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Royal Marine Commandant's Gallipoli Memorial Lecture

12 May, 2011

Major General Buster Howes, OBE

Monday, May 23, 2011

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 The Gallipoli Memorial Lecture given by Major General Buster Howes, OBE, Commandant General of the Royal Marines, at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute (founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington) (biography)


May 12, 2011


Admiral Forbes, Ladies and Gentlemen, honourable members of the RUSI – it is a great privilege for me to be invited to speak to you today.

I am uncomfortably minded of President John F Kennedy’s speech, at a gathering of Nobel laureates in the White House in 1962, when he reflected that : ‘We have probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for those times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ Noting that detractors of my particular amphibious clan sometimes mischievously suggest that MARINE is not a noun, but an acronym which stands for ‘Muscles Are Required Intelligence Not Essential’ – I hope, in the next 25 odd minutes that a giant chasm does not open, between the expectations of the informed and the erudite and the insights of one of Kipling’s ‘Harumfrodites’. There is apparently a perfectly respectable body of psychological research which indicates that people often confuse those who are provocative and argumentative with being smart. It occurs to me now, that this forlorn hope may have unbalanced my speech!

My thesis and the title of this ‘lecture’ – is a quotation from another prize winner – the , author of the ‘Impossibility Theorem’, who suggested that ‘Vast ills follow a belief in certainty’. I might equally have chosen Voltaire’s dictum that ‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd’.

There is wisdom in insecurity – at least of the intellectual rather than the physical kind! Indeed the former may be a pre-condition for reducing the latter! Topically, a consequence of not being fixated by either a search for, or an illusion of, certainty is that we can fully align ourselves with the vision of ‘Adaptable Britain’ recently articulated by the National Security Council; and consequently invest in versatility - in forces that have dexterity, agility and nimbleness, principally because of the quality of their people; that enjoy global utility; that can be employed rheostatically, depending on the situation; and that offer and preserve political choice once committed. The law is so often in the circumstance and ‘War is the unfolding of miscalculation’. So today, I may be regarded as an evangelist for the ‘Ilities’, and will now develop some of these themes.

I will describe circumstances where ‘vast ills have followed a belief in military certainty’. Where analysis or intelligence has been shaped by hubris, group think or vested interests to support pre-conceptions; where the Red Team challenge has been mute and, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, ‘And thus in his considered view, what did not suit could not be true.’

I will then explore some of the lessons we might draw from these episodes. I will indulge in a bit of ‘crystal ball gazing’ about the future operating environment – hopefully without over-confidence! Before summarising the possible deductions for our decision makers.

Following the rubric established by , the former and the first Gallipoli Memorial right after RUSI took responsibility for delivering them in 2001 - I will not talk directly about the Gallipoli Campaign, and will glance only briefly toward the Dardanelles and its lessons for amphibians, in conclusion. I nevertheless bear witness, at the outset, to a fight that claimed almost 131,000 lives – 44,000 Allied and to Ataturk’s transcendent humanity in recognising, just 18 years later that; ‘your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

So, to three examples of ‘certainty leading to vast ills’


500 kilometres in length, 25 kilometres in depth; with over 5000 blockhouses and 142 ‘ouvrages’ (or super forts) and taking 10 years and a large proportion of the National Budget to build - the Maginot Line remains a monolithic reminder of the risks in extrapolating myopically from previous experience. It was Andre Maginot, the French Minister of War’s, conviction that the stalemate of the trenches in the First World War could be exploited to advantage, through the creation of enhanced static defences, to protect his nation from predation in the next.

The rationale for its construction was threefold: prevention of a surprise attack; creation of a sufficient delay, of 3 weeks, to enable the mobilisation of the French Army; and provision of decisive counter-attack points from the integral super forts. The Line was extolled as a work of military engineering genius.

But Guderian had an inconveniently different view. The German invasion of France began almost exactly 51 years ago, on the 10th of May. SICHELSCHNITT or SICKLECUT - an aptly named plan - scythed deep into France, out-flanking the Maginot defences in the surprise attack it was specifically constructed to negate, and rendered the fortifications irrelevant. In a matter of weeks the debacle was plain and the French Army capitulated.

