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I have been asked to write an article on the importance of understanding warfare when studying strategy.
Let us start with definitions:
Warfare is the conduct of war;
Strategy is either:
(1) The art of generals; or
(2) The application of force for the purposes of the state (at the state or national level); or
(3) The direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as defined by politics.
I will look at the definitions for a while, then discuss strategy and warfare, and then make some observations about the importance of understanding warfare when studying strategy.
The definition of warfare seems quite simple. In essence, it is ‘how it is done’. So, for example, much military history is the history of warfare; how wars have been fought. That could refer to war at: the national level; the theatre or campaign level; or the battlefield, tactical level. Much of the history of warfare looks very much at the mechanics of the tactical level: for example, studying trench warfare in the First World War; or the tactics of the Battle of Britain.
A separate aspect of warfare refers to how armed forces can, do or should operate. That is the non-historical part. In war, history is often our only guide to the future; so the history of warfare really should inform future practice. It could be said that the only real value of the study of the history of warfare is how it informs practice (other than as an interest in itself). Many people, mostly men, do find it intensely interesting. I do. However, to reiterate, the only real value of the study of the history of warfare is in how it informs practice. (I restrict myself largely to land warfare simply because that is what I know most about).
The definition of strategy seems more problematic. Let us take the three options above. They are intended to be broad and cover a range of areas. So, if you don’t agree that strategy is one of the above, please ask yourself whether it is close to one of them.
When defining strategy as (1) ‘the art of generals’, we open up a can of worms. Firstly, ‘art’ probably should mean ‘craft’. It probably doesn’t mean ‘art’ as opposed to ‘science’ so as to differentiate it from the technical aspects. It probably means ‘craft’ as in ‘what generals do’.
If one defines strategy as ‘the artistic or creative bit’ you run into problems. Do you, for example, imply that the creative aspects of a Brigadier General’s plan in, say, the Western Front in the First World War is strategy? Probably not. It’s probably better to consider ‘what generals do’ as an aspect of warfare, recognising that some aspects of warfare are intensely human and therefore involve creative and inspirational elements. So, let’s put aside definition (1).
Defining strategy as (2) ‘the application of force for the purposes of the state (at the state or national level)’ has much to recommend it. Effectively it equates strategy with the national level. It implies that there is a theatre or campaign level (which might be called ‘operational’) and a battlefield or engagement level (which might be called ‘tactical’). However, one immediately observes that only a fraction of what is considered ‘strategy’ falls under this definition.
That definition also leaves open the question of ‘what is a state’, which we won’t look at here, except to say that most definitions involved in collective human behaviour should be broad and have relatively loosely-defined boundaries
To define strategy as (3) ‘the direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as defined by politics’ seems to encompass most of what writers describe as ‘strategy’. However we should immediately note that this does not make any reference to the level of warfare (‘strategic, operational and tactical’). If it does, it implies that ‘politics’ are national politics. That may be reasonable; using force (or the threat of force) for reasons of local politics is probably not war as most people would understand it. However, definition (3) still permits the conclusion that tactical matters (that is, how violence is applied at the tactical level) is a question relevant to strategy. That causes some difficulty, as we will see below.
So, we observe strategy to be a field of intellectual endeavour in which writers discuss the direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as defined by politics. What can we say about that?
The first thing that strikes me is that several of the people who write on strategy seem to be acting under false pretences. Dogmatic assertion is not respectable. Circular argumentation is not respectable. Weak points forcibly made do not make them any more valid. I have seen several of those writers speak and am even less impressed for the experience. Strong presentational mannerisms do not make weak points any more valid. Using the platform to refute criticism of flawed argument is not respectable.
Much strategy writing seems to be consequence-free. The term ‘armchair generalship’ is derogatory but it is notable how many policy wonks or academics indulge in it; usually wrapped up in sophistry and in the full knowledge that none of their proscriptions will ever result in action or policy change. Privilege without responsibility is the tart’s charter.
Related to that, but not entirely overlapping with it, is a perception of cleverness. A number of strategy writers do not (or perhaps cannot) use simple clear language. Here are a few examples:
‘shun the allure of asinine perfection’;
‘stylistic inconsistencies’ related to a ‘disciplinary matrix’;
‘cherry picking and confusion finds its way into the historiography of manoeuvre proponents’;
‘interactively complex systems are not additive systems…’; and
‘triune’ and ‘cohere’ in the same sentence.
Einstein reputedly said (or wrote) that if you can’t describe something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. That may be the case here. Alternatively it may be that those writers are only writing for a self-selected audience, or are subconsciously demonstrating how clever they think they are. Neither is particularly helpful.
However, in my opinion the worst sin is that of theology and dogma. Some strategists, and notably some ‘classical strategists’ (the term is indicative) seem to grant Clausewitz godlike status. Time and again an assertion ‘must be true’ because Clausewitz said so. That raises a number of problems.
