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Seydlitz89: “The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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

Our Clausewitzian friend, Seydlitz89 commented on my recent post on politics and strategy and has a new one of his own that accurately frames a solution to the geopolitical disarray in which the United States finds itself today. Seydlitz89 asked for my comments so I will be making some where appropriate [ in regular text]:

The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy

by Seydlitz89

 

There are various definitions of strategy. Basically what I mean here is expressed by a simplified example from Homer. The ten unsuccessful years of the Greek seige of Troy was carried out by force driven by notions of being led by heros/exceptionalism resulting in failure. Compare that to the subsequent Trojan Horse strategy which is far more than a simple ruse. The Greeks are able to turn the Trojan’s own belief system/narrative against them, and the horse is taken into the city to strategic effect. Had the Greeks been able to conquer Troy with force and notions of exceptionalism alone, then strategy would have been unnecessary, but since they were not, strategy became a necessity.

This particular symbolism chosen by Seydlitz89, of Achilles vs. Odysseus representing antipodes in strategy – of brute power vs. metis – were themes in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies and Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and the question of relying more on force or stratagem echoes in many contexts of military history and diplomacy. The “heroic” comment is particularly interesting to me. Homer’s Greeks in the archaic period  lived in aristocratic societies that had replaced the petty monarchies of the Greek Dark Ages in which The Illiad was set, but predated the Greeks of the polis of classical antiquity with which most people are more familiar.  The highest value of the the archaic Greek aristocracy (and for many classical Greeks as well) was “Arete” – an epitome of excellence in spirit and action, a virtuous nobility of character.

The Trojan Horse is a turning point for the Greeks, as Seydlitz correctly notes.  While all the major leaders of the Greeks in The Illiad are presumed to have arete, the stress on individual action, like the unstoppable battle-madness of Achilles outside Troy, makes unified action difficult and gives rise to bitter quarrels over place and spoils. Adopting the strategy of the Trojan Horse legitimizes collective action in light of arete; this shift in the direction of metis and strategy morally reinforced the iron discipline required for the phalanx, which became common Greek military practice in the century or two after Homer. So much so that while classical Greeks  marveled at the prowess of the legendary Achilles, the death of Aristodemus at Plataea received a far more grudging recognition from the Spartans. Strategy trumped heroics in terms of arete.

Lets consider strategy as a complex concept of at least three distinct aspects: the first is political context and contingency; the second is dialogue supported by a coherent strategic narrative; and the third is the combined application of various sources of power to achieve an effect greater than the sum of those sources, that is strategic effect. If we combine these three aspects we can conceptualize a test of opposing wills interacting over time applying various moral and material resources within a specific political context. The environment they operate in is one of uncertainty, violence and danger adding to the friction of the entire sequence. The goal is imposing one’s will over that of the enemy, but for the whole complex interaction to be coherent, certain criteria have to be met. Is the political purpose attainable by military means? Are other forms of power more appropriate? Is the purpose worth the possible cost? Who is the enemy exactly? A modern state? A tribe? An ideology?

A good riff here.

If you don’t care to take the time to understand the context in which you propose to operate, if you are unwilling to make rational choices about allocating your sources of power, if you are unwilling to acknowledge who (or what) constitutes “the enemy”, then your strategic narrative will be incoherent, unpersuasive and your effects anything but strategic (unless perhaps we count a debacle as being “strategic”).  Asking what the political purpose of military force  being used is for, much less the probability of success, seems to be the questions the Beltway prefers to ignore rather than answer.

Following Clausewitz, war belongs to political relations, so the enemy is by nature a political one, representing a political community. What is the nature of this political community, is it cohesive or fragmented to the point that it is the foreign presence which actually calls it into being? Dialogue is the interaction of both sides, but narrative includes all audiences involved including the home front, the enemy population and neutral political communities. One can see here how the moral and material cohesion of the two or more political communities influences the number of audiences we are dealing with.

Seydlitz here has written a paragraph to which Col. John Boyd would readily assent. The moral position your use of force communicates matters greatly to a variety of audiences, particularly if your actions contradict your words and your strategic narrative. Boyd argued for a grand strategy that would “Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted” , a task made impossible when marrying hypocrisy to cruelty while boasting of our own virtues. It is hard to lose a popularity contest with a ghoulish, beheading, paramilitary cult of sociopathic fanatics, or a brutal movement of unlettered zealot hillmen who throw acid in the faces of women, but at times the United States government managed to do exactly that. If the current and previous administrations had run WWII, we’d have had half the people of occupied Europe weighing their chances with the SS.