(Iraqi Freedom)

Sixty three years later, in 2003, the Allied invasion of Iraq was viewed by many US military strategists as an opportunity to demonstrate the full might of post-modern Manoeuvre Warfare. There was much talk about network-centricity; of ‘free-flowing ribbons of combat power’, dynamically marginalising ‘hard points’ whilst decisively striking against centres of gravity; and great confidence in the irresistible advantage of technology – both information and kinetic – the Revolution in Military Affairs and the ‘American way of war’ and a certainty that Iraqi resistance would quickly crumble.

In direct consequence, fewer combat troops were deployed than senior US military commanders requested. Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, in February 2003, assessed that the mission demanded twice the number then in the order of battle. Concerns for combat units becoming isolated in this new ‘front-less’ style of warfare were countered with reassurances that air power and its dominance would create an unhinging ‘shock and awe’ amongst the enemy.

My very modest personal experience of this campaign, in charge of a Commando Unit committed to the initial assault wave of the war, and heavily reliant on US air and aviation assets, was slightly different - the combined arms plan seemed to unhinge itself in the first 11 minutes. The confidence that we would never be far from overwhelming, friendly combat power evaporated as the dedicated AC-130 and Cobra gun ships, were then, promptly re-tasked and we confronted an opposed, daylight helicopter assault into insecure landing sites.

Within days, Clausewitz’s ‘fog of war’ also descended upon a Captain Troy King of the US Army - following only the digital needle on his commercial GPS and a 1:100,000 Theatre scale map, he proceeded to navigate the 507th Maintenance Company straight into a series of deliberate, Fedayeen ambushes within the city of An Nasiriyah. He had inadvertently placed his soldiers at the tip of the Allied thrust into Iraq - a full 12 hours ahead of the main US Marine Corps armoured offensive. In a little over 60 minutes, eleven of the thirty three soldiers in his eighteen vehicle convoy were dead, seven were captured and nine were wounded; only six men and three vehicles escaped. A further sixteen US Marines were killed in the subsequent counter-attack battle and the plight of a 19 year old female soldier from Palestine, West Virginia - Jessica Lynch - was broadcast across the world. The spokesman for US Central Command, in Doha, commented: ‘As far as the incident concerning the convoy, I believe that it is probable, like many other tragic incidents in war, that a young officer, leading his convoy, made a wrong turn and went somewhere where he wasn't supposed to. There weren't combat forces around where it happened.’

Twenty seven dead and over one hundred injured in just a few hours, made that Bloody Sunday one of the costliest days in US military history since Vietnam.

You may surmise that I am rather missing the point with my selective and very tactical vignettes, but the shock of An Nasiriyah halted the entire Coalition campaign for three days as governments pondered nervously on the thought that this invasion might not, after all, be just another pre-scripted, clinical demonstration of the superiority of 4th Generation Western firepower and tactics.

Far from being anomalous, the 507th’s experience was a portent of the future and the grinding, asymmetric, attritional, urban struggle that unfolded in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere, and consumed vastly more blood and treasure, in the following 6 years. We begin wars thinking they’re like astronomy and end them knowing they’re like astrology. Our contemporary reliance on the UOR system gives this thought further credence.


And what of the last few months’ experiences and the ‘Certainties and Ills’ associated with the optimistically dubbed ‘Arab Spring’?

In 2010, the UK Government - the MOD and other Departments invested considerable time and careful thought in rationalising likely threats and ‘Ends’ against affordable military ‘Ways’ and ‘Means’, within the SDSR process. I participated in several such debates, both here and ‘around the corner’. At no point did our deliberations predict that on the morning of 17th December 2010, just 2 months after the publication of the White Paper, a 27 year old Tunisian - Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi – would take his own life in an act of desperate protest. And that this would resonate so profoundly and so quickly across the entire region - where poverty and early death are after all commonplace - that it would presage the swift and violent removal of the long-established, ruling elites of Tunisia and Egypt and that civil unrest would erupt in their neighbouring states.


The Maginot Line reminds us of the dangers of certitude; of group think; of ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ or in a single means of Defence. It underlines the perils of ignoring the realities of our time; in this case an RMA associated with Manoeuvre Warfare and Blitzkrieg.

