Tag Archives: Civil War

Pitfalls in New Capital Ship Creation

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Steve Wills

The creation of new capital ship concepts seems to historically stem from a combination of new technology, change in strategic situation, and changes in financial resources available for warship construction and maintenance over time. The best known such case is that of the development of the aircraft carrier from simple experiment in 1914 to master of Pacific theater warfare in 1941. The carrier’s evolution from experiment to capital is fairly well known, especially from books such as historians Allan Millet and Williamson Murray’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Albert Nofi’s To Train the Fleet for War, and books on aircraft carrier development by the noted naval historians Norman Polmar and Norman Friedman.

The record of success in the process of creating a new capital ship is however mixed and forced attempts without the benefit of exercises and evaluation over time are not always successful. It is also useful to study less-than-successful capital ships. Consider the cases of the American Civil War ironclad monitor-type warship and the early twentieth century battlecruiser. Varying degrees of the three factors (technology, strategy, financial change) went into their concept development and active employment. These classes were overtaken by further perturbations in the same three categories that were responsible for their initial creation and their reign as “capital ships” was brief. A study of these less-than-successful capital ship entrants is useful in predicting the emergence of the “next” capital ship.

American Civil War Monitors

The American Civil War was the genesis of several ship types, including early versions of the submarine, and the torpedo/mine laying boat. Two potential capital ship entrants include the monitor-type turreted ship and the high-speed steam cruiser. Both later filled roles as capital ships in other navies. In the case of the turreted ship, a change in strategy as dictated by the need to batter through Confederate A2/AD defenses and advances in metallurgy needed for thick armor and rifled guns made possible a new class of capital ship superior to all previous U.S. capital ship types. The steam frigate; the early industrial age descendent of the sailing ship of the line, was no match for armored warships with large solid shot or shell gun weapons. The ineffectiveness of the USS Cumberland, USS Congress, and the new steam frigate USS Minnesota against the Confederate armored ship CSS Virginia attested to the superiority of the armored ship over previous “capital” ship classes. The addition of the revolving armored turret in the original USS Monitor only enhanced armored ship capabilities. In later battles with Confederate armored ships such as CSS Atlanta, and CSS Tennessee, the turret-mounted guns on U.S. Navy monitors made short work of Confederate warships that often could not bring their armament to bear on the more agile Federal warships or lacked the armor to withstand monitor weapons. By 1865 the monitor fleet included dozens of units, including the largest Dictator-class that approached 5000 tons displacement and 350 feet in length.

1862. On the James River in Virginia. “Effect of Confederate shot on Federal ironclad Galena.” Wet plate glass negative by James F. Gibson. (colorized)

A change in strategy and funding at the end of the war, however, and a failure for some aspects of armored ship technology to keep pace with political developments, ended the monitor’s brief reign as capital ship. The end of the rebel states’ coastal defenses and littoral armored ships left the monitors bereft of littoral missions. The U.S. returned to a strategy of forward-deployed squadrons on foreign stations for influence and limited combat missions. While two monitors made transoceanic voyages and were well-received by European audiences, their limited range, generally poor seakeeping and heavy coal consumption made them unfit for the new, financially austere strategic era in U.S. naval policy. On one such voyage it was discovered that while rated at 350 tons coal storage, the USS Miantonomoh actually carried only 264 tons and was towed by one of her escorts for a considerable part of her transoceanic voyage due to lack of coal.1 Nearly all were out of service by 1877. A few were briefly re-commissioned for the Spanish-American War against the threat of Spanish coastal attacks but were swiftly retired and scrapped soon after that conflict’s end. While initially successful in the limited terms of operational employment envisioned, the monitor was unable to become an enduring capital ship.

