Unhappy Medium: The Perils of Annoyance as Your Strategic Default

Last week saw its share of sound and fury. One again, commentators from around the globe, ranging from noted Clausewitzian to unnoted COINdinista, gathered to answer, once and for all, one question: does America conquer through love or through death? (hint: the answer is yes). However, last week saw something more important: substantive and troubling hints of the reemergence of a real threat, a specter that has haunted American defense thinking since 1844: unapologetic magic bulletry.

Quoth the Committee:

Iraq 2003 was the last hurrah of the dotcom era. Echoing a classic “netizen” conceit, Pentagon planners believed that American forces would interpret the Iraqi army as damage and route around them to victory. Intensive “network-centric” warfare would combine data from each network node (soldier) into a grand central clearinghouse that would deliver total information omniscience. Commanders could then move forces to needs, on demand. Any enemy infantryman that sneezed in the night would draw instant, exactly targeted fire that would hermetically package and deliver them to Allah with the best IT driven efficiency that the private sector could provide. Light shows of dizzying precision would capture enemy eyeballs, break their will to resist, and leave Mesopotamia the newest target demographic for Madison Avenue.
This thought was the logical endpoint of dotcom mania. Governmental institutions, the military being one such institution, lag behind the private sector in tech mania adoption. Dotcom groupthink hit the military hardest after it had passed its peak of hysteria in the rest of American society.

In its nineties heyday, techno-opiates promised a future where U.S. forces moved freely like network packets across an antiseptic information battlespace. These force “packets” would be effectively omniscient since enemy forces would continue to unheedingly mass Soviet style forces in large formations across flat, treeless, and unpopulated terrain. There the enemy could be anesthetized in detail with precision, with laser-guided fluffy down pillows lulling enemy soldiers gently to sleep. The American military would simply interpret resistance “as damage and route around it“. The result of such thinking was an American military that could deter a large country, destroy a medium-sized country, or occupy a small country.

This policy shift from the mass armies of mid-century America to its smaller and more élite just-in-time replacement assumed a strong ability to accurately see the future. This is understandable: part of any defense plan is building the force you want that lets you do what you want to create the future you want. Unfortunately, the most neglected yet important part of a defense plan is building the force you need to survive what you don’t want to do in a future you don’t want. Building a magic bullet force assumes you’ll always enjoy the luxury of fighting whoever, whatever, wherever, whenever, and however you want, protected by an all-seeing eye so powerful and so pervasive that it provides perfect predictive power. The power of prophecy will free you from the margin of safety supplied by the quantitative outputs of the 20th century with just-in-time margins supplied by the qualitative outputs of the 21st.

If the last decade should have taught Americans anything, it should have taught them that contemporary American can’t predict the future. However, the correct solution (stop treating false prophecy as gospel) has been widely ignored in favor of the wrong solution (bet everything on false prophecy, only this time more aggressively). Just yesterday, we once again saw U.S. financial markets tumble because a significant number of investors had gambled, wrongly, on predictions of higher unemployment being in its last throes. Billions are lost and made based on the illusion that Benjamin S. Bernanke of Washington, D.C. is any better at predicting U.S. economic indicators than John X. Smith of Duluth, Iowa.

In the wars of the 21st century, thousands died and trillions were spent based merely on the authority of prophecy that was little more predictive than the steely glint of Donald Rumsfeld’s bespectacled eyes and the firmness of his jaw. The result was a force that manfully struggled its way to relative operational success despite the obstacles the Pentagon put in its way. The military danced dreadfully close to the edge but escaped operationally unscathed. Strategically, however, the military’s combat forces are depleted by repeat overseas visits, its hospitals are packed with lifelong, and its weaponry has a decade of wear and that will be expensive to replace if it ever is replaced. Such is the fate of a magic bullet force that found itself in wars that were more manpower and resource intensive than anticipated by Pentagon prophets.

