The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.
The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of the war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.
The “strategist’s own purpose” in war is dictated by politics since “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means”. This Carl von Clausewitz quotation, however, is frequently taken out of context, as Christopher Bassford demonstrates in correcting John Keegan’s portrayal of Clausewitz in his A History of Warfare:
Keegan’s greatest error…lies in his naive and one-dimensional definition of the word politics and in a misconception common among the lay public—but surprising in a professional historian—concerning Clausewitz’s most famous phrase, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” Keegan condemns Clausewitz’s alleged argument that war is entirely a rational tool of rational state policy, an argument with which he is entirely right to disagree. Unfortunately for Keegan and his more credulous readers, this was not Clausewitz’s position at all.
Writing in German, Clausewitz used the word Politik, and his most famous phrase has been variously translated as “War is a continuation of `policy’”—or of `politics’—”with an admixture of other means.” For the purpose of argument, he assumed that state policy would be rational, that is, aimed at improving the situation of the society it represented. He also believed, along with most Westerners of his era, that war was a legitimate means for a state’s advancement of its interests, particularly survival. This is often taken to mean that war is somehow a “rational” phenomenon, and Clausewitz is convicted—as Keegan convicts him—of advocating the resort to war as a routine extension of unilateral state policy.
In fact, the choice of translation for Politik—”policy” or “politics”—indicates differing emphases on the part of the translator, for the two concepts are quite different. “Policy” may be defined as rational action, undertaken by an individual or group which already has power, in order to use, maintain, and extend that power. Politics, in contrast, is simply the process—comprising an inchoate mix of rational, irrational, and non-rational elements like chance and “friction”—by which power is distributed within a given society. It occurs both within the state and between states (i.e., diplomacy). Thus, in calling war a “continuation” of politics, Clausewitz was advocating nothing. In accordance with his belief that theory must be descriptive rather than prescriptive, he was merely recognizing an existing reality. War is an expression of both policy and politics, but “politics” is the interplay of conflicting forces, not the rational execution of one-sided policy initiatives.
The word “continuation” is also a source of some confusion. The actual word Clausewitz used in his formulation is Fortsetzung, literally a “setting forth.” War is an expression of—not a substitute for—politics. Translating this word as “continuation,” while technically correct, evidently implies to many that politics changes its essential nature when it metamorphoses into war. This impression is contrary to Clausewitz’s argument. War remains politics in all its complexity, with the added element of violence. The non-rational and completely irrational forces that affect and often drive politics have the same impact on war. Violence is not just another ingredient in the political stew, however. Like a powerful spice, it affects the flavor of every other component.
Keegan, in contrast, uses the words “policy” and “politics” interchangeably and repeatedly connects them both with the concept of rationality. Therefore the…Balkan wars are, in Keegan’s view, “apolitical,” for “they are fed by passions and rancours that do not yield to rational measures of persuasion or control.” “How could war be an extension of politics, when the ultimate object of rational politics is to further the well-being of political entities?”
Anyone who has ever witnessed a political campaign should know better, and modern democratic politics is no more purely rational than the Byzantine intrigues that characterized the Roman republic, the absolutist states of early modern Europe, or the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China. Keegan’s larger discussion demonstrates an underlying appreciation of this reality; it is also inherent in his arguments concerning culture. Nonetheless, he denies any such understanding to Clausewitz, even though it is a central pillar of On War‘s argument.
On the side of rationality, it is true that Clausewitz advised that anyone resorting to war should do so with a clear idea as to what he means to accomplish and how he intends to proceed toward that goal. He should also be aware, however, of the sharp limits on the role of rational calculation in a phenomenon equally dominated by chance and blind emotion.
