenario, as well as several similar works, at least six key aspects should be critically examined:

The Decision for War Initiation. In most of these scenarios, this aspect of the conflict is treated in a superficial way, with very little discussion about the rationality and cost-benefit calculus of the Soviet/Russian leadership, and what they would hope to gain, especially given the costs of war and risks of nuclear escalation. In Hackett’s scenario the decision to attack NATO is not one based on a Soviet desire for world conquest, but rather it is motivated by fears of the elite that the future ‘correlation of forces’ does not favour the Kremlin and that projected internal weakness will eventually lead to a state collapse. Therefore, war against NATO is ultimately seen as a way of re-establishing order internally. This motivation is also apparent in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Shirreff’s account of Putin’s decision to attack the Baltic States.

The Timing of War Initiation. Unlike Close’s surprise attack from a standing-start, Hackett chose to begin his war on 4 August because, as in 1914, he viewed a period of mobilization as almost certain to precede the start of hostilities.  Indeed, the Warsaw Pact attack is preceded by a combination of diplomacy, propaganda, subversion and sabotage – ‘hybrid war’ in today’s parlance. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO forces have sufficient lead time to alert the covering forces along the inner German border, disperse aircraft, and mobilize their reserves to be able to mount an adequate defence. Many of the NATO scenarios from the period assumed 48 hours of early warning – the minimum period which was deemed necessary for NATO forces to begin mobilization and deploy to the forward defensive positions. On the other hand, there was some debate whether a longer lead time prior to war worked for or against NATO given that the Soviet Union could probably more quickly mobilize and deploy more divisions from inside the USSR. Curiously, in the 2014-2015 US Army-sponsored RAND wargames of a Russian attack on Estonia and Latvia, there is an early warning period of one week – by happy coincidence, roughly the amount of time needed by the US Army to deploy its troops to the region. In reality, one wonders if NATO would have one day of warning, much less one week.

Geographic Objectives and Limitations. The stop-line for a Warsaw Pact attack was also a hotly contested issue. Hackett insisted that the idea of a Soviet invasion that would only stop at the Channel ports, probably died with Stalin. Instead, the Warsaw Pact attack through West Germany was supposed to stop at the French border to avoid French intervention. Close’s scenario also limits the Warsaw Pact advance to the Rhine.  Nevertheless, whereas Close limits his scenario to West Germany-only, Hackett’s scenario encompasses attacks not only in West Germany and the Low Countries, but also on NATO’s northern and southern flanks, as well air attacks on Britain. Oddly, though Hackett has the Soviets invade neutral Austria on their way to Italy (in most scenarios the Soviets violate Austrian neutrality to attack NATO forces in southern Germany), they choose to avoid attacking Switzerland, no doubt wisely. More recent scenarios have Russia attacking one, two, or all three of the Baltic States, but none have them invading Poland. Not only is the stop-line of the invading forces a crucial consideration, but so too is the stop-line for the counter-attacking NATO forces. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO chooses not to cross into Warsaw Pact territory to reunite Germany and liberate Eastern Europe. Similarly, whether NATO would choose to attack Kaliningrad is a contested subject in the more recent scenarios, and there seems little inclination to expand attacks elsewhere inside Russia.

Deciding to Cross the Nuclear Threshold. In The Third World War there are several points when decisions must be made about using nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, SACEUR and SACLANT are pressed by subordinate commanders to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet ground and naval forces. This they refuse to do fearing Soviet escalation. On the Soviet side, the decision to drop a one-megaton nuclear warhead on Birmingham is taken only after Soviet forces begin to lose the conventional battle. In response, the US and UK decide on an instant ‘limited’ nuclear attack on Minsk (in earlier drafts Ukraine and the city of Tomsk). Just as the Soviet leadership are considering further escalation, a coup occurs in Moscow and the war ends. In the BBC’s February 2016 programme ‘Inside the War Room’, a limited nuclear attack by Russian forces (albeit Russian officials deny they authorized it) on British and American ships in the Baltic leads to a ‘like-for-like’ US-only retaliation. The programme ends with British decision-makers contemplating whether to authorize a full-scale nuclear retaliation should Britain be attacked. By a slim majority, they decide against this.

Nuclear Targeting. Assuming nuclear weapons are used in these scenarios, what sort of weapons are used and against what targets? Hackett’s original conception of possible nuclear use was to be limited to naval targets or for use in space. For reasons that remain unclear, more than half-way through the book’s drafting Hackett chose to include a nuclear aspect to the scenario in which a one-megaton warhead was to be used against Birmingham (most likely the idea and details for this section of the book derived from the then still-classified 1961 study prepared for the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser Solly Zuckerman about the effects of a one-megaton nuclear attack on Birmingham). At the time of The Third World War’s publication, many critics argued that the single Soviet attack was unrealistic. In Hackett’s description of Soviet decision-making, there is no serious consideration given to Soviet use against NATO battlefield targets, and the Soviets quite deliberately choose not to attack London, much less any US targets, fearing much greater retaliation.

War Termination. Writing an ending to a third world war is almost as difficult, if not more so, than writing the beginning.  In the scenarios discussed here, unlike in much of the nuclear fiction genre, the war does not end in global Armageddon. In both Hackett’s and Clancy’s scenarios, the war ends with a coup in the Kremlin. For Hackett, this occurs after nuclear use but before further escalation. For Clancy, the coup occurs to prevent nuclear use in the first place. In Close’s 48-hour scenario, NATO is defeated before it can even come to a decision about nuclear escalation. In some scenarios, the war ends in days or weeks. In others, initial defeat does not lead to surrender or acceptance of the status quo, but rather hostilities continue until such time as the initial lost territory is recovered. One feature that is pretty much a constant in all of these scenarios is that as the war is taking place, so too are diplomatic negotiations. Unlike in the conventional-only World War II, ‘unconditional surrender’ is not an option to end the potentially nuclear World War III.