The greater risk of a neo-magic bullet force is that it will only serve to reinforce America’s default strategy, a strategy of annoyance. All Strategy falls between two theoretical extremes, annihilation or exhaustion. But a strategy of annihilation, unfortunately, can’t exist outside of works of popular fiction. In practice, all strategies are strategies of exhaustion.

Strategy is the accumulation of favorable events that arise from time to time as the strategist meddles in the fluid balance between the competing poles of the Trinity of passion, contingency, and reason. The rational goal of strategy is accumulating enough positive events before the accumulation of negative events exhausts you. Since the most powerful pole of Clausewitz’s trinity is contingency, a great deal of strategy is focused on constructively twiddling your thumbs until something turns up that bears promise for your melange of wants and needs. You want to keep this thumb twiddling constructive enough to vent your passions so they don’t dangerously accumulate and explosively distort your carefully reasoned plans.

The feebleness of reason, the intensity of passion, and the unknowability of contingency make strategic effort a trial by exhaustion and not a one-time shot with a magic bullet. Reason is sorely tested by exhausting and unpredictable events that creating moral attrition, supplemented as needed with the wear of material attrition. The extended nature of strategies of exhaustion are murder to just-in-time élite forces. Their heir moral and physical endurance lacks the margin of safety that forces built with an eye towards strategic redundancy are equipped with. Man for man, weapon for weapon, blow for blow, the magic bullet force is more prone to falling victim to the murderous arithmetic of war simply because man for man, weapon for weapon, blow for blow, there is less force to go around.

The U.S. system of government is designed around the institutionalized stasis of factional trench warfare. Governmental power derives from the consent of contingency, built on system of representation heavily tilted towards votes cast by catastrophe. Based on the rule of crisis, not of men, the U.S. federal government creaks limply forward only under the lash of perceived calamity. In such an environment, without a crisis (real or manufactured) at hand, strategy leans imperceptibly towards the unhappy medium of a strategy of annoyance. Reasons of state demand that strategically substantive and consequential action be taken from time to time. But the inertia of the system demands that nothing be done within the system to raise an inconvenient stir or distract the American public from its patriotic consumption. This places two constraints on strategically significant action:

  1. It must be small enough to escape sustained public awareness.
  2. It must be big enough to have real strategic effect.

The result of struggling to square these two incompatible constraints is settling by default on a strategy of annoyance. A strategy of annoyance is big enough to irritate an enemy but not big enough to produce real strategic effect. It produces increased friction for the U.S. from the enemy so irritated without the compensating strategic effects that build toward real strategic gain.

A strategy with a strain of annoyance is a useful part of a wider strategy of exhaustion whether it’s called harrying, harassing, or worrying the enemy. Constant yet unpredictably applied annoyance can enervate an enemy and contribute towards moral and material exhaustion. However, a strategy that ends up being 100% based on annoyance is likely to produce an aroused enemy without the benefits of decisively contributing towards knocking him down, increasing your own moral and material exhaustion.

The life of the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden is one example of the consequences of a strategic vacuüm that limply defaults to annoyance. American efforts were enough to get Bin Laden deported from the relative comforts of the Sudan, making him leave behind his stuff and property, but not enough to leave Bin Laden an unrecognized hump of dismembered viscera dumped on the side of a Khartoum road for the jackals and vultures to feast on. So Osama Bin Laden found himself in backwoods Afghanistan, hanging out with a.

Though his primordial enmity was already tilted against the United States, his escape from the Sudan with his life but not his property greatly annoyed Bin Laden without decisively deterring him. This set off a series of events that eventually led to this tense photo opportunity where the senior officials of the world’s ostensible hegemonic power spent a great deal of time worrying intently about the complications caused by killing a man who, a mere 15 years before, had been a branding manager for the family construction business:


The assisted death of Bin Laden in Khartoum in 1996 would have been a strategic triumph. The assisted death of Bin Laden in 2011 was a strategic whimper. But the former wouldn’t have happened because the political environment of 1996 ruled out action consequential enough to produce strategic effect. The latter happened because, after Bin Laden inflicted ~40,000 casualties on this nation, the situation in 2011 was downright encouraging towards his assisted departure from this life.

