This study originated as a draft of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication1-1, Strategy (1997). This version is ©Christopher Bassford. Although it was written under USMC auspices, there is nothing service-specific about it. Rather, it was designed to address the fundamental question, "What is the role of organized violence in the pursuit of political goals?" While the published version of that manual (which is on-line here) is essentially a condensation of the original draft, it differs substantially from the full version: much historical and other explanatory material was removed and some more traditional geopolitical notions added (some of which were contradictory to the manual's argument). This 2006 version of the draft has been updated in several places to reflect the continued evolution of a few key ideas and some lessons learned about terminology. See also C. Bassford, "The Relationship Between Political Objectives and Military Objectives in War," PowerPoint slideshow, National War College, September 2005.
POLICY, POLITICS, WAR,
and MILITARY STRATEGY
The Nature of Politics and War
The Nature of States and Other War-Making Political Entities
War and the State System
The Balance of Power Mechanism
Summary: The Trinity
Sources of Ambiguity in Political Objectives
Military Strategic Objectives
The Relationship Between Political and Military Objectives
Distinguishing Between Erosion and Annihilation Strategies
Practical Military Objectives, Centers of Gravity, and Critical Vulnerabilities
Defensive and Offensive Strategies
Strategy by Intent or by Default
Iterative or Tailored Strategies
Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Strategies
Deterrence: Strategies of Reprisal or of Denial
Reconciling What Is Necessary with What Is Just
The Study of Strategy
"A nation that draws a demarcation between its thinking men and its fighting men will soon have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.
—Sir William Francis Butler
Warfare may appear at first glance to be a simple thing—a cut-and-dried matter of "us against them," a violent clash between two nations or ideologies. Strategy, in turn, may seem a simple matter of deciding how best to use the resources at our disposal to accomplish some clearly defined objective.
This apparent simplicity is a cruel illusion. Warfare is in fact an extraordinarily complex phenomenon. The word "war" itself is nearly impossible to adequately define. States, empires, whole societies and civilizations have gone down in bloody ruin because they failed to master this inherently difficult subject.
Our point here is not that these societies were defeated by outsiders because of military ignorance or incompetence, although that has occasionally happened. Rather, many societies—sometimes embodied in a single political structure, sometimes in a multi-member system—have destroyed themselves through internal warfare. The problem is twofold. Warfare is often used in attempts to resolve problems that simply are not susceptible to a military solution. At the same time, there are always elements in any human society who are willing to use violence to impose their will on others and whose ambitions can be thwarted only via violent means. Accordingly, responsible political leaders must neither overuse nor underuse the military instrument. Either error can cause a society to sink into warlordism or simple anarchy. The fatal step onto the road to self-destruction is as likely to result from an over-reliance on violent solutions as from moderate elements' failure to use force when it is necessary—a classic example of the latter being the Western powers' appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938.
Oddly, we sometimes fail to consider the vast social importance of military success, thinking of military victory and defeat as abstractions of importance only to soldiers and politicians. Aside from the obvious dangers faced by a society overrun and conquered by invaders, consider the more subtle social divisions and loss of national self-confidence engendered by the American failure in Vietnam. Those problems were comparatively mild. The French Revolution was preceded by losses in a series of wars—failures that destroyed both the prestige and the finances of the royal government. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were both the consequences of military defeat, as was the German revolution of 1918. These revolutions eventually brought us Hitler and Stalin. It is clear that defeat in Afghanistan was a catalyst leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We stress these consequences of war in order to remind the reader that war is brutally dangerous. This is true, not merely for the combatants and the innocent bystanders caught in the war zone, but for the larger societies they represent. War means social disruption and the breaking of moral bonds. It breeds hatred, bitterness, and more war. Defeat in war breeds revolution. The path of revolution—however justified the overthrow of the old ruling class, however superior the new society that may eventually emerge—usually passes through a great deal of turmoil, terror, internal strife, and external warfare. It usually leads to dictatorship.
Military events trigger powerful feelings of group identity. They have a disproportionate political impact because of the emotional impact of violence across group boundaries. The political sensitivity of all things military is becoming more obvious, however, because of the high visibility given to such matters by modern news coverage. All personnel must understand that the "distance" between local or tactical actions and the strategic or political level may be very short indeed, and that this distance is highly variable depending on the larger political context. They must adjust their behavior accordingly.
This study is therefore designed to give national security personnel a solid, deep, and common understanding of the fundamental problem of military strategy at the highest level: What is the role of organized violence in the pursuit of our political goals? In other words, how can we most effectively integrate military means—force or the credible threat of force—with the other elements of our power in order to attain our political ends? This study provides conceptual tools that help us to understand both our own and our enemies' political and military objectives, the relationships among them, and thus the unique nature of any particular conflict. Although it gives some consideration to matters of long-term national policy, it focuses primarily on strategies for the fighting of particular wars—that is, on thinking about how to favorably conclude individual episodes of organized political violence. Such episodes are always unique and demand a unique response. A common conceptual understanding helps make possible the flexible, fluid adaptability to such challenges that our strategic concerns demand.
Just as military tacticians need to understand terrain and weather, and pilots need to understand not only the machines they fly but the air currents they move through, military strategists need to understand the fundamental nature of the political and psychological environment in which they operate. Accordingly, this study on strategy reflects war's inherent complexities. It is not designed to provide easy answers. Neither does it seek to provide rigid doctrinal guidelines that offer psychological comfort or legalistic excuses in the event of military failure. Rather, it is aimed at sharpening the judgment of serious national security professionals who understand the heavy burden of strategic responsibility in an uncertain world. National security personnel of every rank should seek to understand its concepts, even though studying war at the political and strategic level may seem irrelevant to their day-to-day duties. There are at least three reasons to make such a study:
The American national security community is a team. Junior personnel may find themselves working for senior leaders who participate directly in the strategy-making process. Such senior leaders need subordinates who understand their concerns and their intentions.
It takes time to develop a sophisticated grasp of strategic problems. By the time an individual has assumed strategic responsibilities, it is too late to start studying the basics.
By the very nature of their profession, all national security personnel are engaged in the execution of strategic policy. Any individual, of any rank, may suddenly find him- or herself in a situation in which his own actions or those of his organization or unit have a direct strategic impact. Therefore, every individual needs to understand how and why this is true.
The strategic environment is overwhelmingly political and psychological in nature, because warfare is nothing but a violent expression of the political process. We are accustomed to thinking of "strategy" as the preserve of the highest levels of political and military leadership, and of the most dangerous levels of warfare. During the Cold War, for example, we used the term "strategic weapon" primarily in relation to nuclear warfare. In fact, however, every military action has strategic—that is, political—implications. This is true in both peacetime and wartime. Sometimes a seemingly unimportant action by an individual actor, perhaps a general, perhaps a platoon leader or even an individual enlisted man, can have a powerful political impact. In 1995, for example, three American servicemen in Okinawa raped a Japanese schoolgirl. In other times, this reprehensible act would have been a matter of interest only to the perpetrators, their victim, and the local authorities. In the political context of U.S.-Japanese relations in the new post-Cold War security environment, however, the crime had strategic ramifications. It threatened U.S. military basing rights in the region and required sustained attention at the highest military and political levels.
Even in traditional, conventional-style combat, commanders at the tactical level may find that political awareness has a strategic payoff. As late as January, 1991, for example, the Saudi Arabian government refused to commit its forces to join in the imminent Desert Storm offensive. The Saudi forces lacked self-confidence and were wary of being seen as junior partners to the Americans. When Iraqi troops seized the Saudi border town of Khafji, the Saudi-American military relationship faced its first serious test. Even though an American reconnaissance team was trapped inside the Iraqi-held town, the U.S. commander on the scene encouraged his Saudi counterpart to take the lead in the town's recapture. By limiting his own unit to supporting actions, the American commander emphasized the role of Saudi forces—and helped them win a dramatic victory over superior numbers of Iraqi troops. This victory boosted Saudi self-confidence and helped inspire the Saudi government to commit its forces to join in the allied offensive.*1
Because of the uniqueness of every strategic problem, it is just as important to understand what this study does not seek to do. It is not concerned with details of current American doctrine or with techniques and procedures for handling military forces in prosecuting a war. That would be a matter of campaign and operational design. It does not prescribe any particular system, intellectual or organizational, for the making of strategy. It does not prescribe any particular strategy or any particular kind of strategy. "Theory," as the great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz said of his own work, "is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield."*2
Further, despite its general focus on the overall strategy of individual wars, this study is not limited exclusively to any particular "level" of organization or action. Its message is that strategy is fundamentally continuous and indivisible: continuous through peace and war, indivisible from the actions of the squad leader to those of the highest command authority.
This examination of military strategy does not assume that war or military strategy is exclusively a matter of "international" or "interstate" behavior. Therefore, unless referring specifically to states, it uses the more inclusive term "political entity." It does not dwell narrowly on uniquely American strategic issues, but instead emphasizes that strategic thinkers must take into account the strategic concerns and solutions of all the participants in any conflict.
Organizationally, this study proceeds from the general to the specific:
Chapter 1 examines the psychological environment within which strategists operate. It considers the fundamental nature of power, of politics and policy, of human political organization, and of war and its impact on politics and human history.
Chapter 2 offers a broad definition of military strategy. It also examines the relationships among the various "levels" of strategy and considers precisely what it means to discuss the "strategic level of war."
Chapter 3 is, in a sense, the core of the study. It defines the key concepts of limited and high-end political and military objectives, explores the two fundamentally different warfighting strategies, and discusses the concepts of limited war—that is, war in which the opposing leadership can reasonably expect to politically survive our victory—and war intended to disarm the enemy—to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent."*[Clausewitz, On War, Book One, Chapter Two]
Chapter 4 expands our basis for strategic analysis by examining six pairs of strategic opposites: offensive and defensive strategies; strategies by intent and by default; iterative and tailored strategies; symmetrical and asymmetrical strategies; denial and reprisal in deterrence strategies; and the difficulty of reconciling what is strategically necessary with what is just.
Chapter 5 examines the actual process of making strategy. It considers the various factors that make it difficult to maintain a clear focus on strategic issues and discusses the process of strategic analysis using the concepts in Chapters 3 and 4.
Return to Table of Contents
The Environment Within Which
Military Strategy Is Made
[The word] war and the -wurst in liverwurst can be traced back to the same Indo-European root, wers-, `to confuse, mix up.'
—The American Heritage Dictionary
Strategy is essentially a matter of common sense. At its most basic, strategy is simply a matter of figuring out what we need to achieve, determining the best way to use the resources at our disposal to achieve it, then executing the plan.
Unfortunately, in the practical world of politics and war, none of these things are easily done. Our goals are complex, sometimes contradictory, and many-sided. They often change in the middle of a war. The resources at our disposal are not always obvious, can change during the course of a struggle, and usually need to be adapted to suit our needs. And the enemy is often annoyingly uncooperative, refusing to fit our preconceptions of him or to stand still while we erect the apparatus for his destruction.*3
Before we can usefully discuss the making and carrying out of military strategy, we must understand the fundamental character of politics and the violent expression of politics called war. Let us start by analyzing one of the best known, most insightful, and least understood definitions of war ever written.
|"War is an expression of policy with the addition of other means."
"War is an expression of politics with the addition of other means."
—Carl von Clausewitz*4
Note that this definition is presented here in two significantly different forms. Most readers have seen it before, in one form or the other. Most military professionals accept this famous aphorism—albeit sometimes reluctantly—as a given truth. And yet, the words "policy" and "politics," as we use them in the English language, mean very different things. The choice of one of these words over the other in translating Clausewitz's famous definition of war reflects a powerful psychological bias, a crucial difference in our views of the nature of reality. We must understand both relationships—between war and policy, and between war and politics. To focus on the first without an appreciation for the second is to get a distorted notion of the fundamental character of war.
War is a social phenomenon. Its logic is not the logic of art, nor that of science or engineering, but rather the logic of social transactions. Human beings, because they are intelligent, creative, and emotional, interact with each other in ways that are fundamentally different from the ways in which the scientist interacts with chemicals, the architect or engineer with beams and girders, or the artist with paints or musical notes. The interaction we are concerned with when we speak of war is political interaction. The "other means" in Clausewitz's definition of war is organized violence. The addition of violence to political interaction is the only factor that defines war as a distinct form of politics—but that addition has powerful and unique effects.*5
The two different terms we have used, policy and politics, both concern power. While every specific war has its unique causes, which the strategist must strive to understand, war as a whole has no general cause other than mankind's innate desire for power. Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian of the disastrous Peloponnesian War, recounted an Athenian statement to that effect.
We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so—security, honor, and self-interest.*6 And we were not the first to act in this way. Far from it. It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power.*7
Political conflict often turns into war simply because the opponents disagree as to their relative power. The resort to naked force is the only way to determine the truth.*8
Power is sometimes material in nature: the economic power of money or other resources, for example, or possession of the physical means for coercion (weapons and troops or police). Power is just as often psychological in nature: legal, religious, or scientific authority; intellectual or social prestige; a charismatic personality's ability to excite or persuade; a reputation, accurate or illusory, for diplomatic or military strength.
Power provides the means to attack, but it also provides the means to resist attack. Power in itself is therefore neither good nor evil. By its nature, however, power tends to be distributed unevenly, to an extent that varies greatly from one society to another and over time.
Because of its many forms, different kinds of power tend to be found among different groups in most societies. Power manifests itself in different ways and in different places at different times. In Tokugawa Japan, for example, "real" political power was exercised by the Shogun, formally subordinate to the emperor. Later, senior Japanese military leaders were for a time effectively controlled by groups of fanatical junior officers. King Philip II of Spain, whose power was rooted in a hereditary, landed, military aristocracy, launched the famous Spanish Armada against England in 1588. Driven to bankruptcy by his military adventures, he was surprised to discover the power that Europe's urban bankers could exercise over his military strategy. American leaders were similarly surprised by the power of the disparate political coalition that forced an end to the Vietnam War. The resort to violence frequently creates more problems than it resolves: the leaders of the southern Confederacy hardly intended the total destruction of their own way of life when they ordered the shelling of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Two of the major problems of strategy, therefore, are to determine where and in what form "real" power lies at any particular moment and to identify those relatively rare points at which military power can actually be used to good effect.
Power is often a means to an end, perhaps to carry out some ideological program: to create a "workers' paradise," a "place in the sun" for a particular nationality, a "Godly community," a "world safe for democracy." It is also often an end in itself, power for the sake of the prestige, pleasures, or security it brings.
"Politics" is the process by which power is distributed in any society: the family, the office, a religious order, a tribe, the state, a region, the international community. The process of distributing power may be fairly orderly—through consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition. Or it may be chaotic—through assassination, revolution, and warfare. Whatever process may be in place at any given time, politics is inherently dynamic and the process is under constant pressures for change.
The key characteristic of politics, however, is that it is interactive—a competition or struggle. It cannot be characterized as a rational process, because actual outcomes are seldom (if ever) what was consciously intended by any one of the participants. Political events and their outcomes are the product of conflicting, contradictory, sometimes compromising, but often antagonistic forces. That description clearly applies to war.
"Policy," on the other hand, can be characterized as a rational process. The making of policy is a conscious effort by a distinct political entity to use whatever power it possesses to accomplish some purpose—if only the mere continuation or increase of its own power. Policy is the rational subcomponent of politics, the reasoned purposes and actions of the various individual actors in the political struggle. War can be a practical means, sometimes the only means available, for the achievement of rational policy aims, i.e., the aims of one party in a political dispute. Hence to describe war as an "instrument of policy" is entirely correct. It is an act of force to compel our opponent to do our will.
However, to call war a "mere continuation of policy," the most common translation of Clausewitz's famous sentence, has always provoked objections on two different but equally valid grounds. First, ethical observers object to the amoral implication that violence should be regarded as a routine tool of governments or, even worse, of political factions. Second, experienced practical soldiers and politicians correctly object that any resort to political violence is fraught with difficulty, danger, and uncertainty. It is hardly the convenient, reliable tool that many quoters of this line clearly mean to imply. Both of these objections are aimed at the suggestion that war is a purely "rational" prescription to cure political ills.
Do not, however, confuse "rationality" with either intelligence, reasonableness, or understanding. Policies can be wise or foolish: They can lead towards their creators' goals or unwittingly contradict them. They can be driven by concern for the public good or by the most craven, selfish reasons of interest groups, bureaucrats, ideologues, politicians, or rulers. "Rationality" also implies no particular kind of goal, for goals are a product of emotion and human desire. A political entity's policy goal may be peace and prosperity, national unity, the achievement of theological perfection, or the extermination of some ethnic minority or competitor. No policy-making group enjoys perfect comprehension of the situation, and the best available information (or, at least, the information that policy makers choose to believe) may be completely erroneous.
Remember too that policy, while it is different from politics and is a product of rational thought, is produced via a political process. Even the most rational of policies is often the result of compromises within the policy making group. Such compromises may be intended more to maintain peace or unity within the group than to accomplish any particular purpose. They may, in fact, be irrelevant or contrary to any explicit group goal.
Policy is therefore often ambiguous, unclear, even contradictory. It is subject to change—or to rigidity when change is needed. This lack of clarity may be the result of poor policy making. On the other hand, a vague policy may represent the only way to avoid an awkward or dangerous fracturing of the policy-making group. Ambiguity may be needed to delay some dubious course of action advocated by a powerful sub-group, one that cannot be overtly overruled. Or the lack of clarity may be a way for leaders to keep their subordinates and potential rivals weak and disunited, without siding clearly with any of them.
Such internal political struggles exist within any political entity, even those that outwardly appear to be monolithic. Many brilliant political leaders—queens, popes, dictators, presidents, clan elders, guerilla chiefs—have been masters of ambiguity. This is not a character flaw, although it may appear so to military professionals.*9 Rather, it is a political necessity. It is also, of course, a potential vulnerability.
Clausewitz's reference to war as an expression of politics is therefore not a prescription but a description. War is a part of politics. It does not replace other forms of political intercourse, it merely supplements them. It is a violent expression of the tensions and disagreements among political groups, simply what happens when political conflict reaches an emotional level that sparks organized violence.*10 And violence in turn evokes powerful emotions, perpetuating a vicious circle. Thus war—like every other phase of politics—embodies both rational and irrational elements. Its course, however, is the product not of one will but of the collision of two or more wills.
To say, then, that "war is an expression of both politics and policy with the addition of other means" is to say two very different things to strategy makers. First, it says that strategy, insofar as it is a conscious and rational process, must strive to achieve the policy goals set by the political leadership. Second, it says that such policy goals are called into being, exist, and can be carried out only within the chaotic, emotional, contradictory, and uncertain realm of politics.
Therefore, the soldier who says, "Keep politics out of this: Just give us the policy and we will take care of the strategy," does not understand the fundamental nature of the business.*11 Military strategists must function within the constraints of policy and politics, however awkward this may become. The only alternative is for military strategy to perform the functions of policy and military leaders to usurp political power, for which they are totally unsuited. Soldiers are by nature servants of their societies and make very poor masters. Virtually every attempt by military leaders to subordinate policy and politics to purely military requirements has ended in disaster.
Acknowledging that war is an expression of politics and of policy with the addition of violent means is extremely important. Still, it does not fully define war.
One serious error frequently made in defining war is to describe it as something that takes place exclusively between nations or states. First of all, nations and states are different things. The Kurds are a nation that has no state. The Arabs are a nation with several states. The Soviet Union was a state whose citizens represented many different nationalities. Second, many—possibly most—wars actually take place within a single nation or state, meaning that at least one of the opponents was not previously a state. Civil wars, insurrections, wars of secession, and revolutions all originate within a single political entity, although they also tend to attract external intervention. Wars sometimes spill across state borders without being interstate wars, as in the Turkish conflict with the Kurds.*12
Thus, although we tend to think of war as typically involving one state against another, in fact such wars are unusual. On the one hand, many wars are fought by competing factions within a single state. Most interstate wars, on the other hand, are fought not by individual states but by coalitions. Such coalitions often involve non-state actors. Therefore, any attempt to list different "types" of war or "types" of participants would soon grow too long and complex to be worthwhile. For example, the French state has fought wars against other states, coalitions of states, French Catholic peasants, French Protestant town-dwellers, elements of the French army, and the city of Paris—its own capital.*13
The American military has come to define war as "sustained, large-scale military operations." This approach lumps all other forms of what Clausewitz (and this study) would call war, and some events that are clearly not war, under catch-all headings like "Low Intensity Conflict" and "Military Operations Other Than War." While that approach has its uses, we are concerned with war in all its many guises.
In its broadest sense, war refers to any use of organized force for political purposes, whether that use results in actual violence or not. For a state, the simple act of raising and maintaining military forces has political effects and implications. Increasing the military budget, raising recruitment, signing military alliances, the movement of ground forces or the repositioning of an aircraft carrier, all are implicit threats of military force. The same can be said of non-state political entities. The creation of militias or guerrilla bands is a political use of force whether or not these forces are actually employed in combat. Such non-violent uses of force are as much tools of political and military strategy as any other.
When we speak of actual warfare, however, we almost always mean genuine violence of some considerable scale that is carried out over some considerable period of time. A single assassination, while certainly a violent political act, does not constitute a war.
On the other hand, large-scale, long-term violence alone still does not necessarily mean war. Political violence may be endemic in a society. The point at which people begin to apply the word war to describe it is unpredictable. Mass murder or genocide, for instance, unless they are violently resisted on a large scale and in an organized way, are crimes, not war.
To take a different example, 76 persons were killed in Northern Ireland in 1991, out of a population of 1.5 million. That same year, there were 472 killings in Washington, D.C., out of a population of .6 million. The former situation is widely recognized to be "war," while the latter situation is not. The difference would appear to be a matter of organization. The perpetrators, victims, and targets of the violence in Northern Ireland reflect comprehensible political distinctions between ethnic groups. The violent death rate in Washington, D.C., roughly sixteen times higher, seems to reflect random violence—a sign of social dysfunction rather than of some purposeful movement toward any group's goal.
Because the word war itself has political implications, political leaders are often reluctant to use it. During the Suez crisis in 1956, the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, took refuge in a euphemism and said, "We are not at war with Egypt—We are in a state of armed conflict." Perhaps the decision not to call the Washington, D.C., situation a war is "a continuation of politics by other means": Some would argue that the violence in America's inner cities is a manifestation of class warfare and that "police" SWAT teams are actually specialized military units.
From all this, we can say that war is:
- organized violence
- waged by two or more distinguishable groups against each other
- in pursuit of some political end (i.e., power within some social construct)
- sufficiently large in scale and social impact to attract the attention of political leaders
- over a period long enough for the interplay between the opponents to have some impact on events.
In the final analysis, however, the messy truth is that war is in the eye of the beholder. War defies precise definition and we should not seek one. In practice, political leaders will commit military forces when it appears politically necessary whether or not the situation fits any formal or legal definition of war.
Military professionals often seek a "scientific" understanding of war. This approach is appealing because the human mind tends to organize its perceptions according to familiar analogies and metaphors, like the powerful images of traditional Newtonian physics.*14 Such metaphors can be very useful. Our military doctrine abounds with terms like "leverage," "center of gravity," and "mass."
Useful as it is, the attempt to apply this particular kind of "scientific" approach can result in some very unrealistic notions. For example, one widely read military historian recently tried to reduce military power to a simple and, he argued, reliably predictive equation: P=NVQ (where P = combat power, N = numbers of troops, V = "variable factors," and Q = quality of troops).*15 In practice, of course, strategists must seek some understanding of all of these factors. However, even an accurate figure for N is surprisingly difficult to find, while V and Q are impossible to reliably quantify (except through ex post facto number-juggling). This kind of mathematical approach, even though it reflects some important truths, cannot serve as a practical basis for strategic analysis and prediction.
