The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”

Analogies are fudge, as TE Lawrence says.  Esp historical analogies, since every era is unique.  We use them anyway, mining the past for comparisons to help us better understand the present.  While analogies cannot be accurate (different times are incomparable), they can illustrate aspects of the present that we might otherwise overlook.

This sketch looks at one element of America’s grand strategy.   Like the great powers before WWI, we love the offense.   Pre-emptive warfare and fighting on foreign soil are the bread and milk of our military thinking.   Future generations might consider this daft, just as we consider daft the WWI “cult of the offense.”

America, today

Brilliant, charismatic figures like John Nagl take us back to the future.  As I explain in Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military (22 June 2008), he gives us a clear and appealing vision, but one that is deadly wrong IMO.  Only a first rate mind could have conceived it something so attractive and yet destructive — like this (FM note:  this section was slightly expanded on 13 Feb):

In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed.

… The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies — and not all of those soldiers will wear uniforms, or work for the Department of Army.  The most important warriors of the current century may fight for the US Information Agency rather than the Department of Defense.

 Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.

John Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired), in his review of Brian McAllister Linn’s book, The Echo of Battle – The Army’s Way of War, RUSI Journal (April 2008).  Note:  the link to his review is at the Small Wars Journal, posted courtesy of the RUSI Journal.

This is the core theme of counter-insurgency theory, COIN.  FM 3-24 is its handbook, showing how to use social science terminology and analytical frameworks to manipulate foreign societies. This will likely fail on several levels, as the goal of  ending the “conditions that spawned armed conflicts” is beyond our means (we can “change” conditions, just not consistently for the better).

(1) It will not work, as the social sciences are as yet immature. Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists. Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering. Consider how Watts and Harlem have deteriorated since 1960, despite forty years of expensive intervention. 

(2) If US social scientists were able to do so at home, that does not mean that they could do so in foreign lands. Traveling thousands of miles to foreign lands may make the task seem easier, as one loses sight of its complexities. In many cases the locals will reject our neo-colonial presumptions.  That’s just good sense, as the great successes of the past century were, in general, nations who ignored both our advice (e.g., most of Southeast Asia).

(3) If social engineering was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so. This probably requires something like Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants (the sorcerer’s apprentices of the 21 century).

(4)  Note that this passage implies very different concepts of “soldiers” and “warriors” than used today.  And perhaps a different set of “laws” for war to accommodate them.

Someday the social sciences might provide the abity to successfully manipulate our society, and even later still do so to foreigners.  Today  they are in an early stage of development.  Ahead lie years, probably generations, of lab work, gathering data, and constructing simple theories. If there was a government agency regulating social engineering — as the FDA regulates pharmaceuticals — they would declare these tools unready for human trials.

But it is being used now, as America borrows vast sums in the attempt to mold foreign societies to meet our needs and frustrate our enemies.  It is the cult of the offense, polished up for the 21st century.    It is an error with deep roots in western history.

Looking back to France, a century ago

From Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (not the most scholarly work on the era, but one of the best written), Chapter 3 – The Shadow of Sedan:

{Folch’sideas} were taken up with particular enthusiasm by {French} Colonel Grandmaison, “an ardent and brilliant officer” … who in 1911 delivered two lectures at the War College which a crystallizing effect.

Colonel Grandmaison grasped only the head and not the feet of Foch’s principles. Expounding their elan (will) without their surete (protection), he expressed a military philosophy that electrified his audience. he waved before their dazzled eyes an “idea with a sword” which showed them how France could win.

Its essence was the offensive a outrance, offensive to the limit. Only this could could achieve Clausewitz’s decisive battle which “exploited to the finish is the essential act of war” and which “once engaged, must be pushed to the end, with no second thoughts, up to the extremes of human endurance.” Seizure of initiative is the sine qua non. … Liberty of action is achieved only by imposing one’swill upon the enemy. “All command decisions must be inspired by the will to seize and retain the initiative.” The defensive is forgotten, abandoned, discarded; its only possible justification is an occasional “economizing of forces at certain points with a view to adding them to the attack.”

… Within a few months of Granmaison’s lectures, the President of the Republic, M. Fallieres, announced “The offensive alone is suited to the temperament of French soldiers. … We are determined to march straight against the enemy without hesitation.”

The new Field Regulations, enacted by the government in October 1913, as the fundamental document for the training and conduct of the French Army, opened with a flourish of trumpets:  The French Army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive.” … The offensive alone leads to positive results.”

