The Cult of the offense returns: why we’re losing the long war, & how to win

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.



  1. The Cult of the Offense Returns.
  2. The allure of a losing strategy.
  3. Learning from the Revolution.
  4. For More Information.
  5. 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.

(2)  The allure of a losing strategy

The Confederacy had a nearly ideal defensive position. Of sufficient size vs. the North to make its conquest quite difficult, a poor transportation system (few roads and railroads) making attack difficult, with formidable natural defenses (the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi providing north-south barriers, and its numerous east-west rivers). While their industrial plant was small, with imports it was sufficient to adequately supply their armies.

Most important, time was their greatest ally. Support in the North for the war was always marginal, with time likely to erode it unless fueled by battlefield victories. What the South lacked was a strong commander willing to exploit these advantages. Instead they had Robert E. Lee. This excerpt from Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991) describes the cost of Lee’s love of attacking and the defeat it brought the South.

"Lee Considered" by Alan T. Nolan
Available at Amazon.


When compared to the defensive, Lee’s offensive grand strategy, because of the losses entailed, led inexorably, to use his words, to the “natural military consequences of the enemy’s numerical superiority,” that is, surrender.  That superiority was enhanced by Federal reinforcements, but it was also heightened by Lee’s heavy and irreplaceable losses.

The grand strategy of defense would have muted these “natural military consequences” because it would have slowed the increase in the enemy’s numerical superiority insofar as that numerical superiority arose from Lee’s heavy and disproportionate losses.

Further, because of the strategic and tactical advantages of the defense, that numerical superiority would have been less significant had Lee assumed the defensive in 1862-63. Lee proved this when massively outnumbered on the defensive in 1864-65. In 1864, Lee’s defense, in Porter Alexander’s words, exacted “a price in blood” that significantly threatened “the enthusiasm of [the North’s] population.” Adopted earlier, this defensive policy might have worn the North out. The grand strategy of the defense was therefore not only a feasible alternative; it was also more likely to have led to victory.

The views of historians who have recently examined Lee’s generalship are worth consulting. … The distinguished military historian, Frank E. Vandiver  [said} … at Gettysburg Lee “failed to accept reality. . . . He simply wanted to go on and attack because he wanted to attack.”  Grady McWhiney discussed Lee’s preoccupation with the offensive

“From the outset of the South’s struggle for independence.  Lee suggested offensives to President Jefferson Davis and urged other generals to be aggressive. … though Lee was at his best on defense, he adopted defensive tactics only after attrition had deprived him of the power to attack. … The aggressiveness of Robert E. Lee, the greatest Yankee killer of all time, cost the Confederacy dearly. His average losses in his first six big battles were 6% greater than his opponents’ losses …”

… In sum, Lee’s “kind of war,” the grand strategy of the offensive, contradicted the South’s true grand strategy. It therefore contributed to the loss of the Lost Cause. … Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s unquestioning and devoted biographer {said] “The army’s hard-won battles left its ranks depleted, its command shattered by death or wounds, its personnel exhausted, its horses scarcely able to walk, its transportation broken down, its ammunition and its commissary low.”

…  These conditions were not inevitable. They did not fall from the sky. They were in significant part the consequences of Lee’s “devotion to the offensive” and his “daring.”

… These, then, are the martial qualities of the Lee of tradition: devotion to the offensive, daring, combativeness, audacity, eagerness to attack, taking the initiative. Whether these qualities were wise or unwise, well considered or ill considered, assets or liabilities, would seem to depend on one’s criterion. If one covets the haunting romance of the Lost Cause, then the inflicting of casualties on the enemy, tactical victory in great battles, and audacity are enough.

General George WashingtonGeneral George Washington

——————– End excerpt  ——————–

(3)  Learning from the Revolution

The folly of the Confederacy’s strategy becomes more easily seen by comparison with the American Revolution. Like the Confederacy, the Founders faced a stronger power, relying on formidable natural defenses and their foe’s uncertain resolution — with time their greatest ally.