A magic bullet force strongly favors an aimless drift towards a default strategy of annoyance. After all, it’s big enough to make the Madeline Albrights ask “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”, which means, of course, it will inevitably get used. But it’s too small to produce decisive strategic effect unless your enemy is Mauritius or Belize.

The political economy of our times may favor creation of small professional mercenary regular forces to guard the élite cosmopolitans that huddle in the urban city states/resilient communities envisioned by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, John Robb, or Parag Khanna. The primary role of such forces is guard duty and the occasional punitive raid into the surrounding favelas. If the scope of warfare follows its trend since Waterloo, with a battle line of up to a mile widening to a front that extends from the Atlantic to the Swiss border to a nation at war where civilians are under constant threat of aerial bombardment to a pervasive war of all against all where there is no front and war is everywhere, such forces may become the (organized) norm.

In its weak form, the Efficient Violence Hypothesis (EVH) posits that any human group tends to evolve the social form that will best coerce its members and other groups. In its more fantastic strong form, the EVH posits that a human group is always and instantaneously organized in the way that will best apply violence to its members and other groups while pursuing power, control, and purpose. Whether magic bullet forces are the most effective social form for applying violence to Americans and passersby is unknowable at this point in these forces’ evolution. It may turn out that alternative forms for applying social violence like the mass participatory conscript armies that dominated between the American Civil War and Vietnam and the mass participatory electorates that coalesced to sustain them are obsolescent in today’s political economy as the Mongol hordes or the Greco-Macedonian phalanx.

The general principle remains: Master Sun wisely advised the warring kings of the late Spring and Autumn period to mix orthodox and unorthodox to produce victory. However, he would have never advised them to be all unorthodox all the time. The emphasis on élite formations on the scale envisioned by America’s most enthusiastic magic bulletheads seeks to institutionalize the unorthodox. Master Sun would have scoffed at this long-nosed red-headed Eastern barbarian idiocy. He knew that the unorthodox, when overemployed, ceases to be unorthodox and becomes orthodox.

The oblique order was a bang at Leuthen but a whimper at the first “end of history“. Charles of Lorraine was strategically affected. Buonaparte was only strategically annoyed. The moral of the story is provided by Mr. Clint Eastwood in the Western classic Hang ‘Em High:

[youtube youtube=http://wwwjYyVtRb6uz4]

22 thoughts on “Unhappy Medium: The Perils of Annoyance as Your Strategic Default”

  1. STOP IT with the interesting and thought provoking posts around here when I’m trying to catch up with my blog reading!!!!


    – Madhu

  2. But America seems most suspectible to be defeat by strategic annoyance. We’re too easy to outlast.

  3. “Though his primordial enmity was already tilted against the United States, his escape from the Sudan with his life but not his property greatly annoyed Bin Laden without decisively deterring him. This set off a series of events that eventually led to this tense photo opportunity where the senior officials of the world’s ostensible hegemonic power spent a great deal of time worrying intently about the complications caused by killing a man who, a mere 15 years before, had been a branding manager for the family construction business”

    Deftly said.

  4. Why assume that bin Laden was the decision maker and cause of events? I think what his death in Abbotabad proved is that he was just another soldier, and one who had worn out his utility. The real parties in interest, except for the Iraqi connection, are still sitting comfortably at home in Riyadh, Tehran, and Islamabad.

  5. Citizen Fouche:

    OK, yes. Magic bulletry is silly. And for substantial conflicts you need staying power and quantity has a quality all its own.

    But …

    Who are we going to fight with our orthodox forces? Why do we need them? Why can’t we get by with stand off weapons, air and naval power, and raiding parties to go ashore in Eurasia to bash away and scoot.

    I am open to being convinced otherwise, and it goes against my hawkish grain, and I love a column of tanks as much (or more) than the next guy, but I am having a harder and harder time seeing the need.

    What are our serious security threats now?

    1. Mexico falling apart.

    Maybe there is no 2.

