Politics trickles down while tactics trickles up.
That’s especially true of military factions. Take retired U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor. Macgregor has three claims to fame:
- He was in command of 2nd Squadron, 2nd Calvary when it ran into a wing of the Iraqi Republican Guard during Operation Desert Storm. His squadron destroyed an entire enemy brigade in forty minutes in what has become known as the Battle of 73 Easting.
- He wrote a book advocating a massive reorganization of the U.S. Army called Breaking the Phalanx. It made him very popular with the top brass. As popular as a bad rash.
- He created the core operational concept for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Macgregor is a man who speaks his mind and means what he says. He is an unabashed and unapologetic U.S. Army Armor officer. If you don’t know what an unabashed and unapologetic Armor officer looks like, Macgregor spends over an hour in this lecture at Chicago’s own Pritzker Military Library putting the mind of a U.S. Army Armor officer on exhibit. Macgregor’s variant on the Armor worldview is tactical in that his intra-service politics have become “tacticized” and it’s political in that his tactics have become politicized.
In his lecture, Macgregor strongly implies that the counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare waged in Iraq and Afghanistan is a conspiracy by the U.S. Army’s light infantry against his beloved Armor. This is because COIN requires large numbers of “boots on the ground” which means that resources are being diverted from Armor to the light infantry. An unspoken subtext of Macgregor’s implications are that Armor (and its officers) are losing power to those treacherous light infantry officers.
Since the division of power is the essence of politics, this means that the debate between Armor and light infantry is political even though Armor and light infantry are both Army and they are only distinguished from each other light by their tactical roles. Ironically, a tactical distinction has created a political fault line. This makes the formation of strategy, which has to link tactics and politics, much more difficult. If a chosen strategy favors Armor, as Macgregor advocates, or if it favors COIN, as advocated by Macgregor’s chosen arch-nemesis David Petraeus, the formation of strategy is reduced to sweeping up the debris left over after a vicious struggle between competing factions whose living depends on their particular tactical vision being funded. Strategy ends up being shaped by politics from above and tactics from below, leaving it politicized and tacticized but not strategized.
Of course Macgregor’s advocacy can’t be reduced to purely political calculations. Armor, like any human community, has its own narratives and its own culture. If you drink the Kool Aid they serve at the company picnic for long enough, eventually you’ll start to think like the Kool Aid. Culture is shaped by the nature of an organization, its role, and its need for resources. Narratives that attract resources to their organizations tend to thrive. Narratives that don’t tend to wither away. Macgregor, like any American armor advocate dating back to George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Patton led the first American tank corps into battle during World War I while Eisenhower (much to his frustration) led the stateside armor training at Gettysburg, PA), has learned what sells:
What politicians really want is a giant red button they can push and, voila, victory is had, quick, easy, cheap, and bloodless. The best way to win a bigger slice of the candy that Congress dishes out is to take your branch’s tactical solution and repackage it as a strategic (and therefore political) solution: the Easy Button. Macgregor’s particular Easy Button is armor and, unlike many aspiring Easy Button advocates, Macgregor was actually allowed to push his Easy Button in designing the operational concept around which the plan for the second invasion of Iraq congealed. Unfortunately for Macgregor, his overall strategy was similar to Bernard Finel’s “repetitive raiding“: drive rapidly into Iraq, quickly destroy Iraq’s government, rapidly set up a new Iraq government, and speedily withdraw to avoid irritating the natives.
Macgregor was disgusted when his preferred strategy was ignored in favor of the vague strategy that guided the American occupation of Iraq from 2003-2007. In his eyes, like Finel’s, occupation of Iraq would lead to a quagmire in Iraq. Even worse, it would open a window of opportunity for Macgregor’s light infantry opponents, especially that irritating suck-up David Petraeus. Macgregor left the Army in disgust and light infantry was able to defeat Armor in a long war of attrition between 2003 and 2007.
Light Infantry waged a war that did not play to Armor’s strengths. Armor was forced to operate in restricted areas where its mobility was compromised while light infantry was able to occupy static defenses or walk around at foot speed, playing to their strengths. The war favored light infantry and Armor was gradually worn down. It was eventually reduced to a point not seen by U.S. Armor since the beginning of World War II: infantry support. You can practically see light infantry guys mockingly asking Armor guys if they want to trade in their M1A2’s, capable of speeds up to 70 miles per hour, for slow first-generation World War I tanks like the Mark IV or the Renault FT-17 that crawl forward at 3.7 miles per hour.
Easy Buttons rise, Easy Buttons fall. They fail more often than they succeed. But hope springs eternal. So the purveyors of Easy Buttons still prowl the halls of Congress peddling magic elixirs of victory and trolling for dollars. This is one of the eternal features of war: Og probably sold the first spear to Grok by claiming that it would wipe out the enemy Elk tribe with a single throw. The Elk tribe probably responded by convening a summit with the neighboring Bison tribe in order to issue a communique accusing Grok’s tribe of tribecide and demanding that spears be banned as a weapon of mass destruction, all the while running their own illicit spear weapons program in spite of potential inter-tribal condemnation.