The High-Speed Steam Cruiser

The second Civil War contender for capital ship rank was the high-speed steam cruiser. While the monitor was one of the ancestors of the modern, dreadnought battleship of the early twentieth century, the Civil War steam cruiser was an early version of the armored cruiser that was also designed to prey on enemy trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States Navy was again a leader in the development of this type of ship based on its unsatisfactory experience with Confederate commerce raiders. These ships, while generally not the equivalent of Federal steam frigates, were fast on their coal burning engines and wide-ranging thanks to their sailing rigs. Over the course of the Civil War, Confederate commerce raiders, many constructed in British shipyards by Confederate-sympathizing Britons, in effect destroyed the American whaling industry at sea and inflicted severe damage on the U.S. merchant fleet as well. In the celebrated Alabama Claims arbitration case settled in 1872, the British government agreed to pay the U.S. $15.5 million dollars ($290m in 2017 dollars adjusted for inflation alone) in claims.2

This experience convinced some U.S. Navy engineers that a high-speed vessel capable of running down enemy cruisers or blockade runners would be a necessary component of the current and future U.S. Navy. To meet this mission need the navy undertook a plan to develop a steam warship fast enough to catch a blockade runner and well-armed enough to engage a Rebel cruiser. The product of this effort was the USS Wampanoag, a steam warship capable of the then- unheard of top speed of 17 knots as measured during her sea trials in 1868.3

The USS Florida, formerly the USS Wampanoag (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, the Wampanoag was completed too late for Civil War service and despite her advanced set of capabilities was quickly removed from active service. As with the monitors, the dawn of a new, post-Civil War strategic era made a high speed ship with large coal requirements. Wampanoag burned 136 tons of coal per day at high speed and 84 percent of her total weight was taken up by propulsion equipment.4 Navy leadership advised the Secretary of the Navy that, “The Navy no longer had a strategic or tactical requirement for a vessel with such high speed and long, (coal-fired) range.”5 Another group of Navy leaders believed that the eastern seaboard’s wood shipbuilding industry was threatened by iron, steam-powered ships and that the Navy should not damage an industry on which it so relied for the maintenance of such a large part of the existing, wooden fleet. Wampanoag’s speed and coal-fired endurance records were not equaled by any foreign vessel for nearly a decade and not superseded by any U.S. ship for almost 20 years.6

The Battlecruiser

Finally, there is the case of the battlecruiser which was British Admiral Sir John Fisher’s attempt to scientifically address advancing technology, high costs in warship construction, and meet the needs of a new strategic era in a purpose-designed capital ship. Early twentieth century British naval estimates had skyrocketed over the previous decade as Britain sough to maintain a “Two Power Standard” where the Royal Navy’s capital ship fleet was the equal of the next two largest naval powers. This effort, combined with the high costs of the recent Boer War and a desire on the part of many British lawmakers to increase the size and funding of the nascent British welfare state put great pressure on Britain’s naval leadership to cut costs whilst maintaining maritime superiority.

The capital ships charged with maintaining British maritime superiority were the standard battleship (later known as the predreadnought,) that was designed to combat similar vessels in pitched battle and the armored cruiser; a high-speed capital ship designed to protect British global commerce and to hunt down and sink enemy commerce raiding ships. Both ships were expensive, but both types were seen as essential to British maritime security. Fisher’s solution was to combine both of these classes into one new capital ship capable of meeting all of the previous requirements. Advanced fire control systems then under development that allowed all of the guns of a warship to be fired in concert against a single target were also incorporated into Fisher’s new capital ship concept, albeit with less attention to detail than that which went into the guns and speed of the ship.

This vessel was the battlecruiser, the first of which (HMS Invincible) was commissioned in 1908. The battlescruisers had the size and high speed of the armored cruiser, with the heavy guns of a battleship, at the expense of additional armor that Fisher thought superfluous if the battlecruisers big guns and superior fire control allowed it to hit enemy warships decisively before return fire could inflict damage. Fisher envisioned the battlecruisers as the Royal Navy’s deployable “911 force” capable of meeting both enemy battle fleets and commerce raiders on the high seas while torpedo-armed destroyers and submarines guarded British littoral waters against enemy warships and potential invasion of the British homeland.