The 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath demonstrated that Blitzkrieg, technology and firepower have their limitations too; that over-confidence in them can indeed be problematic; that the fulcrum of advantage between the offence and the defence can be ephemeral, unstable, unpredictable. As Professor Richard Holmes points out, as Western Defence expenditure and investment in sophisticated weaponry grew, the USS COLE was almost sunk by a speed boat packed with improvised explosives. As scientists grappled with the complexities of fielding ballistic missile defences, the Twin Towers were destroyed by a dozen men armed with 50 cent plastic Stanley knives, who turned passenger aircraft into weapons of mass destruction.

If asymmetry and hybridised warfare are paradoxically today’s RMA - the asymmetry of means; the asymmetry of stake; and the asymmetry of legal constraint – and Somali piracy is a compelling example of the latter – what Maginot Lines might we currently be clinging to? In response to my request, as the Commander of Europe’s naval counter piracy forces, for India to provide further assets to operations off Somalia, a senior naval official in Delhi shook his head wearily and said ‘elephants chasing ants’!

Bouazizi’s legacy is a powerful reminder of our inability to either predict or contain ‘Events … dear boy’. And that we can’t just value and retain the capabilities of the moment, and for the crisis that we’re in – we must carefully invest in contingency forces and try to insure against ‘alternative futures’ and Rumsfeld’s ‘Unknown Unknowns’.

Military outcomes often fly in the face of so-called ‘certainties’.

In February this year, the US Secretary for Defence, Robert Gates, ruefully observed that ‘the US record on predicting conflict had been perfect. We have never gotten it right!’ He said this not as a criticism or witticism, but simply as a truism. We must recognise the contemporary relevance of Liddell-Hart’s wisdom that uncertainty lies coiled at the heart of all combat and that surprise is ‘the pith and marrow of war’. We must retain the resilience and flexibility to cope with the inevitable mess, muddle and dislocation and, further, to prepare for it.

Bouazzi’s also reminds us of Edward Lorenz’s ‘Butterfly Effect’. A seemingly inconsequential ripple can amplify, suddenly, to reverberate strategically on a distant continent. It again reminds us of the vulnerabilities of an increasingly inter-connected world.

The synapse of such events will surely narrow further as globalisation accelerates. In 2000, 12% of the world’s population owned a mobile phone, today the UN estimates this figure to be 60%. In 1995 there were 16 million Web users globally, today there are 1.7 billion. Growing exponentially, at over a quarter of a million new users per day, Facebook will gain its billionth visage imminently. Its population will shortly exceed that of China; and as a virtual nation, whose every, unconstrained citizen can be mobilised at the click of a mouse – and at the speed of light – it will move in startling and unconventional ways. Its populace’s ‘freeboard effect’ may, in future, become irresistible.

The MOD’s Future Character of Conflict work describes the future operating environment in a neat alliteration of ‘C’s: Complex; Congested; Cluttered; Contested; Connected; and Constrained. As a naval officer, I am tempted now to add a further ‘C’ to the list - Coastal – but I’ll come to that. My personal view is that the overall tapestry looks about right because it may fairly be summarised by yet another ‘C’ … Chaotic.

Geoffrey Till, speaking, here last year, suggested that we might simply be reverting to the status quo ante - to 18th and 19th Century reality, when maritime power and its ability to globally affect land based outcomes was key. Mencken observed that ‘wars break out at the confused and shifting boundaries of changing power systems’ – the boundaries or Seams where tectonic strains and frictions are generated and released.

Such Seams are no longer simply national – if indeed they ever were. They may be more subtle and fluid – they may be cultural, environmental (space/land/sea), religious, geographic, financial, knowledge based or at the interstices of the actual and the virtual and in the cyber domain.

Highly evolved societies have more dimensions … and more vulnerabilities. Those who can operate successfully in and across these Seams will be of increasing value. This will demand multi-disciplinary, versatile teams which are not constrained by conventional Departmental let alone Defence stovepipes. The increasing premium placed on Special Forces is indicative.

(The Predicament)

Thucydides, the father of political realism, believed that we are fixed by a trinity of honour, fear and interest. These form a complex soup – some of which may be regarded as incidental and discretionary and some essential to our identity and being and vitality. But if the ways of the world - and conflicts in particular - defy accurate prediction, some of our vital interests will be directly threatened unless nimble contingent forces are held at readiness.