Firstly, how do we know? Very few (if any) strategists are really expert in early 19th Century High German. So we get into issues of translation, with its cultural baggage. I have been told repeatedly that ‘such and such’ is the only proper translation of Clausewitz. I fundamentally disagree that there is such a thing. I observe that ‘such and such’ is the translation considered to be accurate by a number of strategy writers. Excuse me: is that the Orthodox or Liberal view? The Catholic or Protestant view? (And, even then, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Church of England view; to mention just a few alternatives?) The Sunni or Shia view? I observe that the Howard and Paret version stands in the same relation to many strategy writers as the Authorised (or King James) Version of the Bible does to the Church of England. I then observe that (for example) the admonition that ‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live’ tells you more about King James the Sixth of Scotland than it does about original Old Testament scriptures. That is not a criticism of Howard nor Paret. It is a criticism of the attitudes of some strategy writers.
There is in places a slavish and dogmatic view that what Clausewitz wrote must be true because Clausewitz wrote it. I’m sorry, that’s just not good enough. In which other discipline so vital to man’s existence do we grant almost divine reverence to one long-dead German? If Clausewitz’s writings are the last word on the subject (which I seriously doubt), then there is, at the very least, a gap in our understanding as to why that should be. What is the underlying mechanism or causation which makes that so? Clausewitz did not have Godlike powers of creation.
Dogmatism is a problem in itself, but is it is related to a second? The whole field of conflict studies is dominated by paradox. Even Clausewitz refers to ‘paradoxical logic’. The writers of a recent US manual described nine paradoxes of COIN. Well, a rudimentary knowledge of philosophy indicates that a prevalence of paradox indicates that the basic, underlying phenomenon is insufficiently well understood.
That is troubling, on three levels. Firstly, the basic, underlying phenomenon is insufficiently well understood. That is a major problem in itself. Secondly, some writers seem to accept that descriptions of paradox are part of the orthodoxy of writings on conflict (which may explain why those US writers identified nine of them). Thirdly, many (if not most) writers on strategy have not realised that prevalence of paradox indicates that the basic, underlying phenomenon is insufficiently well understood. That causes one to (a) doubt the depth of their perception (their thinking is actually shallow) and (b) reject much of what they write, for that reason.
In my view the reasons why we grant almost divine reverence to one long-dead German are twofold. Firstly, the subject is difficult. Conceptual development will be hard. Secondly, those who have written on it since the 1830s have not been sufficiently perceptive, and not nearly as perceptive as some of them like to think.
Next comes the problems of interpretation. For example, much of strategy makes an issue of ways, ends and means. That makes sense to me. Then many strategists say it is Clausewitzian.
No, it isn’t.
Clausewitz wrote of a dialectic of ends and means, or similar. No matter how you interpret German words like ‘Zweck’ and ‘Ziel’, you cannot translate a dialectic as having three elements. It simply doesn’t.
‘Ah, but that’s what Clausewitz meant.’
No, that’s what those thinkers ascribe to him, and then dogmatically assert the truth of that. What rubbish. Where is the rigour in that?
‘Ways, ends and means’ comes into American thinking due to issues such as the House of Representative’s Ways and Means Committee, which was designed to match policy to resources. The term ‘ways and means’ comes to American usage from British parliamentary procedure. Its application to strategy strikes me as being entirely sensible. It is relatively recent. It seems to have come into use via an American writer, who would probably have thought of it (perhaps subconsciously) in terms of US Congressional practice. It is not Clausewitzian.
Dogmatism is one bad aspect of strategic thought. Seemingly theological argumentation is another. Church scholars used to argue how many angels could stand on the head of a pin; as if that mattered in the real world. Moslem scholars argued about how many camels could pass through the eye of a needle (ditto). Some strategic discourse is just so pointless. Another problem is the tendency of writers to discuss the discourse, rather than the phenomena at hand. It really doesn’t matter whether relatively minor unknown academic ‘A’ wrote ‘B’. Whether or not ‘B’ was important, sensible, realistic, pragmatic or whatever is far more important. Some of this is stylistic convention beloved by academics. It does, however, seriously obscure the real issues. There are too many people writing about excessively arcane and complex ideas in complex language, seemingly for their own gratification. Luckily much of it is destined to be consequence-free.
A lot of people know something about warfare; particularly at the moment, after two protracted wars in west Asia. That can be good thing, or a bad thing. It is good that there is a large body of first-hand, recent knowledge. Unfortunately there seem to be a reluctance of many of those people to write and make their knowledge public. There may be many reasons for that. The bad aspect of recent knowledge comes with reflection. People tend to believe strongly in what they have experienced from first hand, so when writing about how armed forces could or should fight, there is sometimes a strong rejection on the grounds that ‘that’s not the way I did fight’. ‘Not the war I fought’ can be a big institutional problem.
