Barack Obama's Lincoln Moment

What the commander of America's first modern war tells us about our first post-modern war.

Given the alignment of Abraham Lincoln's birthday and Barack Obama's State of the Union address, the opportunity presents itself to explore some fresh links between the two. President Obama's admiration for the Great Emancipator is well known, especially through the "team of rivals" approach he imitated in crafting his first cabinet. But both presidents will be known to history as wartime presidents -- albeit in very different sorts of conflicts -- so it might be useful to consider some of their strategic similarities as well.

Abraham Lincoln served as commander in chief in the world's first truly modern war. Three key technologies were maturing simultaneously at the outset of the American Civil War in 1861: the breech-loading rifle, quick-firing and accurate at great range; the railroad, able to move massive numbers of troops and supplies swiftly over very long distances; and the telegraph, with which to manage the maneuvering of field armies. Weapons, transport, and information systems -- all were in very active play.

Barack Obama serves as commander in chief in the middle of what I would call the first truly "post-modern" war: a great struggle with nations on one side and terrorist and insurgent networks on the other. It is post-modern in terms of the ways in which al Qaeda and its affiliates have flouted accepted notions of warmaking and found new ways to engage great powers and sustain the fight against them for over a decade. They have done so largely by mastering the network form of organization and exploiting the potential of this era's Internet-driven information revolution. It is something far, far beyond just guerrilla warfare.

Abraham Lincoln had to deal with generals who were devoted to strategic concepts articulated during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, the concept of massing the vast majority of one's forces in a single area of operations to strike a decisive offensive blow was highly favored by Lincoln's senior military advisers. Lincoln acceded to this preference, for the most part, during the first three years of the war, and the results, too often, were poor. But by 1864 his growing conviction that the technology of the time allowed Union forces to launch "cordon offensives" all around the edges of the Confederacy led him, finally, to pick generals willing and able to operate in this fashion. As Lincoln described the basic idea of attacking with different-sized forces at many places simultaneously, "those not skinning can hold a leg." His forces did, and the war was over in just another year.

Barack Obama has had to deal with senior military leaders whose formative experiences came in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 -- the last large-scale, blitzkrieg-style mechanized campaign. But even during the 96 hours that ground operations took to unfold back then, the tone was elegiac, with a heavy sense that an era in military affairs was coming to an end, even as President George H.W. Bush was talking about creating a "new world order." When the same operational playbook was resorted to a dozen years later in Iraq, the "thunder run" to Baghdad almost immediately gave way to a networked insurgency that was only tamed by the creation of a physical network of small American outposts and a social network that arose by convincing many tens of thousands of insurgents to switch sides.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, things started out small and networked, but Obama gave way to his generals' preference for large numbers on the ground, and got only more casualties and a less patient public in return for his surge there. (N.B. to Sen. McCain: It was not the surge of additional troops to Iraq that made the difference there; it was fighting in a fundamentally different way, with much smaller combat formations that did.) Now President Obama is having a "Lincoln moment," readjusting the approach in Afghanistan once more, downward in numbers, upward in terms of the amount of networking with friendly locals. Don't be misled by all the attention being given to his use of drones. They do too little, too slowly over time. The way ahead, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is the path of the small team, highly networked, better able to locate the hidden enemy and engage him.

After sacking six commanders of his main armies in the Eastern theater of operations, Abraham Lincoln finally found a general willing to undertake a cordon offensive: Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln soon put him in charge of all Union forces, and Grant worked hand-in-hand with his great collaborator William Tecumseh Sherman to bring about victory. To be sure, there were other very fine Union commanders by the end of the war -- a long, hard conflict can have a tremendous winnowing effect -- but Grant and Sherman were the principal players.

Barack Obama has followed a somewhat similar path, bringing to the fore senior commanders who have more than proved their understanding of the strategic demands of war in this post-modern era. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, in one of his first pronouncements as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke of the importance of crafting a more highly networked military. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, presided over much of the turnaround in Iraq, when the shift to an outpost strategy and the rise of the Awakening Movement turned the tide of battle there. Just a week ago in this magazine, he wrote of a future American force that would be comprised of small, wide-ranging units girding the globe but still able to scale up into a larger concentrated force if necessary. And Adm. William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, has demonstrated again and again that small numbers can regularly prevail when used in networked fashion to exploit the key information- and mobility-driven advantages that add up to his concept of "relative superiority." And these three are hardly alone. Many others have cracked the code of post-modern conflict as well.

For Abraham Lincoln, it was Grant, Sherman, and those who truly understood their approach to modern warfare. For Barack Obama, it is Dempsey, Odierno, McRaven and a generation of very deeply combat-experienced officers who offer up much hope that the American military will master the nuances of post-modern conflict. So perhaps it is worth giving a nod to Lincoln the strategist in tomorrow night's State of the Union address. For in this very different age, Barack Obama has nonetheless traveled a similar path as commander-in-chief.

Sgt. Roland Hale/DVIDS

National Security

Uncle Spam Wants You!

Can the U.S. military find a few thousand good hackers?

The reported call last week to quintuple the size of the U.S. Cyber Command -- to about 5,000 hackers and other alpha-geek types -- poses a daunting challenge if the ranks are to be filled. The services do not have anywhere near these numbers of IT experts with the requisite skills on active duty. Redeploying those they do have to Cybercom would still leave enormous shortfalls, and gaps in the units whence they came. The many education and training programs, including Cyber Corps sites -- my school is one of them -- have throughput levels that, even at full throttle, would take decades to bring the number of cyberwarriors up to the desired level. In short, it seems that there are few ways to meet the pressing demands for more digital soldiers.