Battlecruiser HMS Invincible exploding at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

The battlecruiser concept, as well as Fisher’s other capital ship concept the HMS Dreadnought-type, all big gun battleship, allowed him to reduce British naval costs from 1905 through 1910. Unfortunately, technology continued to advance and the strategic situation around which the battlecruisers were designed changed. Oil propulsion, bigger guns, and the ability to build larger vessels resulted in a further combination of the dreadnought battleship and the battlecruiser into the “fast battleship” concept; the first of which was the Queen Elizabeth class of 1913. This ship could travel nearly as fast as the battlecruiser, and possessed superior armament and armor to the existing battlecruiser fleet.

The strategic situation also changed. Fisher designed the battlecruiser against the known threat of French and Russian armored cruisers built to attack the British Empire’s global trade routes. The advent of the Triple Entente alliance and the emergence of the German Empire as the Royal Navy’s new, primary enemy resulted in a different employment for the battlecruisers. Germany had no fleet of commerce raiding cruisers, and built short-range battlecruisers of its own as scouting elements for its battle fleet. While some British battlecruisers remained stationed overseas in accordance with Fisher’s original concept, most were assembled in home waters as a heavy scouting arm of the battle fleet much as were their German counterparts.

The experience of war seemed to confirm the utility of the fast battleship over the battlecruiser. Although the first two battlecruisers (HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible) found early employment as Fisher intended; hunting down and sinking German Vice Admiral von Spee’s raiding cruiser squadron, most wartime battlecruiser operations were in support of battle fleet actions in the North Sea. German battlecruisers sacrificed gun size, operational range, and habitability for survivability and were likely more robust than most of their British counterparts. Heavy British battlecruiser losses at the Battle of Jutland were probably more to do with the failure of British gunnery officers to abide by their own standing and safety orders then any inherent vulnerability of the battlecruiser type. Nonetheless, the loss of three British battlecruisers and over 3000 men with them in spectacular magazine explosions, along with the scapegoating of the class by senior operational British commanders to cover failures in tactical doctrine did much to discourage further construction. The “last battlecruiser” HMS Hood was also sunk by a magazine explosion 20 years later by the German battleship Bismarck, an event that served only to further discredit the battlecruiser concept even though Hood was over two decades old and in need of refit and modernization.


What do these examples suggest about the changes in capital ship design over time? Changes in national strategy can quickly make today’s ideal warship an expensive anachronism from another era. The U.S. navy monitors, the high-speed Wampanoag, and the battlecruisers were all ideal warships as conceived in support of their respective national and naval strategies. The end of the Civil War and of the Franco-Russian surface raider threat to global British shipping made all three designs obsolete to a degree. Changes in financial support to a navy can also change capital ship definitions and bring about a search for alternatives. The post-Civil War U.S. Navy funding shortage limited the applicability of coal-hungry armored or high-speed ships, and brought a nearly two-decade return of ships with significant sail propulsion. The expensive British “Two Power Standard” building program helped to drive the search for an alternative major combatant in the form of first the Dreadnought battleship and then the battlecruiser. Post World War I financial and treaty limitations of battleships in turn helped to drive the development of the aircraft carrier. Finally, technology never stands still for long, and the monitors, the Wampanoag, and the battlecruisers were all overcome in short periods of time by ships with more advanced capabilities.

What do these changes in historical capital ships suggest about designs for the “next” primary naval platforms? The British naval architect and historian David K. Brown suggested that while the aircraft carrier was always more vulnerable to attack than was the armored battleship, the flattop was able to deliver a larger and more sustained load or ordnance on an opponent as compared to even a squadron of battleships. Anything that replaces the aircraft carrier or the nuclear submarine (both have proponents that suggest they are the current capital ship,) must at least deliver a heavier, sustained combat punch than these units. The monitors and the battlecruiser were both superseded by ships that met this criterion. The aircraft carrier, by contrast, has been upgradable over time with new aircraft making it sustainable for a long period. Continued technological advances demand that any new platform be upgradable over time. The Wampanoag’s machinery was advanced, but contained wooden gears that wore down and needed a replacement over the course of one voyage. Subsequent machinery plants and other systems were more robust. The electromagnetic rail gun may be the next weapon of the next capital ship, but its barrel life must improve beyond a few hundred shots in order to be operational and tactically viable.

