Monday, November 25, 2013

Admiral JC Wylie's "Military Strategy" Revisited

There seems to be something of a JC Wylie revival going on over at Zenpundit . . .
I was involved in this a bit due to a couple of posts I made back at the end of 2010 . . . first concerning an analysis of Wylie's book and then a follow-up post on strategy in general.
While I can only applaud anyone considering taking Admiral Wylie up on his challenge of formulating a general theory of strategy, it is not a task to be taken on lightly. Historically there has been only one general theory in strategic theory, that of Clausewitz and that only became recognized slowly starting in the 1920s, that is almost a century after On War was first published.
A general theory of strategy would have to be able to encompass not only all types of operational approaches (such as air strategy, naval strategy, economic strategy during wartime), but also the various "arts of war" of the various epochs (such as ancient, Medieval, Napoleonic, 19th Century, early 20th Century, early 21st Century) . . . which gives an indication why there is only one today. Even what we have is not universally recognized as such and I am sure there are enough Clausewitzians of the military history persuasion who would argue against the existence of a general theory in On War, although Clausewitzian strategic theorists, like myself, would argue it to the bitter end . . .
Given this reality, why bother? Well, first off a general theory provides a great tool for military/political historical analysis, being in essence a sort of "language" which can be widely understood allowing for historical comparison. While, strategic theory is retrospective by nature, it can also provide a basic framework for strategic planning in terms of actual policy, but with the warning that is is not a recipe for success since the social complexity is simply too great and contingently based to provide an accurate means of prediction.
To finish off this short post, let me provide several guidelines as to what a general theory of strategy would require from a Clausewitzian perspective:
First, we are dealing with political collectives, not individuals. From this perspective, the goals or "strategy" of an individual would be tactics, at the most.
Second, the general theory would consist of a system of interlocking concepts which would be abstract enough to cover the immense variety and scope necessary, but with specific definitions accurate enough to avoid confusion, that is a good portion of the definitions would be Weberian ideal types. Between these concepts and definitions there would be unresolved/unresolvable "tensions", that is we are not dealing with synthesis as a result of the thesis and anti-thesis, but rather the contradictions (or tensions) between them remaining.
Third, something that would be useful in this regard would be a spectrum of political relations ranging from fraternal association on one end to existential enmity on other. Coercion for instance would span both sides of the threshold of violence someplace in the middle.
Fourth, and finally, the greatest obstacle to forming a general theory is "politics" or specifically in this case the political relations (and the various associated assumptions linked to them) of one's own political community at this point in time. The more complex the political relations, the more difficult agreeing on the specific and historical assumptions becomes.


  1. I guess my question would be; COULD you do this in such a way that wouldn't make it so generic that it not only wouldn't be useful for plotting even a course, much less the winds?

    Even setting aside parochial political fixations, "...all types of operational approaches (such as air strategy, naval strategy, economic strategy during wartime), but also the various "arts of war" of the various epochs (such as ancient, Medieval, Napoleonic, 19th Century, early 20th Century, early 21st Century)" sounds like a hellish stew of geopolitical circumstances to try to reduce to a sort of strategic cook-book. I mean, I guess I could see how you could distill a very generic sort of strategic theory that would be applicable to all those times and places...but would that sort of theory be of any real use to either the historian or the strategist?

  2. It is not a "strategic cook-book" it is essentially "a language", a system of concepts which is at the same time not a "system" . . . not really a new argument of mine . . .

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Excuse my confused comment above What I meant to say was:

    I like Admiral Wylie's approach. He not only discussed continental, maritime, and air strategies but also Maoist theory. His thoughts on changing the 'equilibrium' in war, and his acknowledgement that "the ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with a gun" are right on IMHO.

    But I do feel he needs to be updated. My suggestions would be to include not only a discussion on economic strategy (as Seydlitz mentions above), but also include consideration on national mobilization, space, cyber, diplomacy, and information warfare. But I agree with Seyd that it should not turn into a list of recipes a la Julia Child.

    Not only that, Wylie was published what, about 50 years ago? Keep it current I say. Clausewitz may be King, but he has been ignored by too many senior American leaders because of his early 19th century phrasing and terminology and his often hard-to-follow dialectics . . .