Unless there is a willingness to try innovative recruitment methods for seeking out those with the necessary talents.

One creative way to proceed with recruiting would be to convince skilled IT industry techs to join up and click for their country. This need not be a typical recruitment requiring several years of active duty. Instead, the focus could be on bringing talented men and women into Reserve and Guard formations, perhaps even forming up new, purpose-built cyber units. These could be sited strategically, near IT hubs.

For example, there is space available right now at Moffett Field, in Silicon Valley, where Air National Guard and Reserve psychological operations units are already located. Many of the techies I know would jump at the chance to use their skills in service to their country. And taken together with units at other tech hubs around the country, the numbers would mount very quickly. All would serve short, recurring stints on active duty, but their sheer numbers would guarantee a steady flow of cyberwarriors into the system.

Another way to proceed would be to recruit master hackers. A little bit of this is being done already, though far too little. But I am talking about finding -- no small task -- and then hiring the best hackers in the world, the ones who can walk right through firewalls. Even now, almost 25 years after the Morris Worm disrupted about 10 percent of the computers connected to the Internet through an innovative spreading mechanism (the first big hack), there are only a few hundred true master hackers -- think Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo of The Matrix films. Many other nations and criminal networks are already seeking their services. Terrorists have tended not to go this route, though, perhaps out of worry that if a hired-gun hacker were a double agent, the whole network might be illuminated -- and soon after eliminated.

In a very real sense, today's masters of cyberspace are not unlike the German rocket scientists who, after World War II, were so eagerly sought by both sides in the Cold War to help them build missiles for war and rockets for space exploration. One of the best of them, Wernher von Braun, became a great American hero for his contributions to the U.S. space program. Indeed, I remember sitting in a movie theater as a boy, riveted, watching the 1960 von Braun biopic, I Aim at the Stars. The fact that sometimes he had hit London didn't seem to matter. He was going to take us to outer space.

Oddly, the people who can best lead our explorations of virtual "inner space" have received less than heroes' welcomes in the United States. Hackers may be courted and pampered in China, Russia, and other countries, but in the United States they are often hunted by lawmen. The judicial system is very tough on them, too. Aaron Swartz, the hacker who wanted to make scholarly journal articles widely available online -- an idea that all of us academics love -- faced a possible 35-year prison term for accessing these articles. Lots of them. But instead of taking a plea, or going to trial, three weeks ago he killed himself. Swartz's is not the only hacker suicide.

And then there are cases like that of Gary McKinnon, who from his perch in Britain broke into many sensitive defense information systems a decade ago -- often just by searching for points of entry among default passwords that hadn't yet been changed. McKinnon, an autistic man, was looking for the truth about UFOs (who isn't?), and along the way caused some disruption to both Army and Navy systems.

The U.S. government spent years trying to extradite him from the United Kingdom, but the British Home Secretary ruled against the American request last fall on humanitarian grounds (a psych evaluation held that McKinnon would likely kill himself if he were extradited). Still, the charges against McKinnon remain in place, and Washington threatens to keep up the pursuit. But if the notion of trying to attract master hackers to our cause is ever to take hold, this might be just the right case in which President Obama should consider using his power to pardon.

One presidential act of mercy, such as in the case of McKinnon, won't entirely repair relations or build trust between hackers and the government, but it would be a strong signal of officialdom's growing awareness of the wisdom of embracing and employing the skills of these masters of their virtual domain. Over the years I have had the chance to meet and get to know several of the world's very best hackers. What they have in common -- aside from a kind of startling intelligence -- is a deep attraction to the beauty and complexity of cyberspace. They are not motivated by a desire to disrupt; if anything, they are devoted to free, secure flows of information, believing that virtual liberty will often be the herald of freedom in the "real world." One need only look at the antecedents of the Arab Spring to see how close to the truth this view is.

Beyond recruiting IT industry techs and master hackers -- neither of which might, by themselves, fill all Cybercom's needs -- there is one more interesting possibility for filling the ranks: increasing the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The great advantage of AIs -- for the most part, think very bright software, not Robbie the Robot -- is their speed and accuracy. AIs doing good service in the Navy today, for example, include the Aegis ship defense system and the guidance controls for the Tomahawk land-attack missile. The risk in using them without a human in the loop is that they may have poor judgment -- by human standards. So my suggestion is to buddy up AIs with GIs, doubling the force immediately. Smart soldiers paired with smart software. The AIs' quick reflexes could make Secretary Panetta's call for a cyber pre-emption capability a reality, as blocking an attack often requires action in milliseconds. Taking the offensive is slower, given that attacks are usually mounted by surprise. So in this case the human soldier could exercise some control over his desktop buddy.

In sum, the good news is that there are at least three creative ways to begin to realize the vision for the expansion of Cybercom that was recently shared with the public. The bad news is that none of them is being pursued with nearly enough vigor. At a time when others are waging cyberwars -- see the recent reports of Iranian and Chinese cyber operations -- American capacity is growing at a pretty glacial pace. If the fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was the arms race to build nuclear weapons, the driving force in this "cool war" era is an organizational race to build hacker networks.

And so far we have only just laced up our running shoes.

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