Sunday, July 29, 2012

Grand Strategy: The View from 1923 . . .

After every war there is a period of analysis and appraisal which deals with the history and issues brought forward by that war. The greater the war, the greater the tendency for this to expand and include all the issues that the war engendered. Epoch changing wars do this to a great extent, even to establishing a new art of war for the epoch in question. We've seen this to an extent after the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II. There is something of a "weak" reappraisal going on now in regards the two lost wars the US involved itself in subsequent to the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Professor Hew Strachan, the premier historian of the First World War and the Director of the Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War at Oxford, has a recent article out on Grand Strategy. This article will be the subject of a future post, but first I would like to have something historical to compare it with, the work of an earlier writer on military subjects who was perhaps the most influential theorist of his day, that being Colonel J.F.C. Fuller of the Royal Army Tank Corps. Fuller published a book entitled The Reformation of War in 1923 which was one of, or perhaps even the first treatment of what Fuller described as "Grand Strategy".
Strachan mentions Fuller has having developed the term "grand strategy" along with Basil Liddell Hart, but Hart's contribution he lists was written over 20 years after Fuller's, and in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War. Fuller for me thus takes pride of place. Not that he was the only theorist writing about what we could call "grand strategy" at the time. There was also Alexander Svechin of the Red Army and Erich Ludendorff of Germany. More on them later.
Let's start with Fuller's concept of "Grand Strategy":
During peace time this spirit (the spirit or the national will to exist; it is the driving force of all warlike activities) is ever present, and though its nature, during war, does not change, the resistance offered to its progress is greater, and the relationship between this resistance and the will to win gives to any particular war its specific character. During peace or war, our object is to conserve and control this spirit; consequently, we must understand the probable resistance to be met with, for otherwise we shall not be able to gauge the character of war, and not being able to gauge the character we shall not know what type of warfare will prove the most efficient and economical. This control and direction of the will to win and all the means whereby this will may be expressed I will call grand strategy. The Reformation of War, Chapter XI, page 214
To get more of an idea of this spirit that Fuller is talking about lets consider an earlier quote from the book:
Ultimately, from acts of chivalry on the battlefield do we soar to those acts which form the ethics of grand strategy, the fuller meaning of which I will discuss in Chapter XI. To damage a nation morally during days of peace is not good enough; it is but a poor endeavour, which normally must bring but little profit. Ethically, during war, as I will show, grand strategy does aim at demoralizing the enemy, yet also does it consist in the enhancement of a nation's worth in the eyes of its actual or potential enemies. Integrity, honour, justice and courage are the weapons of the grand strategist, which not only demonstrate a nation's moral worth but its martial power. The cultivation of these in peace time forms the backbone of success in war. The Reformation of War, page 72
The essence of grand strategy in Fuller's view is the cultivation of soldierly qualities in the general population, including especially the willingness of the individual to offer themselves in the interests of the state. This requires a high level of what I have described in the past as material and moral cohesion. Notice that Fuller has a dubious view of the use of negative propaganda against an potential enemy, since it is more by enhancing our own prestige and values that we convince the enemy of our own superiority.
So, the strength of "the national will to exist" was not only the basis of a successful grand strategy, but a lesson learned from the First World War. What other lessons had Fuller learned from that conflict?
To answer that question it is important to point out that Fuller's view of that conflict is quite different from the general view today, and different from Hew Strachan's as well. That view is firmly rooted in Fuller's view of humanity:
Though the desire of man is peace, the law of life is war; the fittest, mentally or bodily, survive, and the less fit supply them with food, labour and service. Life lives on life . . . page 8
War exists because humans, men especially, are warlike and see domination as part of life. This would include economic interests, "conquest" not being limited to seizing territory, but economic advantage as well. This of course is a very general condition, hardly specific to the First World War.
More specifically, Britain and Germany went to war due to commercial interests, Britain hoped to destroy her main commercial rival in Europe. With the establishment of the Entente, Britain tied her interests to those of Russia and France, both of which required the defeat of Germany to gain their national goals. Russia's goals especially were extensive including the expulsion of Turkey from Europe and the conquest of Constantinople as well as domination of the Balkans which required the destruction of Austria-Hungary. Fuller provides the most extensive summary of his views in his The Conduct of War 1789 - 1961, pp 143-154, so it is apparent that they did not change over time.
This leads to his very Clausewitzian conclusion that given the nature of the extensive alliances and the wide range of interests, it was impossible to come up with a common policy, for instance, a singular Anglo-French point of view, let alone a unified Entente point of view:
But in August 1914, there was no Anglo-French political point of view, therefore the military point of view was subordinated to a vacuum, which it at once filled to become the sole point of view: in other words, the means monopolized the end." (Ibid, p. 153).
So military strategy had to step in and fill the void left by the absence of a coherent political purpose on the Entente side. This in part due to the inability of the various Allied governments to formulate clearly what is was they were actually fighting for, rather their domestic need to "sell the war" as "defensive", defending civilization against the "Hun" became the basis of the stated political purpose. This necessity to match policy with military means is also brought up by Svechin in regards to German strategy:
