Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 4  /  

Another Bloody Century?

Another Bloody Century? Another Bloody Century?
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Another Bloody Century”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 4, Fall 2011, pages 4-7.

Introduction: Time Marches On

It can be a humbling experience, even revelation, to read over work you have written some years ago! Very recently, I have had students tell me what they believe I believe to be true about nuclear strategy and war, quoting my own words from 1979 back at me today. It is very difficult, I can assure you, to write and lecture about contemporary issues over a forty- year professional timespan, and be confident that every golden sentence you craft will look equally golden forever (which means perhaps only 4 or 5 years).

Recently I rewrote (really self-edited) a textbook on strategic history, War, Peace, and International Relations, the first edition of which came out only in 2007. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that while I could gallop from the 1770s to 2001 with little need to rewrite myself – except for adding desirable sections on the American Civil War; and Fighter Command and the Battle of Britain – my chapters on the 2000s and on ‘irregular warfare’ brought me to an emergency stop. The reason, of course, is because there was no historical perspective on the 2000s; in fact half of them had yet to happen when I first wrote the book in 2006. Even now in 2011 we are in the realm of journalism and not history on the 2000s. Because we need to assess behaviour in terms of its consequences, obviously that is hard to do on the later (perhaps even the earlier) 2000s, because it is far too soon for us to see consequences we can register with confidence.

I am not suggesting that time is the magical elixir that reveals all. Why not? Because we cannot help but try to interpret past events, including very distant past events, in terms that make some sense to us today. This is true even when we spot behaviour that obviously is non-contemporary. Our take on that alien activity is ours, modern to us. When we find historical analogies, as we need to do and we do all the time, our choices of analogies and our interpretation of them is emphatically ours. We cannot recover the mentalités of historical figures with high confidence that we understand their motivations. Part of the difficulty lies in what one can call the unspoken and unwritten assumptions. By these I mean the beliefs that are so widely shared, are held so deeply, and are so non-controversial in a community, that people do not need to make them explicit.

For example, if we all agree, explicitly and implicitly, that God exists, that he has a human representative on Earth, and that that person and his (or her) institutionalised church can intercede for us with God, we are only going to debate details of theology, even if we fight about the details. For another example: if your culture tells you that people of a particular colour or religion or ethnicity are not really human beings of the same species as us, whoever us may be, it will be hard for historians and strategists today to recover properly those distant attitudes that informed action then.

Strategy – Now and Then?

I am going to suggest that in order to look forward we can only look back, because all too obviously the future is a tourist or combat destination that we can never reach. In the same way that as a professor I grow older and older, my students, annoyingly, remain 19 years old. But, just because the future is always unreachable, it does not follow that we have to be ignorant of its nature. I want to make a twin-headed argument as a proposition for your consideration that is simultaneously conservative with a small ‘c’, yet is fully accepting of the probability of radical change. When working for government, both in Britain and the US, most recently when advising on the Green Paper and then the White Paper phases of our somewhat unlovable British Strategic Defence and Security Review, I objected repeatedly to the popular phrase and concept of the ‘foreseeable future’. By and large, the concept is misused by officials who have not thought deeply enough about its possible meaning. But, there is an important sense in which the concept of a foreseeable future makes a great deal of sense.

So, my twin-headed argument is the following: On the one hand, we can know little, if anything, about the contingencies that will drive future strategic history. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who was then a wise old bird, once observed, ‘events, dear boy, events’, are what moves history on, or sideways, or apparently backwards (cyclically). But, on the other hand, I maintain that at the level of possibilities we know everything that we need to know about the future. How can that be? The answer is because we have variable access to a human strategic past extending back approximately 2,500 years. In variably good measure, we know who did what, even if we cannot often be certain why they did it. Though even in that regard, I will argue that the basic strategic function that is most simply accurately expressed in shorthand form as ‘ends, ways, and means’, explains most of what needs explaining.