George Washington adopted the opposite strategy to that of General Lee, and led the Founders to victory. See this excerpt from Colonel George A. Bruce’s The Strategy of the Civil War (1918), from Gary W. Gallagher’s Lee, The Soldier (1996) …


{On 1 June 1862} Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and remained with it until the surrender at Appomattox. He supplemented the {general war policy} with the principle of aggressive warfare which was congenial to his impulsive nature.

In the short period of one year and seven days he fought six of the greatest battles of the war. In history there is no record that equals it. In this short time there had fallen, killed and wounded, of his men 82,208, not counting losses in skirmishes, minor engagements, and the hardships of forced marches and exposure, which would probably swell these figures to a full 100,000; the Union loss, figured in the same way, during the same period, was 74,720.

If the people of the North were weak, volatile, lacking in purpose and resolution, he might well expect that, after such quick and powerful demonstrations, with trembling knees we would come suing for peace and ready to acknowledge the South their independence. On no other supposition were his methods justifiable.

… Of the 7 great battles fought in the Eastern zone including the Wilderness, only one was fought by the Army of the Potomac offensively during an offensive campaign, and one, Antietam, to repel an invasion. The Wilderness was partly offensive on each side, the last battle of the kind begun by Lee.

The logic of their methods of warfare had resulted so near a bankruptcy of men that henceforth Lee was compelled, against his instincts and nature, to resort to the defensive with the aid of breastworks.

In Virginia, Lee is compared to Washington and placed on an equal pedestal. There is some but only slight grounds for such comparison. In character each was high and equally noble. Washington was gifted with a far higher and broader intelligence. If the art of war consists in using the forces of a nation in a way to secure the end for which it is waged, and not in a succession of great battles that tend to defeat it, then Washington, though commanding a much smaller army, as a soldier reaches a higher plane than Lee.

With his broad intelligence and unrivalled judgment he looked at the war as a whole, estimated correctly all the advantages and disadvantages on either side, what would be the relative strength of forces, and adopted a method of warfare, generally defensive, but sometimes offensive when the chances were enough in his favor. In strategy he never made a mistake. He had courage to do and dare, and, what is more rare, the courage to refrain from doing and suffer criticism when doing would injure the cause in his keeping.

He had a correct insight into the minds of his own people and that of the enemy, the strength of resolution of each to endure heavy burdens, looking forward with certainty to the time when the public sentiment of England, led by Chatham and Burke, would be ready to acknowledge the Colonies as an independent nation. With these views he carried on the war for seven years, all the way from Boston to Yorktown, on a generally defensive plan, the only one pointing to the final goal of independence.

—————————– End excerpt —————————–

Strategy as chess

(4)  Conclusion

Our situation vs. Islamic jihadists differs from both that of the Founders and the Confederacy. Not only do we have the great natural defense of distance but we’re by far the stronger power. We have no need to attack. Also, time is our ally. No society can escape or resist the forces of modernity, and they’re on our side…

Worse, an offensive strategy is quite daft. Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII foreign armies almost always lose to local insurgents. Our attacks strengthen our foes.

We can can wait for our foes to self-destruct. As al Qaeda in Iraq did, angering the Sunni Arabs so that they cooperated with us to eject them. As the Islamic State is doing now with its insane violence. We venture much by unnecessarily attacking, especially with the odds against us.

Perhaps we should ask our war mongerers what they gain from our wars, since we pay so much in exchange for so little.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about grand strategy, about war mongerers, and especially these…

On War" by Clausewitz
Available at Amazon.

(6) Clausewitz gets the last word

From Clausewitz’s On War, Book 6 “Defense”, Chapter 9 “Defensive Battle”.

That the defender by inferiority of force and other circumstances may be tied down to that degree we do not dispute. But there is no doubt that this, which should be only the consequence of a necessity, has often been assumed to be the consequence of that part which every defender has to play. Thus in a truly absurd way it has become an axiom that defensive battles should really be confined to warding off attacks and not directed to the destruction of the enemy.