In his book Special Operations and Strategy: From World War II to the War on Terrorism, James Kiras deals with one popular Easy Button: the special operator. In the firmament of American strategy, the special operator is the panacea you reach for when you want to look like you’re doing something. Many a politician has proposed solving a problem with “covert operations” or, even worse, “intelligence”, instead of more overt military action. This is the strategic equivalent of doing nothing. You might as well hold a press conference where you make the media watch Commando for two hours, after which you ask, “Any questions?”. Better yet, have the State Department issue a “sharp” statement in which they express disappointment. It would be just as effective, just as easy, and just as useful.
Kiras is a apprentice of noted British military theorist Colin S. Gray. This background allows Kiras to communicate Gray’s unique insights without forcing readers to wade through Gray’s tortured and self-indulgent prose. Like Gray, Kiras is suspicious of Easy Buttons. To reveal the hollow promise of Easy Buttons, Kiras begins his book with an expose of Operation Chastise, a World War II Royal Air Force (RAF) air raid that used special bombs that skipped across the surface of water. This unusual bouncing bomb was necessary to strike and destroy a series of dams above the Ruhr, Nazi Germany’s primary industrial region. The RAF sold the mission to Churchill as an Easy Button: destroy the dams, flood the Ruhr, and destroy its electrical power sources. German industry would be crippled and Hitler would surrender. Kiras has a term for this Utopian fantasy: strategic paralysis.
Strategic paralysis is a belief that, through the application of some magical mix of tactical process, doctrine, and technology, you can defeat an enemy and win a war with “one swift stroke”. Kiras explores strategic paralysis by examining three apostles of the strategic paralysis school: British tank pioneer J.F.C. Fuller, American air power enthusiast John Warden, and the great John Boyd (see ChicagoBoyz’s own Boyd Roundtable for more information. Better yet, buy the book and feed Lex’s children). Fuller, frustrated with the stalemate on the Western Front, advocated creating an army of tanks who would piece the trench line, roll deep into the rear, and surprise the enemy generals in their chateaus, causing strategic paralysis. Warden advocated the same thing as Fuller only with precision bombers instead of tanks. Kiras’s examination of John Boyd is not as deep as it could be though, as Kiras rightly complains, Boyd’s documented thought is not as voluminous as Fuller’s and Warden’s. Interpreting his ideas leans heavily on the interpretations of Boyd’s acolytes, who have their own ideas. However, Kiras’s treatment of Boyd echos Colin S. Gray’s. Gray has waged war on Boyd ever since he “discovered” that Boyd was the secret Hellmouth of Maneuver Warfare, spewing forth black clouds to obscure the glory of Carl von Clausewitz, Gray’s lodestar (also the subject of a ChicagoBoyz roundtable). While Boyd’s thought contains a large strain of Fullerism transfused like glucose through a Liddell-Hart intravenous tube, there is more to Boyd than Kiras allows.
However, his lackluster handling of John Boyd is irrelevant to the validity of Kiras’s central thesis. Kiras argues that:
- strategic paralysis is rare if non-existent
- the truly successful strategy is attrition
Attrition has had a bad rap since Sun Tzu or his school claimed that no one has ever skillfully extended a war’s length, despite all the people like Mao Tse-tung, Vo Nguyen Giap, and others who have. No one wants to advocate attrition: George Washington was only able to speak of “a war of posts” and Winston Churchill was only able to speak of “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” after two disastrous defeats that were coincidentally rescued from catastrophe through miraculous last-minute evacuations: New York and Dunkirk. A politician or military officer who preaches a strategy of attrition is likely to meet a poor professional end. The great Russian strategic theorist A.A. Svechin was not only denounced as a counter-revolutionary but later shot for advocating attrition. Following in Svechin’s less than promising tracks, Kiras bravely advocates attrition.
Kiras’s reminds us that Clausewitz recognized that war had two aspects: the moral and the material. A strategy of attrition is usually thought of as a purely material approach. Attack the enemy relentlessly, grinding down his men and material until nothing’s left. Attrition’s poster boy is World War I supreme British commander Douglas Haig. Haig has been called the greatest Scottish general in history: no other Scottish commander ever managed to kill more Englishmen in battle than Haig. Haig is remembered as sitting at his comfortable desk in a distant chateau, continually sending wave after wave of young British soldiers against machine guns, barbed wire, and artillery in a mindless attempt to break the Boche while he eats a hot and hearty lunch.
This still nurtures revenge fantasies in places as remote as New Zealand.