Of course times change, but not everything changes. And, dare I say it – by far the more important things that bear upon human conflict seem not to change at all. So that there can be no misunderstanding of my argument, let me be absolutely clear in my statements (as politicians like to assert, though in their case reliably only for the purpose of deception). I am claiming that the twenty-first century will be just ‘another bloody century’ because there are no reasons that have weight that suggest why the century will have any other nature. To be blunt about it, why might this one, uniquely in all of history, not be a bloody century? I put it to you that when we have had at least 25 bloody centuries, uninterruptedly so, in our somewhat recoverable past, it is highly implausible to suggest that this 26th century is going to be different.

Unfortunately, perhaps, this century is going to be different from all past centuries in vital detail. To know the 5th century BC, or the 6th and 20th centuries AD is to know, I suggest that it is to know for certain, what the 21st century will be like. But, it is not to know what will happen in this new century. Let me challenge your imagination for a moment. Instead of being in 2011, try to imagine that you are in Staff College or university in 1911. You are required to write an appreciation of ‘the twentieth century that is to come’ – the foreseeable or anticipatable future, 1911-1999. I wonder how well you would have done? In point of obvious fact, I cannot really challenge you to put yourselves back in Camberley or Carlisle a hundred years ago, because you cannot expunge from your minds your knowledge of then future events. This is one of the inescapable curses from which historians must suffer. To illustrate with a question: is it possible to write fairly about the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s, given that we cannot help knowing that a very great war was to conclude their sundry efforts in 1939 (or 1937, or 1941?)?

Britain’s most distinguished living military historian, Sir Michael Howard, has made a particularly potent thought-provoking claim that is supremely relevant to my thesis. Sir Michael has argued that wars — all the wars in history — have more in common with each other than they do with any other human behaviour. In addition, to lend strength to that claim, Sir Michael insists that our contemporary wars have more in common with ancient, medieval, and early-modern wars, than they do with behaviours other than war today. This argument for eternality and universality is indeed imperial.

I would like to offer a little personal testimony on my subject here under discussion. My doctoral dissertation was on The Defence Policy of the Eisenhower Administrations, 1953-1961, and for the better part of 20 years, from the 1970s through the early 1990s, most of my professional focus was on nuclear matters, which I worked on in the United States. I worked for the US Air Force and with defence industry for more than 10 years on ICBMs in particular. I went through every one of the dirty-30 MX ICBM basing modes, small ICBM options, then the Strategic Defense Initiative, every missile defence argument, ASAT argument, nuclear war planning issues; and most of the arms control topics from SALT through START, and the rest. And, more recently, in the late 1990s I worked on the SDR, and a decade-plus later, on the SDSR. The reason I cite these professional biographical facts is because I want to be able to claim plausibly that my focus has always been on today and tomorrow. The core of my interests has never been historical or antiquarian. And yet, by far the most extensively used books in my library are, and have always been, Sun-tzu’s Art of War (probably written in the 490s BC), Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War (written in about 400 BC), and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (written in the 1820s, and published unfinished in 1832). How is it possible for someone focused on contemporary and future defence issues to find those three books so useful?

The answer lies in Michael Howard’s claim that I just cited. The three authors, writing millennia apart and in exceedingly different contexts of politics, culture, technology, geography and so forth, were all writing about the same subject. It didn’t really matter whether their human agents were assumed to drive chariots, thrust with spears, or fire smooth-bore muskets with the essential aid of black gunpowder. At the level of general theory about the nature of their subject, the subject was and is just one subject, eternal and universal. Of course, this thought is more than a little depressing if you subscribe to some variant of what used to be known as the Whig Interpretation of History. If you see our human past, duly reconstructed as history by historians, as a steady or unsteady march through and towards an ever improving future, then it is a little shocking to hear someone claim that although many things change, they don’t improve in a significant sense morally. In other shocking words, human progress with respect to the truly big things, is a conceit, an illusion. It is the realm of politicians’ promises, and about as reliable. This is why Sun-tzu writing 2,500 years ago is a source of profound wisdom for us today. His writing on statecraft and strategy is by no means strictly of antiquarian interest.