The internal weakness of a state is evident more quickly in an offensive than a defensive. The tragedy of the Germans' conduct of the war from 1914 to 1918 lives in the fact that under the conditions Germany could have won this war only as a politically defensive war. Incidentally, the Germans realized this only in August 1918 after all their forces had been exhausted and they were faced with capitulation. German strategy had gone beyond the bounds of the political defensive when they violated Belgian neutrality in August 1914, when they penetrated too deep into Russia 1n 1915 . . . Strategy p 93
For both sides, the military aim displaced the political purpose. Given this view, Fuller comes up with an interesting conclusion:
The importance of grand strategy and all that it includes cannot be over-estimated at the present time, for in the whole course of history the necessity for economy has never been more vital; further, in its true meaning, efficiency cannot exist without it. At any time and irrespective of prosperity, a nation can only afford to spend a certain sum of money as an insurance against war and ultimately, when war occurs, as a safeguard against defeat. For this sum to be economically spent, not only must all obsolecence be weeded out of the defence forces, but no overlapping can be tolerated.
During war, nothing is so uneconomical as improvization ; consequently, our peace strategy must formulate our war strategy, by which I mean that there cannot be two forms of strategy, one for peace and one for war, without wastage — moral, physical and material, when war breaks out. The first duty of the grand strategist is, therefore, to appreciate the commercial and financial position of his country; to discover what its resources and liabilities are. Secondly, he must understand the moral characteristics of his countrymen, their history, peculiarities, social customs and system of government, for all these quantities and qualities form the pillars of the military arch which it is his duty to construct.
Unlike the strategist of the past, the grand strategist of today must no longer be a mere servant of his ever-changing government, but a student of the permanent characteristics and slowly changing institutions of the nation to which he belongs, and which he is called upon to secure against war and defeat. He must, in fact, be a learned historian and a far-seeing philosopher, as well as a skilful strategist and tactician. Today such men are rare to come by, because nations understand practically nothing of the science of war.
Understanding nothing, there is no incentive without or within an army to produce a breed of strategists who may be classed as men of science. In this respect the Germans went further than all other nations, and, during the Great War, it was the firmness of their grand strategy which formed the foundation of their magnificent endurance. The Reformation of War, pp 218-219
Fuller concludes with a proposed massive re-organization of not only British but Imperial governments, all planning coming under the authority of a Generalissimo who serves as the minister of defense, or in any case as a member of the cabinet. This position would be supported by the formation of a General Staff. These staff officers would be trained in a new war college encompassing all three services.
As a recap of his concept of grand strategy, perhaps this quote suffices:
The transmission of power in all its forms, in order to maintain policy, is the aim of grand strategy, its actual employment being the domain of grand tactics. While strategy is more particularly concerned with the movement of armed masses, grand strategy, including these movements, embraces the motive forces which lie behind them both — material and psychological. From the grand strategical point of view, it is just as important to realize the quality of the moral power of a nation, as the quantity of its man-power, or to establish moral communication by instituting a common thought — the will to win throughout the nation and the fighting services. The grand strategist we see is, consequently, also a politician and a diplomatist.
Comparison of Fuller's Concept with that of Svechin and Ludendorff
It is interesting to note that all three treatments of grand strategy were based on assumed strategic incompetence displayed by all sides during the First World War. Ludendorff's was more tempered in his criticism of course since he himself carried the blame for some of the actions Fuller and Svechin criticized.
Of the three, Fuller is the most all encompassing, whereas Svechin comes across as the most "modern" in that he avoids the social darwinism present in the other two, and sees states developing according to historical trends from of course a Marxist perspective.
All three see democracies as sordid affairs with the actual elites operating behind a curtain of propaganda and distortions to hide their actual narrow goals. As Svechin writes, "The ruling class in a state is inclined to regard its own interests as state interests and resorts to the aid of the state apparatus to defend them." Democracies are also most likely to fire up high levels of passionate hatred towards the enemy in order to mobilize the masses to fight.
Conclusions? What can this view from 1923 indicate to us about the concept of grand strategy today?
First, I think it important with any concept, especially strategic theory concepts, to consider their origins which influence not only their inspiration but also development. All three theorists I've mentioned saw the First World War as a strategic disaster run by incompetents, especially in terms of political purpose, which is different from the way we see the First World War today (the generals are the "donkeys" rather than the politicians). In Ludendorff's case this was more the nature of avoiding responsibility for his own actions imo, but that does not explain Fuller's or Svechin's view.
Second, all three saw war as essentially something intrinsically human and unavoidable. Given the right set of historic circumstances, wars simply happen, nobody is to blame generally, although specific acts of political or military incompetence are to be condemned as we have seen. "Stability" in the sense of eternal peace is death, something hardly to be yearned for.
Third, grand strategy required a high level of control and manipulation and had to be specifically organized/designed/fitted to the political community in question. What is needed is a military dictator to implement such a policy, at least during wartime. We see here the totalitarian side of grand strategy as it was originally conceived.
Fourth, the nation state in question required a driving force to succeed, some all-encompassing value set to give meaning to not only the war waged, but especially the sacrifices called for and willingly offered. Simple patriotism, universal ideals, humanist notions, or even Christianity, would not suffice, rather Nationalism as in a historic destiny of the race, or class consciousness (in the case of Svechin) were needed. Ludendorff stressed that his Total War could only be fought defensively against an existential threat. Notice the link between this and the second point above. This opens the door to genocidal wars for existence between nation states, since Enlightenment notions of basic equality among peoples (which Clausewitz for one assumed) have been put into question.