Similarly, many political scientists treat political entities as "unitary rational actors," the social equivalents of Newton's solid bodies hurtling through space. Real political units, however, are not unitary. Rather, they are collections of intertwined but fundamentally distinct actors and systems. Their behavior derives from the internal interplay of both rational and irrational forces, as well as from the peculiarities of their own histories and of sheer chance. Strategists who accept the unitary rational actor model as a description of entities at war will never understand either side's motivations or actual behavior. Such strategists ignore their own side's greatest potential vulnerabilities and deny themselves potential levers and targets—the fault-lines that exist within any human political construct. In fact, treating an enemy entity as a unitary actor tends to be a self-fulfilling and counterproductive prophecy, reinforcing a sense of unity among disparate elements which might otherwise be pried apart.
Fortunately, the physical sciences have begun to embrace the class of problems posed by social interactions like human politics and war. Therefore, "hard-science" metaphors for war and politics can still be useful. The appropriate imagery, however, is not that of Newtonian physics. Rather, we need to think in terms of biology, particularly ecology.*16
To survive over time, the various participants in any ecosystem must adapt—not only to the "external" environment but to each other. These agents compete or cooperate, consuming and being consumed, joining and dividing, and so on. In fact, from the standpoint of any individual agent, the behavior of the other agents is itself a major element of the environment. The collective behavior of the various agents can even change the nature of the "external" environment. For instance, certain species, left unchecked, can turn a well-vegetated area into a desert. Such changes in the environment will, in turn, necessitate and reward adaptive changes elsewhere in the system. And, of course, the environment can also be changed by the intrusion of external factors, setting off yet another round of adaptations.
A system created by such a multiplicity of internal feedback loops is called a complex adaptive system. Such systems nestle one inside the other, constructing, interpenetrating, and disrupting one another across illusory "system boundaries." Any individual member of a plant or animal species, for example, is a complex adaptive system made up of cells. Its protective skin or shell encloses an environment quite different from that outside the system the cells collectively have created. That individual, in turn, is part of larger complex adaptive systems. It is part of a local breeding population that is part of a species, both of which have an existence above and beyond the individual organism. Both the individual and the species it is part of belong to another order of complex adaptive system, the local ecosystem. And so on.
Such systems are inherently dynamic. Although they may sometimes appear stable for lengthy periods, the complex network of interconnected feedback loops demands that its subcomponents constantly adapt or fail. No species evolves alone; rather, each species "co-evolves" with the other species that make up its environment. The mutation or extinction of one species in any ecosystem will have a domino or ripple effect throughout the system, threatening damage to some species and creating opportunities for others. Slight changes are sometimes absorbed unnoticed by the system. Other slight changes—an alteration in the external environment or a local mutation—can send the system into convulsions of growth or collapse. Sometimes both simultaneously.
One of the most interesting things about complex adaptive systems is that they are inherently unpredictable. It is impossible, for example, to know in advance which slight perturbations in an ecological system will settle out unnoticed and which will spark catastrophic change. This is so, not because of any flaw in our understanding of such systems, but because the system's behavior is generated according to rules the system itself develops and is able to alter. In other words, a system's behavior may be constrained by external factors or laws, but is not determined by them. Every system evolves according not only to general laws but to local rules established by evolution, accident, and happenstance—and, if an intelligent agent is involved, through conscious innovation or intervention.
Another characteristic of complex adaptive systems is that the system itself exhibits behaviors and creates structures which are utterly different from those of the individual agents which create it. Extrapolating from the individual properties of gas molecules, for instance, we could not predict the existence or features of a tornado. Similarly, no individual termite intentionally sets out to build a ten-foot-tall structure that functions as an air-conditioner, yet such hives are common in some areas.*17
For all of these reasons, systems starting from a similar base will come to have unique individual characteristics based on their specific histories. Science can describe and often explain the evolution and behavior of a complex adaptive system, but cannot predict it. Oftentimes, however, the chain (or web) of events is so subtle and convoluted, and the evidence so fragmentary, that the sequence of events and the web of causation can never be satisfactorily understood, even in retrospect. Like the tornado's, their behavior cannot be predicted based on an understanding, however detailed, of the individual agents they comprise: We must always consider the system as a whole rather than as a collection of independent parts.
The reason we dwell on the complex adaptive system is that it provides so much insight into human political constructs. Any group of humans who interact will, over time, form a unique system broadly similar to the ones we have described. Humans build all sorts of social structures and engage in complex behavior. Human structures include families, tribes, clans, social classes and castes, secret societies, street gangs, armies, feudal hierarchies, commercial corporations, church congregations, political parties, bureaucracies, criminal mafias, states of various kinds, alliances, confederations, and empires. These structures participate in distinct but thoroughly intertwined networks we call social, economic, and political systems. Those networks produce markets, elections, and wars.
Such networks and structures create their own rules, and are thus fundamentally unpredictable. Economic and political events can be subjected to rigorous analysis before and while they occur, and can be described and often plausibly explained afterwards. Nonetheless, as any regular watcher of the evening news has long since discovered, they cannot reliably be predicted. Indeed, both evolutionary scientists and historians of human events find steady employment in seeking better ways to "postdict" the past, which can be just as puzzling as the present or future. We can certainly see "patterns" in human history, yet history does not repeat itself. "Victory" goes, not only to those participants who learn the existing rules, but also to those who succeed in making new ones.
When we say that politics and war are unpredictable, we do not mean that they are sheer confusion, without any semblance of order. Intelligent, experienced military and political actors are generally able to foresee the probable near-term results, or at least a range of possible results, of any particular action they may take. Broad causes, such as a massive superiority in manpower, technology, economic resources, and military skill will definitely influence the probabilities of certain outcomes. Conscious actions, however, like evolutionary adaptations, seldom have only their intended effects. As many political scientists and historians have wryly observed, there is an unremitting "law of unintended consequences." As the ripples from any one action spread out, their effects unpredictably magnify or nullify the ripples from other actions. Thus actions that seemed at the time to have great importance may prove to lead nowhere, while actions so minor as to escape notice may have tremendous consequences.
Further, human systems are "open" systems, without any clear boundaries. Events wholly outside the range of political and military leaders' vision can have an unforeseen impact on the situation. New economic and social concepts, new religious ideas or the revival of old ones, technological innovations with no obvious military applications, changes in climatic conditions, demographic shifts, all can lead to dramatic political and military changes.
The cumulative effect of all these factors is to make the strategic environment fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable. The onset of war merely intensifies this effect. Enemy actions, friction, imperfect knowledge, low-order probabilities, and sheer random chance introduce new variables into any evolving situation. Events begin to spin out of control. History is too full of examples of great states defeated by seemingly inferior powers, of experienced leaders and armies overthrown by inexperienced newcomers, to believe that politics and war are predictable, controllable phenomena.
Thus it is seldom enough to set a good strategic course and follow it through. As the great German military leader Helmuth von Moltke said, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." Effective strategists must have a feel for the nature of this environment and be prepared for both the unexpected setbacks and the sudden opportunities it is certain to deliver.*18 Military strategy demands a capacity for both painstaking planning and energetic adaptation to unfolding events.
All of the social structures described above—including commercial corporations and church congregations—have engaged in warfare. Nonetheless, we tend to associate war with the state and to blame it on the essentially anarchic nature of the international state system. It is certainly true that the state form of organization has been effective in all forms of politics, including war. It has been so effective, in fact, that virtually all of the world's land surface and its people are now recognized as belonging to some more or less effective territorial state.
As we have already indicated, however, it is wrong to think that war is something that occurs exclusively between states, or that it is a product of the state or of the state system. While it has correctly been said that "War made the state, and the state made war,"*19 even that formula acknowledges that warfare was a pre-existing condition. The anthropological evidence for large-scale human-on-human violence in non-state societies is overwhelming.
The wars waged among primitive peoples tend to look "unmilitary" to modern Western eyes because they seldom involve open battle. They rely on guerrilla techniques, ambush, and frequent but small-scale massacres. However, non-state societies lack the political mechanisms to stop the local feuds, vendettas, and vicious cycles of revenge-killing that plague them. Therefore, such warfare is endemic. It has sometimes proved capable of wiping out whole societies. In a recent survey comparing the rates of warmaking and lethal violence in modern states on the one hand, and historical and still-existing primitive societies on the other, a prominent anthropologist found that:
Historic data on the period from 1800 to 1945 suggest that the average modern nation-state goes to war approximately once in a generation. Taking into account the duration of these wars, the average modern nation-state was at war only about one year in every five during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even the most bellicose, such as Great Britain, Spain, and Russia, were never at war every year or continuously (although nineteenth-century Britain comes close). Compare these with the figures from the ethnographic samples of nonstate societies discussed earlier: 65 percent at war continuously; 77 percent at war once every five years and 55 percent at war every year; 87 percent fighting more than once a year; 75 percent at war once every two years. The primitive world was certainly not more peaceful than the modern one. The only reasonable conclusion is that wars are actually more frequent in nonstate societies than they are in state societies—especially modern nations.*20
A comparative statistical analysis of annual war death rates showed that, at its worst (Nazi Germany during World War II, for example), the state is occasionally capable of exceeding the highest homicide rates of non-state peoples. On a long-term basis, however, the function of the state, with its determination to keep a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, has been to hold in remarkable check the regrettable but nearly universal human tendency to violence. Averaged over the first 90 years of the 20th century, even Germany's annual rate of war-deaths is lower than that of many typical primitive societies.*21
Therefore, it would be equally accurate to say that "War made the state, and the state made peace."*22 The modern European state system originated in an effort (the Peace of Westphalia) to put an end to one of the bloodiest fratricidal conflicts in Western history, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Although warfare between states continued, successful states were able to control the ultimately more costly endemic local warfare typical of non-state societies. To suggest, as one writer hostile to the state recently has, that "the state's most remarkable products to date have been Hiroshima and Auschwitz.... Whatever the future may bring, it cannot be much worse,"*23 is to miss this vital point about the actual role and function of the state.
The state is a stabilizing force in other important respects as well. For example, no territorial state has an interest in seeing nuclear war actually occur. Its own territory and population are hostages. Non-territorial—and thus non-state—political entities, which typically possess no assets targetable by nuclear weapons, are much more likely to actually use any nuclear device that falls into their hands.
The state has not, however, been able invariably to maintain its desired monopoly on the legitimate—that is, the socially sanctioned—use of violence. Entities other than the state make war—most often on each other, but sometimes on the state itself. In either case the state will become involved, either in self-defense or to assert its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The monopoly on violence cannot be preserved by an entity unwilling to use violence effectively. Should it fail to involve itself in the struggle, the state will lose a major justification for its existence and will likely find that existence challenged. If the state fails to meet this challenge, it will likely be destroyed, or taken over by some new entity willing and able to take on this fundamental function. This new entity may be another state, or possibly a supranational entity like NATO or the United Nations. Or it may be a new revolutionary government evolving out of what formerly was a non-state entity.
Thus we see that states exist within a rather precarious zone between order and chaos. They are created and maintained by the interaction of various other, hopelessly intertwined but essentially autonomous systems. Leaders and governments have various levers to influence events, but they do not truly "control" their political entities so much as they more or less skillfully "ride the wave." If they impose too much order the system will stagnate and die, like the Soviet Union. If they cease to provide enough coherence, the system will fly apart.
Therefore, we need a mental image of the state more useful than the Newtonian billiard ball model. States (and most other political entities) are tenuous assemblages of disparate, interdependent organisms, conducting an elaborate mating dance along the skeins of an intricate spider web. A tug anywhere on the web affects the whole web, where our patchwork entities occasionally entangle one another, fusing, losing and trading components, and frequently disintegrating.
Perhaps such an image of states and of the international system seems unduly fragile and chaotic. Consider, then, that the United States, which sees itself as a "young" nation, in fact has the oldest constitutional system on Earth. The People's Republic of China is barely 50 years old. Many people alive today were born when most of Europe was actually ruled by kings or emperors. Powerful states and ideologies, commanding formidable and sometimes fanatically loyal military machines, have entered and left the world stage while those people grew up. The Soviet Union, one of the most powerful political-military entities in human history, covering a sixth of the world's surface and encompassing hundreds of millions of human beings, lasted less than a single human lifetime. Responsible strategists therefore sometimes have to think in terms of awkward timespans, which seem beyond the range of practical concern—that is, beyond the current crisis and even the next election—but which they and their children will have to live through.
On the other hand, the sub-components of warmaking entities like states can be remarkably tough and enduring. For example, the British and Japanese monarchies have survived (albeit with radically changing roles) for over a thousand years. The Sicilian Mafia has survived since the 13th century. The origins of the Jews, Germans, Poles, Armenians, and Vietnamese are lost in the mists of antiquity, but they have retained their nationhoods even through periods in which they possessed no states. The state itself can transcend nationality and endure as an idea: The Roman state existed as a distinct entity for nearly 2000 years—but the last government to legitimately call itself Roman existed in another city (Constantinople), worshipped a different religion (Orthodox Christianity), spoke a different language (Medieval Greek), and was based on a political concept altogether different from that of the early Roman Republic. In yet another guise, Imperial Rome lives on today as the Roman Catholic Church. The Church has in its time maintained armies, secret services, and a powerful bureaucracy. It has fought wars, and in some cases initiated them. This Rome is no longer a state (although it runs a state of its own in the Vatican), but no one would deny that it remains a powerful political entity.
Our point is that, despite the persistence of some political forces and entities, the political movements and individual states and governments that wage wars are remarkably changeable and often fleeting things. In other words, there is nothing permanent about any particular political entity. A state or political movement exists only so long as it serves some powerful set of human needs. Ultimately, its creation, existence, and disappearance depend entirely on its population's willingness to sustain belief. Radical changes in the distribution of power can occur in remarkably short periods.
In 1480, Spain was a collection of little kingdoms, as eager to fight each other as to defend their common interests. Twenty years later Spain held title to half the globe. In 1850, Germany was little more than a geographical expression, a no-man's land between the territories of the great powers. By 1871, Germany was the dominant force in Europe. In 1935, with no armed forces to speak of and an economy in decline, the United States wanted nothing more than for the world to leave it alone. Within ten years, flush with victory, economically prosperous, and in sole possession of the atomic bomb, the United States had become the single most powerful nation on Earth.*24
We stress the fragility of political entities for two reasons. First, it is helpful to remind ourselves of our own vulnerability. Powerful and inspiring as it is, the existence of the grand democratic experiment we call the United States of America is not inevitable. It continues only through the strenuous efforts of its government and of other elements in society which perceive it as a benefit. It can be—and occasionally has been—stressed to the breaking point. Second, it is necessary to remember that every enemy, no matter how seamless and monolithic it may appear, has political fault-lines that may be vulnerable to exploitation.
One of the most useful approaches to understanding the behavior of political entities is the concept of a balance of power. This concept is a tricky one, however, for the term is used to mean a number of quite different things. In fact, it has no widely agreed-upon meaning. It is nonetheless useful to examine some of the different, often contradictory, ways in which the phrase "balance of power" is used. These contradictions themselves reveal a lot about the nature of politics and the role of war. The balance of power is "at once the dominant myth and the fundamental law of interstate relations."*25
The term balance of power is usually used in reference to states, but it is applicable to any system involving more than one political power center. The phrase can mean any of the following:
1. The actual distribution of power, however unequal that may be.
2. A situation in which two or more entities or groups of entities possess effectively equal power.
3. A system in which entities shift alliances in order to ensure that no one entity or group of entities becomes preponderant.
For our purposes, the most useful meaning of the term is the last given. Balance of power systems have appeared frequently in world history. Normally, such a system is created when several entities vie for supremacy ("hegemony"), yet none individually has the power to achieve it alone. All are suspicious of any potentially hegemonic power, for fear of being swallowed up. Historically, most societies have viewed this as an abnormal situation—the traditional Chinese ideal of uniting "all under heaven" is typical, as was the medieval European ideal of a universal church and empire. After all, there can be only one "best" solution, and that solution logically should apply to all of mankind. Most civilizations have ultimately achieved such unity—and paid for it with stagnation.
Only in the modern European world did the concept of a balance of power gain widespread recognition as a desirable state of affairs. This occurred when it became apparent that no one government or ideology had the power to unite Western civilization by force. Attempts to do so had become so costly and disruptive that they threatened social stability and the dominance of ruling classes everywhere. Gradually, the ideal of a stable system of independent states took hold. After the Peace of Westphalia (1648), most European wars were fought either to maintain the rough equality of the "great powers" or to contain or destroy the occasional "shark" who sought to overthrow the system and impose its hegemony. The object of the system was not peace, but rather the security, freedom, and independence of the participating states.
One of the great debates over the nature of the state system is over whether all states are by nature sharks who would consume their neighbors given the opportunity, or if instead most states are content to coexist peacefully and sharks are the exception to the rule. That debate is essentially unresolvable. It is clear, however, that the periodic arrival of an undeniable shark led to a steady decrease in the number of independent states even in Europe. Even unaggressive states were forced to annex their smaller neighbors as a means of increasing their own powers of self-defense.
Sharks seek to overthrow the balance of power system. Their strategy is to eliminate all competitors (within a state, a region, or world-wide). In the West as a whole, this goal has frequently been attempted but never achieved. Such an effort tends to be disastrous, since it means taking on multiple enemies. Ambitious powers must always be wary of what Clausewitz called the "culminating point of victory."*26 This is the point at which one competitor's success prompts its allies and other potential players to withdraw their support or even throw their weight against it.
Even if successful, the hegemonic solution has its limits. A political entity with no peer competition will most likely stagnate—a case of "nothing fails like success."*27 Because of the internal dynamics of any human system, it is difficult for such a winner to maintain its military edge for long. For example, the reservoir of military experience inevitably ages (with all of the changes in attitude and values that this implies) and eventually dies off. Almost equally inevitably, a new enemy will arise, either from within via civil war or revolution, or from off-stage. World historians have suggested that it was the success of hegemonic states in the Middle East, India, and China that left them so vulnerable to the emerging West, in which there remained the stimulus of furious internal political, economic, and military competition.*28
The conservative strategic solution is to know when and where to stop, i.e., to understand the meaning of the culminating point of victory and to live within the balance of power system. Entities pursuing this strategy are not necessarily altruistic or unambitious. They simply recognize the nature of the system and use it to enhance their own positions.*29 They draw strength from the other members of the system and benefit from the errors committed by sharks. Knowing where to stop, in both their internal and external political struggles, has been a major factor in the consistent strategic success of powers like Great Britain and the United States. The greatest individual practitioner of this strategy was probably the Prussian/German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In three short wars (1864, 1866, and 1870-71), Bismarck disrupted the European balance of power by unifying most of the small German states into a single, powerful German Empire. Rather than use this power in a dangerous attempt to unify all of Europe, however, he used it to make Germany the new balancing power, working tirelessly to maintain peace among the great powers. His successors, by overplaying their hand, destroyed both Germany and Europe.
Sharks (e.g., Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union) represent an obvious class of threats to a balance of power system. Less well understood, however, is another kind of threat, the "power vacuum." A power vacuum occurs when there is no authority capable of maintaining order in some geographic area. (We have already discussed this problem in a different context, that of the state unable or unwilling to maintain its monopoly on the use of violence.)
Power vacuums are disruptive to the balance of power in two distinct ways. First, the disorder in the vacuum tends to spread as violent elements launch raids into surrounding areas or as fanatics and criminal organizations commit other provocative acts. The disintegration of Soviet power in the early 1990s has provided many examples of this sort. Another example is the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which drew a reluctant NATO intervention force into Bosnia. Second, the power vacuum may attract annexation by an external power.*30 If this act threatens to add substantially to the annexing entity's power, other states will become concerned and may interfere. Many Russians saw NATO's intervention in Bosnia in this light. NATO's agreement to Russian participation in that mission represented an attempt to mitigate such concerns.
There have been examples of surrounding states peacefully cooperating to ensure that a power vacuum is eliminated in a manner that leaves the balance of power unchanged. For example, Prussia, Austria, and Russia had fought a series of exhausting balance-of-power wars in the 18th century. A new problem arose when Poland, bordered by these three states, became a power vacuum due to its own internal political failures. Eager to evade a new struggle, the three states avoided war by cooperating in three successive partitions of the Polish state. Sometimes, neighboring entities are unwilling to take responsibility for maintaining order in a disrupted area. In that case, they will normally assist some local element to achieve sufficient power to reestablish order.*31
Another example of the problem of power vacuums also helps demonstrate the usefulness of the state form of organization. As a result of the Palestinian Intifada in the Israeli-occupied territories, a de facto power vacuum developed. Israel could prevent the Palestinians from developing their own government, but it could not impose order. Israel had already discovered the difficulties of dealing with a disembodied, non-state terrorist organization, the PLO. Neither problem had proved soluble through military means. Israel has attempted to solve both problems by creating what is, in effect, a Palestinian state. This state can claim legitimacy in the occupied territories and can, in theory at least, be relied upon to put a stop to the turmoil there.
Perhaps more important, a territorial Palestinian state, simply because it is a state and therefore shares certain inevitable characteristics with Israel, is vulnerable to the kinds of pressure Israel can bring to bear. A hit-and-run terrorist organization is responsible only for waging war; the new Palestinian authority is also responsible for picking up the garbage and seeing that the electricity is turned on. In practice, the Palestinian entity is virtually forced to be an Israeli ally against Palestinian elements who want to continue the terrorist campaign.
Thus we have the seemingly paradoxical case of a state helping its enemies to create a state of their own. There is, however, no paradox. Although Israel would no doubt prefer that no Palestinian entity exist at all, in practice that option has proved unattainable. An effective Palestinian state would be easier to deal with than the demonstrated alternative. Resolution of the power vacuum in Palestine would remove a disturbing factor and permit a more stable balance of power system to evolve in the Middle East. Effective strategists must be prepared to acknowledge such realities and to see such possibilities amid the complexities of politics.
However, because the Palestinian proto-state is not a "unitary rational actor," but rather a particularly anarchic example of a complex adaptive system, the greatest threat to both Israel and the new Palestinian authority itself comes from dissident members of the Palestinian nation. Similarly, the greatest threat to the success of this Israeli strategy comes from elements inside Israel.
Strategists must be keenly aware of the dynamics of the various balance of power systems that are involved in any given strategic problem. First, our own strategy will be affected to some significant extent by the internal balancing that takes place between political parties and branches of government, and between various agencies, departments, and services. It takes strong leadership and willpower to prevent the bureaucratic balancing instinct from dominating the strategy-making process.
Second, neutral powers and our allies will be affected by balance of power concerns. The United States is not immune to the culminating point of victory. Many participants in the coalitions we assemble are only temporary comrades in arms, with long-term goals that may diverge widely from ours. Even some of our customary allies have long traditions as great powers and have not necessarily forgotten their own ambitions.*32 Thus our allies' attitudes toward American power are complex. Consequently, a particular victory or setback may either weaken or strengthen our alliances, dependent on the specific circumstances of the conflict.
Third, the balance of power mechanism is operating within the enemy camp as well. During the early stages of World War II, for example, much of Italy's behavior was driven by concerns about her German ally's successes. The resultant Italian actions caused great problems not only for the Western allies but for Germany as well. During the Gulf War, American policy was very concerned about the internal balance of power within a defeated Iraq. The United States desired the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but not if the result was the ascendancy of a radical new Shiite regime.
Like the "invisible hand" of market economics, the balance of power mechanism is always at work, regardless of whether the system's participants actively believe that it is a good thing.*33 It will always influence events, but does not predetermine them. Balancing tendencies can often be overcome by strong leadership, by common interests, by a powerful threat from outside the system. They occasionally break down completely, and a single dominant power emerges. Thus the concept of a balance of power is a useful basis for strategic analysis, and the balancing mechanism is often a useful strategic tool.
