Friday, June 17, 2016

Remarks for Irregular Warfare Scholars and the Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program

Remarks for Irregular Warfare Scholars and the Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program (SOCAP) 
June 17, 2016
David S. Maxwell

Good morning.  Congratulations on your graduation from what I think is one of the most important programs in today’s military.  I wish that the Irregular Warfare Scholars and the Special Operations Campaign Artistry Programs had existed when I was in the Army. I would have fought to be part of these programs.  Perhaps you think it odd that I envy you but someday in the future you will be grateful for the education you have received and say you were fortunate to have been here at Ft Leavenworth which after all is the center of universe (or at least the other center when you are not at Fort Bragg). The late Colonel Ola Mize used to say that a Special Forces soldier should only want to be in two places during his career – overseas working with indigenous forces and back in the schoolhouse training and getting educated.

There are a few standard things that are said at all graduations.  Almost always you will hear speakers say that you will not remember what the graduation speaker said and everyone hopes the speaker will follow the rules of my mentor Bob Collins who told me long ago the three rules for briefing which are known as the “Three B’s”  -  “Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.”   Since no one can bat 1000 I am hoping for a 600 average and get two of three right; brief and gone, but in the end I know I will maintain a solid 300 by being gone at some point.

But I do remember some graduation speakers.  When I graduated from SAMS the former CSA General Sullivan was our speaker.  He had been our CGSC speaker the year before and gave a formal address as senior leaders must do.  However, when he spoke to us at SAMS after his retirement he gave an unforgettable speech as he started out telling us about the time he could now spend with his grandchildren and how he was able to read children’s books that he realized had strategic leadership relevance.  He proceeded with the rest of the speech telling us the leadership lessons from Dr. Seuss and while humorous and enjoyable it was actually quite brilliant. While in retirement he had a lot of time to engage with his grandchildren yet it was clear that he had not lost one of the most important traits of a senior leader; which is to be a lifelong learner and even as a former CSA he could still learn from Dr. Seuss.   I would offer one quote that that sums up the importance of being a lifelong learner:

"Education should implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." – This is from Eric Hoffer, who is someone everyone in special operations should know as he wrote The True Believer.

I would ask everyone to reflect on those words not just today but throughout the rest of your careers.

I have had chance to listen to a lot of graduation speeches over the past 5 years at Georgetown.  Few are memorable but some, like last month’s, are quite provocative.  The graduate school had a Polish poet who was a human rights advocate in Mexico.  She proceeded to lecture us about how it is America’s fault that the Mexican people are oppressed.  She tried to make the argument that Mexican oppression was caused by American imperialism that began with the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny.  She told us that we should give California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and even Arizona back to Mexico.  This was especially interesting because one of our graduating students was Lieutenant Jack McCain.  In the audience keeping a perfect poker face was Jack’s father, Senator John McCain. 

I will have to admit that I cannot offer anything as humorous or brilliant as General Sullivan and I hope not to be insulting and disrespectful of our students and guests here.

The second thing we hear at graduation is that at this point in time we have been at war for nearly 15 years. Of course I do not need to remind any of you of that as most of you have spent your entire careers up to this point fighting in this war.  Nor do we need to remind your family and friends.  And in the wake of San Bernadino and Orlando we may not need to remind the American people though I worry that for the public the memory that we are at war could soon fade as we return to going to the mall.

But after 15 years it is time to reflect on where we are and how we have arrived at this point in time with the threats we continue to face.  In the last 15 years there has been tremendous heroism and sacrifice.  There are heroes among you.  All of you have reached a level of technical and tactical expertise that is unmatched by any previous generation.  I am not ashamed to say that I was not anywhere near as competent as you when I was a Captain or a Major.  All of you have contributed to the tactical successes and important innovations that have been achieved,  from F3EAD – find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate to VSO – Village Stability Operations.  You are capable of bringing massive amounts of fire power to bear on the enemy or employing non-standard logistics to get people and equipment to remote locations to ensure sustained combat operations or exploiting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and processes that we only dreamed about before 9-11.

