Academic journal article Military Review

Tipping Sacred Cows: Moral Potential through Operational Art

Academic journal article Military Review

Tipping Sacred Cows: Moral Potential through Operational Art

Article excerpt


UNTIL 14 AUGUST 2008, the American military's Joint world was well on the road to formulating a doctrine called "effects-based operations" (EBO). However, the EBO effort's trajectory was brought to a sudden abatement when Marine Corps General James N. Mattis, commander of Joint Forces Command, announced the untimely death of all "effects-based" terms of art. Effects-based operations had attempted to describe the practice of predicting effects in the physical and moral dimensions of war and the subsequent targeting to produce them. This "effects-based approach to operations" (EBAO) remains a NATO policy that focuses on the whole of government--a comprehensive interagency approach to operations. NATO's EBAO does not evoke the same assumption sets that EBO does, but it does possess the same fundamental logic. The U.S. military has been training and practicing along these lines for some time, and substantially continues to do so. The mind-set behind EBO persists in planning circles throughout the U.S. military, and the mind-set looms behind any effort to conduct U.S. whole-of-government operations as well. This approach, by whatever name, has little potential to accommodate important moral concerns that have proven to have strategic ramifications, and I therefore want to critique the effects-based perspective to drive more nails into its coffin.

The EBO mind-set fundamentally lacks any moral quality because it fails at the level of theory. The practitioners of effects-based thinking profess many assertions and defend their methods at the level of doctrine. But, while EBO advocates were busy writing its doctrine, they failed to pay attention to its theory. While their emphasis on systems thinking was well-intentioned, these systems zealots failed to pay attention to the philosophical nuances between mechanical and living systems. (1) The presumed theory underlying the effects-based approach rests on several philosophical mistakes:

* Metaphysical errors relating to ontological assumptions and facts of existence.

* Epistemological errors relating to gaining knowledge and matters of mind.

* Logical errors in drawing conclusions from the evidence available.

The mind-set underlying EBAO has become, and remains, a strategic liability. It will be so, as long as faith in its theoretical foundations persists.

Doctrine can change by fiat, but it is the underlying conceptual milieu that matters here. We should expect mistakes as a result of a practice resting on a mistaken theory, for only by accident and not by design could anything good come out of it. My critique of effects-based thinking is thus based on its unreliability as a theory, and my argument will unfold at the level of theory, avoiding the politics of the quasi-doctrinal level of discourse. I want to carry out a dialogue on the academic front of reason and theory rather than the political front of decision makers at their headquarters and directorates. I will therefore be drawing upon the academic debate as it exists among the theorists (particularly that which is in print) rather than the political debate as it exists among decision makers (especially that which is in email traffic or on PowerPoint).

Overcoming Aristotle: Assumptions We Fight By

Western perspectives are steeped in Aristotelian scientific and philosophical assumptions. The general idea of the effects-based approach has therefore perhaps always been looming in the recesses of the Western military practitioner's consciousness. Its practice seems to have bloomed in Desert Storm, as the concept took root when the intellectual leaders of the Air Force began thinking and talking and writing about bombing in terms of what effects they wanted to achieve rather than simply what targets to service. Those roots have grown so deep and spread so far up to the present day that practitioners now take the concept for granted. …

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