How do we gauge the risks of the opaque future and judge which are acceptable and discretionary; which, in the business vernacular, should be tolerated, transferred, treated or terminated – the last two generally being the business of Defence? How do we avoid the folly of only acknowledging the risks we feel we can afford, when crouching amongst those we have felt obliged or free to ignore, may be something genuinely lethal?

We are an Internationalist Nation in every way; historically, geographically, culturally, demographically, politically and militarily. The UK is a member of more international clubs and collectives than any other country. How then should we calibrate the cost-benefit of all these engagements or entanglements?

The resource-capability dilemma could be resolved in a number of ways:

* We might reduce our internationalist ambitions and belatedly recognise that Mercator’s projection in a schoolboy’s atlas is no longer pink. * We might seek to deliver our National interests through increased pooling or sharing of international resources and more arrangements like the ‘Entente Frugale’ . * Or, we might move away from configuring fixed solutions to ‘certainties’ and instead pursue an expeditionary path – in every sense – based around versatile forces that can react to the uncertain realities of our environment.

Our path probably lies in a formulation of all three, but allow me now to draw on three passages to elaborate just this ‘third way’:

‘We are a maritime nation … we rely upon the seas for commerce…to support our friends and allies….for on-scene response to crises where we have no access rights or permissive facilities, and for representing our national interests around the world….

The point is… the forces of choice to handle future crises will likely continue to be aircraft carriers and amphibious forces with embarked Marines. One might also speculate, as we enter an era characterised by increasing terrorist activity, violence in drug exportation and the use of coercive tactics such as hostage taking, that amphibious forces with their evolving special capabilities will increasingly emerge as the more logical force of choice.

There is no indication whatsoever that the zeal of xenophobic radicals, messianic clerics, nihilistic students and other insurgents bent on reversing the trend of emerging, albeit weak, impoverished, democratic governments will decrease. These men of the streets and villages are better dealt with by riflemen than by supersonic aircraft – and they will be dealt with in areas where we will not likely have, nor want to establish, bases ashore.’

That could have been written yesterday. It was actually published by General Al Gray, Commandant US Marine Corps, 22 years ago, in 1989.

I’d just re-iterate one phrase: ‘That amphibious forces with their evolving, special capabilities will increasingly emerge as the more logical force of choice.’

This prescient assessment is now, increasingly being reflected in the Defence policies, priorities and capabilities of, inter alia, America, Australia, India, France, Italy, Holland, Russia and China. Indeed, of those in the Defence ‘premiership’, only this island state evidences scepticism.

To quote Robert Gates:

‘The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne or Special Operations is self evident given the likelihood of counter-terrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future Defence Secretary who advises the President to again send a big land Army into Asia or into the Middle East ‘should have his head examined’ – as General MacArthur so delicately put it.’

We might also consider the words of Edward Beach in “Keepers of the Sea”

“From time immemorial, the purpose of a navy has been to influence, and sometimes to decide, issues on land. This was so with the Greeks of antiquity; the Romans, who created a navy to defeat Carthage; the Spanish, whose armada tried and failed to conquer England; and most eminently, in the Atlantic and Pacific during two world wars. The sea has always given man inexpensive transport and ease of communication over long distances. The sea has supplied mobility, capability, and support throughout Western history, and those failing in the sea-power test — notably Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler — also failed the longevity one”.

Almost ten 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan; characterised, soberingly, by their own cornucopia of ‘C’ words, must surely have stimulated us to find a different way to defend our interests on the seams - particularly if our careful assessment of future conflict environments suggests more of the same! To simply bow to the inevitability of it all and the inescapable logic of mass and the mantra of minimum force densities, is like again pouring miles of cement, south of the Ardennes.

An alternative – perhaps even the alternative - is Maritime based and Expeditionary. It is rests on the training and retention of high quality people; not through greatly increased spending or smarter technologies per se. Soldiers, and Marines, who are as intellectually supple; emotionally strong and physically resilient. That belong to organisations that are versatile and agile and can react and deploy where they may not be invited - and can change the nature of events when they arrive.