Despite the recurrence of various underlying strategic patterns, the strategic environment can take dramatically different forms depending on what Clausewitz called "the spirit of the age." World War I occurred in a multipolar world dominated by powerful, militarized nation-states vying for national glory. The Cold War, utterly different in character, took place between vast coalitions in a bipolar world riven by the ideological competition of Communism and Liberal Democracy. The superpowers strove to repress or contain local conflicts everywhere, for fear they might lead to global war. In the post-Cold War world, we see a global balance of power that is unipolar—dominated by the United States and its Western or Westernized allies—and largely free of fundamental ideological disputes, save in some cases religion.
While a unipolar global balance of power seems simple in theory, politics did not stop with America's victory in the Cold War. Regionally, we see an extremely complex strategic environment emerging. A great many power vacuums have been created by the collapse of governments once legitimized by the twisted dream of Communism. Other vacuums have been created by the West's abandonment of repressive regimes no longer needed as allies against a global enemy. A lucrative worldwide drug trade flourishes, financing criminal organizations that undermine or even seek to destroy legitimate governments. Burgeoning populations, especially in the littoral regions, threaten to overwhelm the abilities of corrupt or incompetent governments to provide justice and other vital services. Environmental disasters and disputes over resources as basic as water raise regional tensions.
Consequently, we see a host of new conflicts and new kinds of conflicts—new, that is, to a world grown used to the "long peace" imposed by the long stalemate of the Cold War. Long-suppressed ethnic, religious, regional, and even personal hatreds can trigger large-scale violence. The result is often terrorism, civil war, secession, and sometimes the total breakdown of order. In Somalia, for example, the state completely disappeared, swamped by warfare between local clans and gangs.
No longer guided by the Cold War's overarching strategic concept of "containment," American strategists are puzzled by this new strategic pattern. The United States finds itself drawn into local, regional, and transnational conflicts by a mixture of internal pressures, economic self-interest, humanitarian impulses, and balance-of-power concerns.
Efforts to adjust to this smaller-scale warfare must, however, be tempered by concerns about the possible emergence of a new peer competitor or some other strategic surprise. However clear the general pattern of conflict may be in any era, there are always exceptions. The pattern can always change, with little or no warning. As we demonstrated earlier, radical changes in the distribution of power can occur in remarkably short periods.
In any particular strategic situation, we can discern certain consistent patterns—like the balance of power mechanism—and use them as a framework to help understand what is occurring. At the same time, we must realize that each strategic situation is unique: In order to grasp its true nature, we must comprehend how the characters and motivations of the antagonists will interact under specific, often new, circumstances. Summarizing the environment within which war and strategy are made, Clausewitz described it as being dominated by a "remarkable trinity,"
composed of  primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;  of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and  of [war's] element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason.
The first of these three aspects concerns more the people; the second more the commander and his army; the third more the government.
These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.
Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance among these three tendencies, like an object floating among three sources of attraction.*34
In other words, Clausewitz concluded that the strategic environment is shaped by the disparate forces of emotion, chance, and rational thought. At any given moment, one of these forces may dominate, but the other two are always at work. The actual course of events is determined by the dynamic interplay among them.
Note that technology is not a part of Clausewitz's trinity. It is politics, not technology, that determines the character and intensity of war. Modern technology, with its awesome killing power, may be applied with great restraint, depending on policy objectives and political constraints. At the same time, in a conflict propelled by powerful ethnic hatred and fear, half a million people can be slain in a few days with machetes—as happened in Rwanda in 1995.
Thus the strategic environment is always defined by the character of politics and the interactions among political entities. This environment is complex and subject to the interplay of dynamic and often contradictory factors. Some elements of politics and policy are rational, that is, the product of conscious thought and intent. Other aspects are governed by forces, like emotion and chance, that defy any purely rational explanation. The effective strategist must master the meaning and the peculiarities of this environment.*35
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Strategy as a Concept
You [military professionals] must know something about strategy and tactics and logistics, but also economics and policy and diplomacy and history. You must know everything you can about military power, and you must also understand the limits of military power.. You must understand that few of the problems of our time have been solved by military power alone.
—John F. Kennedy
Strategy, broadly defined, is the process of interrelating ends and means (or "intentions and capabilities," or "interests and resources"— different pairs of terms that convey essentially the same meaning). Strategy is thus both a process and a product. When we consciously apply this process to a particular set of ends and means, the product (i.e., "the strategy") is a specific way of using specified means to achieve specified ends. Defined in this broad way, strategy pervades virtually all human endeavors, from finding food, shelter, transportation, and a mate to solving scientific and mathematical problems. It is interesting, therefore, that the word we use to describe this pervasive process has purely military origins: It is derived from strategos, the Greek word for general, and means literally the art of generalship.
In this book, our interest in strategy is of course largely restricted to its applications in war. Even then, however, if we think of strategy in its generic sense of interrelating ends and means, virtually everybody at every military echelon is a "strategy maker." Therefore, to impose some analytical order on our consideration of military strategy, military theorists have developed a set of conceptual "levels" of war: the tactical level, the operational level, and the strategic level. The tactical level is the province of forces conducting actual combat engagements and battles. The operational level encompasses the actions of military forces at a larger scale, coordinating and giving coherence to various subordinate tactical actions. The strategic level of war is the level at which military activities have a direct impact on politics and policy.
The division of warlike activities into tactical, operational, and strategic levels, while useful, still leaves us with many ambiguities. The levels of war clearly overlap. The customary graphic depiction of the interrelationship between the levels shows three interlocking rings. (See Figure 2-1.)
This image is often roughly accurate when it is used to describe traditional, large-scale warfare between the conventional armies of opposing states, particularly when the warring parties' political goals require the actual destruction of their opponents' military power. It is not very useful, however, in describing the dynamic relationship among the three levels over the wider spectrum of conflict with which military organizations actually have to contend.
This is so because, in practice, the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war overlap to an extent that varies greatly depending on the scale of military operations and on the specific political context. In some forms of warfare—particularly in terrorism, in insurgency and other forms of internal conflict, and in nuclear war as well—tactical actions often have a direct, immediate political (i.e., strategic) impact. Thus we need to alter Figure 2-1 to reflect this variability in the relationships between the levels of war. (See Figure 2-2.) (This illustration is a FLASH animation--you may need to modify your browser settings in order to see it.)
We often talk about the "tactical level of war" and the "strategic level" as if they were inherently separate spheres of action. They are not. All tactical actions—every firing of a bullet, every occupation of a position—are taken in pursuit of some strategic object. A strategic effect is achieved when a tactical action or the cumulative effects of many tactical actions results in a perceptible influence on the political leadership of either side. The number of intervening "levels of war" is a management issue, merely an organizational response to the particular "distance" between tactical action and political effect in any specific struggle. This is primarily a matter of scale, in terms of time, space, and numbers of people involved. In a general conflict such as World War II, it took a great many tactical actions to have any noticeable political effect. At times, even the entry of an entire nation into the war was of limited, local interest. Military events with significant political impact generally occurred at the level of fleets and armies—or even army groups. In a struggle of smaller scale, strategic/political influence can be exerted by small units or even individuals. A single tactical defeat or an individual atrocity, for example, will have limited political effect in a general war situation but powerful repercussions in a more localized scenario. In World War II, a skirmish killing 18 soldiers would normally have had no political impact whatsoever. In the 1993 Somalia campaign, however, the loss of 18 soldiers had a direct impact on the political fortunes of the administration in Washington. Had the small American-led operation achieved its purpose, the capture of a local warlord, political events might have taken a very different direction. Thus the skirmish must be seen as a tactical operation conducted directly at the strategic level of war.
In peacetime, during the transition from peace to war, or in internal wars where the political meaning of violent events is readily apparent to the "man in the street," individual violent events can have a vast impact. Nineteen-year-old terrorist Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 triggered the process that brought on World War I. Such small-scale actions usually have relatively much more modest effects during a large-scale war. Similarly, in a very limited nuclear exchange, the detonation of a single nuclear weapon on an enemy city would no doubt have a direct strategic effect. In a general nuclear exchange, the same bomb on the same city might have no perceptible political effect whatsoever. Thus both pistol bullets and thermonuclear bombs can be "strategic weapons." The actual conduct of combat with either is a matter of tactics. Their strategic effect depends on the political situation.
Ideally, in any particular conflict, our warfighting organization should reflect the level at which combat will have a political impact. The organizational pyramid needs to be as flat as possible, for every layer of command adds to friction and uncertainty. Multiple layers of military command serve to insulate soldiers from the political consequences of their actions. When individual tactical events cannot be expected to have any direct political ramifications, tactical leadership can be left in the hands of tactically proficient but politically naive junior leaders. When the political consequences of tactical events are likely to be larger, we must either send more experienced senior political and military leaders and keep them closer to the fight, or make strenuous efforts to select, educate, empower, and trust more politically conscious junior commanders and even individual soldiers.
"Small" wars can have a great impact on the political process. Vietnam began as a small war: It brought down at least one American administration and divided the Nation for a generation. The Reagan administration was seriously challenged over its conduct of a small war in Central America. The Soviet Union was severely damaged by its defeat in a small war in Afghanistan. American military organizations, however, have evolved for the purpose of fighting global wars. Consequently, lesser conflicts tend not to attract the undivided attention of sufficiently high-level military and political leaders—until they present us with a major embarrassment. This was the case with Vietnam, which was generally viewed by America's high military leadership as a distraction from the real strategic problems of the Cold War. It turned out to be a distraction that severely damaged American military institutions and crippled the Nation's political leadership. The constraints on organizational flexibility have lately been lessened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent unlikelihood of global war. Unfortunately, organizational structures, which are built in adaptive response to events, take on a life of their own. They become agents in the larger complex adaptive systems to which they belong. They struggle to survive whether or not they are appropriate to a new, evolving strategic environment. Overcoming the organizational legacy of the Cold War will require strong leadership and a determination to adapt to new realities.
Any discussion of ends and means in war must begin with two basic points. First, war is an expression of politics: It is about power. The ends or goals of any party waging war—even though those goals may be social, economic, religious, or ideological in nature—are by definition political goals. Second, wars are fought, not by the abstract models of political scientists, but by real political entities which have unique characteristics and often very dissimilar goals and resources. We must explore the ways in which the means and ends of warfighting political entities may vary.
The only means of a purely military strategy is combat—physically attacking the enemy or defeating his attacks upon us. Because war is the continuation of politics with the addition of organized violence, however, war is not limited to purely military means. In fact, military means are only one element of our political effort in war—an element that varies greatly in its relative importance, depending on the nature and the particular circumstances of the struggle. All of the elements of our power—diplomatic, economic, and psychological, as well as military—must be brought to bear and exploited to the full in war.
These elements of power overlap and interconnect, of course. Our diplomats' power to sway other governments is dependent to a great extent on those governments' awareness of our economic and military power, and on their assessment of our willingness to use that power to their benefit or detriment. Our economic power is bolstered by our military power to defend our economic interests. Our military power is sometimes dependent on our diplomats' ability to gain basing rights and overflight permission from other countries, or to enlist them in alliances and coalitions; it is directly dependent on the financial and technological strength of our economy.
Our psychological power involves all of these factors, including the awe, fear, or admiration that our physical power inspires. Our psychological power also involves the world's perception—among the American and foreign publics as well as among political and military leaders—whether we are supporting or threatening the balance of power. It includes the sympathy or antipathy inspired by our culture, our ideas, our values, and the immediate cause for which we are fighting. The tools of psychological power include propaganda and press releases, information and personalities, food drops and medical care for refugees and POWs—in other words, anything that affects the rational or emotional components of the human mind. Psychological power may seem the "fuzziest" of all the elements we have discussed, but it is at least as important as the other three, and political entities make huge efforts to increase it. As Napoleon said, in war, the moral is to the physical as three to one. On the conventional battlefield, at the tactical level, this observation applies narrowly to the morale of soldiers. At the strategic level, it must be applied to the psychology of larger, more complex societies.
Military professionals naturally concentrate on the military means of strategy, but they should nonetheless be conscious of the other means that can and must be exploited (and defended against) in the larger political struggle of which their operations are only part. Most importantly, they must understand that military force is an inappropriate tool for the solution of most political difficulties. Force is at best a necessary means for clearing obstacles to more peaceful solutions. This appreciation of the role of force is a vital component of military professionalism, for military leaders have a responsibility to insure that political leaders understand the nature of the military instrument—both its capabilities and its limitations.
In appraising the relationship between the military and nonmilitary elements of our power in any given situation, we must be prepared to ask:
- How can our military capabilities complement or assist our nonmilitary efforts in achieving our political goals?
- How can the nonmilitary elements of our power aid our military efforts?
- How might our uses of force impede or imperil the achievement of our political goals?
To raise this last question is not to argue for timid strategies. Sometimes the obstacle that must be removed is an entire hostile organization, regime, or state, and there may be no means to that end save great bloodshed and destruction. However, we must seek to achieve our goals as cheaply as possible and with the right combination of means—diplomatic, economic, and psychological, as well as military. The way in which we combine these means in any given conflict will be greatly affected by the kind of strategy we pursue (a subject we will explore in Chapters 3 and 4) and by the specific goals we seek.
There are only two fundamental military strategic goals: survival and victory. These two overarching goals encompass all of the specific aims that we may pursue in any particular conflict. The effective strategist must strive to understand what survival and victory mean in the specific situation at hand and to each of the struggle's various participants. The relationships among the opponents' respective definitions of survival and victory provide the structure of the conflict.
Survival is the first and usually the irreducible minimum goal for both opponents. Logically speaking, survival is a prerequisite for victory and must take priority. If the goal of surviving comes to conflict with the pursuit of victory, then—it would seem—one must accept stalemate or even defeat.*36 For the defender, survival and victory sometimes amount to the same thing. In any case, political leaders will often seek to convince their people that this is the case and that failure to achieve the policy goal they advocate equates to a fate worse than death. Sometimes, of course, that argument is correct.
Most of the time, strategic survival means the continued existence of the political entity which is at war. Political entities are seldom if ever unitary, however, and it is often useful to consider how the various influential sub-elements on each side see their survival interests affected by the conflict. In the case of a state, for instance, its ruling class and its present administration or regime are usually determined to remain in power. However, other classes and potential leadership groups not currently in power also wish to survive. The state's institutions seek to survive as institutions. The individuals comprising the leadership and these other classes and institutions are, of course, interested in their own personal as well as political survival. The extent to which individuals are willing to risk their own survival for the sake of larger institutions or entities varies greatly. It is often useful to create an obvious conflict in the survival of these various elements. In fact, the fundamental purpose of using force is to convince the enemy entity's constituent members that their personal survival depends on submission to our political will.
Sometimes the survival of a particular individual, group, party, or class, perhaps the military institutions themselves, will actually take practical priority over the interests of the political entity as a whole. For example, many historians would argue that Germany did not go to war in 1914 because of any real or imaginary security problem faced by Germany as a whole. Rather, the traditional ruling class needed a victorious war in order to justify and sustain its social position in the face of challenges by more modern, emerging elites. This desire for class survival not only led to the war but made the German leadership unwilling to negotiate peace on any basis other than total military victory. Pursuing its own interests, this class led the German state to destruction.*37 Similar concerns often drive dictators or totalitarian ruling parties. In such a case, strategies which seek to compel submission by threatening the interests of the state or of its people may have little direct impact. We must determine the operative interests of our enemies' actual decision makers, not assume that they are simply the mirror image of our own.
Using tools like subversion, economic blockades, bombing campaigns, and other forms of pressure, it may be possible to place the enemy's population under so much stress that it will demand changes in policy or even attempt to replace its leadership through revolution. For example, there were several revolutions in the closing phases of World War I, and they played a great role in ending the war. The Germans purposely facilitated Lenin's return to Russia, hoping that his revolutionary activities would disrupt the Russian war effort. The Western allies demanded the overthrow of Germany's Kaiser as a precondition for peace. Similarly, the Americans sought (or at least expected and hoped for) a revolution in Iraq during and after the Gulf War. Strategists who hope to create and use revolutionary pressures must keep in mind two realities. First, such revolutions take a very long time to germinate. This is because the general population is by habit dependent on its established political leadership to coordinate its actions. The evolution of a new leadership class is slow and painful, and its members are always in danger from the existing rulers. Second, should we succeed in provoking revolutions, we will have to live with the resulting chaos or with new and revolutionary regimes, which tend to become dangerously radical.
In seeking to understand an enemy's concept of survival, the strategic analyst should consider the spirit that motivates the entity and underlies its claim to legitimacy in the eyes of its population. Some entities grow naturally out of a common or national interest. Others reflect the interests of a single class, the ideological concepts of an elitist ruling party or religious sect, or the ego, dreams, or delusions of a single individual. States that represent the common interests of their many constituent elements are likely to act in a manner that we consider "rational." That is, such a state will usually act in ways consistent with the best interests of the broad society it represents. Political entities that represent more narrow interests may also act rationally, but unless we understand the actual interests they represent, we will find them highly unpredictable. The Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein, for example, does not act in the interests of Iraqi society, but in the personal interests of Saddam Hussein. Terrorist groups may act in what they conceive to be the interests of a larger society, like the organizations that fought for the establishment of Israel. Or they may fight in pursuit of some ideological abstraction unique to a small group of fanatics, or in the interests of their financial backers.
The motivating spirit of a political entity can change dramatically and suddenly. For example, Louis XIV, king of France (1661-1715), expressed the spirit of his age in his famous declaration, "I am the State." According to the political theory of the "divine right of kings," Louis's power flowed, not from a social contract with his people, but from God. In practice, his France was essentially a family business—a dynastic state held together not by national or ideological ties but by the loyalties of local elites to a patronage-bestowing royal institution at the center. His wars were fought primarily to enhance Louis' social prestige among his fellow princes. The French Revolution of 1789 changed the focus of the French state from the king and nobility (essentially territorial landlords whose nationality was irrelevant) to the ethnic nation: Napoleon was titled emperor, not of France, but "of the French." The Revolution sought to legitimize itself by invoking a radical spirit of democracy.*38 The wars that revolutionary France imposed on Europe between 1793 and 1815 were fought for a variety of reasons, which changed over the political course of the Revolution: to insure the political survival of the series of new regimes that took power in Paris; to spread the ideology of the revolution; to uphold the glory of the French nation; to further the personal and dynastic ambitions of Napoleon. The changed nature of the French state permitted it to tap energies and physical resources that the previous regime could not. These newly available resources included the personal talents of members of the middle and lower classes and vast reserves of money and manpower.*39 The greatest strategic problem that revolutionary France's enemies faced was understanding and adapting to the practical military implications of this radical change in the nature and motivations of the French state.
The motivating spirit of a political entity is therefore important. It affects its strategic behavior and the nature of the wars in which it engages. A feudal society or a territorial empire may regard the loss of a small slice of its land as acceptable, to be won back later or compensated for elsewhere. The states of 18th century Europe saw lands and populations as fungible commodities that could be traded back and forth. Therefore wars could be limited affairs fought for marginal gains in resources and prestige. To a true nation-state, however, the size, location, and specific value of any particular piece of the national territory is irrelevant. The seizure of territory is seen as an attack on the whole nation and must be reversed. This is an attitude likely to breed "total wars" like those of the first half of the 20th century.
However, an entity's motivating spirit is seldom pure (there are other, sometimes conflicting motivations at work) and it is always accompanied by the personal motivations and interests of the leadership. For example, the motivating spirit of the modern revolutionary Iranian state is both religious and ethnic-nationalist, but Iran's behavior is also strongly determined by its quasi-democratic political system and the competition of various leaders for votes. As another example, World War II was primarily a war of competing nationalisms. Nonetheless, somewhere between one and three million non-Germans volunteered to fight for Hitler, driven by ideological or more personal motives.
To complicate things still further, some entities have interpreted survival in ways that distort the usual meaning of the term. Some states or ideological movements are willing to fight on until their own utter destruction. Their hopes of "survival" lie in leaving behind a heroic legend or in making some other kind of lasting statement—to man or to God. Religious and other ideological movements have been known to seek martyrdom, sometimes as a means to a worldly end, sometimes as an end in itself. Some leaders prefer to die rather than accept humiliation—and, like Hitler, they are often willing to take large numbers of their countrymen with them. Clausewitz himself called for Prussia to rise against Napoleon in 1812, even though he understood that this would almost certainly result in Prussia's destruction. He believed that the honor of the state demanded it—i.e., that weak-kneed submission to Napoleon would fatally weaken the Prussian state's justification for independent existence. Only a heroic resistance could provide the necessary conditions for Prussia's eventual resurrection. Similar considerations moved much of the Japanese military leadership to fight on long after it was clear that Japan had been defeated in the Pacific War.
"Survival" can therefore mean different things to different elements. It is our task to isolate those elements of the enemy political system, if any, whose survival is intolerable to us. We must provide credible reassurances to the rest of the population that our aims do not threaten their survival. If our aim is not the enemy's complete destruction, he must be made to understand why submission to our demands will not be fatal. Even if our aim is truly the elimination of an enemy entity, it is not necessarily wise to advertise that fact. A threat to its survival will provoke an entity to maximum resistance. A prior commitment to its eradication is wise only if that expressed goal is necessary in order to motivate our own people and allies.
Not only do different entities define survival in different ways, they also tend to define their enemies' survival in ways parallel to their own. This can lead to a profound misunderstanding of the strategic situation. The Confederate leadership in the American Civil War saw their goal, secession, as a purely defensive act that posed no threat to the survival of the northern Union. The Union leadership saw things differently. As Lincoln indicated clearly in his Gettysburg Address, the sundering of the original Union called into question the validity of democratic institutions. National institutions that cannot maintain the integrity of the nation are by definition fatally flawed. Were the South's secession accepted, there would be no logical basis on which to maintain the cohesion of the remaining states. Thus the Union would not survive secession, nor would the American dream of self-sustaining republican government "of the people, by the people, for the people." Nor, for that matter, would the Lincoln administration itself survive defeat. The titanic Union war effort cannot be understood on any other basis.
One might similarly argue that the Communist but nationalist leadership of North Vietnam, whose legitimacy was based on a dream of national unity, could not envision surviving its acceptance of a permanent division of the Vietnamese nation. Thus it is not surprising that the United States was unable to pressure the North Vietnamese government into such a deal.
Sun Tzu wrote that "To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape."*40 This admonition reflects the importance of an enemy's desire for survival as a consideration in our own military strategy. The practical implications of Sun Tzu's observation, however, are ambiguous. Some would argue that Sun Tzu was merely recommending mercy for a beaten enemy, so that he will not be embittered and will accept his subjugation. To others, Sun Tzu appears to be pointing out that a cornered rat will fight furiously. Therefore we should be satisfied to negotiate an advantageous peace with our defeated foe, rather than seeking total victory through his utter destruction. Or perhaps Sun Tzu was suggesting that we give the enemy the illusion of a way out: Wait until his forces lose cohesion in a frantic race for the escape hatch, then take advantage of their disarray to destroy them at low cost to ourselves. None of these interpretations offers definitive guidance. We should be prepared to follow whichever course offers the greatest advantages, depending on the specific situation.