There is a lively debate as to what the next capital ship or system will be, but it will still likely be affected by the same financial, technological, and strategic influences that drove past capital ship changes. Any new capital ship must be capable of greater sustained ordnance delivery over time than its predecessor. Given the changes of the last decade in terms of a new era of strategic, great power competition, the rapid advance of many technologies, and financial shortfalls for many nations in terms of naval spending, the question of the next capital ship remains a healthy one open to continued debate.

Steven Wills is a retired surface warfare officer with a PhD in Military History from Ohio University. 

These views are presented in a personal capacity


1. Howard J. Fuller, ““A portentous spectacle”: The Monitor U.S.S. Miantonomoh Visits England, “ The International Journal of Naval History, Volume 4, No 3, December 2005, p. 8.

2. http://legal.un.org/riaa/cases/vol_XXIX/125-134.pdf

3. http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/csi/docs/Gorman/06_Retired/03_Retired_2000_11/20_09_DisruptiveTechnology_2Mar.pdf

4. Wegner, D.M.; Ratliff, C.D. (September 1998). “USS Wampanoag, 1868: Isherwood, Taylor, and the Search for Speed”. Naval Engineers Journal, pp. 19–31.

5. http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/csi/docs/Gorman/06_Retired/03_Retired_2000_11/20_09_DisruptiveTechnology_2Mar.pdf

6. David K. Brown, From Warrior to Dreadnought, Warship Development from 1860 to 1905, Barnsley, UK, Seaforth Publishing, 1997, p. 19.

Featured Image: “Congress Burning” by Tom Freeman.

Ulysses S. Grant at Endor

Written by Matthew Merighi for Movie Re-Fights Week

The Battle of Endor was the ultimate confrontation in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was a two-pronged battle both in space and on the surface of Endor. Each was a desperate race against time; the Rebel Fleet desperate holding out against the Imperial Fleet backed by a fully armed and operational Death Star laser while a strike team battled a full Imperial Legion defending the Death Star shield generator. We all know how the story ends: the plucky Rebels manage to overcome the Legion through successful use of indigenous forces and coalition warfare, allowing the Rebel Fleet to destroy the Death Star from the inside. The Death Star explodes, the evil Emperor dies, and the galaxy is finally free of tyranny. The end.

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While this makes for good cinematography, it makes for poor understanding of military strategy. As the television show Robot Chicken points out, there is no reason why the Rebels should have won that battle even once the Death Star was destroyed. The Imperial Fleet was still very much intact, though down a Super Destroyer, and could have prevailed in a protracted conventional engagement. Moreover, the Emperor’s initial strategy to hold the Imperial Fleet in reserve in order to demonstrate the Death Star’s power and fuel Skywalker’s despair in his fall to the Dark Side was clumsy at best. Palpatine demonstrated what happens if you do not pay attention during strategy classes.

In crafting a better strategy at Endor, the Empire could have turned to a figure from American military history: Ulysses S. Grant. For our historically impaired audience, General Grant was the commander of Union forces during the American Civil War who distinguished himself through quasi-Soviet strategy of using superior manpower to slowly grind down the Confederacy until it surrendered. He is one of the best examples of a successful attrition-based approach to strategy and tactics. He followed the dictum that “quantity has a quality of its own.”

If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Union’s Grand Army of the Republic (double entendre intended) exhibited the same characteristic as the Imperial Fleet: it was larger and better outfitted but less ably manned and led than its Rebel counterpart. This did the Union no favors in the early phase of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln fired Grant’s predecessor, George McClellan, for failing to act aggressively with the Union’s numeric advantage. “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army,” Lincoln fumed, “then I would like to borrow it for a time.”

If Grant was directing operations at Endor, he would immediately engage the Rebel Fleet. He had enough numbers to overwhelm the Rebel Fleet early while they were still processing the trap the Empire laid. He also had optimal field position. The Rebel Fleet was trapped on three sides by the Death Star, Endor, and the Imperial Fleet. The Rebels were also strung out in a long column while the Imperial Fleet was in a broad line. Imperial Star Destroyers, with their superior armaments and optimization for firing at targets to their front, “crossed the T” and pummeled the ships in the Rebel vanguard before the heavy cruisers in the rear could get into good firing range.