Hackett’s The Third World War, like many of the fictional scenarios dealing with future wars, can be quite useful as a tool to help think through the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own defence posture, as well as those of allies and adversaries, and how these might interact in the event of an international crisis or war. Ideally they provide the reader with a genuinely futuristic perspective that is not simply the last war projected into the future, though ultimately any scenario cannot entirely escape the past and present. That being said, scenarios are rarely neutral. It is essential to be aware of the conscious agendas and the unconscious assumptions underpinning them. For instance, all too often, scenarios are written around a predetermined end state.  Therefore, the starting point for any critique should begin with a study of the author before it proceeds to the content. As for the content, to assess the realism of any future war scenario, one must make the conceptual distinction between ‘wars’ and ‘battlefields’, not treating the latter in isolation of the former. It is quite easy to project how one weapon system might fare against another, but taken out of a broader strategic context, such a projection is practically meaningless (apart from its marketing value), or worse, misleading.  In this sense, even if less entertaining or exciting, the degree of realism of the political aspects of the scenario, particularly policymakers’ rationality and cost-benefit calculus, and the key decisions that are taken about going to war, the objectives being sought, the limits placed on military action, and the willingness to incur the risks of escalation, should receive more critical attention than the purely battlefield dimensions of the future conflict.

Image: M-60A3 near Giessen in West Germany, 1985: the year of Hackett’s scenario from The Third World War, via wikimedia commons


Chilcot: The Lessons of Iraq vs The Reality of Interventions


Chilcot’s exhaustive enquiry into the origins, undertaking, and consequences of the Iraq war has been published. In turn, this (rather less than) exhaustive analysis of certain of its conclusions seeks to explore two of the critical components of the faulty pre war decision-making process as identified by the report. It will propose that despite Chilcot’s pertinent and well meaning observations in this respect, and despite any prospective efforts to abide by those observations and incorporate them into our planning and strategizing for the purpose of future interventions should they occur, similar mistakes as those made in Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan and Libya) will most probably continue to be made.

What precisely then are the observations and recommendations referred to? They are, firstly, that ‘[W]hen the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved’. Secondly, and presuming that the achievability of the political objective as been recognized, that ‘[A]ll aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour’. One would no doubt agree that these are highly pertinent observations, and that any rational interpretation of the events surrounding the Iraq intervention and its consequences would support such recommendations. Indeed in theory I would absolutely agree, and a recent article of mine has identified similar themes to Chilcot in these important respects. But that same article also identifies certain crucial elements that will always infect the rational use of military power for the purpose of liberal intervention, regime change and stabilisation, and which will always have the potential to derail rational political processes and designs.

With regard to the first point, that relating to the ‘achievability’ of political objectives. The former soldier turned academic Christopher Bassford puts it best in some ways. Responding to the oft bowdlerized warning that ‘[T]hose who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them’, Bassford adds the refinement that, then again, even those who do remember the mistakes of the past are still condemned to repeat them. Because that’s what people do. It’s an unhelpful aspect of human nature; not the fact that lesson’s can’t be learned (of course they can), but the notion that on this particular occasion they simply don’t apply (when of course they do). But although Bassford’s observation may have been intended as a throwaway quip, it is rooted in scientific realities. For the purposes of this post, it draws attention to the concept of Construal Level Theory (CLT), a field of psychology that examines how people cope with the challenge of forming evaluations of distant actions and outcomes and in particular the way that they evaluate the latter phases of a sequence of actions.

Obviously, the keen eyed observer will note that I’m not a psychologist. But thanks to the research of Aaron Rapport in his article The Long and Short of It: Cognitive Constraints on Leaders Assessments of Post-war Iraq the non-psychologist becomes immediately aware of how these cognitive processes really matter in relation to political actors choosing to use force for interventionist purposes, particularly when it comes to the objective of dismantling or altering political and social structures in target societies. By extension therefore, one becomes aware of the potential for Chilcot’s warnings to remain unheeded in future.

Essentially, Rapport’s research argues that there is a difference in the way that policymakers approach certain aspects of an intervention such as Iraq. The first is the ‘near’ problem, which in the case of Iraq was the initial military campaign and the process of regime change. This is generally assessed on the basis of feasibility i.e. can we do this? However, the ‘far’ problem, in this case the subsequent long-game involving the transformation of Iraq from totalitarian dystopia to functioning democratic and unitary state, is subject to different criteria. In this instance, the determining factor is one of ‘desirability’ i.e. how much do we want this to happen? According to Rapport’s analysis, when ultimate objectives are so highly prized, policymakers tend to focus almost exclusively upon the benefits that will accrue rather than the intricate steps necessary to make them happen. As his conclusion states, this had the effect of encouraging overly-optimistic assessments of the political conditions that would exist in Iraq in the late stages of the intervention, a laissez-faire attitude that was not reflected by those involved in the short term planning relating to the initial military invasion and potential humanitarian crisis that was expected to follow. Simply put, the more distant the event, the more likely policymakers are to attribute positive outcomes to it. This has obvious implications for the mechanics of intervention, and the likelihood of political actors failing to properly conceptualise and resource the ‘long-game’ due to their over-optimistic belief in the satisfactory conclusion of their ultimate grand designs.

Chilcot’s second observation, that relating to the requirement for ‘all aspects of the intervention’ requiring the necessary ‘debate, calculation and challenge’ is similarly problematic. ‘All aspects’ of an intervention must, by definition, include that point subsequent to initial military operations. Yet, as my article points out, military interventions of the type engaged in by the West recently tend to transform the known into the unknown. The demolition of Ba’athist Iraq and the toppling of Ghaddafi released a vicious, swirling, directionless mass of competing ethnic groupings, tribes, sects, gangs, militias, warlords, terrorists and foreign elements, each with their own peculiar local, regional, national and transnational allegiances, alliances, economic interests and political aspirations. The notion that policymakers could have accurately considered and debated the innumerable permutations that may or may not have arisen is laughable. Donald Rumsfeld may have got many things wrong on the subject of Iraq, but his much derided articulation of ‘unknown unknowns’ i.e. ‘things you don’t know you don’t know’, perfectly highlights the problem facing those seeking to abide by Chilcot’s recommendations. Because what Chilcot is advocating in reality is that policymakers and their advisors, both military and civilian, must ‘debate, calculate and challenge’ not only the unknown, but potentially the unknowable too.

Image: Tony Blair and George W. Bush at Camp David in March 2003, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, via wikimedia commons.



NATO’s Warsaw Summit and Russia: deterrence or provocation?