Victory can be as hard to define as survival. At the strategic level, victory ultimately requires an end to the war and the reestablishment of peace. Logically speaking, victory in a strategic sense should mean the accomplishment of the specific political aims of the entity at war. In practice, however, the resort to war is often a mistake from which neither side truly benefits. In such cases, victory may mean merely ending the war on terms less unfavorable to oneself than to the enemy.*41
A major problem with "victory" as a goal is that it is an emotion-laden word. Emotionally, "victory" calls for the enemy's complete destruction, or at least his thorough humiliation. The accomplishment of limited military and political aims which do not satisfy the emotions or seem to justify the costs of the war may not feel like victory. This can breed a cynicism that weakens us for the future. On the other hand, to gain victory in its emotional sense may require actions that would be counterproductive in the longer run. The end of the 1991 Gulf War provides an excellent example: It would have been much more satisfying to the American public to have eliminated Saddam Hussein. The actions necessary to insure that outcome would have been costly, would have alienated America's Arab allies, would have disrupted the regional balance of power, and would have left the United States responsible for the administration and postwar recovery of Iraq. In such cases, wise strategists accept "mission accomplishment" without seeking a form of victory that satisfies the emotions.
Because war is so dangerous and destructive, even to the victor, the only sensible goal of war is the establishment of a peace more favorable to an entity's interests than could have been gained without recourse to warfare. Initial calculations may be proven erroneous by events, however. If the costs of continuing a military struggle come to exceed the value of the goal, meaningful victory is unattainable. As Clausewitz put it,
Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.*42
That this does not always happen is due in part to the fact that "senseless passion" is, in practice, seldom absent. Because one cannot put a precise or "dollar" value on most war aims, is it often difficult to perceive the point at which the cost of fighting exceeds the value of victory. Leaders may also flinch at the political cost of admitting their miscalculations. Further, entities at war may come to seek the thrill of victory for its own sake, for war's excitement may become addictive to influential elements of society. As General Robert E. Lee put it, "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it."
When we discuss strategy in the abstract, we often treat means and ends as fixed. In practice, however, we constantly adjust both. Our ends have no natural upper limit, save the limits imposed by our material and psychological means. There is a bottom limit to our aims, however, defined by our conception of survival. The events of war—our own successes and failures, the lessons we learn, new ideas, chance events, the entry of new contestants—cause both our means and our goals to shift. As our resources increase, as we gain confidence in our abilities, as we find our enemy more vulnerable than we had imagined, we tend to expand our goals. A pejorative term for this process is "mission-creep," but it would be foolish to ignore new opportunities simply because they were not covered in our original planning. On the other hand, when we find our resources or abilities inadequate, we cut our ambitions to match.
Fortunately, the means to achieve our goals can be developed, given time, determination, and creativity. Means are adjustable to some degree at every level, and our ends can affect the means available to us. For example, war aims that evoke popular enthusiasm can give leaders access to resources otherwise unavailable. The emotions created by violence can help war to feed itself, as it energizes people to greater efforts and sacrifices than are otherwise obtainable.
We need to be sure that the emotions of war do not benefit the enemy more than ourselves. For example, a people fighting for its homeland will often be willing to pay a higher price to save it than an aggressor will to take it. Similarly, many revolutionary movements start out weak and gain strength as their pinpricks provoke disproportionately violent counterstrikes from the entrenched authorities. In this way the revolutionaries allow their enemies to supply them with recruits and other resources.
Another example of the different ways strategic means can be adjusted to match strategic ends can be found in the shifting American strategy of the Cold War. From the Truman administration on, the American government pursued the goal of containing the Soviet Union. The approach to means, however, tended to shift from administration to administration.*43
The Eisenhower administration relied on its nuclear superiority to deter Soviet expansionism. Even though it was led by a former career Army officer, the American government severely economized on non-nuclear defense expenditures. Eisenhower embarked on a creative program called the "new look" to build forces capable of using nuclear weapons at the tactical level. Eisenhower argued that nuclear weapons provide "more bang for the buck." His idea was to preserve America's fundamental strengths—its economic superiority and political stability—while deterring Soviet aggression by threatening a terrible nuclear retribution. The Soviet Union possessed huge conventional forces but could not initially match the American nuclear capability, which Eisenhower did not expect to have to employ in actual combat. By minimizing government expenditures and preserving the economy, Eisenhower believed, America would maintain a better position over the long run.
Although containment remained the broad goal, the next administration had an entirely different approach to means. To some extent, this was a matter of domestic politics. The new administration had won office partly on the strength of its criticism of the Eisenhower strategy and therefore needed something new. However, the situation was also changing, to some extent because of the very success of the earlier strategy. The Soviets' nuclear arsenal was growing, and they had found a way around the American nuclear umbrella by sponsoring numerous "wars of national liberation." Therefore it was necessary to confront the Soviets with both conventional and counter-insurgency forces, as well as nuclear arms. This strategy of "flexible response" would prove expensive.
The Kennedy administration believed, however, that pouring money into defense would so stimulate the economy that both the defense and civilian sectors would thrive. Thus our fundamental economic strength and political stability would be enhanced. At the same time, we would increase our actual physical means to deter the Soviets and, if necessary, to fight them at whatever level became necessary. In broad terms, this approach worked—even though it imposed huge costs on America's society and economy. The Soviet Union eventually gave up the struggle because it could not compete either economically or militarily.
Means and ends, however, are merely two sides of the same coin. The Kennedy administration's strategy experienced a serious local failure in Vietnam, due not to a lack of physical means, which were plentiful, but to a lack of clearly thought-out ends.
In order to give our actions coherence and purpose, we must always have a clear set of strategic objectives in mind. This set of objectives, often called an "end-state," describes in broad and flexible terms the specific political situation we are striving to create. Our military objectives are no more than means to that end. We must stick doggedly to this vision, despite distractions, disruptions, and temporary set-backs, as long as it remains fundamentally sound. If the fundamentals change, however, we must be prepared to adjust our objectives. Persistence is a virtue; blind stubbornness is not.
Useful as it is, however, "end-state" is a misleading term. History does not stop. No strategic result is final, and the solution to every problem inevitably creates new problems. As the conclusion to our current struggle comes into sight, our focus is already shifting to the next challenge.
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The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
We, the United Nations, demand from the Nazi, Fascist and Japanese tyrannies unconditional surrender. By this we mean that their will power to resist must be completely broken, and that they must yield themselves absolutely to our justice and mercy.
As we have stressed, every political situation—and thus every war—is unique. For practical reasons, however, we cannot afford to approach every new problem with a completely blank slate. We need some sort of strategic taxonomy, a way to type-classify strategic problems. To be useful, such a taxonomy must be simple but not simplistic. It must cut to fundamental issues present in any armed political struggle, regardless of intensity or of the nature of the political entities in conflict. It must be adaptable but not prescriptive, permitting us to describe a real-world situation in terms we can all understand—without requiring us to ignore or distort unique factors in the process of simplification. It must be multi-dimensional, permitting us to analyze each particular conflict from various points of view and thus to "triangulate" its unique nature using common points of reference.
Together, this chapter and the next investigate a set of fundamentally different kinds of warfighting strategies by examining seven pairs of strategic opposites. The most central of these pairs (in this case, actually a pair of pairs) is discussed in the present chapter: the relationship between limited and "high-end" political objectives, on the one hand, and limited and "high-end" military objectives on the other.
Clearly, our military strategy must support our political goals. The problem for military strategists is to determine how a particular political objective translates into a choice of military strategy and the selection of specific military objectives. As a first step, in this chapter we will seek out the most fundamental distinctions to be found along the continuous (and infinite) spectrum of real-world political objectives that might lead to war. We will divide that spectrum into limited and "high-end" political objectives. ( As a term of art, "High-end" is an unpalatable compromise, but this word-choice is based on long and frustrating experience with various theorists' attempts at labeling this concept. Logically speaking, the counterpart to "limited objective" would be "unlimited objective," just as the counterpart to "limited war" would be "unlimited" or "total" war. The subject of war is an emotional one, however, and words that describe it evoke an emotional response that is hard to overcome: Mere logic cannot correct for the emotional reactions the words "unlimited" and "total" provoke. Also, the phrase "total war" has come to mean a particular style of warfare that is too much a special case to be useful as a broad category, i.e., the total mobilization of a state's entire social, political, economic, and psychological resources in pursuit of unconditional military victory regardless of the political issues at stake. The term comes from Germany's disastrous strategy in the First World War. Of course, "limited" isn't an ideal choice either, since all real-world war is subject to practical limits. However, the term "limited war" is so entrenched—and in a manner that is reasonably close to the concept we need to convey—that common sense dictates its use here.)
We will then distinguish between two basic types of military objectives: erosion of the enemy's will to resist (generally considered a "limited" military objective) and disarming the enemy through the annihilation or incapacitation of his capability to continue the struggle (a "high-end" military objective). We will examine the relationships among these various political and military objectives. In this context, we will discuss the problem of identifying strategic "centers of gravity" and "critical vulnerabilities." From there, we will move to a discussion of the practical meaning of the often misleading uses made of the term "limited war."
The political aims of an entity at war always appear somewhere along a continuum of objectives, which despite their variety can all be usefully labeled as either "limited" or "high-end." The distinction is fundamental. A high-end political objective amounts to the elimination of the opponent as a political entity—that is, elimination of the enemy political leadership, not necessarily of the organization, state, or society it leads. A limited political objective, on the other hand, is one which does not inherently require the elimination of the political entity who is currently our opponent.
Figure 3-1 For a more detailed walk-through of this fundamentally Clausewitzian concept, see "The Relationship Between Political and Military Objectives" (PowerPoint).
When an entity seeks a high-end political objective, the enemy's leadership is to be removed (perhaps merely deposed, perhaps exiled, imprisoned, or executed), while its former assets (e.g., territory, population, economic resources) may be transferred to new leadership, absorbed, redistributed, or eradicated.
"Absorption," however, can mean many things. In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic countries completely into the Soviet state. It absorbed Poland into its forced alliance system (in the process moving Poland's western frontiers a hundred miles to the west, absorbing formerly German territory). On the other hand, the Western allies eradicated the Nazi regime and absorbed the western sectors of Germany into the Western alliance, but in the process reestablished Germany as a fully sovereign state. The Congress of Vienna, after the defeat of Napoleon, deposed his regime but left France remarkably intact. Under a conservative political leadership, France was then absorbed into a new mechanism for maintaining the continental balance of power.*44
A high-end political objective, then, may embrace anything from merely deposing a particular set of leaders to the physical extermination of an entire people or culture. Ideological revolutionaries, would-be world conquerors, and both sides in most true civil wars*45 tend to seek such political objectives. So, occasionally, do defensive alliances seeking to eliminate a habitual aggressor once and for all.
Conversely, a limited political objective is anything short of eliminating the political opponent as a player. There is nothing in our objectives that inherently precludes the enemy political leadership from remaining in power after the conclusion of hostilities, although it will be shorn of some power in the form of influence, territory, resources, population, or perhaps control over its own internal policies. Such limited political objectives are characteristic of states jockeying for better positions in the international balance of power; clans jockeying for political position within a larger society; mafias or street gangs battling for "turf"; reformist (rather than revolutionary) political movements; and secessionist movements.
Political objectives are often ambiguous. Sometimes—surprisingly often—this is because the contenders do not clearly understand their own intentions and desires. At other times, they are willing to accept either limited or unlimited political outcomes, depending on events. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War it seemed clear that the United States would have welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and perhaps that of his entire regime. Steps were taken to encourage, but not to ensure, this outcome. On the other hand, the Americans clearly did not wish to see the Sunni minority lose control of the Iraqi government to the presumably radical Shiite majority. In the event, none of these outcomes occurred, and the overt American political objective remained the limited one of forcing Iraq to disgorge its Kuwaiti conquest.
The greatest source of ambiguity, however, lies in the different ways in which political entities define their own survival. What may appear a limited goal to one side may seem to spell doomsday to the other.
Such ambiguities are common and do not invalidate the distinction between limited and high-end political objectives. It is important, however, that the strategic analyst recognize the nature of the ambiguity and its implications for all sides.
There are essentially only two ways to use force to impose our will on an enemy. The first is to eliminate his capacity to use military force, leaving him helpless to resist our demands. The other is to inflict such high costs or political pain that he is willing to negotiate an end to hostilities on the terms we desire. The first of these alternatives represents what has traditionally been called a strategy of annihilation, in which our military objective is unlimited: We seek to eliminate the enemy's ability to defend himself—in other words, to disarm him, thus leaving him helpless to oppose the imposition of our will (however limited or however extreme our ultimate intentions may be). The second alternative is a strategy of erosion, in which our military objective is limited: We seek to raise the enemy's costs so high that he will find ending the war on our terms more attractive than continuing to fight.
The goal of a strategy of annihilation or incapacitation is to deprive the enemy of the capability of resistance, to make him militarily helpless. "Incapacitation" is perhaps a better literal description of the strategic goal we are describing, but, as with so many potentially useful terms, that word tends to conjure up counterproductive images—in this case, of nonlethal weapons, limited applications of force, and "surgical strikes," which are contrary to our meaning. Thus we will usually use the term "annihilation." Of course, the word "annihilation" is also problematical: It triggers strong emotions and is sometimes confused with a policy of extermination. The latter is a political, not military, goal. It cannot be achieved, however, without first annihilating the enemy's means of resistance. What is being annihilated (literally, "made into nothing") is the enemy's physical means to oppose us. Deprived of the means to fight, any residual will to resist is—we believe or hope—irrelevant. Thus we will use the terms "disarm," "annihilation," "incapacitation," and "high-end" or "unlimited" military objective more or less interchangeably.
Normally, a strategy of annihilation is viable only when we possess some very great superiority over the enemy, in terms of brute strength,*46 military skill, leadership, technological capabilities, or morale.*47 Sometimes we can achieve the necessary superiority through surprise, although this is hard to achieve and dangerous to count on. If our opponent has any strategic depth, he may recover from his surprise before our victory is assured. To seek to annihilate an enemy's military capabilities without some such overwhelming superiority entails a willingness to pay a very high price for total military victory. (This is often called "attrition" warfare. That is an accurate term, but it is confusing in the terms we are using because it describes a method, not a goal.) Such a price may well be justified, as in the American Civil War or the war against Hitler. Oftentimes, however, the advantages to be gained through complete military victory are not sufficient to justify its cost.
Some societies will accept such a defeat and adjust to the demands of the victor, as did Vichy France in 1940 and Germany in 1945. Others, however, will simply redefine their goals and seek different means to continue the struggle. The American South, for instance, in 1865 lost a war for territorial independence to the North's strategy of annihilation, which left the South's armies in ruins and its economy too wrecked to support continuation of the conventional war. White Southerners then turned to the less ambitious (i.e., politically limited) goal of maintaining their own preferred social order in the face of Northern efforts at "reconstruction." They used the means of passive resistance to the national government and violent terrorism against local opponents. By 1876, the national government had tacitly accepted Southern victory in this follow-on struggle, in return for national unity. This political compromise endured for nearly a century.
In many cases, an annihilation strategy is pursued by an entity conscious of the temporary nature of its military superiority. Nazi Germany, for example, was well aware of the superior economic and manpower potential of Germany's enemies in either a long war or a long arms race. The Germans' mobilization strategy and the actual conduct of their campaigns therefore aimed at fighting a short war against unprepared foes. To be anything more than a gamble, such a strategy must be based on a reasonable probability that one's military superiority, whatever its basis, will be decisive before an enemy's superior mobilization potential can affect the dynamics of the war. It also requires that the effects of one's victory be such as to preclude the enemy from reopening the conflict after such mobilization. That is, our victory, even if limited, must remove the source of the enemy's potential superiority.
The second approach, of which the American South's second and victorious strategy is an example, we call a strategy of erosion. Its objective is to convince the enemy that a settlement of the outstanding political issues on our terms will be easier and more attractive than continued conflict. To put it another way, we seek to present the enemy with the probability of an outcome worse in his eyes than peace on our terms.
We accomplish this through erosion, literally "wearing down" his will to fight rather than destroying his ability to resist. We will choose this approach when we are either unable or unwilling to destroy the enemy's warmaking capability. Perhaps our goal requires such a modest concession from the enemy that we believe he will acquiesce after modest resistance. Perhaps we need to keep the other entity's military forces in existence as a buffer, or as a factor in the balance of power.*48 Perhaps our public will not support the commitment of sufficient forces to wage a campaign of annihilation. In the latter case, however, we must ask ourselves why we think the public will tolerate instead the long, drawn-out struggle that strategies of erosion often imply. We might also ask ourselves why we expect the enemy to fold before we will.
In many cases, however, we pursue a strategy of erosion simply because the enemy is too powerful: the outright destruction of his military power is beyond our capabilities. The Afghan guerrillas' successful erosion strategy against the Soviets falls into this category. So does the American effort against Great Britain during the American Revolution.
Sometimes we face enemies who simply cannot be dissuaded from the pursuit of policies we find intolerable by limited political and military action (i.e., erosion). We sometimes find ourselves in the awkward situation where an annihilation strategy is also unavailable—because the enemy is too powerful, or domestic opinion will not support it, or our allies and neutrals would be too disturbed by our foe's elimination. If we can neither forcibly persuade nor destroy them, such enemies can only be contained through never-ending efforts. Whether our objectives in such struggles are essentially limited or high-end is a moot point: Our eventual victory will result from economic, diplomatic, and psychological forces—our military operations are merely a holding action.
Political objectives and military strategic objectives are very different things. Political objectives describe, in a sense, "where we want to go." Military strategic objectives describe what we have to accomplish militarily in order to get there. (Operational and tactical strategies determine how we will accomplish those military strategic objectives.)
A high-end political objective is usually incompatible with an erosion strategy, for it is usually impossible to convince an enemy that his survival requires more effort than it is worth. An enemy whose survival is at stake—or who thinks it is—will usually fight on as long as he has any means to do so. Therefore, if our political objective is unlimited and military operations are our chosen primary tool, our military objective must be unlimited as well. The American North could not force the South back into the Union without first destroying the Confederacy's armies, which it did. Hitler could not overthrow the British or Soviet governments without first annihilating their military power, which he tried but failed to do. The United States could not dissuade North Vietnam from its ambition of conquering South Vietnam without overthrowing the Northern regime, but was unwilling to adopt either that high-end political objective or the military objective it would have required.
It is often more economical, however, even in pursuit of a high-end political objective, to offer defeated enemy leaders a comfortably decadent retirement in exile rather than a war crimes trial or an opportunity to socialize as equals with their former subjects. In 1994, for example, the United States was determined to overthrow the military junta ruling Haiti. The U.S. military and political objectives were unlimited: The Haitian armed forces and police were to be overwhelmed and disarmed, their political leaders deposed, and the government replaced. Convinced of the certainty of defeat in the coming struggle, however, Haiti's leaders accepted an offer of comfortable exile. The Americans thereby gained their political objectives through diplomacy, without actual bloodshed. This outcome could not have been achieved, however, without the convincing threat posed by a U.S. military strategy of annihilation.*49
A limited political objective may call for a military strategy of limited objectives, that is, an erosion strategy. In Afghanistan, for example, there were two conflicts superimposed: the Afghan mujahideen (aided by the West) fought against both the Afghan Communist government and the Soviet Union. Against the USSR, the mujahideen and their Western backers pursued an erosion strategy, seeking to make the Afghan adventure too expensive (in economic, military, diplomatic, and domestic political terms) for the Soviet government to sustain. This strategy succeeded when the Soviets pulled out in 1989. The Afghans' internal conflict, which like most true civil wars was a war of annihilation, continued until the government's forces were eliminated and the government itself completely destroyed.
Just because our political objective is limited, however, it does not necessarily follow that our military strategy must also be limited. There are many cases in which limited political goals have been sought or attained through military strategies of annihilation.
Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 was a campaign of annihilation aimed at achieving limited political objectives. Napoleon's military objectives were unlimited: to destroy the Russian army and take Moscow. His political objective was, in his own view at least, quite limited: to force the Czar to agree to abide by the terms of the "continental system." That system was part of a strategy of economic blockade aimed not at Russia but at Britain. There is no evidence that Napoleon intended to conquer Russia or to destroy it as a state, or even to depose the Czar. His strategy went awry for two reasons. First, the Russian army managed to preserve itself despite losing several battles and the capital. Second, Czar Alexander had the willpower—sustained by his belief that Napoleon's "limited" intentions amounted to the extinction of Russia as a great power—to fight on despite the losses he had suffered. Napoleon's capture of Moscow had pushed his army beyond the point at which it could sustain itself against a resurgent Russia (and the local winter), i.e., beyond what Clausewitz called the "culminating point of the offensive."*50 The campaign did end in strategic near-annihilation, but it was Napoleon's, not the Czar's.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 provides an example of a unlimited military strategy applied successfully in pursuit of a limited political objective. Prussia's main political objective had nothing to do with France per se.*51 Prussia sought to unify the various independent states of Germany under its leadership. It was clear, however, that France would do anything within her power to prevent the tremendous change in the European balance of power that would follow the creation of a unified Germany. It was also clear that a powerful France would find willing allies in some of the still-independent German states. France therefore had to be made helpless long enough for Prussia to attain the political goal. Thus the Prussian political goal vis-à-vis France was limited: Prussia merely wanted French acquiescence in the settlement of an inter-German political issue. The Prussian military objective, however, was annihilation: France had to be made militarily helpless to interfere. France unwittingly assisted the Prussians by declaring war first, thus becoming the aggressor in the eyes of other states. The Prussian military aim was accomplished in a series of battles in which the entire French professional army was destroyed or captured by larger, generally better equipped, and organizationally far superior German forces.
Thus a limited political goal can require a high-end military strategic objective. The outcome of the Prussian strategy, however, illustrates how a clean concept can be threatened by real-world complexities. The Prussians did not seek the collapse of the government of Napoleon III; in fact, they hoped that their capture of the French emperor at Sedan would force a quick settlement of the war. Instead, the imperial French government was overthrown by an internal revolution in Paris. It was replaced by a republican government determined to raise new armies and continue the war. This was an unanticipated side-effect of Prussia's victory. It threatened to change the character of the struggle into a grinding revolutionary war against an unpopular foreign occupation, and possibly to draw other powers in on France's side. After all, the new French government was free of war-guilt and could claim the sympathy that the balance of power system usually gives to the losing side. The new government accordingly sought allies, and the Prussian political leader became seriously worried that it would find some. However, the loss of the professional army and of Paris, and the continuing threat of yet another revolution, had so weakened France that even the new government eventually found that it had to make peace. Ironically, Germany then found that it had to support its recent enemy against further internal revolution. Strategists must be prepared for such complications.
Military strategies of annihilation have the virtue of conceptual—if not necessarily practical—simplicity. The focus of our operational efforts is the enemy's armed forces. Our intent is to render them powerless. We may choose to incapacitate those forces through battle or through destruction of the social, industrial, or communications infrastructure that supports them, but the focus remains clear and easily understood. Our main effort resides in our own armed forces. The diplomatic, economic, and psychological components of our national power are clearly subordinated to the military effort. Victory is easily measured: When the enemy's fighting forces are no longer able to present organized resistance, we have achieved military victory.
We have argued here that high-end political aims normally require a high-end military objective. We must note a couple of caveats or exceptions to this general observation. First of all, it is quite possible to use exclusively limited military operations in support of an unlimited political aim, IF the military instrument is not the primary tool of our strategy. For example, we may intend to cause the destruction of an enemy regime by internal revolution, and seek to bring about this internal revolution by isolating the enemy state and destroying its economy by blockade. In such a case, military operations may be limited to enforcing the blockade and protecting neighboring states.
Another important exception to the dominance of military factors in annihilation warfare occurs in internal wars. Such wars are very often zero-sum events in which one side's victory entails the other's elimination. Therefore the opponents seek each other's complete destruction, which normally cannot be achieved until the enemy's military protection is removed. Remember, however, that every government at war has to take political action to maintain the "home front," as well as military action against the enemy. In internal wars, the opponents share a common home front. Therefore, economic, diplomatic, and psychological programs (e.g., land reform, political reform, pacification operations, etc.) sometimes must take precedence over purely military operations even when the military goal remains annihilation. In Vietnam, for example, the U.S. and the government of South Vietnam waged a strategy of erosion against what they perceived to be an external foe, North Vietnam. Within South Vietnamese borders, however, they waged a war of annihilation against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese regulars who supported them. Energetic search-and-destroy and aerial bombing operations against enemy military forces often conflicted with the various internal nation-building efforts which sought to create legitimacy for the government in Saigon. It is difficult if not impossible to win the hearts and minds of people while burning their villages and dropping napalm on their neighbors.