    Islamic terrorism? Who sponsors it? Our supposed allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Maybe we can find a way to work that better than by pretending the Wahhabi nutjobs and the ISI are somehow not really the problem. Anyway, you don’t need an orthodox force to deal with it. A mix of police measures, targeted killing and commando raids should be enough for this not-particularly-cosmic menace.

    The Taliban? If we leave they can’t shoot at us. As one Afghan Emir put it, my country has nothing but poor people and rocks. And opium too, but generally he was correct.

    Iran? If they detonate a nuke, we annihilate them. They know this, so they won’t. Either way, we don’t need an army to deal with them. We will never go in there because we are deterred already, since they did not stupidly give up their nukes like Khadafy, and it would be impossible to conquer the place at reasonable cost even if we could go in there. And, why would you want to, anyway? So, no need for an orthodox force there.

    Syria? Hezbollah? Israel can deal with them.

    Libya? Who gives a crap about Libya, anyway.

    North Korea? Let the Chinese deal with them. And the South Koreans. And the Japanese. And if absolutely necessary, support these locals who have a real stake in the matter with air and naval power.

    China? We’ll never have a war with China, and if we do it goes nuclear and the world economy collapses and we all starve to death. No need for an army. But, ok, maybe, for them, we build a cool navy with lots of drones and cruise missiles so we can trash the place conventionally and maybe it does not go nuclear. So, that is orthodox, but I do not imagine armored divisions repeating General Sir Hope Grant’s march on Peking in 1860. Never happen. Ever.

    Russia? Same thing, but even more remote than open conflict with China. They are too busy dying of emphysema and delerium tremens to do much other than spastically release their remaining nukes. And they won’t because it would be stupid and they’d all die for nothing. Never happen.

    Africa? Shmafrica. If we decide to continue to wisely exercise the option of NOT going into places like Somalia (curse you George H.W. Bush) and Rwanda (thank you, Bill Clinton) for their own supposed good there is not a whole hell of a lot for us to do there.

    Tell me what orthodox force we should build in the next ten years and who it should be directed against?

    I ask this in all sincerity.

  6. Also, Veneuela? We may need to invade that. But, maybe we leave it to be engulfed by the new regional hegemon, Brazil. Speaking of Brazil …

    Brazil? Now there is a long-term menace. We better teach our tank crews Portuguese, so they can say “where is the gasoline station?” as they plunder local supplies (like the Soviets were going to do in Germany and France as they headed toward the Sack of Paris that thankfully never happened in the mid-1980s) in the race upcountry to … Brazilia.

  7. “It may turn out that alternative forms for applying social violence like the mass participatory conscript armies…[much omitted]”

    Could be. Makes for good SF military fant novels. But you wrote that you’re no better than Smith & Rumsfeld (or Bernanke) when predicting the future. And if you are: congratulations, you’re the new Clausewitz.

  8. “If they detonate a nuke, we annihilate them”

    If Iran detonates a nuke in Israel, the ‘we’ in this sentence is limited to one: Israel. My imagination doesn’t extend to American Presidents, British Prime Ministers, French Presidents, and German Chancellors who want to remembered as the greatest mass murderers of the 21st century by reducing Iran (and probably a few nearby collaborationists) into a puddle of glass. Especially (for the EUers) on the behalf of Jews, whose deaths by their Palestinian allies they already fund.

    If Iran detonates a bomb in France, well, we’ll all be French for a day or two, then the best seller list will be topped by conspiracy ‘non-fiction’ that posits that LePen did it. And we’ll do nothing sufficient. (And French have neither the will nor the power to engage in a sustained nuclear exchanged with Iran.)

    If Iran detonates a bomb in the USA. I sure hope we annihilate them, but the only people President Zero wishes to annihilate aren’t our enemies. No act of terror by Muslims will change that. Perhaps President Hillary will be different. Romney…[gales of riotous laughter].

    With the obvious exceptions (India, Great Britain), no one will care enough act with immediate and terminal retaliation should anyone else be the target (e.g., Argentina–which Iran has already bombed).

