Summary: We cannot escape history. It offers lessons to guide us. It’s deployed as propaganda to mislead us. Successful strategy requires distinguishing between the two. Our long war, so far a series of defeats, provides examples of both. We can do better in the future if only we’d pay attention.
“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”
— Clausewitz’s On War, Book 1, Chapter 1.
- The Cult of the Offense Returns.
- The allure of a losing strategy.
- Learning from the Revolution.
- For More Information.
- Clausewitz gets the last word.
(1) The Cult of the Offense Returns
A reader brought to my attention Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History by the late scholar John David Lewis (2010). It’s an excellent example of history as political propaganda, of the kind Victor David Hanson deployed to build support for our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan (e.g., Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power). The genre uses cherry-picked examples overlaid with moralism, telling a story made convincing by lavish use of historical detail to tell one side of the story.
Lewis advocates unceasing belligerence to our foes, always attacking. It’s a commonplace in history, often leading to ruin. It’s become the geopolitical strategy of American neoconservatives, ignoring lessons from American history about the frequent superiority of defense over offense.
“De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace et la Patrie sera sauvée!” (Audacity, more audacity, always audacity and the Fatherland will be saved!)
— George Danton in a speech to the Assembly of France on 2 September 1792. He was the first President of the Committee of Public Safety. The radical Jacobins on the Committee took his advice, sent him to the guillotine for “leniency” to the enemies of the Revolution, and audaciously soaked the Revolution in blood — wrecking it.