  5. mike-

    Count me a Wylie fan. Still, at this point we need to approach his work critically . . . While he had some very interesting thoughts pertaining to a general theory, he was unable to recognize one when it was starring him in the face . . . that and he fell for BHL Hart's charlatanism, as did many others . . .

    "Control" is the wrong term imo for what he's talking about, but is still a very useful concept as I have mentioned before. I think "domination" better and "control" better left to its Marxist roots, as in referring to "control over the means of production" . . .

  6. Seydlitz:

    I am not a fan of Sir Basil either. His deceit in the publication of Guderian's work was damned underhanded. But there is nothing wrong with using the 'indirect approach' that he advocated as long as you do not try to make it your one and only strategy. Hart was after all a veteran of the Somme where British Commonwealth troops suffered over 400,000 casualties - 60,000 on the first day. Of course he would advocate an end-around. And didn't MacArthur use it in the SW Pacific? Nimitz too. And Churchill dithered with it (successfully I thought) until forced otherwise by Roosevelt and Stalin in 44. Giap used it on us for years and we seemed to have never developed a counter.

    As for "domination" - I think one of your darker sides is showing. ;-)

    In any case my dictionary defines control as: "to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command."

  7. "it is essentially "a language", a system of concepts which is at the same time not a "system""


    OK, but my question would still be, do you see this as a practical exercise? Is it possible to craft a language, then, that is useful in analyzing all those very different periods, means, and methods without reducing that language to terms so broad as to be generic?

    I'm not saying that strategic analysis HAS to be a "cook-book"...but on the other hand, if your language is so abstract as to be opaque to simple-minded folks like me then it risks being as often-disregarded as mike's Clausewitz for his "...early 19th century phrasing and terminology and his often hard-to-follow dialectics."

  8. I mean, Clausewitz himself provided both the "language" and the "cook-book"; he wrote;

    "It is a very difficult task to construct a scientific theory for the art of war, and so many attempts have failed that most people say that it is impossible, since it deals with matters that no permanent law can provide for. One would agree and abandon the attempt were it not for the obvious fact that a whole range of propositions can be demonstrated without difficulty: that defense is the stronger form of fighting with a negative purpose, attack the weaker form with a positive purpose..." (italics mine)

    I mean, isn't that largely the basis of the utility of Clausewitz to readers outside the academy; that he provides insight not just into the large issues of strategic theory but avenues for taking those theories and observing how they were, or are, or can be, applied?

  9. A couple of points on Hart:

    First, BHL Hart was attempting to present himself as something he was not. He used his contacts with German generals after WWII to airbrush his own history during the 1930s out of the picture. Hart wrote relatively little about tanks or armoured warfare during this time and much about mass bomber fleets dropping poison gas on civilians . . . the original intention of his "indirect approach". He was still writing in the Spring of 1940 about the superiority of the defence, and the fall of France took him completely by surprise. Had Britain followed his advice (and he was quite influential) in the late 1930s, they probably would have lost the war. There's a reason Hart served in no official British government capacity during WWII. There is a chapter in the original version of Makers of Modern Strategy (1943) where Hart is linked with Maginot, not for instance JFC Fuller . . .

    Second, Hart is commonly linked to JFC Fuller as if the two are some how one, but the distinctions could not be greater. Fuller was a tank officer with extensive experience with armoured forces in the First World War. He was also a first rate military theorist, and essentially a Clausewitzian. Hart consistently trashed Clausewitz as the "mahdi of mass" while at the same time pilfering concepts from On War to attempt to pass off as his own. In strategic theory terms, Hart is a charlatan, whereas Fuller is the real deal, however unsavory his politics.

  10. To answer Chief's question regarding utility, let me just say that Wylie comes to the same conclusion as Clausewitz as indicated by Chief's quote. The concepts are there, we need only link them together in a gestalt. Also, many of the concepts that Wylie mentions in his short book are Clausewitzian (gleened via Hart?). These include sequential and cumulative strategies, equilibrium and culmination point, but these are only the ones that come quickly to mind. So there is a close relationship between Wylie and Clausewitz, to the point where I think Wylie's contribution can be included within a Clausewitzian framework. This of course is assuming that Wylie does not have the makings of a general theory of his own . . .

