Episode 62: Heather Venable: Gen Z – the Best Tacticians in History?

Dr Heather Venable, associate professor at the US Air Command and Staff College, offers advice to students in professional military education courses and discusses the challenges of turning great tactical operators into people with useful skills in operational design and grand strategy.

The conversation with Peter Roberts also covers the mythology of the Taliban as experts in manoeuvre warfare, whether 'helpful fiction' is even vaguely useful, and why air power theory is stuck in a ditch.

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  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, the weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall. And every week, I'll talk to a guest about the issues around the western way of war, national security and the western approach to war. Each September, officers and in some states, other ranks, make their move towards colleges and academies to start a new round of professional military education. The idea of educating military leaders beyond the simple martial prowess dates back millennia. Whether the Prussians started the trend or the French might be debated for years. Yet today, most militaries around the world see some value in preparing their commanders for future challenge by providing formal periods of education in which they can gain perspective, breadth and develop their intellectual skills. None, that I know of at least, claim to be able to equip graduates with the inspiration of the (mw 01.11) or battlefield genius. But curriculums do tend to have some common elements. Some states may focus more on the financial acumen of performance rather than international affairs theory. Some on military doctrines rather than equipment and capability procurement protocols. Colleges sometimes make students do all the heavy intellectual lifting before arriving with them. Free to use their time in the presence of resources and professors in other ways. But these institutions are few and far between. Most set a heavy agenda of textbook learning, lectures and dissertations.


    Everyone who goes to these places to start a period of PME, they do so at all points in their career. But it's common around the 10-20 year point in their service. You go on these courses thinking about how much study time you can actually allocate to pay back the family for the separation enforced on them from operational deployments. How many days can you spend picking up the kids from school before you return to the pressure and requirements of the next high demanding job? That's really well understood, but I also reflect on a great article written by Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel back in 2019 to a class starting this process. The article is called, 'Are you enough?' It's not about the imposter syndrome we all feel in starting a new job, but about making decisions on how you'll use that time. They make the point that for many students, this period of education will be the only moment they have for pause, thought and clarity before the next set of jobs, sets, deployments, engagements and wars. Deciding to step back for the year and prioritise domestic over development needs to be placed in that context. But the reality is also that starting a period of PME can be daunting. Surrounded by academics in their environment, not yours, is bad enough. But then being required to write in prose and not orders formats can be utterly discombobulating. So I wanted to respond to a few of the emails and messages I've had from listeners about whether there are any hacks to doing professional military education.


    There are loads of people I could have asked but few I enjoy listening to more than Dr Heather Venable from the Department of Air Power at the United States Air Command and Staff College, where she is an associate professor of Military and Security studies. She's the author of a book, 'How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique.' And a managing editor of The Strategy Bridge as well as a non-resident fellow at the Marine Corps University Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Her snappy pieces on everything from air power to maritime strategy and on PME are beautifully written with wit, guile and insight. So Heather, listen, thanks for coming on the show. Before we get to PME and air power and other stuff, and some potential hacks for the college life, perhaps, can I ask the question we pose most of our guests. What does the western way of war mean to you?


    Heather Venable: Well thank you for having me and first I have to give the official US government disclaimer. Nothing I say represents the US government or the air force. But I loved this western way of war question because it's one of the reasons why I chose to actually switch from diplomatic history to military history. It's that I found more rich ideas and questions in military history and one of them was, 'What is the western way of war?' Going back to Victor Davis Hanson's pieces and so that's one of the reasons I became a military historian. So now that-, I don't know, it's a lot of years since I first read those books, I've-, well, I think, a three part question. So when I first thought about your question it would be that the western way of war is, in many ways, very interesting because many societies have fought at a distance. And I think that the Greeks chose culturally to engage in close quarter combat. And this, to them, they saw as having psychological advantages but I think in many ways this also neglected the psychological costs of fighting at close quarters. And it really privileged the idea of a decisive battle and we still think about, in our influence by the first type of western way of war, and the myths that we tell ourselves about Greek warfare and how in some ways they continue to idealise portions of it. Even though we're idealising the myths rather than the actual reality of history itself. And then I think it transitioned, for me at least, into a selective interpretation again of Napoleonic history and this continuing quest for a decisive battle which is understandable, but something we wrestle a lot with at the Staff College.