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit in Warsaw, which took place 8-9 July 2016, focused on the continuing threat to Euro-Atlantic security from Russia, leading to an emphasis on deterrence and a strengthening of the alliance’s defence posture, moving away from its previous posture of reassurance. The summit’s final communiqué was uncompromising in its description of Russia’s ‘aggressive actions’ including the ‘ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea’, ‘the violation of sovereign borders by force’, ‘the deliberate destabilisation of eastern Ukraine’, ‘provocative military activities near NATO’s borders’ and ‘irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric’. The alliance’s response, as outlined in the communiqué, is to augment its deterrence and defence posture, establishing an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This will comprise four battalion-sized battlegroups with forces provided by the framework nations of Canada, Germany, the UK and the US (along with other contributing allies) that can operate in concert with national forces and will be present at all times in the four countries. The alliance also declared its intention of developing a forward presence in the Black Sea region. Details of this plan were sketchy, although the communiqué stressed that, in addition to the Romanian-led initiative to establish a multinational framework brigade, NATO will consider strengthening both its air and maritime presence in the region.

Russia considers these increasing military deployments along its borders as a threat to its national security. Whilst NATO sought to underline that it does not seek confrontation with Russia nor poses a threat to it, this is not the message that has been received in Moscow, which has increased its (already high) level of anti-Western rhetoric. Speaking on the state-owned Rossiya-1 TV channel, Dmitry Kiseylov, the presenter of a weekly news review programme, said that the summit made it clear that Russia was no longer a partner, but a target and that NATO was preparing for war. This tone was echoed across a range of media and official statements. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused NATO of existing in a fantasy world and demonising Russia in order to divert attention away from the alliance’s ‘destructive’ role, while an article in the Kommersant newspaper argued that the guiding principle of the summit was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’

The Russian response to the summit outcomes comes as no surprise: continued opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement has been a long-running theme in Russian rhetoric. The Russian political narrative remains dominated by anti-Western sentiment, as well as talk of ‘competition’ and the need to be ‘competitive’ with the West, which is thought to be encroaching into an area that had previously been Moscow’s exclusive zone of influence. This reflects a strong (and widespread) sense of grievance at perceived Western hostility, inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow. There is anger at what is seen as the West’s rejection of partnership with Russia, as well as its destabilisation of the international system – but little recognition that this is how the West views Russian behaviour over the past few years. Russia’s permanent envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko argued in a recent interview that NATO is seeking to impose new dividing lines on Europe and that Russia is not ‘remotely interested in the confrontational agenda … being offered’. Nevertheless, he warned that Russia will do everything to ensure its defence and that NATO’s eastwards expansion will be counterproductive, as it subjects Russia to ‘risks and threats’.

NATO used the summit communiqué to stress the need for continued dialogue with Russia within the framework of the revived NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which met at ambassadorial level on July 13, days after the summit had concluded. The meeting, which was only the second time the NRC had met since 2014, did little to reduce tensions between the two actors. Speaking afterwards, Grushko described NATO’s decision to deploy an additional four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland as ‘ungrounded, excessive, counter-productive and confrontational’, warning that it would ‘return us to the days of the Cold War’. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that there had not been a meeting of minds, but welcomed the opportunity to ‘clarify our positions to each other’, along with Russian support for a Finnish proposal on air safety measures in the Baltic Sea region.

The lack of genuine, constructive dialogue between the two parties is a serious cause for concern. Both Russia and NATO have positioned each other as adversaries, portraying the other as a significant threat to security and stability, and each believes that it is acting defensively in the face of a growing challenge from the other. Neither wants a war, but, in the current climate of mutual mistrust and continued confrontation, there is a danger that deterrence measures are perceived as an escalation of violence, prompting further counter-measures. In a time of widespread instability, more needs to be done to diffuse existing tensions and stimulate constructive dialogue, rather than the rhetoric of threat: Russia’s cooperation in tackling the menace from IS and international terrorism, as well as stabilising the Middle East and North Africa, is vital.


Image: Russia-NATO permanent mission logo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


How do Military Coups Fail?


On the night of Friday 15th July 2016 elements of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected – but increasingly authoritarian – government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a bloody night of fighting in Ankara and Istanbul, and at least 290 deaths, this attempted coup d’etat was decisively crushed as police, loyalist military units and crowds of civilian volunteers rallied behind Erdogan. The Turkish armed forces and the judiciary are now being purged of real and suspected enemies of the AKP government, and a state that is both a NATO partner and a pivotal ally in Southern Europe and the Middle East is experiencing instability as severa as that the country experienced in the late 1970s.

Edward Luttwak has already provided an analysis on the coup’s failure, and has indeed written what could cheekily be described as the authoritative manual on how to take over a state at gunpoint. In this post I want to take a broader view as to how and why military coups end in failure.

Mao Zedong famously observed that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, and the most dramatic manifestation of that statement can be seen when the armed forces turn against their political masters, and the citizenry wake up to find armoured vehicles on their own streets. The spectacle of soldiers overthrowing the constitutional order they have sworn to defend is a subject of enduring fascination even in stable societies. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller Seven Days in May showed the Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting to oust the US President, in order to thwart an arms control treaty with the Soviets. During the early 1970s the prospect of Her Majesty’s armed forces doing the unthinkable and seizing power in the UK appeared to be a genuine threat, given the extent of the country’s political and economic crises, the failure of either the Conservative or Labour governments of that time to address them, and the widespread paranoia at the time. For Turkey, a state which has experienced three successful coups since 1960, military putsches are not academic exercises or the stuff of fictional fantasies.

Yet the plotting and execution of a coup represents can founder due to a series of factors. For a potential junta of generals or colonels to succeed, the following conditions need to be met.

Firstly, plotters have to be able to plan and organise the takeover of the state without alerting any loyalist colleagues in the armed forces, or the country’s security services.

Secondly, they will have to seize and dominate the state’s transport and communications network – roads, rail links, ports, airports, television, telephones and the media.

Thirdly, they have to achieve a shock effect on the government. The President, Prime Minister, monarch, ministers, and senior civil servants must be either arrested (or perhaps killed), or at any rate they should be neutralised. The spectacle of a leader fleeing a country and seeking asylum abroad is usually a sign of the coup’s success.

Fourthly, the coup needs to be executed with such speed that it becomes a fait accompli for potential opponents. Other elements of the armed forces and the security services must be left with the impression that the only choice they have is either futile resistance or acquiescence in the new order.

Finally, the coup cannot succeed unless it has either popular support, or the plotters can at least count on the general population being unwilling to defend the old order.