An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)
An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)

Grant’s approach does have a downside: the risk of a Pyrrhic victory. The Imperial Fleet is not just a warfighting tool; it is also a tool of domestic policing. The Empire is held together through fear of the Imperial Fleet, so conventional losses at Endor could have been a political disaster when coupled with Emperor Palpatine’s death. Grant would have accepted those risks and proceeded with his strategy. He would have reasoned that, despite the short-term challenges of replacing losses, the Rebels would have much more difficulty recovering from such a slugfest than the Empire would. Grant might also have reasoned that it would be much easier to bind together a government by NOT being a pro-human racist or building giant planet-killing superweapons that would ruin the galactic economy but that is neither here nor there.

Remember strategists: focus on your most important objectives, use your advantages wisely, and don’t be afraid to take risks. If you do, you too might defeat the Rebel Fleet one day.

Matthew Merighi is CIMSEC’s Director of Publications. He is a Masters of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also a proud Star Wars nerd.

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Book Review: “Saving South Sudan”


Disclosure: I have been following the evolution and progress of Robert Young Pelton‘s work on Sudan for several months. I am quite pleased with what came of this trip for Robert and his filmmaker / photographer cohort, Tim Freccia. Enjoy!

“Violence and bloodshed can never have morally good results” – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

Saving South Sudan is an ambitious, multimedia event from World’s Most Dangerous Places, author Robert Young Pelton and master photographer/filmmaker Tim Freccia. VICE went big on Pelton’s quixotic journey with Nuer Lost Boy Machot Lap Thiep to “fix” South Sudan. The three enter the world’s newest nation, at a time of extreme crisis and bloodshed, creating a grand yarn with bold characters and high adventure set against sweeping, brutal savagery.

The story of South Sudan as viewed through a Western lens is unbelievably complex, but Pelton gives us an African perspective where the current crisis is demystified by those closest to it. South Sudan has plunged into another round of playground rivalry where the contested sandbox is the world’s newest country and the opponent’s bloody noses, busted lips and black eyes are dwarfed by the physical and emotional damage inflicted on its spectators.

Saving South Sudan gives us an intelligent summary of the history, religion, cultural anthropological aspects, militarism, oil economy and “baksheesh-ocracy” that makes South Sudan tick. Serious students of the subject are encouraged to consider all of these facets while reading / viewing this oeuvre: No actions are promoted, no outcomes are predicted- and this is how it should be. This is Africa.

Pelton’s 130 page print piece and 40 min documentary grants the viewer unparalleled access into an Africa where there are no orange sunsets framed by acacia trees. A place where war is irregular, ferocious and unpredictable. In THIS Africa even the “rebel leader” bristles at being identified as such. In an earnest conversation, ousted Vice President Dr Riek Machar relays his desire isn’t to incite violence but to have a seat at the table in order to discuss options and opportunities to end the conflict. Pelton takes the filter off: behind the rhetoric, the violence continues in real time and we know that securing a seat at the table and successful negotiations (see recent media reports) bear little impact on the battle for oil on the ground. If fighting has indeed ceased, most roving bands have yet to receive the memo.

I can’t exit this review without mentioning the main reason to take the time to get briefed on the region through Pelton’s Saving South Sudan. The human touch interviews with the rulers, rebels and raconteurs would be reason enough. So would Freccia’s breathtaking portraits of the people, landscape and conflict. But taking you along this expedition is Machot- an affable, handsome (still) young man and former lost boy. His story is one of sorrow, success, and optimism. His is perhaps the best lens of them all.


Finding the print issue of the magazine can be a challenge but distribution sites are posted at the VICE website. The entire article can be found at: http://www.vice.com/read/theyre-all-coming-here-0000283-v21n4

The “Saving South Sudan” world premiere documentary can be found on-demand here: http://www.vice.com/en_us

Stephanie Chenault is the COO of Venio Inc, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business which focus on plans, policy, architectures and problem-solving across the Department of Defense for multiple clients.