Few or none of the generals on either side in WWI were stupid.  Nonetheless, overconfidence about the efficacy of their plans contributed to the bonfire of civilization called WWI.  It is an inevitable risk of modern military theory, which cannot be tested in any meaningful way. 

Comparing then and now

Mistakes of the past so often seem obvious — poorly reasoned bouts of emotional myopia — while our misfortunes result from “black swans” — unpredictable blows of fate.  Yet it need not be so.

Our “cult of the offensive”, tinkering with foreign societies, might be seen by future generations as folly — attempting things obviously beyond the current state of the social sciences or American wisdom.  And as an esp bizarre strategy for a over-indebted hegemonfrantically attempting to stay afloat with money borrowed from creditors of dubious loyalty.

An alternative:  playing defense

There is an alternative strategy:  focusing on defense, not offense.  For more on this see  Thoughts on FMFM 1-A, an important tool for survival in the 21st century and esp William Lind’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

Of course “offense” and “defense” are just shorthand labels for concepts of extreme subtlety — beyond the scope of this already too-long essay, to be discussed in a later post.  A few quite notes to illustrate this:

  1. In 4GW the “home court advantage” might be a more useful concept than “defense”.
  2. Rretaining the initiative at all timesis vital (as it is in 3GW, maneuver warfare).
  3. As the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) said, offensive/defensive are attributes of the destructive forms of war; there are more effective ways for nations to win conflicts.

About John Nagl (updated 14 February)

He is President of the Center for a New American Security, a Visiting Professor in the War Studies Department at Kings College of London, an Adjunct Professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Dr. Nagl was a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Military Academy Class of 1988 and served as an armor officer in the U.S. Army for 20 years, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  His last military assignment was as commander of the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kansas, training Transition Teams that embed with Iraqi and Afghan units.  He led a tank platoon in Operation Desert Storm and served as the operations officer of a tank battalion task force in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He earned his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, taught national security studies at West Point, and served as a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.  Nagl also earned a Master of the Military Arts and Sciences Degree from the Command and General Staff College, where he received the George C. Marshall Award.  He was awarded the Combat Action Badge by General James Mattis, USMC.

Dr. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:  Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the writing team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

Source:  Center for a New American Security


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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance are:

Some posts about COIN on the FM site:

  1. Why We Lose at 4GW, 4 January 2007
  2. Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War, 6 October 2007
  3. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  4. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  5. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual  (20 March 2008)
  6. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008 — Thoughts about eating soup with a knife.
  8. Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military, 22 June 2008
  9. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008

Some posts about America’s grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  5. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  7. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  8. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  9. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  10. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  11. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008

24 thoughts on “The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense””

  1. This is a powerful entry, but in defense of colonel Nagl I think he is simply trying to solve a problem that can’t be solved: How the United States can remain a world power without losing everything against 4GW-foes. 4GW is a powerful tool and has proven potent. The United States has tried to defeat 4GW-enemies with high-tech solutions (RMA, NCW and all that) and failed, so now it tries with brains instead of “smart bombs”. I consider it to be an improvement in thinking, but it is important to see it as just that: It can win battles, but not the entire war. Just like the German army won battle after battle but in the end lost both world wars. Being excellent in operational matters is not the same as being a strategic genius.

    Which brings me to what else can be done: If COIN is destined to fail in the long run and can’t solve the problem of COIN what can we do? Since the option of relentless carpet bombings of our enemies is impossible the only solution I can see is to adopt a essential defensive posture like Israel is doing by building the wall/fence, abandoning the most vulnerable parts of the occupied territories (like Gaza) and becoming a giant gated community. The wall Israel is building will define our societies for the rest of the century. A wall won’t bring peace (like the recent war in Gaza has showed), but it will make the problem of our 4GW-enemies more manageable. The open world will disappear and we will once again – just like in the past – take refuge behind walls.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps, but haven’t you just restated the premise of the post?

    “in defense of colonel Nagl, I think he is simply trying to solve a problem that can’t be solved”

    No doubt, but is that not equally true for the French and German generals who planned WWI?

    “If COIN is destined to fail in the long run and can’t solve the problem of COIN what can we do?”

    The missing link is in our head. Think defense, as Lind and I describe. It can be done. Cheaply, without the expense and bloodshed of our current policies.