On organisation, militaries are not monolithic entities, and would-be caudillos have to surreptitiously identify potential allies within the officer corps, running the risk of exposing their scheming in the process. However, regimes which have a genuine concern over a military takeover will often ‘coup-proof’ their armed forces. Generals and admirals will be appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Commanders will be regularly switched so that they cannot build a support base among the soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen they lead. The regime will impose an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure which will make it difficult for plotters to even meet without attracting the attention of the regime’s security services, and can also drive wedges between officers and the rank-and-file through political indoctrination. What worked for Nazi Germany has worked for Arab autocracies such as Iraq and Syria too.

As was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the secret police will often employ agents provocateurs to smoke out potential putschists by encouraging them to take part in bogus plots, and then arresting and exterminating them. Nascent coups can also be snuffed out if the regime prevents routine exercises or the issuing of ammunition, or if it develops its own parallel paramilitary forces that are better armed and trained than their regular counterparts, and manned by troops recruited on the basis of party, clan or ethnic loyalty to the state. Even if likeminded and resentful plotters can meet and plot in conditions of secrecy and security, there are of course other additional snags to deal with. What if more than one of the assembled putschists believes that he should be the next President for Life?

With communications, the would-be coup plotter might be guided by Lenin’s dictum that the first act is to seize the telephone exchange and the telegraph office. In the age of Twitter and the smart-phone it is no longer as easy to shut down attempts by the government to talk to the masses – or indeed to stop crowds rallying each other to defend the status quo. When Communist Party, military and KGB hardliners of the GKChP (the ‘State Council for the State of Emergency’) tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 they were stymied by the fact that the head of the Soviet Air Force, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, declared that his service would oppose their putsch. Without the Antonovs and Ilyushins of the air forces Transport Command, the GKChP was denied a means of moving their own troops and security personnel around a state that spans ten separate time zones.

In Turkey last Friday Erdogan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, not only evaded capture or elimination, but also held their nerve. Erdogan himself rallied his AKP support base with a telephone call to a private TV channel (via FaceTime) which showed that he was (a) alive, (b) at liberty, and (c) still in the country and ready to fight his corner. The attempted coup in Spain in February 1981 foundered because King Juan Carlos broadcast his opposition and condemned its instigators. In the USSR 10½ years later the Russian President Boris Yeltsin emerged as an alternative source of legitimacy, climbing aboard a tank outside the Parliament Building in Moscow to address the assembled citizenry to resist the junta. In all of the above cases, the failure to neutralise effective opposition and to overawe the government contributed to the coup’s eventual defeat.

The routing of the Turkish coup, and the spectacle of soldiers being disarmed by civilians on the Bosphorus bridge, also shows that achieving a fait accompli is easier in theory than in practice. Coups are a nerve-wracking experience both for their instigators and for the troops they command, who often do not have the faintest idea of what they are doing and why. In certain cases, the coup plotters can rely on troops who are ready to gun down opponents in the streets, as was the case with Iraq in July 1958 and Chile in September 1973. But in other cases soldiers (particularly conscripts) who are faced with crowds of protestors or military units defending the powers-that-be can falter when given the order to shoot. It is a daunting decision to open fire on ones own fellow countrymen and women, particularly if you have doubts about whether you are going to succeed.

Then there are the masses themselves. The overthrow of the Estado Novo by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in April 1974 was met with public delight and approval. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in Pakistan in October 1999 appears to have been greeted with popular apathy, while the Egyptian military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 received widespread acclaim (although the Egyptian people may now have cause to regret their enthusiasm. Turkey, like Pakistan and Egypt, has a reputation for stratocracy, but institutional respect for the military appears to have been eroded over 14 years of AKP rule; the Ergenekon investigation of 2008-2009 into suspected coup plotting has arguably contributed to discrediting Turkey’s top brass in Erdogan’s favour, while also delegitimising military intervention in the country’s politics.

There are precedents for popular opposition undermining a military takeover. The Kapp putsch launched by Freikorps paramilitaries in Berlin in March 1920 initially threatened the destruction of the nascent Weimar Republic, as the commander of the German Army Hans von Seeckt refused to call out the troops to restore order. This attempted takeover was however undermined by a successful general strike called by the socialist and communist trade unions. Franco’s coup in Spain sixteen years later was initially thwarted by a popular counter-rising, which contributed to the ensuing civil war. The GKChP in the USSR in August 1991 was thwarted when Muscovites took to the streets in mass protests. In Turkey over the last weekend, even critics of Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule (including the opposition CHP) condemned the coup. If the people are not onside, or are at least disinterested in the outcome, a takeover by the armed forces is usually either averted, or it simply leads to further violence and civil strife.

Turkey currently faces the prospect of an AKP dictatorship being imposed after a failure to impose a military one. Erdogan appears to be settling scores with all potential opponents – whether they backed this coup or not – thereby compounding the instability arising from the spill-over from the Syrian civil war, the renewed Kurdish insurgency and IS terrorism. In this case, there is an ominous precedent set by the putsch launched by pro-Communist Indonesian officers on 30th September 1965. After this coup’s collapse, Indonesia’s top brass launched a purge which killed an estimated half a million people, and also replaced Sukarno’s dictatorship with that of Suharto. Indonesia 1965 demonstrated that a failed coup d’etat can be every bit as disastrous as a successful one. One can only hope that Turkey does not provide another example.

Image: Tanks approaching the Ataturk airport, Istanbul, July 16th, 2016, via wikimedia commons.


Turkey: It’s the lust for power, stupid


Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is illiberal and autocratic. He has little respect for the rule of law or the autonomy of institutions. He was content to allow lawyers and police officials who were alleged supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen to pursue, beginning in 2008, and eventually imprison military and other so-called ‘deep state’ functionaries on largely fabricated charges. In the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations launched against members of his inner circle in December of the same year – again by Gulen-linked lawyers and police officials – he embarked on a campaign to purge the police, judiciary and other public institutions of allegedly Gulenist officials and to take over or close down Gulenist businesses; he intimidated, took over or closed down more secular media outlets; and pressured the country’s universities and intellectuals. He even marginalised leading members of his own party. In the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt – a ‘gift from God’ in his own words – this crackdown has been sped up and intensified. His declaration of a three-month ‘state of emergency’ will extend the purge to anyone deemed a threat to his grip on power. Already, over fifty thousand public servants have been suspended from their official duties, and ten thousand have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the failed coup attempt. Almost one-third of the upper ranks of the officer corps are among this number. The military will surely now suffer the impact of Erdogan’s wrath. This is a witch hunt, and the label ‘Gulenist’ is about to end the careers and even freedoms of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent of anything that would raise eyebrows in a functioning liberal democracy.