Conceptually, erosion strategies involve a great many more variables than do strategies of annihilation. In erosion strategies, we have a much wider choice in our focus of effort, the relationship of military force to the other elements of power is much more variable, and our definition of victory is much more flexible. We may focus our attacks on the enemy's armed forces, just as in an annihilation strategy (so "counterforce" = "countervalue" in this case), or we may choose a non-military focus for our efforts. We may seize, threaten, or neutralize some other asset the enemy values—and prove that we can maintain our control of that asset. As Sun Tzu said, "Seize something he cherishes and he will conform to your desires."*52 Our target may be a piece of territory that has economic, political, cultural, or prestige value; shipping; trade in general; financial assets, and so on. Seizing and holding territory normally makes our military forces the main effort. Successful blockades and the freezing of financial assets, on the other hand, often depend primarily on diplomacy and economic power. In the latter examples, therefore, military forces play a supporting role and may not be engaged in active combat operations at all.
We may also seek to undermine the leadership's prestige or credibility through propaganda, psychological operations, or political subversion, hoping to make the enemy negotiate a peace on our terms in order to head off a threat to its domestic political position. Special forces and other unconventional military elements may play a role in such an erosion strategy, but the main effort will be based on the psychological and diplomatic elements of our power.
Victory in a campaign of erosion can be more flexibly defined and/or more ambiguous than is the case with annihilation. The enemy's submission to our demands may be explicit or implicit, embodied in a formal treaty or in behind-the-scenes agreements. If we are convinced that we have made our point, or have so eroded the enemy's power that he can no longer threaten us, we may simply "declare victory and go home."
Unfortunately, many strategists have assumed that annihilation is an all-purpose military objective, applicable to any political aim.*53 This is because, if achieved, annihilation would seem to guarantee the ability to impose one's own political conditions—however limited or high-end these may be. In the sense that both limited and high-end political goals may be pursued through annihilation strategies, this is true. However, as we have demonstrated, there are some political goals that simply cannot be achieved via a strategy of annihilation. If war is nonetheless necessary or unavoidable, we are left with the option of erosion.
A generalized prejudice in favor of one kind of strategy over the other is dangerous. It betrays a refusal to face the reality that each conflict is unique. An enemy who is too weak to win via a strategy of annihilation would be foolish to pursue such a strategy, but he may beat us through a strategy of erosion—as the North Vietnamese defeated the French and later the Americans in Indochina. The West did not (and could not) seek to annihilate the Soviets in Afghanistan, but resorted successfully to erosion.
Although annihilation and erosion are conceptually quite different, in practice it is often hard to distinguish between them. There are several reasons for this ambiguity. First, annihilation and erosion become confused when one side or both pursue annihilation with an insufficient level of military superiority. This was the case in the American Civil War and in World War I.*54 Both of these examples reflect the results of strategies of annihilation undertaken with insufficient or barely sufficient means. In such a case, unlimited political and military objectives can be obtained only through "slugging it out" in a war of attrition. This guarantees roughly equal losses on both sides and sometimes leads to negotiated settlements, even though one or both sides originally were pursuing unlimited objectives. (Note that "attrition"—a word that means roughly the same thing as "erosion," is used here in the sense of a method, not an objective. Many thinkers find this crucial distinction difficult to grasp.)
Second, the distinction between the enemy's physical ability to resist and his will to resist is not always a clear one. Even when we discuss the "destruction" of an army, we usually mean only sufficient physical damage to destroy its psychological and moral cohesion. In other cases, we may destroy an enemy's military forces and still not eliminate his will or ability to resist all of our aims, as in the example of the American South or of France in 1870. Thus the distinction between annihilation and erosion may seem cloudy. The difference is that, in an erosion strategy, one does not provoke the enemy leadership to a maximum effort in defense of its survival. In 1876, the U.S. federal government was able to sustain its fundamental objective of national unity, even though it was forced to accept the limited political goals of the southern resistance. In 1975, despite being forced to accept the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam, the United States fully retained the ability and will to defend itself elsewhere.
Third, these two strategies can overlap, or one can lead to the other. Sometimes it is the threat of annihilation that forces the enemy to make a deal on our terms. In that case, again, the difference between our erosion strategy and one of annihilation is that we have offered the enemy an option of settling the issue before he is made helpless, and expect him to take it. If he does not accept that option, then perhaps we have miscalculated our ability to annihilate his power, or failed to convince him of that ability, or failed to understand his own interpretation of the choices we have given him. We might then seek to make our threat more credible, try to reformulate the options so that the enemy does see conceding peace on our terms as preferable to complete defeat, or actually switch to a strategy of annihilation.
Fourth, a strategy that has not yet fully taken shape may be ambiguous, neither clearly annihilative or erosive in nature. In many cases this reflects poor strategy making: The strategy maker is confused and does not know what he wants to achieve or how to achieve it. In other cases, ambiguity reflects calculation: Either the strategy is decided but being disguised, or the strategist has goals that can be fulfilled via either approach and is waiting to see how his opportunities develop. It is also possible, of course, that an erosion strategy is merely a prelude to annihilation—in essence a ruse. That is, we may seek through a strategy of erosion to convince an enemy to accept conditions that, in the next round, will permit us to destroy him completely. It is useful to understand the true reasons behind such an ambiguity on either our own or an enemy's side. Ultimately, however, a successful strategy must turn out to be one or the other. At war's end, a strategy that has neither eliminated the enemy's ability to resist, nor worn down his will to continue the struggle, is a strategy that has failed.
Although all warfighting strategies can be placed into either the annihilation or the erosion category, there is a class of strategic-level actions which may be worth considering as a category in itself. These are strategies in which the political and military goals are identical and can be achieved quickly, simultaneously, and in one blow. They are expressed in militarily isolated events, not part of larger, continuous military operations. Such actions are more than raids or pinpricks: They aim to present the enemy with an accomplished fact, or "fait accompli"—a political/military achievement that simply cannot be undone. Coups d'états, for example, are usually designed as faits accomplis. The political and military objectives are the same thing: seizure of the existing mechanisms of government. For another example, one country may land troops in another for the purpose of evacuating its citizens from a deteriorating situation, as in the case of a revolution or civil war. Once the non-combatant evacuation has been accomplished, the cause for inter-state conflict is over. The intervening country has no further demands, and the country subject to the incursion has no way to regain the potential hostages or interest in continuing the external conflict.
As a very different example of a fait accompli strategy, in 1981 the Israelis became extremely concerned about Iraq's nuclear weapons development program. They therefore launched a bombing raid that destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility. This raid was technically part of an ongoing conflict, since Iraq maintained a legal state of war with Israel, but it was not really part of larger, continuous military operations. The Israelis had no further need to attack Iraqi targets, and Iraq had no military means of recovering the lost facility.
The fait accompli is often immensely attractive to political leaders because it seems neat and clean, "surgical," an act unto itself. However, many attempted faits accomplis end up becoming merely the opening gambit in a longer-term erosion strategy. The Japanese attempted a fait accompli in 1941 by simultaneously knocking out the U.S. Pacific Fleet and seizing what they called the "Southern Resources Area." Most of that area belonged to European colonial powers which, like Holland and France, were too distracted by their European problems to respond to Japanese aggressions in Asia. Only the United States could respond effectively. The Japanese intent was to create an accomplished fact which the United States, even after the recovery of the Pacific fleet, would be unable to reverse because the cost in American blood and money would be too steep. The Americans would simply have to accept a negotiated peace. The Japanese erred in overestimating the impregnability of the fortified barrier they constructed on conquered territory, and in underestimating the Americans' outrage, determination, and willingness to take casualties. Similarly, the Argentinians assumed in 1983 that their swift seizure of the nearby Falkland Islands could not be reversed by far-off, post-imperial Britain, and that therefore Britain would make no effort to do so. They were wrong on both counts.*55
The decision whether to pursue an erosion or annihilation strategy will drive the practical focus of our military actions, the effects we hope to achieve, and the relative weight we give to our military efforts as distinct from the use of other elements of our power.
Whatever we actually attack, our target in an erosion strategy is always the mind—the will—of the enemy leadership. If the practical aim of our erosive efforts is to wreak great hardship on the population at large, for instance, it is because we believe that popular distress will pose an internal political threat and thus force the enemy leaders to make a deal with us. In annihilation strategies, on the other hand, the leadership's psychology is of secondary importance. We are not interested in convincing enemy leaders of anything except their own helplessness. We aim to make them irrelevant.
The first category of targets in an erosion strategy is the same as in an annihilation strategy: the enemy's armed forces. We are betting that our enemy fears being disarmed because it will expose him to destruction either by ourselves or by some other foe (internal or external). If the enemy finds our threat to destroy his armed forces credible, and if he finds submission to our demands less painful than being left defenseless, he will submit.
For example, in 1995, the United States sought an end to the Bosnian War. Its policy aim was to force the three warring groups to negotiate an end to the war. The Muslims and Croats were convinced to comply with this aim through diplomatic means, but the Bosnian Serbs would not cooperate. The Serbs understood that the United States was reluctant to take casualties or to introduce American ground troops into the Bosnian War. They therefore felt free to defy the American demands. However, the Serbs themselves could not tolerate large losses in either personnel (which would threaten their tenuous political support at home) or equipment (which would make them vulnerable to the much larger but less well-equipped forces of their enemies). While it was neither practical nor politically acceptable to inflict large personnel losses on the Serbs, American airpower could substantially erode the Serbs' material advantages over their Muslim and Croat foes without requiring the commitment of any U.S. ground forces. Once the implications of the American-led NATO bombing campaign became clear to the Bosnian Serb leaders, they accepted the United States' demand for serious negotiations.
The Serbs' alternative was annihilation—not at the hands of the Americans, who were constrained from the use of overwhelming force by domestic political concerns, but at the hands of the other Bosnian forces. Thus the Americans were able to achieve their limited diplomatic aims at a low cost, using air power to inflict the necessary damage at minimum risk. Although the Bosnian crisis would continue, the air campaign had achieved its immediate aim.
On the other hand, we may seize some asset which the enemy needs or wants very badly, perhaps some piece of territory that is of critical economic or psychological value—e.g., a capital city or key seaport. Similarly, we may freeze the enemy's financial assets or blockade his trade. Again, if submission to our demands is less painful for enemy decision makers than continuing to do without the lost asset, then (logically) he will concede defeat.
A third possible target in erosion warfare is the enemy leadership's domestic political position. For example, we may direct money, arms, and information to internal opponents of the leadership. The traditional means of erosion—killing the enemy's fighting personnel and other people, and destroying his physical assets—may not be useful means to the end of undermining his domestic support. In practice, killing large numbers of the enemy population and destroying their property often has an opposite effect: It can make the masses identify more strongly with their own embattled leaders. If our goal is to bring pressure on the enemy leadership through their civilian population, it is vital that their suffering be made to appear the result of their own leaders' incompetence and lack of virtue, not simply of our attacks.
If the enemy's leaders are sensitive to the loss of life and property, the traditional approach may work directly to erode their will to resist. However, many leadership groups are not sensitive to this kind of pressure. The deaths and property losses of the masses may simply be irrelevant to leaders whose power is based on terror and the secret police rather than on popular support.
Remember, erosion strategies are based on our belief that the enemy would prefer to survive on our terms than to perish on his. Losing a military struggle is inherently dangerous to any political leadership, regardless of what the other side intends to do after its victory. Since our goal in an erosion strategy is to make the enemy give in, rather than to destroy him or make him helpless, we must understand his definition of survival and show him the way to safety. We must demonstrate to him that submitting to us will not expose him to destruction at the hands either of ourselves, his own people, or some third party. If the enemy interprets the choice we give him as being simply between two different ways to perish, our strategy will not accomplish its aims.
Choosing the targets that our strategy will engage requires consideration of two closely related but fundamentally distinct concepts. The first is the idea of a "center of gravity." The second is that of a "critical vulnerability."*56
"Center of gravity" is a term from Newtonian science, but it is used to describe a useful military concept.*57 In strategic terms, a center of gravity is, by definition, a key source of the enemy's strength, providing either his physical or his psychological capacity to fight effectively.*58 The utility of the concept is that it forces us to focus on what factors are most important about our particular enemy in this particular situation, and preferably to narrow our attention to just one key factor if that is possible. If we are thinking at the operational level, the center of gravity is almost inevitably an element of the enemy's fighting forces. However, this operational focus must not drive our overall strategy. At the strategic level, the range of possible centers of gravity is much wider.
One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.. For Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII, and Frederick the Great, the center of gravity was their army. If the army had been destroyed, they would all have gone down in history as failures. In countries subject to domestic strife, the center of gravity is generally the capital. In small countries that rely on large ones, it is usually the army of their protector. Among alliances, it lies in the community of interest, and in popular uprisings it is the personalities of the leaders and public opinion. It is against these that our energies should be directed. [Clausewitz, On War, pp.595-597]
Thus, even at the strategic level, we may still choose the enemy's fighting forces as the center of gravity. During World War II, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Air Force sought to destroy the German center of gravity. To the Army, this meant the German ground forces themselves. To the Air Force, it meant the industrial infrastructure which kept that enemy force supplied and equipped. Britain's Royal Air Force, on the other hand, saw the center of gravity in the morale of Germany's civilian population. In this particular case, the American focus on the physical ability to fight was appropriate. Nazi society was so cohesive that it was virtually immune to anything but raw force, and its military striking power so great it could not safely be ignored or contained while other means were used to undermine it. The civilian morale of either side, on the other hand, "proved an elusive target."
The result of being bombed out of one's house or seeing one's relatives or friends killed was as often as not anger and a desire to see the war through to its end rather than panic and collapse. Moreover, when morale did show signs of cracking, the modern state, whether democratic or totalitarian, proved capable of providing the necessary stiffening needed to bring things under control.*59
There are, however, other possible key sources of the enemy's strength. For example, it may flow from some particular population center—a region that is a key source of recruits, or a capital city. A capital city's importance may be practical, as an economic center, transportation hub, or command and control nexus, or it may be cultural. Modern France, for instance, has never been able to continue a struggle for long after the loss of Paris. Especially in the case of non-state political entities, the source of the enemy's motivation and cohesion may be a key individual or clique, or the public perception of the leadership's ideological purity.
As Clausewitz pointed out, the center of gravity of an alliance is the common interest that binds them. In the 1990-91 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein sought to break the unity of the U.S.-led coalition. His most obvious effort to do so involved efforts to bring Israel into the war. That, he hoped, would cause the Arab members of the coalition to change sides. The Iraqi dictator supplemented his propaganda campaign and diplomatic entreaties for Arab unity with missile attacks on Israel. This strategy failed, but it caused a great deal of anxiety within the coalition. Had it worked, the U.S. strategy would have been completely derailed.
Public support is always a center of gravity. No regime, democratic or despotic, can function without public support in some form. Public support can be maintained through open, democratic processes or through lies and fear. Liberal democracies often underrate the effectiveness of information control and the extent to which systematic terror can weld a society together. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, seldom understand the nature of free societies well enough to effectively manipulate their public opinion over any sustained period. Soviet attempts to do so almost always backfired eventually, as did Saddam Hussein's efforts during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. The North Vietnamese leadership, however, was able to make its case effectively during the war in Indochina and thus to deprive American forces of domestic political support.
In contrast to a center of gravity, a critical vulnerability is a key potential source of weakness. The concept is important because we normally wish to attack an enemy where we may do so with the least danger to ourselves, rather than exposing ourselves directly to his strength. To be critical, a vulnerability must meet two criteria: First, it must be something the capture, destruction, or exploitation of which will significantly undermine or destroy a key enemy strength (i.e., a center of gravity). Second, it must be something that we have (or can create) the means to capture, destroy, or exploit. If it fails to meet both of these requirements, it is not a key target.
If the center of gravity is the enemy army, for instance, the critical vulnerability may lie in some aspect of the organization or its supporting infrastructure that is both key to the army's functioning and open to attack via the means at our disposal. In World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force sought to focus on the German armed forces' critical vulnerabilities by zeroing in on the Germans' petroleum industry, their ball bearing supplies, their aircraft production facilities, and the transportation infrastructure.*60 In the war against the drug trade, the centers of gravity can be variously identified as the trade's profitability, the large supply of raw materials, and high customer demand for the product. In seeking critical vulnerabilities, we variously focus on money laundering, crop production, processing centers, transportation bottlenecks, and customer demand—against which we employ, as appropriate, economic, diplomatic, military, or psychological elements of our power. In the post-Gulf War campaign to contain Iraq, the United States identified Iraq's financial strength as a center of gravity and treated the oil trade as a critical vulnerability, employing both military blockade and diplomatic and economic power to stifle it.
Thus the center of gravity and the critical vulnerability are conceptually distinct but in practice inextricably linked. The two concepts must be employed together to be useful. Matching the correct tool to the right target is vital. If we use a weapon simply because we have it, against a target chosen simply because it is convenient, we are in all likelihood wasting our time and resources and possibly increasing the enemy's confidence and cohesion. If he is capable, he will take the time we are giving him to attack our critical vulnerabilities.
We can usually distinguish the political and military objectives of any individual belligerent in a war as limited or high-end. It is much more difficult to do so with the war as a whole. All wars have at least two protagonists, usually more, and it is seldom that we can accurately characterize the war in toto as limited or otherwise.*61 Attempting to do so may, in fact, leave us seriously confused about the actual dynamics of a conflict. It is useful, however, to systematically categorize the various characteristics of each participant's war aims and compare them. It is from the interrelationships of the protagonists' objectives that the overall shape of any particular conflict derives.
Take for example the Korean war of 1950-53, usually considered a "limited war." In fact, this conflict consisted of several different struggles, some nested one within another, some sequential.
The war began as a North Korean attack on the South in June 1950. The political objective of this attack was unlimited, the total conquest and absorption of the Republic of Korea. The military strategy was also unlimited, annihilation of the ROK Army. The North Korean leadership assumed that the United States either would not get involved or would do so too late to have an impact.
South Korea, too, had political and military objectives. Although the South might well have liked to conquer the North, this was in fact beyond its capabilities. Therefore the South's political objective was the limited one of survival, and its military strategy one of erosion. When the tide turned, however, the South would encourage a military strategy of annihilation and pursue the unlimited political goal of absorbing the North.
For the United States, Korea was merely part of a much larger political—and potentially military—conflict: the Cold War between the Western democracies and the Communist bloc. For political reasons that often had little to do with Korea, various allies provided military contingents. They felt obliged to support the U.S. in Korea in return for U.S. assistance elsewhere. The Americans gladly accepted these forces for similar reasons—as a show of allied unity, which strengthened the U.S. position in other areas of potential conflict. The initial American objectives in South Korea were defensive and erosive. However, the American military riposte, when it came, had a certain annihilative quality. The North Korean army was effectively destroyed in the wake of the Inchon landing of September, 1950. The Americans' political objective momentarily followed suit, envisioning the complete conquest and absorption of the North. Massive Chinese intervention soon caused a reversion to the original limited aim of preserving South Korea.
China's practical political aim in the Korean conflict was limited to the preservation of North Korea as a buffer. While the Chinese Communists may have entertained hopes that Korea could become the spark for a sweeping world revolution, in practice China had no hope of annihilating Western military power even on the Korean peninsula, much less on a wider basis. The Chinese had no effective means of enlarging the war without the Soviet Union's concurrence and active participation, but the Soviets wished to keep the war confined to Korea.
Once the Chinese drive south was halted and the outlines of the new situation stabilized, the conflict became a war of erosion with limited political goals all around. A de facto peace was reestablished, although both Koreas continued to pursue the unlimited political goal of reunification, each side on its own terms.
Because of the mix of political and military objectives among the participants, to generalize the whole Korean war as "limited" or as one of erosion is not really useful. It is, in fact, seriously misleading.
Similarly, if we analyze the conflicting aims of the belligerents in the Vietnam War, we can see that this was never a "limited war" from either the North or South Vietnamese perspective. The North's goal was the complete elimination of South Vietnam as a political entity. Like the Union in the American Civil War, the Northern leadership saw victory in this struggle as a matter of survival—for their regime, their particular ideology, and possibly for their ethnic nation as well. The South Vietnamese leadership was weak, enjoyed little legitimacy with the southern population, and had no hope of conquering the North. The American strategy against the North was one of erosion. However, the United States was never able to convince North Vietnam that peace on America's terms was preferable to continuing the war. The United States never posed a lethal threat to the North Vietnamese leadership and was never the ultimate target of their efforts. The Americans were never more than one of a series of obstacles in the way of ultimate victory.
One common misunderstanding of the concept of limited war is the assumption that limited wars are small wars. This confuses the scale of a war with its military and political objectives. Large-scale military operations can be quite limited in either political or military objective, or both, as was the case with American conduct of the 1991 Gulf War. Some small wars, on the other hand, can have quite extreme political and military objectives. Similarly, there is a tendency to confuse ends (objectives) with means (the methods used). The 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, for example, is often incorrectly called a "limited war" because casualties were light on both sides and the United States did not use every means at its disposal (e.g., nuclear weapons). While the invasion of Panama was a very small war fought with tightly limited forces and rules of engagement (ROE), both its military and political objectives were high-end: Panama's capacity to resist was annihilated, its regime was deposed, its leader was put on public trial and imprisoned, and a new government was installed. To minimize this kind of confusion, it is often wise to use the fuller but unwieldy phrase, "war of limited objectives."
In the case of Panama, had the United States attempted to pursue more limited military objectives, the result might have been a war of attrition much more destructive to both sides. Nonetheless, there are always temptations to limit the military means employed even when the political objectives demand a strategy of annihilation. These temptations flow from inevitably competing demands for resources—the military forces required for a reliable strategy of annihilation are expensive to raise, maintain, and employ, and we have to worry about more than one contingency. Such temptations also stem from the enormous psychological and moral burdens involved in resorting to the use of force. The urge to use limited military force may reflect as well a tendency to underestimate the enemy or the overall problem. This underestimation may be genuine in the minds of the leadership itself, or it may be dishonest, rooted in a desire to minimize popular concern.
This reluctance to match the necessary means even to powerfully desired ends is a central problem in the strategic process. As Clausewitz put it, "A short jump is certainly easier than a long one, but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping half-way."*62
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Six More Sets of Strategic Opposites
Grand strategy must always remember that peace follows war.
—B.H. Liddell Hart
It is crucial to distinguish between erosion strategies and those aimed at disarming the foe through incapacitation or annihilation of his military power. And it is necessary to understand who is pursuing which goal and why. There are, however, a great many other dimensions to any strategic situation. The dynamics of a struggle are affected not only by the differing political and military goals of the antagonists but by similarities and differences in their character, the kinds of forces they employ, the techniques they use, and the ways they see—and are seen by—the world. In making our strategic assessment, such factors are usually far more important than any simple "bean-count" of troops and equipment.
In this chapter, therefore, we will examine six other sets of opposites that are useful in analyzing the nature of any specific strategic problem:
- Defensive and Offensive Strategies
- Strategy by Intent or by Default
- Iterative or Tailored Strategies
- Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Strategies
- Deterrence: Strategies of Reprisal or Denial
- What is Necessary and What is Just
Generally, the distinctions between one pair are unrelated to the distinctions between another pair. For example, whether a strategy is symmetrical or asymmetrical has little bearing on whether it is annihilative or erosive. Not every pair of concepts will be useful in analyzing any particular conflict. Nonetheless, a grasp of these concepts will aid us in formulating the questions we must ask as we pursue a useful understanding of the specific problem before us.
