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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Pre-Angellism

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

[by Lynn Rees]
Angellism before Angell, at the dawn of the French Revolution:

French military might strode defiantly across the land, contemptuous of the political calculus with which other governments anxiously weighed enmities and alliances, weakening the forces of war and binding the raw element of conflict in diplomatic bonds. To their own and everyone else’s surprise, the French learned that a state’s natural power and a great simple cause were far stronger than the artificial structure of international relations by which other states were ruled.

Such a fundamental transformation was least of all expected at a time when many believed that highly developed state finances and standing armies had led to a level of civilization at which the strength of the people was excluded from public affairs. Everything was reduced to a a few strands—treasury, credit, army—which the cabinet held in its hands…

Carl von Clausewitz,
“Observations on Prussia” (c. early 1820s),
Historical and Political Writings
Edited and translated by Peter Paret and David Moran 

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The Pentagon Wars, by Jim Burton —- ebook release

Friday, March 7th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pentagon Wars, Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, by Jim Burton

 

Today I received a note from Jim Burton to let us know the US Naval Institute Press has released an e-book of his classic The Pentagon Wars. I’ve a hardback first edition ex-library book that was very expensive.

If you’ve not read this important book, it comes with my highest recommendation.

 

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Book Review: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski 

Recent cyber problems here at ZP (as well as work commitments) have left me with an enormous backlog of book-related posts and reviews with which to wade through this month, including re-starting the aborted “friends of zenpundit.com who wrote books” posts.  Here is the first of what hopefully should be many posts to help readers add to their antilibrary:
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I recently picked up Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by journalist Andrew Nagorski and found it to be an enjoyable read. Nagorski is telling the tale of Americans in Germany, predominantly journalists and diplomats, who witnessed the death of the Weimar Republic  at the hands of the Nazis and the subsequent construction of the totalitarian Third Reich under the messianic leadership of Adolf Hitler. It is, to be sure, a cautionary tale that is well-known at a superficial level where “Munich” – the 1938 diplomatic agreement where British and French leaders surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s aggressive designs – is a shorthand today for ill-considered appeasement of dictatorial regimes.

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That said, the deep reluctance of American officials and the public back home to acknowledge intellectually the nature of Nazi Germany and the threat it represented at the time, to the frustration of reporters like William Shirer, is less familiar and too often acknowledged only sheepishly – perhaps because the same “see no evil” pattern was replicated in regard to Stalin’s Russia until well after WWII ended. Indeed, one of the book’s more pathetic figures, Martha Dodd,  the irresponsible party-girl daughter of the American ambassador, transitioned seamlessly from being an enthusiastic useful idiot for Nazism to a slavishly loyal Stalinist and lifelong Soviet agent. A phenomena that mirrored that of many young German men who in the latter years of the Weimar Republic found themselves shifting between Communist fighting groups and membership in the Nazi SA without any democratic or liberal waystation in between.

Some thoughts about Hitlerland in no particular order:

  • Nagorski, like most journalists, is an excellent writer and more skilled at weaving a story than are most historians. Hitlerland is extremely “readable” for the general layman who is the target audience of the author.
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  • If you are well read enough on the subject of the Third Reich to be familiar with Nagorski’s major primary sources you will not see much that is original here as the same texts have been relied upon very heavily by many other writers and historians of the Nazi period. I learned only a few details or anecdotes that were new to me. What Nagorski did that is new is to bring together the stories of the Americans in Germany into one book for a synthesis and explained it smoothly and concisely.
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  • One of the more famous of the primary sources, Dr. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who wrote a memoir about Hitler and was a very early (if minor) member of the Nazi Party leadership, a P.R. mentor and court jester of sorts to Adolf Hitler, is given close scrutiny. Nagorski brings out the more sinister and machiavellian side of Hanfstaengl, whose ability to charm and play the clown and his influential Harvard connections helped him escape any kind of punishment for his numerous contributions toward Hitler’s regime.
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  • The inescapability of street level Nazi brutality, the crude and fanatical anti-semitism and the increasing enthusiasm of the German people, even relative anti-Nazi Germans, for accepting the regime’s propaganda claims with credulity after years of being submerged in them is an excellent feature of Hitlerland. Propaganda does damage simply by crowding out truth, even when it is not believed.

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Recommended.