As a consequence, first-hand knowledge is important, but (of itself) insufficient. One needs to study warfare in breadth and depth, and to reflect on first-hand experience; one’s own and others. I believe that Clausewitz wrote something like that.
At times we see strategists writing about warfare. I was perplexed to see a lengthy chapter on the tactics of the Battle of Britain in a book on strategy, for three reasons. Firstly, at the time I saw strategy in terms of ‘the application of force for the purposes of the state (at the state or national level)’ ((2) above). The tactics of the battle of Britain was clearly not that. Then I reconsidered the passage on the basis of strategy as ‘the direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy, as defined by politics’ ((3) above). Nowhere in that discussion of the tactics of the Battle of Britain did I see any discussion of policy nor politics. So I am still perplexed as to why the writer discussed it.
Warfare suffers from some of the same problems as strategy. That’s not surprising, since the two are interlinked, as discussed above. In particular, in writings on warfare we sometimes see good pragmatic advice as to how armed forces could or should operate, with no good explanation as to why. The ‘why’ typically seems to reduce to the fact that historic or recent advice seem to point that way. That is empirical and pragmatic. In the absence of an underpinning theoretical explanation, it serves well. It would be nice if we could do better.
A particularly unappealing aspect of warfare is what I tend to call ‘military pornography’. It tends to dwell on the past exploits of special forces or perhaps the Waffen SS. It tends to lionise their seemingly mythical achievements. Many readers will know of SS Captain Michael Wittman. Of all the graves in the cemetery in Normandy where his remains are buried, his is the only one where the grass is worn down. There is a story to be told about Wittman. It includes appallingly bad tactics by the British 7th Armoured Division at Villers Bocage, and the sterling qualities of the British 17pdr antitank gun. But those aspects are rarely told. Dispassionate accounts of the fighting qualities of Waffen SS formations tend to say that the best were very good indeed, largely because they were well led. Conversely, the worst (including some of the most famous) were an ill-disciplined rabble and not very good at all. But those aspects are rarely told.
Perhaps the most important aspect of warfare, however, lies in its definition. Warfare is about how armed forces do, could or should operate. It is therefore directly useful to a practitioner. I study it, write about it, and at times teach it in the hope that it will be. The same may apply to strategy. But, logically, the number of people who can actually practice strategy is inevitably very small.
We have used the definition of strategy as ‘the direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as defined by politics.’ Logically, therefore, there are four (or perhaps five) important questions:
(1) What are the policy goals?
(2) What (violent) means are available?
(3) How should those means be applied in pursuit of those goals:
(a) in general? and
(b) in a particular set of circumstances?
(4) What interactions, or emergent behaviours, occur as a result?
Question 3a (how means should, in general, be applied) is the general subject of warfare. Question 3b (their application in a given set of circumstances) is a subject for military commanders and doctrine writers, although others can give advice and guidance; both on the battlefield and off. All five questions are legitimate questions for strategy. Therefore an understanding of warfare is an important aspect of strategy.
There is a critical consequence. It is that if you are writing about strategy but don’t understand warfare, you are writing rubbish.
It is notable that few, if any, academic departments of war studies teach warfare. They tend to teach military history and international relations. Some have courses on strategy. If they do, they tend to focus on questions one, two and four above. It is also notable that many people who write on strategy clearly know little or nothing about warfare. If that is you, please re-read the previous paragraph.
In an earlier part of this article I wrote disparagingly about indulgent policy wonks and academics. I should refine my remarks. Some policy advisors have hugely important positions that can shape the fate of nations and hence the world. Academics should study, write, and teach the next generation. The world needs some of both. Some writers who are neither paid policy advisers nor tenured academics can, and do, make significant contributions in this field.
Earlier, I mentioned the tart’s charter. I would remark, non-judgmentally, that some prostitutes can earn a huge amount of money and live well. The most successful are the most respectable. They need not walk the streets, and the man in the street generally does not realise that their lifestyle is essentially one of prostitution. Most prostitutes are, however, good at their craft. Their lifestyle depends on it. That is because, at some point or other, the punter samples the goods.
That is not the case for many strategists.
I was asked to write an article on the importance of understanding warfare when studying strategy.
I am deeply unimpressed by many strategy writers, and especially some of the most widely-respected. I think that some are dogmatic. I consider that thinking on strategy has yet to explore the underlying phenomenon. I find the fixation with Clausewitz to be unhealthy.
A knowledge of warfare, defined as the study of how armed forces could, do or should fight, is a critically important aspect to the study of strategy. Without a good knowledge of warfare, strategy writers will inevitably write rubbish. Some do.
The two previous paragraphs seem to be causally linked.