    And then in World War One, and even before, there was a deadlock because of the changing balance between offensive and defensive weapons, which has a lot of implications for today as well. And a lot of people came up with manoeuvre warfare as a solution. And I think manoeuvre warfare is a fascinating idea in theory, I'm not sure how often it works in practice. And I think often when it does work, one of the key factors when it does work is because enemy morale often is low. But what happens when enemy morale isn't low. And so I think history is very useful here for going back and trying to check whether manoeuvre warfare actually works in practice. And so I've written some about that and I am continuing to write about that and explore. And then finally I think that the new western way of war that we've seen maybe since Operation Desert Storm and (mw 06.50) where air power also really comes into the picture is that ironically we've, kind of, reversed that trajectory of embracing close order combat and now increasingly have tried to fight from a distance. And in that we've also added this humanitarian element of trying to avoid casualties. So that's, to me, how I see the progression, the western way of war. As a historian, of course we don't like (mw 07.18) and we always struggle between trying to give people useful ways to dissect huge periods of time and the reality that there are no easy answers for military practitioners. 

    Peter Roberts: So listen, Heather, that was an amazing answer, it was multi-faceted, there's loads there that I want to dig into. But your last point about air power has always struck me as quite interesting because I was having a conversation with a mate of mine the other day. And we were talking about the experience of Afghanistan is, in many ways, that it was about using air power almost as a sniper rifle. This is the way that we had developer our ability to use air power. And it seems, I don't know, it seemed a really expensive and wasteful way to use such an incredible military asset. We don't seem to have developed those theories through all the time we've invested on it. It feels like air power doctrines, it's just stagnated, it hasn't moved forward. Do you think that's true or do you think there is some change on the horizon? Or are we stuck in this idea that CAS (ph 08.13) and AI against an individual is the way ahead?


    Heather Venable: That's a really tough question to answer in so many ways. I think that the air force really struggles between trying to advocate for there's more to air power than just serving as flying artillery. And when you use it that way it's a huge costly endeavour and surely there are more efficient ways. But on the other hand, with the casualty aversion of trying to avoid casualties on the ground and trying to be a part of the joint fight and supporting and getting the over air power's reputation of too much being go it alone. It has a really hard time saying, 'No this isn't an efficient way.' So one of the main things I like to talk about a lot is that we've had the luxury of being able to throw a lot of air power at the problem. But in the future, in terms of thinking about great power competition, what kind of choices will we have to make about employing air power. And I know the army, the US army, has anticipated this and is, you know, trying to develop more long range weapons, for example. But then you have the problem of, well now all the services are developing potentially redundant resources and how do you pick and choose? And that's why you see a lot, I think, of the food fights that are picking up in the US between the three services. And I'm sure you see similar things over in Britain as well.


    Peter Roberts: Yes, the sort of budgetary fights, but for me, we're losing the rigour, this intellectual depth that gives us an idea about how we should be fighting with these tools. That's why, because no one's come up with a better idea, everyone's inventing the same things, albeit in slightly different ways. So I'm sort of struck by this idea that through all the thinking, all the teaching, everything we do about whether it's air power or anything else, (TC 00:10:00) we somehow have failed to progress. Even multi to main battle and multi domain operations. I mean that's just a way to use things more efficiently, right? It's not a battle winning technique. And yet, it you looked for success of all the graduates, all the PhDs, all the money and time we've invested in PME, we haven't developed commanders who can win wars. What we've got is we've got losses all over the place. Since 2000 we've continually lost engagements. I mean, people have been heroic and brave, don't let me take that away from them, but the fact is we've lost, tactically, operationally and strategically. Part of this must come down to our way of thinking about, not just air power, but how we educate our people. Do you think that's true?