However, Erdogan is acting as the adored leader of the over fifty percent of Turks who elected him to his office, and the similar number that vote for his Justice and Development Party (JDP). Materially, many of them have prospered considerably under Erdogan. Perhaps more importantly, their devout, conservative way of life is no longer subjected to official scorn or neglect. Religious education has been expanded, new mosques have been built, headscarved and bearded individuals are now employed in public office, and much of the media reflects their worldview. They see Erdogan as one of their own, and applaud him in his mission to wrench their country from the hands of a privileged, westernised, and unrepresentative metropolitan elite, and to turn the state into one in which the Anatolian masses feel they have a stake, to which they belong, and from which they can benefit. These people are not liberals. They are generally indifferent to and have little use for the freedoms that a liberal order bestows, are ignorant and suspicious of the west, and resentful of the secular minority that before Erdogan held their country in its grasp. This is payback time, and many are feeling triumphalist.

Turkey was not a liberal democracy in the days before the JDP was first elected to power in late 2002. Indeed, its forerunner as the representative of political Islam in the country, the Welfare Party, had been banned, as had all Islamic parties before it. Erdogan himself, as mayor of Istanbul, served a spell in prison. As recently as 2008, the then secular Constitutional Court failed by just one vote to shut down the ruling JDP for its ‘anti-secular’ activities, and in 2007 the Turkish General Staff responded to the prospective elevation to the presidency of one of the JDP’s leading members, Abdullah Gul, by issuing a so-called ‘e-memorandum’ threatening JDP rule. Secular dominance in Turkey was characterised by frequent military interventions in the country’s domestic politics, often supported by the secular elite. The 1980 coup led to over half a million detentions, a quarter of a million arrests, the banning of all political parties and imprisonment of their political leaderships, and scores of executions and unexplained disappearances. Under secular rule, all Kurdish parties were shut down and the use of the Kurdish language was restricted. The war conducted against Kurdish separatists was vicious and frequently illegal. Indeed, one of the first acts of the newly elected JDP in 2002 was to lift the decades-old state of emergency in the Kurdish regions. Turkey’s institutions were largely the preserve of the country’s westernised minority. Few Turkish ‘liberals’ lamented the exclusion of the headscarved and bearded from public office, or bothered themselves overmuch with the fate of Turkey’s Kurds.

Turkey has always been a divided society, but the boot is now on the other foot. Even so, Erdogan has not, yet, closed down political parties or, yet, executed anyone. Even the intensified war currently being waged against separatist Kurds in the country’s southeast comes in the wake of an attempted resolution to the conflict and against a backdrop of recognition that a Kurdish population exists in Turkey. These are not Turkey’s darkest days ever, at least not for the country’s conservative masses. The country’s secular and westernised minority, however, are facing increasing exclusion and marginalisation, and such liberal and lifestyle freedoms as the country has enjoyed look set to be further curtailed. Paradoxically, the country’s real or imagined Gulenists, no less devout in their own way than Erdogan’s JDP supporters, look likely to fare worse still. Few liberals, and few too of Erdogan’s fans, will be greatly concerned at that. Both liberals and Gulenists are deemed to represent a threat to Erdogan’s rule. Should the violent, bearded, and hard Islamist mobs that appeared among the crowds resisting the coup and celebrating its defeat imagine that the victory over the plotters is exclusively theirs, they too could yet find themselves in Erdogan’s line of fire as he relentlessly indulges his lust for power. We are not witnessing the end of a liberal democracy that never truly existed in Turkey. Rather we are witnessing a dramatic moment in an ongoing assault against anyone who might be regarded as a challenge to Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
Image: Anti-coup protesters after 15 July 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt in Bağcılar, İstanbul, Turkey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


In Defence of Military History

This post follows on from an entry by Dr. Matthew Ford, Dr James Kitchen and Dr Stuart Mitchell on Chilcot and the Politics of Britain’s Military History.


The notion of an academy remote from public discourse and disinterested in government policy is an attractive stereotype. Aspects of the academic discipline of history could certainly produce such an impression. There is a strong body of thought within certain areas of History that considers any attempt to use the past to inform current debate as bordering on ‘instrumentalising’ previous experience. For some scholars the past was a simply an entirely different world, one which ought to be understood solely in its own terms and not compared to the present lest such an endeavour lead to inaccurate and misleading deductions.

This argument has always appeared less convincing to those engaged in the ‘traditional’ areas of historical enquiry – political, diplomatic and military history – which have their roots in statecraft and military staff colleges. From their outset these sub-disciplines have sought to influence and educate practitioners. Yet in twenty-first century Britain, their ability to do so appears to be in an alarming state of decline.

Historians engaged in the study of politics, power and military force find themselves firmly out of fashion and under-represented within the academy. Outside of the staff college environment, one can count the number of chairs in military or naval history at UK institutions on the fingers of two hands. The ‘cultural turn’ in history in evidence since the 1960s may have produced a valuable, more egalitarian record of the past, but it has been accompanied by a noticeable contraction in support for academics studying topics which can inform government and the public about the use of armed force.

Indeed, a divide now exists between the academic study of war, the general public, and the policy-making community. This matters because it has a direct bearing on the UK’s capacity and willingness to use its armed forces in an intelligent and well-informed manner to defend its people and its interests.

Defence was conspicuous largely by its absence in the 2015 general election debates. Similarly, this week’s parliamentary debate on the renewal of Trident has been conducted with minimal public engagement or (seemingly) interest. If the population is disengaged with key issues of national security and strategy, it is unlikely fully to support or believe in decisions taken by government. Equally, the absence of history from discussions of international affairs risks each issue we face looming large as a challenge without precedent or answer. Such obstacles may exist, but if we lack an understanding of historical context, how can identify them as such and focus our actions on them appropriately?

If we are to create a more beneficial interaction between the academic study of war, the general public and the body politic, three key issues must be surmounted:

 Diminishing role of history in education & public life

The majority of the population does not take an active interest in historical research, even if they are engaged with history in a broader sense. Modern media presents a wealth of alternative entertainment offerings and whilst historically based content does feature regularly, the marketplace is hugely competitive. Thus, whilst reading history does remain a popular leisure activity, reading in the traditional style is in precipitous decline – particularly amongst younger people. This presents a major challenge to a discipline whose pinnacle of achievement is likely to remain the sole-authored monograph.