The rational side of Clausewitz’s argument is not unimportant: If war is to be an extension of policy, that is, a tool of policy, then military leaders must be subordinate to political leaders and strategy must be subordinate to policy. This poses practical organizational problems. Like many of Clausewitz’s teachings, his solution was not a simple prescription but a dualism: The military instrument must be subordinated to the political leadership, but political leaders must understand its nature and limitations. Politicians must not attempt to use the instrument of war to achieve purposes for which it is unsuited. This is the principle, often abused, upon which modern American civil-military relations are based.
Military strategy seeks the “selected degree of control” necessary for achieving the objectives politics demands. Some of these objectives will reflect rational policy calculations (inasmuch as policy can truly be separated from politics). But, almost equally, they will reflect the “chance and blind emotion” that is a common side effect of politics. The control sought over the enemy will be a direct expression of the “inchoate mix of rational, irrational, and non-rational elements like chance and ‘friction’” that makes up politics, especially domestic politics. While the degree of control selected will be constrained by the resources available to achieve and sustain it, the actions of the enemy in resisting it, human and geographical terrain, and other factors, the degree of control will largely be selected by politics.
This makes the direction of war in the United States problematic. Knowledge about war among the current ruling class of the United States is dismal. Civilian politicians often lack even the slightest grasp of the nature of war and what it can and cannot accomplish. This is a big problem because our military leaders often lack even the slightest grasp on the nature of war and what it can and cannot accomplish. War, as Georges Clemenceau was fond of saying, is too important to leave to the generals, but you cannot exercise effective political control over the generals unless you know something about war yourself. Adam Elkus and Crispin Burke provide the exemplar of the civilian war leader in a recent Small Wars Journal paper:
In James M. McPherson’s recent Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, the noted Civil War historian makes a convincing case for Lincoln as an effective (though flawed) strategist. McPherson argues that Lincoln, though perhaps ignorant of the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz, grasped that the Confederacy’s center of gravity was its armed forces deployed in Virginia. Unlike his generals, who feared to break the Jominian orthodoxy of operating under interior lines, Lincoln grasped that concentrating forces in time with multiple assaults in different places would stretch Confederate forces to their breaking point. To execute this plan, Lincoln had to balance political considerations originating from domestic politics such as his own base of political support with more military-strategic considerations such as the best means to strike the aforementioned Confederate COG…Lincoln simultaneously directed the war’s policy (the unification of the United States through military force), and its military strategy and campaigns.
Clausewitz argued that tactics, which occupy the bulk of any military officer’s career, could be reduced to hard and fast principles. Strategy, on the other hand, is much more complex. Clausewitz maintained, as John Sumida warns, that taking a mind conditioned to solving tactical problems and applying it unprepared to strategic problems means that “decision making at the strategic level was likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results”. Tactics are a tame problem. Tame problems:
- Can be understood before a solution is proposed.
- Can guarantee that they can be solved with the right solution.
- Can have a right or wrong solution.
- Can be old and common.
- Can be solved iteratively through trial and error.
- Can have one or more obvious alternative solutions.
Strategy, on the other hand, is a wicked problem. Wicked problems:
- Can never be understood before a solution is proposed.
- Can’t guarantee that they will ever be solved even with the “right” solution.
- Can’t have a right or wrong solution.
- Can only be new and unique.
- Can’t be solved iteratively through trial and error. You only get one try.
- Can’t have any obvious alternative solutions.
Wicked problems fall in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fourth quadrant. They escape normal linear cause and effect analysis, they have lots of moving parts with ambiguous relationships, and they react in unpredictable ways. These reactions can be both quite severe and can be triggered by the slightest actions. This ability to spontaneously combust in disproportionate and unpredictable ways leads to Taleb’s infamous black swans.
Any attempt at achieving any degree of control through war faces the huge hurdle that humans are optimized to think about using the tame control that can master tame problems. This is why tactics, a form of tame control, is so appealing. You can give a soldier a tactical checklist and have a reasonable chance of producing a foreseeable result. Controlling wicked problems, on the other hand, requires the human brain to contemplate the almost unimaginable concept of wicked control. Strategy, a form of wicked control, requires an unusual mindset. A strategic mindset can contemplate second and third order effects of possible strategic scenarios like this one presented by the infamously clear-headed Phillip K. Dick:
The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of “My boss is plotting against me,” it would be “My boss’s phone is plotting against me.”