    Heather Venable: I do but I would like to circle back first to the multi domain piece because it's something I've written a lot about and feel strongly about. I think that the Air Force in particular, we may have some of the best tacticians in world history, maybe I'm drinking a little bit too much blue KoolAid. But I think there is an argument that the students I get in my classroom are tactical experts. But then the problem becomes at Air Command and Staff College, our role is to educate them at the operational and strategic level of war. And that requires a very different mentality because for operational and strategic, then you're getting more into theory, doctoring strategy. And those change less over time and so history, in many ways, becomes more useful for thinking about because you have more rigorous thought and examination of the past. So, for example, two weeks ago I taught OEF, or Operation Enduring Freedom, using a publication that ended in 2005 and it was disconcerting for the students and myself to teach it then and I could only imagine how much more it would be now mid-August after the events of this past week. So we really struggled between, 'Well how do we talk about small war or coin or whatever term you want to use when there's very little written, especially recently, that's rigorous because we can't get into the archives.' And this is something I feel strongly about that after Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force quickly released a multi volume Gulf War air power survey that had some very reputable non-KoolAid drinkers doing the study. 


    And in many ways their findings went against some of the louder voices in the Air Force that were more zealous about how air power should be used, finding that it was really successful in the Kuwaiti theatre of operations and not necessarily as a purely strategic campaign. But yes, we don't have anything like that since then. And so, the US army had recently released a couple of years ago almost 1,000 documents online that you can access through the War College. And there are some things that are redacted but still, you can get a lot out of that. And there's nothing for the Air Force, and I think that until we start wrestling and can study more about what those conflicts are, it's hard to feel like we're being honest with ourselves and can learn from what happened. Especially when you get from that early phase of the conventional conflict against Baghdad that lasted about five weeks 2003, and then suddenly turned towards the unconventional. What I want to understand, what were airmen thinking, what kind of different offers and ideas did they have when they were tying to figure out now things that are going differently, not like we expected, what do we do now and how did they adapt. And we just can't get into that because the Air Force won't give us those records.


    Peter Roberts: It's amazing, isn't it. I mean I'm a big fan of The Spear, the Modern Warfare Institute podcast, where it's their front-line reflections of people who've come back from combat and they talk through their engagements. And you get people who talk about, whether SF operators or a patchy pilot, you get some real feeling for that. The one thing that's always been missing in there was a reflection on air power. Whether it's fast air or strategic lift, there's a bit of rotring aviation in there, but you just don't get the feel that that knowledge is being shared, that that experience is being shared. As you say, it's not just the written records but it's the oral histories that really seem to be missing from the Air Force at the moment. I don't know if that's something that is culturally inside all air forces, because it doesn't happen in Europe either.


    Heather Venable: I'm not sure, and I think that when you're talking about individual people and their memories, I was just having this conversation, I had a PhD who was also Lieutenant Colonel at the time. He gave a lecture for us two years ago, or so, on Operation Inherent Resolve. And then I had a student come up to me and the student said, 'Well that's not how it occurred.' Having a little bit more experience I would give her a better answer now, but everything was from open source material. So to say that everything in that lecture was presented incorrectly revealed either one, a very myopic perspective that this person assumed that she knew the real story. And also just that the one piece, the US led piece, and this comes I guess back from some of my graduate studies in the British Empire and interest in colonialism and agency, that we have the piece of the story and if we can just figure out what we're doing, everything will flow. And I think that one of the problems with these conflicts is that we've seen our side but now fully wrestled with the Clausewitzian triangle with the people element. And even with all our technology, the people element is still critical.