    "Control" for me would refer to systems, which of course have always been around. The Romans had systems at their control for instance. Control of a system could aid in achieving strategic effect, or not. My concern is that "control" does not share the same assumptions as "dominance" (which as a Weberian term opens the door to Weber which is very compatible with Clausewitz). Dominance is a social, that is power relationship, of a sliding scale, but control can mean not only more than that, but something quite different. I control a car for instance, but I do not dominate it . . . Assuming that the "man with the gun" at the scene is in "control" was one of the false basic assumptions made by the US regarding Iraq in mid 2003.

    Given the state of US strategic thinking today, a coherent general theory could only help . . .

  11. @Seydlitz - - "Given the state of US strategic thinking today, a coherent general theory could only help . . . "

    Agreed! Who is going to push draft it and then push it through? The various service War Colleges? CSIS?

  12. mike-

    Most of those connected with the government, or hoping to be connected with various government programs/projects/fantasies have no interest in developing a general theory . . . since that would be sooo far away from what we have been doing since 9/11, or even before . . . domestic political considerations/interests driving the use of organized violence . . . a general theory would only indicate even more clearly what a strategic mess we are in as a world power today . . .

    Instead the "smart money" would be in adopting the veil of hard science, and cashing in, "developing" the strategic theory version of econometrics . . . which imo, in the end is just another scam . . .

  13. Effective strategy needs to deal with the behaviour of individuals (albeit on a large scale). Political abstraction based policies can be useful for many strategies but will break down when enough individuals stop believing in them.

    Any general theory must recognize that at a fundamental core, all decisions are made by individuals.

    See how the current pope is using this strategy. It is targeted at getting large numbers of individuals to change their normative behaviour.

    Field Marshal Slim certainly knew this. Most great generals do as well.

    Finally, it is not just with your own people that you execute this strategy, it is how you form larger political abstractions.

  14. Agree on Slim, he has been hailed - along with the Duke of Wellington - as Britain's greatest general.

  15. Ael-


    Very nice actually . . .

    but . . . and this in an attempt to add yet something distinctive to the thread so far . . .. I think you may assume too much regarding the political . . . regarding international political cohesion . . . based on what exactly . . . ?

  16. I am not a big believer in a general theory of strategy for the same reason I have trouble with a general theory of economics: leaky abstractions.

    Physicists can do a general pressure/temperature/volume theory of gas behaviour, because gas molecules behave predictably. However, when you draw circles around groups of people (i.e. create political/organizational entities) and tjen try to predict that how those circles interact, you get into all sorts of troubles because at a deep level it is people interacting with other people and that behaviour is not fully predictable.

    People's individual behaviour ends up defining those circles and people can change directions at the drop of a hat. Think stock market crashes, religious prophets and East Germany.

    Thus I am quite content to leave strategy as a bunch of useful rules of thumb.

  17. I've worked with a lot with economists over the years, but the one I thought had the best understanding of the social element was a Peircian (follower of Charles Sanders Peirce) who wasn't tenured. Over the years I've proofed scores of academic papers, theses, even books for the language (obviously not the equations), but the assumed capacity to project accurately into the future is never really questioned. As to the current crisis in economics as a discipline, the film "Inside Job" portrays that adequately imo.

    So, there aren't many connections between where economics has ended up and where Clausewitzian strategic theory is at present. The reason why there is so little interest in a general theory of strategy is not it's incapacity for accurate prediction (what this Clausewitzian labels following Svechin "chalatanism"), but rather it's ability to unmask and systematically question political presumptions . . . Which of course is of no interest to those in power with an agenda, or those wishing to make a career as obedient "strategists".

    I think there is a close connection between strategic theory and strategic intelligence collection/analysis, since both by their very nature are required to tell those in power, exactly what they often don't wish to hear. It's no accident the state of our intelligence capability/focus/dysfunction mirrors our strategic confusion.

    Also those "rules of thumb" you mention, what I would label as the Tommy Franks view, have led to many strategic disasters . . . as has the recourse to power alone . . .

  18. Seydlitz: I agree with your political presumptions comment. I wonder how many decision makers would choose the perfect strategy (for the country as a whole) that also destroys their career over a muddlin along strategy that advances their career.