The strategic attacker is the side seeking to add to its relative power. It usually is the side that initiates a war, although defenders sometimes launch preemptive attacks (and attackers nearly always claim to be defenders doing so). The attacker may be seeking to overthrow the balance of power system and establish hegemony, or it may simply want an upward adjustment in its relative position. This distinction will affect the kinds of strategies both sides will pursue and the intensity of the struggle.
The strategic defender is the side that wants to keep what it has or to maintain its relative position in a balance of power system. In many important respects, the defense is inherently the stronger form of war. This innate superiority of the strategic defense reflects human psychology and the balance of power mechanism, as well as the forces of friction and inertia. Within the entities at war, people are naturally willing to endure great sacrifices in defense of their homes and homelands, but much less willing to endure such sacrifices in military adventures abroad. Within the larger community, the attacker causes fear. Fear leads to hostility even on the part of those who are not attacked, who therefore tend to aid the defender.*63 Thus the balance of power mechanism tends to support the existing balance of power and to resist challenges to it. Friction and inertia are naturally on the side of the defender: It is inherently easier to hold onto something than to take it away from someone else.
These political and psychological strengths of the defense are present in all wars, even those in which, as in some internal wars, territorial gains and losses are not a factor. The strength of the defense is reinforced at the operational level in wars fought over any expanse of territory. The attacker is normally moving away from his base of supply and the center of his political power, while the defender is falling back on his.
Note, of course, that this superiority of the defense is not an absolute. Obviously, a defender with few resources and poor leadership is not stronger than an attacker with vastly greater resources and good leadership. The point is that, all other things being equal (which they never are), the defender has the advantage.
Note also that the superior strength of the defense is inherent only at the strategic and operational levels. At the tactical level, the picture is more mixed. In battle, both sides usually take a mixture of offensive and defensive actions. Historically the tactical defense has usually been the stronger form, but there have been times when tactical, technological, organizational, or social innovations have temporarily shifted the balance towards the tactical offense. Most "military revolutions" are rooted in such a development. All such military innovations are eventually countered, usually sooner rather than later.*64
At the tactical and operational levels, the roles of attacker and defender may frequently change hands or even be shared more or less evenly. At the strategic level, however, the roles tend to be fixed throughout any given conflict. In World War II, for instance, the Western allies still held the advantages of the strategic defense even as their armies marched into Germany. They were perceived as being restorers of the balance of power rather than as threats to it. Thus it is very important to place the war-guilt on the enemy. This is easiest if he can be made or allowed to attack first (and, of course, it helps if he really is the strategic aggressor). One of Lincoln's greatest strategic achievements was to maneuver the Confederacy into firing the first shot. This did a lot at the political and strategic level to counterbalance the defensive strengths the South enjoyed operationally and tactically. It strengthened the North's sense of righteousness and greatly lessened the likelihood of foreign intervention on the South's behalf. In the case of the Franco-Prussian War, it was the French government, goaded by an irresponsibly nationalistic French press, who actually launched the war. Politically, this was an unwise move, nullifying the fact that it was Prussia who sought to radically reshape the European balance of power. In Vietnam, the United States was never able to effectively place the war-guilt on the Communists, even though it claimed to be defending an independent South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese state never had sufficient legitimacy, and it was hard to convince either the Vietnamese, the world audience, or even many Americans that the United States had any legitimate interests to defend in Indochina.
In some situations, however, the roles of strategic attacker and defender can change hands. When war is endemic in a society, when the origins of the conflict are poorly remembered, and when the war-guilt has come to be equally shared, the advantages of the original defender tend to be lost. In such a case, the balance of power mechanism will tend to support the current defender and oppose whichever contender seems momentarily to have the initiative. Still, the inherent advantage belongs to the defense. Only if one participant gains an overwhelming advantage will this cease to be true. In that case, the balance of power system has been destroyed. We have gone over to a case of "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em." At that point, the defender is left only with the operational advantages of the defense and those, if any, that technology and technique give to defense at the tactical level.
Not all strategies are the product of conscious thought—after all, viruses have strategies (often very successful ones that handily defeat our own conscious efforts). Warfare is driven by politics at every level, and rational calculation is only one of many factors in politics. And as a practical matter, most of the elements of any given strategy are predetermined by choices made long before the present conflict. Strategies by intent are those developed primarily through the rational consideration of options and their likely implications. Strategies by default, on the other hand, are those determined primarily by ideologies or by unconscious assumptions and prejudices that prevent strategists from considering all of their options in what we would consider a fully rational manner—they are driven by what we are rather than by what we think. While conceptually distinct, the two are rarely mutually exclusive; most strategies involve elements of both intent and default. Therefore, the first question we must ask when confronted with a strategic problem is often not "What should we do?" but rather "What are we doing?"
One example is the Nazi strategy against the Soviet Union during World War II. Even though Nazi ideology called for the enslavement or extermination of allegedly inferior races like the Slavic Russians, a fully rational strategy would have treated the Soviet peoples considerately until the Soviet state and its armed forces had been destroyed. No sensible soldier wants to have a hostile population in his rear. A misleadingly friendly temporary policy might well have worked, since millions of Soviet citizens at first welcomed the invading Germans as liberators from Stalin and Communism. Their attitude changed quickly as the brutality of the German occupation both stiffened the resistance of the Soviet armies and created a powerful partisan guerrilla movement behind German lines. In addition, the Germans wasted vast logistical resources on their genocidal campaigns. Railroads that could have hauled food, equipment, and winter clothing to struggling German troops were diverted to transport millions of victims to the death camps. These policies appear now to have been not only criminal but also stupid. And yet, the German leadership included many intelligent men. We can only conclude that the source of these ultimately suicidal German policies lay in political and ideological attitudes that blinded the German leadership to the alternatives available, or otherwise somehow precluded other choices.
Our point is that there are limits to intellectualizing about war, limits to how clever we can be. Consider the outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptians launched the war with a truly impressive offensive, achieving tactical surprise and handing the Israelis an unaccustomed setback. The Israelis rallied, and in a hard-fought campaign managed to encircle major Egyptian elements. Diplomatic pressures from outside powers, however, forced an armistice on the combatants. Thus the fighting ended before Israel could crush the Egyptian forces and once again humiliate the Arab world. Ironically, the fine Egyptian performance and interruption of the Israeli counteroffensive led to the achievement of one of Israel's greatest strategic objectives: A genuine peace settlement with Egypt. With their national pride restored, the Egyptians—led by a man of great moral stature, Anwar Sadat—were at last able to conclude a treaty despite the opposition of much of the remaining Arab world. This outcome could not, in all probability, have been achieved through any strategy that an Israeli government would have consciously considered.
For similar reasons, dictatorships have difficulty waging coalition warfare. However sensible it might be to cooperate with similar entities to overthrow the balance of power, dictatorships by their very nature demand that decisions be made unilaterally. They attempt to treat potential allies as servants, subordinating others' interests completely to their own. Theocratic states, which find their justification for existence in the alleged demands of God, have similar difficulties in compromising.
Liberal democracies, which are cooperative, compromising, balance-of-power entities internally, are much more likely than dictatorships or theocracies to demonstrate these same characteristics in their external relationships—and to attempt to treat very different kinds of political entities as if they shared those values.
What we have described are, of course, only tendencies. Insightful and strong-willed leaders occasionally overcome such tendencies. Strategic analysts therefore must seek to understand which elements of their own and the enemy's strategies are fixed by nature and which are subject to conscious change. A policy which seeks merely to convince the enemy to change his behavior (which is the case in most erosion strategies) will fail if he is incapable of change. A strategic concept that requires us to behave in a manner contrary to our nature has little likelihood of success, unless we are prepared to change our own character in the process.
Usually, when we talk about the conscious formulation of a particular strategy, we are talking about a specific method of using specific means to reach specific ends. This is a strategy "tailored" to deal with a particular problem. Our means are finely adapted to fit our ends, and vice versa. Because such strategies are by nature unique, there is little to be gained from discussing them in general other than noting them as a category.
There are large classes of problems, however, which do not lend themselves to such tailoring. These problems usually fall into one or both of two categories:
1. We lack the time to tailor a unique response to a specific problem. This can be the case in rapidly unfolding strategic problems, or in cases where we are for some other reason (including stupidity or simple stubbornness) unwilling or unable to adapt.
2. We lack the specific knowledge we need in order to craft a unique strategy in response to a specific situation, but we recognize the problem (or think we do) as being of a certain, familiar kind.
In either case, we are left with little option but to go with an existing strategy (an existing set of means and ends), whether or not it is truly appropriate to the specific problem.
If we run into certain types of problem often enough, we will develop reflexes—standard operating procedures (SOPs), or simply strategic habits and patterns—that are generally appropriate to that class of problem. Experience tells us they will work more often than not. We build bureaucracies to maintain and administer these "iterative" strategies. In general, the purpose of iterative strategies is not to maximize success in every particular case, but rather to maximize our success on the average and over the long run.*65 In many cases, however, iterative strategies are designed not so much to solve a class of problem as to reliably gain us time to find an appropriate, more specific solution.
Iterative strategies are not fixed: They can be changed and improved, usually on the basis of experience. Learning by experience in war, however, is highly dependent on the famous "OODA Loop," the iterative cycle of Observing, Orienting, Deciding, and Acting. The OODA loop was first developed to describe the process of air-to-air combat, but obviously applies to any interactive competition. Each party to a conflict first observes the situation. On the basis of the observation, he orients; that is, he makes an estimate of the situation. On the basis of the orientation, he makes a decision. Then he implements the decision—he acts. Because his action has created a new situation, the process begins anew. The party that consistently completes the cycle faster gains an advantage that increases with each cycle. His enemy's reactions become increasingly slower by comparison and therefore less effective until, finally, he is overcome by events.*66
Ironically, strategic-level decision makers, who usually function at a higher intellectual level of problem solving than tactical thinkers, benefit much less than tacticians from the OODA process. Because strategic decisions take longer to play out, there are fewer (if any) cycles in an individual war, thus less opportunity to rebound from an error or from falling behind in the cycle. It is thus much more difficult to recover from a fundamental strategic error than from a tactical mistake. For this reason, strategists must heavily supplement their own personal experiences by developing a deep understanding of history and of the political process to guide their actions.
Even though iterative strategies are more obvious at the tactical level, political entities do develop iterative strategies at the political/strategic level. These generally find expression, not within a single war, but over the course of many wars. Such a strategy's immediate payoff in any particular case may be less than completely satisfying, but it can offer great advantages over the long term. These strategies build a certain reputation, which may strongly influence the behavior of friends, foes, and neutrals. As a hypothetical example, an entity that habitually exterminates it enemies might find itself challenged infrequently. When war does occur, however, such an entity would encounter maximum resistance and hostility.
The ancient Roman Republic offers a different example. The Romans occasionally destroyed an enemy completely. Their usual practice, however, was to punish only the enemy leadership, then to turn the defeated state into an honored (but clearly subordinate) ally. These allies enjoyed a great deal of internal autonomy and their ruling classes were given a genuine role as citizens in the Roman state itself. The Romans also developed a reputation for inexorably pursuing ultimate victory in spite of any setback, no matter how severe. As a result of this combination of Roman characteristics, Rome's former-enemies-turned-allies typically remained faithful to Rome even in the face of catastrophic Roman defeats.
The United States pursues similar iterative strategies in its conduct of war. Such strategies include decent treatment of prisoners, adherence to rigid Rules of Engagement (ROEs) and strict observance of the international laws of warfare, respect for the independence of allies, relatively mild occupation policies, and the generous and systematic reconstruction of conquered states (as well as a persistent economic isolation of enemies we have failed to subdue). These policies often run counter to the emotions stirred by violence but are consistent with American moral precepts. They also reflect a recognition that wars end and that we then have to live with the survivors—Human societies are far more tolerant of massive destruction and bloodshed in battle than they are of ill treatment afterwards. Further, as a practical matter, these policies make it more difficult for our enemies to create and sustain firm popular resistance to American power and influence. They make it easier for other states to serve as American allies and help to minimize the impact of the "culminating point of victory" and other balance-of-power concerns. Combined with the American reputation for overwhelming firepower and a demonstrated willingness to use it in war, such policies have contributed greatly to America's strategic success.
Strategies can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. That is, the contending powers may pursue mirror-image ends and rely on similar means, or pursue quite different kinds of goals and/or apply dissimilar means.*67
A symmetrical military strategy is one that attempts to match—or rather, to overmatch—the enemy strength for strength, to beat him on his own terms. An asymmetrical strategy is one that attempts to apply one category of means against another category, to utilize some means to which the enemy cannot effectively respond in kind. In Vietnam, for instance, the United States sought to destroy the North Vietnamese will to fight using the effects of firepower. The Vietnamese Communists sought to undermine the American will to fight using, among other things, photographs of the effects of U.S. firepower.
In practice, all wars contain asymmetrical elements, if only because of the fundamental asymmetries between offense and defense. These may result in very different strategies even if both sides rely on very similar means. Consider the motivational difference between long war and short war strategies. Sun Tzu tells us, correctly, that "there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited."*68 However, neither has anybody ever benefited from a quick defeat. Thus strategic attackers, who normally are already prepared for war, typically seek short wars. Defenders, who may not initially be so well prepared, typically seek longer ones.
Many wars are fought between very different kinds of entities and are thus profoundly asymmetrical in character. For example, a terrorist organization may wage war against a government or even against the international system as a whole. A conventional military force would like nothing better than for the terrorist organization to act symmetrically and resort to open battle—in which the outnumbered and outgunned terrorists will likely be slaughtered. On the other hand, the terrorists may also seek to provoke a symmetrical response: The purpose of many terrorist attacks is to provoke governments into actions that antagonize ordinary citizens, such as restrictive security measures or even reprisals in kind. Unable to identify a specific enemy and distrusting the local population, repressive governments or poorly led police and military forces may fall into this trap, launching attacks on the population at large. Because of the fundamentally different natures of the adversaries, however, the political effects of these similar actions are dramatically different. People expect a revolutionary movement to use terror, a traditional weapon of the weak. They do not expect to be the targets of terror tactics from a legitimate government. If it falls into the terrorists' trap, however, the government's error does not lie simply in the fact that its strategy is symmetrical. Rather, its error lies in its failure to take into account this underlying political asymmetry. After all, a very quiet campaign of carefully targeted assassination, aimed at terrorizing the terrorists and their financial supporters, might be quite effective even though it is also essentially a symmetrical response. The latter strategy may have flaws of its own, depending on the political situation and the capabilities and trustworthiness of the state's intelligence and internal security organizations, but it does not inherently destroy the legitimacy of the state.
Most real-world strategies are a mixture of symmetrical and asymmetrical elements, and it is often difficult to determine the overall balance between them. Thus any discussion of symmetry or asymmetry in war is a matter of degree as well as kind. The usefulness of the concept is that it helps us analyze the dynamics of a struggle. For example, the American strategy of containment during the Cold War always involved strong elements of both symmetry and asymmetry. From a military standpoint, Eisenhower's "massive retaliation" policy was fundamentally an asymmetrical strategy of deterrence by reprisal: The United States would reply to Soviet aggression "by means and at places of our own choosing."*69 This was generally interpreted to mean a U.S. nuclear response to Soviet conventional provocations. Overall, however, Eisenhower's strategy was broadly similar to the Soviet Union's in that both relied primarily on creating fear and on bluff rather than on the open use of actual military force. Both sides regarded open warfare as too dangerous. The Kennedy administration's subsequent "flexible response" strategy was militarily a symmetrical strategy of matching the Soviets strength for strength. However, it also took advantage of economic and political asymmetries. The Reagan administration's strategy was yet a different mixture. Reagan sought to overmatch the Soviets on all fronts, military, economic, diplomatic, and psychological. He also turned the Soviet strategy of supporting "wars of liberation" against the USSR itself. The individual struggles to which these various means were applied, however, in places like Afghanistan, Central America, and Poland, were each unique and highly asymmetrical. Thus, even though it was symmetrical in many respects, ultimately the Reagan strategy depended on applying the fundamentally different characteristics of the liberal democratic, capitalist West against the deteriorating totalitarianism and socialism of the Soviet Bloc.
The interplay between symmetrical and asymmetrical elements in any particular struggle is always unique and covers the whole range of human possibilities. In the post-World War II struggle for Indian independence, for example, British military power was overthrown by the most asymmetrical approach imaginable: Gandhi's relentless campaign of non-violence. This technique would probably not have been effective, however, against an occupier with different moral sensibilities.
Unfortunately, self-consciously asymmetrical strategies often come down to erroneous beliefs about our enemy, or even an arrogant assumption that he is stupid or cowardly. The early advocates of strategic bombing, for instance, argued that airpower would provide a weapon against which the enemy, stuck with an obsolete doctrine emphasizing ground warfare, could not respond effectively. Enemy societies would panic and collapse into revolution when bombs began to fall on their cities.*70 This flew in the face of a great deal of historical experience with civilian populations under siege. It also ignored the likelihood that the enemy would build his own air fleets and find effective defenses, active and passive, against the air threat. Sometimes, of course, there is solid reason to make assumptions about the enemy's behavior, and it would be foolish to ignore the opportunities an incompetent or unprepared enemy provides. Napoleon often counted successfully on slowness, unprofessional staff work, and inter-allied dissension among his enemies; his error was in not adjusting his behavior when they began to demonstrate improvement. The Americans have been much criticized for acting as if the dispirited, war-weary, and poorly motivated Iraqi army of 1990 would fight with the skill and determination shown by the Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s and 1970s. Our expectations of enemy behavior must, however, be based on real evidence regarding that specific enemy, not on generalized abstractions based on wishful thinking.
Although the asymmetrical approach may seem inherently more elegant and sophisticated, in practice there is no innate advantage or disadvantage to either category of strategy. The choice is dependent on the situation and on the constraints of time and creativity. A warfighting strategy must take into account the inherent similarities and differences between the opponents, and—when necessary or advantageous—seek to create new ones. The effective strategist is not biased in favor of either approach, but is keenly aware of both and of the interplay between them.
Deterrence means dissuading an enemy from an action by means of some countervailing threat. Military deterrent strategies use the threat of force for political ends, and thus may not technically be warfighting strategies. Deterrence can be aimed either at preventing war in the first place or at preventing certain actions or practices in the actual conduct of warfare.
There are essentially only two methods of deterrence: denial and reprisal. To deter by denial means preventing an enemy's action by convincing him that his action will fail. Conceptually, this is a symmetrical approach, although the actual means of denial may be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. For example, a state may deter conventional invasion by maintaining sufficiently credible forces to defend its borders. It may deter the use of poison gas by training and equipping its forces and population to function effectively in a chemical warfare environment. Terrorists may be deterred from attacks on airports by tight security.
The second approach, reprisal, is conceptually asymmetrical. We may concede to the enemy that he is capable of taking what he wants from us, but seek to convince him that his prize will not be worth the price he will pay for it. For example, a state weak in conventional forces may seek to deter enemy occupation by credibly preparing to wage a long, painful, "bleeding ulcer"-style guerrilla war of resistance. Conventional invasion might also be deterred asymmetrically through the threat of nuclear retaliation.*71 We may deter interference with a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) by threatening to give aid to the foes of any party who opposes us.
There are overlaps between denial and reprisal. For example, tight airport security may deter terrorists by convincing them either that their efforts will fail (denial) or that they will be caught and punished (reprisal). A demonstrated capability to wage chemical warfare may deter a gas attack both by denying the enemy an advantage and through the threat to reply in kind. The same is true of the ability to deter a nuclear first-strike by maintaining a believable second-strike capability.
As these examples indicate, in practice denial and reprisal are often more effective deterrents if they are applied in tandem. The ability of one side to deny its enemy victory cannot always be absolutely convincing, especially if the other side is inclined to take risks. Deterrence by denial also implies a certain passivity: An enemy may be willing to test our defenses if he believes that failure carries no further penalty. On the other hand, deterrence by reprisal has its own weaknesses. Our retaliation, even if we carry it off successfully, may come too late to spare ourselves a great deal of pain. Reprisal may also be difficult to defend on moral grounds.
It is difficult to provide unambiguous historical examples of successful deterrence strategies. This is because, like preventive medicine, we can rarely be sure what would have happened had we not taken the measures we did. The potential aggressor is not likely to acknowledge that he was deterred; rather, he and his sympathizers will insist that our efforts were wasted because he planned no aggression in the first place.
RECONCILING WHAT IS NECESSARY WITH WHAT IS JUST*72
Peoples demand two things of their leaders' military strategies. First is success, which offers a population security as evidence that its leadership has the strength and competence to do what is necessary. Second is a sense of being in the right, that the cause for which the people are called to sacrifice is a just one. To achieve either one without the other calls the leadership's legitimacy into question. Thus this set of opposites differs from the other six we have considered in that, however mixed the opposites might become in practice, we can at least envision a strategy that is purely annihilative or erosive, or one that is clearly symmetrical or asymmetrical. That is not the case here: No resort to war can be just that is not necessary.
With respect to the importance of maintaining moral superiority, consider the vast—and vastly expensive—propaganda efforts made by totalitarian dictatorships. They seek to convince both their subject populations and world opinion of the justice of their cause—a justice they may define in class, cultural, religious, or racial terms. They would not make such efforts if morality was not an important consideration in maintaining domestic support even in their "controlled" societies; it is simply easier to sustain a false illusion of justice in a controlled society than it is in a free one. The moral ascendancy of the United States, which it defines in terms of individual human rights, is its greatest source of power in the world. The perceived immorality of America's use of military power in Vietnam—the enduring images of little Vietnamese girls on fire from U.S. napalm bombing—did tremendous damage to American influence. Even in American eyes, it completely overshadowed the fact that American forces could not be defeated on the battlefield.
These two powerful concerns, a practical desire for success and a psychological need for a just cause, are often indistinguishable and mutually reinforcing in their political effects. Was the fatal blow to Soviet self-confidence a result of the Afghan defeat itself, with its relatively low casualties compared to previous Soviet wars? Or was it the realization that other peoples really were not interested in being liberated, Soviet-style, as the USSR's leadership had proclaimed?
The Theory of the "Just War"*73
Politics, as we pointed out earlier, always reflects a combination of rational calculation, irrational or emotional forces, and chance. The decision to wage war is such an important one that it must be undertaken with the most careful calculation of the odds and probabilities. Yet it must also take into account human emotions, particularly the human desires for both success and justice. Strategists therefore must reconcile what is "just" with what is "necessary." No mere calculation of material factors can determine our decision. On the other hand, neither can any form of moralistic handwringing—whether it be of the kind that sends us off on senseless crusades or the kind that tells us that violence can never be justified.
There is, however, a set of criteria that can help us reconcile practical and moral considerations in the decision to wage war. These are the concepts of "Just War" theory. The Just War tradition has been developed over a period of many centuries and—properly approached—constitutes a hard-nosed and sensible basis for the pursuit of a political entity's legitimate interests.
The effective strategist should understand the Just War concept and use it, not only as a basis for analysis but as a practical tool for winning and keeping public support. The justice of our cause is itself a weapon in our hands.
Just War theory has two components, labeled in Latin jus ad bellum (literally, rightness or justice in going to war) and jus in bello (rightness or justice in the conduct of war). In this chapter, we are concerned with the former. [Note that these are not legal terms and that Just War theory does not have the force of law. The international law of war has similar origins but differs in significant ways.] There are seven jus ad bellum criteria.