    Peter Roberts: So I wanted to come back there, just relating exactly what you're talking about. The contemporary records, the contemporary experience. Students will go to their PME courses emotionally invested in recent campaigns, right. I mean, seriously invested in them. Which makes it very difficult to examine those with any sense of perspective. I genuinely really get that, I mean you can't look at these with a dispassionate eye. And going back in history provides an ability to do that in a slightly different way. And I guess, is that one of the secrets of success, is to remove yourself emotionally from the curriculum that you're looking at?


    Heather Venable: So those are really great questions. I think that my first piece of the answer would be I think it's true but it might be hearsay. But even if it is just hearsay it's great hearsay, is that the navel war college trying to figure out how to study the Vietnam War said, 'Students who feel this too personally can't study this.' So that's supposedly when they added (mw 16.35) into the curriculum as a way to get at the same issues. And so it is very much true for us that we get to our modern air power course and there is a lot of emotional investment and a lot of, I've missed my kids birthdays, I lost friends, all of these things that go into understanding and their feelings. And so it's hard to think about this dispassionately. And in my last class, honestly, my students didn't want to talk about Afghanistan, they didn't want to talk about Iraq because they said, 'That's what we've been doing for so long.' It's interesting because in an educating air power book that came out in the last year, it's a collection of airman's thoughts or airmen professional military education in Italy, the US, Canada and Britain. One of the starting pieces of analysis that the editors offer in the beginning is that air power education has become too conservative. I don't know whether that's true or not but I think it's interesting and as someone who's responsible for a piece of the curriculum at ACSC, I want to consider that. But how do you draw the line between traditional critical thought and cultivating creativity which you don't have the necessarily look at the newest, you can look at ancient case studies.


    Because you're cultivating a way a thought more so than providing tactical knowledge. Because what we're doing here changes less over time, because we're interested in theory, strategy, where when you get into TTPs and tactics, those are the things that change more. And so with the operational strategic level of war, I think we do have the advantage of more stability so we can look more deeply into things. And so on the one hand, I think we can get more out of focusing on Vietnam than Afghanistan because we have a better understanding of what happened and a bunch of different perspectives that we can bring in. Where as for the other reasons I've already given about Afghanistan and Iraq, it's lot harder. And the other challenge though is avoiding being too conservative, thinking about how you look into the future. This is something that's not necessarily my responsibility because my course, we end in 1973. But how much artificial intelligence do you include and why, how much robotics, how many swarms. Because, and this goes back to our earlier discussion in terms of multi domain operations or whatever it's called today, it changes every day so it's hard to keep up. But I think if you ask students what the answer is and what's the future of air power, they're going to say things like, 'Swarms, (mw 19.23) networks and AI flown jets,' and all these things that we see. And these are all things. But then we stick them on a proverbial air power dartboard of strategy, instead of thinking going back to the foundational ideas and seeing how we might actually try them.


    And so this gets into a different conversation that I have wrestled with and don't know the answer to at all, which is when you're thinking about teaching science fiction, and some of the futuristic novels. I'm not personally convinced how useful those are, although I know a lot of people (TC 00:20:00) think they are. Because I feel like then you get stuck in a way of thinking that cuts off some of your thinking. Because now you have such a powerful vision and you've kind of seen this in the space force with it's really hard for the space force to get away from Star Trek and Star Wars influence. Although they also claim that they came up with it first. But these visions are so powerful in shaping things of where the future's going. So this is a very long winded answer to say it's very complicated, I think, to try to figure out how to keep air power, professional military education (mw 20.36) from getting stagnant and where we draw the line and what issues we consider when we're approaching it.