History also appears to be of decreasing importance within secondary education. Leaving university level education aside – afterall most people’s exposure to history ends after leaving secondary school – the quality and purpose of history teaching has been an area of intense debate in recent years. Critics like Niall Ferguson note the huge gaps in understanding and knowledge that many students arrive at university with (and those studying history at a higher level are presumably amongst the most interested in the subject and thus a sample of the most knowledgeable about it). In a survey conducted at one UK university, it was found that only 34% of arriving undergraduates reading history knew who the monarch was at the time of the Spanish Armada, 31% knew the location of the Boer War, 16% knew who commanded British forces at the Battle of Waterloo and just 11% were able to name a single British Prime Minister from the nineteenth century. Ferguson blames a curriculum which provides no real picture of the grand sweep of history, focusing instead on distinct episodes with no apparent relation between them.

Regardless of what one views the specific shortcomings of secondary school history to be, it seems reasonably clear that history is not viewed as a core subject. Thus, even if people are minded to study the past independently upon leaving education, they may lack the foundations necessary to do so in the most effective and enjoyable manner.

Availability of Cutting Edge Research

Those of the public who are minded to engage in depth with historical research are constrained from doing so by the academic-publishing process, which is simply not aimed at providing a conduit between the latest scholarship and the general reader. Whilst the growth of open access publications such as the British Journal of Military History is a welcome innovation in this regard, the fact remains that the majority of top journals appear unlikely to follow this route in the near future. So long as the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and other career considerations push academics in the humanities and social sciences to prioritise quality of research (one indication of which can be place of publication) over reach, this situation seems unlikely to change.

Much the same can be said of book publishing. The desirability of writing for highly regarded university presses is constantly emphasised and re-emphasised to academic staff by their institutions, yet even if one is successful in doing so the result is likely to be a monograph with a price tag of £60 or more. This is far outside what a general reader is likely to consider to be a reasonable price for a book, yet because such a monograph is essentially the gold standard for promotion, it will remain what many academics strive for. The result is that many of the most talented historians who write about conflict are faced with a choice between following the ‘safe’ route of academic publishing or risk the opprobrium of their institution for ‘wasting’ valuable research time by writing a ‘popular’ book, which may not be eligible for submission to the REF. Thus, the ‘military’ history available to the general reader on the high street is totally unrepresentative of the output of the academy as a whole and continues to be dominated by ‘big books by blokes about battles’. Some books of exceptional quality certainly do bridge the divide, but if only a small cross-section of the academy penetrates the popular market (and these often senior professors for whom the REF is often less of an immediate consideration) then those scholars producing excellent new work within the field cannot be faulted for operating within a system of promotion they did not create or for following the ‘academic career’ track.

The government’s attempt to remedy this situation – ‘impact’ – raises as many problems as it solves. Impact is defined as ‘any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Education, or the transmission of knowledge or ideas is not prioritised. Thus, academic staff are encouraged to participate in endeavours which produce a measurable change in public views or attitudes, rather than simply seeking to share their work. How the public can change their minds on a topic about which they have no fixed view is unclear. The practical result is to disincentivise some activities which may serve to bridge the gap between academia and a general audience.

Mass Media

If new forms of media represent a challenge to the popularity of history, they also surely present a wealth of opportunities for disseminating research and engaging a wider audience. Blogs, videos, podcasts and social media are all exploited widely by the academic community as means of providing free access to new research and ideas. However, mass media – radio and television – continue to command a wider audience than even the most successful blogs and Twitter accounts, often reaching far into the millions. This presents a hugely powerful vehicle for reaching a broad audience, but also confers a weighty responsibility on programme makers who may provide the totality of an individual’s knowledge of an historical episode.

This produces difficulties for both editors and academics. Those in the media need the courage to strike the appropriate balance between education and entertainment, providing opportunities for academics to translate their work to a popular audience. Academics must become more willing and more able to articulate their research in an accessible, engaging manner that does not presume fore knowledge or descend into scholarly minutiae. This ought to be more effectively supported by government policy and by universities, as media work currently falls outside of the ‘impact’ criteria in the majority of circumstances.


Britain undoubtedly needs to develop a more sophisticated understanding both of its own armed forces and of the role military power can play in international affairs. If not, we risk ill-informed public pressure obliging the government to shy away from important decisions that may be in all of our best interests. Military history can and should provide an excellent means of improving this understanding. But to blame historians for an unwillingness to engage, to produce work quickly enough or to write with a broad audience in mind would be to consider but one small part of a far larger problem. Until more people are provided with the necessary tools and interest to engage with the past in a meaningful way, until academics are freed to reach a more popular audience without compromising their careers and until the media and the academy partner more effectively, the best new military history is unlikely to reach as far beyond the walls of the academy as is necessary to have a discernable impact upon wider society.

Image: Book stacks, The British Library (1978-97) by Colin St John Wilson via flickr.


Turkey’s “Anti-Modern” Coup Fiasco


Two decades ago, a Turkish admiral coined the iconic term “post-modern coup” to describe what, to date, remains Turkey’s most recent successful military coup. Back then, in 1997, the military echelons escalated an ongoing political crisis, which culminated at a National Security Council meeting where the generals presented a list of ‘recommendations’ for the government to comply with. Failure to do so would have triggered a full-fledged military intervention against the executive, the document warned.

As the executive eventually caved in, the coup earned the label of “post-modern” due to the fact that, among other things, the military obtained their objectives without resorting to tanks rolling through the streets or any other coercive tool traditionally associated with military coups, and that they had been carrying out preparatory propaganda and lobby-like activities for months before taking action.

Ten years later, in 2007, another political crisis was unfolding in Turkey. The AKP’s leadership was by then committed to put one of the party founders, Abdullah Gul, up for the Presidential seat; the secular opposition, and the military along with it, considered this both a threat to the secular nature of the State (due to Gul’s background), and to the Presidential role as a whole (as, traditionally, Presidents were strongly aligned with Kemalist views).

Once again at the peak of the crisis, the Turkish military played the “post-modern” card and published what became known as the “e-memorandum”: the General Staff website displayed a document warning politicians about the need to respect the secular nature of the Republic, and stressed the military’s determination in defending it. In the meantime, a number of associations ran by retired military officers lined up with secularist organisations and joined the rallies and other forms of political activism that were taking place across the country.