Syria: Finding the Lost Cause in China

Welcome to America’s Syria Policy, the China round. Having made the public announcement of support to the rebels, only two feasible policy options remain for the United States; these examples arise from two moments in history, existing together on a razor’s edge of success in a smorgasbord of disaster. We either take a page from the Kuomintang-Maoist balance during the invasion by Imperial Japan or from America’s opening of China in the 1970′s.

Option 1: Beyond the Syrian Sub-Plot

To much of the leadership of the Maoists (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), both members of the Second “United Front”, the invasion by Japan was merely a precarious backdrop to the continued struggle for the face of China’s independent future. In the words of their leadership:

The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.
The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.

“70 percent self-expansion, 20 percent temporization and 10 percent fighting the Japanese.”
-Mao Zedong

“The Japanese are a disease of the skin, the communists are a disease of the heart.”
-Chiang Kai Shek

Even while the battle with Japan raged, Chiang-Kai Shek and Mao’s soldiers exchanged fire behind the lines of control. The conflict was partially a vessel by which the KMT and CCP collected foreign aid and built local influence/human resources for the final battle between the United Front’s membership. The limits of treachery within the Chinese alliance were often what each party felt able to get away with. China’s fate, not the rejection of an interloper, was the main prize.

The Syrian civil war has become such a major sub-plot; the two major parties, the Assad regime and the rebellion, are dominated by equally bad options: an extremist authoritarian backed by Hezbollah and Iran, and extremist Islamists backed by Al-Qaeda. Syria is beyond her “Libya Moment” when moderates and technocrats were still strong enough to out-influence extremist elements in stand-up combat with the regime. Like the KMT or CCP, the United States must now concentrate on the survival of what little faction of sanity exists within the war, as opposed to the war itself.

To concentrate on the “Rebel-Regime” narrative now is a mistake; for the United States, the only real narrative is the survival of moderate freedom fighters.  U.S. policy must concentrate on the perspectives of Mao and Chiang: the survival of the preferred eventual party, not the defeat of the temporal enemy.  Both extremist parties must lose; enclaves of moderates must be armed and pushed to defend themselves from both regime and rebels if need be. If such an operation is feasible, the moderate enclave could be made strong enough to sweep up and put together the pieces after extremist regime and extremist rebel have sufficiently weakened each other. The authoritarian regime is a disease of the skin, extremism is a disease of the heart.


Option 2: Trees for the Forest

America’s sudden opening with China was a calculated move to create a counter-balance to the conventional perception that the world was going the Soviet Union’s way. In that vein, sacrifices had to be made:

“I told the Prime Minister that no American personnel … will give any encouragement or support in any way to the Taiwan Independence Movement. … What we cannot do is use our forces to suppress the movement on Taiwan if it develops without our support.”
Henry Kissinger

Eventually, America went so far as to switch official diplomatic recognition from their Taiwanese allies to the PRC. Some question whether the balancing program started by the Nixon administration’s efforts generated tangible results. Such is the risk of trading policy for intangible influence. However, the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has given the United States the chance to trade her potential quagmire in Syria for a brighter future for and with Iran.

Up until the recent election, policymakers had called Iran for the conservatives. Now, a moderate (note: moderate does not mean reformer) has been elected on a rather explicit platform:

I thank God that once again rationality and moderation has shone on Iran… This victory is a victory for wisdom, moderation and maturity… over extremism.
President Rouhani

Your government … will follow up national goals … in the path of saving the country’s economy, revive ethics and constructive interaction with the world through moderation.
President Rouhani