  2. The answer to this is not “overt” military action. This is much a war of perception as force of arms, Israel has started on this but has not fully embraced this. There are two ways this can be resolved, one is to find and alleviate the cause of the attacking force, the other is to hunt down the attacking force.

    I already hear the question,” how is that different than what we are doing now?”

    The answer is that we are visibly doing this now, we need to be less visible, preferably invisible. We need to cause cleavages between groups of those who would be united to attack us (think Pasthun in Afgan-Pakistan, they are the same despite the political border)and everyone else. If these groups seek to attack us, we must set their neighbors against them, not 30,000 U.S. Troops. We need to assassinate those who have the organizational skill, the leadership, charisma, and requisite technical skill to organize and perpetrate any attack on our interest, but most importantly, we must be very, very, quiet.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I think you mis-heard the question. Perhaps you should wait until we ask it, rather than rely on The Force for such information.

    This is, of course, the “master manipulators” theory. How difficult can this be to do? After all, the Impossible Mission Force did it every week for years.

    So the question is, what makes you believe we can do anything so preposterous as manipulate foreign peoples? Is has been successfully done on rare occasions throughout history, but not with a frequency that suggest practicality (when playing darts, even I hit the bull’s-eye sometimes).

    America might be the first Empire to fall because its people not only watched too much TV, but confused TV with reality.

  3. In mixed martial arts, a strategy of non-stop offense only works when an insane gas tank is combined with an opponent unready or unskilled enough to handle it (See Shogun Rua circa 2005). When either of the two conditions is not present, the offense stutters and slows.

    It’s no accident that the vast, vast majority of the best professional MMA fighters are extremely hard to hit (Fightmetric, 25 January 2009). They pick their moments and then explode in controlled bursts.

  4. It’s fascinating to observe the third great bubble of the last 15 years. First we had the dot-com bubble; then we had the subprime loan bubble: and now we’ve got the military-industrial bubble.

    All three are unsustainable. When the first bubble burst, it trashed the computer industry and the broadband internet. If you look at debacles like Windows Vista and the collapse of America’s standing in the world for internet speed and connectivity (down to 15th and still dropping), you can see that both the U.S. computer industry and American ISPs are mired in 2001 and haven’t moved an inch beyond that era.

    When the second bubble burst, it trashed the housing market and blew up the entire financial market as a side effect. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess that 15 years from now, the U.S. stock market and the U.S. housing market will still be mired at 2008 levels and won’t have moved an inch beyond that era.

    What will happen when the third bubble bursts, I wonder? What happens when the Pentagon falls apart completely, when the U.S. army and the U.S. navy and the U.S. airforce and the marine corpse disintegrate completely? What will happen when American foreign policy degenerates and disappears and we abandon all our overseas bases and stop interfering in world affairs because we no longer have an army or navy or air force or marine corps to do it with?

    I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to observe. One fact seems clear: discussing the irrational behavior of the bubble participants proves useless. They’re caught up in the grip of mass insanity and reasoning them them doesn’t work. So in that sense it’s oddly pointless even to discuss the military-industrial bubble. Many very smart highly knowledgeable people will confect a wide variety of brilliant and plausible-sounding reasons why this third military-industrial bubble is not in fact a bubble and can in fact continue indefinitely. Only the collapse of this third military-industrial bubble will end the charade, and as we know from history, bubbles always tend to keep growing a lot longer and to get much bigger than anyone imagines possible.

  5. There’s another problem with manipulation of foriegn communities, and that’s getting past the deluded wishful thinking of the would be manipulators. Gary Brecher calls this the belief that deep down everyone in Iraq (and elsewhere) wants to be a Minnesota Presbyterian.
    Fabius Maximus replies: William Lind often has discussed this. In CLosing of the American Mind the late Allen Bloom discusses how Americans often see multi-culturalism as agreement with us on all the important things of life (e.g., goals, gender roles, operation of the family, balance between religion and secular life), but diversity of foods, music, and clothing styles.

  6. How convenient to go back to pre-WW I, without a moment’s thought to the HUGE counterfactual of WW II. Germany’s society was hugely manipulated. Japan is a far different country than before Pearl Harbor. Democracy HAS been imposed by force. S. Korea is another 3/4 success, with Vietnam an example of how a successful peace treaty can turn into defeat if violations are not punished (and corrupt ‘democracy friendly’ allies are allowed to lose to anti-freedom forces).