My slightly reluctant argument is that although change is a law of human history, key continuities are unmistakable. I cannot claim that the future must resemble the past closely, but I do claim that 2,500 years provide solid enough evidence for the correctness of Thucydides’ argument that human political behaviour is driven and shaped by a mixture of three master motivations, ‘ fear, honour, and interest’. His insight, expressed as quoted, is probably worth more than the whole library of studies produced since 1919 on the ‘causes of war’.

It is plausible to suggest that the main reason why people, including some scholars, have difficulty coping with the challenge of understanding the relations between change and continuity is because they have neglected their education in the relevant theory. You can tell that I am a dangerous social scientist who is not strongly theory-averse, rather than a historian. There is change in continuity, and there is continuity in change. War and strategy should be considered to be singular and plural. Both war and strategy have an eternal and universal nature, but simultaneously both phenomena are expressed historically in ever-different wars and ever-different strategies. This all but banal and I would think obvious point bears hugely on some of our contemporary confusion over strategy and war. Let me move swiftly, though you may feel, belatedly, to some current matters.

Surveying the Debate

Recent debates between and amongst theorists and practitioners about war and its allegedly changing nature, illustrate what happens when we lose sight of forests and focus on trees, and indeed mistake trees for forests. Rather than risk boring you with academic style point-scoring for and against particular theorists, let me state a clear position that covers recent and still current debate.

  • However else it is characterised, what US and British armed forces have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 has been war. By sensible definition, with due attribution to tests locatable in Clausewitz’s On War, we are talking about war.
  • Similarly, recognised or not, the single eternal and universal general theory of strategy has had authority over our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fact that should not be obscured too seriously by noting the plurality of situation-specific strategies.
  • Metaphorically, for the sake of hoped-for clarity through analogy, there are two elephants in one room of war and statecraft – war and strategy (in peace and war). When viewed in specific perspectives, these metaphorical elephants can appear to inspired theorists as being asymmetrical, low-intensity, irregular, hybrid, or ‘amongst the people’. But these, and other, characterisations are simply particular perspectives on generically whole phenomena – war and strategy. My most recent favourite is the concept of the ‘difficult war’, concerning which I hope any comment would be superfluous.

Recent defence and strategic debate reminds me, rather sadly, of the debates we used to hold on strategy for nuclear weapons that persisted, with succeeding ‘waves’, for nearly thirty years, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. If you are sufficiently unfortunate as to be obliged to try to take seriously the contemporary debate among theorists of irregular war, you should have some understanding of my argument already. Is our primary problem in Afghanistan one of global insurgency, or is it something else? Which of several competing grander theories of counterinsurgency is The Truth? Is it COIN as ‘armed anthropology’, as prophet David Kilcullen asserts? If not, can we kill our way to victory (defined how) by good old fashioned military attrition? And, whose competing interpretation of history is the more reliable? If Basra and Helmand were not just South Armagh with sand and poppies, or the Malayan jungle similarly altered, what were they? Just how granular does your detailed cultural terrain knowledge need to be to do COIN and CT well enough? Is there a general wisdom on COIN and CT that can be applied, when duly adapted, to specific contexts? Or, is each case of war, if it is war, so different that there can be no general theory to help educate for good practice in a particular case? (I don’t believe that, by the way.)

A few years ago, I researched and wrote a study for the Pentagon on the subject of the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 – they were interested in cases of (fairly) successful COIN. As a social scientist, foolishly unafraid to theorise, I concluded with a list of ‘lessons from 1919-1921’. I believe, and still believe, that those lessons continue to have valuable meaning for today. I should mention that strategic history keeps producing prophets who amazingly rediscover what has always largely been known. From Prophet T.E. Lawrence, with his 27 Articles and ‘Science of Guerrilla Warfare’, to David Kilcullen, whom has gone one better with his ’28 Articles’ for good practice at the company commanders’ level on COIN. Repeated epiphanies occur, and they tend to repeat the revelation.

The basic reason is not all that hard to spot. Whenever they were writing, historically, the problems of strategy essentially have been the same. Writing in aid of the Norman (actually Angevin) conquest of Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which was to be nothing if not a COIN campaign, Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) wrote the equivalent of a COIN manual that, with minor adaptation for the concepts of today, could be judged wise had it been translated and adapted for Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. The general subject has endured, alas. Lawrence of Arabia and now David Kilcullen did not and do no know much about insurgency and COIN that Gerald of Wales did not know, and advise, when the latter’s writings were used in the occupation and pacification of Wales by the kings of England.

