Magic Bullets and Charity

The details are still emerging about Greg Mortensen and the “60 Minutes” special and I have no opinions about it until the full story emerges, but this line of Carl Prine’s critique resonated with me:

At its most insipid…the formula devolves to a single $500,000 Tomahawk Missile = 20 Afghan schools. This implies that rather than doing so much shooting, we should just hand INGOs more cash and let them develop a region that will pacify itself through books and love and hugs and blah blah blah.

There has been a rash of writing lately about a supposed decline of the utility of military force. Of course, much of this comes from a belated realization (it is cyclical) that force is a blunt instrument that is not effectively utilized on a discrete basis. Some of it is also a confusion of failure at top-down state building with failure at military operations. But I have noticed that the same level of scrutiny about force is not really applied to “soft power.”

We talk frequently about the attraction of “magic bullets” in military strategy. A technology, a given operational concept, or tactic is elevated to the level of strategy and believed to have strategic effects (often without justification).  Effects-Based Operations (EBO), in the form that Mattis critiqued (the original idea was more flexible) was an operational concept largely built around magic bullets. Another example is the “handful of heroes” popular understanding of special operations that leads to the belief that anything can be accomplished with a bunch of SOCOM ninjas rappelling from the sky. This flies in the face of most recorded military history and the personal experiences of many professional soldiers.

In the process of promoting non-military sources of power, some (like Kristof in the cited example) elevate it to a kind of magic bullet that can deal with otherwise intractable policy problems. Sometimes this interfaces with the military-technical fetish we are more familiar with. Much of the development literature (from William Easterly down to more granular academic specialists) are more skeptical. But on the whole, partly because of the weariness of war, there is much less skepticism about soft power than hard power.

It’s time to apply some of the same critiques of COIN and military operations to soft power. Building schools does not change the nature of power politics or negate the fundamentally political reason that drive conflict. Is soft power useful? Yes, just as much as hard power is. Having a big toolbox is better than a narrow one–as long as you understand the limitations of those tools.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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One Response to Magic Bullets and Charity

  1. Nobel Prize for Physics laureate Robert B. Laughlin mused in his recent book A Different Universe that a lot of specialized research in the physical sciences could be reduced to the innate desire of different researchers to collect baubles that distinguish them from other researchers. Differences between the soft power crowd’s magic bullets and the hard power crowd’s magic bullets may be little more than a quarrel between bauble collections. If Le Monde deigned to comment on this human disposition to divide over matters of baubles, they could probably get away with saying “We are all Bowerbirds.”

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