The truth is more complex. Haig was a cavalryman: rather than grinding the Hun down, he was aiming to break the German lines in classic magic bullet style, after which victory would be won. Unfortunately, the average British soldier couldn’t run fast enough to exploit any break in the trench line. The result was mass slaughter. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was so horrified by Haig’s repeated massacres of British youth that he held back reinforcements from the front lines. The World War I experience left attrition’s image bogged down in the mud of Flanders’ field, as the mulish Haig hoists a generation of lions on German petards. Attrition was dismissed as Materialschlacht, a “war of material” as the Germans contemptuously called Allied strategy in the two world wars.
Kiras sets out to correct this impression. Drawing on Clausewitz and reinforced by insights from pioneering German military historian Hans Delbruk, argues that attrition can be both moral and material. If war, according to Clausewitz, is “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will”, you can compel the enemy to do your will through exhaustion as well as through paralysis. In fact, there are far more examples of successful wars of exhaustion than of successful wars of strategic paralysis. It is, in fact, hard to find any war in modern times that has not been a war of attrition, rather than a war of magic paralysis.
Kiras cites the great but sadly neglected American strategic theorist J.C. Wylie’s useful division of strategy into two parts:
- Sequential: “war as a series of discrete steps or actions, with each one of this series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it. The total pattern of all the discrete or separate actions makes up, serially, the entire sequence of the war. If at any stage of the war one of these actions had happened differently, then the remainder of the sequence wold have been interrupted and altered.”
- Cumulative: “a type of warfare in which the entire pattern is made up of a collection of lesser actions, but these lesser or individual actions are not sequentially independent. Each individual one is no more than a single statistic, an isolated plus or minus, in arriving at the final result…No one action is completely dependent on the one that preceded it. The thing that counts is the cumulative effect”.
Most can think of examples of sequential strategy; if your heart beats only for the great military geniuses of history, sequential strategies are your strategic porn of choice. If your heart beats for the romance of convoys, submarines, mines, tonnage tables, and thousands of anonymous pinpricks that bleed the enemy through a thousand cuts, than you have achieved a higher level of strategic awareness: cumulative strategy. Between the Hail Mary passes of strategic paralysis and the “three yards and a cloud of dust” of pure Materialschlacht, you have the happy medium of the West Coast offense, where a mix of short passes and short runs put the enemy on edge and wears down his patience, leaving him vulnerable to sudden, and cumulative, shocks. This happy medium is a strategy of moral attrition.
This is where Kiras reintegrates the special operator back into strategy. A strategy of moral attrition still mixes Sun Tzu’s orthodox and unorthodox elements: the orthodox uses the constant pressure of shock and fire to grind down the enemy morally while the unorthodox uses special operations and other surprises to throw the enemy off-balance. In this strategy, unlike strategic paralysis, a special operation is not meant to win the war in one blow. The special operator generates shock and awe as part of a pattern of war, where each tactical incident, orthodox or unorthodox, add up to cumulatively wear down the enemy morally and (only incidentally) materially. Theorists of strategic paralysis are correct in targeting enemy moral centers of gravity rather than the enemy’s material centers of gravity. However, parochial interests, tactical mindsets, and personal experience led them to peddle moral killing magic bullets instead of moral whetstones.
This is a particularly American disease. Americans have an engineering fetish, believing that every situation in life is a problem that can be engineered away. This makes Americans prone to magic bullet thinking and leaves them vulnerable to masters of attrition like Mao and Giap. Some Americans are resistant to attrition: these fellow travelers preemptively surrender to whatever tin-pot despot passes by. Most Americans are good for two or three years of attrition but after that they’re disheartened by a congenital impatience and the murmuring of the usual suspects. After all, Americans see magic bullets everywhere. Americans live in a universe of magic bullets: fast food, Just In Time manufacturing, flexible supply chains, on demand cable, microwave burritos, the Internet, the iPod, disposable celebrities. All conspire to make Americans (assuming they’re paying attention) believe that there’s a magic bullet for every problem.
There isn’t. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, humans, especially that subspecies are stupid. Humans don’t actually know enough about the world to make correct decisions. Even worse, they can’t know enough about the world to make correct decisions. This stupidity was less threatening in simpler days when stupidity was enough to get you hurt but not killed. Unfortunately, as anthropologist Joseph Tainter has pointed out, humans add complexity to their lives in order to solve problems. This complexity builds up over time and, eventually, the energy devoted to supporting it begins to show diminishing returns. People opt out of society, civilization hollows out, and John Robb roams the streets fighting grizzly bears where Bob Rubin once looked down on the dirty mob and invited the world to look upon his works and despair.
