Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adwa 1896

The GRT "decisive battle" for March: Adwa (Adowa) 29 FEB-1 MAR 1896.Not included in the bestselling volume "Great Italian Military Victories".Colonialism gets its conge'...

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Big Picture

The Big Picture? I would define it as looking at a problem/situation, whether historical or current, as a "whole", that is within a rich and complex (especially political) context. For some reason Americans, in general, don't seem to be very good at this. The reason why we don't excel at this particular skill could have something to do with the way our political parties developed in the 19th Century, the whole Walter Karp argument of "US Nation" versus "US Republic". A specific example of this inability to deal effectively with our own complex social reality is our dubious assumption that Democrats and Republicans represent the ying and yang, the two sides of the coin, the one and the other, of American politics. They don't. Never have. Rather two shop-worn labels behind which various elite and moneyed interests congregate. When was the last real big political shakeup in the US? Nineteen thirty-two? Karp would say 1892 . . . and what followed that was a manufactured war of imperialist pretenses.

I'm not going to attempt to reproduce Karp's argument here, his prose is much better than mine, but rather simply point out that there does seem to exist an almost "genetic" American tendency to avoid the everyday political reality in favor of emphasizing assumed ideological "virtue", although we would be loath to label it "ideological". In other words we focus on the pretty wrapping but don't worry about what is actually inside the box or where it came from or what it took to get it. The important thing is how it makes us feel . . .

And of course, like any other political community in the world, we like to feel good about ourselves and what we do/have done. One blatant example of this are the names given various policies to make them seem something which they arguably are not, such as "Operation Iraqi Freedom", the "Patriot Act", or anything containing the word "strategy". Whenever one sees a label like this it is a sure indication that the level of bamboozling is high and that our great-grandchildren will probably be cursing us for our stupidity, but then what could be more American than constantly scamming and fleecing the "rubes" or rather playing the rube? It's essentially the national pastime at least among our political and economic elite.

And it's probably always been so, at least in terms of our domestic politics (which of course drive our foreign policies in different ways). The difference today is that contrary to the past we don't seem to have a certain number, a minimum percentage of the public who can yell "wait a minute there!" and bring enough of the masses to their senses so that the scam doesn't get completely out of hand. Or is it rather that minimum number no longer has a podium from which to be heard, all the hoopla concerning the Facebook world to the contrary?

Perhaps we need to promote a different way of looking at the world, recapture the real meaning of "strategy".

So, first let's start with my definition of strategy which has been presented before:

Focused adaptation of divergent sources of power assisted by control over time in pursuit of a political purpose through methodological theoretical construct (strategic theory) with the aim of creating strategic effect/a strategic dynamic greater than the sum of the individual power sources. For the strong political community, strategy can be an option, for the weak it is a necessity.

Then let's consider how these various sources of power or considerations fit together. As I mentioned in the previous thread, I think the great Clausewitzian Aleksandr Svechin puts the "whole perspective" well:

Every question the strategist must resolve is extremely simple, but a correct answer requires a great depth of understanding of the situation of the war as a whole; theory can only emphasize the diversity of possible solutions as a function of different conditions. But a strategist cannot limit himself to correct answers for each question individually. The answer to one strategic question will only be correct when it is in harmony with the answers to other strategic questions. We have put harmony in the preparations of a nation for war at the forefront, but it is no less important in the leadership of a war, only the characteristics of harmony in this case are immeasurably more subtle. This coordination, this achievement of harmony, is the essence of strategy and it forces us to classify practical work on strategy as an art.
Strategy, p 306

Which brings us back to "the big picture", but to get what I'm driving at we need a suitable example . . . and perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the current debate about the Vietnam War. The latest round of this seemingly endless discussion involves the trashing of a familiar historical figure associated with the US defeat in Vietnam, General Westmoreland. Colonel Gian Gentile has responded effectively imo.

I am no expert on this subject. In terms of background, I enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve in April 1975, the same month that Saigon fell, and later saw what had become of that branch of the US military post-Vietnam, which for a young and idealistic recruit on active duty for training was hair-raising, but that was the very limited extent of my experience. I have read some books on the subject and have had many discussions with veterans of that war, but nothing like an insightful view through study of the specific history of the conflict. So I profess no specialized knowledge of the subject, but I am a strategic theorist and look at this war - as I look at all wars - from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective.

It is interesting that in a book review of Sorley's Westmoreland, in Parameters no less, the word "China" does not appear even once. This in a book explaining how we lost the Vietnam War?

This is particularly relevant when considering that those in high government positions in the Johnson Administration were taking China very seriously. Without China and Chinese ambitions(those assumed to be such in Washington) what was the reason for US intervention in Vietnam? Surely it was not seen as an important US strategic goal that Vietnam stay divided, or that the South Vietnamese government survive as regards to Vietnam itself or even Indochina. What made Vietnam important was the effect the conflict had on China and these supposed Chinese intentions . . . Thomas Schelling, writing in 1966, put the complex situation relatively clearly from this US strategic perspective:

We need to recognize that China, as a "strategic" adversary, could not be taken care of by "strategic war" planning that was developed during two decades of preoccupation with the Soviet Union. China is a different strategic problem altogether. New modes of coercive limited warfare might have to be developed for coping with the problem. The entire tempo of war would be wholly different from anything contemplated against the Soviet Union; except for a small retaliatory force that the Chinese might possess some time in the future, there would be few or no targets of such urgency as to make the initial moments, even the initial days of weeks, as critical as they are bound to be in planning for the contingency of Soviet-American war. The idea of "limited strategic war" between the Soviet Union and the West is often dismissed as plain impracticable, and those who dismiss it may be right; between China and the United States a war would have whatever tempo the US decided on, or a tempo determined by Chinese actions in some local theater, not the hypersonic tempo of preemptive thermonuclear exchanges.
The need to distinguish a campaign intended to eliminate the regime from one intended only to coerce the regime into good behavior could be supremely important when the Chinese possess a nuclear retaliatory capability (against the US or against any other population center that they might choose). Making clear to them that, the most potent coercion might be a target strategy that threatened the regime - eventually, gradually, or uncertainly, not suddenly and decisively - and such a strategy would require discriminating what it is that the regime most treasures and where it is most vulnerable.

