Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Distinction Between "Fantasy" and "Imagination" from a Strategic Theory Perspective

Since I have been quite busy of late with end of term academic matters and project work, I haven't had much opportunity to either post or comment. There of course is no shortage of topics from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective to post about, we are experiencing a particularly target-rich environment regarding failed strategy, general strategic confusion, or even what I have described as astrategic spasms.
The role of strategic theory is to interrogate (especially recent) military history and more broadly attempts to use military force in instrumental/policy-connected ways. Intelligence interrogation is an art, and another word for a dialogue, but under controlled conditions. In the case of strategic theory, the controlled conditions are the historical record which consists of facts, figures, sequences, relations . . . So anyone who thinks it's simply faddish to criticize recent military actions misses the whole point and probably doesn't understand what strategic theory is, which of course is not my problem.
So what to bring up? On a recent thread, FD Chief brought up the confusion between operations and strategy. This has been discussed much recently and in my view, the most coherently by Hew Strachan. But then I like just about everything Professor Strachan writes, so maybe I'm partial. He's also a Clausewitzian thinker . . .
Other possible topics abound. What of the confusion of the basic two types of strategy as presented by Hans Delbrück a century ago, that being the distinction between a strategy of attrition and that of annihilation? Too often policy makers and military commanders think in terms of one while operating in an actual environment of the other, assuming that "total military success" is actually attainable given their limited commitment/unlimited goals and that victory leads inevitably to policy success . . . A strategy of annihilation requires very specific political and strategic conditions and even then requires a deft diplomacy to pull off in terms of gaining the intended political purpose.
So, could talk about that, but not today . . .
Let's open with a quote from the master strategic theorist Alexandre Svechin writing in the early 1920s:
The Crusade . . . The errors of German foreign policy had a grave effect on German strategy. The diplomats needed to have a clear idea of the strategic tail which was an extension of the foreign policy they created. The nature and shortcomings of foreign policy are naturally transmitted to strategy. The irrational, mystical nature of politics, which led to the first crusades at the beginning of our millennium, engendered the irrational, anti positive strategy of the crusaders. Ranke was sad that Frederick Barbarossa did not first seize the Balkan peninsula for a A German operational base before going into Asia. But this kind of movement forward, from phase to phase, expending the lives of entire generations and systematically broadening one's cultural, economic and operation base, is quite the opposite of what we understand a crusade to be. The fate of the crusaders was to have their tracks lost in the ocean of ground they covered in the same way that all traces of a ship are lost at sea.
The thinking of a true politician, like a strategist not only avoids any mysticism but it is firmly rooted in reality; from this his fantasy grows, and his creation determined solely by the building material provided by reality. A certain amount of mysticism was characteristic of the German leadership in the World War. In early 1915, in German political circles there were lively discussions of the desirable 'orientation' of German attacks - i.e. against 'democratic' France of Tsarist Russia. Ludendorff supported the Russian orientation and received energetic support from the Social Democrats. Falkenhayen supported a Western orientation, allowing for an offensive against Russia with only limited aims. In fact, the more setbacks the Tsarist government suffered, the more impossible it was for Russia to conclude a separate peace. Ultimately, the anti-Russian orientation triumphed because of the unpopularity of Tsarist Russia among the Social Democrats and left-wing bourgeoisie. The German campaign on the Russian front in 1915 resembled Don Quixote's actions and was moreover politically criminal because it placed the life of the German nation at risk. A contrast to this anticipated approach of the German Social Democrats, who classified their enemies on the basis of their sympathies rather their implacability, is offered by the policies of the Fascist Mussolini, who established diplomatic and trade relations with the Soviet Union, actions far from any kind of mysticism and guided by actual benefits without mixing sympathies and business. Strategy, p 134

Let's make a distinction between "fantasy" that is here thinking politically in mystical terms, and "imagination" which would be based on a realistic appraisal of the political situation. A political elite obsessed with fantasy and fantastic notions of their own power, exceptionalism, righteousness and infallibility is going to be ripe to engage in all manner of "crusades" without ever being clear as to the astrategic nature of their actions. I would go so far to say that such behavior is that of a political elite lurching towards collapse.