In contrast to the events of 1997 and 2007, the failed military coup attempt witnessed on Friday the 15th of July had nothing “post-modern” about it. In fact, as events were unfolding, it became progressively clearer that it was a 20th century action in the midst of the 21st century, an “anti-modern” coup attempt, carried out via “anti-modern” means, and based on an “anti-modern” understanding of Turkey’s leadership, its society, and the role of its military.

Erdogan’s Leadership

The attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how pervasive and widespread Erdogan’s reach is. It has taken place in a deeply divided society, and in a political spectrum overwhelmingly dominated by the AKP. Over the past few years, President Erdogan’s leadership has demonstrated in several instances its authoritarian tendencies and his determination to centralise power into his own hands. Under Erdogan’s watch, even the coup aftermath has turned into an opportunity to weed out those who are not aligned with him. While 3,000 members of the armed forces have been swiftly arrested on coup plotting allegations, about the same number of civilian judges (including two Constitutional Court judges) have been put behind bars in the span of 24 hours, under the same (albeit, in this case, much thinner) allegations; as of the 18th of July, 30 provincial governors and more than 600 Gendarmerie officers were also suspended by the Minister of Interior.

The political opposition is so weak that Erdogan perceives his main political challenge actually comes from outside Turkey’s borders. His attention is focused on Pennsylvania, where Fetullah Gulen, a cleric (and former ally of President Erdogan) leading a vast network of Turkish followers, is in voluntary exile since 1999. After their informal alliance led the AKP to eradicate secularist and ultra-secularist figures from institutions and security organisations alike, the two sides are now against one another, to the point that AKP officials refer to the network as the ‘Gulenist Terrorist Organisation’ (or FETO). Since the early stages of Friday’s coup attempt, Erdogan has been adamant in pointing at Gulen and his organisation as the culprit of the turmoil – accusations that Gulen has swiftly dismissed.

Turkey’s Society

Coup plotters also failed to take into account how widespread President Erdogan’s own network is. This goes well beyond the AKP as a party, and includes smaller organisations which possess a broad spectrum of capabilities. As soon as Erdogan managed to appear on national television before trying to reach Istanbul, his supporters mobilised. Several mosques were calling for people to leave their houses and join the fight against coup plotters on the streets, shortly after Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was ‘liberated’, so that Erdogan’s jet could land.

But more importantly, the failed coup attempt was “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how unpalatable such type of action is to today’s Turkish society. While the live television feed of tanks in the streets, TV transmissions being interrupted, journalists reading putschist statements at gunpoint brought minds to the year 1980, when a military coup brought to power general Kenan Evren’s junta, today’s Turkey is no longer the Turkey of the late-1970s. This coup was also “anti-modern” because it advanced an old solution to the old, wicked problem of a “tyranny of the majority”, which all democracies have been grappling with to different degrees, and which Turkey seems to be stuck with under Erdogan.

Political parties (together with large sections of the armed forces) swiftly condemned the coup attempt, as did Turkey’s society at large. While discontent against Erdogan’s rule is widespread and deeply rooted outside of AKP circles, Turkish civil society has been trying long and hard to claim the power to make decisions for itself, rather than seeing them imposed top-down by patronising state institutions – including the military, which has traditionally been seen as the most reputable and respectable institution in Turkey. The Gezi park protests of 2013 embodied this spirit, which coup plotters are guilty of failing to understand and respect.

The Turkish Military

Last but not least, the attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it tarnishes the reputation of the Turkish military as a whole, regardless of the condemnations expressed by the vast majority of the armed forces, and because the action will further set back Turkish civil-military relations, making them even more prone to politicisation.

If seeing an attack helicopter opening fire against the Parliament, which hosted several MPs, is an iconic all-time low in Turkish civil-military relations, especially so for a group of officers whose stated goal is to “reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security”, the shockwaves of this coup attempt will be strong.

In about two weeks, Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAS) will hold its annual meeting to decide on the promotion, retirement, and expulsions of military officers from all of Turkey’s services. As civilians (i.e., the Executive President Erdogan) gained the upper hand in the process over the past few years, the decision-making process still remains highly political indeed.

In 2011, the Chief of General Staff and the Commanders of Land, Naval, and Air Forces resigned to protest against Erdogan’s meddling with the military both in the promotion process and the management of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which had put scores of officers behind bars.

Since then, Erdogan seamlessly managed to promote those senior officers who shared his views or who would offer their acquiescence to his decisions, while overlooking, retiring or expelling those who might have created nuisances.

The failed coup attempt, in sum, offers Erdogan a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to politically purge the military, a move that will have dire consequences both for Turkish civil-military relations and for the Turkish military’s ability to function effectively – another fundamental reason why this can be labelled as an “anti-modern” coup attempt.

The fact that Erdogan will exploit the situation to further crack down on opposition, the separation of powers, and broader Turkish institutions, makes the plotter’s actions a textbook case of an “anti-modern coup”.

Follow Dr Francesco F. Milan’s work on his website and on Twitter

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in South Korea. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Conference Report: the First World War at Sea, 1914-1919


This was a major international conference, featuring a master-class of subject specialists and naval historians. Since the centenary of the Battle of Jutland was only a few days prior, the great naval battle was certainly the elephant in the room. Jutland was not, however, the only subject of discussion: the strategy and tactics of the anti-submarine campaign, the Anglo-American alliance, naval aviation and other technologies, the role of the dominions, the press, and recent archeological discoveries were all discussed.

Professor Nicholas Rodger provided the opening keynote, elaborating on the concept of the decisive battle and its cultural legacy for the western way of war. Professor Rodger described the influence of the expected “second Trafalgar” on the German, French, American, Japanese and Royal Navies. This traditional culture of decisive battle continued to dominate at the turn of the 20th century, but technological change had transformed the naval context, most profoundly, by the introduction of the torpedo. The focus on the new weapons, primarily the submarine and airplane, eventually defined modern naval tactics and strategy. Integrating the new technologies would become a major challenge for Britain, and the other global powers, going forward. Indeed, it remained unclear to what extent the United States Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy had moved beyond the decisive battle doctrine by the time of the Second World War. As Dr. Bob Watts would argue on day two, it seems, to some extent, that the USN is still seeking the desired “second Trafalgar” to this day.