  1. seydlitz,

    Considering the fact that America is a democracy, though, is it possible to come up with a durable 'grand strategy?'

    My assumption would be that if one were to come up with a 'grand strategy' and be in power, part of that strategy would be the retention of power to the detriment of your political opponents. Obviously, there should be boundaries on this to maintain your moral authority and whatnot, but how can you extract the internal politics of a nation from the 'grand strategy' without completely subverting democracy?

  2. PF Khan-

    Your question will have to wait for the future post to be answered, at least by me. It will introduce Strachan's article and provide an update of the concept of "Grand Strategy".

    This post was about the original concept introduced by Fuller, but also combining Svechin and Ludendorff who were his contemporaries as theorists.

    So the goal of this post is to provide context and background for what follows . . . allowing us to compare - in a limited way - what we have currently with what came before . . .

  3. Gentlemen-

    One other thing. Fuller's a fascist bastard, but a hell of a strategic theorist.

  4. Hmmm.

    The one thing I've always come away from Fuller (other than a real loathing for his totalitarian bent and social Darwinism, but, then, that was the Twenties...) is his Macnamarist belief in the "science" of warfare. He really seems to believe - and after living through WW1, too, that "...our peace strategy must formulate our war strategy."

    But short of continual war - as the events of 1914 proved - there is almost no way for a "peace strategy" to anticipate the way tactical through operational events will play out. Who would have thought in 2001 that crude improvised mines and a bunch of raggedy-assed central Asian G's would have proved that a modern Western military can be fought to enough of a standstill to invalidate the strategic calculus of the Western leaders?

    And my understanding is that this paradigm has been brought to bear on less-capable Third World militaries - specifically, Syria's - and has had the effect of tactically neutering that army in much of the country in rebellion...

    The Twenties and Thirties were full of people convinced that Science had found a way to solve all the old uncertainties and difficulties, and I think Fuller falls into that category.

    So while I tend to agree that the man had some innovative ideas, I think some of them have been a trifle shop-soiled over the intervening eighty-odd years...

  5. I have the same question as PFK.

    And it makes you (me at least) wonder whether Fuller's grand strategy turned him to Mosely & fascism; or vice versa? I have not looked at the timeline.

    Good post though. Waiting for Strachan post.

  6. FD Chief-

    A couple of points. Fuller's use of the term "science" is open to interpretation. He seems to be speaking more of a general theory of war or simply his heuristics used to understand a specific conflict. In the 1920s he was more what we see today associated with the thought of John Boyd, but by the 1960s had come to the point where he was squarely in the Clausewitzian camp. Look at his theorizing as forming an "ideal type" with which we can compare to historic events. Had Britain followed his views in 1923, would these have affected the run-up to WWII? Would Hitler have had the same dismissive attitude towards Britain? How about British strategy during the war, given the established nature of the institutions he had proposed almost 20 years before?

    Consider his assumptions of 1923 . . . prescient?

    The Great War will be followed by another even Greater war.
    This war will require total mobilization to wage with even a chance of success.
    Ideological factors are very important.
    Liberal democracies operate at a disadvantage.
    Finance capital is a source of warlike intentions.

    The last one was an exaggeration in 1923, but is it still?

    Finally, the "shop-soiled" element is useful for comparison as well, correct?

  7. mike-

    Fuller's views on Grand Strategy pre-dated his joining the British Union which was formed by Mosley in 1932.

  8. Seydlitz,

    "The transmission of power in all its forms..."

    Thanks for this refresher from Fuller. I am looking forward to the next piece. I do think that Fuller reaches closer than Hart to the heart (pun intended) of "grand strategy."