    Peter Roberts: It feels like coming across everything we've talked about is the idea that a lot of us are stuck, we're stuck in a mental envelope of our own making that constrains us. Whether that's air power, whether it's the idea that we regard the future through the eyes of P.W. Singer and August Cole only. Whether we think about the way of warfare as (mw 21.03) and nation building. And how useful is that thinking when we talk about great power rivalry? How much can we learn from Afghanistan, Iraq or even Syria and Yemen that applies to the next era? I think this, for me, has always been the point about PME is that it's learning about how to stop thinking the way that you currently think as a tactician perhaps and to not be constrained by the resources that may be given around you. That your own experience, and to break out from your own experience and to start to learn how to tap into the experience of others. I know that might be history, that might be other campaigns, but it might also be writing by the Russians or the Chinese who are actually doing some interesting stuff on air power right now in doctrinal terms. I just think that in a way, we've become very stuck in a technical, scientific examination of our professional military education. And what we're lacking is the artistic part that grows thinkers. We grow people who solution it at every problem, but they solution it in a set mindset. I don't know if you'd agree with that or you think I'm talking rubbish?


    Heather Venable: No, the only thing I would say is that from my experience at my college, we're not very technical at all and we are more arts based, we teach war as an art more than a science. I think because we're teaching majors who have about fourteen years. I think though that this gets a question that I've been thinking about a lot this week which is there's the question of whether the war colleges have more emphasis on the college part at the exclusion of war or if they need to put more war and real military stuff back in. And I think that, as again someone who's responsible for determining parts of a curriculum at a staff college, it's a question I take very seriously and give a lot of thought to and don't want to close off my mind to. But I think that the argument that we saw on social media this week was that the Taliban, in many ways, had succeeded perhaps because they were these manoeuvre artists, that they were able to shock the opposition into freezing up and not being able to respond. But I think another solution would be also be to say that they were political masters and that they understood how to achieve their objectives by more political and non-kinetic means in some ways in this case. And so I think that the lesson for that for PME. Then again, we have this ongoing battle where we try to figure out how we teach kinetics, but also non-kinetics. That we recognise have always been important but are increasingly becoming more important. And we see that with the Taliban's foundation that they led, for at least short term success recently.


    Probably, unfortunately, longer term success. I like to always remind my students that Clausewitz said war is never final and that's probably one of my favourite lines from Clausewitz. And so I think that this week, mid-August shows us that the War College has to be a place that is a proper mix of war and college because people are senior officers that are going to be generals needs to understand politics, they need to understand the economy. And they already have been studying military history and have been practising it for all of their careers. And now that they're going to be engaging with civilians, that requires them to have more of a broadening education. Here at the staff college level, we have mid-career, we are still more focused on war and joint war fighting because we are not going to have people as quickly have to be conversant in politics, economics. All those things that our previous students, our graduates, found themselves doing in Afghanistan. And when you're thinking about great power competition, you have to think about it not just about a peer on peer fight, which must be taken very seriously and must be prepared for adequately. But also a less conventional fight that our opponents might chose to pick a fight and we might find ourselves in their. Either way, we have to think about using the military in a larger pursuit of political objectives and that requires the college part and the war part.


    Peter Roberts: It's interesting isn't it. What you're talking about, the Taliban, being great manoeuvrers. There's a huge temptation in all conflicts, from military professionals to apply the lessons that they want to conflicts and events. Whether it's the Taliban, whether it's the Assad regime in Syria, the (mw 25.52), the second (mw 25.53) or whatever we were talking about. This is about drones and the futility of armour or the IDF Gaza conflict where everyone was taking about it's AI and IMD, these are the big lessons. And I think in some cases we shouldn't allow militaries to draw the lessons because they do so and impose their own mental frameworks over the top of them, anyway. Which is why this idea of giving them an extra skill-set in terms of the politics is so important, I think you're absolutely right. But in that it must be really hard to break some of these shells, these mental cases, in which they arrive, right. Do you smash them, do you pick them apart? How do you go about breaking those down? Is it a very individual think or is it something you can apply. A it's the military, I go at it with a sledgehammer, or is it something else?