  9. “Obama’s speeches on Iraq and Afghanistan have always included his insistence that these countries take responsibility for their security within explicit deadlines.”

    Because ordering or demanding people be responsible works well, as any parent knows. I’d like to think Obama isn’t this stupid; only his speech writers are, who carefully craft fluff for the media. If not, only paranoid conspiracy theorists can interpret this.

  10. We don’t know what will happen. The only constant is surprise. I think we should be prepared for all kinds of threats.

    Many of these blog discussions about strategy beg the question. They accept as given current budgetary constraints that are features of the current entitlement State. But if it’s politically possible to shrink entitlement programs, and it may be, might it also be possible to increase defense spending? Increased Army manpower, a few hundred more ships and a couple of thousand F22s would moot a lot of today’s reasonable concerns about spreading our capabilities too thin. As Thomas Sowell put it, the dominant political mindset sees social experimentation as a necessity and national defense as a luxury. Defense is one of govt’s most important duties. Rather than assuming that we will spend less on it, maybe we should be asking how much more of our national resources we should devote to it.

    Perhaps the central reform is of the educational system, since so many Americans are ignorant about history that rational arguments for increased defense spending fall on deaf ears.

  11. Our biggest threat to Ameicans is internal. The notion of citizenship has been under attack for decades and we have to remember that there is an evolutionary basis for racism – it works!

    Now it is working against us, now that Americans have adapted a view that we’re to transcend that evil and primitive emotion. That leaves white Americans vulnerable to those of other races who understand and use racism as a weapon.

    Hate to say these highly politically incorrect thoughts but I can’t escape the conclusion on the evolutionary/biological advantages of racism.

  12. “A couple of thousand F-22s …”

    For what?

    Who are they aimed at?

    Major threats do not emerge overnight.

    Spending a fortune on yesterday’s weapons would be a pointless misdirection of resources.

  13. It’s all pointless expenditure until you need it.

    We should produce F22s until we’re sure they’re unnecessary. We’re not there yet. Many of the predictions that people are making in these blog posts will turn out to be wrong. This is not because they are bad predictions but because in the scheme of things most predictions are wrong. For example, you could be wrong in your prediction that we will never have a war with China. Then what? We would need a lot of advance notice to produce the additional ships and F22s that would come in handy then.

    If our troops and equipment are worn out, why is it obvious that we should make do, or refine our strategy, or spend a lot of effort cutting out the waste? We might just as easily conclude that it makes more sense to spend the money to restore our military infrastructure. We could cut money from entitlement spending and use it to increase defense spending. Why not? We can afford it. We spend relatively little on defense as a % of GDP. It’s entitlement spending that’s killing us. We should err in favor of spending too much on defense.

    Of course it would be difficult to convince voters that we need to spend additional money on defense. But it may be difficult to convince voters that we should significantly cut govt spending that we think should be cut. If we’re going to be arguing for significant changes in govt spending overall, why not make the case for more defense spending?

  14. Sec. Gates concluded we did not need more F-22s. I found his reasoning compelling.

    You have said nothing other than spend more on defense because you can never have enough weapons. I agree, except that the opportunity cost is the other stuff foregone, and the voters will not go for it. No way. They want medicine for granny more than more fighter jets the Sec. Def. says we don’t need, for some reason.

  15. Gates has to accept budgetary constraints because that’s his job. He’s there to manage the decline (and now he’s leaving, for some reason). You have no such constraints.

    If voters don’t want to be taxed for national defense, it’s our job to make a case for spending the incremental dollar on defense rather than on the entitlements bureaucracy, isn’t it? And I think that dollar is better spent on defense.

  16. We should produce F22s until we’re sure they’re unnecessary.

    Personally, I would much prefer to see the money spent on A 10s and F 16s. Both are cheap and effective. The Air Force doesn’t like slow planes so the A 10s are all at Davis Monthan (I see hundreds whenever I drive past), or National Guard bases. The result is that the Air Force has few rides for its pilots. A brother-in-law, retired marine F 18 pilot, was at his son’s soccer game last year. Another father was chatting with him, an AF Lt Colonel. He excused himself to start his shift flying a Global Hawk in Afghanistan, from Tucson.