The Temptations of Novelty

We would protect ourselves against undue capture by the novelty of the moment were we to be more careful in the adjectives we use. When in doubt, avoid them in reference to war and strategy. To explain, if one refers to nuclear strategy or air strategy, or today cyber strategy, it is natural to lay emphasis upon that which is new, the adjectives and not the noun. What you should refer to is strategy for nuclear weapons – if that is not an oxymoron – or strategy for air power, or strategy for cyber power or cyberspace. If you say cyber strategy you risk implying that the strategy is somehow distinctive as strategy because it is owned by its cyber tools.

In fact, boringly, one must recognise that strategy is just strategy, regardless of the geographical domain to which it relates or the military or other agents that it employs. Although the military capabilities by and large unique in kind to each of war’s five geographical domains (land, sea, air, Earth-orbital, and cyberspace), must work in harmony towards a common goal, it is quite proper to develop domain-specific strategies as contributing sub-sets of the whole endeavour. To conceive of a strategy for air power is not to postulate a strategy that only employs air assets as its means. It is, however, to suggest strongly that each geographically defined military tool is likely to be able to make a unique contribution to the common strategic purpose. In every war it is necessary to identify what friendly land, sea, air, Earth-orbital, and cyber capabilities bring to the strategic table. Because fungibility usually is not extensive among the different military instruments, the strengths and limitations of each geography’s kind of military power have to be reflected in distinctive land, sea, air and so forth strategic narratives – in aid of a single political purpose, of course.

When you use the term cyber strategy you risk misleading people into thinking that they are entering a new and mysterious domain. Happily, we know a great deal about strategy. We should, with 2,500 years of past experience from which to learn. And we have readily to hand a good enough general theory of strategy that certainly has authority over cyber power. This recognition helps reduce the ‘wow’ factor about computers and provides useful historical perspective for those who, yet again, claim that ‘the sky is falling’ and strategic Armageddon is nigh! In the course of the last century the human race has made sense of air power, has made such sense as can be made of nuclear weapons, has begun usefully to corral and understand space power. Cyber power in its turn will be mastered strategically, and seen for what it is, just another (fifth) quasi- geographical domain of warfare. It will have its own tactical ‘grammar’, to cite Clausewitz, but not its own political or strategic logic. Of course, cyber power is ill understood today; how could it be otherwise? Cyber power today is approximately where air power was in, perhaps, the First World War, or nuclear weapons in about 1947-8.


You can find some reassurance, if not quite comfort, in the fact that we are still here in 2011, despite the awesome hazards of the Cold War. And, German conquest or hegemony was given its comeuppance twice in modern history. We know that the twenty-first century will record wars and rumours of wars. Why? Because human history in every century has done so. No changes in culture, politics, technology, or anything else, have reduced our capacity or inclination to inflict collective self-harm as a competitive species for what seem at the time to be good enough reasons. It is always possible, but exceedingly unlikely, that the twenty-first century will be different. For so long as homo sapiens remains as he is revealed by history to have been, and as he remains today, then for so long can we sadly be certain that in vital senses we have seen the twenty-first century before.

You might care to reflect on these propositions.

  1. We are no better or worse at strategy than were the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines.
  2. Despite the technical progress of the past two centuries, that progress does not transfer from tactics and operations to strategy/politics; let alone to the realm of applied morality that is strategic ethics.
  3. Skill in warfare – or even armed and sometimes violent social work in COIN – is always likely to be useful, but it doesn’t produce strategic success automatically.
  4. Even skill in strategy will not deliver victory if policy insists on political ends that subvert the value of tactical and operational effort.
  5. “Another bloody century” is an oversimplification, but arguably a useful one. It may be worth contrasting it with its logical polar opposite, “a century of co-operation”. Somehow, I doubt if we will be allowed to choose. In the 1930s, most people, including most Germans, wanted peace, but that was not what they received.