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Thoughts on CNAS “Preparing for War in the Robotic Age”

Friday, January 24th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

My reading at CNAS, which had once been frequent, declined with the waning of the Abu Muqawama blog. While formerly I usually scanned through CNAS reports on a regular basis after reading what Exum and his commenters had to say, toward the end I only visited when Adam and Dan had new posts up.

At the gentle nudging of Frank Hoffman, I decided to read the latest CNAS product;  I’m pleased to say with the release of ” 20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age by Robert Work ( CNAS CEO and former Undersecretary of the Navy) and Shawn Brimley (CNAS Executive V.P. and former NSC Strategic Planning Director) CNAS has rolled out an intellectually provocative analysis on an important emerging aspect of modern warfare.

Work and Brimley have done a number of things well and did them concisely (only 36 pages) in “20YY”:

  • A readable summary of the technological evolution of modern warfare in the past half century while distinguishing between military revolutions,  military-technical revolution and the the 80′s-90′s  American “revolution in military affairs“.
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  • A more specific drill-down on the history of guided munitions and their game-changing importance on the relationship between offense and defense that flourished after the Gulf War. 
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  • An argument that the proliferation of technology and information power into the hands unfriendly states and non-state actors is altering the strategic environment for the United States, writing:
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  • “Meanwhile in the 13 years since the last 20XX game, foreign nation-state C41, surveillance and reconaissance systems, and guided munitions-battle network capabilities have become increasingly capable.  Indeed, these systems now form the very robust and advanced “anti-access and area denial”  (A2/AD) capabilities envisioned in the 20XX game series. The effect has been that the dominance enjoyed by the United States in the late 1990′s/2000′s in the area of high end sensors, guided weaponry, space and cyberspace systems and stealth technology has started to erode. Moreover the erosion is now occurring at an accelerated rate.”
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  • Positing the near-future global proliferation of unmanned, autonomous, networked and swarmed robotic systems replacing( and leveraged by diminishing numbers of) expensive manpower and piloted platforms on the battlefield and altering the age-old relationship between a nation’s population base and the traditional calculation of its potential military power.
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  • An argument that “warfare in the robotic age” will mean substantial to fundamental shifts in strategic calculation of deterrence, coercion, the use of force, operational doctrines and the evolution of military technology and that the United States must prepare for this eventuality.

This report is well worth reading.  In my view there are some areas that require further exploration and debate than can be found in “20YY”. For example:

  • While the power of economics as a driver of unmanned, autonomous weapons is present, the implications are vastly understated. Every nation will face strategic investment choices between opting for simple and cheaper robotic platforms in mass and “pricing out” potential rivals by opting for “class” – fewer but more powerful, sophisticated and versatile robotic systems.
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  • The scale of robot swarms are limited primarily by computing power and cost of manufactureand could be composed of robots from the size of a fly to that of a zeppelin. As John Robb has noted, this could mean billions of drones.
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  • The US defense acquisition system and the armed services are ill-suited for fast and inexpensive introduction of robotic warfare technology – particularly if they threaten to displace profitable legacy platforms – as was demonstrated by the CIA rather than the USAF taking the lead on building a drone fleet.  Once foreign states reach parity, they may soon exceed us technologically in this area. A future presidential candidate may someday warn of  a growing ” robot gap” with China.
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  • Reliance on robotic systems as the center of gravity of your military power carries a terrific risk if effective countermeasures suddenly render them useless at the worst possible time (“Our…our drone swarm….they’ve turned around…they are attacking our own troops….Aaaaahhhh!”)
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  • The use of robotic systems to indiscriminately and autonomously kill is virtually inevitable much like terrorism is inevitable. As with WMD, the weaker the enemy, the less moral scruple they are likely to have in employing lethal robotic technology.
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  • For that matter, the use of robotic systems by an authoritarian state against its own citizens to suppress insurgency, peaceful protest or engage in genocide against minority groups is also highly probable. Is there much doubt how the Kim Family regime in north Korea or Assad in Syria would make use of an army of “killer robots” if they feel their hold on power was threatened?
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  • International Law is not currently configured for genuinely autonomous weapons with Ai operating systems. Most of the theorists and certainly the activists on the subject of  ”killer robots” are more interested in waging lawfare exclusively against American possession and use of such weapons than in stopping their proliferation to authoritarian regimes or contracting realistic covenants as to their use.

All in all “20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age provides much food for thought.

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