1. Just Cause. A just cause involves the protection and preservation of value. There is a triad of such causes: defense of self or of others against attack, retaking of something wrongly taken by force, and punishment of concrete wrongs done by an evil power. This is a much more flexible set of causes than mere self-defense. For example, it permits the liberation by others of a state seized in its entirety by an aggressor, where "self" defense has been made impossible. Just causes do not, however, include "holy wars" or the forcible imposition of an ideology or moral code as a good in itself—even though both the Christian and Muslim traditions, for example, contain the concept of holy war (crusade and jihad).
2. Right Authority. The person or body authorizing the war must be a responsible representative of a sovereign political entity. This constraint was developed to delegitimize private wars, feuds, and simple criminality. It would seem to limit the legitimate waging of war to sovereign states, which claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Other entities may declare themselves sovereign, however, for there is an inherent "right of revolution" against oppressive authority. What is crucial is that the group authorizing war legitimately represent the interests of some larger population than themselves. Note, therefore, that right authority can be claimed—rightly or wrongly, sincerely or cynically—even by terrorist groups.
3. Right Intention. The intent in waging war must truly accord with the just cause and not be, in fact, territorial aggrandizement or another selfish aim.
4. Proportionality of Ends. The overall good achieved by the resort to war must not be outweighed by the harm it produces. We cannot "destroy the village in order to save it." This does not mean that an aggressor must be left in possession of the village because to retake it would be to destroy it. It means that we must think through and accurately define our true ends—in this case, not the rescue of the village but the punishment of wrongdoing, the deterrence of further aggression, and possibly the destruction of the aggressor. The true cost of not recovering the village, or its ruins, is the damage we will suffer in the future because of our lack of resoluteness in defending ourselves or our allies.
5. Last Resort. No other means of settling the matter in question will work. This does not mean that all other possible means of conflict resolution must actually be tried and found to fail before we resort to violence. Rather, we must show that there is no logical alternative to violence. If further negotiations will simply give the enemy time to profit by his aggression and to strengthen his position, and his behavior gives no reason to think he will willingly give up his illegitimate gains, this Just War criterion has been satisfied. Delay will simply increase the costs to us of our eventual, inevitable resort to warfare.
This criterion provides us (and our enemies) with a great deal of flexibility. It can even justify preventive war, in the sense of preempting an attack that is actually being prepared but has not yet been launched.
6. Reasonable Hope of Success. There can be neither moral nor strategic justification for resorting to war when there is no hope of success, except in the purest and most extreme cases of self-preservation. Satisfying this element of Just War thinking requires a dispassionate assessment of the political-military odds, probabilities, and possibilities.
7. The Aim of Peace. Beyond the fulfillment of the fundamental just cause, the ends for which a war is fought must include the establishment of stability and peace.
There are many practical reasons why strategists must understand the criteria of Just War theory: First, they provide practical, objective measures by which to judge our own strategy. Why, after all, would any sensible strategist wish to enter a war with no reasonable prospect of success, nor the expectation of an outcome better than the present situation? Why would we wish to wage a war which will cost more than it is worth? Why should we fight for something of no true value, and how can we let ourselves be led into war by leaders with no legitimate authority to do so?*74
The effective strategist must be prepared to demonstrate to all sides why his cause meets the criteria of Just War theory and why his enemies' do not. It is necessary to put this explanation in terms that are meaningful within both our own frame of reference and that of significant third parties. It may also be profitable to frame it in terms that make sense to our enemies, or at least to significant parts of their populations.
Our attitudes about justice in war are, however, often contradictory. We want to believe in the ethical correctness of our cause. At the same time, we tend to suspect that moral issues are a smokescreen, raised only as a way of preventing us from doing what is necessary. It is certainly true that our enemies and their sympathizers will use moral arguments against us, and such attacks can have great impact. For that reason if no other, we must understand the key issues on which debates about the morality of war must turn. Putting together a Just War rationale for our military actions is a job for political leaders, not the military. Military leaders must nonetheless be prepared to ask the political leadership to provide such a rationale. Military leaders and spokesmen must also be ready to use the Just War concepts aggressively and to adhere firmly to the international law of war in warding off enemy propaganda and allaying the moral concerns of our own people. For example, the enemy may emplace crucial weapons systems in his own population's residential areas in hopes of paralyzing our efforts to destroy them.*75 In such a case, we cannot count on the public's instant comprehension of the justice of our actions, when to lose the propaganda war may be to lose the war itself. We must actively place the responsibility for any resulting civilian casualties on the enemy leadership, as both the law and Just War theory require.
If we cannot assemble an honest, effective argument on the basis of the Just War criteria, then it is likely that both our cause and our strategy are fatally flawed.
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THE MAKING OF STRATEGY
Modern warfare resembles a spider's web: everything connects, longitudinally or laterally, to everything else; there are no "independent strategies," no watertight compartments, nor can there be.
Having considered the nature of the environment within which strategy is made, its fundamental goals (survival and victory), and a taxonomy for identifying the character of any specific military problem or strategy, it is time to consider the way strategy is actually made.
Despite all that we have said about the nature of politics and policy, people generally think of strategy making as a conscious, "rational" process—the purposeful interrelating of ends and means. In fact, a belligerent's overall political-military strategy is very seldom made in a rational way. Pieces of the overall strategy may be very carefully crafted, but it is very difficult to fully integrate all the relevant components of policy. Germany's World War I Schlieffen Plan, for example, was worked out rationally and in great detail, but it was a purely military strategy that did not take into account the other elements of the political struggle—and thereby guaranteed that operational failure would be strategically disastrous. Most war efforts are strongly shaped by what we have called "strategies by default" and by habitual iterative strategies that may or may not be appropriate to the problem at hand. Many military strategies are the result of internal political and bureaucratic compromises which, while they may bring domestic peace or consensus, are poorly adapted to the external threat.
Furthermore, most military strategies fail. To continue with the example of the thoroughly prepared Schlieffen Plan, consider that it failed at the purely operational level, well before the full impact of its political and economic inadequacies could be felt. If we consider that every war has, in theory, a winner and a loser, then warfighting strategy by definition has at least a 50% failure rate. In fact, the failure rate is far higher than that, because the opponents usually go through several strategies before one of them hits on a successful approach. Often, no successful strategy is found and the war ends in a draw. Even when a military victory is achieved, it does not always accomplish the political aim sought.
There are many reasons for this poor track record. These reasons lie not in the incompetence of strategy makers—although incompetence is not rare—but in the nature of the problem. War-making political entities are complex adaptive systems, interacting with the external world of enemies, allies, and neutrals while governed by the dynamic internal world of competing leaders, interest groups, and other forces. Military strategy is but one component of the much broader political strategies of war-making political entities; it must be coordinated with a host of social, economic, diplomatic, and psychological efforts. This is an inherently messy process. An effective strategy must take into account all of these interactions but not be paralyzed by them.
It may sometimes seem that some entities—dictatorships, for example—do not have to worry about internal concerns when making military strategy. This is an illusion. Political leaders who appear to act without concern for internal challenges can do so only because they have strategies that successfully handle those challenges—whether through consensus-building, information control, or repression and terror. Those internal strategies will powerfully affect the character of the entity's external strategy. For example, we have already acknowledged the great cohesiveness of German society during World War II. But this cohesiveness was not purchased cheaply: Hitler's government could not simply assume internal stability and act freely in crafting its overall warfighting strategy. Because he believed that the economic privations of 1914-18 had contributed to the country's revolutionary collapse at the end of World War I, Hitler refused to put Germany's economy on a total war footing until very late in World War II.*76 Vital military production suffered as a great deal of economic effort went into consumer goods for the German public. German policies were also very poorly coordinated and resources poorly distributed because of the divide-and-rule approach Hitler used to maintain his ascendancy over the various military and paramilitary forces, the government, and the Nazi party itself.
Democratic governments are, of course, subject to similar problems. The Johnson administration feared that mobilizing the American public behind the Vietnam War would distract attention and resources from its domestic "Great Society" program. Johnson also worried that an aroused public might demand stronger military efforts than he was willing to make. Consequently, he refused to mobilize reserve forces, which would have brought the war home to the American middle class in a very visible way. He also tried to finance the war without raising taxes. That policy sparked inflation and economic stagnation, crippling the U.S. economy (and defense budgets) for years afterwards.
As we have repeatedly emphasized, every strategic problem is unique. We need to understand the particular characteristics, concerns, and goals of all significant participants if we are to understand the situation that we face. The problem, however, is that strategy cannot be made by narrowly specialized subject matter experts. Rather, high-level strategic decisions must by their very nature be made by political and military leaders with broad interests and responsibilities—and a correspondingly shallow grasp of most or all of them. Henry Kissinger, who first made his mark as an academic, then actually managed American foreign policy through the Nixon and Ford administrations, put it this way:
[T]here is a vast difference between the perspective of an analyst and that of a statesman. The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman's problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming problem to the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable. The analyst has available to him all the facts; he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them; he will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the inevitable change and, above all, by how well he preserves the peace.*77
Leaders who decide strategy at the highest levels of any political entity are seldom able to achieve a tight focus on—or even to fully isolate—any particular problem. Leaders at lower levels, such as military commanders in the field, naturally see their particular problems more clearly in isolation and are therefore better able to see clear solutions. They may not, however, appreciate the complex ways in which their areas of concern are linked to other issues outside their fields of vision. Only top political leaders are in a position to see how the disparate issues in play at any one time interrelate, but those leaders are often overwhelmed by the breadth of their responsibilities. Thus military analysts, planners, and commanders are often puzzled and frustrated by what appears to be a lack of focus at the top of the chain of command.
The dilemma of military professionals in a democracy is that they do not cease to be citizens simply because they are soldiers. Military institutions are not merely instruments of political power; they are legitimately participants in the political process, at least that part of the process that determines the Nation's military strategy. The leaders of those institutions have a responsibility to preserve those institutions—to insure that they are not destroyed through misuse or neglect. As military professionals we have a duty to educate and advise the political leadership. However, our advice will be meaningless (and ignored) unless we understand our political leadership's real concerns and the political ramifications—both domestic and international—of both military action and inaction.
The essence of military professionalism, however, lies in both having an area of professional expertise and responsibility and recognizing its boundaries.*78 Politics creates war, so success or failure in war is ultimately the responsibility of the political leadership. Thus military strategy—not in the operational sense but in the sense we have described of determining how military means relate to political ends—is a civilian responsibility. The duty of military leaders is to see that political leaders do not fail because they were poorly advised or poorly served by soldiers.
Eager to obtain some stability and focus in the strategy making process, the political and military leadership often turns to either or both of two general solutions: An all-encompassing strategic concept, and bureaucratic routine. Both of these solutions lend unity and coherence to the disparate efforts of a large, complex political entity. Both, however, pose great dangers.
Any particular strategy is, by definition, a prescription. This is entirely appropriate, so long as the prescription is designed to deal with a specific political-military problem. Unfortunately, strategic theorists—or at least their readers—have long sought strategic panaceas: strategic prescriptions that will guarantee victory for any protagonist in any situation, or even make war impossible. Examples abound. In the 1890s, writings by the American naval writer Alfred Thayer Mahan convinced many world leaders to pursue strategies centered on capital ships and concentrated battle fleets.*79 These theories prompted Germany to challenge Great Britain for naval dominance, one of the fundamental causes of World War I. In practice, the great German High Seas Fleet was irrelevant to Germany's practical interests and had virtually no positive impact on the outcome of the war. Field-Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen's fixation on strategies of annihilation and battles of envelopment dominated Germany's catastrophic strategic thinking in both World Wars. The deterrence strategies embraced by American nuclear war theorists were equally influential during much of the Cold War. American forces designed for the nuclear battlefield proved disastrously inappropriate in countering Communist-inspired "wars of national liberation."
However, America's overall Cold War strategy was given coherence by an effective overall concept, Containment. This concept was brilliantly laid out in 1950, in a document called NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.*80 This concept was not, however, a panacea. Rather, it was specifically crafted to deal with the remarkably stable tensions of the 40-year Cold War era, a period in which world politics was structured around the U.S.-Soviet competition. The West, led by the United States, sought the collapse or radical transformation of the Soviet state and its Communist empire—a "high-end" political objective, but against too dangerous an enemy to pursue via high-end military objectives. Thus the key elements of Western power were economic and psychological; military power served principally as a shield behind which the West's key superiorities could grow. Since the collapse of Communism, Western strategists have been searching in vain for a similar overarching concept to deal with a fragmented world that exhibits none of the simplicity, structure, or stability of the previous bipolar balance of power.
The futility of searching for a strategic panacea should be obvious: Strategy is always interactive. If one side adopts a revolutionary new military strategy and others become convinced of its superiority, other contenders will adopt it if they can or seek effective counter-strategies. Given human ingenuity and a sufficient degree of desperation, such counter-strategies are always available. Once everyone has adapted to the supposedly "universal" strategy, the surviving players are back to square one—but only after having spent a great deal of money (and possibly blood) and exciting a great deal of anxiety and mutual fear. Such a universal prescription cannot be ignored—especially if a potential enemy seems to be applying it—but it clearly cannot be equally useful for every belligerent or in every situation.
Occasionally, a new approach does radically transform warfare. Every such military revolution faces at least two challenges. First, a new military model has to defeat the old model. Then it must face its own mirror image (or possibly another still more radical innovation) as its enemies learn. Napoleon was defeated by states who had learned to adapt the radical social policies of the French Revolution to their own conservative ends. Hitler was defeated by enemies who had learned the skills of mobile armored warfare from the Wehrmacht. No group or nation has a monopoly on military talent, and nearly every protagonist will find ways of raising its learning curve when it perceives that its survival is at stake. These examples demonstrate how the social, interactive logic of war differs from the logic of art and science. We can find a consistently effective way to put paint on canvas or to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen. We cannot find a similarly consistent method for confounding our enemies.
Because of this interactive dynamic, and because every political entity is unique in its characteristics, capabilities, and goals, there can be no such thing as a "strategic template"—neither a "best" strategy (or best kind of strategy) nor a best process for creating one. Nonetheless, political organizations, bureaucracies, and military staffs seek naturally to create systems that routinize the making of strategy. These systems are designed to control the collection and flow of information, to standardize the process of making strategy, and to insure the consistent execution of policy. Such systems are vitally necessary. They impose a degree of order that enables the human mind to cope with the otherwise overwhelming complexity of politics and war. They also generate a great deal of friction and rigidity. Bureaucracies frequently become tools or even contenders in the internal struggle to control policy and strategy. Because they are more interested in process than in solutions, overly powerful bureaucracies tend to build strategies that aim to institutionalize a crisis rather than to end it. Both thought and action can grind to a halt as innumerable bureaucrats strain to get a piece of every decision.
In practice, strategy makers frequently short-circuit formal strategy making systems, especially in a crisis. This is partly because political and military leaders wish to avoid being imprisoned by their bureaucracies, which they rightly regard as tools rather than as legitimate, constitutional "checks and balances." To an even greater degree, however, strategy is made on the fly because senior leaders have to deal simultaneously with so many different problems—international and domestic, political, military, economic, and so on. In many societies, moreover, there are a lot of "top political leaders." This is particularly but not exclusively true of democracies. Because all of the contenders in the internal struggle to control strategy bring a different point of view to every strategic problem—different values, biases, and goals—the debate can be furious even if the debaters are all people of good will united in a common cause. Because that debate tends to center on what should be done, rather than on the much more fundamental divisions over why it should be done, the participants often talk past one another.
The most fundamental strategic decisions are usually made over an extended period and in different forums. In the United States, for example, the legislative, executive, and possibly even the judicial branches of government make key strategic decisions—and these are the expression of legitimate, constitutional checks and balances. The military services make many important decisions on their own. Vital economic and social power centers, which normally are not under US government control, make crucial decisions independently and often unconsciously. All of these decisions are commonly the result of compromises between different elements. These compromises may reflect neither side's clear intent or purpose—a major factor in what is called "bureaucratic irrationality."*81
Thus the various elements of any particular strategy take shape in various places and at various times, and are formed by different leaders and groups motivated by varying concerns. Elements of the strategy eventually adopted may surface anywhere in the organization. Accordingly, the forces with which a state goes to war may have been designed, equipped, trained, and deployed with very different circumstances in mind. The alliances and enmities with which the antagonists enter a struggle may be rooted in interests that have changed in fundamental ways which they do not yet fully perceive.
For all these reasons, no political problem exists in isolation. Therefore no political activity, including war, is ever in practice a matter of pursuing a single, pure strategy. Multiple problems require the simultaneous pursuit of multiple and imperfectly meshed—even conflicting—strategies. The constant pressures and long-term demands of our economic and social strategies tend naturally to conflict with the demands of preparedness for the occasional military emergency. The demands of warfighting, of coalition management, of maintaining domestic unity, and of sustaining the political fortunes of the current leadership, often pull us irresistibly in different directions.
Simply because the strategy making process is chaotic does not mean that effective strategies are not consciously designed and implemented, or that the process cannot be made more (or less) effective. It simply means that we cannot know where all the key problems and solutions will be recognized, nor the chain (or web) of events whereby they will actually be put into effect. This is the reason we seek to teach the basics of strategy to civilian and military national security professionals throughout our strategy-making and -implementing organizations. If we share a common, non-prescriptive, and accurate concept of the nature of strategy, and if we share common goals and effective leadership, a coherent strategy will emerge.
The purpose of the several sets of strategic opposites we discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 is analytical rather than prescriptive. We must use these concepts to understand what we, our allies, our enemies, and relevant neutral forces are doing and why. We must appreciate which elements of the situation are fixed and which are subject to conscious change. We must be prepared to deal with a great many uncertainties and ambiguities. Only then can we intelligently discuss what we should do in any particular situation. There is, of course, no way that this sort of overview can be pulled together suddenly to deal with a specific issue. Strategic leaders must internalize the various concerns we have described and strive to maintain a shared situational awareness that permits them to act quickly, even intuitively, when circumstances demand it.
The problem facing someone attempting to design a strategy for a particular war is, of course, much simpler than that of the longer-term strategic planner. Our imaginary strategist has a specific problem on which he can focus, and a specific situation from which to start. His first difficulty, however, is figuring out exactly what that problem and situation are. Faced with the possibility of war and understanding the fundamental characteristics of the antagonists, the first questions the strategist must sort out are those we dealt with in Chapter 3: What are the political objectives of each side? Are they limited or unlimited? How do the opponents' perceive each other's objectives? Any particular set of answers will have implications for the fundamental character of any resulting war.
Getting a set of answers to these questions can be extraordinarily difficult. Many political leaders, when asked what are their political objectives, will be vague, evasive, or incomplete in their answers. Sometimes, however, this is the fault of the questioner. Military planners tend naturally to want to know what are the objectives with regard only to the military opponent, whereas it may be equally if not more important to understand the objectives with regard to domestic politics and world opinion.
Consider the cases of the Bosnian War, Haiti, and Somalia in the 1990s. In every case, American political objectives were less to produce any particular outcome in the region in crisis than to remove a festering issue from domestic, allied, or international debate. The U.S. had little strategic interest in the outcome of any of these internal struggles in out-of-the-way places. Nonetheless, the prolongation of those conflicts raised serious questions about America's leadership—particularly moral leadership. The factor that decided the U.S. on intervention in Bosnia was not concern over what the Bosnian map would look like, but the threat the continuing crisis posed to the cohesiveness of NATO. In Haiti, the decisive issue was not who would rule there, but the domestic impact in America of a continuing wave of Haitian refugees, forced out by the oppression and incompetence of the ruling junta. In the Somalia crises, there were serious domestic racial issues involved. All of these problems were heightened (and to some degree created) by the emotional impact, on voters and policy makers alike, of what we have come to call the "CNN factor."*82
The actual conduct of operations in all three of these U.S. interventions is inexplicable unless we understand the multi-dimensional nature of the political objectives involved. In Bosnia, for example, the administration's perception was that the American public would not tolerate significant U.S. casualties. It was also significant, however, that continuing inaction was seriously damaging the government's public image both at home and abroad. The strains on NATO and on U.S.-Russian relations were reaching a dangerous level. Military operations were therefore designed to end the disruptive impact of the war on the NATO alliance and Russo-American relations, without provoking a wider war against the Serbs through actions like an energetic pursuit of war criminals. The outcome of these operations was fully satisfying to no one, but as of the end of 1996, with the Bosnian war at least temporarily halted, they had met the political objectives. Whether this approach will prove to have been effective in the longer term is inherently unknowable at this point—and that is fully characteristic of the strategic process.
We have chosen to discuss an ongoing operation like that in Bosnia for precisely this reason. It is vital that we study history, examining completed events in which we can hope to grasp the full web of cause and effect. Unfortunately, that kind of history tends to breed a dangerous illusion that the course of events was somehow inevitable. It is important, therefore, to understand that historical study is merely a vital form of mental preparation for a very different sort of problem. Strategists deal not with the past but with the future. The future is fundamentally different from the past: It is subject to change. The reader of this study may well know the outcome in Bosnia. Writing this, we do not, just as the strategy makers who shaped events there did not—and could not.
Competent strategic-level decision makers are aware both of the high stakes of political-military conflict and of the complex, uncertain, and unpredictable nature of the strategic environment. Successful decisions may lead to great gains, but failure can lead to fearful losses. Some personalities instinctively respond to this environment with a hold-the-line, don't-rock-the-boat, take-no-chances mentality. Others display an irresistible bias for action. Unfortunately, unless we understand the specific problems, dangers, and potential gains of a particular situation, the two approaches are equally dangerous: Paralysis is neither more nor less dangerous as a Standard Operating Procedure than is blindly striking out in the face of either threat or opportunity. Unfortunately, the very process of attempting to ascertain the particulars of a specific problem can lead to "paralysis by analysis." Strategy makers, like tacticians, almost always have to act in the absence of desirable information, without a full comprehension of the situation.
The problems we have described reflect the nature of political reality. Unfortunately, the first reaction of any sensible, responsible person, confronting for the first time the complexities, uncertainties, and historically poor record of military strategy making, is likely to be pessimism and a reluctance to act. The aggressor, driven by ego or vindictiveness, by a quest for glory or the fulfillment of some ideological fantasy, does not care about the human cost of his actions. He is therefore unlikely to be constrained by these complexities. This freedom from constraint, if it is coupled to the brilliant political opportunism of a Hitler, the operational genius of a Napoleon Bonaparte, or merely the brutal persistence of a Saddam Hussein or a clever terrorist leader, can create massive problems for responsible statesmen and soldiers. For the latter groups, a realistic understanding of the challenge is in fact a healthy first step toward responsible and effective strategy making.
The job of responsible strategists is to balance opportunity against risk, and to balance both against uncertainty, in pursuit of the best interests of the political entities they represent. Despite all of the barriers to focusing on specific strategic problems and to taking effective positive action, we must focus, and we must act. Success is clearly within our grasp. After all, despite their power, their freedom to act, and the trouble they caused, most of the aggressors we have discussed in this book were defeated. The workings of the balance of power mechanism, the innate strengths of the strategic defense, and the practical leverage given to responsible forces by a just cause have often proved to be decisive advantages. Those advantages are even greater in the hands of strategy makers who fully understand them.
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War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.
We have explored the natures of politics, policy, and the political entities which wage wars. We have examined the most fundamental aspects of military strategy, the basic questions we must answer when considering the use of military means to gain political ends. We have examined some basic types of military strategies and the ways in which those strategies relate to political objectives. We have also considered the problems involved in translating our understanding of these strategic fundamentals into practical policy and military action. Now we must ask, What does this mean for us as national security professionals?