    I also think, for what it is worth, that Boeing should start up the B 52 production line again and make a couple of hundred more. B2s are OK for heavily defended targets but there are few left in the world.

  17. ” The Air Force doesn’t like slow planes”


    Tell me again why we even have an air force as a separate service?

    Tactical air should belong to the Army, analogous to what the Marines do.

    Then we could turn over all “control of the commons” — sea, air, space — and transport in those mediums, to the Navy. Then turn over all strategic bombardment, conventional or nuclear, missile or aircraft, to the Navy.

    Then we could shut down the Air Force entirely and save on dry cleaning and stationary, at minimum.

  18. The year is 1911. I’m a major in the planning division of the 8 year old U.S. Army general staff, one of the half of the general staff allowed to be stationed in Washington because of Congress’s fear of a military coup.

    What would I have planned for in the coming 10 years?

    Would I have plans that envisioned a 4 million man conscript army armed with “tanks”, airplanes, helmets, olive drab uniforms, grenades, and gas masks for fighting off “gas attacks”?

    Would I have anticipated the need for industrial production that could handle an expenditure that consumed almost as many bullets and artillery in a month than the combined efforts of mankind had expended in human history?

    Would I have proposed the need to prepare for decisive American intervention in Western Europe, the center of human civilization and power in 1911? Would I have prepared plans for intervening in Northern Russia or Siberia?

    Would I have planned for the strategic implications of the Great Powers of Europe self-immolating themselves, with the ambitions of the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Ottoman, and Rurikovich/Romanov dynasties suddenly ceasing to be relevant in international affairs for the first time since the late Middle Ages?

    Would I have planned for America to suddenly find itself alone atop the international pecking order?

    Would I have looked for emerging threats in the teahouses of Geneva, the socialist newspapers of Milan, or Vienna boarding houses?

    Would I have redoubled my peacemaking efforts between Austria and “little Servia”?

    To paraphrase a thought which might have occurred to one or two Kansas-born doughboys in 1918: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

    You think the America of 2011 has problems forming a coherent strategy? Consider the dilemma’s faced by 1911 America:


  19. “Would I have proposed the need to prepare for decisive American intervention in Western Europe, the center of human civilization and power in 1911? Would I have prepared plans for intervening in Northern Russia or Siberia?”

    Yes. Teddy Roosevelt’s circle saw a great war coming for economic reasons as early as the 1890’s ( “Reciprocity or it’s Alternative” Brooks Adams) and that was why TR was keen to mediate the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 in favor of plucky little Japan and between France and Germany over Morocco against the interests of the Hun. War was coming ssomeday and not knowing what form it would take, Roosevelt was hedging as best he could against the seemingly stronger parties. Roosevelt, Hay, Lodge, Root, Mahan, Wood,the Adams boys understood strategy, unlike the horse’s asses running America today.

    That the coming war would be tactically horrible was also evident in the Russo-Japanese War for anyone paying attention, which featured trenches, machine guns, human wave attacks, electrified barbed wire and other forms of carnage. It wasn’t all sea battles and sneak attacks. It was fortunate for Tokyo that it was fighting the most incompetent quasi-European state available.

  20. Lex: I absolutely agree on the Air Force. It was a thing to do for the Cold War, but its time has ended.

    As for combat aircraft. I think the era is drawing to a close. UAVs are far superior to airplanes that have to carry life support systems. It also suggests that the super carrier era is closing as well.

    Michael: I think we do need a new bomber. But, there are newer airframes to base it on like the C-17 and more modern engines. The real issue is keeping the fly boys in the USAF from tuning it into a technology exercise that cannot be controlled.

  21. With drones, the battle tactics shift to electromagnetic inference.

    Without control on board, the weak link is the radio loop to the ground-based operator.

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