There are only two means of Theatre Entry when not invited – exploiting the global commons of either the sea or air space. The latter would require massive new investment by this country and would only ever partially meet the need to lift combat units let alone sustain them. There is a reason why 92% of the world’s trade is moved by sea. The force of 24 US Apache helicopters that deployed to the Bosnian conflict required 6,200 protective troops and command and support personnel; 550 C-17 flights and 26,000 tons of supporting equipment. Further, air insertion is binary not rheostatic – you can’t loiter. It forces your hand. You’re either in or you’re out.

But we have 500 years of experience of using the sea to our advantage. We already own the hardware to continue to do so. It can be projected forward without commitment and poise – if needs be, almost indefinitely, as a subtle and responsive instrument of coercion, conventional deterrence and force on mind.

It can engage across the spectrum of interest, activity and conflict; ranging from building political trust and support through partnering; constabulary tasks to kinetic engagement.


Yes, yes! But … what about Gallipoli, I hear you murmur. Doesn’t it graphically expose the flaws in the amphibious argument? On the contrary, the Gallipoli campaign failed because the advantages of amphibious operations were squandered or ignored. It lacked surprise, manoeuvre and unity of command. The ANZACs were configured in environmental stovepipes, rather than commanded across ‘the Seams’. To quote Sir Maurice Hankey, the then Secretary to the War Council, “the whole affair was a ‘gamble’ based on the certain belief that the Turks would be an inferior force.’ There’s that certainty thing again.

The campaign faltered for lack of manoeuvrists of Bernard Freyberg’s ilk and calibre – gallant officer he - who was wounded eleven times and decorated with a VC, four DSOs and five MiDs when, finally, he hung up his musket. Sensing, that forces landing at Bulair would be decimated on the beaches, he jumped over the side of his landing craft, and swam 5 mile ashore in full battle kit – fortunately he was also an Olympic swimmer! Extemporising a deception plan, he then lit flares on a separate beach, to draw the fire of Turkish machine gunners.

I’d like to begin to draw to a close by offering a couple of challenges:

* Recognising that preventing wars is financially about 1000 times cheaper than fighting them, we must be more sophisticated in the way we value and consequently fund those capabilities which can forestall conflict, that engage and influence and obviate the painful constancy of Wootton Bassett. * You can’t build trust in crisis. To borrow President Obama’s line, ‘we need to be fixing the roof, when its not raining.’ * We need to consistently challenge assumptions – and institutionalise the value of non-conformity. As General Mattis - Commander CENTCOM - recently said:

‘If you're constantly trying to make war more precise and predictable, you'll promote people who thrive in squeezing out the marginal drop of uncertainty. If you recognize war's essential messiness and the enemy's adaptability, you'll reward mavericks, risk-takers, and people who thrive in uncertainty.’

Finally, I’d like to leave you with an image of Corporal Mike Stevenson. He is a 24 year old Royal Marines Commando serving in 40 Commando. It is the 20th of March 2003, a pitch black night and he is a few miles off the coast of Iraq’s Al Faw Peninsular. On the horizon, he can see fires erupting and above, the after burners of salvos of Patriot and Tomahawk missiles. He leads his 7 man section across the deck of HMS ARK ROYAL, towards the clattering helicopter, They are all encumbered with massive rucksacks – the equivalent of their body weight in kit, ammunition, and weapon systems. Their sweat has already begun to smudge their black maquillage.

This is the moment he has rehearsed repeatedly for the past 2 months – since he was first briefed, in outline, on his mission. He knows every building on his target intimately – has drawn them, modeled them, metaphorically inhabited them. He knows the ranges between buildings and the emergency escape plan if it all goes wrong. Just as the Sea King door is about to slid shut, his Company Commander appears. “There’s been a change of plan ‘Stevie’”“ he bellows – “you have to attack a totally different target, about 10 ‘klicks’ from the original location.” Stevenson looks at his Boss, a big toothy smile lighting up his face “No worries, Sir – I knew it was too good to be true!” and pulls out a pen to write down the new Grid Reference.

As Napoleon said of the Royal Marines – ‘What could be done with a 100,000 men such as these.’

Thank you.