  1. "It is in the exercise of operational art that today’s senior generals, like McChrystal, hope to reach the acme of their professional careers. The bulk of the planning done by their staffs is devoted both to preparing for that opportunity and then to applying their skills in order to manage the characteristic chaos of war. But to do that operational art needs direction; it requires of policy a degree of clarity and a consistency of purpose which can frequently be at odds with the realities and contingencies of politics. In 1952, when General Douglas MacArthur was recalled by President Harry Truman, his sin was to have called for a change in strategy; by contrast, McChrystal just wanted a strategy."

    Actually, Mac's sin in 1952 was to have called for a "change in strategy" that would very likely have dragged his country to the verge of WW3 over a minor cabinet war in the East Asian perimeter, but, whatever.

    Strachan seems to be either deliberately or inadvertently missing the point of the whole McChrystal business, which is that McChrystal had another option, which was to stand up and resign his commission and then state openly that the strategic emperor had no clothes - that there was no policy or strategy ends that were executable given the constraints on the military means.

    And, I think, that would have peeled back yet ANOTHER layer to this nonsense, which is, simply, that the political "problem" of Afghanistan is literally UNsolveable short of some sort of immense, multigenerational occupation that remakes Afghanistan and turns Afghans into Belgians, or something (actually probably not Belgians, since the Flemings have proved somewhat fractious and less than model political citizens in recent years).

    But in regards to this particular issues, when you say that "..."fantasy" that is here thinking politically in mystical terms, and "imagination" which would be based on a realistic appraisal of the political situation." my question would be would you actually consider this the norm in politics? And would you consider that a "realistic appraisal of the political situation" to be likely untainted by the political leanings or desires of the appraisers? Or that such a realist approach is likely to yield a "better" outcome, given the high degree of uncertainty and randomness of the understanding of the situation to a political outsider? Consider Iran, for example...

    For example, a "realistic appraisal" of the situation in Iran in 1953 considered the overthrow of Mossadegh critical to U.S. policy both in the Middle East and as a counter to potential Soviet ambitions around the Persian Gulf - at least as seen by the realists of the day.

    A "realist" approach then played Saddam off against Iran after the blowback from the installation of the Shah effed things up there. And then...well, we know the rest.

    I'm not arguing with your conclusion - that "(a) political elite obsessed with fantasy and fantastic notions of their own power, exceptionalism, righteousness and infallibility is going to be ripe to engage in all manner of "crusades" without ever being clear as to the astrategic nature of their actions." but, rather, with the likelihood that the line between geopolitical fantasy and imagination is ever going to be so bright that it will be immediately distinguishable except in hindsight. And that such a distinction is also difficult to maintain in the face of electoral politics, which more-or-less demands the suppression of dire possibilities in favor of more hopeful - "fantastic", if you will - predictions...

  2. Otto says that politics is the art of the possible.

    The "possible" being the exact divide between fantasy and imagination. Overreach and you eventually look like a doofus. Underreach and you get pushed around by the fantasists.

    For maximum "success' therefore on average half of your attempts should be on the far side of the "possible"

  3. FDChief-

    I didn't think you were interested in such "theories", but if you wish to read Strachan's whole paper before you comment . . . it printed out to 25 pages for me . . . I might have the pdf around someplace . . .

    As to "fantasy" and "imagination" they are after all ideal types so don't actually exist in reality, are more the nature of yardsticks . . . strategic theory and all that. There will be mixtures under the best of circumstances, but what makes the difference is the political leadership. Operations folks and tacticians involved in fantasy don't necessarily lead to strategic confusion and disaster, you have that particular buffer . . .


    Nice . . .