Whatever its effect on the North Vietnamese willingness to support the Vietcong, and whatever the capacity of North Vietnam to control the Vietcong in submission to the threat of continued bombing attacks, the bombing of North Vietnam must have had one implication for China that went far beyond that war in Southeast Asia. Forcible resistance to them outside their borders can never cost the Chinese more than the resources they knowingly put at risk, the troops and supplies they send abroad; but the bombing of North Vietnam is a mode of warfare that the record now shows to be a real possibility, one that the US has not only thought of but engaged in. It is a mode of warfare that, at least with air supremacy and the absence of modern anti-aircraft weapons, can be conducted deliberately over a protracted period. And it is a mode of warfare that, if quantitatively increased, could cause extensive physical damage inside the target country, denying any guarantee that the costs of aggression could be confined to the expeditionary force put at risk outside one's border.

Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, pp 187-8

The decisive factor in North Vietnam's eventual success was outside support, from both the Soviet Union and from China. With the North enjoying this advantage, at the strategic level, the US could not exercise enough coercion on the North for them to forsake their goal of political unification with the South. Invasion of the North would have triggered Chinese intervention and the US intended to keep this war "limited". Overthrowing the North Vietnamese government was simply not a viable option. And as the war dragged on, even US bombing became unsustainable due to the ever increasing sophistication of anti-aircraft defenses in North Vietnam. It was here from a strategic theory perspective that the war was lost.

Tweeking the tactics on the ground in South Vietnam would have perhaps inflicted higher losses on the North's invasion force, may have bought the Saigon government a bit more time, but to what purpose? Would this US tactical success have changed the character of South Vietnam's ruling elite? Would it have made the people in the South willing to die to save the RVN government? Tactics comes down to the implementation of violence to achieve specific and limited goals which supposedly build on one another to create operational and finally strategic success. Violence has it's uses, and war is essentially organized violence, but it is not going to build a political community. Outstanding tactical virtuosity still would not have translated into a US victory in Vietnam.

At this point the tendency of tactical myopia leading to grand tactical speculation becomes clear and the reason for it as well. It allows us to avoid what the real main questions are and what failure actually entails. It also indicates how limited, and complex, even at times self-defeating, the role of violence is in many wars, especially when used as an instrument by "outside" political players. Which is all very depressing for a society conditioned not to question its ideologically framed motives and endlessly fed the pap that large explosions and massive destruction always lead inevitably to "victory".

For this reason, a lack of sense of the big picture becomes a necessity, actually the possible basis for a career as "snake oil salesman" in the current or even next "war of choice". Much more soothing for the gullible is to instead focus on narrow tactics that we assume that we excel in. All that "warrior" stuff is ever so flashy.

Like cattle we follow the same worn path leading to exactly the same place, but with little consciousness that we have traveled this route before. We share the advantages and disadvantages of any herd animal to our and our decedents' regret.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What is a Clausewitzian?

William F Owen has a very interesting article published in Infinity Journal's Special Edition on Carl von Clausewitz (free subscription required to view). In it he describes what distinguishes Clausewitzians from the rest. I agree with his view. I would only add that Clausewitzians think in terms of Clausewitz's general theory of war.

Clausewitz wrote:

The insights gained and garnered by the mind in its wanderings among basic concepts are benefits that theory can provide. Theory cannot equip the mind with formulas for solving problems, nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and of their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action. There the mind can use its innate talents to capacity, combining them all so as to seize what is right and true as though this were a single idea formed by their concentrated pressure - as though it were a response to the immediate challenge rather than a product of thought.
On War, Book VIII, Chapter 1

It is very much a way of thinking, a way of conceiving social reality, something of a "yardstick", but more like an interlocking "system" of concepts that form Clausewitz's General Theory of war. The perspective is to view war in terms of political relations (essentially all questions concerning power). Over time and practice this way of thought becomes automatic, it is simply the way that a Clausewitzian views war, that is in terms of the general theory. By nature retrospective, the general theory is capable of being expanded through the interaction of praxis with theory (critical analysis), or simply praxis alone (the military genius).

The general theory forms the basis for strategic theory and much of strategic thought. It is the opposite of doctrinal speculation or the "dominance of tactics" which are sadly prevalent today in strategic thought.

Sun Tzu, if he even existed, wrote about 2,500 years ago and is still read today. He provided no general theory of war, but his thought was expanded by later writers through commentary. He provides an approach to warfare (that of the Taoist sage) and sees warfare "as the greatest affair of the state".

Clausewitz wrote 200 years ago and is also still read today. He did provide a general theory of war which forms the basis of Clausewitzian strategic theory. Later writers, much like the commentators of Sun Tzu, have been able to expand on the general theory. Also a whole series of various "arts of war" covering different political epochs is possible with the general theory, as long as they do not contradict the general theory (following Wylie here).

My guess is that in 2,300 years, if there is still need for strategic theory and strategy, Clausewitz will still be read and discussed.