    Iraq is likely to become a counter example, too, as democracy & free speech (& more knowledge about gov’t corruption and incompetence) become known and experienced. When top executive power has been transferred, thru (relatively) peaceful elections, to two different people, I’ll claim that Iraq is ‘essentially democratic’. [Yetsin to Putin was once, Putin to Medvedev is only a half, so my attempt at a clear metric for democracy can be gamed; I don’t yet have a better one to offer.]

    (Is it cheating to use a second comment for a second point that overflows the limit?)

  7. The bubbles can be measured: Price Earnings ratios on internet stocks were in the hundreds or higher, with huge market capitalizations on new companies that had never shown a profit (Amazon worth more than GM, Ford, & Chrysler combined. Maybe not so far off?). The housing bubble had too many houses being built & offerred at more than 10 and even 15 times the yearly salaries of the buyers. 40% of US corporate profit was in financial institutions (pushing around the fake capital). All historical highs, indicative of bubbles.

    US military expenditures are up to what, 4% of GNP? In WW II it was over 20%? (facts from memory, corrections welcome). The point of military sustainability is that measured as % of GNP, or % of gov’t expenses, the military budget is well below historical highs.

    On the other hand, as the pork-barrel stimulus increases wasteful investment with low rates of return, and low job creation or job growth yet with higher taxes and higher interest rates, the calls to cut the military will continue to gain in volume. …

    Probably until another successful attack against Americans in the US, or until some WMD is used against some city. The anti-military ‘too expensive’ analysis depends on ‘peace’, but we pro-peace hawks believe we only get peace when we are willing and able to fight for it. Preferably fighting where the bad guys are, rather than where US civilians are.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What a daft comparison!

    “In WW II it was over 20% … The point of military sustainability is that measured as % of GNP, or % of gov’t expenses, the military budget is well below historical highs.”

    WWII was a war, a brief intense event. Our post-WWII spending has continued for decades, wildly disproportionate to the combined spending of any concievable constellation of enemies.

    You might as well expect a marathon to be run at the same speed as a sprint.

  8. I predicted that “Many very smart highly knowledgeable people will confect a wide variety of brilliant and plausible-sounding reasons why this third military-industrial bubble is not in fact a bubble and can in fact continue indefinitely,” and, true to form, Tom Grey poppped right up to fulfill my prediction. Thank you for proving my point.

    We got exactly the same kind of incoherent numerological arguments during the dot-com bubble to “prove” that the Dow wasn’t overvalued. Tehn, during the subprime loan bubble, more numerology was trotted out to “prove” that home prices could continue to skyrocket. My personal favorite was Larry Kudlow’s column “Bubble? What Housing Bubble?” from 2005, but each observer will have his own. For a wonderful snapshot of the power of mass insanity, take a look at the marvellous book Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market. You can actually still buy this book new on, which is just awesome.

    Tom Grey and other cranks {FM: no need for such labels, please} who think our current military-industrial bubble can continue indefinitely focus on the dollar side of the equation, ginning up complex and outlandish rationalizations to explain why spending 14% of our GDP and 45% of our annual budget on the military can continue even though we’re in a major depression. (Our actual GDP post-financial meltdown is closer to 10 trillion than 13 trillion, and we actually spend north of 1.35 trillion per year on the u.s. military, broadly defined. The “4% of GDP” figure is another lie concocted by those in the grip of this mass insanity. They conveniently leave out expenses like the CIA, the NSA, the NRO, the VA, military pensions, Pentagon “black” weapons projects, the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the DHS budget, and so on.) But the dollar side of the equation isn’t the most important reason why the military-industrial bubble is unsustainable. Like so many other armchair generalissimos ignorant of the military, Tom Grey and folks like him think that the army is nothing but machines and if we can afford the hi-tech weapons, then we can have a functional army.

    But as John Boyd pointed out, wars aren’t fought by machines — they’re fought by people, and they use their minds. And the people side of the U.S. military equation is clearly unsustainable, even more than the dollar side. An epidemic of suicides is decimating army recruiters; and more soldiers committed suicide in Iraq last month than were killed by insurgents. Worst of all, “Lt General Benjamin C. Freakley of the U.S. army, a key man in military recruitment, said that 70% of today’s American youths are not eligible for military service due to their level of education, their health (mostly soaring childhood obesity), substance abuse record, and/or a criminal record.”