What Tainter’s analysis doesn’t touch is intentionally induced complexity. In the past, priests created complex liturgies, lawyers created complex law codes, and scribes created complex writing systems. The complexity they introduced and strove to maintain created information asymmetries that allowed them to maintain their power and control over the masses. In our times, the same thirst for control led to the creation of intentional complexities like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), credit default swaps (CDSs), mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), littoral combat ships (LCS), thousand page legislative bills, ever thickening law books, capstone concepts, and, yes, magic bullets. Complexity is power and credentialed complexity is more power. Given enough people creating enough information asymmetries, whatever feedback loops left standing become so calcified that the whole social system becomes fragile.
Ideas of strategic paralysis, where victory is dependent upon an intentional complexity of knowledge so perfect that you can identify enemy centers of gravity exactly and target them exactly and hit them exactly, are equally prone to failure. The possibility, as Kiras points out, of friction destroying the best laid plans, turning the tables, and surprising a budding wielder of strategic paralysis is even greater than the chance to inflict strategic paralysis on the enemy. The user of strategic complexity is as likely to be caught in his own trap as he is to spring it on the enemy. He has a big target on his chest that is clearly labeled HIT ME WITH A BLACK SWAN. PLEASE.
A strategy of attrition is more robust: create a strategic margin of safety and poke the other guy till he gives in. Tactics used in a framework of strategic attrition are small, discrete, and compartmentalized. One mistake isn’t fatal. Attrition supports an iterative approach where trial and error can be employed. The tactics that work best can be learned and shared. The tactics that fail can be abandoned and forgotten. If attrition had a slogan it would be REDUNDANCY, REDUNDANCY, REDUNDANCY. Diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Attrition is the strategy your grandmother would follow if your grandmother happened to lead a war effort.
Unfortunately, contemporary Americans are obsessed with the comparative advantages of efficiency. The coming of the spreadsheet and other information technology enabled a generation of MBAs and their fellow travelers to practice false prophecy and false economy on a scale beyond the imagination of previous generations. Redundancies make the MBA and the quartermaster blue; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Gehenna of accounts payable. It is tactically logical to eliminate redundancies as inefficient: the human mind is inherently reductionist.
Unfortunately, their combined efforts have made the world much more complex than necessary through their constant search (in fact, an arms race) for asymmetric efficiencies. This is evidence of tactical thinking. Strategy demands redundancy while tactics demands efficiency. Since the human mind is tactical, efficiency usually wins. This is ignoring the evidence in front of your own eyes. Since nature is strategic, humans have two nostrils, two lungs, two kidneys, two lobes, two arms, two legs, and a variety of redundant systems. If a human being was designed by an MBA, they would probably have only one of each system to avoid incurring unnecessary costs. Tactically, they would be correct. Strategically, they would be wrong. An MBA haunted world is inherently unstable and prone to sudden shocks. An MBA haunted world is inherently hostile to strategy.
Fortunately, some of America’s enemy’s are just as given to magic bulletry as Americans. Former brand manager Osama bin Laden (he worked in the marketing department as a brand manager for the family enterprises) and Dr. Zawahari are both magic bullet thinkers at heart. September 11th was an attempt to achieve strategic paralysis. Osama bin Laden fired a few rounds at Tora Bora in 1988 and drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Americans were paper tigers compared to the Russians. Therefore, it was logical to conclude, all you needed was one New York-Washington spectacular and the Middle East would be left to Osama and Ayman. This logic was wrong. The “paper tiger” had sharp paper claws. Osama and Ayman found themselves out of joint. They continue to dream of a strategy populated by more theatrical spectaculars when a strategy of attrition is a better option. Eventually enough of their more magic bullet colleagues joined the Allah Express that the attritionists came forward. The Taliban were able to regroup and wage a real guerrilla campaign instead of their trademark “mass and be massacred” tactics characteristic of the first six years of the Afghan insurgency.
The Chinese and other “strategic competitors” of America already know about a strategy of attrition: Mao taught it and Deng Xiaoping understood it. After all, what does it matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it captures the long-nosed Western barbarian’s dollar? America produced three great strategists of attrition: Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk. Their strategy was to make America so big and strong that it could afford the idiocies of democratic politics while surviving in a world populated by authoritarian vipers. The German Friedrich List learned from the Americans during his exile in Pennsylvania and relayed their lessons to the Germans. From there, their strategy of attrition spread to Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, and from there to China. A zeal for magic bullets and the effectiveness of its past strategy of attrition has blinded America to the secret of its own success. Others don’t have that luxury.
Kiras’s book is a corrective to this ill. Attrition is the COIN of the realm. Those that live by the magic bullet die by the magic bullet. Magic bullets are a luxury for the rich. Attrition may force America back from a rich man’s war to a poor man’s fight. Americans of today have no patience with attrition and even less patience with a politics of attrition. They go around quoting George Marshall and mumbling about seven year wars. This lack of patience will be cured. The grindstone of history is a rough but effective school master. Indeed, what is history but the attrition of humanity?
Kiras’s book is worth reading.