It may be you just have to muddle through and hope the occasional strategic thinker shows up. Teaching may help too.
So does Bernard Finel exercise wicked control or does he just muddle? Finel wrote a mildly provocative essay in this month’s Armed Forces Journal entitled An Alternative to COIN. For those who missed the last decade or so, COIN, an acronym for “counter-insurgency”, is a family of tactics centered on achieving some selected degree of control over a civilian population that is contributing in some way to hiding and sustaining insurgent forces that are battling governmental forces for political control. COIN can range from traditional COIN, which involves killing civilians, perhaps indiscriminately, until an insurgency is crushed, to more the more liberal COIN practiced by Western powers since World War II that involves winning the “hearts and minds” of civilians by providing security and selective bribes to isolate and crush the insurgents. Traditional COIN tends to work in societies that control their media. This was exemplified in recent years by the Russian defeat of the Chechen insurgency and Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Liberal COIN has been proven to work against Chinese minority Communists in Malaysia and (tentatively) against Colombian FARCers, Ulster Catholics, and Iraqi Sunnis.
Liberal COIN, the variant that appeals to the current American elite consensus, is very manpower and resource intensive. America uses highly paid volunteers instead of modestly paid draftees so its manpower costs are high. American weaponry tends to be technologically enriched by the Pentagon procurement process so weaponry tends to be expensive to obtain, expensive to maintain, and expensive to replace. The social and infrastructure spending that attempts to bribe the locals is also pricey.
The end result is that even a modest sized military deployment (by historical standards) tends to be massively expensive. The high-tech weaponry designed to annihilate Soviet divisions pouring through the Fulda Gap (metaphorical or not) is less effective against dispersed insurgents. Naval and high-end air assets go underutilized. The action is located in regions that are difficult to supply such as Afghanistan far from the sea, the American’s native strategic habitat. The small amount of infantry in the Army and the Marines has to be used repeatedly in ways that can wear them out. “Soft” skills such as cultural awareness and development assistance management are favored over “hard” skills like the ability to break things and kill people. Even worse, it demands a great deal of attention from a public with a demonstrably ADHD-level attention span who are constantly being pulled in the opposite direction by political factions who instinctively dislike any use of force by the American military. Liberal COIN takes years of interminable attrition warfare and liberal COIN doesn’t handle the attitude of “What have you done for me lately?” that dominates contemporary America. Finel sees the problems with liberal COIN:
The U.S. military is a dominant fighting force, capable of rapid global power projection and able to defeat state adversaries quickly and at relatively low-cost in American lives and treasure. Unfortunately, American leaders are increasingly trying to transform this force into one optimized for counterinsurgency missions and long-term military occupations. A fundamental problem with the adoption of population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine as an organizing principle for American military operations is that it systematically fails to take advantage of the real strengths of the U.S. military.
Finel is peddling a solution:
It is true that not all political goals are achievable through the use of conventional military capabilities. However, “victory” in war is not dichotomous, and the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan — often seen as proving the necessity for COIN-capable forces as well as a commitment to nation-building — demonstrate in reality that the vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.
As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy — which might loosely be termed “repetitive raiding” — could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America’s adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.
This essay argues the U.S. can largely defeat threats using conventional capabilities, and that what encourages a desire to engage in long-drawn-out asymmetric conflicts is not the elimination of threats, but rather the unattainable goal of trying to prevent threats from emerging in the future.