But we need to pause and reflect.  Where are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? All of you are at the proverbial inflection point in your career which I think could be a fancy name for a fork in the road – and of course when faced with a fork remember Yogi Berra who told us “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  While that used to be humorous and people would laugh, I interpret that in other perhaps non- humorous ways:  carpe diem or seize the day, be decisive and make a decision, whichever way you go make it work, reach down for Clausewitz’ coup d’oeil – that inward looking eye of military genius that allows you to make the right decision at the right time and right place despite the fog and friction of war – whether that war is characterized by conventional, irregular, hybrid, unconventional, or political warfare.

You are transitioning from the tactical to the operational and the strategic.  This is very important to consider.   We should ask why if we have been so successful tactically we continue to be faced with such a large number of complex and diverse threats around the world that require we expend so much blood and treasure?

People do not like to invoke Vietnam but there are still many lessons we can learn and many that have been learned by SOF – VSO is a reincarnation of the CIDG program – the civilian irregular defense group.  You can take the tactical tips from Detachment B-52 and see how they have evolved to the advanced operational techniques that you employ as a matter of routine today.  Your ability to employ fires from the air and indirect fires from the ground is a natural evolution from our brethren who came before us. 

But like Vietnam we made and continue to make mistakes.  We should recall Colonel Harry Summers speaking with his Vietnamese counterpart at the negotiating table in Paris when he said, “You know, we have never been defeated on the battlefield.”  And his Vietnamese counterpart replied, “That may be true, but it is irrelevant.” I hope you all have read Giap’s strategy of Dau Tranh as we are seeing a 21st Century version of it.

Today we need to evaluate our policies, our political objectives, our strategy, and our campaign plans.  We need to look at our failures and our mistakes.  Take our recent efforts in Syria – should we be fighting a war with a program – a train and equip program?  Should we be supporting indigenous forces when our interests are not sufficiently aligned?  Should we be forcing our indigenous partners only fight for our interests and not theirs?  Or should we be campaigning which of course will include training and equipping as one part of the plan to support the strategy?  Most important, are we able to achieve the President’s strategic guidance of degrading and destroying ISIS or do we have an ends-ways mismatch in that we are not applying the ways and means to achieve the stated end? I suppose a generous assessment is that we are still in the degrade phase.

Of course I am being critical.  We seem to be doing somewhat better in Syria now that we are employing a mix of our special warfare and surgical strike forces and I truly hope we are employing the right forces for the right missions.  But we have a problem as a nation and a military.  I think that we are ineffective at strategy.  We are unable to achieve our political or policy objectives.  We do not “do strategy” well. 

One of the reasons that we do not do strategy well is that we do not understand our adversaries’ strategies.  (And we should remember that Sun Tzu not only said that it is the acme of skill to win without fighting, the true strategist must understand and be able to attack the enemy’s strategy). 

We do not understand the strategies because since 9-11 we have defined everything in terms of terrorism and in addition to terrorism, today we also define the major power threats in a neo-Cold War framework of great power competition. 

We are reaching for new terms to try to help us describe the phenomena we face – the popular new term is the Gray Zone.  I would characterize the threats we face in terms of the Gray Zone as a spectrum of cooperation, competition, and conflict in that space between peace and war.  We seek and desire cooperation, we have to be able to compete, and while we want to avoid conflict we must prepare for it.  One of the important forms of conflict can be described by revolution, resistance, and insurgency with our adversaries from AQ to ISIS to the Russian Little Green Men to the Iranian IRGC or China’s PLA all executing strategies of modern unconventional warfare, with their own unique characteristics, to exploit the conditions of revolution, resistance, and insurgency to achieve their strategic political objectives.

This is a complex environment.  As the late Sam Sarkasian said in 1993 in his seminal work, Unconventional Conflicts, we are seeing a strategic environment that can be described this way:

1.  Asymmetric conflicts: for the US these conflicts are limited and not considered a threat to survival or a matter of vital national interests; however, for the indigenous adversaries they are a matter of survival.  

2.  Protracted Conflict requires a long term commitment by the US, thus testing the national will, political resolve, and staying power of the US.

3.  Ambiguous and Ambivalent Conflicts:  It is difficult to identify the adversary, or assess the progress of the conflict; i.e., it is rarely obvious who is winning and losing.

4.  And finally, conflicts with Political-Social Milieu Center of Gravity – or in today’s parlance population centric warfare or war among the people.