    Headlines like Army weighs fat camp for new recruits show that the society from which our army draws its personnel is simply not capable of soldiering. Rotten eduction, lack of health care, chronic poverty and a maze of crazy laws designed to criminalize being in the bottom 80% of the income distribution in American society, all combine to produce army recruits too sickly and too poorly educated and too l acking in respect for authority to serve in combat. (And why should they respect authorities who lie them into an unwinnable law, then refuse to provide the materiel to fight it or even to allow photos of the dead to be printed in newspapers?) This is what happens when the trickle-down supply side economics and dog-eat-dog social policies of the last 30 years, ever since the Reagan devolution, work their corrosive acid on society. No one with the brains of a gopher wants to serve in either the military or the national guard noawadays because they know that “military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy” (as Henry Kissinger so charmingly put it) and the elite top 20% of American society have flatly refused to serve or to allow any of their children to serve in the U.S. military.

    William S. Lind has described the situation for the average newly inducted grunt circa 2004. Five years later, it can only have gotten worse.

    Is this situation sustainable? I’m sure Tom Grey thinks so, and many others do too. Dow 36,000 is still available on
    Fabius Maximus replies: Two points about this.

    (1) I strongly agree that we should consider the full budget for national defense, not just the “military.” That includes the work on nukes buried in the Dept of Energy Budget and much of the Homeland Security Budget (ex deomestic law enforcement, customs, etc). Plus delayed payments (aka liabilities), such as military pension and disability payments. The total adds up to an insane number, beyond what everybody else on the planet spends combined.

    That is the reality to which America is blind. But then blindness to one’s delusions is the essence of insanity. For more on this see America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006).

    (2) For more information about the condition of our armed forces, see the studies and reports listed on the FM Reference Page “An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports“.

  9. History knows, the objective basis of a successful “world power”, empire, call it as you want, is well known: it provides lower transaction costs(also higher living standards) within, than it is available outside!

    In 2009 nobody buys the “American way of life” anymore(the Moslems the least), and so lower transaction costs can not be realized under American rule. The U.S. can not yet swallow this, and that’s where we stand now.

    So the discussion is IMHO misguided. Military power is not key.

  10. Good points on our inability to manipulate foreign peoples in what seems to be “soft power” domination. I draw issue, though, with the idea that social sciences are immature. Wouldn’t it be better to say that they are inherently inexact? One person will never equal another person in the same way that CO2 = CO2. Doesn’t mean we can’t draw any explanatory theories for human behavior, but it does seem that the social sciences will always have an attached assumption that theory is different than reality, to a much higher degree than natural (or ‘hard’ if you prefer) sciences. Further we will never be able to control variables outside a lab to a degree that can nurture success–Katrina proved that it takes one natural disaster to end support for two wars. We already have a pretty good machine in place to manipulate public opinion whether your boogeyman is the Creel Commission, Karl Rove, or the Ad Council. The main problem is that when they work, the successes are generally domestic and can be short lived. As FM notes, our success abroad is more than a bit spotty.

    In terms of a grand strategy, I’m not sure Israel is a good example for the US to follow either. I don’t think this last war should be called a victory. Yes, Israel proved that a modern force can kick the tar out of any rag tag group with AKs, much in the same way the US has proved this reality over the many decades of our military hegemony. But as an earlier comment points out–that wins battles, not wars. Israel’s foray into Gaza eroded international support, reinforced the Hamas position that the Israelis are murderers, undercut the relevancy of the ‘moderate’ Fatah, and resolved little in terms of ending the threat of rocket attacks. Couple these ‘gains’ with an electoral breakdown that will likely lead to a paralysis of peace talks and no resolution to the international laws Israel is violating in terms of their settlements, and I would say that the Israeli policy, whether in formative stages or full blown, is not something we want to imitate.

    You know who were good at conquering and imposing their culture? The Incas. As they moved through the Andes, they would conquer rival tribes, add their huacas to the Incan pantheon of gods, and forcibly relocate tribes closer to the imperial center while sending out their own people to colonize. Combined with geographic advantages, this made them the most durable empire in pre-Columbian America. Even then, they were seen as the other and had to put down rebellions and eventually ended by in-fighting and a bigger empire.

    In terms of imposing our will, this model is wildly obsolete for a lot of reasons, but I think it remains one of the best out there for assimilation of defeated people and ending ‘threats’. Even then, it has flaws. There is no reason to think some Rainbox Six elite group traipsing through the world and ending tin pot dictators and radical Islamo-fascist baddies or whatever will be any more successful in fomenting a Pax Americana. This is why it can be a problem to let a fiction writer to become a respected geo-political pundit.