We hold this to be one of the most harmful errors, a real confusion between the form and the thing itself, and we maintain unreservedly that in the form of war which we call defense, the victory is not only more probable but may also attain the same magnitude and efficacy as in the attack, and that this may be the case not only in the total result of all the engagements which constitute a campaign, but also in any particular battle, if the necessary degree of force and energy is not wanting.

23 thoughts on “The Cult of the offense returns: why we’re losing the long war, & how to win”

    1. Andy,

      Thanks for that comment, especially the reminder of King Leonidas of Sparta immortal reply at Thermopylae to Xerces’ demand that the Greeks surrender their weapons. That’s got to be Best of Thread.

      Malon Lave.” (Having Come, Take).

  1. Two points: So different I will make two separate comments.

    1) The behavior ( “strategy,” if you will) has been linked to its energy policy. In particular to oil. Using oil requires the United States to maintain and defend intricate pipeline and other infrastructure. Hence the highly aggressive, “full court press” type behavior.

    To adopt a defensive posture would entail also adopting more localized self sufficiency. This suggests, among other items, renewable energy.

    1. Duncan,

      That’s a common view, but one I’ve never understood. We’re one of the world’s top two oil producers — and the #1 energy producer (including oil and natural gas). Disruptions to the world’s oil supply will hurt us far less than any of the other major developed nations — yet they don’t worry about oil cutoffs.

      For good reason. Almost every oil exporter relies on exports for a large chunk of their national income. Cutting off oil exports does immediate and severe damage to them. Having oil perceived as a high-risk energy sources will spur the development of alternatives, even more against their interest. The exports are our de facto allies in maintaining a steady flow of oil.

    2. My complete answer would demand more time than I currently have available.

      Suffice it to say, however, that such items as JIT, which depends heavily upon truck transport, is deeply intertwined with energy policy.

      My big point, the one that matters, is that we should focus upon a more locally self-reliant infrastructure.

  2. 2) The chess analog that refuted the South’s overly aggressive posture occurred at the same time in 1862, when the great master, Paul Morphy defeated the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard ( the allies) in the greatest chess game ever played.

    The allies played the Philidor Defense, a solid but static chess formation suggesting the Confederate South. But then, illogically, they attacked with their bishop, violating the spirit of the situation. Morphy brushed off this bogus attack, shredding what should have been a solid position.

    1. I failed to state, but meant, that the 1862 timing of this game was no coincidence.

      Rather, there was something in the collective subconscious that was being worked out both in Morphy’s games and in Lee’s battles. (Morphy, BTW, was from New Orleans.)

      Chet Richards recently posted something about Bobby Fischer’s games. Morphy and Fischer are the two great, eccentric chess geniusses.

  3. The fact that you would post that Clausewitz quote on top shows that you don’t have a clue about John David Lewis argument, or your blinded by some sort of Ron Paul pacifistic Anti-Americanism. Yes, defense is the stronger form of warfare, within certain context. The same can be said for offense, if that were not the case then what would be the point of having either. The least you could do to make a proper argument is define the contextthat we ate now in that would make defense the proper posture for the U.S. On the political level, which determines everything else like foreign policy and strategy all the way down to tactics, U believe that the only proper use of military force is in self defense where the lives and rights of Americans are threatened. That would mean that I am against humanitarian wars to spread democracy and wars of aggression. Now, as a hypothetical, let’s say that Canada attacked Alaska, would that be a proper scenario to go to war with Canada, I would say yes. Let’s say for the sake of argument, that Canada was militarily equal or superior to the U.S. And we were just bearly fighting off the Canadian military, what should our posture be in that narrow theater of war. I.e. the Canadian Alaska border. We would be on the defensive. Let’s say, that we were to fend off all Canadian attacks against Alaska at that point, and even say that the war at that point is over. Alaska has been defended, a defensive strategy has worked. If I am not mischaracterizing your argument, so correct me if I am wrong, you would say that the proper thing to do now is to remain on the defensive since it is the stronger form of war. Let the Canadian forces exhaust themselves against our defensive positions until they give up. Now imagine that even after they give up, they announce eterna hostility against America, and that they will never give up trying to take over Alaska. Maybe not today, maybe not even in 50 years, but someday they will take Alaska. My argument at this point is, that at this point it was proper to be on the defensive, the goal now is to be offensive. Not just to defend a particular territory, but to systemically end the threat. To remain on the defensive is to institute a permanent state of war, even if you are able to stop every single attack against you from now on until eternity. You must go on the defensive to end the threat Permanently. The goal is to PREVENT this from becoming a long war, your position would institute a long war.