This is my own definition of Finel’s “repetitive raiding” or as I have always called it, “razzia”:
A razzia is a raid involving large ground units. These forces invade an enemy state, crush active resistance, destroy military and dual-use infrastructure, and withdraw. Razzias into an enemy state would be frequent, perhaps on an annual basis, but usually on an as needed basis. A razzia would have more destructive conventional power than an air raid, a missile strike, or a special operations raid. However, it wouldn’t expose the military to the cost, rigors, and need to train for COIN. Conventional fighting tactics would be emphasized while dispiriting, manpower intensive COIN would be avoided. Attrition through firepower would replace attrition through occupation. Lodgements ashore, usually islands or ports, would be seized and used as basing areas. Future razzias would be launched from these lodgements as needed.
A prime candidate for razzia would be Iran. The three operational options offered to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program are: 1) limited bombing 2) intensive bombing and 3) invasion and occupation. Limited bombing like what Israel could accomplish and did accomplish in the Osirak raid fails due to the fact that the Iranians aren’t necessarily as stupid as Saddam Hussein. The Iranian nuclear program is dispersed and any limited airstrike will only scratch it. Intensive bombing over weeks would be more effective but would also not guarantee that the program would be fatally crippled. Invasion and occupation would risk becoming Iraq only with worse terrain and 75 million people to be COINed using our minuscule military manpower.
How would razzia be any different? Razzia requires many of the prerequisites of an invasion and occupation operation. The Iranian side of the straights of Hormuz would have to be occupied by amphibious units and cleared of Iranian naval vessels. Civilian and military traffic through the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean would have to be convoyed. The navy would have to interdict and blockade the Iranian coast. The Air Force would have to achieve air superiority over Iran’s airspace by destroying its air force and air defense networks.
Since U.S. forces are reliant on supplies delivered by sea, the invasion would probably have to come from southern and central Iraq. You’d use the port of Kuwait, Umm Qasr, and you would have to seize Bandar Imam Khomenei. Seizure of the province of Khuzestan along with Bandar Imam Khomenei would have the added benefit of cutting Iran off from the bulk of its oil supplies. Since the bulk of Iran’s known nuclear and military infrastructure is in north central Iran, you have to go through the Zagros Mountains and across the often arid central Iranian plateau, about 400 miles inland as the crow flies and well over 500 when you include inconvenient features like terrain. You have to seize and secure one or more routes from Iraq through the Zagros. Using more than one route may divide Iranian defenders through the principle of converging columns but it might overwhelm U.S. logistical capacity which would consist of trucks carrying supplies over mountains and deserts over geographically separated routes. Assuming you seize and secure the Zagros routes, you then cross over the deserts and approach the most populated regions of Iran. You would have to occupy sufficient territory to secure your supply lines.
You would then have to at least temporarily occupy the areas that contain Iran’s crucial military and nuclear infrastructure. Some of this, like the reactor at Bushehr, can be reached by sea. But a lot of it is around cities like Tehran, Qom, and Natanz which are separated by thousands of miles. That means you’d have to at least be able to secure your forces from urban threats and selectively penetrate them as needed. Assuming you’ve gotten this far, you would then start disabling Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure. You might disrupt the government while you’re at it.
You’d have to do this among a large and hostile population that has a strong history of hating foreign intervention, a large irregular militia that has shown a strong willingness to use suicide tactics and that could blend in with the population, an elite formation skilled in similar tactics to their surrogate Hezbollah, and what passes for Iran’s regular army. You would see the energetic ambush of supply convoys driving over long mountainous and desert roads with improvised explosive devices, shaped charges, and irregular forces. Potential disruptions could range from suicide boats attacking ships in the Persian Gulf and Indian Oceans to Iranian surrogates sabotaging port facilities to overseas terrorist attacks, especially by Hezbollah against northern Israel.
Assuming you’d destroyed your nuclear and military targets to a sufficient degree while overcoming all of this, you would then withdraw. You would pull your entire supply trail back across the desert and through the mountains, securing your rearguard as you went. You could keep a grip on Khuzestan and even hand it over to the Iraqis (if they want it).