    No matter how gentle or covert our manipulation attempts are, we will always be a ‘foreign’ influence in another country and it will be resisted. The failures (Iran, Cuba) will always be more troublesome than our successes are fruit bearing.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You have your vision of what the social sciences can be; I have mine. Who can say which is correct?

    As for for Israel as a good example for the US to follow, see “The Fate of Israel” (28 July 2006).

  11. Science often lags far behind engineering.

    You can build great cathedrals, even if you don’t quite know how high you can build. Similarly for the social sciences.

  12. I’ll be interested to hear more of FM and Lind’s notions of “defense”. If it means maintaining the status quo, I don’t think it will do. The status quo currently includes too many undemocratic, unstable, inequitable regimes. For one example: Saudi Arabia.

    Thomas Friedman tried to sell one version of empire without military — globalization raising all boats. Of course it was a fantasy. The sound part of it was the vision of a more equatable distribution of incomes and living standards.

    Maybe the collapse of its domestic economy will teach America’s leaders that first they need to take care of the needs of their own citizens, while allowing other nations to do the same.

    The military’s only real job will then be supervising the dismantling of global nuclear weaponry.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Try the links given in the article for more information. I very much doubt that at any time in this century “The military’s only real job will then be supervising the dismantling of global nuclear weaponry.” In fact, I suspect there will be more atomic powers over time (not less), and conventional (non-atomic) war will continue in some form or another to vex the world.

  13. And please, I hope we don’t mistake Israel’s walls as examples of “defensive strategy”, or imagine that they are anything but politically destabilizing and morally offensive.

  14. One reason why we want to be somehow offensive is that a viable defense in today’s conditions would involve radical decentralization – whether it be John Robb’s resilient communities, Thoreau’s Walden, Aristotle’s polis, or something else like that.

    Under such a decentralized setup, should airplanes be crashed into buildings in Manhattan, that would be unpleasant but not a threat to us folks out in Ohio. And visa versa.

    Also, under those circumstances, the tribal mores of the Pashtuns ( or Pathans, as they are sometimes called ) would not be a matter we would need to resolve. Nor would Wahabbi influences in Saudi Arabia or whatever it is that is going on in McDowell County, WV ( Hatfield / McCoy country ).

    The rule of reason has been questioned since Voltaire’s Candide. “Let us all tend to our gardens,” he concluded. Good advice.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your point. Are we already “radically decentralized”? If not, what happened to the people of Ohio when the WTC collapsed?

    IMO our attempt to control the world to prevent another 9-11 illustrates our odd combination of hubris and paranoia. Appropriate for a State that spends 10x more than all its enemies combined on “defense”, yet still feels so vulnerable that its people must have their shoes inspected before boarding airplanes.

  15. “US military expenditures are up to what, 4% of GNP? In WW II it was over 20%? (facts from memory, corrections welcome). The point of military sustainability is that measured as % of GNP, or % of gov’t expenses, the military budget is well below historical highs.”

    The UK was devoting over 55% of GDP to the war effort by 1943 (source: Mark Harrison).
    US was about 34% of GDP. But such efforts can only be very limited in time and the US got rather lucky in terms of timing and circumstances.In the short run you can, say, make guns and battleships instead of spare rails; in the long run trains will start to derail. Note that the US leadership starved the military as soon as war ended, despite that the postwar world was hardly a safe place. That was necessary to put the consumer economy back on track, even if it had the downside of causing a lot of issues during the korean war.

    “On the other hand, as the pork-barrel stimulus increases wasteful investment with low rates of return, and low job creation or job growth yet with higher taxes and higher interest rates, the calls to cut the military will continue to gain in volume.”

    Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious, the military is economically improductive. At best it absorbs a huge amount of resources and gives the odd technological spinoff. At worst it goes around actively destroying wealth. Any “wasteful investement with low rate of return” is still better than the military from a purely economical point of view.

    Frankly the given the way most big ticket weapons procurement programs are going these days (FCS, LCS, the Zumwalt fiasco etc.) you could throw an unlimited amount of money at them and they would still find a way to waste it all without delivering anything of substance.

  16. Duncan: are you saying the US is wedded to “offensive” strategy because a “defensive” strategy would involve decentralization, “tending one’s own garden”? Couldn’t agree more!