So based on our conceptual model, we can deduce that strategy requires a clear and specific political context, you cannot have a strategy to simply remain the only superpower on earth, or engage against methods such as terrorism or extremism. All of these are simply too abstract to be engaged in any way by strategy since the political contexts are too broad or nonexistent. How could the lone superpower prepare against any conceivable challenge from any rising political community, let alone engage a method of violence, strategically?

Declaring that we were in “The War on Terrorism” was the American elite’s way of finessing two aspects of the conflict they found most disturbing – the inconvenient reality that two American allies, Saudi Arabia and especially Pakistan, had done much to create the radical jihad movement from which our enemy had come and the elite’s own enormous political and psychological revulsion at grappling with the enemy’s sincere religious motivations and claim to defend Islam.  Not being willing to identify your enemy, even to yourself, will make discerning his center of gravity rather tough. Nor will anyone be impressed with demonstration of moral cowardice in fearing to do so.

Maintaining your strategic position relative to others?  This is more of a political task to emphasize the fundamentals, especially economic growth and moral confidence in the legitimacy of the model we present to the world, that make up the various aspects of national power of which military force is but one. A society that is ill-governed, corrupt and enduring social decay might be relatively more powerful than others (for a time) but it is unlikely to use its advantages effectively, much less wisely or decisively.

Re-discovering strategy allows us to look more critically at both our recent wars in terms of political context. What was the political purpose which we expected to achieve by especially military means in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems to have been to remake both the Afghan and Iraqi political identities, since only that would have assured the success of the new governments we wished to impose.

From this perspective, not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also more recent possible US military action regarding Syria, Iran or in support of the current Ukrainian government are all astrategic. None of them are coherent in any of the three aspects I have introduced

Complete agreement. The Bush administration based its claim to strategy on a narrow worldview of preemptive unilateralism, while the Obama administration has appointees who actively promote anti-strategic/astrategic models of national security decision making and disdain strategy altogether.

To illustrate this, let’s quickly consider Iraq. Iraq was initially portrayed as a looming threat. Operations commenced in 2002, although for some reason US and coalition air activity over Iraq was uniquely not considered military action. In the following spring, the country was quickly overrun, but the political purpose of imposing a new Iraqi political identity (as symbolized by the white, blue and yellow flag they were expected to adopt) was quite radical requirring sustained and extensive US moral and material support. An Iraqi resistance movement quickly spread with the US leadership caught by surprise. No strategy went into the planning of this campaign, instead it was based on a preference on organized violence linked with ideological assumptions regarding the market system as well as US exceptionalism.
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What we have experienced since 9/11 is not strategy, but the collapse of strategy as a coherent concept in US policy formulation producing a series of astrategic spasoms involving organized violence but to no US strategic effect. Instead we only have the aftereffects, the knock off of the corruption of these events contributing to a dissolution of US political standing in the world.

“Collapse” is an apt description.

Let us be clear that the supreme responsibility for this cognitive, cultural and moral collapse lies with the self-congratulatory, bipartisan elite, inside and out of the executive and legislative branches. They make policy that the military strives to carry out, they craft the strategic narrative or refuse to do so and they decide whether or not to focus on strategy and the exigencies of war or their ideological trivialities, they set the national moral example of careerism and brazen efforts to game the system for the personal enrichment of their relatives and cronies.

They are failing us and have been doing so for nearly a quarter-century.

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Gladwell on Waco and worldviews

Monday, April 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in hope that improved mutual understanding across a range of conflict situations will provide some viable alternatives to needlessly violent solutions ]
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Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article published in the New Yorker at the end of last month titled How not to negotiate with believers.

It’s on a topic I’ve been interested in for years, and it quotes several scholars whose work on the topic I know, whose books I read, in whose digital company I sometimes find myself as a researcher of new religious movements, apocalypticism and so on — and I’m happy to say that IMO Gladwell frames and summarizes the key issues very nicely.

You can read the whole piece on the New Yorker site, and I encourage you to do so. What I aim to do here is to extract the essence, and to suggest that similar considerations apply in greater or lesser measure to interactions with jihadists, members of the 969 movement in Myanmar, and others in one orm or another of religious conflict.

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Here’s the key graf:

Not long after the Waco siege began, James Tabor, the Biblical scholar, heard David Koresh on CNN talking about the Seven Seals. Tabor is an expert on Biblical apocalypticism and recognized the Branch Davidians for what they were—a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets. He contacted a fellow religious scholar, Phillip Arnold, and together they went to the F.B.I. “It became clear to me that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited,” Tabor writes, in an essay about his role in the Mount Carmel conflict. “I realized that in order to deal with David Koresh, and to have any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Waco situation, one would have to understand and make use of these biblical texts.”

