Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thinking about Combat/Not Combat

This article has pushed me to think a bit more about the whole combat/not combat thing. Democratic leaders these days seem to want to convince their publics after Afghanistan (as if Afghanistan is not still a thing) that their militaries are doing heaps of stuff but not combat. 

The Canadian case gets quite confusing quickly.  Even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pulled out the CF-18s that were dropping bombs on Iraq (and, oh yeah, five sorties in Syria), Canada was still doing several things that were combat-ish: special operators on the ground advising and assisting the Kurdish forces, refueling planes, flown by other countries, that would be dropping bombs, and the recon planes (the Auroras) that were collecting info that would be then used to provide targeting information.

All of these efforts involved facilitating the killing of ISIS troops.  Is it not combat when one is fueling a plane that drops bombs?  Is it not combat when one is providing targeting lists? Is it not combat when one is guiding ground forces to aim better so that they can kill more effectively? 
Perhaps it is only combat when one's forces are actually put in harm's way?  Well, the SOF were on the frontlines, more than folks had expected, and there were casualties, so combat?

I think the problem is that democratic leaders really want to tell their publics one of three different stories:
  1. We are not killing people.
  2. We are not at much risk of getting killed.
  3. This ain't Afghanistan--we aren't sending significant numbers of troops into battle.
The last is truthful, and perhaps the messaging should be--we are not engaged in conventional offensive combat ops.  That may be too long for a sound bite but does fit into a tweet.  Number 2 is a bit dicey--what is risk, how much risk is acceptable or expected?  The Defence Minister, Bill Graham, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, did travel across Canada, warning the public that Kandahar was riskier, more dangerous than previous missions, and that Canadians would die.  This amazing honesty may not have been strident enough, but at least it was clear--Canada was doing something different.  Number 1?  I do sometimes think politicians are trying to assure their publics that their forces are not doing anything harmful.... but these are wars, people are getting killed, and we are trying to make our side (which may change from day to day) become more lethal. Perhaps more precise and more restrained but definitely more deadly.  Is that uncomfortable?

What happens most of the time in not just the US or Canada is that politicians say--not combat.  It turns out that is a simple answer covering up all kinds of complex realities, so once things happen and the media pays attention, folks get confused quickly.  I tend to believe that more honesty and less denial up front is a good thing, but, then again, I have never run for office or been on a team helping someone do so.  What might be best for the mission might not be good domestic politics.  Which is perhaps the most normal thing about all of this.

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