    Heather Venable: One of that challenges that we face is that many of our officers that we teach have been selected because they have excelled at being officers and they've excelled at being officers by having been given questions and they've answered them in excellent ways. And so a lot of us here try to get them out of that mindset and to think not about how to answer questions but how to ask them. And we do some material with cognitive dissonance and how and why ideas come to be held so tightly. And that goes to what you were saying with some of the examples. And again goes back to our, 'Well what do we study about recent conflicts and how do we necessarily know that we're concluding the correct things when we only have a short perspective.' And we don't really understand fully why situations played out like they did. We can speculate and then we tend to, as your examples show, hone in on platforms and capabilities and technologies without thinking about all the things that make those capabilities work. The ideas that underpin them, the people, the training, everything else and we just make sweeping conclusions and stuff.


    Peter Roberts: So my final question to you, because we're running out of time, I want to know what the best bit of advice you could give a student who's starting a period of professional military education is? What's the one thing that you think is the secret to success?


    Heather Venable: I think, I'm really interested in creativity and how the brain works and how ideas come out and white space. I know my best ideas occur when I wake up too early and I'm laying in bed. It's like four in the morning and I don't want to get out of bed because I'm too lazy. And so there's nothing to do but me just to sit there and think and that's when I get many of my best ideas. And so I tell students walking around, running, all these daily things when you're not consciously thinking, that's when your best ideas are going to hit you. So white space, I think, is really important at PME. And sometimes we're guilty here of filling up and trying to make the most of every precious thing, you can be thinking while you're playing golf. And I hope no one will fire me for saying that. But I do think students should read but I think also, they need to read and I would hate for them to think that this is completely a year for relaxation. But I do see it as a year to recharge. You should recharge with your families, you should recharge your mind, most of all. And I think the best way I know of doing that is to-, it's really challenging because for students that are highly motivated and want to learn, we give them all these books and they have so many details. And so we're asking them, first of all, to learn Air Force history, but that's not really the primary reason that they're here. It's to learn how to deconstruct arguments, to engage critically with ideas to make arguments of their own. And so to do that you really have to read actively so I try to get students to either, it's really hard, don't take notes.


    Instead just write what you remember (TC 0:30:00) and that will help you get at the essence of what's important. I try to bring in more active notetaking and so we can use pictures of circles and that way you can look through the chapter and find out what really matters. The students here subdivide their notes and they have one student who will take notes for page one through ten, and the next student will take notes from ten through twenty. And then what you get is this volcano of material and I think one of the most important challenges, especially for officers in 2021 when we have way too much information, is how do we pick and choose what's most important. And if you're using a division of labour to read and take notes then you're not refining that skill, and that's a skill that we really need today.


    Peter Roberts: I couldn't agree more, Heather. There's just so much information out there distilling the essence of it and knowing where to look and read is critical. Heather, thanks so much for joining us. To those embarking on professional military education courses soon, or even university courses soon, you'll be required to write a lot. In prose, not orders, instead of just doing it as an exercise or to get through the latest requirement, you might consider entering RUSI's annual Trench Gascoigne Essay Competition for 2021. Entries can be up to 4,000 words and can cover any topic related to national or international defence and security. There are two prizes of £1,000 each to be won. For more details, check out the link on the page for this podcast at rusi.org. Whilst you're there, you might consider taking out membership for the Institute. As the home to intellectual thinking about the profession of arms since 1831, many of your predecessors have found that we have something to offer, both during the courses you're embarking on and when you've left. The shows produced by Peppi Vaananen and Kieron Yates and is sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. You can find out more about RUSI, our research and our thinking at https://rusi.org/MilSci. Thanks for listening.


    KEY: Unable to decipher = (inaudible + timecode), Phonetic spelling (ph) + timecode), Missed word = (mw + timecode), Talking over each other = (talking over each other + timecode).

2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize

Submissions are now open to our annual competition for original writing on contemporary issues of national and international defence and security. Find out more details on the 2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize and how to enter.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

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