Know your enemy, yes?

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There’s a particular exchange that Gladwell notes, between Koresh and law enforcement, which addresses the issue in terms of competing realities:

Even at the beginning of the siege, in the first call that Koresh made after the A.T.F. attack, the fundamental misunderstanding between those inside and those outside Mount Carmel was plain. Koresh telephoned Larry Lynch, in the local sheriff’s office, and — while the battle outside raged — insisted on talking about the Seven Seals:

KORESH: In the prophecies -—
LYNCH: All right.
KORESH: it says -—
LYNCH: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
KORESH: Sure.
LYNCH: All right, we can talk theology. But right now -—

What Lynch means is that right now there are dead and wounded bodies scattered across the Mount Carmel property and a gunfight is going on between federal agents and Koresh’s followers. For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense:

KORESH: No, this is life. This is life and death!
LYNCH: Okay.
KORESH: Theology -—
LYNCH: That’s what I’m talking about.
KORESH: is life and death.

Let me repeat that Gladwell comment:

For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense.

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To Koresh and those he spoke for, his emphasis, his sense of where the “real” reality lay made perfect sense — while the FBI dismissed his words as “Bible babble” since they held a substantially diferent view of reality.

If religion continues to be a major element in terrorism and perhaps other forms of conflict in what remains of this century, we would do well to learn the importance of listening to and addressing the worldview of our interlocutors.

And that goes for the Koreshes and other dissenters of the world, as well as to those who hold “the usual suspects assumptions”.

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Further reading:

  • James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?
  • Jayne Seminaire Docherty, Learning lessons from Waco

  • For an Al-Qaida equivalent, see my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style.

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    Easter celebrations 1: a duel and a duet

    Monday, April 21st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Easter, the Ukraine, Putin, and Catholicism -- and wishing a happy Easter to all Zenpundit readers ]
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    United in faith, divided in politics:


    Filaret of Kyiv above, Kirill of Moscow below

    VOA News has the story under the headline Easter Messages From Russia, Ukraine Reveal Divide

    Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and Russia on Sunday celebrated Easter — the holiest day of the Christian calendar — with their nations locked in conflict and Ukraine’s patriarch condemning what he called Russian “aggression” in his homeland.

    In his Easter message, Kyiv Patriarch Filaret said there has been aggression and injustice “against our peace loving nation.” He also labeled Russia an “enemy” whose attack on Ukraine is doomed to fail.

    In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led prayers for Russians in Ukraine and called for peace and cooperation.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife Svetlana (L) attend an Orthodox Easter service in Moscow April 20, 2014.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife Svetlana (L) attend an Orthodox Easter service in Moscow April 20, 2014.
    He was quoted as calling for an “end to the designs of those who want to destroy holy Russia.”

    Vladimir Putin puts a word in:

    The Easter festivities fill hearts of millions of people with love and joy, inspire for good deeds, serve promoting the eternal values and moral guidelines as caring for people, mercy and compassion in the society.

    It is significant that this year’s Easter is celebrated on the same day by the Orthodox believers and representatives of other Christian denominations. I am sure the celebration will promote social cohesion, harmonization of interreligious relations, enhancement of mutual understanding among people.

    Here in contrast is an excerpt from the impassioned plea of a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, named Ihor Hryhola, as posted on the web by EuroMaidan PR:

    I condemn, and accuse those who are guilty in it: the Russian government, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which did not side with the people of Ukraine. Your rhetorical excuses do not sound convincing to me. I despise and condemn you for everything you have done, and what you have been doing for years. You have been humiliating the people of Russia, and now you started the war against Ukraine. In other words, this war became possible because of your approval, or your compliance.

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    Meanwhile, hre in the States over Easter…

    Divided in schism, united in celebration:


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    Worcester, Massachusetts, will be honoring the historic meeting of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople which took place 50 years ago in Jerusalem — the first such meeting since the Great Schism of 1054 — with Catholic bishop Robert McManus joining Metropolitan Methodios of Boston in Easter celebration.

    I am reminded of Alan Watts, who wrote of the Eucharistic breaking of bread, — and likewise of the breaking of Christ’s body on the cross prior to his resurrection:

    When there is dismemberment in the beginning there is remembrance at the end — that the fulfillment or consummation of the cosmic game is the discovery of what was covered and the recollection of what was scattered.

