The recent fire/counterfire between President Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney over Guantánamo, the prisoners held there, and techniques used in their interrogation revealed a distressing ignorance in the White House. Specifically, it revealed that Obama and his advisers are ignorant of military theory.
Cheney won the debate by drawing the usual Republican distinction, that between doing what is necessary for national security and being nice. If Republicans are allowed to frame the issue that way, they will always win. But in fact, theirs is a false position. We do not have to choose between doing what works in the "war on terrorism" and doing what is morally right. The two are the same.
The military theory that allows us to see this is the work of Col. John Boyd, USAF. Boyd argued that war is fought on three levels: the moral, the mental, and the physical. Of the three, the moral level is the most powerful, the physical level is the least powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two.
Cheney argued that we should sacrifice the moral level to the physical. We should engage in torture because it may gain us information that could prevent another attack like 9/11. That could be the case.
But Boyd’s theory would respond that the defeat we suffer on the moral level by adopting a policy of torture will outweigh any benefits torture might bring us on the physical level of war. How so? By pumping up the terrorists’ will, cohesion, and ability to cooperate while diminishing our own.
In effect, both our enemies and our allies will come to see us as evil. That enables enemies to recruit, raise money, and generate new operations while we must focus internally on papering over cracks in our coalitions. They gain greater harmony while we face increased friction, Boyd’s dread "many non-cooperative centers of gravity." They pull together, we are pulled apart.
For President Obama and other opponents of torture, the important fact here is that, if we understand what Boyd is saying, we no longer face the choice Cheney offered. We need not choose between doing what military necessity commands and acting morally. Military necessity itself demands that we act morally. The real choice is between doing what wins wars and loses wars, with Cheney arguing for the latter. Suddenly, it is the Republicans who are on the wrong side of the "national security" issue.
Let me offer President Obama three pieces of advice, all intended to escape the Republicans’ trap:
First, when this issue comes up again (and it will), go to your NSC director, Gen. Jim Jones, for advice. He is familiar with Boyd’s work. Your political people are not.
Second, apply Boyd’s insight about the three levels of war not only to the question of torture but to everything we do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. At present, we are sacrificing the moral level to the physical in lots of ways, which is to say we are defeating ourselves. A good start would be a presidential order forbidding air strikes on populated areas and demanding they be restricted elsewhere to situations where our troops would otherwise be overrun.
Three, solve the issue of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere by designating all of them as what they are, namely prisoners of war. International law specifies how POWs must be cared for. POW camps on American soil are nothing new; we have had them in every war. POWs may be exchanged or held until the war is over. This is what the Bush administration should have done from the outset, a point Democrats can make. The current mess was created by Republicans.
Politicians usually roll their eyes when military theory is mentioned, deeming it too esoteric for "the real world." As President Obama’s inability to answer Cheney effectively shows, nothing could be further from the truth. The Bush administration led America into two quagmires, in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of its ignorance of the theory of Fourth Generation war. If the Obama White House continues to be as ignorant as its predecessor, it will set the country up for fresh disasters. A wise president will prefer to learn from theory than from failure.