  17. From what I can tell the military is attempting to fit within the expectations of our leaders and our society. Bloodless war is what we want so we can tell everyone how to live and feel good about it. No sacrifice, No effort! And we will have utopia.

    I agree in the premise that we are overly involved in the world but to change we must change our own thought process’s. We expect government to be able to resolve everything when in reality it simply cannot. Inside the country or out! Once we admit that, then policy will flow accordingly.

    I like the saying; “Friends of liberty everywhere but gaurdians of only our own.” I have forgotten the exact saying and who said it but I agree with it. We also forget our most important weapon, our social weapons, which in time may serve us better to defeat our enemies. We then just need to hold them at bay and wait.

    It seems that many would like to vent at the military about spending. To a large extent many of the complaints has to do with government programs in general. When was last successful government program? It’s hard to find any.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am not sure much of this is correct. Do you see signs of the public’s intolerence for casualties in Iraq and Aghanistan? I don’t.

    Nor is Nagl proposing “bloodless war”. Since we wage COIN with massive use of airpower — even artillary (see here and here).

    “Friends of liberty everywhere but gaurdians of only our own.”

    A great line, usually attributed to John Quincy Adams, probably apocryphal. It is a summary of his speech in Washington DC on 4 July 1821:

    Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all — she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

    She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

    She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors, and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force; the frontlet on her brow would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre, the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

  18. What defines a successful government program? Social security might not be sustainable but it still writes checks every month that get cashed…

  19. Duncan: are you saying the US is wedded to “offensive” strategy because a “defensive” strategy would involve decentralization, “tending one’s own garden”? Couldn’t agree more!

    Essentially yes. My MidEast policy has be “Develop solar power and get the hell out of there!” for several decades now.

  20. “Analogies are fudge.”

    I’ve read this thread twice now including many of the comments. It depends on how you consider analogies. TE Lawrence, after all, is basically an irrelevant figure in human history. Yet you choose to quote him.

    “Overly dazzled by prospects of a great prize, Churchill and the War Cabinet seem never to have seriously considered the dire price to be paid if the plan failed.” [on the Dardanelles 1915]
    -Warlord:A Life of Winston Churchill by Carlo D’Este (2008), page 250

    I would have loved to transcribe more, but I think this gets the point across. The first thing I thought was the Bush Administration and Iraq circa 2002/2003. D’Este is no John Keegan. Keegan isn’t even in his league. But this is written in 2008. The ink on the hardcover I’m reading has barely dried.

    2008 has as much to do with 1915 as 1915 with 2008. Maybe analogy is not the word you are looking for.

    This is a Black Swan problem. We tend to pay too much attention to the wrong things in history and too short a time frame and don’t look at history overall. And if you haven’t actually read The Black Swan, please do. If you are not actually an expert on WWI, then let’s leave it out of the conversation.

    The Guns of August is to WWI what Tom Clancy is today regarding anything military. I suppose it is acceptable. It is also usually the first and only book anyone reads on the subject, so I always cringe when I see it mentioned.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This seems an odd comment. Most of your objections were explictly mentioned in the text.

    “basically an irrelevant figure in human history. Yet you choose to quote him.”

    Lawrence’s work is considered a basic text for unconventional warfare. You statement is like saying Goddard was an illrelelevant figure in space exploration because his rockets were so small.

    “2008 has as much to do with 1915 as 1915 with 2008.”

    You are brilliant. As of Monday all History Departments will immediately disband!

    “This is a Black Swan problem.”

    It is not clear what you mean by “this”. If you are referring to WWI, that’s absurd. WWI was preceded by 2 decades of preparation, including several crises — any of which might have sparked its beginning. Plus key figures in the drama were aware that it could prove both long and destructive.

  21. Fabius; your point is well made, however… Nagl’s myopic orientation on changing society as “the way” is countered by your narrow argument that this is virtually impossible. I am confident the answer lies in the gray area. By focusing on societal influence, Nagl’s directive forces conventional military minds to develop and implement non-lethal strategies through information operations, which ideally complement any requirement for kinetic effects. Nagl’s single point in the above statement is clearly a utopian pure-strategy, as you point out. To also discount the supplemental effect of a properly employed mixed-strategy using the instruments of statecraft is also inflammatory.