The first panels were focused on anti-submarine warfare, the blockade, and the war in China. I presented with Dr. Alexander Clarke and Louis Halewood on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, from the diplomatic and air perspectives. I argued that, during the 1912-1916 period, the RN never successfully addressed the problem of anti-submarine warfare from the air, although, important theories and new technologies were developed. Louis Halewood examined the delicate diplomatic situation, notably focusing on the complex aspect of Anglo-American relations (a story about which we will hear more later), and also the situation in the Mediterranean. By 1918, First Lord of the Admiralty Eric Geddes proposed the creation of an “Allied Admiralissimo” to unite the diverse national naval efforts into a single force, similar to the role of Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch on the Western Front. Alexander Clarke then completed the story, describing the legacy of the First World War efforts which led to tactical and technical innovations in the interwar period and, indeed, laid the foundation for the triumphs of the Second World War. Dr. Clarke described the importance of the Post-War Question Committee (the Phillimore Committee), which reached the conclusion that reconnaissance and deterrence had, in fact, been rather effective against the submarines- the famous scare-crow tactics forcing U-boat commanders to avoid aircraft and airships, regardless of the reality of the threat.

The second panel I attended, also on the submarine campaign, was presented by Dr. Norman Friedman, Isabelle Delumeau, Michael Brandao, and Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. Dr. Friedman, bringing his renowned analytical approach to the topic, observed that ultimately the introduction of the convoys, although often heralded as the decisive tactic for the protection of Allied merchant shipping, was in fact a stop-gap. The Germans were ultimately unable to utilize the signal intelligence required to find the convoys, and thus triangulate submarine groups to attack them, as would later be done in the Second World War. As a result, while the convoys provided a means of protection, they were not capable of terminating the threat itself.

The technological scramble on the Allied side to find a way to locate and destroy the submarines clearly demonstrated that the Allies were not prepared for this aspect of the war, despite some novel solutions such as the use of aircraft to directly attack the submarine bases. Isabelle Delumeau shared her findings concerning the Bretton fishermen who experienced the blunt end of German and Allied propaganda concerning the submarines, leading to the organization of the fishing fleet along militia-like lines. Miguel Brandao followed up by discussing Portuguese efforts to subvert the Allied blockade, specifically, the fascinating case of the town of Esposende, which smuggled eggs to the U-boats along the coast. Finally, Dr. Bruton described the astonishing case of Anglo-American technological and scientific cooperation in the efforts to develop hydrophone technology. Significantly, Dr. Burton described the effort of US Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels- of whom more later- to replicate the Fisherite think-tank, the Board of Invention and Research, which was studying anti-submarine measures, amongst other things.

The final panel in the lecture theatre on day one was presented by Dr. Jesse Tumblin, Dr. Eugene Beiriger and Dr. Dennis Conrad. Dr. Tumblin discussed the failure of the dominion fleet scheme, not least the result of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s inability to finance the requisite battlecruisers. The outcome of the Boer War suggested Canada’s Army, at the expense of the navy, might play a larger role in the future. Dr. Beiriger then discussed President Wilson’s role in the negotiations that led to the US Naval Act of 1916, while Dennis Conrad provided a defence of Josephus Daniels, the latter often portrayed as the antagonist of the fiery Admiral William Sims. At the evening reception, while the academics swirled their wine, Nicholas Rodger presented naval historian John Hattendorf with the print copy of the edited volume produced from the 2014 Oxford conference held in his honour: Strategy and the Sea.

The following day started at 9 am with the first panel specifically on the American role. Annette Amerman, USMC History Division, gave the first talk, looking at USMC naval aviation. The Marine Corps aviators cooperated with Wing Captain Charles Lambe’s RNAS and RAF forces at Dunkirk in bombing raids, including against submarine bases. David Winkler, Naval Historical Foundation, described the expansion of the US Naval Reserve into a large militia-like force, the model favoured by Josephus Daniels and Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Chuck Steele, USAF Academy, and David Kohnen, USN War College, both presented panels on William Sims and his significance. Dr. Steele stressed Sims’ importance as a diplomat between the Navies, while David Kohnen emphasized Sims’ role as a practitioner and ad hoc innovator.

The last two panels were on Jutland: Robin Brodhurst, of the Navy Records Society, gave a comprehensive presentation on the historiography of the battle of Jutland, establishing the intense controversy that still surrounds this battle after a hundred years. Dr. John Brooks, who has recently published a reassessment of Jutland for the centenary, described some of the technical nuances of the night destroyer action, and Dr. Stephen Huck, joining the conference from the German Naval Museum, Wilhelmshaven, then illuminated the experience of German crew members, raising the important question about how the men actually perceived the battle; a social history mirrored for the Royal Navy by the book, The Fighting at Jutland: the Personal Experiences of 45 Sailors of the Royal Navy, compiled by H. W. Fawcett.

After Jutland was the name of the third and final panel in the lecture theatre. Andrew Gordon described the importance of the command failure at Jutland, importantly the critical issue of signal failures, endemic ultimately of a culture of divineness within the Royal Navy. Bob Watts summarized the significance of the Jutland and the long awaited “decisive battle” for the thinking of the US Navy, and observed the reality that the Navy, even during the Second World War, was denied its grand decisive battle. James Goldrick summarized the situation after Jutland and the novel emergence of battlespace awareness alongside the need for superior scouting and intelligence gathering in the, always questionable, North Sea conditions. With the refocus on aircraft and the submarine, by the end of the war, the torpedo had seemingly triumphed over the gun, and the chance to refight Jutland had slipped away.

Andrew Lambert’s compelling keynote summarized and concluded the conference. Professor Lambert focused on Julian Corbett, later the official historian, as the architect of Britain’s grand strategy. Corbett acted as the brain trust for the British Supreme Command, and it was Corbett’s three-phase naval war model that became the basis for Corbett’s post-war history. First Sea Lord David Beatty, wary of the mistakes made at Jutland, tried to suppress the truth about his role, in particular the gunnery failure of the Battle-Cruiser Fleet, but the truth shone through in Corbett’s third volume, based on the Naval Staff’s suppressed appreciation. The significance of Hipper and Scheer’s achievement was, however, marginalized by the High Seas Fleet’s inability to break the blockade and thus influence the outcome of the war: this meant that in the final calculus, Jutland, like Trafalgar, only reaffirmed the naval status quo.

Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, via wikimedia commons.