Like the PRC, President Rouhani is far from lock-step with western powers, but offers a great chance to shift the internal Iranian power balance to a more palatable place for United States policy. In the China scenario, the opponent was the Soviet Union and the offering was neutrality in the major PRC territorial concern: Taiwan. In this scenario, the Soviet player is the internal conservative element in Iran that prefers antagonism as a path to regional power. Although not a direct regional concern, Syria is nonetheless a part of Iran’s sphere of influence and a key part of Iran’s core interest to be the regional power. Offering to scale our Syrian direct involvement back to containment could give the new Iranian president the necessary trophies to allay conservatives and giving Rouhani the juice to convince the real powers Iran to throttle back on the nation’s own ill-advised plans for further involvement in Syria. No doubt he would like to make room for his original platform of diplomatic reform and internal growth. A trophy from the West in hand, he may gain the legitimacy to further push a more conciliatory approach with the west in regards to even nuclear policy. This would encourage greater region-wide stability through decreased Iranian antagonism. Unlike a direct Syria strategy, this vector suppresses a regional instigator of extremism, rather than attacking one particular instance.

The Pitfalls:

Option 1: Death Spiral

The direct Syria strategy potentially drags the United States into a military quagmire where her legitimacy of policy has been indirectly hung upon forces with which she considers herself at war. It may also force potential political fellow travelers in Iran to abandon their hopes of conciliation with the West as we become further associated with direct attacks on what Iranian strategists consider a sphere of influence supporting their core interests. Further pushing Iranian knee-jerk involvement in Syria, the United States either gets sucked in with her incredibly unpleasant bedfellows or must publicly divest herself of a major policy to great embarrassment. While fighting in China, General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell once said, “We must get arms to the communists, who will fight,” missing the greater oncoming historical narrative. A direct strategy in Syria may accidentally force us into a conflict with no right sides and no exit; no matter the choice, we may foul the over-arching narrative of moderation and humanity in the face of extremism.

Option 2: Three Steps Back

While getting us out of a potential quagmire, we may sacrifice our public support of a legitimately beleaguered people for what may be little to no political advantage. There are no guarantees that trading direct involvement for containment will have any traction in the cloistered government halls of Iran. The U.S. abandonment of the anti-government elements during Desert Storm reverberated painfully. Can the United States afford to create a pattern of supporting and flipping rebels for political convenience if a chance still exists in Syria? While the political and military initiative of the moderate movement in Syria may be gone and the vacuum filled by monsters, the regular people behind that moderation are still there. As said by one of the philosophical forebears of the Republic, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A Painful Choice:

Posing a series of ideas without taking a stand is the equivalent to cheating. Unfortunately, we arguably lost in both historical scenarios. The KMT was eventually defeated by the CCP and our later sacrifices in opening China may have been unnecessary, as the PRC may have already been girding themselves to take such actions.

Our hesitation has painted us into a corner where, heartbreakingly, we may only make things worse.
As heartbreaking as it is, our hesitation painted us into a corner where we have no real palatable options inside Syria. “Helping” may only arm monsters. Unfortunately, wishes and hindsight cannot change the present. Progress must be found elsewhere.

As much as it pains me to leave behind the besieged people of Syria, that conflict appears to the amateur to be too far gone. The West’s chance to out-influence the extremists was lost last year. When the drowning people of Syria reached out their hand, the only ones to grab ahold were our enemies while we looked on. Our involvement would suck us into a cycle of escalation in a conflict with no side we wish to favor. If Assad and his allied extremists wish to exchange with AQ and their extremists associates, both our enemies lose. No scenario exists, without Western boots on the ground, which does not lead to more mass death.Victory for either side will leave a long and bloody shadow. The better hope lies in the long view that a sustained positive relationship with Iran may serve as a conduit for increased moderation now and internal reform later. As for Syria, we must merely pray that the innocent can escape.

At the time we may have sacrificed too much in our opening to China, but its end result was increased reforms. No one would argue that the China of today is anywhere close to Mao’s terrifying schizophrenic state. Our opportunity with Iran is not as primed as the position potentially under-played by Nixon and Kissinger. Syria is enough of a mess and the Iranian opportunity great enough that a shift is worth the risk. If Iran can be encouraged to give via moderation the West the political space to open sanctions, economics rather than militancy could become the face of Iranian influence in the region. This could lead to greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for everyone both outside and inside Iran.

(Editor’s Note 30/3/15, MRH – Well, so much for that.)

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.