Then comes the hard part.
You have to credibly create the impression that you would do it all over again and then, if Iran misbehaves, actually do it over again. You might have to occupy lodgements with secure ports so you can react as needed. You could launch razzias against alternative targets, such as disrupting the hold the Iranian central government has on its minority populations in peripheral regions like Iranian Baluchistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, some of which probably have more attachment to the Iranian central government than you think. Some would be over the same territory you overran the time before, which gives the Iranians the opportunity to booby trap it.
You would have to accomplish all of this in the face of powers like Russia and China who would strenuously object to both the precedent and the disruption or loss of crucial energy supplies (China) and customers (Russia). They could actively or covertly aid the Iranians. You would have to secure the cooperation of important Arab nations like the Gulf States, Egypt, and especially Iraq, who have mixed feelings about supporting the Americans, especially for a lengthy presence. You would face the ambivalent (at best) to hostile (at worst) Europeans. The rest of the international community, inasmuch as such an entity exists, would probably not be happy. This could result in passive aggressive opposition or even active hostility.
There are some advantages to Finel’s proposal: It favors the “Big Army” heavy conventional maneuver force over the culturally aware touchy feely manpower intensive force that COIN proponents favor. It favors firepower over manpower based on the simple calculus that the other side will run out of men before we run out of high explosive. It favors the short attention span of the American viewing audience. It favors the Army’s most favored mission (force protection) because casualties would probably be light (at least at first). It favors a technological and engineering focused mindset over a humanistic mindset. In brief, as the mighty PurpleSlog noted:
1) It plays to US Strengths: big high-tech war machine
2) It avoids 2 big US weaknesses: A) Lack of patience by US leaders/elites B) Doesn’t give time for the anti-US US media to get into full McGovern mode.
The United States is still in the situation where its self-imposed constraints outweigh its intrinsic constraints. Whether this is an enviable position or not depends upon how annoying you find the contradictory impulses of American politics. The American people are ambivalent about war. They want to retreat into themselves yet they want to be a world leader. Truthfully, they want to be loved. The American people have shown a certain indifference to enemy civilian casualties as long as their convinced they’re winning over Evil Incarnate. However, wars that drag on tend to test their patience (which has been true going back to colonial times). They’ve been led to expect push button war and the brutal reality of prolonged combat is repellent.
American elites are the most problematic element. One major faction has a certain enthusiasm for war but little knowledge or demonstrable competence in managing it. The opposing faction hates U.S. military action and seeks to use foreign entities to restrain U.S. foreign policy options. Other factions go back and forth depending upon how they sense their constituents and fund-raising are swinging. The military bureaucracy would like to stop the distraction of this “war” thing and get back to the Defense Department’s core missions: managing procurement of overpriced weapons systems and preparing to stop the Soviets from invading Western Europe. The intelligence agencies want to go back to analyzing Soviet tank traffic. The State Department wants to be socially acceptable at all the best parties in Brussels and Paris. Everyone is confused about what the United State’s core interests are and are deeply ignorant of war and diplomacy. The politicians try to amuse the American people with shows of action, little realizing that they’ve already changed the channel over to American Idol. The appearance of bottomless American wealth lulls everyone into complacency.
Finel’s “repetitive raiding” or razzia addresses some of these problems but razzia is a tactic. It places tame control where wicked control belongs. As Zenpundit points out, razzia is a potential strategic tool but centering American military operations on it would only create a “strategy of tactics”. We already have a strategy of tactics with COIN. COIN calls for a state of tame control over the population and razzia calls for a transient tame control over enemy infrastructure. Razzia and COIN both generate strategic effects with the definite potential to generate black swans. They run into wicked problems with nothing more than a linear engineering approach to fix them. Control over wicked problems is not utterly impossible but is an order of magnitude more difficult. It takes better approaches and better ways of thinking. Even worse, it may require more coherent politics. How do we get there?
That’s a good question…