So the question is how do we operate in this complex environment? How do we support the policies and achieve the political objectives established by our political leadership?

The answer is in large part you.  You are going to leave here and if the personnel system is going to evolve to effective talent management it will assign you now or in the near future to positions of great responsibility where you can contribute to campaigning.  While campaigning is not as sexy as kicking down a door or advising an indigenous force to capture or kill a high value target, it is incredibly important.  Frankly, we have great soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who will accomplish any tactical mission we give them.  But they need to be given the right mission – the mission that will achieve or support the achievement of our political objectives.  We need men and women who can think critically and strategically: who can campaign.  When you are in these critical positions you are going to do a few basic things that will contribute to achieving our political objectives.  I will list seven.

            1.  Use design thinking to understand the challenges we face.  Must go beyond situational awareness to attain situational understanding – Make understanding a principle of war (Frank Hoffman)

            2.  Contribute to policy and strategy development – do not abdicate responsibility by saying this is the province of civilian political leaders – You have a responsibility to inform, educate, and when appropriate to advocate for the correct employment of the military instrument of power.

            3.  Develop campaign plans.

            4. Employ red team techniques.

            5. Assess and reassess continuously.

            6. Challenge assumptions constantly.

            7.  Ensure balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means with a recognition of threats, risks, and opportunities.  And to ensure balance and coherency you must not be afraid to recommend changes to the end state.

(And never forget the 12 SOF imperatives,* the SOF truths, and the SOF mission criteria.)

            These 7 tasks are fundamentals and not all inclusive, they are common sense, and they are really simple or at least simple to state and remember.  As Clausewitz reminds us, in war everything is simple but even the simplest thing is hard.  These 7 tasks are hard and it will take your intellectual ability and disciplined leadership to execute them effectively.  You have learned and know these 7 tasks and you are well equipped as Irregular Warfare Scholars to go forth and make important contributions to campaigns and strategy.

Let me tell one final story.  In my class at Georgetown, “Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists” I have a Navy SEAL Lieutenant.  I asked him why he was taking the course because as a SEAL he already is an expert special operator.  He described one of the weaknesses of the SEAL community and that is that it is very tactically focused.  He said that the commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, RADM Brian Losey (who by coincidence is a National War College classmate of mine and someone I am proud to call a friend) has put out the message that SEAL officers have to learn how to campaign and must grow beyond the narrow tactical focus of direct action, counterterrorism, and surgical strike.  They have to be able to plan for and employ the entire joint special operations force.  Most important they have to be able to campaign to support strategy.  As they say, that SEAL and RADM Losey get it.  And so do you.

I have one recommendation for you.  This is really more of a request or even a heart felt plea.  Please write.  You have expertise and experience.  You have ideas.  You are critical thinkers.  Write.  Contribute knowledge to the profession of arms and to the national security dialogue.  Use the tools you found here and the intellectual gift you have.

You are Irregular Warfare Scholars and graduates of the SOF Campaign Artistry Program because you know how important it is to be able to campaign.  You came to the fork in the road here at Leavenworth and have taken it.   I expect that all of you will go on to make great contributions in many different ways which should be the goal for all of us:  To make a substantive contribution to our national security.  Be the quiet professional.  As we used to say in SAMS, be more than you appear.  Never forget the words of the late GEN Downing who adapted this from the SAS motto: who thinks, wins. 

I will close with the words of T.E. Lawrence that I think are the foundation of your education here: “Irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”  As I used to tell my Special Forces soldiers:  I know you can outfight any enemy but to win you must outthink him as well.  I know you are well prepared to outthink any enemy the United States will face.

I wish you the best.  Thank you and de oppresso liber.

*SOF Imperatives
  • Understand the operational environment 
  • Recognize political implications 
  • Facilitate interagency activities 
  • Engage the threat discriminately 
  • Consider long-term effects 
  • Ensure legitimacy and credibility of Special Operations 
  • Anticipate and control psychological effects 
  • Apply capabilities indirectly 
  • Develop multiple options 
  • Ensure long-term sustainment 
  • Provide sufficient intelligence 
  • Balance security and synchronization



  1. A wonderful, inspirational talk. It deserves wide dissemination and recognition.

  2. Excellent remarks, Sir. You truly make this community a better force.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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