As we noted at the beginning, individual services and agencies do not make national strategy, nor even the overall strategy for fighting a particular war. However, individual service and agency personnel may well play a role in the making of such strategies. Moreover, many agencies and organizations are intimately involved in execution, and the execution of strategy is not a simple matter of carrying out a fixed plan. Rather, strategic execution is a complex matter of both initiating events and effectively reacting to them. It requires us to combine painstaking planning with energetic innovation, improvisation, and adaptation to events, all the while maintaining our focus on the strategic aim.
The individual must therefore have some appreciation for the complexities and difficulties of strategy. Few will be in a position to grasp the full range of details of the strategic "big picture," especially while in the field executing a mission. Nonetheless, a fundamental understanding of the problems of strategy will help the individual to appreciate the importance of his or her role and the organization's or unit's role. It will help the individual to understand the significance of such politically-imposed constraints as rules of engagement, to understand why policy guidance is often unclear or fluctuating, and to have the empathy for the political and military leadership that is vital to the maintenance of true discipline. On some occasions, increasingly common in the current post-Cold War era, an awareness of the short distance between tactical action and its strategic impact will help an individual subordinate or leader on the spot—AKA the "strategic corporal"—to avert real damage to the nation.
Some of us actually serve on staffs or in commands where strategic decisions are made. We must be prepared to participate, intelligently, tactfully, and energetically, in that process. We must be prepared to ask the tough questions that our political leaders will have to answer if they are to make effective policy, and to educate them with regard to the nature, capabilities, and limitations of the military instrument.
The concepts contained in this study of strategy cannot be mastered without serious and ongoing contemplation. Neither can they be turned into a strategic template to be laboriously worked through on every occasion. Rather, the national security professional must think about these strategic ideas, internalize them, and constantly seek to improve his or her understanding of the world's ever-changing strategic environment. Such an understanding, based on a thoroughly professional approach to the complexities of war and politics, is the essence of "fighting smart." It is the only secure foundation for the flexible style of warfighting that is—or should be—characteristic of the United States.
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A SHORT GUIDE TO
FURTHER READING ON STRATEGY
The best preparation for the strategy maker is a combination of real-world experience in relevant jobs and a strong grounding in broad history—meaning general history, not the narrowly military variety. A particularly good introduction is R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World (New York: Knopf, 1984 and other editions). Palmer and Colton's book provides the continuity and the broad social, political, and intellectual context for the strategic events of the past 500 years. That broad context matters immensely. After all, it is impossible to understand the wars or the strategy of Napoleon if we do not understand their causes, which were rooted in the French Revolution. The ideas that drove the French Revolution, and the earlier American Revolution, were the ideas of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, in turn, reflected great social, technological, and demographic changes.
With that broad background in place, the reader should seek to understand the evolution of the modern state system. An excellent overview is political scientist Bruce Porter's War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1994). Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987) looks more specifically at the strategic competition between states. Kennedy's famous book was controversial because it advanced the thesis that great powers have an inherent tendency to over-extend themselves strategically, and then to undermine the economic underpinnings of their own power trying to fulfill unsustainable strategic commitments. The clear implication of this "imperial overstretch" theory was, of course, that the United States had done the same thing and was therefore a "declining power." Nothing Kennedy said indicated that this was necessarily the case, but the argument nonetheless raised hackles among many Americans. Kennedy also suggested that military power was directly related to economic power. This was no surprise in itself, but his analysis raised some serious questions as to the importance of highly developed military skills as opposed to that of brute industrial or economic strength. These were important arguments, and we urge you to investigate them in your personal professional reading. Kennedy's first chapter, "The Rise of the Western World," addresses one of the most interesting questions in world history: Why did Western civilization so spectacularly outstrip all others in terms of scientific, technological, military, and political power? If you had been around in, say, 1500 C.E., a bet on the West might have appeared rather dubious.
The books mentioned so far mostly concern modern, Western history, treating other civilizations only insofar as they competed with the West or came to be players in the modern state system created by the West. The reader should not ignore important writings from the ancient world or from other civilizations. Anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley's War Before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) treats the general problem of war in human society in a particularly insightful way. From the classical era, two works are particularly important to thinking about war and strategy. The first is Thucydides' famous investigation of the great war between Athens and Sparta, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Baltimore: Penguin, 1954). Many Cold War thinkers found this conflict eerily similar to the U.S.-Soviet struggle. More important, Thucydides' book is a penetrating study of the nature and behavior of human societies at war. The second is Polybius' multi-volume work, known as The Histories. Of particular importance is Book 6, chapters 11-18, a study of the constitution of the Roman Republic. Polybius was a Greek who saw his own nation subjugated by Rome; his book is an investigation into the sources of Rome's military and political superiority. As to East Asia, two classics well worthy of investigation are Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), written about 400 B.C., and Mao Zedong's On Guerrilla Warfare, also translated by Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Praeger, 1961).
Turning from history to strategic theory, the fundamental basis of Western military theory is Carl von Clausewitz's classic work, On War (Vom Krieg, Berlin, 1832). The most readable and readily available English translation is Clausewitz, On War, ed./trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), but the version translated by O.J. Matthijs Jolles (New York: Random House, 1943; Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1950) is more accurate in many respects. A familiarity with and understanding of On War is indispensable to anyone who wishes to speak with authority on strategic matters. However, On War is a notoriously difficult book. This is true not because it is poorly written, but because the subject it treats is a difficult one, and because it is so rich in ideas. Before undertaking Clausewitz's work, it is a good idea to do some reading about On War and its author. One book that explicitly explores the problems of reading On War is Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Despite its apparent cut-off date of 1945, Bassford's book does discuss the more recent importance of Clausewitz in American military and political thinking. Another useful work, but one that focuses on Clausewitz in his original historical setting, is Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976). The discussion of Clausewitz most influential on American military services is Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982). Summers' treatment, though excellent, has adapted Clausewitz's ideas in ways that may be very misleading. See Edward J. Villacres and Christopher Bassford, "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity," Parameters, Autumn 1995, pp.9-19. Clausewitz's ideas are remarkably modern and track perfectly with the ideas of modern scientists of "Complexity." M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), provides an excellent introduction to this new scientific paradigm. Historian Alan D. Beyerchen provides a brilliant examination of the complex, nonlinear character of Clausewitz's theories in " Chance and Complexity in the Real World: Clausewitz on the Nonlinear Nature of War ," International Security, Winter 1992/1993.
Clausewitz's great competitor was the Swiss writer Antoine-Henri Jomini. His most influential book is available in an 1862 translation. See Baron de Jomini, trans. Capt. G.H. Mendell and Lieut. W.P. Craighill [USA], The Art of War (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1862; reprinted, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971; reprinted, with a new introduction by Charles Messenger, London: Greenhill Books, 1992). However, most of Jomini's relevant ideas on land warfare have long since been incorporated into modern military language and doctrine. Another influential 19th-century book on strategy and naval warfare in a famous (and highly readable) book by U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1890). This book was in some respects very similar to Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Bruce Porter's War and the Rise of the State: Like them, it surveys a long period of Western history and draws strategic lessons from that experience. Probably no book of military history and theory has ever had a greater or more immediate impact: It burst on the world's strategists like a bombshell and led to an immense naval armaments race—and, some would argue, World War I. That is an impressive record for a book Mahan wrote primarily to escape sea duty, which he hated. It continues to be influential. If Mahan was a Jominian (which is debatable), his most important competitor was a follower of Clausewitz: the British naval writer Sir Julian Stafford Corbett. His book, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988; originally London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1911), has returned to prominence with the end of the Cold War. Corbett's renaissance is due in part to his great interest in littoral warfare and in the coordination of military forces at land and at sea. A more recent military writer on strategy, Basil H. Liddell Hart, has also had a very wide influence. His strategic ideas are well summarized in his book, Strategy, revised ed. (New York: Praeger, 1954). Liddell Hart's intellectual evolution, and the even stranger evolution of his reputation, are well described in John Mearsheimer's controversial book, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).
For a broader overview of military theorists and their ideas, see Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). This book will introduce you to a wide variety of ideas on subjects ranging from guerrilla war and revolution to strategic bombing and nuclear warfare. A rather different approach to the history of strategy appears in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, eds., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Whereas Paret's book focuses on military thinkers and theorists, Murray, Knox, and Bernstein have focused on the people who actually make strategy: rulers and their political-military apparatus. The final essay in the book, by Knox, provides an excellent summary of their observations. Henry Kissinger, who is both a prominent scholar and one of the most famous living practitioners of diplomacy, provides a powerful analysis of the history and problems of strategy in his book, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
These books will provide a basic grounding in the history and theory of strategy. Their footnotes and bibliographies will provide ample guidance to further reading in the huge literature on this subject.
Return to Table of Contents
POLICY, POLITICS, WAR, and MILITARY STRATEGY
by Christopher Bassford
1. Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Cureton, series "U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991," With the 1st Marine Division in Desert Shield and Desert Storm (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, HQUSMC, 1993), pp. 44-46.
2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed./trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p.141.
4. This phrase appears in various forms in Clausewitz's On War. See especially p. 605. The translation used here differs from the Paret/Howard version in translating the German word Fortsetzung, literally "forth-setting," as "expression" rather than as "continuation." The latter term, while technically correct, seems to give readers the impression that the other aspects of politics somehow cease, which is contrary to Clausewitz's argument.
5. The intentional violence of war evokes powerful emotions that mere random death and destruction—even when committed by other humans—do not. For instance, the deaths of 57,000 Americans in Indochina over a 10-year period had sufficient emotional impact to throw American society into turmoil. This turmoil still lingers 30 years later. Similar numbers of traffic fatalities on an annual basis have no such effect. Sometimes we seek to capture that emotional power by misusing the word "war" to refer to competitions of a non-violent nature. Business competition, for example, however fierce, is not "economic warfare" unless it involves the actual violent destruction of lives and property. The Marxists sought in the same manner to equate market capitalism with militaristic imperialism. Various xenophobic and racist movements do similar things, equating the mere presence of foreigners or ethnic competitors with murder. All of these uses of the word are lies, but they often function as self-fulfilling prophecies.
6. Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp.15-74, illustrates the practical meaning of "security, honor, and self-interest" in the context in which this statement was made.
7. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Baltimore: Penguin, 1954), 1:76:2 (p.80).
8. Geoffrey Blainey (an economic historian), The Causes of Wars (New York: Free Press, 1973), p.246. Blainey's point is that, if both parties see the distribution of power in the same terms, neither side will demand concessions which it lacks the power to enforce. If, in contrast, one side believes it has sufficient power to back up its demands while the other believes it can successfully resist, the stage is set for war.
9. Eric Larrabee, Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pp.40-95, provides a revealing discussion of the ambiguity of FDR's political and military motivations and actions. And yet, FDR was surely one of the most accomplished and successful political leaders this nation has ever had—in either peace or war.
10. The emotional level that triggers violence is extremely variable. In some societies, at some phases in their histories, violence may be an immediate, unhesitating response to personal or political provocations. The same society at other times may turn to violence, even in self-defense, only with extreme reluctance.
11. For example: "Politics and strategy are radically and fundamentally things apart. Strategy begins where politics end. All that soldiers ask is that once the policy is settled, strategy and command shall be regarded as being in a sphere apart from politics." Command and General Staff School, Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff School Press, 1936), p.19.
12. Once war begins, however, it is true that the warring entities often tend to take on many, if not all, of the attributes of states.
13. This last is a reference to the War of the Paris Commune, 1871. This last is a reference to the War of the Paris Commune, 1871. An on-line article by Mark Jacobsen, " The Paris Commune, 1871: The Defeat of France and the Siege of Paris, 1870-1," describes this war.
14. Another major contributing factor is that military professionals are often frustrated or even repulsed by the notion that their activities and sacrifices are mere instruments in the morally suspect process of politics. We have very often sought to escape from political complexities, finding comfort instead in an apolitical "science of war."
16. Much of the following discussion—indeed, much of the world view underlying this manual—derives from the scientific concepts of nonlinearity and "complexity." For the best overall introduction to complexity theory, see M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). For a clearer idea how this body of theory relates to classical military thought, see Alan D. Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War," International Security, Winter 1992/1993.
17. A tornado is not, in itself, a complex adaptive system (it is a "dissipative, non-equilibrium system"), but the termite hive is. This characteristic of complex systems is called "emergence." For various illustrations of nonlinear system, see "Interactive Illustrations of Chaotic Systems."
18. This is not to say that strategists must make fundamental adjustments in reaction to every minor change in the wind. The pursuit of survival and victory requires indomitable willpower and persistence. There is, however, a fine but crucial distinction between being persistent and merely being stubborn. Strategy requires the flexibility of a fine sword, not that of spaghetti.
19. Charles Tilly, "Reflections on the History of European State-Making," in Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p.42.
22. Bruce Porter (a political scientist), War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p.78.
24. "Operational Maneuver From the Sea: A Concept for the Projection of Naval Power Ashore," Marine Corps Gazette, June 1996, pp. A-1—6. As with most historical illustrations used to demonstrate a valid general point, this statement requires some caveats. For example, Spain's title to half the world was based on a decision by the Pope in 1493 to split lordship over the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal. It required strenuous efforts and considerable time to turn this title into actual world preeminence, which Spain in fact achieved despite the fact that no other significant European power accepted its claim to such entitlement. Germany was disunited in 1850, but two German entities—Austria and Prussia—were among the great powers. The line about U.S. forces in 1935 is a bit misleading. American ground and air forces were indeed minuscule and of no account on the world stage. The U.S. Navy, however, was one of the most powerful naval forces on the planet, and had been for quite some time.
25. George Liska, quoted in Michael Sheehan, The Balance of Power: History and Theory (London: Routledge, 1996), p.2.
26. Clausewitz, On War, pp.566-573. Do not confuse this political idea with Clausewitz's closely related concept of the "culminating point of the offensive," which is primarily an operational and logistical concept.
27. America's invention of a "Revolution in Military Affairs," at a time when it effectively has no peer competitor, may reflect a strategy for avoiding this conundrum.
28. This argument probably originated with Arnold Toynbee. It was highly developed by world historian William H. McNeill. It appears in highly accessible form in Chapter 1, "The Rise of the Western World," of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), pp.3-30.
29. We frequently see minor powers benefitting vastly from playing the role of balancer between two greater powers. This is particularly evident in parliamentary democracies, where small "swing" parties often exercise a disproportionate effect on policy. Small states are often able to do the same thing, making larger states compete for their alliance.
30. In the case of a power vacuum within an otherwise well-policed state, as for instance in some of America's inner cities, alternative power structures such as gangs, vigilante groups, and radicalized social movements may evolve.
31. The last phase of the Western intervention in Somalia falls into this category. The West's attempt to create an effective national Somali government failed when the costs exceeded the value of that goal—which was very low because the Somali power vacuum had no practical consequences for the Western powers.
32. Nor have they necessarily forgiven the United States' role in undermining their neo-colonialist ambitions in the period following World War II.
33. Just as socialist economies experience inflation when they print too much money, regardless of whether they believe in market theories.
34. Clausewitz, p. 89. The translation has been modified somewhat, for clarity and to better match the original German.
35. See Edward J. Villacres and Christopher Bassford, "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity," Parameters, Autumn 1995, pp.9-19. This article demonstrates the fundamental difference between Clausewitz's original concept of the "trinity" and the version popularized by U.S. Army thinker Harry Summers, Jr., in his influential book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982). Summers interpreted the trinity as being "people, army, and government." This approach, while important and useful (and derived directly from an illustration Clausewitz provided), misses the larger point Clausewitz sought to make about the nature of the strategic environment.
36. A fundamental flaw in nuclear warfighting strategies was that they sought victory without offering any hope of meaningful survival.
37. This argument is well developed in Fritz Fischer's books on German war aims in World War I. See Fritz Fischer (who is himself German), Germany's Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967); War of Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973); World Power or Decline: The Controversy Over Germany's Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974).
38. "Democracy" takes many forms, however. Very different forms of the democratic spirit can be found expressed in the modern liberal democracies of the West, in the militaristic radicalism of the French Revolution, or in totalitarian movements like Fascism and Communism.
39. One of the most powerful slogans of the French Revolution was "Careers open to talent!" Under the kings, members of the French middle and lower classes could not hope for advancement to high military or political rank. Napoleon himself, a member of the minor nobility, most likely would not have advanced beyond the rank of major in the royal army. The revolution set free a remarkable pool of military talent: Some of Napoleon's best generals were former NCOs or industrial craftsmen. Frenchmen were now "citizens" rather than "subjects." As members of the state, feeling a personal interest in its fate, citizens were far more willing to provide financial support and to assume a personal role in advancing its fortunes. And the state, freed of a great many traditional constraints, felt free to use new forms of pressure to gain cooperation when it was not freely given.
40. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 109.
41. Sometimes, to secure a stable peace, a negotiated settlement with no advantage to either side offers the most advantageous course. However, that can hardly be called victory for anyone—save possibly the voices of reason.
43. Discussions in this manual of American Cold War strategies are heavily influenced by, though not identical to, the analysis of John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
45. In a true civil war, two or more sides are fighting for control of the same political entity. The American Civil War was a war of secession. We call it a civil war because the secession failed and the Union remained intact.
46. The doctrine of "overwhelming force" usually implies an annihilation strategy that overtly requires such an advantage.
47. Assessing the degree of military superiority is thus a judgment call, not a mere "bean-count" of the opposing forces.
48. Hitler often suggested, wrongly as it turned out, that the Western allies would make peace with Nazi Germany rather than destroy it completely, because they needed a strong Germany as a buffer against Bolshevik Russia.
49. There was a political price to be paid, however, in public cynicism over the soft treatment meted out to the enemy leaders, considered by most Americans to be criminals.
51. Germany took the territory called Alsace-Lorraine after Prussia's victory, but this reflected a case of ends expanded by success, not a primary motive for the war.
53. This is essentially the position taken by the influential chief of the German general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the elder).
54. This kind of process has been referred to by many writers as a "war of attrition," which is literally a synonym for erosion. But this is using the word attrition to describe a tactical process, rather than the strategic objective we describe with the terms erosion. If the military object is to leave the enemy actually helpless to resist the imposition of our political will, tactical attrition may be our method, but our strategic aim remains annihilation.
55. Iraq attempted a fait accompli in 1980, when it invaded Iran (then weakened by internal turmoil) and rapidly seized some disputed territories. To Iraq's surprise, the Iranians proved willing and able to pay an extremely high price to recover the lost land. In 1990, Iraq seized tiny Kuwait. Although the Iraqi strategy against Kuwait was clearly one of annihilation, the larger intent was to present the world with a fait accompli. Saddam Hussein clearly believed, as had Japan's leaders 49 years earlier, that the United States would be unable to muster the resolve to reverse his action.
56. "Center of gravity" is a concept from Clausewitz; "critical vulnerability" is a Marine Corps doctrinal concept that appeared first in FMFM 1: Warfighting (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1989), pp. 35-36.
57. The term center of gravity found its way into our strategic vocabulary via Clausewitz's On War. Clausewitz used the term frequently and in a variety of meanings. He did not intend it to assume a narrow definition or to become part of military jargon. However, he did provide a very specific definition for it in the strategic context. See On War, pp. 595-597.
58. The current joint definition (from Joint Pub 3-0) of center of gravity is "those characteristics, capabilities, or locations from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight." This is an operational-level definition, concerned exclusively with a military force. At the strategic level, we have to consider all aspects of a political entity at war. Consequently, in this manual, we follow Clausewitz's definition.
59. Williamson Murray, "Reflections on the Combined Bomber Offensive," Militärgeschichtliche Mitteillungen, vol.51 (1992), no.1, p. 93.
60. The dispersal of this effort across so wide a target spectrum weakened its effects, however, and its impact remains a matter of controversy.
61. Wars are often called "limited" because they are constricted to a certain geographic area, to certain kinds of weapons, to a certain level of bloodshed. These distinctions are not meaningless, but they reflect specific factors at work in a particular conflict rather than any fundamental strategic taxonomy.
63. Even the weak leadership of France and Britain, who in 1938 were willing to sacrifice the independence of Czechoslovakia in return for "peace in our time," realized that the German conquest of other states endangered their own nations' positions. Morbidly afraid of war with Germany, they were nonetheless unwilling to see the balance of power shifted too far. For this reason, they declared war in 1939 in response to the German attack on Poland.
64. This idea is embodied in J.F.C. Fuller's concept of a "constant tactical factor." See Fuller, Armament and History (New York: Scribner's, 1945), p.20.
65. One particularly useful example comes from the field of "game theory." In the game called "Prisoners' Dilemma," it is virtually impossible for the players to achieve the optimum outcome in any single iteration of the game. Logic forces them, in fact, to the worst possible behavior and results. Over many iterations, however, in which players establish histories and reputations known to other players, various strategies have wildly different results. See Waldrop, Complexity, pp.262-266. An excellent introduction to strategic game theory is Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).
67. There is a long tradition of military theory involving asymmetrical strategies. It appears in Chinese military theory, most prominently in Sun Tzu and in the works of Mao Zedong. A particularly clear discussion appears in Edward O'Dowd and Arthur Waldron, "Sun Tzu for Strategists," Comparative Strategy, v.10 (1991), pp. 25-36. British military thinker Basil Liddell Hart propounded asymmetry in his theory of the "indirect approach," most powerfully in his books, The British Way of War (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), The Ghost of Napoleon (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), and Strategy, revised ed. (New York: Praeger, 1954). See also his introduction to Samuel Griffith's translation of Sun Tzu.
69. John Foster Dulles, "The Evolution of Foreign Policy," Department of State Bulletin, January 25, 1954.
70. See, for example, Liddell Hart's enthusiastic discussion of airpower in "The Napoleonic Fallacy," Chapter VII of The Remaking of Modern Armies (London: J. Murray, 1927), pp. 88-112.
71. In practice the invasion and occupation of a nuclear-armed state has come to be considered impractical. This is a major reason that nuclear weapons are so attractive to militarily weak states.
72. The title of this section and some of its underlying themes are influenced by Professor Paul A. Rahe, "Justice, Necessity, and the Conduct of War in Thucydides," a paper written at the University of Tulsa.
73. Just War thinking can be interpreted and used in various ways. This section is very heavily influenced by the works of James Turner Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984).
74. The precepts of Just War are entirely in line with such hard-nosed strategic concepts as the Weinberger Doctrine. See Johnson, "Just War Thinking and its Contemporary Application: The Moral Significance of the Weinberger Doctrine." The Weinberger criteria are: (1) The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. (2) If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. (3) If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. (4) The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed—their size, composition and disposition—must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. (5) Before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. (6) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort. From "The Uses of Military Power," Text of Remarks by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger to the National Press Club, November 28, 1984.
76. See, for example, Lothar Burchardt, "The Impact of the War Economy on the Civilian Population During the First and Second World Wars," in Wilhelm Deist, ed., The German Military in the Age of Total War (Dover, New Hampshire: Berg Publishers Ltd, 1985).
78. This is a fundamental argument of Samuel P. Huntington's classic book on military professionalism, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957).
79. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898 [originally 1890]). Mahan's book is primarily a history. His theoretical conclusions appear on pp. 25-89. As with most theorists, Mahan's warnings against simplistic interpretations were lost on many of his readers.
80. April 14, 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, vol.I. The concept of containment was originally put forward by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan in his famous "long telegram" from Moscow in February 1946. It became well known through his article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," attributed to an anonymous "Mr. X" in Foreign Affairs, July 1947. Kennan came to feel, however, that his concept had been misunderstood and misapplied, with too much emphasis on the military instrument of power.
81. Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), provides a classic attack on the idea that states and bureaucracies act rationally.
82. This is a further demonstration that politics and war are driven, not by a purely rational "continuation of policy," but by the interplay of such rationality with emotions and chance. The "CNN factor" is hardly new, however. Western intervention in the Greek War of Independence (1821-32) was sparked to no small degree by the impassioned reports of journalists like Lord Byron.