  4. Correction: Where I said “U” I meant “I”. It should have read,”I believe that the only proper use of military force is in self defense where the lives and rights of Americans are threatened. That would mean that I am against humanitarian wars to spread democracy and wars of aggression.”

  5. It’s interesting that when Grant shifted to aggressive offensives he nearly lost the war. One or two more Cold Harbors would have done it.

    1. Socialbill,

      Great point! I wanted to discuss the dangers of offensive strategies, but this was already too long. Attacking creates the opportunity for decisive defeats, rarer when the same resources are applied to defense.

      For the Union, of course, its’ grand strategy required attacking the South.

    2. Good point, SocialBill. But Grant was wise enough to avoid another Cold Harbor. Burnsides at Fredricksburg was another matter… It was a minor miracle that the badly used Army of the Potomac didn’t mutiny when ordered to attack at Fredricksburg. Cold Harbor at least came after some wins and some draws, not after a string of defeats.

      I’m going to offer a small defense of Lee’s aggression. The problem that Lee faced was that the South really could not survive without Richmond, which was close to Washington DC and Lincoln was not dumb enough to let the Washington garrison get weak enough to fall to Lee’s army. This meant that Lee could not indulge in a realistic defense in depth. Also he had a big information advantage when the AoP advanced into Virginia between Stuart’s cavalry and locals volunteering information. These advantages allowed Lee to believe that he could win on the battlefield with attacks to drive away the Union army and wear down the Union morale.

      On the other side of the argument is the fact that Lee obviously underestimated the Union will to win the war once they started it. Both of his attacks into the north were very poorly conceived and stirred up strong anti-Confederacy sentiments.

  6. You guys all talk like there is no 4GW, Offensive? Defensive? What is That? 4GW is fighting when and where the opponent doesnt want to fight and vanishing when and where it does want to. There is no offensive nor defensive 4GW

    1. There are different levels in warfare. The classification is not unanimous but in general they are (if I remember correctly):
      1. Grand Strategic:
      The overarching vision and purpose. An expression of the desires and nature of a nation.
      2. Theater Strategic:
      The complete strategy for entire region, where success in one region does not directly effect success in another region. A theater is somewhat self-contained. Emphasis on somewhat.
      Like the Pacific-, North African- or European Theaters during WW2.
      3. Operational / Grand-Tactical:
      The combination of tactics into a larger combined arms whole. This is also the level where logistics starts showing its effects.
      4. Tactical:
      The most effective use of hardware on the level of individuals or small groups
      5. Technological / Hardware

      The interrelations between these levels is highly dynamic and organic.

      Depending on certain factors, an ambush in enemy territory could be classified as:
      offensive on the theater level or operational level and
      defensive on the tactical level.

      An example of this was (part of) the German Blitzkrieg in France, where German soldiers set-up ambushes along roads behind French front lines after they penetrated them.
      This gave them the local tactical advantage of defense while at the same time being able to use this advantage offensively on the higher levels.

      There are different modes of reasoning as well, which should not be mixed up.
      – Analogical, being able to see and apply the correct patterns in apparently unrelated matters
      – Logical, this includes deduction, arguments, suppositions etc. It is similar or even identical to Mathematics.
      – Scientific, empirically testing hypotheses to come to verifiable conclusions/theories that can be (not proven but) proven false by repeated experiments.