    One can only hope.

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    The flute that sets Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in motion

    Saturday, April 19th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- also the battle of Gaixia, 200 BCE, with an echo late in the Korean War -- and a tip of the hat to Emlyn ]
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    Kagemusha, the flute call:

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    There’s a sequence near the start of Akria Kurosawa‘s masterpiece, Kagemusha, when a flute player on the ramparts of a besieged castle belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu so captivates the men of the daimyo Takeda Shingen‘s besieging force that everyone listens for the flute each night:

    Our men are impressed. They can’t wait for night to come.

    This flute, in turn, becomes the primary indicator of whether the besieged castle will or will not fall after the besiegers cut its water supply. The daimyo’s general and close confidant suggests whe asked:

    The castle can stand longer. The garrison leader is a fine warrior. He lets us hear the flute at night. …

    If we hear him tonight the garrison will hold. The castle will not fall. But if we do not hear the flute, the castle is doomed. Its fall is near.

    To which the daimyo responds:

    I want to hear if the flute is played tonight. Prepare my seat.

    The daimyo’s seat is prepared, the flute plays, a shot rings out… the daimyo is mortally wounded… and the narrative of the film unfurls.

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    I was watching Kagemusha with son Emlyn last night, saying how close the film seemed to come to my current interests, and remarked on the scene with the flute because it illustrates so perfectly the ideas that morale may prove more powerful than materiel, and the arts as valuable in coflict as ballistics.

    Emlyn spent a short while at the computer, and found two web-pages he thought might interest me.

    The first page pointed me to the battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, in which Han Xin trapped Xiang Yu‘s Chu forces in a box canyon,

    To further break the Chu army’s spirit, Han Xin employed the “Chu Song from Four Sides” tactic. He ordered the Han soldiers and captured Chu troops to sing Chu songs. The Chu songs made the Chu troops remember their families back home, greatly reducing their will to fight.

    Increasingly homesick, the Chu soldiers began to desert, Han Xin’s brilliant tactic gave him the vistory, and the Han dynasty was established.

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    The second page Emlyn pointed me to was titled The Use of Music in Psyops. In it, SGM Herbert Friedman takes a long (67 pp.) and detailed look at this general topic, and made a fascinating “DoubleQuote” style connection with the first in its near-final paragraph:

    The Communist Chinese used music against American troops on several occasions during the Korean War. Soldiers from the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division recalled that when the enemy played Joni James’ rendition of Hank Williams “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” on dark and foggy nights it gave soldiers some reason to pause and think of home.

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    For your edification and delight, Joni James sings Hank WilliamsYour Cheatin’ Heart:

    Here Liu Fang plays the celebrated pipa solo that depicts the stages of the battle, The Ambush from all Sides:

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    For what it’s worth, the banner and motto of the Takeda clan, Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain — given in the subtitles as —

    Swift as the wind
    Quiet as a forest
    Fierce as fire
    Immovable as a mountain

    — which adds much to the poetry of our understanding of Japanese warfare, is known as the Furinkazan, and derives from Sun Tzu‘s seventh chapter:

    Therefore the army is established on deception, mobilized by advantage, and changed through dividing up and consolidating the troops.
    Therefore, it advances like the wind,
    it marches like the forest,
    it invades and plunders like fire,
    it stands like the mountain,
    it is formless like the dark,
    it strikes like thunder.

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    Beautiful film, great film.

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    Second American Revolution I: the (immediate) unlikelihood

    Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- with an eye for catching graphics ]
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    Freedom Outpost wasn’t the only outlet raising the question: Militias Are On Route Help Cliven Bundy – Face Off With Feds: Will this be the Start of the 2nd American Revolution? As I’ve noted before, though, quoting Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, the answer to questions asked by excited headlines is generally a quiet “no”.

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    I do think, however, that there’s a tectonic rift growing in the US… Here are two diagrams which each illustrate that thesis:

    The upper panel shows the overlap — hugely diminished over the last 30 or so years, and now almost non-existent — between House Democrat and Republican votes, and is taken from Chris Cillizza‘s post in WaPo’s The Fix blog.

    The lower panel shows network maven Valdis Krebsmost recent (2008) mapping of conservative and liberal reading habits, as tabulated using Amazon data on who purhases which books along with what other books: for the first time in Krebs’ analyses, there were no books read in common by conservative and liberal readers alike.

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    Here for good measure is my own analysis of the congressional situation — juxtaposing politics with religion because it’s my modus operandi to view one through the lens of the other — in DoubleQuote format:

    So simple.

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