Author: ML Cavanaugh

The best (and shortest) suicide prevention class…

In his New York Times column, David Brooks writes about suicide – and the challenge of interrupting the “idea or story to bring them to the edge of suicide and to justify their act.”

As someone who has spent a good amount of time in Army-sponsored classrooms (trying to learn through mass-education how to intervene), I thought Brooks’ column was particularly helpful.  It clarified for me the strongest counter-narratives out there, which he gained from Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

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The Decay of the Profession of Arms – by Major Matthew Cavanaugh

The Profession of Arms is decaying (weakening or fraying – as opposed to a relative decline), and the primary causes are neglect, anti-intellectual bias, and a creeping, cancerous bureaucracy.  Permit me to explain, to diagnose the patient’s condition, in order to arrive at a common understanding of the illness.  Let’s begin with the Profession of Arms: this is society’s armed wing, principally charged with guarding the safety and interests of that society.  In some way, every political entity must use force or at least threaten to use force for it to survive in the international system. The members of the Profession of Arms are the custodians of the specific military knowledge that enables national survival.  As Don Snider has put it, these commissioned members have one critical function, which is to successfully provide “the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment[s]…of high moral content.”  In essence this is military judgment, which today is decaying and being compromised through apathy, disregard for intellect, and a mammoth bureaucracy.  

Symptoms: Where there’s smoke…

I teach a course called DS470: Military Strategy at West Point.  I was accepted to the assignment in 2009, and attended graduate school from 2010 until the summer of 2012.  While in graduate school, I read everything I could to prepare myself for teaching the course.  The course includes a two-week block on the Iraq War, and in preparation I came across Professor Richard Kohn’s scathing criticism in his 2009 World Affairs Journal article (previously a lecture), “Tarnished Brass: Is the U.S. Military Profession in Decline?” His commentary was stunning at times, and this line chilled me:

Iraq has become the metaphor for an absence of strategy…In effect, in the most important area of professional expertise – the connecting of war to policy, of operations to achieving the objectives of the nation – the American military has been found wanting. The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.

Not long after, I came across a troubling note from a peer (then Major Fernando Lujan) already stationed at West Point.  He wrote on’s “Best Defense” blog, “From my own limited perspective, I can say that the Academy is falling heartbreakingly short of its potential to prepare young officers.” He continued, “We lecture the cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy.   To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world.  Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines.” 

Kohn and Lujan’s words alerted me to some anecdotal chinks in the profession’s armor.  Moreover, as Lujan’s was only one piece of data I had encountered from West Point, I resolved to keep an open mind and see for myself what it was like there.  I arrived in the summer of 2012 and now have three academic semesters – a year and a half – of experiences to draw upon.

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Experiencing war and loss with Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington

Author Sebastian Junger gave an interview to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross on 18 April 2013 about Junger’s new film Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Heatherington.

Heatherington, a British photographer, became very close to Junger while they collaborated on the documentary film Restrepo, which Junger turned into a book simply entitled War.  At left, one can see the two at the Academy Awards show – soon after the show the two were to go to Libya together on an assignment for Vanity Fair.  Junger had a last minute change, Heatherington went on his own and was killed by shrapnel from a single (likely errant) 82mm mortar round.  Junger’s film is meant to be a tribute to his lost friend; the interview also holds great insight for anyone who spends their life in a way that touches war and warfare.  Here is a sample of his thoughts:

On war photojournalism (at about 10 minutes into the interview):

“If you’re putting yourself in danger [as a photojournalist] in combat – if you don’t keep recording what’s happening – you’re putting yourself in danger for nothing. It’s utterly stupid. And so it’s actually easier to keep rolling in combat because at least it gives the risk some meaning.”

On fear in combat (at about 11 minutes):

“You go into shock a little bit. You know, combat’s not that scary actually.  It’s scary beforehand. The anticipation is very scary – and, afterwards, the fear catches up with you. But in combat you’re really very calm.  At least I am.”

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Iran War Council: Military Strategic Considerations

**Reader’s Note: These are Major Matt Cavanaugh’s remarks from the October 2013 War Council event on U.S. options toward the Iranian nuclear program.  The full event remarks are available at Small Wars Journal.  His prompt was to engage with “military strategic considerations.”**

Academics and opinion writers engage military issues all the time – glossing over important considerations.  For example, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, last year, writing on the U.S. Navy breaking an Iranian blockade in the Straits of Hormuz: “We will succeed, but at considerable cost.”  That seven-word sentence is pregnant with so many assumptions, challenges, paradoxes and questions – it is just so amazingly simplistic.

So what is a member of the profession of arms to think? 

That’s why we’re here – to get beyond overbroad statements to real strategic analysis.  I’ll cover three topics: what each country wants, likelihood of military tactical and operational effectiveness, and the strategic wisdom in using military force to deny the Iranian bomb.

Value of the Object

Start with a basic question – what do both sides want?  Or, as Clausewitz puts it: what is the “value of the object?”

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Syria War Council: Is intervention wise?

**Reader’s Note: These are Major Matt Cavanaugh’s remarks from the 6 September 2013 War Council event on intervention in Syria.  The full event remarks are available at Small Wars Journal.  His prompt was to answer whether intervention in Syria was “wise.”**

My task: What is the utility of American force in Syria – is any sort of intervention wise?  To start, I don’t like the word “wise” – the battlefield punishes intellectual vanity.  You will not hear me reach definitive conclusions.  I don’t specifically know what to do.  But I think we can advance the ball forward a bit; that’s success for me today.

I’ll begin with Clausewitz, who wrote, “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking…”

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