      Analogy is the most powerful practical mode of reason. Just think of how powerful stories are to people. But analogy is also the most vague and easiest to misuse and utterly “unprovable” using logic or science. Empirical evidence while the most solid and most based in the real world, is *relatively* highly labor intensive and “inefficient”.
      One mode of reason is not better than the other. It is all about context of course.
      This all concerns your question.

      Offensive, defensive, tactical, strategic etc. etc…

      There is a reason it is called the Art of War and not the Math of War or Science of War.
      Arguments related to the higher levels of war are highly analogy and conceptual. And this will cause much disagreement on how things are perceived, because perception is the central point.

  7. I’ve only been following you guys for a few weeks. The language and history is saying, “Take me seriously.” It is getting harder. Too much assuming of background, too much cherry picking the history, too much earnestness and, above all, too many footnotes/web cites. It would take days to track them all down to understand even the small arguments if I tried.
    Give Grant his due. He understood the war he was in and he understood the instruments he had available–attack everywhere simultaneously–the South could not cope and would break. He found a soulmate in Sherman and between them they demonstrated the case. They both were fortunate in their CinC.
    Today’s question…in what material ways does radical, fundamentalist, militant Islam resemble the Confederacy? Maybe we should have let the South go its way; maybe we should let ISIS do the same. If ISIS is a state, maybe we should deal with it like one?

    1. Fred,

      This post does not make an analogy of North:America and South:ISIS.

      The question posed here is if America today should choose a defensive or a offensive strategy? Our situation is similar in an important way to both that of the Founders and the Confederacy: we have powerful defensive strength, and time as our ally. We can wait and let time give us victory.

      As for your criticisms, they are too vaguely stated to be useful. All historical examples are “cherry picking” — it could as easily be said of a post 10x or 100x the length.

      Do you prefer a post without links so you can check things that interest you, either to confirm or get additional info? Or do you just prefer less information?

      Perhaps you would be happier reading websites with simpler content.

  8. Saifkatana, Thank you for that answer,
    now Im convinced there are people listening to this
    Thank You Sir

  9. @Pluto — In what sense was Richmond irreplacable to the Confederacy? I mean, I know that many of the war’s battles were fought in its vicinity, I know that it was as much of a regional rail/industrial hub as the South had, and I know that it was important to the combatants on both sides.

    But… The Confederacy itself was never strongly centralized. (And never had anything close to a coherent strategy, to the best of my knowledge.) In a parallel universe where Richmond fell much earlier in the war — say, before Sherman gutted the center, before Vicksburg sealed the Mississippi, before the pro-slavery army was bled white — isn’t it possible that the Confederate government and cause could have simply relocated?

    I ask because I picked up a copy of Turtledove’s “Guns of the South” for a buck, and I’m reading it now. I was dubious about it, because the whole “what if Hitler had F-4 Phantoms?” schtick is lame. But I I’d heard good things about it, and I have to admit it lives up to that. It’s an enjoyable read!

  10. John Boyd in his Patterns of Conflict presentation suggested a grand strategy of strengthening ties twixt allies and isolating enemies and cutting the ties of enemies to their allies. If we followed this grand strategic advice, America would avoid using its military against middle eastern countries but instead strive to strengthen our ties with Iran while finding ways to isolate and separate actors like ISIS and Syria and the Gaza strip from one another.
    We’re already doing part of this.
    We might isolate the actors like ISIS and Syria and the Gaza strip from one another by making serious progress on solving the Palestinian problem — lots of financial and humanitarian aid to Gaza would help, also pressure on Israel to stop the attacks against the Palestinians.
    Another move might involve publishing serious scholarship on very early editions of the Qur’an to weaken the extremist fundamentalist Islamic clerics. The British Museum recently put on display one of the oldest known Qur’ans, and their scholars could help with a project to publish accurate modern translations of very early verisons of the Qur’an.
    Lastly, the West could weaken extremist fundamentalists in Islam by strongly acting to support women’s rights and feminism in the middle east. Current evidence suggests that the Iranian people would welcome that move.

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