    Great blog — thank you for stimulating strategic thinking / discussion.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps so. However I suspect Nagl really believes this is possible. As seen in his article (the subject of a future post): “Let’s Win the Wars We’re In“, JFQ, Spring 2009. Gian Gentile’s reply is definitive IMO (in the same issue): Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars“.

  22. I’m sorry, we are on two different pages. You are referring to TE Lawrence regarding the history of unconventional warfare and I am trying to figure his significance in relationship to WWI’s cult of the offensive.

    The point is that we be very careful (and this is a huge problem) not to use concepts and theories that have only entered the war-analysis lexicon in the last 50 years or in 2009 when analyzing events and people in 1914. And then turning that flawed analysis back on the present.

    The cult of the offensive was not simply something that existed pre-1914 and suddenly disappeared on the Marne in the fall of 1914. 18 months into a 4-year conflict, when supposedly the folly of a short war and primacy of the machine-gun, dug-in troops, and modern artillery barrages should have been learned, the British launched the Battle of the Somme. In July 1916, the cult of the offensive was still alive and well. Not just on July 1st, when the British lost 57,000 casualties, 19,000 of whom were killed – but for the next 4 months.

    To say that there were few or no stupid generals is puzzling. It may be possible to make this statement in regards to the Germans, less so the French, but certainly not the British. What do you mean by stupid? Is this the same as competent or experienced in a military sense? You aren’t really making an argument yet, but so far it seems to be,”they couldn’t have been stupid because they were generals.”

    This is somewhat of a 20th century American notion where it can be argued that our generals are more highly trained than surgeons. Not in the 1915 British army. Genrals command divisions or above, so what do you mean by general? Do you mean any general? Or one that commands a Corps? An Army? A Field Marshal? There were hundreds of divisions, with an equal number or more of various staff and home department positions. Certainly we can find more than a few cases of stupidity.

    Keep in mind some other facts. The British army was a “new army.” The original BEF was largely destroyed in 1914 and 1915 and was so small it was practically irrelevant in size. Its commanders came from a system that until the late 1880s gained their positions not by merit, but by social standing and by buying their regiment. It is unclear whether the effects of this are gone by 1914. The typical formal training of a British general was 2 years at Sandhurst when they were 17 and 18 years old. The military experience was the Sudan, the Northwest Frontier, and the Boer War.

    You are correct, there were key figures (Churchill and) who believed the conflict could prove long destructive. But the overwhelming feeling and conventional wisdom at the time was completely different. This kind of conflict had not been seen in the West since the 30 Years War, 300 years previous, and most everybody had discounted its possibility.

    This is the Black Swan problem. The turkey is well-fed and taken care of every day for 99 days, he has absolutely no reason to believe any day will be any different from the last. Then on the 100th day he is in for a big surprise.

    I apologize for the length of the post.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is too pedanic and agrumentative for my taste. To pick one detail as an example:
    * I quoted Lawrence saying about analogies.
    * Your reply: “TE Lawrence is basically an irrelevant figure in human history.”
    * I said “Lawrence’s work is considered a basic text for unconventional warfare” (no, he’s not irrelevant).
    * You reply: “I am trying to figure his significance in relationship to WWI’s cult of the offensive.”
    I quoted Lawrence about analogies, not about the details of WWI. I could have as easily used Plato, or Shakespear. Would you have replied that Plato was irrelevant in history, and be pondering his role in WWI theory?

  23. “This is too pedanic and argumentative for my taste.”

    Obviously not as you took the time to argue and belabour the TE Lawrence point. Sheesh.

    So Lawrence is now the authority on analogies? No, of course not. He is as irrelevant to the usefulness of analogies as the details of WWI.

    The only reason anybody even thinks about Lawrence anymore is because there was a famous film about his life made in the 1960s starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in the 1960s. If it weren’t for the romantic notions of some Arabists, he would have an even lesser standing in the history of warfare. For the sake of this conversation, I’d suggest a less popular, yet more relevant film – Khartoum(1966) starring Charlton Heston. The story contained is hugely significant to European continental warfare. Ironically, many of the same players had contemporary experience in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Swat as well.
    Fabius Maximus replies: SOP here is to reply where people make a detailed comment. I used Lawrence as an illustration, and believe I have made my point.

  24. SOP? I doubt you know much about SOP. You’ve spent your entire life in academia. You are physically, mentally, and philosophically unable to advance out of it.

    Yes, please, enlighten me on Afghanistan. I can’t wait. Do me a favor, though. Cut the arrogance out. My kids don’t need to hear that.

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